Thursday, 27 November 2008

Finnish folk roots

This is mostly not about books, but lately I've been getting into Finnish music. Finland has a very strong folk tradition. But it's one with a very intimate relationship with modern musical forms, a seamless connection in a way that doesn't seem to be sideline hybrid music into genre (such as "folk-rock" or - like the much under-rated Wurzels in the UK - "comic"); folk groups happily experiment with jazz, scat and electronica. Modern dance forms have readily evolved from folk forms, such as the jenkka and the letkajenkka (based on a schottische); and there's humppa (an astonishingly fast foxtrot style named after the German "oompah" band). The cult band Eläkeläiset ("The Pensioners") are hilarious performers of the latter, who do humppa cover versions of pop and and heavy metal: at YouTube, for instance, Humppamaratooni (Whiskey in the Jar, dubbed over the Metallica version) and Humppa Arvoitus (Nik Kershaw's The Riddle) and Ryhtivaliohumppaare (ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man) are representative.

EARWORM WARNING (Dec 2nd). Follow the asterisked links at your own risk! Ievan Polka is immensely catchy: so much so that there's a strong chance of your getting an earworm that lasts for days, as I've just found. I guess this is why it became an Internet meme. (If you've read the "Tenser, Said The Tensor" section of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, you'll know what I mean).

Moving away from the comic extreme, MetaFilter just mentioned *** Ievan Polkka (Eva's Polka) ***, a horribly catchy tune going way back (trad. arr. Eino Kettunen, 1930). But the MetaFilter version is *** this one *** sung a capella by the Finnish folk quartet Loituma. For whatever reason, Ievan Polkka has blossomed into an Internet meme via the strange decision to use it to back an animated manga character spinning a leek. Go figure.

Loituma themselves have done variants: see *** their MySpace page *** for "house" and "remix" versions, and YouTube for this *** upbeat pop version *** (an example of what I meant by Finnish folk grading seamlessly into mainstream). But the highlight there is a more reflective piece, Missing Him (called Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi on YouTube), a beautiful love song in close harmony backed with the kantele (Finnish zither). The lyrics, along with other songs from Loituma's album Things of Beauty, are here. It'd be a pity if Loituma's other work were buried by the very Internet hit that brought them to notice; their second album is In the Moonlight - full track here of Salaisia kyyneleitä (Secret Tears), which has a very Eastern European flavour.

Missing Him (the standard title - Jos Mun Tuttuni Tulisi - usually translated as If the One I Know Came Now) is Finland's most famous poem:

Should my treasure come
my darling step by
I'd know him by his coming
recognize him by his step
though he were still a mile off
or two miles away.
As mist I'd go out
as smoke I would reach the yard
as sparks I would speed
as flame I would fly;
I'd bowl along beside him
pout before his face.
I would touch his hand
though a snake were in his palm
I would kiss his mouth
though doom stared him in the face
I'd climb on his neck
though death were on his neck bones
I'd stretch beside him
though his side were all bloody.
And yet my treasure has not
his mouth bloody from a wolf
his hands greasy from a snake
nor his neck in death's clutches:
his mouth is of melted fat
his lips are as of honey
his hands golden, fair
his neck like a heather stalk

The words are late mediaeval, and were among those incorporated into the Kanteletar, the body of folk lyrics and poetry collated by Elias Lönnrot in parallel with his work compiling Finnish folkore into the epic Kalevala. The oldest known printed version was that noted down by the musician and ethnographer Giuseppe Acerbi on a trip to Lapland in 1799. In the mid-1800s, a Stockholm civil servant, Carl Gustav Zetterqvist, was so taken with the poem that he wrote around internationally and solicited 467 translations (they weren't published, but reside in the Elias Lönrot Collection, Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki). As with any orally transmitted text, there are variants such as these two, Finnish and Karelian, of a shorter version, the one Goethe translated in 1810 as Finnisches Lied.

Käm' der liebe Wohlbekannte,
Völlig so wie er geschieden:
Kuß erkläng' an seinen Lippen,
Hätt' auch Wolfsblut sie gerötet;
Ihm den Handschlag gäb' ich, wären
Seine Fingerspitzen Schlangen.

Wind! o hättest du Verständnis,
Wort' um Worte trügst du wechselnd,
Sollt auch einiges verhallen,
Zwischen zwei entfernten Liebchen.

Gern entbehrt' ich gute Bissen,
Priesters Tafelfleisch vergäß' ich
Eher, als dem Freund entsagen,
Den ich Sommers rasch bezwungen,
Winters langer Weis' bezähmte.

The poem also appears on Arctic Silence by Merja Soria, another exponent of vocal/kantele arrangements of ancient Finnish songs. A few samples, though not including Jos Mun Tuttuni Tulisi, are here. If you like this taster of Finnish folk music, there's more at, more or less the experimental wing of the Sibelius Academy of Music, where Loituma originated. See the recordings list: for musicians and groups marked "F" there are samples; for those marked "E", full tracks are available for download.
- Ray

Addendum: I'd wondered what "Loituma" means in Finnish. Tuulikannel at YouTube kindly checked it out: apparently it's the name of a lake in Karelia.

Addendum #2: I just saw (25 January 2009) that a new Ready Brek TV ad is using a version of Ievan Polkka.

See also:

Willows competitions update

From Academi (and elsewhere), Toad's Brave New World, a competition by The River & Rowing Museum

"to re-frame Kenneth Grahame’s famous book for the 21st Century by creating a short story (under 4,000 words) in a contemporary riverside setting which reflects a drastically changing world"

Ideas given include online dating, the credit crunch, environmental change, and so on. It's stressed that

"Entries don’t have to be about the River Thames, they can be about World Rivers and even mythical and fictional rivers. The brief is wide open for interpretation!"

Again, this looks interesting, though with a minor limitation that - looking at the small print in the entry form (PDF) - the readership for the story is age 5-16.

Meanwhile, the winner has been announced of the The Wind in the Willows Cover Competition, which asked young artists to illustrate the cover of the Vintage Classics centenary edition. The entry by Harry Jones was deservedly the winner, but all of the top four have very sophisticated composition (see the Times slideshow). Winners have also been announced for the Kenneth Grahame Society's competition to write a sequel, prequel or countertext to Wind in the Willows. The anthology will be published around March 8th 2009 (the 150th anniversary of Kenneth Grahame’s birth).

See the previous posts Wild at heart and Something wild for background.

- Ray

Addendum: you might be amused by my attempt, inspired by examples found for the Lurid classics post, at a pulp-style WITW cover.

The promised anthology from the Kenneth Grahame Society Competition came out a few months later than expected. The Society has also removed the discussion forum from its website.

The Kenneth Grahame Society Forum finally closed. It existed for about two years, and it had some interesting discussions and information. However, it was only used by a very small minority of the membership, and it often remained dormant for months at a time. At the 2009 AGM in Oxford it was agreed that the Forum, in such a dormant state, was no great credit to the name of Kenneth Grahame, and the decision to close it was approved. We would like to thank everyone who contributed postings to it over the years. All the information on it has been saved, and some of that will be repackaged and placed on the main website during forthcoming updates to the website.
Clare and I will admit to feeling a trifle miffed at not getting anywhere in this competition; mine (a countertext that retold Heart of Darkness as a post-apocalyptic river journey with Kim Newman style intertextuality) was trying a bit too hard to be clever, but Clare is regularly placed in writing competitions, and I thought her story (which used the WITW setting for a parable about xenophobia and global warming) could be faulted: it was heartwarming and stylistically impeccable. Honestly, it's not just sour grapes - the Society's handling of the anthology seemed a bit peculiar. The delay in publication, they explained on the now-defunct forum, was because some of the entries they'd chosen to anthologise weren't up to anthology standard, and needed work in collaboration with the Society to revise them. Seems to me that they shouldn't have been chosen, then ...

Addendum: I decided, rather than let my story languish on my computer, to post it here. See the update Wild at Heart.

- Ray

Friday, 21 November 2008

All at sea

Another film adaptation: The African Queen (Penguin edition left, original published in 1935) vs. The African Queen (the 1951 film). I've just read it, and it's good: not great literature, but a well-told adventure and romance with (as is usual) interesting diferences from the film. Charlie Allnutt is a Cockney in the book; he's 30 and Rose Sayer 33 (Bacall and Bogart were 44 and 52 when the film was made). There are minor plot differences too, mainly surrounding the sinking of the Königin Luise; the film, I think, is an improvement dramatically. However, the chief surprise for me - though the detail ought to be have been in plain sight - was that the book is by CS Forrester, author of the Horatio Hornblower series.

I didn't encounter the Hornblower books until quite late; my early teen reading included the melodramatic saga of a seafarer on the other side of the fence, Dr Syn, the creation of actor and author Russell Thorndike. I'd probably hate them now, going by the chronology at The Life and Times of the Rev. Doctor Christopher Syn, Parson, Smuggler, and Sometime Pirate. Christopher Syn is a respectable vicar whose wife Imogene is seduced and elopes with his friend, and so Syn becomes a pirate and stalks the pair around the world for a couple of decades (the books have the essentially sexist assumption that Imogene is a passive victim in the affair). Twice in his career, Syn murders almost his whole crew by blowing up his ship when he wants to quit piracy for the time being. He is, is at the least, an antihero. Hornblower is definitely more clean-cut, and the prototype of many fictional English naval heroes of the Napoleonic period. Check out Novels of Nelson's Navy for a list of the rather varied bunch: for instance, the rather neurotic Hornblower (based on Lord Nelson and Thomas Cochrane), the ultra-confident Ramage, and the tough but intellectual Jack Aubrey (also based on Cochrane).

Hornblower's influence, however, extends outside historical genre fiction; in Ansible's Hornblower in Space, Dave Langford discusses the many overt homages in science fiction. For instance, there are A. Bertram Chandler's Captain Grimes, David Feintuch's Nicholas Seafort, and David Weber's Honor Harrington series (space opera featuring a female Hornblower, with added homage to Nelson in losing an arm and eye *). Hornblower was also an influence in the characterisation of Star Trek's Captain Kirk (see C.S. Forester, Hornblower & the Hotspur) and Captain Jean-Luc Picard (see Becoming Picard). As another example of genre-crossing, Chris Roberson's Set the Seas on Fire - see interview - looks quite interesting as a novel that's more or less "Horatio Hornblower meets H.P. Lovecraft".

Langford mentions in particular Weber's "manic determination to keep space warfare tactics as similar as possible to nautical ones" by constructing the physics and technology so that, for instance, starships have to fire broadsides through a limited number of gaps in their shields. Much the same applies in the late Barrington Bayley's excellent The Fall of Chronopolis, in which Time Fleets sail the "strat" (the substratum of unrealised events underlying time), materialising to battle face-to-face at assigned "trysts" according to strict rules of engagement; ships, when damaged, "sink" into the strat.

While these are extreme examples, a general tendency toward naval trappings for interstellar craft runs through science fiction. At some level, while it might be silly to expect historical naval uniforms, this is logical. A large spacegoing craft would have similar concerns to a terrestrial ship - a habitable craft surrounded by a hostile medium, with necessary infrastructure for propulsion, steering, defence, chain of command, etc. However, such setups often make assumptions that are archaic even now, such as need for a large crew and even the general effectiveness of "battleships" (see Starship Combat Tactics for an analysis of this, and the necessarily strange assumptions required to explain ship-to-ship combat observed in the Star Trek and Star Wars canons). NASA's Starship 2040 is NASA's extrapolation of how a commercial spacecraft would be organised in reality. It looks rather different, with a far smaller crew and most of the infrastructure handled by computer. **

Hornblower has attracted a certain amount of parody. Inside SF, there's Harry Harrison's Captain Honario Harpplayer, who is colour-blind and unable to recognise that a press-ganged crew member is a green-skinned alien. Outside: the Mr Blowhard of Stephen Leacock's 1911 Soaked in seaweed: or upset in the ocean - one of his genre parodies in Nonsense Novels (Gutenberg E-text 4682) - may well come from the same stable, although I think Leaock wasn't on top form for this story, being clearly hostile to the genre, as suggested by the ending:

I fell ill. I died. I buried myself.Would that others who write sea stories would do as much.

- Ray

* Yeah, I know. Nelson didn't lose his eye. He lost the sight in his right eye at the siege of Calvi, but it wasn't disfigured and, contrary to general myth, fostered by the film That Hamilton Woman, he didn't wear an eyepatch. See The Telegraph and Fortean Times.
** Seriously interestingly, World War I battleships actually had computers. See the Argo Aim Corrector at the technology section of The Dreadnought Project, and also The Mechanical Analog Computers of Hannibal Ford and William Newell (PDF).

P.S. By coincidence, the Guardian books section just had a brief editorial In praise of ... Erskine Childers. If you're into nautical things, his The Riddle of the Sands (Gutenberg Etext 2360) is a classic for various reasons: its attention to detail, its role as an early pre-WWI invasion novel, and some say the first modern thriller.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Science bad and good: a review

Whether specifically applied to science or not, books that educate about rational thinking, and critique irrational/dishonest thinking and its practitioners, have a very long pedigree. Robert H Thouless' classic Straight and crooked thinking springs to mind, as do Darrell Huff's How to Lie with Statistics, Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science and Science : Good, Bad, and Bogus, and Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time.

There's always room for topical reanalysis, however, and this is the thrust of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, the spinoff book from his Guardian column of the same name. It concentrates mostly on bad science in relation to UK-based medicine and health: partly because Goldacre is a UK doctor; partly because this is a major arena of conflict between science and what's pejoratively called "woo". The material will be familiar to regular readers, who probably follow the Bad Science website too. But the newspaper pieces are necessarily short, and easily read as a series of loosely connected "whack-a-mole" episodes. The book corrals the moles, so to speak, drawing together and analysing recurring themes so that (in the words of Sir Iain Chalmers, Founder of the Cochrane Library) you can "become a more effective bullshit detector".

A brief tour by chapter: 1) "Matter" (detox methods). 2) Brain Gym. 3) The Progenium X-Y Complex. 4) Homeopathy. 5) The Placebo Effect. 6) The Nonsense du Jour (primarily about claims of nutritionists). 7) Dr Gillian McKeith PhD. 8) 'Pill Solves Complex Social Problem' (the Durham fish oil trials). 9) Professor Patrick Holford. 10) Is Mainstream Medicine Evil? 11) How the Media Promote the Public Misunderstanding of Science. 12) Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things. 13) Bad Stats. 14) Health Scares. 15) The Media's MMR Hoax. 16) And another thing.

The first three chapters start with the fish-in-a-barrel stuff as an appetiser: claims containing factual errors that are trivially debunkable (e.g. "detox" methods that demonstrably make the stuff claimed to be extracted from the body, or Brain Gym's claim that "processed foods don't contain water"). Then Goldacre gets to "the meat", first using the currently controversial homeopathy as focus to introduce some core tools for deciding if a treatment works - blinding, randomisation, and meta-analysis - before moving on to an extensive discussion of the strength of the placebo effect.

The next three chapters move on to the claims of nutritionists, beginning with general problems - such as cherry-picked data, invalid extrapolation to humans from test-tube results, and outright invention - then analysing the claims of Gillian McKeith and (via the Durham fish oil trial) Patrick Holford as modern, contrasting examples (one theatrical, one scientific in style) of a long-standing type of media health guru. Goldacre is not exclusively batting for the mainstream medical side; chapter 10 covers the similar and varied ways the pharmaceutical industry massages data to promote particular drugs.

The final half a dozen chapters attempt to identify causes for the general mess, and Goldacre points to two factors. One is human cognition (as a side effect of cognitive mechanisms dazzlingly successful in rapid processing of our world, the human brain - however clever - simply is wired to be hopeless at analysing statistics and other complex data). The other is the media, where standard story formats such as "formula for the perfect <whatever>", "maverick against the system", "miracle cure" and "hidden scare" almost always misrepresent science. The Daily Mail’s "ongoing mission to divide all the inanimate objects in the world into those that cause or cure cancer" gets a mention, as does the spate of tabloid MRSA stories based on tests by a completely unreliable expert, the late Dr Chris Malyszewicz. Another media story, discussed in detail, is the recent MMR/autism scare, where such factors produced a national media-propagated health-endangering myth that persisted long after the peer debunking of Dr. Andrew Wakefield's minority view. The book finishes with an exhortation for scientists to get involved, and not to get suckered into media-distorted versions of their work.

I admit I'm a regular at the Bad Science forum, and long since sympathetic to Ben Goldacre's view of things; it's hard to see the book as has having much surface appeal to enthusiasts of alternative medicine. However, I strongly recommend it to those readers, as Goldacre's approach is not as antagonistic as might be expected. Unlike the black-and-white pro-science authors of many books of this sort, he's thoroughly open to finding territories in common. For instance, he views "detox" procedures as a manifestation of an ancient, human and positive form of psychological cleansing ritual, that only becomes scammy when pseudoscientific fixtures are bolted on. Likewise, he regards the placebo effect as a fascinating, powerful and positive effect; again, only wrong when used unethically, such as prescribing a placebo for dangerous conditions such as malaria where it as no effect. His strongest criticisms of alternative medical belief systems are in areas such as their general hostility to evidence-based procedure and critical self-appraisal, and the egregious habit of chilling factual criticism by legal threats (expect a future out-take, removed from the book pending now-settled legal action, on exactly this point in relation to Matthias Rath).

Lack of critical self-appraisal applies also, of course, to newspaper and television; Bad Science mentions, for instance, various media refusals to reevaluate their MRSA scare stories even when eminent microbiologists pointed out problems with the methods of Dr Malyszewicz. The media is the main villain of the piece, with its immense power to influence public perception, coupled with its entrenched capacity for failure to 'get' science (perhaps due to persistence of the syndrome of CP Snow's 'Two Cultures' - newspapers sideline their specialist science writers, so front page scientific/medical stories are written by non-scientists). The book's overall flavour is cheerfully acerbic, but shot through with a sympathy for the human condition. People, in Goldacre's view, are emphatically not stupid; but they make better decisions about their health when not wilfully misinformed. Bad Science attacks those misinformers, not the believers.

Bad Science, Ben Goldacre, Fourth Estate, 2008, ISBN-10: 0007240198 ISBN-13: 978-0007240197.

- Ray

Monday, 17 November 2008

All the Rage

Via the greycat blog: All the Rage. This is an approximately monthly PDF-format zine, "an entertaining, poorly-designed, non-trendy response to lifestyle magazines" where "content has had to come before style", with highly eclectic coverage (imagine a more bijou version of things magazine or Cabinet) based on themed issues (Games, Heroes & Villains, Monsters, Dreams, and so on). See the All the Rage category at greycat for a regular summary of contents. PDF being a universal print format, its creators suggest that you "print it out and leave it somewhere when you've finished".
- Ray

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Madding adaptations

Having just finished the Tamara Drewe book (see the earlier post, Tamara Drewe - it was in the library, and I was too impatient to wait for Christmas) seems a good excuse to look at another book / film / film trio, Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd (Gutenberg EText 27) and two adaptations, John Schlesinger's 1967 version (probably the one most familiar) and Nicholas Renton's 1998 TV version.

In this case, they both have major merits. The Schlesinger pulls out all the stops visually and atmospherically, through the many recognisable Dorset locations - see the IMDb list - and its wistful soundtrack integrating thematically pertinent English folk, (such as The Bold Grenadier) and minor-key English pastoral score by Richard Rodney Bennett (also see YouTube - ignore the idiosyncratic animation). On the downside, I think Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene was miscast and the role misinterpreted, making her a smug tease rather than inexperienced; and the plot, though excellently adapted by Frederic Raphael to maintain the flavour of the novel and include some of the more distinctive dialogue, excised a deal of storyline in favour of clear-cut interpretation. For instance, the film shows Gabriel Oak wading in on minimal acquaintance to ask Bathesheba to marry him, making her refusal unsurprising; but in the book they actually have much more of a history (Bathsheba saved his life from smoke suffocation after he fell asleep in a badly-ventilated hut). Another omission was the fate of Boldwood, whose death sentence is commuted on grounds of insanity, following a petition, after the extent of his obsession is revealed. The 1998 version (if you don't mind Japanese subtitles, there are clips on YouTube - search for "FFTMC") is an altogether more low-key treatment, but incorporates much more of the text and considerably more subtle characterisation. For example, it follows the book in showing Bathsheba maintaining her composure after Troy is shot

"Gabriel." she said, automatically, when he entered, turning up a face of which only the well known lines remained to tell him it was hers, all else in the picture having faded quite. "Ride to Casterbridge instantly for a surgeon. It is, I believe, useless, but go. Mr.Boldwood has shot my husband."
- Far from the Madding Crowd, Gutenberg EText-No. 27

as opposed to her instant hysteria in the Schlesinger, notable for its 30+ consecutive utterances of "Frank" (this must be a record). I think the Renton wins on intelligence and authenticity to text; Schlesinger on emotional punch in conveying the "partly real, partly dream-country" nature of Hardy's Wessex.

That said, it's open to discussion whether authenticity to text is an automatic merit; an adaptation is a derivative work, and can do as the adapter likes, which may be an improvement. (In modern context, I can think of the Inspector Morse TV series, whose depressed intellectual hero is far more iconic than the rather seedy Morse of at least the early Colin Dexter novels; and the culturally-allusive and Oscar-winning Shrek animations compared to William Steig's naive and cumbersome picturebook).

Which text anyway? Far from the Madding Crowd first appeared in 1874 as a anonymous Cornhhill Magazine serial illustrated by Helen Paterson Allingham (see the Thomas Hardy Association site, or The Victorian Web for a detailed commentary); Hardy made major revisions for the 1895 book edition, and more in 1901. The term "Wessex", for instance, made its first brief appearance in the 1874, but Hardy later expanded references as it grew as a brand - see Hardy perennials).

While skimming, I noticed one such Wessex reference that I haven't previously seen explainaed, at the opening to Chapter 50:


GREENHILL was the Nijni Novgorod of South Wessex; and the busiest, merriest, noisiest day of the whole statute number was the day of the sheep fair.

This refers to Nizhny Novgorod, trade centre of the Russian Empire, which similarly had the annual Makaryev Fair. As the paper Hardy's "Pedantry" mentions (CH Salter, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Sep., 1973), pp. 145-164) the use of such erudite allusions got Hardy a deal of stick from critics. William Sharp (Thomas Hardy and his novels, 1892) called him "in point of diction the most Latinical writer we have had since Dryden and Milton". Argument about Latinisms is nothing new, then.

I'd quite forgotten I have a copy of Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage (RG Cox, Routledge, 1970) which collects contemporary reviews of Hardy's works. Much of the 1995 edition is viewable at Google Books, and the Far from the Madding Crowd reviews make interesting reading. Although the novel more or less cemented Hardy's reputation, the general tone of reviewers was to praise the originality of setting and scenario, but criticise the style. The unsigned Athenaeum review noted the "penny-a-liner" phraseology and Hardy's habit of putting astonishingly erudite language into the mouths of supposedly illiterate countrypersons

"Yes." continued William," they pranced down the street playing "The Girl I Left Behind Me." so 'tis said, in glorious notes of triumph. Every looker-on's inside shook with the blows of the great drum to his deepest vitals, and there was not a dry eye throughout the town among the public-house people and the nameless women!"

RH Hutton, in The Spectator, echoed this view that Hardy's rural characters are uniformly too erudite for belief:

The whole class of hoers, sowers, ploughmen, reapers &c., are – if Mr Hardy’s pictures are to be trusted – the most incredibly amusing and humorous persons you ever came across, full of the quaintest irony and the most comical speculative intelligence.

Andrew Lang, in Academy, spotted this too, further noting that the country folk in the story had "not heard of strikes, or of Mr. Arch". This comment deserves more analysis, in that "Weatherbury" is based on the real-world Puddletown, only a couple of miles from Tolpuddle, home of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Despite the authenticity of detail in many respects, the Far from the Madding Crowd novel doesn't appear to be socially and politically savvy. While Hardy's Wessex is anything but idyllic - personal tragedies abound - it does embody a very recognisable stereotype of the timeless countryside to which Hardy adaptations, particularly the 1967 film, do tend to play. As I've said before - see Views of the countryside - it's a very English yearning, and I think Hardy played a strong role in fostering it. Wessex as "partly real, partly dream-country" goes deep.

- Ray

Monday, 10 November 2008

Flight of the Phoenix

Plate from The Flight of the Phoenix: click to enlarge.

Watching the 2004 Flight of the Phoenix (a remake of the 1965 film) night prompted me to re-read Elleston Trevor's 1964 novel The Flight of the Phoenix.

The book and two films make an interesting comparison. Robert Aldrich's classic 1965 b&w 1 film was a more or less direct adaptation of the novel, with the exception of turning the aircraft designer Stringer into a German, Heinrich Dorfmann, using the already typecast Hardy Krüger. This was a clever move, using the German stereotype of analytical thought and efficiency in contrast with the grizzled pilot Towns' aviation-by-instinct, as well as introducing still pertinent tensions about German post-war success. The remake turned the character into "Elliott" - a character one might diagnose as somewhere on the autism spectrum, which is more or less as Stringer is in the book too. Otherwise, while by no means a bad film, the 2004 remake dropped into a number of standard Hollywood formats, such as the switch to American characters (multiracial cast and token woman) and the urge to sanitize (nobody ever looks terribly dehydrated, and some of the darker personal incidents are removed, such as the injured man who commits suicide to conserve water for the other survivors, and the mutinous Sergeant Watson who laughs at his officer's death). Add to that the urge to embroider the story with exciting incidents (deadly sandstorms, lightning, explosions, marauding horsemen, a scary cliff, etc); and the general desire to tell the backstory and detail the post-rescue outcome. The book, in contrast, begins in mid-flight

The wind had flung the sand thirty thousand feet into the sky above the desert in a blinding cloud from the Niger to the Nile, and somewhere in it was the aeroplane.

and ends simply with the Phoenix landing at the El Araneb garrison

Out of the desert there came seven men, and a monkey.

Elleston Trevor (born Trevor Dudley-Smith, and working under a variety of pseudonyms) is little known now, but was astonishingly prolific. His other best-known works are the "Quiller" espionage series, but I think The Flight of the Phoenix is still the most iconic. It's a good example of a book that makes what's basically an engineering story - complete with diagram, above - gripping through powerfully emotional character interaction. The historical/political context of the story (US/British post-WWII oil exploration teams in the Sahara in the days of the Kingdom of Libya, when Britain had a 20-year concession to maintain military bases) is of course long gone, though perhaps there are equivalents elsewhere of the "Goolie Chit" mentioned in the book.

I'd often wondered, as it was before the days of CGI, whether the Phoenix in the first film was actually an aeroplane that could fly. It was (though actually two). The first, called the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, crashed, leading to the death of the pilot Paul Mantz; flying sequences were completed using a North American O-47A painted to resemble the first. See The Final Flight of the "Phoenix" at the generally interesting aviation history site Check-Six. Talking of aviation history, the book and first film mention - when Stringer/Dorfmann argues why his design should work - the history of self-powered heavier-than-air model aircraft prior to manned flights, particularly the work of Henson and Stringfellow. More background at Flying Machines.

P.S. The Flight of the Phoenix is dedicated to "the great Wally Thomas". This was a bit of a bibliographic puzzle until I found an auction lot description

TREVOR Elleston, The Flight of the Phoenix 1964, dw., an uncorrected Proof Copy of The Flight of the Phoenix mole's Castle 1950 with presentation inscription to Marilyn Thomas (daughter of Wally Thomas), signed by author and THOMAS Wally, Life In My Hands, 1961 reprint, dw with a Thank you letter for Princess Grace o Monaco dated 1961 (Elleston Trevor, Wally Thomas and Princess Grace were acquaintances)

which identifies it as referring to Wally Thomas, author of the 1960 autobiographical Life in my hands, which tells of his rehabiliation at St Dunstan's after losing his sight and hearing during his work in bomb disposal.

1. I stand corrected (thanks, Scot). I've seen it any number of times, and can'timagine how I thought it was black and white. See the intro on YouTube.

Addendum: I've no evidence, but it seems a strong possibility that the novel was inspired by the Lady Be Good incident, when a American B-24D Liberator bomber crashed in the Libyan desert through a navigation error in 1943 - the survivors died of thirst - and the virtually intact aircraft wasn't rediscovered until 1958. The 1964 review of the novel in Air Pictorial: Journal of the Air League, Volume 26, noted the similarity of scenario. See the post Sole survivor (9th March 2011) for more on this.

- Ray

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

"Latin ban": nothing to see, folks

A Telegraph story - Councils ban 'elitist' and 'discriminatory' Latin phrases, now copied worldwide - had various academic bloggers aerated a few days ago. It's bonkers to ban Latin said Mary Beard; Anti-Latin P.C. poppycock said Geoff Pullum at Language Log; "gibbering idiocy" said Language Hat at Banning Latin.

Skip to the key analysis: Anatomy of a manfactured controversy from Gareth Rees, who rightly suspected both the facts and the agenda, and identifies the ingredients: a reactionary polemicist and selective reportage of Bournemouth City Council's initiative
"... to encourage plain, appropriate and easily-understood language. This includes considering whether or not various phrases, including jargon and Latin, are appropriate for the particular audience that the information is aimed at".
- Use of Latin words - Inaccurate reporting in recent national media, press release, Bournemouth City Council
If you like English peppered with Latin (or even more peppered, since it already is), check out Carmen Possum; and the intro to Umberto Eco's Baudolino, whose central character tells his story in an English (Italian in the original) mixed with Latin and various European languages of the 12th century.

P.S. While reading around this topic, I ran into a fine example of recency illusion (not to mention, lack of linguistic research) in a Times piece in the same vein as the recent Telegraph one:
So we are solving the difficulty in a natural way. Instead of inventing a funny neutral pronoun, we are bending another "rule" of grammar. We say: "Why should anyone plan their own funeral?" "Every child must bring their own picnic." "We don't want anyone to hurt themselves." "It must have been someone who wanted to clear their conscience." We are busting the old rule of agreement of number between the parts of a sentence. We do it to avoid the clumsiness of "his or her". We do it for fear of being exposed as a male chauvinist. We do it because it is politically correct. And it is becoming correct. That is the way language changes.
- A new sex-neutral pronoun would make it easier for anyone to speak their mind, Philip Howard, The Times, May 10, 2002
See (again) Everybody loves their Jane Austen on the antiquity and ubiquity of singular "their" as a genderless construct in English.

- Ray

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Hillfinger quotes

I propose a term - "the Hillfinger" - for a false celebrity quotation.

Terms already exist (misquotations, spurious quotations) but I think it needs something more eccentric (like the "mondegreen" for misheard song lyrics, and the "Mountweazel" - see Mountweazels and other fictions - for deliberate copyright traps in maps). Why "Hillfinger"? Because a false celebrity quotation is a fake designer label product, akin to the fake designer products imitating, say, Tommy Hilfiger jeans that are given away by misspellings like "Hillfinger".

I hadn't realised until yesterday how major the phenomenon is, during discussion at a Language Log thread, Did Plato say this?. This concerned a quotation, found in many variants, generally credited to Plato:

The wise talk because they have something to say; fools talk because they have to say something

Extensive searching finds no such attribution. Quite by coincidence, Mrs Ray asked me about an alleged Gandhi quotation:

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

and this morning the Language Log thread raised another, this allegedly by Ruskin:

"Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort"

Same problem. Maire Smith wrote there: "I've been looking for a source for over a year now and haven't found a thing".

Hillfingers are astonishingly rife. Arnold Zwicky, who raised the subject at LL said "There's a huge tradition of folk quotation, almost entirely removed from scholarship". Faith, commenting, said: "There are a million of these things and librarians spend our days trying to debunk them", citing the Jefferson Library's Spurious Quotes page, the Institute for Intercultural Studies page about its own motto, which even they accept probably wasn't said by Margaret Mead, and the Plato FAQ showing the "Only the dead have seen the end of war" (quoted in Black Hawk Down) also to be apocryphal. Here's another one: Lincoln never said that by Thomas F. Schwartz at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency site.

For writers, a simple rule to follow is: even if it's in a dictionary of quotations, don't quote unless you've actually verified it's in the work cited. Otherwise, you may easily be propagating a Hillfinger.

As to the quotations mentioned above, again it's feasible for anyone these days to use Google Books to trace quotation origins. Just use the "text1" "text2" date=yyyy-yyyy format or similar, bearing in mind the possibility of variants, to search on key phrases within a date bracket (e.g. wise "say something" "something to say" date:1900-2008. By an iterative search, adjusting dates, you find where a quotation took off. On that basis:

Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they would like to say something.

Via collective search at Language Log: first appeared in 1903 credited to Anon in Proverbial Wisdom: Proverbs, Maxims and Ethical Sentences, of Interest to All Classes of Men by Abram N. Coleman, and credited to Plato in A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, Both Ancient and Modern by Tryon Edwards, 1908. Perhaps evolved from a statement in Elements of Rhetoric, Richard Whately, 1858.

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

There's no traceable atttribution to Gandhi for this one, beloved of counter-culture and alternative medicine proponents. It became popular post-2000, but the oldest modern quote is in the 1993 Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, which cites a variant to the Labour politician Tony Benn ("First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you"). Then there is a sole quote for 1914: "First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you". Guess who? Not Gandhi but an American trade union speech: General Executive Board Report and Proceedings [of The] Biennial Convention, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, 1914.

"Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort"

As Maire Smith said, not Ruskin. It appears in many variants, but the general expansion in this Hillfinger tracks to the 1940s on the American industrial-technical circuit.

The Internet is a major factor in the propagation of Hillfingers, mainly through the many sites such as QuoteDB or BrainyQuote that offer online quotes of unknown provenance, with no mechanism for dispute or correction. Probably most of these get their data from the open source user-contributed Wikiquote. Its brief - see What is Wikiquote? - explicitly includes the aim of accuracy via research ("Where possible, we try to cite sources: preferably those in which the quotation first appears, otherwise notable attribution of the quotations. We try to find those quotes which are misattributed, clearly label them and research how the misattribution came about"). The reality is, unfortunately, that people just add quotes indiscriminately. Wikiquote's Gandhi page, for instance, has a long "unsourced" section with little sign of analysis, despite the existence of an excellent site, Epigrams from Gandhiji, where S. R. Tikekar gives checkable origin data for a large corpus of Gandhi quotes. (There's a project for someone).

26 November 2009: the italicised section above is now outdated. I'm pleased to see that Wikiquote has more or less formalised rules that unsourced quotes arent permitted: see the new post, In praise of Wikiquote.

- Ray

Addendum, Nov 29th 2008. A further exercise for the reader: track down attribution for the Gandhi quotation cited in this Prince Charles lecture.

It was a question from a newspaper correspondent back in the 1930s that drew from Mahatma Gandhi one of his pithiest responses. During his visit to Britain he was asked what he thought of Western Civilisation, to which he replied, "it would be a very good idea."

Of course it's generally attributed, but citations never say which newspaper, and a look at Google Books finds no instances of the story until the late 1960s, two decades after Gandhi's death and after he had become a countercultural icon.

Addendum: see Tracking bee story for a Hillfinger attributed to Einstein.

Addendum 2: Unreal Nature just cited a New Yorker article, Notable Quotables by Louis Menand, reviews the Yale Book of Quotations, discussing in detail the phenomenon of misquotation (it concentrates on mutation for maximum pithiness rather than misattribution). See also Looking at Language: Get the Quote Right!, an article on the same topic by Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. This is a particularly good source; any credible book of quotations should cite exactly where the quotation came from. One the other side of the coin, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions (Paul F. Boller, John H. George, Oxford University Press US, 1989) looks good too.

- Ray

Monday, 3 November 2008

Notes and Queries

I had an interesting little task today: answering a question by a friend of one of Mrs Ray's friends, who suspected anachronism in Andrew Davies' use of the phrase "You're cramping my style" in the current BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit. The author of the Assorted Ramblings blog had the same concern - see The language of the classics (02 November 2008 @ 06:44 pm post). It turned out to be pretty easy to debunk this as an example of "recency illusion"; the OED alone cites it back to 1819

c. Phr. to cramp one's style: to restrict one's natural actions or behaviour.

[1819 LAMB Let. 7 June (1935) II. 250, I will never write another letter with alternate inks. You cannot imagine how it cramps the flow of the style.] 1917 A. WOOLLCOTT Let. 2 Sept. (1944) 26, I think the very fact of a censorship cramps one's style. 1919 Punch 9 Apr. 283 (caption) Cramping his style. 1923 Saucy Stories 1 Nov. 124/1, I always go out with Edith... Edith never cramps my style.

but Google Books finds many more examples, showing it to be well established in the fully modern sense pre-1920, and even earlier (e.g. 1800-1900) applied to handwriting, physical or literary style ("cramp", then as now, means "constrain" in this sense) such as

"freed from that dry severity of ratiocination which never fails to cramp the style of ordinary mathematicians, when writing on theological subjects."
- Horsley's sermons, The Quarterly Review, William Gifford, John Taylor Coleridge, John Gibson Lockhart, William Macpherson, William Smith, John Murray. Published by J. Murray, 1813

and even down to the early 1700s, in an anonymous poem congratulating John Dryden on his translation of Virgil and taking a dig at earlier Dutch translators, particularly Joost van den Vondel:

The heavy Dutchmen, with laborious toil, Wrested his sense, and cramp'd his vig'rous style.
- To Mr Dryden on his Excellent translation of Virgil, The Works of Virgil: Containing His Pastorals, Georgics, and Aeneis By Virgil, John Dryden, Knightly Chetwood. Translated by John Dryden. Published by Printed for J. Tonson, 1721

It's probably even pre-1700, since Dryden's The Works of Virgil came out in 1697, and the anon poet wouldn't have waited 20+ years to write a fan letter. Of course, this doesn't quite resolve the problem. If a usage grates with the audience because it's widely perceived as an anachronism (even though it isn't) should a writer risk using it? Difficult: I'm with historical precedent all the way, but it's a somewhat political decision if the writer isn't solely in charge of the choice. See the Comments for further discussion.

In a similar vein to the above excursion, I've enjoyed linguistics blog Language Log's etymological detective threads such as Did Plato say this? (tracking an apparent fake attribution of an epigram to Plato), Every little (bit?) helps (another back-tracking of an apparently modern expression), the previously mentioned Giveth and taketh, and Mumfordishness: an appeal (who was Mumford?).

Where did people go to get historical-etymological questions answered before Google Books and web forums like Yahoo Answers? Notes and Queries. This is not its modern relative in the Guardian (interesting though that is) but the far more venerable journal described in A Victorian virtual community (Patrick Leary, Victorian Review, Vol. 25: 2 (Winter 2000) 62-79. In comparison with Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet (which argues a convincing analogy, technologically and culturally, between the Internet and telegraph), Leary likens the 1849-founded Notes and Queries to the Internet forum ("N&Q provided access to an unparalleled flow of textual information within a community defined by the terms of that exchange" - and to be blunt, those terms were sheer geekiness of interest ("minutiae about old manuscripts, obscure incidents, forgotten customs, and local lore"). It's rather at the level of Cecil Torr's Small talk at Wreyland, and it's unsurprising that Torr's books were advertised in the journal and frequently cited.

It's wonderful stuff. The 1849-1869 editions are digitised here at the Internet Library of Early Journals; and some, in more convenient plaintext format, are at Project Gutenberg. The journal Notes and Queries, its flavour not much altered, does still exist as a subscription journal from Oxford University Press (home page here, from which you can access a full archive of contents lists).

- Ray

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Romeo and Juliet attribution trail

A friend regularly drops us in the puzzle page from the weekend Telegraph, which as a by-product comes with Kate Weinberg's "Culture Clinic" column (a celebrity answers standard questions and is then prescribed a film, a book and a musical work). More often than not, this produces interesting literary snippets; this week's, featuring Jerry Hall, mentioned the origin of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in a work 50 years previously by Luigi da Porto, a Vicenzan nobleman.

This is slightly oversimplifying; the attribution trail for Romeo and Juliet is fascinating. Luigi da Porto became a writer after being invalided out of his career as a soldier, and in 1524 wrote Istoria novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti (Newly discovered story of two noble lovers). As to how Shakespeare encountered the story, the usual version - see Da Porto, Luigi at MSN Encarta - is that the primary influence was a third-hand translation, the 1562 The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke (also spelt Broke). The full text is on Google Books Shakespeare's Library: A Collection of the Ancient Romances, Novels, Legends, Poems, and Histories, Used by Shakespeare as the Foundation of His Dramas, John Payne Collier, T. Rodd, 1850 - which is overall extremely interesting (see the contents page) as a compendium of little-known precursors. How Romeus became Romeo discusses the texts in comparison; it's hard to disagree with its conclusion that the Brooke is pretty dull and poorly paced. For instance, Shakespeare's intro

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

is masterful in its condensation of the Brooke equivalent text

THERE is beyonde the Alps, a towne of auncient fame,
Whose bright renoune yet shineth cleare, Verona men it name ;
Bylt in an happy time, bylt on a fertile soyle :
Maynteined by the heavenly fates, and by the townish toyle.
The fruitefull hilles above, the pleasant vales belowe,
The silver streame with chanel depe, that through the towne doth flow ;
The store of springes that serve for use, and eke for ease :
And other moe commodities, which profite may and please;
Eke many certayne signes of thinges betyde of olde,
To fyll the houngry eyes of those that curiously beholde ;
Doe make this towne to be preferde above the rest
Of Lumbard townes, or at the least compared with the best.
In which whyle Escalus as prince alone did raigne,
To reache rewarde unto the good, to paye the lewde with payne,
Alas (I rewe to thinke) an heavy happe befell :
Which Boccace skant (not my rude tonge) were able forth to tell.
Within my trembling hande, my penne doth shake for feare,
And, on my colde amased head, upright doth stand my heare.
But sith shee doth commaunde, whose hest I must obaye,
In moorning verse, a woful chaunce to tell I will assaye.
Helpe, learned Pallas, helpe, ye Muses with your art,
Helpe, all ye damned feends to tell of joyes retournd to smart.
Help eke ye sisters three, my skillesse pen tindyte :
For you it causd which I (alas) unable am to wryte.
There were two auncient stockes, which Fortune high did place
Above the rest, indewd with welth, and nobler of their race,
Loved of the common sort, loved of the prince alike,
And like unhappy were they both, when Fortune list to strike.
Whose prayse with equal blast, Fame in her trumpet blew ;
The one was cliped Capelet, and thother Montagew.
A wonted use it is, that men of likely sorte, (
I wot not by what furye forsd) envye eche others porte
So these, whose egall state bred envye pale of hew,
And then of grudging envyes roote, blacke hate and rancor grewe.
As of a little sparke, oft ryseth mighty fyre,
So of a kvndled sparke of grudge, in flames flashe oute theyr yre :
And then theyr deadly foode, first hatchd of trifling stryfe,
Did bathe in bloud of smarting woundes ; it reved breth and lyfe.

The Brooke version tracks back to da Porto, being a loose translation of Matteo Bandello's 1554 version (based on da Porto's). Opinion is divided over whether Brooke got it direct from the Bandello version or the 1559 French translation by Pierre Boaistuau. To make things even more complicated, da Porto's Istoria novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti is itself derived from an earlier text by Masuccio Salernitano (1410-1480) whose Il Novellino No. XXXIII is a short story about a doomed pair of lovers in Siena. The Salernitano, da Porto, Bandello and Shakespeare texts are conveniently bundled together in Romeo and Juliet, compiled Adolph Caso, trans. Percy Pinkerton, Branden Books, 1992, ISBN 0937832324 (Google Books allows extensive preview). In all this, however, da Porto comes out as the chief innovator in bringing the plot into its Shakespearean form; da Porto moved the setting from Siena to Verona and introduced many recognisable characters: Romeo and Giulietta from the feuding families Montecchi and Capelletti, along with a Marcuccio, Thebaldo and Friar Lorenz.

It'd be surprising if this were the end of the story. For instance, Nicholas A Patricca - see "Shakespeare in Love"—The Supressed Italian Connection - argues convincingly that Shakespeare didn't necessarily work from Brooke and could have had access to Italian sources. Patricca mentions that the Elizabethan court had strong links with the Italian Renaissance arts/literary circuit, and that Shakespeare had particular connections with John Florio and the Bassano family. Other relevant names as possible sources include François de Belleforest (whose Histoires tragiques came from Bandello) and William Painter (whose 1566/75 The Palace of Pleasure includes Romeo and Juliet.

Understanding Romeo and Juliet: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents (Alan Hager, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999, ISBN 0313296162, 9780313296161) goes deeper still, summarising possible narrative backgrounds in even older parted-lover stories such as Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe (which of course Shakespeare knew, and which has the motif of one lover's suicide on mistakenly thinking the other dead) and Xenophon's complicated story of the Ephesian lovers Anthea and Habrocomes (which has the motif of feigned-death-by-potion to avoid marriage to a Perilaos - "so close in sound to Paris"). In short, Shakespeare was swimming in a sea of influences.
- Ray