Archive for the 'Things I Have Learned' Category

Syllable By Syllable

In 1653, the dying Backhouse had whispered to Ashmole, syllable by syllable, the true and innermost secret of the Philosopher’s Stone ; this would have been a more impressive event, if Backhouse had not come to life again for nine more years, and if Ashmole had not meanwhile forgotten the formula.

Edmund Gosse, English Men Of Letters : Sir Thomas Browne (Macmillan 1905)

Browne’s Badger


One of the “vulgar errors” addressed by Sir Thomas Browne in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) was the belief that the legs of the badger are longer on the right side than on the left. This was generally accepted, and stated in many early books of natural history with considerable authority. Browne argued that the theory was completely absurd, deprecating Albertus Magnus, calling Aldrovandi in his support, and noting that Aristotle had said an odd leg was repugnant to the course of nature. He considered the cases of spiders, frogs, and lobsters in making the case for badgers having legs of equal length.

Edmund Gosse was a great admirer of Browne and wrote a monograph on him for Macmillan’s English Men of Letters series in 1905. Browne on badgers provoked Gosse to a rare fit of exasperation:

Meanwhile, we cannot help asking ourselves why the learned sceptic did not immediately get hold of a real badger, and measure his legs. He says that “upon indifferent inquiry, I cannot discover this difference” in the length of them ; but why did he not make sure for himself? It is true that badgers are extremely shy and mysterious in their movements, and that, no doubt, it was not every sportsman in the neighbourhood of Norwich who could boast of having dug one out of its earth. It is perhaps to ask too much for us to wish that, in the zeal of his zoology, Thomas Browne himself, with a sack and a pair of badger-tongs, and accompanied by some trusty yokels and a cross-bred bull terrier used to the business, should have worried the bowels of earth in some copse on a starlight night, and have procured a badger for himself. But, surely, an observer so curious might have bargained with some farmer who lived out Catton way, or close to a snug rabbit-warren under Earlham, for a specimen of so common an animal, He comes to the correct conclusion, that the monstrosity is ill-contrived, “the shortness being affixed unto the legs of one side, which might have been more tolerably placed upon the thwart or diagonal movers”. Quite so ; but how briefly the question might have been settled once for all with a tape measure on the dead body of a badger.

So What?

Roger Lewis, in his Spectator review of a new biography of Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd, notes:

Chaplin died on Christmas Day 1977. Ackroyd doesn’t mention this, but the comedian’s coffin was stolen by grave robbers, who phoned Paulette Goddard, one of his wives and the co-star of The Gold Rush, hoping they could make a ransom demand. “We’ve got Chaplin,” they announced. “So what?” she said, slamming down the phone.

On Ice!

I learned today that the spooky Scandinavian vampire novel Let The Right One In, first adapted – very successfully – for the screen, has now been turned into a theatrical production. But not just any old production. No, this is Let The Right One In – On Ice!

Perhaps it is just me whose brain turns to putty when I hear those dread words – On Ice! – appended to a title. I can think of few less edifying experiences than watching a drama – any drama – given the skating-rink treatment.

But audiences do seem to lap them up, so it strikes me that it might be financially profitable to turn my hand to such an adaptation. What would be even more unlikely than a moody vampire yarn? My initial thoughts turn to The Anatomy Of Melancholy On Ice!, or The Strange Death Of Liberal England On Ice! But I am drawn irresistibly to the titanic challenge that would be Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno On Ice!

First I must contact Andrew Lloyd Webber to do the music. If he insists on roller skates rather than ice skates, I might be open to persuasion.

Unbridled Hilarity

This is probably the funniest thing I have read since oh! I don’t know when.

An Index of the 1970s


A Monopod Flautist Writes

Never, never admit to being a flute-player with a rock band.

The monopod flautist dispenses advice for travellers. (Thanks to Alasdair Dickson for drawing this to my attention. Now I must go and listen to Aqualung.)


Thatcher Bird Comparison Update

When Margaret Thatcher died last year, I devoted one of my potsages [sic] for The Dabbler to the unresolved question of which bird she most closely resembled. I noted that Matthew Parris claimed “she walked like a partridge”, while Jon Snow asserted “she scuttled about like a hen”. Now things have become more complicated. Reading Dominic Sandbrook’s Seasons In The Sun : The Battle For Britain 1974-1979, I learn that the Daily Express compared the then-future Prime Minister to “an angry woodpecker”.

The New Motive Power

The New Motive Power was constructed of copper, zinc and magnets, all carefully machined, as well as a dining room table. At the end of nine months, Spear and an unnamed woman, also referred to as “Mary of the New Dispensation” ritualistically birthed the contraption in an attempt to give it life. Unfortunately for Spear, this failed to have the desired effect, and the machine was later dismantled.

The sort of paragraph that compels me to do further research. From John Murray Spear & The Electric Messiah in today’s Dabbler.

A Preposterous Hovercraft Tour

Jeremy Thorpe spent the early weeks of the [October 1974 general election] campaign on a preposterous hovercraft tour of English seaside resorts, providing broadcasters with plenty of pictures of himself “struggling ashore in bedraggled oilskins” while aides toiled miserably to restart his unreliable vehicle.

Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons In The Sun : The Battle For Britain 1974-1979 (Allen Lane 2012)

Cnidaria Medusozoa Bulletin


Thanks to Outa_Spaceman for drawing this to my attention

The Demon Of The Air

On 24 December 1892 … [George Albert] Smith announced in the Brighton and Hove Herald that he had taken a lease of the St Ann’s Well pleasure gardens … By April 1893 Smith had been able to “supplement the many natural attractions” of St Ann’s Well by the addition, among other things, of a monkey house, a gypsy fortune teller, swings and see-saws for the children, and by popular lectures and demonstrations by himself.

In May 1894 Smith announced that St Ann’s Well had become one of the most popular amusement resorts in Britain. He claimed that “close to 3,000 visitors” had paid 3d. for admission on Whit Monday. The attractions now included captive baboons, an exhibition of dissolving views “by means of long-range limelight apparatus”, and juggling and trapeze artists.

Smith’s advertisements in the Brighton and Hove Herald and the Brighton Gazette on 7 and 9 June 1894 announced a “BALLOON ASCENT AND THRILLING PARACHUTE DESCENT by Neil Campbell, Australia’s ‘Demon of the Air’”, on the following Saturday, augmented by trapeze, juggling, and balancing acts. “The Demon of the Sky”, it was said, “will perform his wonderful leap from the sky from a height of one mile by means of a parachute.” We may perhaps think that a mile was an exaggeration. However, in the event, Smith created more of a sensation with his “Demon of the Air” than he could have anticipated. “Half of Brighton”, apparently, “was wild with excitement”, because during the ascent of the hot-air balloon the Demon had been unable to free himself to make his spectacular parachute descent. After drifting over the town the balloon, with the Demon still attached, crashed into Brighton cemetery. The Demon, it was stated, broke a tombstone by the force of his descent, but was miraculously uninjured.

[Let us leap forward sixty years...]

When the National Film Theatre was opened on London’s South Bank in 1957, the [British Film] Academy invited the now ninety-three-year-old Smith as a guest. He was presented to Princess Margaret, met Gina Lollobrigida and other stars of the film world, and was given a picture of the theatre by Lord Hailsham.

Trevor H. Hall, The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney (Duckworth 1964)

A Shot In The Dark

There is a story in today’s Grauniad about young Polish artists being recruited to recreate Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings for a film. Young British artists, apparently, lack the skills for the work because all they are “taught” (if that is the word) at art school is how to make conceptual art. That would certainly explain the unbelievably tiresome twaddle exuded by the Hoxtonwankers.

A professor at the Royal College of Art insists “there are some very fine painters, but the focus is on innovation and finding a new way of painting”. Well, fine, but it might help if students learned some “old” ways of painting first. Minor things like how to hold a brush and how to apply paint to canvas – that would be a start.

But that is by the by, because what really got my attention was the final paragraph of the story, referring to the film.

Loving Vincent will question whether Van Gogh’s death was suicide or murder. [Co-producer] Welchman points to a Frenchman’s “oblique” admission that he shot the artist and that police have never found a weapon.

The inference of that last phrase is surely that the French police are still investigating. If it said “police never found a weapon”, that would consign it firmly to the past. The inclusion of “have” suggests a live, ongoing enquiry. The thought of various gendarmes scrabbling around Auvers-sur-Oise and environs searching desperately for a revolver undiscovered for a century and a quarter is most enticing, and could provide the basis for a police procedural crime thriller, though it might be fairly low on thrills.

2010_08_23 La vie passionnée

Authentic photo of Vincent Van Gogh from the Auvers-sur-Oise Gendarmerie Archives

The Supernatural Cooking Of Puddings

“The Theobald case . . . is of importance because it demonstrates how blind, unquestioning belief in the occult powers thought to be about them could reduce the attitude of a private educated family of the England of the 1880’s towards their own lives to a condition where it becomes difficult to believe that they were of sane mind. Morell Theobald was a well-known chartered accountant, a member of the first Council of the Society for Psychical Research and its first Hon. Treasurer. Over a period of some years the most extraordinary phenomena were alleged to have occurred in Mr Theobald’s house, in which the whole family ultimately became involved. Dr Dingwall wrote:

In 1882 Mr Theobald had engaged a new cook who turned out to be a very powerful physical medium. Since she found it very difficult to get up in the morning and to get breakfast at 8 a.m. so that Mr Theobald could catch his train, the spirits intervened. Fires were lit in the kitchen: the table laid: kettles put on to boil: the tea made, and occasionally the boiling water transported at a distance from one kettle to another. Hundreds of spirit-writings were found on ceilings and walls and other astonishing phenomena went on from year to year. Not only did the spirits help in the domestic work of the house: they helped to move the baggage when the family was away: and on one occasion the cook and Miss Theobald passed a bath, laden with various objects, going down the stairs by itself just as they were going up.

“Theobald described these wonders in a series of letters to the spiritualist magazine Light in 1884, and in his book Spirit Workers in the Home Circle published in 1887. Other incredible events included the unpacking of a picnic hamper by the spirits, and the supernatural cooking of puddings for the Sunday evening meal whilst the family were holding séances. Whether the spirits assisted Theobald in his auditing of the accounts of the S.P.R., a duty which he carried out for ten years, I do not know.”

Trevor H. Hall, The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney (Duckworth 1964)

The Great Goat War

From today’s edition of The Brighton Argus.



Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark.
There’s two of them on Noah’s ark.
One is light, the other’s dark.
But we decide which is right, and which is an illusion….
[Portentous music, with strings.]

In the first draft of Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s given name was not Scarlett. It was Pansy.


Pansy O’Hara