Of Tort, Strangeness and Charms…
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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’.
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.’
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.
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…’
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…