Leave the Capitol! Exit this Roman shell!

April 28, 2011

The view south-eastish from the Capitoline Hill, from which the auspices of the flight of birds in the skies were taken by the augur from the Auguraculum.  It also held, *gazes down quickly at a book held beneath table level*, a Temple of Juno famous for its sacred geese, who had raised the alarm when the Gauls tried to attack the citadel one night in 390 BC and were thence looked after at State expense, carried each year on litters with purple and gold cushions in a ceremony at which dogs were crucified as a terrible reminder of the guard dogs who  had failed to bark.

So, birds basically. On the Capitoline Hill. Look, I can’t help it if it’s boring, I just wanted to use that Fall line.

Anyone drunk Fernet? It’s utterly revolting and rather more-ish. Here’s the wikipedia list of ingredients:

Fernet is made from a number of herbs and spices which vary according to the brand, but usually include myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and especially saffron, with a base of grape distilled spirits, and coloured with caramel colouring. Ingredients rumored to be in fernet include codeine, mushrooms, fermented beets, coca leaf, gentian, rhubarb, wormwood, zedoary, cinchona, bay leaves, absinthe, orange peel, calumba, echinacea, quinine, ginseng, St. John’s wort, sage, and peppermint oil.

The effect of taking it down in one was once memorably described by Kingsley Amis as being like ‘throwing a cricket ball into an empty bath’.

The way it works is this: you take a sip and think ‘that’s disgusting, it’s just like black mouthwash’. Then you put it down, vowing never to drink any more. Then you think, after a suitable interval, ‘There was something else there, I wonder what it was’. Whereupon you take another sip. ‘No,’ you say to yourself, not mouthwash, what’s that bitter taste?’





‘Or, wait, is that … marjoram?’



‘Surely that can’t be…’




‘My tongue’s gone numb! That’ll be the wormwood! Pour me another!’ (crawl to kitchen singing Twa Recruiting Sergeants)

Because I was reading Wallace Stevens while drinking Fernet, and my mind couldn’t stagger too far from the immediate set of stimuli, it occurred to me that the way the flavours both mingle and rub abrasively up against each other was a little like the sonic effects of Wallace Stevens’ poetry. There’s little of the Fernet’s murkiness of course, the precision of the way the sounds explore each other is part of the appeal:

Insinuations of desire,

Puissant speech, alike in each,

Cried quittance

To the wickless halls.

The Ordinary Women

The way ‘insinuations’ and ‘speech’ each fight over/seduce/tug at the word ‘puissant’, so that a sort of exploration of the mouth, an articulation of unusual sound flavours akin to reading the perfumed auspices of the Fernet, occurs in the mind of the reader. The way also ‘quittance’ and ‘wickless’ have clearly been chosen for each other, their comparative obscurity, not least so close together, making them look like choices of sound more than whatever sense, which in turn paradoxically leads the reader to a greater secondary emphasis on meaning than might otherwise be the case…

So my mind ran drunkenly on.


I searched for some more or less satisfactory formula: The way in which his poetry revels and toys with the specific sounds of words tests the meaning of those words… maybe. ‘Tests’ isn’t quite right, ‘weighs’ or ‘proves’ maybe. I read Sunday Morning several times. It’s more lyrical than many of his poems, and I felt that at least part of the mystery was described  in lines given the woman of the piece:

She says, ‘I am content when wakened  birds,

Before they fly, test the reality

Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;’

Fields are words, poetry the sweet questioning of their reality. The lines continue:

‘But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields

Return no more, where, then, is paradise?’

Several more or less trite paradises are sketched before a half-answer given:

There is not any haunt of prophesy,

Nor any old chimera of the grave,

Neither the golden underground, nor isle

Melodious, where spirits gat them home,

Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm

Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured

As April’s green endures; or will endure

Like her remembrance of awakened birds,

Or her desire for June and evening, tipped

By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

By following the analogy of poetry’s sweet questionings above not too hard, these lines contain I think at least some sort of sense of the importance of poetry. Very often the paradise of a poem is found just after the poem has been finished, in its remembrance. Of course the lines in themselves contain a greater sense of the power of poetry than any half-assed drunken analogy drawing.

But birds, you see, birds again… and you thought I was just rambling.

Pass the Fernet.


“Odds and ends of messages coming out of nowhere”

February 27, 2011

This turned the conversation to visualising. ‘How’, he asked, ‘do you visualise “knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering”? Is he mounted or on foot? And do you feel yourself Keats – five foot nothing? How do you see Wordsworth’s daffodils? Is it possible to translate the experiences of one sense into those of another? Surely not, for words cannot convey the essence of a sense.’

Tea with Walter de la Mare by Russell Brain

Reading this quote today brought to mind Rudyard Kipling’s astonishing short story Wireless. Kipling arranges a setting in which a tubercular pharmacist, without any knowledge of Keats, is inspired to intense poetric reverie by an accumulation of circumstantial detail – the freezing weather, the pharmceutical surroundings, tuberculosis, an infatuation with a woman called Fanny – and writes an almost exact copy of The Eve of St Agnes [actually exact fragments of Keats more generally, the starting point is The Eve of St Agnes] (You can see why Borges loved Kipling – it’s a little like Pierre Menard). All this while an early experiment in wireless communication is being prepared in an adjoining room.

The narrator attempts to comfort himself with reason:

Like causes must beget like effects

But the effort to explain away what he’s seeing causes his soul briefly to bifurcate:

Still, the other half of my soul refused to be comforted. It was cowering in some minute and inadequate corner – at an immense distance.

Certainly the supernatural is not excluded, but it is not simply a ghost story, it is a technological ghost story, the experiment with wireless communication is clearly not incidental. (I’ve written before about Kipling’s reconfiguring of the supernatural for the machine age)

The engagement with the detail of new technology is a distinctive part of late Kipling. The impossibility of translation of experiences, of encoded replication, that Walter de la Mare suggests, is challenged by the processes of mechanical representation (the repeating obsession with a fragment of film in Mrs Bathhurst – something developed memorably in The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares.) Challenged, not destroyed. To put it in the terms of the original quotation – the essence of a sense can convey words, specifically the same words; it can be replicated exactly.

Tom McCarthy is an obvious contemporary writer interested in these ideas. His C seemed to me to be heavily influenced by Kipling generally, and Wireless specifically. (An odd book C, the first third is among the best things I’ve read in recent years, but it only intermittently fires after that). The dancing silent children at the beginning is evocative of They, as is the wild motorcar ride. (Kipling, I believe, was one of the first writers to feature a motorcar in his writing). More generally, both explore the indeterminate boundaries between man and invented mechanism (see .007 amongst others). And of course, the conditions required for the exact replication of experience is one of the main obsessions of that wonderful book, Remainder.

There is another, perhaps somewhat incompatible interpretation: that Kipling’s story emphasises by the supernaturally unusual nature of the incident the uniqueness of all experience, and the manifestation if that emotional uniqueness in all works of art: it is the cohering of specific encoded detail into a picture of generally comprehensible meaning and significance. In a sense it supports de la Mare’s teatime musings.

It’s natural to cap this loose set of thoughts with a quotation from Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which has application to the move in intellectual perception from non-translatable experience, to the age of the replication of experience:

During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstance as well.

(btw I can exclusively reveal that the knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering was wheeling a pushbike  – I replicated it more or less exactly earlier this week)

(oh, and Walter de la Mare comes across as a bit of a silly old bore in these tea-time chats, expert in the non-falsifiable –

‘I believe telepathy is almost continuous: if you and I were not in telepathic communication now, we couldn’t carry on our conversation’

o rly.

Although they do occasion the sentence ‘He kept Moses in a Viennese cake-box’, the provenance of which I’ll leave you to speculate upon until I do something more general on him. All I will say for the moment is that his short story Lispet, Lispett and Vaine is a stone-cold masterpiece.)

(And, sorry about this, there’s an addition to the list of literary drinks in Wireless:

I refilled the stove, and, after reckless expenditure of Mr. Cashell’s coal, drove some warmth into the shop. I explored many of the glass-knobbed drawers that lined the walls, tasted some disconcerting drugs, and, by the aid of a few cardamoms, ground ginger, chloric-ether, and dilute alcohol, manufactured a new and wildish drink…

Anyone? Sounds rather pleasant. To be taken warm, with one of the asthma cigarettes that the chemist smokes. Don’t think it would have me writing Keats tho. Not if past form is anything to go by.)

Dear Person Who Found His or Her Way Here Using the Search Terms ‘Guicciardini’ and ‘Cheese’

October 7, 2009

I assume you were looking for a suitable cheese to have with a wine from the Guicciardini-Strozzi estate. If so, might I suggest a table pecorino? (NB: Not the hard, grating version, pecorino romano, which in its packaged supermarket form is disgusting.)

If, however, you were looking for mentions of cheese in the works of Lodovico Guicciardini, as I initially thought, then might I direct you to page 37 of the English translation (1593) of his Descrittione di […] Paese Bassi?


Thence come Cloathes and carsayes [kerseys] of all sorts, and of them great aboundance, both fine and course [sic], Frises, fine wooll, excellent Saffron, but no great quantitie, Tinne, Lead, Sheep skins, Cony skins, and divers sorts of fine furres, lether, Beere, Cheese and other victuals, and Malmesie (malmsey) brought out of Candia into England.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fancy a pint?

August 19, 2009

I was going through unposted posts the other day – detritus from my phase incommunicado. Most of them were gravely disappointing, but I did find this (I’ll get back to Stevenson-proper soon, onist injun) –

A hiatus in the Idiot and the Dog’s affairs has meant the ongoing peripatetic and trivial analysis of Stevenson has fallen by the wayside for the moment. However, offering something half-baked or jejune is better than offering nothing at all, just as if a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing as quickly as possible so we can all get down the pub. So:

In one of Stevenson’s letters (Vol 1 of the Mehew edition, Letter [can’t now remember which letter – more evidence of my terrible notetaking – I’ll find out, promise]) Stevenson finds himself in a railway carriage with an eccentric old man;

I addressed to him some remarks on the subject of the weather; but he appeared completely shut up by the novelty of my views on the subject, as he said no more till the end of our journey. By dwelling upon this subject, it seems that his mind, too weak to grapple with such subjects, became entirely deranged; for he suddenly began to talk aloud to himself and to snap his fingers, and to nod his head in an encouraging manner. At first I expected to be Mullered; but the journey ended too soon and I was rescued.

There is a footnote –

Franz Muller murdered Thomas Briggs in a London railways carriage in July 1864. He attempted to escape to America but was arrested on arrival in New York. The case excited great public interest.

This gave me to contemplate the word ‘mullered’ (pronounced as in the German – mʊllered, or müllered if you will).

In our contemporary English society, where we uphold the fine tradition of celebrating Liberty by going out and getting gut-bustingly drunk, getting mullered means to get very very pissed and is one of those words used to designate a debilitating self-imposed attack upon the senses and nervous system through excessive consumption of alcohol.

‘I was well mullered last night,’ for instance. (See also – brace yourselves ladies –  arseholed, twatted, fucked, smashed, mashed, lashed, the aforementioned pissed, blitzed, cunted, wrecked, slaughtered, and the memorable occasion when my brother, in answer to a question from my mother as to where he was going, said, ‘I’m going out to get damaged.’ And people wonder why our town centres are in a state.)

Anyway – whence, I wondered, this word. Could it have continued from Stevenson’s time? Or was it a coincidental modern version?

The Internet asserted vaguely that it was possibly adapted from Gerd Müller, the prolific German striker of the ’70s, known for his strikes of prodigious power into the back of the net – thus, ‘Cor, did you see ‘im hoof that ball? He well müllered it‘ (actual usage), or from the popular tabloid cliche of the Mad Mullah, used conveniently to label any Middle Eastern religious leader who happened to enter the public consciousness. In fact interestingly, since I thought it was a ’70s/80s thing, Wikipedia suggests that this term was first used about Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, who was around at the turn of the 19th century.

To get back to the point in hand; neither of those explanations seemed to carry any sort of weight of authority behind them. Not that you can necessarily expect such certainty in this sort of area, but still, I felt the quarry had not yet been run to ground. That latter derivation from the Mad Mullah seemed most unlikely.

The idea that it originated from the verb ‘to muller’, to beat or pound (as in a muller – the vessel in which mulled wine was made) was tempting but foundered on the rocks of pronunciation – sounds like ‘to mull over’ don’t you know. Müller might go to muller, (and indeed did, see below) but surely not the other way round.

A dictionary of modern slang was not much use, telling me only that Mullah was a Dublin slang term for any Irishman not from Dublin. A new one on me.

Time to pull out the OED –

müller – also muller [f. the name of Franz Müller, a murderer, who was convicted in 1864 on circumstantial evidence in which a hat was of considerable significance]. To alter (a hat) in the manner alleged to have been done by Franz Müller. Also as sb., a type of flat-topped felt hat similar to that associated with Müller.

1864 in Farmer & Henly Slang (1896) IV .384/1 In a small shop not from from Sloane-square, Chelsea, may be seen the following tasteful announcement: Hats muller’d here.

1909 Daily Chron. 22 Nov. 4/7 Müller’s hat … formed the connectcing link in a remarkable chain of circumstantial evidence. Henceforth ‘mullers’, as they were called, were tabooed.

Note that they don’t actually have the definition as used by Stevenson – that is to be attacked in such a way. Well, and what of it? On the whole I’m inclined to go with the Gerd Müller version, mainly because I find it slightly unlikely that the pronounciation would have been preserved over all these years, and also, well the source feels more likely for your lager swilling hoolie such as wot I is. That’s no guarantee though, I mean  ‘quid’s been in continuous use for centuries innit.

Maybe these chaps will know. After all, they know about hats. And language. Should be a cinch. I don’t know about these things, do I.

Oh, Wikipedia has a nice couple of bits of trivia, if you choose to believe such things (place well above ‘man in pub’ but slightly below ‘scholarly book’, I’d say) –

The murder of Briggs resulted in the establishment of compulsory communication between train passengers and members of the crew. If Briggs had been able to contact the train driver or guard, the murder could have been prevented.

The oddest feature of this first railway murder case in England was its effect on fashion. Muller’s redesign of the hat he took from Briggs became a popular style into the 20th Century, called “the Muller Cut-Down” hat. It was especially popularized by future Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Well, I’m no closer to actually knowing where this word comes from. But the things you learn, eh? The things you learn.

Right, I’m orf down the rub-a-dub-dub for a sniff of the barmaid’s apron. So to speak.

Today I’m going to do something with pimentos, Ainsley

August 1, 2009

The details you find in journals and memoirs are often things that are lost to less digressive forms of recorded history.

Take this wartime meal described by Denton Welch in his journal entry for Monday, 7th June, 1943 –

Last Monday I went to supper with Noel Adeney. We had cold soup flavoured with claret, and fennel in long green shreds; then a sort of pilau of rice, onions fried, pimento excitingly scarlet like dogs’ tools, and grated cheese. The tiniest new potatoes and salad. Afterwards plums, and creamy mild tomato cocktail to drink.

Sounds delicious doesn’t it? Easy on the dogs’ tools tho.

A bit later, he goes into a pub with his friend Eric who has gin with half a pint of stock. Impressive, huh? Don’t see that very often. One to ask superior cocktail waiters for.

Wouldn’t like to see you all going hungry though, so here’s what today’s top chefs have to offer.

Champagne Charlie

February 13, 2008

Evelyn Waugh’s travel writing as selected in When the Going was Good is exceptionally enjoyable. Rather than generally review its considerable merits however I wanted to look briefly at a single incident when he was on a Mediterranean cruise. In Athens after a late night out, Waugh visits a friend –

I told him that I had had a late night, drinking after the ball with some charming Norwegians, and felt a little shaken. He then made me this drink, which I commend to anyone in need of a wholesome and easily accessibly pick-me-up. he took a large tablet of beet sugar (an equivalent quantity of ordinary lump sugar does equally well) and soaked it in Angostura Bitters and then rolled it in Cayenne pepper. This he put into a large glass which he filled up with champagne. The excellences of this drink defy description. The sugar and Angostura enrich the wine and take away that slight acidity which renders even the best champagne slightly repugnant in the early morning. Each bubble as it rises to the surface carries with it a red grain of pepper, so that as one drinks one’s appetite is at once stimulated and gratified, heat and cold, fire and liquid, contending on one’s palate and alternating in the mastery of one’s sensations. I sipped this almost unendurably desirable drink and played with the artificial birds and musical boxes until Alastair was ready to come out.

When I read this I was very struck; Read the rest of this entry »