Sunday, 31 July 2011

Hay, Rain and Independence

July,  from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
  Well, July is almost over and it’s Lammas Eve, the start of the harvest season, of thanksgiving for the bounty of the earth, so before we move on I shall take a look back at the month that’s gone – though perhaps it would have been better to start at the beginning and look forward.

Anyway, July was named by the Romans in honour of Julius Caesar: before him it was Quintilis, the fifth month, so called because the Roman calendar which predated Caesar’s ‘Julian’ reforms began in March. To the Anglo-Saxons it was Haymonath or maed month, a practical acknowledgement that this was the time for haymaking and the flowering of meadows, or meads.

Indeed, the need for good weather to ensure a good harvest seems to dominate many of July’s celebratory days. Best known, of course, is the tradition that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day it will continue to be wet for the next 40 days – all due, apparently, to people moving the saint’s grave from outside Winchester Cathedral (where he had asked to be buried) to the interior of the building. Bad weather stopped when they returned the body to its original place.

There are similar tales connected with St Calais (July 1), St Mary (whose Visitation was celebrated on the 2nd) and St James the Great on the 25th (who shares his day with St Christopher). Sunshine then indicated cold weather to come, while rain meant warm moist conditions lay ahead. Every day had its saint, and every saint seemed to be an amateur meteorologist.

At one time children used to celebrate the Feast of St James by making caves and grottos, decorate them with shells in honour of St James, whose emblem is a scallop shell, while chanting the following rhyme:
“Please remember the grotto
It’s only once a year
Father’s gone to sea
Mother’s gone to fetch him back
So please remember me.”
The day also marks the start of the English oyster season and the Whitstable Oyster Festival.

Most bizarre of the July saints, however, is Wilgifortis (July 20th), who took a vow of virginity, prayed for God to save her from an unwanted suitor and promptly sprouted a beard. Needless to say her horrified suitor fled and her angry father had her crucifed, which seems a little extreme.

July also boasts American Independence Day (on the 4th), marking the day in 1776 when the nation finally broke away from England. Then, on July 14 there’s Bastille Day, a national holiday in France to commemorate events during the Revolution in 1789 when the Parisian mob stormed the Bastille prison, a symbol of repression.

Jean-Pierre Houel 1789
 A host of other countries have jubilees during the month, including Canada, Hong Kong, Somalia, Belarus, Venezuela, Algeria, Argentina, the Bahamas, Belgium, the Maldives and Peru, while the Japanese hang wishes from bamboo at the festival of Tanabata on July 7th to remember lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi, separated by the Milky Way and allowed to meet only once a year.

Other July activities include the Henley Regatta, the second week of Wimbledon, and Swan Upping, an 800-year-old custom carried out on a 70-mile stretch of the Thames in which the Queen’s swans are marked and counted. Important anniversaries which occur during the month include the creation of the Salvation Army in 1865, and a 1928 Government decision to give the vote to women over 21.

July also sees the start of the Dog Days, a reference to an ancient belief that hot, sultry summer weather was caused by Sirius the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky, moving close to the sun. In addition, July 2nd is the exact mid-point of the year, with 182 days behind and 182 ahead. Personally I feel this is as worthy of celebration as Midsummer Day.

In America the whole of July is National Ice Cream Month which, I feel, is a custom we would do well to adopt here in Britain.

Finally, a verse from The Months by Sara Coleridge, daughter of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
“Hot July brings cooling showers,
Apricots and gillyflowers.”

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Words put me in the Naughty Corner!

HERE it is, this week’s Wednesday Whinge, written and published on a Wednesday (for a change) and fairly early (unlike last week). And the subject is... Political Correctness. It’s been prompted by a friend who kindly pointed out that my comments about badly behaved children and a ‘naughty corner’ were not PC, and the right terminology is ‘the time out place’! And as if that wasn’t bad enough, another acquaintance reprimanded me for saying ‘manning the office’ instead of ‘staffing’.

Now I’m all for equality, tolerance, not putting labels on people, not being derogatory and not causing offence – but not at the expense of the English language. Take ‘the time out place’ for example: it is not specific and conveys very little. It could be a sanctuary where stressed-out mums can relax, and there is no indication of it being a punishment for bad behavior possibly, I suspect, because the notions of naughty and punishment are also considered to be politically incorrect and should therefore never, ever be used. Personally, I still think ‘naughty corner’ serves the purpose since it explains exactly what is involved: it is a spot where a naughty child is placed away from their friends while they consider their behaviour and, hopefully, apologise.

I would also defend my use of the word ‘manning’ on the grounds that it is a generic term, and if we are going to ban all words containing man, then what happens to woman, human, mankind, manhandle, manhole?

Indeed, it’s this gender neutral language of the feminist movement (whose aims I agree with) that seems to have sparked the whole PC issue. The pronouns his and her are increasingly replaced by their (which is grammatically incorrect, since she and he are singular, while their is plural), and organisations like mother and toddler clubs have been taken over by parent and child groups. The battle for women’s equality in a patriarchal society has led to the disappearance of manageresses, actresses, shepherdesses and a host of other jobs, while air stewards (whatever their sex) are now flight attendants and firemen (and women) are firefighters.

You can no longer refer to a spokesman – you must say spokesperson, or representative. I can live with that, but what really, really annoys me is the use of the word ‘chair’ for chairman, chairwoman or chairperson. A chair is a thing upon which you sit. It is an inanimate object, so it cannot conduct meetings, speak or vote. What is the point of taking a word and subverting its meaning when a perfectly adequate word already exists? Let’s have a campaign to restore chairmen (and women) to their rightful place in society – sitting in a chair!

It’s not only the linguistics of gender that presents problems. All kinds of seemingly innocent phrases can trip you up. At university one of my daughters and her fellow students were told ‘thought shower’ is acceptable, but ‘brain storm’ can offend epileptics and people with learning difficulties.

These days the whole area of illness, age and disability is fraught with complications. In the past descriptions like spastic and crippled became terms of contempt so, quite rightly, they were outlawed and replaced – but replacements can also be turned into terms of abuse. There is also a danger that terminology can become so bland and all-embracing that it becomes meaningless. Disabled people are now people with learning difficulties, or people with special needs, umbrella titles which cover a wide spectrum of conditions, all with different needs. Surely it would be more helpful to spell out the nature of their condition?

The same argument applies to the blind who are now visually impaired or visually challenged, whether they are totally blind, or partially-sighted. Similarly, the deaf are aurally impaired or challenged, with no distinction between someone who is a little hard of hearing and another who is profoundly deaf.
The worst pitfalls involve ethnicity. Over the last two decades there have been myriad tales of councils and other organisations whose efforts to ensure universal equality and avoid causing offence led to bizarre decisions banning innocent words and phrases, such as blacklist, black looks or black mark, but some of the stories are probably apocryphal - did any children really sing Baa Baa White Sheep?

Religion also offers scope for the PC Barmy Army to impose their views on the rest of society. Use of the phrase ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ can, apparently, offend atheists, while Christmas celebrations can upset non-Christians. For a couple of years Birmingham abandoned the Nativity and Christmas trees and opted for a multi-faith Winterval, which pleased no-one, so the council reverted to more traditional festivities.

It’s not that I disagree with the ideology behind these alterations to our language. Our society should be inclusive, and people should be able to live without fear of discrimination, whatever their race, belief, gender.

But changing language doesn’t resolve underlying problems in society: it simply means the real issues get lost in the words. Language should evolve through common usage, not because the thought police impose petty dictats, which are a form of censorship, as intolerant as the old views they are trying to stamp out.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Back to School - Before the End of Term!

Well, it's late, but it's still Wednesday, and I am in a grumpy mood, so here is a hastily scribbled Wednesday Whinge, which I will probably read and rewrite tomorrow! So here goes. I am fed-up with walking into shops displaying their 'Back to School' wares. Schools haven't even broken up yet, but for the past week at least stores have been showing signs such as this above racks and rails and shelves all crammed with every conceivable item a young person may want for the pursuance of their education: uniforms, PE kits, jackets, shoes, socks, bags, backpacks, flasks, lunchboxes, pens pencil cases, note books, diaries, dictionaries.... the list is endless.

Now I may be adopting an unecessarily pedantic attitude, but how can children go back to school if they are still at school and  haven't actually left for the summer? The end of the academic year may be imminent, but why urge parents to invest in clothing and equipment for the new term when school is definitely not out yet? And what kind of parent is so well organised that they are prepared to buy all this stuff now and store it away for six weeks or so?

Only once did I try to be efficient, and I bought schoolclothes in advance - only to to discover that come the start of term The Daughters, most inconsiderately, had grown so much over the holidays that nothing would fit, and I had to dash back to the shops on the last day of the holidays (minutes before closing time) to get everything changed. Buying bigger sizes, with what my mother calls 'room for growth', may have resolved the problem, but with my luck if I had tried that The Daughters wouldn't have grown at all, and would have been dwarfed by their new garments.

That was the same year I purchased a bargain batch of stationery, thinking it would be ideal for school - but it all got used up during the long sumer holiday. And the lurid pink lunchboxes and flasks, snapped up early because 'we might not see them again' never were seen again since I couldn't remember the location of the safe place where I hid them (so they wouldn't get lost...).  I dare say they are still lurking at the back of a cupboard somewhere in the house, and may yet turn up when we are desperately seeking some other misplaced possession.

Anyway, my efforts at being organised having proved such a miserable failure, I reverted to my usual last-minute method, which involved racing around the shops the day before the start of term stocking up on shirts, skirts, felt tips and other necessities.

Fortunately, The Daughters are quite grown up, so I don't have to worry about it - and perhaps that's why I find it so irritating to be accosted by these huge 'Back to School' displays in so many shops. Worst of all, it heralds the start of a 'shop early for...' season. Not only do we have to endure weeks of hard-sell techniques cashing in on the biggest day of the school calendar (the start of a new academic year) but there are all kinds of festivals and events in the months ahead, all subject to the same kind of treatment.

There's Hallowe'en, Bonfire Night and, of course, Christmas, the biggest consumer-fest of the lot. Sadly, the run-up to each seems to start earlier and earlier as the years go by, and there is so much hype surrounding the preceding period that the event itself is almost an anti-climax, with its true meaning lost in tacky commercialism and razzamatazz.

I simply cannot understand this obsession for having everything prepared so far in advance - unless it's all a cunning plan on the part of manufacturers and retailers, who know full well that shoppers will lose or use their purchases before the 'main event' and will have to rush out at the last minute to replenish their dwindling stocks.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Pink Dress, Sweet Peas - and Brown Boots

My parents were married today in 1947. Sadly, Dad died just before Christmas in 2006, so they never celebrated their Diamond Anniversary, although they had planned a trip to Paris. As befitted good socialists, the wedding was at a register office rather than a church, which was probably unusual in those days. Dad was 25, and Mum was 19-coming-up-20. She wore a dusky pink dress and jacket, with a hat and veil, and carried sweet peas. He wore his best suit and brown shoes - even in the black and white photo you tell they are brown (no wonder he always enjoyed the Stanley Holloway monologue about Brown Boots!)

It was just two years after the war ended, when Britain was still picking up the pieces and, like many other young couples, they had no proper home of their own and lived in a rented room - but they had an allotment where they grew fruit and vegetables. Their landlady (a friend of my mother's mother) turned out to be a bit of a dragon, and they were so scared of making a noise and upsetting her they crept around their room on tiptoe, and sat with their ears against a whispering radio, because they didn't dare turn it any louder!

When they bought their first house some years later they had to live upstairs, because there were sitting tenants downstairs. Although I don't remember it, that's where I was born, and they had to heave me (I was a very fat, very heavy baby) up and down the stairs, as well as the pram, bags of shopping, buckets of coal and armfuls of wet washing destined for the washing line.

Their next home, where my brother and I were brought up, was covered in brown paint and varnish, and desperately in need of repair and rennovation, but it was all their's, with a proper kitchen, a garden, wonderful neighbours - and it was near an allotment! They stayed there until they retired, moved to Ledbury, and said life was like a permanent holiday.

Although they knew each other slightly when they first met - they had friends in common - it was a real whirlwind romance, and when Dad finally plucked up the courage to ask Mum out (he always maintained she ran him over on her bicycle, but she insists he stepped out in front of her waving his arms about).they 'courted' for just six months. Like most people they had their ups and downs, but remained blissfully happy throughout their time together. After they retired they walked down the town every day hand-in-hand, just as they did when they were first married. They really were soulmates, whose characters and skills complimented each other, and although they had a similar outlook on life and enjoyed similar activities, they never lived in each other's pockets: each had their own friends and interests, in addition to their shared friends and activities.

It was that sense of independence which probably helped Mum in the months immediately after Dad died, but she still misses him, and we always try to mark their anniversary and take time out to remember him.