Sunday, 30 January 2011

Bayan time

Further to "You'll like this, it has buttons": the bayan arrived several days back. Being very busy (tax deadline again, and lots of web work to do ... sorry, guys) I swore I wouldn't spend time trying it out until I'd cleared my desk adequately, but once I'd opened the huge padded package from Ukraine with "НЕ бросать" (Russian: "DO NOT drop/throw") all over it, it was inevitable I'd get sidetracked. So, brief impressions.

It's a secondhand Орфей (Orfei = Orpheus) bayan - the Russian flavour of chromatic button accordion - with 120-button stradella left-hand keyboard and a five-row 85-button right-hand keyboard. It's a chunky 10kg (nearly 2 stone) instrument as used by professional bands such as the Ukrainian folk rock band Тік (above), with a very solid clarinet-like tone, with lots of bass (it makes my small piano accordion sound positively shrill and tinny). Oh, and it has a nice green casing.

Although I'd read around the topic as much as possible, moving to button-key was still very much a leap of faith after decades of playing a piano accordion - and even more so to go for a B-system bayan, where I'm likely to be on my own over learning (the reasons were partly affordability, partly liking the overall tone, and partly feeling indefinably simpatico with the instrument). But after a week, I can safely say I'm sorry I didn't make the change years ago.  The left-hand needs only minor acclimatisation, since I'm used to the stradella layout. As to the right-hand: I find the keyboard layout - shown here at Blumberg's Music Theory Cipher - both conceptually elegant and practical. As Blumberg puts it, it's an "isomorphic instrument" - every note has the same relationship to those adjacent (see basics), meaning playing scales in all keys uses the same fingering, as does chords.  Any scale is playable on three rows, but the five rows offer duplicate buttons playing the same note, which often offer easier alternate fingerings (for instance, a move to an adjacent key rather than a jump). The keyboard is also highly compressed compared to piano format: you can easily play two-octave chords. A downside, however, is that the non-linear layout makes long glissandos rather more difficult (Nydana's Accordion Resources has a good analysis comparing the B and C systems).

All of that is readable anywhere; but an aspect I haven't seen mentioned is that I'm finding it vastly easier to learn tunes on the Orfei than on a piano keyboard.  I tend to think visually, and find the 2D button layout gives tunes a "shape" - they become a path following locations on a surface - that's rapidly memorable. Another neat, and encouraging, observation is that there seems to be a kind of synergy: after a week exploring the bayan, I've noticed an improvement in my piano accordion technique. So far, it looks altogether an interesting project for 2011.

(There are some scary examples on YouTube of what can be done on the five-row bayan: see Lidia Kaminska and Alexander Dmitriev. Ouch).

- Ray

Sunday, 23 January 2011

"You'll like this, it has buttons"

Seeing the above clip, I couldn't help thinking of Part 7 of Sydney Padua's funny and erudite steampunk comic strip Lovelace and Babbage vs The Organist (now complete - check it out). Inspired by Charles Babbage's hatred of street musicians, it pits the crimefighting pair against a fiendish musical plot, and at one point Charles Babbage is tormented by Charles Wheatstone with an English Concertina:

Wheatstone: "Anyways, look, you'll like this, it has buttons!"
Babbage: "FIENDISH!"

Anyway, I'd never heard of the accordina before, probably because it's such a niche instrument. Essentially a mouth-blown equivalent of the right-hand section of a three-row button-key chromatic accordion, it was invented and made around 60-70 years ago by André Borel in Paris. It wasn't wildly popular, and manufacturing stopped in the 1970s. But it recently experienced a revival on the French jazz circuit via exponents such as Francis Jauvin and Richard Galliano, and a company in the South of France headed by Marcel Dreux is manufacturing new instruments (not cheap - €1250, somewhat over £1000).

Dreux's, a French/English site, is a good roundup of the accordina and its history. Another French site, la boite d'accordéon, spreads the topic somewhat wider to accordéons à vent (wind accordions) in general, with the history of the accordina and its precursors. Pat Missin's harmonica website goes into detail on many of these such as the harmonicor, Hohnerette and Psallmelodikon (some of these things look straight out of Jack Vance's SF story The Moon Moth - see Musical miscellany). This brings us full circle to Wheatstone, since probably the earliest modern button-keyed free reed instrument is another one he invented, the Symphonium.

Addendum: I've just ordered a new accordion. For the past thirty years I've played a 24-bass piano accordion, which is quite nice - lightweight and adequately versatile - for general busking-style playing. But lately I've practiced more intensively and become aware of its limitations, so decided to upgrade. I opted for a secondhand bayan - the Russian-style chromatic button accordion. I'm aware that its "B system" note layout has a reputation for difficulty; but I like the tone of these instruments a lot, and fancied a challenge. Awaiting arrival now.

- Ray

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Isinglass curtains

A conversation in the Globe a couple of days ago turned from a discussion of beer production (for reasons that'll became apparent) to a Rodgers and Hammerstein song. The question arising: what are the "isinglass curtains" mentioned in the Oklahama! song embedded above?

With isinglass curtains you can roll right down,
In case there's a change in the weather.
- "Surrey with The Fringe on Top", Oklahama!, Rodgers and Hammerstein

The object in question is evidently the storm top or storm curtain that attached to the roof of carriages (this is a surrey) and early cars as rainproofing. This is a relatively well-trodden topic, but it's worth retracking as an example of the confusion that can arise if you try to brain out historical/etymological stories purely from the words present (at the level of assuming "plum pudding" contains plums). 

The phrase "isinglass curtains" is actually an anachronism anyway. Oklahoma! is set in 1906, but  a look at Google Books Ngram Viewer for isinglass curtains, and at Google Books, finds the earliest print occurrence to be 1927, after which the term was used for the storm curtains of early popular models of motor vehicle. The explanation for this at least is that the 1943 Oklahoma! was based on a play by Lynn Riggs, the 1931, Green Grow the Lilacs, and Hammerstein's adaptation of the play text altered the character Curly's words. In the play he refers to isinglass windows:

And this yere rig has got four fine side-curtains, case of a rain. And isinglass winders to look out of!
- The Cherokee night and other plays, Lynn Riggs, University of Oklahoma Press, 2003

As to "isinglass", it has two main meanings. One is a clear gelatine derived from fish swim-bladders, used in fining of beer and wine. Historically, it was a versatile and expensive commercial product, used as a gum, a food gelling agent, as the sticking medium for surgical plasters, as stiffener for cloth, as a sealant for preserving eggs 1, and for making mock pearls. The classic source was Russian: the swim-bladder of the "Huso", aka the Isinglass Fish aka the beluga or cavier sturgeon. The etymology of the word "isinglass" isn't 100% certain, but the most likely (according to the OED) is derivation from Dutch "huisenblas" = sturgeon bladder.

The other main meaning of "isinglass": the transparent variety - otherwise called muscovite - of the mineral mica. In some parts of world, notably Russia (hence the name muscovite - i.e. pertaining to Moscow), it's found in large enough sheets to make small window panes, so it was historically used for applications where tough, slightly flexible, heat-resistant, transparent material was needed, such as furnace or lantern windows. Why it's also called "isinglass" isn't clear, but the OED says "from its resembling in appearance some kinds of [the gelatine] isinglass".

Neither of these sound promising curtain material, and the twin meanings are already a recipe for confusion. Some sources opt for the first, despite the unlikeliness of making rain curtains or windows from a water-soluble gelatine:

In the stove window trade, mica acquired the name isinglass, after its resemblance to a gelatin made from fish bladders that was made into windows for carriages and early cars ...
- Roadside geology of Maine, Dabney W. Caldwell, 1998

Some sources mistakenly conflate the two ...

Sturgeon — regarded as a trash fish until about 1870, prized thereafter as sources of smoked meat, oil and the isinglass that was once used as windows in stoves and lanterns ...
- Biologists tackle fishery questions, Milwaukee Journal, March 24, 1991

Isinglass is a mica or clear gelatin made from certain fish bladders, principally the bladders of sturgeon. Isinglass was once used in glues and jellies, as well as (get this) the manufacture of drop-windows on buggies.
- Isinglass: this wordsmith correct in use of language, Richmond Times, Sep 16, 1994

... but the predominant assumption is that "isinglass curtains" refer to curtains with inserts of mica, and some sources explicitly confirm this, such as

... there were the Isinglass curtains — sheets of transparent mica sewn into black leatherette frames ...
- Saturday Review, Volume 50, 1967

But is any of this terminology reliable? A 1937 Q&A in Hospitals: the journal of the American Hospital Association, mentions that the "isinglass windows" of an oxygen tent were actually cellulose acetate, and before that Edwin E Slosson summed up the terminological lag in the area of these substances:

Fish glue films were called isinglass as though they were a kind of glass. When mica took its place it too was called isinglass, even in stove windows, and what is now called mica is mostly celluloid, and what is called celluloid, may be something else. Language lingers and lags behind the advance of science.
- The human side of chemistry, Edwin E Slosson, Am. Journ. Pharm, Nov 1922

This process continues. "isinglass curtains" and "isinglass windows" are names still used for the polymer canopies of powerboats and yachts.

Ultimately the best approach to finding what these isinglass curtains/windows seems to be to avoid the anecdotal, and look in contemporary hardware publications, which have technical descriptions of vehicles. The majority of hits (see "side curtains" celluloid) solidly confirm the existence of vehicle side curtains with celluloid windows; a significant minority (see "side curtains" mica) refer to mica windows. Given the stiffness of mica, however, I'm inclined to think that an isinglass (probably sic) curtain that "rolls" must refer to one of celluloid or of canvas with a celluloid light.  But I guess

With curtains of either celluloid por canvas with celluloid (or possibly mica) curtains you can roll right down,
In case there's a change in the weather

lacks a certain something, and is reminiscent of Charles Babbage's comment on Tennyson's The Vision of Sin.

Another appearance of isinglass curtains in literature: the poem Parent by Josephine Miles.

Letting down the isinglass curtains
Between the wet rain and the back seat
Where new plaster flattened me, my father said,
Wait here. I will get you the sherbet
Of your eight-year-old dreams.
There were no drive-ins then.
The rain roared. Don't go away,
I said to him? He said to me.

Her poetry is worth checking out: minimal yet poignant, often stream-of-consciousness. Parent comes from the 1979 autobiographical collection Coming to Terms, which initially tells of her childhood when she had to endure a full-body plaster cast (hence the "new plaster flattened me") due to disabling arthritis (see Josephine Miles: mentor to a revolution). The isinglass curtains in this case, as told in another poem in the collection, Doll, in the family's Mitchell.

1. Although I suspect many of the references are confusing it with the far more widespread use of water glass, a syrupy solution of sodium silicate, for this purpose.

- Ray

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

After the Crash

I've updated this post and shifted it to November 2012 - see Muriel ... and After the Crash - to maintain continuity with other Maxwell Gray readings.

- Ray

Monday, 17 January 2011


I very much like folk-classical fusion (see Methera and Musical miscellany, previously), and the Finnish musical circuit is especially rich in that area. Just encountered: Troka, an award-winning band whose reputation has spread to the USA (they appeared on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion radio show). The line-up is Matti Mäkelä (fiddle), Antti Järvelä (double bass), Johanna Juhola (accordion), Ville Ojanen (fiddle, viola and mandolin) and Timo Alakotila (harmonium and piano). From various sleeve notes:

Troka have been praised for their ability to bring a contemporary feel to folk music. Their sound is influenced by both the classical string quartet and traditional ensemble techniques.

The embedded video above, Kesäillan Tvist (Summer Night Twist), is my favourite so far, with its upbeat main section (hoedown-like, but with an edge of classical/European) framed by a sinister-fairground strings-accordion intro and outro 1, alongside Ängskärsmenuett (Ängskär Minuet), a charming folk/classical/ambient original composition by Timo Alakotila, and Lellupuo-Iikoon Friioomarssi (Iiko's Courtship March). There are more samples at the Troka MySpace page (though I find it a bit tetchy about loading).

1. PS: Oh, damn! That accordion outro is so catchy, it's turned into an earworm.

- Ray

Crossing the bar

The Lympstone-based Wayland Wordsmith blog ("discourser on the Exe estuary") wrote yesterday of "Going out over" [the bar], a rite of passage for Lympstone boys described in Devon Life in 1979 by Cyril G Tuckfield:

Saturday, 15 January 2011

"Victorian blogger" in Sidmouth

I just posted to the Devon History Society blog a news item Peter Orlando Hutchinson: "Victorian 'blogger" arising from Friday's Western Morning News piece about the cultural and historical landscape project In the Footsteps of Peter Orlando Hutchinson.

This Winchester-born polymath spent most of his adult life in Sidmouth, and meticulously documented the neighbouring landscape, as in the diary entry here with its nice sketch of the Ladram Bay coastline from High Peak on 31 December 1877. As a great fan of the East Devon coast, I look forward to seeing one of the projects planned end results, a fully searchable electronic document of the diaries.

A Sidmouth Herald article last year - Sidmouth antiquary’s diaries explored - quotes from Catherine Linehan's biography Peter Orlando Hutchinson of Sidmouth, Devon 1810-1897 describing what sounds an enviable if geeky lifestyle financed, as mentioned in the paper Peter Orlando Hutchinson (1810-1897) and the Geology of Sidmouth, by "a modest private income":

Among his many activities, Peter spent whole days on foot or by carriage in exploring the neighbourhood. A frequent companion was Mr N S Heineken 1, a retired Unitarian Minister. With a pocketful of sandwiches, or a hamper of provisions and tools, they visited, measured, sketched and mapped the hillforts, earthworks, tumuli, churches and ancient monuments within a 20 mile radius.

This Branscombe Project biographical play - Orlando Hutchinson in Branscombe - gives an informal run-down of his life and interests.

Some of Hutchinson's works are available online: The Geology of Sidmouth and of South-eastern Devon (1843); Chronicles of Gretna Green (1844: vol 1, vol 2) - the best bit of this completist parish history is the pi final chapter, Advice to young ladies, warning against elopement; and The diary and letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson : captain-general and governor-in-chief of his late Majesty's province of Massachusetts Bay in North America (1883) - this Thomas Hutchinson, his great-grandfather; along with various papers such as his Dissertation on the site of Moridunum (The Gentleman's Magazine, February 1849).

He also wrote some fiction, as in these rather laboured 1845 Metropolitan magazine pieces about imagined dialogues between statues:  No. I ("The Statue of Charles the First, at Charing Cross, to a large block of marble in Wyatt's Yard, at Paddington"), No. II ("Shakspere's Statue in Poet's Corner to Thorwaldsen's Statue of Lord Byron in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge"), No. III ("Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Exchange, to James the First at Temple Bar"); No. IV ("Dr. Johnson's Statue by Bacon, in St. Paul's Cathedral, to Sir Walter Scott's Bust by Chantry"); and No. V ("George the Third's Statue in Cockspur Street, by Wyatt, to George Washington's Statue in the State House, Boston, Massachusetts, by Chantry").

According to the above bio-play, he self-published a novel, Branscombe Cliffs, which would be interesting to see (I fear the worst: given POH's style and interests, I suspect it could be like Brief Encounter written by a trainspotter).

1. Google Books finds him to be a Unitarian minister into astronomy, photography and mechanics.

- Ray

Monday, 10 January 2011

RHD Barham and Dawlish

Wayland Wordsmith just asked, in a post about bathing machines in Budleigh Salterton, about the source of a quotation - describing the red cliffs of East Devon as being like "anchovy sauce spread upon toast".- attributed in a 1969 Devon Life article to "a West country poet".

A search on the phrase finds the author to be one RHD Barham. This is not the clergyman and author Richard Harris Barham, 1788–1845 (aka Thomas Ingoldsby, author of the classic Ingoldsby Legends) but his son, the Reverend Richard Harris Dalton Barham, who evidently inherited the talent for literate doggerel. As this article explains - The Ingoldsby Legends, Ingoldsby Country & Tappington Hall - the Barhams were a Kent family and RHD Barham the rector of Lolworth, Cambridgeshire - but the Devon connection is that RHD lived in Dawlish from 1863, and died there in 1886.

The "anchovy sauce" line comes from his poem The Monk of Haldon: A Legend of South Devon (see page 488, Temple Bar: A London Magazine, Volume 20, 1867), a picaresque yarn inspired by the remains of a chapel near Dawlish. It tells how the chapel and the associated holy well are tended by a succession of monks until a rough and sinister one, Friar John, takes over the post. A pirate, Sailor Jack, visits him one evening, and over a drinking session boasts about his loot. Friar John attempts to murder him, but Jack chokes him and throws him into the well. On later investigation, however, two corpses are found in the well, neither of them Friar John. The investigators find a cache of loot nearby, and cover up the well; Sailor Jack never encounters good fortune again. The reader is advised that the well is findable, but "to let well alone".

The relevant lines, a nice landscape description, are:

To the right, under Haldon,
Lie Teignmouth and Shaldon,
With hamlets, whose names to recount I'm not called on:
Between them the Teign rolls her eddying flood,
The stream looking tinted and turbid with blood;
But it's only the rain that has stirred up the mud!
It's certainly odd that this part of the coast,
While neighbouring Dorset gleams white as a ghost,
Should look like anchovy sauce spread upon toast!
We need not now pause
To find out the cause
Of this variation in natural laws;
But Mr. Pengelly
Can easily tell ye,—
(I think, by the way, that the gentleman said,
'Twas iron or manganese made it so red).

This geological flavour 1 is explicable by RHD Barham's interests:

Richard Harris Dalton Barham, son and biographer of the author of the "Ingoldsby Legends," was born at Westwell, Kent, in the month of October, 1815. He was educated at St. Paul's School and Oxford University, and followed his father, both in the choice of a profession, and as a contributor of mock-heroic stories in verse to Bentley's Magazine. Shortly after leaving Oxford he was presented with the living of Lolworth, near Cambridge, where he resided, until, in 1863, delicate health compelled him to seek a warmer climate, and he retired to Dawlish, where he pursued geological studies.
- page 365, The Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century, Alfred H Miles, 1905 (Internet Archive poetspoetryofnin10mile)

His obituary in The Hampshire Advertiser on May 8th 1886 says that he spent days in searching the cliffs and quarries for fossil madrepores, a collection of which he presented to the town of Dawlish. Returning to the Miles book:

He published, besides the "Life and Letters" of his father (1870), "The Life and Remains" of Theodore Hook (1849), and a novel entitled "A Rubber of Life," [as Dalton Ingoldsby] which was afterwards dramatized for a London Theatre. "The Temptations of St. Anthony" ... is the best known and perhaps the best written of his verse tales, though, like some of his father's "Legends," it suffers from that facility of composition which so often proves fatal to felicity of style. In verse of this class it is so easy to be slovenly that one has frequently to regret spray-footed lines and hump-backed cadences, the more to be deplored that they are found in close proximity to stanzas wholly regular.
The Rev. R. H. Dalton Barham died at Dawlish on the 28th of April, 1886.
- Ibid.

Addendum: I've followed the thread further at the Devon History Society weblog, concerning an episode in the last year of Barham's life, when he gave evidence in the investigation of a fatal accident at a Dawlish beach. See 1885: Dawlish "death trap".

Addendum 2: see also Angela Williams's Literary Places site, which has two posts about Barham: R. H. D. Barham at Dawlish tells of Angela's initally unsuccessful search for his grave at St Gregory's churchyard; and R. H. D. Barham’s grave visits its real location (the guidebook being wrong) in Dawlish cemetery.

1. Though admittedly with a geological error: the part of the coast that "gleams white as a ghost" visible from Dawlish is actually still in Devon. It's the Cretaceous chalk cliffs of Beer Head.

- Ray

Sunday, 9 January 2011


A starling murmuration above the Exe reed beds, Topsham

Murmuration of Starlings

Thousands of voices in a winged parliament, apparently unanimous; they consent together, these flocks of birds. They mount as with one heart and will and purpose, which may be said to be a parable of example to Britain in these urgent days. A whole multitude of starlings will rise into the sky with a surprise of instinctive discipline; they may divide into three or four companies which wheel about only to unite with perfect timing to continue the flight, a thrilling sight to see.

This nice quote comes, surprisingly, as part of advertising copy for Bestobell asbestos products in The Industrial Chemist, November 1945 (the starlings are used as a metaphor for teamwork).

We of Bell's are rather proud of a far-flung organisation based on the United Kingdom and extending through the alphabet from Australia and Argentina to West Africa, from China to Peru as the saying is. (It is a live and active marketing organisation which is ready to be of service to other manufacturers.) But we are very proud of the fact that in every part of the organisation a unanimity of zeal in team-work speeds to serve our multitudinous customers, bringing to them in engineering problems large and small the resources of our skill, experience and research. Starlings have their place in the economy of nature; Bell's in the well-being, efficiency and productivity of industry.

Such coordination seemingly doesn't always work. The excellent Lol Manuscripts blog just annotated a 1622 tract, The Wonderfull Battell of Starelings, reporting how in 1621 in Cork, Ireland, masses of dead and maimed starlings fell from the sky - a spot of Forteana explicable, as far as I can tell, by a collective navigation error leading to two starling flocks crashing head-on.

Starlings exhibit one of the best-known examples of flocking phenomena, when massed animals appear to act as a coherent unit due entirely to nearest-neighbour interactions. (We regularly see these starling flocks over the marshes by the River Exe opposite Topsham). The general dynamics are quite well understood (particularly via the work of Craig Reynolds on "boids" simulations), but the specifics for starlings were recently analysed in more detail by the European STARFLAG (Starlings in Flight) project:

Current computer models assume that each bird interacts with all birds within a certain distance. But the new observations, however, show that each bird keeps under control a fixed number of neighbours - seven other starlings - irrespective of their distance, which is the secret of how they stick together.

"This is very robust and works wherever your neighbours are," says Andrea Cavagna of Italy’s National Institute for the Physics of Matter.

A flock under predator attack may expand dramatically, but birds can regroup very quickly because the cohesion does not depend on the physical distance among starlings, but rather on their ability to interact with a fixed number of neighbours.

- Study of starling formations points way for swarming robots, Roger Highfield, Science News, The Telegraph, 29 Jan 2008

Technical details aside, "murmuration" is an interesting word. From the OED:

1. a. The action of murmuring; the continuous utterance of low, barely audible sounds; complaining, grumbling; an instance of this. Now chiefly literary.
b. Sc. Rumouring; the action of spreading a rumour or rumours. Obs.

2. A flock (of starlings).
One of many alleged group terms found in late Middle English glossarial sources, but not otherwise substantiated.

- Oxford English Dictionary

The reason for the OED's use of "alleged" is elaborated in a landmark paper, Proper Terms: An attempt at a rational explanation of the meanings of the Collection of Phrases in "The Book of St Albans," 1486, entitled "The Compaynys of beestys and fowlys" and similar lists., John Hodgkin, Transactions of the Philological Society 1907-1910 Part III, pp 1 - 187, Kegan, Paul, Trench & Trübner & Co, Ltd, London, 1909.

Hodgkin says of these collective nouns a.k.a. company terms:

In the year 1486 there was printed at St. Albans an extremely interesting book, which for want of any specific title is generally known as " The Book of St. Albans." In that portion in which the Treatise on Hunting is contained there occurs a list which is headed "The Compaynys of beestys and fowlys," and consists of a strange and motley collection of queer expressions, which at first sight are not easily explicable. On reference to such of these terms as are contained in the portions already issued of that monumental work, the New English Dictionary, it is found that where the explanations are given they are generally stated to be 'technical,' ' fanciful,' or 'alleged' terms for a 'company' of this or that, and we are told that these were " artificial terms invented in the fifteenth century as distinctive collectives referring to particular animals or classes of persons"; and it was in order to get at the root of the matter, and settle it once and for all, that the present investigation was undertaken, and I hope to be able to show from the evidence collected that the majority of these arc not company terms, and that there are no solid grounds for supposing them to be such.

This Hodgkin proceeds to do, and finds various errors in attribution: miscopying; texts meant to illustrate other turns of phrase than collectives; terms not substantiated in contemporary dictionaries; and so on. In the case of "murmuration", it appears that its inclusion in sources - "a murmuracion of stares" - was actually intended to list the word for the noise starlings make, not a collective noun for the birds themselves. Hodgkin concludes by describing the process of copying ...

6. That Skinner misunderstood the St. Albans list, imagining that all the phrases contained in it were intended to be company terms, and that in consequence he misinterpreted it; that Handle Holme, followed by Halliwell, still further extended this idea.

7. That Skinner's attempted explanations and definitions are wrong, with the exception of a few accepted company terms, and that the meanings he gives, and in some instances the derivations, are irrational.

The definitions of Skinner and Halliwell seem to have been followed by the [New English Dictionary] which has extended considerably the number of phrases in "The Hors, Shepe, and Ghoos" and "The Book of St. Albans" lists to be interpreted as company terms.

... that enshrined it as a collective. Over most of the word's history, however, there's little evidence of its practical use as one. A glance at Google Books N-gram Viewer and clicking through to book search (see here) finds that in the 19th century the majority of uses of "murmuration" were in the first OED meaning - grumbling/complaining - and that "murmuration of starlings" chiefly occurs in boilerplate repetition of lists of collectives. It's only in the 20th century that it starts making a live appearance in mainstream language, perhaps kicked off by WH Auden.

Inspire them with such a longing as will make his thought
Alive like patterns a murmuration of starlings
Rising in joy over wolds unwittingly weave;
- Look, Stranger!, WH Auden, 1936

If he came, so must she; but she was bored stiff by the whole performance; she felt, and looked, as alien as a bird of paradise in a murmuration of starlings.
- Miss Buncle's book, Dorothy Emily Stevenson, 1937

The clearing ended where a derelict stone building, roofless and black with spreading moss, held back a grove of leafless elms, where a murmuration of starlings was gathered.
- Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake, 1946

The new owners watched as a murmuration of starlings swooped and chattered in the fading sky;
- Mr. Blandings builds his dream house, Eric Hodgins, 1946

For once, the sun took her by surprise. A murmuration of starlings swept up from a wind-swept meadow swinging and shining with morning.
- A Clouded Star, Anne Parrish, 1948

They were brief and simple: Sussex, Oxford, London; birds, water meadows, a London Square where a murmuration of starlings arrived every evening to take possession of the plane trees;
- The greyhound in the leash, Joyce Mary Horner, 1949

Now, "murmuration" makes regular appearance in nature news stories as a practical collective name for the spectacular clouds of starlings seen at dusk before they roost for the night; see, variously, Murmuration of starlings signals that winter is here, Starlings' pier show on display, The mathematics of murmurating starlings, and so on. It's a nice word, and I hope it thrives. But to put in context, "murmuration of starlings" is, and always has been, used considerably less than the more mundane phrase "flock of starlings" (see Google Books N-gram Viewer again).

- Ray

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Traveller's Rest

I was delighted to find a moment ago that the Google Books preview for the 2003 SF anthology The Caltraps of Time (David I Masson, Wildside Press LLC) contains in full one of the SF stories I find most memorable, Traveller's Rest.

As the Independent obituary shows, Masson was an interesting character; like many of the best SF writers, he didn't have a 'techie' background. He was an eminent specialist librarian, a curator of rare books.

Traveller's Rest, set on an alternate Earth where time varies with latitude, could be viewed 'straight' as a tragic story about a soldier living on a world with different rules of physics, or as an allegory for the perception of time of a soldier moving between frenetic combat and the calm of home. Either way, it's excellent.

See Traveller's Rest.

- Ray

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Lonely Road

I suppose this comes under the lurid cover category: the rather vigorous Pan Books cover for Nevil Shute's 1932 Lonely Road, one of his early novels. It's somewhat cross-genre - a thriller, with elements of tragic romance, set against the discovery of a conspiracy:
She was a dance Hostess in a grimy Northern town, a professional partner for lonely men—
He was rich, an ex-Naval Officer and a bachelor—
Linking their fates, a burning lorry that had carried a cargo of guns...
Malcolm Stevenson is a ex-naval officer, a loner haunted by his experiences during the sinking of his Q Ship in World War 1, who runs a small fleet of schooners out of Dartmouth. On a drunken night drive, he stops to stroll down to the seashore near Slapton, and sees a boat being unloaded. He speaks briefly to a young woman, who evidently thinks he's someone else, but is then knocked on the head, and wakes up in hospital to be told he had a motor accident. Pursuing the incident via family and Intelligence contacts, he learns of other associated incidents - particularly the find of a burnt-out lorry containing unbadged guns - that suggest he ran into a gun-running plot. By extreme coincidence, on a visit to Leeds, he befriends Molly Gordon, a young dance hall hostess nicknamed "Sixpence", whose lorry-driver brother has been involved in some shady dealings, and he suspects a connection. He takes her to Devon, initially as a possible information source, but as his investigations proceed, he falls in love with her, while realising that an even deeper conspiracy exists, apparently to land agents in Britain. This leads to an attempt on his life by shooting, which leaves him unscathed but injures Molly and one of his colleagues. Stevenson pursues the perpetrators by boat under worsening sea conditions, and deliberately manoeuvres them into a position where they are wrecked. Returning, he finds Molly severely ill, and she dies of an infection. Later, he confronts the mastermind of the plot - a Professor Ormsby at Cambridge who wishes to rig the British election in favour of the Conservatives - and offers him the choice of exposure or suicide. Ormsby chooses the latter. Stevenson, content with the political outcome at least, returns to work; but, the framing device tells us, goes on to die prematurely at 39 ... perhaps of his war injuries, but (it's implied) more likely of a broken heart.

Shute attempts some innovative writing quite successfully, when in the first chapter Stevenson, on the drunken evening out that leads to his encounter with the smugglers, goes through stream-of-consciousness scene shifts between present and past. In the preface he writes:
The first chapter was quite frankly an experiment, and one which pleases me still. It was a dangerous experiment, however, for a young writer to make in the first pages of a book, for it defeated a good many readers who might have enjoyed the story if they had been able to read on. In spite of this the book did moderately well in this country and in America. In 1936 a film was made from it at the Ealing Studies, starring Clive Brook and Victoria Hopper.
It's also, for location spotters, a novel of Devon interest, especially if you like maritime matters. Unfortunately I've lost the correspondence, but a few years back I discussed with a Nevil Shute enthusiast possible locations for the incident in the first chapter: a bend in the Dartmouth to Slapton Road where pasture leads down to sandhills and the sea. The road and beach profile has almost certainly changed from the time Shute wrote it - pre-WW2 - but somewhere near Strete Gate looks plausible.

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- Ray

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Happi thoughts

Happihumppa by Johanna Juhola Reaktori (Johanna Juhola: accordion, Sara Puljula: double bass, Milla Viljamaa: harmonium, Tuomas Norvio: live electronics)

Via Facebook: the exhilarating Happihumppa ("Oxygen Humppa"), a jazz fusion piece by the Finnish band Johanna Juhola Reaktori (I think it's technically a tango, whch is a bit more clear on listening to the other arrangement in the samples at

I don't know if the title was intended as a bilingual pun on "happi"/"happy" or just for the alliteration, but there's a rich vein of linguistic and cultural interest springing from it. "Humppa" is a Finnish dance music genre whose name derives from German "oompah" band style; it's extremely fast with a strong rhythmic emphasis.  It's probably best known via the spoof band Eläkeläiset ("The Pensioners"), who play deliberately gormless covers of pop, rock and metal classics (well-represented on YouTube). However, humppa isn't necessarily satirical.

If the "Happi" part, the Finnish for "oxygen", seems surprisingly concise and untechnical to English readers, it's because not all languages went down the English route of coining "inkhorn" scientific terms from Latin and Greek. Finnish, particularly following the lead of the philologist Elias Lönnrot, has a modern tradition of coining neologisms from its own Finno-Ugric roots; so while "happi" conveys exactly the same as "oxygen" (which means "acid former") it comes from the Finnish "hapan" (sour) and "happo" (acid). The Finnish for nitrogen, "typpi", similarly came from local roots, deriving from the dialect word "typehtyä" (to choke or smother).  Other such folksy element names are "vety" (hydrogen, dating from 1851 and relating to "vesi" - water) and "pii" (silicon, from "piikivi" - flint).

There are more examples of such technical words in the section on Lönnrot on page 71, History of Finnish Literature, by Jaakko Ahokas. For instance, the Finnish for electricity, "sähkö", was coined in 1845 by Samuel Roos from the verbs "sähähtää" and "säkenöidä" (spit and sparkle). "Tutka" (radar) was coined from the verb "tutkia" (to investigate) by the linguist Lauri Hakulinen, who also coined "muovi" (plastic) from "muovata" (to mould).

It's quite interesting that Lönnrot was the exact equivalent of English commentators, notably William Barnes - see Ansible ... and Anglish - who wanted English to be derived from its Germanic roots. German itself went to some extent down the same path as Finnish: nitrogen is "Stickstoff" - stifling stuff - and oxygen "Sauerstoff" - sour/acid stuff. But it's probably significant that the German and Finnish coinings happened when these countries were in the process of forging a separate national identity, which wasn't happening for Britain at the time when chemical names were being invented. Poul Anderson's essay "Uncleftish Beholding" ("Atomic Theory") has some very nice Anglo-Saxon terms we could have had, such as "waterstuff" for hydrogen, "sunstuff" for helium, "sourstuff" for oxygen, "coalstuff" for carbon, "chokestuff" for nitrogen ... and up to heavy elements named after Norse rather than Greek and Roman gods: "ymirstuff" (uranium), "aegirstuff" (neptunium) and "helstuff" (plutonium).

- Ray

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Necropolis Railway revisited

Worth watching, if you're in the UK: the second series of the BBC2 documentary series Great British Railway Journeys (see the list of upcoming episodes).

Today's episode - Waterloo to Canary Wharf - was fun: presenter Michael Portillo interviewed the author Andrew Martin on the Brookwood Necropolis Railway (nicknamed by railway workers "the Stiffs' express") that ran funeral trains from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery until the terminus was bombed in 1941. It's central to one of Martin's London-based crime novels, The Necropolis Railway - see the 2002 Guardian review. The episode further explores London's railway heritage - from the great 19th shopping centre of the West End to the now-largely-defunct docks - via Bradshaw. It's available on BBC iPlayer for 17 days from now.

Of interest, the Leisure Hour magazine (page 346, Volume 5, 1856) has a brief contemporary account of the workings of the Necropolis Company, which was established in 1854 to provide out-of-city burials to alleviate pressure on London's overcrowded cemeteries.

Cognizant of, and recognising these enlightened principles ; fully aware that unless the question of extramural burial for a vast metropolis like London were taken upon the basis of a wide generalization, ultimate failure must ensue; the Necropolis Company bound itself most liberally in its act of incorporation, to single interments in each grave; it selected and purchased a vast extent, namely, two thousand one hundred acres of valuable and most appropriate land, at such a distance from town as combined accessibility with due remoteness; it organized an inclusive plan of burial charges, optional as to adoption, but enormously reducing cost; it issued a scale of tariffs suitable to the means of all classes; it made arrangements with the South-Westerri Railway Company for the conveyance of the dead to the outskirts of its Cemetery; it erected a special station entirely for its own use in the Westminster Road; and, at the close of 1854, the Cemetery was consecrated and brought into use.

An archway of variegated brickwork lends from the Westminster Road into the station of the Necropolis Company. It was built from a design of Sir William Cubitt, and the shafts and curve of the light Norman arch brings to mind a similar one of great beauty in the choir of St. Bartholomcw-the-Great in Smithfield. From thence the narrow roadway, descending for some space between high walls, or rather sides of buildings on either side, brings hearses, carriages, and those on foot, on to the wide pavement of the station. This occupies one side only, the other being bound by the lofty buildings of the Westminster Bridge station of the South-Wcstern Railway. Across this pavement, which is as scrupulously bright and clean as a cathedral floor, the dead are lifted from their respective hearses into the seclusion of places purposely provided; and the vehicles drive on to the gate of exit at the further end. On to this pavement, or platform, many office windows look, some of them made cheerful by bright-flowered plants. On this level are the range of third class waitingrooms, well and appropriately furnished. A massive and handsome staircase of stone leads to the next floor, which is devoted to the use of second class funerals; it thence ascends to the third floor, level with the railway platform, and on which fie the first class reception and waiting-rooms. With the most trifling difference, the various class rooms aro furnished precisely alike: to the honour of the Necropolis Company, it has been the first to strip the necessary ceremonies annexed to death and the grave of an invidious distinction of rank. There is the same privacy, the same quietude, the same respect for poor as well as rich. The remains of "the weak and lowly " are honoured as well as those who, in the beautiful words of old Sir Thomas Browne, " are pompous even in the grave."

If the sun be shining, it pours down through the lofty glass roof; it lies upon the wide and spotless pavement; it lights the pleasant windows of rooms and offices; it rests on planks and flowers upon the window-ledges; it casts no shadow on the massive tender, waiting to convey the dead: nor on carriages that may convey the most touchingand profound of human grief.

The dead are received at the Necropolis Station the night.previous to interment, but for no longer period. The Company intended otherwise. It proposed to bring into force, as far as a public body might, advantages similar to those belonging to the German reception-houses; but the intention met with parochial opposition, and Bo for the present it rests. But ultimately there is little fear that this and other advances will rise superior to the objections of prejudice and unreflecting affection. The coffins are conveyed by a steam-lift to the second and upper floors, according to the class of funeral; ultimately all are conveyed to the level of the railway by the same process. Then, with the utmost privacy and dispatch, the massive tender receives its load, each coffin having a distinct and separate compartment; the steam and other carriages arc attached, the whole go slowly a little way, till out of the precincts of the Necropolis Company; they then reach the line of the South-Western Railway, are attached to an express train, and are off with the speed of the winds.

Google Books has a few dozen more accounts from the same period shortly after the railway's launch: an especially complete one is The After City: a visit to the London Necropolis in The Ladies' Companion and Monthly Magazine, Volume IX, 1856.

See also: Trains in Literature, where I briefly mentioned the topic a couple of years back.

- Ray

Monday, 3 January 2011

"A Plea for the Silence of the Novelist"

More from Maxwell Gray. In 1902, a number of newpapers reported her as saying that it wouldn't matter much if no more novels were written for the next fifty years.

"People write too many novels now, and they write hastily and badly ... Novel-writing has become a trade; it is no longer an art. Writers ought not to live by literature. It should be a staff, not a crutch. The moment an art is pursued for gain, it is lost".

- Literary Notes, Otago Witness, Issue 2515, 28 May 1902, Page 66

She probably should have let that lie, but she nevertheless expanded on the comment later in 1902 in an extended article in the weekly American periodical Littell's Living Age - an astonishing rant whose targets include bad novels, cheap periodicals, writers who write for money, bad proofing and printing, sex in fiction, the vulgarity of the reading public, the educational system, steam power, advertisements, people who write novels too young, and the weaker works of famous novelists. Oh, and she thinks "the great Boer War a lesson to the world in gentleness, magnanimity and self-restraint, and an era in human progress".

A Plea for the Silence of the Novelist

Once I said in my haste, following an august example, that it would be a matter of small moment if no more novels were written for the next fifty years. On leisurely reflection I am inclined to endorse that opinion, though half a century appears an excessive term of silence to impose upon our vast army of Scheherazades, many of whom, like the Arabian story-teller, tax their powers of invention and stimulate their flagging energies to the utmost to gain respite, if not actually from death—by starvation—at least from financial dissolution. But no more novels, say for twenty years, during which a generation might be reared with a taste for something nobler than novels, or at all events for the fine works of fiction that already exist and are so seldom read; or even for ten or five years, what a boon that might be!

It is not that all the tales have been told; they had all been told many times over long before letters were invented. They always will be told in some form or other in prose or in verse, in speech or in writing, till the end of time, and they will always, these same old tales, be pleasant to tell and pleasant to hear till the end of time, because they tell of things that can never grow old, of the relation of man to man, and of the relation of man to the seen and to the unseen that surrounds and moulds him. Also of the relation of man to his time, for, though you will say times change, yet man's relation to his time is constant. But surely man changes? Man never changes; he takes polish and mould, but continues the same forever; the elementary passions are inalterable; every subtlest, most exalted emotion of which we are capable is based upon them. But manners change? Aye, truly, but effect no alteration in the eternal human; they are but lines fretted upon durable stone or letters cut in beech rind, leaving the rock or tree beneath as before. Still, this perpetual changing pageant of manners is among the most variety-giving elements in the novelist's material, and the nice adjustment of the eternal human to his casual environment makes no small part of the literary craftsman's skill.

No; the tales may be told and re-told from every point of view and in every variety of detail and amplification, with every embroidery of thought and fancy and manifold beauty of setting, and never fail to charm, nor, if rightly told, to edify and instruct; though amusement and not edification is the novelist's proper aim.

A good fiction writer must have a specially organized brain, of which in the nature of things there can be but few; yet our tale-writers are innumerable. And, while the most gifted do their art injustice by hasty and therefore crude production, the Press teems with novelettes, newspaper-corner serials made by the yard, and magazine stories with nothing to recommend them beyond a knack of putting together what arrests the flaccid attention of vacuous and brainless indolence, unable to endure a second without external diversion from inward monotony. It is weariness to think of these productions; the sight ot the empty stuff piled on railway bookstalls produces moral and mental nausea. Some of the cheap periodicals fluttering on the stalls consist entirely of short stories, rarely enlivened by a spark of wit, a gleam of fancy, a glow of humor or a touch of life. The same may be said of many six-shilling and three-aud-sixpenny novels turned off at the rate of three or four a year, made to sell and for nothing else. Some of these are very clever, many give token of much undeveloped power stifled by haste. Many show considerable knowledge, though rarely of human character; others display a smart style, a ready buffoonery, or a pert flippancy in touching subjects that should only be approached with reverence and delicacy, which passes for wit and humor; while others, clever in a way and always fluent, win favor by sheer vulgarity and indecency. It must be confessed that a large proportion of this great flood of novels are well put together; they show a technical skill which accentuates their inherent want of vitality. They give token of special training. Lessons in the art of writing fiction are actually given to literary aspirants by professors, who make a living, or at least turn an honest penny, by this singular trade. It was a sad moment for literature when the notion that novel-writing was a lucrative craft first got about, thanks partly to papers by James Payn, suggesting the training of average middle-class youth for this simple, inexpensive and well-paid profession; partly to the genial and. large-hearted Sir Walter Besant, who never tired of representing the literary profession, and especially fiction, as a profession, like any other, to be learnt and practised as an exclusive means of gaining a livelihood by the moderately endowed, such as swell the lower ranks of the medical, legal, and clerical professions. A man with no marked aptitude for his special profession and of general ability even beneath the average, may still be a respectable and useful lawyer, doctor, soldier, or clergyman, great numbers of which are needed to carry on the ordinary affairs of life, though exceptional power and even genius is requisite in the higher walks of these vocations. But, while the rank and file of most callings can do very well with industry, training, and moderate intelligence, no one wants a mediocre novel, poem, or picture; unlike the hard-working doctor in a difficulty, the hard-working novel-writer cannot call in a recognized head of the profession to disentangle a plot, supply a true conception of character, or give sparkle and music to a dull and dragging style. And a feeble novel is a serious evil.

No one should be trained to write novels and nothing else; the best training for a novelist, after the school of life, is the exercise of some other profession, and of course such knowledge of literature as is included in what is called a liberal education, the more of such knowledge the better. Nor should any write fiction in cold blood or of set purpose as a toil or task, for joy is necessary to artistic creation, but only when impelled by some strong inward compulsion, when he has characters to depict, a story to tell, or the need of disburdening himself of some message or imparting some irresistible gaiety concealed in the story. It is said that but for the need of money few would write, paint, sing, or act at all. Rather it seems that a strong bent to any art or craft creates a necessity for its active exercise that flags with time, more or less according to individual temperament, and is quickened by the stimulus of material and other rewards such as fall to the successful artist. When the stimulus is too keen and jaded or out-worked powers are spurred to over-activity by actual need of money for the day's wants—as is usually the case when literature is the only source of income— the work must be poor, the artist's talent enfeebled and his genius gradually atrophied. That spontaneity is a first condition of artistic creation, and that fine imaginative work can only be produced in an atmosphere of freedom and mental repose, is well known.

Still greater is the deterioration of art when pursued for gain. Money for its own sake, to furnish luxury and gratify pride, is a venomous thing; nothing corrodes so surely and debases so effectually. When a man sets himself to build up a fortune by honest commercial or industrial enterprise, he does no ill tiling, providing that he plays the game fairly. He uses special powers to the end to which they are fitted and benefits mankind as he goes; his joy is not so much in possessing wealth, which he may apply to noble and unselfish ends, as in playing a skilful and exciting game and exercising conscious powers of no mean order; It is well for the community that wealth should be produced; it is his part; his delight is in doing it well. Though even commerce with no end but gain is corrupting.

But when an artist, whose part is to minister to man's higher nature; to reveal the beauty of the visible world and of the relations between man and man and to trace out the hidden springs of action; and, in the novelist's case, to furnish wholesome amusement through the medium of imagination, fancy, emotion, and reflection; to turn fine pointed satire upon human folly; to create heart-easing mirth by a genial presentment of sudden incongruities of character, circumstance, incident, and conduct; to inspire high aims, pure ideals and noble emotion; to widen our sympathies and enlarge our charity; to create living human characters and represent them in action not too much above or too much below reality, too commonplace or too elevated, and by the power of art to present a just and accurate, though never literal, picture of human life as it is, has been, or might be—when one so charged with high and sweet responsibility sets up gain as the first enki of art, it Is a kind of simony and the work must deteriorate. Of course fiction may furnish unwholesome amusement and evil mirth, inspire vile ambitions, ignoble ideals and base emotions, narrow our sympathies and destroy our charity, and yet present a fairly accurate picture of human life and character; but the picture will never be complete, the wit and humor never quite honest, the life and character necessarily one-sided; the writer's art and genius will be lessened and weakened by his moral limitations. Because all things evil tend to death and all things good are In the direction of vitality; because the main tendency of human life and character Is right and noble, and because It is against human nature in the main to love what is morally bad and degrading. For God certainly made the world and he made man in his own image.

Yet he who ministers at the altar should live by the altar. Truly; and the loaves and fishes were ungrudgingly distributed: but those who came for the sake of them were sternly rebuked.

Some of the best work in the world is done gratuitously; roughly speaking, all political and public work in Englaud is unpaid. Nor can such emoluments as fall to the lot of public men ever be a main object with those who take office. A considerable part of every medical man's work is gratuitous; pay is not what attracts men to the two Services; those who devote themselves to the higher walks of literature, to philosophy, to scholarship, and to scientific research know well that in doing so they turn their backs upon wealth. On the other hand many fine intellects are lost to science, philosophy, learning, and literature, as well as to the arts, by the obligation of a bread-earning profession. No doubt these callings might be adequately endowed by the richest nation upon earth. And why should not fiction be endowed?

Broadly stated, the present overflow of fiction is characterized by clever mechanism and mediocrity, facility of execution and poverty of mutter, the natural result of inadequately gifted writers taking fiction as a lucrative career; a rarer characteristic is excellent material crudely worked out, leaving great possibilities of character and situation undeveloped, the equally natural result of haste. Everybody knows how to write novels in these days but nobody can. In the same way everybody can paint pictures yet nobody does—or next to nobody. For writers must keep abreast of the tide; nobody has time to read what few have time to write. Even printing is now too hurried to be accurate. Authors beg to be allowed to correct their work and often in vain. Such trifles as unverified quotations, punctuation throwing whole periods out of meaning, lines inserted in wrong order, words transposed, false spelling, the endless array of compositor's blunders and emendations worse than blunders, nre nothing to the man in the train, the woman on the pier, the boy in tbe baker's cart. Really fine works sometimes bristle with misprints rarely noticed by reviewers. The unkempt disarray of the reading vulgar seems to reflect itself upon works of power and distinction and the dignity hitherto associated with literature to be falling into the general decadence of the period.

Another note of hurried fiction and one still more significant of intellectual decay and degraded taste, is a lack of reticence concerning all that portion of our animal life upon which civilized intercourse agrees to be, except under grave necessity, entirely silent, a silence stricter and more characteristic of Teutonic than of Latin races and literatures, and most of all characteristic of our own.

It is not easy to account for the present undoubted vogue for what is so foreign to English character and taste. No doubt there is a corresponding laxity of morals Just now in some classes, but not enough laxity to be an adequate cause. After all, it is a question of taste, more than of morals, and agrees with the decline of dignity and reverence and the free and easy, uncourteous manners that rob social intercourse of charm and life of beauty in these democratic days. This taint, insensibly growing upon us all and lowering all our standards, in morals as well as in taste, together with other notes of the intellectual decadence of the agelove of ugliness and horror, and delight in all that degrades and is painful, absurdly called realism; as if nothing can be real that is not revolting or natural but dirt—this taint, it may be hoped, will not permanently stain our literature. In part a recoil from early Victorian prudery, it may be greatly due to excessive production: straining after what is new and startling, and then after what is newer and more startling, is inevitable and perhaps unconscious in the effort to attract attention in such a crowd. "The most daring writer of the day," Is a selling epithet; "grapples with the problem of sex," another. As if sex were the newest modern discovery and had not discomfited Adam long before it put up the sale of the last novel. People will soon be tired, if not incapable, of being shocked by anything, but not before many minds have been indelibly stained and filled with ugliness and many lives made less tolerable than they might have been.

Yet realism, vulgarity, and everything that is third-rate in thought and style and subject, in all that is essential to art, will always attract the majority of readers, because in days of cheap education and cheap reading matter the majority will consist of the uncultured and unthinking, of those whose mental powers are atrophied by disuse or mechanical (not manual) toil and monotonous occupations, and of those who are just cultured enough to set some value upon letters and intellectual gifts, without being able to follow or grasp their measure; of such as read papers full of incoherent snippings from every writer under the sun and often almost meaningless without the context, under the impression that they are nourishing and training their minds. We all know what the populace loves in drama and music, and how insensible to beauty the masses appear to be, also what a perennial charm they find in vulgarity. It is doubtful if an education that can, by the necessity of things, go little farther than teaching to read print and manuscript, to reckon, and to write, is a benefit; it unquestionably creates a demand for literature that is not literature.

A far better education might be given without reading or writing by committing orally to children's memories passages of the Bible and Shakespeare and Milton and ballad poetry, and in like manner teaching history and things that bear upon practical life. Then, if the use of steam, except in simple domestic matters, could be suddenly and irrecoverably forgotten by the whole human race, and all but very simple machinery made useless— but this, perhaps, is Utopian.

Still, the charm of a world undefiled by advertisements, except the necessary and picturesque signs—like the bush over the wine-shop—suitable to unlettered, but not unintelligent, working people, and unvexed by the yell of the newspaper fiend, the peace of it! In sober earnest, knowledge gained more from observation and bodily experience, from the seen, the touched, the heard, and less from printed books and chalked blackboards, would tend to a far completer mental and physical development of children, especially of those of hand- and body-workers. Mind and body would act and re-act more harmoniously one on the other, brain and muscle would be better balanced; the long superiority of the clerk or penworker over the hand- and body-worker would disappear. The craftsman would approach the artist's level, the anaemic book student, half blind and ignorant of all that concerns the art of living, be known no more. Reading and writing, instead of being the earliest, might well be later rungs in the ladder of learning.

For the chief perceptible result of general primary education is a generation of ignorant and unthinking people, to whom the power of deciphering printed words is a doubtful boon. On the other hand, we have in the field a great army, every man in the ranks of which can read and write, an army of men whose abstention from every kind of excess and violence, hitherto deemed inevitable accompaniments to war and whose humanity and self-restraint under difficult circumstances, besides filling all thinking minds with amazement and admiration, have helped to make the great Boer War a lesson to the world in gentleness, magnanimity and self-restraint, and an era in human progress. Many other causes, the greater care now given to the soldier's moral and physical welfare, the superior class from which he is drawn and the possibility the veldt affords of keeping drink from him, may be assigned for this; but the fact that he can read and write must not be ignored. For must we be too severe upon the scant benefit the civilian populace derives from reading, when we remember the splendid qualities of our reading and writing soldiers, who are at the present moment cheerily laying down their lives and facing every species of suffering and privation for us. But in addition to their mastery of the alphabet soldiers enjoy the great advantages of discipline and physical training.

In the event of this hastily desired temporary silence of the novelist becoming a reality, the novel manufacturer would probably disappear and betake himself to more remunerative trades, while the creator of character, the master of style, the builder of wellbalanced story and harmoniously linked incident, the true magician, under whose subtly woven spells enchanted palaces and gardens of exquisite delight arise unbidden —that is to say the maker or inventor as distinguished from the manufacturer—would take breath and recover waning strength after undue toil. No longer forced, his conceptions would mature silently, his humor mellow, his wit brighten, his imagination recover elasticity and strength of wing. The pageant of life, whether in tragic robe or comic mask, would unfold itself before eyes at leisure to observe and enjoy, and. preserved in memory, would silently impregnate brains that in due time would unconsciously reproduce the slowly developed pictures. There would lie leisure not only to study but to assimilate the life of the past and of other countries and classes, time to enrich overwrought minds by learning and meditation. Even the reviewer might be made something of. Relieved from the necessity of noticing ten novels a day in paragraphs of three lines each, he might be introduced to classic works of fiction and instructed in the elements of literature and first principles of criticism. People with views might convey them to mankind by some more suitable channel than that of fiction, the present conduit for everything, and this would be equally good for the views and the fiction. Readers would have time to discriminate and select from the enormous mass already before them, and many of the best works, at present hurried through or altogether passed over in the headlong gallop down the serried ranks of fresh publications now necessary, might emerge from undeserved and undesirable obscurity. The newly risen generation might be introduced to the immortals: to Scott, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Charlotte Bronte. George Eliot, all of whom, it is said, are strange to the young goddesses who cycle and play hockey and tennis and wear such an astonishing variety of hats and gowns, and to the young mortals, cigarette in mouth, who earn opprobrious epithets at wickets and goals, many hurts at polo and much satisfaction on golf-links, and who wear hats and coats of no variety at all. Even poetry might once more form part of the reading of the better educated classes in the vast spaces of leisure created by a few years suspension of novel-writing, and in that case poetry might once more be produced by some "mute, inglorious" Tennysons and Keats, now keenly aware that little but preciosity, brutality, slang, and doggerel charms the public. The young novelist of the future, instead of hurrying, crude, and unteinpered, into print and stereotyping his worst points and cheapest effects because they best please the unlettered masses, might store his mind, train his powers of expression and mature his conceptions during that blessed truce to production, trying his 'prentice hand on works which in a few years he would gladly burn instead of delivering to the eternal damnation of print. Really fine novels are seldom written in youth. From thirty to fifty is the age at which most of the masterpieces of fiction have been produced, an age when intellect has been matured, experience grown and observation developed, and before imagination has weakened or feeling grown cold. It is true that the finest words of Dickens are youthful productions; but Dickens is not so much a great novelist as a great humorist and master of fanciful grotesque. Nor have the greatest writers of fiction been prolific: Dickens, yes; but the later, out-written Dickens to the earlier is as lees to sparkling wine. Thackeray's really fine works are quickly counted; Lovell the Widower and the Adventures of Philip might be spared. How few are George Eliot's at her best, how few the whole of Hawthorne's! After the collapse of many trashy magazines, the greatest good in the proposed silence might be the abatement, even extinction, of over-advertisement. That dishonest commercial trick, the boom, can only be applied successfully to work devoid of distinction; an element of commonness is essential to please readers only educated enough to like to think they are thinking and easily persuaded that they are. And while the boom almost forces such work upon the reading masses, it pushes true literature out of sight of the saving remnant; thus, puffing and booming, together with cheap and inferior magazines, have killed the idea of literature in average minds. But verbose commonplace and cheap effect might no longer content readers fed upon ripe fruits of genius, and neither perpetually importuned to swell prodigies of gigantic circulation nor tempted to dissolve' their intelligence in endless scraps of anecdote and startle their lethargic imaginations by prurient and realistic detail. There might be a literary renascence in England: and even reading would become a means of education if it gave the power of enjoying literature.

But in the event of such a silence, how would poor Scheherazade keep alive, or is there any Fund for the Support of Silent Novelists?

- Maxwell Gray, The Living Age, page 705, No. 3024, June 21 1902

It's hard to imagine the jaundiced frame of mind that led to that piece: MG was not a happy bunny.

- Ray

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Grace Dorrien: any relation?

Just an idle observation concerning the heroine of The House of Hidden Treasure: its heroine's name, Grace Dorrien, appears elsewhere in literature.

While Googling, I ran firstly into Tait's Edinburgh Magazine for 1856, which features a serialised story, Grace Dorrien: a tale. This rather wordy romance involves Grace, a pretty and pious young woman, who rejects a suitor, George Lambe, after her father goes unbalanced and takes against George following the death of Grace's little brother. At church, she meets and marries another man, Mr Keith. A year later, her father recovers his senses and wishes to apologise to George, but they go to his house and find he has pined to death, leaving Grace a guilt-tripping note.  Grace realises that she loved him, and ends the story sadder and wiser. (The story seems in part a vehicle for the uncredited author's religious views, particularly in its hostile descriptions of the services and procedures in Independent Chapels).

Then there's the Grace Dorrien who appears in Duffield Osborne's The Wisdom of the Serpent, which appeared in Harper's Magazine, Volume CIII, No. 614, 1901. It's a rather nice story of US society social games, in which a society Queen Bee, Mrs Van Santvoord - who disdains ordinary social traditions as "the wisdom of the serpent" - attempts to engineer a match between Tom Kennicott and Mabel Strange. Mabel has refused Tom, so Mrs Van Santvoord advises him to court the flirty and inconstant Grace Dorrien to engage Mabel's jealousy. It goes entirely counter to plan, as Tom and Grace become a genuine item and marry happily. "The wisdom of the serpent" proves more powerful than Mrs Van Santvoord's schemes.

Given there's such a vast information space in English literature, these three Grace Dorriens may be coincidental, but it is such an unusual name that I'd love to know for sure if there was any conscious or subconscious borrowing of the name from the 1856 tale to Maxwell Gray's 1898 novel and Osborne's 1901 story.

Google Books finds, incidentally, a real-life Grace Dorrien in 1811, among subscribing members of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. The surname, though very rare, did have its profile increased by Julia Kavanagh's 1875 novel John Dorrien.

- Ray

Saturday, 1 January 2011

The House of Hidden Treasure

Continuing my project to read the works of Maxwell Gray, I read her 1898 novel The House of Hidden Treasure over the holiday. A three-volume novel running to 375 pages, it's a tragic family saga spanning the second half og the 19th century and following the life of Grace Dorrien, a woman with well-connected origins whose life and fortune are blighted by family problems, and who achieves wealth too late too enjoy it.

Volume 1 of the book begins with a prologue set in "A.D. 186-" when Maurice Bertram, a boy of 7 holidaying in "Barling" (a fictionalised Brading) is thrown by his boisterous cousins into the doorway of "The Old House" and gets a bump on the head which is tended by the occupants, Miss Grace Dorrien and her mother Mrs Dorrien. Staying in the house, he is fascinated by Grace and her stories, and is disappointed to leave.

The action then shifts to "A.D. 185-" and Harwin Hall, somewhere in the north of England, where the immensely rich Sir Geoffrey Harbord is fulminating to his nephew and heir, Brinson Hythe. Sir Geoffrey has no reliable line of succession: Hythe's marriage has produced a sickly baby, Reginald, and an effete, mentally subnormal, poetry-spouting "changeling" called Pippin 1. He has disownered his real heir, his daughter Carrie (Grace's mother Caroline) for eloping to marry the soldier Clarence Darrien, and won't reconcile against Hythe's repeated advice.

Meanwhile, Grace is 19 and something of an embarrassment to her parents, Caroline and Colonel Dorrien, and has been variously nicknamed "Disgrace", "Scapegrace" and "Jack Dorrien" for her laddish behaviour (which includes earning money by dressing as a Spanish peasant and serenading passers-by outside the house). Her mother disapproves, but her delicate sister Laura admires her and her father is generally indulgent. When the family members take a holiday separately, he encourages her in her plan to visit her grandfather Sir Geoffrey.

With her faithful Scottish nurse Mursell, Grace goes to the Lake District and turns up unannounced at Hardwin Hall. Brinson Hythe refuses her entrance with the lie that Sir Geoffrey is out of the country. However, she doesn't believe him, and two days later returns to the house via the garden, where she encounters Sir Geoffrey and introduces herself. He is initially angry, but he's impressed by her audacity and charm, and invites her to stay. Hythe is not happy but remains polite. However, a series of unfortunate events befall Grace: first the simpleton Pippin shoots at her in the woods, then her rowing boat sinks due to a sawn-through plank. She suspects Hythe to be behind these attempts on her life, but nevertheless stays on, and even raises with Sir Geoffrey the prospect of her inheritance. Before this discussion can continue, she is called home by a telegram from her mother saying that Laura is very ill.

Laura isn't seriously ill, but the telegram was mainly intended to get Grace home. Her visit has repercussions both at Hardwin Hall, where Hythe is blackening her character to Sir Geoffrey, and at home with her mother's criticism of her general attitude to life.

A year later finds the family at Mentone, when Laura and the still-ill Grace are introduced to Mark Hilton, a young captain recovering from wounds received at the Siege of Lucknow (dating this segment early in 1858). At first they nickhame him "the Shadow" and "the Disenchantment" but he proves pleasant company as his health improves. On a trip to Monte Carlo, Grace dabbles in roulette, experiencing a bout of gambling fever that horrifies even her father, who has a similar weakness. Grace is attracted to Mark, but believes he is more interested in Laura, and they all go their separate ways.

Meanwhile, Hythe, who was also in Monte Carlo, uses the gambling episode as further ammunition to estrange Sir Geoffrey, as well as withholding Grace's letter to him. As a result, when Grace sends Sir Geoffrey a note on sighting him in London, she is despondent to get a deeply hostile reply. Shortly Grace comes of age, and her parents, with evident emotion, give her some documents to countersign in Double Indemnity fashion. Not long after, Colonel Dorrien dies in Calais, having been stabbed in a duel fought over accusations that he cheated at cards. Caroline Dorrien sends a letter to Sir Geoffrey begging his forgiveness: this too Hythe destroys.

Volume 2 begins with Grace, Laura and Mrs Dorrien arriving at Barling; a charitable relative, Lord Wotton, has offered them tenancy of The Old House. They are in poverty, it having been explained to Grace what documents she signed: Colonel Dorrien had tricked her into signing away much of her inheritance from his side of the family, in order to clear his debts. They settle in, accustoming themselves to the slow pace of life in the drowsy Barling.  Grace - who has realised that Mark loves her, not Laura - continues to think about him, though he can't yet come home to England.  A young naval officer on leave, Raymond Garenne, helps them renovate the house and becomes attracted to Laura, despite the news that she is dying of tuberculosis.

Sir Geoffrey, further goaded by Hythe, has a stroke.  Laura's decline continues; and Grace, motivated by responsibility for her, refuses Mark's offer of marriage (due to his successful career in India, she would have to join him). This gesture proves futile when Laura elopes with Garenne.  Her  mother Caroline laments her as dead. Meanwhile Sir Geoffrey has realised that Hythe is intercepting his letters, and hands his servant a note before dying.

Volume 3, set in "A.D. 188- - 189-", finds Maurice Bertram, now a young physician working in nearby St Ann's, returning to visit The Old House, where he is captivated by Grace (remembering her as the sole offerer of kindness in his abused childhood) and sad to see the apparently deluded state of her mother Caroline.  The latter, however, is relieved by the visit of Sir Geoffrey's servant, conveying the news that he forgave Caroline on his deathbed; she recovers her lucidity.

Grace and Mursell discuss various schemes to relieve their poverty, including Grace's failed attempt to become a writer, and a more successful line in selling produce from the garden. Time passes: Laura dies; Grace's mother dies; and Grace reads that Mark is now the venerable Lord Hilton of Khayala.  Then one day, she receives a solicitors' letter announcing that, Brinson Hythe having died intestate and predeceased by his sons, she has inherited the entire Harbord fortune. She is one of the richest women in England. She curses the wealth that so poisoned her family's relationships, and declares to Lord Wotton (the only other person to know of the inheritance) that she won't accept it.

The Barling folk, intrigued by the enigmatic Miss Dorrien, begin to introduce her to their social circuit, where she makes a friend of a young woman called Margery (who seems strangely familiar to Grace, which is because she's Mark's daughter by his late wife). The increasingly successful Maurice Bertram declares his love for Grace, but she rejects him on grounds of age difference (he is 28, and she is 51) and brokers his marriage to Margery. Barling and its surroundings start to receive unnaccountable acts of philanthropy: funding for a clinic for Maurice, a convalescent home, a new pony for a carter whose old one died, and so on.

Grace becomes ill; Lord Hilton is sent for, and arrives just in time, so that she dies happy.  At her funeral, she is revealed as Barling's anonymous benefactor. The now-married Margery and Maurice are bequeathed The Old House and a large fortune; to them and Lord Hilton it remains a lasting remembrance of her.

This is a sprawling novel that ideally ought to come with a family tree; MG has a bit of a 'teaser' approach to introducing characters, bringing them in one first-name terms then only later revealing the surnames that place them in context. I found The House of Hidden Treasure variable in quality - realistic story and insightful characterisation sitting alongside silly plot devices like Hythe's assassination attempts and Hilton's nick-of-time arrrival - but I found it overall very moving.  This is chiefly because it's hard not to see a very unhappy Maxwell Gray behind the story, right from the introduction with its jaundiced authorial view of the end of the 19th century ...

... this very day—this very enlightened, hypercivilised day at the close of the century, a day so perfectly informed, so thoroughly schooled, as to have lost faith in virtue, honour, and truth; in decency, authority, and government; so surfeited with fairy tales of science, and rich in the long result of time, as to believe in nothing—save only steam, bacteria, natural selection, natural appetites, money, and ghosts.

... via its equally bleak description of writing as a profession ...

So Grace commenced author. For the next ten or fifteen years her handwriting embellished the waste-paper baskets of many editors, and distressed the sight of many publishers' readers. Some poems found their way into print, but she never saw them. Once a sketch of village life was printed in a magazine that went bankrupt, and paid nothing. Once she received a guinea for a spirited story of five thousand words; once she had ten shillings for a descriptive essay. But she reaped a rich harvest of bitter disappointment, and sickening heartache, of hope long deferred and foiled at last; and suffered much weariness of brain and hand from labour that profited nothing.

There is much pain and weariness and disappointment, and there are many wearing and exhausting occupations in this work-a-day world; but there is nothing that crushes life from the heart and health from the body, like writing on without success. Efficiency in all other crafts and trades can to some extent be gauged; but there is no standard by which unpublished literary work can be measured, while the one person who sees it, is the least capable of appraising it. So at last Grace Dorrien gave up the profession of author.

... to the overall resemblance of Grace's situation to that of Maxwell Gray (at the end of the book the ailing Grace is much the same age as MG when she wrote it). MG was at the peak of her fame as an author (see Google Books N-gram Viewer) and solvent enough to have moved to fashionable Richmond; but well into middle age and crippled by chronic illness.

Geographically,  The House of Hidden Treasure is partially an Isle of Wight novel; its Barling has detailed descriptions matching Brading, along with other locations in MG's fairly consistent mythos (such as Newport as "Oldport", Sandown as "Sandyknowe", and St Helens as "St Ann's").  There's no house matching the location of "The Old House", which is said to be directly opposite the Bugle (a real inn in Brading), although its appearance and age match the Tudor building nearby.  Hardwin Hall's location isn't clear: various descriptions place it as "on the way to Keswick" from the south, on land with woods and fields on the west coast of England in sight of the sea from its turret, with Kendal as the railway station, and ten miles' ride from a country town with a cathedral (which can only fit Lancaster).  If I had to make a guess, I'd say it was modelled on Levens Hall in south Cumbria. The French health resort of Menton - another regular venue in MG novels - also makes an appearance, under its old name of Mentone

The House of Hidden Treasure is on the Internet Archive (ID househiddentrea00graygoog).

1. Think Basil Fotherington-Thomas in the Molesworth series. I imagine Sir Geoffrey to resemble Finis Everglot.

- Ray