It has to be admitted that such works are not exactly at the cutting edge of learning, but they have the advantage of costing next to nothing. Moreover, they are stuffed with all manner of piquant titbits. Take the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (Senate, pounds 1.99), which informs us that a "Water-Scriger" is "A doctor who prescribes from inspecting the water of his patients. See Piss Prophet", while "Fart Catcher" turns out to be "A valet or footman - from his walking behind his master or mistress". Before long, I hope to make use of the verb "to feague", defined here as "to put ginger up a horse's fundament, and, formerly, as it is said, a live eel, to make him lively and carry his tail well".
Not quite so stimulating is the Handbook of Folklore by Charlotte Sophia Burne (Senate, pounds l.99), first issued in 1914. A compendium of twaddle from around the world, it commences with a learned account of beating trees, in particular the noisome durian. "In Jugra, near Selangor, one of the local Pawangs (wizards) would strike the tree sharply with a hatchet, saying, `Will you now bear fruit or not? If you do not then I shall fell you'. The tree would reply, through the mouth of a man who had been stationed for the purpose in a mangostin-tree hard by, `Yes, I will now bear fruit, I beg you not to fell me'." Similar guff fills up the next 350 pages.
Much more to my taste is The Wordsworth Guide to Animals by A D Livingston and Helen Livingston (pounds 1.99). First published as recently as 1993, it directs omnivores to such unlikely foodstuffs as tortoises ("excellent eating"), giraffes ("their bone marrow is one of the greatest delicacies in all Africa") and tapirs ("the flesh is similar to pork and highly prized'). The authors kindly include a recipe for `Termites a la Bantu': "Remove wings from 1 pint termites. Toast over hot coals until crisp. Sprinkle with salt and eat immediately like popcorn."
And the dolphins? Well, they pop up among the 10,000 entries in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Dreams by Gustavus Hindman Miller (pounds 2.50), dating from 1909. Written in a wonderfully cranky style, it analyses dream topics ranging from Absinthe ("you will lead a merry and foolish pace with innocent companions, and waste your inheritance in prodigal lavishness on the siren, selfish fancy") to Zinc ("business will assume a brisk tone in its various departments"), taking in subjects as varied as Cauliflowers, Raisins, Fish Market and Gravy ("portends failing health") en route. Though won over by the section on Custard ("a woman will entertain an unexpected guest"), I was thoroughly put off by the discourteous entry for Weasel ("To see a weasel bent on a marauding expedition, warns you to beware of the friendships of former enemies, as they will devour you at an unseemly time"). What cheek! Gustavus Hindman Miller sounds an ideal candidate for feaguing.
There are few things in life more baffling than washing powder. Buying it, that is. Despatched by Mrs W to our local supermarche which happens to be located next door but one to Weasel Villas, upwards of half an hour may drift by while I vacillate over the dizzying variety on offer. Do we want Biological or Non-Biological, Powder or Liquid, Concentrated or Original? Several of the names on offer make no sense whatsoever. What on earth is Ariel Futur (sic)? Usually I am rescued from this reverie by my dear spouse, who snatches up a packet almost at random while expressing a few crisp opinions about male indecisiveness.
However, I'm pleased to say that following a recent trip up north my dithering over detergents is at an end. A Lancashire-made brand called Acdo is the one for me, largely because of the surreal chattiness of the box. The entire back of the modishly designed packet is taken up with a signed statement by one Brandon Pilling, "Managing Director, 1992-present" (his huge signature, a swirling agglomeration of angles and curlicues, is a graphologist's delight). He explains how in 1919 his grandfather, Harry Pilling, "discovered the unique `bubble action' of pure vegetable oil soap". From this amazing revelation that soap produces a lather. Harry went on to create Acdo.
"Of course, some things have changed since 1919," Brandon points out. "There was our move to the Imperial Works, Bolton, in 1928. Then 10 years on we banished blocks of soap and graters with our first ready-granulated powder, later to be followed by a young Marshall Pilling stepping into his father's shoes as Managing Director... all this and soap rationing too!" Having indelibly etched these frothy recollections on his customer's mind, Brandon insists. "Yet throughout these changes one thing has remained the same. Acdo still works miracles."
One can only picture the glow of pride at the Imperial Works in 1938 when old Harry, clutching the company's first packet of the revolutionary ready-granulated formulation, issued his historic instruction to banish all graters from the premises. "One day soon, lad," he surely told his heir, "all this will be yours."
"That's never a tear in yer eye is it, Dad?"
"Nay, young Marshall, 'tis nobbut a stray sud from the testing shed," the gruff old governor would have responded, adding testily, "But be sure and get courting soon. We'll be wanting another generation afore long. The name Pilling must be forever synonymous with all that's miraculous in household detergents."
A generation later, the same scene must have been replayed in the cobbled yard of a Bolton factory, with the now-elderly Marshall entrusting the bright future of Acdo to his go-ahead son. Is it possible to envisage the response? "Brill, pops, 'bout time too. I've heaps of ideas for up-to-the-minute product branding. We keep the strong nostalgia angle but add a personal touch. Something along the lines of Versace or Nicole Farhi. Look, I've been trying out a few signatures for the packet. What about a Limited Edition line of pre-war Acdo complete with grater..."
Browsing through Faber & Faber's new edition of Alan Bennett's best- selling collection of prose pieces, Writing Home, I was interested to see one of his funeral eulogies listed on the contents page as "Peter Cook, 1937- 1935". I'm sure that no-one would have relished this more than Cookie himself. Since every one of his obituaries harped monotonously on about his failure to fulfil early promise, the great fantasist would have been quite justified in pointing out that it was a miracle that he achieved as much as he did in such a brief life which, moreover, was lived backwardsReuse content