The remarkable ‘homing instinct’ of an ass, taken from a footnote (the fifth) to p.552 of: ‘An Introduction to Entomology’, Kirby & Spence. Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts. London, 7th Ed., 1858.
The following striking anecdote of this last species of instinct, in an animal not famed for sagacity, was related to me by Lieutenant (now Lieut.-Colonel) Alderson (Royal Engineers), who was personally acquainted with the facts. — In March, 1816, an ass, the property of Captain Dundas, R. N., then at Malta, was shipped on board the Isterfrigate, Captain Forrest, bound from Gibraltar for that island. The vessel having struck on some sands off the Point de Gat, at some distance from the shore, the ass was thrown overboard to give it a chance of swimming to land —a poor one, for the sea was running so high that a boat which left the ship was lost. A few days afterwards, however, when the gates of Gibraltar were opened in the morning, the ass presented himself for admittance, and proceeded to the stable of Mr. Weeks, a merchant, which he had formerly occupied, to the no small surprise of this gentleman, who imagined that from some accident the animal had never been shipped on board the Ister. On the return of this vessel to repair, the mystery was explained ; and it turned out that Valiante (so the ass was called) had not only swum safely to shore, but, without guide, compass, or travelling map, had found his way from Point de Gat to Gibraltar, a distance of more than two hundred miles, which he had never traversed before, through a mountainous and intricate country, intersected by streams, and in so short a period that he could not have made one false turn. His not having been stopped on the road was attributed to the circumstance of his having been formerly used to whip criminals upon, which was indicated to the peasants, who have a superstitious horror of such asses, by the holes in his ears, to which the persons flogged were tied.
An email written by me, Norman Field, on 18th September 2007, in response to an enquiry from his ex-wife Carol, on how his house move was going.
It’s not too bad here. There are two and a half days left to finish packing. Wednesday, half of Thursday, and Sunday. I’ve got this one last inconvenient gig in Workington,Cumbria, on Friday night. I couldn’t get out of it as it’s been advertised; it involves all Friday in going up, and most of Saturday coming back – but at least I’m not driving, which is a big plus.
I shall just treat it as a ‘mini-holiday break’. They’re all good friends on the gig (Spats Langham, Malcolm Sked, Danny, Martin Litton), so the playing won’t be a problem. In fact it should be a pretty good session, all things being equal!
If for any reason there is any hitch with the completion & house-moving &c. on Monday, I couldn’t care less! I am safe in the knowledge that I have definitely done everythingI was supposed to do: pay out money from my own pocket (totalling nearly £1,000) for all sorts of unexpected extra costs; knock £3,000 off the selling price, do this, do that, &c. The only thing I wanted & requested, was to gain ‘early access’ to my new property for half a day in order to take the 78 records and other delicate breakable things there myself. There has been a profound silence from the conveyancers on this one; but I will ‘phone them again tomorrow morning. Still, I have a feeling it’s not going to happen.
Not only that. A few days ago, I cancelled my monthly mortgage payment to the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society, on the perfect ground that the payment they received at the beginning of September was the last one. They are to be paid off in full on 24th September, so there will be no instalment due 1st October. Nevertheless, I soon received a letter from the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society, which stated: “Your bank has informed us that you have cancelled your direct debit to us…”, and went on to say that direct debits are by far the most efficient way of making mortgage payments, &c., &c., and that I was advised to contact them with a view to reinstating payments &c., &c. I was extremely annoyed at this. Of course I know that my bank, LloydsTSB, and the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society are one and the same financial institution. But still, I had thought, in my abysmal ignorance, that the manner in which I conducted my bank account was somehow private between myself and my bank. Not so: doubtless the ‘small print’ in one of the two or three closely-printed leaflets we receive per year on the ever-modified ‘Terms and Conditions’ of our bank covered this one. We just never read them thoroughly enough, is all.
In short, I now realise that my grandfather was quite correct in generally describing solicitors, estate agents, banks, building societies &c., as ‘… all bloody scrawns…’. I don’t think he invented this word himself; though it is an extremely expressive one: the sort of word that might just possibly be improvised during an inspired moment of resentment against those sorts of people. Actually, when he said it to me – it was about 1955 – it may even have been one of the last times it was ever used? I haven’t been able to find it anywhere on the ‘net. It must surely have its root in ‘scrawny’; but I think the sense must have changed considerably. ‘Scrawny’ in today’s sense – gaunt, bony, scraggy – seems to be derived from the Norse skrann which simply means ‘lean’, and – apparently – has no deleterious implication.
However, I propose that this (now presumably extinct) West Midlands dialect word scrawn which my grandfather used circa 1955, might be defined as follows:
Scrawn. n. (West Midlands dialect, obs.) One of unprepossessing appearance; ill-favoured; two-faced; untrustworthy; dishonest; treacherous; malign; evil. [From Old Norse skrann: lean.]
In fact, I’m so pleased with the above, that I’m going to put it on my web site! And if LloydsTSB or the Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society read it, why then! Let them spend some time pondering on how they may improve their perceived Public Image, as far as this writer is concerned!
Take care, and love to you both,
Once more on the topic of ‘lost’ animals that may travel extremely long distances to return home. From pp 217-8, ‘The Real Wagner’, Rudolph Sabor. Cardinal Books, London 1989.
Some of Wagner’s lesser follies are so incredible that they take one’s breath away. Cosima notes in her diary:
“Richard tells me of a dog who was sold to an English master. In Dover, the dog escaped and swam and then trotted back to his first owner in Aschaffenburg.” (CWT II 551: 23.6.1880)
Swam? Across the Channel? And then trotted 550 miles to Aschaffenburg? If Wagner could really believe this, then he could believe anything.
Actually, while generally sharing Sabor’s scepticism, it is not inconceivable that the dog stowed away on the – or a – returning ferry. But that is pure speculation. Some of the chapters in his excellent book bear a quote, usually from a letter of Wagner’s. My favourite one by far is: “What makes you think I could ever have enough money?” I cannot argue with a single syllable, even a single letter of that question! It sounds to me like the purest distillation of all possible logic.
Taken from ‘The Diary of a Cotswold Parson’ – the Reverend F E Witts (1783–1854). Edited by David Verey. Sutton Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire. Revised edition, 1998.This fascinating book was kindly presented to me by F E B Witts, the great-great-grandson of the subject of the book, when my little band played, under his aegis, for a village party in 1999.
September 29th, 1826. They say the march of intellect is wonderful these days. Men navigate by steam, tram carts travel by steam; but this is nothing to the present fashion of travelling by paper kites. To-day we witnessed the experiment made at Gloucester. For some days I had noticed two large paper kites hovering over the town. They were hoisted by a school master who amused himself with mechanical pursuits, letting off balloons etc. The wind being westerly, was favourable for an excursion to Cheltenham so he orders out his gig, or rather I think it was a four wheeled chair, attaches it to two paper kites, mounts with two or three companies and away they go, not very rapidly, not at a very regular pace, but progressing. The corners are turned cleverly by the charioteer sitting on a kind of dickey, beneath which the string of his kites is wound round a cylinder acted on by a winch. As for the kites they are careering steadily, one considerably in advance of the other, and at a much greater height. The cord attached to the further passes through the centre of the nearer, so one cord is attached to both, and both work in the same direction, thus double power is gained. The drive to Cheltenham was no doubt safely accomplished as we set out soon after and did not overtake them.
Page modified 31st March 2014.
Re-formatted 30th October 2017.