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The Scrivener: 1879 — An Important Year

Some important people were born in 1879, writes Brian Barratt.
…Albert Einstein, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, E.M.Forster, Kenneth Grahame, Norman Lindsay, Paul Klee, Sir Thomas Beecham (though he wasn't Sir when he was born, of course), and William Barratt. That last one was my father, by the way…

Brian Barratt speculates on how his father would have reacted to some of his contemporaries and their achievements.

Brian’s columns are guaranteed to surprise and delight. To read more of them please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And if you are in the mood for a bout of mental callisthenics do visit his Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

Some pretty important people were born in 1879. The roll-call includes Albert Einstein, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, E.M.Forster, Kenneth Grahame, Norman Lindsay, Paul Klee, Sir Thomas Beecham (though he wasn't Sir when he was born, of course), and William Barratt. That last one was my father, by the way. He was pretty important for me.

In the same year, the Religious Tract Society started publishing "The Boy's Own Paper" — jolly good healthy reading matter for young lads. There were still several pre-War editions of the Boy's Own Annual in the house when I was a boy. Dad would have approved of those. He probably wouldn't be too concerned that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, then aged 20, had his first short story published in 1879.

It is probable that the term "short story" had been in use only since 1877, specifically denoting a story which was shorter than a novel, with a simple plot and featuring only a few characters. It's surprising what you discover when you start digging into reference books and the history of words. Take "bombinate", for instance.

Although related words had been in use for a long time, bombinate did not come into use as a verb until a year after my father was born. It means to hum, to buzz. In Chaucer's time one of its ancestors, to bumble, meant to boom like a bittern or buzz like a fly. Not that my father would have been interested in all that. He did, however, relish selected snippets of information which he would announce in his grandiose way.

I think he would have promulgated the fact that the violoncello became known as a cello only three years before he was born, and carbon paper was invented in 1885, when he was a mere six years old. On the other hand, he would probably not have been interested in the fact that the first cricket Test Match, between England and Australia, was played in Melbourne two years before he was born, or that the first world men's amateur tennis championship was played at Wimbledon in that year.

If he knew when the electric light bulb was invented, I feel sure he would have boasted about the year(s) in which it happened. In 1878, Sir Joseph Swan, a British scientist, demonstrated the first prototype. In 1879, Thomas Edison, an American inventor, independently produced his own version. After a legal wrangle about copyright — Swan had been first but Edison was more careful about patenting his invention — the two gentlemen formed the Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company in the year my father had his fourth birthday.

If I recall aright, he used to sweeten his tea with saccharin, instead of sugar. On that basis, he could well have been proud of the fact that in 1879 a German chemist, Constantin Fahlberg, noticed a sweet smell on his hands after he had been experimenting with a derivative of coal tar. That small observation gave rise to the invention of saccharin.

Coming back to the 1879 roll-call, I wonder what Dad would have thought, in later life, of his contemporaries. He would have read in the newspapers about Einstein, perhaps adopting an acquired studious expression, jutting his jaw and pursing his lips, pretending to understand what he was reading.

He would have strongly disapproved of Stalin and Trotsky and all they stood for. Sir Thomas Beecham would have met with his approval largely because of his involvement with the music of Handel (my father sang in choral societies and church choirs for about half a century). He would not have appreciated other composers whom Beecham championed, such as Delius and Sibelius.

Although I had a copy of "Wind in the Willows", Dad probably didn't know of Kenneth Grahame. He might have read some of E.M.Forster's novels but if he had known about Forster's private sexual preferences he would have spluttered and thrown them into the dustbin.

As for the artists, I imagine that he would have condemned the imaginative work of Paul Klee as "Rot!" but if he ever saw a book of Norman Lindsay's paintings he would have hidden behind it, muttering and mumbling his disapproval while surreptitiously relishing the buxom ladies.

Yes, I reckon that some pretty important and very interesting people were born in 1879.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009


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