Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Figuration Féminine

Figuration Féminine is an art weblog by the French artist Myrtille Henrion-Picco (see also her own work blog and MySpace page). Its scope is

Peinture de la femme par le femme, pleine de douceur, de grâce, avec parfois une note inquiétante ou humoristique

Paintings of women by women, full of gentleness, of grace, sometimes with a disturbing or humorous note

and is a chronological showcase of the work (with brief biographies) of some 300 female painters, born between 1031 CE -1921 CE.

I recognised Hildegarde of Bingen, Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Suzanne Valadon, Dora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, Sylvia Sleigh, and Beryl Cook . These, however, were the exception: most, I'd guess, are unknown to anyone with a general level of knowledge of art history. One could speculate endlessly as to the precise mix of social factors that sidelined in history hundreds of female artists as talented as - and in many cases more so than - any number of their male contemporaries; but however you look at it, the end result, even now not fully redressed, is appalling. Browse Figuration Féminine and be amazed and moved.

See also (via Wikipedia, and in no particular order) Women Artists, Victorian and Edwardian Women Artists, Women Painters Index: 1893 Exposition and Pre-Raphaelite Women.

- Ray (and finding credits to Clare Girvan for this one; I've asked her if she can write a guest commentary).

Sunday, 28 June 2009

More about Morgenstern

Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914) again. Despite finding "Korfs Verzauberung" interesting when I first encountered it, I'd never bothered to investigate further until now. Morgestenstern's bread-and-butter work was translation, along with essays and reviews; he was a fan of Nietzsche and Rudolf Steiner, and the bulk of his creative output comprised serious philosophical poetry expressing his adoption of the latter's Theosophy (see Zarathustra's Children by Raymond Furness). But his most popular legacy is his comic poetry, known from two collections published in his lifetime (the 1905 Galgenlieder - Gallows Songs - and the 1910 Palmström) and the posthumously published 1916 Palma Kunkel, the 1919 Der Gingganz and the 1932 Alle Galgenlieder.

Morgenstern's poems are typified by punning, rhyme and alliterative wordplay. Some feature strange creatures: Ralf the Raven, the Moonsheep, the centaurs Golch and Flubis, the Nasobēm 1 (which gave rise to a running joke about Snouters), the Midnightmouse, the Schildkrökröte (the "Tortoitoise"), and so on. Others feature the misadventures of eccentric characters (Palmström, Herr Korf and Palma Kunkel) in unreliable realities. Some are comic, some outright sinister. See Metaphorical maps of improbable fictions: the semantic parables of Christian Morgenstern (Robert Ian Scott, TheFreeLibrary) for examples of the content.

These poems are little-known outside the German-speaking world probably because they're seriously difficult to translate - "untranslatable" is a common description - as much of the language collapses under literal translation. For instance, the poem "Der Purzelbaum" ("The Somersault") is rooted, so to speak, in tree imagery because "Purzelbaum" literally means "tumbletree" in German; but this doesn't work in English because "somersault" has no such allusions.2 However, problems like this aren't always insurmountable; check out Nonsense poetry by Christian Morgenstern for some examples from The Gallows Songs (Christian Morgenstern's Galgenlieder: A Selection Translated, with an Introduction, Max Knight, University of California Press 1964). Knight's translations use creative modifications to preserve the metrics and rhyme, as with the beginning of "Das aesthetische Wiesel" ("The Aesthetic Weasel"):

Morgenstern original:
Ein Wiesel
sass auf einem Kiesel
inmitten Bachgeriesel.

Literal translation:
A weasel
sat on a pebble
in the middle of the babble of a stream

Max Knight translation:
A weasel
perched on an easel
within a patch of teasel. 3
Personally, I'd have altered the animal (though a mustelid is still possible) and kept the water:
A stoat
sat on a boat
in the middle of a moat
There's been a deal of discussion of how exactly Morgenstern's poems can be classified. Explorations in the field of nonsense (ed. Wim Tigges) describes him as a precursor of Dada and Surrealism - exemplified by "Das große Lalulā" ("a phonetic rhapsody") - and An anatomy of literary nonsense (also by Tigges) has an extended discussion of critical appraisal of Morgenstern. Standard comparisons are with Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, but he has his own style, probably more complex in its wordplay than either, and mostly focused on the verbal (in contrast to Carroll's focus on logic and mathematics). Morgenstern generally denied any philosophical or literal meaning to the nonsense poems, but the commentary in the Max Knight collection says that occasionally he offered possible interpretations. Take "Das Mondschaf" ("The Moonsheep"):

Das Mondschaf steht auf weiter Flur.
Es harrt und harrt der großen Schur.
Das Mondschaf.

Das Mondschaf rupft sich einen Halm
und geht dann heim auf seine Alm.
Das Mondschaf.

Das Mondschaf spricht zu sich im Traum:
"Ich bin des Weltalls dunkler Raum."
Das Mondschaf.

Das Mondschaf liegt am Morgen tot.
Sein Leib ist weiß, die Sonn' ist rot.
Das Mondschaf.

Literal translation:

The Moonsheep stands on a wide clearing.
It awaits and awaits the great shearing.
The Moonsheep.

The Moonsheep plucks itself a straw.
And then goes home to its mountain pasture.
The Moonsheep.

The Moonsheep speaks to itself in dream:
"I am the cosmos' dark space."
The Moonsheep.

The Moonsheep lies in the morning dead.
His body is white, the sun is red.
The Moonsheep.

Morgenstern said of this:

The moonsheep ... might be thought of as the moon itself — first on the wide expanse of the firmament, later vanishing behind mountains, in a "dream" seeing his tiny body as the universe, and appearing as a white disc in the morning.

Apart from the Max Knight examples mentioned above, translations of a few can be found online, Variously, see "The Moonsheep" ("Das Mondschaf") and "The Midnightmouse" ("Die Mitternachtsmaus"); Two "Untranslatable" Poems (nice translations of "Der Werwolf" and "Der Purzelbaum", the latter a very clever solution to the Purzelbaum / somersault problem); and the Google Books preview of Selected translations, by William Davis Snodgrass, which has "The Knee", "The Mousetrap", "The Spheres", "Palmstrom to a Nightingale which Would Not Let Him Sleep", "The Questionnaire", "The Pike", and "The Wallpaper Flower".

German-speaking readers: see the Digitales-Christian-Morgenstern-Archiv, which has an extensive collection of his works including all the humorous lyrics, at Portal:Humoristische Lyrik.

1. Nostrilopede?!
2. "Somersault" comes from the French soubresaut, which ultimately tracks back to Latin supra above + saltus leap (OED).

PS: I thought I'd have another go at translating one of the more straightforward ones, "Der Traum der Magd" ("The Maid's Dream"):

Am Morgen spricht die Magd ganz wild:
"Ich hab heut nacht ein Kind gestillt -

ein Kind mit einem Käs als Kopf -
und einem Horn am Hinterschopf!

Das Horn, o denkt euch, war aus Salz
und ging zu essen, und dann -"
"Halt's -
halt's Maul!" so spricht die Frau, "und geh
an deinen Dienst, Zä-zi-li-e!"

The maid this morning, talking wild:
"In the night I suckled the weirdest child -

a child with a cheese for a head, I say -
and a horn on the end of its little D.A.!

That horn, you thought, was made of salt
which you went to eat, and then -"
"Halt -
Halt your chat!" said the housewife, "Pay
Attention to work, Ce-ci-li-ay!"

Enjoyable exercise in a crossword-puzzle way, and it was interesting to see the difficulties. The main one was finding an English equivalent, and rhyme, for "Hinterschopf" (literally, "hind lock" or "hind tuft of hair"): "D.A." seemed a good option. The second was recognising "Zä-zi-li-e" not to be a nonsense-construct, but a split-up personal female name Zäzilie (Cecilia), which shows how important context is. In another Morgenstern poem, Zäzilie is revealed as a lazy and cunning housemaid who, on being told to clean the windows so well that no-one can tell there's glass or thin air there, takes out the glass.

- Ray

Saturday, 27 June 2009


Obligatory Michael Jackson reference aside, I was just reading about a remarkable bit of ingenuity: Tim Kehoe's invention of Zubbles, the world's first coloured bubbles. The product may be ultimately trivial, but the chemistry certainly isn't. It needed an intense dye (bubbles being thin) and bonded to surfactant (so that it would spread evenly over the whole bubble): but one non-toxic, and highly unstable so that it wouldn't stain. The PopSci.com article explains: The 11-Year Quest to Create Disappearing Colored Bubbles.

Ian Waton's QueenMagic, Kingmagic (see previously) , with its magical bubbles that are pocket universes, reminded me of a poem I saw way back: Korfs Verzauberung ("Korf's Bewitching") by Christian Morgenstern (who has been described as "a kind of German Edward Lear"). By pleasant coincidence, I just ran into an English translation while trying to find bubble-related books.
"The Bewitchment"

Von Korf finds out his distant cousin is—
a sorceress
who fashions planets out of herbal fizz;
and so he hurries, yes.
he hurries there to O-de-lée-de-lizz
to see the sorceress.

He finds her on a meadow by her home
and asks he if she be
the one who blows the planets out of foam—
and if she be the Faërie—
the Faërie from the O-de-lée-de-lome?
Ah, yes, indeed, she be!

She offers him the pitcher and the straw;
Korf blows,—and from a gleam,
Behold! A wondrous sphere without a flaw
expands in space supreme,
Expands as if it were a world he saw,
and not just foam and dream.

Detaching from its stalk, the planet veers
aloft, and gently up,
and blends into the music of the spheres
(a Heavenly Choir), floats up...
a strain as from the shepherd's pipe appears...
distant tones push up...

And in the rounded mirror of this world,
von Korf perceives with zest,
of all the happy things that ever swirled
into his mind, the best,—
his mouth agape, beholds his own fair world,
von Korf, possessed.

He names his cousin "Muse,"—von Korf possessed,—
But look! Oh, look again!
For something grabs him by the vest
and leads him far awain,
Abducts him out of O-de-lá-de-lest
toward the new domain.

- Christian Morgenstern, translated by Helen and Hans Lewy, The Parsimonious Universe
The Morgenstern poem is the preface to The Parsimonious Universe: shape and form in the natural world (Stefan Hildebrandt and Anthony Troma, Copernicus / Springer-Verlag, 1996, ISBN 0-387-97991-3). From the blurb, you'd expect this to be pretty dry:
The variety of sizes, shapes, and irregularities in nature is endless. Through illustrations and text, the authors of The Parsimonious Universe describe the efforts by scientists and mathematicians since the Renaissance to identify and describe the basic laws underlying the shape of natural forms. Can one set of laws account for both the symmetry and irregularity as well as the infinite variety of nature's designs? Complete answers to these questions are likely novel to be discovered. Still, down through the ages, the investigation of form and pattern in nature has yielded some fascinating and surprising insights. Out of this inquiry comes a specific branch of mathematics - the calculus of variations - which explores questions of optimization (finding designs that maximize or minimize a particular quantity).
But far from it: this is a lovely book, copiously illustrated, that weaves together history, mathematics, art and nature in an exploration of the idea that Nature is "thrifty" (as Pierre Louis Maupertuis put it) - that is, natural phenomena repeatedly produce outcomes that minimise some quantity (e.g. area, energy, material used). The minimal-area soap bubble being the classic example, it not unnaturally gets a full chapter, Soap Films: The Amusement of Children and Mathematicians, with lots of beautiful photos of soap film surfaces as well as buildings, particularly those by Frei Otto, using the derived minimal-surface principle. The bubblemeister Tom Noddy gets a mention.  One of his best-known effects is using smoke to make visible the nearly cubic bubble formed when a bubble is blown at the core of an octahedral group of six. Nowadays, according to this interview, he wisely uses a non-tobacco cigarette and, if you want to try this at home, there's technology for doing it without human-blown smoke). If this kind of thing appeals, see  Soapbubbler.com  and BubbleArtist.com.

There are various other books on soap bubbles, but the classic has to be the 1890/1911 Soap Bubbles: Their Colours and the Forces Which Mould Them by Professor Charles Vernon Boys (see Google Books): for its practical interest, it's still rightly popular, despite pre-dating many of the modern insights, techniques (and detergents) that underpin current understanding of bubbles.

Update: See Professor Boys' Rainbow Cup and other marvels, 16th Dec 2014.

- Ray

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Science news

From the Guardian: Royal Society announces six contenders for £10,000 science book prize, a worthy line-up of books shortlisted for this year's Royal Society Prize for Science Books. They are:
  • What the nose knows: The science of scent in everyday life, by Avery Gilbert. See official site.
  • Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre. See our review and official site.
  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science, by Richard Holmes. See Guardian review.
  • Decoding the heavens: Solving the mystery of the world's first computer, by Jo Marchant. This is about the Antikythera Mechanism: see official site.
  • The drunkard's walk: How randomness rules our lives, by Leonard Mlodinow. See official site.
  • Your inner fish: The amazing discovery of our 375-million-year-old ancestor, by Neil Shubin. See official site.

And also a link recommendation today: Ptak Science Books. Like JSBlog, it's a bookshop blog with eclectic and cross-genre interests, but it focuses on science:

The History of Ideas -- unusual connections in the history of science, math, art and social history

Picked at random:

Check it out; it won't disappoint. The main bookstore site - John F Ptak Science Books - is interesting in itself: for instance, for its gallery of historical panoramic photos.
- Ray

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Grammar peeves in government

Via Language Log: Grammar grouch elected speaker? Geoff Pullum just mentioned a Radio 4 report which said that John Bercow, newly-elected Speaker of the House of Commons, is given to objecting to the grammar of other MPs during their speeches. Mostly this is hearsay, that he does it "under his breath", but it also has happened openly. The most publicised such incident, on February 6th 2003, was ridiculed in a Roy Hattersley commentary piece, Snobbery and the split infinitive (Guardian, 10 February 2003). As Bercow didn't speak on this occasion, I can't find the context via Hansard (the official Parliamentary transcript), but a name search readily finds other examples:

Monday, 22 June 2009


Regarding the name Aubrey Trefusis (previously) I have to admit that "Trefusis" is one of my cringe words (as "moist" is for others - see Language Log). This stems entirely from memories of the writings of Nellie May(s) - anyone else remember her? - who around the late 1960s / early 1970s attracted about equal praise and ridicule for the ludicrous purple-prose nature descriptions in her letters to the Daily Mirror Live Letters (its now defunct N&Q-style column run by the fictional Old Codgers). "Trefusis Rocks" still sticks in my mind as one of the locations she obsessed about, Trefusis being the name of a farm and promontory at the mouth of the Penrhyn River estuary, opposite Falmouth (and - to the point of overuse - of any number of roads, houses, suburban developments, etc).

It's also a vanishingly uncommon 1 surname, though currently getting exposure in fictional form through Stephen Fry's Professor Donald Trefusis, who featured prominently in The Liar and whose career continues posthumously through his dongle. With Fry and Wodehouse before him both well au fait with 20th century literary and social figures, it seems most likely their characters were named after the real-world Violet Trefusis (who is well-documented online: see Scandalous Love - The Life of Violet Trefusis and elsewhere). Emily Trefusis, heroine of Agatha Christie's The Sittaford Mystery, probably just sprang from names familiar to the Torquay-born author.

Prior to these, there have been a number of others, such as some of the Barons Clinton; Katherine Trefusis-Forbes, first Director of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force; and Robert Trefusis, Suffragan Bishop of Crediton. But none of them attracted such adulatory press as "Molly Trefusis":

Molly Trefusis

"Now the Graces are four and the Venuses two,
And ten is the number of Muses;
For a Muse and a Grace and a Venus are you,--
My dear little Molly Trefusis!

So he wrote, the old bard of an "old magazine:"
As a study it not without use is,
If we wonder a moment who she may have been,
This same "little Molly Trefusis!"

She was Cornish. We know that at once by the "Tre;"
Then of guessing it scarce an abuse is
If we say that where Bude bellows back to the sea
Was the birthplace of Molly Trefusis.

And she lived in the era of patches and bows,
Not knowing what rouge or ceruse is;
For they needed (I trust) but her natural rose,
The lilies of Molly Trefusis.

And I somehow connect her (I frankly admit
That the evidence hard to produce is)
With BATH in its hey-day of Fashion and Wit,--
This dangerous Molly Trefusis.

I fancy her, radiant in ribbon and knot,
(How charming that old-fashioned puce is!)
All blooming in laces, fal-lals and what not,
At the PUMP ROOM,--Miss Molly Trefusis.

I fancy her reigning,--a Beauty,--a Toast,
Where BLADUD'S medicinal cruse is; 2
And we know that at least of one Bard it could boast,--
The Court of Queen Molly Trefusis.

He says she was "VENUS." I doubt it. Beside,
(Your rhymer so hopelessly loose is!)
His "little" could scarce be to Venus applied,
If fitly to Molly Trefusis.

No, no. It was HEBE he had in his mind;
And fresh as the handmaid of Zeus is,
And rosy, and rounded, and dimpled,--you'll find,--
Was certainly Molly Trefusis!

Then he calls her "a MUSE." To the charge I reply
That we all of us know what a Muse is;
It is something too awful,--too acid,--too dry,--
For sunny-eyed Molly Trefusis.

But "a GRACE." There I grant he was probably right;
(The rest but a verse-making ruse is)
It was all that was graceful,--intangible,--light,
The beauty of Molly Trefusis!

Was she wooed? Who can hesitate much about that
Assuredly more than obtuse is;
For how could the poet have written so pat
"My dear little Molly Trefusis!"

And was wed? That I think we must plainly infer,
Since of suitors the common excuse is
To take to them Wives. So it happened to her,
Of course,--"little Molly Trefusis!"

To the Bard? 'Tis unlikely. Apollo, you see,
In practical matters a goose is;--
'Twas a knight of the shire, and a hunting J.P.,
Who carried off Molly Trefusis!

And you'll find, I conclude, in the "Gentleman's Mag.,"
At the end, where the pick of the news is,
"On the (blank), at 'the Bath,' to Sir Hilary Bragg,
With a Fortune

Thereupon ... But no farther the student may pry:
Love's temple is dark as Eleusis;
So here, at the threshold, we part, you and I,
From "dear little Molly Trefusis."

- Henry Austin Dobson

Notes and Queries 146, October 13th 1900, goes into some of the background; Austin Dobson's verses were

founded on a single stanza which is quoted in the late Lord Neaves's little book on The Greek Anthology in Blackwood's Ancient Classics for English Readers, and which is said to have formed part of a poem published in "an old magazine"

N&Q wonders if the stanza - dedicated to "an accomplished Cornish lady" - refers to the Cornish poet Elizabeth Trefusis (1763-1808) but concludes not, on grounds of radically different biographical outcomes (the latter never married into a fortune). The most detailed biosquib comes from the Rev. William Beloe in The Sexagenarian (1818) 1:368-70, 175-83, but it comes across as rather hostile, presenting her as a complete divvy. Alexander Dyce, in Specimens of British Poetesses, says "the account of her in that work, I have good authority for stating, is extremely incorrect".

The poem itself appears to have been reworked into a story - "The Junior Lord's Romance" by Francis Gribble - in the Pall Mall Magazine, 1910, pp.1075-1081. Moved to a modern London setting, it features "the Honourable Algernon Brooklyn, the youthful member for Bude Haven" and Mollie Trefusis as a chorus girl ("Mollie Trefusis of the Propriety — a brilliant ornament of the chorus of that theatre, at which so many matrimonial links have been forged"). Currently it can't be retrieved from Google Books.

1. National Trust Names, for instance, doesn't map "Trefusis" because it falls below the threshold of 100 names in the electoral register.
2. Bladud, the mythical founder of Bath.

PS: 1. Lordy! Looking back at this post, I think I'm channelling Cecil Torr. 2. You'd think Austin Dobson could have wrung at least one more verse out of that rhyme. Perhaps:

But though wed, she stayed lonely and sad on the shelf,
Subjected to many abuses,
Condemned to sit day-long at home by herself,
While her husband fired bullets at mooses.

- Ray

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Life and death in Bludleigh

The plot thickens. Previously - Life and death in Budleigh - I mentioned the apparent unverifiability, as reported by Devon Perspectives, of a connection between PG Wodehouse and Budleigh Salterton. I thought I'd cracked the problem on finding references to a story called Unpleasantness at Budleigh Court (see Google, which finds multiple hits, including the filming of the story in the 1975 Wodehouse Playhouse series). However, a more thorough search on plot details finds that the story is actually titled Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court in primary sources such as the original Strand Magazine appearance: the mutation of the name to "Budleigh" in various secondary and tertiary sources may well be the explanation.

As described here, the story concerns a budding romance between two gentle poets, Aubrey Trefusis and Charlotte Mulliner, that is interrupted by the malign effects of a country house - Bludleigh Court, Lesser Bludleigh, near Goresby-on-the-Ouse, Bedfordshire - that afflicts everyone who stays in it with a lust for hunting. Charlotte thinks she has been unaffected until she finds herself aggrieved that one of her poems has been rejected by The Animal-Lovers' Gazette

Good Gnus
(A Vignette in Verse)

When cares attack and life seems black,
How sweet it is to pot a yak,
Or puncture hares and grizzly bears,
And others I could mention;
But in my Animals "Who's Who"
No name stands higher than the Gnu;
And each new gnu that comes in view
Receives my prompt attention.

When Afric's sun is sinking low,
And shadows wander to and fro,
And everywhere there's in the air
A hush that's deep and solemn;
Then is the time good men and true
With View Halloo pursue the gnu;
(The safest spot to put your shot
is through the spinal column).

To take the creature by surprise
We must adopt some rude disguise,
Although deceit is never sweet,
And falsehoods don't attract us;
So, as with gun in hand you wait,
Remember to impersonate
A tuft of grass, a mountain-pass,
A kopje or a cactus.

A brief suspense, and then at last
The waiting's o'er, the vigil past;
A careful aim. A spurt of flame.
It's done. You've pulled the trigger,
And one more gnu, so fair and frail,
Has handed in its dinner-pail;
(The females all are rather small,
The males are somewhat bigger)

Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court first appeared in the Strand Magazine, Volume LXXVIII, January-June, 1929. It can be read online in A Wodehouse Bestiary. Although it's comic in tone, its premise is quite Lovecraftian, and the story was reprinted in The Magazine of fantasy & science fiction in 1952.

Addendum, 21 Sept 2009. There's just been a thread on LibraryThing's "Name that Book" forum: ghost story -- England -- couple changed by house. The work sought sounded remarkably like Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court, but collective effort tracked it to John Buchan's story Fullcircle: Martin Peckwether's Story. It concerns an earnest young intellectual couple ...

"Julian and Ursula Giffen. . . . I daresay you know the names. They always hunt in couples, and write books about sociology and advanced ethics and psychics--books called either 'The New This or That,' or 'Towards Something or Other.' You know the sort of thing.

who move into a Restoration mansion and become altered by the house until their attitudes become those of its amiable Catholic originator, Lord Carteron. It's the final story of Buchan's The Runagates Club, his 1928 anthology of stories connected by the framing device of storytelling by dining club members (who include Richard Hannay and other Buchan heroes). Given the date and strong similarity in premise and plot, I think it's very likely that the 1929 Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court is a pastiche of Fullcircle.

- Ray

Monday, 15 June 2009

Life and death in Budleigh

And so to Budleigh. On Sunday we walked the Budleigh Salterton to Exmouth section of the South West Coast Path; the above picture shows the view back across Budleigh and Lyme Bay from the highest point at that section, West Down Beacon. Budleigh, especially on a Sunday, lives up to its quiet, genteel style that was ridiculed by Noel Coward in Blithe Spirit:

Elvira: Nobody but a monumental bore would have thought of having a honeymoon at Budleigh Salterton.
Charles: What's the matter with Budleigh Salterton?
Elvira: I was an eager young bride, Charles - I wanted glamour, and music and romance — all I got was all I got was potted palms, seven hours of every day on a damp golf course and a three-piece orchestra playing "Merrie England".

Its chief famous connection is, of course, that Sir Walter Raleigh was born near East Budleigh and brought up there (as famously depicted at a still-recognisable location in The Boyhood of Raleigh by Millais). Raleigh was, it's often forgotten, a writer as well as explorer: see The Works of Sir Walter Ralegh, Kt : Miscellaneous works. Other literary connections are harder to find. The forthcoming Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival will focus on Thomas Adolphus Trollope (journalist, travel writer and brother of Anthony Trollope - check out Villino Trollope) who spent his later years in Budleigh. George Gissing, who spent time in Budleigh for his health, used it as a setting for his novel Born in Exile (Gutenberg EText-No. 4526), though the book is conversation-heavy and little interested in location descriptions. One might almost suspect Gissing of sending his hero up West Down Beacon at night to avoid having to describe the view:

Early in the evening there was a temporary lull in the storm; rain no longer fell, and in spaces of the rushing sky a few stars showed themselves. Unable to rest at the hotel, Peak set out for a walk towards the cliff summit called Westdown Beacon; he could see little more than black vacancies, but a struggle with the wind suited his temper, and he enjoyed the incessant roar of surf in the darkness. After an hour of this buffeting he returned to the beach, and stood as close as possible to the fierce breakers. No person was in sight.

A skim of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and NewsBank finds a few others, such as the Budleigh-born bibliographer Robert Proctor, inventor of the "Proctor order" for cataloguing pre-1500 books (see John Bowman on Robert Proctor at Tom Roper's Weblog); and the artist and author Joyce Dennys, who lived in Budleigh through both World Wars, drawing propaganda art in WW1 and turning to writing in WW2, when her long career began with the funny and somewhat subversive "Henrietta" ("a 1940s Adrienne Mole") letters about wartime life in a small Devon town. Written for the Sketch magazine, these were later collated as Henrietta’s War; news from the home front 1939-1942, shortly due for republication (see the Bloomsbury page).

There's also the prolific novelist (Henry) Hawley Smart, who also lived in Budleigh in later life. Smart was a career soldier who served in Crimea and in India during the Mutiny, bought his way out of the Army, then turned to novel-writing following gambling losses at horse races. At the Circulating Library has a partial bibliography of his some 38 novels, and some are online at the Internet Archive (search for creator "Hawley Smart"). Many draw on his turf experiences; he was a sort of Victorian Dick Francis. Another little-remembered writer who died in Budleigh is "Headon Hill" (Francis Edward Grainger, 1857-1927, author of the Holmesian "Zambra" detective stories).

A number of sources, such as the Rough Guide to England, say there's a PG Wodehouse connection to Budleigh, but as Devon Perspectives says, verification is yet to be found. See the following post, Life and death in Bludleigh, for a probable explanation.

Aside 1: Given Budleigh's reputation as a "waiting-room", it's probably appropriate that one of Hawley Smart's works is the 1881 short novel The Great Tontine (Internet Archive greattontine00smargoog), which tells of skulduggery surrounding the last survivors of a tontine, an obsolete investment system whose best-known form involves a mutual fund whose capital goes to the last surviving investor. To Victorian writers, this was a gift as a plot device - see, for instance, The Wrong Box, co-written by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne (Gutenberg EText-No. 1585). But check out A Short History of Tontines (McKeever, Kent, A Short History of Tontines, February 9, 2009. Available at SSRN), an interesting paper which argues that the tontine doesn't deserve its shadowy reputation.

- Ray

Aside 2: Chine-spotting again. On the Isle of Wight, even the smallest of these delightful micro-valleys have names, and I find it surprising that in East Devon they mostly don't (or else they've been forgotten). The coastal path between Budleigh and Sandy Bay crosses two of these chines, neither of which are mentioned in geological accounts such as Ian West's Budleigh Salterton, and Littleham Cove, East Devon - Geology Field Guide. The botanist Edwin Lees, however, describes the terrain vividly in his Notices of the Flowering Time and Localities of some Plants observed during an Excursion through a portion of South Devon, in June, 1851.

The one here, just west of Budleigh, I've just discovered from Old Maps to be called Sherbrook Chine; it features on a few early postcards of Budleigh, and is called the "Sherbrook ravine" in the Devonshire Association's 1890 Notes on the parish of East Budleigh.  The pamphlet Budleigh Salterton - as it used to be (Richard D Woodall, 1954) shows that it provided access to the beach then ("In Victorian times ... Access to the beach at Sherbrooke Chine was then much easier").  Perhaps it's overlooked now because it's very overgrown with woodland, and its nature isn't obvious to the casual observer on the Coast Path. This other chine, pictured above, I haven't so far been able to name. Here, not far from the Sandy Bay mobile home park, the Coast Path dips into an amazing moist microclimate, all rustling leaves, ferns and birdsong, compressed into a tiny but deep valley only about 130 yards long that ends abruptly at the cliff edge above Littleham Cove. It's most surprising that such a distinctive and charming location has no name.

- Ray

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Nopal mix fully chalk?

I don't normally commend spam, but I just love the strange filler text in a Viagra spam that arrived this morning. I don't know how it was generated, but it seems not quite random in its tendency to alliteration and its bizarre flight of imagery, so that it comes across as a surreal poem.

nopal mix fully chalk?
fetid bay coatee.
moving ingle pawn.
pray valuer aerate chose.
peso attic.
public morgue nopal.
ape chalk large.
novel chump penes mix!
lumper sin potion chalk.
hubby warble palmy bingo?
thyme coatee peso.
feed bled lipped fiber.
tempi elan palmy find!
ladder keeker thyme moving.
how zoic find seer!
gasper module nopal pupa?
feed warble.
potboy emir palmy.
farad potboy flake potion?
find gooey.
lumper brazil tandem.
emir pupa voter moving!
luting estop cooker.
gypsa chalk chalk pawn!

I see others have a similar reaction: see Ode to the SpamBots and Poetry from today's batch of spam mail. These all put me in mind of Dylan Thomas's How soon the servant sun:

How soon the servant sun,
(Sir morrow mark),
Can time unriddle, and the cupboard stone,
(Fog has a bone
He'll trumpet into meat),
Unshelve that all my gristles have a gown
And the naked egg stand straight,

Sir morrow at his sponge,
(The wound records),
The nurse of giants by the cut sea basin,
(Fog by his spring
Soakes up the sewing tides),
Tells you and you, my masters, as his strange
Man morrow blows through food.

All nerves to serve the sun,
The rite of light,
A claw I question from the mouse's bone,
The long-tailed stone
Trap I with coil and sheet,
Let the soil squeal I am the biting man
And the velvet dread inch out.

How soon my level, lord,
(Sir morrow stamps
Two heels of water on the floor of seed),
Shall raise a lamp
Or spirit up a cloud,
Erect a walking centre in the shroud,
Invisible on the stump

A leg as long as trees,
This inward sir,
Mister and master, darkness for his eyes,
The womb-eyed, cries,
And all sweet hell, deaf as an hour's ear,
Blasts back the trumpet voice.

- Ray

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Beowulf meets Ibn Fadlan

While clearing out my now-obsolete videotapes, I've been re-watching The 13th Warrior (1999): a nice film for those who like their mythology. Based on co-director Michael Crichton's book Eaters of the Dead, it's essentially a demythologized Beowulf with name changes: Beowulf is called Buliwyf, Hygelac called Hyglak, and the Grendel family transformed into the Wendol, a matriarchal cannibal tribe.

Both book and film introduce to the Beowulf story a narrator, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, an exiled Muslim who is conscripted by a group of Viking mercenaries as the required outsider, the "13th warrior", for their mission to defend a kingdom against mysterious attacks. The initial meeting draws on a real document, the Risala of Ibn Fadlan (see analysis at Viking Rus: studies on the presence of Scandinavians in Eastern Europe, Wladyslaw Duczko, Brill, 2004, ISBN 9004138749): an eyewitness account by an Arab chronicler who in 922 AD met Viking merchants - the Rus - active in the Volga region. Despite finding their lack of hygiene fairly repulsive, Ibn Fadlan evidently finds them an interesting people and doesn't demonise them in his account, even when witnessing a chief's funeral with human sacrifice.

The Viking Answer Lady's 13th Warrior Q&A has the text of the Risala and a historical/technical critique of the film. Yes, there are obvious anachronisms, but they don't detract from a very neat fantasy exploration of a classic story. It has a number of other good points, such as a positively-portrayed Muslim main character, and some clever set pieces, such as the telescoped language learning scene (1:40 here) where Ibn Fadlan is sitting with the Vikings on successive nights of their journey, and the dialogue he is hearing progressively morphs from Old Norse (represented in the film by, as far as I know, Norwegian) into English.

- Ray

Cader Idris: volcanic myth not yet extinct

I was just reading Charles Kingsley's 1872 Town Geology (Gutenberg EText-No. 10251 1) which reminded me of a brief e-mail exchange I had a while back with Tate Britain: a geological nitpick over its excellent A Picture of Britain thematic exhibition. The caption to Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris by Richard Wilson - the first great British landscape painting and an example of the growing artistic taste toward "sublime" (i.e. scary) scenery - says "This picture shows the lake of Llyn-y-Cau, on the mountain of Cader Idris in North Wales" which they changed with commendable promptness from "volcanic lake".

Llyn Cau does superficially resemble a volcanic lake, and the rocks of Cader Idris (aka Cadair Idris) are volcanic, but they form part of the roots of a geologically ancient volcanic complex. Cader Idris itself is not itself a volcano, and its "crater" is a cwm (aka corrie or cirque), one of the classic landforms of glacial erosion. The caption may well have sprung from a historical catalogue description of Wilson's painting, "An English landscape, with the remains of a volcanic crater", but Tate Britain aren't alone in repeating this myth. My first reaction was that it showed what you get when you let art curators loose on geomorphological description. However, a little search of Newsbank and elsewhere found repeated examples of this claim.

"the dead volcano Cader Idris on the edge of Snowdonia"
- Arts: Beloved country: Romancing the stone, Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, July 5, 2001

"Cader Idris, once the biggest volcano in Europe"
- BBC Wales

"Cadair Idris ... an extinct volcano with Llyn Cau, its crater lake"
- Canolfan Corris blurb

"First up, Cader Idris, half the rim of a volcano extinct for 150,000 years: reached through shadowy deciduous woodland, it delivers views over glittery volcanic lakes"
- Escape: Europe: These routes were made for walking, Nick Redman, The Observer, August 29, 2004

150,000 years? The last volcanic activity here was in the Ordovician, some 450 million years ago! The myth undoubtedly stems from the general resemblance of Cwm Cau to a volcanic crater. This idea can be traced as far back as the description of Cader Idris Mntn in the 1860 Tallis's Topographical Dictionary of England and Wales. Tallis reports on the 1801 visit of a Mr Donovan 2, who correctly recognised the rocks as volcanic but wrongly concluded of Cwm Cau that

with respect to the crater itself, it appears very clearly to have derived its origin from the violence of an explosion upwards, in which a very considerable portion of the highest eminence was torn from its native bed of rocks, and thrown over the other parts of the mountain. In confirmation of this suggestion it should be stated that the summit of the mountain is covered with an immense wreck of stones, ejected, as it is presumed, from the crater at the time of the explosion. It would be difficult otherwise to account for the vast profusion of those stones scattered in all directions round the loftiest elevations, and which, from the confused manner in which they are dispersed, must have been thrown into their present situation by no small violence.

In contrast, Kingsley's Town Geology had it right.

I beg my readers to put out of their minds once and for all the fancy that in any known part of these islands craters are to be still seen, such as exist in Etna, or Vesuvius, or other volcanoes now at work in the open air. It is necessary to insist on this, because many people hearing that certain mountains are volcanic, conclude—and very naturally and harmlessly—that the circular lakes about their tops are true craters. I have been told, for instance, that that wonderful little blue Glas Llyn, under the highest cliff of Snowdon, is the old crater of the mountain; and I have heard people insist that a similar lake, of almost equal grandeur, in the south side of Cader Idris, is a crater likewise. But the fact is not so.

By Kingsley's time, this had been established by Alfred Russell Wallace, whose Ice Marks in North Wales (With a Sketch of Glacial Theories and Controversies) (S124: 1867) was the first account of the many glacial features on Cader Idris such as striations and moraines.

However, despite the Victorian debunking, the myth looks likely to trundle on for some time to come. As Kevin Rushby wrote:

One of the Victorian walkers who came up here looking for answers was Alfred Russel Wallace , a man whose theory of evolution had been rather eclipsed by Darwin's Origin Of Species (published a year after Wallace dreamed up the idea while in the East Indies).

Wallace had always been interested in the Welsh landscape and in 1866 he began a series of walks determined to solve long-standing issues about how Cadair Idris had been formed. From the summit looking south, it's easy to see why the volcano theory grew: the craggy lip of the mountain falls away in a broad curve, inside which is a larger and darker lake, Llyn Cau, looking like a very convincing example of a water-filled crater. Wallace , however, was a man who liked to settle arguments with facts (his bullish approach to data collection while in south-east Asia had included butterfly hunting with a shotgun). He took the Craig Cau ridge southwards, a classic walk along the edge of the precipice and down to what was assumed to be the lower lip of a crater. No it wasn't, Wallace deduced. Cadair was volcanic rock, but not a volcano: the craters were ice age scourings. Wallace was right, but that hasn't stopped the story. It was just too good, too appropriate for this dramatic mountain.

- Rock legend: It may not be big, and most of the tales attached to it are tenuous at best, but Cadair Idris is all mountain to walkers, Kevin Rushby, The Guardian, October 1, 2005

1. It's relatively little known that Kingsley was a keen amateur naturalist - an interest reflected in the many biological threads of his The Water-Babies.
2. See Account of an extinct volcano in Britain, Retrospect of philosophical, mechanical, chemical, and agricultural discoveries, pub. J. Wyatt, 1809. "Mr Donovan" is Edward Donovan, writer, natural history illustrator, amateur zoologist and curator/owner of the London Museum and Institute of Natural History, which displayed his own extensive collection of specimens.

- Ray

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Bookcases (and sheds)

Given the state of my office bookshelves - two real bookshelf units, augmented with various planks and adapted Habitat shelving braced to the ceiling beams with garden wire - it's embarrassing to see the organisation and tidiness of the many creative designer bookshelf systems. See Incredible Things for 20 Brilliant Bookcases; WebUrbanist for 20 Unusually Brilliant Bookcase and Bookshelf Designs: Creative, Modular and Unique Furniture and 15 (More!) Unusually Brilliant Book Shelving Systems: Creative and Modular Urban Furniture; and the Freshome blog, 30 of the Most Creative Bookshelves Designs.

Yet more, ongoing, at Bookshelf, "The home of interesting bookshelves, bookcases and things that look like them". Bookshelf has a companion site, Shedworking, "the only daily updated guide to the lifestyles of shedworkers and those who work in shedlike atmosphere".
- Ray

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Lurid covers 4: legs and other cliches

An Unreal Nature's post Covering anatomy, led me to the online edition of Print

a bimonthly magazine about visual culture and design. Founded in 1940 by William Edwin Rudge, Print is dedicated to showcasing the extraordinary in design on and off the page.

The back issues of Print have a nice selection of articles on books, culture, design and typography. See, for instance, The Law of the Letter (typography's role in shaping nations); Stereotypes (the role of "ethnic typography"); Extraordinary Meeples (design in post-WWII German boardgames); and Cover Girls (the ongoing rebranding of young-adult novels for new generations of readers). Anyhow ... the Unreal Nature link was to One Leg Leads to Another (Steven Heller, Print, June 2008) which documents a cliche of graphic design that Heller calls the "A-frame": covers and posters using the device of framing a scene with someone's spread legs. More discussion on this at She's Got Legs. (So Does He) in the Boston Globe's Brainiac column. Between My Legs, at the generally interesting TV Tropes (Television Tropes & Idioms) notes that it happens in TV format too.

The A-frame is one of many design viruses. See Swoosh! There It Is. In Fact, Swooshlike Logos Are Everywhere for another that many web designers for dotcoms were guilty of a few years back. The Papyrus font is yet another, current, one.
- Ray