Of star, light and houses

Of firesides and cease fires…

As the time of light draws nearer; I find myself once more star-gazing in the Christmas cupboard.

Being of secular bent, I should, I’m sure, think of it as the solstice store, yule cabinet or midwinter walk-in, but there are two reasons that I do not.

  1. If I walked into this cupboard, I’d be seeing stars, not gazing at them.
  2. An idealistic old agnostic at heart, I still have much more than a passing fondness for Christmas and all it entails. Not believing in God isn’t the same as not believing in good, and the messages of warmth, hope and love associated with the festival still lift my heart… my soul even… if I have one…

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Other emotions crowd in too; sleigh bells ring Pavlovian anticipation, damp forays to gather evergreens re-connect me with nature after the barrenness of November, the rustle of tissue paper whispers secrets… No of course Christmas isn’t about presents, but it’s definitely about giving…

I cry a lot at Christmas. Not active sobbing but those silent, involuntary tears which brim when emotion gets a little out of hand – or eye. A brass band playing in weather so cold that steam leaks from their embouchures, a daft old film with a happy ending, people just being nice to each other… all are quite capable of setting me off. The ultimate trigger though is any simple rendition of ‘Silent Night’… better still – or worse – if it’s in German.

I’m not sure why it, in particular, goads me to tears more than any other carol…. It’s not even in a minor key for goodness’ sake. My dad used to sing it but it made me cry long before he died. Simon and Garfunkel did an emotive version back in 1966, juxtaposing the song with a bleak ‘7 o’clock news’ broadcast but it’s not just their version, it’s any version… other than those ludicrously over-frilled.

Perhaps it’s just the simplicity of the melody and the peaceful sentiment contrasted with the knowledge that for many, Christmas is anything but a time of serenity.

Or perhaps it’s that it’s inextricably linked, for me, with the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 – those legendary hours when small groups of British, German and French soldiers entrenched along the Western Front decorated their grim surroundings with candles and lanterns, ceased fire and joined each other to smoke, sing, exchange addresses and bury their dead in No Man’s Land through a blessedly silent night and day.

They even allowed us to bury all our dead…‘ writes a Royal Field Artillery officer in a letter to the Times of January 1st 1915. ‘and some of them, with hats in hand, brought in one of our dead officers from behind their trench, so that we could bury him decently. They were really magnificent in the whole thing and jolly good sorts. I have now a very different opinion of the German…

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My German grandfather was there, my Welsh grandfather would soon be fighting on another front in the same war… their son and daughter – my parents – had yet to be conceived of, let alone the eventual grand-daughter-in-common…

The piecemeal, spontaneous nature of the unofficial armistice though – as well as my own unusual lineage – encapsulates, for me, hope, in spite of the propaganda and privations of warfare, that that which I think of as ‘humanity’ – a basic, sane and decent sense of what we have in common rather than that which sets us apart – can, sometimes, triumph – albeit briefly.

I can hear some of the less idealistic noses out there wrinkling… lips twisting in ‘yes well it would be nice dear, but…’ scorn… but there is actually scientific support for the idea that a basic ‘morality’ is hardwired into us from birth and has nothing to do with religious belief.

Evolutionary biologist Professor Marc Hauser suggests that whilst each generation and culture will interpret and apply moral ‘grammar’ slightly differently, there are basic universal rules to which we all adhere… His research found an extremely high level of concurrence between test subject as to what they considered ‘obligatory’, ‘permissible’ or ‘forbidden’ in given situations irrespective of race or religion – if any. He also points to examples of morality and altruism displayed by primates… presumably not on their way home from worshiping the Great Chimp…

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has considered what drives these ‘intuitive ethics’ – what is the ‘pay off’ for following the moral code? Using hypnosis to prime people to experience disgust when exposed to neutral words, he found he could make programmed participants decide certain things were morally ‘wrong’ even though they could not begin to justify their reactions. Our emotions then, he suggests – feeling good – or bad, or ashamed are what guide us as to what is right and what is wrong. We may try to add a thought-out explanation as to ‘why’, but this is secondary to our gut feeling.

The gut feelings of the cupboard are definitely ones of warmth and hope; warmth because a hot water pipe traverses its width, hope because it’s a testimony to my ongoing optimism that one year, one year, I’ll actually have the time again to make Christmas.

The Christmas cupboard, you see, doesn’t hold ‘instant’ decorations and lights, wrapping and tinsel – it contains potential. It contains the makings of things – the promise of things; beads for wiring, ribbons for bowing, cloves for inserting, stickily, into oranges, bits of fabric I will turn into an angel one day… and stars… hundreds of stars…

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Of flu and flues…

Not this year though. This year my Christmas preparations – along with my blogging – were brought to a sudden halt with three days yet to go, courtesy of flu.

I was incensed; after all when Tom brought it home a few days previously it was only a bad cold… I was determined it was only a bad cold and repeated the fact to him frequently… ‘Aw… is that a bit like man-flu?’ I chirruped unsympathetically when he stirred in his fireside chair long enough to ask me to get something from town for his chapped lips. ‘It would be cheaper to have him put down…’ I hissed at the pharmacist as the cash register bells rang out Lemsip, lozenges, Lypsyl and linctus. By the time the dose caught up with me though it had obviously mutated… Well either that or I had to admit that Tom had been properly poorly all along… OK, OK, I’m sorry

Quite how profound my contrition needed to be hit me when I sat down at the computer, determined that as I couldn’t walk, talk, eat, sleep or do anything much other than radiate temperature and germs, I could at least blog, only to discover that even the tips of my fingers pressing on the keyboard h-u-r-t. For days and nights my favourite pose became standing bare-armed under the great arches of the eucalyptus tree at the top of the garden, where the indecently cold sea-breeze eased my fevered brow. ‘Well, it’s always much koala under the eucalyptus,,,’ quipped a friend.

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The other feature of the dose has been (and still is…) an utter lack of energy and oomph. It was with considerably less enthusiasm than usual then that at midnight on the 24th, I took the little packet of metallic gold stars from the Christmas cupboard and sprinkled them, randomly, over the old quarry tiles of our hallway and out onto the front doorstep and pavement. I do this every year.

Over the rest of the Christmas period the stars then scatter themselves. Born of the big bang of the front door closing (well it sticks, so you have to give it a really determined PULL…) their universe begins to expand, travelling inexorably outwards from their point of origin, wafted by draughts, stuck to people’s feet and clinging to the undersides of anything temporarily deposited in the hallway… And I spend the rest of the Christmas period following those stars… a lone, unwise woman rounding them up and returning them to where they started their journey, again… and again… and…

I’m reminded of the tale of La Befana, a female version of Santa who – dressed suspiciously like a Hallowe’en witch – visits children across Italy on the feast of the Epiphany, filling their stocking with sweets, nuts and small toys if they’ve been good or lumps of coal if they’ve been bad.

One version of her provenance says that the Magi called at her home, asking how to find the baby Jesus.

Now I’ve always been a little confused that three kings of the Orient followed a star ‘in the east’ and yet got to the Middle East… Their arriving via Italy could of course suggest that they came a very long way round, there being, after all, nowhere to plug a Messiah Positioning System into a camel. But it all sounds pretty implausible to me… I mean when was the last time you came across a man – let alone three of them – willing to stop and ask for directions?

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Anyway, true to female stereotype La Befana was unable to help with their navigation, but did take them in for the night and offer them refreshments. When they left the next day, they asked her if she’d like to go with them – but she replied that she was far too busy with her housework. Well, what woman isn’t at Christmas? After their departure though, she regretted her decision so went out looking for Jesus, riding her broomstick. Indeed lucky households still find that not only does La Befana leave gifts for the children, she also sweeps the floors before leaving… And probably as well , given that she enters via the chimney…

A sadder version portrays La Befana as having lost her own child and being given the gift of ‘all the children in Italy’ in return for seeking Jesus. Others find parallels for the Befana in pre-christian beliefs, linking her variously to the Roman/ Sabine goddess Strina/ Strenia/ Strenua (a bringer of health and strength associated with the giving of gifts around midwinter) and also in Celtic winter goddesses such as the Scottish Nicevenn.  But wherever her origins lie, I’d have welcomed a visit at Epiphany, both for the boost of health and her help sweeping up stars on twelfth night…

Of camels, comets and cosmology…

Returning to the Wise Men for a moment, I’ve been doing a bit of sick-sofa digging around on various theories as to what it might have been that prompted their journey.

If you’re of an utterly literal bent, (in which case I’m rather surprised that you’ve made it this deep into my ramblings…) I suppose you just accept that the Star of Bethlehem was a miraculous sign set in the heavens by God to announce the birth of His son. I assume though that most believers and non-believers alike can’t help but wonder whether there was anything particularly interesting going on in the sky around that time which might explain Matthew’s account of a star ‘which went before them’ and then ‘stopped’?

There are, after all, quite a number of astronomical phenomena which, from time to time, make us glance skywards and say ‘gosh!’ numbering amongst them eclipses, meteorites, comets, conjunctions, occultations and supernovae. Extensive astronomical research has though failed to identify anything particularly exceptional going on around the time now associated with Jesus’ birth – accepted by most these days to have been between 7 and 4 BC.

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One plausible explanation though is put forward in a paper written by R.M. Jenkins for the British Astronomical Association (Volume 114, No 6 – December 2004). A link at the end will take you to the full – very readable – article, but he begins by addressing when the gospel attributed to Matthew is likely to have been written, who he was writing it for and what he hoped to achieve by writing it.

Most experts seem agreed that the book of Matthew – the only of the gospels which mentions the Star of Bethlehem or the visitation of the Magi – was written by an unknown author during the last 20 or 30 years of the first millennium AD. There also seems to be overwhelming consensus that both the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke ‘copied’ large chunks of an already-written ‘Mark’, with three quarters of Mark, 41% of Luke and 45% of Matthew sharing a “triple tradition” of repeated, sometimes “verbatim” material. That around a further quarter of Luke and Matthew’s content is shared exclusively between them seems to suggest a second common source now lost – generally referred to as the ‘Q’ document.

What tells historians most about the authors of the gospels then is the differences between their accounts – the 35% of material unique to Luke and the 20% only found in Matthew; that which can be surmised from the detail each chooses to add or omit and the words that they use to do so. Using this method of interpretation, it has been concluded that Matthew was writing almost exclusively for a Jewish audience, and that his mission was to convince his readers that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, long promised to arise out of the House of David…  (a brief pause, there, for all those of you twitching to chorus ‘he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy’ to get it out of your systems…)

Anyway Matthew’s gospel draws heavily then on ‘see, they told you so…’ references to the Old Testament, repeatedly offering examples of the way in which Jesus fulfilled prophecies associated with the ‘King of the Jews’. Introducing a fictional star of Bethlehem, suggests Jenkins, is an example of Matthew ‘ringing bells’ for his Jewish readers with prophecies associating the appearance of a star with the coming of the Messiah although he does conceded that Matthew doesn’t overtly go ‘ta-dah’ in this instance although he does a lot of it elsewhere.

Jenkins insists though that Matthew would have been doing rather more than simply ‘making it up’ – indeed would be hurt by such an accusation – “the prophecies had said that there would be a star so there had to be a star‘…

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It is likely, suggests Jenkins, that he was inspired in his writing by the 66 AD return of Halle’s Comet, seen as a significant portent at the time and coinciding with a visit of a group of Magi to honour Nero. A comet is by far the most likely inspiration for the ‘star’ says Jenkins due to Matthew’s description of the way in which it travelled through the sky before appearing to come to a standstill over one spot… common behaviour for comets observed from the earth.

You could also of course argue that if you’re offering an account of something fictitious, miraculous and unique you would be tempted to make it quite distinct from something that your potential readers would actually remember quite well… or exaggerate it at least, so that although travelling like a comet the star also gyrates, or flashes, or takes on fantastic hues… but Jenkins doesn’t address this… and perhaps Matthew lacked imagination…

Jenkins is also curiously dismissive though of the fact that Halle’s Comet would previously have been around in 12 BC… a couple of years after which a visitation of Magi, bearing gifts, to the court of King Herod is apparently recorded… Jenkins mentions this in passing but does not explain why he feels the apparition of 66AD is particularly more likely to have been the source of Matthew’s story rather than, for example, jogging memories of and adding observational detail to an earlier story.

‘Ooh, that there ball of fire hanging in the sky reminds me of something I saw when I was a child…’ Matthew’s elderly neighbour recalled as they stood there, chatting over the garden fence… ‘I must have been around five or six at the time… or maybe I was a bit older… or a bit younger… It’s a long time ago now…’ One can understand, I think, why Matthew may genuinely have concluded that an event we know to have occured in 12 BC happened a bit later than it actually did.

An interesting post script appears in the letters page of another edition of the same journal, where a reader in Ireland recalls ‘folk history’ that the devastating potato famine of the mid 1840s was presaged by a total or near-total solar eclipse. In fact although there was a total eclipse some twelve years before the famine, there were only a couple of minor eclipses just before it and it was over by the near total eclipse of 1847.

‘So what seems to have happened is that the collective folk memory merged the smaller eclipses occurring before/during the famine with the total/almost total eclipse of a decade earlier, and the one which happened as the famine ended, giving the story of the total eclipse occurring just before the famine. Something similar may have occurred with the ‘folk memory’ or ‘tradition’, of the visibility of the two returns of the comet before, and some years after the birth of Christ, to give an impression of the ‘Star’ as it was recounted in St Matthew very many years later…‘ concludes Terry Moseley.

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Another interesting take comes from ‘Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas’ by science writer and broadcaster Roger Highfield. In spite of its frivolous title, Highfield provides a thought-provoking review of the literature as well as some interesting observations of his own.

Instead of focusing on Matthew’s starting point and mindset, he looks at what would be significant to the Magi, pointing out that in those days the boundaries between astronomy and astrology would have been far more blurred.

The movement of heavenly bodies was accurately used, after all, by priests and ‘wise men’ to steer agrarian communities through the turn of the mystifying seasons, to tell them when to plant, when to harvest and when to move their herds. The astral plane could visibly predict such mysterious events as the flooding of the Nile and eclipses, so why not the coming of Kings?

Going a step further, Highfield then reasons that: ‘Once we accept that the Magi had an astronomer’s interest in the detail of the night sky, spiced with the astrologer’s fascination for what these details might say about human affairs, then it becomes apparent they may not have seen a star at all, or indeed a cut-and-dried astronomical object, but an unremarkable cosmic event with remarkable symbolism…

His chapter goes on to outline various conjunctions, heliacal risings and retrograde motions which could have combined to say ‘something special’ although they would have looked ‘nothing special’. Conjunctions though certainly don’t ‘hang about’ as I realized back in late November.

Of following stars…

I’d read, somewhere, about a coming conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and ‘the crescent moon’. When I spotted the crescent moon beckoning to me at sunset on the 30th then, it was leap-in-the-car time once more… Well I don’t have a camel, I’m sorry.

Breathless with joy I stopped at a gateway and started snapping. The moon looked a bit far away for a conjunction but hey, I was happy. Emerging from M&S in Swansea the following evening though I was livid. Staring me straight in the face was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen in the heavens – the moon and aforementioned planets clustered before me, unquestionably in conjunction.

Did I have my camera? Did I hell. I was so bereft that I even eyed up the Argos store just across the car park and have to admit that it was only the almost certainty that their cameras would not come ready charged that stopped me from taking advantage of their 30 day money back guarantee… There was only one thing for it then – to DRIVE.

Tom, bless him, accelerated the finest of lines between desire and legality. ‘Following a star’ is, after all, rather a feeble excuse to offer up when stopped either for speeding or for stalking. ‘Yes, but following two planets and a moon is different‘ I urged, trying to talk with my head screwed round backwards, as if by staring fixedly at the trio I could freeze them in the sky. I eventually had to stop doing impressions from ‘The Exorcist’ when projectile vomiting became a distinct possibility, but by then it was becoming clearer and clearer that the greatest threat wasn’t their moving apart from each other, it was their drifting down below the horizon. I sat up instead…

No, I didn’t get home in time. It took a while to convince me of this however, involving drives up several mountains and climbs up several hedgerows in an attempt to catch up with the falling stars. But courtesy of a little cloning I can offer you an idea of what it looked like…. Here’s one I made later…

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It is, of course, much easier to wonder retrospectively at astronomical occurrences than it is to predict them… as those of us who grew up with Blue Peter during the 1970s will remember…

Google ‘Blue Peter lies’ and you get the predictable list; failure to tell the little kiddies that Petra had died (obligatory), a dodgy phone-in or two (permissible in the face of technical problems) and the viewer’s vote for Socks the cat’s name being ignored (forbidden – but more venial than mortal on the grand scale of sin…) Nowhere – nowhere – will you find a reference to their most heinous lie…

Now ever since reading ‘Comet in Moominland’, I’d nursed a deep-seated need to actually witness a comet for myself – a bit like Joanna Lumley’s relationship with Ponny the Penguin and the Northern Lights I suppose. When John Noakes, Valerie Singleton, Lesley Judd and Peter Purvis – yes, I name you all – told me then, back in 1973 that not only was a comet coming, it was going to be the – yes the – celestial firework of the century, my anticipation swelled to near bursting point.  I was, after all, only ten.

Night after night I stared at the sky, waiting for Comet Kohoutek, which would come because Blue Peter had said it would come. And Monday and Thursday after Monday and Thursday I tuned in with anxiety, until it became quite clear that all that was coming was something ‘visible to the naked eye’ but virtually impossible to distinguish from surrounding heavenly bodies and less exciting than Venus on a good night. My sense of betrayal was utter.

Bleep and Booster – Blue Peter’s oh-too-regular allegedly ‘animated’ science fiction slot- did nothing to compensate. Bleep was an alien who looked like a potato. His companion, Booster, was marginally more interesting for he wore spectacles in spite of having no nose. Try imagining slowly panned – and – then – even – more – slowly – zoomed – shots of black and white drawings of a Maris Piper and a young John Selwyn Gummer and you’ll get some inkling of how visually gripping it was.

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Of the dark…

In spite, then, in spite of Blue Peter (and I’m sure that those are words which should never be uttered lightly in the same sentence – Blue Peter was, after all, the personification of BBC’s ‘Auntie’ as opposed to the slightly dodgy Uncle offered up by ITV’s Magpie…), my interest in things celestial remained and over the years I became much more philosophical when all I managed to catch was a cold.

The west coast isn’t, after all, the best of places to gaze skywards – we get far more than our fair share of cumulus cover and eclipse after eclipse leaves me sending ‘obscured by clouds’ emails to fellow enthusiasts rather than ones saying ‘wish you were here’.  Of course precipitation never comes when you want it and I could offer you an equally long list of Leonid, Perseid, Orionid and Geminid showers I’ve tried but failed to see.

The coming of comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 was, then, a consolation gift from the Oort Cloud; an omnipresent jewel that hung in the sky for night after week after month. My first sighting of it was from a Tesco’s car-park – and no, I didn’t lie down on my back in the snow and cry… but I was as transfixed by it as I’d always known I would be; this was my comet of the century.

Many a night over that chill spring then we’d head up into the Preseli Hills, cut the car lights and simply wonder. Or at least I would wonder, whilst Tom wondered how long I’d want to wonder tonight and the sheep muttered ‘them again’… Impressive even when surrounded by neon, in the true darkness of the hills Kohoutek shone, bedazzled and bewitched. Taking pictures has only clicked with me in the last five years though, so the only ‘one I made earlier’ I have to share is a watercolour – and yes of course its exaggerated – but not much.

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We’re so blessed here, actually, to have easily accessible spots where light pollution is not a major issue. Exactly how blessed I’m not sure, for I’ve only just come across the ‘Bortle Dark-sky Scale’ (link below). The next clear night we have though, I’ll be out there using my ‘averted vision’ to work out what class of sky my favourite dog-starring lay-by offers.

Using averted vision, incidentally, is the technical term for looking at things out of the corner of your eye… allowing far more sensitivity of detection than looking at objects directly. The things I use it on most often are the Pleiades – a taunting now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t star cluster – and the Orion Nebula.

The latter, which you might at first – direct – glance dismiss as ‘just another star’, hangs pendulous from Orion’s easily-identifiable ‘belt’. Technically, the Orion Nebula – or M42 – is a component of his sword, but its position and true nature – a star nursery where new stars are continually being generated amidst huge clouds of swirling gas – always make me think of a slightly more personal appendage. What you’re looking (sideways) for is a fuzzy star, which might look a tad on the green side – and I’m sure you’ll remember exactly where to look now, next time you encounter Orion…

Averted vision or not, I have a definite blind spot for the Pleiades. I can’t remember how to spell them. I know there’s an ‘a’ and an ‘e’ and an ‘i’ in the middle, but can never work out in what order they come. More curiously I also find it impossible to see how to spell them; even having just looked at P-L-E-I-A-D-E-S written, the middle of the word appears so unlikely that I find it impossible to reproduce correctly other than by copying it letter for letter. Maybe it offers too many vowels for my Welsh genes to cope with. Perhaps I should just sick to calling them the Seven Sisters… but that’s a tad confusing as there are, in reality, hundreds of them.

Of other worlds and other words…

But then my first introduction to them was also a tad confusing – it came in the shape of an image in an old encyclopaedia…  ‘The World We Live In‘ published by Collins in 1956. It was one of those books where the pictures grip, fascinate, refuse to let your imagination let go – including a fold out scale representation of the Universe and a picture of one of the Sisters…. Or so I thought.

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I was a precocious and parrot-like child. Surrounded by adults who valued learning and books at home and with a brother ten years older than me to ‘help’ with his homework, I’m told I walked at nine months, strung sentences together by 18 and was reading and writing in both Welsh and English by the time I started school at four-and-a-half. What really threw the teachers though was that I was also able to recite a little Latin, sections of the Periodic Table and passages from Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Churchyard’ – none of which I can do today.

Please don’t think I was exceptional – I definitely wasn’t – I was simply bright-ish and surrounded by information at the age when your brain just sponges it up. It took them a while to realise this though and I have miserable memories of being first paraded from classroom to classroom to ‘perform’ and then being moved ‘up’, away from the reception class, friends and monochrome plasticine.

But it was at home that I completely floored them one day by announcing – I quote – ‘purple Pleione – one of the seven sisters of the Pleiades – rotates so fast that it has flattened out somewhat. Around it is a red ring of hydrogen, partly hiding the violet star…‘ Imagine how relieved my parents were to realise that this was simply the legend accompanying one of my favourite pictures in ‘The World we Live In’…

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It left me though with a longstanding belief that one of the Greek seven sisters was called Pleione, whereas it turns out that sea-nymph Pleione was actually the mother of the septuplets. In fact the Pleiades constellation is quite a family affair, with Atlas, their dad, also giving his name to one of the stars in the cluster.

The sisters’ catasterism – or ‘setting amongst the stars’ – is most frequently attributed to Zeus, saving them in so doing from the amorous attentions of Orion. Until this day the hunter pursues them across the heavens, gaining neither ground nor sky.

The Celts, it is claimed, associated the constellation with death, due to its acronychal rising around Samhain. Acronychal (or -cal in some spelling) means ‘at sunset’ and is used in astronomy in counterpoint to heliacal – ‘at dawn’ – see Sirius’s heliacal rising in my last blog!

I’m writing this section at gone three in the morning and just mistyped ‘blag’ for ‘blog’ in that last sentence. It struck me immediately, even as I backspaced and corrected, that many a true misprint is typo-ed in jest, so I’d like to come perfectly clean about one thing. The words I end up ‘explaining’ here are almost without exception ones I’d never come across either; please don’t think I’m offering them up as nuggets of word-dom I’ve known all along. I just like words. When I explain them here I’m saying no more than ‘ooh, look what I just found… I’d like to share it with you…’

I could of course just read a dictionary and leave you all in peace; I’ve been known to do just that in the past. On the whole though ‘nice new words’ found that way mostly fail to stay with me; my sponge-like days have gone and these days I need to ‘break in’ a new word through use before it’ll sit waiting to be employed in my memory. Crosswords are my favourite source; if I’ve had to deduce what a word must look like then I know it will be a friend for life.

Two of the words I inferred the existence of this Christmas – thanks to the precision of crossword setter Araucaria in the ‘sawn-off journal article mixed up in shooter – he will watch over you (8)’ – particularly interested me.

The first was ‘omophagia’ ‘cleaner follows old witch, first with a scoffing of flesh (9)’. Omophagia means, it turns out, the eating of (usually) raw flesh. It’s mostly used, apparently, to describe the practice in Classical myth rather than in sushi bars and often seems to crop up in connection with Dionysus, god of wine and bringer of both ecstasy and madness. It is closely associated with acts of ‘sparagmos’ – the killing of something or someone by tearing it, him or her limb from limb from limb…

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The second was ‘octadic’ ‘relating to e.g. the April Rainers 1909 and 2 months ago (7)‘ Now this is an example of my favourite sort of clue – one that makes you work and one that teaches you something. First of all I looked up ‘April Rainers’ to find that it it’s a phrase found in the song ‘Green Grow the Rushes-o’ and is thought to relate to the Hyades constellation. Mythological half sisters of the Pleiades – Atlas was also their dad – the Hyades were apparently known as the April Rainers because their heliacal rising coincides with the month of showers.

But discovering that didn’t help very much. Hyades after all only has seven letters and I couldn’t link any of them to the rest of the clue. I started then thinking about ‘1909 and 2 months ago’ – which took me – in December – back to October AD 99… or ‘Oct AD IC’, if you do as the Romans do. Getting excited, I looked it up… Yes, it existed… but it simply meant ‘relating to a group or series of eight’. Back to square one… Until that is it clicked that the full line from ‘Green Grow the Rushes-o’ is ‘eight for the April Rainers’… Oh I love those eureka moments…

In fact it says a lot about my love for Araucaria – a priest now in his 80s renowned and venerated amongst crossword solvers for the knowledge, style and wit he brings to setting – that when I finally located his Prize Alphabetical Jigsaw not in the Christmas Eve edition where I was expecting it to be but – frantically – YES! Still in the recycling pile from the previous Saturday! – flu or no flu I managed an utterly spontaneous out-loud pantomime cackle. ‘Haharrrr…’ Here was treasure…

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That I also managed to complete it does say something about my state of health though. Although the spirit is always willing, the demands of the week and the time it takes me to dance with this very special mind – and yes, that’s really how it feels – mean that at least some squares are usually left echoing the blankness of my thought processes by New Year. That they all got filled this Christmas bears testimony not to my prowess, but to the prolonged period sick on the sofa. Which leads me back to the aforementioned lack of energy or enthusiasm for the annual star scattering in the hall…

Of light in the darkness…

My, I seem to have picked up quite some delusions of grandeur whilst debilitated on the chaise longue don’t I? I say ‘hall’… but there is, I have to admit, nothing more to the ‘hall’ than a passage and some stairs. Forgive me. ‘Deck the aforementioned with boughs of holly’ doesn’t scan at all – and I’m particularly fond of it decorated.

For forty or so of my years in this home, the passage extended all the welcome of Bleak House, Castle Gormenghast or the airlock of a Vogon spaceship, depending on your literary bent. Serviceable brown wallpaper, practical murky carpet and sensible, easy-to-wipe lino combined in dark slabs to produce an air of truly stygian gloom. The jury’s still out as to whether or not the addition of electric light when I was five was an improvement – at least in the hours of darkness you couldn’t see the wallpaper. You still knew it was there though…

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Re-decorating however had to wait for my father to die. He nearly killed himself performing cavalier feats of faith and plank walking the last time it was decorated. He did kill the grandfather clock; ding dong – hell! Mechanism in the stair well… Gloomy or not then, no-one could face the anxiety of more dad-it-yourself. That he survived long enough to retire from his self-employed painting and decorating business was in itself no small miracle.

Today though, liberated from linoleum, the old red and black quarry tiles check your passage in and out and white – yes, plain matt white – drifts everywhere else. There was going to be a coir stair runner and black stair rods – in fact there is a coir runner and black stair rods – just not on the stairs. They stare at me instead from the corner of the spare bedroom with the same doleful air that the carpet fitter adopted.  ‘Hmm’, he said between teeth sucking.. ‘Too much of a turn… Too thick…’ Yes, I suspect I probably am.

We clomp up- and downstairs then sounding like clog dancers, leaving coffee drips and dirt trails behind us… white stairs are, after all, so very impractical. And frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn.

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But even pre-decoration, there was one time of year when the passage was lifted – transformed – by a little lantern burning at the window.  Old and silver only in colour, it twinkled from the turn of the stairs, beaming greeting as you walked in – or to be more precise, beaming greeting as I walked in. My mother, you see, lit it specifically for me on the night I was ‘coming home for Christmas’; the warmth it emitted was kindled in the heart. And since she died I haven’t yet found the heart to light it myself – until today.

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There’s a long tradition of course of lanterns and other lights guiding travellers safely or delivering important messages.

Paul Revere, hero of the American War of Independence is, for example, said to have used lantern signals from the window of the Old North Church in Boston to warn patriots waiting in Charlestown of how the British were approaching ‘One if by land, and two if by sea’, records Longfellow in ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’.

The old Irish tradition of lighting a candle in a front window on Christmas Eve is explained as a sign of welcome both to strangers still abroad and, symbolically, to the holy family turned away from the hostelry in Bethlehem. Prayers for the absent and departed were said at the same time.

For decades, lantern signals were used to communicate safely amongst railway workers. The earliest cars and horse drawn carriages relied on kerosene lanterns to light their way whilst globe lanterns distinguished port from starboard on ships.

A lamp lit in the eastern window of Corstorphine Church to guide travellers across the boggy ground from Edinburgh was funded from the rent on of a piece of ground known as ‘the lamp acre’, whilst in 1856 John Wardall left £4 a year to the churchwarden of Billingsgate ‘to provide a good and sufficient iron and glass ‘lanthorne’ with a candle, for the direction of passengers to go with more security to and from the water side’.

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The earliest ‘lighthouses’ were often lanterns lit in high windows, although coal fires set on towers were also used. The visibility of either though was very limited and it was the use of prisms and lenses to magnify light which revolutionised the efficacy of lighthouses.

Quicksilver brought its own revolution too – quite literally. Contrary to popular belief the majority of lighthouses do not flash. Their lens mechanisms rotate, so that the light set within sometimes meets a clear section – creating a ‘flash’ – and sometimes an opaque one. The time taken for a complete revolution, coupled with the number of associated ‘flashes’ gives the particular lighthouse its own signature, allowing ships to recognise where it is that is warning them. Rotation of the weighty mechanisms is facilitated by floating them in baths of mercury – such an effective solution that in spite of the immensity of the lantern, rotation can be achieved with just the push of a finger.

Not, of course, that lighthouse keepers do stand there pushing them round. Although now mostly mechanised, old lighthouse mechanisms had to be ‘wound up’, their rotation powered by the slow, controlled descent of a weight, rather like the mechanism of a grandfather clock.

Mercury vapour though is not the friendliest of gasses and its inhalation over a series of years has been blamed for an apocryphal high incidence of madness amongst those who went ‘to the lighthouse’ and stayed there. Something far faster acting though led to the mental demise of one unfortunate keeper on the Smalls Lighthouse off the coast of Pembrokeshire…

The Smalls are a treacherous group of reefs – cum – rocks a score of miles off St David’s Head. ‘Wrecks abound’ says one diving website – of great age too it would seem, for a Viking sword has been found in the vicinity.

An impressive range of wildlife thrives beneath the suck of the waves, the sea around the Smalls boasting numerous species of molluscs and crabs, lobsters, crayfish, eels ‘with heads the size of horses’, dolphins, porpoises, sharks, Killer and Minke whales as well as  huge solitary fish and massive shoals. Less mobile but just as living are the sea anemones and the soft corals, counting amongst them deadmen’s fingers… Or perhaps they belong to the Viking?

An attempt to reduce the number of dead dead men’s fingers in the vicinity by marking the rocks with a lighthouse was first made in 1775. The original construction – designed by Liverpudlian cooper-turned-musical instrument maker, Henry Whiteside hardly pushed out the boat – in fact it is said his design was chosen because it was the ‘cheapest’; cold comfort for keepers who would spend day and night on a precarious, swaying nonapod of oak and iron.

The photograph here – courtesy of  John Weedy – is of the original lighthouse as it was featured in a cigarette advertisement in the Illustrated London News and looks as though it should have the caption ‘being here could seriously damage your health’. And so it did for a couple of keepers around 1800…

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Thomas Howells and Thomas Griffiths were, apparently, notorious for being a quarrelsome pair – to the degree that when Griffiths died unexpectedly, Howells feared being suspected of his murder should he dispose of the body in the sea. There is of course though nowhere to bury a body on a rock, so he fashioned a makeshift coffin from interior timbers of the lighthouse and lashed it to the lantern-rail of the lighthouse.

There then followed, it is said, a series of dreadful storms which not only kept relief boats away but also smashed the coffin open. Thomas Howells was faced with the grizzly yet compelling and unchanging view of his colleague’s decomposing arm dangling – beckoning to him – from the coffin… By the time the weather allowed a boat to land, he had lost his mind.

The legacy of the tragedy was a new policy of always having three keepers at a lighthouse. Not of course that that helped the three keepers of Flannan Isle, off the Isle of Lewis, all of whom disappeared inexplicably in December 1900. All that was found at the lighthouse was a locked door and a meal prepared but not eaten… Perhaps they were carried off by The Marie Celeste?

Not all lighthouse duty is grim though – whilst surfing I came across this record of what is alleged to have been a radio conversation recorded off the coast of Newfoundland:

Canadian: ‘Please divert your course 15 degrees the South to avoid a collision.’

American: ‘Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees the north to avoid a collision.’

Canadian: ‘Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.’

American: ‘This is the Captain of a US Navy Ship. I say again divert your course.’

Canadian: ‘No. I say again you divert your course.’

American: ‘This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north, I say again, that’s one-five degrees north, or counter-measures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.’

Canadian: ‘This is a lighthouse. Over…’

It says, I think, rather more than the sum of its words.

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Of shopping, dropping and stopping…

Oh that the same could be said for my weblog… But before I go I must introduce you to one star that I didn’t follow, I dragged. It called to me from the same Christmas Market stall where, some years ago, I found the green man and woman pictured in other parts of my blog.

I was, you see, under the influence of alcohol, at 8.45 am. Dropped off for a morning’s Christmas shopping, the only stall I could find open was one selling organic whisky – in the rather beautiful form of ‘Dhà Mhìle’, which means, in Scots Gaelic, 2000. It was commissioned for the millennium by a Welshman but its roots lie in Springbank, near Loch Lomond, one of only two Scottish distilleries left which still perform the entire whisky-making process at the same location and using traditional methods, including floor malting and no-chill filtering.

Now whisky’s the only spirit that ever crosses my lips but I have, within that limitation, experimented widely. I’ve developed, on the whole, a taste for the stronger flavoured, so that given the choice from the pantry I’ll pick a peat-soaked Jura or a seaweed-infused Islay. I was about to add ‘a rich Jim Beam’ to that list but I could sense a queue of scotch enthusiasts forming to lynch me. OK, OK, bourbon is NOT a whisky. But then Dhà Mhìle could well not be a whisky either, to my kicked-to-bits- by Laphroaig palette. Dhà Mhìle, to me, is what mead should taste like but never does; honey, gorse and sunshine; a song, a smile, a soft kiss. Perhaps it’s just as well then that the only place I’ve ever found it is at a Christmas Market…

Our original bottle ran out long ago, so I sidled up to the stall trying not to look too needy but I needn’t have bothered – the stallholder obviously had no memory that I was a convert already and within moments was proffering samples of both the blend and the single grain. I’d probably have been fine if he hadn’t also had an interesting looking organic port on offer, but by the time I’d keyed in my pin number and asked him to stash my stash for later collection, my breakfast of neat alcohol was not just kicking in, it was dancing an untidy can-can.

I’m sure I was more aware of my state of semi-sobriety than were others, I hoped so at least when I bumped into an acquaintance from the world of work, her face rosy-cheeked from nothing less healthy than pushing a buggy through the cold morning air. I know that she introduced me to her toddler, yet to this day I can’t remember whether it was male or female, let alone its name. At least I’m pretty sure it wasn’t twins.

It was then that I stumbled upon the Green Man man. Suddenly overcome by the certainty that although I don’t know him he could be my best friend, I greeted him enthusiastically. I had a lot to tell him. My image of his green woman, after all, gets ‘clicked’ more often than any other photo on this site and I’ve been approached – and given permission for – it to be used on an independent Swedish beer label.

Then, suddenly, I was in love – not with him but with two new green people – proper green people mind, not individuals following my trail via the whisky stall. The first is a serious ivy spirit, the second a softer, oaken face set within a pentacle shaped star. How too choose? Indeed why choose? whispered the whisky.

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It wasn’t only the alcohol, honestly. On the whole I hate shopping, – or more to the point I hate most shops. As a result I buy very little other than the essentials in life – music, books… the odd pencil, um… wooden boxes… small cupboards… greetings cards, err scarves… plants… paints… nice paper… things with drawers… candles… flowers… musical instruments… wild skirts… oh and I have a thing about boots… not boots the chemist… boot boots…

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This next sentence was meant to build on the last one… to go on to say that in spite of my usual frugal spending, just now and again, sober or otherwise, I’m hit by a flash of profligacy but I think I’ve just shot myself in the foot. Ah well, the boots will last longer…

‘Where’s the car with you?’ asked the happy stallholder

‘Oh, just over there, I’ll be fine‘ I gestured jollily, as he surrounded both green people in multiple bin bags. It wasn’t until I tried picking one up that I realised exactly what I’d done. They weighed several tons and by ‘just over there’ I actually meant about a mile away. Still, I knew there was a taxi rank within a few hundred yards. Well, if I was going to get a taxi, I may as well take the bottles too…

I eventually left the stall then smelling of alcohol, dragging two bin bags and carrying a brown paper parcel that ‘clinked’ as I walked. I was wearing one of the aforementioned ‘wild’ skirts, only it’s a size or two too big for me and, unless regularly gripped, sinks quite rapidly on my hips. I know that at a critical level – where my hips stop going out and threaten to go back in again – the slightest catch of boot on dangling hem will result in sudden catastrophe… and that the only sure way to avoid it is to sway from side to side as I walk…

The taxis were out in number… in fact the rank stretched as far as the eye could see. ‘I want to go to County Hall and back…’ I panted at the bemused nearest driver. ‘Oh, you’ll have to go to the front of the queue’ he explained with a relieved sort of air about him. ‘…we have this arrangement, see?’ There must have been something desperate about my demeanour though, for when I mouthed, miserably, ‘but I can’t walk any further’ his mate entered into hurried negotiations with the taxi in front – ‘pass the message on’ I could imagine him saying ‘there’s this drunken woman about to keel over at the back so Freddy’s got to take her…’

And so Freddy did, bless him, and he carried the star the length of the council car park when we got stopped by barriers. ‘Just don’t tell the missus’ he whispered conspiratorially; ‘she thinks I can’t lift stuff…’ You see there is a basic, human kindness…

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And that was just about my last drink over the Christmas period. The real ferocity of the flu – and the gauge against which I’m now enjoying the measure of my recovery – was the absence of appetite for alcohol. Honey, on the other hand, was like manna. By the spoonful, mixed with lemon, or, once my appetite picked up, on oozing crumpets toasted over the fire. Which leads me, I promise, to my very last ponder of this blog…

Why do crumpets implode?

Most foodstuffs, left long enough, seem to release gasses which will swell airtight packaging. Crumpets on the other hand suck, gathering their cellophane around them like wet T-shirts – and I want to know why.

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I’ve tried asking Jeeves – he sounds after all like someone who ought to know about crumpets – but all I get is stuff about the city’s financial crisis. I’ve tried asking people in chatrooms and suddenly the IMs stop. I’ve tried asking friends and colleagues but all I get are looks that say ‘Jude’s obviously not over the flu yet…’

But I need to know! Are crumpets the black hole of patisserie? Will there be crumpets at the restaurant at the end of the universe? Until then, I suppose I can at least stop worrying about the Particle Accelerator in Switzerland. What’s a hadron collision or two when there’s something threatening to swallow you up in your own kitchen?

But if I survive until next Christmas I’m going to try an experiment. In the hallway, cum passage, on Christmas Eve, I’m going to plant a packet of stale crumpets before my stars start to wander… I’ll let you know how I get on…

And in the meantime, may your 2009 shine…

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LINKS:

http://www.last.fm/music/Simon%2B%2526%2BGarfunkel/_/7%2BO%2527Clock%2BNews%252FSilent%2BNight Simon and Garfunkel at Last FM…

http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/christmastruce.htm the Christmas Truce

http://www.helium.com/items/1101494-la-befana La Befana…

http://www.bristolastrosoc.org.uk/uploaded/BAAJournalJenkins.pdf The paper on the star of Bethlehem in full

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comet_Kohoutek Kohoutek… I’ll put some money in the swear box now…

http://www.pleiade.org/pleiades_02.html The P-L-E-I-A-D-E-S!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omophagia sushi anyone?

http://www.iln.org.uk/ The Illustrated London News… so much here!

http://www.dive-in2-pembrokeshire.com/ds_smalls.htm The Smalls

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fresnel_lens lighthouse lenses

http://www.graigfarm.co.uk/organic_spirits.html given it’s a limited edition why am I sharing this?!

http://www.sculptureheaven.co.uk/about-us-361-0.html the source of my green people – and they POST them!

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~ by Jude on January 20, 2009.

2 Responses to “Of star, light and houses”

  1. Wanted to leave ten million comments but am limiting myself to the crumpet dilemma. Think they are half baked (like moi on occasion) and therefore the yeast keeps on working and eats up all the oxygen in the packet. Hope you feel better ((xx))

  2. S’tan your comment and screen name have both left me giggling here – thank you for that. You may be interested to know that someone else offered an explanation for one of the other mysteries touched on in the blog – suggesting that perhaps there were rogue ‘black hole’ crumpets roaming Flannan Isle… It is, of course, butter theory 😉

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