Ship of Fools

03 11 the daily courantOn this day on 1702, the first British daily newspaper was published. It was called ‘The Daily Courant’ The paper consisted of a single sheet of paper with news on one side and advertisements on the other. It was printed by a woman named Elizabeth Mallet, but she called herself E. Mallet as printing was a profession dominated by men. In it, she advertised that she would not add any comments of her own to the articles she printed. She thought her readers would have: “sense enough to make reflections for themselves” and “spare the public at least half the impertinences which ordinary papers contain.” It was a worthy idea and if she could see any of our newspapers, full of editorial, opinion pieces and celebrity gossip, she’d probably be quite disappointed. Later that same year, the paper was taken over by Samuel Buckley who went on to produce the Spectator. We don’t know why, she may have sold it or it could have been that Elizabeth died.

Facts about Elizabeth’s life are hard to come by. At the end of the seventeenth century, she was printing broadsides and stories from the local area which she sold in the streets. We do know where her premises were though. Her address was next to The Kings Arms, against the Ditch at Fleet Bridge. Fleet Bridge is the old name for Fleet Street which would become the home of the British press for well over two hundred years. I quite like the idea that it all started somewhere near a ditch.

Fleet Street had been associated with publishing since the beginning of the sixteenth century. William Caxton, who was the first person to set up a printing press in England, had an apprentice who set up a printing shop on Fleet Street in 1500. He had the lovely and appropriate name of Wynkyn de Worde. I have no idea whether the ‘de Worde’ part was added as a sort of nickname or whether it is just a fine example of nominative determinism. While Caxton relied on rich and worthy patrons to support his work, de Worde made the move to printing more inexpensive books for a more commercial audience. He was the first to print on English paper and the first to make use of moveable type to print music. He also set up the first book stall in the yard of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which then became an important centre for the booksellers of London.

03 11 ship of foolsOne of the stories that Wynkyn de Worde published was a translation of a story called ‘The Ship of Fools’ which would become a familiar trope of literature. It is an allegory that originates with Plato and is a story about a vessel with no one to guide it. It is taken over by the deranged, by the frivolous and generally by people who don’t know what they’re doing at all. They would stop at nothing to prevent a person who does know how to steer the ship from helping them.

A more modern interpretation of the story can be found in Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. There is a planet called Golgafrincham that was once home to the Great Circling Poets of Arium. The descendents of the poets made up stories about the planet’s impending doom. It would crash into the sun, be hit by the moon, be attacked by twelve foot piranha bees or be swallowed by a mutant star goat. They all pretended they were going to leave the planet in three arks. The ‘A’ Ark would carry all the great leaders, the scientists and the high achievers. The ‘C’ Ark would hold all people who actually made things and built things. Then there was the ‘B’ Ark. The ‘B’ Ark was for everyone else. The middle managers, the hairdressers, the television executives, the telephone sanitizers. The ‘B’ Ark was actually the only one that set off. It was a plan to get rid of the useless third of their society. The remaining two thirds of the Golgafrinchams remained on the planet and lived rich and happy lives, until they were wiped out by a disease caused by a dirty telephone.

Meanwhile the passengers of the ‘B’ Ark crash-landed on a prehistoric earth where they slowly developed a primitive culture and became the ancestors of modern humanity. So if, as Douglas Adams would have it, we are all descended from a ship of fools, it’s little wonder that we are often more interested in having meetings than actually getting anything done. More drawn to celebrity gossip than politics. Maybe Elizabeth Mallet’s newspaper with nothing but news in it would never have worked. I certainly can’t pretend that I am doing anything different from that with this rather frivolous blog. It’s just that the celebrities I’m telling you about mostly died hundreds of years ago, so I am hoping that at least some of it will seem new and interesting…

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