About Me

I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

Pilgrimages to Ypres, early 1920s

Who went to the battlefields after the war, and how was the experience described? The Ypres Times (not the Wipers Times, this was the magazine of the Ypres League, an association for veterans) for August 1922 carried a report of the annual pilgrimage to Ypres:

About one third of those making the pilgrimage are women, many of them in mourning, and some wearing the medals of a dead son or husband. Two or three, between 70 and 80 years of age, are taking this their first, and perhaps last, chance of visiting the graves of those belonging to them in one of the many cemeteries in and around the salient. Others, after years of private and official enquiry have yielded no more than that dread word “missing,” have come almost despairingly on what seems a hopeless quest. Several children, wide-eyed and wondering, are among the party. There is one V.C., and every rank of the war-time British Army is represented by men who could find their way about the salient in the dark.

During the afternoon many of these men go out to Pilkem, Voormezeele, St. Julien, Hooge, and elsewhere to see what that “old bit of trench looks like,” or to solve the problem of that position a few hundred yards in front of their section of the line which they could never look at in daylight before. But such is the industry of the Belgian that, with few exceptions, when the places are reached, its old defenders find themselves staring at a patch of corn, of unscarred pasture-land, or of crops; for trenches and shell-holes have been filled in and the land is cultivated.

A very economic piece of writing perhaps implies a little nostalgia for the trenches as they had been, a sense of loss that time moves on and the land does not display the memory of pain.

In May 1920 a report of a similar ‘Excursion to Ypres’ was published in The Manchester Guardian. It includes this:

On leaving Zeebrugge the first day’s journey by motor takes the visitor something over  a hundred miles, with Ypres as the turning-point, and every variety of war-striken lands and recovering countryside on the way there and back. It was a point mooted with wearisome frequency in the real days of the place – when it was “functioning,” as one would have said, - and among the front-line troops in the Salient, whether they would ever care to come back and see that foul place under a peaceful aspect. Agreed, there were those at home who might be taken, not without profit to themselves and the world in general, over the low ground under Kemmel, or where Passchendaele looked down on the swamps; and there were not a few of the arm-chair gentry, whose instant presence would have been welcomed. But, for himself, it was the common verdict of the man in the mud-hole that, once “out of it,” Wipers and he could be the best of friends – at a distance.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

'To fag'

'To fag' - we think we know what the slang term means; to serve an older boy, in the dodgy setting of a British Public School. But there was another use; an article in the Arbroath Herald, 4 Oct 1918, reads as follows:

After the band had bestowed its benediction in the strains of "Return to Serbia," the writer was fortunate enough to "fag" an interpreter, through whom he sought out the native Scoutmaster.

This seems to show 'fag' being used as a verb, meaning 'get hold of'. In The Grey Brigade ( a trench - actually camp - magazine of a group of London-based territorial regiments) on 26 June 1915 we find:

What is to be done with the inveterate cigarette obtainer - the man who always has a box of 50 in his kit-bag but none in his case? He is to be found in all companies. "Got a fag, old man?" is the favourite opening. The only way of escape, it seems to me, is to form an S.F.C.O.U.F. - Society For Choking Off Undesirable Faggers.

So, does 'to fag' come from the word 'fag' for cigarette, and mean originally 'try to get a fag', and from this 'try to get something for nothing', and then to 'manage to get something'?

Trench Journal column on the Quakers

Conscientious objectors came in for an enormous amount of abuse during the First World War. They were seen by many as actively hindering the war effort, and were sometimes labelled as 'bespectacled peace-cranks' - spectacles being one of the many objects specially pertaining to Germans.

It was particularly interesting to note this article in The Grey Brigade, the camp journal of a number of territorial regiments, including the London Scottish, the Kensingtons, the Queens Westminsters, and the Civil Service regiment. The article in the 26th June 1915 issue carries a few gentle prods at the unresolvable nature of the Quakers' pacifism in time of war (unresolvable other than to Quakers that is), but finishes with a surprisingly generous text:

The world needs no assurance that Quakers are not cowards, however. It is sometimes harder to clench one's teeth and turn away, than to deal the blow which would send the hated enemy staggering to the ground.

The Friends stand for a principle which may be regarded, universally at any rate, as an untried adventure. To leave the righting of wrongs to the conscience of the wrong-doer, and to the hand of God has sometimes been a satisfactory solution of a difficulty. As far as we can see at present armed evil must be met by armed good, and we are leaving it to another generation to try the experiment of unarmed righteousness.

But one thing is certain - they are brave men.

Hats off all round on this, I think.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Eighteenth-century women chemists

A recipe for lovely skin; or eighteenth-century women chemists

Cucumber pomatum 

Take hogs’-lard a pound, ripe melons and cucumbers of each three pounds, verjuice half a pint, two pippins pared, and a pint of cows’ milk. Slice the melons, cucumbers and apples, having first pared them; bruise them in the verjuice, and together with the milk and hogs’-lard put them into an alembic, and let them stand to infuse in a vapour bath eight or ten hours. Then squeeze out the liquor through a straining cloth while the mixture is hot; expose the pomatum to the cold air, or set it in a cool place to congeal, then pour off the watery part that subsides. And wash it in several waters till the last remains perfectly transparent. Melt the pomatum again in a vapour bath several times, to separate from it all its humid particles, and every extraneous substance, or else it will soon grow rancid. Keep it for use in a gallipot tied over with a bladder. 

The Toilet of Flora, 1775

This is a long and demanding process, and would have resulted in a not unpleasant skin cream. The lard and milk would have provided protein and the vegetables would have been probably beneficial to the skin. The process would have been carried out by women - The Ladies Dictionary (1694) states that:

Every young Gentlewoman is to be furnished … with very good stills, for the distillations of all kinds of waters, which stills must either be of tin, or sweet earth, and in them she shall distil all manner of waters …

Eight or ten hours watching over the first distillation in stills not of glass but of opaque material, so that you could not see what was happening – so presumably you learned to judge the heat appropriately so the mixture did not burn, no small skill in itself. And then washing it several times, and then melting it several times. What we are looking at here is effectively an industrial chemical process, carried out at home, dependent upon skill and judgement for its success; a wealthy home too if they could afford melons. It was clearly a process which could fail, since the result of such a failure is described (it will soon grow rancid). Thus it was important to know how to get it right. Where did the women get their training in this, other than by watching and helping their elders? The inference is that the eighteenth century was a period in which women were passing on skills in chemistry that were used for their own applications.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Weight-loss, seventeenth-century style

As the days begin to lengthen and the light comes streaming in through the bedroom window, we may find ourselves surprised by the shape that we recognise in the mirror. We recognise it, but it cannot surely be us. But, yes, it is.

Here is a recipe for weight loss from former times:

Body when too fat, how to reduce it to a beautiful form and handsome proportion 

No-one can think it a very pleasing sight to see a soul struggling under a mountainous load of flesh and the body stretched to such proportions as renders it almost out of shape.  And if they were nothing more than the encumbrance, it were sufficient to deter any one from so unwieldy a a magnitude, yet here in too legible characters those that can read conclude Sloth and Voluptuousness occasioned it; for whene’er the carcase swells itself into a bulk too voluminous idleness is there described in Folio. Ladies then be careful to keep your bodies in a due proportion, and if ever they enlarge themselves to extravagant limits, use the directions to reduce them to their former bounds, so you may regain both your credits and your beauties; Bodies of such proportions, must rise early in the morning, be exercised to sweating, be spare in diet, not eating sweet things, but rather salt, sharp or bitter, especially sauces; lie not over soft at night; bleed in the right arm pretty largely in the  Spring, and in the left in Autumn; purge pretty strongly in those seasons; and once a week take some laxatives; and in winter mornings the powder thus composed: Bray aniseeds, fennel agnus castus, caraway, rue and cumin, nutmegs, pepper, mace, ginger, galingale, and smallage, dry’d marjoram, gentian, round-birthwort, of each an equal part, and by drying, beating and sifting, bring it into a powder, and take in a glass of white wine a dram of it half an hour before meals; and to the heart and liver, as you see cause, lay cooling applications, such as the juice of plantaine, shepherds-purse, lettuce, and the like; and if anyparticular part be more corpulent then the rest, take cerus, fullers-earth, and white lead, mix them with the juice of henbane and oil of myrtle, and when the part has been bathed with vinegar, anoint the place, and the success will be evident.

The Ladies Dictionary, 1694

Large parts of this were pinched from Thomas Jeamson’s Artificial Embellishments, 1665, whose cure was as follows:

Rise early in the mornings and use some violent exercise to sweat often; fast much, rise half-satisfied from your meals; let your first course be oily and fat things, so that the appetite may be soon satiated, and the body kept soluble [free from constipation]; the second course sharp, salt and bitter things; eat all your meats [i.e. foods] with vinegar, pepper, mustard, juice of oranges and lemons; sleep at night on a quilt.

Not bad advice; which I intend to follow, starting next week. Or soon after.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Little-ease and the Secrets of Beauty

Stays, if rightly used and shaped, undoubtedly do good, it is only misuse and faulty design that is injurious. I hold that most of the corsets at present on the market are quite wrong in design, and do not allow the free expansion of the lungs, nor do they do much to improve the graceful contour of the figure. They are, in fact, instruments of torture, not aids to beauty. But is it fair to condemn altogether the use of this article of attire because some patterns are badly designed? Is it right that we should forego the advantages of binding because some stays press on the wrong place?

The Secrets of Beauty, 1914, Cora Brown Potter

Ms Potter goes on to say

As to the aesthetic effect of the corsets such as I advocate, all I have to say is that I have always worn them. I have lived in the public eye for many years, I have visited every nation,and dwelt under every sky, so in your hands, gentle sisters, do I leave the verdict.

In the seventeenth century people were well aware of the pain a corset could cause. John Bulwer, in Man transform’d: or the artificial changeling (1653) wrote:

Another foolish affectation there is in young virgins, though grown big enough to be wiser, but that they are led blindfold by custom to a fashion pernicious beyond imagination; who thinking a slender waist a great beauty, strive all that they possibly can by straight-lacing themselves to attain unto a wand-like smallness of waist, never thinking themselves fine enough until they can span their waist. By which deadly artifice they reduce their breasts into such straights that they soon purchase stinking breath; and while they ignorantly affect an angust or narrow breast, and to that end by strong compulsion shut up their waists in a whale-bone prison, or little-ease; they open a door to consumptions, and a withering rottenness.

John Bulwer was a pioneering student of the nature of human gesture and of the potential for communication by deaf people. His study of the processes of artifical modification of the human body uses examples from all over the known world, and ultimately criticises British fashions for using the same restricting actions applied by less developed cultures. A ‘whale-bone prison, or little-ease’ was a corset, made from the baleen plates from whales’ mouths. 

'Little-ease' was the name of prison cell in London's Guildhall in which unruly apprentices were in effect tortured; the space was too restricted to allow an individual to stand, sit or lie comfortably. Curiously, the first citation for it in the OED runs: 

a1529   J. Skelton Colyn Cloute (?1545)   
Lodge hym in Lytell Ease 
Fede hym with beanes and pease!  

And feeding someone of beans and peas (interesting etymology on that word too) would over time make him or her fatter, and thus more discomforted.

The Illustrated Police News 25 June 1870 carried the story of a woman who ‘died from the effects of tight lacing which impeded the action of her heart’.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

How to balance weight loss

Should you find yourself suddenly losing weight in one area, to the detriment of the balance of your body, you may care to try this late-seventeenth-century remedy.

Bodies unequally thriving

Bodies sometimes fall away in one part, and not in another; if so to bring your Body to even terms: take an ounce and a half of oil of foxes, oil of lilies, and capons grease, and goose grease, of each twoounces; pine, rosin, Greek pitch and turpentine, of each two ounces; boil them together in an earthen glazed vessel; adding then an ounce of the oil of elder, being taken hot from the fire; add someVirgin’s-wax to them, as much as will stiffen the mass, into a searcloth, and when it is almost cold, spread it and apply it to the place that languishes, or does not equally thrive.

The Ladies Dictionary, 1694

A searcloth was more clearly spelled 'cerecloth', originally a waxed cloth, but later one impregnated with some glutinous matter, which could act as a plaster.