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.


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?