Folk song favourites: the Ellan Vannin Tragedy

My wife doesn’t much care for my taste in music. Only last week she berated my choice of lunchtime listening, asking why we couldn’t have “something normal, instead of that weird, wailing rubbish you like so much.” I protested, putting up a spirited defence of my preferred genre, only to be told that as well as its questionable musicality, folk has an image problem, being dominated by “screeching women in swirly, diaphanous dresses and bearded men in sandals.”

Huh, methinks the lady doth protest too much! Mrs P has accompanied me to – and enjoyed – various folk gigs in recent years, and at no point have we seen a sandal or anything even remotely diaphanous. Plenty of beards, though.

For me, one of the attractions of folk songs is their powerful narrative drive. Folk songs tell stories. Before the oral tradition was supplanted by near-universal literacy, song was one of the main ways in which ordinary people communicated with one another over space and time about their hopes, fears and beliefs, about the challenges of their daily lives, about major events that helped shape their existence, and about the endless cycle of the seasons. Although illiteracy is largely a thing of the past in the UK, contemporary folk music maintains the storytelling tradition.

File:RMS Ellan Vannin pictured entering Ramsey Harbour..JPG

IMAGE CREDIT: Via Wikimedia Commons – Unknown author / Public domain

I first came across the Ellan Vannin Tragedy in the late 1960s, sung on television by The Spinners – a popular Liverpool folk band of the day – and rediscovered it during our 2018 visit to the Isle of Man.

The song tells the story of the sinking of the S.S. Ellan Vannin in 1909. En route from Ramsey in the Isle of Man to Liverpool, the ship ran into a violent storm as it crossed the Irish Sea, and foundered in Liverpool Bay. All 15 passengers and 21 crew died. Also lost was a consignment of mail and 60 tonnes of cargo, which included approximately 60 sheep.

Writing over half a century later Hughie Jones, one of the Spinners, poignantly captured the details of the tragedy. In this YouTube video you can hear Hughie performing his song in front of a live audience. I suspect the soundtrack’s taken from an old vinyl recording – listen to the clicks and crackles! The video is illustrated by a series of fascinating archive photos assembled by Lexi Duggan, and includes the complete lyrics.

I find the audience’s gentle singing of each chorus particularly moving and love the way this gets louder as the song progresses, reflecting the participants’ growing confidence and engagement as the sad story unfolds. For me, The Ellan Vannin Tragedy is folk at its best, tunefully telling a story which deserves to be remembered, while evoking a strong emotional response in the listener. And not a sandal or a diaphanous dress in sight!

Postscript – Ellan Vannin means “Isle of Man” in the Manx language. The ship was built in Glasgow at a cost of £10,673. She entered service with the Steam Packet Fleet in June 1860, at which point she was known as the Mona’s Isle (Mona is the first known name for the Isle of Man, recorded in Latin by Julius Caesar in 54 BCE). She was substantially rebuilt in 1883, being converted from a paddle steamer to a propeller-driven ship, and to mark her reincarnation she was renamed the Ellan Vannin. Following the tragedy on 3 December 1909, no other ship in the Steam Packet Fleet has borne the name.

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Links to other posts featuring a favourite folk song

Isle of Man highlights – (5) The magic roundabout

Well, not magic really, but definitely quirky. The roundabout on the children’s playground at the Isle of Man’s Silverdale Glen is powered by water flowing from the nearby boating lake. Shifting the lever releases water which drives a waterwheel, which in turn powers the carousel. The roundabout is the only working example of its kind in the British Isles.

Silverdale Glen was developed as a visitor attraction in the last years of the 19th century. The site included a boating lake, café and a park for games and walking as well as roundabouts, and is a legacy of the Isle of Man’s growth as a tourist destination.

The waterwheel that drives the carousel originally came from the nearby lead / silver / zinc mines at Foxdale. When the mines were closed in 1911 the wheel was transported to Silverdale and reinstalled near the lake to provide the power needed to drive the ride-on horses. The link below will take you to my short YouTube video of the roundabout in action.

The roundabout has undergone numerous renovations in the century since it began operations. In 2007 the wooden horses – which were acquired second-hand from a steam-driven funfair in England – were removed and replaced with fibreglass gallopers and rowboats. One of the originals has been restored and deposited at the excellent Manx Museum. You can view the catalogue image here.

Postscript – while researching the history of Silverdale Glen’s magic roundabout I came across this fascinating post by WordPress blogger Pat English. Written way back in 2010, when we were younger, more innocent and had never heard of Coronavirus, Pat’s post explores the history of roundabouts. It includes lots of colourful carousel horse designs, one inspired by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Definitely worth a look.

Isle of Man highlights – (1) The Chough

There’s a good good range of birdlife to enjoy on the Isle of Man, but the star of our 2018 visit was undoubtedly the Chough. Pronounced chuff – to rhyme with stuff – the Chough is a member of the crow family. It can be easily identified by its bright red bill, which is slightly down-curved, and paler pinkish-red legs.

Once locally common in the British Isles, the Red-billed Chough – to give this handsome bird its full name – suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Farmers wrongly identified them as agricultural pests and blasted them out of the sky, trophy hunters shot and stuffed them, and egg collectors wrecked their chances of successful reproduction.

However, the final straw was a change in land management practice. Choughs are specialist feeders relying mostly on invertebrates, and therefore need access to an environment that supports their diet, including a mosaic of vegetation with lots of short grass and open areas. Grazing animals are essential to maintain suitable coastal and upland habitats, but a reduction in such grazing activity in the 20th century adversely affected the birds’ food supply.

Thanks to rigorous conservation efforts the Chough is now showing signs of recovery, although progress is painfully slow. The RSPB reports that in 2014 there were 394 breeding pairs spread across the British Isles, up from 284 in 1982, and of these, 30% were found on the Isle of Man. As the figures below demonstrate, numbers of breeding pairs on the island almost doubled between those two years.

 19822014
Isle of Man60118
Wales142215
Scotland7253
England07
Northern Ireland101
TOTAL284394
SOURCE: RSPB Website, retrieved 27/06/2020

Choughs can be found at various locations on the Isle of Man, but when we visited in June 2018 our best sighting was at a coastal site called the Chasms, where the sandstone cliffs are incised by deep fissures. It’s a scenic but exposed and windswept spot, where purple heather, low-growing shrubs and coarse grasses hug the ground to avoid being battered into submission and then unceremoniously deposited into the Irish Sea.

The juvenile Chough is a scruffy-looking bird with less vivid colouration than the adult

The cliff-top vegetation is ideal habitat for Choughs, and we were treated to excellent views of a couple of adults probing about in it for grubs and bugs. There was also a juvenile, a scruffy-looking bird reminiscent of a moody teenager indifferent to his appearance, its bill less brightly coloured than those of adult birds, and its plumage lacking their glossy black lustre. Click the link below to view the short video I made of the Choughs we spotted at the Chasms.

After around 30 years of birdwatching it’s unusual for us to add a new species to our British Isles life-list, so seeing these striking birds for the first time felt like a special privilege. Thank you, Isle of Man!

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Researching this post, I’ve discovered lots more stuff about the Chough, some of it rather surprising. Read on and find out more.

Choughs in Cornwall

Before Covid-19 wrecked our plans, we’d intended to renew our acquaintance with Choughs during an April visit to Cornwall, England’s most westerly county. The Cornish have a special affection for these birds, which, as the table above shows, have made a comeback in the 21st century after becoming locally extinct in 1973.

The Chough was once so common in Cornwall that it was known as “the Cornish Chough.” As such it became a symbol of the county, and featured in the heraldic arms of the County Council and several prominent local families. It also appears on the arms of the Duchy of Cornwall, the private estate of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.

File:Coat of arms of the Duchy of Cornwall.svg

The Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Cornwall. IMAGE CREDIT: Sodacan This W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Historically the county’s rugged coastal landscape was well suited to these birds: sea caves and old mine shafts offered suitable nesting sites, while the ponies that worked at the tin and copper mines encouraged the proliferation of their invertebrate diet by grazing on the cliff-top grass.

However, the esteem in which these birds were held by Cornish people could not protect them from the combined impact of shooting, egg collecting, habitat degradation and the collapse of the mining industry.

In 1973 Choughs became extinct in Cornwall, and remained absent until 2001 when some vagrant birds arrived from Ireland. A pair of these bred the following year, and with the support of the RSPB’s Cornwall Chough Project, a slow recovery is underway. In 2019 there were 12 successful breeding nests in Cornwall, from which 38 chicks fledged.

An Arthurian connection?

King Arthur, legendary 6th century leader who is said to have defended native Britons against the invading Saxons, had strong connections with Cornwall. Unsurprisingly, therefore, his story has become intermingled with that of the county’s favourite bird. It is said that after his death, the spirit of King Arthur entered into the body of a Chough. The bird’s red legs and beak are supposed to represent the blood shed by Arthur in his last battle.

Most reasonable folk regard the whole King Arthur story as romantic nonsense, or, less politely, a load of old codswallop.  I’ll leave you to decide whether Choughs owe their distinctive colouration to Arthur’s untimely demise.

Choughs in Heraldry

Whatever we think of the Arthurian connection, it’s clear that in earlier times the Chough was widely known and admired in the British Isles. From the early 16th century onwards it began to appear in the heraldic arms of families with no connection to Cornwall.

Arms of Thomas Wolsey

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Wolsey (and, subsequently, Christ Church Collge, Oxford, which he founded). IMAGE CREDIT: ChevronTango / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Most notably, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and chief adviser to King Henry VIII in the 1520s, commissioned a coat of arms which included two Choughs. This may have been a devout churchman’s punning tribute to the martyr Saint Thomas à Beckett, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury who was gruesomely murdered in his own cathedral, reflecting the fact that an archaic name for a Chough is “beckitt.” 

There is, however, a less charitable interpretation. Wolsey’s vanity was legendary, and he cannot have been unaware that the commonly accepted meaning for a Chough in heraldry is “Strategist in battle; watchful for friends.”

How well this describes Wolsey, who, having failed to secure his master’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, died while on his way to London to answer a charge of treason, is questionable. But the cardinal did have a good friend in Thomas Cromwell, who succeeded him as chief adviser to the King. Out of respect for his friend and mentor, Cromwell also included Choughs in his coat of arms when he was awarded the title Baron Cromwell in 1536.

File:Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell (Order of the Garter).svg

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell. IMAGE CREDIT: FDRMRZUSA (talk · contribs). See sourced file for original authors. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

It seems improbable that either Wolsey or Cromwell could spare time from sorting out the King’s disastrous matrimonial problems for a spot of birdwatching, but had they done so they would doubtless have sought the Chough, which so handsomely adorns their coats of arms.

And who could blame them? As we learned on the Isle of Man, it’s a very special bird.

Introducing the Isle of Man

With opportunities to travel drastically curtailed by the Covid-19 lockdown there’s both plenty of time and good reason to look back on happier, more innocent days. Exactly two years ago we were exploring the Isle of Man, enjoying its rugged coastline, rural landscapes, scenic glens and varied wildlife. It’s a great place to visit, but if you live outside the British Isles you most likely know very little about it. Having said that, even most Brits are a bit baffled!

The Isle of Man – or Mann, to give it its other name – lies in the Irish Sea, between Great Britain and Ireland. At 572 km² it’s less than three quarters the size of New York City, and has a population of around 82,000. Although its inhabitants are British citizens, the Isle of Man is not part of the United Kingdom. The Brits are responsible for its defence, but it has its own governing administration and doesn’t have representation in the British parliament. It never formally joined the European Union, meaning that it was spared the turmoil of the Brexit debate.

The Laxey Wheel, the world’s largest waterwheel

Mann is a “crown dependency,” meaning that it technically belongs to the reigning British monarch. This arrangement dates from 1764, when King George III purchased feudal rights to the island from the Lord of Mann. He also bought the title, which passed to his descendants. As a result Queen Elizabeth is the Lord of Mann, even though she’s not a Lord in the way most people would understand the word. First Lady of Mann might be a more accurate description.

Confused? Me too! In my view the best description of Mann is “international oddball.” The Isle of Man is five-star anomaly.

10 more things you (maybe) didn’t know about the Isle of Man

#1 The island was first settled by the Celts, and although the Vikings, Scots and English followed later, their Manx Gaelic language predominated until the 19th century when English began to take over. The last native Manx speaker died in 1974, but efforts are underway to revive the language. In a 2015 survey, 1,800 people claimed some knowledge it.

#2 The Isle of Man parliament – the Tynwald – was established by Viking settlers in 979 AD. It claims to be the world’s oldest continuously operating parliament.

The Laxey Wheel, 22 metres in diameter

#3. In 1854 the largest waterwheel in the world was built on Mann. At 22 metres in diameter, the Laxey Wheel was constructed to pump water from the lead mines situated around 350 metres below ground.

#4 The Tynwald struck a blow for gender equality in 1881 when it became the first national parliament to give women the vote, albeit only women who were quite wealthy. New Zealand followed in 1893, and Finland in 1906. To its eternal shame, the UK did not approve (limited) female suffrage until 1918.

The volunteer-run narrow gauge railway is popular with tourists

#5 With its low rate of taxes the Isle of Man has long been regarded as a tax haven, where the idle rich can hide their wealth from the acquisitive eyes of their own governments. In recent years its administration has tried to shake off this reputation by signing tax information exchange deals with a number of countries. However the offshore financial sector remains the most important part of the island’s economy, while tourism also makes a significant contribution.

#6 The island is world famous for its population of cats with no tails. In fact, there are two varieties of Manx cat; the ‘rumpy’ has no tail at all, whilst the ‘stumpy’ has a very small tail.

Traditional house, with Manx cat in the foreground (looks like a “rumpy!”)

#7 Every summer the island’s roads play host to one of the world’s most dangerous and exciting motorcycle races. Between 1907 and 2019 the TT Races have resulted in 151 fatalities during races and official practices.

#8  According to local superstition the word “rat” is unlucky and should never be uttered on the Isle of Man. When necessary, locals refer to “longtails”. 

The Snaefell Mountain Railway takes tourists to the 620m high summit

#9 Mann’s highest mountain is Snaefell. Tourists are saved the discomfort of trekking to its 620m high summit by the narrow gauge Snaefell Mountain Railway. On reaching the end of the line you can see England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. But as this is only possible on clear days, most visitors to the island don’t manage it (including us!) 

#10 Despite being over 15,000 km from Australia, the Isle of Man has a healthy, self-sustaining population of wild wallabies! I’ll tell you more about them, and some of my other Manx highlights, in a series of posts over the next few weeks.

When the cloud clears, the bleak peak of Snaefell dominates views of the island

A 17th century experiment in social distancing

My last post lamented that a minority of my fellow citizens have refused to comply with the social distancing rules brought in to help control the spread of COVID-19, preferring instead to party. Regrettably one of the examples of such behaviour that made the national headlines was in my local area, just a few miles from Platypus Towers.

However it’s not all bad news around here, and I’m pleased to report that one of the most remarkable, selfless acts of social distancing also took place right here in my home county of Derbyshire. Not yesterday, not last week or even last month. No, this extraordinary act of self-sacrifice took place in the picturesque village of Eyam in 1666, an incredible 354 years ago!

Eyam

PHOTO CREDIT: “Eyam” by jodastephen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The story began in London, in 1665, when the city was ravaged by bubonic plague. The epidemic lasted for 18 months, during which time it’s estimated that 100,000 people – one quarter of London’s population – lost their lives.

Bubonic plague was transmitted via the bite of infected Black Rat fleas, and in summer 1665 a consignment of cloth infested with those fleas brought the disease some 160 miles north of London, to the remote village of Eyam in the Derbyshire Peak District. The cloth was ordered by tailor Alexander Hadfield, but it was his assistant George Viccars who was the first to succumb to the disease it brought with it, on 7 September 1665.

The plague had gained a foothold in Eyam, and as time passed more villagers took ill and died. By the end of 1665 over forty plague deaths had been recorded and the following year, as winter turned to spring, many villagers considered fleeing to somewhere – anywhere – else where they might be safe from the disease.

One of the “Plague Cottages” in use at the time of the epidemic

At this point local clergyman William Mompesson intervened. Recognising that if the villagers fled they could spread the contagion to the nearby towns of Manchester, Sheffield and Bakewell, he determined that the village should isolate itself from the rest of the country. And with that, social distancing – 1666 style – came to Eyam.

The rules of (dis)engagement that Mompesson persuaded villagers to accept were deceptively simple:

  • nobody was to enter or leave the village, for any reason
  • food supplies would be delivered to drop-off points at the village boundary. Here villagers would leave coins soaked in vinegar to pay for the food delivered by the Earl of Devonshire’s men and others.
  • church services would be held outdoors
  • the churchyard was to be closed, and the dead buried in fields at the edge of the village
  • families would bury their own dead

In effect, the people of Eyam locked themselves away from the rest of the world, and let the disease run its natural course. By the time the restrictions were lifted, some 260 villagers had died. The size of the village population before the plague arrived is unclear, but it’s likely that at least a third of its inhabitants – and perhaps a much bigger proportion – died during the lockdown. Sadly, rector Mompesson’s wife was one of the victims.

At the height of the outbreak – in August 1666 – a total of 78 people died. That month Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six of her seven children over a period of eight days. The spot where she interred them – in an unremarkable field on a hill some way out of the village – remains a poignant reminder of a time of unimaginable hardship for the people of Eyam.

The historical record is such that we can go beyond mere numbers, and understand the human cost of Eyam’s decision to isolate itself. The death of Mompesson’s wife and the tragedy of Elizabeth Hancock’s family are two examples. A third is the story 22-year-old Emmott Sydall, who was engaged to marry a lad from the next village.

A “Plague Grave,” dating from just before the closure of the churchyard

When the restrictions were imposed Emmot was no longer permitted to get up close and personal with her fiancé. Instead the two star-crossed lovers had to content themselves with rendezvousing at an agreed spot at the edge of the village, to stare lovingly into one another’s eyes from a safe distance. But one day the ritual ceased abruptly, and Emmott never went there again. The plague had taken her.

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Mompesson lost his wife, but achieved his goal. Although Eyam was ravaged and achieved notoriety – even today it is known as the Plague Village – the outbreak did not spread beyond its boundaries to surrounding settlements. From the broader perspectives of history and epidemiology, Mompesson’s 17th experiment in social distancing can therefore be regarded as a success.

I doubt, however, that Elizabeth Hancock or Emmott Sydall’s fiancé saw it that way. There are losers, as well as winners, in any experiment with social distancing.

Every August, on the last Sunday of the month, Eyam holds a memorial service to recognise the sacrifices of those who died in 1666 so that others might continue living. They call it Plague Sunday.

I wonder how we, as a society, will remember those who have lost their lives in the fight against COVID-19?

This is not the time to party

A few days ago, the media reported on a “massive party” held in contravention of the UK’s emergency rules on social distancing, rules that have been introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m saddened to say that the party went down in Derby, just ten or so miles from Platypus Towers, although to be fair I guess it could have happened anywhere. Shortly afterwards there were reports of a pub holding a “lock-in” for regular drinkers at Sutton-in-Ashfield, also just a few miles from where I’m writing this, in flagrant disregard of the restrictions currently in place.

orange and white digital watch

IMAGE CREDIT: Glen Carrie via Unsplash

While most of us are adapting to the current restrictions, a few of our fellows seem to feel that they’re being unfairly treated. They appear to believe that they’ve been singled out for what the Americans might call cruel and unusual punishment, and that they are therefore justified in continuing to do their own thing, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us. Their actions are making a clear statement: “these rules, these restrictions on personal liberty, don’t apply to us.”

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When you’re in the midst of a crisis there’s a natural tendency to assume that your misery is unique, that no-one’s ever had it quite so bad before. But it ain’t necessarily so. COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic in human history, nor, I’m certain, will it be the last. This should come as no surprise – after all, it is in the nature of bugs to mutate, just as it’s in the nature of our immune systems to adapt to those mutations. That battle is set to continue until the end of time.

The so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918/19 was by far the worst pandemic of the last century. It’s estimated that around 500 million people caught it, which amounted to about a third of the world’s population at that time. The death rate was huge:

The number of deaths [from Spanish flu] was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.

Source: Website of the CDC (The USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Meanwhile, at the time of writing (10am, 4 April 2020) Worldometer reports 1.1 million cases COVID-19 worldwide, and 59,247 deaths out of world population of 7.7 billion. Plainly, during an ongoing crisis any such numbers must be treated with a huge amount of caution; however the contrast between Spanish flu and COVID-19 is stark.

In quoting these figures I’m not seeking to minimise the current crisis, nor to underestimate the suffering of those affected, their families and wider communities. And it’s also plain that while Spanish flu is history, COVID-19 exists in the here and now: nobody knows when it will end, or just how the numbers will stack up when it does. However, the evidence is that humanity has been through something similar before, and had to find ways of coping. Maybe we can learn from history?

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I’ve been vaguely aware of Spanish flu for as long as I can remember. As a student of history it’s one of those things I just picked up along the way. But not for its own sake: rather, it was merely a sad footnote to the history of World War 1, the ironically dubbed war to end all wars. It never occurred to me to look beyond the numbers, to question how society a century ago tried to cope with a rampant epidemic.

Trawling the Internet today I’m not surprised to learn that, here in the UK, we coped badly. Medical science was in its infancy and the disease was poorly understood. In any case the National Health Service did not exist, meaning that a co-ordinated strategy for dealing with the pandemic was impossible.

Moreover, the State had minimal ability to influence and control societal behaviour. A couple of weeks ago, before he himself went down with COVID-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television and ordered citizens to stay in their houses unless they had a reasonable excuse such as shopping for basic necessities, seeking or providing medical assistance, taking exercise (alone, or with other members of the household only), or travelling to or from work (but only when it is impossible to work from home).

It is inconceivable that, in 1918/19, Prime Minister Lloyd George could have envisaged such draconian measures – government’s willingness to reach into the day-to-day lives of its citizens was much more constrained a century ago. Communicating the need for “social distancing” would in any case have been fraught with difficulty without the broadcast media, Internet, and mobile phone technology that we take for granted today. And even had such restrictions been successfully communicated, enforcing them would have been all but impossible.

As the Spanish flu crisis deepened, responses to it were locally devised rather than nationally prescribed, and as a result were patchy. For example

In Rotherham, posters were displayed in prominent parts of the town, and health visitors and school nurses distributed leaflets from door to door, encouraging people to keep dirty handkerchiefs out of the reach of children. The Borough of Hackney recommended that victims stay isolated, go to bed the moment symptoms appeared, and gargle with potash and salt. In Keswick, Cumbria, the Medical Officer arranged for a free supply of “disinfectant mixture”. Every morning, formalin was sprinkled on the floor of Brighton’s public library and post office, and tramcars were fumigated in Doncaster.

Source: History Extra website. Retrieved 4 April 2020

Attempts at social distancing were at best half-hearted. At the height of the outbreak hundreds of elementary schools were closed, but only when staff absenteesim forced the issue. Secondary schools remained open throughout, and church services proceeded as usual. Factories continued to operate, and there was no ban on entertainments and public gatherings.

In short, there was no “lockdown,” as we now understand it, in the UK’s response to Spanish flu in 1918/19. Individuals, families and communities struggled on as best they could. The vast majority got through it, though it must have been a traumatic experience.

However, around 228,000 British citizens died as a result of the Spanish flu pandemic. And I’m sure that every last one of them would have put up with the temporary inconveniences caused by 2020-style social distancing, if they had believed doing so would give them – and their families, friends and neighbours – a better chance of survival.

If they’d been offered a simple trade, a lockdown or a life, they would have chosen life. Sadly they didn’t have that choice. We do.

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Generally speaking I’ve been impressed by the way people have adapted to the COVID-19 crisis, supporting one another, putting differences aside and doing the right thing. But, as my opening paragraph illustrated, there are still some moaners, some selfish individuals who feel their right to party supersedes society’s short-term need for social distancing.

I get it, I really do. What we’re being asked to do is contrary to our custom and practice as citizens of a proud, free democracy. Moreover humans are primates, social animals. We’re hardwired for social interaction, not social distancing.

But now is not the time to stand on principle, to play at politics or to throw our toys out of the pram. Together, we need to hold our nerve, to do the right thing by our families, friends and neighbours, and to trust that our scientists and medical professionals will help us find a way through the crisis.

There will be time enough to party when all this is over.

A story of our times: the great toilet paper panic

Dateline: Tuesday 17 March, 2020. Scene: Mrs P and I are walking across the car park towards our local supermarket, hoping to buy flour. Fat chance, but you have to try, don’t you? A woman emerges from the store and approaches us, beaming from ear to ear. She has a spring in her step, and looks as triumphant as a pauper who’s just won a fortune on the lottery. The cause of her joy? She’s carrying a twelve-pack of toilet rolls under each arm, clutching them to her ample body lovingly, like a B-list actress who’s just won an unexpected Oscar.

person holding white toilet paper roll

PHOTO CREDIT: Elly Johnson via Unsplash

Fast forward a few days. I phone Pat and Dave in London, and ask them how they’re coping as the COVID-19 crisis deepens. Dave replies, saying that a couple of days earlier at his local retail warehouse he’d been interrogated by the guy on the checkout. “Haven’t you forgotten something, mate?” was the mischievous question.

“No,” replies Dave, glancing down at a few random packs meat, fish and groceries in his shopping trolley, “I don’t think so.”

“What about toilet rolls then?” queries Checkout Man, giving Dave a conspiratorial wink.

Dave lifts his head, and looks around him. The warehouse is rammed with shoppers, and all the other buggers have filled their trolleys with toilet rolls. The word’s out: this place has had a delivery, and is creaking at the seams with toilet paper. But not for much longer, obviously.

person holding white tissue paper roll

PHOTO CREDIT: Jasmin Sessler via Unsplash

Dave goes on to say that the next day, just 24 hours before the Prime Minister appeared on television and warned us all to behave responsibly or face the consequences, he and Pat attended a skittles evening at their local hostelry. He explains that they got knocked out early, but hung around until the end of the competition. The winner’s “mystery prize,” a bemused Dave observes, turned out to be a toilet roll tied up in a pretty silk bow.

So my question is this: how the hell have we managed to get here? It’s clear that, in the midst of a grave international crisis, vast numbers of our fellow citizens can think of nothing better to do than hoard toilet paper. Why, for god’s sake, are we so obsessed with the stuff?

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Toilet paper is something we take for granted. Can’t imagine life without it, can we? But countless generations of our ancestors got by quite happily, doing the necessary with whatever else was to hand – shards of clay, a sponge on a stick, leaves, fur, stones, moss. Even corn cobs. The list goes on and on.

And as society developed, it wasn’t just natural alternatives that people turned to. When newspapers got going and started peddling fake news, their lies and deceits were given the treatment they deserved in privies throughout the developing world.

Yes, it’s true. You name it, we humans have used it in pursuit of enhanced personal hygiene. The 16th century French writer Rabelais even proposed “the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs.” Adds a whole new level of meaning to the practice of “goosing” someone, doesn’t it?

white printer paper on brown wooden window

PHOTO CREDIT: Allie Smith via Unsplash

China is the source of all sorts of things. Pandas, for one. And COVID-19, of course. Paper is another of that nation’s gifts to the world. And given that they invented paper in the 2nd century BCE, it’s no surprise that the Chinese were also the first to come up with toilet paper.

By the 6th century CE the use of paper for the most intimate acts of bodily cleansing is said to have been common in China, but this wasn’t toilet paper as we know it. That first came along in 1391, made for the use of the Chinese Emperor, each sheet being perfumed to mask the noxious scents that inevitably result from consuming too many mung beans.

But it was a forward-thinking businessman in the Land of the Free who finally made toilet paper available to the masses. The game-changer was New Yorker Joseph Gayetty, who, in 1857, started selling commercially packaged toilet paper. He marketed his single, flat sheets – infused with aloe, and sold in packs of 500 – as “The greatest necessity of the age!” Promoted as a medical treatment to cure haemorrhoids, Gayetty is probably the first entrepreneur in history intent on making piles of money from piles.

Inexplicably, in perhaps the worst marketing initiative ever perpetrated by a profit-crazed American businessman, he insisted that his name be printed on every sheet of his “Medicated Paper.” Now, I know that many spirited entrepreneurs like to get down and dirty, but surely this was a step too far? Gayetty had hoped to be flushed with success, but his innovation turned out to be a commercial disaster. He and his product hit rock bottom.

However, Americans are a determined bunch, rarely shy when profits are at stake, and it should therefore come as no surprise that Gayetty’s vision was reworked into something that would sell. So it was that, in 1883, one Seth Wheeler of Albany patented rolled and perforated toilet paper. And the rest, as they say, is history.

white and red wooden counter

PHOTO CREDIT: John Cameron via Unsplash

Or is it? While some historians (Americans, probably) subscribe to the sequence of events described above, others (British, I imagine) maintain that it was a Brit who invented the toilet roll. According to this revisionist interpretation of the history of bathroom stationery it was Walter J Alcock who, in 1879, first created toilet paper on a roll as an alternative to the standard flat sheets.

But to avoid falling out with our American cousins – we Brits need all the international friends we can get right now – let’s be charitable and say that toilet rolls were invented simultaneously in the USA and the UK around 1880. Standards of personal hygiene on both sides of the Pond undoubtedly improved as a result, although the quality of the experience must have been very different back in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

As proof of this assertion, it was as late as 1935 that a claim was made by the British Northern Tissue company to have manufactured the first splinter-free toilet tissue. The clear implication is that, before then, using the stuff was fraught with hazards that we would all wish to avoid. Is this why photographs from the early part of the 20th century generally show their subjects wearing pained expressions?

And it was not until 1942 that the first two-ply toilet paper came off the production line, courtesy of St. Andrew’s Paper Mill in England.

Yes, that’s right. Some of my countrymen took time off from defeating Hitler to do something they evidently perceived to be even more important: to immeasurably improve – and soften – the British sanitary experience. Given this extraordinary demonstration of societal priorities perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that today, while the COVID-19 crisis rages all around them, so many people in the UK and across much of the wider world are fixated on the supply of toilet rolls.

white tissue roll on tissue holder

PHOTO CREDIT: Jasmin Sessler via Unsplash

Toilet paper is clearly useful, making an awkward but necessary human activity more comfortable. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it’s a symbol of civilisation, an indication of how far we’ve progressed from our cave-dwelling days.

If you believe some of the stories circulating in the media and on the Internet, our very civilisation is currently under threat from COVID-19. Given this context, is it really so astonishing that millions of ordinary folk are desperate to ensure uninterrupted access to a product that is both a symbol and an embodiment of the benefits civilisation confers on its citizens?

And also, as any half-decent farmer will confirm, there just ain’t enough corn cobs to go round.

Anarchy in the UK – the crazy world of Ashbourne Shrovetide football

November 1976 saw the Sex Pistols – the dark princes of English punk rock – release their debut single, Anarchy in the UK. The Pistols were wild and wayward, and maybe just a little bit bonkers, but even in their maddest dreams they cannot possibly have imagined the crazy world of Ashbourne Shrovetide football. Like the Pistols themselves, Shrovetide football isn’t for the faint-hearted. Anarchy rules, OK.

Unless you’re English you’ve probably never heard of Ashbourne. To be fair, even if you are, the chances are that this quaint little market town of around 8,000 souls nestling in the Derbyshire Peak District has passed you by. It oozes bucolic charm, and is therefore memorably forgettable.

A few years ago a former Ashbourne resident, writing on the student website The Tab, described it as “the most backwards town in the country“. Seems a bit harsh to me, but it has to be said that unless you’re very easily excited, the place won’t set your pulse racing. Except, that is, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, when football comes to town.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “10-P2183459” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Shrovetide football bears scant resemblance to any other form of football. The Ashbourne game comprises two teams – the Up’Ards, born north of the local River Henmore, and the Down’Ards, born to its south. The number of players is unlimited, and can exceed a thousand on each side. The goals, where the ball must be touched down to register a score, are three miles (five kilometres) apart.

The game begins in the Shawcroft car park in the centre of Ashbourne, where an eager crowd of thousands gathers. They belt out the national anthem as if their lives depend on it. Then silence falls and the excitement builds, everyone waiting impatiently for the fun to begin.

At last, with the tension close to unbearable, an invited dignitary or celebrity standing on a brick-built podium “turns up” the ball – lavishly painted, filled with cork for added buoyancy and about the size of a Halloween pumpkin – into the expectant horde of pumped-up masculinity. Testosterone hangs heavy in the air, so thick you could butter toast with it. No rules prevent women from participating, but good sense persuades most to take a back-seat and let their menfolk do the hard graft and risk the consequences.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “05-P2183439” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The objective of the game is straightforward. The Up’Ards must carry the ball to Sturston Mill, south of Ashbourne, and “goal” by tapping it three times against a millstone. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The only problem they face is the thousand or so Down’Ards who are blocking the way and baying for blood.

Meanwhile, the aim of the Down’Ards is to carry the ball to Clifton Mill, north of the town, where they also must “goal it”. Inevitably, they find their passage blocked by at least a thousand incensed Up’Ards, whose ambition is to prevent this happening by means both cunning and brutal.

As you will have worked out by now, Shrovetide football has no designated pitch or playing field. The game is played through the streets of the town, and the sprawling farmland beyond, occasionally spilling into the freezing river. It is the original “game without borders.”

Proceedings are boisterous, chaotic and occasionally violent. Shopkeepers close their businesses and protect their premises with wooden boards and shutters, car owners move their vehicles out of harm’s way and paramedics are on standby. Schools close for the day, lest students get caught up in the mayhem. Injuries are common, although fatalities are mercifully very rare.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “21-P2183512” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Play begins at 2pm on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and finishes eight hours later. Battered, bruised and bloodied, the players limp off home to lick their wounds, only to assemble the following day at 2pm to do it all again. Despite 16 hours of play, it is rare for more than two goals to be scored in any year. Sometimes, the result is a nil-nil draw, and every year the broken limbs, bruises, sprains and strains outnumber the goals scored.

You can count the rules on the fingers of one hand. Players must not enter churchyards or cemeteries, and must refrain from hiding the ball or attempting to carry it on a motor vehicle. In addition, murder is frowned upon. But with these few exceptions, pretty much anything goes.

“Mob football”, as the Ashbourne game is classified, has a long history – dating back at least to the 13th century – and was once widespread in rural England. Inevitably the mayhem it caused was resented by the wealthier and more refined types, those who had the most to lose from mass outbreaks of anarchic behaviour.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “02-P2183425” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Eventually these elite groups got their way, and mob football went into serious decline in the nineteenth century after the 1835 Highway Act banned the playing of football on public highways. But it clung on in Ashbourne, and a few other places including Workington and Sedgefield in northern England, and Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

Shrovetide football remains a much-loved tradition amongst Ashbourne people, a demanding endurance test for all the participants, and also a rite of passage for lads wishing to follow in the hallowed footsteps of previous generations of men in their families. Many former residents return to the town every year to take part or watch from the side-lines, and tourists visit in droves to see what all the fuss is about. For two days every year, Shrovetide football ensures that Ashbourne has a national – and even international – profile.

And now to the question that’s been on your mind as you’ve read this post – has the Platypus Man ever played Shrovetide football? The answer is an emphatic ‘no,’ and although Ashbourne lies just a few miles from Platypus Towers I’ve never attended as a spectator either. Frankly, life’s too short and my body is way too fragile to risk the frenzy of the mob. Have a look at this short video, on the Guardian’s website, and you’ll understand everything!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that this relic from our country’s medieval past hangs on in deepest, darkest Derbyshire. But I’m glad too that, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can read about it and watch YouTube videos of the highlights in own home, secure in the knowledge that there are several miles and a very sturdy brick wall between me and the madness.

A little bit of Anarchy in the UK isn’t without its appeal, but only when viewed from a safe distance.

Why can’t every day be Pancake Day?

Yesterday was Pancake Day. Mrs P and I share the cooking duties at Platypus Towers, but when it comes to pancakes I know my place: I’m a scoffer, not a tosser. Unsurprisingly Mrs P’s pancakes were faultless, and we made short work of them. But now the party’s over it will be months – and quite possibly a whole year – before we have pancakes again. And that’s the problem, isn’t it, with designating just one day per year as Pancake Day? It implies that on the following 364 days (or 365 in 2020, and other leap years) pancakes should be regarded as strictly off-limits.

Pancakes With Strawberry, Blueberries, and Maple Syrup

PHOTO CREDIT: Sidney Troxell via Pexels

For the uninitiated, in England a pancake is a thin, flat cake, made from batter and fried in a frying pan. When one side is cooked the pancake is tossed with a deft flick of the wrist. If the cook is lucky it will land back in the pan, uncooked side down; however if fortune is not smiling, the pancake will end up on the floor, or stuck to the ceiling. A traditional English pancake is very thin and is served coated with lemon or orange juice and caster sugar, or maybe golden syrup.

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The origin of Pancake Day is religious. The day in question is Shrove Tuesday, immediately preceding the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. In the Christian calendar Lent is a 40 day period of abstinence, when believers are required to give up some of life’s pleasures. Eggs, butter and fat were all on the hit list, and turning them into mouth-watering pancakes on the day before Lent began ensured they did not go to waste.

There is also said to be religious significance in the key ingredients of pancakes. The white milk that loosens the pancake’s batter is seen by some to symbolise purity, while the eggs represent creation and salt stands for wholesomeness. According to this reading the flour symbolises the staff of life, the dietary staple upon which we all rely.

In the USA, France and Germany the day before the start of Lent is known as Mardi Gras. This translates as “Fat Tuesday”, an allusion to the excesses and festivities that are enjoyed on this particular day, before the deprivations of Lent take hold.

tray of hotcakes

PHOTO CREDIT: Mae Mu via Unsplash

Today the connection between Christianity and Pancake Day is rarely acknowledged, and the practice of giving things up for Lent has largely disappeared. However the advance of secularism has done nothing to undermine the habit of bingeing on pancakes one Tuesday in either February or March, exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday.

In a few places in the UK, Pancake Day is celebrated by the holding of a pancake race, which involves herds of eccentrics dashing frantically through the streets, each of them clutching a frying pan in which they toss a cooked pancake. The tradition is said to date from 1445, and results in the lanes of some English villages briefly becoming clogged with more than the usual number of lycra-clad tossers. However the disruption is tolerated with good humour as everyone knows that afterwards pancakes will be off the menu for around 12 months.

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In the USA, however, they do it differently. Pancakes are a big deal in the Big Apple, and everywhere else too. Every day is Pancake Day in the good old US of A.

In the same way that American and Brits are no more than distant cousins these days, their pancakes are also very different. The version from the other side of The Pond is fluffy rather than flat, using self-raising flour or baking power to get a rise from the batter. In the USA pancakes are traditionally served in a stack, accompanied by a little jug of maple syrup and, if it takes your fancy, with a few rashers of crispy bacon on the side.

And, joy of joys, Americans have pancakes for breakfast.

I remember vividly our first encounter with a “short stack” of American pancakes. The previous evening we’d flown into Rapid City via Minneapolis, and had spent the night in a grotty motel that numbered cockroaches amongst its other guests. The next morning we staggered into the adjacent diner, with expectations at an all time low.

pancakes on palte

PHOTO CREDIT: Luke Pennystan via Unsplash

It was a modest diner, as befitting its location on the outskirts of a memorably unmemorable city. And yet, to our amazement, they were serving pancakes. Now at the time I was just an innocent English guy, a first time visitor to the States, and the prospect of eating something so deliciously, decadently sweet that early in the day had me transfixed. America is amazing, I thought to myself. Americans are amazing. They play by different rules here. I love this country.

The menu sported a fabulous photo of a stack of pancakes, topped off with summer fruits and wallowing in an ocean of maple syrup. They looked irresistible, so I did the honourable thing and resolutely refused to resist them.

And thus began my love affair with pancakes for breakfast. In the years that followed I’ve visited the USA more than 20 times, and have rarely been tempted to try anything else. OK, I will confess that once or twice I’ve fallen under the spell of the sultry southern temptress that is biscuits and gravy, but pancakes are my first love, my only true love in the crazy world of American breakfasts.

So here’s my question, the big one, the puzzle that’s got me beat. If the USA can do it, why the hell can’t we? Here, in England, why can’t every day be Pancake Day?

An English tradition: the joy of Afternoon Tea

“Well,” demands Mrs P testily, “am I getting flowers on Valentines Day or not?” Discomfited, I hastily review my options. Do I try schmoozing her, something like my darling, there aren’t enough flowers in the world to convey the depth of my love for you? Or should I try appealing to her environmental conscience, pointing out the horrendous carbon footprint that inevitably results from the sale of masses of fresh cut flowers in England in the middle of February? Or do I simply tell it as it is, that while I love her more than anything and am quite fond of roses too, the grossly inflated prices around Valentine’s Day are an affront to common decency and my sense of fair play?

I’m weighing up which response will give me the best chance of still being alive at Easter when my wonderful wife lets me off the hook. “If you are,” she says, “then don’t bother. I suggest we go out for Afternoon Tea instead. I’ve spotted a patisserie on King Street that looks promising.”

So there we have it: I get to live another day and to fill my face with delicious cakes. I’d like to put it on record here that Mrs P is a very special person.

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Afternoon Tea is also very special. We Brits have invented all kinds of brilliant stuff over the years: the steam locomotive, television, stiff upper lips, penicillin and orderly queuing in line to name just a few. To this list I’m proud to add the quintessentially English tradition of Afternoon Tea, a plate stand of dainty sandwiches, pastries, scones with lashings of jam (preserves) and clotted cream, and assorted cakes, all served in the mid to late afternoon with a steaming pot of Indian or Sri Lankan tea.

All traditions have to begin at some point, and Afternoon Tea can be dated to around 1840. Wealthy English folk had been drinking tea since the 1660s when the habit was popularised by King Charles II, who probably needed regular caffeine hits to help him keep up with his numerous comely mistresses. However it wasn’t until early in Queen Victoria’s reign that the idea of Afternoon Tea reared its head.

Unsurprisingly the practice can be traced back to members of the aristocracy, who had plenty of time on their hands, money to burn and servants to do all the hard graft.

Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, lived in a household where the evening meal was traditionally served at 8pm. Finding herself feeling inconveniently peckish during the late afternoon our Anna instructed her staff to prepare a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake, at around 4pm every day. The good Duchess was well pleased with her initiative, and invited her friends round so she could show off her new domestic routine.

Pretty soon Afternoon Tea was all the rage amongst the upper classes. Amazingly, in the days before Facebook, people networked by physically spending time in one another’s company (strange but true!), and what could be better than to combine meeting with eating?

Ordinary people, in other words the very men and women whose hard graft made, heated and maintained the scented bubble baths in which the likes of the Duchess and her cronies wallowed, were untouched by the new fad. In Victorian England everyone knew their place, and the common folk knew that Afternoon Tea wasn’t for the likes of them.

Fortunately times have changed, and the once sturdy walls of the British class system have begun to crumble. It therefore feels like poetic justice that while the Duke of Bedford finds it necessary to open up his stately mansion to tours by the Great Unwashed, anyone in England can now enjoy a fabulous Afternoon Tea regardless of their ancestry or social standing.

Indeed in recent years there’s been a noticeable revival in this quaint tradition. All manner of catering establishments and hostelries now offer Afternoon Tea to anyone with a few pounds and an hour or two to spare.

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Of course the content of Afternoon Tea has evolved over time, but a reincarnated Duchess Anna would doubtless recognise and hopefully approve of most modern re-workings of her early Victorian innovation. Beaurepaire Patisserie has certainly taken the concept to the next level, and we opted for the full works, starting with a plate stand of savouries which comprised a tiny glass of delicious soup, a filled baby Yorkshire pud and some quiche as well as the inevitable sandwiches.

When the savouries had been demolished it was on to the sweetmeats, a plate stand groaning under the weight of cakes, scones and pastries. There was also a glass of Eton Mess, a glorious confection of strawberries, meringue, and whipped Chantilly cream. We were in heaven, but also in danger of exploding. So, stuffed to the gunnels and awash with countless cups of tea, we called for a box to take home the remainder of our fare, to be consumed later in the day once space became available.

Afternoon Tea proved to be a terrific way to celebrate Valentines Day. It may not last as long as flowers, but who needs daffodils and dahlias when you can instead spend a couple of hours being divinely decadent?

So, wherever you are now, step forward and take a bow Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford. We, and other lovers of Afternoon Tea from up and down this sceptered isle, are forever in your debt.