Tuesday 31 March 2009

North or South? Weather conditions prevail ..

When we holidayed in the west of Cornwall we had the luxury of deciding which coast we'd visit to play on the beach .. to keep out of the wind. So as children we never knew what sort of beach day we'd be having .. we loved the beach and being able to play and paddle in the water or jump around the rocks.
St Michael's Mount - the island 400 yards off the coast of Penzance - was really exciting to visit .. we could walk through the water on the manmade causeway and come back in a skiff or dingy, if the tide had come in too far. We could roam around the gardens up to the actual Castle, which is still a private residence of Lord St Levan.

Marazion, the Cornish village opposite St Michael's Mount, was a flourishing town owing its prosperity to the pilgrims flocking to worship on the Mount. At low tide there's a lovely long beach where we be able to run up and down, eat our sandwiches, munch our apples, dash up the strand and buy luxury ice lollies - a new treat for post war babies. So if the wind was coming from the north .. this is where we came .. so we vacated our bed and breakfast lodgings for the day .. a very good cheap British standby for parents with young children.

If the wind blew from the south then we drove round St Ives Bay past the coastal branch railway line to Godrevy .. where in those days we clambered haphazardly down the heath topped cliffs on to the beach. It was magical .. there were granite covered pebbles, shells, some brightly coloured - getting some of their colour from the red river ... the river flowing down from the tin workings above; we were able to jump from rock to rock - quite high ones which made it more exciting for us as we got older - with the waves crashing around underneath us.

We'd eat lunch .. homemade pasties, biscuits, oranges to suck on to quench our thirst .. sometimes with a sugar cube in .. delicious!! .. tucked into the cliff face keeping out of the wind sitting on a couple of rugs, beach towels round our shoulders .. keeping our eyes out for the numerous birds (gulls in their 100s, cormorants, guillemot, razor bills (wonderful shells for youngsters!), as well as grey seals, if we crept out over the rocks onto the point & if the water spouts weren't pounding up.

We'd watch the waves crash around Godrevy Lighthouse about 300 yards off the shore - knowing that it was protecting ships from the mile long submerged reef known as 'the Stones' a hazard to the life blood of the bay when fishing was the mainstay of the local communities.

On our journey home we'd be able to stop off and have fish and chips, with salt and vinegar .. served out of newspaper .. and a bottle of pop ... possibly cherryade - eaten out of the wind in the car! Wonderful days of youth .. so simple, but so pleasureable and teaching us so much about life ..
Dear Mr Postman - this letter has meant so much .. bringing her reminders of our holidays and times in Cornwall growing up, also bringing her own childhood memories back too.
My mother has been so pleased to have this letter and while she's in hospital she'll be able to have memory-dreams of times her children were growing up, or as often happens .. muddle her own childhood into ours .. - we learn some interesting snippets from her .. - this has been a good positive letter to bring her today .. thank you ...
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Sunday 29 March 2009

An American suggested waking the French by firing cannons at sunrise!!

Dear Mr Postman .. are you sure this is going to be about Daylight Saving?! Being woken up by cannons seems a little unnecessary! You do titillate us with your descriptions ...

Benjamin Franklin when he was American envoy to France published in 1784 anonymously what he thought was a positive letter! - suggesting that the French could make a few adjustments to their life .. like tax shutters, ration candle supply, and wake the public up by ringing church bells and firing cannons at sunrise!

Franklin, remember, was the author of the proverb "Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise". In those days late 18th Century Europe did not keep accurate schedules and standardised times were unknown and not considered. The invention of the steam engine and railways in the next fifty years brought about the need for a more accurate railway timetable.

William Willett, an English builder and great sportsman, in 1905 realised that Londoners were sleeping through part of the summer day, and as he disliked cutting his golf round short at dusk, proposed that clocks were advanced during the summer months.

Willett continued, until his death in 1915, to lobby for Daylight Saving Time (DST) to be accepted .. however in 1916, Germany, to save coal in winter, was the first to adopt his proposal, followed soon after by England, other countries, Russia and ultimately the United states in 1918.

The practice is still controversial and continues to vex governments. Adding daylight to afternoons benefits retailing, sports and other activities, but causes problems for farming, entertainment and other occuaptions tied to the sun. Additionally the clock adjustments may be automatic - but can cause problems with travel schedules, meetings etc ..

Most of the northern hemisphere (ie those in high latitudes) still uses DST, but other areas have either stopped using the practice, or in fact never used it -see link. The United States have had DST or repealed it with a degree of regularity ...

That was the simple bit!! I'd wondered why Summertime wasn't correlated across the world .. it appears that in 2005 legislation was passed in the United States (to be effective in 2007) under the auspices of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 whereby the dates changed .. meaning this year the UK and the States were out of synch for three weeks.

Worse though are the difficulties this causes computer programmers to deal with these changing times, apart from the rest of the world trading or working with areas of the States. Also it's not applicable throughout the States. There are other adjustments in the rest of the world .. no wonder humans were born with brains! - we need them to keep up with these human devised time keeping quirks .. I'm just pleased I have a few clocks to adjust!!

Well Mr Postman - that letter opened a can of worms I wasn't expecting to read about .. but it's interesting as there are always so many other aspects that need to be taken into account ..
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Saturday 28 March 2009

Incense Sticks, Candles, Hourglass and Bells .. what's the connection?

Dear Mr Postman .. thank you so much for coming today .. it is so wonderful to get your newsy positive letter and they give my mother something to ponder over or dream about as she sadly lies in bed. Yesterday's post gave us some memories of watching the Boat Race from the river bank when I was only 5 .. my father rowed for Worcester College, Oxford and so we had the privelege of being able to be on the slipway from where my brother and I could run around!!

Time!! Today the clocks have gone forward for British Summertime - so once again we're in synch with the USA .. and so I thought an incredibly short history of time might provide some interesting snippets? I'm not going into the intricacies .. this requires an erudite mind (please look here!) .. but a few salient points along the way may be of interest.

For early man the only obvious measurement was the moon, however the Sumerian civilization 6,000BC to 2,000BC in Southern Iraq (Mesopotamia), known as the Cradle of Civilization, appear to have introduced the sexagesimal system, based on the number 60 and number 12 - being 1/5 of 60 - when the definition of calendar and time were as one ...

A large variety of devices have been used to measure time - in ancient times: the Egyptian
T-Square, Chinese Sundials, Egyptian water clocks, Arab engineers and Chinese inventors were starting to develop mechanical mechanisms in the 11th Century. The hourglass uses the flow of sand to measure time and Ferdinand Magellan used 18 hourglasses for each ship on his circumnavigation of the globe in 1522.

Incense Sticks and Candles are still used to tell the time in temples and churches across the world. The word "clock" is derived from French, Latin and German words that mean bell. The hours were marked by bells in abbeys, as well as used to tell the passage of hours at sea.

Clocks became more sophisticated as knowledge and materials became more advanced - and today whether we can improve on the atomic clock, which is accurate to seconds in many millions of years, remains to be seen ..

British time started to become standardised when the Age of Exploration was in full swing, once mariners and explorers were able to determine longitude, they kept one chronometer on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) in order to calculate their longitude as they continued on their travels. However in the 1840s with the coming of the railways it was essential that the timetable could be set, so the railway companies in1847/8 adopted Greenwich time. Eventually in 1884 GMT was internationally accepted at a conference in Washington DC.
Daylight Saving Time has some quite interesting historical facts associated with it .. as well as the benefits and drawbacks .. so I will make sure that that letter reaches you tomorrow.

Dear Mr Postman - it's so helpful to have a potted history of time and you did find some interesting facts & we will enjoy receiving tomorrow's letter telling us about British Summer Time. By the way did you back the winner in the Boat Race? - Oxford ! That was a really good race - it was so tactical and fun to watch ..
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Doggett's Coat and Badge; the light blues and the dark blues ..

Old contests .. this is to remind us to watch - it's on Sunday this year is it? oh! ok we will definitely have a look .. are you a dark blue or a light blue? We have both in the family .. so we can always win!!

We have such idiosyncratic customs and names here in England and it's great just occasionally to bring them to the forefront - so dear Readers I hope that you enjoy these tales....

Doggett's Coat and Badge - what a lovely name for what is believed to be the oldest rowing race in the world, and also is believed to be the oldest sporting contest in continued existence. I found this out when I lived in Notting Hill from a Guide to the street names where reference is made to Swan Walk, SW3. In the 1600s Chelsea was a fashionable resort with the Swan Tavern hostelry nearby in Swan Walk. It's mentioned in Pepys' Diary and was the finishing post for this race.

Doggett was an Irish actor and comedian who became joint owner of Drury Lane Theatre, and he relied heavily on the Watermen to ferry (taxi) him up and down the Thames to his various appointments and to his Chelsea home. In 1715 he was rescued from drowning by one of the Watermen and established a 4 mile 5 furlongs race between the Swan pub at London Bridge to the Swan Tavern in Chelsea. Six of the youngest Watermen in their first year of freedom competed for the prize; and when Doggett died in 1721 he left instructions that the race be continued each year .. and so it has since 1715!

The blues - refer to sporting awards for Cambridge (light blue) or Oxford (dark blue) University students representing their university at the highest level in each sport, which must include a Varsity match. The first one ever held in June 1827 was a cricket match ..

.. with the tradition of the Boat Race starting two years later in 1829 when two friends challenged each other to a rowing race - the first being held at Henley-on-Thames .. where the Royal Henley Regatta takes place .. before transferring to London. The race for heavyweight eights and a cox has become an annual event held in Spring and is timed to start on the incoming flood tide, so the crews are rowing upstream in the fastest possible current.

The race can be very quick, ie 16 mins 41 secs or take decidedly longer 20 mins 52 secs - but it all depends on the weather conditions .. tomorrow's race (29 March 2009) starts at 15.40 GMT [7.30 am PST!]). If the wind blows from the west the waters can become very rough (against the incoming tide) and the conditions can be amazingly difficult .. so much so that if it was an international race it would be called off - not this race! Occasionally sinkings do occur - very infra dig for elite sportsmen (to be found on youtube, if you wish to look) ! The blustery wintery weather tomorrow could make the race quite exciting ..

It is a little shorter in length than Doggett's - being 4 miles 374 yards long .. whether that takes into account the oxbow like 'S' bends or not - I am completely unsure .. but I expect Pi would have been used in that calculation .. see my post.

Interest in The Boat Race has always been huge .. with crowds lining the banks of the Thames, people hanging out of windows, standing on roof terraces, an international audience listening or watching on tv. There are a couple of interesting film snippets .... the race on 30 March 1895 became one of the world's first motion pictures; while the BBC first showed the race in 1938!!

Mr Postman - once again .. you've brought us some really interesting snippets and we will definitely watch The Boat Race tomorrow - who are you supporting ..? Ah Oxford like us .. I do enjoy this annual race - it is so British and reminds us of our customs and tradtions .. so many here that I see aren't mentioned in this post .. perhaps you'll be able to bring us some of these heraldic traditions in due course .... you will - oh excellent! Thank you once again for bringing our positive letter ....
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Friday 27 March 2009

"The Law is an Ass!" .. wine, wool, silk, china ....

Dear Mr Postman ..does your title to this positive letter refer to the Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” quotation? and what on earth do these mix of goods have in common ....

Smuggling has been rife around the coasts of Britain and no doubt Europe for over a thousand years .. and started when it became “the custom” to 'give up' some of the wine cargo being imported into London and a few other ports in the 1200s.

Initially the Customs Service was only there to collect the duties at the port, and not to prevent smuggling. Wool, in the Middle Ages, was the mainstay of the national economy and was in great demand on the continent, however export duties, and subsequently import duties, provided a new source of revenue for the Crown and its wars, and so taxes started to rise.

The Ages of Exploration opened up trade routes and brought in exotic new cargoes. The most popular smuggled goods were silks, spices, tea, tobacco, spirits, wine and china as these found an easy market for resale, so as you’d expect law breakers of all kinds were among the first to jump on the contraband wagon, encouraged by this public support.

Amazingly in 1784 it was estimated that over half of the tea consumed annually in Britain had been smuggled in. While at much the same it was thought that nearly half a million gallons of brandy a year were being smuggled through Cornwall, and it was also known that ships returning from India and China would 'hover' off shore in the west country and sell untaxed goods such as china, silks and cottons!

The law at the time made it an offence to smuggle goods but it wasn't a crime to sell them on, so smugglers would often leave their wares in a cave to be fetched by another person who would not be committing a crime by selling them – hence here I’ve loosely used the phrase “The Law is an Ass” in the title!!

Smuggling along the south coast adapted to the locality .. Kent and Sussex were nearer to both Europe and London .. so plenty of goods could be “traded” more easily – whereas smuggling is synonymous in the far west of Cornwall, the goods coming from the continent sometimes via the Channel Islands, or from Ireland to the north Cornish coast.

The poorly paid farm labourers and the hard living mining communities ensured there was a constant demand for cheap goods, including tea, brandy, gin, ‘baccy’ etc, so for all of the legends and stories, most smugglers were said to have been more concerned with feeding their families than making fortunes.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about the Smugglers and the Gentlemen (Revenue men) – “The Smugglers Song” .. please click the link to read it in full ..the poem is full of resonance of times gone by .. and it starts like this ..

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Five-and-twenty ponies,
Trotting rhrough the dark – Brandy for the Parson ........

Or you can listen to The Smugglers Song here read by Murray Lachlan Young – it’s a great poem .. the children will love it .. enjoy!

Thank you, thank you for that lovely poem .. we will enjoy listening .. Rudyard Kipling wrote some amazing poems and stories .. Mr Postman .. you do remind us of such an interesting way of life and how much has changed over the years ..

Thursday 26 March 2009

Smuggling, a Cathedral, Robin Hood and Harry Potter - what's the link?

Dear Mr Postman .. today's positive letter looks so interesting and what on earth does link smuggling, a medieval Church, a thief and a magician to this county of ours: Sussex in the south of England? We will enjoy these tales ....

The Cathedral of the South Downs, as it has come to be called, is the parish church, built in 1360, in the village of Alfriston. The Church sits on a small, flint-walled mound in the middle of "the Tye" (the village green!) overlooking the River Cuckmere - and was unusually built in the shape of a cross.

The Cuckmere River was navigable inland for about 4 miles and the Steamer Trading cookshop in Alfriston reminds us of that trading history in the 1500s through its name, .. so goods could be brought up away from the coast, initially sailed up before the invention of the steam engine. The Smugglers Inn a few doors away from Steamer Trading had at one time 21 rooms, 6 staircases, and 48 doors .. making it ideal for the purposes of the smuggling gangs. To my surprise tea seems to have been one of the first major contrabands, as well as the expected brandy and gin ..

If you would like to see an idyllic English view from the Downs above Alfriston .. where my brother lives & is their view, when they walk to the top - straight from their house! - this site is advertising the 100 mile walk from my town of Eastbourne(above) to Winchester along the South Downs (in stages, I hasten to add, an essential element is the dropping down to the pubs at night .. Alfriston being the first or last stop!!).

As you can see the area has a magnificient backdrop .. and yesterday's post shows the picture of the coastguard cottages used as the postcard in the film "Atonement", while the beach was used for Kevin Costner's Robin Hood film, and in the Harry Potter "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" movie.

Well Mr Postman I must say you do keep us informed and I can see a few more interesting positive letters and articles flowing from these stories .. what will you bring tomorrow, I wonder .. thank you for visiting us again .. it's always so lovely to see you with one of your positive letters ....

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Meanders, Pi and Oxbows ...

Dear Mr Postman .. what have you for us today .. how interesting ... what on earth does mathematics have to do with the Cuckmere River's sinuous journey to the English Channel? Oh ok .. & if we should want to read a fuller article then we can go to Steve Jones' "View from the Lab" in the Science section of The Telegraph

Steve Jones in his article above is talking about oxbows and since I was a kid and loved Geography - oxbows always fascinated me ... Geography was about the only subject I was any good at at school .. other than some sport.

So when I returned from South Africa and settled in Eastbourne, I was delighted to see that the Cuckmere River has the most wonderful flood plain full of oxbows, and that this was one of the two routes I could take to reach the village of Alfriston, where my brother lives.

Steve Jones mentions two things that amused and interested us .. "one of my (his) observations is that the length of a meandering river as it flows across a flat landscape is always the distance (in a straight line) from the spot where it reaches the plain to its estuary multiplied by 3.14, the famous constant Pi"; this applies to all meanders .. the mighty Amazon, the Thames or to the tiny tributary The Fleet that runs below Fleet street - that hot spot of journalists! - into the Thames.

The Cuckmere is a fantastic area to visit and travel around .. I love using the slower coastal route, as the colours can be the vivid spectrum of sky and sea .. blues of all hues, turquoises and from here I know why sea green is a colour: artists love it. It's just inspiring to get to the top of the Seven Sisters - the chalk cliffs between Eastbourne and the Cuckmere - and come across this magnificent view - either by driving, or using the Seven Sisters park and walking the Downs.

There's so much history here Mr Postman .. do you think you could bring us some more information? - we love hearing about smuggling, Saxon cathedrals and the modern day films using the area as a backdrop .. - it is so kind of you to bring us our positive letter .. we do so appreciate you .. til tomorrow .....

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Plants with a story ...

Dear Mr Postman .. oh - how lovely .. we will enjoy these plant stories and the snippets of history: they remind us of how far they've travelled and why we revere them now ...

Old English Lavender, Chrysanthemum and Myrtle .. all have differing backgrounds and interesting tales to tell ....

The common English Lavender is not English at all .. but was brought to England by the Romans, who used it to perfume their bath water: hence the name lavender from the latin lavo, 'I wash' or lavare 'to wash'. Lavender water is one of the oldest English perfumes .. and its earliest mention is in the 12th century by Abbess Hildegarde, who described the strong odour and many virtues of the plant.

The Spike Lavender, a coarser, broad leaved variety, is found in the mountain districts of France and Spain; while lavender was advertised for sale in the United States in a Boston newspaper of 1760, but it is still imported to the States under the brand Mitcham Lavender. The Mitcham lavender fields are now under suburban London, remembered in London street names, such as Lavender Hill, Lavender Street, Lavender Lane and Lavender Sweep; while the Lavender fields have found wider skies in East Anglia and the garden of England: Kent. There are plenty of other varieties of lavender - dark through to white, frothy or whorls of bluish-violet .. enjoyed by peoples around the world.

The multi-petalled Chrysanthemum did not appear in Europe until the middle of the 1700s, although its history in the Far East goes back for thousands of years. It was described in China in the 5th century BC, and it became the emblem of the Emporer of the Mikado of Japan more than 1,000 years ago.

The legend of the Chrysanthemum originated in China. A girl asked a spirit how long her forthcoming marriage would last. She was told that they would remain together for as many years as there were petals on the flower she would wear on her wedding dress. She could only find a flower with 17 petals ... but with her hairpin she divided each petal into two and then again .. and she was happily married for 68 years! This was the first Chyrsanthemum .. and since then the flower has been revered in the East as a symbol of purity and long life. And from the legend .. it could also be the sign of female ingenuity!!

and now to Myrtle .. when Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden they were allowed to take three things & they chose: a date to provide the best of all fruits, a grain of wheat to provide the best of all foods, and a sprig of myrtle to provide the best of all fragrances.

Since then Myrtle has been grown in England for over 400 years - it needs tender care .. and if given will reward you with deliciously-scented white flowers. The foliage is also fragrant and the tradition of carrying myrtle in the bridal wreath began in Babylonian days.

It has spread to all countries and all climates and received a Royal accolade from Queen Victoria. After her marriage to Albert in 1840, she planted a myrtle sprig from her bouquet in the grounds of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The cutting rooted and the bush flourished - the progeny from this original sprig have produced myrtles for the wedding bouquets of Queen Elizabeth II and other Royals. The planting of the myrtles from the bridal bouquet is an old country custom, but it is a job for the bridesmaid and not the bride!

Thank you Mr Postman .. those snippets were most interesting and we'll enjoy talking about the different plants and their uses .. what's on for tomorrow .. another lucky dip .. whatever you bring it's always interesting ..

Monday 23 March 2009

Mozart, Marzipan and Battenberg ...

Dear Mr Postman .. what fun .. information on a composer, theatre , a Prince and our own Queen Elizabeth II.. who'd have thought there'd be a connection .. let's read this latest positive letter ....

I love these stories .. reminding me of my early memories .. we only had Battenberg cake at tea times as a real treat - did you have it? We used to call it window cake .. with its panes of yellow and pale pink sponge, divided by apricot jam and surrounded by marzipan paste - occasionally I'll have it now ... in fact I had a large one made for my brother for one of his birthdays in recent years = it was much appreciated!

The origin of the name is not clear .. but it's accepted that a cake was created in honour of the marriage in 1884 of Queen Victoria's granddaughter to Prince Louis of Battenberg, with each of the four squares representing the four Battenberg princes. However Prince Louis had a greater heritage to come .. he is the grandfather of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who is married to our Queen.

We loved marzipan and I always looked forward to a proper rich Christmas fruit cake covered in real home made marzipan, and then coated in royal icing - resembling snow drifts .. decorated with fir trees, a snowman and Father Christmas.

Marzipan is one of those historical sweetmeats that has travelled from Persia, with its wonderful orchards of almond trees, across the Mediterranean bringing with it the Arabic influence of sweetmeats .. very likely going both north into the Austro Hungarian empire and skirting south, via the Moorish lands, to Iberia .. again laden with almond orchards.

Marzipan was so pliable that in medieval times it was moulded to create elaborate sculptures - this was when food was an acceptable form of theatre for the rich .. and was used as entertainment ... the staff utilising all their imaginery skills to create incredible buffets.

Now-a-days marzipan is made into imitations of fruit and vegetables, filled with chocolate, or made into simple animal shapes or figurines .. apart from the uses for Christmas cakes, stollen and simnel cake as mentioned in my previous post. A particularly well known piece of confectionery is the Mozartkugel (Mozart ball) ....

The “Original Salzburg Mozartkugeln” are still produced manually by the confectioner Fürst in Salzburg, Austria according to the original recipe, 1890, and using the original technique and was named after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: First, a ball of green pistachio marzipan covered in a layer of nougat is produced and is then placed on a small wooden stick and dunked in a dark chocolate coating, which is then allowed to cool off and harden. Finally, the stick is removed; the hole that it leaves behind is filled with chocolate coating, and the ball is wrapped in blue-silver tin foil by hand.

Well Mr Postman .. you continue to surprise me .. what next? .. lucky dip is it .. perhaps I'll go and get some marzipan chocolate to help wait for your next positive story ..

Sunday 22 March 2009

Mothering Sunday and its origins .. Violets too and cake!

Dear Mr Postman - thank you so much for visiting .. today's positive letter is so interesting .. it's about the traditions surrounding our Mother's Day and why the USA has a different date ...

Happy Mothering Sunday to all mothers - on whatever date you celebrate yours! This is the time to honour and remember our mothers for all that they do and continue to do .. even if, as my mother is, in her last chapter .. she still wants to look after me, I am still her daughter, .. yours will too - love them dearly.

It's traditional for us all to gather with our mothers and celebrate their lives - often with flowers or small gifts from our little ones - and share a day together being a family. A bunch of violets is emblematic of this day and I will be taking some up to my mother later on .. to go with our Cape Floral Bouquet.

It is said that it is derived from the ancient custom of visiting the Mother Church on this day; it is also known as Refreshment Sunday (4th Sunday in Lent), referring to the relaxation or breaking of one's Lenten fast, or Rose Sunday, after the Golden Rose ornament which popes of the Catholic Church have traditionally blessed annually.

On Refreshment Sunday or Rose Sunday the liturgical colours are replaced with rose-coloured vestments and draperies symbolizing hope and joy amidst the Lenten solemnity.

Children feast on mothering cakes or simnel cakes - which have been known since the Middle Ages when young girls in service would make one to be taken home to their mothers on their day off. They are now wonderful, fragrantly spiced, light fruit cakes, baked with a melting ball of almond paste in the middle, and covered with marzipan, and traditionally also eaten at Easter.

Mother's Day in the United States occurs on the second Sunday in May and similarily is observed to remember one's mother by some act of grateful affection.

That was really interesting Mr Postman .. do you think tomorrow's positive letter will give us some history on marzipan? .. I love learning how foods have developed and travelled across the world .. thank you for your Mothering Sunday snippets on how valuable our mothers are to us .. bless them all ....

Saturday 21 March 2009

Straw mattresses, sooty chimneys & it's Spring officially ...

  • Dear Mr Postman .. what's the news today .. ah! Hah! .. I see the letter gives me some interesting facts about the start of Spring .. that's fun and reminds me of my grandparents' positive stories ..

    Do you remember the days of coal fires to heat the house (if you were lucky!) to cook the food on, heat the water? ... those were hard times ... and the sooty dust that went everywhere making all the surfaces and the fabrics a slightly darker shade of pale? Spring cleaning could start when the days were getting warmer and longer .. more time to complete the job and the extra light meant crevices could be looked into!!

    Our pioneering ancestors could only refill their straw mattresses once the hay was dry enough and the chimney sweeps could only do their sweeping once the winter fires were out. Did you know that the occupation of chimney sweep is considered to be one of the oldest as chimneys have been around since ancient times?

    Is it today March 21st or yesterday March the 20th - the start of Spring? Well a little bit more information here .. more detail is available from Wikipedia on the Equinox

    * the equinox occurs twice a year: Spring & Autumn
    * on the day of an equinox - yesterday 20th March - everywhere the sun rises at 6.00a.m. and sets at 6.00p.m. (except at the poles) (NB: remember to adjust in time zones!)
    * equinox is derived from two Latin words 'aequus' (equal) and 'nox' (night): hence equal daylight
    * high in the Artic Circle - there's 15 minutes extra daylight each day until the Summer Solstice, whereas in Singapore the variation is a few seconds, as Singapore is practically on the equator
    * because the Sun is a spherical source of light (rather than a point) .. it takes 33 hours to cross the equator
    * the equinox gets later by 6 hours each year .. amounting to one full day every 4 years, which is offset by the leap year!!
    * Resulting in an absolute shift of about one day every 70 years. This explains why in the last century the dates for the equinoxes and solstices were entrenched in our minds as 21 March, 22 June, 23 September and 22 December .... where as now in the 21st Century .. they are 20 March, 21 June, 22 September and 21 December.

    So the start of Spring was officially yesterday for us northern hemisphereans .. March 20th - per the Gregorian calendar and its compensatory century leap year rule.

    Enjoy your Spring .. the extra light .. about 15 minutes each day and the higher sun.

    I enjoyed the chimney sweep titbits, Mr Postman, and it reminds me of the faerie stories I loved reading when I was growing up and the wondeful pictures .. while the 'facts', as you know, I've always liked .. great letter - and I'll enjoy re-reading it .. til tomorrow ..

Friday 20 March 2009

Cape Floral Kingdom and the King of all flowers ... & Mother's Day

Dear Mr Postman .. oh how lovely! a letter telling me about the flowers I received today .. do you know them - these Kings of the Floral Kingdom? ....

Nature must have been well satisfied with the creation of the most distinctive and beautiful of all African landscapes - the garden lands of southern Africa: the Cape Floral Kingdom - containing a veritable domain of wild flowers, with 16,000 - 22,000 species flourishing to perfection in a climate of ample winter rain and snow, warm dry summers, balmy springs and autumns.

In Europe the recent ice ages wiped out old vegetation and the new plants have not yet had time to produce so many variations. The "Cape Garden" has been carefully protected for over 200 million years from any drastic variation in climate allowing so many species to mutate and proliferate. The Protea family is an ancient one ... its ancestors grew on Gondwanaland 300 million years ago .. and there are subfamilies in Australia and South America. Proteas attracted the attention of early botanists visiting the Cape of Good Hope in the 1600s and were introduced into Europe in the 1700s.

Heathers and heaths, under the botanical name of the Erica genus, flourish here in great monthly swathes of colours across the valleys and mountain slopes - the fading blooms of their predecessors gently seem to dissolve into the fresh new colour of successors.

The Coast of Flowers is at the heart of the spectacular natural garden of the western Cape, and reigning over this whole floral kingdom is the king of all flowers - the Protea. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, named these spectacular flowering plants after Proteus, the Greek god of the sea, who was gifted with the power of infinitely changing his appearance.

The protea family are noted for their varied appearances and extraordinary individuality ... and they're protected from the elements with a covering of white woolly hairs. There's a variety called the 'sugarbush' .. and flowers in light yellow or red and are noted for the unusually large amount of nectar they produce and were prized by the early settlers for its sugarbush syrup.

I'm so pleased you liked your letter to go with your Mother's Day bouquet of Cape Floral sprays - treasure it - until tomorrow ....

Thursday 19 March 2009

Bangs in the head .. three short stories ..

Dear Mr Postman - thank you for my letter: oh dear .. a cautionary tale today I see ... but so good to remind ourselves ...

In 1986 I had a nasty accident outside my house in Johannesburg .. about 30 feet away were some traffic lights, it was Friday afternoon & I was off to visit some friends .. very fortunately I'd set off slowly, as I was mentally checking if I had everything .. and the next thing I knew: wham, spin, buffet, shudder, bang, bang, bang .. & shake to a stop on one of the said traffic lights. My beautiful orange beetle, I'd travelled round South Africa in, was written off in one fell swoop.

Fortunately I hadn't hit my head .. but certainly my brain had wandered around inside & I felt pretty awful .. - after 'sorting things out' as you do with passers by and the local householders in that situation, I rang my mother back in England .. who announced that I should on no occasion go and play a game of squash (racquet ball) that night or that weekend .. I should rest in a darkened room and let my brain settled down - I did as my mother told me to & certainly didn't want to do much else!!

Today I heard of a young man, 30, who competed in triathlons .. and so was you'd think 'super fit' .. but he'd had a stroke: his fiance saw the three symptoms and acted on the 4th point: fortunately they'd both watched the BBC advert for recognising strokes and so he was in hospital pretty quicky and is on his way to near recovery - but remember the brain continues to adjust and adapt after illness. (see my post).

Sometimes as this week - a mere apparent bump can mean death - as has happened to Natasha Richardson - and just because someone can talk and seems ok .. they need to be monitored, so if there are changes an immediate response and quick medical diagnosis can be set up.

Hilary luckily you didn't hit your head in that car accident - so you're here to tell this cautionery tale and remind us all of our mortality .. we need to be aware and protect it .. - I'll bring you a happier letter tomorrow!

Wednesday 18 March 2009

What do Jasmine, Slumdog Millionaire, and Intellectual Property Rights have in common?

Der Mr Postman .. you do bring such interesting positive letters .. and how on earth do those three asymetrical subjects tie in? .. let's see ..

As I'd brought in some different scented early flowers for my mother - Daphne and Mahonia - and I was letting her have a good smell of them .. one of the nurses came in, who comes from India, and she was saying the most wonderful scent in India is the Jasmine flower .. and Jaitema was explaining to us the overwhelming power of the scent and the industry that's grown up around Jasmine.

We love new knowledge .. and love the scent of Jasmine .. so I came back and Wiki'ed it .. it's turned out to be really interesting .. Jasmine is considered the queen of flowers and is called the "Belle of India" or the "Queen of fragrance" as it is exquisitely scented to soothe and refresh.

Jasmine was traded across the seas from Asia to Europe .. eventually reach England in the latter part of the 17th century - the 1600s: & by the 18th century, jasmine scented gloves had become popular in Britain!!

The jasmine in the Mysore district - a city south west of Bangalore - is named Mallige (elsewhere it is known by different names .. the one I like is 'Moonlight in the Grove'). Jasmine is prevalent extensively in the surrounding areas and to the north in the land of SlumDog Millionaire .. though probably not the slums .. apparently every home in the Mumbai coastal region has 1/2 to 1 acre of land in front of the house for Jasmine growing!

Jasmine is used for garlands at weddings, auspicious occasions and for the temple deities. The women in the south wear jasmine in their hair, while there are various medicinal uses as well as the essential oil production.

Jasmine is one of the key scents in some of the most celebrated perfumes in the world .. Chanel no 5 and Joy .. a single ounce is still known as the 'costliest perfume in the world'.

The state of Karnataka, where Mysore is situated, has been given Geographical Indication (GI) status for the Mallige jasmine - which provides exclusive Intellectual Property Rights to the local community to cultivate the crop for 10 years .. the GI Tag or Patent protects that jasmine industry & excludes others outside the specific geographical region to sell under the same name.

So there's the connection .... and my mother was inspired by the knowledge ...

Ah Mr Postman now I see .. how these all tie in .. have you seen the Oscar winning film Slumdog Millionaire? I have and it is certainly eye opening and I imagine jasmine scents wafting in the air would benefit the streets .. while the GI is so important in protecting the designated origin of specific products, eg Bordeaux wines here in Europe ...

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Pinball triggers ... finding positive stories and ideas ...part 3/3

Dear Mr Postman .. it's so wonderful you're still visiting us and delivering all your positive letters ..

For over 2 years now .. I've been sharing articles or ideas with my mother, as she's confined to bed in her last days .. - she hasn't really regressed as far as her ability to recall is concerned (yes obviously some things have gone .. aged 88 and three strokes later, that's to be expected) .. but we're lucky she can go back and forth over her 88 years: I describe her as amazing & spunky!!

She's never much liked tv, nor radio: so we don't have those on 24 hours a day as some people do .. thank goodness! I guess she was out in the garden .. growing the vegetables, fruit, tending the animals etc & generally caring for the garden as well as being an exceptional cook & producing food for the family .. she was training to be a doctor before the war and has always loved knowledge ...

We lived outside London, but my mother was brought up in Cornwall and her first husband's family was up in the Lake District, while my father's mother moved to the south coast when I was quite young after the death of my grandfather .. so our holidays were always away from home. We did go to Italy and France on separate occasions .. but didn't travel to Europe really until we were older as teenagers and were able to go off on our own, or as I did go and live in Africa. My father's family had global interests .. tobacco, toys and bridges .. so I can really pinball around happily!

So .. as you can see I still have my work cut out for me .. providing titillating snippets of information for my mother to help her wellbeing and to bring laughter to her .. I constantly work at it .. always making a note, or taking a cutting if something amuses or interests me .. the ideas come from all over the place ..

My mother believes I'm writing a book .. and asks me about the cover, what does it look like, what colour is it, what title have you in mind .. etc! .., why isn't it ready yet?! I'd like to let others access these posts .. so that they can be read to all those many people in hospital, in care homes, in the community who don't receive regular visitors or letters so that they will have something to look forward to every day .. what's new today? and something to discuss with others or think about .. hence positive letters, positive stories etc

So please keep reading, let me have your ideas and your comments .. so I can provide others less fortunate with a different type of service they may enjoy ...

Mr Postman - thank you so much for imparting some more background information .. it's good to be reminded ..

Monday 16 March 2009

Like a pinball - serendipity .. the coincidence of making happy discoveries ...part 2/3

Dear Mr Postman .. did you say there's a game in here .. that will be interesting ... another positive letter and story ..

Did you play pinball as a child? I'm sure my father made us a board - he was a very good carpenter - and I remember playing, particularly when I was sick & confined my room, for hours - kept me out of mischief! The silver balls flying round the board, bumbling against the pins, some dropping in the scoring holes, most ricocheting towards the failure line! The spring based loader setting the balls off in their upward spiral before the 'pinball' effect comes in as they're buffeted against the pin obstacles or drop into the holes, provided endless amusement to a small child.

So as with my posts .. each day something will crop up and my mind springs into action - as to a main topic .. but then other ancillary thoughts creep in and are bolstered by a reference source at home: a book, an article, a letter, a conversation .. or by Googling or Wiki-ing = always something that will interest my mother and perhaps make her laugh .. and therefore I hope others ...

These ancillary discoveries just add another dimension to each post .. and bring a lightness of knowledge, or an interesting snippet to your attention - hopefully setting your minds off in other directions to unrelated discoveries of your own.

I rather like the inter-relationship of various ideas within one post .. linked by a main theme .. it amuses me (as Queen Victoria said!!) & gives you dear reader food for thought .. What do you think? I'd love to know .. so look forward to hearing from you ....

Mr Postman .. thank you for delivering this letter to us .. we do enjoy your daily mail ..

Sunday 15 March 2009

Pinball .. Bagatelle .. the ricocheting in my brain as it spins ...part 1/3

Dear Mr Postman .. you have brought us a positive letter on how these stories come about ...
I'm often asked where I get my ideas for the blog from .. from you!, from my friends, from letters sent to my mother, things I come across .. the concept for the blog (still being refined!) was to put these thoughts into what I've described as Hilary's snippets, but entitled Positive Letters .. as they are ...

Before the blog started .. I was writing to relations and friends & ex employees of my mother's (she used to own a Care Home in Newlyn, just outside Penzance, in Cornwall - near Lands End) and I've always made these letters positive in content, while at the same time informative & have always included some of the stories I've told Mum - we've found interesting or funny ..

... so important to provide interesting information for various reasons .. people don't want to be depressed by the news, nor does my mother .. & I hope people reading them may pick up some tips for dealing with their elderly .. and my letters will encourage or give hope to others when they read them - my mother likes hearing them & she likes my posts (luckily! - she keeps asking when is the book coming out!! & what does the cover look like!) ..

My mother can't take in too much .. and these kind of posts just provide some stimulation for her & can lead on to other related discussions, connections etc - quite often leading her to asking me to look it up in the dictionary, or Google it!! In fact I have one now ..."subhirtella" ???? I had no idea - do you? ... post coming up!

The ricocheting in my brain as it spins, probably out of control, across the universe bumping into topic after idea ... eagerly searching for a brief snippet that my dying mother would be interested in - cheering her up and bringing a laugh to her soul ...

So I get my ideas from all sorts of places .. and add my own spin - as there are so many professional erudite bloggers out there and I wanted to do something different - where you'll all come back to have a read - as you'll never know what's coming ... nor do I!! I want you back .. & I don't want you bored ...
Mr Postman .. thank you for this information .. it makes interesting reading and I'd like to reassure you that my mother loves these positive stories ..

Saturday 14 March 2009

The Age of Exploration .. & Discovery .. and its global impact - part 3/3

Dear Mr Postman .. ok .. so America has been discovered .. what happens next? Your positive letter will tell us all .. oh good!

Great explorers had explored, the missionaries had gone out and spread the word of their various religions spreading education, teaching all the new things being developed in Europe; Alexander Mackenzie, a Scotsman, had emigrated to Canada and was the first person to traverse the continent of north America - he began life as a stonemason and subsequently became Prime Minister of Canada from 1873 - 1878.

In Asia the explorers' motives were also mixed - they were impelled by their love of adventure, their thirst for knowledge and, of course, the political considerations from their respective Kings, Queens and governments of the day... these constantly changing over the years ... eg:In 1534 the Portuguese appropriated the Bombay islands from the Gujaratis, and ceded in 1661 Mumbai (Bombay, India) to the British as part of the dowry provided by Catherine de Braganza to King Charles 11.

New York was originally called New Amsterdam in 1624, before coming under British colonial rule in 1664. San Diego long inhabited by the Kumeyaay Indians, before falling to the Spanish in 1542. In 1602 a cartologist arrived in the San Diego flagship and the town was renamed on San Diego day, November 12th. There was another mix .. as Mexico held sway for a while under the label of secularisation and the Franciscan friars, until it became incorporated as a city in 1850.

So much has changed and we've had the good days .. during which time America has taken over a great deal of the European trade; now ceded out to China, India and the far east .. but with the present downturn and globalisation who knows what's coming.

It'll be important to know how to do things for yourself and to shop locally supporting your farmers' markets and outlets .. technology does however provide a wonderful window to the future, if you're prepared to look.
Mr Postman thank you for bringing us your positive letter and we have our enjoyed the succinct three part series .. it's really fun and thank you for showing us New York and San Diego in the pictures in this post ..

Friday 13 March 2009

The Age of Exploration ... 'modern' discoveries and developments - part 2/3

Dear Mr Postman .. we've been looking forward to your next positive letter - it will be interesting to hear about the next stage of exploration ..

Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese Prince, was the driver for the exploration down the west coast of Africa and the development of useful tools such as charts to expedite this desire for knowledge during the 15th Century (1400s).

Spain was a little behind with Columbus discovering the New World: America in the late 1400s .. 1492 as the rhyme goes: initially colonization was the main objective, but once gold was discovered trade in earnest began. The continent showed its true colours with the various empires already in place - the Incas, the Aztecs .. these were overrun by the conquistadors and were also devastated by the pandemic diseases brought over from Europe.

The East Indies Spice Islands were explored by the Spanish via the Magellan Straits (south of Chile & north of Tierra del Fuego) .. connecting both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. At that time it was not possible to develop that route .. it was far too inhospitable and the innovations required in hull design and rigging had not been thought up.

The French, English and the Dutch were learning from the opportunities provided by the Portuguese and Spanish, together with the new technologies, maps and charts emanating from the Iberian peninsula and were not going to be held back in their thirst for trade, land, conquest, wealth and new possibilties .. it was a fertile time for exploration.

Most parts of the planet had been discovered by the early 1600s, with the Australian east coast finally being mapped early in the 1700s and at that time the Pacific was being more thoroughly explored; the centre of America was reached in the 1500s, but continued to be explored during the 1700s and into the 1800s. The centre of Africa and Australia providing challenges with the tropical diseases prevalent .. were explored during the mid 1800s and into the 1900s; while the seas of Antartica and the Artic had been explored, Antartica and the Artic are still being investigated, albeit the area is known.

Part 3 - the global impact with its economic and cultural influences on the Age of Exploration and Discovery

Thank you Mr Postman - that was a most informative 2nd part - til tomorrow ..

Thursday 12 March 2009

The Age of Exploration .. the start of the trading routes – part 1/3

Dear Mr Postman - oh .. this should be interesting a three part series on how we got to know the world ..

Today we take everything for granted .. it's so easy to get things, to order things .. but relatively recently 700 years ago it was all so different & we hadn't explored the world or tamed it .. perhaps we haven't now - but we've never had it so good ...

Our western civilisation only really started trading with the wider world once advances were made to sea faring vessels, which could withstand the open seas and long trips away. We'd traded with Europe and the Mediterranean - looking mainly for gold, silver and spices, while in the 1200s the Silk Route opened up across Persia, the Spice Routes extending along the shores of Asia, India & on to Indonesia with its Spice Islands.

It was with the advances in navigation and a greater understanding of the seas, that the Portuguese became the great explorers of the 1400s .. sailing down the west side of Africa, round the Cape of Good Hope and on to India .. thus bypassing the controlling Turks of the Ottoman Empire.

The Spanish from 1492 went west and found land in the Caribbean Islands, before setting foot on the north American continent ... Brazil was found at much the same time in 1500, but by the Portuguese .. amazingly a Papal Treaty in 1494 divided the world .. the Portuguese being given control over Africa, Asia and the Eastern part of Brazil, while the Spanish received everything west of this line ... only later realising their good fortune.

The decline of the Spanish and Portuguese controls .. see part 2

Thank you Mr Postman for giving us a good background to the start of exploration ...

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Squashes ....

Dear Mr Postman .. ah! I see a short title .. but I'm sure there's more than meets the eye .. am I right? Let's read the positive letter ...

I've played squash all my adult life and continued when I lived in South Africa .. the wet weather in the UK making it easier to ensure I had my sport .. rather than waiting for the sun to come out & have a game of tennis .. squash is known in the States .. but is often mixed up with racketball (or racquetball): & again there's the English version of racketball v the American game ... see more at this history of squash website

Squash is played on a smaller court without a roof, the ball is made of synthetic rubber and each time the ball is hit it must hit the front wall - above the "tin" (a 19" tin strip) , though it may hit the other walls (other than on serving) before hand. The game originated (confusingly!) as rackets at Harrow School, and then developed in the 19th century into a racket-and-ball game played, before turning into the game we know now ... squash rackets.

Whereas British Racketball is played on a standard Squash court, American Racquetball is played on a Racquetball court, which is slightly longer and narrower. All surfaces including the ceiling are used. There are no wall markings and no tin.

Squash, of course, refers to the many vegetables .. the Cucurbita family ... and there are so many varieties .. with descriptive names .. some obvious: "spaghetti squash"; some just fun "patty pans"; numerous names .. courgettes or zucchinis; the summer squashes, the winter ones - the pumpkins .. Hubbard, butternut - tastes delicious just thinking about it .. it's such a versatile vegetable.

And, of course!, the squash I like best .. the big, big HUG .. - which I give my mother every day I visit her .. so essential to her wellbeing and we laugh with joy - it lightens the day ..

Have a great Hugging day .. every day!! and a distant hug from us both ....

Hugging, smiling and laughing are so important to keeping our spirits up .. thank you for this latest positive letter Mr Postman .. til tomorrow ...

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Postal history, scientific discovery .. letter writing ..

Dear Mr Postman .. how good of you to deliver another positive letter to us ..

Did you collect stamps .. did you realise any value from the stamps .. not monetary - but knowledge? As a child I'm quite sure my knowledge of places in the world would not have been so vast .. if I hadn't pored over Atlases trying to find the place printed on the stamp in front of me. Names I'd never heard of, places I certainly hadn't been to .. evocative names, such as Tonga - where Queen Salote reigned ...

Tonga is an archipelago of islands in the south Pacific & Queen Salote attended Queen Elizabeth IIs coronation in 1953 - she was one large lady .. tall too! Apparently a friend of Noel Coward asked: "Who's that little man in the carriage with her?" Coward is alleged sarcastically to have replied: "Her lunch." The Coronation was the first piece television I ever watched - aged five & a half!

Stamps taught me so much .. collecting is different from philately - the study of stamps. I spent hours for a few years sorting through stamps given to me by various relatives and teaching myself about the country - geographically where it was, the currency in use, the heads of state, the crops they grew etc .. they're an amazing source of reference.

The Penny Black is the iconic stamp and probably best known stamp in the world - issued in 1840 .. thus showing the world their first picture of Queen Victoria at the start of her reign.

Now stamp collecting is a major past time for numerous peoples around the world - lots of children and some serious collectors. The souvenir packs issued in recent years continue the educational tradition .. we've just had two issues recently here ..

  • St David's Day (1st March)- Celebrating Wales - see my post
  • Charles Darwin - 150 years since the publication of his book "On the Origin of Species ..". The stamps - a four set Galapagos Island sheet; and six stamps showing Darwin and the five sciences his knowledge encompassed: zoology, ornithology, geology, botany and anthropology: see picture above.

Thank you Mr Postman .. that was a good reminder about my childhood days ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher

Positive Letters

Monday 9 March 2009

"Queen's" Zanzibar ...???

Dear Mr Postman - what an interesting title .. I can't wait to read another of your fun positive stories ..

A surprising connection .. but yes! - Freddie Mercury of the band 'Queen' was born in Zanzibar .. one of the Spice Islands. Mercury was born in the old quarter of Stone Town (now a World Heritage Site), part of the capital of Zanzibar City. There's more information here in Zanzibar unveiled.

The Zanzibar Archipelago is 15 - 30 miles off Tanzania, near the eastern coast of Africa, just north of the equator. It's got a wonderful heritage and I've always wanted to visit (my mother will be interested in the new information).. some friends have just come back & I skyped them in Cape Town! My life to be .. six months here in the summer & six months in Africa & travelling the world ....?!

Spices .. ties in with yesterday's post on saffron .. the islands became part of the historical record of the wider world when Arab traders discovered them and used them as a base for voyages between Arabia, India and Africa ... one of the things that fascinated me as a child was the dhow plying its trade up the coast to the Arabian Peninsula - idyllic looking .. deep blue and carmine sails, turquoise seas, sunny skies and yellow sands .. what more could a girl dream of?

Stone Town was a safe haven from which to trade with the East African coastal towns - before the Portuguese, during the Age of Exploration, took control; in 1698 Zanzibar fell under the Sultanate of Oman - developing plantations to grow spices .. hence the moniker of the Spice Islands. Again as a child I seem to remember reading that you could smell the spices (nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and pepper) on the breeze and as you approached the island .. I'd still love to visit - wouldn't you?

The history makes interesting reading .. & I felt enlightened me on the complexities of that part of the world .. and is perhaps worth a read - it is a shortish piece on Zanzibar in Wikipedia.

A totally inconsequential piece of information supplied .. which amazed me .. is that apparently Zanzibar was the first region in Africa to introduce colour television in 1973 .. while mainland Tanzania did not introduce television at all until the early 1990s!

.. another snippet I found interesting is that the Red Colobus (old World Monkeys) and the Zanzibar Leopard, amongst other animal species, travelled across from the mainland during the last ice age.

Oh Mr Postman .. you do make life interesting for us .. we all enjoy your positive stories ..

Sunday 8 March 2009

Saffron - the most expensive spice in the world?

Dear Mr Postman .. ah! warmth to my heart - home memories .. and, as you know extra information that I love to hear about ...

Saffron has a large place in our hearts - the Cornish hearts! Saffron buns and saffron cake were always on offer on our holidays - wonderful fresh or toasted buns or slices .. with creamery butter dripping off - ready to be guzzled down by hungry kids.

Saffron is obtained from the three orange stigmas of the true crocus flower; which when dried constituted one of the most valued and expensive spices in the world.

Saffron has been around 'for ever' ... in biblical times saffron was of the highest importance, not only as a spice and perfume, but for its food & colouring properties; the Greeks used saffron - Homer mentioned it; Pliny said that the benches of public theatres were strewn with the flowers, and the petals placed in small fountains to scent the banqueting halls. Saffron-scented essences were made to descend upon the people like dew ... from the roof of the ampitheatre: how wonderful that must have been?!

The Arabs, Greeks and Romans used Saffron in perfume, medicine and dyeing; it was tansported from Persia (Iran) to India for the colouring of curry. It is cultivated in France, Spain, Sicily and Iran, and it is native to Greece and Asia Minor.

We grew it here in the 16th century - the market town of Saffron Walden became so famous for its production that 'Market Walden' became Saffron Walden. There were small cultivations elsewhere .. but it's likely that the Saffron in Cornwall was originally imported from Persia way back in the middle ages .. when there was a fair amount of trade with the Phoenicians for the minerals, particularly tin, found in Cornwall.

Another interesting snippet - is that in the 19th century .. it was used, combined with sandalwood, cochineal and talc powder, in the making of rouge!

Saffron is used today in many dishes made in countries around the world: risotto in Italy; paella in Spain; garlicky mayonnaise rouille served with French fish soups; in creamy Indian desserts; and, of course, as part of our Cornish heritage - rich yeast buns with currants, or the crumbly cake slices .. served with a spread or lashings of butter or simply eaten on their own.

Thanks for telling us about Saffron and its history .. what's on for tomorrow? ....

Saturday 7 March 2009

..and without rain, we would talk French?!

Dear Mr Postman - thank you for delivering this positive letter article from the Saturday Times online, I shall enjoy reading it again to my mother Ben MacIntyre writes really well . We loved reading it the first time when my mother was still in London and laughed together at all the historical facts and connotations .. it makes interesting reading .. "what if?" ..

"This country is going to the ducks. We are soaked, sodden, drenched and clammy. For what feels like 40 days and 40 nights, a sky the colour of mushroom soup has dumped on us from a not very great height. The gutters, culverts, ditches and reservoirs are bursting. The animals are forming up two by two of their own accord.

The climate is stuck at February. We are in a national state of mildew.

What a patriotic spectacle is the great British public in a great British snit (state of irritation!) about The Great British Weather (anagram: harsh bitter wet heritage). Everyone is complaining about the weather and, as usual, no one is doing a damn thing about it.

The human body is, of course, mostly composed of rain, and for the past few weeks rain has seeped into every corner of our consciousness.

The thing about this British rain is that it is, meteorologically speaking, exceptionally wet. It has a peculiar, merciless quality that Somerset Maugham described precisely: “It did not pour, it flowed. It was like a deluge from heaven . . . it seemed to have a fury of its own. And sometimes you felt that you must scream if it did not stop, and then suddenly you felt powerless, as though your bones had suddenly become soft; and you were miserable and hopeless.”

We cannot do anything about the rain, we don’t know exactly what has caused it in this quantity, and we can’t find anyone to blame. This makes the Daily Mail even more furious. Rain is one of the last aspects of our world over which we have no control.

(Actually, we can do something about it: in the north Indian region of Kumaon, the traditional remedy for stopping rain is to pour hot oil in the left ear of a dog. The animal’s howls are heard by Indra, God of weather, who stops the rain out of pity for the animal’s suffering. Simple, really.)

And yet, while we worry about global warming and pick the moss out of our socks, there is also something in the British character that welcomes the downpour as an old, if annoying, friend. In prose and song, we sentimentalise raindrops on roses, and rain driving against the window, “bringing back sweet memories”.

No other nation gets dressed up for the rain as we do. This is the country that invented the Wellington, the Barbour, galoshes with fake rubber laces, and those special elderly-lady hoods that fold into a concertina and emerge from handbags at bus stops with the first spot of drizzle. Asda sold 220 per cent more slippers last month compared with June 2006.

Two rain-pelt Scotsmen, John Loudon McAdam and Charles Macintosh, gave us waterproof roads and waterproof raincoats. The British umbrella is our national foliage. We spend £65 million on umbrellas every year, and one in ten people manages to lose or destroy at least four a year.

Bad weather is our history, language and literature. Elizabeth and Darcy only fall in love because inclement weather forces them indoors in Pride and Prejudice. In English, it rains cats and dogs, buckets, stair rods, tacks and pitchforks.

Only Afrikaans can compete in rain idiom, with “ Ou vrouens met knopkieries reen” (It is raining old women with knobkerries). Dolly Parton, living embodiment of all that is uplifting, puts it thus: “The way I see it, you wanna rainbow, you gotta put up with rain.”

Rainfall helped us to win at Crécy (1346, by dampening their crossbow strings), Agincourt (1415, by turning the battlefield to mud and bogging down the overarmoured French knights) and Waterloo (1815, by forcing Napoleon to delay his attack, thus giving the Prussians time to turn up). Without rain, we would definitely be speaking French.

So keep complaining, pop on those fashionable galoshes and thank the Rain God you are not in South Africa where, even now, it is raining old women with large wooden clubs."

Thank you Mr Postman .. we do laugh at these painted story images .. it does bring history to life .. - your positive letters do help my mother ...