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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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 .