Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2004



OZ on LAPWINGS  – One bleak afternoon, after a bruising Christmas shopping expedition in Canterbury, we came home via the nature reserve opposite Richborough power station for some tranquillity and exercise. Wheeling high over the mudflats was an enormous cloud of several thousand lapwings, dipping and rolling in the distinctive flight that names them, from the Anglo-Saxon hleapewince meaning ‘run and wink’. It was a gratifying sight as wildlife authorities have been concerned for many years now over the decline in lapwing numbers due to farming pressures. The lapwings belong to the plover family and comprise at least 24 species of which ours is the Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), also known as ‘peewit’ from its cry and ‘green plover’ from its iridescent back feathers. Lapwings, in fact, provided the “plovers’ eggs” of London street markets. As a child I thought that lapwings and peewits were separate species, and my mother-in-law held this view to the end of her life. It’s an understandable mistake due in part to the varied images that the bird presents. The haughty crest doesn’t chime with the tumbling flight or the querulous ‘pee-wit’ song. These traits, combined with the lapwing’s skill at diverting intruders from the nest, give the impression of deceit. John Gower, in 1390, wrote “ A lappewinke has lost his faith / And is the bird falsest of all.” Another mediaeval notion was that the newly hatched lapwing ran about with its head in the shell, so that Shakespeare’s Hamlet has Horatio saying “This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head.”  On returning home I felt the need to check our estimate of the numbers of lapwings at Pegwell Bay, and logged on to local birding web-sites that confirmed flocks of more than 8,000 lapwings over the estuary in December.  


OZ on COMMAS – This Christmas’s most successful literary stocking-filler was, surprisingly, a book on punctuation. I devoured Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss, in one blissful sitting between Boxing Day dinner and tea, having been captivated by the dedication to “the memory of the Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby precipitated the Russian Revolution.”  The book is a hilarious onslaught on sloppy punctuation, a habit aggravated, in Truss’s view, by the rise of the Internet and text-messaging. The commonest and most treacherous error is misplacing the comma, an example being the first part of the book’s title, which explains the behaviour of a panda that read a badly punctuated definition of ‘panda’ and then went to the pub. Truss continues with accounts of the Jameson Raid, Sir Roger Casement’s execution and Graham Greene’s will as illustrations of how misplaced commas can change the course of history. It reminded me of the story that the great civil engineering arbitrator, Max Abrahamson, told of the parliamentary draftsman who reported “I inserted a comma before a particular word this morning, I took it off in the afternoon and, just as you were entering my room, I was thinking of putting it back.” Closely related to the comma are the colon (:) and semicolon (;) and again Truss has many tales, more to do with style this time than misuse, my favourite being James Agate’s “fastidious journalist” who “once telephoned a semicolon from Moscow.” These last two marks have been given new leases of life in forming ‘emoticons’ at the end of text-messages, as in :-) and the winking ;-). And apostrophes? I’ll deal with them another day.


OZ on RUGGER – As I write, England, the new World Rugby Champions, meet Italy in their first Six Nations Cup 2004 game; as you read, the series is half over. Games involving ball handling and possession by opposing mobs were first recorded in ancient China and Japan. The Greeks played a game called ‘harpastum’, later adopted by the Romans whose soldiers stationed in Britain taught it to locals under the name of the Romano-British word for ‘football’. The game mentioned in Fitzstephen’s History of London (1175) was typically between two villages, with up to 2,000 people, of any age and either sex participating, the aim being to manhandle the ball back to one’s own village. There were no rules and so players were often injured or killed. Soon, ‘foote balle’ became a national obsession, with such disastrous effects on public order and the economy that it was banned, unsuccessfully, 31 times in 300 years by seven monarchs. The problem was eventually resolved by the Industrial Revolution. Urbanisation transformed ‘football’ into a ‘catch-and-carry’ street game which faded under the pressure of factory working hours. The game continued in three public schools as a deliberate attempt to channel male adolescent aggression, and an interesting division occurred. Charterhouse and Westminster had hard playgrounds, and so the game was confined to kicking, leading eventually to ‘association football’ or ‘soccer’. At Rugby, with its spacious green fields, players were allowed to tackle and catch, but not run with, the ball. In 1823, during a match at Rugby, William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran, creating the game now known as ‘rugby’ or ‘rugger’. The words ‘soccer’ and ‘rugger’ derive from 1880’s Oxbridge student slang, which added ‘-er’ to abbreviated words, as in ‘brekkers’ for breakfast, ‘rugger’ for ‘rugby rules’ and ‘soccer’ for ‘association rules’.


OZ on APRIL  –  It has been a long hard winter, nearly half a year of bitter cold, rain, snow and the debilitating new ‘flu virus. Thank heavens it’s April at last, with daffodils out and the clocks moved forward. The name, from Latin ‘Aprilis’ and ‘aperire’, meaning ‘to open’, suggests, according to Brewer’s Dictionary, “The opening month, when the trees unfold, and the womb of nature opens with young life.” The month itself opens with the familiar but puzzling ritual of April Fools’ Day. Brewer rejects the notion that the custom refers to the uncertainty of the weather or the mockery of Jesus, since similar pranks occur at the Hindu festival of Huli on the 31st March. He follows the consensus view that, as 25th March used to be New Year’s Day, 1st April was the last day of the week-long New Year festivities. Over the years, male fears of marriage gave rise to jokey phrases such as “April morn” for “wedding day” and “April gentleman” for “newly married man”. However, even if not the reason for April Fools’ Day, the fickleness of April weather is well documented, not least in literature. The first line of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales refers to “Aprill with his shoures soote”, acknowledged over 500 years later by T S Eliot in the first line of his Waste Land: “April is the cruellest month”.  Lines such as William Watson’s “April, April, laugh thy girlish laughter” are distinctly unsettling, and when George Orwell set an ominous tone in the first line of his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was, of course, “a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” As usual William Shakespeare provides a fine example with this ringing phrase from Two Gentlemen of Verona: “The uncertain glory of an April day.”


OZ on COOKIE –  8.45am on Sunday, cue for soft-boiled eggs with soldiers and Alistair Cooke’s radio weekly Letter from America, has changed forever. On February 22, Cooke, having vowed never to retire, finally took medical advice and delivered the last and 2,869th edition. Five weeks later, on 30th March, he died aged 95 at his New York City home. Cooke was yet another talented character, like Eltham’s Bob Hope or Battersea’s George Shearing, who came from humble British origins and made good in the USA. Born in Salford on 20th November 1908, to Samuel, a metal-worker and lay pastor, and his wife Mary, Cooke was christened ‘Alfred’ after a favourite Methodist preacher. The family moved to Blackpool in 1917 and took in seven American soldiers who made a lasting impression on young Alfred. From Blackpool Grammar School, Alfred won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied English and changed his name to ‘Alistair’. After further study at Yale and Harvard, Cooke became the BBC’s film critic in the newly expanding Hollywood, married, and took American citizenship in 1941. During and after the war his career took off in many directions, most notably with America’s NBC, our BBC and as the Manchester Guardian’s correspondent in the newly-formed United Nations. On 24th March 1946, Letter from America started, and Cooke spent the rest of the century explaining America to the British, Britain to the Americans, and both to the rest of the world, acquiring in the process many degrees and awards, including a KBE in 1973. It is typical of the man’s gentle modesty that the distinction he valued most was his adoption by the children’s TV programme Sesame Street, as the character ‘Monster Alistair Cookie, host of Monsterpiece Theater.’ A little girl once approached him in an airport and asked if he was the real Alistair Cookie. “Fifty years from now,” he replied, “when the names of all current television stars will have been forgotten, there will be some old lady saying, ‘I once met Alistair Cookie ....’ ” (Steve Osborn 


OZ on SQUIRRELS –  The first highlight of our May holiday on the Isle of Wight was Jak sniffing out, digging up and eating a soft-backed crab on Ryde beach. The second was a red squirrel leaping from tree to tree in the grounds of Osborne House and twisting in and out of adjacent holes in his home trunk. The red squirrel has been common in Europe since the last Ice Age, under such names as ‘skug’, ‘escurel’ and ‘skurrel’, all deriving from ancient Greek ‘sciouros’ meaning ‘shade tail’. Linnaeus coined the scientific name Sciurus vulgaris in 1758 and in 1792 Kerr added leucourus meaning ‘light-tailed’ to distinguish the unique British species. The red squirrel population has fluctuated markedly over the years, usually in response to the availability of suitable trees for food and shelter. Between 1860 and 1900 in Britain a surfeit of red squirrels was caused by the fashionable planting of imported conifers. Rapid decline followed after 1900 due to epidemic disease and widespread felling of conifers required for First World War preparations. By the 1930s the population again started to increase but now faced different pressures. Grey squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, had been imported from America as novelty pets in 1876, and had taken over the English deciduous woodlands which they could utilise better than the red squirrels. Over large areas of southern England the red squirrel was extinct by the 1940s. Today the red squirrel is found in England only in Cumbria, the Isle of Wight, Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Thetford Forest in Norfolk and Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. The exact reasons for the unequal struggle between reds and greys remain unclear. Jak knows all about greys. He once caught one in Kearsney Abbey, whimpered with delight, dropped it and raced after the next one.


OZ on QUACKS AND CROAKS –  The question “which sex of ducks quacks?”, posed in Alkham’s January quiz, and the quizmaster’s gleeful answer “female – of course!”, caused much discussion, not all from aggrieved feminists. Subsequent research in Bushey Ruff was inconclusive. In the flock of mallards that we observed, males seemed to outquack females if anything. The consensus among duck experts is that generally, given that sounds vary according to function and between species, females make “loud” quacks and males make “raspy” quacks. At Middlesex University, academics have now taken the research further, discovering, according to a report published last month, that ducks have regional accents. Dr Victoria de Rijke compared quacks recorded at Spitalfields City Farm in east London and at the tranquil Trerieve Farm near Looe in Cornwall, and concluded that the ducks had developed distinct regional accents in response to their environments. The cockney ducks had rough “shouting” quacks with short open vowels that allowed them to be heard above the din of city transport, while their Cornish cousins had gentle burrs, more like “giggles”, with longer and slower vowels. Not surprisingly, regional accents are also found in other creatures such as frogs. Amphibian expert Julia Wycherley discovered the accents while trying to find out exactly which sub-species of pool frog (Rana lessonae) had lived in East Anglia before becoming extinct. She spent much time listening to frogs’ mating calls and detected three accents directly related to the frogs’ genetic heritage, from ancient Iberia, Italy and the Balkans. The problem for displaced frogs is that mating can prove impossible if they make calls in the wrong language. English Nature now plans to acquire a single-source population of Balkan pool frogs in the hope that they will, one day, exchange croaks and repopulate the East Anglian wetlands.


A REMARKABLE MAN died on 27th June and his life was celebrated at Temple Ewell church on 6th July. Howard Cleaves was born in 1910 and grew up in rural Monmouthshire in a large, happy extended family. The tiny woven coffin evoked tales of his forebear, John Crease, the last coracle fisherman on the River Usk. In 1933 Howard graduated in Mathematics and Education from Bangor University and began to teach. During the war he served in the Meteorological Office and the Royal Air Force. Howard moved in 1951 with his wife Josie and their two daughters to the Duke of York’s Royal Military School at Dover, where he taught for the next quarter-century as Head of Mathematics. Generations of schoolboys knew him, whether at the blackboard or the cricket nets, as “Mr Chips”. Howard’s MSc was awarded in 1953 for his dissertation on “Stresses in aeolotropic circular discs”. On retirement in 1975 he and Josie moved to “The Gables” at Kearsney Court. At that time, the Alkham Valley and its adjacent parklands were threatened by land-clearances, road-building and housing, and Howard, aided enthusiastically by Josie, became a formidable secretary to the fledgling Alkham Valley Society. Howard’s daughters describe him as “a man of insatiable curiosity who never ceased to learn from the world around him”. Told that it was impossible to learn new languages at the age of 55, he taught himself Russian and went on to translate Russian aeronautical journals for the Pergamon press. He was a founder member of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, and contributed to a mathematics textbook still in use today. Howard also belonged to the University of the Third Age, lecturing on subjects as diverse as architecture, Hebrew poetry and the relationship between mathematics and music. In 1994 Josie died and Howard gained increasing comfort from the Church, singing in the Temple Ewell and River church choirs, and visiting the Methodist and Anglican lunch clubs each week. He also sang bass until April this year in Dover Choral Society and the Duke of York’s Chorus. The privilege was mine of standing alongside Howard in both choruses and observing how he dealt with increasing deafness. After routine announcements, Howard would ask “Anything of importance?” to which my answer was usually “NO!”. “I thought not!” would come the reply. A small boy, on hearing that Howard had died, asked “Will Howard’s ears be working now?” to which, said Howard’s daughters, the answer is surely “YES!”.


OZ on LORDS WARDEN  –  The Queen’s approval of the appointment of Admiral the Lord Boyce as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports has been welcomed as an uncontroversial decision. The Cinque Ports, formed around 1050 and granted a Royal Charter in 1155, maintained ships to be commandeered by the Crown in wartime. In return Portsmen could “soc and sac, tol and team, bloowit and fledwit, pillory tumbril infangentheof, outfangentheof, mundbryce waives and strays, flotsam and jetsam and ligan”, ie do just as they wished around the south-east coast. The post of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports was created to control these activities and was combined later with the office of Constable of Dover Castle to assert the authority of the Crown. The first Lord Warden, in 1226, was William d’Averanch, followed by a succession of French barons for the next 200 years. Two Prince Henrys, (later Kings Henry V and VIII), became Lords Warden, in 1409 and 1493 respectively. Over the years, Lords Warden have reflected their times, so that after French barons and English princes came Victorian soldiers, statesmen and industrialists. The most famous of these was the Duke of Wellington, who occupied the post from 1829 until his death in 1852, but that century also saw the post occupied by William Pitt, Lord Palmerston and, in 1891, by Mr W H Smith, the famous newsagent. Recently the office was given, in recognition of services to the nation and the Commonwealth, to Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Robert Menzies, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the only woman to hold the office, from 1979 until her death in 2002. The appointment of Admiral Boyce, a political crossbencher, seems a wise choice when the media are hungry for tales of rifts between No 10 and the Palace.  


OZ on WASPS – One wet and windy day in June my wife was stung by dozens of angry wasps after she accidentally broke their nest buried deep in a tub of evergreens. In spite of double doses of antibiotics and antihistamine the pains lasted for weeks. The wasp man explained that we had created ideal conditions for a nest by lining the tub with polystyrene before filling and planting. He also explained that the wasp population was high this summer because of the preceding hard winter. It seems that some queen wasps awaken and venture out during winter warm spells, only to die when the cold suddenly returns. Last winter the queens stayed asleep until spring, resulting in offspring being up by some 80% this summer. My wife’s pains were just beginning to recede when, one hot July day, an ominous buzzing started from an air-brick behind books in the study. “Just right for wasps”, said the wasp man as he climbed the ladder, “they’ve probably chewed your books to make the nest”, adding gleefully that he’d been called out to many of our friends, ranging from three doors away to Ringwould. A week later, he felt so sorry for us when we found a third nest in a compost bin, yet another “perfect environment for wasps”, that he charged only a small call-out fee. That great naturalist, Rev Gilbert White, paid boys to catch queen wasps with hazel twigs tipped with bird-lime. He too noticed the yearly fluctuations in the wasp population: “In 1781 we had none; in 1783 there were myriads”, which “destroy all the finer fruits just as they are coming into perfection.” Our apples were finally destroyed last month when holed by “golf-ball” hailstones, letting in hungry wasps that had survived the summer purges.


OZ on LADYBIRDS –  Early in October came news that British ladybirds are threatened by greedy foreign cousins. Harmonia axyridis, known as the Harlequin Ladybird or Multicoloured Ladybug, was discovered late in September in a pub garden in Sible Hedingham, Essex. Within a week, more Harlequins had been found in Battersea, Canterbury and Sandgate. “This is without doubt the ladybird I have least wanted to see here,” said Britain’s leading ladybird expert, Dr Michael Majerus from Cambridge University. Since being introduced from their native Asia into North America 25 years ago to control aphids, Harlequins have become pests in the US, thriving particularly well during the last 10 years of warm winters, and are still sold in continental Europe by biocontrol companies. Dr Majerus says that “the Harlequin will outcompete most of Britain’s 45 ladybird species for their principal food, aphids, and when it has eaten all the aphids it will go on to eat other insects such as hoverflies, lacewings and butterflies, their eggs and their larvae.” For centuries now we’ve relied on ladybirds for aphid control. In mediaeval times our own Coccinella 7-punctata was named The 7-Spot Ladybird, deriving from ‘beetle of our Lady’, a reference to The Virgin Mary, in gratitude at the ladybird feeding on greenfly. The red body was said to represent Mary’s cloak, and the seven black spots to represent her Seven Joys and Seven Sorrows. In contrast the adult Harlequin found in Essex was black with two large and two small red spots. But ladybirds come in a range of colours and patterns, and Dr Majerus, warning against indiscrimate killing, says “If you think you’ve found one, stick it in a box that will go through the post and send it to me at Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge, CB2 3EH.”


OZ on BAIRNSFATHER  –  This month sees the 90th anniversary of ‘the Christmas Truce’, when British and German soldiers collected their dead on Christmas Eve 1914, silenced the guns and spent Christmas exchanging food, drink, tobacco and songs. One of those troops was a young machine-gun lieutenant with a gift for recording war in words and pictures. Bruce Bairnsfather was born in India in 1888, son of Bengal Infantry Lieutenant Thomas Bairnsfather and his wife Amelia. After his education in India and Stratford-upon-Avon Bruce joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. However he became bored with army life and left to study at the Hassall School of Art, later designing posters for such products as Liptons Tea, Players Tobacco and Flowers Beer. When war broke out, Bruce rejoined the Warwickshires and was sent to the Western Front, where he drew cartoons that were instantly and lastingly popular with soldiers in the trenches. In April 1915 Bruce was badly wounded and returned to England for treatment. On his recovery he was promoted to Captain in charge of new recruits at Albany Barracks on the Isle of Wight. It was here that Bairnsfather created the unforgettable “Old Bill”, a laconic middle-aged Tommy with a walrus moustache. In Bairnsfather’s most famous cartoon, Old Bill and young Tommy are stuck in a muddy shell-hole with ammunition banging all around and Old Bill is saying exasperatedly “Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it.” During the Second World War Captain Bairnsfather was official cartoonist to US Forces in Europe and he died in 1959. Just one year ago, on 13th December 2003, a bronze plaque was fixed to a cottage wall in the hamlet of St Yvon, near Ypres. It is the first and only official memorial to the creator of “Old Bill”.