Tag Archives: Life

Entrance Tickets, The Budapest Parliament Building

Budapest parliament (1)

The five of us debated entrance to the Parliament building.  Even with half price entrance fees (2,000 Florints) for citizens of the European Union there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm to visit the interior and after a show of hands it was only Sue and I that paid up and waited in line to go inside while the others made their various ways back to the Hotel Gellért.

The forty minute tour took us up wide open staircases, through elaborately decorated corridors, magnificently appointed state rooms and into the debating chambers but the highlight was the central dome (ninety-six metres high, remember) and in pride of place the fabulous crown of Saint Stephen.

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50, Barmeston Road, Catford

Catford 1999

“(Catford) the only place in all of London and the south-east set to remain impervious to gentrification” – Lucy Mangan, Journalist (The Guardian)

One day in 1999 I was at work and driving through London and on impulse took a detour to Catford and to Barmerston Road where my grandparents used to live to see the house that I used to visit with my parents when I was a child.

It was having a bit of renovation work carried out to it at the time but although it seemed smaller (everything looks smaller as you grow older, especially Wagon Wheel biscuits) it looked almost as I remembered it and the memories came flooding back.

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The Blackbird – Sweden, A Nursery-Rhyme and A Saint

Blackbird

With its status as Britain’s favourite bird secure, the Robin cannot possibly be challenged for top spot (rather like Winston Churchill as the Greatest Briton) but coming second I would suggest is the sociable and friendly Blackbird.

Although the Robin is our favourite bird it has always been denied official National Bird status. Not so the Blackbird which, after a newspaper poll of readers in 1962 is honoured as the national bird of Sweden.  Although many World countries have national birds this is the only one that I can find that has chosen a bird that I have found in my garden.

Many countries, especially in the tropics prefer colourful specimens like parrots, the French have the Cockerel, Australia has the Emu, New Zealand the Kiwi and the USA has the Bald Eagle and others too like to choose something spectacular and powerful.  The most common national bird is the Golden Eagle which is claimed by Austria and Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Scotland.

Sweden Blackbird Postage Stamp

In the Middle Ages the blackbird was known by the distinctive old English name of the Ousel and it is a pity that this has become obsolete, though it may still be referred to as such in Scotland.  The first recorded usage of blackbird was in 1486 and even though there are bigger black birds in Medieval England such as the Crow, Raven, Rook or Jackdaw, these were previously regarded as fowl so the Ouzel was simply the largest black bird at that time.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare describes the bird as ‘The Woosell cocke, so blacke of hew, With Orenge-tawny bill’.

In Scotland where linguistic relics of the old alliance with France still remain, the blackbird is sometimes known by its French name of le Merle.  A Blackbird is el Mirlo in Spanish and il Merlo in Italian, all of which are from the Latin Merula by the way.

Merle is a traditional French name although not so popular now it seems and it certainly doesn’t feature in a current list of top one hundred (the most common French names are Marie for a girl and Thomas for a boy).  Famous Merles have been the actress Merle Oberon and the US country singer Merle Haggard.  One interesting piece of trivia is that there was a character in the film Godfather Part II, a lover of Connie Corleone, called Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue played the part).

Merle Johnson

On the Fourth Day of Christmas My Truelove sent to me… “Four Colly Birds etc. etc.”

Yes, you read it correctly. Colly birds, not calling birds.  So maybe we have been singing the song all wrong!  It would seem that nobody knows for sure how we got from colly bird to calling bird, but some people think it is likely to be an Americanisation of the traditional verse; Colly is an Old English term for ‘black’ from the word ‘colliery’ meaning coal mine and colly birds refer to the common blackbird.

A common view is that ‘colly bird’ was a term specific to England and that England’s former colonies dropped the word in favour of ‘blackbirds.’ In fact, ‘colly birds’ have pretty much dropped out of the English language altogether today and, in this Christmas song, it has been completely replaced by the ‘calling bird’ in the US Australia, Canada and many other former English colonies.

Postage Stamp designers seem to know about this…

Four Colly Birds

Which leaves the obvious question – why would someone send their lover four blackbirds?  Perhaps this is the answer…

“Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocket full of rye.

Four and twenty blackbirds,

Baked in a pie.”

800px-SingSong6dcaldecott

An interesting nursery ryme based on fact as it happens.  From the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century blackbirds were sometimes used as a substitute meat to make a poor man’s pie. Rich people liked blackbird pie as well but with a bit of a twist. For amusement, after a pie was baked the live birds were placed under the pie crust and served at the table and when the pie was ‘opened’ the birds would escape and fly about the room for the entertainment of the guests.

To be honest I can’t help thinking that four and twenty blackbirds swooping about the room might become a bit of a distraction at a dinner party!

blackbirdpie

The concept of a Blackbird in a pie remains with us even now and I can remember my Mum having one of these pie funnels when I was a boy living at home…

Berry_Pie-535x356

These days all wild birds in the UK are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 so catching them to eat is against the law. It is however permissible to eat them if they have died and fallen into the back garden but as you are likely to need a lot of Blackbirds to make a reasonably sized pie it might take a very long time to collect enough of them unless there were to be a catastrophic incident that you could get enough in one go but then I would advise caution in considering eating them if ever such a grisly event happened!

I have saved my favourite and most unlikely blackbird story until the end.

St Kevin

St Kevin of Glendalough (Ireland) is the Patron Saint of the Blackbird and according to legend this came about because one day he was praying with outstretched arms and a Blackbird landed in his hand, built a nest, laid eggs and St Glendalough sat there all the time in the same position until the eggs hatched and the birds were fledged and flew safely away.

A bit far-fetched do you think? I should say so. It takes a pair of Blackbirds about a week to build a nest, then they have to do the mating stuff, the eggs take on average fourteen days to hatch and it is then another fourteen days or so before the chicks are ready to leave. Call me a sceptic if you like but I find the story hard to believe because surely poor old St. Glendalogh would have had to have wriggled about a little bit and after six weeks or so that arm is going to be completely dead and useless. I can only hold a glass of wine for a few minutes before having to put it down!

I told you before about my Dad’s scrapbook of birds.  This was his blackbird page…

Dads Blackbird page

Another Strange Bird Story – Vinkenzetting

vinkenzetting2

This is a story that I find almost unbelievable but I swear that it is true and if there was a list of pointless things that mankind has thought up to amuse itself then this would be close to the top of the list.

The chaffinch is a popular pet bird in many countries because of its beautiful song.  In the Flanders region of Belgium, the four hundred year old sport of vinkenzetting (finch-sitting) is a competition that pits male chaffinches against one another in a contest for the most bird calls in an hour.  The sport was first recorded in 1596 and currently it is estimated that there are over thirteen thousand vinkeniers breeding ten thousand birds every year.

This is a sport even more pointless than fishing and this is how the contest works – a row of cages, each housing a single male finch, are lined up approximately two metres apart along a street, the close proximity is important because it increases the number of calls, as the birds sing to attract a mate and to establish its territory, and every time the bird sings this is recorded as a score by making a chalk mark on a pole.  A timekeeper begins and ends the contest with a red flag and the bird singing its song the most times in one hour wins the contest.

Chaffinch

According to the organisers of the sport finches from the different regions of Belgium sing in different dialects. Flemish finchers insist that only Flemish chaffinches chirp the susk-e-wiet and that Wallonian finches, found a few miles away, sing in a dialect closer to French. If a bird fails to sing in the Flemish style then its tweets may not be counted.  Any bird singing in French is immediately disqualified with no right of appeal.  I imagine the French are not happy about that knowing how precious they are about their language.

In my opinion this must surely be a something that should be stopped immediately because why would anyone want to put a wild bird as beautiful as this into a wooden box simply for their own amusement?

As with other sports, vinkenzetting has had its cheating scandals and in one competition a champion finch sang 1,278 correct songs (that’s one every three seconds or so) but the owner was later accused of doping the bird with testosterone.  At another contest after one finch sang the exact same number of calls in two rounds the box was opened and a mini CD player was discovered inside.  I hope the owners were appropriately punished.

This man looks like the Diego Maradonna of vinkenzetting…

Vikenzetting 1

My Holidays in Malta, Valletta

Malta Valletta City Guides

“Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe. The city is one of the most beautiful, for its architecture and the splendour of its streets that I know: something between Venice and Cadiz.”  – Benjamin Disraeli

The city of Valletta was built by the Knights of St John who were granted the island in 1530, seven years after being expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks.  Trouble with Turks however continued to follow the Knights and in 1565 the Ottomans laid siege to their new home on Malta with the intention of establishing a base from where they could conveniently advance into Europe.  But as in Rhodes and at Bodrum the Knights proved a tough nut to crack and the Great Siege of Malta which lasted from May until September ended with the defeat and retreat of the Turkish army.

The rest of Europe was so grateful for this stoic resistance that it began to provide funding for the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de Valette, to plan and construct a new fortified city that was to be called Valletta in his memory.

Valletta Malta postcard

We walked through the city main gate which isn’t a gate anymore, just a modern interpretation of what a gate might have looked like.  Not at all like a gate in my estimation. And then down Republic Street which undulates like a giant roller coaster and is flanked on either side by expensive shops and boutiques.  This is probably on account of the fact that the ugly cruise ships stop here now and all of the passengers are regularly emptied onto the quay side to go shopping and marauding in the main streets.

We passed the Cathedral and the Palace of the Knights and continued on our way to the furthest point, St Elmo’s Fort, which was closed for restoration.  In 2008 the World Monuments Fund placed the fort on its Watch List of the one hundred Most Endangered Sites in the world because of its significant deterioration due to factors such as lack of maintenance and security, natural ageing, and the still unrepaired damage from the bombing in the Second-World-War.  If Valletta is to be a European Capital of Culture then it has to be cleaned up.

The fact that Fort St Elmo was closed for restoration wasn’t really a problem because the whole of Valletta is in fact one huge fort with Medieval fortifications defending it on all sides so we set off to walk along the side of the Grand Harbour with views across to the marinas and docks on the opposite side.

Valletta City of the Knights

Walking along the edge of the water it was easy to appreciate just how strategically important this place was to a strong naval power like the British and why the Germans in World War Two would have liked to possess it.  Today the harbour is full of fishing boats, yachts and tourist vessels but it is easy to imagine it full of battleships and naval dockyards.

It was a pleasant walk along the water side but eventually we decided to make our way back into the city centre.  On a side street we came across a bar which seemed to be cut into the rocks but it had some tables outside and a large beer was only €1.50 and there was some Spanish style tapas so we sat there for a while and enjoyed the sunshine.

Eventually we drained our glasses and walked into the city through the Victoria Gate.  That would be Queen Victoria I imagine.

We were getting dangerously close to shops now and Kim stopped now and then to look at shoes and sparkly things but the danger passed and soon we were back on Republic Street.

Malta Valletta St Johns Cathedral

It was time to visit a church and although Kim wasn’t too keen, on account of the fact that the exterior was dull and uninteresting we bought tickets to visit the Cathedral of St John and even Kim was pleased that we did because inside was a complete contrast with an opulent Baroque interior and a floor of headstones each commemorating one of the Knights of St John.

There was some wonderful things in the Cathedral, art, sculptures, tapestries and finally a room with two magnificent paintings by the artist Caravaggio including the famous beheading of St John the Baptist.

Very good but a bit gruesome…

Caravaggio The Beheading of St John The Baptist

In a Museum there was an explanation that the Cathedral once possessed  the Saint’s right hand, which is of course a very important relic because this was the hand with which he baptised Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.

Unfortunately at some point over the last two thousand years it went missing.  No one can be really sure of course but today it is claimed to be in the Serbian Orthodox  monastery in Cetinje* in Montenegro, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and also in a remote monastery somewhere in Romania.

Several different locations also claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist. Among them are Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, San Silvestro in Capite in Rome and the Residenz Museum in Munich (a bit odd, if you ask me).   Other JTB heads were once said to be held by the Knights Templar at Amiens  in France, at Antioch in Turkey and, most unlikely of all, the parish church at Tenterden in Kent, in England where it remained until it was disposed of during the English Reformation as being superfluously Catholic.

Anyway, there are thousands of Churches and Mosques dedicated to St John the Baptist.  I used to go to this one every Sunday in the village of Hillmorton in Warwickshire where I grew up.

hillmorton church

When it was over we left the Cathedral and walked now to the other side of the city to Marsamxett harbour to the north where we watched the ferries travelling forward and back to the holiday town of Sliema on the other side and walked a while along the water front and admired the multi coloured box window balconies of the high rise apartment buildings.

I like Valletta, it is a vibrant city, an eclectic mix of Naples, Palermo, Porto, Salamanca and Marseilles and only spoilt by the fact that it has become a cruise ship destination which means more jewellers, boutiques and pricey restaurants.  I really do not like those awful cruise ships!

It was late afternoon now so it seemed about the right time to make our way back to the scrum at the bus terminal.  There was one due in ten minutes and only a few people waiting at the stop but by the time the bus arrived this had swollen to several thousand.  We were getting used to this by now and we pushed our way on and thankfully found a seat for the sixty minute journey back to Mellieha.

Malta Bus Chaos

* I have driven through Cetinje  in Montenegro and have to say that it seems a distinctly unlikely place to find the hand of John The Baptist.

Doors of Malta

Malta Doors 2Mdina DoorMalta Phone BoxVictoria Rabat Door

My Holidays in Malta, Mellieha and St Paul’s Island

Mellieha Malta

As I have said I have been to Malta several times and always to the town of Mellieha on the north coast close to the ferry port with a crossing to neighbouring Gozo.

I think I recollect correctly that on each of these visits I have visited the town but have always been drawn to the top of a steep hill where the Church stands close by to the main square and a ribbon of traditional shops and restaurants.

This is what Mellieha looked like when I first visited in 1997 but it is a lot more built up now.  The Mellieha Bay Hotel can be made out on the far side of the bay…

Mellieha 1991

I thought it was time for a change so this time after I had walked around the waterfront and the and the sandy beach and as I reached the fork in the road that led up to the town I turned left instead of carrying on and walked along the rocky southern shoreline of Mellieha Bay.

I followed signposts to a small museum housed in an old watch tower right on the edge of the harbour.  Apparently it is a museum about tuna fishing and I am certain that I would have found that interesting but it was closed for renovation.  Apparently the three hundred year old tower is collapsing under the weight of tons of concrete poured onto the roof during the Second World War when it was part of the Island’s defense network.

So I carried on walking.

Mellieha Weekend Homes

The further away that I wandered from the beach and the harbour area there was not much to see, no shops, no bars then a private road with a gate and some holiday flats beyond so I had to turn back and then some interesting weekend homes.

Interesting because rather like railway arches in big UK cities they were built under an elevated section of the road,.  Many were boarded up and barricaded with hefty padlocks but in some the shutters were open, children were playing, there was a smell of Mediterranean cooking and damp laundry was dying in the gentle breeze.  It seems that these are weekend retreats for people from Valletta who drive down here on a Saturday, open the doors, give their washing a good blow in the breeze and enjoy a few hours out of the busy city.

I had walked about four miles or so by now and I was coming to the end of the urban development, the asphalt road became unpaved track and thereafter a dusty footpath that kept going to the end of the peninsular and I carried on because at the end of the mainland there was something I wanted to see – St Paul’s Island.

St_Paul's_Island_As_seen_from_Mellieha

Saint Paul is the Patron Saint of Malta because in 60 AD he was shipwrecked on the island, an incident which is recorded in some detail in the Acts of the Apostles.  Paul was on his way back to Rome to stand trial but a great storm sank the ship close to Malta and Paul and everyone else on board took refuge on a crop of rock and all were saved.  Today there is a statue of him there to commemorate the event.

Malta is the most religious country in Europe…

…it has more religious public holidays than any other in Europe and 10th February is especially important because this is the The Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck which was bad luck for Paul but good fortune for Malta because it brought Paul to the island in the year 60AD and whilst there he went promptly about converting the island to Christianity.

But my story of St Paul’s Island does not end here and I give you my word that I am honestly not making this up but in 1997 I too suffered the same fate.  Taking a speed boat ride with Tony Oki Koki ‘Mr Crazy’ Banis the boat broke down and we were stranded on the very same rock in a storm for twenty minutes or so until thankfully rescued and transferred safely to Bugibba.

saint-paul-shipwreckMalta waves

My nostalgic curiosity satisfied I turned around now and headed back the way that I come, back towards Mellieha.

For the record there are three more St Paul’s Islands that I can find, one in the Bering Sea (Alaska) another in Nova Scotia and a third in the French Southern and Antarctic Lands and I am fairly certain that Paul wasn’t shipwrecked on any of these.

feast-of-st-pauls-shipwreckSt Paul's Grotto

Other Saint Stories…

Saint James and Santiago de Compostella

Saint Patrick and Ireland

Saint Spiridon and Corfu