Sunday, October 19, 2008


I have just stumbled upon what I can only describe as the greatest web site in the world  - a project to put the whole of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica online. This is claimed to be the finest of all encyclopaedias. Having flicked through it for the last 15 minutes, I am inclined to agree. Of course, the real fascination of these little essays, these elegant, Edwardian (I know, I know, he died in 1910, but I am guessing most were written before his death) summaries of lives and events, is what is not included. Modernism is, I think, unnoticed except as a development in theology. Joseph Conrad, for example, is praised for his 'vigorous English style and the vivid description of exotic scenes', not for his formal innovations. Henry James is called 'a modern of the moderns', but 'modern' here seems to be synonymous with 'contemporary'. The big thing missing, the gorilla in this heavily furnished, panelled drawing room, is the Great War, the terrible lens through which we must see 1911. To our imaginations, its absence hangs like a black cloud over every entry. These writers were living in a kind of paradise, a climax of western civilisation before the cataclysm of the twentieth century. The entry for the recently dead Edward VII - a popular, fat, randy rogue - is poignant - '...  it remained for her (Victoria's) son to rehabilitate the idea of English kingship by showing how the sovereign could be no less constitutional but personally more monarchical.' And then the roof fell in.


  1. At the start of the month, I was in Flanders. A part of the world that is as lovely as any I've ever seen. Today, it is beyond belief that anything bad could ever have happened, that is until you are driving by graveyard after graveyard after graveyard.
    I was prepared for vast graveyards, but not for the number of small village sized ones peppered all over and in some of the most beautiful settings.
    In ones mind, you know what went on, but you need to see it for the full grasp to sledgehammer you in the gut.
    One of the evenings I went to Menin Gate where every night at eight the road is blocked, while respect is given to the Missing.
    That today, any large town would halt one of its main arteries every day, well it changed my mind about Belgium.

  2. In 1994 I bought the 29 volume set of said encyclopedia at a jumble sale for $5.00 and a week has not passed since then that I have not in some way used it.

    Volume XV, ITA-KYS is especially useful when swatting bees.

    As an American reader of your blog I have picked up and begun using some new slang around the shop. I'd love to stay and say more but I"m up to my oxters in leaves, it's fall you know.

    Thank you for a wonderful blog.

  3. 1911 is also a fine pistol, Bryan, which we might all have to have one of before long.

  4. They've kind of ruined it a bit by allowing passing monkeys to edit the text- see the entry on 'Mahomet' which is a total mess.