Category Archives: social history

The Tree

4m1W7GThe tree remembered being planted in the churchyard those many summers ago. For he saw the young daughter of the squire slipping in a copy of that new book on ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to wile away the long sermon. This blissful rural scene was oblivious to the battles being fought on land and sea to fence in the tyrant Napoleon.
The tree brought to mind the parishioners chattering excitedly having been told of a war far away over whether humans could own humans; trees never own each other more than they can own God’s sunlight.

He then lived many summers and slept for many winters before Johnny, the blacksmiths boy, proud in his khaki uniform marched off to France.  A few months later, his family came weeping to the yard even though Johnny had no grave there.

It seems hardly any summers at all after the Great War, that his branches were swept back by a gaudily painted plane sprouting smoke and crosses flew overhead with another firing in pursuit. Now he saw the night sky filled with new stars, all talking to each other as they silently rotated above.
More recently, he was overjoyed when a young family came to stay in the disused church which had been converted to a house.  They played in his shadow and touched his bark in games. And so, he felt the pain even more as the chainsaw cut into his flesh to make way for another room for washing, games and fitness machines. But through it all, he knew sorrow for humans who neither live for summer or sleep in winter but destroy or are destroyed in ever season.


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Showing Rank

DSC00921Does our clothes show our wealth and status? Well it did in medieval China. Back then the garments and materials you wore were clearly laid down so that rank and social position was obvious. Those who were at the lower end of the spectrum wore clothing made from hemp and other vegetable fibres. But as you rose up the hierarchy you got to the silk brigade. Whether you were nobility, high up in the civil service  or serving in the barmy you showed your position with a rank panel on the front of your robe. That was true of ladies was well. In fact, you can see what they looked like in this garment for a woman of rank shown in Durham University’s Oriental Museum. However, the real ‘creme de la creme’ had panels showing dragons not with four claws but five. This symbol denoted that you were in the imperial family or its staff.

So what denotes rank today? In Britain, accent still is a give away but so is dress and possessions. Who hasn’t clocked someone else’s ostentatious designer label, car marque or preference in supermarkets? In the long run probably rank panels, even in the finest silk, would be cheaper.  


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Locomotion–changed the World

It is not everyday, we see something that has genuinely changed the world. But today I did and it is called Locomotion. Nowadays, it looks distinctly ‘old hat’ yet as Pete Waterman explains, when it was first seen in action it must have been as exciting and frightening as the Space Shuttle. Nevertheless, when its inventor George Stephenson let loose this contraption on the unsuspecting British and hence the globe, he was really launching the first system of public transport. and so in some ways Locomotion became less Space Shuttle and more prototype Jumbo Jet.

Of course Locomotion was the first steam locomotive to run on rails. But what I had failed to grasp prior to visiting Locomotion’s home at the ‘Head of Steam’ Museum at Darlington was that well before its first run in 1825, rail line systems were an extensive mode of transport in Georgian Britain. The only difference was that it carriages and trucks were horse drawn. Not surprising then that the first time Locomotion tasted speed was when it was carried some of the way from Newcastle to  its start up point of Darlington on such a waggon.

Its first run along the Stockton to Darlington line complete with a load of coal and a carriage for the Directors of the whole project was a immediate success. So much so the coal was given away to the poor. There is no record of the passengers being charged at all let alone asked to pay the extortionate fare required today to travel on Britain’s railways.

It is ironic then that despite this little loco ushering in mass travel by train, it only pulled carriages of passengers one more time. The rest of its 40 odd years of working life was drawing coal from the Durham coal fields to provide steam for the factories and ships of the growing industrial revolution. Yet Locomotion’s efforts not only brought in that era, it helped also to power it as well.


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Pennies from Heaven

It’s strange how memories flood back with the smallest of provocations. One from childhood spirited itself up when I was trying to find a new idea to centre my Sunday worship’s children’s talk upon. One suggestion was to get the kids to play a real fruit machine. In other words they get handed a bag of mixed fruits and the have to draw out three lemons – or whatever.

In Britain fruit machines, or gaming machines as I suppose they are now called, are usually referred to as ‘one-armed bandits’. A reference to the very high profits these devices generate for their owners. Well, my first encounter with such contraptions was as a small boy going on holiday to Cornwall. In those days, the late 50’s, there were neither motorways or service areas (a possible blessing I hear you say). So the journey from the central belt of Scotland was a two day affair with stops wherever refreshments could be found. One morning, we had stopped at what was then called a ‘transport Cafe’ – not much more than a wartime hut – and I begged 1p to put in the inviting chromium monster in the corner. To my delight, I must have hit the jackpot for I remember laughing uncontrollably under a cascade of copper spewing from this most reluctant of payers.


Of course, a penny then was  but 1/240 of a pound. Not a king’s ransom I agree compared to bankers’ bonuses yet each one bought a trip to the loo!


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Visitors from the future

This weekend I enjoyed being part of millionaires’ country house party. Not a real one – you understand. But a rather clever way of dressing up a tour of the National Trust’s Upton House near Banbury. As each visitor arrived, we were greeted as your Grace, your Worship etc by a lady in flapper-esque attire and assured that our servants would be already unloading your luggage, placing jewellery in the strong room and when we needed to dress for dinner. Complete with interjections from an accompanying ‘Lady Londonderry’, we then went round the house hearing not just what the weekend activities would consist of (cricket on the lawn, hunting in the season, dinner at 8.30….) but learning something of the house’s owner the founder of the Shell Oil Company. Occasionally, you had to reassure the ‘hostess’ that your valet had told the butler what wines you drank and that you had seen the latest decor in the Savoy. Even the cocktails were described with the ‘earthquake’ apparently being a la mode. This concoction of every alcohol under the sun was said to leave you in a such a state that an earthquake could occur and you wouldn’t care!

Roll holiday on to today when I was watching a video in the very poorly advertised Museum of Oxford. In it, Tony Robinson’s voice acclaims a 17th Century painting of river traffic on the Cherwell. He then remarks that it was a bit like someone painting a junction on the M40 today. A point I mulled over as I meandered back through Cornmarket Street where a beautiful lath and timber house – now a fast food outlet is cheek and jowl with a 60’s Stalinist box in the ‘Woolworths’ style.  For the questions that must be asked are– what should we be preserving of our culture for future generations? How should we be keeping buildings and customs and even the trivialities of 21st Century safe? Indeed, what will bring our world alive to those who visit it from the future ?


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An education you can’t refuse

The problem with education these days is that it costs so much. Or so I thought until a few days ago. It was then I came across a free online resource from the Open University.  Now, since its foundation in the 60’s, the OU has been one of the jewels in the British higher education. Because, established as it was to serve the era of  ‘the white heat of technology’, its real success was in  attracting mature students when to be an undergraduate over age 30 was definitely – as they say in current parlance – not cool.

But the OU did more than recreating ‘maturies’ as students.  For it took the rather seedy world of distance learning, then given the unattractive heading of correspondence courses, and shook it to its foundations. For, arguably, it blazed the trail for the modern multimedia education and online training we can all benefit from today. After all, if you wanted people to enjoy learning after a hard days work, you had to grab their attention with materials that were worth opening up.

However, as I said earlier ‘all singing – all dancing’ courses are expensive.  That’s why the OU is offering such an irresistable bargain.  Because  it makes available online a whole raft of their courses ranging from basic studies skill through to complex computer networking taking in the humanities and the law on the way. There are even student forums and a video conference facility thrown in for good measure.

So if you have fancied dipping your toes into latin, wondered about human consciousness or felt that the Enlightenment is your forte, then put ‘open learning’ into your search engine and enjoy opening your mind to the light of knowledge. What is more, it won’t cost you a bean!


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Not rude at all!

Of course, by today’s standards it’s pretty mild. Nevertheless, if you told Great Aunt Sadie to ‘shut her trap” you’d probably earn a clip round the ear. Yet Juliet Nicolson in her book ‘The Perfect Summer’ tell us that this expression’s origin isn’t rude at all.

Because in 1911, with motoring in its infancy, cars were for the rich who could afford chauffeurs for their Rolls-Royces. And if one of these near extinct species was over talkative, then he would be instructed to ‘shut his trap’. This being the little flap between himself and the passengers compartment.

Mind you this was the least indignity that our automotive minion could suffer. For ladies annoyed at their directions not being heard above the engine would jab their driver in the neck with their umbrellas. But it’s ‘shut your trap’ we remember even if not the phrase’s origin. Proof then its not the meaning of words that is important – its their and our intention.


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