Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2008




OZ on CONRAD – Last month saw the 150th birthday of a great modern writer of maritime tales. Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski was born on 3 December 1857 in the Polish Ukraine. His parents, outspoken Polish nationalists, were arrested in 1861 and exiled, taking four-year old Jozef, to Russia. By 1869, Jozef had lost both parents and was cared for by an uncle until 1874, when he fled, avoiding Russian conscription and fulfilling a childhood dream by joining a French merchant ship at Marseilles. After four adventurous years that included gun-running, gambling, bankruptcy and attempted suicide, Jozef transferred to British ships in 1878 and became British in 1886, anglicising his name to Joseph Conrad. During the next eight years, Conrad combined the careers of master mariner and novelist, writing in English, which was, remarkably, his third language. In 1894, Conrad retired from the sea, and married Jessie George in 1896, settling down to a long literary life that produced twenty major works and hundreds of short stories. He wrote of sea and empire, contrasting them with the loneliness of the human soul. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) declared: “He’s absolutely the most haunting thing in prose that ever was: I wish I knew how every paragraph he writes goes on sounding in waves, like the note of a tenor bell, after it stops.” In 1909 the Conrads moved to Aldington in Kent and in 1919 to “Oswalds” at Bishopsbourne. On 3 August 1924 Conrad died at home of a heart attack. He was buried in the Westgate Cemetery in Canterbury, where Jessie joined him in 1936. His carved epitaph, also the epigraph for The Rover, is from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, and reads “Sleep After Toyle, Port After Stormie Seas, Ease After Warre, Death After Life Does Greatly Please.”


OZ on FRY – Just before Christmas I was delighted and defeated by a Times-Listener crossword that featured the centenary of a great English dramatist. Christopher Fry was born in Bristol on 18 December 1907 as Christopher Harris. When he was four his father died and he took his mother’s maiden name, she being from the famous Fry family of Quakers and chocolate-makers. After being educated at Bedford School, Fry taught in various schools, becoming increasingly involved in theatre and music until 1932, when he left teaching to set up Tunbridge Wells Repertory Theatre. He married Phyllis Hart in 1936. During World War II, as a committed pacifist, he volunteered for a non-combatant army unit that cleaned out sewers in the docks. In 1946, Fry began writing in earnest, and found himself, along with T. S. Eliot, leading the post-war revival of verse drama. After two plays on biblical themes, he discovered his true voice with The Lady’s Not for Burning, which was premiered in 1948 and transferred to the West End a year later. It is a wonderful comedy with serious undertones, and dazzling wit arguably unmatched except by that of Oscar Wilde. In a typical line, the hero Thomas declares: “What after all is a halo? It’s only one more thing to keep clean.” Over the next few years, Fry wrote four similar plays and many translations. In 1956 verse drama was suddenly swept aside by the revolutionary whirlwind of prose realism emerging from the Royal Court Theatre. Fry turned with great success to film writing, starting with Ben Hur in 1959, then Barabbas (1962) and The Bible (1966). He never really retired, but spent his old age writing occasionally and sitting with Phyllis by the waterfall in their garden in East Dean, Sussex. Phyllis died in 1987 and Christopher in 2005. 


OZ on BIRDSONG – Our most unexpected Christmas present this year was a circular wall-clock featuring portraits of wild birds instead of numbers around the rim. Every hour, on the hour, the clock emits the appropriate birdsong, except at night when a sensor sensibly switches the sound off. We soon warmed to this new housemate, but wondered how others reacted. I found some answers at a hilarious website called “I got a Singing Bird Clock for Christmas”.  After describing how this use of microchip technology first appeared in 1998, the site publishes comments showing that people either love or hate these chirpy timepieces. Some criticize the quality of the birdsong, though it’s generally agreed that the croaks and metallic sounds disappear when the batteries are changed. Others are annoyed or startled when the birdsong starts, like the dogs who held their paws over their ears or the grandmother who thought someone was shouting “Elephant!” at her.  Equally amusing are some of the methods devised to deal with the birdsong. My favourite story is from the US Pentagon where an office-worker said that every hour “we are serenaded by the featured bird shortly followed by a barrage of gunfire ‘.wav’ files that we have downloaded from the internet”, followed by an hour’s silence of course. These opposing views are neatly portrayed in the tale of a woman who, after much argument, persuaded her husband not to buy her Dad a bird clock for Christmas.  After the gifts were opened, “Dad announced that he’d had a wonderful Christmas...but his only regret was that nobody got him one of those “really cool” bird clocks.” We love our bird clock. It cheers these February days, teaches birdsong, and tells the time without our having to look. The website may be found at:  


OZ on BRAMBLINGS – At lunch recently two old workmates queried “I was well pleased”, an untypical phrase which I’d used three times. Beneath the banter I felt that “well pleased” was correct English, which of course it is, dating back to the Bible, through Shakespeare to many modern examples. Shakespeare first used ‘well’, as an adjective reinforcer rather than an adverb, to mean ‘very’ as in today’s “well pleased” and “well safe”. Which is all a long-winded preface to saying that we were well pleased to see up to five bramblings at one time in the garden this winter. It was the first time since the 1980s, when they were accompanied by ring ouzels, fieldfares and redwings. The brambling is also called ‘cock of the north’ and ‘mountain finch’, hence the scientific name Fringilla monti fringilla. Bramblings breed in Scandinavia, moving south in the winter, although some now nest in Scotland. They are choosy eaters, living mainly on beechnuts and so are very mobile, travelling in flocks of many thousands from one beech stand to another. In our back garden they homed in on niger nuts, which, with their sharp husks and high oil content, are similar to beechnuts. Bramblings are beautiful birds, with multicoloured heavily patterned plumage, sometimes difficult to distinguish from chaffinches, except in flight when they are identified by their distinctive white rumps. The name ‘brambling’ derives from ‘brandling’, the old name for an animal with a brindled coat. This combination of colour and pattern forms a very effective camouflage when they are searching for beechnuts in woodland. Camouflage does not seem to have protected them from Thomas Bewick’s friends, who told him in 1826 that bramblings’ flesh was “better eating than chaffinch”, thankfully illegal nowadays  - we’re just well pleased to continue feeding them.


OZ on HEBER – I love reading stories about ‘bibliomania’, the madness of uncontrolled collecting (but not necessarily reading) of books, and of ‘bibliomaniacs’, sufferers from the condition. One of the most remarkable was Richard Heber, half-brother of Reginald Heber, the famous hymn-writer. Richard was born in Cheshire in 1773 into a wealthy vicar’s family, the ideal environment for bibliomania. By the age of eight he had accumulated his own library, which, complete with catalogues and instructions, looked set to take over the rectory. At Oxford University, Richard’s tastes expanded from the classics to include English drama and literature, and he became an expert in those fields. All restraint was finally abandoned when his father died, leaving him land and money. Heber went on a prolonged spree, buying everything from single volumes to whole collections and libraries. He often remarked that “No gentleman can be without three copies of a book, one for show, one for use, and one for borrowers.” At the same time he bought properties, both here and abroad, to house the books. Heber only hesitated once, when he nearly married an equally famous lady bibliomaniac. That happy day never materialized, due perhaps to ‘biblio-rivalry’, and Heber continued on his unrelenting way. In later years Heber became a recluse, seldom leaving his Pimlico home, where he died in 1833. His executors, aided by the Rev Thomas Dibdin and other bibliomaniacs, were staggered to discover that every space in the house was “choked and suffocated with books”, as were two other houses in London, the family home in Cheshire, and five more houses across Europe. The total number of volumes was over 150,000, worth some £100,000 at the time, or perhaps £8 million today. To this day no one knows whether the whole of his vast collection has been discovered.


OZ on HIGH-FLIERS – In April we took a Canadian friend to Newport on the Isle of Wight for a short holiday, staying on a working farm run as a livery stable. On the first evening we strolled down past the horses and round the lake, and spotted, in among the usual waterbirds, two beautiful grey geese, with black bars adorning their heads. The owner later confirmed, unsurprisingly, that they were called Bar-Headed Geese, and were foreign ‘accidentals’, having probably escaped from a private collection here, but now feral. I later discovered that this was no isolated occurrence as these friendly birds are often seen in the UK, sometimes as breeding pairs. On its home territory the Bar-headed Goose is famous as the highest flying bird, having been seen flying over the Himalayas, particularly Mount Everest, between its Tibetan nesting grounds and Indian winter feeding grounds, at up to 35,000 feet. This incredible feat is made possible by the double breathing system shared with other birds, the Bar-headed Goose’s superior wing area / weight ratio, and its unique blood constitution and circulation system. At this point I began to wonder what other high-fliers there might be in the bird world. Sadly, such information usually only comes to light when birds collide with aeroplanes. For example the highest bird ever recorded was a Rüppell's Griffon (Gyps rueppellii), a vulture with a 10-foot wingspan that was sucked into a jet engine 37,900 feet above West Africa in 1975. (The plane landed safely). Over Nevada in 1963 a Mallard duck collided with an aeroplane at 21,000 feet. Pilots have also observed Whooper Swans at 27,000 feet and Bar-tailed Godwits at 20,000 feet. It all seems a long way from the two high-fliers we saw waddling around the lake at Newport in April.


OZ on TUPPER – Readers may remember my tales of William McGonagall and Joseph Gwyer, industrious Victorian poets who, though popular in their lifetimes, failed to receive lasting acclaim. Another such poet was Martin Tupper, born in London in 1810, the eldest son of a physician. He was educated at Christ Church College, Oxford, and hoped to enter the clergy, but he had an enormous handicap dating from childhood; a stutter so bad that he could hardly speak. After repeated attempts by medical men to cure the condition had failed, Martin started working silently at Lincoln’s Inn and was called to the Bar in 1835, although he never worked as a barrister. Also in that year he married his cousin Isabelle and discovered his true vocation as a writer. His writing on life and love, published in 1838 as Proverbial Philosophy, was a moderate success. It was unusual in being prose written as verse, creating instant proverbs, such as “A babe in the house is a well-spring of pleasure” and “Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech.” Over the next twenty years Tupper produced further editions of Proverbial Philosophy and many more works that were rapturously received both here and in the United States. However, by 1860, his career began to slow down as critical attitudes changed. After Wordsworth’s death, Tupper was narrowly beaten to the post of Poet Laureate by Alfred Tennyson, and a younger generation began to lampoon Tupper’s works, especially his beloved Proverbial Philosophy.  Despite many years of service to, and friendship with, Queen Victoria, Tupper had to plead hard with his old college friend, Prime Minister Gladstone, to obtain a Civil List pension. Tupper died in 1899 in obscurity, and his books are now virtually unknown, contradicting the optimistic line on his gravestone: “He being dead yet he speaketh.”


OZ on SWIFTS – Once again, during thundery summer evenings, we’ve been thrilled by the sight and sound of swifts as they devour flying insects over the pond. The slaughter occurs all day at greater heights, but we only notice when weather conditions combine with bird and insect behaviour to put the spectacle before our eyes. This column’s old friend, the Reverend Gilbert White, reported in 1774 that “this bird is never so much alive as in sultry thundery weather.” He was later among the first to suggest that the unique behaviour of swifts derives from their exclusive diet of flying insects. Swifts are indeed built for flying, with an outline that, according to Edward Thomas in his poem Haymaking, is “As if the bow had flown off with the arrow.” This skill is matched only by their clumsiness in walking. It was even thought that swifts had no feet, the Latin name being apus or ‘footless’. So swifts spend most of their lives in the air, feeding, drinking, mating and sleeping on the wing, and only landing to breed. Before breeding, young swifts spend two or three years in continuous flight; it has been estimated that a swift dying aged 20 will have flown nearly 4 million miles. One problem with the insect diet is that swifts cannot catch insects in the rain. This is solved by a remarkable survival mechanism; in bad weather the chick’s body simply shuts down to very low maintenance levels at which the chick can survive for up to 48 hours. Another solution is for adults to fly 100 or more miles to the tail of the depression where they can each catch up to 20,000 insects in a day. The whole swift story is yet another impressive demonstration of evolution in action.


OZ on OLYMPICS 08 – by which I mean 1908. After weeks of spectacular television coverage from Beijing it’s interesting to look back at the Fourth Olympiad, held in London after much hasty preparation. In April 1906, work on the 1908 Rome Games ceased when Mount Vesuvius suddenly erupted, devastating Naples and diverting money to its rebuilding. The International Olympic Committee reassigned the games to London with only ten months remaining for the British Olympic Committee to find a site, finance and build a stadium. This was achieved under the muscular leadership of Baron Desborough, an athlete already famous for swimming the Niagara Rapids and climbing the Matterhorn. He persuaded the Daily Mail’s Lord Northcliffe to sponsor the games, and the government to pay £60,000 to George Wimpey to build White City Stadium at Shepherds Bush. The stadium specification stated “to seat 68,000, or 130,000 if the seating is removed.” The field consisted simply of a running track 1/3 mile in length enclosing the water pool and gymnastics platform. Reassuringly for today’s organisers the 1908 event was mired in controversy. The United States’ captain refused to dip the flag to the royal family, declaring that “this flag dips to no earthly king”. In retaliation British officials moved the marathon finish to be right in front of the king’s eyes “to restore the importance of the monarchy.”  Amazingly this change from the planned marathon length of 25 miles to 26 miles 385 yards was permanently accepted. There were many other disputes over flags, protocol and results, but the Fourth Olympiad was seen in retrospect as a Very Good Thing; the start of the modern Olympic movement that established proper rules and a wider selection of judges. Apart from anything else Great Britain came top with 56 gold, 51 silver and 39 bronze medals.


OZ on BIROS – After receiving yet another charity envelope containing one of those short flat ballpoint pens that are so bendy in use but that fit so neatly into one’s breastpocket I tracked down the story of ballpoints, or ‘biros’ as we call them. It is thought that Galileo first imagined such a pen four centuries ago, but there was at that time neither the demand nor the required precision manufacturing technology. By the end of the 19th century people were becoming mobile, busy and frustrated with fountain pens. The first ballpoint patent was issued to John Loud in 1888, but the device, while suitable for marking objects, was too rough for paperwork. Over the next fifty years, many inventors tried to perfect the ballpoint but failed to achieve a uniform delivery of ink. The problem was eventually solved by László Bíró, a Hungarian newspaper editor who noticed that newspaper ink dried quickly without smudging. In 1938, Bíró and his brother George patented a successful design using similar ink in a pressurized column so that ink delivery was not dependent on gravity as in previous designs. In 1940, the Bíró brothers moved to Argentina and set up their company Biro Pens of Argentina. The RAF purchased a huge number of the revolutionary new pens as they functioned better than fountain pens at great heights. In 1950 the French businessman Marcel Bich bought the patent from Bíró and set up his own company distributing Bic pens. After some initial hostility from schoolteachers, the ballpoint was by 1960 universally accepted, known always as ‘biro’, a generic word like ‘hoover’. László died in Buenos Aires in 1985, and his birthday, September 29th, is celebrated in Argentina as Inventor’s Day. Finally, biros are cheap, except of course when they arrive in charity envelopes. 


OZ on HARDY – A friend’s chance remark reminded me of the Reverend Theodore Bayley Hardy VC, DSO, MC, a modest hero. Theodore was born in Exeter in 1863 to George and Sarah Hardy. George, a commercial traveller, died when Theodore was three, so Sarah started a school to support herself and family. Theodore attended this school, boarded at City of London School and graduated from London University in 1888. Deeply religious, Hardy was ordained in 1898, and then followed twin careers of schoolteacher and priest, working largely in Nottinghamshire and becoming headmaster at Bentham Grammar School until 1913, when ill health led him to Cumbria as a parish priest. The following year his wife died just before war broke out. Hardy wanted to serve at the front, but discovered his first battle to be with the authorities who wanted younger fitter men. Eventually in 1916 he was accepted as chaplain to 8th Battalion The Lincolnshire Regiment and sent to Vieille Chapelle. He soon became popular in the trenches with his “Don't worry boys, it’s only me”, dispensing cigarettes, sweets and advice, and searching ‘No Mans Land’ for casualties, once spending 36 hours in a flooded shell-hole with a wounded soldier awaiting rescue. Over the next two years, Hardy became a legend for “repeatedly going into the open under heavy fire to help stretcher-bearers” as his DSO and MC commendations stated. In August 1918, at Frohen-le-Grand, King George V personally awarded Hardy the Victoria Cross and appointed him Chaplain to His Majesty, hoping that this would preserve him from the dangers of the frontline but Hardy refused all offers to leave “the boys”. On 10 October Hardy was hit by machine-gun fire while retrieving wounded and died in hospital eight days later, within weeks of the end of the war, ninety years ago.


OZ on G&T – It’s December again, and I’m on my annual two months of alcohol abstinence in preparation for Christmas excess while hoping for some weight loss. I read with particular enthusiasm, therefore, that last month saw the 150th birthday of gin and tonic. Gin was invented in 1650 by Dr Sylvuis, known also as Franz de la Boé, who was Professor of Medicine at Leyden, in Holland. It consisted of pure spirit distilled from grain and flavoured with juniper oil, and was named Genever from the French word for ‘juniper’. Sylvuis developed it as a cure for kidney disease, but by 1655 it had become commercially successful, particularly with English troops serving nearby. Over the next few years, under the encouragement of Queen Mary’s Dutch consort, William of Orange, gin flooded into England. Local distilleries also started to produce the popular new drink, which became known as '‘Dutch courage”, and the urban poor took up gin-drinking on a massive scale. By 1750 Londoners alone were drinking 11 million gallons of gin a year, so the government passed draconian legislation that soon succeeded in reducing the number of premature deaths from “gin madness”. The last part of the G&T story took place in nineteenth century India, where officers of the Army of the British East India Company needed quinine, a very bitter chemical derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, to combat malaria, and would take it with gin. In 1858 one Erasmus Bond dissolved quinine in carbonated water to make tonic water, and so the second ingredient of G&T was born. Nearly a century later Winston Churchill declared that “Gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.” Just so, although my favourite life-savers are W&W and B&S.