Boating adventure & the Second Best Modernist Building in London

The Hoover Building in Perivale NW London, photo Kevin Flude

I published this piece in April, but for some reason to do with the fact that I published the posts from my phone rather than my computer, no email was sent to subscribers.

So, here is a chance to see it.

What makes owning a narrow boat so wonderful, apart from enjoying living amidst nature, is the accidental discovery of undreamt of wonders.  Last week, I moved my narrow boat from Westbourne Park, on the Grand Union Canal, to Perivale.  A 3-hour boat trip of less than 10 miles to a frankly uninspiring suburb.  But, as so often, mooring in an uninspiring place uncovered surprises that transform the mundane to the delightful.

Paddington branch of the Grand Union Canal heading west from Westbourne Park.  Photo Harriet Salisbury

We set off on a beautifully sunny April morning to move the boat the requisite distance to satisfy licence terms. Rain at 12 prompted a premature end to the trip.  We trudged to Perivale Underground Station, bemoaning our failure to get to Southall, to enjoy a Dosa In London’s Little India.

The road to Perivale is dull suburbia.  But we stopped at a library boasting a cafe, which turned out to be a really nice bit of early 20th Century library architecture, with a cheerful volunteer explaining they were keeping the library from closure due to council cost-cutting.

Perivale Library photo Kevin Flude

They had made the library really cosy with sofas and comfortably sitting areas. Sadly, the promised Café was not open.

Perivale Library. Interior. Photo Kevin Flude

The volunteer pointed us in the direction of a sandwich at the Tesco in the Hoover Building. I had no idea this icon of Modernism was a short walk away, so we jumped at the chance to see, at close range, one of my favourite London buildings. 

The Hoover Building (photo K Flude)

I regularly point it out to the groups I take to Oxford.  But I have never seen it up close nor standing still. Not only is the building a fabulous cream and green, but it has a backstory of interest to London’s history.  As road transport began to remake the geography of London in the early 20th Century, factories in Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth, and other Inner London Boroughs closed, and new factories were constructed on the roads out of London, mostly manufacturing consumer goods.  Park Royal, Greenford, Slough and Staines were among the areas to develop as consumerism powered the 20th Century with the production of irons, kettles, hairdryers, radios, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and suchlike delights for the workers and families. The fields around were turned into rows of semi-detached houses to mortgage to the workers.

The Hoover Building is a Grade II* listed building of Art Deco architecture[1] designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners located in Perivale in the London Borough of Ealing. The site opened in 1933 as the UK headquarters, manufacturing plant and repairs centre for The Hoover Company.[2]‘ (Wikipedia). It has been converted to apartments and a Tesco occupies the Factory Floor.

What made this trip even more special was that one of the original buildings has become a Hotel, in which we discovered a massive Indian Restaurant.  There, we found it full of about 500 people eating a fast-breaking Eid dinner. £26 to eat as much as you can, all self-service, with scores of chefs serving their delicious tureens of Asian food. Such a great cultural experience, and rather better than the tasteless Tesco sandwich we were expecting.

If I’m passing the factory on a tour, I tend to read to my group Sir John Betjeman’s patronising poem ‘Slough’ which is about the horror of the new consumer society.   ‘Slough’ is wonderful to read and, yet, also, awful, not just the Oxbridge author looking down his long privileged nose at the lower classes but going to the extreme of suggesting Slough would be better off bombed to smithereens.

Guernica was bombed on 26th April 1937 and ‘Slough appeared’ in a Betjeman collection called ‘Continual Dew’ in the same year (I havent located a reference with the actual date of publication).  Bad taste in the extreme, hardly mitigated by the fact that it was originally written in 1928 and was about trading estates in general rather than Slough in particular.  Still, despite all it is still one of my favourite poems for the insight it gives to attitudes of the British class system.

So, here it is.

Slough

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town-
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week a half a crown
For twenty years.

And get that man with double chin
Who’ll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women’s tears:

And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It’s not their fault that they are mad,
They’ve tasted Hell
.

It’s not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It’s not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sport and makes of cars
In various bogus-Tudor bars
And daren’t look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

850 new factories were built in Slough before the outbreak of world war two, and the Trading Estate was first seen here. And yes, they are bleak, and Slough is even now, not the most exciting or architecturally sophisticated of towns.  But to imagine bombing a town in a time when there was a real fear of mass destruction from the air?

I particularly object to the line about tinned food because I was brought up on tinned beans, peas, steak and kidney pudding, pineapple chunks, peaches, and rhubarb.  And exactly what is wrong with a hair-dryer?

Before I read Slough, I recount an experience I had years ago with an American group who suddenly started laughing for no reason.  I enquired, and they pointed to a huge advertising hoarding with a poster about the Electrolux Vacuum Cleaner.  Its location near the Hoover building, I imagine might have been deliberate, but what made the Americans laugh was the slogan:

‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux’

To a British person, the slogan works in a positive sense and we appreciate the wit.  For the Americans, it made them all laugh with shock as to why anyone would pay to say their vacuum cleaner was complete pants.

Oh, and second best? Well, the best Modernist Building in London is the Daily Express Building, Fleet Street.

May 8th Helston Furry Dance

At the end of the May Day/Beltane Festival Helston in Cornwall holds its Furry (or Floral) Dance. It is normally on the 8th May, but it changes date if the 8th is a Sunday or a Monday (Helston’s market day) but it isn’t so the Floral Dance was held this year on Wednesday 8th 5th May.

Padstow holds, perhaps, the most famous May Day festival on May 1st. Padstow feels more of a ‘pagan’ festival, while Helston is a more sedate, gentlemanly, dance. Padstow is more fuelled by a belly full of ale, while Helston by a Pims No 1, or a Gin and Tonic?

Do, have a look at both youtube videos and watch the Padstow one until at least you see the ‘obby ‘orse and the teaser dancing.

Children born between the two days, May 1st and May 8th are considered to have been ‘born with the skill of man and beast and power over both.’

May the Bees be with you! May 5th

Swarm of Bees, Hackney (Photo Kevin Flude 30th May 2018)

Tusser’s ‘Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry’ published 1573 suggests we should:

take heed to thy Bees, that are ready to swarm, the loss thereof now, is a crown’s worth of harm.’ The loss was particularly hard in May or June as the country verse tells us:

A swarm in May
Is worth a load of hay
A swarm in June
Is worth a silver spoon
A swarm in July
Is not worth a fly.

In 2018, on 30th May, I was perturbed to find a swarm of Bees hanging outside my front door. Frightened of leaving my house, I rang a local Bee Keeper who came around to take possession of the Bees and take them to a new home.

Swarm of Bees having moved 20 yards to a new home, being 'rescued' by a bee keeper.
Swarm of Bees, having moved 20 yards to a second perch, being ‘rescued’ by a bee keeper. You can see the swarm above his head

According to Hillman’s ‘Tusser Redivus’ of 1710, swarming in May produces particularly good honey, and he advises following the bees to retrieve them. He says:

You are entitled by custom to follow them over anyone’s land and claim them … but only so long as you ‘ting-tang’ as you go, by beating some metal utensil – the sound whereof is also said to make your bees stop.’

Much of the above is from The Perpetual Almanac of Folklore by Charles Kightly.

Bees swarm when a new Queen Bee takes a proportion of the worker bees to form a new colony. They will latch unto a branch or a shrub, even a car’s wing mirror, while sending bees out searching for a suitable new home, such as a hollow tree. There may be hundreds or even thousands in the new colony, and this may be very alarming, as I found, as I could not go out without walking through a cloud of bees. But, at this point, they will not be aggressive as they do not have a hive to protect. Look here for more information on swarming.

An average hive will produce 25 lbs of honey, and the bees will fly 1,375,000 miles to produce it, which is flying 55 times around the world (according to the British beekeepers Association (and my maths)) https://www.bbka.org.uk/honey

Bees are still having a hard time as their habitats are diminishing and threats increasing. In July, DEFRA hosts ‘Bees Needs Week’ which aims to increase public awareness of the importance of pollinators.

They suggest we can help by these 5 simple actions

  1. Grow more nectar rich flowers, shrubs and trees. Using window or balcony boxes are good options if you don’t have a garden.
  2. Let patches of garden and land grow wild.
  3. Cut grass less often.
  4. Do not disturb insect nests and hibernation spots.
  5. Think carefully about whether to use pesticides.

For more above Bees Needs Week look here:

Roodmas, the True Cross and the Coronation May 3rd

Rood screen in St. Helen’s church, Ranworth, Norfolk by Maria CC BY-SA 3.0

Roodmas is celebrated on May 3rd and September 14th, although the Church of England aligned itself with the Catholic Church’s main celebration on September 14th.

Rood is another word for the Cross. Parish Churches used to have a Rood Screen separating the holy Choir from the more secular Nave. This screen was topped with a statue of the Crucified Jesus nailed to a Rood.

The two dates of Roodmas reflects that it commemorates two events:

The Discovery of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem in 326 by Queen Helena, wife of Constantius Chlorus and mother of Constantine the Great. In Jerusalem, Queen Helena found the Cross with the nails, and the crown of thorns. She authenticated the Cross by placing it in contact with a deathly sick woman who was revived by the touch of Cross. She had most of the Cross sent back to the care of her son, Constantine the Great.

The part of the Holy Cross that was left behind in Jerusalem was taken by Persians but recovered by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 628 in a peace treaty.

Over the years, the Cross was shivered into ever smaller pieces as Emperors, Kings, Queens, Dukes, Counts, Popes, Bishops, Abbots, and Abbesses swapped relics with each other. The fragments were cased in beautiful reliquaries and had enormous power for those of faith and those who could be helped by healing by faith.

The Duke of Buckingham had a piece in his collection, which he kept at York House in the early 17th Century. How he got it, I don’t know, but I think he must have acquired it from the aftermath of the destruction of the Reformation. John Tradescant, who looked after the Duke’s collection (before Buckingham was murdered), had a wonderful collection of curiosities which he kept in the UK’s first Museum in Lambeth. Tradescant’s Ark, as his museum was called, also had a piece of the True Cross. Again, I suspect (without any evidence) that he got it from Buckingham. Did he acquire it after the murder? Or shiver off a timber fragment hoping no one would notice?

The Chapel that Shakespeare’s Father controlled as Bailiff of Stratford on Avon, was dedicated to the Legend of the True Cross, to find out more click here:

cutting from the Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation
Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation

Last year, I was just finishing this piece when I came across this astonishing story in the Shropshire News!

It seems two pieces of the True Cross were given to Charles III by the Pope! They have been put into a cross called the Welsh Cross which took part in the Coronation Procession, and then the King is giving the Cross (I assume with the pieces of the Holy Cross) to the Church in Wales. Let the Shropshire News tell the story:

Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation
Part 2 Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation

This is quite extraordinarily medieval, and fits in with the news that we were encouraged to take an oath of allegiance to the new King.

I, (Insert full name), do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Charles, his heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/royals/swearing-allegiance-king-charles-its-29861318

It is a clear reminder that we are subjects not citizens and news, as a nation, we still set store by superstitions.

First Written on May 3rd 2023, revised May 3rd 2024

May Day May 1st

Bringing the Maypole, Bedfordshire. Image from ‘Romantic Britain’

Maypoles were often stored during the year. A few days before May Day they were repainted, and bedecked with May Garlands – mostly made from Hawthorn. The Maypole used in London in 1660 was 134 feet high. Tall straight trees were used, sometimes of Larch, and they might be spliced together to get the requisite height. John Stow says that each parish in London had their own Maypole, or combined with a neighbouring Parish. The main Maypole was on the top of Cornhill, in Leadenhall Street, and it was stored under the eves of St Andrew’s Church which became known as St Andrew’s Undershaft as a result.

Padstow holds, perhaps, the most famous May Day festival on May 1st. Padstow feels very ‘pagan’ or do I mean it is fuelled by an enormous amount of drink?

Here is a video, watch until you see the ‘obby ‘orse and the teaser dancing.

The celebrations begin on May Eve because the Celtic calendar starts the day at Dusk. This seems strange to us even though we perversely ‘start’ our day at Midnight just after everyone has gone to bed! The other choice, and maybe the most logical is, Dawn, but Dawn and Dusk are difficult to fix. Midnight was chosen by Julius Caesar when he created the Julian Calendar. Midnight has the virtue of being a fixed metric, being half way between Dawn and Dusk.

Celebrations centred around the Bonfire, and for the Celts was sacred to the fire God Belinus, and May Day was called Beltane. Bonfires continued to be a part of the celebration into the 16th Century, and in places until the 20th Century. According to folklore tradition, the bonfire should be made of nine types of wood, collected by nine teams of married men (or first born men). They must not carry any metal with them and the fire has to be lit by rubbing oak sticks together or a wooden awl twisted in a wooden log. The people have to run sunwise around the fire, and oatcakes are distributed, with one being marked with a black spot. The one who collects it has to jump through the fire three times. Bonfires would have been on the top of hills, or in the streets in London.

May celebrations have a similarity to Halloween, which was also a fire festival and both are uncanny times when sprites and spirits abound. Hawthorn was a favoured wood not only because of its beautiful may flower but also because it was said to be the wood the crown of thorns was made from. It had the power of resisting supernatural forces, so was used to protect doors, cribs, cow sheds and other places from witches. Witches, it was said, got their power to fly from potions made from chopped up infants. The best protection was Christening and the custom was that christening took place as early as possible and normally three days after birth. Shakespeare was baptised on 26th April 1564, so we celebrate his birthday on 23rd April. See my post for more on this subject.

Cribs would be bedecked with Hawthorn and protection might be augmented by a bible, rowan, and garlic. Babies born between May 1 and 8 were thought to be special children destined to have power over man and beast. Weddings were frowned upon in Lent and in May, so April became a popular choice for marriage.

After celebrations in the evening of April 30th, women would go out in the woods to collect May, other flowering plants, and to wash their faces in May Dew preferable from the leaves of Hawthorn, or beneath an oak tree, or from a new-made grave. The dew was said to improve their complexion and was also used for medical conditions such as gout and weak eyes. Thinking of one’s lover on May Day might bring marriage within the year.

May morning would commence with dancing around the Maypole, followed by feasting, and summer games.

St Totteringham’s Day? 28th April

I newspaper heading

Today, might be St Totteringham’s Day.  The mythical Saint, born in North London in the Noughties, has a variable feast day, but normally, in March or April. Sometimes, there is no feast day for the Saint.

My own hope is that a miracle will take place this year and St Totteringham is denied his customary outing.  But it looks unlikely; the best I can hope for is that it is postponed for a few days.

Scholars find that the best predictor of the Saint’s Day is not the Moon but the results of Premier league results for arch North London rival football teams, Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs) and Arsenal (the Gunners). 

So, St Totteringham’s Day is the day that Arsenal are so far ahead of Spurs in the Premier League Table that Spurs cannot possibly overtake them.  Today, Spurs are playing Arsenal and if Arsenal win, they will declare the celebrations of the North London’s Saint can begin.

Fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen.

Another neologism from North London is to be ‘Spursy’.   Espn.co.uk defines it as: (and it breaks my heart to tell you this).

‘The more modern meaning is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory or to fall short with the prize in sight. This is because, over time, the club’s lack of silverware has come to influence the meaning of “Spursy.” That original 2014 entry reads: “To consistently and inevitably fail to live up to expectations.’

Next year, it will be different.

The Beginning of the Universe as We Know It; Birthdays of Adam, Lilith, & Eve; Conception of Jesus, Start of the Year March 25th

Lilith is shown coming her hair and looking in a mirror
Study for Lady Lilith, by Rossetti. 1866, in red chalk. Now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Wikipedia
Study for Lady Lilith, by Rossetti. 1866, in red chalk. Now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Wikipedia)

March 25th is the Annunciation—the day that the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary she is pregnant. (to see some very fine paintings of this meeting, look at my other March 25th post here)

March 25th is also the anniversary of the birth of Adam and Eve (and presumably Lilith); the death of Jesus Christ; the anniversary of the Immolation of Isaac; the Parting of the Red Sea; the Fall of Lucifer; and, (until 1752 in the UK) the beginning of the Year.

Of course, it isn’t or to put it another way, no one can, or ever could, prove any of these dates except the last one. So what they speak to is the way the Church saw the world as logically structured by God. Christian thinking about the year, the world, the universe, creation, developed over many years and took influences from many cultures. It is also very complicated to work out the sequence, so I’m going to summarise from what I know (or at least what I think I know).

Christians chose Christmas Day as the Birthdate of Jesus probably because it was a prominent birthday already shared with several Gods, but particularly Mithras and Saturn. It was approximately at Solstice, the beginning of the Solar Year, and close to one of the main festivals of the Roman World, the Saturnalia. December 25th might have been chosen by the pagan religions because it is the time when the Sun begins to rise, to the naked eye, further north each day, lengthening the day, increasing light and the promise of warmer weather.

So, Jesus was born on/or around the Solstice, so he must have been conceived approx. 9 months earlier, which would be around the Spring Equinox. I have always thought that the 4 or 5 days difference between the Solstice, the Equinox and the Christian festivals was down to the fact that the Calendars were not well coordinated with the actual movements of the Sun (because the Sun does not circle the earth in 365 days, or in 365 and a quarter days, but 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes which makes Calendars hard to align with the Sun). But I have just realised the importance of something I discovered yesterday when preparing my two posts on March 25th. And since writing that sentence I have had another revelation. But be patient.

So, God sends his Son to save the human race. God is a logical being, so she would send the Son at an appropriate time. If the Child is born at or near the Solstice, which is an appropriate time for the Son of the Creator, then 9 months earlier, March 25th, is near the Equinox, which is the beginning of Spring. For many people, Spring is a new beginning, for example, the Anglo-Saxons saw Winter as the death of the year, and Spring as the young Year.

So to the Creation. God, having a free choice, would have created the world at the beginning of Spring. In fact, if you think about it, God creates everything necessary for life at the creation in 6 days, and it is going to immediately spring into new life, and the first season must, therefore, be Spring? Right? So March 25th.

This gives a nice symmetry with Jesus’s Life. Conceived on March 25th, born December 25th, and died 30-40 years later, according to the Church, on March 25th. (the only other famous person I know born and died on the same day is William Shakespeare).

Easter, when Jesus is martyred, isn’t March 25th I hear you saying. But remember, Easter is a lunar festival, so its date varies each year. Births and deaths, on the other hand, are fixed to the Solar Calendar and the Church chooses March 25th as the most appropriate day to pin the death of Jesus, on the anniversary of his conception and the anniversary of the creation of the Earth, and I am guessing that this is also the preferred date for the Day of Judgement.

It is also the Birthday of Adam, and his first wife Lilith (or so some say), and Eve. More about Lilith below. I thought this date was just one of the parallels that the Church liked, Jesus and Adam born on the same day but, I have just worked out why Adam is born on March 25th, and why these dates are not the Equinox, March 20th but March 25th, which has been bugging me.

Let’s go back to the Beginning of Creation. According to the Anno Munda‘s arrangement of the Year, the world was created 5500 years plus 2023 years ago so 7523 Before the Present. And it was supposed to have ended in 600AD, 6000 years after the Creation. So, they got that wrong.

The Creation, as described in Genesis, has the following sequence of Seven Days. As the Creation began at the Equinox March 20th. I have added dates to the 6/7 day sequence of Creation:

  • Day 1: Light – March 20th
  • Day 2: Atmosphere / Firmament – March 21st
  • Day 3: Dry ground & plants – March 22nd
  • Day 4: Sun, moon & stars – March 23rd
  • Day 5: Birds & sea creatures – March 24th
  • Day 6: Land animals & humans – March 25th
  • Day 7: The Sabbath of rest – March 26th
  • For more information www.bibleinfo.com

So there you have it! Adam, Lilith, and Eve were created on Day 6 with the Land Animals – March 25th. Jesus conceived, also on this date, and so 9 months later is born on December 25th. It all makes sense, and aligns the Christian year fully with the Solar Year.

And that, dear Reader, is the very first time anyone has been able to explain to me why Christmas is not at the Solstice, and why the Annunciation was not at the Equinox. Maybe you all know this, but it is very exciting to work this out for myself. And believe me, I have done a lot of reading about calendars and not spotted an explanation.

So that was yesterday’s revelation. What about the revelation I had about 45 minutes ago? (now about 5 hours). When writing items like this, there are numerous things that are interconnected, and I begin writing them before realising I am interrupting the story I am trying to tell. This is often to the detriment of the story arc, or to understanding (although often, I think, adds to the joy of this blog – after all ChatGBT couldn’t write this stuff – could it?).

So I began to write about Dionysius Exiguus and his invention of the AD/BC system and about eras, cycles, and ages. (He replaced the Anno Mundo year with the AD/BC system in the 6th Century AD).

I was thinking about the beginning of the year. The Celts chose October 31st, Julius Caesar chose January 1st, other cultures have other dates, and the Spring Equinox is another choice sometimes made. The Church and Dionysius Exiguus choose March 25th, although secular society also recognised the claims of January 1st. Britain kept to March 25th until 1752 when we adopted the Gregorian Calendar. But people like Samuel Pepys celebrated New Year’s Eve on 31st December. So January 1st was the New Year, but the year number did not change until March 25th. So King Charles I thought his head was being cut off on January 30th 1648; while history books will tell you it was cut off on January 30th 1649. Same day, different reckonings.

December 31st/January 1st is essentially a Solstice New Year Festival. And I have, previously, used the difficulty of keeping calendars as to why these days has slipped out of alignment with the Solstice. But, today I realised that it is as likely that the reason is the Solar/Lunar nature of our time keeping. The year, and its festivals, is largely arranged around the Solar Cycle. But our weekly and monthly cycles are derived from the Moon. So, I think that January 1st (or the Kalends of January as the Romans would have called it) would originally have been the First New Moon after the Winter Solstice. Keeping the Moon months and the Sun years in sync is very, very difficult, and so Roman and Christian cultures gave up and fixed the moon months, completely abandoning any attempt to keep the months to the actual lunar cycle. This is our current system, in which only Easter remains a true to the moon festival, much to our perennial confusion.

Maybe you all know this, but I’ve learnt a lot in writing these two posts.

Lilith

The April 2023 Issue of ‘History Today’ has a short piece called ‘The Liberation of Lilith’ which suggests that the story of Lilith, a figure from Jewish Folklore, is first attested in a Medieval satirical text called ‘The Alphabet of Ben Sira’. The story goes that Lilith is created using the same clay as Adam. Adam then demands she lies below him during sex. She refuses, saying that they are both made from the same stuff and, therefore, equal. Adam refuses to accept this, and so Lilith leaves the Garden of Eden. So the story goes.

The story of Lilith, Sarah Clegg suggests, is one of a series of similar stories found around Europe and Asia. And Clegg assumes that it is gradually modified to make Lilith a demon who will kill babies unless the names of three angels are spoken out loud. So, the story survives as a charm to keep babies safe, and perhaps to remind people of equality among the sexes. But this causes problems for, OK, let’s call them out, the Patriarchy. Lilith cannot be equal to Adam so she becomes a monster, not made from the same clay as Adam but from the scum and waste left over from Adam’s creation. I imagine the story then went on to propose that God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, and so she is created from Adam, and is, therefore nor equal, but subservient to him. Lilith is now a significant figure in feminist folklore circles.

I wrote about more about eras and ages in my post which you can see her: Greater Cycles and the Six or Seven Ages

Attached to the watercolour of Lilith by Rossetti (at the top of the page), was a label with a verse from Goethe‘s Faust as translated by Shelley. (Wikipedia)

“Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.”

The model is Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti’s mistress. He painted another version a few years later, but the model in that is Alexa Wilding. His models are arguably more interesting than the man himself and include: Elizabeth Siddall, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth. Christina Rossetti, his poet sister, modelled for Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini which you can see here.

I think I might have enough material to begin my own Cult.

For more on the Annunciation, look at my other March 25th post here.

Lawrence Oates: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’  March 16th 1912

photograph taken by Kevin Flude of the display of Antarctic Explorer's Kit 1912 (reconstruction) at Gilbert White's House in Hampshire
Display of Antarctic Explorer’s Kit 1912 (reconstruction) at Gilbert White’s House in Hampshire

A few weeks ago I went to Gilbert White’s House in Selborne. The naturalist’s House also houses the Oates Museum for Lawrence ‘Titus Oates’ and his uncle Frank. Oates was one of the ‘heroes’ I read about as a child. He epitomised what was sold as the British virtues of pluck, self-sacrifice, restraint.

So, I have been seeking an opportunity to feature him and meant to post an entry from Scott’s Diary on 29th February to celebrate the Leap Year. But the piece of paper I had to remind me got buried. So here is part of the story of Oates self-sacrifice over the days from February 29th to March 16th:

Wednesday, February 29th 1912

Lunch. Cold night. Minimum Temp. -37.5°; -30° with north-west wind, force 4, when we got up. Frightfully cold starting; luckily Bowers and Oates in their last new finnesko; keeping my old ones for present. Expected awful march and for first hour got it. Then things improved and we camped after 5 1/2 hours marching close to lunch camp—22 1/2. Next camp is our depot and it is exactly 13 miles. It ought not to take more than 1 1/2 days; we pray for another fine one. The oil will just about spin out in that event, and we arrive 3 clear days’ food in hand. The increase of ration has had an enormously beneficial result. Mountains now looking small. Wind still very light from west—cannot understand this wind.

From Scott’s Polar Institute Web Site

A finnesko is ‘a boot of tanned reindeer skin with the hair on the outside’.

The next opportunity for the almanac was:

Monday, March 5th 1912

Lunch. Regret to say going from bad to worse. We got a slant of wind yesterday afternoon, and going on 5 hours we converted our wretched morning run of 3 1/2 miles into something over 9. We went to bed on a cup of cocoa and pemmican solid with the chill off. (R. 47.) The result is telling on all, but mainly on Oates, whose feet are in a wretched condition. One swelled up tremendously last night and he is very lame this morning. We started march on tea and pemmican as last night—we pretend to prefer the pemmican this way. Marched for 5 hours this morning over a slightly better surface covered with high moundy sastrugi. Sledge capsized twice; we pulled on foot, covering about 5 1/2 miles. We are two pony marches and 4 miles about from our depot. Our fuel dreadfully low and the poor Soldier nearly done. It is pathetic enough because we can do nothing for him; more hot food might do a little, but only a little, I fear. We none of us expected these terribly low temperatures, and of the rest of us Wilson is feeling them most; mainly, I fear, from his self-sacrificing devotion in doctoring Oates’ feet. We cannot help each other, each has enough to do to take care of himself. We get cold on the march when the trudging is heavy, and the wind pierces our warm garments. The others, all of them, are unendingly cheerful when in the tent. We mean to see the game through with a proper spirit, but it’s tough work to be pulling harder than we ever pulled in our lives for long hours, and to feel that the progress is so slow. One can only say ‘God help us!’ and plod on our weary way, cold and very miserable, though outwardly cheerful. We talk of all sorts of subjects in the tent, not much of food now, since we decided to take the risk of running a full ration. We simply couldn’t go hungry at this time.

From Scott’s Polar Institute Web Site

But March 16th was free in my almanac, so I have been preparing for this day!  Only to find that Scott may have got his dates wrong, so it should be the 17th.  But that’s St Patrick’s Day, so I’m going with the 16th.

Friday March 16th or March 17th 1912

Lost track of dates, but think the last correct. Tragedy all along the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor Titus Oates said he couldn’t go on; he proposed we should leave him in his sleeping-bag. That we could not do, and induced him to come on, on the afternoon march. In spite of its awful nature for him he struggled on and we made a few miles. At night he was worse and we knew the end had come.

Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not – would not – give up hope to the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning – yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.

I take this opportunity of saying that we have stuck to our sick companions to the last. In case of Edgar Evans, when absolutely out of food and he lay insensible, the safety of the remainder seemed to demand his abandonment, but Providence mercifully removed him at this critical moment. He died a natural death, and we did not leave him till two hours after his death. We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit, and assuredly the end is not far.

I can only write at lunch and then only occasionally. The cold is intense, -40º at midday. My companions are unendingly cheerful, but we are all on the verge of serious frostbites, and though we constantly talk of fetching through I don’t think anyone of us believes it in his heart.

We are cold on the march now, and at all times except meals. Yesterday we had to lay up for a blizzard and to-day we move dreadfully slowly. We are at No. 14 pony camp, only two pony marches from One Ton Depot. We leave here our theodolite, a camera, and Oates’ sleeping-bags. Diaries, &c., and geological specimens carried at Wilson’s special request, will be found with us or on our sledge.

photo of the display at Gilbert White's House Selborne
From the display at Gilbert White’s House, in Selborne Hampshire

How much Oates story is tarnished by discoveries published in 2002, I will leave you to read here.

Mothering Sunday & Simnel Cake March 10th

Strangely, very little to do with Mothers! Mothering Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Lent and is a day in which we are enjoined to visit our Mother Churches. It, therefore, became a day when people made processions to their Churches, and when servants and workers could go to their home parishes, and not only go to the Mother Church but also to say hello to their mothers. It was called Mothering Sunday when I was little but since then has morphed into the Americanism that is Mother’s Day.

In Church the Reading is often Isaiah 66:10–11

‘Rejoice ye with Jerusalem; and be ye glad for her, all ye that delight in her: exult and sing for joy with her, all ye that in sadness mourn for her; that ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations.

Jerusalem is personified. here, as the Mother. Further associations with motherhood came from the Gospel for the day which is John 6:1–14, the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which led to associations with the bounty of Mother Earth.

In the medieval period visits to the Mother Church seem to have become fiercely competitive. The Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste decreed:

In each and every church you should strictly prohibit one parish from fighting with another over whose banners should come first in processions at the time of the annual visitation and veneration of the mother church. […] Those who dishonour their spiritual mother should not at all escape punishment, when those who dishonour their fleshly mothers are, in accordance with God’s law, cursed and punished with death.

(Letter 22.7 – Wikipedia)

Simnel Cake

It was also the Sunday in the fasting period of Lent in which the restrictions were relaxed, so you could eat what is called Simnel Cake.

I’ll to thee a Simnel bring
‘Gainst thou goest a-Mothering
So that, when she blesseth thee
Half that blessing thou’lt give me.

Herrick Hesperides 1647

Photo: James Petts from London, England – Simnel cake (wikipedia
Easter 2012

The Simnel cake is a fine flour light fruit cake (Latin simila, fine flour), with layers of marzipan in it. It often has 11 balls of marzipan on the top, representing the 11 (not Judas) apostles. The cake is first boiled for two hours and then baked.

Now, I know 95% of my American readers hate fruit cake, but believe me when I tell you – you are completely wrong! Its delicious, and here is the BBC’s recipe for you to try:

https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/easter-simnel-cake

And I’m beginning to see that cake is an emerging theme of this Almanac of the Past.

Written in March 23, slightly revised in March 24

Nettles and the Grecian Spring March 10th

Image of web site for Hesiod's works and days, showing pandora's box an illustration by William Blake

In the early modern almanacs there is much weather and horticultural advice to be had (Weather Lore. Richard Inwards).

March damp and warm
Will do farmer much  harm

or

‘In March much snow
to plants and trees much woe

The store cupboards are getting denuded of the fruits, nuts, preserves, pickles, salted and dried foods saved from the summer and autumnal abundance. Of course this is alleviated by the reduced consumption of the Lenten fast.  (I’m currently giving up, giving up things for Lent). But nettles are budding. I’ve recently taken to a regular cup of nettle tea provided by the excellent Cowan’s tea emporium in the Covered Market in Oxford. But I’m running out and not due to visit Oxford for a month or two. So Charles Kightley in his Perpetual Almanac tells me that young stinging nettles are appearing, and perhaps, I might change up the tea for a nettle beer:

Take a gallon measure of freshly gathered young nettles washed well dried and well packed down. Boil them in a gallon of water for at least a quarter of an hour. Then strain them, press them and put the juice in an earthenware pot with a pound of brown sugar and the juice and grated skin of a lemon. Stir well, and before it grows cool put in an ounce of yeast dissolved in some of the liquid. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place for four or five days and strain again and bottle it, stopping the bottles well.  It’ll be ready after a week, but better if left longer.

A more sinister use is provided by William Coles who gives a method of detecting virginity.

Nettle tops are usually boiled in pottage in the Springtime, to consume the Phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness of the winter have left behind. And it is said that if the juice of the roots of nettles be mixed with ale and beer, and given to one that suspected to have lost her maidenhood, if it remain with her, she is a maid, But if she’s spews forth, she is not.

William Cole’s Adam in Eden 1657.

Mrs Greaves in her ‘A Modern Herbal’ tells us that William Camden relates that Roman soldiers used nettles to heat up their legs in the cold of a British winter.  The 18th century poet Thomas Campbell is quoted on the virtues of nettles:

“I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.”

Greaves tells us that when the German and Austrians had a shortage of cotton during the blockade of World War 2 they turned to nettles to replace cotton production believing it to be the only effective substitute.  It was also substituted for sugar, starch, protein, paper and ethyl alcohol. 

Pepys ate Nettle Pudding in February 1661 and pronounced it ‘very good’.  Nettles were added to horse feed to make their coats shine, and as a hair tonic for humans.  Nettle Beer was used for old people against ‘gouty and rheumatic pains’, and flogging with nettles was a cure for rheumatism and the loss of muscle power!

I can see I’m going to have to get out there and carefully pick myself some nettles! ( For Folklore of nettles look here). But this post was conceived as a piece on Spring starting with Hesiod!

The Works and Days is a farmer’s Almanac written for Hesiod’s brother. It has a mixture of seasonal good advice and moralising. He is, one of the first great poets of the western world, and near contemporary with Homer. He is an important source for important Greek Myths, and, for example, tells us that the story of Prometheus and Pandora is the reason the Gods cannot give us a simple wholesome life. He also talks about the ages of humanity which are: Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Heroic Age, and our own decadent Iron age. This system was borrowed by C. J. Thomsen at the National Museum of Denmark in the early 19th Century to create out modern Three Age System of Stone, Bronze and Iron Age. Our system is more optimistic with a progressive trend while the Greek system degenerates through successive eras..

Hesiod sees Spring as a time to begin trading by sea but he warns us not to put all our eggs in one vessel as Spring can bring nasty nautical surprises.

In Rome early March is taken up much with celebrations of the Great God Mars, the one who enabled the Romans to conquer most of the known world. For the Anglo Saxon their poetry saw Spring as a great release when the ‘fetters of frost’ fall off and allow a welcome return to sailing on the high seas .

The Seafarer

The woods take on blossoms, towns become fair,
meadows grow beautiful the world hastens on;
all these things urge the eager mind,
the spirit to the journey, in one who thinks to travel
far on the paths of the sea.
….

So now my spirit soars out of the confines of the heart,
my mind over the sea flood;
it wheels wide over the whale’s home,

Poem from the Exeter Book known as the Seafarer, quoted in Eleanor Parker’s ‘Winters in the World a journey through the Anglo Saxon year’.

Hesiod ‘Works & Days’

‘Spring too grants the chance to sail.
When first some leaves are seen
On fig-tree-tops, as tiny as the mark
A raven leaves, the sea becomes serene
For sailing. Though spring bids you to embark,
I’ll not praise it – it does not gladden me.
It’s hazardous, for you’ll avoid distress
With difficulty thus. Imprudently
Do men sail at that time – covetousness
Is their whole life, the wretches. For the seas
To take your life is dire. Listen to me:
Don’t place aboard all your commodities –
Leave most behind, place a small quantity
Aboard. To tax your cart too much and break
An axle, losing all, will bring distress.
Be moderate, for everyone should take
An apt approach. When you’re in readiness,
Get married. Thirty years, or very near,
Is apt for marriage. Now, past puberty
Your bride should go four years: in the fifth year
Wed her. That you may teach her modesty
Marry a maid. The best would be one who
Lives near you, but you must with care look round
Lest neighbours make a laughingstock of you.
A better choice for men cannot be found
Than a good woman,’

HESIOD’S WORKS AND DAYS Translated by Chris Kelk

By the way none of this is good advice to follow!

I have more on Hesiod: