Sunday 31 October 2010


Following the pointless exercise of putting back the clocks by an hour (which means putting them forward 23 hours if they're digital) it dawns at the end of the tenth month that it is named for being the eighth month in the previous Julian calendar. Having some knowledge of the origins of the months of the year in the Western world I wondered if the the same meanings applied to the calendar months in other languages.

What resulted was the following:

English (in use for the majority of Western nations)
January - after the Roman god Janus.
February - from the purification ritual of Februa held on the 15th of the old Roman calendar.
March - named after the Roman god Mars.
April - traditionally from the Latin aperire "to open" and a reference to the bursting leaves and flowers of spring.
May - the Greek goddess Maia, associated with fertility.
June - the Roman goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter.
July - after the Roman emperor Julius Caesar
August - and after the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar.
September - the seventh month of the Julian calendar.
October - the eighth month of the Julian calendar.
November - the ninth month of the Julian calendar.
December - the tenth month of the Julian calendar.

Tishri - from an Akkadian (language of ancient Mesopotamia) word meaning 'to begin'.
Cheshvan - from Akkadian word for 'eighth month', Nisan being the first month of the year.
Kislev - a name meaning 'thickened' and a reference to the growth induced by the rains.
Tebet - thought be referring to 'the month of the body'.
Shevat - thought to be a reference to 'the month of trees'.
Adar - depending on the language of origin could be 'dreams' or 'father'.
Nisan - from Babylonian referring to the month when barley was ripe.
Iyar - again Babylonian and meaning 'Rosette or blossom'.
Sivan - from Akkadian meaning 'Season or time'.
Tammuz - named after the Babylonian god Tammuz.
Av - from the Babylonian calendar and thought to mean 'father'.
Elul - from the Akkadian word for 'harvest'.

Muharram - a name meaning 'forbidden'
Safar - three basic meanings for this word, although here most likely yellow or emptiness.
Rabi (1 & 2) - the (first and second) 'months beginning spring'.
Jumada (1& 2) - 'the dry months'.
Rajab - derived from a word meaning 'to respect'
Shaban - the month of ‘separation’, so called because Arabs dispersed in search of water.
Ramadan - it originally meant 'scorching heat'.
Shawwal - means 'to lift, carry' and the month when female camels would be pregnant.
Dhulquadar - means 'the master of truce' and one of the months when fighting is forbidden.
Dhulhija - means ‘possesor of the pilgrimage' and when the journey to Mecca is made.

Just to confuse matters further there are also another 41 calendars in current use elsewhere in the world, 21 more are known from ancient cultures, and we even have the Darian Calendar covering the 24 months of the year on Mars - itself later adapted to provide something for the walls of explorers to the Jovian moons of Io, Europa, Callisto, and Ganymere, and for those who venture to the Saturnian moon of Titan.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

My Hallowe'en Story

With Hallowe'en on the calendar this weekend I thought I might offer up an offering from my forthcoming book on the paranormal. Entitled Paranormal Birmingham, it covers the traditional narratives alongside the personal experiences of those who have lived and worked in this city of 1.2 million individuals.
No book on any aspect of the history of Birmingham would be complete without a mention of the Old Crown. There is no doubt this is one of the oldest buildings in the city, if not the oldest, while the actual date of construction is difficult to tie down. Early research suggested a date of 1368, however this is based on estimates from surviving records and not actual facts.
In the fourteenth century one Robert o' the Grene is documented as a co-founder of the old church of St John the Baptist. This meant they no longer had to travel to Aston parish church to worship and that he, as a founder, was earmarked to whomever owned the building which is now the Old Crown. This shows the building was here before the church and has also outlived it.
A substantial property was given as a wedding present to the daughter of Robert 'o the Grene. It is most tempting to think this was the Old Crown, indeed it would be difficult to see two such sizable buildings here which was, and remained for many years after, smaller than neighbouring Aston. When the original local historian and antiquary, John Leland, came through here in 1540 he reflected upon the 'praty strete' and its 'mansion howse of tymbar'.
Queen Elizabeth I is said to have stayed here for a single night, perhaps William Shakespeare's eyes saw the large wooden building on one of his journeys, and Prince Rupert may also have admired the even then old building when he came to Birmingham during the English Civil War. We may have to guess as to the identity of many of the historical figures, however more recent visitors and employees have documented their experiences in the Old Crown Ghost Book, a record by the individuals themselves on their personal experiences. These individuals, who shall remain anonymous, may well have been introduced to others whose memory still remains within the walls of this historical building.
Our first two stories come from downstairs in the where the public wander freely. It was November 1998 when a member of staff was taking a hard-earned break on the other side of the counter. Her mind was elsewhere, perhaps planning ahead for the coming festive season, and gazing aimlessly in the direction behind the bar by the till. Suddenly, and with nobody near, a bottle of Martell Brandy fell. It had been nestling in a wine rack to the right of the till, but came crashing down with a bang which, as the witness reported, was somehow far too loud for a breaking bottle.
Around the corner is the restaurant area. Here in September of 1998, when most of the customers had finished their meals, a doorman took the weight off his feet on the stool at the end of the bar. As he sat there he clearly saw an indistinct grey figure, difficult to say it was male of female, walk across the fireplace and into the kitchen area. It never paused when passing the lit fire, nor was it seen by the kitchen staff still tidying up after the evening meals. It had simply vanished.
However it is upstairs in the guest rooms where the most disturbing reports originate. As a member of staff pointed out, these reports have something in common. Nearly all occur between the hours of 2:50am and 3:30am, although the time does not seem relevant to the experiences, as we shall see.
It is May 2007 and in room number three a visitor from the other side of the world was spending his third night at the Old Crown. Previous nights had passed without incident, yet this was to be his last night here and he moved on to another hotel in the city centre. He was greatly disturbed when he awoke in the middle of the night and had the feeling he was not alone. Opening his eyes he turned over to see a man in his early fifties. A hazy, greyish silhouette, the stranger was not himself particularly frightening, indeed the guest said he had a kind face. Perhaps the stranger was more scared at being discovered, for he took a single step back and then vanished.
However the most activity seems to occur in room number five. On two consecutive nights in February 2000 the guest had awoken, the figures on the alarm clock glowing red at 3:26am both nights. On the first night he awoke feeling cold and wet, his first thought being he had wet the bed although this proved not to be the case. The following night he woke again feeling cold and wet, yet this time he opened his eyes to the sight of an old woman above the bed weeping bitterly. She vanished but left him wondering it had been her tears which had made him feel wet.
Our last story also comes from room number five and is rather different. Nothing was seen, so far as we are aware, although something was most assuredly felt as we shall see. It is September 1998 and two twenty-somethings were spending the night in that room. The boyfriend was awoken, needing to answer a call of nature and had arisen, leaving his girlfriend sleeping. When returning he distinctly heard her voice, not speaking but the tell-tale little moans and gasps he was quite familiar with. He crawled back into bed and she snuggled up to him, arms around one another.
It was then he was taken aback by her commenting on how that was, in her words. "The best willy ever!" He resolved never to tell her he had been otherwise engaged at the time!

Sunday 24 October 2010

One Word, Infinite Uses

This week I combined photographing Cheshire with an appearance later that evening at the Wellington Literary Festival on Wednesday. Next day I was off to New Waltham near Basingstoke and snapped parts of Bedfordshire on the way south and researched around Hertfordshire on my return on Friday. Over the three days I managed to cover in excess of eight hundred miles and saw more than my fair share of traffic - be it moving or crawling, even at one stage allowing me to sip tea hot from the thermos while waiting for Eddie Stobart to edge forward sufficiently for a change of view.

On my rather lengthy travels along the motorways, highways and byways this week I found myself drawn to a single word on the side and rear of many lorries. During my days in engineering one of the many tasks I performed included ensuring the finished product reached its destination. Then we called them carriers, hauliers, transporters - today they use LOGISTICS. When I first saw this word on the side of many wagons I was intrigued as to why a word I had only ever used (or seen used) in a context such as "The logistics of dealing with so many people" required such a large container.

Of course no language is ever set in stone and it continually evolves. Uses of words change continually, what was initially a slang term grows in usage and is eventually listed in the Oxford English Dictionary along with its new definition. (Still baffled as to how "logistics" was ever a slang term!)

So while my great-aunt would no doubt have been deliriously happy to have been described as "gay", many would not find it so complimentary today. I always assumed "checking out" a hotel would be leaving, yet now I'm reliably informed such happens on arrival. I used to wear "pants", now to describe them as pants is pants, apparently. I would whistle tunes with lyrices of "Moon in June", today I'd be baring my buttocks in early summer. I still have Yorkshire pudding with any "beef" while others seem to use it as a vehicle to complain.

"Wags" was the family dog in many a children's story, now they appear at major sporting events in designer gear and criticised for "gaffs" (mistakes not hooks for landing fish), have "issues" (problems, not periodicals nor offspring), maybe "hammered" (drunk or criticised, not hit with a tool for nails), could be described as "wicked" (which is good, not devilish), or maybe "hot" (sexy or in vogue, not sweaty), "cool" (relaxed, not requiring an overcoat), "high" (under the influence of recreational drugs, not at altitude), and "sweet" (good again, not containing sugar).

I always thought "cheesy" snacks would have some sort of cheese flavour, perhaps I should now expect them to be tasteless. Turning "green" is to tap sustainable sources, as indeed it was when I was younger for displays of jealousy or potential for puking were just as inexhaustable. Once "camp" was comprised of tents (or maybe chicory-based coffee) but never anything remotely effeminate.

And spare a thought for poor "Jack", not only currently the most popular name for newborn males in the UK but he's also a lifting device in the boot of (most) cars, a sailor, a playing card, a flag, a male donkey, a predatory fish, a small ball, a kind of plug, a fruit, a small sphere with spikes, a labourer, a tosser, and even nothing whatsoever.

Saturday 16 October 2010

A Final Sprinkling of Salt

A final extract from The Salt Routes, in which I follow these most ancient trade routes .

Aside from the obvious culinary uses, the chemical industry require salt to produce hydrochloric acid, caustic soda and sodium metal. Drug companies are only a part of the numerous medical uses. Salt is used in the manufacture of paint, bricks, tiles, glazed pottery, leather tanning, shampoo, glass, yoghurt pots, plastics, slug repellant, for piping, as a water softener, on icy roads, in soap manufacture, in dyes, in agriculture, and in the production of metals such as brass, bronze, aluminium, gold, silver, and zinc. Food stuffs containing salt include bacon, fish, bread, jams, ketchup, ice cream, butter, cheese, pickles, and even confectionery.

John Corbett, the Salt King, had an array of managers working for him who looked after the daily running of the Stoke Works at Droitwich. One of these men had settled at Elms Farm, just a few hundred yards walk to work each day along Weston Hall lane. Mr Grafton and his young bride regularly entertained her brother, who arrived by train and would have walked past the salt works to reach The Elms. A common enough occurrence, but one where the visitor was about to be better known than even Corbett, for Mrs Grafton's maiden name was Elgar and this was her brother Edward, later Sir Edward and Master of the Kings Music.

Those who worked on the shop floor had a hard life. Wages were poor, working conditions necessarily hot and hours were long. Whole families were engaged in producing salt, an image depicted on the statue entitled the Saltworkers. Such conditions, as seen with mining communities, where a great number of generations are tied to a particular industry through a lack of any alternative way of earning a living and with no new blood from outside, see the family names become fixed in the area.
Anyone who has traced their family tree will be aware that the first born son and daughter would be named after the father and mother. Subsequent children would then take the names of uncles and aunts, cousins and grandparents. This lead to many individuals having the same name and the community took to giving nicknames. Such were not, as is often the case today, derogatory but a reflection of the individuals skills or job and thus seen as almost a badge of office.
For example over three generations there were no less than twenty men by the name of George Harris in Droitwich. Their surname, while recorded, was hardly ever used in favour of their nickname - even by their employers. Thus we find Harris as a surname becomes Smoker, Dukes, Fantail, Pigeon, Ballis, Stafford, Tant, and even one example of one William Harris who was known as Billy Old Hen. Note this is not their christian name which is replaced here but the surname - hence we should not be looking for Smoker Harris, but Georgie Smoker.
Meanwhile other familes attracted different alternatives. The Harrison family had individuals called Banes, Cloggy, Tottenham, Buffer, Bantam, Hobby, August, Wanna, Noggy and Gomfrey. The Bourne family, who had a long association with Droitwich, kept their surname but to each was added a suffix and became Bourne-Tow, Bourne-Molly and Bourne-Column. Other branches of this family took the same route as the Harris clan, and thus we find Blue, Bobbem, Gory, Tongy, Dandy, Panto, Boniker, Rabbit, Pie and Jinkum. The Nicklin family somehow managed to acquire the nickname of Nick, through Jimmer, Joey, Harry, Peckum and Weighum. The Cuckoos were all of the Pittaway line, the Colleys became known as Toodle, and the Duggans had their name changed to Diddle.
Family connections, although the main source of nicknames, could and would be ignored in favour of a more personal reference whenever the individual was deemed to merit such. Two examples stick out, although neither of these have any written explanation but which suggest enough for us to have some idea of what was being implied. For example, maybe the morals of a lady by the name of Joe Tom George's Lizzie's Rose are questionable, to say the least. While the reader should make up their own mind as to the reasons why one gentleman was known to one and all by the name of Three-Elbowed-Dick.

In Cheshire, where the production of salt was over a wider area and other industries provided opportunites work outside salt production, the community was not reliant on a few families. However regional dialect words did develop, even as they continue to do so today despite the exposure to a more national, or even multi-national, English thanks to the ease of travel and instant interaction.
Local terms are particularly evident in jobs and in the tools used by these individuals. Common salt pans were up to one hundred feet in length and worked by gangs of men known as wallers. These men had the job of turning the evaporating brine as it thickened and the salt crystallised out. Not a pleasant job at best owing to the extreme heat and the dehydrating effect of working so closely with salt. However evaporation was never even throughout the brine mixture, even in the smallest pans and here they were huge. In order to reach every part of the pan with their rake-like implements the wallers were required to stand in half barrels placed IN the boiling brine!
Tool names varied from place to place and even from one works to another, hence a mundler, a mudling stick and a punner were all the same thing. In Victorian times the tubs and storage vats used to drain excess brine renaining in the salt were made from elm. They came in sizes known as 40s, 60s or 80s and the salt was packed down by using the mundling stuck, whereupon it would be left to dry out and produce blocks or lumps of dry salt. Other tool names included rake, chipping paddle, lofting spike, happer, skimmer, mundling peg, salt tub, cotter patch, and bagging shovel.
Commercial salt extraction started near the modern Marbury estate near Northwich around 1670. The layers of rock salt, some eighty feet thick, were mined leaving columns of rock salt supporting the ceiling. Unfortunately these caverns regularly flooded and the pillars were dissolved, causing the land to collapse into the caverns below. Taken overland to Frodsham Bridge, the rock salt was then shipped along the River Mersey where it was dissolved in sea water and refined. A rapid increase in business followed the work to make the River Weaver navigable from 1721. However all this was based on a lucky discovery, for these salt mines was only discovered by accident when John Jackson was prospecting for coal in 1670.
Salt workers everywhere were known for dipping all manner of personal items in the brine to produce highly unusual decorations. Each dipping in the brine solution left a film on the item and, as successive dippings dried, a layer of crystals became encrusted on the item. All manner of objects were dipped including plenty of old shoes.

Northwich Victoria, the local football team who regularly come to the attention of the nation when they appear in the early rounds of the FA Cup, are nicknamed the Salt Boys.
When Queen Victoria came to visit during her long reign, the town wanted to add a local flavour to the decor in order to welcome the reigning monarch. During this era decorative arches appeared in quantities not seen since the Roman era. Hence the town produced an entranceway, a construction made from local salt with the bottom supporting pillars cut from brown rock salt, topped by an archway of white salt blocks. It is not recorded how long they withstood the weathering of the British climate after the Queen and the local dignitaries had passed underneath.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Further Pinches of Salt

Carrying on from past weeks we see how salt is also ingrained into our language. We have already noted how the Latin for salt has provided us with the word salary. Yet the Roman troops were paid in salt, the common currency throughout the Empire, and the word 'soldier' is derived from this. Latin sal dare means quite literally 'to give salt' and not only gave English 'solider' but also French soldat. The word salinate, meaning 'to change completely, in essence', is derived from the Latin salinator the servant whose duty required him to pound lumps, clean and store the salt for the household. Roman salarium was the payment made to salt workers who extracted the salt, while a saller was the ancient salt box which kept the salt clean and dry and is seen today on every table as the salt 'cellar'.
However in some parts of Africa salt coinage was in use up to at least the 19th century. In very hot countries salt was even more important, vital to the health of the people and predictably taxed unfairly. Some may recall how Mahatma Gandhi took the long trek through India to the sea. Here he boiled the sea water to evaporate the water, thus highlighting how unfair it was to tax a necessity.
To "take with a grain (or pinch) of salt" warns we should be skeptical of the validity of whatever is being spoken of - in Latin this is cum grano salis and the English phrase first recorded in 1647. Another commonly heard phrase is describing someone as "worth one's salt", however this seems to be a more recent addition to the language and is not known in English before the 19th century.
Less well known, as they have largely fallen out of use, are "to sit above the salt" and "to sit below the salt". Clearly there is a demarcation line here but this is not a line of salt. In the 16th century salt was subjected to high taxation and was ridiculously expensive in comparison to today. Hence it was associated with the tables of the rich and, as it was the norm for the rich to sit at the higher tables and the rest lower down, to be seated "above the salt" recognised you were the equal of the host. Note that the salt would have been held in as ornate and expensive a container as the host could reasonably afford, for it was not sufficient to know where the salt was, it had to be clearly seen.
Some indication of the degree of taxation can be seen by the last rise imposed. It happened in the reign of William and Mary, the year was 1805 and while Admiral Lord Nelson was planning the downfall of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, the Customs Service were raising the tax on salt to thirty pounds per ton. At the time the weekly wage of a dockworker, farm labourer and sailor was approximately seven shillings (35p), which would give the same spending power as 14 pounds a week in the early 21st century. If you consider that to be bad, spare a thought for those in Europe where the French had to be content with the equivalent of just 20p, and the German economy meant their dockers took home just 13p per week. In 1825 the despised Salt Tax was abolished by the British government, the same year as the vast salt deposits were discovered at Stoke Prior.
These were by no means the earliest known examples of salt tax. The first salt tax in England was imposed by William III (1650-1702); the Russians were taxed by Peter the Great (1682-1725); Hungary and Germany were taxed from the 13th century, France from the 12th; the Syrians paid a salt tax to Alexander the Great (336-323BC); the Romans extracted a salt tax from the Jews; Egyptian kings levied a salt tax on the priests of Hammomen; while the first datable written record of a salt tax was by Ancus Martius, author of Salinarum Vectigal in 640BC.
As the Saxon feudal system of government took shape, so the officials were quick to impose fines, tolls and taxes in any way they could. From the Cheshire wyches salt already provided a hefty income for the Earl of Chester and the Crown. Fines and tolls for those from the local hundred were at least half and as little as a quarter of those paid by visitors. For example, the toll for a cart drawn by two oxen was tuppence, for four oxen fourpence, one packhorse a ha'penny, eight manloads a penny, and these were the local rates.
Overloading a cart or horse, thus avoiding tolls, was not wise either for if the cart axle snapped or the horse's back broke within one league of the wyches meant a fine of two shillings, assuming they were caught - a league is a distance which changes depending upon the era and location, but could be seen to be the distance travelled in a single hour. Outside of that league the officer had no jurisdiction. As the salt was packed tightly into the containers, unscrupulous traders were known to split the containers to form two loosely packed loads from a single tightly packed one. While this meant the trader would have to pay twice as much in tolls, he would more than recoup that when he sold the load on. However this did not look good on the supplier and, should he be found to have split the load, would realise a massive fine of forty shillings.

Sunday 3 October 2010

Yet More Pinches of Salt

Following on from my last post another series of the unsual which makes salt a story well worth a read.

Archaeologists have shown salt to have been extracted at Droitwich since at least 200BC. However there are signs of human habitation in the area from 8000BC. This was around the time when our islands were comparatively recently separated from Continental Europe and before the nation had settled to an agrarian lifestyle. It is tempting to suggest that they were using the brine which bubbled to the surface, for they would certainly have needed extra salt in their diet. However their method of extraction left no record to prove this.

Even with the technological advances of the 21st century, salt could still have a major influence on our future and possibly even more so than in the past. The Gulf Stream brings the warmer climate of the equatorial regions along the east coast of North America and to the eastern coastline of Europe as far north as Norway. Hitting the cold waters of the Arctic one would expect warmer water to rise above it, but the increased salinity of the warmer water makes it denser and it sinks. Eventually, through a complex system the waters of the Gulf Stream return to the equatorial regions and begin the cycle once more.
Global warming melts the polar ice, introducing more fresh water into the system leading to the deflection or even cessation of the Gulf Stream. Thus the system of heat exchange around the planet is radically altered and, odd as it sounds, global warming could produce a much colder Britain as much as a warmer one.
And all because of salt.

Salt has become every much a part of culture. Not only for the traditional British fish and chips but all over the world and in the most unusual ways. In the east an honoured guest would have been welcomed by the blood of an animal sacrificed outside the entrance. In the event of a surprise visit salt would have been scattered at the entrance, thus showing that salt was considered almost the equal of blood.
Greek philosopher Aristotle, writing in the 4th century BC, encourages the eating of a measure of salt as an offer of and sealing of a friendship. Thereafter to renege on that friendship would have been tantamount to treason. Russian traditionalists have no opportunity to carry their bride over the threshold, for they will already have a lighted candle in one hand and a measure of salt in the other. Perhaps this was the same measure of salt which had been handed to the bride and groom as a traditional wedding gift. In Denmark visitors to those on their death bed will throw salt on the open fire in order to ward off the devil.