Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Halloween Explained!

Halloween is a bit of a strange affair. And, again the Catholics feature heavily in the story.

It stems from the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced "sow-in" for some strange reason), which marked the end of Summer when cattle were brought in from the fields. On that day, the disembodied spirits of all those who had died throughout the preceding year would come back in search of living bodies to possess for the next year. It was believed to be their only hope for the afterlife. The Celts believed all laws of space and time were suspended during this time, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living.
Naturally, the still-living did not want to be possessed. So on the night of October 31, villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes, to make them cold and undesirable. They would then dress up in all manner of ghoulish costumes and noisily paraded around the neighborhood, being as destructive as possible in order to frighten away spirits looking for bodies to possess.
When the Romans arrived in the Britsh Isles in the 1st century AD they assimilated Samhain into the Roman celebrations that occurred in October. One of these was a day to honour Pomona, the Roman godess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is an apple - hence apple bobbing has become traditional at Halloween.

Sorry, I appear to be rambling a bit. So Why is it called Halloween? Well, this is where the Catholics come into the frame. The issue was that Samhain had become stong tradition in the British Isles (Ireland and Scotland in particular). The church were eager to convert all of the pagan Celts to Christianity, but the Celts continued to celebrate Samhain. The Church decided to move ‘All Saints Day’ from May to November the 1st to co-incide with the pagan festival. The evening of the 31st October was rebrand it as all Hallows Eve (Holy evening), in an attempt to give it a bit more of a Catholic look and feel, whilst glossing over the Pagan past. Hallows Evening has been subsequently shortened to Halloween (or, for the gramatical purists Hallowe’en).

Is it a little bit clearer yet? No? Hmm, I know what you mean. Let me move swiftly on to trying to explain Pumpkin Lanterns….

At some point in the distant past, Halloween became Mischief Night in many parts of the British Isles, the illumination for these pranksters was provided by lanterns carved from turnips or mangel-wurzels to represent spirits or goblins. The tradition of the turnip lantern remained particularly strong in Scotland and Ireland. During the great Potato famine in Ireland there was a mass migration of Irish people to America. The continued the tradition of lighting lanterns, but used the American pumpkin, bigger and more easily available at Halloween.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Cheese Rolling Explained!

Actually, I'm not sure I can explain Cheese-rolling. It is the most bizarre, dangerous and downwright odd example of 'little Britain' that I can think of.

Every year on the Whit bank Holiday (30th May, 2005) hundreds of suicidal souls chase a big Double Gloucester cheese down a steep grassy knoll near Brockworth in Goucestershire.

The tradition is several hundred years old, and it would appear that no one knows exactly why the event started - or indeed why people still partake. Possible origins are Phoenician ceremonies, Roman ceremonies or even ancient fertility rites (although quite how chasing a cheese down a hill demonstrates fertility is anyones guess).

The event is coordinated by a Master of Ceremonies who oversees the launching of the cheese, the prize giving ceremony and the wake afterwards.

Past cheese-rolling races have ended with several people injured. the 1997 Cheese-rolling saw 18 competitors and several spectators injured - with several head injuries.Safety fears halted the 1998 event after the previous year's event ended in mayhem with 18 competitors and several onlookers injured.

The event is attended by 4,000 spectators each year. The 1st prize (the first person down the hill after the cheese) is the Double Gloucester cheese itself. Second prize is a fiver.

Before anyone considers signing up for this foolhardy event I would suggest watching this video
http://www.bbc.co.uk/gloucestershire/focus/features/cheese3.ram (Needs RealPlayer).

The official event website is here: http://www.cheese-rolling.co.uk/

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

St David's ddiwrnod egluredig!

Today we are going to learn about St David's day. And as a lot a lot of my beloved readers have never been to Wales, I am going to try and give you a bit of a 'bluffers guide' to Cymru (Wales).

Wales, is a small country at the end of the M4 motorway. It is main claim to fame is that Al Capone's right hand man, Murray the Hump, was born in there (Carno in Powys to be precise).

The reason Wales is a separate country, with it's own language dates back to the Saxon invasion in 700AD. King Offa ruled most of England, but failed to subjugate the area now known as Wales, and Scotland. His reign was frustrated by attempted invasions of his territory by the Celts, until he constructed a huge earthwork (Offa's Dyke) separating his kingdom from the "weallas" - the foreigners or Welsh. These Welsh retained their old language and cultural identity and existed on the boundaries of Europe for the next 500 years or so. The English king Edward I conquered Wales in the 12th century and Wales became part of England. This explains why Wales is not represented on the Union flag: it was considered part of England when the flag was drawn up.

In spite of the Union, the Welsh maintained their culture and identity, and became a bit of a backwater; prosperity in Wales lagged way behind that of England and small states in Europe. A motion for self-government was proposed and gradually gained support throughout the 20th century. A key turning point was the construction of a reservoir in the Tryweryn Valley which drowned the entire valley. The reservoir was widely contested and was not supported by a single Welsh MP. Plaid Cymru, a political party in favour of devolution received substantial support, raising the issue higher up the political agenda. But it was the Thatcherite years that finally persuaded the Welsh to push for devolution. This was supported by the labour party and in 1997 the Welsh voted in favour of a Welsh parliamentary assembly, which was implemented in 1999.

History lesson over - on to the current day. As I mentioned earlier, Wales is not a big country. It is 140 miles long and 100 miles wide (8,015 sq miles in total). The land is quite mountainous, which explains the breakdown of land use; 81% is used for agriculture, 12% is covered in woodland, and only 8% is categorised as urban. It has a population of 2.8 million, heavily concentrated in the South East. An estimated 20% of people in Wales still speak Welsh: the widest spoken of all Celtic languages. The BBC publishes a website in Welsh, and if you follow the link "Gwrando ar Radio Cymru" you will be able to listen to Radio Cymru (Radio Wales; in Welsh).

The Patron Saint of Wales is St David, and his feast day is the 1st of March. David lived in Wales in the 6th century and became the first Archbishop of Wales. He also did the usual saintly stuff (performing miracles and the like). You can find more information here.

St David's day is celebrated widely throughout Wales, with Welsh people usually displaying Welsh emblems such the leek, daffodil or the red dragon (Y Ddraig Goch). Exactly how the day should be celebrated is subject to some debate. There has been talk of making St David's day a public holiday in Wales for some time now, however this seems unlikely to materialise. Celebrations vary from religious ceremonies and reflection to parties and processions. I will leave you with one final link to Welsh people's views on how St David's day should be spent.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

The London Underground Explained!

In 1798 a chap called Ralph Todd attempted to build a tunnel under the Thames between Tilbury and Gravesend. It was a bit of a cock-up as he first ran into quicksand, then ran out of money (superb project management).

The London Underground has come a long way since then: 274* stations, 3,900 trains, and 942 million passengers each year.

For the geeks out there:

  • Busiest station: Victoria with over 85 million passengers per year.
  • Lowest Station: Two options here: Westminster Jubilee line is 105ft below sea level; but Hamstead is 192ft below surface level.
  • Longest tube line: Central line (46miles)
  • Furthest station away from central london: Amersham (27 miles)
*the Transport for London website claims that there are 275 stations; this is not the case - they have just closed Heathrow Terminal 4 (it will reopen in 2006 though).

So what to talk about? I could talk about the history of the underground, but you can find that here, I could amaze you with my knowledge of rolling stock but (a) you would all take the piss and (b) you can learn all about it here. For the hardcore drinkers I could tell you about the Circle line pub crawl, but, would you believe it - someones got a website about that too.

So what I am going to do is give you my top ten(sorry, nine) tips for surviving the underground:

  1. Do not talk, do not make eye contact. Talking, laughing, smiling or making eye contact are simply not done on the underground. A great example of this rule in practice was when Tony Blair made the faux pas of attempting to talk to a passenger on the Jubilee line who, much to the ammusement of the press pack, stuck to ettiquette and completely ignored him.
  2. Remember the tube map is schematic The map bears very little geographical relationship to where the stations are and even less geographical information on how far apart stations are. In Bill Bryson's "Notes From a Small Island", Bryson observes that an out-of-town visitor using the map to get from Bank Station to Mansion House, would quite understandably board a Central Line train to Liverpool Street, transfer to the Circle Line and continue for another five stops to Mansion House. At which point they would emerge 200 yards down the street from the location they'd started at.
  3. Mind the gap Curved platforms can lead to rather large gaps between the train and the platform. In a bid to avoid loosing customers down 'the gap' tannoy announcements warn alighting passengers at stations where the gap is particuarly large (e.g Waterloo). When I was a lad, there was a loud shouty man doing the announcements. He has since been replaced with Sonia (so called because she gets sonia nerves)
  4. Don't fall asleep Take it from me, waking up at Uxbridge at 1am and realising there are no more trains back into London until 0545 is not a nice experience.
  5. Surviving the Barriers Here's how they work. (1) Put your ticket in (2) Unless it is the end of your journey you habe to take your ticket out of the slot on top of the barrier (3) Barrier opens (4) Walk through. If the ticket does not work, do not keep retrying it, it will not magicaly start working again. Contact staff to open the barrier for you. Brute force does not work (although it can be amusing for your fellow travellers to watch).
  6. Never change at Bank for Monument. Just don't. Take my word for it.
  7. Take Water/Fan in the summer In the Summer the tube gets very, very hot. Carry water with you, and only use the tubes if you really have to. A recent competition encouraging the public to come up with inventive ways of cooling the network generated various initiatives, my favourite being: "Crank up the power on the London Eye, and make it an oversized fan." Genius.
  8. Walk! (covent garden to Leicester square) Covent Garden and Leicester Square stations on the Picadilly line are only 0.16miles apart. By the time you factor in the stairs, corridors and escalators involved, it really is much faster to walk.
  9. Exception to the no talking/no eye contact rule Most rules have exceptions, and this one is no different. Circle line parties are that exception. The object of a circle line party is to get a group of like minded people together and organise a tube train party. Key things to remember are (a) there are no toilets so drink spirits rather than lager (b) the poles ideal for pole dancing competitions (c) when the train is in a station stay quiet and look innocent...

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

THERE ARE WARNINGS OF GALES IN FITZROY (The Shipping Forecast Explained!)

About 00:48 every morning, BBC Radio 4 issues the Shipping forecast.

Map of shipping regions

On a practical level, the forecast offers essential (and potentially life saving) information to ocean going trawlers, ferries and oil-rig supply vessels.
For the rest of us, the shipping forecast is a mantra, a lullaby; comforting in its regularity and consistancy: thought provoking as it takes you on an out-of-body journey round the British isles visiting oil-skin clad fisherman and watching them do battle with heavy seas and storm force winds.

The language is always the same and is spoken slowly, procisely and without emotion. This is important as a listener may be straining to hear in rough seas on the edge of the long wave transmission range.

Before I started the MBA, I would often fall asleep listening to the shipping forecast; nowdays it serves as a reminder to take a 10 minute break from the books and get a cup of tea!

The forecast format is very strict. It begins with gale warnings (winds of force 8 or more)


A high level summary follows: The General Synopsis. This provides the position, pressure and track of pressure areas (e.g. Low, /Bailey, 983, deepening slowly, expected Fair Isle 978 by 0500 tomorrow).
This is followed by area specific forecasts covering:
  • Wind direction and strengh(on the Beaufort scale). If the wind is changing direction it will either be described as veering (clockwise) or backing (anticlockwise).
  • Precipitation (Rain, snow)
  • Visibility (good, poor)
  • Ice warnings (light, severe). Icing basically means that spray blown off the sea will freeze as soon as it hits the ship. This is not a good thing as it makes ships top heavy and could cause them to be less stable.

Once the ocean forecast is complete, there is then another section, in a slightly different format, that covers inshore waters, and takes the listener on another clockwise spin around the coast.
From Cape Wrath to Duncansby Head including Orkney. Wind: south 4 or 5, veering west 4 by midday, then later backing south to southwest 3 or 4. Patchy light rain or drizzle at first, but becoming fair by the afternoon. Visibility: good, risk moderate in light rain or drizzle at first.

The place names do not mean much to the average 'landlubber', but this does not matter - it is the hypnotic poetry of it that makes it essential listening:
Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger South veering southwest 4 or 5. Rain or showers. Moderate or good.
Fisher West or southwest 3 or 4, occasionally 5. Thundery rain. Moderate or poor.
German Bight Northwest 5 in east at first, otherwise southwest 3 increasing 5, occasionally 6. Thundery showers. Moderate or poor.
From Duncansby Head to Whitby. Wind: south 3 or 4, locally 5 in north of area at first, but becoming variable 2 or 3 in all parts during the afternoon. Partly cloudy at times, but fair. Visibility: good.

We Brits are well known for our obsession with the weather; listening to the shipping forecast is an extention to that obsesion. It reminds us of who we are - that we are an island race. It reminds us that while we are comforted by double glazing and double duvets, people are out there risking their lives to earn a living. It makes as realise just how small we are in the big scale of things.
It is a kind of womb music for adults, a comfort blanket on the airwaves, a Long-wave lullaby. It never fails to calm me down after a bad day, and always helps me drift of to sleep...

for the latest forecast click here

Friday, February 04, 2005

Lent Explained! & Pancakes Explained!

Two for the price of one!

This post was put together by Mark Holmes, thanks Mark.

Lent is a 40-day period of preparation for Easter observed by many Christians.

Easter Sunday commemorates Jesus Christ rising from the dead, and is the most important feast in the Christian year. Good Friday, immediately before it, commemorates Jesus' death on the cross, and the previous day (Maundy Thursday) commemorates Jesus' last meal, when the Eucharist or Holy Communion was instituted.

To prepare for these important feasts, Christians have traditionally observed Lent as a period of prayer, almsgiving (giving money to the poor), and fasting and self-denial. This is about remembering that some things matter more than material possessions, and recognising what they have done wrong and asking God for forgiveness. The idea is to be in fellowship with God by the time of Easter. Lent also commemorates the period of 40 days that, according to the Bible, Jesus spent in the desert earlier in his life, praying and fasting. (Don't worry too much about the 40 days: scholars think it was a Hebrew phrase meaning 'a long time'.)

Thanks to the Council of Nicaea in the year 325, Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon on or after the vernal equinox (21 March). So this year, it is 27 March. (That is, in the Western church: Eastern Orthodox churches have a different calendar.) So Lent starts next Wednesday, 9 February. (It comes to 40 days because they don't count Sundays - the Orthodox church doesn't count Saturdays either.)

This is called Ash Wednesday, because during the church service the priest makes the sign of the cross on people's foreheads using ash, as a sign of our mortality, saying "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return". (At least, this happens in the Roman Catholic church and some Anglican churches. There is a wide range of different practices and perspectives in the different Christian denominations, which makes it hard to generalise. The ashes come from burning the palm branches used on Palm Sunday the previous year.)

Not very much of the Lenten observance of prayer, almsgiving and self-denial is obvious in British society today. But popular playground culture has adopted the self-denial in "giving something up for Lent" - like chocolate, or alcohol. In some churches, the ceremonial aspects are reduced a bit to focus on the basics - for example, statues are covered up with purple cloth, or there is less music.

Historically, fasting was taken much more seriously: you were only allowed one meal a day, and no meat, fish, eggs or milk. So during Lent, people had no use for milk and sugar. The tradition developed in Britain of using up these ingredients the day before Lent, by making pancakes. This day is called Shrove Tuesday, from the word "shrive", meaning to confess your sins, say sorry to God and do penance - as you do in Lent. The French name, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), seems more honest. Some parts of the world don't just get all their milk and sugar out of the way before Lent, but all their partying, with a Carnival - which means "farewell to meat".

Follow the link in the post below to find out how to make pancakes. whilst they can be eaten with a variety of toppings, the topping of choice in the UK is Lemon juice and sugar. For those that are interested, the Cranfield Student Association (sorry to all our non Cranfield readers) are offering you the chance to take part in a traditional pancake race. To enter, assemble a team of 4 capable of dashing 100 metres tossing a pancake as they go. Download the entry form here or call into the CSA bar, shop or office to pick one up. Entries to be in by Friday 4th February along with the entry fee of £4. Team frying pan essential. All proceeds to the Samaritans.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Pancake Day Explained!

I've not got round to writing this one yet, but as Pancake day is only a week away, I really should get a move on!

In the meantime try this site http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shrove_Tuesday for an overview,

and here http://www.deliaonline.com/cookeryschool/howto/how_0000000025.asp for instructions for making your own pancakes.

School Qualifications Explained!

After a few whiskys on Friday night, I was asked to explain school qualifications in the UK.
Which do you get first, an A level or an O level? What is a GCSE? I'm not sure I gave the most coherent response, so I am explaining it here.

When I started at secondary school in 1985 the situation looked like this:

Students would either study towards O levels (Ordinary Levels) or the CSE (Certificate of Education). The O level was an exam based qualification, whereas the CSE was more technical/vocational, and was generally viewed as a soft option. At the Age of 16, O level students would either join the workforce, or continue their education by taking three subjects at A level (advanced level). Assuming your A level results were satisfactory, and the student had the inclination, they would then go on to take a bachelors degree aged 18.

The Situation in 1990
When I completed secondary school and started flipping burgers the O level and CSE had been retired and the GCSE (General Certificate of Education) had been introduced. The aim of the GCSE was to be a one-size-fits-all qualification, with the A-C grades being equivalent to the O' level and the D-G grades being equivalent to a CSE. Classes were often grouped by ability and different exam papers were used for different academic groups, to ensure the grades represented 'positive achievement' rather than 'degrees of failure'.

The GCSE differed from the O' level because it examined coursework and exam results. Teachers were unhappy about the additional workload this introduced, and this caused a lot of teachers strikes at the time. A compromise was eventually agreed and the first GCSE exams were taken in 1988.

Another major change was the introduction of the AS level (Advanced Supplementary). The problem with the A' level was that it required students to specialise to just three subjects between ages 16-18. To allow greater flexibility, the AS level was introduced in 1989. The AS level was equivalent to half an A' level, and took one year to complete. These did not take over from A' levels, they were an additional qualification. Students would take 2-3 A levels alongside 1-2 AS levels.

The year 2000
In the year 2000, the A'level and AS level qualifications were overhauled. The courses were designed to be modular and the A level was split into two parts, the AS and the A2.

The AS (now standing for Advanced Subsidiary)is a standalone qualification and is still valued at half an A level. It consists of three modules and is assessed halfway through the A level course (age 17). The A2 is the second part of the A level qualification and is made up of a further 3 modules.
The new A levels are approx 70% exam, 30% coursework, with the A2 containing more demanding material than that covered in the AS level.

The Future
What next? Every year GCSE and A level results improve, with more and more people getting top grades. This leads to debates in the media about whether exams are being "dumbed down", and whether the qualification system should be completely overhauled and a new diploma system introduced.

Incidentally my secondary school was recently advertising for a new head teacher at an unprecedented salary of £100k. As this Evening Standard article reveals the school is going through a bit of a rough patch, with only 28% of students achieving A-C grades in their GCSE's - half the national average of 53%. *sigh* it all went downhill after I left...