Thursday, 26 August 2010

Topsham Inns

Yesterday I went to the official launch of Topsham Inns: past and present by Colin Piper. Commissioned and published by the Topsham Museum Society, this booklet aims "to share knowledge about present and past times in Topsham as viewed from the public bar"; and "to provide a plug for the remaining Topsham pubs (perhaps an endangered species?)".

For those not familiar with the area: Topsham is unusual in having a high density of pubs in a village-sized area (the currently variable, "Topsham Ten") but it once, in its days as a thriving river port, had many more. The illustrated booklet documents the 9 remaining ones, 15 whose buildings are still extant in alternative use, and 14 known to exist historically.  It also includes some pub poems, and a local walk - or a "crawl" - that visits all the locations of past and present pubs listed.

Overall, this is an excellent little book for the informational content: I've been in Topsham 15 years and was unaware of many of these locations. It gives a very good feel for the connections between pubs, the town and its personalities, as well as the overall historical context of why pubs were so numerous in the past (and less so now).

But on the downside, I think it's spoiled in many areas by a lack of attention to aesthetics and detail. Aesthetically the cover is nice, but surely, for some of the modern images both on the cover and inside, it would have been possible to source ones not taken at the instant of cars driving in front of the building being photographed? The text formatting is really quite eccentric, with prominent names and locations in bold type; and the general impression is of a collection of historical soundbites with little attempt at linking narrative. The white spaces between these isolated paragraphs - often single sentences - also make the book look distinctly 'padded'.

Content-wise, the text freely mixes cited material with the uncited and often anecdotal. For example, the section on the (Lord) Nelson pub mentions Thomas Randle, who "is said to have served as a quartermaster on HMS Victory" (a factoid enshrined on his memorial by Topsham church). Randle did actually serve on the HMS Victory as a quartermaster, but not at the Battle of Trafalgar as claimed on his gravestone; he was demoted to Able Seaman two years before the battle. See Thomas Randle elucidated for full details.

Another example of insufficient research is the section concerning the old Steam Packet mural "said to depict HMS Persia ... a local maritime expert is adamant that there has been no Royal Navy ship with this name". Ten minutes with Google can get further than this non-story. I discussed it way back with the then landlord, Barry Stock, and we noted that there was an RMS Persia, but this had twin funnels). The depicted ship, however, matches any of Cunard's Clyde-built steam packets of the 1840s onward: the PS Britannia, PS Acadia, PS Caledonia and PS Columbia (see TheShipsList feature).

I appreciate that this is a booklet rather than a scholarly monograph, but as it's an official museum publication, I'd have liked to have seen less inclusion of the historically unverifiable ("it is said", "legend has it", and the like). Nor do I think the dual aims work: the promotional element for the current owners of pubs (for instance, lists of beer brands sold) doesn't sit entirely comfortably with a museum publication, and it's also detail that'll rapidly date (Addendum: October 2011 - for example, the Globe has just changed ownership, with a consequent change of ales on tap).

I stress that overall I still think it's an informative publication with a lot of good research about a little-known topic, and not at all bad value for the price, currently, of a pint and and half of beer. But I think the next edition needs better focus on a professional format, on tidying up loose ends, and on deciding what exactly it's trying to do (scholarly history vs. personal take vs. promotional booklet). The author cites Chips Barber, and the latter's works are a good example of how Devon history can be made highly readable, and enthusiastic about locations, without loss of historical rigour.

Topsham Inns: past and present, Colin Piper, Topsham Museum Society, 2010, 89 pages (ISBN 0 9524591 4 0 and 978 0 9524591 4 9). Price: £4.50, available from Topsham Museum.

- Ray

Sunday, 22 August 2010

But is it kosher?

Via The Times for Saturday August 21 (no link due to paywall): a number of publications have carried the interesting story about the latest in a series of feasts organised by the researchers Ari Greenspan and Ari Zivotofsky.  For a number of years they've conducted culinary-religious detective work to identify kosher foods whose documented status as kosher has been lost for various reasons including the Diaspora, the Holocaust, development of industrialised food supply/marketing, and mistaken categorisation.

See the equivalent article by the same author: At Kosher Feast, Fried Locusts for Dessert (by Nathan Jeffay, Jewish Daily Forward, August 6, 2010).  Some items on the menu arise from Talmudic tradition as recommendations for the curious who wanted to know the taste of forbidden foods: for instance, the carp Barbus grypus (called shibuta) is said to taste of pork.  Others involved disputed biological characteristics, such as demonstration that the water-buffalo has cloven hooves and chews the cud, and that the swordfish has scales.  Yet others involved finding an attribution trail via oral tradition (necessary for a bird to be kosher), old documents or practices of isolated communities, such as Yemenite and Moroccan Jews with a tradition that identifies which species of locust match those of biblical description.

The whole issue of kosher food often leads to fascinating exercises in scholarship. - "the premier kosher information source on the Internet" maintained by the food scientist Arlene J. Mathes-Scharf - has in its articles section a number by Rabbi Zivotofsky, including Kashrut of Exotic Animals: The Buffalo, Is Turkey Kosher? and The Halachic Tale of Three American Birds: Turkey, Prairie Chicken, and Muscovy Duck (the latter two explore the slightly paradoxical status of the turkey, a New World bird which Zivotofsky argues got a fairly easy ride into kosher status compared to other birds with better credentials).

Googling around the topic led me to an excellent gastronomic website, Culinary Historians of New York. Catch while you can its semi-annual newsletter, online for a limited time. Its Spring 2008 edition contains an article about the shibuta and the lead article for Fall 2003 is Early Sephardic Foodways in the Hudson Valley, but it's not just limited to Jewish cuisine, and has interesting articles about the wide-ranging ethnic and locally-evolved cuisines of the USA. Also check out, for example, From Great Cake to Curiosity (On the Trail of the Hartford Election Cake); From Raw Beef without Salt to Freedom Fries (Haute Cuisine, the White House, and Presidential Politics) and Early American Opinions on Chinese Food.

- Ray

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Beatles Complete on Ukulele

Via Language Log, another example of the excellence of the Internets: The Beatles Complete on Ukulele. This is a project by the artist and music producer/writer David Barratt to create cover versions of the entire works of the Beatles to a punishing schedule of one a week, and the project title underplays the variety and quality of the covers, done sympathetically and creatively (and not just on ukulele) in association with largely little-known musicians. They're all freely available online - so far 82 of the canon of 185 songs completed - posted in blog format with a slightly off-the-wall essay accompanying each piece. I highly recommend thm.

Particular picks: the current post, a very bright and upbeat cover of I Should Have Known Better featuring Samantha Fox; Papa Dee's reggae version of Blackbird; a charmingly simple acoustic version of All You Need is Love with Nikki Gregoreff; Bruisercharles's downbeat minor-key version ("The atmosphere is one of Tim Burtonish dread") of Maxwell's Silver Hammer; a vintage-bluesy Lady Madonna with Amanda Homi; Yesterday given a radical spin by Colton Ford; Deni Bonnet's plaintive violin-accompanied gender-reversed Please Please Me; We Are Soldiers We Have Guns's adaptation of Fool on the Hill as it might have been sung by ABBA; and a remarkable adaptation of Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da as an anguished monologue - Samuel Beckett meets Under Milk Wood - by Victor Spinetti.

You can listen via the Flash player embedded below; or go to for the full annotated versions.

- Ray (sorry about the formatting, but Blogger insists on stuffing the extra spacing above the embedding code).

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Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Hobknocker: anatomy of a myth

iCarly is an American children's / early teens' TV show about the life and friendships of Carly, an adolescent girl who runs her own web TV show. It has had a number of spinoffs, but an unwanted one must be the notoriety of a word used by one of its characters: the bratty and effete Wade Collins, a British-Canadian aspiring singer played by Alex Schemmer, has a signature phrase of calling Americans "hobknockers" / "hobnockers".

This is repeatedly asked-about on etymological and other forums - sometimes out of genuine curiosity, sometimes as a troll - and usually gets replies asserting that it's some kind of sexual term (if sourced, coming from the unmoderated dustbin that is the Urban Dictionary - which carried no article on the term until it appeared on iCarly in February 2009). The reality is that was a made-up epithet: there's no such English slang. I can only assume the story spread on the gossip circuit out of the same perverse desire to drag down excessively naive/wholesome children's shows that gave rise to jokes about Muffin the Mule and the urban myths about Captain Pugwash.

However, the word "hobknocker" does exist: a look in Google Books - see here - shows it to be an evidently rare US term for a piledriver or jackhammer - i.e. a pneumatic drill, probably the same thing described as a "hobnocker" in this legal transcript. Etymological speculation about these things can easily be on the wrong track (again as with speculations about "Pugwash"); at Askville there's a discussion headed What does the slang word "hobknocker" actually mean? This goes into learned discussion about "hob" and "knocker" being terms for minor imps - true enough - while ignoring the variety of meanings of "hob" for hardware with some kind of metal business end:
hob. n 2
[Origin obscure: perhaps more words than one. Cf. HUB.]
1. a. (Formerly also hub.) In a fire-place, the part of the casing having a surface level with the top of the grate.
1. b. One of the level supports on the top of a stove over which pots and pans, etc., are placed to be heated, etc.
2. A (rounded) peg or pin used as a mark or target in games; esp. one of the iron pins used in quoits.
3. (Also hub.) ‘A hardened, threaded spindle, by which a comb or chasing-tool may be cut’
4. The shoe of a sledge.
- Oxford English Dictionary, OED Online, 2nd edition, 1989
On this basis, "a hobknocker" is simply descriptive: a device with a metal tip that knocks things.

Returning to iCarly: admittedly I feel a slight twinge of sympathy with anyone's desire to subvert it. I may be reading too much into it, but I'm not at all keen on its overt pro-Americanism in having an approximately English character as a buffoon and hate figure. I also find the theme song, Leave It All to Me, outright creepy for its 'manifest destiny' flavour:
So wake up the members of my nation
It's your time to be.
I forget who commented that there's quite a narrow line between inspirational and totalitarian lyrics in songs, but I think this is right on that line. I'd love to see a cover of Leave It All To Me by Laibach (the Slovenian group whose Geburt Einer Nation, to provocatively satirical effect, fits fascist imagery to the German translation of Queen's One Vision).


Sunday, 8 August 2010

Sherlock: first series ends

Further to my Sherlock recommendation, the BBC three-part introductory series ended today. This episode, The Great Game, is now on BBC iPlayer, and I repeat the recommendation.

The middle episode, The Blind Banker, I thought was somewhat lame - a rather hackneyed chase-capture-fight-escape story - but The Great Game was well back on form. It pitted Holmes and Watson against a series of lethal puzzles set by a criminal mastermind (a structure reminiscent of Die Hard With a Vengeance) but got back to its Conan Doyle roots with close allusion to The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans; Holmes's classic exposition in A Study in Scarlet of how he keeps his mind free of clutter; his wall-shooting practice as mentioned at the beginning of The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual; a reference to The Five Orange Pips; and even a homage to Rondo Hatton and the Basil Rathbone film The Pearl of Death.

There's a brief review (mild spoilers) at the Guardian TV & Radio blog: Sherlock finale: your verdict on The Great Game.

- Ray

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Tamara Drewe movie

A brief update: I'm please to see the Exeter Picturehouse schedule for forthcoming films includes Tamara Drewe, Stephen Frears' adaptation (screenplay by Moira Buffini) of Posy Simmonds' graphic novel of the same name - a satirical comedy of English Yuppie country life. From the trailer, it looks as if it has been storyboarded very faithfully to its source. The UK premiere is on September 6th, and it'll be on general release from around the 10th.

There are plenty of preambles in various media sections - for instance, Peter Bradshaw's Guardian Film piece ("Stephen Frears's adaptation of the Posy Simmonds comic strip is like the filthiest possible episode of The Archers") - and has an exclusive preview of the poster. But most of them miss the crucial detail that the graphic novel is, in turn, a loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. It was filmed, appropriately, in Dorset (Salwayash and Yetminster) and it may be a casting in-joke or sheer coincidence that the lead actress is Gemma Arterton, who starred in the rather good 2008 BBC adaptation Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

See Tamara Drewe for further background.  See the Guardian for the full archive; on Saturday 28th August the paper also had a good interview with Posy Simmonds.

- Ray

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Pinocchio paradox

PinocchioWhat happens if Pinocchio says, "My nose is about to grow"?

This is a regular Internet meme/joke posted by timewasters on Yahoo! Answers, but it's actually a nice paradox of the "I always lie" flavour. One resolution, which ought to be on a FAQ somewhere, is well-known; but I'd never actually bothered to verify it. The get-out is that Pinocchio's nose grows not merely when he lies, but also when he's stressed.

See the English translation of Carlo Collodi's 1883 Adventures of Pinocchio (Gutenberg EText-No. 500), where there are scenes showing that the nose grows during his presumably stressful creation ...

After the eyes, Geppetto made the nose, which began to stretch as soon as finished. It stretched and stretched and stretched till it became so long, it seemed endless.

Poor Geppetto kept cutting it and cutting it, but the more he cut, the longer grew that impertinent nose. In despair he let it alone.

... and when Pinocchio, first experiencing hunger, is disappointed to find that a cooking pot is just a trompe-l'œil:

A boy's appetite grows very fast, and in a few moments the queer, empty feeling had become hunger, and the hunger grew bigger and bigger, until soon he was as ravenous as a bear.

Poor Pinocchio ran to the fireplace where the pot was boiling and stretched out his hand to take the cover off, but to his amazement the pot was only painted! Think how he felt! His long nose became at least two inches longer.

We might expect, then, that creating a logical paradox will be stressful to Pinocchio, and his nose will grow. This is the standard resolution, though I guess that doesn't solve the problem entirely; what if he practised relaxation exercises to the point where he could confront the paradox calmly? I don't know.

The Wikipedia article on The Adventures of Pinocchio is very worth reading, by the way. Like many children's classics, it wasn't originally written for children and started out as very dark Frankenstein-like allegory about the tension between conventional behaviour and free instinct. Pinocchio accidentally kills the Talking Cricket ("Il Grillo Parlante"), which continues to advise him as a ghost; and in the serialised first version, the story ended at chapter 15 with Pinocchio being hanged. At the request of his editor, Collodi added another twenty chapters to lighten it up, in which Pinocchio meets the The Fairy with Turquoise Hair, with whose help he cleans up his act and as reward gets turned into a real boy. The Adventures of Pinocchio spawned any number of adapted and derivative works, notably a Russian analogue, Buratino.

- Ray