Saturday, 24 November 2007

Dr Johnson as he really was

This is pure trivia, but I was struck this week by what a good casting Alfred Molina would make for Samuel Johnson. His picture, left, from the 24th November Radio Times shows a striking resemblance to Johnson as portrayed in the Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait, circa 1769, NPG 1445 in the National Portrait Gallery. You can see a bigger version on the cover of this CDC publication, and a different version of the same portrait here.

 Less trivially, much as I admire Robbie Coltrane's memorable portrayals of Johnson both in the Blackadder episode Ink and Incapability and the serious 1993 drama, Boswell & Johnson's Tour of the Western Isles, we have yet to see an attempt to portray Johnson as he truly was. The central omission is Johnson's documented mannerisms. This Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine paper, Doctor Samuel Johnson: 'the great convulsionary' a victim of Gilles de la Tourette's syndrome, provides extensive contemporary documentation, by Boswell and others, that Johnson suffered from a wide variety of tics and strange physical mannerisms, along with complex rituals and repetitive behaviours, consistent with Tourette's syndrome. This syndrome is also associated, in many cases, with creativity and quickness of thought consistent with Johnson's reputation for wit and clever disputation.

Even if you disagree with this specific diagnosis, the descriptions are clear enough to show that the standard portrayal of Johnson - stolid, pompous, with no abnormality of mannerism - is simply way off the mark. It would be interesting to see some production attempting to accurately portray this aspect of Johnson, which was fundamental to his personality and how others viewed him. It would require a tour de force of acting to do so, but not an impossible one (compare Daniel Day Lewis's engaging portrayal of Christie Brown in My Left Foot). The problem would be that going against a stereotype always carries the risk of being unbelievable.

- Ray

Saturday, 17 November 2007


On Wednesday Joel Segal Books hosted the launch of Richard Bradbury's new novel Riversmeet, a book which provides a fascinating focus of topics. Riversmeet is primarily a fictionalised account, told via correspondence, of the 1848 British tour by the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
      A former slave, Douglass become one of the leading voices for abolitionism in the 19th century; in 1845, to pre-empt any suspicions of lack of bona fides, he published an autobiography of his early life (a risky act as revealing his identity opened him to re-enslaved: even in northern states that didn't practise slavery, he could be recaptured on grounds of theft - of himself). Richard Bradbury has also written a play about him, Become a Man. He later spoke up for women's rights too, and was a powefully radical voice, whose message on changing the status quo is as relevant now as it was in his time.
      Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.
      At one level Riversmeet is an account of 19th century British culture, told through the standard vehicle of an outsider narrator, in a time of growing radicalism and social upheaval. The real-life Douglass knew the Irish nationalist Daniel O'Connell, and in the book Douglass' story is interwoven with that of another fugitive, Eamonn MacDonagh from Ireland, and touches on the Chartist movement, and the role of displaced Irish immigrants in events that eventually led to Irish independence (Douglass was in Britain at the time of the Irish Potato Blight, in the year of the Young Irelander Rebellion).
      The book is published by The Muswell Press, an independent publisher set up by Ruth Boswell, the TV producer behind the classic Timeslip TV serial, initially to publish a collection of the art of her late husband, James Boswell. Riversmeet's subtext fits well with Boswell's work; as "unofficial war artist", he produced now highly acclaimed work (see the Tate and the James Boswell Home Page). His politics and anti-establishment stance, however, probably prevented him getting official status; he was in the Communist Party pre-WW2, and his work often has an anti-establishment flavour, such as his Fall of London prints depicting what appears to be a revolutionary war in a ruined London. His sketchbooks produced while serving in Iraq are hardly typical war art, taking the form of dark and surreal fantasies that sprang from rage-inducing boredom (see the Tate archive special, James Boswell).
      Riversmeet, by the way, takes its title from the location and house of that name in Topsham, where the Clyst meets the Exe. The location features in the book, the meeting of rivers allegorical for the confluence of major social forces. The cover design is a photo of Riversmeet, one of a number by Annie Pomeroy.

Addendum, 3rd December 2007: Socialist Worker has just published an informative review, Frederick Douglass and Riversmeet: connecting 19th century struggles, that goes into more detail about the historical context.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007


Current reading: Edwin Abbott Abbott's 1884 classic Flatland (subtitled A Romance of Many Dimensions); it's available online here and elsewhere. Flatland is a curious book, early science fiction set in a two-dimensional universe whose inhabitants are polygons. However, apart from being an adventure within this scenario, it's also a satire on class and gender roles, and also tackles meetings with creatures living in different dimensions, particularly when a Sphere appears and convinces the square Flatlander narrator of the existence of a third dimension. The narrator, enlightened, tries to spread the word, but is viewed as heretical, and even the Sphere is closed to the possibility of four and higher dimensions, but is unsuccessful. Abbott was a theologian, and the religious allegory of this is fairly overt. Nevertheless, Flatland is very readable and has been highly influential in inspiring adaptations, including a 2007 animated film (with slight cultural updates). If you don't mind mild spoilers, see The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, a detailed American Mathematical Society review by AK Dewdney, and there are more references at Wikipedia.

Addendum: see also More from Flatland, which looks at Dewdney's The Planiverse.

- Ray

Sunday, 11 November 2007


I remember from years back encountering some purportedly French poems and their translations. For instance: Reine, reine, gueux éville / Gomme àgaine, en horreur, taie (Queen, queen, arose the rabble / Who use their girdles, horrors, as pillow slips). Some obscure rhyme from the French Revolution? No, it comes a 1967 book by Louis d'Antin van Rooten, Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames, which is a compilation of a supposed "d'Antin Manuscript" - actually English nursery rhymes translated into French spelling and accompanies them with scholarly notes (see some examples here).

The always excellent Language Log, a weblog written by professors of linguistics and closely related fields, mentioned this book recently, and took an excursion into the whole territory of this cross-language play. See Autour-du-mondegreens: bunkum unbound. "Mondegreens" are mishearings of song lyrics; the name derives, as Mondegreens: A Short Guide explains, from the Anerican writer Sylvia Wright hearing a line in the folksong Lord Moray as They had slain the Earl of Moray / And Lady Mondegreen (actually they laid him on the green).

Language Log looks at the phenomenon when the source is in another language. While such mishearings can be spontaneous, there's also a popular genre in deliberating deconstructing songs into pseudo-English for comic effect. One Tamil choreographer, actor and film director Prabhu Deva Sundaram, is now widely known in the West as "Benny Lava" after such treatment of the vid of his Bollywood-style song Kalluri Vaanil (there's a somewhat out-of-synch proper translation here). Some of the English words are non-accidental, songs in Indian films being generally macaronic; the song comes from a movie featuring a love story between medical students, hence the words "stethoscope", "scanning" and "operation".

- Ray