Sunday, December 18, 2011

in matter is something

M., feeling cold, decided to make us mugs of Lamb's Wool, which is ale and spice and apples warmed together, Granny Smiths in our case, and bottles of Fat Tire. Lamb's Wool is a wassailing drink, and it owes its name either to the fluffy layer that is supposed to appear on top -- in theory it does, ours didn't have any fluff -- or to an Anglicisation of the Irish-Gaelic La Mas Ubhal, or, Day Of The Apple.

And if the Gaelic theory is correct (and maybe there was a confluence, the fluff suggesting the direction the Anglicisation should travel in, perhaps the white fluff was an arrow pointing the way, eye and ear acting together since they're so close, biologically speaking, only a handshake apart -- I once stayed home from school because I had an earache that appeared also in a tooth) then the lamb in Lamb's Wool is not anything mammalian or woolly, instead it means an apple, and when we say "Lamb" we should think of something alive without legs, a cold round life held together by the same force field as the other kind of lamb, if the physicists are correct: held together by a field of energy that came into existence one moment after the Big Bang -- assuming they're right about that too. The Higgs boson particle will prove the existence of the field, if you want to call it a field, or at least it will make the assumption more concrete and sure -- if I'm understanding this right. It has the power of a mysterious Clag. So they're looking for it, and they thought they might have found evidence a few days ago but no Higgs as yet. Higgs is always elsewhere. It eludes. And there is no lamb, in this drink, the mammal-lamb of Lamb's Wool is not present ever, it is away with the Higgs boson (which I keep thinking of as the Higgs Bosun, a nautical particle), and all the solid things of the world are run through with holes, "Inherent in matter is something unwounded by holes," as Alison Hawthorne Deming states in a poem: all gaps, we are, tight nets that would not look so tight if we were Higgs boson particles, which are perhaps nets of their own holes whose holes are further nets.

The field is a fantasy, the Higgs is the fairy whose appearance will prove it real, it is the fixed shoe that exposes the life of the elf, and the words "Lamb's Wool" described our drink in an evasive way, by giving us its history and not its appearance or its contents, and history is one dimension of a thing, but an invisible one, as the three-dimensional sketch your hand performs with the pen or above the keyboard is an invisible part of any word you write, your wiggle is its history. (I take no credit: this is Walter Benjamin again.) When M. said "Lamb's wool" I didn't know what to expect and when he produced the drink I realised that I had been expecting something different. I was expecting wool in there somewhere. Maybe it would be strained through something, through fibres. But no. I think, said one scientist before the press conference earlier this week, that it would be more exciting if we didn't find the Higgs boson. All that searching and then after all that it's just prosaic and there. What a letdown. What an end.

But take heart, one stepping stone leads to another, the establishment of atoms did not mean the end of the tiny universe, obviously, even though they thought for a long time that they had gone as far as they could go in the direction of extreme smallness. "The word atom itself means "indivisible," or more technically derives from the Greek words for not and to cut," explains the biography of Marie Curie I'm reading at the moment, ἀ-τέμνω, which was once upon a time an accurate description of the object itself, and is now a record of that period of human existence when the atom was understood to have no interior parts. The interior parts of our Lamb's Wool dazzle me, the history, the apples, the different kinds of apple we could have used, M.'s rationale for that particular apple -- I knew you liked Granny Smiths, he said -- which suggests a knowledge of my preferences, which must have been acquired over time, and which relied not only on observation but also on memory, and the conscious retention of that particular memory -- he didn't forget that I liked Granny Smiths even though I don't think I've said the words "Granny Smith apple" for ages. "Every reunion of men, is it not, as we often say, a reunion of incalculable Influences; every unit of it a microcosm of Influences; -- of which how shall Science calculate or prophesy?" saith Carlyle. So there is a seething invisible net tied by invisible points and the giant visible knot in that net is my Lamb's Wool. Next time, says M., he will make an experimental adjustment and try a different kind of ale. Fat Tire may not be the best one if you want to heat it.

Deming's poem is The Charting from her book Genius Loci and the Curie biography is Obsessive Genius by Barbara Goldsmith: a light, short book. Thomas Carlyle was feeling Influence in The French Revolution.

You can make Lamb's Wool with cider too, but we used ale. William Hone wrote about it for the first volume of his Every Day Book (published 1825):

It is mentioned by a writer in the "Gentleman's Magazine," that lamb's-wool is a constant ingredient at a merry-making on Holy Eve, or on the evening before All Saints-day in Ireland. It is made there, he says, by bruising roasted apples, and mixing them with ale, or sometimes with milk. "Formerly, when the superior ranks were not too refined for these periodical meetings of jollity, white wine was frequently substituted for ale. To lamb's-wool, apples and nuts are added as a necessary part of the entertainment; and the young folks amuse themselves with burning nuts in pairs on the bar of the grate, or among the warm embers, to which they give their name and that of their lovers, or those of their friends who are supposed to have such attachments; and from the manner of their burning and duration of the flame, &c. draw such inferences respecting the constancy or strength of their passions, as usually promote mirth and good humour." Lamb's-wool is thus etymologized by Vallancey:—"The first day of November was dedicated to the angel presiding over fruits, seeds, &c. and was therefore named La Mas Ubhal, that is, the day of the apple fruit, and being pronounced lamasool, the English have corrupted the name to lamb's-wool."

(from the entry for October 31st)

Strangely, coincidentally, the last book I finished before the Curie was the Complete Works and Letters of Charles Lamb -- and some of those Letters are addressed to the same William Hone who wrote the Day Book. "Pray let Matilda keep my newspapers till you hear from me, as we are meditating a town residence," Lamb says to Hone, for example, on July 1st, 1830. "Let her keep them as the apple of her eye."

But what really impressed me, as I was reading the Letters, is that Lamb knew Barron Field, the author of the first book of poems published in Australia. "Kanagaroo, Kangaroo! / Thou Spirit of Australia," etc.

She had made the squirrel fragile;
She had made the bounding hart;
But a third so strong and agile
Was beyond ev'n Nature's art;
So she join'd the former two
In thee, Kangaroo!
To describe thee, it is hard:
Converse of the camélopard,
Which beginneth camel-wise,
But endeth of the panther size


  1. This sounds quite out of place in the Nevada desert ... but I do love your tale of Lamb's Wool. I've been reading about, over recent years, Negus which is, as far as I can tell, what we would call Mulled Wine and therefore a wine version of Lamb's Wool? You can made Mulled Cider too ... Then there's Gluwein and Glogg and I start to wonder how many of these are different names for the same thing and how many are variations on a theme. A bit of both I suspect. That is, I think there are some differences but I also think nomenclature gets a little confused and what one person may call a Negus another will call Gluwein.

    Whatever they are, most are delicious. Not being a beer drinker, though, I think I'd go for a cider version of Lamb's Wool. (Oh, and the reason I have researched Negus? Jane Austen of course! Negus is mentioned in Austen as well as Brontes, Dickens et al. Here is Fanny after "her" ball, having been sent to bed at the end of the evening by Sir Thomas:

    "creeping slowly up the principal staircase, pursued by the ceaseless country–dance, feverish with hopes and fears, soup and negus, sore–footed and fatigued, restless and agitated, yet feeling, in spite of everything, that a ball was indeed delightful."

  2. The basic idea seems to be consistent: obtain alcoholic liquid, insert spices, heat, distribute. Lamb's Wool is the only one I'm aware of that has to have apples. But the technicalities of gloggs are more M.'s thing than mine. I think he likes the romance of mullings and meads. (Negus! I hadn't thought of negus but of course: British characters in Victorian and pre- books were all about the negus.)

  3. Yes, the apple is an interesting addition. Spices and citrus are more common. I like the romance of mullings and meads too --- often more than the actual partaking, though if the circumstances are right, like a dark and stormy night, I can be persuaded!

  4. The Venetian likes the idea of warm drinks on chilly nights too, I noticed last night as we were going past the drinks menu at the Winter In Venice set-up outside the casino. They're selling hot coffee, hot chocolate -- and gluwein.