Two birds and a bag full of stones


It had been a long walk through the Shropshire hills in search of fossils and, with a good morning’s work completed and a bag full of rocks, I came down through the contours to Ludlow in search of a pub lunch.

Checking the map, I noticed a path beside an interesting looking woodland stream that was only slightly out of the way between fossils and lunch. To fill the miles I decided to do a spot of birdwatching on my way down and was looking forward to a light hike along it in search of Cinclus cinclus - the Dipper - a small brown bird that looks somewhat like a stunted, barrel-chested Blackbird with a white bib. Dippers are tenacious birds that often perch on rocks in the middle of fast-flowing shallow streams with their tails cocked like oversized Wrens. They feed by diving and swimming - even walking - underwater to catch aquatic invertebrates; at least, that’s what I’ve surmised from the bird books because, in all my years of watching, I’ve never actually seen one.

His one-man mission to spot our feathered friends, identify and then loathe them deeply seemed to be going well.

Despite what the field guides may tell you, the most common appearance of a Dipper is as a line drawing on a ‘context board’ erected by the river’s edge - those mounted information panels that feature paintings of bucolic loveliness, of habitats teeming with biodiversity, the preferred modern term for ‘life’. The boards are usually installed after a programme of works to dredge the last few shopping trolleys out of a river and present an optimistic vision of a habitat created by a partnership of organisations - organisations with striking logos designed to fit along the bottom of a context board. This particular panel was illustrated with an artist’s impression of what it would look like if all the interesting organisms from thirty miles around were condensed into a 300 yard stretch of river. I’ve long realised that anywhere that you can hear the white noise rush of a weir you’ll see a Dipper on a nearby context board and absolutely none in the river.

Moving on from the board, I scanned the river itself to no avail and decided to walk along the river a while. It wasn’t long before I saw someone else along the path, binoculars to his eyes, apparently studying a Mallard on the bank. I was a long way from home and looking for something specific, so what better than a local birdwatcher happy to share his insight into the birds on his patch? I made my way over and asked him if he knew of any Dippers on the river. It wasn’t long before I realised that I was talking to someone I now regard to be not only the world’s most unsuccessful birdwatcher, but - on account of his slightly swivel-eyed comportment - possibly its most drunken one as well.

He was almost completely unintelligible, except for the occasional ornithological English noun forming the victorious crescendo of an otherwise unfathomable sentence, its precise meaning slurred away like mud off a boot.

“Hrrurr gretsch pfftdf, Wagtail, mrmpgghaw (cough) azzerbunmhher, Swan”, was the rough gist of his part of the conversation which, at one point, inexplicably veered into “hhrghnngh wozzun hang glider” as he pointed at a passing microlight in the sky.

Joining the Dipper, between achingly rare orchids and damsel flies, a Heron and Mute Swan on the context board was the ubiquitous Mallard, a species that my new friend was keen to tell me his opinion of. After about five minutes wishing I was anywhere else but there, my ears had at last started to become accustomed to the drawl of drunken expletives and general ill-will towards the world in general and winged creatures in particular: “Them ducks, frawghhhar, gnmmph vicious bastards, you harrrrunt to look out for them.”

It had started to rain by this point, but the inebriated aviphobe was in full bird hating mode; it turned out that he recoiled from blackbirds, swallows and wagtails also - their specific crimes were not spoken of, but he despised them all the same. His one-man mission to spot our feathered friends, identify and then loathe them deeply seemed to be going well. He was just raising ire at pigeons and pouring scorn on crows when he paused for a moment and asked, “You RSPB, then?” Surprised and, indeed, in fear of being branded a collaborator, I assured him that I wasn’t. Mellowing a little he explained that he hadn’t seen a Dipper for years, which is probably just as well for the Dipper.

I pulled myself away, leaving him on the river bank, wandering away as nonchalantly as I could - at one point, I had fantasized about throwing some of my fossils at him and legging it down the path. The last I saw of him, he was chasing a duck.

Lady's Day

What links the Ladybird, a versatile Norse goddess, her Roman counterpart, every woman in Germany and a Christmas office party ritual? Furthermore, what has all that to do with paraskavedekatriaphobia and the reason for setting fire to your socks on the roof of a skyscraper?

In most of Northern Europe, the word for Friday comes from a couple of Norse goddesses, Freyja and Frigg, respectively the highest ranking deities of their warring pantheons, the Vanir and the Æsir. In English the name comes from Frigg, with the Anglo-Saxon spelling being Frigedæg, but in all the other teutonic languages, equivalents of Friday like Freitag in Germany are commonly attributed to Freyja. The two goddesses are often confused, however, and some scholars of Norse mythology go so far as to believe that they are essentially the same non-existent being.

Freyja and Frigg are the rough Norse equivalents of the Roman goddess, Venus, who gives her name to many Romance language variants of Friday – Vendredi is the French version, for example. Indian languages follow suit with the name Shukravar, derived from the Sanskrit word for the planet Venus, Shukra.

Freyja is not only the Norse equivalent of Venus, but also of the Virgin Mary. An easy connection between the two can be found in the humble Ladybird, the name of which is a contraction of ‘Our Lady’s Bird’, while the germans know the insect as a Marienkäfer (Mary’s beetle). However, before the early Christian missionaries came calling and did their level best to wipe out all traces of indigenous pagan practice, the Ladybird was known either as Freyjuhaena or Frouehenge – Freyja’s Chicken, which is, curiously, also the old Norse name for the cluster of stars we now know as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters.

The parallels between Freyja – who also lends her name to frau, the modern german word for a woman – and Mary must have been obvious to the Christians, who superimposed the Madonna onto the Norse goddess of love and fertility – perhaps without realising she was also the goddess of war. In turn and in her own way, she has managed to infiltrate the Christian tradition in a typically bawdy Viking manner. As the goddess of fertility, she was linked with mistletoe which, despite still being considered by the Anglican church as a pagan plant, has inveigled its way into Christmas in English-speaking cultures the world over, particularly in the United States.

Why does the tax year start on the 6 April?
Surprisingly, the answer has nothing at all to do with accountancy and everything to do with sex or, more appropriately, conception. But even that’s not the whole story – the insolence of the authorities responsible for taxation in the eighteenth century also plays a part, as does a fourth century ecumenical council in Turkey and a sixteenth century pope.

Until England’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, the Feast of the Annunciation, the date that marked Christ’s conception, was also the start of the civil new year, being Lady Day, the first of the four quarter days that marked our annual journey around the sun. The Annunciation and Lady Day were both celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas Day, but after sixteen centuries of the old style Julian calendar – introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC – an average 11 minute a year inaccuracy had accumulated into twelve days relative to the natural year. The upshot was that the fixed dates of the calendar had been pushed later and later into the solar year.

The Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII on Friday October 15, 1582, sought to rectify the drift – albeit with particular reference to Easter, the arcane formula for which had been decided upon at the First Council of Nicaea, a kind of super-Synod convened in 325 AD in what is now modern-day Turkey. The Pope’s new calendar removed not twelve, but ten days from the year 1582, to bring it in line with the days added since Nicaea. To prevent the drift from occurring again, Gregory modified the Julian calendar’s leap year rule to exclude all years that were divisible by 100, except those that were also divisible by 400. It was a neat solution, accurate to one day in 3300 years – the Julian calendar was only accurate to one day in 128 years – but England, skittish about adopting popery in any guise, soldiered on with the old Julian calendar for over 160 years.

By the time that the Calendar (New Style) Act was introduced in 1750 to implement the changes, the calendar was a further day adrift. The tax collection authorities and landlords of the day were faced with the threat of losing 11 days of revenue and so the forces of English accountancy ensured that provision 6 (Times of Payment of Rents, Annuities, &c.) was written in to add the missing days to the end of the 1752-3 tax year, which would now end on April 5. In a similar fashion, when the first skipped leap year came around in 1800 the prospect of the loss of a single day’s income moved the end of the tax year to April 6 and has remained there ever since.

Which English King apparently travelled back in time?
Different nations adopted the New Style calendar at different times, which led to plenty of confusion in affairs between states. Possibly the worst instance of jet-lag ever occurred when William III of England set sail from the Netherlands on November 11 (Gregorian) 1688 and arrived at Brixham in Devon on November 5 (Julian).

Where and when was Friday not followed by Saturday?
Through all the various changes in calendars that have occurred throughout history, the seven days of the week have rolled on perpetually since the Babylonians first named them thousands of years ago. Except once – and then only in one place. When Alaska was sold by Russia to the United States of America in 1867, the old Russian territory was still operating on the Julian calendar, in common with the rest of Russia. Not content with introducing the Gregorian year, which would have resulted in lopping 12 days from October, the US also moved the International Date Line to run west of the new state instead of east, which cut back the deficit to 11 days. This bold move was not without its complications, however and Friday, October 6, 1867 was followed the next day by another Friday on October 18.

Who was the only Emperor of two Empires?
Russia did not officially let go of the Julian calendar until 1918 – even the famous October Revolution of 1917 actually took place in November, as far as the rest of the world was concerned. The difference in dates between Russia and much of the rest of Europe may even have been a contributing factor in the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. The Russian Army famously arrived late to their rendezvous with the Austrians where they would join battle against Napolean Bonaparte’s army at the Battle of Austerlitz. The speculation is that, because the Austrian Army were already running on the Gregorian Calendar, they were 12 days ahead of the Russians, who turned up too late to help. Following the Austrian’s humiliating defeat, Tsar Alexander – referring to the power of Napolean – commented at the time that Russia and Austria were ‘babies in the hands of a giant’ and the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II abdicated his title, dissolved the Empire, but continued to rule as Emperor Francis I of the Austrian Empire, which he founded in 1804. Between 1804 and 1806 he was the Doppelkaiser – and styled himself as the Emperor of both Germany and Austria.

Why did the new millenium not start on January 1, 2001?
Revenge is at hand for everyone who had to suffer an attack of righteous pedantry for daring to step in line and get hopelessly drunk on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Contrary to what tiresome people would have you believe, New Year’s Day, 2001 was not the first day of the third millenium at all. Though now hopelessly lost in the confusion caused by the adoption of the Gregorian calendar and re-alignment of the new year, the AD calendar didn’t even start on January 1 at all, but with the conception of Jesus at the Annunciation. Lady Day on Friday, March 25, 1 AD. But it’s not even as simple as adding the sum of 2000 years – 730487 days –to that date to bring us to March 25, 2001. Though a huge improvement over the Julian calendar, the Pope’s numbers were just not right at all – we now know that there is a tiny error in the length of the year in the assumptions which underpin the Gregorian calendar – and along with the fact that Gregory ommitted to correct two leap years which occurred before Nicaea it means that the third millenium actually started just after 9.33 a.m. on Thursday March 22, 2001, which, I think you’ll agree, is just the kind of nonsense you would expect from scientific empirical measurement. The old Pope would have been proud.

Why is having an unlucky day statistically likely?
An interesting by-product of the Gregorian calendar is that it does not treat all days and dates equally. You might think that, given a long enough time frame, the likelihood of the thirteenth of the month falling on a Friday would work out to be exactly 1 in 7. Unfortunately, the Gregorian calendar is arranged in such a way that Friday is the most likely day on which the 13th will fall. In 1933, the Dartmouth professor of mathematics, B H Brown, worked out that there will be 688 Friday 13 in any 400 year cycle – the length of time that the Gregorian calendar takes to repeat itself exactly. The least likely day is Saturday which would score 684 on the same scale. So, it’s marginal, but if you are of a paraskavedekatriaphobic nature and are scared senseless of Friday 13, you will probably nod your head in agreement when I tell you that the calendar is ever so slightly rigged against you.

So tell me about the socks.
Nobody has a clear explanation of why Friday 13 is considered an unlucky day – it’s more than likely to turn out to be a compound phobia; Friday is considered an unlucky day in many Western cultures and 13 has had unfortunate connotations long before Judas Iscariot sat down as the thirteenth person at the Last Supper – the day before the Friday when Jesus was crucified. While we all regard it as a venerable and ancient superstition, the truth may be that unlucky Friday 13 is a comparatively modern invention – as late as the nineteenth or even twentieth century.

Besides the coincidence of the first Good Friday and the number of guests at the Last Supper – incidentally, if the Last Supper really is the origin, why isn’t it Thursday 13 that is considered unlucky – another popular explanation of the phobia is the comparatively arcane events of Friday October 13, 1307, on which all but a handful of France’s Order of the Knights Templar were rounded up by King Philip IV and charged with a bewildering variety of offences and heresies. Philip IV, who was often known by the epithet of Philip the Beautiful, nevertheless had an exceptionally ugly character and it is likely that the trumped-up accusations were more to do with relieving himself of the enormous debt he owed the Order, than any piety. The captured Knights Templar were tortured into confessions and then executed shortly after. According to popular folklore, those sympathetic to the Templar cause cursed the very day that the atrocity began.

And the socks? If we are to believe the superstition, one way to counteract the bad luck that will befall you if you arrive on the thirteenth floor of a building is to go up to the roof and set fire to your socks.

Venus in a nutshell
Pearls of wisdom related to that other Friday goddess and the planet she was named after.
• Venereal Disease (VD), the old name for sexually transmitted diseases or STDs, literally means ‘disease belonging to Venus’, in her role as the Roman goddess of love.
• Veneralia is the Roman festival associated with one facet of Venus. The day was celebrated on April 1.
• Venus is often referred to as a ‘sister’ or ‘twin’ planet of Earth. Being of almost the same size and covered in clouds, the planet held out great hope to astronomers and dreamers alike as being perhaps capable of supporting life. Until the 1930s, the planet was a favourite setting of science fiction authors, but all hope faded away as more and more information on Venus was gathered and it turned out to be possibly the most hostile planet in the solar system. Despite being twice the distance from the sun as Mercury, the surface of Venus is hotter, with an average temperature of about 460° Celsius. The Venusian atmosphere is almost all carbon dioxide and those clouds are full of sulphuric acid. If life wasn’t boiled away within seconds of touching the surface, it would inevitably dissolve a little while later.
• The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus is roughly approximate to being underwater at a depth of 1 kilometre.
• The Venusian day is slightly longer than one Venusian year.
• Venus rotates on its axis in the opposite direction to every other planet in the solar system.

Unlucky for some:
On Friday, June 13th, 1494, Christopher Columbus discovered, like the Norsemen before him, the continent of America.
Both Margaret Thatcher and Fidel Castro were born on a Friday 13.
The plane carrying the Uruguayan Rugby team crashed in the Andes on Friday October 13, 1972.
In Greece and Romania, Tuesday 13 is considered unlucky, while Friday 17 is considered a particularly unfortunate day in Italy. The Chinese regard 14 as an unlucky number because its pronunciation is similar to ‘ten die’.

Cereal Killers

I ducked under the airborne bolus of Ready Brek flung from my daughter’s spoon but my arm, stretched out for balance, caught on a fork on the edge of the table, somersaulting it towards the other side of the kitchen. Fortunately, no damage was done – a quick audit of eyes at the breakfast table revealed none sporting an item of cutlery, but it occurred to me that breakfast cereal can be pretty dangerous stuff.

After all, this is just the kind of unlikely possibility that we must all be alert to these days. Now that doctors and boffins have largely removed the scourge of infectious disease from the western world, all eyes are now turned on to an even more ambitious target – that of erasing every kind of inconsequential risk from our lives. For example, an official leaflet sprung up a couple of years ago about the wild dangers of carpet slippers for the elderly while doormats in council flats were briefly banned in Bristol because they were identified as ‘trip hazards’. Then, last year, intrusion was elevated to a new level when specialist advice on the best techniques to employ while evacuating your bowels was issued by an NHS Trust in Scotland (the trick, apparently, is to leave your mouth slightly open).

Given this apparent desire to remove all risk, surely it’s only a matter of time before every table fork carries a mandatory tag to warn us of the potential for slapstick injury. Then, before we know it, they will be taxed heavily, then licensed and then finally banned outright while your local television news carries stories of a successful fork amnesty and shocked police officers hold a press conference standing over a cache of unlicensed Russian tableware. The spoon will follow shortly after, having been identified as ‘soft cutlery’ which, an official report will inform us, leads to a spiral of serious crime to fund the sick and filthy habit of fork abuse. Eventually, in fifty years time or so, someone will write a libertarian tract on silver service which will start ‘First they came for the teaspoons and I did not speak out because I did not take sugar’.

Perhaps aware of the inevitable backlash to come once the true nature of breakfast cereal is revealed, manufacturers are moving early to show their credentials as responsible corporations. Their advertising has long centred on the promise of health and fitness and that message is now being augmented by pious advice on the back of the packet. Having bought the cereal, we are now being asked to buy the lifestyle as manufacturers position themselves as the oracles of wholesomeness.

I remember reading the back of the cereal packet when I was a child – it was where you could find out where the world’s tallest building was, how many velociraptors would fit in a double-decker bus or how large the Moon was in terms of that standard unit of surface area, ‘the size of Wales’.  Now that’s all gone. What you get instead – what our children ingest along with their toasted grain sweepings – is beige and brown cross-sections of wheatgerm, tiresome treatises on the importance of fibre, the recommended daily allowance of Riboflavin and now, the final straw, wilful incitement to exercise. What was once an open door to a world of learning and curiosity, the back of the cereal packet is now little more than a portal to the consensus of the mundane.

On the back of this particular packet of Sanctimonious Krispies was a short, bullet-pointed piece on the benefits of exercise. A quick jog down the park, a bit of swimming in the pool and a short bike ride to your mates, we are told, are the keys to a healthy, active childhood. Furthermore, if you can enlist mum or dad or, in modern parlance, ‘a responsible adult’, you’ll be helping them get fit too.

I’m sorry, but when did it become my child’s place to tell me that I’m fat and lazy? When did pester power extend from the simply unethical – an exhortation to buy plastic crap for them – to the well-meaning but misplaced invasion of my sloth?

Investigating other cereals in the cupboard failed to turn up any meaningful information on dinosaurs, the Moon or skyscrapers, just more humbug and piety on health and fitness. On one packet of Holier-than-thou Flakes, the usual couple of hundred words of powder-puff copywriting was followed by the suggestion that I should schedule 30 minutes of exercise every other day and treat it like any other appointment. Which is fine, I usually arrive late and in poor condition for my appointments, so it does at least mean I can spend my scheduled exercise time in the same way as all my other engagements, swearing under my breath on a stationary bus, chipping away at a hardened glob of Ready Brek on my lapel. There’ll be no exercise though, you can’t move on the bus these days for all the bloody velociraptors.