About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. 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; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Saturday, 15 December 2012

Tennis balls used as a measure, 1580

A playster for an ague 

Take as much stone pitch to the value of a Tennis bal, and a spoonefull of Tarre, and a penniworth of Treacle and Rosen, to the value of a Tennis ball, and a spoonefull of Hony, boyle it over the fier in a little kettle, and stirre it all togeather till it be well melted, then take a new sheapes skinne, and make holes in it with a bodkin, and spreade the medicine on the fleshye side of the skinne, and lay it to the ache as whot as you may.

An Hospitall for the Diseased, by T C, London 1580

Rosen would be resin, and 'whot' is 'hot'. 'Value' here is presumably used to mean 'size' or 'weight', since the monetary value of what is being measured is explicit - ' a penniworth of treacle and rosen'. This is the earliest example I have come across of an item of specifically sports equipment being used as a non-metaphorical referent outside the field of sport - it's not uncommon to see distances measured by lances or arrows, which would have been used as sporting items, but they are primarily weapons. There's an assumption too in the reference that people dispensing medicine would have a good idea of the size and weight of a tennis ball.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

For sinews that be broken in two

Take Wormes while they be knite, and looke that they departe not, and stamp them, and laye it to the sore, and it will knit the sinewes that be broken in two.
from The Good Huswife's Jewell, 1596

There's a mixture here of the doctrine of signatures and curiously possible viable medicine. The worms would be earthworms, 'knite' - that is knitted together, or mating. The instructions say that you must pulverise them before they separate. The intention here is to use two things which are more often separate, but at certain times come together. Mash them and you catch their 'essence of togetherness'. Current research in the west indicates that earthworms have antibacterial properties, though whether these would help to knit together torn sinews is not known. But certainly pulverised earthworm was a much-used ingredient in early modern western medicine, and is still used in the east. A sad end for them in this case, though following the established literary pattern of the lovers united in death.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

An Elizabethan scare-cure

A mouse rotted and given to children to eat remedieth pissing the bed.

The Widowes Treasure, 1595

Careful reading makes it clear that the children were given the mouse to eat, not actually directed to eat it. Presumably the intention was to provoke the response - 'No, I honestly won't wet the bed, ever again, Only don't make me eat the rotten mouse.'

However, given the nature of Elizabethan medicine we cannot be sure. People were regularly pouring down their throats water distilled from other people's body parts, oils derived from boiled frogs and toads, powdered snail-shells and fish-bones and glass, and goodness knows what else. It is not unlikely that some brave children took a deep breath and a courageous bite of rotten mouse, and no doubt were very, very ill. And were treated appropriately.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Hiccups, folk etymology, and a treatment for the plague

It was while looking at Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1823 edition) during a workshop on change in English that we found ourselves discussing hiccups (we being myself and students and staff from Redborne Upper School).

Walker gives two pronunciations for the word spelt as ‘hiccough’ – hik-kup and hik-kof (his spellings, but without the stress marks or vowel sound indicators). Given that the previous usual words for this were ‘yexing’ and ‘hickit’, which were clearly onomatopoeic, it looks likely that ‘hiccup’ was also onomatopoeic, but given a folk-etymology spelling; this would be on the basis that ‘hiccup’ did not mean anything, but could be thought of as fairly close to ‘hiccough’; and as the phenomenon happened more or less in the throat, ‘cough’ was an extremely plausible word to bring together physical location, sound and spelling. Keep the spelling ‘cough’ and the pronunciation ‘cup’ and all requirements are satisfied.

This seems to be the way that folk etymology works. Generally you have a spoken word to describe something, and the linguistic signifier has no integral connection to the signified thing/action/feeling/whatever. But in some cases there appears some sort of magnetic urge to bring together the received sound and some known word or words to try to make sense of the thing in your hand.

For example, you have something looking like a nut that comes from Spain or France, where it is called castaña or châtaigne, both of which sound vaguely similar to the English words ‘chest’ + ‘nut’; the thing looks enough like a nut (though it is not), to justify creating a word made up from perfectly good English components that we can all understand, though the combination is meaningless, even misleading. The fact that the combined meanings may have little or no sense does not matter at all – asparagus used to be called sparrow-grass, despite there being no basis for any connection between the plant and sparrows; and it is not a grass. Occasionally there occurs a made-up word or phrase in which the vague similarity of sound is reinforced by some other similarity – avocado pears were for some time ‘alligator pears’, the similarity of the skin between animal and fruit urging the usage of ‘alligator’. Its phonic distance from ‘avocado’ isn't so far - two similar vowel sounds in the right place, and the same number of syllables.

My most alarming recent folk-etymology find has been a medical one, in a treatment for the plague. A Joyfull Jewel, T Hill’s translation of Leonardo Fioravanti (1579), recommends dealing with plague buboes thus:

Also you shall open the sores quickly that the matter may come forth, and when they are broken you shall put therein our caustic once only, because it purgeth it divinely.

I have updated the spelling, but the original of ‘caustic’ was ‘cow-stick’. I imagine a printer for whom this was an unknown word (and of course spelling at this time was a free–for-all), working from a mysterious spelling and getting the pronunciation, and from this building a word made from known components. What this led to in terms of possible actual treatment is very scary. I assumed that a cowstick would be a long, pointed stick used for prodding and guiding cows. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries cows were not uncommon in city streets, and would need to be guided and herded around – with cow-sticks.

What stopped me at first seeing the folk etymology was the possible scenario in which it would be advisable, when dealing with a bursting bubo, to use a long stick. A bursting bubo sometimes would visibly spray outwards, so it would be natural to want to keep your distance to avoid infection – or at least unpleasantness. Given that most physicians at this time wore long black gowns, broad hats and beaked masks, the use of a cow-stick would have been by no means the most disturbing aspect of treatment. Once again, it’s good to be alive in the twenty-first century.

By the way:

Take thy finger ends, and stop both thine Ears very hard, and the Hickop will surcease immediately.

A Rich Storehouse or Treasurie for the Diseased, 1607

I tried it and it works. Don’t be tempted to use a cow-stick.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Public administration in the time of pestilence

Hereafter I will wright what Magistrats and their officers should doo in time of pestilence, to preserve the people from great ruin.

All Magistrates and their officers when the pestilence doth reign should with all diligence govern and rule their subjects, unto the which there appertaineth five things.

The first is not to put them in such feare, as now a dayes the most parte do, taking them from their houses feafully carrying them unto the Hospitalls, where a number sick of the pestilence are, for the which cause if they were not infected, that terror were enough to kil them, and this is the first thing to be considered.

The second thing is to cause the Phisitions to helpe them, for there is no such cruel disease, but that the Phisitions in short times may finde remedy for it.
The third is to visit them often times and to comfort them with good words and not to let them lack victuals, least that the necessities and feare might cause the infirmitie and death.

The fourth is to let them remaine in their houses and to give them those things that are necessary for them so that they may be cheerful and wel willing.

The fifth and last thing that should be done is to leave their goods, and not to take and burn them, but to preserve them from the other people, and this doing they shall not be afraid, for this is the best way that can be found in the worlde; and therefore happy shall that Cittie be and those people where the Magistrats and officers do use these orders that I have heer prescribed.

From A Joyfull Jewell, Leonardo Fioravanti, trans John Hester, 1579

Fioravanti was working in Bologna in the mid-sixteenth century. What is noteworthy is the need to state these points, with the implication that on occasions they were ignored; so that plague-affected cities must have been left without administration, doctors, and with looting and forcible removal. He has a perhaps naive trust in doctors’ ability to find a cure, but this is an early example of a public health administration programme in a time of crisis.  

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Dear Doctor, please, don't

If some remedies from about two hundred years ago are mildly amusing or faintly worrying, this one is wholly terrifying:

Swelling in the generative parts: First the patient should be bled in the arm, or leeches may be applied to the inflamed parts, afterwards take a handful of green rue, bruise it, and put it tp the part affected; or take marshmallows a handful, camomile a handful, make a decocotion in a pint of water, pour the liquor from the herbs, add two drams of the tincture of opium, bathe the part, afterwards apply the herbs as a poultice, or make a poultice of oatmeal and vinegar with a little sweet oil in it. Warts and chancres may be destroyed, by touching the warts with a  blue stone vitriol, or a caustic; the other by washing them with a solution of corrosive sublimate.

The Family Physician, Edward Bullman, 1789

How simple it is to write ‘leeches may be applied to the inflamed parts’. Did he know what he was writing? Honestly? I wince whenever I write these words; I’ve copied them in pencil from the original, I’ve transcribed them to computer, and I’ve written them again in this paragraph. I’m still wincing.

Blue stone vitriol was a solution of copper sulphate, effective as an antiseptic, but can burn skin, especially in sensitive areas. Whether it would be preferable to leeches is a difficult call. And 'a solution of corrosive sublimate'? It's mercuric chloride; when you thought things couldn't get any worse, you'll be pleased to know this was formerly used to dissolve corns. 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A seventeenth-century sticking plaster

I rather like this recipe for a plaster, from Nicholas Culpeper’s A Physical Directory, 1651.

Emplastrum nigrumTake of Colophonia Rozin, Ship-pitch, white Wax, Roman Vitriol, Ceruss, Olibanum, Mirrh, of each eight ounces; Oyl of Juniper berries three ounces; Oyl of roses seven ounces; Oyl of Egs two ounces; Oyl of Spike one ounce; white Vitriol, red Corral, Mummy, of each two ounces; earth of Lemnos, Mastich, Dragons blood of each an ounce; the Fat of an Heron one ounce; the Fat of Timullus (a kind of Fish) three ounces; Loadstone prepared two ounces; Earthworms prepared, Camphire, of each one ounce; make them into a plaister, according to art.

It is very good (say they) in green wounds and pricks.

Dragons blood was the resin from a palm, Calamus draco, which was imported from South America and the East Indies; loadstone was magnetic iron oxide; and Roman Vitriol was copper sulphate. None of these would have done much good, as Culpeper implies in his dismissive aside. Perhaps he was aware of a curious recipe in Langham’s The Garden of Health, 1578, which ascribed to earthworms an extraordinary power:
‘Stampe earthwormes, and put thereto the juyce of radish rootes, and quench therein any knife, sworde, or other toole to make it cut Iron as it were Lead.’

Snails and earthworms appear in many medicinal remedies of the time; were people fascinated by their shapeshifting abilities and the muxture of slime and hardness in the snail’s shell?

In 1778 William Lewis’s The New Dispensatory proposed that
'Both these [worms and snails] are supposed to cool and cleanse the viscera. The latter, from their abounding with a viscid glutinous juice, are recommended as a restorative in consumptions; for this purpose they are directed to be boiled in milk [a longstanding recipe]; and thus managed they may possibly be of some service.'

There is a definite doubt expressed here, and Lewis has in any case nothing to say about earthworms. Current research in the west and medical applications in the east suggest that earthworms may have interesting antibacterial properties, and may help in the treatment of thrombosis. Snail mucus may have an application in antispasmodic treatment of the bronchial tree.

Nobody seems to have had a good word for slugs. I have not come across a single medical use for them, though Isaac Walton (The Compleat Angler, 1654) reckoned black slugs were good bait for catching chub. 

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Status and source in sporting terms

I'm reposting this, because I enjoy the theme so much, but mainly for the groups I've recently been working with at the British Library. For those who are tired of football - sorry it's about football.

What is the difference in status between the language the football manager uses, and that used by the footballers he manages (still ‘he’, despite everything)?  I have never heard a manager call himself anything but a ‘manager’, while I have often heard interviewed footballers call their manager ‘the gaffer’.  ‘Manager’ is a word which arrived in English in the sixteenth century from Latin, as a term to describe handling or directing a horse (it is still used, as ‘manege’, for this), while ‘gaffer’ is an abbreviation of ‘godfather’, both of the constituents of that word being derived from Old English words.

In a sense this directs some questioning towards the ‘etymological fallacy’, which states that despite the attractions of the idea, the etymological root of a word is not its ‘deep’ or ‘real’ meaning. But the difference in usage between ‘manager’ and ‘gaffer’ indicates that the etymological root of a word may give clear indicators of its sociolinguistic status, usage, and thus part of what it ‘means’. 

The status between the two words, ‘manager’ and ‘gaffer’, is directly related to their historical origins.  In this case status differentials derive from the different statuses of Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and Old English, in the post-Norman Conquest period, where Latin was the language of government and church, Anglo-Norman French was the language of the wealthy and powerful, and Old English was the language of the dispossessed.  Thus Latin- or French-based words sound to us still more formal, more serious, more authoritative than old English-based words.

To push it a little further: popular ‘football’ comes from Old English fot, and bal, almost definitely Germanic, while rather more posh ‘soccer’ comes from Association Football, ‘association’ being adopted from Latin in the fifteenth century.  The title of the ‘referee’ comes from Old French or directly from Latin, while his or her ‘linesman’, rather lower in status but still with a position of authority, developed from line, from Middle English via a mix of Old English, Old French and Latin, and from the Old English man.  The ‘players’, at the bottom of this linguistic ladder, and with the least authority, derive their name from Old English plega, meaning ‘play’, though their intermediary with authority is their ‘captain’, from Late Latin capitaneus via Old French capitain (though in conversation they might call him 'skipper', from Middle-Dutch scipper) .  Their roles are: ‘strikers’, from Old English strican; ‘forwards’, from Old English foreweard; ‘halves’, from Old English halb; and ‘backs’, from Old English bæc; with behind them a reassuring ‘goalkeeper’, from Old English gælan (probably) and cepan. 

To raise their statuses they may wish to be called ‘attack’, from French attaquer, and ‘defence’, from Old French defens.  Both of these are abstract nouns, while the corresponding term for the middle area, ‘midfield’, describing a place, is from Old English mid  and feld.  I would be wary of pushing this much further; but then it’s only a ‘game’, from Old English gamen (‘sport’, far more serious, comes from Old French desport).

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Trench Art but not Trench Art

I recently acquired from my (very) friendly local antiques dealer this curious object, which looked immediately like a piece of First World War trench art. All the parts were there – the brass cylinder shape of the shell, the rim round the base, with what appeared to be notches milled by hand, and most of all the lid made from a penny with the head of King George V, which opened to reveal the date 1915. But why was the penny so worn? Why did the decorative crest not have any apparent military reference? And what would the patent numbers on the base reveal?


USA patent 2146896 can be found easily on http://www.google.com/patents?id=RH5DAAAAEBAJ&pg=PA1&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=1#v=onepage&q&f=false The patent for the Gas Burner Igniter was issued to J H G Horstmann on 14 February 1939, for a hand-held tool to light a gas fire or cooker, with a brass casing at the base to hold a battery which gives a charge to ignite gas fed in through a nozzle. John Hermann Gustav Horstmann was one of the family of Horstmanns whose engineering company based in Bath developed from a clock-making business in the mid-nineteenth century into a major engineering concern producing cars, gas-flow controllers and central heating systems.

So, not First World War trench art, and a clear explanation for the worn condition of the penny. But then, more intriguing, why such a strong visual reference to trench art? Could this be Second World War trench art, with a knowing reference to the earlier conflict in the selection of a 1915 penny? But what of the crest, not as far as I have been able to find out, having any military reference? All rather mystifying, unless it is thought of as an example of how trench art became embraced within the general culture of folk-art, with skills acquired during the First World War being maintained and practised until after the Second World War, in much the same way that new words and words shared between classes of people in the First World War became common usage, and were adapted, retained or abandoned during and after the Second World War.

Monday, 17 September 2012

How to cure a nose bleed, 1639

I have never been sure how to stop a nose bleed. Pinch the nose? Let it bleed? Hold ice in the mouth? Set the head back or forward? Should the head be set between the knees, or is that to do with being sick, or giving birth? A moment's doubt throws all into doubt. I came across this comforting remedy, or course of treatment, while researching for How To Cure The Plague, to be published next year.

'Of Bleeding at the Nose' 

from Philip Barrough's The Method of Physick, 1639 

Let the patient speak little, and let him eschue moving, trouble of mind, and chiefly anger. Also it is good to have the lower parts of the head highest. For the cure, you must take heed that in bleeding at the nose, the lower parts lie highest, and the head downward. The cure must be begun with those remedies which turn the bloud to other parts of the body. First therefore if the body be full, and age will suffer it, and if the sick be not resolved, you must cut the veins on the arme, right against the flowing of the bloud at the nose.

Moreover, friction and rubbing of the inferior parts, as the armes, hands, thighs, share [groin], and feet is very profitable; and it is marvellously good to put the feet into warme water, ever rubbing them up and down.

Barrough’s recommended treatment for a nose bleed becomes a whole-body experience involving cupping the liver area if the right nostril is bleeding, or the area of the spleen if the left nostril is bleeding; an ointment made from frankincense  and ‘the soft haires of a Hare’ is applied to the nose, the ears are stopped ‘strongly with linen and wax’, and the patient should ‘hold in the mouth cold raine water’. For good measure ‘the flesh of Snayles brayed with vinegar, or their shells burnt and brayed’ [crushed] are good, and should be applied to the forehead as a paste, with vinegar.

If the bleeding has not stopped by then, and the patient is still within the grasp of whoever is treating him or her, a kind of homeopathic treatment is to be deployed, for ‘above all the bloud which commeth out of the patient’s nose is good, if it be burned in an earthen pot, and then beaten; take of it three drams, of Bolearmoniak one scruple, of camphor one scruple, with the white of an egg and a little vinegar, make it thick like hony, and lay it to the forehead, and put it into the nose.’

Often the last remedy in a list is so bizarre that its power probably lies in frightening the patient into convincing him or herself and everyone else in the room that recovery has been effected, that the nose bleed has indeed stopped, even though there may be fountains of blood springing from the nostrils. ‘Necessity requiring it, it is lawfull to put [in] two grains or three of Opium; Asses dung dried and made into a powder is wonderfully good, and also hogs dung hath the like property.’

Friday, 7 September 2012

On the Kindle

I promised that when I got a Kindle the first book I read would be Anna Karenina, then Middlemarch, and then maybe The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe this was ambitious, and I wasn’t in any case sure how I would feel about using a Kindle. While trying to keep an open mind, I have always appreciated books and felt them to be amongst the most important human achievements. My books tell me who I am; by looking at their spines I understand what I have learned. So I had several reservations. Would the texts purchased and embarked on disappear with out warning?  How would I manage my non-fiction reading habits, would I be able to put in notes, mark passages with symbols that I would understand as ‘good’ or ‘not so good’, or ‘awful’. I didn’t know how easily I would be able refer to passages one or two pages back without recognising the shape of the paragraph or certain key words.

I still don’t know how it works with non-fiction, but I have read 17% of Anna Karenina (which itself is a new way of looking at my progress through a book). This is in two weeks, including a few days reading a translation I didn’t like, and searching through the list for a better one. This is a major advantage of reading out-of-copyright literature in translation – a number of samples can be made before commitment. I very much enjoy being able to set the font to a size that does not strain my eyes, without feeling that I am becoming decrepit.

But most of all I enjoy the design and the feel of the thing. I have long considered the thingness of books: their size, weight, smell, feel, whether the presentation conveys ideas of power, importance, popularity, ease, false humility. The thingness of the Kindle is unavoidable: the softness of the leather cover (yes, I know that alone cost more than I have paid for most books I have bought), the gentleness of the page-turning button’s click, the silk finish of the surface of the machine. But the introduction to the machine comes as a letter which includes this:

‘Our top design objective was for Kindle to disappear in your hands – to get out of the way – so you can enjoy your reading. We hope you’ll quickly forget you’re reading on an advanced wireless device and instead be transported into that mental realm readers love, where the outside world dissolves, leaving only the author’s stories, words and ideas.’

Few texts could be as disingenuous. The point of a Kindle is that it is primarily designed for the reader in a world which does not disappear, where you can quickly step aside and back again at the click of a button, without the business of finding your place, finding a place to put your bookmark, adjusting your eyes to Times New Roman point 12. You know you are reading a Kindle – not ‘reading on’ a Kindle. For years I’ve read books, understanding by that word both the text and the thing; should I now begin the separation between message and medium?

And the idea that the Kindle should disappear in my hands; I see the intention, that it should be designed to the point of minimum intrusion, but it is too well designed. It is a pleasure. The cover is weighted so that it gives the feeling of being about 20% of the way through a book – too far to put it down, far enough to know that you are an active participant in the reading process, that you are investing time and work, which will be repaid. The book and cover design works equally well for left or right-handed readers. The screen with no glare and no loss of contrast in sunlight is achieved with the application of science far beyond my comprehension. And the overt discreetness of it, the use of lower-case ‘k’ so that it is presented almost apologetically – those designers knew exactly what level of reluctance they were up against. Maybe the ‘disappearing’ text in the letter is part of that too. The silent fanfare makes forgiving judges of us.  

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Case of Frederick Wright

There are many kids of bravery. My paternal grandfather attested in 1915, while the father of my father’s closest friend was a conscientious objector, who spent a period of the First World War in Wormwood Scrubs Prison, amongst other prisoners who were not allowed to talk to each other, being allowed to communicate only by singing hymns.

Reading last week the Pall Mall Gazette for 1916 I came across the following court report for 14 June 1916:

Man in Woman’s Clothing 

At Highgate Police Court this morning, fashionably dressed in a long blue navy coat, with college cap and veil, and white kid gloves, Frederick Wright, aged twenty-two, a valet, was brought up on remand charged with being an idle and disorderly person, clad in female attire, with giving a false description when registered as a lodger, and with being a deserter. Defendant lodged in the house of a Belgian lady, and gave the name of Katherine Woodhouse. The Bench ordered him to be handed over to a military escort.

The sentence of the court clearly did consider him as an individual, but not with any individual concerns or circumstances that would do anything but force him into the required pattern of activity demanded of men of his age. While I hope that he was handed over to sympathetic authorities, what stands out is his putting himself in court in clearly outstandingly fashionable ladies’ clothes. I hope that such bravery helped him through whatever followed.

While thinking about this story I had in my mind the story of Achilles, whose mother Thetis, knowing the prophesy that her son would be killed in the course of the Trojan War, hides him from Odysseus when he comes looking to take Achilles along with him. Thetis hides her son by dressing him in women's clothes, a stratagem which Odysseus overcomes by setting up a false alarm, which Achilles reacts to by grabbing the nearest weapon.

Looking for parallels of this in the story of Frederick Wright, we see the dressing in 'female attire' to escape being taken off to fight, but then it becomes more difficult. Wright reacted to danger by employing a different sort of weapon - he reinforced his presentation by dressing so fashionably that observers noted the details. This is not a disguise, is the message he presents, it is the reality, and no-one is going to be able to deny it.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Some websites concerning the London Olympic Association Right

Links to websites concerning the London Olympic Association Right:





The Curious Case of von Hawkins

On 17th May 1916 The Times published a report about a man who had been charged under the Defence of the Realm Act, a widely-ranging piece of legislation designed to maintain morale and prevent thoughtless acts that would prove detrimental to the war effort.  The article read:

£100 Fine for Disloyal Talk

William Hedley Hawkins, 34, of Bassett-road, Ladbroke-grove, a correspondence clerk employed at the Smithfield goods depot of the Great Western Railway, who surrendered to his bail at Guildhall yesterday, was fined £100 with the alternative of three months’ imprisonment for having made false statements calculated to prejudice recruiting. The case has been reported in The Times.

The defendant, giving evidence on his own behalf, denied having made many of the statements attributed to him. Last November, he said, he applied for and obtained permission to attest, but domestic matters prevented him from doing so. He had waited till the Government made some provision for married men. His nickname in the office was ‘Von Hawkins’. He certainly once made the absurd remark, ‘We shall one day see the Germans marching up the Mile End-road,’ and he also once said ‘I suppose I shall have to head a deputation if the Germans come over here.’ But that was mere chaff in reply to some bantering remarks. He urged that what he had said humorously had been taken seriously. Men who were employed at the Smithfield goods depot said they had attested on the defendant’s advice. [Attesting involved enlisting and being allowed to return to civilian life until called for.] 

Mr Frampton, for the defendant, said that notice of appeal would be given in due course.

The Pall Mall Gazette for Thursday 29th June 1916 reported the appeal proceedings under the headline:

Alleged to be Pro-German

The Statement of a City Clerk

An Appeal

 At the Guildhall Quarter Sessions today William Hedley Hawkins, a clerk in a city office of the Great Western Railway, appealed against a conviction for making false statements likely to prejudice the recruitment, discipline and training of HM Forces when he was fined £100 or three months’ imprisonment. Mr Moore for the respondent said that appellant made statements to fellow employees that ‘God made Germany the first country in the world, and put the Danube there to keep out the barbarians’, that the King and Queen were secretly friends of Germany, and that the Russians were the scum of the earth; that the English have ‘brought this war on themselves’, that he did not think the working classes should be made to pay for the war, and that he had in circulation circulars to repudiate the war loan. He also said that ‘all soldiers are licensed murderers of the English Government’, and that he would not willingly have them in his house. 

A young lady in the office had three brothers in the Army, and when appellant heard that they had taken part in a bayonet charge, he said that they ‘ought to have a special place in hell.’ 

He further remarked ‘Let people who are mugs enough go out and be shot’, and said there was no freedom in this country. The freedom of a fellow-employee, he said, was to work from nine in the morning until 5.30 at night. Of the Wittenberg camp incidents [during a 1914-15 typhus epidemic at a prisoner-of-war camp German guards and medical staff had abandoned their prisoners, who had previously been abused and allegedly tortured] he said that the British prisoners were not treated half so badly as the Germans in the English camp. He himself would not be called up; they would not want him, as he should not fight.

On the evening of Friday 30th June the Pall Mall Gazette reported on the continuation of the appeal:

The hearing was continued at the City Quarter Sessions today of an appeal by William Hedley Hawkins, a GWR clerk, against a conviction for making statements likely to prejudice recruiting and the discipline and training of HM Forces, and a fine of £100 or three months’ imprisonment. Charles Parnell, a staff clerk, said that in December last he heard the appellant say that he would rather fight for the Germans than the English, and when the Germans came he would go and meet them with a red flag. Another clerk said that the appellant had remarked that ‘the Germans were justified in sinking the Lusitania because it carried guns and ammunition.’ Detective Inspector Lane of the railway police told the court that when questioned the appellant said, ‘It is all rot. The statements are garbled by girls who did not understand’. 

Family Tradition 

Inspector Garrett of the City Police said that when charged prisoner said, ‘This is a trumped up charge engineered by the company. It has arisen through a lot of chipping that is going on’. Mr E Wild KC submitted that the statements were not such as would prejudice recruiting. Mr Wild referred to the speech of the Attorney General before the Bill was passed. 

The Chairman: ‘We are not concerned with the Act itself.’ 

Mr Wild said that the appellant was as anxious as anybody that this country should win the war. Defendant came from a Devonshire family, and there was a tradition that he was descended from Sir John Hawkins, the famous Admiral. The appellant had done the work of a recruiting sergeant, and was himself an attested man. He had been called ‘von Hawkins’ because for six years before the war he had worn his moustache in the German fashion and he looked like a German. 

The Debating Society Attitude 

The appellant said there was a great deal of badinage in the office, and he took ‘the debating society attitude’, to keep the argument going. When he was called ‘Daddy’ and ‘von Hawkins’ he took it as a joke, and he expected that his remarks would be take in the same spirit. Many of the remarks had been torn away from the context. His remarks about the Kaiser being a gentleman and a lover of peace were quotations from pre-war newspapers to show how opinions had changed in this country. 
Going to press for evening publication, the Pall Mall Gazette was unable to publish the end of the story, which was reported by The Times the following day, ending with:

The Court upheld the conviction and sentence. They allowed 14 days for payment of the fine, but refused to state a case.

£100 was probably more than Hawkins’ annual salary, and was the same amount of fine levied three weeks earlier on Bertrand Russell for publishing the leaflet ‘Two Years Hard Labour for Refusing to Disobey the Dictates of Conscience’. In London early morning readers of the report in The Times on 1st July may have noticed the cessation of the rumble of the guns in Flanders which had been firing continuously for eight days; at 7.30 that morning junior officers in the trenches blew their whistles for the first advance of what came to be known as the Battle of the Somme.

The story of Hawkins and what he did or did not say is not an easy one. The Defence of the Realm Act 1914 allowed for censorship of information, so it is impossible to know exactly what Hawkins and his colleagues knew about the events at the Wittenberg camp. The evidence recorded in the trial reports for what Hawkins did or did not say may depend on memory, opportunism, grudges, fear or lies. Some of his alleged statements seem to have been bewilderingly provocative, stupidly so, as if calling down the power of the state on his head – the references to the Lusitania and soldiers as murderers seem particularly asking for trouble. Yet at times we have the impression of a grumpy old man (‘Daddy’ to his colleagues), avoiding enlisting – and the court report pages of the Pall Mall Gazette show frequent references to deserters and avoiders – who just got carried away with the persona of the ‘office pessimist’. He was still saddled with the nickname ‘von Hawkins’ through the long-term wearing of a ‘German moustache’. However, the post-Lusitania anti-German rioting would have rendered the wearing of such a moustache in 1916 inflammatory and probably dangerous; it is unlikely that he would have been able to maintain this and keep his job in an environment where anyone who had had a German-sounding family name would have anglicised it. Hawkins was clearly at pains to emphasise his ‘Englishness’. By the time of the trial he was apparently an attested man, and colleagues had enlisted on his advice. Did the reference to the King and Queen as ‘secretly friends of Germany’ touch a raw nerve (at this stage the royal family’s name had not yet been changed from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, and such concerns were felt by others)? With the reference to ‘the working classes [being] made to pay for the war’, and the reference to the red flag, was Hawkins perceived as a potential revolutionary?  Did the wrapping up of the trial without the bench making a case have anything to do with the critical battle opening in France? Was Hawkins being made an exemplar? 

Friday, 6 July 2012

William Blake's The Fly - reposting and some further thoughts

This is a reposting of an earlier post, with some further thoughts.

I have been working on the British Library’s English Online project, researching for a hypertext contextualisation of English Literature between 1780 and 1900. Recently I was working on William Blake, whose work has been challenging me since I was at school. Some recent work based on Michael Phillips’ admirable examination of Blake’s writing processes (William Blake, The Creation of the Songs, British Library, 2000) has fixed one poem in my mind. It’s in the notebook that Blake used for thirty years, which is currently on display in the British Library exhibition Writing Britain until 25th September. Here is the poem:

The Fly

Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Nothing is there in the poem that doesn’t need to be there, and everything that needs to be there is there. As Michael Phillips writes, ‘Blake’s choice of language [is] as spare as anything written since the seventeenth century, apart, perhaps, from the Jubilate Agne of Christopher Smart.’ It was probably written after 1791, deduced from analysis of Blake’s handwriting. ‘Will Blake’, as he signed his name in some of his letters to his friend George Cumberland.

Following a reference to Blake’s engravings made in the previous decade I looked at Joseph Ritson’s Select Collection of English Songs (1782), for which Blake did eight engravings. The first section of the songs covers drinking songs, not what I would immediately associate with Blake. Song XIX goes as follows:

Busy, curious, thirsty Fly,
Drink with me, and drink as I;
Freely welcome to my cup,
Could’st thou sip, and sip it up.
Make the most of life you may,
Life is short, and wears away.

Both alike are mine and thine,
Hastening quick to their decline;
Thine’s a summer, mine no more,
Though repeated to threescore;
Threescore summers, when they’re gone,
Will appear as short as one.

It is marked “Made extempore by a Gentleman, occasion’d by a Fly drinking out of his Cup of Ale.”

Similar thoughts, occasioned by the visitation of a fly. And there is the couplet:
For I dance
And drink, and sing,
referring us back to the drinking song. Were dancing, drinking and singing ‘play’ for Blake? We know for certain that he sang, since there are references to him performing his songs at gatherings. The British Library also has a letter written by George Cumberland in 1815, in which he mentions visiting the Blakes, drinking tea with them, and Mrs Blake uttering seditious comments.

Looking at the poem again I notice that Blake has used the same metre as the earlier song, but has split the line in two, making it smaller and jerkier, like a fly and its movements. I’d also propose that the arrangement of five stanzas in four lines makes us look closer at the twice mentioned action of the hand brushing, the hand with five fingers, of which four do the brushing.

The third stage of writing the poem includes the lines:
The cut worm
Forgives the plow
And dies in peace
And so do thou
which were removed, as Blake writes a poem which is based on an act, an observation, questioning, reasoning and finally a hypothesis. It is an extraordinarily concentrated and dense poem, with no place for the statement of the rejected stanza, as the repetition of ‘if’ in the last two lines calls the reader back to the ‘If’ that begins the fourth stanza. What may look like a definitive statement in the last stanza is actually dependent on that ‘If’. The earlier drinking song is a statement, and the move from this closed pronouncement to the questioning of Blake’s version is an act of invitation to participate in the ‘thought’, the act of thinking, which is underlying subject of the poem. 

The survival of First World War slang

In my school years, if a group of kids were caught doing something that necessitated a hasty exit, we would ‘scarper’. It was it seems a London dialect expression, derived from the Italian scappare (to escape) in the nineteenth century, but I suspect that its survival was strengthened by the rhyming association with ‘Scapa Flow’, which would have come into general consciousness after the end of the First World War, when the German fleet was scuttled there in 1919.

This is connected to my interest in the persistence of Franglais and other soldiers’ slang in the years following the end of the First World War; I recently came across a cartoon in Punch from April 1919, two labourers talking to each other:

Alf: Ain't you goin' to eat anyfink 'Erbert?
'Erbert: Well, my old fam ain't turned up with my bit of dayjerny.

The questions I am thinking about are:
Which terms survived and for how long?
How did they correspond to the terms actually used in France and Flanders by British soldiers – did they change their application over time?
And are there corresponding inter-language survivals in other languages – particularly French, German and Flemish?

Cartoons, reflecting the speech of people, would appear at first to be a good source, but of course they are in this case reflecting the language (supposed) of one socio-economic group (labourers) to a different group (middle class Punch- readers). Does this matter, since the joke depends on recognising and understanding rather than actively using?