Sunday, 25 August 2013

in the name of the father

I’ve been reading my local telephone directory. He’s going crazy, you might assume at this point, but the kind of list contained within the pages of a typical telephone directory is more fascinating than you might think. That is because we take surnames for granted nowadays. It wasn’t always so. People didn’t always have surnames.

The following remarks refer only to the British Isles. I know almost nothing about the way in which familial names have developed elsewhere in the world, except to say that Chinese names have existed in more or less their present form since at least the time of Confucius (551–479 BC). Surnames did not begin to appear in the British Isles until the thirteenth century, and when they did it was a gradual process, taking up to 200 years in some areas.

All the surnames that can be traced back to this period fall into one of four categories—patronymic, descriptive, occupational, locational—although some of the surnames that emerged later and are now regarded as British may have had more exotic origins.

Each of the nations that make up the British Isles has its own variant on the patronymic theme. In England, the usual form used the suffix –son following the name of the father (Johnson, Richardson, Williamson, etc.). The other nations used prefixes: Mac– or Mc– (Macgregor, McDougal, etc.) in Scotland; O’– in Ireland (O’Neill, O’Brien, etc.); and Ap in Wales (Ap Richard (= Pritchard), Ap Barry (= Parry), etc.). There is also the Norman Irish Fitz– (Fitzgerald, Fitzpatrick, etc.), which has the same meaning.

Although patronymic surnames are extremely common, the name of the father is not always obvious. Examples include Addison (‘son of Adam’), Anderson (‘son of Andrew’) and Dawson, which has the same meaning as Davidson and McTavish. Then there are surnames derived from what were originally pet names, including Atkinson (‘son of dear little Adam’), Dickinson (of Richard), Jenkinson (of Jack), Hodgkinson (of Roger), Hutchinson (of Hugh) and Wilkinson (of William).

Some surnames that are apparently patronymic may have other origins. Apprentices and journeymen might have acquired the name of their masters during the period when surnames were becoming fixed, so Richards is as likely to have meant ‘Richard’s man’ as ‘Richard’s son’. Other common examples of this type include Peters and Williams.

Descriptive surnames are ones that reflect the physical characteristics of the original bearer. Thus someone who was notably taller than his friends might have acquired the surname Long, Lang or Laing, while someone of below average height might have been named Short or Little. Strong and Armstrong are self-explanatory, as are Broad and Large, but the meanings of some descriptive surnames are not immediately obvious.

For example, White and Black referred originally to hair colour, as did Whitehead and Blackett (–ett is a common corruption of ‘head’), while Sharp meant ‘discerning, alert’ rather than ‘quick-witted’. Moody could mean ‘courageous’ or ‘stubborn’ and did not acquire its present meaning until the time of Shakespeare. In the Middle Ages, Stout meant ‘valiant’ or ‘resolute’ and did not become a reference to corpulence until the nineteenth century.

Lightfoot would have referred originally to someone who was fleet of foot, while its uncomplimentary opposite was Puddifoot, or ‘stumpy foot’. It must seem incredible that such an insulting name would have stuck to a man’s children, yet three of the most famous Scottish surnames are anything but complimentary: Cameron, ‘crooked nose’; Campbell, ‘crooked mouth’; and Kennedy, ‘ugly head’.

Some descriptive surnames are recognizable as such only after a moment’s thought, but names such as Crow(e), Finch, Fox, Hart, Hawk(e), Peacock and Wolf(e) referred originally to characteristics of behaviour that reminded people of the animal or bird in question. The final sub-category under the ‘descriptive’ label consists of names constructed from an uninflected verb followed by a noun (concrete or abstract), such as Dolittle, Lovejoy and Turnbull, which are also likely to have been based on behaviour.

There are so many occupational surnames that I started this section by seeing how many I could think of in the space of five minutes. This is what I came up with: Archer, Baker, Bowman, Butcher, Carpenter, Carter, Cook(e), Cooper, Draper, Dyer, Fisher, Fletcher, Fowler, Fuller, Hunter, Mason, Miller, Porter, Potter, Shepherd, Skinner and Turner. This list doesn’t include names where the spelling has been altered over the centuries, such as Clark(e), Faulkner (‘falconer’), Fo(r)ster (‘forester’), Gard(i)ner and Taylor.

Spelling is a constant problem when trying to trace the origin of surnames. Any changes may have been initiated by the bearer of the name, perhaps to address some perceived embarrassment, or, more likely at a time when levels of literacy were low, be the result of careless transcription by those responsible for the keeping of parish records. In fact, punctiliousness in spelling is a relatively recent phenomenon that can probably be traced to the emergence of dictionaries.

Surnames based on geographical locations reflect a common naming convention in the Middle Ages. Relatively few people ventured further afield than the distance they could walk in a day during their entire lifetimes, but it was more common for people to move to nearby villages and towns, where during the rest of their lives they would have been known by the town or village they had come from. However, identifying the names of places in people’s surnames is difficult, partly because of the way spellings have shifted over the centuries and partly because some surnames that are obviously place names may be spurious later inventions.

I will close this brief survey of British/Irish surnames with an attempt to explain why these surnames came into widespread use in the first place. Imagine a short, stocky red-headed man at the beginning of the fourteenth century whose name is Peter and who lives in the village of Tottington, north of Bury in what is now Greater Manchester. He was born in the nearby small town of Ramsbottom and makes his living making wains (‘wagons’). He likes his baptismal name, but there is a problem: the pool of potential font names was limited at that time—New Testament names such as Andrew, James, John, Peter and Simon were the most popular—and there are half a dozen other men called Peter in the village.

Peter, whose father is called John, is effectively Peter Johnson Redhead Short of Ramsbottom, Wainwright, and during his lifetime he might have been known by any one of these five occasional surnames. Peter’s modern descendants might carry the surname Peters, Peterson, Pearce, Pearson, Perrin, Perkins or Parkinson. However, given the fluidity of names during this period, Peter’s children might have been named after their grandfather, so their descendants might be known as Johns, Johnson, Jones, Jacks, Jackson, Jenkins, Jenkinson or Jennings (Johnstone is not a misspelling of Johnson but a reference to John’s tun or farm). This multiplicity of possible variants means that, once separated by time and distance, closely related people would no longer be aware of their kinship.

Peter’s lack of physical stature might be commemorated in a name such as Little, Short or Small, while if his shock of red hair was particularly striking, his distant descendants might now be known as Redhead or perhaps Fox, although this latter name could be an oblique reference to someone who was sly or cunning. However, if the attribute that he was best known for was his skill as a maker of wagons, then Cartwright or Wainwright might be the name borne by his descendants.

Do you have an unusual surname? Mine is common (‘son of Roger’)—the third most common in my home town after Wilson and Thompson—although I’m not related to any of the other Hodgsons in town, apart from my brother. There are hundreds of Dennis Hodgsons in the world, but only one of them is me. Thankfully, you are probably thinking at this point.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

a perfect day

I have a confession to make: I’m prone to what might be termed ‘impossible fantasies’. One such involves the idea that if I were afforded the opportunity to relive one day in my life, which day would I choose? The possibility might be nonexistent, but the choice would be easy: I would choose 19th July 1996. This is an account of that day.

The Esk Buttress is one of the most exciting cliffs to climb on in the Lake District. It is also one of the tallest, with an imposing central section almost 400 feet high, or 500 feet if the broken rock plinth that forms the base of the cliff is included. The rock is similar to that found a couple of miles away on Gimmer Crag in Langdale, meaning that it is steep but with a reasonable supply of sharp, incut handholds.

The cliff is marked on Ordnance Survey maps as Dow Crag, but by analogy with the East Buttress, higher up the same mountain (Scafell), it has always been known to climbers as the Esk Buttress. It is located in upper Eskdale, faces south and is two hours from the nearest road, overlooking a flat, boggy area known as the Great Moss.

As can be seen from the photograph, the central section, long called the Central Pillar by climbers, is flanked by steep but shorter walls on each side. The first attempt to climb this pillar was made by Alf Bridge in 1932, but after four pitches he was forced to scuttle off to the left by the steepening rocks above.

The leading pioneers of the 1940s, Arthur Dolphin and Jim Birkett, both made attempts on the pillar, but Birkett’s Great Central Climb (1945) dodges the main difficulty by escaping to the right, while Dolphin’s Medusa Wall (1947) is essentially a flanking attack up the left-hand side of the pillar.

By the end of the 1950s, the pillar had acquired the status of ‘last great problem’, which meant that it was attracting many attempts. The problem did not turn out to be one of extreme difficulty; the obvious line was blocked by a series of loose blocks, which would have been dangerous to climb over.

However, in 1962, Jack Soper, who was probably the first climber to dispel the myth of superhuman ability that surrounded legendary climber Joe Brown in the 1950s, abseiled down from the top of the cliff and trundled the offending blocks, planning to return the following weekend to complete the climb. Unfortunately for Soper’s plans, news of his exploits had reached the ears of his former climbing partner Peter Crew in Snowdonia.

Soper co-opted leading Langdale pioneer Allan Austin for his attempt, but when they arrived at the cliff, Crew was already halfway up the climb. However, Soper and Austin did not leave empty-handed. They found two excellent new ways up the left-hand side of the pillar, which they named Black Sunday and The Red Edge. One can safely assume that these names reflected their disappointment at being beaten to the main prize.

The Central Pillar was immediately given a grade of extremely severe, although by the mid-1970s, with the advent of training for climbing, this grade had become so congested that a new, open-ended system was introduced that initially replaced ‘extremely severe’ with five grades, E1 to E5 (there are now climbs graded E10). In this system, The Central Pillar was E2. The 1988 Scafell guidebook described it as ‘a superb climb with some exciting positions’.

The Central Pillar had always been high on my tick list of climbs to do, but I had never led any route of this standard. However, in August 1995, aged 49 and accompanied by my son Siegfried, I finally broke through this barrier with The Tomb, an E2 on Gable Crag, on the north side of Great Gable. Siegfried had climbed his first E1 only two days earlier.

It seemed like a good time to have a go at The Central Pillar, so on our next climbing trip we set off for the Esk Buttress. I thought that it would be prudent to ascend The Red Edge (E1) first, to see how well I was climbing. The Red Edge is one of those climbs that is not technically difficult for the grade, but such difficulties as are encountered are relentless, and the hardest moves come towards the end of a sustained 130-foot pitch, a long way from any moral support that may be provided by one’s second.

However, I bombed up the climb with no hesitation whatsoever. I sat at the top, taking in the rope and thinking about our next climb. When we had returned to the base of the cliff, the following conversation took place.

“Central Pillar next,” I said.

“I’m very tired,” Siegfried replied.

I hadn’t thought The Red Edge to be that strenuous, but Siegfried was only 16 at the time, so I decided not to push the point. Instead, we climbed one of Arthur Dolphin’s routes, Trespasser Groove, which follows a huge corner on the right of the Central Pillar and is a grade easier than The Red Edge. It is an excellent climb, but it turned out to be more difficult than I’d anticipated. I should have consulted the 1967 guidebook, which uses the word ‘awkward’ three times in its description of this route. ‘Awkward’ is, or should be, a red flag.

A few weeks later, Siegfried confessed that he hadn’t really been tired; he had merely been psyched out by the view of our intended route from below, and I do have to admit that the line of the climb does look intimidating. However, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and the positive outcome in this case was that a friend recommended I climb the direct start, which is the same grade as Trespasser Groove. The original route had followed the first four pitches of Bridge’s Route, which is a mere hard severe.

When we finally returned to the Esk Buttress the following year, we had already climbed nine E1s and one E2, so we were going well. We set off early because of the long walk to the crag. It turned out to be the hottest day of what was otherwise quite a poor summer. On our way to the crag, I remember that we passed a stream with a small waterfall, below which lay a deep pool. It was the perfect place to cool off.

The Central Pillar would be our first climb this time. Once we had organized our gear, there was one final ritual to carry out: the ‘performance-enhancing drug’, I used to refer to it as (I always carried a flask of strong black coffee whenever we went climbing, and psychological preparation is as important as physical preparation). We scrambled up 100 feet of broken rocks to a big ledge below the real start of the climb. As we uncoiled the ropes ready for action, I made a feeble joke about this being a ‘fry on the wall’ experience.

The first pitch of the direct start is steep but straightforward, and after almost 100 feet I reached the safety of a small ledge. Siegfried followed without encountering any serious difficulty. The second pitch soon reached the first ‘real’ pitch of the original route, which led to a ledge so small that it was obvious changing over would be awkward, to say the least. At this point, the face that we were climbing is severely undercut by Trespasser Groove, so the ledge feels extremely exposed and precarious.

And then it was time for the first of two hard but contrasting pitches. This one is what climbers call ‘delicate’, meaning that holds are small, and balance is more important than brute strength. Towards the end of the pitch, it is necessary to traverse off to the right, and I spent quite some time, ultimately without success, trying to fix a temporary anchor point so that Siegfried would have the benefit of a rope from above as he tackled the hard moves. He therefore faced a massive pendulum out over Trespasser Groove if he failed to make these moves.

The next stance is too small to be deemed a ledge; it is cramped and uncomfortable, and the rock above is much steeper than what had gone before. The second hard pitch starts with an apparently easy but precarious traverse to the right until a not very obvious line of weakness in the bulging rocks above is reached.

It was obvious that once I started upwards, it would be difficult to rest my arms, but the first few feet, though steep, are not particularly difficult. I reached a small ledge in the overhanging wall, at the back of which was an in situ piton. Despite my scruples about using such things, I clipped my rope into this one because I had no other protection, and I couldn’t see anywhere above where I could arrange more.

There was a large, hollow-sounding block—this is probably where the loose blocks that were removed by Soper were located—but draping a sling over it would have offered only psychological protection. I studied the rock ahead and spotted a large handhold only a few feet above the hollow block. That would be my target.

I grunted and heaved my way up the rock until I could curl my fingers over the large handhold. The problem was that I couldn’t curl my fingers over it. It was rounded rather than incut, and my immediate reaction was to retreat back to the piton to consider what to do next. I didn’t have much time, because I couldn’t rest my arms, so I eventually decided that rounded or not, the large handhold was the key to upward progress. I was right, and after a few more feet of steep ascent, the angle of the rock began to fall back, and I soon reached a big ledge and the end of the major difficulties. Later, Siegfried told me how impressed he’d been by my ascent of this pitch, not because of the technical difficulty but because protection had been so poor, and I’d faced a long fall if I’d come off.

The last pitch was enjoyable but easy in the context of an E2. The first thing I did was to take off my boots. I don’t subscribe to the conventional wisdom that rock boots should be two sizes smaller than one’s shoe size, but they still feel uncomfortable when worn continuously for three hours, the time it had taken to reach the top.

If The Central Pillar had been a cake, then we were about to enjoy the icing. Siegfried wanted to lead The Red Edge, which he did effortlessly. As we made our way down from this second climb, we saw that a large fog bank was rolling slowly up from the south, and we would have to be careful with navigation on our way back to the car. I don’t actually recommend this, but in this kind of situation my rule of thumb is that if you always go downhill wherever possible, you will eventually reach a place of safety, even if it isn’t where you intended to go in the first place.

There was only one other ritual to observe: a pint at the first pub we passed on the way home. It’s always fun to discuss the day’s climbing over a pint, but I have to drive home, so ‘pint’ must remain in the singular. The exorbitant price of drink in the tourist-thronged pubs of the Lake District is also a factor. And so ended what Siegfried and I have since agreed was our best ever day’s climbing together (and we had a lot of exciting days out in the mid-1990s, before Siegfried went on to university).

The Red Edge takes a direct line up the left-hand side of the sunlit section, while The Central Pillar tackles the white-streaked face directly below the highest point in the picture.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

both sides now

Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way.

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all.

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now.
When it comes to looking at clouds, I suspect that most people will follow Joni Mitchell in imagining all manner of fanciful resemblances, but clouds are more interesting as an indicator of atmospheric processes. In this regard, the first point to bear in mind is that with occasional local exceptions, clouds form in unstable atmospheric conditions.

This may seem like a statement of the screamingly obvious, except that in meteorology, stability has a very specific meaning. It describes the behaviour of discrete air ‘parcels’ as they rise or sink through the surrounding air. A stable parcel will tend to return to its original position once the force that moved it in the first place has been removed, while an unstable parcel will remain where it has been pushed.

I had intended to provide a more detailed explanation of these processes, but when I consulted my copy of Atmosphere, Weather and Climate by Roger Barry and Richard Chorley, a standard university textbook on the subject, I quickly realized that a simple explanation was beyond my powers. I understand the science—I ought to, given that I edited the book—but it is impossible to provide any kind of explanation that doesn’t invoke adiabatic lapse rates, partial vapour pressures, supersaturation and latent heat of condensation, the mere mention of which I suspect will cause most readers’ eyes to glaze over.

Given that the reason for this post is to showcase a series of photographs of clouds as aesthetic compositions, no further explanation will therefore be provided, but I will include the following astounding snippet of information: a mere 4 percent, on average, of all the water vapour in the atmosphere is to be found in clouds.

Clouds are classified on the basis of shape and altitude. Although stratiform clouds are most often seen along warm fronts, this photo shows a rare type of stratiform cloud, the lenticular or wave cloud. These clouds form on the lee side of mountains, which set up a kind of undulating air flow by forcing horizontally moving air masses to rise. Whenever the movement of such an air mass is turbulent (the usual condition), no clouds will be formed on the lee side of the upland area, but when the flow is laminar, then the peak of each undulation will be marked by a thin lens of cloud with limited vertical extent.

This photo, taken looking west from the roof of my house in Fanling, illustrates laminar flow rather well. Everything may look chaotic, but there is no obvious turbulence, so the airflow can be seen clearly.

This photo is of the same area of sky three days later. It shows cirrocumulus (high-level) clouds being elongated horizontally by exceptionally strong winds, with a few smutches of altocumulus (mid-level) in the foreground.

If I had to come up with a word to describe this picture, it would be ‘biblical’. It reminds me of the type of sky painted by pre-modern artists when depicting dramatic moments from the Old Testament, such as the adoration of the golden calf and the subsequent destruction of the Ten Commandments by Moses, or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego being cast into, and subsequently rescued from, the fiery furnace.

Finally, in a nod to the old Cumbrian saying about red sky at night being a shepherd’s delight, I include a picture of a large cumulus cloud being illuminated by a rapidly westering sun, although I do have to admit that there are no shepherds in Hong Kong, where this photo was taken.