Friday, 18 December 2015

Holiday season book display

To get you in the mood for the festive season, our latest book display on Level 1 of the Library has a decidedly Christmassy theme.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Tips on using the Library and its resources: No. 5

All the copies out? Place a request!

If you've been beaten to the shelves by your coursemates and all the loan copies (3 week or 1 week) of the book you want are out on loan, you can place a request online.

When a copy comes in that fulfils your request, you will receive an email telling you the book is here, and we will keep it for 5 days for you to come and pick it up.

If a request is placed on a book, the person that has borrowed it will not be able to renew it – so don’t just wait for books to be returned, place a request. Here’s how:

1. Search for the book on the catalogue.

2. Click on Login to place requests. Log in with your barcode and PIN - see our previous Tips post for details of how to do this

3. Click on

4. Then on the Submit Request button
6. You will see a screen that says Your Request was successful.
7. When you get your email from us, come and pick up the book from the shelves on the ground floor of the Library (books are filed by family name) and check it out on one of the self-service issue machines.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

December 11

Not such a good day, this one, when it comes to 969 and Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. Which is a dashed shame, seeing that his efforts went a long way in ensuring the resurgence of the Byzantine Empire just around then, getting the trains running on time, all that kind of caper. Actually, he didn’t really do that but, then again, nor did Mussolini and yet people somehow still like to believe that Il Duce was some kind of whizzkid with a railway timetable. Back with our man Nike, one thing he did share with the ill-fated Italian dictator (don’t get us wrong – it’s the lamppost we feel sorry for in that relationship) was a rigid belief that a brutal military regime was the only way to really get people to sit up and take notice and, as luck would have it, Nike was pretty much a dabhand at the old campaigning lark, so he did all right for himself. He wasn’t at all shy when it came to women either and fairly sprinted up the aisle, getting married at a very young age to a certain Stephano, though it turned out that he wasn’t much cop when it came to picking one that would last, his bride barely making it over the threshold before she pegged out, after which Nike took an oath of chastity. As Wikipedia grandly understates it, “this would cause problems later on.”

With an excellent sense of timing, Nike had managed to clamber right to the top of the army’s greasy pole by 963 when, on 15 March, Emperor Romanos II died “unexpectedly” at the age of twenty-six. Quite why it should’ve been so unexpected remains something of a mystery, seeing it did happen to be the Ides of March that day, when you’d think everybody would have one eye out for something untoward happening and thus be able to avoid it. Not Romanos II, it seems, who blithely exhausted himself on excesses of sex and drink, so some folk say, though a fickle finger of suspicion was pointed firmly in the direction of his wife, Theophano, a dastardly husband-poisoner by all accounts. And ruthlessly ambitious to boot. Just the sort of foxy lady we chaps tend to steer well clear of in the old ball and chain situation, though there’s always one that doesn’t heed the warnings in time and ends up copping it good and proper. Anyhow, Romanos had taken the precaution of having his two sons crowned as co-emperors, the snag being that they were only five and three, so a regent was needed to step in to do the ruling in the meantime. Luckily enough, Theophano was on hand and at a bit of a loose end, what with having no husband to do away with just then, so she said she’d take the job on to help them out, which was damnably decent of her when you think she’d only just been widowed. However, Byzantium then was pretty much a man’s world, so they weren’t going to let her rule alone, which is when our man is urged to snatch the throne by a perfidious wretch known as John Tzimiskes, who just happened to be Nike’s nephew at the same time. By 2 July that year, Nike had been sworn in as Emperor but, fair dos, he did do the decent thing by marrying Theophano, hoping, no doubt, to keep her sweet by into the bargain. Fat chance of that, mate – don’t forget, you’ve taken a vow of chastity, so there’s bound to be “problems.”

Sad to relate, Nike turned out to be not at all popular as a ruler, being pretty stingy with the finances for one thing, which caused riots, and matters weren’t proceeding at all well in the bedroom department either – thanks mainly to his not really having thought through this whole vow of celibacy idea – so, not unnaturally, the wife starts sniffing around elsewhere, at which point who should turn up but slippery old unreliable John Tzimiskes, who decides to take that particular job on himself. Of course, not long goes by before John starts thinking to himself that he’s doing half Nike’s work for him, so he might as well do the emperoring part as well so, what with having a lover with a proven track record of disposing of cumbersome husbands, he sets out to get the matter sorted. Having hatched a plan and recruited some henchmen to help, they dress themselves up as women and sneak into the palace that 11 December, hiding themselves in Theophano’s room. Meanwhile, Nike’s somehow got wind of an assassination plot in the offing, so he has the place thoroughly searched for suspicious looking blokes tooled up ready for a spot of throat-slitting, neglecting for some reason to take a peek into his wife’s boudoir. Well, why ever should he? After all, it’s just the wife in there, her and that incongruous group of strapping and strangely bearded women all armed to the teeth with swords. Nothing to worry about there. Eventually he convinces himself it’s a false alarm and heads off to bed – well, we say bed but our man was a bit of a rum ‘un for choosing to sleep on the floor instead (dicky back most likely), which is where he is when the villains come creeping in. Well, once again, we say creeping but they made such a pig’s ear of it noisewise that the next thing that happens is Nike’s leapt to his feet, scaring the bejaybers out of them and just in time for the hapless Emperor to meet a sword swinging inexorably in a facewardly direction. Talk about having your nose put out of joint, but at least it took his mind off his dicky back. The funny thing is that he never had a single moment’s bother with his back ever again after that. Especially once his visitors had gotten through with severing his head and sticking it up on a spike, following which his nephew got to be Emperor John I. Seven years later, John himself would “die suddenly.” Wonder what became of Theophano whilst that was happening?

Even by 1282 this day hadn’t mellowed out one iota and 11 December was going to prove a real stinker as far as Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was concerned. Mind you, he really should’ve known things weren’t going to work out any too well for him, seeing he was also known as Llywelyn the Last, which kind of puts a damper on your prospects, you’d’ve thought. And even with his unlikely soubriquet, he just didn’t seem able to get along with folk, especially when it came to Edward I of England, also known as Longshanks. And also known as the Hammer of the Scots, though, had there been room enough on the tomb, they’d’ve probably added, “And None Too Keen On The Welsh Either, Come To That.” Things didn’t get off to the best of starts when Llywelyn started getting matey with Simon de Montfort, someone else the English King couldn’t abide (he was one of your pickier monarchs, it seems) and weren’t improved a jot when Llywelyn decided he quite fancied marrying Simon’s daughter, Eleanor, who just happened to be Eddie’s first cousin and a dyed-in-the-wool Plantagenet princess. When she sailed from France, instead of the nuptials she’d been expecting, all she ended up in the arms of was a band of cut-throat pirates, hired by her cousin Eddie to throw a spanner in the works and make Llywelyn toe the line a bit. They were eventually allowed to marry (after a bout of perfunctory cap-doffing) at Worcester Cathedral, where a stained glass window still commemorates the event (if you thought standing around for your wedding photos was bad enough, imagine having to pose for that one). Anyhow, it was reckoned to be a proper love-match, though this seems to be based mainly on the fact that our man didn’t sire any (known) illegitimate offspring, something said to be “extremely unusual for the Welsh royalty.”

Now that Llywelyn and Edward were actual family, there was even less reason for making any pretence at getting along so, in 1276, Edward assembled a massive army and immediately marched it against his new in-laws, doing pretty well by all accounts and soon having Llywelyn in rather a ticklish situation, one that would force him to acknowledge Edward as his sovereign. That can’t’ve gone down any too well at all but, as it goes, Edward’s rapacious demands soon hacked off all the minor princelings too so, before you could say, “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysilio-gogogoch” (or even summon up the requisite phlegm to get the job started), the Welsh nobility found themselves revolting. By that stage, it was 1282 and, on 11 December that year, Llywelyn was leading his army when he heard that the forces of the Mortimers (Mortimer means stagnant lake, incidentally) and Hugo Le Strange (you’d trust a bloke with a name like Strange Hugh, wouldn’t you?) were in the vicinity and wanted to pay Llywelyn a spot of homage, if that was OK? Fine with me, says Llywelyn, and off they go. Only it turns out to be a dirty great fib, this homage stuff, and our man swiftly finds he’s been ambushed plus, just to rub salt in, has his head severed into the bargain (seems like 11 December is pretty much the day for that sort of activity), which ends up decorating the Tower of London for the next fifteen years. Still, it could’ve been worse.

Take his brother for instance, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, who followed the family tradition in giving Edward a hard time of it so, when he was finally captured in June 1283, they decided they’d think up a whole new way of putting him safely out of the way: by hanging, drawing and quartering him. Actually, they had got a bit of practice in beforehand as it goes, on a number of knights earlier that century, though it seems they don’t count, meaning that Dafydd could safely go down in history as the first nobleman to suffer what would become the mandatory penalty for high treason. It was bad enough being dragged at the tail of a horse to the place of execution, then hanged for a bit, revived, then emasculated and your guts removed before all were burned before your very eyes, then your head lopped off and your body cut into four, but that wasn’t enough for the malicious Edward (by heck, that man could bear a grudge), who had to add one final cruel twist to the whole macabre affair: by holding it in Shrewsbury …

Leaping forward to 1844, we now come to some sciencey stuff, with nitrous oxide finally being pressed into utile service. This gas was first synthesised in 1772 by our old friend, Joseph Priestley, who heated up iron filings and nitric acid – which of us hasn’t done that at some time or another? – though he called it phlogiston, showing that he might’ve been a cute little thinker on the clever stuff but, when it came to naming things, he had all the imagination of a rubber cosh. But just slightly more than Thomas Beddoes and James Watt, who ended up dubbing it Factitious Airs, for pity’s sake. Come on, lads, it makes you laugh, so why not call it Laughing Gas? To be fair, though, Watt did eventually get round to inventing an apparatus for inhaling the gas and then a young Humphry Davy had a bit of a tinker, noting that the gas had an analgesic effect which might prove quite handy when it came to surgical operations, though only as an afterthought buried away on page 465 of his book, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, after which it was left to stagnate for a further forty four years. Well, by the boffins anyway.

These days, of course, we’ve become all but inured to the overfamiliarity of blurry images in lurid tabloid exposés of minor celebrities or Premiership footballers (there is an essential difference there, in that the footballer is required to have at least a modicum of talent to have achieved his dubious fame) grinning inanely and holding a balloon from which they have recently been inhaling said gaseous matter, seemingly in some tawdry and desperate attempt to appear trendy or “with it.” As Priestly himself might’ve remarked, “what an absolute load of utter cobalt!” For one thing, the gas is supposed to make the user appear “stuporous” – with our examples, how would you tell, television having already done much the same thing for them? For another, whilst the physicists were happily sitting about contemplating their omphali, it was the British upper classes, of all people, who were the first to have a high old time of it and, by 1799, they liked nothing better than getting off their chinless faces on the stuff at Laughing Gas Parties. Which makes the practice about as trendy as introducing income tax, slave running or burying George Washington. Or being a dentist, for that matter. Mind you, it took a dentist to get nitrous oxide back on the science pages when he used the gas during an extraction, ably assisted by one Gardner Quincy Colton and a John Mankey Riggs (which were their names, by the way, not descriptions – and, let’s be honest, a case of mankey riggs is nothing to make light of) this day in 1844, making a pretty good fist of the procedure by all accounts, though his colleagues rather pooh-poohed the whole affair and so the method didn’t come into general use until 1863.
Nitrous oxide can also be used as rocket fuel and (bizarrely, given that) it’s what they use as a propellant in aerosol whipped cream. So, you’ve been warned: don’t dabble with that stuff, whatever you do. You can’t tell what it might lead onto and, before you know it, you’ll be sounding like an eighteenth century British toff, been elected leader of the Conservative Party and will eventually end up asking people to call you “Dave.” And you wouldn’t want that, now would you? Oh, and (TV non-entities and overpaid sportsmen please note) nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas with massive global warming potential (a bit like China or India), having nine hundred and twenty eight times the ability per molecule than carbon dioxide to trap heat in the atmosphere. And, before the letters start flooding in about picking on poor old China and India, let’s not forget that it was this very day way back in 1997 that Britain, along with one hundred and forty nine other nations, signed the Kyoto Protocol, taking our greenhouse gas emissions back to below pre-1990 levels, so nobody can say we haven’t done our bit in the completely inadequate token gesture department. Which is precisely what our Prime Minister always demands of this great nation of ours …

And now we’re about to dip a tentative toe into Arts as we come to this day in 1913, which is when the stolen Mona Lisa was finally recovered. Nowadays, it’s regarded as the best known and most visited painting on the planet but, before it was half-inched, it was nowhere near as famous and not even the most popular picture in the particular gallery it occupied in the Louvre. So, being nicked worked wonders for its reputation because, let's face it, well-executed it may be but it’s exceptionally uninspiring as a piece and bordering on the downright dull. Perhaps that’s just over-exposure for you, as with the Hay Wain, but at least Constable bunged in a catchy sky and had stuff going on in his picture, whereas your Mona Lisa just sits there and simpers.

Basically, it’s a portrait of (probably) Lisa Gherardini, wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, who had Leonardo slap her down in oils so’s everyone would know what a top bod he was and how well he was doing for himself. It was painted around 1503-06, though this was an artist notorious for never finishing anything he started and he may still have been tinkering with it as late as 1517. Mona in Italian is a polite form of address, rather akin to our own ma’am or my lady, which originated as ma donna, then became madonna and finally mona. Strictly, it should be Monna Lisa, mona being vulgar to the Italians, but since when did the niceties of other nations’ cultures and languages ever stop us English from riding roughshod over them whenever the need arises? The alternative title of the work is La Gioconda, which – apparently – is a pun based on feminising her married name, thus giving it the meaning of happy or jovial (the Jocund One). Tell you what, the Italians might be a tad picky about that precious language of theirs but they couldn’t half do with the comedic side polishing up some, if that’s their idea of a pun. Or were they simply being sarcastic? As in, “Hey up, Francesco, lad – what’s up wi’ that missus o’ thine then? She’s got a face on her like a slapped backside.”

When Leonardo finally did finish it – or when he died might be more accurate – the picture was inherited by his pupil, Salai, before being bought by Francis I and then moved to Versailles by Louis XIV just before that Revolution business broke out, when it was taken to the Louvre. Napoleon even had it hanging on his bedroom wall in the Tuileries for a bit, which rather eclipses the rest of us for style, we who had to make do with that poster of the tennis lady scratching her buttock. And then, on 21 August 1911, it was stolen. But nobody noticed it was missing until the next day, at which point, long after the horse had not only bolted but probably had its hooves up somewhere, they closed the Louvre for a week. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire got the blame for it, on the grounds that he’d called for the Louvre to be burned down – classic mistake on the part of the investigators there: taking Apollinaire at all seriously – and, while he was banged up, he shopped his mate Picasso, who was also brought in for a grilling. Which is about when they pretty much ran out of ideas really.

The bloke that’d actually done it turned out to be a Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, whose master plan had been to walk in as normal, take the picture off the wall and then stroll away with it. But, having stashed it in his Floretine apartment, the red-faced French made a frightful hue and cry about the whole affair, getting photographs of the painting into all the newspapers and urging folk to keep an eye out for this particular lady – “you can’t miss her: she’s very enigmatic looking” – so there wasn’t much he could do with the wretched thing after that. Besides which, being an Italian, he would ever after insist that he had taken the picture in order to repatriate it. Though this motivation is undermined somewhat by his boasts to his father about how much loot he was going to make out of the deal and the fact that he didn’t simply donate it to an Italian museum. In the end, on 10 December 1913, he sauntered into the Uffizi Gallery, claiming to be Leonardo Vincenzo (what, the chap who painted the Mona Lisa back in 1503?) and that he had La Gioconda safely tucked away in a trunk beneath his underwear – which may explain that expression of hers, if she’d just spent the last two years draped in some Italian’s old pants. The next day, he got his collar felt and they got their painting back. It worked out OK all round in the end, seeing Peruggia was hailed as a great patriot and only got one year and fifteen days jail for it and, even then, only did seven months. 

Can’t leave 11 December behind without a brief mention that it was this day in 1972 when Apollo 17 touched down as the last manned flight to the moon and for astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt to become the eleventh and twelfth men to set foot on the surface, Cernan still being the last to have ever walked there. Almost unbelievably today, not only have a mere dozen men taken those historic steps but the moonwalks all took place in an extremely short interval between 21 July 1969 and 13 December 1972. But what kind of special personality traits and characteristics does it take to become a moonbound astronaut? What charisma, what panache? Well, several of them were “Juniors,” being named after their fathers and, having that sort of dad in common, nearly all of them spent time as Boy Scouts, woggle and all. Cernan was son of a Slovak father and a Czech mother (pretty much bordering on an outright commie, by the sound of it), while Buzz Aldrin got his nickname from the fact that his younger sister couldn’t say “brother,” only buzzer. Least exceptional and almost entirely uninteresting was Schmitt, had it not been for him uttering the statement that there was a definite link “between Soviet Communism and the American environmental movement” and that “that climate change was a stalking horse for National Socialism.”

So, there you are you see. You may have fondly imagined that the British Press was nothing but a scabrous bunch of lie-mongering, scandal-pushing sensationalists but it is now palpably clear that they were right all along: Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for everything …

Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ides of March (Death of Caesar): [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Assassination: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Llywelyn the Last: Henry Alfred Pegram [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edward I: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Hanged, Drawn & Quartered: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Joseph Priestley: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Doctor and Mrs Syntax, with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas. Coloured aquatint by T. Rowlandson after W. Combe: See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Space Shuttle Atlantis: By Scott Andrews, Canon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mona Lisa: Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Leonardo: Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Guillaume Apollinaire: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Vincenzo Peruggia: See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Harrison Schmitt: By Photo credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Debbie McCallum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Tips on using the Library and its resources - No. 4.

How to access your Library account and renew books.

Did you know that you can access your Library account online?  You can see the list of books you currently have on loan, see what books you have requested and you can also renew your books online, as long as no one else has requested them.

Here’s how to log in to your Library account:

Step 1: Click on Login in the top right hand corner of the catalogue search screen (click on the Catalogue tab on the Library web site to see this)

Step 2: Enter your Library barcode number (under the barcode on your student ID card) and your PIN. What’s my PIN? If you’re a Birkbeck student, it is the last four digits of your student number (also on your ID card). If you are not a Birkbeck student, click on the What’s my PIN? link to see guidance on what to enter.
You will then see your borrowed items, the buttons to renew them, and also, on the right, links to take you to lists of items you have requested, your Library profile, your Library fines and more.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Tips on using the Library and its resources - No. 3.

This week - Printing and Photocopying

The machines in the Library are multi-function – they can print and photocopy, in colour and black and white. The costs are:

  • 5p A4  (black and white) 
  • 10p A3 (black and white) 
  • 25p A4 (colour)
  • 50p A3 (colour)

In order to print or photocopy, you need enough credit on your online printing account to cover the cost. You can add credit to your account in several ways:

•    Top-up machines (£1 and £2 coins, notes) Library level 1 and next to the entrance to the student advice centre on the ground floor
•    In the Student shop in the basement (cash and credit/debit card)
•    Online via the ITS web site (credit/debit card) 

When you have enough credit, you can copy using the machines or send your printing to them. If you want black and white, choose LibraryMono as your printer: if you want colour, choose LibraryColour as your printer. You can pick up your print jobs from any of the machines – just log in by touching your student card on the card reader.
More information on printing and photocopying in the Library

Don’t forget that you can also print in the IT workstation rooms and from your laptop/device 

Please ask at the Help Desk if you have any problems with printing or topping up your account in the Library.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Latest Book Display

The theme of our book display on level 1 of the Library is the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2015, with lots of fascinating books and DVDs on, guess what, climate change. 

You can borrow books from the display, so come and get them before they are all borrowed!

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates.


Pahr-suh-moh-nee-uhs: Adjective: characterized by parsimony; frugal or stingy.

Related forms: parsimoniously, adverb; parsimoniousness, noun; parsimony, noun

Arrant meanness, that’s what we’re talking about here. The odd thing is that parsimonious – and the parsimony it sprang from – is just one of a collection of similar-minded words that all arrived on the scene around about the same sort of time in History: that is, from the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries. Quite what was going on to instil this desperate need for such a wide choice of terminology to describe the various degrees of tight-fistedness isn’t precisely clear, though the Black Death had seen the common people empowered to demand a better quality of life (comparatively speaking) and then along came the English Renaissance with its eye for culture and beauty, so anyone still practising Medieval stinginess was going to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

As it goes, the English Renaissance lagged some goodly way behind its Italian counterpart, which was already hitting the Baroque by the time we finally got going somewhere around 1520 or so (and, even then, not all that convincingly), though attempts have been made to create a “historical convenience” by putting the off-time down as right after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, which ended the Wars of the Roses and ushered in the House of Tudor, as if Henry VII, still in his bloodied armour and standing over the mutilated body of the vanquished Richard III, the crown freshly plucked from under the thorn tree to be plonked onto his skull, had shouted to his army, “Right, lads, we’ll have five minutes sit down to get our breath back, then we’ll make a start on this Renaissance thing, shall we?” Seems a bit unlikely really. That’s the main problem with “historical conveniences”: they’re not all that convenient most of the time. Take the Armistice that signalled the end of the carnage that was the First World War: that came into effect at the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Month, all so History could be provided with a pretty mnemonic, even though the Great Men had gathered in the railway car as early as six that morning, which left five whole hours of fighting, in which lithe young men did indeed make their futile sacrifice and went cold. Not all that convenient for them, we’d’ve said …

Back with parsimony, that got off to a flying start and was already up and running by the early 1400s. It comes from the Latin, parcere, to use sparingly, with a –mony suffix to indicate a state or condition (as in matrimony, acrimony, alimony, not necessarily always in that order). There is said to be no connection with parvus, small, or parum, too little (as in cheese-paring, another term for tightness) and originally it was free of the pejorative sense that it has since gained. Best make clear, right from the outset, that the word parson is also in no way related to parsimony, parson merely indicating a person (holding a church office), the two words sharing the same root. Seems it was Chaucer and his ilk that started using the term people for the plural of person, though it caused one heck of a to-do, which was still raging well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with publishers of news and books and other such irritating pedants strictly forbidding the use of people instead of persons. Rules have been attempted on this, such as when counting just a few, it would be persons, and indicating many would be people, but either way is acceptable, though people tends to sound less stilted these days.

Parsley also seems to be a word equally free of any such opprobrious insinuations, though the sole function of the (as the poet put it) “ghastly” green matter itself seems to amount to no more than turning up uninvited with your meal in an eatery, in the guise of what is sardonically referred to as “garnish,” a word evolved from warning, as if anyone really needed alerting to the fact that parsley is revoltingly vile stuff which should never, under any circumstances, be put into the mouth. So why do they do it to us, these so-called “chefs” with their despicable parsley-inflicting practices? Unless it’s simply to fill up some of the otherwise glaringly empty spaces stretched across the ceramic wilderness of your plate, upon which the sole other occupant is some sorry shrivelled specimen cowering lonely and miniscule over to one side that will eventually, by a process of elimination, turn out to be your main course. 

If you do indulge in the parsimonious, then you’re undoubtedly something of a miser, a person who lives in wretched circumstances in order to save a bob or two, which comes from the Latin (again), miser – as does miserable, obviously – meaning unhappy, pitiable or in distress, the miser presumably having inflicted such conditions on himself. The original sense also included (though now obsolete) a connotation of “intense erotic love” – so we’re told – rather in the way that we use “he’s got it bad” to indicate someone so in love that it makes them wretched. Not to mention a complete pain to anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity. It seems that it was, for this reason, a favourite word of the poet Catullus, who sounds like a right bundle of laughs to have about the place. That’d be Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84 – 54 BC), of course, who kept himself busy during the late Roman Republic by writing verses in the “neo-erotic” style. Mucky poems, that’s what they mean, which is probably why they’ve lasted so well and continue to have influence. Ovid, Horace and Virgil certainly sat up and took notice but, rather than just dirty, the poems are regarded as downright shocking, meaning that school curriculums, whilst coping (just about) with Chaucer – hairy backsides stuck out of windows, breaking wind and all that – blench at studying Catullus so generally leave that to graduate programmes, when it hopefully won’t cause quite so much tittering. It seems that this Catullus sort fell deeply in love with the Lesbia of his poems (we could’ve told him he was batting on a sticky wicket there), this being a pseudonym for his lover, Claudia Metelli Celeris, who put herself about a bit, by all accounts. Catullus managed to shoehorn her into at least twenty five of his one hundred and sixteen surviving poems (talk about milking it), which take the usual course of romantic love, starting with tender affection and euphoria, then moving quickly through doubts, sadness and disappointment (“who’s toga might this be, then, Claudia?”) to end up with separation, loss and bitter sarcasm. Never mind, Catullus, old lad. We’ve all been there. Plenty more fish in the sea. Mind you, the minute they come out the sea, some clot with a frying pan will’ve covered the blighters in parsley.

Let’s not get carried away with the idea that it was just the Romans who were obsessed with misers and miserliness. The Greeks had their own word for it too, kyminopristes, which translates into a phrase we should definitely bring back, seeing it means a “cumin seed splitter” and conjures up wonderful imagery of someone actually attempting such a task (and we all know folk like that). By sheer coincidence, cumin happens to be related to parsley …

Disappointingly, stingy (with the J sound) has no Catullus-like figure lurking love-lorn in the wings and seems to be merely a dialect version of stingy (with the G sound), indicating someone biting, sharp or bad-tempered, most likely from all the effort involved with hanging onto their cash so grimly. There is, however, the legend of Stingy Jack, if you’ve got a minute (with the J sound, by the bye). Coming from Irish folklore, it boils down to this Stingy Jack being something of a lush and a cheat and an all-round disreputable sort (which you’d tend to be to end up with a name like Stingy Jack), who manages to convince Satan to turn into a coin so Jack can pay off his tab down at his local, telling the Horned One that he can always turn back into his demonic self and escape once the landlord’s wiped the slate. Really, you’d expect Beelzebub to have slightly more nous than to fall for something like that but stick with it. They end up making some kind of dodgy deal involving Satan getting Jack’s immortal soul in lieu of payment, so Satan agrees and takes on coin form, at which Jack bungs him in his wallet, where there also happens to be a crucifix, thereby trapping the Prince of Darkness good and proper (you’d’ve thought he’d’ve seen that one coming). Anyhow, Jack agrees to let Lucifer (ironically, “bringer of light”) off the hook once the bill’s settled, on the understanding that he gets to keep his own soul. Comeuppance time arrives for Jack when he finally pegs out, only to discover Old Nick and St Peter embroiled in a heated argument, with both of them refusing to have such a scurrilous rogue polluting their premises, thank you very much, so the Devil (finally living up to his name) gives Jack a single ember from Hell, to put inside his lantern (actually a hollowed-out turnip) to light his way as he roams for eternity between the living and the dead, trying to lure people to their deaths with his spectral lamp. This appears to be the origin of the Jack O’ Lanterns synonymous with Halloween, the Irish having started it off when they could only get their hands on turnips but, once they started fleeing the Famine by going to America, they found pumpkins a whole lot easier to deal with in a lantern-making situation. 

Then there’s niggard, of course, which is another early starter, dating as it does from the late fourteenth century. The –ard suffix suggests it might be the work of the French, though it’s more likely to have come from an Old Norse word, hnøggr, which means stingy or grasping. Some folk get a tad uncomfortable about using the term niggard, what with it sounding not entirely dissimilar to another, highly offensive, word but there is absolutely no connection between them, so it’s fine to go right ahead and call someone a niggard if you feel like it. But only if you happen to be gifted in the running away quickly department, mind. Whilst not being exactly akin to today’s theme of the tightwad, wretch and wretched have already cropped up enough to take a closer look at now. This is one that we can safely claim, being as it sprouts from Old English, wrecca, a banished person or exile, the sense of a vile or despicable fellow in a deplorably sorry state no doubt being down to his straitened circumstances of enforced wandering. Another Old English variant, wreccan, to drive out or punish, survives in the form of wreak. Its original meaning was on the personal side, with the sense of inflicting punishment or vengeance (thus on a specific person or persons) but, by 1817, had come to mean any old damage or destruction.

Wherever you find wreak, havoc is likely to be hovering in close attendance somewhere in the vicinity, which is another from the late fourteenth century, when it was generally applied in the phrase “cry havoc,” so that when someone shouted the word havoc, that was the Medieval equivalent of saying to the soldiers, “Rightho, lads, let’s get stuck into a spot of full-blooded pillaging, plundering, looting and raping, shall we? Then we can get back home in time for tea.” The probable source is Latin (the Romans went in for those sort of activities bigtime), habere, to have, possess or grasp, the general sense of devastation having been arrived at by the late fifteenth century. Shakespeare uses the phrase in Julius Caesar: “Cry ‘havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war.”

Floating at the periphery of out-and-out meanness, yet still dipping a toe in nonetheless, are frugal and thrifty, both of which come complete with more than a hint of caution in the management of money. Frugal is another one born of Latin, frugalis, useful, proper or worthy, which itself derives from frux – as does fruit – fruit or produce, thus (figuratively) value or success, the sense evolving, even in Latin, from useful to profitable to economical. Which makes it all sound exactly like a Conservative policy initiative. Talking of which brings us neatly onto thrift, a particular favourite of the Thatcherite regime – they’re the ones who won an election, you’ll recall, on the back of the slogan “Labour isn’t working.” And then promptly trebled the number of unemployed. Which, even we have to admit, is spectacularly thrifty, even if it was mainly with the truth. Though they were pretty thrifty when it came to hospitals, mind, most of which probably needed shutting down anyway. There used to be school playing fields back then too but nowadays, thanks again to thrift, none of our children will ever suffer the indignity of being singled out as the “fat kid.” Thrift is from the Middle English, thriven, which, as it sounds, is closely akin to thrive (to do well or prosper) but whose meaning was originally more like to grasp to oneself or to clutch in a rather selfish-sounding way. Which sounds very much like your average practitioner of thrift, we’d’ve said. After all, let’s face it, whatever faintly positive spin they try to put on those two terms, which of us would actually relish the idea of an invitation to a dinner party thrown by a host known to be “frugal” or “thrifty”? Doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? “More parsley anyone?” Your spendthrift, by the bye, put in an appearance around 1600, which has a nasty edge of insinuation to it (of waste and prodigality), whereas the term it ousted, scattergood, beat the cotton socks off it in every respect and should be reinstalled instanter.

Now, your skinflint – one who employs contemptible economy in order to hoard money – he first turned up as a slang term around 1700 or so, though the original in this case also was way better: flay-flint, both of which indicate “the kind of person who would skin a flint to save or gain something.” And, talking of the Chancellor, has anyone else noticed how George Osborne (or Gideon Oliver Osborne, as he was christened) seems to have based his whole persona on that of Captain Darling from Blackadder Goes Forth but with every last vestige of warmth removed? Show him a specimen of the working classes and that man could sneer for England. To be fair to him, however, he is the one comparatively skinny kid among a Tory Front Bench of ostentatiously and overly well-fed porkers, each complete with a generous padding of unsightly lard, who spend their days legislating in order to ensure that the less-privileged always go hungry to their beds. Which is what we mean by the phrase, “Conservative values.”

Whilst we’re in that particular ball-park (or would be, if they hadn’t sold them all off), a quick glimpse at that hoary old chestnut of austerity. Now, that’s a term we’ve all become very familiar with lately but what does it actually mean? It rather depends whether you go for the Old French, austerite, harshness or cruelty, or the Latin, austeritatem, severe self-discipline, or even the Greek, austeros, bitter, sour or tart, the result is always the same: it’ll leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. And you might end up in Penury, which turns out not to be a coastal town in Cornwall after all ...

The most famous miser of them all is, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge, though Dickens (who couldn’t abide a flay-flint) didn’t so much invent him as lift him from a real-life person who, like so many of the other notorious tightwads of History, was actually extremely rich, being highly adept when it came to collecting cash but remarkably reluctant to ever part with it again. This was John Elwes (1714-1789), born John Meggot (you can imagine why he’d change that, but you’d be wrong) and also known as Elwes the Miser. He came from a family of misers and was only four when he inherited his first fortune from his father and then, when his mother popped her clogs – allegedly starving herself to death rather than spend good money on food, despite the fact she was worth eight million in today’s money – he got hers too. Not content with that little lot, he then turned his attentions to toadying up to his equally well-heeled and just as tightfisted Uncle Harvey Elwes (that’s why he changed his name: to get his mitts on Uncle’s loot), the two of them spending their evenings condemning the extravagances of others whilst sharing a single glass of wine. Or “lashing out,” as they’d’ve called it. It did the trick: he got the cash, making him worth about eighteen million at current rates. It almost goes without saying that he was an MP …

Elwes is supposed to have once snatched a dead moorhen from a rat that had dragged it from the river and then to have eaten it himself. And, on another occasion, consumed a two month old pancake he happened to come across festering away in his pocket. We don’t need to go to quite such extreme lengths ourselves: if anybody is still hungry, we could always share a cumin seed between us. Will anyone be wanting garnish with that … ?

[All views expressed herein are entirely personal - especially if you do happen to be George Osborne]

Parsimony (John Elwes): See page for author [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Young Man Among Roses (possibly Earl of Essex): Nicholas Hilliard [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Geoffrey Chaucer: See page for author [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Gordon Ramsey: By Dave Pullig [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Catullus at Lesbia’s: Lawrence Alma-Tadema [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jack O’Lantern: By Toby Ord (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Norsemen: [Public domain], via Wikimedia
Mrs Thatcher: By work provided by Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation (Margaret Thatcher Foundation) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
John Meggot Elwes: [Public domain], via Wikimedia

Monday, 23 November 2015

Mintel - find marketing reports on our new database

The Library has a new subscription to Mintel.

This popular database for marketing reports, provides data and explanatory text on a wide range of UK service and product sectors.

We have access to reports in these sectors at Birkbeck: Clothing & Footwear; Drink; Food; Media; Retail and Technology.

The reports usually provide information on: the market; the consumers; leading brands and companies the data used in the report and more.

Mintel also includes analyst insights and brief news items on the areas of: product innovation; company news; market updates and advertising news.

You can access Mintel through the eLibrary page here, or through the link on the Management & Business subject guide.

Tips on using the Library and its resources - No. 2.

You don’t need to know the exact book you’re looking for - you can search for books on a subject on the Library catalogue.

Just type your topic into the search box and see what comes up. You can then refine your search by clicking on the Suggested Topics that appear below the search box, or by broader subject categories under the Shelfmark menu on the right hand side.

See the example of searching for books on research methods below:

Friday, 20 November 2015

A Shaggy Dog

… as told by Siegfried Sassoon, though not quite everything mentioned in dispatches is necessarily true …

Siegfried Sassoon (8 September 1886 – 1 September 1967) was a writer whose works include an acclaimed three-volume fictionalised autobiography collectively known as The Sherston Trilogy (the name he uses for himself in it), though popular memory puts him down as a soldier and a War Poet, despite the fact that the Great War was only about five percent of his life and his part in it even less than that. His full name was actually the rather magnificent-sounding Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, CBE, MC, the Siegfried part being a touch of whimsy on his mother’s part, being as she was something of a fan of Wagner’s operas – perhaps just as well she didn’t feel the same way about Tchaikovsky, in which case he might’ve ended up as Eugene Onegin Sassoon (which, dare we say, would’ve been Pushkin it rather too far) or even plain old Nutcracker, though he did end up being christened Mad Jack by the men under his command, thanks to his reckless acts of daring bravery. His dad, Alfred Ezra, came from a wealthy Jewish family but was disinherited when he married outside the faith to an Anglo-Catholic, Theresa, one of the sculpting Thornycroft family, whose statues are still scattered all over London, her brother Hamo having turned out the Cromwell that stands outside Parliament. If you were wondering where the Loraine part came from and perhaps thinking (come on now, you were, admit it) “Isn’t that a bit of a girl’s name?” well, that’s the mum up to her tricks once again, Loraine being the surname of a clergyman with whom she was friendly. In a strictly non-beastly way, of course.

It wasn’t all swotty stuff as far as Siegfried was concerned and, when he didn’t have either book or pen in hand, he loved nothing better than the crack of leather on willow. And, when he wasn’t indulging in that, he liked a spot of cricket too. His ambition was to play for Kent but his mediocrity proved something of a stumbling block there, though he did turn out for Bluehouses, playing alongside Arthur Conan Doyle, and once took seven wickets for eighteen runs for his College.

A staunch patriot, Siegfried joined up before hostilities had ever broken out and was serving with the Sussex Yeomanry when war was declared on Tuesday 4 August 1914 (it would’ve been done on the Monday, only that was a Bank Holiday and everyone would’ve ended up stuck in traffic). Alas, however, just before the off, he managed to fall from a horse whilst engaging in another favourite pursuit of hunting, badly breaking his arm, meaning that he was still convalescing in the Spring of 1915, just as Rupert Brooke (whom he’d met briefly) was sailing valiantly away in the direction of Gallipoli, where he was to make the corner of some foreign field (Skyros) conceal a richer dust, unblest by suns of home. A mosquito got him, so they say, though others reckon it may have been the toxic injections they attempted to cure him with that actually did for him. In the May of that year, Siegfried was commissioned into the Royal Welch Fusiliers, which is how you spell it actually (so there!), this being an archaic version of Welsh. (Much like barbarian, Welsh simply meant foreign or outsider). Which is what Sassoon happened to be just then – an outsider – being not a bit Welsh. Nor, for that matter, was Robert Graves, another Welch whom Sassoon met out in France, the pair of them united by their foreign-sounding names.

Robert Graves isn’t especially foreign-sounding: that’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? Well, if you thought Siegfried’s full-blown moniker was a bit of a corker, wait till you get a load of this one: Robert von Ranke Graves! His mum (it would be, wouldn’t it?) saddled him with it as that was her maiden name, coming as she did from a recently ennobled German family (the Von bit indicating that you’re something of a nob, as most Germans seem to be to one degree or another). Still, whatever the origins, rather a ticklish handle to be carting around if you happen to be a British officer at the time. Just for the record, Old Mother Brooke was no slouch when it came to dishing up the outlandish suggestions at the christening font, landing her lad Rupert not only with Rupert but a good solid Chawner to go with it. To be fair, mind, it wasn’t all bad news, seeing W. B. Yeats described Brooke as “the handsomest young man in England,” and Virginia Woolf claimed to have gone skinny-dipping with him (though the jury’s still out on just how lucky that one was).

Sassoon and Graves became firm friends and, sharing a poetic vocation, spent much time together reading and discussing each other’s work. Or so History would have us believe, though A Shaggy Dog dares to offer an altogether different take on what actually went on such times. After about an hour or so of full-on poetry stuff, Graves tended to get a bit fed up with the whole versifying game, which is when he’d reach for the single malt and liven the whole affair up with a few bawdy and uproarious tales of a daringly adult nature, the evening descending into titters and guffaws in direct ratio as the night deepened and the bottle dwindled. It is well known that Graves, with his sense of gritty realism, heavily influenced Sassoon’s own poetical output, but what is less noised about is the fact that it was Graves that introduced Sassoon to the joys of the Knock Knock genre (and many others). Sassoon needed a fair old bit of talking through the technique involved but, once he had got the hang of it, there was no stopping him. This is believed to be the actual piece that the two poets first successfully completed together.

‘Now, Sass,’ said Graves sententiously that momentous and historic evening, staring in grim interrogation at his comrade through the xanthic candlelight. ‘Are you absolutely sure you’re in the right frame of mind to attempt this? After all, it is very early days.’

‘I’ll be fine,’ Sassoon reassured him, raising his glass in salutation so that the crystal sparkled with myriad points of intense fiery light. ‘At least I shall be, once I’ve got this inside me.’

‘Very well, then,’ Graves went on. ‘Let’s get cracking. As it were. Knock, knock.’

‘Who’s there?’


‘To who?’

‘To whom, Sass, to whom,’ drawled Graves sardonically. ‘We must ever be on our guard to be respectful to our pronouns – otherwise, where might it all end?’

‘Indeed so,’ agreed Sassoon heartily, draining his glass to the very dregs. ‘That is precisely why, old fellow, even with an apposite riposte so readily at hand, I resist all such temptation. Your sagacity must apply equally to the humble preposition and grammar surely forbids that we should ever conclude a sentence with a preposition.’

‘Your point being?’

‘Simply that off is a preposition.’

Such evenings of witty repartee were cut cruelly short when Graves was dreadfully wounded during the Battle of the Somme, so badly hurt that his life was despaired of and he was actually reported to have been killed (he would survive to author I, Claudius, which he would later claim to have done for the money). Meanwhile, Sassoon, whose brother Hamo had been killed in Gallipoli, was becoming ever more disillusioned with the war, penning bitingly cynical poetry to express his feelings:

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye / Who cheer when soldier lads march by / Sneak home and pray you'll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go. (Suicide in the Trenches).

Despite his manic feats of near-suicidal bravery and having been awarded the Military Cross, after a period of convalescence at home, he declined to take up his duties again. Instead, egged on by pacifist friends including Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, he penned his infamous Soldier's Declaration of 1917 in which he pointed out that the War was being deliberately prolonged because so many fatcats were making a nice bundle out of it, thank you, and so were more than happy to continue with the state of affairs. Clearly, anyone who could come out with such claptrap about our wonderful British profiteers and shirkers had to be well on the road to Barking. So they sent him to Craiglockheart to have a long hard think about himself. Which would’ve been a bit on the tricky side, had he actually been suffering from the neurasthenia they officially listed him as having.

So, there he is, incarcerated in Craiglockheart with not much to do bar knock out some acidly embittered poetry, plus feeling just a tad guilty about the men he had left behind at the Front, still slogging up to Arras with rifle and pack, when along comes this bumblingly shy fellow who evidently holds him in some kind of reverential awe from the way he peers wide-eyed at him, and introduces himself as a fellow poet, Wilfred Owen. (Alas, Ma Owen wasn’t quite up to the standard of the other mums, though she had a brave stab at it with her Wilfred Edward Salter Owen). It turns out that this chap is something of a Bible-bearing all-round mummy’s boy and wetter than a weekend in Blubberhouses, what with his marked overfondness for the Romantics and Keats in especial, but what the heck, you never know. After all, unpromising as Owen appears, he is a comrade poet and Sassoon instantly entertains visions of rekindling the Graves Laugh-In evenings of what seem like so long ago now. When Owen offers to show him some of his work, Sassoon invites him to come up to his room that very evening and we’ll see how we get along.

Much to Siegfried’s chagrin, Owen turns up actually bearing poetry, which is not quite what Sassoon had in mind. Never mind. Put that to one side for the moment and let’s see what develops, shall we? This is what Sass is thinking as he welcomes in his young acolyte with a reviving glass of the old single malt, just to get things going in the right direction.

‘Well, young Owen,’ says our man, ‘what soupcon of exquisite delicacy shall you delight me with from your undoubted array of mirthsome rib-ticklers, one wonders?’

Owen merely looks baffled.

‘Jokes, old man,’ says Sassoon, hoping to be encouraging but evidently doing no better than attempting to knit fog, which is precisely what Owen’s head appears to be filled with at that precise moment. Undaunted, Sassoon decides to get the ball rolling himself. ‘D’you know what, Owen, old fellow? I’ve got a one-armed butler. Bellicose chap. He can take it but he can’t dish it out.’

Complete blank. So then he decides to fall back on one of the trusty numbers from his Welsh collection. Though perhaps not Graves’s one about Monique and the fruit [this story was cut on grounds of decency], seeing that involves one of the Manchesters, which happens to be Owen’s own regiment and he’ll probably feel like he’s being got at. Just a straightforward one-liner that even a dimwit like Owen will be able to understand.

‘You won’t believe this, Owen, but my wife gives me the most frightful time of it. Once, she even had the nerve to accuse me of having an affair with a woman from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. I soon put a stop to her gallop. I said to her, “How can you even say such a thing?”’

Owen, disappointingly, remains utterly mystified, though he does eventually muster up some sort of response: ‘I didn’t think you were married actually, Sass.’

‘Well, try and imagine it’s December 1933, when I certainly shall be, even if it is a sham and won’t last the distance,’ seethes the exasperated Sassoon, who decides to make one last desperate attempt. By resorting to the good old standby of the knock knock joke, though he realises full-well he’ll need to explain the procedure in advance, just as he had been coached by Graves in the art. Having thoroughly tutored the young War Poet and put him through his paces, he goes for it:

‘Knock, knock.’

‘Who’s there?’


Olivia who?’

‘I live ‘ere but I’ve forgotten my keys.’

‘I know you live here, Sass, but they don’t lock the doors, so why would you need keys?’

Determined yet, Sassoon now lowers the bar even further, to below what he imagines that Owen’s limited intellect can cope with: a hoary old chestnut:

‘Knock, knock.’

‘Who’s there?’


‘Amos who?’

‘A mosquito.’

‘You can’t fool me, Sass. How would a mosquito be able to knock without any arms? So is it a reference to Rupert Brook, in that case? Are we going to discuss his poetry?’

‘No, old man,’ says the now entirely disheartened Sassoon. ‘We’re not talking about Rupert Brook but, seeing we’re doing so well at this line, we might as well have a butcher’s at that piece you brought along to show me.’ At which he takes up said poem and reads: “Anthem for a Dead Youth.” Great Scot! thinks Sassoon. ‘It was probably him at the door all along, you know.’

‘Who do you mean, Sass?’

‘The dead youth. Tell you what, let’s cross that right out, shall we? How about “Anthem for Doomed Youth” instead, eh? Much more the ticket, wouldn’t you say?’

After that, they get on perfectly swimmingly, with Sassoon helping Owen with his poem by changing one or two little things. Like the words. As the evening finally dwindles towards its inevitable close, Siegfried resolves to have one last crack at the Owen humour, with something a little more daring and risqué this time.

‘One of the men in my outfit was something of an oddball in his habits. Especially when it came to a particular lady friend of his, whose company he frequented on a regular basis. Told me all about it, he did, and you know what the Welsh are like when it comes to this sort of thing. Anyhow, once every week, he would take himself off to her place of residence and, when they were safely in the privacy of her room, he would insist on dressing himself up like an old salty seadog: big rubber thigh-length rubber boots, sou’wester, captain’s hat, the lot, and saying “Arr, Jim lad,” the whole time, just to bring himself to a state of barely-controllable excitement. And then he’d stand himself behind a ship’s wheel like a proper nautical skipper and get her to chuck buckets of cold salty water over him until he was soaked to the very skin, just as if he was caught in a violent storm out at sea. And then, when he was well and truly aroused, do you know what happened next? Do you?’

‘No, Sass,’ gasped an enthralled and expectant Owen. ‘What did happen next?’

‘Nothing, that’s what,’ said Sassoon coolly.

Nothing?’ complained the dismayed Owen.

‘Well, what did you expect?’ came the reply. ‘In that sort of weather.’

[Wilfred Owen was killed one week, almost to the hour, before the Armistice bells rang out their gloating knells of hollow clanging victory – sardonic orison for those who died like cattle – which is exactly what they were doing when his mother received the news. Like Sassoon, Owen too won the MC for his bravery on the field but, like so much else in his short life, this was only achieved posthumously. When it came to their shared art, Owen went on outdo Sassoon at it, becoming by far the greater War Poet and, eventually, the greatest War Poet].

Siegfried Sassoon: George Charles Beresford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rupert Brooke: By British Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Graves: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Siegfried Sassoon Portrait: By Glyn Warren Philpot (1884 - 1937) (BBC Paintings [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Craiglockheart: By Brideshead (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wilfred Owen: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Academic Writing Day this Saturday 21st November - book your place

If you missed our workshops on Finding Information For Your Essays And Assignments earlier this term, we are running it again this Saturday (21st Nov) as part of Academic Writing Day. 

Book your place on this and lots of other workshops on essay writing here

Monday, 16 November 2015

Tips on using the Library and its resources - No. 1.

We are re-starting our weekly series of tips to help you find and use Library resources. This week:

Looking for a particular book? 

Go to the Library web site where you will see the "Search the Library catalogue" search box. Type in the author’s surname and one or two words from the title – don’t put in any first names, initials, dates, etc. If there's more than one author, just use the surname of the first one.

For example, if you are looking for …

Cottrell, S., 2013. The study skills handbook. 4th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

… just type in Cottrell Study Skills and you will see it on the list of results. Then click on the title of the book to see more information, such as the availability of copies and the shelfmark. The shelfmark gives you the location of the book on the Library shelves, so you will need to make a note of it before you go off to the shelves.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Thomas Chatterton (20 November 1752 – 24 August 1770)

Thomas Chatterton was a poet who is now remembered mostly as a lithe youth lying elegantly dead in a squalid attic. In a pair of startlingly electric blue breeches. In a painting. Which means he at least went one better than the creator of the exquisite Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece that depicts him – if you’re looking at the Birmingham sketch, you’ll notice that the strides have miraculously turned heliotrope – an artist who is barely recalled at all (Henry Wallis). The intense blue of the breeches, reminiscent of lapis lazuli – and thus of many a Virgin – along with hair the colour and flow of a Botticelli Venus, indicates the reverence with which the painter has portrayed his subject, imbuing it with an ethereal, almost empyrean, grace and saintliness high above the mundane world that lies beyond the grime-rank window, though the hideous grey of the flesh – not yet eighteen – indicates all too clearly that what we have here is nothing but cadaver. Thus it is that Chatterton (and, indeed, the painting) has become the very image of the struggling artist starving in the garret so beloved by romantic misconception, although, in the case of Chatterton, this was the actual hard and unsentimental truth of his short life. Which he lived mostly in the fifteenth century, and yet died in 1770, having not even reached full manhood. How could this be?

Chatterton was born in Bristol to a family whose name had long been coupled with the post of sexton in the parish of St Mary Redcliffe. Ironic on several levels, that, seeing sextons were church officials generally put in charge of graveyards (given Chatterton’s ultimate association with death, but that he has no known resting place himself) and also (given the capers young Tommy would get up to later) because “sexton” is rhyming slang: Sexton Blake. The dad was something of a small-time oddball, being musician, poet, numismatist (coin collector) and half-hearted dabbler in the occult, whilst the mum – Sarah Young – lived up to her name by being only seventeen when they married and already mother of a daughter. Just for once, the Thomas Chatterton name – the dad’s also – can’t be put down to paternal vainglory, seeing that the old man went and died fifteen weeks before ever his son saw the light of day. Which left the mum to attempt to make ends meet by starting a girls’ school and taking in sewing and ornamental needlework.

As it goes, things didn’t start off any too promisingly at all: for such a precocious prodigy, in his early years he showed not the faintest glimmer of talent whatsoever. In fact, he was suspected of outright idiocy and was even expelled from his first school for being a bit of a dullard, all on account of his refusal to learn anything or to join in the games of the other youngsters, preferring to spend his time absorbed in brooding silence. Perhaps he simply had his eyes fixed on a loftier prize because, on being asked what device he wanted painting on a bowl that was to be his, he summoned up all the high zest of a child ardent for some desperate glory to reply, “Paint me an angel, with wings, and a trumpet, to trumpet my name over the world.” Which, you must admit, shows a smart more ambition than merely hoping that your conker will make it into a sixer, wouldn’t you say? Anyhow, by the time he turned seven, it was all systems go and he was even making up for lost time. Legend has it that his father, some years previously, had “brought home” from the church (half-inched, that is) some aged music folios so they could be used as book-bindings and sewing patterns (so, not only light-fingered but a philistine to boot), which the mother happened to be tearing up (sounds like she wasn’t much better) when young Tommy catches an eyeful of them and thinks to himself, “This is a drop of all right and no mistake,” instantly falling in love with the illuminated capitals. That did the trick right enough, firing his imagination and, once the mother had finally taught him to read (so she’s not so bad after all, then), there was no stopping him bookwise and he was soon gobbling up all he could get his hands on. Thus began his enchantment with all things medieval.

Quite clearly, Fate had somehow got hold of the idea that, as far as the Chatterton Kid was concerned, life was proceeding just a wee bit too well and so, in August 1760, she decided that some form of comeuppance was called for and dished him out a real snorter. In the shape of Colston’s Hospital. Which, despite the name, purported to be a school but thought it was a prison. This markedly uneducational establishment had been founded back in 1710 by Edward Colston, a “philanthropist” who made shiploads of cash and bloody (literally) great profits out of dealing in human suffering on a wanton scale via the flourishing slave trade – the family motto (and also the school’s), with breathtaking effrontery, urged Go and do thou likewise. Which our man Eddie certainly adhered to when he thought that it was maybe high time to “give something back.” And the best way to achieve that seemed to be by inflicting yet more misery on the innocent, young boys in this case, for whom, similarly, there would be no escape. The curriculum didn’t bother with anything much beyond reading, writing, maths and a good solid dollop of the catechism by rote, believing it more important to concentrate on seeing the inmates were tonsured like monks and ruthlessly punishing any sign of religious non-conformity. Under such circumstances, a boy might become a tad rebellious. Young Tommy did. It seems he divided his time between outright delinquency and sulky morosity, but at least it got that awkward adolescent phase out of his system good and early.

Chatterton was doomed to six years at Colston’s but, whenever he got a break from the floggings, it was straight down to St Mary Redcliffe with him (where his uncle was sexton) for a good rummage round the Muniment Room. All the Legal Johnnies out there now will already know what that means and may even be rolling their eyes at the rest of us for our ignorance here, but bear with us a second, would you? The word comes from Latin, munimentum, meaning fortification or defence so, basically, it’s referring to title deeds with which to establish (or defend) ownership of an asset. (We may not know a great deal about Law but we are aware that imparting any such information should always be swiftly followed by an additional, “That’ll be fifty guineas, please.”) Anyhow, when our lad went rooting around the oaken chests therein – the same ones his old man had been pilfering from years earlier – there were loads of these documents to be had, many of them having been lying around forgotten since the Wars of the Roses. These he would gleefully gather up and squirrel away with him into his attic fastness, locking himself into isolation with his fifteenth century chums. 

One of these was the great shipping merchant, William II Canynges, amongst the wealthiest men of his day and five times Mayor of Bristol (eat your heart out, Dick Whittington, roughly Canynges’ contemporary), whose image he would have seen recumbent on his tomb in the church and who inspired him to write his romantic poem The Storie of William Canynge. By the age of eleven, he was already a contributor to the Bristol Journal and, before he was twelve, had penned Elinoure and Juga, his only poem to be published during his lifetime, which he tried to pass off as the work of a fifteenth century monk, Thomas Rowley, thus creating a pseudonym for himself and launching his career in the faking department. Now he dared to dream that his writing would bring him fame and wealth enough to rescue his mother from poverty.

Alas, however, Fate was to have other ideas and, at the end of his schooling in 1766, it was out of the frying pan of Colston’s and into the fire of an indentured apprenticeship with a local lawyer, one John Lambert. It seems that philistines were thick on the ground back in those days in Bristol and this fellow was no exception, taking great umbrage (not to mention a hefty stick) to the discovery that his scrivener wrote poetry in his spare time, tearing up what he’d written and forbidding him to produce any more. Despite his fascination with legal papers from the fifteenth century, it turned out that scrivening and Chatterton weren’t going to mix any too well at all, the drudgery of copying out the excruciatingly dull modern versions proving to be mindnumbingly tedious to an imaginative young lad, so he occupied his time with versifying and drawing instead, whilst maintaining a sulky and sardonic attitude throughout – being an adolescent, you might say – topping the whole insouciance off with evenings in the company of other likewise disillusioned apprentices, drinking and chasing girls.

With the Rowley-forging getting into full-swing, what Chatterton needed now was a patron – well, the patron’s cash, to be strictly mercenary – and so he passed the Rowleys off as the genuine article to a number of Bristol dignitaries, one of whom, William Barrett, was so completely taken in that he based his History and Antiquities of Bristol entirely upon them. It sank without trace. Chatterton now discovered the truth of the saying that “nobody got rich by spending it,” which turned out to be very much the case with these fellows too so, in 1769, he spread his net wider, this time casting it over none other than Horace Walpole, son of the first (so called) Prime Minister (a term of abuse back then) and who had come up with the first Gothic novel, though with a satirical irony that must’ve delighted Chatterton enormously, Walpole had tried to make out that his (truly dreadful) Castle of Otranto was, in actual fact, a translation of an Italian manuscript, when it was clearly the work of an idle-rich MP with more spare time than talent. The biter was absolutely bit and Walpole offered to publish the Rowleys, “if they have never been printed,” until someone had a quiet word in his shell-like and suggested they might be forgeries, adding that Chatterton was but sixteen, which was enough to put the right honourable wind up Walpole and for him to send Chatterton away, cashless but with a flea in his ear and bitterly wounded by the snub. As it goes, there was another irony lurking on the premises, for Walpole was the coiner of the term serendipity – happy accident. When Chatterton’s tragic history finally unfolded, Walpole found himself cast in the role of cruel persecutor, a slur that he would end up fighting against for twenty years, though a salacious public proved stubbornly resistant to absolving him, given the juicily appetising contrast between an impoverished boy genius of immense talent and a rich dilettante fathead.

By now, he could pastiche in the style of any number of writers, including Tobias Smollett, James Macpherson (another fibber, having claimed that his Ossian was a translation from word-of-mouth Gaelic but which was described elsewhere as “the most successful literary falsehood in modern history”), Thomas Gray and William Collins. His home town proving to be too small a pond for him and what with his burgeoning interest in politics, he swapped the Bristol Journal for the Town and Country Magazine and other London periodicals, taking up the nom de plume of Decimus, as rival to the pseudonymous letter writer Junius, whose pieces sought to “to inform the public of their historical and constitutional rights and liberties as Englishmen; to highlight where and how the government had infringed upon these rights.” (So, no change there, then – we’ve now got an administration seeking to grant yet more highly invasive powers to our security services when this (so-called) intelligence is farcically incapable of even spotting that an Egyptian airport is letting any old ne’er-do-well walk straight through). 

Disguised as Decimus, Chatterton was able to aim a well-deserved boot at a good few fatcat trough-snouters, sharpening his satirical pen on the likes of the Duke of Grafton, the Earl of Bute and even Augusta of Saxe-Gotha (mother of George IV, the Prince of Whales, as he was known, thanks to his gluttonous appetites for all things fattening). His bitter savagery drew the attention and admiration of Charles Churchill (satirical curate) and John Wilkes, both of whom were mates and both hated Bute with a vengeance. Wilkes ran the North Briton journal and he had once had a go at George III, calling him a liar. Which the government took exception to and banged him up in the Tower before trying him for libel. Wilkes won. The government didn’t like that either. In February 1769, they booted him out of Parliament. He was re-elected in the same month and unceremoniously chucked out again, only to be elected yet again in March. And in April. Finally, the government decided it’d given the people enough chances to return the right man and simply declared Wilkes’ opponent to be the winner (much like our current one claims a “huge mandate” after having gained roughly thirty percent of the vote, not even enough to call a tube strike on these days). Chatterton was now contributing to various journals but, whilst the editors accepted his pieces, they proved curmudgeonly reluctant to pay much or even anything for them. Chatterton remained resolutely strapped for cash.

The time had come for leaving Bristol and so, on 17 April 1770 (Easter Eve, as it happens), he sat down to write his Last Will & Testament, in which he suggested he might well top himself the following evening. Which is one way of going about it, though a touch drastic. Half earnest and half tongue-in-cheek, his sardonic bequests included “Moderation, to the Politicians on both Sides” (fat chance!) and his Debts, “to the Charitable and generous Chamber of Bristol.” Whilst not disguising the utter wretchedness of his situation, the whole purpose of the scheme was to scare the living daylights out of his attorney employer who, for once, played ball and cancelled his indentures, which (along with a swift whip-round from friends and acquaintances) left Chatterton free to head off to London to make his fame and fortune. He left Bristol that April. As soon as he got there, he popped round to see the booksellers and editors he had written to beforehand, who were once again encouraging and flattering in their promises but turned out to be just as loath as ever when it came to actually stumping up for the goods. When he finally did get his hands on some hard-earned, he spent it on expensive gifts to send to his mother and sister. To reassure them as to how well he was doing.

His first lodgings were in Shoreditch (possibly originally called the highly unpromising Sewer Ditch) at the house of a relative, where he had to share a room (and a bed!) with some fellow, who noted that Chatterton “spent most of the night writing.” (Under the same circumstances, wouldn’t you?) Happily, however, by June 1770, he was able to take himself off to an attic in Brook Street (Holborn), where he was able to “enjoy” complete solitude. By now, he was simply churning the material out at a breath-taking – and exhausting – rate, including another allegedly Rowley piece, the universally admired and astonishingly fine Excelente Balade of Charitie. Well, universally admired except by the editor of the Town and Country Magazine, that is, seeing he rejected it out-of-hand. Another one notched up to the philistines there, we fear. But it still buttered no parsnips for our man. Our put any bread on his table. In desperation, he wrote to his old Bristol acquaintance William Barrett (bit of a cheek, seeing this was the same bloke he’d duped with his Rowleys and whose book would be doomed to the remainder bins), asking him to help with getting him a position as a ship’s surgeon. To which (with remarkable magnanimity, considering), Barrett replied along the lines of, “would love to, old chap, but the big stumbling block is that you’re not qualified as a surgeon.” So that fell through on a technicality. Despite the situation, he was still as big a hit as ever with the girls, of whom he knew many (in the was acquainted with sense), though it seems he was a bit caddish here. An Esther Saunders wrote to him, suggesting they meet in the morning when they wouldn’t be seen, adding, “we must wait with patient [sic] for there is a Time for all Things.” His reply was, “a time for all things—Except Marriage my Dear.”

Part of the point of the solitary Holborn pad was so nobody would see his dreadful poverty. But people could hardly help but notice. Mr Cross, a neighbouring apothecary, repeatedly invited him to join him at dinner or supper, but in vain. So did his landlady, who knew he hadn’t eaten for some days. Not hungry, was the response. On 21 August 1770, Chatterton was walking in St Pancras Churchyard and, lost in thought, failed to spot a newly-dug grave lying right in his path, the result being that he pitched in head first. A companion who was with him helped him out and jokingly remarked that he was “happy in assisting at the resurrection of genius.” This time, the reply was, “My dear friend, I have been at war with the grave for some time now.”

Three days later, on 24 August 1770, he climbed up to his attic fastness clutching a bottle of arsenic. Having torn to shreds all his remaining works, he then swallowed the poison in water. The room was broken into next day where, unlike in the painting, his body was found severely convulsed and absolutely dead. The landlady (ironically, a Mrs Angel) collected all the fragments in the hope of finding a last note amongst them, which were then purchased by a Dr Fry, who had come to London to offer the poet financial assistance but who had arrived far far too late. As a suicide, Chatterton was buried in an unmarked grave. His later admirers and commemorators would include Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Rossetti and Keats. Pre-Raphaelite, Henry Wallis, would famously go on to paint him, using as model the young Victorian novelist, George Meredith, before running off with Meredith’s wife.

Chatterton is long gone. But we still have the works. And the painting. When you next stand in front of the picture (at Tate Britain), having given silent thanks to Wallis, offer up an orison to one of the most gifted poets of any age, a boy too stubbornly proud to accept of charity …


The Death of Chatterton: Henry Wallis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sewing (1898) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wilfred Owen: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Colston’s Hospital: By The book's text by JF Nicholls (d. 1883) and John Taylor (d. 1893). Death dates citation: doi:10.1093/library/s1-V.1.86. Images by unknown engravers, and thus are PD due to age, per the relevant British legislation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Flagellation of Christ: By Peter Paul Rubens [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
William II Canynges: Lobsterthermidor at en.wikipedia [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Uriah Heep: Fred Barnard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Horace Walpole: By John Giles Eccardt (floruit 1740-1779) (Info : Pic) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ossian's Dream by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1813: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
John Wilkes (he was cross-eyed): By Unknown; after Richard Houston (died 1775) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mailcoach: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Death of Chatterton (Birmingham version): Henry Wallis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons