Thursday 25 February 2010

Alpha, Treacle, Beta, Dogger, Snow – what do they mean to you?

Words, all of them, probably mean something completely different to all of us. English is one of the most descriptive languages with many meanings for the same or similar things, or something completely different.

If I said “treacle” to you – what would you think? A very dark, sweet, sticky substance. If I said “treacle mine” – and we have one locally here in East Sussex – what would your mind tell you? Codswallop? (Twentieth century slang for ‘Nonsense’: ‘Cod [You can’t cod me] You can’t take me in or deceive me .. oh no?!) ... but a mine full of treacle?

Alice in Wonderland – theatrical release poster (film 2010)

Actually when we were growing up, we always had golden syrup, never the very dark ‘black treacle’, as it was known, which I found bitter. The reason the word ‘treacle’ is syrupping its way round my blog .. is because the new film “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is opening tonight in London.

The “treacle well” that features in The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, held at Binsey, Oxfordshire, is referred to in an article I read .. and I suppose in my youth I imagined just that: a well able to pump up treacle to have with my scones and cream for tea: delicious and permanently on tap – what could be better for a small child?

Treacle wells are fairly well known in England – Henry VIII even took Catherine of Aragon to St Margaret’s Church in Binsey on pilgrimage in the hope that the waters would help her conceive a son, while four hundred years earlier the local priest, Nicholas Breakspear, went on to become Adrian IV, the only British Pope (1154 – 1159).

St Margaret's Well, Binsey, Oxfordshire

The ancient Greeks gave the name “treacle” to several sorts of antidotes (panaceas), but ultimately it was applied chiefly to Venice treacle (theriaca androchi), a compound of some 64 drugs in honey. Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535) speaks of “a most strong treacle against these venomous heresies”.

Theriac” was the medical concoction originally formulated by the Greeks in the first century AD and became popular throughout the ancient world as far away as China and India via the Silk Route trading links. By the medieval age treacle meant a medicinal compound for healing. It is likely that ‘treacle wells’ came to mean springs with not too wholesome waters, those contaminated with mineralisation, for example of arsenic, iron or manganese.

I’m calling time on treacle, though I could go on! As we’re thinking about Alice and children perhaps Alpha and Beta should come next .....

“A" can be traced to a pictogram an ox head in Egyptian hieroglyph or the Proto-Semitic ox’s head, Phoenician Aleph, Greek alpha, Etruscan "A" to the Roman "A", so similar to our "A" today.


Proto-Semitic Ox's Head

Phoenician aleph

Greek Alpha

Etruscan "A"

Roman "A"

The letter “A” (Alpha) tells the story in summary as shown above in this depiction through the eras, and with the second letter of the Greek alphabet, “beta” makes up the word “Alphabet”. The alphabet we use today, the twenty six characters of the Roman alphabet can be used for almost every language in the world; whereas Chinese has 45,000+ symbols, with an educated Chinese person using about 1,600 of these, but the man-in-the-street only about 1,500.

Early Greek alphabet on pottery in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens

I was going to write about the Dogger Bank – the underwater sand bank in the North Sea between England and Scandinavia, which at one time, as Doggerland, connected England with Europe and we could walk across. Then up pops the word ‘dogger’ meaning a Dutch boat, a sailing ketch developed in the 17th century, for the fishing vessels that plied the waters around the area we now know as the Dogger Bank marked in red.

I also got to thinking about that dreadful word “snow” that we all seem to have had enough of this year – in English we have one word “snow”, but I’m sure I remember in the Danish book by writer Peter Hoeg, “Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow”, he stated that there are 26 words in Danish for snow! So much for English being a very descriptive language as far as snow is concerned. Yes we have sleet ... but nothing to describe the different facets of snow – soft, light, damp, crystal etc etc .

Then of course I did not know that “snow” is another word for a Dutch boat! It’s a type of brig, often referred to as “snow-brigs” – perhaps the two famous brig names you may recognise are the Lawrence and Niagara, American warships of the Battle of Lake Erie (1813). However this picture by Charles Brooking painted in 1759 is magnificent, I think.

A naval snow, by Charles Brooking, 1759

As you can see our Alphabet developed and became mixed and more refined as the lexicographers worked their magic over time. The humans spread language, mixed roots and allowed through regional differences, their nomadic wanderings, their exploration to see ‘what lay over the ocean’, this magnificent legacy that we have today which is WORDS. A way to describe our life, remember past lives through writings and stories from millennia ago, and to converse, post and journal our way with words for our readers.

Dear Mr Postman – we have had our fair share of rain down here , but in Scotland they’ve had lots of snow .. and it is miserable for all concerned – let’s hope the lengthening days will bring the slightly warmer weather with some sun and dryness thrown in. My mother slept through all the damp – that was a wise thing to do .. and sometimes (quite often) I’d like to jump in beside her and have a good zizz – like the hibernating animals – though I’d be grateful to find my fridge still well stocked, when I awoke!!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday 23 February 2010

The Presidents’ Portraitist and Snuff ....

Comes of not doing my homework properly and making an incorrect assumption! I completely missed the most important aspect of that magnificent picture “The Skater”, which I was in awe of when I found it on Wikipedia, as it satisfied many aspects for my post – the mini ice-ages that have occurred over the centuries: here it is recorded in the picture dated 1782, and the fact that the gentleman is so well dressed; the fact that Gilbert Stuart was an artist, presumably English, I had not heard of registered, but only that.
The Skater, 1782, a portrait of William Grant by Gilbert Stuart

Gilbert Stuart is one of America’s greatest portraitists! Did you know it is his portrait of Washington that has been depicted on the one-dollar bill for over a century? Throughout his career Stuart produced portraits of over 1,000 people, including the first six Presidents of the United States.

His work is now found in many celebrated museums in America and England. I have to thank Terro who said that she did not know that Stuart had spent some of his early career in Scotland and England, which triggered me to look a little closer and who exactly this Gilbert Stuart was.
Gilbert Stuart's unfinished 1796 painting of George Washington, also known as The Athenaeum, is his most celebrated and famous work.

Now that I’ve looked a little closer I see too that William Grant, “The Skater”, was fairly influential in North America – he issued the ordinances establishing civil and criminal courts in Quebec, when he was appointed attorney general in 1776 – before being superseded by the formal appointment of James Monk for the post, by the Secretary of State for the American colonies.

Grant returned to England to ultimately excel at being a parliamentary orator, first practising by giving a lucid explanation of Canadian law during the debates over the Quebec Government Bill, as a Member of Parliament in Great Britain.

Both these men, along with many, many others, were intrepidly crossing the Atlantic Ocean in sailing vessels – the first steam ship (that was in fact a hybrid of steam and sail) to cross the Atlantic was only made in 1819. I am absolutely certain that I would not like to have made that journey then. Except that surprisingly travelling by ship or boat was safer than facing the bandits on the highways and byways of land.

The snuff connection here is that Gilbert Stuart’s father, a Scottish immigrant employed in the snuff-making industry, worked in the first colonial Snuff Mill in America, located in the basement of the family homestead, in Rhode Island.
The Gilbert Stuart Birthplace in Saunderstown, Rhode Island

Snuff taking was observed on Columbus’ second journey to the Americas during 1493 – 1496 by the native peoples of Haiti. Snuff, the pulverised powder from tobacco, had already long been in use in the Americas as an ‘entheogen’ (a plant psychoactive substance).

It seems that the idea of ‘curative properties’ helped popularize snuff, when Jean Nicot, the French Ambassador to Portugal, had sent some in 1561 as a medicine to the court of Catherine de Medici to treat her son’s persistent migraines. The genus ‘Nicotiana’ for tobacco was named after Nicot.

Within two hundred years of Columbus’ find on Haiti, snuff was being traded around the world from Europe, to the UK, to northern Europe and on into Russia, across to India, Asia and even China.

Even by the 1600s some were objecting to snuff being taken, while the Pope threatened to excommunicate ‘sniffers’ but the Tsar set a worse punishment – have your nose off. However King Louis XIII was a devout snuff taker. The trend continued some loved it, some hated it – an English doctor, John Hill (1716 – 1775), warned against the cancerous element of snuff.
An Antique Pair of Snuffers, 1888

When I found that Gilbert Stuart’s family worked at a snuff mill in the family home in Rhode Island, it was just after I’d spotted a wonderful snuff box when I was looking at ‘Love Spoons’ for my recent Valentine’s Day post.
Nineteenth century carved walnut treen snuff box

A wooden “Treen” is a generic name for small wooden handmade functional household objects. As it happens there are two tiny villages in the West of Cornwall called ‘Treen’ – “tre” in Cornish means farm or settlement, perhaps the word ‘Treen’ comes from a Celtic derivation – hence the name for something from or for the home.
Is William Grant not as well dressed as the Olympic Skaters??

Dear Mr Postman – everywhere seems to be soaking in rain: we are here, Madeira had the most awful deluges, the Americas don’t seem to be faring much better .. not a good week for you doing your rounds – thanks for being here though. Mum is ok, but we’re not out of the woods yet for her. She’s comfortable and cheerful – and really what more can I ask.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Saturday 20 February 2010

February – the half-way month ..

Spring is coming so they tell us, the copses of woods, the meadow verges, the hedge banks are all sprouting little green shoots - first come the snowdrops, the winter-flowering lily, sometimes called snow-piercer – most definitely that’s what it will be called this year: Wales and the Midlands have just had another snowstorm .. and down here we might have one this weekend.

Famers tend to mark February as the half-way month – when the weather has always been unpredictable and can often be the coldest month. Mother Nature for now definitely does not want to come out while winter continues to do its worst. The leaf tips of the snow-piercer specially hardened and pointed to penetrate the frozen ground, while the flowers are protected by a sheath-like spathe as they emerge.

Lambs tails and Pussy Willow will appear on the bare twigs of hazel trees and goat willow always heralding spring, creamy yellow male flowers producing clouds of dusty pollen, while the goat willow has wonderful silky silver male catkins, which turn yellow in March. The tactile feeling of goat willow is just wonderful and each year I’ve managed to find some to bring in for my mother. These sprays of sallow, heavy with male and female catkins, will traditionally decorate the Churches on Palm Sunday.

In country lanes the hedgerow plants are stirring, except this year I think they’ve returned to their beds for a while longer – sensible flowers! Mother Nature is holding onto her flowering goodies, holding them back, until the weather warms and we have a wonderful burst and mass of colour to gladden our hearts and lift our souls towards the lengthening sun.

We have had early anemones from Cornwall – those fantastic jewels of colours. I have to say as a child I do not remember anemones in October, which since my mother has been ill, and when her birthday is, I’ve managed to find some for her. Where we ‘bed and breakfasted’ as kids there was a kitchen garden full of flowering anemones at Easter .. I used to love them.

At home we had a copse which was full of snowdrops, daffodils, narcissi, celandines with the bluebells later on; under the large sprawling oak tree the drift of snowdrops spread out, also followed by the daffodils; we must have had crocuses, but the ones I remember were in Hyde Park in my London days – I always sat upstairs on the double-decker bus so that I could see the amazing display of orange, cream , purple and white crocuses as we travelled down Bayswater Road towards Marble Arch and the West End.

Then the hedgerows give us the violet and the primrose. The sweet violet, as one of the first wild flowers to bloom, is essential to insects on the wing providing winter sustenance. This the sweet violet has a heady fragrance eulogized as the flower of Aphrodite, goddess of love. An oil distilled from its petals has been used since the times of ancient Greece in perfume making and also in herbal medicines.

February that month of hope to have our spirits dashed with a bitter spell, or two or three – when the light is ever beckoning us to longer days – over an hour longer now - February renowned for flooding rivers, for winter winds and long icy gusts over the white empty miles of snowy fields – just going straight through you.

Where are the other signs of life – the birds scuttling around and joining the lone January robin: the blackbirds are there with their bright orange beak and wonderful showy song; the chaffinch energetically chirping all around us; shy birds such as dunnock and wren too sing on eagerly awaiting warmer days. Tiny birds the goldcrests singing their shining song from high in a lofty conifer, and the song thrush welcoming sun as it shines through.

The insects start to appear, needing to find the nectar to keep them nourished, the birds, beetles and tiny mammals likewise need to keep themselves fed – so when a cold snap comes, many animals and insects, already under pressure finally succumb.

The rigours of winter stretch their resilience to the limits and diminish their food supplies. Keeping warm takes much of their energy. For some small, warm-bloodied creatures even a single night below freezing is terminal. This year I suspect there will be many.

The red deer in Scotland are particularly hard hit this year as they need fresh grass and heather and the snows have been particularly tough and impenetrable for flora and fauna – and deer have one other disadvantage they naturally do not hold much fat, as they are born to roam the moors: this year they are worried that a whole generation may not survive.

However life adapts with wrens and long-tailed tits roosting snugly together in small crannies, postboxes!, upturned flowerpots, and sensibly into nesting boxes intended for their brood in the spring. Imagine seeing 50 or so little birds safely pop out of a postbox!

So that cold month of February is keeping us guessing – 2005 we had snow in February, 2006 and 2007 I don't think so; February 2008 was cold but we did not have snow, we had snow in February 2009, and now again in 2010.

Now 1649 I can tell you! – the hearse used for Charles I and his funeral on February 19th 1649 was covered in snow, the day having started out serene and clear, as we had here today.

Dear Mr Postman - thank you for visiting - my mother asked about her letter! Nothing escapes her - she was telling me what to do with the flopping tulips today! She's still very unwell - but as you'll see still fighting and hanging on in there. She still can't hear - but she seems happy .. loves the flowers - tulips, daffodils, narcissi and anemones ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Collop Monday , Shrove Tuesday, Amazing Grace and Ash Crosses

Bacon and eggs, pancakes with lemon and sprinkled sugar, ash crosses and the hymn “Amazing Grace” are all connected to this time of year. Collop Monday, which I think is a lovely name, was yesterday – and is so called after the traditional dish of the day, consisting of slices of leftover meat along with eggs.

Collops (pieces of bacon) were traditionally eaten as part of the Lenten preparations, using up any meat left in the larder or cold store; another advantage of having collops was the source of fat produced for the pancakes made on Shrove Tuesday.

Pancake with lemon, ready to be sprinkled with sugar

A modern day full English breakfast with scrambled eggs, sausage, black pudding, bacon, mushrooms, baked beans, hash browns, and half a tomato

Fasting during Lent was more severe in ancient times than in the early Middle Ages when meat, eggs and dairy products were generally forbidden, as part of the religious influence, but probably also because life at that time of year would have been difficult – as the end of the winter stores were dwindling, while the spring crops had not really started.

Although originally of pagan content, the traditional carnival celebrations which precede Lent in many cultures have become associated with the season of fasting if only because they are the last opportunity for excess before Lent begins. Shrove Tuesday is now part of the diverse Carnival celebrations which take place in many parts of the Christian world, from Greece, to Germany, to the Mardi Gras and Carnival of the Americas.

Shrovetide is this three day period just before the opening of Lent, when people went to confession, called shriving, and afterwards indulged in all sorts of sports and merry-making. The community celebrations around England go back centuries – but the best known one is the pancake race.

Shrove Tuesday was once known as a ‘half-holiday’ in England. It started with the ringing in the villages and towns of the Pancake Bell, which was the signal for the villagers to cease work, go home to make pancakes or join in the fun and games.

Lent personified at a Carnival celebration. Detail of 1559 painting "The Battle between Carnival and Lent" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The tradition of the pancake race is said to have originated when a housewife from Olney, Buckinghamshire was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the shriving bells ring for the service. She raced out of the house to the church while still carrying her frying pan and pancake, probably tossing it as she went so as not to burn it!

The Olney Pancake Day Race has been held since 1445 and now competes each year with the town of Liberal, Kansas for the fastest international time, I can’t find a connection as to why – nor can I find a good picture of Liberal... it is flat though!

The ingredients for pancakes are symbolic: eggs for creation, flour for the staff of life, salt for wholesomeness and milk for purity. Remember to let the batter stand for an hour or two to let the starch swell and the bubbles to pop ensuring each pancake will hold together. A tiny drizzle of the collops’ fat went into the frying pan, heated through until the pan was almost smoking ready for a half ladleful of batter to just cover the base of the pan and give you a good fine thin pancake.

I remember the simple pancakes we always had at home .. cooked on the Aga, kept warm in the bottom oven, while another was cooked ... eventually the pancakes came out for dessert – to be drizzled with fresh lemon, sprinkled with sugar, rolled up and guzzled, before three childish requests ‘please can I have another’ rebounded round the kitchen – appetites need to be satiated! I prefer plain – I think! Though I know there are masses of alternatives.

Olney has another well known claim to fame – the hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by John Newton in the 1770s, who was curate in Olney at the time, and published in 1779, but the hymn settled into relative obscurity. In the States however, “Amazing Grace” was used extensively during the early 19th century, and when in 1835 the hymn was joined with the tune “New Britain”, it has over time become one of the most famous and universal of all folk hymns.

The vicarage in Olney where Newton wrote the hymn that would become "Amazing Grace".

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as a sign of repentance. The ashes used are gathered after the Palm Crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

During my foray (good historical reads) around Wikipedia on Amazing Grace, John Newton and the Olney Hymns I came across this epitaph, which Newton wrote himself – and perhaps it appropriately sums up this post .. Newton enjoyed life – and would have loved the revelries of Shrovetide – but turned to repent and pay penance when he was restored to mercy, before devoting himself to poems, hymns and the Church.

Once an infidel and libertine
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach
the Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy.
He ministered,
Near sixteen years in Olney, in Bucks,
And twenty-eight years in this Church.

The bottom of page 53 of Olney Hymns shows the first stanza of what became "Amazing Grace".

Collop Monday, Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday all seem appropriate names in the circumstance. What do you think? and have you had pancakes today?

PS - question from Sara .. and here's the explanation from Olney Town Council site: The Olney Pancake Race, dating back more than five hundred years, is held on Shrove Tuesday. The course is 415 yards long and is run from the Market Place to the Church at 11.55 a.m. Participants, housewives or young ladies of the town, must have lived in Olney for at least 3 months and be at least 18 years old. Competitors must wear the traditional costume of a housewife, including a skirt, apron and head covering. They must of course carry a frying pan containing a pancake. The winner, on crossing the line, must toss her pancake and she is then greeted by the verger with the traditional kiss of peace. The race is immediately followed by a Shriving service in the Parish Church when the official Olney and Liberal prizes are presented.

Dear Mr Postman – have you had pancakes today to warm you up after the pouring rain we had this morning? They had pancake tossing up at the Nursing Home, but sadly we do not participate in mealtimes, the residents seemed to enjoy it – much hilarity all round. My mother is much the same, but she now has a nebuliser and perhaps that will alleviate her throat. She’s still incredibly aware and with it – asking me about the blog! Let’s hope her hearing returns, though obviously she’s very sleepy.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Saturday 13 February 2010

St Valentine’s Day, Tokens of Affection and Love Spoons

It seems a little unfair somehow that the Saints of yore are now celebrated in so many ways and we forget that they were probably martyred or some other terrible death befell them. On top of that there always seem to be two or three ‘saints’ with the same name: as in the case of St Valentine – a priest of Rome, a Bishop in Umbria or a martyr in the Roman province of Africa. And – why is the poor chap now known only as Valentine – losing his title of Saint?

Victorian Valentine's Card

It appears that Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle in the fourteenth century were the perpetrators of the myth surrounding St Valentine and his association with romantic love, as set out in Chaucer’s “Parlement of Foules (1382) (Assembly of Fowls); but this may be the result of misinterpretation. Chaucer wrote the following lines to honour Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia his betrothed (they were only 14 years old):

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Wha euery bryd comyth there to chese his make”

Shakespeare had Ophelia ruefully mention Valentine’s Day in Hamlet in 1600 some two hundred years after Chaucer. Perhaps the French had one of the quaintest links – the ritual for the High Court of Love was established on Valentine’s Day in 1400. The court dealt with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Judges were selected by women on the basis of poetry reading!

Saint Valentine of Terni oversees the construction of his basilica at Terni, from a 14th century French manuscript

The earliest surviving valentine is a fifteenth-century rondeau written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, who was being held in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt, 1415, to his wife which commences:

"Je suis desja d’amour tannĂ©
Ma tres doulce Valentinée ..."

During the 1800s printers had begun publishing sentimental verses for young lovers to use, then along came “mechanical valentines”, while the reduction in postal rates ushered in the less personal but easier practice of mailing valentines. This led to another Unintended Consequence in an era otherwise prudishly Victorian – the sudden appearance of racy verse!

Paper Valentines began to be assembled in factories made with real lace and ribbons; paper lace followed on, while talented lovers painted and wrote prose and poetry to their loved ones. In the1800s the legend and lore of the language of flowers were included, some with hand-coloured and detachable flowers containing a hidden message behind each, others containing perfumed sachets, and all of them bearing words of love.

Valentine's Day postcard, circa 1910

Eugene Rimmel, the celebrated parfumier, also specialised in Valentines. From his sweetly-scented emporium in London in the late 1860s and 1870s hearts and darts, and loves and doves, encircled with gilt and paper lace, secured with satin bows, were dispatched to all parts of Britain.

Along came the 20th century when the ease of posting cards encouraged the industry to new growth levels – ever expanding the possibilities for a retail explosion ... more cards, chocolates, flowers etc

The British postal strike of 1971 discouraging the posting of cards, with their love messages, encouraged one innovative evening paper to suggest that the sending of flowers might be an alternative – ie circumventing the Post Office. This different approach to Valentine’s Day provided the florists with a new trade .. especially a single red rose in a ribbon-tied box delivered to the girl of their dreams; since then flowers abound at this time of year, though cards have too made a comeback.

I hope you all get a bunch of wonderful red roses ...

Love tokens though have been around through the centuries not necessarily tied in to Valentine’s Day, possibly being influenced by the religious tokens produced in early Christianity. The Love Tokens that caught my eye are the Love Spoons of the Celtic world, which before becoming decorative love symbols, would have shown that the suitor was capable of providing for his future family through woodcarving.

They probably originated from the “cawl” (thick welsh vegetable and meat soup) spoon, which over the generations would have been decorated until it lost its original practical use and became a treasured decorative item to be hung proudly on a wall.

Certain symbols came to have specific meanings or identify the carver – an anchor for a sailor, a horseshoe for luck, a cross for faith, bells for marriage, hearts for love, a wheel supporting a loved one, a lock for security, a flower would mean affection or how about a dragon for protection.

Love spoons are also to be found in Scandinavia and parts of Eastern Europe, which each have their own unique styles and techniques. Wooden spoons or ladles have been found dating back to Iron Age Celts (250 BC); while wooden spoons dating back to the 5th – 8th century Anglo Saxon and the 8th – 11th century Viking invasions have also been found.

Celtic Lovespoon with hearts, lock and wheel

Love has always been the igniter of life .. love starts it, love nurtures, love comforts, love supports and love is with us at the end .... love is all – on Valentine’s Day and for us all for always.

Dear Mr Postman – another 18 cm (7 inches) of snow this week here in Eastbourne seemed to bring us to a standstill once again, fortunately a sunny day yesterday melted a great deal of it, but it’s still very cold. My mother still isn’t well and I’ll get up to see her again today having been laid up myself .. lets hope we can resolve her ailments .. if we can get her hearing back I’d be grateful.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday 9 February 2010

Rhinoceros chase - or how about a little rolling over with Hippopotami?

Fancy being chased by a three toed monster – a rhinoceros? This large primitive looking mammal is as old as the hills – it was around over 5 million years ago. The white or square-lipped rhino is one of two species in Africa, its name deriving from the Dutch word “weit”, meaning wide. It is about eleven feet long and will stand five foot high at the shoulder, weighing in at over two tons. Some creature.

When we visited National Parks in southern Africa the warming given is that wild animals can be dangerous .. a slight understatement perhaps? – keep calm, keep your voices down and remain in your vehicle as you travel the dirt roads around the parks, stopping and watching the animals, birds, insects or reptiles as you come across them.

Rhino and oxbill ..

The Hluhluwe and Umfolozi Game Reserves in Natal are the oldest conservation areas in South Africa, coming into existence in 1897. The Kruger Park being established the following year, starting life as a relatively unknown conservation area, before becoming what is now an internationally recognised national park, and one perhaps you have heard of.

Zululand has always been rhino country and the records of the old hunters are filled with accounts of their adventures with these great beasts. Both white and black rhino flourish here, though the Parks are mainly known for their white rhinoceros conservation programme. The colour description is a misnomer – they are both a rather dirty grey!

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve

The bifurcating river in the Umfolozi Game Reserve converges once again creating a huge tongue of land, 50,000 hectares in extent, which is among the loveliest bush country in Zululand, backed in the north by a high ridge of hills.

This area between the two rivers has always been frequented by wild animals. It is classic savannah country. The grazing is rich, the climate - warm to hot, with ample water – suited to most African mammals. Hunters had been kept away due to the tsetse flies and the rhinos (both black and white) were happily in residence – fortunately saved and conserved for us – the future game viewers.

Rhinos love the grassland and open savannahs where they find water holes, mud wallows and shady trees and tend to be more gregarious than their black counterparts. However they are rather ill-tempered and have been known to charge, without apparent reason – as their eyesight is poor, while their sense of smell and hearing are very good.

When attacking, the rhino lowers its head, snorts, breaks into a gallop reaching speeds of 30 miles an hour, and gores or strikes powerful blows with its horns. Still for all its bulk, the rhino is very agile and can quickly turn in a small space.

Rhino hide

We were happily travelling round the Game Reserve keeping to the dirt tracks, some of which had been cut into the surrounding bushveld to give a relatively flat road surface. We’d seen lots of buck, giraffe, rhinos, elephant, zebra, jackal, vultures, cranes and more – just wonderful to be able to stop and admire these creatures.

We were returning to leave the Park by one of the more obscure single track dirt roads, which had been cut down into the savannah lands, we were going up an incline and in the distance the road was ‘blocked’ and wandering towards us was a white rhino.

I had to make a decision, I kept going for a little while, thinking that it might amble off – but no and its midriff was at the top of the road - I had not heard of a rhino jumping. So now the dilemma started, there really wasn’t much room to turn round, but I decided I had to – as I could go more quickly going forwards than I could reversing and there was time, as long as I didn’t get stuck.

A rhinoceros in the Umfolozi nature reserve

A three point turn became a ten point turn .. we made it and I was very grateful to be able to drive away. It didn’t seem concerned – but the thought of two tons of solidity with a horn colliding with me at 30 mph – made me not tempt fate!

This horn might only be compacted keratinous fibres, similar to hair, which is attached to skin rather than the skull. Rhinos are often seen with oxpeckers, called tick birds, eating away at any ticks they find, while warning the rhino of any danger.

I did find the fact that a saddle had been attached to a rhinoceros about 2,100 years ago in China very interesting, and wonder why and how. Is it true or is it symbolic? This little world of ours always ends up being smaller than we think ..

A bronze rhinoceros figure with silver inlay, from the Western Han (202 BC – 9 AD) period of China, sporting a saddle on its back

But how about a little rolling over with hippos? I watched this tumultous turmoiled tussle in a drying river, within a drought stricken Rift Valley in the middle of Africa. Hippopotamii 13 foot long and also up to five feet tall, weighing slightly less than the rhino at just under two tons, need enough deep water to cover them.

A hippo pod

When there’s a drought they huddle into the deepest pools all squashed together like great beached whales – and all is well until someone tumbles into the aggressive bull, and all hell lets loose .. the massive bodies jostle and heave against each other in a wave until the end of the line is reached and the last one rolls over – bish bash, squish squash, heaving body mass desperate to get into the water again. The perils of nature.

This post was requested by Davina of Shades of Crimson - as she had just written about being chased by a bear, when she was out as a youngster with her family on a horse trek .. it's a good read ... please go on over ....

Dear Mr Postman – thank you for delivering this. You must be getting sick of this cold weather – it is a bit much - roll on Spring! My mother is slowly improving and we just wait for her to get better as much as possible, and for her hearing to come back.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Sunday 7 February 2010

The Law of Unintended Consequences and Post Boxes

If I told you the first post boxes were installed in Paris in 1653, I am not sure that is correct as mail was being collected 150 years earlier under a milkwood tree from a shoe, granted not a box. I tell no lie.

This first and only postal shoe box (opposite right) is to be found in Mossel Bay, South Africa, when the Portuguese explorers in the very late 1400s put into port, for refuelling of fresh water and provisions, and would leave important letters, about their trip to India and the Spice Islands, for the next sea voyageur to read. These were put in a shoe, hung in a large milkwood tree to be collected by a later ship.

First Paris street letter box from c.1850

So let us go back to the first permanent post box in Europe, which was believed to have been installed in Paris in 1653. Perhaps you call them mail boxes? But I guess you know what I mean – boxes into which letters can be ‘dropped’, then collected by the mail service for onward delivery.

In Victorian Britain they were also called lamp boxes (because they were affixed to lamp posts); Ludlow wall boxes – built of wood, came to be built into stone pillars or the walls of buildings and were never free standing; and last but not least the name we call them today - ‘pillar boxes’.
Lamp box mounted next to a sewer gas destructor lamp in Crookes, Sheffield
(the main purpose of these was to remove sewer gases and their hazards).

Ludlow EIIR plate, now disused, built into a garden wall at a country house in North Wales (to the left)
These collection boxes, mailboxes, drop boxes, or pillar boxes were originally hexagonal in shape and painted green with the first one actually being erected in Jersey, Channel Islands in 1852. The Victorians managed to standardise the colour to green for 21 years, before changing it over to red (a colour now known as pillar box red); however the design continued to be improved for many more years being adjusted to the appropriateness of the locality.

Outgoing mail used to be taken to a ‘letter receiving house’, usually coaching inns, or turnpike (toll) houses where the Royal Mail coach would drop passengers and drop or collect letters. The Royal Mail traces its history back to 1516 when Henry VIII established a “Master of the Posts”; the service was available to the public from 1635 with postage being paid by the recipient!
This rare Victorian 2nd National standard wall box near Andover in Hampshire has a large hood and a pedimented top to keep the rain out (above right)

The Uniformed Penny Post was introduced in 1840. By the late 19th century, there were between six and twelve mail deliveries per day in London, permitting correspondents to exchange multiple letters within a single day.

Law of Unintended Consequences – the first was the painting of the pillar boxes a bronze green colour chosen as it was thought that would be unobtrusive. Too unobtrusive as it turned out – people kept walking into them. So red they became.
This rare Edward VIII pillar box door shows the built-in posting aperture, collection plate and the Royal Cipher. (Remember King Edward VIII abdicated in under a year of succession in December 1936).

The next Law of Unintended Consequence was not foreseen, nor could it be stopped – once the genie escaped the posting box. As letters could now be posted at numerous places, ladies no longer needed to rely on the coachman or servant to take their letter to the ‘receiving house’ for onward delivery.

Can you guess what happened – yes the emancipation of women – ladies were able to start directing their own lives and ultimately became free to contract, to marry and to vote. This was not an obvious outcome that the Victorians expected with the introduction of the posting boxes around cities, towns and country. This rapid change was also abetted by the numerous collections during the day – six to twelve letters being written and received in one day ... love rushes in!
Day dress of c. 1875 James Tissot painting

The Law of Unintended Consequences in common usage, is a wry or humorous expression warning against the hubristic belief that humans can fully control the world around them – I just liked the idea that the introduction of pillar boxes freed us women, to allow us to be where we are now; while the fact that people walked into post boxes because they blended in to the landscape too much - made me laugh: the thought of the Victorians wandering along and going kerplunkt – only to find they initiated an unintended consequence for Victorians to bump into an iron box – strikes me as fun! Hope you think so too?
PS: (Traditionally UK post boxes carry the Latin initials of the reigning monarch at the time of their installation: VR for Victoria Regina (Queen Victoria); GR for George V, ER for Edward VIII, GR for George VI and ER for Elizabeth Regina.)

& that Law of Unintended Consequences .. why oh why, when I set it all out "so nicely" with paragraphs all clearly delineated does Blogger decide to take matters into its own little murky paws and make its own miserable mess up??!! It does irritate me when it does it .. ??!!

Dear Mr Postman – oh oh .. the cold is coming back. My mother is better I’m pleased to say, but she still can’t hear .. we wait for it to resolve this week. It’s difficult communicating – as she can’t hear, and has left-sided neglect – so can’t read properly either .. we did watch the rugby match yesterday, as she was awake and I think loved having something ‘to do’. Difficult times – we’ve got a mini whiteboard – but as I said .. I’m not sure how much she can see – as we can’t talk to each other .. it’s something I can’t work out. Let’s hope it sorts itself out.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Groundhog Day, Candlemas and Jannie the First ...

Groundhog Day - that day when that tiny animal as it emerges from its burrow should it produce a shadow it disappears rapidly underground to sleep the next six weeks away .. announcing from its behaviour that Spring is not yet here.

I’m not sure how that plays out here on a grey, wet English day .. and we don’t have groundhogs – so our pronouncement that Spring is here is made by regulatory edict, printed up and if by some miracle we have a heat wave earlier and Summer arrives unannounced in March – then we’re stumped, because Spring has just been ticked to begin on the calendar.

A picture of Jannie's CD "I Need A Man"
I have also learnt that in the States you have official holidays, while other religious, ethnic and traditional holidays populate the calendar – but are rarely observed by businesses as holidays, while are known as Hallmark (card) holidays! Perhaps we should be groundhogs – then we can go back to bed for another good sleep?

This custom was brought over to the States from Germany and is, to this day, traditionally celebrated in Pennsylvania. It seems to have taken its origins from European weather lore, and pagan festivals – when the badger or sacred bear would have been the prognosticator. No doubt most of you are wiser than I am .. and will have seen the film? So I can leave groundhogs and the coming of spring to their own devices.
Meeting of the Lord, Russian Orthodox icon, 15th Century

It’s also Candlemas (40 days after Christmas) – now that’s important .. because those of us who have been lazy and had left the decorations up – definitely need to make rapid plans to take them down by today: Candlemas!

On a more serious note this day is also known for the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, as well as for the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and for the Meeting of the Lord. It celebrates an early episode in the life of Jesus and is celebrated by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and by the Church of England.

I gather winter is going to continue –

Now this too is a Funster day .. did anyone tell you? Me neither, but I won a prize before Christmas .. which themselves managed to tell me about the day before my birthday – good timing eh?

Jan, our renowned meditator, guider, mentor, posted an interview with Jannie .. who has this wonderful habit of popping around the blogging world and making comments that we just have to laugh at, or with her .. but she ain’t no fool .. she sends Blue Bunny around too .. sometimes first, sometimes later on to check who else has commented perhaps? and sometimes both together... and then both comment again quite often ...
I love this one - Jan describes this picture as "Jan - Square" .. if you look at mine it's described as "Hilary - Good" .. that was at that stage of exhaustion! See what we say of ourselves behind the scenes .. Jan doesn't look square to me!

I love Blue Bunny’s mother tongue .. and actually on groundhog day is appropriate .. it’s a mix of Dutch, German, Afrikaans and Huguenot .. so you can see Jannie and BB spread their love and laughter around the net – making us all wake up to smiles and joy.

Now I really did receive a prezzie prize - for the best comment on that post .... through the snow and over the ocean came this wonderful CD – courtesy of the songster herself – if you click through to her site – three of the songs on CD are featured there .. “Sugar Lady”, “What’ll I DoWith Me” and “I Need a Man”. By the way you can’t go over yet – you have to finish and you have to comment?!

I’m really enjoying listening to her melodic voice, together the with accompaniment – I exhort you to have a listen .. but more importantly to buy her CD – unless there’s another prize going soon .. but you may not be as lucky as me .. so you’d better buy – it’s just a click away!

Jannie’s description of herself on the CD is somewhat different to the sugar sweet, laughing damsel that flutters around the blogosphere .. first she is Jannie the First – did you know that? – could there be another .. oh oh .. Kelly features too .. under my favourite number 13 as the smallest songster (ever probably .. nearly!).

Then the description continues ..that she’s a Canadian born-and-bred expert kindling chopper, adroit cow milker, chocolate cream pie eating contest winner and soup aisle fandango maven – now that tells us! So I have this wonderful CD which is playing away .. and then there’s a lovely Thank You Card with a few other wonderful words on it and an explanation of a photo showing Jannie the First, a mere 15 years ago, and the house they used to own across the Bay.
That's one of them things .. the groundhog!

To top it off a lovely little book of Smiles – with a toothless youngster peering happily through a lifebuoy – it only takes (my favourite number again) 13 muscles to smile – so smile on .. Three quotes from the book – all anonymous:

“Of all the things we wear, a smile and a good humour are the most important”

“It’s almost impossible to smile on the outside without feeling better on the inside”

and last but not least “A Smile Costs Nothing but Gives Much”

Happy times – keep blogging – keep smiling – be generous – keep giving – just live life to the full as Jannie does .. as calmly as Jan does ..

Dear Mr Postman – yes a different sort of post – you can meet some of my friends .. it makes a change and it was a real treat to win a prize .. lucky me .. or as Jannie would say ... whoooo hooo. Blue Bunny and Hardwick are mates – and my Ma thinks that my friends from around the globe are wonderful .. she loves hearing about them! My Ma was sleeping most of the day today – but she seems better, and as long as we can sort her hearing out then I shall be relieved .. not be able to communicate .. is tricky.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories