From Tales of One Saint….

As some of you may know, quite a few years’ back now I developed a fascination with Geoffrey Chaucer and not only his significant contribution to the English language – his book, The Canterbury Tales, was the first book to be printed in English – but also what led him to write it and influence at least one of the many Kings of England, who he served, to adopt the language in it.  The contribution was so significant to the development of English culture, that Caxton to choose to print it as one of 4 choices with him introducing the printing press to England at the end of the 15th Century.  The other choices were in Latin and French.

Part of that fascination also comes with the nature of the book itself, in capturing an account of over a dozen tales told on a journey to Canterbury near the end of the 14th Century and a feel for medieval culture in England at that time.  As such, the tale tellers were a diverse and mottley crew of people travelling together to Canterbury in honour of Thomas a Beckett, a man who had stood up to the King and become a martyr – and thereafter Saint – for all those who steadfastly stand up for their principles.

Chaucer himself was perhaps inspired to both do the journey, and capture these people’s stories, from both living in Aldgate around the time of The Peasants’ Revolt, when he would have heard the angry and so-called peasants talking to one another as they marched under his rooms there to London to protest how the poll tax was levied, but also from his days working as a Customs and Excise man in having to collect taxes himself from people who would have spoken a mix of different European languages and so having had to find one common language with which to communicate readily with them.

I wanted to capture the feel of that journey, a few years back, and so visited quite a few of the well-known sites which the pilgrims stopped at along the way where I captured some of the local people’s tales. and got a feel for what it might have been like stopping off for a night and meeting people to share in experiences on the road.

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Saint Gemma’s Tale

There was no mistaking it – a distinct circle of light was shining around her head!

The setting was not some historic place, but in an open plan office in a business park. We had recently moved positions in the office, and so were now upstairs where there were windows which the light of the afternoon sun could shine through and not only reflect off the shiny hair of the people sitting there, but also bounce off the angles of the sloping roof.

However, while my reasoning provides a scientific explanation of how this effect could have come about, it did not explain why the same effect was not created for anyone else seated in the same area. Maybe it was something to do with her copper red hair, and how certain colours bend the spectrum so the colours split out into their component parts. Still, what I saw was not a rainbow – but a circle of light, like a ring, around this girl’s head.

I itched to take a photo, but was not sure whether it would be PC to do so – but then I had the feeling that the lighting effect would not show.

It did get me to thinking though: about not only what’s the significance of a halo, but also about how much we reason such things away in this modern age.

In early times, this would have been seen as a sign – the mark of a saint or a mystic. However, nowadays, we’d just call this “a trick of the light” – but is that reasonable?



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The Pirate of Portsmouth’s Tale

“Sometimes you don’t have to go very far to have an adventure….”

pirateI wasn’t really expecting anything of Portsmouth – it was just a place I had to come for work.

So ’twas much to my surprise to discover a rich history and culture of music and arts here, just below the surface.  Whether I would have discovered it through simply staying in hotels I guess I will never know, as that isn’t what I did. Rather, I chose to use one of these new services which allows you to stay in the houses of real people with a spare room to let.

‘Twas equally to my surprise to find myself at one home here where I came across this fellow above, drawn by a local artist called Greg Valentine. Now, whether it is something Greg channelled when he drew this – or something inherent in the history of the place – but I just got a feeling the other night that there was a pirate in the place. Literally!

At first I thought someone was playing a prank on me by taking a pair of my socks, which was among the clothes I know I put away when I arrived, and putting them smack bang in the middle of the bed when I came back to my room later.

Greg and his wife, Phaedra, have two young kids – and so it would have been a good trick for one of them to play. But both of the kids had gone to bed several hours before, and so were upstairs fast asleep at the time. What’s more, his wife was out and Greg himself was in the front of the house – and so in no way able to sneak past me to play the prank.

So, somewhat bemused, I went back into the front room to chat to Greg about it – and it was then I saw the picture above, with the eyes which follow you around the room. It prompted me to remark:

“Greg, has anyone ever asked you whether you have a ghost?”

Greg’s reply was in the negative, but then happened to remark that his son – Nathan – had happened to see a man in a hat walk past the bathroom door when he was 3 (he’s now 8 years old).

The thing was:  I was only being facetious – or was I?

Later that night, September 22nd, the temperature fell significantly from the last few warm days of summer we’d had in 2014 – and I even felt like I was beginning to freeze at one point that night, huddled in my little bed.

What’s more, it was probably a coincidence, but on several occasions I thought I felt someone blow in my ear – as if they were trying to keep me awake, or tell me something….

Then I heard it:  the sound of heavy breathing, or so it seemed to me….

Now when I was a kid, my father used to tell scarey stories like this to myself and my 4 older siblings – and we’d never believe him. Although it would sometimes make us too scared to go to sleep, or give us nightmares. Much to our mother’s chagrin, as it is hard enough having 5 kids without having one or two of them half scared out of their wits late at night.

Now it may be something of a coincidence, but this 22nd September past was the 10th anniversary of my father’s passing from this world into the next.

Not totally convinced, given his own imbuing of us all with an interest in the sciences (as he was a science teacher himself – despite his penchant for ghost stories), I decided to check out about history of pirates and soldiers in Portsmouth – and with the possibility of ruling out any coincidence of this ghost being one or other.

Not only does it turn out there’s a great history of pirates and smugglers as well as soldiers and warriors of all sorts here, but it turns out that Portsmouth is reputedly even founded by a pirate according to Winston Churchill, or by “an Anglo-Saxon warrior” – according to other accounts.

So both what I felt, and what young Nathan might have seen, could well possibly have been a real emanation of a pirate, soldier or warrior who might have lived here on the site of this house at some time.

So perhaps this all but forgotten memory of my Dad – or the universe – is trying to tell me something with this little tale?

As Sherlock Holmes would say:

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”

And it turns out Sherlock Holmes’ creator – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – lived in Portsmouth too, and played goalkeeper for the local football club. So what are the chances?  Life is strange, but could truth be stranger than fiction?

Maybe there is a pirate ghost here in this house – and one with a tale to tell!

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The Forgotten Highway

Here’s what I call “a crazy caravan thought” as I continue to sit here in England, biding my time, waiting for the next opportunity to call:  Is Canterbury now really (and perhaps ironically) like Camelot? 

A place slowly ceasing to exist in our consciousness  as a place of any significance.  A place known only as a name on a postcard, often associated with a picture of a cathedral (like the one below), and not as a place where the concrete of this country’s identity was set through those who dared to take a journey to it along an old well-trodden road walked for centuries by saints, mystics and people known as pilgrims (and ironically stemming from the place which was perhaps once the true “Camelot”).

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Here’s the story on’t:

Canterbury was once a place where the people freely went to pay homage to a saint who’s only miracle was to stand up for his ideals and belief in a freer, better and more honest world.  To get there they would travel down what is known as “Old Watling Road”, which runs across the country from East to West, and is now more familiarly known as the A2.  It begins in South Wales and ends up at Dover, and the origins of the name of it are lost in the mists of time.  It could be Saxon for “Welsh people’s road”, “Foreigners’ Road” or something else.  In South East England that road is now more often known as “The Pilgrim’s Way”

Whatever the case may be, people walked down at least part of this road on their way to Canterbury from the 11th century onwards in coming to pay homage to a saint. That saint was Thomas a Becket.

In truth, Thomas a Beckett was just a man who believed in having spiritual space free of the “King’s jurisdiction” (i.e. sanctuary) where people are equal and free to associate, to speak openly with and about each other without fear of recourse, and where equality and justice combined means the little guy can have two boxes under his feet so he can see over the pew, the fence or others in front of him – and so see the performance as easily as the big guy who can see it simply by standing on his own two feet.

How many people know this, or indeed any of the stories told along the way, and the fact that the language they were told in began to be formalised from this?   Moreover, the formal use of this language seems to largely be due to how some of these travellers’ stories became popular because of how they generally summed up “truth”, or “life” at large, captured what the people of England of that time were like, and were able to be shared and enjoyed en masse (i.e. not with just the landed gentry and courtly folk).

What’s more, how many know that the simple retelling of this is what led to that language of the “common people” becoming English, and not one born of any King or Queen?

How many people know that this language was daringly used by one, who was close to 3 Kings of England in his day, in telling the stories of the people like us in “our own language” – and so helping lead it to becoming the language of the Kings and Queens of England?

How many people know this?  How many people care? Yet, now here we are, just bandying this language about on here (WordPress), Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere – seemingly without a care….

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‘Snow better Down Under

I also learned my lesson that Kiwis run their words together when I arrived in the UK a year after that excursion in the East Coast of Australia – however with rather amusing consequences which managed to lead me to some good places to travel.  

‘Twas on having a chat with a few Brits about the differences in language in Britain, and by comparison with that of the Aussie/Kiwi cultural as much as linguistic divide (and relating the story told in my previous post), that I realised that we Kiwis run our words together.

I was when I said:

“It’s no better Down Under”

My British compadres had thought I said:

“Snow better Down Under”

However I did, by accident of being misunderstood, learn from them some good places to go skiing on The Continent – which I subsequently did a year later, along with one them (who derived much amusement from not understanding what I was saying – but then I got my own back with my French being better than his, and apparently appealing to the single ladies because of my unusual accent). 

My issue, now, is trying to remember exactly how we got to that segue – coz I wonder, now, how many other places I could discover through being misunderstood. Or, for that matter, friends I could make purely because my accent or language amuses the locals….

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Accepting the Vegemite Sandwich

OK, fair enough in deference to my previous post on the good choice of Chaucer to buy into local lingo,  and even with accepting the so-so nature of the Mark Zuckerberg dialectic, there are some nuances with mis-use of the English language which have annoyed and confused me at times too.

Take my arrival in Australia way back in 1990, for instance, and my first travels up North from Sydney to the Gold Coast, and beyond the bright lights of Brisbane, to the rustic and quirky mix of the coal-mining and tourist town of MacKay, Queensland.

On my way there, I found it disconcerting how the locals “up North” would add a “but” to the end of their sentences. Finally, and perhaps almost stupidly, in a pub with my Kiwi speech therapist friend I had known from University daze back in New Zealand, I decided to challenge a guy on’t who she bemusedly decided to invite over to our table for that very reason.

What’s more, when I even said – rather obscurely, I admit – about how I had noted that Queenslanders and Northern New South Welsh people spoke differently to the Aussies down South and to the West, blow me down if he didn’t respond with:

“So, it’s good, but.” 

Scarcely able to contain myself, I responded:

“But bleedin’ what??”    

At that my speech therapist friend nearly fell off her stool, as she collapsed in stitches laughing. When she had sufficiently recovered, I asked her to explain what had, er, “tickled her so” (and please note the attempted poetic use of the word “so” here):

“You meant “but”, right?? But Aussies are used to Kiwis making the “i” sound, sound like a “u” – and so Big, Bad Bruce [ and, yes, that was his name – OK?! ] may have thought you meant “bit” when you said “but” as well as forgetting to use the word “obvious” after “bleedin'”, as Kiwis often do in not finishing sentences which they expect people to know the ends to”
“Sooooo….I think it actually may have come across to lovely, dear Bruce here as if you are agreeing with him!! Which may not be a bad thing…..”

I was about to protest otherwise, when I (perhaps fortunately) decided to take stock of the situation – as I noticed my friend had also indicated, as subtlely (for a Kiwi, like me) as she could (by emphasising the words “Big” and “Bad”) that this guy was not just called Bruce, but was also “Big” and “Bad”.  And potentially not all that lovely and dear…..

Plus her eyes were genuflecting, and her head twitching, in a way which drew my attention to the potential reality of the situation in disagreeing with Bruce.  Indeed, if I may take poetic license here, he was “6 foot 4, and full of muscle” – if you get my drift. If you don’t get my drift, then please take a look at the following clip and note the second verse:

So the moral of the story, I’d say, is that it probably sometimes pays to simply accept “the vegemite sandwich” – over the knuckle one, at least. 

Anyway, who says English is meant to be a common language??

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So incommunicado Mr Zuckerberg!

My best British mate, Dave, dropped me an article on Saturday from The Telegraph in relation to the theme of social media following in Chaucer’s footsteps with evolving the English language.  Here’s the link to it:

In my mind I can hear the response from friends in South London now:

“So, well, wot are ya bleedin’ well tryin’ ta say, guvnor?”

Followed shortly after by:

“Nah wot I mean??”


Meanwhile, somewhere either to the far West of England as well as up North, I can hear a more measured, clipped response something along the following lines of:

“T’ain’t obvious why “so”, but it’s there.”


While those of us not familiar with dialects might get bemused by them, witnessing the development of them is something as age old as Chaucer – like The Telegraph article rightly alludes to. 

However I think they may have overlooked (conveniently or otherwise) that it was in times of trouble, when “the peasants revolted” in 1381, that the multi-lingual Mr. Chaucer (or Sir Geoff, as I like to call him) would have heard and become most conscious of the language they used – both pleasant and unpleasant – as they marched below his very door in Aldgate, London.

This was because these people were not “peasants” (as The Crown and Cloth perhaps labelled them), but some of the first skilled workers of independent means – and they would have been in search of tax collectors (as Sir Geoff was then) to berate (and possibly hang or behead) them for the ignominy of the way that the king had allowed these public servants to collect taxes from them. On top of that, they were most likely also not happy that these taxes would have been for allowing the king to wage wars in France and elsewhere which they could most likely have felt were nothing to do with them – and while possibly the king let some of his more powerful and influential barons get off scot-free from any duty (fiscal or otherwise).

So – does this scenario also sound a little familiar to our times now? Yes, Gary Barlow could be considered a modern day baron of sorts – but fortunately The Crown has come to its senses (at this point in time, at least) in not choosing to punish the underdog at the expense of its lackeys….

However, there was another thing which Chaucer was very clever in doing, rather than berating the peasants for their bad language (as Norman French and Latin were the formal languages of the time).  That was in seeking to take a different tack to help amend the situation between The Crown and The Commoners. 

In fact, it was not so much a tack, as a track. Coz he chose to walk with some of them to Canterbury, along with a fellow (unnamed) knight of the realm and a few disparate members of the cloth.

Moreover, Chaucer also gave everyone an opportunity to have  their stories heard too. In their very own language, what’s more – being such the diplomat, he was (as Yoda would put it). This was through writing them up as a kind of journal, complete with the best of the travellers’ short stories, anecdotes, poems and prayers.  Which he simply named The Canterbury Tales – and as one might write a blog-site with such on it nowadays (mightn’t one?)

So (and note the “so”), it was probably to the chagrin of the court when these were (most likely) read out at that time – as the members of the court and the cloth present would have had to hear them in the language of the people. Namely,  “English” as this newish mottley language was called. Indeed, see the picture below for indications of their reaction:

Chaucer reciting his works at the court of Richard II

Chaucer reciting his works at the court of Richard II

So I question:  how different now is seeing further development of the English language on Facebook, and even through how it’s used by its creator himself – or on the street or through text messages, for that matter – to that which Chaucer would have noted and witnessed first-hand during The Peasant’s Revolt, as well as written up (albeit poetically) from his experiences on the road to Canterbury?

And sew, if you’ve had enough of “so” as Mr Zuckerberg might say, we will next move on to “la, tea, doe” – and back to the English of the English (or even “British”, as it were), which will bring us back to…..

P.S. Apologies to the original readers of this post, as I decided to split my experiences on this hemi-spherically – as I trust you will note my next post (which is slightly enhanced from what I had all lumped in this one anyway)

Posted in Australia, Chaucer, England, Language, London, MacKay, New Zealand, Northern NSW, Queensland | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment