Wednesday, 30 December 2009

More fierce and most fierce of all...

Professor Arnold Zwicky at Language Log - see Inflected Adj/Adv - commented recently on the phenomenon of people objecting to superlatives on certain adjectives. That is, they'll say that adjectiver and adjectivest aren't words, and that more adjective and most adjective must be used. In some cases, this reflects genuine rarity: constructs that are totally unidiomatic. More often, though, it's an arbitrary judgement going against solid evidence of usage. Professor Zwicky offers the following list of words about which this complaint has been documented...

bitter, clever, common, cross, fond, highly, ill, often, open, pleasant, quickly, real, right, serious, solid, strict, stupid, vast, winning, wrong

... and asked for more examples seen in the wild. I just ran into one on Yahoo! Answers:

Fierce, Fiercer, Fiercest, are the last two even words?

Fiercer and fiercest just don't sound right to my ears. Shouldn't it be "fierce, more fierce and most fierce"? I heard these words used on the history channel and it is bothering me, they don't sound right.

It seemed so weird that I couldn't resist debunking it, along with a response that "fiercer" and "fiercest" are down to recent decline of the language. Actually, both words come with the highest credentials and a long history.

"Secure from Flames, from Envy's fiercer rage" - Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism
"The fiercer the fight, still the fiercer we grow" - Robert Southey
"But what can shield my heart from fiercer love?" - James Boswell
"The storm grew fiercer and fiercer" - Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
"And hurl her thunderbolts with fiercer hand!" - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"This continued, growing fiercer and fiercer" - Ulysses S Grant, Personal Memoirs
"wilder and wilder, and fiercer and fiercer" - Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad
" I dealt too flippantly with the fiercer kind of Suffragette" - GK Chesterton
"The wind came through the tree fiercer and fiercer" - DH Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
"a Kanga was Generally Regarded as One of the Fiercer Animals" - AA Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
"and the sun was fiercer every minute" - George Orwell, Burmese Days

"the strongest and the fiercest spirit" - Milton, Paradise Lost
"strike terror even into the fiercest creatures" - Robinson Crusoe again
"Madness - fiercest madness" - PB Shelley, Zastrozzi
"In one of the fiercest of these repeated assaults" - Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
"At length the fiercest heart will quail" - Thoreau
"put on their fiercest looks to stare all comers out of countenance" - Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby
" his temper was of the hottest and fiercest" - Dickens again, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
"He had the bluest, fiercest, most pointed eyes" - DH Lawrence, The Rainbow

My case rests.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Dickensian Christmases lesser known

Whatever his social messages, Charles Dickens was a solidly commercial writer, and followed up on the success 1 of the 1843 A Christmas Carol, he followed up with a series of titles with a similar mix of social campaigning and good cheer. As the Christmas Books page at David Perdue's Charles Dickens site says:

Although subsequent Christmas books sold well at the time of their initial release, they have not enjoyed the staying power of A Christmas Carol.

They were: The Chimes: a goblin story of some bells that rang an old year out and a new year in (1844); The Cricket on the Hearth: a fairy tale of home (1845); The Battle of Life: a love story (1846); and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848).  Dickens stopped the series at that point, but continued to produce shorter-format Christmas works for magazines: see Project Gutenberg for the collection Some Christmas Stories, which includes A Christmas tree, What Christmas is as we grow older, The poor relation's story, The child's story, The schoolboy's story and Nobody's story.

1. One should say qualified success; as Why A Christmas Carol was a flop for Dickens explains, it was popular and sold well, but his demanding requirements for the binding and artwork consumed most of the profits.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

A Devonshire Christmas

Best wishes of the season to all our readers.

Click to enlarge - Scrooge's third visitor, John Leech illustration for 1843 first edition of Dicken's A Christmas Carol. I don't think I'll have that pudding at the back, that's been in contact with a dead pig and someone's foot.

A Devonshire Christmas


How goes it, Father Christmas?—
Oh picking—picking—along!
But give me a piece of crumple-cheese
And you shall hear my song.
Ay, settle your chestnuts down to roast,.
And fill me a cup of ale;
Then kiss the girl that you fancy most,
And you shall hear my tale.


Froth him a cup of the home-brewed
That is both old and strong!
How goes it, Father Christmas?—
Oh picking—picking—along.


From Adam and Eve to the Magi,
The ghosts of the old time fade;
And I, myself, would be laid on the shelf
If it weren't for the mirth I've made :
And yet, tho' our youth in Paradise
Be a fable past recall,
We have seen the glory of sinless eyes,
And we have watched the Fall.


So fables may be fancies,
And yet not very far wrong!
How goes it, Father Christmas?
Oh picking—picking—along!


I walked last night on Dartmoor,
The wind was bitterly cold,
My crimson cloak was a thread-bare joke,
And my bones were brittle and old.
I had forgotten the world's desire
And all the stars were dead,
When I sank right up to my knees in mire,
At the door of a cattle-shed.


I saw the oldest oxen
That ever knew goad or thong;
Their sweet breath smoked in the frosty light
Of the lanthorn that I swung.


I saw those oxen kneeling,
So gentle and dumb and wise,
By a child that lay in the straw and smiled
At their big dark shining eyes !
While a woman breathed "lullay, lullay,"
The Magi need not roam
So long ago, so far away,
When heaven is born at home.


Then all my heart sang "Gloria"
I lacked no angel throng,
As over the lonely moor I went I
Picking, picking along.

And over the farm on the whistling fells
I saw the great star glide;
And "Peace on earth" rang Modbury bells,
And Ermington bells replied.
How goes it, Father Christmas?
Was the burden of all their song;
And what could a Devonshire pedlar say
But "Picking—picking along."


He needs a cloak and a pair of shoes,
But his heart is young and strong!
How goes it, Father Christmas?
Oh picking—picking—along.

This comes from the anthology The elfin artist and other poems (c. 1920) by Alfred Noyes (1880 – 1958). Although he had no particular connection with Devon - he was born in Wolverhampton, spent much of his working life in the USA, and lived his final years in the Isle of Wight - Noyes wrote a number of poems on Devon themes, including A Devonshire Christmas, A Devonshire Ditty, A Devonshire Folk Song ("about Drake and his Tavistock lass"), A Devonshire Song, and Drake, an English epic. He was a highly prolific poet, and many of his works are online at the Internet Archive.
- Ray

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Anachronistic map

Click to enlarge

I found a very nice little curiosity, the map of the Isle of Wight and Solent area pictured in part above:

Bacon's Large Scale Map, 1 Inch to 1 Mile . Fully Coloured . Index to Place Names . 20p

The curiosity aspect is the strange cartographic mix. The price obviously places it post-decimalisation (i.e. post-1971) and it features routes for the Isle of Wight car ferry and hovercraft ferries; yet much of the cartographic detail is pre-1850s. For instance, Gosport (above) is shown prior to much of its suburban development, as well as the building of its railway (disused by the 1970s, but the track still prominent) and the line of Palmerston forts from Stokes Bay to Elson, dating from the 1850s. The area of Newport, IoW, is likewise way out of date, showing an area between Newport and Carisbrooke called New Village that was completely swamped in the late 1800s surburban development of Newport. All the cartographers appear to have done is drawn modern ferry routes, red lines on roads, and a few location names (note the amateurish typeface on the "Harb." representing Portsmouth Harbour Station) on a map over a century old.

The makers of the map are credited as Johnston & Bacon (a division of Geoffrey Chapman Ltd), and a glance at Google shows Bacon's Large Scale Map of the Isle of Wight to have been in print at least as far back as 1900. I can imagine the financial motive in avoiding unnecessary revision, but I can't fully imagine what was going through their heads, cartographically and commercially, to carry on doing so well beyond the point of the map becoming weirdly and obviously inaccurate. Johnston and Bacon were absorbed into Bartholomew's shortly after: one might say not before time, if that was their idea of mapmaking.

I guess there's a lesson there in not believing historical data points without corroboration. he proverbial "New Zealander" finding this map in the ruins of London 500 years from now might well believe it to represent accurate geography.

PS: I just found at the Charles Close Society for the Study of Ordnance Survey Maps a paper, The rivals: notes on some intermediate-scale commercial topographic map series of Britain and Ireland since 1868, that bears out my impression of Johnston & Bacon. It says of G.W. Bacon & Co.:

This celebrated or (to collectors) notorious firm of map-publishers ... reissued OS mapping, photographically copied, and with some cosmetic alterations, notably added emphasis to railways and stations, rewriting of town names (often in bold lower case rather than the OS’s capitals) and colouring of main roads ... Perhaps the firm were enabled to ‘get away with it’ because they invariably used superseded OS mapping.

- Ray

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Self-playing harps

Resonant Chamber by Animusic.

YouTube browsing can lead in strange directions. I was looking into the origins of the Diva song from The Fifth Element; as explained in Who is the Opera Singer in the Film Fifth Element?, the Diva Plavalaguna is played by French actress Maïwenn Le Besco and voiced over, with minimal instrumental overdubbing by operatic soprano Inva Mula-Tchako. This track, based on Il Dolce Suono (the "mad scene") from Lucia di Lammermoor, is on YouTube isolated from the movie. This led me in turn to the version of Il Dolce Suono by Vitas, the Latvian-born Vitaliy Vladasovich Grachyov - see official site - who is best known for his remarkable use of falsetto register (he is not a "yarbleless like eunuch", as Alex from A Clockwork Orange would put it). The duo of violinists with Vitas on Il Dolce Suono are Вибрация (Vibration), who specialise in modernised classical tracks, especially Vivaldi, and at Зима, their take on Vivaldi's Winter, I found the above weird animation in the related videos.

In the video I found - now removed due to copyright - it was a bit of an enigma: the sole upload by user pskovmail, it's completely uncredited, the poster merely saying "Супер-музыка супер клип! Наслаждайтесь!" ("Super-music, super clip! Enjoy!"). The imagined instrument is beautiful and ingenious, but sinister too: its Giger-style claw-like 'fingers' have no actuators, so it presumably is part-magical. Given the Russian origin of the clip, I suspect that it might represent the Wonderful Self-Playing Harp in the Russian folktale of Prince Astrach. Astrach gains the harp by killing the evil Коще́й Бессме́ртный (Koschei the Deathless), who has concealed his soul in a hard-to-find egg. See The Story of the Most Wonderful and Noble Self-Playing Harp as retold in The Russian garland:

As soon as he arrived and told her that he had found the egg, the Princess said : "Now fear nothing; come with me straight to Kashtshei." And when they appeared before him, Kashtshei jumped up, and would have killed Prince Astrach ; but the Prince instantly took the egg in his hand and fell to crushing it gradually. Then Kashtshei began to cry and roar aloud, and said to the Tsarevna Darisa : " Was it not out of love that I told you where my death was? And is this the return you make?" So saying he seized his sword from the wall to slay the Tsarevna ; but at the same moment Astrach, the King's son, crushed the egg, and Kashtshei fell dead upon the ground like a sheaf of corn.

Then the Tsarevna Darisa led Astrach into the palace, where was the Self -playing Harp, and said to him: "The Harp is now thine take it; but in return for it, conduct me back to my home." So Prince Astrach took up the Harp, and it played so gloriously that he was struck dumb with amazement at its sounds, as well as its workmanship of the purest Eastern crystal and gold strings. After gazing at it for a long time, Prince Astrach left the palace, and mounting his gallant steed with Darisa, set out upon his return. First he carried the Tsarevna back to her parents, and afterwards went on his way to Egypt, to Tsar Afor, and gave the Self-playing Harp to his betrothed, the Tsarevna Osida. Then they placed the Harp on the table, and it fell to playing the most beautiful and merry tunes.

Self-playing harps feature elsewhere in folklore, as in the ballad The Twa Sisters and its many variants, in Jack in the Beanstalk, and in Celtic mythology the Harp of Dagda (in some versions self-playing). There were real ones too: notably the Wurlitzer Automatic Harp (se the Mechanical Music Digest and The Harps of the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company.

I turned out, however, to be completely wrong. But I'll keep the original speculation for the nice directions it led. The animation wasn't Russian at all, but a piece called Resonant Chamber from Animusic, a US company specialising entirely in DVDs of music produced by fanciful animated instruments (there's a nice multi-view, showing what each component instrument does). There are many other clips on their YouTube channel: Pipe Dream and Aqua Harp are other particularly good ones.

Addendum 2: Clare just got an e-mail that Mr Know-it-all instantly spotted as a hoax:

Read this first, then watch.


Turn your sound on for this.

This is almost unbelievable. See how all of the balls wind up in catcher cones.

This incredible machine was built as a collaborative effort between the Robert M. Trammell Music Conservatory and the Sharon Wick School of Engineering at the University of Iowa ... Amazingly, 97% of the machines components came from John Deere Industries and Irrigation Equipment of Bancroft , Iowa ...Yes, farm equipment!

It took the team a combined 13,029 hours of set-up, alignment, calibration, and tuning before filming this video but as you can see it was WELL worth the effort. It is now on display in the Matthew Gerhard Alumni Hall at the University and is already slated to be donated to the Smithsonian.

The accompanying clip was Animation's Pipe Dream, minus the Animation credit. I didn't realise, however, how ubiquitous the e-mail is: enough to be mentioned on a number of debunking sites such as Snopes. Needless to say, the Robert M. Trammell Music Conservatory and the Sharon Wick School of Engineering at the University of Iowa do not exist. The discussion at The Blog of Phyz - Fooling our elders... - is enlightening if depressing; I know well the syndrome described, where the person who spots a hoax becomes cast as the bad guy:

The person who sends the hoax is regarded as a happy-go-lucky victim with a positive outlook on life, but the person who responds with the truth is regarded as a curmudgeonly killjoy.

In this case, however, the hoax is doing down a remarkable piece of work. As the Hoaxslayer entry says:

There is no need to malign this fantastic animation by tacking on a foolish and totally fictitious cover story. Such clever work speaks for itself and needs no embellishment. Moreover, the real creators of the animation deserve credit for their genius. If you receive this email forward, please let the sender know the true origin of the "farm machine music" video.

- Ray

Thursday, 17 December 2009

James Gillray

click to enlarge

The UK papers, such as the Guardian - James Gillray cartoons discovered in Ministry of Justice clearout - variously mention the discovery of a volume of the "Suppressed Plates" by the political satirist James Gillray, works seized as obscene in Victorian times, stowed in various offices, and now rescued from a bin liner by the astute policy adviser David Pearson.

Probably Gillray's best-known prints (pictured above) are The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper ... (in which Pitt and Napoleon divide up the world) and The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!—vide. the Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society (which ridiculed an urban myth spread by anti-vaccinationists involving a "Cow-Poxed Ox-Faced Boy"). He's well-covered online, right from the full view of the 1851 Historical and descriptive account of the caricatures of James Gillray, which gives excellent contemporary commentary on what each print satirizes. Wikimedia Commons has a large collection of his prints.

Some of his prints are rather more personal: his The Gout is clearly drawn from the heart. I'm surprised he isn't in the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database, a rather excellent collection of annotated references to medical conditions in art, literature and other media.
- Ray

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Inner space

Sidetracking from Sydney Whiting's Heliondé: or, Adventures in the sun, I find he wrote a variety of slightly eccentric reflective works: an anthology of poems (Poems, 1873); A Literary Mélange of Prose and Verse (1846, volume 1 / volume 2); and Memoirs of a stomach: written by himself, that all who eat may read (1853).

The last is quite readable, the stomach being used as a vehicle for Whiting's droll heavily-footnoted excursions (reminiscent of Cecil Torr's) into a variety of topics: diet, history, medicine (such as mainstream v.s homeopathy) and more. It's also quite unusual, as stomachs usually only get bit parts in fiction, such as the chapter About Sir John Fastolf's belly and his rat in Robert Nye's brilliant Falstaff. This got me looking for more, and I found two strange books on a theme long pre-dating its appearance in the film Fantastic Voyage 1, its Asimov novelization, and the spoof Innerspace.

Travels in the Interior, Or, The Wonderful Adventures of Luke and Belinda (Luke Theophilus Courteney, Ward and Downey, 1887, Internet Archive travelsininteri00courgoog) is a didactic adventure in which two medical students and the sister of one get shrunk (or possibly think they do, in a mutual hallucination induced by a Baghdad sweetmeat given them by an old woman) and travel down their Uncle's alimentary canal, with a side excursion to his inner ear, down into his stomach and as far as his duodenum, finally escaping via a vein through a pimple in his neck. The pseudonymous Courteney introduces the story through the fiction of a London physician having found the manuscript in his waiting room. The Athenaeum reviewer didn't think much of it: "One can hardly tell whether the writer's object has been to temper instruction with jocularity or to heighten waggishness by professional details".

No one who has ever stood where Belinda was, will have any surprise at her delight at such a sight after emerging from the long, dark passage. The room, or cell, was of an irregular shape some thirty yards long, twenty high, and only about ten broad. It was lighted by a huge oval window, which occupied nearly the whole of one side, glazed with some semi-transparent material that admitted a " dim religious light." On the opposite wall were two very pretty windows, one oval and the other round, each about eight yards across.

The special feature of attraction, however, was a most remarkable chain of bones that, suspended by slings from the roof, stretched right across from the huge window in the outer wall to the oval one in the other. These bones were most curiously shaped (one of them being a perfect stirrup), and were incessantly shaking and rattling as if they had the palsy. Picture these, entirely covered, together with the whole cell, with an exquisitely delicate shade of pink velvet, having a very long, silky pile, which, in constant motion, kept incessantly reflecting ripples of silvery light from Luke's lamp, and we shall have some faint idea of what this Robinson Crusoe and Lady Friday were gazing upon.

But if what met the eye was lovely, the sounds that reached the ear were enough to fill the listener with awe. The heavy thud (which had attracted Belinda's attention at first, and sounding like a huge steam-hammer) continued with perfect regularity on the roof overhead, and the roaring rush, like Niagara, beneath their feet, sounded absolutely overwhelming.

"Explain these awful noises. Pill."

"The thumping overhead is the pulsation of uncle's brain, which beats just like the heart, and the rushing under our feet is the sound of the great carotid, which is one of the four arteries by which the whole brain is supplied with blood."

" How wonderful ! " said Belinda. "Now tell me about the cave."

Rather more surreal, there's Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera: a fascinating trip to the interior (George S Chappell, Frederick A. Stokes Co., New York, 1930). Chappell, followers of JSBlog may remember, is the author behind the Walter Traprock exploration spoofs - see South Sea shenanigans and To the poles! - and Through the Alimentary Canal etc is altogether funnier than Travels in the Interior. Unfortunately it's too recent to be online in full, but a solid excerpt can be previewed in JB Mussey's The Cream of the Jesters

1. Itself almost certainly inspired by Joseph W Skidmore's story A World Unseen (Wonder Stories, April 1936) in which the brilliant millionaire scientist Donald Millstein uses his "atomic reductor" to travel inside the bloodstream of his girlfriend Joane Cromwell to remove from her spine a bullet fired by a minion of his nemesis, the mad scientist Verensky. (Science-fiction: the Gernsback years: a complete coverage of the genre magazines ... from 1926 through 1936, Everett Franklin Bleiler, Richard Bleiler, Kent State University Press, 1998).

- Ray

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

To the Sun

One of the many excellent ambient tracks from Sunshine.

Right from the myths of Prometheus and Icarus (and probably earlier) stories have tinkered with the idea of visiting or approaching the Sun. It's a long-standing mythological motif that the eagle is the only creature that can fly to the sun. Seeing Sunshine, which recently premiered on UK television, prompted me to look for more examples.

There are a few literal landings on the Sun in literature. For instance, Satan in Milton's 1667 Paradise Lost lands there: being a kind of supervillain, he's unharmed but finds it, unsurprisingly, "beyond expression bright"

So wonderously was set his station bright.
There lands the Fiend, a spot like which perhaps
Astronomer in the sun's lucent orb
Through his glazed optick tube yet never saw.
The place he found beyond expression bright,
Compared with aught on earth, metal or stone;
Not all parts like, but all alike informed
With radiant light, as glowing iron with fire;

Cyrano de Bergerac's 1662 Histoire comique des États et Empires de la Soleil (Comical History of the States and Empires of the Sun) is more of an allegorical/satirical Sun. The narrator, Dyrcona, travels there in a flying machine powered by solar reflectors and finds it to be a world of "burning snowflakes" and abundant plant life; he is captured and put on trial by sentient birds (description from p.21, Different engines: how science drives fiction and fiction drives science, Mark Brake & Neil Hook, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). Sydney Whiting's 1855 Heliondé: or, Adventures in the sun - online in full at Google Books - is in the same fanciful vein, though with less philosophical subtext and considerably more weird: Science-fiction, the early years describes it as

Essentially an erotic dream in very veiled terms, told as a collection of extraterrestrial curiosities with, very oddly, a heavy increment of mid-nineteeth-century Classical scholarship.

(An example of the much-complained-of weird metadata: Google Books classifies it as "political science").

I can't find anything much about it, but Hyman Kaner's 1946 Llandudno-published The Sun Queen, in which a couple are transmitted to a planet inside the Sun, sounds to be much the same. Surprisingly, older fantasies of this form were not necessarily as far-fetched in their time as they seem now; a number of perfectly serious books argued from the (comparatively) darker appearance of sunspots that the Sun might have a cooler inhabitable core. See, for instance, The complete works of Thomas Dick and Popular astronomy, both referring to astronomer William Herschel's "habitable sun" theory.

Mostly, however, now that we know the Sun is a giant nuclear fusion reaction, fiction is realistic about its nature. Any creatures there are assumed to be very different from any life we know (this Technovelgy article mentions several works tackling the idea). But this doesn't preclude a variety of treatments of the theme of humans visiting: the lyrical, as in Ray Bradbury's 1953 The Golden Apples of the Sun; the gently comic, as in the 1985 Journey to the sun in a glacier ship; the poetic, as in Edwin Morgan's Golden Apples (which actually refers to the Bradbury story ); the epic, as in Samuel R Delany's 1968 Nova; and the ludicrous, as in this Weekly World News story, which recycles the old joke about the safest way to send a mission to the Sun.

Yes, I know Nova isn't about the Sun, but the Promethean myth is central to its plot ...

We have to go to the rim of chaos and bring back a handful of fire

... to collect a precious superheavy element direct from an exploding nova, an aim achieved at great cost.

Which brings me back to Sunshine, which recently premiered on UK television. If you haven't seen it, do (I'm hoping it'll turn up some time at the local independent cinema). Despite any number of technical/scientific implausibilities and overt allusions to other SF movies, it's a vastly impressive film, one of my favourites from the last few years, helped along by stunning visuals (informed by the latest SOHO images) and a moving ambient soundtrack by Underworld and John Murphy. One of its unusual elements is its reversal of the Prometheus myth, it being about a mission to take fire to the Sun. I thought I might be the first to think this, but I see Walter Chaw's review at Film Freak Central beat me to it in describing how the whole voyage of the Icarus II appears to be a conception metaphor:

Visually, the Icarus II looks like a sperm cell (its giant spherical "payload" trails a long ship behind it), while the sun, in scale and shape, looks like the egg, making the inevitable union of the two, giving nothing away, something clearly meant to evoke either a successful or unsuccessful act of reproduction.

Jumping from the sublime to the commercial, seeing Sunshine finally explained to me what the Carling "Space" advertisement is alluding to. The music from the ad is actually part of the Elegia movement from Christopher Rouse's Flute Concerto, to which the main theme from Sunshine, John Murphy's Adagio in D minor, has something of a resemblance.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Peeves from Punch, 1865

I've been meaning to follow up London ruined yet again, which mentioned the ubiquity of Macaulay's "New Zealander" visiting a future ruined London. This meme made it to the top of the list of peeves in Punch, 7th January 1865, which published a Proclamation demanding the consignment to limbo of "used up, exhausted, threadbare, stale and hackneyed" constructs. I thought more of the list deserved posting, along with analysis of the objects of complaint, some now obscure.

Macaulay's New Zealander: The retirement of this veteran is indispensable. He can no longer be suffered to impede the traffic over London Bridge. Much wanted at the present time in his own country. May return when London is in ruins

See Google Books / London ruined again.

The Needy Knife-Grinder: "Having been in active use since the days of Mr Canning, may now resume his original part at the wheel".

This refers to a 1786 poem, "The Friend of Humanity and the Knife-grinder" by George Canning and John Hookham Frere, in the style of the Poet Laureate Robert Southey. Printed in The Anti-Jacobin, a newspaper hostile to the French Revolution, it ridiculed Southey's temporary attraction to the French revolutionary cause. Topically, it was fine - see Bartleby. But by 1865, despite the political context being long obsolete, it was still being trotted out as a poetic allusion at every opportunity (eg. a book about Canadian/US industrial relations, the works of Thackeray, a zoology journal...) Enough already, Punch said.

The Coming Man: "Has caused constant disappointment by not arriving when he was expected, especially by the parliamentary train".

This was a cliché that kicked off in the early 1800s for someone destined for greatness, and rapidly took a foothold in the political sphere. Punch ridiculed it in 1848 - see The Coming Man - but it was still going strong as a catch-phrase in 1865 (possibly revivified by Marmion Wilard Savage's 1852 novel Reuben Medlicott; or, The coming man).

Shakspeare and the musical glasses: "No objection to WS, except as a performer in a duet with the musical glasses, which have long ceased to be the novelty they were in O. Goldsmith's time, when the town rang with them".

This refers to a phrase in Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield referring to a fad in 1761-62 for playing musical glasses (for an explanation of "this now famous allusion", see The life and times of Oliver Goldsmith, Volume 2, John Forster, 1854). However, a century later the pairing was still being used as a cliché for frivolous pseudointellectual discourse (see Google Books).

Village HAMPDEN. Mute inglorious Milton: "The BISHOP OF HEREFORD will be glad to see his country cousin. A presentation to a deaf and dumb asylum should be obtained for the mute".

This allusion to Gray's Elegy ("Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast / The little tyrant of his fields withstood / Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest") became another clichéd pairing, to which even Dickens wasn't immune. "The Bishop of Hereford" refers to Renn Dickson Hampden.

The gentleman who has been talking prose all his life without knowing it: "May now receive his passport, and return to his own country. WESTBURY, C., will be moved to apply to the Imperial Law Officers to issue a writ ne exeat regno".

An allusion to M. Jourdain in Moliere's The Would-Be Gentleman, distinctly overquoted in the years prior to the Punch proclamation.

Miss Parker. Mr. Crawley. In any future novel or work of fiction, if it shall be found necessary to introduce a lady's-maid, it is particularly requested that she may bear some other name than that of Parker.  Likewise, in any forthcoming drame or drama, if a merchant villain is essential to the plot, it is suggested that it would be an agreeable novelty not to call him Crawley.

I'll take their word for this one: it'd be more work to confirm the frequency of such names than I care to do at this instant.

The bull always being taken by the horns, the camel whose back is broken by the last feather... The present address of Edmond's (late Wombwell's) Menagerie is Crystal Palace. Sydenham. The Zoological Gardens would be glad to have the British lion.

Evidently a complaint arising from an overload of zoological metaphors.

Macedon and Monmouth: Have been allowed far too much latitude. No well regulated atlas can be considered complete until they are restored to the use of the Globe.

An evidently overquoted comparison from Fluellen in Henry V.

Apples of Sodom, otherwise Dead Sea apples. The ripe pear.  Strictly forbidden fruit.

A surfeit of a fruit rather liked for its weirdness and metaphorical value - the Apple of Sodom looks like an apple but is just a bitter hollow fibrous pod - as in the National magazine, Lydia Howard Sigourney, Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, etc - and this didn't stop Matilda Betham-Edwards, Mary Brarnston, Ella Wheeler Wilcox and others.

Those are the memorable ones: see Punch  for the remainder.

- Ray

Friday, 4 December 2009

Whistle, and I'll Come To You

This week there was a rare showing of Jonathan Miller's adaptation, the film that started the former Christmas Eve ghost story tradition on British television, of MR James' Oh, whistle and I'll come to you, my lad (part 1 (also above)/ part 2 / part 3). As the BFI Screenline commentary says, MR James purists didn't like some aspects, but it does bring a nice ambiguity by portraying the protagonist as evidentally mentally fragile.

Here's the original story - James has a pleasantly wry turn of phrase

The Colonel, who remembered a not very dissimilar occurrence in India, was of opinion that if Parkins had closed with it it could really have done very little, and that its one power was that of frightening. The whole thing, he said, served to confirm his opinion of the Church of Rome.

- and Project Gutenberg has the anthology from which it comes, Ghost Stories of Antiquary (part 1 / part 2). The title, incidentally, is borrowed from that of a Robert Burns poem.
- Ray

Thursday, 26 November 2009

A Kafka day

Interesting synchronicity today, spinning off from going to get a cat collar ID tag engraved. How things have moved on; I was expecting it to be done by hand or using a pantograph (for instance). But no, they used a very nice computer engraving machine not unlike this one. It raised vague resonances, and then I realised what it reminded me of: the execution machine in Kafka's 1919 story In the Penal Colony, which kills prisoners by engraving on them the law they have broken. The Condemned Man in story is a servant who has been convicted of falling asleep on guard duty and threatening his master, so the words will be "Honour your superiors!". The story is an examination of a psychopathically authoritarian officer in a Third World or colonial penal colony in the tropics, who is so logically consistent in his sense of duty that he will subject himself to the device when he feels he has failed to be just. What exactly it means is debatable: see Fear and Trembling in the Penal Colony, by Kyle McGee, at The Kafka Project.

The device is very like the computer engraving machine, comprising the "Bed" on which the victim is put; the "Harrow", needles that do the writing; and the "Inscriber", the programmable control box for the Harrow. I was about to pass this on to, which collects SF precursors to real-world science, technology and culture, but I find automatic engraving machines (although ones based on a disposable photographic template) existed at least as far back as 1901).

Later I read on the Telegraph website Japanese gamer 'marries' Nintendo DS character. I'm not entirely sure this is unprecedented - I vaguely recall stories a decade ago about the virtual idol Kyoko Date getting marriage proposals - but anyway the current news story immediately recalls one of the central themes of William Gibson's Idoru, in which the lead singer for a rock band becomes engaged to marry the idoru Rei Toei, an entirely artificial personality (admittedly a high-level AI with a holographic presence - rather more sophisticated than a Nintendo DS character). This is definitely one for Technovelgy, but I see someone beat me to it: Man Marries Anime Game Character.

On skimming my copy of Idoru to refresh my memory of the details, what should I find in the first few pages but an allusion to the Kafka story?

The stairway opened into The Penal Colony, a disco, deserted at this hour, pulses of silent red lightning marking Laney's steps across the dance floor. A machine of some kind was suspended from the ceiling. Each of its articulated arms, suggestive of antique dental equipment, was tipped with sharp steel. Pens, he thought, vaguely remembering Kafka's story. Sentence of guilt, graven in the flesh of the condemned man's back. Wincing at a memory of upturned eyes unseeing. Pushed it down. Moved on.
- Idoru, William Gibson, 1996

Gibson's previous novel, the 1994, Virtual Light, by the way, has a similar idea where Rydell recalls his uncle having a robot-created tattoo.

Rydell's uncle, the one who'd gone to Africa with the army and hadnlt come back, had had a couple of tattoos. The best one wenr right across his back, this big swirly dragon with horns and a sort of goofy grin. He'd gotten that one in Korea, eight colours and it had all been done by a computer. He'd told Rydell how the computer had mapped his back and showed him exactly what it was going to look like when it was done. Then he had to lie down on this table while this robot put the tattoo on. Rydell had imagined a robot kind of like a vacuum-cleaner, but with twisty chrome arms had [sic] needles on the end. But his uncle said it was more like being fed through a dot-matrix printer, and he'd had to go back eight times, one time for each colour.

This may also have come true. I'm not 100% convinced of the veracity of this 2002 Avanova report, Tattooing robot unveiled at hi-tech trade fair, but it looks very Kafka. Robot tattooing doesn't strike me as technically unfeasible, but it would need a lot more than a CAD-driven needle; skin being a flexible substrate, there needs to be some provision for stabilising the region being worked on (down to the skill of a human tattoo artist).

Addendum: After a little more reading, I find the connection between tattooing and engraving is closer than I realised. It appears that the now-standard tattoo machine derives from a stencil cutting device, Edison's 1876 Electric Pen and Press.
- Ray

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

In praise of Wikiquote

OK, there are worse things to worry about in the world, but occasionally in the more rarefied bibliographic world I see things that make me want to reach for my revolver. I saw one yesterday on Yahoo! Answers, where a student was asking for advice on citing a Stalin quotation, and specified:

Please no one post "wikiquote". Our teacher said no wikipedia related websites may be used.
- Reliable website for quotations?, Yahoo! Answers

This is an astonishingly ill-informed instruction for a teacher to be giving! It's fair to be suspicious of Wikipedia (though not if used cautiously for guidance rather than a one-stop source), but Wikiquote is a different matter altogether. This deserves stressing: Wikiquote is almost certainly the only reliable, and free, general quotation website in existence.

There are many quotation websites - for instance, BrainyQuote and - but they have many weaknesses in common. They don't cite the origin of quotations. They allow user contribution without initial checking. Many don't offer a mechanism - or at least a rapid and simple one - for correction. They are riddled with misattributions, which then get brainlessly copied around the Web and repeatedly turn up on Yahoo! Answers, evidently set as coursework.

Wikiquote, in contrast, is based on precise citation of origin. It includes misattributions - but identified as such, and unlike Wikipedia actively encourages original research into quotation origins and the date of appearance of misattributions. Furthermore, it's now working practice that unsourced quotations are not even to be added ...

See Wikiquote:Sourcing for guidelines on sourced quotes. Unsourced quotes will be removed from all articles. Adding unsourced quotes to articles will be reverted. A newly created page consisting of unsourced quotes will be nominated for deletion or given a PROD tag. For an already existing page, unsourced quotes that fail to meet standards of quality will be deleted. Any remaining unsourced quotes will [be] placed on the article's discussion page. If all of the quotes on an existing page are unsourced, the page will be nominated for deletion.
- retrieved from Wikiquote:Limits on quotations, November 26, 2009

... and this is currently under development as a proposed policy - see Wikiquote:Sourcing

Wikiquote is one of the few quotation websites recommended by Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations (one of the most prestigious quotation dictionaries, and itself stringently and transparently sourced). Could there be better credentials?

- Ray

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Artist seized!

Click to enlarge

I couldn't resist tinkering with the strange recent image from Ptak Science Books: Out of Context Department: Artists Taken by the Devil, 1620. It actually comes from a 17th century Dutch religious work, Den wech des eeuwich levens (The way to eternal life) by Antine Sucquet, Gerardus Zoes and Boëce van Bolswert, which is online in full at the Internet Archive.

The complete picture, on page 556, depicts a couple of artists painting Jesus and the Christian pantheon, but we haven't yet been able to work out why painter B is being grabbed by a demon. There is a caption, but my Renaissance Dutch is a little rusty. I'm taking advice.

"Om mat ghy de stercker tot de deugt verweckt sout worden, soeckt ende volght [A] d’exemplen der Heyligen, meest van uw’ Patronen, ende versoeyt [B] de sonde, die u van deselve treckt, ondersoeckt wat sy van dese deught hebben gevoelt, en geschreven; hoe sy die hebben geoffent door ‘t ingeven van den [C] H. Geest.

(Apologies for plagiarism to Ptak Science Books, Lol Manuscripts! and Wondermark).

Addendum. We have an explanation, thanks to Trevor at Kalebeul (who actually knows "Elderly Dutch" - see the comments). B is not the artist, but the creature grabbing him - not a demon but a representation of "sonde" (sin) distracting him.

- Ray

Monday, 23 November 2009

Riddle of the sand

Straight Point, Devon: click to enlarge

Correlation of difference sources and media often produces intriguing stuff. I was just re-reading Notices of the Flowering Time and Localities of some Plants observed during an Excursion through a portion of South Devon, in June, 1851 (Edwin Lees, Esq. FLS, pp530-541, The Phytologist: a popular botanical miscellany, Volume 4, Part 2, J. Van Voorst, 1852). I'm not terribly bothered with botany. but the Worcester-based Lees (1800–1887) was staying in Exmouth, and so the paper includes nice accounts of excursions to areas I'm familiar with, such as the East Devon coastline between Exmouth and Budleigh. One of these is the promontory tipped by Straight Point, adjacent to Sandy Bay.
A long point of sandstone extends far into the sea between Budleigh Salterton and Exmouth, after passing the highest range of cliffs; and on either side of this were some singular, secluded, deep, gloomy dens, excavated by the sea, as if intended for the perpetration of deeds of darkness. On the western side of the point the sea had so broken down the sandstone rocks, that it seemed as if a huge quarry had been excavated there, such monstrous masses lay scattered about in all directions; the cliff itself shattered almost to fragments.
It's still recognisable - see the image above of the western side and Sandy Bay - even if the general environment makes it less amenable to investigation: an army firing range on the promontory itself, and the huge Devon Cliffs Holiday Park on the adjoining land. That said, it's not at all a bad place to visit, with the coastal path taking you rapidly out of the developed area in either direction.

View Larger Map

While browsing the excellent Old Maps site, however, I did notice an interesting thing about Sandy Bay: it appears the name is new, and so is the sand. On the 1890 Ordnance Survey map, the bay is unnamed and has sand only at the cliff foot, with rocky shelving exposed at low tide. By 1933, however, it's called Sandy Bay on the map, and virtually all the shore at low tide is sand, as it is nowadays. I've no idea why, though studies show beach profiles to be very dynamic in this general area of coastline (see Holcombe to Straight Point (including Exe estuary), SCOPAC, 2004). See the images below, reproduced from Old Maps with kind permission.

Sandy Bay in 1890 (above); 1933 (below). . Historic map data is (© and database right Crown copyright and Landmark Information Group Ltd. (All rights reserved 2009).

A look in older literature confirms the name change at least. Pre-1900 Devon guidebooks - for instance, John Murray's A handbook for travellers in Devon - repeatedly mention Straight Point as a landmark, with no sign of "Sandy Bay", and the poet Patricia Beer's autobiographical Mrs Beer's House, in which she writes about her Exmouth childhood in the 1920s, confirms that "Sandy Bay" appears to be an early 20th century neologism.
We had a family routine of our own, which was to spend the afternoon at Straight Point. This was a beach about a mile along from Orcombe Point towards Budleigh Salterton. Considering its nearness to Exmouth, it was amazingly deserted: sometimes we were the only family there. It was not too easy to reach, however, and the path down from the cliff-top needed a fair amount of agility: there were no ropes or steps, and it was both slippery and steep. We always called it Straight Point, which was the name of the headland, but many people referred to it as Sandy Bay. I felt very strongly about this, after the age of ten, on what I thought were grounds of literary taste. 'Sandy Bay' seemed to me banal and pretty-pretty and feeble, whereas I felt that 'Straight Point' was decently and austerely descriptive (I hear it is now universally called Sandy Bay and that there is a caravan site on the cliff-top.)
- Mrs Beer's House, Patricia Beer, Macmillan, 1968
Things have certainly changed, with access to the bay by a concrete ramp. Another geographical feature at this location is mentioned in RF Delderfield's historical novel Farewell the Tranquil (a.k.a. Farewell the Tranquil Mind) in which he refers to the stream that runs southward (now through the Holiday Park) and enters the sea through the waterfall at Sandy Bay.
The buildings stood on the crest of a gentle slope, about half a mile from the sea and the same distance from Littleham in the valley behind. To the east our land extended as far as a deep briar-grown streambed, (called a "goyle" in these parts) which carried all the springs and rivulets of the watershed to the sea, dropping some twenty feet over a low cliff to the beach at an outfall we called "Waterchute".
- Farewell the Tranquil Mind, RF Delderfield, 1950
Delderfield is evidently using a real local name, as it is confirmed in an account of lime burning in the district in Devon & Cornwall notes & queries ...
There was a second Lime-Kiln at Straight Point, close to Water Shute, the barges discharging limestone on the beach in the same way as at Maer Bay.
- Devon & Cornwall notes & queries, Volume 17, ed. John S. Amery, 1933
... and in a Trewman's Exeter Flying Post report (A sad drowning fatality at Littleham, Saturday, June 28, 1890) about the accidental drowning of a truanting child "between Straight Point and Water Shute". But unlike Sandy Bay, which has gained a name, the Water Shute appears to have lost its name entirely.

I am still, by the way, looking for the name (if any) of the chine above Littleham Cove, on the Sandy Bay side of West Down Beacon.

Addendum. Sand recommendations.
- Ray

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Gadflies, spies, cyphers

Clare and I are fans of Shostakovich, a particular favourite being his Gadfly Suite, from which the Romance is embedded above. Beyond knowing it to be a film score, we'd never considered investigating more deeply; but doing so reveals an amazing nexus of cultural connections around one person.

As the Boosey and Hawkes page shows - Shostakovich, Dmitri: The Gadfly - Suite op. 97a (1955) 40' - the suite is the score for a 1950 Soviet historical costume drama set in the 1830s-40s Risorgimento Italy, the setting giving Shostakovich free rein to write beautiful pastiche of Italian styles. The film in turn is based on an 1897 novel of the same name - see Gutenberg EText-No. 3431 - by Ethel Lilian Voynich. Its theme is somewhat like Rafael Sabatini's later Scaramouche: an illegitimate orphan, Arthur Burton ("the Gadfly"), acquires political awareness and becomes a revolutionary - see synopsis. The novel become a best-seller in both Soviet Russia and the People's Republic of China.

But talk about "Six Degrees of Separation"! Apart from being a bestselling novelist, revolutionary activist and musician, Ethel Voynich's connections are astounding. She was the daughter of George Boole (who invented the logic that's the basis of modern computing) and the mathematician and feminist philosopher Mary Everest Boole. She was the niece of George Everest - yes, that one. She was married to the revolutionary, antiquarian and bibliophile Wilfrid Michael Voynich, buyer in 1912 of the famously enigmatic Voynich Manuscript; she, in turn, became its owner until her death in 1961.

More complicated still, the background to The Gadfly was Ethel Voynich's relationship with the adventurer and secret agent Sidney Reilly (a.k.a. "Ace of Spies"). Some sources claim The Gadfly to be based on Riley's own adventures in his younger days. Whatever the nature of the relationship, and whether truly about him or not - Riley's origins are lost in a mist of conflicting mythologies - all this explains a connection that brings us full circle again: why the Romance from Shostakovich's Gadfly score was used as theme tune for the 1983 miniseries Reilly, Ace of Spies.

A number of Ethel Voynich's works are online at the Internet Archive:
  • Nihilism as it is and Claims of the Russian liberals: translations of political pamphlets by Stepniak and Felix Volkhovsky.
  • The Humour of Russia (1895): translations of various Russian comic sketches.
  • The Gadfly (1897): novel as described.
  • Jack Raymond (1901): a coming-of-age novel set in Cornwall and primarily about the battle of wills between an intense orphaned boy and his cruel uncle and guardian, the Vicar of Porthcarrick.
  • Olive Latham (1904): a novel about story of a rich young woman who chooses to work as a nurse out of social conscience, and then becomes involved with a Russian Nihilist revolutionary.
She also wrote two sequels to The Gadfly: the 1910 An Interrupted Friendship; and, after a break of three decades in which she concentrated on music, the 1945 Put Off Thy Shoes, which visited the Cornish childhood of Gemma, the heroine of The Gadfly.
- Ray

Be still ... it's ham tragedy

Yet another example of how the Internet enables anyone to perform in moments linguistic and philological work that might have taken years pre-computing. I was just looking at a Yahoo! Answers question about the origin of the cliched romantic/melodramatic phrase "Be still, my beating heart".

The answer appears to be well known: it first appears in William Mountfort's 1705 play Zelmane as:

"Ha! hold my Brain; be still my beating Heart."

but this is generally repeated without demonstrable citation. However, while Google Books couldn't even get a preview, a plain Google finds the e-text at the University of Virginia Library: Zelmane: Or, the Corinthian Queen. A tragedy.

The phrase was in full swing by the early 1800s, but trying to back-track, the best Google Books could manage was 1774, in a poem in the Lady's and gentleman's diary.

Be still my beating heart! she may return -
Still may return to bless her Damon's eyes;
Return my fair, thy shepherd still is true;
True to those mutual vows, those plighted ties

I can't hack the title for sure at this instant, but it might be The Deserted Swain, by Mrs Blanch Lean, near Redruth. A definite full-view hit, though, for John Hoole's 1775 Cleonice, princess of Bithynia: a tragedy. As it is performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent-Garden.

Be still my beating heart! - O Cleonice!
I feel her now - instruct me every God
In sooothing speech - O! Teach my lips to breathe
In gentlest sounds the fatal word - farewell

- Act 1, Scene 1, Cleonice, John Hoole, 1775

Did people really enjoy this kind of play? Apparently they didn't, and its nine-day run bombed, not helped by an attack of preciousness among the cast.

From the London Review for March 1775 and the European Magazine for March 1792 we gather, that Cleonice was at first rejected by the managers of Covent Garden Theatre. Being doubtful, however, of their own judgment, they referred the matter to Dr. Johnson, who approved of the play, and on the 19th. Dec. 1774 returned it to Hoole with a few complimentary lines.

"Cleonice'' was accepted accordingly and "put in rehearsal, but Mrs. Barry refusing to perform the part of Cleonice, it was given to Mrs. Hartley. Mr. Barry rejecting the part of Lycomedes intended for him, took a subordinate character, and even that he relinquished on the 2nd. night. The Play thus left to itself, without either of the popular Actors, languished out the nine nights, and from that time Mr. Hoole bid adieu to the Stage." Hoole proved his noble character on this occasion by returning a considerable part of the money which he had received for the copyright, alleging, that, as the piece was not successful on the stage, it could not be very profitable to the bookseller, and ought not to be a loss.

- John Hoole, his life and his tragedies, Sägesser, Arthur, Pub. Bern, J. Fischer-Lehmann, 1917

It might have been taken more seriously if Hoole hadn't called two major characters Arsetes and Arsinoe, a detail I'm sure was not lost on the abbreviator of character names for the 1797 Bell's British Theatre edition.

Addendum: Trevor at Kalebeul (see Comments) has just pointed out that we get more hits in the required time slot by searching on "ftill my beating heart", as Google Books doesn't yet recognise the archaic "long s" as "s". Neat: a wrinkle to remember. I see Mr Hoole recycled, as he used exactly the same phrase in his translation of the works of the poet Metastasio. 1

1. No accident that this looks like "metastasis". As explained in a footnote in Vernon Hyde Minor's The death of the baroque and the rhetoric of good taste, it's a Hellenised nickname based on the poet's real surname, Trapassi (which means in Italian "to pass from one place to another" - as is the etymology of "metastasis").
- Ray

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Barn and other butterfly buildings

 If you happen to be taking the upper footpath from Orcombe Point toward Exmouth, the one above Marine Drive (aka Queen's Drive), take a peek over the hedge as you descend Foxholes Hill, and you'll see an unusual and significant building. The Barn, which dates from 1896, is acclaimed as a masterwork of the architect Edward Schroeder Prior, who was a prime mover of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Originating as a reaction to Victorian revival styles and mass-produced design, Arts and Crafts design produced some monstrosities - part of its legacy, for instance, includes stereotypical pseudo-rustic garden fixtures such as crazy paving and fake wishing-wells. But it also produced stylish and innovative buildings, of which The Barn was one; using a striking "butterfly" design, its wings provided an imposing entrance on the landward side, and enclosed the seaward-facing terrace to make a sheltered sun-trap.

The Barn was so radical that it inspired Hermann Muthesius, the subsequent promoter of Arts and Crafts ideas in Germany; its influence on the design of his 1907-1908 Haus Freudenberg in Berlin is very obvious. Another Arts and Crafts house, Happisburgh Manor in Norfolk, also notably resembles The Barn, although its architect Detmar Jellings Blow said its design was not influenced by it, but came from "my friend Mr Ernest Gimson, who sent me the little butterfly device on a postcard". 1 Lutyens' Papillon Hall, now demolished, used a similar ground plan. 1 Prior himself went on to develop the concept further: probably the most ambitious example was Voewood (later renamed Home Place).

For more background about The Barn, see Not Brutal but Savage at the Continuity in Architecture blog. As well as links to a nice Flickr photoset, it has a picture from Muthesius' book Das Englische Haus in its original thatched form as built for Major Harry Weatherall. After a fire in 1905, it was rebuilt with a gabled front and tiled roof. The Barn is now a hotel; its website's Architecture page has a short history, including floor plans.

1. Small country houses of to-day, Volume 2, Sir Lawrence Weaver, Offices of Country Life, 1922
- Ray

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The North Devon Savages

Click to enlarge: the Savages' cottage, from S Baring-Gould's An Old English Home and Its Dependencies. Note the naked figure outside; one of many slurs about the "savages".

We tend to think tabloid smears a modern fixture, but not so; I've just been reading a fascinating paper, "The True Story of the North Devon Savages" by Peter Christie 1, in Volume 124 of The Devonshire Association Reports and Transactions (it's sufficiently interesting that I cross-posted it from the Devon History Society).

The story starts with a piece in The Times (page 9, November 17, 1869) headed "Heathenism in Devonshire". Leading from a report about the conviction of two men for trespass in pursuit of game, it goes on to give a highly hostile report of an unnamed farming family living in rough circumstances in and around a tumbledown farmhouse in the parish of Nymet Rowland. The piece says of them:

To the clergyman of the parish and the neighbourhood they behave in a most shameful manner. They sing obscene songs when the reverend gentleman passes, they perform the most disgusting and nameless acts when he is in the company of ladies and those who are noxious to them they pelt with stones and mud as they go by their wretched domicile. Depredations in the neighbourhood are frequent. Gates and gate-posts and other objects of utility often disappear and threats of violence are common. We may add that members of the family have several times been convicted of offences. And yet these people continue their savage habits to the annoyance and disgust of the neighbours, treating the remonstrances of the clergyman with mockery, ribaldry and obscenity and setting the rules of civilised life at defiance.

The story snowballed, and the family - the Cheritons - gained national notoriety as "the North Devon Savages". The Daily Telegraph did a widely-reprinted special on them in October 1871: A Family of Savages in Devonshire. James Greenwood's 1874 In Strange Company: Being the Experiences of a Roving Correspondent gave a detailed account of them (reprinted here) which adds further sensational detail of them going near-naked and overtly suggests their children to be the product of incest because no men outside the family ever associated with the Cheritons. Greenwood had visited various low-lifes and criminals, but awarded the Cheritons pride of place: "Strangest of all strange company was that which, in my journalistic peregrinations, it was my lot to fall in with in North Devon". Reaction grew more and more rabid as the story spread, until you'd think commenters were talking about Sawney Bean. For instance:
Such, adds the Daily Telegraph, are the leading facts accumulated by our Commissioner, literally at the risk of his life.
Now that his work has been so successfully achieved it behoves us to ask two very plain questions. First, is or is not the existence of this abominable Cheriton family a disgrace and scandal to civilisation in general and North Devon in particular? Second, is it or is it not possible to devise some legal means for abating the hideous nuisance?
Are they to be allowed to reek and fester in their den, defying the laws of God and man? Cannot the law force them to adopt the habits of human beings?
Can or cannot certain offences be brought home to the Cheriton tribe? Have the births of their children been duly registered? Have they complied with the requirements of the Vaccination Act? Cannot their den be overhauled under the provisions of the Nuisances Removal Act? Does not the conduct, these forty years past, of the elder Cheriton, warrant the assumption that he is insane, and might not a Commission de lunatico be advantageously held to investigate the matter? There is no need to strain the law; but in a case so revolting and so flagitious, it is surely expedient to ascertain what its provisions are, and then to put them in force with the view of suppressing a scandal which would not be tolerated in any other civilised country in the world.
The Cheriton family in Africa would be bad enough; in an English village and under the lee of a Christian church, these creatues become simply unbearable.
- The North Devon Savages, The Leeds Mercury, October 24, 1871
These stories were further fuelled by letters, such as that in the Morning News accusing their women (inconsistently with Greenwood's story) of corrupting local farmer's boys "to which fact medical men in the neighbourhood can bear revolting testimony". Their notoriety even reached the pages of the New York Times: see A Tribe of English Savages, November 11, 1871, which further exemplifies the hand-wringing they evoked:
Many of the more revolting details of this bestial tribe we have ventured only to indicate. Their existence in one of the most fertile and populous districts of one of the most enlightened countries on the globe, is not a reassuring commentary on modern civilization.
Peter Christie's paper takes a fresh look at the subject, and finds a rather different story, one actually raised at the time. The Cheritons did have defenders, particularly the Reverend TJ Leslie from Appledore, who wrote several letters to the North Devon Journal pointing out that many of the anonymous accusations were libellous and that the Cheritons did attend religious services, and particularly arguing the possibility that rich farmers who wanted the Cheritons out of the parish could easily entertain journalists who wanted to 'interview' a poor family.

Christie's research rather bears this out: documented court cases show the Cheritons' crimes were small, but of the kind such as poaching about which landowners were particularly neurotic. He also notes that many of the cases were dismissed. Furthermore, land records of the period do show a consolidation of land ownership around Nymet Rowland into fewer and fewer hands. Ultimately the story may come down to a land feud in which the underclass Cheritons were less able to play the media than their rich and well-connected opponents. As the abstract to the paper summarises:
The 'North Devon Savages' were a notorious family living in the small parish of Nymet Rowland in the nineteenth century whose story has entered the realms of folklore. This study explores the truth behind their reputation and suggests that their notoriety, though based to some extent on fact, was deliberately exagggerated by local landed interests in order to force them off their land.
The Heard Family History website page A Criminal Past has two pictures of the Cheritons' house taken around 1860 by the photographer William Hector. The artist F. Bligh Bond's impression in Sabine Baring-Gould's 1898 An old English home and its dependencies matches one quite closely, and may be based on it. By Baring-Gould's time, the Cheritons were receding from history into folklore; Sarah Hewett's Nummits and crummits: Devonshire customs, characteristics, and folk-lore has another account, which tells of the just deserts inflicted on a sight-seer who went to gawp at them:
Many inquisitive persons went to Nymet Rowland to get a peep at the "Savages." One man, more curious than the general public, approached too near the house, and was at once pounced upon by a couple of Amazons, who demanded a reason for his visit. " Ladies," said he "I have lost my way, will you be so good as to put me on the right road to Dartmoor ? " " Aw, ess, tü be sure, replied Miss Cheriton, " come theāse yer way an' I'll shaw'e.

She took him into the adjoining yard for the ostensible purpose of directing him, and the unsuspecting wayfarer, venturing too near the edge of the horse pond in following his guide, was suddenly thrust into the filthy liquid, as a " There, thicky's the way tü Dartymoor and be — tü you," fell on his ears.

1. Christie, Peter. 'The true story of the north Devon savages'. Devonshire Association Report and Transactions, 124 (1992), 59-85. ISSN 03097994. If you are a member of a licensed UK higher of further education institution, you can listen to a lecture based on his research about the Cheritons: see here at the British LibraryArchival Sound Recordings site.

- Ray