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Monthly Archives: August 2014

Ten Great Winston Churchill Quotes

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Winston ChurchillWinston Churchill was a great statesman, orator, and had a caustic wit.  Here are ten great quotes:

 

“When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber.”

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

“Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.”

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

“For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use to be anything else.”

“An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

“A lady came up to me one day and said ‘Sir! You are drunk’, to which I replied ‘I am drunk today madam, and tomorrow I shall be sober but you will still be ugly.”

 

 

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The Scilly Isles

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Scilly IslesIn my article on the Uffington White Horse, I mentioned the Scilly Isles, situated south-west of Cornwall (roughly 2 hours 45 minutes by boat, or serviced by 3 airports on the mainland, ranging from a 15-minute hop to an hour’s flight).  The island group includes 5 inhabited islands and countless uninhabited islands, ranging in size from dangerous hidden tidal “sharks” waiting to sink ships, to more substantial islands that are largely inhabited by seals and sea birds.

Garrison Walk, St. Mary's

Garrison Walk, St. Mary’s

Perhaps from the 1866 Gilmore Wreck.  Tresco Abbey Gardens.

Perhaps from the 1866 Gilmore wreck. Tresco Abbey Gardens.

Not only are the islands beautiful, but they’re packed with history both onshore and in the waters surrounding the isles:  To date there have been over 900 shipwrecks documented around the archipelago; every tide washes debris from shipwrecks onto the beaches – porcelain, glass, clay pipe debris, and occasionally larger chunks; seasonal changes in the currents shift the seascape, unearthing “new” wrecks to be discovered.  Most of the shipwrecks documented so far occurred between 1700 and 1900; some of their mastheads are displayed in the Tresco (Island) Abbey Gardens (where this photo was taken).

On the main island, St. Mary’s, there is what is called the “Garrison Walk” – a hiking trail around and through the star-shaped garrison (called the “star castle”), complete with cannons in some of the batteries.  It dates from at least 1655, and was used to harass enemy ships attempting to navigate the treacherous waters between Scilly Isles and the mainland of England, and was a strategic site up through the Second World War.

Woolpack Battery, Star Castle

Woolpack Battery, Star Castle

Halangy Down Ancient Village

Halangy Down Ancient Village

Another point of interest on St. Mary’s is the Halangay Down Ancient Village:  Occupied from around 300 BC to AD 700, much of the stones from the buildings were repurposed in the 19th century to build Hugh Town, the main (only) town on St. Mary’s.  Archaeologists have discovered countless ancient burial sites on the islands; it has been speculated that perhaps people brought their dead to the islands for burial from the mainland, there have been so many found.  Also, due to the rising sea levels from the last Great Thaw, they believe that there are larger settlements than Halangay down in what would have been valleys 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, which are now underwater.

Scilly Isles, St. Mary's town beach

Scilly Isles, St. Mary’s town beach

I could go on and on about this fascinating place; check out this link to the Scilly Isles to see for yourself!

 

 

 

Pitch vs. Tar

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Pitch Drop Experiment, begun 1927

The Pitch Drop Experiment

If you’re like me and just naturally curious, and combine that with writing, you’ll find that it leads you down curiouser and curiouser paths.  Today it led me down the path to find the difference between pitch and tar, which came from the search for the etymology of the idiom “toe the line”.  So what is the difference between the two?  Quite a bit and not a lot, it turns out.

Pitch is a general term for either natural resins or manufactured derivations.  When it comes from plants it’s known as resin (and products made from this, such as violin string conditioner, are called rosin), and has a surprisingly wide range of applications, from waterproofing ships, Norse Longhouses and Stave churches to use as a glazing agent in medicines and chewing gum. The confusing thing is that some forms of pitch can be called tar.  Bitumen is a natural asphalt, also known as “oil sand” (an irregular petroleum deposit), which is a type of pitch.  Pitch is a natural viscoelastic polymer, which basically means that even though it seems hard and may shatter on a hard impact, it is actually a liquid.  The  Pitch Drop Experiment was started in 1927; since then, only 9 drops have fallen from the funnel filled with pitch.  That’s patience.  They were able to determine that the viscosity of pitch is roughly 230 billion times that of water.  Just thought you should know.

Tar is obtained through a process called “destructive distillation”, along with other products such as coal gas, coal tar, coal oil, gas carbon, Buckministerfullerene, coke, and ammonia liquor.  Its connection with pitch is that it can also be derived from pine.  I’ve seen puddles of natural tar all over the Highlands of Scotland, as the pressure of weight from the dense peat moors presses the tar out, much like a sponge being squeezed.  It can make hiking through the wilds of Scotland a messy business.  In fact, in Northern Europe the word tar refers to the substance obtained from pine wood and roots.  The distinction between pitch and tar is that the former is denser, more solid, while tar is more of a liquid form. So, it seems, that’s all the difference between the two terms comes down to:  Viscosity.

And that brings me full circle in understanding the idiom to “toe the line”:  The “line” was the strip of weather-proofing between a ship’s deck boards; this was made by packing a mixture of natural debris (sawdust, straw, etc.), pitch and tar between the boards.  It would be therefore logical to assume that tar and pitch were mixed together to make it both spreadable and solid.

The Hávamál

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HavamalThe Eddic Poems contain one of the most famous gnomic poems of Norse history, called the Hávamál.  “Gnomic poetry” is comprised of sayings with life lessons put into verse form to aid memory, and gnome comes from the Greek word meaning opinions; such poetry is part of the broader category known as wisdom literature, common in the Ancient Near East.

There are several translations of the Hávamál into English, some easier to read than others.  Here are two examples, the first stanza of the poem:

(This first version is translated by Olive Bray)

“At every door-way,

ere one enters,

one should spy round,

one should pry round

for uncertain is the witting

that there be no foeman sitting,

within, before one on the floor.”

(This second version is from the book “The Sayings of the Vikings [The Authentic Hávamál]” by Bjorn Jonasson)

“When passing

a door-post,

watch as you walk on,

inspect as you enter.

It is uncertain

where enemies lurk

or crouch in a dark corner.”

According to Bjorn Jonasson, the metre of the Hávamál typically contains six lines or two units of three lines each, tied together with alliteration; he gives the following example:

Better a humble

house than none.

A man is master at home.

A pair of goats

and a patched roof

are better than begging.

 

Some of the advice is antiquated and some of it is universal and timeless; some of it is complete nonsense, and some of it is truly sound counsel.  As with any translation, much of the ingenuity of the original text is lost in the second language; but nevertheless I find the Hávamál a fascinating insight into the mentality of the Norse at the time it was written down (800-1000 A.D).  It shows us what was important to them, what they wished to pass on to their children, the values, and what we might today call “unwritten rules” of social conduct:  Advice on responsibility, talking too much, how to enter a house as a guest or an enemy, how to be cunning, how to treat false friends, and so much more.

 

The Eddic Poems (Poetic Edda)

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yggdrasilMapIn the course of research for the novel I’m currently polishing, I developed a taste for obscure literature; among other manuscripts I’ve read is the Poetic Edda, or Eddic Poems.  What I find fascinating in the poems is not just the language itself, but encapsulated within the language is always a glimpse into the mentality, humour, and mindset of a people.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse poems and mythology, mainly preserved in the medieval manuscript Codex Regius which was written in the 13th century, though the poems and tales are centuries older, having been oral history passed on by the skalds for generations before they were written down.  The poems were originally composed in alliterative verse (the alliteration may have changed from line to line, such as “Over beer the bird of forgetfulness broods / and steals the minds of men”), and kennings were often used (a compound noun used instead of a straight-forward noun, e.g. “wound-hoe” for “sword”), though they were not as complex as many skaldic poems were.  For a far more detailed history on the collection, click here.

I’d like to share a few gems with you; the reference “EP#” is the page number embedded in the Kindle manuscript.  These gems are either sayings, kennings, customs, or historical trivia.  Enjoy!

EP17:  “The wolf that lies idle shall win little meat, or the sleeping man success.”

EP20:  “Hard is it on earth / With mighty whoredom; axe-time, sword-time / shields are sundered, wind-time, wolf-time / Ere the world falls; Nor ever shall men each other spare.”

EP30:  “A faster friend one never finds / Than wisdom tried and true.”

EP31:  “Less good there lies / than most believe In ale for mortal men; / For the more he drinks / the less does man / Of his mind the mastery hold.”

EP35:  “To mankind a bane must it ever be / When guests together strive.”

EP36:  “Love becomes loathing if one long sits by the hearth in another’s home.”

EP36:  “Away from his arms in the open field a man should fare not a foot / For never he knows when the need for a spear / Shall arise on the distant road.”

EP39:  “No great thing needs a man to give / Oft little will purchase praise. / With half a loaf and a half-filled cup / A friend full fast I made.”

EP41:  “To question and answer must all ready be / Who wish to be known as wise. / Tell one they thoughts, but beware of two / – All know what is known by three.”

EP44:  “Wealth is as swift / As a winking eye, / Of friends the falsest it is.”

EP45:  “Give praise to the day at evening, to a woman on her pyre, to a weapon which is tried, to a maid at wedlock, to ice when it is crossed, to ale that is drunk.”

EP45:  “From the ship seek swiftness, from the shield protection, cuts from the sword, from the maiden kisses.”

EP48:  “Wise men oft / Into witless fools / Are made by mighty love.”

EP71:  “If a poor man reaches / The home of the rich, / Let him speak wisely or be still; / For to him who speaks / With the hard of heart / Will chattering ever work ill.”

EP167:  “Drink beyond measure / will lead all men / No thought of their tongues to take.”

EP250:  “On the gallows high / shall hungry ravens / Soon thine eyes pluck out, / If thou liest…”

“Welcome thou art, / for long have I waited; / The welcoming kiss shalt thou win! / For two who love / is the longed-for meeting / The greatest gladness of all.”

EP277:  “In the hilt is fame, / in the haft is courage, / In the point is fear, / for its owner’s foes; / On the blade there lies / a blood-flecked snake, / And a serpent’s tail / round the flat is twisted.” (Runes carved on a sword)

EP296:  A “breaker of rings” was a generous prince, because the breaking of rings was the customary form of distributing gold.

EP299: “There was beat of oars / and clash of iron, Shield smote shield / as the ships’-folk rowed; Swiftly went / the warrior-laden Fleet of the ruler / forth from the land.”

EP300:  Raising a red shield was a signal for war.

EP304:  “Helgi spake: “Better, Sinfjotli, / thee ‘twould beseem Battle to give / and eagles to gladden, Than vain and empty / words to utter, Though ring-breakers oft / in speech do wrangle.”

“…For heroes ’tis seemly / the truth to speak.”

EP305:  “Swift keels lie hard by the land, mast-ring harts* and mighty wards, wealth of shields and well-planed oars.” (*the ring attaching the yard to the ship’s mast.)

“Fire-Beasts” = Dragons = Ships:  Norse ships of war, as distinguished from merchant vessels, were often called Dragons because of their shape and the carving of their stems.

EP349:  “The word “Goth” was applied in the North without much discrimination to the southern Germanic peoples.”  “The North was very much in the dark as to the differences between Germans, Burgundians, Franks, Goths, and Huns, and used the words without much discrimination.”

EP368:  “Combed and washed / shall the wise man go, And a meal at morn shall take; For unknown it is / where at eve he may be; It is ill thy luck to lose.”

EP369:  the “Bloody Eagle” was an execution for a captured enemy, by cleaving the back bone from the ribs and pulling out the lungs.

EP373:  “Few are keen when old age comes / Who timid in boyhood be.”

EP374:  “When one rounds the first headland” means, “at the beginning of life’s voyage, in youth”.

EP378:  “Unknown it is, / when all are together, / Who bravest born shall seem; / Some are valiant / who redden no sword / In the blood of a foeman’s breast.”

EP379:  “”Better is heart / than a mighty blade For him who shall fiercely fight; The brave man well / shall fight and win, Though dull his blade may be.”

“Brave men better / than cowards be, When the clash of battle comes; And better the glad / than the gloomy man Shall face what before him lies.”

EP382:  “There is ever a wolf / where his ears I spy.”  This is an Old Norse proverb that basically means, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.

EP398:  “I rede thee, / if men shall wrangle, And ale-talk rise to wrath, No words with a drunken / warrior have, For wine steals many men’s wits.”

EP399: “I rede thee, / if battle thou seekest With a foe that is full of might; It is better to fight / than to burn alive In the hall of the hero rich.”  “The meaning is that it is better to go forth to battle than to stay at home and be burned to death. Many a Norse warrior met his death in this latter way; the burning of the house in the Njalssaga is the most famous instance.”

EP400:  “I rede thee, / that never thou trust The word of the race of wolves, (If his brother thou broughtest to death, Or his father thou didst fell;) Often a wolf / in a son there is, Though gold he gladly takes.”

“Battle and hate / and harm, methinks, / Full seldom fall asleep; / Wits and weapons / the warrior needs / If boldest of men he would be.”

EP405:  Eating snakes and the flesh of beasts of prey was commonly supposed to induce ferocity.

EP409:  The actual mingling of blood in one another’s footprints was a part of the ceremony of swearing blood-brother hood.

EP418:  “Borne thou art on an evil wave” i.e. “every wave of ill-doing drives thee”.  A proverb.

“Flame of the snake’s bed” = Gold, so called because serpents and dragons were the’ traditional guardians of treasure, on which they lay.

EP452:  “As the leek grows green / above the grass, / Or the stag o’er all / the beasts doth stand, / Or as glow-red gold / above silver gray.”

EP455:  “On the tapestry wove we / warrior’s deeds, And the hero’s thanes / on our handiwork; (Flashing shields / and fighters armed, Sword-throng, helm-throng, / the host of the king).”

EP457:  “In like princes / came they all, The long-beard men, / with mantles red, Short their mail-coats, / mighty their helms, Swords at their belts, / and brown their hair.”

EP458: “Heather-fish” = snake

EP468:  The punishment of casting a culprit into a bog to be drowned was particularly reserved for women, and is not infrequently mentioned in the sagas.

EP513:  “Thou hast prepared this feast in kingly fashion, and with little grudging toward eagle and wolf.”  = “You’ve been generous in the men you give to die in battle today.”

EP524:  “Full heedless the warrior / was that he trusted her, So clear was her guile / if on guard he had been; But crafty was Guthrun, / with cunning she spake, Her glance she made pleasant, / with two shields she played.”  In other words, Guthrun concealed her hostility (symbolized by a red shield) by a show of friendliness (a white shield).

EP546:  “The dawning sad / of the sorrow of elves” (i.e., sunrise – the Old Norse belief was that sun killed elves).

 

Notes from The Poetic Edda (Snorri Sturluson), translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Kindle Edition.

 

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