Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2003
OZ on ‘MESSIAH’ – Twenty-one years ago, after celebrating New Year’s Eve with blackberry wine, we awoke wondering what we’d promised friends. Singing in Bach’s St Matthew Passion at Easter, that’s what, after which we never looked back. In November 1982 we sang Mendelsohn’s Elijah and that Christmas found us with the 1000-strong Kent Choir, in the Royal Albert Hall, singing Handel’s Messiah. Georg Friederich Händel, born in Germany in 1685, came to England in 1710 and was naturalized in 1726, becoming George Frideric Handel. In 1727 he wrote four anthems for George II’s coronation, including Zadok the Priest, which has been sung at every subsequent British coronation. In 1737, broken by bankruptcy and overwork after 30 years of composing operas, Handel suffered a stroke and was temporarily paralyzed. After recovery, he turned to oratorio, the setting of religious texts, inexpensive and already popular in Britain. On 12 September 1741 he completed Messiah after three weeks of continuous toil. For Handel it had been a visionary experience. He said of the Hallelujah Chorus, “I did see all Heaven before me and the great God himself.” A year later Messiah was first performed in Dublin, ironically for a charity that assisted bankrupt prisoners. In London in 1743, George II stood for the Hallelujah Chorus, followed by the audience, and established a permanent tradition. This is typical of the ongoing hold of Messiah. Arthur Jacobs said, “It has made reputations for choirs, soloists and conductors; fortunes for editors and publishers.” Messiah’s popularity in 19th century Britain was boosted by the spread of universal education and access to cheap printed music. Additionally, temperance societies approved of choral music’s role in keeping working men out of taverns, but perhaps they wouldn’t have objected too much to the use of blackberry wine as a recruiting agent.
OZ on PHENOLOGY – Among the Christmas post on our doormat was Nature’s Calendar 2003, the recording form of the UK Phenology Network. Phenology is the study of organisms as affected by climate, using the dates of seasonal phenomena such as opening of flowers or arrival of migrant birds, and has a long history. In 570, the Abbot of Iona reported that Columba, the Celtic saint, knew the migration dates of birds so well that he detected a missing crane and nursed the exhausted bird for three days, after which “it returned across the sea to Ireland in a straight line of flight.” In China and Japan festival dates were fixed by reference to the blossoming of cherry and peach trees, giving valuable data from the 8th century onwards. Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages observers concentrated on naming and classifying species, but by the 18th century, with the rise of scientific method, attention returned to observing phenomena. Individual records included the Redditch Weather Diary (1703), Robert Marsham’s Indications of Spring (1736) and, later in the century, the diaries of Gilbert White and Daines Barrington. In 1875 the Royal Meteorological Society established a national network of recorders who published annual reports until 1948. In 1998, Tim Sparks, a research biologist, revived the network and, in 2000, joined forces with the Woodland Trust to form the UK Phenology Network. Over the last four years the number of recorders has grown from 74 to 18,600 and is still growing. Members record their observations either in Nature’s Calendar or online at www.phenology.org.uk for subsequent computer analysis. The network may also be contacted at The Woodland Trust, Autumn Park, Grantham, Lincolnshire NG31 6LL. Our first entry this year was the solitary daffodil that appeared briefly after Christmas only to succumb to slugs on 1st January.
OZ on JAZZ – A bleak Wednesday evening in January found us settling down in the Marlowe Theatre at Canterbury for the Kings of Jazz concert. This music of “exuberant melancholy” as once described has, amongst other musical forms, been a lifelong passion, but we hadn’t actually attended a jazz concert since Duke Ellington at the Hammersmith Odeon some 40 years ago. Audiences for opera at the Marlowe include people of all ages, from the teens to the nineties. Jazz, by its informal and transient nature, attracts followers from roughly the same generation as its performers. This audience consisted almost entirely of couples aged from fifty to eighty years, many of the men grey-bearded and leather-jacketed, the women well-preserved and lively in trousers, tapping their feet and snapping their fingers on the off-beat, and occasionally exuding the sweet and unfashionable scent of tobacco. First up was Humphrey Lyttelton, the grand old man of British jazz. At 82 he remains a tall and impressive figure, ex-Etonian and ex-Guardsman, who, with trumpet dangling from fingertips, prowls constantly around the stage like a caged tiger. It was pleasing to rediscover that Humph is an equally proficient clarinettist and raconteur. Next came the Digby Fairweather band, featuring George Melly, outrageous in a flamboyant Ascot-style hat, now almost chairbound, but as boisterous a blues-shouter as ever. The final set, from Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen, concluded with an arrangement of the Beatles’ All You Need is Love, that had the audience on its feet, delightedly taking part in choreographed clapping and hand-dancing. On the way home, we recollected that jazz instrumentation was originally dictated by the availability, in pawnshops at the end of the 19th century, of surplus marching band instruments from the American Civil War, a fine example of recycling, another lifelong passion.
OZ on FISH’N’CHIPS – One of our winter Wine and Wisdom fixtures has, as centre-piece, a fish and chip supper. After this year’s contest I decided to research the origins of the great British meal and discovered two historical strands. The technique of deep-frying fish in batter seems to have arrived in the 16th century with Marreno refugees, Jews who adopted Christianity and eventually fled from Portugal to avoid persecution. The pre-presidential American, Thomas Jefferson, visiting Britain in the late 18th century, described eating “fried fish in the Jewish fashion.” At the same time, the eating of fried chipped potatoes spread from Ireland to Lancashire and on through the expanding industrial cities to London. The two strands fused in 1860, when Joseph Malin, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, opened a shop in London’s East End selling deep-fried fish and chipped potatoes. As with many social changes the trade took off with the continuing growth of the Industrial Revolution. Professor John Walton, author of Fish and Chips and the British Working Classes 1870-1940, explained how the arrival of steamships and the development of refrigeration produced a massive expansion in supplies of sea fish. This coincided with a general growth in working people’s incomes that allowed some luxuries including the fish and chip supper. The number of ‘chippies’ peaked at 35,000 in 1927, falling to about 8,600 today. The meal has always been valued as a morale-booster by governments, who succeeded in keeping supplies available throughout both World Wars. It remains well-regarded as a good supply of protein, vitamins, carbohydrates, and the fatty acids considered “good for the brain” and hence of value to quiz contestants. The ultimate tribute to the meal is its continuing incorporation into the menus of new generations of ethnic restaurants from India, China and elsewhere.
OZ on HAZLITT – The bell of St Anne’s, Soho, which tolled at the burial of the great essayist William Hazlitt in 1830, rang again last month to celebrate his 225th birthday and the restoration of his grave. Born in Maidstone, the youngest son of a Dissenting minister, Hazlitt soon inherited his father’s radical views and passion for truth, qualities which often alienated fellow citizens. After years of travelling from one disgruntled congregation to another the Hazlitts finally settled at Wem in Shropshire, where young William enjoyed his happiest years. In 1794, to his father’s great disappointment, he abandoned his ministry training at New College, Hackney, and commenced a life of portrait-painting interspersed with idling and reading. “For many years”, he wrote, “I did nothing but think. I had nothing else to do but dip in some abstruse author, or look at the sky, or wander by the pebbled sea-side. I cared for nothing. I wanted nothing.” At last, under the influence of another great essayist, Charles Lamb, Hazlitt began a long and productive career as journalist, critic and essayist, meeting literary contemporaries at Lamb’s weekly gatherings. Eventually he quarrelled with them all. This prickly temperament, combined with his support of Napoleon and the French Revolution, caused further hostility, even accusations of treason. Finally, worn down by marital breakdown, debt and scandal, he succumbed to a malignancy and died in a cheap Soho lodging-house. His last words were “Well, I have had a happy life!”. It is not a surprising comment, as this enthusiasm is part of what was celebrated at St Anne’s last month. It is the appetite for life of the man who wrote, on his 20th birthday: “It was on the 10th of April, 1798, that I sat down to a volume of the New Eloise, at the inn at Llangollen, over a bottle of sherry and a cold chicken.”
OZ on TEASPOONS – The January quiz generated some hoo-ha over the number of teaspoons in a tablespoon. After publishing his brother-in-law’s researches in the March newsletter, the editor challenged me to write on the matter in the usual 300 words. The information proved elusive, to be found largely, as the March article suggested, in old cookery books. In Britain, the tablespoon was traditionally defined as 2 dessertspoons, each holding 2 teaspoons, so that 1 tablespoon = 4 teaspoons, whereas the USA tablespoon was defined simply as 3 teaspoons. However, cooks and apothecaries used these measures in various ways when dealing with both dry and liquid goods, leading to confusion over the volumes of the spoons. An English pharmacopoeia of 1618 defined the tablespoon as “the volume of distilled water weighing 3 drachms”, (about 12 millilitres), giving 3 millilitres for a teaspoon. Later the Imperial tablespoon was defined as ½ Imperial fluid ounce, giving 14.21 millilitres for a tablespoon and 3.55 millilitres for a teaspoon. In the mid-19th century the influential English cook, Mrs Beeton, taught that “a spoonful of dry material means rounded spoonful, with as much heaped above the spoon edge as lies within it”, giving a volume for the teaspoon of 7.10 millilitres. Some years later, the USA’s Fannie Farmer, at the Boston Cooking School, declared that “spoonful always means level spoonful”. Confusion continued as differences between the two countries over definitions of “tea/tablespoon” and “fluid ounce” gave a USA teaspoon of 4.93 millilitres against the UK teaspoon of 3.55 millilitres. The problem vanished, as was often the case, with metrication, when the UK and its Commonwealth nearly aligned with the USA by making the teaspoon 5 millilitres and the tablespoon 15 millilitres, so that today the correct answer to the quiz question is undoubtedly “3”.
OZ on BORROW – July 5th is the 200th birthday of perhaps the most athletic of Victorian eccentrics. George Borrow was born in East Dereham, Norfolk, the younger son of a Cornish army captain and a local farmer’s daughter. The family continued moving with the regiment, being stationed at Hythe in 1806 and Canterbury in 1807. While completing his education at Norwich, Borrow distinguished himself by saving a lad from drowning in the river. Working as solicitor’s clerk, he became fluent in over twenty languages, including Romany, and spent his spare time with gypsies, who admiringly named him Lavengro, meaning “Word Master”. In 1833 Borrow applied to work with the Bible Society. The interview was in London, a distance of 112 miles, which he walked in 27½ hours at a cost of fivepence halfpenny for a bread roll, two apples, a pint of ale and a glass of milk. He got the job and spent seven happy years travelling the world as the society’s agent. In 1840 Borrow married a wealthy officer’s widow and retired to Oulton Broad, where he wrote the books on autobiographical and gypsy themes that made him famous. In 1853, he performed another life-saving exploit, single-handedly rescuing the crew of a boat foundering in thirty-foot waves off Yarmouth. Borrow was an unusual man, arousing mixed feelings in others; he was physically strong and active, but morbidly shy, and suffered intermittently from “the horrors”, his name for recurring depression. For one who loved the outdoors, he was remarkably ignorant of wildlife, his consciousness revolving around mood and atmosphere. This sensitivity is beautifully expressed by Gypsy Petulengro’s lyrical outburst in Lavengro: “There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?”.
OZ on BEWICK – This summer has been abrim with anniversaries, including the 250th birthday of the engraver Thomas Bewick. Born on 14th August 1753, at Cherryburn House near Eltringham in Northumberland, to a tenant farmer and collier, Bewick was the oldest of eight children. He was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to the engraver Ralph Beilby, a prolific producer of everything from door-plates and clock-faces to banknotes and gold seals. After serving his seven years, Bewick worked at home for local publishers, but soon became restless. In the summer of 1776 he walked 500 miles from Newcastle through the Scottish Highlands, later explaining “I felt just as a bird would feel on escaping from its cage.” After a brief and unhappy spell in London, Bewick returned to Newcastle, married, and rejoined Beilby in a partnership that lasted 20 years. During this time many of his exquisitely detailed wood-engravings were published in the General History of Quadrupeds and the History of British Birds, bringing immediate fame. These publications were reprinted many times from the original blocks well into the 19th century, one particular block producing over 900,000 prints without wear. The reason was that Bewick worked in hardwoods, across, instead of along, the grain, so that the blocks were small but robust. This method also allowed him to use natural cross-grain in his designs rather than adding hatching. Another technique was to lower parts of the blocks’ surfaces to suggest distance. Bewick remained busy in old age with engraving, teaching, and writing his memoirs. Dr Blakey remembered him from this period as “a man of portly size…spending the evenings sipping his favourite beverage to the tune of five or six pints.” Bewick died in November 1828 and is buried in Ovingham churchyard, just across the river from Cherryburn.
OZ on HEATWAVE – Alistair Cooke once recalled, in his radio programme Letter from America, the headline in a British newspaper “74° tomorrow - no end in sight”. As temperatures rocketed and physical activity plummeted this summer I found myself increasingly preoccupied with the derivation and usage of the term “heat wave”. Of the larger dictionaries, Chambers has it hyphenated, while Oxford gives two separate words, but they agree that it describes excessive heat, especially when regarded as moving from one place to another. That was certainly the case when American reporters first used the term in describing the Great Heat Wave of 1892. The Democratic Watchman of July 28 1892 declared that “True to predictions the great heat wave came rolling in from the West last week”. Sir Robert Ball, the Victorian astronomer and science populariser, soon became the first English writer to use ‘heat-wave’ in a book. In his In the High Heavens (1893), under the heading “The ‘Heat-Wave’ of 1892” he gently poked fun at the new term, describing it as the “somewhat absurdly designated ‘great heat-wave’ ”, and later “The so-called heat-wave then seems to have travelled eastward”. Despite Ball’s doubts, the term is obviously powerful and attractive, and was soon taken up by society, not least the entertainment and advertising industries. Over the years, countries have devised many local definitions of “heat wave” for various administrative reasons. Meteorologists are now attempting to agree a formal universal definition reflecting not only widely varying temperature ranges but also degrees of humidity, resulting from excessive evaporation, which adds to human distress during heat waves. It will be quite a formula when resolved, needing to interpret record high temperatures varying from 134°F at Death Valley, California, on July 10 1913, down to 59°F at Vanda Station, Antarctica, on January 5 1974.
OZ on STUMPS – We’ve finally removed the last Leylandii stump in the border by the back lawn. Cupressocyparis Leylandii first appeared in Wales in 1888, an accidental cross between Monterey Cypress and Alaskan Cedar, and a rare example of conifers interbreeding. The hardy fast-growing tree soon became popular for windbreaks and boundaries, and then unpopular, being blamed for plunging gardens into shadow, depleting soil, and causing neighbours to quarrel. Our stump was created by an itinerant “tree-feller” who, instructed to leave enough trunk for rocking the roots out, left it six inches above ground level. After years of poking and prodding at the stump, we turned to friends and the Internet for advice. The first method is, of course, to avoid stumps, by ensuring their clearance as part of tree-felling operations. Failing that, three of the most macho solutions are stump-grinders, backhoes and explosives, all expensive and, in many ways, unsuitable for our situation. Interestingly there are small businesses devoted entirely to stump removal, sometimes for a fixed fee. Among other methods there are burning, by lighting a fire over the stump, and rotting, sometimes with chemicals or manure poured into holes drilled in the stump. One idea that we particularly liked was that of building a compost heap over the stump, the drawback being that it would take a year or two to decompose. Eventually we settled for the time-honoured back-breaking method of digging a trench around the stump, exposing the roots and attacking them with an axe and a pruning saw. The stump, when freed, was an 18-inch cube. After an inconclusive debate over which waste skip to use at Whitfield we simply placed it in a dark corner of the garden, where it will eventually erode, providing meanwhile a home for tiny flora and fauna.
OZ on EPHEMERA – “Winter draws on” goes the phrase, banned by the BBC in its 1947 Green Book, along with jazzing the classics and swipes at solicitors. One of the pleasures of winter drawing on is the enforced move from outdoor to indoor pursuits, including collecting various ‘ephemera’. The word, from Greek epi (for) and hemera (a day), was first recorded in English in 1398, meaning ‘one-day fever’, and later it named the mayfly that lives for only a few hours. Samuel Johnson coined its modern sense, of ‘transient paperwork’, in 1751, describing “these papers of a day, the Ephemerae of learning.” Maurice Rickards, founder of The Ephemera Society in 1980, echoed this with his “minor transient documents of everyday life”. Ephemera includes stamps, postcards, tickets, labels and much else and is attractive because of the delusion that it doesn’t take up too much room. Be warned by the example of John Johnson. During his time as Oxford University printer between 1925 and 1946 he collected over two million separate items related to the University Press, describing much of it as “everything which would ordinarily go into the waste paper basket after use.” The collection was transferred to Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1968. Collecting ephemera can be justified from various viewpoints, of the genealogist, librarian, archivist, museum curator, researcher, hobbyist and dealer. There are now many ephemera societies and university departments dealing with what are rich primary resources, and the whole business is aided by the enormous archiving possibilities of personal computers. One of my favourite pieces of ephemera is a reference to a copy of A Woman's Guide To Practical Knitting, probably published around 1950, whose headline was the invitation to “Knit A Little Dutch Cap for Windy Days!” The old BBC guidelines would certainly have rejected that.
OZ on CONKERS – Two popular outdoor activities for British fathers and children are kicking footballs and, in autumn, lobbing missiles into horse chestnut trees to release conkers. We all do so and, equally inevitably, complain of mindless vandalism when succeeding generations follow suit. This year in Kearsney Abbey, Bushey Ruff and elsewhere, the kicking season was extended by the long hot summer but conkers have been disappointing; soft due to lack of early summer water, and small because of being premature September windfalls. Before the introduction to England of the horse chestnut from Eastern Europe in the 16th century, the game of conkers was played with snail-shells, sometimes “not tenantless”, as ominously recorded by Edward Dowden. The game was itself an earlier import from France, hence the French dialect word ‘conker’ from ‘conche’ for ‘shell’. The word ‘conkers’ for the English game was especially attractive because of its similarity to both ‘conquers’ and ‘conk’ (to hit on the head). Eventually ‘conkers’ came to mean the fruit of the horse chestnut, as when John Clare wrote “An’ near blue sloos an’ conkers red” in his Victorian dialect poem Meaple Leaves be Yollow. The Australian game “bullies” is played with the stones of ‘bullies’, the bright red fruit of the quandong tree. The bully stone is round and dimpled like a golf ball, about 20 millimetres in diameter and as hard as iron. Many generations of British players have tried making their conkers this hard by baking, pickling, storing, varnishing or, as reported recently, vacuum impregnating with epoxy resin. The organisers of the World Conkers Championships at Ashton, Northamptonshire, tolerate none of it. At this year’s championships, held on the village green on October 12th, they handed out over 1,500 perfect conkers as usual, collected in spite of the season’s problems, so as to ensure fair play.