Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A Sapphic leap in Dorset?

Following on from the recent post about Swinburne and chalk cliffs - see Swinburne, Culver climber - yesterday I read Thomas Hardy's poem A Singer Asleep, his elegy to Swinburne written at Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, on the occasion of Hardy's visit to Swinburne's grave there.

The poem, which celebrates Swinburne as a kindred spirit to the Greek poet Sappho, has a particular verse that refers to Sappho's alleged suicide by jumping off a "white cape", Cape Leukas (now called Cape Lefkada) out of unrequited love for a sailor called Phaon - a yarn especially propagated by Menander's mostly-lost play Leucadia (aka The Lady from Leukas). See Sappho and the Leucadian Leap (Gary Hoffman, Opera today, 18 Sep 2005) for more on this.
His singing-mistress verily was no other
Than she the Lesbian, she the music-mother
Of all the tribe that feel in melodies;
Who leapt, love-anguished, from the Leucadian steep
Into the rambling world-encircling deep
Which hides her where none sees.

- from A Singer Asleep, Thomas Hardy
This brings me to another "white cape" at the easternmost tip of the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset; see Google Maps and this excellent aerial photo by Phil Brace. The overall formation is, as a 19th century description puts it, a broken promontory "called promiscuously Foreland, Handfast Point, and Old Harry Head". As described, with further good photos, in Dr Ian West's geological account Harry Rocks and Ballard Point, within it there are various structures including "Old Harry" and "Old Harry's Wife"; and the gap between the mainland and the first offshore rock appears on maps as "St Lucas' Leap".

"St Lucas Leap" is a name of considerable antiquity that appears on the 1580s Richards Treswell map of Studland Parish (see top right here) and, if the map is accurate, predates the collapse of the promontory into separate stacks 1. The stated origin stories reek, to me anyway, of folk etymology. The predominant one is that:
It was close by, at St. Lucas's Leap, that a pair of pedigree greyhounds belonging to a certain squire at Studland, while coursing a hare, are said to have leaped clean over the cliff and have been dashed to pieces, the name St. Lucas being afterwards given to the spot where the tragedy occurred to commemorate the name of one of the favourite hounds which perished so suddenly and tragically. It was said that the old gentleman did not long survive the disaster, as he was so greatly attached to the dog and its fortunes."
- Old Swanage or Purbeck Past and Present: A collection of articles, topographical, historical, antiquarian, biographical and anecdotal, WM Hardy, 1910
A second version, repeated in Anthony Mills' 1977 The place-names of Dorset, is that is refers to Richard Lucas, rector of Studland 1536-78.

I was interested, however, in the earliest appearance of the name in Google Books, which is Thomas Hardy's relatively early comic novel The Hand of Ethelberta.  Set partly on the Isle of Purbeck, it features several vivid descriptions of sailing past the promontory: Hardy calls the whole formation "Saint Lucas Leap" in the original 1876 Cornhill Magazine publication and the first book imprint (see the Internet Archive handofethelberta02hard). In later editions, for some reason, he revises it to the real name, "Old Harry Point".  

I think Hardy's original name gives a glimpse into his creative processes, because the novel concerns a widowed poet called Ethelberta Petherwin who is fending off several suitors.  She is a poet and writer that Hardy twice identifies with Sappho:
He lived by teaching music, and, in comparison with starving, thrived; though the wealthy might possibly have said that in comparison with thriving he starved.  During this night he hummed airs in bed, thought he would do for the ballad of the fair poetess what other musicians had done for the ballads of other fair poetesses, and dreamed that she smiled on him as her prototype Sappho smiled on Phaon.
‘Well, it is an old and worn argument—that about the inexpedience of tragedy—and much may be said on both sides.  It is not to be denied that the anonymous Sappho’s verses—for it seems that she is really a woman—are clever.’
This makes me strongly suspect that Hardy must have had Sappho's "Leukas leap" in mind when he upgraded "St Lucas Leap" to a full promontory.

1. It's not clear when the collapse of the Old Harry promontory happened. HB Woodward, in 1890, contains the anecdote that
"about one hundred and twenty years ago a man could creep along a narrow path from the mainland to Old Harry"- (page 78, in Swanage (Isle of  Purbeck) Its History, Resources as an Invigorating Health Resort, Botany, and Geology, John Braye, 1890).
But this is unreliable, as it appears to be recycling an 1837 anecdote that refers to an entirely different rock a little westward along the coast, The Pinnacle:
"In one place, nearly half way between Ballard Point and Old Harry, is a rock about 100 ft. high, with mould and grass on the top. It is at the bottom a square of, say, 11 yards; and there are 49 tiers of horizontal flint. I was informed that some very old men recollect that, about seventy years ago, they could creep along a narrow path out to this rock; but, about fifty years ago, it was disjoined, but scarcely any other change has taken place." - On the Strata near Swanwich, in the Isle of Purbeck, James Mitchell, page 591, Magazine of Natural History, Volume 1, 1837.

- Ray

Monday, 29 November 2010

I've come to kill your monstaaah!

I finally watched Beowulf, Robert Zemeckis' 2007 digitally enhanced live-action film adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon epic. I wasn't disappointed.

The epic of Beowulf is a strangely disconnected narrative with its separate Grendel and dragon episodes, but the writers of the screenplay, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, very neatly weave the Grendel and dragon episodes into one ongoing thread: a demonic bargain (and curse) that first afflicts King Hrothgar, then Beowulf himself. There were other nice touches such as the use of Anglo-Saxon and sub-Anglo-Saxon in the dialogue; self-reference to the process of mythologisation (how real events get massaged in the telling to fit hero-myth format); and, unusually in an epic film, showing the hero in the declining phase of the Campbell Cycle (see Heroes) as the city-founder who has fallen from grace. Admittedly, beyond Ray Winstone's much-ridiculed lapses into London accent, there were moments that were difficult to take seriously, such as the constantly-interposed objects to hide Beowulf's groin during his naked fight with Grendel, and Angelina Jolie's demon with integral (and anachronistic) high heels. But overall Gaiman and Avary have scripted a very neat reinterpretation of the legend.

I previously recommended another film adaptation, The Thirteenth Warrior (see Beowulf meets Ibn Fadlan); this was based on Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead, a demythologized Beowulf in which the monsters are a relict group of Neanderthals. Another book adaptation especially worth checking out is John Gardner's Grendel, which retells the first episode of Beowulf from the viewpoint of the antagonist, a highly intelligent monster who watches the rise of humans and whose conflict with Beowulf arises ultimately from his bafflement at culture and the power of language and world-view. See chapter 4 of Understanding John Gardner (John Michael Howell, 1993) for background. (This is, by the way, this John Gardner, not this one).

- Ray

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Mark Twain: good blogging advice

This is completely lifted from Mark Liberman's post at Language Log - From Mark Twain's autobiography - but it's such good advice that I can't resist quoting it:

Finally, in Florence in 1904, I hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography: start it at no particular time of your life; talk only about the thing which intrests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.

Also, make the narrative a combined Diary and Autobiography. In this way you have the vivid things of the present to make a contrast with memories of like things in the past, and these contrasts have a charm which is all their own. No talent is required to make a combined Diary and Autobiography interesting.

And so, I have found the right plan. It makes my labor amusement — mere amusement, play, pastime, and wholly effortless. It is the first time in history that the right plan has been hit upon.

- page 220, Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, Mark Twain, ed. Harriet E. Smith, Benjamin Griffin, Victor Fischer, Michael B. Frank, Sharon K. Goetz, Leslie Diane Myrick, University of California Press, 2010 - originally "Author's Note" in Mark Twain's autobiography, Mark Twain, Albert Bigelow Paine, 1924

Mark Liberman comments, "This is also the right plan for successful blogging, in my experience".

I couldn't agree more, particularly if you extend the concept to the balance between "personal" (day-to-day authorial experience) and "external" (topic material encountered or uncovered). It's an approach that has kept me interested in JSBlog for four years - despite an initial dread of running out of ideas -  and it's the one used by the weblogs that I read most regularly, as well as pre-weblog diary accounts such as Cecil Torr's Small Talk at Wreyland (a diary of an antiquarian landowner).  A similar format can be very successful in fiction, as with WG Sebald's Rings of Saturn (which combines the narrator's walking tour of East Anglia with meditations on the history of places visited).

- Ray


The Internet can always be relied upon for the serendipity of unexpected sidetracks. While browsing for a historical article, I just ran into a rich lode of mostly unfamiliar terminology:

It is on the south side of the chancel near the altar, and consists of a freestone table, upon which lies extended the figure of Sir Thomas, clothed in the armour of the time. The pauldrons and coudieries are ornamented, and the brassarts and vambraces puffed or ribbed. Taces, to which are appended deep lambeaux of overlapping plate; a large apron of chain-mail and broad-toed sabbatons complete his costume and he is armed with sword and misericorde 1.

- An account of Sir Thomas Grenville's tomb in Bideford church, and also of the long bridge in Bideford, By Rev. Roger Granville, M.A., Rector Of Bideford. Exeter. Transactions of the Diocesan Architectural and Archaeological Society, 1894

Naturally I had to go to Wikipedia's Components of medieval armour, and in the process of going through the list ...

Aventail, Bevor, Gorget, Pixane, Brigandine, Cuirass, Culet, Plackart, Fauld, Hauberk, Codpiece, Lance rest, Loin-guard, Ailette, Besagew, Couter, Gauntlet, Pauldron, Rerebrace, Spaulder, Vambrace, Chausses, Cuisses, Greave, Poleyn, Sabaton, Schynbald, Tasset, Tonnlets, Bases, Gousset, Lamé, Rondel

... I spotted a disambiguation link from sabaton to Sabaton (band), and naturally ended up at YouTube.

Sabaton (official site here) are a Swedish power metal group who specialise, strangely, in English-language songs about pivotal events in historical wars. I feel I shouldn't like them, but the music is highly listenable and weirdly invigorating (the sort of music to play while working out); the nearest description I can find is that it's metal/rock opera about wars, with no particular agenda (some of the songs could be viewed as glamorizing warfare, others are distinctly anti-war).  Primo Victoria (about the D-Day landings) and Attero Dominatus (about the fall of Berlin) are characteristic.

I can't find any account of why, but the band is (I assume) named after the sabaton, as one features on the "S" of its logo.

1. In case of confusion: Sir Thomas is armed with a knife, not a small shelf (though both have the same etymology, misericordia = "act of mercy").
- Ray

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Broken Tryst

I just finished reading The Broken Tryst (Maxwell Gray, 1879).

It's a melodramatic romance, set mostly around the village of Brightdale, telling of the loves of Ethel Arden, nicknamed "Brightie" by her family. A 19-year-old orphan, she was rescued from a shipwreck as a baby, and brought up by her indulgent foster-parents, the elderly Ardens.

Ethel has a gently flirtatious friendship with Will Brackenbury, a nice-but-irresponsible miller's son, which goes sour when he asks to marry her and she replies that she could only marry a man in uniform. In response partly to this, and partly to his father's criticism for high jinks including suspending an old farmer from a tree while scrumping apples, Will quits town and joins the army incognito.

Ethel is hurt, but not much, and aims her sights loosely at Cecil Wymmering, whose family owns the nearby Wymmering Manor; but she snubs him at a party when she meets the world-weary Major Leslie Tempest, 15 years her senior. The two develop a strong mutual attraction - despite, unknown to Ethel, Tempest's intended engagement to a society heiress - and after a picnic, they agree to meet the next day in a clifftop dell. Ethel goes home to find a mysterious visitor called Mr Richards, evidently known and disliked by her foster-parents, who gives her a gift of a gold bracelet.

The next day Ethel goes to the dell, but Tempest doesn't turn up (the "broken tryst" of the title). Unknown to her, the previous night Tempest had a near-fatal fight with the stranger, and both have left town. It's later explained that the two are enemies over an earlier disagreement over gambling. Tempest sends a short and formal note of apology for breaking their appointment. Ethel is deeply upset, and has no backup (Cecil is engaged to someone else). She throws herself into study, and time passes. She nearly dies of a fever, and on her recovery goes to stay with London relatives of the Ardens, touring Europe with them, and starting to enjoy life again.

Meanwhile, Will Brackenbury has returned to Brightdale, having earned an honourable discharge for saving his colonel, Lord Lyndon, in battle. After initial resistance, his father and he make their peace. At the time of his arrival, a man has been found dead after an accidental fall near Brightdale; it is "Mr Richards", revealed to be Richard Arden, the elderly Ardens' son and Ethel's dissolute father. His earlier visit to the Ardens had been to claim Ethel as his daughter, a scheme he only gave up when the Ardens gave him their money saved as Ethel's inheritance. Will is sent to London to fetch Ethel home for the funeral.

Will finds Ethel at a vulnerable point, just shaken by seeing Major Tempest with another woman at a concert, but she comes home with Will; both are favourably impressed by the other's new-found maturity. Ethel arrives just in time for Richard Arden's funeral, and Will explains to her the family history; she is upset, but delighted to find that she is her foster-parents' grandchild. Over time, Ethel and Will become closer, and the two marry, though with considerable misgivings on her part because she's still thinking of Tempest.

After their first child is born, Will's old commanding officer, Lord Lyndon, comes to visit Brightdale to thank the young soldier who saved his life. Ethel is horrified to find that Lord Lyndon is Leslie Tempest (Will knows about Tempest, but not that his commanding officer was the same person). Tempest has come to ask Ethel to marry him, but he does the decent thing and takes his leave. Ethel's upset after he has gone, however, gives all away, and the incident drives a further wedge between between Will and Ethel.

On rather frosty terms, they continue for a few years, Will becoming a gentleman farmer and acquiring a manor house in idyllic surroundings, until finally they see a newspaper story telling that Tempest has died in action. Ethel is finally able to cry and release her pent-up disappointments, and the two are reconciled to live happily ever after.

Location / chronology questions

I found The Broken Tryst very readable; as a single-volume novel, it tells the story quite tersely, and it's virtually free of the highly purple landscape/sunset descriptions of MG's later novels. It's not explicitly set in the Isle of Wight, but as I wrote earlier - see Brightdale - an added interest is that its location there is highly identifiable.  Brightdale is Brighstone; the route over the down to Wymmering Hall locates it as Westover Manor, Calbourne (though the architectural details differ from the reality); and the landscape description of the manor where Will and Ethel finally make their home matches Mottistone Manor.

Despite the whole family complications and interlocking past history being a bit contrived, the book worked for me. However, I did get distracted by needing to Google frequent puzzles about fixtures and dates, and I agree partially with the Belfast News-Letter reviewer's comment at the time:
As for the author's chronology, all we can say is that it baffles us completely. We should like it to be explained to us what Spanish sea fight is recollected by the lieutenant, and also in what Eastern campaign young Brackenbury gains two medals and a clasp.
Actually the chronology is reasonably consistent. The general setting appears to be late 1860s: Ethel's visit to St James's Hall to hear "Nilsson" sing must refer to Christina Nilsson, and most likely to a celebrated concert in 1869 marking the move of the Philharmonic Society to that venue. Tempest's having a "pile of photographs" places it after after affordable paper prints came in (see Google Books) and Lieutenant Arden's prized roses, the Marshal Niel and Cloth of Gold, would have been fairly new varieties (this 1913 Biltmore Rose Catalogue dates the Marechal Niel's introduction to 1864). As to Will's "Eastern campaign", the timeline would fit the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia, which was launched from India.

None of this fits Lieutenant Arden's rant about an English sea-battle "exactly this day twenty years by my log-book" with "a Spanish squadron" - unless he means that he was 20 years old. There are a few such naval engagements in the 1796-1808 Anglo-Spanish War, and the timeline would work if we assume him to be in his mid-80s. On the other hand, some of the specifics are plain authorial invention: the "late affray with the Neilghoorkees, at Bombadore", in which Tempest dies, is fictitious, and I'd bet money it was inspired by the title of Major William Murray's 1834 An account of the Neilgherries, or, Blue mountains of Coimbatore, in Southern India.

- Ray

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Churches of Exeter

Bedford Circus after the Bltiz
Bedford Circus after the Blitz, Albert Charles Bown.

Churches of Exeter, by Christine Trigger, is now in stock. From the preface:

This seventh book in the series Postcards from Exeter contains over fifty images of churches and chapels.  it includes districts that were once places outside Exeter that are now incorporated within the city boundaries, such as Alphington, Exwick, Pinhoe, Heavitree, Countess Wear and Topsham.

The book records ancient places of worship long vanished for various reasons: destroyed by enemy action in World War II, demolished due to neglect or rebuilding schemes, or have been converted to different uses.

Some old postcards may bring nostalgic memories to older Exonians - St. Lawrence, High Street, the St. Kerrian's church tower, North Street, St. John's in Fore Street and the Methodist churches at The Mint and Mount Pleasant.

Researching family history has become a popular hobby and postcards of buildings where ancestors were baptised, married or buried can give an added dimension when compiling a family tree.

All the postcards in this book have been selected from the Exeter postcard collection owned by local historian Christine Trigger who has also written the text.

Churches of Exeter costs £7.99 from Joel Segal Books, or by mail order from Precious Moments (www.preciousmomentsexeter.co.uk).

Friday, 19 November 2010

Swinburne, Culver climber

Following on from The Alabaster Coast previously, it'd be an omission to write about anything involving chalk cliffs and the poet Algernon Swinburne without exploring the factoid that he was the first to climb Culver Cliff. (some 500 feet up the chalk cliff face from beach level). I say "factoid" because although it's near-universally and uncritically repeated, the story lacks any reasonable standard of proof: the sole primary source for this exploit is a letter written years later by Swinburne himself.

Swinburne tells how at 17, after having been told by his family that he wouldn't be allowed to join the army, he set out to prove himself not a coward.
It was about the middle of the Christmas holidays, and I went out for a good hard tramp by the sea till I found myself at the foot of Culver Cliff; and then all at once it came upon me that it was all very well to fancy or dream of 'deadly danger' and forlorn hopes and cavalry charges, when I had never run any greater risk than a football 'rooge'; but that here was a chance of testing my nerve in face of death which could not be surpassed. So I climbed a rock under the highest point, and stripped, and climbed down again, and just took a souse into the sea to steady and strengthen my nerve, which I knew the sharp chill would, and climbed up again, thinking how easy it would be to climb" the whole face of the cliff naked—or at least how much more sure one would feel of being able to do it—if one did not mind mere scratches or bruises; but to that prehistoric sort of proceeding there were obviously other objections than the atmosphere of midwinter. So I dressed and went straight at it. It wasn't so hard as it looked, most of the way, for a light weight with a sure foot and a good steady head; but as I got near the top I remember thinking I should not like to have to climb down again. In a minute or two more I found that I must, as the top part (or top story) of the precipice came jutting out aslant above me for some feet. Even a real sea-gull1 could not have worked its way up without using or spreading its wings. So of course I felt I must not stop to think for one second, and began climbing down, hand under hand, as fast and as steadily as I could, till I reached the bottom, and (equally of course) began to look out for another possible point of ascent at the same height. As I began again I must own I felt like setting my teeth and swearing I would not come down again alive —if I did return to the foot of the cliff again it should be in a fragmentary condition, and there would not be much of me to pick up. I was most of the way up again when I heard a sudden sound as of loud music, reminding me instantly of 'the anthem' from the Eton Chapel organ, a little below me to the left. I knew it would be almost certain death to look down, and next minute there was no need: I glanced aside, and saw the opening of a great hollow in the upper cliff, out of which came swarming a perfect flock of 'the others,' [his idiolect for seagulls] who evidently had never seen a wingless brother so near the family quarters before. They rose all about me in a heaving cloud—at least, I really don't think the phrase exaggerates the density of their 'congregated wings'—and then scattered. It did flash across me for a minute how nasty it would be if they flew at me and went for my indefensible eyes; but, of course, they never thought of anything so unnatural and unfraternal. I was a little higher, quite near the top or well within hail of it, when I thought how queer it would be if my very scanty foothold gave way; and at that very minute it did (I assure you on my word of honour that this is the exact truth, strange as it sounds and is), and I swung in the air by my hands from a ledge on the cliff which just gave room for the fingers to cling and hold on. There was a projection of rock to the left at which I flung out my feet sideways and just reached it; this enabled me to get breath and crawl at full speed (so to say) up the remaining bit of cliff. At the top I had not strength enough left to turn or stir; I lay on my right side helpless, and just had time to think what a sell (and what an inevitable one) it would be if I were to roll back over the edge after all, when I became unconscious—as suddenly and utterly and painlessly as I did many years afterwards when I was 'picked up at sea' by a Norman fishing boat upwards of three miles (they told me) off the coast of Etretat, and could just clutch hold of the oar they held out; 'but that is not in this story—which I only hope is not too long for the reader.' On returning to conscious life I found a sheep's nose just over mine, and the poor good fellow creature's eyes gazing into my face with a look of such kindly pity and sympathy as well as surprise and perplexity that I never ought to have eaten a mutton-chop again.

- Algernon Charles Swinburne, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Mrs. Disney Leith, Putnam, 1917
I don't dismiss it entirely. As can be seen in this Flickr image by Ian Johnston - Culver Cliff - Spring Low tide - Close up and personal (5) - on the Sandown Bay side Culver is steep but not vertical, and its crumbly chalk somewhat stabilised by vegetation. But I wouldn't care to try it.  Swinburne doesn't say where this (alleged) climb took place, but the "great hollow in the upper cliff" sounds extremely like Hermit's Hole, a feature repeatedly mentioned in historical Isle of Wight travelogues.  It was accessed by a notch in the clifftop:

At the eastern part of these Cliffs, about a hundred feet below the summit, is a natural cave fourteen feet deep in the rock ; the width of it being ten feet, and the height six feet. The prospect from this cave, varies but little from that of the Cliff above it, which is given in the plate entitled Path to Hermit's Hole. This describes the path by which alone it is possible to get at the cave; and commands the whole sweep of Sandown Bay, with Shanklin, Horseledge, and Dunnose, in the distance.

The path to Hermit's Hole, is fit only to be explored by those who are in the habit of climbing these tremendous Cliffs; for, besides the narrowness of the path, which in many places is not more than a foot wide, a dreadful precipice of five hundred feet beneath, presents to the eye a fearful prospect, which may so bewilder the imagination of the person who ventures to tread these dangerous passes, that he may miss one necessary step, and then no return of recollection can save him from destruction. Nor is this the only danger that awaits him : the Cliff affords no other footing than small projections of its tender substance, and these will frequently give way under the pressure of the unskilful traveller.

- image and text from A tour to the Isle of Wight: illustrated with eighty views, drawn and engraved in aqua tinta, Volume 2, Charles Tomkins, pub. G Kearsley, 1796
Hermit's Hole was, according to Helge Kökeritz's 1940 The place-names of the Isle of Wight, Issue 6, called Harmwood Hole in 1759 - it mutated to Hermit's Hole on the map in Richard Worsley's 1781 History of the Isle of Wight. It becomes a fixture of Isle of Wight handbooks for over a century, often with embellishments. The account in The Gentleman's Magazine for January 1816 (page 25) tells how the cavern is a refuge for sheep, and the path so narrow that if you meet an oncoming one you have to fall flat and let it run over you. A later account tells a more fanciful version:
Those who utilise this narrow path should remember that sheep often stray down it. The boatmen tell us that this fact bears with it an unexpected danger, for the sheep, frightened by the sound of footsteps, will rash up the path and would readily thrust a man over the edge into the sea. They say that the course which they invariably adopt is to open the legs wide and to allow the sheep to get past in that way.

- The zones of the white chalk of the English coast, Dr Arthur W Rowe, Proceedings of the Geologists' Association, Volume 20, 1908
Folksy stories apart, I found in the British Library 19th Century Newspapers archive two instances of deaths at this location. One was accidental: The Hampshire Advertiser for June 13, 1874 reported on HORRID DEATH OF A FERN GATHERER, when an old man, Isaac 'Matt' Cooper, who collected ferns and gulls' eggs and had made a temporary home in the cave, was found dead at the cliff foot. The other was suicide: the Isle of Wight Observer for March 02, 1878 tells of the death of a servant girl, Louisa Staite, who left her outer clothes on the path to Hermit's Hole and presumably threw herself from the cliff.

Hermit's Hole disappears from the guidebooks at the beginning of the 20th century. A look at Old Maps shows its location to have been about here - it persists on OS maps until 1973 - which agrees with the view in A tour to the Isle of Wight . However, nowadays there's no sign even of the notch in the cliff leading down to it - see the high-res aerial shot by Ashley Middleton - so we can assume it has been long since lost to erosion. It's probably just as well: it sounds a health and safety nightmare, and I have a bit of a weakness for scary paths.

Culver Down is, incidentally, the eastern outcrop of the Isle of Wight's chalk 'backbone' running east-west. Unlike the western outcrop that terminates in The Needles, the headland is not, contrary to appearances from either end, a single point but a pair of concave faces with a frightening overhang.  As shown in A Druid Thurible's Whitecliff post and page 66 of Wight Hazards, these are only visible from sea or air.

Of further related interest to this and the previous post: England and France aren't the only places with such scenery. I'd never made the connection before, but the illustration of the cliff above Hermit's Hole reminded me of Caspar David Friedrich's painting Chalk Cliffs on Rügen. The location is now what is the Jasmund National Park on the Baltic island of Rügen, where the chalk cliffs of the Stubbenkammer promontory, with a capping of mature beechwood, create a scenery with its own take on the familiar-yet-strange - in this case, a bleakness compared to the cosiness of the English and French landscapes with the same geology. These cliffs too are in a constant process of erosion, as evidenced by the collapse of the features called the Wissower Klinken early in 2005.

Addendum: for another lost Isle of Wight cave, see Micah Morey's Cave.

- Ray

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Alabaster Coast

I knew about this area, but I'd never fully Googled it until today: in Normandy, to the east of Le Havre, there's an 80-mile stretch of coastline called La Côte d'Albâtre (the Albaster Coast), which is the coastal margin of the chalk plateau called Pays de Caux.  The Alabaster Coast is where the familar chalk of English geology continues on the other side of the Channel, and the result is a strikingly similar coast (both in scenery and pattern of settlement) to that of parts of southern England I especially like. I find it fascinating and even a little disturbing: there's a strange 'parallel world' sensation in seeing a landscape so familiar in its features, yet completely unknown.

See Normandy's White Cliffs (Thirza Valloi, France Today, May 20, 2010) for a general description, then check out the cliffs of Étretat (with their natural arches so like Durdle Door in Dorset); the village of Les Petites-Dalles (so like Beer or Freshwater); and the striking coastline at Varengeville-sur-Mer with its scary example of a "valleuse" - another picture here - one of its deeply-cut coastal ravines highly akin to the chines of the Isle of Wight, Dorset and East Devon.

The Alabaster Coast's scenery and handiness for Paris attracted a number of French Impressionist artists such as Renoir, Monet and Courbet, but its semi-Englishness had made it a popular destination for 19th century English visitors even before that, as decribed in Brits Abroad (Julian Barnes, The Guardian, 18 October 2008). Barnes mentions the bizarre encounter between Guy de Maupassant and Algernon Swinburne, when the former had been involved (probably peripherally) in saving the latter from drowning at Étretat. Barnes adds that the now-famous story - The Englishman of Etretat - involving insane paintings, a flayed hand, a monkey, and a violent servant driven from the house at revolver-point, was most likely embroidered by de Maupassant:

Maupassant had had seven years to work up the story, and that it was being both told, and written down, by a fiction writer. At other times he ended the story differently.

Maupassant grew up in the area, and some of his stories and novels feature the landscape, such as the 1882 Le Saut du Berger (The Shepherd's Leap), which tells of a repressed priest who pushes a shepherd's hut over a cliff because he is infuriated by seeing a young couple embracing inside.

From Dieppe to Le Havre the coast presents an uninterrupted cliff, about a hundred metres high and straight as a wall. Here and there that great line of white rocks drops sharply and a little, narrow valley, with steep slopes, shaved turf and maritime rushes, comes down from the cultivated plateau towards a beach of shingle where it ends with a ravine like the bed of a torrent. Nature has made these valleys; the rains of storms have ended with them in the shape of these ravines, trimming what was left of the cliff, excavating down to the sea, the bed of waters which acts as a passage for mankind. Sometimes, a village is snuggled into these valleys, where the wind of the open sea is devoured.
- Le saut du berger 1882

- Ray


Just acquired: Maxwell Gray's first novel, The Broken Tryst (this is the little-known single-volume 1879 novel that appeared, and vanished without trace, years before her career was made by her 1886 bestseller The Silence of Dean Maitland).  The book, otherwise very scarce on the antiquarian circuit, is a British Library paperback, one available print-on-demand under its new digitisation scheme.

I haven't read much of it yet, though I know from reviews that it's a romance about a young woman whose affections are torn between a soldier (a miller's son driven to enlist by her flirtation) and his older dashing commander. But for the moment I'll just note that she's starting as she continued in later works, in terms of erudition, detailed landscape description, and precisely identifiable location. The opening paragraphs:

The Broken Tryst

Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheer'd the labouring swain,
Where smiling Spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting Summer's lingering blooms delay'd!

There is a little village on the south coast called Brightdale.

It is a sweet little quiet place, full of thatched cottages bosomed in luxurious myrtles and surrounded by fragrant old-fashioned gardens. It is sheltered on one side by breezy downs, over which the clouds float lazily, and the winds sweep freely; and on the other side the land slopes for a pleasant mile down to the sea, where it breaks off in loose cliffs of red sand, cut through by a deep gorge, worn by a small but rapid stream that turns a mill just below the village.

"Brightdale" is highly recognisable as Brighstone, a still-picturesque village near the south-west coast of the Isle of Wight (see also Google Maps); the gorge is Grange Chine.  Coincidentally, it was Brighstone Library who a while back kindly sent me the biography and photo of MG from Charles John Arnell's 1933 Poets of the Wight.

The verses come from the beginning of Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village.  By coincidence, I was just looking at this article about possible inspirations for the poem: Angela Williams sent me a link to Abandoned Communities, Stephen Fisk's interesting (if somewhat depressing) site looking at depopulated locations in Britain (it includes literary and artistic responses). Of Devon interest: Hallsands is well-known.

- Ray

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Old Park - and a stormy friendship

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I was just looking at the website for Haddon Lake House, a self-build/restoration project in the St Lawrence Undercliff, Isle of Wight. How to make a planning application with style: write a scholarly-researched monograph on the site's geology and history,  The landscape of Old Park. It's interesting reading, in part for its observation about the appeal of the Undercliff to Victorians: that it combined elements of the the now-quaint classification of the "picturesque" (pretty scenery) and the "sublime" (scary scenery).  (You can see in the above image: the picturesque was the coastal plain, the sublime the line of sheer cliff that separates it from the farmland to the north). It also fills in some missing pieces of a story I explored earlier - see The writer, the cancer-merchant, his eccentric wife, and the faux castle - about the interlocking lives and fortunes of the wealthy late 19th century inhabitants of the area.

The large estate of Old Park is now divided - for instance, the house is now Old Park Hotel, and the walled garden area and orchid house redeveloped. However, in 1881 it all belonged to William Spindler, a wealthy German industrialist who had moved to the Undercliff for the benefit of his health. He extensively developed the house and estate, originally developed from a farm property by a Thomas Haddon in the early 1880s, and was seized with a renovating fever for the whole area. Irritated that Ventnor didn't see eye to eye with his plans there ...
If the inhabitants of Ventnor refuse to satisfy modern requirements,’ he growled in 1877. ‘There is no doubt that another town ‘Undercliff’ will spring up.
- Old Park Hotel website
... he focused on the Undercliff.  Along with various philanthropic ventures such as laying on piped water for the nearby Whitwell, he envised the creation of a garden village in the Undercliff.  It got as far as extensive landscaping and tree-planting - which appears to have been a positive contribution to the stability of the landslip terrain - and the creation of an esplanade and seawall at Binnel Bay.  With underlying clay, it was extremely unpromising terrain for the latter, and nothing of it remains except a few blocks of masonry nicknamed "Spindler's Folly": see page 46 of Peter Bruce's Wight Hazards.  After an energetic seven years, Spindler died in 1889.

The lives of the Spindler family - William, his wife, and his artist son Walter - became heavily entwined with that of another wealthy ex-pat living in the Undercliff, the American entrepreneur John Morgan Richards (see The Life of John Oliver Hobbes, pp 24-). Richards rented Old Park from the Spindlers, and from childhood Walter Spindler and Richards' daughter  Pearl (later the novelist Pearl Craigie aka John Oliver Hobbes) were friends - though Walter hoped for more.  The friendship was complicated; according to Stanley Weintraub's 1979 The London Yankees: portraits of American writers and artists in England, 1894-1914, Spindler was "hopelessly in love with her", but their relationship was marked by quarrels and long silences, and despite rumours of an engagement in The Bookman in 1897, it appears she juggled him as an option between other male friends (see pp 167-8, Air-bird in the water: the life and works of Pearl Craigie (John Oliver Hobbes), Mildred Davis Harding).  Spindler illustrated her books, painted her portrait, and decorated for her the villa now known as Craigie Lodge; possibly her clearest response was her poetic dedication to him at the end of her book A Bundle of Life:

AH, not for me—to learn the truth by dreaming,
To hear the cries of earth in melody,
To know 'tis night but when the stars are gleaming,—
Ah, not for me.

Music of form and colour's mystery,
The joy of fashioning in fairest seeming
Life's dullest clay and Winter's barest tree ;

To count the years as moments—only deeming
That truly Time which makes thy Art to thee
The one thing needful and the all-redeeming,—
Ah, not for me !

September 23, 1893
_ page 155, A Bundle of Life, JS Tait, New York
It's hard to say what exactly the poem means, but - written to an artist, saying art is not enough in life -  it seems to be a kiss-off. Almost certainly her position as a divorcee-turned-devout-Catholic strongly contributed to her relationship problems. The situation was resolved by her early death from heart disease in 1906.  Walter Spindler died in 1940. Neither his art nor Pearl Craigie's novels are much remembered.

Addendum: see Spindler's List (24th April 2014) for a fuller account of William Spindler's life and work.

- Ray

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Music findings

Not books, but a few interesting music tracks I've been enjoying:

A while back I ran into a nice free-bass accordion demo on YouTube: the video "Maria Kalaniemi charms with her accordion" features an virtuoso arrangement - listen 1:30 onward - of a Finnish folk tune called "Istunpa sänkys laitalla". It features on the collaborative album Iho. In a pleasant diversion, the YouTube discussion thread led me to an alternative spelling of the title as "Istuinpa sänkys laidalla", and this appears in a vocal version by Sirkka Mostrom on the album Folk Voices: Finnish Folk Song Through the Ages (which gives the English title as "I Sat on Thy Bed"). You can hear it at Sad Songs Make Me Happy. The two versions of the tune are rather different, but both are lovely. Do we have any Finnish readers who could say what the song is about?

Update: I asked elsewhere, and "Cantilena91" kindly translated the lyrics:

I sat on thy bed
looking at you...
I, from the bottom of my heart am thinking,
there rests my darling.

The love of my heart
is deeply rooted into you,
and all my former friends
have been wiped away from my mind.

O, poor boy, you!
Oh, so young at age were you
when you threw me to grieve
always up unto death.

The wind escorted (me) to sea,
the waves were raging too.
Your sorrow was escorting me too,
to sing only for you.

Oh my darling, o, beloved one,
when (as) I remember you,
the blood moved within my breast,
please don't forget me!
The blood moved within my breast,
please don't forget me!

On a more upbeat note, I was also pleased to discover the background to a tune that's currently featuring in the Christmas trailers on UK television: "The Carol of the Bells". I've always tended to dislike this as a "made-up" modern American carol with its banal lyrics and choral-set-piece flavour, but I find it has roots. The English words are a 1930s bolt-on, and the piece goes back to a 1916 choral composition by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych called "Щедрик" ("Shchedryk"), based on a folk chant and using the format of a traditional Ukrainian New Year carol to tell of a swallow bringing a household good luck. If you want a change from the ghastly doggerel (in my opinion) of the modern version - "Ding dong ding dong / that is their song" etc etc - check out Shchedryk on YouTube: for instance, Charivna's a capella version or this pleasant instrumental for string quintet on traditional instruments.

- Ray

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Brenan-Woolsey-Budleigh connection

I just love what you can do with the Internet these days. I mentioned earlier - Budleigh ... and WB Yeats? - correspondence with Angela Williams, who is researching local connections with writers for her new photo-weblog Literary Places (a project that looks worth following).

Currently she's researching the writer Gerald Brenan, and mentioned looking for the address of the Budleigh home where Brenan's father lived from 1941.
... my father sold his Cheltenham house and bought a modern villa at Budleigh Salterton in Devon. Here he and his wife Mabel lived quietly, without any of those scenes that had punctuated his life with my mother.
- Gerald Brenan, Personal record, 1920-1972, page 337.
It proved straightforward to cross-correlate various sources to find the location. The Times Digital Archive  obituary finds the probable house name:
BRENAN - On July 13, 1947, at Braeside, Budleigh Salterton, Major Hugh Gerald Brenan, late Royal Irish Rifles, in his 77th year.
- The Times, Tuesday, Jul 15, 1947
Then Googling Braeside Budleigh finds an estate agent's listing with street address and location description, and finally Google Maps takes us there.

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Gerard Brenan and his wife, the American poet Gamel Woolsey, visited fairly regularly (I admit I'd never heard of either). He was an associate of the Bloomsbury Group, she the consumptive niece of "Susan Coolidge" (author of the Katy series). They met when she was in a messy friendship/relationship with the Powys family (having an affair with Llewellyn Powys, the husband of her best friend Alyse Gregory and the brother of John Cooper Powys) when the Powyses were staying at White Nothe, Dorset - and Brenan (on the rebound from an affair with Dora Carrington) essentially rescued her from these complications.

Personally I find the train wreck lives of the English literary set of this period deeply tiresome, but Gamel Woolsey definitely deserves more recognition.  As a number of accounts describe - see, for instance, Gamel Woolsey: Thwarted Ambitions - she was airbrushed out of Llewelyn Powys' biography, and her work largely unrecognised during her lifetime. Her novel One Way of Love was rejected as too sexually explicit (nearly lost, it was only published by Virago in 1987); a second, Patterns in the Sand, remains unpublished; and her meditation on the Spanish Civil War, Death's Other Kingdom, came out too late for relevance, and not helped by its demeaning John Cooper Powys introduction as "a tender and wistful threnody over 'Old Spain' by a daughter of the 'Old South'". For further biography, see Gamel Woolsey ("A writer who, like her books, fought not to fade", Emma Garman, Lost magazine, Nov 2007, No.19).

- Ray

Monday, 8 November 2010

Sweethearts and Friends

As part of the ongoing project to read the works of Maxwell Gray, I just finished Sweethearts and Friends (Heinemann, 1897 - first serialised in Atalanta magazine), a considerably polemical romance about an ambitious and otherwise highly compatible couple divided by the cultural sexism of late-Victorian England.

The story starts some time in the early 1870s with the Langtons, a middle-class family living somewhere off the Fulham Road, London. Amy Langton is one of several siblings, an awkard 17-year old given to closeting herself away with books, spilling ink, and worrying the family by her ambition to be a doctor. Under her pillow she keeps a skull which, embarrassingly, is brought out by the family dog and dropped on the carpet when a friend of the family, Vivian Lester, is visiting. Lester has nearly everything going for him: orphaned at 24, he owns an estate at 'Baron's Cleve', is rich, handsome, erudite and charming (they all call him The Immaculate). But to Amy his views on women are anathema; he holds that:

The ideal woman is a being whose weakness is her strength, in whom feeling replaces intellect, meekness and refinement power. who should be a rest to her husband by her freedom from toil, a strength to him by the appeal of her weakness, a joy to him by her freedom from sorrow.

Amy's chief inspiration is her intellectual friend Louisa Stanley, a governess at White How, the small private finishing school by Lake Windermere that Amy attends. Louisa, having received an inheritance, is able to finance her own medical studies, and on leaving school at 18, Amy is determined to do likewise. The Langtons dislike the idea, but her older stepbrother Steven (the head of the family, as Mr Langton is dead) convinces them they should indulge her until what they see as a whim passes, so she moves in with Louisa. She spends a summer vacation at Steven's home, also in Baron's Cleve, where she has long and droll conversations with Vivian about life, gender and politics (he calls her "dear pythoness" and "dear prophetess"). Eventually he asks her to marry him: "Let me be your knight; let me rescue you". She says that she would rather not be rescued, and they part on sad terms.

Five years later,Vivian is in the Riviera near the town of Col Apri, and by accident runs into Amy; she is in charge of a party of invalids convalescing at a nearby pension (one of them is Louise, now a qualified doctor but suffering ill-health from overwork; another is Lettice Marshall, a family friend). Vivian's own circumstances have changed; he is now guardian to a 5-year-old Italian girl, Angela, the daughter of a deceased artist friend. Although on his way home to England, he decides to stay in the area for a while. As Vivian and Amy are walking, they run into Lettice, who falls and makes a show of hurting her leg. During the subsequent weeks at the pension, she flirts with Vivian, deliberately appealing to his knight-and-rescuer fantasy, until he falls in love. Amy, looking on as she tends to the increasingly ailing Louise, is despondent.

Vivian, forced to make a brief return to England, entrusts little Angela and his dog Nep to Amy's care. While he's away, there's an incident: the boisterous Angela accidentally jostles Lettice, who boxes her ear. In retaliation, Angela bites Lettice, and the protective Nep goes for her as well; Amy gets bitten by Nep while restraining him. On Vivian's return, Lettice gives a very airbrushed account of the incident, omitting her own role, and Vivian is all for having Nep put down - until the full story is revealed. Vivian is taken aback at Lettice's capacity for deceit, but at that moment the news of his engagement to Lettice breaks at the pension, and he is dragged along with the general celebration by the multifarious international guests. Their remaining time in the Riviera is considerably frosty, worsened by Vivian's realisation that Lettice doesn't like Angela.

Back in England, relations between Vivian and Lettice deteriorate further. While he realises more and more how much he cares for Angela, Lettice wants nothing to do with her. Looking for sympathy, he goes to visit Amy, and is depressed when she brushes off his hint at his relationship problems, and also when he spots congratulatory flowers on the table. She explains that they concern her engagement, which he assumes to mean marriage, further depressing him. They talk at cross-purposes until she reveals that it is actually her engagement as Assistant Surgeon at the New Hospital for Women.

Five years pass. Amy is consulting physician with her own practice, and she is among the few of her friends and family neither married nor betrothed; even the now-dying Louisa is engaged. Vivian, now a respected Member of Parliament, is also single, in a lukewarm engagement to Lettice, who has been briefly engaged to the serial philanderer Charlie Lovelace. It is 1879, and Amy is in the public gallery of the Houses of Parliament listening to a debate over the repeal of the Breach of Promise Act. The MP for Dalesbury - Vivian - gives an eloquent and evidently guilt-driven speech on selfishness and fickleness of men in their dealings with women. Amy realises she loves him. After giving the speech,Vivian goes to the Marshall household and, helped along by the presence of Charlie Lovelace, who is flirting with Lettice, makes the break from their engagement. A month later, he runs into Amy when he is visiting Baron's Cleve and proposes marriage again. Suspecting it to be on the rebound, she refuses.

Some months later, Amy is driving home after dining at the Langton house when she sees the light of a major fire in the city. Her brother, visiting from Australia, wants to see it, so they drive there and find it to be the burning mansion of Lord Loughborough, Vivian's uncle. A man - we guess it to be Vivian - appears at a balcony, lowering a child to safety. The firemen throw up a rope, but Vivian is knocked down by falling timber. Suddenly Amy runs out through the crowd and climbs the rope to the balcony, lowering the semi-conscious Vivian to safety before jumping down herself. The two, bruised and burned, don't meet again until they've recovered. Vivian proposes a third time, admitting he has been "a hide-bound prejudiced ass" about women's roles, and Amy accepts. "If the marriage proved a happy one ..." the novel concludes, "... no authentic record is as yet discoverable".

An early work?

This is an interesting novel in a number of ways, particularly in its break from plain romance/melodrama in favour of a clear and (to the modern reader) positive polemical intent in tackling issues of women's emancipation. Maxwell Gray (Mary Tuttiett) was a known supporter of suffrage, and a signatory to a petition in favour of the Woman Suffrage Bill in 1910. That said, there are oddities, easiest explained by quoting Hilda Gregg's 1898 review to the effect that the book appears not to be a mature work, but written in the 1870s:

... we still incline to the belief that it was written at the period of which it treats, and for some reason or other withheld from publication until the present time. Colour is given to this hypothesis by the asides in which the author indulges on such subjects as golf and bicycling, Zola and Ibsen (the Scandinavian playwright is introduced as a novelist, by the way), and the closure, which have all the appearance of being interpolated to bring the book up to date; while the triumphant "Fulfilled in 1897," as a footnote to a prophetic passage referring to a parliamentary debate, would, we hope, be impossible in the case of a prediction uttered after the fact.
This leads to the most astounding scene in the book, and one which is apparently intended to be taken seriously. The Immaculate is alone on the balcony, which firemen and spectators are alike afraid to approach from below. They have thrown him a rope, but he is too much injured to use it. Then, "with a wild cry of 'With him or for him,' a tall young woman dashed through hosestreams, policemen, and firemen, caught the rope, swarmed up it like a cat, and reached the tottering balcony in a few seconds." We have never seen a cat swarm up a rope; but far be it from us to limit the powers of that ingenious animal, or of Amy, who "could tie herself into knots, and do wonderful things on the horizontal bar." Once on the balcony, she fastens the rope round the Immaculate, lifts him up and over the rail, and lets him down, then leaps to the ground, knocking down a fireman in her fall. The result to the fireman is not stated, but we fear that it must have been serious; the result to Amy is that she marries the Immaculate. We regret to say that he urges her to this step with the plea, "I am your Frankenstein. You have given me life"; but perhaps as a married woman she rescued sufficient time from her professional avocations to correct her husband's quotations before they appeared in his parliamentary speeches. "Amy's husband," we are told, "never forgot the cry that rang through the roaring flames surrounding him of 'With him or for him!'" Probably not; nor probably did his acquaintances ever allow him to forget it. As for the firemen, policemen, and other casual auditors, they must have felt that for once a bit of Adelphi melodrama had wandered into real life.

The astonishing youthfulness of this scene is a strong support to our theory (save that we can scarcely imagine a mature writer allowing it to pass as anything but a skit), but there are a good many touches in the book which remind us that the Maxwell Gray we know best possesses what the eighteenth century would have called "an agreeable rallying turn." Still, as we have seen, the funniest things in the book are those which to all appearance are not intended to be so.

- The Medical Woman in Fiction, Hilda Gregg, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, July 1898.

I don't disagree with the "early work" theory. Maxwell Gray is an author who so regularly incorporates her environs into her novels (a trait called in writing-crit circles Dischism) that the works often provide leads to where she can be placed historically. In the case of Sweethearts and Friends, the fictional White How school is highly identifiable as Langrigge House in Bowness, a small private school where Maxwell Gray was working as a governess, aged 24, in 1871. The detailed descriptions of the place strongly suggest that at least that section of the novel was written very close to the time Maxwell Gray was there.

- Ray

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Budleigh ... and WB Yeats?

A while back - see Life and death in Bludleigh - I followed the trail to what seems the most likely explanation for an otherwise unverified factoid about PG Wodehouse having a Budleigh Salterton connection. Something of a follow-up: Angela Williams e-mailed us with - apart from a very nice comment about the blog - an enquiry about the inclusion of WB Yeats on Wikipedia's list of notable people associated with Budleigh.

A bit of forensics finds it was added in an anonymous edit back in April 2009 (here), but as this edit accurately mentions Andrew Marr (who paints in the area) it looks at least worth investigating.

It is well-documented that the Yeats family had some Devon connections. See The Yeats connection at The People's Republic of South Devon: the basics are that WB Yeats' grandfather, William Pollexfen, lived at Kitley House, Yealmpton; that the Yeats family holidayed in Branscombe; and that WB Yeats's brother, the artist Jack Yeats, lived in Strete for some years.  However, Budleigh doesn't figure.

Looking through Google Books, the only findable connection between WB Yeats and Budleigh is an extremely third-hand one: that the descendant of a colleague of Yeats died there. Augusta, Lady Gregory, was another leading figure in the Irish Literary Revival, closely associated with WB Yeats and Jack Yeats. In the Yeats Annual, Issue 2, 1983 (page xi) there's a report of the "death of Major Richard Gregory, Lady Gregory's grandson, on 23 October 1981 in Budleigh Salterton".

Perhaps, like the Wodehouse link, this is down to some kind of garbling. It's quite interesting that Budleigh Salterton War Memorial includes among those commemorated:
2093 Private Albert James Yeats of the 2nd/1st Field Ambulance, the Royal Army Medical Corps. Son of W. T and Fanny Yeats of 14 High Street, Budleigh Salterton. Born in Budleigh Salterton in the June Quarter of 1898. Died 14 August 1916 aged 18.
It looks quite possible that WT Yeats might have somewhere along the line been mistaken for WB Yeats.  That's my best guess so far; I've put a "citation needed" tag on the Wikipedia statement, and will remove the reference if nothing is forthcoming.  Yeats was, incidentally, a very common surname in Budleigh in the late 19th and early 20th century - see The Yeats of Devon and Somerset - but these Yeatses appear to all descend from the blacksmith Henry Yeats: no relation to the Irish Yeats family WB Yeats came from.

- Ray

Stranger in a strange land

These days Exeter Central Library is building up a strong collection of graphic novels, and whoever is doing the selection deserves credit for the variety of choice. I just borrowed The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

I cite the songs?

Not about books, but I suppose linguistic/musical: various newspapers yesterday (such as the Independent's's Marksman 'put song titles in Mark Saunders evidence') covered the rather peculiar story about allegations that a police marksman referred to as 'AZ8' inserted song titles into his testimony at the inquest over the shooting of a barrister.

If true, it would be a matter of contempt of court, and the exact details are presumably sub judice, but this hasn't stopped newspapers trying to brain it out themselves. For instance, in the Independent:

Possible song titles in the officer's evidence?

Quiet Moments, Chris de Burgh
Q: "Can you help us please with what you remember seeing?
A: "... it's not something I think about all the time, but in quiet moments I think about how we could have done it different."

Line of Fire, Journey
Q: "Did you know that anyone placing those lights would be exposed to danger unnecessarily?"
A: "To quote a recent programme about this, sometimes we have to put ourselves in the line of fire."

No More Tears (Enough is Enough), Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand
Q: "Action beats reaction means what exactly in simple words?"
A: "I thought: no, enough's enough."

Point of No Return, Duran Duran
Q: "What was it the second time that...made you decide it was absolutely necessary for you to fire?"
A: "It just got past the point of no return."

Faith, George Michael
Q: "Were you aware that there were other armed officers in Bywater Street?"
A: "... you have got to have faith that they are going to be covering the threat as well."

I'm Kicking Myself, As Tall as Lions
(Same question)
A: "I mean, like I said, I've seen the film and I'm sort of kicking myself because I now feel I left it too late..."

Chain of Command, XTC
Q: "Who ordered you to put the lights in?"
A: "Sergeant SE...There is a chain of command and you don't question your superiors."

Daylight, Coldplay
Q: "Can you give us an idea of what time you got there?"
A: It was daylight."

Get a Bloomin' Move On (The Self Preservation Society), Theme from 'The Italian Job'
Q: "Were you actually concentrating or paying any attention to what AZ9 was doing or were you focused on your own job?"
A: No, you know, self preservation."

This analysis strikes me as deeply silly. Song titles frequently use commonplace words and idiom (and even coin idioms that get into the language), and with such a large data space to choose from,  I think the language of most speakers will contain words and phrases that match song titles. If there turns out to be evidence of intent, that's another matter; but without a control experiment - similarly analysing other texts to see if they produce a similar density of matches - the newspapers' speculations on this topic can hardly be treated as confirmation of the theory.

Update, 9th November:  I'm pleased to see Language Log is on the case, so to speak: see The charge: cliché use under oath and Buried song titles everywhere. So far I haven't seen any such critical analysis in mainstream print newspapers, which are continuing to add to the story, such as this fatuous analysis from The Sun story Song title 'gags' by two more gun cops has especially fatuous examples:

Transcripts show two others may have used up to 14 song titles.

One marksman, codenamed AZ12, described himself as "the barrier between the public and the bad man". Bad Man is a song by The Coral.

He also mentions "chasing car", similar to Snow Patrol hit Chasing Cars.

Colleague AZ14's evidence included calling the siege's end "a cacophony of noise". Cacophony is a Simple Minds hit. He also mentions "night and day", a Cole Porter song.

The only rational critique I've seen anywhere near mainstream is David Allen Green's piece A killing joke? in the New Statesman blog. It actually links to the transcript of AZ8's testimony, raising the particular point that the newspapers are making stuff up.  One memorable and distinctive phrase cited wasn't even said.

- Ray

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

... our fathers that begat us

A couple of years back - see M and other non-comical comics - I briefly mentioned Chris Ware's graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, which I've just been re-reading.  It's a poignant and semi-autobiographical exploration of the psychology of  Corrigan, a timid postal worker in his 30s, as he meets his father for the first time.  It is, however, a nonlinear story, with the main thread interwoven with Jimmy's dreams and fantasies and with flashbacks, particularly to the childhood of Corrigan's grandfather at the time of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (see this hypertext thesis and this Illinois Institute of Technology project) with its 600-acre stucco-coated "White City".

The threads weave even more tightly with interactions between past and present also interact: Jimmy's neuroses and dreams (such as his fear of women and his recurring dream of a tiny horse) appear to come from the traumas of his grandfather's childhood rather than his own. Through these connected narratives, the story gradually reveals and dissects the history of a family with a repeating motif of fractured relationships, all leading to Jimmy's crippling inability assert himself and interact with the world.  I'm pleased to see that the sampler at Random House, and the CNN review (A not-so-comic comic book) and interview with Chris Ware are still online.

Somewhat in contrast, I've also been reading Exit Wounds, also an acclaimed graphic novel, by the Israeli artist Rutu Modan.  This takes a somewhat different angle on fatherhood, beginning when Koby Franco, a 20-something taxi driver in Tel Aviv, gets a call from the nearby Army Headquarters, where a female soldier, Numi, tells him his estranged father Gabriel may be dead, possibly the single unidentified victim of a suicide bombing. He isn't much interested, but Numi (who is keener than him to investigate) gradually draws him into following official and unofficial avenues to see if Gabriel is the unknown victim.  Initially Franco thinks of the tall and gangly Numi as 'The Giraffe', but the two become increasingly close as they pursue the puzzle of Gabriel's whereabouts.  Numi, however, has an agenda of her own, and Koby becomes increasingly troubled at the revelations of his father's complex love life.

Although the blurb at Drawn and Quarterly (here, and see the sampler) describes Exit Wounds as particular "portrait of modern Israel, a place where sudden death mingles with the slow dissolution of family ties", the location doesn't strike me as crucial to the story; any kind of mass accident, anywhere, could have led to the mystery. The central theme is, like Jimmy Corrigan, an investigation of a single fractured family. It's not as convoluted as the stream-of-consciousness Corrigan, but it's nevertheless sensitive and gripping, and it was rightly nominated for the 2007 Quill Awards.

- RG