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Not a topic that I’ve thought about too much, but this blog could of course come to a grinding halt some day. CabbieBlog has a pretty thorough think-piece about how a blog hosted by WordPress (as this one is) might one day disappear, and what remedies there might be for the blogger in quest of immortality.

Such a disappearance might be caused by plug-pulling by WordPress, or of course by the demise of the blogger. For myself I’ve got no objection to the posts on this blog continuing to be available after I’m gone; but at the same time I won’t be feeling any concern if they are not, though I do make a back-up copy in Pages against a WordPress hiccough. I have no plans to compile any printed selection, so whatever happens will happen. As the Italian sage (or was it Spanish?)* says, “Che sera sera“.

CabbieBlog is on an introspective roll: here he tells us about the various types of blog post the regular blogger might fall back on when faced with the infamous blank page. Now that I’ve taken care of practically everything concrete I learned while in the book publishing business I have become reliant on others blogging something provoking to which I feel compelled to respond. I have no idea how readers react, nor I confess do I spend much time worrying about that. Some will agree, some will disagree, some will shrug, and most no doubt will pass on by.† WordPress provide some fairly rudimentary stats about traffic on the blog. Last Saturday there were more hits in one day (435) than ever before. Usually weekdays are more active than weekends, which matches my posting schedule. It might be that almost all of this Saturday surge resulted from someone repeatedly going back to the most viewed post of that week, Screens and screen finders (from 2016), which for once displaced the regular favorite, Edition vs impression from 2017. Golden years, those late teens! Who can explain it, who can tell you why?


* Well, actually, it’s neither. When Christopher Marlowe used the expression in Doctor Faustus it was spelled à l’Italienne as above, though it was never an Italian motto, and Italian, or modern Italian at least, would call for sarà not sera. Doris Day sang it as Que sera sera, rather more Spanishy, though it doesn’t work in the Spanish language either, where its correct form would be Lo que será, será. In reality it is nothing more than an English expression transposed into foreign words. I am slightly embarrassed to have to confess that I didn’t know this before this.

Wikipedia has a strangely comprehensive article about the catch-phrase.

† It is true that I sometimes write with a particular reader, or type of reader, in mind, but I’m not regarding this exercise as any kind of conversation — though of course I do welcome comments.

Publishers Lunch of 24 March reports:

Judge Colleen McMahon sentenced Filippo Bernardini to time served on Thursday, following his guilty plea to one count of wire fraud related to his years of stealing pre-publication manuscripts. Bernardini had already agreed to pay restitution of $88,000 to Penguin Random House, to be paid in monthly installments given his limited means. His sentence includes 3 years of supervised release, though he is also ordered to be deported to the UK or Italy.

The charge carried a maximum possible sentence of 20 years in prison. Assistant US Attorney Daniel G. Nessim had written that, “A sentence of at least one year imprisonment is appropriate but not greater than necessary to comply with the purposes of sentencing. The factors most relevant to imposing sentence include the seriousness of the defendant’s offense, the need to promote respect for the law, and the need to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct.” In addition to a lengthy letter summarizing Bernardini’s crimes and their effect, Williams presented a package of selected emails from some of the victims.

Bernardini and his attorney had asked that he be sentenced only to time served, as the judge agreed to order.
Williams’ letter

This all seems fairly reasonable, though why deportation? The internet knows no borders. Still Mr Bernardini may be happy to be going home? If I were PRH I’d let him off the $88,000: he’s going to need the money more than they are.

My most recent go at the Bernardini saga was just a couple of weeks ago.

A copy of Robert Burns’ first publication, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was found in a barber’s shop in Shrewsbury. The first fifty pages are missing. According to The Guardian, before the book was “rescued” in the late nineteenth century by John Murison, a traveling seed merchant from Glasgow, the barbers would tear out pages and use the paper to clean their razors. — Can this really be true? Would not even the most aggressively anti-book barber think there might be some cash value in a hundred-year-old book they found lying around?

Only 612 copies of this “Kilmarnock edition” were printed in 1786 by John Wilson. Of these 84 survive, so the barbers’ cleanliness has not deprived us of any unique information. I’m not sure if this copy counts as one of the 84, or whether we actually have 84¾ copies. One of these surviving Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was sold at auction in 2019 for £56,250. 

Link via BookRiot.

Not only did medieval Europeans need to keep in mind that death might be just around the corner; they also needed to be aware that their immediate behavior could impact on their ultimate destination. Ars moriendi texts first became popular in England in the late fifteenth century and persisted through doctrinal changes. One example of the genre, Christopher Sutton’s Disce mori: Learne to dye, is the subject of The Collation post on the art of dying. This book was first printed in 1600 by John Windet, and frequently reprinted. “While there are multiple marginal notes in this edition, perhaps the most moving trace of its former owner is this thumbprint found on a prayer midway through the text.”

The Library of Congress speculates that these books were perhaps intended more as support documents for clergy helping their dying parishioners rather than for the patients themselves. (At this link you can access a German example from 1466.)

Here from an earlier Netherlands source (c.1460) we see a busy bedside as the obviously conflicted moribund is tempted by demons offering crowns (an allegory for earthly pride apparently) while Mary, Christ and God are elbowed aside. Is it some kind of comment on our times as compared to the fifteenth century that while the “goodies” look a little bored, the demons are to our eyes a rather charming bunch and not terrifyingly repulsive as their creator must have intended?

However after you’d worked out how to arrange for a good death, how could you be sure your remains wouldn’t be exploited to provide benefit to survivors? In another Collation post Bradley Irish tells us about the use of bits of dead bodies as medication. The skull seems to have been a frequent ingredient, but “the Scull of a person strangled, or put to any violent death, is much better than theirs who dye of any disease”. Other human bones were prescribed for the treatment of epilepsy, the falling sickness, as indeed they had been since Roman times. Human flesh, in the form of mummies or burned bodies looking a bit like mummies, became fashionable as a specific for various ailments. As Professor Irish tells us “in 1565, the surgeon John Hall noted that it was common ‘nowe among our Apothecaries’ to feature in their shops ‘the very flesh of mans body, as it weare burned to a cole: for both whole armes and whole legges, haue been here not rarly seene, being dryed as blacke as a cole.’” 

This information may go some way to normalizing the bubbling pot of the three witches in Macbeth:

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witch's mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark, 
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver'd in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab —
Make the gruel thick and slab;
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For th' ingredience of our cauldron.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

While our secret, black, and midnight hags may not have been able to pick up all these ingredients at the Boots in Perth, reading The Collation blog post does suggest to us that contemporaries of Shakespeare would have seen the list as less extravagant and more easily obtainable than we might have imagined.

Let us not assume that the instruction manual for a good death is a thing of the past. Here The Baffler brings us a round up of recent advice on how to make a good death. (Link via LitHub.)

I’ve often wondered about these little stickers as I pick at a recalcitrant example on my apple. Obviously fruit growers have come to regard the cost of getting their label onto their fruit as worthwhile — I guess it’s easy enough to mix up melons from several growers and attribute the sale to the wrong one.

Here from Atlas Obscura is a story about a London designer who has been collecting these little stickers since the nineteen-nineties. Apparently the stickers include important information about the fruit. This is carried on the PLU code (Price Look Up) which is actually primarily there to tell the checkout clerk what price to charge you. The numbers in the PLU carry information about “commodity, variety, growing methodology (e.g., organic), and the size” but are really too small for the customer to be able to learn much from them, even if we were privy to the code. You can see an example of a PLU in the center of the second row above, and the second label in the third row. Information about the codes may be found at the IFPS site (International Federation for Produce Standards).

I’ve always been more interested in how these little stickers get there. It would seem hopelessly uneconomical for a picker (or any human) to be sticking them on, and of course that’s not what happens. This video shows the process on a variety of fruits:

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

It’s vaguely impressive that this notice was felt to be required at performances of Aeschylus’s Persians, this year’s “Cambridge Greek Play”. After all the play is being performed in the original Greek.

Photo: © R. J. Mynott

Should the sign have been written in Greek? Well, there were actually supertitles, so the trigger warnings were not just for those fluent in the classics — who might be expected to know ahead of time what issues the play covers. The Arts Theatre website has a whole discussion of this sort of thing, which they insist are “Content warnings” not “Trigger warnings”. It is obviously true that there are some physical things which can trigger a bad reaction in lots of people; one cannot deny that or minimize the potential harm. But is posting a warning upfront the right way to go about the issue of difficult content? Maybe, but the list could get long. And isn’t there a bit of caveat emptor which maybe should come into account here? Should you be surprised to meet “historical misogynistic ideology” when attending an old play? Surely it’s unreasonable to expect fifth-century BC Greeks to have the same views as 21st century Britains, and aren’t you going to the play at least in part in order to appreciate these differences?

Content warnings seem like a step down the road that leads to deplatforming. Hateful speech may best be countered by more effective speech tending in the opposite direction, but loud bangs are not “argued against” by more loud bangs. I suspect that going to the theatre, unless it’s no more than the pantomime, should be an experience which ought to have an effect which might be covered by the descriptor triggering. You want to shake people out of their complacency, though traumatizing victims of any of the types of physical violence listed in The Arts Theatre’s list should be nobody’s aim. But if you’re going to see a classical play, or a classic play, I expect that you should expect and hope that you’re going to be shocked to some extent. By all means warn me about loud noises, strobe lights, explosions and gunfire too — perhaps even about smoking on stage — though I’m never sure whether this happens because the theatre fears I may hold rabidly anti-smoking views, or because the fake smoke smells so odd, But let me quietly deal with all sorts of symbolism and tricky content on my own.

How long must we wait before we find out that we have to include trigger warnings on book covers? Not too long I bet. Some of these warnings might need to occupy quite a lot of space: just look at what’s covered in the Arts Theatre’s list. “Stop in the name of love, before you read this book. Think it o-over”!

Come to think of it, threats of “descriptive violence and phallic symbols” might actually move a whole lot of books.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

'Twas about seven o'clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem'd to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem'd to say—
"I'll blow down the Bridge of Tay."

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers' hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say—
"I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay."

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers' hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov'd most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov'd slowly along the Bridge of Tay, 
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o'er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill'd all the people's hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav'd to tell the tale
How disaster happen'd on the last Sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay.
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses, 
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

The Tay Bridge Disaster

This is apparently what they get up to at Grand Canyon University. As they say “We can all agree that literature plays an important role not just in sparking your imagination—but in shaping your educational career path and future goals.”

Not content to do the work for fiction alone, they repeat their analysis for non-fiction:

The impulse to thoroughness leads to their combo analysis: the bestseller overall:

Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers of 23 September.

It’s all over now, and we are awaiting the result of the DoJ’s lawsuit designed to save us all from the horror of a Penguin Random House Simon & Schuster merger.

Whether or not the proposed merger may be a “bad thing” from some sort of consumer-based perspective, the grounds on which the merger was attacked in court were clearly nonsensical. Jane Friedman gives us a cool analysis of the issues in her post “Why the DOJ v PRH Antitrust Trial Doesn’t Change the Game for Authors, Regardless of Outcome“. Clearly, even if the plaintiffs are right that the biggest advances will be reduced after a merger (which is by no means certain) apparently the general effect on advances across the board will if anything be that they become slightly larger! Protecting the interests of the 1,200 top-earning authors to the detriment of the 15 million others is a strange kind of protection for our government to be throwing money at.

© 2021 Buffy and Ian Bailey

Hyperalleric relates the story of Buffy and Ian Bailey’s discovery of this gold bead in Yorkshire. The finders are described as metal detectorists* — a term new to me.

Hyperallergic helpfully tells us, “You might wear your favorite sports team’s jersey, and medieval people wore their favorite saints”. The book bead carries the images of St Leonard and St Margaret. Apparently Saints Leonard and Margaret (of Antioch) are both implicated in pregnancy and safe childbirth. A little piece like this, they tell us, would be quite affordable to the middlingly wealthy. Perhaps we can imagine the pregnant owner reading a book in her garden while absentmindedly twirling her necklace’s bead, and then the chain broke and she dre-a-dre-a-dropped it!

And it took the invention of the metal detector to ever find it again.


* In a comment Alan Aitken points to a BBC broadcast about detectoring. I found this episode of The Localist. It’s worth a listen. An important first step is to “observe the law and seek permission from the landowner”.