Of ill winds and wilful minds…
Of hues and blues
The dress worn by my grandmother in the sepia wedding photograph was blue. I know that for certain, for I still have it.
And when I tell you that it is blue, you know for certain the colour that I mean. You may, admittedly, wonder whether it is light blue or dark blue, navy, azure or turquoise, but you know, deep down, the hue which I intend to convey by saying ‘blue’.
If I had used Welsh to tell you that the dress is blue though, you would be less sure, for the words ‘mae’r frog yn lâs’ could variously mean that the dress is blue or green – or even that it is pale, or grey or silver.
Welsh isn’t alone, either, in having a common name for blue and green. Along with many other tongues – including several from the far east and Africa – it is what linguistic anthropologists call a ‘grue’ language – i.e. one in which a single term can convey colours which English speakers think of separately as ‘green’ and ‘blue’.
Various (and often flawed) explanations have been offered as to why these differences arise. They include long term lens-yellowing associated with exposure to UV-B radiation, differences in eye pigmentation linked to skin colour and an attempt to establish that as cultures and languages evolve, they develop colour classifications in a strict order. We Welsh – being predominantly white and from colder climes – are obviously just a bit ‘special’ then.
But most research has started from the ‘of course blue and green are separate colours’ premise – a sort of spectral fascism where Miss Prism pulls nice Mr Newton’s colour swatches from her handbag and shoves them under the noses of the natives.
However the colours of nature – surely the source of the earliest colour names – are not (with the exception of blood red) the strong primaries and secondaries we associate with the colour wheel. They are drabber, more muted… they vary with the light, change with the seasons… particularly the blue-green-grey of the sea and the blue-grey-silver of the sky.
And dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that many ‘grue’ languages have other names for associated colours. Some for instance differentiate between light blues and dark blues, intense colours and more pastel ones. Others distinguish between the ‘warm’ yellow-greens associated with foliage and the colder blue-greens of the sea.
Modern Welsh has moved towards conformity with English as more and more people trip-trap-trip-trap over the big suspension bridge from Lloegr, bringing their artificial pigments and paint charts with them; we use ‘glâs’ today to mean blue almost exclusively whilst ‘gwyrdd’ is used only for green. But ‘gwyrdd’ has been part of our vocabulary for a long time too, evidenced by ‘gwer’, the linked Cornish and Breton words for green. All we have lost is the detail of how its usage originally differed from ‘glâs’.
Other Celtic languages offer few clues; most seem to have gone through a stage when their own ‘blue’ word or variations on its theme could also have veered from grey to green. Etymologists offer a Proto Germanic root (gla- or gle-) from Proto Indian European ‘gel-‘ or ‘ghel-‘ meaning ‘to shine, glitter, be green or yellow’. Perhaps, then, when we were showing visiting anthropologists around Cardigan Bay and pointed out to sea muttering ‘glâs’, all we actually intended to convey was ‘Ooh, shiny’…
And if you consider how infrequently ‘true’ blue would have turned up in Wales of yesteryear, it’s pretty remarkable that we bothered with a name for it at all. Imagine trying to explain the concept of ‘blue’ to a foreigner in the middle of foggy November… ‘Well, it’s the colour of that um… er…’ What’s the need, after all, to name a colour that only appears once in a blue moon?
Of a mess and amassing…
Anyway the dress is blue; English blue – with hints of green and slate depending on the light… and a definite sheen if not shine to it. Its decoration is beautifully understated; lustrous rouleau strips coil at the hip and dark iridescent glass beads snake languorously from bodice to calf.
I often wonder whether she sewed it herself. The only clue I have is something which I don’t have – that something being any form of receipt for its making. Not proof in itself perhaps, but when you couple its absence with copious evidence of my grandmother’s tendency to amass papers linked to anything she treasured, it begins to suggest that she – or at least a close family member – may indeed have been the seamstress.
I wonder if you noticed how carefully I chose the word ‘amass’ in that last sentence? I veered at first towards ‘hoard’, but ‘hoarding’ carries with it connotations of behaviour which is somehow odd or unusual… and you are, after all, being written to by a third generation amasser… Yes, I amass – indeed amas amassing – but hey, it’s not a problem… I can control it… Really I can…
Actually I’m much better at controlling my own amassing than I am at dealing with the legacy of possessions accumulated by my forebears. My grandmother at least only collected china, photographs and personal snippets.
My grandfather squirreled away anything and everything which he thought ‘might come in handy’ one day; reasonable enough behaviour in itself, but as he was actually a very ‘handy’ person, the definition could cover anything and everything from rubber bands to vast, tanalized timbers. And of course as the collections grew, he needed somewhere to store them… so he started constructing sheds (‘you see, I knew those timbers would come in handy one day…’) And of course the more sheds you have, the less you actually ever have to part with.
I cursed him and blessed him then when the storm hit our shores a few weeks ago, decapitating the old talcen shed as if it were a hard boiled egg; cursed him for having built it in the draughtiest spot possible in the first place, blessed him for the memories which having to deal with the after-mess evoked.
In my childhood, the talcen was where grampa ‘extracted’ honey – a long and messy process requiring much patient winding of a handle which in turn spun frames of honeycomb stacked within a steel drum. It required extra patience when a sweet and sticky grandaughter wanted to ‘help’, but that was a commodity he had aplenty.
Energy, too, was something he never lacked; in spite of long hours working as a stone mason he also rented fields from neighbouring farmers where he grew vegetables, kept pigs, chickens, geese… and bees, of course. Quite why he kept the bees, given that he was profoundly afraid of them I’ll never know, but I suspect that ‘having’ to give up the hives was actually one of few silver linings he associated with a string of major heart attacks which hit when he was 70.
It was an odd, dark time that; my first brush with near death and a household always bustling and bright now hushed, veiled and full of whispers. There was even a notice on the front door asking visitors to tap at a window instead of knocking and I remember worrying that Santa would make too much noise coming down the chimney.
And for the first time in my life I became scared of grampa; towering oxygen cylinders loomed in his darkened bedroom, their hiss and his rasping, breathless voice blending with my five year old’s utter terror of cybermen to make his sick bed a place of fear. I prayed ‘don’t let grampa die’ but added ‘and bring him back too, please’.
Recovery was a gradual process; his Capstan Full Strengths were replaced by a pipe and for the first year he was forced to negotiate the stairs on his bottom. Slowly, though, he did come back, but only ever with a two-stroke engine. The bees had to go.
I was sorry to bid them farewell; I must be pretty repellent for I’ve never been stung by anything larger than an ant and I used to love watching their flight-paths to and from the hives, especially when a slant of sun torch-lit their wings. But there was a silver lining in their departure for me too; once their paraphernalia had been sold on, the talcen became mine…
Of time and space…
It wasn’t the first space I had of my own. In my toddlerhood an old chicken shed was my bijoux residence, furnished with a cot mattress bed and a wooden cooker on which I made dandelion and earwig soup or refined my perfumes. But chickens need very little headroom and as I grew, increasingly frequent concussion eventually forced my eviction. The talcen though was of grown-up scale; a space that could be mine forever.
Forever, of course, is a very long time when you’re six, but over the years the old shed evolved with me. As my interests changed, it turned from play area into a space where I started drying herbs, reading about their uses and experimenting with tinctures and tisanes. A camp bed was added, a little gas stove… I’d sleep there, slip out to see in the dawn and return to a talcen-cooked breakfast.
Time and people move on of course and when I slipped out to University one morning my parents reclaimed much of the space for storage. My old coffee, jam – and honey – jars full of herbs remained in place though – they were amongst the easiest things to bid farewell to last weekend.
For they, you see, were mine. I know that I am now done with them. Similarly sodden bags of my own toys and even books were relatively easy to deal with. My brother’s though were a different matter; although he’s been dead twenty years I still can’t make the assumption that it’s fine to take his old toys and books to the tip – the reason the parlour currently smells of slowly drying paper.
I stopped and smiled at two books I found in particular, for between them they encapsulate the last years we spent together under this roof.
One is a little blue Letts Brownie Guide Diary from 1972. It obviously started life as a faithful record of my membership of the slightly trippy wing of the para-military youth movement, for inside I’ve coloured the toadstool red, recorded Brown Owl’s name and various good deeds… ‘made a scarf for mother…’ ‘covered books in the school library…’ ‘made bird and animal hand shadows to entertain children’… failing to add that my ‘eagle catching a rabbit’ invariably left them screaming. It also helped me to date the power struggle which eventually led to me being given a Six of my own. There’s no crowing though – ‘
Sprites‘ has simply been replaced by ‘Pixies’, in slightly tidier handwriting.
One entry bemuses me though… It obviously post-dates the others, for my writing has acquired an affected forward slant – and simply says ‘this book is being used in the talcen – not as a diary’. And beyond that, your guess is as good as mine; I was forever beginning projects I failed to complete.
The other volume is a contemporaneous small red book. In fact the Little Red Book, or more accurately, ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse Tung’…‘as amended by comrade Charlie’, my brother has added on the flyleaf.
All I remember is that between the ages of 17 and 19, my brother declared himself to be a Communist; posters of Che Guevara, Ho Chí Min and Karl Marx bedecked his space and the Morning Star shone briefly on our household. I was about as interested in Communism as I imagine he was in the Brownie Guide movement, but somehow we bridged our ten year age gap and at least shared idealism.
He obviously got a little further with his project than I did with mine, for his annotations don’t peter out until page 54 (of 312). He’s slipped from revolutionary discourse into pedantry by page 40 though, where he’s highlighted a long passage taken from ‘The Seven Well-Written Documents of Chekiang Province‘. He underlines the ‘Well Written’ and comments of the highlighted text: ‘This is a 152-word sentence’. That pedantry is obviously a family trait is evidenced by my longing to add ‘No, it’s a five word sentence’.
Neither, of course, will go to the tip – that would require far too great a leap forward. Somewhere in my five year plan though, I must start a single repository for particularly precious items. As I write, I try to wipe all thoughts of a nice sturdy shed from my mind…
Of gales and wails…
Anyway I’m feeling particularly draughty around the rafters at the moment because not only have we lost a shed lid, we’re also a third of our slates short of a roof.
I don’t know how other people manage to get workmen to come and perform the skills of their trade during the summer; presumably you have to move into the right catchment area, embrace the Catholic Church or put your name down for a new bathroom at birth.
But I failed my Key Stage 1 ‘Procure a Plumber’, ‘Catch a Carpenter’ and ‘Bag a Builder’ SATs and now belong to the remedial class of hapless consumers who hang out on street corners hopelessly flagging down random white vans.
So when my conjoined neighbour knocked on my door shortly after Christmas to announce the coming of ‘scaffolding and a roofer’ I became inordinately excited. The installation of three skylights just weeks earlier (and no, we didn’t particularly want skylights, it was just a desperate ruse to get someone to actually fix a few slipped tiles) had led to the diagnosis of ‘nail fatigue’… our roof was well and truly slated. That a solution was about to walk into my life seemed almost too good to be true.
Reassurance as to the ‘very good price’ my neighbour had been given and the minimal negotiation required to secure the roofer’s services for a joint venture led then to an animated call to Tom…
‘Hey! Guess what! I’ve found a roofer and he’s really reasonable and can start next week…’
‘Great,’ came the reply – ‘how much will it be?’
‘Well I don’t really know, exactly… He said he couldn’t give me an exact price because until he sees the state of the timbers, he doesn’t know what’s involved…’
‘OK, roughly then?’
‘Um well he didn’t say that either. He seems really nice though… and he said it would be very reasonable.’
I could hear Tom at the other end of the phone trying to process this information from someone who’d actually be far happier with an economy based on seashells, feathers and barter. He obviously concluded that a change of tack was the easier option…
‘So is he going to use real slates or asbestos ones?’ And answer came there none…
Worry only really set in for me though when, spurred on by what seemed such reasonable questions when asked in an English accent, I knocked on my neighbour’s door and asked him how good the ‘very good price’ was. ‘Oh, he hasn’t actually given me a price as such,’ came the answer… ‘Until he sees the state of the timbers he doesn’t know… But he said that it would be very reasonable though… and he seems like a really nice bloke…’
I am, by now though, reassured as to the accuracy of my ‘seems tidy, acts tidy’ radar. The roofer is actually a lovely bloke and it seems that the indisputable ‘reasonableness’ of the job is based on him and his mates working cash-in-hand on top of their day jobs. It does mean though that they only work Saturdays… dry Saturdays… dry Saturdays when Wales aren’t playing… dry Saturdays when Wales aren’t playing and when it’s not too windy… Come to think of it, I may actually have workmen this summer after all…
Today is a Saturday but it is not dry. It is also not ‘not too windy’. I know this because this morning, what was left of the talcen roof became our own rather large anemometer.
The earliest anemometers consisted of a hinged plate which gusts of wind would displace to varying degrees. A scale set at right angles to the plate allowed a measurement of wind speed to be recorded. The first was built around 1450 by the quite remarkable Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti who, amongst his other talents, could jump over the head of a man ‘with his feet together’.
Our ‘hinged plate’ this morning consisted of the sheets of zinc which were once the talcen roof – with sturdy timbers still attached – fixed precariously to one wall by a length of flashing. Next door’s pine end formed the scale against which the wind speed could be adjudged by the angle of lift. And our anemometer was particularly posh, in that you could also take measurements based on the volume of ‘thud’ caused by the roof crashing back into place.
Then, a couple of hours ago, it stopped thudding and started rumbling instead. A particularly strong gust unhinged the 12ft x 14ft ‘plate’, flipped it through 100° and left it resting almost vertically on little but its laurels, next door’s pine end and a by now partially demolished shed wall. And boy did it make me jump. I regret that I have no photographic evidence to share with you, but at the time, life and limb took priority over blog illustration.
As I stared up at the corrugated zinc version of the Sidney Opera Shed, hanging onto a single rafter more in hope than for ballast, I kept reminding myself that ‘there are no such things as equinoctial gales’, as if denying their existence might lead to a Tinkerbell-esque drop in wind speed.
They don’t though, technically exist. Yes late March and September are often stormy, and flooding problems can be exacerbated by unusually high tides, but the storms are – allegedly – not linked in any way to the equinoctial point at which the sun crosses the equator nor the equilux balance of day and night. Google ‘equinoxial/ equinoctial gales’ though and you’ll find plenty of people convinced that they are (as was I until last weekend, when a three day lashing from the north led me to wonder exactly why the equinoxes always bring storms…)
Of borrowed time…
We are, though, in the middle of the ‘Borrowed Days’, also known as the ‘Borrowing Days’, the idea being that March ‘borrows’ days from April, and that they are never good ones:
‘March borrowit fra Averill
Three days, and they were ill.’
Various versions of the tradition – which is apparently recorded across Europe – refer either to the last three days in March or the first three days in April. The latter would seem to make more ‘sense’, but the former seems the more common interpretation.
But why should March want to borrow days, given that it already has a full compliment of 31? Well, it is attributed similar motives in both Scottish and Irish stories.
In Ireland the last days of March and first three of April are known as ‘The Old Cow Days’ or ‘the Days of the Brindled Cow’ – ‘Leathanta an Bó Riabhaigh’. The associated tale recounts how March overheard an old cow either 1) complaining about how awful the month’s weather had been, or 2) rejoicing that March had passed. The disgruntled month took its revenge by borrowing days from April and killing the cow with bad weather.
In Scotland it’s a trio of sheep that come under March’s attack;
‘March said to Aperill
I see three hogs upon the hill;
But lend your three first days to me,
And I’ll be bound to gar them die.
The first it sall be wind and weet;
The next, it sall be snaw and sleet;
The third, it sall be sic a freeze
Sall gar the birds stick to the trees.
But when the Borrowed days were gane
The three silly hogs came hirplin hame’.
Chambers’ Domestic Annals of Scotland records that at the time of the death of James I in 1625, a furious storm hit the Scottish coast… ‘This was long after remembered as the storm of the Borrowing Days… It is a proverbial observation of the weather, which seems to be justified by fact, the bad weather being connected with the vernal equinox.’
Jamison’s ‘Dictionary of the Scottish Language’ also comments that ‘Those who are much addicted to superstition will neither borrow nor lend on any of these days. If one should propose to borrow of them they would consider it as an evidence that the person wished to employ the article borrowed for the purposes of witchcraft against the lenders’. Presumably superstitious librarians and bank staff take annual leave.
‘The Complaynt of Scotland’ – published in 1549 – also mentions ‘the borrowing days’ and their devastating effect on fruit trees… or at least I think it does:
‘There eftir I entrit in ane grene forest, to contempil the tendir zong frutes of grene treis, because the borial blasttis of the three borouing dais of Marche hed chaissit the fragrant fleureise of evyrie frut-tree far athourt the feildis…’
Of the nature of being…
Let us hope that the weather is more clement in Japan then, where the Hanami season has just begun. ‘Hanami’ is defined as the ‘custom of enjoying the beauty of flowers’ – almost exclusively cherry blossom (sakura) these days, but originally plum blossom or wisteria.
The practice certainly dates back almost 1500 years and some say longer, spreading from the Imperial Court to the Samurai and eventually to the people. At one time, the blossom was viewed as a prognostic of the growing year ahead and offerings would be made at the roots of the trees. The flowers’ symbolic link with the beautiful but ephemeral also resulted in the traditional contemplation of ‘mono no aware‘ or ‘the nature of being’.
These days however, Hanami has become more of a social occasion, with large parties gathering in Japan’s parks to picnic and consume quantities of sake whilst sitting on almost invariably blue (yes, blue, not green) tarpaulins. Procuring the best Hanami spots often involves staking out your tarpaulin long beforehand in a towels-on-sun-loungers manner. I have found, however, no mention of picnickers forming human pyramids or scaring the children…
I stared at my own little cherry blossom tree this afternoon – its petals now blasted to pale pink papier mậché – I studied my bruised camellias and my battered magnolias… and contemplated the nature of being a gardener on the west coast of Wales. A word which sounded fairly Japanese but which certainly wasn’t ‘Hanami’ sprang to mind.
I’m trying to be philosophical though – to take my poor sakura blossom as a promising sign for the growing year to come. In March 2007 we enjoyed glorious weather and then had to endure a complete absence of summer when it ought to have appeared. I’ll settle, then, for seasonal gales right now and try to muster a little hope for a proper summer… a glimmer of glâs in the midsts of the grey.
And if I fail, I’ll look for Pandora’s Box – complete with the ‘hope’ left inside – on EBay. (Actually I just did… I didn’t find the box itself, but I did spot a rather beautiful Day Lily… Hemerocallis ‘Pandoras’s Box’ which I think may just have to come and live with me…
And I’ll try a search under ‘Greek jars’ later, for I have recently been reliably informed that Pandora’s Box wasn’t a box at all. A mistranslation – probably by Erasmus – led to Greek ‘pithos’ – jar or large storage urn – turning into ‘box’ in Latin. A couple of puzzles associated with the story remain unanswered though… firstly what was ‘hope’ doing in the jar in the first place, given that its other contents were the evils of the world, and secondly, why was it a good idea to keep hope trapped in the jar if its contents only affected humankind when allowed to run wild? Open the jar again sister!
In the meantime, I’ll stick to opening cans of worms for my robin – or what’s in danger of becoming ‘robins’.
My robin, you see, has shacked up with a bit of a feminist this year. In previous breeding seasons I’ve only become aware of the female due to her plaintive ‘seep-seep’-ing from the undergrowth, occasionally catching a glimpse of her being fed by her mate, but only at a considerable distance.
This year’s female though is almost as bold as her beau. In fact she’ll perch quite confidently just a couple of feet away from me and has even been seen hoovering up mealworms he’s missed… nothing new in the labour divide there then…
His reaction confused me at first – he eats his fill, collects a second beak-full for the purpose of ‘courtship feeding’ her – but then flies away without feeding her – hotly pursued. Having seen him do this several times now – and studying the direction in which he flies, I eventually concluded that he was trying to lure her back to the nest site – effectively saying ‘stay at home, for goodness’ sake…’ A bit of research I came across today though suggests a less anthropomorphised explanation…
The female robin only makes the ‘seep-seep’ ‘I’m, hungry – and possibly for more than worms’ – call during her immediately pre-fertile and fertile period. Neighbouring male robins are attuned to this, and, given the opportunity, will risk an incursion behind enemy lines to attempt ‘extrapair copulation’ – Ornithologese for ‘a bit on the side’. However they can only hear her ‘seep’ing when she’s close to the boundaries of the jointly-held territory.
The recent storms – equinoctial or not – have kept me close to the house, around 60 metres from the nesting site. When they come peering in at the kitchen window in search of worms then, they may well be near the edges of ‘Theirspace’ – and hence the male’s interest in getting his mate back to the centre of their territory.
Back in the human world, a week away from work has left this feminist feeling a deep need for more time at home. I want to keep bees and chickens again; I want to extract honey in a born-again shed. I want to make more cawl. I want to mistress my new guitar, read some of the books I’ve been worming away and hear more live music. I want to blog more. I want sunshine.
But most – most of all – I want to have time to stare at the sea; to wonder if it’s green, blue, or glâs and to have an hour to savour the caring…
So what do they do? Well, they actually take an hour away from me. And do they do it during the week? Do they disappear sixty minutes of a Monday morning that no-one would lament losing? No, they come like thieves in the night and pinch it from the middle of my weekend.
And yet… and yet even that larceny I could forgive if I could truly rely upon the promise imprinted in my diary yesterday… ‘British Summertime Begins…‘