History, Travel

Eating Humble Pie

Sir Issac Newton’s remains are buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey.  I was on a walking tour and our guide Tom, pointed out  Charles Darwin’s grave, also in the nave.  Two outstanding scientists with towering intellects who have had a remarkable influence on our understanding of Science.  Fittingly, in between their graves, is a plaque marking the spot where Stephen Hawking’s ashes are interred.  I had been in London for a few days and I had visited a few churches and cathedrals.  The architecture is breathtaking and these buildings are steeped in history.  I was however surprised to find a number of people buried under the floor of the churches.  I walked around gingerly at the first couple of churches trying not to step on the beautifully engraved stones but soon realized it was a futile endeavor.

Graves dot the floor of the North Cloister of Westminster Abbey. Photography is prohibited in the Nave

I don’t recall anybody being buried/or their ashes being interred in temples in India.  Shrines pop up around burial sites of Sufi saints and the occasional church such as that of Bom Jesu in Goa, houses the body of a saint but the Abbey had quite a few people buried within its spacious interior.  As if reading my thoughts, Tom explained that while famous individuals were honored by burying them in a church, the rich could pay to be buried.  The closer to the altar, the better the chance of ascending to heaven.  Unfortunately, these graves were fairly shallow and after a few days, the remains of the deceased made their presence felt by assaulting the olfactory senses of the faithful.  This gave rise to the term “stinking rich” and also of the practice of lighting incense sticks in churches.  I was later told by a friend that the dead are buried with their feet towards the altar so on the day of resurrection they will be facing the altar when they presumably sit up from their graves.

When I was a young boy in Bangalore, my brother had an interesting book that dealt with words.  It wasn’t a dictionary, it had sections for synonyms and antonyms but the section that I found most interesting was the one on etymology that traced the origin of words.  It was interesting to find out that “George” was the first farmer, deriving from the Greek words “Geos” – earth and “Ergos” – to work.  So George worked on the earth.  I’ve been interested in the origin of words and phrases since then and a recent trip to London proved educational in this regard.

Another interesting story from our guide was that the floor of the House of Commons in Britain has two red lines that run parallel to each other.  They are two sword lengths apart and they were drawn ostensibly to keep the opposing factions at bay.  Members had to stand behind the lines during heated debates and hence the origin of the phrase “toeing the line” or “toeing the party line”.  This story probably does not stand up to scrutiny.  The current House of Commons was rebuilt after sustaining damage in WW II.  Swords were already antiques at this point.  Old paintings do not show these lines, so I think this story while very interesting is probably not true.

Sign advertising a Hairdressing Saloon near Laurence Poultney HIll, City of London

My neighborhood barber shop in Kumara Park, Bangalore in the 1970s had pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subash Chandra Bose adorning its walls.  All freedom fighters, hearkening back to a more patriotic time.  Gandhi was bald, Nehru  sported the Gandhian cap while Bose was depicted in his military uniform replete with a cap so they were certainly not there for their hairstyles!  There are not a lot of barber shops here in the US, the business is dominated by franchises with names such as “Great Clips” and “Supercuts”.  These have generic pictures of models sporting various hairdos.  However, I have on occasion seen barber shops here in the US and they usually have a picture of a pole with red, white and blue stripes.  I assumed that this was  a nod to the national colors.  Our guide, Andy, on another walking tour explained the origin.  We were on Fleet Street near St Dunstan-in-the-West and he was talking about medieval professions.  He said that barbers also functioned as dentists and surgeons.  Besides blood-letting, they also performed bone-setting and surgeries.  The red and white striped poles outside their shops were to signify blood and bandages respectively.  Given the unsanitary conditions then, Andy said, the bandages were probably dried out in the sun and then reused!  This explains the pictures of red and white striped poles outside barber’s establishments in the UK, the US establishments, added a blue stripe to match the national colors.

Colonists had problems pronouncing Indian names.  Actually, much of the Western world still does!  Puri, in the Indian state of Orissa, boasts of the Shree Jagannatha Temple, built in 10th century AD.  The annual “Ratha Yatra” or Chariot Festival draws enormous crowds.  The early British visitors to the temple were astounded to see the throngs of people lining the streets to view the passage of the chariot.  The ensuing melee would sometimes result in a few hapless souls being pushed into the path of the chariot.  The momentum of the chariot and its inability to stop suddenly would result in these people getting crushed.  In other words the chariot bearing the deity Lord Jagannath (Ruler of the World) was an irresistible force that overpowered anything in its path.  An English Chaplain wrote home about Lord Juggernaut, a blood-thirsty God who expected sacrifices and crushed devotees in his path. While this term initially found usage in missionary literature, it eventually found its way into the English Lexicon as a new word!

Perhaps to counter the effects of Juggernauts in the opposing sides, British soldiers imbibed some alcohol to give them “Dutch courage” before a battle.  The story goes that in the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century, the British soldiers noticed that  the drink “Jenever” seemed to inspire the Dutch soldiers to feats of bravery.  I don’t think it took much enticement for the British soldiers to add it to their arsenal!  Jenever went on to be adapted to manufacture Gin in Britain.  So the next time you have your gin and tonic, be aware that you might feel brave enough to attempt some foolish endeavor!

Plaque marking the site of one of the Clink Prisons – Southwark, London

I really enjoyed those London Walks.  I met my friend Kritish for dinner and he was kind enough to take me on on a walking tour himself, pointing out interesting sites.  Being a local,  he took me through a maze of alleys and we turned around a corner to view a breathtaking sight of St Paul’s Cathedral, illuminated at night.  You would not find this spot mentioned in any tourist guidebook!  We were walking along the banks of the Thames, just past London Bridge, when he pointed a memorial on a wall.  The memorial marked the site of one of the medieval Clink Prisons.  The name was given to a number of prisons in Southwark.  It was late in the evening and we could not go into the Museum, but I now knew the origin of the word Clink, as in somebody got “thrown into the clink” for a misdemeanor.

Punishments in medieval times were harsh.  Strict penalties were imposed on bakers who short-changed their customers.  Honest bakers could never be sure if the weights and measures they were using were accurate and hence as a pre-emptive measure, they started dispensing an extra loaf of bread when people ordered a dozen loaves so they would not inadvertently shortchange their customers.  Hence a baker’s dozen that translates to 13 and not 12 as you would expect.

Another of the pie master’s creations – at The Raven of Bath

To eat humble pie is to be subjected to some form of humiliation.  The phrase has an interesting origin.  The Feudal lords in Britain often ate the choicest cuts of meat.  The servants minced the organs (called umbles) and baked them into a pie for their own consumption.  This left-over meat eaten by the “lesser” class, evolved from “umble” to “humble” giving rise to the idiom “eat humble pie”.  I think it would be preferable to eat humble pie than to eat crow! I could not bring myself around to taste the kidney pies on my visit, but my friends Arun and Anna who were giving me an enligthening and absorbing tour of Bath, recommended that I try a steak pie at the reputable establishment – “The Raven” at Bath and it certainly wasn’t humble.  It deserved its well earned reputation that draws locals and tourists alike to partake of their pies baked by their resident “pie-master”.

The inspiration for this blog really goes to my friend Ashish.  We have similar tastes when it comes to music, literature, history and food.  I was describing my trip to him and peppering it with these anecdotes about the origin of words and he suggested that I write a blog about it.  I love visiting places, its however the little nuggets of information and trivia that make these places all the more interesting to me!

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