Friday, 15 February 2013

15/02/13 - Childlike Sense of Wonder

One thing that having a child does for you is make you realise how much you take the minutiae of everyday life for granted. Observing a tiny person who’s exploring all of the random crap in your house for the first time is genuinely fascinating. Of course she’s staring at the TV remote with gobsmacked fascination, she’s never seen one before. What does it do? What sound does it make if I smack it against the ground? Why doesn’t Daddy want me putting it in my mouth?
The much-overused phrase ‘childlike sense of wonder’ is perhaps something we should stop throwing around as a cliché and pay a little more attention to on a day-to-day basis.
My daughter is a busy little scamp, constantly on the move. She’s got ants in her pants, she can’t sit still – there’s always something exciting on the other side of the room that needs to be lunged toward in a frenzy of motion and exploration, poked, chewed, shaken, and analysed for strength, texture, taste, smell and whatever the hell else she’s doing. It’s brilliant.
That old line about the packaging and wrapping paper of Christmas presents being more fun than the toys is wonderfully true. She doesn’t know what’s a toy and what’s just a colourfully decorated piece of paper used to disguise that toy – to her, they’re both new things to chew and shake. And paper is enjoyably tactile. She grabbed hold of a copy of Auto Express the other day and set about systematically destroying it, rolling around, tearing out pages, gumming the cover, having the time of her life. And our coffee table is pretty much the best toy she has, way better than any of the assorted blocks, rattly things, cups and bells. Again, she doesn’t know the difference. Everything’s a toy. Daddy’s face is a toy, to be prodded, kicked and have snot wiped across. We should all hope to rekindle that sense of wonder.

We're too blasé in our everyday lives. Of course we’re used to things and enjoy the convenience of familiarity, and it would be pretty mental if you spent your life openly marvelling at your stationery or your hand and voicing the magic of their origins to anyone nearby, but it couldn’t hurt to pay a little more attention to things. We should stop blindly taking everything for granted and start giving some consideration to the stories behind our stuff. I mean, just look at your desk. (Assuming you’re reading this at your desk, that is. If not, go and find a desk, and look at it.) What have you got, some pens, a phone, a computer, a mug? Consider that pencil – where did it come from? Well, the etymology of the name stems back to the old French ‘pincel’, a name for a small paintbrush, itself derived from the Latin ‘penicillus’, meaning ‘little tail’. (Yes, there is a penicillus/tail/penis link there.) A pincel was a fine-haired brush, used for writing before the advent of more easily manufactured and maintained writing implements; its evolution into the wooden shaft with a graphite core we use today is commemorated in the name.
Did you know that pencil ‘lead’ doesn’t actually contain any lead at all? The term comes from the mid-1500s, when a large deposit of graphite was discovered in Cumbria, which the locals sawed into sticks and employed in the marking of sheep and other livestock. Chemistry wasn’t what it is now, and they just assumed that graphite was a form of lead – the new discovery was named ‘plumbago’ (Latin for ‘lead ore’), and the name has stuck ever since. And not just in English either; the German, Irish and Arabic words for ‘pencil’ – ‘bleistift’, ‘peann luaidhe’ and ‘qalam raṣâṣ’ respectively – all literally mean ‘lead pen’.
And what about the letters on there, denoting hardness or softness – HB, 2B, etc? What’s that all about? Well, modern pencils consist of a wooden casing surrounding a core of ground graphite and clay powders. The mix of these refined elements is key to the pencil’s hardness – pure graphite would be very hard indeed, so the higher the ratio of graphite to clay, the harder the pencil. There are a number of similar but distinct hardness scales and protocols, but in general you can assume a scale from 9H (very soft) to 9B (very hard), with HB being the mid-point; ‘H’ stands for hardness, ‘B’ for blackness. It’s implicit, then, that softer pencils are blacker, but that’s not always the case. It’s all rather complex. For day-to-day use, you’re safest with a regular HB.
Some noted pencil enthusiasts: Roald Dahl, who would only write his books with yellow-cased pencils, requiring six sharpened pencils at the start of each day and only re-sharpening when all six were blunt; Vincent Van Gogh, who insisted on only using Faber pencils as he believed them to be superior to all others; Thomas Edison, who had his chunky, three-inch long pencils custom made by Eagle; Johnny Carson, who fiddles with pencils on his desk on The Tonight Show – they’re specially-made ones with erasers on both ends to avoid on-set accidents; Vladimir Nabokov, who rewrote in pencil everything he ever had published; John Steinbeck, who was obsessed with pencils, and reportedly used 300 of them writing ‘East of Eden’.
Your pencil may have been made in China, Germany, the USA, Brazil, India… it’ll probably say on the side. If you’re lucky enough to have a carpenter’s pencil, you’ll find that it’s oval or rectangular so that it can’t easily roll away. Grease pencils are designed to write on shiny surfaces, like glass or steel. Copy pencils, developed in the 19th century, contain an indelible dye within the graphite. There’s a whole lot to know about pencils. We’ve barely scratched the surface here. But let’s move on to that mug on your desk…
Your mug of tea contains myriad questions, stories, mysteries and facts. Has it been sitting there for a while with a splash of tea left in the bottom? What sort of chemical jiggery-pokery do you think is happening there, as the milk multiplies its bacteria, the water begins to stagnate and the tannins set about staining the porcelain?
There are countless elements to question here. Start with the tea itself: an infusion of camellia sinensis in boiling water – after water itself, it’s the most commonly consumed beverage in the world. It dates back to around 1500BC, originating in Yunnan, China during the Shang Dynasty. In the following three-and-a-half millennia we’ve developed very convenient methods of making tea (get tea bag from cupboard, boil water in kettle, combine) which is rather different from the drink’s origins in harvesting and drying leaves from one’s own tea bush, but the principle is the same: leaves in water.
Tea is often cited as a quintessentially British thing, but we’re relative newcomers to the game – it only really took off here in the 17th century. Nevertheless, we introduced it to India, we maintain that it’s refreshing on hot days in the face of all logic, we consume 60.2 billion cups of it a year (as a nation obviously, not each), it’s woven into the fabric of our culture.
Some tea facts: 96% of British tea is made with a tea bag rather than loose-leaf; despite the rise of the coffee house, Britain still drinks more than twice as much tea as it does coffee; 98% of Brits have milk in their tea; despite common myths, tea has less than half the caffeine of coffee; there are over 1,500 varieties of camellia sinensis, meaning that the tea enthusiast is always well catered for.
China is the world’s largest producer of tea, churning out about 1.4m tonnes of it a year, with India running a close-ish second at about 980,000 tonnes.
…and that’s just the tea. What about the milk? If you’re in the 98% who add milk to their brew, do you ever give any thought to the provenance of that milk? Do you prefer whole, semi-skimmed (which turns orange when frozen, fact fans), skimmed (which is fundamentally pointless – if you’re going to have milk, have proper milk)…? Or if not cows’ milk, how about the squeezings of the goat? Or the buffalo, sheep, yak, camel, horse, donkey, reindeer or dolphin? (Drinking tea with dolphin milk is probably pretty rare, but it’s an idea…) Give a thought to Louis Pasteur, and those pioneers who made milk safe for us all. Think about the plasticised cardboard box your milk came in, or the plastic bottle, or if you’re old-school, the classic foil-topped glass bottle. (Remember in the olden days, when you’d rush to be the first to the breakfast table so you could get to the milk bottle before your siblings, to decant that plug of creaminess from the top of a freshly-defoiled bottle? Eh? Eh?)
Think about London in the early 1800s, when raw milk was carried in open pails through the streets, swimming in avian excrement and city dust. Aren’t you lucky to be able to splash some fresh, clean milk into your mug?
Oh, and there’s the sugar… if you use regular white household sugar, what you’ve got there is sucrose: an odourless, crystalline powder composed of the monosaccharides glucose and fructose. Sugarcane has been used to sweeten food and drink since 800BC (again, it was the Chinese who showed everyone the way); it didn’t become popular in Europe until the 12th century AD, and it took until Columbus’s celebrated voyage in 1492 for sugarcane clippings to arrive in the New World.
Sugarcane is a grass, so when you’re making your cup of tea, you’re basically adding the products of a leaf and a grass into a cup and mixing in some fluid squeezed from a cow, again derived principally from grass. However, sugar can also come from sugar beet which, as the name suggest, is sort of like a very sweet beetroot. Either way, their sweet elements are extracted, supersaturated, dried, crystallised, packaged up into little paper bricks and shipped around the world. So your cup of tea could contain, aside from British milk, tea from Guangdong and sugar from Sindh, or tea from Darjeeling and sugar from Guadalajara, or any number of other variants. (Oh, I was blasé about the milk there. Local farm? Blend or pure? Filtered? Nice creamy job from the Channel Isles? There’s incredible variety in the world of milk.)
And the mug itself? Well, interestingly, the standard-ish size for a mug is around twelve fluid ounces, double that of a teacup. So we’re drinking twice as much tea as we think we are, in a way. It’s an informal vessel that we associate with utility as much as comfort; mugs are equally at home in the hands of builders and mechanics as they are in those of a middle-class housewife, curled up in front of the fire with some creamy hot chocolate. They’re not a new thing either – the mug as we know it dates back to 6500BC, and the ancient Greeks (around 4500BC) were particularly fond of them, decorating them extravagantly. Your modern ceramic mug may be earthenware, bone china, porcelain or stoneware, and will have reasonably efficient thermal properties, sufficient for keeping your tea warm for about 10-15 minutes.
Your mug of tea really is magnificent, isn’t it? And we haven’t got into the ins-and-outs of when to add the milk, how long to leave the bag in, and all of that politics.

Be careful though, it's easy to get caught up in this enthusiasm for the childlike sense of wonder. Once you've unleashed it, you’re on a slippery slope. I found myself on the bus the other day transfixed by the handrail - was it formed from a solid length of pipe, cut to size and then bent into that specific shape? But wait, it's a mandrel bend - do they have craftsmen with pipe-benders, or do they just cast the handrails as a solid curved piece?
I nearly missed my stop. It's important to retain a sense of perspective.

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