Category Archives: The Past

The Past is a Foreign Country

For TOURISTS and TRAVELLERS in Foreign lands

One of my favourite genres of book is that of the really old foreign-language phrasebook. They’re a thin but illuminating window into so many things: who is travelling, and why; who they are talking to, and why; what expectations they have. If there isn’t a PhD-thesis-turned-monograph on the subject, there certainly should be. My fondness is much shallower: the de-contextualised expectations of the historical traveller can be extremely funny.

From the perspective of having a jolly good laugh, older phrasebooks are to be preferred. We aren’t interested in the modern phrasebooks for the modern city-breaker, or the hippies’ guides to Asia, or even the WW2/occupation-era phrasebooks for military personnel moving about the world. On the other hand, too far back, and the only people travelling are traders and diplomats, whose phrasebooks are too pragmatic for much comedy. No, for best results, we want phrasebooks from the height of (the British) empire, the early twentieth century.

I recently acquired a perfect specimen: Marlborough’s Danish, Self-Taught, by W. F. Harvey, M.A. Undated, but the third edition of the “Self-Taught” series seems to have been published in the early 1930s.

Some of the words chosen for inclusion in the vocabulary section are… quite different to those of modern phrasebooks. For example, there is a long section on “Fruit, Trees, Flowers, and Vegetables”, including such everyday examples as vegetable-marrow, myrtle, lily-of-the-valley. There is a page for “Minerals and Metals”, in case one needs to discuss agate, gravel, or the carbuncle. The page for “Mankind; Relations”, includes, as well as the expected familial relation words, translations for “a dwarf”, “a hunchback”, “a giant”. Let’s assume these are for translating fairy-tales.

The choice of phrases to include in each section reveals the intended audience to be a the more well-heeled traveller. Some selections:

I want a first-class ticket to …Jeg ⌀nsker en f⌀rste Klasses Billet til …yey eun’sker en feur’ster klahs’ses billet’ til …
Please give him my card Vær saa god at give ham mit Kort vayr soh goh aht gee(ver) ham mit kort
Which is the best hotel?Hvilket er det bedste Hotel?vil’ket air day bester hohtel’?
Can I obtain the exclusive right over the shooting?Kan jeg faa Eneret paa Jagten her?kah(n) ih foh ee’ner-ret poh yahk’ten hair?

In fact, the entire “Shooting” section is pretty great. What kind of shooting can I get here? Any Capercailzie? Let me have a shoot with your gun. How many dogs can you let me have? HOW MANY DOGS? Are the dogs properly trained?? Keep the dogs back! HOL HOON’NENER TIL’-BAHGHER!!

Getting the worst of the upper-class entitlement are the domestic staff. The book has sections for conversations with The Dressmaker, The Shoemaker, and The Laundress. Albeit there are more different ways for these experiences to go badly than to go well, but the book has no suggestions for “good job with that dress”, or “here is a gratuity, my good man”. Instead there are a diverse collection of ways to complain about the service received.

Don’t disappoint meNar mig ikkenar’ mih ik’ker
They hurt my toesDe klemmer mig over Tæernede klem’mer mih ee hay-len ow’er tay’-er-ner ee vrist’en
This is too limpDette er ikke stift nokdet’ter air ik’ker stift nok
See how badly that is doneSe hvor daarligt det er gjortse vor dor’lee day air gheyohrt’
You must take it backDa maa tage det tilbagedee moh tah day tilbah’gher
This is not my handkerchiefDette er ikke mit Lommet⌀rklædedet’ter air ik’ker mit lom’mer-tuer’klay-ther
You have torn my dressDe har revet denne Kjole itudee har ray’vet den’ner keyohl’-er eetoo’

It is also important to be able to express complaints more generally. The section on “Expressions of Surprise, Sorrow, Joy and Anger, &c” has got you covered.

Chapter heading: Expressions of Surprise, Sorrow, Joy, Anger, &c
Indeed! Virkelig! veer’kelee!
Don’t touch!R⌀r det ikke reur day ik’ker
I am quite vexed about itDet plager mig en Delday plah’gher mih en dehl’
I am in a bad temperJeg er i daarligt Hum⌀ryey air ee dor’lee hoomeur’
Hold your tongueTi stilletee stil’ler
You are very wrong De har fuldstændig Uretdee har foolsten’dee oo’ret
How could you do so?Hvorledes kunde De g⌀re det?vor lairth’es koon’ner dee gheu’rer day?
I am ashamed of youJeg skammer mig over Demyey skam’mer mih ow’er dem
For shame!Skam Demskam dem
You are very much to blameDe er meget at dadledee air mih’et aht dahth’ler

If you would like your own copy, so that you too can learn to speak Danish like an entitled Britisher from 90 years ago, there is currently a copy available on Etsy.

The Swan and her crew (1876)

One of the books often cited as a source for Arthur Ransome’s Norfolk-based stories (Coot Club and The Big Six), is the 1876 work by G. Christopher Davies, “The Swan And Her Crew, or the adventures of three young naturalists and sportsmen on the broads and rivers of Norfolk“. The subtitle should have been a give-away, but I was unprepared for the extent of the slaughter enacted by the crew of the Swan on the local wildlife. In the first chapter alone, a pair of crossbills are shot out of a rare-to-Norfolk flock, caterpillars are harvested by the handful to be raised for pinning, and the Swan undertakes her maiden voyage, during which a grebe’s nest is entirely mown down, and a coot’s nest is cast adrift (a sequence inverted in the first chapter of Coot Club).

Soon afterwards, the three young protagonists receive, from their tutor (a vicar), the following lecture on how to be good naturalists, and I dared wonder whether they might behave more carefully for the rest of the book.

Now it won’t take you long to decide that Natural History is a very right and proper thing for you to take up, and therefore you may study it with all your might, and, I doubt not, to the praise and glory of God ; but be very careful about the collecting part of the business. Don’t let your zeal carry you too far. Don’t let collecting be your sole aim and object, or you will become very low types of naturalists. Let it be only secondary and subservient to observation. Let your aim be to preserve rather than to destroy. Remember that God gave life to His creatures that they might enjoy it, as well as fulfil their missions and propagate their species. Therefore if you come across a rare bird, do not kill it unnecessarily ; if you can observe its living motions it will interest you more and do you more good than will the possession of its stuffed body when dead.

Nope. The book goes on to describe a year spent pursuing their interests, in which it becomes clear that “sportsman” and “naturalist” are more alike than a modern reader would expect, and that “naturalist” does not in the slightest mean “conservationist”.

Dozens, maybe hundreds, of eggs are taken from the nests of over twenty different species of birds, although in a few cases the nest is already abandoned through no fault of the protagonists (e.g. someone else shot the parent bird), and the boys rarely take more than half the eggs of each clutch. However, these meliorations are entirely offset by the author’s other disclaimer: “It must not be supposed that I mention all the nests and eggs the boys found in their rambles. Space forbids me to notice more than those which are rare or unusual. For the nest of one rare or uncommon bird they found a dozen of the commoner sorts, for they were very quick observers.”

That habit makes the recorded egg collection look like a parade of rare species: bearded tits, siskins, hen harriers, water rail, wryneck, golden orioles, corn-crakes, bitterns. The scarcity of these birds is often mentioned as a point of interest. Sometimes in the same sentence as the egg collection. On a couple of occasions, the fact that the birds are rare because of egg collectors is mentioned in the same paragraph as the egg collection.

On bitterns, for instance:

Early the next morning they renewed their search, and while they were crashing through the very middle of the reed bed, the bittern rose with a hoarse cry, and flew away with a dull, heavy flight. And there, as good luck would have it, was its nest, a large structure of sticks, reeds and rushes, and in it were four eggs, large, round, and pale brown in colour. It was not in human nature (or at least in boy nature) to resist taking all the eggs.

At one time [the bittern] was common enough in England, but the spread of cultivation, the drainage of the marshes, and the pursuit of the collector have rendered it rare ; … its nest is now but rarely found.

As well as eggs, the boys are keen on hunting, mostly wildfowl, but happy to take anything else that comes their way. On one occasion, a punt gun is demonstrated to devastating effect. (“The mighty gun flashed forth its deadly contents with a tremendous roar, and Frank found himself hurled back upon Jimmy… The birds which were unhurt swept away with a great clamour, but the mud was covered with dead and dying.”). The correct time for shooting ducks is revealed to be, not only in winter on mud-flats, but also in late summer on corn-fields, and in early summer when young ones have just learned to fly and aren’t very good at it yet (“for an hour or so they had good sport beating about the dykes, and flushing them one by one until they had disposed of the whole brood.”), and basically whenever else you like.

There is less empathy for fish killed in sport, but the sheer volumes documented in The Swan are staggering. Here is one of their better days:

Before six o’clock in the evening they had caught over three hundred fishes, big and little, the largest about five pounds in weight. The total weight was about twelve stone. Norfolk bream fishers will know that I am not exaggerating.
“I am thoroughly tired of this,” said Dick at length; “this is not sport, it is butchery, especially as we do not know what to do with them now we have caught them, except to give them to some farmer for manure.”

As with the “nesting”, Davies assures us that the documented days of fishing are only a small proportion of the boys’ activities.

So, obviously this book is going on 140 years old now, and I wasn’t expecting a conservationist agenda, but its entire tone is strikingly different from the Coot Club books of Arthur Ransome, despite the similarity in setting and focus. Ransome obviously drew inspiration from The Swan, but it is the fishing incidents that he gives to the Death and Glories to have (the eel-fishing, and the giant pike), not the murderous transects through the local bird-life. And now I wonder how much the invention of photography, as a non-fatal method of documenting sightings, had on practical ornithology. So all in all I’m rather glad that it is Ransome’s books that are still read, that egg-collecting is no longer common practice, and that wildfowling is managed in a conservation-aware way.

Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Fate Worse Than Death

In June 1970, an article by R. D. Mullen appeared in the fanzine Riverside Quarterly, detailing all occurrances of a heroine escaping the lustful clutches of a villain in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs written between 1911 and 1915. From just those five years (21 novels), Mullen finds and lists seventy-four such instances.

The stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs contain many lessons of great value for the attentive reader, but none more valuable than the warning that an unprotected girl is always in danger of being raped by an Arab, Negro, great ape, Green Martian, or monster of some other kind, or by a wicked white man, or sometimes even by a good white man. Unwilling to rest content with a mere warning, Burroughs also provides many useful pointers on how an endangered young lady may defend her honour — or, if her own resources fail, on the kinds of rescue that may be expected from an ever-watchful Providence.

— R. D. Mullen, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Fate Worse Than Death