In 1646 Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia refuted the common errors of his day. Today, our insatiable appetite for facts fuels an entire entertainment industry.
In ‘The Erroneous Disposition of the People’, five authors plunder Browne’s fascinating catalogue of extinct opinions, lampooning our tendency to exchange fact for factoid.
‘That men weigh heavier dead than alive’ sees Medieval funeral rites transported to modern Edinburgh with a poignant story of loss and sneaking cans of beer into a Chapel of Rest. ‘That the flesh of Peacocks corrupteth not’ warns that when stock markets crash and Alan Greenspan’s giant feet erode, the Peacock will come in judgement.
See London’s City Road is transformed into a ravaged coastline. Meet a gibbon with an appetite for smartphones. Einstein vs. Wittgenstein! Belisha Beacon vs. Pulsar! Atomic Clock vs. Atomic Bomb!
“I have googled all this and cannot find it anywhere.”
Table of Contents
That men weigh heavier dead than alive.?1
That the flesh of Peacocks corrupteth not.?7
That man hath onely an erect figure and that to looke up to Heaven.?9
Of East and West, and properties respectively ascribed unto Countries.?27
Of an Hare crossing the high?way.?30
That the Ostridge digesteth Iron.?31
Of the presage of the year from the insects in oak Apples.?32
Of many things questionable as they are commonly described in Pictures.?37
That all Animals in the land are in their kinde in the Sea.?40
Of the pissing of Toads, of the stone in their head, and of the generation of Frogs.?43
That a Badger hath the Legs of one side shorter than of the other.?56
About the Authors
David Barnes, (b. Sussex 1979), is an academic and writer. He read English at the University of Oxford and completed a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. He is currently Teaching Fellow in English Literature at the University of Birmingham. He writes essays, poems, reviews and short stories and lives in Stoke Newington, London.
Eddie Farrell, (b. Blackburn, Lancashire 1963), is a painter who currently lives in Berlin. He studied for a BA in Fine Art from Grays School of Art, Aberdeen in the ’80s, and an MA at the Slade School of Fine Art in the ’00s. A Punk apprenticeship had put him on a trajectory of over 20 years experience as an artist involving countless collaborations, including ‘Shytstem’. Eddie doesn’t really produce pieces of art and would encourage others to do the same.
James Wilkes is a poet and writer, (b. Poole, Dorset 1980). Poetry publications include ‘Reviews’ (Burner Veer, 2009) and ‘Weather A System’ (Penned in the Margins, 2009). In 2008-9 he wrote and produced ‘Interior Traces’, a live radio drama exploring the effects of brain imaging on society, (Wellcome Trust), performed at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre, the Wellcome Collection, and Cheltenham Science Festival. Wilkes studied psychology and philosophy, and is completing a PhD in Humanities and Cultural Studies at the London Consortium, researching the landscape of the Isle of Purbeck Dorset.
Julie Rafalski, a Polish-American artist, relishes uncovering the narratives concealed behind, and imposed upon, the imagery we use. She lives and works in London. She achieved a BFA from School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003 and an MFA from Slade School of Fine Art, London in 2006. She has exhibited her video, photography and print work in London (inc. Christie’s ‘Multiplied’, Royal Academy Summer Exhibition), Canterbury, Liverpool, Copenhagen, Warsaw, Berlin, Chicago, Pärnu (Estonia), Brisbane and Tel Aviv.
David Henningham, (b. London, 1981) lives and works in Dalston, London. He writes poetry and essays that are completed through fine art printmaking, bookbinding and performance. He obtained his BA at Chelsea College of Art, 2004, and MA at Slade School of Fine Art, 2006. He met his wife Ping at St Martins School of Art when they were 18. They formed the Henningham Family Press in 2006 to make art together. Collections that have acquired their work include: Victoria & Albert Museum, the Tate, Poetry Library (Royal Festival Hall), UCL, Chelsea College of Art and UCLA. They have exhibited/performed at Christie’s (Multiplied), Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the British Library, BBC Radio Theatre (The Verb), London Word Festival, Berlin, Ghent, Oslo, Bergen, Indiana and Virginia.
That men weigh heavier dead than alive.
“Who’s paying for all this?”
A good question from one so young; at the time my niece was about six. She was helping herself to the sausage rolls, crisps, sandwiches, fruit cake and chocolate biscuits laid out in the function suite of a small Kirkcaldy hotel. The room was half full with relatives and family friends, smartly dressed and looking a little stiff and awkward. Her question was probably due to the absence of her Granddad, the person all this party food had been laid on for. He was now lying underground a few miles along the coast in East Weymes.
The cemetery sits up from the shoreline on the Fife side of the Firth of Forth. It is overlooked by the ruins of Mcduff castle, built from the same red sandstone of the Weymes caves on the beach below. Although it was early January the weather was not too cruel to the small group of us gathered at the graveside, a damp spray and a flag flapping of skirts and trouser legs but no downpour or brutally cold wind off the sea. A few words were said, tears were shed, the Priest did his bit and then we slowly made our way to Kirkcaldy relieved that we had finally done the most practical thing that needs to be done following a death.
The last time I saw my Father alive was late on Christmas Eve. He had been lapsing in and out of consciousness for a few days and during the final 24 hours he’d started suddenly thrusting himself noisily forward off the pillow to a bolt upright position, his beautiful steel blue eyes staring unblinkingly ahead. He didn’t seem aware of us being in the room as we gently eased him back down onto the pillow. I was working a vigil with my two sisters, sitting at his bedside in the little side room occasionally cooling his head and wetting his parched lips and mouth with a small, square, grey sponge on a pink plastic stick. He had been moved out the ward a couple of days earlier, the first clear sign to us that this time, he really was dying. The staff seemed to tell you things, but they never really did, right to the end it appeared easier for them to say, we are stopping all medical treatment and we have stopped feeding him rather than, and now your Father will die.
My sisters were coming in at midnight to do the late shift so as it was possibly the last time I would see him alive, I’d been aware since 9pm of a need to say something, but what? I had never been in the presence of someone dying before, it seemed unreal and although I was sitting there with my dear old Dad, he was gradually disappearing in front of me. I placed a hand to the heat of his tough weather-beaten bald head and moved close to his ear. I began to tell him how I would have to leave soon and that I hoped I would get the chance to see him tomorrow, at this point I remember hesitating, how could I say the next bit without mentioning the dead word? So just in case I don’t get the chance to see you tomorrow, the words were producing no response so I pushed my mouth hard to the top of his hot leather skull determined to force the following I love you through inside. With stinging wet eyes and my mouth slavering over his head I clung onto him. We stayed like that for a while, for ages. Muffled out through his nose and mouth, as though forced from deep within, came three consecutive grunts.
The phone call the following morning told how, with his two daughters at his side and without regaining consciousness, he had died at 7 .50am.
That day and the following couple of weeks were a numb blob of time and tears. On the periphery were the main events of Christmas and New Year which we all dealt with in our own way. Children ripped the wrapping paper from presents with the same disregard as any other year the adults, however, froze at the task, looking apologetic and confused as though they were slowly tearing petals one by one from very rare flowers. During the big dinner I felt the collection of colourful paper crowns that were flopped on our heads had taken on a fitting tribute of mourning. Sherry, wine and whisky flowed while we flicked through a selection of veneered and solid wood coffins in the catalogue the undertaker had left with us. The question of cake or trifle was doubled with the decision on handles and fittings then shadowed with a tricky digestive choice of whether to attach a crucifix to the coffin lid. Council offices opened momentarily, allowing the death to be registered but how and where do you find a plot of land to bury someone when everywhere is closed or closing for Hogmanay? The festive illuminations faded out gradually to reveal a gaping hole in our family and a number of suspiciously unopened parcels still sitting under the Christmas tree.
A few days after the death I saw the body in the Chapel of Rest at the undertaker’s Bruntsfield offices in Edinburgh. Snow and ice were lying on the streets but inside the chapel felt much colder. There was a strange chemical whiff in there which I presumed to be a mixture of formaldehyde and the other vinegars used to preserve a corpse before burial. My sister and I were gently ushered through. It was the first time I’d seen a dead body, I can’t remember if that was the same for my sister. On seeing our dead Father lying there, alone and tiny in the big open box, we began to cry. I was struck by how young he looked, actually I’d not seen him looking so well in ages. Whatever happens to us after death obviously involves losing lots of fluid because the skin on his face had stretched tight around his skull making him look how he’d looked in the few photos I’d seen of him before I’d existed. The buckets of drugs that had been pushed through his system over many years of ill health had been a balancing act, giving him enough strength to carry on while attempting to keep his fluid retention down. Some days he’d blow up to popping proportions like a character in a Roald Dahl story, and only after experimenting with yet another cocktail of capsules and pills would the doctor finally get him back to his normal size. His wardrobe reflected this fluctuation, trousers, shirts and jackets of all shapes and sizes. He was to be buried in his new dark blue suit the one he would have worn at Christmas. This had been bought to accommodate his mid-to-large size so in his final rested state it dwarfed him a little. It was a nice touch to put his braces on, though.
I cautiously bent forward from the top of the coffin and remembering Christmas Eve put my lips to the top of his head. I once touched the forehead of Bernini’s marble carving of the Archbishop of Pisa in The Scottish National Gallery; it felt exactly the same. On that occasion I was reprimanded by one of the guards but here, with my lips touching what felt like freezing cold stone, no one said or did anything. I very quickly realised my dad was no longer about and what I was now attempting to kiss was just the empty shell he’d used for the past 78 years. Nevertheless the peace and quiet in there offered time and space to reflect, away from all the Christmas madness going on outside. After saying what we thought would be our last goodbyes we left him in the room where we were quietly greeted by the assistant again. We were informed, that due to the time of year our loved one had been taken from us it would probably be sometime before all the burial arrangements were sorted out so in the meantime we could visit our loved one in the Chapel of Rest whenever we wished.
From McDuff cemetery looking out to the left into the Firth of Forth you can see the Isle of May. The island is owned by Scottish Natural Heritage and is the home and breeding ground to a wide variety of seabirds; Kittiwakes, Puffins, Eider Ducks etc, and in the winter months, hordes of grey seal pups. No humans live on the island anymore but In the middle ages there was a priory and following a number of archeological digs some years ago the remains of a 14th century pilgrim were discovered. He was buried near the altar with a scallop shell in his mouth, signifying that he had previously made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This sleuthing of the past has made me think from time to time what future detectives would glean about late 20th century man if they accidently turned over my dad’s plot?
Our previous goodbyes had been a bit premature; it would take the best part of two weeks to lay him under the Fife soil. In that time there were a number of visits to the Chapel of Rest which saw a considerable bulking out of the box before the lid was screwed down for the last time. The coffin began to fill up from the second visit. Until then the only occasion I had crossed the border into the white satin depths holding the body was for the single frozen kiss. I began by slipping a couple notes of sympathy into the inside pocket of his jacket, it seemed a fitting thing to do even though they had been handed to me, they were really for him and the memory of him. I straightened the lapel of his jacket again and left the cold room feeling somehow lighter. That evening I mentioned what I had done to a couple of friends and the following day I received a small bundle of notes and drawings to be passed over on my next visit.
By then things had really kicked off in the box. In an inspired move from my sisters they had taken all his unopened presents from underneath the Christmas tree and placed them inside the coffin. This not only brought a bit of light to his final resting room but also stopped my sister’s Christmas tree looking like a scene from a post-Christmas Dickensian tragedy. Meanwhile, I continued to fill his pockets with bits of paper and then straighten his suit jacket which was becoming a much better fit with each visit. As we passed into the new year more problematic Christmas presents, small tokens, newly scribed notes and a couple of brightly coloured paintings by his granddaughters had been rounded up and taken to the Bruntsfield building.
In the early hours of 1996 I took another bottle of beer from the fridge and in doing so revealed two cans of McEwan’s export beer sitting at the back of the shelf. I had bought them for my dad sometime before Christmas in the hope that he may make a recovery and get out of the hospital. Suddenly seeing their unmistakable bright red colour inside the fridge produced an overpowering, feeling of heartache, almost too painful to bear. Although his body was not quite under the earth, this was the first New Year without my friend; a poignant milestone of time and ageing. Both the timing and the site of these beers underlined the raw, rotten and unfair truth that comes with the death of someone we love; we will never see them again.
Although no one else I know likes the taste of McEwan’s export beer, my dad loved it. I remember him in the 1970s, coming home from the roads or the building site at the end of a day’s labouring, when he would take his dirty boots off at the back door and go immediately to the fridge. We would be back from school and in front of the telly but could hear the psssssst of the ring pull being opened. He would then tip his head back and take the biggest slug from it, about half the tin. A few seconds later there would be an almighty buuuuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrpp, then, “Ah that’s better!” Many years later, when he was in the Clermiston Nursing Home and whenever I would take him out for a beer I would always try and make sure the bar had his favourite beer and when going out to pubs became too much for him we would have a beer at home and that is why his two beers were sitting in my fridge.
A few days before the funeral I was back in the Chapel of Rest, by now I had got used to seeing my dead dad in his brightly stuffed surroundings. There was a comfort seeing his body surrounded by all the things made for and belonging to him. I wasn’t too sure what the undertaker’s ruling on taking alcohol into the cold room was so I’d brought the red tins with me hidden in a plastic bag. Leaning over the coffin I stuck one can into his left side pocket and the other into his right, making the line of his suit bulge a bit and touch the sides of the box. I then straightened up his heavily padded suit as best I could and said goodbye for the last time.