Friday, 29 January 2016

Word to the Wise

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


Aye-sop-tro-fo-bee-uh: Noun: fear of mirrors; the fear of seeing oneself in a mirror

Quite a ticklish one to get the old tongue around this time, and one that belongs in origin to our old friends the Ancient Greeks, rooted as it is in eis, meaning into, plus optikos, image or vision, and then, tacked on at the end, phobos, fear or panic, which we all recognise in phobia. Eggheads and boffins those Greeks may well have been but, when it came to mirrors, it seems they had more than their share of trouble in coping, so much so that they had another word for this particular fear also: catoprophobia, from katoptron, meaning mirror. Even those savage brutes, the Romans, despite their pronounced penchant for scourging, crucifying and the throwing of Christians to lions, came over a tad squeamish when it came to catching their own reflection in the quicksilver, their word for it being spectrophobia, from specere, to look at, spectrum and spectre being from the same root. But, whereas the Greeks’ eisoptrophobia is more fear of your own reflection, the Romans with their spectrophobia were afraid of the object itself: that something might leap out and get them; or that they might see something bad or evil reflected there; that they might be pulled into it; or that spirits from another world might be watching them through it. Honestly, what a bunch of big girls’ blouses the Ancient Romans really were. 

Pamela Anderson, the vegan, animal rights, anti-furtrade, Aids and PETA campaigner, is said to be the best known name amongst sufferers of eisoptrophobia, claiming that, “I have this phobia: I don't like mirrors. And I don't watch myself on television. If anything comes on, I make them shut it off.” (Great Scott! Perhaps we might have a touch of eisoptrophobia ourself, seeing we can never bear to watch her on television either). What a stroke of luck she didn’t come down with gymnophobia as well, or that would’ve been one promising career right down the Swannee before ever it got started. Just for the record, “down the Swannee” may (possibly) hark back to when slaves were “sold down the river”, meaning ending up in one of the more southerly states where conditions of captivity were far harsher than further north. For purists, it perhaps should actually be Suwannee, the valley and county (in Florida) both being of that spelling, though there is a suggestion (to be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt) that Suwannee itself developed from “San Juan-ee,” from when the Spanish Conquistadors were setting about their deplorable empire building activities and plundering all the silver they could lay their mitts on. Luckily enough, we had people like Drake and Raleigh hanging about the place, ready to relieve them of their ill-gotten gains.

More than likely, many of us have at least a little touch of the eisoptrophobic about us (and, yes, that is speaking personally), caring not for our own image, whether that be reflected in the unlying quicksilver; caught fleet and unsuspected in passing plate glass; or even in the unforgiving pixels of the casual snapshot. On the other hand, we all of us know at least one example of the polar opposite: the eisoptromaniac, those who would wear out the mirror with their ceaseless self-admiration; who, were they made of chocolate, would probably eat themselves. The narcissistic. Narcissus, of course, is the prime example of the eisoptromaniac, or so we’ve been led to believe, though it seems he may have simply had a bad press over the whole episode (this is Ancient Greek again so, antediluvian as Rupert Murdoch is, it all pre-dates any of his loathsome rags so we can’t blame him this time). However, there’s no getting away from the fact that he was haughtily proud (we’re back with Narcissus now, by the bye) and “disdained those who loved him” so Nemesis (she’s spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris, you’ll recall) gets the hump and lures him to a pool, where he sees his own reflection in the water and falls in love with it. The thing is, though, he doesn’t realise it’s his own image, so he stays there staring at it until he dies. Some versions have him committing suicide, others that he’s turned into a flower, probably that one that’s pretty much like a daffodil. Either way, still a complete dead loss.

Needless to say, our fascination with our own image goes back a very long way, the first mirrors being, rather like Narcissus’s, nothing more than pools of dark, still water. The earliest proper ones were fashioned out of polished stone, something like obsidian, which, as the geologists out there will tell you, is a naturally occurring volcanic glass, some of these dating back as far as 6000 BC. Metal-coated glass mirrors are said to have come in somewhere in the first century AD, while good old Pliny mentions versions backed with gold leaf in his Natural History of around 77 AD. The Romans also developed a technique for coating blown glass with molten lead to get by with, so perhaps they weren’t so in fear of their own image as was thought, though more than likely this was merely a result that came about by chance whilst they were dreaming up new and ever-more-hideous ways of cutting down on the Christian population. By about 500, the first silver-mercury amalgams were appearing, quicksilver, the work of the Chinese, but it had to wait until the early Renaissance in Europe for any sophistication to get itself involved. Venice, in particular, with its glass-making expertise, became a centre of mirror production, creating ones that would turn out to be extremely expensive luxuries. Which might be where the superstition arose that it means seven years’ bad luck to break one, though the first few minutes, in such a case, would probably be the worst. The secret of the quicksilver was a highly guarded one but we managed to get our hands on it in the end. Much the same way as we got all that Spanish silver. We nicked it.

What with all this high-class glass knocking about, and now stylish and sumptuous mirrors to go with it, this really gave the old brushpushers of the early Renaissance something challenging to get their teeth into. Not least, it gave them the opportunity to bang out a self-portrait whenever the fancy took them (and some of those blighters really were eisoptromaniacs when it came down to it). But give them any old shiny surface with myriad reflections and they’d be as happy as Larry. (Incidentally, this Larry might be Larry Foley (1847 - 1917), an Australian boxer who never lost a fight and retired aged thirty two. For his last bout he collected a purse of a thousand pounds, plus he was originally marked down to become a Catholic priest – that never happened – so two pretty convincing reasons why this Larry sort might’ve been so infuriatingly smug about his lot). Be that as it may, or not, what we’re up to here – as you may have suspected – is finding an excuse to unashamedly shoehorn into these columns that astounding masterpiece by Jan Van Eyck, the Arnolfini Portrait (or Wedding), which is just about the last word when it comes to painting mirrors.

The entire piece – dating from an amazingly early 1434 – is lavishly, exquisitely executed from top to dog, though it’s the mirror that concerns us here. Check out the roundels on the frame for a start off. These depict scenes from the Passion of Christ, possibly representing God’s promise of salvation for those reflected in the mirror itself. All the ones on the wife’s side are of the death and resurrection, while the old man’s side hogs all those from His life and works. A spotless mirror was also an established symbol of the Virgin Mary, a reference to her Immaculate Conception and purity. Though, if you notice, the curtains of their own marriage bed are open and ready to receive, once the painter finally gets through and they can indulge themselves in some good old nuptial activity of a highly un-Madonna like nature. Two other figures can be spotted lurking in the background, some suggesting that one may be Van Eyck himself, and others (more controversially) that they’re the requisite number of witnesses so that the whole thing is made legal. Which is also what some argue about the signature daubed on the wall – Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434 (Jan Van Eyck was here) – just above the mirror, that it makes the piece some kind of wedding certificate. Like much of the supposed symbolism allegedly contained within, there has been much tosh and hot air spouted about this incredible work.

Whilst we’re admiring the intricate and infinite detail of the painting, it’s worth remembering that the entire panel is just some eighty two centimetres by sixty (less than three feet high, for those still working in old money). The chandelier affair is a remarkably fine effort on its own, as is the dog (the only one whose gaze confronts the viewer) but they’re an odd looking pair, wouldn’t you say? Him, with his bulbous eyes and whacking great hooter, while she looks a regular misery who’s trying to swallow a persistent Toffo. Don’t be fooled, though: she’s not pregnant. For one thing she hasn’t got one of those infernally smug badges on that proudly proclaim “Baby On Board,” designed for seat-getting on crowded commutes (though female colleagues have informed us that these are a practical device for avoiding those cripplingly embarrassing situations in which one gallantly rises, only to discover that the condition is not post-coital but pure porkiness – so let’s not get too cynical about them, eh?) No, she’s actually being extremely fashionable, as is old man Giovanni in his dude’s threads and outrageous hattery and, as he’s a cloth merchant with cash on the hip, he wants this aspect of his personality to shine through. Jan Van Eyck was no stranger to outlandish foppery (nor to the eisoptromaniacal self-portrait), as witnessed by this bizarre number with turban. Actually, he’s no real looker himself, when you get down to it. We might even go so far as to say, “He’s no oil painting, is he?”

The word mirror itself comes from the Latin, mirare, to look at, this being a variant of mirari, to wonder at, from which comes admire. Miracle, too, comes out of the same stable and, to that, we can also tack on smile, which is also rooted there. All of which makes you wonder about the Ancient Romans, what with this close association between admiring themselves in the mirror and smiling at what a miracle they were witnessing thereby. Whereas our own Old English word for smile, smearcian, has been bumped down the pecking order rather, so that it’s turned into smirk with all its unpleasant sneering connotations. Even though that’s probably exactly what these blighters were doing all the while they were gazing at their own images in the quicksilver.

The mirror is deeply rooted in tradition, folklore and superstition, as we all know. One of the earliest encounters for each of us with the article in question, in all probability, was via the rhyme, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” from Snow White, of course, thereby instilling in young impressionable minds (in a fashion not unlike the fearsome Catholic inculcation of the dread of sin) that the things are to be treated with some caution. For a start off, we were being asked to believe that mirrors can talk, and that they can happily maintain robust opinions on matters of aesthetics (even judge beauty contests, at a push), and that they can see exactly what folk are getting up to when they’re not even in the room or anywhere within hailing distance for that matter. Small wonder, then, that we can so readily accept other absurdly implausible notions, such as: if a woman sits in a darkened room with only a candle for light (some stipulate Halloween as best for doing this), then eats an apple and brushes her hair, she will see the image of the man she’ll marry behind her shoulder. But woe betide the poor wretch who sees no such apparition, for all that awaits her is the loneliness of spinsterhood. (We strongly advocate giving any such practices a wide berth, which is the only sure way for you girls to avoid any such disappointments completely. Well, until you finally do meet your future husband, that is).

It was Perseus who first got mirroring to really work hard for him, when he had to do battle with the Gorgon, Medusa. She was the unlikely sort who had snakes for hair and who’d turn you to stone if you so much looked at her, if you recall. So Perseus polishes his shield up into a nice shine, then watches her reflection in that until he’s within a sword’s swing of her and can simply lop her head clean off, job done. Much like our artist friends of earlier, also fascinated by all things shiny and reflective were the occultists and astrologers, using such objects in their pursuit of knowledge through catopromancy and the art of scrying, in both of which the good old crystal ball plays a prominent role. Though a mirror would do just as well in a sticky situation. Even a boffin like Pythagoras, way back in the sixth century BC, wasn’t above a spot of catopromancy when the inclination took him and there was a full moon.

One of our very own in the scrying department was John Dee, court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, and he’s supposed to have sorted out when would be best for her coronation according to such methods (asking the mirror or, in his case, the obsidian). And he’s credited with prophesying the Powder Treason of 1605. Plus he amassed one of the largest libraries in England at that time. Oh, and first coined the term “British Empire”, just for good measure. And yet, despite all that, it turns out that he was pretty much your common-or-garden Elizabethan ninny in the end. Things first started to go a tad pear-shaped when he got himself entangled with a rascal called Edward Talbot, a fellow scryer, though his real name was Kelley, under which he’d been convicted of coining – and had his ears lopped for it, so the signs were there. Together, they formed a double act based around intense Christian piety (on Dee’s part anyhow, while Kelley remained a self-delusional cynic) and the pair really started going places, particularly with the royal houses of Europe, so the coin was soon flowing in faster than Kelley could clip it. Dee steadfastly maintained that Kelley was the bee’s knees at this astrology lark, and that he’d even had several books dictated to him by angels. If you believe that sort of tosh, then you’re really in trouble. As it chanced, Dee had a rather comely wife, nearly thirty years his junior, whereas Kelley was stuck with a run-of-the-mill old boiler of the sort that would go marrying a half-eared convicted forger, which didn’t seem quite right to the conman half of the partnership somehow. So Kelley tells Dee that the angels have ordered them to share all their possessions. Including the wives. Dee’s naturally reluctant but what could he do when the angels were insisting? So he complies. And nine months later Mrs Dee presents him with a sprog. Dee was one of Europe’s foremost scryers and the Queen of England’s personal astrologer, don’t forget. And yet he never saw any of this coming, did he?

Then there’s Nostradamus, of course, a name familiar to all, even though, come July 2, he will’ve been dead some four hundred and fifty years. His name was actually Michel de Nostredame – Mike to his mates – and, in 1550, he wrote an almanac (or year book), which did so well he decided to knock one out annually. Then he started work on the big one, a book of a thousand quatrains (or predictions, you might say) called Les Propheties, using astral and planetary alignments during past events to say that, when they lined up like that again, exactly the same would occur a second time. All the contemporary astrologers debunked his theory as ineffable twaddle and balderdash – well, they would do, wouldn’t they? Professional jealousy and all that. Only it turns out that, despite his unflagging fame and the fact that his works have never been out of print, not a single one of his predictions has turned out to be worth the parchment they’re written on. Mainly because they’re all wrapped up in obscurity so that they could be applied to anything. And often are. You know the type of thing: a dark interloper will appear bearing an unwelcome message – which may only mean that next door’s moggy has found out you’ve just been digging a fresh strip of garden.

But the seer we’ve really got to take our hats off to (almost literally) is Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint movement (the Mormons), who gained all his “miraculous information” from, well, from three stones. He even had a favourite one, a brown one he half-inched from a neighbour’s well (the man next door probably didn’t realise it could tell the future) and he put these stones to good use by hunting for treasure with them. All he had to do was put the stone into his hat and then plunge his face in after it and he’d see prophetic images reflected therein. Or maybe he just got high on sweaty Brylcreem fumes? Yes, well we might mock such bizarre behaviour but, if we ourselves had only shoved our own faces into our hats, perhaps we too might have come up with a radical idea on which to base a whole new religion. Then maybe we too might’ve known what it was like to have a smash hit West End musical on our hands …


Socrates, his Wives and Alcibiades: Reyer Jacobsz. van Blommendael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pinocchio by Enrico Mazzanti (first illustrator of Pinocchio): By Enrico Mazzanti (1852-1910) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pamela Anderson: By Photographer's Mate Airman Aaron Burden, USN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Narcissus: Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Crucifixion of St Peter painted by Caravaggio: By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Arnolfini Portrait: Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Arnolfini Portrait detail (mirror): Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of a Man in a Turban (Jan van Eyck): Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Queen Consults the Mirror: Franz Jüttner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse (1902): John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth : By Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nostradamus, portrayed by his son: César de Nostredame [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Friday, 22 January 2016

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

George Bryan Brummell (7 June 1778 – 30 March 1840)

This is, of course, the iconic Regency dandy better known as Beau Brummell, and the very fellow we chaps owe our deepest gratitude to for introducing that ever-present staple of our wardrobes over the past two hundred years: the trouser. Where would we be without the trouser, one wonders? More than likely, still in knee breeches and stockings, and we really wouldn’t want that, now would we? After all, if such were the case, then the situation would very much be reversed and we’d then find it was our own shapely calves under the close critical scrutiny of some sharp feminine eye instead, and there is nothing quite so dispiriting than to discover that the general opinion of womankind is united in the insistence that, “his legs aren’t very much to write home about, are they?” No indeed, so we have much to thank him for, despite the ludic epithet, though you can see why he’d’ve wanted to change it. He could hardly have gone with George when, all the while he was shinning up the greasy pole, he was mates with the Prince Regent (later George IV) because two Georges on the scene would’ve been far too confusing but, equally, it would’ve been a mighty tough call to have attempted to write his name into the pages of History if all he’s got left otherwise is Bryan. Somehow Bryan Brummell just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

As it goes, by the time Bryan arrived on the scene, much of the shinning had already been undertaken, seeing his paternal grandfather, William, had come from very humble origins, being a mere valet, though he was employed by Charles Monson (Deputy Paymaster of the Forces) and was, by all accounts “a very excellent servant.” (Meaning toady, probably). He did so well for himself that, by 1748, he was married and had a house on Jermyn Street, the family living downstairs and the apartments above being let out. To all this he added two sons, including our man’s pater, who was christened, with astounding inventiveness, William – it seems that the Brummells were about as creative as the House of Hanover when it came to the naming game – but known as “Billy.” As luck would have it, Charles Jenkinson, MP, popped in to stay upstairs for a spell and took rather a shine to young Billy, spiriting him away to be his clerk while he was busy being Joint Secretary to the Treasury, a post that would eventually be taken over by Lord North in 1767, who was equally as glowing about the lad, making him his private secretary and keeping him on when he went on to become Prime Minister (well, First Lord of the Treasury actually, seeing that “Prime Minister” was a term of abuse back then). Alas, however, Lord North was rather more gifted at pole-climbing than he was at being on top of it, achieving very little at all but managing to lose America while he was about it. 

Despite Lord North having displayed all the staggering ineptitude that we’ve come to associate with a typical premiership (especially nowadays), young Billy went on to do rather well for himself, receiving several lucrative appointments and then, when it came to the bridal stakes, having snout enough to rummage round for some decent cash to marry, in the form of Mary Richardson, daughter of the Keeper of the Lottery Office – no doubt he took one look at her and thought to himself, “It could be you.” And it was. Before anyone could say, “Keep your eyes on that Billy Boy – he’s going places,” he’d gone places, including a pad in Hampton Court Palace and a country retreat in Berkshire, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Charles James Fox, Richard Sheridan and Sir Joshua Reynolds. To round things off nicely, he produced (well, got his wife to, anyway) a pair of sons, exhausting his personal stock of boys’ names on the eldest, William, so that he was then obliged to hunt round for an alternative for his second, somehow coming up with the obsequiously sycophantic George (name of every English King that century, even if they were all undeniably German) and then plucking Bryan from somewhere right out of the blue. So, thanks to the fact that Billy was then fawner-in-chief to one of Britain’s most uninspiring Prime Ministers, our man got the headstart of being born at 10 Downing Street, making him already a member of a very select club indeed. All this hobnobbing explains how the young Brummell boys came to be captured in oils by Reynolds, though not how Sir Josh made such an utter pig’s ear of the task.

Being as Number Ten was where our man first donned raimentry, let’s tarry there a moment, shall we? A bit like a Prime Minister, in fact. Though without all the pompous arrogance and the We-Know-Best condescension, of course. This desirable residence actually started life as three separate houses: a mansion looking out over St. James's Park (known as “the House at the Back,” occupied for many a year by Thomas Knevett, Keeper of Whitehall Palace, whose sole claim to fame is that of capturing Guido Fawkes in 1605, though hardly an astounding feat of detection, seeing Fawkes happened to be conveniently standing right next to thirty six barrels of gunpowder at the time); a townhouse behind it (which actually was at the back); and a cottage. When the mansion fell vacant in 1732, George II offered all three to Walpole (for “services to the nation” – basically services to Walpole) but he only accepted on condition it would be for the use of the First Lord, rather than his personal property. He knew what he was doing all right. The street had been erected by Sir George Downing between 1682 and 1684 who, whilst he got Sir Christopher Wren to do the design part, did everything else as cheaply and shoddily as possible, thereby setting the standard for our construction industry ever after. Downing slung them up quickly on soft soil with shallow foundations, the facades having lines painted on them to look like mortar. Quite understandably, he never lived in his own houses. For the next three hundred years it was in a state of almost constant repair, so much so that First Lords aplenty refused to live there, with only sixteen of them taking up residence until 1902. These included Walpole, of course, and Lord North, making it pure chance that our man was born there at all. By 1958, the place was described as being full of dry rot, though that’s probably down to the fact that Harold Macmillan was then in power.

Back to Brummelling, dad Billy was always avariciously ambitious and, naturally enough, wanted his sons to turn out the same way so, quick as you like, he packed them both off to Eton. Nothing is known of how young Bryan did at his schooling but he did make a start on his sartorial career by modernising the trademark Eton cravat. And then adding a gold buckle to it. Why a cravat might need a gold buckle at all is a moot point but, rather than dubbing him Bling Brummell, they nicknamed him Buck. Then it was on to Oriel College, Oxford where, in 1793, having achieved little else except “making cotton stockings a thing of the past,” he left after only a year. This was mostly down to old man Billy pegging it in 1794 and leaving his fortune to be divided between all three children (there was a sister too), rather than all to the eldest son. In order to get cracking right away on spending so vast a sum (at least five million today), Bryan told his dad’s executors to secure him a commission in the Army, something swanky, say the Hussars.

And thus it was that he ended up as a cornet (that’s your lowest commissioned rank) in the Royal Hussars, with the Prince of Wales (that’s George, the Prince Regent) as their top bod. Apart from getting his nose broken by a horse, things went pretty swimmingly for our Bryan and, having caught the Regent’s eye and “fascinated” him, he quickly clambered up the ranks to lieutenant, then captain, though (thanks largely to his Royal patronage) he didn’t do much actual soldiering, being allowed to miss parades, shirk duties and pretty much carry on as he fancied. Which basically involved looking as elegant as was possible in the uniform, of which the Hussars had an infinite variety. The eye-watering cost of was them borne by the officers themselves, as were the colossal mess bills, seeing they never stinted on banquets and entertainments, and were known to be disorderly, drunken and immoral. Which rather suited our man, as it goes. In fact, such a reprobate was he that he ended up copping the blame from Princess Caroline of Brunswick (that’d be Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel – hardly what you’d call a looker and a tad whiffy too, by all accounts) for ruining her honeymoon, Prinny being drunk at the ceremony – our man was supposed to be keeping him out of bother – and passing out in the hearth on his wedding night. All in all, however, this Army lark was proving to be damnedly draining on the old wallet and so, when the regiment was ordered to Manchester, Bryan understandably thought enough’s enough and sold out his commission, excusing himself to the Right Royal Fatso on the grounds that he couldn’t possibly leave the Prince. Not when he needed to cling to the Regent and his set a while longer so he could launch his career in elegance al mufti.

By the time Bryan hit Civvy Street, Pitt was First Lording it (that’s Pitt the Younger, the Income Tax bod) and, in 1795, because he was fanatically keen on giving the French a good licking, he deemed the best way to do this was by taxing hair powder (it contained flour when harvests were bad), which pretty much put an end to wig-wearing, except amongst the hidebound and their servants (and the legal profession, of course, who still can’t shake the habit). Our man had already abandoned them by that stage, plumping instead for hair cut in the Roman fashion – à la Brutus, as it was known – all brushed forward, plenty on top and a fine set of bushy sideys to set it off. He also pioneered the shift towards “snugly tailored” pantaloons and went in for an understated elegance of style, compared to the brash outfits that Georgian blokes tended to favour. The daily routine for Bryan, and most aristocratic young gentlemen, involved making one's toilette and shopping before lunch, riding out or hitting a club after, followed by the theatre and a spot of gambling, finishing up with a party or a stew. In other words, they frittered away their days being idle parasitic loafers – or “aristocrats”, as we call them – who never got around to doing a single stroke. Well, not before stewtime, anyhow.

In 1799, Bryan moved into fashionable Chesterfield Street, with the sole ambition of becoming the best dressed gentleman in London, patronising various tailors to ensure none of them could nick the credit for making him famous. When asked how much it might cost to keep a chap in decent togs, he replied, “Why, with tolerable economy, I think it might be done with £800.” That’s over a hundred grand today – the average wage then was a pound a week. But (amazingly) he was renowned for his laconic wit , though this mostly seems to involve acerbic sneering of some kind, as in the case of the Duke of Bedford, who solicited our man’s opinion on his new jacket. Bryan turned him round and about, scrutinising him with a contemptuous eye and then declared, in a tone of dismayed wonder, “Bedford, do you call this thing a coat?” Told you he was a wit. He was also extremely fastidious when it came to getting up of a morning (well, we say morning, but he “liked the day to be well aired” before he’d enter it), supposedly taking five hours to get washed, shaved and dressed before he was ready to face the world, something that mightily impressed the ton, who then went in for doing exactly the same thing or else attending his levees to witness him going through the whole drawn-out palaver. Which included the enthralled Prince of Wales amongst their numbers. Bit odd, really, blokes going round to watch another bloke pulling on his pantaloons, but we’ll draw a veil over that one for now. By 1800, he had become Beau Brummell.

The ton, by the bye, is a French word (so you don’t pronounce the N) and comes from the phrase le bon ton, meaning good manners or high style, and generally referred to the uppermost ten thousand members of society (supposedly, though as it included bankers amongst them, you’ve got to wonder at the criteria for getting in – mind you, if the definition was someone with too much cash but not the faintest idea of what hard work might be, we can see their point). This bunch of philanderers and wastrels turned out to be a thoroughly bad influence on Beau and, despite lacking a fortune to match theirs, he was soon spending and gambling like there was no later on this afternoon, never mind tomorrow, quickly discovering that his wallet wasn’t quite so plump as once it had been. Though he was still the main man when it came to social standing, so he was able to get by – for now – on credit. Meanwhile, Prince George couldn’t help but notice that his more dashing and better-looking (by far) chum was hogging all the limelight, which piqued him rather, especially as he was King-in-Waiting, so their friendship began to cool. Not helped by the fact that his dad, George III, finally flew off with the cuckoos in 1811, leaving his heir to take up his second Regency and his advisors to whisper in the Right Royal shell-like a spot of judicial admonition along the lines of, “better ditch the impecunious walking clothes-horse, if you ever want to get the crown on your bonce, old boy.” Given the choice between being monarch or watching some jumped-up valet’s grandson putting his kit on, it was pretty much a no-brainer for George. Which was lucky, seeing he was pretty much a no-brainer too.

Come July 1813 and matters turned as ugly as they could, given the foppish mannered elegance society was ruled by then. Down at Watier’s (the Dandy Club, as Byron dubbed it), Beau was hosting a ball with mates Lord Alvanley, Henry Mildmay and Henry Pierrepoint when who should turn up but the Prince of Whales, who greeted Alvanley and Pierrepoint cordially enough but then stared Brummell and Alvanley hard in the face without ever saying a dickie bird. In other words, cut them dead. Naturally, a chap like our Beau wasn’t going to stand for any of that, so he coolly turned to his fellow insultee and inquired, “Alvanley, who's your fat friend?” Well, that did it. All friendship ceases, as the phrase goes. But, even though Brummell had more or less forced society to choose between him and the Regent, he still managed to retain loyalty and approval where it mattered.

Alas, however, his spectacular rise was followed by an inevitable crash and, with creditors pounding at his door, he was eventually forced to flee in order to escape debtors’ prison. On 18 May 1816, he hotfooted it away to Calais, but he was already seriously ill. He still managed to get by (mostly by not paying) but money continued to be a constant problem and, by 1818, rumours were rife that he’d been offered five grand to pen his memoirs. And that the Prince of Wales had offered him six not to. Once George had finally got his prodigious royal backside parked on the throne, his attitude towards his erstwhile chum softened a tad and (around 1826) he made our man British Consul in Caen, which at least enabled him to start paying off some of his debts. There, he lodged with one Madame de St Ursain and promptly fell for her teenage daughter, the gloriously christened Aimable (which means “lovable,” don’t it, thus making the would-be pair Beautiful & Lovable?). Sadly, his luck was still out with the tide and the mother discovered his letters to the girl, kicking him unceremoniously out and packing her off to England.

Still as strapped for cash as ever, and with the hope of getting a higher-paid position instead, he wrote to Lord Palmerston along the lines of, “this here consulship isn’t really needed and, anyhow, something of a somewhat superior (and more lucrative) nature would suit one far better.” Amazingly enough, HM Government agreed. Well, they half did, writing back to inform him that they’d scrapped his job and would stop paying him at the end of May. He ended up hiding from the bailiffs, with supreme irony, in a wardrobe. His own attire became increasingly slovenly and, in May 1835, he found himself banged up in debtors’ prison until late July, when he was awarded compensation for having been sacked. But the glory days were over, never to return, and illness had now strengthened its grip on him, leaving him in pain, delusional and depressed. The end was in sight.

For someone called Beau, he never had a recognised “significant other.” He flirted outrageously but his friendships with women never progressed beyond that, though one of his last remaining possessions was a miniature of the left eye of Frederica, Duchess of York (wife of George IV’s brother), suggesting a strong attachment, though the intimacy of it will never be known. His preference, in that respect, was ever for the all-stew diet. Indeed, on observing that he had taken no vegetables with his dinner, one lady asked him whether he ever ate any. “Yes, madam,” he replied, “I once ate a pea.” Alas, it was his liking for stews that would do for him, providing the dose of what Shakespeare called Neapolitan Bone Ache (Troilus and Cressida), which led to his insanity and, finally, to his incarceration in Le Bon Sauveur Asylum, where he died on 30 March 1840.

Back home in England, his death went virtually unnoticed …

Now, more stew, anyone?


Beau Brummell: [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lord North: Nathaniel Dance-Holland [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of the Brummell Children: [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sir George Downing: By Thomas Smith (d. 1691, active 1670s–1680s) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester in Eton dress in 1914: By Bain News Service, publisher. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Caroline of Brunswick: James Lonsdale [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Prince of Whales: James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dandys: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Watier’s, the Dandy Club: Richard Dighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse by Rembrandt van Rijn, circa 1665–67: Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

EndNote workshop - Sat Jan 30th

Our first day of Saturday workshops for this term is coming up next week - on Jan 30th.

The third workshop of the day is "Managing your references using EndNote". This workshop is an introduction to EndNote, reference management software that helps you collect, store and manage your references and cite them correctly in your documents.

Book your place on this workshop or any of the others at

Book display for Burns Night

Burns Night will soon be upon us (Mon 25th) and our latest book display on Level 1 of the Library showcases all things Scottish in celebration.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Workshop on Improving Your Search Skills

Our first day of Saturday workshops for this term is coming up soon - on Jan 30th.

The second workshop of the day is "Improving Your Search Skills". This workshop will help you to get the best out of your searches on Library catalogues, databases and the web and find relevant information for your essay, assignment or research.

Can't make Jan 30th? Don't worry, we're repeating this one on Feb 27th.

See the full programme and book your place on this workshop or any of the others at

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Workshop on "Finding information for your essays and assignments"

Our first day of Saturday workshops for this term is coming up on Jan 30th.

The first workshop of the day is "Finding information for your essays and assignments". This workshop will help you to find books, articles, etc. on a particular topic by showing you how to search the Library catalogue and our new Discover article search service by subject.

Can't make Jan 30th? Don't worry, we're repeating this one on Feb 27th.

Book your place on this workshop or any of the others at

Friday, 15 January 2016

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

January 15

This day back in 69 was a pretty good one, if you happened to be Marcus Salvius Otho Caesar Augustus, that is, seeing he got to be Emperor of Rome then. Though, given his staggering propensity for making the most stupendous blunders, instead of hailing him as Caesar Imperator, maybe they should simply have called him the Gaffer. His rise to eventual power all began when he started cosying up to the then top bod, who just happened to be a bloke called Nero. Which was probably his first mistake. Seeing that Nero was the sort of chap who often took the joke that little bit too far. By murdering his mother, for one. And his step-brother, Britannicus, for another. Oh, and when the light was getting a tad murky out in the garden of an evening, by having Christians dipped in oil and set on fire, so he could see what he was doing (which was butchering Christians mainly). Not forgetting also the fact that he married a young castrated boy called Sporus. Which was utterly outrageous, seeing he was already married, to a woman called Statilia Messalina. And a bloke called Pythagoras, as it goes (though not the maths boffin). He does all that, mind, plus throws in the upside-down crucifixion of Peter the Apostle and the beheading of Paul, and yet what is it that everyone first thinks of on hearing the name Nero? That he’s the blighter that “fiddled while Rome burned.” Rome did indeed have a great fire during the year 64 but, rather inconveniently, the fiddle wasn’t actually invented until the tenth century. So you can’t believe everything you read, can you? Also, while we’re on the subject, nobody ever mentions the fact that Nero came away with prizes from the Olympic Games of 67, in the chariot-racing and acting competitions (separate events, in case you’re wondering). Not that he actually won, mind, though that doesn’t really matter much, not if you’re an Emperor with his reputation and there just happens to be a large vat of dipping oil standing by ready, to ease the judges towards the right decision.

At first, Otho’s luck was very much on the up, as he manages to pull himself an absolute stunner in the bridal stakes, in the shapely form of Poppaea Sabina, though he’s barely got her back down the aisle when matters take a decided turn for the worse. Before he even knows where he is, she’s giving him all kinds of earache and grief about introducing her to that strapping, manly and better-looking mate of his: Nero. Come on, lads, even if the old ball and chain has got a tongue on her that could strip the varnish off a gatepost, which of us is actually going to take a chance like that? Well, it’d be asking for trouble, wouldn’t it? Cue blunder number two, as Otho settles for the quiet life by doing as he’s told and, before you can say “you’re your own worst enemy, Otho,” she’s in Nero’s bed and he finds himself banished to remote Lusitania (Spain, basically). Little Poppet does get her comeuppance in the end, however, when Nero (allegedly) kicks her to death while she’s pregnant with their child, though you could just as easily believe he beat her to death with his violin, couldn’t you? At least it leaves Nero free to marry his second wife. And his young castrato. And that bloke Pythagoras too. So it all works out all right in the end.

Except that things go pear-shaped for Nero at that point, when Otho’s neighbour and mate, Galba, revolts against the Emperor, so the understandably still-highly miffed Otho decides he’ll tag along and see how things work out. Besides which, not only had he spotted that Galba was banging on in years and childless (so he’d be needing an heir if he became Emperor, wouldn’t he?), but the astrologers had been filling Otho’s head with all kinds of baloney about how “we predict a glittering future for you, young man,” and generally egging him on. Unhappily, astrologers then were about as reliable as they are today and, almost at once, Galba named somebody else to take over instead, which is rather a bodyblow to our man, as it goes, so he resolves to take matters into his own hands. Strapped as he is for cash, he still manages to enlist the help of the ever-fickle Praetorian Guard (Galba hadn’t bothered to pay them) and, on 15 January 69, they all yomp over to the Forum and put Galba and his successor out of business, leaving Otho to take his place. Just for good measure, and to finally get to thumb his nose at Nero, he takes the young boy, Sporus, to be his own intimate lover. All sorted.

Except. (You knew there was an except coming, didn’t you?) Except that this just happened to be Year of the Four Emperors, with our man being only number two and it’s still only January. The signs weren’t looking any too good for Otho, were they? To cap it all, some commander called Vitellius over in Germany has decided that the current Emperor isn’t really up to the mark and that Rome could do worse than get itself a new one instead. Say Vitellius, for instance. So he starts stirring up rebellion and, before anyone knows what’s what, he and his cohorts are bearing down on Italy, which pleaseth Otho not one bit. Despite the warnings of omens and prophecies – “things aren’t looking all that clever for you, Otho, old lad” – and the fact that it’s now 14 March (Ides of March Eve), our man does what he always does in such a sticky situation: blunders his way into an even stickier one. His experienced officers urge patience – “whatever you do, don’t get drawn into battle” – at which Otho promptly gets drawn into battle. And gets pasted. Still, Vitellius was never a one for bearing a grudge and is perfectly willing to call the whole thing a draw and let’s all be mates, why don’t we (so long as he still gets to be Emperor, of course). Naturally enough, a sensible compromise isn’t quite good enough for our Otho, not when he can gaffe his way out of it, it’s not. So he slips away to his tent and stabs himself in the heart with a dagger. To prevent his country descending into civil war and because “it is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one.” Even this last wish goes typically belly-up when some of his soldiers are so impressed that he’s finally done the decent thing (especially for an ex-drinking buddy of a fiend like Nero) that they honour the occasion by flinging themselves on his funeral pyre, many perishing for one after all.

As for Vitellius, he made it all the way through to 22 December and must’ve been thinking how “this Year of the Three Emperors didn’t turn out so badly after all” when they had him executed. And in came Number Four, Vespasian, who actually made rather a better fist of clinging onto power, right up until the year 79. As you know, not every Roman Emperor came to a sticky end. Alas, however, Vespasian did. He died of a horrible case of the runs … 

A pretty good day for the Tudors, this one, especially in the power-grabbing stakes. 15 January 1535 saw Henry VIII declaring himself head of the Church in England and thus permanently relegating God into a minor clerical role within the Protestant hierarchy, though the “Defender of the Faith” (they still put that on the coins here, even now – FD: fidei defensor) mainly wanted to use the role to get round an obstreperous Pope, who was inconveniently refusing to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, even though the Bible (Leviticus 20:21) clearly says “If a man marries his brother's wife, it is an act of impurity.” She’d originally been married to his brother, Arthur (who died), of course. Back then, Slippery Hal had the hots for Catherine and had again used the Bible (Deuteronomy 25:5 this time) to justify, even dutify, his marrying her: “Her [dead] husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife.” Now, with Catherine going to seed and Anne Boleyn flitting seductively about the place, he wanted out. Which sounds very much like a case of “having your Kate and beating it.” Twenty four years to the day later (1559) would see Elizabeth I being crowned as Queen but, by 24 March 1603, the Tudors would be no more. In all, they’d lasted just about as long as the Hundred Years’ War.

We now come to 15 January 1759 and, at long last, some warm and comfy academia to snuggle into where, for a short while, we should be free of blunderers and buffoons, rogues and rapscallions, because this was when the British Museum first threw open its doors to the public. It had been established in 1753 and was largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane (Sloane Square is named for him, as is Hans Crescent, the sign for that being fixed to one side of Harrods). Having rejected Buckingham House (now Palace) as a site for the Museum, on the grounds of “cost and location,” the far-sighted trustees plumped instead for crumbling Montagu House, even though Bloomsbury’s aristocratic heyday was already in decline, paying the Duke of Montagu (who was desperate to relocate to somewhere chicer) some £20,000 for it. Buckingham House, incidentally, eventually got sold to George III for £21,000 in 1761 but you wouldn’t want to be stuck all the way out there, now would you? 

As it goes, Montagu House at that time actually backed onto open fields, and not just any old fields at that. No, these were the Long Fields, or the Field of the Forty Footsteps, as they were also known, and regularly frequented by duellists wishing to settle their disputes. The traditional story has it that the area bore the prints of forty footsteps – hence the name – where no grass would grow, this being because two brothers, during the Monmouth Rebellion, took opposing sides and so decided to resolve matters in the only sensible way: by shooting each other stone dead. Another version has it that they were actually fighting over the hand (and, presumably, the rest) of a lady, who calmly (and callously) sat on a bank and watched the slaughter from there, giving the distinct impression that, if she were the prize, both brothers got mighty lucky in the end. But that’s the sort of neighbourhood the trustees decided to opt for. 

What with us British being keen as kippers on expanding the old “colonial footprint,” artefacts were soon flooding in from all over the globe, swelling the collections alarmingly. In 1757, George II had already donated the Old Royal Library (about nine thousand books and two thousand manuscripts), along with the right to a copy of every book published in the country so, what with Sloane’s forty thousand books and seven thousand manuscripts, and then George III “presenting” the Rosetta Stone, they were soon pushed for space. So they had to ship stuff out to Kensington’s new Natural History Museum (built on the profits from the Great Exhibition) and, eventually, the books had to go too, off to the Euston Road and the British Library in 1997. The collections now number some eight million pieces. And counting …

Naturally enough, being colonials, most of the objects were acquired in the traditional Empire-building way: that of helping ourselves. At gunpoint, if needs be. Now we find that, astoundingly, some of the original owners are demanding the restitution of their former property, including some of “our” most famous (infamous?) pieces, which is sheer brass-faced cheek really, given that they couldn’t hang on to them in the first place and seeing we also let these folk be part of the Empire, whether they wanted to be or not. Not least among these are the Elgin Marbles. Which are marble but weren’t ever really Elgin’s. This was Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, a Scottish nobleman and diplomat, plus a charlatan of the first water. In the summer of 1800, he headed off to Athens with a team of artists and modellers to make drawings of the ancient monuments there but, somewhere along the way, he got his mitts on a firman (some kind of decree or other) which, if you translated it broadly enough – and here we can reliably translate “translate broadly” broadly as meaning “saying stuff it doesn’t actually say” – allowed the noble lord to not only put up scaffolding to make mouldings in plaster of the sculpted figures but also to “'to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon.” To be fair to Brucie, it was actually his chaplain, Philip Hunt, who did the creative translation but, even so, well handy to have a bent vicar batting for your side at a time like that. Mind you, the bribing of the Ottoman authorities was all down to him, and they let him take whatever tickled his fancy in the way of “old inscriptions and figures” – the chaplain probably thought they were merely tidying the place up – and ship these antiquities off to decorate his mansion in Scotland. Alas, however, he was to fall on hard times and, in 1816, was forced to sell them to the nation for £35,000. And we’ve got a receipt to show we bought them fair and square, which pretty much settles that little dispute, we’d’ve said. Plus, just for good measure, Parliament completely vindicated Elgin’s entire conduct in the affair. So hands off.

Moving on to 1797, we come to one of the most dastardly deeds of despicable devilry ever perpetrated by the hand of man on an English street. Urban terrorism, you might even call it. And the blackguard at the very heart of it all was one John Hetherington, describing himself as a “haberdasher”, who was arraigned before the Lord Mayor on 15 January on a charge of breach of the peace and inciting a riot. This scurrilous and malicious reprobate had had the brass-necked temerity to have “appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat” – this being a top hat and he often ascribed as its inventor – “which was of a shiny lustre and calculated to frighten timid people.” The unmitigated scoundrel! Furthermore, officers stated that, “several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas was thrown down by the crowd which collected and had his right arm broken.” And, would you credit it, this villain never showed even the faintest sign of remorse over any of it.

That’s more than likely because it never actually happened. Sadly, such is the case herein, despite the fact that this tall tale is still doing the rounds amongst the credulous even now and is likely to pop up if you search online for “the first top hat.” Like we said, you can’t believe all you read. Evidence against includes the suspicious circumstance that, exactly as with Alfred the Great and his burning of the cakes, or bread (well, some alleged bakery product anyway), the story never even put in an appearance until a century after the supposed event and, even then, this one was bandied about by a publication known as “The Hatter’s Gazette,” a bunch of folk who were all as mad as March hares and who quite possibly had a vested interest also. (On grounds of strict fairness, March hares only behave eccentrically and merely temporarily, whereas your hatters did go raving bonkers, thanks to the mercury they used in curing felt – so we should really include all industrial felt producers within our damnation: “Mad as an industrial felt worker” – hope that’s set the record straight and we don’t get any complaints from our hare readership. After all, you know what a punch those perishers can pack come springtime, don’t you?)

In actual fact, it’s a hatter from Middlesex, one George Dunnage, who takes the credit for inventing the top hat in 1793. But, alas, yet again, this is simply another tale told by an idiot, containing no truth in it whatsoever – rather like your average copy of the Daily Mail – other than that he got himself involved by patenting the thing, so don’t let them pull the hat over your eyes. For all our efforts to claim this sartorial piece of headgear as an English innovation, the French had had a hat called a Capotain since the 1590s, not precisely a top hat as such, more the sort of titfer sported by the Pilgrim Fathers and the Powder Treason plotters. The Parisians did finally have the real thing by the 1780s, which was a stroke of luck, coming as it did just in time for the Reign of Terror, meaning that the doomed aristos were at least able to ride the tumbrels in a state of elegance and style befitting their station. And to make one last use of the old cranium, while they still had one. Let’s face it, they hadn’t used it for very much else all the while they’d been lording it over the peasantry, had they?

Finally, bearing in mind all we’ve been saying about not believing everything you read, we now come to 15 January 2001 and an auspicious occasion indeed. For this was the day that Wikipedia was launched upon an unsuspecting world. And thus it was that the Information Superhighway at last got what was basically a hard shoulder where all the breakdowns could be abandoned. Or, to put it another way, it gained an online equivalent of South Mimms Service Station

To be fair, you can use it to look up what cordwainers are. Only it turns out that’s cobblers too …


Nero’s Torches: Henryk Siemiradzki [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Galba: By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Otho: Robert van Voerst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vitellius: See page for author [CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Catherine of Aragon (“A Princess, Possibly Catherine of Aragon”): Michael Sittow (circa 1469-1525) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hans Sloane: By Stephencdickson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Montagu House: Wikimedia Commons

George III: Johann Zoffany [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin: Anton Graff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cordwainer: By Alma Boyes photo : Oxyman (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

March Hare: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gunpowder Plotters: By Crispijn van de Passe the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Spring Term Saturday workshops

Come along to a Saturday workshop and learn to make the most of the Library's resources and services. Here's our Spring Term programme:

30th January and repeated 27th February 11.30am - 1.00pm
Finding information for your essays and assignments.
Find books, articles, etc. on a particular topic. Learn to search the Library catalogue and our new Discover article search service by subject. Book Now

30th January and repeated 27th February 2.00 - 3.30pm
Improving your search skills.
How to carry out a literature search and tips for better searching.
Book Now

30th January 3.30 - 5.00pm
Managing your references using EndNote.
An introduction to using EndNote to manage your references and insert them into your documents correctly. Book Now

27th February. 3.30 - 5.00pm
Managing your references using Mendeley.
An introduction to using Mendeley to manage your references and insert them into your documents correctly. Please bring a USB memory stick to the session with at least 1GB of memory free.
Book Now