Provincial Letters

Far from the mad crowds of the city, Blaise Pascal passed comment on the strange behaviour of this urban contemporaries in his Provincial Letters. The connection between them and this blog is somewhat tenuous.

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Location: Grimsby, N E Lincolnshire, United Kingdom

My star sign in Superstition. And I didn't believe in reincarnation last time, either. The only thing I can't tolerate is intolerance. I am a fanatical ant-fanaticist. I am bigotted only where bigots are concerned. I am a fundamentalist atheist. I'm proud to be a product of evolution; I know it in my genes.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Posted @ 15:12Zen and the Art of Walking into Lampposts

[I have been brought to task and unmercifully bullied for failing to honour my earlier promise to make a post every day in this blog. I could argue that it was as much a promise as the contents of an election manifesto (on the grounds that I didn't actually use the word "promise" and the piece was more a utopian allegory than a commitment to action); I could also argue that I have actually thought of writing a blog post every day and only the execution of the act was missing. I could argue these things - and perhaps should have done last night, Mark, when you were bullying me - but I won't. Instead I'll get on with the subject in hand.]


Too few people these days cultivate the art of walking into lampposts. If something is not done, we risk a future ignorant - except from anecdote - of this ancient and worthwhile pastime. It has been suggested that at the start of the 21st Century that such activities are outdated and useless. Such attitudes - rejecting the rich heritage of our common culture - are responsible for much of the decay and debasement of our civilisation. It is time that we drew a line in the sand and said: "No more!". We need to defend this noble art from the do-gooding, pinko, liberal, euro-loving anarchists who would drag our proud civilisation from the glorious impacting of vertical objects placed in our path to a sterile future where everyone walks along the street undamaged.

This is the first step: a quick guide the techniques and terminology of walking into lampposts. I am writing to the leaders of all the important political parties (UKIP, whatever the one run by Robert Kilroy-Silk is called today, Empire Loyalists, Countryside Alliance) as well as the not-so-important ones which seem to get all the publicity and parliamentary seats, urging them to make this issue a central plank of their campaigns in the coming election. I intend to write a book (working title: "The Da Vinci Strange Art and Practice of Walking into Lampposts in the Dark, Shoots and Leaves Code") which will be as iconoclastic as it is erudite. I have been promised funding for a film which will make Michael Moore look like a fat American making documentaries.

Enough of the future. On with the present!


The origin of the word "lamppost" is not as blindingly obvious as one would first suppose. The etymologically naive suppose it to be a simple compound of "lamp" and "post". Whilst such a derivation has its charms (folk-etymology is another traditional pastime that is being assaulted by the commissars of political correctness) it is somewhat at odds with the facts.

In Middle English a "lempe-poste" was a Kentish dialect term for an undecorated maypole ("Ystanding neath the lempe-poste a ye corner a ye Fleete" - Chaucer; The Knight's Cousin's Manservant's Tale) and the variant "limpe-pastch" is recorded all over Britain from Scotland (in a land grant charter of 1342) to Cornwall (in a tin mine deed of 1091).

The word is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles ("clempen-pos", 756; "iclempen-past", 665; and "iclampe-pos", 559) in the apparent sense of a pole erected for the display of the genitals of the enemy but not used yet (from the roots "geclempen" - to castrate - and "aposte" - later). However, there is a contemporary Norse phrase, "englempe-pask" (recorded only in a heavily annotated and badly copied manuscript of "Egil's Saga"), which appears to mean a tree-trunk used to support an oil lamp whilst decapitating the enemies who want to chop your balls off. It is not certain whether Norse borrowed from Anglo-Saxon or visa versa.

These examples serve to resolve the confusion as to whether walking into a tree is the same thing as walking into a lamppost. The answer is certainly that this is only the case when the tree has been prepared to perform some other function other than simply keeping its leaves above ground.

It will be noted that none of the historico-linguistic references to this word contain any allusions to alcohol or intoxication. This should not be taken as to lessen the importance of the consumption of large quantities of inebriating liquids before, during and after the act of walking into a lamppost (after all, these traditions are long established even if unrecorded in our sources). However, it does rather separate the art of walking into lampposts from another traditional countryside pursuit with which it is often, mistakenly associated: that of driving your car at high-speeds whilst drunk and writing it off by crashing into a tree. Alarmingly, there are people who disapprove of even this, most harmless, of rural traditions.


The earliest recorded reference to walking into lampposts as a country art is, of course, in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream (in the so-called Sham Folio of 1631):

"Well it becomes you Bottom, to walk along these streets and roads
Your mind bemeshed with ale and sack; and in want of stubbing toes
Or falling in the ditch or screaming at some imagined ghost
You shake your head and walk into some pole or handy lamppost"
Act IV, Sc. 3;

As can be seen, the association between the consumption of quantities of alcohol and walking into lampposts is well-established by the time of the Bard. Whilst the above is the most obvious reference in Shakespeare's work to walking into lampposts, one must not overlook two other, possible, references to the art:

"Brutus, 'ware the pole, least you look a fool"
Julius Caesar; Act I Sc. 5;
"I have heard the chimes at midnight
Walked home late and when woken
Found a lumpen egg upon my pate
From collision with the maypole"
Henry IV, Part 2; Act III, Sc. 2;

Falstaff's words firmly connect the lamppost and the maypole as indicated by the etymology. Finally, there is Shakespeare's description of his first sight of his "Dark Lady" in the sonnets: "Like with an elmpost smacked". There is good reason to equate "elmpost" and "lamppost", especially in light of the Anglo-Saxon "clempen-pos" described above.

Christopher Marlowe may have been referring to the art when, in a letter to Walsignham from Bruges, he describes the Spanish preparations for a possible invasion of Britain as:

"They be ill-prepared, these Spanish could not organise a walk-i'-the-pole day."

Given the evidence from the 18th and 19th Centuries (see below) of organised walking into lamppost contests in Cumbria, we should not be too hasty in dismissing this as a reference.

During the Puritan Parliamentarian Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, walking into lampposts was banned as a "useless and Popish pastime for the pleasure of the ignorant poor". With the return of the monarchy under Charles II, the law was repealed and the art returned to its normal part of the national consciousness. There are indications that the ban by parliament had little effect. There is a rumour (unfortunately not recorded until the 18th Century) that Cromwell himself was an aficionado of the practice and had a secret walking into lampposts room built in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament whereto he would retire after a long day imposing dour-faced, pleasure-denying laws on the English.

In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the art of walking into lampposts became firmly embedded in the national consciousness with the establishment of various annual competitions. James Boswell's memoirs include a reference to one such event, in Penrith, which implies that the celebration had been in existence for some time:

"Mr Johnson joined me on my journey north in that month. We detoured and dallied in order to appreciate more of the English countryside in May... Penrith, we were lucky to find the Annual Pole Day, said to have been invested on the town in the first Charles' time, where the young men showed us their prowess at this ancient sport. Over dinner with Mr Tucker, a local brewer, I asked Mr Johnson what he thought. He replied to the effect that it gave him as much pleasure as banging his head against a brick wall."

Although such events continued into the 19th (and, in the case of the Pole & Wall Fayre of Whitehaven, into the early 20th) Century, they were progressively gentrified and the lampposts became little more than symbolic. The rougher, more traditional, forms continued amongst the rural population but in a less formal manner. Following the First World War, the practice became less and less common as an organised sport, especially in the southern parts of the Kingdom. But the tradition never totally died out in any place and seemed to continue amongst all classes of persons. As late as 1963, Phillip Larkin could observe:

"Since I came north to Hull
I have found the lampposts
Harder and more shocking
Than the lampposts of my home"
Just Another Whinge; Lines 112 - 115;


The three basic techniques of walking into a lamppost have remained remarkably unchanged throughout the millennia. They are designed to reflect the three basic requirements of a successful "lamppost-body conjunction event" (as the scientists have designated it): nonchalance; surprise; and pain. All of these are possible whilst sober but drunkenness enhances the experience:

  • Method 1: Progressing along the street, talking happily (but not necessarily entertaingly or knowledgeably) to a colleague about the scenery or architecture and turning suddenly to point out a particularly interesting geomorphic feature or flying buttress and colliding with the lamppost. (There is a variant of this technique in which both participants collide with lampposts, but this should not be attempted by novices.)
  • Method 2: Walking alone, head-bowed (in depression or against the intelligent sort of rain that no matter which direction you walk always travels horizontally straight into your face), humming a tune (or talking gibberish under your breath), you look up and slam into the vertical obstruction.
  • Method 3: (In groups of three or more.) Turning to berate your friends about some trifling little point of procedure or information, turning round in triumph at a point well-made and walking straight into the lamppost.

It has recently been observed (last night, in particular, Della), that various people seem to imagine that stopping suddenly in front of the lamppost (or other pole) and thus avoiding the collision, is some sort of achievement raising the level of your performance. Nothing could be further from the truth since this avoids the third - most important - of the requirements of the art: pain.


Pedants may wonder where the Zen is in the above survey. As is well known, pedants are very bad at Zen and therefore would not notice it if they walked into it (they are also bad at walking into lampposts). The Zen is there; just look for it.


Blogger Seany said...

The Zen connection ties in very nicely with a definition of our use of statistics at work - rather like the lampost to a drunken man, they are there more for leaning on than enlightenment...

Wed Mar 16, 07:04:00 pm GMT 
Blogger Rach said...

Although this blog was very well observed, you seem to have forgotten Method 4: Berating your (now former) lover, soul-mate, partner, bitch - whichever term you prefer (This abuse usually consists of either sexual activity with another or inadequate sexual activity full stop). Shouting and screaming until you are quite litirally blue in the face, shortly before (i swear they jump three feet forward) turning and slamming straight into the gloating obstruction. This method i feel involves the main ingredient - Pain in every possible way.

Wed Mar 16, 08:15:00 pm GMT 
Blogger Rach said...

Method 4 only usually applies after suitable amounts of any alcoholic substance

Wed Mar 16, 08:25:00 pm GMT 
Blogger Ian O said...

Further to the Zen connection: if a deaf man walks into a lamppost on an otherwise deserted street, is ther still a clang and a yelp of agony?

Thu Mar 17, 07:47:00 am GMT 
Blogger woja said...

Rach: Your "Method 4" is, I think, just "Method 3" with added sex and aggro.

Thu Mar 17, 11:53:00 am GMT 
Anonymous editor said...

[Mark, posted this as a comment to the "Mystery Photograph" entry. As it was posted at 1:28pm on 17 March, I trust this oversight was not due to large quantities of Stella...]

mark said...

re.lampposts.A beautifully observed and reserched blogg,on a subject close to my heart.But have you considered the governments involvement in keeping the art alive?In my opinion,the council are actively installing random lampposts designed specifically to be walked in to.These lamppost,more often than not,do not function as road lighting aids,and although only witnessed after 56 pints of Stella in 4 hours,leap out in front of you without provocation or warning.

Thu Mar 17, 02:02:00 pm GMT 
Anonymous Jeanette said...

It works !!!! Already sent the comment so will leave it at that

Thu Mar 17, 07:25:00 pm GMT 
Anonymous editor said...

[This is the comment that jeanette made to me by e-mail]

Can I recommend a follow up on the art of tripping over those bloody annoying invisible rocks. You know the ones that tend to populate the paths and roads just when you are in the right frame of mind (whether through intoxication or otherwise) for walking into lamposts. And then there are stairs .. but that is maybe going off into another realm of reality ........................

Thu Mar 17, 07:40:00 pm GMT 
Blogger Scottish Trust Deeds said...

It is a very informative post you got there,about Scottish Trust Deeds. I am sure it will help a lot of people who are seeking help on deeds. Looking forward to see more like these from you.

Sat Sep 19, 06:07:00 pm BST 
Blogger FreeFull said...

What about walking on your own, looking at the other side of the street and walking straight into the lamppost?

Sat Sep 10, 02:25:00 pm BST 

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