Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2012



OZ on TV – Just lately I’ve been so busy trying to decide on a new TV system to install in time for Christmas that I completely missed the 75th anniversary of the start of public service television broadcasting that took place in Britain in November 1936. The technology had developed very slowly over the previous 75 years, from the Italian Giovanni Caselli’s ‘pantelegraph’ in 1862, through the German Paul Nipkow’s ‘scanning disc’ in 1884, the Russian Boris Rosing’s use of the cathode ray tube in 1907, to the Scottish inventor John Logie Baird’s first television in 1926. Baird followed this with ‘Phonovision’, an early form of video recording, in 1927. The first day of BBC television, transmitted from Alexandra Palace, began at 3pm on Monday 2 November 1936, when the Postmaster General, G C Tryon MP, gave a speech, followed by news, weather and a half-hour variety show. Further development of TV broadcasting in Britain was delayed by World War II, finally taking off in 1953, when 22 million viewers tuned in to the Coronation. We watched on a neighbour’s set, taking it in turns to peer into a tiny almost horizontal monochrome screen. My father’s comment was “It’s quite interesting, but it won’t last.”  Just four years later, he was glued to the TV set, watching the news, sport, soaps and films, especially on the newly emergent ITV. In the last 50 years, TV has come into its own in a rapidly changing world, bringing wars, revolutions and the space race into people’s homes, alongside rock and pop music, some legendary comedy series, educational programmes, general elections, the Queen’s Speech, and a fair amount of trash. The choice is huge, and will be even greater if I finally succeed in connecting my new TV system to the internet.


OZ on PALINDROMES – Whilst sifting ideas for this month’s column I noticed that the date, 2.1.12, was a palindrome, that is to say something that reads the same forwards and backwards. There is an even better one coming, 21.02.2012., and many more occur later this year, depending on exactly how the dates are abbreviated. These are numeric examples, but the 17th century English playwright Ben Jonson originally derived the word ‘palindrome’ to describe words or phrases that read either way, from the Greek ‘palin dromos’ meaning ‘again direction’. They are found in all languages and at all times, back to at least AD79, and are often associated with mystical beliefs. Two well-known English examples are “Madam, I’m Adam”, and Leigh Mercer’s “A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!”  John Julius Norwich has collected palindromes for many years and included them in the ‘Christmas Crackers’ that he sends to friends each Christmas. They range from the elegant warning “Sex at noon taxes” to Roy Dean’s “Senile’s Reverie I’ Reverse Lines”, which is a poem consisting of 72 lines, each of which is a complete palindrome, and took Dean twenty years to compose. Among the longest palindromic English words are the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘tattarrattat’, coined by James Joyce in Ulysses to represent a knock at the door, and ‘detartrated’ meaning cleaned of tartar, in the Guinness Book of Records. Guinness also gives the 19-letter Finnish word ‘saippuakivikauppias’  meaning ‘soapstone vendor’, as the world’s longest palindromic word. Finally, Wikipedia tells me that two complete English palindromic novels have been published: Veritas by David Stephen, 1980, (58,795 letters), and Dr Awkward & Olson in Oslo by Lawrence Levine, 1986, (31,954 words). Perhaps the next challenge should be the longest palindromic novel with numbers of letters, words and publication date all being palindromic. 


OZ on BITTERNS – It was pleasing to read recently that Britain’s bittern population is recovering, after a century of near extinction. The Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris) is related to the Grey Heron, but lacks the heron’s elegance, being large, plain, brown and very shy. It is identifiable by its repeated booming that has the lowest frequency of any other birdcall, and sometimes likened to the sound of someone blowing into an empty bottle.  For this reason the bittern is often known as ‘boomer’, ‘bottle bump’, and ‘bull o’ the bog’, amongst many other alliterative names. Because of its pathological shyness, the bittern is rarely seen. I saw one only once, at Minsmere in Suffolk, on my birthday ten years ago. We entered the Bittern Hide before lunch, fully expecting a long wait, or more probably no sighting at all. After only twenty minutes, a great shout went up and there was a loud thump as the bittern hit the reed bed below us.  Much later came the sonorous booming that confirmed the bird’s arrival. Humans have hunted bitterns from Neolithic times, particularly over the last two millennia. In the Middle Ages, bittern was a popular dish amongst aristocracy and the merchant classes, and in the 18th and 19th centuries many bitterns were killed by taxidermists. The final blow was the draining of the wetlands, and bitterns were nearly extinct by 1900. Over the next 50 years numbers rose, fluctuated, and fell again, to just 11 in 1997.  Faced with threats from salt water flooding freshwater areas such as Minsmere, the bittern has now attracted funding from the European Union, and the RSPB is building new inland nesting areas, for example at Lakenheath in Sussex. The number of bitterns in Britain is now over 100 and rising, mostly in Southern England.


OZ on SANDWICH – Having recently rediscovered the account of how, in April 1762, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, invented the humble sandwich, I thought that it would be amusing  to present it here and now as a 250th anniversary. The story goes that Montagu was in the habit, while playing cards, of eating meat wrapped in bread, to save time and avoid making the cards greasy, and his playmates would call for “The same as Sandwich!” That much, recorded in Edward Gibbon’s Journal, is probably true, but this method of eating was first recorded well over 2,000 years ago, when Hillel the Elder, a Jewish sage, used to place lamb and herbs between two slices of matzah at Passover. In Britain during the Middle Ages, thick slabs of bread, called ‘trenchers’ (from Old French ‘tranchier’ to cut),  were cut and used as plates. When the meal was over, the trencher, together with left-over food, was either eaten by the diner, often with sauce, given to the poor, or fed to the dogs. ‘Trencher’ in turn gives rise to the beautifully trenchant word ‘trencherman’ for someone enthusiastically addicted to food and drink. Similar customs were noted by the English naturalist John Ray in 1673 in the Netherlands, when he described how Dutch drinkers ate beef, between slices of bread and butter, in their taverns. In 19th century Europe, as the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum, the sandwich became widespread as a convenient, cheap and fast meal. Its popularity continues into today’s Sloppy Joes, BLTs and Subs, alongside the still-loved traditional ‘butties’ and ‘sarnies’. So although the Earl of Sandwich didn’t actually invent the sandwich, his title did much to enrich the language with such descriptive phrases as ‘to sandwich’,  ‘sandwich-boards’,  ‘sandwich construction’, sandwich course’, sandwich-man and ‘sandwich technique’.


OZ on BUNDY - When my wife died two years ago, the first friends at the door with condolences were the Bundys. It was typical of 30 years of kindness from them, and so I welcome the opportunity to assist Ruth in writing this tribute to Allan. Steve Osborn

DR ALLAN GRAEME BUNDY, a greatly loved husband, father, grandfather, and GP in Dover for over 30 years, passed away quietly on 19th February, aged 82, after a full and adventurous life. Born in Golders Green, London, Allan attended school in Battle and Harrow and, after military service, studied medicine at St George’s, London, tropical medicine in Liverpool, and industrial medicine in Dundee and Aberdeen. His love of adventure took him to West Africa, where he lived amongst the people, learning their culture and researching rare tropical diseases. He was a ‘David Attenborough’ of sorts and even resembled him in looks. Allan also worked in Guyana, South America, at Mackenzie Hospital and the Bauxite Company. In the 1960s he helped prevent a major malaria epidemic by reporting increasing numbers of cases to the government.  Back in England to study gynaecology, Allan met Margaretta in Newbury, Berkshire, where she worked as a nurse. They married and returned to Guyana, where Allan adopted Andrew, and they went on to have three more children, Christopher, Ruth and Richard. With his young family Allan moved to Saskatchewan and Alberta, Canada, where his adventures continued; visiting patients by water-plane and skidoo, and dealing with bears, forest fires and heavy snowfall. On returning to England, Allan worked at William Harvey Hospital, Ashford, and Buckland Hospital, Dover, until he joined the Maison Dieu Surgery as a GP. He was later the co-founder of Pencester Surgery in Dover, and practised forensic medicine as a police surgeon across Kent, until his work was abruptly interrupted by the first of a number of strokes. Allan loved the countryside, especially the Alkham Valley where he and his family lived for over 30 years. He enjoyed farming and keeping sheep, aided by friends, and shared a passion for music with his whole family, particularly in supporting Margaretta in her singing with Dover Choral Society. Throughout his life he maintained his eloquence and humour, the quintessential English gentleman, and will be remembered for his kindness, interest and concern for others and his upbeat and adventurous way of life. Ruth Marczin-Bundy and Steve Osborn


OZ on VACATION – On hearing that someone was busy, having just returned from a “vacation”, my mental image of him changed, from elderly English gentleman to someone young or American or possibly both. I checked out the word in the Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that it has an interesting pedigree. Originally it meant “freedom from” as in Chaucer’s “leisure and vacation / From other worldly occupation” (1386). In the 15th and 16th centuries the meaning was extended to “suspension of activity”, as of law-courts, universities and schools, and hence generally to the resulting “holidays”.  It was in this sense that “vacation” was adopted in America as a word for “holiday” or “take a holiday”. Emily Dickinson’s The Masque of Poets (1878) reported that “At Saratoga…you meet …people spending short vacations.” Later I learnt from the newspaper that Allen Walker Read, the distinguished American word-researcher, had died at the age of 96. He had outlived his wife of 49 years, fellow scholar Charlotte Schuchardt, by just three months. Read’s popular fame was due to his investigation into the origins of the term “OK”. He rejected several appetising theories, including the Choctaw “okeh”, the Haitian “Aux Cayes” and the biscuit made by Orrin-Kendall for the US Army, eventually settling for the jokey “Orl Korrect” deliberately misspelt in an 1839 Boston newspaper. The term was later used in the election campaigns of the eighth US president, Martin Van Buren, nicknamed “Old Kinderhook”. Read also wrote articles for dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and produced a stream of books whose subjects included the history of words, US and UK slang, and graffiti in public lavatories.  His latest books, published in 2001 and 2002, came at the end of a retirement that was, thankfully, long but not a “vacation” in any of the above senses of the word.


OZ on SHEDS – In last October’s column I mentioned how my installation of a new boiler had caused knock-on effects that had “cascaded into every room, including the potting-shed and garage.” I remembered this on my recent birthday when given Frank Hopkinson’s The Joy of Sheds, a welcome addition to the literature of that most respectable of male passions; ‘respectable’ because an extra shed can usually be justified as a ‘need’. All my life I’ve loved pottering in sheds, which is puzzling because I’m not at all practical, and sometimes have to think of an excuse to go and potter. Hopkinson’s sub-title explains the real reason: “...because a man’s place isn’t in the home.”; the shed is actually a refuge. Under ‘Shed Lit’ Hopkinson describes the sheds of various writers, including Dylan Thomas, Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf and Daphne du Maurier. That most famous of phrases “something nasty in the woodshed” comes from Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Other chapters cover the role of sheds in fields such as music, art, films and TV. Always the reason for the shed is to get away from distraction and concentrate on the job in hand, a need that women share. Perhaps women generally get the time and space that they need if the man is in his shed away up the garden. Of course a shed doesn’t even have to be outdoors. My favourite shed, grandly called “The Study”, is in fact my daughter’s old bedroom. It’s where I keep my ‘stuff’ and write these stories. It also serves as a bedroom when the grandchildren visit, a situation which will need to change as they grow up, and will necessitate the moving of my clutter to another place. So perhaps then I’ll truly ‘need’ another proper outdoor shed.


OZ on HORNIMAN – Like many other small children, growing up in World War II, I learnt to read by deciphering words found at the breakfast table, such as ‘Camp Coffee’ and ‘Horniman’s Tea.’ At that time, Horniman’s tea was very popular, as it had been since 1826, when John Horniman founded his company in Newport, Isle of Wight. John succeeded by mechanizing tea packaging, which cut production costs and guaranteed quality. By 1891 Horniman’s was the world’s largest tea-trading business. In 1869, John retired and his son, Frederick Horniman, took over. Frederick was both philanthropist and voracious collector of everything, and used his wealth to repeatedly travel the world, returning to London’s Forest Hill laden with objects “to inform those who had not had the opportunity to visit distant lands.” His declared mission was to “bring the world to Forest Hill”, to which his wife replied “either the collection goes or we do.” The Hornimans therefore moved next door, to Surrey Mount, and the old house, with objects, was renamed Surrey House Museum and opened to the public. By 1898, the collection had outgrown all available space. Frederick ordered the demolition of the old museum, and commissioned Charles Harrison Townend, the great art nouveau architect, to produce a new design.  Foundations were laid later that year, and the new Horniman Museum was opened to the public in 1901. I visited it for the first time recently and was captivated by the sheer vitality and enthusiasm that still shines through from over a century ago. Here are 350,000 objects embracing natural history, music, textiles, and anthropology, together with an aquarium and extensive gardens. As for Horniman’s Tea, Frederick’s son Emslie sold it to Joe Lyons in 1918, and it was later acquired by Douwe Egberts – a fitting end for a quality product.


OZ on UP NORTH – After the Olympics got under way last month, we headed up North with Shaun the Westie, partly to escape round-the-clock games coverage on TV and the expected traffic congestion in the South-East. Both fears were unnecessary: transport ran unexpectedly smoothly, and the games were as thrilling as last year’s Royal Wedding, more so when Team GB’s medal count escalated. The other reason for our round trip was to visit relatives in the Midlands and North, some of whom we hadn’t seen for many years. We’re both descended from Vikings. Her ancestors were the original invaders who landed on the North-East coast between the 8th and 10th centuries AD; mine were Norman Vikings who accompanied William the Conqueror in his 1066 Invasion. During that battle, King Harold was aided by Northern English Vikings, and some of their descendants still mutter accusingly “You invaded us!” As we set off, my friend told me “I have twenty-four cousins, but you won’t have to meet them all, as two are dead!” And so we made our way up North by motorway and Travelodge, visiting her brother and family in Rugby and cousins in Stoke and Huddersfield; to Lancashire to see my sister and family; and back home via cousins in Blyth, Nottinghamshire. In all, we met only seven cousins, but it was a fascinating week, with a family party, pub lunches, and much talk about family history. We drove home from up North as the Olympic athletes were leaving London. The latest news was that if Team Yorkshire had competed as a separate country, they would have come 11th in the final medal table, beating Australia. Three of those Yorkshire athletes, from the same family, would have come 49th as a team. It seemed a fitting end to a gloriously quirky week. Steve Osborn


OZ on PUNCH –  On the first day of the recent long-awaited and hoped-for Indian summer, after a paddle in the sea, some real ale, fish and chips, and ice-cream, we felt that an old-fashioned Punch and Judy show would complete our happiness. There wasn’t one available close by, but whilst looking I discovered that this year is the 350th birthday of the show. The Punch and Judy story originated in the 16th century in the Italian ‘commedia dell’arte’, a form of street comedy theatre.  It featured a male hunchback, Pulcinella, who had a long nose and a squawking voice produced by a ‘swazzle-stick.’ In 1662 an Italian puppet-master named Pietro Gimonde (‘Signor Bologna’) came to London’s Covent Garden with his puppet show, based on Pulcinella, but anglicised as Punch and Joan. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of  9th May 1662 that he had seen “ Italian puppet play...very pretty, the best I have ever seen...”, and this date became the official birth of the show in England. Over the next century, as Punch’s popularity grew and spread across Europe and America, his nature changed, from a rudely sarcastic stringed puppet to a violent glove-puppet who murders his wife, now named Judy, and child, and then tries to hang the hangman. It’s not really surprising that well-meaning attempts have been made over the years to censor Punch; happily they’ve failed, as the story seems to provide a necessary psychological outlet for adults and children alike. Certainly, modern literature contains many quotations resembling Edmund Gosse’s childhood concern over “the internal troubles of the Punch family.”  Finally, I’ve discovered that a reliable place to go for a Punch and Judy show these days is underneath the Herne Bay Clock Tower, where they are celebrating Punch’s 350th birthday as I write.


OZ on 1812 – It has been a remarkable year for anniversaries, some of which are: the 1000th anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Alphege of Canterbury by Viking raiders, on 19 April 1012; the 100th anniversaries of Captain Scott’s arrival at the South Pole in January, his team’s death in March, and the loss of the Titanic in April; the Diamond Jubilee in June; and last month’s 25th anniversary of the Great Storm. Some of this year’s 200th anniversaries are well-known, others less so, but they’re all significant to us as the western world was changing rapidly in 1812. On 7 February of that year, Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, later to become the literary giant who recorded many of those changes. The word ‘gerrymander’ was invented on 11 February when Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts, redrew the election boundaries to favour his own party. The amended map resembled a salamander, and so Gerry’s Federalist opponents combined the words ‘gerry’ and ‘salamander’ to describe Gerry’s action. On the next day Napoleon introduced the metric system to France. During a recent visit to Canada, we discovered how the conflicting interests of these three countries led to the War of 1812 between the US and Great Britain. Britain was already at war with France and was annoying the US by impressing American sailors into the Royal Navy, interfering in trade with France and supporting the American Indians. On 18 June, the US declared its first ever war, on Great Britain, and occupied the Canadian town of Sandwich on July 12. The war was to last another two years, but the big event continued in Europe. Napoleon was defeated at Moscow on 19 October 1812, giving rise seventy years later to Tchaikovsky’s ever popular 1812 Overture, without which life today would be incomplete.


OZ on LEAR – Last month’s story overlooked the fact that 2012 also saw the 200th anniversary of much-loved British artist and author, Edward Lear, born on 27 May 1812 in Holloway, twentieth of twenty-one children of stockbroker Jeremiah Lear and Ann (née Skerrett.) The Lear family suffered financial problems so severe that Edward was raised from the age of four by his sister Ann, twenty-one years his senior. From infancy he suffered chronic ill-health, including epilepsy, bronchitis and asthma; and then, perhaps due to childhood insecurity, attacks of depression which he called “The Morbids.” Lear started work as ‘ornithological draughtsman’ in his teens, first for London Zoological Society, and then for Lord Derby, who owned a private zoo. There followed a lifetime of painting while travelling, mainly to Greece, Egypt, India and Ceylon, while pursuing a parallel career  writing ‘literary nonsense’, an activity which grew from hours spent amusing Lord Derby’s grandchildren. His most famous poem is The Owl and The Pussycat, written in 1871, and containing the phrase ‘runcible spoon’, totally meaningless but appearing in many modern dictionaries. He also popularized limericks, his being free of the usual innuendo, and of varying lengths, often depending on how much space was available beneath the associated drawing. Having twice been turned down by a lady 46 years his junior, Lear never married, but settled in San Remo in the 1870s with his cat and Albanian chef, ‘Giorgis’, who he described as his “faithful friend and thoroughly unsatisfactory chef.” After years of increasing blindness and heart trouble, Lear died in 1886. This year has seen many celebrations of his life, the last being a limited edition reprint of his Birds Drawn for John Gould. At £895 per copy, I think I’ll stick to my old Penguin edition of his limericks.