Tag Archives: culture

Crimbo Comes but Once a Year

Happy New Year to readers still with me after a 6-month hiatus in posts, during which my Anglo-American experiences kept me so busy I didn’t pause to document them, for which I apologize.  I’ll kick off 2014 with holiday-induced thoughts on the perennially interesting subject of our common language.

A dish of clementines on my dining room window sill.  Apologies for the vaguely noir-ish lighting.

A dish of clementines on my dining room window sill. Apologies for the vaguely noir-ish lighting.

I’ve mentioned my Theory of Trans-Atlantic Word Shortening before: Americans think that Britons brutally truncate perfectly innocent words, and Britons think Americans do the same thing, so the only reasonable conclusion is that we must all be shortening words, it’s just that we shorten different words, or shorten words differently.  Christmas in England offers a bunch of strange-to-American-ears examples, starting with decs (what you put on the tree) and pressies (what you put under it).  As for Christmas dinner, the British eat roasties (roast potatoes), and sprouts (Brussels sprouts), and no matter what else is on the menu, you’re almost guaranteed to end with Christmas pud (Christmas pudding). Oddly, the four-syllable word chipolata, which seems a good candidate for truncation, isn’t shortened, but I guess chips is already taken, and chippies is overloaded as it is; chippy can mean a fish-and-chip shop, a carpenter, a nickname for somebody with the surname Carpenter, or a young lady with dubious morals.

This year I ran into a new example when a supermarket’s TV commercial (telly advert) invited me to buy their “sweet clems”—clementines.  Where I grew up, we got tangerines in our Christmas stockings, we had heard of but had never seen satsumas, and we could get mandarins in cans(tins), but here you can buy all of those small orange citrus fruits, plus clementines, fresh.  Frankly, I can’t tell them apart, but clementines seem to be the traditional choice for Christmas.  I doubt that calling them clems is traditional, at least in our part of England; in 14 Christmas seasons in these islands, I’ve never heard that one, though I’ve seen it on greengrocers’ signs in the market (meaning signs on greengrocers’ stalls at the weekly outdoor market).

Linguists call these kinds of slang or informal terms, derived from existing words, diminutives; there’s even a British diminutive of the word Christmas itself.  Are you thinking Xmas? Nope, it’s Crimbo. The OED doesn’t know what to make of it, either, suggesting it comes from baby talk.  It’s not new: use of Crimbo dates back at least to the 1920s.  And, like a lot of diminutives, it’s slightly derogatory.  Crimbo is most often used by people poking fun, or worse, at the excesses and the materialistic aspects of festivities.

A box of "easy peelers", small clementines sold mainly for kids.

A box of “easy peelers”, small clementines sold mainly for kids.

There’s a more recent slang/diminutive here, said to originate in Liverpool but to be spreading, though I’ve never heard anyone use it. If you’re a Beatles fan you might already know it. John Lennon is said to have come up with Crimble as another name for Christmas.  You can hear it used in some 1960s Beatles’ Christmas videos for fans, but the Wikipedia page for Crimble is about to be deleted due to lack of evidence that the word is truly in common use.  (If you have evidence of the use of Crimble in Liverpool or anywhere else and you want to save the page, you have until January 6 to speak up.)

Recently UK media outlets have taken to using crimbo to mean a CBO, a Criminal Behaviour Order, which is a new type of court order similar to the older ASBO, or Anti-Social Behaviour Order (which I’ve written about before, too).  But that’s just an irony too far, if you ask me, and unnecessarily confusing.

Why do we shorten words in the first place?  Are we all just lazy speakers? Do we yearn for the cozy world of baby talk?  Some researchers suggest that we make up new words for old to boost social cohesion, which is presumably part of the reason for any kind of slang, as if we say to the world “Anybody can learn standard English, but we are the people who use this vocabulary”.  If true, then the people who are concerned that they can’t define “Britishness” in today’s melting pot of immigrants, a subject raised in the British press again and again, might find it useful to look at how we speak.  And if social cohesion is the name of the game, it makes sense that US-ians and UK-ians shorten different words: we are drawing lines to separate us, each group defining itself against the other.  And if that’s the case, then after 14 years in England, I ought to speak these days in a mishmash of words from both sides of the ocean—and I do.

Long live interesting differences in English!  And long live Christmas-Crimbo-Crimble!  I know people complain that the season starts earlier and earlier each year, but as for the celebrating itself, that’s one thing I don’t particularly want to see shortened.

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An English Christmas 4 (Revisited): Boxing Day

I’ve been reluctant to let go of Christmas this year; the tree is still up, the cards still on display, the string of Victorian-style paper decorations still tied along the banister rail.

It’s all got to come down soon, if only because the borough council’s tree recycling programme (US: program) will end and we could be stuck with an 8-foot Nordmann fir and no way to get rid of it.   One year when we missed the last tree collection day, we lopped off branches bit by bit and burned them in the fireplace, but had no hatchet to carve up the trunk, so for more days than I’d like to admit, until we had time to get to the ironmonger’s (US: hardware store) to buy some kind of axe, we had the bare upright trunk perched in the corner of the living room.  We called it the Christmas Stick.

Before I admit Christmas is over, then, I’ll re-run one more Christmas post from the sequence you’ve been reading recently, written a couple of years ago.  It’s about Boxing Day—the day after Christmas—which this year fell on a Wednesday, but back then—well, you can read it——

This is an unusual year: Boxing Day comes on Saturday, and English people are divided on how to handle that.

Boxing Day—the day after Christmas—is the day employers traditionally gave servants Christmas boxes containing presents or cash, and it’s still a public holiday. In big houses, the servants were on call all of Christmas day with all their usual work to do plus anything extra called for by the occasion, and Boxing Day was the servants’ day off, the day they celebrated.

A view of Box Hill, which is maintained by the National Trust. Get information on the Trust or on visiting Box Hill from one of the Featured Links on the right-hand side of this page.

A few years ago we had some visitors from the US who decided to spend the afternoon of Boxing Day taking a walk on, fittingly, Box Hill. If you’ve read Jane Austen’s Emma (or seen one of the films), you may remember that there’s a big picnic scene on Box Hill–which is less than 30 miles east of us. Jane Austen’s house at Chawton is less than 30 miles to the west, too; if you’re interested in English literature, one of the great things about living here is that with very little trouble, you can visit the country places associated with all kinds of authors—Jane Austen, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, and more—not to mention the spot where Agatha Christie’s car was found when she temporarily disappeared in 1926, and the part of the Thames where Kenneth Grahame set The Wind in the Willows. And of course you can’t move in London without walking in the footsteps of more luminaries than you can count.

So our visitors set out for Box Hill, but found the day a bit breezier than they were equipped to handle. One lady headed back to sit in the warm car, but not before insisting that one of the gentlemen, who had no hat, take her hat, and that another gentleman, who had only a light jacket, take her coat. The third gentleman was better-equipped for the cold, but as he didn’t like breathing cold air, he’d worn a medical mask.

When they got back, the man in the girlish hat with fluffy balls on the ends of the cords tied under his chin said to the man in the medical mask and the man in the clearly feminine coat that he was surprised that British people who pass you on the walking trails don’t greet you the way people do back in the US. I suspect if he’d come upon three foreigners in similar get-ups in his home state, he might have been a bit reticent, too.

This year was milder, and we did go out for a walk—with our own hats and coats—though not to Box Hill, just around a pond on one of the nearby commons. We ran into lots of people happy to greet us and be greeted, most of them walking their dogs. (Those on horseback were past us and gone so fast that there wasn’t time to speak.) I don’t think it was just that the Christmas season had filled people with a glow towards their fellow human beings; I think you’d find the same friendliness there on any other Saturday, too.

But if Boxing Day comes on Saturday, where’s the fun in having a day off? Most people would probably have a free day on Saturday anyway. So some businesses are recognizing today as the holiday, some are closing on Monday, and most seem to be doing both, so that Christmas will stretch to a four-day weekend this year.

No bad thing that, especially for those of us who put on the Christmas dinners. We may not be servants anymore, but we’ve slaved in the kitchen and deserve that extra day off.

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An English Christmas 2 (Revisited): Mince Pies In Royal David’s City

Happy Christmas! Or if you’re American, Merry Christmas! This post first ran on Christmas Even 2010, but the ritual is the same…

When I lived in the US, Christmas always seemed to start just after Thanksgiving. Sure, there were Christmas displays up in some stores before that, but only to give people something to grumble about. We knew that it wasn’t open season on Christmas until Santa Claus showed up at the end of Macy’s parade.

Here in the UK there’s no national celebration in late November, so there’s no natural or definitive start to the Christmas season; it just creeps up on you. But there is, for many people, an accepted starting point for Christmas itself: at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve when BBC radio broadcasts the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel of King’s College in Cambridge. (I’ve put a link to it on the right-hand side of this page under Featured Links; the BBC will leave the recording there for people to listen to only for the next seven days, so if you’re interested, don’t wait.)

I listen every year, maybe because singing in a choir is the closest I ever got to playing a team sport, I still love the sound and remember what it feels like to perform, and I don’t have that many opportunities during the rest of the year to hear a really good choir. They usually do some of the medieval carols that I love anyway, but that are especially satisfying when sung in a medieval mini-cathedral like this “chapel”, built over a hundred years from the middle of the 15th century to the middle of the 16th. Why start Christmas at King’s? It’s traditional. But if you need more of a reason, you might be interested to find that King’s College is officially named “The King’s College of Our Lady and St Nicholas in Cambridge”, so there’s a pretty good connection to Christmas built in.

Some of the carols everybody knows here have the same words that Americans sing, but set to different tunes, and the British also have lots of Christmas carols I never heard until I moved here. Did any American readers out there grow up singing “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree”? One of these new-to-me carols, “Once In Royal David’s City”, sung by one choirboy alone, always starts the service. As I understand it, two or three choirboys have practiced the part, but no one knows who will do the solo until everyone is in place, the director raises his hands, and finally indicates who is to sing. That, I’m told, is supposed to stop them from being so nervous.

Right. If I were one of them, the suspense would crank me up to peaks of anxiety I can scarcely imagine. It gives me palpitations just to think about it.

They also include modern carols, some of them commissioned for this Festival, either this year or in previous years; maybe these will grow on me, but they seem dark and muddy. Okay, the words may sound silly, but give me “Ding Dong Merrily On High” any time. Some of the modern compositions seem to have been stripped of any scrap of the joy and goodwill that make some of the traditional songs such a treat.

And speaking of treats—I was in the kitchen making my mince pies while I listened. That’s the second of the three English Christmas desserts. The British serve these little tarts with brandy butter, but that’s going too far for me; I want to taste the joy and goodwill of the brandy and orange zest, sharp and clear, and not muddy them up with cream.

So bring on Christmas. I’ve got the mince pies made and I’ve heard the little boy start the carols; I’m ready.

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London Poppy Day

(I’m supposed to be writing about Blake and Parry and “Jerusalem”, but blogging is a kind of journalism, so I’ve got to consider current events, too—and they don’t stay current for long.  Besides, as Arlo Guthrie says, “You cain’t always do what ya s’posed to do”.  I’ll get back to “Jerusalem” soon, but in the meantime…)

A member of 23 Engineers collects donations and distributes poppies at Waterloo Station in London on Nov 1.  He’s a communication specialist, as my father was in WWII; when I described what my father did in the Pacific, this soldier said it’s much the same task today.

Every year in late October Britons start wearing little paper poppies in buttonholes or pinned to lapels, until by about November 3rd, almost everyone you meet—and certainly everybody you see presenting a programme or reading the news on network television—will have a little red paper flower on show.  And they—no, we—will be wearing them through November 11th, Remembrance Day, aka Armistice Day, aka Poppy Day.

You get your poppy, and a pin to hold it on, from someone collecting donations on behalf of the Royal British Legion.  The money goes to help veterans and serving military personnel or their dependents who are in need; the poppy is meant to remember the fallen in all of the wars, chosen because of the poem, well-known on both sides of the Atlantic, that begins

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row…

(You’ll also find the first line given as “In Flanders fields the poppies blow”.  The Wikipedia page for the poem gives the word as blow right next to an image of the handwritten poem that clearly has the line ending in grow.  Since the handwritten copy is from the poet—Canadian military physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae—and has his signature, I’m going to assume the word should be grow.)

Members of the King’s Royal Hussars, a cavalry regiment, gearing up to go collect donations and give out poppies at Waterloo Station. Yes, we still have cavalry units; they deal with tanks and other armored fighting vehicles.  I’m extremely sorry that these pictures are such low quality; you can’t tell that they wear distinctive red trousers (they call them crimson; Americans would call them maroon).  Because of their red finery, they’re nicknamed the Cherrypickers.

I happened to pass through Waterloo Station in London yesterday, and saw more than the usual number of veterans and soldiers out collecting money and handing out poppies.  By their uniforms, they were from all different regiments, too.  There had to be something out of the ordinary going on, so I asked around, and found myself speaking to Jeremy Stephenson, one of the founders of London Poppy Day.

Seven years ago, he and a few friends collected donations outside one London Underground station and raised £500 for that year’s Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.  The project has grown a bit: this year Mayor Boris Johnson zoomed up the Thames in a Royal Navy RIB (rigid inflatable boat) to kick off London Poppy Day, carrying a plastic poppy several times bigger than his head as he boarded HMS Severn ; military bands played at locations all around London; Military Wives, the surprise hit of a recent reality television programme for choirs, performed; and a real Spitfire aircraft visited Covent Garden.  And over 2000 volunteers from the British Army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and several City firms (you can think of the City as similar to Wall Street) collecting at over 60 railway and Underground stations aimed to raise £1,000,000—in twelve hours.

A member of the London Irish Rifles collecting donations at Waterloo Station. He declined to let me photograph his face, but he did take my pound coin and give me a poppy. I watched while a couple with two small kids came up, and the kids were each given a coin to throw into the bucket and helped to put on their poppies–another generation taking up the tradition. What are the chances we can stop sending kids to war before those two are old enough to go?

I stopped to speak to a couple of the soldiers collecting.  I’m in awe of people willing to put themselves in so much danger on behalf of someone else, though I don’t understand, actually, why we’re still asking people to do that; it’s 2012, and I should have thought we’d be clever enough by now to figure out a way to avoid having to send young people off to shoot at each other.

But the day we work out a better way for all of us to share the same planet is going to be a long time coming, and until then we have to deal with war and its aftermath; this isn’t news, I know, but it’s one thing to see photos of soldiers in Iraq, watch video interviews from army camps in Afghanistan, or cheer for Paralympic athletes who lost limbs while in uniform, and it’s something else again to speak face to face with someone who has been there; who feels that he’s lucky to have come back; who admits that he’s lost friends; who agrees with me, when I say that the job must be terrifying, that it is terrifying; but who’s still a soldier.  It is in fact staggering that people do this at all, and especially when you can see how young they are; I talked to a veteran who, at age 25, commanded men who turned 18 on active duty in Kosovo.

Mr Trevaskis, who comes to my front door every year collecting for the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.

And that’s why I always get a poppy and wear it.  I’ve read opinion pieces explaining why the writers choose not to wear poppies (which shows you how common it is to wear one; not wearing a poppy is an aberration that requires an explanation): this one believes that the government should take care of veterans and dependents and not leave them to rely on charity, and that one feels that the poppies that once signaled “Never again” have changed meaning over the years, since the warfare we say we don’t want somehow never seems to stop.  But these aren’t theoretical soldiers who shouldn’t have to fight, they’re real human beings who have fought and who I’m sure want to see an end to war more fervently than the rest of us.  And yes, the government shouldn’t leave veterans and dependents out in the cold, but when it comes to needy people and charity– well, saying  “someone else should do it” doesn’t get you much of anywhere.

Young people still put themselves in danger for others, hoping to do good, making huge sacrifices; I respect them, and thank them, and wear a poppy.

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Update on Newton’s Apple Tree

A special welcome to new subscribers who came here after seeing the previous post on Freshly Pressed, WordPress’s showcase of selected blog posts. I was grateful that they included my apple-y article, and wonder whether, if that has been freshly pressed, we’ll get apple juice, and eventually cider…

The title card from the section of the Paralympics opening ceremony called “Gravity”

Turns out that the Paralympic opening ceremony was titled “Enlightenment”. Who knew? The section called “Gravity” used a title card (see illustration) , but the name of the production as a whole was never shown or announced. (One of the presenters said something about enlightenment being a theme of the evening and of Professor Hawking’s life; that was about it.)

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, the Enlightenment brains behind the Declaration of Independence

So what I saw (see previous post) as a tribute to the scientific revolution was really a tribute to enlightenment in many forms, including the capital-E Enlightenment of which Newton was a part—an intellectual revolution in which people turned to reasoning and science to determine how society should work. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson produced the Declaration of Independence as part of the politics of that Enlightenment, although today sometimes it seems we’re living, to go by current US politics at least, in the Endarkenment.

Sir Isaac Newton

Newton dedicated himself to truth, as a good Enlightenment scientist would, quoting in his notebook a sentiment that goes back to Aristotle that loosely translates as “Plato is my friend, but truth is a better friend”, meaning he would choose truth over whatever an authority told him. (A loose translation is good enough, not least because Newton wrote it in Latin when Aristotle’s original was in Greek—go figure.)

I would be doing Newton a poor service, then, if I didn’t correct mistakes when they come to light. So, many thanks to WordPress blogger 3arn0wl who suggested that the tree I said was a descendant of Isaac Newton’s original was in fact the original tree itself, still growing after more than 400 years, which turns out to be true, or at least, almost certainly true.

Pity the other trees in the Woolsthorpe Manor orchard. Newton might even have seen apples fall from this tree from time to time, but not on the one crucial occasion.

I spoke with Ann Moynihan, National Trust Support Officer for Woolsthorpe Manor, to get the true story, and found her a gold mine of information. The celebrated tree, the most famous apple tree since the Garden of Eden, was identified by about 1779 as the one from which Newton said he saw the apple fall; that’s less than 65 years after he died. So while we don’t have firm proof, it’s very likely to be the right tree; dendrochronology (tree ring measurements) show that the tree is over 400 years old; and we’re not likely to get any closer to the truth than that.   It’s possible that by 1779(ish) folklore could have pushed in already and marked the wrong tree as the hallowed one, but why, as William of Ockham might have said, complicate the story?

Ten years ago, Newton’s apple tree and 49 others were designated Great British Trees in honor of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

The tree being so famous, when it blew over in a storm in 1810 the press got the story and ran with it, lamenting the death of the tree in quantities of ink—but the tree wasn’t dead. People rushed to make a profit on boxes and even chairs made of the dead branches, but the remnants of the tree sent up new shoots; there was life in the old fruit yet.

In fact, Ann suggested that the tree regenerated a la Dr Who.  (I’ll have to explain for those who haven’t encountered Dr Who, but with apologies to Ann, because a joke is never funny if you have to explain it; in short, Dr Who is a character in a science fiction television show who, whenever the actor playing the character quits but producers want to keep the show going, is said to have “regenerated”, and come back to life looking like the new actor who will take the character on.)

Key fobs made from branches pruned from Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree, on sale in the shop at Woolsthorpe Manor.

Ann wasn’t familiar with the story I heard from the staff member in the shop at Woolsthorpe Manor, about the tree having been tested against the DNA of a piece of wood signed by Newton himself, but said that the Royal Society has a piece of wood from the same tree—and here, Americans and other non-British readers might want a word about the RS, which is proud to claim Newton as a former member.

The London premises of the Royal Society

Officially, it’s the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge; the American equivalent would be the US National Academy of Sciences, but the RS is 200 years older than the USNAS. It’s a nonprofit body of eminent scientists who support excellence in science, giving grants for research and education projects and advising the government on scientific issues. The RS has recently made a picture database available on the internet; you can try looking up “Newton apple tree” (see Featured Links), or better yet, read the RS’s blog about the pictures of Newton’s apple tree in their collection (click here).

And in its collections of amazing items from the history of science, the Royal Society has a piece of the original apple tree, a piece that’s been up in the space shuttle. The RS lent the 4-inch chunk to British astronaut Piers Sellers who took it up in 2010, along with a picture of Sir Isaac Newton, for what was meant to be the final voyage of the Atlantis shuttle.  (The Atlantis got a reprieve and kept flying, eventually carrying out the last shuttle mission when the program closed down in 2011.)

Piers Sellers, Anglo-American astronaut, took a fragment of wood from Newton’s apple tree on a space shuttle flight.

If you aren’t a space shuttle astronaut or a Fellow of the Royal Society, and you can’t get to Lincolnshire to visit the tree yourself, you still might be closer to the tree that you might suppose; shoots from Newton’s tree have been sent all over the world, grafted onto different rootstock, and produced genetically identical trees.  In Britain, the tree grows in Cambridge at Trinity College and in the University’s Botanic Garden; elsewhere in the UK they have the ‘same’ tree at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Oxford, the Institute of Physics in York, and—though I haven’t confirmed this one—Kew Gardens in Kew, in London.  With pointers from Ann and some serious Googling, I’ve found more instances of Newton’s tree in the US (MIT), Korea (the Korean Research Institute for Standards and Science, in Daejeon), Australia (Monash University), and China (at Nanjing University and at TianJin University).

A descendant of Newton’s apple tree growing in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, although the photographer, rather unusually, seems to have been more interested in the trunk than in the leaves

I feel very much more enlightened now, on the subject of Newton’s tree, which is presumably not one of the enlightenments the producers of the Paralympic opening ceremony had in mind, but that’s okay; I took their point about seeing disabled people in a new light as well.  After watching Olympic athletes show how far you can push the human body to do amazing things, I thought I must have seen the absolute limit of achievement in sports, but the Paralympics showed me how wrong I was; like the best in any field of endeavor from sports to science, the Paralympians push the boundaries even farther.

Photos of Woolsthorpe Manor orchard are mine, the “Gravity” title card is a screen shot from the Channel 4 coverage of the Paralympics, and all other photos are from Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license.

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Isaac Newton and the Paralympic Apples

Apple dancers at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics

Olympic sports have continued here; the Paralympics don’t end until tonight. British viewers saw the full Paralympic opening ceremony, and we’ve had 4 channels showing events live all day long. I gather that in the US, NBC showed only about 5 hours of the Paralympic action, total—hard to believe.

A performer enters, riding in her wheelchair on a gigantic apple, which sits on a book. Books made up another theme of the ceremony, representing, among other works, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Newton’s Principia Mathematica

The Paralympics’ opening ceremony, like the Olympic ceremony, tackled a revolution, in this case the scientific revolution. The connection between Newton’s apple—represented in many forms, including the real apples given to each spectator on arrival—and the Paralympics might not be obvious, though when you watch some of the people who run on those remarkable blades instead of feet, it’s clear that science and technology underpin some events. But I’d guess that the choice of theme had much to do with the contemporary world’s most famous disabled person being British and a scientist: Stephen Hawking, who narrated the production.

Professor Hawking, looking very small on the main set in the enormous arena

The UK can’t actually claim that the scientific revolution began here—can’t leave out Copernicus for starters, and he was Polish—but I guarantee you that a good proportion of the population finds that the phrase “scientific revolution” brings to mind that apple hitting Isaac Newton on the head 100 years after Copernicus. Newton wasn’t actually conked on the head, but there was an apple tree, he did watch an apple fall and, watching it, wondered why apples always fall down and never out to the side or something, a bit of daydreaming that led to the universal law of gravitation. Descendants of Newton’s apple tree still grow in the same orchard at his home in Lincolnshire, which I visited just a couple of days before those apple-wielding performers (see illustrations) appeared on my TV/telly, so I’m using that as an excuse to write about Newton in the middle of my streak of Olympic-ceremony posts.

A 430-voice chorus sings Principia , a violently discordant piece by composer Errollyn Wallen inspired by Newton’s work

Isaac Newton was born prematurely at Woolsthorpe Manor on Christmas Day 1642, so small that the nurse said he could fit into a quart jug (in the US we’d have said pitcher; Brits think pitcher is as quaint and old-fashioned as Americans think jug is). Servants sent out for supplies for the baby sat down and goofed off rather than hurry, as they didn’t expect him to be alive when they got back anyway.

Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, where Isaac Newton was born, grew up, and did some of his most famous work.

On the other hand, local superstition at the time held that it was lucky to be born on Christmas Day. It was also supposed to be lucky to be born after the death of your father, as odd as that sounds, and the baby’s father had died a few months before. When his mother, Hannah, remarried, she left three-year-old Isaac at Woolsthorpe Manor with his grandmother. Lots of books will tell you that this meant her new husband didn’t accept his step-son, but the National Trust (historic preservation group that maintains the house) says it’s more likely that Hannah shrewdly left her son in the Newton home to make sure no one questioned his right to inherit the place.

The farm at Woolsthorpe Manor

When he was older, his mother also demanded he do his familial duty and work on the farm—Woolsthorpe Manor sounds grand, but it was really just a glorified farmhouse. Had that worked out, he might have remained illiterate like his father, who never learned to write his own name. (There’s a grid of small cup-shaped gouges on a plaster wall at Woolsthorpe Manor that historians think is an inventory of livestock; presumably that was how you kept track if you couldn’t read or write.) But Newton’s mother found she could lead a scientific genius to the land, but she couldn’t make him cultivate it.

Newton, first scientist ever knighted, was granted a coat of arms; claiming descent from a certain baron, he was allowed to adopt that baron’s ancient symbol. The crossed bones are not uncommon on arms and don’t imply piracy; National Trust staff suggested they are sheep bones, as the family made its money in sheep.

In the end, she allowed him to go to school, and from school to Cambridge, where she expressed her feelings about his choice not to be a farmer by giving him so little money that he had to work as a servant for richer students. It doesn’t seem to have mattered much. The only thing that could keep him away from Cambridge was the plague, which closed the place down in 1665.

As far as is known, this is the apple tree from which Newton said he saw the apple fall, one of several in the orchard that lies just outside the front door at Woolsthorpe Manor. It’s certainly over 400 years old. The variety is Flower of Kent, and it’s a cooking apple.

So Newton went back to the farm and sat there by himself, totally revolutionizing science, later saying “I was in the prime of my age for invention”. He not only saw the apple fall and worked out his theory of gravitation, but developed the three Laws of Motion, invented calculus, worked out principles of mechanics and of planetary motion, and did famous experiments with light. His work always began with observation, and he was such an inveterate experimenter that, rather less famously, he stuck a blunt needle into his eye to see how pressing on his retina would alter his vision.

Performers pull giant apples into the stadium

A trip to Woolsthorpe Manor includes a chance to see the window that Newton covered, leaving only a small opening so that he could direct sunlight through a prism and break white light up into colours. Newton didn’t invent the prism; people knew them from way back. Ships used prisms to let light in below decks, for one thing, and Newton bought his prism at a country fair, maybe sold as toy for children. In any case, before Newton, people thought that prisms added colour to light, and that all colours were mixtures of dark and light, so that (I’m not making this up) one theorist said that red was produced by the purest white light with the least amount of dark mixed in (I know, I know) and black was pure darkness, but if there was just a little light mixed into the darkness, you got a sort of dull blue. Newton used a second prism to bend the light again, merging the colours to produce white light, which pretty much knocked the ol’ prisms-apply-colours theory off the table (and at least it didn’t require any of that needle-in-the-eye business).

A giant apple floats in.  Before Newton, people thought objects contained more or less of properties called gravity and levity, which made those objects heavy or light.  This, then, is an apple full of levity, I suppose.

Isaac Newton ended up the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, an extremely prestigious position. One of his professors had the job, but resigned so Newton could have it; he was that good. Three-hundred and ten years later, Stephen Hawking got the job*, which leads us back to the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, in all its apple-y glory.

Apples floated in on wires. Performers rode in on gigantic apples, dragged in enormous apples on carts, tossed around beachball-sized apples, juggled apples. On cue, everyone in the stadium bit into their free apples for one thunderous communal crunch.

Apples everywhere…

And Professor Hawking told us via his synthetic voice that “There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being”. True, but some are less run-of-the-mill than others, and watching Paralympic athletes you can’t help but be majorly impressed. I’m going to miss the games. (I’ve already looked up a wheelchair basketball team near me and hope to go see them play.) But at the moment, I’m looking forward to tonight’s closing ceremony. Just in case there’s audience participation, I’ve got some apples standing by.

* Lucasian professors are required to retire at 67, so Professor Hawking left the Lucasian Chair in 2009, replaced by physicist Michael Green.

Photos of Woolsthorpe Manor are mine; others are screenshots from the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Paralympics

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The Greatest Britons: Two Guys With Cigars

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, played by Kenneth Branagh in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics

The opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics each featured, near the beginning, a guy with a cigar reciting from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  A lot of viewers would have recognized Winston Churchill in the closing ceremony, whether from war movies, history class, or documentaries; he was  Prime Minister of the UK during the second world war.  But the cigar-chewer in the opening ceremony was someone non-Brits aren’t likely to have run across.  Some people thought it was Charles Dickens and some went for Abraham Lincoln, but in fact the actor was playing Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

As that probably doesn’t tell you much, I’m here to answer the question “Who was Brunel?”, which is the easy part.   “Why were these guys quoting Shakespeare?” is harder.

Winston Churchill, played by Timothy Spall in the closing ceremony at the 2012 Olympics

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a 19th-century engineer who designed and built bridges, tunnels, viaducts, railway lines, and ships in an era in which that kind of civil and mechanical engineering was comparable to today’s Silicon Valley for excitement, new technologies, and transformed economies.  Victorian industrialists—of the type in the Olympics’ opening ceremony, who raised the smokestacks of the factories and presided over the change from the agricultural to the industrial—invested in the huge projects that engineers such as Brunel dreamed up.  Note I have to say “such as” Brunel because I can’t say “like Brunel”, as nobody else was like him:  he was the greatest.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself

Brunel was born into engineering.  His father, a civil engineer and inventor, could have been wealthy if only he’d remembered to patent his inventions, but died nearly penniless, dependent upon his more famous—and more solvent—son.  ‘Our’ Brunel’s father, despite being knighted by King Edward VII and boasting membership in the Royal Societies of multiple countries, spent time in debtor’s prison, until the government bailed him out on condition he wouldn’t leave England.  An imminent deal with the Tsar scared them into forking over the money; they didn’t want Brunel (Senior) moving to Russia and building marvelous things there.

Straight out of school, 16-year-old Isambard began to work for his father, soon running the era’s hottest project: building the world’s first tunnel through the soft mud that lies under a navigable river—in this case, the Thames.  The Brunel tunnel is still there,and still in useby the London Overground Railway.  Opened to the public in 1843, it didn’t even need refurbishment until the 1990s, though building the tunnel cost several lives and almost killed young Isambard.  After a terrible accident and a long recovery Brunel (Junior) went on to different kinds of engineering work of his own, most notably for the Great Western Railway.

Statue of Brunel at Paddington Station in London

On the first train ride Brunel ever took, he jotted down some notes, the jagged letters showing how jerky the train was, and added “The time is not far off when we shall be able to take our coffee and write, while going noiselessly and smoothly at 45mph – let me try”.  He got his chance to build a railroad–only two years after his first ride.

The financial backers of the Great Western Railway wanted to connect London with the popular holiday (US: vacation) spots in southwest England by rail, which was no small thing in the 1830s.  You had to get approval from Parliament, and counter the arguments of people who claimed railway passengers wouldn’t survive going through tunnels (they’d smother), or feared that cattle would be harmed by walking under a railway bridge, or—my favorite—were concerned, as was the provost of Eton College, that the railway would be “dangerous to the morals of the pupils”.

The SS Great Britain in drydock today

Brunel had to testify before Parliament for eleven days, but eventually Great Western got permission to build the railway.  Then Brunel suggested they go one better: why not operate steamships, too?  A passenger ought to be able to buy one Great Western ticket, he said, and travel all the way from London to New York.  While they chewed on that, Brunel surveyed the new line himself and did ingenious things with the gradients and with the gauge (distance between the rails) to smooth out the ride.  And a few years later, they let him design the ships.

People clearly thought he could do whatever he set his mind to do.  He experimented with trains propelled by carbon dioxide (the Gaz Engine), which didn’t work, and with trains pushed by air rushing to fill a steam-engine-generated vacuum (the Atmospheric Railway), which did work, but not very well. One modern author suggests that if he had wanted to build a steam rocket to go to the moon, someone would have paid to let him try it.

The SS Great Britain in 1844, believed to be the first photo ever taken of a ship

But before designing ocean-going ships for treacherous Atlantic crossings, his only experiment in nautical design was the Bertha, a dredger that removed silt from the Bristol docks.  Even more formidably, the general wisdom said steamships couldn’t cross the ocean; steam for short stretches, sure, but for the Atlantic you had to have sails.  But where Brunel was concerned, the general wisdom often proved wrong.

If you visit the SS Great Britain today, you might meet “Mr Brunel”. Photo by Paul Blakemore, used here by courtesy of the SS Great Britain Trust

He’s probably best remembered for his ships (though Britain’s fascination with the sea may be a factor there).  First came the SS Great Western—in its day, the largest steamship ever, wooden-hulled with paddle wheels for propulsion and a few sails to keep it upright. Next came the SS Great Britain—even larger, with an iron hull and a screw propeller.  You can visit the ship today in Bristol, where it sits as a museum in the same shipyard, in fact in the very same drydock, in which it was built. It was so big they had to adapt the locks between the shipyard and the ocean before it could get out, but Brunel’s last ship, the SS Great Eastern, was even bigger than that.

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol. The toll hasn’t changed since 1952, so drivers pay 50 pence to take a car across, though they don’t bother to collect the 5 pence from pedestrians and cyclists anymore.

Brunel died not long after the SS Great Eastern’s maiden voyage.  As a memorial, some of his fellow engineers drummed up funding and completed the Clifton Bridge, which Brunel had designed and begun building almost 30 years before.  (The original project had been abandoned when the money ran out.)  The new bridge was finished in 1864, though without the decorative sphinxes on the tops of the towers that were part of the decorations called for in the original design.

Kenneth Branagh, when he isn’t playing Brunel. He’s one of the UK’s leading Shakespearian actors, but a wider American audience might remember him as Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter movies.

Back in 1836, the first iron rail of the Clifton Bridge, when laid across 700 feet of empty space over the Avon, had fallen into the water 300 feet below. Brunel said as soon as they could put another in place, he’d ride across it in a basket to show it was safe.  He got stuck halfway across, and had to swing himself out of the basket and up to the bar to get it going again.  That’s where the analogy with today’s Silicon Valley breaks down: people like Steve Jobs have given us marvelous new technology, but they never had to risk their lives to do it; they didn’t contend with exploding steam boilers, they weren’t caught in unfinished tunnels when the river decided to flood in, they didn’t have to do death-defying aerial acrobatics to prove their projects were safe.  You can’t call Brunel the chief geek of his day; he was a bit more Indiana Jones and a bit less Bill Gates, though it’s mindboggling to think what Brunel might have created if he’d had a Bill-Gates sized bank balance to draw on.

And finally, Timothy Spall when he’s not playing Churchill, although in this photo he is in costume for another film. He’s also a major actor here, but going with the people-have-probably-seen-the-Harry-Potter-films approach, I’ll say you might have seen him as Peter Pettigrew, aka Wormtail.

Getting back to the Olympic ceremonies where we started, I should mention that Brunel and Churchill are linked by more than just being British public figures often photographed with cigars; Churchill came first and Brunel came second in a poll a few years ago for “The Greatest Briton” in all of the history of Great Britain.  The BBC aired new documentaries on the lives of the candidates, current public figures presented the cases of their favourites, and the viewers phoned in their votes. Bookies started out giving 20-to-1 odds against Brunel, but they hadn’t counted on the loyal engineering students of Brunel University in London, some of whom voted multiple times (perhaps the railway had undermined students’ morals; the bookies eventually had to close the book).

So Churchill came first and Brunel came second.  Going on down the list, Princess Diana was third, Darwin fourth, and Shakespeare fifth, which brings us back to why Churchill and Brunel were quoting Shakespeare.  But on that question, your guess is as good as mine.

Except for photos of the opening ceremony, which are screenshots from the BBC video of the event, and the photo of “Mr Brunel” at the wheel of the ship, which is used by permission of the SS Great Britain Trust, all pictures are from Wikipedia and are used under the Creative Commons license.

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