Fowler’s Miscellany III


Now, Where Did I Put That Masterpiece?

Cambridge University Library has announced that two notebooks filled by Charles Darwin have been missing for 20 years. One of them contains the 19th Century scientist’s famous Tree of Life sketch, exploring the evolutionary relationship between species. They were ‘miscatalogued’ but academics reckoned they sort of knew where they were. Only they weren’t. The BBC website says, ‘The library contains more than 200km of shelving, roughly the distance from Cambridge to Southampton by road.’ (Love those analogies, like measuring dinosaurs with double-decker buses). It is home to more than 10 million maps and manuscripts and other objects.

This sort of thing happens all the time in the UK. We have too much stuff, much of it borrowed from other countries. It can’t all have ended up in Linley Sanbourne’s house.

I was once hired by the BBC to wrote a Hallowe’en event, a ghost story to be broadcast live from the studio’s old Westbourne Grove premises. They gave me the run of the place, which seemingly went on for miles underground and was filled with studios and archives no-one had sorted through in decades, like recordings for The Old Grey Whistle Test and live shows.

The caretaker of this frankly eerie repository confided, ‘We’ve got no idea what’s down here. The logs were lost years ago and half these mag masters are knackered. There’s supposed to be some stuff The Beatles recorded for us around the time of The White Album but we haven’t got the staff to sort it all out.’ I believe the building has since been cleared and sold off for flats.

I’ve heard this of museums and libraries falling into disrepair too. I was once in the old Cairo Museum, somewhere to the rear of the building where the lights were failing and there were artefacts strewn all over the floor. Two workmen turned up, unscrewed a case containing a priceless boy king’s gold death mask, whipped it out barehanded, stood it on its end against a radiator, replaced a flickering bulb and bunged it back in. Which sort of made me wonder if the Elgin Marbles should stay in The British Museum for a while longer.

I Have My Plot All Marked Out

In a past article I talked about the stages of creative life – as we move from juvenilia to rebellion, romantic notions, anger and compromising maturity we accrue working habits from experience, not all of which are good. Whenever I’ve become log-jammed in a novel, worried that the plot is becoming overly complex, I’ve sought the worst possible way out – by coming up with a fix that involves an entirely new chunk of plot.

My spouse, that fount of all things wise and eminently sound, he being the person you should  run toward if the ship was sinking and you were insensible to the laws of survival (as am I), gave me four words to live by on the page; ‘Less plot, more story.’ You shouldn’t keep adding more ideas when the ones you’ve got haven’t been fully worked through. This is the trap most writers like myself fall into, so let it be your warning too.

Right now, I am making last minute adjustments to ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ that trim out some of the plot in order to flesh out the real story behind it. It’s good advice, and it works.

You Call This Research?

Wandering around London is hardly hard work. The other day I went for a long solo walk down through Clerkenwell, past the building where my mother and father met, and there was a ballet school on Herbal Hill, its pupils practising the Nutcracker, an oasis of warmth and life. I reached St Paul’s and returned without seeing a soul, barely even a vehicle. The silence was deep and blanketing, helped by a November fog.

I’ve been going out most days to take shots of tiny urban details, which I find far more interesting than anything in the countryside (sorry, I was pre-programmed by my family).

I repeated the trip yesterday, walking along the refurbished North Thames Embankment, which now opens up the shoreside in narrow walkways. If you pass beneath London Bridge and continue back toward the West End you’ll find a grill in a building by Blackfriars through which you can seen the original staircase down into the water. If one compares it to the wider original you see the odd Egyptian influence that exists all the way along this side of the river until you hit Cleopatra’s Needle.

On foggy winter mornings the sloping streets to the river have a fantastic atmosphere, and it’s surprising how many unexplored routes I still discover. There was a cul-de-sac next to Blackfriars Bridge leading to a river staircase which I found myself wedged into on NYE 2000, not knowing that Pete, my future spouse, was in the same spot (we would have met at a dinner party that same year if I had not been sick) but on today’s trip I found that the little street had been annihilated by the new station.

On foggy mornings the street lamps stay on (the fog had cleared a minute before this shot) and the deserted roads remove a hundred years from the views. It allows you to search out odd details around you. It wasn’t until Pete pointed out the bird on the column that I noticed it. I have a book of London’s animal statuary somewhere – there’s a lot more around than you think.

And so London continues to inspire, especially now, when you feel like hailing a fellow walker because you’ve not passed anyone else for an hour!


15 comments on “Fowler’s Miscellany III”

  1. Barbara Boucke says:

    Thank you for Fowler’s Miscellany III.

  2. Jan says:

    It’s true that now you come to mention it Mr. F there are Egyptian influences on the N bank all along that stretch. Never really fully come to grips with that before. They actually go on that bit further West from.Celia needle but then only really echoed in the natty park benches and odd bits of street furniture( look at the lamposts.)

    What’s equally strange (this could be me just being fanciful here Chris) but starting at Blackfriars + you are just about @ Blackfriars bridge here on the N bank you are at the confluence of rivers where the Fleet meets the Thames. If you look at the big building close to Blackfriars bridge where they took the statues away a few years back- is it the Unilever building? Just west of that is a bit of a gap where the watercourse utilised by the old Bridewell palace ran. I think that waterway was created from the Fleet. The Fleet was also known as the River of Wells. The well at St Brides off Fleet Street is a Fleet well. The present St Brides (the wedding cake church) was built upon Saxon foundations + very oddly for them the Saxons built on the remains of a Roman temple or villa. That was an important well used in symbolically cleansing the route taken by every king of England on the way to his coronation from Norman times till it dries up in the Georgian era after some catchpenny scheme to sell the wells waters was overly sucessful!

    It’s almost as if the symbolism and importance of this river confluence which was important if not in folk memory exactly sacred becomes synonymous with emblems and artefacts from the Nile river delta. I can’t explain that logically but it seems to be true.

    Weird that isn’t it?

    In fact the whole Cleos needle story it’s dangerous trabsfer, and placement by the Thames is a bit off as are its counterparts in Paris and in the U.S. (probably as much to do with the influence of Freemasonry as owt else. ) I wonder how much was unconscious and how much down to the influence of Masonic power?

  3. Jan says:

    Should read not Celia needle but Cleos needle! Teach me to be lazy.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Measuring by lengths of 45 foot trailer loads of beer (2880 doz beer per trailer). With tractors attached and units travelling bumper to bumper (72 feet overall) = 35 miles.
    This was measuring the amount of beer imported from Wash. State during a beer strike about 30 years ago and is the distance from the Canada/US border to downtown Vancouver. My husband can convert almost any commodity into truck loads and stretch it out to appropriate distances. For Ed’s benefit that was mostly Olympia (“it’s the water, the water, the water that makes Olympia pure”) beer.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    Destroyed areas of rainforest always seem to be in parcels that are conveniently the size of Wales. How fortunate is that?*

    *Although I did once work with someone who thought that Wales was a city in Scotland. Not saying he was thick, but if his brains were dynamite, and exploded, the blast wouldn’t have parted his hair.

  6. John Griffin says:

    Ian, I have Year 12 6th formers who think Wales is a city located “somewhere”. One lass had been to Cardiff but thought it near London, and was astonished when I asked about the bilingual signs – they hadn’t noticed.
    I took this up with the Geography Dept who showed me the Yr 7 and Yr 9 map work – their explanation was that most kids couldn’t give a sh*t. They think it weird that I speak a bit of Welsh. So I wouldn’t blame teachers, just the casual indifference of many teens that extends lifelong for many, especially the xenophobes.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    In the old days, when you could go to a pub and take part in a pub quiz, I was with an old mate of mine, and at the end, the quiz sheets were given to the next table to mark. We got a sheet from some students, which was full of crossing out, and scribbly marks. It was embarrassing. Out of 50 not that difficult questions, they got less than 20 right. We didn’t win, but came second, but the students just left when we returned their sheet.
    A good tip if you know you are going to be doing a pub quiz, is to take a pen with an unusual coloured ink with you; I preferred green or purple – then there’s little chance of your sheet being tampered with when being marked. Some people never got ithe idea of being a ‘good sport’.

  8. Ed DesCamp says:

    Helen – I like your husband’s measurement method. One observation: Oly is ok, but Rainier always had the best TV ads.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Ed, agreeing with you as far as that goes but, it is still very weak beer, 3.25% alcohol by volume. Buy “Blue” as an import, makes me realize how lucky I am to buy it as a local beer. 5.5% a/v. Although I did like the firehall at Tumwater.(Dictated by the husband.)

  10. Jan says:

    Brooke don’t get me wrong my own spiel is a massive oversimplification in itself. The divisions in the UK are complex.

    Like with most things folks own political beliefs come into play in their theories on this particular topic. As illustrated the various comments here.

  11. Jan says:

    Brooke don’t get me wrong my own spiel is a massive oversimplification in itself. The divisions in the UK are complex.

    Like with most things folks own political beliefs come into play in their theories on this particular topic. As illustrated the various comments here

    Oops comment on wrong thread sorry Chris

  12. Ed DesCamp says:

    Helen – to him indoors: US beer isn’t really beer…more like NearBeer.

  13. Theophylact says:

    Ed — you’re ignoring craft beers, which are now booming. Flying Dog’s “The Truth”, an Imperial IPA, checks in at 8.7% alcohol by volume, and it’s not an outlier.

  14. Ed DesCamp says:

    Theophylact – true, and I need to explore more, but I ruined myself while working in Scotland on the delights of Harviestoun’s Bitter & Twisted (normal tipple) and their Ola Dubh limit: one per evening, or confusion reigned. I haven’t found replacements yet.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Once the border is open again, Ed, come to Vancouver and try The Back Hand of God Stout by Crannog Ales. It’s not thick like many stouts, but is vigorous and substantial. A definite favourite of mine. Who knows, perhaps they ship across the border.

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