Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

How well do you know the counties of Britain? At one time every town and village in Britain was located in one of 92 counties, with many of the names of the counties ending in ‘shire’. Where was Banffshire, Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Montgomeryshire, Sutherland or Westmorland? And Middlesex? Well that used to include most of London north of the Thames including Westminster and the West End, apart from the City of London. And where are the counties of Barsetshire, Hallamshire, Midsomer, and Trumptonshire?

From 1888 to 1965, local government in England, Scotland and Wales was based quite closely on the boundaries of historic counties but as a consequence of the numerous reforms of local government since then, few local authorities now have an area anything like the historic county in which they were previously located.

britain, historic county, mediaeval, saxon, wessex, association of british counties

The division of Britain into 92 counties goes back to mediaeval and feudal times starting with the division of the Kingdom of West Saxons, now referred to as Wessex, in the 8th century. All the historic English and Scottish counties were established in one form or another by the 12th century, and the Welsh counties by the 16th century.
© The Association of British Counties

Although twenty-seven county councils still exist in England, most cities and many large towns are not governed by the county council for the area in which they lie. Portsmouth and Southampton once part of Hampshire are now unitary (all-purpose) councils in their own right. The same goes for Blackpool and Blackburn in Lancashire, Bristol in Gloucestershire, Maidstone in Kent, Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, Plymouth in Devon, and so on. The list is long. And in Scotland and Wales, historic counties were merged from 1974 onwards, so for example Powys County Council in Wales was formed from three historic counties, and Highland Council in Scotland was formed from the whole or part of seven historic counties.

Many public agencies, such as some police and emergency services, and voluntary bodies such as wildlife trusts, are still based on historic counties and are named after them. And so too are cricket teams and local radio stations. But in 2010, the Royal Mail deleted county names from its Postcode Address File database, which lists every address in the UK. There is an interesting article here on the BBC website about the confusion over historic and administrative counties.

The Association of British Counties (ABC) exists to promote ‘the use of the historic counties as a standard geography for the UK’, and you can find out more about its aims and the counties here. You can use the map above to find the historic counties mentioned at the start.

One notable exception to the diminution in the status of historic counties is Rutland. Once the smallest county in England, and first mentioned in 1159, Rutland (motto Multum in Parvo or ‘much in little’) was abolished in 1974 and it became part of Leicestershire as a district council. In 1997 however, Rutland became a separate county again, and the council has the name Rutland County Council.

There are lots of counties that you won’t find on the ABC map. Here are some of them, most coming from literature or TV, and a surprising number from the novels of Agatha Christie.

warden, anthony trollope, barsetshire, michael sadleir

The Warden, the first of Anthony Trollope’s novels set in Barsetshire, was published in 1855. This is Trollope’s drawing of Barsetshire first printed in Michael Sadleir’s Trollope: A Commentary in 1927. Sadleir was a British novelist, literary historian and book collector, who specialized in 19th century English fiction, notably the work of Anthony Trollope. Sadleir later re-drew the map so as to make it more consistent with the descriptions in the Barsetshire books

Barsetshire – the setting for the series of mid-19th century novels Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope, Also as the setting for the series of 29 romantic and satirical novels by Angela Thirkell, and as the supposed location of St Trinians School in the original comedy films

Borsetshire – a county in the Midlands, location of the village of Ambridge in the long-running BBC radio drama The Archers

Diddlesex – used in the satirical Punch magazine in the 1840s as the abode of an ex-servant who becomes rich, and in the 1890s to Parliamentary consideration of the ‘East-West Diddlesex Railway Bill’. Also the ‘North South East West Diddlesex junction’ song in the Gilbert & Sullivan opera Thespis, referring to a shadily run railway company

Downshire – the location of the village of St Mary Mead in The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Ffhâgdiwedd – a county borough of South East Wales, the setting for the science fiction and mythological novel Waliens – Close Encounters of The Welsh Kind by R W Finlan and Darren Bowker-Powis (more…)


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charles dickens museum, doughty street, bloomsbury, london, pickwick papers, oliver twist, nicholas nickleby

The Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, London, occupies a typical Georgian terraced house which was Charles Dickens’ home from March 1837 to December 1839. Here he completed The Pickwick Papers, and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby

There was one place in London that was open on Christmas Day, and which welcomed many visitors and tourists through its doors. Even its cafe was open. Given that the novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens first published on 17 December 1843 and never out of print since, has had such a significant impact upon the British Christmas, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Charles Dickens Museum just off Gray’s Inn Road in Bloomsbury in central London, should open on Christmas Day.

But what was it that inspired Dickens to bring to his reader images of joy, warmth and life, and to contrast it with unforgettable images of despair, sadness, coldness and death? Dickens’ sources for the tale appear to be many and varied, but are principally the humiliating experiences of his childhood and his sympathy for the poor. So what happened to Dicken’s when he was a boy?

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born 7 February 1812 in Landport, Portsmouth in England, the second child of John and Elizabeth Dickens, who went on to have five more children, two of whom died in infancy. John Dickens worked as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office in Portsmouth, but he didn’t manage his finances very well and lived beyond his means, and the family moved home frequently. In 1816, they moved to Chatham, Kent, where Charles spent much time outdoors but he also read voraciously. The family moved again in June 1822 to Bayham Street in Camden Town, London, though Charles remained in Chatham to continue his education, where he lodged with his schoolmaster William Giles. Charles joined his family in September but didn’t attend school as his father could not afford the fees.

At the end of 1823, the family moved to a brand new six-roomed house at Gower Street North in Bloomsbury, with the intention of opening a school in a better part of town to be known as ‘Mrs Dickens’s Establishment’. But the school never got off the ground, and there is no evidence that a single pupil ever enrolled with Mrs Dickens.

charles dickens, hungerford stairs, blacking factory, charing cross railway station

Hungerford Stairs at the river end of Hungerford Street, Strand, London. The blacking factory where Dickens laboured as a boy of 12 was at 30 Hungerford Street, where Charing Cross railway station is now sited

1824 was to be a nightmare for the whole family. When the family’s cousin and former lodger, James Lamert offered employment for Charles at his blacking factory, his parents immediately accepted as the income could help to pay for the extra expense of their new home. On 9 February, only two days after his twelfth birthday, Dickens left his home in Bloomsbury and walked the three miles to Warren’s Blacking Factory close to Hungerford Stairs from where a ferry crossed the River Thames.

But on 20 February, John Dickens was arrested for his failure to repay a debt of £40 and he was sentenced to Marshalsea debtor’s prison in Borough High Street, Southwark. Under English law at the time, offenders were imprisoned indefinitely until the debts were paid. That someone in prison was unable to work to earn the necessary money to repay those debts, nor the accumulating prison fees, did not enter into the logic of the punishment, and debtors often died in these prisons through starvation and the terrible living conditions.


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GIamt Rat of Sumatra, Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle

One of many books speculating on Sherlock Holmes’s confrontation with the Giant Rat of Sumatra

There was one story that Dr John Watson, biographer of Sherlock Holmes, did not reveal, in deference to his friend’s wishes. In The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, first published in the January 1924 issues of The Strand Magazine in London, Arthur Conan Doyle writes that Holmes has received a letter from Morrison, Morrison and Dodd, a firm of solicitors. The letter says that they have recommended a Mr Ferguson, who has asked for their assistance in a matter concerning vampires, to contact Mr Holmes, adding at the end ‘We have not forgotten your successful action in the case of Matilda Briggs’. Holmes says to Watson, as an aside:

Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson, … It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

How the ship, the rat, and the Indonesian island are related is left tantalisingly in the air. There are indeed giant rats in Sumatra, and the New York Times told us a lot more about the matter in 1983. Perhaps the creature was an unusually large specimen of the common ship rat (Rattus rattus), that was used in a plot, foiled by Holmes, to spread the bubonic plague through London. Alas we will never know since Watson arranged that his notes on the bizarre story of the giant rat should be held in the vaults of a London bank in perpetuity.

This has not however prevented innumerable books, plays and films being produced taking the story of the Giant Rat of Sumatra one step further, including:

  • In Pursuit to Algiers, a 1945 Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Watson tells the story of the Giant Rat of Sumatra to an audience on board a ship.
  • The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a 1977 Doctor Who TV serial set in Victorian London, in which the hero (dressed in deerstalker, accompanied by a medical doctor with a housekeeper Mrs Hudson) confronts a giant rat in the sewers of London
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a 2010 novel by Paul D Gilbert, has Holmes investigating the mysterious reappearance of the long-overdue clipper Matilda Briggs.

The largest rat in Sumatra is the Mountain Giant Sunda Rat (Sundamys  infraluteus) which is 9 to 11.5 inches long, excluding the tail, and it weighs 230 to 600 grams, which makes it about twice the size of the common rat. Whether this is the rat to which Holmes was referring (or Doyle was thinking of) we don’t know. But if the public were to hear that rats of this size, carrying a deadly plague, were scuttling around under the streets of London, it would of course induce the greatest panic. And so, it must remain a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

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DictionaryMagnifyWords are sometimes used to impress, to demonstrate intellect, though it depends on who is speaking, and to whom. Conversation between philosophers or academics will seem high brow to many, and the language of scientists is too technical or just gobbledygook to most of us. That is to be expected. But when addressing a wider audience surely jargon should be avoided. In the art and literary world, though it is not exclusive to them, the use of big or smart words in articles, programmes or talks aimed at a broader public, almost appears to be mandatory. I would guess that many on the receiving end will not know what the words mean. Perhaps some will think they should, and others may be embarrassed by their lack of education.

Here are fifteen of these words . Do you know what they mean?

allegory, dichotomy, didactic, ennui, meme

narrative, oeuvre, palimpsest, paradigm, prosaic

recherché, resonance, solecism, trope, vapid

Here are the meaning of the words: Words to Impress

Is it better to use simpler words or phrases, or would that be ‘dumbing down’?

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MountRoraimaMount Roraima, a table top mountain in South America marks the border between Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. The mountain is  2,810 metres high, and most of it lies in Venezuela, which has a number of distinctive mountains like this one which are known as tepuis. Despite its steep sides, the Mount Roraima plateau was explored by Sir Everard im Thurn in 1884 by walking up a forested slope. It is thought that reports from the first expeditions inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write his classic adventure yarn, The Lost World, in 1912, which has been the basis for many films.

Since long before the arrival of European explorers in Venezuela the mountain has held a special significance for the indigenous people of the region. The Pemon Indians of the Gran Sabana, the area where the mountain is located, see Roraima as the stump of a mighty tree that once held all the fruits and tuberous vegetables in the world.

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