The Devil’s Tines

Early 17th Century French fork

The humble dinner fork an instrument of the devil? Surely not! Yes, the fork has quite a notorious history. As soon as the new-fangled eating implement was introduced to Europeans by a Byzantine princess it became the focus of clerical ire. When Maria Argyropoulina arrived in Venice in 1004 to marry the son of the Doge she carried with her a case of golden forks to use at the wedding feast. Cleric Peter Damien, a future saint, witnessed the shocking scene:

Such was the luxury of her habits…[that] she deigned not to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry it to her mouth. God in his wisdom has provided people with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them while eating. 

His opinion was confirmed a few years later when the unfortunate woman died of the plague, surely God’s punishment for her vanity he declared. The fact that sinful courtesans were known to eat sweets with a fork was even more reason to ban their use.

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Triptych

This cycle of poems is dedicated to my son Patrick Francis Hanrahan 1979-2002. Today would be his birthday. I wrote them at different stages of his life, the third shortly after his death from complications of mono. It was inspired by the last photo taken of him on his 23rd birthday.

I. Boy

          Golden-haired quicksilver boy
          You crash and rage
          About the house,
          All knees and elbows,
          Tumble of limbs and words
          In daring, perfect poise
          Of near-falls, cries, yells.

          My golden-haired quicksilver boy,
          Dropped into sleep
          Your delicate, pale-moonglow face,
          Curled, uncoiled body
          Stills.   
                                                                                             
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Half a Year of Reading

These are my favorite books of the year so far. I’ve also read some downright silly, some forgettable, and some dreadful books which will get a mention at the end.

Fiction

Think you could never feel heartache for a robot? Surrender to the magic of Ishiguro’s writing. Klara is an AF, a solar-powered Artificial Friend, purchased as a companion for Josie, a teenage girl who suffers from a mysterious illness. Klara is programmed to recognize and respond to human emotions and to always place the needs of her human first. She narrates the story, so we see the human world through her eyes, a disorienting combination of astute observation and naivety. As in Ishiguro’s most famous novels, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, the disturbing truth about Josie’s society and her illness are gradually revealed. When Klara decides she needs help to complete her mission she turns to the higher power who gives her life, the Sun. Once again Ishiguro’s hypnotic prose holds the reader in a spell. 

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Anglo-Saxon Values

The Anglo-Saxons have been in the news lately, but not in a good way. A proposal to form a Congressional Caucus to promote “Anglo-Saxon values” turned out to be a bit too explicit a nod to White Supremacists, even for the current iteration of the GOP. White Supremacists have sadly co-opted the term Anglo-Saxon, making it a divisive buzz word rather than simply the name of a period of English history. Lets look at Anglo-Saxon history and values. I have several books on my shelves to refresh my memory. A lovely illustrated edition of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People written in the 8th century and a battered paperback of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of narratives compiled in the 9th century reign of Alfred the Great. There’s also several books about archeological discoveries, including a hoard of gold treasure and the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial, and of course a copy of Beowulf.

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The Unfortunate Case of the Queen’s Nose

The Royals have been all over the news lately, what with the kerfuffle over Harry and Meghan followed by the death of Prince Philip. American viewers of The Crown consider themselves experts on the British Monarchy now, but there was a time when I was presumed an expert just because I am English. I did not grow up a Royalist though. Here is my confession, involving an old-fashioned loo, a taste for lead, and Her Majesty’s nose, adapted from a piece first published in The Dabbler in 2013.

Queen Elizabeth II on the day of her Coronation in 1953

The most irritating thing about being a Brit in America is the expectation that I must be as enamored of the Royal family as Americans are. Americans seem to have put resentment of King George III firmly behind them and follow all the ups and downs of royal news like a long running soap opera. Even better than Downton Abbey. I am often called upon to join in the gushing adulation and answer questions as a presumed expert on all things royal. Perhaps it is proof that I have remained English to the core that I can do so only with a heavy dose of ironic detachment.

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Great British Cooking?

In this episode of On My Bookshelf I reach for a cookbook.

“How do you make Toad in the Hole?” asked my 8 year old grandson. “Well, first I send you boys into the woods to find some toads while I make the holes,” I replied. “Then you drop the toads into the holes and we’re done.” The 6 year old looked confused but 8 was on to me. “That’s not true!” he protested. So I explained that the English give weird names to their foods but basically Toad in the Hole is just sausages in Yorkshire Pudding. That drew blank stares so I revised it to a sausage pancake. They liked the sound of that and agreed to help me, though once the Yorkshire Pudding batter was mixed they lost interest. I have the recipe for this and more odd sounding foods in Great British Cooking by Jane Garmey. I bought the book when it was first published in 1981, a time when the title was indeed an oxymoron. This was before the age of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, before pubs turned into gastropubs, and before the Great British Bake Off came to America. British cooking really did have a terrible reputation, especially with Continental Europeans. 

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The Manchester Martyrs

On November 23rd 1867 three Irishmen, William Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, were hanged on a hastily built scaffold outside Salford Gaol in Manchester. The execution was a botched affair, carried out by William Calcraft who was…

notoriously unable to calculate the correct length of rope required for each individual hanging; he frequently had to rush below the scaffold to pull on his victim’s legs to hasten death.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

This is what happened to the unfortunate Larkin. O’Brien suffered a lengthy ordeal when the attending priest prevented Calcraft from dispatching him in the same way. He hung twitching on the rope for three quarters of an hour as the priest held a crucifix before him. Allen was luckier and died instantly. 

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Duck Duck Gone

Long ago in an England far far away my sister Angela adopted a duck. Her motivation is lost to history. Perhaps it was nostalgia for our childhood Sunday picnics in Valentines Park, a short bus ride from home. I remember how much we enjoyed feeding the ducks from the bag of bread crusts we brought along. We didn’t yet know how harmful it is to feed wildlife. Perhaps a newly enlightened Angela was seeking atonement. The story of the adopted duck recently resurfaced when she found the documentation in a box of old papers.

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Love On My Bookshelf

In time for Valentine’s Day I rediscover an extraordinary love story from the English Civil War and Commonwealth, Read My Heart by historian Jane Dunn.

In the summer of 1648 two young people made their way to the Isle of Wight, the first leg of a journey to France. Meeting there would set the course for their whole lives. Dorothy Osborne was 21 and, accompanied by her brother Robin as chaperone, was en route to visit their father who was living in exile in St. Malo. William Temple was 20. His father was sending him off on a young English gentleman’s traditional sojourn on the Continent to broaden his education. 

The England the young pair travelled through was war-torn and weary, bitterly divided between the Royalists loyal to King Charles I and the Parliamentarians. The first of the Civil Wars had ended with the decisive defeat of the King at the Battle of Naseby and he was currently held prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, the very place they were heading. By co-incidence both young people had relatives on the island, but on opposite sides of the conflict. Dorothy’s kinsman Richard Osborne was Gentleman-of-the Bedchamber to the King and was suspected of plotting to help Charles escape. On the other hand William’s cousin, Colonel Robert Hammond, was the Governor of the Castle and responsible for guarding the King.

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