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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Selections from my Commonplace Books

Since moving to the coast I have begun to keep a selection of Commonplace Books.

A Commonplace book is a book of blank pages in which the holder places odd bits of knowledge gleaned from a variety of sources, together with, at times, their own observations. The habit began back in Ancient Times but was particularly popular during the Renaissance and the Victorian Age, and continues for a few of us today. I first tried to start one aged 12 but soon gave up, but today they give me much pleasure.

I have numerous subjects on the go and each has its own colour of notebook in which entries are made, viz

History - Ageing - Folklore - Adult Education - General Miscellany - Sussex - Natural History

So below are just a few items that have caught my attention that you might like to read :-

From History:-

What is a GRISETTE? French working class woman, often a seamstress. Used from 17th to 19th century. Used in English in 1730 by Jonathan Swift. But by early 19th century the meaning had shifted to mean a rather flirtatious working woman, even, as in Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables' , a prostitute. The most famous Grisette is Madame du Barry, who was born the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress, and rose to become the Mistresse en Titre (ie almost the wife and certainly one of the most powerful people in the kingdom) of Louis XV.

The word itself comes from gris, meaning grey, often the colour of working women's clothing.

London Peculiars (fog and smog) in the 1950s

From the novel Last Friends by Jane Gardam:

'London fogs were getting worse again. During the war, coal had been rationed. Now coal was back, and fogs swirled about the East and West End. They nuzzled and licked and enwrapped you in yellowish limp fleece. They stained your clothes, your hair, got up your nose and down your ears. Your chest wheezed. When you sneezed, your handkerchief was dark ochre.'

I remember them well from my Bristol childhood.

When will we cease to use the phrase 'since the war', 'after the war', etc. It has been used during the current pandemic by a number of politicians and commentators.

What was a BIRRUS?

or, 'Birrus Britannicus' was a woollen cloak or just a woollen hat used by Celtic Britons (and Gauls) and subsequently adopted by Romans after the conquest of our cold and wet island home. A very good example can be found in a mosaic at Chedworth Villa in The Cotswolds, which incidentally is one of my favourite history sites in England. It is also the villa where in the last month it is claimed that evidence from a mosaic points to occupation way into the 5th century when previously it was thought that villa living had been abandoned from at least 410 and the withdrawal of the Legions. I have my doubts about this claim as does my archaeology graduate son. I hope it's true but .....

There is also a birrus clad man, by the way, in a mosaic at Bignor here in West Sussex.


Answer - Nasty little Britons! As per a writing tablet from Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall.

My source; The biography Pertinax by Simon Elliott

From Folklore Commonplace Book:

'If you leave the windows open, Old Boney will come and get you'. A reminiscence in The Times from Matthew Parris of his grandmother's sayings (b 1888).

Boney, of course, was Napoleon Bonaparte. I wonder, along with Parris, when this was last used to frighten little children to sleep!

A Lancashire bogeywoman is a particular favourite of mine - JENNY GREENTEETH. She inhabited inland ponds and lakes where green algae covered the surface and if small children got too close then Jenny would get them! I was pleased to learn recently that in a Swiss version of this tale the bogey is called RITSCHA (meaning 'locks of hair').

From Ageing Commonplace Book:

'I'd rather wear out than rust out', Dolly Parton, aet 74.

'Just because you are 74, it doesn't mean you believe it'. Maureen Lipman

'Suitable for anyone between 7 and 70'. This annoys me enormously. What about the 70+. We aren't gaga!

'He eats quickly, with neat movements but the greediness of old age' Sando Marai in the novel Embers.

PS I saw a book on Adult Education, published in 1980, described for sale on ebay as 'vintage adult education'. Crikey, I don't know what that makes me, as I started my own Adult Education career in 1969.

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