Friday, 30 May 2014

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

May 30

A day of burning ambitions, it would seem. In 1416, Jerome of Prague was accused of heresy for criticising the bad behaviour of clergy and so, to show just how wrong he was, the Council of Constance (ecumenical clergy all) burned him at the stake. He made it into Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, they were all duly forgotten.

Fifteen years later, in 1431, it was 19-year-old Joan of Arc’s turn, this time at the hands of an English-dominated tribunal.
The story of the Maid of Orléans or La Pucelle is almost universally known: about how she heard voices telling her to support Charles VII, then uncrowned king of France; of her relief mission to the siege of Orléans, which was then lifted in nine days; of how she went into battle dressed as a man; of the victories that led to Charles being crowned; and of how the King was so grateful to her that he did absolutely nothing whatsoever to save her once she was captured by the Burgundians and then handed over to the English to be tried for heresy.
Less well known, perhaps, are some of the facts surrounding her trial. For a start off, even in those unenlightened days, heresy was only a capital crime for a repeat offence. And, when Joan first went into prison, she was wearing male or military clothing, which had an additional benefit in that it fastened together into one piece, thus making it hard to pull off and something of a deterrent to rape. Though she did later agree to adopt female garb, at which “a great English lord” promptly entered her cell and tried to take her by force. Either because she considered the masculine attire the safer option after this, or possibly because the guards had taken away her dress, leaving her nothing else to wear, she assumed the man clothing once again. This was labelled by the tribunal as a lapse into heresy, for which she was condemned to the stake. Thus making her one of the first people in history to be convicted on a technicality. She was literally “fitted up.” Joan of Arc was condemned and executed on the same day (as was Jerome of Prague), beatified in 1909 and then canonized in 1920.

On May 30 1536, Henry VIII married his third wife, Jane Seymour, which was mighty quick work on his part, seeing he’d had his second wife, Anne Boleyn, executed only eleven days earlier on the 19th. For adultery among other things, ironically enough, especially given that his own illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, was there to witness the beheading. Anne was another one to later make it into Foxe’s Martyrs, though Henry would have to wait over four centuries to be voted in at a modest number forty in the 2002 BBC poll of Great Britons, finishing below Eric Morecambe (32) and Guy Fawkes (30), and well short of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, who was seventh. He did, however, beat Dickens and Boy George.

Jane Seymour, the favourite of Henry’s wives, was noted for her beautiful and elaborate needlework, with the result that, after her death, Henry was reported to be an “enthusiastic embroiderer.” Though, like many another head of state, of the truth mainly. Catherine of Aragon died on January 7 1536 and Anne on May 19, followed by Jane on October 24 1537 so, having lost so many queens in such a short time, perhaps it’s little wonder that Henry held back for three years before diving in again, only to find himself saddled with Anne of Cleves (the so-called Flanders Mare), though the marriage barely made it seven months to July 9 1540. Having learned nothing whatsoever from all this (nor had the Tudor womenfolk, it would seem, seeing being Henry’s queen was still considered well worth the risk), Henry, who must have loved the taste of wedding cake, then sprinted into marriage number five less than three weeks later (July 28), this time with Catherine Howard, when he was a gouty, irascible and obese forty nine and she was a lively and lascivious seventeen year old much given to losing her heart to dashing young men. For which she lost her head on February 13 1542. Which was a Friday, as it happens.

On May 30 1539 Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto discovered Florida, a peninsular of some 66,000 square miles, where he promptly set about hunting for gold, silver and, bizarrely enough, a passage to China, which was an odd place to be looking for that, thus making him not so much a Conquistador but more one of your prototype Ryanairioes. Presumably his luggage made landfall somewhere around Mexico. What he did find was the River Mississippi (a bit hard to miss really, seeing it’s seven miles wide at one point, making him something of a specialist in discovering things of whacking great sizes), an event later commemorated on a $500 bill.

Again on May 30 and still in America, Andrew Jackson killed Charles Dickinson (1806) in a duel after Dickinson had accused Jackson's wife of bigamy. Well, so the legend has it. In fact, the two had been feuding for some time, mainly over a wager on a horse race that got out of hand when Joseph Erwin (Dickinson’s father-in-law) had to pay an $800 forfeit when his horse went lame. Various associates spread various rumours, there were misunderstandings and eventually insults were exchanged, including when Dickinson used the Nashville Review to call Jackson a “worthless scoundrel, a poltroon and a coward.” To which Jackson responded by calling Dickinson a “worthless drunken blackguard,” and, even though Dickinson was a notorious duellist and expert shot, “demanding satisfaction.” Because duelling was illegal in Tennessee, the two met inches over the border in Kentucky and, because Dickinson was such a good shot (not to mention supremely confident, enough to have demonstrated his shooting skills along the way there), Jackson decided to let him have first shot, in the hope that he might rush it, the major flaw in the plan being he might not. In fact, he hit Jackson in the chest, though his lean frame, loose clothing and careful sideways stance meant he survived to take his own shot, though his gun stopped at half cock, so he drew back the hammer and aimed again. Dickinson bled to death, whilst Jackson went on to become the seventh President of the United States (1829-1837), for which he was commemorated on the $20 bill, despite his reputation being tarnished and his suffering with chronic pain ever after from the bullet, which could not be removed.

A good day for science and invention also, including: patent for the Rubber Fire Hose, James Boyd, 1821; patent for wireless telegraphy, Marlon Loomis, 1872; the invention of the brassiere, Ermine Cadolle, 1889 (though supportive devices had been sported since at least 2100 BC), Cadolle’s creation being dubbed “le Bien-Etre” or “Well Being,”; and then, of course, there was the patent on the ice-cream freezer, Nancy Johnson for a small hand-cranked one in 1843 (which established the basic method still used today) and William G. Young for a more industrial-scale one in 1848 but, though ice-cream has been around since 400 BC, it took a team of British scientists, including a youthful Margaret Thatcher, to discover a method of doubling the amount of air it contained, thereby reducing costs whilst giving the impression that you were getting a lot but were, in fact, getting nothing but an overpriced dollop of sweetened air. An idea that the Conservative Party would later develop into an entire policy initiative.

May 30 has proved popular with space scientists also, suggesting to us who are not of the astronomical bent that the earth must happen to be facing in the right direction for it on that day or some such, but in 1966 Surveyor 1 was launched on its journey to the moon, where it soft-landed on June 2, only three years before Neil Armstrong would become the first man to set foot there (June 20 1969).
In 1971, it was the turn of Mariner 9 as it headed off for destination Mars, becoming the first craft to orbit another planet when in arrived there on November 14, just a month in front of the Russians this time. Then, in 1986, it was Europe’s go when Ariane-2 was launched, though the third stage failed to ignite and it had to be destroyed, thus blazing the trail for a similarly ill-fated Beagle 2 in 2003. The problem with Beagle 2 may well have been missing the May 30 tradition and only launching on June 2, but some theorists have argued that it disappeared when it was shot down by a UFO. Well, you never know …

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

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Friday, 23 May 2014

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates. With a True Tale by way of illustration.


Log-uhr-ree-uh. Noun: excessive, uncontrollable, or incoherent talkativeness or wordiness. Can also be spelt logorrhea, though we prefer the given version, as it is closer to the root and easier to remember the spelling of: LOGO plus the curious double R (RR), plus HOE (as in the garden implement) and finally, A. Applied mainly to the spoken word, it can also be used in cases of writing.

From the Greek, logo, a combining form originally meaning word or speech (therefore not just one word singular but implying also: saying, speech, discourse, thought, proportion, ratio or reckoning); plus rrhoia, another combining form meaning flow or stream, from the original rhein (as in the German river of that name). Related words: logorrhoeic, adjective. A logomaniac (bipolar disorder) would be said to indulge in logomania.

Rheum, as in rheumy or watery eyes, is from the same root, also giving us rheumatics and rheumatism (no, no, come back! We mean it gives us the word, not the ailment. You won’t catch anything from these columns except a slight case of booklearning, with a very negligible risk of some faint amusement along the way.) In fact, the -rrhoia suffix appears in a number of our more distasteful bodily reactions, such as catarrh (see how much easier that is to spell correctly, once you know the root with its double R), from kata, meaning down, so literally a downflow. And there are a good few others too, but delicacy forbids us to include them herein. And where would we Library folk be without the word, both noun and verb, (and, indeed, the thing itself) catalogue? From the Greek again, kata + logos. Kata can have a number of implications, including down (as above), away, off (catalectic), against (category), according to (catholic) and thoroughly, as in catalogue, therefore meaning to run completely through. For any pedants out there (it’s not just us, surely?), you should always remain constantly on your toes, ready to step in at a moment’s notice, for it can only be a matter of time before someone within earshot will blithely use the word logo in reference to those hateful mercantile devices so ubiquitously emblazoned upon almost every item of clothing you may have been considering purchasing. To begin with, they will almost certainly have pronounced it “low-go” (Tsk!Tsk! It’s from Greek, thus “logg-oh.”) But, strictly and fundamentally, the term they require should be logotype or logogram. The importance of constantly remaining on your toes will now become self-evident for, having selflessly imparted such corrective insight, beating an extremely hasty retreat from the situation will become of paramount necessity in most cases. The Americanism, “smart alec”, may possibly be traced to one Alec Hoag, a celebrated pimp, thief, and confidence man operating out of New York City in the 1840's, who robbed people whilst they slept.

This time’s True Tale concerns Salman Rushdie, one of this country’s most celebrated logorrhoeicians, though even his prolific output pales somewhat in comparison to Dickens, an acknowledged past master of the good thick tome, but Dickens himself lags well behind the writer whom many believe to have come up with the longest book in history with À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Sadly, however, for both them and Monsieur Proust himself (on the right), they are, in fact, wrong, as the prize for this has to go to Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, (generally said to be) by Madeleine de Scudéry, published in ten parts between 1649 and 1654, and weighing in at a colossal 2,100,000 words. Proust only managed 1,267,069 (or so, depending on translation). It must have been truly galling to have spent so many years labouring over the writing of it only to be informed that, ‘Sorry, Marcel, me old mate, this life’s work of yours, it’s a long ‘un but it’s only the second longest, I’m afraid.’ Just the sort of thing to make you want to lock yourself away in a cork-lined room, we’d have thought.

Back with Salman Rushdie, down at the Gallery the word had gone round that the great pensmith had accepted an invitation to attend the forthcoming private view of an exhibition by noted Indian artist Vivan Sundaram and so a frisson of excitement had instantaneously shot about the place like unbridled electricity. (Odd word that, frisson: from frigere, to be cold, thus a shudder or shiver, but in a somewhat underwhelming way, rather like the kind of static shock you get from a balloon.) Though accompanying this, and by no means negligible, was the uneasy thrill of knowing that the fatwa threat of death was still very much active and in place then. On a more personal level, one happened to be, and still is, an aspiring novelist oneself (aspiring: a word herein meaning entirely unpublished and, for the most part, pretty much unread), not to mention being something of a logorrhoeician in one’s own right, having conjured up a work of some quarter of a million words, which includes two sentences that run to four thousand words each (so, you see, that minor problem of producing a dissertation is nothing to be daunted by; the real challenge there would be to make of it a single sentence). What an opportunity this was then, to be sure! A fellow writer and an established author, right here in our midst! But, then again, even if the great man were to spare a few moments of his precious time, what would one say to him? Certainly not mentioning the novel or anything quite so gauche as that would have to be Fundamental Rule Number One, especially if one happens to find oneself humbly stationed behind the bar at the time, pouring out glasses of wine for visitors. Whenever the chance presents itself to possibly meet someone of name and celebrity, the initial ambition is always and ever to be conversationally dazzling, to coin some witty epigram or other and to be in some fashion memorable and thus linger on in that mind, perhaps as far as, who knows, into actual print? Then the dampener of stark reality settles around like fog, at which the desire then levels down to avoiding completely any utterances that might provoke in our esteemed personage’s mind the departing thoughts of: ‘That bloke in there – what an utter herbert!’ Therefore the only thing to do was to be natural, as much oneself as possible and, above all, don’t rehearse a speech in advance.

The arrival of Salman Rushdie was first preceded by the appearance of two of the most gigantic, brawny and musclebound specimens of manhood, of the type that generally go through doors sideways on, judging from the sheer breadth of them, who were cunningly disguised in dickie bows and dinner jackets so that nobody would suspect they were actually bodyguards, and then the great man swept in. And, for the entire evening, he never so much as cast even the faintest of cursory glances in this direction, seemingly more absorbed by the artworks on display than the potential literary prowess of the over-intrusive barman he was so roundly ignoring. And then it happened. He’s coming this way! He’s definitely coming this way! This is it! For all the mental adjurations going on within, to be calm, to act naturally, the mind was in a positive foment of uproar. What to say? What to say? And then there he was. At which point a frail and querulous voice was heard to say:

‘Would you like a glass of wine?’

As there were only the two of us anywhere near the vicinity, and he hadn’t said it, the culprit was painfully obvious to all. But, quick as lightning, without even pausing to consider his riposte, the great man of letters came straight back, delivering his retort with as much deadpan insouciance as one might have expected.

‘Yes, please,’ he said.

Well, this was no time to be outdone in the high stakes wit and repartee department, now was it? So, with matching speed and alacrity, and with it springing fullyformed and almost unbidden to the lips, back came the response:

‘I’ll just get a fresh bottle, then.’

Marvellous! You couldn’t make it up. And just as living today as it was when it was taking place all those years ago, and set down precisely as it happened, word for word and blow on blow. He may have added a quiet ‘Thank you,’ somewhere to the proceedings, once the atmosphere had had time to cool, but we’re not in the business of embellishing lilies here. Most disappointingly, however, and much to our lasting dismay, the scene has not yet been worked up into a dramatic episode or interlude, in paperback or otherwise. Not yet. Not so far as we know, anyway …