Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Wistman's Wood

Wistman's Wood in winter, by Alex Jane
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

I don't often regret not running a car, but occasionally you see places that look fascinating, yet are fairly difficult to access by public transport. I saw a feature on one, Wistman's Wood, in yesterday's Western Morning News.

Wistman's Wood is a remarkable stunted oak copse on Dartmoor, one of  a handful of relicts of the moor's original high-level woodlands. As you can see the from image, the trees grow between moss-covered boulders, and the wood is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and National Conservation Review site. I fancy visiting in the summer, when it does look just about feasible to make a day trip by cross-Dartmoor bus (it's a short walk from Two Bridges). Check out Wistman's Wood ("A study of this ancient miniature oak woodland on Dartmoor, by Andrew Westcott") for a good overview.

It's deservedly much-photographed - see Google images - but has been a site of interest for centuries, in large part due to its unusual landscape attracting a deal of folklore about druids and fairies. The Wistman's Wood page at the Legendary Dartmoor site summarises, with a sampler of historical accounts and the literature it has inspired. It appears in hundreds of 19th century accounts; the one in a letter to Robert Southey in Anna Eliza Bray's 1838 Traditions, legends, superstitions, and sketches of Devonshire is probably the most comprehensive exposition of the 19th century view on its mythology.

There is a local connection here: Eden Phillpotts visited the wood, describing its autumn scenery in his 1903 My Devon Year:

Guarded by great hills that fold each upon the other and fade into distance; set in granite and briar, brake-fern and the nodding wood-rush, Wistman's Wood lies basking under September sunshine to the song of Dart. Upon a south-facing slope the hoary dwarfs that go to make this forest grow, and each parent oak of the ancient throng was old before the Conquest. Time and fire have slain, yet the little forest plays its part in the spring splendour of every year, in the leafy and musical hours of high Summer, and in autumnal pageants as the centuries roll. Here, under the Dartmoor hills to-day, sunshine kisses the granite to silver, brightens each withered and distorted trunk, makes the leaf shine, and sets rowan berries glowing through the ambient green. These aged oaks lack not virility, for I see their ancient crowns besprinkled with bright leaflets of the second Spring, with tufts of ruddy foliage, like smiles on the face of frosty age.

Fruit, too, is borne, and the acorns, flattened somewhat within their cups, are healthy and sweet enough; so the legend that Wistman's harvest is sterile may be easily disproved from the place itself; for quick eyes, peering here within the tangle of undergrowth, or amid the deep interstices of the stony avalanche from which this forest rises, shall find infant trees ascending to the sapling stage, in full vigour of promise. Others there are of larger growth, and one may discover oaks at all ages, from the tiny seedling sprung of last year's acorn to the patriarch that was a sapling when the she-wolf made her home here and killed the stone-man's cattle by night. Mice and birds convey the acorns to great distances from the wood, and upon adjacent heaths, a mile from their birthplace, I have found the husks of the fruit.

Granite and oak are clothed with lichens of a colour exactly similar, and to the imagination, seen thus jagged and grey together, one appears as enduring as the other. The old trees, whose average height is scarcely fifteen feet, are distorted, cramped, twisted, and knotted by time. Their mossy limbs, low spread, make a home for the bilberry, whose purple fruit ripens beside the acorns; for the polypody that fringes each gnarled limb with foliage; for the rabbits, who leap from the stones to the flat boughs spread upon them; and for the red fox, who, sunning himself in some hollow of moss and touchwood, wakes, as a wanderer assails his ear or nose, and vanishes, like a streak of cinnamon light, into the depths of the wood. Here, too, the adder rears her brood; the crow, with intermittent croak, flies heavily; a little hawk, poised in the sky, seeks the lizard below, or the young plover in the marsh upon the hills.

A great hush and peace brood over Wistman's Wood to-day. As yet, but one pinch of Autumn has transformed the leaf, reddened the briar, or powdered the fern with gold. In the hollows a diamond dew still sparkles though the hour is noon, and the sweet, sharp breath of September whispers along the wood. Still every ancient crown wears the deep green of Summer, and a stray honeysuckle blossoms, though its berries are turning scarlet; but the tender, white corydalis and other flowers of Summer have vanished; the wood-rush has its sharp leaves amber-pointed; the heather fades; and the wrinkled wood-sage likewise wanes away.

Below there races Dart, cherry-coloured after a freshet. Her foam flashes and twinkles, her glassy planes image the sun in stars and beams, and she signals to the old wood above and laughs, herself older than the oaks yet blessed with the eternal youth of flowing waters. Far away, beyond the granite mass of Crow Tor moorwards, a darkness lies upon the hill and moves not. There Western Dart is born, and bubbles and trickles through the sponges of peat from wells deep hidden beneath them. Very musical amid these echoing gorges she winds by granite stairways; and above her, on the huge hillbosoms of grey and sunlit green, acres of dead grassblades weave a veil over the living herbage—a veil that changes with every magic light from dawn or midday, from sunset, or the radiance of the moon. Here great cloud-shadows roll and spread, deepen and die, climb the steep, breast the stone, and adorn each undulation with flying garments, that vary in their texture from opacity of royal purple to the film and dream-colour of brief hazes drawn between earth and sun. Now the distance shines golden in a frame of shade; anon darkness spreads to the blue horizon, and the river and adjacent hills are all aglow; then light and shadow dislimn and interlimn upon the great heaths and hills. Detail, invisible in sunshine, wakes over the scattered stone, and sphagnum-clad bogs gleam under cloud-shadows, while elsewhere, as the veil is torn away and the light bathes all again, new visions of rounded elevations, wild places, and solitary stones start into sight upon each sunny plane. Detail of the spring gorse, now jade-green; flame of the autumnal furze; light of the ling; feast of tones and undertones; mosaic of all tawny and rufous colours are here; and the scene changes its hue beneath each shadow, even as the river's song changes its cadence at the pressure of the breeze, waxing and waning fitfully.

The wood of Wistman partakes of these many harmonies—adds its sudden green to the hillside— lies there a home of mystery, a cradle of legend, a thing of old time, unique and unexampled, save in Devon itself, all England over.


View Larger Map - the wood is about mile north of the map pin.

- Ray

Monday, 26 December 2011

Vampire Poets!

It's Charles Babbage's 220th birthday today, and if you want a spot of relevant, erudite and heavily-footnoted post-Christmas steampunk webcomic entertainment, I recommend Sydney Padua's website 2D Goggles, where you'll find the continuing saga of Babbage & Lovelace as 19th century crimefighters. Their current adventure involves Vampire Poets. Read on (the strange numbering is, I assume, intentional):

Vampire Poets, Prologue (in which the shade of a Gothic poet arises to set the scene, and we get examples of real-world bad Victorian poetry featuring the protagonists).
Vampire Poets - Part One! (in which Babbage, collecting statistics on window-smashing, encounters a mysterious young woman high on maddening draughts of Hippocrene; she later disappears, and her sisters - she is in fact Emily Brontë - enlist Babbage's help in finding her).
Vampire Poets Part the Third (in which Babbage introduces the sisters to Lovelace, whose hereditary temperament has acquainted her with the dangers of poetry. We see a spot of Byronic/Holmesian target practice, and get no explanation from Babbage as to why he thought he would have been a poet if he had been blind).

Here's the index to all the stories. And there's a great list of primary documents.

- Ray

"As the British Government now employs Esperanto translators"

Does it? Where? In what capacity exactly? I ask this after running into another repetition of a factoid I've seen quite a lot on language sites recently: the claim via a piece of boilerplate pro-Esperanto comment spam that the UK government employs Esperanto translators:

As the British Government now employs Esperanto translators it has ceased to be a hobby.
- various sites.

I've nothing against Esperanto as a language or any doubts that it's a more significant phenomenon than a "hobby", but this just didn't ring true. A little Googling finds firstly that this meme seems to date from late 2008, when the British right-wing press carried stories criticising the language translation budget of NHS Direct, the National Health Service's patient helpline. A typical exposition:

It's great news for the nation's Cherokee speakers. Or it would be if there were any here.

The Health Service spends £255,000 a year translating its services into 160 languages, including the Native American tongue.

But, like many of the others such as Akan and Cebuano, Cherokee does not have a single registered speaker here.

The telephone helpline NHS Direct even provides advice in the invented language Esperanto - even though it is highly unlikely that any of its 1,000 speakers worldwide would not be able to speak a more common language.

The cost of interpreting and translating for the benefit of UK residents who do not speak English was revealed by the Conservatives after a parliamentary question.

Tory health spokesman Mike Penning said: 'Particularly in a time of economic uncertainty, the Government must ensure that the best possible use is made of finite NHS resources.

'People will question the need to translate services into languages like Cherokee and Esperanto. Most importantly, spending on such provision is diverting funds from frontline services.'

- £250,000 lost in translation by NHS for providing interpreters, Daniel Martin, Daily Mail Online, 18th October 2008.

The quotation from Mr Penning doesn't appear in Hansard, the official record of parliamentary proceedings, so it must have been commentary to the press after the parliamentary question. The question itself, however, does appear for 13th October 2008:

NHS Direct: Translation Services

Mike Penning: To ask the Secretary of State for Health (1) which non-English languages are offered to users of NHS Direct services; and what the total budgetary allocation for NHS Direct translation and language services is; [225324]

(2) what assessment he has made of the efficacy of NHS Direct translation and language services in providing equitable and accessible medical advice for non-English speakers. [225325]

Mr. Bradshaw: NHS Direct offers interpretation and translation services for all callers to telephone services through Language Line in the following languages:

Assamese
Azeri
Afrikaans
entries snipped
Esperanto
many more entries snipped
Spanish
Turkish
Urdu

...
The budgetary allocation for these services for 2008-09 is £255,000.
...

- Hansard, 13th Oct, 2008
The newspaper story is typical Daily Mail garbage. It's  not as if huge amounts were being spent on routine translation of documents into languages scarcely used in the UK. NHS Direct interpretation works on an as-required basis only; you want medical advice, you give them a call, and if you need a non-English language they'll find a speaker. So none of this budget would go toward translating or interpreting an obscure language unless a speaker called who needed it - and for many of the languages on the list, such as Esperanto, that's highly unlikely in the UK.

As to whether this counts as the government "employing" Esperanto translators, it doesn't, any more than I "employ" a cleaner if I hire a company that employs one. NHS Direct subcontracted the work to the language service mentioned, Language Line, a private translation and interpretation company based in Canary Wharf, London. I don't know if NHS Direct uses it now, but it still exists and provides its services entirely by subcontracting in turn to a portfolio of freelancers ("It should be noted that all interpreters engaged by Language Line Services are self-employed freelance contractors"). Its list of languages served is online - Esperanto is no longer on it.

So, to summarise: in 2008, a wing of the government-funded NHS had potential access - no evidence of routine use - to Esperanto translation and interpretation, via two layers of subcontracting.

This hardly supports the claim that "the British Government now employs Esperanto translators", with its strong implication that there are multiple Esperanto translators directly on its payroll.

Addendum: I just found a little more about this.

A forum post about Esperanto Day 2011 cites this Hansard archive for 16 March 2011, which contains the following section:

Departmental Interpreters

Ian Austin: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for which services provided by (a) his Department and (b) its associated public bodies interpreters provide services in a language or languages other than English; how many interpreters are employed or subcontracted for each non-English language; and what estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of interpretation costs incurred in the latest period for which figures are available. [42898]

Chris Grayling: The information requested is as follows:

For DWP (including CMEC):

(a) The following is a list of the languages that have been serviced:
Afar
Afrikaans
Akan
entries snipped
Esperanto
more entries snipped
Yiddish
Yoruba
Zulu.

(b) The total number of subcontracted interpreters available for use is approximately 2,200. Data are not held for the number of interpreters that are employed or subcontracted for each non-English language.

"Data are not held" says it all. Even this more recent source provides no actual evidence whether or not Esperanto translators / interpreters are "employed" (as opposed to subcontracted) nor any information as to whether or not they've been used to an extent that justifies crowing about Esperanto's significance to the UK government.  We only know what "languages that have been serviced" - that is, support has officially been on offer - not the extent to which that support was used, if at all.

Addendum: OK, so I just I just had a comment from the comment spammer himself, Brian Barker: "This seems to be yet another knee jerk reaction to Esperanto's progress". Not at all. I think Esperanto is deeply cool. All I object to is exaggerated claims, and comment spamming (however worthy the cause).

- Ray

Sunday, 25 December 2011

"God bless us, every one!"

I'm in a bit of a "Bah, humbug" mood at the moment, having caught a rotten cold a few days ago. It's not quite flu, but it's causing a high enough fever to be distinctly hallucinogenic. I wrote the previous post in the middle of the night because I had to get up; every time I shut my eyes I got a continuation of a strange half-dream that I had to use some kind of Enigma or Turing Bombe machine to solve Kai's mirror puzzle from The Snow Queen (we watched the 2002 TV movie earlier in the week).

So, no deeply meaningful meditations on Christmas: just a repeat recommendation of Louis Bayard's 2004 novel Mr Timothy, a fine Dickens pastiche that brings Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol into early manhood, now cured except for an occasionally painful leg and slight limp. Scrooge's new-found benevolence hasn't been entirely a positive influence in Tim's life; the philanthropy has been omnipresent to the point where Tim is at a loose end, resenting his lack of financial independence. The book finds him trying to escape this heritage, after the death of his father Bob Cratchit, by disappearing into the London underworld. He finds lodgings in a brothel, in exchange for teaching the mistress to read and write; and finds work with the cheerful Captain Gully who plies the Mayhew-esque trade of fishing corpses from the Thames to recover the contents of their pockets. The story takes an even darker turn with the discovery of the corpses of two 10-year-old girls branded with a "G", and Tim finds himself on the dangerous trail of high-society conspiracy and serial murder.

It's definitely worth checking out: the crime mystery runs parallel to the more existential story of the problem of breaking away from the roles we're assigned in childhood, in Tim's case that of the wimpy little crippled boy who says "God bless us, every one!" There's an online January Magazine review by David Abrams - Tiny Tim Sings a New Christmas Carol - and Google Books has a preview of the novel: Mr Timothy.

And best wishes of the season to all readers of JSBlog!
except the comment spammers who think I won't spot the Japanese spamlinks at the end of any number of "ooh, how interesting" comments

- Ray

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The dust-heap of history

The Great Dust Heap, Kings Cross
EH Dixon, watercolour, 1837. Wellcome Library.
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales License

From Mark Liberman at Language Log: The what of history?, an interesting analysis of US and UK variants on the "dustbin of history", to which defunct institutions are rhetorically consigned.

The context is kind of interesting, in that the British terms dustbin" (a domestic refuse bin), "dustman" (a refuse collector) and "dustcart" (a refuse collection vehicle) - the latter two folksy names persist despite decades of rebranding - preserve an archaic meaning of "dust", meaning "refuse". It's not merely a euphemism; as indicated by the largely archaic warning embossed on plastic dustbins - "no hot ashes" - domestic refuse consisted, historically, in large part of dust: ashes and cinders from the fire (see Bins and the history of waste relations). Dustbins are a relatively recent invention - early 1900s - and mid-Victorian houses had a room, a "dusthole", where ashes and refuse were stored (see p111, Magazine of Domestic Economy, 1837) and whose contents were regularly carted away to the local dust-heap.

The dust-heap was the scene of, by modern standards, heroic recycling.

A Dust-heap of this kind is often worth thousands of pounds. The present one was very large and very valuable. It was in fact a large hill, and being in the vicinity of small suburb cottages, it rose above them like a great black mountain. Thistles, groundsel, and rank grass grew in knots on small parts which had remained for a long time undisturbed; crows often alighted on its top, and seemed to put on their spectacles and become very busy and serious; flocks of sparrows often made predatory descents upon it; an old goose and gander might sometimes he seen following each other up its side, nearly midway; pigs rooted around its base,--and now and then, one bolder than the rest would venture some way up, attracted by the mixed odors of some hidden marrow-bone enveloped in a decayed cabbage-leaf--a rare event, both of these articles being unusual oversights of the Searchers below.

The principal ingredient of all these Dust-heaps is fine cinders and ashes; but as they are accumulated from the contents of all the dust-holes and bins of the vicinity, and as many more as possible, the fresh arrivals in their original state present very heterogeneous materials. We cannot better describe them than by presenting a brief sketch of the different departments of the Searchers and Sorters, who are assembled below to busy themselves upon the mass of original matters which are shot out from the carts of the dustmen.

The bits of coal, the pretty numerous results of accident and servants' carelessness, are picked out, to be sold forthwith; the largest and best of the cinders are also selected, by another party, who sell them to laundresses, or to braziers (for whose purposes coke would do as well;) and the next sort of cinders, called the breeze, because it is left after the wind has blown the finer cinders through an upright sieve, is sold to the brick-makers.

Two other departments, called the "soft-ware" and the "hard-ware," are very important. The former includes all vegetable and animal matters--everything that will decompose. These are selected and bagged at once, and carried off as soon as possible, to be sold as manure for plowed land, wheat, barley, &c. Under this head, also, the dead cats are comprised. They are generally the perquisites of the women searchers. Dealers come to the wharf, or dust-field, every evening; they give sixpence for a white cat, fourpence for a colored cat, and for a black one according to her quality. The "hard-ware" includes all broken pottery pans, crockery, earthenware, oyster-shells, &c., which are sold to make new roads.

The bones are selected with care, and sold to the soap-boiler. He boils out the fat and marrow first, for special use, and the bones are then crushed and sold for manure.

Of rags, the woollen rags are bagged and sent off for hop-manure; the white linen rags are washed, and sold to make paper, &c.

The "tin things" are collected and put into an oven with a grating at the bottom, so that the solder which unites the parts melts, and runs through into a receiver. This is sold separately; the detached pieces of tin are then sold to be melted up with old iron, &c.

Bits of old brass, lead, &c., are sold to be molted up separately, or in the mixture of ores.

All broken glass vessels, as cruets, mustard-pots, tumblers, wine-glasses, bottles, &c., are sold to the old-glass shops.

As for any articles of jewelry, silver spoons, forks, thimbles, or other plate and valuables, they are pocketed off-hand by the first finder. Coins of gold and silver are often found, and many "coppers."

Meantime, everybody is hard at work near the base of the great Dust-heap. A certain number of cart-loads having been raked and searched for all the different things just described, the whole of it now undergoes the process of sifting. The men throw up the stuff, and the women sift it.

- Dust: or Ugliness Redeemed, pp379-384, Household Words, A Weekly Journal, conducted by Charles Dickens,  No. 16, July 13, 1850.

Of the Dustmen of London, in Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2, gives a similar account. It recalls the rag-pickers of Dharavi; a striking example of how Victorian London resembled a modern Third World megalopolis. The Household Words article is uncredited, but it's very likely by Dickens himself, as it strongly recalls a central theme of his 1864 Our Mutual Friend, in which Nicodemus Boffin has acquired the nickname The Golden Dustman because he has inherited a fortune acquired from dust.

'The man,' Mortimer goes on, addressing Eugene, 'whose name is Harmon, was only son of a tremendous old rascal who made his money by Dust.'

'Red velveteens and a bell?' the gloomy Eugene inquires.

'And a ladder and basket if you like. By which means, or by others, he grew rich as a Dust Contractor, and lived in a hollow in a hilly country entirely composed of Dust. On his own small estate the growling old vagabond threw up his own mountain range, like an old volcano, and its geological formation was Dust. Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust,—all manner of Dust.'

An article in the Eclectic Review, 1865 - Mr Dickens's Romance of a Dust Heap, a review of Our Mutual Friend - noted the connection, mentioning another account.

... Mr Dickens has now, to our knowledge, for sixteen years been haunted by a great Dust-heap.
...
Following Mr Dickens's observant eye and rapid foot, other visitors have traversed and circumambulated these extraordinary mounds. In that excellent and arousing little book, The Missing Link, there is a chapter entitled 'The Bible Woman among the Dustheaps;' and many facts recited in that interesting little chapter go to confirm the more imaginative settings of the great social novelist.

Sorting a dust-heap at a County Council depot
from London's Toilet, PF William Ryan, in Living London, George Robert Sims, 1902
As Dickens described, the owners of commercial dust-heaps could become very wealthy, and occasionally even the workers made a good living, since a perk of the job was being allowed to keep any high-value items they found. For the majority, however, it was a disgusting drudge.

Despite the grim reality, at least two poets managed to find enlightening metaphorical symbolism in dust-heaps. In 1851, George Washington Dewey wrote in Sartain's Union Magazine of Literature and Art:

The dust-heap has a poetry — a hieroglyphic art,
An eloquence as sacred as the Pyramids impart!
The relics which are gathered from the hot and noisy way,
Are laden with the memories of many a summer day.
...
Familiar objects catch your eye among the rubbish there;
You recognize some fragments of your boyhood's " wear and tear " —
Some buckle, strap, or button — or bobbin apron string.
Which held you in the leash of home, ere youth had taken wing!
There is no fancy striving for a counterfeit of truth —
The dust-heap on the common was the crucible of youth!
And Time is yet the Alchymist all metals to assay; —
Then be thine age the purer — for the dross shall melt away.

And in 1863 Alfred Saxelby West, in his anthology Poems of an Interval, wrote Lines on a Dust-Heap, which found uplighting symbolism about mortality in the not infrequent possibility of finding something of value in a dust-heap.

Yea, e'en the naked dust is nature's child,
And not to be accounted dross ; she rears it
For future form, a fair and pleasing thing.
And am not I — nay, are we not all dust?
And shall we not be so again ere long?
But does no treasure mingle with the mass?
Aye ! One shall find, and snatch the shining jewel
From out the putrid heap, to deck His realms,
To stud heaven's fields with spangled treasures fair;
Poor dust below, but shining dew-drops there!

For further reading: Dusty Bob: a cultural history of dustmen, 1780-1870 (Brian Maidment, Manchester University Press, 2007) looks worth finding:

Why did dustmen exercise an extended hold over the imagination of many Regency and Victorian artists and writers, including George Cruikshank, Henry Mayhew, Charles Dickens as well as numerous little known dramatists, caricaturists, print makers, journalists and novelists? This book, the first study of the cultural representation of the dust trade, provides many varied answers to this question by showing the ways in which London dustmen were associated with ideas of contamination, dirt, noise, violence, wealth, consumerism and threat. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, including plays, novels, reportage and, especially, visual culture, Dusty Bob describes the ways in which dustmen were perceived and mythologized in the first seventy years of the nineteenth century.

See also the previous post John Petty: The Face, which looks at the autobiography of a modern scavenger.

- Ray

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Downman's Infancy

Further to the previous post, Keats at Dawlish, I just managed to track down Dr Hugh Downman's 1776 poem Infancy, whose section on Dawlish ...

O Dawlish, though unclassic be thy name,
By every muse unsung ; should, from thy tide,
To keen poetic eyes alone reveal'd,
From the cerulean bosom of the deep,
(As Aphrodite rose of old) appear
Health's blooming goddess, and benignant smile
On her true votary; not Cythera's fame,
Not Eryx, nor the laurel boughs that wav's
On Delos, erst Apollo's natal soil,
However warm, enthusiastic youth
Dwelt on these seats enamour'd, shall to me
Be half so dear. To thee will I consign
Often the timid virgin to thy pure
Encircling waves; to thee will I consign
The feeble matron ; or the child on whom
Thou mayest bestow a second happier birth
From weakness into strength. And should I view,
Unfetter'd, with the firm sound judging mind,
Imagination to return array 'd
In her once glowing rest, to thee my lyre
Shall oft be tun'd, and to thy Nereids green,
Long, long unnotic'd in their haunts retir'd.
Nor will I cease to prize thy lovely strand,
Thy towering cliffs, nor the small babbling brook,
Whose shallow current laves thy thistled vale.

... makes an appearance in a number of early 19th century gazetteers whenever Dawlish is described. It's more than a little highbrow, but a testimonial is a testimonial.

To my slight surprise, Infancy turns out not to be a work of topographic or romantic poetry, but to be a medical treatise on baby and childcare in verse - Infancy, or, The management of children: a didactic poem in three books - by Hugh Downman, MD. Check it out at Google Books or at the Internet Archive, which has the 1809 six-book edition printed by Trewmans of Exeter (ID infancyormanage00downgoog).

It's pretty heavy going as a  poem, and there's a good summary in this paper: Hugh Downman, MD (1740–1809) of Exeter and his poem on infant care (P M Dunn, Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed 2003;88:F253-F254 doi:10.1136/fn.88.3.F253). From the account of the author, Professor Dunn of the Department of Child Health, University of Bristol, Infancy looks a sensible and enlightened work, that stresses breastfeeding, proper examination, avoidance of superstition, and the importance of smallpox inoculation. The paper also has a brief biography of the Devon-born Downman, whose family included his admiral nephew Hugh Downman and the artist John Downman A.R.A. WHK Wright's 1896 West-Country Poets has a fuller biography and bibliography:

HUGH DOWNMAN, M.D. was the son of Hugh Downman, of Newton House, St. Cyrus, Exeter, and was educated at the Exeter Grammar School. He entered Balliol College, Oxford, 1758, proceeded B.A. 1763, and was ordained in Exeter Cathedral the same year. His clerical prospects being very small, he went to Edinburgh to study medicine, and boarded with Thomas Blacklock. In 1768 he published The Land of the Muses; a Poem in the Manner of Spenser, by H. D. In 1769 he visited London, for hospital practice, and in 1770, after proceeding M.A. at Jesus College, Cambridge, he practiced medicine at Exeter, where he married the daughter of Dr. Andrew. A chronic complaint, in 1778, compelled him to retire for a time. His best-known poem, Infancy; or, The Management of Children, was published in three separate parts, in 1774, 1775, 1776; a seventh edition was issued in 1809. In 1775 appeared The Drama, An Elegy written under a Gallow, The Soliloquy, etc. During his retirement he also published Lucius Junius Brutus, in five acts (1779); Belisarius, played in Exeter Theatre for a few nights; and Editha, a Tragedy (1784), founded on a local incident, and performed for sixteen nights. These plays appeared in one volume, as Tragedies by H. Downman, M.D., Exeter, 1792. He also published Poems to Thespia (1781), and The Death-Song of Ragnar Lodbrach, translated from the Latin of Olaus Wormius (1781). He was one of the translators of an edition of Voltaire's Works, in English. In 1791 he published Poems, second edition, comprising the Land of the Muses. He was also a contributor to Polwhele's Collections of the Poetry of Devon and Cornwall.

Downman seems to have resumed medical practice at Exeter about 1790, and in 1796 he founded there a literary society of twelve members. A volume of the essays was printed [Essays by a society of gentlemen, at Exeter, 1796], and a second is said to exist in manuscript. In 1805 Downman finally relinquished his practice, on account of ill-health, and in 1808 the literary society was discontinued. He died at Alphington, near Exeter, September 23, 1809, with the reputation of an able and humane physician and a most amiable man. Two years before he died, an anonymous editor collected and published the various critical opinions and complimentary verses on his poems, Isaac D'Israeli (1792) being among them.

- pp 158-159, West-Country Poets, WHK Wright, 1896: Internet Archive ID westcountrypoet00wriggoog

I notice that the abovementioned 1809 edition of Infancy scanned by the Internet Archive has a handwritten dedication on the front page showing it changed hands in Topsham at some point in its history.

[words unclear] respectful compliments to Mrs Hoskins, and begs her acceptance of this poem.  Topsham, July 1820.

Can anyone make out those first two words?

- Ray (finding credit for the topic: Weird Materialism).

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Keats at Dawlish

Wayland Wordsmith just featured a nice poem - The Rosy bosom'd Hours - by the little-known Coventry Patmore, which tells of the rail journey of the newly-wed Patmore his second wife from somewhere in southern England (probably from East Grinstead, where Patmore had an estate) via Havant, Salisbury and Dawlish, down to Penzance.

The next day, sweet with luck no less
And sense of sweetness past,
The full tide of our happiness
Rose higher than the last.
At Dawlish, 'mid the pools of brine,
You stept from rock to rock,
One hand quick tightening upon mine,
One holding up your frock.
On starfish and on weeds alone
You seem'd intent to be:
Flash'd those great gleams of hope unknown
From you, or from the sea?

WW mentioned, in connection with this, John Keats and his brother Tom (I've mentioned the Keats/ Teignmouth connection previously). It's good excuse to mention Keats at Dawlish, an interesting post at the blog Weird Materialism. It's good stuff: after general and photographic commentary on Dawlish, it says:

Anyway, what I’m really interested in are the intersections between social and cultural history and poetry

My cup of tea exactly! And quotes firstly Dr Downman's mock-classical poem in praise of Dawlish's benefits to convalescents:

O Dawlish, though unclassic be thy name,
To thee will I consign
Often the timid virgin, to thy pure
Encircling waves; to thee will I consign
The feeble matron; or the child on whom
Thou may’st bestow a second happier birth
From weakness unto strength… 
- Dr. Hugh Downman, Infancy, 1790 - quoted from page 110, Topographical and statistical description of the county of Devon, George Alexander Cooke

... and then goes on to a discussion of John Keats's walk to Dawlish on March 23rd 1818 to visit the Easter Monday fair, and his ensuing poem Dawlish Fair aka Over the hill and over the dale, which is a fantasy of seducing a "rantipole" 1 young Devon woman.


Over the hill and over the dale,
And over the bourn to Dawlish-
Where gingerbread wives have a scanty sale
And gingerbread nuts are smallish.

Rantipole Betty she ran down a hill
And kicked up her petticoats fairly.
Says I, ‘I’ll be Jack if you will be Jill.’-
So she sat on the grass debonairly.

‘Here’s somebody coming, here’s somebody coming!’
Says I ”tis the wind at a parley.’
So without any fuss, any hawing and humming
She lay on the grass debonairly.

‘Here’s somebody here and here’s somebody there!
Says I, ‘Hold your tongue you young gipsy.’
So she held her tongue and lay plump and fair
And dead as a Venus tipsy.

Oh, who wouldn’t hie to Dawlish fair,
Oh, who wouldn’t stop in a meadow,
Oh, who would not rumple the daisies there
And make the wild fern for a bed do!

Keats seems to have taken a fancy to Devon barmaids: see page 74, John Keats, Selected Letters, OUP, 2002.

Weird Materialism has another post very much in my territory: Victorian Values: Swinburne and Tennyson on the Isle of Wight.

I spent my sixty first birthday wandering around places on the Isle of Wight with Victorian literary connections ...

Great! I hope to be doing much the same.

1. rantipole: "Now chiefly arch. and literary. adj. wild, disorderly, rakish, boisterous; (also) crazy, wildly irrational or eccentric.

- Ray

Monday, 19 December 2011

Bayan time (12)


Not me! - but one of the performances I'm using for guidance.

So I went again to the Topjam Sessions at Topsham Rugby Club yesterday evening. If you saw me pushing a pram down the High Street, that was what it was about (we have an "eco-pram" that we use for carting the cats to the vet for their vaccinations, and it's equally good for transporting a very heavy musical instrument around town).

photo by Bridget Batchelor
I've been practising Ástor Piazzolla's Libertango, and gave it its first public outing. I mentioned working on this earlier this year (see Libertango, 18th April) but I shelved it as I wasn't getting anywhere, and felt I wasn't up to it yet. But I revisited it a couple of weeks ago, and this time found it learnable. It's a difficult piece, chiefly due to the tango syncopation and some unusual jazz chords on the bass (though you can get away with minor 7ths), and I made a couple of false starts - but after collecting myself, I managed straight through on the third try, and I think it went pretty well. I am, however, playing a skeletal unembellished version of it; there's a very long way to go.

If you're a musician in Topsham, I recommend the Topjam Sessions, organised by Martin Stork and David Gander and held in Topsham Rugby Club on some Sunday evenings (see Facebook for specifics). They've been extremely welcoming, considering I play a non-standard instrument; in fact, I've been blown away by the positive audience reaction to the bayan. Apart from their finding it interesting and unusual, I've had more than one person say they find the sound very evocative: of "being at the seaside", and of "being at a steam rally" (I hadn't anticipated this, but there is a kind of Gavioli flavour to some of the voices).

One other piece of good news; I mentioned in April - Bayan time (4) - having problems with being out of tune with other squeezeboxes at Topsham Folk Club, and assuming it was the bayan out of tune. I now think I was mistaken: both at the recent gig with Lily at A la Ronde and yesterday, the bayan was perfectly in tune with correctly-tuned instruments. Evidently at the Folk Club someone else nearby must have been out.

- Ray

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Mindbender 1


I regularly do the Mindbender mathematical puzzles in the Western Morning News. Usually they involve fairly simple algebra, but sometimes they need number theory. This one proved even more difficult than usual. The problem comes down to finding a number that's one more than 17 times the sum of its digits. I did solve it eventually, but by a lot of intuitive jumps. Can anyone see a straightforward method? Have a go, and then go here (spoiler with solution) to compare.

- Ray

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Strawberry fields and crumbling cliffs

Angela Williams at Literary Places just sent me a recommendation that I'll definitely follow up: Welsh Journal by the poet, critic, teacher and broadcaster Jeremy Hooker, in which the Hampshire-born author describes his experience living as a 'foreigner' in Welsh-speaking rural Wales. The particular point of relevance, Angela tells me, is that Hooker describes in the book how he misses the countryside where he grew up, and it strikes a chord that it's more or less the same landscape - southern coast and chalk downland - that has such deeps for me.

The Green Letters journal - issue 8, 2007 - has an interview by Fiona Owen, Mystery at the heart of things, in which Hooker talks about the landscapes and literature that have informed and inspired his work. There are also several poems at the Poetry Archive,  notably Landscape of the Daylight Moon ("From early on, from boyhood, I was haunted by chalk landscapes which I first saw the back of my parents' car. Many years later I looked at paintings by Paul Nash who was also obviously haunted by the same and similar chalk landscapes") and Strawberry Field ("In recent years I've returned in a poem to the area where I was born at Warsash near the Hamble River between Southampton and Portsmouth").


View Larger Map


Strawberry Field stirred up a memory or two.  I know the location - it's only a few miles from where I was brought up - but had quite forgotten it. It's not chalkland, but on the soft Tertiary rocks of the Hampshire Basin, whose soil and microclimate are good for strawberry farming. This particular tract of farmland - the majority of the area in the Google Maps view above - is on the north shore of the Solent, between the Hamble and Meon estuaries and cut off to seaward by low sandy cliffs. Despite being between two major conurbations and by one of busiest sea routes of the south coast, it's remarkably isolated. The main land routes, road and railway, from Southampton toward Portsmouth completely skirt it, having to go well inland to the lowest crossing over the Hamble. It is, however, easily walkable by the coastal path - Warsash to Lee-on-the-Solent - which is part of the 60-mile Solent Way.

© Copyright dinglefoot and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
I haven't been there for perhaps 40 years, but current photos show it hasn't changed much from how I remember it. The classic salt marsh near Warsash (see Bing Maps here) and the eroding cliffs with chines (see Bing Maps here and here) are still there. Due to the rapid erosion, however, I gather one of the derelict WW2 emplacements has gone since the Bing Maps picture was taken.

I'm not entirely sure about revisiting it - the problem again of the wisdom of "going back" - as my chief memory concerns a very pleasant walk (or at least it seemed pleasant to me) with an early girlfriend on a dazzling summer day - only to be told afterward that things were off because I was "too solemn". Though it seemed an unfair and impossible-to-remedy accusation, I undoubtedly was. At that time I was getting the first attacks of the depression that dogged me through the next decade and more. That onset, rather than the specific incident, makes this location feel very desolate in memory.

Listen: we are composing
the day between us, mingling
our voices with the sounds.
Or say we are a small part
only – which is true -
like sails reduced to pieces
of white butterfly wing
by the breadth of the waterway
and the shadow of Fawley
which speaks of power
with its moon city
and tongue of leaping flame.

From the edge of the Common,
among salt-loving plants,
where gun-emplacements
keep the memory of centuries of wars,
the shore appears dingy.
But step out
towards the water line,
where the tide has receded,
and what you find is like a palette
webbed stickily with yellows, purples,
reds, bright green.

- from Strawberry Field, Jeremy Hooker

© Copyright Peter Facey and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

- Ray

Clare blogs

I've been discussing for a while with my wife Clare the possibility of her starting a weblog, as she has views I've managed to find of continuing interest over 23 years (and in fact many of the topics on JSBlog arose from our conversations or places we've visited together). The idea has finally gone ahead.

The first two posts are How to run a writing competition and keep the competitors happy (a heartfelt but informative peeve, with which I thoroughly agree) about common forms of incompetency in the running of competitions); and Figuration Féminine, an appreciation of a website that highlights centuries of great women artists whose work has been criminally airbrushed out of art history.

- Ray

Friday, 9 December 2011

Voltaire gets extra fingers

Another example of the misquotation that's rife on the web due to unmoderated quotation websites brainlessly copying each other's content.

All men are born with a nose and ten fingers, but no one was born with a knowledge of God.
- allegedly by Voltaire

I just answered an enquiry by "Alec", who was looking for the above quotation, which as you can see (Google "All men are born with a nose and ten fingers") is on any number of quotation sites; but, which rings a misquotation alarm bell, not in any books.

I got there by approaching the search with the assumptions that a) it might not be Voltaire and b) it might be misquoted. It turned out to be b), and no wonder Alec - no fault of his own - couldn't find it: the widespread misquotation has altered the number of fingers.

It actually comes from Voltaire's 1734 pamphlet Traité de métaphysique (Treatise on metaphysics), from the second section S'il y a un Dieu (If there is a God).

Est-il possible que la connaissance d’un Dieu, notre créateur, notre conservateur, notre tout, soit moins nécessaire à l’homme qu’un nez et cinq doigts? Tous les hommes naissent avec un nez et cinq doigts, et aucun ne naît avec la connaissance de Dieu: que cela soit déplorable ou non, telle est certainement la condition humaine.
- Traité de métaphysique, voltaire-integral.com

In translation:

Is it possible that the knowledge of a God, our creator, our preserver, our all, is less necessary to man than a nose and five fingers? All men are born with a nose and five fingers, but no one is born with a knowledge of God. Whether that is deplorable or not, such is certainly the condition of humanity.
- The works of Voltaire : a contemporary version with notes (Volume 38), pp15-19

I can see why the garbling happened: "ten fingers" makes more sense than "five fingers" (with an implied "on each hand"). Nevertheless, it ain't what Voltaire wrote, however many websites may quote to the contrary.

Like a lot of epigrams, it's ripped completely out of context. The section S'il y a un Dieu is an agnostic summary of the arguments for and against the existence of God, and the quotation appears in the part where Voltaire is discussing how we're born without a knowledge of God, speculating that it's not important enough to be as fundamental and inbuilt as having a nose and five fingers on each hand.

- Ray

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Dragon of Wantley

Recent post refreshed, in case I have local readers, as a reminder of the current TADs pantomime. Do check it out; I had a peek this evening and was tickled to find one of the numbers is my favourite movie song, Happy Working Song from Enchanted.

Topsham Pantomime 'The Dragon of Topsham'
Matthews Hall, Topsham
Tuesday 6th to Saturday 10th December 2011

The Dragon of Wantley (Relocated to Topsham for added local interest!) by Norman Robbins, presented by TADS (Topsham Amateur Dramatic Society).

Topsham town is in great peril! The beautiful surrounding countryside has been sold to property developers incurring the wrath of the vengeful forest fairy Mauxalinda. Angered at the prospect of a Tesco superstore, she places a terrible curse on Topsham and all its people. Only the dashing principal boy Squire Benjamin can save them but in his way stand the devious Walter de Warthog, Mauxalinda, her evil henchmen and one very hungry dragon...

With a large and colourful cast including idiot bailiffs, a good witch, two outrageous 'dames' and a dancing horse the TADS 2011 Pantomime is packed with comedy and dramatic spectacle and promises to be a real festive treat for all the family.

Daily evening performances at 7.30 p.m and an additional matinee performance on the Saturday.
Tickets £8.00 / £4.00 under 16s, are available from Auntie Julie's Sweetie Shop (01392 874324) Please support your local panto!

Group concessions will be available on Tuesday 6th at dramatically reduced rates for eligible groups. Any community youth groups, schools, Scout/Guide groups etc who would like to attend should email rekadom@hotmail.co.uk for further details.

The background to this is interesting, because this is a modern retelling of a story that goes way back, and it retains the original's anti-capitalist sentiments.  As the Wikipedia Dragon of Wantley article explains, it was an anonymously written satire in the style of a mediaeval ballad, portraying a legal battle about parish tithes in Wharncliffe, near Sheffield. The lawyer More of More Hall is portrayed as a knight slaying the dragon, representing Sir Francis Wortley. The version in Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry has a footnote explaining the origins - see page 417 - though, given the general murkiness of historical recollection, the explanation feels far too pat.

The earliest version of the ballad appeared in the 1685 broadsheet A True Relation of the dreadful Combate between More of More-Hall, and the Dragon of Wantley, which you can read at the English Broadside Ballad Archive (record 22210) or in an early reprint in Playford and D'Urfey's Wit and mirth; or pills to purge melancholy (being a collection of the best being a collection of the best merry ballads and songs, old and new. Fitted to all Humours, having each their proper tune for either Voice or Instrument : Most of the Songs being New set), Volume III (see pages 10-15).

The fight (which the knight wins by hiding in a well and hitting the dragon in the mouth as he drinks, then kicking him in a tender spot with a spiked boot) is described in robust language ...

14.
Oh, quoth the Dragon, pox take you come out,
Thou that diſtrub'ſt me in my Drink;
And then he turn'd and ſhit at him,
Good lack how he did ſtink!
Beſhrew thy Soul,
Thy Body is foul,
Thy Dung ſmells not like Balſam;
Thou Son of a Whore,
Thou ſtink'ſt ſo ſore,
Sure thy Diet it is unwholeſome.
...
17.
At length the hard Earth began for to quake,
The Dragon gave him ſuch a knock,
Which made him to Reel,
And ſtraight way he thought
To lift him as high as a Rock;
And thence let him fall,
But More of More-Hall,
Like a Valiant Son of Mars;
As he came like a Lout,
So he turn'd him about,
And hit him a kick on the Arſe.

18.
Oh! quoth the Dragon, with a Sigh,
And turn'd ſix times together,
Sobbing, and tearing, Curſing and Swearing
Out of his Throat of Leather.
Oh, thou Raskal,
More of More-Hall,
Would I had ſeen you never,
With the thing at thy Foot,
Thou haſt prick't my Arſe Gut;
Oh, I am quite undone for ever.

19.
Murder, Murder, the Dragon cry'd,
Alack, alack, for Grief,
Had you but miſt that Place, you could
Have done me no Miſchief;
Then his Head he ſhak'd,
Trembled, and Quack'd,
And down he layd, and cry'd;
First on one Knee,
Then on back, tumbled he,
So Groan'd, Kick't, Shit, and Dyed.

... and tends to be bowdlerised in many later editions. For example:

It is not strength that always wins,
For wit doth strength excel;
Which made our cunning champion
Creep down into a well,
Where he did think this dragon would drink,
And so be did in truth;
And as he stooped low, he rose up and cried, boh!
And kicked him in the mouth.

Oh! quoth the dragon, with a deep sigh,
And turned six times together,
Sobbing and tearing, cursing and swearing
Out of his throat of leather.
More of More-hall, oh thou rascal!
Would I had seen thee never!
With the thing at thy foot thou hast pricked my throat,
And I'm quite undone forever!

Murder, murder, the dragon cried,
Alack, alack, for grief;
Had you but missed that place, you could
Have done me no mischief.
Then his head he shaked, trembled and quaked,
And down he laid and cried;
First on one knee, then on back tumbled he;
So groaned, and kicked, and died.

- The Household Book of Poetry, D. Appleton and Company, 1869.

The satirical tradition for the story continued in one early adaptation. One was Henry Carey's 1737 "Burlesque Opera", which I guess could be viewed as an adult pantomime satirising operatic staging, with a political dig at Robert Walpole's tax policies. The full libretto is at the University of Virginia Library, The Dragon of Wantley. There's a brief account of it on pages 165-166 of Busby's 1825 Concert room and orchestra anecdotes of music and musicians. Carey wrote a 1738 sequel, Margery; Or, A Worse Plague than the Dragon.

Another take on the story was Owen Wister's 1892 The dragon of Wantley, his rise, his voracity, & his downfall, a romance. Well off Wister's best-known territory (he was author of the groundbreaking Western The Virginian), it's a romantic burlesque. During a Christmas drinking session, the sacristan of the monastery of Oyster-Le-Main has a fright when he opens a cupboard to fetch wine, and a crocodile skin with wings falls out onto him. He kicks it, but is admonished by his superior, Father Anselm, for mistreating "the carcase of our patron saint". Father Anselm then proceeds to tell the one true story of the Dragon of Wantley, in which the dragon is revealed as a convenient fiction aiding the agendas of a number of people, not least the monks of Oyster-Le-Main. There's an edition, nicely illustrated by John Stewardson, at the Internet Archive (ID ofwantleyh00wistdragonrich).

Coming up to date, The Dragon of Wantley looks to me an interesting choice for TADS, as the traditional fairytale-themed pantos have in my view become very stale. Who even knows what, if any, the plot of Mother Goose is? The Norman Robbins version is itself a modernisation of a Victorian pantomime by EL Blanchard, whose sumptuous Dragon of Wantley; or, Harlequin and Old Mother Shipton was staged in Christmas 1870 at the Drury Lane Theatre, London, though it also draws on older incarnations of the story. The character names Mauxalinda and Gubbins, for instance, come from Henry Carey's 1737 burlesque. I've seen the playscript, and the author's intro says:

The Dragon of Wantley is another of those huge, spectacular pantomimes so beloved by Victorian audiences, yet in the 21st century, is totally forgotten by all but historians ... Modern audiences, however, would have found much to mystify them had I simply updated Blanchard’s masterpiece. Pantomime in Victorian times was a far different animal and its humour stemmed from very different sources. In writing my version of this story (based on an English legend involving real people), I have discarded the great spectacular scenes that were used merely to dazzle and amaze, and concentrated on the comedy. Some ofthe character names are those used by Carey and Blanchard, but the rest are my own invention.
- Norman Robbins, The Dragon of Wantley

Non-literary footnote. It's tempting to wonder if TADS' choice of anti-capitalist panto is self-referential, in the light of its dispute earlier this year concerning the lucrative Saturday Morning Market's earlier refusal to downsize by a few stalls to allow sets to stay in place for Saturday matinee performances. See the Exeter Express & Echo: Echo helps drama group to win stay of execution (Feb 5, 2011) and Committee denies pantomime claims (Feb 9, 2011).

- Ray

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Kern you do better?


I just saw this plaque - obviously not in this orientation - in the Passage House Inn, Topsham. Trad though it is, it slightly offended my aesthetics by the poor kerning at the end of "Torrington", particularly the gap between the G and T.

It reminded me of a site I saw on MetaFilter recently: check out Kern Type, a rather interesting online game that tests your ability at kerning (i.e. the ability to place letters in a word in a typographically aesthetic manner).

It has a very much more difficult companion game, Shape Type, involving manipulating Bezier curves to create the best curve in a typeface.

- Ray

Monday, 5 December 2011

Back Beach, Teignmouth

Back Beach, Teignmouth (Andrew Hackney) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Angela Williams at Literary Places just sent me a link to a BBC news item, Tidal defence work to protect Teignmouth from flooding, about forthcoming work to protect protect Teignmouth's town centre and beach areas by building of new flood defence walls, flood gates, ramps and steps for access to the quays and foreshore.

While undoubtedly necessary, this is going to radically affect the appearance of the Back Beach, the lesser-known part of Teignmouth on the Teign estuary, where houses and working buildings front straight on to the shore. I've never been there, but I'm going to take up Angela's recommendation to visit before January, when the work starts. I've visited Teignmouth once before - see previously, Keats in Teignmouth - but was feeling very fragile post-flu and fit only for pottering between tea-shops, so I'm sure I'd enjoy a revisit more.

This older section of Teignmouth contains the house (or rather houses - there are two candidates) where Keats lodged during his stay in Teignmouth in 1817. See her latest post In the footsteps of John Keats (Dec 4th 2011) for more pictures, and background on this section of Teignmouth - East Teignmouth, as it used to be called.

- Ray

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Oaks of A la Ronde

Further to the previous post on A la Ronde at Exmouth, I dug out a little more on the still-extant story that the will of the co-owner, Jane Parminter, contained a theological-political stipulation concerning Judaism and a grove of oaks. As it involves lengthy quotes, I thought I'd devote a separate post to it.

The story concerns a visit to the area by the Reverend Lewis Way:
Now it so happened that in the winter of 1811, shortly after the death of Miss Jane Parminter, Lewis Way was staying with some of his wife's relations in Devonshire, when one day he rode with a friend along the road which leads from Exmouth to Exeter. Two miles from the former town he was suddenly struck by the sight of A la Ronde, and in some amazement begged his companion to tell him to whom belonged this strange dwelling which looked more like a residence for South Sea Islanders than an ordinary country house. His friend gave him full particulars ; adding that Miss Jane Parminter had recently died and — according to local gossip — in fulfilment of her wishes had been buried with her coffin standing upright in the little Chapel of Point in View, while her will, or a codicil to her will, contained a singular clause. In reference to a group of oaks in the grounds of the house she had decreed as follows;

These oaks shall remain standing and the hand of man shall not be lifted up against them till Israel returns and is restored to the land of promise.

- The Ways of Yesterday: being the chronicles of the Way family from 1307 to 1885, Anna Maria Wilhelmina Stirling, 1930
Inspired, Way become a prime mover in kick-starting the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews - loosely a Christian Zionist organisation - and the story rapidly became a promotional meme within that society and among others with a similar agenda. However, the archives of the Society reveal a debunking late in the 19th century.

It is the duty of a faithful historian to relate everything connected with his subject, so long as he avoids wounding the susceptibilities of the living and reflecting upon the dead. A Society like this has its "secret history"; a secret history which is more or less public property. Of such a character were the two controversies to be treated of in this chapter. Let us take what we may call, for want of a more exact name, the Irish Controversy — which lasted for some weary years, and was a source of much grief, heart-burning, and even dismay in certain quarters. This is how it all came about.

In the summer of 1882 Mr. Benjamin Bradley, the Society's Accountant, was spending his holiday in Devonshire. With him the Society was first, foremost and everything. He was whole-hearted in its cause, and always about its business. Being in the county of Devon, it occurred to his active mind that he could not spend his time more profitably or agreeably than by visiting the "Oaks of a la Ronde," near Exmouth; that far-famed spot which, with its traditional associations, had given inspiration to Lewis Way, and thus led to the regeneration of the Society. To Mr. Bradley's intense surprise and disappointment he learnt that, as a matter of fact, there was no clause in Jane Parminter's will about the preservation of the oak trees to which the attention of Lewis Way had been called, and which, in course of time, had become a fascinating legend, held by generations of members of the Society, narrated in a thousand speeches, and the subject of two most interesting pamphlets — The Oaks of a la Ronde *, and another founded upon it, Jane Parminter's Will, by the Rev. Ralph W. Harden, the Irish Secretary. Now, Mr. Bradley was the embodiment of exactness and accuracy. He returned to town burning to let the truth prevail. He brought together the results of his discovery in a paper, and succeeded in thoroughly alarming the Committee, who were persuaded that the very existence of the Society depended on pricking the bubble at once. This they proceeded to do in a very remarkable way. Instead of communicating with the writers of the delightful pamphlets mentioned, and advising the necessary alterations, they suspended their issue, which was regarded as a very high-handed proceeding.

* The Oaks of a la Ronde, translated from the German of Professor Franz Delitzsch, by A.O.F.I., and republished by the kind person of Dr Moses Margoliouth in 1880.

- pages 416-417, The history of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, from 1809 to 1908, William Thomas Gidney, 1908. Internet Archive ID historyoflondons00gidnuoft.

To cut a long story short, this led to considerable drama in the Society. Harden went on the offensive, pamphleteering with allegations of mismanagement. The differences were eventually resolved, but Bradley's debunking failed to kill the oaks meme, whch continues to this day.

The English translation of Delitzsch's pamphlet The Oaks of A la Ronde appears in the 1877 edition of The Hebrew Christian witness and Prophetic Investigator (ed. Dr Moses Margoliouth). Delitzsch did make some attempt to verify the story:

These consecrated oaks are still standing at A la Ronde. And yet scarcely a person at Exmouth knows anything of the testamentary clause. The present vicar even knew only of a confused report, which stated that Miss Parminter had ordered the oaks to be preserved that the Jews might build ships with them, or, if not, use them in some other way. And the gardener, who has lived there for nearly twenty years, knew no more than that he had heard say that the deceased lady thought a great deal of the trees. But we have the story on the very best authority, namely, a letter written by Miss Drusilla Way (which we give farther on), describing the sympathy which her sainted father felt for Israel from the first, his self-devotion to labour for the cause (which is not forgotten to this day), and stating that it was by means of the oaks of A la Ronde that the first idea of such work entered into his heart.
...
In November, 1875, the Rev. P. L. D. Acland, Pastor of Broad Clyst (diocese of Exeter), paid me a visit. I asked him whether he would, on his return, find out for me all the proofs of the story of Lewis Way's waking up to the interests of Israel by a sight of one of the wildest nooks of Devonshire, which was, by the will of the owner, to be left untouched till the re-establishment of the Jews in the Promised Land. This request he has fulfilled in the most faithful and conscientious manner possible.

In Exeter none of the lawyers whom he questioned had any knowledge of the singular will. And then it suddenly came to his memory that an old friend of his had married a Miss Way. He communicated with the family, and obtained for me from Miss Drusilla Way, the eldest daughter of him who fell asleep in the year 1840, the valuable information which is subjoined at the end of this narrative. It fully establishes the truth of the story. But he also travelled himself to Exmouth, and procured for me a guide-book, which was quite an old-fashioned one, but found scarcely any mention of the testamentary clause in Miss Jane Parminter's will. So that without the testimony of Miss Drusilla Way, the story would have been banished to the realm of tradition and its fancies. So that we are the more pleased to have its authenticity vouched for by this veracious witness.
...
"It is indeed true," writes Miss Drusilla Way, "that my father's first interest in the Jews was aroused by an incident of a peculiar nature. It happened in the winter of 1811-12, when he was living at Exmouth, in Devon. A friend with whom he was riding pointed out to him a house named A la Ronde, the owner of which, a Miss Jane Parminter, had lately died, and had left the remarkable clause in her will that certain trees were not to be cut down till the Jews were restored to Palestine. This information produced the most powerful impression on him. His subsequent deep spiritual concern for the salvation of the ancient people of God, and his untiring efforts on their behalf, date from this starting-point.

- The Oaks of A la Ronde, Franz Delitzsch, trans. A.O.F.I., The Hebrew Christian witness and Prophetic Investigator, 1877.

This seems very sloppy research, with a deal of confirmation bias. It rejects all the negative data points, but accepts the one with the sought-after confirmation. Being a family member does not necessarily make a person a reliable source. Drusilla Way was a strong apologist for her father, and she was 71 at the time of the enquiry, making her only 7 at the time of Way's epiphany; over a lifetime, she could easily have acquired a piece of family mythology. The bottom line is that the research failed to find the primary source: the alleged will itself.

What I find very suspicious, about 150 years later, is that I've been unable to find a version of the Lewis Way story in print prior to the 1870s (a bit strange for something said to be "held by generations of members of the Society, narrated in a thousand speeches") and the specific text of the claimed codicil - These oaks shall remain standing ... etc - seems to make its first appearance in the 1877 translation of the Delitzsch pamphlet.

Addendum: December 15th 2011, upgraded from Comments:

Trevor said:

This post, correctly, leads to the conclusion that the story of the Oaks was mythology that arose sixty years after the death of Jane Parminter in 1811. I have been able to examine the original probate copy of the will and can confirm that it contains no clause whatsoever in regard to the oaks nor is there a codicil. A letter from Oswald Reichel, a distant relative and a historian, who was living at A la Ronde at the time was published in the local newspaper, the Exmouth Journal of 24 June 1911. He refers to the story of the oaks as “a curious myth, the source of which appears to be a little book entitled “The Oaks of A la Ronde” written by an imaginative lady with material supplied by a still more imaginative travelling foreigner”. Reichel added that there were never any oak trees planted at A la Ronde for the purpose and, at the time of his writing, none remained at Point in View. Reichel suggests that the interest of the cousins in Jewish converts arose from the Grand Tour when they witnessed in Rome the Christian baptism of a Jewess and learned of the difficulties besetting the after-life of such a convert when cut off from her people.

I also occasionally read suggestions of a lesbian relationship between Jane Parminter and her second cousin Mary. Until recently it was perfectly normal for orphaned children to be taken into a related family or individual. In Mary’s case it was previously understood that Cousin Jane was her guardian but recent research shows that her father’s will that role was to be undertaken jointly by a cousin (Samuel Lavington of Bideford) and her own Aunt Mary. My research over many years of the family history has revealed no evidence whatever to suggest that Jane and Mary were “an item”.

It was great to read that you were fascinated by your visit to A la Ronde. The volunteer guides (I am one) do their best to make the property interesting to our visitors.

Brilliant! Thanks very much for clarifying this, Trevor. Even the brief tour was very thought-provoking, and I'd recommend A la Ronde to anyone. Hilary kindly just sent us a complimentary pass for a proper visit, and I look forward to it.

- Ray

A la Ronde

A la Ronde, Summer Lane, Exmouth
It's one of those weird syndromes that when you live close to some attraction, you never get around to visiting it. I've been in East Devon sixteen years, and never visited A la Ronde, even though it's only a 15 minute bus ride away.

However, on Saturday my employer Lily and I were playing a music slot for a small fete there, and the manager kindly organised for us a free whistle-stop tour of the house (built in the late 18th century for two spinster cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter, and acquired by the National Trust in 1991). Even though much of the content was under wraps for conservation, it was fascinating: the 16-sided house is a warren of wedge-shaped rooms around a central octagonal well,  all self-decorated by the Parminters with shells, feathers, and memorabilia from their European Grand Tour. Unfortunately, the windows being shuttered and with a no-flash rule, I couldn't get any internal photos.

Point-in-View: side entrance
We also visited Point-in-View, the associated chapel, which is part of a complex - also commissioned by the Parminters - originally comprising the chapel, a school, a manse, and four almshouses. The unusual name comes from a motto above the chapel's entrance: "Some point in View - We all pursue". It's a very cosy chapel; the altar is underneath the turret (it's a trifle small to be called a spire), whose windows light the altar area, which has a lectern, a miniature organ, and the tomb of the Parminter cousins.

I won't reiterate the standard history beyond the basics I mentioned above; it's thoroughly well-documented: see, for instance, the BBC Legacies feature, The Rough Guide to Devon and Cornwall, and the chapter in the book Bollocks to Alton Towers: Uncommonly British Days Out. I do feel, however, that the standard history of the house and the Parminters has been through an anecdotal filter: everything the Parminter cousins did tends to be categorised either as a direct reflection of their Grand Tour experiences or as merely "eccentric". They're also co-opted in support of other causes: for instance, I've seen the house's design cited as an early example of energy-saving architecture; and the Parminter cousins' female-only Grand Tour, and their injunction for exclusively female inheritance of A la Ronde and occupancy of the almshouses, said to be an example of proto-feminism.

Point-in-View - rear

There are a couple of revisionist websites that explore the historical context rather more critically. In his paper eccentricity, heritage and the end of the world, Phil Smith notes how primary sources are almost non-existent due to the WW2 bombing of the Devon Record Office. This means that sources on the Parminters are secondary ones (for instance, Chapter IV, The Point in View, of the 1930 The Way of Yesterday) that frequently recycle borrowed information, much of it coming from a later inheritor of the house, the Reverend Oswald Reichel. Smith argues, from collation of such sources, that the accounts are skating around an undocumented eschatological agenda, the "point in view" being the return of the Jewish diaspora to Israel as precursor to the Second Coming. Even so, it's hard to prove some of the much-repeated details supporting this theory; for example, the claimed codicil to Jane Parminter's will concerning a grove of oaks at A la Ronde ...

These oaks shall remain standing and the hand of man shall not be lifted up against them till Israel returns and is restored to the land of promise.

... doesn't appear until mid-late 19th century secondary sources. See the following post - The Oaks of A la Ronde - for more on this.

Point-in-View - altar
Then then there's the unofficial A la Ronde weblog (subtitled "Don't believe the guide book - a lot of what you think you know about a la Ronde isn't true"). Unfortunately it has only two entries, but both of them raise good points: one dissects, via the context of similar buildings of the period, the standard story that A la Ronde was inspired by the Basilica of San Vitale at Ravenna; the other critiques the chronology of the Parminters' 11-year Grand Tour.

At the risk of doing exactly what I criticised above - co-opting the Parminters to some affiliation - I think an area studiously avoided by most accounts (even if they approach it with terminology like "became greatly attached to each other" - A la Ronde and Point-in-View, Exmouth, East Devon, Keith Searle, GENUKI) is the question of whether the spinster Parminter cousins were an item. To ask this is not out of prurience; if they were it would make them significant characters in social history; another example of how, if you were rich and/or upper-class enough, openly lesbian domestic arrangements were tolerated at the beginning of the 19th century (compare the Ladies of Llangollen and Anne Lister). Howeverm only one account I can find - David Watkin's 1982 The English vision: the picturesque in architecture, landscape, and garden design - openly makes this assertion, describing A la Ronde as:

Another pictorially freakish house is A-La-Ronde near Exmouth in Devon, built in 1795 for two lesbian cousins, the Misses Jane and Mary Parminter.

I don't know what, if any, evidence this is based on.

Anyhow, whatever the background, if you like your architecture, both house and chapel are thoroughly worth visiting. The whole complex is a very pretty example of a Regency ferme ornée, a working estate laid out aesthetically, and the view across Exmouth to Dawlish Warren and Langstone Rock (weather permitting) is lovely.

Addendum: I just found online Extracts from "A Devonshire Lady's notes of travel in France in the eighteenth century" (Oswald Reichel, pp265-275, Report and transactions, Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, and Art, Volume 34, 1902). This consists of an extract from Jane Parminter's diary of the first leg of her Grand Tour, starting from Calais and proceeding south via Paris to Dijon. It's undoubtedly interesting as a view of the landscape and social conditions of 1784 France as seen by a well-off traveller. But as a personal document it's deeply unenlightening: mostly at the level of (I caricature only slightly) "And then we went to X and saw Y, which was nice; but the inn was dirty and we couldn't sleep". There's no sign, for example, of what they ate. It's impossible to tell how much this completely impersonal tone is that of Jane Parminter or an artifact of Oswald Reichel's selection of the material; whatever the reason, as a travelogue it's pretty dull considering the unusualness of this all-female tour.

Addendum 2, December 15th 2011: Trevor, a tour guide for A la Ronde, kindly commented on this post and the next, concerning his research into the history. It seems I'm on the wrong track about the possibility of the Parminters being "an item"; but right about "The Oaks of A la Ronde" being a myth. See The Oaks of A la Ronde.

- Ray