Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2009




OZ on SUMAC – Around 1950 I heard Yma Sumac, “The Peruvian Songbird”, singing on radio. To a shy ten-year old choirboy, growing up in austere post-war Britain, she was a heady mixture of primal passion and stunning technique. Born as Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo on September 13, 1922, in Ichocán, in the northern highlands of Peru, she claimed direct descent from the last Incan Emperor, Atahualpa, who died in 1533. Zoila spent a happy mountain childhood imitating birds and singing to rocks, and by her teens was singing on radio across South America. In 1943 she married the composer Moises Vivanco, who renamed her Yma Sumac, “the beautiful one”.  Moises, Yma and her cousin Cholita Rivero became the Inca Taky Trio, specialising in Inca music. In 1946 the trio emigrated to New York with instant success. Sumac’s individual career took off in 1950 with Capitol records, when bandleaders Les Baxter and Billy May set her voice to rich orchestral arrangements. Now the fans really began to appreciate her technique, particularly the amazing vocal range of over four octaves, from B in the low baritone register to C sharp above the high soprano register. At her peak, Sumac exceeded even these, giving a lifetime range of nearly five octaves. Throughout the 1950s Sumac produced a series of popular song albums and took part in films utilizing her exotic image, such as Secret of the Incas (1955) and Omar Khayyam (1957), often facing unkind criticism. One gossip columnist even spelt her name backwards and claimed that she was just “Amy Camus from Brooklyn”. In retirement Sumac was never far from the limelight and collected seven lifetime awards in 2006. After rock’n’roll started in 1953 I forgot all about lovely Yma until the news of her death last November. (Steve Osborn)


OZ on MURPHY – This year sees the 60th birthday of Murphy’s Law, a new name for an old truth, usually stated as ‘If anything can go wrong, it will’. There are many theories about its origin, but most experts agree with Oxford English Dictionary that ‘Murphy’ was Captain Edward Murphy, an aerospace test engineer. In 1949 Murphy worked for the US Air Force on experiments testing human tolerance to acceleration. In one crucial test, Murphy’s assistant set 16 two-way sensors incorrectly, causing a zero reading and Murphy’s immortal phrase “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.”  Murphy’s Law became popular in the 1950s among technical and scientific workers, often with additions such as Finagle’s Corollary, which adds that things always go wrong “…at the worst possible moment.” Biologists claim that “Under any given set of environmental conditions an experimental animal behaves as it damn well pleases” and audio technicians that “Connecting leads and plugs always develop a fault five minutes after the last useful shop has closed for the weekend.” Military men and airline pilots often murmur, “The more advanced your equipment the further you will be from civilization when it fails.” The popular statement of this principle in Britain, especially amongst non-technical people, is of course Sod’s Law, which states variously that it only rains at weekends or that the phone only rings when you’re in the bath. I was surprised to discover that the Oxford English Dictionary has no reference to Sod’s Law before 1970 as I was convinced that I and my parents and grandparents had been using the name all our lives. Perhaps in those days people were more accepting of misfortune and simply consoled themselves with “Accidents will happen”. (Steve Osborn)


OZ on BURNS – I’m writing this while sipping whisky and hearing haggis gently sizzling in the kitchen; it’s Burns Night again, a special one this year, celebrating the 250th birthday of the great Scottish poet. Eldest of seven, Robert Burness was born on 25 January 1759 in Ayrshire to William, a struggling tenant farmer, and his wife Agnes. Life on the land was hard and William moved the family three times hoping to improve their prospects. Grinding poverty and heavy farm labour soon wrecked Robert’s back and constitution. However, William had also educated his children well, and Robert continued to study at local schools and with a friend. He grew up loving language and began in his teens to write poems and songs inspired by local girls. After his father died in 1784 Robert renamed himself Burns and embarked on a wild series of affairs, one of which, with Jean Armour, led eventually to marriage and nine children; sadly only three survived into adulthood. Over the next decade, Burns became busy farming, writing poetry and touring Scotland to collect and edit hundreds of Scottish folk songs. In this, Burns, although a radical who supported French Republicanism, was befriended and admired by the Scottish political and literary establishments of the day, including the Freemasons. It was surely this image of a ‘radical patriot’ that cemented his reputation as Scotland’s national poet. In 1789 Burns left farming to become an Excise officer. He finally turned against France in 1795 and joined the Dumfries Volunteers. The following year the ‘ploughman poet’ died from chronic heart disease aged 37, and was buried on the day his youngest son was born. Time now to go and eat what Burns described in the second line of Address to a Haggis as “Great chieftain o’ the puddin'-race!” (Steve Osborn)


OZ on MAHRATTA –  My father came from a Deal boatman’s family who lived in the tiny cottages behind the sea front where as a child I heard uncles endlessly retelling the Mahratta story. Exactly a century ago, on Good Friday 1909, the 5,679 ton liner Mahratta, of the Brocklebank Line, ran aground in calm weather on the Fork Spit of the Goodwin Sands, having gone astray after missing the Gull Light. The sands did not immediately swallow Mahratta as she had struck a chalk outcrop, giving rescuers the time to save the crew and passengers and much of the cargo of jute, rice, rubber and tea. However, the combination of unloading and an increasing westerly wind caused Mahratta to list and break her back on the chalk ridge. In 1917 Brocklebank Line launched a second Mahratta similar in specification to the first one. On 9 October 1939 Mahratta, part of Convoy HG1, and loaded with jute, hemp and tea, ran aground in blackout conditions on the same chalk ridge as the first Mahratta. Deal boatmen were enlisted to move the cargo while six Gravesend tugs attempted to move the ship into deeper water. The rescuers realised that Mahratta had started to buckle when noises like gunshots began to ring out as rivets broke. Soon the bangs began to resemble machine-gun fire. At this point, Mahratta broke in half and the Deal boats evacuated her crew. Over the next few weeks Mahratta joined her elder sister on the seabed, leaving just her masts showing. In his Saga of the Goodwin Sands David Chamberlain writes “ Nowadays, the only disturbance the Mahratta gets is from fishermen. With the sunken hull facing across the tide, the current disturbs the sand eels which, in turn, then attract the sought after sea bass.” (Steve Osborn)


OZ on APOSTROPHES – Recently I adjudicated for a friend over the placing of an apostrophe in the title of a new organization, and became fascinated by the origins of this useful but exasperating mark. Most European, especially Latin-based, languages have used apostrophes to denote omissions, as in ‘wish’d’ for ‘wished’. In the 17th century, English printers began to use the apostrophe before an ‘s’ in words denoting ownership, such as ‘dog’s dinner’ for ‘dinner belonging to the dog’.  This derived from the Old English syllable ‘-es’ that was added to words to denote possession. However, a word like ‘doges’ looks strange on the page, so printers used the apostrophe to omit the ‘e’, giving the familiar ‘dog’s dinner’.  This did not solve all the problems, and by the 18th century printers were distinguishing between the dinner of one dog and the dinners of many dogs by placing the apostrophe after the plural, as in ‘dogs’ dinners.’ It was now possible to cause the maximum confusion, between ‘dog’s dinner’, ‘dog’s dinners’, ‘dogs’ dinner’ and ‘dogs’ dinners.’ Thus was born the phrase ‘greengrocer’s (or greengrocers’) apostrophe’, from the incorrect forming of plurals, such as onion’s and apple’s. It’s all rather unfair to greengrocers, when other shops often advertise “Ice Cream’s”,  “Tea’s” and even “Xma’s Tree’s”. Lynne Truss, in her hilarious book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, points out also that greengrocers have a particularly hard time deciding how to describe more than one thing ending in a vowel, giving rise incorrectly to “mango’s” and “tomato’s”. She adds the story of a Somerset market gardener unfortunately named Carrott, noting that “the sign said “Carrott’s” at the top but then listed other vegetables and fruits spelled and punctuated perfectly correctly.” That’s the apostrophe for you – tricky but capable of great precision. (Steve Osborn)


OZ on MISTLES – On the last day of a short stay in Norfolk in April we awoke at 5.30am to a delicious outpouring of fluting birdsong that continued all through breakfast, causing much debate amongst fellow guests as to the songster. The answer came at 9am when we walked out to board the coach and saw two birds in the tops of adjacent trees, singing their hearts out to each other. They were mistle-thrushes, and their behaviour was typical, not just of spring, but also of autumn and winter, because this hardy bird is resistant to both wind and rain, which explains one of its other names, the ‘storm cock’. Excluding spelling variants, there are over thirty names for the mistle-thrush, many relating to the bird’s appetite for mistletoe berries. This diet was first noted in Aristotle’s History of Animals, written in the 4th century BC. The scientific name Turdus viscivorus comes from the Latin Viscum for mistletoe. In Britain mistles are more likely to be seen feeding on holly or hawthorn, and their success is largely due to the way they defend their trees. When attacked their call changes to a harsh rattle and they hurl themselves at raiders, often with devastating results. Cocker and Mabey’s book Birds Britannica has accounts of a mistle that killed a jackdaw, another that knocked a peacock over and one that knocked a barn owl “clean off its perch”.  This impressive bird has always captured the imagination of writers, perhaps most notably Thomas Hardy in his poem The Darkling Thrush, written on 31 December 1900, the last day of the 19th century. It could only have been a mistle-thrush, in Hardy’s bleak “spectre-grey” winter land, that sang in “full-hearted evensong of joy illimited”, and gave him “some blessed Hope” for the coming century.  (Steve Osborn)


OZ on SHAUN  -  When our rescue collie Jak died eighteen months ago at the early age of seven we were grief-stricken. “Never again” we muttered, softening into “Next year perhaps” and then “OK, for our next birthdays.” That is why in May we returned to the rescue centre, fell in love with Shaun, and took him home a week later. Shaun is a two-year old West Highland White Terrier cross and came with problems, as do most rescue dogs, because that’s often why they’re there. The first line of his dossier read “Shaun is a worried little man.”  This showed itself mainly in soiling, but after a few days Shaun realised that he is here to stay and became clean and dry. The other problems, such as barking and defensiveness over food, have lessened, but seem to be part of the breed’s temperament. Similarly, Shaun’s qualities, such as his fearlessness, compact physicality and eagerness to please, stem largely from the same genetic inheritance. Westies were first bred from Scottish terriers in Argyllshire to hunt vermin after King James 1 of England requested some ‘little white earth dogges’. The breed was confirmed later when Colonel Malcom of Poltalloch, Argyllshire, tragically shot his favourite dark red terrier, mistaking it for a fox, and vowed to have only white dogs from then on. At first Shaun didn’t respond to his name, so we considered changing it to something more percussive and perhaps Scottish, such as Mak, (too much like Jak), Ben, Monty or Angus (ridiculed by my daughter and her family as too reminiscent of an Aberdeen steak). We found only noisy disagreement amongst family and friends, so we’re sticking with ‘Shaun’, especially as he now responds to it. “You’ll do”, we often tell him, “and so will your name”. (Steve Osborn)


OZ on THE SHIPPING FORECAST  -  Most readers will identify with the first line of Charlie Connelly’s 2004 book Attention All Shipping, where he says “The solemn, rhythmic intonation of the shipping forecast is as familiar to us as the sound of Big Ben chiming the hour.” It is a travel book, written after Connelly undertook “a journey round the shipping forecast” and it describes both the geography of the forecast areas and the history of the forecast. The first forecast was called Weather Shipping, and was broadcast from the Air Ministry, London, on 1 January 1924. At that time the seas around Britain were divided into just thirteen weather areas, the Kent coast being shared between Thames and Wight. The Dover area was introduced in 1956, and extends from Thanet to Bruges in the north, and Beachy Head to Dieppe in the south. Today there are 31 weather areas, and so Connelly describes some 60 locations. After reading the book I did some research of my own. What impressed me was how central the shipping forecast has become to our national culture, appearing time after time in the arts and media and of course in quizzes. Seamus Heaney’s sonnet The Shipping Forecast starts with “Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea…”, while Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Prayer ends with “Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer - Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.” To return to Connelly, his chapter on Dover starts with the traditional jibe about passing through, rather than staying in, the town, but then progresses through 16 pages of increasingly sympathetic portrayal of various wars, immigrations, Bleriot’s first channel crossing and the ferry business. The other locations are described in equally thorough and humorous manner, making it a difficult book to put down once started, and all for only £6.99 from Amazon. (Steve Osborn)


OZ on PAINTED LADIES  -  All summer the buddleias in the back garden have been abrim with up to thirty brightly-coloured butterflies. Twenty were Vanessa cardui, or Painted Ladies, so called because of their many-coloured markings; black, brown and orange on the upper wing surface, grey on the lower wing surface, together with white spots and red and blue markings. The creatures were part of a huge immigration of Painted Ladies first noticed on 21st May off Portland Bill in Dorset. Fine weather saw large numbers heading north over central London, Norfolk and East Yorkshire, and arriving in Scotland on Spring Bank Holiday, Monday 25th May. Scientists predicted this year’s exodus in February when they observed the butterflies leaving their winter quarters in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. Numbers were high because heavy winter rain had encouraged the growth of their caterpillars’ food-plants. Before arriving here the butterflies were seen over Spain in April and over France in early May. Every year a new flock of tiny creatures makes the same journey, guided only by the sun. Migration is limited to the excess population, as travel to Britain is a one-way ticket, requiring some to stay at home to reproduce. Flying at an average speed of 9mph would require a week to travel 1100 miles to Scotland compared with the actual journey time of 3 months. This extra time is taken up with feeding and egg-laying, creating extra colonies that either continue north or return to Morocco. The Painted Ladies that arrive here in May produce a second generation, which continues north, but can’t survive the winter there. Occasionally Painted Ladies are found on the south coast attempting to hibernate in January but they never attempt the return journey and usually die in the winter frosts. It’s an unremarkable end to a remarkable life. (Steve Osborn)

Butterfly Conservation always welcomes details of sightings at


OZ on JOHNSON  – My topic in a previous article was the 250th birthday of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. Now it is time to remember the man himself, as last month saw his 300th birthday. The child of elderly parents, Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on 18 September 1709, suffering from a condition that permanently affected his eyesight and health. He grew into a heavy man with awkward gestures, believed now to signify Tourette’s Syndrome, that disturbed people on first acquaintance. After a year’s study at Oxford University, Johnson was destitute and tried teaching, but failed because he frightened the children. In 1735, he married an older widow, and the couple moved to London. Over the next ten years Johnson became a writer, with a huge output of essays, poems and general hack-work. Between 1746 and 1755 Johnson and six poorly-paid assistants laboured on the Dictionary of the English Language. During this time, in 1752, Johnson, devastated by the death of his wife, invited her blind friend and his needy friends to share his house. Johnson’s national importance was finally recognized when he received a government pension in 1762, followed by Master’s degrees and doctorates from Oxford and Dublin.  Johnson wrote into old age, his semi-retirement enriched by friendships with James Boswell, a young Scottish lawyer, and the Thrales, a brewer and his wife. Boswell accompanied Johnson to Scotland, documenting the trip as The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, a forerunner to his Life of Johnson. Typical is this from Johnson, a huge drinker with occasional long periods of abstinence, to the young Boswell: “Not to drink wine is a great deduction from life; but it may be necessary.” Johnson died on 13 December 1784 and was buried, of course, in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. (Steve Osborn)


OZ on TIMARU  –  My cousins and I have been fortunate in tracing our East Kent family back to 1595 and finding only one jailbird, our mutual great-great-grandfather, who was jailed twice, in 1844 and 1851, for persistent tobacco smuggling. He was a Deal boatman, struggling to survive the collapse of the local economy after the end of war with France and the rise of steam shipping. He died in 1858 just as one of his in-laws, John Wilds, found a more respectable means of dealing with the recession. Wilds and his wife, along with twelve other Deal boatmen and families, joined a government-aided scheme to encourage emigration to a rapidly expanding New Zealand. They totalled 58 out of 320 people that boarded the Mystery in December 1858 in London and landed 3 months later at Lyttelton Harbour on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The journey had been wild and hard, with deaths, births and conceptions occurring on board. The Deal boatmen set to work unloading the ship and soon gained employment at Timaru, loading and unloading ships into small boats and vice versa, similar to their old work on Deal beach. They named their settlement area in Timaru ‘Dealtown’, and their street ‘Middle Street’. To this day, their descendants in Deal and Timaru exchange Christmas cards addressed ‘From Deal to Deal’. The whole story has now been told by Jerry Vyse in his recent book Time to Go: A Journey from Old Deal to New Zealand. I already knew that John Wilds had become a successful farmer and market gardener. From Jerry I’ve gleaned much more detail and yet another reminder of the eventful lives of otherwise ordinary people. Time to Go is available from Amazon at £2.99, even better value than my previous recommendations here. (Steve Osborn)


OZ on INTERNET  –  I first became aware of computers in the 1950s from an enthusiastic maths teacher who predicted the invention of the personal computer and the internet. In 1958, after an interview at a top international company at Sandwich, I politely declined a job that seemed to involve pushing pencils through holes in cards. It was of course a simple explanation of how computers work and I had rejected it. In those days computers were big and clumsy. At Cambridge in the 1950s the caretaker’s first job each morning was to switch the EDSAC on to warm up the valves. In the 1960s we had our first huge mainframe computers at work. All input data was pencilled on coding sheets. These were then typed as square holes on cards by two typists, so that a rectangular hole would be accepted by the computer and square ones rejected. They were also numbered to ensure the correct order. All this took several days to turn around and then the printout would often come back with an error message, sometimes resulting from the computer operators dropping the cards and putting them back in the wrong order. Such stories seem incredible in this era of the internet, which was 40 years old last month. At 10.30pm on 29 October 1969 Charley Kline sat down at a computer at California University and started to type the word LOGIN to his opposite number at Stanford University. After typing the G, the system crashed, but the almost biblical message “LO” had been transmitted to Stanford. It was the birth of the internet, which became, after the development of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee 20 years later, the massive intellectual, economic and social revolution that, good or bad, is undoubtedly here to stay. (Steve Osborn)