It’s almost fifty years since my brother David and I used to kick off the (very) occasional parties at our home in Cheltenham with our favourite track: “The Hawaiian Goose or Ne-Ne”, from Peter Scott’s little-known EP Wildfowl Calling. Peter Scott, TV presenter, writer, artist, son of Scott of the Antarctic, was best known to us back then as the director of the Wildfowl Trust (now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) based at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. Listen here for a flavour of those evenings.
Since those heady days my own interest in ornithology has ratcheted down one or two pegs, but David’s has been on an ever-increasing upward spiral. After investigating ecosystems at university, he launched himself into a career surveying flora and fauna at numerous reserves around the country: Ravenglass in Cumbria, the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast, and several others which remain in my memory only as accumulations of rock and grass.
David now lives in France, in the Dordogne region, and is a resident specialist on the birds and butterflies of the area. Several years ago, he published an introductory BirdingDordogne with bird checklists, where-to-watch-birds maps, and a host of other features. This time he’s gone several steps better with the Crossbill Guide toDordogne, and he and local French naturalist Frank Jouandoudet have produced the authoritative guide to the birds and wildlife of Dordogne, beautifully illustrated and with an engagingly informative text. Whether you’re planning a holiday to the centre of France, or just interested in the ecology of the region, you’ll need a copy of this: order from Crossbill, NHBS or Amazon.
Apparently I’m now the go-to reviewer for chatty style guides. I recently reviewed A World without ‘Whom’: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age by Emmy J. Favilla, the Copy Chief at Buzzfeed. I enjoyed it, although it’s not the sort of book that Mr Fowler would have written without some additional incentive. Three colours on the cover, so no expense spared there.
The origin of the nickname for the Freeman’s Journal, “an Old Woman in Prince’s street”, is investigated (the Freeman’s didn’t publish from Prince’s Street until 2 May 1826).
On a similar topographical line, Harald Beck researches George Moore’s reference to London as “the Brixton Empire”, which Joyce alludes to in “Aeolus”.
Did King Edward VII have a penchant for jujubes (fruit pastilles)? Joyce calls him the “jujube-sucking King” in “Lestrygonians”. It turns out that the King did indeed spend some of his leisure hours sucking bulls’ eyes and jujubes.
Attention is naturally focused on No 7 Eccles Street, but what was happening at No 8, next-door? “Woods his name is”, as Joyce tells us. “Stopping by Woods next-door” looks at the life of Patrick Woods and his wife Rosanna, with information provided by their great-grandson Paul Duffy as well as Dublin archive sources. Their tale is one that Joyce will not have known in full, starting promisingly – as the newly published photograph of the couple indicates – before family problems open up a path of decline.
“No followers allowed” traces the genesis of this stock expression from newspaper small ads from the 18th century, and other articles cover the “rich” of the bacon and a “kish” of brogues (ignorant as a … ).
Cheltenham’s newest literary venue is the Suffolk Anthology, and yesterday I braved the post-race Cheltenham Festival revellers to walk up to Suffolk Parade to give a talk about TheWord Detective. The owner, Helene, holds events such as these in the basement of the bookshop. It’s a cosy venue, with a friendly crowd ready with comments and questions if you give them a chance. We started off talking about stereotypes (the word and the thing, especially as it relates to dictionary editors) and then moved off onto Cheltenham words (promenade, spa), to see what a historical dictionary like the OED finds to say about them. I think I must have veered off piste somewhere as, before I knew it, I was halfway through my allotted time. But it didn’t matter – what I really wanted to do was to talk about words, not about the mechanics of publishing a dictionary.
While I was talking, I was missing the fourth instalment of The Word Detective as Radio 4’s Book of the Week. Still, there’s always i-Player. The voice and tone aren’t mine by a long way. I thought I had written the book to dispel some of the old dictionary stereotypes, but the production tends to reflect them – including the Jeeves and Wooster-ish music at the beginning and end.
Next week I’m giving a lunchtime talk to the Friends of The Wilson in Cheltenham – a slightly different type of presentation on roughly the same theme. So it won’t matter if someone inadvertently goes to both. On that occasion there will be pictures as well as words.
It somehow occurred to me that a) I had not posted to this blog in over a year *gulp* and that b) 2016 is over in the next two days. At first, I thought 2016 was a fairly disturbing year. It still is in several aspects, but then I looked at my Goodreads challenge. Many, many fantastic reads came across my desk this year, and I can’t wait to see what the 2017 literary world has in store for me.
I read 45 total books this year, 5 short of my goal of 50 (which believe it or not was originally a goal of 100! What was I thinking?). I’m quite pleased with my result, though, because several of the books I read this year were in French. My native language is English, but I have been studying French for 7-8 years now.
I’m currently in the US, just a few days after the presidential election. As recent political events in both the US and the UK have shown, democratic processes can arouse strong feelings, and by definition not everyone will approve of the results.
One of the themes running through The Word Detectiveis the democratization of the OED (the “z” is Oxford’s preferred style, as well as the US spelling) and I’ve written an article about this for The Daily Beast.