Monday, 31 August 2009

Vampires, lesbian and otherwise

In the previous post I mentioned Coleridge's Christabel. The story in brief: the virtuous Christobel goes into the woods to pray and encounters another young woman, Geraldine, who tells the rather implausible story of having been abducted by a band of rough men who brought her to the forest then ... went away. Taking pity on her, Christobel takes her to the castle of her dad, Sir Leoline. The dog, ominously, since dogs can detect evil, howls in its sleep. At bedtime, Geraldine goes all lesbian, then puts Christobel under a spell not to report that bit, only the abduction story. Next morning, Leoline arrives and is instantly besotted with Geraldine. His bard Bracy tells of a spooky dream he had of Christobel being in danger, but Leoline won't hear it, nor Christobel's warnings, which he takes as jealousy - and in any case Geraldine's spell zaps her into a trance that stops her explaining in detail. And there it ends.

I suspect whatever was going on with Coleridge was satisifed by writing the sexy bit, hence his failure to complete it. Tupper's Geraldine is bit ghastly, but provides a rationale in Geraldine being the daughter of an evil hag, Ryxa, and that she has it in for Christabel for stealing her boyfriend. A deal has been written about what Coleridge might have meant by Christabel (see Coleridge's "Christabel" and the Phantom Soul and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Christabel: Vampires and Transsexualism) but it boils down to being the first lesbian vampire story. Geraldine may not drink blood, but she's certainly a psychic vampire of some sort. Christabel is widely credited as the inspiration for Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 Carmilla. Apart from in turn inspiring Bram Stoker's Dracula, Carmilla herself inspired a long line of largely naff lesbian vampire movies of which the 2009 comedy thriller Lesbian Vampire Killers is the latest (for others see Top 10 lesbian vampire movies at Den of Geek). Wikipedia's Lesbian vampire article cites Vampires & Violets: Lesbians in Film (Andrea Weiss, 1993) - see review - in viewing the trope as a coded means of handling the taboo theme of lesbianism outside the heavily censored realm of social realism. I don't know. That seems plausible for early cinema, but the persistence into the period of exploitation genre doesn't seem to be anything as subtle.

This is mainly an excuse to segue into a list of my personal favourites in the vampire movie genre. Emphatically not Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (I found the film a drag and the Anne Rice book even more so), nor Bram Stoker's Dracula (highly competent as an adaptation but suffering from Hollywood's perpetual obsession to add backstory and upbeat endings). I've no opinion of Twilight or the original Stephenie Meyer book, having seen neither; but I'm happy to accept the recommendation by Olivia (who works here, and is not stupid) who tells me the book is very good, a thoughtful novel using vampirism as a metaphor for teenage alienation. The list, then, is of movies that break away from the usual vampire-movie fare. All of them, except Mr Vampire, weren't box office successes on initial release, but have since acquired cult status.

  • Mr Vampire (1985). A highly inventive comedy horror made in Hong Kong, merging martial arts, Chinese mythology and Western vampire tropes (for instance, sticky rice replaces garlic, and the vampires are hopping Jiang Shi). See trailer.
  • Near Dark (1987). The vampire mythos transplanted to modern rural US Midwest, with vampires (never named as such) as a travelling group of outlaws into which a farmboy is initiated when he is "nipped". It's directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who wanted a Western that broke away from convention, and the strong cast is drawn from James Cameron regulars (Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein and Bill Paxton). Again, it's fresh and inventive: caught in a motel during a shootout, the band find themselves in deadly danger not from the police bullets but the shafts of sunlight let in by the bulletholes. See trailer.
  • Shadow of the Vampire (2000). A lovely conceit retelling Murnau's filming of the classic Nosferatu, in which Max Schreck (playing Count Orlok) really is the vampire he portrays. Murnau keeps this from his cast and crew with the fiction that Schreck is an obsessive method actor. See trailer.
  • The Hunger (1983). OK, a bisexual vampire is a central character, but that's incidental to this beautifully stylish, modern-set examination of the ennui of eternal life. It introduced me to Schubert's Trio in E flat, Opus 100, and I've yet to hear a better arrangement. See trailer.
  • Lifeforce (1985). Much ridiculed for actress Mathilda May's permanent nudity as an alien vampire, it bears not too much resemblance to its source Colin Wilson's novel The Space Vampires (itself drawing more than a little on AE Van Vogt's Asylum). Nevertheless, Lifeforce is a taut Quatermass-style SF thriller about an apocalyptic contagion designed to funnel life energy from the whole of London to feed the occupants of an alien spacecraft. See trailer.
I guess the trailers mostly count as examples for my "lurid" list in their invariable focus on the action sequences. The Hunger particularly is far less energetic a film than you'd imagine from its trailer.

(This topic surfaced from the sludge in response to twin themes of vampires and squid raised in the fossil squid story. The umbrella-like section of the alien ship in Lifeforce is rather clearly based on the tentacle section of the Vampire Squid. Its name, Vampyroteuthis infernalis - "vampire squid from hell", not to be confused with HG Wells' Haploteuthis ferox - is rather undeserved; while it's a bit scary in appearance, it's a marvel in its multiple adaptations to live in dark, cold, and almost foodless and oxygenless waters. See videos from Planet Earth and National Geographic).
- Ray

Google Books broken

The Oxford English Dictionary currently has the first citation for "spaceship" (aka "space-ship" or "space ship") as

1894 J. J. ASTOR Journey in Other Worlds I. vi. 93 ‘What sort of space-ship do you propose to have?’ asked the vice-president.

Suppose I want to investigate online texts to see if I can antedate this. It looks straightforward: go to Google Books, advanced search, and search for spaceship OR "space-ship" OR "space ship" with a date bracket 1800-1900. Here's the search. A few of the results:

  • Fodors Walt Disney World With Kids 2008. Kim Wright Wiley, 1899 [?]
  • Gravity from the ground up. Bernard Schutz. 1899 [No, this is a 2003 book]
  • Soviet Literature, Vols 1-4 - 1870 [except the found text refers to cosmonauts and astronauts, so the date is clearly wrong]
  • Sky Doll Spaceship 1, Canepa / Barbucci, 1899 [A modern comic]
  • The publishers weekly, Volume 162, 1873 [except the result refers to The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree (1952)

And so on. Some errors are so systematic that you can see what's happened. Hits for journal articles commonly give the journal founding date rather than that of the actual article. 1899 appears to be a standard placeholder for unknown dates. The problem, however, is sporadic. For example, researching the post on Victorian waterbeds last year, a similar search appeared fine - but knowing the possibility of error, I didn't trust the dates except when I could click through and confirm in the texts themselves (granted, this is what one should do for rigour when chasing citations, but the date errors shouldn't contaminate the initial search so much as to make it hard even to find candidate texts).

I've been noticing problems like this for some time, so I'm pleased to see Geoff Nunberg at Language Log tackling the issue: Google Books: A Metadata Train Wreck. Nunberg produces evidence - see his PDF presentation for the Google Books Settlement conference - that Google has been considerably slack in the processes for gathering metadata about its online historical texts (ie dates, categories, authorship, etc). For me, it's merely a nuisance; but it makes Google Books - despite being a marvellous resource if you're just generally seeking a text - pretty unfit for purpose for serious researchers such as historians, philologists and linguists. Nunberg is concerned that this should be the case for

what will probably wind up being the universal library for a long time to come, with no contractural obligation, and only limited commercial incentives, to get it right.

Addendum The comments to Geoff Nunberg's LL post are worth reading. Jon Orwant of Google has just added - with a generous admission that the metadata is indeed very faulty - a detailed analysis of Nunberg's examples showing that in the majority of cases the bad data was in the source information.

Addendum 2 I found an earlier citation for "spaceship", but via the 19th Century British Library Newspapers database.

"The Apergy once mastered, it was comparatively easy to anticipate and improve upon the ideas of a trifler like Jules Verne, and build a space-ship".
- A STRANGE JOURNEY, The Pall Mall Gazette, London, England, Tuesday, January 20, 1880; Issue 4652

This is from a review of Percy Greg's 1880 novel Across the Zodiac, concerning a trip to Mars. "The Apergy" is an energy source. See the update Early spaceships and Percy Greg.

- Ray

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Her worship the sheep-driver

As reported in the Express & Echo - Topsham alderman's sheep drive rights - Topsham Carnival Day events began with Mary Evans, recently elected an honorary alderman of Exeter, exercising the archaic right to drive sheep through the streets. What more appropriate a literary link than His Worship The Goosedriver, the lead story of Arnold Bennett's 1905 Tales of the Five Towns (Gutenberg EText-No. 13293).

The "Five Towns" are Bennett's fictionalised version of the towns (actually six) comprising the conurbation of Stoke-on-Trent: Stoke-upon-Trent, Hanley, Burslem, Tunstall and Longton became Knype, Hanbridge, Bursley, Turnhill and Longshaw. Bennett omitted Fenton because he felt it had less of a separate identity and thought "Five Towns" was more euphonious (for more about their context in Bennett's works, see Arnold Bennett - Son of Stoke-on-Trent).

His Worship the Goosedriver is a story about small-town political spin. After a session at the pub, Josiah Curtenty, Deputy Mayor of Bursley, gets into banter with a goosedriver and foolishly buys a flock of geese. Forced to drive them home himself, he leaves a trail of escaped and dead geese. The exploit becomes known around the Five Towns, so that when he is elected Mayor, he is nicknamed "His Worship the Goosedriver". But his ambitious wife, worried that this will affect his career, enlists the help of an ex-suitor to spin the goose escapade as a bet in aid of charity.

- Ray

Monday, 24 August 2009

Fossil squid ink story has whiskers

After 150m years as a fossil, Belemnotheutis antiquus takes up its pen (Simon de Bruxelles, The Times, August 19, 2009) is one of many "fossil squid ink" stories in the papers recently: the nice tale of a Jurassic belemnite fossil found in Wiltshire whose ink was so well preserved that it could be reconstituted and used for a drawing.

But ... this story rang distinct bells from my geology undergrad days, so I backtracked with Google Books.

One may thus draw pictures or write letters with squid "ink" and a squid "pen." Most remarkable of all, this is even possible with the ink and pen of fossil squids which lived millions of years ago.
- Bulletin of the Charleston Museum (1907)

The ink is not readily decomposed; onthe contrary it is occasionally found fossil in the rocks along with the remains of the animal which produced it. So well has it been preserved that in one celebrated instance a naturalist drew the portrait of a fossil squid with the sepia derived from its fossil, but not fossilized ink-bag.
- p363, The standard natural history, Volume 1, John Sterling Kingsley, Friedrich von Hellwald, Elliott Coues, 1884

It was discovered by Dr Buckland that in many specimens of fossil cephalopods, called scientifically Geoteuthis, i.e. Earth Squid, the ink-bag remained in the animal untouched by its long sojourn within the earth, and even retaining its quality of rapid mixture with water. A drawing was actually made by Sir F. Chantrey, with a portion of "sepia" taken from a fossil species, and the substance proved to be such excellent quality that an artist, to whom the sketch was shown, was desirous of learning the name of the colourman who prepared the tint.
- The illustrated natural history, Volume 3, John George Wood, 1863.

This tracks it down to the original account: see Dr Buckland's Bridgewater Treatise, The Monthly Review, Volume 3, 1836, for Buckland's report of the experiment, which was conducted in 1826. He probably got the idea from Elizabeth Philpot - a weathy Lyme Regis fossil collector who befriended the young Mary Anning - who also used the fossil sepia for drawings (see The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin, Christopher McGowan, Da Capo Press, 2002, ISBN 073820673).

A similar drawing, of the head of an ichthyosaur, was done by Henry De la Beche in 1834. See below: it's even captioned "Painted with fossil sepia".

Click to enlarge: image by "Cetae", Photobucket

So, the "sepia drawing" angle on the current news story is less radical than it appears. It's still interesting and a nice homage to the roots of modern palaeontology, but it's a pity that these precursors aren't credited. I've no idea if they were in the original BGS press release.

See The Fossil Treasure Hunt for the real story: the interesting rediscovery near Christian Malford, Wiltshire, of a deposit of fossiliferous clays, where conditions gave rise to remarkable preservation of soft tissue detail. 1 The so-called "Christian Malford Squid Bed" was discovered in the 1840s during the excavation of borrow pits dug for gravel during the construction of the Great Western Railway, and subsequently lost when the pits became flooded. See "Preserving the unpreservable: a lost world rediscovered at Christian Malford", UK, Philip R. Wilby, Keith Duff, Kevin Page & Susan Martin, Geology Today, Volume 24 Issue 3, Pages 95 - 98, Published Online: 6 May 2008.

PS: the fossil sepia drawing meme even turns up in HG Wells' 1895 The Time Machine:

In the universal decay this volatile substance [camphor] had chanced to survive, perhaps through many thousands of centuries. It reminded me of a sepia painting I had once seen done from the ink of a fossil Belemnite that must have perished and become fossilized millions of years ago.
- Chapter 8 (in which the Traveller explores the Palace of Green Porcelain) - spotting credit to Phil, forum.

Nor is this the only literary reference:

And the sweet milk of the heart's fountain,
Choked and crushed by a heavy mountain,
All curdled, and hardened, and blackened, doth shrink
Into the fossil sepia's ink.
- Geraldine, Martin Farquhar Tupper, 1838

This amazingly mixed metaphor of fossilisation, referring to the effect of jealousy, is discussed here in The Living Age. Geraldine is Tupper's continuation/sequel to Coleridge's unfinished poem Christabel.

1. NB: soft tissue detail - a number of creationist sites are enthusing about this find in the mistaken belief that the soft tissues themselves are preserved (implying the fossils to be recent). They're not; their structure is preserved, replaced by mineral - calcium phosphate. At least some of the mechanism for the surprising preservation in three dimensions of the solidified liquid content of the soft ink sac is known: check out the work of Larisa Doguzhaeva et al. It appears that the melanin in cephalopod ink rapidly reacts with water to form a solid under neutral or acidic conditions. See Oldest use of ink.

Addendum I knew the De La Beche ichthyosaur painting reminded me of something. It just surfaced: Salvador Dali's "Sleep".

- Ray

Sunday, 23 August 2009

EW Haslehust ... and artfight!

I couldn't reproduce the exact viewpoint, which is somewhere now in mid-air, the location of a no-longer-extant pier.

A rather nice image I just found online; a watercolour c. 1912 of the still-recognisable shoreline of Ferry Road, Topsham, by EW Haslehust, from Sidney Heath's Exeter (Blackie, 1912, Gutenberg EText-No. 24635). The picture was in the old Steam Packet pub, now Route 2; I'm not sure if it was the original or a good print, but I know the current owner of the picture, and will ask. I was interested in finding more about the artist, and the Times obit supplied the details:
Mr EW Haslehust, RI, RIBA, a prolific painter of landscapes in watercolour, died at Blackheath on July 3.

Ernest William Haslehust was the eldest son of William Henry Haslehust, of Lee, Kent, and was born at Walthamstow, Essex, in 1866. He was educated at Felsted and studied art at the Slade School under Legros. A man of wide interests, his recreations included gardening, carpentering, and the making of scientific instruments, and he belonged to a bewildering number of societies, both artistic and scientific. Besides taking part in the exhibitions of the societies of which he was a member, Haslehust was a regular exhibitor of water-colours at the Royal Academy. In 1932 a picture of his was given a place of honour in the water-colour section and was afterwards purchased by the Newport Corporation, Monmouthshire, for their public gallery. He is also represented in the permanent collections of Oldham, Bootle, Huddersfield, Lincoln, Sheffield, Swansea, Bristol, Port Elizabeth, Colombo, Vancouver City, and Auckland. He designed landscape posters for the LNER, and in 1932 a one-man show of his water-colours was held at the Greatorex Gallery. He also contributed 60 illustrations in colour to a book on "The Silvery Thames", and water-colours by him have been reproduced in the Illustrated London News, the Studio, the Tatler, and many other magazines. Haslehust was a capable landscape artist, chiefly in water-colour, with a good eye for a subject. Like most professed lovers of nature he was inclined to prettify his subjects, particularly in colour, but the clearness and directness of his method won professional respect and made him an excellent guide to the fumbling amateur. Haslehust was very prolific. He was probably most familiar to the general public as an illustrator of books in colour, having contributed pictures to no fewer than 36 volumes in Messrs. Black's "Beautiful Britain" series. Haslehust was not a great artist, but his work gave pleasure to a great many people. He knew his limited job thoroughly, and his scientific habit of mind enabled him to explain it clearly to others.
- Obituary, The Times, Friday, Jul 08, 1949
A number of the Blackie "Beatiful England" series ilustrated by Haslehust are on Project Gutenberg (the HTML versions include images) and the Internet Archive. Just dipping, I very much like his paintings of Branksome Chine, Poole Harbour, Chalk (the house where Dickens spent his honeymoon), Rochester from Strood, and Mol's Coffee House, Exeter. There are many more online - do a Google image search - such as this moody Folkestone - Above the Fishing Harbour in the collection of Auckland Art Gallery. The Picture Parlour, which sells prints on eBay, has a large collection of Haslehust topographic images: the Isle of Wight ones are interesting, such as Blackgang Chine while it still existed as a topographic feature, and Newport from the Medina, a surprisingly unprettified view showing it warts-and-all as an industrialised river port.

BTW, a number of sources mistakenly correct Haslehust's surname to "Haslehurst". It ain't: both the signatures on his paintings and the credits in multiple books he illustrated are "Haslehust".

Addendum Unsurprisingly, given the genre in which he worked, Haslehust was a traditionalist in art. Digging in newspaper archives finds a juicy arts controversy of the 1940s, when he was a co-signatory to a letter to the Times criticising CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts - which became the Arts Council after World War II).
C.E.M.A. And Modern Art

Sir, - On February 15 a question was asked in the House of Commons [see Hansard] by Captain Alan Graham. It asked whether, in view of the poor quality and debasing effect of the pictorial art evinced at the exhibitions provided by C.E.M.A., the yearly grant from the Treasury to this institution of £100,000 could be reduced, or, at least, that any future financial support could be confined to the musical and dramatic activities.

We, the undersigned, are of opinion that Captain Graham has postulated a state of things true to the facts. For the most part the exhibitions comprise paintings devised to carry on the baleful influence of what is known as "modernistic" art. This is a subversive movement which, with its several "isms", has been for many years endeavouring to undermine the traditional glories of painting and sculpture, thus to lower the standards of artistic ideas and technical performance. The exhibitions alluded to in the question seek to promulgate these disastrous ideas by means of attendant lecturers engaged to persuade the public who visit these shows that the works they repudiate and protest against, orally and in the Press, are nevertheless admirable.

In view of the amount of public money spent on this promulgation of objectionable painting and sculpture, we declare ourselves in sympathy with Captain Graham's laudable attempt to amend the evil by the double means of reducing national expenditure and openly opposing the aforesaid organized activities for a lowering of art standards.

Yours, &c.
DY Cameron, Richard Garbe, Oliver Hall, Ernest W Haslehust, John Hassall, Robert Little, J Thoburn McGaw, AJ Munnings 1, Charles Pears, Frank O Salisbury 2, Frank Short, John Stirling-Maxwell
- The Times, Saturday, Mar 11, 1944
The letter got a robust response a few days later.
Sir, - The letter under the heading "C.E.M.A. and Modern Art" came as a shock. Of course the average age of the signatories of the letter must be biblical three score years and ten, but years do not seem to have added wisdom.

That at this date "modernistic" art should still be dubbed "subversive" shows that the childish mentality of Doctor Goebbels and his "Bolshevist bogy" is also prevalent elsewhere. The exhibitions organized by C.E.M.A. have done most excellent work in educating the public to think about and comprehend all phases of art, including the latest developments. Lecturers have told me that the public is keen and intensely interested (that is, at least, those under 50 years of age). The questions asked have been intelligent and the attendances constantly increasing.

The artists represented in the C.E.M.A. exhibitions have included all types now creating individual work in this country. The selection has been wide and catholic. There are various points of policy from time to time that one may disagree with, but the new effort of the Government through the Board of Education and C.E.M.A. should have the wholehearted cooperation of the artists of the country and not be crabbed by out-of-date criticism, based on no solid foundation, but on talk of subversion and "undermining the glories of painting and sculpture".

The so-called "modern" artists of to-day are genuine, sincere, creative painters whose work, however experimental it may seem to the narrow-minded experimentalist, is based on intellect and contains sound painting qualities of a far more subtle standard than most of the Victorians and Edwardians.
I am, Sir, yours truly,
RO Dunlop
- The Times, Wednesday, Mar 15, 1944
A bit of a fail on Godwin's Law there. But what a clash of cultures. Alan Graham must have been one of the last British MPs to use military rank as a title in civilian life, shades of the village squire; it'd be considered deeply ostentatious nowadays.

1. Sir Alfred Munnings. Wikipedia: "an outspoken enemy of Modernism ... Munnings was elected president of the Royal Academy of Art in 1944, a post he held until 1949. His presidency is most famous for the departing speech he gave in 1949, attacking modernism. The broadcast was heard by millions of listeners to BBC radio. An evidently inebriated Munnings claimed that the work of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso had corrupted art".
2. Frank O Salisbury. Wikipedia: "His art was steadfastly conservative and he was a vitriolic critic of Modern Art – particularly of his contemporaries Picasso, Chagall and Mondrian".

August 2012: see Haslehust mystery painting.
November 2012: see Haslehust mystery painting #2.

- Ray

Saturday, 22 August 2009

BibliOdyssey: 1000 today

Via Ptak Science Books, I see that the gorgeous weblog of beautiful and/or eccentric illustration, BibliOdyssey has reached its thousandth post. "Peacay" a.k.a. Paul K, its unsung Sydney-based curator, is celebrating with a best-of list, such as Zoomorphic Calligraphy, Industrial Anatomy, The Visual Context of Music, Secret Rosicrucian Symbols and Dogs of War.

For general description and praise, see The Phantom of the Optical: An Online Illustration Trove ("BibliOdyssey gives entrée to a gorgeous and idiosyncratic gallery of rare art"), Damien B.M. English, Edutopia. There's also a book, BibliOdyssey: Amazing Archival Images from the Internet.
- Ray

Friday, 21 August 2009


Among the M.O.D. heritage buildings open to the public at Gosport is the Royal Navy's former armaments depot of Priddy's Hard: the museum is called Explosion! The Museum of Naval Firepower. Not at all my kind of thing, but in Googling I ran into yet another book I want to read: The Explosionist (Jenny Davidson, HarperTeen, 2008, ISBN: 9780061239755).

A series of mysteries.

An explosion of truths.

The Explosionist: Someone sets off a bomb outside fifteen-year-old Sophie's boarding school, but no one can figure out who.

The Medium: Soothsayers and séance leaders are regular guests at her great-aunt's house in Scotland, but only one delivers a terrifying prophecy, directed at Sophie herself.

The Murder: When the medium is found dead, Sophie and her friend Mikael know they must get to the bottom of these three mysteries in order to save themselves—even as the fate of all Europe hangs in the balance.

The part I've omitted is that in the world of The Explosionist, Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo. In 1938, when the novel is set, Scotland is independent and allied with the New Hanseatic League, which is comprised of Scandinavian countries and Russia. Spiritualism is a science. Oscar Wilde is known as the eminent obstetrician who invented the incubator. Freud is a crazy radio show host nicknamed "Thanatos". And so on. It looks great fun, and a skim of the extensive HarperTeen preview shows that it doesn't clumsily lay this this background on us in one information dump, but introduces it piecemeal through conversation and events, so that the reader is progressively drawn into a world that has diverged from our own.

Unlike most grown-ups, the professor did not tell Sophie that she was too young to understand the sort of thing she liked talking aboout, whether it was the theology of Count Tolstoy, the novels of Richard Wagner, the verse of Albert Einstein, or the operas of James Joyce

This is no mere substitution joke: these are feasible might-have-beens. Tolstoy wrote considerably on theology, Richard Wagner was a prolific writer, Einstein wrote poetry, and Joyce was "a passionate musician as well as a writer [who] grew up hearing his father sing opera arias and for a time aspired to become a singer himself" (Joyce's Grand Operoar: Opera in Finnegans Wake, Hodgart & Bauerle).

Must find it. It looks a fine example of what I've discussed on and off with Felix Grant of The Growlery: the sophistication of adolescent-readership novels these days.

Jenny Davidson's blog, The Explosionist, has ongoing links to discussion, reviews and news. This too looks fun: the forthcoming sequel is a loose retelling of The Snow Queen. Jenny Davidson, by the way, is an associate professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She's written a previous novel, Heredity: see Clones, Criminals, and Plotted Sex, Andrew Lawless, Three Monkeys Online, March 2005.

Addendum Unfortunate, as discussed in the comments, that The Explosionist is only in hardback so far. From reading the intro, in which a school chemistry lesson on explosives is interrupted by a terrorist explosion, I strongly suspected allusions to Joseph Konrad's The Secret Agent, with its terrorism-by-explosion theme. A quick Google confirms that Jenny Davidson is well aware of the book: see The dynamite romance at one of her other blogs, Light reading, which recommends this Tom Armitage article about a forgotten genre that focused on dynamitards of the late 19th / early 20th century Illegalist anarchists and other political movements (this is the same era that gave us the cartoon stereotype of anarchist with bowling-ball bomb). Only The Secret Agent and GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (both published in 1907) are generally known. Another is The Dynamiter (Gutenberg EText-No. 647, Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny van de Grift Stevenson, 1887), a sequence of short stories about various characters connected by a bombing campaign in aid of Irish independence. Many more are listed and discussed in chapter 8, Dynamite romances of Barbara Arnett Melchiori's 1985 Terrorism in the late Victorian novel. Typical plots involved a young woman in love with a dynamiter and attempting to reform him through lurve, as in Matilda Betham-Edwards' 1885 The Flower of Doom and Grant Allen's 1886 For Maimie's Sake: A Tale of Love and Dynamite. This wasn't just an arbitrary fad: from the late 1800s into the early 1900s there was a cultural scare about dynamite - highly akin to modern post-9/11 paranoia and fear of suitcase nukes - following Fenian dynamite attacks on English cities in the 1880s, and the realisation of dynamite's portability

The 1867 attack on Clerkenwell Prison had involved barrels of gunpowder which, because of the amount needed to produce the desired effect, was an unwieldy substance for subversion. But with Alfred Nobel's inventions of dynamite in 1863, and the fulminate mercury detonating process in 1867, the possibility of carrying out successful, clandestine operations was greatly increased.
- Terrorism and modern literature, from Joseph Conrad to Ciaran Carson, Alex Houen, Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0–19–818770–X

There's further discussion of the historical and literary context in "Homeland Insecurity: Dynamite Terror and the Textual Landscape of London", a dissertation draft by Sarah McLemore, University of California.

Addendum 2 Coincidentally, via MetaFilter, see the works of Evelyn Rosenberg, who makes ornate bas-reliefs by "detanography": a technique using plastic explosive to force metal on to a carved substrate. Swords into ploughshares again.
- Ray

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Fortifications ... and Gosport

Thoughts around a couple of chance details crystallised into memories worth exploring. Firstly there was Quest for Kim's description of Lahore Railway Station whose on-the-surface-fanciful castellated design is functional; it was built after the 1857 Indian Mutiny to be defensible as a fort. Then there's Ptak's Science Books' Snowflakes and Fort Construction--Scamozzi & Palmanova, which mentions the remarkable "star fort" of Palmanova, Italy.

Though I didn't remotely understand it at the time, I grew up among similar structures, the relics of a Victorian Cold War. Portsmouth harbour - see map -

View Larger Map
is a strategic naval port, and was historically even more so. The Portsmouth side housed the dockyard; Gosport (where I was born) was a garrison town that also handled the infrastructure of victualling and materiel. The 1850s saw a particularly tense period in its history. According to The Story of Gosport (Leonard White, various eds. including Barrell, 1966)

During the 1850-60 period there was constant rivalry between England and France and the danger of open warfare with a French invasion was constantly in the minds of English service chiefs. The aggressive diplomacy of Lord Palmerston, the rise to power of Napoleon III and the frequent clashes of policy between the two countries led people to quote the famous words of the Duke of Wellington: "I am bordering on seventy-seven years passed in honour. I hope that the Almighty may protect me from being a witness of the tragedy I cannot persuade my contemporaries to take measures to avert". The tragedy he contemplated was a full scaled French invasion of the south coast.

As a result of such concerns, Palmerston (as First Lord of the Treasury - i.e. Prime Minister) instigated the 1859 Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom, which concluded that fortifications should be upgraded for key locations. One of these was Portsmouth Harbour, with an especial focus on securing the weakly defended Gosport side against attack from landward; the town had relatively simple ramparts around its core harbour section. The upgrade took the form of a line of forts across the full width of the peninsula. These, and their contemporary fortifications - see the Palmerston Forts Society - became later known as "Palmerston's Follies". They were built on a new design that replaced the former "bastion system" (essentially, star-shaped fort designs optimised for defence against close-range attack) in favour of the "polygonal system": heavily-armed low-profile forts also designed to prevent attackers getting close, furthermore arranged according to the "Prussian system" where adjoining forts provided each other supporting cross-fire. (See Fort Brockhurst and the Gomer-Elson Forts, David Moore, Solent Papers No. 6, 1990, ISBN 0 9513234 3 1).

How effective they would have been is moot, as is whether they were actually follies or provided a deterrent. The similarly-designed Belgian fortresses (such as Fort Liezele) didn't significantly impede German advance in World War 1 (they were vulnerable to the latest heavy mortars) which was why the French didn't bother to much defend the also similar Verdun forts.

View Larger Map

Most of the Gosport forts are still extant: No. 2 Battery, Fort Grange (now occupied by a football pitch and tennis courts - swords into ploughshares!), Fort Rowner, Fort Brockhurst (which is open to the public and used as a store for English Heritage reserve collections) and the overgrown Fort Elson (which is being allowed to decay, being inside an M.O.D. facility). There are a number of others to the north, such as Fort Fareham, which houses an industrial estate. A final one, Fort Gomer, the first of these new forts, was here; I just remember it, shortly before its demolition in the early 1960s for the housing estate where we lived. The only physical reminder of its existence is a cul de sac on the estate called Moat Drive, and the adjoining Gomer Lane (whose name pre-dates the fort).

Another of my early memories is of seeing steam trains at Gosport Station (which closed to traffic in 1969). This too has a history I didn't know: like that at Lahore, it was designed to be defensible, the only one of its kind in Britain. This design feature was the result of a lengthy dispute in 1840-41 over its building location: the Board of Ordnance considered it too close to the ramparts of the Gosport Lines, and so required it to become part of the defenses. See The Battle of Gosport Railway Station. The sea forts in the Solent must be unique too (see My Gosport); at low tide, the Isle of Wight FastCat ferry travels quite close to one, Spitbank Fort.

I must visit these places some time. They were enigmatic and inaccessible when I was a child, being M.O.D. occupied. Now that that role for the district has declined, many are open to the public. Looks interesting. In rather the same vein, I'll definitely check out June Hampson's "Daisy Lane" series. These are crime novels set in Gosport, starting in 1962 (when I was six and the town looked like this) and I'm rather taken by the in-joke of the heroine's name: Daisy Lane is a lane in Gosport. Judging by previews I've seen, the location is thoroughly authentic: Daisy runs a cafe that "encompassed the corners of North Street and North Cross Street". It's all redeveloped now, but as late as the 1960s, this was one of the scruffier areas of Gosport, still showing wartime bomb damage with large gaps and the adjoining houses braced with wooden supports. As the Orion Publishing interview reveals, it's based on a location where the author lived ("Daisy’s view was my view, even down to the ironmongers’ shop where she goes to get all her bits and pieces from"). I remember that, as well as the cafe, and the folksy radio spares shop in North Street, Speedy's, where I used to get wire to wind induction coils ("Speedy" wore a ghastly wig). The Fox Tavern still exists. (This section of the town is described vividly in Norman L Edward's autobiographical The Times In My Life, although a few decades before I or June Hampson knew it).

Compared to many places, Gosport seems not to have a great number of literary connections, whether as birthplace of authors or as a setting. That's a bit surprising, considering the scope for storytelling about its robust history as a port town, which gave rise to at least one shanty, "Gosport Nancy". However, it features as a location in Benjamin Leopold Farjeon's 1894 indictment of antisemitism, Aaron the Jew, of which the main character is a Gosport shopkeeper. Arthur Upfield (creator of the aboriginal detective "Boney") was born in Gosport, as was the novelist Lilian Harry a.k.a. Donna Baker. Rudyard Kipling would have known Gosport well in his later boyhood. As he wrote:

[Captain Holloway] ... with whom as a small boy I perambulated all Portsmouth, Gosport and Fratton
- Kipling and the Royal Navy, quoting letter of 22 October 1919, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 4, Ed. Pinney

(This was "Captain Hollaway" of the Captain and Mrs Holloway in whose Southsea house Kipling lodged for six years and where, as recounted in a number of his books, he was psychologically abused after the kindly Captain's death). A number of literati were among the guests at Bay House (now a school) when it was a minor stately home in the mid-1800s; they included Jane Carlyle (wife of Thomas Carlyle, and a considerable writer in her own right), Tennyson, Thackeray and Macaulay. See Bay House: a nobleman's seaside residence, by Jane Lewendon. A further indirect novelist connection is that one of Jane Austen's brothers, Charles, lived in Gosport for a time.

Addendum: For something of the flavour of the town historically, check out the landscape artist Martin Snape, 1852-1930, who painted many locations around Gosport, Hampshire, about a century ago. Recording the changing scenes of the semi-rural creeks and shores around Gosport in the early 20th century, they have a gloomy atmospheric quality that, for me, evokes a spine-tingling nostalgia. The above site by Gosport Discovery Centre, which recently assimilated Gosport Museum, has 188 images in a searchable database, Snape Online. The Richard Martin Gallery, Gosport, specialises in local artists and keeps a biographical page. There are a few more on the Martin Snape page - largeish images - at My Gosport.

- Ray

Friday, 14 August 2009


Still on the subject of Kipling: Must the nation's favourite poet really be Kipling? The Guardian Books blog looks at the current BBC Nation's Best Poet poll, for which Kipling is a likely favourite (his If—, from the anthology Rewards and Fairies, was voted Nation's Favourite Poem in 1995 in a similar pseudo-poll 1).

If—, written in 1895, rapidly became the standard litany in praise of British stiff upper lip. Obviously it's an "author is dead" situation, but the background is interesting; in Kipling's autobiographical Something of Myself, he describes it as alluding to the Jameson Raid. This was a nasty piece of military-political manoevering, a British-supported attempt to destabilise the Transvaal Republic that was, ultimately, one of the factors precipitating the Boer War. The poem's advice is evidently to the expedition's leader, Dr Leander Starr Jameson, who was covertly supported by the British government, but disavowed when the attack failed (although newspapers spun it as a victory).

If— has attracted many ripostes and pastiches. For instance, Shackleton's last voyage. The story of the Quest (Internet Archive shackletonslastv00wilduoft) tells how Sir Ernest Shackleton had two verses of If— put on brass plate by the bridge of his ship, The Quest. His crewman Leonard Hussey, after a gruelling stint coaling the ship in bad weather, wrote:

If you can stand the Quest and all her antics,
If you can go without a drink for weeks,
If you can smile a smile and say, "How topping!"
When someone splashes paint across your "breeks";

If you can work like Wild and then, like "Wuzzles," 2
Spend a convivial night with some "old bean,"
And then come down and meet the Boss at breakfast
And never breathe a word of where you've been;

If you can keep your feet when all about you
Are turning somersaults upon the deck,
And then go up aloft when no one told you.
And not fall down and break your blooming neck;

If you can fill the port and starboard bunkers
With fourteen tons of coal and call it fun.
Yours is the ship and everything that's on it,
Coz you're a marvel, not a man, old son....

Witha less macho flavour, the Jamaican feminist Una Marson wrote her version of If— about the role of a wife in the sexist culture of 1930s Jamaica

(from see 20th-century Caribbean literature, Alison Donnell). Or there's Rudyard Kipling as a Job Consultant from Frank Jacobs' 1994 Pitiless parodies and other outrageous verse. Or HAC Evans' version about business ethos, If Not, in New Statesman in 1975. The list is probably endless.

There's an excellent story, "The Man Who Would Be Queen", with some vicious Kipling parodies, in the National Lampoon's The Book of Sequels. This untold Kipling tale, an account of a soldier's impersonation of a Maharani to gain possession of a prized ruby, includes several pseudo-Kipling poems from the character Old Ruddy's best-selling anthology Jingo Doggerel Ditties.

Old Ruddy began to recite from memory:

O, the 'eathens of the 'indu Kush
They stank like a 'erd o' goats,
And when they weren't grovellin' at our boots,
They was slashin' at our throats.
We'd come to teach 'em the Rule of Law
But for all the thanks we got,
We might 'ave been dealin' with Micks or Spics
Or the bone-rained 'ottentot.
An' 'alf the time they was 'umble an' meek,
An' 'alf the time they was snoooty,
So we shot 'em down like a pack o' curs,
As is a soldier's dooty,
And we shouted in battle frenzy
Through lips that were flecked with foam,
'If you don't like it in Injah,
Why don't you go bloody 'ome?'

There's also a version of If— that I hope is ridiculing sexism.

If you can fix your hair when all about you
Are tearing theirs out, blaming it on you;
If you can tell him he can go without you,
The pout, because you wanted to go, too;
If you can wink, and sigh, and be vivacious,
And paint your lips and eyes and scent your bust,
And after acting utterly flirtatious,
Take great offense at man's unseemly lust;

If you can dress in feathers, fur, and leather
While swooning over kittens, fawns, and chicks;
If you can never quite remember whether
A half a dozen is the same as six;
If you confuse 'withdrawal' with 'deposit'
When dealing with the bank account you share,
If you can shop for clothes and fill your closet,
and never have a decent thing to wear,

If you can picket, bluster, march, and bellow
For equal rights—protest and suffragette it—
Demanding the same treatment as a fellow,
Then wail and weep and blubber when you get it;
If you can fill with guilt the hearts and spouses
For everything they've done—or haven't done
You'll wind up with both town and country houses,
And—which is more—you'll be a WOMAN, son!

1. I use the term because you don't actually get to vote for your favourite, only for your favourite out of a set of options pre-selected by the poll creators (in this case, the list was "compiled in consultation with The Poetry Society and The Arts Council". So no luck that I like the work of RS Thomas and David Dabydeen. It's pretty elitist too that the popular poet Pam Ayres isn't on the list.
2. The Captain, Frank Worsley.

- Ray

Monday, 10 August 2009

1935 Dante's Inferno

Dante's Inferno (1935) - Hell sequence

Further to Dante's world, December 2007: I mentioned then the stunning Hell dream sequence in the 1935 Spencer Tracy movie, Dante's Inferno (Leslie Hallewell described it as "one of the most unexpected, imaginative and striking pieces of cinema in Hollywood's history" - see ‘It will burn itself into your memory forever!’ at The Big Whatsit).

The 1935 film is fairly unmemorable apart from this 8:46 segment, which was remarkable for its time and would be a major challenge to film even nowadays with CGI facilities. Some sources say it comes from an otherwise lost 1924 film, but whatever the origin, the designer and post-impressionist painter Harry Lachman clearly modelled it on the classic Gustav Doré engravings for Dante's Inferno.

- Ray

The Giant Swing

A musical curiosity. I've just re-read The Giant Swing (1932), a hardboiled romance by William Ripley Burnett, whose output was prolific though he remains best known for his debut novel Little Caesar.

The Giant Swing
, filmed in 1941 as Dance Hall, is set initially around a Midwest dance hall where its hero, Joe Nearing, plays jazz piano. The book didn't get good reviews, possibly because readers were expecting it to be as gritty as Burnett's first two books. It's actually a perceptive novel about a common cultural phenomenon: Joe's talent and interest in classical music make him a misfit in the provincial working-class circles where he starts out, but his lower-class roots leave him also uncomfortable in the higher-flying world where that talent takes him.  (It's quite tempting to read Burnett's own situation into it, as a writer who had been working as a night clerk in a seedy Chicago hotel before achieving instant success and a ticket to a Hollywood career when Little Caesar was published).

THE GIANT SWING—W. R. Burnett— Harper. Author Burnett, who has sung hitherto only of sidearms and hard men, has changed his key a little. The Giant Swing's hero, never a tough boy, rises from jazz pianist to nationwide genius, a combination George Gershwin-Ziegfeld.

Joe Nearing played the piano in the jazz band at "Spanish" Strapp's amusement park. "Spanish" only managed the Park but he owned the owner's wife. A bully without bluff, he took men and women as they came. Joe admired Spanish, wished he were like him, knew he could never be. When Joe acquired a girl and Spanish saw her, Joe feared the worst. It happened. Joe left town. The story drops out nine years and back he comes in a flurry of flashlights, publicity and obsequious old acquaintances, as a musician not only great but rich and popular, author of a musical extravaganza that was a smash hit all over the country. One by one he looked up his old friends, his one-time girl, his old dreaded hero, Spanish. Time had not improved any of them. Joe was glad he had come back, especially the way he had come; sorry, too.
- Books: Jazz to Genius, Time, Sep. 05, 1932

Joe has been inspired to greater ambitions by hearing Debussy's En Bateau (he thinks it's "Debewski's On Battoe"). His original compositions are inspired by the sounds of railway yards. With the help of a more sophisticated mentor, Sorel, he writes a musical called The Giant Swing (no relation to Sao Ching Cha in Bangkok) which succeeds despite an initial panning from a reviewer who describes it as a "mixture of Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Stravinsky and Debussy".

Unusually, we can actually hear Joe's first unpolished composition that impresses Sorel, as Burnett included the score in the book. There's no indication who wrote it in reality, but here it is, a minute-long piano solo: click for MP3.
- Ray

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Great Game and other adventures #2

Further to The Great Game and other adventures, a book recommendation: Quest for Kim: in search of Kipling's Great Game (Peter Hopkirk, 1996 - various editions inc. John Murray, ISBN-0-7195-5560-4). There's an extensive preview at Google Books. Its genre is travelogue / literary detection in which Hopkirk explores the roots of Kim, which is itself available in various editions at the Internet Archive and as Gutenberg EText-No. 2226. To recap briefly, Kim concerns an orphaned boy of Anglo-Irish parentage who grows up as a resourceful and multilingual street urchin in Lahore, until he is recruited and educated as a member of the British Secret Service, simultaneously acting sidekick to a wandering lama who is searching for the sacred "River of the Arrow".

Quest for Kim starts with historical context from Hopkirk's earlier The Great Game (espionage arising from British concern at the Russian empire's closer and closer encroachment toward the frontiers of India) as well as the origin of Hopkirk's own lifelong interest in the subject, formed while browsing in the Oriental book and antiquarian shops around the British Museum, such as Arthur Probsthain and those of Cecil Court. Hopkirk finds Kim to be strongly based on real persons and locations, While some are ambiguous and/or untraceable, others are clear, such as Kim's teacher Lurgan Sahib, who is based on the charismatic Simla jewel merchant Alexander M Jacobs (who also appeared as the subject of F Marion Crawford's 1907 Mr Isaacs, and as "Mr Jacob" in Newnham-Davis's 1898 Jadoo). Such bibliographic tips abound. For instance, Timeri N Murari's two sequels, The Imperial Agent and The Last Victory - which tell their stories extremely well, Hopkirk says - continue Kim's story, in which he becomes disaffected with British rule and ultimately dies in the Amritsar Massacre in 1919.

Quest for Kim is also rich in general historical background on India. Kim's journey from Lahore to Benares (now Varanasi) crosses what is now the Pakistan-India frontier and the locations of horrific massacres of refugees (fleeing in either direction) during Partition. The identification of Kim's school, "St Xavier's" with La Martinière, Lucknow, naturally leads to the latter's role during the 1857 uprising; and Hopkirk's search (unsuccessful) for Lurgan Sahib's shop in Simla (now Shimla) has many digressions to Simla's crucial role during the Raj as the summer seat of government, with its bizarre system of annual migration to and from Simla. I read Kim decades ago, too young to appreciate the cultural context, but it's not vital for reading Quest for Kim, which talks you through the story in enough detail to whet the appetite to read it in full. Definitely worth finding.

On Kiplingesque matters, the Telegraph just carried a story - "Alexander's army and the blondes of the Himalayas", also in the Irish Indepedent as Experts in bid to uncover a Great mystery - on the Himachal Pradesh village of Malana. This is one of various places said to have a population - "fair-haired and blue-eyed" - descended from soldiers of Alexander the Great's army, like those of the Kafiristanis in Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King. The news item tells of a Swedish-Indian initative to find out their origins, genetically and linguistically. Their language at least seems to have nothing to do wth Ancient Greek: although entirely different to that spoken in the region, it's a hybrid of Sanskrit and Sino-Tibetan languages (see Experts to study Alexander's 'last descendants' in Himachal, Jagdish Bhatt, Times of India, 29 July 2009).

Malana has a unique and highly insular culture whose basics haven't changed since it was documented in the 1911 A glossary of the tribes and castes of the Punjab and North-West frontier province. There's a modern documentary at Culture Unplugged, Malana A Lost Identity by Aparna Katara Sharma. Malana is certainly no Shangri-La, with fierce winters, and difficult interactions with the outside world arising from its various cultural taboos (centrally, the belief that all outsiders are unclean) - complicated by its reputation for producing high-quality cannabis. As described in this Guardian report, Valley of shadows (Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, Guardian, 20 April 2002), this has created extreme tensions in the area.

I notice from the documentary, incidentally, that the Telegraph appears to be exaggerating. The blonde Malani woman in the photo illustrating its story - unfortunately not online - appears to be non-representative; although considerably paler-skinned than Indians in general, few Malanis are actually blonde, and they're generally less European in appearance than the people of Nuristan and the Pamirs, regions that saw far more extensive contact with eastward migrations.

- Ray

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Lurid covers 5: Dell Books

I just encountered by accident a site where I could fritter away hours: Cover Browser, a compendium of "450,000+ covers of comics, books & more". The books section alone is vast, or even just the couple of thousand Dell Books covers, which are generally sensational.

Unlike some publishers of this era, they did mostly manage to drop out of lurid mode for the occasional classics they published, though you wouldn't quite get the flavour of James Blish's Black Easter from this. The cover design is a bit naff but not wildly wrong about the content, but the blurb portrays Blish's tight and theologically literate SF thriller (nuclear Armageddon played out taking the premise that the divine and satanic pantheon exists, and that the magic of mediaeval grimoires works as hard technology) merely as "a novel about black magic" that'll appeal to to readers of Rosemary's Baby. Those readers would also be surprised/baffled by the sparkling literary fireworks of Angela Carter, whose The Magic Toyshop gets the same miscomparison. Logan's Run: good marks apart from the inexplicable nudity of the runners. Brideshead Revisited: some kind of fountaining passion is implied, and the description - "A major novelist's famous best-seller" - suggests the blurb-writer didn't have much idea how to sell Waugh's saga of aristocrats and Catholic angst. Ubik: this is the one Dr C posted a while back, fairly incomprehensile pyschedelia apart from the identifying Ubik spray-can.

I ran into Cover Browser looking for Howard Clewes' novel The Long Memory (Dell cover here). I enthused about the film a while back - see Noir and the North Kent marshes - but just ran into a nice addendum, the full-chapter Google Books preview on the book and film from The cinema of Britain and Ireland (Brian McFarlane, Wallflower Press, 2005, ISBN-10: 190476438X).

- Ray

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

"I'll die before the endgame"

Book-related, I guess: I'll die before the endgame, says Terry Pratchett in call for law to allow assisted suicides in UK.

The author Sir Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2007, and he wants the option of out, at a time of his own choosing before he's incapable of making that choice.

Now, however, I live in hope - hope that before the disease in my brain finally wipes it clean, I can jump before I am pushed and drag my evil Nemesis to its doom, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty locked in combat as they go over the waterfall.
'I intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod.

I normally abhor the Daily Mail, where this piece appeared, but this powerful article presents a strong argument for the rights of people to make an intelligent and informed decision to take their own lives in situations of terminal illness, with no penalty to those who help them.

Heavy stuff aside, a bit about Pratchett (of whom both my wife and I are fans). He's immensely popular - but critically under-rated. The majority of his books are essentially pastiche, set in a Flat-Earth world called Discworld that provides a mirror of our own history, mythology and culture. Wyrd Sisters for instance, is a cross-breed between Hamlet and Macbeth. Pyramids satirises Ancient Egypt. Guards! Guards! explores the lives of the unsung spear-carriers in fantasy works. Carpe Jugulum is a dig at the tropes of vampire fiction. And so on.

Pratchett is a superb prose stylist. Philip Pullman tends to get more press coverage: he's darker, rather more literary in style, and he has a known anti-religious stance that attracts attention. But Pratchett, I think, excels in his combination of affectionate satire with a general sympathy for the human condition. He is just so much more fun than Pullman. My personal favourites among his works are Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! Clare (Mrs Ray) agrees, with the addition of Mort.

Check out Pratchett's official sites: and

(And I hope he gets his wish).
- Ray

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Pelmanism (or Poehlmannism)

"Mr CL Pelman in his study" - The Review of Reviews, v.25, 1902

Department of Near-Forgotten Fads. Via discussions at Ptak's Science Books blog, I was just browsing the beautifully quaint ads in the August 1930 Popular Science, now with full view in Google Books, and ran into "Are You afraid to Face the Truth About Yourself?" (top left, here), advertising The Pelman Institute of America.

From way back I recall "Pelmanism" as one of the many names of "Concentration", a memory card game. But this alludes to a historical mental training and self-help system, particularly focused on memory development, of which this game was an integral exercise. It was named after Christopher Louis Pelman, who was apparently a British psychologist, though the sheer absence of sources outside advertising copy makes one almost suspect him to be a fiction of the documented founder of the Pelman Institute, William Joseph Ennever. More on this in a moment.

From its origins in the late 1890s, Pelmanism flourished in the early 20th century - the Pelman Institute could afford a number of full-page Times ads in 1919. Like similar modern advertising, it depended strongly on dubious celebrity citation. It claimed a following among professionals at the highest level, such as politicans and high-ranking military figures, An advert in Knowledge and Scientific News, February 1907 cited these endorsements:

Mr WT Stead: "I consider Mr Pelman a benefactor of the human race"

Rev EG Roberts, MA Oxon: "I prepare my lectures on Pelman principles, recalling them with ease.

Major-General Baden-Powell: "I am convinced a good memory can be obtained by cultivation"

Signor G Marconi: "I think that the development of memory is much neglected"

Judging by the shrinking size of the advertisements, the Pelman Institute's budget diminished after World War One, and it and its offshots finally fizzled in the early 1950s (Ennever himself was already out of it, having gone bankrupt in 1941 and died in 1947). It's an interesting saga with strong modern resonances. Psychological Subjects: Identity, Culture, and Health in Twentieth-Century Britain, Mathew Thomson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) has a section on Pelmanism telling how it obtained a strong establishment foothold and influential backing, due to offering a route to national efficiency during the critical period of a world war. The educationalist Sir James Yoxall MP praised it, writing an advertorial for The Times, Wednesday, Feb 13, 1918 - "The Will and the Way, Pelmanism as an educational factor". There were even proposals for every schoolchild to take the course, and for a "Ministry of Pelmanism". All rather familiar: it's the sort of craze like "Brain Gym" that Bad Science would cover nowadays.

For an extremely well-researched study and compilation of Pelmanism materials, see Barry Ennever's pages:
* The Pelman School of Memory, The Pelman Institute and Pelmanism
* William Joseph Ennever (1869-1947), founder of The Pelman Institute and Pelmanism
* The Man with Half a Million Followers (the life of W.J. Ennever).

This does leave us with the puzzle of who Pelman was and what happened to him. Marie Corelli's My Little Bit (1919, Internet Archive mylittlebit00coreiala) takes a sharp dig at Pelmanism, telling how she was offered - she refused - 50 guineas to write a promotional piece. She also gives an interesting aside that might explain the elusiveness of Pelman: the claim that he was German, and called Poehlmann. There are one or two online documents corroborating this, particularly this French monograph that calls him Christoph L Poehlmann, and this page, which calls him Christoph L. Pöhlmann, saying

Prof. Pöhlmann came from humble beginnings. His parents were German. He was born in the second half of the 19th century. Even as a student he was fascinated by psychology. He completed his studies in philosophy and psychology in England. Once he had promoted his ideas through books and publications, he founded the Institute in 1900 in London, together with John W. Ennever [sic].

Just thinking around what the German original for "Louis" might be, I tried "Alois" and "Ludwig", and rapidly found a hit in the Tagebücher (Diaries) by Oscar A. H. Schmitz, ed. Wolfgang Martynkewicz (the 2006 edition of Schmitz's 1896-1906 diaries) which has this footnote:

Der Privatgelehrte Christof Ludwig Poehlmann (1867 bis ?), Autor zahlreicher Ratgeber über Gedächtnis- und Konzentrationslehre, uber Willensstärkung und Redekunst. 1909 erschien von ihm "Das Gedächtnis und seine Entwicklungsfähigkeit".

The privately educated Christof Ludwig Poehlmann (1867 to ?), The author of numerous guides on memory and concentration lessons, about strengthening the will and elocution. In 1909 he published "The development of memory and its ability".

Google Books finds this Poehlmann wrote many other German-published self-help and psychological books, such as:

* The 1905 Gedächtnislehre: ihre Regeln und deren Anwendung aufs praktische Leben (Memory teaching: its Laws and their application to practical life - the German equivalent of booklets mentioned at the Ennever site as published in the 1880s-90s with author Christopher Louis Pelman)
* 1911 Die Kunst zu denken: richtig, erfolgreich zu denken (The art of thinking: true, successful thinking)
* 1914 Poehlmann's Geistes-Schulung und -Pflege (Poehlmann's mind-training and maintenance)
* 1914 Erfolge: Lebenserfahrungen eines alten Mannes, niedergeschrieben für solche, die etwas erreichen wollen (Successes: life experiences of an old man, written for those who want to achieve something).

These are so remarkably close to the Pelman agenda that I feel sure it's the same guy. It would be conceivable that they're merely translations, with the author name rebadged for the German market, but the full Worldcat bibliography shows Poehlmann wrote a few books on specifically German topics, such as the 1914 Munich-published Die deutsche Frau nach 1914, that would be unlikely to be written by a non-German. "CL Pelman" disappears from Pelmanism ads around 1907 and, if he is Poehlmann, his origins would hardly be a selling point for the Pelman Institute immediately prior to, and during, World War One.

There is, just to confuse matters, a "C Pelman", also German, who wrote about psychological matters around this period. He, however, is Carl Georg Wilhelm Pelman.

Addendum: Barry Ennever just contacted me, and we've compared notes on a further bit of the picture. Who was "Foster" in the "Pelman-Foster System", as Pelmanism was sometimes marketed? A Times display ad for Tuesday, Mar 20, 1906 gives his name as RF Foster, and given the card game connection, an immediate candidate is the card game expert Richard Frederick Foster (1853 - 1945). A number of reliable sources confirm, such as:

Foster, Robert Frederick
Authority on card games, b. Edinburgh, Scotland, May 31 1853. s. Alexander Frederick and Mary E (Macbrair) F. m. Mary E Johnson, 1891. Author: Cab No. 44 (fiction) and some 68 books on card games. Joint author of Pelman-Foster System of Mind Training. Card editor of NY Sun, 1895, NY Tribune 1919. Contributor short stories to mags. Inventor self-playing cards 1 for bridge and whist and the whist makers. Originator "eleven rule" at bridge.
- Who's who among North American authors, v. 6 - 1929

Foster's novel Cab No.44 is online (Internet Archive cabno44foster00fostiala).

Addendum 2: There was one other person involved with the founding of Pelmanism: a Professor Alphonse Loisette. He's covered well at The Pelman School of Memory, The Pelman Institute and Pelmanism page, and was probably the most overtly scammy of the bunch, being no more French than I am, but an American, born Marcus Dwight Larrowe. The Yale obit in Obituary record of the graduates of the undergraduate schools, deceased 1860-70--1950/51 charitably says he assumed the name Professor Alphonse Loisette "in deference to his father's strong opposition to his project". His memory system slightly pre-dated Pelmanism, but is virtually identical; as the Ennever article says, it's unclear if this was from collaboration or plagiarism.

The backstory is a little clarified by "Loisette" exposed (Marcus Dwight Larrowe, alias Silas Holmes, alias Alphonse Loisette) (George S Fellows, New York, G. S. Fellows, 1888, Internet Archive loisetteexposed01larrgoog). This hostile account reveals Loisette's system, arguing it to be an inferior and plagiarised version of earlier systems, especially that of Edward Pick (see his On memory and the rational means of improving it, 1861). 2 However, it has revealing correspondence to show that the abovementioned RF Foster worked as Loisette's business manager from 1877-78, before quitting and denouncing him as "a fraud and a humbug". Loisette exposed goes into a frenzy of name-dropping to show the purity of Foster's motives.

Mr. Foster is a native of Edinburgh, Scotland and is connected with some of the best families in Great Britain. Lord Kinlooh, for many years Lord Provost of Scotland, was his first cousin, and he numbers among his immediate relatives the Bishop of Kildare, the Rev. Dr. Moody Stewart, and the Sandfords, of whom Sir Herbert is well known in America, having been British Commissioner to our Centennial in 1870. Knowing these facts, it was not surprising, on meeting Mr. Foster, to find that he was thoroughly ashamed of ever having had any connection with Loisette.

But it's still a trifle suspicious to quit working for someone you think a charlatan, then immediately go into the same line of business with closely similar instruction texts.

Loisette got what was probably his best publicity from Mark Twain, who became an enthusiastic pupil for a time (see Mark Twain, a Biography, Albert Bigelow Paine, 1912). He ultimately withdrew his testimonial on feeling the system too complex to benefit the race at large. "Later he decided that the whole system was a humbug", Bigelow writes. More on this, if you have JSTOR access, at "Mark Twain and the Art of Memory", Thomas M. Walsh and Thomas D. Zlatic, American Literature, Vol. 53, No. 2 (May, 1981), pp. 214-231. It says that Loisette "raided a dozen other mnemotechnicians' ideas and developed them into one of the most absurdly cumbersome of all mnemonic systems". 3

1. According to the ad in Foster's Common sense in whist, "The cleverest and most practical invention for teaching good whist. One, two or three persons can play with these cards exactly as if four were present. At the same time these cards will indicate to each player, at every stage of the game, the manner in which such combinations of cards as he may happen to hold would be played by an expert, if he were present and held them." A table-based AI, in effect.
2. There were an astonishing number of mnemonists about in the 19th century teaching similar techniques. See the huge list in Mnenomics, 1911 Britannica.
3. Paradoxically, this was probably a factor behind why people stuck with it. It's a classic setup of "cognitive dissonance" that people are reluctant to give up beliefs that they've invested a great deal (time, money, effort) buying into.

- Ray