Of shells, dells and wells

•May 16, 2011 • 2 Comments

Of family and other animals…

After an April that impersonated June, May, it seems, has decided to swap with March this year. Pardon me, please then, for grabbing your hand and pulling you away from the fireside, but I need to show you the windowsill.

There… Do you like it?

Its sixteen inch depth hinting at the solidity of the walls, in my childhood it was home to the budgie – an at best apathetic and at worst quite cantankerous creature, dedicating his existence to taking the ‘joy’ out of Joey – with little resultant ecstasy.

Not that I blame him, retrospectively – I’d sooner chew grit than keep a bird in a cage now – but at the time I was oblivious to such welfare considerations and simply longed for interaction. Any attempt at interface though – be it verbal or physical – was rejected with either indifference or outright assault.

Actually, it’s remarkable that I grew up an animal lover at all, what with a budgerigar that bit, a rabbit that scratched (people) and a semi feral cat that did both. Tim completed the brood: a belligerent Jack Russell who lived to fight, growl and roll in manure. He was, I suspect, desperate to shed the delicate l’air de Fairly Liquid, with which he was bathed every time he found a new source of dung – either that or he accidentally overheard someone – pointlessly – ask Joey ‘who’s a pretty boy? and took it to his macho little heart…

He scratched too, but not in an aggressive way, favouring his jaws as a far more direct means of communicating displeasure. This was, incidentally, back in the days when growling and biting were considered quite normal thing for country dogs to do, and reporting being bitten was more likely to lead to enquiries as to what you’d done to provoke it than demands for the poor beast to be destroyed.

Anyway my mother, blaming fleas, upped the dog-scrubbing stakes – and yet he continued to scratch – indeed scratched all the harder it seemed, till patches of skin began to show strawberry through his vanilla-with-a-hint-of-guano coat. It took a visit to the vet to convince her that the cause of Tim’s irritation was in fact her over-washing – proof that hands that do dishes can feel red as your face… and consequently, Tim lived out his days happy as a terrier in shite.

Back at the windowsill, once the budgie had shuffled off his mortal coil, kicked the bucket, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible – any one of them in itself an act more diverting than he’d ever managed in life – the space he left became a memorial garden of houseplants. In my opinion almost as unnatural as caged birds, I remember carrying them all outside one mild but rainy day soon after mum died, knowing that this was theoretically good for them. Forgetting to bring them back in again, ultimately, wasn’t.

Of places and spaces…

It was also soon after her death – the first Christmas in fact – that we decided to move the table from where it had always dominated the centre of the room over to abut the windowsill. My father had pre-deceased my mother by less than two years and the growing number of gaps around it yelled loss at every mealtime. With one of the table’s long empty ends pushed against the wall though, my father’s space disappeared completely, whilst my mother’s was replaced by the TV corner. And rather than stare at a plain, bare sill – now the obvious viewpoint – a small, metal Christmas tree was found which fitted rather beautifully… something new and bright in a dark old year.

But with Christmas’ passing, the sill wailed emptiness again – and so began a new tradition of its contents changing through the seasons – an indoor reminder of the precious turning of the year.

Quite why the cycle of the year feels so important to me I honestly don’t know; links between light-induced serotonin and mood, highs associated with increased levels of activity and the recent discovery of seasonal change in dopamine levels may explain why we experience SAD, or feel ‘full of the joys of spring’ (tra-la) – but describe only the mechanisms – it’s a how, not a why answer. And if it’s the only answer it should cause me to cling to spring and summer, eschewing autumn and winter – which I don’t.

Besides, I have two natural low points in my disposition’s cycle, one of which seems quite unrelated to endocrine activity. The first, predictably enough, is January, so aptly dubbed ‘the Monday of the year’. Let us banish it forever, or spend it in sleep.

My double dip’s second trough, however, arrives inexplicably in early July and will stay with me throughout August – as if something within me registers the shortening of days and mourns the dying of the light. Come September, I rally again, hugging autumn with open arms, but seem doomed to spend each ‘high’ summer on a low of both energy and emotion. Explanations – or just empathy – on a postcard from your favourite holiday destination please; I will be staying at home…

Of turning and re-turning…

Returning to the turn of the year, perhaps it’s simply a case of needing contrast and change to hone appreciation; ‘no pleasure endures unseasoned by variety’ wrote Syrus, long before it became the overused spice of life. And yet I suspect that much of what I cherish is actually the familiarity of the season’s markers – the known in the unknown, the affirmation that although time passes, the song of its cosmic ticking remains a familiar lullaby.

Out seeking May blossom last week, I was suddenly surrounded by swallows tumbling crazily through evening sunlight and felt my own gladness soar with their aerobatics. The first snowdrops, the midsummer opening of the Slade rose, grown from a cutting from my great-grandmother’s garden, the reappearance of starlings in the back yard, filthy though I know they will leave it – all engender a wish to smile ‘hello again’- and indeed I often do.

The new is greeted too of course – this year a blackcap has decided to nest in the quarry garden and repays me for the hospitality with fluting song at frequent intervals. I’m trying to feel as welcoming towards the woodpigeons camping out in the huge old spruce too, but their co-cooo-coook, co-cooo-coook can get a bit too-tooo- too much. I wonder what variety the spice of pigeon pie is?

But though new for my garden, their presence and behaviour is still part of the larger, seasonal theme – they are still birds nesting in spring, and if I knew only that birds do that, I would find them unremarkable.  It’s having an appreciation of what is  everyday and commonplace for this corner of the world then – knowing what usually nests here – or when I’d expect a particular plant to bloom – that enables me to identify the unexpected, the early or the late. And with that intimacy of knowing come both a deep sense of connection and the ability to wonder at the truly unusual when it does happen.

Imagine my delight that the first living thing I saw this Beltane morning was a young rabbit, lolloping down our road before turning into the neighbour’s driveway opposite and stopping for breakfast on their lawn. Only forty-plus years of staring through the same window enabled me to know that this was a first – that baby rabbits just don’t do that in this street. Or at least they haven’t until now.

It also made me smile that a week precisely had passed since I was texting the very same household to warn them that I’d just seen a suspicious looking rabbit hanging something from their rhododendron, and that the girls had better investigate before whatever it was melted… ‘Did you really see the Easter Bunny?’ asked the youngest. ‘Ach I only caught a glimpse of its ears,’ I replied; who am I to split on hares?

So ok, that’s what I get from the cycle of nature in itself… a sense of connection and wonder in bunnies… but why do I also want to impose artificial markers on the year –  to celebrate the solstices and the days known as Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain as well as joining in with Christmas and Easter traditions? I am neither pagan nor wiccan and have no more belief in a mother goddess than I do in the father, son or the wholly ghostly, although I worry more that I might be offending a Her than a  Him by saying so…

Perhaps part of it is ancestral memory: a sense of how important these days – as opportunities for both exerting influence and seeking prognostication – must have been for those who really relied on the land – not only for their livelihoods but also sometimes for their lives.

Growing our own foodstuff – in this country at least – is largely a hobby these days. But anyone who gardens – whether for leisure or through necessity – knows that although we do sometimes end up reaping what we sow, we are, too, subject to the slings and arrows of air and soil-borne pestilence not to mention the mercy of the weather. We play dice with our gods and our gourds.

My own stakes are low – if my potatoes are blighted or slugs devour my lettuce-lings, I pop into the supermarket or the garden centre without a second thought.  But it was not always so. Growing up, the success or failure of the household’s vegetable crops, the level of egg production, good honey and fruit harvests and the safe storage of both produce and seed over the winter months were all vital to the family budget. And for others, even today, the stakes are higher still; people absolutely dependant on soils and pastures which can, overnight, become desert or flood.

Offered the chance, then, that performing certain ritual acts may influence the future – that driving the cattle through the embers of the Beltane bonfire will keep them free of sickness, that honouring the dead at Samhain will dissuade them from mischief in the coming year, or that spreading Imbolc ashes on the land will help ensure a good harvest, you do it.

And although I share none of these beliefs, I have of course my own human faiths, fears and frailties – along with a quite profound sense of being glad for what I have, have had – and hope to have, still. Personally then, the odd ‘special’ day is a chance to pause, reflect, appreciate and anticipate – albeit through hope rather than prayer or incantation.

Of  yolks, restraint and pillories…

There is also, of course, the opportunity for a bit of feasting and decoration – welcome chances for creativity – to make things that taste or look nice and to share and enjoy them with people I love. Eggs, unsurprisingly, have been central to both just recently.

Googling around Easter, I’m constantly bemused by the number of sites asking ‘why do we have eggs at Easter?’ Am I alone in thinking it would be quite remarkable if we didn’t? As universal symbols of new life, creation and procreation, their decoration and giving has certainly been part of spring festivities since Zoroastrian times and, I’d hazard a very large bet, for much longer besides.

I was equally bemused then to find a site – from the Meaningful Chocolate Company offering people the chance to buy ‘The Real Easter Egg’, a Fairtrade chocolate experience featuring the story of the crucifixion on the box. Two years in development, the egg’s packaging portrays pink people strolling through a sunlit park surrounded by rabbits, chickens, butterflies and ducks, overlooked by a green hill (far away).

I’m not going to knock it – they do give a proportion of what they make to charity. I’m just a little bewildered by what young recipients might think – and what the company’s next venture might be, given their promise that ‘The Real Easter Egg is the first in a range of meaningful chocolate products…’  Valentine hearts bearing tales of bloody martyrdom, perhaps, or a chocolate nativity set?

I, for one, can’t eat anything chocolate with eyes, leaving me sighing when I’m given yet another one of those cute little Lindt golden bunnies. I have years’ worth of them now, vying for dustiness and threatening to breed. Nor will I eat spring lamb at Easter; having cooed at them over farm gates for weeks, I just can’t stomach the thought. Nothing should die before it’s felt the true warmth of the sun.

‘But eggs are chickens that have never felt the sun’ points out Tom as I hard boil my second dozen, ready for decoration. I could, of course, have blown them, but the lividity of my face after attempt number one made the saucepan option seem so, so much more attractive.  And at least they’d feel warm as they dyed…

It also set me thinking about teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, and what a cruel and unusual thing to do that would be… ‘And then you inhale deeply, nan… and try to spit before you vomit, choke or contract salmonella…’

My original plan for embellishment (who, me?) was a wax-resist method capable of producing minutely detailed decoration particularly popular in Slavic and eastern European nations. Then I realised quite how long applying said wax with the head of a pin was going to take – with or without assistance from however many associated angels – and bowed out in reverence to those with more patience. I wonder if there’s a Russian saying which translates as ‘go teach your babushka to paint eggs’?

A pack of OHP markers – sadly redundant since Powerpoint faded the creativity out of presentations – along with some old metallic lacquer pens were, then, pressed into service once more. Oh how I adore stationery – especially when it still works after years in a drawer. In fact if Jude heaven had only four shops, then one of them would have to sell paper, pens, pencils and art materials. What would be in yours?

My other three would be a nursery-cum-garden centre-cum-florist, a bookshop with both new and second hand volumes (in fact every book you ever wanted to find would be in it – it’s just you wouldn’t actually know that… so that you could continue to enjoy the thrill of the search) and an outlet offering both pre-made music and the means of making it. The fifth of the six – this being heaven after all – would be a small foodstore which knew exactly what you wanted to eat even before you did and would have it ready for collection, obviating the need for all that traipsing up and down with a trolley. In fact the only choice you would have to make would be which of their coffees you’d like freshly ground.

The last shop would sell things in boxes and cupboards – and boxes and cupboards for their own sake. Some of them would be too small to hold anything much, and some of them would be large enough to hide in – with our without company – but each would contain something of necessity, beauty or just sheer fascination.

An ante-room, meanwhile, would be devoted to sets of drawers and desks, none of which would contain a beetle attached to a nail by a piece of cotton… I’ll just whisper ‘The Wicker Man’ in case you were trying to remember, dancing round its own maypole…

And then of course I’ll get distracted and Google that particular scene… and discover in so doing that most internet entries describe it as a beetle tied to a nail by string. I mean I ask you – have you ever tried tying a piece of string ’round a beetle? Nor, I hasten to add, have I: life is too short. Unless, of course, the beetle in question were of a particularly large variety, when a lasso of stout rope might be the preferred securing medium.

The little old beetle goes round and round, always the same way, you see, till he ends up right up tight to the nail, poor old thing…’ sighs young Holly – in parallel of course with Sergeant Howie being lead round and round in circles by the weird islanders, whilst all the time getting drawn closer and closer to the totem of the wicker man…

Meanwhile, back at my shopping mall at the end of the universe, it drew an ‘oh! gosh!’ from me to discover that the word ‘stationer’ came from the Mediaeval Latin stationarius – i.e. someone with a permanent, fixed bookshop as opposed to an itinerant trader or peddler who travelled about selling their wares. The stationers were, then, stationary… indeed permanent markers, you might say…

Peddlers, incidentally, didn’t necessarily peddle any more than hawkers spat, but I have heard it rumoured that both professions are to be revived and added to the list of job options offered by the coalition government under its new Work Programme, along with those of vagrant and vagabond. Let us hope the DWP never encounter the ‘Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, vulgarly called vagabonds’ by Thomas Harman – a 1566 catalogue of beggars along with their means of raising funds.

Amongst them they would find the ‘Demaunder for Glymmar’ – a woman who pretends to have been injured or to have lost her possessions through fire, the ‘Counterfet Cranke’ who feigns the falling sickness and the ‘Abraham Man’ – named after the ward at Bethlehem Hospital – someone who claims to be an ex-inmate of a lunatic asylum and relies on others’ fear to make them respond to his pleas.

A Dell’ meanwhile was a wench ‘not yet known or broken’ – i.e. still a virgin. Harman holds out some sympathy for those who have fallen into Dell-dom e.g. ‘by the death of their parents’ but little hope for ‘wyld’ Dells – i.e. those born into begging who ‘muste of necessitie be as evil or worse than their parentes, for neyther we gather grapes from greene bryars, neyther fygges from thistles.’ Ah well, it could be worse – a dell could be a singer who names her albums for her age… and I bet she finds new inspiration once we’ve been treated to ‘35’…

Hokers’ were not what you might expect. For a start they were male – indeed not just male but also possessed of a pole of great length, with a hook at one end, for… um… hooking. By day they would travel door to door, ‘well noting what they see there’ and by night they would return for their through-the-window fishing expeditions – hence their alternative name of the ‘anglear’.

Another specialist was the ‘Dommerar’ – someone who posed as a mute, folding their tongue within their mouth to make it look as if it had been cut. Dommerars were, he warned, mostly Welsh; a difference then between their being able to speak and being understood.

These Dommerars… will gape, and with a marvelous force will hold down their toungs doubled, groninge for your charitie, and holding up their hands full piteously, so that with their deepe dissimulation they get very much’ explains Harman. He goes on to describe an encounter with one Dommerar when he suggests to a local surgeon that they should ‘knit two of his fingers together and thrust a stycke between them, and rubbe the same up and downe a little whyle’. They decide instead though to hang him by his wrists ‘and hoysted him up over a beam. And there did let him hang a good while (til) at length for very paine he required for Gods sake to let him downe’.

Our brave defender of the rich then ‘tooke the money I could find in his purse … which was xv. pence halfpenny, being all that wee could finde’ and delivered him and a companion to the ‘justicer’ to be pilloried and ‘well whipped, and none did bewayle them’.

One of the Kentish landed gentry and also a tax inspector, Harman implies in the Caveat that he is a JP although no evidence exists to support this. Surely not a ‘Blagger Bogusta’?

I have also noted, in passing this way, that the word vagabond comes from the Latin adjective ‘vagabundus’ – ‘inclined to wander’,  just in case I ever need an alternative title for my blog…

Of going a little wild…

Anyway, back at the windowsill, the seasonal display started the week innocently enough – some eggs, my hare… a fine bunch of spring daffodils… quite lovely. As Easter came and went though and Beltane approached – dear Beltane, fecund and wild – the daffodils wilted and the hare looked a tad plain

‘I need a maypole’, I decided, glad I’d thought to keep the ash wand snipped from its roots in the talcen (welsh for forehead, the gable-end of a house and its environs, the latter being, thankfully, the spot where I’d found this particular specimen growing). Wedged into a stack of earthenware pots and bedecked with ribbons and peacock feathers, it did very nicely. A garland for the hare and the replacement of the daffodils with an exuberant bunch of lilac, apple blossom, masterwort and pittosporum completed the transformation… the windowsill had been resurrected… ‘Will people think I’m a bit mad?’ I asked Tom. ‘A bit?’ he replied.

Pittosporum, in case you’ve never encountered it, is about as Beltane as it gets. Content to be just a small, evergreen tree eleven-out-of-twelve, in late April it bedecks itself with dark, chocolate-button flowers which smell (oh so sweetly) only at night. Around her base I grow a pale, early-flowering honeysuckle, the perfect torc for her strangeness and charm…

To appreciate her properly you need stillness, allowing her perfume to hang heavy on the night and intoxicate – or to bring a few sprigs indoors, apologising profusely as you cut them, of course. You must never ever be tempted to do the same with Hawthorn, though, May blossom being considered extremely unlucky if it is allowed to cross your threshold.

Nor must you bring eggs into your home after dark – a bit tough on those used to doing their winter shopping after work. The first mention of this superstition appears in 1853 in ‘Notes and Queries’, where it is recorded that ‘a person in want of some eggs called at a farm-house in East Markham, and enquired of the good woman of the house whether she had any eggs to sell, to which she replied that she had a few scores to dispose of. ‘Then I’ll take them home with me in the cart’ was his answer; to which she somewhat indignantly replied, ‘That you’ll not; don’t you know the sun has gone down? You’re welcome to the eggs at the proper time of day; but I would not let them go out of the house after the sun has set on any consideration whatsoever!’

The People’s Friend,  in 1882, states that ‘Nothing is more unlucky than to meddle with eggs after dark’, whilst P.S. Jeffrey writing his ‘Whitby Lore’ in 1923 relates how ‘In some remote villages it is still considered unlucky to buy eggs after sunset, and any enquiry for eggs at this advanced hour is resented as bringing ill-fortune to the house’… a promise that almost makes me want to stop off at Tesco’s in after dark each night and demand a dozen of their finest.

The belief that when eating them properly – boiled for breakfast, that is – you must not break them at the pointed end is recorded as far back as 1650 and as recently as 1923 when in Taunton, the belief was recorded that cracking an egg at the ‘small end… will cause you keen disappointment’.

To consume the first egg ever laid by a hen was to attract good fortune whilst to eat the last was predictably unlucky… especially if it were to contain a Cockatrice…

He will often be in fear, too, lest a Cockatrice should happen to be hatched from his Cock’s Egg, and kill him with its baneful aspect,’ warns Swiss theologian Werenfels in his ‘Dissertation upon Superstition’ in 1748.

The said Cockatrice evolved as times turned; in the Roman era it was considered to be a small serpent – albeit one capable of killing with just a breath or a glance. By the twelfth century it was variously interchangeable with crocodile or Basilisk, thanks to a mistranslation – only later settling for the shifted shape of the body of a dragon and the head of a cock.

Its power to petrify extended to all but the weasel, and it could be slain by glancing itself in a mirror, or by the cry of a cockerel (‘unhand my head at once, you cad…’). More recently it is a ‘Slayer monster that require level 25 Slayer to kill. They frequently drop limpwurt roots, which is their main food source… cockatrice skin must be collected and cleaned for the Odd Old Man.’ Now there’s a vagabond Harman missed…

It’s also made appearances in the BBC’s ‘Merlin’, in ‘Harry Potter and and the Chamber of Secrets’ and… wait for it… in ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’. Go tell that to the horse Daniel Radcliffe befriended in Equus…

I hope before riding, that he made a point of eating an even number of eggs, for to do otherwise would ‘indanger the horses’, according to Camden’s Britannia in 1586. It goes on to record that any horseman eating eggs should wash his hands immediately, and that jockeys are not allowed to eat eggs, however fastidious their personal hygiene.

They could of course use them for predicting the outcome of a race however, employing oomancy…

The use of the liminal, living-yet-not contents of an egg to look into the future is first documented in 1684, but in terms of being ‘the foolish sorcery of women’, which makes me suspect that its practice long pre-dates the account in Mather’s  Illustrious Providences. ‘It were much better to remain ignorant than thus to consult with the devil,’ he concludes.

Frequent and similar accounts continue to pepper the literature of folklore for the next three centuries, all describing the interpretation of the shapes formed by egg white when dropped into water, although any egg suckers or blowers will, I suspect, raise an eyebrow at Henderson’s 1866 instructions to ‘perforate with a pin the small end of the egg, and let three drops of the white fall into a basin of water’ – as if gravity were likely to suffice. ‘They will diffuse,’ he explains with confidence in his Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders into fantastic shapes’ from which ‘the initiated will auger the fortunes of the egg dropper’.

Someone dropping an egg accidentally, meanwhile, had better break another – but not another, for

Break an egg, break your leg,

Break three, woe to thee,

Break two, your love is true

Break four, omelette galore, perhaps?

Or break four, eggs benedict for two, an apt Beltane brunch, particularly if the weather allows it to be eaten in the garden, in the shade of the pittosporum, as it did this year. Prognostication wise however, the experience would suggest that ‘if on Beltane morn you can break your fast outdoors, then for thirty days it will remain too cold to even think of doing so again.

Eggs benedict, for the uninitiated, is a pyramid of crumpet (halved, toasted and copiously buttered) ham, quiveringly soft poached egg and hollandaise sauce – in that order. In totality, it probably amounts to the most sensuous dish I have ever had the utter pleasure of swallowing. But how to crown it? How to make it perfect for Beltane? Inspiration suddenly struck, courtesy of a punnet of strawberries …

Almost perfect at least, for the old hawthorn at the top of the steps remained stubbornly shut, refusing to greet the new month. In fact I had to travel a mile inland to beg a small sprig of blossom for the table. Intuitively wrong, I know, as most things seem to open earlier slap bang on the coast, but then the opening of the May has always puzzled me.

I suspected for a while that it might break in an east-west wave across the country, for that’s certainly what it seems to do locally. Maps of hawthorn bud-break at the Woodland Trust’s site however (link below) suggest a far more random pattern, kicking off around Wiltshire, spreading first east-ish and then west-ish as well as slowly north, with plenty of exceptions.

Traversing the breadth of the land on the 12th – old May Eve – from west to east and, happily, back again, allowed me to observe for myself the quality of blossom stain from beauty to blemished to bruised to brown. And what became obvious, very quickly, was the very local variation, seemingly independent of aspect, shade or shelter. Whilst one tree in a hedgerow would be only just bubbling into blossom, another would already have the air of deflated champagne to it, blending perfectly with the sallow sheep.

The sallowness of sheep is, of course, no reason to shun them. Their hue, given their lack of access to plumbing or peroxide, is understandable. Shallow sheep on the other hand are best avoided: you trust them, you share your heart with them, you pour your hopes and dreams out to them and they walk away with just a ‘bah’…

Forgive me… but I was so restrained with the eggs… ‘nest’-ce pâques?

Some of the hawthorn’s variation in blooming is doubtlessly due to there actually being three fairly common varieties in the UK – the native hedgerow variety, Crataegus monogyna, an earlier flowering cultivar introduced from the Netherlands purely for hedging and finally the woodland hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata. Now only found in ancient woodland and in very old clay-footed hedges, C. laevigata would have been the more common in the early Middle Ages – the era from whence most plant-lore springs – for it wasn’t until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that extensive Enclosure Acts saw almost a quarter of a million miles of hawthorn hedges being planted in ribbons around once common land.

The woodland hawthorn also blooms earlier – so, depending on where you live, might more reliably have been gathered on May Day old before the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1752.

It is also smellier. All hawthorn gives off the gas trimethylamine – the compound which puts the fishiness into fish and one of the first chemicals formed in decaying tissue after death. It is reported of the woodland variety however that ‘although in smell quite like the other form when gathered, it….stink(s) of putrid flesh soon after: – sometimes within about half an hour.’ The taboo concerning bringing Hawthorn across the threshold starts to sound quite sensible…

But trimethylamine is also, writes Richard Mabey in his Flora Britannica ‘the smell of sex – something rarely acknowledged in folklore archives, but implicit in much of the popular culture of the hawthorn…. The hawthorn or may was the special object of attention at May Day ceremonies that centred on the woods, the maypole and the May queen… In contrast to Christmastide greenery and Easter willow, it is a plant kept outdoors, associated  with unregulated love in the fields rather than conjugal love in the bed.’

I’ve also noticed amongst the folklore a recurrent, quite specific belief that bringing may blossom into the house will cause your mother to die, one of its welsh folk names being ‘blodau marw mam’ (literally ‘flowers die mother’) and similarly ‘mother die’ in England. Echoes here perhaps of Beltane being the time of the new maiden or white goddess, resplendent in her creamy garlands?

On a more cheerful note, some say the nursery rhyme ‘here we come gathering nuts in May’ actually refers to the gathering of ‘knots of may’ whether for decoration or matricide, whilst others again think it relates to pignuts: Conopodium majus. Also called the ground nut, cat nut or earth nut, pignuts were traditionally grubbed up from amongst the bluebells around this time of year, a good source of carbohydrates, particularly welcome in the weeks before the first new potatoes are ready. (don’t try it though, for bluebell bulbs are quite poisonous as well as quite precious…)

Mabey writes that ‘digging for the dark-brown tubers of the pignut used to be a common habit amongst country children. The nuts are usually between six and eight inches under the earth, and eaten raw, their white flesh has something of the crisp taste of young hazelnuts… They would be cooked in a Dutch oven with rabbit joints.’

Noooo! Do not eat bunnies in springtime! They have baby bunnies in them – some wrapped in gold foil… Cook them instead with red wine and blackberries in autumn… after they’ve felt the warmth of the sun…

Meanwhile, I’m going to make a suggestion… perhaps I’ll even send it to Nick Clegg for goodness knows, he needs a popularist cause at the moment… I’d like to propose that Easter is fixed as being the penultimate weekend in April, so that it will always be followed by Mayday a week later.

It will be decreed that the royal family – in return for their board and lodging – will now regularly perform some sort of diversionary antic on the Friday between, so continuing to provide three quarters of the British workforce with the chance of ten days off in return for three days’ leave. We need, I think, the opportunity to celebrate spring properly: I am not alone, I know, in noticing the general uplift in community mood during that period of late April.

Parliament could do it – in fact have already done something very similar – with Easter’s date actually having been fixed in statute as the Sunday following the second Saturday in April for almost ninety years now. The Easter Act of 1928 was, however, never implemented. Repeal it then, legislate anew, and give us back Beltane to boot…

I, whilst waiting, will continue to chase the May…

There’s a charming little valley not too far from here which has something of the feel of the otherworld to it. Protected by a ‘private road – keep out or you may be banjoed’ sign (well ok, not quite, but there’s something of that air to its hand-painted legend) only locals ever venture there, and most of them simply don’t bother. It’s consequently home to vast lollops of over-trusting rabbits, myriad birds of prey feasting on the aforementioned, some wild, wild sheep and a confetti of old hawthorn trees, punctuating the poor pasture with their bright exclamations this time of year.

I say ‘time’ but what I mean is actually time-ish, for I first found it in its most magical of states some five or more Mays ago – and keep trying to capture it in the same mood since.  I say ‘keep trying’, by which I mean almost obsessive re-visiting from late April onward, ‘there may be may’ being the motto by which my early summer has become governed. Never since though have I witnessed the arc of the sun and the mysterious blossoming so perfectly entwine – all the more reason to anticipate the day when they do again with particularly keen hunger. May I keep you posted?

My other predictable Beltane pilgrimage is to the old well at Llanllawer. Not quite a ‘clootie well’ just yet, it’s showing signs of getting there, recent visits revealing many small strips of cloth having been attached to the wooden gate at its entrance. A stone, too, simply inscribed with a hare had been offered there this year.

I simply left flowers of the spring, and in closing will do the same for you…


Of connection, reflection and complexion

•February 15, 2011 • 2 Comments

What another post so soon? What’s happened to the over-worked, over-tired and over-wrought author of last month’s whinge? I hear you ask.

Well, this particular ramble comes to you largely courtesy of HM Revenue and Customs.

I’d set aside the whole of Sunday 22nd January to file my 2009/10 tax return online – an extremely responsible  whole eight days before the ‘you’re late, you’re late, for a very important date – after which we will fine you £100 – do not past go’ deadline.

But alas, I logged on only to learn that all the HMRC website would actually allow me to do that Sabbath was enter into proximity talks – accept my name, address and NI number in return for the promise of a PIN – to be sent to me by snail mail within seven days – to activate my account.

Are they over-run, I wondered, by sad wretches falling over each other in their haste to file spoof tax returns? Do groups of imposters gather together each January just for the thrill of typing in ‘DODD – KENNETH’ <return>?

‘After a while I tired of smuggling and decided to hit the department where it really hurts,’ commented Mr. H Marks…

And so I considered fashioning models of bureaucrats, ready for the day my PIN arrived, but finding myself all out of Plasticine, decided to settle for some creative recounting instead…

Of looking back at angles…

Overhanging the mantelpiece, held in suspense by a rusting chain, is an utterly utilitarian wooden-framed mirror.

I suspect it dates from the 1930s – the era when the fireplace was installed -and I know that it pre-dates me, for in days when I was even shorter, I had to tip-on-toe at the opposite side of the room just to glance my nose in it…

Just as well, perhaps, given that the only household mirror which was accessible to infants was a source of recurrent nightmares throughout my early childhood. Forget lions and witches – the root of my horror was my own reflection in the wardrobe mirror – in which I would dream-watch, night after night, as the flesh of my face first split, then liquefied and then peeled away from my skull, sloughing monstrous around my feet. Perhaps I spent too much time watching my painter and decorator dad using Nitromors… or perhaps just inhaled too deeply.

The horrors of the front room mirror – once I reached a height to balance on the grate and peep into it close-up – were comparatively minor, confined to infrequent but still earth-shattering adolescent spots and arguments about the quantity of eye make-up donned for the latest disco. Punk came as a bit of a shock to west Wales, and comparisons with pandas and polecats were probably inevitable.

These days, however – finally of a stature at which my reflection is hard to avoid – the dark rings round my eyes won’t wipe off and barely a month pogo-s by without some new furrow frowning back. It’s not the mirror’s surface which has changed – it’s mine – I have gone from being groovy to simply being grooved, and contemplate making my skincare regime one of the occasional wipe-over with Windolene…

It was the parlour mirror then, set at Goldilocks height, which saw most of my growing – at first reflecting the upper half of my ballet practice and then miming along as I sang and danced my way through the pop pap of the early seventies. And soon afterwards, it became the portal for my first dabblings with the occult…

Now in my book, mouthing midnight, candle-lit rhymes whilst eating an apple in the hope of glimpsing your true love’s reflection is hardly the first step towards necromancy. Mum was obviously less sure though, and issued dark warnings about ‘not looking too long into a mirror because you never know what you’ll see looking back…’ ‘But I didn’t see anyone,’ I offered in defence… provoking my brother to suggest – unkindly – that perhaps my future soul-mate would be even shorter than me.

Obviously encouraged though that his little sister was at last showing signs of leaving childhood behind, it was he who demonstrated to me how a mirror – held parallel to another – creates an infinity of reflection – and boy did I spend subsequent hours lost in that fascinating tunnel, straining my eyes to try to glimpse eternity.

Thirty years on, I’m still secretly convinced that there’s something odd about mirrors – something slightly sinister.  I know that in theory, light hitting them at various angles and then bouncing back off at an equal but opposite angle explains how they seem to see ‘around corners’. Intuitively though, I feel they should only be able to see what’s slap bang in front of them – and the fact that they see more disturbs me. Mind you it’s probably also pretty disturbing that I think of mirrors as ‘seeing’ at all. I blame Alice.

Reading more about the physics hasn’t helped much either…

Light hits us, apparently, at 186,000 miles per second – which is kind of scary in itself – and when it hits us, it has to go somewhere. Some will be absorbed – comparatively more if our clothes are dark or have a matt finish to them – and some will reflect off – comparatively more if we are wearing light, shiny clothes or sporting our bacofoil thought-protection helmets. Little passes through, unless we are particularly transparent characters.

The light bouncing back off us does so a bit haphazardly – our surfaces being a tad chaotic- and goes off in all directions, producing ‘diffuse reflection’. And some of it will eventually hit any mirror which is sat there watching us…

When it hits the mirror, it does three things. Firstly it starts being called an incident ray by physicists. Then it (mostly) passes through the front, transparent surface of the glass and keeps on going until it hits the layer of metal stuck – or painted – on the rear surface of the glass. When it does so, it bounces back off at the opposite angle to the one it arrived at, and becomes known as a reflective ray. And when these reflective rays reach our eyes, our brains interpret them.

This, at least, is what most accounts tell us. Then some bright spark beams at us on Horizon, telling us that when observed close up – as close up as it’s possible to get -light doesn’t travel in a predictable way at all… or actually that it sometimes does – and it sometimes doesn’t – depending on whether or not you’re watching it…

Of slits and bits…

This was discovered by studying photons – the building blips of light – in the Double Slit experiment – hopefully but unrewardingly Googled in the wee small hours by thousands of men since…

The experiment fires photons – a bit like bullets being fired from a gun – at a flat surface with two vertical slits cut through it. When only one slit is open, the photons behave predictably, passing through it in a nice orderly manner and creating a predictable, understandable, single, vertical stripe on a second flat surface set at some distance beyond the first.

When both slits are open, you might then be forgiven for expecting two vertical stripes of light to appear on the second flat surface… that the photons arrive at the slits, pass through one or the other and then arrive at their destination sorted and organised in stripes echoing the slits. But what happens in reality is that a series of dark and light stripes appear across the far surface…Why? asked the scientists… in chorus.

Well, it’s widely accepted now that although the photons start off as individual particles – and reach their destination as particles, in between, they behave as waves – somehow managing to go through both slits – and creating what is known as an ‘interference pattern’ of light and dark stripes on the far side. In fact whilst actually on their travels, they seem to stop being single particles at all, and behave as if they can pass through both slits at once.

You may, at this point, want to go fetch yourself a nice, comforting cup of tea, for what’s coming next is even weirder…

The really mind blowing bit – for me – is that when scientists tried to unpack this effect by carefully monitoring either one or both slits as single photons passed through – they stopped behaving in this wavy way. They only ever passed through one or the other, producing two nice, tidy strips of light – almost as if they knew they were under observation and had to behave themselves – then ‘woooo hooo… they’ve gone out… let’s party…’

One explanation – which fans of Schroedinger’s cat will be able to relate to – is that whilst no-one is actually watching them, there is a range of places that the – not drowning but waving – photons might be – here, there – or somewhere else completely – creating a ‘probability wave’; they are more likely to be in some places than others – for example in the light areas of the resultant interference pattern – and less likely to be in the darker areas, but until observed, they can be in all these possible places and thus pass through both slits. It’s only the observation – the actual act of monitoring them – which ‘collapses’ the probability wave and sets their position in stone.

And it’s not just photons that behave in this way – electrons and even atoms do too – indeed extrapolation on this theme has led some to surmise that only our observation of the world gives it substance – don’t blink!  Others have suggested that the universe may only actually be here (or appear to be here) because of some external presence looking on. Suddenly ‘Jesus is watching you’ becomes a tad more comforting…

The hot cup of tea, meanwhile, was immortalised by Douglas Adams in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as the power source needed to sip-start the infinite improbability drive – the means by which the spaceship Heart of Gold travelled. If a subatomic particle is likely to be in a particular place, theorised Adams, but there is also a small possibility of it being far, far away from its point of origin – e.g. on a distant planet – in sufficiently improbable circumstances, collections of particles could, conceivably, materialise incredible distances away – but presumably only as long as no-one was watching…

Anyway, to return to the call of mirrors, due to photons needing to leave us, hit, the mirror, bounce back to our eyes and then be processed by our brains into an image, what we see in a mirror is not us as we are now, but us as we were a na-nana-nana-nasecond ago. Jumping around very fast in an attempt to catch our reflections napping is, however, unlikely to succeed.

And it is also of course not ‘us’ we see there at all, but a mirror image of ourselves which, unless we have an unusually symmetrical face, is likely to be quite different to how others see us. The easiest way to perceive this is to grab someone you know well and ask them to look into a mirror whilst you do so too. Facial movement – e.g. speaking – makes the difference even more apparent. I first became aware of quite how profound the metamorphosis can be when I accidentally caught sight of my mother in a mirror and was immediately convinced she had suffered a stroke, so changed her face seemed around the vertical midline.

And if we look carefully, we can actually see not-ourselves – or not someone else – twice

For as well as the main reflection produced by the light hitting the metal at the back of the glass, a certain amount of reflection happens when the light hits the glass’ front surface, producing a spectral, second image which you can see quite clearly if you look at your extended fingers in front of a dark background. Being generated closer to you, the ghost image is slightly bigger than the other, creating an ‘aura’ effect.

You can also have fun, incidentally, trying to work out why you’re mirrored the right way up in the convex back of a spoon but upside-down in its bowl – go see if you don’t believe me – or trying to touch the reflection of your own fingertip in the mirror… Careful not to break it though… for we all know the consequences of doing so.

Of roots and routes…

Where do they stem from though? Well, ask Google and it will tell you – repeatedly – that the ‘seven years’ bad luck’ superstition has its roots in Roman times. Mirrors, we are told, were thought to reflect the soul… breaking one damaged both glass and geist, and as it took seven years for the body to regenerate, one would not be free of the dire consequences for that period. Medicus Quisnam was presumably a long, drawn out TV series in those days…

None of the repeated references quote a source though, and so I will be forced to (almost) ignore them. Citation needed, as Wikipedia would put it…

Besides, it feels instinctively wrong to me. The earliest mirrors were made almost exclusively from polished metal or stone. Fragile glass mirrors were only just starting out life in 1st Century Rome and their ownership would have been anything but widespread. How likely is it that the (10? 100? 1000?) owners would gather together and devise such a complex superstition about a new invention?

In fact the first recorded reference to breaking a mirror being unlucky at all dates from 1777 – just a year or two after the decline of the Roman Empire – but at a time when the ownership – and thus breakage – of mirrors would have been a little less unusual amongst the shattering classes.

In those early days however there was no mention of the seven year hitch… ‘The Breaking a Looking Glass is accounted a very unlucky accident. Mirrors were formerly used by Magicians in their superstitious and diabiolical Operations; and there was an antient Kind of Divination by the Looking Glass. Hence it should seem the present popular notion’ says John Brand in his Popular antiquities of Great Britain. Faiths and Folklore: Including the Whole of Mr. Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares.


‘Ah but,’ I hear you say – ‘he includes it – in 1777 – in a book of antiquities’ well yes he does, and oh that he had referenced his source. I can’t of course prove that it doesn’t date back to ancient Rome – I just ask you to consider the likelihood of it so doing, given the evidence available to us.


Between 1777 and 1850, a seven year stretch of misfortune might seem like Community Service compared to the alternatives: ‘a mortality in the family’ (Grose, 1787), ‘lose his best friend’ (Ibid), ‘“The curse has come upon me” cried the lady of Shallott’ (Tennyson 1832) – and her in that nice white frock too…

It’s not until 1851 that Sternberg records in The Dialogue and Folklore of Northamptonshire’ that ‘The breakage portends death or bad luck, limited according to some, for seven years’. Limited for seven years? I think I’ll settle for Mau Mau…

Mirror-associated superstitions with even shorter recorded pedigrees counsel variously: that mirrors should be covered when a death occurs, lest the soul become trapped therein (1786 – Gough – Sepulchral Monuments II), that babies should not be allowed to look in a mirror before the age of one (1851 – Sternberg -Ibid), that it is unlucky for a bride to see herself fully dressed for her wedding in a mirror (1861 – Notes & Queries 2nd Series Volume XII), that mirrors in sick rooms should be covered (1888 – Folklore journal), against looking in a mirror after dark lest a strange face peer over your shoulder (1899 – Newcastle Weekly Chronicle and 1978 – Jude’s Mum), that mirrors should be covered during thunderstorms (1900 – Notes & Queries 9th Series, Volume VII) and that two people looking into a mirror at the same time will surely quarrel (1923 – gathered orally – Ruishdon, Somerset) – not much contentment for hairdressers then…

Earlier written sources however concentrate on the use of mirrors for divination and prophecy – a window on other times and far-away places: ‘For we know in part, and we prophesy in part… For now we see through a glass, darkly’ (1 Corinthians 13: 9, 12), ‘This mirrour eek, that I have in myn hond,  Hath swich a myght, that men may in it see Whan ther shal fallen any adversitee’ (1390 – Chaucer – The Squire’s Tale), ‘Others are so framed, as therein one may see what others doo in places far distant… There be glasses also, wherein one man may see another man’s image, and not his owne’ (1584 – Scot – Discoverie of Witchcraft XIII).

One Mris Bodnam, of Fisherton Anger (a poor woman who taught children to reade) was tryed for a witch at Salisbury… and executed… Evidence against her was that she did tell fortunes, and shewed people visions in a glasse, and that a maid saw the devill with her’ (1686 – Aubrey – Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme), ‘a very proud Maid… who running to the looking glass to view herself , as soon as ever she came home from hearing a sermon upon a Sabbath-Day, she though with her self that she saw the Devil…’ (1691 – Athenian Mercury 4 July)

This switch in the common beliefs recorded – changing from ‘factual’ accounts of a magical world inhabited by witches, daemons and spirits to collections of quaint and often moralistic ‘folk’ notions gathered together by antiquarians – mirrors, in turn, the changing intellectual atmosphere of the 18th Century, when rationalism, enlightenment and science began to challenge superstition.

You didn’t of course have to have a mirror to reflect upon the meanings of reflections – water, wine, sherry, oil, ink, glass, crystal, metal, polished stone – even a fingernail coated with dark oil – have been used to seek out visions past and future, In fact all you need is something shiny and either translucent or dark – there’s no use scrying over spilled milk…

Of beryl and peril…

Etymologically, ‘scry’ is thought to be rooted in the Latin describere – to describe. It travelled from there – via the old French descrier – to become descry – to see or discern – around 1300. The actual word ‘scry’ first appeared in print in the 1520s.

Two polished stones particularly favoured for scrying were black, opaque obsidian and light, translucent beryl.

John Aubrey – the antiquarian who gave his name to the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge – devoted a whole section of his ‘Miscellanies upon Various Subjects’ (1696) to ‘Visions in a Beryl or Crystal’: Forgive me that in quoting some extracts from it below I have actually removed most of his (very many) references to his sources in the interests of readability – the complete text is available online  for anyone wishing to delve deeper.

Beryl is a kind of Crystal that hath a weal tincture of red; it is one of the twelve stones mentioned in the Revelation. I have heard that spectacles were first made of this stone, which is the reason that the Germans do call a spectacle-glass (or pair of spectacles) a Brill…


The Prophets had their seers, viz. young youths who were to behold those visions…
The magicians now use a crystal sphere, or mineral pearl for this purpose, which is inspected by a boy, or sometimes by the querent himself. There are certain formulas of prayer to be used, before they make the inspection, which they term a call…

 …A consecrated Beryl… which I saw… came first from Norfolk; a minister had it there, and a call was to be used with it. Afterwards a miller had it, and both did work great cures with it, (if curable) and in the Beryl they did see, either the receipt in writing, or else the herb… Afterwards this Beryl came into some-body’s hand in London, who did tell strange things by it; insomuch that at last he was questioned for it, and it was taken away by authority….

This Beryl is a perfect sphere, the diameter of it I guess to be something more than an inch: it is set in a ring, or circle of silver resembling the meridian of a globe: the stem of it is about ten inches high, all gilt. At the four quarters of it are the names of four angels, viz. Uriel, Raphael, Michael, Gabriel….


 A clothier’s widow of Pembridge in Herefordshire, desired… one of the canons of the church to look over her husband’s writings after his decease: among other things he found a call for a crystal. The clothier had his cloths oftentimes stolen from his racks; and at last obtained this trick to discover the thieves. So when he lost his cloths, he went out about midnight with his crystal and call, and a little boy, or little maid with him (for they say it must be a pure virgin) to look in the crystal, to see the likeness of the person that committed the theft….’ CCTV has made life so much simpler…

Aubrey, incidentally, died of apoplexy – a condition that might cause us to reflect that he could have done with a pair of those rose-tinted German specs himself. Apoplexy in former times however described not the outrage we associate it with today, but a sudden loss of consciousness or internal haemorrhage, as might be associated with a stroke, aneurism or heart attack. Other deaths attributed to apoplexy include those of Charles II, Al Capone, Catherine the Great, Flaubert, Mendelssohn, Rousseau, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa M Alcott and Alois Hitler, father to little Addy – fifteen years too late.

Aubrey’s mention of a pure young boy or girl being employed to peer into the crystal is echoed in Hazlitt’s Dictionary of Faith and Folklore (1905), quoting Francis Grose’s account of a ‘Berryl’ needing to be used ‘by means of a speculator or seer, who, to have complete sight ought to be a pure virgin, a youth who had not known woman, or at least a person of irreproachable life, and purity of manners.’ Not much seeing in Swansea, then…

Of fire and Burns…

Grose in turn is quoting Lilly – i.e. William Lilly, the celebrated 17th Century Astrologer and as ‘Merlinus Anglicus’ – the English Merlin – author of bestselling almanacs. Trying to both run with the Royalists and hunt with the Roundheads, Lilly was no stranger to controversy – in 1645 he faced the Parliamentary Committee of Examinations having lent his support to army complaints about pay and conditions and in 1652 found himself behind bars for predicting that the people would overthrow the new Government. I tell myself, optimistically, that perhaps he was just 360 years out…

Then in October 1666, he ended up having to give evidence to a special Committee of the House of Commons trying to counter suspicion that he had been instrumental in starting the Great Fire of London.

For Lilly had, fourteen years previously, produced a work called ‘Monarchy or No Monarchy in England’ containing what he later described as a ‘hieroglyphic’ predicting the fire.

Having found, Sir, that the City of London should be sadly afflicted with a great plague, and not long after with an exorbitant fire, I framed these two hieroglyphics as represented in the book, which in effect have proved very true...’ he told the Committee. He denied however any foresight into when this would happen: asked if he had known in which year the fire would break out, he replied ‘I did not, or was desirous. Of that I made no scrutiny’.

In his autobiography he recalls ‘I was timerous of Committees being ever by some of them calumniated, upbraided, scorned and derided’ – and having once been called upon myself to give evidence to a Commons Select Committee, I empathise with his timerousness. Indeed just the setting of the Palace of Westminster is enough to inspire awe: although you know it’s a day for detailed discourse, not sound bites, you cannot help but feel the hand of history on your shoulder…

Presumably Lily though was innocent of basing predictions of imminent destruction on the plagiarised work of a postgraduate and the reminiscence of a taxi driver – ‘yeah – just 45 minutes to deploy them they said… and I said nah, I ain’t goin’ saath a’ the river this time of night…’: such a terrible, costly lesson in the importance of at least being sure of your sources, if not revealing them.

Grose, meanwhile – another eventual victim of an apoplectic fit – seems to have found the Goldilocks ‘just right’ approach of balancing information with citation in his writings: ‘This work, which was executed with accuracy and elegance, soon became a favourite with the public at large, as well as with professed antiquaries, from the neatness of the embellishments, and the succinct manner in which he conveyed his informationcomments Chalmers of his ‘Antiquities of England and Wales’ in the General Biographical Dictionary of 1814.

It would seem that the quality of Grose’s verbal discourse matched that of his writing: ‘for these two months, I am intimately acquainted with him; and I have never seen a man of more original observation, anecdote and remark’ wrote Robert Burns in 1789, encountering Grose whilst he was collecting material for his follow-up work – the ‘Antiquities of Scotland’.

Burns’ esteem was to last – indeed outlast Grose himself – moving him to pen a song, ‘Ken ye ought o’ Captain Grose?’, a poem ‘On The Late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland’and a humorous epigram:

On Captain Francis Grose


The Devil got notice that Grose was a-dying,
So whip! at the summons, old Satan came flying;
But when he approach’d where poor Francis lay moaning,
And saw each bed-post with the burthen a-groaning,
Astonish’d, confounded, cries Satan :- ‘ By God,
I’d want him ere take such a damnable load!’


And it was also thanks to Grose that we can today enjoy one of Burn’s best known poems – Tam o’ Shanter – Grose agreeing to include a drawing of Alloway Kirk in his second volume of the ‘Antiquities of Scotland’ if Burns provided a tale to go with it.

And quite a tale it is – a tale of a tail – detailing Tam’s successful escape from the grasp of a witches’ coven discovered dancing in the church – in spite of his inebriation and immoral thoughts connected to one of the leaping ladies’ ‘cutty sark’ – i.e. short underskirt – and the bits of her left revealed. In fact it rather puts the ‘im’ in morality tale – but then its author is Burns by name, smouldering by nature.

‘Among the many witch stories I have heard relating to Alloway Kirk, I distinctly remember only two or three…’ he writes to Grose…


‘The farmer stopping his horse to observe them a little, could plainly discern the faces of many old women of his acquaintance and neighbourhood. How the gentleman (the devil) was dressed, tradition does not say; but the ladies were all in their smocks; and one of them happening unluckily to have a smock which was considerably too short to answer all the purpose of that piece of dress, our farmer was so tickled that he involuntarily burst out, with a loud laugh, ‘Weel luppen, Maggy wi’ the short sark!’ and recollecting himself, instantly spurred his horse to the top of his speed.

I need not mention the universally known fact, that no diabolical power can pursue you beyond the middle of a running stream.


Lucky it was for the poor farmer that the river Doon was so near, for notwithstanding the speed of his horse, which was a good one, against he reached the middle of the arch of the bridge and consequently the middle of the stream, the pursuing, vengeful hags were so close at his heels, that one of them actually sprung to seize him: but it was too late; nothing was on her side of the stream but the horse’s tail, which immediately gave way to her infernal grip, as it blasted by a stroke of lightning; but the farmer was beyond her reach. However, the unsightly, tailless condition of the vigorous steed was to the last hours of the noble creature’s life, an awful warning to the Carrick farmers, not to stay too late in Ayr markets.’

picture of Cutty Sark figurehead from Wiki commons

Of picking and pictures…

I must, though, take issue with one of the subsequent poem’s couplets: ‘But pleasures are like poppies spread: You seize the flower, its bloom is shed’. Burns, it seems, had never come across a means of picking – and even transporting – poppies which enables the recipients to marvel not only at their fragility but also at their ‘pop’.

Freshly picked in fully swelled bud – preferably with a hint of petal peeping – the secret is to hold their severed stems in a flame – or boiling water – for thirty seconds or so… all the time apologising to them, of course.

I first discovered what put the pop in poppy when confined to the horizontal by a slipped disc in Yorkshire. My mother – my glorious, imaginative, beautifully mad mother – decided she wanted to share her poppies with her daughter – by post. And days later, there I lay, 250 miles away, listening to them shed, one by one, their convex girdles, watching as the sun lit their slowly unfurling underskirts. Cutty ones at that…

It was also Burns, I discover, who first recorded the rite I indulged in in my teens – in notes to accompany his poem ‘Halloween’: ‘Take a candle and go alone to a looking-glass; eat an apple before it, and some traditions say you should comb your hair all the time; the face of your conjungal companion, to be, will be seen in the glass, as if peeping over your shoulder.—R. B.’

And his compatriots – so I recently learned – are responsible for giving the English language the word ‘smashing’ – not smashing as in what one might accidentally do to a mirror, but smashing as in ‘great’ or ‘wonderful’. It comes, so I am told, from ‘s math sin – pronounced ‘smashin’ – and meaning ‘that’s good’.

It was thanks to Scotland, too, that I recently got to grips with a now only new-ish camera. An all singing, all dancing SLR, it had sat in its case largely unused for two years whilst I wrinkled my nose at it. Theoretically more pixie-filled than fairyland – and offering me f-stops beyond my wildest dreams even in my favourite low-light conditions – the shots I took with it were almost invariably disappointing: grainy old things that frankly failed to impress.

Until one particularly dark northern morning when I decided that I’d better change the ISO – or equivalent of film ‘speed’ from my usual 100 to something a little faster – and discovered, in so doing, that since receipt I had been taking photographs with the ISO set to automatically adjust. No wonder I was being offered f-stops higher than I ever imagined possible – the camera was merely compensating for my demands on its focal depth by making its film equivalent run faster, faster, faster…

And I learned something else during my Scottish trip – not to be confused with the Scottish Trip where, every couple of years, the Welsh rugby team and quite a high proportion of the population venture to Edinburgh – some of them to Murrayfield but most of them simply to pubs, more interested in the water of life than the Water of Leith. I learned the beauty of lochs.

Lakes, on the whole, don’t do it for me – whatever their nationality. Take me to Bala and I want to catch the bus back. I adore the Lake District, but for its wind-blown peaks and outcrops, not its waters. And similarly, in Scotland, I’d previously viewed lochs largely as a slate-grey impediment to travel – a liquid-enforced long way round. Perhaps it’s due to my having spent most of my days in Pembrokeshire – a glorious jut into the Irish Sea, where ebbing and flowing light and tide sigh of infinite variety.

This Scottish trip though, a stillness not previously encountered there descended, turning lochs’ lapping monotony into vast reflective sheets, ready for imprinting by the majesty above. And I became Narcissus, transfixed.

May all your reflections becalm…

Of ridges, fridges and midges…

•January 14, 2011 • 6 Comments

Of spit and polish

Eaved by the mantelpiece, the fireplace sits patiently. I’m glad it is patient, for it’s taken me long enough to share it with you…

In fact over three years have passed since I started my public peregrination around this room – wishing now that I’d thought to carry a duster with me… Three years just to cover the fifteen or so feet from the pantry to the mantel…

My progress has slowed – I blog, you see, when I find myself with a bit of spare time – a commodity which seems to have dwindled in inverse proportion to weariness over the last couple of years. I stare at my re-charging phone, ipod and camera blinking red-eyed, and long to be able to plug myself in… to sit still, to be good as new in a few hours.

My husband used to insert his fingers into sockets just for the watt the hell of it – but then he did grow up in France, in the days when the power to the people of Paris was a mere 110 volts. His move to London aged six then came as quite a shock to his system. And no, even if you get your electricity from EDF, do NOT try this at home…

I suppose I’ll just have to accept that sitting by the fireside – this fireside in particular– is as close as I will come to human recharge.

I’m connected, you see, to this hearth by an invisible lead of belonging – the old ‘CHATTAN SPECIAL – PATENT APPLIED FOR’ having already toasted and cheered my family for a quarter of a century before I was born. It was, I understand, installed in the late 1930s, my uncle Owen remembering standing in the kitchen, waiting for the first thrill of heat in the water pipe to confirm successful operation.


Its combination of multi-fuel fire, back boiler and side oven must have made an immeasurable difference to family life, for cooking and the heating of water were previously done using the oil stove or primus in the lean-to scullery, operations both hazardous and arduous. Now hot water would literally be on tap and supper could be cooked without having to venture outdoors.

In my memory though, cooking was almost entirely confined to a new-fangled electric contraption in the kitchen, leaving the constant warmth of the Chattan – for it was still our only way of heating water – open to improvisation.

When younger, the tiles to the left of the fire were just the right size for a cushion and the oven door a welcome leaning spot. With a book or pile of comics it was bliss at any time of day, but comfiest at night, after Grampa had gone to bed. Not only could I sit there then free from his ‘gei di cefen tost yn ishte fan’a’ warnings (Pembrokeshire areolation for ‘you’ll get a bad back sitting there’) but also free of the threat of being anointed with sputum. The fire served, you see, as a sizzling spittoon for my grandfather’s phlegm, and the happily wipe-clean tiles lay perilously within spitting distance.

There were, admittedly, a few weeks every season when he’d expectorate into his handkerchief rather than into the fire – the weeks when a whistling kettle graced the coals, invariably stemming from the arrival of the latest electricity bill. Eventually though the electric kettle would reappear – after a month or so of soot–smutted tea, not to mention the added body of the boiled-handkerchief stock every Monday morning.

Readers younger – or posher – may find it helpful to know that on Monday mornings, the largest saucepan in the house was invariably used to boil up all the handkerchiefs pressed into use during the previous week. It had to be done in the morning, because the saucepan was needed to simmer the Sunday chicken carcass for cawl in the afternoon…

Of baking and making…

Anyway, back at my night on the tiles, I couldn’t sit there entirely undisturbed even after Grampa had gone to bed, for the oven was used for warming slippers, airing washing and heating a sock-wrapped brick for the dog’s bed through the winter. Sometimes it was even used for cooking – most often for the swelling rise of dough, but once a year for the cooking of the Christmas turkey.

It has, you see, two settings, controlled by a pull, swivel and push contraption worthy of Heath Robinson which opens up flues running under and around the oven’s side. The first stop produces a gentle, warming heat perfect for reading, yeast fermentation and canine comfort. The second – when the fire is well stoked – cooks forgotten vests (yes, it did, once…) turkeys and any sentient creature in a ten foot radius. It’s great in the bleak midwinter – with windows wide open – but potentially lethal in the balmy 13 degrees Celsius of December 24th 1986, when it almost killed a pensioner; the last time the oven was turned to warp factor 2.

Until recently, that is, thanks to the unnatural cold of late 2010. As forecasts chilled from frosty to arctic, my worry-worms buried and multiplied, consuming hope and seeding fear… O little town of Bethlehem had nothing on this postcode area…

The specific nature of the hopes and fears met in me on any one night or day shifted as the windows of the advent calendar opened. For a while, the focus of my worry was whether we’d be able to pick up the turkey, ordered back in balmy October from a butcher seven miles away – across a mountain.

‘We could make a boat, and fetch it by sea’ I told myself – and whispered to Tom, who replied with the tolerant one-sided eyebrow raise he keeps for my wildest, most unlikely fears. It was only when he discovered me consulting http://www.westwaleswillows.co.uk/coraclebuilding.html that both his brows shot up…

Coracles, you see fall into the group of boats of which I am not scared – and he knows this. The subset also encompasses rafts (papyrus or otherwise, but preferably free of hieroglyphs depicting the weighing of human hearts), canoes, wooden rowing boats, catamarans and the Glenelg to Kyleakin ferry. These craft look as though they should float – are broader than they are tall and mostly made of materials which would bob around quite naturally whether fashioned into a boat or generally tossed to the mercy of the waves.

Tom did point out that the Glenachulish – a six vehicle turntable ferry almost as old as me – is largely constructed of metal, presumably to pre-empt any screaming abdabs halfway across the Kyle Rhea. We were, after all, about to cross the narrows where ‘tides race at 7 and 8 miles an hour, and with a head gale might baffle the steamers to force a passage’ according to the 1878 edition of the Royal Tourist Handbook to the Highlands and Islands. I pointed confidently to the rubber tyres girdling the deck though, and he allowed me to remain blissfully unaware of their bumper rather than buoyancy-aid nature until we reached the other side.


Regular readers will, no doubt, be expecting an explanation of the term ‘the screaming abdabs’. Well, much as I hate to disappoint, I’ve yet to find an explanation interesting enough to share with you… It was, however, one of the early names used by the band that went on to be known as The Pink Floyd – along with The Meggadeaths, Sigma 6, Leonard’s Lodgers, The Spectrum Five and The Tea Set. The latter is not of course to be confused with The Tea Party, which is simply a collection of mad haters.

The screaming abdabs also comes close, I suspect, to conveying the emotions experienced by Radio 4’s James Naughtie back in early December, when a Spoonerism encompassing Culture (Secretary) and (Jeremy) Hunt left him gasping. For those of you who missed it – or who would just love to hear his attempts at recovery again… and again…and again, I’ll post a link below.

Of Skye and why…

Anyway should you ever need to visit Skye – and if you haven’t, believe me, you do need to – I’d certainly recommend the Glenelg ferry, for a more atmospheric portal it’s hard to imagine. Merely reaching Glenelg requires a 10 mile journey along the precipitous but visually stunning Bealach Ratagain track:a high hill on which a road is cut, but so steep and narrow, that it is very difficult… Upon one of the precipices, my horse, weary with the steepness of the rise, staggered a little, and I called in haste to the Highlander to hold him… the only moment of my journey, in which I thought myself endangered.’ wrote Samuel Johnson in 1773.

The bay itself – where the road simply disappears into the sea beside a fold of rock – has probably changed little since he and Boswell departed from there either, although someone has thoughtfully painted ‘Kylerhea Ferry’ onto the rocks, presumably to reassure people that there’ll be a boat along in a minute – between April and October anyway.

You can also – at a squint – make out your terminus from your departure point, but to watch the ferry glide toward you from the other side rather adds to the Stygian, edge-of-earth atmosphere. The ferrymen though are thankfully far more interest in GB (or Scottish) Ps than Charon’s obol and your viatican is likely to be a polystyrene cup of coffee, self-served from an old lighthouse now transformed into a beacon of light refreshment.

On Skye, the landward climb involves a road even narrower than the one to Glenelg – the sort of road where grass marks the middle. A drovers’ route, it was along this track that cattle were herded in their thousands during the late summer to be swum across the Kyle Rhea:

They begin when it is near Low Water, and fasten a twisted Wyth about the lower Jaw of each Cow, the other end of the Wyth is fastned to another Cows Tail, and the number so tied together is commonly five. A Boat with four Oars rows off, and a Man sitting in the Stern, holds the Wyth in his hand to keep up the foremost Cows head, and thus all the five Cows swim as fast as the Boat rows; and in this manner above a hundred may be Ferried over in one day…’ wrote Martin Martin in his ‘Description of the Western Isles’ in 1703.

And then, as the final false summit breaks true, and the road begins to widen, the stunning curves of the Cuillin rise and swell before you, placed slap bang on the island as if to stop it drifting.

Perhaps I would benefit from some Cuillin…

Martin Martin, by the way – otherwise known as Màrtainn MacGilleMhàrtainn  – was the first to write a detailed account to this enchanting corner of Britain – and, importantly, almost the last to write from the perspective of an ‘insider’ – a Gaelic speaker actually born on Skye. Not that he calls it Gaelic – he instead uses ‘Irish’; not recommended when encountering Scots Gaelic speakers today.

Within the Description’s pages lies a cornucopia of information on each island’s geology, archaeology, fauna and flora, diet, common ailments, folk remedies, dress, and beliefs as well as glimpses of trade, agriculture and their economies, along with other sections devoted to topics such as ‘the ancient and modern customs’ and ‘an account of the second sight – in Irish called Taish’.

He records the belief, incidentally, that cows have the second sight on the evidence that ‘when a woman is milking a cow and then happens to see the second-sight the cow runs away in a great fright at the same time, and will not be pacified for time after…

Ah but is this an indication that the cow is actually experiencing enlightenment of its own, or might it simply be reacting to some change in the milker’s demeanour  – e.g. a sudden tightening of tension on its teats – or some udder explanation?

Apologising profusely, I must just add that research has since established that both dogs and horses can smell fear in humans – so perhaps cows can too?

Anyway, credulity aside – and although there’s something inevitably archaic about Martin’s  keenness to sum up the characteristics of various islands’ inhabitants, you at least get the feel of someone writing with fondness and respect – e.g. we are told of the Isle of Lewis that ‘the natives are generally ingenious and quick of apprehension; they have a mechanical genius, and several of both sexes have a gift of poesy, and are able to form a satire or panegyric ex tempore, without the assistance of any stronger liquor than water to raise their fancy…

‘They are great lovers of music; and when I was there they gave an account of eighteen men who could play on the violin pretty well without being taught: they are still very hospitable, but the late years of scarcity brought them very low, and many of the poor people have died by famine. The inhabitants are very dexterous in the exercises of swimming, archery, vaulting, or leaping, and are very stout and able seamen; they will tug at the oar all day long upon bread and water, and a snush of tobacco.’

The same cannot be said for Samuel Johnson though – who carried a copy of Martin’s Description with him on his travels…

Martin’, wrote Johnson – ‘was a man not illiterate: he was an inhabitant of Sky, and therefore was within reach of intelligence, and with no great difficulty might have visited the places which he undertakes to describe; yet with all his opportunities, he has often suffered himself to be deceived.

‘He lived in the last century, when the chiefs of the clans had lost little of their original influence… and feudal institution operated upon life with their full force. He might therefore have displayed a series of subordination and a form of government, which, in more luminous and improved regions, have been long forgotten, and have delighted his readers with many uncouth customs that are now disused, and wild opinions that prevail no longer. But he probably had not knowledge of the world sufficient to qualify him for judging what would deserve or gain the attention of mankind. The mode of life which was familiar to himself, he did not suppose unknown to others, nor imagined that he could give pleasure by telling that of which it was, in his little country, impossible to be ignorant.

‘What he has neglected cannot now be performed. In nations, where there is hardly the use of letters, what is once out of sight is lost for ever. They think but little, and of their few thoughts, none are wasted on the past, in which they are neither interested by fear nor hope…’

I think I know who I’d have preferred for a travelling companion – and actually, there is information about feudal practices within Martin’s work – perhaps Dr Johnson just struggled to find it for the same reasons cited by another critic of Martin’s writing:

‘It is not clearly structured, and contains a hotch-potch of loosely related material covering the natural world, customs and religion, antiquities and monuments, diseases and cures, and suggestions for economic development’. So if you’ve got this far with my blog, you’ll probably love it as I do…

Anyway the point I started making a digression within a digression ago is that taking this small, chugging, boat to Skye prepared me for the Island’s bewildering and ancient beauty… reminded me that until 1995, this glorious swathe of wildness could only be accessed by sea.

Nothing – nothing at all though – prepared me for the midges.

Of itches and bitches…

I’d encountered these irksome creatures many times before of course, as has anyone who has ventured north of Hadrian’s Wall between May and September. And let me make it absolutely clear that they will never ever deter me from visiting Scotland. Their bites are, I believe, a very small toll to pay in return for sharing the second most beautiful country in these islands…

The midges of Skye however are, I suspect, the equivalents of Darwin’s Galapagos finches – cut off from their mainland sisters by the Sound of Sleate and evolving larger, more vicious mouth parts by the day.

I first met them on the Sabbath, just north of Portree, where they had gathered together soon after daybreak to chastise anyone failing to attend the kirk. I say sisters, for only the female of the species bite – and only when pregnant. They do so, I understand, to provide a protein-packed meal for their second, third or subsequent batch of offspring, the first being viable without bingeing on red, white or rosé corpuscles… and so the wee free become the wee free fousand…

I say sisters, but it doesn’t feel very sisterly when you’re singled out for attention just for parking your tripod in long, damp grass. I was, admittedly, taking photos of the Old Man of Storr at the time – perhaps goading a feminist separatist strain of Culicoides to show me the error of my focus – or perhaps I just breathed too heavily in my excitement, CO2 the flame to which these creatures are drawn. All I know for certain is that the German tourists bringing up the rear as I retreated -slapping myself all over – gave me the same looks of hurt misunderstanding I associate with the Fawlty Towers ‘don’t mention the war’ episode.

And then from Skye, they followed me… all the way up to Durness and back again… The midges that is, not the Germans… By the time I got to Wester Ross they were half a million strong… unfortunately showing no inclination whatsoever to turn into butterflies above our nation… This, then, is when I resorted to tucking bunches of bog myrtle into my cleavage and behind each ear as a repellent… and Tom really could have reminded me of their presence before allowing me into the Torridon General Store.

By Ullapool I was half crazed, and marched into a chemist demanding ‘whatever the locals bought for the midges’. The assistant merely gestured as I held my breath and waited for her to start recommending bootees and rattles…

She was though indicating shelves which had obviously once held every midge repellent known to mankind but were now as empty as a box of Lib Dem pledges. Apparently, instead of having been culled by the exceptional cold of early 2010, midges actually re-appeared in record numbers last summer, their natural predators having been the only real victims of the chill. And so I retired to the pub, to partake of the other remedy favoured by locals… Laphroig, nature’s aide-oublier…

By Glen Coe, the bites on my bites had bites. Strewing myrtle to the wind, I slapped on a newly-obtained chemical repellent and headed out for an early morning photography expedition armed with cigarettes, smoke being another deterrent.  It took me only a few shots though to notice that my camera – and hands – were rapidly turning silver – the same colour as my plastic lighter – now dissolving in whatever it was I’d just applied to my skin…

‘Don’t scratch’ advised Tom, as I considered galloping round a field flicking my tail and bellowing as an alternative… Midge bites don’t hurt you see until you’ve manually agitated  them to cratered crustiness – they just drive you up the wall, across the ceiling and then force several circuits of the light fitting until scab stage is reached.

The itching though is the fault of your body rather than of the midge – caused by the the histamine produced in defence… No… all the midge does is scissor open your skin with her serrated mouthparts, spit in your wound and then sup… here’s blood in your eye…

Near desperation, I consulted the internet and found a site called ‘Biting midges in Scotland’ – turned down the heating and practiced snapping my jaws in revenge… until I realised that wasn’t quite what they were advocating… And then I became determined to photograph one, knowing by now that one day I’d want to share them with you. ‘We’ll go to a lake and trap one in the car’ I announced. ‘Then, when it walks up the window to try to get out, I can take its picture’…

As cunning plans go, this one was not without flaws. It a) ignored the fact that midges are disinclined to go anywhere in ones and b) assumed that when trapped inside a car with a free meal, they will show any wish whatsoever to leave. I did get my shot though – eventually – after the vampire sisters had dined… again.

In fact my plan was rivalled only by my cunning stalking of a heron, spotted fishing in a stream in yet another area adored by midges. Slowly, patiently, ignoring the knowledge that I would pay for my stealth later, I crept nearer and nearer…

How still I managed to stand… how still it managed to stand… how deeply the midges bit… Yet closer… and closer…

How boring a piece of wood it was. It was time for the universal donor to go home…

Of turkey and being quirky…

Anyway to return to my subject – offering only the link of large flightless birds…

And yes, I know that neither herons nor turkeys are flightless, but the specific ones I have in mind definitely were…Sheer bulk you see means that the turkeys that grace our Christmas tables today have about as much chance of take-off as we do after having gobbled them.

This was not always the case though, with wild turkeys being able to flutter up into branches, fly short distances at up to 55 mph and glide for up to a mile – presumably further if actually piloting a glider. I am certain, too, that this latter ability was not bred out of domesticated birds until sometime during the last century, for one of the stories I grew up with was that of my grandfather ‘allowing the turkeys to escape’.

picture courtesy of wikimedia

Born in 1898, his first job – at the age of 14 – was as a ‘gwas bach’ – literally a ‘small servant’ at The Court – a large local farm. However his subsequent letter of testimonial from his employers makes no mention that in the short space of fifteen months there, he accidentally drained a huge fish pond, startled the precious turkey flock causing them to glide haphazardly down into the valley below and (quite deliberately) locked a wedding party into a church where they were trapped for the best part of a day. Perhaps they were simply glad to be rid of him; the value of a large turkey in 1912 was after all around 17 shillings whereas a gwas bach was worth only 14 shillings – 70p – a week.

It was only intensive farming practices from the 1940s onward – with all the associated welfare issues – which made turkey affordable for most families for Christmas… and which indeed still deliver the vast majority of the birds for our tables today.

Not my table though – never again – although if you’d asked me until recently whether I’d settle for any turkey rather than go without, my honest answer would have been ‘I don’t know’. It is, after all, easy to have principles as long as you can afford them – and I am inordinately fond of my Christmas dinner. I can answer ‘no’ with certainty now simply because it’s a choice I’ve both faced and made.

picture courtesy of wikimedia

With only a week to go and the forecast colder by the hour, news coverage of frozen seas forced me to tear up the coracle blueprint. Christmas dinner or not, I had no wish to re-enact Titanic with a turkey as my Leonardo DiCaprio. Further newsreel – of empty supermarket shelves and vegetables that couldn’t be cropped from ice-bound fields – did however send me scuttling to the supermarket – in the dark, mid blizzard and with twenty minutes til closing time… Well I say scuttling – I in fact mean being driven by Tom – in turn being driven by me – now back to patient mono-brow raising as I wittered about the inevitable panic buying … the huge crush we’d face at the checkouts after such reports from the British Broadcasting Corporation…

So there I stood, snow pouring from the sky outside whilst Tom read the paper in the car – the only shopper in the village,  surrounded by mountains of food and surly staff anxious to get home even if I obviously wasn’t. I pondered the frozen turkeys for an age – rehearsing the for-and-against arguments under my breath… In fact so long did I stand there that I suspect every CCTV camera in the store was craning its neck, straining to see into aisle three… Was this agitated-looking woman some crazed animal rights campaigner hell-bent on rather belatedly liberating the birds from their crowded freezer? Was she talking to herself or to them? In fact I might be stood there still, had a kindly assistant not come and whispered to me that the store would be closing in five minutes. A sweep of two free-range chickens, sprouts, parsnips, and carrots later, I knew I could face Christmas and my conscience.

‘Why two chickens?’ asked Tom back at home. ‘Oh because turkeys are much, much bigger…’ I replied…

And so dawned a beatific state of calm that lasted some days. We were warm, we were well, we were home… ‘that’s what’s important’ I simpered to friends… thinking smugly of the chickens tucked in the freezer whilst trying not to think of the very large chunk of frozen lamb I’d hurled into the bathroom to cram them in. Well I suspected it was lamb at least – when it emerged it had had that ‘not quite sure’ look most frozen meat seems to acquire after a while.

I should also clarify that although I still call it a bathroom, the bath disappeared decades ago. Unheated since ablution became an upstairs event – and separated from an outside shed by only a thin partition wall – the small downstairs offshoot from the kitchen now houses the washing machine as well as becoming a very handy cold store when the fridge is full to overflowing.

It’s also usually a great place for de-frosting  food but remained barely super-zero this advent – so it wasn’t until the morning of  the midwinter solstice that Tom mentioned – a tad nervously – the ‘carrier bag in the bathroom from which blood is oozing…’

‘Oh shit, the lamb…’ I mumbled, continuing a soliloquy of oaths I’d already been swearing for at least half an hour. It had been, you see, a very special morning – marked by a stunning partial eclipse of the moon beginning at 5.28 am and capped by a befitting dawn just after eight… and I had photographed them both. I was now paying for having photographed them both by having sensation return to my fingers and feet for the first time in around three hours. And that sensation was not good.

And although the pain did stop eventually, the thought of dealing with semi-frozen flesh remained somehow repugnant… almost cannibalistic… ‘Leave it where it is for now – chop it up for the seagulls tomorrow…’ my fingers wagged wisely at my brain.

By the time tomorrow was today however, it was obvious that the hitherto indistinguishable lump of meat was in fact a whole shin of beef – now perfectly thawed and smelling absolutely sweet. ‘You’re not having this’ I hissed at Sammy through the kitchen window – one of the advantages of a childhood without refrigeration being a willingness to rely on my nose and eyes to tell me when food is safe rather than ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ nanny dates.

The problem was that I’d already started to make mince pies – and had somehow managed to weigh out a kilo rather than a pound of flour… Ah well, no point in putting it back now…

Ninety six mince pies and several hours later though, my enthusiasm for cooking had run out completely and was pooling with the blood now anointing large areas of the floor. But no, I soldiered on… two thirds of it could be turned into chilli beef today, whilst boiling the remaining chunk for cawl tomorrow… without handkerchiefs…

‘I like cooking’ I reminded myself as I browned meat, soaked peas, grated ginger, crushed garlic and excavated the freezer in search of a marrowbone – before preparing mammoth quantities of potatoes, turnips and carrots…

Of struggling and juggling…

And so began a domino effect that marked the rest of Christmas. As one dish made with something taken out of the freezer was completed, resultant spare portions then of course had to go back in – usually doubled and sometimes trebled in size by the addition of other ingredients. Eventually then, one of the chickens had to give… as, once more, did my calm…

In fact as the rest of Britain got snow that stuck and stayed, I kept it at bay in West Wales with the sheer glow of my anxiety. Sausage meat – previously forgotten – formed a new focus for my insecurities for a whole 48 hours – around about the time that the etymology of ‘purchase’ began to strike me as particularly apt.

Although synonymous today with the exchange of money for goods, its origins lie in one of its alternative meaning – to obtain through effort or to earn, from the old French ‘purchasier’ – chasier meaning ‘to chase’.

Of course there’s more than one way to skin a sausage – leading to the acquisition of several skeins of squeezable-if-needs-be pork links on my travels around the food purveyors of north Pembrokeshire – before two packs of the ‘real thing’ were, eventually, secured. I felt there was little point however in trying to explain at the till that I had already purchased this sausage meat through sheer endurance of effort and so currency was presumably supernumerary…

Then the cooker began to behave erratically. First one of the rings threw the trip-switch when asked to perform. Then the whole thing started making rattling noises when you turned it on. And finally – bringing panic coursing to my breast once more – the oven thermostat developed a twitch, working for a few minutes and then switching the heating elements off. My hope for the turkey – the overland acquisition of which had been starting to look more and more probable – faded again.

‘We can cook it next door’ Tom offered helpfully – our neighbours being away and their keys being in our care – ‘I’m sure they wouldn’t mind’. No of course they wouldn’t – they’re lovely people – but a good 90% of the turkey experience is, after all, the smell of it cooking… that unique, once-a-year combination reinforced down the decades by scent-memories associated with warmth, happiness and anticipation…  Short of knocking a hole twixt the semis, not a whiff of air-de-dindon would permeate, and that, that, I think, they might mind…

‘We’ll cook it in the front room oven’ I eureka-d… But the oven of course hadn’t been used to cook for over twenty years – and never by me. A test-drive seemed wise… and a rapidly thawing chicken was, after all, to hand.

I have had few happier days. It started elbow-deep in the belly of the grate as I scooped out accumulated ash and clinkers and culminated in a perfect chicken – moist and melting and with a hint of woodsmoke. And in the intervening hours, I coo-d and floated on the thermals. With the fire actively stoked rather than rescued when someone notices it is on the verge of extinction, any background heating became superfluous and the hot water tank bubbled and boiled with geyser-like vigour. The old Chattan Special was flying once more…

And so I tucked my worries up in bed, to sleep soundly there until Santa had been – and thanked the gods of dice that they were such very, very little ones.

Of the present…

What did he bring?

Well, readers of yore will already know that on Christmas morning, whatever the weather, I take a walk around our old quarry – ostensibly to feed the birds but also to look for violets to grace the table. Regular rambles in preceding days had however assured me that none would be available this year – earth really did stand hard as iron and that which grew in it slumped, exhausted by the frost.

I saw it first from the top of the steps, banking to its right as it flew towards me, so that the low, bright sun illuminated its underwing and breast… unmistakably a red kite – a glorious red kite – flying, for the first time above my patch of this earth. Did I have my camera? No of course I didn’t – but for once I was almost glad, for relieved of any chance of capturing the moment, I could stand and revel in it – follow its flight and simply smile.

one I took earlier

He brought other things, too – friends old and new, family, and a day soon after Christmas when the sun gave warmth enough to sit out on a damp bench eating salt-crusty fish and chips.

And best of all – most precious of all – he brought me some time, that commodity which can neither be bought – nor purchased…

Thank you for sharing some of yours with me.


THE lighter moment of 2010

Martin Martin

Of shiny, shiny, shiny beetles and leather…

•July 23, 2010 • 2 Comments

In the left had spaniel’s lap – or almost in its lap – sits a comforting lump of labradorite. They neither growl at each other, nor fight.

Perhaps in spite of the appearance of being top-dog, the spaniel realises it is heavily outnumbered, for even if it could form a cross-mantelpiece alliance with its mirror-twin, its own half of the mantle shelf is rather packed by rocks of Labrador-ite nature. The far side, meanwhile, is dominated by pots of lustrous finish and collections of feathers and shells.

If there is an unifying theme – and I have to say that consciously, there isn’t, beyond a ‘I rather like the way these things look and they fit OK on the mantelpiece…’ sentiment – it’s that the halves, as a whole, evidence my fascination with iridescence.

Oil-caressed puddles on dank winter Mondays, spectral rainbows arching in bubbles, the nacreous lure of shells; all entrance. Luminescence in clouds, the shifting sheen of old lustre-wear, the sudden flash of a jay’s wing… I peer, transfixed, whispering ‘shiny…’

To shine, in itself though, is not enough; no, the beauty of iridescence is that it has to be crept up upon… flirted with, with a sideways glance… a coquettish tilt of the gaze. Iridescence is coy, sharing its loveliness only with those prepared to look with hope. The beauty of iridescence is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Those accustomed to my blogging will, by now, no doubt be expecting an etymological exploration of ‘iridescence’, followed by an explanation of the phenomenon – Jude’s picky-paedia. Well, hating to disappoint, I can tell you that its Greek root lies in Iris, the personification of the rainbow who also gave her name to the coloured part of eyes and the fabulous early summer flowers… although picky gardeners will no doubt add that irises have rhizomes, not roots.

Picky anatomists (and let’s face it, if you’re an anatomist, can you really afford to be picky? I mean making friends can’t be easy, can it?) will meanwhile add that the part of the eye known for its iridescence is not the iris but the tapetum lucidum (L. ‘bright tapestry’) – a reflective membrane which lies behind some creatures’ retinas, bouncing light back like a mirror. In so doing, it both improves vision in low lighting and producing the characteristic ‘eye shine’ we associate with creatures of the night.

But given that there’s a price for having better nocturnal vision – apparently possessing a tapetum lucidium compromises some other elements of visual acuity – it puzzles me that many diurnal species not known for their all night parties also have tapeta lucida – e.g. dogs, cows, goats and sheep… Crepuscular rabbits, on the other hand, in spite of their fondness for the twilight hours and association with ‘bright eyes, burning like fire’ – have no tapetum lucidum – just a nasty case of conjunctivitis, perhaps? Humans, of course – also being tapetum lucidum-less – need sheep’s eyes to glow in the dark – for how else could we count them jumping over gates once we were tucked up in bed?

Creatures feline, meanwhile, have been immortalised thanks to their tapeta lucida – both in the prowling form of William Blake’s ‘tyger tyger burning bright’ and by Halifax inventor Percy Shaw, who, in 1934 patented the Catseye™.

Conflicting stories exist concerning the source of Percy’s inspiration – including the ghostly gleam of tramlines in the dark, the efficacy of reflective road signs and of course the shining eyes of a cat – sat variously in the road, on the verge or on a fence – which caused him to swerve and saved his life one foggy Yorkshire night. Yet in spite of the unquestionable brilliance of his invention, it is debatable whether it would have made him quite-as-rich-as-quick had it not been for the blackouts of the Second War and Junior Minister Jim Callaghan’s decision to order catseyes for the whole country.

Percy, we are told – a man who had experienced considerable poverty in his youth –  did not allow wealth to change him much, his main indulgences being Worthington White Shield, pickles and watching the wrestling. In fact he kept four television sets constantly on in his living room – one attuned to each of the then three channels, with a fourth for BBC2 in colour… one way of resolving the channel-hopping challenge in the days before remote controls…

And indeed it’s an arrangement I may myself resort to in my dotage, for I realised the other day that I no longer know how to select a channel of my choosing.

In my youth it was easy; you twisted the on-off knob until it clicked and then, once the TV had ‘warmed up’, you stabbed at one of just three buttons with a confident finger.

Sometimes – quite often in fact – the TV warmed up a little too much, and there would be an explosion at the back of the set. On these occasions, Paul Turner would be summoned, whilst anxiety spiralled in our normally calm household.

Yes, to you Paul Turner may be a nobody, but to children anticipating resurrection he was a demigod, capable of dispensing either delight via speedy repair or despair by declaring that he would have to take the set ‘back to the workshop’. Please, oh please Paul, don’t say those words… Spare sets – unless you were Percy Shaw – were unheard of in those days and the TV-less evenings stretching ahead felt as dark as the tube itself.

My father’s anxiety revolved around how much the repair would cost, whilst my mother would hover nervously clutching a threadbare old vest, fretting to get at the dust and cobwebs displayed, disgracefully, by the TV’s removal. Only Grampa remained calm, his essential viewing boiling down to the Welsh hymn singing on Sunday night which, at a push, you could get on the wireless. Failing that, we could always gather round the harmonium in parlour… Please, oh please please please Paul, don’t say those words…

There was one occasion however when Paul Turned appeared standing not next to the television but on the television. No, not practicing a novel form of repair drawn from the ‘give it a kick’ school of fixing – he was actually on TV, one of the contestants on ‘The Golden Shot’.

Those of you old enough to remember this Sunday tea-time game-show will no doubt understand how demigod was quickly elevated to god when I tell you that Paul actually got the Golden Apple. Those of you younger might want to know that the series involved Bob Monkhouse and blindfolded, crossbow-firing cameramen… but that makes it sound much more promising than it actually was… in retrospect.

Paul’s days of deification were however short lived – both tastes and times move on and TV rental – courtesy of Rediffusion – moved in, allowing instant replacement sets at no extra charge, anxiety-free callout for all but my mother and our first remote control, an object of such power that panic set in should it disappear from view. In later years I coped fine with the two remotes necessitated by the advent of video cassette recorders and even grew confident with Ceefax…

Today’s technology however – involving different remotes for the TV, the VCR, the DVD and CD players, the Sky box, the Wii box, the Blue Ray, the amp, and the ‘thing’ that records straight onto some mysterious internal disk – leaves me swimming in powerlessness. If by fluke I actually manage to turn the TV on, it flashes up messages demanding to know which input source I require. I blink back at it and scowl. There’s an order in which you turn things on – or it won’t ‘throw up the options’, so I’m told… and even if I accidentally get the picture I want, getting the amplifier to play the associated sound as opposed to last night’s DVD – still lodged somewhere in the stack of mysterious black boxes – is an additional challenge… Move over Percy – and after you with the pickles, please…

Percy, incidentally, is also the name of one of the contributors to my feather collection. A talkative yet intuitive parrot named after Bysshe Shelley, he lives with Nick and Michael at Plas Tan-yr-Allt, a magical little hotel nestling in woodland high above the Glaslyn Estuary in north Wales. Once home to P.B.S. himself, I notice it’s been named by the Guardian as one of ‘10 Sexy British Boltholes’… and am left feeling rather guilty for letting down the tone of the establishment by my determined, repeated visits…

Michael and Nick are charming, but I’ve had a couple of run-ins with Percy – the first one when I mistook his dish of raw mange-tout for a healthy bowl of nibbles, the second when he mistook my lovely long fingernail for a nutshell and decided to find out what lay inside… My finger was, admittedly, being poked through the bars of his cage at the time and the fault – and the blood – were all mine. Which of us squawked loudest at which incident it’s hard to say, but my language under provocation was far, far worse than his…

In fact I crept away the next morning hoping against hope that Percy needs to hear a word repeated many, many times before he is able to add it to his repertoire – and must read the Guardian small-print to check they’ve not based their ‘sexy’ label on the fact that the house parrot talks dirty…

The other plumage contributors are nameless, long flown by the time I happen upon a souvenir of their passing – not too many of them literally, I hope. They include ducks, seagulls, a robin, siskins, bluetits, a woodpecker and, most recently, one or more magpies…

Regulars in the park next to my old place of work had grown accustomed, I suspect, to the sight of me striding around, stooping every now and then to coo and pick up a feather. The Spanish Civil War memorial, the notice on the gates prohibiting drinking and the occasional tramp emerging from the undergrowth on fine mornings announce it as a park well used by all strata of society, and people probably just nodded knowingly as they watched me head for the mental health drop-in centre where I was based. One or two, I suspect, will have added ‘poor thing…’

The park next to my new place of work however has a different feel to it altogether – it is bounded by posh parts of town, boasts a boating lake, botanical and ornamental gardens… has no chippy by the gates and no pubs within vomiting distance. The strollers have go-faster stripes and people running through it tend to actually be jogging rather than evading security guards from nearby stores.

I managed to wing it, I think, whilst still confining myself to gathering feathers which looked pretty from an upright position and my stoop-and-coo manoeuvres were all that were involved – but the recent discovery that not all large plain black feathers are plain black feathers added not only so many more potential treasures to be examined but also an odd, twitchy, tilting action to their collection – first of the feather – then of my head – then of the feather again – often followed by a small whoop of delight.

It took though an incident involving a tall hedge, a short, elderly gentleman and a begging conversation I was actually having with a jay (‘come on, give it to me… you know you want to…’) to convince me that I’d better confine myself to the hospital grounds – lest I find myself confined to them.

Happily the local magpie population seem to delight in hopping round the maternity unit, waving invisible skeins of pink, blue and lemon wool through the windows – and so it is that I have a growing collection of iridescent feathers – black viewed square on, but creep up on them… tilt them and… Oooooh…

The actual mechanisms of colouring in birds are complex, with two different sorts of effects combining to produce the bird we ‘see’. First of all there’s pigment colouration, which is due to ‘stuff’ that’s actually there, present in the feathers. This sub-divides into three sorts of stuff – melanins, porphyrins and carotenoids….

The most common – melanins – are the badge of machismo in the world of birds. Manufactured in their bodies and related to dominance and aggression levels, they produce dark – black, brown and grey – colouration in feathers which provoke responses in both sexes… A male sparrow with a big, black bib will, for instance, be seen both as more threatening by other males and more attractive by females.

Posing the chicken-or-the egg question over the link between feather darkness and dominance led scientists to a surprising discovery though – birds which had their feathers artificially darkened suddenly saw their levels of testosterone shoot up – their colouring seemed to be triggering their hormones rather than vice versa – rather like a new outfit making us feel better… 

And melanins don’t only announce a bird’s toughness, they also act physically to actually ‘toughen’ the feathers where they are deposited, aiding both fight and flight. Many species of large flying birds for example – whose feathers are more stressed by flying and exposure to sunlight – have black tips to their wings… In fact I like to think of melanin coloured feathers as bikers’ leathers, both protective and making a statement…

Porphyrins – much rarer – in fact believed to be confined to owls – are also manufactured within their bodies, and produce reddish brown hues. They also – wait for it – fluoresce bright pink when exposed to UV light which – birds being able to see in the ultra violet spectrum – must rather put the ‘wow’ into owl from their nocturnal point of view.

(picture of saw-whet owl wing taken under UV light – courtesy of Ned Smith Centre for Nature and Art

Lastly come carotenoids. If melanins are the leathers, then carotenoids are the flashy silk shirts and loud ties of male bird display, producing vivid red, orange and yellow hues deeply attractive to female birds. How deeply attractive depends, interestingly, on the literal depth of the colour, its saturation being the major deciding factor in who gets first peck with the ladies.

Unlike the other pigment-based colours, carotenoids cannot be manufactured by birds and have, instead, to be gathered through feeding, either on plant material or on things that have consumed the plant material within which carotenoids are manufactured. The depth of a bird’s bright colouring is, then, directly proportionate to its ability to seek out food – a pretty good indication of its potential as a provider for offspring.

Consuming high levels of carotenoids does though take its toll, the by-products of a diet rich in them breaking down muscle tissue and reducing flying capability. Only the healthiest males can sustain their brilliance.

This of course leaves us with a bird kingdom populated only by red, orange, yellow, brown, grey and black varieties – or pink, if you’re an owl. So what of the bright blues and greens? The iridescence?  Where do they come from?

Well, they occur as a result of structural rather than pigment colour… i.e. instead of being due to a substance actually present in the feather, they’re what we perceive when light hits the feathers – a pigment of the imagination…

What happens is that the actual way in which the feathers themselves are made – their nano-level microstructures – lead to the light being broken down into its constituent parts.  Some structures will, at certain angles, produce the transient shine of iridescence. Others will simply absorb some wavelengths and reflect others back, leading to a more ‘all-over’ effect.

(utterly amazing image courtesy of www.glenbartley.com )

And sometimes both pigment and structural colours combine – e.g. a pigment yellow with a structural blue – to produce a brilliant green – as in Percy…

Occurrences of iridescence in general though – in bird, insect, animal, mollusc or mineral – cannot all be explained by the same structures or even optical effect, beyond the very broad statement of it being to do with the way light behaves when it hits certain surfaces.

Wikipaedia describes it as ‘multiple reflections from multi-layered, semi-transparent surfaces in which phase shift and interference of the reflections modulates the incident light (by amplifying or attenuating some frequencies more than others). This process is the functional analog of selective wavelength attenuation as seen with the Fabry-Pérot interferometer.’ And my guess is that if you understood a word of that, you probably didn’t need Wikipaedia to tell you…  

A far more illuminating explanation can be found at http://www.webexhibits.org/causesofcolor/15.html , along with some spectacular photographs of bubbles…

In at-first-glance dull, grey, Labradorite meanwhile, the iridescence is kindled by something known as the ‘schiller’ effect, caused by ‘lamella’ – i.e. plates or thin layers, formed within molten rock as it cools. Once solidified, the crystallised structure works in a similar way to a prism, refracting and slowing down rays of white light so that their wavelength is altered, producing the stormy flashes of blue, gold, violet and green characteristic of the stone.

It gets its name from the coastal region of Canada in which it was first reported by Moravian missionaries in the 1700s, where Aboriginal Eskimo legend explained how the Northern Lights lay imprisoned within the coastal feldspar until a warrior freed them with a mighty blow of his spear, leaving only their haunting imprint behind…

People who believe that rocks have an effect on human beings’ health – beyond hurting us if they drop on our toes – say that Labradorite helps to counter anxiety, depression and hopelessness. For me, each piece I encounter simply holds the same thrill as a secret panel which slowly slides to one side… a closed box which rattles; when I cradle and tilt this particular piece of stone, what brilliance will lie within?

My robin is looking a little green around the gills – or a bit pale at least – due to his annual moult. Little wonder perhaps – it is, after all, a stressful and energy-consuming task, shedding and re-growing each and every one of your feathers in strict bilateral order. I know it’s gross anthropomorphism, but I liken his behaviour at this time of year to that of a surly adolescent – quiet, skulking and sulky – and give thanks for his lack of doors to slam.

He has, this year at least, one reason to be cheerful – for Tig is dead. Only four weeks buried – beneath the orange blossom, in a spot she loved in life – I’m not going to write about her with sadness – but forgive me that I can’t write about her with happiness at the moment either – not just yet.

The morning of her burial an odd thing happened. I’d (mostly) cried myself out the previous night and was in grim ‘lets get this done’ mode. The final shovel of earth tamped down though and the large wooden owl hauled in as a weighty deterrent to grave-robbers, we paused, both to rest and in respect – although still too fragile to admit it to each other. I know it must just have been coincidence – and a gardener with a spade is, after all, a robin magnet – but at that very moment a cloud banked over the sun, both the seagull and crow started calling from afar – and in flew the robin.

What was truly odd though was that rather than flutter to me looking for mealworms – which is what he always always does – he perched on a branch directly above the owl – and the pussycat – and sang a short burst of sad, minor key winter song – in the middle of June. And then he flew away.

I mentioned, earlier, that the beauty of iridescence is in the eye of the beholder. I have begun to conclude the same of oddness.

The realisation dawned on me when this blog was but in its infancy – merely a twinkle of irid in my iris and pupil… on a train journey home.

It came on an Arriva train – the company that spawned the slogan ‘it’s better to travel hopefully than to Arriva…’ on one of their optimistically hopeless two carriage ‘services’ from Swansea to Milford Haven. I got a double seat – unlike the many standing – but found myself next to a young man from Aberdare and opposite a mother and son from Cambridge.

The Aberdarian – and I use the term advisedly, as I’m convinced they are a species entirely of their own – far from withdrawing in battery chicken style – chatted for the entire journey – of his girlfriend, her cooking skills and hopes for marriage, horses, his ambitions, the metre of ancient welsh poetry, politics and badger culling… and the English pair rose gamely to the challenge, responding politely whilst wearing that ‘we’re harmless really, please don’t eat us…’ look.

‘He was sweet but I’m sure they thought he was very odd…’ I recounted to Tom as he recued me from the station.

‘What have you got in your hand?’ he asked

‘Oh, a beetle…’ I replied – suddenly remembering that I’d walked off the train with my arm extended, my fist closed.

‘Why?’ he asked, reasonably enough…

‘Ooooh, it’s lovely – it’s iridescent – it was on my bag on the train – and I knew I needed it for my blog – but then it flew off – so I kept talking to it – in Welsh – and watching it… And when we were pulling in I grabbed it… I’ll let it go as soon as I’ve taken its picture…

‘It’s ok though… I explained to them all on the train what I was doing… and I think they understood… Well they seemed to understand why I keep wanting to dig up the cat and bring her indoors when it’s raining anyway…’

May your cats be dry and your oddness shine…


Of ‘Earth to Earth’

•July 20, 2009 • 3 Comments

Eight years ago now, almost precisely, I stood by my mother’s bedside holding her hand as she slipped from the world. Like most things in her life she did it quietly, with grace.

That she did it on her seventy fifth birthday – surrounded until only minutes earlier by family and friends there to celebrate her life rather than share in her dying – was symptomatic of her also doing things with style. That she did so – I later discovered – at precisely the same time she was born was just downright weird – but still not entirely out of character…

The first year without her was a creative void for me – empty of joy in the writing or making of things – empty of joy in the garden even, previously my refuge and rescue in times of hurt. It was now though where I felt her absence most acutely,  its stillness not a salve but a sharp reminder. I longed to be able to talk to her still, to show her what I was doing…

Seven years ago then – almost precisely – I started to write again; short diary pieces about the garden theoretically interspersed with letters to my dead mother. Looking back on it now though through dryer eyes, I realise that in fact it is all short diary pieces about the garden. The letters feels artificial in retrospect and certainly they ommit much I would have included had I truly believed there was a chance of her reading them.

When I wrote it it was simply catharsis, with no view to publication. The few I did share it with however prevailed upon my ego to send it to half a dozen publishing houses. Four rejected it almost by return, the fifth I’ve still not heard from – but Hodder showed enthusiastic interest for a few months before their eventual apologetic rejection. Taking it on the chin was made harder, of course, by the deeply personal nature of the subject matter.

Earth to Earth (link below or from the ‘pages’ list) will, then, get no more touting around the world literary but I choose to share it here, now, in the hope that people who love gardening and/ or their mothers will find some resonance in it. My intention is to post each brief offering within its week of writing over the next year – a relief, I hope, for those of you more accustomed to struggling through the realms and reams of Judeness… which will continue…

Anyway this is for mum… https://judeness.wordpress.com/earth-to-earth

Of Tort, Strangeness and Charms…

•June 24, 2009 • 8 Comments

Of snaps, snails and puppy dogs’ tails…

At the far right – and left – of the mantelpiece sit a pair of pottery spaniels, inversely bracketing, between them, more modern ceramics and curios old and new.

Not only do they sit, they also stay; although of uncertain aesthetic appeal, they’re precious because they’ve guarded this room for as long as I can remember. Oh and dog burglars – please note – they’re also practically worthless, the left-hand-spaniel being cemented together by plaster of Paris after an incident involving a brother, a lasso and smithereens.

pen - labradorite and spaniel

A nice word that; ‘smithereens’… so unlikely sounding that for a long time I avoided using it ‘abroad’, assuming it to be local along with oddities such as ‘caffled’ (tangled), ‘kift’ (awkward) and ‘tamping’ (very very cross indeed…)

I now learn though that ‘smithereens’ swum across to much of mainland Britain from Ireland – evolving from ‘smiodar’ – meaning ‘fragments’ – and ‘een’, a diminutive word-ending common in Irish Gaelic. Just how small or numerous smiodar have to be before they gain smiodareen status is, I suppose, down to the reporter of the explosion, crash or breakage, but it seems intrinsic to their nature that they, unlike fragments, are always both plural and created by some sort of trauma. You wouldn’t, for example, expect to come across a smithereen of old pottery, or overhear smithereens of a conversation – well not unless it was between two particularly tamping individuals…

Pondering the essence of the word has also forced me to conclude that the spaniel may not, after all, ever have been in smithereens – for does the term not imply irreparable damage of the Humpty Dumpty-esque variety? But then what do we mean by ‘irreparable’? Surely enough monkeys, given innumerable tubes of Bostick and an infinite amount of time would eventually succeed in cracking the finitely cracked?


It would appear that I’m learning restraint; my mind wandered off there on an exploration of the meaning of ‘irreparable damage’ under Tort Law, that branch of civil litigation largely populated today by the ‘have you tripped over any good manhole covers recently?’ brigade but I called it back to heel.

Can I be alone though in savouring the irony of street-corner billboards appealing for accident victims to come forward – utterly devoid, as they invariably are, of any ‘CAUTION: TEMPORARY SINEAGE AT STREET LEVEL’ warnings, flashing beacons or other responsible indicators of pedestrian peril? But then if you put …. ‘WARNING – SIGN’ signs up, could it not also be argued that you reasonably need an exponential expansion of signs to warn people of the danger of the warning signs…?

So instead of encircling the world with caveats, let us instead embrace the short Tort tale of May Donoghue, an impoverished tenement-dweller of Glasgow who – one August evening in 1928 – changed the face of British Law because there were no warning signs.

Having travelled the short distance to Paisley by tram – successfully avoiding mishaps with manholes, lose paving stones and other such tripperies – May reached the Wellmeadow Café, where a friend she was meeting ordered a ‘pear and ice’ for herself and a ginger beer and ice cream combination for May.

The ginger beer was served in the maker’s opaque brown pop bottle; it was only, said May, when she had already consumed half that the partial remains of a decomposed snail dropped into her tumbler – along with the penny of revulsion. Unsurprisingly, both shock and gastro(pod?)enteritis ensued and May ended up needing treatment at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, in the days when medical care cost money.


Now had she ordered her refreshment herself, she could have sought compensation directly from the café owner. As her companion, however, was the contractual party, May’s only chance was to seek redress direct from the ginger beer manufacturer.

She secured, to represent her in this, one Walter Leechman (yes, really…)

Looking back, one cannot help but wonder whether Walt himself had not been shaken by some traumatic encounter with pop at a formative age, for he offered his services on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis and already trailed a record of unsuccessful prosecutions against the manufacturers of soft drinks with added protein. These previous actions were commonly known as ‘the mouse cases’.

Walt’s first steps on the quest for reparation for May were equally unsuccessful, the Court of Session ruling that without a contract there was no mechanism to allow a claim for damages – “the only difference between Donoghue’s case and the mouse cases was the difference between a rodent and a gastropod and in Scots law that means no difference at all,” proclaimed one of the Judges… no escargots for me north of the border then, thank you very much indeed…


But no timorous beastie was May – slugging it out to the last, she pressed on to appeal the decision to the House of Lords, protected from the danger of costs should she lose by having secured the right to appear in ‘forma pauperis’. And so it was that 77 years ago  – three years after imbibing her unsavoury cocktail – a majority decision in May’s favour meant that a pauper and a slithereen of a snail were instrumental in establishing a manufacturer’s duty of reasonable care in British Law. The nature of the container in which the ginger beer was sold meant that the contents could not be examined for warning signs by the purchaser, so the maker needed to take care that nothing could drop, fall or crawl inside.

As it was, the detail of May’s compensation was finally settled out of court by payment of £200 – equivalent to £10,000 today – the drinks manufacturer presumably having given up on any hope of using the ‘Tequila defence’.


The case also became famous for establishing to whom care is owed, Lord Atkin drawing on biblical inspiration to developing the ‘neighbour principle’ which has since become enshrined in the law of negligence as we know it.

‘You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law is my neighbour? …..persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.’

Of boundaries and blooms

It’s a neighbour of the more usual definition who’s injured me recently though – with every right to do so – and without even knowing it.

I awoke one Saturday a few weeks ago to the unusual alarm of heavy machinery. Blinking out of the window I saw, just yards away, the bucket of a JCB grinning back its jagged-toothed smile. I tried to pretend I was dreaming or was at very least a character from fiction; I waited to wake, I waited for Ford Prefect to drag me off to the pub, but in my heart I knew what was about to happen; the long, linear drag of that day simply confirmed my consciousness and my fears.

Over the next few hours, the old hedgerow which has been my front-of-house view ever since I grew tall enough to see out of windows was demolished, its soil and stone banks crumbling like sand in the tide.

What I grieved for most – grieve for still – is not the hedge itself, but the trees and shrubs that capped the boundary, uprooted along with associated wildlife. And one in particular is irreplaceable; an old holly, wizened and weary from being trimmed back every time its top branches threatened to tap the telephone wires. Its density hung, a blackout curtain over our front room window, and yet consecutive generations in this household have declined well-meaning offers from successive neighbours to cut it down. It was, you see, planted – albeit accidentally – by my grandmother, whose habit it was to stick the Twelfth Night holly into the hedge opposite, where January-hungry birds could gobble the shrivelled but still nutritious berries. She died in 1945; it was an old tree. I cried, impotent.

You will, no doubt, be wondering why I didn’t try to intervene. Well, my neighbour wanted the hedge gone as least as much as I wanted it to stay. Had I dashed out and pleaded, the outcome may well have been the same, I would have felt even worse about it and any potential for future friendship could have been replaced by one of those bitter territorial feuds that seem to consume so many.

As it was – and is – I felt no ill-will, just difference and sadness and consoled myself with the hedgerows around. North Pembrokeshire’s stout old boundaries are almost uniformly built of hospitable earth and rock and the shadowed–now-sunny-now-shadowed-again twists of its lanes running both through sheltered valleys and up over chill mountains offer habitats so varied that almost everything will find a welcome somewhere in our hillsides.


By late June, sorrel has rusted their finery, but in May the hedges are adorned in their jewelled finest. Campion and Herb Robert fan their flushes against the shine of the Buttercups whilst stars of stitchwort glimmer low. Above them all scud clouds of Cow Parsley, whilst here and there, the last of the bluebells nod an appreciative adieu. Birds are everywhere, much easier to spot than usual as the drive to impress or to feed ravenous offspring blots out their customary caution.

Our mountaintops meanwhile may be bereft of early blooms, keeping their heather robes for later in the year, but they’re crowned, instead, by the wheel of the buzzard, the ascension song of the skylark, the graceful curve of the kite; what finer mantle could one be-wish?

I’m particularly thrilled by the kites; re-introduced from Spain having once been hunted to extinction, these ectomorph seekers-of-carrion are thriving and in the last couple of years have become a familiar sight in the skies of my home patch. I recently had the thrill of watching five of them patrolling the sky just a couple of miles away, only care for the future of my marriage stopping me from breaking out the butcher’s parcel in the boot and trying to draw them to me…


Of songsters great and small

Closer to home my new robin – male, so yes, I was quite wrong about the comfortable shoes– has been fetching and carrying beak-fulls of mealworms for a couple of months, a break of some weeks during which his carrying rate dropped to the odd single worm of courtship-feeding once more suggesting that he’s now raising his second brood. He’s come to perch quite nonchalantly on the tin in my hand now, but I’ve yet to try open-palm feeding him – our intimacy is young and it would seem unkind to add to his stresses at the moment.

He exhibits no such restraint, yesterday getting so impatient with my staring at the world through a new camera lens instead of feeding him… now…if not sooner… that he flew feet first at the offending optical device in my hand, pausing to bounce on it aggressively before retreating, scolding, to a nearby perch. Take that, Carl Zeiss…

He’s also started buzzing any window he spots me through and, if my back is turned to him in the garden, seems to have the canny knack of positioning himself ’twixt earth and sun, so that his projected fluttering catches my eye. And consequently I haven’t – definitely haven’t named him Shadow… I will keep telling myself this…


In spite of his demands, losing my first – and I assumed, at the time, my last – robin after eight nameless turns of acquaintance has definitely increased my appreciation of this yearling. I am more attentive, and every day in his company teaches me something new about robin-ness. During the recent hot weather I’ve been rationing the number of mealworms I take to the garden with me, returning to replenish the tin from the fridge as needed… Well we all know how traumatic it can be to find you’ve consumed a decomposed creepy crawly…

And I’ve noticed, consequently, that whenever there is less than a beak-full of mealworms left in the tin, he eats them all himself instead of carrying them off to the nest, presumably either concluding that:

a) it’s not worth the grief of flying back half-loaded, (‘daddy, daddy, you didn’t get my mealworm Macflurry…’ or

b) if this is the last of the ready supply, he’d better boost his own energy levels ready to do some real hunting-gathering.

My reward is gardening to the almost constant backdrop of his fluid song; as calming as any water feature and easier on the bladder… He has, from the very early days of our acquaintance, exhibited an unusual loquaciousness – or whatever the bird equivalent is – bubbling almost constant sub-song to me through the winter and now, with an ever-open takeaway on his nest-step, he can afford to perch and proclaim.


I was sitting in the garden then, reading to robin accompaniment, when I came across one of those phrases which stop you in your tracks. It cropped up in Daniel Levitin’s ‘This Is Your Brain on Music’ (yes I know it sounds as though it belongs in a Reader’s Digest magazine, but it’s fascinating if you’ve ever wondered why (and how) music moves us so…). It read ‘only smaller birds sing…

Now of course I knew that only some birds sing – it turns out to be around a half, in fact. All have vocal organs, but many use them exclusively for ‘calls’ – quite different to singing. It had never before struck me though that there was any correlation between singing and size – and yet the more I thought about it… tried to imagine the mellifluous outpourings of the ostrich, the melodious song of the sea eagle, the more I knew he was right. Why, though?

Well, I’ve yet to find an answer – my many bird books all confirm that only birds belonging to the order ‘passerines’ – and even then only some passerines – sing, but not one tells me why. Typing ‘big birds’ into search engines is a pursuit fraught with peril, and even if you qualify it with a ‘why’, a ‘don’t’ and a ‘sing’, you’re more likely to get an article about Beth Ditto, Alison Moyet or Sesame Street than one on the silence of the lammergeyer.


Trying an alternative approach then, I started reading about why birds do sing, hoping that this would help me work out why some don’t. Singing takes, after all, time and energy when there’s serious courtship, nest building, and brood rearing to be done – what advantages does it offer?

Well, it would seem that what birds proclaim through their songs is their CV, listing identity (‘I’m a Great Tit… If you are not a Great Tit you need listen no longer…’), condition (‘I’m a great Great Tit…’), courtship (‘Hey, great um……’), territorial ownership (‘Get off of my land, you great…’), and, sometimes, age (‘I’m a great-great grandfather Great Tit…’)

I qualify age with ‘sometimes’ because some birds hatch with their song wholly in their genes – they still go on to sing their ‘full’ adult song even if raised in isolation from their species. Others begin their singing careers with but a rudimentary version of their species’ identifying warble and then pick up additional elements of song through listening to other members of their kind. And others still carry on learning and adding complexity through their lifetimes, some even mimicking non-bird sounds they hear around them like telephone trills, chainsaws, gunfire – even the mewing of cats…

Does  it sound credible then that only smaller birds sing because only smaller birds need to use sound as a way of conveying this information? A big bird is visibly more conspicuous – can communicate all of the above to potential mates and rivals simply through ‘being’ and – when pushed – displaying. But imagine if you’re little, live in woodland, marsh, or hedgerow and are roughly the same colour as your surroundings. You can either expend an awful lot of precious energy flitting here and there, hoping to spot and be spotted, or you can sit still and let your voice do the talking… I look forward to being contradicted…

birds siskins

Dipping into articles ornithological I was also fascinated to find that birds have regional ‘dialects’ of their own – e.g., Chaffinches in the Midlands end their calls with a characteristic flourish that sound like ‘ginger beer ’; whether that’s with or without snails is not recorded… And some town dwelling birds sing at a higher frequency than their country cousins, presumably to enable them to be better heard above the low level rumble of the city.

Indeed so marked is this difference in pitch that Welsh scientists studying urban and rural Great Tit populations across the UK (you can imagine the conversations at the bar, can you not…?) have concluded, recently, that ‘speciation’ – i.e. the dividing of one species into two different ones – could even result. Researchers based at the University of Aberystwyth discovered that when the calls of townie Great Tits were played to country birds – and vice versa – males did not react in the same way as they would to birds with similarly pitched songs – they weren’t recognising these high – or low- pitched calls as a threat. Taken to a logical conclusion, this could prevent birds which switched habitat from effectively defending a territory, or realising that they were intruding on someone else’s. Continuing research will explore the reaction of females – will they still hear a ‘come on’ in the song where males failed to hear a threat? I’ll say nothing about women being better listeners…

Anyway, Robins’ songs – no matter where they come from – are of the kind which develop in complexity as they get older – presumably reassuring potential mates that although the singer is no spring chicken (well that’s one hurdle overcome…), they’ve seasons of experience to offer… But given my robin’s youth, his song already seems fairly complex – full of intricate trills and warbles. It’s not impossible, I suppose, that he was exposed at a formative age to the extremely developed song of my ‘old’ robin or even that my old robin was his parent and that he’s remembering songs he learned at his father’s tibio-tarsal articulation…

Perhaps, of course, freed from some of the pressures of feeding his brood, he’s had the luxury of many more hours of practice than most birds of his age – or perhaps the many hours I’ve spent in his singing company recently mean that I am starting to hear ‘robin’ differently – noticing nuances and variations previously lost to my ear. I still struggle though to be able to explain – to put into words – exactly what it is about his singing which makes me think he has precocious talents for his age.

robin preening on sun 1

Maybe if I’d spent more time with robins in childhood I wouldn’t struggle so – the aforementioned Mr Levetin tells me, after all, that where developing a musical ‘language’ is concerned, human babies are a blank sheet of manuscript paper. It is the music of the culture which surrounds us in our first year or so which will eventually determine whether we grow into individuals who feel ‘at home’ with, for example, music based on the scales, note intervals and rhythms common in western music, or whether in later years it will sound audibly ‘foreign’ to us – and thus be more difficult for us to interpret, remember and reproduce – than, say, the music of the middle east, or India or China. So would a child brought up by robins come to at least understand the nuances of robin song? I suspect that even if the answer were yes, it would have to eat a lot of worms to do so…

Of overload

But whilst the woman-robin bond builds, I’m rapidly falling out with a blackbird, so very loud is its singing of late.  It begins to broadcast before five each morning; I pull the duvet over my ears and try not to imagine it stuffed with dark, dark feathers. He then follows me, perching on the highest branch of an old hawthorn which stares precariously out to sea from the top of the quarry steps, lashed to the sheer stone face by ropes of ivy. However hot and still the day, there’s always a sigh of relief to be found in this spot where I often sit, trying to write.

For I find myself suffering from blog block. So long without putting a creative word to screen has left a piled-up plethora of subjects, half formed ideas and semi-thought out themes crammed into the gap in my head that is my blog in-tray and when I pull one out, an unmanageable mass of others come tumbling after it. Topics once seasonal have slipped into the outré, taking with them their trails of connected musings. But then I needed this subject to lead into that wandering which I still want to write about…. seamlessly…

Why leave it so long? Well, for the past five months I’ve been as stretched, work-wise, as I’ve ever been before. Fashionable funding cuts have left me juggling two deadline-driven jobs and inevitably many evenings and weekends fall prey to the overspill. Throw in the season when the garden demands attention rather than coughing politely through the weeds and you’ll perhaps pardon my prolonged silence.


I do though still visit these pages almost daily, even when it looks to the rest of the world as if I’m off sunning myself on some laid-back lie-low. Or to be more accurate I visit the pages behind these ones – the ones which record how many people have stumbled upon my blogging, what links or search engine terms led them here and which photographs they looked at in a larger format. I don’t know who you are, but I know what you like, visually…

Verbally I have much less of a clue. WordPress records which of my offerings get the most ‘traffic’, but can’t, of course, measure eyes on words. I have no idea then whether you stay and read for minutes, hours, or furrow your brow in disappointment and leave within seconds. Indeed I assume, from some of the more risqué search engine terms that lead people here, that many do just that…. My fault entirely for mentioning biscuits decorated with nipples last May… Whoops – there I go again… Now throw in big birds and Great Tits and my statistics should go through the roof…

But the only clues we bloggers get that people actually enjoy what we offer up are when individuals link to our pages or leave us comments – and believe you me, proportionate to visits, they get to feel like hens’ teeth.


I’m lucky – mine have, to date, all been extremely kind – with the exception of one… And before you start delving to find it, I have to admit, shamefacedly, that I deleted it in temper. It said though – and I quote, for the acid of its words are indelibly etched on my mind – ‘You seem to have too much time on your hands! No offence intended J’. That was it.

My reaction was, I am sure, disproportionate. I ‘pah!’d and I ‘pfft!’d. I pulled reckless faces, heeding not what the wind might be doing. I mouthed, bitterly – tragically even – ‘if only you knew… IF ONLY YOU KNEW…’

I whinged, pathetically, to friends…

‘The irony of it’ I spat. ‘The sheer bloody irony… Too much time? Too much time?! And the mealy mouthed-ness of it… If he’d disagreed with something I’d written – even said he hated my writing – that would be one thing… but to go to the effort of commenting only to point out that I go on a bit… well that’s to have missed the whole point of my blog…’

Yes Jude,’ chorused my friends too quickly, obviously hoping to a man and a woman that I wasn’t about to ask them what the point of it was…  But that of course is the point – that it is, mostly, pointless. If you want points, concise sound-bites, tune into CNN, read Haiku or go to Twitter. If you want witter, stick with me…


But pointed or not, I suspect blogging might be good for me. It’s possible there’s no causality attached – perhaps posting is merely symptomatic of my having found a little time to spare and the feeling of a weight lifted as I press ‘publish now’ is purely coincidental – but I do know that I enjoy the process of it immensely – allowing my mind to wander, gathering information, images and then offering them to others. Bits are purely cathartic too; self-indulge me.

I do hope though that it’s a two-way thing – that people find bits and pieces here that make them smile; after all if you give a semi-evolved monkey a keyboard and let her type for long enough, she’s bound to eventually come up with a worthwhile line…

Of midsummer nights’ scenes

My current deadline for blog posting is, happily, a moveable one. Having mentally ditched extensively researched scribblings about first blackthorn, then gorse and finally hawthorn as the hedgerows changed around me, I’m now grasping at the herbs of Midsummer. Should snow strand me at home for the next couple of days I might get something out by the solstice, but otherwise the old Midsummer’s Eve of the 23rd / 24th of June will do nicely. Those dawn-fixated neo druids at Stonehenge have always annoyed me a little anyway…


Now before inviting the wrath of the golden sickle, let me qualify that sentence by explaining that at least some of my annoyance is based only on the wincing embarrassment I feel for anyone who feels the need to dress uniformly and do unusual things in groups, in public. Morris Dancers, warriors of the Sealed Knot, Kraftwerk – all disturb me slightly.

Why I should feel particularly this way about the public performance of costumed neo-pagan ritual though – given that I can watch a whole spectrum of other religious observance without feeling the need to cringe or giggle once – I don’t know. It’s not the beards, it’s not the robes – possibly it’s just that I have a number of friends who might be thither-wise drawn and feel obliged to leave a note on their typewriters now whispering ‘STOP it, you’ll just look SILLY ‘… The same friends are, I have to acknowledge, hugely tolerant both of my (lack of) beliefs and the many times I make myself look silly all on my own.

One occasion in particular springs to mind – not that I have to think hard – the solar eclipse of 1999. For weeks, responsible warnings about the perils of looking directly at the sun glared from the media and potential viewers – i.e. everyone – was aware that you needed special glasses to view it. Or, if you were of a Blue Peter bent and particularly sad, you could make a pin-hole projector that would enable you to watch a spot of light on a sheet of paper for some hours. I alone amongst the population, it would seem, had read the magical promise somewhere that myriad tiny images of the eclipse would be cast onto the ground through the leaves of trees…

This isn’t, by the way, anything to do with eclipses in particular – if you look closely at the ‘dappling’ of sufficiently dappled shade on a flat surface at any time, you’ll notice that the patches of sunshine are spherical – what you’re actually seeing is hundreds and hundreds of small images of the sun, not just rays finding their way down between the leaves.


Only there weren’t any leaves – or trees – on the mountain we were heading to for the eclipse (to get closer… the sun will look bigger up there…) so I emerged from the car waving an assortment of sizeable branches and began to unfold my large white cotton sheet – for projecting onto of course… not to wear – only for some reason the other sun-seekers parked in the lonely passing place didn’t stay around long enough for me to explain…

Of gathering and gatherings

Meanwhile, back in Wiltshire, you may be surprised that I’m not going to add a whinge about druids being Celtic whilst Stonehenge is Neolithic – for I rather like the theory that the roots of druidic practices might lie in an old culture more native to these isles, being spread to Gaul rather than imported by the Celts.

But wherever and whenever they originated, I feel quite proprietorial about druids – the proper ones that is, not the neo- s nor the equally invented members of the Gorsedd Circle who air their bedding at Eisteddfodau each year. One thing is for certain though – whoever they were, practically nothing is known about them other than that which we can extrapolate from a few biased and often second-hand Roman accounts – and I wish people would leave it at that. They’re our wise men – albeit in frocks – why not enjoy the mystery of how little we know rather than try to flesh out the unfathomable?

One thing that is recorded though – by Pliny the Elder in the first century AD – is the druids’ practice of gathered mistletoe from oak trees – an activity which some assert was associated with Midsummer.



‘They believe that whatever grows on these trees is sent from heaven, and is a sign that the tree has been chosen by the gods themselves. The mistletoe is rare and when it is found, they gather it with solemn ceremony. This they do above all on the sixth day of the moon, from whence they date the beginnings of their months, of their years, and of their thirty years cycle, because by the sixth day the moon has plenty of vigour and has not run half its course.


‘After due preparations have been made for a sacrifice and a feast under the tree, they hail it as the universal healer and bring to the spot two white bulls, whose horns have never been bound before. A priest clad in a white robe climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloth. Then they sacrifice the victims, praying that the gods will make their gifts propitious to those to whom they have given it.


‘They believe that a potion prepared from the mistletoe will make barren animals to bring forth, and that the plant is a remedy against all poisons.’


Ovid adds to our knowledge: “Ad viscum Druidae cantare solebant” ‘The druids are wont to sing to the mistletoe’ – a rousing chorus of ‘Down (at) the Old Bull and Bush’, perhaps?


After mistletoe, vervain seems to be the plant most closely associated with the druids, although I’ve been unable to pin down a reference to this in anything earlier than Thiselton-Dyer’s 1889 ‘The Folklore of Plants’ which simply states that vervain was ‘one of the sacred herbs of the druids’. If you know of anything earlier, please leave me a comment… a nice one mind…

The druids included it in their lustral water’ says Mrs M Grieve, tantalisingly, in her ‘A Modern Herbal’ of 1931.

And so I Googled ‘vervain’ and ‘lustral waters’ and the very first result looked promising; ‘Vervain : was also sacred to the Celts, both in itself and as an ingredient of lustral water’… Anxiously I clicked the link. It took me a few sentences to realise it was a piece I had written, five years ago…

‘Vervain – Verbena officinalis

I wonder where my vervain (Verbena officinalis) came from. I really don’t know, for it has sat uncomplainingly in our garden- as plain as Complan – for as long as I remember.

It has never sulked, never demanded attention and never collapsed in a hysterical heap after a gale. It’s never shown signs of pallor, never needed dividing, is slug-proof and only seems to attract beneficial insects.

Its stiff, square stems branch candelabra-like above hairy, dark green, lobed leaves. Its miniscule, tubular flowers – not quite white, not quite pink, not quite lilac – open in rings up long, slender spikes during August in modest quantity, as if each circle waited politely for the previous one to wither before stepping into the limelight. You almost get the feeling it is embarrassed to be blooming, hating to attract attention to itself.


It has no scent and releases no aroma when crushed – and yet this unassuming herb has long been held in reverence by cultures across Europe, the Middle and Far East.

The Egyptians believed that it had sprung from the tears of Isis, the great mother goddess, whilst the Romans held it sacred to Venus and used it in love potions for its aphrodisiac qualities. Its Latin name ‘Verbena’ means any of the alter plants that were employed during sacrifice and ‘officinalis’ means used by apothecaries. Greek priests wore vervain in their vestments and Persian Magi believed it to be a herb of prophecy. It was one of the ingredients of the ‘holy salve’ of the Anglo Saxons, and was also sacred to the Celts, both in itself and as an ingredient of lustral water. Even Christianity finds a niche for this humble herb; it is said to have grown on Calvary and to have been used to staunch the wounds of Jesus.

Its medicinal properties are many… including the use of its dried leaves in a poultice to treat wounds – especially those caused by iron. Perhaps because of this, it was often carried by soldiers to protect against injury.echinacea

It is a digestive, sedative and is also used in the treatment of liver and urinary tract problems – indeed some say its common name comes from the Celtic ‘faerfaen’ – to drive away stones… Certainly in Welsh the single ‘f’ is pronounced as a ‘v’, and I never remember my mother using a ‘welsh’ name for this herb, suggesting to me that perhaps the word vervain does have a Celtic root.

In Chinese medicine it is used to treat suppressed menstruation – and for this reason this otherwise innocuous herb should not be used by pregnant women.

Gentlemen of increasing years and decreasing thatch may be interested to know that it has also been long valued as a hair tonic – often used in conjunction with rosemary – an infusion of the leaves being rubbed into the scalp daily. And when that morning –after-the-night-before feeling is beating your skull from the inside, vervain’s detoxifying properties will soothe and refresh. Its other common use in herbal medicine was as a bath for tired and inflamed eyes and indeed this is the use it traditionally had in our family. Vervain has also been used for its sedative qualities in the treatment of mental health problems, particularly stress and nervous exhaustion.

In country lore it was a favourite ingredient of love potions, even to the point of people believing it could be used to turn enemies into friends. It has variously been planted around homes for protection against witches, daemons, snakes and lightning and suspended above beds to ward off nightmares. In the Isle of Man it was sewn into clothing before making journeys.

In Britain it is found growing wild along roadsides and on waste ground – particularly on chalk – in the south of England and in Wales. It is rare outside these areas and absent from the wild in Scotland.

What fascinates me most about this quiet herb though is the tradition that you must never, never, never request it directly. You can drop strong hints relating to your need for vervain, be given vervain as a gift – and even steal vervain, but it is said it will never thrive in your garden if you have had to ask for it. As I said, I wonder where our vervain came from.’

You see, I can write concisely, even if I was obviously less bothered about the source of my material back then…

What I also failed to mention at the time is that Pliny counsels that vervain should be gathered at the time of the Dog Star, when no moon is in the sky – and also that in Welsh folklore it was one of the ingredients of Ceridwen’s cauldron where – along with other ingredients – it bubbled to produce a mixture which bestowed the gifts of eloquence, inspiration and prophecy.


Vervain also appears high up on the list of herbs which should be gathering on Midsummer’s Eve amongst communities Europe-wide – a night traditionally marked by bonfires and feasting. Bonfires with a bit of a difference though;  in the early fifteenth-century John Mirk – an Augustinian canon in Shropshire – describes how ‘men stay up at night and make three kinds of fires: one is of clean bones and no wood and is called a “bonnefyre”; another is of clean wood and no bones, and is called a wakefyre, because men stay awake by it all night; and the third is made of both bones and wood and is called, “St. John’s fire”.


The Saint John referred to here was John the Baptist – his feast day superimposed on older celebrations of midsummer due to the tradition that he was born six months before Christ. The plant that bears his name – St John’s Wort or Hypericum – is also often listed as another best gathered at midsummer along with mugwort and rue – although beware whenever you gather rue, for its sap can produce very unpleasant burns and blistering, especially in sunlight.

Mention is also made in Owen’s ‘Welsh Folk Customs’ (1959) that ‘Divination was popular at St John’s Eve probably because it was formerly believed that spirits went abroad, this eve being the second of y tair ysbrydnos (the three spirit nights). It was the custom in many parts of the country to place over the doors of houses sprigs of St John’s Wort or, if this was not available, the common mugwort; the intention was to purify the house from evil spirits. St John’s Wort gathered at noon on St John’s Day was thought to be good for several complaints and if dug at midnight on the Eve of St John the roots were good for driving the devil and witches away. The plant could also be used to forecast the length of life. (from M. Trevelyan – ‘Follklore and Folkstories of Wales’) It was, in fact, at midsummer a charm and a means of divination, partly owing to its association with St John, although the use of the plant may well be pre-Chrisatian’.






Of barbecues

Midsummer was also a time associated with the veneration of water in the form of wells and rivers, and some midsummer customs mixed plants with water: In Spain medicinal herbs gathered at midsummer had to be dipped in water gathered from seven different springs whilst in Lithuania, flower wreathes were floated on the surface of lakes.

In Germany midsummer herbs were burned… whilst in parts associated with old ‘Gaul’ (excuse me whilst I just let my feline living companion out of the house and drop my typing to a whisper to complete the next part of the sentence…) cats were burned.


Yes, that’s right… Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1922) records that:

In the midsummer fires formerly kindled on the Place de Grève at Paris it was the custom to burn a basket, barrel, or sack full of live cats, which was hung from a tall mast in the midst of the bonfire; sometimes a fox was burned. The people collected the embers and ashes of the fire and took them home, believing that they brought good luck. The French kings often witnessed these spectacles and even lit the bonfire with their own hands. In 1648 Louis the Fourteenth, crowned with a wreath of roses and carrying a bunch of roses in his hand, kindled the fire, danced at it and partook of the banquet afterwards in the town hall. But this was the last occasion when a monarch presided at the midsummer bonfire in Paris.

‘At Metz midsummer fires were lighted with great pomp on the esplanade, and a dozen cats, enclosed in wicker cages, were burned alive in them, to the amusement of the people. Similarly at Gap, in the department of the High Alps, cats used to be roasted over the midsummer bonfire.

‘….Sometimes animals are burned in the spring bonfires. In the Vosges cats were burned on Shrove Tuesday; in Alsace they were thrown into the Easter bonfire. In the department of the Ardennes cats were flung into the bonfires kindled on the first Sunday in Lent; sometimes, by a refinement of cruelty, they were hung over the fire from the end of a pole and roasted alive. “The cat, which represented the devil, could never suffer enough.” While the creatures were perishing in the flames, the shepherds guarded their flocks and forced them to leap over the fire, esteeming this an infallible means of preserving them from disease and witchcraft.’

tig barbecue

Meanwhile he describes how:

‘At Luchon in the Pyrenees on Midsummer Eve “a hollow column, composed of strong wicker-work, is raised to the height of about sixty feet in the centre of the principal suburb, and interlaced with green foliage up to the very top; while the most beautiful flowers and shrubs procurable are artistically arranged in groups below, so as to form a sort of background to the scene. The column is then filled with combustible materials, ready for ignition. At an appointed hour—about 8 P.M.—a grand procession, composed of the clergy, followed by young men and maidens in holiday attire, pour forth from the town chanting hymns, and take up their position around the column. Meanwhile, bonfires are lit, with beautiful effect, in the surrounding hills. As many living serpents as could be collected are now thrown into the column, which is set on fire at the base by means of torches, armed with which about fifty boys and men dance around with frantic gestures. The serpents, to avoid the flames, wriggle their way to the top, whence they are seen lashing out laterally until finally obliged to drop, their struggles for life giving rise to enthusiastic delight among the surrounding spectators. This is a favourite annual ceremony for the inhabitants of Luchon and its neighbourhood, and local tradition assigns it to a heathen origin.”

Medusa eat your heart out…  Incidentally Pliny makes mention of an egg-shaped Druidic talisman called an ‘anguinum’ – thought to be formed from the saliva and venom of angry snakes – angry? I’d  be spitting… tamping even. Coincidentally this talisman was thought to help its owner secure success in the law courts – ‘yes, this ’ere snake egg… in my ginger beer it was…’  In other areas squirrels, foxes and cockerels were consigned, alive, to the flames of midsummer.


In these hideous spectacles, Frazer sees remnants of Celtic human sacrifice as recorded in Strabo’s ‘Geography’: ‘They would construct a huge figure of straw and wood, and having thrown cattle and all manner of wild animals and humans into it, they would make a burnt offering of the whole thing’

Whilst Julius Caesar in De Bello Gallico (44BC) writes that ‘All the people of Gaul are completely devoted to religion, and for this reason those who are greatly affected by diseases and in the dangers of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow to do so using the Druids as administrators to these sacrifices, since it is judged that unless for a man’s life a man’s life is given back, the will of the immortal gods cannot be placated. In public affairs they have instituted the same kind of sacrifice.


‘Others have effigies of great size interwoven with twigs, the limbs of which are filled up with living people which are set on fire from below, and the people are deprived of life surrounded by flames. It is judged that the punishment of those who participated in theft or brigandage or other crimes are more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supplies of this kind fail, they even go so low as to inflict punishment on the innocent’,

Propaganda? Perhaps – and yet both Irish legend and the Second Branch of the Mabinogi make reference to men being tricked into a specially constructed house which is then burned around them.

Certainly the discovery of the battered, garrotted and then discarded-into-water Lindow Man (link below) and other similarly dispatched ‘bog bodies’ give us some archaeological evidence for ritual killing during this period if not for a feast of chicken and chaps in a basket….

Some authorities have in fact suggested that different means of sacrifice may have been used to please, placate or petition different gods, often pointing to Lucan’s first Century account of ‘those Gauls who propitiate with human sacrifices the merciless gods Teutas, Esus and Taranis’ and a ninth century commentary on his work stating that Taranis was appeased by fire and Teutas by drowning, whilst those sacrificed to Esus were stabbed and hung from a tree, there to bleed to death – presumably whilst always looking on the bright side of life…

Tacitus however suggests an order of execution based more on retribution than ritual: ‘The punishment varies to suit the crime. The traitor and deserter and hanged… the coward the shirker and the unnaturally vicious are drowned in miry swamps under a cover of wattled hurdles’.


Caesar takes the middle ground: ‘They believe that the immortal gods delight more in the slaughter of those taken in theft or brigandage or some crime, but when the supply of that sort runs short they descend even to the sacrifice of the innocent’.

The latter part of Tacitus’ account certainly seems to be supported by the discovery of two female Iron Age bog bodies – the first that of an adolescent girl – blindfold, naked and with half her hair shaved off – found pinned down in a bog by birch branches and stone and the second that of a woman aged around fifty. Wooden crooks had been driven through her elbows and knees – swelling there suggesting whilst she was still alive – and large boughs placed to weigh down her body. Her still-preserved expression of ‘terror and despair’ was noted by her discoverers.

Celtic authority Miranda Green notes the ‘strong connection in Celtic religious tradition between holy women and water… the association of female divinities with rivers and springs is very marked…’ She suggests then that the fen woman death ‘might have been chosen to appease a goddess, perhaps the personification of the spring in the marsh…’ She also suggests that leaving victims alive would enable the bog itself to do the killing…

Of springs and rites of summer

How will I be celebrating Midsummer? Far away from the fencing and water features sections of B&Q, that’s for sure. I’ll probably take myself off – along with some herbs – to an ancient well within walking distance of my home.

In 1848 the Topographical Dictionary of Wales records that: “On the side of Llanllawer mountain, which terminates in a rocky point, and is hence called the Maiden’s Breast, (oh, up go my blog stats again…) numerous Druidical relics and carneddau are profusely scattered, which are supposed to have been places of ancient sepulture; and adjoining is a mineral well, formerly in high repute for its efficacy in the cure of ague and other diseases, but now neglected.”


Well it’s certainly not neglected a century and a half on. Although the tumble-down Victorian church which shares its field is now only flocked by sheep, the well is visited regularly, tell-tale ribbon, rags and other offerings bearing testimony that I am not alone in finding it a special place.

The church also holds interest – for four early Christian cross-inscribed pillar stones are to be found in its environs, along with a ‘weeping stone’ – a concave slab said always to be damp. It’s the well that draws me though. I mostly take flowers, leaving them not for any god, spirit or guardian but simply as an act of seasonal connection. Sometimes I allow myself to wish – to hope – and I like the visible signs that others do so too.Llanllawer-well 5

My most recent visit left me saddened then, for someone had removed all the ‘I stood here, thought, and left something’ tokens and I’m afraid I find it hard to imagine any motive for doing so other than intolerance.

Not a single ribbon or rag was offensive – they did no harm – and each was obviously important to someone – indeed may have embodied all the personal hope or prayers for health in sickness associated with the lighting of a candle in a church. So many sites are of significance to those pagan, those Christian and those simply fascinated by the past – surely we can all share nicely?

I couldn’t help but wonder though whether whoever took it upon themselves to ‘cleanse’ the spring knows the other side of its history – that as well as being a healing well it was also, traditionally, capable of cursing? I, of course, simply left my flowers…

Of finding the white lady

A little further up the mountain, about half a mile from the well, stands a site which few would quarrel over, for it belongs truly to those passed. ‘Parc y Meirw’ in Welsh – literally ‘Field of the Dead’ – is the name given both to (surprise, surprise) a field as well as to a neolithic stone row now incorporated into one of its hedgerows. Only four of the original seven or eight huge stones are still visible although I suspect they never looked quite as imposing as the 1800 representation of Parc y Meirw, a local fairy and a weasel pictured below.


Some interpret them as a single row whilst others suspect they originally formed part of an avenue. Some believe they were a lunar and/ or solar observatory. Others have gone so far as to claim they were a predictor of eclipses, aligned to Mount Leinster in Ireland some 90 miles away.

Intuitively, though, this feels wrong – if you’re going to try predicting something as potentially terrifying – as awful and awesome – as eclipses, you don’t want to get it wrong. Surely even if you can sometimes see Ireland from this spot – and I have never managed to – the almost ubiquitous rain, fog or cloud of the west would be bound to interrupt your observations on a fairly regular basis. And we all know what a kiss of death ‘whoops, you didn’t see that coming, did you?’ would be for the local visionary.


Is it possible that a clue as to why it was erected where it is lies in the ‘maiden’s breast’ imagery aforementioned? The soft swell and volcanic nipple of what we now call Garn Fawr can, after all, be very well appreciated from Parc y Meirw and the stones string out horizontally as you face Garn Fawr, firmly under-wiring the mound of the hill.

And similar claims have been made for the (rather better known) stones at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis, where, every 18.6 years, the full moon rises from and caresses the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ form pareidolially reclining in the landscape before setting framed within the stone circle. The Gaelic name for the figure hints at something other than beauty though, for Cailleach na Mointeach means ‘the old woman of the moors’  – presumably resting there of her own free will rather than led to her repose by druids…

Both photos here are by Stephen Whitehead, who has a lovely site on Callanish/ Calanais at http://www.calanaisstones.co.uk/ – do take a look… and many many thanks Stephen…



The only slight hiccup with my theory is that from Parc y Meirw, Garn Fawr lies to the north east – firmly in the part of the sky which the lunar orb never ever reaches… ‘Ah, yes, but you see she’s so special, our goddess, that not even the moon dares kiss her breast…’

garn-fawr 4

And what of the name ‘Field of the Dead’? Well, some date it only as far back as the Battle of Mynydd Carn in 1081, an extremely bloody local encounter described as ‘as significant for Wales as the Battle of Hastings was for England’… only we didn’t have any shops selling tapestry silks…

I prefer – given growing archaeological opinion linking Neolithic monuments with veneration of the dead – to think that the chill name has an older pedigree altogether, contemporary with the stones themselves. Was the row – or avenue – part of a processional route leading from – or too – the spring at Llanllawer? I was certainly taken aback when surveying the area in Google Earth, to notice an almost complete and very large elliptical demarcation line surrounding the well, its boundaries variously marked by hedges, track ways and, in some places, seemingly just marks on fields. See for yourselves below – and no, I haven’t been playing with Photoshop… on the cat’s life.


Certainly the track connecting the two has a feel of great age to it, being feet lower than field level, claustrophobically narrow and bounded by unusually high hedgerows on either side. So very many, you feel, must have walked this way. Not many these days though, for legends of  Parc y Meirw’s spectral ‘White Lady’ abound and you’re unlikely to meet many locals who would willingly countenance walking that way after dark…

When my great grandfather met her he was in the Gwaun Woods though, not on Garn Fawr. Renowned for his strength and fearlessness – often described by those who knew him as ‘cawr o ddyn’ – a ‘giant of a man’ – Thomas Owen was a wheelwright by day and a notorious poacher by night. He had, after all, ten children to feed.


As you can imagine family tales of his exploits abound, but the one that holds me most is of his returning from an expedition unusually early one night, empty handed and grave pale. As, trembling, he put his gun up on top of the seld, he explained to my great grandmother that he had met ‘y Ladi Wen’ – the White Lady – and would never visit those woods again. He refused to be drawn any further and never changed his mind.

But although he never spoke of the Ladi Wen again, I’ve a feeling I might know where he met her. There is, you see, a part of that wood where silence falls.

The effect may, of course, be wholly explicable; it begins at a spot where the babbling companionship of the river suddenly runs away from you across the broad glacial valley to your left and towering rock replaces gentle slopes to your right. The depth of forestation triples – I’ve checked it on maps – both dimming daylight and muffling sound. In this space, would anyone hear you scream?


Counter-intuitive to the course of fear though, the part of the wood in which you are standing actually opens out into a natural clearing – a grove – roofed only by branches, cathedral-ing you in green. And again, the switch from previous intimacy to majesty may be all it is – all it is that makes you feel as if eyes are watching you, all it is that makes you imagine cold breath teasing the hair at the nape of your neck.

I wish, though, I wish I had been anywhere else when my brain whispered to me that the birds – even small ones – had stopped singing. I ran, fear filling the hollow in my back.

By the time I got home – in fact by the time I got a decent distance from that spot – my Blair Witch moment passed and I managed to project, once more, an air of calm. I was after all sixteen – and the only punk in the village.

A shiver returned though when, some years later, my mother confessed that there was a part of those woods that always made her feel strangely uneasy…


P.S. – for Tom

I don’t often stray into personal dedications – well not out loud anyway – but I’ve got to say that this one’s for Tom – for twenty years ago tonight, I was tying flowers from my garden for our midsummer marriage.

Not only does he still love me, he also reads my blogs before I post them and says nice things about them too.

And I still love him – effortlessly – even though when he read this through for me last night, his final comment – oh so tentative – was ‘…but have you perhaps thought of posting it in two halves?’

And he still loves me – I hope – even though my answer was ‘oh, but that’s exactly what I AM doing…’

Be warned… To be continued…

Of Love, Labour and Loss…

•February 22, 2009 • 2 Comments

Of seating and standing…

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

In front of the cupboard, to the right of the fireplace, sits a chair.

Tom sits in it. The cat sits on it. Sometimes the cat sits on Tom in it. If Tom sits on the cat on it, it is all over very briefly. I do not sit in it, even when it’s empty.


For one thing it’s far too comfy. Slightly sprung on its one-piece wooden frame, it hammocks you back into enforced inactivity, or, if you try to perch forward to do something whilst sitting, it rocks forward, threatens to eject you completely. It’s a chair of extremes… it creaks ‘make your mind up’…

But so seductive was the kømført of the Poäng at IKEA that I forgot I was no good at ‘just sitting’ – that if the TV or music is on in the background, I’ll also be playing with photos or reading or making something or cleaning potatoes or chopping up fruit or fiddling with my guitar or blogging…

Indeed so tempted were we that we bought the matching slanting-topped footstool too. When used in conjunction with the chair you might as well be in bed – and a fabulously comfortable one toozzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The footstool has then, since, become the most frustrating coffee table in West Wales, its one saving grace being that frequent avalanches of books and newspapers from its slopes enforce the occasional sort-out. It makes me wonder, actually, if there might not be a market for a whole new concept in workplace furniture; anti-stack gradiented desks; self-tipping in-trays and filing cabinets with randomly emptying drawers. Welcome to the Ejektor office… nobody sits still for long…


I love IKEA – its contrived world of snowflakes, lingonberry jam and pretty Swedish books ‘for display only’ – presumably lest queues of shoppers form, all demanding to buy ‘Esset I Rockarmen‘ at once. I particularly love the squat wooden pencils – in fact I love them so much that I once invented a ‘youth group I work with’ to hide my embarrassment at gathering so many discarded ones up at the checkout. In my dreams it is staffed by bands of jolly moomins, all as round as meatballs.

Having mentioned them two blogs running now, I feel obliged to explain, for the uninitiated, that Moomins are a tribe of anthropomorphised fictional beasts which populated children’s books of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Originally created in Finnish by Tove Jannson but first finding publication in Swedish, Moomins are similar in appearance to albino hippopotamuses (other than that they engage in bipedal locomotion) and hang around with Snorks.  Snorks also look like albino hippopotami.

I offer both ‘hippopotamuses’ and ‘hippopotami’ versions of the plural there because both are, apparently, acceptable. Hippopotami – my preference – is though, I read… ‘these days either taken to be funny or absurdly pedantic’. Oh to be found guilty on both charges.

‘Octopi’ is though, I learn, quite wrong. ‘Octopus is not a simple Latin word of the second declension’ I am told by Ask Oxford Dictionaries ‘but a Latinized form of the Greek word ‘oktopous’ and its correct plural would logically be ‘octopodes’.’ They also mention that omnibi is ‘simply a joke and quite ungrammatical in Latin’. Hmm – and I’m sure there would be none for months and then eight would all arrive together in autumn… the octobuses squid-ing to a halt…

Checking out the roots of ‘omnibus’, I find that it is actually a shortened version of ‘omnibus vehicle’, with omnibus meaning, quite simply, ‘for all’.

How exquisitely apt then that one of the most famous campaigns of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement – the Montgomery Bus Boycott – centred around achieving just that – a vehicle ‘for all’; a bus on which where -and whether – you got to sit dowm didn’t depend on your skin colour. I’m sure that anyone at Barack Obama’s inauguration would gladly have given up their seat for the spirit of the now deceased Rosa Parks to be there.

m03e(picture courtesy of http://www.ep.tc/mlk )

Sitting alongside her though should have been Irene Morgan and Sarah Keys – two less celebrated black women who also challenged Jim Crow practices on buses and won. Sarah Keys’ stand (or sit, I suppose…) was made on a summer’s night in 1952 when, travelling through North Carolina, she was ordered to give up her seat for a white Marine. When she told the driver that she ‘preferred to stay where she was’ she was arrested, held in gaol overnight and eventually charged with disorderly conduct. It was an incident which obviously did not sit easily with her, for the following year she filed a complaint with the Interstate Commerce Commission. The ruling in her favour came in 1955 – just days before Rosa Parks’ action sparked the Montgomery boycott.

Earlier still though – indeed over a decade earlier – 27 year old Irene Morgan was travelling to see her GP after a miscarriage, seated in the section of the bus allocated for black people. When ordered to give up her seat for a white couple, not only did Irene refuse to do so, she also refused to let a mother who was sandwiched between her and the window comply. ‘Where do you think you are going with that baby in your arms?’ Irene is reported to have said asked her.

The bus driver drove to Saluda gaol, where a Deputy boarded with a warrant for Irene’s arrest. She tore it up. When he tried to remove her physically from her seat, she kicked him ‘in a very bad place’ – she recalls as, no doubt, so did he – for a very long time. When a second Deputy tried to remove here forcibly, she clawed at him, ripping his shirt. I adore her comment ‘I was going to bite him but he was too dirty‘.


Inevitably she was eventually dragged from the bus and was charged with resisting arrest (to which she pleaded guilty) but also with violating the county’s segregation laws, which she denied. Her attorney took a novel approach; rather than ague that segregation laws were unfair under the 14th Amendment, he argued that Virginia’s practices ‘unfairly impeded interstate commerce’ but the case still had to go to Appeal at the Supreme Court before she won.

Irene continued to campaign against segregation in years to come and was remarkable in other ways too, gaining a BA degree at the age of 68 and a Master’s degree aged 73. When offered an honorary Doctorate, she refused, politely, explaining that she ‘hadn’t earned it’; truly a lifelong exponent of ‘fair’s fair’.


Sitting down as a way of standing up for your beliefs has, of course, a long tradition, from Ghandi to Greensboro, Greenham Common to Tiananmen Square. As a gentle form of protest it has unique power both to disrupt whilst hurting no-one and to elicit public sympathy when heavy-handed tactics are employed in dispersal.

I did rather more than my fair share of it as a student; I was lucky enough to be at university when full grants enabled both sit-ins and lie-ins, at a time when there was rather a lot to get cross-legged about; the Falklands War, pit closures, the British Premier fawning sycophantically to a scarily stupid American President… oh, surely not?

I was though initially bewildered by the broad church that was the campus ‘left’. My first student union meeting felt rather like walking into ‘The Life of Brian‘, the People’s Front of Judea being almost the only faction unrepresented. There were the Greens, the SWP, Socialist Action, the Liberals, the SDP, the Socialist Students’ Alliance, Socialist Charter, the Workers Revolutionary Party, the odd Stalinist or two… and when I say odd, I mean odd. I eventually joined the National Organisation of Labour Students and carried on reading the Guardian, much to the chagrin of various paper-sellers, who, whatever their title, all looked like Goths with the romanticism wrung out.

It was into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that I poured most of my energy though – like thousands of others, the coming of Cruise missiles and Trident submarines to our shores horrified me and the peace movement swelled, uniting and mushrooming over the various leanings of the left. By my second year I was secretary of the biggest organisation on campus, organising vigils, trespasses and demos, making banners, performing street theatre… how hip, how happening… Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven…


Then I got a letter from my mother saying she’d just got back from a women’s peace camp. Monica had explained to her why keeping cows – even for milk – was cruel, dad’s cakes had gone down very well and she’d met a policeman who sang in the Llandybie male voice choir with my uncle. They’d broken through the wire on the Saturday and then blockaded the airfield on the Sunday; a lovely day, but the police had been rather rough and were deliberately dumping them in wet ditches when they dragged them away… There was no need for that… Dad, she added, was ‘busy making a cruise missile’. I’d see it when I came home… And there was I thinking it was traditional for parents to worry about their offspring when they went off to university.

The missile, I was relieved to discover – eventually – was for a carnival float rather than a peculiarly personal entry in the arms race and it was rather lovely, actually, to see my mother blossom from being a home-maker for over forty years into a radical politico – albeit the one who always brought sandwiches for everyone else. She’d always cared about things of course, but had been too busy caring for others to do much about it. My grandfather’s passing coinciding with the time I flew the nest allowed her a freedom she’d never before enjoyed.



Life slammed the door shut again pretty quickly though, my brother’s sudden death inflicting on her the same unnatural pain shared by all parents who have to bury a child. She eventually found things to smile at once more, but by then her physical health had ebbed away and her home became her world once more. And that’s the other reason I don’t sit in the Ikea chair – that spot by the fireside was mum’s.

Of turning worms…

I’m glad to be able to record though that at least one of the gaps in my life is gradually being refilled.

Those of you who plod bravely through my blog will know that my robin – my companion for seven years – disappeared last August. The subsequent months were some of the emptiest I’ve known in the garden and any other robin met with the wrinkle of a resentful nose rather than whispers of encouragement.


His tins of unopened mealworms had, since, wriggled uncomfortably in the back of a kitchen drawer – to throw them out would be to acknowledge that he was gone but I didn’t want to see them every day either. But the desperate hunger of the birds through the post-Christmas chill – coupled with acceptance I suppose – finally prompted me to dig them out and through the entire sog of the flu, I dragged myself around the garden twice daily, breaking the ice on water butts and scattering a mixture of food here and there.

And when a robin started appearing each time I did so, my nose was far too sore to wrinkle. Instead I found myself talking to it – in Welsh of course – gently shaking the open tin of mealworms from side to side before holding it perfectly still and extended…

It first crossed the divide between us on January 3rd and has been doing so ever since. My delight is complete even though it shows no willingness as yet to perch on the can, preferring to touch rim just long enough to snatch a single tiny invertebrate. Once more I can announce ‘I’m just going as far as the robin’.

I’m looking forward to discovering its sex, but of course male and female robins are indistinguishable plumage-wise and their behaviour offers few clues outside of the breeding season. I’ll just have to wait patiently then and remind myself not to draw anthropomorphic conclusions from the fact that it is audibly more ‘talkative’ than my old male.


A guess though tells me that my robin II is the bolshie female with which robin I mated last year (see ‘of Ill Winds and Wilful Minds‘). I’m informing my guess with the facts that a) this bird holds part of their old joint territory and b) last year’s female would come quite close to me whilst waiting to be ‘courtship fed’. I’ll let you know if there’s any more evidence of her (?) wearing sensible shoes as the season progresses…

Of fortune-telling fish…

Birds traditionally pair, of course, on Valentine’s Day but welsh birds could explore an equivalent date – the 25th January – known as ‘Dydd Santes Dwynwen’.


Dwynwen (pronounced Dooiynwen, with the emphasis on the ‘Doo’) is recorded as having lived on Ynys Môn – Anglesey – during the fifth century AD. Originally known as ‘Dwyn’ – ‘wen’ being Welsh for ‘white’ or ‘blessed’ – she is described as the ‘prettiest’ of King Brychan Brycheiniog’s 24 daughters, although the only depiction I’ve seen of her (link at the end of blog) consequently elicits rather deep sympathy for her siblings…

Dwynwen fell in love with a young prince – Maelon Dafodrill of Gwynedd – on that all stories seem agreed. Different versions of her legend record though that:

  • her dad – old Brychan the active – didn’t like Maelon and forbad their marriage
  • Dwynwen was already promised to another
  • she was already promised to the Church.
  • she wouldn’t let him ‘have his way with her’ before marriage
  • she refused to run away with him, honouring either a) her father’s wishes or b) her promise to the church

Whichever version you prefer, it was not, it would appear, match of the day.

The gentlest version of the tale describes Maelon grieving and leaving. Another says that he ‘left her in hatred’ and slandered her. Yet another records that he raped and deserted Dwynwen. All stories though describe her subsequently fleeing to the woods, where she beseeches God to free her of her heartache.


Seeing Dwynwen’s pain, God sends an angel to her bearing a phial of magical liquid. When she drinks it, her grief is eased, but Maelon is consequently turned into a block of ice. Seeing this, Dwynwen makes three requests to God – that Maelon be defrosted, that God either grant happiness to or at least ease the pain of all lovers who call on Dwynwen and that she herself should never again feel the wish to marry. In gratitude to God, she goes on to found a nunnery at Llanddwyn (literally ‘the Church of Dwyn’) where she dies in 465 AD.

The nunnery is now gone, but still to be found on the little island is a well sacred to her memory. It is said to be home to prognosticating fish or eels, the movements of which allegedly reveal whether a partner is faithful and predict whether the course of love will run smooth; presumably the two are not unconnected. Dafydd Trefor, writing in the late fifteenth century, records that both lovers and the sick ‘from diverse countries’ flocked there and in the ‘Lives of the British Saints’ Llanddwyn is described as ‘one of the richest prebends’ in Wales at the time of Henry VIII, thanks to offerings made at the well by those eager to ‘consult their future destiny by ichthyomanteia’.


Dwyn strikes me though as a slightly unlikely candidate for a patron saint of lovers. I mean had she ignored her dad – or her calling – and sacrificed all else to be with Maelon, fair enough. Had she sacrificed her own life because death was preferable to existing without Maelon, then perhaps… But drinking a heart-mending potion and then for-getting to a nunnery isn’t quite in the same league as Romeo’s lament as he quaffs the draught of death…

O, here will I set up my everlasting rest, and shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace! And, lips, o you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss a dateless bargain to engrossing death! Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide! Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on the dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark! Here’s to my love! O true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die…


Perhaps I’m being unfair on Dwynwen; indeed the feminist in me wants to applaud her for picking herself up, dusting herself down and surviving. It’s just that surviving isn’t really the stuff of sainthood, is it?

In fact it seems pretty commonplace; it is, after all, what most of us eventually manage to do when the course of true love takes a twist or a turn too many.  No matter how shattered we feel at first, slowly but fairly surely the age-old glue of time and tears pieces us back together again.

Pretty quickly too it seems… a German study of ‘life satisfaction’ suggests that those going through the loss of a loved one through widow or widower-hood picked up after only one or two years and after three or four years the bereaved were actually reporting being more satisfied with life than they had been before losing their partner. Divorce too is, seemingly, good for your karma, with life satisfaction ratings for both sexes taking a steep upward curve as soon as the deed is done and continuing on that path for years to come. Not a great advert for marriage then – and neither are its statistics – after a steep upward curve of anticipation, both men and women felt increasingly less satisfied in each of the five years after tying the knot. The birth of a child too saw life satisfaction plummet for the first two years and even then only slowly pick up.


Some explain this phenomenon in terms of ‘adaptation’ – that no matter how elated we are – e.g. when we first fall in love – or how devastated we are – e.g. when we lose a loved one – we eventually get accustomed or desensitised to the state and it gradually stops impacting on our emotions to such a degree.

Some of course pine in perpetuity, gather nuns around them or boil bunnies; perpetual Sisters of the Eternal Stew…  And others still take revenge, as I discovered when in Edinburgh last Autumn…

Of being head-over-heels in love…

It’s always a pleasant surprise when you book somewhere to stay and discover that it far exceeds your expectations, isn’t it? Choice of hotel, for me, after all, comes down largely to ‘can you still smoke there?’ these days. Forget the log fire, the Michelin Star, the contemporary but comfortable furnishings… will there be an ashtray? Discovering, then an Edinburgh hostelry that not only still had truck with smokers but which was also slap bang next to the zoo seemed particularly serendipitous – lepers and leopards – how sweet…

Even more exciting though was to discover that it was on the edges of the old town of Corstorphine…

Once quite separate from Edinburgh but now embraced by urban sprawl, Corstorphine lies about four miles west of the City Centre. The main street – today as bedecked with gaudy hoardings as any commercial thoroughfare – offers few clues to its past, but slip just a few feet south and you enter spectral realms of witchcraft, bloodshed and botany.

map1777(picture courtesy of the Corstorphine Trust)

It was the Corstorphine Sycamore – Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Corstorphinense’ – which first drew my attention to this fascinating little community some years ago. A distinct variety, with glorious yellow foliage in early spring, some say it was brought to Corstorphine by ‘a monk from the east’ in the 1400s. More commonly held though is that it was the sole survivor of a 16th Century avenue, planted along the approach road to the Castle. Two stories are offered to explain its golden springtime hue – the first that treasure is buried at its roots, the second that it turned ashen when it witnessed a dreadful act beneath its boughs…


Who, exactly, murdered whom underneath the spreading sycamore tree varies from tale to tale, but all versions mention Lord James Forrester, recounting either that he slew his daughter’s lover there (see Dwynwen? Dad could have been a lot worse…) or, much more commonly, that he was there slain. Some say by his sister-in-law, others say by his wife…

Historic records however – and most versions of the story – say that he was dispatched by his niece, mistress and mother of his child – all the same woman, not an assassination squad, although if accounts of his philandering are true, a queue, orderly or otherwise, would not have been surprising.

On the evening of August 26th, 1679, Forrester, as was his wont, had been drinking heavily at Corstorphine’s Black Bull Inn. Let us hope that his ale was sweet, for waiting down the road for him were his lover, Christian Nimmo, and death. Some say they quarrelled because although he had received papal dispensation to marry Christian, he would not act upon it, others that he arrived in a drunken temper and called her a ‘whoor’. Ms Kettle, meet Mr Pot…

blackbull(picture courtesy of the Corstorphine Trust)

Christian claimed that in his rage he ran at her with his sword, that she grabbed it and that in the struggle, Forrester fell onto its blade. But her self defence did not wash – found hiding in Corstorphine Castle, she was taken to the Edinburgh’s Tolbooth prison.

Seemingly spirited to the last, Christian first claimed she was pregnant in the hope of escaping execution, then, when doctors would not verify this, escaped, dressed as a man. She managed to get 15 miles before she was re-captured at Fala. All this is oft recorded, as well as her beheading at the Mercat Cross (Mercat = Market – wholly unrelated to mongooses, mongeese or even mongopi…) on 12th November. She wore, we are told, a white taffeta hood, and bared her shoulders herself.

What never seems to be mentioned is that the maid lost her head to ‘the Maiden’ – a Scottish mode of capital punishment not to be confused with either the Iron Maiden (torture without an axe), Iron Maiden (torture with several axes…) or the Iron Lady (a punishing old battleaxe…)

No, the Scottish Maiden was a portable early version of what we now think of generically as a guillotine, in use around Edinburgh from 1565, over two centuries before M. Guillotine’s invention started turning heads in revolutionary France. Relatively small – only ten feet high – the prisoner’s neck would be severed by an iron plate, the upper edge of which was weighted with a block of lead.

maiden-with-permission(picture courtesy of www. airminded . org)

It was probably a kinder (or at least more reliable) form of despatch than the sword it replaced – contrary to popular depiction prisoners put to death by the sword did not bend their neck onto a block but instead knelt upright as the executioner swung his blade horizontally. Any flinch, any dodge and the resultant wounds could be horrific. Not that clean beheading is anything other than horrific, but to quote the Scottish Thane, ‘if it were done… then ’twere well it were done quickly…’

Beheading in any form was of course preferable to the slow grip of the noose, but more horrific than either was being burned at the stake – a dread sentence reserved for heretics, sorcerers and witches.

And it was by this means that another woman with Corstorphine connections – Betie Watsone, the weaver’s wife – faced execution 30 years previous to Christian. Her story, recorded in the Kirk Sessions of 1649, says that on 12th May, Betie – Beatrix – made a complaint against the local schoolmaster for accusing her of witchery. Her tale though follows the predictable pattern for accusations of witchcraft – once the first verbal stone had been cast others were not slow in slinging; she had caused a woman to fall ill, a cow to go mad, had made a sow appear…


The outcome was also sadly predictable; Betie found herself incarcerated, albeit in the rather unusual prison of Corstorphine Kirk’s tower. And there, in the house of God, she took the manner of her fate into her own hands. She escaped the flames by hanging herself.

That the environs of Corstorphine’s old Kirk still felt a touch unquiet to me was abetted by the fact that I first visited it alone, at dusk, having spent the afternoon in the alternative gloom of Glen Coe. I’d come looking for an old church and a descendant of the original Acer pseudoplatanus; I found a scaffolded building and a gathering of youths of the parish definitely not there for Sunday School. The next morning though, with company, in daylight, and having sent thoughts of sisterhood to Betie and to Christian, the young sycamore smiled for me.


Actually it’s more a clone than a descendant, one of the unusual things about the Corstorphine variety of sycamore being that it doesn’t produce viable seed. The only way to create sycaminors then is by cuttings, so the specimen in the corner of the kirkyard is still the original tree, just rooted in a different place – and flourishing.

Its parent however is another matter, beheaded by the Boxing Day storm of 1998. I was, however, reliably informed that the stump of the tree still remained… I’d just forgotten the name of the street it was on and Corstorphine has some unexpected twists and turns as well as dead ends. I now know them all, rather well…

Then suddenly I remembered…the tree was next to an old dovecote! And with that flash of remembering there also appeared the first pedestrian we’d seen for an hour – an elderly gentleman. This looked promising.

‘Excuse me,’ I smiled…, ‘I’m looking for the dovecote…’ He looked bemused.

‘The …?’

‘The dovecote,’ I re-iterated – using my scarce but best, Welsh, rounded vowels to try to reassure him I wasn’t English.

‘I-m a-f-r-a-i-d I d-o-n’t u-n-d-e-r-s-t-a-n-d ye…’ he replied, obviously taking the ‘speak slowly and loudly to foreigners’ approach.

‘The dovecote, next to the old sycamore…’ I tried to expand…

‘Och the doocit!’ he beamed in sudden comprehension…

I assumed at the time that it was our guide’s pronunciation, but no, apparently a ‘doocot’ -pronounced ‘doocit’ is a Scottish dovecote. What we eventually found ourselves standing next to though wasn’t what I expected. Say dovecote to me – doocot even – and I picture a pretty little wooden structure, set atop a pole. This doocot was made of much dourer stuff though – more like a giant stone bee skep than a hen house on high.


It also hadn’t clicked with me until then that dovecotes were ever anything but ornamental additions to gardens, but no, it turns out that their original purpose was for rearing doves or pigeon for the table… Squabs were considered a particular delicacy, eaten at about a month old, when fully grown but still in the nest. Not everyone who fancied pigeons could keep them though – in some cultures, the right to have a dovecote was restricted to the ruling classes, droit de colombier being set down in feudal law. I’m reminded of a friend ordering pigeon in a city centre restaurant asking, mischievously, if it had been ‘locally sourced’…

Anyway, back in Corstorphine, my cold, hungry and damp husband’s patience was, by now, threatening to stretch to translucence. He had, after all, spent rather a lot of his morning being walked around a churchyard, being introduced to a tree, participating in a wild pigeon chase and being cooed at about ‘poor colomenod bach’… He could also, by now, sense my German-cum-terrier genes kicking in.

‘What did you see in Edinburgh? Oh…bungalows… and semis…’ he muttered, surveying the suburban landscape through the quickening drizzle.

‘It has to be here somewhere’, I marched back, ignoring both the twitching of my husband and that of curtains as I jumped up and down, trying to see over oh-so-respectable garden walls…

I spotted it at last though – the stump – all but hidden behind a tall stone wall; rather sad obscurity, I feel, for such a famous site. Forgive the quality of the photograph below then – it’s zoomed and hand held – and by the time I took it, the eternal sunshine of even my tree-spotting mind was fading.


We failed to find the White Lady of Corstorphine though; the unquiet ghost of Christian Nimmo, said to still haunt the scene of her crime and allegedly spotted several times in living memory. Tom was looking quite pale though – it was time to go, eat and do what more normal visitors to Edinburgh do.

Ghost or none, it’s good to know that the spirit of the old tree lives on in numerous items crafted from its 400-year-old wood, the most remarkable of which are probably violins by local instrument maker Colin Adamson. Colin grew up playing – games, rather than the violin- beneath the old sycamore’s branches but went on to travel the world, gleaning the art of instrument making and restoration. Now back in Edinburgh, he enjoys a deserved reputation as a restorer and maker of violins, violas and cellos but whoever the maker, few instruments will be crafted from wood with quite such historic roots.


It’s also gratifying to know that at least one of the violins will stay in the city, gifted to St Mary’s Music School by an anonymous benefactor. I won’t pun about haunting airs, spirited performances or even taking a bow (whoops…) for I just can’t compete with the Edinburgh Evening News’ headline of July 1999: ‘Tales of Sex and Violins’.

My sincere thanks to Colin, Brett Holman, the Corstorphine Trust and Corstorphine Library for their patience with my queries, permission to use images reproduced here and enthusiasm – and in particular to Trust archivist Frances MacRae for digging into the Kirk Sessions for me. You’ll find links to associated websites below.


From bill and coo to billets-doux…

Back in Dwynwen land, I spent some time recently re-discovered a collection of love letters. Relatively few in number – sixteen survive from ‘her’ yet just four from ‘him’ (I hear women worldwide nodding ‘yes, that sounds about right’) – together they pen a small portrait of great – but forbidden – love…


Spring, 1948, West Wales… the war is nearly three years over and yet still very much entrenched. Edna, 22, lives with her father and brothers. It’s four years since her mother died and she has, since, been the home-maker. She is, however, ‘courting strong’ with a young RAF officer. He’s seen as a good catch by all and it’s generally accepted that she will soon marry and move on.

Then, whilst out walking one day, Edna happens upon a stranger. She recognises at once what he is but says ‘good evening’ all the same. Her dog, Chum, takes one look at his long, wild hair, his tattered and patched overalls and promptly attaches teeth to leg.

The stranger – Karl – is so dressed because Prisoners of War were forced to wear patches on their clothes both to mark them out and identify, by colour, their level of loyalty to the Nazi cause. Edna will joke, later, that as he spoke no English and she spoke no German ‘we couldn’t quarrel’ but that’s not true – it was some years since Karl had been near fatally wounded, captured and transported to America and he had reasonable spoken and written English long before he landed on these shores.

Until the D-Day landings though, Britain had been loathe to accept POWs, fearing their uprising in the event of an invasion. Although the ban on ‘fraternisation’ was lifted in 1946, years of limbo followed for many POWs waiting to be repatriated as the British Government insisted on a ‘re-education’ programme to prepare them for life in the new Germany.

In theory, those with least allegiance to Hitler were allowed home first, but in reality the order was piecemeal and complicated by the fact that many prisoners quite liked life in Britain. Most were allowed to live on the farms on which they worked, were starting to be accepted into local communities, had money in their pockets and food on their plates. Pre-war Germany had been a place of poverty, hunger and fear; they soon clicked that by offering a Nazi salute when called for interrogation every six months, they could extend their stay almost indefinitely.

Whether it was quite ‘love at first bite’ for Karl and Edna I’m unsure, but I do know that the frequency with which Chum got exercised increased dramatically. Their relationship though had to remain hidden – it was one thing to wish a German good evening, quite another to share one with him – and so they developed a code. If Edna was out walking, she would leave a trail of wild flowers behind her, leading Karl to a safe meeting place…


‘Karl Darling,

Less than half an hour ago we said ‘good night’ and you are now walking home in the rain, in the dark and by yourself. No, you are not really alone Karl bach, for although I am sitting here by the fire, waiting for the kettle to boil, my thoughts are with you as they always are.

All day long I think of you Karl, as soon as I awake in the morning and my last thoughts before going to sleep – they are all full of my blonde six-footer. Karl, my diawl mawr (big devil) what have you done to your diawl bach? (little devil) Give her a bit of peace will you! In the daytime, no matter where I am, or what I am doing, I do not feel content. Always I am thinking ‘What’s Karl doing now?’ and in the evenings, when I know you are likely to be in town I am searching, searching, for you. That is how it was in the fair last night – nothing is complete without you, mein liebling.

If someone had told me six months ago that one day I would love a German, I would probably have said something rude but oh, Karl dear, it makes no difference what country you were born in – your feelings are the same as mine.

What I hate most is having to meet you in secret and only love you when it is dark with no-one to see. I would like to tell everyone of our love for each other and to ask you to come into our house. But that is impossible. You see Karl bach, Daddy still suffers very much from the first war and, as you know, my brother too is not supposed to do any heavy work as a result of the last war, so you can understand their feelings.

Tonight Karl, after I left you, I kicked against something soft and thinking it was my handkerchief I bent down to pick it up. Ugh! It was a horrible big frog. I don’t know who was most frightened – I nearly screamed. OK you diawl mawr, don’t laugh at me!

Well Karl bach, I must go to bed, to dream of you again I suppose – I do that very often, but my dreams are so mixed up they don’t make sense.

Tomorrow night we will be together again, as I’m sure the hay won’t be dry enough to bring it in tomorrow! Cheerio, darling Karl, Ich bin dein, und du bist mein,

From your Edna’


‘My Darling Edna!

Hello bach now after a hard work must I go to keep my promise. What you suppose I have don that I call it hard work? Washing. Alun isn’t very well so I have to do hes work too.

Edna bach I love you every day more and more. I seat now here your fothos all round me and I don’t know what I could write down for you. I would like to have you here to halt you in my arms to kiss your sweet lips. Oh bach I’m sure of onething, that you and me gon to be very happy together. If we have to wait for a few months we can’t help that. But it is nice to know that we will be man and wife one day.

My Darling Edna if I go in the next time to Germany so don’t worry abaut me, I com back to you and if I should not be able I run away or you must com over to me. Edna darling! I ask you would you do that for me? I know I ask you something what is impossible for you, but I know you would do everything for me as I would do it for you.

Edna mein Liebling, you know Edna if we had peace and we would know that we never had another war I would take you home with me to Germany. I’m sure bach you would like it. Everything you love is there. Animals not only rabbits, flowers, forest with nice passes not passes with dorns (thorns?) and mod (mud). Edna bach you must not think that I am home sick but it is the lovelyest part in Germany where I live. We call it the paradise.

Edna bach I am quite happy here, with you I am happy anywhere. Edna darling! You wrote in your last letter about the glorious time we have spend together. Yes bach neither can I forget the summer 1948. And I hope bach that we will have many many happy summers together and we will love each other forever as we do it now.

Mein Liebling Edna.

Ich liebe dich, so glühend heiss,

Bis rote Rosen werden weiss

Bis weisse Rosen werden rot

Ich liebe dich bis in den Tod.

(I love you with such fervour, until red roses are white, until white roses are red. I love you until I die…)

I hope you are able to find out whats mean and I hope you believe me, because it s true,

All my love to my only loving furture

to my Edna bach.

xxxxx from your diawl mawr Karl’


‘Mein Liebling mawr,

Monday afternoon, half past two and here I am thinking of my very dear Karl, instead of doing my work. Well bach, what am I going to write about today? First my darling, thank you for your very nice letter. I have read it many times, but I’m afraid I can’t quite make out the poem, but of course I can guess what it means.

Karl bach doesn’t it seem an awful waste of time to have to be apart so much, but that is one of the things we cannot help… We will make up for it one day, I’m sure of that. It will be nice to look after my diawl mawr and then he won’t have to do his washing on a Sunday afternoon! We have a saying in this country ‘The path of true love never runs smooth’, indeed Karl bach ours must be true love then, as we have had to fight for our happiness right along.

Last night you said you were sometimes sorry for all the trouble you had brought me – Karl bach do not say that again, for you have given me so much happiness instead. I am truly sorry that I have to disobey my father and bring him unhappiness, but Karl I believe it would be wrong to throw away such love as we find in each other and which I’m sure I could not find with anyone else.

I must have been mad to think that I loved D——, or that I could love two people at the same time. No, Karl liebling, when you really love someone, as I love you, there’s no room in your heart for anyone else, (especially as you’re such a big sweetheart.)

Well liebling, I must go and feed my silly old chickens. All I am looking forward to now is seeing mein liebling Blondie tomorrow night and going to the pictures with him. I wish I could be near you always my darling, to have your arms around me and to be told that you still love me, your diawl bach.

Cheerio darling Karl

I’ll love you until I die – Ich liebe dich bis in den Tod.

From Your Own Edna’


And so continues their sing-song of love…

Some of the letters describe the opposition they faced not only from family but from the ‘locals’ – Karl always said that the worst were not the ones who had, themselves, served in the forces – they understood – but those who had been exempted on health grounds or to do war work…

‘Darling Edna I would like to take you to the ball on Fryday night to danz with you the whole night but bach I’m afraid to bring you trouble. I leave it to you. You know bach I like to go with you anywhere and I’m not afraid of myselfe, only for you my darling. I know it would hurt you badly if anybody was to say or to do anything to me because I’m a German…’

Some convey a decision to ‘wait’ ‘Edna mein Leibling. It is very hard for both of us sometimes to keep it (our promise), but what can I do if your lips saying paid bach ? (don’t, bach)… whilst others suggest that some vows are made to be stretched if not broken… ‘do you remember our midnight trip to the lighthouse? Everything seemed so unreal that night, but I’m so glad we went and I know you are too…’


The second group of letters is less happy, less certain. Karl did ‘go in the next time to Germany’, leaving the promise that he would return after a month. But Edna was well aware that he was returning to the country he loved, to the mother he loved, that his communist father was still away from home having gone into hiding at the start of the war and that he was now the eldest son, having lost two brothers on the Russian front. He was expected to marry one of their widows.

Edna’s letters – at first cheerful, newsy and loving – become more and more anxious as she waits to hear from him. You can hear the silence… sense her heart beating faster as the postman approaches and then plummeting as he walks past…

‘Hello Karl bach, I’m afraid I’m feeling terribly fed up tonight – I don’t know how I’m going to live for four weeks without you – Oh bach, I felt like crying tonight after I had washed up – the time I usually rush to meet my sweetheart – but now there’s no one to meet. I have missed you more tonight than ever before.

I love you so much, Karl, my diawl mawr, if anything happened to you my life would be finished. Come back to me won’t you Blondie? I do hope I get a letter from you tomorrow – perhaps I’ll feel better then.

Karl bach are you enjoying yourself? Tell me the truth bach, would you like to stay at home for good? Don’t be afraid of telling me Karl, I will understand even if you have changed your mind about living in this country. But oh bach, don’t change your mind about loving me will you? I could not bear that…

… Cheerio Lofty mine, give my love to your mother and you, you diawl mawr, look after my heart will you, and also yourself. Nos da mein liebling, whom I love with all my heart.’


Then at last there is a letter from him – he has been ill – laid up in bed… It provokes immediate contrition and more worry in her…

‘Oh Karl bach, my darling, you are ill and I am so far away from you. Oh my diawl mawr I feel so unhappy now, if anything should happen to you my darling my life would be over too. Oh Karl bach, what is wrong? I would give anything in the world to look after you now, to hold you in my arms and make you get better…’

I can imagine her expression when his next letter arrives explaining that he has had a cold

Some of you will know why I can picture it quite so clearly – will already know that the diawl mawr did come back to his diawl bach – for Edna and Karl are, of course, my parents. Family opposition soon faded once they met the man rather than the concept of ‘a German’ and they married in October 1949. They were to enjoy 60 summers together before Karl’s death in 2000.


I’d read the letters once before – too soon after my mother died in 2001. At the time I hurt too much myself to appreciate them properly. Now though, I can imagine their voices speaking the words, hear them chatting as I turn the pages and smile for them. Their love needed no grand language or exaggerated expression – it was there in every detail, in each ‘everyday’ intimacy they dared to dream they could share. Dwynwen would, I think, have been proud of them.

Of flesh and blood…

Don’t lose heart though if you didn’t receive a Dwynwen’s Day card from your cariad this year; Dwynwen’s tale may be old but the mark(et)ing of her day with cards and gifts is an extremely modern phenomenon. Indeed she was largely unknown outside her native county until the Welsh Language Board and a supermarket-which-deserves-no-free-publicity joined forces to distribute 50,000 bilingual cards in 2003.

I’m not sure how I feel about ‘new’ customs being imposed on our culture in such a commercial way; spread Dwynwen’s story by all means, but need re-telling it involve retailing it? And if you’re going to tell it at all, tell it properly – not just the schmaltzy version commonly spun by purveyors of flowers, chocolates and champagne, most of whom seem expediently oblivious to the darker strands of the legend. But then they are, I suppose, convenience stores…

I am certain however how I feel about Tesco. For years I’ve disliked what superstores do to our towns, to our markets – but understand, all the same, their relentless expansion. A recent documentary however in which River Cottage chef Hugh Ferny Wooly-stall challenged Tesco to re-think their position on chicken welfare left me ranting at the TV like the grumpy old woman I’m fast becoming.

That they refused him an interview month upon month upon month is one thing. That they allegedly refuse to conform to DEFRA welfare recommendations for their ‘standard’ chickens is quite another. That when he managed to secure the 100 shareholder signatures needed to table a resolution at Tesco’s AGM they charged him £70,000 to post out their ballot papers is another again, and by the time they announced that they were giving his motion ‘special’ status, so that 70% of the vote would be required to win, I was spitting feathers and planning a sit-in – quite possibly on the egg counter.


I’m not a prude about meat-eating; in fact when faced, recently, with a canteen choice of spinach lasagne, macaroni cheese or fish fingers I found myself longing to ask ‘and what do you have to offer your carnivorous customers?’ I do however want to know that the animals I end up consuming have had a decent life and will happily pay a bit more for a bit less in return for this knowledge. Come on Tesco – if I can afford to care, so can you.

And Hugh – including a tea towel in a ‘gifts for girls’ section of your River Cottage website? Come on bach…

And whilst I’m in true grump mode, can I just say a word or two to people who say they are vegetarian yet eat fish… Three words in fact – you are not. By all means explain your food preferences to me – I eat fish too; I’m not going to judge you for it. I’m just invariably puzzled that someone who respects a warm blooded creature’s life enough to eschew meat can, at the same time, reconcile themselves with the protracted death often experienced by fish.

I suppose I’ve never felt that any single animal life – be it that of one that swims, flies or grazes – is ‘worth’ any more than another. I think more in terms of headcounts then, avoiding scampi, whitebait and prawns and feeling a tad uncomfortable about any beast, bird or fish I can polish off in a single sitting. At least I can console myself, as I tuck into my stew, steak, or chop that this single death fed others too; mea culpa, yes, but the guilt is shared.


I’m also aware of the hypocrisy I display by eating meat I wouldn’t be prepared to kill; in Judeland, my smallholding is stocked with happy beasts, all perfectly healthy other than that they suffer from congenital heart defects which eventually cull them, gently and suddenly, mid slumber or graze. What’s for dinner tonight? Oh, I’ll just have a walk round and see what’s passed over…

Until Nirvana is achieved though, I’ll try to be honest with myself about what I’m eating, to appreciate good meat raised using kinder farming methods and to buy it through knowledgeable butchers who can guide me through my cuts.

After all, a first foray into a proper butcher’s shop can be a bewildering experience for those familiar only with anonymous supermarket flesh. In the supermarket, 99% of the meat comes pre-boned, pre-sliced or pre-chopped in anodyne little polystyrene trays. In a butcher’s shop you can choose exactly which bit of the animal you want to buy, whether you’d like it whole, boned, or merely chined, as a single piece, cut into chops, in luscious chunks for braising, thin cut for stir-frying… It’s not QUITE as weird as doing a deal with the League Of Gentlemen’s Mr Briss, but it probably is local meat for local people… there is no trouble here…

A butcher will never try to sell you a piece of meat identified only as a ‘roasting joint’. A butcher sells meat with fat in it. Walk into a butcher’s and you can smell the flesh and blood. It is not unpleasant – if it is, I suggest you walk straight back out again.

Bemusingly though, given my passion for good meat, I seem to carry the essence of vegetarianism about with me – something people ‘sense’ before concluding that I’d probably be happiest with a salad. I first became aware of this when invited round for one of Betty’s legendary Sunday roasts – or so I thought. I was right on two counts – it was a Sunday and she was expecting us – it’s just that I wasn’t expecting the broccoli quiche. The experience has been repeated so often now that I’m almost tempted, when accepting an invitation for a meal, to add, apologetically, ‘um… I’m not vegetarian by the way’. The trouble is, if you unknowingly say it to a vegetarian it can sounds a bit demanding… unless of course they’re a vegetarian who eats fish…


I’m not suggesting for a moment that there aren’t great vegetarian dishes out there. The spinach lasagne – when I eventually swallowed my indignation long enough to order it – was lovely. Betty your quiche was delightful and your company even more so, as ever. One of my own favourite recipes is for an earthy masoor dahl dish so thick you can stand a spoon up in it and my friend Inez produces dazzling vegetarian spreads – but then she did once run an exceptional restaurant – and is a vegetarian… who eats fish… Inez please still be my friend…

People who don’t often cook for vegetarians though seem to suffer some sort of culinary panic attack when confronted with meat-free catering, tofu-a-tremble and pulses racing as they struggle to produce something ‘instead of the meat’. Well either that or they take the attitude of my darling Aunty Sal, who, placing a bowl of cawl in front of my very English, very vegetarian boyfriend, announced, with confidence, ‘There. I think I’ve picked all the meat out of it bach, but if you find any left, don’t you feel bad about leaving it…’

I loved Aunty Sal as much as I could any grandmother. In fact when her sister – my grandmother – died young, she stepped in seamlessly as support for my mum and later as substitute grandmother for me. When I first learned that she was technically not my aunt but my great aunt, what could I do but agree in every way?

Sal had, in so many ways, a hard life. One of twelve children, her carpenter father had to supplement the family budget with all the fishing and poaching that could be crammed into daylight and darkness hours – but more of him another day. Sal went ‘into service’ – as was the wont of young, unmarried working class women, her attempt to become a nurse in London falling apart due to dreadful homesickness.


She lost her fiancé, Georgie, in the war, when his ship sank. She went on to have five sons with Rob, another merchant seaman and consequently brought them up almost single handed. Devoted to her family, the tragedy of her life came when she, like my mother, lost a young adult son to a random road accident. Her daughter in law died in the same crash.


But in spite, in spite of all this she remained loving, welcoming and warm. One of the kindest, sweetest people in my life, there was a contagious calm – a quietness of soul about Sally.



You reached her house down one of two footpaths – either via the ‘Mwsland’ or ‘Llwybyr Magic’. I’ve no idea what the name ‘Mwsland’ means – and I’ve a fair confidence that no one else knows either, for in the photograph drawer upstairs there’s a tiny newspaper cutting saying that no one knows the origin of the name, although it is ‘assumed to be of great antiquity’. As the newspaper cutting now also answers to this description, I assume my mentioning it here will elicit few suggestions! ‘Mws’ is, though, pronounce as in ‘wuss’ or in ‘puss’ and not as in Sarah Palin.

I do however know why Llwybyr Magic – the ‘magic path’ was so called – the explanation being both fairly interesting and oh-what-a-disappointment when you’re little. No, no fairies or witches or even wizards lived at the top of the path – just the man who owned the first magic lantern in town. There was, actually, a third footpath that lead to Aunty Sal’s, but access to it was only possible through the gents’ toilets on the town square – an inconvenience to say the least.

Her home was the last of four tiny, terraced cottages within limping distance of the sea. Nearly always smoky from the open fire and always dark, for the windows were tiny and the back of the house was built literally inches away from a rock face – you blinked as you entered, eyes adjusting.

Opening her front door was to open a treasure chest – for every corner and every inch of her two front rooms were full of things – trinkets, ornaments, cups for rowing won by her sons, postcards, photos from the year dot… The low, beamed ceilings and the sheer fullness of the place gave the impression of a room built on a child’s scale.

Best of all though were the tiny old wooden rocking horse which stood in the kitchen and the drawer of the front room table – a tangled mess of buttons, pencil stubs, fish hooks and feathers, penknives, seashells, tiny pebbles and other bits and pieces that – like Aunty Sal – belonged nowhere else but there. Whilst mum and Sal sat by the fireside, I was allowed open access to it, even though nine-tenths of its contents would nowadays be labelled choking hazards.

Tea was always bread and jam, taken sitting on the old skew by the window, but when in later years I would drink only coffee, Aunty Sal kept a jar of it in especially for me. One of those giant jars – in fact the same giant jar from one year to the next.

When she left home long enough to buy it I’ve no idea, for other than on Sundays when in chapel Aunty Sal was always home. Well, other than when she was up with us already, or on one of those frequent, frequent occasions when we would meet her half way up one of the footpaths, she on her way to us, us on our way to her. And although there were two paths, we never missed each other.sal-in-crochet-dress

There was, you see, some sort of ‘connection’ between her and my mum, my mum and her. Neither of them spoke of it much – I suppose they didn’t need to – and neither of them would have related to any suggestion of it being a ‘psychic’ link. They were sensible, chapel-going women after all – it was just something that was ‘there’ amongst the women in the family. But whatever the basis of it, they each knew, instinctively, when the other was sad, or in need of company in any way.

Now it’s one thing to accept that two other people have this bond. When I first left home though – going to a job where I found I was terribly unhappy but was too proud to let on – it was Sal who went to tell my mother that Judy fach was breaking her heart and had to come home at once.

And when, a few years later, I awoke inexplicably in the small hours of the morning, tears running down my cheeks and a feeling of sadness and desolation so crushing upon me that I woke Tom for comfort, it was Sal, it later turned out, who had died.

Like all the big sorrows in life, the loss of her was of course far outweighed by all she had given – all she had brought. It’s just it would be nice – sometimes – if we could do it the other way around wouldn’t it? Serve the sadness sentence first and then find it commuted to joy for life.

But that of course is exactly what happens in the cycle of life… it’s just that the joys which eventually pick us up are new ones, or sometimes old ones re-awakened.

In my own case – fear not – I speak neither of necromancy nor resurrectionism but of gardening. No matter how low I feel, I know that there will come a day each year when the outdoors calls me rather than repels – and that once I’m out there I’ll feel better. In my garden I find optimism – my garden is anticipation. In my garden I find calm; in this piece of earth is peace.

Over winter, blogging serves; it sends me searching and wondering and that’s good for the spirit too.

I knew though, a fortnight ago, as the days stretched and the sun began to beam encouragement that the time of beckoning was nigh. I’d gone to buy runner bean seeds for a friend and came out with a lightness of heart and £88 worth of paper wrapped promise – my very own seeds of hope. I’ve no idea where I’ll plant them all – and I probably won’t look after them terribly well –  but I’m just going outside… and hope to be gone a very long time…



http://www.ep.tc/mlk/index.html the whole Montgomery Bus Boycott comic

http://www.icue.com/portal/site/iCue/chapter/?cuecard=1335 Sarah Keyes on film

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A3740-2000Jul29 More about Irene Morgan

http://www.welshfoodie.com/st_dwynwen.htm Brychan’s most beautiful daughter…?

http://www.datingfast.com/poems/Poems.asp?pID=88 A valentine greeting for the young at heart

http://www.corstorphine-trust.ukgo.com/ The Corstorphine Trust’s excellent site

http://www.barcham.co.uk/trees/acer-pseudoplatanus-corstophine-plane-sycamore-corstorphinensecorstophine-plane-sycamore Get your own Corstorphine sycamore here

http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/PSAS_2002/pdf/vol_007/7_535_560.pdf The history of the Scottish ‘Maiden’

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2983045.stm OUCH said the fish…