Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2006
OZ on XMAS CARDS – Once again the Woodland Trust, Tesco and W H Smith are promoting a Christmas card recycling scheme between 2 and 31 January. All you have to do is take your used cards along when you visit a Tesco or WHS store and leave them in the receptacles provided. It is a worthwhile move, and popular, coinciding with the first “spring clean” of the year, when we happily part with empty cans, guilt-inducing bottles and torn wrapping paper, but are a little more reluctant to dispose of cards, often beautifully produced and carrying warm personal messages. The modern Christmas card was invented by Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in 1843, just three years after the introduction of the penny post. Unfortunately the then current colour technology of hand-coloured lithography was expensive, causing the card to retail at one shilling (£3.63 in today’s money) and the card failed. However by 1860 the new process of chromolithography, allowing cheap and intricate colour reproduction, was well established. When the halfpenny post was introduced in 1870, for unsealed envelopes, the Christmas card really took off, and the Post Office issued its first ‘Post early for Christmas’ advice in 1880. It is hardly surprising then that we now exchange some 1 billion cards each Christmas in the UK, at an average rate of 160 million a day. Last January the Woodland Trust collected and recycled 58 million cards weighing 1,150 tonnes, and is aiming to achieve a new target of 60 million this January. As an illustration of the environmental benefits of recycling on this scale, the Woodland Trust calculates that recycling just one Christmas card will save enough electricity to enable 105 people to watch the Queen’s Christmas day message next year, which should indeed be encouragement.
OZ on LITTLE EGRETS – After the Christmas snow thawed we ran our dog in Kearsney Abbey, noting on the way a heron, still and grey in the gloom. Soon another blizzard sprang up and we returned, finding our ‘heron’ smaller and apparently covered in fresh snow. It was, of course, a different and rarer heron, a Little Egret with brilliant white body, distinctive yellow feet and black legs. For the first three days of the New Year our house gave a grandstand view of the bird, glowing white against the muddy riverbank and feeding nervously in the shallows. Local papers reported later that a pair of egrets had taken up residence on Barton Path, in Dover, a first for this location. The Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) is another example of a species that has increased dramatically in the UK recently, perhaps due to global warming. In the 1950s its winter quarters crept north from Spain, through France, to reach Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour in 1996 and County Cork in 1997. Before this expansion, the Little Egret’s main claim to fame was as supplier of plumes, particularly for hats, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cocker and Mabey, in Birds Britannica, describe how egret feathers sometimes traded at 20 times the value of silver weight-for-weight. Some feathers were obtained humanely from egret farms, where birds were cared for and plucked four times a year. However the main source of imported feathers was from the killing of millions of wild egrets, a slaughter that led directly to the formation of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889 and the banning of the plume trade in 1920. Appropriately the RSPB Nature Reserve at Dungeness has long been the best local site for viewing these lovely birds.
OZ on HOBSON-JOBSON – Recently BBC2, in partnership with the Oxford English Dictionary, ran the series Balderdash and Piffle, attempting to “ante-date” certain English words and phrases, ie find written evidence of them before the OED dates. In the final programme, a request for “balti” before 1983 sent me scurrying for my precious copy of Hobson-Jobson. Subtitled A glossary of Anglo-Indian colloquial words and phrases and containing 1020 densely-printed pages, it is a treasure-house that illustrates India’s huge influence on the English language. The book originated in a friendship between Col Henry Yule of the Bengal Engineers and Dr Arthur Burnell of the Madras Civil Service. They met only once, at the India Library, and afterwards exchanged letters devoted to building an Anglo-Indian dictionary. Sadly, Burnell died in 1882, four years before publication of their book. Hobson-Jobson was revised in 1903 and was then out of print for many years. The second edition was republished in 1968 and it is this edition that I acquired 20 years ago. Like all good dictionaries Hobson-Jobson takes the reader on a magical mystery tour, from ‘calico’ to ‘khaki’ to ‘dungarees’ to ‘dinghy’, with surprises on the way such as ‘pundit’, ‘toddy’ and ‘chintz’. Hobson-Jobson’s words derive from many sources, including traders’ languages, scientific and technical terms and Civil Service jargon. ‘Hobson-Jobson’ is itself an example of another important class of words, being an Anglo-Saxon corruption of “Ya Hasan! Ya Hosain!” heard at Moharram Festivals. The term was applied later to any word derived by mispronouncing Indian, such as ‘shampoo’ from ‘champo’ and ‘pyjamas’ from ‘jammas’, and then to all such words from any language, such as ‘plonk’, Australian for ‘vin blanc’. Perhaps we now need a universal Hobson-Jobson reflecting the internet and new words arising from such hybrids as Spanglish and Chinglish.
OZ on BLACKCAPS – Like most other novice birders I have great difficulty in identifying warblers, and am only really sure of them when my friend Ted is over from Canada and tells me what they are. It was therefore gratifying, in January’s snowstorms, to see so many blackcaps still scraping a living in East Kent. The blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) is easily distinguished by its neat black cap, and is known all over Europe by similar names, such as the Dutch ‘Zwartkop’, French ‘Fauvette à tête noire’, and Scandinavian ‘munk’ for ‘monk’. (And here I would welcome a little help as my German dictionary translates ‘mönchsgrasmücke’ as ‘monk grass mosquito’. Any offers?). Most European blackcaps migrate to Southern Spain and North Africa for the winter. However an increasing number of birds have been over-wintering in Britain and Ireland, sometimes as far north as Scotland. Part of the reason must be global warming, but it is thought that the increase also results from the adaptability of blackcaps in feeding from winter birdtables and peanut bags. Researchers have now discovered that blackcaps that winter in the north produce more eggs and healthier offspring. This is because both parents are less tired than the southern migrants, and can also beat them to the choicest breeding grounds in Spring. An even more recent line of research suggests that blackcaps are becoming generally hardier in the evolutionary struggle because they have learned to recognise and reject cuckoos’ eggs in their nests. Some authorities believe that these changes, particularly with respect to winter migration, are so revolutionary that two distinct species could eventually evolve. I don’t mind, so long as they preserve their beautiful song which Gilbert White memorably described in a 1774 letter to Thomas Pennant as a “full, sweet, deep, loud and wild pipe”.
OZ on NZ – Mark Twain wrote “If it would not look too much like showing off, I would tell the reader where New Zealand is”, adding “people think that New Zealand is close to Australia…and that you cross to it on a bridge.” Having now been, I know that NZ is actually at the end of a day-long journey seven miles up in a metal tube. Like many young people in the 1960s we considered emigrating to NZ, hesitated because of the mums, got busy and the moment was gone. So this February, with my wife’s sister and her husband, we took a 6-berth campervan on a pilgrimage to what might have been. It was a delirious, slightly surrealistic, four weeks, travelling clockwise round South Island from one campsite to another, with red wine and cards instead of television in the evenings. We marvelled at the ever-changing landscape; the vast Canterbury Plains, quirky Otago Peninsula, majestic Milford Sound and snow-capped Southern Alps. There was a constant exotic rain-forest atmosphere, with cicadas clicking day and night, and albatrosses, penguins, seals and dolphins never far away. Finally we took the ferry to North Island, drove up the middle to Auckland, and enjoyed the hot geysers and Maori displays at Rotorua. Inevitably, fascinating tales are heard on such a holiday. For me, the story that best sums up the spirit of this energetic but compassionate society is that of the 28th Maori Regiment at the Battle of Point 209, a hill in Tunisia, in March 1943. After a day and night of bloody hand-to-hand fighting, Rommel’s troops were offered an honourable truce if they surrendered. They declined and regrouped to defend the hill. As the assault recommenced, hundreds of Maoris sprang up and performed the Haka, upon which the enemy waved white flags and surrendered.
OZ on LINLEY – This year sees the 250th birthdays of both Mozart and the English composer Thomas Linley the Younger, whose life and talents paralleled those of Mozart to such an extent that he was nicknamed in his own time ‘the English Mozart’. Linley was born, the third child of composer Thomas Linley and his wife Mary, at Abbey Green, Bath, on 7th May 1756, some three months after Mozart. The whole Linley family was talented musically, but young Thomas was an exceptionally gifted prodigy, like Mozart a renowned violinist in childhood. After touring the British Isles with his father and three soprano-singing sisters, he travelled to Italy at the age of 12 to study composition and violin with Nardini. He finally met Mozart at Florence, and the two young men instantly became firm friends. On returning to England in 1773, the 17-year old Linley was appointed leader of Drury Lane Theatre orchestra and began to compose, writing during the next five years over twenty violin concertos, two operas, three oratorios and countless songs and madrigals. In August 1778 Linley, aged 22, died suddenly in a boating accident at Grimsthorpe Castle, a tragedy that shocked his hosts, the Duke and Duchess of Ancaster, the Royal Family, and his loyal public. Mozart lived another 13 busy years, and it is interesting to speculate on what might have happened to music if Linley had lived longer. Roger Fiske, writing in 1986, thought Linley “our most promising composer between Purcell and Elgar…his accidental death when only twenty-two changed for the worse the whole history of British music.” Perhaps Mozart should have the last word. He told the Irish tenor Michael Kelly that “Linley was a true genius…had he lived, he would have been one of the greatest ornaments of the musical world.”
OZ on SUMMER – As I write, our footballers have won their opening game in this year’s World Cup, a drought has been declared, and the temperature is soaring into the Fahrenheit eighties. It is in fact the start of an English dream summer, which I hope will be carrying on as you read, and raises memories of two impressive events. The first was forty years ago, on 30 July 1966 at Wembley, when, in front of a crowd numbering some 95,000, England beat West Germany 4-2 after extra time to win the World Cup. That was the last final to use a plain old-fashioned ball, as from 1970 onwards the World Cup used the Adidas “Telstar ball”, with black pentagons on white to aid visibility on black and white television screens. The second memory-jogger, from thirty years ago, was the Great Drought of 1976, which actually started in October 1975. For nearly a year the rainfall measured at Kew was only 43% of the average, with no spring rainfall at all over much of southern England. The drought worsened with intense sunshine in May 1976 when temperatures in Kent rose to 84°F, followed by a heatwave giving temperatures of over 90°F every day during the last week in June and the first week in July. At the time, I worked in a drawing office, and in the afternoons we dusted our hands and forearms with French chalk to prevent them sticking to the drawings. One of the consequences of the prolonged heat was a plague of ladybirds that only finished when millions of the creatures died from starvation or being crushed underfoot. Finally Denis Howell became “Minister for Drought”. Within days of his appointment the drought ended with a colossal downpour - on August Bank Holiday, of course.
OZ on BRADGATE – The final chapter of John Buchan’s spy thriller The Thirty-nine Steps concerns “various parties converging on the sea” at “Bradgate”, in north-east Kent. Bradgate is, of course, Broadstairs, and behind the fictional story of Richard Hannay is a fascinating true story of John Buchan. In July 1914, two days before war was declared, the Buchans took their daughter Alice to Broadstairs to convalesce after an ear operation. However Buchan, overworked, stressed, and depressed by the onset of war, was soon ill himself and took to his bed with an ulcer that plagued him for the rest of his life. There he found time to write the thriller that he had been planning mentally for some time. His wife Susan thought that, but for the ulcer, The Thirty-nine Steps might never have been written. The Buchans stayed in a villa called St Cuby, on North Foreland, which appears in the final chapter as Trafalgar Lodge, on the Ruff, a “big chalk headland”. The tenancy included access to a private beach via stairs comprising two shafts and three tunnelled sections, which are still in place. There are now 108 concrete steps, built in the 1940s to replace the 78 oak steps that existed in 1914. There has been much speculation about Buchan’s decision to reduce the number of steps in his story to 39. Some say that he chose his age, others that he was advised by a publisher or friend to change the number to enhance the story’s title. Surely the last word must be with his wife. In her biography of Buchan, published in 1947, she said “How many steps were there I do not know, but John hit on the number thirty-nine as one that would be easily remembered and would catch people’s imagination.”
OZ on BUNTHORNE – One day in 1930s Lancashire young Robert Smithies, waiting for fish and chips at the kitchen table, was reading a vinegar bottle when he noticed gleefully what the name ‘Gartons’ spelt backwards. It was the start of a passion for words that only ended with his death, aged 72, on 31st July this year. During a remarkable life Smithies enjoyed popular success as press photographer, television presenter and editor, and, since 1966, as a Guardian crossword setter under the pen-name of ‘Bunthorne’. Bob, as he was otherwise known, was born in Middleton, Lancashire, on 4th April 1934, into a working family that valued education and encouraged Bob and his two sisters in their studies. In 1950, at the age of 16, Bob left school to work in the Manchester Evening News darkroom, moving on to the Manchester Guardian as photographer in 1955, where he stayed during the change to the London-based Guardian in the 1960s. Typical of this era was Don McPhee’s recollection that at Christmas 1970 Bob tossed a bound compilation of Picture Post features across the Manchester picture desk to him and said: “Here you are lad, learn yourself summ’at.” In 1974 Bob joined Granada Television as news editor but was soon redeployed as presenter of such programmes as the long-running Down to Earth. Bob was always a devoted solver and setter of crossword puzzles and had a puzzle accepted by the Guardian in 1966. For the rest of his life he composed puzzles for the Guardian and others as ‘Bunthorne’, a character from his beloved Gilbert and Sullivan. Bunthorne’s elegant puzzles were highly regarded by solvers and fellow compilers, the clueing often fiendishly difficult but always scrupulously fair. Crossworders could argue for years about Bunthorne’s ‘best’ clue, but his own favourite was simply: “Amundsen’s forwarding address (4)”.
OZ on ODONATA – During this warm and pleasant summer it was thrilling to see so many dragonflies and damselflies, first at Bushey Ruff, then in our back garden, and later everywhere, and to discover something about them. Dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera) belong to the same order, Odonata (meaning ‘toothed jaw’). Anisoptera means “unequal-winged”, since dragonflies’ hind wings are shorter and wider than their forewings. They are large insects, with touching eyes, and often wander far away from water. Zygoptera means “yoke-winged”, as damselflies have four equal wings. They are small insects, with separated eyes, and stay close to the water. Odonata are invariably slender and beautiful, and come in a huge range of translucent colours. Altogether there are some 5,300 species in the world, only 38 of which live in Britain, as they favour warmer climates. Perhaps because of their comparative rareness and exotic appearance, Odonata have traditionally been objects of superstition in Europe. In mediaeval times dragonflies were called the “devil’s darning needles” as it was believed that they would sew up the eyes of anyone foolish enough to fall asleep outdoors during the day. Conversely, in the East, the dragonfly has long been revered. Japan, the first country in the world to create a national Dragonfly Nature Reserve, sometimes refers to itself as Akitsushima (the Dragonfly Island). Perhaps the finest description of these elegant and colourful creatures in English literature is in Tennyson’s lines, The Dragon-Fly: “Today I saw the dragon-fly / Come from the wells where he did lie. / An inner impulse rent the veil / Of his old husk: from head to tail / Came out clear plates of sapphire mail. / He dried his wings: like gauze they grew; / Thro’ crofts and pastures wet with dew / A living flash of light he flew.”
OZ on LOMEA – There cannot be many East Kent dwellers unaware of the existence and proximity of the Goodwin Sands, named after King Harold’s father, Earl Godwin. Even so I only discovered this week, while browsing in the excellent The Lore of the Land by Westwood and Simpson, that Lomea was the ancient name given to the island supposed to have submerged to form the Sands. The name almost certainly derives from Old English lam for ‘loam’, as the Sands comprise Blue Clay and sand strata overlying a chalk outcrop, and were reputed to be extremely fertile in Godwin’s time. It was known to the Romans as Infera Insula, meaning ‘lowest island’; legend has it being so low as to need a complete sea-wall surround. The story continues that William the Conqueror gave Lomea to St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, but the abbot neglected the sea-wall, and the island was lost in the great storms of 1099, forming what we know as the Goodwin Sands. Experts now doubt the tales of an inhabitable island. R J Cloet, in the June 1954 Geographical Journal, stated that in Caesar’s time such an island would still be covered by 10 feet of water every high tide, and would anyway have been swept away in about AD400, when North Sea levels rose generally. The Sands have remained a menace to shipping ever since, and have expanded steadily over the last two hundred years, prompting governments to think of useful things to build on them. Ideas included lighthouses (rejected in favour of lightships), gunnery ranges, heavy industry, prisons, and ambitious harbour projects, including part of a bridge/tunnel channel crossing. The site has also been considered for the third London airport, giving rise to the intriguing but unlikely possibility of it being renamed “London Lomea”.
OZ on FESSENDEN – An unanswerable question from the last 120 years is “Who invented radio?” As with today’s computer and internet, radio technology developed rapidly and globally, particularly with the Great War looming, and it is difficult now to untangle just who devised what. However, one notable event occurred 100 years ago this month. During the cold and stormy night of Christmas Eve 1906, radio operators on ships off the New England coast were amazed to hear a faint human voice emerging from the dots and dashes on their Marconi Morse stations. As news spread and crewmen gathered round the receivers, the voice announced itself as that of Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, presenting a programme of speech and music. Fessenden then transmitted a recording of Handel’s Largo from an Edison cylinder, read a passage from the Bible describing Christ’s birth, sang O Holy Night loudly while accompanying himself on the violin, and finished with Christmas wishes and a promise to broadcast again on New Year’s Eve. It was the first-ever public radio broadcast, and followed Fessenden’s earlier successful experiments in audio signals. Born in Quebec in 1866, Fessenden was awarded a mathematics scholarship at the age of 14, but left college four years later with no degree and with little technical training. Hoping to gain some experience with electricity, Fessenden wrote to Edison “Don’t know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick”, to which Edison replied “Have enough men already who don’t know about electricity”. However, Edison later recruited Fessenden as technician, starting him on a long career inventing for other radio companies, the Niagara Falls Power Plant and for the British government during the Great War. Fessenden died in Bermuda in 1932, holding over 500 patents in fields as diverse as sonar research, microfilm, seismology and anti-artillery devices.