“You can stand under my umbrella, ella, ella…”

Following all that talk of rain, I felt umbrellas would be a good next step.  One of the many ways we try to avoid nature and also, in a positively English and polite way, to poke out peoples eyes.

So here’s a few things you probably didn’t know about umbrellas:

  • The word “umbrella” comes the Latin umbra, meaning shaded or shadow
  • A collapsible umbrella from the 1st century was found in the tomb of Wang Guang
  • The oldest written record of a collapsible umbrella dates back to n all written records, the oldest reference to a collapsible umbrella dates to the year 21 AD
  • The first lightweight folding umbrella in Europe was introduced in 1710 and worked in much the same way as they do today.
  • The 19th century was a very productive stage in umbrella innovation.
  • The uptake in umbrella use in the UK may have been a contributing factor towards the lengthening of the average life.
  • In 1978 a modified umbrella was used to inject Georgi Markov with a dose of ricin.
  • In 2005, in South Africa, Brian Hahn was beaten to death with an umbrella.
  • On a slightly cheerier note, National Umbrella Day is 10th February and is apparently celebrated around the world.
  • For a very very long time umbrellas were only used by women as men who used them were considered effeminate…

If these facts have er, whet your appetite, there is a very detailed history of the umbrella on Wikipedia if you want the full story.

Bad luck

One thing a lot of us have heard at some point is that having an umbrella up inside the house is bad luck, but why might this be so?

Well, first we need to consider the symbolism of the umbrella.  Most obviously it is used in weather forecasting as an icon for rain but it is also a symbol of the Pope, representing protection.  The related parasol is a symbol of Himalayan Buddhism representing sky, protection and learning.  So, there is a certain element of sacredness associated with the umbrella.

We also find that in ancient Egypt the umbrella was a symbol of goddess Nut’s protection.  Her body covered the entire sky and important people were shaded by parasols covered in peacock feathers.  It was said that the shadow from these parasols were sacred.  Because of this association, it was considered an insult to Nut to open an umbrella inside.

Sort of related to this is the idea that as umbrellas protect you against the storms of life, opening one in your home would be an insult to the guardian spirits of your house and would cause them to get very annoyed and leave you unprotected.

Similarly, one explanation is based on pixies, goblins and fairies enjoyment of living inside upturned objects.  This would mean if you opened your umbrella they would fall out and to do so in your house would result in chaos.  The key message coming through here is that you do not want to anger the pixies, goblins, fairies, guardian spirits or sky goddesses…

Apparently umbrellas used to often be used to cover the heads of catholic priests during last rites so were associated with death and it was said that opening one inside would invite death into the household.

There is also a practical aspect to discouraging the opening of umbrellas indoors.  In around the 18th century when they were coming into use in Britain, umbrellas were a bit bulky with slightly unpredictable mechanisms as well as steel ribs.  Opening one of these indoors, in a crowded room, could easily result in poking eyes out or knocking over than expensive vase that had been in the family for years.  Not good, and especially bad if you were a visitor to the house!

You should also keep umbrellas off the table or risk more bad luck coming your way…

Useful links

It’s raining, it’s pouring: Further afield

Having looked at rain and floods here in York, I’m now moving on to a more extreme form of rain, monsoons.

Before we get started though, we need to look at the definition of a monsoon.  A monsoon is a seasonal shift in winds.  Possibly not the definition you were expecting.  Surely a monsoon is about rain and the wet season?  Well, the shift in winds brings the rain.  The winds suddenly come from a different source and they come bearing water.

India is well known for its monsoon season and numerous sources on the internet say that the country experiences to most dramatic monsoon in the world so India will be my focus here.  But before I turn to India, it’s worth noting that there are many places around the world which have a monsoon including countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Laos, India, and Pakistan.  Parts of Australia, Africa and the Americas also experience monsoon rains.

Let’s head back to India where the monsoon heralds a season of love, romance and enchantment.  This may be hard to make sense of in England where the rains send us all scurrying for shelter but in India, the monsoon rains are the gift of life.  In some areas, 90% of the annual rain arrives with the monsoon (although on average it’s about 75%).  This makes the monsoon an essential source of water for drinking, cooking, for livestock, for farming, for industries, for hydroelectric power, irrigation and so much more.  To say that the monsoon waters make or break the Indian economy is not an exaggeration.

When the peacock begins to dance, the monsoon is on its way
– Old Indian saying

The monsoon season is changing.  It is becoming harder to predict and more powerful, bringing heavier rains and arriving earlier than normal.  It is already hard enough to predict, accurately, the start of the monsoon.  A government department monitors the weather across India and farmers use this information along with traditional methods to plan their planting.  Too soon and the seeds will have no water to grow, too late and they will drown.

Its clear to see that the monsoon rains are a time for celebration in India.  They are life bringing, life affirming.  They are a creative force and a reinvigorating energy.  They bring hope, happiness and joy.  They cleanse the hot air, refreshing and recharging the land and the people.

But these rhythmic cycles are not always a blessing, they can turn in an instant into a curse.  They cause chaos by creating waterlogged roads, disruption to trains, close schools and airports and play havoc with business.  They can damage crops, homes, kill animals, kill humans… People die from electrocution when water reaches live cables.  They become ill when stagnant pools of water form and create excellent breeding grounds for malaria, cholera, typhoid etc.  People get struck by lightening – there are an estimated 500,000 lightening strikes in a monsoon.  In 2005, at least 1100 people died in India during the monsoon.  In 2013, an estimated 5,700 people were killed.

And if you are unlucky enough to live somewhere which isn’t in the monsoons path that year, you face a whole host of other problems.  You have little or no water for your family, your livestock, to grow crops.  When this occurs, people move to areas where the rain has fallen and ghost towns are left behind.  Where people haven’t left their homes, the effects of drought can kill and farmers are known to take their own lives.

Without the monsoon, death becomes the dominant force.

Plants and animals don’t escape the monsoon either.  Those animals in areas of rainfall need to head to higher grounds and to do so can involve crossing roads and encountering people (who tend to be a big danger, worldwide, to animals).  Those in areas of drought face the problem of lack of water and the knock on effect of lack of vegetation.

The monsoon has shaped the land and lives of India for many years and will continue to do so for many more.  Rain truly is a powerful force.

It’s raining, it’s pouring…

On rain: “It covers the flat roof of the cabin and porch with insistent and controlled rhythms.  And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world turns by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognise, rhythms that are not those of the engineer”
– Thomas Merton

How we talk about rain is very important I think.  I explained a bit about how language shapes our views and rain does not fare well in this.  As a society we equate rain with some sort of terrible thing which is happening to us personally to make our day go badly.  We attempt to avoid the rain, hurrying under umbrellas from building to building and cursing if our feet get wet.  How much stress would we save ourselves if we accepted the rain and were thankful for the good that it does.

“Of course, the festival of rain cannot be stopped, even in the city… the streets, suddenly washed, became transparent and alive and the noise of traffic becomes a plashing of fountains. One would think that the urban man in a rainstorm would have to take account of nature in its wetness and freshness , it’s baptism and its renewal.”
– Thomas Merton

Having said all of that, I am not a fan of the rain.  Rain means I have to wear my wheelchair waterproof if I want to leave my flat.  This means I have to have someone with me to get it on and off as I can’t do that myself.  It also makes it hard to go into shops etc as it makes me take up a lot more space, it’s not easy to get on and off and my hand is under a cover so the controller does get wet.  This means I only have my left hand available and if I want to check my phone or pay for anything I have to scrabble around underneath the waterproof with my left arm which is covered in droplets of water.  So despite all the effort I have to go to, I still get a bit wet.  And I can’t go out on my own.  And I can’t go out on my own if there’s a high chance of rain and I’m not going to be near any helpful strangers.  NB, not all strangers are happy to help, I’ve had people say no when I’ve asked politely if they could help me out of my waterproof.

So, my feeling about rain feels justified.  The lack of appropriate aids makes the rain quite debilitating.  But for most people this isn’t the case.

The power of rain

Despite everything I’ve just said about rain not being evil, it is immensely powerful.  It wears down rocks and soil into tiny fragments over time.  It plays a key role in dissolving certain rocks and it causes devastation and destruction in the form of floods.


It is floods that I’m going to focus on here.  I live in York, a city prone to flooding.  It floods every year, normally several times and sometimes quite severely.  You might have seen news coverage a few years back of David Cameron standing in flood water, that was at the end of my street.  Aside, don’t stand in flood water, it can be dangerous, it can have stronger currents than you think and be deeper than you think…


2007 floods

There are two rivers which run through the centre of York, the river Ouse and the Foss which converge in the city.  The Ouse is the principal drainage basin in Yorkshire and is formed by the Ouse Gill Beck and the River Ure, Swale and Nid as well as a number of tributaries.  Interesting aside, until 1757 the Ouse was a tidal river.  The River Foss originates in the Howardian Hills, north of the city.  York’s floods tend to occur because of heavy rainfall and/or melting snow up river.

We know that York has experienced devastating flooding with records going back to 1263 AD. Notable floods occurred in 1947, 1948, 1982 and 2000.  More recently, there were serious floods in 2007 and 2012 as well as the 2015 floods.

Whilst there are many measures in place to reduce the impact of floods in York, it is not a problem that is going to go away.  Lets face it, we’ve had almost a millennia to figure out options!


Forgive the image quality, this was 2007… Trees standing in water is a common sight in York.

But why does York flood so much? Well, it turns out this seems to be on the GCSE Geography curriculum based on my google search!  It’s obviously a multifaceted answer:

Firstly, York is a vale and the Yorkshire Dales to the east are steep which means fast runoff from the slopes into the rivers.  It also means less water infiltrates the soil as there simply isn’t time for it to be absorbed.

Secondly, this problem is exacerbated by the impermeable clay which means water can’t soak into the ground.  As well as clay, the Dales are also made up of limestone which is very permeable and allows the water to pass through very quickly.  Combining this with the first reason basically means there is nowhere for the rain or snow to go other than down into the river.

Thirdly, at higher altitudes vegetation tends to be heather and moorland which doesn’t soak up much of the water or slow it down very much.  Another factor which means more water in the river.  There are some trees in the area which do intercept the water but deciduous trees only do this when they have leaves, and the worst of the floods tends to be in winter.

Human impact has a role to play as well.  Use of land for arable farming means less plant life to suck up the water, deforestation means less trees to do the same and urban developments also play a role.  Tarmacked roads, housing estates and shopping centres all mean water has less chance of being absorbed into the ground so instead it makes it into sewers, drains and ultimately the river.

Climate change is also playing a role in York floods.  We are experiencing wetter winters which of course means more water in the river which means there is less space for additional rain water.

But whilst the floods in York cause a lot of damage which involves a lot of money to sort out, they don’t tend to cause much in the way of injury and death.  Many other parts of the world are not so lucky…

And that is a topic for another day…

October – my writing

Just in case you were going to comment unconstructively, I’m not in the mood… I shared a poem in an online context recently, with the note it was unfinished, to illustrate an idea I was discussing.  Instead of engaging with the idea or adding something constructive I got a fairly unhelpful comment about my assonance… Had this person given examples of what was meant and where in my work this was I would have found it very helpful but as they didn’t, it just felt rubbish…

Virtually nothing I post on here is a final version and if I tried to do that you’d not get October inspired poems in October.  Given the current structure of this project, I feel like it is more helpful for me to share unedited work that is relevant to the month’s topic as they will share ideas about approaches and exercises.

I also, inevitably, have some words about autumn but I’m going to look at that in a different post.

Prompted by the structure of Larkin’s ‘The little lives of earth and form’, I wrote a sextilla:

Granite strong and chalky soft
To this land, my hat I doff.
Jagged peaks and silky sands;
                A contradiction
                This composition.
A feat unmatched by human hands.

Whilst line two has issues, I like the contradiction in the poem and in nature and it fits with the idea of nature not being less than us.

One night this month, I lay awake.  Well actually, many nights this month I’ve lain awake.  But this particular night was raining and surprisingly my neighbours were quiet so I listened to it from my bed at 3am, thinking of rain words.

The crackle of rain
On the window pane

Tip tip tap
Tip tip tap

Each drip drop crashes
Into sleeplessness

Tip tip tap
Tip tip tap

Clock ticking, tocking
Droplets plip, plopping

Tip tip tap
Tip tip tap

Trashing in the night
Insomniac’s fight
Tossing and turning
Running from morning

Tip tip tap
Tip tip tap

Tip tip tap…

And we have to have one poem about humans and animals, after all, it is the theme of the month!!  Whilst I declared at the start these are all drafts, this one very very much is a draft.  I like the idea and I know it needs work so constructive criticism welcomed!

Roll up!  Roll up!
For The Greatest Zoo On Earth!©
Roll up!  Roll up!
For your last chance to see…

Our antelopes and badgers,
Crustaceans and dancing deer!
Elephants and flying fish
You may even see a reindeer*!

*Seasonal attraction only, no guaranteed sightings, no refunds available.

Goats and hippopotamuses
Iguanas and jaguars!
Kackling Kookaburras™
And lots of leaping leopards!

Meerkats standing guard, new newts,
Orangutans and peacocks.
And don’t forget to see all
The happy, smiling quokkas!

Roll up!  Roll up!
For rats, raccoons and Rudolph™
See the seals, snails, snakes and skunks
Turtles and terrapins too!

Umbrella birds, vampire bats
Weasels and X-Scape Monkeys™.
You can see it all right here
At The Greatest Zoo On Earth©

Closing soon.

Learn About Weather

Learn About Weather is a Future Learn course run by the University of Exeter and the Met Office.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from it but I’ve really enjoyed it, racing through the four week course in less than two days.  It’s been a real mix of things and a great introduction to the weather.

It looks at the atmosphere, how changes in the earth’s temperature create weather, why weather varies across the globe, jet streams and air pressure.  It’s all been pitched at a reasonably basic level, accessible but comprehensive.

As well as the technical side of things, we’ve looked at weather lore and whether there’s any truth in sayings and beliefs.  We also shared our own local lore and I was able to include some of the bits and pieces I’ve been collecting.

  • clear moon, frost soon
  • when the mist comes from the hill, then good weather it doth spill. when the mist comes from the sea, then good weather it will be
  • if woolly fleeces spread the heavenly way, be sure no rain disturbs the summers day
  • if the cock goes crowing to bed, he’ll certainly rise with a watery head
  • the sharper the blast, the sooner it’s past
  • rainbow in the morning gives you far warning
  • ring around the moon, rain or snow soon
  • when the sun sets black, a westerly wind will not lack
  • swifts flying low, rain is on the way

I’ve learnt a lot about how air pressure affects the weather and now I have a vague idea what a weather map is saying which is quite satisfying!  I also know where our weather comes from and how it affects the UK.

Towards the end of the course it focuses in on specific aspects of weather, for example the different types of clouds, how they’re formed and what they mean in terms of rain etc.  This is something I really want to get firmly stuck in my head.  I’ve tried learning cloud names so many times and I always forget.  But the way this course has approached them, I think I have a better understanding of what the latin names mean and thus hopefully it’ll be easier to hold onto the knowledge.  I’ve also found flicking through the Cloud Appreciation gallery and trying to guess the cloud type has helped.

Naturally, we’ve also looked at rain and other forms of precipitation and what counts as a shower and what counts as rain.  Frost, storms and climate change have also all been looked at as well as how weather affects leisure activities.

I’ve found the whole course interesting and whilst I’m not planning on looking at weather in any detail just yet, I know I’ll be returning to it as part of my nature and writing project.