Sunday 26 October 2014

Halloween Grumbles

I am not ashamed to admit that I am one of those shoppers who like to have a good rummage in the ‘reduced to clear’ section of the supermarket every time I go there. You never know what you may find. Yesterday evening I found a toffee apple for 6p and happily regressed to my sticky childhood. There was a whole pile of them in the clearance. And yesterday was the 25th October. Toffee coated apples are traditionally consumed at Halloween, which is still nearly a week away. Why are the supermarkets stocking festival goodies so far in advance of the relevant festival that they end up being reduced to clear a week before the date anybody would be expected to buy them?  For years now it has been possible to buy a Christmas cake with a ‘best before’ date well in advance of Christmas. What on earth is the point of this?

I have something of a bee in my bonnet about the modern Americanised celebration of Halloween. Not because I have a knee-jerk antagonism to anything American, but because it has obliterated the indigenous ways of marking the festival in the British Isles. Some Brits don’t believe we ever celebrated Halloween before we were introduced to pumpkins by Hollywood. (Most British shops sell pumpkins only in October and I am convinced that many Brits haven’t realised that they can be eaten as food and not just used for making lanterns.)

I used to be a loyal viewer of the Late Review show on BBC 2. A few years back, it unexpectedly hosted an argument on this subject between Tom Paulin, Irish poet, and Tony Parsons, London novelist. Tony insisted that nobody in these islands had ever heard of Halloween until the American version arrived here. Tom told him forcefully that he was wrong, he had celebrated it in Ireland as a child. Tony said this was nonsense. Tom went red in the face with rage and looked as if he might be about to stand up and throw a punch. The presenter sitting between them hastily moved the discussion along. I was sitting on the sofa in just as great a rage as Tom Paulin.

When I was a child in the 1960s we made Halloween lanterns out of turnips. Yes, turnips. I have been greeted with such incredulity by Southern Brits and Americans when I tell them this that I had almost started to doubt my own memory. So I was delighted to come across this confirmation, in the book Northumbrian Heritage by Nancy Ridley. Writing in 1968, Nancy describes it as an old custom that lingers on in remote areas.

“Not only does tradition survive but old customs have in many cases managed to withstand the realistic attitudes of the youth of today.  In some rural areas of Northumberland Hallow E’en is still celebrated.  ‘Dooking’ (ducking) for apples is one, and some children make lanterns out of a hollow turnip; two holes representing the eyes, a mouth and a nose are carved and the lighted candle placed inside the turnip shell, a handle of string is attached and these turnip lanterns have a terrifying appearance when carried swinging through the dark.”

In 1968 I was seven and at the peak of my own turnip carving endeavours. Not really being trusted with a sharp knife at that age, I only made a few token scoop-outs after my parents had done the hard graft. This probably explains why the pumpkins came into it. The emigrants to North America from Britain and Ireland presumably took both the custom and the turnips with them, but finding that the New World offered them a vegetable so much softer and easier to carve, took the easy option. 

The other thing I regret is the loss of any real sense that Halloween is frightening because it is a festival of the dead and a time when the ‘veil between the worlds’ is more permeable than usual.  I take this seriously because of the year when Halloween fell in between my father's death and his funeral, and consequently all those children roaming around dressed as skeletons seriously creeped me out. But apart from me, the Wiccans and neo-pagans are now the only people who observe it as a solemn event.

However, here in the UK the change of the clocks onto winter time takes place only a few days before 31st October - this year, it was today. At latitude 56 o N that heralds three months of having to travel home from work in the dark, and the primal sense of dread with which we face this prospect, especially in rural areas with no artificial street lighting, is something that links us with our pagan ancestors. 

Thursday 9 October 2014

Some Interesting Northumberland Place Names

Here are the covers of two books about the origins of the place names of Northumberland. The first one, with the title that you might be wary of searching for online these days, was published in 1970 by Oriel press, a Newcastle based publisher who produced a number of very good books on local history. The second is by Stan Beckensall, a Northumberland scholar and writer best known for his work on the prehistoric rock carvings of the area (possible subject of a future blog post). It has been revised and reprinted since, but I like having the 1975 original, no. 63 in the series of Northern History booklets produced by the Frank Graham press.  Here are a few examples of the contents.

 GOODWIFE HOT  Of course you now want to know the origin of this remarkable name. Watson relates that it is one of a group of Celtic camps or hill forts in an area of Redesdale, another being called Garret Hot, and says the modern name is likely to be a corruption of an original Celtic name, now lost. He also speculates though that it may be an anglicised reference to a fertility goddess, of whom he also reckons to have found traces in the folkloric figure of the Old Wife.  Beckensall does not include this name at all. Any readers who know if this matter has been cleared up since 1970, please get in touch.

BERWICK  The home territory of this blog. Every book I have ever looked at gives the derivation of the name as bere-wich, a barley farm. An especially scholarly one I looked at in the reference room of the National Library of Scotland offered the additional fact that wick or wich often referred to a smaller farm outlying from a large farm. That sounds likely in our case, and is more satisfactory than the often seen shorthand version that tells us a wick was any kind of settlement.  A local amateur historian once bent my ear at length with his theory that in the case of Berwick the wick comes from the Scandinavian for ‘bay’. It is true that the Icelandic vik means ‘bay’ (the name Reykavik apparently means ‘smoky bay’, thus incidentally explaining why the Scots say that a chimney ‘reeks’), but this cannot be the derivation of any of the inland –wicks in this area, and in any case, the most striking geographical fact about Berwick is that it stands on an estuary, not a bay. I also possess a Directory of Northumberland from 1855, and that offers the theory that the name was originally Aberwick, from the Celtic aber meaning the mouth of  a river. When I toured the local Masonic Hall last month as part of the Heritage Open Doors weekend, I noticed that they use the name Aberwicke on one of their mysterious commemorative boards. (‘I’m not allowed to explain everything to you, but we like old versions of names’.) This derivation seems to have entirely gone out of favour, but it does have some plausibility.

CAMBOIS  A village in the south-east corner of the county, best known for the amusement afforded to Northumbrians when visitors pronounce its name as if it were French.  It is actually pronounced as if the b were not there, which originally it wasn’t. Both of these books say it is derived from the Old Celtic kambo, meaning crooked, cf. Irish camus and Welsh cemmaes, and that the most likely feature in the vicinity to be described as crooked is the bay on which it stands. The name is seen in the form Cammes in the year 1050, according to Beckensall. Watson says that the modern spelling is probably due to the French speaking clerks who arrived after the Norman conquest, and comments that the name is a fine illustration of the importance of taking local pronunciation as the primary source for place names, since they have been handed down entirely by oral transmission.

CRASTER  A fishing village in the northern part of the county, where we often went for the day when I was little.  Beckensall says the name is derived from the Old English crawe-ceastre, a fort inhabited by crows. It is found in the form Craucestre in the year 1242. There is a seabird called the chough which is a member of the crow family. There was a long established cafe in the village called The Choughs, but as far as I know they never exploited this fascinating piece of etymology for the benefit of their business.

HEBRON   In the days when I regularly took the bus between Alnwick and Newcastle I used to pass a signpost to this hamlet, and wearing my other hat as someone who has studied the Middle East, it always intrigued me. It seems that the name has no connection to the West Bank town called Hebron by the Israelis. Beckensall says that it comes from hea-byrgen, a high barrow or burial mound, and is the same name as Hepburn and Hebburn.  This last is an area of Tyneside, and during the period in the 1980s when Belinda Carlisle had a record in the charts called ‘Heaven is a place on earth’, Geordies liked to sing, ‘Hebburn is a place on earth’. Can’t really argue with that.

I hope you have found the above interesting. Perhaps in the future I will publish a few more examples.