Category Archives: Literature

Books and Bokes of the year

Boke? Or do you prefer Boak? Look it up!

One of the many aspects of the “festive season” (Bah! Humbug!) that I sincerely, utterly, quiveringly loath is the lists of “best books of the year”.

The New York Times one is up already, so I know what will puff out the “Culture” pages of the weekend papers and magazines.

My reasons for this dyspepsia are:

  • the lists prove what an illiterate, narrow-minded swine I am;
  • are usually full of stuff I see as detritus;
  • induce guilt that I didn’t read the one or two worthy items on the list;
  • and I’ve not caught up with the last century, let alone the last twelve months.

Taking the NYT as an example, I see just the one there that I intend to read: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway.

My own list?

Well, it would have to include:

  • Ian Rankin’s latest, and 21st, Rebus: published on 3rd November, arrived, courtesy of Amazon Prime, a day early, read and shelved within a couple of days. One of the very few “newly-published” novels I’ve bought this year, along with the latest Donna Leon and Philip Kerr.
  • Under “military history”, Trevor Royle’s Culloden. Royle did a synopsis for The Scotsman, and that sold it to me.
  • A weekend in Belfast coincided with the Linen Hall Library pop-up second-hand shop, filled with cart-loads of rubbish. Still, I rescued a (apparently unopened) biography of Joseph Walshe and a couple of other items. Nolan on Walshe is a decent effort, not without faults, but it helps to join the dots. Across Fountain Street, a couple of doors down from the Linen Hall itself, is Waterstones. Any large “provincial” Waterstones is always worth a rummage, to see what the locals are keeping to themselves: there, three years late, I found Roger Courtney’s Dissenting Voices.
  • My expensive habit of buying exhibition catalogues means I now own You Say You Want a Revolution, Records and Rebels 1966-1970 from the Victoria and Albert. The whole exhibition seems to spring from the record collection of the late John Peel, padded out with ephemera. If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there, of course. I was, and I do. Nice to meet old friends (and sing along with Country Joe).
  • Theatre: as age affects the hearing (and the Siemens earpieces help only a little) I tend to buy play-scripts. Confession time: I had never tackled Fletcher and Bill Shagsper’s Two Noble Kinsmen until a weekend in Stratford. Yeah, but nowhere near the exuberance and sheer fun of Aphra Benn’s The Rover in the afternoon matinee (my copy of that script goes back to the RSC production of 1986).
  • Oh, and two real goodies, thieved from one of those pubs which decorate with aged and crumbling books. Also always worth a rummage: there are treasures among the Farmers’ Handbooks for 1922 and the discarded law manuals. One was Anthony Hope’s wry, charming The Dolly Dialogues (a first edition, “reprinted from the Westminster Gazette“, 1896) and RLS’s St Ives.

Eccentric. Eclectic. Pompous. Guilty as charged (even of those last two slight volumes).

Only then do I start to wonder what I’ve missed.

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Filed under History, Literature, New York Times, Northern Ireland, reading, Uncategorized

Unfinished stories

No: not in this case Vice-Admiral John Poo Beresford. I’m still working up to that one.

This is more personal.

I spent an extended weekend in the cold of Prague. Hadn’t been there since 1994; and — wow! — how things have changed. Mostly for the better. Little changed —praise be! — is one of the most effective, efficient and cost-friendly public transport systems anywhere.

The first “problem” was leaving behind my teccie.

Reading logette:

baroque1

After some weeks and some thousands of pages of Neal Stephenson, I needed light refreshment.

A chance encounter with a first edition (well, “reprinted from the Westminster Gazette“, 1896) of Anthony Hope’s The Dolly Dialogues was just what was needed. Yes: that is Anthony Prisoner of Zenda Hope. And, no: this was not something I had read previously. But above all, light, tight and wickedly amusing.

Then The Hanging Tree, Ben Aaronovitch’s latest in his Rivers of London sequence. Nice one; but I’m out-Granted by Pert Young Piece who has the graphic novel, Body Workand I need to catch up with the significance of a particular car. Still, I have the experts at York’s Travelling Man working on it.

9200000051259436A passing encounter with RLS’s (no relation, different spelling) unfinished St Ives. Another one of which I was only “aware”
Finally, and the “problem”: Lindsey Davis’s The Graveyard of the Hesperides. I used to follow the Falco series assiduously, and then moved on. I haven’t been plugged into this Albia spin-off in the same way, so this is something of a return for me. The problem being this is a mystery novel. And I left it behind on page 367 (of 4o3).

Another unfinished story

This is not fiction; but it is a mystery.

We came out of Prague on the 2130 Easyjet flight into Gatwick.

Yeah. Yeah. EasyJet, punctuality, end of the day.

So the incoming flight didn’t arrive on time. The crew did a heroic turn-around in half-an-hour. There was a delay for some theatrical de-icing. Arrival at Gatwick just before 2300.

Then an unaccountable hold-up at the arrival pad before disembarking. We were held on board for a long 15-20 minutes. At first the captain was announcing that the reception wasn’t ready. The steps arrived at the rear; but the air-bridge at the front seemed to be the hold-up. Eventually a name was called: could Mr X (and the name escapes me) make his way to the front of the cabin and make himself known?

Now: imagine. As if. A full load of walk-on freight. Cabin bags out of overhead lockers. A couple of hundred passengers either out of seats, and getting that way.

This arcane utterance was immediately followed by another: would all male passengers have their passports and identification ready for checking by the police on the airbridge?

And we were then released.

Sure enough: immediately past the cabin door, a posse of police, including the dog handler.

Since I was to the rear of the aircraft, I was one of the last off.

Whoever was the target, he apparently hadn’t emerged. But with one eye-flick the police officer was able to pass me on my way, and addressed me by my first name.

Odd, huh?

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Filed under air travel., Ben Aaronovitch, fiction, leisure travel, Lindsey Davis, policing, reading, Robert Louis Stevenson

Ulster’s “New Men”, 1610

Here I am again, slip-sliding gently towards a promise on Sir John Poo Beresford, (1766–1844).

Getting there involves getting my mind around the Beresford family, and that was where I was starting.

New Men

What was in my mind was how the Ulster Plantation represents another dimension of the “New Men” of the Renaissance and its aftermath.

The conceit starts in ancient Rome. A novus homo would be, precisely, the individual, the first person in a previously-undistinguished family, elected to the Senate.  Seneca, in Epistle XLIV, laid down the rules (or lack of them):

… who is well-born?  He who is by nature well fitted for virtue. That is the one point to be considered; otherwise, if you hark back to antiquity, every one traces back to a date before which there is nothing. From the earliest beginnings of the universe to the present time, we have been led forward out of origins that were alternately illustrious and ignoble. A hall full of smoke- begrimed busts does not make the nobleman.  No past life has been lived to lend us glory, and that which has existed before us is not ours; the soul alone renders us noble, and it may rise superior to Fortune out of any earlier condition, no matter what that condition has been.

The notion was serially revisited by Boethius (a civil servant under Theodoric), Dante (whose background is cloudy), Petrarch (son of a lawyer), and Chaucer (a background from Ipswich shoe-makers). It regains currency in the Italian fifteenth-century, and the ideas are current in Elizabethan England.

Enter the Beresfords

Another point of departure was John Lodge, The Peerage of Ireland, revised by Mervyn Archdall, vol 2, pages 296-7:

Tristram Beresford, Esq., the third son, was born before the year 1574, and coming into Ireland as manager for the corporation of Londoners, known by the name of the society of the New-Plantation in Ulster, at the time they made the plantation in county of Derry, in the reign of James I, settled at Coleraine in the coiunty of Londonderry, having issue by the daughter of _____ Brooke [*] of London, two sons and three daughters, viz:

(1) Sir Tristram, his successor.

(2) Michael of Dungarvan and of Coleraine, Esq., who was constituted, with his brother, and others, commissioners in the precinct of Derry, for examining the delinquency of the Irish, in order so the distinguishing of their qualifications for transplantion; and in 1654 he was sheriff of the counties of Derry, Donegall, and Tyrone, of which he was also a commissioner of the civil survey and revenue. He married Mary, daughter of Sir John Leake, Knt. and by his will, dated 5 July 1660, directed his body to be buried in the church of Coleraine, in his father’s sepulchre, which was done accordingly; and he had issue by her, who was buried at Temple-Patrick in the county of Antrim, one son Tristram, who died young; and four daughters his coheirs, viz: Anne, married to Thomas Whyte, of Redhills in county of Cavan, Esq.; Olive, first to _____ Thornton, and secondly to Sir Oliver St George, of Headford in Galway, Bart.; Elizabeth to captain Robert Shields; and _____ to Arthur Upton of Temple-Patrick, Esq.

(1) Daughter Anne was first married to Sir Edward Doddington, and secondly to Sir Francis Cooke, Knt, and was buried at Coleraine.

(2) Jane, to George Cary of Redcastle in the county of Donegall (descended from the Carys of Clonelly in Devonshire) and by him, who died 22 April 1640, had five sons and four daughters, viz. Francis of Redcastle (who married Avice, sister to Captain Henry Vaughan, and they both lie buried in the church of Redcastle, having had issue Francis; Chichester, who died unmarried; Margaret; Avice; and Letitia); George; Edward of Dungiven in the county of Derry, (who died 4 June 1686, leaving issue Edward, George; Tristram; Elizabeth; Mary; Anee and Jaen); Robert of Whitecastle in the county of Donegall, (who died in March 1681, leaving Robert; George; Edward; Tristram; William; Anne; Letitia and Mary);

(3) Susanna, married to _____ Ellis.

[*] Elsewhere there ‘s “genealogist” gossip which identifies her as Susannah Brooke or Elizabeth Brookes. Note the naming of the third daughter, which may help.

tree1

Already we can outline four generations, and we haven’t ventured beyond the seventeenth century.

We can start to draw some “conclusions”

The most obvious is that the leading Ulster planters were — very definitely — young men (typically younger sons) on the make.

[1] Many were sprung, like Tristram Beresford, from the London guildsmen. This again makes perfect sense. The London liveried companies were not over-pleased by having the whole plantation scheme descended on them:

When the embryo project was unveiled to the liveried companies in July 1609, and individuals invited to adventure, there was a marked lack of enthusiasm. The Mercers were perhaps the frankest. While thanking the king for his offer, they pointed out that ‘they are for the most part men that live by merchandise and therefore are very inexperienced in managing business of that nature and withal want means and ability for the accomplishment thereof. [So] this company are not willing to have a hand or intermeddle in the same’. The Ironmongers expressed their ‘desire with our best means to help the state and commonwealth, but what we would we cannot in respect of weakness’. When it came to attempts to generate subscriptions, members were curiously absent or unavailable because they were dwelling out of the city. Of the 46 men on the Ironmongers’ subscription list, 9 were absen, 10out of the city, and 2 allegedly ‘not of ability’. The story was much the same elsewhere.

[Source: Ó Ciardha & Ó Siochrú (eds): The plantation of Ulster, Ideology and practice, page 82]

Hence any overseers put in place by the London companies would be hungry young thrusters, hard of complexion and temperament.

[2] This was a new, a frontier society. The blueprint was already well-defined. It was a society of incorporated cities and boroughs, which is a prime reason why the liveried companies of London were the chosen means of delivery:

This use of urbanity for colonial purposes was not the mere product of over-ripe imaginations. Rather it was borne of experience and practice. Just as corporations were a crucial dynamic in the plantation of Ulster after 1610, so they had figured prominently in the wide-ranging social and economic reforms initiated in England since the 1540s. The origins of these reforms were many, complex and varied. However, in terms of sanction by central government, the driving force — including urban incorporation — was [Sir Thomas] Smith, [William] Cecil and other members of their sprawling Cambridge mafia who dominated the higher echelons of royal power for much of the Edwardian and Elizabeth eras. More to the point, one of the outcomes by the turn of the seventeenth century was a discernible ‘corporate system’ by which cities and boroughs — or ‘little commonwealths’, as contemporaries described them – had filled the topography of provincial England.

[Source: Ó Ciardha & Ó Siochrú (eds): The plantation of Ulster, Ideology and practice, page 69]

Consequently a main requirement imposed on the planters was the establishment of boroughs: 25 corporate towns (though by 1613 only 14 had been established — and only 16 were to happen) across the plantation. Derry was to have 200 houses, and room for 300 more; Coleraine to have 100 and room for 200 more (that came down to a quibble over what constituted a “house”) [see Ó Ciardha & Ó Siochrú, pages 84-85].

[3] The success (and failure) of the plantation was this focus on ‘urbanity’. Derry and Coleraine (the third largest borough was Strabane) may have been puny in global terms; but they were all that the planted territory could boast. Not that they didn’t do well enough:

… although they didn’t become the thriving metropoloi envisaged by the propaganda of 1609-10, they did enjoy a significant mercantile presence. Merchants from Scotland, Chester and London were soon frequenting the two ports, while as early as 1614-15 a merchant fleet of seven ships accounted for 18.5% of Londonderry’s exports. London derry boasted urban amenities not available elsewhere. Its street were paved: it had a town hall costing between £500 and £1,000; its school was founded by the London merchant Matthew Springham, its master receiving a salary of 20 marks per annum through the London Society; its cathedral church of St Columba, the first purposely built Protestant cathedral in the three kingdoms, costing at least £3,800 opened in 1633 with a capacity of 1,000 people. True, Londonderry lacked other key features found in Englishtowns: there was still no bridge; a recommendation that a bridewell should be built was resisted; and there were no almshouses: indeed there was little sign of any charitable activity at all. A key variable in determining the relative success of Londonderry and Coleraine was the fact that the landlord was directly involved in building whereas elsewhere in the plantation urban development was promoted through the granting of building leases. Urban settlements elsewhere were terribly under-capitalised.

[Source: Ó Ciardha & Ó Siochrú (eds): The plantation of Ulster, Ideology and practice, page 85]

In passing, I suffer a slight cringe over the attempt there to apply anachronistic and economic-history evaluations: “18.5%”, “a capacity of 1,000 people”, “key variable”, “under-capitalised”.

One could — in a more romantic spirit — extrapolate into group psychology. This is the earliest seventeen-century. The minds involved are still accustomed to think of social advance in terms of acquiring lands, rather than anything ‘entrepreneurial’ or ‘proto-capitalist’. Just as in Virginia and the Carolinas, a century later, that kind of social position is going to be found, carving out estates in the countryside.

[4] These interlopers efficiently established themselves, and built networks — those daughters seem to have been seeded very effectively to generate a nexus of power and possession.

Note, though, as far as Beresford genealogy goes, that it is a “west” Ulster concentration: Derry, Donegal, Cavan and Galway. There is not, as yet, a social top-tier: distinctions and titles beyond mere baronet or knight are not yet present. That will come a generation or two still further on.

We can look to a precise contemporary, the glove-maker’s son from Stratford, for the definition of the “new men”. He puts the words into the mouth of Brutus, the old republican patrician, somewhat scornful of the arriviste Caesar — but they could easily apply to himself, his generation, and the aspiring and arriving Ulster ascendancy:

But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.

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Filed under Chaucer, History, Ireland, Literature, Northern Ireland, politics, Shakespeare, social class

Flagging up an answer

Yesterday I was fretting what would be my reading for the Dutch weekend.

As so often the problem solved itself.

Having spent an hour tidying three shelves, to make space for the latest Rankin (as previously related), I had a handful of books that didn’t fit so easily.

One in particular took my attention: Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flagsin a wartime Book Club economy edition. I had several reasons for this choice:

  • considering its age and provenance, it was in remarkably good shape. The red spine is a trifle faded. There’s a bit of foxing on the exposed edges. The paper is cheap and on the rough side; but I’m a sucker for orphaned books.
  • the original previous owner had inscribed what could be a service serial number (heavily scrubbed out) and a date: the month and year of my birth. This book is as old as I am. Obviously, it lacks the pecuniary value of a genuine 1942 first edition (which would be fun); but it acquires from this inscription a certain sentimental one.
  • some one, if not that original owner, has used a “North Central Finance Ltd” IBM-type 80-column punched-card as a book-mark.
  • I cannot recall reading this Waugh since the 1960s.

My lingering memory of Put Out More Flags is it is Waugh reconciling his natural cynicism with the stiff upper-lippiness of “We’re all in this together”. So he rounds up a cast-list from his pre-War fiction , and shows them to be doing their duty and rising to the occasion. Or, in the thin satire of the effete poets, Parsnip and Pimpernel, he is kicking at the likes of Auden, holed up in New York.

On second thoughts, perhaps I’ll download the text to the iPad, and leave the hard copy to rest securely at home.

 

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Filed under Evelyn Waugh, fiction, History, Literature

Hillary and Trump beneath the Upas tree

The prolificly-mischievous George Steevens perpetrated one of his literary hoaxes, allegedly translated from the diary of a Dr Foersch, a (fictitious) Dutch surgeon, in Java. He invented  the upas-tree:

Erasmus Darwin, physician and scholar, a figure of some standing in botanical science and the author of several botanical works including The Loves of the Plants (1789), was another of Steevens’s victims. The London Magazine for December 1783 (pp. 511–17) carried Steevens’s description of the upas tree of Java which could kill all life within a distance of 15 to 18 miles, his source being an entirely fictitious Dutch traveller. Darwin was taken in and admitted the upas tree into his Loves of the Plants, from which Coleridge derived information…

That from the Dictionary of National Biography.

Once invented, the upas-tree had a life of its own, and became a metaphor for deadly power and influence. Southey had it, perhaps as the first, as the punch-line of Thalaba the Destroyer:

Enough the Island crimes had cried to Heaven,
The measure of their guilt was full,
The hour of wrath was come.
The poison burst the bowl,
It fell upon the earth.
The Sorceress shrieked and caught Mohareb’s robe
And called the whirlwind and away!
For lo! from that accursed venom springs,
The Upas Tree of Death.

Byron reckoned that Thalaba the Destroyer was one of Southey’sunsaleables, but that didn’t get in the way of borrowing the Southey reference in Childe Harold, Canto the Fourth (verse CXXVI):

Our life is a false nature — ’tis not in
The harmony of things, — this hard decree,
This uneradicable taint of sin,
This boundless upas, this all-blasting tree,
Whose root is earth, whose leaves and branches be
The skies which rain their plagues on men like dew —
Disease, death, bondage, all the woes we see —
And worse, the woes we see not — which throb through
The immedicable soul, with heart-aches ever new.

Our modern Upas

… is the toxic media.

  • We have it in the tabloid press (the British version might seem uniquely venomous, but — sadly — not).
  • We have in the shrill populist excess that is Fox News.
  • We have it, in excelsis, in the vowel evacuations of the shock-jocks.
  • Above all, it is the proliferation of web-sites and social media even further beyond the pale than Breitbart.

In this dispensation, anything short of vitriol is soft-soap.

How many times in recent weeks have we encountered hand-wringing despair such as this from Paul Waugh:

No one is pretending that either Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are perfect or all-wise, far from it. As the two candidates with the most negative poll ratings in history, the voters seem to be choosing which is their least worst option, via the least worst form of government. Here’s just one example: Trump’s repeated lies are well documented (a Newsweek reporter last night tweeted 100 of his worst ones, from business to politics to even fibbing about his golf score). And yet he polls ahead of Clinton for honesty. For many voters, their loathing of Hillary outweighs their distaste for Trump.

Today’s edition of The Guardian was a fine effort, with several articles of enduring worth. For now, I’ll stick with the First Leader:

… the only alternative to Mrs Clinton is Donald Trump. It needs to be said again, at this fateful moment, that Mr Trump is not a fit and proper person for the presidency. He is an irascible egomaniac. He is uninterested in the world. He has fought a campaign of abuse and nastiness, riddled with racism and misogyny. He offers slogans, not a programme. He propagates lies, ignorance and prejudice. He brings no sensibility to the contest except boundless self-admiration. He panders to everything that is worst in human nature and spurns all that is best.

Fear and Loathing revisited

Beyond the valid charges made by The Guardian, Trump is a prime example of a media creation, a thing spawned by his own monomania. Hillary Clinton is a lawyer and a politician.

And therein lies the difference.

Clinton still works within accepted patterns, professional disciplines, of behaviour. When use of a private email is a crime, we are all guilty. Every one — especially a successful, practising political operator — has their “private channels”.

Trump, though, is a fraud, a bully, a liar.

He is poison.

But he survives this far by anti-toxin imbibed from long sojourn under the Breitbart/Fox upas tree.

So I am reminded of the fable Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin generated from the upas tree:

Deep in the desert’s misery,
far in the fury of the sand,
there stands the awesome Upas Tree
lone watchman of a lifeless land.

The wilderness, a world of thirst,
in wrath engendered it and filled
its every root, every accursed
grey leafstalk with a sap that killed.

The king sends a slave to collect the poison:

He brought the deadly gum; with it
he brought some leaves, a withered bough,
while rivulets of icy sweat
ran slowly down his livid brow.

And, mission accomplished, the slave expires.

The king now uses the poison:

The king, he soaked his arrows true
in poison, and beyond the plains
dispatched those messengers and slew
his neighbors in their own domains.

If Trump beats the odds, he too is capable of such savagery.

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Filed under Byron, Comment is Free, Guardian, Literature, Oxford English Dictionary, United States, US Elections, US politics

Easy on the madeleines

We each have triggers for involuntary memory.

I’ve just recovered some lost time.

It was a prompt from a prompt about Tesco and the Great #Brexit Threat of a Marmite Famine.

iu

So I had to rush out and buy a pot.

Ah, but it brought back the Old Times.

For, you see, there was a time in my chequered career when “lunch” was a couple of Ryvita, with a smear of Marmite, washed down with two mugs of tea-bag tea (as likely as not, both made from the same tea-bag) — milk optional. Then back to the chalk-face.

When retirement intervened, I lost the taste, in large part because the Lady-in-my-Life remains sternly anti-Marmite.

Now the pot is almost empty, and I may be suffering withdrawal symptoms.

Stratford and Hook Norton

9781472577542Recently I was down to Stratford-upon-Avon for a double header: Aphra Benn’s The Rover for the p.m. matinee (which I would gladly see again), and back for the evening session for Two Noble Kinsmen from Bill Shagsper and John Fletcher (though the new Arden edition puts those two names in alphabetic order).

I have to say, it came close to reversing the old Himalaya pun: “Loved her; none too keen on them”.

Which isn’t the point; because the pub on the corner of Bridge Street (where Lady-in-my-Life and daughter expect to find me when I go AWOL) is The Encore. And the beer on the bar was Old Hooky. At 4.6%, the odd decimal point or two above a sessional quaffing beer; but just what a drouthy man needs during and after a culture-fest.

Also, another memory trigger, rewinding the counter many years to a well-spent day being driven around the Cotswolds with a long, leisurely, late and liquid lunch at the Pear Tree, within sniffing range of that excellent brewery itself.

Pear Tree.jpg

 

 

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Filed under Literature, pubs, Shakespeare, travel

Tiffy

Elsewhere, I found myself trying to maintain the difference between an “engineer” and a “mechanic”. To that end I rattled off this:

My Dear Old Dad completed his apprenticeship as a locomotive fitter for LMS. That “qualified” him to be a Chief Petty Officer running three Packard high-octane engines on an MTB (= PT boat) up the war-time Aegean. I never heard him claim to be an “engineer”, or more than a “tiffy” (= artificer). In all truth, I’d rather a time-served mechanic worked on my vehicle’s engine than a desk-bound engineer — and so would some engineers of my acquaintance.

I think I also had in my head an ear-worm of Cyril Tawney’s Lean and Unwashed Tiffy (there was once a Youtube of this, but it seems to have been lost at sea):

61iw6i0bbyl-_sx425_I’m a lean and unwashed tiffy
I come up from Plymouth Town
I can fix it in a jiffy
If you’ll hand that spanner down
If you’ll hand – that spanner down.

Cyril acquired that first line from … Bill Shagsper, no less:

Old men and beldams in the streets
Do prophesy upon it dangerously:
Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths: […]
Another lean unwash’d artificer
Cuts off his tale and talks of Arthur’s death.

It also crosses my mind there’s a further dimension of English social history in the word.

The OED has its earliest citation from John Gower:

And so forth of the remenant
Of al the comun poeple aboute,
Withinne Burgh and ek withoute,
Of hem that ben Artificiers,
Whiche usen craftes and mestiers,
Whos Art is cleped Mechanique.

One’s mestier is one’s trade, by the way — which survives in modern French as métier. So artificier and métier: two English acquisitions from (Norman-)French at the end of the Fourteenth Century. And that, of course, was the time, the end of the process, when the Norman aristocracy merged their language with the Saxon peasants.

But I’m wondering if we can go a bit further. The Black Death was the lubrication that transformed feudal servitude into one of wage-labour. I’m looking here at Philip Ziegler’s monograph on The Black Death:

Another point to which Thorold Rogers attached particular importance was the ease with which the peasant could escape from his manor in the chaotic conditions of the English countryside in 1349 and 1350. This ever-present if unvoiced threat must have made the landlord far mor amenable to the peasants’ pleas for better conditions of work.

The Establishment attempted to push back with the (ineffectual) Statute of Labourers — one of the best examples in history of dead-letter legislation. Ziegler, again:

The object of the statutes was to pin wages and prices as closely as possible to a pre-plague figure and thus check the inflation that existed in England of 1349-51. The Government realised that this could never be achieved so long as labourers were free to move from one employer to another in search of higher wages and so long as employers were free to woo away labourers from their neighbours with advantageous offers.

The essential clue there to why the Statute of Labourers could not work is is use of the word “employer” rather than, perhaps, “lord”.

The working man, then, could aspire to this new status: craftsman, mestier, artificer.

But what about “engineer”?

The OED gives its first citation to c1380 — remarkably contemporary with Gower, but at this stage specifically as:

A constructor of military engines; a person who designs and constructs military works for attack and defence.

Consider: two World Wars facilitated the development of the modern aircraft. Out of the Cold War and the associated Space Race we got everything from non-stick saucepans to the internet. During the Fourteenth Century the spread and sophisticating of gunpowder meant warfare and defences had to change. Enter the “engineer”.

The American usage of “engineer” for — specifically — the driver of a locomotive or the manager of a ship’s steam-power is illustrative of something akin. In both cases (trains and steam-ships) in early applications the steam-boiler was a damnably dangerous appliance of science. One didn’t rise to such a level of expertise without a long and onerous apprenticeship, for which one could proudly congratulate oneself.

Somewhere around here I have an aged bit of early-’60s vinyl, and Joanie Baez telling of Georgie’s fate on Engine 143:

51utcgazigl-_sx425_Up the road he darted, into a rock he crashed:
Upside down the engine turned; and Georgie’s breast did smash.
His head was against the firebox door, the flames are rolling high:
I’m glad I was born for an engineer, on the C&O road to die.

Youtube seem to have that one blocked, so we’ll have to suck it up with The Man in Black (no great loss, then: and it was a Carter Family song before Joanie):

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