Thursday, 30 April 2009

Blognator fuit hic

The third worst curse in ancient China is supposed to have been 'May you live in interesting times'. What's wrong with living in interesting times, I hear you ask? Well, my bloggy friends, there's a difference between interesting and...well...interesting. And the last couple of days has been interesting in italics; we've had the plumbers in.

I'm not sure why, but having tradespeople in the house makes me nervous. We've a biggish house (six bedrooms at last count), and it should be fairly easy to avoid them as they go about the business of ripping out old washbasins and making good the walls (or should that be 'making the walls good'?) but, for some reason I just can't seem to get away from them. Every time I walk into a room, turn a corner or start to climb the stairs, you can bet a length of copper pipe that one or other of them will be there. After a while you feel sure that they feel sure that you're just checking up on them; making sure they put down the dust sheets before ripping plaster off the walls, or placing their umpteenth cup of tea (two sugars) on the coaster, not on top of the recently polished pine drawers. So, having been made to feel like an interloper in my own house, I just gave up moving around the place, and, for the last couple of days, I've become something of a recluse, sat in front of the computer, idly dipping my toes in the electronic surf instead of getting out and walking by the real stuff. So perhaps it's not surprising that the subject of plumbing has been rather on my mind.

The word plumbing comes from the Latin word plumbum, meaning lead (that's why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb). Way back when, plumbers didn't change tap washers or ballcocks, mainly because neither of these things existed. Plumbers were artisans who worked with lead. The chances are that, if the lead of your local church roof is still intact and hasn't been pinched by a bunch of desperate ruffians, it was installed by plumbers. The roof of Old Saint Paul's Cathedral in London was referred to as 'The Leads', and gentlemen of note would climb up to the roof to take in the prospect of London. Often they would carve their names in the soft lead covering to prove that they had been there. Or rather, they wouldn't; they would get a servant to do it for them. How posh is that - employing someone to do you graffiti for you!

Of course, the roof of the cathedral, and everything else, for that matter, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Diarist John Evelyn recorded that 'the stones of Paul's flew like grenadoes, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them'. Curiously, he doesn't mention dogs. Or rats, of which there was a superabundance.

The use of lead pipes in plumbing is far older. The Romans (he's on about the Romans again!) used huge quantities of the stuff to feed private homes, public fountains, baths, and, of course, the Emperors' palaces. Lead would be bashed out into flat sheets, then wrapped around a wooden pole to make a rough cylinder and soldered. Pipes were joined together with the same solder. Citizens could pay to have water piped directly into their homes, paying different amounts depending upon the bore of the pipe; a kind of early water-metering system. Some examples of Roman lead pipe can still be seen in the wonderful city of Bath, or Aquae Sulis as the Romans called it. Lead was the preferred metal for water pipes into the 20th century; my own house, at the ripe old age of 102, still has odd bits of lead pipe sticking out of the walls at odd angles!

Lead pipes aside, the Romans were quite hot on hygiene, which makes the following all the more surprising. Roman latrines were often quite cleverly designed. Stone benches with appropriately sized holes in them were sited over a drain or gutter, along which fresh water would flow to take away the...erm...waste products. These latrines were generally a communal affair, with quite a number of available seats and absolutely no privacy; you could pass the time of day with the neighbouring user, or perhaps even transact a bit of business. Pictorial reconstructions generally show Roman soldiers sitting on these things and sharing a joke or two with their fellows, but it's now accepted by many historians that they squatted on the bench over the hole, rather than sat - not unlike the current practice in many Mediterranean countries. Now, here comes the surprising bit. Sad to report, the Romans didn't have access to toilet paper but, ever enterprising, they came up with a novel idea; sea sponges. Natural sponges were harvested from the sea, attached to sticks, and used in lieu (in loo?) of toilet paper. One simply dipped the sponge in the running water below, deployed it as instructed, and then dipped it in the water to rinse it off. These sponges were communal. A slave, destined to die in the Flavian Amphitheatre, cheated the masses by ramming one of these sponge-sticks down his throat and choking to death. What a way to go. But at least it shows that, even those who were about to die for the amusement of the Emperor had access to life's little comforts.

Now, you probably want to know about the other two Chinese curses, don't you? The second worst was 'May you come to the attention of those in authority'. And the worst: 'May you find what you are looking for'. Now, where did I put that winning lottery ticket?

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Getting the chop - Tudor style

As those of you who read Derrick's excellent blog will already know, this year marks the 500th anniversary of Henry the eighth's accession to the English throne. By way of commemoration, there are any number of events occurring this year (there is an exhibition at the British Library that I fully intend to visit), as well as an excellent TV series on Channel 4, presented by David Starkey.

Much has been made of Henry's transition from slim and handsome Renaissance prince to bloated monster. And there's no getting away from the fact that he did get a little tetchy as he became older. Author Philippa Gregory believes he may have suffered from Cushing's syndrome, which causes obesity and mental instability, and there is little doubt that he had chronic constipation. This latter could well have been brought on by over-consumption of meat; people were somewhat suspicious of fresh fruit and veg at the time, believing they promoted 'the Bloody Flux'. Poor old Hal also had open sores on his legs, and possible brain damage from a fall whilst jousting in 1536, that had left him unconscious for two hours. All of these go some way to explain why a fair number of executions occurred during his reign. According to chronicler Ralph Holinshead, it's believed that around 72,000 were despatched on the orders of 'Good' King Henry.

A good proportion of executees suffered their fate for treason; in other words, daring to disagree with the king. Those of noble birth could look forward to a swift beheading - Anne Boleyn was famously dispatched by an adept swordsman from France - and generally in 'private' before a selected audience. However, Henry's increasingly erratic behaviour as his reign progressed could explain why he chose to have Thomas Cromwell, one of his closest advisers, executed by an inexperienced teenager with a blunt axe. Generally, however, a beheading was preferable to the fale meted out to commoners; to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

There is some debate as to the meaning of the word 'drawn'. Some say it refers to the fact that the subject was pulled (or drawn) on a hurdle to the place of execution; others, that it denotes the act of pulling or 'drawing' the subject's entrails from their body. Be that as it may, the subject was first hanged for a short period of time, then cut down, revived, and placed on a large table. The executioner would use a large knife to slit the subject open, and his organs would be removed and generally burnt before his eyes. Sometimes his 'privy parts' would also be removed. Finally, the subject's head was cut off, the body quartered, and parts dispatched to various bits of the kingdom to be displayed as a warning. It's believed around ten thousand met their end in this way.

I have also discovered one rather less common method of capital punishment. This was placed on the statute books in 1531 as a direct result of an incident that occurred in the household of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. In February that year, a number of members of the household were taken ill after eating porridge, and two, Benett Curwen, a gentleman of the household, and a widow called Alice Tryppytt, died as a result. The latter was one of the poor people who were regularly fed at the kitchen door by the Bishop as an act of charity, as was the custom of the time. The King expressed great indignation at the crime, and declared that henceforth poisoning would be regarded as High Treason, ordering that

'the said Richard Roose shalbe therfore boyled to deathe withoute havynge any advauntage of his clargie.'

The sentence was duly carried out at Smithfield in London on the 15th April 1532. I can find no account of the execution itself, which is probably just as well.

Something interesting strikes me. The population of the kingdom during Henry's reign was around three million. It's about twenty times that now. If we projected a still bloodthirsty Henry into the twenty first century, he would have to dispatch 1,440,000 souls in order to match the proportion of the population done to death during his reign. Should a freak wormhole open in space and you suddenly find yourself confronted by the larger-than-life Tudor monarch, just do yourself a favour...agree with everything he says!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

The miller's tale - Middenshire version

I have been very remiss. In italics.

For months now we have been conversing, over our virtual garden wall, as it were, beneath a banner proclaiming this blog to be 'The Middenshire Chronicles'. And over these few months of getting to know each other, I have made the odd tantalising reference to the (sadly) lost County of Middenshire, but without elaborating or, indeed, regaling you with any of the fascinating tales of that County from the hoard of manuscripts, unearthed in curious circumstances a few years ago, and in the process of being co-edited by the worthy Stevyn Colgan and myself. The time to reveal something of their wonders is long overdue. So, today being the feast day of Middenshire’s Saint Gug, what better way to introduce you to the County than to recall the tale of that holy man’s life.

'What’s the bravest thing in the world?' This question is the feed line of what is probably the oldest recorded joke. The punch line, surprisingly, is not a lion or tiger, but 'a miller’s shirt, for it grasps a rogue by the throat every day.' This would hardly leave modern day audiences rolling in the aisles, but in the middle ages just about everyone would have understood the joke, painful though it was, For the truth is that medieval millers were the byword for dishonesty.

I have already explained elsewhere that peasants were expected to pay their lord for the privilege of doing almost everything except being born. And, as they eked out an existence on their little strips of land, hoping for a decent harvest that would sustain them through the winter, the peasantry knew that, come harvest time, they would have to take their corn to the lord’s mill for grinding. Not only would they have to hand over a portion of the resulting flour to the miller for the lord of the manor‘s table, but they could be sure that the miller would ‘load’ his scales in order to take more flour than necessary and keep the excess for himself.

In the year 1100, the miller of the manor of Pendlebury was one Gug. This particular grinder of corn was unusual for Middenshire in that he was regarded as a fair and honest man. He was scrupulous in weighing the peasants’ flour, keeping nothing for himself. Because of this he became known by the somewhat literal-minded villeins as ‘Gug the Honest Miller’. As a result, Gug would often find small gifts of flour, bread or root vegetables upon his doorstep in the morning; tokens of esteem from the local populace, who could ill-afford them, but nevertheless believed that Gug’s honesty should be rewarded.

The fair-minded Gug’s behaviour did not sit well with the other millers of the Shire. Peasants from neighbouring manors started to grumble about their own corrupt millers, and some secretly acquired their own quern-stones and begun to grind corn at home under the cover of darkness. The millers banded together and paid one Wat of Winkwood Pisham, a noted ruffian, to be ‘le gryndour fyndere’. Wat would creep about the villages at night, listening for the tell-tale sound of mill-wheels grinding together. He would then report back to his collective masters, who would arrange for the quern to be confiscated and the house of the offending villein to be torched.

The seizings and burnings continued, but so did civil disobedience, so the Shire’s millers decided to deal with the problem once and for all, by killing Gug. Late one night, armed with flaming torches and mud-pitches, they broke down the door of his mill, and found Gug in an attitude of prayer, asking God to deliver his fellow-peasants from the rapacity of those in authority. Four of the largest millers held Gug down on the floor, whilst another half-dozen manhandled his mill-wheel from its spindle. At a given signal, they dropped the heavy gritstone wheel upon Gug’s head…and it bounced harmlessly off Gug’s bald pate, landing on the feet of the miller of Middenbury, crushing his toes. They tried several more times to end Gug’s life, but each time the wheel failed to do him any harm. They then hit upon a plan to suffocate him by filling his nose and mouth with flour, but every time Gug let out a mighty sneeze that propelled the flour into the faces of his attackers, blinding and choking them and rendering them powerless.

The noise and commotion roused Gug’s neighbours, who banded together to investigate. Although not usually given to direct action, the peasants managed to drive off the millers using bill-hooks and fierce ducks. Thus, Gug escaped death at the hands of his dishonest brethren, who returned to their respective manors, vowing to make a further attempt upon Gug’s life at a later date. However, each of them found, on returning to his respective mill, that his own grind-stone had unaccountably returned to the material from which it was made. In place of their mill-wheels, they found nothing but a pile of sand. As news of these happenings spread from miller to miller, a great sense of fear prevailed, and the millers decided to leave Gug be, believing that the disintegration of their wheels must have been some kind of divine punishment for their actions.

Gug lived to a ripe old age, eventually choking on a single crumb from a stale bun he had just enjoyed, given him by a near neighbour. His fellow-villagers each donated a portion of flour for his funeral, and Gug became unique as the first and only miller ever to be buried in a pastry coffin.

In the autumn following his death there was an exceptionally good harvest, which the good people of Middenshire saw as a miracle and attributed it to Gug. Although his beatification was never referred to, or ratified by, Rome, Gug was regarded as a saint by all in the shire, and became the patron of honest millers, pastry cases (often referred to as 'coffins'), bald men and, somewhat unaccountably, rheumatism.

There is a curious post-script to this story. More than three centuries later, Gug was accidentally disinterred by a sexton and his 'coffin' was miraculously found to be intact. The priest gave permission for Gug’s body to be viewed, and the lid of the pastry coffin was duly opened. Even more miraculously, Gug’s body was found to be completely incorrupt, but the previously dry interior of the coffin contained, in the words of the priest, ‘a darke liccour wch lookyd and dyd tast lyke unto a riche sawce’.(the modern equivalent would be gravy). At this point one should, perhaps, ask two questions. Firstly, how did Pendlebury church acquire a literate priest? And secondly, what manner of man tastes the contents of a coffin?

It would appear that the priest was not alone in sampling the dubious delights of what is often referred to as ‘coffin liquor’. Antiquarian John Aubrey recounts the following story of an incident that occurred in 1666, just after the Great Fire of London:

‘John Colet, D.D., Deane of St. Paule’s, London. After the Conflagration (his Monument being broken) somebody made a little hole towards the upper edge of his Coffin, which was closed like the coffin of a Pye and was full of a Liquour which conserved the body. Mr Wyld and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and ‘twas of a kind of insipid tast, something of an Ironish tast. The Coffin was of Lead, and layd in the wall about 2 foot½ above the surface of the Floore. This was a strange rare way of conserving a Corps; perhaps it was a Pickle, as for Beefe, whose Saltness in so many years the Lead might sweeten and render insipid. The body felt, to the probe of a stick which they thrust into a chinke, like boyld Brawne.’

William Thuck, the chronicler of Middenshire, records that St. Gug’s body likewise seemed to have been pickled or cooked by the liquor in which it was steeped. If one may be allowed a little humour in speaking of this pious miller, it seems he was both braised and praised in equal measure.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Better than a blank page. But not by much

Funny, the things you lose in a house move. The kick plate from a freezer. A magnum of champagne. A small green scoopy thing you use to transfer compost from bag to flowerpot. At the time of writing, the first two have turned up. One is attached to the bottom of the freezer, the other has long since been imbibed and its container recycled. The third item has failed to surface; I had to use a metal trowel instead.

Funny, too, the things that you find after a house move. Amongst the gew-gaws, assorted trinkets and brickbats, I came across the following piece of writing. Now, many years ago, when No.1 daughter was at school, she was 'tasked' with producing a short piece of fiction concerning The Gold Rush. And, as a good Dad (I like to think) I did what good Dads do; I interfered, suggested, advised, and generally gave all manner of (unwanted) input as to how said piece of fiction should be written. Eventually, I saw the error of my ways and, as someone who had always been vaguely interested in writing, penned my own version, which closely follows her (then) somewhat quirky style, for my own amusement. Here it is in its entirety. I have included it (a) to show that I am really a shameless self-publicist with all the talents of William McGonagall on mogadon; (b) to clear up doubts, if any existed, that my huge rollercoaster Middenshire novel is ever likely to be published; and (c) allow you to whisper, point and snigger at me whilst I think of something more useful to say.

Anyway, here it is...

A whole village was going to settle in a new place. A huge meteorite, made entirely of cheese, had landed on their old one, and the sad, inbred inhabitants were still covered in small slivers of burnt mozzarella. Billy, Jane, Bella, Indiana and Jesse were moving in a group together. Almost all of them were in their twenties. It was 1848, only two years away from 1850. The Gold Rush had started when a man came into the village, shouting, 'Gold! Gold! I've found it in the American River! Look, here it is!' After he had been shot and subsequently buried, ostensibly for telling lies, the simple villagers had discovered that he had, in fact, been telling the truth. The unwashed villagers dropped everything and raced to the now well-known Gold Rush.

Billy was the leader, because, despite being the thickest, he was both the oldest, and a man. Jane was the youngest. She was ten years old and still completely illiterate. As they headed over California, they became hot and tired.

'Gee, I'm becoming hot and tired, Indiana. When are we going to be there?'

'Soon, Jane old girl,' said Indiana, without the faintest idea what she was talking about.

All of a sudden, they heard waggons, and the neighing of buffalo.

'It's the chuck waggon!' said Jesse.

As the waggon got closer, the people driving it said, 'Keep your filthy horn-swoggling hands offa the waggin, you dirty and misbegotten old cow pokes.'

After burying the chuck wagon driver and a big dinner they camped and had a rest. In the middle of the night, Jane suddenly awoke. She could hear the whoop of baboons, the hum of a nuclear generator and the distant crump of shells from a heavy calibre machine gun. She went back to sleep without even wondering what these sounds meant.

In the morning, Indiana was the first person to get up. 'My God!' he said, 'What's happened round here?' In front of his eyes were the scattered remnants of Red Cross parcels, broken biscuits and waggons that had apparently been burnt to a fine white powder. There had been an ambush. The rest of the team got up.

'Oh well, you young'uns! No gold for you this year!' said the Sheriff. 'As you can see, there has been an armed conflict of some kind in the middle of the night. Thank goodness no-one was hurt.'

'But Sheriff, what about that huge mound of bodies?' said Billy.

'Dang these glasses!' the Sheriff said.

'Thank goodness you were here, Sheriff. You're my hero!' said Jane.

'That's OK, little missy.'

After burying the Sheriff, the group headed back to their village. They all got up on their horses and rode into the sunset. No gold this year. Perhaps they could corner the market in meteorite cheese instead.

Friday, 10 April 2009

The curse of the chocolate lagomorph

Around this time of year, rabbits begin to pop up in the strangest places. In TV and newspaper ads; on greetings cards; on the sea-cliffs near my home; and as small chocolate representations in the supermarket. Why, I even saw one for sale in our local pet shop, just last week. Now, someone told me that their appearance coincides with, and apparently has something to do with, Easter, but I'm not sure why. Easter is, of course, a Christian festival and, at the end of the forty days of fasting that precede it, Christians have prepared themselves spiritually for the death and resurrection of Christ. So where does the rabbit (and here I include the hollow chocolate bunny) come in?

The truth is, of course, that he shouldn't. Easter is associated with new life and fertility, and they don't come much more fertile than a rabbit. Your average female rabbit (rabbitess?) can, in theory, produce around eight hundred offspring during its nine month breeding period. This is probably why, in the middle ages, the rabbit was seen as a symbol of promiscuity, sexual pleasure, and (let's not beat about the bush) downright sin. Is this really the kind of example the church was looking for?

Well, no, because over the years we've got our rabbits mixed up with our hares. In the medieval bestiary, the hare was a symbol of purity. Unlike the rabbits, who were 'at it like knives', hares were thought to reproduce asexually, changing gender in order to do so; a belief which started in ancient Egypt and carried through to eighteenth century Europe. A single hare in church art represented the Virgin Mary, and a trio of hares (sometimes seen as carved roof-bosses) were symbolic of the Holy Trinity. In the middle ages it was believed that hares were in a permanent state of alertness, never closing their eyes, and being incapable even of blinking; this perhaps explains why they were thought to spend all night staring up at the moon. But, if hares were this alert, one wonders how the Romans were ever able to catch them; because Pliny the Elder wrote that eating hare meat was a cure for sterility, and a means of enhancing sexual attraction for nine days. Why nine, I wonder?

Some think that the rabbit has been associated with Easter since the inception of Christianity. In fact, the Easter Bunny doesn't make its first appearance in written sources until 1682. In that year, German Professor Georg Franck von Franckenau wrote an essay De Ovis Paschalibus (On Easter-Eggs) in which he stated:

In Alsace and the neigbouring regions those eggs are called rabbit-eggs because of the myth that is told to make the simple-minded and children believe that the Easter Rabbit was laying and hiding them in the grass of the gardens, so the children search them even more eagerly, for the delectation of the smiling adults.

So, for reasons we've already seen, it's inappropriate for the naughty little rabbit to represent Easter. But in some cultures, the bunny was highly regarded. The Aztecs apparently had a pantheon of four hundred rabbit gods known as the Centzon Totochtin, that were effectively 'patrons' of drunkenness and partying; in Korean mythology, rabbits live on the moon and make rice cakes; and likewise in Japan, the lunar surface is their abode, but these particular bunnies are engaged in producing sticky rice. However, closer to home, on the Isle of Portland (which is, incidentally, very close to Middenshire) the rabbit is regarded as unlucky, and even speaking its name is likely to offend the locals. This is because their burrowing was likely to cause potentially fatal landslips in the stone quarries that provided the island with most of its income. Portland islanders even now would rather refer to the creatures as underground mutton or furry things. In deference to this belief, posters displayed on the island for the Wallace and Gromit film The curse of the were-rabbit, omitted the 'R' word, and read The curse of the were-bunny instead.

So next time someone mentions the Easter Bunny to you, be sure and point out the error of their ways. Tell them that it's a hare. And then prepare to be condemned as a hopeless killjoy and pedant. But you can always blame me.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Twittens, frellits and dumfunglers

One thing I've noticed in my move from suburb of Londinium to the Kingdom of the East Saxons is that people here are...well...different. They say 'good morning' to you. They smile at you in the supermarket queue. They hand you back the wallet (contents intact) that you inadvertantly left in a shop an hour before. And they stop their cars and make a friendly gesture for you to cross the road without a hint of wanting to mow you down. Now, all this is very strange for a cynical ex-copper more used to making sure his wristwatch is still there after shaking hands with someone. But I'm starting to get used to it, and doing my own fair share of smiling and nodding.

I was in conversation with one of our neighbours the other day; a Sussex lady, born and bred, when she happened to use the word twitten. Now, I wasn't sure at first whether I had misheard, and that she was, in fact, talking about Twitter, the micro-blogging site. I hadn't misheard. A twitten is a Sussex dialect word for a narrow alley or passage.

When one thinks of dialect, one does not, perhaps, immediately think of East Sussex. After all, Brighton is practically a suburb of London; it's only an hour and a half from the metropolis by train; and it's full of members of the chattering classes like the ones you've seen on Location cubed. But 'twas not always thus. The journey from London down to Sussex was once far more arduous and dangerous than it is now, and not something to be undertaken on a whim. Mail coach passengers were rattled around in badly-sprung horse-drawn contraptions for at least eight hours on roads that were thick with mud in winter, and dusty tracks in summer. Coach travel could also be dangerous; on one dark night the 'Independent' mail-coach overturned at Findon, throwing the passengers into the road and crushing one elderly man to death under the body of the coach. Most people couldn't afford the luxury of coach travel anyway; many never got further than the nearest market town, and a good many others never left the confines of their villages, because everything they needed (which was, in truth, very little) could be found within their own community. So it was that people in these remote areas came to have their own private vocabulary before the days of universally available newspapers and our 24 hour electronic media; and fortunately, much of that vocabulary has been recorded. I am grateful to the Rev W.D. Parish, Vicar of Selmeston, whose dictionary of Sussex dialect was published in 1875.

Here are a few dialect words that may amuse:

Amendment - manure (adds a whole new meaning to 'pleading the Fifth Amendent')

Backsters - wide pieces of wood, worn on the feet by fishermen who have to walk over shingle or soft mud. (Also known as flappers - it seems odd that such a specific item should have two names!).

Balderdash - an obscene conversation (not sure whether the lexicographer meant Criminal Conversation - the old expression for adultery).

Lawyer - a bramble bush (so named because, like lawyers, the bush is hard to escape from once it has hold of you).

Mints - the mites found in cheese or flour. Not like After Eight mints, then.

Naughty-Man's-Plaything (stop it!) - a stinging nettle.

Rebellious - bilious.

Yeasty - gusty or stormy.

I think such words add richness to the language, which I believe is becoming too homogeneous. It's my view that we should start using slang or dialect of our own making in conversation. I'll get you started with some that Stevyn Colgan and I came up with long since:

Strug - a flat piece of wood with no useful purpose.

Thwackett - two strugs tied together.

Scritchylumps - an irritation of the skin caused by sleeping in silage.

Frellit - the middle prong of a three-pronged fork. (The outside prongs don't have names. What would be the point?)

Sturmers - the buttocks.

Drongler - a novice bell-ringer.

Dumfungler - any ideas?

I look forward to hearing your own in good time, which I shall, of course, steal and send to a publisher, drang my old sturmers with a thwackett if I don't!

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Wobbling about like wonky wheels

In this great Blogdom we inhabit, there seems to be something of a thirst for information. Every now and then a fellow correspondent will enquire, what piece(s) of information would you care to reveal about yourself to your expectant blogdience? These reasonable requests are generally known as 'memes', and I have no doubt that those of you who read this humble blog from time to time, ask such questions out of a genuine sense of interest and curiosity. It is nothing like the how are you? that we British use as an all-purpose greeting. In these circumstances, what we certainly do not want is for the recipient of the question to give a detailed bulletin of their state of health.

Anyway, the questions are asked, and away I go with my bits of info; just try and stop me from telling you that I'm an avid plane-spotter, or can't say the letter 'b', or that my life has been so much better since I discovered plain chocolate Hob-Nobs. Only one of these is true, incidentally. But these aside, I recently chose to reveal that the only thing in this world I will not eat is a toffee apple.

For some strange reason, I feel unjustifiably proud of myself for being able to state that the combination of sour apple and sweet toffee on a wooden stick is my sole culinary bete noir. Does it make me a better person than the next man (or woman) who turns their nose up at mashed potatoes, retches at the mere thought of Brussels sprouts, and has a blue fit when presented with a morsel of blue cheese at the conclusion of a meal? Or does it make me a worse person? Does my omnivorous nature somehow reveal in me a lack of discernment or discrimination? Why don't I shudder at the thought of snails in garlic butter, or a handful of spicy mealworms (dead, of course), or a platter of the assorted fried viscera of some farmyard friends? I'm not sure. But it can't be very chic, can it, to state to the world at large, 'I'll eat anything, me!' I don't think restaurant critic AA Gill has anything to worry about.

Number one daughter has seemingly inherited my omniphagic tendencies. Over the years she has consumed snails, frogs' legs, kangaroo, ostrich, alligator nuggets (the mind boggles), assorted bottom-feeders (gastropod and bivalve) and assorted fish (pelagic and demersal)...and tripe. But I have to report that she very nearly met her culinary match today in the form of a tub of jellied eels.

Jellied eels are a cockney delicacy, and have been around since the eighteenth century. Freshwater eels are chopped up (when I was a child, we would watch with horror as the fishmonger dissected live ones before our eyes), and then boiled in a spiced stock. The slimy nature of the eels means that fats from its body mingle with the stock to produce a savoury jelly. My grandfather, who was born in Lambeth where such things were popular, swore by them. Tubby Isaacs (we lead, others follow) was the most famous purveyor of them. And No.1 daughter was today the dubious recipient of a tub of them.

We both looked at the contents of the tub. Greyish-yellow jelly, coloured perhaps with nicotine, and dotted with large chunks of equally grey stewed eel, which looked for all the world like some exhibit in a coroner's cabinet of curiosities. Despite the fact this creature was purchased in East Sussex, not the East End, I formed the impression that it had somehow winked at us from the recesses of its tub in a cheeky, cockney barrow-boy sort of way. By now a cheese sandwich was looking infinitely more appealing. We tentatively tasted a portion. The eel meat had a kind of chewy texture, and a flavour reminiscent of pilchards fed entirely on a diet of mud. The jelly was rather like that to be found in a pork pie, but a little sloppier. By now, even toffee apples were looking appealing. We persevered with this dismembered mud-fish for a while, but I regret to say most of the poor creature died in vain, and is now languishing in a secure receptacle, awaiting collection by the Seaford and District Sanitation Collective.

So, is there a moral (not a moray - that's an altogether far more frightening species of eel) to this story? Could it be, 'never eat a creature whose name has more vowels than consonants?' Or 'if the food on your plate looks like it's already been eaten and/or recycled a couple of times, it probably has'? No; rather, 'try everything once, but (unless you are an eternal optimist) prepare for a bit of a disappointment'. Especially if your chosen delicacy has been spoon-fed on silt for most of its life. But I still won't eat toffee apples.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Mafflers, manducation and a mug of mobby

Some of the more sharp-eyed of you have probably realised by now that English is my mother tongue. And what an amazing language it is, or rather combination of languages; for over the centuries we have begged, stolen or borrowed words from other languages to supplement our own. When William the Bastard landed in England in 1066, the native Saxons were busy farming their cows, pigs and sheep, but it was the Normans (who were originally from Scandinavia themselves - literally North Men) who introduced the terms beef, pork and mutton; an indication, perhaps, that it was the Saxons who reared the livestock but the Normans who got to eat it. Subsequently, the rise of Empire and international travel brought words as diverse as bungalow (Bengali), curry (Tamil), gabardine (Breton), cravat (Croatian), bludgeon (Cornish) and robot (Czech) to the language. At the time of writing, we're still half-inching words from across the globe.

There are many different kinds of English. There are the dialects in counties such as Devon, Yorkshire and Norfolk, where accents are so thick that you could cut them with a knife. Then there is the formal language of the courtroom and of Parliament, where business was originally conducted in Latin or Norman French. There is the BBC Radio 4 presenter, with his or her clipped accent (albeit this has been much watered-down over the last few years - except for newsreader Charlotte Green!). And we must not forget the language of the majority of us, with its informality, its slang, its nuances and its ability to talk utter rubbish. 'If it's not one thing, it's another!' True. If the thing on my plate is not a sausage, it must be something else. 'I'm all fingers and thumbs today!' Well, what else is there?

Speaking of sausages, I suffered, or rather encountered, a curious coincidence today. A couple of days ago I was perusing the website of a magazine that rejoices in the name of The Oldie, when I came across a book entitled Fopdoodle and Salmagundi in their recommended books list. Now, you will be aware that the former word refers to a fool or insignificant wretch, and the latter to a mixture of chopped meat and pickled herrings with oil, vinegar, pepper and onions, and equally you will be aware that both words appear in Dr. Samuel Johnson's dictionary, and it seems only fair to give a nod to the good Doctor in this the tercentenary of his birth. Anyway, today, whilst sorting out my rather extensive collection of books, I came across an 1837 copy of the dictionary aforesaid. And, despite a suggestion to the contrary in the Blackadder episode entitled 'Ink and Incapability', the dictionary does contain the word 'sausage', which is described as a roll or ball made commonly of pork or veal, minced very small with salt and spice. So that's alright then.

The dictionary was published in 1755, six years later than intended. This is mainly due to the fact that the Doctor produced the whole thing almost single-handedly. For this incredible piece of lexicography, he received the princely sum of 1500 guineas (that's £1575), so he effectively earned £175 per year; this at a time when a footman could earn £8 per annum, an artisan £40, and a gentleman of the 'middling sort' would be happy with £100 a year. Doctor Johnson could have used some of his hard-earned cash to buy himself a suit of clothes (£8), rent a set of rooms (his friend Boswell paid around £40 a year for his), or pop down to the barbers' shop, where he could get a shave and have his wig 'dressed' for sixpence.

My dog-eared copy of the dictionary runs to 732 pages. Dear reader, I shall not weary you with a plethora of definitions, but here are three that may amuse:

Lexicographer - "a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification, of words". (Johnson is describing himself!)

Camelopard - ''An Abyssinian animal, taller than an elephant, but not so thick". (He was talking about a giraffe - hi Raph!)

Gastromyth - "One who has the faculty of speaking out of his belly". (I couldn't explain this one until I saw Johnson's definition of a ventriloquist - "one who speaks in such a manner as that the sound seems to issue from his belly". Goodness only knows what the dummy looked like!)

Oh, and the words in the title of this post; a maffler is someone with a stammer, manducation is the act of chewing, and mobby was apparently an American drink made from potatoes. Nice.

One final question. Would Samuel Johnson have made use of the computer, had it been available to him? I think so. He was of the opinion that 'The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book'. The good Doctor would certainly have found the internet extremely useful in this context. He also believed that 'no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money'. (So what does this blog make me?) A computer would have allowed him access to a whole world of books, and would certainly have speeded up the process of producing his dictionary. And I think the computer's 'cut and paste' facility would have seen a fair amount of use. Johnson said, 'read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out'. Oh, and the word computer appears on page 123 of the dictionary. It's another term for an accountant.