I don’t send Christmas cards. To me it seems like either a thing you do at school, or something you do when you’re a proper grown up. I am neither.
Yet it’s the festive season, and I can’t ignore this big element of Christmas – the thing that most of us take for granted, until perhaps the day we no longer get a single Christmas card. The problem I have is, where do you draw the line? Who are the people who don’t make it onto the card list? I have 165 friends on Facebook, but I know that they’re not all reeeally friends. Maybe I should send out a lovely e-card to Facebook and Twitter friends. It would save trees, though the electricity used would create a momentous amount of CO2 obviously.
A few years ago, I sent cards to prisoners held unlawfully around the world via the Amnesty International scheme. This was probably the last time I sent cards to anybody. If you’re going to send a card, do it with meaning right? Even if you just sign it, “Thinking of you during this difficult time, from …”.
The first official Christmas card was sent as a greeting from Sir Henry Cole, an English civil servant, to his friends and professional peers in 1843. I say “official Christmas card” because even before this, people sent hand made greetings messages to each other. Cole asked his friend John Calcott Horsley to design the card that he would send, depicting what we now see as a very traditional Victorian Christmas scene.
And yet, following this, some of the earliest designs rarely featured such scenes, but rather images of spring signalling the coming season…which seems kind of odd to me.
Obviously, one thing that can’t be ignored is the lucrative nature of the Christmas card industry. According to Hallmark’s statistics, they sold 1.5 billion cards during the Christmas period in 2010, compared to the Valentine’s Day period which saw just (just?) 144 million cards sold. Even the first cards, made by Cole and Horsley, were for business purposes.
Queen Victoria is well known for having celebrated Christmas in the style we celebrate it in today in Britain, and was herself a fan of sending Christmas greetings since the 1840s, like the card below from 1897:
Here are a couple of my favourite World War One Christmas cards which you can find here:
The Germans knew how to make ’em. Speaking of World War I, anybody seen a film called Joyeux Noel about the Christmas truce on 1914 between the French, Scottish and Germans? I only caught the end, but it seemed pretty good.
Reminds me of this song – originally not released as a Christmas tune, but due to the Christmas reference, it soon became one.
Anyway, here are some more cards from throughout the ages…
Prior to last week’s post, I hadn’t posted anything in a while – soz. As the autumn and winter months draw in, I’ll no doubt be posting a lot more. Summer kind of takes hold, and I did have a busy summer, though I haven’t stopped talking about and thinking about history the whole time. Even on my holiday in Portugal – a relaxing, sunny holiday – I wasn’t completely satisfied until we visited the old town of Sitges, home to a castle from the Middle Ages and an archaeological museum.
But now the Autumn has set in. And there’s something about this time of year, that for some reason always takes me back to my insatiable interest in WWI.
It’s a strange thing.
It’s the smell on the air – damp, muddy, fresh smell. It reminds me of visiting the old battlefields, the memorials, the cemeteries, the preserved trenches, especially when I went there three years ago at the end of October. I feel like I need to go back there this time of year every year. It’s a strange calling I have.
Instead, I have to make do with entertaining myself with WWI related stuff. Like War Horse – watched that last weekend. It was interesting. I liked the idea. I’ve never read the book. My main criticism of the film? The filters/lighting of the scenes were a little too strong. But obviously that’s more technical. My favourite part? The charge of the cavalry – that realisation that being an arrogant Brit won’t save you from death, especially when you run into machine guns head on, armed with nothing more than a sword.
Benedict Cumberbatch, as usual excelled at playing a well bred English man in this film, and also in Parade’s End – a strange five part BBC drama. Featuring WWI (again) and suffragettes. Quite interesting, but strange as it jumped forward a lot through time. It would spend ten minutes on one scene – a conversation between two people – then jump forward a year. I reckon the books probably fill in the gaps a bit better, a set of three written by Ford Madox Ford in the twenties. I think I’ll have to read them at some point; there’s something comforting knowing a book was written close to the time of the events it references. It’s interesting to see the difference in perspective between then and now.
I also bought Birdsong on blu-ray, the BBC drama, produced by Working Title. Felt that should definitely have won some awards, but it didn’t. People seemed to love it or hate it when it was on in January and I obviously loved it.
I also have three books on my shelf to read. I started reading The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston last year. It’s Siegfried Sassoon’s autobiography. I mostly got it as I wanted to read about his time in the war and about his time at Craiglockhart War Hospital, and his friendship with Wilfred Owen. So I thought I’d get the full autobiography, learn about life in the English countryside before the war etc.
Turns out that Sassoon completely omitted Owen from the biography, as he was anxious not to show his relationship with him as homosexually intimate – as it wasn’t. Or to give any readers the slightest impression that it was – it was just a friendship. I didn’t even get to that bit, and I was already a bit disappointed; this was also because I kind of got a bit bored with stories about cricket and fox hunting. Not a massive interest in either and pretty much half of it is about those two things so far. But it’s cool – I gave up reading purposely at the point when he decides to sign up to the army, so it won’t be too hard to get back into.
I also have to read a new novel on World War One, though I’m a bit dubious of reading more recent war novels, after the awkward ending of Ben Elton’s The First Casualty. I didn’t like the ending or even really like the main character of that book. Anyway, the new book I have is called My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You. Found this after seeing a link to another fairly new war book, hailed as the new Birdsong. As some reviewers on Amazon disagreed with this, I decided not to get it, but got the My Dear… book instead, as most people gave it five stars.
And as a present to my manager when I left my job as a planner for Viasat History the other week, I got her Strange Meeting by Susan Hill – my favourite war book. Even more than Regeneration by Pat Barker. And as my leaving present? The Faces of World War I: The Tragedy of the Great War in Words and Pictures by Max Arthur – an amazing book with haunting images.
Anyway, this was only meant to be a quick catch up, and I’m waffling on as if this is a review blog. Well, it isn’t. So I’m stopping there.
Separate point – was in a pub in Streatham the other weekend and was struck by this portrait:
The pub was called Earl Ferrers. This was a title not a name. This particular portrait is of Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers…and the last member of the House of Lords to be hanged in this country. He was hanged on 5th May 1760, for shooting an old family steward. I just thought it was a strange painting especially as the noose is too small.
When I was young, about five or six, I was quite superstitious and paranoid. I was so superstitious, in fact, that when I washed my face before going to bed, and I pulled the plug out of the sink, I ran all the way to my bedroom, for fear that if I didn’t get there before the plughole gurgled, something bad would happen. Surprised I had any toes left after all the corridor corners I had to negotiate on the way.
And I was very paranoid. I had so many nightmares about Martians invading after I would listen to Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, or watch the 1950’s film. It didn’t matter how scared I got each time, I would still put myself through the ordeal of listening to the album or watching the film time and time again. Anyway, I was so paranoid, that at one point in my young life I thought that everyone was spying on me – my family were all in on it. All conspiring against me, wearing masks. I think Road Dahl’s The Witches had something to do with that – that, and being the youngest child in a large family who often didn’t understand the things that everyone else understood. I finally plucked up the courage after what seemed like months back then but was probably just a couple of weeks, and I asked my sister.
“Are you all witches wearing masks and spying on me?”
She started laughing, and I was so relieved.
Two nights ago, I went to see Derren Brown’s show Svengali which was a mayzing. It baffled me so much that I woke up with what I call a “cryptic crossword headache”. In other words, it made me think too hard. And the show itself covered the theme of possession. The word “svengali” refers to someone who can control another with evil intent. That’s about all I can say, though you can probably guess he did his usual freaky stuff.
Today, we see the Middle Ages as being renowned for the age of superstition. Regarding witches, you could pretty much accuse anyone (women mainly) of being a witch or dancing with the devil if they had a wart on their face or a birthmark or seemed possessed. The idea of witches and possession by demons came about through the superstitious elements of religion – Christianity in Britain – with its superstitious roots evident in the Bible and its references to possessed beings – see here for many occasions when Jesus cast out demons. Paganism became synonymous with devil worship in the eye of the church at some point. Of course, some people did practise devil worship and witchcraft and still do. But the medieval times are famous for their women-ducking, stake-burning, back-stabbing masses of witch hunters, such as those led by Vincent Price as epitomised in the film Witchfinder General…okay so it wasn’t actually Vincent Price, but Matthew Hopkins played by Vincent Price.
Sometimes, I wish Vincent Price could read me to sleep with a bedtime story every night.
Right now, I have the DVD menu on the TV screen for The Woman in Black with the freaky music playing in the background over and over, really getting me into this post.
Now, let’s get back to Matthew Hopkins.
He was an immoral lawyer in the 17th century, nicknamed “The Witch-Finder General”, and in just 14 months, around 1645/1646, he was responsible for the deaths of 230 so-called witches. He used to torture people – at that time illegal in Britain – to rouse confessions from his victims, along with his little sidekick John Stearne, a sadistic chap who enjoyed a good old torturous prick and poke, and later a couple of other folk who joined the witch hunting team. Confessions amounted to admitting you were a witch and that you kept and “suckled” imps usually in the forms of animals. And maybe you’d throw in a couple of names of other witches while you were at it. Such as Elizabeth Clarke, Hopkins’ first victim, whose mother was found guilty of witchcraft before her, and who eventually admitted to being a witch with imps and familiars in the form of her pets. She had been kept without food and sleep for three days though, and ridiculed with strip searches. As seen below:
Women bore the brunt of these searches, having always been seen as either ugly, old hags or seductive, evil temptresses of men as a result of religious, spiritual and, let’s face it, sexist beliefs throughout the Middle Ages. And still today.
Kristen Stewart. She’s one, isn’t she? Cheating on R Patts. Seducing older men. Never the other way round, I’m sure.
Maybe not – never mind, just needed a way to move onto vampires.
Vampires became strongly apparent again in Medieval times. They were everywhere – couldn’t get rid of them. They used to nick milk and orange juice off doorsteps after a late night out, the pests.
Vampires came about through the idea of the “undead” during this superstitious age. The term “vampire” developed around the beginning of the 18th century, but the idea of a vampire has been around for many many centuries, and there is evidence found in other parts of the world to suggest it is prehistoric. The vampire came to the Western world from Eastern Europe, and the term “vampire” has derived from a number of European languages.
The evidence for vampires? Inexplicable deaths caused townsfolk to exhume the bodies of those they believed may not have passed onto the spirit world – usually those who were troublemakers in their living lives.
Signs of a vampire? A bloated body having just fed on a victim, with trails of blood from the mouth or nose.
Way of dealing with a vampire? A stake through the heart in some countries, decapitation in others. Also, a brick in the mouth.
Why a brick in the mouth? I hear you say. Because if they exhumed bodies, they often found a hole in the shroud that covered the corpse’s head in the mouth area, causing the teeth to be bared. They weren’t aware that it was the bacteria in the mouth that created the hole, but rather strangely thought it was something vampires fed on to build their strength up, along with feasting on the blood of fellow corpses in the graveyard before moving onto living human blood. Nor did they understand epidemics, and that it was probably illnesses, not vampires, that struck down many people at a time. So, they drove stakes through their hearts, often pinning them inside their coffins, put rocks in their mouths to jar their jaws, or buried troublemakers in the living world upside down, as they were the ones most likely to become vampires, so that when they tried to dig themselves out of their coffins, they actually dug straight to hell.
Of course, today we understand the processes of decomposition much more than in the good ol’ Middle Ages. Bodies become bloated, not through “feeding”, but through the build up of gases inside, which would inevitably create enough pressure to push blood out of the mouth or nose. Those from the Middle Ages were also unaware of the factors contributing towards decomposition such as cool air temperatures which allowed bodies to rot at a much slower rate, thereby giving the appearance that the body was not really decomposing at all.
The thing I find strange about the belief in vampires, is not all the strange practices and paraphernalia they used to rid themselves of these bloodsucking creatures, but the global spread of this belief. Not only were vampires thought to have existed by people living across Europe, but also in other continents all around the world. Though not necessarily known by the term “vampire”, the folklore of other cultures show belief in these evil beings: ramanga in Madagascar – the outlaw who feasts on the blood and toenail clippings of nobles; and my particular favourite, the manananggal of the Phillippines, who flies at night to prey on pregnant women as they sleep, by eating their foetuses using their long tongues, and also feeding on the entrails and phlegm of sick people. Makes me hungry actually – I imagine the sensation of sucking on phlegm to be like sucking out the last bit of ice cream from the bottom of a Cornetto.
My point is, vampires were a widely spread belief for centuries, even millennia. How did the belief disappear (disregarding those who still belief in vampires and werewolves, of course – I’m referring to the general public)? Well, this wasn’t easy to find out on the net, particularly because so many people’s responses to this question is that they dostill believe in some form or another of vampires (I don’t – really there is no more space in my paranoid mind to start getting scared of vampires. I already have masked witches in my family to contend with). But I guess the obvious reason must be the advances in medical science, and the freedom to question the church’s teachings, without being condemned as a blasphemer.
And now to finish with one of my favourite witchy moments:
This year I went to the Whitstable Oyster Festival’s opening weekend (I do every year). I took lots of pictures. Here they are (unfortunately I missed the Morris dancers this year):
On my stroll to meet my sister, thought I’d take a picture of Slaughterman’s Cottage down Skinner’s Alley (formerly known as Slaughterman’s Alley, and Ship Alley before that).
This was an abattoir for a previous butcher, hence the curved tiles on the roof necessary for air ventilation.
Onwards to the beach by the harbour’s West Quay looking towards the Isle of Sheppey:
Beyond Sheppey, Southend can be seen…
Newfoundland dogs demonstrating how they rescue people. They have webbed feet which helps them swim. Funny – their heads are shaped a bit like a seal’s and they bark similarly to them too – well, I think so anyway. Quite a potent smell though when they all get together.
Whitstable’s excellent drumming band Samba Pelo Mar in the lead up to the blessing of the oysters. In the background is the boat Emmeline, built in 1904 and which became the last shrimping boat. It was lost and then found in Spain in the early nineties, before being brought back to Whitstable.
Looking towards Tankerton:
The oysters arrive to be blessed. Most of the oysters used at the festival aren’t native, as this time of year they’re spawning. The reason it is held at this strange time of year is because it is the traditional down season when fishermen used to hold their festivals – even dating back to Norman times. Whitstable’s native oysters are generally harvested in the months containing the letter “r”. See Tipping the Velvet for more information on this…and a whole lot more on other stuff.
Walking down through Harbour St to watch the parade – quite a crowd to get through!
A quick German pint at our annual spot outside the Ship Centurion…
And then the Oyster Parade:
I learnt my lesson – should have filmed in landscape mode. Oh well.
Later on that day – a view of “The Street” at Tankerton slopes. When the tide goes out in Tankerton, a long path of pebbles and stones goes far out to sea, known locally as “The Street”.
The Street on a 1924 postcard:
The next day at Whitstable Harbour:
And finally, we come to the picture of my first ever fresh oyster:
How is that your first oyster? I hear you say, considering I was born and raised in this town as a fully qualified shellback. Well, I’ve tried them tinned, smoked. But my parents never really bought them fresh, so I never tried one. When I was younger, there were a couple of things that happened which meant they were harder to get – red algae outbreak was one thing. I even had to ask the lady on the stall how to “do it”. Squeeze of lemon, bit of Tabasco…it was really nice. Gave me the taste for them. Next time I might try them without the Tabasco as I think it wiped out the actual flavour…and maybe I’ll even chew it next time.
Interesting to know:
– oysters contain arsenic – so don’t trough too many
– oysters used to be the working class person’s food in the 19th century
– some types of oysters can grow to around three feet in length
– Colchester also holds an Oyster Feast each year in October where festival goers enjoy the town’s native oysters
So, there is my collection of pictures from my weekend at the Whitstable Oyster Festival. Hope you enjoyed them!