Sunday, 27 February 2011

"It was a dark and stormy night"

As explained at Wikipedia - It was a dark and stormy night - the opening paragraph of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel Paul Clifford is generally considered the nadir of purple prose.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

However, having just read part of Maxwell Gray's 1899 story collection The World's Mercy, I have to conclude Bulwer-Lytton to be an amateur at the genre. Here are the intros to a couple of the stories:

The night was stormy ; a wan moon rode through masses of black and gold, swift-sailing cloud, through lakes of clear blue space and threads of opal and silver film, thus producing a wildly beautiful and impressive series of sky pictures. Now and again the dim wet streets were swept empty and dark by a scud of rain, then as suddenly flooded by clear, pale moonlight, when the wet flags and streaming runnels became a dazzling silver brilliance, making the light from houses appear duller and dimmer than before.
- An Old Song, from The World's Mercy

A bitter wind swept the dim-lighted street, along which a few stragglers passed with bent heads and swift steps, and through which wheels rattled drily at intervals. It shook windows in sudden gusts; it rose from time to time to howl savagely round the house, and died down in groans and mutterings of impotent rage. Stars glittered with fiery brilliance in a steel-blue sky that seemed to shudder in the fierce blast; trees shivered and moaned in the bear [sic] garden.
- The World's Mercy, from The World's Mercy

The World's Mercy comprises some rather odd stories; the title story in particular reads like a pious temperance-themed melodrama of a format that went out of fashion decades before. It opens on the above-described chilly night in a small town, and introduces us to Isabel Arnott, a wife who is caring for her sick baby (the only survivor of several children) and waiting with trepidation for the arrival of her husband George, who is a doctor and drunkard. He turns up in the small hours and - a regular habit - locks her and baby Harry out on the street. With no-one else to to turn to, she is rescued by Arthur Hedley, a student lodging opposite, who takes her and the child in.

Arnott wakes with a hangover the next day to find Isobel missing and Harry laid out dead in his cot. The maid, Charlotte, explains that Harry had been left dead on the doorstep. Arnott is guilt-stricken and swears that he will never drink again. He persuades Charlotte to keep quiet about the night's events, on grounds that his imprisonment would leave Isobel destitute.

The next day, his colleague Dr Marston visits and is also informed of the true story; shocked, he nevertheless, pledges to help Arnott turn his life around. In this, Arnott succeeds over the next few months, materially at least. Isobel, however, remains missing, and Arnott still suffers badly from guilt. Charlotte seeks the aid of a visiting missionary, Philip Sternroyd of the Upton Fathers. Sternroyd comes to the house, and Arnott is surprised to find that he knows him: he was Sternroyd's fag at public school. The charismatic Sternroyd gives him absolution, and Arnott lives a sober and religious life from that point.

Five years later, we are introduced to a lady called Belle Harris, who lives in an idyllic country cottage with her daughter Pansy. Her husband Arthur, generally away on business, is due to arrive. On his return, it's revealed that "Mr and Mrs Harris" are Arthur Hedley and Isobel Arnott. She was pregnant at the time of her rescue, and Pansy is her daughter by George. Her relationship with Arthur is already distinctly chilly, but Arthur has further bad news; he has to end it, as he too is suffering from guilt, and his strict Puritan parents want him to marry someone else. He gives her six months' lease on the cottage, and leaves.

A further five years have passed, and George Arnott is living an exemplary life. His medical practice has recovered and, still friends with Sternroyd, he is physician for Hill House, a hostel for alcoholics. In the autumn, Sternroyd suggests he and Arnott take a holiday at St Egbert's, a mission house in Portsmouth run by their friend Father Anstey ("a sort of slum menagerie, a combination of socialism and monkery"). During their stay, there's an altercation in the street, and Arnott is called to attend on a flower-seller who, in a drunken fight, has hit her head on a curbstone. It turns out to be the long-missing Isabel. Gravely injured, she recovers consciousness enough to tell her story - how she turned to crime and drink after Hedley abandoned her - and to evidently forgive George, before dying. Sternroyd then introduces George to his daughter Pansy.

Then, with a sob of unspeakable thankfulness, he took the lonely little thing in his arms and kissed and blessed her. And in the deep peace that fell upon him he knew that his penitence was accepted and her pardon sure. So he tasted the sweetness of God's mercy, which is not as the world's mercy.

I can't disagree with the general thrust of reviews: that the book was mostly a turkey. The sarcastic Pall Mall Gazette review is worth quoting in full:

When at page 4 we found a boy of a year old called a "noble babe," we instinctively tightened our grasp of "The World's Mercy" and applied ourselves with new diligence to the assiduous and conscientious study of every page that followed, in the active hope that "Maxwell Gray" would afford us more entertainment than is her wont. For a while our search was unrewarded, although it was with a pleasurable thrill that we found an old gatekeeper described as "castellan;" but in the fullness of time, and after some wearisome plodding, we came, in a waking interval, on this lofty and soaring passage: "Oh! rosemary ... your fragrance is the scent of unforgotten youth, which was sweet, and is bitter in retrospect ... which was gloomy with despair, and is now, seen in the arid meridian of life, glorious with auroral hues of hope." Even the doubt whether the reference is to youth or a visible perfume cannot conceal from us the sublimity of this description. To those who enjoy this style of thing, since there is more of it, we can recommend the book, but as for the tales themselves, we can but give praise to the last of them, "The Widow’s Clock," which is simple, unaffected, and pretty. The rest are generally without plan or purpose, the incidents are not worth the chronicling, the dialogue is still, awkward, and frequently impossible, and the characterization indistinct and colourless. Moreover, although we expect no graces of style from "Maxwell Gray," we note with surprise how much the construction of her involved sentences leaves to be desired, even in the matter, even in the matter of gramma. It must, however, be admitted that she is powerful and convincing in the account of Isabel Arnott's horror of her drunken husband, and of that husband’s remorse on finding that he is responsible for the death of his baby boy, "the noble babe" aforesaid. But the strongest impression the book leaves on the reader’s mind is that "Maxwell Gray" had better keep to the writing of the religious novel, and leave the writing of short stories to others.
- The Pall Mall Gazette, March 28, 1900

- Ray

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Pasties and other yarns

Not being from around here originally, I admit I get a trifle bored with Devon/Cornwall regional rivalries, of which one focus is traditional foods.

Firstly, there's the cream tea. Did it originate in Cornwall or Devon? This is pretty academic, since the named entity "cream tea" is a modern marketing construct (see Google Books Ngram Viewer here) though the combination of jam, scone and cream (in the past more likely to be junket than clotted cream) clearly goes further back, as Charles Dickens wrote in Household Words in 1882:

You spread the jam on the scone, and eat it with the junket. It is only when the tea is fairly advanced— we mean the meal, and in Cornwall tea is a solemn and serious affair — that the junket is reverently tapped by the mistress of the feast, and each guest is invited to partake ...

But the account that seems to trump the lot was that mentioned in a Western Morning News piece: "Cream tea on menu for over 1000 years" (January 20, 2004):

Historians in Devon have found evidence which they say could shed light on the original birthplace of that popular Westcountry dish the cream tea ... Historians in Tavistock claim to have unearthed manuscripts that reveal the cream tea tradition actually began in the town some 1,000 years ago. While carrying out research into the history of the 900-year-old Tavistock Market Charter, they discovered that the monks of the town's Benedictine Abbey could have created the famous dish to reward workers who helped to restore the building. The monks would serve the clotted cream with bread and strawberry preserves. This evidence was brought to the attention of the Tavistock Food and Drink Festival committee, which is now organising a two-day event which will feature the Devon cream tea.

The BBC has repeated the story at least twice - for instance, Ancient roots of cream tea discovered. I'm really not sure what to make of this; the Tavistock & District Local History Society have no idea who the historians involved were. The lack of specifics rings alarm bells with me, and having seen how origin myths can start up (see "A Bishop storm-tossed on the ocean") I'd like to see a scholarly publication confirming this discovery that surfaced just in time for the Tavistock Food and Drink Festival. I've emailed them to ask about this.

And then there's the pasty. The BBC news magazine, reporting on the food's newly-granted EU protected status - Who, What, Why: What exactly is a Cornish pasty? - reported this:

Les Merton, author of The Official Encyclopaedia of the Cornish Pasty, points to cave paintings on the Lizard peninsula showing a woman eating a pasty-like foodstuff, suggesting the tradition stretches back to prehistoric times.

A very early pasty, he believes, would have been encased in leaves rather than pastry, but he says the evidence nonetheless suggests that even such primitive versions would have had their edges crimped in some way.

The BBC has failed to spot a joke: The Official Encyclopaedia of the Cornish Pasty is a humorous publication tracking the pasty back to the Garden of Eden.  Debunking is hardly necessary, but as the art historian Dr Geri Parlby said to the Western Morning News - Doubts cast on pasties in cave painting claim (WMN, Feb 26th 2011):

"I am always fascinated to hear of new discoveries in prehistoric art especially when they appear to show something as detailed as Mr Merton claims to have seen.

"As there is only very limited evidence for any form of prehistoric cave art across the whole of Britain, I find it hard to believe these Cornish examples could have been such a well kept secret, even Cornwall Council's Archaeology Department seems unaware of them."

I'm not sure which I find more tiresome: the rivalry that gives rise to these yarns, or the readiness of the BBC to treat unverified soundbites as sacrosanct.

- Ray

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Kenneth Grahame's lesser-known works: part 2

The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Headswoman
The Headswoman (1898, Internet Archive ID headswoman01grahgoog

The Headswoman is a short story about a female executioner, that first appeared in the literary magazine The Yellow Book in 1894. It concerns Jeanne, a young woman in an early 16th century French town, who inherits the post of headswoman. The town council are doubtful about it, but she argues persuasively her right to the job.
"My motive, gentlemen, in demanding what is my due, is a simple and (I trust) an honest one, and I desire that there should be no misunderstanding. It is my wish to be dependent on no one. I am both willing and able to work, and I only ask for what is the common right of humanity,—admission to the labour market. How many poor, toiling women would simply jump at a chance like this which fortune, by the accident of birth, lays open to me! And shall I, from any false deference to that conventional voice which proclaims this thing as ‘nice,’ and that thing as ‘not nice,’ reject a handicraft which promises me both artistic satisfaction and a competence? No, gentlemen; my claim is a small one,—only a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. But I can accept nothing less, nor consent to forgo my rights, even for any contingent remainder of possible cousinly favour!"
She gets the job, and performs the task competently and cheerfully, until a setback. She has an argument with her lawyer cousin Enguerrand (next in line for the post) about a woman's suitability for the job. The next day, suffering from a headache, she takes the day off, and the council takes this as evidence of the problems of hiring a woman. Things look up, however, when she flirts with a young gentleman on the town ramparts.

But the day after that, she is surprised to find the young man is her first client for execution.  The two continue their courtly flirting as he is brought to the block.
"And now, sir," said Jeanne, "if you will kindly come this way: and please to mind the step—so. Now, if you will have the goodness to kneel here—nay, the sawdust is perfectly clean; you are my first client this morning. On the other side of the block you will find a nick, more or less adapted to the human chin, though a perfect fit cannot, of course, be guaranteed in every case. So! Are you pretty comfortable?"

"A bed of roses," replied the prisoner. "And what a really admirable view one gets of the valley and the river, from just this particular point!"

"Charming, is it not?" replied Jeanne. "I’m so glad you do justice to it. Some of your predecessors have really quite vexed me by their inability to appreciate that view. It’s worth coming here to see it. And now, to return to business for one moment,—would you prefer to give the word yourself? Some people do; it’s a mere matter of taste. Or will you leave yourself entirely in my hands?"

"Oh, in your fair hands," replied her client, "which I beg you to consider respectfully kissed once more by your faithful servant to command."
In the nick of time, the mayor arrives and halts the execution: it's a case of mistaken identity. Jeanne is put out at the interruption to her work, and is all for carrying out the execution anyway. But she is persuaded by the arrival of Thibault, the seneschal of the local chateau: the young man is "the young Seigneur" who has just come home from his education in Paris. They make up the next day, falling in love, and she gives up the job.
Executions continued to occur in St. Radegonde; the Radegundians being conservative and very human. But much of the innocent enjoyment that formerly attended them departed after the fair Châtelaine had ceased to officiate. Enguerrand, on succeeding to the post, wedded Clairette, she being (he was heard to say) a more suitable match in mind and temper than others of whom he would name no names. Rumour had it, that he found his match and something over; while as for temper—and mind (which she gave him in bits). But the domestic trials of high-placed officials have a right to be held sacred. The profession, in spite of his best endeavours, languished nevertheless. Some said that the scaffold lacked its old attraction for criminals of spirit; others, more unkindly, that the headsman was the innocent cause, and that Enguerrand was less fatal in his new sphere than formerly, when practising in the criminal court as advocate for the defence.
The Headswoman is clearly intended as satire. Gender and the Victorian Periodical (Hilary Fraser, Judith Johnston, Stephanie Green, Cambridge University Press, 2003) has a detailed analysis of its targets, including bureaucracy and the "new woman" narrative (see pp 184-185), But Alison Prince, in Kenneth Grahame: an innocent in the Wild Wood (Allison & Busby, 1994) calls it "a somewhat maladroit offering" that "seems to have been received with baffled (or perhaps tactful silence)".  It's hard to say if it works: whether the strangely upbeat tone of the whole piece is part of the joke, or a symptom of Grahame being too squeamish to tackle the gritty scenario.  Peter Green, in his 1959 Kenneth Grahame, a biography, commented that:
Direct engagement stimulated his satirical sense, but put too great a strain on his delicate sensibilities. If today The Headswoman reminds us of anything, it is of a play by an author who in many ways resembles Grahame: Christopher Fry. In The Lady's not for Burning the treatment of the death motif and the ambivalent humour enshrouding it directly recall Grahame's story: there are further similarities of plot, setting, and character. It is fascinating to speculate just what would have become of Grahame's talent if he had continued to explore this field instead of abandoning it after a single experiment

As it was, The Headswoman was the nearest thing Grahame ever wrote to fiction for an adult readership.

Project Gutenberg has an HTML version of the 1928 Bodley Head edition with nice woodcut illustrations by Marcia Lane Foster.

- Ray

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The scent of plagiarism

I'm not sure how to categorise this: strange cultural/musical crossover, I suppose. I admit to liking a lot of Europop, and just ran into the above: "Я люблю тебя" ("Ya lyublyu tebya" = "I love you") by ГиллерА (GillerA, who I think is/are Ukrainian; the song is all over the Russian/Ukrainian videoclip circuit, but with no sign of creator details). It's a very nice track: upbeat and bright, yet rather wistful. It's accompanied, however, by a majorly incongruous SF video, about an evidently alien/superpowered woman (vital stats including ferrum, helium, uranium, hydrargyrum, cuprum and copernicium ain't normal) who gets loose in a laboratory and zaps the staff with mindcontrolling/aphrodisiac fluence from her hands.

Whatever its intrinsic merits, however, it's causing considerable annoyance to fans of the French singer Mylène Farmer. As reported in the online magazine .evous - Mylène Farmer: Le clip de ’Dégénération’ plagié par une chanteuse ukrainienne! - the video for "Я люблю тебя" is heavily derivative - shot for shot in places - of that for Farmer's "Dégénération" ("Degeneration") in which an evidently alien/superpowered woman gets loose in a laboratory and etc etc. Here's the video - it's NSFW, but far less explicit than it looks.

It's hard to take sides on this. While the video for "Я люблю тебя" is clearly based on that for "Dégénération", the song should be judged on its own merits: it's pleasant light listening, as good in its own way as "Dégénération", a far darker techno/electro piece that reached No. 1 in the French charts. I very much like both tracks. The "Dégénération" video, in addition, itself contains in one section a close visual similarity to a previous work: the scene in Luc Besson's film The Fifth Element in which Leeloo escapes after her regeneration, so its makers aren't entirely on the moral high ground about borrowing.

There is a possible book connection; at least one commentator - Erwan Chuberre, in the book Mylène Farmer: Des mots sur nos désirs - thought the "Dégénération" video also drew inspiration from Patrick Süskind's novel Perfume, in which the perfumier Grenouille escapes execution by releasing an aphrodisiac scent, sparking a whole-town orgy.

- Ray

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Kenneth Grahame's lesser-known works: part 1

On Wednesday a customer was asking about the early works - prior to Wind in the Willows - of Kenneth Grahame. I was aware of these, but have never seen copies in book form. As it happens, they're all old enough to be out-of-copyright, and are on the Internet Archive. They are:

Pagan Papers (1893, Internet Archive ID paganpapers04grahgoog)
The Golden Age (1895, Internet Archive ID goldenage01grahgoog)
Dream Days (1898, Internet Archive ID dreamdays01grahgoog)
The Headswoman (1898, Internet Archive ID headswoman01grahgoog)

These were all written when Grahame was pursuing a very successful career as a banker, were what made his critical reputation. In contrast, the critics disliked The Wind in the Willows. In the long term, however, it came to largely eclipse the early works.

Pagan Papers is a compilation of Grahame's essays written from 1888 onward in publications including The Yellow Book, St James's Gazette and the National Observer.  A quick summary of the topics:

  • The romance of the road: on the exhilharating experience of walking the Ridgeway of the north Berkshire downs.
  • The romance of rail: on the imaginative delights of planning rail journeys.
  • Non libri sed liberi: on the habit of buying books, even getting them custom-bound, and never reading them.
  • Loafing: on the merits of aimless passive enjoyment of an upper Thames village.
  • Cheap knowledge: on the pros and cons of free libraries.
  • The rural Pan: in praise of countryfolk, personified as Pan, in contrast to the Apollo and Mercury city denizens.
  • Marginalia: on the practice of annotating books.
  • The eternal whither: in praise of people who know what they want from life, via the example of clerks who took criminal holidays.
  • Deus Terminus: on the Roman god Terminus, god of boundary markers, and mourning the days when no such demarcations of land existed.
  • Of smoking: in praise of pipe and cigar smoking.
  • An Autumn encounter: an extended description of passing a scarecrow.
  • The white poppy: on the benefits of forgetting.
  • A Bohemian in exile: an account of "Fothergill", who opted out of society to roam the country roads with a donkey cart.
  • Justifiable homicide: on dealing with annoying relatives.
  • The fairy wicket: on moments that offer brief glimpses of the magical.
  • Aboard the galley: an extended exploration of the metaphor of officer workers as galley slaves.
  • The lost centaur: a lament at humanity's divide from animals, and failure to acknowledge kinship.
  • Orion: the constellation is explored as a symbol of the hunter that remains in us all.

The general tone is wry and whimsical. While they're not at all bad reading, I found them variable in quality: some come across as throwing an excess of erudition and style at extremely slight topics. But others express the powerful emotion, a very deep and very English yearning, evoked by the countryside. The repeated themes - pastoral escape, urban encroachment on the countryside, the urge to transgress against the system either by idleness or crime or primitivity, the recognition of our animal nature, the appearance of Pan - are highly recognisable as similar to those of The Wind in the Willows. They could be read as the unsurprising fantasies of a man reacting to the confines of his highly formal job, but a number of biographies note that Grahame (like a number of late-Victorian writers) was actively interested in neopaganism ...

Neither his visions of escape from modern society nor the anti-authoritarian philosophy of his essays was particularly original to Grahame; they were shared by many of his contemporaries, as was a variety of neopaganism that the title of his first gathering of essays, Pagan Papers, reflects.
- Writers for children: critical studies of major authors since the seventeenth century, Jane Bingham, 1988

... and the essay "A Bohemian in exile" contains a fairly explicit statement of this.

When old Pan was dead and Apollo's bow broken, there were many faithful pagans who would worship at no new shrines, but went out to the hills and caves, truer to the old gods in their discrowned desolation than in their pomp and power. Even so were we left behind, a remnant of the faithful.

Contemporary reviews were mixed. A standard critical comment was to view them as derivative of Robert Louis Stevenson's essays such as the 1876 Virginibus Puerisque. Patrick Reginald Chalmers, in his 1933 Kenneth Grahame: life, letters and unpublished work, mentions one reviewer who said that Grahame was "only one in a whole generation who turns out a "Stevensonette" as easily and lightly as he rolls a cigarette", and another who evidently felt the writing to be precious, proving the author to be "one of Mr. Henley's very clever young men". However, plenty of other reviews took a less complicated view, and were unstinting in their praise of the book. For instance:

The sense of virility, of wholeness, which one gets from this book is not its least claim upon the regard of all who care for literature. In these essays Mr. Grahame shows himself a lover of boats, of the fresh free life of the . fields and the downs, of old books, of the poets; he gossips cheerily of them all, adding to the clearness of his observation and his extreme sanity a sense of the value of word and of phrase, which makes each short paper excellent reading.
- The Review of Reviews, Volume 9, 1894

- Ray

Friday, 18 February 2011

Modeste, strenue, sancte

Following the thread of school songs, here's another literary question. A while back I briefly mentioned correspondence with a Yahoo! Answers contact, Eric Schonblom, who is conducting biographical research on the prolific children's author Constance Winifred Savery (1897-1999 - see the Independent obituary). Last year he visited Great Torrington with the enviable opportunity to examine a large collection of materials, including unpublished works, and the partial results are now on his much-expanded biographical site,

Eric just contacted me with a puzzle. Among Constance Savery's unpublished verse is the following poem:

William Rutlish's Song

Ask little; greatly give, / Ye who would truly live / Modeste, strenue, sancte.
Fight cruelty and wrong; / Meet sorrow with a song / Modeste, strenue, sancte.
Shun all ungentle ways; / Love beauty all your days / Modeste, strenue, sancte.
Stand firm against the tide; / Fear sin and naught beside / Modeste, strenue, sancte.
In your appointed place / Serve God and seek His face / Modeste, strenue, sancte.

© - reproduced by permission of E.C.W. Hummerstone

As Eric says, Modeste strenue sancte ("Be modest, be thorough and pursue righteousness") is the motto, adopted in 1901, of Rutlish School. Wiliam Rutlish was the benefactor, embroiderer to Charles II, who left a bequest that had appreciated sufficiently by the late 1800s to fund the school's founding in 1895.

Constance Savery incorporated the poem in her novel The Quicksilver Chronicle, but is ambigious about where the verses came from. Her work diary for June 20, 1952 says 'Wrote verses ("William Rutlish's Song")' but in a tape recording in 1994 she said it was "translated from a Latin poem, except for the Modeste strenue sancte refrain that resisted translation". Eric is well aware that the 1994 statement (made when she was 97) could be a misrecollection, but he would nevertheless like to track the attribution if any exists. Rutlish School hasn't replied.

So, the question is: is William Rutlish's Song actually a translation of a Latin poem, or written in 1952 as a work retrofitted to the Rutlish school motto? Eric will pay a finder's fee of £20 if anyone can find a reliably-attributed Latin original.

- Ray

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Last Ringbearer

MetaFilter currently has an excellent thread worth visiting - The Last Ringbearer - which has a wealth of links concerning 'parallel novels': works that retell others from the viewpoint of a different character or perspective.

The particular focus of the thread, however, is Middle-earth according to Mordor ("A newly translated Russian novel retells Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' from the perspective of the bad guys") - this Salon article by Laura Miller discusses Последний кольценосец (The Last Ringbearer) by Russian paleontologist Kirill Eskov. Working by the aphorism that "history is written by the victors", this is a counter-text to The Lord of the Rings that tells of the last days and aftermath of the War of the Ring from the viewpoint of the forces of Sauron. As Miller describes it:
... a well-written, energetic adventure yarn that offers an intriguing gloss on what some critics have described as the overly simplistic morality of Tolkien's masterpiece.

In Yeskov's retelling, the wizard Gandalf is a war-monger intent on crushing the scientific and technological initiative of Mordor and its southern allies because science "destroys the harmony of the world and dries up the souls of men!"
The protagonist of "The Last Ringbearer" is a field medic from Umbar (a southern land), who is ably assisted by an Orocuen -- that is, orc -- scout, who is not a demonic creature like the orcs in "The Lord of the Rings," but an ordinary man.
In Yeskov's scenario, "The Lord of the Rings" is a highly romanticized and mythologized version of the fall of Mordor, perhaps even outright propaganda; "The Last Ringbearer" is supposed to be the more complicated and less sentimental true story.
The Last Ringbearer is in tune with a number of criticisms of Tolkien's mythos mentioned in the MetaFilter thread that, much as I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films, I don't find hard to disagree with. There's Michael Moorcock's 1989 essay Epic Pooh. And David Brin's J.R.R. Tolkien -- enemy of progress (Salon again, Dec 17th 2002), that attacks its pro-aristocratic Romanticism. And Fantasy and revolution, an interview in International Socialism in which fantasy author China Miéville says: "Tolkien's worldview was resolutely rural, petty bourgeois, conservative, anti-modernist, misanthropically Christian and anti-intellectual".

If you know Russian, an article by Kirill Eskov, How and why I wrote the apocryphal "Lord of the Rings", looks worth reading. Skimming via Google Translate: Eskov explains that he's not formally a writer, but a "graphomaniac" who writes for his own pleasure and that of friends. He mentions the long history of works that dissect and overturn fictional worlds, right back to Dio Chrysostom, whose rhetorical "Trojan speech" argued the Iliad to be pure PR, the siege of Troy a failure. He mentions the power to expose interesting facets of a work through the device of approaching a work from an ethical or aesthetic position radically different from that of its creator, citing examples including Andrzej Sapkowski (whose Złote popołudnie - Golden Afternoon - retells the story of Alice from the viewpoint of the Cheshire Cat), "Gloria Howard's take on Moby Dick from Ahab's wife's viewpoint" (I can find no reference to Gloria Howard - but the book has to be Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel), and Tom Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

However, a further aspect of Eskov's motivation was to examine Tolkien's Middle Earth as a real world, and as a geologist he spotted problems. Plate tectonics requires that Middle Earth, as a supercontinent, would have central highlands, which Tolkien doesn't describe. Evidently there must be more to Middle Earth, so Eskov posits other continents and archipelagoes.  He asks about practicalities of Middle Earth that have to exist. What's the monetary system? How can Rohan sustain itself solely by breeding horses? What do the inhabitants of Mordor eat, and why is their capital city in the middle of a desert? And if Middle Earth is treated as a real world, then characters such as Aragorn and Faramir are historical personages whose actions, just as with historical figures in our world, are open to very differing interpretations Finally, he tackles the tropes of fantasy itself.  Fantasy has very strict canonical rules: no moral relativism, but a black-and-white morality. He accepted this groundrule, but attempted to arrange good and evil more realistically, by individual person rather than by race (his elves are "not evil and not good - they are simply alien").

For the moment anyway, The Last Ringbearer is available in the English translation by Yisroel Markov, authorised by the author, as a free download. To circumvent the undoubtedly grey copyright situation - see the Guardian's Lord of the Rings reworking a hit with fans, but not Tolkien estate - it's being released on a non-commercial basis. I won't link to it, but you'll find links via Eskov's Wikipedia entry and the Salon article.

Eskov has, by the way, written another novel called The Gospel of Aphranius, which attempts to construct a demythologised account of the events of the Gospels (rather like Frank Yerby's Judas, My Brother).

Update: see The Last Ringbearer, posted in December 2012 after I read the ePUB version of the 2nd Edition.

- Ray

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Hæ tea

On the subject of plants, a slight puzzle via Yahoo! Answers. Do we have any Danish readers?

Great Dane dining (Lars Eriksen, The Observer, 3 February 2011) tells of a culinary visit to Dragsholm Castle. It mentions an unusual detail:

Henriksen strays off the tractor tracks we are following to pick a couple of twigs from a slender brownish tree called hæ. He breaks one and shoves it under my nose, and there is an instant aroma of liquorice and marzipan. He says he'll boil the twigs to make a tea for a bread he is baking. It seems that the purveyors of modern Nordic cuisine owe a debt of gratitude to their Viking forefathers.

Whatever is "hæ"? The Danish Wikipedia finds no sign of a tree or shrub with this name, nor is it in the Routledge Danish Dictionary. The licorice-marzipan aromatic twigs are probably diagnostic, but don't ring any bells with me. Googling, "hæ" just seems to be a Danish interjection (e.g. "hæ hæ hæ" = laughing in text "he he he"). Is this a garbling of some other word, a mistake, or a wind-up?

Addendum. credits go to "Voelven", who has suggested the likely answer: that the word intended is "hæg".

"Almindelig Hæg" (Common Hæg) is the Danish name for the Bird Cherry (Prunus padus), which does have various English names cognate with "Hæg", Hagberry (aka Hackberry, Heckberry, Hegberry, Egg-berry, etc - see A Dictionary of North East Dialect by Bill Griffiths).  Like all Prunus species, it has a chemical defence against pests in the form of cyanogenic glycosides, in the case of Prunus padus the one called prunasin: the marzipan smell when twigs are broken is hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid, as it used to be called).  I assume - hope - that in the recipe described it boils out during cooking.

- Ray

Monday, 14 February 2011


A piece in the local paper about the Canonteign Fern Garden introduced me to a historical episode I'd never heard of: pteridomania (aka fern fever).


A recommendation, one of a number of excellent things on YouTube that probably shouldn't be: the Sylvester Stallone movie Oscar.

Oscar is ultimately based on a 1958 French stage play by Claude Magnier concerning various personal and financial tribulations in the household of an industrialist (his daughter tells him she's pregnant, and his accountant has embezzled a large sum of money, and so on). It flopped as a 1960 English stage adaptation for Terry-Thomas called It's in the Bag. There was a 1967 straight adaptation in French, Oscar, but John Landis's 1991 English version made an inspired adaptation decision to make the main character an American gangster, Angelo "Snaps" Provolone, who has promised his dying father that he will go straight.

This is a highly under-rated film. As the Chicago Tribune review said, it's slow starting, but then rapidly picks up as fast-paced farce, with Stallone showing a pleasant talent for comedy as the long-suffering Snaps. He's backed up by a cast of generally eccentric characters such as Dr. Thornton Poole (Tim Curry as the weird but enthusiastic linguistics expert who is coaching Snaps in elocution; Lisa Provolone (Marisa Tomei as Snaps's spoiled but ultimately goodhearted daughter); and the Finucci brothers (two dapper tailors whose proud account of how many they "do" in a week horrifies another character who has been told by Snaps that they are hit-men).

Having just a tattered videotape, we just bought the DVD.

- Ray

Thursday, 10 February 2011

"A Bishop storm-tossed on the ocean"

At The Growlery - Bizarrest, bizarrer, and merely bizarre... - Felix Grant just mentioned his three school songs. Being of similar vintage and educational background, I also went to a school that had a song, but a custom-written one. They didn't sing it much when I was there, in the last few years before it went comprehensive and ditched the old Grammar School traditions, but I found it at Ian Henden's website and decided to mirror it here as it seems otherwise little-documented online.

Gosport County Grammar School Song

When down the swift tide of life we are gliding
Days of our childhood left far behind
Oft in fond mem'ry Rises a picture
Calling thoughts joyful or sad to the mind
What strikes the chord of so sweet recollection?
Sportsfield and classroom, the disciplined rule
Triumphs and failures Companions so faithful
Scene of life's springtime, the School!


So in chorus old and young
Cheerily sing! Let it ring!
Comrades faithful, true and strong
Let it rise! To the skies!
Staunch in fair and stormy weather
Join with heart and voice together
Side by side, companions ever
To the end.

Where once a Bishop storm-tossed on the ocean
Sought peace and rest on Alwara's shore
By the historic Waters of Solent
Rises our School, may it flourish e'er more
Long through the years may its praises be sounded
If past and present we make it our rule
Whether in work or in pastime the contest
Ever to strive for the School!


Then when our schooldays are o'er, and reluctant
Leave we at last its sheltering care
Shaping our course by worthy traditions
Calmly good fortune or evil we'll bear
And in the struggle for fame and position
With heart undaunted and courage e'er cool
Playing the game we will put into practice
Lessons we learnt at the School!


It's a good tune but moderately challenging; at least as pitched in his MIDI, it goes right to the top of my range. According to Dave Mack's alumni site (currently down - see archive) the tune was written by Ernest Douglass (from Dictionary of organs and organists (1912): Organist Holy Trinity, Gosport, 1893-9; St. Mary's, Alverstoke, Gosport, since 1899. Conductor Gosport and Alverstoke Choral Society) and the words by S H Barker, B. Litt.

The lyrics are a masterwork of stiff-upper-lip cliché, very much the kind of thing Tom Lehrer ridiculed in Bright College Days, and the "When down the swift tide of life we are gliding" line distinctly recalls Lehrer's "sliding down the razor-blade of life", and indeed our own parody recalled by Derek Ive in a HantsWeb thread:

When down the school bannisters we are sliding
Seats of our trousers left far behind,
Oft in memory rises a splinter
Calling thoughts painful and sad to the mind.
Who is it waits at the bottom to catch you,
Tells you you've broken the discipline rule?
One of the prefects - companions so faithful -
Inhabitants of the school.

The second verse of the song refers to a Victorian-originated founding myth for the town of Gosport (whose real etymology is most likely "Goose-port"): a claimed derivation iconised on the town's old crest as "God's port, our haven" - a motto said to have been coined by either King Stephen or his brother Henry de Blois after safe delivery from shipwreck. As described in The origins of Gosport by Philip Eley, the story arose from a piece of doubtful scholarship, probably by Henry Slight, published in the Hampshire Telegraph in 1811. Despite doubts expressed by Robert Mudie in his 1838 Hampshire: The northern, eastern, and southern slopes, and the New Forest, various 19th century gazetteers swallowed the anecdote whole.  ("Alwara" was the lady of the manor of what is now Alverstoke).

- Ray

Wednesday, 9 February 2011


I don't often read the Daily Mail, apart from the puzzle page; however, a few days back I spotted an interesting reader's letter from a correspondent who recalled having been taught, in his very traditional Scottish school, a misspelling of "dilemma" as "dilemna".

No doubt of it: "dilemma" - etymologically from Greek δί-λημμα ("double proposition") - is correct, and the Oxford English Dictionary - quoted at the discussion at Wordwizard - confirms this. But a look on the Web finds many other people with a distinct recollection of having been taught otherwise.

I believe them, because this seems more than just an occasional misspelling: on Google Books "dilemna" gets 8,870 hits to 2,333,000 for "dilemma" (i.e it accounts for about 0.4% of occurrences in published books), and Google Ngram Viewer finds it to be long-standing (British English / American English). It's not limited to low-quality publications; examples include scholarly texts (e.g. here and here); Punch magazine (here); the works of William Pitt (here); the works of Washington Irving (here); and English classics such as Fielding's Amelia (here), Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (here), Swift's Gullliver's Travels (here) and Smollett's The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (here).  It's hard in particular to believe that the last batch of writers, and their proofreaders, would all make the same spelling mistake, so I can only conclude "dilemna" to be a genuine variant spelling that has been propagating, undocumented,.for centuries.

How it arose is hard to say. The earliest book examples I can find are in Latin texts in the 1500s (dilemna / dilemma), which is the same period, according the the OED, when "dilemma" itself entered English.  I rather wonder if it originated as a misreading from Gothic script. In some of its forms, as in the above example from Medieval Writing and Scripts, words tended to consist of horizontally-condensed and very similar verticals: "mm" and "mn" wouldn't look much different.

Alternatively, maybe the error crept across from mathematics teaching.  Euclid's Elements in Latin was a standard text that persisted long after Henry Billingsley's first English edition came out in 1570.  The Dutch-printed 1692 edition by Henrik Coets spells "lemma" - a mathematical proposition - as "lemna" (examples).

(There is, by the way, a Greek word "lemna" - but it's duckweed).

- Ray

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Chathuringmes and other non-riddles

A rather strange meme I just encountered. On Q&A forums and elsewhere, this puzzle/riddle repeatedly turns up, of which this is a typical variant:

I am a 13-letter word, _H_T_ _ _I_ _ME_. Fishermen like me, doctors hate me, kids love to eat me. What am I?

The answer given is "chathuringmes", alleged to be the scientific name for a worm (i.e. used as bait / disliked as a parasite / and eaten by children as the "jelly worm" sweet). The trouble is, there's no reliable verification whatsoever for this term. Why and how the yarn got started is pretty murky. The best suggestion I can find, via Answerbag, is this Times of India piece from 2006 - You said SMS? How puzzling! - that refers to a whole genre of insoluble/hoax riddle-format questions circulating via SMS. Another example cited is:

Your left side is your right side, Your right side is your wrong side. The right side, for your back side is the front side. What is it?

Not that the idea is new. Nik Kershaw's pop song The Riddle attracted a deal of speculation as to the meaning of

Near a tree by a river
There's a hole in the ground
Where an old man of Aran
Goes around and around

As Wikipedia explains:

The "riddling" lyrics caused much puzzlement and speculation among listeners as to their meaning, which was further fuelled by record company MCA's decision to run a competition to work out the meaning - without either telling Nik or even bothering to ask him what the meaning was. Had they done so, they would have discovered that there is in fact no meaning at all - the lyrics were nothing but gibberish thrown together to fit the music, or in Nik's own words: "nonsense, rubbish, bollocks, the confused ramblings of an 80s popstar".

See also The Straight Dope for an even older example: Lewis Carroll's Why is a raven like a writing desk? which, as originally invented, had no answer. (I have to admire Sam Loyd's solution: "Because Poe wrote on both").

- Ray

Monday, 7 February 2011

The art of Linley Sambourne

Edward Linley Sambourne's classic Darwin cartoon from Punch in 1882.
I wrote about Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies a while back (see The Water-Babies, JSBlog, 17th August 2008). Following up from that, I just ran into the paperback reprint of the 1880 Macmillan edition, and was struck by the illustrations: the vivid and often surreal work of Linley Sambourne, probably better known for his illustrations for Punch magazine.

An 1894 Macmillan edition is online at the Internet Archive (ID waterbabiesfairy00king2) and is worth reading. The weird and sometimes voluptuous illustrations - Tenniel and Doré spring to mind as comparisons - are well in keeping with a book that is a barbed social satire and, like many children's classics, exceedingly dark and complex once you put aside its stereotype as a children's story.

See, for instance, the charming "leap-frog" preface picture; the water-nymph illustrating the "Clear and cool" poem (page 43); the queen of the water fairies (page 57); "the great fairy Science" (page 86); Tom's encounter with the trout (page 93); Tom and the lobster (page 143); Professor Ptthmllnsprts (page 149); the decline of the Doasyoulikes as they devolve to apes -which has considerable thematic and compositional similarity to the Punch Darwin cartoon (page 230); Tom's water-dog (page 262); Mother Carey (page 269); the sentient blunderbuss (page 312); and Grimes in Hell (page 314).

A contemporary review said:

Kingsley's "Water-Babies," with its hundred illustrations, shows Mr. Linley Sambourne at his best. The artist has had a task after his own heart, and he has absolutely revelled in his work. It is full of graceful idea and elaborate drawing. The fish, the weeds, the lobster pots, the otters, have all been most carefully studied and accurately reproduced. The humor and the poetry pervading all the illustrations are marvellous. Perhaps the most humorous drawing is " The Professor and the Water-Baby," which gives excellent portraits of Professors Owen and Huxley; and possibly the most poetical is " The Queen of the WaterFairies." Mr. Sambourne has had an excellent opportunity for the display of his fertile fancy, his accurate knowledge, and his exquisite draughtsmanship, and he has fully availed himself of it.
- "S", page 6, The Book Buyer, Vol 3, No. 1, February 1886.

If some of the illustrations, the water-nymphs, seem outright erotic, it's unsurprising in the light of Sambourne's career. I'd seen some of his Punch illustrations before, but didn't know of his later covert interest in erotic photography and in photographing schoolgirls with a disguised camera, as mentioned in the Spectator review of Leonee Ormond's 2010 biography (see Fine artist, but a dirty old man, Bevis Hiller, The Spectator, 3rd April 2010).  As described in the Great Wen weblog entry Mucky pics in Victorian London and The Virtual Victorian's Mr Linley Sambourne's Photographic Passions, it developed from his practice of using photographs as the basis for his political sketches.

Nevertheless, whatever one might think of his interests, it's impossible to doubt the imagination and sheer technical and compositional quality of Sambourne's illustration work. The Alphabet of Illustrators 1 has a section devoted to Sambourne, including samplers from The Water-Babies (here) and his artwork from Punch (here and here).  In addition, Wikimedia Commons has a couple of dozen scans of his caricatures for Punch.

For a good contemporary account of his working practices, see the 1895 A History of "Punch":

One day when Mr. Linley Sambourne made a successful appearance as Admiral Van Tromp at a fancydress ball, Mr. W S. Gilbert drily observed, "One Dutch of Sambourne makes the whole world grin!" The jest was wider in its application than he who made it, probably, had intended. The humour of the artist, his quaintness of fancy, wit, and touch, are appreciated by whoever looks for something more, even in a professedly comic design, than that which is at first and immediately obvious. When, early in 1867, Mark Lemon fell into admiration of a little drawing that was luckily thrust into his hand, and declared that the young draughtsman who wrought it had a great future before him, he proved himself possessed of a faculty of critical insight, or of an easy-going artistic conscience, uncommon even among editors. Few who saw Mr. Linley Sambourne's early work, even throughout the first two or three years of his practice, would have imagined that behind those woodcuts, for all their cleverness, there lay power and even genius, or that the man himself would soon come to be regarded as one of the greatest masters of pure line of his time.

At that time Mr. Sambourne had been working in the engineering draughtsmen's office of Messrs. Penn and Sons, of Greenwich. But the work was not congenial; the " pupil" spent most of his time in sketching, and there is a story —doubtless as apocryphal as it is malicious—that in one of his designs for a steam-engine, he sacrificed so much to "effect" as to carry his steam-pipe through the spokes of the fly-wheel. It was his office companion in misfortune, Mr. Alfred Reed, who secured his friend's release from the thraldom of the iron-bound profession, by seizing the sketch already alluded to and showing it to his father, German Reed. By that gentleman it was submitted to his friend Mark Lemon, who had about that time been writing an "entertainment" for the company at the "Gallery of Illustrations." The result was an editorial summons to the sketcher, and an engagement which has lasted to the present da}-. Thus it was that, with a sketch of John Bright tilting at a quintain under the title of "Pros and Cons," Mr. Sambourne found himself, at the age of twenty-two, a regular contributor to Punch—though he had still to wait until 1871 before he was rewarded with a seat at the Table.

Of artistic education he had had practically none. In the engineering drawing-office he had learned how to handle the pen and to put it to uses which have become a feature of his draughtsmanship. But besides a life-school attendance extending over not more than a fortnight, he had no other teachers than his own eyes and his own intelligence. In his earliest work with the pencil there was a curious use of the point. Suddenly he was called upon, through the unexpected absence of Charles Keene from town, for more important work than that with which he had hitherto been entrusted. This was the half-page head-piece and the tailpiece to the preface to Vol. LIII. Then came promotion to the "small socials" and "half-page socials." Some of the work he did fairly well, founding himself now upon Leech, now upon Keene; but his character and originality were too powerful to follow any man. He began to form a style of his own, and that style did not lend itself to the representation of modern life. It was suited better for decoration than for movement; while the beauty of line and of silhouette which he sought and obtained, in spite of his intense, almost aggressive, individuality, placed him absolutely apart from all the black-and-white artists of the day.

It was, I have said, to the example of his predecessor, Charles H. Bennett, who died in April, 1867 (the very month in which Sambourne's first drawing appeared), that we owe those wonderful initial letters to the "Essence of Parliament" of Shirley Brooks—those intricate drawings which, covering nearly a whole page, were such miracles of invention, of fancy, and of allusion, swarming with figures, overflowing with suggestion, teeming with subtle symbolism. But these things did not come at once. It was not until the "comic cut" idea was put entirely on one side and his imagination allowed full play, that Mr. Sambourne fully developed his powers—his strength of conception, design, and execution. And then it was that he revealed the fact that though a humorist—and invariably, too, a good-humorist— by necessity, he is a classic by feeling.

The artist's personality, as it should, impresses us first, powerfully and irresistibly. While under Mark Lemon, Mr. Sambourne, as an artist, was still unformed. Under Shirley Brooks was awakened his wonderful inventive faculty. Under the regime of masterly inactivity—the happy policy of laissez faire—of Tom Taylor, the talent had burst forth into luxuriance, not to say exuberance. And under Mr. Burnand it was schooled and restrained within severer limits.

It was many years before regular political cartooning* fell to his lot. He illustrated several of Mr. Burnand's serials in Punch, and some of his work out of it. But afterwards he rose to the treatment of actuality. Upon the event of the hour his picture is formed, and each week his work must be forthcoming. There can be no question of failure, no dallying with the subject, however elaborate or unpromising it may appear. A decision must be come to, and that rapidly; and there the artist sits, his watch hung up before him, "one eye on the dial and the other on the drawing-paper," knowing that at the appointed hour the work must be ready for the messenger. Thus the majority of his four thousand designs have been greatly hurried—hurried in thought as well as in execution. Many have been wrought in a single day; the great majority within two days; very few, indeed, have taken more. But when he has the time he wants, what amazing results are achieved! Sir John Tenniel once exclaimed to me: "What extraordinary improvement there is in Sambourne's work! Although a little hard and mechanical, it is of absolutely inexhaustible ingenuity and firmness of touch. His diploma for the Fisheries Exhibition almost gave me a headache to look at it—so full, cram-full of suggestion, yet leaving nothing to the imagination, so perfectly and completely drawn, with a certainty of touch which baffles me to understand how he does it."

For the rest, Mr. Sambourne's method, like his work, is unique. Keen of observation though he is, his memory for detail is not to be compared to that of Sir John Tenniel; and, actuated by that desire for accuracy which he holds desirable in a journal specially devoted to topical allusion, he avails himself extensively of the use of photography. In the cabinets in his studio, filled full of drawers, each labelled according to their contents, over ten thousand photographs are classified: every celebrity of the day, and to a certain extent of the past, British and foreign, at various ages, in various costumes, and in various attitudes; representatives of the Church, the Bench, and the Bar; of Science, Art, Literature, and the Stage; the beasts and birds and insects in and out of the Zoological Gardens; figures by the score, nude and draped; costumes of all ages and every country; soldiers, sailors, and the uniforms of every army and navy; land and sea and sky; boating and botany, nuns and clowns, hospital-nurses, musical instruments, and rifles, locomotives, wheel-barrows, shop-windows, and everything else besides—everything, in short, as he himself declared, "from a weasel to a Welshman "—all are photographed mostly by himself, and all are arranged by himself, in readiness against the demand for accuracy and the exigencies of haste. But when time permits, Mr. Sambourne goes to greater trouble still. Does he require a special uniform? he begs the War Office—not unsuccessfully—to lend him one or two men, or even a detachment; does he want to represent Mr. Gladstone—say, as Wellington (as he did November 2nd, 1889)? he procures the loan of the duke's own raiment, and only stops short at borrowing Mr. Gladstone himself. For his types, too, he takes pains not less thorough. For Britannia's helmet, he made working drawings of the unique Greek piece in the British Museum, and from that had a replica constructed—one of the most notable items in a notable "property" room.

At the back of his house is a paved courtyard, wherein his servant poses as every character under the sun while he is photographed by his master, who then runs inside to develop the plate and make a dash at his drawing. Or he will photograph himself, or the model in the desired attitude; or he will get his friends to pose. Among his sitters there is none more useful than the burly man who serves equally well for "Policeman A 1 " or John Bull, for the Duke of Cambridge or Prince Bismarck. It was he who sat for one of the finest of Mr. Sambourne's "junior cartoons" on the occasion when the great ex-Chancellor had said: "I am like the traveller lost in the snow, who begins to get stiff while the snow-flakes cover him." This picture of the aged and forlorn statesman, accompanied only by his faithful hound, is perhaps the best of the artist's achievements of dignity and pathos—worthy of being named with "Dropping the Pilot" of Sir John Tenniel. His passion for realism is so great that, I remember, when he was engaged on his "Mahogany Tree" for the Jubilee number of Punch—one of the most popular drawings he ever made—he had just such a table duly laid for dinner in the courtyard, with one person sitting at it in order to show the proportion, and photographed it from a window of the house at the necessary elevation. But for his love of accuracy he would not have done these things; nor, but for his love of naturalism, could he have given us his numerous fine studies of Nature. And but for this, Mr. Punch would never have printed one or two of his Norwegian sketches, such as "The Church-going Bell," in which there was not the slightest attempt at humour or fun—nothing but a calm and reposeful love of Nature, the deep, sad impression on the mind and heart of the artist as he watches the northern sun dip in sleepy majesty behind the panting waves. Like Rabelais, he can use the pencil to greater ends under cover of the motley, and encase bitter truths with the gilt of a printed jest. Like Giotto and his legendary feat, he can draw you a perfect circle with his pen—and perhaps he is the only man in the country who can do it. His is the rare gift that in him sense of fun, of dignity, and of art is equal. He will brook nothing more serious in his sallies than chaff and banter; and yet his kindly art, based upon Nature and observation of the work of others, has, by its very truth, made him enemies even on foreign thrones. Nevertheless, it is less as a politician and a satirist that he claims recognition; it is primarily as an artist that he will assuredly be remembered when his place among his countrymen has to be determined.

- The History of "Punch", MH Spielman, 1895

His diploma for the Fisheries Exhibition in 1883 is repeatedly described as a remarkable piece of artwork. The Hull Museums description of their holding of a couple of copies is:

Two engraved certificates (mounted on linen backing) with award printed within an illustrated border of national and symbolic figures and motifs, with the bust of Queen Victoria at the top centre with trident, eagle, orb and sceptre in front of a curved rim against the sky with seabirds and fishing implements within the outer allegorical figures of 'Aqua Marina' and 'Aqua Viva' and two scenes below of a ship on the high seas and a boat on a lake either side of the Royal Coat of Arms. The central text after the title consists of 'The Commissioners Appointed by Her Majesty's Government have upon the Recommendation of the International Jury Awarded a Gold Medal with this Diploma To: Knowles and Knowles, For: Trawl Net, Beam and Heads on one copy (on stretcher frame) and For: Manilla Net Twines on the other (cloth backed and rolled). Marked with name of the designer/artist at the bottom left 'Linley Sambourne, 1883'.

I haven't been able to find an image online.

Addendum, 28th Aug 2011:  see Ptak Science Books (Man is But a Worm--Darwin and Redon, 1881-1883) for an interesting exploration of the historical context of the Punch cartoon, along with a look at the work of the French symbolist Odilon Redon, who was among the first artists to create works based on Darwin's Origin of Species.

1. Just one section of Chris Mullen's extensive and fascinating The Visual Telling of Stories website.

- Ray

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Apocalypse Moby

Via MetaFilter, a one-link post - but too good to relegate to the out-takes sidebar: Apocalypse Moby, an absolutely superb piece of writing by Perry Hall:

Apocalypse Moby is a literary "gene-splice" between two great stories: Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The stories are similar: men onboard a ship who must travel across treacherous waters in search of a legend they must confront, who, along their way, have adventures, contemplate the nature of the world and bear witness to its darkness. While faithful to both Melville and Coppola's respective masterpieces, Apocalypse Moby transforms them into something wonderfully strange, hallucinatory, funny and new altogether.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Bizarre Notes, bizarre cheers

I've mentioned Notes and Queries previously; the American equivalent, published in the late 19th century by SC and LM Gould of Manchester, NH, are also worth reading for interesting Victoriana. They're online in the Internet Archive:

An initial dip found this from 1888:

College Cheers. The following are the cheers of the leading colleges of the United States:

Dartmouth.— "Wah, who, wah! wah, who, wah! da, didi, Dartmouth! Wah, who, wah!"
Columbia.— "Hurray! hurray! harray! C-o-l-u-m-b-i-a!"
Cornell.— "Cornell! Cornell! Cornell! I yell, yell, yell, Cornell!"
Harvard.— "'Rah, 'rah, 'rah! 'rah, 'rah 'rah! 'rah, 'rah, 'rah! Harvard!"
Phinceton.— "Hurray! hurray! hurray! Tiger—ale-e-e! boom! ah!"
Rutgers.— "Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Bow-wow-wow!"
Stevens Institute.— "Boom 'rah! boom 'rah! boom 'rah! Stevens!"
University of Pennsylvania.— "Hoorah! Hoorah! Hoorah! Penn-syl-van-i-a!"
Wesleyan.— "'Rah, 'rah, 'rah! Wesleyan!"
Williams.— "'Rah! 'rah! 'rah! Willlyums! yams! yums! Willyums!"
Yale.— "'Rah, 'rah, 'rah! 'rah, 'rah, 'rah! 'rah, 'rah, 'rah! Yale!"

The World Almanac and Encyclopedia (Press Pub. Co., The New York World, 1906) has a list of several hundred of page 340 - US readers (or ones elsewhere via a proxy server) can find it via Google Books - prefaced with

This collection of cheers has been made by the World Almanac, by correspondence with officials of the respective institutions, and revised to 1907. It is believed to be the largest collection ever published.

... and further gems include

Hamline University.— "Boom get a rat trap! Bigger than a cat trap! Boom get a rat trap! Bigger than a cat trap! Boom! Cannibal! Cannibal! Zip! Boom! Bah! Hamline! Hamline! Rah! Rah!"
University of Kansas.— "Rock-Chalk! Jay-Hawk! K.U.!"
Pennsylvania College.— "Brackey Corax, Corix, Coree! Brackey Corax, Corix, Coree, Heigh Oh! Umpty Ah! Hulla Belloo, Bellee, Bellah, Gettysburg, Gettysburg, Gettysburg! Rah, Rah-Rah!"

(Some refer to university fixtures: the Kansas "Rock Chalk" refers to a limestone outcrop on the campus. Some clearly have classical origins, like that of Pennsylvania College, which is one of a number based on the frog chorus "Brekekekex koax koax" in Aristophanes' The Frogs. Some are plain inexplicable).

This formulization of chants at school/college sports matches is all pretty strange - as the Wikipedia article on Cheering puts it, "this custom has no real analogue at English schools and universities". And the more I read of US school/college traditions - see, for example, Traditions of Washington & Jefferson College - the gladder I am I went to British ones, where you can just attend, get your education, and leave. Ritual chants are just the tip of the iceberg of a set of effectively compulsory tribal systems, whether for school allegiance or exclusive social infrastructures. In relation to a country that places such rhetorical emphasis on Freedom, it's a bizarre contrast to see an educational system that presumably makes life extremely hard for any student who isn't interested in participating in mandatory conformist ritual 1. But as Princeton University's Task Force Report on "Eating Clubs" shows, such institutions are deeply difficult to eradicate.

1. Authoritarian systems are often very close in their fixtures. See the US Bellamy salute. Remind you of anything? See also Newman & Byrne: alternate histories for a reference to Newman & Byrne's Back in the USSA. Its lead story, In the Air, holds a dark mirror up to real-world USA and finds some things, such as Eagle Scouts, are little different.

Addendum: Felix Grant has commented at The Growlery - see
Bizarrest, bizarrer, and merely bizarre... - with the fair caveat that the British educational system, in quite recent history, has had its own share of weird ritual. As I replied there, this undoubtedly still applies in some sectors, but I was thinking of the present-day UK mainstream state system and ordinary universities; for example there is no British university that makes a student effectively a non-person on campus, excluded from large segments of the university's social circuit, if they won't jump through weird initiation hoops to join some student body.

- Ray

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Musical improvisation

A repair tip. Yesterday the shoulder straps on my old piano accordion finally gave up the ghost. I needed the accordion for a music session in the evening, my bayan straps were too wide, and getting compatible accordion straps at short notice in Exeter was ... unlikely.  But I had a brainwave while shopping: the near-perfect emergency replacement - functional and decorative - turned out to be a pair of nylon webbing dog-leads from the pet section of Wilkinsons (the Woolworths clone that replaced the Exeter Woolworths store).

- Ray

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Colin Wilson: favourite books

Colin Stanley, bibliographer for the philosopher and author Colin Wilson and editor of the journal Colin Wilson Studies, sent me news of the forthcoming book of which he's editor: Around the Outsider: Essays Presented to Colin Wilson on the Occasion of His 80th Birthday (p/b 345pp, O Books, 1 May 2011, ISBN-10: 1846946689). I don't have a contents list, but it looks of interest:

In May 1956, aged just 24, Colin Wilson achieved success and overnight fame with his philosophical study of alienation and transcendence in modern literature and thought, The Outsider. Fifty-four years on, and never out of print in English, the book is still widely read and discussed, having been translated into over thirty languages. In a remarkably prolific career, Wilson, a true polymath, has since written over 170 titles: novels, plays and non-fiction on a variety of subjects.This volume brings together twenty essays by scholars of Colin Wilson’s work worldwide and is published in his honour to mark the author’s 80th birthday. Each contributor has provided an essay on their favourite Wilson book (or the one they consider to be the most significant). The result is a varied and stimulating assessment of Wilson’s writings on philosophy, psychology, literature, criminology and the occult with critical appraisals of four of his most thought-provoking novels.Altogether a fitting tribute to a writer and thinker who, as one contributor, George C. Poulos, predicts: “Looking back..., will be acknowledged as the philosopher to have most influenced events in the 21st century.”

My own nomination for a favourite Colin Wilson work would be his SF novel The Mind Parasites. It's very hard to characterise - perhaps a philosophical SF thriller with strong roots in HP Lovecraft (the story was suggested by August Derleth) and more than a little AE Van Vogt.  I regularly re-read it.

The setting is more or less now (it was near-future in 1967, when the book was written) and the intellectual protagonist is an archaeologist, Dr Gilbert Austin. The book begins with Austin hearing the news that an old friend, Karel Weissmann, has committed suicide. Shocked, he finds he has been named executor for dealing with Weissmann's papers, which are delivered to his flat - but then is rapidly sidetracked when he hears of a major breakthrough in dating basalt figurines from Turkey.

A few weeks later, not having got to attend to the papers, he goes with his friend and colleague Wolfgang Reich to supervise an archaeological study of Hittite remains in Karatepe, Turkey. Initially depressed by the news from Weissman's secretary, who has glanced at the papers and concluded Weissman to be paranoid - suffering from a belief that "they" were out to get him - he gets on well with the project and decides to stay the year in Turkey. The dig begins to produce peculiar and groundbreaking finds: radiometric dating shows an artefact to be over a million years old, and a geophysical scan finds a large block - inscribed to "Abhoth the Dark" - two miles underground.

Things go silly when the newspapers get hold of the news. A succession of accidents at the site, plus the observation that "Abhoth the Unclean" appears in the works of HP Lovecraft, leads to media hysteria about the dig, tabloid stories nicknaming the site "Kadath" after the city of the "Great Old Ones" in Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Exhausted and unwell, Austin returns his flat in Diyarbakir for a rest, and begins reading Weissmann's papers, particularly a testimony called "Historical Reflections".

"Historical Reflections" explain Weissman's theory that the human race has been afflicted for several centuries by a kind of 'psychic vampire' that drags down the human mind into evil and negativity. Argued closely, with detailed historical references, it convinces Austin - who finds the theory fits all the sensations he has experienced of something trying to stop him reading the papers. He tells Reich, who briefly suspects a hoax, then is equally convinced that there is a threat to humanity. They make it their project to learn more, and begin studying phenomenology via the works of Husserl, as a means to access deeper levels of their own minds. Soon, they begin to experience expanded mental capacity and powers of psychokinesis. After that, it's not difficult to initiate a group of other intellectuals - artists and scientists.

Disaster strikes when the group is collectively attacked by the parasites. Austin wakes up and finds he is unable to move. After enduring hours of increasing psychic oppression, he finds he can draw on a powerful 'life force' to defeat the attack. By that time it is morning, and he receives the news that twenty of the initiates have committed suicide in the night. A handful have survived - those who had their own strategies for lasting until Austin released the 'energy blast' (which evidently worked at some level of the collective consciousness, and saved geographically separated individuals). After making contact telepathically, they decide to go public.  Using the inexplicable mass suicide as evidence of the danger, they reveal the parasites to the world via the fiction that dark forces have indeed been raised by the excavation of "Kadath". They reinforce this story by levitating and destroying the Abhoth Block by psychokinesis during a press visit to the excavation.

At this point the USA takes an interest.  Austin and his colleagues are offered high-security facilities to train replacement adepts; meanwhile, it becomes clear that the parasites are fermenting a Europe-Africa war between racist factions.  One of Austin's new recruits has the intuition that the Moon is involved and that getting off-planet will precipitate some change. The group are launched into space in a NASA craft and, and after momentary agony, find they are free of the parasites (which turn out be a "psychic cancer" - a split-off segment of personality in each person - initiated by radiation from the Moon).

They return, now with immense mental superpowers: enough to fly the ship without engines, to stop the war by projecting a telepathic image of alien monsters (and thus unite Earth), and to turn the Moon's malign face away from Earth. Finally they leave Earth, evidently to join a "cosmic police" with similar intelligence.

That is the bare bones of the book, omitting the erudite - or often faux-erudite, since they treat a deal of Forteana as fact - digressions and conversations on philosophy and history. Yet these are not precisely digressions: they're the meat of the novel, which dramatises an existential look at a central problem of the human condition, the inability of most humans to utilise the powers of our own minds. As Wilson wrote in the introduction to another of his SF novels, The Philosopher's Stone:

... a couple of years later, an analogy thrown out in my Introduction to the New Existentialism became the seed of a science fiction parable about ‘original sin’ - man’s strange inability to get the best out of his consciousness. I cast it in the Lovecraft tradition, and it became The Mind Parasites, which was published in due course by August Derleth. Its reception by English critics was unexpectedly good; I suspect this is because I didn’t sound as if I was serious.

And in Existentially speaking: essays on the philosophy of literature:

It was an attempt to state symbolically what I felt to be wrong with human beings: that through art and mysticism, we obtain glimpses of a tremendous freedom which seems, in effect, to be beyond our reach.

A number of sources mention that the Lovecraftian elements arose because Derleth (who gets a cameo appearance in the novel) was offended by Wilson's negative summary of Lovecraft in his litcrit selection The Strength to Dream, and dared Wilson to write something in the canon. The degree of reported offense varies. Howard Dossor's Colin Wilson: The Man and his Mind says Derleth was "mildly offended", while The Necronomicon Files says he "voiced his outrage".

Whatever the novel's inspiration, Colin Stanley, in a conversation we had a while back, described it as one of the important books in Wilson's canon.  There's a good review by Bob Corbett - here - focusing on that side of the book; and Google Books has a preview of Arrows to the Farther Shore: The Mind Parasites and the Philosopher's Stone in Nicholas Tredell's 1982 The Novels of Colin Wilson.  The late William Burroughs liked the book too: see RealityStudio for a transcript of his review in the underground newspaper Rat.

Addendum: I just looked at the source code of the Colin Wilson World news page and found further details of Around the Outsider:

This landmark book of 345 pages, which collects 20 essays by academics, authors and other key commentators internationally, is edited by freelance writer Colin Stanley, Wilson's bibliographer and the managing editor of Paupers' Press who edits the series Colin Wilson Studies featuring extended essays on Wilson's work by scholars worldwide. Colin Stanley also provides the preface and two essays for Around the Outsider.

Contributors from the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand have written on their favourite Wilson book, or one which has special significance for them. The outcome is a diverse and indispensable assessment of Wilson’s writings on philosophy, psychology, literature, criminology, the occult and autobiography over more than 50 years, with critical appraisals of four of his most thought-provoking novels. Five of the contributors are musicians as well as writers.

The line-up includes three professors, Thomas Bertonneau (literature), Stephen Clark (philosophy) and Stanley Krippner (psychology), the author and critic Nicholas Tredell, the author and former editor of the literary magazine Abraxas, Paul Newman, the author Gary Lachman, a founding member of the rock group Blondie who was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, and the author Steve Taylor, a lecturer and researcher in transpersonal psychology.

Other contributing authors include Simon Brighton, Antoni Diller, Chris Nelson, David Power and journalist Geoff Ward, who established and runs the Colin Wilson World website.

The novelist Laura Del Rivo, a contemporary of Wilson, contributes an appendix, as does writer and poet Vaughan Robertson, and author Terry Welbourn with a personal appreciation of Wilson and T C Lethbridge, the archaeologist and psychic investigator. Murray Ewing, of the David Lindsay website at, Philip Coulthard of, and George Poulos complete the list.

I didn't see it initially as it appears invisible to browsers, probably due to the ghastly code produced by Microsoft Office Live.

- Ray