Friday, 29 May 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

May 29
29 May starts with 363 and the Battle of Ctesiphon, between the Sassanid King Shapur II and the Roman Emperor Julian, generally known as Julian the Apostate because of his hatred of all things Christian. He was none too keen on the Neo-Persians either, who had their own Empire every bit as good as the Roman one, a leading power for over four hundred years, known to its inhabitants as Eran, which is where the name Iran comes from. Anyhow, Julian decides he’s going to do something about the Persians and their empire-building and, what’s more, he’s going to do it right outside their capital city of Ctesiphon (the C is silent, by the way or, rather, the K is, seeing it’s a Greek name). So he did. And won. Pretty spectacularly too, by all accounts (though it’d be the Romans themselves who were keeping the scores), losing only seventy five men to the Persian’s two and a half thousand, at which the vanquished Sassanians hold up the white flag. That’s not quite good enough for our Julian, who resolves on finishing the job now he’s started, plus he might earn himself the honorific of Parthicus by taking the city, Parthicus being a victory title and the Roman way of bragging I’m Better Than (add name of nation), in this case Julian the Beater of the Parthians. There was, however, one tiny flaw in his besieging plans. The Ctesiphonians were now safely inside their thickly-walled fortress city, along with plenty of tuck, having taken the precaution before fleeing back there of trashing and burning everything in sight, which left thin pickings for the Romans to stick in their cooking pots so, before very long at all, they’re mighty peckish, riddled with disease and about as ticked off with the Apostate as it’s possible to get in a siege situation. Poor old Julian is then forced to make a humiliating run for it. And with a horde of outraged Persians hotfooting it after him in order to get their own back, catching him up at Samarra when, before Julian can even get his armour on, he ends up with a spear in his liver and that’s the end of him. And the Constantinian dynasty too, as it goes.

This day in 1108, it was the Battle of Uclés, in modern-day Spain, Christians against Muslims, the Christians taking a darn good spanking for their efforts, most of their high nobility being butchered on the field, beheaded afterwards or murdered whilst attempting to leg it out of there at the top of their speed. They fared a sight better in 1167 at the Battle of Monte Porzio, though that’s mainly down to the fact that this was Christians against Christians, otherwise known as the Commune of Rome, who supported Pope Alexander III, and the Holy Roman Empire, who wanted to put their own man, Paschal III, in the hotseat instead. The Holy Roman Empire under Frederick I eventually came out on top, only for plague or malaria to get them, which made it more of a score draw in the end.
Barely had the dust settled on that one than along comes the replay, the Battle of Legnano, 29 May 1176, which was basically the same folk again trying to sort out their unfinished business, Frederick I still at the head of the Holy Roman Empire mob wanting imperial rule over Italy and to dethrone the Pope (still Alexander III), squaring up with the Lombard League (Italians), who didn’t think that was such a good idea, seeing as how Fred was an unspeakable bounder of the first magnitude. In fact, they hated him so much that they dubbed him Barbarossa (Red Beard – they sure knew how to dish out a wounding soubriquet when they needed to in those days), which put him in a foul mood enough to lay siege to Alessandria, just to show them who was boss. Though he then failed entirely to take it, despite the fact that it was known then as the Straw City (most of its roofs were covered in straw) – did nobody remember to bring any matches? – so he’s forced to press on in order to give someone else a miserable time of it, which happens to be the good people of Legnano, secure in the knowledge that it’s 29 May, a day that has proved highly auspicious to him in the past, even if the folk he’ll be up against have chosen to call themselves the Company of Death and painted skulls on their shields. Which should’ve been a bit of a clue for most tyrannical maniacs, but not our Friedrich, who then found out the hard way that the name was no idle boast when they gave him a downright walloping on the field that day. Even that almighty cock-up wasn’t the end of him (he was wounded and went missing for long enough for everyone to think he was dead and to start cracking open the champagne, only for him to turn up again before the blinis had even been served), living long enough to ride his horse into a fast-flowing river whilst wearing his full and heavy battle armour, only to discover that the two things didn’t go together when he was swept away to a watery death. Much later, the Nazis were looking for a name for their operation to invade Russia, so Hitler plumped for Barbarossa, probably having heard the legend that the great Teutonic Warrior was not dead, merely sleeping in the mountains until the time came to return Germany to its former glories. Alas, nobody had the nerve to point out that Frederick I was your classical Holy Roman Ninny that everything went wrong for, so they pressed on regardless. Into ignominious disaster and utter defeat.

In 1414 they were at it again. The culprit this time was Pope John XXIII, who was actually an antipope, which doesn’t mean he was against popes per se but that he was opposed to the bloke the Catholic Church had chosen for the job because he thought he could make a better fist of it himself, being an incorrigible and thoroughly unprincipled rogue. By 1392, he had entered the service of Pope Boniface IX, an illiterate money-grabbing nepotistic crook who had never bothered to learn any theology whatsoever and therefore seemed absolutely ideal Pope material, even perhaps a little overqualified. Boniface then made our man a Cardinal in 1402 and Papal Legate in 1403, mainly because of his links with local robber bands that could be used to “influence people.” Thus we see the benefit of networking.

Sadly, Boniface died in 1404 and Gregory XII donned the papal threads instead. Meanwhile, the Council of Pisa were trying to sort out all this senseless bickering over who was and who wasn’t Pope business (officially known as the Western Schism) once and for all but, rather inconveniently, this turned out to be by sacking both existing claimants and bringing in a new man, Alexander V, which only resulted in there now being three popes on the loose at a time when one was more than most people cared to cope with. Somewhat more conveniently, however, Alexander pegged it and our man duly stepped into the breach, as John XXIII, having had himself ordained as a priest just the day before so that it was all proper and above board. But, before he’d had much chance to reap all the materialistic rewards of being Supreme Head of the Catholic Church, the Council of Constance (nosy blighters) began rummaging through the soiled underwear of his papacy, finding him guilty of heresy, simony, schism and immorality (for which he did a few months in clink before he was able to bribe his way out), though they chose to overlook the charges of piracy, rape, sodomy, murder and incest, possibly to avoid people suspecting that some popes weren’t perhaps quite as white as they had painted themselves. He was deposed this day in 1415. On top of that, he was only ever an Antipope, so he doesn’t even count – he’s been tippexed out of the record books and the official Pope John XXIII is Angelo Roncalli, who didn’t get started poping until 1958 and, even then, there was still some confusion as to whether he should be John XXIII or XXIV, or at least there was until John himself declared he was John XXIII, so there, so that was that. Popes are infallible, remember, so nobody could really argue with that, could they? Pope John XXIII is still known today as the “Good Pope” (what does that say about the rest of them, in that case?), the first pontiff since 1316 to choose the name John to reign under, all because of one despicable blighter, Baldassarre Cossa, back in 1415.

Other, not quite so Pope-orientated, things to happen this day include (1328) the coronation of Philip VI of France (that’s Phil the Fortunate, you’ll recall, who lost at Crecy, lost Calais and his entire navy, and then lost his wife and a large chunk of his people to Black Death but, on the other hand, was never beaten at Buckaroo, which shows how lucky he really was, seeing it wouldn’t be invented until six hundred and twenty years after his death, the jammy beggar) and also (1660) of Charles II of England, though these two ubiquitous blighters always seem to pop up in these columns doing something or other, no matter what date it happens to concern. In 1453, Ottoman armies under Sultan Mehmed II Fatih brought about the end of the Byzantine Empire by capturing Constantinople after a siege, which was a bit of a blow to the Romans after fifteen hundred years of lording it over everyone, and to Christendom in general, what with all these Saracens roaming about everywhere they fancied, though it did mean the intellectuals of Constantinople slipped away across the water to Italy and thus helped get the Renaissance going, which was nice of them.

Leaving bloodshed and violence behind us, we now come to 1912 and the ballet, because on this day the Ballets Russes premiered their latest work, The Afternoon of a Faun, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky who, being no shrinking violet, hogged the lead role for himself. The dress rehearsal of the 28 May ended with stony silence and, when it opened on 29 May, it was booed, though Renoir thought it was rather a hoot and stood up to cheer. Mostly though, it bombed.

Same date, same company, the very next year and this time it’s Stravinsky trying to follow up his smash hit, Petrushka, with the controversial and cacophonic (by contemporary accounts) The Rite of Spring, which only ended up causing a riot. Well, they say “riot” but, being ballet folk, the most outrageous thing that happened in all likelihood is that someone jostled someone else’s elbow in the crush bar or else an opprobrious remark was passed regarding some lady’s hat. The house was packed that night. And they’d come expecting to be shocked. As soon as it got started there was derisive laughter and booing, and the appearance of the dancers stamping along to the relentlessly percussive score did little to improve matters so, in no time at all, vegetables were being hurled at the musicians, who couldn’t hear themselves play for the uproar. One onlooker is even supposed to have beaten out the pulsating rhythms on the bald pate of some hapless fellow in front of him. They did calm down when it came to the interval, had a quick stiffener, and then it was back out for the second half, when it all kicked off again. The show ran for seven performances and then along came the First World War to put it out of its misery.

Being as it’s May 29, nearly halfway through the year, with the festive trimmings about to appear on the supermarket shelves, it’s probably quite a good idea to be thinking about Christmas singles. Especially if it’s 1942 and your name happens to be Bing Crosby, in which case it’ll be a little number called White Christmas, which took him all of eighteen minutes to do. He seems to have been a bit underwhelmed by the whole thing, remarking simply after the recording, “I don’t think we’ll have any problems with that one, Irving.” That’d be Irving Berlin, the modest fellow that penned the piece, who then told his secretary to “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!” (Clearly, he’d never heard Motorhead’s No Voices In The Sky then). By the end of the year it was top of the Hit Parade (that’s what it was called in those days) and would reappear there perennially for the next twenty years until Billboard magazine took the desperate measure of creating a chart especially for Christmas songs. And still failed miserably to kill it off. In fact, what happened instead was that every man and his ostrich then thought it was well worth having a go at, so that we’ve now ended up with a situation whereby, for the last four months of any year, you can’t set foot inside a store without being mercilessly assaulted by an entire back catalogue of whiskery Festive jingles. White Christmas is the biggest selling single of all time, with over fifty million copies having gone across the counter, and Bing would be forever associated with the song, though he always played down his own role in its success, saying, “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully.” Clearly, he had heard Rick Astley’s version of it …

This day in 1953 saw one of Britain’s greatest triumphs when a New Zealander and a Nepalese became the first men to set foot on the top of Everest – be fair, it was a British expedition, their (our) ninth attempt at it, the news of the achievement reaching these shores on Coronation Day itself. Nepal only allowed one go annually and, just the year before, the Swiss had come mighty close to scuppering the party, getting within eight hundred feet of the top before having to turn back, which left the field open to the British party, numbering some four hundred people, most of whom were there to carry stuff, seeing there was over ten thousand pounds of kit. Eventually, it was Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (Sherpa being a people, not an occupation) who were victorious, reaching the summit at 11.30 am that day. Incidentally, Norgay’s name was originally Namgyal Wangdi but his head lama advised changing it, as Tenzing Norgay translates as “wealthy-fortunate-follower-of-religion,” which is only partly right, seeing his dad was a yak herder and, while Hillary and Hunt (the leader) got knighthoods, Tenzing had to make do with a medal, supposedly on the say-so of the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, unfamous enough then to resent any competition from jumped-up yak herders.

You may have spotted that there is an iconic photo of Tenzing standing at the summit but none of Hillary, which is a bit odd, wouldn’t you say? Some have put it down to the Nepalese not being able to work a camera, though he himself claims that Hillary took his picture and then he offered to return the favour only for the Kiwi to turn round and say, “Nah! Don’t think I’ll bother actually.” Sounds very likely, don’t it? What was the problem? Had he forgotten to bring a comb with him and didn’t fancy being snapped with his hair blown all over the place by the wind or something? Anyway, having hung around for fifteen minutes and discovered there actually wasn’t that much to do up there, once you’d taken in the view, down they came again. To fame and celebrity.

But were they really the first? Or did someone else manage it earlier, way back in 1924? That’d be Mallory and Irvine, a pair of Cheshire lads who were last sighted on June 8 that year within spitting distance of the summit (assuming that either of them could actually spit several hundred yards, that is) and then they promptly disappeared. Nobody knows whether they got to the top or not but, when Mallory’s body was discovered, there was no picture of his wife in his pocket and he had always intended to leave it on the summit. Alas, his camera has never been found, which might furnish photographic proof of their having made it all the way (the film would have been deep-frozen and still developable now), so we’ll never know for sure unless it does turn up. When someone questioned Sir Edmund about his views on the controversy, his reply came across as a tad ungracious. He remarked, “I do not know whether Mallory and Irvine reached the summit,” which is fair enough, only he then added, “What I do know is that Tenzing Norgay and I were the first to get to the top and back down to the bottom again.” Sounds a bit like shifting the goalposts from where we’re sitting. Nobody said anything about getting down again before Mallory and Irvine set off, did they? Besides Which: Hillary had hundreds of bods fetching and carrying all his gear around for him, and even one to bring him hot soup as soon as he set off downhill again. Whereas Mallory famously did it in a three piece suit. It might well be the undoing of you in the end but, by golly, that’s what we call Great British Pluck.

Sassanian relief showing Shapur II above a defeated Julian: By Philippe Chavin (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Fredrick I submits to Alexander III: Spinello Aretino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Company of Death at Legnano 1176: By Amos Cassioli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Antipope John XXIII: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pope John XXIII: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fall of Constantinople: Fausto Zonaro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Faun Poster: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Stravinsky by Picasso: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bing Crosby: By Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945 (File:Bing Crosby.jpg (cropped)) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Tenzing Norgay: By SAS Scandinavian Airlines ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edmund Hillary: By Photographer unidentified. Retouched by TimofKingsland. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Throwback Thursday - last old photos of the Library

It's Throwback Thursday again and this is the last in this series of old photographs of the Library.

Some fantastic fashions being worn in the old Gresse Street Library, plus an old tape machine. Any librarians out there remember what this machine was for? Printing spine labels perhaps?

I think we've saved the best till last - what do you think?

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Places left on our workshops this Saturday

The first of our two information skills days for this term is coming up this Saturday (30th) and there's still time to book your place on any or all of the workshops. The workshops are aimed at postgraduates. but all are welcome.

We will be looking at finding and accessing theses, keeping up to date in your research field, improving your search skills and using Zotero to manage your references.

Book your place now - we look forward to seeing you!

Friday, 22 May 2015

It's a Bank Holiday weekend (but we are open)!

It's a Bank Holiday weekend, but if you're going to be studying rather than taking time off, the Library is open for you throughout the weekend. Saturday and Sunday we are open as usual - 8.30 to 23.45 (staffed 10.00-18.00, self-service outside staffed hours) and on Monday 25th we are open 10.00-20.00 and staffed throughout the day. So come in and see us!

Word to the Wise

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


Puhr-spee-kas-it-ee: Noun: keenness of mental perception and understanding; discernment; penetration. It also has the archaic meaning of keen vision.

From Latin, perspicax, sharp-sighted, having the power of seeing through, which comes from perspicere, which itself is formed out of per-, through, and specere, to look at.

Related forms: perspicacious, adjective; perspicaciously, adverb; perspicaciousness, noun.

Perspicacity as a word leapt into being around 1540-50 time via the Middle French, perspicacité, so it seems that it would have been our Gallic chums who first found themselves in need of a term for sharp mental perception or discernment, which would’ve been sometime during the reign of their Henry II, a man whose hobbies included giving the Huguenots a generally miserable time of it by having them burned at the stake or cutting their tongues out for uttering heresies. Unhappily for our masochistic monarch, Henry was to come to a sticky end himself whilst indulging in his other favourite pastime of jousting, when a Scotsman put a lance into his head – he didn’t see that one coming, did he? – which pretty much put an end to the sport but may be one of the first instances on which someone remarked, with all the sagacity of hindsight, “you’ll have somebody’s eye out with that if you’re not careful.” His fifteen year old son took over the throne and was promptly married off to Mary, Queen of Scots, possibly to show there were no hard feelings over the lance incident. Henry was a bit more perspicacious when it came to the matter of patents though, seeing he thought the idea up and granted the first one to a certain Abel Foullon for his Holometer, an instrument for making angular measurements in surveying, which was probably what was responsible for the appearance all those hordes of bods you see in hi-viz vests and hardhats holding up striped sticks for their mates to peer at whilst squinting through said instrument for no discernible reason.

Hard alongside perspicacity in the dictionary is perspicuity, and such a near neighbour, in fact, that he probably pops round to borrow the lawnmower of a Sunday morning, and they’re actually also very closely related, so much so that if they were any more inbred we’d have to call them Hapsburgs but, nonetheless, the two should never be confused. Perspicuity’s much older for a start off, having sprung up around 1470-80 time and, whilst they share exactly the same root of per and specere, they are actually opposite sides of the same coin: perspicacity refers to the power of seeing clearly, to insight and judgement (as in, “that looks like a lance hurtling ominously in this direction – best get well out the way afore it does some mischief”), whereas perspicuity is something that can be seen through (like a Medieval helmet visor, right up until the very moment a lance gets thrust savagely through it), meaning it has lucidity or clearness of expression, freedom from obscurity.

Perspex is another one not far away, although this is a trade name adopted by ICI, as they were then, under which they decided to market their new acrylic safety glass back in 1936. When it comes down to it, it still basically means “see through,” though perspex is still a far catchier title for a transparent thermoplastic to be known by than the technical but soulless polymethyl methacrylate, PMMA to its mates. The “poly” bit there means many, of course, which is interesting in comparison to what our American cousins went for in naming the same product – actually, it was a German scientist, Otto Röhm, who came up with it after he’d discovered the substance – which was Plexiglas, the plex- part there signifying “having many parts” (as in multiplex, those cinemas with endless screens on offer but never a decent film anywhere in sight), which comes from plectere, to plait or braid, ultimately to fold. But, if their safety glass is actually as “complex” as they’re trying to make out, how come it scratches to begorrah if you so much as get a feather duster within three feet of it? He was certainly no one-trick-wonder, our Otto, because he also came up with an enzymatic leather staining process that replaced the fermented dog dung which was formerly used for bating leather, which must have come as something a blessed relief for all the tanners involved, though it must surely have led to the cruelly ironic twist of the bottom dropping right out of the dog dung market. Instead of the other way around, that is. To get technical for a moment, it’s actually only “bating” when using hen or pigeon droppings; the use of dog dung is known as “puering” and its action is said (by the Leather Processing & Tanning Technology Handbook, at any rate) to be “vigorous.” It’s apparently particularly efficacious on goat skin, softening it up a treat, so it comes in handy for making kid – think about that next time you employ the phrase “treating someone with kid gloves.”

Now, before we lose all sense of perspective, we’d better get to perspective itself, hadn’t we? Very much out of the selfsame stable and even boasting the same sire and dam in per and specere, though in this case it’s not so much looking through as a way of looking at a subject and, as such, it’s open to a number of interpretations. There’s the technique of depicting volumes and spatial relationships on a flat surface for one thing, which is what they teach us at art schools, using the so-called Vanishing Point, on which all lines receding through space should converge – and anyone who has attempted it will know from bitter experience that it never looks anything like how it should when you’ve finished – though Piero della Francesca seems to have made a pretty decent fist of it in his portrayal of the Flagellation of Christ. Mind you, he seems to have spent so long concentrating on getting that right that he’s forgotten all about the fact that it’s actually a scourging that’s about to take place in the background, which is an extremely severe form of brutal and barbaric torture involving flogging with a whip that’s had lead balls and sharp fragments of sheep bone added to it, just to give it a little extra zest in the flesh-ripping department, and likely to result in a fair amount of blood seepage as a consequence – not the sort of activity you’d imagine your average Renaissance gent would want going on in his forecourt, especially if his lovely marble tiles have just been nicely buffed up. Then there’s the sense of a view, usually one where you can see for miles into the distance, or what’s commonly known as a vista (Latin for a view or a sight) or a panorama (Greek for see all). And let’s not forget the “keeping things in perspective” sense, the mental outlook one, as in, “Come on, Harry, it’s only a lance in the eye – it’s not as if you’re going to die or anything, is it?” Though that usage is only recorded from 1762, so that couldn’t’ve happened way back in 1559 at all, so it sounds suspiciously like a shamelessly transparent device by which to get us on to the next bit. What they call a seque, isn’t it? From the Latin, seguire, to follow, as in the legal terms sue and suit.

1762 also happens to be when the last remaining buildings were finally cleared from London Bridge, which must’ve altered contemporary perspectives no end, seeing there were over two hundred of them standing by Tudor times, some of them towering seven stories high and some dangerously overhanging the river, including all the open-plan toilets and public conveniences that had been situated there for as long as there had been bridges to put them on, one of them funded by no less a figure than Dick Whittington (who really was thrice Lord Mayor of London Town), his House of Easement, to give it its euphemistic official title. Which followed the general scheme of such places back then, with no segregation between the sexes, no private cubicles, and nothing below the seat except a clear drop straight down into the Thames. So, it was simply a case of in you go, down with the old tights and chocks away, as it were, and let the bargeman beware, if he happens to be passing underneath at the time, seeing it proved to be a regular hazard to shipping in those days. It was our old friends the Romans who first put up a bridge there, to make a shortcut between the ports in Kent and Colchester, with London springing up merely as an opportunistic by-product of its construction, making fleecing the tourists the city’s original raison d’etre and still a particular favourite amongst the locals. When the Romans had to go and deal with the shenanigans of the Germanic tribes, the Vandals and the Alans, all of whom were causing mayhem and strife back in Rome, the bridge fell into disrepair until Alfred the Great (though it might’ve been Ethelred the Unready) rebuilt it, only for the beastly Vikings to destroy it out of sheer badness. Then William the Conqueror had a go, but his blew down in 1091 during the London Tornado, so his son, William Rufus, built another version, which promptly burned down in 1136. Finally, not before time you’d think, Henry II had the bright idea of “this time, instead of timber, why don’t we build it in stone?” and it can also be a kind of sorry to Thomas Beckett at the same time, for having ordered his brains to be gouged out in his own cathedral. So that’s what they did, only it took ‘em thirty three years, by which time Henry had long since pegged out.

At that time, the bridge ran from the old walled city of London down to Southwark Cathedral on the opposite bank, so folk could pop across whenever they fancied indulging in something a little untoward and nefarious, such as visiting a “stew” or taking in a Shakespeare play, being reminded in no uncertain terms that they were Now Entering South London (unlike any taxis ever after) as soon as they reached the southern gatehouse, where they would be greeted by the grisly sight of the heads of executed traitors, suitably tarred and boiled for longevity, spiked up on the walls. William Wallace, Jack Cade, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell would all spend time taking in the view from that unhappy vantage point, and the practice actually outlived the buildings, heads being seen on public display right up until 1772. Fifty years earlier, things had gotten so bad trafficwise on the bridge that the Lord Mayor decided that “something must be done,” like Lord Mayors tend to do, and decreed that all the carts, carriages and coaches coming out of Southwark should stick to the west side and the ones coming from Olde London Towne had best keep to the east, which may be where the British idea of driving on the left originated from. By 1799 and over six hundred years old, the bridge was pretty much decrepit, so they held a competition to design a new one, which was won by John Rennie, though it still took as long to build as the one it was replacing, not opening until 1831 and even then only lasting a miserable one hundred and thirty six years, by which time it was a wreck that was slowly sinking. At which point a councillor by the name of Ivan Luckin had the bright idea of selling it to an American called Robert P. McCulloch for two and a half million dollars, meaning our Ivan was Luckin by name and very much by nature. Though there’s no evidence to support the tale that McCulloch actually thought he was buying Tower Bridge. So Luckin always insisted, anyhow.

Cheek by jowl with Perspicacity and Perspective comes Perspiration, which comes from the Latin perspirare, to blow constantly (said of the wind), but which means to breathe through, gradually evolving into to sweat imperceptibly or to evaporate through the pores. A perfectly natural human phenomenon, there’s no denying that, though it’s hardly the first thing you’d want to be drawing any attention to, unless you do happen to be a medical man of any sort, that is. It seems that they have a startlingly unhealthy interest in the subject altogether down the ages and have even attempted to maintain a distinction between what they term “sensible” and “insensible” perspiration, the former meaning your common-or-garden sweating, of course, stating that: “It is sufficient for common use to observe, that perspiration is that insensible discharge of vapour from the whole surface of the body and the lungs which is constantly going on in a healthy state; that it is always natural and always salutary; that sweat, on the contrary, is an evacuation, which never appears without some uncommon effort, or some disease to the system, that it weakens and relaxes, and is so far from coinciding with perspiration, that it obstructs and checks it.” That was Charles White in 1791, writing in “A Treatise on the Management of Pregnant and Lying-in Women,” no doubt on having observed that it don’t half seem to flood out of these womenfolk when they get to the business end of labour and thinking it might be “obstructing and checking” their perspiration somewhat, which can’t’ve been good for ‘em. All of which seems to suggest that what our Charlie (by name and by nature) is pussyfooting around and not actually saying in so many words is, “Come on, love, at a time like this what you need to do is just calm down.”

Which pretty much brings us round to lay a misguided finger squarely on the hackneyed head of the old adage: Horses sweat, men perspire and women glow. It seems that it was those infinitely wise and never-knowingly-mistaken Victorians who came up with that old chestnut, in a handbook on etiquette, though that was no reason whatsoever to stop the boffins from having a bit of a poke around to find out if there was any truth in it at all and then calling what they were up to research. Horses keep their side of the bargain sure enough, seeing they don’t so much sweat as positively froth, in vast foaming crests of brightly dripping ooze, and from places you wouldn’t even think it was possible to have pores. Any racegoer worth their salt knows that. Especially if they’ve suffered the sublimely piquant misfortune of seeing the one that’s carrying their money arrive down at the start in just such a state, which then transforms it into the nearest thing you’ll ever get to a certainty in racing: it ain’t going to win. But don’t take our word for it. The boffins certainly didn’t. A bunch of scientists from Glasgow University decided that they were going to stick their noses into what was going on here and they made the startling discovery that the horse has developed a waterproof pelt for itself, which is handy enough for all that standing around in the rain they seem to do. Mind you, we do our own share of enduring the incessant precipitation ourselves and we never bothered with anything like that. Isn’t it flippin’ marvellous? Thousands of years of evolution and civilization, and what do we come up with to deal with it? The anorak. One up to the horse there, we’d’ve said. Though there is one decided downside to the whole waterproof hide caper, as the Scottish eggheads found out: it’s waterproof both ways, which tends to make the sweating business somewhat problematic, if can’t get out through the skin. But you can always rely on the horse to come up with a solution (if not always to run quite as fast as you’d ideally like it to in a final furlong situation) and what it hit on was having sweat that was protein-rich, one component of which acts like a surfactant, reducing the surface tension of water, rather in the way that detergent does. And, much like when you use washing-up liquid (or, indeed, listen to a Tory), what you end up with is a load of lathery froth, which explains why the horse sweats like it does. In a kind of does-what-it-says-on-the-tin way, this substance has been imaginatively christened by the boffins as … latherin. Humankind, by the bye, decided not to go down the protein-rich route and thought it would be a tad better all round if our sweat was mainly made up of salt, whilst most other mammals think the whole business over-rated and don’t go in for it at all.

That resolved the equine part of the Victorian-set poser at least, but what about the rest of it, the perspiring and glowing question? Well, you can always rely on scientific research to unenigmatise that little riddle for us one way or another, especially if it seems like there isn’t anything better to be getting on with just at the moment, which is precisely what a group of Japanese boffins set out to do on our behalf and not minding a jot what manner of armpit they’d be plunging themselves so deeply into, which is dashed decent of them, we must say. To cut a long story short, they gathered up an experiment’s worth of men and women various, put them in a room they’d heated to thirty degrees and then set them cycling for an hour. The results were decisive: men sweat almost twice as much as women under those conditions, though we had a pretty fair idea already that such might be the case, didn’t we? Though now it’s official, scientifically proven, no question about it anymore, eh lads? Oh, women will argue all that sciencey mumbo-jumbo about how they generally have less body-fluid than us chaps, so this is a cunning strategy they’ve developed to avoid dehydrating in sticky situations (such as cycling in overheated rooms, for one) but the fact of the matter, whether they like it or not, is that when it comes down to the art of sweating, we blokes are indisputably best. Fair makes you proud to be a man, don’t it? Plus, at long last, it finally gives us something else to go with reverse parking and reading a map. A touch sexist, perhaps, but such is what happens if you dabble in being perspicacious about perspiration …

Henry II of France: After François Clouet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Maximillian I (Hapsburg): Albrecht Dürer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Flagellation of Christ: Piero della Francesca [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lexus Perspex Car: By shopman [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Old London Bridge: By Claude de Jongh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Old London Bridge from Southwark, showing spiked heads over the gatehouse: By Angr [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen: Jan Steen (1625/1626–1679) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Foals at Worksop Manor: author
Johannes Kepler: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons