Wednesday, 18 April 2012

On superstition and urban myth

We have just passed Easter and it occurred to me how much the holiday period has changed over the years. I was in conversation with an elderly woman about how much Good Friday in particularly had been altered over the last 30 years. She remarked that her own Mother had been distressed by how irreligious it had become. It used to be regarded as the most sombre day in the Christian Calendar and a time not for frivolity. The Vicar of Leek in the 1950s George Youell complained of inappropriate films being shown. The long forgotten film " Private in Skirts" drew his ire.

It used to be a day that carried with it certain taboos; the most widespread was a ban on washing clothes. Disaster was supposed to befall anyone who washed or hung out clothes to dry. There are stories of washing being splattered with blood and family member would die, supposedly "washed away".

Given the nature of the day as the key Christian date for mourning, it is not surprising that there was a general feeling that no work should be done this day. In rural areas this prohibition most certainly applied to the planting of crops. Disturbing the soil was regarded as an impious act and nothing would grow if planted. One worker reported as unwilling to work on Good Friday was the blacksmith. Many would have anything to do with nails. There was a belief that the blacksmith’s wife carried the nails used in the crucification in her apron.
Are we becoming less superstitious with the decline in Faith?

The willingness of people to be credulous still exists as demonstrated by the power of the urban myth. I have certainly been told stories usually nasty there were claimed to be genuine. I came across a good example shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The story concerned a terrorist attack directed against a British city on a specific date. I heard it twice from two different people within days. The pull of myths remains strong even if the technology has changed.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

What a waste!!

A friend me of a surprising find in a skip at Fowlchurch Recycling centre in Leek. Sitting in a skip was, as far as he could tell, a perfectly serviceable Moog Synthesiser 1962 vintage. The sort played by Kraftwerk he thought. I’d seen one played by Keith Emerson in ELP at Trentham Gardens in 1971- but the less said about that the better. The point is that here seemed to be a possibly functioning piece of kit, which could fetch around £1000. My friend pleaded with the manager at Fowlchurch to let him have the Synthesiser. The manager refused on health and safety grounds that someone might be injured and sue the authority. It was a deeply frustrating experience. My friend as told that amongst other implausible stuff brought to Fowlchurch included cut up sections of a Chevrolet Car- it suggests the Johnny Cash song. Also, dumped at the recycling centre were items including wash machines still wrapped in plastic and other new appliances.

The willingness of Moorlanders, on this evidence, to throw away perfectly electrical goods is perplexing. It has been going on for sometime. The disposable culture started early. In 1892 William Painter, founder of the Baltimore Bottle Seal Company, patented the bottle cap. The bottles were returned, but the bottle caps got thrown away. They only worked once. Painter's chief salesman at the time was King Camp Gillette, who went on to apply the principle to his own invention, the disposable razor blade. Today almost everything has its disposable version and the concept has been taken a step further until we see the grotesque waste evidenced at Fowlchurch. We now live in a disposable culture.

 What a Waste!

I once, by way of an analogy, met a woman who worked for the Arts Council in Mongolia in the 1990s after Communism fell. She had a job re-organising the Mongolian publishing industry. She told me that under the old system the canons of Marxist- Leninist thought were printed unread by the locals, pulped and then printed again. It seemed to me as good a metaphor for the waste in capitalism as it is for failed Communism

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

On wonderful Victorian engineering and Oakamoor

I visited the Eiffel Tower recently. It was my first visit. I was staggered by this wonderful piece of 19th century engineering. The design is truly iconic but strangely was deeply unpopular when first erected. However its status is beyond question. Over 200 million people have visited since it was opened in 1889. Closer to home there is an engineering triumph of the period equally as impressive as M Eiffel construction and its birthplace was Oakamoor.
In the Victorian period Thomas Bolton’s of Oakamoor manufactured submarine telegraph cables. During the 1850s they were involved in several schemes but the greatest engineering challenge was to lay a transatlantic cable. The Atlantic Telegraph Company was formed to lay a cable from North America to Europe by 1862. And Bolton’s who were contracted to quickly produce the copper cable needed.

The first cable was produced at Oakamoor works in 1856. Over 108 tons of copper was used to produce 20,000 miles of cable within 5 months. It was eventually laid and connected and a message between Queen Victoria and President Buchanan of the US was transmitted on 17 August 1858. However technical difficulties such as poor conductivity led to only intermittent use.

Undaunted, Bolton’s continued to perfect there manufacturing techniques. In September 1863 a new order for 200 tons of copper wire was placed for a second Atlantic cable. Brunel’s Great Eastern ship was hired to lay the cable and on 27 July 1866 the laying was completed.

Almost immediately, the cable opened for business but only the rich could afford it -- the initial rates were a startling 10 shillings a letter at a time that a monthly wage for a labourer was a few £s

As with the overland cables, undersea cables were laid rapidly. Within 20 years there were 107,000 miles of undersea cables linking in the first global communication. The original cables stopped working in the 1870s but by this time four other cables were laid. It is interesting to note that even though later cables could carry large numbers of signals at the same time, it was not until the 1960s that the first communication satellites offered a serious alternative to the cable the development of which owes something to the workers of Oakamoor