Monday, 23 June 2008

On The National Express

AFTER a year of such dramatic events - graduation, travelling, moving to a new city (London at that) - it seems strange to be settling down to a routine and old habits. Take trains, for example. A few years ago I toured England by train, for fun, and then and since have made many journeys by locomotive - each journey with an exciting story to tell. But since last September, it all got more advanced: 10 flights around the world in four months, then separate trips to Oslo and Budapest, the latter via Vienna, as you may have read. So it was strange then to find myself on Saturday going on a train adventure to Nottingham, but it didn't take long for the joys of train travel to return.

There are standard events - children screaming, other children wandering and pestering (one took great interest in Len, my mp3 player) - but unexpected events too - once I had a lady opposite me composing a breakfast of cornflakes and sliced banana with a dash of fresh milk; on Saturday I just had a lady painting her nails (the fumes amplified by the steamy weather).

Once when I was travelling up to Birmingham from Devon, I became surrounded by football fans who had come aboard at Bristol Parkway after attending a pivotal game at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff (I forget what the game was, but I believe it was an FA Cup round). I was keeping myself to myself, reading through some notes for an essay I was due to write on evolution and the origins of life, or more specifically the theories on these topics. My good friends the drunken supporters decided to take an interest.

"What are you reading?" one of them asked.

"About the theory of evolution," I answered.

"Well, now, we can tell you all about that" they began. "You see, there was once this chap called Darwin. Charles was his first name. Now he came up with this theory, about adaptation, natural selection and survival of the fittest. However, many people don't like this theory. They say that there are flaws with it, particularly the gaps in the fossil record. How could humans have come from monkeys, if there were no cave men or primitive men in between? Well I'll tell you a secret - these people did exist. They still do. They're called Manchester United supporters."

My favourite story from the Golden Age of train travel, excluding the impromptu excursion to Machynlleth that Rachel and I made last year, comes from Westbury, the premier train station of Wiltshire. Westbury has since confirmed itself as the hub of unusual activity on my mental rail map, but the story of the bearded man of 7/8 (yes, the month after 7/7) is for another time. On this occasion I was heading to Cardiff, but because it was a Sunday, I had to go via the middle of nowhere. Changing train at Westbury, I wandered the platforms looking for a clue as to which train was mine. All of the announcements contradicted each other, and the man on the platform wasn't in the least bit helpful. So I boarded the train that was there waiting, and asked a passenger if this was the train that I required.

"Goes to Trowbridge."

"Is that on the way to Cardiff?"

"I dunno. I'm going to Trowbridge."

"Right, thanks." I disembark, but with no better plan and now fairly confident that it did indeed go on to Cardiff, I got back on again and went on an adventure to Trowbridge.

I sat near to the man I had spoken to, but quickly regretted it. Discarded empty cans of Special Brew all around him, it didn't take long for him to strike up conversation once more.

"What's your name?" he asks.

Given that it would be rude to ignore him, I answered.

"Ah Simon," he said, "I think that was my name once."

I balked. How could this be so? How can a man forget his name?

"What do you mean?" I asked. "What do you call yourself now?"

His response was one of the most magnificently bizarre answers I have ever heard. He said, and I kid you not, nor do I paraphrase or exaggerate:

"Fungus of the Valley."

He claimed to be aiming for the world record for the longest fungus-related name ever. His full name he presently told me - I can no longer recall it, but every word was in some way mycotic, and there were a lot of words. This was a truly bizarre man, and ever so slightly creepy. I continue to wonder if he was on something stronger than Special Brew.

I now know where Trowbridge is. It's the first stop from Westbury on the line that indeed terminates at Cardiff Central. Which is a relief.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Lang may your lum reek!

Originally published in Redbrick Vol 71 Issue 1301 [Features], December 2006

"Lang may your lum reek!"

THESE were the words upon which the health and luck of our Glaswegian flat depended. All I had to do was say them correctly. Not “long may your mum reek” or any other such silly suggestion offered by my peers, but a word-perfect “Lang may your lum reek”, or “long may your chimney smoke” to the rest of us. This is the traditional saying of the First-Footer, the first person in the New Year to step over the threshold of a friend or neighbour’s house, bringing fortune.

One of the many traditions of Hogmanay, the First-Footing requires a drink, a source of fuel and a tall, dark, handsome stranger. Dark hair is supposed to symbolise a true Scot; after all, a red-haired or blonde male brings with him a history of those pesky Norsemen. The trouble is, there is not a trace of Scottish ancestry in my blood – I was just a southern sassenach staying with a friend in Scotland. Fitting the ‘dark haired and tall’ criteria, I was armed with a match and a glass of water (not quite the coal and dram of whisky of olden days) and ready to immerse myself in tradition. If only I could remember that phrase…

Once again it’s that time of the year, or - more precisely – next year. In the excitement of Christmas we put to the back of our minds the fact that 2006 is counting down. The time for fireworks, champagne and Jools Holland shouting “Hootenanny!” is nearly upon us.

But what defines this year we so eagerly usher in? We are so used to our calendar that we forget it has not always been this way, and yet the clues are all around us. September is our ninth month, but its prefix means seven. In fact, all of the final months of the year are two months out of place. We have the Romans to blame for that. When Numa Pompilius added January and February and a leap month (Mensis Intercalaris) to the start of the calendar, he thought he’d solved the riddle of the missing 61 days of winter each year. But the leap year was added too infrequently and time drifted away from the seasons. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar consulted his astronomers and replaced the Roman calendar with his own.

The Julian calendar gave us our modern day month lengths. Mensis Intercalaris was removed and replaced with the February leap day. To the casual observer it was perfect, if a little confusing: 46 BC lasted 445 days to align the calendars and when Julius Caesar was assassinated only the next year, records cannot quite decide on which date he died, having not yet accustomed to the new system.

Alas, even the great Dictator of the Roman Republic can get things wrong. Pontifices who defined leap years were adding a day to February every three years instead of four. It fell to Augustus to correct this, setting the Empire into a regular four-year cycle after 36 years of temporal drift. It is because of the roles of these Roman leaders that the months of Quintilis and Sextilis were renamed Iulius (July) and Augustus (August), much to the annoyance of future leaders.

The Julian calendar is incorrect by, annoyingly, eleven minutes each year. Such a small error was not noticeable in the reign of Augustus, but by 1582 things were sufficiently out of synch. In waltzed Pope Gregory XIII, after whom our modern Gregorian calendar is named, with a plan to stop this drift. The big difference? Drop 3 leap days per four hundred years. Not a massive change, but an essential one. When Britain adopted the system in 1752, Wednesday 2nd September was followed by Thursday 14th September. Eleven days never happened. Even more startling, many parts of the world did not adopt this system for centuries. Russia, for example, waited until the end of the Revolution in 1918.

Given that a pope decreed our calendar, and our years are numbered after the traditional birth year of Jesus (Anno domini means “In the year of our Lord”), why do we celebrate January 1st as the start of the year, rather than the 25th December? The truth is, we once did.

New Year’s day has often been associated with Catholic feasts. There have been Christmas-style New Years on the 25th of December, but also celebrations of the Annunciation (the revelation of the archangel Gabriel to Mary), on the 25th March and, perhaps pivotally, the feast of the Circumcision of Jesus on January 1st. Yet before that, the pre-Julian Romans had settled on January 1st as the start of a new office.

And so to the present day. The current western Liturgical calendar began on Sunday at the start of Advent, the new Orthodox year will begin on the Julian 1st of January (our 14th of January until 2100) and the Jewish Rosh Hashannah celebration takes place in September. Other cultures choose the start of spring. Many Southeastern Asian countries celebrate in April. Then there are calendars based on the moon: the Chinese Year of the Pig begins on February 18, 2007 and in 2008 Muslims will get to celebrate two New Years.

For the Western world though, 2007 will begin at midnight on January 1st. Perhaps you will sing Robert Burn’s Auld Lang Syne, or watch the Waterford Crystal Ball descend in New York’s Time Square. Perhaps you might like to see the swinging of metre-wide flaming tar balls in Stonehaven, or sit back and eat traditional doughnut-like oliebollen in Holland. Perhaps you might celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which came into effect on the first day of 1862, or stare at a Euro note and wonder how it got to be eight years old. Or, more likely, you’ll be drunk.

I’ll still be reliving the memory of taking part in the world’s largest Strip the Willow, an enormous Ceilidh at the Night Afore celebration in Edinburgh, one of more than 3,500 people swinging around strangers to the beat of the Portobello band. I’ll reminisce about Mark Saul’s trance-bagpipe music and some truly bizarre street theatre. Oh, and the fact that that Dryburgh flat is still going strong. Long may its chimney smoke!