About this blog

This is a window into the weird world of Anglicanism, as experienced on a Cathedral Close. Has anything much happened since Trollope's Barchester Chronicles? You will still see the 'canon in residence' hurrying across to choral Evensong, robes flapping, as the late bell chimes. But look carefully and you will notice he is checking the football score on his iPhone as he runs. This is also a writer's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the novelist's life. And it's a fighter's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the judo mat. Well, the agony, anyway.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Cast not a Clout Till May be Out

Contrary to popular belief, 'cast not a clout till May be out' is nothing to do with hitting people.  It is not saying that the Open Season for Punching begins on May 1st.  The 'clout' referred to is 'cloth', or clothing.  Those of you who studied Romeo and Juliet at school may remember that the nurse compares Paris favourably with Romeo: 'Oh, he's a lovely gentleman.  Romeo's a dishclout to him.'  As in dishcloth.

The 'May' referred to is not the month, either.  It's the may blossom, or hawthorn.  So the saying means, don't start flinging the layers off until the hawthorn blossom is out.  These days this tend to be April, or earlier.  It's not out yet.  The wild plum is in bud, and that's usually the first to burst into blossom in England.  Another couple of days like today, and the hedgerows will be sugared with pink and white, and our hearts can unclench.  

I took a walk round Lichfield's Stowe Pool today, and found that I could believe in spring.

A blue true dream of sky, but no leaping greenly spirits of trees yet.  The weeping willows are golden on the far side of the pool, as you can see.  But it was so warm!  I saw a lass in sandals.  People were peeling off coats and jumpers.  I was in my customary winter wear of treggings, boots and big cardigan and I was regretting my merino wool base layer.  Maybe with global warming we'll have to rewrite the old saying: 'Do not remove your thermals until the wild plum is in blossom.'  Nah, it doesn't have the same ring, does it?


  1. Ah. But does "till May be out" refer to the month (and to its beginning or ending, one might also wonder) or to May blossom? I think the jury's still out on that one, shivering in all probability and clutching their clouts about them.

  2. Please explain your reasoning. Why are you so definite? I think you might well be right, but I want to be persuaded.

    Most web explanations of the "Cast not a clout/Ne'er cast a clout" proverb seem to refer to clothing, but I only ever hear it referred to meaningfully by modern tongues when they're speaking about the most advantageous time of the year at which to perform certain gardening tasks. I can not understand why a proverb might have stood the test of time if all it does is to tell people when to shed extra layers of clothing (despite the practice, in days of yore, of sewing oneself into one's winter clothing): if you're too hot, throw off some clothing! Why bother to remember a rhyme?

    I can, however, understand the longevity of a proverb that explains when to do things in the garden, because most novice gardeners are fraught with indecision as to when to plant out/pot up/etc.: a balmy February morning might be followed by two months'-worth of frosts. "Clout" could mean "clod of earth" as well as "item of clothing". The proverb could therefore mean, "Don't bother planting anything out [which would require the casting of clods of earth] until May blossom has appeared on hawthorn trees/until the month of May has ended."

  3. Well, now you come to press me, I believe I am so definite because I am very opinionated. Or perhaps my mother told me, and I believed her. I think it survived because of the vagaries of the English weather. Just because we have a hot week in March doesn't mean it will stay hot. Therefore wait till a reliable indicator of settled warm weather, eg may blossom. Or you'll catch your death of cold! etc