Understanding old stuff

I listened to a ‘Much Binding in the Marsh’ from November 1948 on BBC Radio 7 last week and one of the jokes went something like: ‘Murdoch, you’re wearing glasses – is there something wrong with your eyes?’ ‘No everyone’s wearing them nowadays.’ ‘But isn’t it expensive?’ ‘Oh, about 4/11 a week.’

The audience roared with laughter and applauded wildly. Now, the programme was first broadcast in November 1948; in July of that year Nye Bevan’s National Health Service had started and weekly National Insurance contributions were 4/11. If I hadn’t known that the joke would have been incomprehensible (it’s no funnier, but it’s nice to know what they found funny).

I can remember a Round the Horne from the early sixties, also repeated on Radio 7, which had Kenneth Horne ringing a doorbell, echoing footsteps coming to open the creaking door, and Kenneth Williams asking in his wrinkled retainer’s voice ‘Be you the white tornado?’ This refers to a TV ad for (I think) Ajax, which, if my faint memory is correct, had a superhero turning into a whirlwind which made your kitchen shine. I was a small child when the ad was on and had forgotten all about it until the reference was made – anyone any younger than me would probably not have seen it at all. Will audio files be released in the future complete with whatever the equivalent of endnotes is by then?

Which difficulty of understanding cultural/social references is also demonstrated by someone I saw, some years ago, on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He was Canadian, and one of his early, really easy questions was about a cult British children’s television programme from the Seventies or thereabouts. He hadn’t a clue and had to ask the audience, of whom something like 98% knew the right answer. A later question, it might even have been his million pound one, was something obscure about the Great Lakes or similar, which he knew the answer to immediately.

In his blog etymologist Anatoly Liberman has just written a post about the filler ‘like’, which my children use a lot, infuriates my wife, and I find myself, like, picking up too. He quotes a word ‘belike’ which the Oxford English Dictionary has 1741 as its first citation, although my Shorter OED says 1533 and defines it as an adjective as meaning ‘probably, possibly’. So you get, for example, ‘He was, belike, in a hurry’. But ‘like’ probably doesn’t come from this, and no-one really knows where or why it arose, and Liberman says ‘here we are facing a phenomenon of no great antiquity and are as puzzled as though we were trying to decipher a cuneiform inscription.’

All this stuff about understanding bring me to the fact that when reading a novel I have mixed feeling about endnotes. Some I find irritating, whereas others add to the general reader’s enjoyment or understanding of the book. I’d like notes to be divided into two sorts. Often the note will be a reference, or just detail a textual variant between editions or similar, which is of scholarly interest only and would be fine consigned to the back of the book; but on other occasions the note will explain an obscure cultural or social reference, or give an explanation regarding the identity of a real person referred to in the text, and a footnote would be preferable.

ColumellaThe last two novels I read were by Richard Graves from the eighteenth century, I read them in editions without any notes to speak of (both had a very few footnotes, but these were Graves’ own and were less than illuminating). In a way I found this quite liberating, the flow of reading the text wasn’t broken by having to refer to the back of the book; but in another way I found it annoying as the characters would sit down to a pool as it had been raining outside and I wouldn’t know what that was, or I would come across a reference to a Mr W– and would wonder who he was. In Book 2 of Columella they visit Stourhead ‘the beautiful seat of Mr. H–re.’ I know from visiting Stourhead that this is Henry Hoare, who was the son of a banker and therefore extremely rich, but there are many other people mentioned in the book whose identity I have no idea about at all, or whether they are, actually, real people.Eugenius

Columella comes in an edition published by a French university (Presses Universitaires du Mirail), as does Graves’ third novel Eugenius. Neither has many footnotes, and the Introduction to Columella is in French, so I was pretty much on my own when reading it. They’re nice editions, I got them from Chapitre – excellent service, the delivery charge was 10€ (DHL), they arrived in Surrey within 19 hours of dispatch from Lamnay in the Pays-de-la-Loire.

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