Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2002




OZ on CORVIDS - Every year around this time, I’m struck by the behaviour of crows, those “clever and resourceful birds”, as I described them in the November 1999 Newsletter. Collectively, the crows, magpies and jays are known as ‘corvids’ from the family name Corvidae, which in turn comes from the Latin ‘corvus’ for raven. It’s interesting to note that the Romans also used ‘corvus’ for a military grappling-hook, presumably from its resemblance to a raven’s beak. Corvids comprise 107 distinct species, and are found worldwide, except in New Zealand. Currently, there is much research into whether corvids have a “theory of mind”, bordering on self-awareness, that allows them to picture, and hence take advantage of, future situations. Henry Gee, in The Guardian on 22 November 2001, reported that: “One kind of crow has learned to drop nuts in front of the obliging tyres of trucks - but only on pedestrian crossings, so the crows can retrieve their dinner in relative safety.” N J Emery and Nicki Clayton, a husband-and-wife team from Cambridge University, described in November’s Nature journal how the corvids have extended this tool-using behaviour to manipulation of social situations. They have observed, across Europe and North America, that when some birds store food in full view of their rivals, they often return later, in private if possible, to move their caches elsewhere. In further experiments, Emery and Clayton showed that birds which carry out cache switching are those “with established criminal form”, ie they have previous experience of raiding other birds’ caches. The suggestion is that corvids can construct scenarios of the form “Now, what would I do, if I were him?” It’s not surprising that science has found this trait in corvids, confirming the traditional view of them as thieves and mischief-makers.  


OZ on QUIZZES - It’s winter again, the Wine and Wisdom season. Writing in 1941, in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell described England as “a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans”, to which he might well have added “quiz competitors”. The quiz is long established as an educational and recreational device. Mr Gradgrind, in Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), declared that “…what I want is Facts…facts alone are wanted in life.” Later, in the 1890’s, the two great literary quizzes, Nemo’s Almanac and Hide and Seek, were established to encourage and entertain students in close reading of texts. During the 20th century, the rise of universal education combined, first with radio to produce such programmes as Have a Go and Twenty Questions, and then with television, resulting in 64,000 Dollar Question, Double Your Money, and, more recently, 15-1, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and The Weakest Link. The last decade has seen the growth of the Wine and Wisdom quiz as an important part of community life, in which several strands may be detected. The provision of food and drink often reflects the pattern of the American Supper of thirty years ago, enlivened by today’s easier access to alcohol in the supermarkets. Also important is the availability of personal computer technology, enabling quiz setters to research information rapidly and to organise the paperwork. But above all the Wine and Wisdom quiz is an outlet for controlled competitive aggression. Orwell’s essay continues, “All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official - the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the nice cup of tea”; to which we should perhaps now add “the wine and wisdom quiz”.       


OZ on BIRDWATCH – Last autumn, we joined Garden BirdWatch, a project organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). Thousands of amateur volunteers collect data on wild birds in their gardens for use by BTO in influencing decisions on conservation and protection issues. The discipline of observing and recording produces some unexpected insights. For example, we assumed that, when the clocks go back in October, birds flock into the garden looking for peanuts. Not so – as Derwent May pointed out recently in the Times, summer fruits last well into winter, and the most difficult months are February and March. James Fisher took the view that really hard winters, putting food sources outside foraging range, occur on average eight times in a century. Fisher quoted the Reverend Gilbert White on one such, the famous frost of January 1776, when “skylarks settled in the streets because they saw the ground was bare…rooks frequented dunghills close to houses.”  More recently, Fisher was quoted as saying that over half the birds living in the country before December 1962 were dead after the end of the terrible winter that followed. Richard Fitter estimated that, during that winter, British housewives saved at least a million birds by feeding them in gardens. On a radio programme, Fisher once asked listeners directly “Why do you feed the birds?” The consensus seemed to be “Somebody’s got to do it.” As Fisher summarised, “people feel their duties pressingly, and so deeply, that to them the birds are “their” wild birds like family dogs and cats. It is a dignified acceptance that humans adopt from early childhood, without much sentimentality. People just do it.” Readers who wish to just do it, and record it, should write to Garden BirdWatch, BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford IP24 2PU, or ‘phone 01842 750050.                 


OZ on SWORDS AND PLOUGHSHARES – Among the most pleasant of literary activities is the discovery of an unexpected but recurring theme. One such is “The helmet now a hive for bees becomes”, the first line of Ralph Knevet’s poem The Vote. Knevet (1600 – 1671) was Rector of Lyng in Norfolk, and wrote the poem as a thanksgiving at the end of the Civil War. The image is uncannily pre-dated in George Peele’s 1590 poem A Farewell to Arms, with its line “His helmet now shall make a hive for bees.” Peele, a friend of Shakespeare, addressed the lines to Queen Elizabeth to mark the retirement of Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s Champion. It isn’t difficult to imagine the relief when, after years of wearying battle, sometimes against brothers and cousins, soldiers were allowed to return to peaceful normality. Thomas Dekker, in The Magnificent Entertainment (1603), wrote “And when soft-handed Peace so sweetly thrives / That bees in soldiers’ helmets build their hives.” Many years later, at the end of the American Civil War, the great American poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote, in The Hive at Gettysburg, the lines “A stained and shattered drum / Is now the hive, where, on their flowering rounds, / The wild bees go and come.” And last century, Robert Graves, in Spoils, declared that “When all is over and you march for home, / The spoils of war are easily disposed of: / Standards, weapons of combat, helmets, drums / May decorate a staircase or a study.” The earliest references I can find to this theme are in the Greek and Persian poets, writing of spiders weaving in abandoned armour. The most recent examples, probably shared by all, come from our memories of parents and grandparents and their use of shell-cases from the two World Wars as ashtrays and spill-holders.


OZ on POND INVADERS – At last we’ve cleared the garden pond, a heavy and smelly task. Strained backs are guaranteed by lifting while standing on pond-edges and dividing huge matted clumps of iris, lily and sedge. These problems, however, are small compared with those presented by some recently imported pond invaders. The environmental organisations English Nature and Frogwatch have identified the Australian Swamp Stonecrop Crassula helmsii as a particular threat. This plant can grow an inch a day, and has colonised over 2,000 ponds and lakes, including many in the Lake District, choking native plants such as the Floating Water-plantain Luronium natans. Physical destruction of the invader worsens the situation as each broken piece regrows into a new plant, and English Nature is now implementing total weedkilling and replanting.  Additionally they are seeking to control sale of the plant, often described as an oxygenator or mislabelled Tillaea recurva. Another such invader, with leaves six feet long, is Parrot Feather Myriophyllum aquaticum from the Amazon basin. Older invaders such as Floating Pennywort and Water Fern continue to damage wildlife when uncontrolled.  After our spring-clean the shadows and ripples on the pond’s surface gave rise to those images, “psychic invaders” perhaps, that so often feature in literature. The playwright John Webster, writing in 1613, saw “in the fishponds…a thing, arm’d with a rake.” Wordsworth’s poem The Thorn described “the shadow of a baby’s face”, while Tennyson’s Churchwarden and the Curate spoke of “nasty sins in my pond”, and William Davies’s The Pond held “a dead woman’s upturned face.” Part of the reason for our efforts was to assist frogs in rearing tadpoles. Within two days a mallard duck and two attendant drakes invaded and ate all the frogspawn, some of the duckweed and, thankfully, more than a few slugs.


OZ on MIGHTY OAKS – A new tree disease, “sudden oak death”, has arrived from America, leading to a ban on certain imports in order to protect English oaks. The fungus Phytophthora ramorum also attacks some garden shrubs, which become carriers. In infected trees the bark splits, leading to sap loss and tissue death within months. Horticulturists consider that the disease can be controlled using sensible precautions, unlike Dutch elm disease, which spread because elms were specifically targeted by elm bark beetles. Oaks have been sacred to Europeans since prehistoric times, for both spiritual and practical reasons, and hold a central place in our culture. In 1791 William Cowper wrote, but never finished, the poem Yardley Oak. William Hayley discovered it after Cowper’s death “amid a heap of discarded note-books and blotted manuscripts”, adding that he could hardly have been more surprised if  “an oak, in its natural majesty, had started up from the turf of the garden, in full foliage”, before him. Cowper tells the oak “Thou wast a bauble once; a cup and ball, which babes might play with” and continues that “a thievish jay might have purloined the auburn nut that held thee.” Later, he describes how “Time has made the oak a cave for owls to roost in.”  That could almost be a description of our largest oak, at Bowthorpe Park in Lincolnshire, and estimated to be 1,000 years old. In 1768 its hollow trunk was smoothed to make a dining-room for the squire and twenty friends. Nearer home, in Fredville Park at Nonington, is the second largest oak, called ‘Majesty’, and sketched by Jacob Strutt in 1820. Both of these gentle giants have survived centuries of storm and disease to face, not a “sudden oak death”, but rather a slow demise from what Cowper described as “the rottenness which Time is charged to inflict.”  


OZ on JUBILEE PROMS – There’s a pleasing symmetry to the way that the late Queen Mother’s life spanned the century between Victoria’s death and Elizabeth’s golden jubilee. In this year’s Dover Carnival Proms Concert the choir sings music from coronation services, commencing with Parry’s monumental I was Glad from the 1902 coronation of Edward VII. SS Wesley’s 1853 anthem Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, sung at the 1937 and 1953 coronations, is followed by Stanford’s Te Deum from the 1902 service, and two settings by Vaughan Williams for Elizabeth’s coronation. This half concludes with Handel’s Zadok the Priest, so successful at George II’s coronation in 1727 that it has been performed at every coronation since. The second half features the première of a newly commissioned work, A Man of Kent, described by its composer, Peter Cork, as an “instrumental evocation of the Kentish countryside south of the Medway.” The three movements comprise Romney Marsh, Alkham Valley, and The White Cliffs. The Romney Marsh movement has a folk-song quality suggesting a lonely and clear marshland day, complete with the bleating of sheep. Cork remembers Alkham Valley as “in the Fifties a quiet and remote area” and so the second movement uses the ballad The Lark in the Still Air together with the tolling of Alkham’s church bell. The final White Cliffs movement includes squawking seagulls, a sea-shanty, and a heroic second tune that, in Cork’s words, “could embody the spirit of Dover citizens in the hell-fire corner days of the Second War.”  After this, patriotic Dovorians will again hear the 1908 pageant song Dauntless Dover before joining in the traditional finale of Jerusalem, Rule Brittania and Land of Hope and Glory. So make sure your tickets, hats and flags are ready for 7.30pm on Friday 5 July in Dover Town Hall.  


OZ on MINSMERE – One of life’s more intriguing discoveries is that with age one increasingly resembles one’s parents. As Robert Lowell, in his poem Middle Age, said, “At forty-five, what next, what next? At every corner / I meet my father / my age, still alive.” At sixty-plus, my wife’s parents began to disappear regularly to watch birds at the RSPB reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk.  It seemed inevitable therefore that this spring found us driving up the A14 to Saxmundham, our base for exploring Minsmere and its surroundings. The reserve originated in the early days of World War II, when, responding to invasion threats, the government flooded the Minsmere saltings. By the end of the war the area had reverted to nature and the RSPB acquired it in 1947. Minsmere is now the most famous and heavily visited (by both birds and humans) of the RSPB reserves. Over 300 bird species have been recorded there, 200 of them annually, with about 100 species breeding regularly. We saw a modest 23 of these on our first visit, and 58 during the week. On the third day, we celebrated my birthday (at sixty-two, what next, what next?) with a rare sighting of a bittern after a wait of only 20 minutes in the Bittern Hide.  During the next few days we found East Suffolk to be a green and gentle place, the roads bordered by hedges and oak standards rather than fences, much like East Kent was 50 years ago, and so, like the parents before us, we’ve booked to return in the autumn. Lowell’s poem ends “You never climbed Mount Sion / yet left dinosaur death-steps / on the crust / where I must walk.” We’ll have to go some to match the parents’ “dinosaur steps”. In between trips to Minsmere, they visited Norway, Yugoslavia and Morocco.  


OZ on McGONAGALL – Driving near St Mary’s Loch, in the Borders, one Sunday in August 1984, we braked hard on seeing second-hand books displayed on a low dry-stone wall at the side of the road. “There’s more in here”, cried the elderly owner as she opened the double doors of a barn, stacked high with thousands of volumes. Among our purchases that afternoon was Poetic Gems by William Topaz McGonagall, the self-styled “poet and tragedian of Dundee”. This memory resurfaced when I read that 29th September is the centenary of McGonagall’s death. Born in either 1825 or 1830 into an Irish weaving family, he declared himself a poet in 1877 and embarked on a 25 year career as a working poet and actor, “delighting and appalling audiences across Scotland”, according to The Scotsman. He was soon regarded as the country’s favourite bad poet, although the great Scottish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, decided that “William McGonagall was not a bad poet; still less a good bad poet – he was not a poet at all.” McGonagall wrote extensively on the Empire, his beloved Queen Victoria, disasters, and, most famously, on the construction and subsequent collapse of the Tay Bridge. It’s difficult to understand why he persisted, in the face of rotten fruit and ridicule, even being turned away from Balmoral. My view is that, as a hand-loom weaver with a large family to support, he felt obliged from economic necessity to suffer these supposed humiliations. After all he was paid fees of 5 or 10 shillings per performance. His only venture into the world of commercial advertising produced the following poem, for which he was paid two guineas by Sunlight Soap: “You can use it with great pleasure and ease / Without wasting any elbow grease /And when washing the most dirty clothes / The sweat won’t be dripping from your nose.”


OZ on GWYER – In last month’s article I didn’t mention that we had our own “English McGonagall” at one time. Joseph Gwyer, “The Penge Poet”, was born at Redlynch, in Wiltshire, on 17th November 1835, into a large family of Wesleyan Methodists. His mother died when he was eight years old, after which he and his eight siblings were raised by their grandmother on their uncle’s farm. At the age of 17, he left home for Bermondsey to find work, and experienced a vivid religious experience that converted him to Baptism. Later he moved to Croydon, where he was married in 1864. Gwyer was a potato salesman, but in connection with his work for the Penge Tabernacle and the temperance movement he published an “almanack” containing amongst other things his own poems. It sounded much like our newsletter “with local and popular events … getting from £30 to £40 per year for advertisements.”  Gwyer travelled extensively in the south-east, selling both potatoes and poems, and penning poetic sketches that included Folkestone, Sandgate, Herne Bay and Margate (…the Fort Arcade we see / High up above the rolling sea”). Like McGonagall, he found disasters, shipwrecks and royalty irresistable; he was equally rejected by Queen Victoria, and much of his verse was pure doggerel.  Where he differed was in his greater underlying earnestness, what Nicholas T Parsons called “a seriousness of tone befitting the grandeur of his themes.” Gwyer and McGonagall shared with certain “naïve” writers in 19th century America this combination of solemnity and humour that reflected the spirit of the age. However, Gwyer’s sense of fun was never far below the surface, and always erupted when he advertised his beloved potatoes: “Many lasses know home duties well, choose your wife from such / Can cook and roast a joint, POTATOES, or anything they touch.” 


OZ on CALENDARS – This September saw the 250th anniversary of the adoption, by the British government and King George II, of the Gregorian calendar. Lord Chesterfield’s Calendar Act of 1751 took effect in 1752, when September 2nd was immediately followed by September 14th. Reaction was instant and dramatic, with nation-wide riots based on the slogan “Give us back our eleven days!” The uproar soon settled as people realised that they wouldn’t lose 11 days life or income, and that Chesterfield’s act specifically prohibited the charging of a month’s rent for 19 days lodgings. Change was necessary because the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, had become inaccurate in an age of increasing precision in astronomy, navigation and chronometry. The problem arises because, due to the continually changing egg-shaped orbit of the earth around the sun, the year varies in length from 365.2416 to 365.2427 days, averaging just less than 365.2422 days. The Julian calendar had tried resolving this by adding a day every four years, making the year 365.25 days long. The Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582, made only one in four century years a leap year (eg 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not, but 2000 was, a leap year). This caused the year length to be 365.2425 days, very close to the true figure. The Gregorian calendar was resisted in Protestant northern Europe as a “Popish plot” for nearly 200 years, until astronomers convinced governments of the severity of the computational problems. By the time the Gregorian calendar was accepted in Britain, accumulated errors made it necessary to delete 11 days. Occasionally, after dates in old documents and on tombstones, you will see the letters “OS”, short for “Old Style”, signifying that the date quoted was according to the Julian Calendar.


OZ on VACATION – On hearing that someone was busy, having just returned from a “vacation”, my mental image of him changed, from elderly English gentleman to someone young or American or possibly both. I checked out the word in the Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that it has an interesting pedigree. Originally it meant “freedom from” as in Chaucer’s “leisure and vacation / From other worldly occupation” (1386). In the 15th and 16th centuries the meaning was extended to “suspension of activity”, as of law-courts, universities and schools, and hence generally to the resulting “holidays”.  It was in this sense that “vacation” was adopted in America as a word for “holiday” or “take a holiday”. Emily Dickinson’s The Masque of Poets (1878) reported that “At Saratoga…you meet …people spending short vacations.” Later I learnt from the newspaper that Allen Walker Read, the distinguished American word-researcher, had died at the age of 96. He had outlived his wife of 49 years, fellow scholar Charlotte Schuchardt, by just three months. Read’s popular fame was due to his investigation into the origins of the term “OK”. He rejected several appetising theories, including the Choctaw “okeh”, the Haitian “Aux Cayes” and the biscuit made by Orrin-Kendall for the US Army, eventually settling for the jokey “Orl Korrect” deliberately misspelt in an 1839 Boston newspaper. The term was later used in the election campaigns of the eighth US president, Martin Van Buren, nicknamed “Old Kinderhook”. Read also wrote articles for dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and produced a stream of books whose subjects included the history of words, US and UK slang, and graffiti in public lavatories.  His latest books, published in 2001 and 2002, came at the end of a retirement that was, thankfully, long but not a “vacation” in any of the above senses of the word.