Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2005



OZ on SCRABBLE – It’s that bleak time of year when indoor games beckon, one of the most played nowadays being Scrabble. Nigel Forde, in his poem “Going by the Board”, refers to ‘Dad’, who “spent the whole of Advent / memorizing the abstruse words in the OED supplement.” Scrabble was invented in 1931 by Alfred Butts, an American architect who became unemployed during the Depression. The original game, Lexiko, had no board, and players scored both for word lengths and letter values. Butts calculated letter values by analysing the words in the New York Times. In 1933, his patent application failed, the game also being dismissed by Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley. Butts continued making the sets, giving or selling them to friends. In 1938 he added a playing board so that words could be joined crossword fashion. The new game, known as New Anagrams, Alph, Criss-Cross and then Criss-Crosswords, was again rejected by the Patents Board and the big games manufacturers. With World War II looming, Butts, now re-employed as an architect, abandoned the project. In 1948 James Brunot, owner of an early Criss-Crosswords set, approached Butts and reached a commercial agreement. Brunot tidied up the layout, simplified the rules, and relaunched the game as Scrabble, obtaining patent and trademark in December 1948. After four years of struggle the game took off with a sudden flood of orders, becoming a national craze in 1953 in Australia and the UK. Over 100 million sets in 29 different languages have now been sold in 121 countries round the world. Brunot died in 1984, and so did not see the first World Scrabble Championship in 1991. Butts, however, lived on to witness the success of his brainchild, playing enthusiastically most days with family and friends until he died, aged 93, in 1993.


OZ on GROSE – Crime and language link three of my Christmas stocking books; the amazing Brewer’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics, Crystal’s Shakespeare’s Words and The Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose. The last-named book, subtitled Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence, is a facsimile of the first edition (1785), containing such gems as ‘Gutter Lane’ for ‘throat’ and ‘pogy’ for ‘drunk’. Grose, antiquary and draughtsman, was born in Middlesex around 1730, the son of a wealthy Swiss jeweller. After studying art, he worked as “maker of tinted drawings, chiefly of architectural remains.” In 1763 Grose became Paymaster of the Hampshire Militia, where, as he later confessed, “the only account-books I kept were my right and left pockets, into the one of which I received, and from the other of which I paid.” Grose lost his inherited fortune in making financial amends and resorted to his draughtsman’s skills. Encouraged by friends he published Antiquities of England and Wales in four volumes between 1773 and 1787.  In 1789 Grose made an antiquarian tour through Scotland and befriended Robert Burns, who wrote the poem Tam O’ Shanter for him. The Antiquities of Scotland was then published between 1790 and 1791. Grose proceeded to Ireland intending to do the same for that country, but soon after his arrival in Dublin in 1791, and while dining with his friend Mr Hone, he was seized with an apoplectic fit and died immediately, later being buried in Dublin. Antiquities of Ireland appeared posthumously, (completed by Edward Ledwich), between 1791 and 1795. Francis Grose was short in stature and almost spherical, making him an easy target in view of his name, but he was much loved as a loyal friend who would overlook faults, while always seeking virtues, in others. Shakespeare would have described him as a ‘gentle’.


OZ on GREATSPOTS – A persistent visitor to our birdtable in coldest February was the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), unmistakable in bright red underpants. Known in past times as ‘greater’ or ‘pied’ woodpecker, ‘French magpie’ and ‘galley-magpie’, its modern name is often abbreviated by birdwatchers to ‘greatspot’. In recent years there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of greatspots seen, both in the wild and in gardens, after the terrible losses of winter 1963. The rapid repopulation was due partly to the amount of dead wood available after Dutch Elm Disease and, later, the Great Hurricane, and partly to additional woodland nesting space released by the decline of the rival starling population. Accustomed to humans, greatspots have also benefited from the recent popularity of garden bird-feeding with high quality foods, including nuts and fats. The greatspot’s other advantage is its unique body structure. It is ‘zygodactylic’, meaning ‘two toes forwards and two backwards’, hence is very steady when climbing. The root of its tongue coils round the back of the skull and can be released to harpoon insects in crevices. Fully extended, the tongue protrudes 1½ inches beyond the bill; the human equivalent would be 14 inches. Finally, the greatspot’s skull contains shock-absorbers to avoid damage when the bird is drilling into trees or telephone poles at the rate of some 16 blows per second. This drilling, for food or nest-making, becomes known as ‘drumming’ when the purpose is to attract a mate or deter a competitor. On the afternoon dog-walk, there comes a point when we hear two sets of drumming, one from a neighbour’s garden and one from the Abbey grounds, and we’ve taken to stopping there for a moment just to listen and marvel at what goes on inside those relatively small bodies.


OZ on 23/4 – The 23rd of April is a remarkable date that celebrates Saint George, the birth of William Shakespeare in 1564, and the deaths, in 1616, of both Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes, the great Spanish author of Don Quixote. George, a Turkish soldier in the Roman Army of the 4th century AD, was a particular favourite of Emperor Diocletian. However, when Diocletian began persecuting Christians, George objected and was imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded, becoming one of the earliest martyrs. Diocletian’s wife became a Christian in sympathy and was in turn executed. George was canonized in 494 AD by Pope Gelasius, and soon became famous worldwide. In 1222, the Council of Oxford chose April 23rd as Saint George’s day. A measure of Saint George’s popularity is that he is patron saint not only of England but also of Aragon, archers, armourers, Boy Scouts, butchers, Catalonia, cavalry, chivalry, farmers, Ferrara, Genoa, Georgia, Germany, Greece, horse-riders, Istanbul, knights, lepers, Lithuania, Moscow, Palestinian Christians, plague, Portugal, saddle-makers, skin diseases, soldiers and Venice. Although Shakespeare definitely died on St George’s Day 1616, there is no record of his birth-date and so it is usually taken as April 23rd 1564, ie three days before his baptism. Shakespeare famously immortalised Saint George in Act III of King Henry V. Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date, but not on the same day.  Spain adopted the “New Style” Gregorian Calendar in 1582, while England stayed with the “Old Style” Julian calendar until 1752. In between, the Gregorian calendar was 10 days ahead of the Julian calendar, so Shakespeare died on April 23rd 1616 in the Julian calendar, ie May 3rd 1616 in the Gregorian calendar. Incidentally, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, often called  “the first modern novel”, was published 400 years ago, on January 16th 1605.


OZ on DICTIONARIES – April 15th marked the 250th birthday of Samuel Johnson’s great Dictionary of the English Language. It is difficult now, surrounded by instant information from the internet and hand-held hardware, to imagine life without dictionaries and to appreciate the task of compiling them. Dictionaries began when mediaeval scholars wrote explanations, called ‘glosses’, in the margins of texts. Glosses were often collected alphabetically and published as ‘glossaries’. The 17th century saw many competing English dictionaries that concentrated mainly on difficult words. By the 18th century, the nation needed a comprehensive national dictionary comparable with those completed by Italy in 1612 and France in 1700. In 1746 Robert Dodsley and others negotiated a contract with Johnson to write a dictionary, which he commenced in 1747 after providing a plan and dedication to Lord Chesterfield. The plan was huge, matching those of the Italian and French academies, and Johnson achieved it over the next eight years by the efforts of himself and six poorly-paid assistants. He defined over 40,000 words, and, in a revolutionary step for dictionary-makers, used over 114,000 quotations from literature to justify definitions and illustrate usage. The Dictionary was published five times in Johnson’s lifetime, and was such a success that all talk of setting up an English Academy faded. It remained unchallenged until the arrival of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828 and The Oxford English Dictionary between 1884 and 1928, both using Johnson’s idea of illustrative quotations. A notable omission from Johnson’s Dictionary is due to the fact that Johnson thought that there were “no words beginning with ‘X’ in genuine English”. This view was shared by the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who declared in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911) that “words beginning with ‘X’ are Grecian and will not be defined.”  


OZ on WENSLEYDALE – Travelling recently in the second-best county we spent a morning at Wensleydale Creamery, the only dairy still producing ‘Real Wensleydale’, favourite cheese of Wallace and Gromit. We saw Wensleydale being made and discovered something of its history. Wensleydale cheese, like so many good things, started with the Norman Conquest, when Cistercian monks brought cheese-making knowledge from France’s Roquefort region, settling first at Askrigg, then at Fors, where the land was poor and exposed. In 1156 they moved to Hawes, in Wensleydale, and built Jervaulx Abbey in what Charles Kingsley called “the richest spot in all England… this beautiful oasis in the mountains.” Over the next 380 years the monks prospered but, after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, cheese-making passed to local women working from farmhouses. In 1897, Edward Chapman, an agricultural merchant, established Wensleydale’s first commercial creamery and succeeded in standardising quality. Following the post-war depression, the newly-formed Milk Marketing Board took over the milk industry in 1933. Resistance to the Board’s plans for Hawes led to the rise of a new champion, Kit Calvert, local farmer and historian, who saved the Creamery in 1935 and went on to rebuild it in 1953. In 1966 the Board finally purchased the now-successful Creamery, and Calvert retired. The enterprise was again threatened in 1992, when the parent company tried to close Hawes and transfer production to Lancashire. This, of course, outraged Yorkshire sensibilities and the plant was eventually saved by a management buy-out. Wensleydale is a moist crumbly cheese with a mild sweet flavour, combined with herbs, spices and fruits in an ever-increasing number of recipes, and is available in most Southern supermarkets. Our visit concluded with the legendary ‘Ultimate Ploughman’s Lunch’ consisting of five different Wensleydale cheeses and a pint of Theakstone’s Bitter. Bliss!  


OZ on TALLIS – This year musicians celebrate the 500th birthday of Thomas Tallis, the English composer. His early years are unrecorded, but old-age reminiscences suggest that he was born, probably in Kent but maybe in Leicestershire, sometime in 1505, halfway through music’s great Renaissance Period lasting from 1400 to 1600. The first definite reference, in 1532, sees Tallis as organist of Dover Priory, a small Benedictine monastery housing twelve monks. It is possible, though not proven, that he employed a professional lay choir at Dover, as a limb of nearby Canterbury Cathedral, also Benedictine. After the dissolution of Dover Priory in 1535, Tallis was organist at St Mary-le-Hill in Billingsgate, and then at Waltham Abbey in London until 1540, when Waltham became the last English abbey to be dissolved by Henry VIII. In 1541 Tallis returned to Canterbury Cathedral as a lay clerk, and in 1543 he joined Henry VIII’s establishment as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Here he sang, played the organ, ran the choir, and continued composing music. Around 1552, Tallis married a woman named Joan. In 1575 he formed a partnership of a different kind with William Byrd, and together they secured a royal monopoly on publishing music in England. Tallis remained with the Chapel Royal and served four monarchs, namely Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. He died on 23rd November 1585 and was buried in St. Alphege at Greenwich. Tallis was a prolific composer of religious music for both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches, and negotiated the religious and political pitfalls of the time with unerring skill. Consequently he lived to a tranquil old age summarised so beautifully in his epitaph: “As he did live, so also did he die, in mild and quiet sort, O happy man!”


OZ on PENGUINS –  To celebrate its first 70 years Penguin is publishing 70 pocket editions called Penguin 70. Other good cheap books existed before 1935, the most impressive being Everyman’s Library, founded by Joseph Dent in 1905. When he died in 1926, Dent had achieved his aim of providing “the most complete library for the common man the world has ever seen”. In 1935, Allen Lane, a Bodley Head Press director, returning from a visit to Agatha Christie, was stranded on Exeter railway station with nothing to read, and decided that there was a need for quality paperbacks to be sold in railway stations, tobacconists and stores. When his secretary suggested a penguin as a ‘dignified but flippant’ symbol, Lane sent Edward Young to London Zoo to draw the famous bird.  The first 10 Penguins, including works by André Maurois, Agatha Christie and Hemingway, were published in August 1935 to instant acclaim. Priced at sixpence, the same as a packet of cigarettes, and brightly colour-coded, orange for fiction, green for crime and so on, Penguins appealed equally to readers and collectors. In 1937 Penguin installed a book-dispensing machine called the Penguincubator at Charing Cross, and Lane launched the Pelican series of original books on current affairs. This radicalism in promoting new writing helped Penguin overtake Everyman in the run-up to the war, during which Penguin ran the Armed Forces Book Club. After the war Penguin introduced the Classics series, directly challenging Everyman on its own ground. The ensuing rivalry, particularly since Everyman’s 1991 relaunch, has been of mutual benefit, with scholars recommending one or the other edition for the quality of its commentary. In 1948 I spent my first ever Christmas half-crown on King Penguin’s Spiders; it was the first step in a lifelong love-affair with these bright and beautiful books.  


OZ on LITTLE DORRIT –  One hundred and fifty years ago this month Charles Dickens was halfway through a four month stay in Folkestone. Dickens had visited Folkestone previously, sometimes as an enthusiastic customer of the cross channel packet service to Boulogne. By the spring of 1855 he was depressed, angered by incompetent government and continuing losses in the Crimean War, and he felt increasingly insecure. In July, Dickens and family rented No 3 Albion Villas, “a pleasant little house with the sea below and the scent of thyme sweetening the breezes from the Downs”. Here he started work on his novel Little Dorrit, between indulging in his new hobby of “swarming up the face of a gigantic and precipitous cliff”, where “he could be seen from the British Channel, suspended in mid-air with his trousers very much torn at fifty minutes past 3pm”.  On 17 July Dickens invited his friend Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White, to join the vacation as “Walter goes back to school on the 1st of August”, adding that work had been considerably disrupted by Walter’s continual jumping on the uncarpeted wooden staircase. “Why a boy of that age should seem to have on at all times a hundred and fifty pair of double-soled boots, and to be always jumping a bottom stair with the whole hundred and fifty, I don't know.” In October the family moved on to Paris, and at Christmas the first monthly instalment of Little Dorrit, illustrated by Dickens’s old friend, “Phiz”, was published. In this complex work Dickens wove an elaborate mystery around themes of individual responsibility, debtor imprisonment, and, most satisfyingly for him, an attack on governmental idiocy in the fictional “Circumlocution Office”. The time spent in Folkestone had indeed done Dickens a world of good.


OZ on SQUIRRELS AGAIN –  My June 2004 article described the continuing battles for survival between red and grey squirrels, since when I have seen more of the cleverness and agility that aids both species. Last winter a friend, who lives in the depths of Canada’s Algonquin Park forest, sent two photographs. The first picture shows an anti-squirrel bird-feeder designed by him, comprising an empty two-litre plastic bottle with a hole in the side, suspended by a rubber thong, on the end of a chain, mounted to a horizontal tree branch by a ball-bearing joint, so that the feeder bounces up and down and rotates if invaded by anything heavier than a bird. In the second picture the feeder contains a squirrel, happily bouncing, rotating and tucking into the bird-food. Later in the year, we purchased, with some trepidation after hearing the Algonquin story, a RSPB squirrel-proof bird-feeder. Our resident squirrel nonchalantly stole a few peanuts from it, but was far busier eating left-over Christmas nuts from an adjacent bird-table. Interestingly he had quite definite preferences and always ate in the same order; first hazelnuts, then walnuts, almonds, and finally chestnuts. Later still, on a hot day towards the end of summer, I was engrossed in the weekend crossword at the kitchen table, when suddenly there was a flash of white and a noise like an express train. The squirrel had hurtled at great velocity into the kitchen pursued by Jak, his jaws already snapping just inches behind the terrified animal’s tail. In a moment the squirrel flipped up, flew vertically, ricocheted off a biscuit tin on a high shelf and disappeared back into the garden, leaving Jak bewildered and exhausted. Only minutes later the squirrel was busy burying the remaining Christmas nuts, his insurance against the coming winter.   


OZ on KIPPS –  The featured book at the Folkestone Literary Festival in September was H G Wells’s novel Kipps, set in Folkestone and first published 100 years ago. Penguin, having this year republished the book in its Classics series, donated 200 copies to Folkestone Library for the Festival read-in. The celebrations started with a Kipps Walk, taking in landmarks from the lives of Kipps and also Wells, who made Folkestone his domestic and literary base for many years. In 1895, after a disastrous first marriage, Wells visited New Romney, with his second wife Jane, to receive treatment for a long and painful illness. On his recovery Jane drove him by carriage to Sandgate, where they moved into Beach Cottage, so near the sea that sometimes waves broke over the roof. The Wells loved Sandgate dearly and moved their furniture from London’s Worcester Park to Arnold House, where they lived while Spade House, overlooking the bay, was built for them, funded by the proceeds from Wells’s first four major works, including The War of the Worlds (1898). Between 1900, when the Wells moved in, and 1910, Spade House became an important literary hub, visited by James Barrie, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and Bernard Shaw among others. It was here, working usually in a garden shed, that Wells wrote his most serious novels, including Kipps, in 1905, midway between Love and Mr Lewisham (1900) and The History of Mr Polly (1910). Kipps is based on Wells’s early experiences but is set largely in Folkestone, and has characters with quite Dickensian-sounding names such as “Chitterlow” and  “Coote”. Tommy Steele retold the story in the musical Half a Sixpence, successfully on the 1963 London stage, not so in the gaudy 1967 film. As one of the show’s songs said: “Flash! Bang! Wallop! What a Picture!”.  


OZ on BAILLON –  I’ve just spent a few happy hours weeding the filing cabinet. Among the debris accumulated over seven years of retirement was a newspaper clipping, dated 19 July 1999, concerning the sighting that month of a rare bird at Grove Ferry in East Kent. The Baillon’s Crake, (Porzana pusilla), is a small bird of the Rail family. It breeds generally in eastern Europe and in isolated areas of western and central Europe, migrating to the Middle East and Africa in winter, and is also found in Australia and New Zealand. In Victorian times, the Baillon’s Crake often visited Britain and actually bred in East Anglia, but disappeared as the marshes declined. There were only 12 British sightings between 1958 and 1995, so the 1999 appearance caused hundreds of twitchers to converge on Grove Ferry and Stodmarsh. At first the bird’s eerie croak was dismissed as that of a frog, but an expert confirmed the sighting very early one morning, the species being so shy that it rarely appears in the daytime. With a short green bill, brown and white uppers, blue and grey face and unders, black and white flanks, pink legs and a short tail, the Baillon’s Crake reminded Stephen Moss, in the above mentioned clipping, of  “a giant, aquatic wren”.  Louis Baillon, the bird’s original discoverer, was born in Montreuil-sur-Mer in 1778, and became a naturalist, sharing his father’s enthusiasm for the flora and fauna of the Picardy coast. In recognition of Baillon, his name was given to two other bird species: the Puffin de Baillon (Puffinus lherminieri bailloni), known to us as Audubon’s Shearwater; and the Saffron Toucanet (Baillonius bailloni), an exotic South American bird with a huge bill. Louis Baillon died in Abbeville 150 years ago this month, on December 3 1855.