Trivia, the best thing since sliced bread

`It's Professor Edgar Battleston's job to remember what everybody else has forgotten'
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The Independent Culture
"WHEN TALKING pictures first arrived," says Professor Edgar Battleston, "they put a lot of musicians out of work. Do you know why?"

Not really. I would have thought that movies with sound tracks would provide more job opportunities for playing music not less...

"Because," says Professor Battleston, ignoring me, "every cinema had its own resident band to accompany silent films. It was a recognised profession, that of cinema musician. But in 1929 that all went. Suddenly, a whole profession went down the drain. And nobody remembers it!"

Except, of course, Professor Edgar Battleston. That's because it's his job to remember what everyone else has forgotten. He is the Professor of Unchronicled History, at the University of Milton Keynes, where he helps keep an eye on the changes in history that nobody else bothers to checklist.

"That's right. Like the switch from blankets to duvets."

The what?

"Thirty years ago this country made its beds with sheets and blankets," he says. "Now, we have more or less discarded blankets, except in institutions, and gone over to duvets. It's a pretty radical change, for a country which is supposedly conservative. We now spend half our lives in a totally different setting from the one we were used to. Yet when historians look back, they'll find no reference to it at all because it hasn't been chronicled. That's where I come in. I've made it my life's work to notice the changes that nobody else notices."

Like what ?

"Well, have you noticed that people no longer use cups. Workmen drink from mugs, office workers drink from mugs, even the middle classes in their coffee breaks drink from mugs. We still call it a `cuppa', but it hasn't been a cuppa for a long time. It's become a `mugga'. The only time you ever get a real cup any more is when you go to a restaurant, or an old-fashioned tea room. Oddly enough, this new fashion for coffee bars might reverse the trend for a while because people tend to be given espresso and cappuccino in a cup with a saucer.

"Phone habits are changing again, too. There was a time when you needed two hands to make a phone call. The speaker and the receiver were two separate pieces, so you needed one hand to hold the speaker to your mouth and the other to hold the receiver to your ear. Later on, things improved and we only needed one hand to pick up a phone. Indeed, we then learned how to hold a phone between our shoulder and ear, so we didn't need any hands at all. But the mobile phone has changed all that - they're too small to hold between shoulder and ear so, in the sense that a mobile needs more hands than an old-style phone, it is actually a step back."

What other unchronicled changes has the professor noticed?

"Well, there are many permanent changes in the way we behave, such as the switch from fountain pens to ball point. There are fashions which don't last, such as the habit of plastering car windows with the names of the occupants. Remember the stickers saying `JAMES' and `ISABEL'? Not any more. There are also changes which come about through technical improvements, such as the high-pitched sound made by a reversing lorry. We all know the noise though nobody told us it was coming or taught us how to recognise it. It's just another unchronicled change. Like the way we cut our sandwiches."

The way we...?

"We used always to cut sandwiches into squares, some people still do. But in the take-away field it has become common to cut sandwiches from corner to corner, thus making two triangles. That's why disposable sandwich packs are now triangular, and not square-shaped. Major change. And if it hadn't been for me, none of this might have been written down."

Yes, but what is the point, anyway? What use is all this to anyone?

"It's a lot of use to me," says the Professor, twinkling. "I've just landed a BBC2 series going into `unchronicled history', called The Way We Used to Drink Our Tea. The BBC loves that sort of trivialisation of history.

"In the old days, professors were too dignified to do this sort of rubbish. Now we leap at the chance. There's another unchronicled change for you."

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