Saturday, September 28, 2019

Alder Buckthorn (Frangula alnus)

Frangula alnus leaves and fruit. Swindon, 28 September 2019.

Alder Buckthorn (Frangula alnus, formerly known as Rhamnus frangula), growing in damp woodland beside the River Ray in Swindon.

Birds love the berries; these ones were mostly gone within a week. Sadly, the berries are mildly toxic to humans. Even so, they have sometimes been eaten, at least in Scandinavia. Alfa Olsson (Om allmogens kosthåll, 1958) reported the berries being mixed with butter and formed into cakes to dry by the fire; also people freezing a mash of the berries in reindeer milk.

[Alder Buckthorn (Sw: Brakved) grows right up to the far north of Sweden and Finland, in lowland areas. Despite this testament to hardiness it's apparently not native to Scotland.]

Both berries and bark have been used medicinally as a purgative. I've read that it's somewhat less violent in its effects than Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica).

Alder Buckthorn wood made the most even-burning charcoal, which made it in high demand for gunpowder. The local frequency of this species accounts for the gunpowder industry in Battle (E. Sussex), which operated for two centuries from 1676. Apart from charcoal the other ingredients were sulphur (imported from the  volcanic regions of Iceland or Italy) and saltpetre, whose crystals could be home produced in a dungpit. It was a dangerous business. Once  the three ingredients were combined, the mixture could explode, but further processing was required. Whenever possible the mixture was worked damp. Metal implements were banned from the works for fear of striking sparks. In spite of these precautions fatal accidents occurred regularly. Each powder mill consisted of multiple flimsy wooden sheds; that didn't save the men inside but it prevented others from being killed by flying stones or bricks. The finished product also required careful handling. Road transport was not favoured, so the gunpowder was loaded on barges, probably at Sedlescombe Bridge, and floated down the river Brede to Rye for distribution to all Europe.

[For much more about the Battle gunpowder industry, see George Kiloh's fascinating paper:


Frangula alnus leaves and fruit. Swindon, 28 September 2019.
Frangula alnus : not much fruit left. Swindon, 6 October 2019.

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Thursday, September 26, 2019

reglow interim pellet goring glum

the line is moving toward
reaping the january
the experiment in listening
generously come break press

intuitive engineer oh gloss
camel indifference  intellect
gloss glam  touch  entree gear
samantha  fillip  constancy
reglow  interim  pellet goring glum

move on the up
swing  of
jump for it
and there is the other
other in the hidden
beckoned tie

that binds
boundary or orb joy

damage oh sorry sorry
lines rekindle the splash
in texture view of samantha

sport the plaid and go  go
join  mark the
space recipient  notion
undertake take take undertake
tie for joke pull-over
splash into a

- - - - - - -

twe    spa    do    sputt    ga
     stra    ti    ti    cor     cor

into  the  dust  is  a
           cree         tor

into the dust is a

      lee      go      dow

into    the dust is a



into the dust is a


   into  the  three


      spor        tum       gub

               stick-wind     GEE

("Casements",  second and fourth pages)


This comes from Gale Nelson's Ceteris Paribus (Burning Deck, 2000).

I spent a lot of yesterday brooding on how I might best represent Ceteris paribus, which I've found to be the most elusive of Gale Nelson's poetry books. In the end I've just picked two of the four pages in the poem that I've spent most time with. (In these poems the main structural unit is the page.)

Reading this poetry is a matter of absorbing and looking over and around the text, of standing back and waiting patiently for things to reveal themselves: particles of sound (g-, gl-,  -or -m) and particles of meaning too. For me the poem concerns the economics of capitalism (for example, in its rapid counting and in its repeated exhortations to "take" and to "go")... but that's only another way of saying it concerns the lives of educated westerners at the turn of the century, which I might say about most other poems of the same vintage. (Or maybe it's just another way of saying that every poem I happen to read seems to shine a light on our present preoccupations and sense of crisis.)

I've since discovered that you can read the whole of "Casements" by clicking Peek Inside on the SPD Ceteris Paribus page:

You can also find "Casements" in Issue One of The Germ, along with lots of other poetry from this USA strand of the experimental world: Barbara Guest, Peter Gizzi, Juliana Spahr, Jackson Mac Low and many others whose work I wish I knew much better than I do.


The following note, taken  from the SPD site, is presumably GN's own explanation of his book's title:

"CETERIS PARIBUS is a phrase commonly used by economists and means "assuming all other things are held constant." With this phrase, a host of unintended results can be explained away as having been caused by changes in the real world, and the model itself is sustained. As the economy collapses around their ears, the bewildered theorists of the dismal science may claim that were CETERIS PARIBUS only possible, the predicted outcome would have obediently presented itself. In Gale Nelson's poetry, language misbehaves much like the economy. The multiplicity of factors at play on the page—and among pages—keeps the poem from settling anywhere near constancy. Each time order seems just around the corner, variances begin to seep in—and anything becomes possible."


Another of the poems is titled "Originary prudence". Somewhat against expectation, the word "originary" actually appears within the text:

The wounds of our ancestors were originary
in that they could not be predicated.

Alternating between stammering yeasts.


When the two vehicles collide, the weight,
speed and intention of impact remain of import.

Jaundiced goal of fifth position.

("Originary prudence", sixth page)

I suppose that focussed my attention on the word. Next day I noticed it again, this time in Lisa Samuels' Gender City (2011).

In this separation and distance we can hardly be called unknown
with our lock-ons and our travesties
with pink frills all abounding

you having laid the architecture perfectly for such routs
hardly screen the piece
by demolition of originary
struts, whilst our arms entwining
reach the ideology we strive for

(Beginning of "Love song: the city")

A casual search on the internet suggests the word tends to appear in a Heideggerian context (e.g. here). I understand it as "that which originates" or "related to origins", but that's a highly uninformed impression.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Fake away

Cuckfield Park (formerly Cuckfield Place), Ainsworth's model for Rookwood Place
[Image source: . Cuckfield Park is in W. Sussex, 17 miles from Rottingdean, where Ainsworth wrote much of the novel. The fictional Rookwood Place, however, is in Yorkshire's West Riding.]

What to make of William Harrison Ainsworth's Rookwood (1834)? It's an outrageous farrago, a historical romance without serious intent, as the author confessed. Ainsworth had an admirable lack of care for what he was writing. He based little of it on experience and most of it on his incredibly miscellaneous reading. It was a great popular success but in a way it's more fruitful to compare it with experimental texts, or with genre fiction, than with mainstream novels. It is emphatically not "marvellously about life", in Leavisian phrase.

Most of this post consists of extracts that try to suggest the variety of registers in Rookwood. But first let's delve into the geology.

Ainsworth said he adopted Ann Radcliffe's form of gothic romance but relocated the setting from southern Europe to northern England. The Radcliffe influence is quite apparent, for instance in the chapter epigraphs, the copious inset poems, and the general topgraphy of underground vaults, secret chambers and passages, with ghostly knockings and appearances. And on appropriate occasions Ainsworth gives us Radcliffe phrases like "I will not pain you with the recital..." and "Farewell, perhaps forever..." (this is in Book I Chapter X, which with its Garonne setting is a kind of Radcliffe pastiche/tribute).

But Rookwood as a whole is very unlike the novels of Radcliffe, who writes penetratingly from a woman's point of view and has a lot of insight into psychology and into a woman's experience within a patriarchal society. Ainsworth takes no interest in character except as picturesque, none in character development. Men predominate, though he needs women for the operatic sextets that crown his actions. They are proud, madly beautiful or hideous creations, without sensibility or reflection, only the annotations of passion and will.

Ainsworth had a lot of fun with chapter epigraphs, drawing on his reading of dark Jacobean drama (he likes Webster), but without the thematic enlargement that we sometimes find in Scott's epigraphs. The inset poems are his own (as Radcliffe's were) but they are ballad-like rather than lyrical, mostly in triple-time. A reader is tempted to skip them, but they do add -- not depth, but -- lively ramification to the furious progress of Rookwood .

Scott's novels, inevitably, are an influence too -- notably the excitement about highwaymen in the early chapters of Rob Roy -- , but they aren't a very deep one. Rookwood is firmly set in 1737 but Ainsworth here isn't particularly interested in history, certainly not as regards politics or society or manners. The ways of the Rookwoods are defined by the uniquely gothic nature of the noble family in question; nor do his gypsies or rogues add up to any kind of social picture of 1737. He gives us a flood of often barely comprehensible thieves' cant (all taken from books) but we enjoy it not as an evocation of a specific period but as a strangely timeless image of the possibilities of deviant language on the edges of civilization and its conventions, just as vigorous today as in Shakespeare's time. (Among his rogues of 1737, Ainsworth sunnily incorporates the Knight of Malta, a bizarro of the 1830s.)

Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris (English translation, 1833) must surely have been an influence too. (Ainsworth quotes from other Hugo works.) Like Rookwood, it was to some extent a book inspired by architecture. The extreme compulsions of Hugo's characters are surely plundered to build the not quite comprehensible turns of Rookwood's action.

Finally there's the influence of the fiction of roguery (from Gay or even earlier, via Smollett*, to the recent specimens of what came to be called the "Newgate novel", to which category Rookwood to some extent belongs, particularly in regard to the character of Dick Turpin, who divides our interest with the gothic plot of the Rookwood family (and, as many readers considered, seizes most of it to himself). [Ainsworth's own  Jack Sheppard (1839) would bring the Newgate novel controversy to its head.]

[*Smollett seems to have originated the jocular expression to "discuss" a side of beef, bottle of claret, etc. Scott used it too. Ainsworth uses it, like everything else, to excess.]

The plot of Rookwood is so complicated and incredible that few readers will trouble to keep track of it. It involves multiple generations of family history, phantoms, prophecies, omens, secrets, disguises, assumed names, documents that must only be opened after someone's death, curses and oaths of vengeance; but it all comes down to the initially likeable Luke Rookwood's descent into deadly hatred of his rival and half-brother Ranulph. The how and why scarcely matter.


"And how came you not to try your pace with him, if you were there, as you boasted a short time ago?" asked Coates.

"So I did, and stuck closer to him than any one else. We were neck and neck. I was the only person who could have delivered him to the hands of justice, if I'd felt inclined."

"Zounds!" cried Coates; "If I had a similar opportunity, it should be neck or nothing. Either he or I should reach the scragging-post first. I'd take him, dead or alive."

"You take Turpin?" cried Jack, with a sneer.

"I'd engage to do it," replied Coates. "I'll bet you a hundred guineas I take him, if I ever have the same chance."

"Done!" exclaimed Jack, rapping the table at the same time, so that the glasses danced upon it.

"That's right," cried Titus. "I'll go you halves."

"What's the matter—what's the matter?" exclaimed Small, awakened from his doze.

"Only a trifling bet about a highwayman," replied Titus.

"A highwayman!" echoed Small. "Eh! what? there are none in the house, I hope."

"I hope not," answered Coates. "But this gentleman has taken up the defence of the notorious Dick Turpin in so singular a manner, that——"

"Quod factu fœdum est, idem est et Dictu Turpe," returned Small. "The less said about that rascal the better."

"So I think," replied Jack. "The fact is as you say, sir—were Dick here, he would, I am sure, take the freedom to hide 'em."

Further discourse was cut short by the sudden opening of the door, followed by the abrupt entrance of a tall, slender young man, who hastily advanced towards the table, around which the company were seated. His appearance excited the utmost astonishment in the whole group: curiosity was exhibited in every countenance—the magnum remained poised midway in the hand of Palmer—Dr. Small scorched his thumb in the bowl of his pipe; and Mr. Coates was almost choked, by swallowing an inordinate whiff of vapor.

"Young Sir Ranulph!" ejaculated he, as soon as the syncope would permit him.

"Sir Ranulph here?" echoed Palmer, rising.

"Angels and ministers!" exclaimed Small.

"Odsbodikins!" cried Titus, with a theatrical start; "this is more than I expected."

"Gentlemen," said Ranulph, "do not let my unexpected arrival here discompose you. Dr. Small, you will excuse the manner of my greeting; and you, Mr. Coates. One of the present party, I believe, was my father's medical attendant, Dr. Tyrconnel."

"I had that honor," replied the Irishman, bowing profoundly—"I am Dr. Tyrconnel, Sir Ranulph, at your service."

"When, and at what hour, did my father breathe his last, sir?" inquired Ranulph.

"Poor Sir Piers," answered Titus, again bowing, "departed this life on Thursday last."

"The hour?—the precise minute?" asked Ranulph, eagerly.

"Troth, Sir Ranulph, as nearly as I can recollect, it might be a few minutes before midnight."

"The very hour!" exclaimed Ranulph, striding towards the window. His steps were arrested as his eye fell upon the attire of his father, which, as we have before noticed, hung at that end of the room. A slight shudder passed over his frame. There was a momentary pause, during which Ranulph continued gazing intently at the apparel. "The very dress, too!" muttered he; then turning to the assembly, who were watching his movements with surprise; "Doctor," said he, addressing Small, "I have something for your private ear. Gentlemen, will you spare us the room for a few minutes...."

(Book I, Chapter IX)


If I can suggest, not a theme, but a modus operandi, Rookwood is characterized by incessantness. It is there in the big images of a family that cannot escape dark fatality (all the Rookwood wives are murdered), or of Turpin's barely motivated insistence on riding from London to York in a single night. But it's also there throughout the book in the never-refused rehashing of stage clichés (The reader is slyly told that Jack Palmer is Dick Turpin about a dozen times in the chapter I quoted from), and in a breakneck action that allows no time for taking stock. Luke, from the opening pages, is always off-balance. Having been thrown the revelation that he is the true heir of Rookwood Place, he can't even venture into the park for a moment of reflection before he gets dragged into a fight and flight for his life. We can't fully conceive how he ends up where he does, but we can see that he's on a rocket's trajectory that can only end explosively.

That for the men love is apt to turn into killing is, I suppose, an underlying trope. Luke causes or attempts to cause the death of  both the women he loves, and by a strange but similar illogic Dick Turpin, in the book's most famous episode, decides to ride his beloved Black Bess to death.


"They are jewels of countless price. Take them, and rid me," she added in a whisper, "of him."

"Luke Bradley?"


"Give them to me."

"They are yours freely on those terms."

"You hear that, Luke," cried he, aloud; "you hear it, Titus; this is no robbery. Mr. Coates—'Know all men by these presents'—I call you to witness, Lady Rookwood gives me these pretty things."

"I do," returned she; adding, in a whisper, "on the terms which I proposed."

"Must it be done at once?"

"Without an instant's delay."

"Before your own eyes?"

"I fear not to look on. Each moment is precious. He is off his guard now. You do it, you know, in self-defence."

"And you?"

"For the same cause."

"Yet he came here to aid you?"

"What of that?"

"He would have risked his life for yours?"

"I cannot pay back the obligation. He must die!"

"The document?"

"Will be useless then."

"Will not that suffice; why aim at life?"

"You trifle with me. You fear to do it."


"About it, then; you shall have more gold."

"I will about it," cried Jack, throwing the casket to Wilder, and seizing Lady Rookwood's hands. "I am no Italian bravo, madam—no assassin—no remorseless cut-throat. What are you—devil or woman—who ask me to do this? Luke Bradley, I say."

"Would you betray me?" cried Lady Rookwood.

"You have betrayed yourself, madam. Nay, nay, Luke, hands off. See, Lady Rookwood, how you would treat a friend. This strange fellow would blow out my brains for laying a finger upon your ladyship."

"I will suffer no injury to be done to her," said Luke; "release her."

"Your ladyship hears him," said Jack. "And you, Luke, shall learn the value set upon your generosity. You will not have her injured. This instant she has proposed, nay, paid for your assassination."

"How?" exclaimed Luke, recoiling.

"A lie, as black as hell," cried Lady Rookwood.

"A truth, as clear as heaven," retained Jack. "I will speedily convince you of the fact." Then, turning to Lady Rookwood, he whispered, "Shall I give him the marriage document?"

"Beware!" said Lady Rookwood.

"Do I avouch the truth, then?"

She was silent.

"I am answered," said Luke.

"Then leave her to her fate," cried Jack.

"No," replied Luke; "she is still a woman, and I will not abandon her to ruffianly violence. Set her free."

"You are a fool," said Jack.

"Hurrah, hurrah!" vociferated Coates, who had rushed to the window. "Rescue, rescue! they are returning from the church; I see the torchlight in the avenue; we are saved!"

"Hell and the devil!" cried Jack; "not an instant is to be lost. Alive, lads; bring off all the plunder you can; be handy!"

"Lady Rookwood, I bid you farewell," said Luke, in a tone in which scorn and sorrow were blended. "We shall meet again."

"We have not parted yet," returned she; "will you let this man pass? A thousand pounds for his life."

"Upon the nail?" asked Rust.

"By the living God, if any of you attempt to touch him, I will blow his brains out upon the spot, be he friend or foe," cried Jack. "Luke Bradley, we shall meet again. You shall hear from me."

"Lady Rookwood," said Luke, as he departed, "I shall not forget this night."

(Book II, Chapter VI)


Jerry Juniper was what the classical Captain Grose would designate a "gentleman with three outs," and, although he was not entirely without wit, nor, his associates avouched, without money, nor, certainly, in his own opinion, had that been asked, without manners; yet was he assuredly without shoes, without stockings, without shirt. This latter deficiency was made up by a voluminous cravat, tied with proportionately large bows. A jaunty pair of yellow breeches, somewhat faded; a waistcoat of silver brocade, richly embroidered, somewhat tarnished and lack-lustre; a murrey-colored velvet coat, somewhat chafed, completed the costume of this beggar Brummell, this mendicant macaroni!

Jerry Juniper was a character well known at the time, as a constant frequenter of all races, fairs, regattas, ship-launches, bull-baits, and prize-fights, all of which he attended, and to which he transported himself with an expedition little less remarkable than that of Turpin. You met him at Epsom, at Ascot, at Newmarket, at Doncaster, at the Roodee of Chester, at the Curragh of Kildare. The most remote as well as the most adjacent meeting attracted him. The cock-pit was his constant haunt, and in more senses than one was he a leg. No opera-dancer could be more agile, more nimble; scarcely, indeed, more graceful, than was Jerry, with his shoeless and stockingless feet; and the manner in which he executed a pirouette, or a pas, before a line of carriages, seldom failed to procure him "golden opinions from all sorts of dames." With the ladies, it must be owned, Jerry was rather upon too easy terms; but then, perhaps, the ladies were upon too easy terms with Jerry; and if a bright-eyed fair one condescended to jest with him, what marvel if he should sometimes slightly transgress the laws of decorum. These aberrations, however, were trifling; altogether he was so well known, and knew everybody else so well, that he seldom committed himself; and, singular to say, could on occasions even be serious. In addition to his other faculties, no one cut a sly joke, or trolled a merry ditty, better than Jerry.  ....


In a box of the stone jug I was born,
Of a hempen widow the kid forlorn.
                                             Fake away,
And my father, as I've heard say,
                                             Fake away,
Was a merchant of capers gay,
Who cut his last fling with great applause,
                             Nix my doll pals, fake away.

Who cut his last fling with great applause,
To the tune of a "hearty choke with caper sauce."
                                               Fake away, 
The knucks in quod did my schoolmen play,
                                               Fake away,
And put me up to the time of day;
Until at last there was none so knowing,
                              Nix my doll pals, fake away.

(Book III, Chapter V)


"Ha, ha! Are you there, my old death's-head on a mop-stick?" said Turpin, with a laugh. "Ain't we merry mumpers, eh? Keeping it up in style. Sit down, old Noah—make yourself comfortable, Methusalem."

"What say you to a drop of as fine Nantz as you ever tasted in your life, old cove?" said Zoroaster.

"I have no sort of objection to it," returned Peter, "provided you will all pledge my toast."

"That I will, were it old Ruffin himself," shouted Turpin.

"Here's to the three-legged mare," cried Peter. "To the tree that bears fruit all the year round, and yet has neither bark nor branch. You won't refuse that toast, Captain Turpin?"

"Not I," answered Dick; "I owe the gallows no grudge. If, as Jerry's song says, I must have a 'hearty choke and caper sauce' for my breakfast one of these fine mornings, it shall never be said that I fell to my meal without appetite, or neglected saying grace before it. Gentlemen, here's Peter Bradley's toast: 'The scragging post—the three-legged mare,' with three times three."

Appropriate as this sentiment was, it did not appear to be so inviting to the party as might have been anticipated, and the shouts soon died away.

"They like not the thoughts of the gallows," said Turpin to Peter. "More fools they. A mere bugbear to frighten children, believe me; and never yet alarmed a brave man. The gallows, pshaw! One can but die once, and what signifies it how, so that it be over quickly. I think no more of the last leap into eternity than clearing a five-barred gate. A rope's end for it! So let us be merry, and make the most of our time, and that's true philosophy. I know you can throw off a rum chant," added he, turning to Peter. "I heard you sing last night at the hall. Troll us a stave, my antediluvian file, and, in the meantime, tip me a gage of fogus, Jerry; and if that's a bowl of huckle-my-butt you are brewing, Sir William," added he, addressing the knight of Malta, "you may send me a jorum at your convenience."

(Book III, Chapter V)


Ascetic to the severest point to which nature's endurance could be stretched, Cyprian even denied himself repose. He sought not sleep, and knew it only when it stole on him unawares. His couch was the flinty rock; and long afterwards, when the zealous resorted to the sainted prior's cell, and were shown those sharp and jagged stones, they marvelled how one like unto themselves could rest, or even recline upon their points without anguish, until it was explained to them that, doubtless, He who tempereth the wind to the shorn lamb had made that flinty couch soft to the holy sufferer as a bed of down. His limbs were clothed in a garb of horsehair of the coarsest fabric; his drink was the dank drops that oozed from the porous walls of his cell; and his sustenance, such morsels as were bestowed upon him by the poor—the only strangers permitted to approach him. No fire was suffered, where perpetual winter reigned. None were admitted to his nightly vigils; none witnessed any act of penance; nor were any groans heard to issue from that dreary cave; but the knotted, blood-stained thong, discovered near his couch, too plainly betrayed in what manner those long lone nights were spent. Thus did a year roll on. Traces of his sufferings were visible in his failing strength. He could scarcely crawl; but he meekly declined assistance. He appeared not, as had been his wont, at the midnight mass; the door of his cell was thrown open at that hour; the light streamed down like a glory upon his reverend head; he heard the distant reverberations of the deep Miserere; and breathed odors as if wafted from Paradise.

(Book III, Chapter X)


"I will not stir. I will kneel here forever. Stab me as I kneel—as I pray to you. You cannot kill me while I cling to you thus—while I kiss your hands—while I bedew them with my tears. Those tears will not sully them like my blood."

"Maiden," said Sybil, endeavoring to withdraw her hand, "let go your hold—your sand is run."


"It is in vain. Close your eyes."

"No, I will fix them on you thus—you cannot strike then. I will cling to you—embrace you. Your nature is not cruel—your soul is full of pity. It melts—those tears—you will be merciful. You cannot deliberately kill me."

"I cannot—I cannot!" said Sybil, with a passionate outburst of grief. "Take your life on one condition."

"Name it."

"That you wed Sir Luke Rookwood."

"Ah!" exclaimed Eleanor, "all rushes back upon me at that name; the whole of that fearful scene passes in review before me."

"Do you reject my proposal?"

"I dare not."

"I must have your oath. Swear by every hope of eternity that you will wed none other than him."

"By every hope, I swear it."

"Handassah, you will bear this maiden's oath in mind, and witness its fulfilment."

"I will," replied the gipsy girl, stepping forward from a recess, in which she had hitherto remained unnoticed.

"Enough. I am satisfied. Tarry with me. Stir not—scream not, whatever you may see or hear. Your life depends upon your firmness. When I am no more——"

"No more?" echoed Eleanor, in horror.

"Be calm," said Sybil. "When I am dead, clap your hands together. They will come to seek you—they will find me in your stead. Then rush to him—to Sir Luke Rookwood. He will protect you. Say to him hereafter that I died for the wrong I did him—that I died, and blessed him."

"Can you not live, and save me?" sobbed Eleanor.

"Ask it not. While I live, your life is in danger. When I am gone, none will seek to harm you. Fare you well! Remember your oath, and you, too, remember it, Handassah. Remember also—ha! that groan!"

All started, as a deep groan knelled in their ears.

"Whence comes that sound?" cried Sybil. "Hist!—a voice?"

"It is that of the priest," cried Eleanor. "Hark! he groans. They have murdered him! Kind Heaven, receive his soul!"

"Pray for me," cried Sybil: "pray fervently; avert your face; down on your knees—down—down! Farewell, Handassah!" And breaking from them, she rushed into the darkest recesses of the vault.

(Book III, Chapter XII)


This troop of horsemen, for such it was, might probably amount in the aggregate to twenty men, and presented an appearance like that of a strong muster at a rustic fox-chase, due allowance being made for the various weapons of offence; to-wit: naked sabers, firelocks, and a world of huge horse-pistols, which the present field carried along with them. This resemblance was heightened by the presence of an old huntsman and a gamekeeper or two, in scarlet and green jackets, and a few yelping hounds that had followed after them. The majority of the crew consisted of sturdy yeomen; some of whom, mounted upon wild, unbroken colts, had pretty lives of it to maintain their seats, and curvetted about in "most admired disorder;" others were seated upon more docile, but quite as provoking specimens of the cart-horse breed, whose sluggish sides, reckless alike of hobnailed heel or ash sapling, refused to obey their riders' intimations to move; while others again, brought stiff, wrong-headed ponies to the charge—obstinate, impracticable little brutes, who seemed to prefer revolving on their own axis, and describing absurd rotatory motions, to proceeding in the direct and proper course pointed out to them.

(Book III, Chapter XIV)


The place of refreshment for the ruralizing cockney of 1737 was a substantial-looking tenement of the good old stamp, with great bay windows, and a balcony in front, bearing as its ensign the jovial visage of the lusty knight, Jack Falstaff. Shaded by a spreading elm, a circular bench embraced the aged trunk of the tree, sufficiently tempting, no doubt, to incline the wanderer on those dusty ways to "rest and be thankful," and to cry encore to a frothing tankard of the best ale to be obtained within the chimes of Bow bells.

Upon a table, green as the privet and holly that formed the walls of the bower in which it was placed, stood a great china bowl, one of those leviathan memorials of bygone wassailry which we may sometimes espy—reversed in token of its desuetude—perched on the top of an old japanned closet, but seldom, if ever, encountered in its proper position at the genial board. All the appliances of festivity were at hand. Pipes and rummers strewed the board. Perfume, subtle, yet mellow, as of pine and lime, exhaled from out the bowl, and, mingling with the scent of a neighboring bed of mignonette and the subdued odor of the Indian weed, formed altogether as delectable an atmosphere of sweets as one could wish to inhale on a melting August afternoon.

(Book IV, Chapter I)


Complete text of Rookwood:

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The AA book of country walks

Stone Parsley (Sison amomum). Swindon, 17 September 2019.

When Alfred Wainwright wrote his guidebooks to the Lakeland fells, his journeys to the foot of those fells were always by public transport (he lived in Kendal). Not many of his followers have had the tenacity or time to rely on whatever bus services still exist (blogger Drew Whitworth being a splendid exception). Most peak-baggers drive cars, like most other visitors to the Lake District, all making their contribution to the choked Grasmere and Ambleside that we know today.

I'm not in a position of moral superiority here. I've made two European trips by plane this year, and burnt up plenty of diesel miles for social and family reasons. And if plans come to fruition I'll be off to walk in the far north of Sweden next summer, in what the Swedes themselves like to call "Europe's last wilderness". That sort of walking is, alas, very costly to the planet.

The mystique of the word "wilderness" has a lot to answer for. It says to us lovers of nature that the best of nature is somewhere very far away from the mundane semi-urban environments where we live and work. For most of us it's somewhere that takes a deal of fossil fuel to reach. The association of motorized transport with enjoying the glories of nature has been firmly embedded in us.

So I can't blow my own trumpet, but over the years I have become less and less willing to increase my own carbon footprint purely in pursuit of nature. Bill Oddie laughed at, but rather admired, the twitchers who constantly triangulated between the furthest corners of our islands (Fair Isle, Cley and the Scillies) in pursuit of rare avian visitors to add to their British list. I rather admired them too, for overcoming the logistics and for all the money they must have had to earn to fund their addiction. But why stop with Britain? The globe will supply you with eco experiences in all its birding hotspots. It's a lifestyle choice that feels ever more problematic.  

It sometimes seems as if the driving is as important as the brief exposure to the outdoors. What about that popular assignment for charity sponsorship, the Three Peaks Challenge (walking up Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon within 24 hours)? It's obvious that nature is the victim here, just as when Dick Turpin resolved to ride Black Bess from London to York in a single night.

Among us wild flower fans, too, there's a widespread impulse to rack up the miles. After all, many of the unusual plants we haven't yet seen tend to be on far-flung coasts and mountains. We too set ourselves assignments, as for example those orchidophiles who set themselves the target of seeing all the UK orchid species in flower within a single season.

But, more and more, I've come to see it differently. I was never all that bothered about visiting the reserves and the sites of known rare flowers anyway. I suppose I really preferred the idea of making my own discoveries, even if they were tiny ones. The place we're most likely to do that is the area where we live. (Discovering a rather rare plant just ten minutes walk from my door, as I did recently, seemed like a kind of endorsement of my approach.) The nature within walking distance, in an environment that many would call unpromising, has a quality of secrecy. At a certain level of detail it isn't even mapped. Below the level of species maps, for example, are the individuals, the local growth forms, the unique places and associations of different plants and animals. I can travel a thousand miles to find an exquisite alpine plant flowering on a misty crag, but in a way it's a kind of phantom because I'll never live with that plant,  I'll never see it in sun and frost, at dawn and at dusk, I'll never get to know its first fresh leaves in spring or its withered stems and seed-cases in autumn. It's only on our own patch that we can begin to understand the life of plants and animals in that kind of detail. It all awaits our attention. Isn't here, in fact, the true wilderness?

Stone Parsley (Sison amomum). Swindon, 17 September 2019.


Tuesday, September 10, 2019

bare flanks of sand. Beige sand.

Dilston Grove, Bermondsey

[Image source:  . Sarah Maguire's poem "The Grass Church at Dilston Grove" refers to this installation in a derelict London church (Ackroyd and Harvey, 2003).]

This week I'm on the road and (being short on mobile data), I'm using my occasional wifi opportunities to discover the poetry of Sarah Maguire (1957 - 2017). I read about her on a flower blog that I follow. So this is still an evolving post, but I'm publishing it now so I can use my own links.

It was SM's twin interests in plants and in translation from Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages that made me curious to learn more about her. I won't repeat her biography, which you can read on Wikipedia or in the Guardian obituary or in this memorial of Sarah Maguire by Clarissa Aykroyd:

SM's work on setting up the Poetry Translation Centre was so self-evidently valuable that it perhaps threatens to overshadow her own poetry but I liked the four poems that I've been able to track down online.  I'm putting the links below, along with an extract from each poem.


and the Thames so emptied of current
it shows bare flanks of sand. Beige sand. A beach.
The sudden vertigo of hardness when we're cupped
over the walls of the Embankment

examining the strange cream stones below,
driftwood, bottle-tops, crockery, one sodden boot.
And the slow mud opens its mouth.
Jets long departed, their con-trails fire

across the fierce blue skies, unfurling
into breath. The very last weather of a summer
spent impatient for change,
waiting for a sign, an alignment.

(from Clarissa Aykroyd's blog)


Stems bleed into water
loosening their sugars
into the dark,

clouding dank water
stood in zinc buckets
at the back of the shop.


Two soluble aspirins spore in this glass, their mycelia
fruiting the water, which I twist into milkiness.
The whole world seems to slide into the drain by my window.

It has rained and rained since you left, the streets black
and muscled with water. Out of pain and exhaustion you came
into my mouth, covering my tongue with your good and bitter milk.


My hand moves into darkness as I write, The adulterous woman
lost her nose and ears; the man was fined. I drain the glass.
I still want to return to that hotel room by the station

to hear all night the goods trains coming and leaving.

Difficult to extract from such a short poem, but I've missed out three lines as a concession to this rather ring-fenced oeuvre.

A sex poem, its graphic central image pulsing through the rest of the poem.  In that last line, for instance, apart from "coming and leaving" there is surely a submerged memory of the "milk train", proverbial in the UK for an early-morning train.* But whether you see that or not, "goods" echoes the "good" of line 6.

[* The milk trains, gradually replaced by road transport after the 1960s, were indeed early trains but these early journeys were mostly West-East, i.e. from the dairying districts towards the population centres of London and elsewhere. (The return journey with the empty wagons took place in the afternoon.)]

The man's pain has been transferred to the woman who's now downing painkillers but regret is clearly not the dominant emotion about those unsleeping nights at the station hotel. The poem doesn't cry over spilt milk, it's nearly a celebration.

I suppose you might criticize the poem as over-engineered but I feel it conveys that moment of distress or ecstasy when, even if we are not poets, there's a convergence of metaphors: everything represents something else.


A cast of slowing jumbos,
emptied of fuel, begins

the descent:
the long southern flight path

down into Heathrow.
When the huge wheels

from that cold,
aluminium belly,
will a petrified figure

plummet down
(this time)
into a carpark,

breath frozen midair,
the wrapt human form

on the landing gear
tossed three miles clear
from touchdown,

from migration?
The big silvered craft
run the gamut of light,

taking in evening
buoyant, journeyed:
pushed to the edge

of the city: now exposed,
with its parcel of lights,
its human freight

inching homewards
through dusk, mid-September
as fear

slips its cold roots
through the known.
The dull muddied Thames

is full of the equinox,
dragged by the moon
the dun waters

flush to the Barrier:

Around three-quarters of wheel-well stowaways fail to survive the flight.

A wheel-well stowaway on a Kenya Airways flight fell into a garden in Clapham in July 2019... Just the latest of many, especially descending into Heathrow over West London.

SM was probably thinking of
Mohammed Ayaz in 2001. His body fell into the Homebase car-park in Richmond.


A talk by Sarah Maguire:
'Singing about the dark times': Poetry and Conflict


I've managed to read some other Sarah Maguire poems for free. I downloaded the Kindle sampler of her final collection The Pomegranates of Kandahar (2007); it contains "The Grass Church at Dilston Grove" (see pic at head of post), "Cow Parsley, Bluebells" and "Vigil". And looking up The Invisible Mender (1997) on Google Books gave me "Travelling Northward", another train poem. Here's the beginning:


through the worst March snowstorm
anyone on this train has ever heard of --
Water Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut
is stopped, a quilt of ice --
only the restless and the homeless
risk the streets tonight.

This train, like any train
I've ever taken anywhere,
moves from metropolis to detritus,
its trajectory --
from dressed-stone, steel-clad, po-mo vaults,
heated, peopled, electronic,

to those laid-off warehouses,
their tall machines eviscerated,
left to breed a skin of verdigris
against the open, negligent air --
is voodoo economics stripped:
the counting houses, gilts and deals

are come to this,
a rusting chain-link fence
around an empty lot,
two huge cogs lying out of gear,
fabulously swollen with the snow.
The stilled train

creaks a little to itself, then leaves
New Haven....

At this time "voodoo economics" referred to "Reaganomics" or "supply-side economics"; the theory that little-taxed and little-regulated capitalism would bring prosperity to everyone else.

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Friday, September 06, 2019

The apprentice

[Illustration from Gammal  koppar (1965) by Per Henrik Rosenström. The caption says: The apprentice holds the bellows pole steady while the master himself inspects the coffee-pot that the lady is leaving to be retinned.* Drawing from the second half of the 19th century, artist unknown.]

Eres maestro de lo que has vivido,

artesano de lo que estás viviendo,

y aprendiz de lo que vivirás.

You are the master of your past,
the journeyman of your present
and the apprentice of your future.


The long comrade read aloud as follows:—‘Mark Gilbert. Age, nineteen. Bound to Thomas Curzon, hosier, Golden Fleece, Aldgate. Loves Curzon’s daughter. Cannot say that Curzon’s daughter loves him. Should think it probable. Curzon pulled his ears last Tuesday week.’

‘How!’ cried the captain, starting.

‘For looking at his daughter, please you,’ said the novice.

‘Write Curzon down, Denounced,’ said the captain. ‘Put a black cross against the name of Curzon.’

‘So please you,’ said the novice, ‘that’s not the worst—he calls his ‘prentice idle dog, and stops his beer unless he works to his liking. He gives Dutch cheese, too, eating Cheshire, sir, himself; and Sundays out, are only once a month.’

‘This,’ said Mr Tappertit gravely, ‘is a flagrant case. Put two black crosses to the name of Curzon.’

(Barnaby Rudge, Chapter 8)


Dickens portrays his Prentice Knights as an absurd piece of compensatory role-play whose hostility to all masters is childish and without justification. In reality there must have been many cruel masters and many apprentices who were grievously ill-treated.

Peter had heard there were in London then --
Still have they being! -- workhouse-clearing men,
Who undisturbed by feelings just or kind,
Would parish boys to needy tradesmen bind;
They in their want a trifling sum would take,
And toiling slaves of piteous orphans make

(George Crabbe, "Peter Grimes")

These workhouse-clearing men were abusing the apprentice system, but even regular apprenticeships were no picnic. In Sweden, says Per Henrik Rosenström, "Hard masters and bullying by the journeymen meant that the lad who got through an apprenticeship was fairly toughened up".

I am not sure if there were ever any apprentice fraternities, but there were certainly journeyman fraternities at one time or another, and -- more clearly in Europe than in Britain -- they were in some ways a forerunner of the trade unions of the industrial age, at least as far as mutual support and insurance were concerned.


* Until 1990 the inner surface of most copper cookware was coated with tin (jam pans and egg white whipping bowls are exceptions). Tin coating allowed food or liquids to be left in the pan after cooking without forming verdigris.  Retinning was required every three years or so. Manufacturers now use stainless steel coating, which is permanent.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Environmentalism and humanism

A year ago I was given Yuval Noah Harari's books Sapiens and Homo Deus (2016*), which I've just finished reading.


It is customary to portray the history of modernity as a struggle between science and religion. In theory, both science and religion are interested above all in the truth, and because each upholds a different truth, they are doomed to clash. In fact, neither science nor religion cares that much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate.

Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth. They therefore make good bedfellows. The uncompromising quest for truth is a spiritual journey, which can seldom remain within the confines of either religious or scientific establishments.

It would accordingly be far more accurate to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion -- namely, humanism. Modern society believes in humanist dogmas, and uses science not in order to question these dogmas, but rather in order to implement them. ....

(Homo Deus, p. 231)


For Harari, a religion is the supplier of society's core values, moral imperatives and shared myths; it is what allows human societies to cooperate on a large scale. (Science itself supplies no values.) These religions needn't involve temples or God. In Harari's 20th century the wars of religion were between competing humanisms: liberal humanism versus socialist humanism (communism) or evolutionary humanism (nazism). Liberal humanism won, but its fundamental beliefs are contradicted by modern science, and the emerging religions will be techno-humanism or data religions.

The important new religions (in Harari's sense) now develop in Silicon Valley, i.e. at the apex of technological development. Harari sees no particular significance in e.g. Islamic fundamentalism or far right nationalism -- they are just regressive movements, doomed to failure. He doesn't link them to the threat of ecocide that he recognizes in the endless economic growth authorized by humanism.


Reading all this, I'm pondering environmentalism -- Is it a distinct religion, is it progressive or regressive in terms of technology, and is it humanistic?

Of course the argument that we should care for the planet is often expressed in humanistic terms: for example, Clean air and water should be fundamental human rights . Or, Wrecking the environment is a sorry legacy to pass on to our children and grandchildren.

Those are good points, but I feel that environmentalism is also and fundamentally not humanist. Many people (including Harari) are horrified by the mass mistreatment of livestock entailed by industrial farming: yet it's difficult to justify that horror in purely humanist terms. Ever since the RSPCA was founded in the early nineteenth century (and indeed for a century before that) we've felt that we ought to treat animals better. As science has improved our understanding of ourselves and other species, it has become harder to maintain a metaphysical distinction between humans and other animals. Animals, most people feel, deserve some rights too.

But environmentalism goes a little further than that. Its values also, and crucially, concern ecosystems: that is, natural biological communities. Most animals can only live a worthwhile existence within such ecosystems. The old-style zoos where you could pass gorillas in cages are no longer very pleasing to most people who care about nature. Gorillas, we understand, should have gorilla country.

It's a sticking-point, from the perspective of technological progress. Many of us lament the loss of human cultural diversity, the loss of the world's languages and pristine stone-age lifestyles, but there's a reasonable argument that this is sentimental. Few people now live stone-age lifestyles, but their grandchildren have smartphones and much longer life expectancy, they mostly do not want to go back to the lifestyle of their ancestors, so from a humanistic point of view the loss of human diversity isn't necesssarily or simply a bad thing. But other species are not so adaptable as we are. If they too have rights, those rights amount to a severe restriction on technological interference: in their habitats, it means minimal change.

The rights of other species also present a challenge to one of the enshrined humanistic ideals, democracy. Animals can't vote. So how can their interests be defended? By well-intentioned humans, maybe. But so far well-intentioned humans seem to be unable to halt the ever-accelerating destruction of natural habitats across the globe. Of course many of the world's nations don't even pretend to be democracies, but would it improve the chances for nature if they were? Under heightened environmental pressure themselves, voters may be perfectly prepared to let natural habitats go under the plough. If constantly improved human education can't be sustained (and education is itself under huge pressures) -- then must democracy be saved from itself? In practice this already happens: decisions that require specialist expertise aren't usually exposed to a public vote. (That, for example, is how SSSIs are designated.) But fundamental aspects of our lifestyle have environmental impact too (our cars, our flights, economic growth itself); those are certainly things that come within the purview of public votes. So what if we keep voting for them, even when it puts ourselves and other humans (never mind the animals and the ecosystems) under still harsher environmental pressure? Something has to give; but when, and what -- or who -- will it be?

[The Hebrew version of Homo Deus was published in 2015, but the English version appears to be cognizant of events up to mid-2016.]


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