The Importance Of Reading And Writing

In a few previous blog posts I have commented on differences between the British and American languages, as whilst many words and phrases are the same, many others are very different. Spelling also varies. I have found that the terminologies for individual hobbies are quite specialised just as they are in different businesses, in a similar way to abbreviations and I have detailed some of my findings in earlier blog posts. The biggest problem seems to be in our failure to remember that not everyone follows the same learning paths as ourselves, even when we have the same teachers and we hear the same words. Our upbringing can mean that we remember different things in different ways. In our English language we have many words that are rarely used, whilst some have taken on quite different meanings over time and more are relatively new, due to the advances in modern technology. At one time the phrase being ‘bright and gay’ meant someone was happy in their demeanour, but ‘gay’ has now taken on a very different meaning. I am unable to comment on quite how this might have occurred in other languages though. Knowledge of words can also depend on how much we read, our reading material as well as where we live and the language, colourful or otherwise, that we are exposed to by those around us, as adults or children. There are some folk who use colourful language quite naturally, often within the work that they do where it seems to be acceptable. However in other environments it is most definitely frowned upon. A couple of offices I have worked in kept a ‘swear box’ and anyone uttering what was considered as foul language then had to make a donation, with all monies going towards a night out or perhaps a Christmas meal for the team. It used to amuse me when I heard some folk, especially ladies who spoke in ‘posh’ tones, using utterly foul and abusive language. I wondered why they did it, perhaps to shock, or maybe to elicit a response. I ignored their efforts, refusing to rise to the bait. As for me, I grew up with two elder brothers, one nine years older than myself and the other eleven years older. The eldest one worked in engineering where swearing was commonplace, whilst the other had regular dealings with the public so it was not considered proper to use a bit of bad language. But neither of them brought that behaviour home with them. I always worked in an office environment, I had direct contact with the public so my behaviour was kept an eye on, as were those around me. Our parents very rarely swore, my father had a tremendously good command of English and was a teacher in a local infant & primary school. He could almost make you wish for a good hiding rather than the verbal tongue-lashing he gave if you did something wrong, yet bad language was never used! I was born in London, as were my parents and grandparents, so I heard many of the sayings and phrases from that area. That included a wide range of accents, as despite what many people seem to think, not all Londoners talk with what some consider to be the ‘Cockney’ accent. During my formative years in both Whittlesey and Peterborough I heard a quite a variety of local accents because as well as that which I consider to be a ‘Fen’ accent, there were also both Italian and a few Polish communities there. My work then moved me around the North as well as the Midlands, so I heard quite a few different accents, also some of the expressions uttered there were unusual but naturally were very well-known to folk in those areas. It was around that time that I was caught out whilst on a date with a young lady, as I found that I was not listening to what words she was saying, but how she was saying them! That really was not the best idea I ever had as she was not in the least impressed and we soon went our separate ways… For a while I was able to differentiate between the accents used in and around Birmingham, as what may be heard in the City is really quite different to perhaps a Halesowen or Wolverhampton one. I got really stumped though when conversing with a person who spoke with a quite unusual tone of voice. I discovered that they were from Scotland but had moved around with their work, first in Newcastle but in latter years they had settled in Dudley, which has a really strong local accent. As a result, their accent was just impossible for me to place! We had a good laugh about it. In my young days I was read to, I was shown various picture books, I was taught the alphabet and as I have said before, guided into making good use of a dictionary. Back then there were only physical books, there was nothing like the electronic books of today like Kindle, there was no Internet then either. All this came into good use whilst at British Telecom when I joined a team where we had to manually complete computer cards in order to add or amend entries in the local telephone directory. It was fascinating, as the completed cards were then scanned by a computer but which had difficulty in determining between certain characters and numbers. As a result, when completing these cards we had to place a horizontal line above certain letters so that the computer would know which were to be letters rather than numbers. I can still recall them to this day, they were ‘O’ (not zero), ’S’ (not five), ‘Y’ (not seven) and ‘Z’ (not two). As a team we were then required to check the entries, proof-reading the changes before the new directory was compiled and finally published. We were kept busy as the updates were printed weekly for use by the local Directory Enquiry staff. It has meant that both spelling and grammatical errors on the items I read nowadays simply ’stand out’, almost as if a bright highlighter pen had been used on them. Sadly we can so often miss simple mistakes and it is not always the fault of the reader as our brains can correct errors. It can take real concentration to recognise the errors, as we see what we expect to see. It can be similar with hearing too, as a friend of mine has lost some of their high frequency hearing because of working in a few different noisy environments. As a result, if he is in a rather crowded place like a public house and a female with a high-pitched voice tries to talk with him, he has to almost lip-read to fill in the blanks over what he is hearing. I spent a great many years in a noisy Sales office with a telephone pressed against my left ear and I am beginning to notice a slight drop in performance of that ear now.

Frog on an iPad

Despite our modern communication techniques, our telephones as well as their associated technology with computers and electronic storage, it is interesting to see how much work still involves paper. I am very well aware as to how important it is to keep records of what has been achieved, what changes have either been made or need to be done as well as the ability to share all that has been both done and learned in the past. Some years ago it was thought that a single language would be a good idea and in 1887 a Polish ophthalmologist by the name of L.L. Zamenhof created Esperanto. It was intended to be a second language of the whole world, the only one for people to learn other than their own and would be ideal for international communication. According to research it is very easy to learn, as all words and sentences are built from 16 basic rules that can fit within a sheet or two of paper. But I guess that it might not be ideal to translate precisely into, as not all languages have a similar structure. I believe that many languages are an amalgam of others that have built up over the years, like English. As for learning languages, I think it often depends on how much trouble a reader is prepared to go to in order to increase their word power as well as quite how much use will be made of this newly acquired skill. It is up to the individual, as it depends on a great many things, like their particular circumstances. I have mentioned hearing, but as we grow older we can also find our sight diminishes. Perhaps the hardest thing to accept is what is happening to our vision and other faculties. Even with this pandemic there is no shortage of reading material, in fact it is most likely the opposite as folk like me are writing more and more. However, I am aware that there is also an unwillingness to take the time, to make the extra effort, especially when we cannot pursue our interests in ways that we used to. Our health can play a huge part in all that we do, but as has been said before these problems should not be seen as obstacles to overcome but as stepping stones to reach our goals. The tendency nowadays is towards the use of modern technology but that may not always be either possible or even preferred. I am well aware of the reticence or inability with some folk to use computers, it was one of the reasons why I ran my small business the way I did, to help others of my age and ability to use such things. But many if not all computers now have a facility to read text and speak words, there are numerous audio books now too. It does not take much, as even just a small monthly publication from somewhere like Readers Digest can prove to be invaluable and a magnifying glass is not too difficult. There is even a section in each edition of that publication called ‘It Pays To Increase Your Word Power’, with a glossary included. In fact each edition comprises a few different stories, jokes as well as a few anecdotes for which the author gets paid! The options are out there. I have also said about how as a young child I was read to and I have had a thought that the same might be done for the elderly, although this may not initially be appreciated by them. When we visit, we may not have much to talk about, so maybe one idea might be to read a book out loud to them. It’s just an idea. In this busy world, I have found it useful to try and set aside time for reading and writing, it was something I did when I was much younger and it is proving useful to me now, to have a routine. I have said to a few of the Carers here how quickly my time passes each day! But as well as writing a daily diary, I also use a reminder app on my iPhone called ToDoist, which reminds me each day of things I must do, like sending greetings to folk, doing some homework, watching certain items via my iPhone that are on tv each weekday. That is a really good thing, as it helps me keep track of the days and when it is the weekend. I have medication which I must take regularly, although here the Care Home staff manage that side of things! Because I use a MacBook which synchronises automatically between the iPhone and the computer, any of the additions, updates or changes on one are copied immediately to the other. All clever and useful. It also means I can begin writing items such as this blog on the MacBook and continue writing from where I left off on the iPhone. Even for those more acquainted with using a Microsoft Windows computer and their Word, Excel and PowerPoint these are now available on the Apple Mac and MacBook, which I use. Some people have commented on how quickly I can often retrieve information that I have in the past been given and apart from organising my computer files, I use a computer program (the correct term is an ‘app’, I believe!) which is called Bear. I use it for note-taking and storing a whole range of information, including images. All this helps me to continue reading and writing!

This week, some fun. We have all experienced this, I am sure.

In the Beginning, there was the Plan,
And thereby came the Assumptions,
But the Assumptions were without Form,
And the Plan was without Substance,
So Darkness was upon the face of the Workers.

And the Workers spake amongst themselves, saying
“It is a crock of sh1t and it stinks”.
And the Workers came unto their Supervisors and saith
“It is a pile of dung, and we cannot live with the smell”.

And the Supervisors went unto their Managers, saying
“It is a container of excrement, and it is very strong,
Such that none may abide by it”.
And the Managers went unto their Directors saying,
“It is a vessel of fertiliser, and none may abide by its strength”.

And the Directors spake amongst themselves, saying one to another
“It contains that which aids growth, and it is very strong”.
And the Directors went unto the Vice Presidents, saying unto them
“It promotes growth, and is very powerful”.

And the Vice Presidents went unto the President, saying unto him,
“This Plan will actively promote the growth and vigour of the Company
With very powerful effects”.
And the President looked upon the Plan
And saw that it was Good.

And the Plan became Policy.

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First Down!

I was having a gentle toddle along one of the corridors in this lovely Care Home when an inmate who was in their room began calling out. It was so loud that it reminded me of a tale by Agatha Christie, because the sound was so anguished and it made me wonder if a person was in fear of their life! I hasten to assure you that this was not the case at all, they were in fact being treated to a gentle manicure by a couple of Carers. Apparently the inmate has dementia and I am told that it can be difficult to get such sufferers to understand what is truly going on around them. But it made me think of the sounds, the words, the phrases, the terminology we use in our English (British) language. I have made a point of adding the country here, because I am a member as well as a sometimes contributor of a Facebook group called G.A.S.P. (Grammar And Spelling Police) which was set up by some people in America. I have mentioned them in the past because their wording, spelling and even phraseology can be entertaining, in some cases very different from that which we use. But I know that some folk there have expressed amusement at the things we say here. For the most part it is all taken very much in good humour, but there have been odd occasions when things have become ever so slightly ‘heated’! There is one famous quote by the playwright George Bernard Shaw, which is that Britain and the USA are “Two nations separated by a common language” and that is how it is in G.A.S.P., as we share amusing misquotes, signs, spelling errors, all that sort of thing. It is not to make fun of the author, whoever they are, but more to see how our language can create amusement, sometimes by a simple error in translation from one language to another. In this Facebook group, one person asked how they might be able to improve their English and without exception, all of us that replied said they should read more, they should have a dictionary nearby and look up ’new’ words, they should also write these new words down and use them whenever they could. It was how I was taught and it is refreshing to learn that others were taught just the same way. I am quite a fan of Agatha Christie’s work, she wrote many good books that have been turned into films. So as I was writing this, I recalled one work where our heroine, Miss Marple, is in a lawyers office and the lawyer spoke a legal word I did not know. I thought it was ’tonteen’, as that is how I heard it, but when I came to write it here this clever computer soon corrected me. It is actually ’tontine’. But I still checked on the word, finding it to mean “an annuity shared by subscribers to a loan or common fund, the shares increasing as subscribers die until the last survivor enjoys the whole income”. There are so many words, some rarely used, which are particular to a profession or sport. I have mentioned in previous writings about my very keen interest in photography and how I combined it with my teaching to start up my own business, helping folk how to take clearer, better photographs and then to use a computer to share their photos with others. A few years before that I joined a civilian pistol and rifle club as I was introduced by a good friend of mine who was stationed at RAF Wittering. There were times when he would represent his RAF station at the shooting events at Bisley and I believe this was quite an honour for him. So I learned to shoot using various handguns, it also meant that I was taught the proper stance for holding and firing them, something I found tremendously useful when taking photographs, as the stance when shooting with a camera is very similar, providing as it does a firm and stable platform. What was equally fascinating was the terminology used, it highlighted that many words and phrases which are used in the English language do in so many cases cross over from one hobby or profession to another. A while later I was invited over to RAF Wittering, where my friend introduced me to others there. So I suppose it was natural for me to be asked which RAF station I was from, but on learning that I was a civilian the group turned away and virtually ignored me. Except my friend included me in their conversation as I was able to talk reasonably knowledgeably about shooting with handguns as well as my experience with them and how aspects of taking photos and generally handling a camera came in useful when handling a handgun. It fascinated me to see how the group then opened up and began including me in their talk. I have written before about how technical phrases in one environment can often mean something entirely different in another, whilst other terms may be well known to some but completely unknown to others. We can so easily forget this and assume that others know what we know, however I am reminded that when using the word ‘assume’ that we do not inadvertently make an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me’! With the coming of the Internet, the use of online dictionaries and more people using computers, I think it is going to happen that we learn more things, more words and phrases that at one time would have been totally unknown to us! This is very true in the world of sport.

American Football vs Rugby

Some years ago one terrestrial tv channel in the UK began to broadcast the pre-season games of American Football. I watched it, became interested in the game and learned more about it. I found that it has many similarities to our rugby and, as with many other games, once you are aware of the basics the rest can come in time. Certainly the shape as well as the size of the ball are almost identical to rugby. I soon learned that an American football field is 300 feet long (not counting the end zones), 160 feet wide and is marked out in lines 10 yards apart across the width of the field. The two end zones are the width of the field and 10 yards deep, along with the rugby-style goal posts at the far back. In addition, centred on the length of the field on either side are the coaching boxes and team areas. But there are major differences in terms of players between our soccer, our rugby and American Football. In soccer, a match is played by two teams with eleven players in each, one being a goalkeeper. A match may not start or continue if either team has fewer than seven players. Likewise a game of rugby is played between two teams with 15 players per team; eight players in the tight scrum and seven players called backs who are scattered all over the field. Wearing jerseys, the numbers on the player’s backs will then determine where they are located on the field. American Football is played between two teams, each one comprising an Offensive Unit, a Defensive Unit and a Special Teams Unit. Within each Unit are a defined number of players and every player has a named, designated number on their back as well as a position on the field of play and task for which they are specifically trained. In addition, they train for other positions in case of any injuries. There are only eleven players allowed from each side on the field at any one time, so one side will play from their Defensive Unit whilst the other side play from their Offensive Unit. Once it has been determined, by the toss of a coin, which side will start and play first then the other team use the Kicker from their Special Teams Unit to kick the ball from their 25-yard line as far down the field as possible. The Offensive Unit of eleven players then come onto the field and attempt to advance the ball from where it has finished, or from the 25-yard line if the ball ended up in the end zone, whilst the players in the Defensive Unit try to prevent this. There are two main ways for the Offense to advance the ball, either by running or passing. The Offense have a series of four plays, known as ‘downs’, starting with the ‘first and ten’ as it is the first down and ten yards to achieve. If the Offense advances ten or more yards within the four downs, they are then awarded a new set of four downs. However, if they can perhaps only achieve, say, five yards on that first attempt then they play again and with just five yards to go on their second attempt this is called ‘second and five’. They might then achieve a further three yards, meaning the next play is ‘third and two’, it being the third ‘down’ with just two yards to go to achieve the full ten yards. If the quarterback throws the ball downfield and it is caught by a Receiver from the Offensive Unit, the ball is then played from however far down the field the ball is caught and the Offensive player stopped by a Defensive player. It might be ten, twenty, fifty or sixty yards downfield! If the player manages to run with the ball into the end zone this is a touchdown. In a similar manner to rugby, the ultimate aim is to get the ball over the goal line into the end zone to score a touchdown, thus scoring six points. If they achieve this, the Kicker from their Special Teams Unit then attempts a Conversion, aiming to kick the ball from a fixed point 25 yards from the goal line to between the goal posts, which is similar to rugby. If this is successful, the team get an extra point. If they fail to advance ten yards within the four ‘downs’, then possession of the football is turned over to the other team from wherever the ball has finished. In most situations, if the Offense reaches their fourth down without moving the ball the required ten yards, they will ‘punt’ or kick the ball as far down the field as possible, which forces the other team to begin their drive from where the ball ends up. If however the Offense are in Field Goal range, usually 35 yards or less from the goal, then they might attempt to score a Field Goal instead of a touchdown. The Field Goal is similar to the Conversion but is attempted from the middle of the field from however far down the field the ball happens to be. If successful, a Field Goal scores three points. At all times during the game a group of officials known as the chain crew keep track of both the downs and the distance measurements. On television, a yellow line is electronically superimposed on the field to show the first down line to the viewing audience. In a typical play, the Center passes the ball backwards between their legs to the Quarterback in a process known as the Snap. Then the quarterback either hands the ball off to another player, throws the ball, or runs with it. The play ends when the player with the ball is tackled or goes out-of-bounds or a pass hits the ground without a player having caught it. A forward pass can be legally attempted only if the passer is behind the line of scrimmage (the line where each play starts) and only one forward pass can be attempted per down. As in rugby, players can also pass the ball backwards at any point during a play. A ‘down’ also ends immediately if the runner’s helmet comes off. The game is divided into four quarters of fifteen minutes each, but the difference with this game is that it is very much a series of stop and go events, with different players coming on and off the field on both sides between ‘downs’. Which actual players are on the field is determined by the Offense and Defense team coaches or the Head Coach of each side. They try to guess what game strategy, that ‘plays’ the other side will use. Another big difference with this game compared to rugby or soccer are the number of officials on the field at any one time. A big difference with this game compared to rugby or football are the number of officials on the field at any one time. So apart from the Referee, there is an Umpire, a Down Judge, a Line Judge, a Field Judge, a Side Judge and a Back Judge! These officials are all dedicated to looking out for infractions to particular rules and each official carries a weighted, bright yellow flag which they throw to the ground to signal that a foul has been called. The officials then consult with the referee who determines what penalty is to be applied. It may mean moving the ball back to where the last ‘play’ started, but a more serious penalty can be applied if appropriate, for example one player grabbing the face mask of another. In addition, a limited number of ’time-outs’ may be called by either side, like if a quarterback feels the need to discuss a change of strategy for a particular ‘play’. In the United States, most games are televised so there can also be a delay in the game whilst tv adverts are on. All this can extend a simple game of four quarter hour sessions to a good deal longer! There is much more to this game in terms of strategy, planning, watching how other teams play over the season which lasts just sixteen weeks, with thirty-two teams taking part across the U.S.A. I have found it a fascinating game and as with most things, the more I learn, the more I find there is to learn. But what is really entertaining is the enthusiasm that the commentators have on this game. I have heard and watched a few games, on television as well as attending Wembley and the spectators are kept very well informed as to how the game is progressing, there are huge screens showing the gameplay and for example, when an Offensive player moves the ball successfully on or beyond the ten yards, it is the signal for the referee to call that the play has been a success. At that point, the commentator shouts this over the loudspeakers, resulting in a “FIRST DOWN!”. Interestingly, most fans on both sides appreciate a good strategy and will applaud when one is made. I have had the privilege of going to Wembley Stadium and watching American Football games that were played between different teams, but despite the fans themselves being supporters of one team or another, more often than not they are really supporters of the game, as the games they are attending may not always be between the teams they particularly support. Most wish to see a good, healthy honest game, and almost all of the time we get exactly that. Any bad behaviour by fans mean that they are immediately expelled, whilst bad or illegal behaviour by players or even coaches on the sidelines will mean the person(s) being fined, at times expelled, but most especially the team itself being fined, often for bringing the game into disrepute. Whatever our interests, especially sports, over the years we learn all of the rules, regulations, peculiarities and terminology as well as the individuals, teams and habits associated with our chosen interests. It keeps us active and happy. As we grow older, sometimes we have to adjust, but with all of the technology available nowadays, we still have options, like watching on television!

This week, some poetry from Pam Ayres.

I have a little Sat-Nav, it sits there in my car.
A Sat-Nav is a driver’s friend, it tells you where you are.
I have a little Sat-Nav, I’ve had it all my life.
It’s better than the normal ones, my Sat-Nav is my wife.

It gives me full instructions, especially how to drive,
”It’s sixty miles an hour”, it says, “You’re doing sixty five”.
It tells me when to stop and start, and when to use the brake
And tells me that it’s never ever, safe to overtake.

It tells me when a light is red, and when it goes to green
It seems to know instinctively, just when to intervene.
It lists the vehicles just in front, and all those to the rear.
And taking this into account, it specifies my gear.

I’m sure no other driver has so helpful a device,
For when we leave and lock the car it still gives its advice.
It fills me up with counselling, each journey’s pretty fraught.
So why don’t I exchange it, and get a quieter sort?

Ah well, you see, it cleans the house, makes sure I’m properly fed.
It washes all my shirts and things, and keeps me warm in bed!
Despite all these advantages and my tendency to scoff,
I only wish that now and then, I could turn the b€££&r off!
~ Pam Ayres

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Times Change

As I began writing this, I wondered. Yes, times do change, but just how well do we change with them? Nature never ceases to amaze me and the more I learn of it, the more I marvel at it. We can take nature for granted so easily, yet we abuse it so much. Happily it either survives or adapts to the changes. I said in a blog post a little while ago that I was watching a lovely film about Arctic wildlife and how it showed a polar bear go into a village to look for food. I have also since learned about Arctic foxes, who are opportunistic feeders, eating practically any animal it can, alive or dead. They rely entirely on populations of rodents, especially lemmings, voles, and other small mammals. They will also eat birds, insects, eggs, berries, reptiles, and amphibians. These animals have adapted to the changes around them for sources of food. With a global pandemic presently upon us, we are still having to adjust, to adapt to changing circumstances and we are finding ways to cope, although some are perhaps managing to do so better than others. I am very much aware of the changes I have had in my life during the past eighteen months and overall they have benefited me, which I am grateful for. Statistics are being bandied about relating to our health and lifestyles, some people might be attempting to scare us, whilst others help us see sense. Many years ago I was told an entertaining statistic which was that in one area in a particular year over half a million people died in their beds, whilst in that same year just two people died near the North Pole. So it was suggested that statistically, we would be safer sleeping near to the North Pole than it would be in your bed. This was a ridiculous statement, obviously, but it proves that statistics can so easily be manipulated. Even over the last hundred years or so our technologies have advanced, there have been amazing changes that have benefited our lives and yet some have proven to be detrimental to life itself. I have mentioned asbestos which turned out to be a killer, also more and more vehicles are on our roads these days and for a time diesel-powered cars were deemed to be the best fuel. But now we are starting or at least beginning to look towards electrically powered vehicles. There was a time when owning a car was a luxury, now a family may have two or three at home and they must be kept somewhere. As a result, areas at the front of our properties which were at one time used as gardens are being covered over with tarmac for these vehicles to park on. Except climate change is creating heavier rainfall now, so that the heavy rains do come but instead of all that rainwater soaking steadily into the earth and helping to feed the plants and other living things in our gardens, this water runs quickly over the tarmac and down onto the road, thus flooding roads and properties. This also means that excessive amounts of water flood quickly into our drains and into our rivers, but they cannot cope with that amount of outflow in such a short space of time and areas of our towns and cities flood. This causes disruption to traffic and travel, prevents folk getting to and from work, causes delays to deliveries of goods and services as well as exacerbating the degradation of road surfaces. We might look back and see how we could have changed things, but we didn’t. I am reminded that change is around us all the time, and to quote the former American President John F Kennedy, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future”. Good words, but how much have we learned, I wonder. There is no doubt that as humans we have most certainly changed, we have learned a great many new things, we have invented, developed and used new skills, including the ability to store knowledge and share so much with future generations. Though different groups view change differently. Whilst some embrace it, others reject it out of hand. Many folk look to utilise advances in technology and skills for the benefit of both themselves and others, whilst some take on a more selfish attitude, usually to enhance their wealth. Some such folk even consider that they are above others, even above the laws of where they live. Yet they too will pass away, leaving all their worldly goods behind. It does not make any difference as to whether they are buried in a marble mausoleum or in a wooden casket, surely what should be more important is how they have lived, what they brought to the world and all that they did during their lifetime to improve the world they leave behind. For example one man planted a tree in an area that was nearly a desert, but despite that he continued planting trees and in time those trees became a forest with plants, animals and insects there. So it can be with us as humans, planting not just trees and other such things, but seeds of goodness and positive living, thus showing care for all things. We are not perfect by any means, we all make mistakes, often making incorrect decisions but surely the important thing is to learn, to change and to grow. We can look back on our mistakes, but it is not so easy to change our ways, our behaviours, especially as all too often we can put a financial cost on such changes, not considering the cost to our environment. Others have written extensively on the various ways in which humans adapt to change and it has been said that the human body can and does readily respond to all of the changing environmental stresses in a variety of biological and cultural ways. For example we can acclimatise ourselves to a wide range of both humidity and temperature and and this ability to rapidly adapt to varying environmental conditions has made it possible for us to survive in most regions of the world. We have created clothing and machines which enable us to leave this Earth, to survive in space, to travel to the Moon and back, but we still have famine, drought and poverty. Some humans still wish to control the thoughts and ways of others, not for the benefit of all but purely for their own ends. Ranging from Eskimos to Africans, Asians to Australians, all races, no matter where we live, our skin colour, what language we speak, it makes no difference – or at least it shouldn’t. Whatever our clothing, personality or behaviour, we are all human and should surely be treated as equals. We have a body, a mind and a spirit that are equally unique. Different cultures lead us to different religions, some folk have very differing political views and there are times when we seem to forget that this is a transitory life. We are surrounded by such a wide range of plants, animals and other things, some of which have life and others that do not, like the rocks, stones and mountains, even the air we breathe but which all go together to make this planet, the amazing and beautiful world on which we live.

Earth, viewed from the Moon

According to radiometric dating estimation and other evidence, this Earth formed over 4.5 billion years ago. Within the first billion years of Earth’s history, life appeared in the oceans and began to affect Earth’s atmosphere and surface, leading to the proliferation of various different organisms. In fact, some geological evidence indicates that life may have arisen as early as 4.1 billion years ago. Since then, the combination of Earth’s distance from the Sun, physical properties, and geological history have allowed life to evolve and thrive. In the history of life on Earth, biodiversity has gone through long periods of expansion, occasionally punctuated by mass extinctions. Over 99% of all species that ever lived on Earth are extinct. The Ice Ages on Earth began 2.4 million years ago and lasted until 11,500 years ago. During this time, the earth’s climate repeatedly changed between very cold periods, during which glaciers covered large parts of the world and very warm periods during which many of the glaciers melted. In the time of dramatic climate change some 300,000 years ago, the humans we know as Homo sapiens evolved in Africa. Like other early humans that were living at this time, they gathered and hunted food, and evolved behaviours that helped them respond to the sometimes dramatic challenges of survival in unstable environments. Over long periods of time, streams and rivers wore away the rocks, many living things died out but equally many adapted and survived in the changing environment on Earth. Change has been with us and around us all this time, we can look back at the Egyptian pyramids dating back to over four thousand years ago and we can marvel at their technology. They found ways to achieve their goals. Closer to home but of a similar age, the Avebury complex is one of the principal ceremonial sites of Neolithic Britain that we can visit today. It was built and altered over many centuries from about 2850 BC until about 2200 BC and is one of the largest, and undoubtedly the most complex, of Britain’s surviving Neolithic henge monuments. How they mined the stones and transported them is amazing, but they achieved their aims. In a similar way, over the years our changes in weaponry were developed, diseases were fought and in time overcome. Now almost 8 billion humans live on Earth and we all depend on its biosphere and natural resources for our survival. Humans increasingly impact Earth’s surface, hydrology, atmospheric processes and other life. I personally feel it has much to do with our innate ways of wanting, wishing and willingness to survive. In my short lifetime to date I know of successes and failures, some in my family and some not. My maternal grandfather was in a ship that was torpedoed at the Battle of Jutland where only a few survived and he was one of them. However, having spent so much of his life at sea he could not easily adapt to living on land. My paternal grandfather fought at the Somme during World War I, he was captured and during his imprisonment lost one and a half fingers from one hand. But he survived, he adapted to his injuries. My father sustained a bad shoulder injury during a training exercise during World War II, so was not sent abroad with the rest of the unit he was in. He survived and met my mother, who was herself severely injured in London during the war and she was at first told she would never walk again. But she did, she bore three children and passed away at the grand age of 95. Yet a good friend of mine who was a brilliant musician did not heed the warnings of his doctor and sadly passed away aged 59. Over a few years I managed to get my parents and grandparents to tell me a few stories about the conflicts they were in, but they would never talk about the conflicts themselves, what they faced or how they coped, all I got were fun anecdotes. I guess it would have been too much and it is also how we cope with pain and suffering. I was born prematurely and have epilepsy, from birth I have had a weak right side similar to a stroke and I also have asthma. So I have learned to adapt, to survive. Right now I am in a Care Home, still recovering from heart problems along with Covid-19. I have had to adjust, to adapt to changing circumstances, but my faith and the excellent care I am receiving will get me through for a good while yet, that is what I hope and pray. As we all grow older, we encounter new challenges and we survive them, though we may find it tough going at times. But the good Earth turns, times change, and we must change or at least adapt with them. I wonder what the future may hold for us all!

This week…
It seems someone has had a valuable item stolen.
The owner has a message for the thief, which is:
To whoever has stolen my Microsoft Office.
I will find you.
It is something I Excel at.
Your Outlook is bleak.
You have my Word…

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Whittlesey And The Fens

In a blog post earlier this year I wrote about Whittlesey. Whilst this is not my ‘home’ town as such because I was born in London, we moved there when I was just eight months old because of my mother’s health and as my father had acquired a teaching job in the town, along with the use of the adjacent school house. This town was definitely where I began my education in this life, a journey which continues as there is always something new to learn, no matter what age we are! I got to know the area fairly well, although this was nothing like the families who had lived there all their lives. They knew their history, how things had changed so much as well as how it had grown and developed over so very many years. My research showed the town’s name appearing in the Domesday Book of 1086 as “Witesie”, meaning “Wit(t)el’s island”, deriving from either Witil, “the name of a moneyer”, or a diminutive of Witta, a personal name plus “eg”, meaning “’island’, also used as a piece of firm land in a fen. At some point the spelling of the town’s name was Whittlesea, but sadly my research has so far failed to determine exactly when. The name was then modernised at some point to Whittlesey, however, the old name spelling of Whittlesea is still used at the local railway station and on all British Rail timetables. In the centre of Whittlesey is the Market Square that has on it a structure known as the Buttercross and this dates back to 1680. It was originally a place for people to sell goods, but the structure was considered useless in the 1800s and only saved from demolition when a local businessman donated some slate tiles for the roof. Latterly it served as a bus shelter, until the local bus services were relocated from the Market Place to a purpose-built terminal in nearby Grosvenor Road. Adjacent to the Market Square is the church of St Mary’s, which does contain 15th-century work but most of the building is later. It is well-known for having one of the tallest buttressed spires in Cambridgeshire for the smallest tower base. The spire is 171 feet (52 metres) high. The church also contains a chapel that was restored in 1862 as a memorial to Sir Harry Wakelyn Smith, who I wrote about in a blog post earlier this year. The other church in the town is St Andrew’s, which blends the Perpendicular and Decorated styles of Gothic and its records date from 1635. A market is held on the Market Square every Friday and the right to hold a weekly market was first granted in 1715, although there have been several periods since in which the market did not function, for example from the late 1700s until about 1850. At one time the town had a large number of public houses, fifty-two in all and in 1797 a local farmer noted in his diary, “They like drinking better than fighting in Whittlesea.” In 1784, during the reign of King George III a brick tax was introduced, a property tax to help pay for the wars in the American Colonies. As a result, the local clay soil was used to make boundary walls made of cob, a natural building material made from subsoil, water, fibrous organic material, typically straw, and sometimes lime. The contents of subsoil naturally vary, and if it does not contain the right mixture it can be modified with sand or clay. Cob is fireproof, resistant to seismic activity and uses low-cost materials, although it is very labour intensive. Some examples of these cob walls still stand today and are claimed to be unique in Fenland. At one time there were several pits near to the town which were quarried for their clay, but only one is still in existence with the rest now flooded. Clay walls predate the introduction of the brick tax in other parts of the country and some were thatched. As a result, Whittlesey was significant for its brickyards, around which the former hamlet of King’s Dyke was based for much of the 20th century, although only one now remains following the closure of the Saxon brickworks in 2011. The detailed excavations of an area known as Flag Fen indicate thriving local settlements as far back as 1000 BCE, also at the nearby Must Farm quarry a Bronze Age settlement is described as “Britain’s Pompeii”, due to its relatively good condition and in 2016 this was being excavated by the University of Cambridge’s Archaeological Unit. At Must Farm at least five homes of 3,000 years in age have been found, along with Britain’s most complete prehistoric wooden wheel, dating back to the late Bronze Age. Whittlesey was linked to Peterborough in the west and March in the east by the Roman Fen Causeway, probably built in the 1st century CE. Roman artefacts have been recovered at nearby Eldernell, and a Roman skeleton was discovered in the nearby village of Eastrea during construction of its village hall in 2010. The town is still accessible by water, being connected to the River Nene by King’s Dyke, which forms part of the Nene/Ouse Navigation. Moorings can be found at Ashline Lock, alongside the Manor Leisure Centre’s cricket and football pitches.

Whittlesey Market Place in the 1940’s

The town is regarded as being on the edge of an area known as The Fens, also known as the Fenlands, and is a coastal plain of eastern England. This naturally marshy region supports a rich ecology and numerous species, and helps absorb storms. Most of the fens were drained centuries ago, resulting in a flat, dry, low-lying agricultural region supported by a system of drainage channels and man-made rivers, dykes and drains along with automated pumping stations. There have been unintended consequences to this reclamation, as the land level has continued to sink and the dykes have been built higher to protect it from flooding. The word ‘fen’ is a local term for an individual area of marshland or former marshland. In addition, it also designates the type of marsh typical of the area, which has neutral or alkaline water chemistry and relatively large quantities of various dissolved minerals, but few other nutrients. This fen land lies around the coast of the Wash, an area of nearly 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometres) in the counties of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Most of this Fenland lies within a few metres of sea level and as with similar areas in the Netherlands, much of the area originally consisted of fresh or salt-water wetlands. These have been artificially drained and continue to be protected from floods by drainage banks and pumps and with the support of this drainage system, the Fens have become a major arable agricultural region in Britain for grains and vegetables. The Fens are particularly fertile, as they contain around half of the grade one agricultural land in England. The Fens have also been referred to as the “Holy Land of the English” because of the former monasteries, which are now churches and cathedrals, of Crowland, Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey and Thorney. Other significant settlements in the area include Boston, Cambridge, Spalding and Wisbech. The Fens are very low-lying compared with the chalk and limestone uplands that surround them, in most places no more than 33 feet (10 metres) above sea level. As a result of drainage and the subsequent shrinkage of the peat soil, many parts of the Fens now lie below mean sea level. This is despite one writer in the 17th century describing the Fenland as entirely above sea level (in contrast to the Netherlands) and the area now includes the lowest land in the United Kingdom. Holme Fen, in Cambridgeshire, is around 9 feet (2.75 metres) below sea level. Within the Fens are a few hills which have historically been called “islands” as they remained dry when the low-lying fens around them were flooded. The largest of the fen-islands was the 23-square-mile (60 square kilometre) Kimmeridge Clay island, on which the cathedral city of Ely was built, its highest point is 128 feet (39 metres) above mean sea level. Without artificial drainage and flood protection, the Fens would be liable to periodic flooding, particularly in winter due to the heavy load of water flowing down from the uplands and overflowing the rivers. Some areas of the Fens were once permanently flooded, creating lakes or Meres, whilst others were flooded only during periods of high water. In the pre-modern period arable farming was limited to the higher areas of the surrounding uplands, the fen islands, and the so-called “Townlands”, an arch of silt ground around the Wash, where the towns had their arable fields. Though these lands were lower than the peat fens before the peat shrinkage began, the more stable silt soils were reclaimed by medieval farmers and embanked against any floods coming down from the peat areas or from the sea. The rest of the Fenland was dedicated to pastoral farming, fishing, fowling and the harvesting of reeds or sedge for thatch. In this way, the medieval and early modern Fens stood in contrast to the rest of southern England, which was primarily an arable agricultural region.

Not far from Whittlesey is an area referred to as Whittlesey Mere. It is reputed to have formed from about 500 BC when silt was deposited by the rivers Nene and Welland and water backed up which in turn was unable to flow away towards the Wash and the North Sea. As a result, a series of large ponds formed and water plants as well as reeds, sedges and mosses grew. Wet and dry periods ensued and over time the plants decomposed and turned into peat. The Mere formed as a shallow lake with a peat bog on the south side and a river-bank on the north side. This Mere occupied land southeast of Yaxley Fen, south of Farcet Fen, and north of Holme Fen, with the town of Whittlesey lying to the northeast. Whittlesea Mere stretched 6 miles wide, being both the largest as well as the shallowest lake in lowland England and was always at or below sea level, which made it very difficult to drain. Great gales were mainly a feature of autumn and spring, summer weather was often muggy and close, drying the peat out. In 1626, King Charles I of England engaged the services of an experienced embankment engineer named Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch-born British engineer to introduce Dutch land-reclamation methods into England. His first task was to drain Hatfield Chase on the Isle of Axholme in Yorkshire. Jointly financed by Dutch and English capitalists, this project was quite a controversial undertaking, not only for the engineering techniques used but also because it employed Dutch instead of English workmen. The fen-men, local inhabitants who hunted and fished in the fens, attacked the Dutch workers and in order to complete the project, the engineer had to employ English workers and compensate the fen-men for their loss of hunting and fishing rights. Vermuyden was then contracted to drain the Great Fens, or Bedford Level, Cambridgeshire. This project was completed in 1637, although it drew objections from other engineers who claimed his drainage system was inadequate. However in 1642, during the English Civil Wars, Parliament ordered that the dykes be broken and the land flooded to stop a Royalist army advance. In 1649 Vermuyden was then commissioned to reclaim the Bedford Level and by 1652 some 40,000 acres were drained. According to the traveller Celia Fiennes, who saw Whittlesey Mere in 1697, it was “3-mile broad and six-mile long. In the midst is a little island where a great store of Wildfowle breed…. The ground is all wett and marshy but there are severall little Channells runs into it which by boats people go up to this place; when you enter the mouth of the Mer it looks formidable and its often very dangerous by reason of sudden winds that will rise like Hurricanes….” But despite the initial success of his land-reclamation efforts, Vermuyden’s techniques were undermined by the unique peatland ecology of the Fens. Draining the marshes caused the peat to shrink dramatically, lowering the land surface by as much as 12 feet (3.7 metres) below the height of the drainage canals and making the area extremely susceptible to flooding. Much of the reclaimed land was regularly flooded by the end of the 17th century, and the issue remained largely unsolved until steam-powered pumps were employed in the early 19th century. In the very hot summer of 1826 the Mere completely dried out. The bed of the Mere contained only 100 acres of water where over 1,000 was the norm and this laid bare large areas of mud. Then high wind blew what little water remained into deep fissures, leaving tons of eel, carp, pike and perch all flapping on the surface. Although the Mere filled up again in the winter of 1827, no fish were caught in it for another 5 years. In December 1851 it was drained artificially when a 25hp Appold centrifugal pump, capable of lifting 16,000 gallons of water per minute, was used. The Mere’s owner, a Mr Wells of Holme Fen, also instructed labourers to cut a bank in the Mere allowing the water to escape into one of the outflowing rivers. Thousands came to watch this feat of engineering; some brought big baskets or horses and carts to carry the fish away. Some people strapped boards on to their feet so they would not sink into the soft mud and thereby waded carefully towards the fish which were left dying on the surface. Various treasures were found, including a valuable chandelier, various swords and a pure gold censer (incense burner). In November 1852 heavy rains swelled the outer rivers and the new banks could not stand the extra weight of water, so Whittlesea Mere returned to its former glory but was then emptied again by artificial means, leaving an area of some 3,000 acres of peat-covered swamp to be turned into agricultural land. Since the advent of modern drainage in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Fens have been radically transformed. Today arable farming has almost entirely replaced pastoral. The economy of the Fens is heavily invested in the production of crops such as grains, vegetables, and some cash crops such as rapeseed and canola. As such, the Fens are very flat and offer clear views right across Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, a beautiful area of the countryside.

Whittlesey Mere, 1851

For this week, a couple of fun ones…
I’ve just finished writing an essay on the life of Julius Caesar, starting with where he was baptised. The font was Times New Roman.

During a routine inspection by his Colour Sergeant, a dead fly was found inside a soldier’s locker. The soldier was given two punishment details; one for keeping a pet, and the other for not feeding it.

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