Thursday, January 19, 2006

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Today marks the 197th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s, and in my opinion, the world’s, most important literary figures. Poe was a progenitor of both the gothic horror (or dark romanticism) and detective/crime genres of literature. His short, tragic life coloured his writing. He used his own experiences of personal loss and grief as inspiration for his macabre and angst-ridden tales, often including supernatural events and settings to add menace, mystery and fear to his narrative, all of which were all told with a mastery of the English language that brilliantly matched the tone of his stories and poems.


Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Edgar Allan Poe, 1809 - 1849

Thursday, January 12, 2006

On the letter H.

I want to say something about the eighth letter of the alphabet. When mentioning this letter in conversation it is pronounced aitch, exactly as it is spelled. There is no H at the beginning of the word. It IS NOT pronounced haitch. The word haitch does not exist in the English language; check in the dictionary if you doubt me.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Beware the heather sellers…

Have you ever been to Covent Garden in London? I only ask as it was around this time of year in 1994 that I happened to visit the place. I was thinking about it just recently and remembered an embarrassing thing that happened to me there. Although not a native of London, I had been to Covent Garden before and have returned since, but it was on this particular occasion that I was (quite legally) mugged.

I had been standing in the cold January air listening to a string quartet playing Pachelbel’s Canon for the tourists. The musicians were wrapped in scarves and thick coats, their faces wore a look of intense concentration as their fingers made chords and drew bows across strings.

Gypsy peddlers (being gypsies selling things as opposed to people selling gypsies) swarmed around like they had fallen from the pages of a Dickens novel. One particularly insistent older gypsy women stepped in front of me as I walked by, having finished listening to the open-air recital. She barred my escape and proffered a dry sprig of heather in my face like it was a weapon.

“Sprig of heather for luck sir?” she offered desperately.

I decided, against my better judgement (and with thoughts of a nasty curse being placed upon me should I decline her offer, clich√© I know, but you do wonder) to offer a couple of pound coins for her piece of flora. It’s strange how, twelve years later, I can still recall the look of disgust on her face as she peered into my palm at the coinage as if I were holding out steaming pile of dog excrement in exchange for her tatty heather. She looked up, and with a piercing stare said,

Paper money only sir!” in the tone of one highly offended by my already generous offer.

Glancing around I saw some of her accomplices eyeing me with suspicion, ready at the slightest signal from their fellow heather seller to pounce, and for all I knew, bind my hands with some homespun washing line and bundle me into the Romany caravan no doubt waiting nearby, to give me my just desserts.

I decided not to test my suspicions, and with an air of defeat, pulled from my wallet and handed her the smallest paper domination issued by the bank of England, £5. In exchange for this I received a battered, greenish brown leaf with a couple of purple flowers clinging to it. I took it in a bit of a stupor as the gypsy muttered something unintelligible, and disappeared (as if by magic) to find another idiot to con – sorry, another tourist to whom she could bring luck and a genuine London experience.

It had all happened so quickly that it took me a few seconds to comprehend exactly what had occurred. I made my way sheepishly out of the market court and joined the bustling crowds of The Strand; sure that everyone I passed knew I had just been duped by a middle-aged woman in an apron and fingerless gloves.

Disclaimer: This story is in no way meant to be derogatory to those of Romany descent. It is entirely factual and in not embellished in any way.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year - for some...

Another year rapidly comes to its end today and it’s been the shortest one yet as far as I am concerned.

You could argue that this time we call New Year is really only an old tradition, an excuse for a holiday and for many to drink too much. In the physical world it simply marks the completion of another orbit for the Earth around the Sun. We have to mark it from somewhere, it just happens to be the end of December - for those of us who use the Gregorian calendar that is.

Of course it is most selfish and ignorant to claim that today is the end of the year for everyone. Although the 31st of December is in fact a whole year away from the last 31st of December it is only the New Year for those who actually follow the current Gregorian calendar. It’s strange how so many people assume that everyone will be celebrating this occasion, when in fact many won’t. I find it even stranger that those who don’t adopt this particular measure of time still have to be aware of it and use it in conjunction with their calendar to allow interaction with the western world. It’s odd how it doesn’t seem to work the other way around so much. For example, were you aware that currently it is the year:

5766 in the Jewish calendar (although it won’t be 5767 until March)

6755 for the Assyrians (although 6756 won’t begin until April)

1384 in the Persian calendar

1928 in the Reformed Indian Calendar which counts from the Saka Era (or if you calculate your year from the Vikram Era, which the Reformed Indian Calendar does not, it’s 2063)

1426 In the Islamic calendar

4703 (Year of the Rooster) in the traditional Chinese calendar (becomes 4704, the year of the Dog on February 9th 2006) in the rather complex Mayan calendar, although this one may not make much sense to you

214 in the now abandoned French Republican Calendar

Or, if you fancied yourself as a citizen of the ancient Roman Empire, it’s 2758 AUC*.

So Happy New Year to all Gregorian calendar followers, and in case I forget, Happy New Year to followers of all the above calendars when your New year arrives!

* Warning – Some readers may find the following footnote of limited relevance if they have little interest in historical fact and wish to remain ignorant as to why they actually follow the Gregorian calendar that they do, and are celebrating the new year at this time.

Of course there are many calendars that are no longer used. The Romans gave us many of the months we use today in the Gregorian calendar (and theirs was mostly based on the Greek calendar). The Gregorian calendar itself is in fact an modified version of the older Julian calendar devised by none other than Julius Ceasar in 46 BCE (July was originally called Quintilis but renamed after him, as Sextilis was renamed August after Ceasar’s ultimate successor Octavian, who changed his name to Augustus upon becoming Emperor). Prior to that there was the original Roman calendar which started out with only ten months, this though was changed relatively early on (around 713 BCE) by adding the new months of January and February. This brought the Roman year to a total of 355 days which of course didn’t keep up with the solar year very well so the length of February was reduced a bit and an extra month (or Mensis Intercalaris) was thrown in now and again to make up for it by bringing that particular year up to around 377 days.

All of this wasn’t exactly accurate in today’s terms but it worked to a degree. This though only explains the way the months were worked out. The year itself (after the Republic who didn’t actually number years but just called them after the consuls in power at the time) is supposed to have been calculated from the founding of Rome itself, which in today’s reckoning of years was 753 BCE. Therefore the Roman year 1AUC (Ab Urbe Condita – Latin for The Founding Of Rome) was 2758 years ago. So if we imagine that Rome hadn’t succumbed to the usual fate of civilisations and foundered, but remained the strong and invincible force it was during it’s prime, we might be celebrating the new year as 2759 AUC rather than 2006 CE (or AD,if you prefer).

Today the Gregorian calendar dates its years from (roughly) the birth of Christ whilst retaining the Roman names for the months (as mentioned above). Interesting isn’t it how our lives are so utterly governed by the happenings of the past, and the machinations of those who have been dead for millennia? Obviously considering all the inaccuracies of the whole thing, there is no way of definitely saying what year it is or when it really changes to the next in the Gregorian calendar.