On being a blockhead

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.

12 thoughts on “On being a blockhead

  1. See, I think this stuff is all loss leader as they say in the groceries business. You are displaying some writing that no one else will buy, sure, but you are also displaying a certain amount of cleverness and, more importantly, detailed cleverness that is leaving the “pay for” beer information in the dust. It is odd that for the most part the beer writing that gets into magazines is a bit repetitious and a little banal. I suppose that no editor wants to discourage readership by being overly specific or argumentative. Ergo bloggings.

    Think about adding ads. Become your own publication.

  2. Blogging gives you the freedom to write in a style and about the subjects that interest you. I agree with Alan on the banality of many beer (and food, and drink) publications and articles. Keep on ‘scribling’ !

  3. I for one are very pleased that you’re a Blockhead. As Ian Dury so eloquently put it “We’re all blockheads too.”

    Blogs definitely contain more detailed, informative, entertaining, topical and varied writing about beer than magazines and, for the most part, books. I used to think “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a decent beer magazine?” Effectively there now is. But it isn’t a publication. It’s a collection of blogs. Who needs print?

  4. Brendan, thatnks for that heads-up, I’m staggered at those Amazon.com prices for the paperback, when the hardback is available on the same site for so much less, and the paperback is so much cheaper on Amazon.co.uk …

    Alan, the problem about accepting advertising is that it immediately hamstrings me if I want to be rude about my advertisers (and as, sadly, my traffic is considerably less than, say, the lolcats site I don’t think I’d make that much anyway).

    Paul and Ron, I agree there’s more interesting stuff in beer blogs every week than there are in any of the beer mags every month, though (present company, of courtse, excepted) there’s a lot of chaff as well …

  5. Google Analytics will let you find out where your readers are. It’s also how I discovered that, for one brief glorious spell last spring, my blog was Google Hit no. 1 for “Helsinki cheesemakers”.

  6. True…I only accept advertising from people whose good beers I can’t actually get, people who like my Google linkability (due entirely to where my beefy servers lay and nothing to do with me really) or the nice people at my local trade association who are so nice I would never say anything bad about them ever.

  7. On advertising — I had some success last year with a book I gave away free online. It was downloaded 33,000 times, was reviewed in Rolling Stone magazine and the Times, and is due out in print this spring. For all that, I made just £88 in advertising revenue from Amazon and Google Adsense — too small an amount for me to actually receive a payment.

    So, yeah, advertising doesn’t necessarily work for this kind of thing. Sponsorship might, but comes with an enormous cost (perceived or otherwise) to the author’s credibility and independence.

    But this blog is a great advertisement for your knowledge and the quality of your writing. Actors appear on TV “for free” all the time, to promote or plug their paid work. It’s a similar deal, I think.

  8. I have googled your real name, I wanted the details of your book, and I was to lazy to get up and go through to the bar where my copy is kept, truly technology gone made when its easyer to check on a server the length of the globe away then the next room.

  9. Great post! It’s given me an idea for a presentation topic: Blockhead or Blog-head, since I’m a professional blogger but I write more on the blog I’m NOT paid to write.

  10. Found your piece when checking that I had the quotation from Johnson exact. I do agree with Johnson (pity it is so difficult to get paid to write), perhaps because I think money isn’t everything — it can’t buy poverty. Then I thought, shouldn’t we get paid to talk, too.

    I think maybe it should be a law. No talking and no writing unless you get paid — or at the very least, begged. It would cut down on the noise and allow people to think.


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