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 A is for: Atlas, Almanacs, Amazon.com, Amanuensis, Automatic Writing, Aubergine ….

Atlases – those intriguing collections of maps. I have a fantasy about closing my eyes, opening a world atlas at random, waving a pencil over the page and blindly selecting a town, city, province, mountain range, river or sea and having the time, the strength and the means to travel there. Imagine that! The atlas is a relatively modern invention ( Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum orbis terrarum ;1570; Epitome of the Theatre of the World) is generally thought to be the first modern atlas). Prior to this date it was a case of hand-drawn charts, decorated with sportive mermaids and round-cheeked zephyrs blowing winds from the four compass points. And dire warnings in ominous Gothic lettering: here be dragons. Not to overlook the exciting X’s indicating the buried treasure. Harrison Ford, where are you?

 Almanacs – This word conjures up mental pictures of lanky farmers dressed in blue bib dungarees studying the book by the dim light of an oil-lamp, making notes with a pencil stub, deciding when to plant their crops. Alternatively I get another mental snapshot of a brown, tattered, exhausted almanac hanging from a piece of string on a nail, spending its last sad days in an outhouse. Do almanacs still exist, I wonder?

Amazon.com – oh electronic trove of wonders; global purveyor of books; warehouses crammed with millions of volumes; saboteur of good intentions & New Year’s resolves; assassin of credit cards. Bookish field of dreams.

 Amanuensis – clerk or secretary who writes from dictation. One of the earliest and most hard working must have been Robert Shiel (d 27 Dec 1753), amanuensis to Samuel Johnson, compiler of the Dictionary of the English Language. Do clerks still exist ? Ditto secretaries, taking dictation. “Take a letter, Miss Jones” and we’re back in the 1950’s. Voice recognition software has probably sounded the death knell of the amanuensis. However, I have seen National Geographic pics of pavement scribes in Asia, writing letters for customers, paper pad perched on their knees, or pounding old manual typewriters. That’s Asia for you: its either changing supersonically fast or petrified in the amber of bygone centuries.

 Automatic Writing – strictly speaking this belongs in the heady realm of psychic fairs, with obscure messages filtering down from the opaque beyond. However, in a more modern context, I’m tempted to say that some very well-known writers would appear to switch into automatic mode when they churn out novel after novel, especially in the Young Adult category. Work it out for yourself. I don’t want to get sued for libel!

 Aubergine – How come this has so many aliases? Eggplant and brinjal, being two of them, the Guinea Squash being another. Perhaps it needs to disguise the fact that it belongs to the sinister nightshade family. On the other hand, it is also related to the potato, a reassuringly comforting vegetable. The aubergine is commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking, and features in a Turkish dish known as Imam Bayeldi which translates wonderfully as ‘ the Imam who fainted’; whether because of the exquisite flavour of the dish is unclear. It seems unlikely, since the ingredients (other than the eggplant) are hardly startling: onion, green pepper, garlic, tomatoes, parsley, lemon juice, salt & pepper, and water. Insofaras fainting diners are concerned, one would be tempted to blame the deadly nightshade itself rather than the pretty purple aubergine.


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