part-time musings

A short story…

Among the books in my study is a small, unattractive book that’s been largely forgotten, but which played a not insignificant part in South African publishing history. I’m fond of this book and mention it briefly in The History of Oxford University Press, but I didn’t have the space there to really elaborate any of the detail. So here, dear reader, is the story of E.R. Seary’s South African Short Stories (1947).

First let’s deal with the dust jacket illustration…


Not very attractive is it? I know there’d been a war on and everything, but really one does slightly get the impression that they weren’t really trying. Or maybe I’m being unfair and one afternoon some designer sat back and thought ‘That’s it. The very essence of South African storytelling.’ Well, whatever, it’s not an image I can get excited about; it speaks to me of a rather antiquated idea of naive Africa that is part of the reason I feel a bit sorry for this little book. Anyhow, it’s when you turn to the title page that things get really exciting.


You’re still not excited, I can tell. Okay, let me talk you through this. It’s 1947 and Geoffrey Cumberledge, the publisher at Oxford University Press has just published the Press’s first book IN CAPE TOWN.

Here’s the thing. Oxford University Press (OUP) had been selling books in Southern Africa since the nineteenth century, through the rather long-winded process of having local South African booksellers order books from OUP in England. In 1915, OUP hired a chap to set up an office in Cape Town to handle its book selling. Every now and again, OUP and this chap, Charles Mellor, mulled over the idea of publishing a book specifically for South African readers, but nothing much happened until after WWII when OUP appointed a new editorial manager, Leo Marquard (yes, Leo Marquard Hall opposite Tugwell with those terrible lifts, that Leo Marquard). In 1946, E.R. Seary, a lecturer at Rhodes University, came to Marquard with a proposal to compile a book of ‘South African tales’. Marquard immediately recognised that it had potential as a set work for the school senior certificate, and he thought he could also get the railway bookshops to stock it. In the mean time, Marquard asked Seary whether he hadn’t in fact already promised this book to Juta’s. He had, which Marquard described as a somewhat ‘ticklish’ position. He suggested Seary write to Juta’s explaining that as the book had ‘wide’ appeal (really?) he wanted an international publisher such as OUP to handle it. It doesn’t seem hugely convincing to me, but Juta’s apparently didn’t put up a fight about it and Marquard was asked by his bosses at OUP in England to start getting quotes from Cape Town printers to get the book produced. Except he seems not to have bothered or misunderstood or something because on 9 October 1946 his boss wrote to him saying

‘I ended my last letter on this subject by asking if you would get estimates for production in Cape Town. Since then you have pulled a fast one over me by depositing the typescript on my table. This should not be taken as a precedent! Driven to do something desperate I have persuaded Headley Brothers to displact one of my less urgent books’… (EC Parnwell to Marquard, 9 October 1946).

So the book was printed in England and shipped to Cape Town. Despite this, it was agreed that this would be ‘the first Cape Town [OUP] Branch publication’. Five thousand copies were printed, of which 4369 had sold by 1949. It went on to be a mainstay of the OUP South Africa list, with the 24th edition appearing in 1989. In the early 1990s, OUP decided its useful life was over (or maybe that every single South African school and home already had a copy) and sent 10 copies to Seary’s estate and donated the remaining copies to local schools. Nice book, nice story, still a dreadful cover.


The History of Oxford University Press…

The History of Oxford University Press...

Five years since I started working on the History of Oxford University Press project, and here it is (well, volume three of the four). And it’s a handsome thing if I may say so myself – beautifully illustrated and (ahem) so well written.

Qadaffi: My part in his downfall

Before you get too excited, no I wasn’t flying sorties over the Libyan desert. In fact the title is something of a dig at the propensity for academic and journalistic bandwagon-hopping as I reflect on the way in which the hot craziness of the world played out across the cool pages of academic publishing in the last year or so.

At least half my work recently has dealt with the Arab Spring, Qadaffi, and the interlocking dynamics of Islamism, (in)security, escalating resource wealth and its corollaries, marginalisation and poverty, particularly in North Africa.

Like all editors, I keep a constantly updated and reworked set of lists of form and spellings to ensure standardization within my titles. The list I’ve just been working from makes me want to go and watch lots of cute cat videos. Here’s a snapshot:

  •  al-Qaeda (not variants)
  • anti-capitalist (not anticapitalist)
  • asset-stripping (not asset stripping)
  • ethno-regional (not ethnoregional)
  • Qadaffi (not Gaddafi)
  • geopolitical (not geo-political)
  • Global North
  • War on Terror / war on terror (follow author’s use)
  • Great Lakes region (not Great Lakes Region)
  • HIV/AIDS (all uppercase)
  • Jihadi Salafist
  • KwaZulu-Natal (note hyphen)
  • minibuses (not mini-buses)
  • neoliberal (not neo-liberal)
  • neopatrimonial (not neo-patrimonial)
  • pan-African (not Pan-Africa)
  • pan-Islamic (not Pan-Islamic)
  • Qur’an (not Koran)
  • self-immolation (not self immolation)
  • special forces (not Special Forces)
  • Trans-Saharan (not variants)
  • tsetse (not Tsetse or tse-tse)
  • WikiLeaks (not Wikileaks)

Now here’s a cute cat video on YouTube.

Well, well treacle…

Everyone knows someone who exhibits the particular brand of obtuseness exhibited by the dormouse at the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—particularly if you have anything to do with academia. The dormouse’s rambling tale of three sisters living in a treacle well is replete with double entendres and bewildering semantic reversals that leave Alice perplexed.

`Once upon a time there were three little sisters,’ the Dormouse began in a great hurry; `and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well—’

`What did they live on?’ said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
`They lived on treacle,’ said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
`They couldn’t have done that, you know,’ Alice gently remarked; `they’d have been ill.’
`So they were,’ said the Dormouse; `very ill.’  …

The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, `It was a treacle-well.’
`There’s no such thing!’ Alice was beginning very angrily, but the Hatter and the March Hare went `Sh! sh!’ and the Dormouse sulkily remarked, `If you can’t be civil, you’d better finish the story for yourself.’
`No, please go on!’ Alice said very humbly; `I won’t interrupt again. I dare say there may be one.’
`One, indeed!’ said the Dormouse indignantly. However, he consented to go on. `And so these three little sisters—they were learning to draw, you know—’

`What did they draw?’ said Alice, quite forgetting her promise.

`Treacle,’ said the Dormouse, without considering at all this time.

Alice did not wish to offend the Dormouse again, so she began very cautiously: `But I don’t understand. Where did they draw the treacle from?’
`You can draw water out of a water-well,’ said the Hatter; `so I should think you could draw treacle out of a treacle-well-eh, stupid?’
`But they were in the well,’ Alice said to the Dormouse, not choosing to notice this last remark.
`Of course they were’, said the Dormouse; `—well in.’

This answer so confused poor Alice, that she let the Dormouse go on for some time without interrupting it.

`They were learning to draw,’ the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; `and they drew all manner of things–everything that begins with an M–‘
`Why with an M?’ said Alice.
`Why not?’ said the March Hare.

Alice was silent.

The Dormouse had closed its eyes by this time, and was going off into a doze; but, on being pinched by the Hatter, it woke up again with a little shriek, and went on: `—that begins with an M, such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness—you know you say things are “much of a muchness”—did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?’
`Really, now you ask me,’ said Alice, very much confused, `I don’t think—’
`Then you shouldn’t talk,’ said the Hatter.

This piece of rudeness was more than Alice could bear: she got up in great disgust, and walked off; the Dormouse fell asleep instantly, and neither of the others took the least notice of her going, though she looked back once or twice, half hoping that they would call after her: the last time she saw them, they were trying to put the Dormouse into the teapot.

Criticism on Alice’s Adventures makes much of the almost violent breakdown in logic exemplified in this scene. Linguistics scholars in particular have written some very clever things about the topic. However, much of the writing I’ve seen on this exchange ignores the fact that the Liddell sisters, for whom Alice’s Adventures was told and then written, would probably have been aware of the existence of a REAL treacle well.

It’s well known that Charles Dodgson invented the story of a girl called Alice who went looking for adventure while on a boat trip up the Isis with dean of Christ Church, Henry Liddell and his three daughters. They travelled by boat from Folly Bridge near Christ Church, upstream to Godstow about five miles away. En route they would have passed the village of Binsey, home to an original treacle well.

As much as I love the idea of treacle bubbling up from the earth, a treacle well has little to do with sugary molasses. Treacle is a Middle English word from Old French triacle meaning an antidote against venom.  An example of this usage can be found in the in the 1549 edition of the Bible, in which Jeremiah 8:22 was translated as “Is there no tryacle [treacle] in Gilead?”  So the holy wells visited for their curative properties in the early modern period became known in England as treacle wells.

The churchyard of St Margaret’s church in Binsey, contains a treacle well ‘made to flow by the prayers of St Frideswide’. For a time this was one of the most famous treacle wells in England.  Because Oxford’s patron saint, Frideswide was associated with childbirth, as was St Margaret of Antioch for whom the Binsey church is dedicated, the treacle well became a site of pilgrimage for women seeking protection and help  in conception and pregnancy.  Henry VIII brought Katherine of Aragon to the well to pray for a son.

St Frideswide also has a connection to Christ Church (her shrine is located in the chapel of Christ Church Cathedral), and the treacle well was thus intimately woven into the fabric of the cultural world inhabited by Dodgson and the Liddle sisters.  So the treacle well was a very tangible thing which in a way makes the dormouse’s tale even funnier and more clever than one might initially realise.