A meander from a gloomy Orwellian summer to James Gandon’s grave

An already sad week was made worse by the death of the great American journalist Pete Hamill

George Orwell: ‘No one is patriotic about taxes’. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images George Orwell: ‘No one is patriotic about taxes’. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

George Orwell: ‘No one is patriotic about taxes’. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images George Orwell: ‘No one is patriotic about taxes’. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

 

Needing relief from this week’s Covid statistics, or at least a reminder that people have lived through gloomier summers, I turned to George Orwell’s diaries, opening them at random in August 1940. They didn’t disappoint. Not only did Orwell have the war to worry about 80 years ago this week, he was also fighting a second front, with the inland revenue.

“Wrote a long letter to the Income Tax people pointing out that the war had practically put an end to my livelihood while at the same time the government refused to give me any kind of job,” he records for August 9th. Then, after pleading poverty, the diary turns philosophical: “Towards the government I feel no scruples and would dodge paying the tax if I could. Yet I would give my life for England readily enough, if I thought it necessary. No one is patriotic about taxes.”

A year later he was working for the BBC, which coincided with a long break in the diary. But by summer 1942, the entries were sounding even bleaker. Churchill’s handling of the war had just faced a censure motion in parliament, during which a unionist MP suggested he be replaced as commander-in-chief by the Duke of Gloucester, an idea that appalled the diarist.

Orwell’s patriotism did not extend to the royal family either. He didn’t trust them on Nazism, but in this case it was mere incompetence he feared. The same Duke of Gloucester is a minor footnote in Irish history, by the way. Before his death in 1974, he was the last surviving knight of the Order of St Patrick, a British institution that went out with independence.

Orwell assumed that, had the motion succeeded, the duke would have been a mere front man for someone else. “Even so,” his diary continues, “one could hardly imagine a worse figurehead than this fat mental defective.”

***

Back in coronavirus-dimmed Ireland, an already sad week was made worse by the death of the great American journalist Pete Hamill, who was descended from Belfast emigrants but became synonymous with his native New York.

The obituaries reminded me that he once won a Grammy award for his liner notes of Bob Dylan’s 1975 classic Blood on the Tracks. Balanced between poetry and prose, the essay is about the grim backdrop, including Vietnam, that had inspired Dylan’s best work. But in current circumstances, even Hamill’s oblique opening sentence has taken on a newly ominous ring: “In the end, the plague touched us all.”

***

In happier news, I have learned another new thing about the word “gobshite”, which as mentioned here recently made its debut appearance in the New York Times this summer. As I now know, however, it was already circulating elsewhere in those parts more than a century ago. And it may have had a whole separate existence in America, before taking on its current Irish meaning.

Gobshite’s first known appearance in print is from 1910, in the US, where it referred to “an enlisted seaman”. A possible derivation might be the typical navy man’s habit then of chewing tobacco and spitting it out, with the name for this gobful of brown waste matter in time attaching to the spitter himself. And maybe that came from Ireland too. But it is not until the 1940s that the OED finds the word in print this side of the Atlantic, as “chiefly Irish English” and with its modern meaning.

I owe this and several other insights to my week’s highlight: an hour-long phone conversation with popular etymologist Susie Dent: star of TV, radio, and podcast, and fount of all knowledge on the English language. I was also delighted to learn that among the many source books she uses, her favourites include A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose (1785), which did for common speech what Samuel Johnson had already done for politer English.

Gobshite is just the sort of word Grose would have included if available. As it was, he had to excuse his book’s bawdiness by saying that he did not go looking for rude words; they tended to find him instead. In fact, he did extensive research in low places, but he kept some very good company too – and in a sense is still keeping it.

One of the few things I know that Susie Dent didn’t is that Grose, although English, is buried in Dublin. He died suddenly on a visit in 1791, forcing friends to devise a local grave-sharing arrangement. So it is that his remains rest to this day in the same plot in Drumcondra as James Gandon, the greatest architect of Georgian Dublin.

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