Tag Archives: history

Elephants and Rhinoceroses

Albrecht Durer’s Rhinoceros

How sad that the plural of rhinoceros isn’t rhinoceri. But actually that’s rather beside the point as in this post I wanted to discuss an amusing number of the Spectator that I read today. I’m reading my way through the 555 numbers of the original early-eighteenth-century Spectator essays for my Masters research.

Today I reached no. 50, in which Mr Spectator presents some reflections on England and it’s people supposedly written by a native American chief during his visit to England. A footnote in my edition, edited by Donald F Bond, helpfully provides the following details:

“In April 1710 four Iroquois sachems, or ‘Kings’, had visited London, accompanied by Col. Peter Schulyer and other colonial leaders, in order to solicit aid from the home government for military operations against the French in Canada. They had an audience of Queen Anne on 19 April, and were taken to see the principle sights of London.”

In Spectator 50 Mr S, as I like to call him, suggests that he was so intrigued by these visitors that he made enquiries of their London landlord after their departure. As a result he got hold of some papers that, once translated, proved to contain “an abundance of very odd Observations”. Mr S then proceeds to quote at length from these papers and so we hear King Sa Ga Yean Qua Rash Tow’s opinion of all things English.

These start rather predictably with his awe at St Paul’s Cathedral and his thoroughly incongruous suggestion that it must have been hewn out of the landscape in one piece.

Moving on from St Paul’s things get a bit more fun. On the topic of English fashion Sa Ga Yean comments as follows:

“The Men of the Country are very cunning … but withal so very idle, that we often saw young lusty raw-boned Fellows carried up and down the Streets in little covered Rooms by a Couple of Porters … Their dress is likewise very barbarous, for they almost strangle themselves about the Neck, and bind their Bodies with many Ligatures … Instead of those beautiful Feathers with which we adorn our Heads, they often buy up a monstrous Bush of Hair, which covers their Heads and falls down in a large Fleece below the middle of their Backs; with which they walk up and down the Streets, and are as proud of it as if it were their own Growth.”

Faced with the feminine fashion for applying false beauty spots, Sa Ga Yean suggests that English women

“would be more beautiful than the Sun, were it not for the little black Spots that are apt to break out in their faces” and finds that when these blemishes “disappear in one Part of the Face, they are very apt to break out in another”.

My favourite part of the observations though is the one that gives away the fact that these papers are forgeries of the Spectator author. Sa Ga Yean describes the fact that the two guides who have been assisting the kings are “great Enemies to one another”. One guide warns them against “a monstrous Kind of Animals, in the Shape of Men, called Whigs”, while the other warns them of a similar monster “called a Tory”. This picture of England’s political divide is completed with the observation that “These two Creatures, it seems, are born with a secret Antipathy to one another, and engage when they meet as naturally as the Elephant and the Rhinoceros.”

Now I’m no zoologist, but I’m fairly sure that elephants and rhinos aren’t native to North America and Canada.

Anyway I thought I’d put some notes about this Spectator paper up here as it probably isn’t going to be relevant to my MA thesis.

I’d like to close with Mr S’s very poignant, and still very relevant, conclusion:

“I cannot however conclude this Paper without taking Notice, That amidst these wild Remarks there now and then appears something very reasonable. I cannot likewise forbear observing, That we are all guilty in some Measure of the same narrow Way of Thinking which we meet with in this Abstract of the Indian Journal; when we fancy the Customs, Dresses and Manners of other Countries are ridiculous and extravagant, if they do not resemble those of our own.”

All quotations from: Donald F Bond, ed., The Spectator, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), pp 211-215.

Why we shouldn’t care about author intentions: some disorganised musings

Recently the Guardian ran an article about fiction writer Polly Courtney, who is dropping her publisher because of the apparently misleading covers they inflicted on her books. Courtney cites frustration at the ‘pink, fluffy packaging’ Harper Collins imprint Avon has wrapped around her books, and has indicated she’ll be going back to self-publishing to take back control.

In other news, Julian Assange is in a fight with publishers Conongate who have printed an incongruously titled ‘unauthorised autobiography’ of the apostle of free speech. It’s reported that Julian accepted a hefty advance and produced 70,000 words of memoir with ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan before giving up the project and spending the advance. Canongate have, rather understandably, decided to recoup their losses through the path of least resistance – publishing the autobiography without the approval of the ‘author’.

Finally, a story from closer to home, for which I have and offer no evidence or assurances of truth. I recently heard about an academic whose book suddenly appeared on Google Books without his permission. On his contacting Google he was, supposedly, paid some form of royalty and told that company policy was to deal with authors as they got in touch. The take home message of this story was meant to be ‘how evil is Google’, but I wasn’t really convinced.

So, three stories about cranky authors, angry at ‘unauthorised’ tampering with their work. The book historian in me wants to say so what? After all it was ever thus.

Lets start with the issue of packaging and marketing. In the medieval world of scribal reproduction an author would have had less than nothing to do with what physical form their work took. Those decisions were made by the individuals who commissioned the reproduction of a text – usually wealthy individuals or religious groups. Even after the introduction of print, sheets were sold unbound and without decoration, so that purchasers could choose the bindings and rubrication for themselves.

Of course binding isn’t the only important part of a book’s physical form: size, typography, paper and other factors were meaning-laden well beyond the medieval period – indicating that the intended audience was wealthy or poor, pious or a bit deviant (see for example Jerome McGann’s discussion of Byron’s Don Juan in “Theory of Texts”, London Review of Books, 1988). Given the clear importance of format on reader experience it’s important to ask who chose it. The answer varies, but the author almost never figures.

What, then, about cases of a text being published without the author’s knowledge or even in spite of their explicit wishes? The juiciest examples come from cases of posthumous publication. A 2009 article in Time surveyed some famous cases of posthumous publication, from Machiavelli to Mark Twain, Jane Austen to Steig Larsson. Perhaps the most illustrative are those cases where an author has died leaving instructions that all their scribblings be destroyed. As Twain explained in a letter to Orion and Mollie Clemens, 19 and 20 October 1865

You had better shove this in the stove … I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted.

If wishes like these hadn’t been ignored the literary canon would be without major works by Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka among others. Just imagine how many PhDs would have remained unwritten.

The three parables at the start of these musings miss another important field of unauthorised modification, though. This includes reworkings, adaptations and other creative reimagining of literary works. William Shakespeare could never have imagined that his complete works would eventually be published 140 characters at a time on an internet microblogging site called Twitter, by a bot called ‘Willy Shakes’ (@IAM_SHAKESPEARE). Without explicit authorisation, then, should we denounce this as unacceptable piracy? What about cinematic adaptation of a dead author’s work – a la Lord of the Rings? Or the countless anthologies that rip and mix works, in the best tradition of medieval miscellanies.

These examples all demonstrate the myriad ways in which our culture accepts and engages in unauthorised modification and use of literary works. This is the practice of the last millenia and the stories at the top show that it continues to be common practice. The question remains, should we care? How acceptable is all of this repackaging, unauthorised publication and creative reworking?

I think there are two issues that need to be unpacked here. The first is commercial (who is and who should be making money out of a literary work), while the second is cultural (how can a work be used and influenced by subsequent individuals). Both of these issues are covered by copyright, but blanket protection and lock-down is not necessarily an ideal situation.

Generally, if anyone is making money out of a literary work, and if the author as primary creator is still around, then they have a right to a fair share in that profit.

In the academic world, such as in the example quoted above, things are a little more complicated. When an academic produces work on a salary at least partially funded by the general public, do they then have the right to charge the public for access to that work? Put like that it seems a bit like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Of course most academics get little to no profit out of a publication, so it’s the academic publishers who are milking the system. That’s a debate for another day though.

So, finally we consider post-author influence on and use of a piece of writing. There is a primary right that should always be respected – the right of attribution. If one person’s work has been used by another, that legacy should be clearly stated.

There is a limit though. Does an author have an unassailable right to control every reading of their work, down to look, feel and format? Should they be able to control (given the impossibility that they could foresee) how their work will be used, adapted, reworked and otherwise interpreted? In my opinion the answer to both of these questions is no. It’s neither practical nor desirable for the figure of an author to take on that level of power. Exalting one creative individual to this level ignores the fundamental fact that all writers come after – they have all been influenced, and those with enough talent and luck will influence in their turn.

It’s the work, not the intentions, that we should care about with authors. Recognising the legacy and, where appropriate, paying for the product are one thing. Allowing the figure of the author to have tyrannical control over a text is undesirable and unrealistic.

Inn Taverns and E-Pubs: Storytelling today

**I wrote this essay for the Meanland blog contest while in the middle of shifting from Europe back to Australia. I even wrote some of it in Heathrow Airport (remember how much I love Heathrow?) While I wasn’t successful in scoring a regular gig for the Meanland blog, I was excited to be involved (even glancingly) in such an innovative way to seek out good ideas and those who have them. The first of the winning essays has now been published and is a very good read. Check it out for yourself at meanland.com.au. So without further ado, here is my essay on the topic of digital writing and oral storytelling.**

Have you ever heard someone tell a story in a tavern? For that matter, when was the last time you listened to someone telling a story—not about their weekend or their recent trip to Bali—a real story, a work of fiction.

If you’re anything like me you struggled with it, attention slipping, plotlines escaping, distractions getting the upper hand. In our fundamentally literary world, following an oral narrative can be hard work.

Oral storytelling (and story-listening) were central elements in ancient, medieval and early-modern popular culture. A cosy tavern on a cold northern night, filled with a community sharing stories, news or scandals is a quintessential image of medieval England.

Chaucer on his charger

The scenario is most famously depicted in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where a motley group of pilgrims compete in a storytelling competition situated in the taverns they stop in along their route. The pilgrims come from a range of social strata, and the stories they tell vary from pious sermons to lewd yarns that would make a footy-player blush. This variation in theme and style highlights an important aspect of oral storytelling traditions—their variety. It is impossible to speak of one cohesive popular culture today, and the same goes for the entertainments of the past.

That said, there were clearly themes that were likely to be well received by a tavern crowd. Both manuscripts and other sources, such as the Canterbury Tales, are evidence of the widespread popularity of the romance genre. Medieval romances were stories of courtly love, adventure and magic: More Lord of the Rings than Georgette Heyer.

Dragons are always popular

In the oral tradition, the romances were populated by a set of familiar characters and plot lines—King Arthur and the Holy Grail, Gawain and the Green Knight, Tristram and Isolde. As Nancy Bradbury argued in her book Writing Aloud, medieval storytelling involved ‘a set of infinitely recombinable ready-made narrative episodes’. Thus, each re/telling involved a combination of borrowing and invention. The storytelling tradition was ‘built up out of a common stock of tough but flexible structural units’ that facilitated the activity of storytelling and helped people all over Europe find and create entertainment.

So where is storytelling today? As in medieval Europe it’s all over the place in a number of different forms and genres: from video or podcasts, to theatre performances, book readings and even tweets (see for example the 2010 Royal Shakespeare Company/Mudlark project Such Tweet Sorrow).

Rather strikingly, stories involving high adventure, dashing heroes and a good dose of magic have also lost none of their popularity since Chaucer’s time. It seems that humans still have a ‘thirst for the otherworldy’, as Daniel Mackay put it.

On this quest to trace storytelling culture to its modern home, then, I followed the path of the otherworldly to a little-known address in an internet byway. Here you can find the Running Stag Inn, where Burke tends the bar and serves a particularly multiracial clientele, including humans, elves, drow and gnomes. Of course Burke is a work of fiction, one among the characters who inhabit the fantasy role-playing website Faerun RP.

This Inn (an e-Pub?) is a modern gathering place, where a community of like-minded, if far-flung, members come together to create and tell stories.

Faerun RP is one among many fantasy role-play (RP) websites active on the internet. The homepage on another site, Mizahar, provides an introduction to the activity as a whole, describing itself as: ‘a fantasy roleplay forum in which a dedicated, friendly, and free community of roleplayers and artists gather to spin epic-level tales via collaborative storytelling.’

The storytelling on these websites involves a number of multimedia elements—from character avatars, to theme music and scenic photographs—all used to complement and flesh out the written stories.

The structural units of this environment are even more visible than those of the medieval oral tradition. Some, such as Faerun RP and The Legends of Krynn, are based on ‘campaign settings’ published by the megalithic Wizards of the Coast as part of the Dungeons & Dragons universe. These are the same rule books used in ‘table-top’ RP games, but on the RP website the focus is most-often on the storytelling, with dice and scoring rarely, if ever, used.

Unlike the examples above, Mizahar is proud to assert that it does not ‘borrow from mainstream Tolkien fantasy’. Instead it has its own universe, complete with 20 distinct races, numerous religions and all the other necessary structural elements.

Just as in the medieval oral storytelling tradition, these frameworks provide much assistance to the modern storyteller. By setting a story in a pre-defined world and using characters whose basic attributes are already familiar to the audience, writers are able to get on with the real business of the day—telling a rip-roaring story.

The differences between this storytelling environment and that of the medieval troubadours are numerous. The role-play website is an asynchronous environment, where teller and listeners share neither spatial nor temporal location. As the Mizahar introduction also points out, the stories in a role-play website are multi-authored. Outside of the ‘in character’ story forums there is a buzz of activity on ‘out of character’ forums, where plotlines are formed under the guidance of a central storyteller (otherwise known as a Dungeon Master). The extent to which this situation differs from the oral tradition is difficult to say, as a tavern environment is impossible to reconstruct from the historical sources.

Of course the most fundamental, inescapable, difference between the medieval storytelling tradition and the website communities is in the form of the words they use. In the medieval tavern the words were spoken and listened to, in the Running Stag Inn the words are written and read.

But the fantasy role-play website doesn’t really fit in the world of literature—even the more formal (book-form) expressions of fantasy writing are often rejected by the literary world. In this instance it is clear that the material substance of the stories is not the most defining feature of the activity. Rather the key is the purpose of those involved—entertainment, play, the whiling away of an evening in the company of friends: In a word, storytelling.

Irish-ish soda bread

In my last post I introduced you to some of my Scottish ancestors. Today’s recipe is a tip of the hat to the Irish peasants in my lineage.

A few weeks ago I decided to have a go at making soda bread. This Irish staple is about as simple as bread making can be – flour mixed with water, salt, bicarbonate soda and (traditionally) buttermilk. The dough takes no kneading or rising — just mix, form and throw in the oven. In other words, this is the bread recipe for lazy or baking-shy sods like me!

My traditional-ish loaf.

Another advantage of soda bread is that the rising isn’t dependent on the gluten in the flour (as with yeast bread). Instead the bread is given lift through a reaction between the bicarb soda and the acid in the buttermilk. This means lower-gluten (‘soft’) flours can be used without compromising the chemical reaction.

I trawled the internet a bit to find the right recipe (read: the recipe with the fewest ingredients) and ended up trying two options. The first used yoghurt in place of the buttermilk. I also used a mix of Kamut and regular flour for this loaf. The dough was very sticky, but came together fairly easily.

The second loaf was made using a recipe from the very endearingly named Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread website. This site has a comprehensive history section, which informs their slightly prescriptive statements about what is ‘true’ soda bread. My yogurt loaf wouldn’t have qualified, however delicious it was.

The revolutionary yogurt loaf.

The recipe from the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread website stuck close to tradition, although I made two adaptations. I substituted rye flour for the wholewheat flour and also used an instant soured milk in place of buttermilk, as the latter is impossible to find in Italy.

To make instant buttermilk mix one tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice into one cup of milk. Leave for a few minutes and it is ready to use.

The second dough was much drier than the first, although it rose well in the oven. On balance I think I preferred the yogurt loaf, but only marginally. Both loaves were gobbled up quickly in our house of six people. The bread was quite dense but toasted beautifully. The taste was a little like English scones, particularly when slices of toasted bread were paired with butter and plum jam!

All in all soda bread was a fun experiment, and something I’ll definitely cook in the future. It wouldn’t lend itself to all uses – I can’t imagine making sandwiches or bruschetta on this bread – but for afternoon tea it can’t be beaten.

Soda bread with yoghurt

450g wholemeal flour (I used half kamut, half white flour)
2 teaspoons bicarbonate soda
300ml whole yogurt
150ml warm water
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 200°C. Mix flour, bicarb soda and salt then stir in the yogurt and water.

Turn onto a floured surface and knead just until the dough comes together. Form into a round ball and place on a flat baking tray. Cut a deep cross into the top of the dough.

Bake for 30 minutes, reduce the heat to 180°C and bake for a further 20 minutes. To test if the loaf is ready tap the bottom – if it sounds hollow it’s done.

Traditional(ish) soda bread

4 cups wholewheat flour (I used rye)
2 cups white flour
1.5 teaspoons bicarbonate soda
2 cups buttermilk
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 220°C. Mix the dry ingredients and then gradually mix in the buttermilk.

Turn onto a floured surface and knead just until the dough comes together. Form into a round ball and place on a flat baking tray. Cut a deep cross into the top of the dough.

Bake at 220°C for 25 minutes then reduce the heat to 180°C for a further 15 minutes.

a continent of migrant stories

This post first appeared on www.crikey.com.au

Australia is a country of migrants, with an exciting mix of cultures and peoples that enriches our society and shapes our national identity. We’ve got nothing on Europe though.

Look at any historical moment in Europe over the last few millennia and you’ll find constant demographic movement. Well before the EU was a twinkle in the European coal industry’s eye, the Romans, Goths, Huns, Normans and others were happily marching across the European continent. In their wake they left, amongst other things, a swirl of languages, cultures and genes that have caused endless headaches for drawers of borders (just look at the town of Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog in the Benelux region).

Migration around the European continent (including the British Isles) wasn’t just in the form of marauding armies of course. An endless flow of individuals shifted from one region to another in search of work, opportunity or warmer climes.

Come 2011, and despite all of the supposed extra freedom of movement, travel around the European continent feels fairly restricted at times. Those times tend to coincide with moments of crossing the French borders, as a train full of passengers (including a number of migrants and activists) discovered last week on their way from Ventimiglia in Italy to Nice in France. The train was stopped before crossing the border, igniting a minor diplomatic storm between France and Italy.

Over 20,000 asylum seekers, primarily from Libya and Tunisia, have arrived in Italy since January. French authorities have been doing everything in their power to prevent these displaced people from moving into France, including closing the border to trains from Italy.

A week before this border squabble hit news headlines, my husband Andrew and I happily climbed aboard the first of three trains that would take us on the same route from Italy to France, on our way to Barcelona. We chatted happily about following in the footsteps of Hannibal, who crossed the Alps here with his elephants over two thousand years ago.

On the train from Nice to Marseille.

As we crossed into France the train stopped at a small-town station. A group of French police boarded the train and checked each passenger’s passport. A few minutes later I looked out the window to see a young man, flanked by police, being marched off to detention and, no doubt, deportation. I think he must have been younger than I am.

That young man, displaced in a foreign country, made me think about my own family; particularly another young man who seized on an incredible opportunity to escape the crippling poverty and oppressive class determinism of his home land.

Last September I got off a plane in Edinburgh, and a little tingle went up my spine as I realised that I was the first of my family to ever go back to Scotland. We were in Scotland to meet up with my parents on their odyssey to visit the family roots.

A few weeks later, stepping off a ferry on the tiny island of Shapinsay in the Orkneys, my father and I returned to the place where our ancestor, John Gillen Heddle, had left in 1857. He was seventeen, illiterate, probably illegitimate and very poor. He must also have been incredibly brave and unbelievably enterprising to take the opportunity he was offered: to migrate to the relatively new colony of South Australia, with a one-way fare provided by the South Australia Company. He had probably never seen a map, probably had no idea that he was travelling about as far away from his home as it is possible to go. He would certainly have known that he would never see or hear from his mother and sister again.

My ancestor John shows up on this census aged eight and already working as a servant.

As we walked around Shapinsay my mum and husband rhapsodised about how beautiful it was, how they would love to live here, how totally idyllic the landscape was. Dad and I stayed quiet, but at some point we looked at one another and realised we were clearly thinking the same thing – we just wanted to escape.


That tiny island off the top of the world was very nearly a beautiful, idyllic prison for our family, but the determination of one young man changed everything. He escaped, we escaped, thank anything!

The main town on Shapinsay. Utterly beautiful, but a little on the quiet side.

John Heddle’s story goes on to have an almost cinematically wonderful ending. On the long journey to Australia he became very ill, but he was cared for by a family also making the long trip south. The Tyley family, from Bristol, were of a different ilk to John. They were travelling to South Australia to buy land and expand their business. Their daughter Emily taught John to read and write while she nursed him. Emily and John married and had 14 children, while he worked as a groundsman and then supervisor of the parklands that still surround Adelaide’s city center.

Leaving the Orkneys, we travelled to other spots with family connections: Border towns where my Irving ancestors entertained themselves by stealing cattle from the English farmers over the border; Cornish tin-mines where the Trebilcock men scratched a living from mines that stretched out underneath the Atlantic Ocean. We even visited the austere street in Aberdeen where my paternal Grandfather grew up in a tiny overcrowded flat. He ended up in Australia after having illegally jumped ship in Fremantle in the 1930s, adding ‘Mc’ to the family name as part of his successful bid to avoid detection.

My family were all as poor as mud, but I couldn’t be more proud of them. Thanks to their desperation and initiative they left their homes and grasped the opportunity offered by migration to another country. The very privileged life I lead is a direct consequence of their actions and a visit to their homelands gave me a huge sense of gratefulness.

After a wonderful week in sunny, beautiful Barcelona Andrew and I got on to the night train that would take us back to Turin in Italy. On the way we were woken by the French border control twice – as we entered France and again as we crossed into Italy. A week later, watching the Italian news report on the stopped train, my thoughts returned to that young man escorted away from his dash for freedom. How lucky we are, whose families were able to take their chance at a new life in the new world.