Sunday, 26 June 2011

Fan Mail

Couple of weeks ago I received a rather badly written letter penned in a most disagreeable tone. It was from someone who had 'come across' one of my books on the origins of place names and the content, as far as I could tell, disagreed with every name I defined in their home town. It came as no surprise to find they were a member of the local history group and, again as expected, suggested I amend the 'errors' in line with the history society's publication.

I have not bothered to respond to this letter and will not be doing so. I am quite used to these local history society 'experts'. Firstly all historians will admit to being by nature a sceptical lot. Local historians are vehemently defensive of anything on their patch, which they will always consider to be a little special and different from elsewhere - and quite naturally so. However this does not make them always right (or indeed always wrong) but does make them very reluctant to listen to anyone outside of their immediate circle.

When I first started speaking at local history group meetings, the obvious audience for my books, I was somewhat taken aback by the attitude of the odd individual, who seemed intent on disagreeing with everything I said as I 'had no local knowledge' (ie. I wasn't born or living within spitting distance of either the parish church, village pub or, more importantly, their house).

Furthermore the way I conduct my talks on the origins of place names is very informal. An initial twenty minutes or so on the languages involved, the records consulted, the common elements, a few oddities and the odd anecdote is followed by a Q&A session. I do this to ensure the audience get the answers to the names they are thinking of, while it also serves to remind me of the research and writing of that specific county's book. With fifteen published and as many in various stages of production I cannot possibly be expected to recall every name off the top of my head. However this does mean I am putting my head in an invisible noose and there was always one individual waiting to trip me up - irrespective of whether the local definition was right or wrong! That was until I added a couple of lines as I threw it open to questions from the floor.

Today I drop in how I know when someone is asking a question simply in the hope of tripping me up - it happened in the past and I got wise and took lessons in reading body language. (No, of course I haven't!) Perhaps the smart alecs have simply not attended more recent events, however I tend to think the threat of being found out is sufficient to make them think twice.

I shall not be responding to this letter for it is not worth taking the time nor trouble to do so. The individual clearly did not pay attention to what was said in the book in the first place and there is no point in repeating it in a letter for them to ignore me a second time - especially when I know it will not change their opinion in the slightest. Much as I will never convince a single Salopian that their county town should be pronounced Shrow- and not Shrew- (see blog post of 22nd November 2009).

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Fathers Day

Firstly a thank you to my two young 'uns (Sarah and Jonathan) for the cards and gifts - I shall certainly make full use of the National Trust membership.

I know the rough story of how Mothers' Day came to be but Fathers' Day was something of a mystery. A little research and I discover the Catholic observed March 19th as the day for fatherhood, that being St Joseph's Day. Not until 1908 was Fathers' Day first seen in it's modern form. Mrs Grace Golden Clayton wanted to celebrate the lives of 210 fathers lost in the Monongah Mining Disaster in West Virginia in December the previous year. However this was a one-off event.

The first attempt at a regular date began in 1910 and was again an American concept. Even then it was limited to Spokane, Washington and was again proposed by a woman, one Sonora Smart Dodd - not as an honour to the father of her children but to her own father. William Smart, a veteran of the American Civil War, had been a widower after his wife died giving birth to thier sixth child when Sonora was just 16 years of age. Since that time he had played the role of both parents.

That first year of 1910 the celebrations were limited to the wearing of a rose, red for a living father and white for one now deceased. Whenever attempts were made to make the day official, the media ridiculed these as filling the calendar with another pointless promotional exercise. The next major voice came in the shape of Senator Margaret Chase Smith who, in 1957, accused Congress of singling out one parent over another. Nine years later President Lyndon B Johnson declared the third Sunday in June to be Fathers' Day, although it was not official until 1972, the United Kingdom followed soon afterwards.

While the third Sunday of June is the most common date, Fathers' Day is still celebrated in many Catholic countries on March 19th. The Arab world choose June 21st, the first day of summer. Scandinavian and Baltic nations have a preference for the second Sunday in November. Brazil opt for the second Sunday of August, nine months before Mothers' Day. Hindu countries opt for Amavasya, New Moon Day in late August or early September.

In Thailand the day is movable and always shares the birthday of the current king. Taiwanese fathers chose the 8th day of the 8th month, for 'eight' translates to ba and is similar to the word for 'father' and hence known as Baba's Day. Germany chose Ascension Day, forty days after Easter, and in some parts men embark on a hiking tour with small waggons laden wine or beer and regional food choices - today just an excuse for getting drunk.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Define a Natural Landscape

All this walking research has made me think about the environmentalists and their continued calls to preserve our landscape and the habitats of species under threat. Question is what landscape do they want preserved?

The South Downs are man-made, woodland felled for agriculture would soon return were it not for grazing and the plough. The wilds of Dartmoor was also once covered by woodland, the odd original isolated patch is still found but will never return to the remaining areas. Do the environmentalists want the modern idea of the South Downs and/or Dartmoor retained - or should we get rid of the heathlands, grassy slopes and the wild flowers in favour of deciduous woodland?

What about the animals? The hog is increasing in numbers in many parts of the country, beaver are being introduced into small controlled areas of Scotland. Yet while some laud the return of these mammals there are as many voices against. Birds such as the osprey, kite and peregrine falcon have famously been protected and numbers are increasing. The greater mouse-eared bat was declared extinct in 1990, I cannot see any dissenting voices to the reintroduction of these flying mammals. Rare species of ant have been monitored for seventeen years on the sandy heathlands of Scotland - can't see a mass outcry if year eighteen sees none to count. But what about the bear, exterminated by man in the eleventh century, or the wolf officially gone by 1740. Want to see those reintroduced to Britain? And how can reintroducing animals to 'specially selected areas only' be considered natural? Surely this is simply an open plan zoo?

So I hear how every species should have its own little niche where the species is protected. But isn't that one of the major complaints of environmentalists, that habitat is increasingly fragmented and small islands for this beetle, that bird, or the other flower don't allow them to spread sufficiently to widen the gene pool and thus isolating populations?

And where do we stop? Even if we limit the timescale to species which suffered through human influence we must go back to the end of the last Ice Age when humans returned in numbers to settle permanently in Britain. The idea of returning mammoth, Irish elk and other large herbivores is difficult enough. However to bring back the habitat of these grazers would involve filling in much of the North Sea to rejoin the land bridge with continental Europe.

Perhaps these campaigners should take the lead and offer themselves up as habitats for the human flea which has suffered from a lack of habitat in our comparatively clinically clean modern homes.

I ask again, just what is 'natural'?

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Writing Memories on a Lichfield Walk

Soaring Heaven on Earth is a somewhat overly dramatic title for a walk on the northern edge of the city of Lichfield. This was not a walk I anticipated would bring any great satisfaction. I like a distant sound of traffic and little or no tarmac. However this proved a pleasant albeit brief distraction, particularly so when I found myself reunited with areas of my native county which I had visited previously when compiling four of my books: Staffordshire Place Names, Staffordshire Privies, South Staffordshire Street Names, and the forthcoming Paranormal Staffordshire.

I started the route at a different point on the walk, solely because parking was impossible on that day. Soon I was trying to recall the meaning of a number of street names as I started off at Cross Keys, itself taking the name of a former public house, itself named from the symbol representing St Peter. Passing through Lloyds Walk, named after the bank which owns the land, I turned into Dam Street, a reminder of where the water flow feeding the mill was controlled. Here is Dame Olivers, the school where Dr Samuel Johnson learned his first lessons.

Nether Pool is of lesser importance than Stowe Pool. Crossing Bird Street, known as Byrd Street in 1506 and named after a local family, we come to Beacon Park, a name transferred from Beacon Street which we shall encounter very soon.

Skirting the park we approached Townfields, the name explains itself. It was here that a former resident allowed me to photograph the building which had once served as the privy before modern plumbing was installed. The solid brick building certainly smelled better when I photographed it, for one wall and the roof were covered in honeysuckle and its heady sweet perfume.

Shaw Lane is an old name found in the landscape, one referring to 'the enclosure', leads to Beacon Street, which was known as Bacon Street until 1836 and tells us this was where meat was cured. Along here is Erasmus Darwin House where I heard of the unexplained events of cellar lights being turned on moments after being turned off for the night. Another man in period costume appeared to a member of staff and was thought to be playing a role for the museum until she realised he had vanished and that no costumed characters were on site that day.

A side road on the left is The Close, the road associated with the cathedral, and here another phenomenon seemed keen to allow aromas of cooking to permeate into the upstairs of one person's house when nobody was cooking. The buildings on either side seem to frame the magnificent Lichfield Cathedral with its three spires known as the Ladies of the Vale. Briefly touching Dam Street again we turn left along Reeve Lane, a reeve was a Saxon officer appointed by the lord of the manor to see to the running of the estate in his stead.

This path brings us to the single circuit of Stowe Pool, from stow which has several meanings and is best defined as simply 'place' as 'special place' makes it sound of greater significance than it actually was. The path leads off and up the ramp and back to my waiting car.

The walk brought back memories of facts and narratives I would never have remembered had I tried to recall them from a question or a reminder of a name.