Category Archives: Literature

He might have bought me at a common price

— Diana in All’s Well that Ends Well [V.iii., if anyone cares to check me out].

How come I ended up with two copies of Mick Herron’s The Drop?  Or of Alan Johnson’s The Long and Winding Road? Or the odd Alan Furst? Or of Peter Stanford’s Pope Joan? Actually, that last is forgivable: it’s American and UK editions of same text, under different titles. Aha! There’s the clue: hard-back and pper-back: sea book, different appearances — different shops.

Then I got half-a-dozen pages into Malcolm Pryce, The Case of the ‘Hail Mary’ Celeste. Something familiar here? Head turns right, and to top shelf: next to Thomas Pynchon (strange bed-fellows, indeed). And that in hard-back (both the Pryce and the Pynchon).

It would irritate, were it not for the seven editions of Hamlet, and the six of Lear. But in those cases, the editing all.

Then, further right, next to the door, Yeats, Auden and Heaney (perhaps others) in various editing and editions. All those anthologies tend to be repetitive.

At least I can claim to be keeping the publishing industry afloat. With overspill to Oxfam Books.

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Filed under Detective fiction, Literature, reading

Seafarer, revisited

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux   
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,   
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.

Dear Old Dad was a strict observer of the midnight shipping forecast, followed by the metronomic repetition of Sailing By, followed by sleep. As Dad became deafer, so the volume increased: nobody in the house would miss out.

Dee-dee-dum-dum, de dee-dee-dum-dum, de dee-dee-dum-dum, de dee.

So we had it played as the fade-out music at the end of Dad’s crematorium service. And why, perhaps, in due course it may see me out, too.

It’s been with us a long, long time. The schedule for the first day of Radio 4, on 30 September 1967, has an entry from 2345 to 2348, describing a “forecast for coastal waters”. It’s the nearest thing to a bedtime story, a lullaby, BBC Radio does.

The shadow of the Shipping Forecast is vast: wikipedia lists a sequence of reference in pop music.

Revert to the Glanmore Sonnets of Famous Seamus:

There’s a lot going on here. Heaney had removed to Wicklow from Belfast, north to south, city to countryside. Above all, it is Heaney rooting himself in a very Irish context — arguably Dublin D4.

He acknowledges the duality of his own tradition. There’s something of a nod at Paddy Kavanagh‘s sonnet sequence Temptation in Harvest, which reflects Kavangh’s removal from Inniskeen to Dublin:

I turned to the stubble of the oats,
Knowing that clay could still seduce my heart
After five years of pavements raised to art.

Heaney’s Sonnet X has:

And in that dream I dreamt — how like you this? —
Our first night years ago in that hotel
When you came with your deliberate kiss

Which is a conscious rip of Thomas Wyatt (the pioneer of the English sonnet):

She caught me in her arms long and small
There with all sweetly did me kiss
And softly said dear heart, how like you this?

At the other end of the sonnet tradition is Wordsworth, again invoked by Heaney:

I had said earlier, ‘I won’t relapse   
From this strange loneliness I’ve brought us to.   
Dorothy and William —’  She interrupts:   
‘You’re not going to compare us two…?”
Heaney also references Joyce (‘inwit’ in Sonnet IX), and Shakespeare (inevitably, perhaps) and Wordsworth.


Back to the Glanmore Sonnets

The more I read and re-read the Glanmore Sonnets, the more I see the antitheses: some going back to the very origins of English verse: land and sea, Anglo-Saxon past (keel-road, whale-road). Which is why I am posting this (recycled from one of my first efforts), out of respect to Terence Patrick Hewett’s additions to a previous post.

þær ic ne gehyrde
butan hlimman sæ,
iscaldne wæg.

There I heard nothing/ but the roaring sea, /and the ice-cold wave.

Early English isn’t so hard when one listens to it.

Heaney doesn’t explicitly reference The Seafarer

It seems to be there, just beyond the midnight pane, as Heaney hears the Shipping Forecast:

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux   
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,   
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise   
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize   
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.   
L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène   
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay   
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous   
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven,’   
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky   
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

Midnight and closedown, storm and shelter, gale-warning, deepening and clearing, the French and the English names. Above all Heaney is reminding himself, then us, of the instabilities of life, particularly of emotional life, which perversely repeat into an eternal pattern of continuity. None of the modern attempts at The Seafarer quite work. Ezra Pound had a go: close but no cigar. Perhaps Auden might have managed it: his effort at The Wanderer is none too dusty.

Over to Duffy

I find the metronomic BBC rendering of the Shipping Forecast near perfect a piece of Standard English oratory: on a stormy night the perfect reminder of The Seafarer‘s cold feet. Above all, we all seek a full-stop, a closure to each episode, to each day. And that is the wider signification of the post-midnight shipping forecast. It is a sonorous formula of some 350 words, which follows a ritualistic order. The shipping areas, as they are recited, form a clockwise pattern around the British Isles: the names visualised on a chart following a clock’s hands from 12 o’clock all the way round the face of the dial. It is delivered almost at dictation speed. It is comforting, especially in the warmth of a bed, while, however briefly, musing on the lot of all poor souls at sea. It is full of marvellous names, real and metaphoric: the mundane rivers (Tyne, Humber, Thames, Shannon) and the islands (Fair Isle, Wight, Lundy) rubbing along with the romantic (Hebrides, Trafalgar, Fitzroy — formerly Finisterre). And for the older contingent (including me) the mysteries: where did Utsire come from? where did the Minches go? the significance of ‘veering’ versus ‘backing’?

Carol Ann Duffy uses the shipping forecast to illustrate and conclude her sonnet, Prayer (a bane in many a GCSE English candidate’s studies, inevitably juxtaposed with George Herbert, from which it borrows):

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Again the contrasts: prayer but faithless, console but pain and loss, the anonymous simplicity and distance of Grade 1 piano scales with the personal complexity and empathy of the lodger looking out across a Midlands town. It is held together by two conceits: the metaphor of prayer as a natural, non-religious ritual, and the unexpected and ordinary universality of music.

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Filed under BBC, Ireland, Literature, Seamus Heaney


Intriguing history, that word.

Original Greek meaning, says my Shorter Liddell and Scott (1909 reprint), a neuter noun:

  1. a cloth, sheet, web, sail-cloth
  2. a wide, loose cloak or mantle, worn as an outer garment, also used as a shroud

Not many people know that.

As a feminine and proper noun (these things are important, you see):

an island in the bay of  Alexandria

I suspect something a bit adrift there. ‘Alexandria’ as a place was founded by — guess who? — Alexander in 332BC. I’d reckon from its position there was a pre-Hellenic settlement there long before. So along comes the Great Man, and does a re-branding. The Pharos, the lighthouse, came along fifty years after, was built in the reigns of Ptolemy I and II, partially destroyed in one earthquake in AD956 with the wreck completed by a second quake before Ibn Battuta’s visit in AD1349.

Because Alexandria was so important for Mediterranean trade, and because the Pharos (feminine and proper — unlike its priapic shape) was an original concept, all pale imitations tended to adopt the generic name. So the Greek ϕάρος is Latinised as pharos or pharus to survive into Romance languages: Spanish faro, Portuguese faro (and so the Algarve town), Italian faro. And early modern English as phare. Even that last one has its crunchiness:  it seems that French had Far de Messina as early as c.1442 — except the term referred to the Strait of Messina rather than any guiding light.

Anyway, by 1616 William Drummond of Hawthornden bashes out Sonnet 31:

Looke on the wofull Shipwracke of my Youth,
And let my Ruines for a Phare thee serue
To shunne this Rocke Capharean of Vntrueth.

You want me to remind you about the Rocke Capharean? Easy! The Greek hero, Ajax, had severely thumbed his nose at the goddess Athene, not least by raping Cassandra in the temple of Athene (say non-Homeric sources) and had to come to a sticky end. Inevitably almost home, he was wrecked on the coast of Euboea. That wasn’t enough to assuage the Olympians: Poseidon had also taken the hump, had him caught by a whirlwind, impaled by a bolt of lightning, and transfixed on the rocks. Better believe it: It’s in the Odyssey IV, 502, and Virgil tells us those rocks were still called after Ajax.

Be grateful, please: I had to endure a classical education, to spare others for less important stuff.

LRB: from June 1996

The LRB does a daily bit of Diverted Traffic, recirculating pieces from its archives. With the rarest exception (and we are now hitting number 79) they are well worth the visit. Peter Hill does a diary piece:

In the early Seventies I worked as a lighthouse keeper on three islands off the west coast of Scotland. I was between art schools and before taking the job I didn’t really think through what a lighthouse keeper actually did. I was attracted by the romantic notion of sitting on a rock, writing haikus and dashing off the occasional watercolour. The light itself didn’t seem important: it might have been some weird coastal decoration, like candles on a Christmas tree, intended to bring cheer to those living in the more remote parts of the country.

It was not an idyllic experience:

I would eventually come, they promised, to the tiny uninhabited island of Pladda, and there would be initiated by three seasoned keepers into the ancient art of keeping watch.

I was greeted by the three of them on the jetty. One was in his sixties and clutched a black Bible in his potato-like fist. Another was middle-aged and wiry. The third, in his thirties, had a little corgi by his side, and was one of the few bachelors I met during my time on the lights. He often blamed the dog for making it difficult to form a lasting relationship with a woman, but I could never see the connection.

The daily life was hard:

We were kept busy and I didn’t complete many haikus or watercolours. The light had to be wound up like a giant grandfather clock every 30 minutes. Every 20 minutes we pumped up the air pressure to the paraffin. This was a subtle ruse to keep us awake and alert, as was the little hammer that banged away on the brass every second through the night. At the highest level the light itself burned and the giant mirrors, the reflectors, turned like a slow-motion merry-go-round supported on a huge bath of mercury. To light the paraffin you had to cause a mini explosion in the light room, allowing a small cloud of paraffin vapour to form in the air, shielding your face while igniting the gas with a burning taper.

Be prepared for the nightmarish account of the storm and the self-destructive migrating birds.

Personal stuff

I’ll confess to a penchant for lighthouses.

I’ve watched the Fastnet Rock on nights when westerlies were thundering up Roaring Water Bay. I’ve stood too close to Mizen Head in a sea-mist, an experience repeated a couple of years ago at Cabo de Sao Vicente — one is the emigrant’s pained last sight of Ireland (if it wasn’t Roche’s Point), the other is the end of Europe and the start of Portuguese exploration of the coast of Africa and beyond. Both are emotive places: the fog-horns, though, are something else.

In this archipelago, the foghorns are not there any more — at least not the ones from land. They were silenced a decade ago. It’s electronics, now, lads — all fine and dandy until something goes wrong.

My first lighthouses were on the North Norfolk coast: Hunstanton to the west, Happisburgh to the east (that’s another testing place name shibboleth for non-Norfolk): top of this posting, respectively left and right. Both are now ‘redundant’ — one now residential, the other Britain’s only ‘independent’ lighthouse.

When dear Old Dad collected his severance from the Met Police, he was at a loose end. He was recruited by the husband of my mother’s friend to paint Hunstanton lighthouse. Which they did. It rained overnight, and they had used the wrong paint, so they returned to find all their work sloughed off.

Not-quite Norfolk’s (they’re across the frontier with the yellow-bellies) other lighthouses are the toy-town efforts either bank of the River Nene outfall. Best known for the Peter Scott connection, and the original for Paul Gallico’s The Snowgoose. Gallico, to make a small boat crossing to Dunkirk half-feasible, had to transport the light to the Essex marshes.


Filed under Gallico, History, Literature, London Review of Books, Norfolk, reading

Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner’s fine bit of SF dystopia, circa late 1960s. I had it as a paperback, which disintegrated and  was discarded many years since. Brunner took on the American complaint of British SF: ‘Here we are trying to get off the planet. You lot can’t even get off your island’. With this book he cracked the American SF market.

The essential conceit was by 2010 the world’s population would no longer fit onto the Isle of Wight (>150 square miles), with some small social segregation, but would need the space of the island of Zanzibar (around 600 square miles). Brunner projected that by 2010 the world population would be around seven billion — one of several anticipations he nailed, along with the failure of the Soviet Union, the rise of industrialised China,  the prevalence of electronic media, the dominance of the Great Computer … well, OK, we’ve decentralised that one.

The Anglo-Zanzibar War

This was going to be my point-of-departure, until I remembered Brunner. According to wikipedia:

The Anglo-Zanzibar War was a military conflict fought between Great Britain and the Zanzibar Sultanate on 27 August 1896. The conflict lasted between 38 and 45 minutes, marking it as the shortest recorded war in history

Which piece of profound historiography derives from (roll of drums and eye-balls) The Guinness Book of Records.

As far as I can see, the War amounted to two Omani sheikhs, one British-backed, the other German-supported, squabbling over who got the late Sultan’s harem. Any need to sanitise that, dress it up as pro- and anti-slavery factions.

Let’s start with why the British were there in the first place

Follow the bouncing ball:

  • Portugal had been at odds with the British over Mashonaland, Nyasaland and so the Zambezi basin.
  • This would have bridged the Portuguese colonies on the Atlantic and Indian Ocean shores — blocking the British attempt to build a north-south, Cape-to-Cairo corridor.
  • Lord Salisbury was having no such nonsense, dismissed the Portuguese claims as ‘archaeological’, and issued an ultimatum (January 1890).
  • The result was an agreement (August 1890) endorsed by a formal convention (11 June 1891).
  • Mashonaland and Nyasaland went to Britain, and Portugal got the Zambezi basin (i.e. modern Mozambique).
  • For the British the bonus was a ‘protectorate’ of the sultanate of Zanzibar, but more significantly a freer hand in East Africa, checking the growing German interests in Tanyanika (and so towards the Upper Nile).
  • That required a quid-pro-quo to assuage the Germans: the grant to Germany of a strip in West Africa, from Kamerun up towards Lake Chad.
  • Not uncoincidentally, from the British point-of-view, that queered the pitch for French expansion in the same area.

Since it was ‘be nice to the Kaiser’ week, another strip (the ‘Caprivi strip’) came gift-wrapped. This had no particular value, except to expand German South-West Africa (modern Namibia) towards the Victoria Falls. But, again from the British perspective, putting a spoke in any Boer ambitions in that direction.

Clever stuff?

You betcha. But the clincher was a land-swap:

  • Germany had been building the Kiel Canal since 1887.
  • About thirty miles out of the Elbe and Weser estuaries, and the coast of Holstein, stood the rocky and sandy outcrop of Heligoland (total area, about half a square mile).
  • Heligoland had been seized by the Royal Navy in 1807 (think Battle of Copenhagen); and formally annexed by Britain, from Denmark, in the wash-up at the Congress of Vienna.
  • The small population of Heligoland — who would be Frisian rather than German — apparently quite liked being British; but the Royal Navy had not been using the island for any real purpose.
  • So Salisbury traded Heligoland for Zanzibar (apparently to the disgruntlement of Queen Victoria, British public opinion, and the folk of Heligoland). On the whole, one can instantly see the basis for the disgruntlement: a British naval presence, immediately opposite Cuxhaven, and Brunsbüttel (whence Seiner Majestät Flotte could debouch from the Baltic into the North Sea) would have a certain merit.

Any potential snub to the French was bought off by recognition of their influence in Madagascar.

Explosive stuff!

The story of Heligoland almost ends with the biggest non-nuke bang of WW2.

From the back-end of 1944 until 1952, the RAF was using Heligoland as a way of disposing of surplus high explosive. In April 1947, in one go, the Royal Navy detonated 6,700 tons of munitions in Heligoland. Only in 1952 were the uninhabited remains of Heligoland, with large quantities of UXB still lying around, returned to West Germany.

The West Germans issued a stamp.


For a real joke of a war…

… there’s the 1859 Pig War between the US and Britain.

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What is cultural captivity?

Kinkering kongs their titles take
From the foes they hostage make …

Every choirboy’s semi-deliberate Spoonerism, for a not-particularly-illuminating hymn. Very much a product of the age of imperialism, late Victorian (but of course) from a time when (the lower end of) the Church of England was aspirant lower-middle-class Tories at prayer.

Since when the world, outside of Coca-colonisation and the machinations of the Kremlin, has become post-imperial and less loving of ‘conquests’.

Were any conquests ever successful in imposing and maintaining a total hegemony? More likely, there emerges a new shared culture. The Empire on which the Sun never Set has left a legacy of any numbers of English dialects and creoles. The Oxford English Dictionary — lest we forget essentially recording “British’ English —  identifies 1,665 words of African origin, 4,843 from Australasia, 1,123 from the former Raj, and — the real marker of how power has shifted — 37,026 from ‘North America’. To the great distress of our nativists, there are four figures worth of ‘Irish’ origin, though the OED distinguishes, somehow, ‘Northern Irish’ from the rest. I have to wonder how: Ulsterisms are not readily exclusive of Glasgow east of the Bann, or the common vernacular of the north-west across that vast crucial divide. Even so, to the great distress of nativists, of all persuasions, Anglo-Hibernicism rules, OK.

Anyway, back to the idea of borrowed culture. And there is a perfect example in — what I see as — a remarkable literary continuity, relevant to the notion of conquest and merged continuity.

A good pagan, from 12BC, Horace has:​
Graecia capta ferum uictorem cepit et artes
intulit agresti Latio
Or, if you prefer a crude translation, and every historiographer’s cliché:​
Captive Greece took captive her savage conquerer and brought the arts to rustic Latium
When we refer to the Latin Vulgate we find Ephesians 4.7-8 has, what must be, a conscious imitation of Horace:​
7. uncuique autem nostrum data est gratia secundum mensural dationionis Christi
8. propter quod dicit ascendens in altum captivam duxit captivitatem dedit dona hominibus
Don’t sweat it: the Wycliff Bible (say AD1382) does a straight version of that, in English:​
7 But to each of us grace is given by the measure of the giving of Christ [after the measure of the giving of Christ];
8 for which thing he saith, He ascending on high, led captivity captive, he gave gifts to men.
That persists, through Tyndale (AD1525) and Coverdale (AD1535)  into the Geneva Bible (1599) — which was the version available (and clearly used, though not as far as I see in this usage) by Shakespeare, and which the King James version pillages, intact:​
Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.
As a conclusion, the word-of the mouth, and the words-of-the-minds can never be made captive. When Douglas Adams had his sub-ether band newscaster give the advice:

We’ll be saying a big hello to all intelligent lifeforms everywhere and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys.

It could as easily have referred to how we make words interact across nations, times and cultures.

Just don’t start me, again, on how the Welsh drover’s bwg became, thanks to Admiral Grace Hopper, the bane of every computer programmer.


Filed under History, Ireland, Literature, Quotations

Producing and consuming history

Had you asked me about the expression, I would instantly have assumed:

Ireland produces more history than it can consume locally.

I mean: that’s a known known, a ‘given’, a fact of life. We all accept that any website with Irish history as a thread will revert to MOPEry.

MOPEry? Aw, c’mon! Liam Kennedy blasted that one in Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? — a collection of essays deriving from the Great National Myth:

Sighing harps, the riveting of chains, Erin betrayed and enslaved by the Saxon: here were soft-focused images that, with the superlatives of politicians, would help fashion a national rhetoric to thrill the generations of newly English-speaking Irish people.

Irish history as sold to susceptible young minds, to becomes a fixation. It is all about the Anglo-Norman invasion, Cromwell, the plantations, the Ascendancy versus the ‘people’, rebellions, suppressions, the Wild Geese, The Wearing of the Green, penal laws, An Gorta Mór, emigration, Fenians, the Rising, the Six Counties … And that’s the sum: Irish History for Dummies. Or as Kennedy puts it:

There is an almost palpable sense of victimhood and exceptionalism in the presentation of the Irish national past, particularly as reconstructed and displayed for political purpose. It is a syndrome of attitudes that might be summed up by the acronym MOPE, that is, the most oppressed people ever. Less extravagantly stated, the claim is to being one of the most oppressed people in the history of world civilisation. But the burden of the story so far is that there was a large gap between images of singular oppression and the material and cultural conditions which were the lot of people in Ireland.


Kennedy’s title borrows from Brecht:

Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.

In the drama, immediately after Galileo’s recantation:

ANDREA (loudly): Unhappy the land that has no heroes!

(Galileo has come in, completely, almost unrecognizably, changed by the trial. He has heard Andrea’s exclamation. For a few moments he hesitates at the door, expecting a greeting. As none is forthcoming and his pupils shrink back from him, he goes slowly and because of his bad eyesight uncertainly to the front where he finds a footstool and sits down)

ANDREA: I can’t look at him. I wish he’d go away.
SAGREDO: Calm  yourself.
ANDREA (screams at Galileo): Wine barrel! Snail eater! Have you saved your precious skin? (Sits down) I feel sick.

GALILEO (calmly): Get him a glass of water.

(The little monk goes out to get Andrea a glass of water. The others pay no attention to Galileo who sits on his footstool, listening. From far off the announcer’s voice is heard again)

ANDREA: I can walk now if you’ll help me.

(They lead him to the door. When they reach it, Galileo begins to speak)

GALILEO: No. Unhappy the land that needs a hero.

Nothing to see here!

None of this is ‘novel’.

Yeats played the same game with the ‘heroes’ of Easter, 1916.  The woman who spent her days in ignorant good-will, the man who had kept a school, the drunken, vainglorious lout are all Transformed utterly — because that is the requirement of the National Myth.

Here’s another example: borrowed shamelessly from Michael Dobson doing a review for the current issue of London Review of Books:

‘None could witness a play of Shakespeare or hear declaimed such lines as those which close King John, or those of John of Gaunt when dying,’ [Salmon and Longden] declare, ‘without a quickening of the pulse and a belief in the destiny of “this royal throne of Kings, this sceptered isle, the envy of less happier lands.”’ But Gaunt’s speech, as an airline advertising agency discovered in the 1990s, is very poorly suited to inspirational use, or indeed to quotation at all. It’s not just that those successive alternative phrases for ‘this England’ go on for so long (19 lines) before finally breaking down into repetitive near incoherence: ‘This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,/Dear for her reputation through the world ...’ The problem is that one finally arrives at the sentence’s main verb to be told that this land ‘Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –/Like to a tenement or pelting farm.’ Inconveniently, the national poet’s most famous invocation of the glories of England doesn’t depict the spacious days of Queen Elizabeth, but a constitutional upheaval two centuries earlier, during which a dying medieval aristocrat invokes an even earlier heroic past only in order to point out that it is emphatically over. It has been supplanted, he tells us, by a mortgaged time of ‘inky blots and rotten parchment bonds’.

Grammar school boys (and girls — though to us, at that age, they were a remote sub-species) rote-learned those lines as inspirational adulation of post-War England (note the specific nationalism). At least we recited down to this dear, dear land (with or without the antisemitic stubborn Jewry).

A commodius vicus of recirculation

Now reprise to top of this post. My original miscue.

For, as Fintan O’Toole says, an excess of history over local consumption wasn’t Ireland:

In The Jesting of Arlington Stringham, a story by Saki (H.H. Munro), the eponymous politician in a debate on the Foreign Office in the House of Commons remarks that “the people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.”

Rather a nice little story, it is too. ‘Nice’ in the sense of preciseness, not of pleasantry. Dry to the point of bitterness. It can be read here.


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Filed under History, Ireland, Irish politics, Literature, Quotations

Dear, damn’d distracting town, farewell!

Early Georgian town gossip and scandal!

Opening stanza of Alexander Pope’s Farewell to London:

Dear, damn’d distracting town, farewell!
Thy fools no more I’ll tease:
This year in peace, ye critics, dwell,
Ye harlots, sleep at ease!

What gets lost there is the annex to the title, In the Year 1715. As Bonamy Dobrée‘s appendix VI:Individual Authors (see p664) adds (not published till 1775).

In that previous post I used Dunbar for two main reasons:

  • to avoid the most obvious, Wordsworth — because the image was way down river from Westminster Bridge, and that would be so obvious a reference;
  • I like Dunbar, and feel he deserves a run in the sun.

Pope’s little ditty is more of a problem: it is stuffed with references. Some of the edits are easier than others. Take the second stanza:

Soft B– and rough C[ragg]s adieu,
Earl Warwick made your moan,
The lively H[inchenbrook] and you
May knock up whores alone.

OK, I’ve got James Craggs, who has an entry in wikipedia. Lord Warwick was Edward Rich, 7th Earl of Warwick, who seems to have been a bit of a lad. The Viscount Hinchenbrooke was Edward Montague, heir to the Sandwich title. But B__ defeats me: presumably a pun to go with ‘soft’, and contrast with ‘rough crag’. It would be nice were that a misprint for H__, which would lead us to Trevor Hill, member both of parliament (for Hillsborough, and — yes — same place as that in County Down) and of the notorious Duke of Wharton’s Club.

The fifth stanza amused me:

Lintot, farewell! thy bard must go;
Farewell, unhappy Tonson!
Heaven gives thee for thy loss of Rowe,
Lean Philips, and fat Johnson.

Bernard Lintot and Jacob Tonson were rival London printers, both of whom published Pope. Nicholas Rowe had a prodigious output of plays, and was an early editor of Shakespeare: by the time of Pope’s verse, he was very much a courtier, and therefore distracted from providing material to the printers. The poet John Philips had died in 1709, and his works published posthumously in 1712, or — more likely — that could be Ambrose Philips, who was closely associated with Tonson, but was a butt of Pope’s mockery. But ‘fat Johnson’ isn’t the obvious: Samuel (born 1709) was barely breached at the time of Pope writing. Yet, in that stanza we have a neat echo of Alan Bennett’s Mrs Dorothy Lintott, as in The History Boys, and her gems such as:

History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.

Is Pope’s Farewell a fitting tribute to literary London? There are more heroic, but it works for me.

Adieu to all but Gay alone,
Whose soul sincere and free,
Loves all mankind, but flatters none,
And so may starve with me.

John Gay was a follower of Pope, and at this moment was losing his royal patronage (solicited by Jonathan Swift) on the death of Queen Anne. He survived on his wits — his work was admired by James Craggs (see above), for example, who presented him with South Sea stock, and encouraged Gay to invest heavily, just as the whole South Sea Bubble burst, leaving Gay destitute. Out of which would come The Beggar’s Opera.

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Filed under Alan Bennett, History, human waste, Literature, London, Theatre

London, thou art the flour of Cities all

The National Police Air Service put up a tweet last evening:

Good evening all. Saw this earlier and it made me smile. I hope it provides someone with the same warm feeling in these uneasy times. Thank you to all those key workers, friends and family for all you do.

This was the image (and you may well never see the air so clear over Bugsby’s Reach):

I came late to the Scots makars. Those who come late to love, fall hardest.

In 1501 William Dunbar came to London, in the train of Bishop Andrew Forman. Forman was a very political prelate, and his mission was to solicit the marriage of Henry VII’s daughter, Margaret, with James IV of Scotland. That must have been a ticklish business: the Scottish court had entertained Perkin Warbeck in 1495-1497, and Henry Tudor recognised a pretext for war when he saw one — James IV was a moderniser, and had been busy equipping his army and building a navy. In fact, the predictable war came to nothing more than a conventional border raid.

Anyway, Dunbar was required to sing for his supper, and smooch his hosts:

London, thou art of townes A per se.
  Soveraign of cities, seemliest in sight,
Of high renoun, riches and royaltie;
  Of lordis, barons, and many a goodly knyght;
  Of most delectable lusty ladies bright;
Of famous prelatis, in habitis clericall;
  Of merchauntis full of substaunce and of myght:
London, thou art the flour of Cities all.

And six further stanzas in the same vein.

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Filed under air travel., History, Literature, London, Scotland

‘PM and fiancee announce birth of son’: BBC website headline

The precise marital status between Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, Marina Claire Wheeler QC, and Carrie Symonds is less than certain. What is certainly not clear is whether one can be properly and decently ‘affianced’ while still married elsewhere.

Moreover, that fiancée usage can be dated precisely to 1853 (says the OED), and that jocularly. It wasn’t properly domesticated until three decades later.

So I’ll try to help the BBC:
arm-candy, bag, bawd, bed-mate, bed-warmer, bint, bird, bit-of-fluff, bit-on-the-side, bitch, blowen, chippy, concubine, consort, courtesan, date, donna, doxy, dutch, fancy piece, fancy woman, flame, flirt, floozy, heater, hoochie, honey, hoor, hoyden, hussy, girl-friend, inamorata, Jezebel, jilt, kate, kept-woman, kitty, lady-love, live-in, lorette (though that one might be specific to Paris 9e), lover, made, minx, mistress, moll, mot (very Dublin. that one), odalisque, other, patootie, pullet, quean, paramour, POSSLQ (person of opposite sex sharing living quarters — US Census bowdlerisation), skronk, slacken, sloven, squeeze, steady, sugar, sultana, sweetheart, sweetie, tabby, tart, tootsie, tramp, trollop, trouble-and-strife, wench, Wag …
etc.; etc.


Filed under BBC, Boris Johnson, Literature, Oxford English Dictionary, sleaze., Tories.

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium.

Yeats orates

Yeats, 1926. The oul’ fella knew little of Byzantium that he hadn’t read in an Edwardian history of the sixth century. Being another product of The High School, then at the top of Harcourt Street, I declare my personal interest in a passing remark by Norman Jeffares:

R. Ellmann has suggested that J.B.Bury the historian, who was Latin master for a time at the High School, Dublin, may first have interested Yeats in Byzantium.

Except Yeats hadn’t:

sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

His wife had taken him to recuperate in Sicily. There he saw the mosaics in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, which — since it’s an early twelfth century construction by Roger II of Hauteville — is some time and space from Byzantium. Impressive, though …


Here’s one I made previously:

Constantine gave his name to Constantinople (11 May AD330), but its antecedent, Byzantium, had been around for the previous millennium. Byzantium, after all, had been paying fifteen talents to the Athenian treasury since Darius was seen off. That implies a place of some wealth and importance, which then revolted from Athenian control in 440BC and again in 411BC.

Look at the location of Byzantium/ Constantinople/ Istanbul, and recognise it had to be a place of settlement, and an important one, through any period of human development. Over there, just a day-trip south and east, is the site of ancient Troy — and the Greeks didn’t destroy that one for the love of a none-too-honest woman, so much as it could strangle commerce through the Hellespont.

And that was why Constantine fixed on this spot. H.G.Wells’s The Outline of History (1921) includes an outline map by J.F.Horrabin (page 518), showing the world as then appreciated by the western mind:


Malcolmian aside:

Socialistic Wells, with that book, was arguing his political point against American ‘exceptionalism’ and the Republican Party’s ‘isolationism’, which he saw as subverting any hopes of a peaceful world.

Some things don’t greatly change.

Herodotus narrates

The Bosphorus, at its narrowest point, is little more than a mile wide. Herodotus described Xerxes bridging it:

They joined together triremes and penteconters, 360 to support the bridge on the side of the Euxine Sea, and 314 to sustain the other; and these they placed at right angles to the sea, and in the direction of the shore cables. Having joined the vessels, they moored them with anchors of unusual size, that the vessels of the bridge towards the Euxine might resist the winds which blow from within the straits, and that those of the more western bridge facing the AEgean might withstand the winds which set in from the south and from the south-east. A gap was left in the penteconters in no fewer than three places, to afford a passage for such light craft as chose to enter or leave the Euxine. When all this was done, they made the cables taut from the shore by the help of wooden capstans. This time, moreover, instead of using the two materials separately, they assigned to each bridge six cables, two of which were of white flax, while four were of papyrus. Both cables were of the same size and quality; but the flaxen were the heavier, weighing not less than a talent the cubit. When the bridge across the channel was thus complete, trunks of trees were sawn into planks, which were out to the width of the bridge, and these were laid side by side upon the tightened cables, and then fastened on the top. This done, brushwood was brought, and arranged upon the planks, after which earth was heaped upon the brushwood, and the whole trodden down into a solid mass. Lastly a bulwark was set up on either side of this causeway, of such a height as to prevent the sumpter-beasts and the horses from seeing over it and taking fright at the water.

And now when all was prepared — the bridges, and the works at Athos, the breakwaters about the mouths of the cutting, which were made to hinder the surf from blocking up the entrances, and the cutting itself; and when the news came to Xerxes that this last was completely finished — then at length the host, having first wintered at Sardis, began its march towards Abydos, fully equipped, on the first approach of spring. At the moment of departure, the sun suddenly quitted his seat in the heavens, and disappeared, though there were no clouds in sight, but the sky was clear and serene. Day was thus turned into night; whereupon Xerxes, who saw and remarked the prodigy, was seized with alarm, and sending at once for the Magians, inquired of them the meaning of the portent. They replied: “God is foreshowing to the Greeks the destruction of their cities; for the sun foretells for them, and the moon for us.” So Xerxes, thus instructed, proceeded on his way with great gladness of heart.

Herodotus, so generally an annoying gossip, comes up with precise detail there. And, of course, in ancient history every crucial event deserves an eclipse.

Byron natates

That bridge would have run between modern Çanakkale and Kilitbahir:Canakkale.jpeg

The aerial shows the site of Troy. A bit north and it’s ancient Abydos, where legendary Hero had her tower, directly opposite across the strait from Sestos, where Leander pined for his inamorata.

Inevitably, that’s where George Gordon, Lord Byron, felt driven to repeat Leander’s swim (3 May 1810). And, the braggart rehearsed it in verse:

If, in the month of dark December,
Leander, who was nightly wont
(What maid will not the tale remember?)
To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont!

If, when the wintry tempest roared,
He sped to Hero, nothing loath,
And thus of old thy current poured,
Fair Venus! how I pity both!

For me, degenerate modern wretch,
Though in the genial month of May,
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,
And think I’ve done a feat today.

So it became, two hundred years on, an annual effort. Good luck with that, say I, having observed the shuttling of rust-bucket freighter and tankers through the Bosphorus.

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Filed under Dublin., High School, History, leisure travel, Literature, WB Yeats