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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Wednesday, 3 December 2014

On selling our children's toys


We have had a busy few weeks selling our teenage sons’ toys. This sounds callous and mean, but the money goes to them, and they will no doubt spend it on things that will bring them transitory enjoyment, and then be put away and forgotten, and possibly sold. That ‘well-known internet auction site’ does provide a relief to the despair we have felt at the awful amassing of goods: we buy, we hold, we pass on, almost as if we leased the toys, and the opportunities they afford to explore stories, from some greater concept – time, life, western culture.

A couple of days ago I went to the post office and consigned a parcel to the post. The toys – a Playmobil jungle set, including rocks, animals, trees, and figures who were meant to be white European explorers and vaguely southern African indigenous people – were made in Germany (which is why they were well-designed, and why they have lasted without breaking); they were bought by a bidder in Canada from me in the UK, and sent to Japan, thus encompassing countries in four continents. It is indeed a global phenomenon of play and mobility. All in all I believe it to be a good thing.

And yet I feel  little uneasy at this particular image that I have peddled on. The white explorers wearing clothes reminiscent of Indiana Jones will continue to explore, facing dangers including crocodiles lurking beneath a bridge with two intentionally broken planks, all the while maintaining the famous Playmobil noselessness and rictus smile. They will meet black people dressed in skirts made from colourful feathers, foliage and leopard-skins, holding spears or banging on drums, smiling, always smiling. Bright birds will sit securely on bright trees while bright snakes woven into coils will sit or swim beside bright lily-pads. An unexplained figure, part fetish part scarecrow will face, across the safely ricketty bridge, a monolith showing unexplained marks referring to an earlier culture, now hidden by a clip-on shower of bright green plants. If the play in any way follows what happened in our house, their meeting will involve surprise, suspicion, conflict, being taken apart, put back together, and ending up in a box under a bed or on top of a wardrobe. The story may be developed (in our case they became involved with pirates and spacemen). The settings will change. Maybe one of the black men will get a white shift and a leopard-skin, and kneel before a young white lady wearing a white crinoline with an extravagant blue sash and a discreet gold tiara with a white ostrich feather, as she hands him a hefty Bible. Maybe there will be a tall white gentleman in a red uniform, and three other figures discreetly shadowy in the background. Of course they will be smiling, but what will they be thinking?

Key in the words ‘explorer’ or ‘jungle’ in the search box on the Playmobil website, and you won’t find the bridge or the drummers or the smiling spear-holders; you’ll see a safari jeep and plenty of animals but not this particular meeting of people of different cultures all smiling that Tony Blair smile. Playmobil has moved on, though for £135 you can replay another smiling meeting of cultures symbolised by a ‘Native American camp with totem pole’ and ‘Western Fort’. The thing about Playmobil is that it is so well made that it will last for a long, long time.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Some initial thoughts about the symposium ‘An Eye and an Ear for Conflict’ at Reading University, 12 November 2014


Looking for a link between the various forms of visual representation of conflict considered in the papers given by Paul Gough, George Butler and Lisa Purse, I found myself thinking about a continuum that stretched from painting, through drawing, photography, and phone-cam video, to CCTV. We did not really consider the place of the most impersonal of visual surveying formats – CCTV, and various forms of geo-surveying such as street-view or satellite physical representation, all of which depend on a human framing process creating a gaze. However, the relationship of all of these media/formats to concepts of ‘truth’, ‘authenticity’, ‘reality’, lying within some kind of constructed impersonality, hangs over all of these.

The ultimate purpose of armed conflict in territorial terms, and in hearts and minds terms, is to create an absence. An absence of the body of the enemy, by whatever means necessary (after which '"we" can go home' - and thus also vacate the space), or an absence of the ideology that conflicts with that of the protagonist. Absence in the empty spaces in the drawings of George Butler, and in the rapidly vacated streets in the film clips we looked at of fictional films set in current Iraq, reflect this aspect of war. In this light, the First World War paintings of Paul Nash, criticised by some for the absence of the human, appear to me to direct the gaze at the core of armed conflict, the landscape that is not just empty, but emptied. They match Nash’s description of the country as ‘unspeakable’ and ‘utterly undescribable’ – what these words do is utter the absence of words. Absence is a trope we find again and again, in First World War soldiers’ inability or unwillingness to describe the situation (see Private W Kirk’s words in yesterday’s post), in veterans’ inability and unwillingness to talk about their experiences to the other (the non-combatant) after the war, and in the empty spaces at the core of so many major war memorials (all of these are explored further in the afterword of Trench Talk).    

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

"I think I have done my bit"

In a letter sent to the Daily Mail and published on 26 November 1914, Private W Kirk, of the 1st Bedford Regiment, wrote that:

 Our regiment has suffered a lot, but they are sticking to it. They want men to relieve them. I cannot describe what it is like out there, but you can guess by these figures. Our 1st Battalion has been in seven engagements, and reinforced three times with over 100 men each time. It started with 1,200, and has now got 400 and 3 officers left. The 2nd Battalion started with 1,200 and has 300 men and 3 officers left. Other regiments are worse off than us. Great Britain will want all the men she can get, for it's a long way to Germany.

It is curious that he says that 'he cannot describe what it is like out there', and then makes figures allow the reader to 'guess' - the figures do of course 'describe' very well. In the use of scientific 'describing', they tell us what war is, and what this war fundamentally is - the loss, by killing, of men. But the recognition of the inability of those who had experienced the war to actually put the experience into words appears very early.

The London Scottish were on our left when they got shelled advancing up the roadway. I have lost all my mates now, and could cry when I think of the good men mowed down. I don't think I shall go out any more, according to the doctor. I think I have done my bit.

Did the doctor decide that Private Kirk had done his bit? We don't know from this letter why he was in hospital - it is possible that Private W Kirk survived the war. Three soldiers named W Kirk are listed among the CWGC dead from the First World War, one who served in the RAMC and the other two in Scottish regiments. Was he ever able to 'describe what it [was] like out there', and did this help with the grief and loss that he was clearly suffering in November 1914? Or did it remain, as it did for so many former soldiers, 'something he never talked about'?
 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Army slang during the Afghan campaign - the 'Times' article and others

A few thoughts about the Times article on army slang during the Afghan campaign; as the paywall seems to have tumbled, you can now read this article online http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/uk/article4254437.ece

Initially I was asked to comment on the BBC web article http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29757988 and how it related to slang from the First World War. The article certainly contained much of interest, and there are indeed links to slang during the Great War.

David Brown’s Times article looks at the similarities over time between terms for bombs – ‘whizz bang’ and IED; fancy dressers - ‘K-nut’ and ‘Ally’; medics - ‘MERTS’ and ‘VADS’. Perhaps every conflict produces its own slang, reactive to the environment and the language of those caught up in it. The more the civilian population are involved, the more likely they are to pick up, and contribute, terms used by service personnel. Did many new terms emerge from the Korean War? – probably not. War reporting over the past hundred years has spread across new media as they have become available, but in terms of frequency of contact between home and front digital technology there is probably not a vast difference between texts and emails flying through cyberspace now and the daily letters and postcards crossing the Channel in 1917 (around 15,000 bags of mail daily in either direction).

I was immediately struck by the name ‘Butlins’ being given to Camp Bastion. A great term, in that it combines a certain contempt with some fondness. And Lashkar Gah becoming ‘Lash Vegas’ is of a pattern with Ypres becoming Wipers and Ploegsteert becoming Plugstreet. I hope more place-name anglicisations emerge. I must confess to pitching the term ‘slanglicisation’ for this process (during the phone interview I had with the Times reporter, David Brown, this got a bit mangled – no doubt a repetition of what happened several times during the 1914-18 conflict).

The same kinds of terms become war slang in the two conflicts – names for fancy dressers, acronyms for army units, disparaging names for units of the same army. In the early-twentieth-century Royal Navy an ineffective sailor was called ‘a soldier’. There is the feeling of a vast semantic hinterland behind this brief and economic term.

In another web article http://patrickcox.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/how-the-wars-in-afghanistan-and-iraq-have-shaped-military-slang/ Patrick Hennessey proposes that the use of ‘Terry’ as an adjunct to ‘Taliban’, personifying the enemy, belittles the enemy.

If some of those names sound oddly light-hearted, writer Patrick Hennessy, a former army captain, says that shouldn’t be a surprise. “The British Army has a particular tradition of black humor,” he says. “It’s much easier to fight someone if they are an object of ridicule than if they are an object of fear. The tendency towards something like ‘Terry’ is not intended to humanize the enemy — quite often the opposite.”

Terry has overtones of Jerry, the sarcastic name British soldiers used for German forces during the world wars. Giving a foreign enemy a banal, suburban British name helped Brits — who were similarly, maybe ironically, nicknamed “Tommies” during World War I — psychologically cut their opponents down to size.

Hennessy says he still has a fondness for Terry, at least as a name if not as an adversary. “There’s a famous comedian called Terry Thomas [in Britain] who was a bit of a ridiculous clown,” he explains. “I always loved the fact that the nickname we came up with was more ridiculous than threatening.”
  
While ‘Terry Taliban’ may ridicule him – certainly the name is totally inappropriate for the culture – I would like to propose another view, that it owes more to the appropriateness of sounds. It has alliteration, which English has enjoyed for well over a thousand years, combined with a stressed rhythm that English seems to enjoy – ‘Happy Holidays!’, ‘jumping jellybeans’. In fact considering the alternatives – Tony Taliban (too Italian), Tommy Taliban (no way, too strong an association with British soldiers), Timmy Taliban (maybe too childlike?), Trevor Taliban, Tarquin Taliban, (er, no) – there doesn’t seem to be much choice. The shortening to just ‘Terry’ follows a slang pattern that is seen, for example, in cockney rhyming slang.

When these combinations work, they stick, whatever their resonances, sources or implications. ‘Terry Taliban’ may ridicule or individualise, but primarily it works because, like mud, it sticks, in a way that ‘Frank Taliban’ or ‘Joe Taliban’, I think, would not. I certainly agree that the British Army has a tradition of  black humour, as Patrick Hennessy states, but it is not particular to the British army. The German army during the First World War had a whole arsenal of self-diminishing terms that they aimed at themselves, while the French, well, Eric Partridge sums up the specialities of the three most well-known languages of the Western Front by saying that when describing those officers who directed the lives and deaths of soldiers ‘French [was] the most biting, German the most pessimistic, and English the most tolerantly contemptuous’ (Words, Words, Words 1933). While the English-speaking soldiers had ‘Fritz’ and ‘Jerry’, they had also ‘Sammy’, ‘Jock’, ‘Taffy’, ‘Digger’ and ‘Tommy’, names that show the soldier as an individual, recognised as being an individual, and not just the impersonal ‘Hun’, ‘Boche’ or ‘Englander’. Above all, these, as slang terms, carry what all slang terms carry, the implication of the speaker being one of an exclusive group who know something.  

Patrick Hennessy clearly has the advantage of first-hand experience; his experience has given him particular insight to a place, a time, a group of people, which I can never have. But it would have been a particular place, group of people and time, and as more information on language is shared, we will all get access to what becomes available of the terms and expressions used by combatants during that campaign. Terms from close to the combat zone will sound inappropriate in the mouths of civilians for a while, just as they did in 1919; G K Chesterton complained about politicians who described themselves as ‘under fire’ while sitting on the Front Bench of the House of Commons facing difficult questions.

My current research is about how the civilian world took over army slang during the First World War, sometimes to the resentment of the soldiers, as expressed in trench journals. But the editors, mothers, children, those whose homes were bombed by Zeppelins, the munitions workers, conchies, and profiteers who wrote, spoke and read war slang were also involved in the war, and all were influenced by its language. War slang belongs not only to combatants, but to all those who suffer indirectly and directly, and ultimately all of us. As we approach Remembrance Day ‘cushy’, ‘shellshock’, ‘no man’s land’, ‘lousy’ and all the rest are not reserved for those of us who over the next few days will weep when they think of relatives they never knew, but for all who come after.


Monday, 27 October 2014

More Other Ranks

Further to the post on 'Other Ranks', the May 1916 issue of The Twentieth Gazette - which the British Library catalogue describes as 'A journal devoted to the interests of the 20th Battalion C.E.F. (Northern and Central Ontario Regt.)' - contains on page 3 the report of a cricket match:

20th Batt. v 31st Batt.

The 20th Batt.'s innings is listed as follows: 
Lieut. McLean    ..      ..      3
Lieut. Hainington        ..      2
Lieut. Hay          ..      ..       4
Lieut. Macaulay         ..     17
R.S.M. Fraser    ..      ..      7
Pugh        ..       ..       ..      5
Shepherd          ..       ..    14
Sgt. Markham   ..       ..      0
Williams   ..       ..       ..     11
Dingle (run out)          ..      0
Goldworthy (run out)  ..      0
    Extras  ..       ..       ..       4
                                          __
                      Total            67

The absence of any rank given to nearly half the team, while the others are denoted by rank (including non-commissioned officers) is reminiscent of the system which used to be operated in club cricket in the UK. This lasted till the 1960s, a distinction being shown between professional cricketers, designated by showing the surname followed by initials of the first names, alongside club-members, who would be designated by having their initials before their surnames.

Curiously, a cricket report on the following page of The Twentieth Gazette does not make this discrimination.

Other Ranks

Always (to me) rather surprising, the use of the term "Other Ranks" caught the eye of a correspondent for The Manchester Guardian in December 1919:

Your recent note in "Miscellany" regarding the magnificent service rendered by pigeons during the war (writes a correspondent) reminded me of a telegram once received at a certain R.A.F. headquarters where I was serving. It announced the arrival in Egypt of "300 pigeons and 3 Other Ranks." 

At least they warranted initial capital letters, as is still the case in the British Army. The earliest documentation of the term in the OED is from 1904 Regulations for Mobilization (with a z), in which it does not have capitals.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

'Verdun' as a personal name

It would have to be one of the strangest linguistic phenomena to come out of the war. An article in The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer on 29 October 1936 reads as follows:

Every now and then one hears of people whose first or second Christian names are "Mafeking" or "Ladysmith" or perhaps "Buller."  Whereupon we amateur detectives, with uncanny instinct, are able to deduce that they were born at the time of the early enthusiasms of the Boer War. And it seems that there is a generation now reaching manhood which bears a similar crop of names from the Great War. The fact was revealed to me when I noticed that a twenty-year-old defendant in a Wakefield court case had "Verdun" as a Christian name.

It was in 1916 that Verdun as a war name was prominent. Who knows what examples of wartime names we may have around us? All unknowing, we may be rubbing shoulders with twenty-year-olds called Poperinghe Potts or Dickebusch Dawson; or we may be travelling on the 'bus with youngsters who sign themselves Plugstreet Brown, or Wipers Jones, or Armentieers Robinson.

And perhaps at this very moment municipally-minded families of Leeds are bestowing on their unfortunate babies the names of more modern battles. Possibly in another five years young Master Gipton Gibbs and young Miss Moortown Maggs will be attending their first kindergarten.

Indeed, one never knows, does one?

Well, persons charged with various crimes in 1936 included William Verdun Barrett, aged 10, (Western Morning News, Devon, 2 January 1936), Percy Verdun Jackson, aged 18 (Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 24 January 1936), Frank Verdun Bernard, of Broomfield Road, Chelmsford (Essex Newsman, 8 August 1936), and Nelson Verdun Fraser Collis (Aberdeen Journal, 22 August 1936).

But it was not entirely a name to be associated with stories of nefarious goings-on. Miss Winifred Verdun Albone was married on 13 April 1936 (Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 17 April 1936), and a teacher living in Bath was married, her attendant being her sister Miss Verdun Ham (Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 26 September 1936); and on 9 October 1936 the Northampton Mercury reported on the wedding of Miss Jessie Verdun Watson to Mr. Leslie John Savage.

Why 'Verdun' and not a name associated more with British rather than French troops? Though 'Verdun' does indeed seem to have been a prominent name, neither Armentieres, Armenteers, Wipers nor Plugstreet feature as personal names. And it is noticeable that 18 years after the Armistice the 'soldiers' names' Plugstreet, Wipers and Armenteers are retained.

No First World War battle names appear within the top 1000 babies' names for the period 1910-1929, though there was indeed a strong precedent - several children were named after battles of the Boer War in the few years following that conflict.

And any news on the battles of Gipton or Moortown would be welcome.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

A former soldier visits Plugstreet in October 1919

On Wednesday 15 October 1919 the Daily Express carried the following article:

Peace Visit to Plugstreet
Famous Trench Silent and Deserted
Carpenter’s Shop

“I would not go to that place again, or to any other place where I have seen battle, except by force,” writes Mr. W. G. Shepherd, in a message to the Exchange Telegraph Company, concerning a recent visit to Ploegsteert – the “Plugstreet” he knew in 1915.

“Thousands, yes, perhaps 200,000 British lads at one time claimed “Plugstreet” as their wartime home. Every dugout was filled with a romping spirit when things were going even half well.

“At the intersections of the many board walks there were street signs reminiscent of old London. They were made by squads of carpenters and painters who had come out here, not, indeed, to make joking street signs, but to make the neat regulation crosses for British graves. They had plenty of work to do in these days in their rough little shop in the forest.

“Today I was back at ‘Plugstreet.’ I jumped down from the car bravely enough to go into the grove. I found the very trench through which I had passed out, with bent back, to the front-line trenches. It was a perfect tangle of verdure. Small raspberry bushes were growing along its edges. It was now only a ditch, but then it was a shelter for precious life. Hundreds of thousands of good men had need to die to make it safe for a man to stand there as I did.

“I worked my way along the ditch edge over the fields. Here was the first line – a zigzagging, plant-tangled furrow. In this great main trench I had seen hundreds of British soldiers living, playing cards on benches, writing letters, shaving, washing, gossiping, eating, sleeping and cooking, but always watching, always waiting, either for the enemy to come to them or for orders to go to the enemy.

“Now it was deathly silent. Not another human being was in sight. It was all too much for me – too lonely, too sad, and hopeless. I hurried back to the road where the car was standing.

“Some distance away I found the cemetery. How they must have worked since 1915, those carpenters and painters in that little shop under the trees!

“For young men who were in the war of all the lonely places on earth the loneliest and the awfullest, the place of all places on earth not to go, is a battlefield where they have been in war.”

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.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

An Electrical Lady, 1838


The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser was a Chartist newspaper, operating between 1837 and 1852; it began as a protest against the Poor Law of 1834. In 1840 its editor Feargus O’Connor was imprisoned for 18 months for publishing ‘seditious libel’. However, the paperwas not averse to publishing curious stories of general interest, such as this, from 2 June 1838.

An Electrical Lady 

A respectable physician, in the last number of Silliman’s Journal, gives the following very curious account of an electrical lady. He states, that on the evening of January 28th, during a somewhat extraordinary display of the northern lights, the person in question became so highly charged with electricity, as to give out electrical sparks from the end of each finger to the face of each of the company present. This did not cease with the heavenly phenomenon, but continued for several months, during which time she was constantly charged, and giving off electrical sparks to every conductor she approached. This was extremely vexatious, as she could not touch the stove, or any metallic utensil, without first giving off an electrical spark, with the consequent twinge. The state most favourable to this phenomenon was an atmosphere of about 80 Fah., moderate exercise, and social enjoyment. It disappeared in an atmosphere approaching zero, and under the debilitating effects of fear. When seated by a stove, reading, with her feet upon the fender, she gave sparks at the rate of three or four a minute; and under the most favourable circumstances a spark could be seen, heard or felt, passed every second! She could charge others in the same way, when insulated, who could then give sparks to others. To make it satisfactory that her dress did not produce it, it was changed to cotton and woollen without altering the phenomenon. The lady is about thirty – of sedentary pursuits, and a very delicate state of health, having for two years previous suffered from acute rheumatism and neuralgic affections, with peculiar symptoms.

 There is no note as regards the feelings of the people to whose faces the sparks reached. It’s a wonderful science-fiction scene, and extremely Gothic – a woman in delicate health whose body becomes massively charged, sending out sparks to people’s faces. Especially in situations of ‘social enjoyment’ – she must have been a real cracker at parties.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A eighteenth-century celebrity sports goods manufacturer


While looking for something else I came across this in a volume of eighteenth-century Scots poems

The Goff. An Heroi-comical poem in three cantos

Goff, and the Man, I sing, who em’lous plies
The jointed club; whose balls invade the skies;
Who from Edina’s tow’rs, his peaceful home,
In quest of fame o’er Letha’s plains did roam.
Long toil'd the hero, on the verdant field,
Strain'd his stout arm the weighty club to wield;
Such toils it cost, such labours to obtain
The bays of conquest, and the bowl to gain.

O thou GOLFINIA, Goddess of these plains,
Great patroness of GOFF, indulge my strains;
Whether beneath the thorn-tree shade you lie,
Or from Mercerian tow'rs the game survey,
Or 'round the green the flying ball you chase,
Or make your bed in some hot sandy face;
Leave your lov'e abode, inspire his lays,
Who sings of GOFF, and sings thy fav'rite's praise.

North from Edina eight furlongs and more
Lies that fam'd field, on Fortha's sounding shore.
Here, Caledonian Chiefs for health resort,
Confirm their sinews by the manly sport.
Macd----d and umnatch'd D---ple ply
Their pond'rous weapons, and the green defy;
R--tt-y for skill, and C--fe for strength renown'd, 
St--rt and L--sly beat the sandy ground,
And Br--wn and Alst--n, Chiefs well known to fame,
And numbers more the Muse forbears to name.
Gigantic B-gg-r here full oft is seen,
Like huge Behemoth on an Indian green;
His bulk enormous scarce can 'scape the eyes,
Amaz'd spectators wonder how he plies.
Yea here great F---s, patron of the just,
The dread of villains, and the good man's trust,
When spent with toils in serving human kind,
His body recreates, and unbends his mind. 

Bright Phoebus now, had measur'd half the day
And warm'd the earth with genial noontide ray;
Forth rush'd Castalio and his daring foe,
Both arm'd with clubs, and eager for the blow.
Of finest ash Castalio's shaft was made,
Pond'rous with lead, and fenc'd with horn the head,
(The work of Dickson, who in Letha dwells,
And in the art of making clubs excels),
Which late beneath great Claro's arm did bend,
But now is wielded by his greater friend.

And so on.

What I found it most interesting is the information about the ball-maker, Bobson. The balls are:

The work of Bobson; who with matchless art
Shapes the firm hide, connecting evr'y part,
Then in a socket sets the well-stitch'd void,
And thro' the eylet drives the downy hide;
Crowds urging Crowds the forceful brogue impels,
The feathers harden and the Leather swells;
He crams and sweats, yet crams and urges more,
Till scarce the turgid globe contains its store:
The dreaded falcon's pride here blended lies
With pigeons glossy down of various dyes;
The lark's small pinions join the common stock,
And yellow glory of the martial cock.

Soon as Hyperion gilds old Andrea's spires,
From bed the artist to his cell retires;
With bended back, there plies his steely awls,
And shapes, and stuffs, and finishes the balls.
But when the glorious God of day has driv'n
His flaming chariot down the steep of heav'n,
He ends his labour, and with rural strains
Enchants the lovely maids and weary swains:
As thro' the streets the blythsome piper plays,
In antick dance they answer to his lays;
At ev'ry pause the ravish'd crowd acclaim,
And rend the skies with tuneful Bobson's name.
Not more rewarded was old Amphion's song;
That rear'd a town, and this one drags along.
Such is fam'd Bobson, who in Andrea thrives,
And such the balls each vig'rous hero drives.

A celebrity among sports equipment makers, the Nike and Adidas of his day, Bobson lived and worked in St Andrews (Andrea). The poem was written by Thomas Matheson, a lawyer and eventually a minister of the Church of Scotland; the levity of the poem may not have sat well with the required gravitas of a minister of the Kirk, but it was written in 1743, five years before he took the cloth.

Incidentally the heroes of the poem were Duncan Forbes of Culloden (NB this was three years before the demise of the Jacobite uprising), Dalrymple, Rattray, Crosse, Lesley, Alston and Biggar. Hawkeyes will note the echoes of the Aeneid in the first few lines. The match seems to have taken place at Leith. If my reading is correct it seems that Bobson finished his working day with a stroll round the streets with his bagpipes. I love the idea of the lovely maids and weary swains dancing through the town occasionally taking a pause to shout the name of a golf-ball maker.

Wish I'd had this for Team Talk .