Ian Clayton column: Faffing about

The birthplace of Victorian Yorkshire writer George Gissing now the Gissing museum Wakefiels painting of George Gissing..'SEE STORY LEEDS.'Picture Jim Moran.
The birthplace of Victorian Yorkshire writer George Gissing now the Gissing museum Wakefiels painting of George Gissing..'SEE STORY LEEDS.'Picture Jim Moran.

A few years ago Pontefract Library was selling off a lot of its dictionaries and ancient reference books.

I bought the 13 volume, 10,000 pages, version of the Oxford English dictionary for a fiver. At the time, Heather said: “You’re never bringing those dusty old things in here” when I tried to smuggle them into our house inside half a dozen cardboard boxes.

I protested that they would come in useful and waited until she had gone out and then put them into my office. I don’t know whether the amount of effort equates to the usefulness of my spur of the moment purchase, but I have had hours of pleasure poring through these relics to find words that I like and I’ve settled many a discussion by finding the origin of weird and wonderful phrases that are now barely clinging to life.

I used a phrase that I haven’t said for ages the other day. Our Edward was helping me in the kitchen and getting under my feet a bit. I said: “Look, will you stop faffing about and let me get on.”

I thought about that word faffing later on and wondered about its origin. To “faff” sounds like a very old word, the sort of verb you might hear an old English film with Charles Laughton in it. You can just see him in Hobson’s Choice can’t you, scolding his daughter and telling her to stop faffing.

I checked with my Oxford English and discovered that faff derives from the word faffle, which is an echoic, dialect word. This means it’s a word that sounds like it ought to and is used in some parts of the country to mean flapping in the wind like washing on a line or a sail on a boat.

Therefore if you are faffing you are being blown about in the breeze, to no apparent purpose. This phrase was first recorded in 1580, so people have been faffing for a long time.

One of the first local people to write this phrase down was the great scholar, clergyman and folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould, who for many years was the curate at Horbury Bridge.

Baring-Gould was a prolific writer who had his name on more than 1,000 publications, including books of folk songs and investigations into werewolves. In his book Yorkshire Oddities (1874) he mentions a clock maker who “faffed aboot, but nivver did a farthing’s worth of good.”

Every child who ever sang a hymn with gusto at a primary school assembly will have heard of Sabine Baring-Gould, because he also wrote that most famous of hymns, Onward Christian Soldiers.

He married a local mill girl and had 15 children. One of his daughters, Margaret, became an artist and his grandson William was a famous Sherlock Holmes scholar. It was William who made his grandfather the godfather of Sherlock Holmes.

Anyhow, I’ve deviated a little bit here, but it just shows you where a ha’porth of enthusiasm can take you doesn’t it? You start with a bit of faffing about and before you know it, you’re researching the autobiography of a famous local polymath and writer.

On the subject of local writers, I bumped into my friend Bob Cooper the vicar of St Giles’ in Pontefract last Saturday. He stopped to give me a lift. We talked about writing and out of the blue he said: “Did you know that one of this country’s least visited attractions is in Wakefield?”

I didn’t know that, but I was able to guess what it was. I said: “Is it the George Gissing Centre?” I guessed right. George Gissing was a Victorian author responsible for 22 novels. Some knew him as the English Emile Zola and he was championed by George Orwell amongst others. He seems to be forgotten these days, though there is a museum, his childhood home in Thompson’s Yard off Westgate in Wakefield.

Last year, it managed just 118 visitors, making it the third least visited attraction in Britain. I’m going to add to those numbers in the near future, I’ve found out that the museum is open on Saturdays from 2pm to 4pm. If anybody would like to come with me, let me know, perhaps we could swell the visitor numbers a bit and start the Gissing revival...no faffing about!