Author: J. A. Macfarlane

J. A. Macfarlane is among other things a curmudgeonly scribe, a Shakespearean scholar, and a persnickety stylist with a particular penchant for alliterative prose. He ekes out a living as an editor and proofreader in both French and English, and is always willing to consider taking on new projects, particularly interesting ones. His current location is the outskirts of nowhere, where it is snowy.

The Making of the Archetypal Englishman

Jonas Hanway (1712–1786) may be the most contradictory character ever involved in the formation of British culture. On the one hand, he was likely the first man in London to carry a “brolly” (a.k.a. umbrella), establishing a trend that continues to this day. This, incidentally, was in the face of vocal opposition from coachmen, who were afraid that the new invention would cost them trade, as they were accustomed to being the only option on a rainy day.

On the other hand, Hanway was less pioneering in his long-standing feud with the famed author Dr. Samuel Johnson over the issue of tea. Dr. Johnson was for it, and Hanway very much against, as he explained in his 350-page An Essay on Tea, Considered As PERNICIOUS TO HEALTH, obstructing INDUSTRY, and impoverishing the NATION: also an Account of its GROWTH, and great CONSUMPTION in these KINGDOMS, with several POLITICAL REFLECTIONS; and THOUGHTS on PUBLIC LOVE, in Thirty-Two LETTERS to Two Ladies. Among other things, he argues therein at great length that drinking tea is an ‘offence against nature’, because humans are not meant to drink hot water, and that this ‘flatulent liquor’ causes scurvy, weak nerves, and ‘paralitic disorders’, ‘convulses the bowels’ (which he knows ‘from my own experience’), and leads to bad teeth, and a general lowering in the beauty quotient of English women.

Fortunately for tea devotees, the author/dictionary-writer prevailed. The brolly-bearing English tea quaffer had only to wait a century for Edward Coke to complete the cliché with a bowler hat.

Do Not Go Lulled Into That Good Night

While today’s vision of the conductor is that of the be-tuxedoed individual standing in front of an orchestra holding a thin strip of wood, the baton is actually a relative newcomer to the musical world. Before its introduction in the 19th century, conductors used any rod-shaped object that happened to be handy, everything from a rolled-up musical score to a violin bow—or, in the case of Jean-Baptiste Lully, master of music and sycophant to Louis XIV, a walking cane.

Often considered the founder of the modern orchestra, due to his fixing its basis in a five-part string section and ensuring the dominance of the violin family over the viols, Lully conducted not by waving his cane like a lance at his musicians, but by raising his long, heavy, gilded, and ribbon-bedecked ambulation accessory up and down in time like a drum major, alternating between striking it on the floor and thrusting it straight up in the air. For a man of Lully’s temper, this was perhaps not the wisest choice. While conducting the orchestra in a rehearsal of his rendition of Te Deum, to be performed to celebrate the King’s recovery from surgery, the composer grew furious at the musicians’ inability to do quite what he wanted, and struck the floor particularly hard. Unfortunately, he had failed to notice that his foot was in the way.

Unless he was a particularly melodious screamer, the Te Deum’s harmony was presumably further spoiled by Lully’s subsequent howl of pain. The injury was substantial, and in the following days, infection set in. Being a dancer, Lully refused to have his leg amputated. Gangrene migrated upwards from his foot, settled in his brain, and killed him.

Curiously, the reciprocating cane method of conducting has not been revived by the original instrument movement.

The Sack of Champagne

It is a cliché that Shakespeare ranks among the great inventors of the English language, a commonly-believed fallacy that his vocabulary was larger than that of any other writer, and a simple fact that he is likely the single most-cited author in the Oxford English Dictionary. What is less known is his contribution to the language of German drinking.

One of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters is the great rogue Falstaff, an incorrigible rascal whose taste for drink is matched only by his obesity. In early 19th century Germany, no actor was better known in the part than Ludwig Devrient, whose later life shows what might be called either a strong sympathy for his character’s style—or an early example of tenacious method acting. It was Devrient’s habit, on leaving the stage after playing Falstaff and, as actors tend to do, joining the others at the pub, to enter and bellow one of his character’s defining lines—namely, “Bring me a cup of sack!”

Sack was a very popular type of sherry in Shakespeare’s day, and his drunkards’ drink of choice. But it was not a common drink in the type of taverns that actors could patronise in Germany at the time, and what Devrient was actually calling for was the Bohemian drink of choice of the day—sparkling wine, most likely Champagne.

Champagne is now thought of as a high-class drink, but in the Romantic era it was quaffed in great quantities among artists, whose budget kept them from truly decent drinks. Devrient, touring throughout Germany, repeated his entrance in pub after pub—and as a result, cheap, barely-drinkable sparkling wine is still known in German today as ‘sekt’.

[Ed Note: In a historical parallel, in America’s early colonial days, lobsters were extremely abundant on the east coast, so much so that wealthy residents had no interest in eating the stuff. Lobster tails were served primarily to prisoners and servants, often despite protest. It wasn’t until railways began to serve this cheap foodstuff to inland passengers—passing it off as an exotic east coast delicacy—that it began its rise to the fine dining scene. Ultimately, America accepted the inevitable deliciousness of lobster during World War 2, when lobster was not rationed like other meats. -AB]

The Cantaloupe Peril

Serving your melon with a layer of prosciutto around it may simply seem like one of the many lovely contributions of Italian cuisine to the summer menu, but doing so is in fact a way of proclaiming one’s allegiance to Galen’s medical theories. Back in the Middle Ages, when Galen’s theory of the four bodily humours (black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm) was not the latest thing but the oldest thing, and therefore the done thing, fresh fruit was considered a dangerous proposition at the dinner table. Cold and moist, fruit risked lowering your inner temperature, knocking your humours off-balance and doing terrible things to your digestion. It was thought that wellness and survival required the appropriate amount dryness and heat—and the eating of cool and juicy melon was akin to throwing a wet piece of wood on a fire. In fact, when Pope Paul II died in July 1471, his death was blamed on excessive organ chilling due to a meal of melons.

For some reason, however, people still had the urge to eat fruit in spite of their doctors’ best efforts, and so various methods of offsetting the perils of fructivorous gourmandising were developed, some of which remain with us thanks to their deliciousness: having pears with a glass or port or cooked in wine, and, in this case, wrapping your dark, cold, and phlegmatic melon in some dry, salted, sanguine meat.

Cry Havoc, and Let Slip the Spuds of War

Staple though it is today, the lowly potato had a hard time reaching its preeminent status in Western cuisine. Perhaps its lengthy purgatory has something to do with the tale that when Sir Walter Raleigh gave some potatoes to Queen Elizabeth, her cooks tossed aside the roots and served up the boiled greens instead, causing a court-wide case of indigestion. Whether that’s the case or not—and there’s no evidence that Raleigh ever so much as set eyes on a potato—for decades Europeans would have nothing to do with the tuber. At best, it was found useful to feed the cattle. At worst, it was considered a leprosy-inducing invention of the devil.

This belief was particularly pernicious in the fair fields of France, a country at the time holding a quarter of Europe’s inhabitants despite its periodic decimation by epidemic and famine. By the beginning of the 17th century France’s population had reached twenty million and continued to rise. Clearly, a cheap, plentiful, and resilient crop was just what the nutritionist ordered, yet even in the face of the brutal demographic crises that popped up every ten to fifteen years over the next two centuries, each time lopping two or three million inhabitants off the non-existent voting rolls, the potato remained unpondered, unprized, and unplanted.

Clearly, the potato needed a champion. What it got was a pharmacist.

Night Takes Rook

Please give a warm welcome to our newest author Mr J A Macfarlane. Hip-hip...!

Engineers need to have faith in their designs, but not many would necessarily be confident enough to put their lives at risk just to prove it. It takes a great deal of faith to design a lighthouse for the most dangerous reef in the English Channel, especially when no-one has ever built a lighthouse on the open sea before. It takes rather more to actually build it. And one approaches the shores of hubris when one decides to visit said lighthouse with a massive gale on the way. But when Henry Winstanley, an 18th-century English eccentric, designed and constructed the world’s first open-sea lighthouse on a small and extraordinarily treacherous group of rocks fourteen miles out from Plymouth, he was so confident in his building that he blithely assured all doubters he would be willing to weather the strongest storm within its confines – a boast he had the chance to live up to when he found himself in his lighthouse as the most violent tempest in England’s history approached its shores.

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