Thursday, 29 September 2011

Mop Fairs and Mock Goose

Jacob Epstein's sculpture of the
Archangel Michael at
Coventry Cathedral

Today is Michaelmas, the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, so please make sure you have picked all your blackberries! According to legend, the Devil landed in a blackberry bush when St Michael threw him out of Paradise, and was so badly scratched he spat on the plant, making the fruit inedible - so you cannot eat them after September 29!

When  I was a child we had a blackberry bush in the garden, and an apple tree, and we used to gather blackberries from fields and hedgerows, and my mother used to bake the most wonderful blackberry and apple pies, but we never worried about old stories like this, and nor did anyone else. As long as the fruit was ripe it got eaten, no matter what the date was.

There are all kinds of rhymes and proverbs connected to Michaelmas, and many of them are concerned with the weather. Sunshine on St Michael’s Day indicates a fine winter, while light winds mean there will be no snow at Christmas: but be warned, yet another old tradition maintains that if St Michael brings lots of acorns it will snow for the festive season – and so don’t ask what happens if there are light winds, sun and lots of acorns!

St Michael the Archangel was the captain of the Host of Heaven, who defeated Satan and the fallen angels, and is therefore the patron of knights and warriors, as well as the sick, mariners and grocers (is that why the Marks and Spencer label is St Michael I wonder?). He is usually shown with a sword, battling with Satan or a dragon – like Jacob Epstein’s fantastic sculpture mounted on the outside wall of Coventry Cathedral, which is the most amazing building and well worth a visit.

Michaelmas is one of the four ‘quarter days’ of the year, when tenants paid their quarterly rent and servants were hired at ‘Mop Fairs’ when they donned their best clothes and carried tools associated with their trade. In some areas the festivities were held at the end of September, but in others people continued to hold the event in October, on the date of ‘old’ feast day before the calendar was changed.
Blackberries - cook them with apples
and bake a delicious pie.

It was thought lucky to eat a goose, fattened on stubble left in the fields after harvest, so traditional goose fairs also occur on both dates, marking the start of autumn and the approach of winter. Apparently, in times gone by people believed ‘Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, Want not for money all the year’, which seems to discriminate against vegetarians like me, but may account for the fact that I never have any money!

During the Second World War geese (which were popular at Christmas as well as Michaelmas) must have been in short supply, like many other foods, because old recipe books feature mock goose , along with mock cream, mock apricots (carrots and flavouring), mock bananas and other similar delicacies. Anyway, mock goose usually seems to have been a kind of cheese and potato pie, involving potatoes, cheese, apples and sage. However, in his TV programme Ration Book Cooking Valentine Warner used red lentils and breadcrumbs, with onion and sage, which is quite pleasant, but much better with the addition of grated cheese. Neither recipe, it should be emphasized, resembles goose in any way, shape or form.

So there is plenty of choice to mark the feast day. Cook a goose, or blackberries, or the wartime veggie version... with a glass of wine... and you could dip into Milton’s Paradise Lost (the easiest place to find Michael the Archangel is where he offers advice on life, the universe and everything  to  Adam and Eve)... or you could start reading Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials,  which was inspired by Milton ‘s epic poem. 
If you want to roast a goose check out this Delia Smith recipe

Friday, 16 September 2011

Saintly Miracles, Royalty - and Leeks!

Watercolour copy of a wall painting of St Ninian found in a church
at St Congan, Scotland in 1861. 
Today is the Feast of St Ninian, about whom myths and legends abound, but firm facts are few and far between.  Like many other early saints even his name is in doubt: he is also known as Ringan or Trynnian, and may really be St Finnian of Moville, given the wrong name due to an error on the part of an ancient scribe. Anyway, he has been St Ninian for more than 1,500 years, so as far as I am concerned that’s who he is!

His plant symbol is southernwood, a type of artemesia which is also called lad’s love, and traditionally on this day country lads used to present bunches of southernwood to their sweethearts. In Scotland the leaves were pressed in Bibles to perfume them, and  it’s common name is apple-ringie, which some experts think could mean St Ringan’s (or St Ninian’s) Wood, or even ‘pray to St Ninian’.  An old strewing herb, it has antiseptic properties and keeps insects and moths away. 
Whithorn Priory, Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland 
Wikimedia Commons
St Ninian is said to have brought Christianity to Scotland in the late 4th and early 5th centuries - long before Columba arrived on the scene – and established a church at Whithorn, in Galloway, which became known as the cradle of Scottish Christianity and was a major shrine after his death. Some 300 years later the Venerable Bede briefly mentions Ninian in A History of the English Church and People, describing him as ‘a most reverend and holy man of the British race’  who had been ‘regularly instructed in the mysteries of the Christian faith in Rome’.

Stained glass in 
 the Whithorn Story 
 by Richard LeClerk, 
a copy of a Douglas Strachan 
window in 
Edinburgh Castle.
A 9th century poem, Miracula Nyniae Episcopi , describes some of the miracles attributed  to Ninian, while in the middle of the 12th century Ailred of Rievaulx wrote the Vita Sancti Niniani (A Life of St Ninian), which he claimed was based on earlier records. According to Ailred Ninian was the son of a Christian King, was consecrated a bishop in Rome, then in Tours (on his return to Britain), met St Martin who sent stone masons with him to build a church. Ninian is also said to have used a nearby cave as a retreat, where he could retire from the world when he needed peace for contemplation and prayer.

As for the miracles, he cured a blind king (allegedly) and proved a priest was not responsible for a pregnant girl pregnant by making the unborn baby speak to reveal the true father. He also brought back to life a man who had been gored by a bull, and solved a food shortage by making leeks appear in a garden – apparently, he planted seeds which ripened within hours. And there is a charming story that as the saint walked along reading Psalms God protected him (and the book) from the rain. However, one day he had an ‘unlawful thought’ and the divine protection vanished – but reappeared when he returned to his usual virtuous thoughts! 
Carved oak 14th century figure
 of a bishop found near Whithorn
 and thought to be St Ninian. 
According to Ailred, after Ninian’s death there were miraculous cures at his shrine: lepers were made well, a blind girl regained her sight, and a man found his skin disease disappeared when he prayed there. The shrine was housed in cathedral built on the site of his own church at Whithorn, and became a place of pilgrimage for rich and poor alike. In the 14th  century Robert the Bruce prayed (unsuccessfully) to be cured of leprosy, and in the 16th century Mary Queen of Scots went there, as her father James V did before her, and her grandfather James IV before that.

 The Cathedral is now a ruin but modern pilgrims still make the journey to Whithorn and St Ninian's cave, seeking peace and healing just as folk have done since St Ninian himself first decided to bring the word of God to the pagan Picts in the lawless lands north of Hadrian’s Wall.

I think we should pause for a moment and reflect on the legend of St Ninian (whether that was his true name or not). Then you could mark his day by sending flowers to a loved one, or plant southernwood in the garden, or make leek and potato soup or a leek and potato bake (soften sliced leeks in butter, parboil sliced potatoes, drain, tip into a dish, add home-made cheese sauce, grate cheese over the top, bung it in the oven until it’s golden brown and bubbling)... failing all else, cake and wine will suffice.
St Ninian's Cross

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Nuts, Lace and the True Cross

Let’s all go a-nutting... for today, September 14 is Nutting Day, or the Devil’s Nutting Day, when it was traditional for people to gather nuts from the woods – normally hazelnuts (which are also known as cobnuts or filberts), but I think any other sort of nut could be collected as well.
At any rate, hazelnuts collected today were considered to be magical, and if you found two nuts on one stem it was believed to keep toothache away, as well as safeguarding you from rheumatism and witches’ spells. Indeed, hazel trees have long been associated with wisdom and protection, especially in Celtic lore, and for Mother Julian of Norwich hazelnuts represented God's love for the world (a friend has written about this on her website at Additionally, the nuts and branches have been used for dowsing and divination.

Anyway, there must have been practical reasons for collecting hazelnuts now. I suppose they were perfectly ripe and in tip-tip condition, ready to be stored for people and animals to eat during the winter, when food was scarce. I’m not sure if there is a connection between nutting and the fact that today is Holy Rood Day, a major Christian festival in Medieval times - somehow nutting sounds much more ancient and pagan.
Rood was the old English for cross or rod, and Holy Rood Day (or Holy Cross Day as it is sometimes known) was supposed to commemorate the discovery of the ‘True Cross of Christ’ by St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine but, as is so often the case with these religious festivals, the facts seem to vary, depending on which church or source you look at. One school of thought insists the church built by Constantine to house the cross his mother found held its first service on September 14; others claim it marks the day when a fragment of the cross was returned after it was plundered from Jerusalem.

There were other legends and customs connected with the day, which held a special significance for bobbin lacemakers, as it meant they could now work by candlelight, a dispensation that lasted right the way through autumn and winter until Shrove Tuesday.

Should you wish to celebrate the occasion you bake a nut roast, or eat chocolate covered nuts... since chocolate gives me migraine I intend to eat some yogurt-coated nuts I have been keeping for a treat. 

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Wormy Spaghetti with Roald Dahl

Today is Roald Dahl day, celebrating the work of the author who was born on this day in 1916, so I've celebrated with Wormy Spaghetti, of which more later... It is also the 50th anniversary of James and the Giant Peach, one of his best-known children’s stories (and one which is, I think, very weird indeed – if you’re not familiar with it, read it, then tell me what you think). Dahl’s life and writing are well documented, so I’ll just give a brief resume.

He was born in Cardiff to Norwegian parents; his father and a sister died when he was only three, and he was sent to boarding school where, apparently, he was beaten and was very homesick and miserable. During the Second World War he served in the Royal air Force, and later he married actress Patricia Neal with whom he had five children. When she suffered burst cerebral aneurysms  he helped her learn to talk and walk again: but it wasn’t the only tragedy to hit the couple - a son was injured in road accident, aged just four months, and suffered from hydrocephalus for a time, while a daughter died at seven from measles encephalitis. Dahl and Neal were married for 30 years, but he divorced her in 1993 to marry Felicity ‘Liccy’ Crosland.

I am too old to have read Dahl’s books as child – and, to be honest, I am not sure I would have appreciated them. However, I had plenty of opportunity to study them with my daughters, who loved them, especially The BFG, The Witches, Matilda, The Enormous Crocodile,  and The Twits, which is my own personal favourite, though I also love Esio Trot, which is a wonderfully touching love story (most unlike Dahl really). Mention should also be made of Quentin Blake’s quirky illustrations, for it’s hard to imagine the books without the pictures: Dahl and Blake are as perfect a partnership as AA Milne and EH Shepherd or Louis Carroll and John Tenniel.

Some adults may find it hard to understand the appeal, but Dahl could weave a story which captured children’s imagination and held their attention. He understood their fascination with the gruesome and bizarre, as well as their enjoyment of silly jokes and nonsense words and rhymes.  There is no middle ground in his books: good and bad are clearly defined and everything is somehow larger than real life. They make no effort at realism: they are more akin to fairy tales, or Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter stories, or even Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales. But they allow children to explore  their emotions, whether it’s anger at the adult world with its senseless rules or laughter at jokes and tricks.

Dahl also wrote short stories for adults, which are too dark or my taste, and was involved in screen writing for a time -he worked on the Bond movie You Only Live Twice and  Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where he was responsible for creating the terrifying Child Catcher.

Following his death in 1990 he has become even more popular, and there is now a Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden, the village where  he lived for  some 40 years, which celebrates his life and works  to promote literary education, encouraging children to read and write, which has got to be good. There’s also Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity.

But there has been criticism today, as his granddaughter, the model and cookery writer Sophie Dahl launched a new appeal for funding to preserve the shed where he wrote. A phased development is planned, which involves moving the inside of the shed, which contains many of Dahl’s possessions, to the museum.  So far £250,000 of the £500,000 needed has been raised, but a further half  a million is required for the second stage, which would see the development of educational resources and interactive displays.

Critics have questioned whether it is right for the public to be asked for contributions to this kind of project at a museum which charges entry fees, especially in the current financial climate.

Anyway, I marked Roald Dahl Day by ignoring such controversy and cooking Wormy Spaghetti from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes, which was well-used when The Daughters were small, but has lain on top of the kitchen cupboard for years. In case you’re wondering, the dish is mentioned in the Tweets and is essentially spaghetti with a home-made tomato sauce, and very tasty it is too... I had two helpings!

In fact it was so good that tomorrow I shall make Strawberry Fudge, Krokan Ice Cream and Hot Frogs...

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Happy Birthday Schiaparelli!

Elsa Schiaparelli
Today you can buy – or make if you’re feeling particularly creative – a new dress. The reason? We are honouring innovative fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, whose often outrageous garments were worn by the rich and famous, setting new trends in the 1920s and 30s. Many of her design ideas and working methods, including the way she staged showed her collections and her use of ‘ready to wear’ items, foreshadowed later themes and influenced generations of fashion designers over the years.

Her business closed in 1954, so when I grew up she wasn’t an instantly recognisable style celebrity like Dior or Chanel, although she conjured up an image of unattainable glamour and sophistication from a period that seemed as distant as the Stone Age. I must admit I knew very little about her, other than the fact that she invented the colour shocking pink – then I read Muriel Spark’s The  Girls of Slender Means, which features a coveted Schiaparelli dress, loaned out by its lucky owner to her fellow residents at the May of Teck Club in return for luxuries, like soap.

Curious, I tried to find out more about the designer, then forgot her until about a recent re-reading of the novel prompted me to look her up again. Anyway, Schiaparelli was born today in 1890, in Italy. She always seems to have been a rebel in her wealthy, high society family and left home at a young age, initially to become a nanny in London.  She married and moved to New York with her husband and had a daughter but the marriage broke down. However, during her time in America Schiaparelli, who had always been artistic, met and began working for Gaby Picabia (the ex-wife of Dadaist painter Francis Picabia), who owned a fashion boutique. Gaby introduced her to other avant garde artists, and when Gaby and Many Ray travelled to Paris Schiaparelli went with them.

Schiaparelli's first designer jumper

There her initial venture into the world of fashion in 1926 failed but the following year she launched a new business which rapidly became hugely successful. The most popular of her early designs was a black and white jumper with a trompe l’oeil bow which looked like a scarf draped around the neck. Her first collections included bathing suits and ski-wear, as well as sweaters, but by 1931 she had expanded into evening wear, an area which gave full rein to her creativity. Not only was Schiaparelli influenced by the artists she met – Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau – she also collaborated with many of them, especially Dali .  With him she produced, among other things, the iconic ‘lobster dress’ where he painted a red lobster on a white silk evening gown. The design was printed onto fabric and Wallis Simpson was photographed (by Cecil Beaton) wearing a dress.

Schiaparelli and Dali also created the ‘Tears Dress’ in pale blue silk, featuring trompe l’oeil rips and tears printed with a fur design. The dress was worn with a matching veil, with ripped and torn holes lined with the same fur design. The aim was to give an illusion of torn animal flesh… and all this long before punk or Lady Gaga’s infamous ‘meat dress’.

The famous 'lobster dress'

Schiaparelli is reputed to have said ‘never fit a dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress’, and for many of her elite clientele appearance was all important. She dressed heiresses and film stars, people like Wallis Simpson, Daisy Fellowes, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo and Mae West, whose body inspired the shape of the bottle for Schiaparelli’s perfume, Shocking. She also designed costumes for films, such as the 1952 movie Moulin Rouge, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor and Mae West in Every Day’s a Holiday’.  

And if that gives you the impression that Schiaparelli was only interested in designing for celebrities who wanted to be seen, then think again. Alongside the exotic and outré works of art and the fabulous, floaty, chiffon evening dresses, with their beads and embroidery, were classic clothes worn (and copied) by ordinary women the world over. Her elegant day dresses and tailored suits would look just as stylish today as they did when they were first shown.

Surprisingly Schiaparelli didn’t knit or sew herself, which was, I gather, quite unusual for the time. But perhaps it was this lack of formal dressmaking knowledge and skill which gave her an edge when it came to designing: she came up with ideas and saw no reason why they wouldn’t work.  Not knowing the way things had always been done gave her the freedom to develop her own style and do exactly as she wanted.

She was a real trailblazer and even someone like me, who takes little notice of fashion, 

A shawl-collar coat
designed by Schiaparelli

can pay tribute to her vision and ability. She mixed colours, shapes and textures in a way which had never been done before, embraced new technology and was the first to use man-made fibres in couture, experimenting with new materials like cellophane, jersey and rayon.

Coloured or visible zips, highly decorative buttons and material printed with body parts, food, and other unusual items may be commonplace now, but they were considered outrageous when in introduced by Schiaparelli, along with wrap around dresses, divided skirts (the predecessors of shorts and culottes), embroidered shirts, wrapped turbans, mix and match sportswear and wedge shoes.

In addition Schiaparelli changed the way fashion was presented, staging shows with music and art to accompany the tall, thin, androgynous-looking models as they sashayed along the catwalk.

Sadly, her position as a fashion leader didn’t last. She spent most of the war in America, and by the time she returned to Paris she found the world – and fashion – had changed, and she was unable to adapt. Manufacture of her perfumes continued, but the rest of the business closed in 1954 when she retired. She died in 1973.
A 'cat woman' design from Schiaparellis's
Circus Collection

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Star Light, Star Bright

onight, just after sunset (British time) you’ll get the best view of a new supernovava – assuming, that is,  there are no clouds, you live out in the countryside where there is no light pollution, and you have a pair of good binoculars or a small telescope.

Just look for the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear –it’s the one that looks like a saucepan - then find the two stars at the tip of the handle (OK, I realise bears don’t have handles, but saucepans do, and it’s the only way I can describe it), look up from them and a little bit to the left, and hey presto, there’s the supernova. 
The Great Bear
You won’t, of course, be able to see it with your naked eye, and even with a telescope or binoculars it’s only going to be a tiny blob of light up there in the Pinwheel Galaxy, which is one of those fabulous spirals, with fiery arms flinging out into space, a bit like a giant Catherine wheel.

Anyway, the supernova, a dying star, is at its brightest tonight, but if you do spot it you’ll be looking at a kind of visual echo of an event which happened some 21 million light years ago (or do I mean away?),  for the star has already died  and it’s taken that long for its light to reach us. The time and distance involved are incomprehensible. It’s really awesome.

Sadly, my chances of seeing this are negligible to non-existent: even if the skies are clear, Tamworth is so built up, with so many lights from streets and buildings, that it’s impossible to get a clear view of the night sky, even if we had binoculars.or a telescope.

Amateurs with their small telescopes may still be able to see the supernova (PTF11kly) for a few days, but professional astronomers hope to study it for longer than that, searching for clues about the expansion of the universe. This particular supernova is the closest to earth for 40 years and was spotted at a very early stage, making it one of the youngest to be examined, which sounds a bit of a contradiction in terms since a star at the end of its life is very old indeed.
The Pinwheel Galaxy
 A supernova occurs, apparently, when a star at the end of its life – known as a white dwarf - collapses in itself and explodes. As I understand it (I am a writer, not a scientist) a white dwarf is the remains of a red giant, one of the later stages of a star, which seems to evolve through various forms. Personally, I think the whole thing sounds like something Terry Pratchett might have created in Discworld, so please tell me if I’ve got this wrong.

Meanwhile, let’s drink a toast to PTF11kly, who surely deserves a catchier name than that, and celebrate with some glitter and sparkle. You could listen to Holst’s Planet Suite (after all, stars and planets are both found in space), or eat a certain type of chocolate beginning with ‘G’...  And if anyone can recommend an-easy-to-understand book about stars and such like I would be very grateful.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Cloud, the Saint of Carbuncles!

Saint of the day, because he has such a wonderful name, is Cloud the Confessor, also known as Clodoald, to whom you should pray if you suffer from carbuncles are are seeking a cure. He was the youngest son of Clodomir, King of Orleans (we are talking 6th century France here, not America) and grandson of Clovis, King of the Franks. He and his brothers were brought up by their grandmother Clotilda, Queen of the Franks, but their uncles Childebert and Clotaire plotted to do away with the boys and seize the crown.
You may have noticed there seem to be an awful lot of words starting with ‘C’ in this story. I am beginning to feel a little like the Dormouse in Alice with his tale of the three young girls who lived in a well and drew pictures of things beginning with ‘M’...

Anyway, our hero Cloud escaped, was sheltered by St Severinus, taught people about Christ, renounced his claim to the throne, became famed for giving counsel and healing and founded a church or monastery at Nogent-sur-Seine. After his death miracles occurred, his tomb became a place of pilgrimage and the village was named Saint-Cloud in his honour and is now a commune, an administrative area similar to an English council. There are more ‘Cs’ here you will notice: Christ, claim, counsel, church, commune, council.
Eglise Saint-Clodoald, st Saint-Cloud.
Pic from Wikimedia Commons 
Saint of the day, because he has such a wonderful name, is Cloud the Confessor, also known as Clodoald, to whom you should pray if you suffer from carbuncles are are seeking a cure. He was the youngest son of Clodomir, King of Orleans (we are talking 6th century France here, not America) and grandson of Clovis, King of the Franks. He and his brothers were brought up by their grandmother Clotilda, Queen of the Franks, but their uncles Childebert and Clotaire plotted to do away with the boys and seize the crown.

You may have noticed there seem to be an awful lot of words starting with ‘C’ in this story. I am beginning to feel a little like the Dormouse in Alice with his tale of the three young girls who lived in a well and drew pictures of things beginning with ‘M’...

Anyway, our hero Cloud escaped, was sheltered by St Severinus, taught people about Christ, renounced his claim to the throne, became famed for giving counsel and healing and founded a church or monastery at Nogent-sur-Seine. After his death miracles occurred, his tomb became a place of pilgrimage and the village was named Saint-Cloud in his honour and is now a commune, an administrative area similar to an English council. There are more ‘Cs’ here you will notice: Christ, claim, counsel, church, commune, council.

For many years the Eglise Saint-Clodoald at Saint-Cloud was embellished and enlarged and housed relics of St Cloud. In1589 the funeral of King Henry III of France was held there, but in the centuries that followed it fell into disrepair and was pulled down. The foundation tone for a new church was laid by Marie Antoinette, but building work was interrupted by the French Revolution and the new church was not completed and consecrated until 1820.The saint’s relics were destroyed by revolutionaries, apart from a back bone, and an arm which had been donated by a Medieval Bishop of Paris and was rescued by a teacher. These bones were moved to the new church, but it soon became too small, and had to be rebuilt some 50 years later.
The area, in the west of Paris, is famed for its park containing the ruins of the Chateau de Saint-Cloud. An ornate building and garden was created by the Gondi banking family in the 16th century, but became home for kings, queens and emperors. Henry III of France was assassinated while living at the estate; Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, Regent of France, made his home there, and when Marie Antoinette acquired it she spent a fortune on decorations and improvements. Later the chateau’s contents were sold by revolutionaries, and later still, in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte was declared Emperor at Saint-Cloud and established the house as one of his main seats. The chateau was eventually destroyed by fire in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War.

The obvious way to celebrate St Cloud is to look at the clouds... or, since there were so many 'Cs' in his story you could paint or embroider a decorative letter 'C'... or,eat cakes and drink wine... as long as they're French, of course.... I am going to start a cross stitch pictute of two cats and a heart-shaped cloud....

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Turner's Take on the Temeraire

Today in 1838 HMS Temeraire, one of the ships which fought Napoleon at Waterloo, was towed along the Thames to be destroyed at a breaker’s yard in Rotherhithe – and artist  JMW Tuner was on hand to record the scene.  Aboard a steamer he made preliminary sketches for what became his most famous and best loved painting, The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up.

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up.
He created an image we all know, a three-masted ghost ship, bleached of all colour, pulled by a dark steam tug on water which reflects the glorious reds, yellows and oranges of sunset, echoing the smoke and fire of battle. The picture symbolises the end of era, the passing of the age of sail, and the emergence of a new, powerful age of steam.

The reality was a little different because the day was actually dull and cloudy so, presumably, the wonderful sunset was unlikely – and, since the ship was towed upriver, the sunset is, apparently, in the wrong place. In addition, by the time she was towed away HMS Temeraire had  no mast or rigging left: she was a hulk, left lying in Chatham Dockyard after being used first as a prison ship and then as a receiving ship for newly recruited sailors.

It was a sad end for the 98-gun second rate ship-of-the-line (a small warship) which had been badly damaged during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where her crew captured one French ship and were involved in the surrender of another. Turner used the individual history of one ship to portray the decline of an entire fleet, and it seems to have touched a nerve with the public as, unlike much of his work, it was popular from the very beginning.

 For Joseph Malord William Turner, acclaimed today as an innovative ‘Painter of Light’ who paved the way for the Impressionists, was often scorned in his own time (especially for his later work). The critic and writer John Ruskin was a great fan, but many of Turner’s paintings were as controversial as the works of modern artists who vie for success in the competition which bears his name. Turner Prize entries like Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living or Tracey Emin’s My Bed sparked outrage and fury, just as some critics condemned Turner. Rev John Eagles in Blackwood’s Magazine accused him of doing ‘mischief’ to art, while the Times writer mentioned his ‘detestable absurdities’.

Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde and Emin’s unmade bed may seem a long way from Turner’s light-filled canvasses, but all three were trying to portray their ideas about life and the world around them in a new and different way. Turner ignored the 18th and 19th century conventions about what and how to paint and experimented, using water colour techniques with oils to achieved the effect he wanted as he tried to capture the elusive luminosity and transparency of light. He was fascinated by light, which seems to have some kind of spiritual element for him, and on his death bed, in 1851, is supposed to have said: “The sun is God.”

Turner's self portrait, painted in 1798
In 1898, some fifty years after Turner's death, the  poet Henry Newbolt, paid his own tribute when he wrote The Fighting Temeraire.  You can fnd the full poem at but I've included part of it here:

Now the sunset breezes shiver

Temeraire! Temeraire!

And she's fading down the river.

Temeraire! Temeraire!
Now the sunset Breezes shiver
And she's fading down the river,
But in England's song for ever
She's the Fighting Temeraire. 

Why not mark the day by painting a picture of your own? Or make a paper boat...   

Saturday, 3 September 2011

When Britain Lost 11 Days

We’ve all had days when we’re a day ahead or behind the rest of the world, but imagine what it was like for the British in 1752 when they woke up and found they had lost 11 days overnight, and while yesterday was September 2, today was September 14, which was pretty tough on anyone due to celebrate a birthday during the missing period – and, presumably, on working people who would not have been paid for days which no longer existed.

The reason, in case you are wondering, is that this was when Britain and its colonies changed the calendar, replacing the Julian system introduced by Julius Caesar with the more accurate Gregorian arrangement established by Pope Gregory XIII. I’ve always found the concept a little difficult to grasp, but essentially the astronomical year is 365.24219 days long, and the Julian Year is 365.25 days long, which may not sound much of a difference, but over hundreds of years a discrepancy built up, so the calendar was out of kilter with real time.

Pope Gregory XIII, portrait by Lavinia Fontana

There’s still a very slight discrepancy between the Solar Year and the Gregorian Year, but there are Leap Years to be taken into account as well: an extra day every four years on February 29, as we all know. However, it’s not quite as simple as that, because if the fourth year falls in a centennial year which can’t be divided by 400 then it can’t be a Leap Year... Personally I’m thoroughly confused, but the end result is that we gain a day every 3,300 years, which is pretty good going really.

Even more confusingly, history books always used to claim that the ‘Calendar Act’ sparked rioting in the streets from angry residents demanding the return of their lost days, but there is no contemporary evidence for any kind of civil unrest and the tale seems to be the 18th century equivalent of an urban myth. The story may have been prompted by a misinterpretation of a Hogarth painting, An Election Entertainment, which shows a placard carrying the slogan ‘Give us our Eleven Days’.

Hogarth's An Election Entertainment

Britain was one of the last places to reform the calendar, as Pope Gregory XIII issued a Papal Bull calling for the change in 1587: he was concerned that even allowing for the fact that Easter is a moveable feast, the drift in dates meant it could no longer be celebrated at the right time, but the alteration also ensured correct timing for the spring and autumn equinoxes.

It’s sometimes forgotten, British ‘Calendar Act’ also changed the first day of the year to January 1st from March 25th, when contracts were drawn up and payments made. After the loss of 13 days from the calendar March 25th became April 6th (or old Lady Day), which is the start of our tax year.

I was going to suggest your commemorated this historic occasion by buying a new calendar for next year, but I've left it a bit lte to post this, and I guess most of the shops will be shut, so you'll have to force yourself to fall back on celebratory cakes and wine... or biscuits and tea... or anything else you fancy.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The Great Fire of London: Buried Cheese and Burnt Shoes

Today’s anniversary is the Great Fire of London, which began in the King’s baker’s shop at Pudding Lane in the early hours of September 2 – the Lord’s Day, as Samuel Pepys records in his diary. One of his maids woke him at 3am when she looked out of a window and spotted a fire in the Billingsgate area. Pepys took a look, thought it ‘far enough off’ to cause no worry and went back to bed. Little did he know at that stage of the devastation to come.
By the time he woke again at 7am the fire was still burning and 300 houses had been destroyed, so he walked to Tower Bridge, one of the affected areas, then spoke to the Lieutenant of the Tower of London, and viewed the scene from a high window before travelling to Whitehall where he broke the news of the disaster and advised the king that buildings in the path of the fire should be blown up, to create a firebreak and halt the flames.
Samuel Pepys
He spent the day watching and writing – much of his account of events over the next few days was scribbled on sheets of paper and transcribed into his diary when the catastrophe was over. As residents fled the flames they flung goods not just into boats, but into the river itself; others carried their possessions in carts and on their backs, while the sick were transported in carts. But, according to Pepys, many people stayed in their houses ‘as long as till the very fire touched them’ – and he paints a touching picture of the ‘poor pigeons ... loathe to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down’.

The fire spread with alarming speed, due to a spell of dry weather, the high wind, and the Mayor of London’s failure to take decisive action at an early stage. Realising that his own home could be at risk Pepys put iron chests in the cellar; took many valuables to a friend at Bethnal Green; moved his wife Elizabeth to safety at Woolwich and buried his wine and ‘Parmezan’ cheese in the garden.

It’s the small details like this which bring the scene life: in the middle of the fire they had no fire to cook on, so he bought cooked mutton from a shop for a picnic with neighbours; he wrote a letter to his father, but couldn’t send it because the post office had burned down and he picked up a piece of twisted, melted glass from a chapel window.
Old St Paul's Cathedral in London, from An introduction to English church architecture from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, (Volume 2) by Francis Bond (1852-1918), London: H. Milford, 1913.

By Thursday the fire was burning itself out, but there were reports of some looting, and by Sunday life was beginning to return to normal. He ordered the cleaning of his house – and it began to rain, which was ‘good for the Fyre’. For months afterwards the ruins smoldered and smoked and were feared to be the haunt of robbers and ne’er-do-wells: Pepys protected himself by unsheathing his sword when he was driven through the city at night.

He himself seems to have suffered from some form of what we would now call post traumatic stress syndrome, and for months afterwards he suffered from nightmares and was terrified of fire and scared that his house would fall down.

John Evelyn
Pepys wasn’t the only person to leave us a record of the Great Fire of London. John Evelyn (who corresponded with Pepys) also kept a journal for many years, but has been undeservedly overshadowed by his fellow diarist. His report on the fire has an immediacy which is hard to match. He tells us: “The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished that, from the beginning, I know not by what despondency, or fate, they hardly stirred to quench it; so that there was nothing heard, or seen, but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures, without at all attempting to save even their goods.” 

He goes on to write: “The noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like a hideous storm, and the air all about so hot and inflamed, that at the last one was not able to approach it.”

Evelyn also writes movingly about the aftermath of the blaze, and the difficulty of moving about London ‘clambering over heaps of yet smoking rubbish’ and losing his way as familiar landmarks had disappeared, while the ground was still so hot it burnt the soles of his shoes. Around Islington and Highgate he saw as many as 200,000 people ‘lying along by their heaps of what they could save from the fire’ facing hunger and destitution, but not asking for help. However, some help was at hand because Charles II issued a proclamation for the country to provide provisions for victims of the fire.

The new St Paul's Catherl designed by Christopher Wren.

Pepys and Evelyn both mention that conspiracy theories abounded (people obviously haven’t changed over the centuries) and the French, the Dutch, and Catholics in general were all blamed for starting the fire and planning an invasion. In addition to describing the horror of the event, both men also try to give a sense of the scale of the disaster, in which some 400 streets were destroyed, and thousands of people lost their homes and businesses. Before the end of month plans for the future were being discussed, and people (including Evelyn and Christopher Wren) put forward ideas for a new modern city with wide avenues and open squares replacing the narrow and crowded medieval roads, but owners insisted on keeping the sites of their destroyed property, so in the end rebuilding followed the old street pattern, although Parliament decreed that buildings had to be brick or stone and flat fronted.

Public buildings were created first, including Wren’s masterpiece, the iconic St Paul’s Cathedral, and he also designed the flame-topped Monument which stands at he junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill, near the spot where the fire started.
Should you wish to mark the day I suggest you do so with toasted cheese (from the fridge, not the garden), wine and new shoes!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

September Celebrations

Well, it’s September already, and the year seems to have gone incredibly quickly: ahead of us lies Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night and, of course, Christmas. But let’s not think about that yet, since September has plenty of celebratory days.

Today, for example, is the Feast of St Giles (or St Gilles as the French call him, which somehow sounds and looks much more interesting than plain old Giles) when many towns used to hold fairs in his honour – and Oxford still keeps up the tradition. According to legend he spent many years as a hermit living in the French forest, where he was injured by an arrow while the King was hunting deer: some stories say he lived on milk provided by the deer. At any rate, as a result of this accident St Giles became associated with the sick and disabled, and many Medieval hospitals were named after him.

To mark his day I started re-reading The Leper of St Giles, by Ellis Peters (I love the Cadfael novels) and, since St Giles is reputed to have been a vegetarian I ate home-made vegetable soup, while considering September’s festivals.

The month takes its name from the word septem, the Latin for seven, as it was once the seventh month in the old Roman calendar (before the creation of July and August). The Anglo Saxons called it gerst monath after the barley which they harvested to make a barley brew which, I suppose, must have been similar to the barley wine I used to drink in my student days and haven’t touched since – but perhaps I could try some to celebrate September! Haefest, or harvest month, was another name for this time of year and there are all kinds of traditions connected with the harvest, including corn dollies, symbolic shapes made from the last sheaf of corn to be cut, which brought good luck in the year ahead.

Weather was (and still is) one of the most important factors in a good harvest, and consequently there are all kinds of rhymes and proverbs featuring weather predictions. The first snippet states: “Fair on the first of September, Fair for the month.”

September is also the month of the lost days. In 1752 when England replaced the old Julian Calender with the Gregorian Calendar corrections had to be made, which meant September 3 became September 14, and many people were very upset about their missing days, even though it made things more accurate by bringing the calendar into line with solar time.

Towards the end of the month, on September 23, is the Autumn Equinox, when the sun crosses the celestial equator and moves southward and day and night are almost equal. hemisphere.

And a week later, on the 29th, is the Feast St Michael, with all kinds of traditions and legends – like the one which says this is the last day to collect blackberries, because after this the Devil spits on them.

In fact fruit, especially apples, and vegetables are at their best this month, so take advantage by trying out new recipes – I shall post some of my favourites over the next four weeks, and I’ll also take a closer look at some of the customs and traditions associated with September.

Pic: From Saint Giles and the Hind, National Gallery.