What Man Would be Without a Woman

This penny ballad (no printer/publisher named and no date, but circa 1840) was found among the archive of the late Leslie Shepherd, expert on catchpenny ballads etc., and connoisseur of the paranormal and bizarre.

It is laughably non PC, as you would expect ('she’s man’s best friend, for him she’ll wash and mend'), but generally is very appreciative of the female sex, is pro-marriage, and strongly against bachelordom.

'So lads if you’re not silly, you will quickly go and wed;
A single life you’ll find to be a bitter pill…'

The use of the word 'molly' is interesting. I had always thought it referred to a gay or effeminate man, but in this context the line 'What man would be a molly all his life?' suggests that to be an unattached male who must ‘ mend his own clothes , must wash his shirt, and molly coddle too’ was to be per se effeminate, which is a notion that has persisted  right up to the present, though the general acceptance of 'house husbands' today suggests that it is slowly dying out.  The use of the term 'molly coddle' is also instructive. According to the O.E.D. it was coined in 1833, and meant (and still means ) to treat like an invalid. Did it therefore follow that in the early Victorian period being treated like an invalid was linked with being effeminate ?

Thoughts on this are welcome. [RH]

The Revd. Sidney Swann – A Muscular Christian

An old edition of Who's Who reveals that The Revd. Sidney Swann, M.A., born in 1862, rowed in the Oxford and Cambridge boat race in 1883, 1884 and 1885, won the Cambridge sculls and pairs and the Grand Challenge in 1886 and 1887 and, in record time, the Steward's in 1885 and 1887. He also, in Japan, "won most things started for on land and sea; rowing, hurdling, cycling, running, pole-jumping, weight and hammer." We learn that he was the first to cycle round Syria, that he rode from Land's End to John O'Groats and from Carlisle to London in a day, that he rowed a home-made boat from Crosby Vicarage down the rapids of the Eden to the sea and that he cut the record from England to France in 1911 by rowing the Channel in 3 hours and 50 minutes "faster than anyone had ever gone between England and France by muscular power". He built several flying machines, and drove motor ambulances in Belgium winning three medals. In 1917, when 55 years old, he cycled, walked, ran, paddled, rode and swam six consecutive half-miles in 26 minutes 20 seconds in competition with a certain Lieutenant Muller of the Danish Army.

He eventually became very eccentric and was persuaded in 1937 to retire. Committed to a mental asylum he escaped, remarried after his first wife died, and finally died himself after falling off his bicycle (in 1942). John Julius Norwich has a lot more on the highly competitive Swann in his 1975 Christmas Cracker - in old age he appears to have become a slightly  daunting figure in Lindfield...

In 1911 the Revd. Swann crossed from Dover
to Cap Griz Nez in 3 hours and 50 minutes

A castrato sends in his bill…

Invoices from famous castrati are pretty rare, but there is no reason why there shouldn’t be more of them around. The reason is that some of the best castrati gave singing lessons, and thus presumably sent in bills for their services. One of the greatest singing masters of them all was the brilliant Domenico Mustafa, who was also a composer and was appointed perpetual director of the Sistine Chapel in 1878.

Born in 1829 in Perugia to a Turkish father, the young Domenico doubtless had a good voice (it was later described as ‘ sweet and pleasant as that of a woman’) and, as was the custom, was castrated before puberty as a way of generating an income for his impoverished parents . He later was quoted as saying that he’d risk being indicted for murder if he could discover the man who had castrated him’. He joined the Sistine Chapel as a chorister at the age of 19.

This invoice and letter date from 18 February 1870, when Mustafa was aged 41. He had already been director of the Sistine Chapel choir for ten years and as such must have been in great demand as a private singing tutor. For six lessons plus the sheet music he charged Signorina Holland ( perhaps an English lady ) a total of 67 francs and 50 centimes. Why the sum should be in francs, I don’t know.

Later on, in 1892, Mustafa gave lessons to the famous French soprano Emma Calve, teaching her to employ her celebrated ‘fourth voice‘, which was an unnaturally high falsetto. After hearing Mustafa himself performing this weird sound Calve described it as ‘ strange, sexless, superhuman, uncanny ‘.

Mustafa retired at the aged of 73 to his luxurious villa in Montefalco where he died in 1912. ‘ Villa Mustafa ‘became a hotel and is now a museum to his memory. [R]

I once had tea with ….Geoffrey Hill

Sent in by faithful jotter RMH. Fans of Nobel Prize winner Heaney might be peeved by his closing remarks but c'est la guerre...

I once had tea with ….Geoffrey Hill

Our Greatest Living Poet is not known for his bonhomie, but on this particular occasion the man who while teaching at Cambridge was often seen moping around with an expression that made him look ( according to one colleague ) 'as if he had been raped by God', showed a more buoyant side to his personality. It was around 1993 and my dear friend, the late lamented Patricia Huskisson ( a descendant of  the unfortunate Tory minister who was run over by a locomotive in 1830), lived in the next village and had invited me to meet the famous poet. I had contemplated bringing along my copy of Mercian Hymns, arguably the best poetry collection to appear for the past 40 years, for him to sign. I can’t remember if I actually took the book along to the meeting, but when I arrived it was obvious that this was not the occasion for a demonstration of cheap fan worship.

Hill was already there and so was Patricia’s old friend Guy Lee, the Latinist and translator of Ovid. Tea, which featured the usual mountain of sandwiches and cakes, was brought and although I cannot recall any scholarly bon mots from the mouth of Hill, I seem to remember him laughing on at least two occasions, which from the author of Tenebrae, seemed to me unexpected .

More unexpected still was the appearance of Hill in front of Patricia’s square piano, where he and Guy proceeded to play a duet---a baroque piece, I seem to recall. The whole meeting lasted no more than an hour. Our Greatest Living Poet ( sorry, Seamus, but you’re not in the same league ) left before I could ask him any serious literary questions.[RMH]

John Betjeman on C.R. Ashbee

A good John Betjeman letter found in a VHS cassette from the estate of Felicity Ashbee the daughter of the great Arts and Crafts figure C.R. Ashbee and granddaughter of the erotica collector Henry Ashbee. The video, not played, appears to be of a couple of talks on Ashbee in 1994 at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The letter has no address but interior evidence suggests Betjeman was dodging the bombs in London at the time...

June 2, 1942

Dear Mrs Ashbee,

I was most awfully sorry to read in The Times of Mr Ashbee's death. I had so look forward, the end of this war, which has separated us all from friends and interests, to seeing him again.

The personal loss to you and your family must be great indeed. I remember well that happy life at Godden Green at the time I came to stay with you and he and I walked over to see a *Comper church.

Continue reading

I once met…Sir John Mortimer

I had been invited to interview him on his book collection. Of course, I was aware of his reputation---as a champagne socialist and general bon viveur. The press photos  always showed him surrounded by adoring and attractive women. He lived in a house designed by his father and inherited from him, in one of the most beautiful parts of Buckinghamshire, among the beech woods of Turville Heath, not too far from Jeremy Paxman’s place and Fawley Bottom Farmhouse, the former home of John and Myfanwy Piper, whom I had known, and who were his close friends too. I was a little envious, I admit.

The taxi dropped me unceremoniously on the edge of woodland. The driver didn’t know where his house stood, and no did I, but I peered any all directions for any sign of a dazzling green pantiled roof, which Mortimer had told me to look out for. In less than five minutes I had found it, splendidly turquoise through the trees, looking as though it belonged to a thirties gem in Stanmore or Bushey than rural Bucks. I approached the front door and knocked. A women in her latish sixties clad completely in a white towel with a turban around her wet hair opened it. The first adoring female fan of the day, I thought. How many more would I meet before I left for home ?

None, as it turned out. The turbaned lady was his wife, who had just that moment stepped out of the bath. She showed me to his study and she did so warned me that her husband was ill. I must say, he didn’t look too chipper. He was wheezing and his face was flushed. He explained that as well as the house his father had bequeathed him two medical conditions—asthma and blindness. My envy dissipated forthwith. We talked about his childhood enthusiasms for the stage and for poetry and how he hated his time at Harrow. One remark surprised me and has remained in my memory ever since. On the subject of Law he remarked that he didn’t consider it a worthy academic discipline and wished that he had spent his time at Oxford reading a 'proper' academic subject, such as  history or English Literature instead.

Before I left he offered me a glass of (you’ve guessed it) champagne—the first and only time I’d been offered this after an interview. His wife joined us and afterwards drove me back to Henley station. [RH]

Lovat Fraser on Sty Head Pass

A news clipping from 1919 found pasted to the endpapers of Hall Caine's The Story of a Crime. It is by the artist Lovat Fraser  - obviously a lover of the area, but keen on sharing it with others to the extent of wanting a road to it. He seems to be talking about a sort of Edwardian nimby but as far as I know the road was never built, although the campaign had been going on for about 15 years. Fraser writes well, some of the descriptions of scenery are reminiscent of John Buchan..

Sty Head Pass

The fate of the proposed road over Sty Head Pass, in the Lake District, may be decided today at Carlisle. I have read dozens of protests against the scheme, not one word in its favour. With some trepidation, I wish to take the lists against the crag  climbers on the fell wanderers and to back Mr. Musgrave of Wastdale and his road.

Here is my own experience. Late last October I went through lovely Borrowdale to Seathwaite and walked over the Sty Head Pass down towards Wastdale, and back. Everybody who visits Lakeland has heard about Seathwaite which has the reputation of being the wettest place in England, and has earned it.

Continue reading

Dummy Books for Duchesses

In the library of Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, are two doors disguised as shelves of books. The second one was created in the 1960s during renovations, and 28 book-backs were made by binders Sangorski & Sutcliffe, for titles like Reduced to the Ranks by D. Motion, Second Helpings by O. Twist, Dipsomania by Mustafa Swig, and The Battle of the Bulge by Lord Slim. The last volume was Book Titles by Patrick Leigh Fermor, in honour of the inventor of the titles. They were suggested to the Duchess in a letter from Fermor from Euboea dated February 1964. This was published in 2008 ( In Tearing Haste) by John Murray. Among  PLF's other candidates were:

          Knicknacks by  Paddy Whack
          Nancy Mitford & her Circle by Juno french
          Minor Rodents by Aygood-Mausser
          A Tommy in the Harem by Private Parts
          First Steps in Rubber by Wellington
          Flags of the Nations by Bunting
          Will Yam Make Peace? by Thackeray
          Consenting Adults by Abel N Willing
          Where the Hormones...by Christine Keeler  
          Venus Observed by I. Sawyer
          Intuition by Ivor Hunch
          Alien Corn by Dr. Scholl
          March Days by A. Hare
          Creme de la Creme by Devonshire
          K-K-Katie by Kay Stammers
          On the Spot by Leo Pard
          Humble Pie by J.Horner
          The Shaking Hand by Master Bates 
          Ruined Honeymoon by Mary Fitzgerald and Gerald 
          The Day After Gomorrah by Bishop of Sodor and Man
          Call me X by Anon
          Pardon Me by Belcher
          Weather in the Streets by Omega Losches
          Haute Cuisine by the Aga Khan 
          The Babies Revenge by Norah Titsoff
          The Cat's Revenge by Claude Balls

Patrick Leigh Fermor confesses he has a soft spot for the rude ones 'though they're not your style.' Might follow up with more garnered from books, recommendations and the web. The most famous is, of course, Rusty Bedsprings by I.P Knightly. There are manufacturers of dummy bookshelves, mostly providing classic titles like the two vols below by one Ernest Hemmingway...

The Day of the Rabblement (James Joyce) 1901

Apart from the unfindable juvenilia Et Tu Healy (possibly called Parnell) this is Joyce's first work. It was published in an 8 page pamphlet shared with his friend and fellow student Francis Sheehy- Skeffington, after his and Joyce's articles were turned down by the college magazine at University College, Dublin. Joyce, with whom he also attended school, considered Skeffington “the cleverest man at University College” beside himself (Ellmann 61). The bit at the end of Joyce's even tempered rant about a 'third minister' is said to be a clear reference to himself. It is also worth noting that Joyce translated the Gerhart Hauptmann play Michael Kramer and that Yeats thought it a poor translation. His poem The Holy Office (1904) continues his attack on the Irish theatre, amongst other things...

No man, said the Nolan, can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude; and the artist, though he may employ the crowd, is very careful to isolate himself. This radical principle of artistic economy applies specially to a time of crisis, and to-day when the highest form of art has been just preserved by desperate sacrifices, it is strange to see the artist making terms with the rabblement. The Irish Literary Theatre is the latest movement of protest against the sterility and falsehood of the modern stage. Half a century ago the note of protest was uttered in Norway, and since then in several countries long and disheartening battles have been fought against the hosts of prejudice and misinterpretation and ridicule. What triumph there has been here and there is due to stubborn conviction, and every movement that has set out heroically has achieved a little. The Irish Literary Theatre gave out that it was the champion of progress, and proclaimed war against commercialism and vulgarity. It had partly made good its word and was expelling the old devil when after the first encounter it surrendered to the popular will. Now your popular devil is more dangerous than your vulgar devil. Bulk and lungs count for something, and he can gild his speech aptly. He has prevailed once more, and the Irish Literary Theatre must now be considered the property of the rabblement of the most belated race in Europe.

Continue reading

I once met….. Stephen Spender

This was just before he died. He was laid up in bed with a broken hip, much to my surprise, because I don’t think I’d been forewarned. Anyway, following the piece he’d contributed in 1985 to my festschrift to mark Grigson’s 80th I was now writing a biography and had written to Spender more than once about his sometimes uneasy relationship with the poet and critic. I’d visited the wonderful Harry Ransom Center in Austin, among other places, and one of the items I’d unearthed had been an excoriating squib written by his one-time friend, which as far as I knew, had never been published. Just as well, really, since had it been, it is unlikely that Spender would have cooperated at all. I’d also discovered that a mutual friend had seen  Grigson put out a cigarette on a photograph of Spender’s face.

W. H. Auden,Stephen Spender & Christopher Isherwood on Fire Island,1947

As I moved towards St John’s Wood that afternoon I asked myself if I could honestly mention these two pieces of evidence of Grigson’s dislike of him –one a fact of which I carried no proof, the other, possibly apocryphal , and even malevolent. As I sighted what I knew must be Spender’s home—a very handsome Regency villa covered with wisteria and sporting wrought ironwork — the nerves began to play up. I was about to meet a man of 89--the last surviving (unless you count Edward Upward ) figures of the Auden generation. Was it wise to open wounds that had never fully healed ? I decided that I could not risk it—not in Spender’s own home. The cigarette butt and the squib would play no part. I would have to tread softly.

The interview went pretty well. Spender was friendly and polite, though hardly enthusiastic about his old friend. I felt as if he was holding back, although his memory might have been poor. Perhaps assuming that I was aware of Grigson’s mixed feelings towards him, he did bring up an example of  his fellow poet’s brutal honesty—a hostile review by Grigson of a book by or about Cecil Day Lewis (I cannot recall which) published when the latter was terminally ill.

Before I left the house I kept my ears pricked for the sound of Edna Everage—Barry Humphries had married Spender’s daughter—but alas, could hear nothing that sounded Australian.

Spender died a month or so later.[RH]


'Badinage' - sent in by an old jotter (who once met Marty Feldman) who notes that even in 1961 the old thought that young people had no conversation... From Michael Innes detective novel Silence Observed about a forger intent upon  forging forgeries of great literary forgeries. Echoes of Major Byron etc., Inspector Appleby, having briefly referred to La Dolce Vita, his interlocutor 'old buffer' Sir Gabriel Gulliver says:

"I tell you I've never spent a winter in Rome."

"You'd find it overrated, I don't doubt. Better just to read about it in a nostalgic way in Edwardian novels. The reality would be disenchanting. I understand there's a great deal of snow, and that the natives have never studied to accommodate their lives to it. Moreover in Winter Rome is full of Romans, just as in Spring London is full of Londoners. And you know how tiresome that is. No capital city is tolerable except when voided of its inhabitants."

Sir Gabriel Gulliver received this with appropriate amusement. Entering the smoking room, he dived into a corner to ring a bell…" Nice of you," he said, "to talk to an old buffer in what you conceive of as his own antique conversational mode. A good many of you youngsters, you know, have no conversation at all…'

Harry Crosby remembered (1930)

Harry & Caresse Crosby

A personal note by Stuart Gilbert published in transition (Paris, June 1930) 6 months after Harry Crosby's suicide. Gilbert was a literary scholar and translator - he assisted in the translation of  Ulysses into French and was also a friend and correspondent of Joyce. This affectionate memoir of Crosby was not (until now)  available on the web.

“Let us suppose, ” Montaigne has written, “ that a plank is fixed between the twin towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, quite wide enough for a man to walk along it; however great may be our philosophical wisdom, however staunch our courage, they will not embolden us to walk that plank as securely as we should, were it resting on the ground.”

The mere thought of that dizzy walk in air between the skyey towers, above Our Lady’s pinnacles, was enough, a later writer tells us, to make some of Montaigne’s readers blanch and sweat with fear. And yet how jauntily you and I parade that selfsame plank when it is laid out on the pavement of normal experience, little plainmen who rarely lift eyes above the shop windows and studiously avert our gaze from the insistence of the sun!

Continue reading

Dressing Vorticist (Violet Hunt)

Extract from The Flurried Years - Violet Hunt's account of her life between 1908 and 1914.

A languid airless summer, rife with Law and Cubism, spent at Selsey with Princess Maleine as sole guest and play-secretary. Her husband flitted backwards and forwards in his car, now recalling her, now giving her a new leave of absence. Joseph Leopold*, playing golf,eating little contraband crabs, writing poems, and helping me with my novel, and taking a car into Chichester on Sundays to attend Mass in his own church, contrived to wile the summer away. He wrote Impressionist ; she painted Futurist; in dress, we two women went a step farther and dressed Vorticist, which was newer than Futurism, than Cubism, than Impressionism, old-fashioned almost by now, but which Joseph Leopold was still practising in his cunning vers libres.

The very clothes we rejoiced to wear made us feel like it ; they coarsened us, I think. Non-representational art makes for hardness, enjoins the cynicism that likes to look upon the crudenesses, the necessaries of life merely — the red of beef, the blue of blouses, the shine of steel knives in a butcher's shop. Better, said Wyndham Lewis, than a dying stag or a virgin in Greek dress picking daisies. But this kind of art died in the war, being relegated chiefly to the camouflaging of ships. A faint echo of it is to be seen in modern jazz.

Continue reading

Beggars’ Marks and Mendicant Hieroglyphs 1860


No good; too poor, and know too much.

Stop,—if you have what they want, they will buy. They are pretty “fly” (knowing).

Go in this direction, it is better than the other road. Nothing that way.

Bone (good). Safe for a “cold tatur,” if for nothing else. “Cheese your patter” (don’t talk much) here.

Cooper’d (spoilt) by too many tramps calling there.

Gammy (unfavourable), likely to have you taken up. Mind the dog.

Flummuxed (dangerous), sure of a month in “quod,” prison.

Religious, but tidy on the whole.

Association copy – Betjeman & Giles

A signed presentation from the poet John Betjeman to the cartoonist (Carl) Giles:

'The mighty cartoonist Carl Giles is [Summoned by Bells] by his admiring fellow Islingtonian John Betjeman...'

A pretty good 'association copy' - both light humourists, Londoners and cherished British eccentrics.

The other Margaret Roberts

Margaret Roberts was a novelist from North Wales ( 1833 – 1919) author of at least 38 books of fiction and non-fiction, including  Mademoiselle Mori and The Atelier du Lys (An Art Student in the Reign of Terror). She spent her middle years in Torquay and this letter addressed from Florence Villas to a Miss Franks reveals her to be quite a bluestocking and also something of an entrepreneur.

We know, for instance, that she wrote Mademoiselle Mori in Italian (all but the last chapter) and then translated it into English, but the letter tells us that she was also proficient in  'advanced'French. It seems that she was planning to promote classes in German and French aimed at ‘governesses and others who cannot manage Cambridge terms‘ and asked Ms Franks if she knew of any such people who could benefit from learning a new language. She had already recruited two tutors—one from St Mary Church at 10/- a year , and another from Newton Abbot at 15/- a year. She herself would offer her services at 10/- a year.

Continue reading

Model School and DJ rules

From a book by the YBA Angela Bulloch called Rule Book (2000). An artist's book which collects together official lists and full plain colour pages with their official names ('Pantone Yellow C'). Basically new conceptual art-- the lists include things taken from the side of packets, directions to make a hair lock, health warnings, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights etc., +  this list of rules from a (Russian?) model school.

August VIII Model School

1 The dormitories may not be locked and will be checked at night by four security guards to deter intruders.

2 The dormitories are strictly single sex. Members of the opposite sex are not allowed.

3 You are expected to run five kilometers at 6:30am and then do two and a half hours in the gym each morning.

4 Your diet will be strictly controlled for you and you will be expelled for gaining weight.

5 Alcohol, smoking (for girls), sex, and chocolate are banned.

6 If you have crooked teeth they will be straightened by means of braces or they will be capped.

7 If your nose is not straight or your ears stick out too much they will be fixed by Dr, Rudenko and if the implants are available you may also have breast surgery.

8 Each model will make a promotional video and you will be required to make a speech in English for it.

9 The fees are 400 Roubles a month. Also 15% of your future earnings will go to your agent.

10 You cannot do anything without your agent's permission.

Sounds more like Cromwell's New Model Army and assumed to be real. The agent's commission sounds modest. This list of instructions pinned outside a DJ's booth sounds authentic.

1. Say 'Hi'  then 'BYE' (better yet, wave from the dance floor)

2. If the DJ is in position he obviously cannot speak to you.

3. No person in this booth is employed by a record store.

4. The dance floor is where all the people are dancing - NOT HERE.

5. Since the DJ doesn't DJ in the lounge, the loungers shouldn't lounge in the DJ booth.

6. When in the DJ booth, if you find yourself saying 'Excuse me' more than once, then you should excuse yourself from the booth.

Bon Viveur at the Connaught

A review of the Connaught Hotel's restaurant found in Bon Viveur's London & the British Isles (Dakers, London 1955). Bon Viveur was a pseudonym for Fanny Cradock and her husband the fly-whiskered Johnny.They later became celebrity TV chefs. The style is of its time, revelling in luxury after the austerity of the decade since the war -'shriek for grilled kidneys...'

Where Maitre Chef de Cuisine Pierre Toulemont rules the kitchens the restaurant must inevitably prosper. The Connaught is severely English in the most distinguished manner. The wine butler stalks majestically across the panelled dining room bearing the silver salvo which, from time immemorial has been the proper platter from which to proffer (decanted) port. Overseas visitors will capture here some of the nostalgic atmosphere of old London where rendezvous with gastronomy is kept by the subjects of King Edward VII, King George V, King Edward VIII, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.

Let us not commit the solecism of discussing price, beyond stating that the best is never cheap– a repellent word in any context – but is seldom exorbitant – that is reserved for the fashionable, which is quite another thing.

Choose Oeufs Poché en  Surprise, the eggs tucked into a foaming casket of soufflé Parmesan, that superb Faisan a la Creme which is sent to table reposing on a couch of chestnut purée.  Confer with M.Charles concerning grouse, pheasants, partridges, with sliced truffles slipped beneath their breasts skins before roasting, dream of the dinner of your choice now that all is free again and ask that it is prepared to you with classic expertise. Throw back, if you must, to the Edwardian breakfast and shriek for grilled kidneys,kedgeree,York ham, grilled sole… you'll get them. Desire foie gras aux raisins... Brioche de foie gras…a mousse of caviar… a boned bird in feuilletage Lucullus… You will be served. We need scarcely add the bedrooms are irreproachable (£2-£3 per night doubles £3.10 shillings to 5 guineas) or that, as you might expect, no extra charge is made for room service.

Note: 2013 prices are almost exactly 100 times 1955 prices.

The Finer Points of Advertising

Found in a privately published book on advertising From One Person To Another. What advertising is all about and how you go about it. By John E O’Toole. (FCB, London & NY 1977 -'Intended solely for the use of FCB people in their work for FCB clients'). A good summary of basic laws from the splendidly named Fairfax Mastick Cone, an advertising wunderkind from the days of Mad Men and before…


Fairfax Cone has said only one thing, to my knowledge, that is patently untrue. It is in this brief piece he wrote years ago, something many of us keep in our offices and try to keep in our minds. I include the piece here, not only to see if you can spot the untruth, but because it can serve as a summary of this entire book for those in a hurry.

"It is the primary requirement of advertising to be clear, clear to what exactly the proposition is.

If it isn’t clear, and clear at a glance or a whisper, very few people will take the time or the effort to try to figure it out.

The second essential of advertising is that what must be clear must also be important. The proposition must have value.

Continue reading

Musical Sand in China

Taklamakan Desert, Khotan

Joseph Offord Musical Sand in China published in
Nature, Volume 95, Issue 2368, pp. 65-66 (1915).

Among the immense mass of ancient Chinese records and manuscripts brought back from the buried cities and caves of ancient Khotan, in Central Asia, and now stored in the British Museum, is one called the Tun-Huang-Lu, a topographical description of part of Khotan itself. This little geography was written in the time of the Tang dynasty, in the seventh century, but probably contains matter from earlier authors.

Among the specially interesting natural phenomena of the country described in the Tun-Huang-Lu is a large sandhill, which at certain times gave forth strange noises, so much so that a temple in its vicinity was entitled the “Thunder Sound Temple.'

The geographer, speaking specially of the sandhill, says:-"The hill of sounding sand stretches 80 li east and west and 40 li north and south. It reaches a height of 500 ft. The whole mass is entirely constituted of pure sand. In the height of summer the sand gives out sounds of itself, and if trodden by men or horses, the noise is heard 10 li away.  at festivals people clamber up and rush down again in a body,  which causes the sand to give a loud rumbling sound like thunder.Yet when you look at it next morning the hill is just as steep as before."

 Mr Lionel Giles, from whose translations of the Tun-Huang-Lu these extracts are made,  mentions that this sounding sandhill is referred to in another old Chinese book, the Wu Tai Shih.

Found reprinted in Strange Planet, A Sourcebook of Unusual Geological Facts (Sourcebook Project Maryland 1975). Compiled by William Corliss, this is from Volume E-1. From the amazing library of Jeremy Beadle MBE (1948 -2008) British entertainer, television star,  hoaxer, quizmaster, book collector and philanthropist.The cave from where this mass of ancient Chinese records came is mentioned at Bookride. It was discovered in 1907 by Sir Aurel Stein -author of many valuable travel books including Sand Buried Ruins of Khotan.

Corliss cover many othe 'musical sands' including the 'Singing Beach' at Manchester, Massachusets and the 'Singing Sands' at Eigg in NW Scotland referred to in Josephine Tey's 1952 detective novel of the same name. In the Khotan caves among the books (actually a 16 foot printed scroll) was Gautama Buddha's Diamond Sutra ("The Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom of the Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion") the earliest known (868 AD) dated printed book in the world and of inestimable value.