Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Uncle Charles and the Boko Haram

Boko Haram is the name that Western commentators give to one of the fundamentalist Moslem organizations in northern Nigeria. In the context of Islamism, a fair translation is probably “Purity”. Its members are fiercely anti-all-things-Western – not least, the national borders of Africa that were set in stone by generations of European politicians. Boko Haram doesn’t recognize those borders, and would like to establish a Moslem Caliphate – a theocratic empire with administrative districts but no independent nation-states.

(Boko Haram is notorious for having abducted two hundred Christian girls from a school in the region, and offered to exchange them for members of its cult held by the national government.)

The people of northern Nigeria were pagans from time immemorial until Moslem slavers, armies and missionaries pushed down from the coasts of North Africa and converted many of them to Islam. Some of the converts, and some of the remaining pagans, were later converted to Christianity by British slavers, armies and missionaries pushing up from the south.

I blame my Uncle Charles for much of the current trouble, including the abduction of the two hundred schoolgirls. Of course he was just following orders, as all soldiers do. In his case, the orders from London were to annihilate the local Moslem resistance-fighters led by the Sultan of Sokoto, in 1903. He did a good job of it. The death of the Sultan and his troops signaled the collapse of the Caliphate of the day.

The British Army rewarded Charles and his fellow officers with promotions and medals, and the missionaries moved in to save the souls of the survivors and their families. Occasional later rebellions were successfully put down – “brutally”, Wikipedia says – and the soldiers no doubt filled their boots with native blood. But resentment simmered away on the back burner, culminating (perhaps) in the abduction of the schoolgirls earlier this year. So thanks for nothing, Uncle Charles!

Actually, he was my father’s uncle – not mine – the last of his generation of Barlows to die. He and his older brother were career Army Officers. Both were participants in the invasion and occupation of the Afrikaans republics – “The Boer War”. Lionel stayed in South Africa after the war, and his descendants were eventually dispossessed of their farm in Zimbabwe a decade or so ago. What goes around, comes around, right? Empires come and go.

Another brother died of malaria while farming in Madagascar, of all places; yet another was killed by aborigines in the Australian bush while panning for gold without their permission. (Somewhere in my papers I have the envelope that once held the last letter his mother wrote to him from England. Addressed to Graham Barlow, Esq, Coen Gold Fields, North Queensland, it was returned undelivered in 1898. On the envelope she noted, “Graham was never heard from again”.)

A fourth brother signed on with an Australian shipping line after the South African war, and married a passenger from Toowoomba. Uncle Charles used to send his Australian nephews ten pounds every Christmas, just to keep in touch. That was nice. The expectation of meeting me, in 1963, kept him alive for an extra little while, his daughter Lucy told me. He died a week after we met, on his deathbed in the house where he and my grandfather had been born, outside Bath, Somerset.

Lucy died unmarried and childless, so I was allowed to take assorted bits of silverware the burglars didn’t carry away – souvenirs of a life spent expanding the Empire. Ross uses one of his Polo trophies from Nigeria as an ashtray in the cabin in Norway. Sigh. What can I say? Sic transit gloria, really.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Village Greenies Cricket Club

A “greenie” was a bottle of Heineken, the most popular beer in Cayman at the time, at least among cricketers. Our club’s name had nothing to do with the village greens of England, but the name was cleverly chosen.

In the beginning, the club was often scratching around for players in the weekend limited-overs league, so I got the odd game despite my overwhelming lack of talent. Fortunately, nobody wanted to open the batting except me. I couldn’t score runs, but I was hard to shift.

All my runs were scored through the slips, from deliberate nudges off the outside edge, leaning forward from a stance a foot or so down the wicket – left elbow well up in order to keep the ball down. Balls outside the off-stump missed my prod; balls headed for the stumps got the edge and bounced before they reached slip and usually went through. It was the best I could do.

As Cayman’s expat population grew, there became enough useless-but-keen players to warrant a second team. I was barely good enough to play even for the Greenies Two, but was appointed captain by virtue of my willingness to provide sandwiches for lunch every time we played. (Linda made the sandwiches, of course, but the responsibility for reminding her was mine…)

We were never the worst team in the league. We usually managed to give West Bay a kicking, and the Schoolboys, and indeed we had our moments of glory. Only two that I can think of, but they were memorable. Once, we actually beat our senior team. The local newspaper’s sports writer gave us a wonderful back-page headline in bold caps: GREENIES TWO ARE NUMBER ONE! That didn’t sit well with our embarrassed betters, but Alan and I got a good laugh over it. And From then on they made a point of promoting any of our team who looked promising.

The other “moment of glory” occurred the day we no-hopers fought the League champions to a forty-overs draw. Not a tie, mind, but a draw. Purists may point out that a limited-overs match can’t end in a draw – but there’s a story goes with it. On this occasion, By-Rite (the champions, whose sponsorship by a local supermarket meant they didn’t have to make their own sandwiches) batted first and racked up a massive total of 246 for two, if I recall. Maybe it was 264. Nothing we could ever reach, anyway. Their batsmen whacked our poor bowlers all around the park, and ran us ragged.

On form, we could maybe last for half an hour against their class bowlers. If their fielders dropped a few catches we might accumulate forty runs. It was a beautiful sunny day, and most of their team were keen to wrap the game up quickly and hit the beach. But – well – never say die, eh? I persuaded my fellows to play for a draw. Let them bowl us out, if they could.

As it happened, they couldn’t. The opposition were livid when they saw what we were up to, and begged us to have a swish and get out. Every half-hour we hung around was half an hour less time for the beach. Looking back, I don’t know how we managed to score any runs at all; we certainly didn’t try to. At the end of the day – and it pretty much was the end of the day, by the time they had bowled their forty overs – we had sixty-something on the board, and nine wickets down. The last-wicket partnership was as tense a time as we ever experienced as a team.

A Village Greenies team did actually get to play on some real village greens in England, in 1981. It was a select team, eligibility for which was a willingness to pay for the trip and to give up one’s vacation time. Ross and I went (he was aged six at the time), and among our collage of snapshots here at home is a photo of Ross batting throw-downs from Charlie Griffith, our celebrity guest-player.

Charlie was a West Indies legend. He and Wes Hall were the best fast-bowling pair in the world, for a few years in the 1960s, and Charlie was ferocious. He was down to medium-pace in 1981, but as competitive as ever. “The most disgraceful piece of fielding I’ve seen in my life!” He told me with withering contempt, when I let a leg-glance through for a boundary at Budleigh Salterton. Well, maybe he was telling the truth, at that. So when he offered to give us all some throw-downs, later, I sent Ross in instead of me.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The ancient clans of Britain

Celtic clan-indicators have long held a fascination for me. They all seem to have originated as glottal-stop prefixes. A glottal-stop is the sound in the middle of uh-oh, and of butter in some English dialects. Think of that line from “Right Said Fred” (the song, not the band): “Bu’ i’ did no good; wew I never fough’ i’ would!” Hmmm. You have to say it out loud to get the full effect…

 In modern surnames, the stop is represented by the Irish O-apostrophe, and with closed lips it’s usually perceived in Ireland and Scotland as M-apostrophe – and indeed that’s how it was written until recent times: M’Arthur, M’Allan, M’Innis. In the 18th Century that was gradually changed to Mc or Mac: MacArthur, Macallan, McInnis. In Wales, with the lips still closed but with a slightly different delivery, the sound was usually perceived as either ‘p or p’, depending – and written ap as a prefix to surnames; ap-Rees and ap-Harry. (Priest and Parry, in later versions.)

The Celtic languages and dialects were relatively late comers to the spoken languages of Britain, and they were never spoken all over the Island(s). Between the very first settlers of Britain – described in the preceding blog to this one – and the Celtic settlers lie thousands of years and hundreds of generations, and an unknown number of other immigrant groups speaking other languages.

As far as I can tell, there has been little enquiry into the languages of Britain before the Celts – or even before the arrival of the Roman Empire. The whole of Britain is supposed to have been speaking one or other of the Celtic languages when the Roman armies arrived, but that’s unlikely to have been the case. After all, the whole of the territory under Rome’s rule didn’t speak Latin by the end of its 20 generations of occupation.

All the local nobles and administrators probably did, just as their successors spoke Anglo-Saxon by the end of those Germans’ occupation, and Scandinavian in the northern regions by the end of the Vikings’ occupation, and French for generations after the Norman conquest. But the bulk of any society doesn’t adopt a new language every time it’s conquered.

The peasantry is far too conservative to do that, and invaders don’t come in large enough numbers to change an entire population’s speech. Anyway, slaughtering the natives is never as sensible as enslaving them. Somebody has to till the fields and milk the cows and provide sexual services to the new masters. Genocide is a wasteful self-indulgence. The Roman Empire practised ethnic cleansing once in a while, but the Celts and the other foreign rulers didn’t.

The British peoples who were invaded and conquered by Rome two thousand years ago – were they radically different from either their distant descendants or their distant ancestors? There is no convincing reason to think so, whether in their basic DNA, or their language, or their clan-identities.

It would take an overwhelming invasion of the whole of Britain to alter those things to any significant degree, and there is no proof of such an invasion in the past. Histories claim that the Celts did come in overwhelming numbers – but the failure of any Celtic speech to survive east of the present borders makes that an implausible claim. Codswallop, in other words.

Actually, there is one important piece of evidence against a totalitarian invasion, although it has rarely if ever been taken into account. That evidence is the fact that English is unique in western Europe in its absence of grammatical genders. No le and la, die, der and das, -en and -et, or their Latin or Celtic equivalents: just plain old the. No grammatical genders for any nouns, ever.

On a typical farm, foreign male occupiers and their native female companions will call things by their respective names for them. That’s how genders arose in every western language but English. But when populations survive foreign invasions intact, a need for male and female grammatical genders never does arise. It’s worth saying again… English is unique in western Europe in its absence of linguistic genders. That didn’t come about by accident. English has always been the language of the native British, since Day One.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

England’s aborigines

Britain’s first settlers emigrated from what is now France or Spain, anywhere from seven to twelve thousand years ago, while Britain was still mostly covered with ice, and before the English Channel made an island of it. Well, that’s the conventional wisdom. I think France is a reasonable guess, but Spain might have been too far to come by boats made of woven reeds.

I’ve never heard of any guesses as to why the first settlers moved from their homes to an uninhabited land at the end of the habitable earth. Were they nomads who slept in caves, or rude shelters in forests like those of the Australian aborigines? Were they men-only, or mixed company? Did they move of their own accord, or were they exiled by the folks back home, to survive if they could? Might they have been a convict colony, an early Devil’s Island? Or the remnants of a clan defeated in battle, victims of prehistoric ethnic-cleansing?

Despite the huge time-gap, could the 17th Century settlement of Cayman hold any clues? Maybe so. Our islands were first settled by vagabonds, outlaws and escaped slaves. There was no existing population, and no law or administration. We don’t know their individual names or colours, except to the degree that we can trace backwards in time from their descendants.

The point is that there is a huge difference between settling a land where others already live, and virgin territory. Britain would not have been a welcoming place: wild animals and weeds are all that would have greeted the original adventurers, and some young forests growing up as the ice retreated northward. The population of the new land may have amounted to only a few hundred – maybe a thousand – for the first several generations.

It has been claimed that the DNAs of those first few hundred are present in today’s “native” British (not just the English). If that’s so, then it’s more likely than not that one common language was spoken – the language of the folks back home. And it’s more likely than not that that language was the ancestor of both French and English.

The ancestral languages would have changed under the influence of other languages they met – more in France than in Britain, since there were no other languages in Britain to begin with. The rampaging tribes from the east took hundreds of years to reach Britain in any numbers.

Last year I blogged (English as she is spoke, July 2013) that it is accents that are responsible for the way words are pronounced, not dialects. In the course of time, seemingly insignificant changes of pronunciation cause words to become incomprehensible. Look at French and English words. Look at French and English personal names. 

What names did the aborigines of Britain bear? We’ve no idea. Ug and Ogg… Ben and Ken… Molly and Polly… who knows? We don’t even know what they called themselves as a community, or what differentiations existed within the community. Were they from a single family or clan, or were they clans that coalesced into a new tribe – like The Children of Israel did (as per my blog of January 2012)? And like the settlers of Cayman did in the 19th Century when former slaves and their former owners shrugged off their distinctions and became “native” Caymanians with a tribal identity that was peculiarly their own.

Molly and Polly are the same name, differentiated only by dialectal preferences in the way the initial consonants are sounded. Matt and Pat, too. The letter -p- requires only the slightest vocalization to become -mp- and then -m-. There’s no change of lip movement, even. In the middle of French words, it‘s called nasalization when mp shrinks to p – and when nt skips the n sound. La plume de ma tante… C'est simple.

The earliest recorded name of the island of Britain is, actually, Britain, called after the inhabitants whom the scribes called “Britanni” or "Pretani”. Unfortunately, that record is thousands of years – hundreds of generations – after the original settlement, and its value as evidence is negligible. Nevertheless, it’s the only hint we have. And if we can find a plausible base for Britanni, we may be onto something.

Next blog: The Ancient Clans of England.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

How could I ever forget Whatsisname?

The things you find when you’re throwing out old books and papers! Somehow, the other day, an old address-book from 1966 surfaced, and I’ve been surfing through it trying to put faces and incidents to the names in it. (I’m talking about a real old-fashioned handwritten address book. Younger readers can ask their grandparents what that is.)

The names are grouped by countries of residence, and some were transcribed from an earlier book. In A for Australia: Ray Hudson of Sydney, met at a Youth Hostel in Hammerfest on 12th August 1963 when I was hitching through Scandinavia on my own. (The Summer of ’63, in the Archives of January 2013.) We met up again in London that winter, apparently. And Ron Winch, also of Sydney, whom Linda and I hung around with on 19th & 20th January 1965 in Damascus. “A v nice bloke”, I noted: unusual praise. So why do I have no recollection of the hanging-around?

On the page for Austria there is an entry for Peter and Herwart Kramer, whom we visited in Vienna on 11th April 1965 for a cup of tea. Peter was the brother of Stefan Mueller of Tirgo Jiu in the Saxon region of Rumania whom we’d met a week earlier. A note says I spoke German with both brothers. That must have been fun for them.

 In The German Lesson posted on this blog in May 2012 I confessed how desperately bad my spoken German was. I can scarcely imagine how I had the cheek to impose myself on strangers in a strange land and language. Did I phone ahead (surely not!), or did we just turn up on the doorstep? “Hello. Your brother said you’d give us a cup of tea. How about it?” I can’t recall.

 Only years later did I read up about the Saxons (Sachsens), ethnic Germans settled in Transylvania from the 11th Century onwards by the rulers of Austria and/or Hungary. They had kept their own language ever since, though it would have been a distinct dialect, and probably not much like the German of the west. The ones we met spoke standard German to me: that’s all I know.

There were 250,000 or so living there at the time of our visit. One man assured us, “Things weren’t so bad during the War”. Probably not. But the community as a whole had looked kindly on the Nazi governments of Germany and Austria, and after the war the imperial Soviets relocated tens of thousands of them to other parts of the Union. The fall of Ceausescu in 1989 triggered the departure of most of the remainder, this time to Germany.

Also in Transylvania we stayed with Alfred & Inge Bauman in Sibiu. “Board & friendship – 3rd-5th April 1965”, I wrote. That was while my car was in the shop (Co-op Tehnica Mona) having a new transmission installed. That incident, I remember: but the accommodation, not at all.

Nor do I recall the pension on the outskirts of Sofia (Bulgaria) where we had stayed 25th-28th March, run by Dmitri Ctaunoh. (I’m not sure about the name; he wrote it in the book in Cyrillic script, and the letters don’t all have exact transcriptions in Latin script.) I have "Rom" beside his name, which must mean he was of Rumanian nationality and not that we spoke Rumanian together. Bulgaria came before Rumania on our itinerary. I have no recollection at all – not only of Dmitri but of the whole city of Sofia. What ingratitude, in the face of such kindnesses!

Some sights are remembered, though not always in the correct context. For decades I claimed to have inspected the stuffed body of Ceausescu’s predecessor in Bucharest, and I can see it clearly. But Wikipedia tells me I’ve been wrong all this time. The body we saw was that of Georgi Dimitrov, sometime dictator of Bulgaria, and the place was Sofia.

We queued up with thirty locals and filed reverently though the mausoleum in the main square. Thirty doesn’t sound many: perhaps there were more. We were much keener to see Lenin’s body - embalmed and entombed - in Moscow when we got there, but there must have been a thousand people waiting in a long line on a hot day, and we didn’t have the patience. If you’ve seen one dead dictator’s mummy, you’ve seen them all, pretty much.