Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2000
MILLENNIUM NOTES - The ‘AD’ year numbering system was devised in AD531 by a Scythian named Dionysius Exiguus, or “Dennis the Short”, who worked for Pope St John I. However, Dennis made two mistakes. The first was that he miscalculated the date of Christ’s birth, so that, for example, it appeared to follow the death of Herod the Great, which is clearly impossible. As Professor Bowersock, of Princeton, says, “Hark the herald angels roar, Christ was born in BC four”. The second mistake was that the number zero (to be invented in India in the 12th century AD) was unknown at the time and so Dennis went straight from 1BC to AD1. This fact alone has caused much of the subsequent dispute over the start and end dates of decades, centuries and millennia. On December 26th 1799, the Times loftily declared that “the present century will not terminate till January 1, 1801…. We shall not pursue this question further”. However, a century later, in 1899, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany defiantly maintained that “The twentieth century will begin on January 1, 1900 - not 1901.” More recently we have public statements from the Royal Greenwich Observatory that “It is clear that the start of the new millennium will be 1 January 2001” and, from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, that “The third millennium will begin on January 1, 2001”. So why will we all be obstinately celebrating the new millennium on 1st January 2000? I suppose it’s all to do with natural feelings of impatience with the past and enthusiasm to get on with the future. In any case, as the Domaine Carneros champagne cellars in Napa County, California, said, “We’ll get two shots, in 2000 and 2001”.
COUNTRY NOTES - One day in October we sat in the shelter on the sea-front, eating sandwiches, admiring the castle and the church on the White Cliffs, and watching the ferries come and go. "Is that a pigeon or a gull?" asked someone. It was a cormorant, motionless, on a red marker buoy; and then we saw two more, equally static and impressive, on the next two buoys along. Later, a friend reported seeing a cormorant on the island in Kearsney Abbey lake, snoozing and preening itself from time to time. Surprisingly, cormorants are voracious eaters of freshwater fish, consuming 19 different types and up to half the fish in reservoirs and lakes. The following week we walked with friends along the White Cliffs from St. Margaret's-at-Cliffe to Kingsdown and back. It was a fine blustery day and the house-martins had started to congregate in readiness for their migration. There were finches and bramlings, and a solitary skylark, unlike Dylan Thomas's "springful of larks in a rolling cloud" in his Poem in October. However, there was certainly "the sun of October summery on the hill's shoulder" and the bushes were brimming with blackberries rather than Thomas's "whistling blackbirds". Soon we found scabious, harebells, toadflax and rosehips. And then we saw the cormorants again, nonchalantly flapping their way back to Dover. We took lunch at the Zetland Arms in Kingsdown, eating crab sandwiches at an outdoor table, with a thunderstorm moving in fast over the cliffs. Suddenly, we noticed a weasel, straining its neck and hopping across the shingle between the cars. Heaven knows what they find to eat on such a stony beach. We trudged back to the Dover Patrol Memorial, and a long haul it was, in the teeth of a south-westerly gale, spasmodic rain and the ever-threatening thunder.
MILLENNIUM UPDATE - A reader enquires after the different number of n’s in ‘millenary’ and ‘millennial’. It’s a fine point. The word ‘millenary’ comes from the Latin mille and narius, meaning ‘of a thousand’, whereas ‘millennial’ derives from mille and annus, and means ‘of a thousand years’. Hence the additional n. Three weeks into AD2000, and already years beginning with 19 seem as ancient as those beginning with 18 or less. The weather, too, changed as the millennium rolled over. After the “warmest year since records began” we now discover what Christina Rossetti had in mind when she wrote “In the bleak mid-winter”. We thought that we saw a sparrow-hawk in the top of our neighbour’s fir tree, and were surprised at the nonchalance of the sparrows on the lower branches. Binoculars revealed it to be a woodpigeon, puffed to twice its normal size as insulation against the cold. Battles fought out on Rossetti’s “Earth…hard as iron” acquire a fresh urgency. On a frozen mass of leaves in our pond, a crow ambushed a frog and tried to penetrate its tough and slippery skin. We opened a window to gain a better view, startling the crow into releasing the frog, which made off, apparently unharmed, into a pile of flints. Sounds seem to be amplified during these cold dark nights. As another great Victorian, James Thomson, in The Seasons (Winter), has it, “Loud rings the frozen earth, and hard reflects a double noise”, and goes on to mention sounds of the village dog, the heifer and a distant waterfall. Around here, in addition to traditional caterwauling, the nights have been disturbed by the sounds of foxes, both in upsetting refuse bins and in emitting their strange yelping shrieks. Perhaps they’re aggrieved because, with the turn of the New Year, and the success of our millenary, or even millennial, resolutions, the refuse bonanza is at an end.
BOOK-ENDS - Last Friday I lunched with two friends, ex-colleagues who had retired at the same time as myself. Conversation turned to the silverfish; not the swimmer, but the house-bug that thrives on paper. Its Latin name, Lepisma saccharina, derives from the fact that it feeds on starch in, for example, old wallpaper and bookbindings. It is distinct from the booklouse and the bookworm but just as damaging to books. Richard Jefferies, in Chapter Five of Wild Life in a Southern County (1879) referred to “…some tall volume which he bent over with such delight, heedless of dust and silver-fish and the gathered odour of years…”. I first discovered silverfish as a small child in my grandmother’s parlour. The creatures were attracted there by her collection of books on Kent and Kentish themes, and so was I. In a world largely dominated by bombing, shelling and doodlebugging, it was reassuring to be able to retreat to this haven, populated by stories and pictures of characters no worse than those in Charles Dickens, Russell Thorndike and, above all, the Reverend Richard Harris Barham. Barham was born in Canterbury in 1788 and inherited the Manor of Tappington at the age of six. After becoming a minor canon at St Paul’s and Vicar of Warehorne and Snargate, he achieved national fame with the publication in 1840 of his Ingoldsby Legends. This is a collection of quaint stories, often in verse, and rich in nineteenth century slang, centred on Tappington Hall at Denton, but extending to the whole of East Kent and beyond. For example, The Smuggler’s Leap is set in a chalk pit at Acol, close to what is now the end of the runway at Manston Airport and visible until recently. My grandmother never seriously doubted Barham’s view that “the World is divided into five parts, namely Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh”.
OZ on EASTER DAY - This year’s Easter Day is almost as late as it can possibly be, which is useful for singers preparing for their seasonal millennium productions as it gives up to four extra weeks of rehearsals in the run-up to Easter compared with other years. It’s not quite true, as commonly stated, that “Easter Day is the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs after the vernal equinox”. This is because the Church’s “ecclesiastical moons” are not the same as the real moon periods; additionally the vernal equinox is fixed, for convenience, at March 21st, not by the actual position of the sun. However, it’s a handy rule-of-thumb that illustrates how the date of Easter Day can vary by up to a lunar month, between March 23rd and April 25th. Occasionally, Easter Day falls on March 24th, so that Palm Sunday falls on St Patrick’s Day. This last happened in 1940, and some people celebrated by wearing both the shamrock and the palm. The next really late Easter Day will be on 24th April 2011. When Easter is as late as this, it seems strange to see everything blooming so early in Lent. On the one hand, when starting the annual abstinence from cheddar cheese, I’m reminded irresistibly of the opening lines of Robert Browning’s Easter-Day, where he cries, “How very hard it is to be a Christian!” On the other hand we see all around us that A E Housman’s “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now / Is hung with bloom along the bough, / And stands about the woodland ride / Wearing white for Eastertide.” There’s a lot more Lent to come before April 23rd, when, as Browning has it in his closing lines, “… Easter-Day breaks! But Christ rises!”
OZ on LIFE WITH JAK - “He’ll change your life”, friends say, on hearing that we’ve adopted a seven-month old rescue collie. We were prepared for displays of mischief and energy; what surprised was Jak’s capacity to eat. In three weeks he’s eaten dog food, cat food, cat litter, wood, coal, a bumble-bee, a banana, numerous fallen Bramley and Discovery apples, and other items best left unreported. Friends augment their advice with “It’s normal puppy behaviour.” In an attempt to understand the appetite for fruit, I turned again to Gilbert White. In his diary of 25th August 1784 he reported “My great apricot tree appeared to have been robbed by a dog that stood on his hind legs”, and “I have known a dog eat the gooseberries as they hung on the trees”. On 1st September 1785 he added, “…now they devour the plums as they fall.” One of my friends comments that his aged labrador regularly eats gooseberries and pears from the branches. Jak was first described by the rescue centre as a “border collie” but his homing certificate reads “collie cross”. James Reid, who organized the early sheepdog trials, asserted that the term “border collie” was unknown before the first war, coming into use when Northumbrian breeders and trainers produced a dog unique for its intense concentration based on “eye power”. Reid continued “Dogs of this kind …at trials…invariably swept the boards, and were called “border collies” because of the area from which they came.” As for the remainder of Jak’s parentage, he has “back like a beam, side like a bream”, both “properties of a good Greyhound” as described in the mediaeval Boke of St Albans. Perhaps this is why friends sometimes refer to “the lurcher” and conclude their discussions with the ominous “Good luck!”
OZ on KILVERT - A friend asked recently “Why are you always writing about vicars?” There’s some truth in the accusation, and part of the reason lies in my lifelong enthusiasms for music, literature and the countryside, roughly in that order. The link between music and the church is ancient and continuing; Punch magazine, reviewing the newly emerging popular music in the summer of 1957, commented “harmonies from the Ancient and Modern hymn-book, words based loosely on the English language.” The three-way symbiosis between the worlds of clergy, books and nature is not so apparent. Broadly, until the spread of universal education that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, it was only the clergy that had the leisure to observe, and the ability to record, what went on in the countryside. One of my favourite such vicars is the Reverend Francis Kilvert, who was born in Wiltshire in 1840, educated at Oxford, and who started his Diary in 1870 while serving as curate at Clyro in Radnorshire. His descriptive powers were formidable; on June 1st 1872 he referred to the bog bean as “one of the loveliest flowers that grows, the exquisite fret and filigree work of the white lace blossom surrounded by the cluster of bright pink buds.” Kilvert was a genuine innocent, but very much a man of the world that he described so accurately. On 16th March 1870 he reported that “I ate so much hare that I could hardly walk and saw stars.” I ‘m always reminded of Kilvert when our collie, Jak, finally settles down on the landing after another day’s scavenging. He seems for all the world to be reviewing the day, with that look on his face that concludes “…and I have done those things that I ought not to have done.”
OZ on ASPENS AND RAMSONS - Out and about with friends, exercising our dogs, we came across a handsome tree that we didn’t immediately recognize, and that seemed to dance and shimmer in the breeze. The tree book told me that it was an aspen, with its “greenish grey bark, in older trees fissured and blackish at the lower part of the trunk.” What clinched it was the leaf, “very light and silky”, with its “long and flattened stalk.” It’s this aerodynamical combination that causes the shimmering effect and gives the tree its other name of Trembling Poplar (populus tremula). The trembling of aspen leaves has, for centuries, been a popular simile for shaking. Geoffrey Chaucer, in Troilus and Criseyde (c.1385) wrote “Right as an aspes lefe she ‘gan to shake”, and Mistress Quickly, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2, declares “How I shake…in very truth do I, an twere an aspen leaf.” Near the end of our next dog-walk, coming out of the dark edge of Sladden Wood into the sunlight, we found a late scattering of ramsons, or wild garlic. “Ramsons” is one of those irritating plural nouns, like “trousers”, that is almost impossible to singularize or pluralize. It comes from the Old English hrmsa, giving rise to the dialect singular “rams.” The plant is also called Bear’s Garlic (Allium ursinum) and Devil’s Posy. The roots, leaves and flowers are packed with pungent chemicals, which repel other plants and attract ants that spread the seeds. Now here’s a strange thing; unlike “aspen”, the word “ramsons” seems, save a handful of medical references, almost entirely unrepresented in literature. I’d be interested to hear of any literary references readers may know. As for the singular, I’m more than happy with the dictionary’s suggestion of ‘ramson’.
OZ on THE PROMS - It’s a busy time of year, both in the country, as harvest nears, and in the city, buzzing with tourists. Perhaps the only people who escape this seasonal pressure are children and the retired. Charles Lamb, in The Superannuated Man (1825), wrote “I have lost all distinction of season.” For many, the summer season is marked by eating alfresco, drinking wine, and enjoying the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, either live or on BBC radio and television. The Proms were founded in 1895 by Robert Newman, manager of the Queen’s Hall, who appointed a young singing teacher called Henry Wood to conduct the concerts. Wood composed the Fantasia on British Sea-Songs, incorporating James Thomson’s Rule Brittania, for the Proms concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of Trafalgar in 1905. Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory was sung to end the first night in 1914, and was triumphantly repeated on the last night in 1918. Early in the next war, in 1941, the Queen’s Hall was gutted in an air-raid, and the Proms moved to the Royal Albert Hall where they have since remained. Each Proms season has several themes, and one of this year’s, marking two millennia since Christ’s birth, is man’s relationship with God. Hence there is much choral music, from psalm settings, through Handel’s Messiah, to Schmidt’s Book with Seven Seals. I’ll know when the season changes again, from summer to autumn, when committee agendas fall through the letterbox, and the Last Night of the Proms is over. As Barrie Hall says, “Sunday morning after the Last Night feels strange and hollow, like the sad ending of a lovely long holiday” and he looks forward to the next season “when like summer’s flowers the glorious Proms will once more burst into bloom, all over again.”
OZ on DOG DAYS - On 22nd August our border collie, Jak, is one year old, exactly five months of which have been spent with us. It's been a hectic but rewarding time, and our lives have changed, as friends predicted. The relentless exercising has caused me to lose about twice as much weight and girth as Jak has gained, and the pains in my feet have disappeared. Walking a dog is a more effective, and certainly quicker, social lubricant than alcohol. We've established a network of new friends, both human and canine, between here and Bushey Ruff, including an informal 'collie club' that meets in the evenings in Kearsney Abbey. I spend a lot of time nowadays trying to read Jak's mind. The great Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder, said, "Dogs are the only creatures that know their master, and also realize the sudden arrival of a stranger." More recently, the Rev Hugh Young has recorded James Gardner as saying the simple, but haunting, "When my dog wakes from a dream I know from his look that I have been present in his dream." Scientists are reluctant to concede that animals have any kind of intelligence beyond reflexes or any emotional life at all. The reason seems to be a fear of being accused of 'anthropomorphism', the ascription of human characteristics to animals, regarded as a scientific heresy. The counter-view put by some biologists and philosophers is well expressed by George Schaller's comment that "…a dog-owner can tell you more about animal awareness than some laboratory behaviourists." In the last five months, we've witnessed in Jak all the signs of fear, joy, anger, affection, deceit, trust, remorse, disdain and awe. It's a surprisingly long list to be displayed by a creature without emotions.
OZ on FALLACIES - All summer we've been looking out for the trout that lurk in the shallows below the Kearsney Abbey waterfall. There's usually one large specimen, sometimes with one or two smaller relatives, facing upstream to catch food rolling down the river-bed. One evening, we saw a man and child illegally and ineffectually trying to catch the large trout. "A fool at one end of the line and a worm at the other", I muttered as we hurried on. Later I discovered that the attribution to Samuel Johnson of this famous definition is a fallacy. Attempts to link it to Swift, Hazlitt and Archdeacon Paley have been equally unsuccessful. Johnson believed the following magnificent fallacy: "Swallows certainly sleep all winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water and lie in the bed of the river." Hugh Trevor Roper defends Johnson, declaring that "this was merely the received opinion of the time", and inviting comparison with this theory about barnacle geese: "All writers until the eighteenth century solemnly maintained that these grew on trees, attached by their beaks, from which, at a certain stage of maturity, they dropped off like ripe plums. If they dropped off on dry land, they perished; but, if in water, they swam away and became the birds we know." I'm very aware of knowing nothing of the type of trout in the Abbey, of the tens of thousands of tiny fish fry in Russell Gardens, or of the bats that wheel around in the dusk in Bushey Ruff. Fortunately, there is access to centuries of accumulated wisdom stored in public libraries and the Internet, otherwise I might have to invent tales as fantastic as those of the swallows and barnacle geese.
OZ on DIARIES - One of the unexpected pleasures of keeping a daily journal is to look back and see how the style and contents change over the years; not so much in the details, that may simply reflect passing fluctuations in busyness, but in the larger picture that represents the ebb and flow of one's enthusiasms and preoccupations. My diary started as a record of events surrounding our newly-created garden pond, together with wider wildlife observations. Thus
the first entry, on Saturday 21st May 1983, devoted a page to details of the completion of the pond, followed by: "The cob was killed whilst sleeping on the slipway just above the bridge, by a fox, in broad daylight. The pen has now abandoned the nest and is moping on the millpond." Throughout the nineties, the diary recorded an increasing emphasis on the minutiae of family life as children left home and we became more involved in caring for aged parents. I fretted over the humdrum nature of some of the entries, until I discovered The Diary of a Country Parson by the Rev James Woodforde. Begun in 1759 as an expense account ('For some soap pd 0.0.1'), it expanded over the next 44 years into several million words depicting his life in minute detail. The Diary is almost impossible to quote from, as its charm lies in the relentless build-up of narrative in Woodforde's uniquely homely voice. As Virginia Woolf wrote, "His diary is the only mystery about him." It is generally agreed that diaries are written for posterity, and Pliny the Elder advised "Not a day without a line." So what might future readers make of my line for Sunday 13th February 1994? It reads "Took newspapers and cans to tip. V. cold today."
OZ on THE WEST WIND - This last year of the second millennium will be remembered for the rain as much as anything; as Shakespeare said, in Twelfth Night, "For the rain it raineth every day." Rain and floods have always been associated with apocalyptic events, from Noah's flood, recorded in Genesis, to today's warnings of global warming. In November 1894, long before the rise of the motor car, widespread flooding in southern England contributed to the growing fin de siècle mood. The other association of rain has been with the west wind, dinned into generations of schoolchildren by their teachers' mnemonic "warm, wet, westerly winds." This alliteration of the letter W has been a boon to poets over the centuries, from the anonymous "Western wind, when wilt thou blow", written in the 16th century, to Charles Kingsley's "The western wind was wild and dank with foam", from The Sands of Dee. The connection between the warm, wet westerlies and the Gulf Stream suggests the answer to the apparent contradiction between the ideas of global warming and another Ice Age. It seems that, if global warming melts the northern ice-cap, the release of fresh water into the North Sea will halt the Gulf Stream in its tracks, leading to another Ice Age, at least over Northern Europe. It's a sobering thought as we approach the fin of yet another siècle. Perhaps we should look forward just another four months, with John Masefield's lines from The West Wind:- "It's a warm wind, the west wind, full of bird's cries; / I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes, / For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills, / And April's in the west wind, and daffodils."