Archive for September, 2010

Alien, Viking, Norman, World Citizen – what’s in a name?

September 27, 2010 2 comments

I’ve been looking at the search terms people have been using that landed them on my blog and one of the common ones is to do with the origin of the name Vagg.

I still am sometimes asked this question because it’s a relatively unusual name and doesn’t have obvious cultural, linguistic or national connotations. When I was a kid my explanation was usually along the lines that it comes from a branch of minor royalty on a planet near Apha Centauri, and my ancestors were governors of a mining colony on an asteroid who fled to Earth after a palace coup: our plans are in place and we shall soon rule the known universe again!

History is a little more prosaic. There is a family website at (I’m not a member of it) but for those who get bored quickly, here’s the skinny version.

There’s an outside possibility the name is Viking, from Vagn Akason, believed to have settled in Somerset, UK, sometime after 878. If there is any truth in this, Vagn’s action would have been quite unusual, because Somerset was well outside the area usually considered settled by the Vikings and very clearly within the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, at that time ruled by Alfred the Great (his reign was 871-899). Indeed some time earlier, in the 830s, an alliance of Vikings and Cornish had tried and failed to attack Anglo-Saxon areas in Devon, and failed.

The more likely root is Norman, with the name spelled in various ways – Vagg, Vage, Bagg, Fagg, Fagge, Fage, Fago, Faget, le Fag (phonetically B, F and V are considered close and English dialects differ in their use of them). These names occur from the 1100s in Kent and Somerset. In this case the name is, or was, perhaps trade-related – ‘fagg’ or ‘bagg’ apparently being an Old English term for a flat loaf. Whether any of these Vaggs originated as bakers is a whole other question, though. It’s equally probable they turned up as functionaries of some kind within the household of a lord and ended up being given parcels of land.

At any rate, quite a bit of family history seems to relate to the village of Chilcompton, Somerset. I’ve never knowingly been there but it looks a nice place on Google Street View. And there’s a Vagg Lane some way south of there – well, 20 miles south – at Chilthorne Domer.

After the Monmouth Rebellion (1685) apparently one Edward Vagg, being on the losing side, suffered transportation to the West Indies – the rebellion was followed by the Bloody Assizes of Judge Jeffreys and while some 320 people were executed, around 800 were sentenced to transportation. Edward Vagg is believed to have stayed in the West Indies and married there so I may well have distant relatives in the Caribbean.

As to the spread of the family after that: at various points Vaggs emigrated to Australia and New Zealand (and some moved to London which must have been just as much of a culture shock at that time).

In my own particular part of the family there’s also a story that one of my great-great-grandfathers fought in what was then Abyssinia – this would presumably have been the 1868 ‘Expedition’ ordered by Queen Victoria to rescue the British consul and other nationals following a diplomatic incident. The incident shows that it’s always a good idea to read your mail and reply to people, but the story is that this particular Vagg returned with an Abyssinian wife. There are no pictures or documents I know of to even suggest the truth of this but insofar as it would imply the family has a broad and to some extent multicultural heritage I quite like it.

There’s a lot more documented history but this is, as I say, the skinny of it. I’m sure many people have longer,  more elaborate, more illustrious and more multicultural backgrounds, but what I’ve got is what I’ve got. I don’t feel defined or constrained by this history; it’s a bunch of stories, ranging from the definitive and evidenced to the possibly completely fictitious, that it’s just good to know.


Sticky furniture

September 18, 2010 Leave a comment
Anyone want this sofa?

Anyone want this sofa?

‘Ever notice how some things are sticky – you can’t get rid of them however much you try?’

‘No, I have the opposite problem. Money seems to drain out of my wallet like water down a plughole. I can almost hear it gurgling away.’ He finished his pint with a noisy slurp.

‘Take,’ I said, warming to my theme, ‘my sofa. We’re having the living room decorated. New sofa’s arrived, it’s in the hall, still wrapped in plastic. And the old one? We phoned a charity that gives furniture to poor households; they couldn’t collect it for three weeks. Put it on Freegle: no takers. Phoned a second-hand furniture shop; they didn’t even turn up to look at it. Put a sign in the front garden, sofa free to take away. No one called. Put it on Realcycle, one person interested who never came to collect. It’s a perfectly good sofa, bit dated maybe, some fair wear and tear but there are no sticky bits on it. Or even crusty bits…’

‘Like the ancient mariner and the albatross…’

‘Not exactly. I didn’t shoot it, and I’m not wearing it round my neck.’

‘Ah, but you’re looking gaunt and becalmed, and you can’t get rid of it.’

‘You’re telling me I’ve aroused the wrath of the spirits?’

‘Well, who knows? I once had some old car seats I couldn’t sell, and yesterday I saw someone being followed by a fridge…’

‘So how do I remove this curse?’

‘Buy me a pint and I’ll tell you.’

When I came back from the bar, he reminded me of a couple of verses near the end of the poem:

Since then, at an uncertain hour,

That agony returns;

And till my ghastly tale is told,

This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;

I have strange power of speech;

That moment that his face I see,

I know the man that must hear me:

To him my tale I teach.

So that’s the answer: the only way I can lift the curse of the sofa is to write about it interminably.

Plants and egos, a Victorian legacy

September 13, 2010 4 comments

Not your average English garden; cycads at Lost Gardens of Heligan

I found myself having to make an unplanned, unexpected trip to Cornwall about 10 days ago. The details aren’t important, though in the course of the trip I ended up visiting the Lost Gardens of Heligan – and that’s what prompted this post.

The Lost Gardens aren’t ‘lost’ in any literal sense, though perhaps until recently they were in a metaphysical one. They’re quite close to Mevagissey and St Austell and cover over 200 acres. They just got somewhat untended and overgrown after the First World War, when the owner of the estate, Jack Tremayne, went to live in Italy. By ‘somewhat overgrown’, what I mean is that it’s taken a huge team of volunteers around 20 years to hack it back and make it look somewhat like the old estate plans show it would have been in the 1800s.

And that’s really what this post is about: the huge egos that went into creating the gardens in the first place.

What, for example, would you make of a squire who decides to wants oatmast variety apple trees in his orchard and, discovering they’re almost extinct, sets about saving the variety because that specific type of apple is particularly good for stuffing pheasant? Somehow I don’t think he was saying that in a joking way either.

The late 1800s were a period in which the landed gentry treated their gardens and estates as status symbols, in much the same way as the rich today regard their cars, yachts and penthouses. The Tremaynes commissioned plant-hunters to find them new varieties of rhododendron from Asia, and after rumours emerged of a hitherto unknown species of tree in China (Davidia involucrata – a French missionary, Father David, discovered an example and had it sent to Paris) they arranged for a British plant-hunter to find one and bring it back.

Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata) at Heligan

The plant-hunters are another example of this Victorian attitude, swashbuckling types who travelled the world collecting seeds and plants, often undertaking trips of several years at a time, and often in conflict with the authorities in the places they went to. They were in deadly competition with others – sometimes in a literal sense – and it wasn’t unknown for a collector, having discovered some new specimen, to try to destroy others in the area to prevent other collectors from acquiring them.

And all this was done from motives of social status, overinflated egos, hard cash and greed. The people who did the collecting were often little better than bandits and the landowners little better than tyrants (look at the gardeners’ quarters at Heligan for visual proof!).

But here’s the rub: many rare species ended up in country house estates, or in national botanical houses in Western countries, where they were tended and cared for. The people who did all these bad things, ironically, ended up making seed banks that have come to be increasingly important scientifically and environmentally as many native habitats have come under threat.

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