Category Archives: History

Can handwriting survive?

I’ve been thinking for a little while now about reading and writing, and decided to convert those thoughts into a blog post. I used to reckon that reading and writing were two sides of the same coin. We teach them at broadly the same time, and it seems natural with a child to talk through the physical process of making a letter shape at the same time as learning to recognise it on a page.

Cartouche of Rameses at Luxor
Cartouche of Rameses at Luxor

But lately, I’ve been reconsidering this. My thinking actually goes back several years to when I was studying ancient Egyptian. It is generally understood that alongside the scribes of Egypt – who had a good command of hieroglyphic and hieratic writing, plus Akkadian cuneiform and a few other written scripts and a whole lot of technical knowledge besides – there was a much ĺarger group of people who could read reasonably well, but not write with fluency or competence. A few particularly common signs, like the cartouche of the current pharaoh, or the major deity names, would be very widely recognised even by people who were generally illiterate. You see this same process happening with tourists today, who start to spot common groups of Egyptian signs long before they could dream of constructing a sentence.

Hieratic Scribal Exercise
Hieratic Scribal Exercise

The ability to write is far more than just knowing letter shapes. You need a wide enough vocabulary to select the right word among several choices, to know how to change each word with past or future tense, or number of people, or gender. You need background knowledge of the subject. You need to understand the conventions of the intended audience so as to convey the right meaning. In short, learning to write is more demanding than learning to read (and I’m talking about the production of writing here, not the quality of the finished product).

Roll forward to the modern day, and we are facing a slightly different kind of question. The ability to read is essential to get and thrive in most jobs. Or to access information, buy various goods, or just navigate from place to place. I’m sure it is possible to live in today’s England without being able to read, but it will be difficult, and all sorts of avenues are closed to that person.

But the ability to write – by which I mean to make handwriting – is, I think, much more in doubt. Right now I’m constructing this blog post in my lunch hour on a mobile phone, tapping little illuminated areas of the screen to generate the letters. In a little while I’ll go back to my desk, and enter characters by pressing down little bits of plastic on a keyboard. Chances are I’ll be writing some computer code (in the C# or NodeJS computer languages, if you’re curious) but if I have to send a message to a colleague I’ll use the same mechanical process.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Then again, some of my friends use dictation software to “write” emails and letters, and then do a small amount of corrective work at the end. They tell me that dictation technology has advanced to the stage where only minor fix-ups are needed. And, as most blog readers will know, I’m enthusiastic about Alexa for controlling functionality by voice. Although writing text of any great length is not yet feasible on that platform, my guess is that it won’t be long until this becomes real.

All of this means that while the act of reading will most likely remain crucial for a long time to come, maybe this won’t be true of writing in the conventional sense. Speaking personally, hand-writing is already something I do only for hastily scribbled notes or postcards to older relatives. Or occasionally to sign something. The readability of my hand-writing is substantially lower than it used to be, purely because I don’t exercise it much (and by pure chance I heard several of my work colleagues saying the same thing today). Do I need hand-writing in modern life? Not really, not for anything crucial.

Some devices
Some devices

I don’t think it’s just me. On my commuting journeys I see people reading all kinds of things – newspapers, books, magazines, Kindles, phones, tablets and so on. I really cannot remember the last time I saw somebody reading a piece of hand-written material on the tube.

Now, to set against that, I have friends and relatives for whom the act of writing is still important. They would say that the nature of the writing surface and the writing implement – pencil, biro, fountain pen – are important ingredients, and that bodily engagement with the process conveys something extra than simply the production of letters. Emphasis and emotion are easier to impart – they say – when you are personally fashioning the outcome. To me, this seems simply a temporary problem of the tools we are using, but we shall see.

Looking ahead, I cannot imagine a time when reading skills won’t be necessary – there are far too many situations where you have to pore over things in detail, review what was written a few chapters back, compare one thing against another, or just enjoy the artistry with which the text had been put together. Just to recognise which letter to tap or click requires that I be able to read. But hand-writing? I’m not at all sure this will survive much longer.

Perhaps a time will come when teaching institutions will not consider it worth while investing long periods of time in getting children’s hand-writing to an acceptable standard – after all, pieces of quality writing can be generated by several other means.

Quill pen device for tablet
Quill pen device for tablet

A bit of history

I have been in Cumbria the last few days – England’s Lake District – and have been surrounded by history. Of course there are the hills, first established up to about 500 million years ago and steadily being reshaped by nature’s forces since then. Then there are the various lakes and tarns, mostly the result of glaciation on a timescale of about 11,000 to 100,000 years ago. And of course the various signs of humanity’s use of the landscape, going back a few thousand years.

Commanding Officer's house, Ambleside Roman fort
Commanding Officer’s house, Ambleside Roman fort

But also there are specific signs of human activity, and I have been happily looking at some of these. Just outside Ambleside, at the northern end of Windermere, are some rather well displayed remnants of a Roman fort. It’s name is not known with certainty, but the most likely claim is Galava, identified in later Roman records in this vicinity. The earliest fort held a unit of about 200 soldiers, and was upgraded over time to have about 500. As well as barracks and all the usual paraphernalia of a Roman fort, it also boasted a jetty onto the lakeside at which, one presumes, cargo and passengers arrived and departed. From here, roads led off west towards the splendid fort in the Hardknott Pass (which I haven’t yet visited) and also up the eastern side of Ullswater towards Penrith, Carlisle, and Hadrian’s Wall.

The Langdale Pikes from a distance
The Langdale Pikes from a distance

But as well as that there are considerably older signs of human habitation, and I have to admit that these excite me rather more than the Roman ones. Back in Neolithic times, there was a stone axe “factory” up amongst the Langdale Pikes. These tower impressively over the Langdale Valley, and are easily identified from many miles away as you approach. If you come as tourist, your first view of them might well be from Windermere railway station, but actually they can be spotted from a few places rather further afield. Axes from Langdale have been found all across Britain and beyond, and were clearly highly prized items in their day.

Rock art at Chapel Stile Boulders
Rock art at Chapel Stile Boulders

And as you approach the pikes along the Langdale Valley, on the valley floor just outside a village called Chapel Stile, there is a collection of boulders which are adorned with Neolithic rock art. Like virtually all of such art in Britain, it seems abstract to us, and does not admit of any easy interpretation. It is impossible – when you are there – to think that the people who cut the marks on those rocks were not making a connection with the stone axe site, but the nature of the connection is now unknown. Perhaps they were directions, or messages of welcome, or warnings of how to treat the local deities – but we just don’t know.

It’s an enigma, and a pleasant one to contemplate as you make your own way along the valley… and one day I hope to spin all this lot into a story…

The Langdale Pikes from Chapel Stile boulders
The Langdale Pikes from Chapel Stile boulders

Withdrawal and the sacred: the tides of life

Northumberland flower
Northumberland flower

I have just come back from a short time away in and around Lindisfarne, in the north-east of England not far from the Scottish border. Its other name is Holy Island, reflecting the fact that for a great many years – from its foundation as a monastery around 634 to the 16th century – it was best known as a centre for prayer, worship, and learning.

The Pilgrim's Route across the sands
The Pilgrim’s Route across the sands

Lindisfarne is one of those places which is an island at high tide, and connected to the rest of Northumberland by vast mud flats at low tide. Twice a day the sea comes in and gathers the island into itself, and twice a day the sea withdraws again and allows traffic to pass freely. It’s a most magnificent symbol of the way the human psyche engages with and separates from the world. We have times of busyness, and times of withdrawal. Even if it’s only in sleep, all of us have this tidal cycle running deep in us, and it goes far beyond rest and recuperation.

Singing seals hauled out on the mudflats
Singing seals hauled out on the mudflats

This part of Northumberland also has a huge variety of wildlife – flowers, birds, and insects are everywhere. The birds are at their most striking during the spring and autumn migrations, but there are plenty around in the summer as well. And the Lindisfarne seals sing! Perhaps seals in other places do this too, but I have never heard them. But on a rising tide, as the mudbanks where they are hauled out in their hundreds gradually shrink, you can often hear their song, somewhere between a wolf pack howling and the wind sighing, and not quite like either. There’s plenty of wind on the island as well, but when you hear that song, you have no doubt you are listening to something that a living creature has produced.

No wonder that the founding monks of the Lindisfarne community – Aidan, Cuthbert and all – chose this place to build something which joins both this world and the other. We know comparatively little about occupation of the site before their time, but I’d be confident that it was recognised as a liminal place long before the arrival of Christianity here.

Augustine of Hippo, speaking out of his own religious heritage, wrote that “our souls are restless, until they find their rest in Thee“, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to find both restlessness and rest than here.

High tide again
High tide again

Times have changed a little – the monasteries have been disbanded, the habitual practice of Christianity has changed in many ways, and the island is now connected to the mainland in more sophisticated ways than a footpath. But when you’re on the island, the feeling of being away from the mainland presses closely around you. Spirituality remains a major influence on the life of the island, and people still visit for the purpose of feeding their souls. And the cycle of tides still separates this little place from the mainland twice a day.

 

King Arthur and the north – part 2

Today’s blog about the link between King Arthur and Cumbria looks at his death, and the mysterious circumstances of the Lady of the Lake. But first, a link between a figure who was definitely real, and the Arthurian tales – the Matter of England, as it has been called.

Grisedale Tarn from Dolly Wagon
Grisedale Tarn from Dolly Wagon

For this, you have to walk a little way up from the southernmost tip of Ullswater, from the villages of Glenridding or Patterdale. Follow what is now the Coast to Coast walk up the long valley until you get to Grisedale Tarn, in the saddle point between the summits of Fairfield and Dolly Wagon. From here, if you wanted, you could drop down again into Grasmere. And here, according to rumour, Dunmail, the last British king of the region and possibly the whole country, ordered his crown to be flung into the tarn rather than fall into the hands of his victorious enemies (see an earlier post I wrote all about this). When the time is right, just like Arthur, he and his men will reclaim the crown and return to England’s help./ Now, Dunmail (probably) died around 975 AD, a few hundred years after the (probable) time of Arthur, but this shows that the connection was firmly in people’s minds.

Lady of the Lake on Ullswater
Lady of the Lake on Ullswater

Returning back down the Grisedale valley to Ullswater I found, to my surprise, there is a belief that this was the Lake from which Arthur’s sword came. Now, once again this part of the overall story had always been linked in my mind to the south. But not by everyone, apparently. One of the Ullswater passenger steamers is, in fact, called The Lady of the Lake to commemorate this. But how old is the tradition?

Looking down Grisedale towards Patterdale
Looking down Grisedale towards Patterdale

Like so many other things about these events, written evidence is comparatively late and almost certainly cannot be relied upon. We have to just look at possibilities.

King Arthur (2004) DVD cover (Amazon)
King Arthur (2004) DVD cover (Amazon)

Indeed, The historian Michael Wood went on record to the effect that the original stories “surprisingly, do not take us to the South West or to Wales, but to Cumbria, southern Scotland, and the ancient kingdom of Rheged, around the Solway”. Arthur’s final battle – at Camlann or Camboglanna  – has been variously placed in Cornwall, near Cader Idris in Wales, or near Carlisle – if we follow the norther trail, then the Roman fort of Birdoswald is a very good candidate. Those who watched the 2004 version of King Arthur may remember the whole northern setting. Several other events from Arthur’s life can be credibly located along the Roman Wall, and if he really was mortally wounded here, then a retreat down to Ullswater is feasible. Carlisle to Pooley Bridge, the nearest point of Ullswater, is only about 20 miles.

I must admit that back in the days when I was committed to the southern theory, I could never reconcile the two mental images this last episode conjures up. One is of a moorland battle, with Arthur gazing round at bodies strewn among heather and gorse. The other is of the lakeshore where the sword was finally given back. Down south there are comparatively few places where these images could be reconciled. But a battle near the old wall, followed by a retreat to Ullswater, makes much more sense.

Water, mist and hills...
Water, mist and hills…

The setting is undoubtedly atmospheric, especially of a morning when mists hover over the waters, with the mountain peaks rising darkly above. When you’re there, it’s actually quite easy to imagine the Lady’s arm emerging from the waters, or Sir Bedivere standing on the shoreline, sword in hand, torn between obedience and desire. I could go along with that.

The Death of Arthur by James Archer (Wiki)
The Death of Arthur by James Archer (Wiki)

What of his resting place? Again there is plenty of variety in the tradition to choose from. You have the romantic vision of him that artists often pick, in which he is carried away in a barge, tended to by queens. But there are other options. And according to one of these, Arthur, and possibly a selection of his followers, ended up in caves below Blencathra, also called Saddleback.

Looking across Derwent Water towards Blencathra under looming skies
Looking across Derwent Water towards Blencathra under looming skies

Blencathra is north east of Keswick, and only about 8 or 9 miles from the closest part of Ullswater. And it’s a comparatively easy 8 or 9 miles, across open land not particularly broken up by hills and valleys. It’s also an exceptionally bleak area to cross in the wrong sort of weather conditions. Now I have to admit I have never climbed Blencathra in all my many visits to the region – it’s a bit shapeless at its summit, overlooked by the rather more interesting Skiddaw. And part of it – Sharp Edge – is one of the most hazardous locations of the region, resulting in more deaths, injuries and mountain rescue call-outs than anywhere else.  For a different and much more upbeat view, real mountaineers such as Doug Scott and Chris Bonnington have said it is one of their favourite climbs. Either way, some say that this is where Arthur rests.

There are lots of competing stories and interpretations, but for me the whole process has been one of realisation that the north-west has a very good claim to Arthur.

King Arthur and the north – part 1

Round table, Winchester Castle (Wiki - By Martin Kraft - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16639627)
Round table, Winchester Castle (Wiki)

Being brought up in the south of England, I had always assumed that King Arthur was basically a southerner. After all, there was Tintagel, Glastonbury, even Winchester, though I knew from an early age that the round table hanging in the castle there had no real connection with him (dendrochronology has set a date around 1275). If I thought about the north at all with reference to Arthur, it was only that maybe he’d gone up there once or twice to trounce some band of malcontents.

But then, rather later, I discovered a strong Welsh connection, and my perspective started to shift a little. I found out that more places, over most of the country, had a claim to Arthurian material, and the southern homeland idea got seriously knocked.

Of course, Arthur is a national symbol, irrespective of any historical reality, so it is natural that associations would be nationwide. And it’s clear that some suggested links are wildly speculative, presumably made by hopeful locals wanting to be attached somehow to the person of the king. But not all of them can be dismissed so quickly.

Daniel Defoe's memorial, Bunhill Fields Burial and Gardens, Islington
Daniel Defoe’s memorial, Bunhill Fields Burial and Gardens, Islington

I’m going to talk in this post and the next about a few links up in Cumbria. Until recently the Lake District had been completely off my Arthurian map, but no longer. But calling it The Lake District brings to mind quiet walks by placid waters, and this is only half of the story of the region. The names Cumbria or Rheged evoke a much more robust image. Until comparatively recently, the area was better known for its rugged and apparently impenetrable mountains, than its placid waters. In 1724, Daniel Defoe wrote that it was “bounded by a chain of almost unpassable mountains which, in the language of the country, are called fells“. So what better place could there be to symbolise the wild unconquered parts of the land?

Pendragon Castle looking out at the River Eden (Wiki)
Pendragon Castle looking out at the River Eden (Wiki)

One of the two easy routes in to the wild heart of the region is from the Eden Valley, via Penrith (the other is up north from Kendal along the shores of Windermere). And indeed, signs of Arthurian connections begin in the Eden Valley. A few miles south and east of Penrith is Pendragon Castle, built, according to legend, by Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur. Allegedly Merlin tried to alter the course of the River Eden to make a moat, but his powers were insufficient, and the river stayed where it was. Perhaps with a little more historical footing, Uther is said to have died there after some of his Saxon enemies poisoned the well.

King Arthur's Round Table, engraving (English Heritage)
King Arthur’s Round Table, engraving (English Heritage)

Closer to Penrith is the Neolithic henge known as King Arthur’s Table. Of course the monument itself is vastly older than any probable time of Arthur – probably about 2500 years older. In its day, and long after, it would have been a stunning sight – it is some 90m across, originally with two entrances though one has been obliterated by modern buildings and a road. I can easily imagine a post-Roman leader stopping by to establish some link with ancestral glories. Much later, the site was linked explicitly to Arthur when it was believed that the circular space was used for jousting. In fact we have no idea what the original purpose was, but the area has several henges within a small area, so was presumably a significant location to our remote ancestors (the second henge in the old engraving is long since lost, but nearby Mayburgh Henge still remains).

1825 painting of Ullswater (Wiki - Museum of Wales - By John Parker - This image is available from the National Library of WalesYou can view this image in its original context on the NLW Catalogue, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47585043)
1825 painting of Ullswater (Wiki – Museum of Wales)

After that, move a few miles south-west to Ullswater, arriving first at Pooley Bridge. It’s an easier and more obvious route to follow into the hills than today’s A66, although the trail along the 10km of the lake ends in a series of abrupt and dramatic valley ends. Ullswater is one of the longest and deepest of the Cumbrian lakes, and has its own set of monster-in-the-deep tales, reported from early times through to modern visitors. But let’s stick reasonably close to Arthur.

Glenridding and Ullswater, picture taken from a similar place as the painting above
Glenridding and Ullswater, picture taken from a similar place as the painting above

At the northern end of the lake, not far from Pooley Bridge, is Tristamont, or Trestamount, shown on many maps as Hodgson Hill. Local legend has it that this was the burial place of Tristan. Now most of the Arthurian stories present Tristan as a Cornishman by birth (born of Elizabeth to Meliodas, king of the lost land of Lyonesse), but linguistically the name can be linked to Old Welsh, and so directly to the Cumbric language. So a connection with the north-west is far from impossible. The idea of an actual castle, not just a grave, goes back to the antiquarian Rev Machell, who in the 1630s described walls and fortifications here. Now, although it is true that many standing stones and ancient walls in the region have been robbed for building, modern archaeologists are very sceptical that Machell recorded anything more than natural deposits of glacial rock. Under the right conditions, these can indeed look artificial. About the only definite sign of human construction is a ditch around the east side of this hill.

Aira Force (Wiki)
Aira Force (Wiki)

From medieval times – much later than any original King Arthur, though broadly consistent with his reimagining in courtly chivalric terms – we have the tale of Sir Eglamore and his fiancee Emma, probably originating from somewhere around the 13th century. They lived near the waterfall at Aira Force, but the knight was absent on the Crusades for a very long time. Returning unexpectedly, he startled Emma as she was sleep-walking, so that she slipped down the waterfall to her death. Eglamore lived out his days as a hermit beside the falls. It’s a very Arthurian tale, even if not directly linked to the tradition.

So that’s got some of the peripheral details out of the way – next time I’ll be looking at the central details surrounding Arthur’s death and the Lady of the Lake…

Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake (Wiki, illustration by Henry Justice Ford)
Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake (Wiki, illustration by Henry Justice Ford)

Where are they now… Margaret Cavendish

For today, a blog which I wrote for The Review and reposted here…

If I asked you to name some early science fiction writers, I’m guessing you’d think of Jules Verne or HG Wells, who established in the 19th and early 20th centuries so many of the conventions and themes of the genre.

Portrait of Margaret Cavendish (Wiki)
Portrait of Margaret Cavendish (Wiki)

You probably wouldn’t think of going back to 1666, and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. But in fact, in the same year that the Plague was raging, and London experienced the Great Fire – only some 50 years after the King James Bible was translated, and Shakespeare was writing plays – Margaret Cavendish published her novel The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World. It has been called “the only known work of utopian fiction by a woman in the 17th century, as well as one of the earliest examples of what we now call ‘science fiction’ — although it is also a romance, an adventure story, and even autobiography“.

Margaret Lucas was born in 1623, the youngest of eight children, and had a lively childhood, partly spent with Queen Henrietta Maria in exile in France. In 1645 she married William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who was a staunch royalist and reasonably successful military commander (so had had a difficult few years until the Restoration of Charles II). He was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and sciences, which is perhaps why he and Margaret formed a happy couple – her lively and wide-ranging intellect would undoubtedly have attracted his attention. He was devastated by her death in 1673, and died just three years later.

Cover - The Blazing World (Wiki)
Cover – The Blazing World (Wiki)

She was not only an author of fiction, but also wrote over a dozen original works in diverse fields – poetry and plays, as well as a number of early scientific and philosophical treatises. The Blazing World was routinely distributed with her non-fiction Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, thus combining imaginative and scientific discourse. She was the first woman to attend meetings of the Royal Society, and engaged in debate with leading figures of the time such as Descartes, Hobbes, and Boyle. She was not shy about disagreeing with the thinking of the age when she felt it was in error, a habit which brought her criticism and conflict.

The Blazing World is, by modern standards, a slightly odd book. The protagonist, a lady whose name we never learn, is abducted by an impatient suitor, but her virtue is preserved by divine intervention which diverts the ship towards the north pole where the wickedly motivated men all perish. The lady herself is rescued by creatures which are man-like but with animal qualities – once in the Blazing World proper, she will meet Bear-men, Fox-men, Fly-men, Bird-men, Fish-men and so on. Her rescuers take her through a narrow passageway which connects our world with The Blazing World. Since there is only one such passage, and the celestial view in her new home is entirely different, a modern author might well describe this as a wormhole connection rather like in Stargate.

The Emperor of this world is smitten with her, and after a very short interval the two marry. There is then a long passage in which the new Empress quizzes the various theoretical and experimental factions in her new home – clearly satirising the state of affairs in the Royal Society, though many of the barbs evade recognition by today’s reader. Part of this section describes the creation of a array of miniature universes, each intending to explore some particular theme, and most of which are unstable and collapse again because of their own inconsistencies. It sounds very like an early exploration of what we now call the Anthropic Principle – the laws of the universe are constrained by the fact that intelligent life has arisen in it.

Portrait -Margaret Cavendish - © National Portrait Gallery
Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne, (by Pieter Louis van Schuppen,
after Abraham Diepenbeeck, line engraving, late 17th century, NPG D30185, © National Portrait Gallery, London

In a way that would now be considered rather shockingly indulgent, she then as author brings herself in as a character – a sort of muse and scribe to the Empress. The two become exceedingly close friends. We are assured that the relationship is entirely platonic, but the degree of closeness far exceeds anything else in the book except that of Margaret to her husband.

The second half of the book describes a kind of interplanetary war – the Empress learns that her original native country is under attack by a large alliance, and decides her duty is to help. So she devises a kind of blitzkrieg strategy including air power (the Bird-men) and submarine warfare (the Fish-men) to overwhelm the assembled enemies. The combination is unstoppable, and it is clear that if she wanted, she could assume control of our world as well. Being of a restrained disposition she does not do this, but withdraws again once victory is assured.

The book closes with William and Margaret gaining inspiration for certain changes to their own estates on the basis of what they have seen in the alternative world, and a commitment to ongoing friendship and communion between the two worlds.

Margaret Cavendish and her writing went off everybody’s radar for many years, with the rise of the true novel. However, after a considerable time of obscurity, she has started to resurface. In 1997 the Margaret Cavendish Society was formed to encourage academic study of her work. The blend of feminism, science, philosophy, fantasy and interpersonal relationships has found a resonance in our own age.

Margaret is quite open about her purpose in writing the book, and her pride in being its creator: “…you may perceive, that my ambition is not onely to be Empress, but Authoress of a whole World… in the formation of those worlds, I take more delight and glory, than ever Alexander or Cesar did in conquering this terrestrial world… concerning the Philosophical-world, I am Empress of it my self; and as for the Blazing-World, it having an Empress already, who rules it with great Wisdom and Conduct, which Empress is my dear Platonick Friend; I shall never prove so unjust, treacherous, and unworthy to her, as to disturb her Government, much less to depose her from her Imperial Throne, for the sake of any other, but rather chuse to create another World for another Friend.”

Stirring words, indeed, and ones which many an author would identify with!

 

Superstition

Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria
Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria

I’ve been thinking on and off about superstitions for a little while now, and it’s clear from other people’s blogs that I’m not alone in this. Synchronicity, perhaps.

To be clear, I see a big difference between superstition and religious faith, and I’m not going to be critical of either. They both are built around the conviction that actions in the here and now are not just casual and without consequence. Instead, they carry weighty implications which resonate in both natural and spiritual worlds. Religious people can be superstitious, and non-religious people can be superstitious – though the rational constructions of each of religion, atheism, and science are typically hostile to such practices. People of any religion or none might throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder, or uncross knives in a drawer, or say “white rabbits” at the start of a month, or avoid walking on the divisions between paving slabs!

Religious thought tends to be more systematic, with a careful body of thought surrounding its core principles. Whether embedded in a written or oral tradition, faith encourages theology – rational exploration of the hinterland of a central mystery which itself eludes the possibility of capture. Superstition is based around individual actions which do not necessarily build into a coherent whole. Each such action serves a specific purpose, often placatory, and doesn’t have to be combined with anything else.

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

One of the fascinating things about superstitions is that they are often tied to particular situations. Often this is to do with place – some specific deed must be done in a specific place in order to be effective. So we have all kinds of special places – trees, bodies of water, hills, and so on, often quite separate from the deeply sacred foci of religious thought. A wishing well might be found only a short distance from, say, Stonehenge, or the temple at Karnak.

But as well as a special place, there are special things to do or items to use. Maybe special words to use. For today, out of all the superstitions in the world, I want to focus briefly on leaving gifts of metal. Most old towns in England – and no doubt elsewhere as well – have a wishing well where people leave coins. Often these days the coinage is collected and given to charity, but the impulse is, I believe, much older and much less thought-through than making a donation to a worthy cause.

A Bronze Age axe hoard from Galicia, Spain (Wiki)
A Bronze Age axe hoard from Galicia, Spain (Wiki)

Back in the Bronze Age in northern Europe, metal items were regularly deposited in large quantities in streams and rivers. We find tools, weapons, scraps of spare metal, jewellery and so on – the whole gamut of artefacts. In some cases these might possibly be understood as a ritual deposit of weapons, either captured from some enemy or, perhaps, being ‘retired’ after the death of the wielder. In most cases we just don’t know the reason.

What we do know is that over time this developed into a veritable industry in its own right. We find huge deposits of tools, typically axe heads without the shaft, carefully buried or placed in piles. These represent a huge investment of time and effort – the ore had to be dug, the metal prepared and moulded, and so on. But in many cases these are not items at the end of long and faithful service – they had never been used in either war or peace, and often the metal was far too soft to be useful in any sphere. These axes were made just to be disposed of.

It’s hard to think of a reason for this, given the limited resources available to the societies of the time. Often we humans have indulged in conspicuous consumption and waste, just to prove we can. Perhaps these axe deposits were an offering to placate someone or something. Perhaps the return of metal to the Earth was seen as closing the cycle of extraction. It’s an open field for guesswork, but for today I’m going to link it with the long lineage of metal gifts which also surfaces in wishing wells.

Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria
Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria

But there’s another similar modern habit which – at least in my mind – is connected to this. It is the habit of hammering coins into trees. In some places you can find hundreds of coins all driven into a stump or old tree – the pictures are from Cumbria, between Grasmere and Rydal, but you could find similar scenes in many other places. I don’t think there was anything particularly unusual about these trees to start with – but as one person after another follows suit then the place starts to gather its own perceived value.

So the ancient tradition of giving back metal to the planet, whether in water, underground, or attached to a tree, is very much alive still in our century! I wonder which existing superstitions we will take into the future with us, and which new ones we will invent?

Identity, belonging, and taxes

Gladstone's budget briefcase (Wiki)
Gladstone’s budget briefcase (Wiki)

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time now, but last week’s Budget here in the UK crystallised my thoughts. For non-UK readers, the Budget is a financial appraisal and forward plan presented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It’s an event where various changes to taxes are made, funding for different major projects is announced, and so on. It’s a chance for everyone to see what the Chancellor and his advisers think is going to happen, and how the country’s finances are going to be handled.

I’m not going to talk about the Budget itself – if you want, the whole document is available online. But there was one tiny snippet in the associated news which caught my eye:

Making tax digital – The start date for unincorporated businesses and landlords with turnover below the VAT registration threshold is deferred by one year to April 2019. Unincorporated business and landlord with turnover above the VAT registration threshold will be required to keep records in a digital format, and make quarterly reports of their results, from April 2018, using appropriate software.

In brief, it means that all firms, however small, will soon need to install suitable software, and be periodically linked up to the government tax computers to transfer earnings details. Those of us who are employed already get tax routinely withheld from our wages every payday, and the picture for the self-employed is rapidly converging.

UK Tax return (Wiki)
UK Tax return (Wiki)

Seeing as how it is only a short time since the tax authorities dealt exclusively in annual paper documents, this shift to online quarterly assessment is a vast change. And it is probably only a staging post on the way towards daily accountability. It’s a huge step from days of yore, when if the local land owner – or his lord, or the king, or the conquering overlord – needed some revenue, he just sent his heavies around and took it.

We live in a world where increasing numbers of people expect to move internationally during their working life – perhaps as much as 1/3 or 1/2 of people entering employment now will make such a move before they retire. So daily accountability is a necessary step to make sure that the right amount of taxes are paid in the country where they are due… a highly charged matter which several multinationals have run foul of.

So all that collided in my thoughts with another modern trend. This second one has been called “filiation versus affiliation“. It describes a major shift which has happened from the ancient world until now. Back then, your birth family – filiation – counted for everything, even in adult life. Social mobility was extraordinarily hard. We are moving towards a situation where as an adult you choose your own affiliation – your friends, your employment, your peer group, your gang, or whatever. Different countries are at different places along that trend, but we are all slowly moving that way. I find it exciting that I can chat with, work with, and be friends with people across the world who I am never likely to meet… but there are problems and difficulties as well.

So all that made me think, what if you could choose your country – your national affiliation – as easily as joining a Facebook group? Maybe I like the education system in Sweden, the stance on nuclear weapons in New Zealand, and a whole collection of other policies scattered around the world’s nations. But geographically I like living here in the UK, and in particular have a number of tip-top favourite places.

A Carthaginian Shekel c. 300BC (Wiki)
A Carthaginian Shekel c. 300BC (Wiki)

So… what if I could shop around with my tax liability? I go off to work, earn a few shekels, spend some of them on the necessities of life… and owe some agreed fraction in taxes. What if I could then decide which nations I wanted to support with those taxes, and effectively buy fractional citizenship there? In much the same way as I dispose of the rest of my income – so much to the supermarket, so much to a local independent store, so much to Amazon, so much put aside for a rainy day, etc.

I don’t think this would be an easy transition to make – for example, how would I pay London Underground for the trips I make on the Northern Line? I’m quite sure my ticket price doesn’t cover the cost of capital investment and replacement. How would I pay for the running of the National Parks that I love? There’d be all kinds of difficulties to work through.

But on the other hand, this could be a logical direction for democracy. Right now, the world’s major democracies are struggling with how to manage situations of narrow majorities. Big policy changes are being made on both sides of the Atlantic which go against the wishes of almost half of a population. So why not consider not only voting in a ballot box, but voting with the results of our labour? A parliamentary or presidential democracy results – seemingly inevitably – in governments becoming increasingly hardened in their stance on issues, and the voices of minority groups become increasingly hard to hear. Maybe the ability to move our citizenship, or fractions of it, away from one country and into another would undo that.

Kickstarter Logo (www.kickstarter.com)
Kickstarter Logo (www.kickstarter.com)

At very least it might make budgets more like a kind of kickstarter pitch. Last week, the overall majority enjoyed by the current British government meant that the Chancellor could pretty much do as he pleased. He didn’t have to win anyone over to his position – although in the days since his speech we have seen some backpedalling after interventions from the Prime Minister, so perhaps a bit more discussion beforehand would have been prudent. But what if I could listen to his ideas, decide if I liked them, and then decide if I wanted to support them by means of citizenship and taxes? I might take into account the present government’s track record on things I care about, or the present Chancellor’s level of experience and expertise. Maybe I’d be persuaded, or maybe I’d take my tax elsewhere to someone who convinced me better.

I think people have a capacity to take a long view, so this wouldn’t rule out big projects taking years to come to fruition. After all, we already do that with pensions, or funds set up in childhood for major events later in life. The biggest risk is, perhaps, that money, and those with it, would potentially overwhelm everything. But in many ways that’s already true – public funding has been successively cut back on a whole raft full of artistic, educational, and environmental causes over the last few years. Maybe a kickstarter style approach to national budgets would bring funding back to some of these.

The present system has winners and losers, and I dare say so will any new replacement one. But I wonder if overall such a system would be more equitable, or less?

Justice (Wiki)
Justice (Wiki)

Fun with the sun part 2 – the Analemma

Sundial, Allan Bank, Grasmere, Cumbria
Sundial, Allan Bank, Grasmere, Cumbria

Part 2 of this little series looks at a different phenomenon to do with the sun’s movement through the sky. Imagine yourself picking a time of day – let’s say 10:30 in the morning – and taking note of where the sun is in the sky. Do this at the same time every day of the year to build up a curve tracing the sun’s apparent movement. One way to do this would be to take a photo pointing at exactly the same angle at exactly this time, then overlay the photos on top of each other. Another way would be to put a stick in the ground as a rudimentary sundial, then mark out the end of the stick’s shadow each day. It’s an easy experiment in principle, but takes a lot of patience and accuracy to get right.

Analemma with the Temple of Zeus (340-330 BC) at Ancient Nemea, image credit Anthony Ayiomamitis, found at http://solar-center.stanford.edu/art/analemma.html
Analemma with the Temple of Zeus (340-330 BC) at Ancient Nemea, image credit Anthony Ayiomamitis, found at http://solar-center.stanford.edu/art/analemma.html

But suppose you’ve done that – what would you expect to see? We know that the sun goes up and down in the sky through the year – in winter it is lower and in summer higher. So i suspect that most people would expect to see a straight vertical line being plotted through the year as the sun cycles along its seasonal track. But actually what you get is not a straight line, but a figure eight shape. In the northern hemisphere the top loop of the 8 is smaller than the bottom, while in the southern hemisphere the loop nearer the horizon is the small one.

This curve is called the analemma, and has been known for a very long time – Greek and Latin authors wrote about it some two thousand years ago in the interest of designing a better sundial. My guess is that people observed this much longer ago, and that the creators of the great prehistoric stone observatory monuments tried to incorporate it in their designs.

We can describe this curve mathematically, and it is taught as a method of dead reckoning for those at sea. With a good watch to keep track of time, decent knowledge of the analemma shape, and some precise observations of the sun’s position in the sky, you can pinpoint your position down to around 100 nautical miles. Not bad if you’re lost at sea with no GPS!

The Earth's axial tilt (Wiki)
The Earth’s axial tilt (Wiki)

The root cause of this is a combination of two factors in the Earth’s movement. The first is that the polar axis, around which the Earth spins to give day and night, is not at right angles to the plane of the Earth’s orbit. This offset angle, a little over 23 degrees, is what gives us seasons. The second factor is that the Earth’s orbit around the sun is not perfectly circular, but a slightly squashed oval. Moreover the sun is not at the centre of the oval, but offset to one side at one of the two focal points – we are about 5 million km closer to the sun in early January than we are in early July. The Earth does not move at a constant speed around this oval. We speed up at closest approach to the sun, and then slow down as we move further away. Those who can remember school physics might have come across this as Kepler’s 1st and 2nd laws of planetary motion, originally formulated in the early 1600s.

A planet moves quicker when closer to the sun (http://scienceblogs.com/)
A planet moves quicker when closer to the sun (http://scienceblogs.com/)

Now, for convenience we split our year into equal length days, which means that for one part of the year, a day according to our clocks gets ahead of its allotted portion of the orbit, and for another part it falls behind. By the end of the year it all comes out even. Also, the offset of the polar axis changes the degree to which these shifts make a real difference against the sky. The combination of these two factors is what generates the figure 8 shape of the analemma.

Castlerigg stone circle, Cumbria
Castlerigg stone circle, Cumbria

Let’s think back to our ancient ancestors and the stone monuments they built. We know that the positions of the stones encode astronomical information. The monument builders were aware of not just the annual cycle of the sun, but also of more subtle patterns, such as the 28 year cycle that the moon makes in its own path against the sky. Since the analemma can be mapped out with nothing more complicated than a stick to make a shadow, it seems to me quite improbable that they did not know it. Having said that, I don’t know of any specific stone patterns that can be linked directly to the analemma. Once people started making sundials, they soon found that there was no single division of hour markers that works consistently. The figure 8 shape ensures that your sundial sometimes runs fast and sometimes slow.

Martian analemma, photographed by NASA's Opportunity rover, 2006-2008 (NASA/JPL)
Martian analemma, photographed by NASA’s Opportunity rover, 2006-2008 (NASA/JPL)

Moving into the future, every planet has its own variation of the analemma. The exact shape depends on interplay between the angle of the polar axis and the extent to which the orbit deviates from a pure circle. Our Earth has these two factors in approximate balance. So does Pluto, which therefore has a figure 8 shape like Earth, though in this case the top and bottom loops are almost the same size. But for other planets one factor or the other dominates. As a result, Jupiter has a simple oval shape, while Mars has a tear-drop. However, actually making the observations (as opposed to calculating them) might be tricky as you move out through the solar system. On Earth, you only have to wait 365 days. But a Jupiter year is almost 12 of our years, and Pluto takes nearly 250 years to circle the sun once. You would need extreme patience to plot out a full analemma cycle in both these places!

Golden Jubilee Sundial, Old Palace Yard, Westminster (Wiki)
Golden Jubilee Sundial, Old Palace Yard, Westminster (Wiki)

Fun with the sun part one – the Equation of Time

Sunset from Bryher
Sunset from Bryher

I guess pretty much all of us know that December 21st this year marked the winter solstice, and so – in the northern hemisphere – the shortest day and longest night of the year. But comparatively few people seem to know that this day is not the one when the sun rises latest and sets earliest. The exact dates of those events are, at the latitude of London, just over a week different from the solstice. Specifically, the latest sunrise this year is not until January 1st 2017, and the earliest sunset was on December 12th.

It turns out that the times when the sun rises and sets are governed by a moderately complicated algorithm called the Equation of Time. This obviously varies with your latitude and longitude, but also takes into account the small differences between the solar day and the sidereal day (the day length as measured against the distant and essentially fixed stars), seasonal variations in the earth’s distance from the sun, the apparent size of the solar disk, and a host of other relevant pieces of information. Strictly speaking, one’s height above sea level, and the details of the surrounding terrain also make a difference, but not in a way that’s easy to quantify here. Finally, there are several different definitions of what angle counts as the zenith line, and I have taken the civil definition as opposed to nautical or astronomical.

Once upon a time the calculations would have taken a very long time and lots of paper, but nowadays we can throw the calculation steps into Excel and find out the information for anywhere we want, and for a reasonably long span of time into the past or future. For the curious, a step by step description can be found at this link.

Sunrise through the year at different locations
Sunrise through the year at different locations

Out of curiosity, I plotted the changes for a series of latitudes from that of Reykjavik in Iceland (just over 64 degrees north) via Orkney, Penrith and London in the UK, through Rome and the Tropic of Cancer to the Equator. For simplicity I just took everything on the zero longitude line (through Greenwich) since I was only interested in changes in latitude. If you wanted to do this for yourself then you would need to adjust for your actual longitude east or west from Greenwich, and your official time zone.

Sunset through the year at different locations
Sunset through the year at different locations

Here’s the corresponding chart for sunset.

A few things stand out at a quick glance. First, the time of sunrise varies considerably at some times of the year even between London and the north of Scotland. Secondly, you don’t have to go all that far north to get to the ‘land of the midnight sun‘. Thirdly, the total range of variation of sunrise is very small at the equator – about 1/2 an hour, as compared with London’s 4 1/2 hours, or Iceland’s 8 1/2 hours. The places where all these lines cross over is at the spring and autumn equinoxes, where night and day are each 12 hours long across the whole globe.

Sunrise - the early part of the year
Sunrise – the early part of the year

Going back to where we started, and looking carefully at the early part of the year, you can see that the day of latest sunrise happens after the solstice. The further north you go, the closer the two days are together. So in Reykjavik the latest sunrise is on December 26th. Come down to Orkney and it’s the 28th. In London you have to wait until January 1st. In Rome, January 5th. If you lived on the Tropic of Cancer (say in parts of the Sahara, roughly on a level with Kolkata, India) you’d be waiting for the 8th.

Changes through the year at the Equator
Changes through the year at the Equator

If you live right on the Equator something else comes into play. You get not just a simple days-get-longer then days-get-shorter cycle. Instead there is a more complex curve. Something similar happens in the whole belt of the tropics. This is because there are times when the sun at noon is to the south (as always happens in the northern hemisphere north of the Tropic of Cancer(, but then times when the noonday sun passes overhead and is, for a while, to the north. As it swings over and past you, the day length lengthens and then shortens again – as you can see in the graph.

OK, that’s enough of the Equation of Time for this week. Next time – another oddity about solar movements through the year, together with some thoughts about what this all means for us humans as we have observed the sun through the years. I am convinced that our remote ancestors knew about these patterns (though probably didn’t dress them up in the sines and cosines used by modern maths) and incorporated this knowledge into their monuments and observatories. But more of that next time…

Sunset from St Agnes
Sunset from St Agnes