Ropes, Shirts or Dirty Socks
- Paper: Paging through History by Mark Kurlansky
Norton, 416 pp, £12.99, June, ISBN 978 0 393 35370 9
In 1619, for a bet, John Taylor – prolific poet, proud Londoner, waterman, prankster, anti-pollution campaigner, barman, literary celebrity, palindrome enthusiast (‘Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel’) – sailed forty miles down the Thames to Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey in a boat made from brown paper. He fashioned oars from dried fishes tied to sticks, and strapped inflated animal bladders to the sides of the boat to help it float. Taylor was not a shy man. His list of expansive jests included, in 1618, a walk to Scotland with no money, a parody of Ben Jonson’s more famous trip of the same year, which led to his subscription-funded account of The Pennylesse Pilgrimage; or, the Moneylesse Perambulation of John Taylor, alias the Kings Majesties Water-Poet; How He TRAVAILED on Foot from London to Edenborough in Scotland, Not Carrying any Money To or Fro, Neither Begging, Borrowing, or Asking Meate, Drinke, or Lodging. By the time Taylor died in 1653, he had published more than 150 printed texts, including Laugh, and be fat; a miniature summarised Bible in verse; and The old, old, very old man, a verse biography of 152-year-old Thomas Parr. Taylor celebrated his paper boat trip in print, too, with a poem published in 1620 as The Praise of Hemp-Seed. As poetry it never rises above the laborious (‘Our rotten bottom all to tatters fell,/And left our boat as bottomless as hell’), its rhyming couplets as predictable as the pull of the oars. But Taylor’s lurching verse is significant in other ways: it provides the first printed mention of the deaths of William Shakespeare and Francis Beaumont, who had died four years before, and is a powerful encomium to paper.
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Vol. 39 No. 14 · 13 July 2017
Adam Smyth touches on watermarks without mentioning their use as date-stamps, which sometimes have their own stories to tell (LRB, 15 June). My first purchase of an antique medical text was The Practice of Physick In two Volums [sic] Very much Enlarged (1658). The authors (Riverius, Culpeper and Cole) claim to offer knowledge of the causes and cures of all the diseases of man, and the work is intended for use in situations where a physician may not be at hand. The book is essentially a rehash and ‘improvement’ of Galen’s classic work of late antiquity with much astrology thrown in. There is no hint of Harvey’s discovery in 1628 of the circulation of the blood. When I got the book home and examined it more carefully, I discovered some neatly folded sheets laid in at the back. They comprised a detailed index, written in an elegant hand. On one of them, I found the date watermarked: 1828. At first I was astonished to think that medicine had progressed so little, at least in the popular mind, in 170 years, that this tedious indexing should seem worthwhile. But then I realised that this was still a time in which, for the general public, the more venerable its provenance, the more credible the opinion. And for an ill-educated populace the significance of work such as Harvey’s, even after two hundred years, was not evident. Perhaps I should not have been so surprised in the first place. My father, by no means ill-educated, desperate in the 1940s for relief from rheumatic pain, had resorted, in vain, to herbal remedies I’ve since found prescribed for the same problem in The Practice of Physick.
Vol. 39 No. 18 · 21 September 2017
Raymond Clayton writes about antique medical texts, and the continuing pertinence of The Practice of Physick from 1658 (Letters, 13 July). My first recourse isn’t to the internet, which can worry you nearly to death if you’re feeling off-colour, but to a battered 1976 paperback of Symptoms, edited by Sigmund Stephen Miller (582 pages, but a pocketbook nonetheless). It attempts to help people self-diagnose not by disease, but by symptoms, although the two factors are cross-indexed. Its science is sometimes outmoded but its commonsense approach is excellent. The slim chapter at the end, written by Miller himself, concludes: ‘Eventually we are all caught by that dark hunter, but those of us who are constantly active and constantly moving around are more difficult targets and less easily caught.’
Linlithgow, West Lothian