Organ-grinding tweets for August 2017

Gorging Jack and Little Billee

The case for the defence.

Most folkies still don’t realise that one of their favourite sea shanties, “Little Billee (There Were Three Sailors of Bristol City)”, was written by William Makepeace Thackeray around 1845 as a satire, complete with manky metre and grammar, on patriotic middle-class folkies’ enthusiasm for (parlour-ready) sea shanties. Cf. Tom Lehrer’s “Folk Song Army” at around 01:17:

… as well as the Coen Brothers, who I think said somewhere that they made Inside Llewyn Davis simply in order to film a folksinger being punched in the face.

Musical camaraderie aside, I sing Little Billee in the Thackeray version:

I’d never really considered the exact nature of Gorging Jack’s snickersnee. From the Dutch you might venture that it is a alliterative compound of snikken (to sob) and snijden (to cut; the noun is snee). But in mankind’s affairs the cutting mostly comes before the sobbing, and the OED says that it’s actually from steken (to thrust, stab) plus snijden, and that “the st- of the first word to the sn- of the second” assimilated has been. For example, Samuel Rowlands’ Knave of Clubbs (1600) murmurs sweetly:

Pike-staffe and pistoll, musket, two-hand sword,
Or any weapon Europe can afford,
Let falchion, polax, launce, or halbert try,
With Flemings-knives either to steake or snye,
I’le meet thee naked to the very skin,
And stab with pen-knives Caesars wounds therein.

Contemporary Dutch gives us e.g. Willem Schellincx, who in “Quik” (mercury) from the great, mad 1654 song collection, De Koddige Olipodrigo (“the droll potpourri”, < the Spanish olla podrida), describes just to what lengths Monsignor de B. will go for the girl he loves:

Om Haar, wou hy hem laten tot huspot kappen, en laten ‘t hart torrenen uit zen borst.
Om Haar, wou hy hem laten steeken, snijden, villen, en braden as ien worst.


For her, he would let himself be chopped up into a hodgepodge, and let his heart be torn from his breast.
For her, he would let himself be stabbed, cut, flayed and fried like a sausage.

Tom Lehrer again provides the 20th century equivalent:

As firearms take over, in Dutch the combination of steken and snijden, thrust and cut (more logical than cut and thrust? will consult my Hackney neighbours), increasingly becomes the domain of surgeons and other carers. Take for example De huishouding der dieren (“animal husbandry”, 1865) on marmot hibernation:

De diertjes zijn koud en stijf en men kan ze in het ligchaam steken en snijden zonder dat zij er iets van gevoelen.


The little animals are cold and sniff, and you can stab and cut their bodies without them feeling anything.

So maybe Gorging Jack simply wanted to help Little Billee. Unfortunately I don’t know how to start an online petition for a posthumous pardon.

Organ grinders and monkey and marmot migration

Any proto-ecologists don’t seem to have cared very much.

A reminder from Simon Winchester in Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire (1984):

The little gang of Rock apes—Macacus inuus—are the only monkeys to be found in Europe. Theories about their having swum across from Africa, or having arrived drenched, clinging to Moroccan logs, have long been discounted; zoologists believe these are the relict clan of a great tribe of Macaques which once frolicked in Germany and France, and came as far north as Aylesbury. The last Ice Age forced them steadily southwards: Gibraltar was their final peninsular refuge, the closest they ever would come to their native home. Had the blizzards and hailstorms swept through Spain they might have been driven into the Straits, and drowned.

A birdwatcher on the Lea Navigation this morning told me that there may be some more serious culling of London’s 15,000-odd ring-necked parakeets. This seems not to be because they are regarded as alien, but simply because, like Barcelona’s monk parakeets before them, they have begun to affect crop yields in the urban periphery.

Given perceptions of Ye Olden Dayes, I expected to find more straightforwardly xenophobic concerns about damn foreign monkeys in the pre-C20th writing in various languages I’ve been trawling for organ-grinding references. But nothing yet, apart from C19th health officials worrying about transmission of diseases such as tuberculosis across the species barrier, and cartoonists suggesting that the species barrier between Italians and monkeys was based on Schengen.

There certainly weren’t very many of them to worry about, but I wonder whether a more positive view of globalisation also played a role.

Anyway: not only did we evolve from monkeys, but they may have been gambolling on the Lea when Neanderthals drank at the Anchor and Hope (“What can I say?” is not the worst reason to keep going).

In cylindrical terms the monkey was preceded by the marmot, which also seems to have been viewed more as a charming curiosity than as a threat to our precious ecosystem. I’m rather fond of Goethe’s 1778 parody of a Savoyard at an annual fair in his little-known Das Jahrmarktsfest zu Plundersweilern:

Ich komme schon durch manche Land,
Avecque 1 la marmotte,
Und immer ich was zu essen fand,
Avecque la marmotte,
Avecque, si, avecque, la,
Avecque la marmotte.

It’s many a land I’ve travelled through,
Avecque la marmotte,
And always I found some thing to chew,
Avecque la marmotte,
Avecque si, avecque la,
Avecque la marmotte.

I’d have liked to do something with the verse, but some lightweight called Ludwig von Beethoven stamped his branding iron on the rodent’s rump first, and his op. 52 no. 7 in modern times tends unfortunately to be served up in an atmosphere of quasi-religious gloom to evoke infant migrants:

… or the Plain People of Wherever:

I was unable to find an animated version featuring singing marmots, so here’s Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

The organ-grinding guild’s List of Prohibited Books includes Simon Winchester’s because he refers to the Gibraltar monkeys as apes, and we grinders know that’s wrong. But his nostalgia for times when posh British boys like himself ruled the world simply extends to English vocabulary as it was before the introduction of the word “monkey” in the 16th century:

I wol no lyf but ese and pees,
And winnin golde to spende also,
For when the grete bagge is ago,
It comith full right with my japes.
Make I not wel tomble mine apes?
(Chaucer’s late 14th century Romaunt of the Rose in the 1782 edition)

And so say all of us.


  1. Elderly French for avec, and still heard in some Occitan dialects.