Sunday, 31 January 2010

St Valentine's Day cometh

Christmas feels like a long time ago now, doesn't it. But tomorrow it's the first day of February which means that St Valentine's Day is only a fortnight away.

If you have little ones who might like to show their love for the grown-up in their life, then you should check out these Valentine's crafts.

Alternatively, if you One True Love has something of a sweet tooth, you could do a lot worse than buy them something from this range.

Monday, 11 January 2010

And you think it's cold now

The south-east of England may be suffering from Antarctic conditions at the moment, but at least the River Thames hasn't frozen yet.

Between 1400 and 1814 (which was the last time it happened) the Thames froze over 26 times. And when it froze solid, Londoners made the most of it, holding Frost Fairs on the ice itself.

The tidal, somewhat salty Thames is a deep, fast-flowing river today, but before the Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, the river’s waters were pooled slightly behind the medieval arches, which probably helped the ice take hold. It was also the time known as the Little Ice Age, when winters were colder and more severe than they have been since 1800.

An Exact and lively Mapp or Representation of Boothes and all the variety of Showes and Humours on the ICE of the River of THAMES by LONDON During that memorable Frost in the 35th yeare of the Reigne of his sacred Maj King Charles the 2nd

The embankments had not yet been built, either, and so the River Thames was wider, shallower, and probably a little slower moving.

The Thames froze several times in Tudor England. Henry VIII is known to have travelled from Whitehall to Greenwich by sleigh, along the River Thames, in 1536. In 1564, Elizabeth I practised her archery on the frozen Thames, whilst menfolk played football on the ice.It was said of this winter:

On the 21st of December, began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year’s eve people went over and along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster. Some played at the foot-ball as boldly there as if it had been on the dry land; diverse of the court shot daily at pricks set up on the Thames; and the people, both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in any street of the city of London.

On the 31st day of January, at night, it began to thaw, and on the fifth day was no ice to be seen between London Bridge and Lambeth, which sudden thaw caused great floods and high waters, that bare down bridges and houses, and drowned many people.

The first frost fair, in terms of full-scale activity and commercial stalls and sports took place in 1608. It was a cheerful and spontaneous affair.

The Long Freeze or Great Freeze of 1683/4 was one of the coldest-known English, and European, winters. The Thames froze solidly, and the ice was up to a foot deep. The frost began six weeks before Christmas, and lasted well into February.

Streets of stalls and booths stretched from bank to bank; all London’s normal entertainments made their way on to the river. A whole ox was roasted at Hungerford Steps, bear-baiting and puppet-shows were held on the ice. Skating and chair-pushing events were also set up.

A pamphlet published about the Long Frost included this passage:

A whole street of booths, contiguous to each other, was built from the Temple Stairs to the barge-house in Southwark, which were inhabited by traders of all sorts, which usually frequent fairs and markets, as those who deal in earthenwares, brass, copper, tin, and iron, toys and trifles; and besides these, printers, bakers, cooks, butchers, barbers, coffee-men, and others, who were so frequented by the innumerable concourse of all degrees and qualities, that, by their own confession, they never met elsewhere the same advantages, every one being willing to say they did lay out such and such money on the river of Thames.

The Great Frost of 1709, probably Europe’s coldest winter for 500 years, saw another large-scale frost fair. Not only rivers but huge chunks of the North Sea froze during the terrible cold of the winter, and in France, an estimated 500,000 people died of starvation and malnutrition later in the year. A London paper said:

The Thames seems now a solid rock of ice; and booths for sale of brandy, wine, ale, and other exhilarating liquors, have been for some time fixed thereon; but now it is in a manner like a town; thousands of people cross it, and with wonder view the mountainous heaps of water that now lie congealed into ice.

On Thursday a great cook’s-shop was erected, and gentlemen went as frequently to dine there as at any ordinary. Over against Westminster, Whitehall, and Whitefriars, printing presses are kept on the ice.

The last proper freezing of the River Thames in London took place in 1814. The frost set in at the start of January, and by the end of the month, the River was frozen solid. An elephant was even led across the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge to demonstrate the safety of the ice!

Hordes of traders and entertainers rushed to set up shop, and the fair was in full-swing. It was shorter than many, as the solid ice lasted only a week. Writing 20 years later, Charles Mackay said of the 1814 fair:

Each day brought a fresh accession of pedlars to sell their wares, and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost.

The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of twopence or threepence before he was admitted to the fair; and something also was expected for permission to return. Some of them were said to have taken as much as six pounds in a day.

Many persons remained on the ice till late at night, and the effect by moonlight was singularly novel and beautiful. The bosom of the Thames seemed to rival the frozen climes of the north.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, twelve Twelfth Night traditions

Twelfth Night is traditionally the time to take down your Christmas tree and any other festive decorations. To leave evergreens up in the house after this point is to bring bad luck on the household!

Here are some other Twelfth Night traditions that you might - or might not - be familiar with.

1) Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany, the date on which the Christian Church celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.

2) The feast of the Epiphany originated in the East during the third century, in honour of Christ’s baptism.

3) During a special service held at St James’s Palace, London, on 6 January, members of the Royal Household present the Chapel Royal with the three gifts brought to the Christ child by the Magi.

4) At one time, the highlight of the Twelfth Night celebrations was the cutting of the twelfth-cake, which was supposed to have a dried pea or bean hidden somewhere inside it. Whoever found the bean was proclaimed king or queen for the rest of the evening’s fun and frivolity.

5) Another tradition involving a cake, upheld by the cast of the play currently being performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, is the eating of the Baddeley Cake. This is as a result of a stipulation made in the last will and testament of one Robert Baddeley, an actor from the eighteenth century, after whom the cake is named.

6) In the West of England Twelfth Night is the time when wassailing ceremonies are carried out.

7) At one time in England, Twelfth Night was known as being a good occasion on which to carry out various good luck rituals, as well as for its religious processions which almost went hand-in-hand with the spirited, and good humoured, revels.

8) One such ritual had farmers lighting bonfires to drive evil spirits away from their farms and fields, the tipsy agriculturalists cheering as they circled the fires to hasten the hobgoblins on their way.

9) There was also the time-honoured guessing game, whereby the (now probably inebriated) farmer had to guess what was being roasted in the kitchen before being permitted to re-enter his own home. This was not as easy as it might sound because his good wife might have something as ridiculously inedible as a shoe turning on the spit.

11) On 6 January you would also find Morris men dancing in the streets, along with fools and hobby-horses.

12) Practical jokes were the name of the game on Twelfth Night and the playing of games – particularly games of chance – with everyone determined to make the most of the last day of the holiday season.

So if you're planning to see Christmas out with a bang...

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too,
And God bless you, and send you
A happy New Year,
And God send you
A happy New Year.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me, eleven famous faces born on Christmas day

Sir Isaac Newton, mathematician and scientist (1642)
Pius VI, pope (1717)
Conrad Hilton, hotelier (1887)
Humphrey Bogart, actor (1899)
Howard Hughes, businessman, film director and aviator (1905)
Tony Martin, actor and singer (1912)
Kenny Everett, comedian (1944)
Sissy Spacek, actress (1949)
Annie Lennox, singer (1954)

Dido, singer (1971)

Georgia Moffett, actress (1984)

Sunday, 3 January 2010

On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, nine different ways to say 'Happy Christmas!'

German - Frohliche Weihnachten

Hungarian - Kellemes Karacsonyi

Lativian - Priecigus Ziemassvetkus

Norwegian - God Jul

Portugese - Feliz Natal

Romanian - Craciun Fericit

Spanish - Feliz Navidad

- Chuc ban mot mua giang sinh that la vui ve

Welsh - Nadolig Llawen

Saturday, 2 January 2010

On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, eight unseasonal Christmas Number Ones!

2009 - Rage Against the Machine - Killing in The Name

2006 - Leona Lewis - A Moment Like This

2005 - Shayne Ward - That's My Goal

2003 - Michael Andrews featuring Gary Jules - Mad World

2002 - Girls Aloud - Sound of the Underground

2000 - Bob the Builder - Can We Fix It?

1999 - Westlife - I Have a Dream

1993 - Mr Blobby - Mr Blobby

Friday, 1 January 2010

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me, seven New Year's hangover cures

Enjoyed yourself last night, did you? Feeling a little worse for wear now? Then what you need is an effective hangover cure. But before we get onto some, it's helpful to know what causes a hangover in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, the answer is fairly complex. If there was a single simple reason for all that pain, you can be sure that a catch-all cure would have been discovered long ago. As it is, there is a veritable cocktail of effects, all of which conspire to make 'the morning after' a grim one.

Pure ethanol is metabolically fairly clean, but an alcoholic beverage is a combination of water, ethanol, and flavourings, and it's the identity of some of these flavourings that causes many of the problems. Red wines contain all sorts of interesting chemicals, leading to the complex flavourings typical of the breed, and although many of these impurities - such as arsenic - are poisonous, they are usually present in such minute quantities as to be relatively harmless. However, if the wine is concentrated by distillation, then as well as increasing the alcohol content, you are also concentrating the poisons. This is the reason that brandy, port and cheap red wine can give you the most monstrous hangovers, as well as gout in later life.

Dehydration is a well-documented consequence of drinking and is caused because ethanol has diuretic qualities, so you end up expelling more liquid than you drink. This also results in the loss of important salts dissolved in it. Potassium and sodium ions in particular are essential for the optimal functioning of nerves and muscles. An imbalance outside a limited range can result in nausea, fatigue, and headaches.

Ethanol also acts on the brain's pituitary gland and
blocks production of a hormone called vasopressin, which usually directs the kidneys to reabsorb water that would otherwise end up in the bladder. Once this hormonal signal has been switched off, there is nothing to stop the bladder from filling up with all the water from the fluid that you drink. A supply of water is essential to the continuing functioning of the body, and when various organs find that their normal supply of water has been cut off, they steal it from anywhere they can, including the cells of the brain. Although the brain itself cannot feel pain, when it starts to shrink due to water loss, pain-sensitive filaments connecting the outside membranes to the inside of the skull become stretched, giving the symptoms of a headache.

Alcohol also attacks the body's store of glycogen, an important energy source kept in the liver, breaking it down to glucose which is then flushed out in the urine. Without this store of energy on call next morning, you are left feeling weak and wobbly.

Methanol is a simpler cousin of ethanol, and is found as a contaminant in cheap red wines, whisky and fruit brandy. This is 'meths', the fuel alcohol that makes you blind if you drink too much of it. The liver attacks it as the poison it is, but one of the break-down products is formic acid, a particularly nasty chemical which ants use to spray at their attackers.

But anyway, enough of the reasons why you're feeling rubbish and onto the cures...

Over the counter remedies
Sold in Australia as a vitamin supplement, Berocca is widely recognised as a hangover cure as it contains all the chemicals that are lost and destroyed in a drinking session, in the correct proportions.

N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is an amino acid supplement sold in health food stores, and is extremely good at mopping up the free radicals that have built up in the liver. NAC works because it is rich in cysteine, another amino acid that is used by the body in the manufacture of free radical-eliminating glutathione. For those in the know, this is a very effective hangover remedy, and is especially good if you need a clear head in the morning.

Sold in the UK as a stomach settler, Resolve is a powder that becomes a fizzy drink when added to water, and contains a painkiller and some anti-acid chemicals. Another common brand, although without the painkiller, is Alka Seltzer which comes in tablet form. For our purposes, these are best taken before going to bed, as the chances are that in the morning you won't be able to keep it down. It can work marvels, especially if followed in the morning by a vitamin supplement such as Berocca.

2) Eggs
Many traditional hangover cures, such as Prairie Oysters, omelettes and the English Fried Breakfast, involve eggs. Others swear by a downed raw egg in the morning. The reason that these are thought to work at all is probably that eggs also contain cysteine, and so help to mop up free radicals.

3) A hot shower

Another way of relieving a headache is to sit in a really hot, really powerful shower, and get the full force of it on the back of your neck. This may need some juxtaposition of plastic chairs and shower settings, so it might be an idea to practice first while sober, but it is worthwhile because headaches are often caused by constricted blood vessels and tense neck muscles. A massage under a hot shower relaxes the tension.

4) Isotonic sports drinks

In theory these are a great idea, for they are supposed to replace all the salts and sugars that are sweated out during athletic activity - surely much the same thing as we are trying to achieve here. The problem is that, due to market forces, they are usually fizzy, and probably the last thing you need while suffering a hangover is a bellyful of bloating gas. However, if you don't mind, or if you can find a flat one, it's definitely worth doing. One variation on the sports drink theme is a 50:50 mix of Tropical Tango and Red Bull.

5) Salt Solution

Apparently a poisoned digestive system is much better at taking up an isotonic solution than it is at taking up pure water, so if you're going to drink water put a spoonful of salt in it, and a couple more of sugar to increase the concentration and mask the taste. While you're at it, you might as well throw in some powdered painkillers, although bear in mind that some studies have shown that paracetamol can amplify alcohol's damaging effect on the liver. As with any medication, read the packet carefully.

6) A breath of fresh air

Popular wisdom dictates a brisk walk in fresh mountain air to dispel those post-binge blues, but the problem is that when you really need it, the last thing you're capable of doing is getting up off the floor, let alone going out into the outside world. The theory is that the increased oxygen flow improves the metabolic rate, and thus increases the speed at which the poisons are broken down. Be that as it may, SCUBA divers have long known that a blast from the tank first thing in the morning does wonders in blowing away the fog.

7) Pinching your hand

There is a nerve junction between the thumb and forefinger on your left hand which is reputed to be an acupressure point which can release tension in the head and neck. If you pinch it quite hard for 30 seconds every five minutes, normal tension headaches can be relieved. It's certainly worth trying if you can't keep down any painkillers.

And if you're really desperate there's always...

8) Kidney dialysis

Since you cannot depend on your kidneys to filter your blood properly after a binge, you could get a machine to do it for you. Admittedly most people don't have access to a dialysis machine, but if you can stand getting hooked up by nurses armed with needles while still drunk, you can be sober in four or five hours without any ill effects. Marvellous.

The following are also all commonly held to be effective hangover cures, but the truth of the matter is that they're just unhelpful myths, so I would recommend giving the following a miss in 2010...

A good strong cup of coffee or tea will perk you up at any time of day, but that's just the caffeine stimulating your tired body. It doesn't actually cure anything, and if you're at the stage when you can keep hot drinks down then you're probably on the road to recovery anyway. In addition, caffeine is also a diuretic, and you don't want to be losing any more water at this stage of the game, so from this viewpoint it may be best to avoid caffeine.

2) Hair of the dog

A tot of alcohol in the morning. For some particularly nasty hangovers, this can be useful, although the bad news is that the effect is only temporary. The liver attacks poisons in a certain order, with ethanol first. Once all the ethanol has been broken down, it starts on the methanol, which releases formic acid into your system and makes you feel bad. Hitting the liver with another dose of ethanol causes it to stop processing methanol and start on the new threat, but the methanol will have to be processed sometime so you are only postponing the hangover until later.

3) Water

The traditional hangover remedy, with folklore dictating that you should quaff a pint of water for every drink that you have consumed. Undeniably this has some ameliorative effect, but because your kidneys' water-absorption function has been switched off, a lot of it goes straight to your bladder, noticeably causing nocturnal trips to the bathroom and little else.


Please note that we take no responsibility for any ill effects caused by the remedies suggested here: you try them at your own risk. Nobody should mix their medicines. Similarly nobody should drink ten pints of lager and then eat a curry. You have been warned!

Happy New Year

'Nuff said... ;-)