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Posted on 2011.01.03 at 00:52
I have been playing with Google’s latest Christmas present, Ngram, a box of delights which gives me the answers to all sorts of questions I’d never thought of asking. When did the term ‘luncheon’ give way to ‘lunch’? According to Ngram, it was around 1880 that ‘lunch’ started to take off in popularity, and around 1920 that ‘luncheon’ began its gradual slide into disuse. And what about that other classic U/non-U pairing, ‘pudding’ and ‘dessert’? Ngram suggests, and this I wouldn’t have predicted, that both words began to fall out of fashion around 1940, but that ‘dessert’ suddenly started to regain popularity in the late 1960s, outstripped ‘pudding’ in 1980 and has been on the rise ever since. If this is antiquarianism, I plead guilty.

Like Shana Worthen at One Peppercorn, I find that Ngram works particularly well for food- and drink-related terms. You can map the decline of turnips alongside the rise of cauliflowers; pinpoint the moment (around 1940) when the word 'pizza' entered the English language; or follow the popularity contest beween 'yogurt', 'yoghurt' and 'yoghourt'. But my favourite search term so far is muesli. Ngram charts muesli’s first brief flash of popularity in the 1940s, then its dramatic second coming in the mid-1960s and its unstoppable rise thereafter. The examples on Google Books add some nice period touches:

Sir Stafford [Cripps], in the U.S. for a World Bank meeting, alarmed Washington hostesses because he is a vegetarian. But the British Embassy averted any serious crisis by giving out the recipe for his favorite dinner dish, called muesli. Muesli is made of crumbled Shredded Wheat biscuit sprinkled with raw oatmeal and nuts and topped with grated apple, tomato juice or the juice of half a lemon. Sir Stafford likes it best served with a bottle of yoghurt. (Life, 11 October 1948)

The muesli passed round. It was nicer than I thought it would be. (Geoffrey Ashe, The Finger and the Moon, 1973)

Unfortunately, ‘muesli’ also reveals the limitations of Google’s book-scanning technology. I was puzzled by the apparent popularity of muesli in the early nineteenth century, until a quick source-check on Google Books revealed the reasons why:

To promote his favourite object, of increasing the productiveness of revenue, Mr Grenville extended the muesli-collecting powers of naval officers to America and the West Indies. (Robert Bisset, The History of the Reign of George III, 1810)

He fought with Cyaxares, grandson of Deloces, forced the Cimmerli from Asia, took Smyrna and carried on war for many years against the Muesli, and died after a reign of fifty-seven years. (John Dymock, Bibliotheca Classica, 1833)

Again, in the same great poem he condenses much thought in a single line: ‘I am much, you are nothing! you would be all, I would be merely muesli.’ (The Living Age, 1869)

I particularly like this last example, an inspired mis-scanning of Bishop Blougram's Apology: 'you would be all, I would be merely much - you beat me there.' The more significant question, of course, is how far these scanning errors compromise the accuracy of Ngram's data. Several people have pointed out that Google's OCR technology can't tell the difference between 'f' and long 's', which is something of a problem when it comes to distinguishing between 'fuck' and 'suck' (or 'funk' and 'sunk', or 'cafe' and 'case', or loads of others). Certainly a lot of the results, particularly before 1800, are pretty badly contaminated by scanning errors; take the results for spam, for example:

No more sense spoken, all things Goth and Vandal,
Till you be summ'd again, Velvets and Scarlets,
Anointed with Gold Lace, and Cloth of Silver,
Turn'd into Spam ..

(Beaumont and Fletcher, Wit without Money, 1750 edition)

But if you approach it in the right spirit of frivolity, and don't pay too much attention to the hype about the emerging science of 'culturomics' (which, we're told, 'extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry' to the social sciences and the humanities), Ngram is an endlessly entertaining toy. I thoroughly recommend it.

Spem in allium

Posted on 2010.06.12 at 12:55
To many people I suppose our back garden would seem ragged and untidy, but that’s how we prefer it. (We tell ourselves it’s the classic English country garden look.) Like the Revd F.A. Simpson, famously eccentric Fellow of my old college, I wander around the garden with a pair of secateurs, idly snipping things off when they happen to catch my eye. The grass, having been left to get overgrown, is now brown and dead in patches where I’ve cut it back. But the pyracantha, a thorny and bad-tempered plant which doesn’t contribute much to the garden for eleven months of the year, has suddenly burst into blossom, and has been attracting squadrons of bees in search of nectar to tide them over the June Gap. The apple tree is bearing fruit for the first time in three years, the strawberry bed is doing well, and last week the clematis and the allium came into flower.

‘No one celebrates the allium’ says Denise Levertov in her poem ‘In Praise of Allium’, but the allium has its brief moment of glory in Lorrie Moore’s novel A Gate at the Stairs, which I’m in the middle of reading:

In the flowerbeds were the strangest blooms of all: tall leafless stalks crowned by purple floreted globes. They looked like probes, or sentries, or gaslights, or wands, the handsome goons of the garden. Alium, they were called, and in actuality were giant mutant chives. Their bulbs were like onions, and squirrel-proof, and they were supposed to be a kind of accent flower, but Sarah had planted them thickly all round the house in a kind of fierce, orchardlike fence, as if to enhance TV reception.

I went to hear Lorrie Moore in conversation with Geoff Dyer at the British Library a couple of months ago, during my own personal June Gap when the supplies of nectar seemed to be running perilously low. Dyer praised A Gate at the Stairs but objected that the narrative voice seemed ‘too wise’ for its 28-year-old narrator. He’s right, of course: at that age you have better things to do than pause to consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, and that passage on the allium is just one of many in the novel where you can hear the voice of Lorrie Moore speaking through her protagonist. But Moore’s response, without missing a beat, was that the narrative voice was meant to be smart, not wise – ‘and there’s no one smarter than a 28-year-old’. I commend this thought to any of my friends in their late twenties who may be worrying that the best years of their youth are already behind them. In heaven we’ll all be 28 years old.

Hrim on lime

Posted on 2010.03.19 at 22:01
There’s one day left to watch Julien Temple’s Requiem for Detroit? and anyone who hasn’t already done so should get straight over to the BBC website and see it. It’s a remarkable and beautiful piece of film-making. Temple’s account of the rise and fall of the Detroit automobile industry does have a whiff of conspiracy theory at times, as when he explains that the flight to suburbia, and the building of the freeway system, were part of the Big Three’s grand strategy to keep the cycle of consumption going (‘Detroiters needed cars, and roads to drive them on, and the construction and auto lobbies made sure they got them’), but he’s less interested in the politics and economics of it all than in climbing through jagged holes in the walls of abandoned factories, or running his camera along empty streets, and leaving the scenes of urban dereliction to speak for themselves.

One of the things I liked about it was the way that, despite being a very American story, it’s filtered through a very English sensibility. The images of deserted cityscapes gradually returning to nature are straight out of Richard Jefferies’ After London or J.G. Ballard’s Hello America. (The latter is possibly my favourite Ballard novel, and certainly contains my favourite Ballardian line: ‘Under the guise of crossing America, they were about to begin that far longer safari across the diameter of their own skulls.’ If I had to pick one sentence to represent the whole of Ballard’s fiction, that would be the one.) But the best moment comes right at the end of the film, when the camera moves smoothly along a monorail through inner-city Detroit and the voice-over suddenly switches, without warning, into a poem:

Wondrous is this wall-stead, fate broke it,
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, frost on the concrete,

walls gape, torn up, destroyed,
consumed by age. Earth-grip holds
the proud builders, departed, long lost,
in the hard grasp of the grave, until a hundred generations
of people have passed.

It sounded familiar, but what was it? I guessed it was Anglo-Saxon, but I needed Google’s help to identify it as The Ruin from the Exeter Book. The lovely half-line ‘hrim on lime’, literally ‘rime on lime’, is thought to be a reference to the Roman mortar in the walls at Aquae Sulis (modern-day Bath), fallen into ruin by the time the poem was written in the eighth century. ‘Frost on the concrete', which sounds like an anachronism, is precisely accurate as a translation.

Fisher & Sperr, no more

Posted on 2010.03.12 at 10:36
Not all secondhand booksellers conform to the popular stereotype; that is to say, not all are grumpy old men guarding their treasures jealously and doing everything in their power to drive customers away. One who did, however, was John Sperr, proprietor of Fisher & Sperr, in Highgate, who has just died at the age of ninety-six. James Campbell, on the back page of this week’s TLS, recalls a visit to the shop last December when he had considerable difficulty persuading the proprietor to sell him anything:

Mr Sperr declined to make small talk. On being asked a question, he peered at invoices through a magnifying glass with an inbuilt lightbulb. When we went to pay for an unpriced book, he plucked a (not low) figure out of the air, then scrutinized our banknote. We regretted that such an appetizing bookshop was so deprived of customers.

An offended reader wrote to say that “had you known that the bookseller was ninety-six, you might have made more allowances”, and he is correct. Others wrote to tell of being refused requests to look at books in the back room, where the treasures were said to be. One had the experience of presenting a book at the till, only to have the price rubbed out and replaced with a higher one. As the obituarist in the Camden New Journal wrote: “Stories of his idiosyncrasies were legendary.”

I first visited the shop some twenty-five years ago, at which time the proprietor’s idiosyncrasies were already well established. Most of the stock was unpriced, and when you took a book to the till he would look you over carefully before deciding how much to ask for it. His philosophy of book-pricing was based on the assumption that the customer was a cheapskate. To sell a book was thus an admission of defeat, as it meant that the book must have been priced too cheaply; the buyer must have spotted something in it, some hidden pearl of value, which he the bookseller had failed to notice. His object was therefore to name a price slightly above the maximum you would be willing to pay, a skill which after years of practice (the shop having opened in 1947) he had perfected to a state of near-clairvoyance.

On my early visits I was able to venture upstairs to the first and second floors where most of the stock was housed. After all these years I don’t recall much about them, just a dim memory of some elegant, well-proportioned rooms with books along the mantelpiece and a wall of eighteenth-century calf; the only book I remember distinctly was a copy of Pope’s Works in the folio edition of 1717. I already knew the proprietor’s habits well enough to know that it would be pointless – would even, in some way, have seemed discourteous – to take anything downstairs and ask for it to be priced. On revisiting the shop several years later (circa 1989) I found that the upper floors had been closed off, but on penetrating to the back of the ground floor, behind the proprietor’s cubbyhole, I discovered another room which I had never even noticed on my previous visits, smelling slightly of damp and filled, incongruously, with hundreds of volumes of modern philosophy.

After I moved back to London in 2006 I occasionally called in at Fisher & Sperr for old time’s sake, but found it a melancholy experience. By this time the shop had contracted to a single room, with the proprietor hunched over a cluttered desk, under the beam of an anglepoise lamp, barely seeming to notice when a customer came in. The stock had long since ceased to turn over – the same faded maps and prints in the window, the same overpriced Folio Society volumes inside – and the place was clearly living on borrowed time. Even so, I was glad it was there, as it allowed me to imagine that the rooms upstairs were still full of eighteenth-century books, just as I had seen them twenty-five years ago. I shall miss it. Its disappearance leaves a small but nagging absence, like a missing tooth, in my mental map of London.


Posted on 2010.01.02 at 12:11
It was a mild shock to find myself in the Times Higher Education Supplement the other week, shyly confiding to the world that ‘there certainly have been times when it seemed as though my book collecting was taking over my life’. Did I really say that? So far, no one among my academic friends has mentioned the article to me. This may be because no one bothers to read the Times Higher these days, now that job vacancies are advertised online. On the other hand, it may be because they are too kind to draw attention to the fact that I come across as a man in the grip of an obsession.

Oh well, if the cap fits, wear it. I don’t collect nearly as much as I used to, but it’s true that book collecting still consumes a lot of my time and attention. So here, instead of a review of the year, is a list of a few of the books I’ve bought over the last twelve months, with some attempt to explain why I find them interesting.

Five books ..Collapse )


Posted on 2009.12.24 at 21:02
Geoffrey Hill’s poem Fantasia on ‘Horbury’ imagines the Victorian hymn-writer John Bacchus Dykes visiting the village of Horbury, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Horbury is not only the name of the village but also the name of Dykes’s most famous hymn tune, better known as ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’, reputedly (but probably not really) played on board the Titanic as the ship went down.

Dry walls, and nettles battered by the dust,
Odours from gathered water, muddled storm-clouds
Disastrous over the manufactured West Riding.

Mind – a fritter of excrement; step
Aside, step aside, sir! Ah, but a priest
In his prime watches where he goes. He goes

To tender his confession. Forgiveness
Journeys towards him like a brisk traveller
On the same road. Is this Horbury?

Yes: and he will perpetuate this refuge.
Yes: and he will weaken, scribbling, at the end,
Of unspeakable desolation.

Alan Robinson, one of the few critics to have paid this poem any sustained attention, takes issue with what he sees as its ‘patronizing attitude’ towards its subject. He chides Hill for making fun of ‘the insecurities of this fastidious clergyman, anxious, amid the class tensions of the West Riding, about the gathering storm of revolution’. In its final lines the poem loops ominously back to its beginning, ‘this menace from concave stormlight .. these heads of nettles lopped into the dust’, which Robinson reads as an ‘oblique threat of the violent fate which might well overtake Dykes’. But this, he argues, is simply a ‘product of the poetic imagination’. Hill has taken a real historical figure and turned him into a fictional character – ‘authorial manipulation at its most extreme’.

Oddly, neither Robinson nor anyone else seems to have bothered to go back to Dykes’s biography in search of the raw materials for the poem. The results are instructive. Hill calls the poem a fantasia, but, as it turns out, he has been scrupulous in constructing it on a ground-bass of documented events from Dykes’s life. It is the critic, not the poet, who has allowed his imagination to run away with him.

Of poems and parsons ..Collapse )

Stewed tea

Posted on 2009.12.05 at 17:07
Shana Worthen’s entertaining and erudite food-history blog, One Peppercorn, recently had a post on the history of stewed tea. The earliest use of the phrase she could find (via the OED) was in Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1908), where two guests arrive at the Rutland Hotel, Buxton: ‘They vanished quietly upstairs .. and they did not reappear for the lounge tea, which in any case would have been undrinkably stewed.’ The Rutland, we are told, is ‘an expensive private hotel’, but clearly has room for improvement when it comes to afternoon tea.

Stewed tea is such a fixture of British life that I was surprised to find it showing up in print no earlier, seemingly, than the beginning of the twentieth century. Surely it must go back further than that? Having some time to spare, I idly typed the phrase into the British Newspapers database to see if anything would turn up. Sure enough, I was able to push the history of ‘stewed tea’ back another fifty years, to the middle of the nineteenth century.

Here, then, is a brief history of stewed tea, 1850-1900, as seen through the eyes of the periodical press. Not surprisingly, perhaps, tea turns out to reveal quite a lot about life in Victorian England – including the class system, the servant problem, and the changing social position of women:
More tea ..Collapse )


Posted on 2009.11.24 at 13:51
Notes from a field-trip to Brent Cross Shopping Centre last weekend.

Shoes for boys:

Dirt Mover
Damager Police
Supercharger Nucleons
Rhino Tarantula

Shoes for girls:

Cream Love
Emu Paddington
Lelli Kelly Lucy Dolly
Rocket Dog Sugar Daddy


Posted on 2009.11.10 at 22:55
‘What is the date of Beowulf?’ I was asked the other day. I had no idea. Fortunately artnouveauho was there and kindly came to my rescue, but not before I had exposed one of the more embarrassing holes in my general knowledge. Now, however, I know the date of Beowulf, or rather I know that no one really knows the date of Beowulf, which didn’t stop the BL from putting on a ‘Beowulf 1000’ season, marking a thousand years (more or less) since the poem was written.

The highlight of the season was a round-table discussion, chaired by Michael Wood, with Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf, Michael Morpurgo reading his version of the poem retold for children, and Benjamin Bagby reciting extracts of the poem in Anglo-Saxon. It was Heaney that I really wanted to hear, figuring that even though I was born a century too late to hear Tennyson reading Maud or Browning reading Childe Roland, Heaney reading Beowulf was about the nearest modern equivalent. Watching him walk on stage, it struck me that Heaney is almost the only living poet whom I could identify at sight. Would I recognise Carol Ann Duffy if I saw her in the pub? I doubt it. Could I pick Andrew Motion out of a police line-up? Probably not. But Heaney’s face is as familiar as Eliot’s or Auden’s or Larkin’s; there is an image of the poet present in my mind whenever I read the poetry.

Heaney didn’t disappoint. He was benign, somewhat professorial in manner, quite restrained in delivery (no attempt to declaim), and charmed the audience by losing his place halfway through the reading. He talked engagingly about his translation, how it had taken a long time to get going and hadn’t really begun to flow until he cracked the first word, ‘Hwaet’, by remembering a cousin of his father’s whose stories had always begun with a call to attention: ‘So’. He was at his most interesting when allowing us to look over his shoulder, as it were, at the process of revision, telling us how, translating ‘Gewat him on naca, / drefen deop waeter, Dena land ofgeaf’, he had wanted to describe Beowulf’s ship ‘tightening her cables’ but eventually decided this was too far away from the original. Then he reached for the book and read us the form of words he had finally settled on, ‘the keel plunged / and shook in the sea; and they sailed from Denmark’, shaking his head ruefully: ‘Not so good!’ I daresay these are well-polished anecdotes which he has told many times before, but even so, I came away with the agreeable feeling of having been given a privileged insight into the poet’s workshop.

The star of the evening, though, was Benjamin Bagby, who sang, spoke and chanted Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon, accompanying himself on a six-stringed harp. Heaney and Morpurgo had talked of making Beowulf accessible to modern readers; Bagby made it strange again, an artifact from an alien culture – or almost strange, for every so often a recognizable word or phrase, like ‘aenig oder man’, ‘any other man’, would emerge out of what seemed, in other respects, a completely foreign language. The debate over the date of Beowulf, as far as I understand it, hinges on whether you think it is basically a literary text, in which case it was probably composed not long before the date of the manuscript in the early eleventh century, or whether you think it is grounded in oral performance, like Homer, in which case it might have been in circulation for centuries before it was ever written down. Bagby was careful not to be drawn too far on the question of historical authenticity, but his performance certainly made a powerful case for Beowulf as an oral text.

I don’t know how to describe Bagby’s performance, so I’ll settle for a YouTube recording instead. Here he is in full flow, describing the emergence of Grendel from among the cursed kin of Cain, ‘eotenas ond ylfe ond’ – dramatic pause – ‘orcneas!’

I’m not sure the close-up does Bagby many favours; what with the manic glint in his eye, the curl of his lip and the slightly sinister grin, it lends a slightly comic edge to his rendition. Better to watch from a distance, as I did, seated somewhere near the back of the mead-hall. Still, the video is worth watching for the intensity of his performance, the mesmerising quality of his voice and the powerful silence whenever he pauses for effect. If you ever get the chance to hear Bagby perform live, do take it.

Dead letters

Posted on 2009.10.28 at 16:27
I have been thinking about the Post Office: partly because of Susan Whyman’s absorbing new book, The Pen and the People, which shows how, over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Post Office gradually evolved from a mechanism for government censorship into an indispensable means for people to stay in touch with each other; partly because of the current postal dispute, which after rumbling on almost unnoticed for weeks has suddenly seized the public attention. There seems to be a widespread belief that we are living in the end-times of the Royal Mail. ‘DEAD LETTER DAY’ was The Sun’s front-page headline last Thursday, the first day of the national postal strike.

Down among the dead men ..Collapse )

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