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.


Wednesday, 19 June 2013

A Notable Thing

A certain wench was born within fifteen miles of London, who within a year and a half after her birth did begin to eat earth, stones, brick and gravel. And so continued therein (having all her delight in eating of such baggage), also she did eat the woollen sleeves that were on her arms, besides that she did eat a glove. And on a time as her mother did feed her with milk, there chanced to fall a great piece of soot out of the chimney into the said milk, which soot the said child did take out of the dish with her fingers, and did eat it most greedily. She abhorred then bread and butter, and other such natural food. Whereby she was marvellously consumed with a flux, and yet she liveth, having nothing in her but skin and bone. I saw her in June 1577. She was born in Charsay, within two or three miles of Staines, at which time she was full three years of age.

This is from ‘A Thousand Notable Things’ compiled by Thomas Lupton, and published in 1579, and again in 1601. His grammar and/or punctuation seem to have gone a little awry, since he implies that she was full three years of age at the time of her birth, which alone would have made this a notable thing. I assume Charsay to be Chertsey.

Thomas Lupton was a protestant polemicist, who proposed to Queen Elizabeth the notably intelligent idea of a scheme of national insurance, including taxing the wealthy to support the sick and poor, and a national fund to repair bridges and coastal defences. His most well-known text, ‘A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts’, which remained in print into the nineteenth century, is a collection of folk recipes, observations, and odd ‘facts’ drawn from several medieval encyclopedias.

Of which more later.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Pregnacare Venus

Images from the series I am working on, called Pregnacare Venus (1, 2, etc.). ‘Venus’ with reference to the name usually given to European prehistoric carvings of pregnant women, though I don’t think it’s entirely appropriate. The figures represent women who may be about to give birth or may have just given birth, not a state usually attributed to Venus. ‘Pregnacare’, because that is the name of the raw material; so their generic name may change in the future. They are carved by hand from Pregnacare tablets, which measure 19 mm in the longest dimension.



Tuesday, 11 June 2013

To trench

'A boy from the town, trenching on Smith's monopoly, was selling papers with the afternoon's news.'

This is in H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds. This use of the verb ‘to trench’ in the sense of ‘to encroach on’ is very enjoyable. Which way does the trench go? Does it move over no man’s land on a broad front or is it a sap, moving directly forwards? The OED offers a single quotation, and that from 1631 – ‘Who did it? I? I trench the liberty o’ the subjects?’ from Staple of Newes by Ben Jonson. Sharp eyes will note that the earlier use did not require ‘on’, and that it is designated 'obs', for obsolete.

Any chance that, as a part of the centenary commemorative events next year, ‘to trench’ could be reinvigorated? Will the Labour Party trench the electorate’s faith in the Coalition? Does the knowledge that I have to paint the back door trench the prospect of a sunny weekend? Will a London football club trench Manchester’s apparent monopoly of the Premiership title? Can I trench the ground ivy’s domination of the topsoil at my allotment – and, by digging a trench, could I do that simultaneously metaphorically and physically?

Sunday, 9 June 2013

One Day Wonder 3

On a not so warm June day we were very pleased to welcome so many new visitors to Valentines Mansion. A few views of the day:


Works seen here are by Anna Kiff, Pete Smithson and Shelagh McCarthy:

by Shelagh McCarthy and Helen Rousseau:

by Anne Eggebert and Angela Conway:

and Lynn Hewitt's performance work on and from the grand staircase balcony: