Personal writing – reviving the lost art of the handwritten letter

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.  I gave up on them many years ago, dispirited by the trail of broken ones in my wake.  In 2021, though, I have decided to try something.  I want to resurrect the practice of keeping in touch with my friends by writing letters – letters written in actual handwriting, with pen and ink, on real paper, sealed in real envelopes (not envelope icons) and sent by snail mail with proper invented-in-1840 postage stamps.

A few of my friends wrote handwritten cards during the first lockdown, and receiving them was lovely – so much more personal than a comment on a Facebook post.  But it wasn’t until I was writing a recent post on this blog (In their own handwriting – connecting to the creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels) that I started thinking about the importance of the personal connection that handwriting gives, especially at this time when so many forms of personal connection are impossible because of restrictions necessitated by the pandemic.  It seemed strange to me that I know the handwriting of Eadfrith, a scribe-artist on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in c.700CE, and Aldred, a priest-scribe in the north of England in the second half of the 10th century, but have no idea what the handwriting of most of my friends looks like.  Friends whom I have known a long time – before social media, text and email became the currency of communication – did used to write, but now it’s mainly just a line in a birthday card and their signature.

An image of a page of handwriting

Regular readers will know about my addiction to notebooks.  This habit extends to some degree to stationery in all its forms – I have drawers full of sticky notes, pencils, coloured marker pens, highlighters.  However – and this is an indication of how long it is since I wrote a personal letter by hand – I had no writing paper or envelopes – only A4 printer paper and soulless DL envelopes for business letters.  So my first challenge was to find some suitable correspondence stationery.  This proved more difficult than I expected – my local stationers had only a very basic, rather scratchy pad and no envelopes.  I wanted my journey into handwritten letter writing to be a tactile and sensory experience, both for me and the recipients, so I wanted a bit of luxury.  OK, I wasn’t quite going to the lengths of the Lindisfarne Gospels and writing on vellum with handmade inks and gold leaf, but I wanted something a bit special.

In the end I compromised, with paper and envelopes from a brand (Basildon Bond) that used to be ubiquitous in my youth in the 1980s but which I could now only track down online.  It’s cream, and smooth, and a pleasure to write on, but next time I might go for something a bit more fancy from a specialist stationers.

That was the paper and envelopes sorted out.  Stamps were bought from the Post Office when I was in there anyway before Christmas to post some gift parcels.  The modern self-adhesive stamps are less environmentally friendly (with all that backing paper, which is coated so it can’t be recycled) but I don’t miss the foul taste of the ones you used to lick.  All that I was still missing was a pen and ink.  Now, I am almost as obsessive about pens as I am about notebooks, and I’m very particular about what I like to write with.  Even my ballpoint pens are carefully selected – fine point, black or purple ink, slim body – and inevitably I own a fountain pen.  Having owned Parker pens since childhood, I finally abandoned them a while ago as I was tired of the ink blobbing and I found the barrels too chunky for comfortable, sustained use.  I sought inspiration online, and found a Japanese company called Sailor who produce inexpensive fountain pens with fine nibs as standard.  Their inks also come in funky colours, although so far I had only used black.

Let me tell you about the history of the Sailor brand.  Early in the 20th century, a Japanese engineer was inspired by a fountain pen brought from England by a friend who was a sailor.  The engineer determined to manufacture high-quality fountain pens in Japan, and became the first to do so.  The brand, as its name suggested, travelled across the world.  Even their entry-level pen (which I like because it is lightweight and fairly slim) is robust and pleasingly engineered, with the fine nib that is characteristic of Japanese writing implements and which I really like.

Fortunately, my favourite pens supplier, Cult Pens, stocks Sailor ink cartridges, and an exciting lumpy parcel soon arrived.  I was ready to write a letter.

Handwriting a letter is a very different experience to handwriting notes from books, articles and websites, which I do a lot when researching.  It is sustained, focussed, and it’s about the writing process and how the reader will engage with the words rather than just recording notes for future reference where, as long as it makes sense to me, that’s fine.  A letter is written with the recipient in mind, sifting through all the possible topics to tell them about things which will interest them, which you want them to know about, and which strengthen the bonds of friendship between you.  As a writer, especially someone like me who often writes for unknown readers on the other side of the world, it’s quite a shift of mind-set.

Image of a page of handwriting, cropped diagonally

Of course, I’m not going to give up social media, and often knocking off a quick email, text message or WhatsApp is still a great way of keeping in touch with people in the moment.  But handwriting a personal letter gives another dimension to communication between two people – it’s considered, takes longer (not only because I now type far faster than I can handwrite, but also because the letter takes a day or two to reach its destination) and is more tactile.  It’s an artefact in its own right, its meaning more than just the words it contains.  A letter can be eagerly awaited, re-read, treasured, as our forebears knew.  It saddens me that future generations will not have the personal glimpses into our relationships that we do when we rediscover old family letters – no love-letters, no postcards from the seaside, no homesick letters home.  I do wonder if the historians of the future will find it harder to gain an insight into our lives – will our emails and texts have quite the same longevity and value?  I am not trying to turn the clock back on technology and its effect on the way we communicate, but I am committing to handwriting at least a letter a month, in the hopes that the personal touch will give, for their recipients, a little added value to my words.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Walking in a Winter Wonderland – a walk down Glastonbury high street

In a normal year, the centre of Glastonbury would be bustling at this time of year, with shoppers visiting the many emporia of alternative retail culture in the town.  This year, it has been very different – because of social distancing rules, there has been no Frost Fayre, and far fewer visitors than usual for the Winter Solstice.  Nevertheless, the shopkeepers have done a wonderful job of decorating their windows, in defiantly bright contrast to a season which has seemed even darker than usual this year.  I would like to share with you a walk, in pictures, down the High Street to the Market Place and along Magdalene Street, after dark.  For me, the lit windows are like magic lanterns or stained glass, glowing with light and colour, with images and symbols which bring out different aspects of the seasonal festivals.

Let’s start on the High Street.  This is one of my favourite shops, with its Art Deco window panels and kaleidoscopic lanterns.  The big lump in the middle of the display is myrrh – one of the three gifts traditionally brought to the Christ child in the manger in Bethlehem, by the wise men who came from the east.  There is something of the souk about this shop, and the owner always keeps an incense burner alight outside the door, sending exotic fragrances out into the Somerset town.

Just across the road, I like the whimsy of a gift shop wrapped up like a present, picking up on the tradition of exchanging gifts which has been part of midwinter celebrations for millennia.  I don’t envy them fixing those lights up on the roof!  I know it’s a shop which sells lovely things, and it looks very inviting, but this evening I’m photographing, not shopping, so I keep walking.

This shop has been recently refurbished, and the gilding of the lettering catches the light (gold, frankincense, myrrh).  This shop sells mostly Indian items, and its window display is full of little lights, hinting at Diwali.  The top floor, which I must admit I have never noticed in daylight, has a rainbow of lanterns suspended from the ceiling.  I think they go very well with the municipal Christmas tree on the front of the shop.

The Green Man is a significant folkloric and pagan symbol, and at this season of evergreens he is everywhere in Glastonbury.  This is a particularly fine example, framed by greenery and bringing a touch of the wildwood to the high street.

More Green Men here too, who have been joined by Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god.  The interweaving of traditions and beliefs is a major feature of Glastonbury, and is reflected in the range of merchandise which shops offer to modern-day pilgrims and visitors.  It is said that over 70 religions and beliefs are represented in the town, making Glastonbury perhaps one of the most spiritually diverse places on earth.

But amid all the paraphernalia of spirituality, people’s physical needs are catered for too, and the baker’s shop has a cornucopia of seasonal goodies in the window.  The mince pies look delicious, and I don’t even like mince pies!  Let’s hope the Scandi-style elves in the display don’t eat them all…

Across the road, one of Glastonbury’s best-known shops covers all the bases for seasonal gift-buying – a witches’ calendar for 2021, a cushion showing moon phases, a Green Man apron, magic spell kits and oracle cards, and a book on the Winter Solstice.  There is a tree, with snow-filled baubles, and a wreath with greenery and berries, and also the Tree of Life.

The next window seems quite conventional, for Glastonbury – a Christmas tree and Santa Claus.  But if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s not exactly the Santa of popular culture – this chap is nearer to the old images of Father Christmas, looking rather as if he’s just come walking out of the forest with an armful of kindling for the Yule fire.

A couple of doors down, we have more trees and another Father Christmas – but again, he isn’t the scarlet-clad figure with the sleigh and the ho-ho-ho.  This one is dressed in brown, smiling benevolently amid frosty-white trees, lit with cool whites and blues and populated with cuddly woodland animals.  It looks like an illustration from a children’s book, and I’d love to read the whole story.

By way of contrast, the next window has nothing conventional about it at all – there may be a wreath of leaves, but they frame a seated figure of the Buddha, reflected to infinity in a circular mirror, and flanked by a pair of angles who look like they were crafted by Jacob Epstein.  Cascades of light and washes of colour create an ephemeral magic.

We have reached the bottom of the high street, and turn left into the Market Place.  Here, there’s a clothes line of colourful stockings, strung above a vast selection of crystals.  A decorated Christmas tree sits beside geodes and ammonites, which are echoed in the signage above the shop window.

In the toy shop next door, the stunning wooden fairy tale castle which is a permanent fixture has been joined for the season by a couple of Nutcracker figures and a very cute reindeer in a winter wonderland that is all sparkle and ice.  The nod to continental Christmas customs is continued in the Nordic bunting across the window.

And so, finally, we come to Magdalene Street, and the last of the lit shops.  In a building which is one of only three in Glastonbury to survive from the 15th century, a handsome reindeer follows a trail of shining stars, with the inky-black winter sky above.

Whichever of the midwinter festivals you celebrate, may I send you – despite the particular challenges of this year – peace, love and happiness.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

In their own handwriting – connecting to the creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels

For the last few weeks I have been researching the Lindisfarne Gospels for a chapter in my book, and writing an article about them for an e-magazine.  For those of you not familiar with the Lindisfarne Gospels, they are a lavishly illuminated hand-written book of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) of the New Testament, in Latin, produced by a scribe-artist called Eadfrith around 700CE, in the monastic community on the island of Lindisfarne (aka Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland in North East England.  About 250 years later, a word by word translation (or ‘gloss’) in Old English was added above each line by a priest-scribe called Adred, at Chester-le-Street where the community was then living, having fled the island after raids by Vikings.

Incipit, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.027r

The art of the Lindisfarne Gospels is quite widely known today – the manuscript has been digitised and is available on the British Library website, and its motifs are used on all manner of historically-inspired merchandise.  But, though beautiful, the art is not what excites me about the Lindisfarne Gospels.  What makes my heart beat faster is that sense of glimpsing into the distant past something which connects us physically with the individuals who created it more than a millennium ago.

Far from being dry and academic, my research has been a fascinating journey into the England of the early medieval period – what used to be called the Dark Ages, between the departure of the Romans in the 5th century CE and the Norman Conquest in 1066, during which time it was thought that culture, learning and civilisation were largely absent.  Historians think differently now, in no small part due to the artefacts produced in this period which have been found in various excavated hoards, and probably most famously at the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo which was excavated on the eve of World War II and which was found to contain jewellery of breath-taking beauty and craftsmanship.  The sophistication shown in the illuminated manuscripts of the time is now seen, not as an exception, but as representative of the high standards of creative skill on the part of the peoples of the time.

Carpet page, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.026v

In an era before print, the production of a book – even the most plain and workaday one – was a major undertaking.  First, the vellum which formed the pages had to be prepared from the skins of young animals – calves or lambs – and trimmed and pricked in preparation for the binding process (making the Lindisfarne Gospels required the skins of almost 150 calves).  Lines had to be marked out on the page (Eadfrith invented the lead pencil, and the lightbox, to do this).  Ink had to be prepared, using oak galls and iron.  Feathers – ideally big sturdy ones like the flight feathers of swans – had to be trimmed into pens.  Then the scribe had to copy the book painstakingly from an exemplar, without the benefit of electric light.  It could take years to produce a book – years of dedication, focus, bad backs, cold, working in a scriptorium lit only by south-facing windows in the summer and candles in the winter.  A number of scribes left notes in the books they produced, complaining about their discomforts – issues around health and safety at work and RSI are not new!

The Beatitudes, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.034r

What I love about these documents, though, is the immediacy of something which was produced by hand.  Just as our own handwriting is distinctive to each of us, it is possible to identify individual scribes by their handwriting.  Often, teams of up to half a dozen scribes and artists would work on a book – the Lindisfarne Gospels are unusual in having been written by just one man.  It is thought that it must have taken Eadfrith several years to produce the text and illustrations for this work.  It can be a stretch of the imagination, in 21st century Britain, to imagine the life of a 7th century monk on a windswept island in the North Sea, toiling on this work of great beauty, to the glory – as he would have seen it – of God.  Even as a visitor to Lindisfarne, it’s a challenge to look beyond the cafés and gift shops, the retreat centre and the museum, and the ruins of the later Norman priory, and picture this as a working monastery, its central work of prayer and worship buttressed by farming, fishery and the creation of high-quality books.  Seeing the personal handwriting of one of those monks, the strokes made by his pen, the drawings and embellishments he drew in the colours he chose (and created himself from mineral and plant pigments), brings him within reach.  Just as when, while researching your own family history you come across a 1911 census return in the handwriting of an ancestor you have never met and who died long before you were born, it makes them more real, so seeing Eadfrith’s handwriting brings him to life for us.

And in the Lindisfarne Gospels we are lucky enough to have the handwriting of two identified people.  I mentioned earlier that an Old English word-for-word translation (or gloss) was added in the middle of the 10th century.  We know that the man who did this was called Aldred, because he left us a note (a colophon) at the end of the Gospels to tell us so.  He also names Eadfrith as the original scribe/artist, as well as crediting the people who bound the book and made a jewelled cover for it.  By translating the text into English, Aldred was part of a movement championed by King Alfred (‘the Great’) in the late 9th century to make English a language not only of the people but also of learning and religion, alongside Latin.  Here we not only have Aldred’s handwriting, we can also see him wrestling with language as he frequently offers several alternative translations of Latin worlds into Old English.  Anyone who has ever attempted to translate from one language to another will relate to this!

Aldred’s colphon, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.259r

In these times of emails, word-processing and SMS, handwriting is becoming a dying art.  In one way, that doesn’t matter – as long as we are communicating with words, it’s irrelevant how they are produced – but in other ways we are maybe losing something.  There is no digital equivalent of the personal, intimate legacy of someone’s handwriting – the notes and letters of past generations, which are often all we have left of our own families – and future generations will not experience the particular thrill of poring over a hand-written document produced by known, named people over a millennium ago.  I wonder what ways they will have instead to connect to the human individuality of the people whose words they are reading?

My article on the Lindisfarne Gospels is published in Issue 7 of The Pilgrim, which is available online here.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Midwinter festivals of light – why we need them more than ever this year

A couple of nights ago a lantern appeared in the window of a house round the corner, with banners wishing passers-by a ‘Happy Hanukkah.’  In my street, each evening sees more Christmas lights wrapped around shrubs or strung up in windows.  A few weeks ago, millions of people celebrated Diwali, the festival of light.  Very soon, we in the northern hemisphere will be rejoicing that the shortest day has come and that, with the Winter Solstice, the world is moving back towards the longer, lighter days.

Until recently, I wasn’t an enthusiast for festive lights – a pyrophobe since childhood, the risks of fire associated with strings of electric lights always put me off having them on the tree.  But these days, lights are safer and the bulbs cooler, and there are even battery-powered ones available which don’t require power cables snaking across the room to trip up the unwary, and my partner has always liked lights, so for the last few years I have joined in quite happily, if passively.  This year, though, has been different.

Not only have we used our ‘old’ lights but we have been out and bought three sets of new ones.  We have lights in the Christmas tree.  We have lights in the front window, and we make sure they are switched on as soon as dusk falls to cheer passers-by.  There are five metres of lights draped around the fireplace.  A glass vase has been filled with tiny LED lights.  There’s a candle in the festive wreath on the coffee table.  There’s a candle on the dinner table.   There is sparkly tinsel everywhere to reflect the lights.  The only reason that there are not more lights is that we have run out of sockets to plug them into!  This year, it feels particularly important to participate in lighting the dark evenings of the last weeks of the year.  Each evening, the switching on of the lights creates a glow of positivity and cosiness in our home, whatever is going on in the world outside.

I find it interesting that, over thousands of years, religions and cultures across the world have felt the need to develop customs and festivals associated with light in the darkest time of the year.  In Judaism, Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the story of how one day’s supply of blessed oil miraculously lasted for eight days, so that the menorah (branched candlestick) could be kept lit until new oil could be prepared.  Traditionally, a nine-branched menorah is lit during the festival (one light for each of the eight days of the miracle – the ninth branch holds the light from which the others are lit).  Across the world, Jewish households place the menorah in windows which face the street, and it is a time of feasting.

 Diwali is also known as the Festival of Light.  Its name derives from the Sanskrit deepavali, meaning ‘row of lights’ and is celebrated as a religious festival by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.  It represents the triumph of light over darkness (and by extension the triumph of good over evil and knowledge over ignorance).  Homes, temples and businesses are decorated with lights inside and out, and the skies are lit by fireworks.  And there is, of course, feasting.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christians call the Light of the World.  Although the date of his birth is unknown, celebrating it around the time of the pagan midwinter festival has been the custom in the northern hemisphere for many hundreds of years, and a wealth of imagery in art, carols and literature places the Nativity in snowy scenes, with the Star of Bethlehem clearly visible over the stable in a dark, frosty sky.  Candles figured largely, with real candles shown on the first Victorian Christmas trees when the custom was imported from Germany (allegedly introduced by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert).  As you can imagine, the idea of lighted candles amongst the resinous branches of fir trees is the stuff of nightmares for me!  Christianity borrowed many of the midwinter customs of the peoples it converted, including – perhaps inevitably – feasting.

Image of a string of electric lights

Here in Glastonbury, there are probably as many people preparing to celebrate the Winter Solstice, or Yule, as there are those who celebrate the Christian Christmas.  Most of us will have a fusion of customs – lights will mark the ‘Light of all people’ who came into the world at Christmas, or the triumph of the sun as it defeats the darkness of the longest night.  We sing the carols “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” and “The Holly and the Ivy” and decorate our homes with the same evergreen branches which have been a staple of midwinter celebrations for millennia, symbolising the continuity of life even in the dark depths of winter.  Normally, of course, there would be feasting – roast birds, Christmas pudding and mince pies all part of a rich heritage of midwinter jollification going back to before records began – but in this year of Covid-related restrictions there will probably be rather less feasting than usual.  Certainly the family and community feasting of Diwali and Hanukkah have already had to be more subdued this year.

But in a year that feels dark, sad and fearful for many, it feels like an act of defiance to light the candles and switch on the lights.  Our community celebrations may be muted, and our feasting limited to our own households, but we can still shine our lights into the darkness and say that we are still here, we are still celebrating, and that we know that light will overcome the darkness.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

A recycled landscape – five thousand years in the life of a hill

I am in the early stages of planning my second book (while still writing the first one – I hate having too little to do!).  Briefly, it’s about places in the landscape which have a long tradition of spiritual significance.  Looking beyond obvious places like Stonehenge, I’m interested in holy wells, hilltops and groves, and sites where, for example, a present church overlays earlier, even pre-Christian, places of worship.  At a time when travel around the United Kingdom is constrained by regulations to control the pandemic, my early researches will mostly need to be limited to books and online, but there are a number of sites which I can get to easily from home, or which I know well, these seem like a good place to start.

Map of Hambledon Hill

Some years ago I lived in the neighbouring county of Dorset.  Specifically, I lived at the foot of Hambledon Hill, and its green mass filled the view from my study window.  In the summer, I would walk up to the top and lie flat on my back in the grass, squinting up into the blue sky and trying to spot the skylarks which I could always hear, but rarely see.  If I was very lucky, I would be visited by an Adonis Blue butterfly, a rare species which likes the chalk grassland habitat where the grass is kept short by conservation grazing.

I never felt on my own up there.   Even when there were no dog-walkers, butterfly enthusiasts or hikers, there was always a sense of people being present – as if at any moment I might glance up and see someone.  The hill felt at once very peaceful and very busy, and also very, very old.  Some places feel like that – as if the echoes of human footsteps and the shadows of their movements are left behind from the distant past, maybe even from before history as we know it.  I notice it especially in places that have been inhabited longest – the landscape of barrows or stone circles, of hill forts or cave art.  It is probably fanciful – but I think I’m not the only person who is sensitive to the fleeting impressions left by the people who were in a place long ago.

Hambledon Hill has drawn people to it for over five thousand years.  The Neolithic peoples who had started to farm the land in the valleys below built an enclosure on the top of Hambledon Hill.  It was a significant high point in the landscape, providing a good defensive position against both the east (the chalk uplands of Cranborne Chase) and the west (the fertile Blackmore Vale).  There is archaeological evidence for at least seasonal occupation over several hundred years, with remains of goods originating as far away as Devon, and some of the earliest evidence of grape cultivation in Britain.  These people buried their dead in the long barrows – burial mounds – on the crest of the hill.  The site continued to be used by the Beaker People – early Bronze Ages arrivals – but the main impact on the hill as we see it today came in the Iron Age.  Three rings of ramparts were built, changing the outline of the hill and creating an impressive defensive hill fort, complete with three staggered entrances.  The enclosure created by the ramparts contained some hundreds of small roundhouses.  Despite the scale of this endeavour, archaeologists believe that Hambledon Hill was eventually abandoned, probably about 300 BCE, possibly in favour of nearby Hod Hill, which was itself in turn appropriated by the invading Romans.

But Hambledon Hill continued to be a significant feature in the landscape, and when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the area several hundred years later they adopted the hill as a cemetery site.  Who knows whether their choice was influenced by an understanding that the long barrows were ancient burial sites?  In any event, the Anglo-Saxons identified Hambledon Hill as a suitably exalted location for the burial of their own dead.

Nowadays, the dead of the village at the foot of the hill are buried in its churchyard, but people still come to Hambledon Hill.  It is on a long-distance walking route, bringing many hikers to marvel at the view of Blackmore Vale, set out like a chessboard below.  Locals walk their dogs here, naturalists come to study the rare species of plants and insects.  And the ongoing significance of the hill, with its millennia of human history and its present role as a nature reserve, is reflected in its purchase in 2014 by the National Trust, the largest conservation charity in Europe.

Up on the hill, the skylark’s song seems timeless, connecting the stories of the people who have come to Hambledon Hill down the millennia.  Sadly the skylark is on the Red List of endangered species, so it is unlikely that many more generations of visitors will be able to enjoy their ethereal trilling high in the summer sky.  But the place has seen many species come and go, including humans, shaping it and leaving traces of their lives behind them.  I wonder what relationship the humans of a thousand years from now will have with Hambledon Hill? 

Samhain in Glastonbury – Halloween in a pandemic year

This weekend it’s Halloween – or the pagan festival of Samhain, depending on your preference.  Here in Glastonbury it’s mostly the latter, and under normal circumstances it’s marked in a big way.  For this small town, it’s not just about trick or treat, or carved pumpkins.  The Samhain procession is one of the main events of the year, with dragons (dramatic), drummers (noisy) and Border Morris dancers (downright scary).   Never mind the mass-produced fancy dress costumes of skeletons, ghosts and monsters – here it’s just as likely to be swathes of black and green velvet, horned headdresses, and real witches’ hats.  Yes, it’s fun, but it’s also at least in part about serious beliefs.

The old Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced something like ‘Sow-en’ – sow as in female pig, rather than sow as in seeds) was characterised by feasting – the beasts which would not make it through the winter were slaughtered, and the harvest was in, so this was a time of plenty.  The spectre of death loomed, though – this was both the end of summer and the beginning of winter, with the leaves dying and the prospect of cold, hungry months ahead.  Many of those who feasted at Samhain would not make it through to feast again at Beltane, on the other side of the wheel of the year.

With the arrival of Christianity, 1 November became the feast of All Saints – All Hallows – where all the holy who had died were commemorated.  Until the Reformation, people were encouraged to pray for the souls of the dead, and especially their dead ancestors.   In much of Europe, this remains the time when families visit the graves of their loved ones to leave flowers.  Church services are held to remember those who have died.  It’s not clear whether the Celtic festival had these connotations of communing with the dead too, but certainly modern pagans speak of this being a time when the veil between the material world and the world of the spirits is at its thinnest, and it is possible to move between the two.  This links to folklore around Halloween (All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before the festival) when this is the night for ghostly apparitions, when the dead, witches and other supernatural beings walk abroad.  And whilst many people, quite understandably, deplore the recent advent of ‘trick or treat’, with its element of threat and licence to misbehave, the history of going from house to house, often in costume, begging for food and playing pranks dates back at least a couple of hundred years in the British Isles.  In some areas it even has the name ‘Mischief Night’.  Carved pumpkin lanterns may be a recent import from across the Atlantic too, but in various parts of the country – and especially here in Somerset – turnips or mangel wurzels were hollowed out and made into lanterns, the carved faces said to represent the dead and intended to frighten.

Black and white image of a skeleton ornament and a Green Man carving.

These characters live on the window sill in my study

Samhain in Glastonbury will be a rather tame affair this year – the rules preventing large groups gathering, intended to limit the spread of Covid 19, mean that no processions will take place.  The dark-clad Border Morris dancers will not leap, roar and whoop, whacking their sticks and running into the crowd.  The red and white dragons will not weave their way up the High Street, accompanied by drum beats as loud as fire-crackers.  The revellers, many of them robed, cloaked, masked or sporting headdresses with horns or greenery, will not process behind them, calling out to the spectators and encouraging them to join in.  The many visitors from all over the world who usually come to Glastonbury to celebrate Samhain will not be here, kept away by travel restrictions and quarantine regulations.

Death had become remote and sanitised in Western society, and the yearly round of festivals – Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day, Easter and so on – resolutely upbeat, with no acknowledgement of a corresponding darker side to life.  This year, the pandemic has meant that death has become part of public life again.  Perhaps this year, more than ever, we need to use this festival to come to terms with fear and death, and shake a defiant fist in the face of approaching winter and darkness.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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Here comes the dark – the end of British Summer Time

This weekend sees the end of British Summer Time, when clocks in the UK go back an hour from GMT+1 to GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).  The immediate effect is to make the mornings light an hour earlier, and at the other end of the day to make darkness fall an hour earlier too.  It’s a shift which, every year, makes me mournful,.

British Summer Time is not a new invention.  Benjamin Franklin mooted the idea of ‘daylight saving’ in the late 18th century, and it was first discussed in Parliament in 1809, but did not receive support.  In 1907, however, a builder in the north of England by the name of William Willett, noticed while out riding his horse in the early morning that most people’s windows were still shuttered despite it having been light since before 4 a.m.  This prompted him to publish a pamphlet entitled The Waste of Daylight, in which he suggested putting the clocks forward by an hour, so that the morning hours of daylight could be used productively.  His ideas were eventually implemented in 1916, as part of wartime measures during World War I, although unfortunately Willett did not live to see it as he died of influenza in 1915.  Germany had brought in Summer Time in 1916 to increase productivity, and Britain followed suit in May of that year, with British Summer Time set to GMT+1 and Winter Time remaining GMT.

In the days before combine harvesters equipped with floodlights, the lighter evenings also enabled harvest work to go on for longer into the evenings.  The benefits to farming prompted the introduction of British Double Summer Time during World War II, with GMT+2 in the summer and GMT+1 in the winter.

From 1968-71 there was an experiment at leaving the clocks on GMT+1 all year round.  Although there were suggestions that the overall effect on road casualties was positive, the introduction at the same time of other road safety measures made it difficult to evaluate benefits, and Parliament voted to end the experiment in 1971.

In 2002 the EU standardised the transitions between Summer and Winter Time, so that these took place in all member countries on the last Sundays of March and October, making time difference calculations easier for businesses working across borders.  Although there are currently proposals before the Council of Ministers to end the time changes in March and October, with member countries choosing either their summer or winter times to continue throughout the year, these proposals have not yet been approved (and in any event, with Britain now no longer a member of the EU, they would not apply here).  In Britain, there have been a number of attempts to end the changes and settle on GMT+1 all year round, but again, these have not become law.  Controversy surrounds the evidence of the effects of darker winter mornings on road safety, especially around children walking to school, and also in Scotland and the north of England, where the effect would be to delay sunrise until mid-morning.  It has even been suggested that England and Wales should have a different time zone from Scotland, for that reason.  But for the moment, the current arrangements continue.

Image of a sundial at Ely Cathedral

Sundial, Ely Cathedral

Willett’s concept of The Waste of Daylight uses the language of ‘daylight saving’, which I always thought a strange notion – as a child, I wondered if there was a savings banks somewhere which stored all that lovely daylight, and doled it out as required?  Or would the daylight eventually run out if we didn’t ‘save’ it, like saving water or saving electricity?  It wasn’t until, as an adult, I read the history of British Summer Time and its importance in the World Wars that it made any sense whatsoever.  Because, to be honest, it’s always seemed crazy to me – why voluntarily plunge us in to dark evenings at precisely the point when the days are getting shorter anyway?

From about August each year I start to dread the end of British Summer Time.  The days are already noticeably shortening, and the threat of losing a whole hour of precious light at the end of the day looms large.  Frankly, I am not a morning person, and the whole business of getting up and going out to work (especially when this involves commuting) is so ghastly anyway that I don’t really notice the light levels as I’m in my own little dark cloud!  But at the end of the day, when my time is my own and I could actually do something like going out for a walk after work, or pottering in the garden, or simply getting home in the light so that it doesn’t feel as if I’ve gone a whole day incarcerated in an office without daylight, having that last hour of light stolen from me really rankles.

It’s undoubtedly better since I have been working at home, with the freedom to organise my own day and take advantage of the daylight to go out when I want.  But I still find the gathering gloom of winter mid-afternoon depressing.  Putting the lights on so soon after lunch simply in order to be able to read feels wrong, especially since I know that it doesn’t have to be this way, that it’s only because somebody, somewhere, has decided to persist with this practice of plunging us prematurely into darkness each day for half the year.

Not everyone reacts badly to the end of British Summer Time, though.  My partner tells the story of her late grandmother, who used to relish the early onset of darkness.  She liked to draw the curtains, turn on the lights and settle down into the cosy glow of a winter late afternoon.  At this time of year she would take down her summer curtains – light and bright – and replace them with winter curtains – thicker and warmer.  I’d never heard of this practice before, but apparently many of her contemporaries did it too.  I quite like this idea of embracing the positives of the early darkness, rather than my tendency to mourn the light evenings.  I find it hard to celebrate the particular qualities of late autumn and winter, with their emphasis on home, interiors, creating cosiness and ‘hygge’, a kind of battening down the hatches against the more hostile seasons of the natural year, making a haven of light and warmth in the way that my partner describes from her childhood.

Of course there has to be darkness as a counterpoint to the light.  We love the lengthening days of spring so much precisely because we are emerging from the darkness of winter.  Without the cold of winter, with the trees bare and nature dormant, we can’t have the hopeful budding of spring and the abundance of summer.  The almost endless days of Midsummer require the counterbalancing long darkness of Midwinter.  My challenge is to adjust my thinking, to accept and appreciate the dark side of the year as much as the light side, and to find enjoyment in what autumn and winter uniquely bring rather than grieving for the light.  This winter, I will try not to wish the days away until British Summer Time begins again.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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The machine that changed the world – one stitch at a time

My pride and joy is a vintage Singer sewing machine.  It’s black and gold, is so heavy that I can hardly lift it, and celebrated its 90th birthday this year.  Built to last in an era when built-in obsolescence had not yet been invented, it is a design icon which truly changed the world, and every time I use it I am captivated again by its story.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, all sewing was done by hand.  There was no alternative to hand-stitching – every seam of every garment made, ever, in all of human history, was hand stitched.  Then, a flurry of inventors created a variety of ‘sewing engines’, which could sew much faster than any human hand.  The most enduring of these designs was patented in 1851 by Isaac Merritt Singer of New York.  A gifted salesman, he created a network of showrooms where the machines were demonstrated, showing both that they were easy to use (‘so easy a woman could use it’ – not a slogan that would, one hopes, sell many products these days, but in its time very effective) and also that clothes sewn by machine were at least as good as those sewn by hand.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

Singer’s two main markets were commercial – garment manufacturers – and domestic.  It was in domestic sales that the sewing machine created a revolution.  Diaries kept by American women in the 1860s showed that they were spending the equivalent of two days a week on making and repairing clothes for their families.  A sewing machine saved up to 90% of that time, giving them opportunities to earn money either through sewing for other people or by working outside the home.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

It wasn’t just the machines themselves that changed the world – it was the way they were sold.  In the 1870s, these expensive pieces of kit were worth the equivalent of half a year’s salary for a typical worker.  Singer introduced the idea of hire purchase, where an initial deposit and regular payments would enable people to own and use a machine they would otherwise not be able to afford.  Sales boomed, and modern consumer spending was born.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

Supported by a reputation for reliability and a good parts and maintenance network, by 1918 it was estimated that one in five households in the world had a Singer sewing machine.  Yes, you read that right – one in five households in the world, for it didn’t take long for the Singer company to realise that there was a market far beyond the USA.  It started its international expansion in the United Kingdom, initially manufacturing sewing machines in Glasgow, and 1882 construction started on a new factory at Kilbowie, on the banks of the River Clyde, where John Brown’s shipyard was already a major employer of skilled workers.  The Singer factory, which at the time was the largest factory of its kind in the world, was a catalyst for the development of the town of Clydebank, and it was in this factory that my Singer sewing machine was born.

Black and white image showing the serial number of a Singer sewing machine

By tracing the serial number which each individual machine has, it is possible to find out exactly where and when a Singer was manufactured.  Serial number Y7649074 was part of a batch of 20,000 model 99K machines made in the Kilbowie factory in January, 1930.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

In 1930, the Great Depression had taken hold following the Wall Street Crash of the previous year.  In January, Buzz Aldrin (one day to be the second man to walk on the moon) was born in New Jersey, and Mickey Mouse made his debut in a comic strip.  Over the next few months, the planet Pluto would be discovered, and elections in Germany would see Hitler’s National Socialists become the second largest party in the Reichstag.  Sliced bread would appear in British shops for the first time, Sellotape (Scotch tape) would be invented, and Clarence Birdseye would sell the first frozen food.  Against this backdrop, my sewing machine emerged from the last of the 56 departments in the Singer factory, its black japanned cast iron body gleaming, the gold leaf bright and fresh, its mechanism oiled and ready for action.  I would love to know who first owned it – who first excitedly turned the key to open the domed Deco-style box – whose hands first threaded the needle, wound the bobbin, turned the handle – who first proudly wore a garment created on this machine, what that garment was, what fabric, what colour.  I imagine children’s clothes, the curtains for a first home, a dress to wear to the dance, the changing fashions and fabrics of more than six decades.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

My Singer came to me in the mid-1990s, in Salisbury, Wiltshire.  I had spotted it in the window of the sewing machine shop near where I worked, advertised as ‘refurbished’.  I was given it as a birthday present, and it’s one of the best presents I’ve ever had.  A quarter of a century later, it’s still in regular use.  It only has one stitch – a straight stitch – and it only stitches forwards (later machines had a reverse function), so modern stretch jerseys present it with some challenges, but for many years I made most of my own clothes.  I remember the first thing I made was a black velvet longline jacket, which I wore for years and years until it finally disintegrated.   These days, my Singer produces curtains and alters clothing, and it’s especially good – when fitted with the right needle – for shortening denim jeans.  Even though I neglect its maintenance, I have only once had to take it in for a service, because it was sticking – the guy who serviced it told me off for not cleaning the fluff out of the works more regularly!

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

I said at the start that the Singer sewing machine was built to last.  Sadly, the affordable high street fashions of the mid-twentieth century and the advent of competition from Japanese, German and Italian manufacturers after WWII contributed to the end of Singer company’s success.  The Kilgowie factory closed in June 1980.  Together with the closure of the John Brown shipyard a few years earlier, this led to Clydebank becoming a post-industrial ghost town in the Thatcher era.  A recent (2019) BBC television documentary (The Singer Story: Made in Clydebank) interviewed a number of former employees of the Singer factory, reminiscing about its glory days.  Their pride in their work, and in the machines they produced, shone out, and I was especially struck by the words of Anna Stones, who worked in Department 55 (the parts department).  She said “You were proud to be making a small part, and to know that it was going to be a Singer sewing machine, and that it was going to give somebody so much pleasure, and was going to be sent all over the world.”  I hope Anna would be happy to know how much I love my machine.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

The documentary also traced the continued use of the early twentieth-century manual and treadle (foot operated) machines into the present day all over the world, including through charities like Tools For Self Reliance who collect vintage machines, refurbish them, and send them to (often women’s) development projects around the world where they become the means for people to become economically independent.  The programme interviewed young women in Accra, Ghana who were excited to have the means to become self-employed as seamstresses, equipped with Singer sewing machines just like mine.  Here’s to the Singer sewing machine – the machine that changed the world, and still goes on changing it, one stitch at a time.

Making people proud of where they live – the public art of the Glastonbury Mural Trail

A year ago this week the Glastonbury Mural Trail was launched as part of Somerset Art Weeks.  Murals have been part of Glastonbury life for decades – at least since the 1960s when Pat Leyshon decorated the front of Pat Li Shun, her business at the top of the High Street, with colourful flowers – and have always sparked controversy.  I have been visiting Glastonbury since the 1990s, and for years have been aware of various murals springing up around the town (and sometimes disappearing again by my next visit), but the Mural Trail took the concept to a whole new level.  When I came to live in Glastonbury this summer, one of the first things I did was to pick up a Trail leaflet at the Glastonbury Information Centre, grab my camera, and walk the Trail.

Image of mural

Glastonbury mural by M.O.A. (John Mason, LUVM, SYM, DMK, SIKOH)

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Drapers – artist unknown

Following the Trail was great fun – the murals are not always in obvious places, or easy to find, and that’s part of the appeal, as it becomes a kind of artistic treasure hunt.  It was a great way to explore parts of the town I didn’t know, sparking many conversations as I enlisted the help of passers-by in searching for elusive murals.  The Glastonbury Mural Trail is also a showcase of serious artistic talent.  The variety of styles, subjects and scale means there must be something here for everyone, and I even came across a few that weren’t on the Trail Map (I was to find out why later).  There’s still one I haven’t found, because it’s in a pub garden and I just haven’t been organised enough to get there when the pub is open.

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Avalon Now, by SYM

Having enjoyed the Mural Trail so much, I wanted to know more about how it came to exist, and what the motivations behind it were, so I arranged to meet Kim von Coels, who facilitated the creation of the Trail for last year’s Somerset Arts Weeks.  Socially distanced in the garden of her Glastonbury home, Kim tells me that there had previously been a leaflet produced by Jim and Caroline at the Pilgrim Reception Centre, listing the then existing murals.  Kim – who, like me, loves maps – had produced a Glastonbury town map, and was approached by the Town Clerk, Gerard Tucker, to design a map of the murals.  She agreed, but only if the Town Council would give its blessing to the creation of new murals (subject to the necessary permissions).  The project was born.

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Goddess Hall, by Jon Minshull

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Our World, by Jon Minshull

A Facebook group was set up, and its members started researching the possibilities.  They found that, even in a conservation area, murals could be painted in most locations, with the permission of the wall owner, provided that the wall had been previously rendered or was of block construction, and that the subject matter was not offensive.

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Wildwood (detail) by M.O.A.

Next came callouts – for artists who wanted to paint murals, for owners of walls who wanted murals, and for businesses willing to cover the costs with sponsorship.  Between April and September of 2019 Kim operated a kind of matchmaking service, connecting artists, wall owners and sponsors, and getting the necessary permissions.  As an example, she tells the story of the mural in Bere Lane, where the owner of the wall was keen to have a Viking theme for their mural, which meant that she was able to get sponsorship from Wyrdraven, the Viking shop in town.

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Glastonbury Experience (detail) by Jon Minshull

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I think this may be my favourite!  By Sikoh

The involvement of local businesses was key, says Kim, and Jill Barker of the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism helped make this happen.  Nobody got paid – there were just a few small honorariums for artist who would not otherwise have been able to participate – but sponsorship ensured that no one was out of pocket.  Support was both financial, and in kind (for example from Thorndown Paints), with some firms sponsoring the project as a whole and others sponsoring specific walls (for details of all sponsors, see the Glastonbury Mural Trail leaflet).  All wanted it to be good and successful, and the Town Council paid for the Mural Trail to be part of Somerset Art Weeks in September 2019.  At the official opening at the skate park, hundreds of people turned up, and Kim admits to being “totally blown away” by the positive response.

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Avalon Marshes by Jon Minshull

What, I wondered, gives Kim most satisfaction about the project?  She has no hesitation in replying.  For her, the joy is that it’s free, it’s accessible to anyone, whenever you want – it’s public, it’s always open.  And it cheers people up and makes them happy.  It has, she admits, been a lot of hard work, but she wants there to be murals, to have people able to paint them, and people able to enjoy them.  She loves that people who normally don’t like graffiti are embracing the murals.  Kim feels it’s important that the subject matter of the mural is “universally pleasant – who doesn’t like nature, flowers, animals, landscapes?  It’s great when art creates a conversation but that’s not what the Mural Trail is for.”  Public art, says Kim, “makes people proud of where they live” and she’s keen to take the Mural Trail beyond the main thoroughfares into “the corners” of the town.

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Sugar Skull by Sophie Alexi/The Krumble Empire

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Winged Bug by Sophie Alexi/The Krumble Empire/Doodledubz

Kim has herself collaborated in the painting of four of the Trail’s murals – whichever way I walk from home to the High Street I pass one of her creations!  I ask her which is her own favourite, and she replies that she is very fond of the mural at the side of Abbey Park (number 25 on the current map) as it was painted by Oksana Gaidasheva from one of Kim’s photographs.

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Globe Inn mural by Oksana Gadaisheva

The Glastonbury Mural Trail continues to grow.  At the time of the launch there were 26 murals, and Kim estimates that there are another 7 or 8 now – she thinks the total will be up to 36 by the time she produces the revised Trail leaflet in a few weeks.  Some have just happened – especially during lockdown – and then she is told about them so that she can add them to the Trail.  In other cases, artists contact her – “find me a wall!” – although that’s getting ever harder as “there are only so many walls!”

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By DMK

Kim von Coels is an artist and photographer.  She also works at Heart of the Tribe, a new gallery in Glastonbury.  You can read more about the Glastonbury Mural Trail, and download a leaflet, here.  There is also a Glastonbury Mural Trail page on Facebook.  For more about colourful Glastonbury, take a look at this post on the Normal for Glastonbury blog.

Looking forward to Autumn – why September is my favourite month

I always think that autumn (fall) gets a bit of a raw deal in the popularity stakes.  Spring has lots of fans, summer is everyone’s favourite, and even winter has its proponents (due in no small part, I suspect, to the midwinter festivals of December and their associated jollification – I should perhaps note here that I am writing from a northern hemisphere perspective).  But apart from the show of colour in the trees of New England, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, autumn gets a bit of a bad press.  It’s the season when the heating goes back on, the days shorten, the casual linen and cotton of summer gives way to woollies and coats, equinoctial storms batter western coasts, and summer holidays are well and truly over.

There is one thing I hate about September – wasps.  In the UK, September is peak season for wasps, timed to allow them to feast drunkenly on the apple harvest.  As I both have a phobia about wasps and also react very badly to their stings, this makes being outdoors – and especially eating outdoors – stressful.  But other than the wasps, not only is the autumn my favourite season, September is my favourite month.

For me, the year turns several weeks earlier – usually in early August, although in 2020 it was in mid-July.  One morning, you go outside and realise that the air feels different.  It’s not necessarily colder – just different.  There is a sense that it is the beginning of the end of summer, although often the hottest weather is still to come during August.  The swifts, which have been screeching around the summer skies, are ready for their epic migration to Africa, and suddenly, from one day to the next, they are gone.

The start of meteorological autumn in the northern hemisphere is 1 September.  This makes a lot of sense – historically, the grain harvest was pretty much all gathered in by the end of August (as evidenced by Lammas (Loaf Mass, or festival of the First Fruits) on or about 1 August, in thanksgiving for the harvest.  Before modern farming practices, the land would then rest until January, when ploughing would begin for the next year’s crop.  Geese fattened on the stubble would be eaten on the feast of St Michael and All Angels, on 29 September.  St Michael the archangel is probably my favourite saint – whilst I take a dim view of his persecution of dragons (I like dragons), I like that he is the saint associated with high places, and churches on hilltops in remote locations are often dedicated to him (for example, Mont Saint Michel in France, St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, St Michael’s Church on Brent Tor in Devon, and the tower on Glastonbury Tor, which is all that remains of St Michael’s Church, to name but a few).

Photograph of an Orthodox Christian icon of St Michael the Archangel

September’s weather often seems better than August (hot and humid) or October (wet and windy), and most years I choose to go on holiday then, to take advantage of the weather and also of the relative quiet once the children have gone back to school.  For September is a month of new starts, with the school year in England starting at the beginning of the month, and the university year at the end (in some universities, the autumn term is still called the Michaelmas Term).  It feels fresh, full of potential and possibilities, of projects begun in hopeful anticipation.  The days are still long – the curse of the end of British Summer Time doesn’t take effect till late October – temperatures are pleasant, and mornings start to be crisply or mistily autumnal.  The archetypal poem about autumn (John Keats’ Ode to Autumn) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44484/to-autumn has a melancholy tinge to its celebration of the season, but for me, September is more upbeat, full of promise and purpose rather than an elegy for the summer that is ended.  I feel energised, roll my sleeves up and get stuck into life and work.  Although it’s many years since the academic year governed my working calendar, I still find that this is the month when I gear up to start new work, find my mojo again, and start looking forward.

This September, I am back in Somerset, becoming re-acquainted with the landscape – coasts, hills and wetlands – ancient landmarks, and contemporary communities.  No doubt I shall be writing about some of them too.  Perhaps, especially if you are in the northern hemisphere and it’s the start of autumn where you are too, you might also like to go exploring during this month of September, watching out for the signs of the changing seasons.  Let’s enjoy it and make the most of it before the darkness of winter closes in.