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Archive for May, 2011

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Cornish customs on May Day

Posted in British Towns, Customs, Nature on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about Cornish customs originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

Helston, picture, image, illustration

Near Helston, Cornwall

A colourful and joyous festival takes place on 8th May every year in the small Cornish town of Helston. Known as the furry (or flora) dance, it is based upon a legend. This tells of a fierce battle between the town’s patron saint, Michael, and the devil, for possession of the town. When St. Michael won the battle by hurling the devil into nearby Looe Pool, the people of the town were supposed to have danced for joy.

However, there was a festival at Helston before Christianity came to Britain. In former times, it is believed to have taken place on 1st May, the day of the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane, during which fires were lit and men leapt through the flames. This marked the beginning of the second half of the Celtic year.

Parts of the old festivals survived, so that the modern festival has many origins. The decoration of the streets with branches of sycamore and beech, and the chasing out of evil spirits from people’s houses, probably originates from the time when people were even more superstitious than they are today and believed that this was a way of gaining protection.

We see a Celtic touch in the form of May princesses, and Christianity is represented by the legend acted out by St. Michael and the devil. Legendary figures are represented in the persons of St. George and the dragon, Robin Hood, Maid Marion and Friar Tuck.

The festival takes place at a traditional time for rejoicing. May means the end of winter, the warmth of spring and the approach of summer. It was always a time for celebrating the fertilisation of the crops on which man and his animals depended.

Industrialisation has robbed much of Europe of its pastoral nature. But the success of our civilisation still depends upon the skill of the world’s farmers and their dependence upon the weather and the seasons – the very things about which the May revellers rejoiced in times gone by.

Dylan Thomas

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, Literature on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about Dylan Thomas originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

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A scene in a London Pub during the Forties, by Peter Jackson

When Dylan Thomas came to London in 1934, he had just published a slim volume of verse called simply 18 Poems. All over London, refined society hostesses threw open their houses to the astonishing Welsh poet whose filthy nails and bad language belied his cherubic appearance.

Thomas’ poetry seemed to explode with raw power – every line crackled with energy, as did the poet himself. With calculated theatricality, he told his polite audiences that he would “be dead within two years, drinking, exploring and going to the devil.”

As it turned out, he was wrong. The young man of 20 actually lived for 19 more years until his health finally gave out in New York in 1953, the inevitable result of a lifetime of hard living and hard drinking.

Between his meteoric arrival in London and tragic death in New York, Dylan Thomas carved himself a reputation as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. His constant refusal to conform, and his delight in shocking people, attracted a whole new generation of readers to his poetry.

He especially appealed to young people. It was no coincidence that an unknown folk singer decided to change his name to Bob Dylan after the man whose poetry had so inspired him. Thomas’s early poems seemed to capture exactly the incoherence and power of adolescence, the time when a young person undergoes a series of profound bodily changes before becoming a fully-grown, physically mature adult.

Dylan Marlais Thomas was born in 1914, in a house in a middle-class street in suburban Swansea, the industrial town in South Wales.

His father was the head of the English department at Swansea Grammar School, where Thomas himself was later to be educated. Right from the start, however, young Dylan knew what his course in life would be – he was going to be a poet.

Dylan set to work at his self-appointed task. In his autobiography Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Dog, he tells us that his room at home was full of books of verse by all the great poets. He read all of them, devouring everything that came his way.

At the same time he was assembling an enormous collection of notes, jottings and ideas that later provided him with much of his raw material. Most of the poems in his first book have their origins in the notebooks of his teenage years.

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The spy who nearly stopped the American Civil War

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, War on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about the American Civil War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

American civil war, picture, image, illustration

A battle scene from the American Civil War, by James E McConnell

During the American Civil War, the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, in Georgia, had a reputation that was not unlike that of the Nazi concentration camps that were to shock the world almost a century later.

Of the 50,000 Union troops kept there from February, 1864, to May, 1865, nearly 13,000 died of hunger, exposure and disease, and at the end of hostilities the camp commander, Captain Henry Wirtz, was court-martialled and hanged for his conduct.

Today it is generally accepted that the appalling conditions existing at Andersonville were due more to faulty administration and the Confederate army’s general shortage of food and equipment than any intentional cruelty. But there is no doubt that, at the time, Union troops would have given short shrift to any of the camp staff that came into their hands. Yet it was one of those hated men who undertook to become a secret agent behind the Union lines, and to play the leading part in a mission that was to remain one of the best kept secrets of the war.

The year 1864 saw the American Civil War at its height, and for the Confederate cause the outlook was black. The Southern States had an elaborate spy system operating in the north, and their president, Jefferson Davis, was well aware that the odds were heavily against him.

There was nothing wrong with the fighting spirit of the Southern confederacy, but, as the conflict dragged on, it became only too clear that greater wealth and a larger population would inevitably bring victory to the Union. Even without an Intelligence service, the barefooted and hungry Confederate soldiers could arrive at the same conclusion, for they only had to look at the enemy troops to see that they were infinitely better equipped. At the beginning of 1864, President Jefferson Davis had a conference with his Secretary of State, and together they composed a personal letter to Abraham Lincoln, president of the Union.

The exact contents of that letter have never been made public, but it is generally accepted that, in it, President Davis indicated his willingness to surrender and outlined his plans for an acceptable armistice. Then he was faced with a major problem. Apart from an unconditional surrender by his generals in the field, there were no diplomatic channels through which he could get his message to Lincoln – unless the letter could be delivered by hand.

To find a suitable person prepared to be Davis’s secret agent on such a mission might have been difficult, but fortunately the president had a nephew, Lieutenant Samuel Davis, a one-time member of the Andersonville staff. Here was an ideal courier, for not only was he a commissioned officer, but he had the added status of being a member of President Davis’s own family. If any man could get to see Lincoln face-to-face it would be Samuel Davis.

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Misconceptions about Iceland

Posted in Geography, Geology on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about Iceland originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

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The Great Geyser of Iceland

Many people imagine Iceland to be a dull, chilling, perpetually frozen place – and would point to its name to bear them out. In fact this really means “Island”, but the pronunciation of the “s” has led to the popular misconception.

Actually the winter there is milder than our own, and the country is noted for its hot springs – 700 of them provide water for baths and central heating.

There are glaciers in the island, of course, but they form no icebergs, and the sea round the coast is never frozen. At Reykjavik the mean temperature of the year is 4∞C-12∞C in summer and -2∞C in winter.

Extreme low temperatures, such as are common in certain places in North America, are unheard of in Iceland, and far from being an inhospitable, uniform sheet of ice, large areas are covered by grassy valleys, low hills and marshy grassland.

English customs on May Day

Posted in British Towns, Customs, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth, Nature on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about May Day customs originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

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The Padstow Hobby Horse is shown in the top row, middle pucture. Pictures by Ward

Both Padstow in Cornwall and Minehead in Somerset celebrate May Day with a hobby horse festival, but the Cornish town’s festival involves a much more elaborate display.

Here, the hobby horse is not a manufactured article, like the beautifully decorated object carried through the streets of Minehead. Instead there is a man covered in a full-skirted costume with a black hoop and a grotesque mask.

As in the Helston Furry Dance, there is a traditional song for the occasion:

Unite and unite, let us unite
For summer is a-cuman today.

The words show that this ancient festival is a genuine Celtic May Day celebration, welcoming the season in which things will grow.

During the Hundred Years War, in 1346-1347, most of the town’s men were in service at the siege of Calais. A French privateer ship, which was trying to enter the port, was frightened away by the sight of the grotesque horse dancing on Stepper Point at the harbour mouth.

The 1923 Cup Final

Posted in Animals, Historical articles, History, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about Wembley Stadium originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

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PC Scorey on his white horse at Wembley

Built for the 1924 Empire Exhibition, at a cost of £750,000, Wembley Stadium in London was opened on 28th April, 1923, for its first FA Cup Final.

From the beginning, the stadium established the reputation for drama which was always to be associated with the events it staged.

The final was intended to be the first “pay at the gate” one, but this idea was later seen to be impracticable.

The match was delayed when thousands of fans rushed the gate. They invaded the pitch, and formed a wall of bodies along the touchline.

It was a tense situation for the crowd and for the police alike, with at least 126,000 spectators (and probably nearer 160,000) crammed into the stadium to see West Ham play Bolton Wanderers.

Only the courage of PC George Albert Scorey, on his white horse, Billy, prevented a disaster, as he valiantly held the centre of the pitch and restored order. The game, after a 40-minute delay, went ahead with the pitch hemmed in by spectators. The final score-line, 57 years ago, was 2-0 to Bolton. A West Ham player, understandably bitter, remarked that his best pass of the afternoon came from a spectator.

The defence of Jersey

Posted in Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships, War on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about Jersey originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

Jersey. picture, image, illustration

A French force landed in 1781 but was routed in St Heller; inset, St Quen’s, the Carteret Manor House. Pictures by Harry Green

Jersey is the largest and the most southerly of the Channel Islands. Oblong in shape, it measures 16 by eight kilometres roughly and covers an area of about 116 square kilometres.

Thanks to the influence of the Gulf Stream, Jersey enjoys a mild climate, which enables it to have a thriving agricultural industry as well as flourishing tourism. And its rocky strata are a factor in its other major industry – quarrying. The pleasant climate is reflected in the sunny nature of the people. Although they are fiercely independent, they retain a determined loyalty to the Crown.

With the passing years, Jersey began to find its feet as a nation. During the reign of Edward I, the king’s wars with Wales, Scotland and France, and the unrest of the archbishops and barons, provided Jersey with an era which reflected these troubles. But there was an improvement when Edward III came to the throne. He was generous to the islanders and fully recognised their rights.

Jersey was not to be left in peace for long, however. In 1337, David Bruce, the deposed Scottish king, attempted to take Jersey. He was resisted successfully and, to keep further invaders at bay, the island’s defences were strengthened. A French commander, Du Guesclin, accompanied by the Duc de Bourbon, invaded Jersey. With a strong force, he besieged Gorey Castle in 1373.

The warden of the castle made a pact with the invaders, to the effect that if he was not relieved by Michaelmas, he would hand over the keys. The French sailed away, leaving a small covering force behind them. Fortunately, the English arrived before the stipulated date – and the castle was saved.

Pero Nino, a Spanish soldier of fortune, raided the island in 1406, heavily defeating the Jersey militia. He freed the island on payment of a heavy ransom.

In 1461 Gorey Castle was surprised and taken by a French force under Jean de Carbonnel; and quickly the whole island fell under French occupation, which lasted for some years. A respite from these perils commenced in 1483 when a Papal Bull of Neutrality excluded the islands from wars between France and England.

By the reign of Henry VII, Jersey and Guernsey each had a separate governor in place of an overall warden, and a bailiff, who was in charge of civil affairs, and who was also regarded by the governor as a threat to his power. A Jersey governor called Baker produced a false letter insinuating that the bailiff was offering to betray Gorey Castle to the French. However, the efforts of the bailiff’s wife, Margaret de Carteret, saved him. She hastened to London and persuaded the Privy Council to prevent his trial and remove Baker from office.

The governor of Jersey from 1537 to 1550 was Edward Seymour, Jane Seymour’s brother. As relations with France were once more hostile, he devoted much money and effort to strengthening the defences. This was timely, as in 1549 the militia drove off another French invasion, inflicting heavy losses.

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The Queens of the Netherlands

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about the Dutch Royal Family originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

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Queen Juliana of the Netherlands by James E McConnell

Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, 71-year-old mother-figure of the Dutch people, is presenting her daughter, Crown Princess Beatrix on 30th April with her birthday gift – the throne of Holland.

It was on Crown Princess Beatrix’s 42nd birthday on 31st January that the queen told her 13 million subjects that she intended to abdicate and hand over the throne to her daughter after a 31-year reign.

Princess Beatrix, who is married to Prince Claus van Amsberg, a former West German diplomat, will become monarch in Amsterdam’s newly-renovated Nieuwe Kerk, the 14th century church in which Queen Juliana herself was crowned on 6th September, 1948, after the abdication of her mother, the late Queen Wilhelmina.

But the crowning, attended by royalty and statesman alike, was not to be a coronation in the British sense. Holland’s new Queen, for instance, was not to carry her regalia of office, such as her crown, sceptre and orb. These were to be merely displayed before her on a table when she took her place, for the brief spell of pomp and splendour, in the old church.

This variation from the form of coronation known in Britain is explained by the fact that, in Holland, there is no archbishop to perform the crowning ceremony, since the country has no recognised established church.

The abdication of Queen Juliana had been expected for some years. Yet it was still a surprise when she finally broke the news on television with the words: “As you get older, you get weaker, and I feel I can no longer accept this great responsibility . . . My daughter, Beatrix, is now ready to accept the throne she has been groomed for.”

When her daughter finally assumes the highest office Holland has to bestow upon her, it is not expected that the royal court at Soestdijk Palace will experience very much change. The new queen has a reputation for more formality than her mother, who always tried to cultivate the common touch by attempting to put people at ease, frequently appearing in public riding a bicycle.

Queen Beatrix will be a more reserved person. She is good-looking, with a warm smile and a good clothes sense. She has a keen, alert mind. Since she was 18, she has attended the weekly meetings of the Council of State – the equivalent of Britain’s Privy Council – and is steeped in the procedures of State and politics.

She and her prince consort live at Drakensteyn Castle, a moated hunting lodge in central Holland, with their three sons, Prince Willem-Alexander, Prince Friso and Prince Constantine.

The popularity of her family has undoubtedly been enhanced by the prospect of a male heir to the throne. There has not been one since 1890, following the death of King William III, when Queen Wilhelmina became monarch.

When Prince Willem-Alexander was born into the House of Orange 12 years ago, the nation put out the flags, and bells pealed out joyfully. The royal family will unquestionably continue to hold the deep affection of its subjects. It has been estimated that one home in every eight in Holland has a portrait of Queen Juliana or a member of her family.

Both the Crown Princess and her husband have, for long, enjoyed the respect of Holland, for their great interest in handicapped children and the development of overseas countries. Both have travelled widely and sometimes ignored the diplomatic niceties.

Once, on a visit to Israel, they were reported to have ignored their ambassador’s advice, and entered the disputed Arab section of Jerusalem, instead of staying within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. On another occasion, when they were visiting East Africa they are said to have borrowed a government plane, without official permission, to make a holiday trip.

Such actions have left their reputation quite untarnished. Unlike Crown Prince Bernhard, German-born husband of Queen Juliana, they are unlikely to be the subject of much adverse comment.

Four years ago Prince Bernhard resigned all his business and military functions after an official inquiry into claims that he had been paid money by the Lockheed Aircraft Company of America. The Dutch government endorsed the inquiry report that Prince Bernhard had been open to “dishonourable requests and offers”, but failed to find any proof that he had taken some £500,000 in pay-offs.

Queen Juliana stood by him. Although she was tempted to abdicate, she was persuaded to stay on rather than cause a constitutional crisis by quitting the throne. Prince Bernhard survived the scandal and managed to restore his reputation. Yet his involvement was always something of a puzzle, since Queen Juliana is reputed to be one of the world’s richest women.

It is widely believed that she holds more than £50 million worth of shares in the Dutch half of Shell, and that she is a major shareholder in the Netherland’s largest bank, the Algemene, of which her grandfather was a co-founder.

To many Dutchmen, Crown Prince Claus remains a more popular figure than his father-in-law, although there was much opposition to his engagement to the Crown Princess, because of his German background. The Dutch well remember the ravages of war brought to their land by Nazi Germany.

Yet the Crown Princess defended her fiance against all criticism, revealing the strength of character which she inherits from her grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina.

Parliament finally approved the match and immediately Prince Claus started to learn Dutch, taking considerable pains to master the language. Today, he speaks it fluently; and his quiet charm, modesty and good humour have made him one of the most popular figures in the royal family.

The sloth’s prehistoric ancestor

Posted in Animals, Archaeology, Historical articles, Prehistory on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about prehistoric animals originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

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The Megatherium, a land sloth from South and Central America during the Pleistocene Age

Sloths are proverbially lazy – in the rainy season they camouflage themselves with mould rather than move. But have they, perhaps, outlasted their more active ancestors for that very reason?

The tree sloth is the slowest moving of mammals and amply deserves to be named after the last of the seven deadly sins – it spends only ten per cent of its time making any movement at all.

Sloths are nocturnal animals which live in the tropical forests of South and Central America, from Argentina to Nicaragua. Their long, curled toes hook round branches, allowing them to hang idly for most of their lives: even when they die they retain their grip on their branches. Their diet consists of leaves, shoots and fruits which take about four days to pass through their stomachs, and they only amble down from their trees about once a week to relieve themselves. Their arms are longer than their legs and, on the ground, the sloths have to pull themselves along because they are incapable of walking. Babies spend the first two years of their lives clinging to their mothers’ backs.

It is surprising, then, to discover that one of the ancestors of these creatures was seven metres long and lived a full and active life on the ground. This was the Megatherium, which grew to the size of a modern elephant and weighed several tons. It lived on plants and had teeth only on the side of its jaws. It was slow and rather cumbersomely built, but it could walk on its hind feet as well as on all fours.

There were several kinds of giant sloths in South America in the Pleistocene era around 500,000 years ago, and living alongside them were giant armadillos like the glyptodonts. They were as big as rhinoceroses, with armour-plating fitted so tightly together that they looked like huge tortoises.

All of these giants were edentata, an order of animals which has evolved into today’s sloths, armadillos and anteaters of South America. Edentata literally means without teeth. The anteaters, which catch their food with long, sticky tongues, are the only ones which do not have any. Armadillos can have up to 100, while sloths have a few simple pegs. These are not enamelled but constantly grow as they wear away.

We know nothing of edentata before two suborders which were alive in the Paleocene era 60 million years ago. No fossil remains have so far been discovered to link them with one common suborder, but they both have common characteristics that put them in the same nest. One of these suborders was the Palaeanodonta, which had two families which died out after some 30 million years.

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H.M.S. Victory

Posted in Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships, War on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about HMS Victory originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

Victory, picture, image, illustration

H.M.S. Victory, by C L Doughty

The guns aboard HMS Victory are silent now, but it is not difficult to imagine how this mighty warship once led the British fleet into battle against the French at Trafalgar.

She was merely an ordinary warship until a very small, ordinary-looking man came aboard. Now Nelson and the Victory are part of English naval history.

HMS Victory was built in the naval dockyards at Chatham between 1759-1765, at a cost of £63,176. When ready for service against the French, she carried 102 guns, two of which were special cannons called “carronades”.

The crew numbered 850, most of whom were “pressed men”, that is to say, they were ordinary men who just happened to be around when the press gang arrived on the scene.

Also aboard a typical ship of the time would be marines – naval soldiers whose duties ranged from policing the ship to superintending executions. The total length of the Victory is 69 metres and it measures 15Ω metres from side to side. During her career, HMS Victory had no fewer than four figureheads. The one believed to have been carried at Trafalgar was a shield surmounted by a sailor on the starboard side and on the port side, a marine.

Netting was fitted around the whole deck and was called “hammock netting”. The idea of this was to serve as partial protection against enemy fire during battle. Also, it had a second purpose, as the gun crews normally slept at their posts and they could be ready for battle at a moment’s notice.

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