Why Insulting the British is Such Fun

By A.J. Sefton

‘Britain has forty two religions and only two sauces.’ So said the Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire. ‘Unmitigated noodles’ said Wilhelm II. Great insults!

In 2013 there was some banter between international politicians. So what, but I was concerned that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, felt that he should have responded to the insult by the Russian president’s aide, in the manner that he did. Cameron listed the inventions and progress (such as the abolition of slavery) that the British have contributed to society worldwide. The insult, if it actually warrants such a word, was: ‘Britain is a small island that no one listens to.’ Such a daft comment deserved a daft response, frankly. Nobody in Britain is offended. It was a mildly amusing remark after all.

This led me to think about other insults that have been aimed at Britain, or more particularly, England. The first one that came to mind was the one from Napoleon when he said that England was a nation of shopkeepers. Where would we be without shops? I did a bit of digging in the dirt and found loads of jibes. Jolly jibes. Here are my favourites:

The English have an extraordinary ability for flying into a great calm. – Alexander Woollcott, US writer and broadcaster.

The English public takes no interest in a work of art until it is told that the work in question is immoral. – Oscar Wilde

I know why the sun never sets on the British Empire – God wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark. – Duncan Spaeth, US writer, quoted in The Book of Insults by N. McPhee, 1978

The Englishman is a drunkard. – Spanish saying

Englishmen never will be slaves; they are free to do whatever the government and public opinion allow them. – George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, 1903

The people of England are never so happy as when you tell them they are ruined. – Arthur Murray, British writer, The Upholsterer, 1758

From every Englishman emanates a kind of gas, the deadly choke-damp of boredom. – Heinrich Heine, German poet

The German originates it, the Frenchman imitates it, the Englishman exploits it. – German saying

An Englishman loves a lord. – English saying

England will fight to the last American. – American saying, coined c.1917

An Englishman will burn his bed to catch a flea- Turkish saying

Continental people have a sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.

– George Mikes, Hungarian writer, How To Be an Alien, 1946

A very cold, uninhabitable country with small houses.

– Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, in July 2013

There are, of course, many, many more. But am I offended? Not a bit. Some of these are really rather good. I will read through some more following afternoon tea.

© 2013 A.J. Sefton

Why We Should Remember the Fifth of November

It is a mainstay of British culture that we have fireworks, bonfires and toffee apples to commemorate the 5th November.​ There are often huge displays in public parks that include fun fairs and burger sellers. As I arrange my own fireworks party at home, I’m wondering if morally I should.

There are always objectors to events. But the main concern is over safety for animals and children. We are talking about fire and explosions after all. The complaints about ethics are quite minimal.

However, from an historical point of view, is it right that we celebrate the death of a man, Guy Fawkes, who was tortured by the hands of the rulers of England? It is generally accepted that he was the scapegoat for the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, not the brains behind it. A law was passed in 1606 called the Observance of the 5th November 1605 Act, whereby church bells rang out and services were held to commemorate the assassination attempt on King James of England and Scotland. There have been many conspiracy theories surrounding the event with political double-crossing and religious overtones. England did not have religious freedom and many thought that King James would be more lenient toward the Catholics as he was brought up in a Catholic household in Scotland. Up until the last century the figure burning atop bonfires was the pope. Of course that has ended and the evening is now simply a fun occasion.

But in this peaceful age should I have my party?

I have decided that it is fair to remember. Perhaps not for the original event, the gunpowder plot, but more for the symbol it has become or should be: that terrorism is not acceptable. As that is what it was. A group of people decided to blow up the home of the English and Scottish government in an act of terror. The challenge was not made in a democratic or civilised manner. Yes, I appreciate that democracy in the 1600s was not what we understand it to be now, but it was an underhand way to try to change things.

So I’m ordering my toffee apples after all.

(c) 2012 A.J. Sefton http://www.ajsefton.com

What was Meaty About October in the Dark Ages

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October is my favourite month. It has a ripe fruitfulness no other month has. The smell of the turning leaves is intoxicating; the conkers on the ground are heart-warming; the autumnal sun at its most golden and the Hunters’ Moon is the sign that winter is about to arrive.

In Anglo-Saxon times October was known as Winterfilleth, a name made from ‘winter’ and ‘full moon‘ indicating the end of autumn and the start of  hard times ahead. As soon as the full moon appeared, winter had arrived.

The full moon in October was known as the Hunters’ Moon. As the harvest was usually over (or just about save for the nuts) the Dark Ages folk spent their days hunting and hawking as there were no more crops left to tend. At this time meat was important. A lot of vegetables would not last the winter but meat could be dried and salted so a good supply was essential to ensure survival for everyone.

Large herds of deer roamed the Anglo-Saxon landscape, as well as boar. For those who had the skills to hunt these animals, their larders would be full enough to see them and their families through the dark days. However, hunting boar was difficult as they were intelligent and aggressive creatures. Still are, I suppose, although they were hunted to extinction a few hundred years after the Dark Ages, in the thirteenth century. Hunting boar and deer became a sport that involved the skilful use of weapons such as the spear and bow. The hunts numbered many men and horses and deaths were frequent, especially during the boar hunt.

Hawking was definitely a sport for the nobles. Falcons, hawks and eagles (for royalty) caught smaller birds for the rich man’s pot. There was an active trade in birds of prey, too. Vikings captured and trained these birds in Scandinavia and sold them on to the British aristocracy and the royal house throughout northern Europe.

The next month, November, was known as Blood Month according to Bede. This was because the Anglo-Saxon peoples sacrificed their livestock. The chances of them making it through the winter were low because the folk needed any vegetation for themselves. So the logical thing would be to slaughter the beasts (sheep, pigs, goats and cattle) and dedicate them to the gods for safe measure. Could only work in their favour after all. Then the meat would be dried or salted and consumed throughout winter.

No doubt some of it was saved for the Yuletide celebrations at the time of the solstice. But that’s another story.

Brushing Up: Dark Ages Dental Care

I had to make an emergency trip to the dentist yesterday. Not for me, but my daughter, who has a brace to straighten her teeth. A piece of wire was cutting into her cheek and therefore had to be fixed. Fortunately, it was quite a simple process even though it was quite painful. Far preferable to a decayed tooth.

Toothache is the worst pain ever.

I have always loved sweets and puddings and did suffer some tooth decay in my youth. Thanks to modern dentistry and immaculate oral hygiene, I have not suffered toothache for a couple of decades. I cannot imagine how awful it must have been for those like me, who enjoyed the sweeter things, before the toothbrush was invented.

The official date for the toothbrush was 26 June 1498, when Chinese Emperor Hongzhi first patented it. He modified an ancient idea of tying boars’ bristles to a bamboo stick. Evidence has shown that the bristle toothbrush had been used from the Tang Dynasty (seventh to tenth century) so it wasn’t a ‘new’ invention for the Chinese people. However, it was the emperor’s patent that allowed the toothbrush design to travel across Asia and Europe – just as many of the Chinese ideas did (paper money, printing, gunpowder, post offices, acupuncture and noodles).

Once in England, William Addis mass produced the toothbrush and created the big industry that dental hygiene is today. The yukky animal bristles (they had to be germ-ridden for goodness sake!) were eventually replaced by synthetic fibres in the 1930s. In 1954 the electric toothbrush was invented in Switzerland, a gift from God, no less.

But how did the Anglo-Saxons in Dark Ages England cope with their smiles? Archaeological evidence (that is, skeletons) has demonstrated that most people had good teeth with very few cavities. It is no surprise to us modern folk that the amount of sugar eaten corresponds to the amount of tooth decay. For the Anglo-Saxons, there was no refined sugar or carbohydrates but there were the natural sugars of fruit and honey. This would explain the tartar, hardened dental plaque, that has appeared on the skeletons’ teeth. This also tells us that the Anglo-Saxons did not use toothbrushes like their peers in China did.

Researchers have found bits of bark between the teeth of our ancestors. This could mean that they were short of tasty food at some point and tried to eat trees, or that they were attempting to clean their teeth. Literature has mentioned ‘chew sticks’. These were frayed twigs that were chewed in an attempt to clean teeth, in a similar way to the chews we give our pet dogs these days. So they did make an effort.

In the Leechbooks of Bald (found at the British Library) there are several remedies for toothache, so it wasn’t unknown. One is: ‘…chew pepper often with the teeth, it will soon be better for him. Again boil henbane’s root (Hyoscyamus niger) in strong vinegar or in wine, set it on the sore tooth, and let him chew it with the sore tooth sometimes; he will be hale’ Other remedies exist, some seem to have a narcotic effect. They were probably the better ones.

Of course, prayers to Teutonic and Christian deities were always popular methods to cure toothache, as with everything else. Carrying amulets and reciting charms were common, too.

I’ll give my daughter a posy of herbs next time her brace is playing up. Or maybe not.

 (c) 2015 A.J. Sefton

Why Pole Dancing is Good for Us

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So I’ve grabbed my tassels and streamers and I’m ready for the pole dance.

​I really look forward to this original style of dancing. I wouldn’t say that I was any kind of expert, however,  but I did win a dance competition in the 1990s, in Leyland, Lancashire. It was for the ‘most unusual dance’. Never won any dance prizes since. But at this time of year I always try to join in or at least witness the pole dancing.

May Day celebrations have taken place for thousands of years, particularly in the northern European countries. Remnants of the old Beltane celebrations still exist, including the Maypole dancing and the selection of the May queen. Beltane was the Celtic and Gaelic festival of summer – bearing in mind the shift of two weeks in the calendar would make a difference to the weather and it was likely that it was quite warm by then, certainly the tree blossom would be out in all its glory. Cattle would be put out to pasture and the Beltane festival would include rituals to protect the beasts from disease, which involved decorating the animals with flowers. The festival  folk also asked the gods to help with fertility of the cattle, crops and people. Incidentally,  it coincided with the Roman festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers and so the customs complemented each other with lots of flowers around.

When Christianity took over, Beltane, like many other pre-Christian festivals, became re-branded as a Christian celebration. In this instance Beltane became May Day – Mary’s Day. Added to the fun was traditional English morris dancing, fetes and craft stalls.There were often visits to wells, which were sacred  and connected to many saints, including Saint Modwen (read about her in Gulfyrian). In modern times there are often parades and home-made maypoles and the dance around the main Maypole that left an intricate weaved pattern of ribbons.  In some places festivities include well-dressings. A May queen is chosen to symbolise purity and youth and she starts the celebrations.

And like all good traditional festivals, Oliver Cromwell banned May Day when England was in its brief state of being a republic. Not that anyone took any notice of that. In the  twentieth century May Day became associated with labourers and was declared a bank holiday in many countries to  honour  the workers.

But whatever the reason, I enjoy the celebrations especially as there involves a holiday in England.  This year I have my own Maypole to dance around, too. I’m wishing for a good summer with lots of flowers, tomatoes and peas. And tassels and streamers.

On the Anniversary of Hillsborough

One of the strangest features of growing older is the perception of time. It only seems like last week that I was taking my toddler to Tower Woods playground to play on the swings, slide and the monkey bars. That toddler is, in fact, about to take her GCSEs and cannot remember our adventures.

And so it is with Hillsborough. I remember every detail I watched on television as if it were last night, even though it was 1989. I was living in Liverpool at the time and was disappointed that I was unable to go to the football match to cheer on my home team. I had been to Sheffield Wednesday’s football ground, Hillsborough Stadium,  the year before for a cup game and remembered that it was a pleasant and hilly place. Hence the name, I supposed.

The F.A. cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was to be televised live. There was a tremendous build-up with experts and former players expressing their views. It was looking like it was going to be a great day.

Wrong.

Like many people, I was not really sure what was going on. There were reports that some the fans who had travelled from Liverpool were delayed. Then there were people on the pitch. I left the room to get a drink. ‘Why do people have to spoil things?’ I sat down again, feeling a little frustrated that the game had been stopped after only six minutes.

It dawned on me as well as the television commentators that this was not a case of hooliganism. What we were witnessing was horrific. Hundreds of people were crushed. Some of these died.

In the years that followed we learned that the deaths of the ninety-six victims, one of whom was a relative of mine, had been victims of more than their injuries. The initial findings from the Chief Superintendent of the police said that the  (mostly young) people had died because they had ‘rushed’ the gate. This has been proven to be untrue. Later reports have shown a great cover-up and falsification of reports. There were ‘multiple failures’ by emergency services and other public bodies, which contributed to the death toll. The Independent Panel in 2012 concluded that forty-one of the ninety-six fatalities could have been saved if they had received prompt medical attention.

The legacy is that standing at football grounds has been abolished in favour of all-seated stadia.The Sun newspaper has lost sales over the last twenty-five years in Liverpool due to a report that blamed Liverpool fans for the incident as well as committing  some unspeakable acts. The boycott still exists. Above all, a great miscarriage of justice has been recognised and has proved that the families of the victims were right all along.

For me, Hillsborough is part of my own history. It has shown me how a city can unite in grief, in strength, in faith. Everyone in Liverpool has been touched by the tragedy in some way. Although I live a few hundred miles away now, I am part of that. It will always feel as if it happened yesterday.

Why Words Matter – and Why They Do Not

Why Words Matter – And Why They Do Not

They tried to do it in the United States. They tried to do it with British school children in the 1960s. In 1897 an Association was set up just to do this: simplify English spelling. Now, according to linguist Professor David Crystal, it will happen in the next fifty years without any intervention.

The problem is, as we all know, that the rules for spelling in English English (as opposed to American English or Australian English, for example) are complex. The reason for this is that the language, along with spelling, has evolved from many sources. The Roman alphabet we use now only became the writing system in the seventh century when the missionaries brought the Latin scriptures over. The peoples before then were mostly illiterate although some religious leaders or nobles could interpret a strange, linear system known as futhorc, or runes. The Celtic and Gaelic peoples on the periphery of the British Isles developed their own languages. Then came the Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavian Vikings, Normans, each with their own culture, words and spellings, and in some cases extra letters too. Add to that dialects that grew from a lack of contact and uniformity and no standardised spelling – there you are – confused.

Like everything else, spelling evolves. Just look at the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. The first time I read Chaucer I wondered what language it was as it was so alien to me. But it was English and after a while I could decipher the words by considering the stems and origins until I believed that yes, it was my mother tongue.

However, according to the linguist Professor David Crystal, speaking at the 2013 Hay Literary Festival, it is not a natural evolution that will ease the spellings, but the internet. Search engines now recognise misspelled words therefore rendering them acceptable. Words such as receipt with the p missing and necessary spelled with an s instead of a c demonstrate that silent letters are on their way out. ​

He said: “The internet will influence spelling. It will get rid some letters that irritate us, the letters that instinctively we feel shouldn’t be there. But it will take time.” He suggests that it will take around fifty years.

Twitter came under fire for the most misspelled words and many people joined the debate on how dreadful spelling and grammar standards are. People write in text speak and children think that this is the normal thing to do because they are only exposed to this way of writing, some have argued.

The interesting point here is that Facebook mainly does not comply with this trend of misspellings and abbreviation. Why is that? Of course people do not communicate on Facebook as they would with a solicitor or potential employer, but it is better than Twitter. The reason is that we simply alter our methods of writing, thus spelling, as we see fit. Twitter has a character limit, which I found infuriating when I first joined. I left after a week or so because I couldn’t cope. Then I went back. Now I use abbreviations and leave off all punctuation so that my character limit is not reached. Likewise, when texting I use as few letters as possible to get my message across. I think I have fat fingers because I hardly ever get the message right first time. txt u l8r. Adequate.

Children, even if brought up texting and tweeting before they can speak, will come to know the appropriate occasions when writing needs to be formal or when ‘text speak’ is acceptable. Shopping lists, texts, essays, application letters are all different forms of writing and often spelling too. (Shop list – T; catfud; looroll…)

The question is whether it matters how words are spelled as long as the meaning is clear. The answer is that it depends on the context. On the whole, I think people know where the borders are. Nobody would expect to read an encyclopaedia in the style of a tweet. I’m not sure if Professor Crystal is right in his prediction of the death of the silent letter. It could go the same way as the comma in addresses, I suppose.

It seems to me that English will come full circle and we will be using runes again one day. As for the silent letters – will anybody notice?