September 5th, 2013


Onomastic Mastication

Even making allowance for dramatic convention, it's always bothered me a little how few characters in Renaissance and Restoration drama appear to notice the eloquence of their names, especially given their near-universal obsession with wordplay. How could Sir Epicure Mammon, for example, ever hope not to be recognized as a worldly epicure the moment he announced himself? Was Sir Andrew Aguecheek fated from birth to be sickly, along with all the alliterative Agucheeks before him, or could he have shrugged off his fate by the constant application of good diet and callisthenics?

I know, I know, they aren't real people so the question is nonsensical - but given the effort that goes into making these characters appear real in many other ways I still think it a natural and non-trivial one. It's just this kind of irritant that provoked me in a former life to spend three years writing about Spenserian allegory, to the delight of all.

What about our names, though? I always felt sorry for John Craven, and for anyone whose surname happened to be Lipfriend. But some names are subtly ambiguous. For years, I thought of the name "Lance Armstrong" as an uber-macho one, rolling Sir Lancelot and Fortinbras into one. Now, I recognize it as a tacit admission of cheating - that he lanced his arm in order to become strong. Like Poe's purloined letter, Armstrong's confession was lying in plain sight, but few had eyes to see it. Perhaps characters in seventeenth-century comedies are suffering from the same problem? "Falstaff, you say? Is that Falstaff as in 'not really Welsh', or is that a dildo in your codpiece? Or does it, perchance, just happen to be your name?" The possibilities are endless.

Window on a World

My mother's been recalling her time working for Eddie Rothschild in the late 1940s. He employed her to ghost-write his memoir, Window on the World, and so for two years she went to work every morning at the family bank in St Swithin's Lane. A few of her reminiscences...

Work at Rothschild's began at 10am, with the staff going to the basement and toasting bread on forks at the coal hearths there.

She often worked in the Gold Fixing Room, where each morning a group of four or five top-hatted men would arrive in order to determine the worldwide price of gold. While they were doing this, she had to vacate the room. Why this was (and is) done at Rothschild's, she doesn't know.

At lunchtime, all the women were seated at one table, the men at another, and they were attended by a butler called Henry. In those rationed days they were grateful for the plentiful meals, made up of food grown on the lavish Rothschild estates. For all that, the meat was sometimes off.

The three partners (Eddie, his uncle Anthony, and a Mr Coleville) worked in the Partners' Room, the only one that was bigger than the Gold Fixing Room. The top half of the door was made of plain glass, and people who wished to talk to them would wait outside, until summoned by a nod. On the mantelpiece of the Partners' Room were a few coins of loose change that had been left there by Disraeli at the time of the building of the Suez canal - largely on Rothschild money.

Though she didn't mention it tonight, I also remember my mother confessing that she once drank her fingerbowl when attending a posh Rothschild meal, a humiliation to be equalled only when, as a small child, I was offered a napkin at a dinner party and declined, explaining that "My knees are quite warm enough, thank you." That's her story, anyway.

Years later, when she was living in Romsey, Eddie Rothschild invited her to his home in Exbury, just the other side of the Forest; but she didn't go. I suppose the moment had passed.