Kitchen Birdwatcher: Spring with the Toon Magpies

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Exciting news from the Toon Magpies – they’re building a new nest! It’s in the same tree they used last year, as you can see from the photo above (the 2018 nest is top right, this year’s is top left), which means I’ve had a grandstand seat in my kitchen for the building process again.

The new nest is looking a bit scruffy, but it’s large and I am sure it will be perfectly cosy for the forthcoming eggs. The recent unseasonably warm weather in the UK has increased the building activity to the extent that I now actually think that TWO nests are being built in adjacent trees, by two different pairs of magpies!

Spring is very nearly here…

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The Last Train to Clarksville has left the station: RIP Peter Tork

The Monkees - May 1967

The Monkees – May 1967

So many celebrity deaths in recent years, but this one has really hit me on a very personal level. On the surface, the Monkees might have been a manufactured band with a daft TV show, but their music had a very profound impact on me as a child.

When my sister and I were little, we were given our dad’s old record player when he got a new one. It was one of those old-fashioned boxy turntables with a built-in speaker, and one of the very first records we had to play on it was a Monkees greatest hits album.

We must have driven our parents mad with how much we played it – it ended up much loved and completely scratched to death (we weren’t very good at looking after our vinyl at such young ages!).

Indeed, listening to ‘A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You’ on YouTube this afternoon, my brain still anticipated the point in the song where our record always used to skip. The fact that my subconscious does that more than thirty years later says a lot about the impact that record had on me!

With that battered old slice of vinyl, Mickey, Mike, Peter and Davey instilled in this music mad little girl a love of pure melody, harmony and perfect pop that remains to this day, and for that I am profoundly grateful.

Peter Tork, you will be missed.

Happy 2019!

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Some officers of a Scottish Division on New Year’s Day (c. 1918)

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’ve been feeling thoughtful…

Round about one hundred years ago, this cheerful bunch of Scotsmen (abovenote the kilts!) would have been celebrating what was probably the last Hogmanay of World War One. They seem to have found what looks like a fairly comfortable billet, and, judging from the bottles at their feet, have undoubtedly indulged in a few beers and a chorus or two of Auld Lang Syne.

A century later, and the world is still fighting. And as this year finally draws to a close, I hope more than ever that we can eventually come to terms with the increasingly glaring truth that monetized hatred, bigotry and violence are slowly destroying us and our planet.

But it is also important to remember that kindness costs nothing. Thoughtfulness costs nothing. We need more of both in 2019, all over the world. We’re not broken – not yet – but we have to take all the chances we can still get as individuals, communities, governments to help rather than hinder peace.

There are lessons to be learned from World War One and its aftermath, as well as from the rise of fascism during the interwar years. We still haven’t learned them, and that needs to change. Going down that road should never be a feasible option again, anywhere.

For me, 2018 can do one, it’s been a particularly brutal year on a personal level all round. However, I hope your New Year is happy, bright and peaceful – and, as ever, I send a huge thank you to you all. I say this every year, but it remains true. I couldn’t do this without my readers.

Happy 2019!

A Thoroughly Modern Santa Returns!

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Last Christmas Eve, we contemplated what might happen if Santa had got hold of a motor car in the early days of internal combustion engines (I’m still wondering if poor old unemployed Rudolph would qualify for Jobseekers Allowance, what with him being a reindeer and all).

Hunting for Christmassy stuff this year, I discovered this wonderful cover image from the December 19th 1909 edition of the New-York Tribune. I can just imagine the havoc caused on that Christmas Eve when fly boy Santa took off for his rounds in that precarious plane…

From all this, I can only conclude that Santa is an enthusiastic early adopter of technology – you know the type – he’s gone from a car in 1896 to a plane thirteen years later (and only a mere six years after the first powered flight by the Wright brothers at that).

These days, he’s probably got an iPad, sat nav, and checks his list in the cloud. He’s also annually tracked by the modern satellite technology of NORAD (which is possibly a little worrying if you think about it too much…).

However thoroughly modern Santa has become with his transportation (personally, I’d argue that reindeer are much more reliable that Siri in the long run), he’s still using old school magic tech to physically get down all those chimneys and deliver your presents. It’s hard work being an omnipresent semi-mythical gift-bringer, so I hope you’ve left out some mince pies and a shot of something warming for the poor guy!

And I really hope poor old Rudolph has finally got to put his hooves up…

For much more festive reading, follow the links here.

Merry Christmas!

Please Mr Postman: a Brief History of Christmas Cards

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You’ve probably already had a few at this point in proceedings (this year, I’ve even been sent one with a rather festive zebra on it!), and I can almost guarantee you’ve forgotten somebody when sending yours, because that’s traditional…

Christmas cards. They can be a real pain to get written and sent, but are always nice to receive. We see them as a pleasant age-old festive tradition, but they only came about in their modern form in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Yep. Just like so many other things that seem to have been part of Christmas forever, the sending of Christmas cards was popularised by those Victorians. You can see a reproduction of the first commercially available card above (and you can see more Victorian and Edwardian cards in the slideshow below).

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This first Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882) in 1843. Clearly a shrewd man, he had previously been involved in the introduction of the hugely successful Penny Post in 1840 and later organised the Great Exhibition of 1851, plus he was the first Director of London’s Victoria & Albert museum in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Sir Henry commissioned the well-known artist John Calcott-Horsely (1817-1903) to design the card – and a thousand copies were produced, each hand-coloured. Once Cole had written and sent his share of the cards, the rest were put up for sale for a shilling apiece via an advert in The Athenaeum:

Just published. A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.

Showing a multi-generational family lifting a toast to the recipient and bookended by scenes of Christmas charity, the design of the card contained a very Victorian message of philanthropy, which we can also see in other such near-contemporary examples as the Christmas Books of Charles Dickens.

However, the image of a family drinking wine depicted on this card caused some controversy among the more outspoken and influential members of the Temperance Movement in Britain, who felt very strongly that the card promoted drunkenness!

Cole’s Christmas card was an immediate success, and the demand was such that a second printing had to be produced very quickly. In total, more than two thousand copies were printed and sold that Christmas – the Christmas card had, as it were, arrived.

You can see from the slideshow that many nineteenth and early twentieth century Christmas cards didn’t always look all that festive or religious in the sense that we would know it (and anyway, I’d love to know what’s so Christmassy about a ‘Beauty Spot at Bondi’, or a bunch of grumpy kittens perched upon a pipe! Admittedly, the Victorians seemed to love imagery of small and distinctly annoyed moggies – perhaps descendants of the notorious Icelandic Yule Cat?)

However, it’s also interesting to note that religious and secular seasonal themes were combined in some Christmas card art from very early on. Cards featuring angels carrying Christmas trees or guiding Father Christmas on his deliveries are yet another example of the longstanding jointly Christian/non-Christian nature of the festive celebrations.

A related phenomenon is the Victorian New Year card, which may hark back to historical celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas, when the upper reaches of society would exchange gifts on January 1st. You can see a few examples of these nineteenth century cards in the slideshow above, all of which depict themes of newness and/or luck in the coming year.

In recent years, such cards seem to have made a return – I have seen numerous examples on sale this Christmas (including – where else? – at the Post Office…). Greetings cards are big business in 21st century Britain, with one in six retailers stocking them. Many people also enjoy making them at home as a hobby, which obviously requires production of the relevent craft supplies (and glue all over your fingers).

Brits buy more greeting cards than any other nation, and raise around £50 million for various charities with the purchase of fundraising Christmas cards every year. You could see that as a nod back to the philanthropic message of Sir Henry Cole’s original, although I’m not sure what he would think about the auction of a rare surviving 1843 card for over £22,000 in 2001…

Cole’s small idea took wings, and now you can instantly send a Christmas card to someone on the other side of the world with just the click of a mouse. So I’m sending this post out as a Christmas card to you all, wherever you are, with love.

For more festive reading, visit the links here

Merry Christmas!

Football at Christmas: Sam Bartram in the fog

The perils of playing football on Christmas Day! Absolutely love this story…

'And still Ricky Villa...'

CB writes…

A short and sweet post today. This is one of my favourite football stories, and, as the festive season approaches, it had to be told! Until the 1950s, it was very common for a full league programme to be played on Christmas Day in England, something we would never think of in the modern era.

Sam Bartram - Charlton Athletic

On December 25th 1937, Chelsea were playing Charlton Athletic at Stamford Bridge. It was a cold and foggy day and the Charlton keeper Sam Bartram (above top at left, with the Chelsea goalie Vic Woodley) hadn’t seen much of the ball – or much of anything, really…. actually, let’s hear the story from the man himself, as I think this says all that needs to be said:

Soon after the kick-off fog began to thicken rapidly at the far end, travelling past Vic Woodley in the Chelsea goal and…

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Beware the Yule Cat!

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I am really very fond of kitties, big and small. Ask anyone who knows me well, and they’ll tell you I’m a mad cat lady in training. But I think I would run away screaming if I ever met the Yule Cat…

The Yule Cat is not your average domesticated feline; the sort who purrs like a lawnmower, and is only really guilty of attempting to pinch your dinner and leaving the odd half-dead rodent in your shoe.

The Yule Cat is, in fact, from Iceland, and it seems certain moggies in this part of the world are a little bit… um… different. The National Museum of Iceland explains further:

It was customary in the old rural society that employers gave the employees in their home a new garment and sheepskin shoes for Christmas. This was done to reward the people for good work as the tasks that had to be accomplished before Christmas were numerous and therefore the weeks leading up to Christmas were characterized by a rigorous workload.

The saying went that those who did not receive a new garment for Christmas would be ‘devoured by the Christmas Cat’ which was a fate to be avoided at all costs – whether this meant that the Christmas Cat would eat them or eat their food. Thus everyone worked zealously at finishing all the woolwork and knitting of garments for the members of the household before the arrival of Christmas.

You have been warned.

Meow…

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If you’re in the mood for lots more festive reading, click here!

Vintage Cartoon Scares: ‘Felix The Ghostbreaker’ (1923)

Today’s spooky/silly cartoon features one of the most popular (and still recognisable) animated characters of the silent film era – Felix the Cat. First introduced to the big screen in the immediate aftermath of World War One, and possibly based on an earlier animated version of Charlie Chaplin, this cheeky and slightly surreal black and white cat was an immediate success with critics and the cinema-going public alike.

In this 1923 short, Felix encounters a ghost who is up to no good. Following the spook, he sees it scare an unsuspecting householder and the man’s livestock. The householder calls out the reserves to rescue his property from the ghost, but that doesn’t work – so Felix offers to try to lure the ghost away with a bottle of rum! Once the phantom is off the property, Felix pulls a gun on it and, in a reveal worthy of Scooby Doo, we discover it is really a human rival of the householder who is trying to scare him into selling his home…

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Kitchen Birdwatcher: Blue Tits and Toon Magpies

Autumn colour 2018

Yes! The magpies made it through! I am delighted to report that all went well for the brave little magpie pair whose progress I was following from my kitchen window back in the spring, and there is now a large gang of youngsters squawking noisily round the neighbourhood

They are now officially known as the Toon Magpies thanks to my friend Jim, who is a Newcastle United fan (for non football readers, United play in black and white striped shirts, are nicknamed the Magpies, and their fans are known as the Toon Army).

As a result, Jim has decided to name the young magpies after his favourite players and managers from the club. This means we have Sir Bobby [Robson], Rafa [Benitez], Shola [Ameobi], [Alan] Shearer, Speedo [Gary Speed] and more…

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