Reflections on Britain

19 08 2006

April-August 2006

The Crippled Traveller

The following are the accumulated notes of exactly four months of much sedentary travels. How does a cripple, supported by his crutches, travel? There are many possible definitions of travel. It could be defined simply as a means to understand. The object of such an understanding could be anything. If understanding is the intent, it could be achieved just by being in one place. The news of the world comes to you rather than you going after it. The country’s history and culture are given to you on a plate. You need not take pains to observe, filter, interpret and summarize. The landscape is described to you in pictures as well as in words. Of course, the novelty of being in a different place, the little incidents with local people, the sounds, smells and sights that form a great personal experience can never be called upon to aid such an understanding. In fact, such an experience will surpass understanding. The understanding I have gained in these four months is based on others’ experiences viewed with a personal perspective shaped by my own past experiences.

The first two weeks were a difficult period. I live in a neighbourhood populated by many old people. Often I have seen social workers, nurses or paramedics helping them in many ways. Some of them are bound to wheelchairs and they need to be moved to hospitals for regular checkups. Some social workers call on them once or twice a week to perform everyday chores. This is the difference between India and Britain. Most elderly in India are taken care of by their children. Nursing homes for the elderly may exist but they are rare. Such a culture is slowly changing on a small scale. While in Britain, the elderly are often on their own, there is a wonderful support from the community if not from their own family. Time and again I am reminded that this is a nation of volunteers without whom much of what exists, and the promise of a future, will be lost.

To help me with my own shopping, which was nothing more than food, I would have had to rely on this social support network. Phone numbers or possibly even websites were available to register and obtain help. I did not have to do this because one of my colleagues, Imran Nazir, came to my assistance. Without even requesting, despite his busy schedule, he visited me often. He bought me food whensoever required. Even when I was ready to return to work on my crutches, he regularly picked me up from my home to the office and back. I had nothing to deserve such care and friendship. Generally, I do feel that I am bad with personal relationships. I am sure I will not be able to return him even a part of what he has done for me. Sometimes I feel I am more concerned with the world, myself and my travels, which prevent me from developing close relationships with people.

The first part of my travels has been to type my travel notes on my laptop. Most of them had been scribbled in notebooks. Some notes had been written hastily. I had to take effort to correct at least spelling and grammar if not rephrase the sentences. Many sentences and paragraphs had already been reorganised or introduced in a different order than originally conceived. Such changes manifested themselves as confusing arrows and cross-references in my scribbled notes. Care had to be taken to type them as desired. Most importantly, with each sentence, I felt I was reliving each destination, each moment and each experience. In each sentence I felt I had written it only yesterday. They say a photographer remembers every one of his pictures and a poet every one of his lines. I recalled the end of each sentence right at its start. I recalled the feeling that had triggered it, the images that had formed that feeling. I was travelling all over again.

The world of the 21st century is too complex. This makes it harder to live a simple life. It is almost a game to realize what we want, what our lives are meant to live and what would make us happy. The real challenge is that there are so many things one can do in life. Each one of them makes life beautiful. Life is too short to live fully. So we have to make choices. When I listen to Beethoven on BBC Radio 3, I feel that I should learn an instrument and be part of an orchestra. When I visit a gallery, I feel that I should have been a sculptor, a painter or a potter. When I read a good poem, I am inspired to seek my own forms of poetic expressions.

Over the last few days I have been reading a great deal of modern poetry online. All the poetry I have written thus far now appears outmoded, contrived and much too formal. I discovered websites where poetry is published and discussed. I discovered online poetry magazines. I read about competitions and read with interest the winning entries. I have learnt (and still learning) to look at the world the way poets see, search, feel and express. Poetry is an instrument that opens you up from the inside while philosophy does it from the outside. The world of online poetry is enough to keep a person occupied for a lifetime. It is just one of the many worlds which you can inhabit. To be an invalid in bed for a good three weeks is not a bad thing at all. You can discover a new world for yourself.

When I finally resumed work at the office, I had to travel to Fleet, Hampshire, on occasions. Firstly, Luton train station doesn’t have lifts at platforms. Secondly, changing trains at London Bridge or at Waterloo involved long walks, flights of stairs, escalators and crowded ramps. It was common to see a train pull in and pull out of a platform while I was still making my way towards it. I had to be patient every step of the way. Nothing could be rushed. Life had slowed down for me. I realized that life in the 21st century doesn’t have to be fast. As an individual, the choice is mine. I get to choose and keep the pace of my life. The world can move on at its own pace and nothing will change for me. Of course, in this world of competition and survival, I need to still keep up with the world. What I need are discipline, balance and harmony – not rush.

I have to commend the arrangements at many public places for the general accessibility of facilities by disabled people. In India, it would be impossible for a person on crutches to get into a train in Mumbai during peak hours. Well, it is difficult even for a normal person. Instead of walking home from a train station, I had to take taxis. Black Cab taxis have steps and even a ramp for wheelchair users. Taxi drivers generally assist disabled passengers without even being asked. When I mentioned to a Pakistani taxi driver that I usually walk home, he replied, “Why save money? Give it to us. Always take taxis”. Shopping at Marks & Spencer would never have been possible if not for their automatic doors. Often I have seen guide dogs in trains accompanying the blind. Disabled access is there in almost all National Trust properties. If certain areas of a property are inaccessible for the disabled, videos, audio guides and photo albums are available so that they don’t miss out on them. Ramped entrance paths or stairs often come with handrails. Braille and large-print guides are often available. It is only when you experience such things personally you know how different the world is for disabled people. What they need, a normal person takes for granted.

Soon after coming to this country two years ago, I noticed a billboard advertisement at Fleet train station. It was a reminder to companies to make necessary adjustments to their premises to enable disabled people access their services. This came under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The first part of this Act had been implemented in 2002. The second part was to be implemented in 2004. Two years ago this advertisement didn’t mean much to me. Today it means a lot more. I downloaded the Internet version of the Act as published by the Queen’s Printer of Acts of Parliament. The website also offered for sale printed copies and braille copies of the Act.

The Act is complete and comprehensive. It addresses a wide spectrum of services and the means of providing them. I read with interest about how websites could be made more accessible. Enforcing the Act will always be a matter of legal debate and tenacity. Businesses are required to make “reasonable adjustments”. They are not expected to go bankrupt in doing so. Nonetheless, there is business case in making these adjustments. About 10% of current UK population has some form of disability. Even if you are not disabled, you are likely to know someone who is a disabled. In time, as the population ages, the business case only gets stronger.

As a crippled traveller, I listened to Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings” on BBC Radio 3. I listened to Sunday afternoon’s three-hour programme, “Treasure Quest”, on BBC Three Counties Radio. This popular programme showed me the historic and cultural beauties of the counties, such as the church tower at Flamstead or Flamstead’s annual Scarecrow Festival. They even took me to Luton’s Stockwood Park and the old Hat Factory, places I have never visited but passed by numerous times. It brought me out from my sullen comfortable bed. I borrowed books from Luton Library. I read about London and the English. I read about social issues of the day. I read about places I am yet to visit in person. I read about East Anglia. I have not been idle. Yes, I have been travelling widely this spring and summer.

A Sense of History

A few days ago, on my way to office, I spotted a notice about a missing Stuart chihuahua. There was a picture of the missing dog along with details of contact and the promise of a reward. What piqued my curiosity most was the word “Stuart”. The English have an acute sense of history. Everything is described within a context of history – a Victorian terrace house, a Georgian facade, an Edwardian house, an Elizabethan play…

I guess some of these modern adjectives borrowed from history are extensions of the past. Buildings have a big role to play in such a linguistic tradition. A cathedral is Norman, Early English or Gothic. Each of these terms refers to specific decades. It is a convenient way to refer to, study and remember architectural details. It is the same with terms that originate from English kings and queens. The aforementioned adjectives conveniently fix dates and styles of that period. It also signifies the immense influence of the royalty over the people. When a new king or queen comes to the throne, a new era begins. The British Empire as a whole gets redefined under the new head of state.

The uninitiated would never understand the significance of these terms unless and until he makes a determined effort to study history. History as a subject gets interesting because you see its relics right before you. History of the past lives in the present. What were once only interesting terms are now meaningful to me because I have learnt a great deal of British history.

Ever since the days of Copernicus and Darwin, the Western world has been searching for answers in the records of history. It would explain why today they search less within and that churches are usually deserted. It would be fair to say that school kids in the UK probably know more about the Ice Ages, the Jurassic era and the birth of the British Isles and less about Jesus Christ or who is in government today. I have certainly learnt a great deal in my travels about geological history, starting with the fossils in Winchester College.

From the perspective of history, an Elizabethan knot garden makes sense to me. The Tudor chapel in the Vyne voices its prayer from the past. “Ophelia” of Tate Britain is more than just painting. It is the philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelites. The Regency house of Polesden Lacey with its Edwardian interiors has its place in history. History is no longer a boring subject for me.

What makes history even more interesting is its confluence with legends. Legends take time to come into being. Real history can become a legend with the loss of historical records. Legends could be unverified facts submerged under layers of time. Only transmitted memories and stories remain. Legends flourish only by such means. I know little of Celtic legends though I am sure they exist. The story of Glastonbury and its chalice is a legend. King Arthur is a legend and so are the Knights of the Round Table. The circular wooden table at Winchester makes you want to believe but scepticism and caution makes you think it’s a legend. To some extent, legends have a greater power on the human imagination. We would rather accept or wish something to be a legend than history. Thomas Beckett may not have performed any miracles but we would like to believe he did. We would like to believe that something extraordinary happened in his life and times, and unfortunately we are not privy to that in the 21st century. What about the legend of Robin Hood? Variations abound in the story of this outlaw that we are forced to doubt the authenticity of a real character.

If legends share such a close association with history and if they are so essential to the human imagination, there is no reason why we should not believe in them.

A Question of Identity

Before arriving in the UK I had absolutely no idea of the geography of the British Isles. I knew vaguely that England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland were somehow related. But where was Britain in all this? It was not obvious in the maps. How does one separate the British from the English? What makes the entity that is United Kingdom? I am still trying to grasp the meaning behind these terms and the associated histories. Michael Wood has certainly helped me a great deal in this matter.

Tracing the English identity is quite a challenge. This is a land of immigrants from prehistoric times to the present. Little is known of the original Britons who inhabited the Isles in prehistoric times. They cannot be called English. They were at best nomadic hunters and gatherers. If they settled, they lived in small regional communities. They could not have forged a national identity. Nationhood was a concept too early for their times. In time, they evolved to named groups – Picts, Celts, Irish and others.

If these Britons are to be considered as natives of the land, the Angles and Saxons are migrants to the land. They brought their own identities from their Scandinavian lands. They were contemporaries of the Romans who conquered Britain. Nothing united them except perhaps their mutual enmity against Rome. Even this did not force them to seek a common identity. The earliest date of an English identity came with Alfred the Great who united the West Saxons and some Angles in their successful defence against the invading Vikings. Michael Wood mentions even this as only a precursor to a real identity that comes under King Athelstan and his successor Edgar after 927 AD. Differences remained but the idea of allegiance to a common rule under a single king had developed.

In any age, an identity rises stronger under a threat of its survival. The next impetus to the English identity came with the Norman Conquest. The Welsh and the Scottish identities forged themselves by their geographic separation. There never was a British identity except in colonial times. Even then, the British identity was strong only in the colonies and never in home territory. Now that the Empire is no more, there is less reason to hold on the British identity. The union of Scottish and English monarchies in 1603 did little to make a British identity. With the Act of Union of 1707, Great Britain was formed. It was only a political framework that could do little to change people’s identities. If anything, it appears that English and Scottish identities are getting stronger today, particularly with the devolution of Scotland and Wales, and when the EU is breathing upon their necks.

If the idea of being English was new in the 8th century, the idea of being British is new even in the 21st century. Recently I asked one of my friends why he always identified himself as English rather than British. He asked me back if I was Indian or Asian. It’s not the same thing, to compare country against continent, a part against the whole. But he has a point. Indians in Britain have a lot more in common amongst themselves than with Chinese, Japanese or Indonesians. The fact is that England, Wales and Scotland remain very much essential political and administrative entities. Scotland has a parliament of its own since 1999 but it does have some representation in the House of Commons at Westminster. Laws that are passed in Westminster apply primarily to England and Wales but only sometimes to Scotland.

I have been told that even within England, accents vary across the region. A Londoner is different from a Cornish. A guy from Newcastle is sure to be different from another in Devon. So where is the English identity today? It is common for Indians to identify themselves as Gujaratis, Tamilians, Punjabis or Biharis. Why should it be any different here? As I watched some of the matches of the soccer World Cup, I realized that the English identity today is most apparent in a football stadium. The red-crossed white flag is that identity. St George’s Cross is that identity. Such an identity does not appear in the English Premier League but it does appear in the World Cup. It is the same with cricket or rugby. The Scottish and the Welsh have their own teams. It is therefore stranger that in Olympics they join forces to make a British team. There is no logical explanation. It’s all a matter of convenience.

An increase in immigration in recent years from diverse groups only adds to the confusion. Immigrants who attain British passports have lesser reasons to call themselves British. Their beliefs and values hold closer affinity to their origins than to modern British culture. In fact, it is unclear what constitutes British culture. Anything cultural tends to be associated with the English identity than British. Full integration of immigrants and ethnic groups into the main fabric of British or English culture is still a far cry.

What’s in a Name?

After reading A.D.Mills, I have realized that tracing the origins of English place-names is not a trivial task. In his dictionary, Mills starts with an introduction which is enlightening. At the end of this dictionary is a bibliography that tells us that this is a serious study in itself. An online essay titled “A Survey of the History of English Place­names” by Kristine Elliott is just as interesting a read. I also found that there is even a society dedicated to the purpose: English Place-Name Society.

I cannot hope to do any research on my own and nor is it necessary. My aim is simply to take a peek at some of the English place-names I have encountered in my travels or readings. These names are interesting for the reason that through their origins we may see deeper into England’s history. A name is like a literary fossil. The history of a place can be partly deciphered from its name by its spelling and pronunciation. Once we break a name down to its component parts, trace them to their root words, association begin to be revealed. The meaning attached to these roots and their associations become significant. We begin to unravel history.

In England (and in Scotland or Wales), these names bear the stamp of new conquests and new settlers. They celebrate certain traits of the landscape in which ancient settlements have sprung up. They point to specific people who have been important enough to give their name to the place. The evolution of these names is also evidence of a mix of influences. Since England has always been a land of immigrants such influences are many. The oldest names are pre-Celtic. Next in line are names used by the Britons which underwent changes as the Roman influence grew stronger. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived, there appeared many changes. The next major wave of influence came with the Vikings who came with their dialects of Old Norse. The Norman Conquest created less new names but modified spellings and pronunciations to make names easier to use. Once the names had been established in these ways, the ensuing centuries saw their transformation from Old English, through Middle English and present day English.

Names can be simplex which are from a single root word. They may describe a prominent feature of the land. No ownership is proclaimed explicitly. Nature rules. More common are the compound names which contain two or even three root words. These may be analyzed as a main word with a prefix and a suffix. These compound names contain an adjective that qualify a topographical element. The adjective element may point to a specific person, a folk, a feature of the land or anything else that seeks to define the place clearly. This adjective element is important because the other elements of the name are usually very generic and often appear as suffixes in these compound names.

It is easiest to understand the compound names by first looking at their suffixes. It must be noted that all these suffixes are strictly speaking elements of the name. They need not actually appear as suffixes at the end of the name. The following are commonly seen:

Suffix Origin Meaning Examples
beorg Old English hill, mound, tumulus Farnborough, Malborough, Pullborough
burh Old English fortified place or a stronghold Edinburgh, Guisborough, Middlesbrough
burna Old English stream Eastbourne, Fishbourne, Pangbourne, Southbourne
bury Old English This is a variation of burh Abbotsbury, Amesbury, Banbury, Canterbury, Glastonbury, Gunnersbury, Salisbury, Shaftesbury
by Old Scandinavian farmstead, village or settlement Claxby, Grimsby, Whitby
ceaster Old English Roman station or walled town, old fortification or earthwork Chester, Chichester, Exeter, Leicester, Manchester, Winchester, Worcester
cot Old English cottage, hut, shelter Buscot, Condicote
dun Old English hill, down Abingdon, Basildon, Farringdon, Waddesdon, Wimbledon
feld Old English open country, tract of land cleared of trees Petersfield, Winchfield
ford Old English ford, river-crossing Bedford, Guildford, Lydford, Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon
ham Old English homestead, village, manor, estate Beckham, Clapham, Gillingham, Wareham
hamm Old English enclosure, land hemmed in by water or marsh or higher ground, land in a river-bed, river-meadow, promontory Dyrham
hyrst Old English wooded hill Brockenhurst, Sandhurst, Sissinghurst
leah Old English wood, woodland clearing or glade, pasture, meadow Eastleigh, Headingley, Osterley
mere Old English pond, pool, lake Buttermere, Hazlemere, Windermere
mutha Old English river-mouth, estuary Bournemouth, Dartmouth, Exmouth, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Sidmouth
mynster Old English monastery, church of a monastery, minster or large church Westminster
sloh Old English slough, mire Slough
stede Old English enclosed pasture, place, site Hampstead
stoc Old English place, outlying farmstead or hamlet, secondary or dependent settlement Basingstoke, Stoke-on-Trent, Woodstock
thorp Old Scandinavian secondary settlement, dependent outlying farmstead or hamlet Blisthorpe, Biscathorpe, Easthorpe, Milnthorpe
throp Old English dependent outlying farmstead or hamlet Adlestrop
thveit Old Scandinavian clearing, meadow, paddock Bassenthwaite, Rosthwaite
tun Old English enclosure, farmstead, village, manor, estate Acton, Brighton, Luton, Lymington, Paddington, Uffington, Warmington
wic Old English earlier Romano-British settlement; dwelling, specialized farm or building, dairy farm; trading or industrial settlement, harbour Dunwich, Greenwich, Keswick, Warwick
worth Old English enclosure, enclosed settlement Ackworth, Bedworth, Emsworth, Petworth, Winkworth

Many facts can be discerned from the above table. Farnborough and Guisborough may appear to be similar in their endings but they actually are from different roots. Only an expert can make this out. Knowledge of the local landscape is useful to figure out the real meaning. In the case of Farnborough, it means “a hill or a mound growing with ferns”. Likewise, each example quoted for burh is spelt differently. This is also true of Eastleigh and Headingley. In some cases, the name is extended with explicit topographical details: Stratford-upon-Avon, Stoke-on-Trent. Two or more of these elements can occur within the same name. In Hampstead we have both ham and stede. In Bournemouth, we have both burna and mouth. A novice could be misled into thinking that Dyrham is from ham when in actual fact it comes from hamm. In fact, in the case of Clapham and Wareham, Mills is not certain which of the two is the real source of the name. Likewise, London could be from dun but again Mills is inconclusive on the origin of London. Names derived from ford highlight the importance of river-crossings around which settlements have established themselves. Those that come from thveit are often found in the Lake District. Likewise, village names derived from by or thorp are found in Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. These have been the common settlements of the Vikings. Keswick is also an interesting example. It comes from cese and wic. The former is Old English that means cheese. However, with the coming of the Vikings, the “c” got replaced with a “k”.

A different change can be observed with Hampnett. It comes from Old English elements, hean and tun. Taken together they mean “high farmstead”. Hantone is the name recorded in Doomsday Book. However, by 1213 it had become Hamtonett. The Norman influence had made its mark. The conquering suffix ette, which means little, is from Old French. Yet another interesting name from the Cotswolds is Turkdean. Mills interprets this as “valley of a river called Truce”, a lost Celtic river-name probably meaning “boar”. The suffix denu is from Old English meaning valley, especially long and narrow ones.

Analysing suffixes is only half the story. The greater challenge is to make sense of the main element of the name. Abbotsbury for example can be confusing because the village never had an abbot in its history. Mills mentions that this village had once been in the possession of the abbot of Glastonbury. Such historical connections are not apparent but are revealed only by study and research. An example use of a land feature is in Sandhurst (sand + hyrst) which stands for a sandy wooded hill. An example use of a person’s name is Chichester which indicated that this was a Roman town of a chieftain called Cissa. Even older and bearing Celtic influence is Salisbury. Mills mentions this as being a stronghold at Sorvio. Sorvio is derived from Sorviodunum, an old Celtic name with obscure roots. The Celtic suffix duno has been used. It means a fort.

In fact, the further we move west or north, to Cornwall, Wales or Scotland, older names remain. Other influences become apparent. It is no surprise that the Cornish often consider themselves unique from the rest of England. Their names alone confirm their unique identity. Penzance, Marazion, Lizard, Polperro, Tintagel, Truro and Redruth are all names derived from purely Cornish roots. In some cases, the origin is not clear as in Gweek. It could be from Cornish gwig for a village or from Old English wic. Cornwall, being perhaps accessible to the French across the Channel, has an occasional French influence as in Roche. This comes from Old French roche.

Considering prefixes, there are those that indicate relative position: Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter. There are those that indicate a geographical position: Northleach, Southwark or Westminster. Further examples in this group are Norfolk, Suffolk, Wessex, Sussex and Essex. These are also termed as folk names as they indicate ownership or settlement of a folk. Norfolk for example indicates that it is a territory of the northern people settled in East Anglia. East Anglia in itself represents the eastern part of a larger settlement of the migrant Angles. There are those that indicate size or importance. For example, Peatling Magna and Peatling Parva bear Latin influence. In this example, the qualification comes after the main word but more commonly these will precede the main word: Little Farmcote, Great Britain, Little Horwood and Great Horwood. There are those that use numbers as prefixes: Sevenoaks, Three Bridges or Seven Sisters. There are those that indicate a physical characteristic: Broadway, Long Melford and Deepdale. There is nothing unusual in these names. People have named them in the most obvious ways, in ways they would naturally describe a place.

Then there are some interesting names. Newcastle has a counterpart in South India where there is a place named Pudukottai (pudu + kottai = new + fort or castle). In Scotland there is a place named Patna which is also a major city in India. Welsh names are cryptic and unpronounceable. Wales also has the distinction of carrying the longest place-name in the world: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantysiliogogogoch. Among the funny names are Beer Hackett, Sour Hope, Dull, Ramsbottom, Fryup, Nobottle, Indian Queens, and Twatt to name a few.

Simplex names are fewer in number but where they exist it is only because they are unambiguous enough within their own vicinity that they need no further qualification. For example, I have walked through a village named Ford in the Cotswolds. It has not been necessary to qualify it as in Oxford or Lydford. Wells is another example as distinguished from Wells-next-the-Sea. Slyne in Lancashire is from Old English slinu which means a slope. Of course, place-names that honour a saint should be considered as simplex names. They are quite common: St Austell, St Just, St Ives, St Albans or Zennor.

Some names hide their secrets well and they are perhaps the most interesting for future research. Their origin is obscure. Their meaning is unknown. The Solent is one such.

The Ubiquitous Tea Room

I cannot recall the exact location of this experience but I do remember that on one my walks on the hills I happened to come across a sign leading the way to a tea room. It was a cold and wet day. I had not met anyone on the path for an hour or so. It was not a remote terrain but it felt that way. The valleys and their villages stretched below me into the distance. Imagine then my surprise at finding this sign. It brought me suddenly close to civilization.

If there is anything that can be called quintessentially British, it is this act of tea-drinking. Henry James’ “The Portrait of a Lady” starts with an afternoon tea. We hear little of this ceremony from Shakespeare. For something that is so British today, it is a surprise to know that tea originated in China, is being cultivated on a mass scale in India and popularized by Britain at home and in the colonies. With tea, one can truly say that it is British culture and not English or Scottish. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is not native of Britain. Something that is today an essential part of British culture is an imported one. Cultures evolve. They absorb and influence. In today’s world, cultures are like biological organisms.

Tea was introduced into Europe by Dutch and Portuguese trades in the early part of 17th century. When Charles II married Catherine of Braganza it came to Britain. First it was introduced in court with elaborate ceremonies. It was soon picked up by the aristocracy. Tea was in short supply and very expensive. By the middle of the 18th century it had become a common drink. Tea rooms opened up. It was a drink which everyone could share. It was for women and for all classes, not just for the rich and privileged. The practice of afternoon tea began. Tea gardens were opened all across the country. Even today, when I pass a small town in my travels, I sometimes see a sign announcing “Tea Garden at the back”. Tea gardens are not so common today. Many of them were wiped out during the Industrial Revolution.

By the end of the 18th century afternoon tea had become a social occasion. It was popularized as a healthy alternative to alcohol, particularly at a time when gin was a craze. It was something between a mid-day lunch and a late dinner. It was an event to meet people and take leisure. It defined its own etiquette and customs – what to wear for an afternoon tea, how to eat a scone, how to place napkins and of course, how to handle a cup of tea.

There is also something called the “high tea”. Many years ago in Singapore I got invited by classmates to a high tea. We were to meet at the venue at 5 pm. It was a strange invitation for me then because I didn’t know what high tea meant. A great deal of planning went into it but I couldn’t fathom what the fuss was all about. Later I realized that high tea is actually a substitute for an early dinner with a completely different menu. We were served noodles, sushi, chicken wings, steamed vegetables, cakes, pastries, fruits… All servings were in small individual portions or large platters shared by the group. We started with a serving of some special tea. For the rest of the meal, a continuous supply of ordinary tea was served. It was nearly three hours before we left the restaurant.

High tea is something the British introduced into the colonies along with their other customs. I have learnt that it evolved during the Industrial Revolution. Workers returning home in the evening felt it was too late for an afternoon tea. They wanted a full meal after a long hard day at work. High tea evolved as a substitute for dinner. Unlike afternoon tea, which was served on low tables with mostly cakes and pastries, high tea was served at a high dining table. Ironically, the high tea I experienced in Singapore was at a low table. In fact, we were seated on a matted floor.

When Britain lost its monopoly with China for the trading of tea, tea production started in India. Many things that we do in India today are products of the British Raj – playing cricket, speaking English and drinking tea. The trading of tea by the British East India Company is closely associated with the Slave Trade. Sugar came from the Caribbean estates while tea came from India and China.

The bulk of the tea consumed today in Britain is from India. At office, it is common to see English people drinking 4 to 5 cups a day on average. I prefer only one cup a day of black or green tea without milk or sugar. I have always felt that milk spoils the colour and texture which I value in the drink. Sugar spoils the taste and makes the drink more acidic. I like the natural flavour much better. While tea drinking is said to be on the decline, alternatives such as flavoured teas and herbal teas are on the rise. These alternatives are being preferred by the younger generation. There is perhaps a social stereotype that a regular tea drinker is a recovering caffeine addict while someone who drinks camomile flavoured tea is seen as balanced, modern and hip.

Campanology

From my earlier visit to Worcester Cathedral, I have already mentioned briefly about bell-ringing. It is not merely about striking bells with brute force. It is not about loudness. Bell-ringing is a fine art, campanology as it formally called. Bell-ringers need training and practice. They need to know the basics of music. Precision in timing comes from perfect coordination. Ordinary skill is inadequate. What bell-ringers possess is dedication to the art and devotion to prayer.

Each bell is cast to sound a particular note. Casting a bell involves precision engineering. These bells, each with possibly a unique note, make a peal. If devoted Christians take pride in their local church or cathedral, the same pride is bestowed upon its peal of bells. As a muezzin calls out the Muslims for prayer, so do these bells. They are a gentle reminder of things that are important.

The church tower at Flamstead in Hertfordshire has a peal of six bells. The treble was cast in 1729 while the rest were cast in 1664. From treble to tenor, the notes are C#, B, A, G#, F# and E. The tenor is the heaviest of them all at 13-1-14. It is customary to quote the weight of a bell in this format of three numbers, the syntax described as cwts-qtrs-lbs which stands for hundredweights, quarters and pounds respectively. A hundredweight is an old measure amounting to 4 quarters or 112 pounds.

One of the most famous of all bells in the world is undoubtedly the Big Ben of London. The bell was cast in 1858 in a Whitechapel foundry with a weight of 10-3-15, which is more than 13.5 tonnes. It was the heaviest bell cast in Britain at that time (which does not tally with Internet information about the tenor bell of Flamstead’s church). Within two months into service, the bell cracked. It was reinstated three years later with a smaller striking hammer. It was rotated to avoid striking on the crack. The crack gives the bell a slightly off-key note. This bell is now so famous that people mistake that “Big Ben” is the name given to the tower.

The most interesting aspect of bell-ringing is that usually bells in England are not struck in the manner of the Big Ben. From the start of the 17th century the prevalent method of ringing in England has been Change Ringing. This is what I have observed at Worcester Cathedral. The bell is linked to a wheel. The wheel it turned by the pull of a long rope. The bell and its clapper turn for an entire 360° and more. As the clapper falls from one side to the other, it strikes the bell. The pull on the rope must also be precise to allow the bell to complete the circle. During ringing, bells are kept “up” so that their mouths are facing upwards. Change ringing allows for greater control on the timing. It allows striking the bells in certain preferred sequences. However, it is not possible to create melodies the way it is possible with chiming bells.

As I read more about change ringing, I discovered a wide world of possibilities, permutations and patterns. I got immersed in this world for a good number of hours. Take the example of three bells, numbered as 1(treble), 2 and 3(tenor). These can be rung in this sequence:

123
213
231
321
312
132
123

In this illustration, the treble is said to hunt up to the right extreme. At this point, bells 2 and 3 are swapped or changed. Next, the treble hunts down until finally 2 and 3 are changed again to return the bells to their original positions. Now, the same three bells can be played by making the tenor hunt down and up, as illustrated below:

123
132
312
321
231
213
123

This may seem a redundant sequence since we can have only six permutations with three bells. However, it does matter how the permutations are achieved since moving from one change to the next has a different feel or mood because each bell is cast to a particular note. Interesting, the first sequence of changes I have illustrated with the treble as the hunt can also be seen in another way: with the tenor as the hunt but having first made an extreme change between bells 1 and 2. In other words, every bell takes a similar path in a plain hunt. It’s just that for the sake of understanding, we choose to follow the sequence with one bell called the hunt.

What I have illustrated are about the simplest, known as plain changes. Duckworth and Stedman mention in “Tintinnalogia” that with 4 bells we can have 24 plain changes. With each bell we can hunt up and hunt down in two ways each. Thus we can have 24*16 possible changes. Now let us imagine what we can achieve with eight bells with just plain changes!

This is just the tip of iceberg. A method specifies the pattern in which bells are to be rung. Plain change is the simplest method. There are lots of other methods. An extent is one in which all possible changes are rung. In some cases, call changes are practised in which a conductor calls out to bell-ringers about changes to be made. Methods are used together with occasional calls for changes. Certain methods are so well established that they have their own names: Royal, Surprise, Delight, Grandsire Doubles. Other than the jargon already mentioned in passing, there are plenty of interesting terms to engage a novice in campanology: red line, blue line, bob, place, single, triples, touch, rounds.

I have come to realize that bell-ringing is a passion for many who pursue it. It’s a great way to get involved with the Church, to make friends, to keep fit and to pray. For some groups, it is a matter of achieving something challenging such as ringing a particularly difficult method. Ringing a peal requires at least 5000 changes and is accomplished with seven bells. It is said to take about three hours. An extent with eight bells is said to take nineteen hours and it has been done before! As with many activities, there are interest groups to cater to their needs. The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers is one such. This is affiliated to many groups worldwide. They have a weekly journal titled “The Ringing World”. There are websites with compositions grouped into various methods. There is also a website that records performances. With so many available resources, I am tempted to give it a try!

The Immigration Issue

In a panel discussion on BBC Radio 4, retired cricketer Henry Blofield joked “We can’t increase immigration based on the hope that we might find a leg-spinner”. He was speaking in reference to the recent success of Monty Panesar, a second generation immigrant who has been accepted into the English cricket team. The underlying point is two-fold: that immigration is on an all time high and is likely to rise further; that UK badly needs skilled immigrants. The problem on the hands of policymakers is how best to control immigration. They are not even certain if it ought to be controlled.

Ever since UK opened its boundaries to EU nationals in 2004, the inflow of immigrants has increased drastically. These are people who contribute actively to the economy. Some are low-skilled workers while others are skilled workers that a knowledge economy requires. The problem is that immigrants don’t just contribute to the economy. They alter the social fabric of the place. They come for work but many settle down for good. Social support systems feel the strain. Ironically, these are very people who contribute to National Insurance and pay their taxes properly. It appears to me that the need for more immigrants is on the rise for the sole reason that locals are unwilling to be gainfully employed.

Putting a quota on immigration is one way of looking at it, something like a cap of 200,000 immigrants a year. This needs agreement from the EU. Nonetheless, such a policy may do little for the economy. Building and construction industries need people. Services in restaurants need people. Additional labour is required during the fruit-picking season. The real issue is to get the British off the welfare system and into active workforce. Until this can really happen, limiting immigration is likely to cause problems than solve anything.

It is also said that the British are traditionally low on productivity. The current boom has continued longer than expected. With unskilled people in the local market, the void must be filled by skilled immigrants. There is also less enthusiasm amongst employers to train their staff. In my line of work in the telecommunications industry, I find companies hiring experienced people from Asian markets and the EU. If they can do this so easily, why bother to train locals?

What is the role of universities in this regard? I see a high proportion of foreign students in many universities. A university degree from the UK is regarded prestigious in many Asian countries. Universities are run more as businesses than educational institutions with a social purpose. I infer this by the way courses are advertised to attract students to enroll. Any college that has made a name for itself needs only its reputation and fame to advertise itself. How then can skills be gained and productivity improved?

Racism

For a long time I have held the belief that there is little racism in the UK. Beliefs are made by personal experiences. Beliefs are influenced by facts. My frame of reference comes from racism as portrayed in Holywood movies: movies like Glory, Burning Mississippi and Roots. Considering such facts of the past, there is little of that sort of blatant racism today. On a couple of occasions I have been verbally abused. While walking on the streets things have been thrown at me by English youths speeding away in their cars. Obscene gestures have been made at me. I have generously overlooked even these as deviant acts of misguided youths. In my naivety, I have failed to see these as acts of racism. Sure, such youths could do that to any person but skin colour does prompt them. Giving an ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) does not bother them. They have such a contempt for rules and orders that getting an ASBO has become a status symbol in their closed social circles.

Racism is not just a moral issue. I have come to understand that it’s about class as well. There are many Asians who are doing well professionally with established careers, economic stability and social status. Those white folks who consider themselves working class see the former as a richer middle class. This is one trigger for racism. The flip side is also true. There are many amongst the ethnic minorities who are uneducated, poor and unemployed. They too are subject to racism. It has been proven by social scientists that Muslims have a hard time getting calls for interviews while their white counterparts with exactly the same qualifications are more successful.

The Bangladeshi guy that I lived with often mentioned direct experiences of racism at work. He is not recognized for what he does. His white colleagues stand better chances towards increments and promotions though their level of competency is lower than his own. Since I am generally a sceptic until I experience something personally, I doubt his claims. I often find that the British are better communicators. This is expected as they have a natural command of the language. Immigrants often struggle to express themselves clearly. Just technical competency is not enough. If an Asian or an African wishes to rise to the echelons of middle and upper management, he or she has to become a better communicator. Being a communicator is mainly about personal relationships, body language and expressing ideas. It is not about one’s accent or look. If a person has to change in accent to become a better communicator, one could argue that this is racism. A lot about racism comes from prejudices. It comes due to unwillingness to see and understand. We are of the opinion that Muslims smell bad, that black men are violent or that the Scottish have long hands and deep pockets. As we interact with individuals from different backgrounds we get to understand more and remove these prejudices.

Racism is very much in the social consciousness of people. Even if it remains unvoiced, it exists. It cannot be easily erased particularly when we consider it within a historical context – the Slave Trade and British Colonialism. It came to the forefront with the brutal killing black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. This case created political awareness thanks to an extensive coverage by the media. It is no longer an issue that’s brushed under the carpet. People talk about it when they need to. Advertisements and sitcoms regularly feature black models and actors, sometimes to an extent that we are forced to think if there is a reverse racism going on. These efforts are well-meant. I believe we have made great progress towards tackling this issue. Rio Ferdinand does a commercial to “kick racism out of sport”. I think English football is a wonderful thing. It brings together people from diverse nationalities, races and cultures to form teams. Racism within a team is not going to help it win any title.

Part of the problem of racism could come from segregation. Segregation is already happening but it has not yet reached levels where it can trigger racism. I live at the far end of Farley Hill, close to the M1. This neighbourhood has a large population of Pakistanis. My landlady from Ghana has just sold the house to a Pakistani. I would have to move again in the coming weeks. Today I see their children playing on these streets but very rarely do I see them playing with English kids. Imagine a time in the future when neighbourhoods become fully colonized by an ethic group. Social inclusion and national integration would remain only wishful concepts.

Internationalization

When I first arrived in the UK, at office I met my colleagues who formed a diverse group – British, French, German, Argentine, Swiss, Dutch, Polish, Nigerian, Greek, Chinese, Singaporean, Indian, to name a few. Within a week I moved into my accommodation in Farnborough. The owners were a British couple. I shared the house with them and with another tenant from Scotland. Towards the end of 2005 I moved to another house in Farnborough. The room was let by a young couple from Sri Lanka. When I moved to Luton, my first accommodation was with a family from Jordan who had been settled in England for a couple of decades. The owners had converted every room in the house into a bedroom. In addition to the owners, the house was shared by a Bangladeshi couple (the guy worked with EasyJet), an Irish woman who worked as an instructor in a local fitness club for women and a Nigerian nurse expecting her first baby. I took the smallest room in the house at £55 a week. It was too small to be comfortable but it was conveniently close to office.

As I write these notes, I am at Farley Hill in Luton. Yes, I moved again. This time, the owner is a woman from Ghana. The place is bigger and better though it does take a lot more time to get to office. This summer, two brothers from Lithuania have come to Luton to make some extra cash. They are sharing the house with me. One of them has got a job at a construction site in Luton. Another travels to Hemel Hempstead for work as a hard labourer. This is their first visit to the UK and they are excited about everything. Just a few days ago, one of them picked up a bagful of flint stones somewhere close to the M1. He was excited because he had never seen stones like these before. Flint stones put him in touch with antiquity and the age of prehistoric folks. Yesterday I gave them some Algerian dates. It was a new experience as they had never tasted dates before. In return, they shared with me some Indian tea imported into Lithuania. The packaging for the tea was in Russian. Today, the brothers were touched by our Pakistani neighbour singing a lullaby to her child.

We live in a world where individual cultures are no longer in isolation. After coming to the UK I feel I am living in a world without boundaries. This is a world which is evolving all the time. Each interaction between cultures brings out something new, a mixture, a new flavour, an appreciation or an understanding. Internationalization brings about a new perspective of life. We see the good things in other cultures with losing our own. There is no claim that one is better than another. By evolution, the best of everything ought to survive.

The Lithuanians commented that only some English are friendly and helpful. They felt that foreigners are more approachable and helpful. Perhaps, language is a barrier. Perhaps, it is the general belief that Eastern Europeans are stealing jobs from locals. There definitely is a stigma against Eastern Europeans who are seen as working class, though those having such prejudices may themselves be of the working class.

We all come with our prejudices that need understanding and time to break down. When I first moved into Luton, it was not easy integrating with the flatmates. I hated the smell of meat and fish in the kitchen after the Nigerian had cooked her dinner. It was not until many weeks later I started sampling African vegetarian dishes; and I loved it! I assumed it was alright to share knives and cutting boards in the kitchen. I had to learn the hard way after a few heated arguments with my flatmates. We also had our fights regarding the cleanliness of toilets. People from different cultures and backgrounds are different. In a modern world, there has to be a transformation of attitudes and behaviours if we have to live together in peace.

The Parliamentary Process

The English Parliament is a mature one. One could say that it all began in 1215 with the signing of the Magna Carta. Arguably even in earlier times the power of the monarch was never absolute but when King John tried to assume absolute power, the barons were quick to assert their rights and define the boundaries of English monarchy. In those days, it was the nobility that had military capacity to offer protection to the king. It was therefore impossible for the king to rule or defend the land on his own without their support.

The history of the English Parliament has always been a balance of power between Parliament and monarchy. Following the death of King John, his infant son Henry III came to power. One could say that the English Parliament became a major force during Henry’s reign. The Oxford Parliament that met in 1258 led to the formation of a council of fifteen barons, called the Provisions of Oxford. The Parliament developed further under Henry’s son, Edward I. Edward I took an active role in state matters and administration. His initiatives led to the Model Parliament of 1295 in which knights and burgesses were also present. This was the first meeting of “the Commons”. In his reign, a period of consultation had begun. Petitions could be submitted and heard. Edward I retained his authority by enabling active participation by all. This is something that happens today via the Internet. It is possible to submit e-petitions to the government, see the government’s replies or follow the status of these petitions electronically.

Medieval parliaments, called the Great Councils, generally met when the king needed to raise tax money. Archbishops, bishops, abbots, barons, knights, burgesses and other representatives of shires and boroughs were involved in such councils. It was in 1341 that nobility and clergy met separately. In time, they evolved to form the House of Lords and the House of Commons, divisions that continue to exist to this day. The process of introducing bills and making them into laws upon majority voting in both Houses took shape. It is not clear if the medieval parliaments were representative of the population. The process of selecting candidates to these parliaments was probably not as well-defined as it is today. Parliament is only one aspect of democracy.

The execution of Charles I in 1649 was a decisive moment. It underlined the fact that Parliament is no longer subservient to monarchy. Following this execution, Parliament met even without a ruling monarch. This too was an important development. The tussle between the two continued during the reign of Charles II. The next turning point was the formation of constitutional monarchy in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was the first time that a monarch was chosen by Parliament rather than by royal succession. In the same year, Parliament passed the Bill of Rights, limiting the powers of the monarch.

The difference between the Parliament of the last century and today is that much of what happens today is easily accessible. There is an active public debate on almost everything. Politicians and Members of Parliament run the gauntlet of public scrutiny on a regular basis. All of this has been possible due to the active watchdog role of the media. Political columns are common in newspapers. BBC Radio 4 features regular live debates on chosen topics at selected places across the country. There are news programmes dedicated to developments in Parliament. UK Parliament website gives current information on what has happened or is happening in Parliament. Public can access bills that are being considered and the debates surrounding them. Public can download complete Acts of Parliament. Progress of these Acts is pasted on the website. Out of curiosity, I downloaded the National Lottery Act and read parts of it. Proceedings of the Parliament are available in video and audio. Video recordings are accessible on YouTube.

While UK may have a number of problems, and while the government may be seen to be incompetent in many areas, the parliamentary process is so mature that it gives stability to the political framework that’s in place. It is often said that the government keeps busy by passing new laws all the time while at grassroots level progress is stagnant. While this may be true, this century is all about change. Laws made a decade ago may not be relevant today. Life today is on the fast lane. With globalization, society is more complex than ever. New laws and revision of old laws are inevitable. The real question is this – can the judiciary keep up with the legislature? After all, nature’s law dictates that laws are meant to be broken.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

I heard this for the first time some years ago in Singapore. It was at a live concert by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. I had found it difficult to appreciate the overall composition although I had appreciated parts of it. The start of the fourth movement is the one I had most enjoyed. I listened to the symphony once more some weeks ago on BBC Radio 3. Entire symphonies are sometimes played on this channel. Later I bought a recording of it by the London Symphony Orchestra and since then I have heard it numerous times.

Once you are done with listening to this symphony, you feel that something significant has taken place – that you have made a journey to a wonderful world and returned overjoyed; that you have touched all possible emotions that a human heart could cherish and set yourself free; that the silent soul has been cleansed and rejuvenated, if not enlightened. Even if you do not understand it, this is how you would feel about the composition.

Listening to the Ninth Symphony is getting away as far as possible from a concert of Indian classical music of sarod, sitar or veena. There is little time to get into any sort of mood. Confusion reigns from the start of the first movement in which the orchestra alternates often between soft and loud sounds. Strings are dominant and punch their notes at every opportunity. It becomes difficult to see that this is music. It is too difficult to analyse or to get behind the intentions of the composer. It is far easier to listen intently for the music. It took me many sittings to fully appreciate the first movement. The main phrase that starts this movement continues in many variations. What were previously redundant to my untrained ear are necessary interludes that bridge the main elements.

Second movement is a lot easier because the preceding movement has set certain expectations. The listener is prepared for the energy of the second movement. It is lively and fast. Then it changes to a slow and beautiful phrase. This is unexpected. Any mood that had been previously created is abruptly destroyed. While the listener is enjoying this part of the movement the original phrase in its faster tempo returns. It builds into a crescendo more powerfully than before, finally completing the movement with a short recollection of the slow interlude.

Listening to these two movements, and also the later movements, is sufficient to tell us that more than a single uniform mood, the joy in this symphony comes from many short and beautiful phrases. The main theme of every movement may make even the uninitiated hum along but it is those little variations and interludes that bring those fleeting moments of joy.

I didn’t think much of the third movement at first but today I am forced to concede that it is the one I like the most. In Indian music, the tempo always builds up from slow to fast. This works well when an entire concert is built on a single mood (raaga as is called). This does not suit well for Western orchestras. So after two movements of great energy it is a relief to hear something light and sweet. This movement has a dreamlike quality. It is almost sublime. The balance is perfect with the wind instruments interweaving between the serene phrases of the strings. There is a loud interruption in between but this is soon put to rest. Tranquility is restored. The instruments continue as if they had not heard anything of the interruption.

The tune of the fourth movement will be familiar to even those who hear very little of classical music. However, the great genius of Beethoven is the manner in which the movement is introduced. The cellos and basses are suggestive of the tune that is to follow. They are repeatedly interrupted by phrases from all the preceding movements. One by one these are summarily dismissed. It is as if a parent or a school teacher should chastise the child. It is time to do away with sweet trivialities and to aspire for grandeur. This interplay also gives the listener a sense of purpose to all that has gone before. The cellos and basses start the movement in earnest. The secondary strings sing the tune. When they are done, the primary strings do the same. While they are at it, the secondary strings continue with purposeful variations accentuated by the orchestra in the background. These variations are so beautiful that is difficult to decide whether to listen to them or to the primary strings. Unfortunately, the listener does not have enough time to decide. Soon the entire orchestra joins in a grand song of the main theme. The listener is thrilled.

It is at this time that the chorus joins. It is a song of joy. First the male voices come in, followed by the livelier female voices. The main theme is time and again rendered in many nuances by the chorus in harmony with the instruments. At places, the chorus and the orchestra echo the evensongs at England’s great cathedrals.  Part of this movement consists of a regular beat of the drums. It is a marching tune, perhaps for the joy of a glorious victory. Imagery is a necessary part of appreciating symphonies. The first movement, with its praise of heroism and funeral march, is reminiscent of Eroica. The second movement has the boundless energy of celebration and joy. In contrast, very little of such imagery is required or possible with Indian classical concerts. Indian music defines itself by its notes alone. Indian music exists for the sole vibration of the soul. It is not meant to suggest anything of the outside world.

References

  1. Michael Wood; In Search of England: Journeys into the English Past; Penguin Books, 1999.
  2. Christopher Wright; Historic Lives: George III; The British Library, 2004.
  3. A.D.Mills; Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names; Oxford University Press, 1996.
  4. Dominic Greyer; Far from Dull and Other Places; Penguin, 2004.
  5. Peter Sager, (translated by David Henry Wilson); East Anglia: Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk; Pallas, fourth English revised edition 2002.
  6. Peter Ackroyd; London: The Biography; Random House, 2000.
  7. Lisa Picard; Dr.Johnson’s London: Life in London 1740-1770; Weidenfeld & N, 2000.
  8. Richard Duckworth and Fabian Stedman; Tintinnalogia, or, the Art of Ringing; Project Gutenberg EBook #18567, June 12, 2006.
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