Of star, light and houses

•January 20, 2009 • 2 Comments

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…


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…


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…


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.


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?


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.


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‘…


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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’…


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…


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…


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…


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.


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.


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’.


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…


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.


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.


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…


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…


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.


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…



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!


Of Wails, Watchers and Wales

•October 12, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Of encounters, brief and long pants

For anyone wondering what had happened to me, I’ve been a long way away. In fact such a long way away that I almost feel I should sidle in to the strains of a Rachmaninov piano concerto.

Unlike Celia Johnson though, my absence has been of the purely physical kind – a long encounter with north Wales, the Lakes and Scotland. I stayed away from railway platforms, took my husband with me and got nothing in my eye, I promise.

Anyway, the curtains of Autumn are drawing in. Imagining blog-reading Trevor Howards everywhere chorusing ‘thank you for coming back to us’ (oh vanity, thy name is Judeness…) let us continue…

Moving left along the fireplace wall, you come to the first of two almost identical double cupboards which sandwich the chimneybreast.

The right hand one, where we’ll stop today, is where non everyday china is kept; the ‘best’ ware, reserved for special occasions, clearly distinguished from the forbidden china which lived in the seld in that it is, sometimes, pressed into service.

On the middle of the three shelves – a little crammed in – sits the tea-set which only comes out for funerals. In fact so closely do I associate it with the dead that I think of its pattern as ‘Norwegian Blue’ rather than the ‘Blue Nordic’ it officially is.

Collected piece by piece by my mother during the 1970s, each item walked home from town in her capacious red vinyl shopping bag, it’s a strange mixture of stylised flowers, foliage and – somewhat bizarrely – things resembling onions. It has, for some time now, been all that remains of the ‘best’ ware of my youth.

Grampa’s death was about as good as they get. He lived until he was 86, had had ‘flu, but died suddenly, in his own bed, holding the hand of someone who loved him. His last words were a request for my mother to put his pants to air as he felt better and intended getting up later.

Pants, for Grampa, were substantial things – welsh woollen long-johns, worn year-round. They kept him warm in winter and wisdom received when he served in Egypt in the First War was to ‘dress against the heat’ so he never wore less than a double layer of clothing on his bottom half and a triple layer on the top. His one concession to a heat wave might be to roll up his shirt sleeves, but neither his collar nor his waistcoat ever unbuttoned. His legs, when revealed from the knee down for their once-a-month soak followed by an application of Noxacorn and a little DIY surgery with a penknife were as white and as hairless as lard.

Working in the garden dictated the extra protection of ecru overalls. I can visualise him now, kneeling on an old folded sack between the regimented drills of potatoes, occasionally straightening up from his weeding to remove his hat and mop his brow with his handkerchief. In between, sweat soaked the fabric of his fedora dark around the petersham band and eventually dripped from the end of his nose.

Of sympathy, empathy and culpability

His funeral was the first I had known centred on my home and during the days that led up to it, I learned rather a lot about the welsh way of death, including the custom of ‘calling to sympathise’ – and I don’t mean picking up the telephone. Within hours of his passing, the quiet, respectful knocks on the front door harbinged neighbours, friends, relatives and acquaintances.

There was a strange formality to the process; I became door-person, ushering callers into the front room where they would commiserate in hushed tones with my mother before being given tea. Their cups drained, they would then ask ‘ble mae e ‘te?’ – ‘where is he then?’ – an indication that they were now ready to be shown into the parlour to pay their last respects to my grandfather’s body before leaving.

My mother though had broken with tradition; Grampa’s body had already been taken off by the undertaker to pass the liminal days between death and burial in the new-fangled ‘Chapel of Rest’. Disapprobation was considerable, I’m sure, but was shown only by little ‘oh’s of surprise and a slight awkwardness now that the culmination of the sympathising ritual had unexpectedly been cancelled.

Actually one of my friends tells a delicious tale of exactly the opposite happening – of her father’s body having been laid out by an undertaker who was also a coal merchant (well at least the suits are dark…) A family friend was bemused beyond to find himself being shown in to pay his last respects when all he’d actually intended paying was a bill for anthracite…

Anyway the lack of a my grandfather’s corpse didn’t keep people away and as the days passed, more and more of the callers either brought quantities of cakes or left with the promise of a sponge for Thursday. Sponges for funerals are, by the way, always plain or lemon. Chocolate would be too frivolous, coffee too bohemian and hundreds-and-thousands taboo. Once it was past the decent time for callers, the in-house baking began too; fruit cake, bara brith, scones and of course welsh cakes by the several dozen.

But the baking was only one element of the logistics involved in the post-funeral feeding of up to a hundred. Offers of teapots were accepted from neighbours whilst set-by-set all the china from the fireside cupboard had to be carried out to the kitchen, washed and dried in readiness. The morning of the funeral itself was consumed by loaves and dishes; once the salmon, ham and egg mayonnaise had had their fill, the kitchen worktops were washed, shrouded with tablecloths and laid out ready with cups, saucers and teapots.

Traditionally, the house of the deceased is never left empty during a funeral but we dismissed the superstition and locked the door behind us. Besides, I was glad of the excuse to head straight home from the chapel to get the kettles boiling; I had no wish to see the coffin interred.

It’s traditional, too, for the undertaker to remain outside the chapel during the funeral service – but highly untraditional for the aforementioned to have to conduct the bearers through the cemetery end of their duties whilst covered in an icing of guano. That a seagull chose to anoint black-suited ‘Billy the Box’ with quite extreme quantities of ‘good luck’ whilst the three preachers paid homage to Grampa brought some welcome lightness to the dark hour if not his dark jacket.

The luck, however, did not extend to the immediate family. Returning to the house after the service I sensed an unnatural stillness. For one thing it was the first time I’d ever come in to an empty home – the first time I’d needed a key to enter it – and Grampa’s vacant chair, pushed back from its usual fireside spot to allow better access to the food-laden table added to the poignancy. And why weren’t the dogs barking? They’d been shut in the kitchen away from the food but they always barked when they heard the front door open…

Cats, when interrupted doing something they shouldn’t, brazen it out. Some fix you with that look that purrs ‘hey, the thing with feathers was asking for it… we’re a different species… don’t expect us to share your moral code…’ Others suddenly find the need to wash utterly, utterly compelling. If they could whistle, they would.

Dogs, however, do ‘guilty’ rather better than most humans and Mab and Mitzi – obviously stopped mid tablecloth tug-of-war by the sound of my return – stood silent and shame-faced, as shattered by their culpability as the best china all over the kitchen floor. Only the Norwegian Blue, perched on trays on top of the cooker, was not a dead tea-set. The Glengettie, then, at Grampa’s funeral, was served very slowly out of a single blue-and-white coffee pot with a strained air that had nothing to do with it being loose leaf. The house was never left empty during a funeral again.

Of matters modern, mutes and mutual respect…

I’m not even sure that I want a funeral. Whilst recognising that preparing for them serves the purpose of imposing structure on the desolate days immediately post-bereavement, they’re fairly hideous ordeals for the immediate family and today of no vital consequence to anyone else. And I definitely don’t want one of those strange modern gatherings ‘to celebrate the life of…’ If you think I make a reasonable job of living tell me now; don’t wait until I’ve gone and if I’ve got to have some sort of send-off, at least do me the courtesy of being sad at it.

At one time of course you could hire people to be sad at your funeral, in the form of paid mourners and mutes. The former specialised in vocal distress whilst the mutes’ forté was standing round, silently, looking glum. Now there’s a career option for the thousands of depressed people the Government plans to throw off sickness benefits… Sorry, enable into work…

It’s a career option that was considered for Oliver Twist too: ‘There’s an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear,’ resumed Mr. Sowerberry, ‘…He would make a delightful mute…I don’t mean a regular mute to attend grown-up people… but only for children’s practice. It would be very new to have a mute in proportion… it would have a superb effect.’ A shame it doesn’t come from ‘A Christmas Carol‘ or you could have had the original ‘Bob, Marley and the Wailers’…

Anyway the popular employ of mutes and paid mourners in Europe lasted from the 1600s right through to the start of the last century although the tradition allegedly has much older roots. In his 1926 ‘Funeral Customs, their Origin and Development‘ Betram S. Puckle records: ‘Laugh as we will at the mute, he had a history and a pedigree which for longevity would put to shame the pretensions of many a noble house. He was a direct descendant of the Roman mime, who likewise dressed in black, but wearing a portrait mask of wax aped the mannerisms not only of the deceased in whose funeral procession he walked, but of the defunct members of the family.’

Puckle writes too of  paid ‘watchers’ who seem to have served a similar purpose to the mute: ‘So completely did the watcher take charge of the situation that in Scotland the thrifty poor were obliged to shorten the period between the death and burial of their dead in order to reduce his charges. The social status of the bereaved family was largely estimated by the length of time they were able to hold out against the exactions of the watcher, but it was considered a point of honour to employ the services of this functionary.’

Hazzlit, in his Dictionary of Faiths and Folklores also touches on the pressure to ‘keep up with the ex-Joneses’ in Scotland: ‘the desire of what is called a decent funeral, i.e. one to which all the inhabitants of the district are invited and at which every part of the usual entertainment is given is one of the strongest in the poor. The expense of it amounts to nearly two pounds. This sum, therefore, every person in mean circumstances is anxious to lay up and he will not spare it unless reduced to the greatest extremity.’

Some impatience with the seeming extravagances of the masses is recorded in the Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-99 (Parish of Lochbroom – volume 10 p.469-470). ‘At their burials and marriages the inhabitants too much adhere to the folly of their ancestors. On these occasions they have a custom of feasting a great number of their friends and neighbours, and this often at an expense which proves greatly to the prejudice of poor orphans and young people…’

A motive for such profligacy is offered by Maria Edgeworth writing in 1800 of Irish funerals: ‘The lower Irish are wonderfully eager to attend the funerals of their friends and relations, and they make their relationships branch out to a great extent. The proof that a poor man has been well beloved during his life is his having a crowded funeral…’

Certainly even in today’s rural Wales great importance is put on the numbers that attend any funeral although we tend to express it more as a measure of the ‘parch‘ – the ‘respect’ – felt for the deceased than a yardstick of love.

My great great grandfather’s funeral report from 1905 provides an unusual glimpse of a working class welsh funeral. It’s unusual in that – as the report puts it – ‘We publish in this issue the portrait of a well known local worthy – a son of the soil. In so doing a departure is made from the customary usage of emblazoning the press with the features alone of the departed who have climbed the ladder of fame: but whoever in the dead past has gone to his fathers honoured and sung to doleful requiem, none more worthy has ever entered the portals of mystery than John Morgan of Cefynydre’…

The reason his funeral is reported remains unknown. He was, after all, as the newspaper calls him merely ‘a horny handed veteran‘ – a ploughwright and carpenter who had married a pauper. He had a trade but the family were still distinctly of the working class. Perhaps though it was his long-time devotion to the non-conformist cause which singled him out for recognition. It was, after all, the height of the Revival – indeed the same edition of The County Echo reports how the appearance of a meteorite in the sky over North Pembrokeshire had been interpreted by some of the ‘innocent country dames‘ as a ‘second star of Bethlehem predicting the coming of the Rev. Seth Johnson who is on tour through West Wales in the Methodist Connection‘.

Of the funeral itself we are told:

However high eulogy may ascend, no word picture can equal the outward and visible tokens of esteem shown by the inhabitants on Tuesday afternoon last, when all that was mortal of the late Mr John Morgan were borne to their final resting place at the Baptist Cemetery. The town wore the stillness of the Sabbath, business houses were closed and blinds drawn in every residence and there was unmistakable evidence of profound public feeling of regret and sympathy… Hundreds of mourners and friends of all classes had assembled to pay a last tribute of respect…’ Quite a turn-out then – I can only hope that they had several teapots at their disposal…

Back over in Ireland, Edgeworth tells us that ‘Even beggars, when they grow old, go about begging FOR THEIR OWN FUNERALS that is, begging for money to buy a coffin, candles, pipes, and tobacco

That last paragraph dampened my eyes – in fact it rates right up there alongside the ‘lonely sheep dying on the hill’ that I touched upon a blog or two ago. No matter how much I try telling myself that hypothermia’s probably quite a cool way to die, I still hate to think of anything or anyone being cold and alone at their passing…

It also brought to mind a song I first heard when I was 15.

Of portents, passage and Peel…

For weeks I had been helping to keep vigil. My Great Uncle John was dying a protracted death in the days when pain control was a very hit or miss affair. It was simply a matter of enduring the time. My mother and his sister, Sal, took it in turns to wait with him day and night, nursing him but mostly just being there – watching and waiting for the kindness of death. I waited with them, and in so doing obviously crossed some threshold in their eyes, for for the first time in my life I found myself being included in extremely adult conversations.

It wasn’t just a baptism in the fluids of the dying, although the way in which the contents of each sick-bowl or bedpan were discussed did rather bring to mind an examination of the entrails. Sal and mum were both deeply steeped in ‘old’ beliefs about deaths and dying and their exchanged reports of various signs and portents opened doors to a strange new world. Howling dogs, odd noises, birds of the day heard singing by night – all provided an eerie accompaniment to John’s groans during the slowest pre-dawn hours.

It was, in retrospect, one of the oddest periods of my life. Outside the disinfectant-soaked house I was rebelling – undertaking the challenge of being one of our sleepy little town’s first ‘punks’ (What has she got all those safety pins on for? Has her elastic snapped somewhere, do you think?) Within its walls though, I was being initiated into something very, very old; discovering rites of passage to a sisterhood bound by more than kinship.

Anyway, I found the record soon after John’s death, lying among a pile of long forgotten 78s in his attic. It was, it has to be said, one of the wilder numbers there – most were Welsh hymns or classical choral pieces – but nothing in its title prepared me for the shivers I would experience as its words crackled from the sound box of the old wind-up gramophone…

I was passing by a churchyard in the city when I saw a beggar old and grey

With his hands outstretched he asked the folks for pity

And it made me sad to hear him say

Oh I wonder yes I wonder will the angels way up yonder

Will the angels play their harps for me?

For my heart is growing dreary and my feet are growing weary

Will the angels play their harps for me?

Oh a million miles I’ve travelled and a million sights I’ve seen and I’m ready for the glory soon to be

Oh I wonder yes I wonder will the angels way up yonder

Will the angels play their harps for me?’

The words alone don’t come near to expressing the dolefulness of the hillbilly number. Nor can I explain why it affected me so at a time when my standard listening fare was Blondie, The Clash and Siouxie and the Banshees (more of them later…) Perhaps its impact was simply the clashing of zeitgeists. I noticed though with a smile – whilst unsuccessfully looking for a link to an mp3 for you – that John Peel played it on one of his 2002 shows. And hey, if John Peel kens it… A sad passing, his, too – but at least the angels have more than harps to choose from now.

Funerals also remind me of a happier story of Uncle John and his sister Sal. Before his retirement John ran a small bakery and grocery shop. John and Sal were both due to attend a family wedding and Sal had been hovering anxiously in the shop for almost an hour waiting for John to close up and go and get changed. But more and more customers arrived – and John was very fond of his pounds, shillings and pence. Eventually Sal lost patience…

‘John Owen – are you coming to this wedding or not?’

‘Oh, you go on without me Sally fach,’ John replied – ‘it would be different, wouldn’t it, if it was a funeral…?’

The need for a good ‘send off’ is still felt deeply amongst impoverished modern day celts it would seem, for during a study carried out in 1997 on the effect of cuts in Social Fund funeral payments, Professor Mark Drakeford also concluded that providing a ‘proper’ funeral was a social pressure felt most deeeply by the poorest families. Part of his research looked at the use of a ‘cheap but decent’ funeral service set up by a Welsh local Council. It was, he discovered, largely middle class families who were taking advantage of the cut price offer – ‘bringing granny in in the Volvo’ – whilst the poor continued to pay the much higher prices demanded by private Undertakers.

Of Père-Lachaise, Beaux pères and albumen…

The green sod of the other side has not always been as verdant for those who make their living from death though; the New York Times reports in 1910 that the funeral mutes of Paris were threatening to strike; ‘They say that since the separation of state and church, the former has assumed supervision of the undertaking business, which formerly paid the lay officers of the city parishes around $800,000 annually, a large part of which went to their underlings, the mutes. These hired mourners complain that they must now eke out their earnings by holding out the hand of beggary to the real mourners…’

By 1913 the cuts were really biting; ‘it appeared that the (Paris) City Fathers had received many complaints as to the unshaven and unkempt appearance of these officials supplied by the Department… on their slender stipend such relatively expensive matters as hair-cutting and shaving could hardly be insisted on… Forthwith it was decreed that these functionaries should be trimmed into respectability at the City’s expense…

‘Certain barber establishments in the city were commissioned to tend the coque-morts free of charge – then the storm broke! That one (establishment)… should be thus favoured with municipal patronage whilst others were neglected cut at the most cherished traditions on which the Republic is based. The neglected barbers rose to a man and demanded a fair share of the trade. “Give tickets to the coque-morts,” they demanded, “that they may extend their patronage to whom they will, rather than encourage a pampered minority.” And so the matter was settled. Even this equitable arrangement was found to have its drawbacks in practice, owing to a regrettable tendency on the part of the coque-morts to sell their tickets and go unshaven as before.’ writes Puckle.

A more recent Parisian funeral brought home to me the sheer scale of the industry of death. It took place at the renowned Père-Lachaise cemetery, where Seurat, Balzac, Wilde, Piaff, Bizet, Patti, Callas, Stein and Toklas, Chopin, Delacroix, Pissarrot, Rossini and Jim Morrison all lie. Marcel Marceau too – now I bet he had mutes at his funeral.

We were there though not for a burial but for my father in law’s cremation – or so I thought. Those of us accustomed to death the British way stood there at the end of the service, waiting for the coffin to slip, glide or slide euphemistically away. Instead the French master of ceremonies announced that it would not be possible to burn Monsieur M… until 8.30 that evening, but that anyone wishing to attend could return then if they so wished;  a spectre at the feast which made it impossible not to clock-watch as his closest family and friends gathered, as pre-arranged, for a meal that evening. It helped not a jot that we had chosen a Moroccan restaurant where almost everything ordered seemed to arrive in its own little urn…

It was, though, not the most uncomfortable meal I’ve eaten in Paris. We’d been hospice visiting when the Metro unexpectedly went on strike, confining us, sad and starving, to a distinctly non touristy restaurant; a grim little bistro populated by caricatures from Gothic horror- cum- Royston Vasey.

That it was empty didn’t seem a good sign, but we were soon cheered when a large group of obviously local people crowded in after us. Cheered until, that is, we clocked that they were all male, that there were thirteen of them, that they were all dressed in black and that they were each carrying an identical small dark suitcase. Real disquiet set in though when a second group of thirteen identically accessorized men walked in and sat down to eat with no acknowledgement whatsoever of the other party’s presence.

Trying to reassure ourselves that they were probably just rival sales team from some sombre suitcase symposium, we studied the menu. The vampish waitress appeared to have absolutely no English and we didn’t have technical French. When we asked then, falteringly, about the house ‘special’, she returned with the cook – a woman of indistinguishable age and behemoth proportions, her rolls of blubber trussed by a blood-spattered apron. In her hand she grasped a meat cleaver which she proceeded to use as an aide-illustoire, pointing her way through the menu with attitude – and no English either. We gained, though, the impression that there was a lot of offal involved.

Now I’m not squeamish where offal is concerned – I’ve tried most British offal bar tripe and most of it I’ve enjoyed. I’d learned, by this time though, that the French eat offal I’d never even dreamed of; I still remember the evening the waiter managed to discover – half way through my meal – that the English word for what Madame was eating was ‘gizzards’. For my first course I eventually then ordered ‘œuf en cocotte’ which I thought I knew was a (safe) egg baked in a ramekin, sometimes with a ‘lid’ of cream on top.

The food arrived. Ramekin? Check. Contents? Yes, a layer of cream. Things looked promising.  When I inserted my fork and brought it up towards my mouth though, very little followed. In fact all that did was a viscous, translucent string of albumen. As it hung from the prongs it whispered – in English – that the egg hidden under the milky pool was still raw.

It was one of those royal ‘what exactly do you do?’ moments. Most unpalatable dishes can at least be pushed around your plate and semi hidden by a serviette to make them look as if they’ve been partially eaten. This, though, no matter what I did to it, refused to look like anything but a ramekin full to the brim of white. The more I thought of what lay beneath the more I needed to retch, but even if I’d been able to countenance a few mouthfuls, how on earth would I have conveyed them to my mouth?

‘You’re going to have to explain’ I hissed to Tom as Morticia walked past our table for the umpteenth time, eying my still untouched œuf with suspicion. ‘I don’t know how to…’ he hissed back. ‘The closest I can get is this egg is naked – do you want to try explaining that to Madame Cleaver?’ No, on reflection I didn’t…

In desperation I tried to ‘accidentally’ knock it over, but discovered that ramekins have remarkably stable bases and low centres of gravity. I even considered leaping to my feet in mock rage with my husband, capsizing the table in the process, but love for Tom’s features as they’re currently arranged and a glance at our fellow eaters persuaded me against any action that might prompt them to come to the assistance of a damsel in distress. In the end all I managed was a limp explanation that I was suddenly not hungry – ‘soudainement je n’ai pas faim…’ – leaving Mme. Adams looking at me sadly as if I was the oddball in the refectory.  She would, actually, have made an excellent paid mourner.

Of kith, kin and keening…

Whilst funeral mutes were almost always male, the mourners were usually women. Purely co-incidental, traditional, or, perhaps, indicative of the fact that men never seem to know quite what to say at these awkward times? Puckle explains the gendered division of duties by saying that ‘women are more given to the display of emotional grief… In this capacity their professional shrieks have echoed down the ages.’

I want to look though at quite a distinctive group of wailing women – the ones skilled in the celtic practice of ‘keening’. The English ‘keen‘ is derived from the Irish ‘caoine‘ (lament), with echoes in the Scots Gaelic ‘caoin‘, the Manx ‘keayney‘ and the Welsh ‘cwyn‘. The Dublin Penny Journal in 1833 notes though that ‘the word in the Irish language as originally and more correctly written is ‘cine’… which makes it almost identical with the Hebrew word ‘cina’ which signifies lamentation or weeping with clapping of hands‘. None of these should be confused with the latest offering by the popular beat combo Keane, no matter how many connections can be made with things musical or lamentable…

We would seem, then, to be considering an extremely old tradition. Indeed some say that the first woman to keen was none other than Bridget or Bride herself, loudly lamenting the kebab-ing of her son Ruadan on a javelin (Celtic Myths and Legends – Squire 1905). References to improvised poetry and song being performed over the dead occur in Irish literature from the 8th Century on and early visitors to Ireland – including Giraldus Cambrensis in the 12th Century – also found the practice worthy of mention, an indication that however we lamented our dead in Wales, it differed from – was perhaps  less obvious and public than – the ways of our neighbours across the sea.

The time for keening seemed to vary, but all seemed agreed that there was no place for it at the deathbed or even immediately after passing. Custom dictated that it was not until the corpse had been properly laid out and the soul of the departed had had time to make its peace with the afterlife that the wailing could begin – some adding that to keen earlier might attract the hell hounds. There were various keening slots on the pre-interment bill’s running order – as the warm-up act for the wake, around the coffin during the wake, on the arrival of any new mourner, just before the coffin was closed, on the morning of the funeral and whilst the coffin was being carried from the deceased’s home to the graveyard.

Some also describe keening taking place in the graveyard, with one of the most evocative accounts coming from J M Synge’s ‘Aran Islands‘ (1907). His description of a turn of the century funeral on Inishmaan offers a particularly valuable window on the past because of the isolated nature of the island’s predominantly Gaelic speaking community – it seems likely that the practice he witnessed would had been unchanged for centuries.

After Mass this morning an old woman was buried. She lived in the cottage next to mine, and more than once before noon I heard a faint echo of the keen. I did not go to the wake for fear my presence might jar upon the mourners, but all last evening I could hear the strokes of a hammer in the yard, where, in the middle of a little crowd of idlers, the next of kin laboured slowly at the coffin. To-day, before the hour for the funeral, poteen was served to a number of men who stood about upon the road, and a portion was brought to me in my room. Then the coffin was carried out sewn loosely in sailcloth, and held near the ground by three cross-poles lashed upon the top. As we moved down to the low eastern portion of the island, nearly all the men, and all the oldest women, wearing petticoats on their heads … came out and joined in the procession.

‘While the grave was being opened the women sat among the flat tombstones, bordered with a pale fringe of early bracken and all began the wild keen, or crying for the dead. Each old woman, as she took her turn in the leading recitative, seemed possessed for the moment with a profound ecstasy of grief, swaying to and fro, and bending her forehead to the stone before her, while she called out to the dead with a perpetually recurring chant of sobs.

‘All round the graveyard other wrinkled women, looking out from under the deep red petticoats that cloaked them, rocked themselves with the same rhythm, and intoned the inarticulate chant that is sustained by all as an accompaniment…

‘The morning had been beautifully fine, but as they lowered the coffin into the grave, thunder rolled overhead, and hailstones hissed among the bracken. In Inishmaan one is forced to believe in a sympathy between man and nature, and at this moment, when the thunder sounded a death-peal of extraordinary grandeur above the voices of the women, I could see the faces near me stiff and drawn with emotion.

‘When the coffin was in the grave, and the thunder had rolled away across the hills of Clare, the keen broke out again more passionately than before.’

The content of the keen seems to have been a mixture of traditional laments, more personalised content about the deceased, their life and achievements and a communal, high-pitched wailing. Something along the lines of:

‘O why did you leave us and where have you gone,

You, yes you Mike of Tralee,

Death claims us all, but why leave us now,

Your friends and your dear wife Maggie?

Across death’s dark river then Mike hear the call of your

9 bairns, 10 yews and 8 kine

We wish you had waited… Why you could have won

Your place in heaven any time…’


O why did he leave us and where has he gone

And what are we going to do next?

The passing of Michael has left us all sad

Indeed you could say we were vexed….

Ullaloo… ullaloo’

I do, of course, a great disservice to the skill of the keener there; an act unwise given that many ‘bean caoinadh’ or keening woman was probably the canniest old crone of her locality. Ladies I, Jude of Pembrokeshire, apologise unreservedly.

For anyone wondering about the ‘Ullaloo’ element above, the tongue- in -cheek glossary to Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth (1800) offers the following information:

‘WHILLALUH. – Ullaloo, Gol, or lamentation over the dead…

A full account of the Irish Gol, or Ullaloo, and of the Caoinan or Irish funeral song, with its first semichorus, second semichorus, full chorus of sighs and groans, together with the Irish words and music, may be found in the fourth volume of the TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL IRISH ACADEMY. For the advantage of LAZY readers, who would rather read a page than walk a yard, and from compassion, not to say sympathy, with their infirmity, the Editor transcribes the following passages:-

‘….It has been affirmed of the Irish, that to cry was more natural to them than to any other nation, and at length the Irish cry became proverbial… In the twelfth century…  they applied the musical art… to the orderly celebration of funeral obsequies by dividing the mourners into two bodies, each alternately singing their part, and the whole at times joining in full chorus….  The relations and keepers (SINGING MOURNERS) ranged themselves in two divisions, one at the head, and the other at the feet of the corpse…

‘The chief bard of the head chorus began by singing the first stanza, in a low, doleful tone, which was softly accompanied by the harp: at the conclusion, the foot semichorus began the lamentation, or Ullaloo, from the final note of the preceding stanza, in which they were answered by the head semichorus; then both united in one general chorus. The chorus of the first stanza being ended, the chief bard of the foot semichorus began the second Gol or lamentation, in which he was answered by that of the head; and then, as before, both united in the general full chorus. Thus alternately were the song and choruses performed during the night.

‘The genealogy, rank, possessions, the virtues and vices of the dead were rehearsed, and a number of interrogations were addressed to the deceased; as, why did he die? If married, whether his wife was faithful to him, his sons dutiful, or good hunters or warriors? If a woman, whether her daughters were fair or chaste? If a young man, whether he had been crossed in love; or if the blue-eyed maids of Erin treated him with scorn?’

Edgeworth also tells us that whereas ‘formerly the metrical feet of the Caoinan were much attended to…on the decline of the Irish bards these feet were gradually neglected, and the Caoinan fell into a sort of slipshod metre amongst women.

‘It is curious to observe how customs and ceremonies degenerate. The present Irish cry, or howl, cannot boast of such melody… they begin to cry – Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Agh! Agh! raising their notes from the first OH! to the last AGH! in a kind of mournful howl… Certain old women, who cry particularly loud and well are in great request…’

Certain even older Irish women were also associated with keening though – none other but the Banshees – albeit without Siouxie.

The name ‘Banshee’ comes from ‘Bean Sidhe’ or ‘fairy woman’. Tradition has it that the oldest families of Ireland had connections with their own Banshee; she would not only warn them of death with her unearthly wailing but would also perform the keen at their funerals. Her Scottish equivalent is the ‘Bean Nighe’ – an old woman encountered at fords washing the bloodstained garments of those who are about to die.

My mind-picture of a Banshee has always been of a frightening old hag, but apparently they often appeared as beautiful young women with long golden or auburn tresses. Their eyes were red, yes, but only from their tears. Usually benign, they were only to be feared if crying. Is that another chorus of Trevor Howards I hear wailing ‘just like most women then!’?

Of fiddling and funerals…

Coming to terms then with the fact that I can no longer have a Bean Sidhe, a Bean Caoinad, a Mute or a Keeper at my funeral I was delighted to discover that I can still have a funerary violinist. I’d been surfing one night and was delighted to come across the Guild of Funerary Violinists at www.rohan-k.co.uk/guild.html. The site itself will tell you much more than I can about the ancient profession as well as allowing you to listen to some samples of traditional fiddling for funerals.

There is, of course, fiddling at funerals and fiddling at funerals. My colleague Sharon, for example, doesn’t have great luck with them. Her earliest mishap was arriving late for one and sidling her way upstairs in the chapel where she finally found a seat in the front row of the balcony amidst a throng of dark-suited fellow mourners. She didn’t realise her mistake until the male voice choir surrounding her rose as a man to perform their solo tribute to the deceased.

The fiddliest funeral I’ve been to was last year – a proper old welsh country funeral conducted at the height of an absolute deluge. The only place to leave cars was some distance from the chapel so that by the time the mourners got inside each and every one was soaked to the skin. Thoughtfully though, the keepers of the chapel had turned the heating full on; that we didn’t all pass out if not away from the naphtha filled fog of steam that quickly formed was in itself a small miracle.

The tribute to the deceased was long – three ministers were taking part and one of them decided to use the funeral as a platform for his views on Shambo, a sacred bull suspected to be suffering from TB in a small Hindu community just down the road. At the time the Welsh Assembly Government had just stayed the execution order on the friesian but the minister of the chapel wanted blood and wanted it NOW.

With the bull finally out of the way it came time to stand to sing the final hymn – the point at which a good half of those attending discovered that they were glued to their seats. Not in the ‘excited by the oratory’ meaning, actually stuck to their pews, the combination of heat and dampness having reacted with the old varnish. As I rose – more determinedly –  I experienced an unmistakeable sensation – that of ripping yarn – yet all I could do was stand there, singing ‘Arglwydd dyma Fi’ (‘Lord here I am’) hoping that He had a sense of humour and praying that those in the pew immediately behind were short sighted to a man. There are, after all, brief encounters and brief encounters…

P.S. In case, after following the link above you – yes you – start getting excited by the prospect of having a violinist at your funeral, you should also look here… http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article600440.ece . Yes, sadly, the Guild of Funerary Violinists is an extremely elaborate hoax, the quite brilliant brainchild of a busker from Brighton. Hats off to him…

Of time, tides and turns

•August 3, 2008 • 3 Comments

Of waxing and waning lyrical…

In the space between the CD cabinet and the gardening certificate stands a moon clock which, single handedly, counts out the 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 2.8 seconds of each lunar month.

Although theoretically purchased for me, it’s one of those gifts which you know the giver needed more than the recipient. I like to know the phase of the moon at a glance, yes, but there are times when it’s vital for Tom to know the phase of my mood at a glance. Ensuring fresh supplies of doughnuts and putting corks on the tips of all the sharp knives in the house takes planning after all…

A link between the moon and the tides of mankind has long been perceived; indeed Pliny, writing in AD 77, called the moon ‘the star of our life‘. Sometimes exposure to any moonlight was considered perilous; many traditions cautioned against sleeping in moonlight for fear of blindness, madness or idiocy whilst Roman physicians believed that moonlight heightened the saturation of the air, causing seizures in the brain.

The adjective ‘lunatic’ – from the Latin ‘lunaticus’ or ‘moonstruck’ first entered the English language around 1300, meaning ‘affected by periodical insanity dependant on the changes of the moon’. It took eighty more years for it to start being used as a noun but once it was, it stuck; it wasn’t until the Mental Treatment Act of 1930 that British statute replaced the term ‘lunatic’, with ‘person of unsound mind’ and we continue to watch the progress of the tabloid press with interest…

More often than not it was the full moon that was credited with having the most malign influence. Writing in the late 1400s, William Langland records that ‘lunatic lollers’ become more or less mad according to the phase of the moon and around a century later Paracelsus warns of its powers to ‘tear reason out of man’s head’. A more precise definition within British Law defined a lunatic as someone who was lucid in the fortnight before the full moon but prone to odd behaviour during the subsequent fourteen days.

The Catholic Church waded into the debate in Mediaeval times, telling people not to be so silly and superstitious… of course it wasn’t the influence of the moon on people which caused insanity… it was the influence of the moon on devils…

For certain men who are called Lunatics are molested by devils more at one time than at another; and the devils would not so behave, but would rather molest them at all times, unless they themselves were deeply affected by certain phases of the Moon,‘ explains the Malleus Mallificarium.

Belief in the effect of the moon on the mind persisted though and as recently as 1940 a soldier being tried for murder at the Winchester Assizes pleaded ‘moon madness’ as a defence.

But of course believing that the moon – or aliens, or a secret signal being beamed at you from the spiral arm of some far distant galaxy come to that – affects your behaviour does not, in itself, establish causality. In fact it makes little intuitive sense that the phase of the moon should exert any influence on us whatsoever. Consider our artificially lit homes and neon-polluted nights. A single 100w bulb is 600 times brighter then the full moon and whether shining in its fullness or utterly un-illuminated, the moon is still there, after all, clutched to the earth’s mass by the gravity of the situation…

‘Ah but…’, I hear you say, ‘the phases of the moon also coincide with the strength of its pull, its ‘full’ or ‘dark’ force aided and augmented both by its alignment with the sun and the turn of the earth… Our bodies are, after all, largely made up of water… of course it will have an effect on us…’ But we must also remember that the forces that create the tides are exerted over the vast surface area of the oceans. Smaller bodies of water cut off from the seas – lakes, reservoirs, swimming pools, Jacuzzis – even though 100 per cent H2O, show no evidence of being ‘pulled’ by the moon…

I was interested to discover actually how little of our bodies is water. I had a 80-90% figure floating around in my head, but it turns out that men are roughly 60% water (often more on a Saturday night) and women only 55%. Babies on the other hand – of either sex – are around 78% water; a figure that will doubtless come as no surprise to parents. It’s also, incidentally, been calculated that the difference it would make to our bodyweight if the moon were to disappear altogether would be around that of a gnat alighting on our shoulder. Mars bars and Milky Ways have a considerably greater effect then…

Studies have found correlations between certain natural phenomena and moon phases of course, but these are often ‘understandable’ connections. For example it’s quite graspable that the fullness – or darkness – of the moon would be the ‘best’ times for animals to do certain things; when seeing – or being unseen – is advantageous. The full moon acting as a signal for creatures to amass and breed is also easy to comprehend – but very different to claiming that it makes them breed, or migrate, or forage… That levels of radon gas – responsible for around 2,000 deaths in the UK each year due to its accumulation in our homes – can rise by up to 46% at the extremes of the moon’s phases is explainable by its effects on the earth’s crust and water-table levels…

Some scientific investigations have also claimed to find links between the moon and human behaviour – e.g. between moon phases and rates of admission to psychiatric hospitals – but the results have, on the whole, proven impossible to replicate and lose their significance in meta-analysis.

Any discernable differences in admission patterns could of course also be due to the beliefs and expectations of the staff responsible for assessing the ‘unwell’ rather than the behaviour of those admitted; ‘ooh, it’s full moon… we’d better lock this one up just in case…’ Do people really commit more crimes at full moon, or is it just easier to spot them doing so?

But for every one sceptic pointing at the figures, you’ll also find dozens of people working in frontline emergency, medical and psychiatric services who will swear that the moon does have an effect. The sceptics would answer of course that people who hold this belief are more likely to notice and remember incidents which coincide with full moon… which in turn will re-enforce their belief…

I have my own theory to offer; that the sleep deprivation associated with a) a series of lighter nights and b) being berated by crabby women for a week or two each month is enough to push anyone already teetering firmly over the edge…

Of tides in the affairs of men…

Anyway, today the clock tells me that the moon is ‘waxing gibbous’ – growing and more than half visible – but that by the time I post this, it will probably be a waning gibbous… as I hope none of my readers will be as a consequence of my prolixity. For gibbous comes from the Latin ‘gibbosus’ or ‘hunchbacked’. Those of you who do spend too much time bent over your screen here though may find the section on bells and the ringing thereof in my June blog of interest…

The naming words of the moon’s turns and the bulging tides it drags in its wake cast a lulling pull of their own for me – waxing, waning, ebb and flow, gibbous, crescent, flux, neap, surge… they’re words that draw me in with their mystery and antiquity; words to be savoured. You can imagine them being uttered in hushed tones attached to a fragment of folk wisdom; ‘it is very dangerous,’ cautions Bede ‘to bleed when the light of the moon and the pull of the tide is increasing…’

Many traditions concerning the moon and the sea wash in and out of each other’s inlets, echoing superstitions and sentiments; for example the common belief in coastal communities that people die only when the tide was ebbing is mirrored by others which looked to the moon as the marker of man’s day. In Shropshire it was believed that people would not die when the moon was rising whilst other superstitions held that an ailing man would last until the moon had passed its full.

To be born with the growing moon was considered lucky, to be born with the waning moon unlucky and to be born at the dark of the moon worst of all; ‘no moon, no man’, was the saying. Similarly a birth when the tide was going out was considered an ill-omen both for the newborn and the mother.

Nor should weaning be started on the wane – ‘a child put off the breast on the wane of the moon will continue to decay whilst the moon continues to wane’ was a belief recorded in Angus in 1808. Hazlitt claims older resonance here, pointing to ‘rath’ meaning both ‘circle’ and ‘fortunate’ in Gaelic. ‘The wane, when the circle is diminishing, and consequently unlucky they call mi-rath. Of one who is unfortunate they say at a mi-rath air’, he records.

Ireland and Wales meanwhile shared a belief that the outgoing tide could carry sickness and particularly whooping cough away; at one time it was common practice to take an ailing child to the water’s edge and allow the ebbing tide to take the cough away with it. One particularly unpleasant variation involved making the child vomit through the consumption of sea water; I can almost hear the conviction with which they would subsequently insist that they were feeling ‘much better now, thank you mother…’

Although my family lived on the coast, the folk remedy for whooping cough in my mother’s childhood involved being taken to the local gasworks to inhale the fumes there. At first I suspected a corruption of the older tradition, given that the gasworks was only a stone’s throw from the sea, but some Googling has confirmed that a trip to the gasworks was a common whooping cough cure throughout Britain in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Kill or cure at times; whilst surfing I also came across a sad little snippet from the New York Times dated September 25th 1909. It records:

‘There is a widespread belief that fumes given off in the process of gas making are beneficial for whooping cough, and Mrs Mathias of Lawrenny, Pembrokeshire, took her son, aged 4 years, who is suffering from the disease to the Neyland Gas Works to inhale gas. A spark from a passing locomotive is believed to have ignited the gas in the condensing house and an explosion followed. The mother was so badly burned that she died in a few minutes, and the boy is not expected to recover.’

Back at my blogging the old moon slips away and I realise that ‘waning gibbous’ is now rather over-ambitious for posting; my brain feels slow and my word count seems to have got dragged into the undertow.

Of hiraeth, heleniums and hemerocallis

I suspect that my inertia’s more to do with the turn of the sun than the moon though. Well over a month has now passed since it reached its high point and the nights – I whisper – are drawing in. Something in me ‘senses’ the change far earlier though and as the longest day slips past, my energy and mood dive in unison. Pre-solstice everything seems possible; post solstice is the beginning of the end.

The Welsh name for July – ‘Gorfennaf’ – hints that I’m not alone in my post-midsummer gloom either, for it means, literally, ‘end of summer’. Monty Don too writes of the period immediately after the solstice as a particularly low time for him. Perhaps it’s a gardener thing – or at least something felt most by those who usually spend a deal of their time outdoors?

It’s been compounded for me this year of course by the continuing absence of my robin. I shrink from writing ‘death’ and tell myself tall tales about his having lost a territorial battle and moved on, but in my heart and in my head I grieve for his passing. I’ve been strict with myself ever since he first crossed the divide to land on my palm; rigorously refusing to name him and reminding myself that one day he would fail to appear. But of course robins have a name already – and nothing could have prepared me for the silence he’s left.

And so I repeat the platitude that he had a ‘good, long life’. The average lifespan for robins is, after all, less than a year and I know that he was at least seven years old. We first became acquainted soon after my mother’s death in the late summer of 2001; his chirruping company was the spur I needed to dig at one of the few times in my life when the garden yielded little but sorrow.

Reading her diary for 1997 recently though, I found several entries about an unusually fearless juvenile robin which was frequenting the garden and cannot help but wonder…. If it was the same one, that would make him 11 – three years older than the ‘oldest recorded British robin’ but still a couple of years younger than the German record holder. I find myself wondering if elderly robins go pink?

I also find myself wishing that I had not come to take his ‘ever there-ness’ so much for granted. So ubiquitous was he that instead of savouring every minute of his close company, I reached the stage where I’d sometimes – albeit fleetingly – ignore his demands to complete some task before delving for the can of worms. He had his ways of making his presence felt though…

Thankfully the gloom is not mirrored in my garden. Interest there reaches its zenith in mid July when the lilies swell, sneezewort kindles and green-skirted clumps of Hemerocallis trumpet from the borders, their warm notes spilling onto a white tide of over-blown feverfew.

There’s a glorious hand-over week or two early in the month when a few blousy irises, billows of pale blue geranium and royal side-spikes of delphiniums remain to cool the high summer hues, but much as I love the gentler shades of spring, I like my garden best wild awake.

In a good summer I’m topped up on serotonin by now and am happy to seek shade; to pause and draw breath, sit back and sip the flowers. In summers like the last two we’ve allegedly had, I lose heart, survey the damage done to flora and fauna by weeks of rain and midsummer gales and long for a patch of sunshine to mend the hole where happiness leaks out.

Of Sirius, scorching and serpents…

I check the origin of ‘Dog Days’ – the period between early July and mid August – and growl at the irony, for they are meant to be the hottest days of summer ,when both man and beast are driven to madness by the incessant -oh wouldn’t it be lovely – warmth. They’re called the Dog Days though not for the mad canines and welsh women who yearn to go out in them; their name comes from Sirius, the Dog Star.

In ancient Egypt, Sirius was observed to rise just over the horizon at dawn this time of year – its ‘heliacal rising’ as in ‘with the sun’. For the people of the Nile, its early morning wink was welcomed and marked, for it tipped them off that the annual flooding vital to the fertility of the Delta was nigh.

The Greeks also looked to the stars – including ‘Seirios’ as they knew it (literally ‘scorching’ or ‘searing’) – to mark the passing of time precisely, for the beginning and end of lunar calendar months could vary considerably over a number of years. They took a dimmer view of its presence though.

Homer warns of ‘That star which comes on in the autumn and whose conspicuous brightness far outshines the stars that are numbered in the night’s darkness… yet is wrought as a sign of evil and brings on the great fever for unfortunate mortals.’

Alcaeus meanwhile records that when ‘Seirios, is come around, the season is harsh, everything is thirsty under heat, the grasshopper pours his song from the branches… the artichoke flowers; now are women most wanton, but men are feeble; Seirios parches their heads and knees’ .

Hesiod also uses Sirius as a marker in his ‘Works and Days’ – an agrarian teaching text which could have doubled as a script for an early Greek version of ‘The Archers’ – ‘But when Oarion and Seirios are come into mid-heaven, and rosy-fingered Eos (Dawn) sees Arktouros [i.e. in September], then cut off all the grape-clusters…’ he counsels. Next week, Clarrie spins the golden fleece, the Ministry vet vaccinates the Gorgons and Brian sets up an artificial insemination programme for Minotaurs…

The Greeks and the Romans both believed that Sirius actually added its heat to that of the sun during the dog days; ‘Twas the season when the vault of heaven bends its most scorching heat upon the earth, and Sirius the Dog-star smitten by Hyperion’s full might pitilessly burns the panting fields.’ wrote Statius in first century Rome.

And the view of the period from early July to mid August being accursed persisted; ‘In these Dog Days it is forbidden… to be let Blood or take Physic. Yea, it is good to abstain all this time from Women. For why, all that time reigneth a Star that is called Canicula Canis… broiling and burning as Fire’ warns the Husbandman’s Practice in 1729. ‘All this time the Heat of the Sun is so fervent and violent that Men’s bodies at Midnight sweat as at Midday: and if they be hurt, they be more sick than at any other time…. In these days all venomous serpents creep, fly and gender, so that many are annoyed thereby…’

I have in fact been delighted by a venomous serpent recently; my first ever close up and personal encounter with a live adder (unless you count maths undergraduates, that is…)

Of whinberries, wars and snakes in the grass…

I was gathering Whinberries – also known as Blaeberries, Whortleberries, Bilberries, Huckleberries or Whimberries, depending on where you live. We also know them as whineberries in our household, from the noise that those not of a hunter/ gatherer persuasion make when a whinberry picking expedition is suggested. For whinberrying is probably the ultimate measure of fruit-picking patience within these isles; the shrubs on which they grow hug the ground, the berries nestle amongst the leaves and are TINY. You pick other fruit; you earn whinberries.

I have berrying juice in my veins though. My father would pick contentedly for hours and I’d match him minute-for-minute, smiling, satisfied, submerging day-to-day cares in the meditation of gathering. His technique was better than mine but he had bigger hands and had also had many years of practice.

Growing up in Germany between the wars he experienced gnawing poverty; gathering from the wild was an everyday matter of survival. I got the feeling though that whinberrying was an ‘event’ rather than dragging routine for his family. The Heidelbeeren – as they knew them – grew in the pine forests near his Rhinepfalz home – on land usually off limits to the poor and closely guarded by foresters. Once a year though (oh why didn’t I ask him when – and why then?) the forest would be ‘opened’ and villagers allowed in at dawn to gather the navy jewels. All the children helped in the early morning harvest but the pickings weren’t for their eating; the following day my grandmother would carry a metal pail of berries on her head to the market in Trier, where they could be exchanged for precious cash.

My grandfather couldn’t pick; his hands were wrecked by frostbite contracted when he fell into a partially frozen river. He’d been dragging a dug-out tree-stump home for fuel under cover of darkness when he slipped on the icy bank.

My father only knew him ‘til the age of 12, when, in 1933, true to his Communist beliefs, he voted openly against the Hitler government and as a result was forced to flee his home for fear of interment – and worse – at Dachau. He left my grandmother with five sons, no income, and no choice, given the politics of small village life, but to thrust her offspring into the Hitler Youth. I often wonder whether I am proud or ashamed of him. Probably both.

By the time he was able to return in 1945, his two older sons had died of the cold fighting for the cause he so despised on the Russian Front and his middle son – my father – had been shot and taken prisoner by American soldiers, not far from death himself at the time.

Perhaps it’s little wonder then that my father’s ‘old stories’ were all either of his younger childhood or of his Prisoner of War days; picking cotton in Mississippi and litter on beaches in Florida, working in a Heinz factory where the secret ingredient of each batch of ketchup was a judicious spit of the supervisor’s chewing tobacco and finally labouring on farms in West Wales. They were, I suspect, by far the greenest fields he had ever known.

Anyway, back in the pastures of today – well rough scrubland anyway – the adder curled unhurriedly just inches from my footstep before slipping, soundless, into longer grass. It was surprisingly big; I can’t estimate its length as it travelled coiled, but it had a thickness to it which I certainly didn’t expect. Its striking, black-on-tan markings which most reference books interpret as zigzags I perceived as diamonds. However should you come across a snake which doesn’t have classic adder markings, don’t assume it isn’t one. Some adders are unusually pale with very feint markings whilst others can be plain dark grey or black. A cunning plan indeed…

Had it been Kaa from the Jungle Book, I couldn’t have been more fascinated – hypnotized indeed – by its brief presence; indeed for once it didn’t even occur to me to point my every-ready camera. Sincere thanks then to photographer Simon Harrap of Norfolk Nature for his permission to use the image below – you can follow the link at the end of this ramble for more of Simon’s stunning images of both fauna and flora.

I’ve learned, since, that European adder bites are rarely fatal in humans, but the after-shiver of the snake and be-sandaled state of my feet combined to persuade me that perhaps we had, after all, collected sufficient whinberries for one day. Should you ever find yourself bitten though, please don’t let my ‘very rarely fatal’ put you off getting medical help. Official advice is to do so immediately whilst ‘immobilising’ the bitten part and keeping it below heart level – although I suspect that that doesn’t mean standing on your head should a viper nibble your earlobe… Nor should anyone be allowed to indulge in amateur dramatics such as applying tourniquets, trying to suck or cut the poison out or cauterising the bite. It will hurt quite enough by itself, thank you.

I smiled when reading Stefan Buczaki’s ‘adder’ entry in ‘Fauna Britannica’ – he lists a bewildering number of folk cures, including the fat from another adder which had recently been deep fried, pieces of live pigeon and a ‘bag of heads’ – a bag containing the heads of an adder, a toad and a newt which sounds to have come straight from The Scottish Play. He also observes that there are so many ‘cures’ probably because anything tried almost always ‘worked’, greatly enhancing the reputation of the local wise woman or man…

Whilst reflecting on my encounter I was also intrigued to learn that the name ‘adder’, has actually had something subtracted from it – for the word was, once, ‘nadder’ or, in Old English ‘nædder’. The same root can also be found in the current Welsh (naidr), Irish and Scots Gaelic (nathair) and Cornish (nader) words for ‘serpent’ or ‘snake’. Sometime during the 14th century, courtesy of ease of speech, ‘a nadder’ became ‘an adder’, around the same time that ‘an ewt’ became ‘a newt’. Young newts however never gained the ‘n’ and remain ‘efts’ to this day…

Of welshcakes and S&M

Anyway, I used the whinberries snatched from the wild in spite of near-certain indifference from the snake to make whinberry welshcakes.

For the uninitiated, welshcakes are flat, flour-based cakes cooked on a ‘planc’, ‘maen’ or griddle which are basic to the upbringing of almost everyone west of Offa’s Dyke. Traditionally they’re made incorporating dried fruit – currants and/ or sultanas and even sometimes candied peel and mixed spice… Ooh, there’s fancy for you… I, however, have taken to making them with fresh whinberries around Lammastide each year.

This has its advantages. The preparation of the mixture for welshcakes is not particularly time-consuming but the cooking of them is – especially as it seems to be compulsory to only ever make them in quantities of four dozen or more. They have to be watched over, nursed six at a time, deftly ‘flipped’ mid cooking and then precariously transferred from planc to wire cooling tray, inevitably leaving the cook hot, cross and with semi-scorched fingers.

A couple of times a year then, when whinberries are in season, I’ll enjoy the novelty of their making and the oh-so-evocative smell of their cooking. But by the end of the second batch, I’ll be quite glad that seasonality will soon give me a valid excuse not to produce them once a week, as was standard practice in most welsh homes until not so long ago.

The other practice standard to welsh homes was the pinching of welshcakes. They’re nice enough cold, but hot they’re different creatures altogether; sweeter, softer and – the ultimate seasoning – illicit. Of course for the person cooking the welshcakes, having them disappear almost as fast as they can be made is initially a compliment but, as time goes on, becomes more and more dispiriting to say the least. I suspect there was, then, a fine line of ‘accepted’ thievery in most household beyond which the wrath of mam would be incurred. In fact had Max Moseley been Welsh, he may well have found contentment being tied up with apron strings and given a damned good talking to…

Apron, incidentally, is another one of those word which has now lost its initial ‘n’… Why didn’t the viper viper hands? Because the nadder ‘ad ‘er napron of course…

I notice that Delia Smith – who I’m sure has a cult following of her very own amongst the ‘whip to a light froth’ brigade – proscribes butter or honey with welshcakes but these are English aberrations. Proper welshcakes are eaten naked. She also goes completely wrong by asserting that ‘it’s important to cook them completely through’… Oh, no, Delia, the real secret lies in taking them off just before they’re cooked through, leaving a thin but delectable band of slightly moister mixture in the middle. I’m sure Nigella would…

For 24 welshcakes then, you need

1lb self raising flour (and a bit more for rolling or pressing out)

½lb butter

½lb sugar

2 eggs, soundly beaten

milk if needed

¼ pint fresh whinberries (or dried fruit, out of season)

A planc, maen, griddle or thick, flat bottomed frying pan.

Rub the butter into the flour and mix in the sugar.

Get your whinberries out and curse as you remember that whinberries need picking twice; the first time to get them off their bushes and the second time to pick out all the tiny leaves which will inevitably end up clinging to the berries in your collecting receptacle. It’s easiest done by pouring them out onto a big flat plate or tray which will give you a good view of a thin layer of berries. Rocking it from side to side helps to uncover hidden foliage – but don’t rock too vigorously as picking whinberries for a third time, from the floor, is no fun whatsoever.

Put your cooking implement of choice on to warm thoroughly – a medium heat is what you need. Do NOT oil it though unless it’s brand new or recently scrubbed – sufficient fat will cook out of the welshcakes to make them ‘non-stick’.

Tip the fruit into your dry mixture and from here on in try to touch it as little as you possibly can. Some berries will inevitably burst but the finished product looks rather nicer if the initial dough isn’t completely pink from juice. I use a knife to ‘cut’ the eggs into the mixture, just squidging it together with my hands at the last minute – you may need a splash of milk too although the welsh measure would be a ‘lwtched’, which relates, I think, more closely to a ‘slurp’ or a ‘slosh’ than a splash.

If making it with dried fruit you can roll the dough out – to around a third of an inch. To minimise berry bursting I press it into a flat with my hands instead, avoiding as many of the whinberries as I can.

Cut out your welshcakes with a fluted cutter and cook them a few at a time, remembering to leave yourself some space on the planc to flip them half way through. I use the same broad-bladed knife that I suspect has been used by three generations in this household, but there’s nothing to stop you cheating with a small fish-slice or spatula. They take roughly three to four minutes a side and when ready to turn will become slightly convex – gibbous even – on their upper face. If your first batch break try again – for some reason the first six are always the trickiest. You will have no trouble disposing of any that look less than perfect.

Dried fruit welshcakes will keep up to a week in a tin, whinberry ones need eating within a couple of days due to the fresh fruit. Oh, what utter hardship…

Of feathers, fellowships and farewells…

Gentle readers! The moon by now is almost at its dark and yet I ramble on… I have an excuse though. For a fortnight now the sky has been intermittently painted blue and I’ve taken every chance to catch the sun and hold it. I sit, then, under an old apple tree, my forearms jaundiced by nothing but lily pollen and feel it warm my face, my heart, my spirit. My word-rate has dropped to an absolute crawl for I’m watching something magical in the branches above me… a handful of long-tailed tits performing unparalleled gymnastics as they pick insects from the undersides of leaves. Their fragile form and elongated tail feathers whisper of the cobwebs with which they bind moss together to make a nest…

I’ve only once before seen even a single long tailed tit in the garden; today I have six. It is though, apparently, more common to see half a dozen birds than a solitary one, for they spend most of the year in tightly-knit social groups, travelling, eating and sleeping as if connected by invisible elastic. Indeed should one get even temporarily left behind you’ll hear the separation anxiety in its call until re-united.

This time of year these groups are made up of an adult pair, their this-year’s offspring and any ‘aunts or uncles’ on the male parent bird’s side. These other adults will have ‘earned’ their place in the group by helping to feed their brother’s young. In spring the groups break up into pairs and begin nest building. If for some reason one couple’s attempt at breeding fails, they will split up and each return to a brother’s territory where they join in the mammoth task of collecting invertebrates for their sibling’s brood. Up to eight ‘helpers’ have been recorded at a single nest site.

Doing so is not altruism. Yes the chance of the brother’s brood surviving is increased, but so are the chances of the adult birds making it safely through to try to breed another spring. Long tailed tits are absolutely tiny and so particularly susceptible to the cold. By winning themselves a place in the social group they get to sleep snuggled up with their family through the long winter nights. They are, actually, the only British birds which habitually huddle at night. Wrens will do so when forced to by extreme cold but long tailed tits actually choose the communal wrap of 12-tog living feather and down all year round.

Over the course of the winter the ‘daughters’ of the family will transfer to different social groups and be replaced by females from other families so that by next spring a mixed gene pool already exists in the social group.

Their nests – formidable domed structures of moss and cobwebs pebble-dashed with lichen for camouflage – take weeks of building. It’s the final phase of construction though which really demonstrates this amazing little lollipop of a bird’s second feat of turning misfortune into success…

For each nest must be lined with up to 2,000 feathers. And whereas finding 2000 feathers this time of year when birds are moulting might not be difficult, finding them in the spring when all species are near perfection plumage-wise is a very tall order. Long tailed tits then – these fluttering bundles of sweetness and light – seek out the corpses of less fortunate birds, pluck them and re-cycle…

So, heads under wings, beaks under blankets, it’s definitely time to bring my waxing to a close before the moon starts doing so again. Just a mention though that as it rises at its full on the 16th August, it will appear, from Britain, to have a chunk missing… The folklore of eclipses, then, probably, next time…


http://www.norfolknature.co.uk/ More of Simon Harrap’s lovely photographs

http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/adder_lore.htm Lots of adder folklore from Devon

http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/173/12/1498 More about the various studies on the moon and mental health

http://unauthorised.org/anthropology/anthro-l/october-1995/0174.html Ouch…

http://www.astrosociety.org/education/publications/tnl/33/33.html What if the moon didn’t exist?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2006/mar/16/thisweekssciencequestions.environment The moon and radon

Of messengers winged, wandering and wondering…

•June 15, 2008 • 2 Comments

Of birds, baths and beaks…

Above the CD collection of mixed ownership hangs a certificate, testifying that the quarter acre or so which I now tend was once registered as a wildlife garden.

Qualification – twenty five years ago – required us to have five ‘wildlife features’; long grass, woodpiles, bog areas, ponds and the ilk. I think it likely though that had the registering body known that our original ‘pond’ was a bath, we’d have been more likely to have been certified than certificated.

My father was pretty wild too; having manhandled the cast-iron hulk down the steep quarry steps and spent hours sinking it in at ground level as a ‘surprise’ for his beloved-who-wanted-a-pond, his beloved’s reaction was not quite what he expected. The clincher for my mother was probably the taps, but even without the no-longer-running H&C it was always going to be a buried bath – which of course now had to be exhumed and hauled back up the steps, my father leaking good karma with every riser.

His subsequent silence – anger and hurt invariably manifesting themselves in a lowering rather than a raising of the volume in our household – lasted for several days, during which time mum no doubt had time to reflect that he had, after all, meant well. Not a word of protest was raised then when a neon turquoise plastic sheet later appeared lining the rather sinister, coffin-shaped indent.

I swear the imported tadpoles wore sunglasses that first year – they looked, after all, as though they’d ended up on a Club Med holiday. Time, however, is a great fader, and today, bar the shape, it looks almost like a pond. Only algae seem to thrive in it, but I suppose they’re wildlife too

Oh! I just discovered something courtesy of Word… I’d started that last sentence ‘only algae seems…’ to be rewarded with one of those annoying little green squiggly underlining. Wondering indignantly what it was objecting to now, I right-clicked, only to learn after all these years that that the singular of algae is ‘alga’. The option it offered me – ‘an only alga’ – must be one of the loneliest phrases I have ever encountered, but I will go to bed wiser courtesy of Microsoft tonight. ‘Tis such a reversal that I shall consider fragmenting…

Anyway, back in the garden the pond still blooms, the bath overflows with francoa and life is as wild as ever it was. A little wilder, in fact, this year, for the triumvirate of robin – seagull – crow which rule its airways have been joined by an usurper; a male blackbird anxious to elbow in on the pecking order. It started by stalking the robin and has now graduated to stalking me, venturing to within a foot in its determined quest for mealworms.

The indignant crow watches from a short distance, hunched on the wall like a sulking hoodie and Tig is definitely struggling with it all. If she half closes her eyes she can just about convince herself that something as small as a robin isn’t really fluttering fearlessly around her, but the blackbird’s on a bigger scale altogether and as such much harder to ignore, especially as it will insist on punctuating its every darting movement with an anxious, piercing ‘twick’.

Sammy’s sanguine enough though – he, after all, has never relied upon a diet of worms. No, his prime source of nourishment is cat food – or to be precise, the bits of alleged ‘meat’ left after Tig has sucked the jelly off her Felix. All Sammy has to worry about from his haughty perch is ‘will it be beef or will it be salmon in cat saliva gravy?’

The robin hardly seems to notice either – its brood hatched around a fortnight ago and it has, since, become a bird driven. I treasure being close enough to pick up on these changes in his life; he has, after all, been carrying mealworms to courtship-feed his partner for some weeks now; had I been less familiar with his behaviour I might well have concluded that he already had young.

After seven years of watching though, I spot the difference that announces break-out from eggshell Alcatraz immediately. Suddenly, instead of helping himself to a mouthful he’ll pick up a single grub, manipulate it from side-to-side-and-back-again across his beak like some macabre mouthorgan and then break it into shorter lengths before flying off with a meal made-to-measure – the perfect pecked lunch.

I suspect that he’s feeling both the width and the quality, ensuring that there are no choking hazards in these small parts. The dexterity though with which he manoeuvres and then sections the worm leaves me with renewed respect for the precision engineering of his beak; true wormsprung durch teknik.

An apology to purists, incidentally, for the heavy reliance on hand-based metaphor in the previous two paragraphs, but seek a synonym for ‘dexterity’ and what are you offered? ‘adroitness’, ‘dextrousness’, ‘legerdemain’, ‘handiness’… the results of some word searches, it would seem, are as empty as the sound of one wing flapping…

As days pass and the robin’s beak-loads grow larger and larger, I use their swelling and frequency to measure his brood’s progress. His current winged message hints at two to three well-fed young roblings – no mean feat when you consider that each one will demand around 140 small grubs or insects a day. It’s lucky then that it’s the time of year when I’m almost a fixture in the garden myself; an ever ready worm-o-mart where the only bills are full ones.

Of beauty, beasts and burial…

It is, you see, the start of the iris season. I am entranced.

I like spring flowers, or course, but having long ago lost the bulb battle to starch-seeking badgers and squirrels, my early-year garden boasts little impact after the fading of the hellebores.

The contrast, come May then, is sudden and startling. Clematis montana fleshes out the old pig sty roof, pale paper hats of astrantia crown shady borders and honeysuckle ‘Graham Thomas’ pours its scent into the waiting glass of evening. Awakened by bluebells, the garden’s getting up at last; ghostly globes of clematis Miss Bateman yawn open, meadow rue and chives comb out their shaggy locks and the perennial cornflowers stretch wide. In the borders, the first cranesbills and Cambrian poppies compare their crumpled, just-out-of-bed skirts.

And then the irises begin to bloom. The dozen-or-so varieties I grow will unfurl in waves from now until July, each spiralling a fresh charm of fascination as they corkscrew open. For one who photographs they are a delight, a muse of which I never tire whether viewed face on, from above, from below, lit by the setting sun or bejewelled by raindrops. I adore their complex form, the intricacy of their markings, the depth and breadth of their colours; small wonder that they are named for the winged messenger of Greek mythology who personified the rainbow.

In fact considering the beauty – and the inexplicability at the time of the phenomenon of rainbows – it surprises me a little that Iris wasn’t a bigger player in the Pantheon. But no, her role was very much that of trusted go-between, a B-list deity conveying the messages of A-list gods with accuracy and alacrity. Mentioned a few times in the Iliad – and called upon to deliver Stygian water to Mount Olympus, come the Odyssey she seems to have been largely usurped by Hermes, almost as if Zeus and Hera had decided to change their utility supplier.

The Theogony – a didactic ‘who’s who’ of the gods by Hesiod – gives Iris’ parentage as the Titan Thaumas and the nymph Electra. And if he is right, it means that she was a bit of a Cinderella in other ways too, for she had, you see, some very ugly sisters.

Exactly how many ugly sisters depends on who you read; Homer only mentions one, Hesiod two and later writers three or more, but whatever their number, they were, collectively, known as the Harpies; loathsome, ravenous creatures with the heads and sometimes bodies of women but the wings and claws of terrifying birds.

Originally associated with the sea, wind and storms, the name ‘Harpy’ comes from the Greek ‘harpazein’ -‘to seize’ – and this was very much their role in myth. Be it children, the wounded, food or souls, the harpies were always lurking, ready to smash and grab.

One of the best known stories tells how Zeus sent them to plague Phineus the seer as punishment for his revealing things that should only be known to the gods. Every time Phineus tried to eat, the harpies would swoop from the heavens and make off with his fare, befouling any scraps left behind with their vile guano. I look around the high perches of my home and wonder whether I should rename Sammy and the crow Aello and Celaeno…

They’ve been joined in the last couple of days by a dark rash of Corvidae; I woke this morning to find two magpies within feet of the bedroom window looking on whilst a jackdaw grappled with a birdfeeder half its size and yesterday I watched astonished as a jay made repeated visits to the enclosed confines of the back, gathering up peanuts spilled during replenishment. It’s only the second time in my life that I’ve known a jay venture so close-up here; that the last time it happened was during a bitter, snow-clad snap hints at the stress that adult birds are under at the moment.

For we’ve had, you see, three consecutive days of rain and at times gale-force winds too. Providing for the needs of baby birds is a difficult task full stop, but in conditions like these it becomes exhausting and at times impossible; small wonder then that adults are willing to take unusual risks to access food either for themselves or their young.

The hideous weather also explains the odd behaviour of a blue-tit I watched yesterday evening. Humming-bird like it hovered around doors, window frames and under sills, clinging momentarily here and there, probing and pecking. I can only assume that heavy rain and wind having washed the caterpillars, grubs and aphids from the trees, it was searching out the spiders which spin between the angles of buildings; they would, after all, be relatively protected from the elements.

The message conveyed by the blue-tit’s flutterings was not an optimistic one though; even if they come in multi-packs, there’s not much meat on spider drumsticks and I’m sure that many, many baby birds will have perished either from hunger or hypothermia over the last few days. Apparently only one-in-ten eggs laid ever goes on to become an adult bird and consecutive days of bad spring weather must up these already sad odds considerably.

The baby robin I buried today though fell prey, I’m ashamed to say, to Tig. Well would have fallen prey had I not heard its cheeping and opened the back door on the beaming cat. I’ve wondered since whether it would not have been kinder to have left it shut, but once face-to-face with the bedraggled mite I had, of course, to scoop it up. I did so with heavy heart though as I know from experience that bird-saving is not my forté. From abandoned ducklings to numerous cat and weather casualties, my record is in fact just two successes over quarter of a century of trying – but hey, there’s never two without three, is there?

So over the space of 30 minutes I warmed it, I dried it, I tried – and failed – to feed it. I even sat it in a makeshift paper-lined nest-bowl and played it a recording of my robin’s song to try to make it connect me with bird-dom and food, but its beak remained stubbornly shut whilst its heart thumped and its eyes gazed wide. So I took it back to the garden and left it, in some shelter, near its parents. Half an hour later it was dead. Such a very short life.

Of vagabonds, vagrancy and varied diets…

Things being cold and wet have always bothered me. When little, my ambition in life was to be rich enough to buy a house big enough to home all gentlemen of the road. Whether they would actually want to be homed or not didn’t even occur to me. It also never occurred to me that I would need anything more than a single, very large building with perhaps twenty bedrooms at most at my disposal; I must have assumed at the time that almost every tramp in existence eventually found his way to our front door.

In my defence we did seem to get more than our ration of hopeful callers looking for food and perhaps some old clothes; in fact my mother swore that our dwelling had something she called ‘the mark’ on it, identifying it as one where there was welcome to be found. It would, she said, be carved in a spot ‘known to the wise’ – and it sounded even more thrilling when she said it in Welsh.

For years I thought I’d found it on the talcen wall but said nothing; I liked our strange visitors and loved the idea of a secret symbol. It was quite a let-down then when I eventually discovered that the arrow I’d kept to myself all that time was nothing more romantic than a benchmark inscribed by travellers from the Ordinance Survey, proclaiming the house to be precisely 228.2 feet above sea level. I consoled myself by reflecting that perhaps people living at that altitude were particularly renowned for their generosity of spirit in vagabond circles.

I’ve since learned that a circle is exactly what I should have been looking for, for that was the sign of a welcoming house (although how long that welcome would extend if the owners caught you chiselling into their masonry is of course a moot point…) A circle bisected by a line was a sign of warning, and a ‘Z’ an even more definite ‘do not call’. A triangle denoted a police house which could be a mixed blessing; a particularly bitter night might, after all, be better spent at her majesty’s pleasure than in the bite of the elements.

Anyway, signposted or not, our regular irregulars returned starling-like with the fall of the leaves each year. In spring and summer casual farm work would provide them with both both board and bedding but once harvest had passed, rural pickings were poor.

I don’t remember my family making any great distinction between the tramping folk and the gypsies who were also regular callers, although in a household where money was often scarce I suspect that the latter’s entreaties to part with hard cash in return for clothes-pegs, charms or frivolous glimpses of the future were less easy to comply with then requests for food.

There was, after all, always food to share – 95% of the garden was given over to vegetable production and a further 4% to chickens and bees. Eating and cooking apples in abundance, pears, blackcurrants, strawberries, gooseberries and rhubarb cocked a further snook at greengrocers whilst the surrounding countryside yielded blackberries, whimberries, elderberries and mushrooms.

Every Thursday morning my father would rise at five thirty and go and help one of the butchers at the local market to unload and set up his stall. The payment – always in kind – provided ample protein to last until Sunday and buttered the family bread for the week. On Sunday a chicken was eaten roasted, on Monday cold and on Monday night the carcass would be boiled to make cawl for Tuesday and Wednesday.

We actually paid for very little then; flour, sugar, milk, dried fruit, lard, margarine, tea and coffee were the staples whilst the occasional luxuries came in tins – baked beans, spaghetti, Goblin hamburgers, and Nestle’s cream. The cream – slightly grey and oily – would be served at teatime on a Sunday along with tinned ‘fruit cocktail’ – a syrupy mass in which only colour and texture distinguished peach from pear from pineapple. The punctuation marks of palid grapes and day-glo cherries tasted no different either, but were to be coveted all the same.

I must have thrown the family economy into crisis then when, at the age of five, I decided that for tea I would eat a dry currant bun with a glass of orange squash and that my supper would be a tin of Chef beans and sausages; every day; for years. I suspect that what triggered it was starting school dinners and the trauma of being forced to eat things I truly disliked to the point of retching; children’s taste buds can be such drama queens.

At home then I craved predictability and my parents, themselves fairly traumatised by picking a beetroot-faced child up from the school gates each day and dragging her back there the next morning, capitulated. There must have been times though when their patience was as sorely stretched as the household budget and I clearly remember my brother’s calm suggestion that I should be ‘given to the Lovells’.

The Lovells were our ‘local’ gypsies. I know that sounds a little unlikely, but for travelling folk they seemed to spend an awful lot of time in the area. They were headed by ‘Queen’ Marjorie, a weather-haggard crone who was generally held in awe by adults and children alike in spite of her diminutive stature.

My brother’s threat was made all the more credible because goodwill between our families was high. Perhaps my parents experienced sufficient prejudice as a result of my father being German to make them more tolerant than most of ‘difference’ – even to feel a camaraderie with those who hovered on the edge of exile. And my grandfather had long been a favourite with Marjorie since, whilst waiting outside chapel to troop in with the other deacons one Sunday morning, he had obliged her with a light for her clay pipe. The act prompted her to declare ‘Morgans’ to be ‘a gentleman’ – and once Marjorie declared something, it was so.

They’re all gone now; long gone in fact. Today I’m forced to buy my clothes pegs in the supermarket and the old tramps call no more. And so, with my chosen career path of hostelier to the homeless closed due to lack of demand, my current post of mental health Welfare Rights Worker is probably as near as I’ll get. I don’t house or feed people directly, but I do try to ensure that the sate fulfils its duty to do so, even if I fear that Government plans to introduce a much tougher test of ‘sickness’ this autumn will once again see growing numbers estranged from the safety net of social security.

I despise the way politicians play with people’s lives to meet their own ends. I’ve seen thriving communities and industries crucified in the name of free enterprise and generations of people lose their self-worth and hope as a result. I’ve seen people told that they’re sick because that’s cheaper than providing them with work and less embarrassing than having them join the millions of jobless and I’ve since seen them grow more and more unwell as a result, whilst first Conservative and then Labour Governments told them that they weren’t really ill at all. And now, when the Government have themselves concluded that fraud amongst sickness benefit claimants is actually negligible, what do they do? They move the goalposts. You’re almost all genuinely sick? OK, let us show you what sick really means.

And even more shamefully, they’re also planning to remove safeguards which have, until now, protected the most unwell from the random quality of government medical testing. It may no longer be legal to hang someone for a repeat offence of begging but some are sufficiently vulnerable to take the rope into their own hands.

It’s nothing new, of course, to classify and persecute the poor in justification of inadequate opportunity or state provision. As early as 1383 the Statute of Cambridge made every parish responsible for the care of people too unwell to work, but demanded that unless vagabonds could, if required, ‘display their means of support’ they should be thrown in gaol. Somehow I suspect pulling out a battered guitar or accordion wouldn’t have sufficed.

Keeping people in gaol cost money of course – and could provide many with a better lifestyle than they enjoyed at liberty – so by 1495 the punishment for vagrancy became three days and nights in the stocks followed by banishment from the parish. Whipping replaced the stocks from 1530.

Employment and Support Allowance recipients of 2008 are probably the closest equivalent of the ‘impotent poor’ first recognised in statute and allowed licence to beg in 1537, whilst Jobseekers would be the ‘sturdy beggars’ – capable of work but wilfully incompliant. At least today we only have monetary sanctions – unlicensed begging in the 1530s was punishable by two years’ servitude and branding, with the death sentence for a second offence. By 1572 first offenders were ‘bored through the ear’ – and not by an Elizabethan minstrel strumming James Blunt’s greatest hits – whilst persistent offenders faced the noose.

Things got a little easier after the 1601 Poor Law recognised that as well as the ‘idle poor’ and the ‘impotent poor’ there were also ‘able bodied poor’ and established Houses of Industry for the latter as well as Houses of Correction. We have to wait until 1795 though to meet the precursor of Tax Credits – the enlightened ‘Speenhamland System’ under which a poor family’s wages could be topped up depending on the number in the household and the cost of a loaf of bread that week.

The Poor Law of 1832, for all the well-meaningness of its authors, looks positively draconian by comparison. All outdoor relief was banned, families were broken up with separate workhouses established for women, men and children and conditions further toughened to try to ensure ‘lesser eligibility’ – it was vital, politicians felt, to make life within the workhouse walls tougher than it was on the outside. Fortunately they eventually concluded that the living conditions of the poorest could simply not be replicated without starving people to death which would, of course, rather have defeated the purpose and by 1842 outdoor relief was once more legalised.

‘Doles’, too, were an important aid to survival for the poorest – whether in cash or in kind – bread, cheese, blankets and coal being amongst the most common commodities distributed, often ‘in memoriam’ of a local dignitary. How many making provision in their wills for these annual hand-outs were driven solely by the wish to alleviate the plight of the poor is questionable – many of them would, no doubt, also have been motivated to perpetuate their own memory or even shorten their stay in purgatory. The difference they made though was significant.

The beneficiaries of doles varied from ‘the poor’ to very specific recipients – ‘four old men’, ‘ten youths born within the parish’ or in one case ‘six women who had lost their husbands through drowning’. Often though a distinction was still made between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor – ‘as for beggars by trade and election I give them nothing’ stated a will of 1687.

A more random way to deal with the distribution of a dole was to simply throw the goods to an assembled crowd and allow them to scramble for them. If the dole was one of coins, it was common to heat them first, no doubt adding to the enjoyment of spectators. Examples of ‘scrambling’ doles still survive in several parts of Britain, often now attached to civic ceremonies such as Mayor Makings. Health and Safety considerations have been taking their toll for some time though; many of the scrambling doles were eventually moved from indoors to outdoors and a decision was taken in Harwich in the 1960s to wrap buns in cellophane before they were thrown to the crowd…

The only state provision for ‘my’ tramps in the early 70s would have been a daily amount of either 30 or 40 pence, paid at the discretion of the local DHSS. The distances between offices were considerable though, so most failed to claim daily and many preferred not to claim at all. Why tramp? Well, I suppose their survival depended on maintaining the goodwill of strangers, many of whom might willingly share their repast once or twice a year but who might feel less inclined to do so if requests were made monthly or weekly.

Where are they now? Well, judging from their ages I suspect most of them turned to vagrancy either as a result of post-war trauma or during the depression of the 20s and 30s and that death has long since accompanied them down their last road. I hope it was a gentle companion.

Of ewes, earthworms and angels…

I found myself thinking similar thoughts up on the Preseli Mountains a couple of weeks ago when, excited by a group of stones I’d not previously noticed, I began an enthusiastic yomp to a ridge. Anticipation and ascent both warm the blood, so that I didn’t notice the wind until I stopped. Once I did though, it rapidly began to dissect my folly with cutting remarks. But there was glorious clarity to the day and the cloud-studded sky was just yelling ‘take me, take me’… I fumbled over my camera, trying to adjust my fffffff-stops.

And then salvation flapped at me from a gorse bush where, entangled, lay a long length of agricultural black webbing. Remembering Abraham and giving thanks for my temporarily numb fingertips, I set about prising the makeshift shawl from the spiky shrub.

Once freed it glistened in the sunshine – its weave was fine, its texture soft and the elements had fringed its edges deep. The true gift of the wrap was time though – its warmth allowed me to dawdle amongst the stones, to study the lichen and investigate the hollows between.

The bones were almost all on the sunless lea-side. Most of the long ones I left behind, but I gathered up two of the skulls, thinking as I did so of the sheep dying there, alone, trying to shelter from the wind. Not with lasting sadness though; their calm hypothermic slide into unknowing was probably far kinder than mass transportation to slaughter.

Looking at them now, side-by-side, I’m not wholly convinced that they’re both sheep’s skulls; if they are, they came from significantly different sheep. Or it could be, of course, that one was just much prettier than the other…

I did notice a couple of cars slowing as I descended once more but there’s very little traffic on that mountain. It wasn’t until I got back to our car then – dark cloak billowing out behind me and a skull in each hand – that Tom’s slightly scared but not altogether surprised expression said more than words could. ‘We were cold…’ I explained.

Please don’t assume that I’m a mad old woman… well not yet. anyway. Although I’m thoroughly enjoying the carte blanche that being over a couple of foothills seems to confer, I’ve only just turned 45 and have always been prone to acts of the unusual.

In my youth for example, when not worrying about chilly tramps, I turned my attention to earthworms. They were cold, they were wet – they were my friends. They went everywhere with me, usually in my pocket, although they did turn up in other ‘nice warm places’ too – gloves, hats and occasionally – but long enough apart for him to forget about checking – my father’s slippers.

And they weren’t the only things that accumulated in the pockets so carefully sewn onto each and every dress my mother made me when I started school to ensure that I always had a clean handkerchief to hand. For a long time I was concerned about the little bits of litter which accumulated in the school yard being cold and lonely so they came home with me too, along with any pieces of lunch which were simply beyond swallowing. My later school frocks had no pockets.

This was all of course some time after the angel.

The angel lived in the graveyard about half a mile from my home. In pre-school years a daily walk ‘to the cemetery and back’ was customary so I’m not quite sure at what age I did a Pygmalion and fell in love with the statue – certainly too young to appreciate the difference between animate and otherwise, doll and grave-marker.

I adored it. I climbed its plinth and picked snails from the concave angles of its wings. I talked to it and brushed cobwebs from its face and when winter came and I had to leave it there in the cold I clung to it and sobbed. I was faithful, too, in my taphophilia – I’m told that my tears continued for weeks after walks took a determinedly different direction. My mother, no doubt, considered the Boswells.

And I was specific as well as faithful, for angels in general have long disturbed me. I think it started when I first encountered the particularly reassuring bed-time prayer which invites four of them to stand guard over you whilst you sleep before adding the killer line ‘if I should die before I wake…’ Well gosh, thanks, I’d never really considered the possibility of failing to make it through the night before, but now that you mention it…

Neither did the awesome messengers – and often deliverers of eye-for-an-eye retribution in the Old Testament so beloved by our chapel ministers – bear any resemblance to the benevolent, parrot-like guardians so often depicted today. In fact ‘angels on your shoulder’ sounds more like a warning than a blessing to me – a sinister dandruff to be brushed off with haste. For those of you who watch Dr Who I’ll simply add ‘don’t blink’…

Of death, haar and fret…

This has, I know, been too long in the writing; a couple of weeks ago it became clear from the winged messages of the robin that all of its brood died that evil spring bank holiday weekend. He’s carrying mealworms again, but now only to his mate.

There’s been poignancy then to his recent company – inferred I’m sure rather than implied – and my will to blog of that which robin behaviour tells me has slumped. If I’m honest though and try to suspend my anthropomorphism, what it actually tells me is that the driving urge to reproduce swiftly supersedes any ‘grief’ parent birds may – or may not – experience.

I have my suspicions that there is though at least a brief recognition of passing; my mother, writing in a diary of 1997, records the reaction of a female blackbird coming across the lifeless body of one of its offspring thus:

‘the mother flew down, stood motionless and then ‘sat’ down with both wings fully extended, drooped her head and stayed without moving for a couple of minutes whilst I cried for her… The silent grief of the mother was one of the saddest scenes that I have ever witnessed…”

That much of my mother’s own experience would have been brought to the emotion of that account is beyond question, for she too had borne the death of one of her offspring. I trust her observational skills absolutely though and the honesty with which she would have recorded the facts of what she witnessed.

The day the robins’ demise dawned on me was marked by the coming of a sea fog so thick and so unmoving that it shrouded the coast for three days. Of all the weathers we endure here on the Atlantic coast, fog is beyond doubt the most lifeless – as if someone took essence of November and concentrated it before serving it chilled. The sombre accompanying toll of the fog bell is precision tuned to its presence; it may guide boats safely home but I’d rather not meet the ferryman.


The ability of bells to sound either ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ – or, indeed, alarmed – only really struck me on the third day of the fog. How can a single note convey such intense and bleak tristesse? It only sounds its vacuous knell once every couple of minutes, so it took a cold wait to make sure I had its note correctly stored before heading back to the house la-la-la-ing.

‘La- la – I- can’t- actually- speak- now’ I sang to Tom like some monotone diva ‘it’s- the- note- of- the- fog- bell- and- I’m- going- to- find- out- what- it- is – la- la…’ As I dashed up the stairs to my keyboard, I felt as though a doleful chorus should have closed behind me (no, not clutching buns wrapped in cellophane…)

It turned out to be a ‘B’. Surely not, I thought to myself, for the ‘B’ I was playing held none of the desolate sound fixed in my head. B flat perhaps? No, too low; what I was looking for was definitely a B natural, but one with an overwhelming air of melancholy to it.

I found the answer online later that night. I don’t pretend to understand the physics involved but it would seem that what we hear as the ring of a bell and interpret as a single note is actually made up of many variables – its ‘nominal’, its ‘hum’, its ‘prime’, its ‘tierce’ and its ‘quint’ – and I suspect that our fog bell has a ‘flat prime’. Follow the link beneath the irises below, listen and understand!

And on that note… (a B with a flat pun, I know…) I shall wrap up this post, send it on its way and go sample some late afternoon sunshine. Who knows, perhaps I’ll even find a mark on a wall with a definite ring to it…

Post Script – four days later

My robin is gone.


www.theoi.com/Pontios/Iris.html  – lots more about Iris

www.bench-marks.org.uk/  – do you know of a benchmark? Register it here!

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/mid/3354825.stm  – one of the last tramps to call here

www.hibberts.co.uk/ears.htm  – the sounds of bells



Of Beltane, Basilisks and boulders…

•April 30, 2008 • 8 Comments

Of seedy CDs….

To the left of the seld is the door to the kitchen – and to its left, a pleasing but modern cabinet in which most of my CDs hum quietly in their cases.

I say my CDs… but point quickly to the top left hand corner where ‘Abba Gold’ leads off the alphabetical parade whilst whispering ‘oh, that’s Tom’s’

‘You know all the words…’ he whispers back.

Muttering ‘yes, but cholera’s catchy too’, I mentally pick out the others I won’t admit to owning…

I’d like to nominate anything that claims to be ‘the best of’ or someone’s ‘greatest hits’, but know that I was instrumental in purchasing most of them. Apart from the Very Best of Elton John, that is, which the fairies left in the night….

A couple of months after our home was flooded twenty years ago – well after the insurance company’s ‘full and final settlement’ – we discovered that the industrial heaters used to dry the place out had warped our entire, beloved and extensive LP collection into interesting variations on fluted bowls. With holes in the middle.

Contemplating replacement on a very limited budget then, it was quite interesting to conclude that ‘greatest hit’ collections probably covered most of that which we wished to retain from the late 70s and early 80s. Punk and the New Wave gave birth to many gems but also spawned a lot of so-so tirades and tracks that went just a synthesiser too far. Oh, on the subject of which, all the Jean Michelle Jarre is Tom’s too, along with Mike Oldfield’s complete catalogue, the Billy Joel and the two Dire Straights. The name says it all really…

Can I pass the four Genesis discs off as his? Well no, not really, but I can point out in my defence that they all date to pre Phil Collins days and that I can only just still recall every single word of the 23 minute long ‘Supper’s Ready’. Ready? Yes, and gone cold by now too…

Nor can I deny that the Keane is mine – but they’re one of those bands that are so much better live than recorded, and that’s how I first met them. Well, live on TV anyway. Mew? Ah, they were supporting Elbow and I have this thing about needing to know the tracks I’m going to hear at a gig… The Jesus Jones? Oh, I picked that up by accident in Glasgow when buying a couple of Jesus and Mary Chain CDs…

There are quite a few one-off mistakes actually – albums bought on the promise of a single track which then so failed to deliver. Supergrass are the ones that bemuse me though. I really don’t like them and yet somehow seem to have managed to acquire three of their offerings. It would seem that as with my spelling, I am at least consistent in my mistakes…

Of maybes and May Days…

Speaking of which the particularly observant among you will, no doubt, by now be muttering ‘Hang on, ‘Left?’ ‘To the left of the seld is the door to the kitchen? Weren’t we travelling right around the room?’ Well, yes, we were… but with the day of intended posting for this blog being May Eve, it seemed only fitting to turn the way of the fairies…

For at sundown today, the veil between worlds grows thin once more and the power of the fey and the enchanting reaches its peak. Witches cackle, ghosts throw off their chains and spirits raise a glass to their half-yearly outing ‘twixt Hallowe’ens. I grab ‘The Best of T Rex’ and ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane…

Across Europe bonfires will be lit – to mark Walpurgisnacht in Germany and Holland, Valborgsmassoafton in Sweden, Volbrioo in Estonia, Vappu in Finland and Valpurgi in Latvia. British Beltane fires will be fewer – in fact few burned beyond the eighteenth century. They are, however, re-kindling here and there, most notably in Edinburgh where the Beltane Fire Society now marks each of the year’s cross-quarter days with a blaze.

Not much has changed then; start poking around in the ancient ashes of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh and you begin to get the feeling that the festivities of our forebears could get a tad formulaic. Ooh, there’s a big day coming up… what shall we do? I know – let’s build a bonfire

Samhain and Beltane had a particular resonance with each other though; indeed an alternative name for Beltane is ‘Cetsamhain’ meaning no more than ‘opposite Samhain’. Between them, the two festivals marked the see-saw of summer and winter. In late October the cattle would be gathered in to spend treacherous months close to habitation; by the end of April, both the worst of the weather and the dangers of calving had passed and the livestock could return to pastures refreshed.

The fires associated with the two festivals echo each other too – both set to burn on raised ground, on nights of the year on which people ritually allowed their hearth fires to go out. The next morning they could be re-lit from the embers of the pyre, but after sundown no flame must burn, for whilst it did, it would prove impossible to kindle need-fire, force fire or tein’ éigin.

Need-fire – a concept known across much of Europe – is fire literally made ‘from scratch’ through nothing but friction, often specifically using pieces of oak. Beyond that the ‘instructions’ vary widely; in some areas it must be made outdoors, sometimes at a crossroads, elsewhere it starts life in a darkened room, or on a tiny island surrounded by running water. The people responsible for its kindling are often specified too – varying from ‘an old man and an old woman’ in Bulgaria to nine times nine first-born sons on North Uist or eighty one married men in the Western Isles. That’ll be one to kindle the flame and four score to discuss the football then?

Trevelyan’s Folk Lore and Folk Stories of Wales tells how ‘nine men would turn their pockets inside out and see that every piece of money and all metals were off their persons. Then the men went into the nearest woods and collected sticks of nine different kinds of trees. These were carried to the spot where the fire had to be built. There a circle was cut in the sod and the sticks were set crosswise. All around the circle the people stood and watched the proceedings. One of the men would then take two bits of oak and rub them together until a flame was kindled…’

I can’t read her account without recalling failed woodland fires of my youth. Even armed with matches and a fairly responsible adult or two, I still associate our Sunday afternoon ‘picnics’ with hunger.

‘There’s nothing like the taste of food cooked outdoors’ mum would comment brightly as my father got hotter, crosser and smokier. And she was absolutely right; very often there wasn’t. My brother’s ‘so, taking sausages for a walk again today are we?’ observations added to the friction without aiding the flames.

Still, we had the luxury of a cooker at home. The anxiety surrounding the lighting of the need-fire – in a smoke-free district – must have been considerable and the relief once it caught immense.

Besides the ‘big’ blazes of the year, need-fire was also called upon at times of sickness amongst both humans and animals. Affected livestock would be driven through the still-smoking ashes of ritually-kindled bonfires whilst the human sick were treated with water which had either been boiled on a hearth lit with the magical flames or that had ashes from a need-fire added to it. The same actions and benefices were associated with Beltane fires, but the cattle drive was apotropaic rather than curative, warding off evil influences for the coming season.

In some accounts two fires were lit and the cattle driven between them rather than through their embers; a rather more humane practice and one less likely to meet with serious resistance from cows guarding their young and bulls keen to evade barbeque this side of slaughter. Even today, armed with nothing more threatening than GortexTM cagoules and sawn-off backpacks, one walker is killed and another five injured by cows in Britain each year.

Bovine themes, in fact, ran throughout the Beltane festivities – in many areas the fires were prepared by the local cowherds and in others, milkmaids played a significant role; ‘On the first of May and the five or six days following, all the pretty young country girls who serve the town with milk dress themselves up very neatly and borrow abundance of silver plates, whereof they make a pyramid, which they adorn with ribbands and flowers, and carry upon their heads, instead of their common milk-pails…’ recorded Henri Mission in the late seventeenth century. An early version of Cow(e)s week?

The food associated with Beltane was imbued with a dairy theme too. In some parts a cheese would be made which was kept right through the year to the next May Day and many accounts mention a communal pot of egg and milk ‘custard’ being cooked over the Beltane fire. In fact I can’t help but wonder if perhaps this wasn’t traditionally the first time that cows’ milk was consumed in the year. Milk production reaches a peak five weeks after calves are born (usually in March/ April) – is it possible that in most communities there was milk ‘to spare’ for the first time by Beltane? An Irish name for Imbolc, ‘Óimelc’ means, after all, ‘ewe’s milk’… Might not the coming of the cows’ milk have been similarly revered?

Of oats and offspring…

The cooking of some sort of oatcakes on the fire is also widely documented, as is the practice of blackening one with charcoal. The cakes would then be offered round ‘blind’ in a ‘bonnet’ and he who drew the marked portion would be pilloried as a fool and variously be required to leap over the fire three times or to run through the flames. Some collections of folklore – including J G Frazer’s The Golden Bough – suggest echoes of darker forfeits here. Where’s the dairy connection? Well, apparently the oatcakes were decorated with little raised ‘nipples’.

Oats were sown as well as consumed at Beltane; oats of the wild variety that is, the norms of chastity and fidelity being well and truly suspended for the night. During Puritan times it was recorded – with distaste – that ‘men doe use commonly to runne into woodes in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe.’ Malory though paints a more romantic picture; It was the month…. when lovers, subject to the same force which reawakens the plants, feel their hearts open again, recall past trysts and past vows, and moments of tenderness, and yearn for a renewal of the magical awareness which is love.’

But whether with the spur of lust, love, or both, children conceived at Beltane were considered particularly blessed and in some traditions to be gifted with the second sight and/ or powers of prophecy. By contrast babies born in May were believed to be particularly unlucky – to be sickly, difficult to wean and much prone to ill health. It would be interesting to know whether there was actually a basis in fact for this belief; whether perhaps the more limited diet and lack of ‘fresh’ food available to mothers-to-be during a largely winter-time pregnancy could actually have resulted in babies born during these weeks having lower birth weights or weaker immune systems…

But the ‘ill-born’ belief extended to some animals too. It was believed that May kittens should always be drowned, for if kept they would bring nothing but bad luck. Not only would they catch snakes instead of mice and rats, they would also draw the breath from babies in their cradles. As recently as 1957, R.M Lockley writing of Pembrokeshire mentions: ‘A ‘maychate’ he possessed which brought many vipers from the hill into the house…’ Colts born in May were considered prone to both ‘splaying’ and lying down in any water through which they were ridden and in 1889 the Dorset Field Club recorded that ducks hatched in May ‘are more liable to sprawl’… Small wonder given all the horses lying down…

These beliefs seemed to apply throughout the month, but in others it’s the beginning of May which is considered particularly dangerous; in 1646 it was recorded that ‘men conceive a peculiar danger in the beginning days of May, which are set out as a fatal period unto consumption and cronicall diseases’ and in the 1825 ‘Fairy Legends of Southern Ireland’ it is potrayed as ‘a time of particular danger when the ‘good people’ are said to possess the power and inclination to do all sorts of mischief’… The November 1818 edition of the Edinburgh Magazine however warns of the whole month, commenting ‘I have heard it said by the old women, that both fairies and witches have more influence, and take a greater delight in playing their pranks in the month of May, than at any other season.’

Throw in hundreds of cautions against ‘casting a clout before May (be it the month or the blossom) is out’ and the belief that if someone who was ill survives May they will survive the rest of the year and a picture begins to emerge of a pretty treacherous few weeks. ‘March will search, April will try, May will tell if you’ll live or die’

I suppose that for communities whose whole survival depended on their crops and their livestock prospering, May was a make-or-break time; a time when feed stores were running so low that animals had to fend for themselves or not at all… a time when a late frost or heavy hailstorm could pulp tender seedlings just emerging from the earth… a time when people’s constitutions were at their lowest, post-winter ebb. An early summer like last year’s wouldn’t just have given everyone the blues, it would have killed.

Given the powerlessness associated with such a ‘lap of the gods’ existence, it must, actually, have helped communities to believe in the threat of malevolent forces whilst hand-in-hand believing that there were things they could do to protect themselves. ‘Whilst there’s life there’s hope’ goes the saying, but I so often feel it should be turned on its head.

I can understand then why people gathered spring flowers and the branches of specific trees and ‘protected’ the portals to their homes with them… why they gathered to light the fire with magic and why they scapegoated one amongst their community to pay a penalty for all…

Dancing round a big stick though, I find harder to comprehend.

‘It’s a phallic symbol off course, associated with the fertility rites of the season’ many would exclaim… but is it? Just because a Maypole’s taller than it’s wide and young men from neighbouring villages vied to have the most impressive one doesn’t necessarily make it so…

Of gallows and gods…

An interesting alternative is offered by the Yggdrasil or ‘world tree’ of Norse mythology, the mighty ash which stood at the centre of the Universe. From this tree Odin hung without food or water for nine nights to gain knowledge of the runes – a self sacrifice still commemorated on May Eve in the lands of the Norse. As the earliest references to maypoles are found in Germany – and German pagan tradition had close links with Norse mythology – it seems not unlikely that the pole might be a symbolic representation of Odin’s gallows.

Where the ‘Bel’ of Beltane is linked to a deity it is usually to Belanus – the bright, shining sun god of the Celts. Others associate elements of traditional Mayday celebrations with Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring; a case of may your May god go with you, then…

Mayday was also a significant date in early Irish and Welsh literature, appearing several times in the Book of Invasions and the Mabinogion. In the Mabinogion the tale of Lludd and Llefelys recalls how the brothers, between them, freed Britain of three plagues, the second of which was a ‘terrible shriek’ which came on every May-eve, ‘over every hearth in the Island of Britain. And this went through people’s hearts, and so seared them, that the men lost their hue and their strength, and the women their children, and the young men and the maidens lost their senses, and all the animals and trees and the earth and the waters, were left barren.’

And at that point a shriek issued over a hearth in west Wales, for I’ve just realised that it’s gone midnight on Saturday, I’m several pages deep in blog and have yet to touch on the subject I meant to address…

The lead-in was to be tangential, subtle even… Three quarters of the way down the CD cabinet, I was going to stumble upon the chunk of Stones CDs (Tom’s – but only on the condition that the Beatles ones are mine…) and then start exploring ‘stones’ in their wider context, with a brief mention of Beltane celebrations via the stories surrounding stone circles. Well it would have had some subtlety had I had the time to write it properly, I promise…

Continuity or lack of it aside then, I’m sure we’re all familiar with cautionary tales of rings of dancers petrified for continuing their revelries on into Sunday. Amongst the most famous is the Merry Maidens of Cornwall, said to be 19 young women fossilised in a near-perfect wheel for cavorting and carousing on the Sabbath. The two ‘piper’ monoliths stand apart at a short distance. Actually, the tale brings to mind a long train journey through Belgium many moons ago (and I’m sure that Belgium made it feel longer…) during which a young man taught me the phrase ‘mono lithos dual avicide’ – or ‘killing two birds with one stone’ – only there were nineteen each of these.

Of rings and rocks…

The photograph of the Merry Maidens, above, is provided courtesy of Jim Champion, one of the best photographers I know when it comes to stones, sky and special places. This – and much more of Jim’s work – can be found at ‘The Megalithic Portal’ (link below) – an excellent website for those with an interest in maens, menhirs and monoliths. It’s also a vast one though, so go in with time to spare and through Firefox if you can!

Despatch through petrifaction (from the latin – ‘petra’ for rock and ‘facere’, to make) wasn’t of course the preserve of these isles. Medusa of Gorgon fame is probably the best-known ‘lady with a stony stare’, and then there was the Basilisk or Cockatrice, the mythical king of the serpents which could variously petrify, poison or de-flesh its prey with nothing more than a glance. Niobe turned to stone whilst weeping for her slaughtered children whilst Lot’s wife was turned to a pillar of salt against the backdrop of fire and brimstone raining down on Sodom and Gomorrah. Vulcanologists, no doubt would offer an explanation.

Returning to stone, I was chatting with a colleague the other day when we realised we both shared the common childhood experience of ‘going to rocks’ as a form of family entertainment. Children these days get taken to theme parks, aquaria, castles, wildlife centres and urban farms… we got taken to outcrops on Welsh mountains. Sharon’s outcrop sounds quite posh though, because it also boasted a ‘lonely tree’.

Amusements whilst there would include I-spy (often something beginning with ‘r’ – and presumable ‘t’, too – in the Amman Valley version… Oh and then there were the white fluffy things that either started with ‘c’ – if they were in the sky – or ‘sh’ if they were on the hillsides – unless it was particularly overcast in which case the sky ‘c’s could become something beginning with ‘f’ and you might as well give up trying to spy anything). Another favourite pastime was sliding down the rocks (repeatedly – having been told not to – until one day I made a hole in my brand new dungarees and was smacked for the second and penultimate time in my life). And when you tired of those there was always ‘finding faces in the stones’. And yes it did freak three year old me when my thirteen year old brother told me that they belonged to people who’d sat there for too long and got swallowed. Still, he fell from the top of a crag later that day and fractured his skull.

It didn’t have a lasting effect – although it obviously did make an impression – for he went on to study geology at A level and then at University; more trips to rocks for little sister then, until I got to know the geomorphology of North Pembrokeshire inside out. Quite literally, too, at times; I learned, for example, that Garn Fawr – the pile of stones familiar from toddlerhood – was actually the remains of volcanic activity… and then tramped the hills to the coast path, seeking other evidence of extruded igneous rock. Splitting slates at Abereiddy yielded fossils of tiny cutthroat razor-like graptolites; I was probably the only 8 year old in north Pembrokeshire who could both say ‘Didymograptus bifidus’ and recognise one. Inland the spotted dolerite outcrops at Carn Menyn whispered ‘bluestones’ and ‘Stonehenge’… it was a magical and ancient landscape in which to grow.

It’s also a landscape bounded on three sides by water, and the constant play of sea on stone has produces its own wonders too. The continual drag and drift of the tides tumbles rocks both ordinary and semi-precious and then strews them, glistening, pebbled treasure at your toes. And oh, how much heavier – and oh how much duller – they always seem by the time you get them home…

Fissured cliffs, undermined by currents too long in their flow to measure, give at last at their foundations and open, crashing, into natural archways and bridges. Millennia upon millennia caves are carved into semi-submarine catacombs, licked smooth by waves and haunted by the occasional dove. I know a place where you can stand and feel the suck of the sea beneath you; a place where its green-tongue gulp devours.

And as if the natural rock formations of the area aren’t enough, my home patch is also littered with standing stones, cairns and cromlechs – not to mention burial mounds, ancient churches and ogam scored early christian monuments. I got a map out once and tried drawing ley-lines on it using the criteria laid out in ‘The Old Straight Track’; it ended up looking like a cross between the Nazca Lines and the national grid. Pembrokeshire, it would seem, truly rocks…

It’s in my blood and under my fingernails too; my grandfather was a stonemason… his father was a stonemason… My darling garden nestles in an old sandstone quarry. Little wonder, really, that I offer up ‘stones’ if ever I’m pressed for a list of my interests – I’m ground in them.

It wasn’t until today though that I discovered that I even share a birthday with the founding father of modern geology, James Hutton…

Of tides and time…

To appreciate the impact of Hutton’s work fully, you need a picture of the beliefs commonly held about the origins of the earth in the late eighteenth century. Most western scholars believed our world to be some 6,000 years old and that at first it was entirely composed of water with bits in it. Most also adhered to the ‘Neptunian’; school of thought – that the rock of our planet formed due to the action of sedimentation, shaping first the earth’s core and then building up the land masses in a series of layers born out of flooding. Fossils dated only from the age of Noah and the great flood, the pterodactyls, triceratops and trilobites stubbornly refusing to come in two by two when called. A less influential group of thinkers favoured ‘Plutonism’, arguing that rock was formed by the effects of heat and fire.

Hutton – a son of Edinburgh born in 1726 – developed a third theory – that the rock of our planet was continually being formed. His Great Geological Cycle suggested a perpetual process of eruption, erosion and compaction, volcanic activity throwing up mountains which are, in turn, eroded by the elements into sediment. This sediment, when washed away and deposited once more on the sea bed, is eventually compacted into bedrock – and so on, ad infinitum. Hutton retained though his belief in a creator God, delighting in the self sufficiency and sustainability of His design.

He was revolutionary too in postulating an age for the earth eons older than it was commonly held to be. Within his Theory of Uniformitarianism he suggested that the forces shaping our planet in the present must work in much the same way and at much the same rate as they did in the past. By using current observation and measurement then, he argued, one could begin to compute the almost inconceivable measures of time required to form, erode and re-form our land masses. Even our oldest rocks, he wrote, must be made of ‘materials furnished from the ruins of former continents.’

Siccar Point on the Berwickshire coast, pictured below courtesy of Angus Miller, was, for Hutton and for others, the proof they required, the juxta-positioning of clearly visible strata indicating the action of unimaginable forces over a vast time-scale. ‘What clearer evidence could we have had of the different formation of these rocks, and of the long interval which separated their formation had we actually seen them emerging from the bosom of the deep? wrote his travelling companion….

(Incidentally Angus, who took this shot, runs Geowalks – see the link below- and also teaches courses on geology at Edinburgh University. Should your footsteps take you in that direction, he will be able to tell you about Hutton with far more authority than I can…)

He’ll probably also tell you that Hutton wrote about natural selection 50 years before Darwin did – but that very few people noticed, for Hutton’s outstanding talent was for painstaking and astute observation and deduction, not communication. In fact it was his friend, John Playfair who, after Hutton’s death, popularised his geological theories by presenting them in more accessible form. Hutton, wrote Playfair, “was in no haste to publish…for he was one of those who are much more delighted with the contemplation of truth, than with the praise of having discovered it”.

Of squiggles…

I, however, am in a haste to publish – or to post my blog at least. Beltane draws on apace! But Sunday dawned fair and bright, tugging me to the garden to contemplate butterflies and murmur ‘bliss‘. I wasted at least an hour trying to get a photograph of my robin feeding his mate, but have nowt but fuzzy blurs to show for it. I also spent far too long thinking about the time scales involved in processes geological ‘The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time’… wrote one of Hutton’s friends – and I know just how he felt.

In fact the size of the universe, the number of stars and the age of the earth were amongst the things mum used to caution me against contemplating when I was a child. Although on the whole utterly committed to encouraging and expanding enquiring minds, she had very firm views about ‘questions that might make your head go funny’.

Allow me though, before I press ‘post’ just to tell you about a couple of recent geological discoveries of my own.

Discovery number one is that cement does not ‘set’, it ‘goes off’. I tell you this just to establish that I do listen to the builders working on the replacement for the shed demolished in the storm.

Returning from work one Friday evening after dark I was delighted to notice that not only had they completed the construction of the breeze block walls, they’d also covered them with a layer of cement. It wasn’t until I got out there on Saturday morning that I noticed that they’d also added decorative, random squiggles all over it.

Eek! I wanted it sort of smooth… and knew that I had explained that to them. Well sort of smooth but bumpy in fact – as if it were real stone beneath. But could I get hold of them? No. Well, it was the weekend after all.

But happily the cement had not yet ‘gone off’… so all was not lost. I grabbed a water spray in one hand, my grandfather’s plastering trowel in the other and set about smoothing out the squiggles…

Ok, I can hear those of you with even a hint of building knowledge yelling ‘NOOO! DON’T! The squiggles are a key for the next layer of cement to stick to…’ You know that… and so do I, now.

Happily the builders are blessed with a sense of humour. I’m not sure how much longer my own will last though, because at every step in every stage of the process I now get asked ‘and would you like that with squiggles or without?’

I had to smile today though; I’d texted a friend explaining that I’d been blogging about Beltane, Basilisks and concrete. Like a shot the answer came back… ‘if you have a Basilisk you don’t need concrete…’ Now I must pass that on to the builders…

And so, at last, May Eve is here, the sun has set and Beltane has begun…

I assume that the sun has set anyway; it’s been obscured by clouds for three days now, and the only thing ‘appropriate’ about it is that it’s actually been “beltin'” for the last 24 hours. I spent last night tending five separate saucepans under five separate rivulettes running through the ceilings.

So I’ve kindled the ‘Bel tane’ indoors for once – for it’s a real ‘need fire’ night – and nodded hommage to tradition whilst doing so by using only half a firelighter. Come dawn I’ll poke my head outside, ‘gather in the summer’ and ponder how you sort the dew out from the rain…

In the meantime, may your Beltane burn bright, long, and be utterly free from squiggles…



probably the most comprehensive collection of information on megaliths and prehistory online


Jim Champion’s photograph of the merry maidens, along with other contributions. Clicking Jim’s name takes you to more of his beautiful images


Angus Miller’s geological walks, talks and teaching


Discover the Basilisk… before the Basilisk discovers you…


Light up the skies of Scotland…


More about… surprise, surprise, James Hutton…

Of ill winds and wilful minds…

•March 31, 2008 • 2 Comments

Of hues and blues

The dress worn by my grandmother in the sepia wedding photograph was blue. I know that for certain, for I still have it.

And when I tell you that it is blue, you know for certain the colour that I mean. You may, admittedly, wonder whether it is light blue or dark blue, navy, azure or turquoise, but you know, deep down, the hue which I intend to convey by saying ‘blue’.


If I had used Welsh to tell you that the dress is blue though, you would be less sure, for the words ‘mae’r frog yn lâs’ could variously mean that the dress is blue or green – or even that it is pale, or grey or silver.

Welsh isn’t alone, either, in having a common name for blue and green. Along with many other tongues – including several from the far east and Africa – it is what linguistic anthropologists call a ‘grue’ language – i.e. one in which a single term can convey colours which English speakers think of separately as ‘green’ and ‘blue’.

Various (and often flawed) explanations have been offered as to why these differences arise. They include long term lens-yellowing associated with exposure to UV-B radiation, differences in eye pigmentation linked to skin colour and an attempt to establish that as cultures and languages evolve, they develop colour classifications in a strict order. We Welsh – being predominantly white and from colder climes – are obviously just a bit ‘special’ then.

But most research has started from the ‘of course blue and green are separate colours’ premise – a sort of spectral fascism where Miss Prism pulls nice Mr Newton’s colour swatches from her handbag and shoves them under the noses of the natives.


However the colours of nature – surely the source of the earliest colour names – are not (with the exception of blood red) the strong primaries and secondaries we associate with the colour wheel. They are drabber, more muted… they vary with the light, change with the seasons… particularly the blue-green-grey of the sea and the blue-grey-silver of the sky.

And dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that many ‘grue’ languages have other names for associated colours. Some for instance differentiate between light blues and dark blues, intense colours and more pastel ones. Others distinguish between the ‘warm’ yellow-greens associated with foliage and the colder blue-greens of the sea.

Modern Welsh has moved towards conformity with English as more and more people trip-trap-trip-trap over the big suspension bridge from Lloegr, bringing their artificial pigments and paint charts with them; we use ‘glâs’ today to mean blue almost exclusively whilst ‘gwyrdd’ is used only for green. But ‘gwyrdd’ has been part of our vocabulary for a long time too, evidenced by ‘gwer’, the linked Cornish and Breton words for green. All we have lost is the detail of how its usage originally differed from ‘glâs’.

Other Celtic languages offer few clues; most seem to have gone through a stage when their own ‘blue’ word or variations on its theme could also have veered from grey to green. Etymologists offer a Proto Germanic root (gla- or gle-) from Proto Indian European ‘gel-‘ or ‘ghel-‘ meaning ‘to shine, glitter, be green or yellow’. Perhaps, then, when we were showing visiting anthropologists around Cardigan Bay and pointed out to sea muttering ‘glâs’, all we actually intended to convey was ‘Ooh, shiny’…


And if you consider how infrequently ‘true’ blue would have turned up in Wales of yesteryear, it’s pretty remarkable that we bothered with a name for it at all. Imagine trying to explain the concept of ‘blue’ to a foreigner in the middle of foggy November… ‘Well, it’s the colour of that um… er…’ What’s the need, after all, to name a colour that only appears once in a blue moon?

Of a mess and amassing…

Anyway the dress is blue; English blue – with hints of green and slate depending on the light… and a definite sheen if not shine to it. Its decoration is beautifully understated; lustrous rouleau strips coil at the hip and dark iridescent glass beads snake languorously from bodice to calf.


I often wonder whether she sewed it herself. The only clue I have is something which I don’t have – that something being any form of receipt for its making. Not proof in itself perhaps, but when you couple its absence with copious evidence of my grandmother’s tendency to amass papers linked to anything she treasured, it begins to suggest that she – or at least a close family member – may indeed have been the seamstress.

I wonder if you noticed how carefully I chose the word ‘amass’ in that last sentence? I veered at first towards ‘hoard’, but ‘hoarding’ carries with it connotations of behaviour which is somehow odd or unusual… and you are, after all, being written to by a third generation amasser… Yes, I amass – indeed amas amassing – but hey, it’s not a problem… I can control it… Really I can…

Actually I’m much better at controlling my own amassing than I am at dealing with the legacy of possessions accumulated by my forebears. My grandmother at least only collected china, photographs and personal snippets.

My grandfather squirreled away anything and everything which he thought ‘might come in handy’ one day; reasonable enough behaviour in itself, but as he was actually a very ‘handy’ person, the definition could cover anything and everything from rubber bands to vast, tanalized timbers. And of course as the collections grew, he needed somewhere to store them… so he started constructing sheds (‘you see, I knew those timbers would come in handy one day…’) And of course the more sheds you have, the less you actually ever have to part with.


I cursed him and blessed him then when the storm hit our shores a few weeks ago, decapitating the old talcen shed as if it were a hard boiled egg; cursed him for having built it in the draughtiest spot possible in the first place, blessed him for the memories which having to deal with the after-mess evoked.

In my childhood, the talcen was where grampa ‘extracted’ honey – a long and messy process requiring much patient winding of a handle which in turn spun frames of honeycomb stacked within a steel drum. It required extra patience when a sweet and sticky grandaughter wanted to ‘help’, but that was a commodity he had aplenty.

Energy, too, was something he never lacked; in spite of long hours working as a stone mason he also rented fields from neighbouring farmers where he grew vegetables, kept pigs, chickens, geese… and bees, of course. Quite why he kept the bees, given that he was profoundly afraid of them I’ll never know, but I suspect that ‘having’ to give up the hives was actually one of few silver linings he associated with a string of major heart attacks which hit when he was 70.


It was an odd, dark time that; my first brush with near death and a household always bustling and bright now hushed, veiled and full of whispers. There was even a notice on the front door asking visitors to tap at a window instead of knocking and I remember worrying that Santa would make too much noise coming down the chimney.

And for the first time in my life I became scared of grampa; towering oxygen cylinders loomed in his darkened bedroom, their hiss and his rasping, breathless voice blending with my five year old’s utter terror of cybermen to make his sick bed a place of fear. I prayed ‘don’t let grampa die’ but added ‘and bring him back too, please’.

Recovery was a gradual process; his Capstan Full Strengths were replaced by a pipe and for the first year he was forced to negotiate the stairs on his bottom. Slowly, though, he did come back, but only ever with a two-stroke engine. The bees had to go.

I was sorry to bid them farewell; I must be pretty repellent for I’ve never been stung by anything larger than an ant and I used to love watching their flight-paths to and from the hives, especially when a slant of sun torch-lit their wings. But there was a silver lining in their departure for me too; once their paraphernalia had been sold on, the talcen became mine…


Of time and space…

It wasn’t the first space I had of my own. In my toddlerhood an old chicken shed was my bijoux residence, furnished with a cot mattress bed and a wooden cooker on which I made dandelion and earwig soup or refined my perfumes. But chickens need very little headroom and as I grew, increasingly frequent concussion eventually forced my eviction. The talcen though was of grown-up scale; a space that could be mine forever.

Forever, of course, is a very long time when you’re six, but over the years the old shed evolved with me. As my interests changed, it turned from play area into a space where I started drying herbs, reading about their uses and experimenting with tinctures and tisanes. A camp bed was added, a little gas stove… I’d sleep there, slip out to see in the dawn and return to a talcen-cooked breakfast.


Time and people move on of course and when I slipped out to University one morning my parents reclaimed much of the space for storage. My old coffee, jam – and honey – jars full of herbs remained in place though – they were amongst the easiest things to bid farewell to last weekend.

For they, you see, were mine. I know that I am now done with them. Similarly sodden bags of my own toys and even books were relatively easy to deal with. My brother’s though were a different matter; although he’s been dead twenty years I still can’t make the assumption that it’s fine to take his old toys and books to the tip – the reason the parlour currently smells of slowly drying paper.


I stopped and smiled at two books I found in particular, for between them they encapsulate the last years we spent together under this roof.

One is a little blue Letts Brownie Guide Diary from 1972. It obviously started life as a faithful record of my membership of the slightly trippy wing of the para-military youth movement, for inside I’ve coloured the toadstool red, recorded Brown Owl’s name and various good deeds… ‘made a scarf for mother…’ ‘covered books in the school library…’ ‘made bird and animal hand shadows to entertain children’… failing to add that my ‘eagle catching a rabbit’ invariably left them screaming. It also helped me to date the power struggle which eventually led to me being given a Six of my own. There’s no crowing though – ‘Sprites‘ has simply been replaced by ‘Pixies’, in slightly tidier handwriting.

One entry bemuses me though… It obviously post-dates the others, for my writing has acquired an affected forward slant – and simply says ‘this book is being used in the talcen – not as a diary’. And beyond that, your guess is as good as mine; I was forever beginning projects I failed to complete.

The other volume is a contemporaneous small red book. In fact the Little Red Book, or more accurately, ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse Tung’…‘as amended by comrade Charlie’, my brother has added on the flyleaf.

All I remember is that between the ages of 17 and 19, my brother declared himself to be a Communist; posters of Che Guevara, Ho Chí Min and Karl Marx bedecked his space and the Morning Star shone briefly on our household. I was about as interested in Communism as I imagine he was in the Brownie Guide movement, but somehow we bridged our ten year age gap and at least shared idealism.

He obviously got a little further with his project than I did with mine, for his annotations don’t peter out until page 54 (of 312). He’s slipped from revolutionary discourse into pedantry by page 40 though, where he’s highlighted a long passage taken from ‘The Seven Well-Written Documents of Chekiang Province‘. He underlines the ‘Well Written’ and comments of the highlighted text: ‘This is a 152-word sentence’. That pedantry is obviously a family trait is evidenced by my longing to add ‘No, it’s a five word sentence’.

Neither, of course, will go to the tip – that would require far too great a leap forward. Somewhere in my five year plan though, I must start a single repository for particularly precious items. As I write, I try to wipe all thoughts of a nice sturdy shed from my mind…


Of gales and wails…

Anyway I’m feeling particularly draughty around the rafters at the moment because not only have we lost a shed lid, we’re also a third of our slates short of a roof.

I don’t know how other people manage to get workmen to come and perform the skills of their trade during the summer; presumably you have to move into the right catchment area, embrace the Catholic Church or put your name down for a new bathroom at birth.

But I failed my Key Stage 1 ‘Procure a Plumber’, ‘Catch a Carpenter’ and ‘Bag a Builder’ SATs and now belong to the remedial class of hapless consumers who hang out on street corners hopelessly flagging down random white vans.

So when my conjoined neighbour knocked on my door shortly after Christmas to announce the coming of ‘scaffolding and a roofer’ I became inordinately excited. The installation of three skylights just weeks earlier (and no, we didn’t particularly want skylights, it was just a desperate ruse to get someone to actually fix a few slipped tiles) had led to the diagnosis of ‘nail fatigue’… our roof was well and truly slated. That a solution was about to walk into my life seemed almost too good to be true.

Reassurance as to the ‘very good price’ my neighbour had been given and the minimal negotiation required to secure the roofer’s services for a joint venture led then to an animated call to Tom…

‘Hey! Guess what! I’ve found a roofer and he’s really reasonable and can start next week…’

‘Great,’ came the reply – ‘how much will it be?’

‘Well I don’t really know, exactly… He said he couldn’t give me an exact price because until he sees the state of the timbers, he doesn’t know what’s involved…’

‘OK, roughly then?’

‘Um well he didn’t say that either. He seems really nice though… and he said it would be very reasonable.’

I could hear Tom at the other end of the phone trying to process this information from someone who’d actually be far happier with an economy based on seashells, feathers and barter. He obviously concluded that a change of tack was the easier option…


‘So is he going to use real slates or asbestos ones?’ And answer came there none…

Worry only really set in for me though when, spurred on by what seemed such reasonable questions when asked in an English accent, I knocked on my neighbour’s door and asked him how good the ‘very good price’ was. ‘Oh, he hasn’t actually given me a price as such,’ came the answer… ‘Until he sees the state of the timbers he doesn’t know… But he said that it would be very reasonable though… and he seems like a really nice bloke…’

I am, by now though, reassured as to the accuracy of my ‘seems tidy, acts tidy’ radar. The roofer is actually a lovely bloke and it seems that the indisputable ‘reasonableness’ of the job is based on him and his mates working cash-in-hand on top of their day jobs. It does mean though that they only work Saturdays… dry Saturdays… dry Saturdays when Wales aren’t playing… dry Saturdays when Wales aren’t playing and when it’s not too windy… Come to think of it, I may actually have workmen this summer after all…

Today is a Saturday but it is not dry. It is also not ‘not too windy’. I know this because this morning, what was left of the talcen roof became our own rather large anemometer.

The earliest anemometers consisted of a hinged plate which gusts of wind would displace to varying degrees. A scale set at right angles to the plate allowed a measurement of wind speed to be recorded. The first was built around 1450 by the quite remarkable Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti who, amongst his other talents, could jump over the head of a man ‘with his feet together’.

Our ‘hinged plate’ this morning consisted of the sheets of zinc which were once the talcen roof – with sturdy timbers still attached – fixed precariously to one wall by a length of flashing. Next door’s pine end formed the scale against which the wind speed could be adjudged by the angle of lift. And our anemometer was particularly posh, in that you could also take measurements based on the volume of ‘thud’ caused by the roof crashing back into place.

Then, a couple of hours ago, it stopped thudding and started rumbling instead. A particularly strong gust unhinged the 12ft x 14ft ‘plate’, flipped it through 100° and left it resting almost vertically on little but its laurels, next door’s pine end and a by now partially demolished shed wall. And boy did it make me jump. I regret that I have no photographic evidence to share with you, but at the time, life and limb took priority over blog illustration.

As I stared up at the corrugated zinc version of the Sidney Opera Shed, hanging onto a single rafter more in hope than for ballast, I kept reminding myself that ‘there are no such things as equinoctial gales’, as if denying their existence might lead to a Tinkerbell-esque drop in wind speed.


They don’t though, technically exist. Yes late March and September are often stormy, and flooding problems can be exacerbated by unusually high tides, but the storms are – allegedly – not linked in any way to the equinoctial point at which the sun crosses the equator nor the equilux balance of day and night. Google ‘equinoxial/ equinoctial gales’ though and you’ll find plenty of people convinced that they are (as was I until last weekend, when a three day lashing from the north led me to wonder exactly why the equinoxes always bring storms…)

Of borrowed time…

We are, though, in the middle of the ‘Borrowed Days’, also known as the ‘Borrowing Days’, the idea being that March ‘borrows’ days from April, and that they are never good ones:

‘March borrowit fra Averill

Three days, and they were ill.’

Various versions of the tradition – which is apparently recorded across Europe – refer either to the last three days in March or the first three days in April. The latter would seem to make more ‘sense’, but the former seems the more common interpretation.

But why should March want to borrow days, given that it already has a full compliment of 31? Well, it is attributed similar motives in both Scottish and Irish stories.

In Ireland the last days of March and first three of April are known as ‘The Old Cow Days’ or ‘the Days of the Brindled Cow’ – ‘Leathanta an Bó Riabhaigh’.  The associated tale recounts how March overheard an old cow either 1) complaining about how awful the month’s weather had been, or 2) rejoicing that March had passed. The disgruntled month took its revenge by borrowing days from April and killing the cow with bad weather.

In Scotland it’s a trio of sheep that come under March’s attack;

‘March said to Aperill

I see three hogs upon the hill;

But lend your three first days to me,

And I’ll be bound to gar them die.

The first it sall be wind and weet;

The next, it sall be snaw and sleet;

The third, it sall be sic a freeze

Sall gar the birds stick to the trees.

But when the Borrowed days were gane

The three silly hogs came hirplin hame’.

Chambers’ Domestic Annals of Scotland records that at the time of the death of James I in 1625, a furious storm hit the Scottish coast… ‘This was long after remembered as the storm of the Borrowing Days… It is a proverbial observation of the weather, which seems to be justified by fact, the bad weather being connected with the vernal equinox.’


Jamison’s ‘Dictionary of the Scottish Language’ also comments that ‘Those who are much addicted to superstition will neither borrow nor lend on any of these days. If one should propose to borrow of them they would consider it as an evidence that the person wished to employ the article borrowed for the purposes of witchcraft against the lenders’. Presumably superstitious librarians and bank staff take annual leave.

‘The Complaynt of Scotland’ – published in 1549 – also mentions ‘the borrowing days’ and their devastating effect on fruit trees… or at least I think it does:

‘There eftir I entrit in ane grene forest, to contempil the tendir zong frutes of grene treis, because the borial blasttis of the three borouing dais of Marche hed chaissit the fragrant fleureise of evyrie frut-tree far athourt the feildis…’

Of the nature of being…

Let us hope that the weather is more clement in Japan then, where the Hanami season has just begun. ‘Hanami’ is defined as the ‘custom of enjoying the beauty of flowers’ – almost exclusively cherry blossom (sakura) these days, but originally plum blossom or wisteria.


The practice certainly dates back almost 1500 years and some say longer, spreading from the Imperial Court to the Samurai and eventually to the people. At one time, the blossom was viewed as a prognostic of the growing year ahead and offerings would be made at the roots of the trees. The flowers’ symbolic link with the beautiful but ephemeral also resulted in the traditional contemplation of ‘mono no aware‘ or ‘the nature of being’.

These days however, Hanami has become more of a social occasion, with large parties gathering in Japan’s parks to picnic and consume quantities of sake whilst sitting on almost invariably blue (yes, blue, not green) tarpaulins. Procuring the best Hanami spots often involves staking out your tarpaulin long beforehand in a towels-on-sun-loungers manner. I have found, however, no mention of picnickers forming human pyramids or scaring the children…

I stared at my own little cherry blossom tree this afternoon – its petals now blasted to pale pink papier mậché  – I studied my bruised camellias and my battered magnolias… and contemplated the nature of being a gardener on the west coast of Wales. A word which sounded fairly Japanese but which certainly wasn’t ‘Hanami’ sprang to mind.


I’m trying to be philosophical though – to take my poor sakura blossom as a promising sign for the growing year to come. In March 2007 we enjoyed glorious weather and then had to endure a complete absence of summer when it ought to have appeared. I’ll settle, then, for seasonal gales right now and try to muster a little hope for a proper summer… a glimmer of glâs in the midsts of the grey.

And if I fail, I’ll look for Pandora’s Box – complete with the ‘hope’ left inside – on EBay. (Actually I just did… I didn’t find the box itself, but I did spot a rather beautiful Day Lily… Hemerocallis ‘Pandoras’s Box’ which I think may just have to come and live with me…

And I’ll try a search under ‘Greek jars’ later, for I have recently been reliably informed that Pandora’s Box wasn’t a box at all. A mistranslation – probably by Erasmus – led to Greek ‘pithos’ – jar or large storage urn – turning into ‘box’ in Latin. A couple of puzzles associated with the story remain unanswered though… firstly what was ‘hope’ doing in the jar in the first place, given that its other contents were the evils of the world,  and secondly, why was it a good idea to keep hope trapped in the jar if its contents only affected humankind when allowed to run wild? Open the jar again sister!

In the meantime, I’ll stick to opening cans of worms for my robin – or what’s in danger of becoming ‘robins’.


My robin, you see, has shacked up with a bit of a feminist this year. In previous breeding seasons I’ve only become aware of the female due to her plaintive ‘seep-seep’-ing from the undergrowth, occasionally catching a glimpse of her being fed by her mate, but only at a considerable distance.

This year’s female though is almost as bold as her beau. In fact she’ll perch quite confidently just a couple of feet away from me and has even been seen hoovering up mealworms he’s missed… nothing new in the labour divide there then…


His reaction confused me at first – he eats his fill, collects a second beak-full for the purpose of ‘courtship feeding’ her – but then flies away without feeding her – hotly pursued. Having seen him do this several times now – and studying the direction in which he flies, I eventually concluded that he was trying to lure her back to the nest site – effectively saying ‘stay at home, for goodness’ sake…’ A bit of research I came across today though suggests a less anthropomorphised explanation…

The female robin only makes the ‘seep-seep’ ‘I’m, hungry – and possibly for more than worms’ – call during her immediately pre-fertile and fertile period. Neighbouring male robins are attuned to this, and, given the opportunity, will risk an incursion behind enemy lines to attempt ‘extrapair copulation’ – Ornithologese for ‘a bit on the side’. However they can only hear her ‘seep’ing when she’s close to the boundaries of the jointly-held territory.

The recent storms – equinoctial or not – have kept me close to the house, around 60 metres from the nesting site. When they come peering in at the kitchen window in search of worms then, they may well be near the edges of ‘Theirspace’ – and hence the male’s interest in getting his mate back to the centre of their territory.


Back in the human world, a week away from work has left this feminist feeling a deep need for more time at home. I want to keep bees and chickens again; I want to extract honey in a born-again shed. I want to make more cawl. I want to mistress my new guitar, read some of the books I’ve been worming away and hear more live music. I want to blog more. I want sunshine.

But most – most of all – I want to have time to stare at the sea; to wonder if it’s green, blue, or glâs and to have an hour to savour the caring…

So what do they do? Well, they actually take an hour away from me. And do they do it during the week? Do they disappear sixty minutes of a Monday morning that no-one would lament losing? No, they come like thieves in the night and pinch it from the middle of my weekend.

And yet… and yet even that larceny I could forgive if I could truly rely upon the promise imprinted in my diary yesterday… ‘British Summertime Begins…


Of heirs, hares and airs…

•March 1, 2008 • 29 Comments

 Of photographs and fading…

Above the pantry door hangs a black and grey photograph taken 84 years ago.

I can be so precise because I know that it captures my grandparents on the day that they avowed marriage. A stranger wouldn’t though; no white finery trails veiled hints nor top hats doff a clue. They look, instead, to be in their Sunday best, ready to stroll off into the monochrome backdrop scenery, perhaps to be lost there forever.


As we will all, one day, be lost of course – when the last of our friends whispers the final anecdote, when our offspring’s offspring’s offspring recoil from family stories, when no one’s sure – nor cares – who the faded couple in the photograph are any more.

For familiarity is fundamental to the worth of most photographs – they are important to us solely because they preserve a person, provoke a memory or push a button of connection. Once that link is lost, our copious visual catalogues of life have less relevance than last year’s Argos catalogue.

And in a generation’s time, neither rarity nor social history value will add to their charm. The growing accessibility of photography – along with archive footage to match – means that everything is documented and we document everything. I have perhaps 30 photographs of my first five years of life; I suspect most babies born in Britain today have a similar number of their first week, if not their first day.

Albums, then, are no longer something to dig out on a wet Saturday afternoon, each familiar shot re-enforced in our photographic memory by its verbal provenance. Instead, packs of snaps clutter our cupboards or stretch our RAM to bleating point. Hell is other people’s homepage… or, worse still, their blog…


I’m sorry. I think I’d better go out, shake myself and come back in again – I’ve obviously got into blog on the wrong side today.

I do worry though about what will happen to the old photos after my day; they are so very precious to me and so very pointless to anyone else. Some of them can be divided amongst branches of the family which have continued to grow… ‘Here – he was your great great uncle – have him back – but look after him properly, mind…’

A few of the more modern ones could go into a sort of ‘Story of This House’ scrapbook I suppose, to sit with the deeds until someone who appreciates it comes along (along, of course, with a gentle curse attached for whoever throws it out… something of the ‘embarrassing itches and a niggling sense of guilt’ variety, I think…)

I’d better get it sorted out soon though, for I am, after all, rapidly approaching 45.

Once those of you of 50 or over have stopped snorting, let me explain that for some time now I’ve dealt with the certainty of death by annually adjusting the capacity of the glass-half-full-half-empty. At 44, I can still tell myself fairly rationally that I could live to be 88 and so still have half my years ahead. A doubling of 45 though requires a much larger leap of the imagination… an altogether more determined suspension of the laws of probability.

Please don’t think I have any designs on immortality though.

Of poetry, places and posing…

In my teens, weekends would often find me posing on a spring riverbank or the lea side of a windswept outcrop, poetry book in hand. There I would sit and read aloud, waiting for my soul mate to ‘happen upon me’ – and discover me for my mind.


He had long hair and wore a satin-backed waistcoat which blinked in the sun – although I made do with curls and a suit of armour at times. Our first exchange of words came as I began one stanza… only to look up, bewildered and enchanted, as his dark voice completed it from memory…

He never quite showed up of course, but in his absence – strolling with Keats, Byron, Owen and Shelley – I developed a new penchant for thin, pale and preferably consumptive young men – as well as an excellent rapport with the (depressingly hale and hearty) dog walkers of the district.

Premature death wasn’t actually a prerequisite for my reading list; Yeats, Donne and Blake were regular companion and Tennyson was a particular favourite – as much for his melodic word-weaving as for the beauty of his expression:

‘Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d

Let darkness keep her raven gloss:

Ah sweeter to be drunk with loss,

To dance with death, to beat the ground

Than that the victor Hours should scorn

The long result of love, and boast,

‘Behold the man who loved and lost,

But all he was is overworn’….

And Dylan Thomas, too – all be he paunched and more likely to be puffing from tobacco then tuberculosis – captured my ear and heart:

‘Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

 Rage, rage against the dying of the light’… sang the son of Swansea – and whispered the daughter of Pembrokeshire.

His sentiment, at the time, rang so true; life is after all extraordinary, astonishing, precious. Who would not clutch it with both hands?

Since, though, I’ve touched sufficient deaths – of both the brutal, untimely sort and the quiet, close of day variety – to revise my opinion. Thomas’ father, who inspired the poem, was, after all, dying, blind and in his 80s. Who, in those circumstances, would unwish a loved one the graceful sense of completion that seems to fall with long life’s dusk? Give me life in excess yes, but not excess of it; when I reach out for death, hold my other hand – but please don’t grip too tightly. And then bury me with my negatives…


Of lunacy and harebrained schemes…

I wish I’d felt quite as philosophical at 4.00am. Although it’s March 1st or later when you’re reading this, I’m starting to write it on the 21st February and the total lunar eclipse is less than eighteen hours passed.

I kept dutiful vigil. From midnight on I hovered, liminally, Janus cursing me every time I transgressed his boundaries and me cursing him back every time the back door creaked. But after days and nights of clarity and anticipation, first fog and then cloud blotted the sky, eclipsing everything. Excitement about the ‘blood red moon’ to come turned rapidly to mutterings about the ‘bloody moon’ and, at the moment of theoretical totality, I bad fellow chat-room vigilantes goodnight, sent a grumpy last email and stuck my head out one more time…

And there, of course, it was, a tiny crescent of silver just at its base smiling lop-sidedly down at me. I grabbed my camera and spent a glorious twenty minutes grinning back at its deepening beam before the chill of the night made shake unavoidable.

And then did I sensibly go to bed? Of course not… I breakfasted on a warming whisky and three medicinal chocolate truffles whilst downloading my photos… Only download came there none. ‘Insert stick into drive E’ chanted the ‘Windows Download Wizard’, again – and again – and again. ‘Insert pointy stick in wizard…’ I hissed back… realising that although I could see tantalising moon thumbnails, Magicpants had no intention whatsoever of letting me access them, no matter how many times I typed ‘downloadiamus!’

Rational people would have given up and slept on it. Rational people would have concluded that the problem was with the memory stick. I, however – tired, tipsy, and under the influence of the dark slides of the moon – concluded that my camera was dying.

Did I hold its hand whilst it reached out to death? Did I just… I changed its battery. I shook it. I growled at it. When the wizard kept chanting I almost cried at it. I shut the laptop down, tried shaking that and then restarted.

It was a particularly unfortunate point for my previous nemesis – the ‘Desktop Cleanup Wizard’ – to put in an appearance.


Do I look as if I’m in the least bit perturbed that I have ‘unused icons on my desktop’? In comparison to world hunger, global warming, war and pestilence is it really a big issue? No. So each time it pops up to lecture me I shut it down again… And then the damned thing re-opens, as if clearing its throat and speaking LOUDLY and CLEARLY… ‘Erhem! Madam! You don’t seem to have fully appreciated the gravity of your crime… you have unused – yes, unused – icons… on your desktop! What will the neighbours say?’

In lighter moments, I assuage my ire by thinking of a not-so-long ago episode of Spooks, where the good guys have only moments to save the earth. To achieve this, a geek has to power up his laptop on the bonnet of a car before hacking in and patching up… or whatever non-wizard kids do… in the nick of time. But no, in my fantasy, as Windows opens here comes the wizard… and its name is Gates, not Gandalf…

This morning though, not even accrediting Microsoft with Armageddon helped my humour. And so it was that I finally climbed into my man’s arms muttering – sincerely – ‘the wizards are after me’…

Today though, I remembered the brighter side of the eclipse… and a mystery that got buried somewhere in my grumpiness.  It was just gone 3.30 and as ebony as a shrouded moon night – and yet there were birds singing…numerous birds, all at some distance to the west, towards town.

When a Scottish friend bemusedly reported hearing birdsong there a couple of hours earlier, I assumed she’d encountered a confused robin. Their large eyes mean that they cope with levels of darkness deeper than most birds and it’s not wholly unusual to find one singing by streetlight. I’ve since discovered though that night-time song is increasingly being reported in urban areas. At first, light pollution was blamed, but research points the finger at the daytime noise levels in our streets. Town-dwelling birds can no longer hear each other to establish their territories with song during the day so have to do it by night instead; what was unusual wasn’t the song but that we were out to hear it.


I was, I must admit, relieved to discover a rational explanation for this phenomenon; I try not to be superstitious but it’s a trait knotted deep in my cultural roots and one to which I can succumb at times of chance and change. Birds or animals behaving ‘oddly’ rarely bode well in folklore and I was glad to be able to file my unease away under ‘S’ for ‘solved’.

Of dottiness and derivations…

Oh! It being the 1st of the month, I trust you all remembered to say ‘rabbits’ this morning? But I wonder how many of you also said ‘hares’ before going to sleep last night? The latter tradition seems now to be largely lost, but it was once believed that to salute the closing month with ‘hares’ and welcome the new one with ‘rabbits’ would secure you good luck, a wish or a gift. The Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions also records a farmer from Suffolk – born in 1891 – recalling a saying repeated there at the end of the month ; ‘Let the old hare set’…

An interesting one that. Although many cultures – from China and India through Africa to Mexico – do claim to see a hare or rabbit on the moon in the same way in which we ‘see’ a man’s face, or have folk stories associating the hare with the moon, it’s not a British thing. But then saying ‘rabbits’ and or ‘hares’ at the turn of the month certainly is… Why for goodness’ sake?

 Had people here in fact noticed the pareidolial hare/ rabbit image on the moon? It is, after all, pretty obvious once you look for it…


Pareidolia, by the way, is a kind of apophenia… (oh, how I love that sentence… even though I know it will have completely deserted my brain next week) …apophenia being the perception of patterns, pictures, reason or meaning in apparently random data or happenings. It may be the optical or aural illusions associated with seeing pictures in clouds or hearing words in white noise – both of which would also be examples of ‘pareidolia’.

Apophenia though would also cover the perception of ominous hidden messages in the media by people with psychotic illnesses, some of the more off-the-wall aspects of conspiracy join-the-dot theory, thinking that the behaviour of birds or animals carries portents – or even, I suppose, the discernment of meaning in an utterly random blog…

Apophenia also, before we leave the subject, happens to be the name shared by a death metal band from Tucson, another metallic collection from Ontario and an altogether softer combo from New York. Links to all three from the bottom of this blog enable one to explore how utterly unconnected something that at first sight looks the same can be – and how annoyed any of their fans might be if they picked up a ticket for the wrong gig… The Canadians, incidentally, get the vote of the Welsh jury.

Anyway, back at the early Britons staring at the moon, if  they saw the hare-cum-rabbit there, might they perhaps have once paid oral homage to it at the turn of the moon – and then, later on, at the turn of the month instead? (you must have noticed what peeps out if you double the ‘o’ in ‘month…)

And did early Christians perhaps try to convince them that it wasn’t a hare, given the animal’s links with native pagan deities? ‘Operor non exsisto leviculus , is est non lepus , is est vir! Vultus! Sinister oculus, dexter oculus quod magnus caseus frendo!’ (as close as online translation could get to ‘Don’t be so silly, it’s not a hare it’s a man’s face! Look! A left eye, a right eye and a big cheesy grin..)

‘Ok, look, I’ll do you a deal… You lot stop going on about the hare in the moon and we’ll re-name Pasque after your spring fertility goddess Eostre… does that sound fair to you? Pardon? You still want some reference to the scared hare? Well how does the Easter bunny sound?’


Any links between Eostre, hares, rabbits and eggs are largely speculative though. Bede is the only early source to have ‘recorded’ her, and then only in the context of suggesting that Eostur-monath – the old Anglo Saxon term for April(ish)  – was named for her. A thousand years later, Jakob Grimm (of fairytale fame) took things a little further in his Deutsche Mythologie , suggesting a link between Bede’s Eostre and a German ‘Ostara’ – but neither made any links to other symbols commonly associated with Easter. 

One oft repeated – but as far as I can tell wholly unsourced – story relates how Eostre found a wounded/ freezing bird and transformed it into a hare to ‘save’ it. The hare continued to have the ability to lay eggs and did so each spring in gratitude to the goddess. Though neatly linking the themes, it does so a little too neatly for my liking and as such has the flavour of something contrived retrospectively to do so.

It’s one of the frustrations fundamental to the exploration of folklore that so many stories start ‘they say that…’ but no one ever quite knows who ‘they’ were for citation purposes. The adoption and exchange of deities, symbolism and traditions between cultures, the morphing of names and the incorporation of native beliefs further complicate any disciplined search.  And even at the search’s end, all you’ll often find are fragments which look like they might be connected – a jigsaw puzzle not only with pieces missing but which might have bits of another picture jumbled in with it too. Educated supposition is often all that can draw them together.

Of endless tails…

The way in which things travel and change across the centuries is beautifully exemplified by the ebb and flow of a symbol most commonly known in Britain today as ‘The Tinner’s Rabbits’.

An effective tromp l’oiel, all you perceive at first is a circle of three rabbits – or more accurately hares – chasing after each other. Look more closely though and you will find that although each hare has two ears, they only have three between them…


This one is contemporary – kindly reproduced here with the blessing of father and son stone masons and makers Martin and Oliver Webb of Herefordshire – a link below takes you to their fascinating website.

The symbol thought is ancient. The earliest British examples date from around 1300 and it’s particularly common in Mediaeval Devonshire churches, with a distinct cluster around Dartmoor, almost invariably in the form of carved roof bosses. It was for a long time accepted that this was some sort of ‘badge’ of the influential Dartmoor tin-miners, with various explanations linking the symbol itself to the old alchemical symbol for tin or even the fact that rabbits, like the miners, dug in the ground.

That the same symbol also crops up at churches and cathedrals across England, Wales, France and Germany however rather undermines these origins.

Further examples of the conjoined hares have been found on the base-plate of a 13th/ 14th Century silver casket at Trier Cathedral attributed to an Iranian craftsman working within the Golden Horde, on a Mongol coin of 1281 and on a Cistercian Monastery bell in Germany dating to 1224. The real hare’s leap though – back to the 6th Century and from one religion to another – comes with the discovery of the same symbol painted on the ceilings of Buddhist cave temples in China.  

If you accept that the symbol originally had a single source, its long journey west to Devon seems to have taken over a millennium – some have suggested via the Silk Road and possibly the capture of Constantinople during the Crusades. Others still suggest an even earlier Sassanid Empire origin for it, given that other symbols in the Buddhist cave temples can be linked to this source.

It was quite a relief then to discover two examples much close to home. The first, I was delighted to find, is in St David’s Cathedral – the focal point of the smallest city in Britain and practically on my doorstep.


Of pilgrimage, penance and pictures…

Although a regular place of pilgrimage all my life – and please note that two pilgrimages to St David’s were declared equal to one to Rome by Pope Calixtus II, although I’m fairly sure he didn’t mean by Richards Brothers’ bus – I’d never before noticed the garishly painted roof boss in the Lady Chapel. And even if I had noticed it, I would probably have interpreted it as three donkeys…


I searched high for a Green Man too, for they are often found in partnership with the three hares – but it was low that I eventually found one – grinning from the base of a miserichord – the little ‘shelf’ on which derrières could be rested during long sessions of upstanding worship.


It is, on the whole though, the sort of cathedral you come away from with a crick in your neck rather than a pain in your seat; I hope some of the ceilings pictured at the end of the blog will help you to understand why.

Oh and today is, incidentally, St David’s Day too… but more of him another year…

The second example of the symbol made me feel slightly ashamed. I decided to blog about hares a few weeks ago now (yes, believe it or not there actually is a planning stage involved in my ramblings, the first couple of questions being 1) will I find enough material that interests me? (invariably yes) and if so, 2) will I be able to illustrate it?

Having never even seen a live hare, the chances of finding one and persuading it to pose for a photograph in the space of a month seemed remote. I knew though that around my home I had several representations of hares which would, at a push, more than do – a large stone one, a little silver one, a moon-gazing one, one on a wall plaque in the back yard and one on a bowl which I always long to fill with soup just for the punch line.

Then, that evening, my surf – mouse washed up at a site about the three hares symbol and a reference to the St David’s boss. If confirmation of my subject was needed, I had just found it.

The following morning, on the way to the robin, I glanced at the wall plaque just to confirm that it was of a hare, not a rabbit. Oh it was a hare alright – three of them in fact – running round in a circle and sharing three ears between them. Ho hum… I wonder if there’s a term for seeing only random rabbits in significant, meaningful pictures…


I’m usually the other way inclined; as a teenager (when not posing with poetry) I was entranced by Kit Williams’ ‘Masquerade’ – a treasure hunt within a picture book, with a riddle and a hare in every picture. His art combines a slightly disturbing realism with fascinating detail and I swam for hours in those images. I also clearly recall the frisson that ran down my spine the first time I saw sinister-in-her-innocence young Myrtle Morrison showing Sergeant Howie a drawing of her missing sister Rowan in The Wicker Man… It is, as I’m sure you’ll remember, a picture of a hare…

Hare today, woman tomorrow…

Rowan was of course not the first young Scottish woman to ‘go into a hare’. Probably the best documented lady-to-Lepus transformer was ‘self confessed’ 17th Century Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie, who delighted her persecutors with her lengthy and vivid descriptions of shape shifting, sabbats and dealings with the Devil as well as obliging them with the actual spells used for the transformation.

I could of course rant at length about the use of physical and psychological torture coupled with assurances of a) mercy and/ or b) salvation to ‘encourage’ confessions from the feeble, fanciful, downright unwell or just persecuted, but trust I’d be preaching to the converted. I could even mention Guantanamo Bay…

Instead though I’ll share the hope that Isobel – whose execution was assumed by many but never actually recorded – either died an old lady, still regaling her captors, or managed to lose herself somewhere in fertile fields, be they of the landscape or the mind.

Her testimony though lives on, both as a poignant memorial and a fascinating sampler of the folk beliefs of her time with which she embroidered her stories.


Some, it would seem, had already been around for centuries. Giraldus Cambrensis, writing 600 years earlier in his 1184 ‘Topographia Hibernica’ or ‘Topography of Ireland’ reported ‘It has also been a frequent complaint, from old times as well as in the present, that certain hags in Wales, as well as in Ireland and Scotland, changed themselves into the shape of hares, that, sucking teats under the counterfeit form, they might stealthily rob other people’s milk…’ 

In Wales the ability to shape shift into a hare was also thought to run in the women of some families – a belief recorded by John Rhys in his 1901 ‘Celtic Folklore’, who remarks that ‘I have known many such, and my own nurse belonged to one of them, so that my mother was reckoned to be rather reckless in entrusting me to y Gota or ‘the Cutty One,’ as she might run away at any moment, leaving her charge to take care of itself.’

Oh I love passages which pose as many questions as they answer…

The only likely definitions I could find for ‘cutty’ though were either ‘cut short/ abnormally short and stubby’ (as in the cutty wren, or the Cutty Sark – ‘sark’ originally being a Scottish chemise or nightdress…) or as slang for ‘an immoral and unchaste woman’ – and if the latter was the usage intended by Rhys I would imagine the danger of his nurse transforming into a hare would be the least of the local gossips’ concerns. Were these Welsh hare-women then renowned for their tiny stature? It seems unlikely. EVERYONE here is short.

I had to turn back to Welsh then to find a more probable interpretation, where ‘Y Gota’ – or ‘Cota’, before my native tongue performs its own shape-shifting mutation on it – translates as ‘short’, yes, but also as ‘abrupt’. And it seems quite likely to me that women renowned for supernatural prowess would also be associated with being brusque or of course ‘cutting’…  Well wouldn’t you be if children shouted ‘hello Thumper’ after you in the street?

Manx witches meanwhile were known as ‘butches’, says Rhys, for which he suggests derivation from ‘witch’ and ‘bewitch’. He records though that whereas in Wales only women can transform themselves into hares, the men of Man can also be hare-witches. He also remarks that in both cultures, only a black greyhound ‘without a single white hair’ can catch one and that only being shot with a silver coin can kill one.

Of fire, fish and fissures…

It is of course probably not surprising that hares – active at night, silent, fleet and capable of giving you one hell of a shock if disturbed by day – became associated with things not quite of the light. They were traditionally considered ill omens – the appearance of a hare running through a town was said to presage fire, fisher folk around our shores wouldn’t even utter the word ‘hare’ let alone put out to sea if one had been sighted near their boat or nets and if a hare crossed your path you might as well abandon your journey for no good would come of it.


The sighting of a hare by a pregnant woman was thought to threaten deformity in the unborn child (viz. a harelip), but immediately tearing her petticoat might avert the threat, the rent in the cloth presumably being symbolic of the split in the hare’s upper lip and something divided ‘instead’ of the baby’s features.

A similar belief was attached should an expectant woman accidentally put her foot in the ‘form’ of a hare – ‘form’ being the name given to the shallow hollows which are home to hares. For hares, unlike rabbits, do not burrow and also give birth to far fewer, more mature young. Leverets are born with fur and with their eyes open, usually two or three to a litter. It’s common for their mother to spread them between more than one form, presumably maximising their chances of survival.

The adoption of abandoned hare forms by ground nesting birds for their nests is one possible source of the belief that hares laid eggs. What gave rise to the idea that they were either androgynous or changed sex with each season and were capable of virgin birth is less obvious.

Still, Pliny recommends eating hare both as a cure for sterility and an aphrodisiac and John Baptisa Porta, in his ‘Natural Magick’ records how ‘jugglers and impostors’ would set a lamp burning, filled with the fat of a hare… ‘If the lamp burns in the middle of women’s company…’ he writes ‘…it constrains them to cast off their cloths and voluntarily to show themselves naked unto men.’ A popular new scent for ‘Colonial Candles’ to offer perhaps?

By 1738 though, Swift wrote in his ‘Polite Conversation’ that hare was considered ‘melancholy meat’ and Brand, in his 1777 ‘Antiquitie’s records ‘the antient (sic) Britons made Use of the Hare for the Purposes of Divination. They were never killed for the Table. ‘Tis perhaps from hence that they have been accounted ominous by the Vulgar.

The source for this claim is almost certainly Cassius Dio’s account of Boudica’s 1st Century rout of the Romans (before being routed right back). In volume 62 of his 80 volume History of Rome he writes: ‘When she had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress… and since it ran on what was considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure’.

That Boudica then goes on to thank Andraste (identified as a war goddess) has led some neopagans to claim that the hare was sacred to Andraste, but neither Dio nor Tacitus – the only other source for this encounter – make that link and indeed just sentences earlier Dio quotes Boudica as comparing the Romans to ‘hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves’ – hardly an allusion she would have made to sacred animals and particularly not one sacred to the goddess she was just about to invoke…

I accept of course that stories will get warped and wefted as new generations weave them for their own time – the urge to look for patterns, to find explanations, to join-up-the-stars is just too human to expect otherwise. I wish people would admit though – sometimes to themselves – that that is what they are doing – and preferably stick a date on it!

Or perhaps my high horse is too high? Will some blogger in 3008 be quoting ‘judeness.wordpress.com’ as an ‘early but grumpy’ reference to the ‘ancient tradition of linking hares with Andraste’ whilst sighing about their contemporary neopagans?

Bear with me that I’m odd then; that I content myself with fragments, try to blag some random connections, lay them before you here and say ‘look, hares’ –  and hope, of course, that you enjoy them.


Of plagiarism and puns…

A final morsel before you go though; the mysterious ways of hares are not, it would seem, confined to yesteryear.

As long as aeroplanes have been taking off regularly, it’s been noticed that hares seem to gravitate to runways and indeed will often course alongside planes as they take off. Stefan Buczacki records this phenomenon in his Fauna Britannica, quoting a First World War pilot and citing the famous hares of Aldergrove in Belfast. And only last year, Milan’s Linate airport was closed after ‘a plague of hares’ confused the ground radar there.

I’d like to offer an explanation.

Hares, after all, are particularly common in the south east of England – and their natural habitat is more and more threatened by development…

‘Oh!’ cried little Sixer, waking from a dream, trembling ‘I have seen the great yellow trundlebunnies coming, flattening our forms and levelling our leverets… What are we to do? Where are we to go?’

Pistachio leaped to his little brother’s side…

‘We must go and see Gooseberry,’ declared Pistachio, ‘for he is hairy and wise in all things…’ and so, after Sixer had drunk his rescue remedy, they loped off into the darkness.

It took them a long time to find Gooseberry, who, being green, rather blended into the scenery. But, having appealed to Froth to light their way, they found him, eventually, at sunrise. Poor little Sixer poured out his vision, still quaking.

‘Fear not,’ said Gooseberry…‘I was up on the hill the other night and was listening to the workhumans chatting. I was confused at first too, but managed to work it out…

‘They spoke of a place not far from here which they are building especially for us… a new home… “at ‘Eathrow – a new running way”, they said – “a bloody great ‘are field”…’

A hoppy Eostre to you all – may your hares never grey…



The Three Hares Project


Some lovely stonework and lots of history to explore


half an hour of happy radio 4 listening about the hunt for the three hares’ origin


hares in Manx folklore – and lots more besides


a whimsical, quite large site about floppy bunnies and their lore and lots of very pretty pictures


Dylan Thomas reading ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’


birds singing at night


Isobel Gowdie’s confession


apophenia – the phenomenon


Apophenia – the death metal version


Apophenia – the Canadian version


Apophenia – the New York version


John Baptista Porta’s ‘Natural Magick’


Cassius Dio’s account of Boudica and the hare…