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Seasonal musings from a Western Group Fireside
publication date: Dec 24, 2015
author/source: Dave Moss
As its traditional to reflect on past events at Christmas and New Year, an invitation now to return to long-past schooldays, and the carol Good King Wenceslas, sung with gusto in the school hall.
It was surely complete coincidence that Tennyson and Christmas came up at around the same time, but these unrelated events raised some key questions in this writer's then young, inquisitive mind. I began wondering what exactly this 'league' was that authors mentioned so often. It seemed to me the writer of our seasonal little number - who must have been a true journalist as he never reveals the peasant chap's name, or what his dwelling actually was - could have chosen a more obvious yardstick by which kids singing his carol aeons later might gain a clue about how far the poor bloke had to walk home. Then Tennyson got in on the act. All in all, some things really worried me at school. Yes, I know...
No, a league in England was and presumably still is about 3 miles, though Mr Verne's submarine rather put the shark among the fish, leaving me pondering if leagues related to nautical miles - over a thousand feet more than a mile in Dad's Ford Zephyr. But it couldn't be, because the Light Brigade had been charging around Death Valley, and I knew from Dad's Turtle Wax car polish label that it was tested in Death Valley - in Arizona.
Thus comforted, I was convinced that Jules Verne's book therefore concerned submarine activities well over 6,600 miles down - until the literature teacher helpfully pointed out with several cracks of his ruler that 20,000 leagues was the distance travelled under the water, not the depth at which the journey took place.
Yet all in all, the league served literature well. Verne's classic just wouldn't have been the same entitled "6,666 Miles Under the Sea," and with hindsight you can almost sense Tennyson's frustration - if the league had not existed - seeking a measurement to scan properly in his half-written work.
Virtually all ye olde England's distance measures were either far too short, or far too cumbersome, to have worked in that context. Try changing the words of Good King Wenceslas and Tennyson to suit today's favoured measures: "a good three miles hence" or "one and a half miles, one and a half miles, one and a half miles onwards" - or equivalents in kilometres - just don't offer snappy flexibility to slip un-noticed into carols or classic literature. But the league fitted perfectly, and the rest, as they say, is history.
To conclude, I'm afraid Shakespeare was always way out of my, ahem, league, but maybe you know something about this well known seasonal and cultural tale.
When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp'd and ways be foul,
When nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit; Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot...