“It’s supposed to be bad. And the worse it is, the more fun it is”: Exploring Eurovision’s predecessors

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; Some of the entrances are from the roof, on high wires. And some are through pyrotechnic flames and glitter.”

So said Shakespeare* in 1599. He was, of course, talking about Eurovision.

Now listen up, Americans, because this may be new to you (although perhaps not after Will Ferrell’s film Fire Saga.) You may have the Super Bowl “world” championships, (in which the only country that enter is the USA) but us Europeans have Eurovision.

What is Eurovision?

There’s no real way to answer that. Imagine a stage lit up with a million bulbs, all flashing with enough intensity to induce some sort of fit, even in people with no pre-existing conditions. A crew of performers wearing either matching neon fancy dress, national costume, or almost nothing at all dances with varying degrees of ease. Someone is singing with extraordinary passion about a loved one, or freedom, or ‘finding themselves’ or the battle of Waterloo. Half of the song will be in English, half of it (the most passionate half) will be in another language). Australia might or might not be there too.

At some point the performer might raise their arms up to reveal an enormous set of fully-feathered wings attached to the back of their dress. If not, there’s a good chance they’ll have a full costume change by the end of the song instead. For no discernable reason, someone will be in a human sized hamster wheel (Will Ferrell was right about that, at least).

Half way through the song the key will change. Thirty seconds later it will change again. If the singer is a woman the key will continue to rise until she is sure to break every pane of glass in the stadium. Someone will be playing the piano or saxophone, despite the fact they clearly can’t. Impossibly muscle-y men will writhe onto the stage, covered in oil, and the singer will awkwardly stroke one of them, like a pet owner stroking a puppy.

A naked man in full body paint might run across the stage with a political message daubed onto his chest but in his exuberance he’ll have run too fast and no one will be able to work out what his message was. At this point, everyone will stop watching the show and will turn to Twitter. Then a glitter cannon explodes, signalling the end of the song and covering the frenzied audience in a billion gold dust particles before the whole thing starts again with a new set of performers.

Now imagine all of that crammed into 3 minutes. And the stage is on fire/rotating/projecting lasers (pick at least two.)

That’s Eurovision.

Photograph of performance of "Love Love Peace Peace" at the 2016 grand final: Petra Mede and Måns Zelmerlöw perform on stage surrounded by performers dressed in costumes of past Eurovision acts
Grannies, demons, topless drummers, sexy milkmaids and a white grand piano: classic Eurovision.
Credit Albin Olsson

I need a lie down

It’s the greatest night of the year. Almost 200 million people from across Europe tune in to give the UK nil points and make pseudo-intellectual comments about political voting (oh, look – Cyprus gave Greece 12 points? Would never have seen that coming!) This year, post-Brexit, promises to be super successful for us in the UK.

But is this crazy, bright, brilliant night a 20th century invention, or are its roots much older?

Well, they’re older, obviously – or else what would be the point of this post?

Today I’m taking a quick tour of singing contests of Europe’s history to see how well Eurovision would have fitted in with events of the past.

The Pythian Games: Ancient Greece

Let’s start with a familiar one, shall we.

Greece has been a member of Eurovision since 1974. But before that, it had a festival of arts and entertainment all for itself.

The Pythian games were held predominately at Delphi in honour of the god Apollo. They were ranked second in importance next to the Olympics – so you could say they were a Big Deal.

Pausanias, the second century traveller and writer, gives a detailed account of what the games entailed:

The oldest contest and the one for which they first offered prizes was… the singing of a hymn to the god.

… But they say that Orpheus, a proud man and conceited about his mysteries… refused to submit to the competition in musical skill.

They say too that Eleuther won a Pythian victory for his loud and sweet voice, for the song he sang was not of his own composition. The story is that Hesiod too was debarred from competing because he had not learned to accompany his own singing on the harp.

… At the second Pythian Festival they no longer offered prizes for events, adn hereafter gave a crown for victory. On this occasion they no longer included singing to the flute… for the tunes of the flute were most dismal…

Pausanias, Description of Greece

Pausanias’ account of the Pythian games shows a surprising number of parallels with Eurovision.

Firstly, the idea that some people are ‘too good’ for the competition. Pausanias had Orpheus, a legendary Greek poet and musician who clearly felt the Pythian games were beneath him. In 2009 the UK had Rita Ora – a then relatively unknown singer who was selected to represent the country at the competition but pulled out, later saying “Imagine! If I’d stayed, it would probably have been all over for me. At best, I’d be a contestant on that diving show…?’ Splash!?”

Cesare Gennari Orfeo.jpg
Orpheus – too good for the Pythian games, but was he good enough for Eurovision?

Of course Orpheus and Ora might be right – singing competitions can be a bit naff and Eurovision especially has a reputation for humiliating acts that take themselves too seriously.

Still, ABBA did OK out of it…

Secondly, Pausanias alludes to certain rules – that contestants were supposed to compose their own songs and perform them with accompaniments.

Technically a performer can enter Eurovision without any instruments other than their voice, but they wouldn’t stand a chance. As for the song itself, yet again there are parallels between the games and the modern day competition; the rules of Eurovision state that a song cannot be publicly released before a certain date (usually around a month or so before the main event) – meaning that it must be a new song and not a cover or performance by an established band of their own already released material.

And finally – the flutes, of which Pausanias was clearly not a fan. But neither, it seems, are the judges at Eurovision who have never, not once in the history of the competition, allowed purely instrumental performances.

Sängerkrieg and Eisteddfod

Sounds like the name of a Eurovision group.

According to German literature, the Sängerkrieg was a 13th century singing contest between 6 minstrels in order to find who was best placed to sing the praises of princes. The judges were to be the Count and Countess of Thuringia. The story contains trickery, peril and wizards, so not too far off the standard Eurovision fare.

In the end a minstrel called Wolfram won the contest by singing such beautiful music about God that the devil (who had been summoned by the wizard to defeat the minstrel – do keep up) fell down, exhausted.

Whether the Sängerkrieg actually happened is murky, but what isn’t is the Eisteddfod.

The Eisteddfod is an ancient Welsh tradition of musical and literary competition where bards and performers would gather to sing it out for the privilege of being judged by the royal kings of the time.

The first documented Eisteddfod was hosted by Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1176 but it’s likely the tradition stretches back further than this. In 1523 an Eisteddfod was held in Flintshire where a statute was drawn up detailing what the bards who were due to compete could and could not do. The statute stated that bards could not drink, womanize or gamble.

Rhys ap Gryffydd getting excited for the next performer.

Now I’ve never been to a backstage Eurovision party but judging by the performances I think it’s safe to assume that each one of these rules is soundly broken every year. In fact, gambling on who the winner will be though sweepstakes and bingo cards is pretty much compulsory where I am. This year, with coronavirus restrictions in place, will therefore perhaps be the first time all of the rules are adhered to.

As well as stating what the behaviour of the performers should be like, the statue also decreed that no bard worthy of his salt would perform “satirical” songs. Often political in nature, satirical songs would poke fun at the ruling classes and restrictions placed on the working people.

Clearly the powers that be were concerned with unpleasant tensions and controversial messages being spread through the performances, and the overseers of Eurovision must have similar concerns, because today every singer must operate under restrictions that prohibit songs and performances that are political or commercial.

Not that that rule is always stuck to, of course. In 2009, following conflict between Russia and Georgia, Georgia’s entry was criticised for being too anti-Putin (to make things more awkward, Russia was the host of the competition that year). When the Georgian delegates refused to change the lyrics, they were told to withdraw from the competition. In a similar way, in the sixteenth century a bard called Richard Gyyn was caught singing without a license he was accused of refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy and for criticising the practices of the protestant church including “certain rhymes of his own making against married priests and ministers”.

Unfortunately for Richard it seemed Elizabeth (who feared the Welsh were plotting against her and the Church of England) wanted to make an example of his satirical songs. He was hung, drawn and quartered on 15 October 1584.

Victorian Opera

And so we arrive in Britain in the 19th century, where a new form of entertainment – full of drama, divas and divine dresses – was taking hold: opera.

If the costumes of Eurovision are extravagant then the costumes of 19th century divas were out of this world lavish. Adelina Patti, a darling of the opera scene at this time, once required a police escort at her Covent Garden performance of Verdi’s La Traviata after she had her jewellery taken apart and sewn onto the bodice of her costume – all £200,000 worth of it.

But an emphasis on the aesthetics could sometimes come at a cost to the performance itself. The French composer Berlioz commented at the time that the “music of the Italians is a sensual pleasure and nothing more… They want a score that, like a plate of macaroni, can be assimilated immediately without having to think about it.” Berlioz was famously anti-Italian in his musical choices, but his criticism of how unchallenging and vanilla opera was is echoed today by some Eurovision enthusiasts.

Now I’m not saying Eurovision attracts the same standard of critic, but every year there are murmurings online that the songs are becoming more and more ‘radio-ready’ and the performances less unique as singers use the show to launch their careers. A few years ago we had performers like Conchita Wurst and Verka Serduchka who didn’t give a damn about what they were ‘supposed’ to look and sound like – now we have mostly very conventionally beautiful people wearing very beautiful gowns singing very beautifully about the struggles of the beautiful. Close your eyes today and you might find it hard to tell where one song ends and another begins.

Of course this isn’t completely true – one or two truly wow acts stand out every year. There’s always the performer who croons a little too much to the camera, or the one whose dress design looks like she’s sucked up a muddy puddle, or the singer who reaches notes only heard by dogs.

In 1821 Giuditta Pasta played the role of Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello. Not only was her voice well received, but her showmanship held her audience absolutely captive. Her career continued after this part, with composers falling over themselves to write roles specifically for her. Even when she was too old to perform confidently, she continued to give performances with the singer Pauline Viardot commenting that Pasta was like the da Vinci painting The Last Supper: “a wreck of a picture, but it is the greatest picture in the world.”

Which brings us to the most famous Eurovision performance – one that won acclaim during the show itself but also spawned a successful career. Of course, I’m talking about ABBA.

Eurovision winners in 1974, ABBA went on to sell at least 200 million records worldwide. They are – to this day – the best selling Swedish band of all time. With eight UK number one albums and a Wikipedia page just for their awards and nominations, ABBA stands as the goal for all Eurovision entrants, proving once and for all that if you can embrace campness and novelty, Eurovision can be a career making event.

Have a happy Eurovision everyone!

So to any Americans watching for the first time – welcome. You won’t understand it all – nobody does – but if you can make it through the strobe lights, gyrating and 100 hour long voting system, you’re guaranteed to have a fantastic night. Happy Eurovision!

E x

*Seriously, people?!

No such thing as a bad sandwich?Three historical sandwiches you won’t find in a meal deal

This past week was British Sandwich Week, so in honour of this most auspicious of occasions I thought I’d try out something a little different. After all, as the saying goes: “once you tire of sandwiches, you tire of life.”

The sandwich is one of my personal favourite foods; sweet, savoury, hot or cold – there is a sandwich out there for everyone. Perhaps you’re adventurous and won’t touch anything unless it contains whopping slices of 2-day marinated meat, at least three types of mayo and some sort of “slaw”. Maybe you prefer to keep it simple with a couple of slices of cheese and, if you’re feeling particularly daring, a smear of chutney.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys a chip butty, good news: they count too! We don’t discriminate in the sandwich circle. There genuinely is no bad sandwich (apart from Tesco’s no-butter, no-mayo, wafer-thin ham. Dear God, why?)

Until recently, I thought that my marriage was built on the standard values of matrimony: love, respect and a mutual adoration of picnic food. Just this morning, however, my husband confessed to me that after working from home for so long he’s come to view sandwiches as – and I quote – “a bit of a ballache to make” and has switched his lunchtime allegiance to pot noodles.

So once again I find myself in the market for a new husband. Potential suitors please apply via my contact page.

The history of sandwiches.

We know the story, right? During a game of cards, John Montagu – 4th Earl of Sandwich – was so engrossed that he asked his servants to bring him a slice of meat between bread, rather than step away from the gambling table for his dinner. Thus the humble sandwich was born.

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.jpg
John Montagu mentally ranking all the sandwiches he had ever eaten.

Except that might not be 100% true. The first time this story is mentioned is in Pierre-Jean Grosley’s 1770 work A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants. Just in case his name wasn’t a giveaway, Monsieur Grosley was French, and his book was a collection of fairly dry remarks about the English.

Take, for example, his comments on trade between England and France which, were it not for the flowery language, could be straight from the pages of a post-Brexit trade agreement today:

…Whilst England draws articles of importance from France, such as wines, silks, etc., she supplies the French in return with nothing but trifles of little or no value.”

 A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants.

The origin of the sandwich itself is treated in fairly understated terms, considering how popular it would become. Grosely seemed more concerned with the fact it was being used as a means to allow “destructive” habits to continue:

The English, who are profound thinkers, violent in their desires, and who carry all their passions to excess, are altogether extravagant in the article of gaming: several rich noblemen are said to have ruined themselves by it… A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorbed in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, without ever quitting the game.”

 A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants.

Of course this quote does rather beg the question: did he use the toilet at all in that 24 hours?

Grosley’s story could of course be completely true, but it could also be a dig at the slovenly ways of the English: too addicted to gambling to rise from their card games and too vulgar to appreciate anything more sophisticated than hunks of meat in bread.

The second problem with Grosley’s story is that it appears 8 years after the first literary reference to sandwiches. In the 1762 Journal of Edward Gibbon, he mentions men at a club dining on sandwiches:

“I dined at the Cocoa Tree. That respectable body, of which I have the honour of being a member, affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.”

Journal of Edward Gibbon.

So either Grosley got his dates wrong and was recounting an earlier story, or he wasn’t witness to the creation of the very first sandwich after all.

So no sandwiches before the 18th century?

Though the term ‘sandwich’ might be an 18th century invention, putting meat, or cheese, or veg into bread isn’t. In fact, it’s not even an English invention.

Every culture has its own version of the sandwich, and the origins of using bread to hold a filling is probably as old as bread itself – in which case we’re talking neolithic, some some 12,000 years ago.

The 1st century Jewish teacher Hillel the Elder instituted the eating of a ‘sandwich’ using matzah (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs) on Passover. By eating this sandwich – called korech – he said that Jewish people would experience the taste of both the bitterness of slavery and sweetness of freedom.

Ancient Babylonian cylinders also show depictions of flatbreads with meat on top of them in what Cathy Kaufman suggests may have been forerunners of souvlaki sandwiches. Historians A.W. Lassen, E. Frahm and K. Wagensonner highlight a humorous cuneiform text known as “The Infernal Kitchen” which contains an allusion to bread with a filling:

Month of Šabaṭu, what is your food?
– You shall eat still hot bread with the buttock of a donkey stallion stuffed with dog excrement and the excrement of dust flies.

A literal shit sandwich.*

Ancient Babylonians debating the merits of margarine over butter.
Photo by Nic McPhee.

As the authors point out, this ‘recipe’ is not a real one, but one that combines authentic elements with ridiculous ones to create a semi-satirical commentary on food preparation and reliance on seasonal ingredients.

Please don’t make that.

You just can’t get hold of donkey buttock anymore.

Anyway, in honour of British Sandwich Week I decided to make three sandwiches that you don’t see on cafe menus anymore.

For ease and clarity I’ve decided to use only recipes that refer to sandwiches – rather than meat on flatbread or cheese stuffed rolls or the like.

Cheshire Sandwich

The first is found in John Farley’s 1811 work The London Art of Cookery and is called a Cheshire Sandwich.

TAKE anchovies, Cheshire cheese, and butter, in equal proportions; made mustard to the palate; pound well in a marble mortar, and with this composition spread thin slices of bread, and cover with thin slices of any kind of cold meat, and again with bread, & cut into shapes.

The London Art of Cookery

This actually didn’t sound too bad at all. In fact, it sounded like something I would choose to eat already – and had. A week ago or so I attempted a WW1 version of this (almost identical except for the meat), and it was very pleasant. Salty and very savoury, this was a sandwich I was looking forward to.

I chose beef as my cold meat in honour of the Earl of Sandwich but honestly I think I would have preferred it without. The beef just added another flavour to what was already a pretty bold palate and I’m not 100% sure it all worked together. 6/10.

Toast Sandwich

The next sammie was from the trustiest Victorian stalwart of all: Mrs Beeton.

A few years ago I went out to lunch with a friend who ordered a hash brown sandwich with bread sauce on the side. At the time I made fun of her carbohydrate obsession. But it turns out her love of carbs may have had a Victorian precedent:

Place a very thin piece of cold toast between 2 slices of thin bread-and-butter in the form of a sandwich, adding a seasoning of pepper and salt.

The Book of Household Management

I mean, Beeton had given up by that point in the book, hadn’t she? I imagined her writing this recipe out as a dare, chuckling to herself as she wondered which idiot – which unsophisticated, dullen palated dunce – would bother making a bread sandwich?

Anyway, I popped a slice of bread into the toaster and then tried to forget about it until it had gone cold – an easy feat as I’m a mum to a toddler; I can’t remember the last time I got to eat something straight away.

This was not terrible, but definitely not what I’d call a sandwich. It was just three slices of salty bread – one of them slightly crunchier than the other – with butter. Decent, but not delicious. 4/10.

Dandelion leaves and Worcester Sauce Sandwich

Leave the weirdest til last, right?

This recipe is from Florence White’s Good Things in England and is a recipe she claims dates to 1929.

Thin slices of nicely buttered white bread, with just a speck of Worcester sauce spread on them, sprinkled thickly with finely chopped young dandelion leaves, and covered with a thin slice of brown bread and butter.

Good Things in England

Finally – an excuse not to cut the lawn! Dandelion leaves get bitter as they age so choosing young leaves was important here. I managed to grab a soggy handful from the garden that seemed small and fresh and onto a Worcester sauce specked slice of bread they went.

This was an odd one. It wasn’t unpleasant but butter was the main taste, with a very green, quite bitter herbal aftertaste at the back of my throat. Perhaps my leaves weren’t as young as I’d thought. 5/10.

L to R: Cheshire, Dandelion leaf, Toast.
I haven’t added the second layer of bread in order to show off these highly photogenic fillings.

No such thing as a bad sandwich?

I still stand by this – sandwiches are the greatest invention of all time and unless you hate sandwiches and only like boring, butterless, plastic cheese on plastic bread type things you really can’t go wrong.

Were these sandwiches ‘perfect’? No, not even close. No sooner had I finished my dandelion lead concoction I made a peanut butter and golden syrup sandwich for pudding and to get the slightly bitter taste out of my mouth. And as I munched on that delicious bready treat I realised that maybe not every sandwich was meant to be perfect; maybe some are there to remind us of the really great sandwiches of our past, and encourage us to keep searching for the truly remarkable sandwiches of our futures.

E x

*I also toyed with a joke about “ass ass”.

Dandelion and Worcester Sauce Sandwich

A handful of young dandelion leaves
A slice of brown bread and a slice of white bread
Worcester sauce

  1. Butter a slice of white bread and shake a few drops of Worcester sauce on top.
  2. Wash and finely chop your dandelion leaves and strew them over the buttered bread.
  3. Butter a slice of brown bread and place on top.

Toast Sandwich

3 slices of bread
Salt and Pepper

  1. Toast one slice of bread
  2. While waiting, butter the other slices of bread.
  3. Once the bread has toasted, let it cool and then roll it out thinly with a rolling pin.
  4. Sprinkle the toast with salt and pepper, and lay in between the slices of buttered bread.

Cheshire Sandwich

3 anchovies
A handful of grated cheshire cheese
A tablespoon of butter
A slice of meat
Mustard powder

  1. Pound the anchovies into a paste in a pestle and mortar.
  2. Add the mustard, cheese and butter and then mix to combine and form a smooth paste.
  3. Spread this on a slice of bread and then top with a slice of meat.
  4. Butter another slice of bread and lay on top.

New kid on the (writer’s) block: A history of writer’s block through food

Here’s a funny joke: writer’s block when you’re not a writer.

I know I write but as I don’t do it for a living I really thought I’d get only the fun and none of the pain with this hobby.

For a week or so I’ve been wracking my brains: could I write about the history of spoons? Seasonal vegetables? Dare I attempt another goat recipe? Nothing captured my attention and the more I tried to sit down and get something – anything – down, the more I found myself sinking miserably into season 6 of Schitt’s Creek instead.

So in true writer’s cliche style I’m attempting to break my writer’s block by writing about writer’s block and its relationship to food. Feel free to switch off now because I’m pretty sure this will be painful to write and even more painful to read.

Have you tried going for a long walk?

Yep. It didn’t work.

In fact I walked all the way back to ancient Greece, figuring that the culture which developed Western philosophies and art could surely shed some light on my congested creativity.

Ancient philosophers weren’t only writing to be read, they were writing to be heard, too. Plato wasn’t standing on his soapbox spontaneously spouting out his beliefs about mankind and nature; rhetoricians constructed their arguments beforehand so as to be most convincing and engaging before they gave their speeches.

Jonathan wished Dave wouldn’t get so lairy at these things.

This made for a polished speech, but it meant that ancient writers didn’t grapple with the notion of writer’s block in the way we do today. Firstly, as Irene Clark points out, speakers would be addressing current events or topics with a view to ‘solving’ issues and were therefore imbued with a sense of purpose beyond really wanting people to know about the history of spoons.

Secondly, and in terms of creative writing rather than speechwriting, how people viewed ideas and inspiration was different to how we do today. For many, inspiration was a gift from the muses – you were either worthy enough of this gift or you weren’t. Great creative writing was therefore divinely ordained and nothing to do with a mortal’s ability to imagine new ideas and convert those ideas into writing.

If we were back in Ancient Greece my malaise – or its symptoms – would probably be classed as ‘melancholy’ – a humoral diagnosis that school textbooks will tell you meant depression but also covered more general lethargy, wistfulness and restlessness too. This term was coined by the 5th century BC physician Hippocrates who noted that bouts of melancholia were more likely in springtime, along with “epileptic disorders, bloody flux, quinsy, coryza, hoarseness, cough[s] [and] leprosy…” …Yay.

Though Hippocrates had no cure for writer’s block per se, he did recommend a cure for “anxiety, yawning [and] rigor” which was to drink a glass of wine mixed with an equal amount of water. However, I decided that my case was so great that I could probably forgo the water.

Winebottle in hand, I sat down to see if there was any other ancient wisdom that could help me.

Seneca, the 1st century CE philosopher wrote about feelings of ennui which were perhaps closer to my emotions than melancholy.

Who Is Seneca? Timeless Wisdom from the World's Most Controversial Stoic
It took a team of four strong men to bathe Seneca.

“Here comes…a thousand waverings of the unsteadfast mind, which is held in suspense by unfulfilled hopes, and saddened by disappointed ones: hence comes the state of mind of those who loathe their idleness [and] complain that they have nothing to do.”

While I’m not sure I could describe an unwritten blog post on the history of spoons as an “unfulfilled hope held in suspense”, the sentiment was there – my mind was idle. So what was Seneca’s remedy?

“Occupy oneself with business, with the management of affairs and the duties of a citizen… to benefit individual men and mankind alike, both with intellect, voice and advice.”

I’d never thought of my blog benefitting the whole of mankind before, but I had to admit my chest puffed up a bit when I read Seneca’s words. The whole of mankind, eh? Well, when you put it like that…

Nice to see your ego hasn’t been affected by this block

Shut up, inner voice.

Trouble was, Seneca was a Stoic who believed that food was just a vehicle to stop hunger. He advocated for a very simple diet and turned his nose up at over indulgent or rich foods. Even more, he suggested that luxurious eating could cause certain illnesses and argued that to seek out expensive and lavish food rather then eat what was cheap, simple and readily available was the real sign of mental imbalance: “A hankering after delicacies is a sign of self-indulgence; by the same token, avoidance of those comforts that are quite ordinary and easy to obtain is an indication of insanity”.

The trend of linking food and melancholy continued through the ages. By the 15th century, scholars such as Marsilio Ficino ruled out certain foods which were believed to bring on bouts of melancholy, such as “burned food” and “old cheese”. No hardship to avoid these, but instructions to abstain from fried food, rich food and wine might be slightly harder to stick to.

And then, in the 17th century, something quite remarkable happened – the first full length look at melancholy as a subject in its own right.

In 1621, English writer Robert Burton published a book, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Or to give it its full title: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. Which would have intrigued me, had I not been suffering from melancholy and lost the will to read on half way through the first title-sentence.

The Anatomy of Melancholy - Wikipedia

Luckily for me, Jonathan Sadowsky (a medical historian at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio) has read and dissected Burton’s work, which was so popular that it was republished multiple times over the first few decades of its existence. Like me, Burton wrote about melancholy “by being busy to avoid melancholy”.

Burton thought of melancholy as something more than an imbalance and viewed it as a deeply complex range of emotions, including “…heaviness or vexation of spirit…and lumpish[ness]” Again, there was no reference to writer’s block specifically but after a quick glance in the mirror I had to admit that after a week of consolatory biscuits my ‘lumpishness’ could not be denied. Perhaps his book was what I needed after all.

“Member II” of the book contained a list of foods to avoid if trying to get over a bout of melancholy/lumpishness. A long list. A very long list. If you have time you can read the full list here but the headlines include beef, pork, goat (thank God), venison, rabbit, milk, chicken, fish, cucumber, cabbage, melon, ALL FRUIT, ALL PULSES, honey, ginger, pepper, sugar, bread made of anything but wheat, wine and beer.

T’would appear Burton’s remedy for lumpishness was starvation.

Getting off topic…

By the 18th and 19th centuries, writers were back on the idea that inspiration could be given or blocked by unknown forces.

In 1804, Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously wrote “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month – O Sorrow and Shame… I have done nothing!”

English Romantics like Coleridge were pretty aware of the effects of writer’s block but had no definitive way to cure it, other than sighing despondently and looking out of rainy windows. I’ve tried both, neither works.

But writing just after the time of the English Romantics, the British doctor George Blandford may have had some idea of how to cure the poets’ ailments:

“Before getting out of bed in the morning, [nervous or depressed patients should drink] rum and milk, or egg and sherry; breakfast of meat, eggs, and café au lait, or cocoa; beef tea, with a glass of port, at eleven o’clock; and a good dinner or lunch at two, with a couple of glasses of sherry; at four, some more beef-tea, or an equivalent; at seven, dinner or supper, with stout and port wine; and at bed-time, stout or ale, with the chloral or morphia.”

I’ve actually tried beef tea before and let me tell you: never again. Nevertheless I felt it was at least worth exploring the medical properties of Blandford’s multi-course regime of alcohol and meaty dinners.

Sadly for pre 20th century writers, it wasn’t until 1947 that writer’s block even had a name. Coined by Austrian psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, the idea of suffering from lack of inspiration or motivation became less about airy fairy ideas of tortured artists denied by gods, and more about science.

Edmund Bergler
No you’re not imagining it – he is judging you.

Amazingly, Bergler also believed that writer’s block was inherently linked to food – of a kind. A huge Freudian theorist, Bergler argued that writer’s block was caused by mothers who refused or were unable to breastfeed their babies. Trapped by rage towards their mothers, people who grew up to suffer writer’s block were – in Bergler’s mind – experiencing a physical representation of the emotional starvation they had experienced as children.

“I have never seen a ‘normal’ writer” Bergler declared. All writers were, to him, megalomaniacs “entirely surrounded by neuroticism in private life.” Moreover, he wrote that “every writer, without exception, is a masochist, a sadist, a peeping Tom, an exhibitionist, a narcissist, an ‘injustice collector’ and a depressed person constantly haunted by fears of unproductivity.”


So are you still blocked?

Who knows. Maybe that spoons post will see the light of day, maybe not. At the end of this all I know is three things:

  1. Writer’s block, or the associated emotions, are not new.
  2. Despite the literally thousands of years people have had to figure it out, no one has come up with a watertight solution to it.
  3. I probably shouldn’t mention this post to my mum without deleting Bergler’s comments first.

And on that note, I’m out.

E x