Sunday, 27 November 2011

More of a Comment Than a Review

I don't read enough fiction. Not by choice, I simply don't have the time. If I could travel more by public transport I would certainly get much more read, however most of the places I need to visit do not have the service. Hence virtually all the reading I do is in bed, invariably resulting in 15 to 20 mins of reading before the eyes close - I hasten to add this has nothing to do with the reading material!

Having said all that I have just finished reading the last of a series of seven by sci-fi author Kevin J Anderson. Entitled the The Saga of Seven Suns, at some six to seven hundred pages per book it has taken me almost two years to complete the series - I'm not quite that slow, having read in others between.

I understand science fiction is not everyone's favourite genre, thus I shall only say the basic storyline and the new ideas introduced by the author are entertaining enough. However the pace of the story is impaired by the length of the chapters, a maximum of five pages each is simply not enough to develop a story nor does it do the characters any favours. On the subject of characters, whilst I appreciate there must be a good few to choose from when looking at an entire spiral arm of a galaxy, there are far too many. Not particularly good for me as I find it very difficult to remember names!

Hence the thousand or so chapters over the seven books serve only to make the story fragmented and difficult to follow. I concede these problems may have been less evident had I read the seven volumes over a much shorter period, although perhaps if Mr Anderson had written longer chapters it would have kept me reading for more than 15 minutes, which in turn would lead to fewer books and potentially more sales for many must have given up on this saga well before the end.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

20th November

Not a date which would ever be considered of earth-shattering importance. Yet in its own way marks the anniversaries of three events which could be considered landmarks of the written word.

Just 191 years have passed since that day in 1820 when the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket, Massachusetts, was in the Pacific Ocean about 2,000 miles off the west coast of South America. Nothing unusual about such in the early nineteenth century, that was until the Essex was attacked by a sperm whale with an estimated mass of some eighty tons. The vessel sank with just eight survivors, one of whom was first mate Owen Chase. Following the publication of his record of the events in 1821, under the snappy title Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, Herman Melville had he germ of an idea which would become one of the first great American novels - Moby Dick. The success of this novel from its publication in 1851 when the literate were in a very small minority (and no radio, television, or cinema to bring the narrative to a wider audience) makes it a landmark piece of literature.

Winding forward 127 years and a young Princess Elizabeth (she was just 21) married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten at Westminster Abbey in London. Within six years she was crowned Queen Elizabeth as the nation sat glued to their new television sets, purchased specially for the purpose of watching the pomp and ceremony live and in glorious black and white. Since that time the media has grown to the state-of-the-art broadcasting we take for granted today. Almost sixty years on the throne and surely no other living individual can have been written about, filmed, taped, broadcast, snapped (or waved at) over this time.

Finally another 38 years on and on this day in 1985 Microsoft Windows 1.0 is released. This brought the computer to the masses which, with the internet readily available within a few years, enabled billions to add their words to the mix, irrespective of ability, education, interest, or common sense. It could be argued this tremendous input serves only to dilute that worthy of reading, which would have stood alone in the days of Herman Melville. However from the opposite point of view, does it naturally bring the quality to the surface, highlighting the well-written word in a vast ocean of dross?

Monday, 14 November 2011

More on Nursery Rhyme Origins

I no longer use my scanner, not since it started making more noise than the printer. Hence when I do need to scan a document I pop along to the local library, it's free and bookable online several days in advance. I couldn't use my usual library as building work is still going on so I opted for another nearby. Shortly after my arrival I noted a significant number of pre-school children and soon discovered my booking had coincided with Tots Tuesday. Concentration proved difficult for the next 30 minutes as staff and parents tried to entertain said tots with a selection of rhymes - while scanner-man struggled to avoid clicking/scanning/typing to the rhythm of such lyrical masterpieces as "Dingle-Dangle Scarecrow".

I was reminded of my blog some weeks ago, when I looked at the origins of nursery rhymes. Having seen how the most common explanations are even more far-fetched than the rhymes themselves, I expanded my search.

As I Was Going to St Ives - which I had always considered a riddle is apparently also considered a nursery rhyme. The modern form first appeared in 1825, although there is an earlier English version from one hundred years before where the man the narrator met has nine wives (and nine, sacks, cats, kits rather than today's seven of each). Any dispute as to whether this refers to St Ives in Cornwall or that in Cambridgeshire is made pointless by the existence of earlier versions of this problem from a number of cultures, the oldest being the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus where it is designated problem 79. Note this writing has been dated to around 1650 BC, making the problem at least twice as old as any place in the country known as St Ives.

Baa, Baa, Black Sheep dates from 1761, a variation on a French melody. Incidentally the original tune is that now used for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. The modern controversies suggesting the rhyme has racist elements seem to have come about when the press jumped on the story when looking for column fillers, in turn fuelling reaction, and probably also leading to supposed origins in the slave trade. In truth the origins are unknown but may have connections to the wool tax imposed in 1275 - splitting the three bags three ways is said to represent the king, the church and the local community. Although, yet again, the split does not stand up to examination for although the 6 shillings and 8 pence deducted by the crown does equate to exactly one-third of one pound sterling, it equates to nearer one-twentieth of the actual value.

Bobby Shafto, he of the silver bells on his knee, hailed from Hollybrook, County Wicklow in Ireland and who died in 1737. This ditty would almost certainly have become lost had it not been adopted by the supporters of Robert Shato, MP for County Durahm in the lattre half of the eighteenth century. It is claimed later verses were added when, having been promised to Bridget Belasyse of Brancepeth Castle in County Durham, Shafto went and married Yorkshire lass Anne Duncombe. Bridget is said to have died two weeks after she heard of the wedding.

Bye Baby Bunting was possibly written as a rhyme for infants for in the eighteenth century bunting was used as a term of endearment and meant 'plump'.

Cock a Doodle Doo is certainly old and was already well-known when, in 1606, the first two lines were used in a pamphlet crowing about murder. Perhaps this represents taunting of the chicken (or cockerel in this case) as few fail to find themselves food at one stage.

Diddle Diddle Dumpling My Son John was inspired by the street cry of hot dumpling sellers. The earliest known publication date being 1797.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe was first published in the late nineteenth century, however the evidence is strong to suggest this is a centuries old counting song. There is a record of a shepherd's counting song beginning "Ina, mina, tehra, methera", which would be connected to Old English, and a Cornish version of "Eena, mia, mona, mite" which could easily pre-date the Roman occupation of Britain.

Frog Went A-Courting first appeared in print in 1548, which rules out any chance of it being the story of Francois, Duke of Anjou (the frog) wooing Queen Elizabeth I of England (the mouse). As the earliest publication was in Scotland it may refer to Mary Stuart.

Georgie Porgie didn't appear in print until the nineteenth century but is almost certainly much older. Just how old is unknown, meaning it is difficult to tell who this is about - among those most often cited are George Villies, 1st Duke of Buckingham; Charles II; and George I.

Boys and Girls Come Out to Play was first published in the early eighteenth century. Referring to the times when children were expected to work throughout hours of daylight, time for play being in the evening. It is worthwhile noting how the 'Girls and boys of today is as often found as 'Boys and girls' historically.

Goosey Goosey Gander has been said to come from anti-Catholic propaganda which came about through Henry VIII's break from Rome. No evidence has been found to suggest the rhyme existed prior to the eighteenth century and, aside from the mention of prayer, there is little to connect it to any religious theme.

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush has no real meaning, simply a game played by children from the middle of the nineteenth century. There is good reason to believe the original lyric stated a bramble bush for mulberries do not grow on bushes.

Hey Diddle Diddle must have more explanations offered than any other rhyme, although none seem to have any evidence to support a single given origin. There is nothing to suggest it was known to the Ancient Greeks; nor does it seem consistent with worship of the Egyptian deity Hathor; the moon and constellations may fit best with the imagery, if not the narrative; the flight of the Israelites from Egypt seems nonsensical; the bedroom exploits of Lady Katherine Grey seem, at best, far fetched; Catherine, wife of Peter the Great of Russia is equally hard to see; and with so many on offer we should expect to find Catholicism in the mix.

Hickory Dickory Dock is also seen as Hickety Dickety Dock and Dickery Dickery Dock. It is thought to have originally been a counting rhyme, perhaps similar to that employed by Westmorland shepherds in the nineteenth century where a rhyme which began Yan Tan Tethera (one two three) went on to hevera (eight) devera (nine) and dick (ten).

I Had a Little Nut Tree does not appear in print until 1789, although this is no reason to believe it is not much older. Indeed if this is of some age the idea it commemorates the visit of Juana of Castile to England at the court of Henry VII is quite possible.

Jack Sprat, he who ate no fat, has been in use since at least the sixteenth century to describe a man of small stature and probably encouraged children to eat what was on offer.

Ladybird Ladybird would have originated through the long-held belief to kill a ladybird was unlucky. Perhaps chanting this rhyme would encourage them to fly away without resorting to stronger and more permanent action. I refer, of course, to the ladybirds and not those who inflicted the Dingle-Dangle Scarecrow upon me at Tots Tuesday.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Battlefields Trail

Trying out and reviewing walks for various publications and societies this year means I have covered almost seven hundred miles since the spring. Of course I prefer a circular route for walking back along the same path, albeit offering a different viewpoint, is a little tedious - as I found when having to return to the car when researching Ley Lines Across the Midlands and later The Salt Routes. Yet discovering the leaflet advertising the Battlefields Trail I was instantly attracted.

Here three of the most significant battles on English soil were linked by a twenty-mile route through the south Midlands. Each site is clearly marked and information boards provide details of the combatants and how events unfolded. The trail starts in Chipping Warden and the route is stated clearly in the dowloadable leaflet known as the Battlefields Trail, hence here we just touch upon the history.

On July 26th 1469 the Wars of the Roses moved to Edgecote Moor. Here Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick led the Lancastrians against a Yorkist army.

A quarter of a century earlier at Cropredy Bridge another engagement took place in the small village of Cropredy Bridge. This place features as a point on one of the routes in my book Ley Lines Across the Midlands.
Just to the northwest of the delightful River Cherwell, Cropredy Bridge was named as an ancient river crossing, a ford across the shallowest part of the river. Indeed this point is also where two leys cross, the other known as the Waterstone ley. Despite the name of the village, as far as we can tell the first bridge was not constructed here until 1312.
The most famous moment in the history of Cropredy Bridge happened on 29th June 1644. The Parliamentarians were under the command of Sir William Waller, whose other claim to fame is as the man who proposed the formation of the New Model Army where professional soldiers fought under trained officers. Prior to this the troops were composed of any able fighting men, led by aristocrats whose only qualification to lead a war was through their bloodline. Opposing Waller were the Royalist forces, under the command of King Charles himself.
Here reports are conflicting. Some speak of a fierce battle, while others maintain it was only a minor skirmish. However both agree that the Royalists were victorious and marked a milestone in English history for this was the final battle won on home soil under the command of the reigning monarch. These differing accounts come about because they were written by different sides. The ferocity of the battle is exaggerated by the Parliamentarians, defeated they wished to tell of how bravely they fought. However their opponents describe a virtual walk over where hardly a shot was fired in anger.
So which is correct? The answer is found in the addendum to the Royalist record. It speaks of their disappointment at how their victory realised so very little, for their prisoners were not the cream of the fighting force and the captured equipment well-nigh worthless.

The earliest of the three barttles was fought at Edgehill on 23rd October 1642, indeed it was the first serious confrontation of the Civil War. The encounter is well covered by the Battlefields Trust leaflet. Again this battle features in the pages of one of my books, this time Paranormal Cotswolds where the story is told as follows:
At the northern edge of Cotswolds is Kineton and a famous moment in time. On the 23rd of October in the year of 1642, one of the greatest battles in English history was fought here, the first major engagement of the English Civil War.
Had there been a decisive victory for either side the conflict further bloodshed may have been avoided and thereafter resolved over the negotiating table. That the battle of almost 30,000 men resulted in 500 dead and 1,500 wounded from each side of the equally matched forces probably accounts for it seemingly continuing long after the mortal combatants had left the arena.
Early in 1643 a report was published by a London printer, sharing the tale of Christmas 1642 in Kineton. A group of shepherds, journeymen and a number of locals were abroad walking the lanes in the first hour after midnight, the first hour of the last Sunday in Advent. Suddenly they were aware of the sound of distant drums, the groans of dying men and the sounds of battle. They watched transfixed as the battle was renacted against the backdrop of the dark winter skies overhead. not daring to move should they be mistakenly be attacked amidst the carnage all around them.
For three hours they watched the slaughter until they considered it over and safe to move. They ran to Kineton's JP and minister, Mr Wood and Mr Marshall respectively, and told them of the horrors they had just witnessed. The skeptical well-educated gents returned to the scene 24 hours later and stood open-mouthed as they witnessed the battle re-enacted once more.
Rumours spread and reached the ears of the king himself, who had been present at the battle. He sent six men, a colonel, two captains and three men of high birth to investigate and, when Saturday night came around once more, the battle was again witnessed in the skies. They watched as men they had fought with, died once more slain by a sword in the hands of an opponent.
Twice more the ghostly battle has been reported. In the first days of 1643, and again around the early Victorian era when a group of newspaper reporters were on hand. Since that time only sounds of the battle have been heard, although there have been reports of Charles I's nephew and right-hand man at the battle, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, being seen astride his white charger directing the Royalist Army.

The leaflet states this can be travelled in three stages, although the twenty miles is manageable by experienced walkers in a single day (assuming the weather is kind and there are sufficient hours of daylight).