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English is full of snuffbumble

The story of English fascinates me as few subjects do. It’s rich, quirky, and a true underdog story.

This irreverent YouTube video outlines the rise of English from its Anglo-Saxon / Old Englisc* days through the Norman Conquest, the King James Bible, the rise of science, the spread of the British Empire, up to Internet speak and abbreviations. Take a look!

And what is snuffbumble, you ask? The answer: nonsense 🙂

*The digraph ‘sc’ is the Old English version of today’s ‘sh’ sound.


A rose for secrecy (design history)

This is a ceiling rose:


It’s now just an interior design accessory, used in many homes to beautify the ceiling and often cheaply made from materials like polystyrene. But the origin and early days of the ceiling rose are more interesting than you would think.

As far back as Roman times the rose was associated with secrecy. When the Romans withdrew from Britannia, the association of the flower with secrecy remained in the minds of the people. This at least appears to be the case, as in mediaeval England a rose would be suspended above a meeting table as a symbol of free speech and confidentiality.

IMG_1823In Tudor and Jacobite Britain suspended roses were replaced by stylised roses constructed into the plaster of the ceiling above a meeting table. These were dangerous times, with charges of treason leading to execution, so confidentiality was key. The term sub rosa (literally ‘beneath the rose’) means ‘in secrecy’, so when a sub rosa meeting was called the attendees would go the house where a ceiling rose existed and have their clandestine meeting.

The practical significance of the ceiling rose was lost over time, but the decorative element remained, with elaborate and finely crafted ceiling roses becoming particularly popular in Victorian England.


PART 1 (the short read for those in a hurry!)

Driving up from France with my family on a blue-sky, summery day in June, I was excited to visit the tiny mountain kingdom of Andorra. Small countries in general fascinate me. And small mountain kingdoms – well, fairy tales are set in small mountain kingdoms. I was expecting a few picturesquely placed sheep on the mountainside, and a restful hamlet or two, with ancient fountains and crumbling rooftops. And maybe a few felt hats on the heads of some rural folk?


The small country that is Andorra can be found on any map when it is held an inch from the nose: it is hiding in the Pyrenees, wedged between France and Spain. Andorra, an independent principality since 1278 (that’s uncommonly long), is the traditional home of the Catalan people. Dark-skinned and dark-haired – a generally good-looking people – they rattle on in a language one feels close to understanding, but never quite. French here will help a little, though I found locals are more likely to speak Spanish as a second language, and Portuguese is also fairly common. English got me nowhere. 

Andorra-mapDriving up the steep, zigzag road to the Andorran border post from the French side, our unassuming holiday car was waved through unchecked, yet at that very point my expectations received a check of their own. Squat, hefty buildings, painted in loud colours or made from glass, could be seen rising up out of the sloped ground. Petrol stations were positioned along the roadside every fifty metres or so and billboards stood proud and high. Ski lifts could be seen flung up and out in every direction. Big empty parking lots spoke of the countless visitors that winter brings. What I saw was up-to-the-minute modernity. Turns out fairytale-kingdom expectations are often the result of too little research.  

PART 2 (more detail for the committed reader)

So Andorra is no storybook kingdom, but it is a beautiful and fascinating country nonetheless. I doubt that the Andorra of today can really be understood without reference to its dynamic ski industry. Millions of skiers flood the country every winter, while Andorra itself has a population just short of 90,000. There is a seemingly endless choice of hotels and resorts. Just by looking out the car one can see that this is a first-world country geared towards efficiency and being a world-class ski destination. There are two main ski areas, Grand Valira and Vallnord, as well as cross-country routes further south near Sant Julia de Loria.

In summer, the country is a hotspot for adventure sports, such as quad-biking, mountain biking, trekking, via ferratas (mountain-climbing routes), canyoning, canoeing and rock-climbing. Or fishing, for the quieter soul. The country is so mountainous that any walk becomes a hike, and beautiful viewpoints are a dime a dozen. It’s little wonder the Tour de France often chooses to pass through this spectacular country.  

The town of Encamp

Our June visit found low-lying patches of pink and yellow wildflowers (reminiscent of fynbos) blanketing the mountainsides. Everywhere one looks the landscape is dramatic: conifers cling to the slopes, old snow patches cling to the peaks, and small streams and waterfalls trickle down from the heights, wetting exposed shale, before joining together to form glutted rivers further down in the valleys.

Andorra has always been, and still is, reliant upon its two neighbours for survival. Up until the end of the 17th century its population, living in a feudal system, did not exceed 3,000. That’s tiny. Non-inheriting descendants of families (i.e. the losers in primogeniture) were forced to look for livelihoods elsewhere and so emigration kept population numbers low.

Andorra has no airport nor train station of its own, owing to its extreme terrain, and so one has to drive in from either France or Spain. Roads linking it with Spain and France were only built in 1913 and 1933 respectively. Until its first Constitution in 1993, the country was ruled by two co-princes: the king or president of France, and the Spanish Bishop of Urgell. Today, native Andorrans account for just over one third of the population, while Spanish, French, Portuguese and other nationalities make up the rest.

Dad's camera June 2009 048Most of the country’s settlements run along the valley floor and the sound of rushing water permeates towns as the summer thaw replaces the white stillness of winter. While I was there the summer sun was warming, but a fresh mountain breeze was its constant companion. I kept my jersey firmly buttoned up, but I saw local women drop their shoulder straps all the better to soak up the rays while sipping their coffees in sidewalk cafes and chatting confidently among themselves.

Andorran society impressed me as being very orderly and stable. Not only did theymanage to go for 700 years with just one type of governance (think about it: no civil wars, no princes killing off rival princes, no disruptive coups), they never now make the news for anything more serious than, say, a banking policy. Brightly-clad traffic police have a steady presence on the streets and every time I so much as lifted a foot in the direction of a pedestrian crossing, all cars come to a quick standstill. This I like. Webcams throughout the country mean you can turn on the TV to check traffic and weather conditions on all the major roads and pistes before setting out.

The historic old town of Andorra La Vella does, when searched out, have cobbled streets and a couple of millennia-old churches. But very conspicuous was the building boom being experienced. The vine-covered buildings I had originally expected were instead scaffold-covered, and yellow cranes jutted into view whichever way I looked. Instead of ancient sculptures, avant-garde and abstract statues decorate public squares, turning circles and fountains. The white Pont de Paris is a fine example of the striking and strikingly modern architecture and artwork that helps to define the town.

One of the capital’s landmark buildings is the Caldea Hot Spring Resort. It is an arresting, ultramodern glass building that soars upwards to a point like the peaks that surround it. Inside, all is opulence, glass and mirrors, and on the ground floor there is a large thermal lagoon. The resort has exorbitant spa packages offering everything from a vaporisation room to a … wood’s lighting ionisation room? (Raise your hand if you know what that even means.)  With a little luck my purse could have stretched to a tonic and water in the bar, but I wandered about with the self-assured air of a dressed-down millionaire.

Picture by LynxIV, public domain

Coming away from my trip, I now know that Andorra is a high-tech playground for the wealthy. Instead of smiling at its sweet antiquity, as I had expected, I was educated in engineering and modern art. But even after my visit, the country is still something of a mystery to me. Coming from the wide open spaces of a developing and sunny South Africa, I find it hard to wrap my mind around what it must really be like to live in this ultra-modern society with its snow and cold winds, its long shadows and steep streets, and its towering mountains that constantly hem you in while at the same time impress you with their ever-present, awe-inspiring grandeur. 

Today’s Google image is of William Tell – who was he?

Today’s Google pic looks like this:


Who can see an image like that and not be intrigued?

Briefly, William Tell is a Germanic folkloric character who was forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son because he (the father) had failed to bow in respect to a hat placed on a pole by the newly appointed Austrian reeve, Albrecht Gessler. (Other people’s children, hey?)

William of course managed the feat (he strikes me as being the German equivalent of Robin Hood – a stupendously gifted marksman having to deal with a ridiculous, power-crazed little overlord). Legend has it that William drew two arrows before shooting, because if he failed and hit his son he planned to use the second on himself.

Here’s a 1554 rendering of the legendary scene (notice His Excellency the Hat on the pole next to the ghoul-eyed son):



Megan’s UK diary: Ted Hughes Arvon Centre, Lumb Bank, West Yorkshire. The art of life writing.

Life writing is simply what it suggests – writing that is rooted in the experiences of real life, whether biography or memoir, or something akin to that. One of the best things I discovered through my week-long residential course at Lumb Bank was the clarity and authenticity that life writing afforded me in the story-telling process.

Photo by Phil Champion

Photo by Phil Champion

Lumb Bank was originally built by a mill owner in the C18th. Eventually Ted Hughes bought it, and his wife, Sylvia Plath, is buried in Heptonstall, the hilltop village less than a mile away.

This area of West Yorkshire is full of hills and dales, tight lanes, moors and forests, sheep farms, abandoned mills and steep villages.

The view from my attic bedroom

The view from my attic bedroom

During an Arvon residence course, which takes in about 17 writers per course, you take part in morning writing workshops, cook one meal (in team), attend evening readings, have one-on-one tutorials with the two published authors leading the course, and still have free time in the afternoons to write, gaze at the abandoned mill, chat in the garden, concoct plum-based mulled wine, and, in my case, hop up and down over every bunny spotted on the lawn and then go get lost on the moors.

We were an eclectic bunch, ranging in age from 20 to 84, coming from England, Ireland, Norway, Bulgaria and South Africa, and presenting a mix of personalities and perspectives. As a group, I imagine it could easily not have worked, and yet it did. It really did. The success of it had something to do with all the hours spent around the diningroom-cum-workshop table where we got to know each other through conversations as well as through each other’s writing. We laughed hugely (sometimes we downright crowed), occasionally we gasped, and also occasionally we cried, because, well, this was a life writing course, and life isn’t always neat or pretty.

Here are the lovely and talented writers that now make up the group Subtext:

All the lovely people that now make up the writers' group Subtext.

Megan’s UK diary: The past glory of Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland

That is why I love England. It is so little, and so full, and so old.

– Robert Speaight

Dunstanburgh Castle is a massive ruin on a headland of the Northumberland coast and is the biggest castle in the county.

Unusually, it wasn’t built near to a village or town, so the only way to reach the castle is by walking across a lovely stretch of about a mile of coastal grassland …


The remains of the massive gatehouse:


This field of gorgeous grasses, of which you’re only seeing part, and which houses a small community of sheep, all lies within the walls of the castle.


Dunstanburgh Castle was commissioned by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster in 1313. Lancaster was the richest and most powerful baron of the day. It was intended that Dunstanburgh outdo the castles of his uncle, Edward I, and cousin, Edward II – a bold move!

This is the Lilburn Tower to the north:


From the Lilburn Tower you can see Bamburgh Castle to the north. Bamburgh Castle was Edward II’s key stronghold in Northumberland. Lancaster’s increasing power and ambitions eventually led to his execution.

John of Gaunt took possession of the castle in the late C14th and did some revamping. In the C15th it was twice besieged during the War of the Roses. Thereafter it fell into disrepair and eventually ruin, but during its heyday it was one of the biggest, grandest and most imposing castles in the land.

Grasses growing on top of the eastern wall …



Megan’s UK diary: Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland



How do you become the King of Castles? I suspect by letting folks know that if they come at your walls, you will shoot them dead …


… that’s right, you really will … you will bring out the big guns!


But this is necessary when you’ve got so much ‘stuff’ in the family to protect:






Megan’s UK diary: Summertime, and the living is easy at Newton-by-the-Sea

A poor woman from Manchester, on being taken to the seaside, is said to have expressed her delight on seeing for the first time something of which there was enough for everybody.

(Sir John Lubbock)

These are some photos from my visit to Newton-by-the-Sea in Northumberland.

View from up on the dunes:


You know how folks in the West, when seeing an image of African children playing with a primitive ball on a dirt field or smiling over a slice of watermelon, are prone to say something like, ‘Ah, bless – see how happy they are with so little!’? I must say that travelling around the UK I find myself thinking things like, ‘Ah, look at them little British kiddies making the best of their cold, blustering summers to visit the beach!’


A simple shot:


I like the pattern of the water and the sand in this photo …


In the photo below, it is as though someone thoughtfully placed this lifebuoy up on the hill expressly for the sake of photographers. It’s probably a clichéd pic in the opinion of experts, as it’s reminiscent of an emotional film finale where the fallen knight’s sword is stuck in the ground and the camera gives us a low-angle, sky-backdrop view, so that our hearts might soar to transcendent heights … , but I lapped it up with the freedom of the novice:


Here we have a sparrow. I asked him to show me his right side …


… and then I asked him to show me his left side. (He said he looks good from both sides.)


This puts me in mind of these verses from Matthew 10:29-31:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Ah, how romantic …


… unless that’s his mother. I really can’t tell.

A view of Dunstanburgh Castle:


More about Dunstanburgh in a future post.


For more ‘Megan’s UK diary’  posts, go to The green spaces of Sheffield and Jane Austen & Edinburgh Castle at night.

For other photography posts, go to Edinburgh shows off and Buttercup view from Stirling Castle.

For a history and photography post, go to Haddon Hall (the perfect mediaeval castle & location for Jane Eyre).

Megan’s UK diary: Haddon Hall (the perfect mediaeval castle & location for Jane Eyre)


Two Englishmen, having climbed the Matterhorn, were regarding the wonderful view that stretched before them.

‘Not half bad!’ commented one of them.

‘No,’ replied the other, ‘but you needn’t rave about it like a love-struck poet!’

I thought on this quote, having come across it only that morning, as I strolled around Haddon Hall. You see, Haddon Hall is WONDERFUL, and my thoughts were thus in the territory of superlatives and exclamation marks.

A mediaeval castle in the Peak District, Haddon Hall is a quintessentially Norman building, square and solid, believed to have been built in the C12th. It is a romantic castle, containing everything from the Middle Ages that delights us in today’s world: battlements, very low doorways, a chapel decorated to the hilt, wildly uneven flagstone floors, and I could go on, but you are getting the picture, aren’t you, clever reader?

Moreover, the family who own the Hall, the Manners (it has been in their family since the C16th), has thankfully not gone the common route of restoring it to within an inch of its life. There still isn’t a perpendicular anything, anywhere. Some of the stone steps are curved into almost non-existence in the middle as a result of centuries of footfalls, and the decaying wooden chests and ill-fitted windows have been left alone.

wish I had the capabilities of the love-struck poet ridiculed by the Englishman above, because the only words that presented themselves to me to describe Haddon Hall were words like lovely, outstanding, amazing, and truly wonderful. Bleugh! The frustration of living in a society where such words are regularly used to describe getting the parking spot you wanted or a tasty sandwich, meaning that when I want to really express that something is special, I can either go with one of them, and sound bland, thereby failing to capture the imagination of a hyperbole-drenched readership, or I can go all Italian and really do risk sounding like an overwrought poet whose been sniffing heavily on deadly nightshade. Not great options either of them.

I will have to satisfy myself with something very simple. I will say that, to the C21st tourist, the castle is perfection.


The Long Gallery, with a mom in it. My mom, in fact.
Long galleries, apart from their other uses, were intended as places where residents could find exercise, no matter what the weather. Elizabethan ladies, moreover, didn’t expose their skin or clothes to sunshine, so they could either walk the gallery or I suppose do sit ups in their bedrooms?
Is anyone else put in mind of Bingley’s sister asking Elizabeth to take a turn around the room with her?


A very impressive old tapestry, coupled with some fresh oranges to give the room a lived-in feel.


The garden was bursting with summer flowers, and as such was delightful in the special way that only English gardens can be. During my visit there were English roses, day lilies, thistles, agapanthus lilies, nasturtiums, yellow daisies, deeply purple clematis, red-and-white fuschia, and too many others to list. It was a garden of every colour.

IMG_2011One of the most striking things when you stepped out into the garden was the abundance of white butterflies (also called cabbage whites). They were everywhere, as were the bumble bees and wasps. I’ve perhaps never seen such a ‘busy’ garden.

IMG_1933The Jane Eyre connection

I also rather enjoyed discovering the Jane Eyre connection with Haddon Hall. The 2011 Jane Eyre film adaptation with Mia Wasikowski and Michael Fassbender (how fussed are we really if Mr Rochester is decidedly good-looking this time round?) had Haddon Hall as Thornfield Hall.

I recognised the little pavilion where Rochester and Blanche Ingram play at keeping a feather in the air, the courtyard where Rochester drags Jane off to the church so they can marry, and the narrow stone bridge that leads to Thornfield Hall. The romance of the castle and its grounds are so well suited to the romance of Jane Eyre – a gold sticker for the film’s location manager, please!


Tra la la … I’m never wearing my C19th gown at the right moment.


For more posts on castles and stately homes, go to:

Megan’s UK diary: Chatsworth House forever

Megan’s UK diary: Jane Austen and Edinburgh Castle at night

Lindisfarne – A Holy Island.

Megan’s UK diary: Sir Walter Scott (the greatest author never read)


It’s hard to get a full-length shot of the Sir Walter Scott Memorial, simply because it is so dang BIG. In fact, it’s the largest monument ever built anywhere to a writer, and stands at 61 metres tall (that’s more than 18 storeys!).

I generally think a single great shot speaks louder and more eloquently than multiple shots, but I wasn’t able to produce any one shot I was completely happy with, so I’ve included this next shot as well, as it better shows the heftiness of the monument …


… while this next shot, I’m hoping, conveys how tall it is …


You can climb all the way up to the very top balcony of the monument by way of an extremely – I stress, extremely – tight stone spiral stairwell. It’s not too bad to begin with, and you can reach the first and second landings fairly effortlessly, but the final two stairwells tested me, and I had to remind myself that I do not suffer from vertigo, dizziness or claustrophobia, all three of which suggested themselves to me.

IMG_1563The main problem was that the upper stairwells have no windows, and so you’re acutely aware of the numerous tight revolutions of tunnel both above and below you (while being unsure exactly how far above or below you they extend), so there is no quick escape in either direction. That, at least, was my issue, and I’d entered the memorial with nary a concern in my head.

I’m a little miffed with this picture, which shows the entrance to the one stairwell, as I don’t feel it accurately portrays how narrow the upper stairwells are. The final portion can’t have been any wider than a foot and a half. I seriously think larger folk would come unstuck in that part (unstuck insomuch as they would of course become actually stuck).

The Scott Memorial was built by the Scottish people from a desire to show ensuing generations just how highly the man was esteemed by his own generation. The monument is impressive but also rather ungainly. This is what Dickens, a big fan of Scott, wrote of it:


Ah, Dickens, you always say things so much better than any of the rest of us could ever hope to!

Scott (1771-1832), a poet, novelist and playwright, played an important part in the Scottish Enlightenment, which was a sudden burst of Scottish intellectualism, innovation and creativeness, centred in Edinburgh. Importantly, he invented the historical novel, blending fictional and historical characters based in a time before his own birth. Dickens, Thackeray and others acknowledged him as their predecessor in this.

His importance to the Scots was and is about how he helped to foster a renewed interest and pride in their own, distinctive history, and about how his works brought Scotland greater international recognition and fame.

Last week I visited the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum on Lady Stair’s Close. The museum focusses solely on Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns. While there I was interested to read the preamble to Stuart Kelly’s book Scott-Land, wherein he ponders over the immense popularity and impact of Scott in his own time and how he helped to shape a nation’s identity, and how he is yet completely overlooked and unread today. To this I have to say: so true. I’ve never read a single one of his works, and I love historical fiction. Rob Roy has sat on my bookshelf for years, but when it comes time to pick up a new novel, I always pass over it for something else. Why is that?

Linked to this, I’ve always had a hard time even remembering him in the distinct way I do other authors. What I mean is, I find that Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson are forever confusingly entwined in my mind, and whenever I think on either of them, I have to pause and ask myself: okay, so which one is it again that wrote Treasure Island?

The same goes for Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas – I know that I know who wrote what, and yet I must always take a silent moment to re-establish it in my mind every time I think on any of their works anew. Am I horribly Anglo-centric? Yet I know other French authors, like Jules Verne most obviously, and I don’t muddle him up with anyone else. It’s really rather perplexing.

However, having stood high up on that top balcony of the Scott Memorial, with my back pressed ever so firmly against the inner wall whilst I looked out (but never down!) over all of Edinburgh, I hope this confused entanglement of Scott and Stevenson will, at long last, be laid aside.


For more “Megan’s UK diary” posts, go to Edinburgh shows off or Chatsworth House forever.

Another history post: Lindisfarne – A Holy Island.

Other posts interested in the classics: Jane Austen and Edinburgh Castle at night, William Makepeace Thackeray and battle lore, and Bookcases, bedtime reading, libraries and story-telling.

Megan’s UK diary: Edinburgh shows off

Edinburgh is beautiful. I visited it for just 24 hours a while back, but was sufficiently captivated (not a word I use lightly) that I have always maintained I will return. Now I am here for the Edinburgh Festival – lucky sausage that I am – and I am seeing it at its best; the streets are overflowing with all sorts of interesting people, the sun is shining (not warmly, but at least it is there), and the late evening hours are about pink, streaky clouds and expansive parks filled out with lounging, relaxed people.

This is the view from the university residence where I am staying. The photo was taken at about 9pm. I love the romantic architecture, the warmth of the brick face as lit by the last, low rays of the sun, and the pretty, broad leaves of the trees, which were swaying in a bracing, night-is-coming breeze.



For more “Megan’s UK diary” posts, go to The green spaces of Sheffield and Chatsworth House forever.

Megan’s UK dairy: The green spaces of Sheffield

Getting lost in new places is wonderful. In fact, I rather make a point of it. This morning I went for a jog, paying little attention to where I was going, just darting right or bolting left as the whim took me, because that is how I discover the best, most unexpected gems.

Today I managed to do a loop (loops being life-giving, backtracking the opposite), starting from Walkley and finding my way down the valley into Philadelphia and Upperthorpe, areas that are new to me. En route I found a charming warren of pedestrian paths in and around a housing estate (first moment of self congratulation), then I came across the Philadelphia Green Space, a small, elongated stretch of forest, footpaths and playgrounds (second moment of self congratulation).

“Phil”, the little bird on the educational signs dotted around Philadelphia park, told me all sorts of interesting things during my stint in his park, like the fact that 1/3 of Sheffield lies within the Peak National Park, and that although Sheffield is very urban and industrial, the city prides itself on its ubiquitous green and open spaces and is the greenest city in Britain.


My mum, who was born in the 50s, remembers how in the decades after WWII the rose bay willow herb could be seen everywhere, from bombed buildings to wastelands, being a tenacious sort of plant that will settle in the most unlikely of places, like this one here, which has planted itself in a roof gutter.


I realised as I jogged about, smelling the damp, cut grass and smiling at the tiny white daisies that have already shot up in the short grass, that I always talk about how I love to travel when in fact I detest travelling. I’m a motion ninny, for one. Moreover, who doesn’t lose their joie de vivre when unable to sleep on an overnight flight? But what I do love is having all the travel behind me and then getting to explore new places. And Britain is one of my favourite places to explore, having so much in such a small space and containing things like public footpaths (the lure of which cannot be understated), ancient, crumbling buildings, Starbucks, and bus drivers that call you “love”.

So travelling:

thumbs down

But exploring:

thumbs up

Whenever it’s time to wind my way home after an explore, I crouch down and study my footprints, sniff the air, lick a finger and put it up in the breeze … no, just kidding of course, I read the signs and if necessary stop a local and ask them to share their knowledge of local topography and road names.

I’ve realised that a neat and effective trick when it comes to exercising is to charge off downhill at the beginning, when you’re still full of energy, life and bravado. Eventually, when you start to feel somewhat weary, you consider that it might be time to turn around and find your way back. The hike then begins, and by the time you finally reach your destination your muscles are nicely kaput. You can then pull yourself across the threshold of your abode, climb up a kitchen chair and slide into a nice bowl of cereal.


My blogging spot while in Sheffield

Megan’s UK Diary: Chatsworth House forever


I have something of a love affair with Chatsworth House, but you’d have to know me very well to know that. So when I met up with an old friend today, and she suggested several things we might do, I stopped her after the mention of Chatsworth with an understated, “Oh, that would be nice – let’s do that.” So off we went.

Driving through the Peak District has to be one of the most pleasant experiences a person can have. Purple heather was everywhere, pinky-purple rhododendrons were everywhere else, and the sun kept breaking through the clouds as though to say: I know you’ve travelled far to be here, so I won’t let them nasty clouds ruin your day.

We reached the car park and decided to walk through the grounds instead of going inside, all the more to embrace the perfection that is an English country estate in summertime. We thought we would walk to the folly on the top of the hill, but the dirt road we followed never quite wound its way there, and so we enjoyed green lawns and grouped deer instead. By the end of our walk, my friend and I agreed that we’d not only caught up on the past 3 years, but had, in the chatty manner of girlfriends, set much of the world to rights 🙂

Here are some photos from our stroll:


The golden entrance gate


An Austenesque house


Not only the biggest mushroom I’ve ever seen, but also a concave, chalice-like one!


I’m trying to get close to them deer, but they had the measure of me…


I’m in the UK for 6 weeks, and have decided I’ll write some “Megan’s UK Diary” posts. I’m in Sheffield at present, heading to the Edinburgh Festival tomorrow, and then many places besides. I’ll keep you posted with anything interesting I see or learn. 🙂

Movies can’t touch WWII

Promotional poster for Band of Brothers.An elderly man in my church fought for South Africa in WWII in Italy. He has watched some of the highly acclaimed filmic takes on the war, such as Band of Brothers, and the other day made the comment: “Those movies and shows are nothing like how it actually was.” I appreciate him saying that as it’s a helpful reminder to those of us of younger generations that even the most seemingly realistic takes on war never in fact attain to the actuality of it.

Some of the most obvious reasons for this are: there’s no soundtrack to reality, there is absolutely no slow-mo in life, and story arcs are often beyond our recognition, being messy and (seemingly) arbitrary from a personal and/or societal perspective. (I do still believe in a metanarrative, being a Christian, but I don’t think that means individual lives on earth can always be neatly understood by us in the here and now.)

None of this is to say we shouldn’t portray history and past tragedies through art, but it does suggest the importance of educating moviegoers as to the techniques and prerogatives of filmmakers so that they are aware of the artifices being employed and the gap that therefore exists between what they see and reality. Realism is the art form that comes closest to portraying something recognisable; the danger therefore is that the unthinking viewer might be inadvertently duped into thinking “this is the reality”. When critics say things like “how accurate” or “how true to life” a film is, one could wrongly take that to mean the film depicts a (past) reality. Not even documentaries can do that.

What films can do, however, is evoke emotion, stimulate concern or interest, present facts and scenarios, suggest experiences, and many other things I’m sure spring to the mind of any students of film reading this – I am just making the observations of an armchair movie enthusiast. Films and TV shows have value, to be sure, and we all know their impact can be profound, but when I say they can’t touch WWII, I simply mean it’s important to remember that they are always a far cry from the reality of living and fighting in the war.


For past posts on WWII, we have Brushing up on WWII and WWII, Socrates, Rwanda & personal boundaries

Another post in my History category is Lindisfarne – A Holy Island.


A ditty was promised, so a ditty must be written! Also, a love poem, an old railway advert & Gibson Girls

One of my readers – Sean Smithson – spotted an error in my “About” page; the underlined “as” had been accidentally omitted: “If you read my posts you’ll inadvertently learn probably as much as you would like to know about how this mind of mine works.”

Well spotted, I say! I promised the reader who found a mistake a ditty, and so the below is what I devised.

But first, in case some of you don’t know what a ditty is, it’s simply a short, simple song or poem (from Old French ditie – poem).

Here’s mine:

A ditty (that embraces the silly)

Oh, run away word,
where have you gone?
Your home is right here,
are you going to be long?

Sean S., the word catcher,
caught the thing in its haste;
that word was sent packing,
and now sits in its right place.

Perhaps after that I should share a ditty or two as penned by the pros, so as to highlight all that they can be!

A Ditty (by Sir Philip Sidney)

My true-love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange one to the other given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
There never was a better bargain driven:
   My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.

His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,
I cherish his because in me it bides:
   My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.

Now, for an example from the early C20th, the image below is one of a series of advertisements used by the Lackawanna Railroad in the eastern US to capitalise on its use of anthracite, a kind of hard coal that burns cleanly, not creating the soot and cinders that normal coal does.

The advertisers came up with the fictional character of Phoebe Snow, whom they used to promote the line they accordingly dubbed The Road of Anthracite.


The quote below, from Steamtown: Special History Study, explains how the railroad developed this advertising strategy:

Early in 1899, […] Mark Twain, wrote the company after a trip to Elmira that he had worn a white duck suit and it was still white when he reached his destination. [The company] seized upon the idea of taking advantage of the line’s clean-burning coal in advertising for passenger traffic and adopted the slogan for the Lackawanna Road as “The Road of Anthracite.” As a symbol, probably for the first time in 1901, the railroad seized upon the image of a demure “Gibson girl” dressed head to toe in sparkling white, and published a seemingly endless series of jingles or poems.

Three more of the Phoebe ditties go like this:

Here Phoebe may
By night or day
Enjoy her book
Upon the way
Electric light
Dispels the night
Upon the Road
Of Anthracite

Says Phoebe Snow, About to go
Upon a trip
To Buffalo:
"My gown stays white from morn till night
Upon the Road of Anthracite.

A coach or sleigh 
Was once the way 
Of reaching home 
On Christmas day 
Now - Phoebe's right - 
You'll expedite 
The trip by Road Of Anthracite

To read more, you can click here.

During WWI, anthracite was needed for the war effort, so trains couldn’t use it anymore and Phoebe Snow disappeared.


An archetypal Gibson Girl

Phoebe was drawn as a Gibson Girl, and Gibson Girls, I’ve just learned with interest, were designed to be the epitome of supposed feminine beauty at the time: gracious, curvy, fashionable, independent, at ease with themselves, and possessing a fragile outer beauty.


More Gibson Girls, who were popular images in the late C19th and early C20th

The Gibson Girls creator, Charles Dana Gibson, had this to say about his drawings: “I’ll tell you how I got what you have called the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I saw her on the streets, I saw her at the theatres, I saw her in the churches. I saw her everywhere and doing everything. I saw her idling on Fifth Avenue and at work behind the counters of the stores […] There isn’t any ‘Gibson Girl,’ but there are many thousands of American girls, and for that let us all thank God.”

– Quote from Marshall, E. (1910-11-20). “The Gibson Girl Analyzed By Her Originator”. The New York Times.

Camille Clifford, a Belgian-born American actress who was the most famous model for the Gibson Girl drawings

Camille Clifford, a Belgian-born American actress who was the most famous model for the Gibson Girl drawings


If you enjoyed today’s blog post, you might also enjoy

Horses sweat, men sweat, and ladies sweat just the same

Quotes for writers

Lindisfarne: A Holy Island

WWII, Socrates, Rwanda & personal boundaries

Brushing up on WWII

Causes, alliances and notable quotes

World War II (1939-1945)

The following series of about 6 posts will offer a very brief overview of WWII. This first post looks at the origins of the war, as well as the two primary alliances.

I’ve enjoyed brushing up on these events and details, as well as learning some new things; as my high school history teacher always told us: the more you learn about history, the more you realise you don’t know! So true!


  1. Causes & lead-up
  2. Alliances & key players
  3. Notable quotes

A personal note: The focus of these blogs is on information. In response to my generally matter-of-fact presentation below some could possibly think that I deal unfeelingly with all I describe, but that is not the case. Not at all. I feel very much the weight of the information I present, I abhor much of what I describe, and I have at length considered how such events affected the lives of those involved. I do not wish my enjoyment of academic inquiry and summarising to be taken as a trivialising of anything. My grandparents, who are British, lived through the war, and my one grandad, who is still alive, fought in it. I know that their experiences are not dealt with or even approached through writings like this, and that those experiences are important, profound, and require understanding conducive to healing.

A tangential thought: 30db00654774965a1ee7c1717a706c64I remember in my second year of university watching footage of the Rwandan genocide in one lecture. I went back to my dorm room, drew the curtains, and didn’t step outside again for 36 hours. I realised then that I have certain limits, and so decided that while I love history, I need to find a way to study it that I can handle. I think this is why I’ve developed a love of macro history, wanting to look at maps, consider causes and factors, understand social movements, analyse global interactions and relations, and so forth.

Having said this, I do not like it when I am accused of wanting to stick my head in the ground and remain ignorant. Each of us is made differentlty, with different purposes. I do not consider it necessary or even helpful for me personally in my lifetime, even as an armchair historian, to know details about every past atrocity. It’s a truth that what is good or permissible for one person is not necessarily so for the next. That being the case, we should allow each other the freedom to learn and concern ourselves with the areas we know and feel are good and necessary to each of us. I am still an educated person with an enquiring mind, but I just make certain choices according to my understanding of myself.

I’ve shared this to perhaps encourage anyone who has been badgered into watching or reading things beyond their discretion – know yourself. You have been given wisdom to choose what you let enter through the dooway of your mind.


European theatre

1919: Treaty of Versailles puts all blame for the Great War on Germany, takes away some of Germany’s border territories, and demands heavy reparation payments. Germany is ruined economically, and humiliated.


This map is from the website for Institute for Research of Expelled Germans: the experiences of over 10,00,00 displaced civilians. A very interesting site.

1929: The Great Depression adds insult to injury.

Extreme political groups are thus able to flourish. Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party is one of them.

1933: Von Hindenberg, Germany’s president, makes Hitler Chancellor.

1934: Nazis take complete control of Germany, ending all democratic proceedings. Hitler now a dictator.

1935: Germany rejects Treaty of Versailles and starts to consolidate power, building up army.

1936: Germany remilitarises the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland.

Britain, France and USA adopt policy of appeasement.

1938: Germany increases its territory

–          Anschluss (German annexation of Austria)

–          Germany allowed by France and Britain to take control of Sudetenland (industrialised border zone of Czechoslovakia that has 1/4 German population)


–         Rome-Berlin Axis becomes military pact

–         March: Germany invades Czechoslovakia, and conquers Czech part.

–         Sept: German blitzkrieg of Poland. Anglo-Polish alliance means Britain declares war on Germany. France is Britain’s ally, therefore they too declare war on Germany.

Pacific theatre

Independently, Japan was struggling in the wake of Great Depression. It’s expanding population required more land, and it was too reliant on imported goods. It’s expansionist goals focused on China. During 30s took control of Manchurian region of China.

1936: Anti-Comintern Pact (an anti-communist pact) signed between Germany and Japan. (1937 Italy enters pact.)

1937: Second Sino-Japanese War starts when Japan invades deeper into China.

1940: Japan signs an alliance with Germany and Italy.

1941: Japan attacks Pearl Harbour on Hawaii. End of US policy of isolationism.


I give the names of each country’s political leaders, and then also just some of the military/other leaders that strike me as the most notable.

AXIS POWERS (Italy, Germany, Japan)


– Benito Mussolini (Il Duce)


– Adolf Hitler (Führer)

– Heinrich Himmler (architect of the Holocaust)

– Hermann Göring (Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, Head of Gestapo, Hitler’s successor)

– Joseph Goebbels (Minister of Propaganda)

– Rudolf Hess (Depupty leader of Nazi party)

– Erwin Rommel (very successful military general)

Hitler and Himmler. Himmler was Hitler's right hand man, most staunch supporter, and the second most feared man in Nazi Germany.

Hitler and Himmler. Himmler was Hitler’s right hand man, most staunch supporter, and the second most feared man in Nazi Germany. They both look disturbingly congenial in this shot.

Rommel, aka Desert Fox. Distinguished himself in the North African campaign.

Rommel, aka Desert Fox. Distinguished himself in the North African campaign.

Hess. In 1941 he undertook of his own accord to parachute into Scotland in an attempt to negotiate a peace with Britain. It failed and he was held as POW.

Hess. In 1941 he undertook of his own accord to parachute into Scotland in an attempt to negotiate a peace with Britain. It failed and he was held as a POW.


– Hirohito (Emperor, reigned 1926 till death in ’89; posthumously known as Emperor Shōwa in Japan)

– Isoroku Yamamoto (Commander-in-Chief of Imperial Japanese Navy)

Isoroku Yamamoto

Yamamoto. Educated at Harvard. A very skilled strategist. He was killed when his plane was shot down over the Solomon Islands in 1943 in Operation Vengeance, an American military operation designed to eliminate him.

Vichy France

– Philippe Petain (Chief of The French State)

October 1940. Petain and Hitler shake hands.

October 1940. Petain and Hitler shake hands.

Other Axis countries

Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Thailand.

ALLIES (Britain, France, USA, USSR)

Stalin, Roosevelt & Churchill at the 1943 Tehran Conference, the first meeting of the Big 3 (France by then being occupied). Confirmed Britain and US's commitment to open up a Western Front to help take the pressure of the Eastern Front.

Stalin, Roosevelt & Churchill at the 1943 Tehran Conference, the first meeting of the Big 3 (France by then being occupied). Confirmed Britain and US’s commitment to open up a Western Front to help take the pressure of the Eastern Front.


– Neville Chamberlain (Prime Minister, resigned 1940)

– Winston Churchill (Prime Minister, 1940-45)

– Clement Attlee (Prime Minister from July 1945)

– King George VI

– Bernard Montgomery (Field Marshal)

– Louis Mountbatten (Lord Mounbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Admiral of the Fleet)

Montgomery ("Monty"), 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. He accepted Germany surrender.

Montgomery (“Monty”), 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. Led Allied forces in North Africa, commanded all ground forces during Operation Overlord. He accepted Germany’s surrender on 4 May 1945.


– Charles de Gaulle (leader of the Free French and head of French government-in-exile)


– Joseph Stalin (General Secretary; Supreme Commander of Red Army)

– Georgy Zhukov (Marshal of the Soviet Union; led all Soviet forces at Battle of Berlin)


– Franklin D. Roosevelt (President)

– Harry S. Truman (became President after Roosevelt died in April 1945)

– Douglas MacArthur (Army General, called out of retirement in 1941; Supreme Commander of Allied forces in SW Pacific)

– Dwight D. Eisenhower (Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe)

Frankfurt, June 1945. From left to right: Eisenhower, Zhukov, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder

Frankfurt, June 1945. Left to right: Eisenhower, Zhukov, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder

Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore during initial landings at Leyte, Philippine Islands

MacArthur wades ashore during initial landings at Leyte, Philippines, in 1944. After the war, MacArthur effectively ruled Japan till ’51.

Other Allied countries (not an exhaustive list)

Albania, Belgium, Brazil, British Empire and Commonwealth (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, India), Greece, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Yugoslavia, Slovakia, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran and Liberia.

Neutral countries (not an exhaustive list)

Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Ireland, Sweden, Vatican City.

Probably the most notable of the neutrals was Switzerland, which lay right at the heart of the conflict. In 1920 Switzerland had all major countries ratify its neutrality as set in the 1815 Vienna Conference on post-Napoleonic relations.

Probably the most notable of the neutrals was Switzerland, which lay right at the heart of the conflict. In 1920 Switzerland had all major countries ratify its neutrality as set in the 1815 Vienna Conference on post-Napoleonic relations. Nonetheless, detailed plans for a German invasion of Switzerland were drawn up, but in the end no advance was made and Switzerland managed to retain an official neutrality.


Hitler, in Mein Kampf (1926):

“The right to possess soil can become a duty if without extension of its soil a great nation seems doomed to destruction. […] Germany will either be a world power or there will be no Germany.”

Mussolini, as quoted in E. Ludwig’s Talks with Mussolini (1932):

“Race? It is a feeling, not a reality. Ninety-five per cent, at least. Nothing will ever make me believe that biologically pure races can be shown to exist today.… National pride has no need of the delirium of race.”

Churchill, who was against appeasement, wrote to a friend in Sept 1938:

“We seem to be very near the bleak choice between War and Shame. My feel­ing is that we shall choose Shame, and then have War thrown in a lit­tle later on even more adverse terms than at present.”

Churchill, May 1940 speech as PM to House of Commons:

“You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory however long and hard the road may be. For without victory there is no survival.”


Coming nextDay 2. War in the European Theatre

– War in Europe

– Notable quotes

– In focus: Battle of Kursk

– Quiz on Day 1’s content

Searching for Sugar Man

searching-for-sugar-man-posterI recently watched the captivating documentary Searching for Sugar Man. It’s about a talented American singer-songwriter-guitarist of the 70s called Rodriguez who couldn’t sell any records in the US, but who was, completely unbeknownst to him, a mega hit in Apartheid South Africa.

Rodriguez’s music inspired liberal-minded SA musicians in their anti-establishment efforts, but his fans here knew NOTHING about him as a person. He was a total enigma, and rumours abounded. Eventually, in the 90s, two South African fans began to investigate …

I won’t give anymore away, as it’s an excellent film and I don’t want to ruin it for you. I just want to promote it further for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it. South Africans in particular will find it intriguing.


Only very marginally related to the above, but I spotted this the other day and think it funny:


Thank you, Pinterest, for the laughs!

Brushing up on WWII

Yesterday was the anniversary of D-Day. I had to write a short blurb about it for an online mag, so I diligently Googled it, thinking I’d be in and out in a half-hour tops. Wrong! Reading up on D-Day was like nibbling on the corner of a large, very tasty slab of chocolate – no […]

Casualties of Time: quanked, bovate & ecbole

quanked Most lost words were lost for a reason – they no longer served any useful purpose. But the word quanked (meaning to be overpowered by fatigue) – now that is an awesome word, and I would love if it were brought back. It’s so darn expressive. bovate Another word I like, but completely understand […]