In April 1776 James Boswell noted the “strange opinion” of Samuel Johnson that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
As a professional writer, I stand alongside Johnson on this one. Being paid to put words in a readable order beats not being paid to do the same thing. Yet, as Boswell commented immediately after recording Johnson’s words: “Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature.”
In the age of blogging (and what a great blogger Boswell would have made) more writing is being done for no money than ever. Since this is my 50th blog entry, which represents (at the going rate per word for commissioned articles on most UK magazines) more than £10,000-worth of writing I have given away for nothing in just six months, it seems a suitable time to ask: am I a Johnsonian blockhead for being a blog-head?
Boswell recorded Johnson’s “blockhead” remark after the Doctor had told him that he would not be writing up a proposed trip to Italy because, although he would like to do so, no one would pay him for it The reason why I blog is because on this site I write about those things that interest me, but that no one will pay me to write about.
Yesterday I finished a thousand words for What’s Brewing on the history of barley, part of a series I was commissioned to write on brewing ingredients, which was a huge pleasure to research and compose – and I’m getting paid for it. Fantastic.
But neither What’s Brewing, nor anybody else, would pay me to write about the history of the ploughman’s lunch, or the brewing links of a quartet of minor celebrities, or why a brewster isn’t always feminine, though these are all pieces I have enjoyed writing. So by blogging I get the pleasure of doing the writing, and also of knowing that at least a few people are reading these pieces, even if I don’t get the extra pleasure of being paid for them as well.
Of course, the occasional flattering comment about the blog (thank you, Ron, Alan and Kieran, among others) is warming, though compliments, as Johnson would have pointed out, do not pay a mortgage. Still, 50 blog entries on, and even though it’s hard sometimes to squeeze in time for a Zythophile piece between the stuff that has to be written because it’s being paid for and there’s a deadline to be met, I’m very glad I started blogging, simply for the opportunity to write about stuff that interests me and put it before the rest of the world.
It’s also fascinating seeing what the rest of the world picks up. Right now, by far the most read piece on the blog over the past month – twice as many hits as the next-nearest entry – is my review of Patrick Guinness’s new book Arthur’s Round, on the founder of the Guinness brewing dynasty.
I can’t tell you, unfortunately, what proportion of those hits comes from Ireland, from the United States and so on, but a lot of the interest in the book, I am sure, is around the idea that people with the same surname, particularly in Ireland, where very many family names have specific geographical roots, can be shown to have clear genetic links with each other, and with others from the same small part of the country/county.
Overall, however, the best-read entry so far, by a fair margin, is my rant at the “experts” who made up drinking limits because they felt they ought to come up with some numbers, at least, plucking the figures out of the air, and then tried to fool us into thinking that policies based on these made-up numbers were scientifically valid. The rant’s popularity was helped by the Real Beer Page guys’ monthly email bulletin making it one of their “Five noteworthy posts from the blogosphere” for November, for which, a big ta.
The second-most-popular blog entry so far is the one discussing when Guinness first started using roast barley. This reflects, I think, the deep interest in the US in “authentic” beer ingredients and beer styles: it’s hard for beer bloggers here in what the Wordorigins.com website calls “Rightpondia” to remember that “Leftpondia” has five times as many people in it, and a far higher percentage of Leftpondian beer enthusiasts are also home brewers who want to make authentic beers from past and present. Well, chaps, hang on and I’ve got another blog coming shortly on why Irish stout was called “dry” …
Third place on the Zythophile popularity list is a surprise at first – my comparatively brief piece from June, only about the third blog entry I wrote, on the history of beer glasses. Its popularity comes from Google (thanks, Larry and Serge): if you type “beer glasses history” into the planet’s most popular search engine, the Zythophile blog comes up as entry number five. Had I known how many people would be looking for information on the subject, I’d have written more.
Larry and Serge are also responsible for the number four entry on the popularity list, my history of the ploughman’s lunch, being so high up – again, if you put “ploughman’s lunch history” into Google, the Zythophile blog comes up in fourth place.
Indeed, it’s fascinating to use WordPress’s ability to record what search engine terms to end up at the site. Mentioning the music hall artist Ernie Mayne in a piece on weak beer in the First World War attracts people looking for information on Mayne’s songs, such as You Can’t find Many Pimples on a Pound of Pickled Pork. The Celebrity Big Brewer piece attracts Googlers looking for information on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (which, strangely, they all spell correctly) and Kirstie Allsopp (which they mostly don’t – it’s two P’s, you plonkers.) Helena Bonham Carter, who is also mentioned in that piece, doesn’t get Googled much, curiously, but the Pike Spicer brewery in Portsmouth, which her ancestors ran, does.
Quite a few people are searching for the Dove in Hammersmith, where my blog entry on its history is result number eight in Google if you look for the pub. Some people, scarily, are Googling for me under my proper name (who are you, and what do you want?) And for the person who ended up at zythophile.wordpress.com after Googling the query: “is drinking a bottle of wine a day ok”, the answer is: take charge of your life. If you’re worried, stop doing it. If you’re not, carry on. As I shall be carrying on blogging, blockhead or not.