Celtic Prehistoric Skills, Stories, Ramblings, Parabolas, Food & Home
I am Irish, currently living in West Australia. I have a degree in Old & Middle English, Lang & Lit and, despite having worked in Kuwait, Italy, Malaysia, USA, Brunei, Australia and Hong Kong over the last 40 years, I have a strong interest in Ireland’s ancient pre-history and the heroes of its Celtic past as recorded in the 12th and late 14th century collection of manuscripts, collectively known as The Ulster Cycle.
I enjoy writing historical novels, firmly grounded in a well-researched background, providing a fresh and exciting look into times long gone. I have an empathy with the historical period and I draw upon my experiences of that area and the original documents.
I hope, by providing enough historical “realia” to hook you into a hitherto unknown – or barely glimpsed - historical period.
My Irish father and mother were born in the last century, in 1911 and in 1914 respectively so my father would have been 7 years old at the outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1918 which appears to have been the worst global pandemic since the Black Death or Bubonic Plague which ravaged Europe and killed 25 million people between 1347 and 1351at a time when the world’s population was only 450 million. Back in 1918, approximately 20,000 people died in Ireland from the Spanish Flu while 800,000 were infected out of a population of about 4 million but I have no recollection of my parents ever mentioning the effect of the pandemic on their lives or that of their parents or grandparents.
And then there was WWII and my parents, along with most of neutral Ireland, survived that too, although my mother had stories of crouching, terrified, under the stairs when Germany bombed the North Strand in Dublin in 1941, only a few hundred metres from where she lived in Whitworth Road. My father, on the other hand, mentioned that while he was in theIrish equivalent of the British Home Guard or Dad’s Army, the Local Security Force (LSF) the worst thing he had to endure was the filthy language some of the men used!
Then in 1958, when I was 5 years old, the world was rocked once again by the Asian Flu Pandemic with 2 million estimated deaths worldwide but once again, I and my family remained untouched.
In 1967 I jumped out of the second floor of an abandoned building in Sea Point, near where I lived at the time, and broke three bones in my left leg and left arm and spend the entire summer, lying on my back, swathed in plaster of paris and the Hong Kong Flu Pandemic, with another death toll of one million, passed me by once again, although I do remember the public warning advertisements on TV of ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’.
HIV / AIDS struck in 1981 or thereabout but I was living in semi isolation in a kampong on the north-east coast of Malaysia at that time, without newspapers or radio (I didn’t get a telegram telling me of my father’s death until a week after he had been cremated) and was totally unaware of what was happening world wide where 25 million died of AIDS while millions more are living with HIV.
Then in 2000, I moved to Hong Kong to live and work when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was first reported in 2003, infecting over 8,000 people in a matter of weeks and taking approximately 750+ people’s lives. I remember being ‘inconvenienced’ in several ways then – my favourite Australian bar in Kowloon closed down, I had to wear a face mask when teaching and my new wife refused to accompany me back to HK in April 2003 after we got married in Perth, Australia but once again, the angel of death seemed to have passed me – and all of mine – by once again.
Although SARS did not claim a large number of lives, it changed the way the world responds to global spread of infectious diseases. Like today’s COVID-19, SARS was caused by the coronavirus, and was spread much like the common cold, through close person-to-person contact and respiratory coughs and sneezes.
In November of 2019, I managed to tear the Achilles Tendon in my (again) left leg and while that was getting better, I somehow ruptured the tendon in my other leg in late February 2020 and have been wearing an orthopaedic ‘moon’ boot ever since. So this recent COVID-19 pandemic, of which I took a fairly unalarmed view initially until my nursing daughter compared it to the Black Death, has once again passed me by as I am house-bound, barely able to hobble around the house and garden. Nevertheless, the extraordinary lock-downs and social isolations the world is experiencing, the incredible impact the pandemic is having on people’s lives and livelihood, the mounting loss of life worldwide and the ever increasing restrictions on daily life imposed by governments in an attempt to stem this tide of disease, death and destitution is impacting upon us all.
Home isolation is easy for me now, crippled temporarily as I am, as are the other restrictions but I wonder how well I will cope once I am mobile again.
Throughout history, there have been tumultuous waves of change (The Flood?) – from the wave of agriculture that transformed the world from that of hunters and gatherers to that of the industrial and later technological and communicative waves that revolutionised the way we live. Other waves too, of mass emigration for example, which so recently threatened to overwhelm Europes’s borders, have threatened to swamp us, ever since the first people left the Rift Valley in Africa and set out to people the world, and the barbarians broke through the natural frontier of the Rhine to bring about the demise of the Roman Empire in the fifth century but, like all waves, pandemics too typically slow and come to an end on their own, though the process may be accelerated through effective preventive strategies, such as the measures world governments are putting in place right now.
So, in the words of, I think, Winston Churchill, ‘if you are going through Hell, don’t stop, keep going’ and, above all, stay safe and well.
Well, it is that time of year again – Saint Patrick’s Day – March 17 – and for those who don’t know, Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, who, it is believed, brought the Christian faith to the far flung western isle 1,588 years ago.
Celebrating everything Irish all over the world with parades, music and food, this year the Irish Government has formally cancelled all parades and public gatherings in the interest of public health and safety due to the coronavirus pandemic. A similar thing happened nineteen years ago when the annual parade was cancelled due to the outbreak of the highly infectious foot and mouth disease.
As usual, St. Patrick’s Day occurs halfway through the Christian Lenten period before Easter – a time traditionally when many practising Christians would voluntarily give up something – as kids it might have been lollies, sweets and candies, later as adults, cigarettes, milk in the tea or coffee,alcohol and so on. But then along comes St. Patrick’s Day (yippee!) and all bets are off. Recognised by the church as a holy day of obligation, the feast day had a special dispensatory clause which allowed all fasting people to resume their ‘vice’ for that day only – hence the widespread popularity of the day which led to widespread drunkeness and debauchery in some cases! Not that I know anything about that, of course.
Anyway, in honour of my country’s patron saint, I have decided to cook some traditional Irish food – Dublin Coddle and Irish Soda Bread which, when eaten together and washed down with a Guinness is about as Irish as I can get in this scary, pandemic time.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day 2020 to everyone!
I kg. Good pork sausages
2 Tbsp. Of oil
450 g bacon rashers, roughly chopped
2 large onions sliced thickly
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 carrots sliced thickly
4 large potatoes, sliced thickly
Black pepper to taste
Bunch of fresh herbs – rosemary, thyme, sage
375 (at least) ml dry cider
3 Tbsp. plain flour
Put the flour into a strong plastic bag and season with salt and pepper.Cut the sausages into thirds and then dip into the seasoned flour.
Heat the oil in a thick-based pan and quickly seal the floured sausages in the hot oil for about three minutes.Remove and set aside.
Soften the onions and crushed garlic in the oil for a further 5 minutes.
Put the sausages, chopped bacon, onion and garlic in a large pot with the sliced potatoes and carrots.Tie the herbs together (use any herbs available or in, desperation, use ½ tsp. of mixed, dried herbs) and cover the lot with the dry cider.
Bring to a point of boiling and then reduce the heat to a very gentle simmer for at least an hour, or until the vegetables are cooked but not mushy.
Serve in deep bowls and garnish with chopped parsley.Accompany with draught Guinness and homemade soda bread.
Irish Soda Bread
Spread generously with butter and thick strawberry jam, Irish Soda bread evokes childhood memories of summer when the weather was so hot that the tar on the road would bubble.We’d put used ice-pop sticks into the tar and then chase each other around, trying to smear the tar on each other, knowing that whoever got smeared would be in trouble with their mum that night.Anyway, I digress…
Ingredients – Basically divided into two types – Wet and Dry ingredients.
3 cups of wholegrain flour
1 cup of plain flour
1 level tsp. of Bicarb of Soda
½ tsp. of Salt
1 tsp. of wheat germ*
1 tsp. of crushed bran
1½ cups of buttermilk (500 ml)
2 Tbsp. Of oil.
Sieve together all the dry ingredients into a large bowl.Go easy on the Bicarb of Soda – less is more in this instance! By sieving the ingredients, a finer mix is achieved as well as adding air to the mixture. * I didn’y haver any wheat germ so I used two teaspoons of chia seeds instead.
In a separate bowl, mix all the wet ingredients.
Add the wet to the dry.The mixture should be fairly sticky, so mix using a a flat bladed knife or a wooden spoon initially and then use your hands to make a smooth dough.
Turn it into a greased baking tin to get a loaf shape, or more traditionally, shape the dough into a flattish round shape and then make a deep cross cut in the dough.Sprinkle with a handful of plain flour and put in the middle tray of the oven (gas 200) for about 55 minutes.
Turn out onto a wire rack to cook.Eat while still warm if possible.
I love islands and island life, possibly because I was born on the far flung western isle (Ireland) or maybe because my childhood was suffused with island adventure tales – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’s escapades on Kirrin Island (and the slightly more mature Adventure series – The River of Adventure, the Mountain of Adventure and, inevitably, the Island of Adventure with Philip, Jack and his parrot Kiki, Dinah and little Lucy-Ann) – and followed up with R.L. Stephenson’s Treasure Island and R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (which was the first book to ever make me cry when Bloody Bill, the pirate, died!).
Then again, perhaps it was the magic of flying on a two engine Fokker Friendship prop plane from Dublin airport to The Isle of Man with my parents for another childhood holiday. One time we flew from Collinstown, later to become Dublin International, and once, more exciting, left at midnight from one of the city’s quays on a ship that seemed to loom immense in the glare of lights. Magical gardens and bridges where a fairy toll is ‘demanded’, cats with no tails and a unique ‘Q-Celtic’ Manx language – sadly now extinct, the last native speaker having died in the mid seventies – Manx was related to Scottish Gaelic and Irish as opposed to the ‘P-Celtic languages of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. I still remember thebuzz and roar of the annual TT motorbike races around the island and the excitement it generated.
On the other hand, it may have been the summer picnics to Dalkey Island2 (the closest
island to where I lived in Dublin as a child) which seemed to require such advance planning on the part of my parents. The No. 8 bus from the heart of the city would go past our house on the corner of the Monkstown Road and on through Dun Laoghaire, Sandy Cove and eventually the terminus at Dalkey and from there the walk, lumbered down with tartan rugs, picnic baskets, flasks of hot tea, buckets and spades, to the harbour at Coliemore from where my father would bargain with brawny men to row us across to the uninhabited island of Dalkey Island* crowned with a Napoleonic era Martello tower. Uninhabited except for a few goats, a Martello tower, a freshwater spring and a ruined church. Family picnics, diving off the small, whitewashed rocks where the rowing boat left us off and picking up fresh mackerel for dinner on the homeward trip.
Whatever it was, it seems that those most magical times have extended into my adult life and have all been centred on islands. Simple man, simple dreams3, I suppose. By horoscope, I fall under Cancer – a water sign – and in the Chinese zodiac I am a (water) snake and despite having enjoyed myself in mountainous regions worldwide – The Himalayays in Nepal, the Andes in Peru, the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, the Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border, I feel my strength and vitality are at their peak when I am close to water, especially salt water!
With so many thousands of islands in Indonesia I have explored so few, Bali ages ago and more recently, the Gilli Islands off Lombok – an easy four hour direct flight from Perth here in West Australia and then a 90 minutes taxi ride to the port at Bangsal from where the public boats set out for the islands. Bali is a subtle blend of festive Hinduism and local traditions, Denpasar and Kuta being over commercialisedbut it is still easy to escape to central Ubud and the black sand beaches along the north shore at Singha Raja. Everybody seemed talented – whether it was in dance or performance, wood and stone carving, music or hospitality and fluent in so many ways. I had to buy extra bags in Bali to accomodate all the carvings and knick knacks I acquired the first few times there.I recently came across a few thousand rupiah from that time and when I produced them in Lombok last week, people laughed in incredulity at my crumpled bills. They have been out of date for almost forty years! I headed off initially to Trawangan, the party island, with plenty of bars and loud music and the furthest out from Lombok but after two nights of drinking cheap cocktails – two for the price of one – made with local spirits – I had a vicious headache and decided to try the delights of Menos, the middle or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island, the smallest and the quietest the three. Beautiful, semi unspoilt islands – no cars or motorbikes only bicycles and little pony and trap carts and a sunrise on one side and a sunset on the other side of the island. Three days on Menos and, with my time running out, I spent the last three nights on Air, the island closest to Lombok itself. All three islands were unique in their own way and were small enough to stroll around in less than two hours and all offered scuba training and day and night dives and probably excellent value if that is the kind of thing you like. I’m a bit different – I just wanted clear, deep water and that’s where the islands fell down for me as, for a hundred metres or so around all three islands, the water was shallow and while appearing to be sandy, was, in fact, made up of dead and broken white coral shards which made getting into and out of the water difficult and painful. Coral cuts tend to fester easily and reef shoes – which, of course I didn’t have – would be an absolute necessity. As it was, the water was so shallow that trying to swim overarm out to deeper water my finger tips brushed the broken coral with each stroke. Not ideal unless you want to lounge by the swimming pools most of the resorts provided.
A relatively new ‘discovery’ for me, Lombok is the large island next to Bali and, in theory, should be just as beautiful. Certainly a fantastic ride from the airport skirting the capital and rushing past small villages and up over a jungle clad mountain with monkeys on the roadside, attracted by heaps of durian on sale, glimpses of the coast as we head down to the port. I am sure there are gorgeous beaches there too but I was set on new island horizons, the three small islands off the north west of Lombok.
Samosir, on the other hand, was almost an island, in the middle of Lake Toba, near Medan in Sumatra, practically the far end of the Indonesian archipelago from Lombok. My son fell, fully clothed, off the dock once we arrived and I had to jump in after him. That’s all I can really remember except for some really ratty accomodation.
So, on to all my favourite islands and how to rank them – by cost? (Rottnest island off Perth in WA is hideously overpriced); by beauty? (most S. E. Asian islands); by ease / difficulty of access? (although that has changed with airports springing up everywhere); by people? (all of them!). A listing in no particular order and with distinct memories of times past and present.
Ahh, Asia, every other island paled into significance once I came across Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samet.Those tropical paradises, first visited in 1981, originally by slow, flat-bottomed overnight ferry from Dongson to Koh Samui before a pickup truck ride to Chaweng or Lamai or Bo Phut beaches still represent earthly paradise to me. Back in the early 80’s, I’d pay something like a nightly 30 Baht for a beach-side hut on stilts and have banana pancakes for breakfast, Tom Yam soup for lunch and barbecued fish
for dinner, all washed down with icy Singha beer in cold frosted glasses and Mehkong whisky and soda water. Beautiful sandy beaches, relaxing beach massages and a gentle shelving beach so that you could run and dive straight into crystal clear waters. Now you can fly from most places into Ko Samui airport – one of the most appealing airports I have ever been in. Prices of course have gone up since my first visit and many beach side resorts also offer that abomination – a swimming pool! Koh Phangan was, I think, the ‘party’ island north of Koh Samui – the originator of the full moon parties? Koh Tao consisted of three tiny rocky islands connected by sand banks at low tide. I swam around the largest island once. There used to be just a handful of beach huts and a restaurant; now I believe it is packed but it must still be beautiful. All I remember of poor old Koh Samet are mosquitoes and ants!
I lived in Malaysia for three years and evocative names in Penang like Batu Fennenghi and Jalan Chulia where I bought my first ever SLR camera still stir me but it was off the east coast of northern Trengganu that the real tropical paradises of Perhentian and Redang lay. Deserted, at the time andused only by local fishermen for its fresh water supply – hence the name ‘Perhenti’ / Stop, in Malay. I used to hire a local fishing boat from Kuala Besut, where I lived for three years and would make almost weekly trips (on a friday) to the island and come back to the kuala, sun-burnt, salt bleached and dehydrated to revive myself with large bottle of cold Anchor beer, served from metal tea pots into heavy ceramic cups in the only Chinese cafe in the kampong. I camped on the island for nearlya week once while trying to study for my Graduate Record Examination into an American university, thinking I would have no distractions! Even further out than the Perhentian islands lay Redang. it was once used as a detention centre for Boat people in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. I much preferred the Perhentians where I swam with sting rays, turtles and small (leg-long) sharks in waters no deeper than three or four metres. Gorgeous!
A fast ‘coffin boat’ from Brunei Darussalam would bring me to Labuan, a duty free island off the coast of Malaysian Sabah in Borneo – an absolute haven away from alcohol-free, strictly Islamic, Brunei.I used to treat myself and stay in the golf course hotel. Alternatively, I’d go over with some friends in their boat, depart Brunei legally, arrive in Labuan, stock up with up to 50 cases of beer (ballast, we used to call it) and return to Brunei illegally after dark when the customs had closed, off load the beer on a deserted beach where other friends were waiting and then report to Brunei customs the following morning, claiming the Evinrude engines had been giving us trouble and we had only just arrived! Another world, another time!
And then, of course, there is Hong Kong and with this view from my rooftop, what more could anyone ask?
Lamma island, just off the bottom of HK’s
southern bottom, was such a laid-back spot off frenetic Hong Kong. ‘Draw-string pants, mismatched socks and guitar music’ I once heard someone describe the lifestyle there compared to HK’s bankers. One ferry from HK Central would arrive at Sok Kwu Wan on the north east side of the island with its fish-farms and quayside restaurants. I used to walk from there to the other side of the island with its ATM, bars and more seafood restaurants and a different ferry from Yung Shue Wan back to HK.
Lantau Island had the big Buddha (the biggest, seated, outdoor, bronze Buddha in the world,) as well as a great South African barbecue beachside restaurant with jugs of Margaritas. Cheung Chow, One of Hong Kong’s favourite suicide spots for some bizarre reason. Punters would rent a small chalet, close the doors and windows and light a charcoal barbecue and suffocate themselves.
Phu Quoc, off the most south westerly tip of Vietnam, looks closer to Cambodia and was fairly unspoilt and quiet when I was there about 20 years ago. So much so that the ‘resort’ I was staying in offered to sell itself to me after a night’s drinking with the owner! I choose what I would like to eat the following day from an ‘oral menu’ and he would make a trip to the local market just for me! The island boasted of its famed peppercorns and fish sauce which, locals zealously informed me, could not be brought on board an airplane lest the bottle break and its pungency imperil all on board!
Singapore was definitely my first ever S. E. Asian island! Gaping, like some yokel from the sticks, I went shopping along Orchard Road and bought my first – and only – portable typewriter – an Olivetti – there back in 1981.Do those things still exist? The incredible humidity in the air – like walking into the bathroom after somehow had a long, very hot shower with the door and windows closed and the coolness of the Long Bar, in the Raffles Hotel, surrendering to Singapore slings, was a blessed relief after the turmoil of shopping!
I did an MA in the State University at Stony Brook, half-way out on the north shore of Long Island, a long spit of land reaching out into the Atlantic from New York City and did my drinking in places like Setauket and Port Jefferson and my swimming in the creek on the northside and in the Atlantic on the south side.
I worked one summer on the island of Sylt, the jewel of the ‘German Riviera’! I was ‘ein nacht portier’ at Hotel Ursula in the main town of Westerland. Long, windswept sandy beaches where elderly people played volley ball in the nude and where I was eventually fired when it was discovered that I didn’t really speak any German but it took nearly three weeks before that was discovered!
The Île de Noirmoutier is not really an island as it is connected to the French mainland by a causeway flooded daily by the incoming – and fast – tide. Famous for its new potatoes, I remember it for lazy afternoons drinking white wine with a touch of Cassis with old friends.
Slow, laid back, very patchy wi-fi, Cuba offered differently aged Habana rums(apparently Bacardi sided with the Batista government forces against Castro and so signed their death warrant on the island) in generous mojito cocktails. Music in the bars at night – and everywhere – extravagantly old American cars lovingly tended (or rusted out heaps beyond repair), fat women squeezed into tight lycra and old men and women smoking cigars the size of a baby’s arm.
From Puno in Peru I went out to the amazing floating islands made of bundled reeds on Lake Titicaca, part of the border between Peru and Bolivia.
Trampoline-like under foot, the reeds were used for their shelters as well as their boats.
Half an hour by fast ferry off Fremantle in West Australia,Rottnest island is clearly visible from the mainland and like the Gilli Islands, there is no motorised transport – just bicycles and beautiful beaches, fresh octopus and, the island specific, quokkas (a type of small, short tailed wallaby). While beautiful and charming, the island is, in my opinion, mega expensive for what it offers..
Hainan island is China’s most southerly port and submarine base and I stayed in the same hotel where the Miss World beauty contest was once held in the southern city of Sanya. Parts of the beaches were cordoned off by the military, as I discovered when I ignored shouted warnings strolling along a sandy beach. Only the clunk-clunk of a pump-action shot-gun being cocked brought me to my senses.
Macau casinos held no
attraction for me but Portuguese food and wine certainly did in the area around the old harbour as well as crumbly old ‘Fawlty Towers’ type hotels. I’d return to HK laden with chorizo, olive oil, tinned anchovies and bottles of a slightly sparkling white wine.
Almost directly opposite the Chinese mainland city of Xiamen is Penghu County, a drab island claimed by Taiwan and reached by a three hour ferry trip from Xiamen itself. One of the most heavily shelled / bombed places after 1949 when the Nationalists retreated. The main culinary delight seemed to beoyster omelettes!
Next up, after the Thai Islands mentioned above must be Puerta Galera in The Philippines. A half day bus trip out of Metro Manila down to Batangas and then a ferry over to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Fantastic! I stayed at the end of a rocky promontory with a floating bar a 100 metres away. Cold San Miguel beer cheaper than a coffee or a coke, mellow Tanduay rum, tiny, bitter little calamansi limes, green skin, bright orange inside with slippery pips, friendly people and crystal clear, deep water – perfect.
In late December, the sun rose around twelve noon in Reykjavik, Iceland and set again at about four pm. Ideal in some ways – use your imagination – the hotel in the small town of Hverageròi where I ended up for some reason, was overheated and I pushed the window open to let some air in and the window froze open overnight, as did the lens of my camera later that day. Amazing to come across hot houses growing bananas and tropic plants benefitting from underground thermal power.
So, a retrospecive look at islands sparked by my recent trips to the Gilli Islands, Indonesia.
How do you listen to music? With the rise of things like Spotify – and ITunes etc., I am not sure how music is consumed nowadays. Lately, I just go to my iTunes library, pick songs, shuffle and then play. Before, I would wait until a friend passed me on an album – ‘listen to this – they will be greater than the Rolling Stones in a few years.’ (He was taking about the rise of U2 back in 1980). I moved to a small kampong on the west coast of Malaysia in 1981 and as a result I don’t know when I listened to a complete album – just shuffled songs from different genres and artists. Most music now is streamed, I suppose – God knows when I last bought a CD or – God forbid – an LP or a single 45rpm disc – but last night, I was sitting in a beach-front bar on one of the Gilli Islands off Lombok in Indonesia (more about the islands in a later post) and I listened to The Midnight Rambler by The Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed album from 1969. God, it sounded fantastic, so much so that I played the whole album from start to finish.
I’ve always been a Stones fan from when the Beatles wanted to hold my hand but the Stones wanted to spend the night together, much to my father’s disgust – ‘you wouldn’t know if those lads were men or beasts, would you look at the hair on them,’ he used to humpf.
Anyway, for music that is more than 50 years old, it has managed to not only withstand the test of time but to surpass (in my view) much of today’s music.That is not to say that I understand any of the lyrics, let alone actually hear some of the words but in that I know I am not alone.Who on earth can understand Jagger’s voice when he gets into his groove. I remember an old Whoopi Goldberg movie (was the movie actually called Jumping Jack Flash?) where she replayed the track of the same name, desperately trying to understandor decipher the words where she had to give up in frustration (C’mon Mick, speak English please). Next to impossible in my case last night despite being ably assisted by moonlight on the waters of Gilli Air and a few large bottles of Bintang. For years I used to sing along to Little Red Rooster ‘I am the little red rooster, two legs across the bay’ until I discovered the lyrics were actually ‘I am the little red rooster, too lazy to crow the day’!
God knows what I thought I was hearing last night with the Midnight Rambler (and why on earth do we all have to go – and to where? – but the underlying tone of violence ‘I’m going to stick my knife right down your throat’ was unmistakable along with a half reference to the Boston strangler but beautifully tempered with the lyrics from Love in Vain and ‘You got the silver, I’ve got the gold’.
What an amazing song writing duo Jagger and Richards were under the moniker of Nanker Phelge (along with other members of the band), as far as I remember.
Happy New Year – being in Australia, I suppose we are among the first to celebrate the New Year of 2020.
But here is a thought – certainly, it is a new year – who can disagree with that? – but is it also a new decade? Is tomorrow the start of ‘The Twenties’ or do we have to wait until this time next year before the decade kicks in?
There was no year 0 A.D. when Pope Gregory XIII instituted his new calendar in 1582 to replace the increasingly erratic Julian calendar. So, the first decade would have been from year 1A.D. to year 10 A.D. The next decade would have begun in year 11 A.D. and so on. Does that make sense? So, ‘following’ that line of thought, the decade called ‘the Twenties’ should not begin until 01 January 2021.
And yet tomorrow / today is 01 January 2020and if it sounds like Twenty, looks like a Twenty and appears like a Twenty, surely it is ‘The Twenties’? Am I being a pedant here?
There I was thinking about the solstice – the longest day of the year– and once again I missed it in the sense that I am a bit late with this post as well as actually missing the actual day itself. I used to love it when I was a child in Ireland. Summer time would have kicked in and it would be bright until at least 21:30 or even later. Anyway, here in Perth, in the southern hemisphere I decided to keep a lookout for it – Jun 21 in Ireland and Dec 21 here in Perth. Or so I thought.How do you work out the longest day? By counting the hours and minutes of sunlight, I suppose and even that managed to elude me, for the most part!
As if that accurate counting of hours and minutes weren’t enough of a hurdle, Lord Kelvin first came up with the idea of using atomic transitions to measure time when he was in his mid-fifties. Born in 1824, he defined absolute zero as -273.15 Celsius or -459.67 Fahrenheit and after whom the base unit of absolute temperature in the International System of Units was named. (Probably something to do with living through Irish winters.) All I ever knew about time was that it was the instrument by which change is measured! A modern dictionary definition of time is more exacting ‘Time is the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, to the future.’
Here’s my attempt to measure time –
Sat Dec 14
Sun Dec 15
Mon Dec 16
Tue Dec 17
Wed Dec 18
Thu Dec 19
Fri Dec 20
Sat Dec 21
Sun Dec 22
Mon Dec 23
Hours of light
Anyway, one hundred and forty years after Kelvin came up with the idea of atomic clocks, which measure the electromagnetic signal emitted by electrons in atoms when they change energy levels, they have become our most accurate time and frequency standards today. Atomic clocks support time distribution services internationally, television broadcasts wave frequency and global navigation satellite systems.
In 1949 an atomic clock (less accurate than a quartz one) first demonstrated the physical concept before Essen and Parry built an accurate, and bulky, atomic clock to a caesium standard half a dozen years later.
By 1964, Hewlett-Packard had released much smaller rack-mountable devices with increasing accuracy which led the scientific community to redefine the second in terms of a specific atomic frequency in 1967.
Smart phones and us, presumably, have benefitted from these advances in technology as accurate, battery-driven atomic clocks became commercially available in 2011, most easily seen in Google or Apple Maps on our phones and in our cars. Four years later, NASA launched Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC), a miniaturised, ultra-precise, mercury-ion atomic clock more accurate then mere terrestrial clocks, which are maintained by national standards agencies, synchronised to an accuracy of 1 part in 1014 seconds per day! How did we ever survive without such pinpoint accuracy? How did I miss marking the longest day, the summer solstice, here in the Southern Hemisphere?
So, how was time measured before pendulums, wind-up watches, quartz timepieces, grandfather clocks and smart devices became ubiquitous? What served as units of time if seconds and minutes could not be conveniently measured or counted? The apparent motion of the sun across the sky, the phases of the moon, and the beat of a heart must have served some such purpose while day and night marked longer periods.
Time calculation still takes two distinct forms – the calendar, a geometrical way of organising intervals of time, and the clock, a physical device that counts the passage of time.
The ancient Egyptians may have divided the day into twelve smaller parts on their sundials, influenced no doubt by the 12 lunar cycles in a year. Their sundial used a gnomon to cast a shadow on a set of markings calibrated to the hour. The Romans used a clepsydra, a vessel with holes for the outflow of water. As the water emptied, it measured time, sort of like an hour glass with sand.
‘May the gods destroy that man who discovered hours and first set up a sundial here, to cut up my day!’
All of the above led me to the impending solstice which occurs when the Sun appears to reach its most northerly or southerly point as the Earth rotates and orbits the Sun. Bizarrely, I have been attempting to record daily sunrise and sunset where I live here in Perth – see the chart above – and it literally comes down to one or two minutes difference over the course of a week or so.
The Sun’s dailyarc affects the length of daytime experienced and amount of daylight received during a given season. The two moments, when the angle of Earth’s rotational axis is towards the Sun, are the solstices, occurring annually, around June 21 and December 21, when the Sun’s motion comes to a stop. When it is the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere in Australia, it is the winter solstice in the Northern. The day of a solstice in either hemisphere has either the most sunlight of the year (summer solstice) or the least sunlight of the year (winter solstice). The summer solstice is when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky and has the longest period of daylight. Conversely, the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the Sun is at its lowest daily position in the sky.
The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (‘sun’) and sistere (‘to stand still’) because at the solstices, the Sun’s daily path seems to stop at a northern or southern limit before reversing direction. The Ancient Greeks used the term “ηλιοστάσιο” (heliostāsio), meaning stand of the Sun. The Sun’s westerly motion never ceases as Earth is continually in rotation.
The concept of the solstices was embedded in ancient Greek celestial navigation. When they realised that the Earth was spherical they devised the idea of an imaginary spherical surface rotating with the planets and stars fixed in it. The stars move across the inner surface of this imaginary celestial sphere along the circumferences of circles in parallel planes perpendicular to the Earth’s axis. The Sun and the planets do not move in these parallel paths but at an angle to the axis, bringing the Sun and planets across the paths of, and in among, the stars.
The exact solstice time is not easy to determine as I found out. The angle become smaller as the Sun gets closer to its maximum/minimum declination. The days before and after the solstice, are barely detectable with devices like sextant and impossible with more traditional tools like a gnomon. It is also hard to detect the changes on sunrise/sunset azimuth due to the atmospheric refraction changes.
According to Google, in 2019 the summer solstice will occur between December 20 and December 23 in the Southern Hemisphere and between June 20 and June 22 in the Northern.
How did Iron Age societies calculate such things as the start or separation of seasonal change? Did the druids base their pronouncements on observations of the sky and how was time calculated?
Ancient Indian philosophers believed that Time repeated ages over the lifespan of the universe, leading to beliefs in rebirth and reincarnation, as did the Celtic druids.
Ancient Greek philosophers wondered if time was linear or cyclical and if it was endless or finite while the Islamic and Judeo-Christian world-view regard time as linear and directional, beginning with God creating the world. The traditional Christian view sees the present order of things coming to an ‘end time’ although I don’t think that was ever mentioned in my primary school catechism which was a list of questions and answers that we were expected to memorise. I can only remember two of them now – ‘Who is God? God is our father in heaven’ and ‘Who made the world? God made the world.’
Celtic and other nomadic groups more than likely used the moon as a time-measuring device as early as 6,000 years ago with Lunar calendars of 12 or 13 lunar months corresponding to cycles of Moon phases. Seasons quickly come adrift in a lunar calendar and it became the prerogative of the druid class to calculate and add days or months to some years to balance things out.
Julius Caesar put the Roman world on a solar, or Julian, calendar in 45 BC indicating the seasons relative to the apparent position of the Sun but that, too, was faulty as the astronomical solstices and equinoxes moved by more than ten minutes per year. The solar day was the time interval between two successive journeys of the Sun across the local meridian – an imaginary line running from north to south – passing directly overhead. At this ‘solar noon’ the Sun reaches its highest point or zenith on its daily arc across the sky. It was not until 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII introduced a correction with the Gregorian solar calendar, now the most commonly used calendar around the world but which does not correspond to cycles of Moon phase.
The Celtic Coligny calendar, found in France in 1887, dates back to the first century A.D. and was used to define the beginning and length of the day, the week, the month, the seasons, quarter days, and festivals and was an attempt to reconcile the cycles of the moon and sun, as did the modern Gregorian calendar. However, the Coligny calendar considers the phases of the moon to be important, and each month always begins with the same moon phase.
Among the Celts, the year was divided into a light half and a dark half. As the day was seen as beginning at sunset, so the year was seen as beginning with the arrival of the darkness at the feis of Samhain (around 1 November in the modern calendar).The light half of the year started at Bealtaine (around 1 May, modern calendar). Longer periods were reckoned in nights, as in the surviving English term fortnight meaning two weeks.
Those accuracy issues make it possible to determine the solstice day only with the use of more complex tools, which of course I don’t have, nor would I know how to use them, but my smart phone weather gizmo gives me – I presume – accurate readings for sunrise and sunset each day, as in the attached table. How did ancient societies do it? This is not a rhetorical question!
For vague comparison, the Southern Hemisphere (Winter) Solstice of 21 June 2019 had sunrise 07:15 and sunset at 17:18 giving a meagre daylight of 10 hours and three minutes.
All along the Black Sea route from Istanbul to Baku in Azerbaijan, every local restaurant a ‘lokanta’ in Turkey and beyond seemed to serve some type of frothy yoghurt-like drink. Intrigued, and not always wanting to drink alcohol before lunch, kefir was delicious, cool and tangy and yet different from place to place.
Originating in the Caucasus region, milk kefir, like most cultured or fermented foods, for example, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha, cheese and beer to name but a few, has a long and rich history rooted in simple agrarian cultures of preserving food. Fermented foods preserved in this way claim a range of health benefits from better digestion to a strengthened immunity system through the growth of good bacteria known as probiotics. Unlike prebiotics found in fibre-rich foods which go through the small intestine before being fermented in the large colon of gut, probiotics are live beneficial bacteria naturally created in fermented foods.
Probiotic kefir is, basically, a gelatinous mass of fermented milk, harbouring a generous variety of bacteria and yeast containing dozens of microorganisms, some of which haven’t even been identified, and which is used to make continual batches of milk kefir.
Kefir grains, so-called because small and numerous colonies of yeast and bacteria feed off the fat, or lactose, in full-cream milk, breaking it down during fermentation into simpler sugars, becoming bulky and lumpy like clotted cream or the surface of a cauliflower in appearance. These ‘grains’ are, in fact, the starter culture that will ferment fresh milk to continually produce the kefir drink itself. Over approximately 24 hours, the microorganisms in the kefir grains multiply and ferment the milk, turning it into the kefir dairy drink. Then the grains are sieved from the liquid and can be used again by adding fresh milk and the whole process can start over again.
Back in West Australia, after returning from the Caucasus, few supermarkets seemed to stock kefir but packets of freeze-dried cultures can be bought from health food stores where each packet can make up to 5 litres but by the third or fourth litre, the resulting kefir becomes progressively weaker and grains never form. This powdered starter, with far fewer bacteria and yeasts, could not compete with the microorganism content of milk kefir made from live grains which I later managed to locate on the Internet locally.
In a small zip lock bag was a live culture of some white, curdish looking goo which I poured into a glass measuring jug and added a cup of fresh, full-cream milk before covering the jug lightly and leaving it out on the kitchen counter for the bacteria and yeast to do their magic. A day later, I topped up the litre jug, gave it a stir and left it for another 24 hours.
Using a nylon sieve and a nylon spatula I drained the liquid into a glass bottle, poking and pushing at the goo in the sieve until I could see the grains. Back into the jug and another cup of milk to feed the microorganisms and to start the process off again.
Health benefits for probiotics in fermented products are widespread because their live microorganisms may help restore the natural balance of gut bacteria and may even help protect the heart by reducing “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and modestly lowering blood pressure. Claims that kefir boosts the immune system, aids in digestive problems, improves bone health and may even combat cancer are all made in support of kefir, but for me, it is a pleasant drink, certainly preferable to the ordinary yoghurt or milk I used to have before and presumably the fermentation has done nothing to alter the protein and calcium already present in the milk I used to make my daily kefir.
I suppose vague claims that probiotics such as kefir “supports good digestive health” are meaningless and the other touted health benefits are debatable but I look forward to the sour, tangy tart taste with that hint of effervescence, a ‘frizzante” tingle on the tongue in the mornings.