Bokerley Dyke snaking its way southeast. The Saxons would have tried to invade from the left
March may be the official start of spring, a little warmer and with promises to keep, but it also hides a dark secret, for the month has martial connections. Named after Mars, the Roman god of war, it was not only the start of the Roman year, but also the month for mounting military campaigns. Those campaigns, and many more before and since, have left obvious marks on the countryside; battlefields, motte and baileys and castle keeps we would all recognise the names of, from Hadrian’s Wall to the half-mile-long magnificence of Maiden Castle in Dorset, with medieval and Tudor strongholds the length of the country between. The ubiquity of battle and war in every corner of Britain is evidence of the part that conflict has played in our history, but for every famous hillfort, castle and Roman wall, there are dozens of military connections hiding quietly in our countryside.
Among them, the miles of Iron Age Grim’s Dykes or Ditches that are common in Wessex and are believed to be territorial markers. Though not of a sufficient scale for military use – where they can still be tracked on the ground they tend to be of the scale of a modest railway embankment – the ditches have an etymological cousin in Graham’s Dyke, a local name for the Roman’s short-lived Antonine Wall across the Central Lowlands of Scotland. Grim was the Old English name for the Anglo-Saxon god of war, Woden, and other Grim’s Ditches, particularly the one at Colton, east of Leeds, may have been substantial enough to have a defensive use.
Compared to Offa’s Dyke – up to 65 feet at its widest and at least 64 miles long – Grim’s Dykes may seem modest. The eponymous creation of the eighth-century King of Mercia, Offa’s Dyke marks the English-Welsh border (running along Marches of a different kind) and is a potent symbol of tension throughout history. The dyke is built to have commanding views of Powys to the west, with the bank on the Mercian side and the ditch in front to deter any hapless invaders from Wales.
Seven-hundred years before Offa, at Wales’ northwestern horn, advancing Roman legions were confounded by both the treacherous Menai Straits and the Celtic tribes of Ynys Môn (Anglesey) on the other side. Roman Governor Agricola inflicted a punishing and conclusive triumph over them in 78 AD, and Ynys Môn was taken for good, but the memory of his brutal campaign is allegedly preserved in the names of fields; close to Brynsiencyn on the island, one howls its name as Cae-oer-waedd or the ‘Field of Bitter Lamentation’, another is simply “The Field of the Long Battle”.
Strip Lynchets at Coombe Hill, Wooton-Under-Edge, Gloucestershire. Photo credit: Synwell / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
As January passes into February, halfway from winter solstice to spring but still the coldest part of the year, it often feels as if it is a distinct season of its own. With low grass in the fields, a touch of frost or a light dusting of snow can reveal a swarm of slumbering lumps, bumps and hummocks of every form, suddenly apparent in a landscape sculpted by the long shadows of the low sun.
Despite appearances, many of these undulations, earthen ripples and waves across the landscape, are not defensive earthworks, ramparts or relics of long-forgotten battles, but evidence of our ancestors’ struggle with the land itself – the remains of various ancient methods of farming – while some are the outcome of nothing more violent than the gradual creep of soil down a hill, occasionally exacerbated by the frolicking trot of sheep.
The most marked features are those shown on Ordnance Survey maps as ‘Strip Lynchets’, the consequence of ploughing along the contours of slopes to create a flat area for crops, as practised in medieval and, occasionally, even earlier times. Dorset and Wiltshire have the best examples – below the Ridgeway near Bishopstone in North Wiltshire and near the village of Loders near Bridport, where giant stair-flights climb the slope; it’s not for nothing that ‘risers’ and ‘treads’ have crept into the terminology of strip lynchets to describe the relevant parts. Further north, at Conistone in Upper Wharfedale and Hall Garth, near Great Musgrave in Cumbria, the effect is gentler, but just as striking.
On more level ground, a pattern of regular undulation can reveal another medieval farming practice – ridge and furrow. Vast open fields were cultivated in furlong (literally furrow-long) strips by tenant subsistence farmers. Working clockwise around their strip, their ploughs turned the sod inward, building up a shallow ridge at the centre of their strip and leaving furrows along the long edges. Hauled by a team of eight oxen, the turning circle in the headland was difficult to achieve without curving slightly to the left at the end of each furlong and a shallow reverse-S or C form to the ridge can often be detected.
In the angular light cast on a February day, far subtler features can be discovered. Thin bands known as terracettes – but sometimes called catsteps or sheep tracks – are formed by soil creeping down steep slopes over the years, a result of repeated saturation and drying. Where bare sedimentary rock is exposed, a light fall of snow might pick out its bedding planes, revealing a succession of sea beds over millions of years or even, on red sandstones, the swash of a desert dune – a geological comfort for the middle of winter.
As the mid-winter celebratory twink and glitter passes by and the season threatens to throw its worst at us in the shape of a cold snap or two, it’s a good time to consider how our landscape has been shaped by ice and snow over our long history. Most of us will be familiar with the U-shaped valleys of the Lake District, Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands, gouged out by glaciers during the last ice age and hammered into our consciousness by geography lessons since time immemorial, but they are not the only effect of glaciation which, like love, changes everything.
Every part of Britain has been affected in some way by the various glaciations of the last two million years. When glaciers tower to 800 metres, as they did during their most recent appearance between 10 and 20,000 years ago, it should come as no surprise that the features they shape are of a similarly colossal scale, but even a periglacial climate creates huge features in the landscape and their effect upon our countryside is all around us, no matter how far north or south we are.
At 100 metres deep, the Devil’s Dyke, just north of Brighton is the deepest dry valley in the world and its creation was a consequence of what tundra does to porous rock. Situated on chalk, a rock that usually has the porosity of a sponge but which became frozen and impermeable during the last ice age, the area would nevertheless have enjoyed the briefest of Arctic summers. Warm enough, perhaps, to thaw the chalk nearest the surface, which would be sludged away by the meltwater from the snowfields, leaving frozen, impermeable chalk to be eroded by a great meltwater river.
Further north, at the boundary between the ice and tundra, huge mounds called moraines were left at the snouts of glaciers and the most impressive of these forms the Cromer Ridge in North Norfolk, a nine-mile line of hills over 300 foot-high made from clay and boulders bulldozed up from the floor of the North Sea.
But what of the land that was ground down to be eventually deposited as irregular blobs on a landscape hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away? Aside from U-shaped valleys, the most famous outcomes of glacial progress are the whale-back hills known as drumlins. Rounded hills with ‘blunt’ ends that face the origin of the glacier and a long tapered tail on the lee side, drumlins often occur in swarms and form what is termed, rather descriptively, a ‘basket of eggs topography’. There’s an excellent set of them in Ribbleshead in Yorkshire, but since there are 8350 of them in Britain, it might be worth a trudge out in the snow to find your own.
Low embankment, mostly covered in bushes, in Chawton Park Wood. The pale is probably an old royal park boundary and it could run alongside the alignment of a Roman road. Link © Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence • http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2420145
A familiar label, a ‘park pale’ – as rendered in Old English blackletter on Ordnance Survey maps – marks the ditch and bank that formed the boundary of a medieval deer park. On the ground they might still define an area of woodland pasture, while banks several metres wide, once surmounted by a palisade or, perhaps, still carrying a stone wall, can be substantial even after centuries. The ditch that runs on the inside of the bank is usually less distinct. Their design allowed deer to bound into the park, but prevented them from leaping out again, making the deer park like a huge, terrestrial lobster pot, harvesting meat for the aristocratic table.
It’s a fitting feature to investigate during the season of high octane food, not least because in the low-fat, calorie-counted, gastronomically-tightfisted twenty-first century, Christmas dinner is the closest most of us get to a proper medieval banquet – a seasonal version of which was likely to include venison, while the most kindly of lords might give their servants deer offal – or numbles – for baking into a numble pie.
The model on which the ornamental parks of the eighteenth century were based, the medieval deer park is a landscape tradition whose roots extend back to the Norman conquest. William the Conqueror, who was crowned as an English monarch on Christmas Day, 1066, famously created 36 Royal Forests in the twenty-one years of his reign, reflecting his enthusiasm for the chase. At first, keeping and hunting deer was exclusively the reserve of royalty, but licenses from the King gave members of the aristocracy and senior churchmen the right to hunt on their own lands and a mania for creating deer parks took hold. The remains of one such park – first recorded in 1291, but almost certainly older – can be seen on the eastern side of Lyndhurst in the New Forest, where the pale is 9 metres wide and its bank over a metre high. Another park pale is associated with Kenilworth Castle and Pleasance – Henry V’s manor house in Warwickshire – while the most outstanding example in Scotland is at Fettercairn in Aberdeenshire, where eight miles of pale around the King’s Deer Park may even pre-date the Norman conquest of England.
The frequent occurrence of the park pale on modern maps is a reflection of their ubiquity in medieval landscapes; deer parks covered as much as 2% of England at the start of the fourteenth century and had a political importance to match. While there was no shortage of deer parks, there were shortages of deer because noble huntsmen were rather good at killing their trapped quarry, quicker than they could be re-stocked by hapless deer bounding over the pale. With his large Royal Forests, the King could send deer to his more co-operative and influential lords.
Lych Gate at Long Compton Church, Warwickshire. Photo credit: Hellsgeriatric / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
In a month that starts with All Hallows and All Souls, two opening feast days of November that sift and grade the dearly departed for salvation – first the saints and then the aints – it’s natural to look at the earthly, temporal end of the process. After all, before anybody gets to pray for your soul, there’s the matter of getting into the churchyard in the first place.
Lych gates, which acquired their name from the Saxon word for corpse, stand at the threshold of all thresholds, the entrance to God’s acre. Although many were built before 1549 – Beckenham and Boughton Monchelsea in Kent are dated to the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, respectively – it became a requirement of the Book of Common Prayer that priests “metyng the corpse at the church style” should commence the service there and that only encouraged construction of lych gates to keep everybody (and every body) dry.
As if hiding their true and gruesome purpose, lych-gates often have a charming gingerbread cottage-cum-chocolate box appeal. They are commonly built from stout timbers and capped by a pleasing and petite doll’s house roof, but the gate at Long Compton church in Warwickshire surpasses all of that to find itself at the peak of picturesque – an entire seventeenth century thatched cottage, minus most of its ground floor, the last surviving of an old row demolished in the 1920s, functions as the churchyard’s gate.
Other designs are grander, the gate at St Peter’s Church, Carmarthen is a vaulted Victorian gothic creation in red sandstone which competes for attention with the lime-rendered tower of Wales’ largest parish church. Sometimes, as at the church of St Germanus, Rame in southeast Cornwall, the gate appears to be a funereal dual carriageway complete with a six-foot long central reservation, the bier or lych stone, to park the deceased on, while benches on either side were provided for the pallbearers, who may have had to walk long distances to church.
Corpse ways to outlying areas of the parish were part of an extensive funereal topography, especially in upland Britain. In Derbyshire, before Coton-in-the-Elms had its own church, bodies were carried a mile and a half along Procession Way to Lullington for burial. The mourners passed under a curve of tree boughs known as the Devil’s Arches on their journey. In Devon, a long-distance footpath – the “Lich Way” – follows a twelve-mile long corpse road over the moor to the church at Lydford and, this being Dartmoor, there are tales of spectral monks walking the trail on moonlit nights.
02 November, 2009 Filed in: Strange Days | Articles
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.
02 January, 2004 Filed in: Capital Letters | Everything
It may strike you as a controversial statement, but living in the country is deeply stressful.
After all, there has been a rash of coffee-table TV lifestyle shows lately, all encouraging us to up-sticks to the sticks. According to the Countryside Agency, there is an echo of reality in these reality shows: a million relocated in the last ten years alone and, it appears, there's plenty more to come. Almost 8 million of us watch the exploits of hapless couples bombing down the A30 in 4x4s, while a sneering narrator points out the problems and cynically implies their eventual failure.
You can do without the film crew and the carping commentator, but move out of town, the programmes suggest, and your days as grimy Northern Liner are numbered.
You will no longer need to drink water that has, at some time, passed through the urinary tract of someone living in your road. Simple acts of unsolicited friendliness - like a smile or an attempt at a bus stop conversation - will stop drawing the same suspicion as an abandoned holdall on the tube. Never see that scared blank stare again, the one that makes pissing in your water polite by comparison.
But it's all very well for mid-to-late careerists who want to take things a bit easier, rear small humans or glory in the thick odour of shit. They have their reasons, after all. Reasons as robust as the two tonnes of Teutonic engineering they point their children to school in, so good luck to them. But if you live in the country already, it's a different story.
Living in the back of beyond is expensive, careers suffer and what jobs there are are usually badly paid. To cap it all, the alleged rural bonuses of farm-fresh food, peace and quiet and olde world friendliness may be harder to find than a regular bus service.
Fresh as the moment...
It is perhaps not widely enough acknowledged that the link between food and your mouth is a lot more complicated than a pan of boiling water and a fork. City folk are paradoxically more aware of this state of affairs. Sure, they know nothing about bastard trenching and probably think that animal husbandry is a euphemism for barely legal farmyard action, but they regard themselves as informed about the packaging, distribution and sales processes that actually dictate how fresh the food ends up. In the country, these processes take at least a day longer. That day is the day country-bound food spends in the city. After some truck journeys, and a warehouse or two, it arrives at the rural supermarket in time for the closed sign and tomorrow's wilting display of laughably unfresh produce.
Peace and quiet
You can forget peace and quiet, as well: the country can be extremely noisy. First off, there's church bell ringing practise, a dissonant racket so ungodly, you are left with the voice of Satan ringing in your ears. Blow up the God damn church. Do it. Do it now.
Then there's the thunderous roar of tractors, more gunfire than the Bronx and the casual assassination of animals for fun to contend with, but by far the noisiest parts of the country are all the areas colonized by city folk. And that's because, like the chip-inhaling, Watney's guzzling Brit-crims bunging up the Costa Del Brinksmat, many exiled urban warriors make the mistake of towing their urgent old lives down with them.
There are those who are still obviously plugged into some kind of Starbucks Matrix. Brusque and hurried, they point their body into a coffee shop and issue a paragraph-length, intricately detailed order for a hot beverage that betrays their inherent inability to leave any whisp of uncertainty uncrushed.
Fortunately, while terribly adept at synchronising a Palm Pilot, firing nannies and talking bollocks in meetings, their life runs on the kind of precise routine unfavoured by the brutal realities of the country mindset, and many run back to town, claiming the countryside is complete shit.
Then there are the nautical types. Most often encountered in rural yacht havens, these Ted Heath look-alikes – each and every one an amiable buffoon – ooze the braying twittery of the wealthy classes. More used to issuing commands in the teeth of a gale, the nautical type approach everything with the gravitas of a cruise liner in a duck pond. When not on the water, there's nothing they like better than tacking their way to the bar in waterside pubs, illuminated by the dim glow of lamps stolen from marker buoys in the channel. With staff rendered deaf by their customers, the easiest way to order a pint in a yachties pub is to stand at the door and signal with flags.
Finally there is the dewy-eyed Gaian Airhead. Labouring under the latest buzz-word of "Slippies" or Sloane-Hippies, people with this personal outlook parade their cock-eyed, crumpled spirituality in the country while retaining a well-appointed pied-à-terre, luxuriously furnished with unsustainable tropical hardwood knick-knacks, which are often crafted by kicked orphans in basement sweatshops. From their rural second homes the Airheads front local chapters of green organisations and tirelessly campaign to halt all forms of progress and development that would spoil the view from their balcony.
There you have it. Suddenly your elysian vision of babbling brooks, wild woods and bucolic simplicity has turned to shit of which, incidentally, there is also an ample amount awaiting you. You may decide that you don't want to move after all and who could blame you? You may have already suspected that the countryside is inconvenient, expensive and bereft of opportunity, but what might come as a surprise is that it is full of the kind of urban vermin that you already live next door to. What's the point? Not even the Northern Line seems quite so bad. Just remember not to smile at anyone and, whatever you do, don't drink the water.
05 January, 2004 Filed in: Capital Letters | Everything
I arrived in town several days ago with a car full of long-haul snacks. I am hungry, I am tired and I have the nutritional profile of a feral child hotwiring a Ford Fiesta on a windswept housing estate. I desperately need to cook.
Yesterday I managed to find a 24-7 emporium of unidentifiable tinned goods. I’m fairly sure that almost everything that grows, swims or grazes has been ground down and compressed into a can at some point, but even so, tinned burgers was a distinctly new phenomenon to me. Suspecting that they may not have been as wholesome a snack as, say, the tin they were in or even the shelf they were sat upon, I declined to surrender to the allure of mechanically processed lips and arseholes in a bap and moved on to pastures new. For lunch, I foraged for fast food and sandwiches, but today it has to come to the crunch. I need actual nourishment. Where exactly are the shops?
I live in a flat just around the corner from Holborn Circus and in this part of town, big architecture dominates. Big buildings for big businesses staffed by tiny, tiny dehumanised insect folk scuttling about in between. As far as this part of town goes, the concept of the city appears to have gone too far; the environment which institutions find perfect for moving capital around the globe – a jumble of high-rise office blocks all concentrated in the financial hothouse of the Square Mile – is not an ideal habitat for humans. It’s quite hostile to all life, in fact. All I can see are sandwich bars, coffee bars, bar bars and weird retail dental practises. There’s nothing for anyone to get their teeth into.
A cop car goes wailing past. I can’t help but feel that, even in a city of eight milion souls, I hear a lot more police sirens than I really should. It has been said that, on average in London, you’re never more than fifteen yards away from a rat – which is, perhaps, the only life form that can truly make a go of it in the financial district. But at all hours of the day and night, city dwellers are seemingly never more than a few moments from the screaming tendrils of an emergency of some kind. Criss-crossing their way around the capital, each siren, each conduit of distress connects an outrage with an emergency vehicle. It’s no wonder that, at times, London life can feel a like crisis enclosed in a calamity, wrapped in a thinly-veiled panic.
Almost immediately, as if to underline this thought, a police car screams past in the exact opposite direction. Had the two police drivers compared notes before they set off, who knows, they may have been able to stay put and just deal with the emergency closest to their origin. Such are the dangers of crisis management, the current method of controlling London.
Back to my search for nutrition, I notice a familiar logo. An enormous Sainsbury sign the size of a whole street back in the dear old WC – my slightly bitter sobriquet for the West Country. At last, the architecture houses something of real use – a glass cathedral of commerce, a superstore, right here bang-slap in the middle of town: What a fabulous idea, I wonder if it will catch on.
Under the logo, an enormous orange poster, dominated by an enormous orange, at least three hundred and fifty times the size of any orange I’ve ever seen before. It has a slogan – something about freshness and value, I forget precisely – and I am lured to the door by this photographic representation of food that is not a sandwich.
I open the door and a man in a suit says good afternoon. Now that’s service. The manager himself appears to be standing at the door to usher his customers in. And in I go, to a large atrium at the front of the building. There aren’t many people about, but the lady behind the long low customer service desk is very well dressed.
Where are the trolleys, I wonder.
I look. Several yards into the building and the embarrassing truth dawns on me. This is not a supermarket. There are no trolleys because nobody has ever shopped there before. The staff are so polite and well-groomed because they usually only have to deal with a specially selected sub-set of the general public. I know all of this because I am standing in the atrium of the head office of Sainsbury plc. I turn around with my new-found urban coolness and let my assured, purposeful gait walk my straw-sucking simpleton mind from the building. I am officially a hick from the sticks, a moron from Moronia, a small village idiot fish in a big city pond.
Eventually I find that there is a tiny supermarket just around the corner – effectively the back door of head office – that stocks food for the financial district; sandwiches, baguettes, microwaveable plastic pots full of chicken snot and other offerings belched up by the ready-meal industrial complex. It occurs to me that the gophers and minions that administrate the offices and dealing rooms of our world-class city institutions are run on pre-fabricated food. Maybe that’s why the economy is so fundamentally buggered as a concept.
My mission completed, I take my carrier bag full of this evening’s nutritional disappointment for a walk around town. Holborn Circus sounds so grand, so London, you may feel that it should be on the Monopoly board but it is really just a tiny signal-controlled roundabout with a statue of someone on a horse. Quite who is riding the steed, I cannot say; show me someone who can tell you who it is and I’ll show you someone impaled on the front of a taxi, because you can’t get near the thing without a certain degree of recklessness. It seems odd – a back-handed compliment even – that someone is marked out for special recognition, perhaps for their own stab at gallant recklessness, gets a statue erected in their honour which nobody can get near enough to read the name on. It’s apparently Prince Albert up there on the horse straddling the carriageways between the number 25 bus and a couple of vans full of Polish builders, but it may as well be in memory of Derek Twiddle from Peterborough, the first man in history to open a tube of glue without sticking his thumb to his tie. The horse is merely symbolic – a transient by-product, as it is, of the manufacture of glue.
Six roads radiate from Twiddle’s memorial at Holborn Circus, but none of them are at all remarkable, except Holborn – which is famous, at least in my mind, for being the location of the half-timbered building known as Staples Inn, a picture of which has adorned the front of a packet of Old Holborn since before I could comfortably breathe without making a high-pitched whistling sound. There’s also the old Prudential building – Holborn Bars, designed by the Victorian Gothic revivalist architect Alfred Waterhouse, who also designed the Natural History Museum and, apparently, Hove Town Hall, but most of Holborn is dominated by drab high rise offices that take over the landscape in an almost authoritarian way.
I am an admirer of modernist architecture, but most of the buildings that line the office canyons of the City and its immediate area have little architectural merit. One building in particular – a structure I simply call ‘the ugly building’ lies directly opposite my flat. Long and low and clad in alternating shades of pink granite, with burgundy steel window frames and tinted panes, it rises to six storeys high at its southern end, in a manner I imagine the architects described as the prow of a ship. The building has the aesthetic potential of a dog turd in a food blender and the allure of a spreadsheet, so it should come as no surprise to find that it is entirely populated by accountants – not the humble, mousey kind who empty out shoe boxes of your receipts every year, but multi-national corporate serf-eaters who plot trajectories on graphs and eschew simple number-crunching in favour of systematically buggering entire third-world economies to turn a buck for their masters.
There is one thing about the building they inhabit that shows a certain Dickensian penny-pinching in operation, however. The disgraceful piece of architecture is mercifully stopped in its tracks at the intersection of two streets where the pavement is uncharacteristically very narrow. The roads meet at a slightly acute angle which makes it very difficult for the thousands of commuters leaving nearby Farringdon Tube to get around. At street level, the building has this acute angle chamferred off, which would give people more room to get around the corner, that is if it wasn’t for the accountants, who have built an otherwise pointless barrier to stop people crossing even one single yard of their property. It is for this example of dull mean-spiritedness that I believe that the Ugly Building should immediately be knocked down and its cavity filled with decomposing vomit in an effort to improve the environment.
There are, after all, tall and ugly office blocks all over London, and they are knocked down and replaced on a wholesale scale. The City of London has an almost unimaginable thirst for office space, despite the fact that 75% is built speculatively and that at least 10% of it – some 11 million square feet – is unoccupied at any one time. A building I walked past the day I moved in – one which I was determined to investigate more fully because it bore the slogan ‘Crowson’s – The Fancy Cheese People’ – has already been knocked down just days later. I am struck unaccountably sad by the realisation, for I will never know just how fancy their cheese really was. There is nothing left in the spot formerly chock-full of fabulous dairy products, it is now just a hole in the ground and looks for all the world like the cavity left by a removed molar. To add insult to injury, I can’t help but notice on a planning application tied to a nearby pole that the hole in the ground will shortly become yet another Sainsbury’s mini-market – the third within a few hundred yards of their headquarters – and one which will inevitably stock more on-the-go nourishment to keep the economy moving.
03 January, 2004 Filed in: Capital Letters | Everything
The people of Cornwall have a telling name for the humble Puffin, the pint-sized bird that bustles its way around many of the county’s cliff tops, occasionally stopping to stare vacantly at the sea as though it had never seen it before; they call it ‘The Londoner’. The exact origin may have more to do with the old Norse name for the bird, but if you stop for a moment to compare this comical character with tourists down in the county for a fortnight’s worth of wind and warm Atlantic drizzle, a world of similarities begins to open up. Puffins are noisy, they are gregarious, their chaotic lives are arranged so that that they live cheek by jowl with one another in tiny little homes and by the time that winter has come, Puffins, as well as their metropolitan namesakes, have all flown the county and are busy pumping their guano out to sea somewhere else.
For all the endearing qualities of the bird, the comparison is hardly a positive view of the inhabitants of our capital city, but it is an opinion that is not unique to Cornwall by any means. The consensus view of London from outside of the Home Counties is something of a tired and withering glance. A worry about its enormous gravitational field, its propensity for centralising everything and the brute force of its financial markets are understandable concerns. Add to those preoccupations a natural loathing of anything that proclaims itself to be svelte, sophisticated and cool – which, undeniably, is the capital’s self-image – yet still gives succour and attention to godawful anachronisms like the Pearly Kings and Queens, and you have a strong base to build distrust and antagonism.
Then there are the unavoidable environmental and social factors. Unless they drink and bathe in Evian, Londoners may need to use water that has, at some time, passed through the urinary tract of somebody living in their road.
On the social level, like many large cities, London can be a very lonely place, but there is another dimension; it is often said that a simple act of unsolicited friendliness, like a smile or an attempt at a bus stop conversation, will draw the same suspicion as an abandoned holdall on the tube. What you will get for your trouble is a terrified, hostile stare that makes pissing in your water seem polite by comparison.
There are many other reported faults with the place and the people. There is that annoying habit of Londoners to talk to their out of town friends about London streets as though they were internationally recognised landmarks. Move over Stonehenge, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the pyramids at Giza, and make way for ‘Goodge Street’ and ‘the bottom of Tottenham Court Road’.
Londoners who insist on behaviour like this are bad ambassadors for the city, especially when they stretch beyond the merely supercilious, to become haughty and condescending as well. Force-fed as they are, with an image of their home town as a world-class city – an image they accept without any question because it confirms what they think of themselves – they are often unable to deal with the realities of anything that exists outside the confines of the M25. When they do step off the hallowed soil of the capital, they tend to take a part of London with them, unfortunately it’s the wrong bit to carry – a brusque and hurried arrogance, unsympathetic to any other way of doing things. Still plugged into some kind of Caffe Nero Matrix, they point their body into a coffee shop and issue a paragraph-length, intricately detailed order for a hot beverage that betrays their inherent inability to leave any whisp of uncertainty uncrushed.
Despite being the son of two Londoners – or perhaps because of it, I used to share this dim view of the metropolis and its occupants. I thought that the place was hugely overrated, especially by professional metropolinites like Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and Will Self, not to mention those arbiters of cool who are so provincial that the idea of a cab ride south of the Thames is tantamount to a rendezvous with social death.
It was therefore a huge surprise to most of my friends when I announced that, in my extreme late thirties, I intended to move from a resting and rather self-satisfied seaside town on the idyllic coast of Cornwall to an edgy and urgent environment bang-slap in the centre of Britain’s largest city.
Friends of family who comforted themselves that the move was going to be to some benign suburb or other were horrified when I told them that it wasn’t the anonymous hinterland I was seeking, but the real deal; if I was moving to London it was going to be Central London. I was tired of living on the periphery of things, I wanted to live on an entirely different edge altogether.
So, in the eyes of the Cornish at least, I joined the colony. In moving to London, I became a puffin. Although a few of my friends were delighted and admired my recklessness, others were absolutely stunned. It would be fair to say that many feared – though I’m hoping that not too many wished – the move would be a complete disaster and I would be back in Cornwall soon, with my life in ruin, my bank balance evaporated and my tail between my legs. Even the removal man who came to price up the job tried to talk me out of it. “That London” was essentially an evil pit of despair, crime and hatred. I must be mad. A mad puffin flying headlong into the smoke. Needless to say, it was a different removal firm that took me to London a few short months later.
The first thing that I noticed was that the dim view of London was shared by many Londoners themselves. They love to exchange stories of extreme violence, the obscene price of accommodation and the general cost of living in our biggest city. Commuting, pollution and the rudeness of shopkeepers are a popular subject of the odd idle moan and the price of a pint comes close as a perennial favourite. One friend of mine recently told me that, of his extensive network of London friends, I am the only one he knows who wants to stay. Most of his mates continually gripe about the capital, often for very good reasons – the place is far from perfect, after all – and are all hatching plans to move somewhere else as soon as circumstances turn in their favour. Some, usually exercising the combined willpower at the command of a couple, have even stopped moaning about London for long enough to do something about it and actually leave.
They are not the only ones. According to the Countryside Agency, a million people have left our cities to move to the country over the last ten years. In a sense, they were seeking the direct opposite of London; a complete volte-face lifestyle change; a symbolic about-turn that, I believe, says as much about them as the circumstances they were trying to escape from – whether that was fleeing the toxic cocktail of diesel fumes and low-level ozone, leaving the crime-filled streets of metropolitan life or striving for a simpler back-to-basics existence for themselves and their families. It’s now such a familiar story, it has almost become an urban rite of passage stuck there in the middle years of British life between puberty and death. Where once our forebears waited until retirement to be swept away by the lure of thatched cottages with unfeasibly thick walls, the modern Briton feels the urge in his or her thirties. They cite all the usual reasons, fear of violence, the daily commute and other urban anxieties.
Most of those anxieties are simply elevated versions of the worries on everyone’s shoulders – that their suburban home is going to be burgled, then blown up by a brutish gang of teenage homosexual al Qaeda suicide bombers wearing hoodies, a situation that even the hysterical and lascivious Evening Standard would struggle to reduce to Gay Terror Teens Go Bang in Burgled Bungalow. It’s a compound worry, an amalgamation of anxieties fed to us daily by Standard screamer boards, headline crime figures (that is, statistics for headlines picked out of context for their emotional power) and blind terror of ‘the other’ – what is not you and yours and you have no understanding or control of even though it is all around you. Mix it all up and there it is; unarguable proof of your worst nightmare – that your town is a toilet and there you are, peering up from the bowl.
This feeling of capital panic not only circulates around the city, but stretches beyond London’s boundaries to the rest of the country. A friend of mine visiting from Cornwall confided that she was very worried about making the trip and wondered what she would find when she got here. I was astounded to discover that she expected to see armies of grey zombie commuters marching the city streets not looking at one another for fear of being randomly attacked. She believed that shopkeepers would be hostile and guarded, that she would be able to sense racial tensions and anger, in one form or another, would be all around. She’d only been to London once, in her early teens, and she didn’t experience anything then to form those opinions, so I wondered where the source material came from. In her case, she must have picked it up from the media, from friends and from the general attitude that the big city is evil incarnate and the best you can do is survive it.
TV companies are partly responsible for the diabolical image projected of the capital – thinly-veiled estate agency shows like Location, Location, Location persist in showing London through the barrel of a telephoto lens, squashing people and perspective on top of one another in a busy street with a red bus in it. The hackneyed library shots are all filmed at a disconcerting angle of seven degrees from the perpendicular and then crash zoom into another shot, this time of fluorescent-faced businessmen getting off a slam door train at London Bridge Station which, to be fair, is a bit of a shit hole. This then cuts to a slow pan shot of green hills under a wide blue sky with light, puffy-fluffy cumulus clouds patiently queueing up to be featured in a pastoral poem by someone who lives in a windmill and wears Arran knit sweaters in winter. A vision of bucolic loveliness to lure you away from your urgent lifestyles, without any narration to indicate that every single gingerbread cottage on view is owned by an escaped Londoner bitching about the absence of coffee bars or bus services.
So what exactly is wrong with our cities in general and London in particular? Why the headlong rush to give up the melee of convenience and violence that is a bristling capital city of the 21st century? One of my friends told me that one of the reasons he moved from London, where he worked as a high profile architect, was to get away from other high profile architects, whose sole topics of conversation were the interesting clients they were working for and the even more interesting clients they would cheerfully drop them to work for instead. Another reason was money; not the lack of it nor the difficulty of gaining access to more of it but, rather, the measurement of it as a status symbol along with everything that entailed; the postcode you could afford to live in, the daily commute to the postcode you could absolutely not afford to live in, but were required to work in instead, your choices of home furnishings, mobile phones, personal digital assistants and mp3 player. All good reasons to go, but it struck me that his main complaint was that all his London drinking buddies were obviously self-obsessed braying wankers, in which case he would have been a lot better off simply not answering the phone. As it is, he made a wise decision to seek out simpler pleasures in the country because he’s very happy now, which just goes to show that the only path to follow is your own.
And this is my path and that’s my point. I wrote this book because I was tired of being told how shit London is and being asked when I was thinking of moving out, as if it was the destiny of us all to go and live somewhere more settled, less dynamic. As if cities were only for the young. As if I have to accept the dull orthodoxy that leads people to pasture just when their social experience of the world makes human interaction become an ever more exciting prospect.
Every day, I wake up and am excited by the prospects that London holds. I make it my business to see what is going on, take notice of the extraordinary details carved into the architecture and the mix of hope, despair, fear and excitement written onto people’s faces. Everyone over the age of eight knows that the streets of London aren’t paved with gold, but many adults make the same kind of mistake about the countryside – namely that Rose Cottage awaits them in rural Britain. That it is quiet, that the people are friendlier, that a babbling brook and a life of rich and easy contentment is on offer in the country.
Well, perhaps it is time to grow up and smell the compromise. Everywhere is a trade off, nowhere is perfect and that includes the countryside. The things you have to give up are not just easy retail convenience and public transport; there’s far more to it than that. I lived in Cornwall for twenty years and my time there was a long succession of short-term jobs. I had no career and, therefore, no interest in any of those jobs, beyond adopting them as a holding position until things became more cheery. My guiding purpose to getting up every day was simply to make ends meet, to get by, to buy food, to pay the mortgage. I was on a treadmill and I didn’t even have the luxury of escape as I was, apparently, destitute in paradise.
But paradise – where perfect happiness may be found – is not necessarily a place. It is, rather, a state of mind, a way of being. For me it meant doing what I wanted to do, pleasing myself, having a happy life. This is what happened when I got there.
08 April, 2008 Filed in: Articles | Everything
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.
07 May, 2008 Filed in: Articles | Everything
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’.