Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2007
OZ on STELLA – One of the funniest novels of the last century is undoubtedly Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, and we’ve borrowed it often from the library over the years. Recently we acquired our own copy and were soon busy reading the more outrageous bits to each other again. The story tells the adventures of a sophisticated young London woman among her relatives in rural Sussex, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. Published in 1932, it is a hilarious parody of the ‘rural novel’ that had been so popular in the early part of the century. Typical of the book is that the farm’s cows are named Graceless, Aimless, Feckless and Pointless, and are tended by old Adam Lambsbreath; and it is Aunt Ada Doom who utters the famous line about seeing “something nasty in the woodshed.” Stella Gibbons was born in 1902 into a family totally dominated by the father, a well-respected doctor but an extremely volatile man. Fortunately for Stella, this difficult childhood had the effect of helping her assert herself in later life, a trait shared by the heroine in Cold Comfort Farm. Stella was educated at the London Collegiate school and University College, London, before embarking on her dual careers of journalism and writing of novels and poetry. The success of Cold Comfort Farm in 1932 coincided with Stella’s marriage to actor Alan Webb and the birth of her daughter Laura, and she then devoted herself full time to writing and domesticity. By the time of her death in 1989, Stella had published a further 29 novels of high quality that were strangely overlooked by readers. Maybe Cold Comfort Farm was just too successful for its own good, so that her fans simply turned away when they didn’t get more of the same.
OZ on AUDEN – The film Four Weddings and a Funeral famously featured Funeral Blues, the 1936 poem of grieving that starts “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone…”. Wystan Hugh Auden, the poem’s author, was born in York 100 years ago this month into a high-achieving Anglo-Catholic family. He later attributed his love of words and music to the church services of his childhood. Auden began writing poetry at school and never stopped, even while reading biology at Oxford and later working in teaching and journalism, eventually producing more than 400 each of poems and prose items. It was while working with the GPO Film Unit in 1936 that he wrote the ever-popular commentary for the GPO documentary film Night Mail: “This is the Night Mail crossing the Border, / Bringing the cheque and the postal order…”. A year later he wrote the lesser-known but equally evocative poem Dover. In the first line, “a tunnel through chalk downs” obviously refers to the Shakespeare Tunnel but has a second resonance with us nowadays since construction of Roundhill Tunnel on the A20 approach. Four lines later “Nothing is made in this town”, reflecting the long-held view that people go through, rather than to, Dover. “A Norman castle… flood-lit at night” is still there, unlike the “Trains which fume in a station built on the sea.” And so Auden continues, describing lighthouses “Like twin stone dogs”, the eyes of departing migrants and homecomers, soldiers in “The Lion, The Rose, The Crown”, aeroplanes that “drone through the new European air”, and “High over France, a full moon, cold and exciting”. From 1939 onwards, Auden lived variously in the US, UK and Europe, dying in Vienna in 1973, but I like to think he never really forgot the Night Mail or Dover.
OZ on ROSSINI – While writing publicity for our spring choral concert I became increasingly fascinated by the featured composer’s life. What better than to share it with Alkham readers? Gioacchino, meaning “Jackie”, Rossini was born in Pesaro, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, in 1792, into a musically active household. His father was a slaughterhouse inspector and horn player, and his mother was a singer. After an intensive early musical education Rossini began writing operas at 14 and achieved international fame within 6 years. By the age of 37, he had written thirty-six successful operas and was able to retire in comfort, first to Bologna in 1829 to be near his father, and then to Paris with his second wife in 1855. In contrast to the flamboyant first half of his life, Rossini became withdrawn, sometimes depressed over political unrest, and increasingly hypochondriacal. At other times he was great fun, writing whimsical musical pieces for friends, devising and naming recipes, and eating and drinking so much that he became huge and bedridden in old age. Yet Rossini never lost his ability to write effortlessly and to remember what he had written. He once remarked “Give me a laundry list and I’ll set it to music.” Both of these aspects of his character are summed up in a famous story. One day he was writing music in bed when a page of manuscript fluttered to the floor. Rather than get out of bed to pick it up, Rossini rewrote the whole page from memory. During his long retirement, Rossini never again attempted opera, but did write two major religious works: his setting of the Stabat Mater, completed when his father died in 1839; and, taken from the collection “Sins of Old Age”, the Petite Messe Solennelle, subject of our spring concert.
OZ on “HE” – In childhood I loved reading, moving from fairy tales to Biggles and the Arthur Ransome books, and in my early teens discovering the short stories of H E Bates. Our shelves still hold those orange-covered Penguins, and it was gratifying to learn that Penguin and Methuen have now reissued all of Bates’s novels. Herbert Ernest Bates, always known as “HE”, was born in 1905 in Northamptonshire. At Kettering Grammar School, inspired by his English teacher Edmund Kirby, he began to write. After starting work, first as a reporter and then in a boot factory, he finished his first novel The Two Sisters. After many rejection slips, he finally convinced Edward Garnett, editor at Jonathan Cape, who published the book in 1926. Under Garnett’s guidance, HE soon became established as a popular and prolific writer. In 1931 he married Marjorie Cox and they moved to an idyllic disused granary in Little Chart, where they raised their four children. During World War Two HE joined the Royal Air Force and wrote the best-selling Flying Officer X stories, followed, after a Far East posting, by two novels about Burma, The Purple Plain and The Jacaranda Tree and one about India, The Scarlet Sword. After the war and a return to his beautifully crafted pre-war style, HE hit the headlines in 1958 with The Darling Buds of May, a book that the public loved as much as the critics loathed. The portrayal of the outrageous Larkin family seemed to have touched the same funny bone as the Daily Express’s Giles cartoons, and HE soon felt obliged to write another four Larkins novels. There followed a three-volume autobiography and then this great and gentle writer died in 1974, having written over a hundred novels and collections of short stories.
OZ on VONNEGUT – My ideas for this month’s column changed on Friday 13 April with the news that American writer Kurt Vonnegut had died at the age of 84. Kurt was born in Indianapolis in 1922 into a third-generation German immigrant family. Following his studies at Butler and Cornell Universities and the Carnegie Institute he enlisted in the US Army and was sent to Europe. After the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 he was captured by German troops and imprisoned in Dresden, working in a factory that produced vitamin syrup for pregnant women. During the Allied aerial bombardment of February 1945, Kurt sheltered in an underground meat store named Schlachthous Fünf, meaning “Slaughterhouse Five”, and emerged to find Dresden destroyed. He and fellow prisoners were put to work clearing bodies. This became the theme for his most famous book, Slaughterhouse Five, which was published much later, in 1969, and catapulted him to fame in a world radicalised by the Cold War and events in Vietnam, Paris, and Eastern Europe. In the intervening quarter century, Kurt had completed his education, worked as a journalist, married and raised a family, along with his deceased sister’s children, and produced many lesser-known books. These were nearly ‘science-fiction’, a term that Kurt disliked, but often fairly accurate. Kurt never conquered despair but learned to live with it. Whenever a death occurs in Slaughterhouse Five, he comments “And so it goes.” In recent books, he continued to blame mishaps on alien forces outside man’s control, a view that many criticised as being too passive. But it is difficult to be too hard on Kurt. Gore Vidal went from calling him “the worst writer in America” to “he was like nobody else”, and JG Ballard said that “his sheer amiability could light up all the cathedrals in America”. And so it goes.
OZ on WOODBINE WILLIE – On 1 July, smoking in enclosed public spaces will become illegal in Britain, reflecting huge changes in attitude over the last century. Tobacco was once considered an essential ally in times of great personal and national stress, even more so in the two World Wars. A much-loved figure from World War I was ‘Woodbine Willie’, a priest who worked in the trenches, dispensing cigarettes and solace to the injured and dying. Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, (that being Woodbine Willie’s real name), was born in Leeds in 1883, seventh child of Jeanette Anketell and William Studdert Kennedy, a Leeds vicar. Educated at Leeds Grammar School and Trinity College, Dublin, he graduated in divinity in 1904, becoming a curate in Rugby and then vicar of St. Pauls, Worcester. When war broke out Kennedy volunteered to be a chaplain on the Western Front and ‘Woodbine Willie’ soon became a legend. He won the Military Cross at Messines Ridge after entering No-Man’s-Land under heavy machine-gun fire, holding a wooden cross, to tend both British and German wounded. Kennedy also wrote poems about his wartime experiences and these were published as Rough Rhymes of a Padre (1918) and More Rough Rhymes (1919). The fighting made a deep impression on Kennedy and added socialism and pacifism to his Christian beliefs. After the war, he wrote books on religion and politics and worked at St Edmund’s in Lombard Street, London, and for the Industrial Christian Fellowship. While on a speaking tour for the Fellowship in 1929 he became ill and died of influenza in Liverpool. Perhaps his best epitaph is the first verse of Woodbine Willie: “They gave me this name like their nature, Compacted of laughter and tears, A sweet that was born of the bitter, A joke that was torn from the years.”
OZ on LINNAEUS – Where would an occasional writer of nature notes be today without access to the wonderful naming system devised by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus? Born on 23 May, 300 years ago, Carl registered at Lund University as ‘Carolus Linnaeus’, and was also known, after his ennoblement in 1761, as ‘Carl von Linné’. During his life, Carl worked as a botanist, physician and zoologist, and is now also regarded as one of the early ecologists. One of his lesser-known inventions was the modern thermometer scale, achieved by reversing Celsius’s scale that had 100° as the melting point of ice and 0° as the boiling point of water. However, his great life-work, started in university days, was nothing less than the complete classification of all living things. His first classifications were into ‘kingdoms’, ie Animalia for animals and Vegetabilia for plants. (He also had a third kingdom, Mineralia for minerals, considered to be living organisms at that time). He then divided Kingdoms into Classes; Classes into Orders; Orders into Genera; and Genera into Species. Below the rank of species he sometimes recognized lower ranks such as “varieties” or “breeds”. The Linnaean system has been criticised as ‘creationist’, since it predates Darwin by a century, and it has been modified by recent knowledge of, for example, genetics and DNA. However, the underlying principles of observation, classification, and two-word names, remain sound. Linnaeus’s name for the common wild briar rose, Rosa canina, was certainly an improvement on the previous Rosa sylvestris inodora seu canina. And this column has enjoyed greatly using names such as Populus tremulus for ‘trembling aspen’ and Fratercula arctica for ‘Atlantic puffin’. So if I tell you that Passer domesticus has attacked Kniphofia uvaria this week you’ll know that the house sparrows have again been at the red-hot pokers.
OZ on BROWNSEA – This year 38 million Scouts and Guides, in 216 countries, celebrate their organization’s centenary. Here, on 1st August, a jamboree will take place on Brownsea Island, in Poole Harbour, Dorset, where Scouting began 100 years ago. Lieutenant-General Baden-Powell, or ‘BP’, returned as ‘hero of Mafeking’ to discover that his military manual, Aids to Scouting, had become very popular among boys. Eager to test his ideas further, BP invited twenty-two boys from various backgrounds to camp on Brownsea for a week and take part in outdoor activities. The camp was a huge success. BP rewrote and published his manual in 1908 as Scouting for Boys, and within months boys and girls all over the world had formed patrols, leading to the most successful youth movement ever. Less well known is the story of Brownsea itself, also known as Branksea or Brunoc’s Island, and largest of the eight islands in Poole Harbour. Measuring just 1.5 by 0.75 miles, Brownsea was first inhabited about 500BC, and a resident hermit built a navigation beacon around 500AD. After occupations by monks, Vikings and other raiders, the island was fortified by Henry VIII, who built a castle there. George IV visited in 1818 and commented “I had no idea I had such a delightful spot in my kingdom”. Both island and castle had many owners, among the most eccentric being Mrs Bonham Christie, who reputedly employed “a blonde and powerful female Scandinavian to throw visitors off the island.” On Mrs Christie’s death in 1961 the island was sold to the National Trust and the castle leased to the John Lewis partnership. Today Brownsea has red squirrels, peacocks nesting wild in the trees, a Dorset Wildlife Trust bird reserve, no cars and one postal collection a week. I hope it’s still like that for the 2107 jamboree.
OZ on BATS – Recently we attended a talk at Mongeham Church by a lady from the Kent Bat Group. During the interval she identified bat droppings behind the altar rail, and afterwards, as dusk fell, and aided by electronic trackers, we watched the bats cavorting in the graveyard. From knowing little about these fascinating and reclusive creatures, we learnt much during the evening and departed wanting to discover more. I later found that there are over 1,100 species of bat in every corner of the world, except Antarctica, and that this is reflected in world literature. Fears and superstitions have always surrounded bats, due to their silent nocturnal habits, as in the 1496 “battes whiche hate the daye”, and Huloet’s “batte whiche flyeth in the darcke” from 1552. In 1604 Drayton named one as “Watch-Man of the Night”, and in 1791 Boswell described “a mouse with wings.” Drayton was actually closer to the truth, as the bat is an advanced mammal, its skeleton nearly that of the human, and the bat order Chiroptera is grouped with the Primates because of such similarities. From the 1500s onwards, explorers returning from South and Central America brought tales of vampire bats that fired the imaginations of writers and readers of Gothic novels, the most famous being Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. Even gentle Mark Twain climaxed his 1876 novel Tom Sawyer with a frightening encounter between Tom and Becky and a caveful of bats, although he later recanted: “A bat is beautifully soft and silky; I do not know any creature that is pleasanter to the touch or is more grateful for caressing. ” Maybe the most haunting words are those of Oliver Goldsmith in The Deserted Village (1770): “Those matted woods where birds forget to sing / But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling.”
OZ on JACOBS – One of the cleverest writers of a century ago was W W Jacobs, author of several novels and collections of short stories humorously portraying the lives of maritime workers around London’s dockland and the south-east coast. Punch magazine, reviewing his first collection, Many Cargoes, in 1896, described its subject as “men who go down to the sea in ships of moderate tonnage”. William Wymark Jacobs was born in Wapping in 1863, son of a London wharfinger. In 1879 he started work as a civil service clerk, writing in the evenings, and had his first story published in 1885. Success came slowly, but by 1899 Jacobs felt sufficiently secure both to leave his job and marry, buying two houses in Loughton, Essex, which became “Claybury” in the stories. Jacobs also loved East Kent, and depicted Sandwich in his 1902 novel At Sunwich Port, a story of seagoing rivalry. It was in Deal at the turn of the century that Jacobs and the cartoonist Will Owen met my great-grandfather, “Bobby Osborn”. Bobby was a gargantuan figure, measuring 66 inches both in height and circumference, who pushed a fish-cart around Deal with cries of “Rye Bay Plaice!” and “Dover Sole!” ringing out. It was said that on a still evening, these cries could be heard on the South Foreland lightship. Bobby became the model for many sketches, both literary and graphical, that appeared in the Jacobs/Owen collaborations as ‘Bob’ and ‘The Night-Watchman’. In one of Owens’s cartoons, drawn during the time that Prohibition was being considered, Bobby says “If yer shut up the pubs, what am I goin’ to do fer nourishment?” Jacobs spent his old age adapting his stories for the stage and died in Islington in 1943. Bobby simply bequeathed me a huge and unhideable genetic inheritance.
OZ on VANCOUVER – Two months ago we met up in Vancouver with friends from Ontario who were also “spending kids’ inheritance.” While recovering from jet lag and exploring the city we discovered remnants of this summer’s 250th birthday celebrations for George Vancouver, the first European to explore the coast of what later became British Columbia. George was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, on June 22 1757, a descendant of the Dutch Van Coeverden family. He joined the Navy at the age of fifteen and sailed on Captain Cook’s second and third voyages to the Pacific, followed by war service in the English Channel and the West Indies. In 1789 a fourth exploration of the Pacific was cancelled as war with Spain loomed over the right to settle the northwest American coast. George joined the fray in HMS Courageux, a 74-gun ship-of-the-line captured from the French. When peace was finally made in 1794, George was made captain and given command of HMS Discovery to take possession of and survey the northwest coastline. We followed some of George’s footsteps when we took the Circle Tour, a round trip in ferries up the Sunshine Coast towards Alaska, stopping off and moving on when we wished, and returning to Victoria on Vancouver Island. There were constant reminders of the Spanish occupation in place names such as Juan de Fuco, Cortes and Galiano. After completing his survey, George returned to Britain via Cape Horn in 1795 to something less than a hero’s welcome. He faced several court actions from disgruntled members of his expeditions, one of whom assaulted him in the street. George Vancouver died, broken and lonely, in 1798 at the age of 40. We spent the remainder of our holiday in the Fraser Canyon, discovered by Simon Fraser in 1805; a story for another day.
OZ on MAGPIES – Just now the garden is abrim with magpies, energetically spearing the last of the Bramley apples and clinging expertly to the vertical face of the bird-feeder while devouring peanuts. It demonstrates that they don’t spend all their time killing small songbirds and game birds. Generally magpies eat vegetation in winter and small ground creatures in summer, only raiding other birds’ nests in spring when competition for food is fiercest. I love seeing these fat sleek-headed killers with their immaculate black and white coats and long parrot-like tails, but they often arouse hatred in humans because of their aggression, thieving and carrion-eating. The scientific name Pica pica comes directly from the Latin ‘pica’ for magpie, becoming in English ‘pie’ and then ‘Margaret-pie’ or Shakespeare’s ‘maggot-pie’, adding to the bird’s fearsome reputation. Interestingly, ‘pie’ also means ‘rule-book’, from the black and white text, and leads to the adjective ‘pied’. The superstition surrounding magpies is most widely seen in the counting game “One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret never to be told, Eight for a dream, Nine for a wish”, or in its many regional variants. Originally, in the country, the number was determined by the number of magpies seen together. When the game spread to the towns and cities, children derived the number by manipulating the numbers on their bus and tram tickets in various ways. A work colleague once stood to attention to salute a solitary magpie “to ward off sorrow” and I’ve done it ever since. Later I watched as a magpie dived from a fence, did a forward roll into some long grass, and came up with a vole. Now that really is typical magpie behaviour.