Thursday, 14 December 2006

Beyond the woodshed

I just noticed a clipping from the Guardian Books section, Life after Flora, an interesting article about Stella Gibbons. Lynne Truss, who has written the introduction to the recent Penguin Classics reissue of Cold Comfort Farm, sums up the key problem of Gibbons' career: "The enduring popularity of ... Cold Comfort Farm eclipsed her 23 later novels and left her forever labelled 'middlebrow'".
      CCF is a wonderful pastiche of the rural novels - such as those of Mary Webb - of the late 19th and early 20th century (as Gibbons put it, "the kind of story in which peasants have babies in cow sheds and push each other down wells"). It also takes a dig at DH Lawrence and, judging by the biographies, the melodramatics of Gibbons' own family.
      An intriguing and little-known aspect is that it's not set in the real world 1930s, but in an alternate future of around 1950, of which the biggest giveaway is the videophone. When Flora phones a young man, Claud, we're told: "Claud twisted the television dial and amused himself by studying Flora's fair, pensive face. Her eyes were lowered and her mouth compressed over the serious business of arranging Elfine's future. He fancied she was tracing a pattern with the tip of her shoe. She could not look at him, because public telephones were not fitted with television dials". The same Claud has served in "the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of '46", and in the book aeroplanes are ubiquitous for personal travel and even postal delivery.
      This SF background plays virtually no role in the plot. It is, however, a glimpse into her writing interests in other genres, which sometimes go well into the territory of fantasy: Ticky, for instance, is set in a Gormenghast-like Victorian regimental club, riddled with strange rituals and perpetual feuds, and so large that its towers are in the clouds and its officers travel about inside it by horse-drawn tram.
      You can read more about CCF's background and her other works at the now-defunct Stella Gibbons Website run by Reggie Oliver, her nephew and biographer, who also wrote a 1998 print biography, Out of the Woodshed.

Addendum: more on this at Further beyond the woodshed.
- Ray

Friday, 3 November 2006

The Drop

Stephen Clarke has kindly made available on YouTube The Drop, a short film he directed in 1997 for Angelcast Productions; it won the 'best director' class at the Yaraslovl Film Festival. Written by Joel Segal and Simon Persighetti, it features Gabriella Woodcock and the late John H Bartlett, and was filmed in Topsham, in and around Joel Segal Books.

See the John H Bartlett blog, which preserves John's artistic and theatrical website.

Thursday, 19 October 2006

Darwin online and offline

Interesting news yesterday: Charles Darwin's works go online, the BBC report of the launch of Cambridge University's The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. Great stuff: the content ranges from the most academic publications to personal trivia such as Things for a Week, a to-take and to-do list for his visit to a hydropathic spa (the cause of his ill-health is still disputed). Other Darwin collections online include the Darwin Correspondence Project and the Darwin Digital Library of Evolution.
      Charles Darwin's life has been heavily documented in print: notable biographies that spring to mind are Janet Browne's two-volume work, Voyaging and The Power of Place, and any of the co-written Darwin books by Adrian Desmond and James R Moore. For a different angle, it's worth checking out Edna Healey's Emma Darwin - The Inspirational Wife of a Genius. - Ray

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Halo Jones

I seldom see graphic novels passing through Joel Segal Books in Topsham, but a pleasant exception arrived in stock today: the three-volume Titan Books set of The Ballad of Halo Jones. Drawn by Ian Gibson, this is another Alan Moore title (see the previous entry) and Moore's earliest major work, when he wrote for the British science fiction comic 2000 AD in the mid-1980s.
      Moore writes in the preface that he wanted something out of the "guns, guys and gore" style of the comic, a female character who was neither wilting and forever losing her clothes nor a "tough bitch with a disintegrator and extra Y-chromosome". Halo, a 50th century everywoman, proved to be one of 2000 AD's classic characters, appealing to both with male and female readers, and her story went on to three 10-story segments before foundering over Moore's dissatisfaction over creator's rights issues.
      Book 1 introduces Halo's mundane life, where she dreams of escaping from the Hoop, a dystopian floating urban complex where even a shopping trip is a perilous affair. Book 2 follows her when she leaves in the hope of finding adventure off-world via a job as a hostess aboard a luxury star liner. Book 3 takes a darker tone as she finds enlistment in the military the only available career choice. The story is tragi-comic, full of strong female characters, and Moore and Gibson's imagined world is packed with intricate social detail (the creators are not afraid to leave slang and other trivia unexplained).
      In this early work, Moore shows the talent for clever allusion that manifested in his later works such as From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: for instance, Book 3 shows unmistakable references to several other classic anti-war SF works: David Masson's short story Traveller's Rest, Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, and Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero. All are worth finding. - Ray

Friday, 13 October 2006

Rider Haggard

These days, Sir Henry Rider Haggard is best known for his most famous novels, She and King Solomon's Mines. He was, however, a far more prolific and influential author who brought his own experience and perspective to his novels: a late-Colonial administrator who had worked in South Africa at the time of the Zulu Wars and Boer War, and developed some sympathy for local cultures. (See, for instance, his non-fictional commentary Cetywayo and his White Neighbours).
      His African-based work grades into a larger body of historical fantasy: epic and readable in general, though some is a little silly in premise. His co-written The World's Desire, for example, brings together Helen of Troy and Odysseus in Biblical Ancient Egypt. You can find many of these lesser-known novels online (see, for instance, Project Gutenberg and Gutenberg Australia - the latter also has his 1926-published autobiography ). There's also an annotated bibliography at Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Violet Books website, which specialises in scholarly material on "Antiquarian Supernatural, Fantasy & Mysterious Literatures, Vintage Westerns, Swashbucklers, & Juveniles". Salmonson makes a strong case for Rider Haggard's influence on the 'Lost Race' genre and other fantasy literature of the later 19th and early 20th century.
      This influence continues to the present. For instance, DM Thomas's 1984 Swallow, a novel about a storytelling Olympiad, features one segment that's a bawdy retelling of King Solomon's Mines. (I'm sure it's no coincidence that it also shares a title with Rider Haggard's Swallow: a tale of the great trek). The quintessential Rider Haggard hero, Allan Quatermain, embodies Haggard's colonial sentiments: a hunter and adventurer who is nevertheless aware of his prejudices and, for the genre, sympathetic to the cultures he meets. As Rider Haggard's work developed, Quatermain increasingly encountered the supernatural and mystical. In the final stories, the elderly Quatermain uses a drug, taduki, to explore his past lives in Babylon and the Ice Age.
      If you like the genre of Victorian fantastic fiction, I recommend the two-volume graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. Its basic premise is of Wilhemina Murray (from Dracula), Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Mr Hyde and the Invisible Man being brought together as a national crime-fighting team in a technically advanced alternative 19th century.
      Moore has melded an encyclopedic knowledge of Victorian literature with iconoclastic creativity to produce a gripping and tightly-allusive 'steampunk' adventure (nearly every frame contains some in-reference). Volume I brings the main characters together, and contains a standalone short story, Allan and the Sundered Veil, that brings the events of the later Quatermain stories round to the starting point of the graphic novel, where he is found in a Cairo opium den by Mina Murray. Volume II is a retelling of HG Wells' War of the Worlds.
      If you don't mind spoilers, Jesse Nevins' Notes on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen gives some of the flavour with a frame-by-frame analysis of the many literary allusions. The movie is enjoyable enough, but shares very little with the book except the basic characters. - Ray

Thursday, 5 October 2006

White Magic

Rather quiet in the shop today - autumn setting in - so I had a chance to finish reading White Magic, the early autobiography of stage magician Jasper Maskelyne. As you can see from the Channel 4 microsite, Magic at War, Maskelyne's name resurfaced in recent years for the interesting accounts of his WWII exploits in the field of camouflage (notably his vanishing the Suez Canal and hiding Alexandria harbour by creating a duplicate).
      White Magic precedes all of this, and covers the broader story of Maskelyne's family, from the Royal Astronomer Nevil Maskelyne via Jasper's grandfather and father (both stage magicians, the former also having been the inventor of a range of coin-operated slot machines and an early variable-spacing typewriter). Most of the book, however, is devoted to Maskelyne's own recollections of his pre-War career.
      It's interesting stuff - but, as is often the case with with showpersons' memoirs, some of it grades well into the fanciful ("Devil Worship in London" - "I attend a Witches' Sabbath" - child sacrifice in France, and so on). This is a bit of a problem with most Maskelyne accounts. Military historian and magician Richard Stokes maintains a website, Jasper Maskelyne, Master of Make-Believe, for a meticulous critique of the Maskelyne story, originally a 21-article series written for the Australian magic magazine Geniis Magic Journal. His research shows that the general view of Maskelyne comes largely from David Fisher's 1983 book The War Magician, which reworked, with additional material, Maskelyne's own ghost-written 1949 memoirs, Magic - Top Secret.
      Stokes documents the many chronological errors and unsubstantiated elements, concluding that Maskelyne's wartime role has been highly embroidered, both by chroniclers and by Maskelyne himself. In Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter, Stokes furthermore presents solid evidence for the identity of the ghost-writer, a Frank S Stuart who specialised in sensational reportage. Nevertheless, it all makes good reading: The Scotsman wrote of White Magic, "This book is almost as fascinating as an actual display of skilful conjuring". Perhaps the telling of a good yarn should be viewed as a performance in itself - as long as it's not taken as reliable history.

- Ray

Tuesday, 26 September 2006

Unsung scientists

I always enjoy revisionist history. Some years back, the Channel 4 series The Dragon has Two Tongues featured Gwyn Alf Williams, who argued the importance of ordinary people in the context of Welsh history, which traditionally was presented as a list of the reigns and conquests of various kings. His Marxist view of history has since become far more mainstream; it no longer makes sense to look at a pyramid as an outstanding monument and achievement of a Pharaoh without considering the cultural context that made him a god-king able to draw on the workforce and the resources of a civilisation.
      In this light, I was very interested to read A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and "Low Mechanicks" by Clifford D Conner, which brings a similar perspective to science and technology. The idea persists of a history of science driven by a succession of "Great Men with Great Ideas", and Conner's aim is to survey that history "from the bottom up" to demonstrate the origin of science in the collective activities of working people.
      The eight-chapter book is organised chronologically. After a scene-setting chapter, it begins with Were hunter-gatherers stupid?; this attempts to get at prehistory, with a particular focus on Polynesian navigation in the Pacific. This can hardly be called anything but a science, involving an astonishing body of memorised data based on a 'sidereal compass' and knowledge of ocean swells and their refraction around islands. More on this at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology online exhibit, Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific: A Search for Pattern).
      What "Greek Miracle"? debunks the idea of ancient Greece as the originator of science. The ancient Greeks themselves didn't believe it, crediting Egypt, and A People's History looks at this and other bodies of science: the much-maligned Roman science (if not "scientific", an originator of long-lasting impressive practical technology) and the now better-known contributions of the Islamic world and China.
      Blue water sailors and the navigational sciences focuses particularly on Prince Henry the Navigator, whose PR paints him as originator of sailing out of sight of land. Commodore Collins of the British Admiralty scoffed at the idea of the "persistent myth" of coast-hugging, so dangerous that he said the idea clearly wasn't originated by a sailor. A People's History provies many examples of cross-ocean voyages prior to Henry the Navigator, noting that most of the required navigational knowledge (for instance, how to use the Gulf Stream) was originated collectively by unknown or little-known sailors. The heroes of exploration often simply acquired that knowledge by kidnapping locals.
      The remainder of the book explores the development of a scientific elite from the 1500s to the present day. There are honourable examples of independent scientists from mundane backgrounds who got the credit they deserved (such as Anton van Leeuwenhoek). But Conner reveals a repeated pattern of now well-known figures being remembered for discoveries made by little-known craftsmen and artisans, either before them or working for them. Tycho Brahe, for instance, was in his later career effectively the administrative head of a research institution: a form of organisation that Conner argues came to dominate science, first via the academies then via a Victorian 'union of capital and science' that persists until today.
      Backed up by a wealth of well-referenced historical detail, this is a fascinating investigation of a largely hidden part of scientific history. - Ray

Tuesday, 19 September 2006


Shiver me timbers! The great grand house opposite the fine bookshop be flyin' the flag as ye see in the photo, and it be International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Here at How To Be Speakin' Pirate-Like be advice for ye scurvy dogs on how to be doin' it.
      Enough of that. Why pirates should talk that way is a combination of regional accent (seafarers of the 1600s-1700s tended to come from the English West Country) and stereotype, helped along by cinema and the wonderful Robert Newton (last year the excellent Language Log discussed in some detail - R!? - theories for pirates' strongly rhotic accent). Check out Modern Drunkard Magazine for a nice article, Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum, on the interesting mix of reality and myth that forms our view of pirates.
      I've one book recommendation today: George MacDonald Fraser's The Pyrates. Fraser is the author of the Flashman series novels, but this book has an even looser grip on reality: an impeccably researched, yet thoroughly anachronistic (Gucci boots, tannoys and Kleenex) comic yarn based vaguely on the exploits of Long Ben Avery with cameos of most of the famous pirates that ever lived. It also has the distinction of the longest starting sentence I know of, an evocation of a fictional Merrie England...

It began in the old and golden days of England, in a time when all the hedgerows were green and the roads dusty, when hawthorn and wild roses bloomed, when big-bellied landlords brewed rich October ale at a penny a pint for rakish high-booted cavaliers with jingling spurs and long rapiers, when squires ate roast beef and belched and damned the Dutch over their claret while their faithful hounds slumbered on the rushes by the hearth, when summers were long and warm and drowsy, with honeysuckle and hollyhocks by cottage walls, when winter nights were clear and sharp with frost-rimmed moons shinning on the silent snow, and Chad Duval and Swift Nick Nevison lurked in the bosky thickets , teeth gleaming beneath their masks as they heard the rumble of coaches bearing paunchy well-lined nabobs and bright-eyed ladies with powdered hair who would gladly tread a measure by the wayside with the gallant tobyman, and bestow a kiss to save their husband's guineas; and England where good King Charles lounged amiably on his throne, and scandalised Mr Pepys (or was it Mr Evelyn?) by climbing walls to ogle Pretty Nell; where gallants roistered and diced away their fathers' fortunes; where beaming yokels in spotless smocks made hay in the sunshine and ate bread and cheese and quaffed foaming tankards fit to do G. K. Chesterton's heart good; where threadbare pedlars with shard eyes and long noses shared their morning bacon with weary travellers in dew-pearled woods and discoursed endlessly of 'Hudibras' and the glories of nature; where burly earringed smugglers brought their stealthy sloops into midnight coves, and stowed their hard-run cargoes of Hollands and Brussels and fragrant Virginia in clammy caverns; where the poachers of Lincolnshire lifted hares and pheasants by the bushel and buffeted gamekeepers and jumped o'er everywhere

...that Fraser instantly demolishes with the reality about sanitation and poverty. There be a fine bibliography o' pirate books at its stern end, an' here be a review by the New York Times - Buckling down the swash. Read on, ye landlubbers, damn ye for a lizard else. - Ray

Saturday, 16 September 2006

Pope and Wain's Cat Scouts

The co-authors of The Cat Scouts, a scarce children's book written by Jessie Pope and illustrated by Louis Wain, make an interesting partnership.

The Cat Scouts, written in 1912, is somewhat gung-ho, all about the merits of discipline and bravely putting up with hardship (the cat on the left is not about to be murdered, but released after punishment for playing marbles on duty). But Pope's style came into full flow with her WW1 pro-war poems, such as The Call and Who's for the Game? The anti-war poet Wilfred Owen, who knew first-hand that the trenches were far from the jolly game she portrayed, wrote a pointed dedication to her on the first draft of his Dulce et decorum est. The subject of World War 1 poetry is a very large topic; read Where death becomes absurd and life absurder for a good overview. One redeeming feature for Jessie Pope, though, was her recognition of the significance of Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and brokering its publication, even if its first edition appeared in her bowdlerised version that trimmed much of the socialist content and turned it into a more conventional "working-class hardship" story.

Wain's work, of which The Cat Scouts is typical, comes across as twee by present standards, though he has a following (see Catland) and he deserves credit for a major role in fostering a positive attitude toward cats in Britain in the late 19th century. Much of the interest nowadays is in the pathological aspects of his art. In later life, he developed schizophrenia, and its manifestation in his work - cats becoming increasingly threatening and psychedelic until they lose all resemblance to cats - is classic in the neurological field. See Cats Painted in the Progression of Psychosis of a Schizophrenic Artist. This Cat Fanciers' Association article, Louis Wain - Cat Artist, has a good short biography and bibliography.

- Ray

Thursday, 14 September 2006

Underground London

Last week I was somewhat disappointed, as I was half-way through reading it, to sell our only copy of Nicholas Barton's The lost rivers of London, a fascinating book that started out as a PhD thesis. Barton documents the history of rivers such as the Fleet and Walbrooke; although long since piped and buried, they still remain an influence on placenames, surface features and underground planning.
      There's a nice map at The Open Guide to London Lost Rivers page, and a good overview at Barryoneoff's Rivers that disappeared. This defunct Heritage Magazine article, The Underground City, with topological map, gives more context on how the main rivers interact with other features. London Geezer's series of blog posts, Reviewing the Fleet is a superb study of the complex history of the River Fleet (now a sewer).
      For anyone with an interest in London of the past, Henry Mayhew's 1851 London Labour and the London Poor is more or less required reading. A three-volume compilation of an article series Mayhew wrote for the Morning Chronicle, it combines scholarly research with sympathetic interviews of a broad spectrum of people at the lower end of London's social scale. The account of Jack Black, " rat and mole destroyer to Her Majesty", gives an idea of the flavour.
      The Bolles Collection on the History of London has a full searchable text: for instance, accounts of the sham indecent trade (a con involving the sale of sealed packages of allegedly pornographic material, that turn out to contain rubbish); snail-sellers; death hunters (who sold false news of celebrity accidents); a depressed street clown; 'pure' finders (dog dung collectors); 'screevers' (who wrote begging letters for others); disaster beggars; and more. The full text is heavy going, especially to read online, but there are many selective editions about, such as a Penguin paperback. If you do want to tackle the full version, the first three volumes are the most interesting; the fourth 'Extra Volume' on prostitutes, beggars and thieves is mostly written by co-authors and (maybe out of coyness and/or legality) departs from Mayhew's detailed interview format in favour of lengthy dissertation and statistics.
      A third book recommendation for Londonophiles: Ronald Wright's A Scientific Romance. A book that rather fell between genres - literary and SF - this uses the vehicle of the HG Wells Time Machine to take the narrator, the archaeologist David Lambert, to the year 2500. If for nothing else, this book is worth reading for its stunning descriptions of Lambert's exploration of overgrown tropical London - one of a long history of apocalyptic visions of that city (see Where London Stood). - Ray