steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

The Curse of the Butlers

At the end of my last post I made a glancing reference to the Curse of the Butlers, and perhaps implied that it lay in writing musical pieces that never got performed. Not so! That trend has been firmly bucked by my brother, whose pieces always get performed, and to rapturous applause.

I meant something a bit more general - namely the tendency of my (paternal) ancestors to choose some obscure, inkhorn subject, about which only half a dozen people in the world give more than a passing hoot, and then to devote their impecunious lives to it. In due course they become masters of a Lilliputian empire and talk about it at every opportunity, without once realising that not everyone shares their obsession. In its most aggravated form the Butler chooses two apparently unrelated (but equally obscure) subjects, and then shrinks the available audience still further by obsessing about them only in combination.

So, for example, you might, like my grandfather, become an expert in Esperanto – even to the extent of bringing your children up bilingual, and encouraging them to give speeches in praise of Ludwig Zamenhof at Hyde Park Corner.* You might also have a lot of time for the Tonic Sol-fa system, and/or follow a fitful career as a classical harpist (the instrument that’s always in demand!). You might be a Quaker who joined the Society of Friends because of your pacifist beliefs during the Great War, but who always hankered after the C of E hymns of your childhood. All these are suitable Butler activities, but they are consummated only when you can bring them together – for example by publishing a book of Esperanto hymns that no one will ever sing.

That’s why I believe that this earlier Charles Butler** must be one of my ancestors. Look at the evidence. First, he was a vicar – as so many of my forebears were. Second, he was an expert in two obscure and unrelated subjects: bee-keeping and spelling reform. Third, he brought them together by publishing a groundbreaking apiary handbook in reformed spelling! And, as a bonus, he even wrote a musical piece, The Bees’ Madrigal, based on the sounds that honey bees make in their hives. Has anyone ever sung it? I don’t know.

Grandpa, I embrace you.

All the same, I’m grateful that I’m so self-aware and hip that nothing like that could ever happen to me.

*My grandfather’s adherence to Esperanto went to extreme lengths. For example, he forbade his children to eat Toblerone chocolate because Tobler had defected from the Esperantists to support a breakaway language, Ido. Even at one generation’s remove, this gives Toblerone a subversive, forbidden edge (if not three).

** It's worth scrolling down this page, at least as far as the picture of Brother Adam - "known as the man in search of the perfect bee". As you can tell from his expression, there are times when half a bee just isn't enough.
Tags: family history
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