On Resolutions. Aquarius & T-Shirts January 21st St Agnes Day

black and ehite engraving Aquarius (detail from Kalendar of the Shepherds)
Aquarius (detail from Kalendar of the Shepherds)

The Sun enters the house of Aquarius

The man born under Aquarius shall be lonely and ireful; he shall have silver at 32 years; he shall win wherever he goeth, or he shall be sore sick. He shall have fear on the water, and afterwards have good fortune, and shall go into divers strange countries. He shall live to be 75 years after nature.’

‘The woman shall be delicious, and have many noises for her children; she shall be in great peril at 24 years and thereafter in felicity. She shall have damage by beasts with four feet and shall live 77 years after nature.

The Kalendar of Shepherds, 1604 (quoted in the Perpetual Almanac by Charles Kightly)

the Author sporting a Betsy Trotwood aphorism ‘Never be mean, never be false, never be cruel’

Resolutions & Predictions

The Kalendar of Shepherds predictions for those born in Aquarius, (see above) are so specific they cannot help but be wrong for most people. The art of the prophecy, surely, is to be vague, be general and to know human nature.

By the 21st of January, we should have an idea of whether we are going to keep to your resolutions or not. And perhaps we should now be tuning them or adapting them to fit our lives as actually lived, rather than on our pious hopes.

Last year, on January 21st, I had a chat with a taxi driver on the way to the railway station after my Uncle Brian’s Funeral. The driver told me that funerals make him wonder how his behaviour might influence the number of people who will, one day, make that special effort to turn up at his funeral. He was a young Asian guy, so he was thinking ahead quite some way.

I replied that ‘Funerals make me reflect on how much time I have spoiled by not being fully engaged in the moment’. All those conversations where my mind wandered, those radio programmes I only half heard as I tried to read a book at the same time, those train journeys, walks in the woods or along the canal while listening to headphones, those visits to relatives where I rushed back to get home as quickly as possible. Being present in the moment was, I said, perhaps, the key to improving the quality of life and interactions with others

We continued chatting through the short journey and as we arrived in the forecourt of the station he suggested we exchange a final bit of wisdom. As we had been talking about history, I turned to Charles Dickens and told him Betsy Trotwood’s words to David Copperfield:

“Never,” said my aunt, “be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel. Avoid those three vices, Trot, and I can always be hopeful of you.”

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

I said that Betsy’s words stem from Charles Dickens’ belief that the key to progress in the world was to ignore the dogma of religion but to live by just one tenet: Treat people as you want to be treated by others.

In return, he told me of an Islamic teacher who responded to his enquiry as to how he could be sure of salvation given all the many (possibly conflicting) moral teachings and texts there were. The answer was, if he lived wisely and thoughtfully on his impact on others, he could be sure of salvation.

By this time I had missed my train, but the two of us had had a moment of connection, and there are plenty of trains from Guildford to Waterloo.


Philosophy for life as told to St Patrick by a Druid

I have a lot of t-shirts with quotations from history on them. I suspect I am one of the very few people who store his t-shirts in chronological order. Above is the first, and the last is

“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you’ll find
You get what you need”

Rolling Stones.

End note

Dickens philosophy was based on the broad understanding of Christianity, as expressed in these two quotations:

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37–39).

“Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

First written on 21st January 2023, revised January 2024.

Trotty Veck, the Chimes and Charles Dickens’ Christmas Books December 16th

Dickens character Trotty Veck waits to run a message
Trotty Veck 1889 Dickens The Chimes by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke)

As Christmas looms, seasonal publications have a mixture of wonder and joy at the coming family reunions and festivities mingled with an awareness that, for some, Christmas will depend on the Food Bank or the Charity Shelter. The weather is now cold, living costs continue to rise at the very time extra spending is needed to unlock the joy of the Season, and to counter the dark, the cold and the spectre of death which, in fact, has always been central to the season of winter.

Charles Dickens’ Christmas Books epitomise this dichotomy and adding an element of the supernatural, provided a vehicle for joy and hope, but with a forceful political message that the authorities and the rich were not doing their Christian duty to alleviate poverty. Christmas Carol contrasts the wealth of a mean rich Stockbroker with the family of his poor employee Bob Cratchit, and provides a powerful tale of redemption.

But in this post I want to concentrate on his second Christmas Book, ‘The Chimes’. It tells the story of the stick-thin Trotty Veck who is an aged City messenger, nicknamed Trotty because of his habit of keeping himself warm by running on the spot. He is afraid to let his daughter, Meg, to marry as he has so little hope for the future. While he is worrying, he, Meg and her intended Richard are approached by Alderman Cute and Mr Filer.

Cute represents the financial industries in the City of London and the Law. Filer the new breed of political economists. These, working with the idea of Malthus and the new science of Statistics, had proved, that generous support for the poor would, inevitably, lead to a country full of poor people and no rich people. And thus, they justified the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1832 which Dickens observed as a Parliamentary reporter (1831-1834). This set up the cruel Workhouse system which provided the lowest possible level of support offering separation from family, meagre food, and sparse comforts to encourage them to stop being lazy and get back out there to earn their own living and allow taxes to fall. (brilliantly satirised by Dickens’ Oliver Twist, asking for ‘More’).

Meg, Richard, Mr Filer, Gentleman, Alderman Cute and Trotty Veck. Probably located by the door of St Nicholas, Colechurch, City of London.

Below, I enclose the scene from the Chimes, which satirises the attitude of the governing classes.

‘And you’re making love to her, are you?’ said Cute to the young smith.

‘Yes,’ returned Richard quickly, for he was nettled by the question.
‘And we are going to be married on New Year’s Day.’

‘What do you mean!’ cried Filer sharply?Enough  ‘Married!’

‘Why, yes, we’re thinking of it, Master,’ said Richard.  ‘We’re rather in a hurry, you see, in case it should be Put Down first.’

‘Ah!’ cried Filer, with a groan.  ‘Put that down indeed, Alderman, and you’ll do something.  Married!  Married!!  The ignorance of the first principles of political economy on the part of these people; their improvidence; their wickedness; is, by Heavens! enough to—Now look at that couple, will you!’


‘A man may live to be as old as Methuselah,’ said Mr. Filer, ‘and may
labour all his life for the benefit of such people as those; and may heap up facts on figures, facts on figures, facts on figures, mountains high and dry; and he can no more hope to persuade ’em that they have no right or business to be married, than he can hope to persuade ’em that they have no earthly right or business to be born.  And that we know they haven’t.  We reduced it to a mathematical certainty long ago!’

Alderman Cute was mightily diverted, and laid his right forefinger on the side of his nose, as much as to say to both his friends, ‘Observe me, will you!  Keep your eye on the practical man!’—and called Meg to him. 


‘Now, I’m going to give you a word or two of good advice, my girl,’ said the Alderman, in his nice easy way.  ‘It’s my place to give advice, you know, because I’m a Justice. ...

‘You are going to be married, you say,’ pursued the Alderman.  ‘Very
unbecoming and indelicate in one of your sex!  But never mind that.
After you are married, you’ll quarrel with your husband and come to be a distressed wife.  You may think not; but you will, because I tell you so. Now, I give you fair warning, that I have made up my mind to Put distressed wives Down.  So, don’t be brought before me.  

You’ll have children—boys.  Those boys will grow up bad, of course, and run wild in the streets, without shoes and stockings.  Mind, my young friend!  I’ll convict ’em summarily, every one, for I am determined to Put boys without shoes and stockings, Down.  Perhaps your husband will die young (most likely) and leave you with a baby.  Then you’ll be turned out of doors, and wander up and down the streets.  Now, don’t wander near me, my dear, for I am resolved, to Put all wandering mothers Down.  All young mothers,of all sorts and kinds, it’s my determination to Put Down.  Don’t think
to plead illness as an excuse with me; or babies as an excuse with me;
for all sick persons and young children (I hope you know the
church-service, but I’m afraid not) I am determined to Put Down.  

And if you attempt, desperately, and ungratefully, and impiously, and
fraudulently attempt, to drown yourself, or hang yourself, I’ll have no pity for you, for I have made up my mind to Put all suicide Down!  If there is one thing,’ said the Alderman, with his self-satisfied smile, ‘on which I can be said to have made up my mind more than on another, it is to Put suicide Down.  So don’t try it on.  That’s the phrase, isn’t it?  Ha, ha! now we understand each other.’

Project Gutenberg - The Chimes by Charles Dickens

It is a savage burlesque of a satire but at its core. Filer provides the economic/statistical justification. Cute enforces it by legal harassment of the poor. Dickens was writing after a recent introduction of legislation making suicide a punishable offence.

This has a contemporary resonance. During my lifetime the first British Government to be cruel in its provision, in my opinion, for the poor was Teresa May’s Conservative Government. Her laws made getting help so difficult that people died as a result of the deliberately difficult system. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ a 2016 film by Ken Loach brilliantly captured the essence of this system. That government’s treatment of the Windrush generation was a similar example of bureaucratic cruelty. And the continuing decline of the benefit system over the 13 years of Conservative Government means that the poor have borne the brunt of austerity.

The piece above reminds us what a brilliant propagandist Dickens was. Every generation of children, since he wrote Christmas Carol, has read it or seen it in popular retellings such as The Muppet Movie. I think it could be argued that the ‘More’ scene in Oliver Twist and the Christmas Carol have made the case for compassionate care and redemption far beter than contemporary Christianity or political parties.

In the Chimes. those two men discourage Trotty from letting the young ones marry. He has a dream and sees the hopeless result of his decision: suicide, prostitution, crime. When he wakes up, he realises that what they do have is hope. Hope springs eternal and he lets them marry.

For more on this scene, have a look at the Victorian Web

Dickens was not a socialist. ‘Hard Times’ shows that Dickens was against strikes, despite leading a strike when he was a young newspaper man. He was a free trade Liberal; a reformer who believed that the rich needed to do their Christian duty and provide charitable support, pay decent wages and look after their dependents and servants. He thought society should care less about the dogma of Christianity but look to its essence, ‘love your neighbour like yourself’. This, alone, was sufficient to right the wrongs caused by the selfish.

First Published on December 16th 2022, republished and revised in December 2023.

April 18th Canterbury Pilgrimage

Pilgrims leaving the Tabard for the Canterbury Pilgrimage
Pilgrims leaving the Tabard for the Canterbury Pilgrimage

Last year on the 18th April I led a Chaucer’s London Walk in the morning and a Canterbury Tales Virtual Pilgrimage in the evening. I chose the day is it was the closest to the 18th April which is when Chaucer’s pilgrims leave London to ride to Canterbury.

At the beginning of the prologue, he gives clues as to the date. They go when April showers and Zephyrus’s wind is causing sap to rise in plants, engendering flowers, and when Aries course across the sky is half run.

The pilgrims are accompanied by Harry Bailly who is the landlord of the Tabard Inn in Southwark and was a real person and a fellow Member of Parliament of Chaucer.

He is jolly and quite knowledgeable and in the Man of Laws prologue we get a glimpse of Harry time telling in the days before clocks.

a mass clock at Steventon
A mass clock at Steventon Church. Hampshire

Chaucer mentions ‘artificial day’ and this is a reference to the way days were divided into hours. There were twelve hours in the daylight part of the day, and twelve hours in the dark night. So in the winter daylight hours were short, and in the summer long.

Romans used water clocks, King Alfred used candles marked into hours and Harry Bailly knows how to tell the time by the height of the Sun. Harry tells the pilgrims it’s about time they got underway. Here is an extract:

Essentially, he is telling the time by the length of the shadows. The illustration of the mass clock at Jane Austen’s Church at Steventon is another example of how the sun can be used easily to tell time.

The first mass clock I noticed was at the church in Kent which Dickens used for Great Expectations, where Pip’s brothers and sisters were buried. Once you find one mass clock, you suddenly discover them everywhere!

Telling the time, before mechanical clocks, was not complicated. The basic unit is the day and the night, and we can all tell when the dawn has broken. The Moon provides another simple unit of time. The month’s orbit around the Earth is roughly every 29 days and the new, the crescents and full moons provide a quartering of the month. For longer units, the Earth orbits around the Sun on a yearly basic, but divided into four, the winter solstice; the spring equinox, the summer solstice and the autumn equinox.

But there were other ways of marking days in the calendar, with natural time markers marked by, for example, migrating birds, lambing, and any number of budding and flowering plants such as daffodils and elm leaves:

When the Elmen leaf is as big as a mouse’s ear,
Then to sow barley never fear;
When the Elmen leaf is as big as an ox’s eye,
Then says I, ‘Hie, boys” Hie!’
When elm leaves are as big as a shilling,
Plant, kidney beans, if to plant ’em you’re willing;
When elm leaves are as big as a penny,
You must plant kidney beans if you mean to have any.’

In my north-facing garden, I have my very own solar time marker. All through the winter, the sun never shines directly on my garden. Spring comes appreciably later than the front car park which is a sun trap. But in early April, just after 12 o’clock the sun peeks over the block of flats to the south of me, finds a gap between my building and the converted warehouse next door and for a short window of time a shaft of a sunbeam brings a belated and welcome spring.