Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2001
OZ on RURAL RIDES - The writer of the Daily Telegraph article quoted from in 'Cold Spots' last month might be tickled to know that he reminded me somewhat of William Cobbett. Between 1822 and 1826 Cobbett made a number of fact-finding tours on horseback across the south and east of England, his accounts of which were published in 1830 as Rural Rides. On Monday 1st September 1823, he travelled from Folkestone to Dover, not via the Alkham Valley, but along the main road, known today as 'the old A20' or the B2011. He noted the valley "descending all the way to Dover, a distance of about six miles…each side of which may be about a mile and a half", concluding that "there are eighteen square miles of corn." This clarity of observation is matched only by Cobbett's vigorous prose style, described by William Hazlitt as "plain, broad, downright English", as witness his description of Dover itself: "…like other sea-port towns; but really, much more clean, and with less blackguard people in it than I have ever observed in any sea-port before." Cobbett was a fine example of the English 'radical patriot', fiercely loyal to his country, but determined to expose government mismanagement and corruption wherever they occurred. During his stay in Dover, he inspected the underground defences, and became incensed at what he saw as the colossal waste of money on "the only set of fortifications in the world ever framed for mere hiding." Uncertain whether to continue to France or along the coast to Thanet, Cobbett allowed his horse to decide, and stopped next at Deal, which he described as "a most villainous place full of filthy-looking people." As a Deal-born radical patriot, I feel obliged to say that Cobbett sometimes got it wrong.
OZ on CHRISTMAS CRACKERS - On New Year's Eve, we celebrated forty married years. At the wedding there was talk of "starting the 1960's properly" and "the new century and millennium in forty years' time." The following summer, during a visit from parents, my father, an inveterate reader, found the newly-published, still shocking, Lady Chatterley's Lover, on our shelves and disappeared with it into the garden. Hours later, smiling, he replaced the book with "Well, that was a good yarn!" In similar vein is the following review from the American magazine, Field and Stream, November 1959: "Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley's Lover has just been re-issued by Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-by-day life of an English game-keeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional game-keeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion the book cannot take the place of J R Miller's Practical Gamekeeper." I discovered that glorious quotation in More Christmas Crackers by John Julius Norwich. For the past thirty years, Norwich has sent out personal selections of poetry, prose and literary oddities, instead of Christmas cards, to his friends. At the end of each decade, he published these selections, collected into single volumes, as Christmas Crackers (1980) and More Christmas Crackers (1990). I was delighted to discover in my Christmas stocking that Still More Christmas Crackers had been published in November 2000. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer will soon say, of something rather different, "I commend it to you."
OZ on RUSTLE OF SPRING - Last week, the tortoise awoke from her hibernation, as predictably as usual, three days before our daughter's birthday. Other hibernators, for example hedgehogs, bats, amphibians and reptiles, are less conspicuous, but must surely be stirring now. Many insects and small mammals merely become sluggish during the winter, waking from time to time when the temperature rises. Some creatures, such as birds, squirrels, foxes and rats, remain active all winter, using their high mobility and intelligence to maintain food supplies. Another sign of the season is the lengthening of the days. At this time of year, the increase is about four minutes in every day, or half an hour a week, a fact which has not gone unnoticed by our dog, Jak, who waits longer each day before demanding his afternoon exercise. The third seasonal indicator is the sudden and reassuring appearance of snowdrops, in clumps along the flooded edges of Bushey Ruff, undoubtedly descendants of those planted in the original grounds of the Big House. These simple flowers are such hardy survivors that it's difficult to believe that they are not native to Britain. It's all so evocative of Roger McGough's cheerful poem The Fight of the Year, which uses a boxing match as a metaphor, starting with "And there goes the bell for the third month / and Winter comes out of its corner looking groggy / Spring leads with a left to the head, followed by a sharp blow to the body." As for Rustle of Spring, it's the English translation of Frühlingsrauschen, that haunting piano piece by the Norwegian composer Christian Sinding. It was composed in 1896, but not published until 1909, so this is as good a time as any to celebrate its centenary.
OZ on TREES - The floods continue, and it remains difficult to gain access to Bushey Ruff. We've been getting there by scrambling up and through the woods behind the walled garden. One day in February, descending the treacherous steps on the far side of the Big House, we heard the snarl of a chainsaw. Three tree-fellers were, with great skill and humour, dismantling the recently deceased giant sequoia opposite The Stables. These enormous trees were unknown to Europeans until the California Gold Rush of 1849. They were introduced in 1857 to the Duke of Wellington's estate in Hampshire and were henceforth known as Wellingtonia. Sadly they were never seen by the "Iron Duke", who had died in 1852. On our return journey, halfway along Russell Gardens, we discovered a newly planted monkey puzzle tree, the Araucaria, also known as the "Chile pine." The name of this strange-looking tree derives from the supposed power of the twisted prickly leaves to confuse monkeys in its native South America. The monkey puzzle was brought to this country in 1796, when the botanist Archibald Menzies, accompanying Captain Vancouver on his exploration of Chile, sent some seeds to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The name Araucaria is also the pen name of the crossword compiler, John Graham, who was 80 in February. His greatest invention was the alphabetical puzzle, where solvers have not only to deduce the 26 answers starting with every letter from A to Z, but also where to place them. He also discovered that "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester" gives rise to the anagram "Chaste Lord Archer vegetating." Finally, near the Abbey gate, we spotted a beech, stained with the crusty green lichen Lecanora conizaeoides that thrives on dog urine; but lichens are a story for another day.
OZ on WATERLOO - Last month we travelled with the Royal Artillery Association on a one-day coach trip to Waterloo battlefield in Belgium. The outward crossing had that feeling of expectation described in Auden's line "… the cliffs of Dover vanish, and the Calais flats appear." After a long drive across the unvarying Franco-Belgian landscape, ("wall-to-wall Gazen Salts" someone commented), punctuated only by occasional red-roofed and white-walled farmhouses, we arrived in the early afternoon at Waterloo village, just outside Brussels. There's a lot to see; a multimedia show, a film, a panorama, a museum, and the field, three miles long by two miles wide, where 300,000 men fought, of whom 60,000 died, on Sunday 18th June 1815. The cumulative effect of these presentations is overwhelming. The contrast between the dreadful war scenes and today's relative tranquillity evokes the words of the American poet, Carl Sandburg, in Grass: "Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo, / Shovel them under and let me work - / I am the grass, I cover all." After climbing the 227 steps of the Butte du Lion, and one last look at the field of La Haye Sainte, we set out for home. In order to see the Monument of the Broken Eagle, that marks the last stand of Napoleon's Old Guard, and to avoid the horrors of the Brussels Ring Road, we drove south-west and struck Lille at evening peak time, eventually reaching Calais with twenty spare minutes. The day encouraged me to learn more, particularly about 23-year old Lieutenant James Hart, from Dover, who survived a day of cavalry charges only to be killed by shrapnel, late in the evening, on the other side of the hill. His headstone is in St Mary's churchyard, underneath the tree by the pedestrian precinct.
OZ on LICHENS - Last September, during the first downpour, I wrote to a friend in Toronto and commented that I was considering building an ark or two. Since then the combination of the floods and the foot-and-mouth epidemic has given some idea of the distress that once afflicted Noah, Job, or the ancient Egyptians. With so much of the countryside out of bounds, we have amused ourselves by examining more closely the minutiae of our surroundings, in particular the lichens that I mentioned briefly in the April newsletter. Until recently, little was known of the structure of these strange and beautiful organisms; botanists classified them, along with mosses, as Musci, the Latin for 'mosses'. Around the middle of the 19th century, it was established that the lichen consists of two quite different organisms, a fungus and an alga, growing together. The alga creates food from carbon dioxide and water in the air, together with a few simple minerals, and the fungus then feeds on the alga. It follows that lichens are sensitive to impurities, and so they are used to measure atmospheric pollution. When dry, lichens survive extremes of temperature by going into suspended animation; when wetted, they rapidly absorb water and grow, albeit by only a few millimetres a year. The Victorian poets were very aware of the distinctive nature of lichens, from William Allingham's "crust of lichens yellow and gray", through John Clare's "Grey lichens, mid thy hills of creeping thyme", to Edith Nesbit's "golden-lichened roof and gray-green stone." More recently, Ruth Pitter has described how "the myriad lichens start each into the eye a separate splendour." However, and much as I love the lichens, I shan't mind if their animation is soon re-suspended by a prolonged spell of hot dry weather.
OZ on FINZI - This year's BBC Proms programme celebrates, amongst other things, the centenary of the birth of an unsung hero of 20th century English music. Gerald Finzi was born on 14th July 1901 in St John's Wood, London. When he was eight, his father died. Rejecting the family business, Finzi plunged himself into music, studying with Ernest Farrar at York. By 1918, Finzi had lost his three elder brothers and Farrar, two of them killed in the final stages of World War I. Finzi bravely completed his studies at York with Edward Bairstow and then moved to London, where he started to teach at the Royal Academy of Music and to compose. In 1933 he married the artist Joy Black, and they lived in Berkshire, later building a house at Ashmansworth in Hampshire, where Finzi began, in addition to his musical works, to build his fine collections of books and rare apple-trees. During World War II, Finzi worked for the Ministry of War Transport. After the war ended, he was in great demand as a composer, particularly in connection with the Festival of Britain. Sadly, he fell ill in 1951 with Hodgkin's disease, and died in 1956, just as he started to receive recognition as a composer. Finzi will be remembered as a master of the difficult art of setting to music the words of the great poets, such as Traherne, Milton, Wordsworth, and, most notably, Thomas Hardy. Stephen Banfield describes how, in the 50 settings of Hardy poems, Finzi arranged melodies to such unlikely phrases as "enlarged in scope", "It's gunnery practice out at sea" and even "I have unbarred the backway." He did, however, balk at setting Hardy's Childhood among the Ferns, on the not unreasonable grounds that it ended with the word 'perambulate.'
OZ on BEMPTON - On holiday in July, we fulfilled a long-term ambition by visiting the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs on the East Yorkshire coast. Nothing had adequately prepared us for the sight of these majestic chalk cliffs rising sheer from the North Sea to a height of some 400 feet. The coastline here appeared almost straight with several small bays, alternating with headlands that stood in line and upright like palace guards, silent and shimmering in the afternoon heat. From the cliff-top viewpoints the sea and sky framed a dizzying tangle of seabirds screeching their continual babel of competing cries, and the ammoniac smell of bird dung from the cliff-face was quite overpowering. In a moment we went from never having seen a puffin to seeing hundreds simultaneously. These strange and chubby birds are readily identifiable in flight by their rapid wing action, reaching 400 beats per minute to achieve speeds of 55mph. The puffin has the quaint Latin name of Fratercula arctica, or "little brother of the north", perhaps an allusion to its stance and plumage, both reminiscent of a monastery brother. It was once believed that puffins were fish, due to their prowess at underwater swimming, and this allowed the eating of puffins on Fridays and during Lent to avoid the Catholic meat prohibition. Moufet and Bennett wrote in 1655 that "Puffins…the feathered fishes…are accounted…by the Cardinals to be no flesh but fish." Others amongst the 200,000 birds clinging to Bempton cliffs are the puffins' relatives, the razorbills and guillemots; 150,000 kittiwakes; 5,000 gannets in Britain's largest mainland gannetry; fulmars, herring gulls and shags. After Bempton, we stopped briefly at Flamborough Head, and saw orchids, butterflies and, with great joy, our first sand-martins of the year, nesting in soil exposed by a recent cliff-fall.
OZ on SPOONER - It sometimes happens that individuals, by their actions, donate their surnames to the language as uncapitalized everyday words, as in 'sandwich', 'wellington' and 'boycott'. Another such word is 'spoonerism', defined by Chambers Dictionary as "a transposition of initial sounds of spoken words - eg 'shoving leopard' for 'loving shepherd'. From Rev W A Spooner…a noted perpetrator." William Archibald Spooner was, for over sixty continuous years, a member of New College, Oxford, first as a scholar, then Fellow, and, finally, Warden from 1903 to 1924. He was a tiny albino, with an unusually large head and pale blue eyes. William Hayter wrote that "All his life, Spooner looked like a white-haired baby. His appearance hardly changed." Spooner was, in his own words, never more than "a moderately useful man" and, arguably, would have remained unnoticed save for the spoonerisms. Many of these, such as 'tasted a whole worm', 'hissed my mystery lectures', and 'half-warmed fish', are now regarded as apocryphal, invented by undergraduates and colleagues to tease their beloved 'Spoo', although he did once admit to announcing a hymn as 'Kinquering Kongs'. Of more lasting interest are the well-documented examples of Spooner's transpositions of ideas. After a puzzling sermon, he remounted the pulpit to say, "In the sermon I have just preached, whenever I said Aristotle, I meant St Paul." Eleanor Jourdain recalled that once, at dinner, Spooner upset a salt-cellar and then dripped claret on the salt "until he had produced the purple mound which would have been the end-product if he had spilled claret…and had then cast a heap of salt on the pool to absorb it." Spooner died peacefully in 1930. For epitaph, we need only his words, comparing his misattributions with those of Homer and Shakespeare: "I err in very good company."
OZ on DOVES AND HAWKS - Since the Yorkshire holiday in July, we've been confined to the house, nursing an aged and disabled parent. A continual accompaniment has been the relentless "coo-cooo-cu" of the collared dove that resides on the chimney during the day. The effort of accenting the second syllable seems to lower its pitch by a semitone. Sometimes the song changes to triplets of "coo-cooo-cu"s, involving falls in pitch of two tones, then one, and finally a semitone, in that order. Collared doves spread slowly at first from India, arriving in Asia Minor in the 16th century and the Balkans three centuries later. After 1912, they embarked suddenly on a remarkable colonisation of western Europe, reaching Austria in 1938, Germany in 1943, France in 1950 and England in 1952, eventually nesting as far north as Iceland. Ernst Mayr explained that "After a long period of stagnation a land-bird suddenly enters upon a phase of aggressive expansion." James Fisher suggested that the collared dove, a grain-eater with little fear of man or other creatures, found such expansion easy in Europe at a time when the chicken-farming industry was growing and waste grain was available. As the long hot summer finally gives way to chilly autumn, and we start winter bird-feeding, a different kind of raider lurks. The sparrowhawk will undoubtedly kill a small bird or two in the shrubs by the bird-table. Unlike the collared dove, the "sperhauke" has been around for at least a thousand years, according to literary sources alone, being known as a long-term resident to both William Langland (1362) and Geoffrey Chaucer (1382). I just hope that the sparrowhawk doesn't attack the collared dove. It might prove too much of a mouthful, and also I've become rather attached to the dove's second song.
OZ on EARLE - This year marked the 400th anniversary of the birth of essayist John Earle. I chuckled on first discovering, in an ancient anthology, his comment that "The common singing-men in cathedral churches are a bad society, and yet a company of good fellows that roar deep in the choir, deeper in the tavern." That came from Microcosmographie: or A Piece of the World discovered in Essays and Characters, that Earle started to write while studying at the Oxford colleges of Christ Church and Merton. He graduated in 1624, becoming chaplain to Lord Pembroke and joining Viscount Falkland's liberal circle at Great Tew, near Oxford. The Microcosmographie, eventually published in 1628 to instant acclaim, was a collection of witty character sketches and essays. The first line of each sketch consisted of a definition, eg "A young raw preacher is a bird not yet fledged that has hopped out of his nest to be chirping on a hedge", or "A handsome hostess is the lodestone that attracts men of iron, gallants and roarers." Earle was appointed tutor to Prince Charles in 1641 and then became chaplain to him during his exile in France. After the Restoration, Earle was rewarded with the Deanery of Westminster. Later he became Bishop of Worcester (1662) and Salisbury (1663) in which roles he defended persecuted Nonconformists. In 1665 he retired to Oxford with the court to avoid the plague, and died in his old college lodgings. The reading of "characters" was popular in the 17th century, at a time when the distinctiveness of individuals was still considered important. Earle's characters were devastatingly accurate because he lived among and loved the people he described. "The singing-men's gowns are laced with streamings of ale" - yes, that certainly has the ring of truth about it.
OZ on BARNES - In October we holidayed in Dorset, staying for a week in a rejuvenated farm-cottage in Upway, between Weymouth and Dorchester. The walking, bird-watching and Thomas Hardy trail happened as planned, but tracking the ‘Dorset Poet’, William Barnes, became a major obsession. Barnes was born 200 years ago at Bagber, in North Dorset, into a large and poor subsistence-farming family. He left school aged 13 to become a solicitor’s clerk, and embarked on a long and ambitious programme of self-education, becoming proficient in the sciences, arts, languages, and, above all, literature, especially his great vocation of poetry. In 1823, Barnes founded a school in Mere, Wiltshire, followed by another in 1827 after his marriage to Julia Miles. Following the birth of their eldest children, the couple moved to Dorchester where they continued to run schools, allowing Barnes to study as a ‘ten-year-man’ for an external degree from St John’s College, Cambridge. He graduated and was ordained in 1850, having been curate of Whitcombe for the previous three years. In 1852, his ‘beloved Julia’ died of cancer, and the school went into a rapid decline. From 1862, Barnes was rector of Winterborne Came, near Dorchester, until his death in 1886. Barnes was a lyrical but realist poet, whose subjects and language came directly from his own experience. He wrote in two tongues, ‘National English’, (ie Standard English), and Dorset dialect, as in “birds do hush their zingen” and “cloudless zunsheen”, both from Linden Lea, famously set to music last century by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Barnes also proposed a ‘purified language’, with words of Latin or French origin substituted by Anglo-Saxon equivalents, such as “birdlore” for “ornithology” and “moonmad” for “lunatic”. If he’d had his way, this Alkham Monthly Newsletter “centenary edition” might translate as “hundredth givewords.”