Before Breakfast

In Japanese, 朝飯前 literally means "before breakfast," or (even more literally) "before the morning meal" - but is used to refer to something that's really easy, a bit like "a piece of cake." The idea is that something so easy that it can be accomplished without the sustenance provided by a full Japanese (rice, miso soup, natto, grilled mackerel, etc., with a health-giving pickled plum on the side) must be child's play indeed.

I suppose it must be a coincidence that the same expression exists in English - although I think it's a little old fashioned now. Think of the Red Queen's "six impossible things before breakfast." Or did Carroll coin it, in fact? It's easy to hear the Red Queen echoed in later usages, such as the "six VCs before breakfast" won on the first day of Gallipoli.

But was "before breakfast" used earlier than the Red Queen? Google Ngram is, as so often, our friend in these situations. In the decades prior to Through the Looking Glass people doing things before breakfast are generally doing them for the sake of their health:

These facts show the importance of breakfasting soon after rising and dressing, at least in many cases. I am fully aware that there are numerous exceptions to this. Some persons not only suffer no injury from but actually appear to be benefited by active exercise taken before breakfast, its effect being with them to create or augment the appetite. But in others the effects are those which I have already stated. I am satisfied from repeated observation that in children disposed to spasmodic and other brain diseases the practice of making them attend school for two hours before breakfast is injurious, and I fully agree therefore with Dr Combe that in boarding schools for the young and growing, who require plenty of sustenance, and are often obliged to rise early, an early breakfast is almost an indispensible condition of health. Epileptics, especially those disposed to morning attacks, should invariably breakfast soon after rising. (Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery, Vol. 6, 1842)

A walk to Priessnitz Quelle by the Silver and Fichten Quelles, and back the same way, is more than three miles, and this is the regular walk before breakfast in winter. In summer the guests usually extend their excursions much farther. As they return many stop to drink again and some return by the douches having become sufficiently warm to take that bath before breakfast. ... In his Graefenberg dishabille the patient, whether he be count, baron, captain, general or priest, forgets all his dignity in the feeling of irrepressible joy and energy produced by the plunge bath and the bracing morning air. A few stalk along the path in stiff and formal dignity as if offended at the liberties taken by the careering sporting winds and the merrily waltzing snow that surround them. It is deeply interesting watch this infinite variety in the guests they ascend the mountain on a cold morning before breakfast stopping now and then to pant and breathe, and look back upon the glorious amphitheatre around them. (Water Cure Journal, 1849)

I think the Red Queen probably did kickstart the meme, at least in the English language. The only person doing an impossible thing before breakfast turns out to be Mozart, who uses that opportunity to write the overture to Don Giovanni:

Showers of crotchets and quavers now gushed from the rapid pen. At times, however, and in the midst of writing, nature would assert her sway and cause the composer to relapse into a nod or two. To these, it is generally pretended, the leading passage in the overture turned, repeated, and modulated into a hundred varied shapes, owed its origin. The somnolent fits, however, soon gave way to the cheerful converse of CONSTANTIA and the excellent punch which formed its accompaniment. The overture was completed before breakfast and the copyists scarcely had time to write out the score. (Proceedings against William Hone before his Trials, 1817)

As for me, all I did was write this rambling Livejournal post.

Neither Here Nor There

I've been looking at this review of a book on Shakespeare's sonnets. The writers have come up with what they seem to consider a startling conclusion: “Some of these sonnets are addressed to a female and others to a male. To reclaim the term bisexual seems to be quite an original thing to be doing.”

Is it, though? Really? Isn't it actually the most obvious conclusion? Other readings are possible, but all require a degree of wrenching. Why would anyone find it implausible that a man who wrote poems of love and sexual desire to both men and women (or to at least one of each) was romantically and sexually attracted to both men and women?

Occasionally I'm reminded that resistance to the idea of bisexuality still exists. I have to be reminded, because it seems such an absurd thing to be sceptical of that I have difficulty retaining the fact. Women and men are pretty similar in many ways, after all - much more like each other than either is like, say, shoes, yet apparently no one has any trouble believing in heterosexual shoe fetishists.

Perhaps it reflects a more fundamental preference for binary choices. I dare say I could come up with many examples, but here's one that's fresh in my mind. A few months ago I was in a research seminar on an article about George Herbert's The Temple. According to the article, the scholarly orthodoxy had been that the architectural structure of the book (which is divided into sections such as 'The Porch', 'The Altar', and so on) was purely metaphorical; but our author argued that, as a rural vicar, Herbert was very concerned with the literal fabric of his church, too. The answer to the question, 'Is the temple in The Temple metaphorical or literal?' turns out to be, 'A bit of both.'

It's convincing, but frankly I didn't need to be convinced. My immediate reaction was one of surprise that everybody didn't already take that for granted. Flattering as it would be to conclude that all this makes me a particularly subtle and clever thinker, I don't buy it, because these thoughts aren't subtle at all - on the contrary, they take (what seems to me) the path of least resistance through the texts. It's all a bit of mystery.

Does it Spark Schadenfreude?

If all goes according to plan, I should be moving house in just under a fortnight - albeit only about a mile. Nevertheless, it's necessitating quite a bit of going through stuff and deciding what's worth keeping, and what not so much.

One folder contained all my rejection slips from the early nineties, before my first book was accepted. I've always been a bit bemused at people's surprise that Harry Potter was rejected by numerous publishers, because that's most authors' experience, and, as the folder reminded me, it was certainly mine. I'd forgotten I'd kept them, but I suppose it was so that I could comfort my former self, in an 'It gets better' spirit, or perhaps gloat over that same self's suffering (which sounds counter-intuitive, but is not out of character).

That was definitely the reason I hung on to the last software manual I wrote while working as a technical author for McDonnell Douglas in Cambridge, from '89-90. It's for a program that allows you to specify where and how to reinforce concrete, should you happen to be building a reinforced concrete monstrosity. Still, I think that it's served its purpose now. I'm beyond gloating about no longer doing that work, and am ready to consign it to the recycling - but not before I take its photo for old times' sake.


North in the East

It's really strange how researching my Japan book (at least the nineteenth-century part of it) keeps me bumping into my relatives. First it turned out that Isabella Bird, author of Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (and more recently, protagonist of the manga Bird in Wonderland) collaborated with my great-great aunt Fanny to build a hospital in Srinigar. Then I discovered that Fanny's sister Annie wrote a children's book about Japan.

Just recently I've been reading Recollections of a Happy Life by the botanist Marianne North, who travelled to Japan in 1875. And who should pop up in the early pages but dear old Uncle George Butler, initially in his capacity as a headmaster and latterly as a family friend?

[My father] was born in 1800, and when a mere child of eight years old was sent to Harrow to fight his way among his elders, and endure many a hard hour of bullying and fagging. But he always spoke with pleasure of those days at school, and his sorrows came more in the holidays at home. Years afterwards, when opposing the election of Mr. Brisco,* he used to say, it "vexed him to have to do so, as he could not help remembering how he (a big boy at Harrow) had interceded with the others to put little North on the top of the victims who were to be folded up in a press bed, he was so very small" (a mode of torture very fashionable amongst school bullies then).

My father stayed at Harrow till he was Captain of the school in Dr. Butler's house, and the old Dean** used to say jokingly in his latter years that he would never have been able to get married, if my father had not kept such good order in the school and given him time to go a-courting. His daughter was one of my first friends, and is my best friend still. (3-4)

* Musgrave Brisco, along with his brother Wastel Brisco, was a name to conjure with in nineteenth-century St Leonards.
** George became Dean of Peterborough.

I'm pleased to see Louisa, George's daughter, get a mention, because she's always been a cipher to me. It was she who went on to marry Francis Galton, which I think must have been a hard row to hoe, for various reasons, although the impression I get from this book is that they were a happy couple. They pop up here and there throughout, in kindly guise: Galton also helped regularise North's spellings on Indian and Javanese place names. I suppose none of them knew what would become of eugenics the following century, and I doubt they would have approved, but still... Knowing that connection makes me revisit North's assessment of the Japanese:

The Japanese are like little children, so merry and full of pretty ways, and very quick at taking in fresh ideas; but they don't think or reason much, and have scarcely any natural affection towards one another. Everybody who has lived long among them seems to get disgusted with their falseness and superficiality.

I mean, even under the kindest reading this hasn't aged well, but in the shadow cast by eugenics it looks quite a lot worse.


Inspired by my recent purchase of my great*3 grandfather Weeden's 1821 letter about a poetry review, I decided to do a bit more digging.

I've often thought that Weeden was not a particularly happy ancestor. His father, Weeden Sr., was quite a difficult person to live up to; he may also have felt overshadowed by his younger brother George, who was not only Senior Wrangler at Cambridge but went on to be Headmaster of Harrow, while Weeden just carried on with the family school in Chelsea. Hints dropped in a memoir by his granddaughter suggest that Weeden Jr. was cast into a depression by the deaths of his wife and teenage son - the latter, in 1830, being followed swiftly by his own, at the age of 58.

That happened in 1831. Working backwards, we can see a kind of trajectory, and it's a rather unhappy one. In 1821, in his late '40s, he's writing his slightly snippy letter to the Gentleman's Magazine. Do we hear a batsqueak of disappointed literary ambition - or am I just projecting?

In 1814, he's taking over the school from his father, who's just retired - shaken, no doubt, by the death that year of Weeden and George's younger brother Charles, who was master of the East Indiaman William Pitt and drowned with all hands off Algoa Bay. Still, it's a new beginning of sorts, and Weeden's pupils include a young Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose family lived down the road.

In 1800, still in his late '20s, he's writing his passionate-if-eccentric anti-slavery volume, Zimao the African. How widely read it was I don't know. No one speaks of Weeden in the same breath as Wilberforce, but he was doing his bit for the cause...

Then there are the Bagatelles. This collection of poems and translations was published in 1795, when Weeden had only just come down from Cambridge - it includes some pieces written in his teens. What kind of person do they speak of?

Well, here's the Preface, in which literary ambition is scarcely suppressed:

bagatelles preface

The contents are a very mixed bag. The first poem, "The Slave," is striking enough in its subject, which anticipates Zimao. The first-person speaker, the slave Maratan, adopts a very eighteenth-century idiom, but Weeden's sympathies are clearly already engaged by the cruelties of the slave trade. Weeden was no fair-weather abolitionist:

Can I think upon the day
When I left my native home,
Forc'd reluctantly away,
To these barbarous climes to come?
Torn from countries, friends, relations,
Torn from all my soul holds dear,
To endure the worst vexations,
Under cruel bondage, here!

Yet, though thus deceiv'd I be,
And by fraud enroll'd a slave,
Still the inward man is free,
And unfetter'd as the wave.

Nor is Maratan the only oppressed speaker in the volume. The first four poems are all laments by various persecuted peoples of Weeden's time: 'The Indian Warrior, bound to the stake,' 'The American Warrior, after a defeat' ('the sad Carandoc left his native home/ Compell'd through drear Columbia's wilds to roam') and 'The Indian in Despair.' They may not be great poetry, but they're hardly the kind of frivolous production implied by 'bagatelles.'

However, after this quadruple whammy of contemporary oppression, and a fifth more historical piece, 'Belisario' ('A young Roman recites the misfortunes of his general, to a concourse of peasants, upon an extensive plain'), we move to a far more mixed set. Sadly, I have to report that much of it is the kind of thing that Lyrical Ballads (published just three years later) was destined - and designed - to make obsolete. Take the opening of 'A Night Storm':

Now gloomy Night expands her sable wings:
Now a dread silence o'er the plain is cast,
Save where the warbling Philomela sings,
Or dry leaves rustle in the eddying blast.

I mean, it's not terrible, but it's sixty years out of date. No need to look ahead to Romantics: put it next to Thompson's Seasons from the 1720s and its stiffness is too plain.

There are love poems (in which Weeden assumes the poetic moniker, Edwin); there are poems in praise of Chelsea and his father, a number of translations, a comic poem written in the person of 'A Rusticated Cantab' under the name Phileleutherus Cantabrigiensis, and so on. One possibly telling composition is called 'On Poetry,' and records Weeden's preference for poetry over science, in which study he admits that he has little skill:

Ill suits, dear Emma, with thine Edwin's powers,
The mighty lore of Newton to peruse,
[He first explain'd dame Nature's laws abstruse,
In that great work whose ample volume showers
A blaze of light, rich knowledge to diffuse
O'er each young student's mind, midst Granta's bowers.]

I love to cull the gay luxuriant flowers
Of gentle poetry, and rather chuse
To greet with numbers wild the fleeting hours,
And taste those joys Ambition's sons refuse.

I can't help wondering whether this is a preemptive attempt to claim (in the way some families have) a certain territory for himself, while ceding the fields of mathematics and ambition to clever brother George, whose Senior Wranglership happened the year before Bagatelles was published. (Having struggled with the Principia myself, I do sympathise.)

Another poem, 'Upon the Death,' is dedicated to 'A Gallant Young Naval Officer, Who Was Shot in the Action of the First of June, 1794.' The officer in question is Weeden's cousin, Richard Dawes, two of whose brothers had already been killed in the service of the East India Company, in Mysore and Bangalore. (Another cousin, Daniel Southwell, whose earlier adventures with the First Fleet I've recounted before, was present at the same battle, and wrote an exultant letter to Weeden Sr. the same day, being presumably ignorant of Richard's death. It would be three more years before Daniel too was killed, in Tenerife.)

In 'The Wish,' we find Weeden looking forward to the moment of his own death:

So, when the close of life draws nigh,
All anxious fears may I defy,
To leave this world unmov'd.
And may each liberal person say,
As tow'rd my grave he bends his way,
"Him all the virtues lov'd:
No sordid views his mind opprest,
In blessing he himself was blest,
He scorn'd all foolish pride:
The tears he wip'd from every eye,
And, ripe for Heav'n, without a sigh,
At length serenely died."

I would like to think that happened. However, the only time I find Weeden really happy is on his nineteenth birthday:

Thanks to kind Providence that plac'd me here,
To-day I enter on my twentieth year.
Oh! may no future time disturb the bliss,
The peace of conscience, that I feel at this.

I'd like to think that happened, too. But appearances and circumstances both are against it.


I had to have Jessie put down yesterday afternoon. She'd not eaten for two days, and her remaining eye was suppurating badly, and I think she may have been in quite a lot of pain.

She was a big part of my life, and I'm going to miss her a lot - but I'm also a little relieved, because I was worrying how a blind, arthritic, 17-year-old cat would cope with being in a new house. (Assuming my house move ever actually happens.) She found her way round this one entirely by memory, but a new layout would have been very stressful for her.

Sleep well, little one: you had plenty of practice.

Jessica's First Lair
Does Jessie Dream of Electric Mice?
"as swimmers into cleanness leaping" 1
Brave Gelert...

Beckoned by Beacons

My friend Ayako has often expressed the desire to visit Wales. So, thinking that St David's Shopping Centre in Cardiff might not cut it, I took her to the Brecon Beacons yesterday, and specifically the Llangattock Escarpment near Crickhowell. It was actually the first time I'd been up on the Beacons - I'm normally on my way somewhere else when I drive through Crickhowell - and I'm very glad she prompted me to make the trip.

We had a little hike - maybe four miles, but with a lot of ups and downs. Living in as hilly a city as Bristol certainly helps train for this kind of terrain. The weather helped too, mind: it was about 24 degrees, which would normally be a bit on the hot side, but with a pleasant breeze and low humidity it was just right.

What can I say? The Brecon Beacons are awesome. I'd bought a book of short walks for the occasion, and the one we took was ideal, with variety of terrains, from stream beds to brackeny slopes to post-industrial spoil heaps from 200-year-old limestone quarries.

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The Exiles of Parga

If you've ever submitted an article, a poem, a story, to a publisher, you will know how frustrating it is to have to wait for an answer. Conversely, if you've ever been an editor, you will know how annoying it can be when authors pester you for one.

This is not a new phenomenon. Witness my great-great-great-grandfather, Weeden Butler the second, whose most distinguished appearance in this journal thus far has been as the "translator" (but actually author) of Zimao the African (1800), a two-in-one abolitionist fiction and pamphlet, with a dedication aimed at persuading a royal mistress to engage her lover's sympathies for the cause.

Weeden Butler (1772-1831)

I own Zimao only in a modern reprint, but have just bought an autograph letter, albeit on a much more trivial matter. To be honest, the triviality is what makes it precious to me. In July 1821, Weeden, having submitted a piece to John Nichols, editor of the Gentleman's Magazine, was, like all authors, anxious for an answer, and decided that Nichols needed prompting. In those days of course there was no post as we have it today, so he sent a servant round to the magazine's office, and told him to wait for an answer. What modern author has not wished to be able to do this?

Weeden letter front

Here are the contents of the letter:

Weeden letter to Gentleman's Magazine

Gentlemen, | I lately sent you by post a careful review of Baron D'Ordre's “Exiles of Parga,” & offered to correct a proof for you. Have you any intention to print the same? If so, pray send a line by my servant: & if not, pray return by him my review.

The letter is civil, but as one who has composed many such letters (mostly only in my head, thank God) I hear too shrilly its note of querulous impotence. I think it's fair to say that the Gentleman's Magazine was not intimidated by the threat to withdraw the review. At the top of the page one 'A N.', presumably a staffer, has added the annotation: 'This came yesterday, did not answer it.'

Nevertheless, we have a happy ending, for the review was published the following month:


As the review admits, albeit under a thin disguise of anonymity, the author of "The Exiles of Parga" was in fact a personal friend of the reviewer, which may explain something of Weeden's urgency.

Was it worth the fuss? I think so, if only for the following passage:

We applaud highly in our quondam French Emigrant the bold exhibition of this generous spirit in an occasion of moment, such as the cession by Britons of Parga to Ali Pacha: yes, we applaud it, notwithstanding the ungraciousness of certain very free remarks, severe in the extreme upon the alleged conduct of our executive government touching the transaction: a conduct still open to fair discussion, and, let us express our hope and belief, to ample justification. But--poetry delights much in fiction.

In case your Balkan history escapes you, Parga, long a Venetian possession, then held by Napoleon, had in 1815 come under British "protection" only to be sold four years later to Ali Pasha and the Ottoman Empire, where it remained until 1913. I suspect Weeden of a degree of irony here, and also in this parenthesis:

Our loyal and patriotic Baron begins his piece with an apostrophe to the love of one's country: and for himself, declares that, binding a branch of oak (British, no doubt,) upon her lofty head, his Muse aspires to the honour of first chanting the uncommon devotion of warlike citizens to the cause of freedom.

But that may be wishful thinking on my part. In any case, I can't say that the review has inspired me to read "The Exiles of Parga." And that, I feel, is as it should be. I'm going to have the letter framed and hang it in my study, as a kind of vanitas vanitatum reminder that very few of these anxious-making matters really make much difference in the end.

Balcony Alchemy

At least once a year I make a crumble from the apples growing in my garden and the blackberries growing wild a hundred or so yards away. Free food always was the most delicious - but if I ever manage to move house, this will be the last year I do it, I suppose.


Coronavirus Mysteries

One of the regular topics of conversation with my Japanese friends over the last few months has been the relative scarcity of COVID-19 in Japan, compared to the West in general and the UK in particular. I've had similar conversations with Haawa in Uganda, where the death rate is precisely zero. Of course this could all change, and there have been recent spikes in Tokyo in particular, but so far they seem tame by UK standards. I thought it might be interesting to list some of the factors that have been suggested, lest I forget in the future.

A culture of mask wearing. Japanese people (like many in east Asia) have long worn masks at the drop of a hat, so were early adopters in the case of COVID.

A culture of not touching. Bowing is much more the thing than handshakes and hugs, so less chance for transmission.

An early and strong emphasis on the importance of good ventilation and good hygiene. Seems very plausible to me, though perhaps not a sufficient explanation. The necessity of not living in crowded conditions would probably fall under this heading.

Body shape. Japanese people tend to be thin, and problems such as high blood pressure (a risk factor for COVID) are less prevalent.

Diet. Could it be something in the food that gives resistance to some but not others?

Genetic differences. Could there be some form of genetic resistance shared by east Asians and Africans but not Europeans? I discussed this with Haawa, but it seems unlikely, given that black people in Britain seem to be more vulnerable to the disease, not less.

Climactic differences. Given the diversity of the regions in which the virus has spread, and also of those in which it has not, this early contender has recently lost favour.

The Japanese have a higher "mindo". This suggestion, which I include for the sake of completeness, was recently thrown out by a Japanese politician, Taro Aso, who has a habit of saying embarrassingly semi-racist things. Mindo (民度) essentially means "class of person."

I think I've probably left a few out, so may add to this list as other things occur to me.

Meanwhile, here's another big mystery: why is the UK's death rate so large? According to official statistics, in this country about 15% of people who test positive for COVID go on to die of it. This is far higher than, say, the USA, which has the most cases and the most deaths but where the death rate figure is more like 3 or 4% (something Trump was boasting about the other day, although of course there are many countries with better rates than that).

Possible reasons:

a) the UK is just really really bad at keeping COVID patients alive. This seems unlikely, when the medical care here is on a par with that of most Western nations.

b) the UK is home to a particularly deadly strain of the virus. Odd that no one has mentioned it, if so.

c) far more people are catching the virus than appear in the figures, and the real death rate is thus artificially depressed. This seems plausible at first glance. Testing in the UK is now at a very respectable level, but it may be that the lack of it in the early days of the pandemic is still skewing the total figures. However, even if you just take deaths vs. new cases for the last seven reported days, you still get a death rate of over 11%.

If you have other suggestions, I'd be very interested to know them.