Wednesday 9 August 2023

Review: The Merry-Thought, or the Glass, Window and Bog-House Miscellany by Hurlothrumbo

 The Merry-Thought, or the Glass, Window and Bog-House Miscellany is a collection of writing found scratched into windows, into glasses and on toilet walls. It was published between 1731-2. The author/editor of the collection styled themselves as Hurlothrumbo, the name of a play written ten years earlier by a dance instructor/professional fool called Samuel Johnson, but best known as Maggoty. 

The introduction to the version I read (the ex-classics ebook) by Maximilian Novak suggests that there’s a good likelihood Maggoty himself was involved in this book, as it shares a bookseller with the play’s printed copies and also shares a similar sensibility - with the sublime and the ridiculous rubbing up against each other. I’m not wholly convinced by the idea. I think it’s far more likely that a bookseller known for publishing the (bestselling) script for the play Hurlothrumbo would see sense in attributing a fun and eccentric work to Hurlothrumbo. There’s a sense of brand-name recognition and such a name would set the right tone for the work. I also can’t imagine Maggoty Johnson being as invisible as the editor of this collection, only coming in for a preface or two but not really commenting on the action. From the evidence of Hurlothrumbo, where he gave himself a character who plays no role in the story and mainly serves to upstage everyone, Maggoty rather liked being the centre of attention and I can’t imagine him being so anonymous within the text.

It claims to be a selection of graffiti collected over the years from a number of different locations and I think that’s probably true. The subject matters are the same ones people have felt the need to graffiti since at least Pompeii and most of the entries are attributed to a particular place. The Star Inn in Coventry must have been full of graffiti, judging by the amount of entries it has.

The book actually came out in four volumes, with the end of each volume asking for submissions to go in the next. It boasts how many responses the request received, but the editions stopped after four, so I suppose the submissions run out. It’s a very Edmund Curll-ish thing to do, he’d put a notice in the paper for anecdotes about a recently deceased person to ‘bump up’ the research that had already been done, and then publish a biography consisting wholly of those contributions.

As for the contents themselves, The Merry-Thought is more interesting in what it is, rather than what it contains. To have such ephemeral pieces as graffiti is very special, but most of the entries in this book are the worst kinds of doggerel, full of forced rhymes and no metre. At first it’s fun to read;

“While the old friar was kissing her arse

She lifted her skirts and shit on his face.”

Sometimes a piece can be a neat little rhyme, like this piece from the Temple bog-house; 

“No hero looks so fierce in a fight

As does the man who strains to shite”

And sometimes it can be so rude, it catches the eye, like this acrostic from Uxbridge;

“Commodious for a haven made

Under a rising bank

Nature has fixed a place of trade

To men of any rank”

Sometimes there are tricks and wordplays like;

“I C U B

YY 4 me” (I see you be too wise for me). 

Oxford and Cambridge are particularly good hot-spots for wordplay, as to be expected from the University towns. One source of speculation and graffiti, is the age of Alderman’s daughter, Molly. A number of the wall-scrawlers are wondering how Molly is fifteen, when she was the same age fifteen years ago. There is debate among them about as to whether she still looks it. This discussion may be played out in doggerel but at least it’s in English, much of the University graffiti is in Latin. One piece of Latin graffiti, found in Dean’s Yard, is the Sator Square, the mysterious Latin palindrome that can be read back, forth, up and down - with the word ‘Tenet’ in the middle.

Wordplay is also found on the words etched into glasses. Many clubs and societies had the tradition of engraving the names of pretty, single women onto their glasses and declaring them the toast of the society. Individuals also had their own toasts and would etch the name of her on their glass. One practise, recorded in the book is making rebuses of the loved one’s name;

“To spoil the Cornish ore

names the nymph that I adore”

This one is for a Miss Martin and it’s as corny as most of them are.

One of the most interesting elements to read in the book is when there’s a chain of messages written on a wall. To a modern reader, it’s like a twitter thread, with various different strangers chipping in their opinions and comments. The message chains have a whole range of purposes. There’ll be messages of support, like the person who wrote, ‘well said my boy’. There’ll be admonishments, like the person who told a woman that she’d sold her maidenhead ‘at a bad fair’. Quite often, there are warnings, especially against women with venereal disease. 

An example from the Red Lion, Southwall in 1728 reads;

“Clarinda lay here

with a young cavalier

with her heart full of fear

for her husband was near”

A group of people, signing themselves as SM, JM & RH, have this to add;

”Tis very true for we saw rem in re through the keyhole”

‘Rem in re’ is Latin for ‘the thing in itself’… which is a fairly creepy/funny thing to say. I also find it interesting how doggerel versions of pastoral poetry, complete with poetic names like ‘Clarinda’ are so ingrained into the culture that they become a default position when writing on a wall. I suppose the way people communicate through popular culture today.

Another element found in the graffiti that is found today is misogyny. A lot of the posts, especially the ones found in pub walls/scratched into their windows rely on a narrative as women as sexually voracious creatures who prey on men’s weakness for their own physical pleasures or material gain. Most of these harpies enjoy leaving their lovers with throbbing members, especially if they’ve been paid well. Many of these tired comments sound like the things a certain sphere online say are particular to twenty-first century women.

One, more eighteenth century problem that is often addressed in the bog-house writing specifically, is the instance of shit on the walls. It would seem that many toilets did not include anything to wipe a bum on, or bumfodder, so people had to bring their own. It would also seem that a common, but not very acceptable solution was to wipe your bum with your hand and then wipe the excess on the wall. Lots of writing was directed at these excremental miscreants, also a surprising amount written against the act of writing in the bog-house.

“Damn your writing

Mind your shiteing”

I'm surprised Norman Inkpen didn't mention this in his book Shit Jokes.

The Merry-Thought is a strange book, containing ephemeral trash that is also a unique document of its era. Whether Magotty was the one who gave it to the world, it’s a good thing that it’s here. It is also a book whose mission statement could be summed up by its epigraph, found written on the wall outside Bedlam.

Gameyorum, Wildum Gorum

Gameyorum a Gamy

Flumarum a Flumarum

A Rigdum Bollarum

A Rigdum for a little Gamey

(They’re nonsense words from a song)

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