About Me

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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; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Thursday, 28 June 2012

Onions in the Garden of Health (1578)


Looking today through Langham’s Garden of Health (1578) for delightful remedies for the forthcoming book, I am taken by the straightforward and easy arrangement of the material. The format is an alphabetical list of several hundred ‘simples’, plants mostly, each of which has a compilation of numbered uses, followed by an index of conditions to which the simple is to be applied. At the end of the book there is a page index by condition, each one listing alphabetically the simples to be tried.

Thus mugwort has dozens of applications, the 133rd of which is ‘Joyntes out, stampe Mugwort with Vineger and swines grease, and apply it.’  The ‘easy solution’ manner of the writing – ‘Nostrels stinke, boyle Roses with hony in wine, and put them in’ – is reminiscent of the ‘Frisky, fly-away hair? Try Xbrand hair-spray’ style of disingenuous advertising of the 1970s.  Got a problem? Deal with it this way. What could be simpler? A problem is not a problem. Got the plague? Drinke as much powder of the roote of dog-fennel as will lye on a crowne with vineger – problem solved. I smile while I am reading. I'll buy it.

I smile until I am pulled up short by wince-inducing entries (maybe not the best word) like ‘An onion put in as a suppositorie, purgeth the emerods, …’  I don’t really want to know any more, but am drawn to read on; in the section on onions, it seems that the insertion of an onion is a practice applicable to more or less any disease involving one of the body’s openings:

‘Nose bleeding, put in an Onion.’ 
‘Lethargie, put the juice of an Onion into the nostrells.’
‘Urine stopt in Agues, roste an Onion, and apply it to the bladder.’ 

Now, a few questions arise. For the nose-bleed, is the onion being used primarily as a stopper? For ‘lethargie’, is the onion juice a sign of desperation, something you might use on a teenager still in bed at lunchtime? Is the ‘roste Onion’ still piping hot when it is to be applied to the bladder? How is it to be applied, or am I better off not knowing? I want to know, and I want there to be a simple and pleasant answer. But I suspect that there’s more than one way of interpreting that well-known statement, ‘onions make you cry’.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Mythmaking as tidying up: the cremation of Shelley


There is a marked disparity in the versions of Byron’s words at the site of the cremation of Shelley as they appear in the writings of Edward Trelawny and Leigh Hunt. Shelley, along with Edward Williams and Charles Vivian, a young sailor, drowned when their boat sank in a sudden squall off the Italian coast in July 1822.

The sparsely punctuated manuscript of Trelawny’s handwritten account of the cremations is in the British Library. The much-disfigured body of Edward Williams had been washed ashore and buried in a shallow grave - after some days in the water, not much remained of the outer parts of the unclothed parts of the body; in fact Trelawny relates that the hands were ‘wanting’. When the body and some pieces of cloth were retrieved from the grave in the sand prior to cremation, according to Trelawny in this manuscript (Ms Add 35251) Byron looked at the ‘livid mass of flesh and blood’ and said ‘are we all to resemble that – why it might be the carcass of a sheep for all I can see – and pointing to the black handkerchief – said an old rag retains its form longer than a dead body’.

The account by Leigh Hunt is from the same year, but written in the hand of his wife Marianne (Ms Ashley 915), with corrections and additions in his own hand. It contains a version of Trelawny’s text, substantially the same, but with a few alterations, such as Williams’ hands being ‘fleshless’ rather than missing. In this manuscript Byron says: ‘What is a human body! Why it might be the rotten carcase of a sheep for all I can distinguish,’ and further continued, pointing to the black handkerchief ‘Look an old rag retains its form longer than he who wore it. What an humbling & degrading thought that we shall one day resemble this!’

Intriguingly, Byron identified the body of Williams by his teeth, as he had earlier asserted he would be able to (Trelawny Manuscript): ‘the moment he saw the teeth he exclaimed that is him’. Trelawny is quoted in Hunt’s version as identifying Shelley’s body by ‘the dress and stature; Mr Keats’ last volume of poems ‘Lamia & Isabella’ open in his jacket-pocket confirmed it beyond a doubt.’ Trelawny’s version of this is ‘The poems of Lamia & Isabella which had been found in Shelley’s jacket Pockett and had been buried with him I was anxious to have but we could find nothing of it remaining but the leather binding’.

Trelawny was criticised for tidying up and augmenting the story several times over the years, but the immediacy of his description in his 1822 manuscript gives a context to the pouring of wine, oil and spices over what was left of Shelley’s body as they cremated it, a need to mark the passing in a way that is in marked contrast to the expediency of the on-the-spot cremation. The version of the text as relayed by Hunt shows tidying and elaborating happening at this stage. Another detail shows Byron in a better light as the story goes through Hunt’s hands: Hunt states that Byron ‘wished the skull [of Shelley] to be preserved’. Trelawny’s direct version states ‘Lord Byron wished to have the skull, which I endeavoured to preserve …’

Do we find this apparent souvenir taking disappointing, perhaps distasteful?  Remembering the skull of Sir Thomas Browne, exhumed and kept in a  museum for 80 years, it is perhaps fortunate that, in Trelawny’s words, as he tried to retrieve Shelley's skull ‘it almost instantly fell to pieces’.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Fleet and squash


There is a widely believed story that the precursor of squash, rackets played against a single wall instead of over a net, was invented at the Fleet Prison for debtors in the early nineteenth century. While looking at medical adverts from around 1700 today I came across a handbill for a gentlewoman selling skin-conditioning washes from her house ‘in Racket Court near Fleet-bridge’. Clearly something to do with rackets was going on in the immediate area. Maybe the historical presence of rackets courts nearby, as well as a sturdy wall, led to this being the obvious choice of game to play in the prison.


Maybe the influence was directly from the sound of people 'making a racket' - a variation of the phrase is first used in the sixteenth century, and appears in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2 'But that the Tennis court keeper knows better than I, for it is a low eb of linnen with thee when thou keepest not racket there.' 'Keeping a racket' would now be 'making a racket', which dates from 1644. The OED gives the source of 'racket', first noted from 1565, as 'perhaps imitative'; 'racket' the game was documented from c1425, so maybe the sound being imitated was the sound of the ball game with paddles played in an indoor court.


So did people making a racket around Racket Court inspire the debtors directly to play rackets against the wall of the Fleet Prison? It must have been a penetrating noise to make it through the general hubbub of early-nineteenth century London over such a high wall.



Monday, 11 June 2012

Carved tablets

As none of these works is on show at the moment, now is a good moment to bring them together. They all are hand-carved tablets - paracetamol, Rennies, and erectile dysfunction tablets.


100 Headaches


A Month of Excess


 Little Boys Blue


Sunday, 10 June 2012

The sampler as advertising

In this one I'm exploring the nature of self-promotion that the sampler involves; children advertising their skills, showing off what they can do in a way that says basically 'look at me'. I have been reading J G Ballard's Kingdom Come while I've been making this.