Friday, 31 December 2010


Grinsteins Mischpoche play Bayatılar

I like interesting attribution trails. Yesterday in the pub I heard Stereo Love, a boppy yet wistful electropop piece featuring a catchy accordion riff as its central motif.  A look at Wikipedia finds it to be Romanian, written by Edward Maya and featuring the vocalist Vika Jigulina; after its release in 2009 it became a long-running Euro-hit.

The central riff, however - as noted at - comes from Bayatılar, a composition by the Azerbaijani composer Eldar Mansurov, which from its 1989 release by Brilliant Dadashova had percolated across to the pop circuit of some 60 countries. Eldar Mansurov's YouTube Channel has a number of clips of the varied interpretations of this extremely infectious tune: I especially like the laidback klezmer brass version by Grinsteins Mischpoche, and Bayaty by the Italian folk fusion group Cantodiscanto.

As with the Men at Work's "Kookaburra" quotation (see Kookaburra fossil exposed) this led to copyright issues; but this one seems to have been sorted amicably, with Maya and Mansurov signing an agreement to co-authorship of Stereo Love

Geeky background: "Bayatılar" is the plural form of "Bayatı", a traditional Azerbaijani lyrical folk poetry form based on quatrains. The dotless i - ı - is the character in the modern Latin-based Azerbaijani alphabet representing the close back unrounded vowel.

- Ray

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Ribstone Pippins

Continuing my project to read the works of Maxwell Gray, I just finished her 1898 novel Ribstone Pippins: A Country Tale.

Ribstone Pippins is a short novel (148 pages) that takes place over a few days in the life of Jacob Hardinge, a young carter who lives with his grandmother at "Westway" (perhaps Westridge, near Chale) on the south-west coast of the Isle of Wight.

Jacob has made the decision to propose marriage to his sweetheart, Elisabeth Woodford, and plans to fit this into a delivery to "Estridge" (probably Yaverland), where she is in service. He packs a gift of choice apples - the eponymous Ribstone Pippins - and takes his wagon first to "Oldport" (Newport), where he endures the embarrassment of going into a posh shop to buy Elisabeth a blue kerchief, then on to Estridge.

On arrival, however, he finds Elisabeth is not there, and a serving-girl tells him she has run off to Portsmouth with a soldier called Hopkins. The next day, tormented by visions of her fate and imagining she might have turned to prostitution, he travels despondently homeward back through Oldport. At the smithy at "Malbourne" (Calbourne), however, he and his fellow carters hear a cry from the roadside, and find the gravely ill Elisabeth lying there with a head wound. They take her home, where she lies at death's door.

A few days later Jacob receives an illiterate letter from Estridge saying that "hall you was tolled fryDay nite was lyes throo jellusy". He hurries to see Elisabeth, who is roused by his tearful presence and wakes to recognise him. The truth is revealed; Elisabeth didn't elope to Portsmouth, but fell ill in service and was sent home. Worsening en route, she was taken to the infirmary in Oldport, and on her partial recovery tried to walk the eight miles home, not realising how weak she was, and had fallen on the road. She recovers, and the next spring she and Jacob marry.

It's admittedly a slight story, and somewhat idealised; Jacob is a kind of noble savage, untutored but honest, honourable and in tune with nature. But its strength is its warm and realistic treatment of Jacob and his friends Moses and Ben, carters who banter through the day (although, oddly, never swear) as they manage their heavy horse team, Thunder, Cherry, Farmer and Diamond (a potentially lethal job, whose procedures and terminology - the lead, thill, body horse, etc - are closely observed). An added point of interest is that the dialogue is in 19th century Isle of Wight dialect ...
I minds en and I minds wold clack ever zence I wer the tittiest little maäid, avore I could chipper no zense

I remember it and I remember the old clock ever since I was the tiniest little girl, before I could talk any sense
... which, despite daunting first appearances, rapidly becomes accessible.

I strongly suspect - in fact I'm absolutely certain, from close similarity of spelling and vocabulary choice - that Maxwell Gray wrote the novel with a copy of William Henry Long's 1886 A Dictionary of the Isle of Wight Dialect to hand.  I read them side by side, but a hypertext edition referencing the dialect words would be very handy. Overall, it's hardly a deep novel, and the central plot twist is a bit unlikely, but it's enjoyable for its snapshot of the rural Isle of Wight of a century and half ago. Ribstone Pippins is online at the Internet Archive: ID ribstonepippins00graygoog.

A Dictionary of the Isle of Wight Dialect makes interesting reading in its own right. The book was published by subscription (i.e. sponsored), and its subscribers form a list of Isle of Wight worthies at the time, such as A Harbottle Estcourt (the Deputy Governor of the Isle of Wight) and Hallam Tennyson (Alfred Lord Tennyson's eldest son). It's not just a glossary of local terms (which include "mallishag" = caterpillar, "cocksettle" = overturn or somersault, and "nammet" = a snack), but also includes illustratory anecdotes, as well as folk songs, a dialect Christmas play, and an Isle of Wight "Hoaam Harvest". The content was obsolete even at the time of writing - it's billed as "A Treasury of Insular Manners and Customs of Fifty Years Ago" (i.e. 1836), and this places the likely time slot for Ribstone Pippins. The dialect is virtually extinct now, although I'm sure a few words and turns of phrase persist (I remember an older relative saying that she called caterpillars "mallishags" as a child).

Addendum: I've just been reading contemporary reviews of Ribstone Pippins. They're divided between those that considered it a pleasant and gentle romance, and those that thought it ghastly. I can't resist quoting in full one of the latter, from an 1898 edition of the New York based Chap-Book Semi-Monthly:
WERE it not for the device of a rivulet of prose wandering through a meadow of margin 1, this small "country tale," Ribstone Pippins, could barely be expanded into its present slender volume. The prose appears to be deftly divided — after the well-known manner of Miss Murfree 2 — into alternate leaves of dialect and and description. One suspects that the latter may be designed to heal the blows of sound made by the intolerable consonants of the peasant "vearmers". Jacob, the carter, is no clod to whom a yellow primrose is yellow and no more 3, but he has "clean, young, healthy blood leaping in his strong pulses," and can gaze at the harvest moon o' nights and sigh with any man. And of course he goes courting with eleven red apples — Ribstone Pippins — in his handkerchief, taking his wool sacks to the town at the same time as becomes a farmer poet. A pretty enough journey it is, too, with Thunder, the big stallion, and Charlie, the sober thill horse, as they ride along the early English ways, scattering vowels of strange shire-song along the morning peace. It would have been better and fairer and more humane had Jacob's journey ended as lovers' journeys should in lovers' meetings. The quite needless insult which meets him at the little door, where he had pictured his Alisbeth's face, quite mars what should have been all pure joyous pastoral. For having ruthlessly plunged her sweethearts into woes of her own making, their author is obliged to drag them out again perforce. This is done by one of those deathbed recoveries which are the despair of science and the recourse of the hard-pushed romancer. If, indeed, desperate illness tied at the approach of a proper carter, how might that fading trade look up. Shorn of its willful fine writing, the book would barely amount to more than a pleasant sketch of magazine length. To put it forth with the full pretentions of a book seems to have but little other ground than that once—or twice—its author has done better.
1. An allusion to a line in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal.
2. The American author Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1992), who wrote dialect fiction in Appalachian settings.
3. An allusion to Wordsworth's Peter Bell.

- Ray

Friday, 24 December 2010

Ghost stories for Christmas

You have to wonder if Western Morning News photographer Richard Austin would have been quite so keen to capture images of world famous giant stags had he ever read William Shakespeare's famous words…

Oft have you heard since Herne the hunter dyed,
That women, to affright their little children,
Says that he walkes in shape of a great stagge.
So begins Martin Hesp's story in the Western Morning News today, An Exmoor stag ghost story for Christmas, inspired by the strange media tale of the "Emperor of Exmoor". This, widely reported a couple of months ago, was the contentious story that Britain's largest wild animal had been shot by a trophy hunter. But, as John Vidal told in the Observer - see Dead or alive? The Emperor becomes an Exmoor legend - it gradually became evident that there was little evidence for the story, or even the Emperor's existence.

On the subject of ghost stories, I'm pleased to see that BBC is returning to its tradition of a Christmas Eve ghost story with the showing of a new adaptation of MR James's Oh, whistle and I'll come to you, my lad:
A chilling new single drama, Whistle and I'll Come to You is the thoroughly modern re-working of the evocative Edwardian ghost story Oh, Whistle and I'll come to You, My Lad by MR James, adapted for BBC Two by Neil Cross. Cross's adaptation delves into themes of ageing, hubris and the supernatural, with a horrifying psychological twist in the tale.

James Parkin has just left his wife in the care of a nursing home. Pensive and emotional, he travels to their old favourite destination for rambling, an off-season British seaside town. There he encounters an apparition on a desolate beach, which begins to haunt him - with terrifying consequences.
Details at the BBC2 website, where for UK visitors it's on iPlayer for six days from now.  (Update: I just watched it, and it's a very good reworking.  According to the Kent Film Office, the beach scenes below the chalk cliffs were at Botany Bay and Kingsgate Bay; the external locations for the hotel where Parkin stays were here.  The dune locations appear to be elsewhere: Camber Sands in East Sussex).

If this leaves you with a taste for more MR James ghost stories, many of the classic TV adaptations - A Ghost Story for Christmas - are on YouTube: Number 13 is a good entry point.

- Ray

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Edward Capern, the Postman Poet

While browsing some Devon literature (a copy of the long-defunct Devonia magazine) I ran into the work of Edward Capern (1819-1894), the Bideford "postman poet".

There's a good biographical account - The Devonian 'Postman Poet', Edward Capern - at John Lerwill's Devon History site.  Capern was born in Tiverton, and after a difficult early life , he gained the position of Rural Postman of Bideford - not as deliverer, but as a messenger between Bideford and Appledore. These daily treks evidently gave him plenty of time to think, as he took up poetry. Contributions to local publications attracted the attention of the Barnstaple stationer and philanthropist William Frederick Rock, who helped him put together a subscription-based (i.e. benefactor-sponsored) anthology. This was highly successful, and the start of a career that brought him to national attention with a patriotic poem about the Crimean War, The Lion-Flag of England, earning the praise of the then Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, a Civil List pension, and a State funeral at the end of his long life.

The lion-flag of England!
Say, Britons, shall it wave,
The scorn of every base-born serf,
And jest of every slave;
A sign to tell them how they beat
The bravest of the earth,
And teach them by our England's fate
To magnify their worth
"Forbid it Heav'n," the nations cry,
In council gravely met;
"We'll send her aid across the seas,
And she shall conquer yet."

- stanza 1, The Lion-Flag of England

As to the rest of his poetry, most of it falls well into a category I mentioned a while back (see Let me count the ways ...) that is long out of vogue:

The Poem You Must Not Write
3. Let Me Tell You How It Is.
This poem states obvious truths or preaches a little sermon urging readers to accept what is already generally believed: God is good, death is deadly, good is better than evil, nature is lovely, etc. Commonplace and preachy poems are never successful

Capern's poems, while perfectly literate, are extremely trite by modern standards. Fields are green, flowers and the countryside are beautiful, summer and love and Christmas are joyful, winter and lost love and death are depressing, and so on. A sample.

Say, my little robins,
Singing on the bough,
Heralding the Autumn
With her yellow brow,
Why the woods are vocal
With your merry lays,
While our summer songsters
Sleep away their days ?

Lovingly I linger'd,
Listening to their tale,
When a gush of music
Answer'd through the vale;
Every hedge was vocal,
Every tree and bush,
Singing, Little Robin
Is October's thrush.

"When the Spring and Summer
Make all nature gay,
Other minstrels warble
Through the sunny day:
Tis their joy and pleasure,
But our office, know,
Is to carol comfort
In the hour of woe."

- The Robins' Chorus, Edward Capern, Wayside Warbles

Even in his lifetime and shortly after, opinion on his work was divided. WHK Wright, in his 1896 West-Country Poets: Their Lives and Works (section transcribed here) was hagiographic; and Capern was praised by writers such as the historian James Anthony Froude, who wrote in Fraser's Magazine ...
Capern is a real poet, a man whose writings will be like a gleam of summer sunshine in every household which they enter
... and Walter Savage Landor, cited in the reviews for Capern's anthology Wayside Warbles, who called him "a noble poet". The Inquirer put him up with the greats:
There runs throughout these Poems that refined tone of thought, to the expression of which a metrical form is a necessary condition—we find rich tissues of imagery, playful fancy, plentiful invention, and above all that translation of thought into representative circumstances that ever characterizes the true Poet—such is the distinguished excellence of Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, and Alexander Smith, in all of whom the true poetical constitution has been pre-eminently visible.
Sabine Baring-Gould was in a minority with his very acerbic summary:
Postman Poet, Edward Capern, has been hailed as the Devonshire Burns, but he has no right to be so entitled. Burns, at his best, sang in the tones and intonation of his class and country, and it was at his worst that he affected the style of the period and of culture, such as it was. Now Capern aspired to the artificiality and smoothness of the highly educated and wholly unreal class of verse writers of the Victorian period, of whom John Oxenford may be thrust forward as typical, men who could turn out smooth and finished pieces, rhythm and rhyme correct, but without a genuine poetical idea forming the kernel of the "poem."
- from Edward Capern, Devonshire Characters and Strange Events, Sabine Baring-Gould
Reading the Fraser's review by Froude is worth reading in full, as it's very enlightening about the popularity of Capern. I think it's more than just poetic taste.
Our readers, however, must judge for themselves whether wo have over-estimated Capern's poems. When an English working man becomes conscious of genius, the effect of it is usually to throw- him into fierce hostility with the social system which depresses him, and, like Ebenezer Elliot or Gerald Massey, he boils over in fierce and stormy fury. We are not to complain of such men. Their anger often is but too keenly deserved, and they are Nature's instruments to avenge the world's injustice. Yet there is something higher, nobler, better, in rising superior to evils of which we cannot see a practicable remedy. It is a sign of a loftier nature, instead of repining at what Providence has refused, to catch with open hand the fair gifts which it offers to all alike,—the enjoyment of the beauty of nature, the indulgence of the rich emotions of humanity, which are the choicest treasures that God has bestowed upon our being.
- Poems, by Edward Capern, Fraser's Magazine, April 1856
There's a similar idea in the Eclectic Review, which notes that he wisely invested the income from his anthology, and is keen that he shouldn't get too rich from his poetry or be promoted.
It [his poetry] has evidently been to him " its own exceeding great reward ; it has soothed his afflictions ; it has multiplied and refined his enjoyments; it has endeared solitude ; and it has given him the habit of wishing to discover the Good and the Beautiful in all that meets and surrounds him." And " an exceeding great reward " it will continue to be to him as long as he keeps it to its present function as a grace and an ornament, and does not endeavour to convert it to a means of living. It has alreadyafforded him, we are glad to learn, substantial help, and we trust it will yield him a good deal more; but let him still regard it as an auxiliary, and not a main source of subsistence. His inspiration is from the fields and green lanes of Devon, and he should not, if he values his happiness, hope to find it in dingy towns, and at the " desk's dead wood." "We rejoice to see that the first edition of his book has produced him £150, which has been wisely invested in an annuity for the joint lives of himself and Mrs. Capern. The Post Office, too, has increased his salary to twelve shillings a week, and relieved him from his Sunday duties. This is better than making a nine days' wonder of him, and relegating him, when the excitement was over, to his old difficulties with a spirit less calculated to encounter them. It is better, too, than taking him out of his accustomed sphere, and placing him in a position where he would find none of those associations which have hallowed his life hitherto, and gilded with their happy radiance his ungenial fortunes.
- Poems, by Edward Capern, review, p559, Eclectic Review, Volume 1, 1857
It seems he was liked because he fitted into his role as a minor cog in the system; was happy with his lot and rocked no boats (unlike the political activist poets Elliott and Massey); was patriotic; was financially prudent; perpetuated belief in a English rustic idyll; and had made maximum use of his limited education, writing in standard English rather than dialect. He was, in short, a poster boy for the deserving poor: the obedient working class that the middle/upper classes wanted.  I believe that was his appeal.

The Internet Archive - see search - has his chief works online: Poems (1856), Ballads and Songs (1858), Wayside Warbles (1870), and Sungleams and Shadows (1881)

As reported in the Exeter Express & Echo, a modern biography is in print - Edward Capern: The Postman-poet, Ilfra Goldberg, Vanguard Press (2009). It was highly commended among contestants for the Devon History Society Book of the Year and Hoskins Award 2009.

- Ray

Monday, 20 December 2010

In praise of The Mathenauts

I just re-read Norman Kagan's 1964 short story The Mathenauts, which I first encountered in a secondhand Judith Merrill's 1965 10th Annual SF anthology. At 11-ish I didn't remotely understand it; only the sheer strangeness came across. But it gets better on each return visit.

The Mathenauts is set in a near-future where "Brill-Cohen flight" has been discovered: the ability to take a ship into the raw mathematical space underlying reality. Ships, which look like a radio minus the casing, are crewed by eccentric high-flyer mathematicians, but their internal reality is held together by a "psychic ecology" of students with more mundane mindsets.
The ship, the Albrecht Dold, was a twelve-googol scout that Ed Goldwasser and I'd picked up cheap from the NYU Courant Institute. She wasn't the Princeton IAS Von-Neumann, with googolplex coils and a chapter of the DAR, and she wasn't one of those new toys you've been seeing for a rich man and his grandmother. Her coils were DNA molecules, and the psychosomatics were straight from the Brill Institute at Harvard. A sweet ship. For psychic ecology we'd gotten a bunch of kids from the Bronx College of the New York City University, commonsense types - business majors, engineers, pre-meds.
Jimmy, the mathematician narrator, tells how there is a horrific in-flight accident when the "isomorphomechanism" (that keeps the internal reality stable) fails, affecting another member of the crew.
Instrument racks and chairs and books shrank and ballooned and twisted, and floor and ceiling vibrated with my breath. It was horrible. Ted Anderson was hanging in front of the immy, the isomorphomechanism, but he was in no shape to do anything. In fact, he was in no shape at all. His body was pulsing and shaking, so his hands were too big or too small to manipulate the controls, or his eyes shrank or blossomed.
Jimmy repairs the fault, but Anderson, occupying the same space as the "immy", is rejected by the "commonsense circuits" and disappears. After an unsuccessful search of a ship and mathematical discussion of where Ted might have gone, there's a further scare when the ship's psychic ecology - students in a facsimile of a New York streetcar - breaks down.
The walls were firm, the straw seats scratchy and uncomfortable. The projectors showed we were just entering the 72nd Street stop. How real, how comforting! I slid the door open to rejoin Johnny and Ed. The subway riders saw me slip into freefall, and glimpsed the emptiness of vector space. Hell broke loose! The far side of the car bulged inward, the glass smashing and the metal groaning. The CUNYs had no compensation training!
Johnny Pearl, the ship's "psychist", restores the ecology by singing a college anthem, and the crew finish their search and begin the tests the voyage is intended for. At that point, a ghostly Ted Anderson reappears and reveals an uncomfortable truth: that the raw mathematical space is the real universe. He gives Jimmy a glimpse of the creatures that inhabit it.
— I saw a set bubbling and whirling, then take purpose and structure to itself and become a group, generate a second-unity element, mount itself and become a group, generate a second unity element, mount itself and become a field, ringed by rings. Near it, a mature field, shot through with ideals, threw off a splitting field in a passion of growth, and became complex.
— I saw the life of the matrices; the young ones sporting, adding and multiplying by a constant, the mature ones mating by composition: male and female make male, female and male make female — sex through anticommutivity! I saw them grow old, meeting false identities and loosing rows and columns into nullity.
— I saw a race of vectors, losing their universe to a newer race of tensors that conquered and humbled them.
Reality as humans know it, Anderson explains, is the creation of a "Great Race" in this mathematical universe, who lost their powers but left mathematics as a "seed" by which humans might regain the ability to inhabit that reality. He then disappears permanently, leaving his notebook.

The surviving characters go on to live their lives, dealing with that revelation in different ways: one marries and has 15 children; one gets religion and writes a book about Ted's views; and Jimmy, the narrator, concentrates on the business side of marketing Ted's ideas, multidimensional products that make a paradise of Earth.
Me, I'll stick to the Earth. The "real" planet is a garden spot now, and the girls are very lovely.

Ted Anderson was recorded lost in topological space. He wasn't the first, and he was far from the last. Twiddles circuits have burned out, DaughtAmsRevs have gone mad, and no doubt there have been some believers who have sought out the Great Race.
The story, at one level, is a pastiche. Kagan wrote it when he was a mathematics student, and it abounds in punning use of mathematical terms and its characters' hardboiled mathematical exclamations ("Great Gauss!", "Holy Halmos!" etc). For that reason, I guess, it's often classed as humorous SF (as in the 1982 anthology Laughing space: funny science fiction). Its extensive mathematical content, and its excellent portrayal of the ethos of mathematicians, also accounts for its presence in Rudy Rucker's 1987 niche anthology Mathenauts: tales of mathematical wonder.

Nevertheless, I think it's an altogether better story than that, as an examples of "conceptual breakthrough" story (see PK Dick, Ubik and conceptual breakthrough and Breaking out of the game) that, despite the pastiche and generally positive outcome, leaves the reader with a continuing sense of unease that the assumptions of reality have been revealed hollow. It tackles the still-topical questions of Platonism and Neoplatonism: the idea that reality may have a mathematical structure, since mathematics describes it so well. An example of such theories is Antony Garrett Lisi's Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything, which proposed that elementary particles correspond to the symmetries of a vast mathematical group called E8. All that aside, though, the strange and bold vision in The Mathenauts still makes it as fresh reading as when I first encountered it. It's a pity it's not online anywhere, but secondhand anthologies containing it aren't too hard to find.

Norman Kagan wrote several other mathematical stories, notably the 1964 Four Brands of Impossible, but didn't go on to an SF writing career.  According to the blurb in Rudy Rucker's 1987 Mathenauts anthology:
What ever became of Norman Kagan anyway? He left math for film and still lives in Manhattan. He's written a number of books on cinema, and is currently involved in putting together a TV science news magazine to be called "Spacetime Continuum News." When I pressed having once written a mathematical mystery story called The Venn Data Vendetta — but he lost the only copy.
I don't know what he's doing now (or even if he's still alive), but I assume these books - on the cinema of Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, Robert Zemeckis and Roibert Altman- are by the same Norman Kagan.

Addendum: a personal note, via discussion with Felix Grant. The story is particularly memorable for me as one of the first SF stories I read. I got into the genre via my great-uncle Dennis, a nice autodidact polymath among my Wiltshire relatives who I regret not fully appreciating at the time - but I was only 11, so I guess it's excusable - and who gave me heaps of secondhand SF Book Club editions (including the brilliant The Hole in the Zero) and copies of Analog magazine. On those grounds, this post is dedicated to my late and excellent Uncle Den.

- Ray

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Google Books N-gram - wow!

Google just blew my bibliographic socks off.

Geoff Nunberg at Language Log (see Humanities research with the Google Books corpus) just posted news and some links concerning the Books N-gram Viewer that just went live.

I've enthused previously about the power of Google Books to hack into historical texts in a way that would have been impossible less than a decade ago. The Books Ngram Viewer adds to this facility with a powerful search interface that accesses a humungous corpus of texts (the English one, for instance, covers 360 billion words) and can graph, singly or in comparison, normalised frequencies. The possibilities are immense. As the Science research article abstract says:
We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of "culturomics", focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. "Culturomics" extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.
- Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books, * Michel, et al. Science 1199644DOI:10.1126/science.1199644
What this actually means, even at a trivial level, is that anyone can do linguistic studies that would have taken years (or even be impossible). You can chart the continuous decline of "whom" in British English over nearly two centuries.  You can compare change of acceptable usages with time: for instance, Mohammedan vs Moslem vs Muslim or Esquimaux vs Eskimos vs Inuit.  You can get long-term statistics for inflected vs. periphrastic versions of adjective comparisons: e.g. "pleasanter" vs. "more pleasant". You can plot the fate of variant spellings: such as how "focused", originally a minority spelling, overtook "focussed" around 1900 and came to dominate it.  You can check age of words: for instance, how people have been "holidaying" (often taken to be a neologism) since 1840. You can look at the history of coexisting forms, such as "none of us is" vs "none of use are" or "Devonshire" vs "Devon".  This is a delight for lexicographical enthusiasts.

The setup isn't perfect. As I and others have mentioned, bad metadata and OCR errors can be a problem. For example, Mark Liberman's follow-up at Language Log - More on "culturomics" - mentions how attempts to trace the history of the word "fuck" in print (see graph) are confused by the "long s", so that pre-1820 you're actually finding occurrences of the word "suck" (like this). More fundamentally, though, once you get away from raw lexical observation and into sociological analysis - the "culturomics" part - it shouldn't be forgotten that frequency of appearance in books is a merely a proxy for the multiple social factors driving that frequency. It would be, for instance, an unreliable conclusion that the British have steadily become less interested in love over the past two centuries because the word's appearance in print has more or less continuously declined.

Nevertheless, searches I've tried often reveal striking patterns, even if they may be inexplicable. Why the seemingly cyclic book references to red sunsets? Why have references to Sherlock Holmes steadily grown over the 20th century? Why do occurrences of the word "fat" rise steadily from 1840 to peak in the late 1870s? What do the peaks in references to opium mean? (this one can be partially answered; two of them coincide with the Opium Wars).  Why are there two 19th century peaks for "Batman" (it seems to be a confluence of coverage of people withthat surname, notably John Batman). Does the post-1960 rise in references to "Frankenstein" mean anything culturally or does it just reflect the success of particular movies. I have a feeling I'm going to be making a lot of use of this.

The Guardian has a more general piece on it here: Culturomics and the new Google tool for tracking cultural trends. See also the official Culturomics site.

Addendum: the paper Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books (Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1199644) - free registration with Science is required - is very worth reading. It mentions some highly interesting areas including:
  • The recent massive growth in the English lexicon (over 70% during the last 50 years).
  • The trade-off of dictionaries in balancing comprehensiveness and conciseness, with the result that over half of the English lexicon comprises "dark matter" that doesn't appear in dictionaries.
  • The ability to track trends such as the regularisation of verbs, such as the shift from "-nt" endings to "-ned" (e.g. "burnt" to "burned").
  • The characteristic trajectories of appearance in print as a proxy of fame.
  • Detection of censorship by non-appearance in print: notably the absence from German texts of individuals identified as undesirables under the Nazi regime.
  • Culturomics - the identification of "fossils" of cultural trends through print frequency (e.g. "influenza" being mentioned a lot in print at the time of known pandemics).

The epidemiology example illustrates an important limitation to "culturomics". As quoted in Wired:

Patterns that can be queried from its cloud are not necessarily answers unto themselves, they say, but a way of illuminating subjects for further investigation.

"It’s not just an answer machine. It’s a question machine," said study co-author Erez Lieberman-Aiden, a computational biologist at Harvard University. "Think of this as a hypothesis-generating machine."
- Cultural Evolution Could Be Studied in Google Books Database, Wired, Dec 16th 2010

A look at the references to "cholera" shows peaks that may correspond to epidemics, but the largest, in the mid-1880s, more likely corresponds to the topicality of Robert Koch's isolation of Vibrio cholerae in 1884.

Addendum: discussion at Language Log - see True Grit isn't true - highlighted another significant problem with the setup.  For some reason (maybe to do with OCR, indexing, tokenization or the search interface) Google Books N-gram Viewer seemed to underestimate by three to four orders of magnitude (!) occurrences of forms with apostrophes. This made it useless for examining historical occurrences of contractions in English. Correction: see Google n-gram apostrophe problem fixed.


Monday, 13 December 2010

The Fatal Oak

Just a quick link to another article of bibliographic interest I wrote for the Devon History Society: The Fatal Oak, concerning Anna Eliza Bray's novel Warleigh; or, The fatal oak. A legend of Devon, which relocates the (probably) true story of an Elizabethan murder to the English Civil War.

- Ray

Goold Macbeth on BBC4

Yesterday I watched the television adaptation of Rupert Goold's Macbeth (BBC4, 12th December, 2010, with Sir Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in the lead roles - see TV blog). This ran to good reviews from its original at Chichester Festival Theatre, via the West End, to Broadway. Filmed in the subterranean rooms and tunnels of Welbeck Abbey 1, it takes the play into an Eastern European warzone, with explicit resonances between Macbeth and Stalin (alluding, for instance, to the episode when Stalin forced the portly Kruschev to dance the strenuous gopak - "When Stalin says, 'Dance!', a wise man dances") . The witches become malign nurses involved in necromancy (the wounded soldier at the beginning of the play becomes their victim); the moving of Birnam wood becomes soldiers in ghillie suit camouflage.

It was superb: watch it if you haven't already. As Simon Horsford's preview in the Telegraph says:

It is the perfect riposte to cynics who argue that Shakespeare’s plays demand the intimacy of a theatre

and I've taken this view for a long time. Much as I appreciate that many people enjoy theatre, I find cinema and television a superior medium for Shakespeare. This may not apply to small and intimate productions where the audience is, effectively, inside the action, but I really can't see how sitting in a large auditorium watching from one (often distant) viewpoint can compare to the director's tightly-managed control of every nuance of the experience - viewpoint, sound, visual effects and location - that film and TV offer.

If you have access to BBC iPlayer content, Macbeth is available until 9.59pm on Sunday, 19 December.  US readers I think can watch it at PBS Video.

1. The home of the 5th Duke of Portland, whose subterranean obsession inspired Mick Jackson's novel The Underground Man.

- Ray

Religious questions of attribution

Anyone who follows the topic of misattributions will know that there's an inexorable pull toward attaching quotations to celebrities, and I recently bumped into a couple of unexpected examples. While browsing for biographical details of Thomas Carlyle, I found these quotations:
The best lesson which we get from the tragedy of Karbala is that Husain and his companions were the rigid believers of God. They illustrated that numerical superiority does not count when it comes to truth and falsehood. The victory of Husain despite his minority marvels me!
- attributed to Thomas Carlyle

If Husain fought to quench his worldly desires, then I do not understand why his sisters, wives and children accompanied him. It stands to reason therefore that he sacrificed purely for Islam.
- attributed to Charles Dickens
These refer to the death of Husayn ibn Ali, who died under harrowing circumstances at the Battle of Karbala (680 CE) and is annually mourned as a martyr by Shi'a Muslims; the quotes, among others, are widely cited on Shi'a websites as examples of Western endorsement of the significance of the event.  It is of massive historical and cultural significance, even to the point of the commemoration transplanting into other cultures - see Hosay - and a number of eminent Western authors have commented sympathetically on it, such as Gibbon ...
In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hosein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader
- page 441, Edward Gibbon, The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, 1828
... and the orientalists Reynold Alleyne Nicholson and Sir William Muir. 1

However, Carlyle and Dickens are both authors whose works and biographies are known extensively, and I've not been able to verify the attribution for these. It's not theoretically impossible that Carlyle wrote the first - he wrote extensively (if ambiguously) on Muhammad in his On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History - but the earliest citation I can find for it is a 1978 edition of The Light, a journal of the Bilal Muslim Mission of Tanzania. For the Dickens one, the earliest reference I can find is to the 1977 book The Martyrdom of Imam Husain, Grandson of the Holy Prophet (ed. Yousuf Lalljee). Can anyone shed further light on their origins?

If they're misattributions, it would be highly unfair to single them out as Islamic examples, as many other (and far more egregiously contrived) examples are findable in Christian literature and website texts. An especially rich lode involves American founders, who have been posthumously conscripted into endorsing a theist agenda for the governing of the USA. Sometimes this is by outright misattribution of author, and sometimes by massaging out-of-context material. The weblog Fake History documents a good selection, with well-researched paper trails of how the misattribution developed. Examples include:
We recognize no sovereign but God and no king but Jesus!
- attributed to John Adams and John Hancock, but debunked by reference to primary sources

What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ
- attributed to George Washington, but actually constructed by splicing invented text into a fragment from Washington's reply to the Delaware Nation.

My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.

Religion is the basis and foundation of government
- attributed to James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance; but actually spliced from material in an entirely different context:

SECTION 15, Because finally, "the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion according to the dictates of conscience" is held by the same tenure with all his other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consider the "Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of government," it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis.
A further class of religious celebrity attribution problem is the celebrity anecdote. See, for instance, the completely fictional Internet meme that Albert Einstein proved the existence of God to an atheist professor (Malice of absence, and Lady Hope's story that Darwin recanted (The Lady Hope Story,  I've no doubt many more can be found.

1. The source here - Clinton Bennett's Victorian images of Islam - makes interesting reading on how Victorian orientalists combined a genuine cultural interest in Islam with an agenda that such knowledge was beneficial to colonial control.

- Ray

Monday, 6 December 2010

John Foulston's Devonport

Mostly just a hyperlink today, to a post I wrote for the Devon History Society: Devonport Column and Foulston's Devonport.

A Western Morning News report led me to a pleasant excursion into the story of redevelopments nearly two centuries apart, and the strange architectural world of John Foulston whose 1820s design concept for the newly-badged town of Devonport (pictured above in the 1832 Devonshire & Cornwall Illustrated) mixed Doric, Corinthian, Egyptian and "Hindoo" styles in a civic centre that is still mostly extant (though partially endangered), and one of the foci of the current redevelopment of Devonport. Highlights include the 1828 Plymouth and Devonport Guide; the splendid, but At Risk, pseudo-Egyptian frontage of the Civil and Military Library (now the Oddfellows Hall); the Bing Maps Birds Eye view; and a Flickr photoset by Denna Jones documenting her Devonport Column Site Visit - Summer 2008.

- RG

Friday, 3 December 2010

"Ten thousand Objects hurtle into view"

A puzzle arising from the previous post. The following inspiring lines, in whole or in part, are moderately widely quoted in mid-Victorian books, including the travel guides of Mackenzie Edward Charles Walcott.

"I'll see these Things!—They're rare and passing curious.—
But thus 'tis ever; what's within our ken,
Owl-like, we blink at, and direct our search
To farthest Inde in quest of Novelties;
Whilst here, at Home, upon our very thresholds,
Ten thousand Objects hurtle into view.
Of Int'rest wonderful.'

The above version is the first citation I can find, and dates from 1829, where it's just credited as "OLD PLAY" on the title page - here - of Edward Wedlake Brayley's Londiniana: or, Reminiscences of the British metropolis: including characteristic sketches, antiquarian, topographical, descriptive, and literary, Volume 4.

Any thoughts on what old play?

- Ray

Mackenzie Edward Charles Walcott

It's one of my mild bibliographic ambitions to identify the anonymous authors of the 1848 Legends of Devon, the book that kicked off the locally-set story (now enshrined as regional legend) of the Parson and Clerk at Dawlish (see Parsons unknown).  No luck so far, but in passing I ran into the works of Mackenzie Edward Charles Walcott, 1821-1880.

A particular work, available in full through Google Books, is his 1859 A guide to the South coast of England, from the Reculvers to the Land's end, and from Cape Cornwall to the Devon foreland. It's highly readable, sometimes entertaining, sometimes geeky and completist. In skimming the local sections, I noticed the cold dead hand (then warm, I guess) of Legends of Devon in a couple places, as in the section on Dawlish where The Legend of the Parson and Clerk - a "legend" written only 11 years previously - gets an outing (page 428) and the sub-Shakespeare The Legend of Babicombe Bay gets upgraded to "fairy tale" (page 443).  In both cases, the source is uncredited despite the specifics showing Legends of Devon to be the primary source.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Walcott was a career clergyman with a strong sideline in  antiquarian and ecclesiological subjects:
Walcott contributed articles on his favourite topics to numerous magazines and to the transactions of the learned societies, and he was one of the oldest contributors to Notes and Queries. His works mainly comprised historical accounts and guides to the English cathedrals and other ecclesiastical buildings in the British Isles ... William of Wykeham and his Colleges (1852) ... He contributed to the Revd Henry Thompson's collection Original Ballads (1850) and ... presented to the British Museum manuscript materials for a history of cathedrals and conventual foundations in England.

See Google Books - inauthor:"Mackenzie Edward Charles Walcott" - for more of his extremely prolific output, which includes the companion volume The east coast of England from the Thames to the Tweed. It's interesting to read, however, the footnote in Nigel Yates's Anglican ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910:
Walcott was described by Dean Hook of Chichester as 'a grandiloquent as well as an inaccurate writer ... He has much miscellaneous archaeological information but is very inaccurate', A. McCann, 'Archives and Antiquaries', in M, Hobbs (ed.), Chichester Cathedral: an historical survey, Chichester, 1994, 199

- page 123, ibid.
The full letter from Dean Hook is online at the National Archives here.  Hook notes that Walcott had been "severely castigated" in the Saturday Review, and concluded:
I do not think that the Sussex Archaeological Journal will gain much if he shall [sic] be appointed editor. He is, however, an amiable man and I am always glad to have him as my guest.
Although it's not strictly a scholarly work, the same doubts apply to A guide to the South coast of England: virtually none of the content is credited. Walcott's not alone in this fault; the book is typical of a style of Victorian learned compilation: a mixture of fact, factoid, hearsay and outright invention. Modern critics of the Internet rightly point out the risks of using indiscriminate Web results for research, but the problem really is nothing new. Some writers have always been slack in their attribution and sourcing.

Nevertheless, I'm overall inclined to like Walcott's work.  I couldn't agree more with the outro in all of his regional guides, where Walcott quotes these lines - further good advice to any weblog maintainer - in praise of finding continuing fascination close to home.
'Tis ever what's within our ken,
Owl-like, we blink at, and direct our search
To furthest Inde, in quest of novelties;
Whilst here at home, upon our very coasts,
Ten thousand objects hurtle into view,
Of interest wonderful.

- unknown - more later
- Ray