There was an old man with a Book

There was an old man with a Book -
Who said “Only look! Only look! -
Obsquation - obsgration -
At Waterloo Station -
Enquire if there ain’t such a Book!”
Hardly in the way at all

August 25, 2022

The overlap between Edward Lear and the Kinks is small, but the Edward Lear trail has found it for you at Waterloo. Our original plan had been a long walk exploring the wilds of Buckinghamshire after dropping Betty off at her prison in Aston Clinton, but the weather said otherwise, so we decided to visit the nearest Edward Lear trail destination yet to acquire the fabled green dot: Waterloo Station.

This limerick was never published in Lear’s lifetime. We learn from the excellent Edward Lear: The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse by Vivien Noakes that he wrote it in December 1863 to accompany a letter to his friend Mr Prescott. Prescott had ordered a copy of Lear’s Views in the Seven Ionian Islands, and had asked Lear, who was about to leave for Corfu, to leave it to be collected from the cloakroom at Waterloo Station. How civilised this sounds! Waterloo Station was only fifteen years old at the time.

Major General Sir Henry Knight Storks K.C.B. G.C.M.G. was reportedly very flattered

While in Waterloo we viewed the striking new National Windrush Monument.

Also in the area was the graffiti tunnel in Leake Street, where street artists are welcome to add their piece, and the artwork changes every day. This democratic approach inevitably results in variable quality, but it’s a bright and fun place to visit…

…and some of the art is quite striking:

Back to the station for our reënactment. In the absence of a cloakroom I made for the bookshop (or at least, a shop which sells some books) in the hope of picking up my own copy of Views in the Seven Ionian Islands. Fat chance, said Debbie.

“Put more energy into it! Look more stupid!”

And do you see that green book? What do you mean, you can’t read the title?

Don’t knock WH Smith. They found this old copy for us in their stock room.

We can sit back and watch Obsquation and obsgration zoom up the Google rankings. And now that we’ve polished off Waterloo Station, the nearest remaining Edward Lear trail destination is Sark, 174 miles from home. Don’t worry, we’ll get there.

There was an Old Person of Ems

June 27, 2022 – Ems visit by Susan and Mick. August 19, 2022 – re-enactment

Since the marvellous contribution last December from Aleksandra to There was a Young Lady of Russia it’s been a tad quiet on Long-distance Lear. So I was thrilled to receive this message from long-time Edward Lear trail follower (and even longer-time cousin) Susan in Basel:

Rather excitingly we will be passing through Domat/Ems by train on Monday. Is there any particular scene you’d like us to capture?

Oh, yes please! Grab a picture of a sign saying Ems, I said. Susan and Mick certainly delivered on that request.

There is bitter controversy among Lear devotees as to whether our unlucky protagonist originated in Ems, a German town in Rhineland-Palatinate renamed Bad Ems in 1913, or in Ems, a Swiss municipality now in the canton of Grisons, renamed Domat/Ems in 1943. It must have been a postman’s nightmare before they beefed up those names. But a huge weight of scholarly research, assisted by a big dollop of convenience, has decisively settled the issue in favour of Good Ems, aka Domat/Ems.

Of course we were delighted to delegate the visit to such outstanding ambassadors as Susan and Mick: you will remember their outstanding contribution to Lockdown Lear with There was an Old Man with an Owl. But we did a tinge of regret that we weren’t undertaking the visit ourselves. Susan, however, set our minds at rest with her report:

We stopped in Ems for an hour yesterday and can confidently say that it isn’t worth a special visit. It has a neglected look and is dominated by a huge building site, just the sort of place an Old Person might wish to leave. Main features of interest are the Ems kebab shop, the Animal Preparation shop, with its fishing tackle vending machine and the huge EMS chemical works just outside the village.

Happily they anticipated our readers’ excitement about the fishing tackle vending machine, and provided this excellent photo:

Susan and Mick provided more photos to give us a flavour of what we were missing.

The photo on the right shows the Rhine. While I agree that Domat/Ems doesn’t seem an especially beautiful place, to my lowland eyes anywhere set among mountains has a certain charm. And how many place names can boast a forward slash? None I can think of in England, anyway.

Railway fans will be interested to learn that the track has three rails, so it can be used by both standard gauge and narrow gauge trains

Susan and Mick have been a little camera-shy, which is our loss, as they are a good-looking couple. But they have crafted poignant images to tell the story of That unlucky Old Person.

We tried to imagine the scene when the Old Person left on his fateful trip, a last look at the church and mountains and a sad goodbye at the station:

Taking a last look
A farewell wave from the Old Person’s devoted wife. Not quite devoted enough to accompany him to England, but someone has to take care of business.

Their work brilliantly done, Susan and Mick – probably with some relief – passed the baton back to the home team for the re-enactment. I can tell you that casually falling in the Thames (without the drowning bit) is a considerable undertaking, requiring much planning and much expensive and specialised technical equipment.

Careful research established that the island at Hurley Lock was the perfect location, and the Friday weather was neither so hot that it would melt Debbie nor so cold that it would freeze the casual faller’s extremities, so off we went. The young family paddling nearby took it all in their stride. I’m sure they’ve seen stranger things.

Of course, bringing you content of this quality would not be possible without our talented support team. Everybody pulls their weight here.

  • Old Person of Ems – Rik
  • Photography – Debbie
  • Director – Debbie
  • Creative Consultant – Debbie
  • Hair Stylist – Debbie
  • Key Grip (no, me neither, not a clue) – Debbie
  • On Set Catering Manager – Debbie
  • Location Research – Debbie
  • Rostrum Camera – Ken Morse
  • Transport Management and Navigation – Debbie
  • Canine Supervisor – Debbie

Many thanks to Susan and Mick for their outstanding Ems visit. And if any readers would like to follow in their footsteps and visit a destination or recreate a limerick for us outside the UK and Ireland, we would love to hear from you through the contact form. (Although we realise that the bar has now been set intimidatingly high). The places we still need (the ones shown in black) are here. And I’m sorry if it disappoints our readers, but the UK and Ireland will still be covered by the home team.

Outstanding new Edward Lear tribute

(Jonathan Brockbank, 2022)

August 3rd, 2022

What a wonderful birthday present – a framed Edward Lear homage by Jonathan, whom you will remember from Lockdown Lear.

Centre: Edward Lear by William Holman Hunt

Clockwise from top left

Nevertheless they got safely to the boat, although considerably vexed and hurt; and the Quangle-Wangle’s right foot was so knocked about, that he had to sit with his head in his slipper for at least a week. (From The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World)

There was a Young Person of Crete,
Whose toilette was far from complete;
She dressed in a sack,
Spickle-speckled with black,
That ombliferous person of Crete.

There was an Old Man on a hill,
Who seldom, if ever, stood still;
⁠He ran up and down
⁠In his grandmother’s gown,
Which adorned that Old Man on a hill.

Foss Couchant (Edward Lear’s cat)

Phattfacia Stupenda (Nonsense Botany)

I love the way Edward Lear’s genius seems to radiate from him. Thank you Jonathan! The artist has passed me these thoughts:

– The picture is based on this portrait of Dickens dreaming up his characters:

Robert William Buss: Dickens’ Dream: 1875

– Lear is drawn in pencil; he is more perishable than his inventions, it’s easy to ‘rub him out’.

– It celebrates the year in which you’re going to grow your Lear-tribute beard. Go on! You know you want to! You owe it to the local owls, hens, larks and wrens.

Well, that’s an interesting challenge. In the spirit of fake democracy, here is your chance to vote on it using the unresponsive buttons below:

  • 1) Don’t do it
  • 2) That’s daft, you’d look silly with a beard
  • 3) Why are you even considering it?

We’ll be on our travels again soon, I’m sure.

25 best Edward Lear limericks

(This piece also appears in Ramblings)

I’ve loved Edward Lear’s nonsense writings and limericks ever since my parents bought me The Nonsense Books of Edward Lear when I was nine. His limericks are sometimes disparaged for his refusal to introduce a new rhyme in the last line: W S Gilbert satirised this in There was an Old Man of St Bees. But this criticism misses the point: he is not aiming for wit, we are in the realm of nonsense. The repeated rhyme at the end underlines the pointlessness of the story – no progress is made, and we end up where we started.

I love them all, of course, but here are 25 of my favourites – in no particular order.

This was the first piece of Lear which won me over: I giggled at the absurd drawing (had this happened instantly, without warning?) and at the detailed listing of birds. Lear, of course, had started his career as an illustrator of animals and birds, and many of these early drawings seem to give the creatures strong, almost human personalities .

I love this fellow’s indignation. “Certainly not!” His interrogator, and we, should not have to ask the question, when he is so obviously a Moppsikon Floppsikon Bear. He does gallop, evidently.

We should congratulate this Old Man for being bored. Most people would be terrified.

Many Lear limericks involve a malign “they” who frown on eccentricity, and sometimes brutally punish it. This illustration shows the happier part of the story. It is natural to see Lear as the true protagonist here: the harmless eccentric who regarded himself as an outsider – despite his many close friendships.

Love this guy’s acceptance and stoicism.
This borders on satire: it could have been a W S Gilbert lyric mocking a Victorian cabinet minister.

I recognise a kindred spirit in the Old Person in the rhyme, with his carefully calibrated violence against fellow Minety dwellers – rocks, for example, would overstate the case, while tomatoes (or small apples) would barely get the job done. Of course, we’re left in the dark as to his motives, but he seems to be enjoying himself.

So intolerant. But so polite.

It’s that “they” again, this time acquainting the protagonist with an unwelcome fact rather than being outright malicious. Although they do seem to be enjoying his discomfort. Importantly the picture clarifies that although he is unhappy, he is not in immediate danger of drowning.

“Small”

Again, the humour springs from our uncertainty. Does the fellow have any reason to think someone will answer, or is he randomly ringing a bell in the middle of nowhere? Lockdown Lear hero John, in his world-beating re-enactment, has pointed out the discrepancy between the text and the illustration: the Old Man’s hair doesn’t appear to be white at all. Very careless, Mr Lear, you’ve made Nonsense of it. Note that the last line here repeats the rhyme from the second line, not the first, very adventurous.

Even in her grief, she is mindful of her husband’s high standing in Tartary.

D’you know, I’m not even sure there is a place called West Dumpet. Why, it’s almost as if Lear made it up, just because it rhymes with trumpet. This is unusual, most of his limerick locations are real places – as the Edward Lear trail has proved – many of which, the records confirm, Lear actually visited.

Lear again indulges his passion for drawing birds. What a sweet-natured, kindhearted Young Lady. She deserves all of her happiness.

Here’s “they” again. Perhaps they started knocking him about with evil intent, but seem quite happy to continue now he appears to be enjoying it. Is this a cheeky delve into niche erotic tastes? Biographers have concluded that Lear was a closet – probably celibate – homosexual. And in the nineteenth century it was generally wise to stay in the closet, Oscar.

Laconic indeed.

So is that “Hush!” to rhyme with push or “bush” to rhyme with rush? Often misquoted as “small bird in this bush” which of course makes Nonsense of the final line. Notable for the rare comic payoff. And “perceive”.

Tactful. But brutal.
Doubtful, this time, not laconic. But I think he might have a cousin in Wick. He looks rather like Stephen Fry.
We don’t know how many rabbits he’s eaten at this stage. Presumably not yet eighteen, as he’s still quite pink.
Note the trademark arms spread wide, expressing alarm.
Yes, it’s “they” again. Just enquiring this time.
More distressed arm-waving.
Who could resist rhyming Thermopylae with properly? Not Lear, obviously. There “they” go again, persecuting a harmless eccentric.

Once more, Lear leaves questions open. Was he escaping from aggression, persecution or boredom? What was his – or Lear’s problem with Basing? But he’s so happy! He will need much presence of mind: he hasn’t bothered with any reins, nor made use of the stirrups.

There was an Old Man of New York

There was an Old Man of New York,
Who murdered himself with a fork;
But nobody cried
though he very soon died, —
For that silly Old Man of New York

April 10, 2022

The plan was to come to New York in April 2020 to celebrate Debbie’s big birthday by seeing an opera at the Met. I can’t remember why we didn’t make it, but here we are two years later. Mozart is substituting for Puccini, and Rachel has been unable to join us (so far).

On the roof terrace of the Library Hotel

The mission of the Edward Lear trail is to visit every limerick destination in Great Britain and Ireland. But we are always trying to give our readers more, so we couldn’t let slip the opportunity to bag this one while we were here. There’s no evidence that Edward Lear ever crossed the Atlantic or visited New York. There has even been speculation that he chose this location simply for its rhyming possibilities.

In Grand Central Station. Not going anywhere, just visiting
In the Guggenheim
Les joueurs de football by Henri Rousseau. Not sure these fellows have a full grasp of the rules
Projecting authority

As always, I brought my special extending fork on holiday, and this time remembered not to put it in my hand luggage.

Thanks to Alice’s photography skills, we can bring you some exciting bonus behind-the-scenes content.

Before we decided I should fling my left arm out in a more Learesque style

In Britain, of course, the Edward Lear trail is famous and much celebrated. But we were unsure of our popularity in the US. Naturally enough, a buzz went around and a large and curious crowd gathered outside The New York Public Library, keeping a safe distance, to observe our shenanigans. At first they seemed baffled by what they were watching. Imagine our surprise and gratitude when we heard a young fellow explaining “It’s Debbie and Rik from the Edward Lear trail” while showing them images on his phone of our past triumphs. The British Invasion, apparently, is still a thing.

There was an old lady of Joppa

Two Joppas there. Small ones I grant you. Stop complaining.

December 26, 2021

Yes, Boxing Day. That’s how dedicated we are. After a lovely Christmas Day with Rob’s family, we staged a lightning raid on Joppa, on the Edinburgh riviera.

Edward Lear trail fans won’t need telling that Joppa, a latinization of the 4th century Greek name, Ἰόππη, appears in the Bible as the name of the Israeli city of Jaffa. But Learologists are united in their view that this limerick, unpublished in his lifetime, refers to the eastern suburb of Edinburgh, which like its namesake sits by the sea.

Debbie and Betty disappear into the distance – beaches bring out the puppy in Betty

On 16 October 1939, the Luftwaffe made a daylight air raid up the Forth to bomb three British warships at Rosyth – the first daylight air raid on Britain. Houses in Morton Street were damaged. The German pilots shot down during the raid were buried, following a ceremony at St Philip’s Church, in Portobello Cemetery which lies on Milton Road East. They were the first enemy casualties of the Second World War to be buried on British soil.

Our walk along the beach was bracing – we would expect nothing less from the east coast of Scotland in December. Inland, we found a luxury tardis:

It even had Christmas lights

Our re-enactment posed a considerable challenge to the highly skilled technical division at the ELTPD (props department), but she made some magnificent pipes out of modelling clay…

The vigour of Debbie’s re-enactment caused a little damage

…and performed with gusto, panache and brio. Hmm, I wonder why none of these words are English in origin.

Rushing towards the south

There was a Young Lady of Russia

December 2, 2021

The Edward Lear trail, like the Flat Earth Society, has followers all around the globe, and I was particularly pleased to see a surge of interest in our blog coming from Russia last year. And in September 2020 a lady called Александра, whom I will here call Aleksandra, got in touch through the comments section under There was an Old Person of Sheen:

“Go to Russia. I’m Russian, and my name is Aleksandra. I don’t really like Lear, but I like your site. My favourite book is “The Shadow” by Eugeniy Shvarts – a very beautiful Doppelgänger-story about a naive scientist, who lost his shadow.”

I was flattered to learn that you don’t even have to like Edward Lear to enjoy the Edward Lear trail. And I’m intrigued by “The Shadow” – I’ve just put it on my Christmas list.

The policy here, the policy here, has been to visit, eventually, every Lear limerick destination in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. We also like to tick off any overseas Lear destinations we visit. But, recognising that it may be a while before Debbie and I are in a position to respond to Aleksandra’s suggestion that we should go to Russia, I reached out to her, to ask whether, possibly, she might be prepared to be our first Russian contributor to Lockdown Lear, or rather, our first ever contributor to Long-distance Lear, and re-enact the limerick for us.

Can you imagine my surprise and joy, when within a few hours, I received a wonderful photo? She lives in Kratovo, 40 km southeast of Moscow – about the same distance we are from London. According to Zoe Williams of The Guardian, Kratovo “resembles a Russian Guildford with high hedges, gigantic trees, the careful, botanical planning of expensive privacy.” More poetically Aleksandra writes “We have a forest there. A real Druidic forest!”

Relations between the United Kingdom and Russia have been through a few ups and downs over the years, so I’m particularly pleased that Aleksandra has responded to our request so enthusiastically, enabling us to make this tiny but significant contribution to international understanding and goodwill. Without further fuss, here’s Александра!

What a scream, I can hear it from 1,590 miles away! Thank you Aleksandra!

And if any readers from outside the UK and Ireland would like to follow in her footsteps and recreate a limerick for us, we would love to hear from you through the contact form. The list of places we need is here. And the more remote the place you live, and the further from the UK, the better.

Er, you don’t happen to have any friends or family in Камчатка, do you Александра?

There was a young lady of Harwich

Betty, tired of being pestered, turns her back on the paparazzi

October 21, 2021

Harwich, it turns out, takes almost as long to reach by car from Dunwich as it does from home. But we’re here in East Anglia, dammit, so we decided to nail it today, mopping up one more of Lear’s unpublished (during his lifetime) limericks.

Antique crane

Harwich offered us a choice of lighthouses –

“Misleading light” no. 1
“Misleading light” no. 2

Harwich has a long history as a port, as the only safe anchorage between the Thames and the Humber. The town became a naval base in 1657 and was heavily fortified.

The closest we could get to the Redoubt Fort, built in 1808 to guard against a Napoleonic invasion

The Mayflower is thought to have been built and launched in Harwich in 1611, and it is believed that its captain, Christopher Jones, was born in the town.

Nature and industry in harmony – the cranes and containers of Felixstowe

We had a very pleasant lunch in the Hanover pub, although I wasn’t sure why the door to the gents was propped open, allowing clear views of the urinals from the dining area. I’m sure the fellow on the laptop would have explained, if I’d asked him.

After our hard work, we treated ourselves to a relaxing swim:

Mush!

There was an Old Man of the East

What the residents of Lowestoft Ness looked like in Edward Lear’s day
“Britain’s most easterly point” – you can’t get further east on the British mainland without risking life and limb
OK, well, just a bit further

October 20, 2021

After our thoroughly enjoyable exploration of Diss, we drove to our next destination, the East. This is part of our mission to visit the four cardinal points – i.e. the points furthest east, south, west,

(or as close as we could get)

and some time, north

on the British mainland.

I believe that the secret of many successful marriages is a shared sense of humour, and I am reminded of this on our journey to Lowestoft. Debbie simply never tires of me saying “Health and safety gone mad!” when we approach railway level crossing gates, and always finds it rib-tickling when I say “What’s the worst that could happen?” just before we cross the track. She has great sense of humour, that lady, and joins in the fun with top class banter. “You really are such an annoying git” she jokes.

Lowestoft Ness

It was time for our most easterly lunch ever on the British mainland, at the dog-friendly Howards Tea Rooms. If only we had a dog-friendly dog.

After our substantial breakfasts this morning, we weren’t that hungry, so we just ordered toasted tea cakes. But then Debbie, perhaps mindful of the concern the jeweller in Diss had shown about Rik’s nourishment, persuaded him to top up with a medicinal sticky toffee pudding, which he was able to force between his pale lips.

After lunch we explored the beach and pier.

Under the Boardwalk (but not out of the sun)

There was still time to go back to The Ship at Dunwich, and venture out for a walk to the haunting “Last Grave” of the Church of All Saints.

And then to visit the ruined Greyfriars medieval friary.

Now, what about that Old Man of the East, who gave all his children a feast? It was only last Sunday, in fact, that this Old Man gave all (both) his children a feast. I will draw a veil over how much they ate, and their conduct, but you will see from the photo that – initially, at least – it all seemed quite civilised…

There was an Old Person of Diss

October 20, 2021

A or D on your voting buttons
B, C or D on your voting buttons
Annotation beneath the sign

The Edward Lear trail is all about democracy, and today we are offering you a choice of two pictures proving that we really visited Diss for you. Please use the voting buttons below to select your favourite, press them all you like.

  • A – ratty sign in the distance, bald old geezer, busy wet road, grumpy dog
  • B – colourful artistic sign, beautiful woman, sunshine, cute dog
  • C – you have to ask?
  • D – Dahlings, you both look wonderful

Once again on the trail we are bringing Lear’s unpublished limericks into the light. We chose the excellent Ship at Dunwich as the base for our sortie into East Anglia.

Lear knew what he was talking about when he made his Old Person of Diss jump into a ditch: the town takes its name from dic an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ditch (or possibly embankment). The town is situated around a mere (pond) covering 6 acres. It was previously known to Debbie only as a stopping point on her train journey from Berkshire to UEA in Norwich, back in the day.

During today’s visit, she expressed deep regret that she had never thought to break her journey to become better acquainted with Diss. She hadn’t even known, for example, that Thomas Lord (1755–1832), founder of Lord’s Cricket Ground, was born here.

Read the signs, we’re definitely in Diss
The Corn Hall, built in the 1850s and still busy
14th-century parish Church of St Mary the Virgin

Opposite the church stands an impressive 16th-century building known as the Dolphin House. It was possibly a wool merchant’s house. Formerly a pub, the Dolphin, from the 1800s to the 1960s, the building now houses some small businesses…

…such as Modern Electronic Devices…
…and this little “Jewellery” shop

Seeing this excellent little shop, Rik seized the opportunity to replace his tired old watch strap. When he tried on his purchase, the fellow in the shop was quite shocked. “Goodness me!” he exclaimed, “You do have a small wrist! Doesn’t your wife feed you properly?” The poor chap was so shaken that when he came to punch an extra hole for me, he quite missed his mark.

That smudge on the left, well off centre
Your guess is as good as mine
Copy Diss (not Copy Datt) in Mere Street
Diss Mere

Diss Mere is popular with anglers, and is renowned for its carp. But it seems that other species have been illegally introduced: in 2015 James Williams caught “The Monster of the Mere” – a 100lb catfish. The fish may still be lurking in the Mere – Williams released it.

We witnessed another felony on the Mere, as an elderly fellow fed large quantities of mouldy sliced bread to unsuspecting waterfowl. The Diss Duck Doper then made his getaway on a red mobility scooter. The ducks may have developed Dissentry, so if you see them flying overhead, best put up your umbrella.

The park by the Mere

It was time to take our leave for the next Edward Lear trail destination, and we were by no means Dissatisfied. Cheerio! What? Oh yes, of course, you’ll be wanting the re-enactment.

It is this! It is this!

There you go.