Monday, 30 April 2012

Genesis of a Novel: Richard Nettell

Department of little-known authors. The previous post actually grew from pursuing the background to this pleasant little illustrated booklet, A Pictorial Guide to the Isle of Wight by RG Nettell. It's undated - I'd guess 1960 at the latest - and I'd never heard of the author; but Googling finds his full name is Richard Geoffrey Nettell.

I checked the name, because the booklet reveals him to be more than a writer of guidebooks. It ends with a bibliography of his novels (I've filled in the dates): Garfin's God (1948), Midsummer Spring (1943), Brose and Butter (1948), Drive the Dead Leaves (1940), Rum and Green Ginger (1946), Wait for the Wagon (1939), The Hearthstone Heart (1952), and An Island Romance (19??).

Google Books adds the non-fiction Your Career in Poultry Breeding (1946), and two more novels: Girl in Blue Pants (1967) and Naked to Mine Enemy (1968), the latter two works written in mid-life after what the Pooter column in The Times called "a bad patch":
In middle age a writer looking down can get vertigo. Richard Nettell published several novels before and during the war and then struck a bad patch. He had been an aircraft inspector and a pedigree-poultry breeder (which has its difficulties for a man with a crippled arm). Declining to look down, at 58 he wrote a contemporary story of a protest movement and then a historical romance.
- The Times, Saturday, Apr 27, 1968
I managed to hack from the Google Books snippet view a feature from the long-defunct journal Books and Bookmen. Genesis of a Novel is an enlightening piece by Nettell, giving a lot of autobiographical insights as well as the research background of his 1968 historical novel Naked to Mine Enemy.

Naked to Mine Enemy sounds a good yarn. It's set in part in the Isle of Wight during a turbulent period of history - the Anglo-French War of 1627-1629, part of the Thirty Years' War - around the time when George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham was stabbed to death in a Portsmouth pub (an event fictionalized by Alexander Dumas in The Three Musketeers). The murder is generally accepted to have been committed by John Felton, a disgruntled and crippled veteran of the Duke's 1627 campaign; he did come forward and claim responsibility, apparently expecting to be let off because of the Duke's major unpopularity. He wasn't, and was hanged in 1628.

Nettell disagrees about Felton's guilt, considering that it was out of character and that there plenty of others who had it in for the Duke. This isn't the chief thrust of the story, however; the central plot concerns the romance between the widowed Lady Frances Worsley and Colonel Brett, Captain of Southsea Castle, starting from their initial mutual dislike, and leading to their eventual marriage, as told in a footnote (page 153) of The Oglander Memoirs.  Anyhow. I'll let the author explain further:

Genesis of a novel / Richard Nettell
An author on the thought and research which went into the making of his work of historical fiction — Naked to Mine Enemy just published by Hodder.

Literary advisers had been suggesting that the next book should be another historical romance: that my personal enthusiasms should be channelled into the setting, the period and the characters. This was because my first novel [Wait for the Wagon], which had 37 notices, was labelled 'historical' by the TLS; the Cornish setting around 1810-1840 was authentic and the principal characters had gravestones in Breage churchyard. Caroline Rowe was the heroine; she married Joel Andre-Wartha, my great-grandmother's eldest brother. Beyond the story, she remarried with another Joel. She is remembered as having said, 'Both Joels, and both devils!'

The publishers advanced £20 and remaindered 300 copies, if I remember correctly. It did not seem important at that time, in comparison with getting into print. A few years later a novel appeared with a similar theme; there was a distinct resemblance between the heroes— both simple, muscular country boys; one a wrestler, the other a shot putter. Each owed his athletic success to his girl's shrewd knowledge of the sport and to her coaching. Apart from these coincidental, a major incident in each had an amazing common factor. But this second story was a best-seller; it was filmed and its title is still featured on the writer's dust cover as his greatest achievement. This is interesting; nothing more. These things happen: a snip from an old Tribune reads, 'A public service is rendered every time a writer draws attention to George Douglas Brown's grim House With the Green Shutters, even if the rest of the article is devoted to Mr Cronin.'

[RG - I assume he's referring to David Harry Walker's 1950 Geordie, later filmed as Geordie].
My home is the Isle of Wight, where Blackpooling influences are felt but we still have large areas designated as of outstanding natural beauty. And we have many historical associations apart from King Charles' detention and his daughter's death in Carisbrooke Castle. Almost anyone who is anyone in English history crossed to the island — for sport, a wife, death or burial. John Donne came for bloodstones to cut for his friends' signet rings (anchors of hope): his poor wife, to her sister's for her twelfth baby. Edward VI was tutored by Dr Cheke from Mottistone. Elizabeth I took her Secretary of State, Walsingham, founder of the Secret Service, her divine and her physician from Newport, although she does not seem to have slept there. She was, as her ladies used to giggle, perhaps occupied elsewhere. In our most uppity hour, Charles I came with dukes, lords and earls by the dozen, to review troops bound for Rhé.

There had been a great time of building and prosperity about the second half of the 16th and the early 17th century. Shakespeare's Southampton, when he was Captain of the Wight, called it his little kingdom. Many of today's farmhouses are Jacobean.
For these years, the standby of all historians is the diary of Sir John Oglander of Nunwell — A Royalist's Notebook, edited by Francis Bamford, and The Oglander Memoirs, edited by WH Long. From reading these, years ago, I had remembered some footnotes had a recurring theme — 'Killed at the Isle of Rhé', 'Died in the first assault at Rhé', 'Died of wounds received at Rhé'. They aroused curiosity, and suggested a story with local impacts. Research discovered it, full of action, chivalry and terror, and a fearful slaughter through tragic ineptitude at the top. For the most part, England's hereditary leaders showed themselves as so much worm-eaten, dead wood.
Right! Next, the love story. It was there, in about a third of one page in the Notebook—a classic, ageless. What old Sir John told is perfect: the untold must have been excitingly problematical. A knight and baronet's widow, Lady Frances Worsley, was young and one of the handsomest little women that ever our island saw; a Neville— the family that produced Warwick the Kingmaker — and consciously proud of it: and wealthy, lying fallow five years, despising all men and with no liking for any save a numble, witty, dancing fellow.

A regiment was billeted on the island: a company in Godshill, just beyond her gates. Their captain was full cousin of the King's handsome favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, in supreme command of the expedition to Rhé. But this captain was burly, clumsy, not too clean in his linen, a soldier first and last, who felt himself unattractive to women.

The situation was gunpowder, and when they met, aversions sparked. It was Whoomph! and instant war. Her tongue could not lash him enough; he made duty an excuse to provoke her, unmercifully. Each recognised in the other something that made life exciting, a passionate out-and-out rejection.

War and separation worked on them. When he returned, he felt and looked fit only to die. She did the unbelievable, by taking him into her house. She set the island knights and gentry by the ears. Would she marry him? 'If she does not,' Sir John wrote, 'she'll do worse.' Personal involvement? Remember Duncan Crow's recap of the Yelverton caseTheresa. By the time he had told all he knew of that Victorian girl with her red-gold hair, one had the impression that he was more than a little in love with her — as, in fact, any reader could also be. Miss Margaret Body saw that much the same had happened over Frances. She fascinated.

I live only a few miles from her home. She must have looked from her windows  — now long demolished — towards my lane; often ridden that way. It is an ancient road, on the fringe between arable and marsh lands, under the downs. From my windows eight farms with names traceable in the Domesday Book are within sight, as well as Frances' Appuldurcombe. She was a kind of Shakespearian heroine: she lived, a personality, mature and articulate about herself. A dolly lady, it was impossible not to fall in love with her.

There are guest-characters. Buckingham and John Felton, who is said to have murdered him. Maybe he did. but I doubt it. Felton had a crippled hand; this would affect his character. No, Ian Nial [sic]. in his first novel, No Resting Place, had as his non-hero a tinker with a withered arm; nothing will convince me that successful story was not based on a fallacy. I had experienced what I am talking about.

At 18 months old, long before it became fashionable to call infantile paralysis poliomyelitis, I took it in my right arm and leg. At the sanatorium where the baby was sent for electrical shock treatment, he would begin after lunch, every day, lobbying the patients along the verandas, trying to find one who would persuade the nurses to wash, not bath him—a mini torture case.

I admire the disabled who occasionally appear on television; they are so rational, never having allowed themselves to be soured. At my age, that sort of thing no longer matters, but years ago I carried a chip. My mother cherished a photo showing me clutching a bat in my right hand, and a ball in my left; within my memory I have never been able to do that. It exonerated her, because it proved I had been born as normal as the others.

The early years are the Worst; grown-ups talk over a child's head, and his friends tell him the truth. I can remember, at the beginning of my scratchy education, the infant mistress who told me that gentleman always shook with his right hand. The implication sank in: no right hand worth offering, no gentleman! She was a Miss Longbotham — a gift to a small boy.

At that same school, an adored little girl said, 'Of course, no one will marry you!'. As it turned out, one I wanted, did. I cheated, naturally, by asking her at a moment when she was terrified by a violent thunderstorm; but the marriage lines were handed to her before she could change her mind.

I have a theory that society is embarrassed by disabled persons. It rejects them, as a means towards forgetting them. This is not so obvious when the disability is clean and surgical; then the courts and insurance step in to help. But the congenital, the virus infections and muscular degeneration are troublesome. There is a subconscious conviction that with any bodily disability goes a mental inferiority of the same ratio — an article in the Guardian of March 27, 1968, told of a home where the confused, the socially unpleasant and the physically disabled were all roomed up together. This is the folklore of punishment — act of God, the sins of the fathers' visiting! There is a superstitious reluctance to help us help ourselves, a fear of offending the Great Spirit. Thy will, not mine, O Lord. The classic example is the thalidomide case, when parents had to lean very heavily indeed on the Health Service to get an admission that the drug had been prescribed in each of the disastrous pregnancies. Have the babies even yet had official recognition of their right to security?

When Ernie Bevin scraped the barrel, he had us in training centres; those were the only years when society needed us. Collected up, we looked like the beggars out of Victor Hugo. Engineer, highly skilled, was my official classification. After the war, I was lucky to score Clerk. With redundancy, we were the first out. Only my wife's decision to work, on condition that I went back to writing, saved me from going on to Ice Cream Vendor. The disabled are back to the wall. Of course, SET finishes us; we shall be wiped off.

So, to Ian Nial's little tinker. A man with a withered arm might be aggressive, but he does not get himself into fights. He will avoid violence, because he is scared of losing what he has; he is already halfway towards helplessness. He will attack with words. That is why I believe that Felton never quite put through his intention of knifing Buckingham. The island was seething with discontent after forced loans and unpaid billeting; the Duke had dealth harshly with a crowd of women and children at St Martin, on Rhé; several apart from Felton were eager to settle accounts, and someone else did on that morning in Portsmouth.

- Books and Bookmen, Volume 13, 1967, pp402-403
There isn't much else online about Richard Nettell, except basic dates; he was born in 1907 and died in 1984. Wootton Bridge Historical's online reprints of Wight Life magazine have a portrait sketch of him. A number of directories of author pseudonyms mention that he also wrote short horror fiction under the pseudonym Richard Kenneggy. I suspect the award-winning literary journalist and children's books editor Stephanie Nettell is a relative.

- Ray

Wight Writers (1957)

I just found an old copy of Books and Bookmen that gives a glimpse into the genteel world of Isle of Wight writers in the mid-1950s.

by Patricia Sibley

J.B. Priestley, Margaret Campell Barnes, Aubrey de Selincourt are among many authors who have made their homes on the Isle of Wight. This account of the local Writers' Circle shows how some of the famous join in helping the lesser known writers.

On a map the Solent looks narrow as a river ; only islanders know how effectively it cuts off the mainland world, so that it is all the more necessary for local writers to meet together. To be honest, the Isle of Wight Writer's Circle seldom regrets its isolation, since it brings two blessings, comparative peace and a number of well-known authors in retreat.

We are fortunate to meet in the civilised comfort of a private house where our hostesses dispense tea and sympathy when necessary. Meetings are over only when the last member decides to leave. Once a new recruit brought his novel and read it right through to a stupified audience, finally departing at three in the morning; it is that sort of a circle.

Formal and informal

Activities include two meetings a month, one for a talk, the other, less formal, for reading and discussion: an annual luncheon and a garden party. The Journal, a file of typescript containing anonymous work of all kinds is circulated to members for comment. This is edited, most efficiently by Kate Stevens, expert on office procedure, broadcaster, author of books for children and innumerable verses for greetings cards.
Recently we had the fascinating and instructive experience of being tape-recorded and then listening to the play-back — the work of Harold Lewis who reads his own stories on BBC Children's Hour. Our late and much-missed president, George Holland, one-time dramatic critic of the Illustrated London News, takes with him to a new home in Australia a tape recording of farewells from us all.

Local settings

One of our best known members is Margaret Campbell Barnes, the historical novelist. Isobel The Fair is her latest book, though Mary Of Carisbrooke is the general favourite here because of its local setting. Mrs Campbell Barnes is always busy, either with actual writing, or the meticulous research which precedes it; even so she spares the time every year not only to judge our annual short story competition, but to write a detailed constructive criticism of each story. She is at present engaged in writing a new novel set in Tudor times.

Aubrey de Selincourt, author of yachting books and translations of the classics is one of our Vice-Presidents. His book on The Isle of Wight reveals a deep though unsentimental affection for its countryside. He is well known also for his children's stories which grow out of sailing adventures with his own family along the South Coast.

Naturally boats loom large. Other members include Uffa Fox, yacht designer and writer, sailing companion to Prince Philip. John Scott Hughes, yachting correspondent of The Times, and Commander Radford, who has turned his wide experience to good use in writing sea stories and a serial for Children's Hour.

Margot Arnold and RG Nettell are two novelist members with many books to their credit. Mrs. Arnold is at work on a new novel set in the Isle of Wight.

Two other members are well known specialist writers, the Rev. Walter Fancutt who writes religious articles for various national magazines, and "Margaret Harwood", famous as a newspaper "Aunt". No one will dispute that our proudest "possession", until his recent death, was our Vice-President, Alfred Noyes, who lived at St. Lawrence for many years, having learned to know and love the island before failing sight shut out its beauty. I remember two red letter occasions when he has talked to us, ranging with effortless memory over the whole field of English poetry, but best of all reciting his own - a deep hypnotic river of sound.

We are proud of the famous ones, but for the greater part we are all strugglers, so that one acceptance is the occasion for general rejoicing. We are mostly spare-time writers, members of that strange race who hurry home from office, works, school or shopping with dreams, net of television or tennis, or even of a "nice" book, but simply of a pen in the hand and a new, white page.

- Books and Bookmen: Volumes 3-4, 1957
It all sounds like a bastion of post-WW2 Middle England, and I do wonder if the description of the then 77-year-old Noyes's poetry recitations as "a deep hypnotic river of sound" is a euphemism for "bored us all into unconsciousness". Nevertheless, a name-check is of interest, and finds some names that have stood the test of time, and others that haven't.

RG Nettell is one of many mid-20th century novelists who had perfectly solid careers, but aren't remembered: see the next post - Genesis of a Novel - for more about him. But Margaret Campbell Barnes (1891-1962) is still read and in print for her corpus of historical novels (see Fantastic Fiction for a bibliography). Aubrey de Sélincourt (1894-1962) is probably best known for his niche work in the classics - though his influence runs further: the poet Mimi Khalvati recalls him as an inspiring English teacher when she was at school in Shanklin (see interview). The yachtsman Uffa Fox (1898-1972) was a household name in my childhood, as a sailing pundit and eccentric, but nowadays he and John Scott Hughes aren't much remembered outside boating circles. Margot Arnold (1925-), if it's the same person, is still going strong as a mystery fiction writer. Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) is still a poet of respected reputation, and an interesting writer for his breadth of work, which ranged through poetry, Catholic apologetics, a celebration of science in his The Torch-Bearers trilogy, and his 1940 apocalyptic SF novel The Last Man. Many of his works are old enough to be on the Internet Archive.

- Ray

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Bayan time (16): Strange moments

What they call the RRATD at Topjam
How many people find themselves in a small Devon town walking home in a rainstorm pushing a pram containing a large Ukrainian button key accordion wrapped in a towel?

Occasionally I find myself looking at what I'm doing, and boggling at how completely weird, and unguessable as a future, it would have seemed to my younger self (30-40 years ago). I'm sure others must experience these peculiar moments.

It was a very good evening. I played at the Topsham Folk Club: the excellent Por una cabeza (a very nice tango that's appeared in a lot of films, such as True Lies and Scent of a Woman) and Ghost Riders in the Sky ( which I treat as borderline folk, it having resonances with the Wild Hunt and the standard folk motif of a dying/dead rake warning someone to mend their ways). They went down well, as far as I can tell - the organiser commented on the impressiveness of playing the equivalent of a grand piano on your knee - and they're sufficiently ecumenical to take along to the next Topjam (non-folk) session. Then, there being half an hour to spare, I wound down with some friends in the adjacent Lighter Inn.

The Folk Club has moved to Topsham's Route 2 Café Bar from its regular spot in the Globe Hotel for the duration of the latter's renovation. I don't know what, if any, discussions are going on, but I think Route 2 is much superior for music. It has very good acoustics, a pleasant bright atmosphere, and easy access to the bar and toilets during performances. This is in strong contrast to the Globe setup, which was a gloomy dining-room with the furniture shifted to accommodate the event. I think the club would do well to stay at Route 2.

Addendum: although it's not quite the same thing, I find there is precedent for transporting musical instruments on prams. Check out the Busker Organ Music Site, which has many examples of organs transported on what, in many cases, are clearly adapted prams.

- Ray

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Stories descriptive of the Isle of Wight

The irrelevant image of Smeaton's Eddystone Lighthouse
(nowhere near the Isle of Wight) used as the frontispiece

I just ran into a curiosity while skimming Isle of Wight literature: Stories descriptive of the Isle of Wight (Emma MacAllan, General Protestant Episcopal Sunday School Union and Church Book Society, New York, 1859, Internet Archive storiesdescripti00macaiala).

The book is dedicated ...
To the Children of the Church of America,
These simple Stories
are affectionately inscribed
... and comprises a set of six rather slight tales of religiously instructive excursions around the southern Isle of Wight.

Most, catering to the young American readership, have some US angle such as US visitors or ex-pats. The storylines really aren't worth writing home about, and didactic religious works aren't to the modern taste anyway. But they do contain pleasant and geographically accurate evocations of the landscape, particularly around the hamlet of Luccombe and the village of Bonchurch (in the stories they're "L—" and "B—", but they're easily identified by scenery).

The lead story, Easter Garlands, concerns Agnes and Robert Landon, children who prefer to spend Easter exploring the glades of the Luccombe undercliff rather than attending Easter services - but Agnes's chance meeting with the kindly Miss Howard in Bonchurch churchyard leads to them attending Confirmation.

The Little Zoophyte Gatherers concerns the Melville family, American visitors staying at Blackgang. The daughter Grace visits the chine, the "aluminous chalybeate spring" and the beach, meeting some local children to whom she proselytizes as they collect sea anemones. One child, "little Grace Wilson", collapses and later dies of congenital heart disease, but her family are comforted by Grace's kind attention.

The Children of St Catherine's Chantry concerns the return to the village of "C—" (Chale) of "a clergyman of the American church" who was born in the Isle of Wight. He is impressed by the piety and courage of a group of children he finds sheltering from a storm in "St Catherine's Chantry" (the tower of St Catherine's Oratory). Moved by sympathy - they're also homesick for their birthplace - he arranges before leaving to send them a commemorative Church Service book.

Sand Drawings concerns the middle-class Herbert family of "Whitethorn Lodge", somewhere in the western Isle of Wight (it's described as being within walking distance of both Mottistone and Alum Bay). Some of the family visit Alum Bay and get into making sand paintings and sand bottles. They encourage local children to do likewise, and their collective industry funds the establishment of a juvenile library.

A Moorland Ramble concerns an early morning walk by the recovering invalid narrator (an ex-pat American) from "B—" up to the summit of the downs above Ventnor. Tired and lost, she is helped by a kindly family, discussing hymns and the unity of the English and American church with their young son, who guides her homeward.

The final story, A Parish Festival, is set on 25th January 1858, the marriage day of the Princess Royal. The narrator, "an elderly maiden lady" and another American ex-pat, is living at "H—" (I can't work out where this is) and has a pleasant day visiting an invalid child, taking an American visitor to Carisbrooke Castle and Newport, and then joining festivities at a local school.

The Hermit, Benjamin Zobel - colour-adjusted

I was particularly interested in Sand Drawings, which is essentially describing the 19th century vogue for "marmotinto" (aka "marmortinto" - literally, "painted marble"): paintings made by gluing coloured sand to a board with gum arabic. As the Wikipedia article explains, its initial popularity took off in the late 1700s via the work of Benjamin Zobel (a friend of the artist George Morland), but the use of the vari-coloured sands from Alum Bay revived it in the 1800s Isle of Wight. There are still a few exponents, notably Brian Pike (see Brian Pike Sandpaintings and Fine Art America).

I haven't been able to find out anything about Emma MacAllan, the author of Stories descriptive of the Isle of Wight. The catalogues show she also wrote, for the same publisher: Ivah and Llugwy: A Tale of North Wales (1861); The Cottagers of Penmaen-Maur: A Christmas Story (1863), Tales for the Whitsun Season (1864) and The Miner's Hut (1864). But the person behind them is a mystery, and I can't even work out how much, if any, direct acquaintance she had with the Isle of Wight; the locations could easily have been researched from the abundant 19th century travelogues of the area.

- Ray

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Salute of the Jugger

Salute of the Jugger - US trailer

Department of films I unaccountably like: the 1989 Salute of the Jugger (a.k.a. The Blood of Heroes), set in a post-apocalyptic future in what's evidently Australia (it was filmed around Coober Pedy). It follows a disparate team of "Juggers": players of a brutal sport just called "The Game", that involves armoured heavies fighting it out while a lighter but still violent player - a "Quick"- attempts to gain possession of the ball (a dog's skull) and place it on the other team's stake.

The chief threads concern the pursuit of redemption by its outcast leader, Sallow (played by Rutger Hauer), and the pursuit of ambition of Kidda, a peasant girl (played by Joan Chen) whose talent as a Quick and joining the revered "League" will be her only chance of enjoying the opulent lifestyle in what passes for civilisation, the underground Nine Cities.

In many ways this is staple post-apocalyptic stuff: desert setting, nasty brutish and short life, horrible food, grunge clothing, lots of fighting, an underground city run by a decadent elite, and so on. But the script and direction (by David Peoples, who has a track record of co-writing rather superior action SF/fantasy such as Blade RunnerLadyhawke and The Twelve Monkeys) raise it far above the mundane. The cast is good too; as well as Hauer and Chen, it includes Delroy Lindo. Anna Katarina, Vincent D'Onofrio and Gandhi MacIntyre all bringing strong and sympathetic characterisation to their roles, with the excellent Hugh Keays-Byrne as the suavely vicious Lord Vile. Even what isn't said is just as expressive, as in the constant self-consciousness of Big Cimber, the female Jugger, in attempting to hide the scarred side of her face.

Pavement artist drawing Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross

Often films can get a bit laboured in filling in detailed back-story, but Salute of the Jugger doesn't do this; it just immerses you in the situation, with atmosphere and verisimilitude provided through minor details that stick in the mind. Cogwheels used as currency. The chest of drawers carried as a rucksack by Gandhi, the team's trainer and manager. The lift down to Red City going so deep that its occupants have time to fall asleep. The city that's revealed to be merely better-organised squalor than the surface. Sleeping accommodation on shelves high up a sheer wall. The pallid Lords who, despite their silken clothing, candelabra and chamber music, are still eating insect canapés and goanna (albeit elegantly presented). The pavement artist who, unnoticed, is drawing Bosch's Christ Carrying The Cross, preserving art at a higher level than the Lords, whose art seems to have reverted to the primitive and totalitarian.

Salute of the Jugger has acquired, I think deservedly, a cult following. For a long time this film was very scarce, but it's readily findable now on DVD for £2-£3. I won't directly infringe copyright by linking, but if you do a YouTube internal search for "The Blood of Heroes-parte 1 subtitulada", you'll find a Spanish-subtitled version online.

Insect canapés

There's a very interesting Authorsden article - Blood of Heroes, Salute of the Jugger - by John Howard Reid, reprinted from his 2006 book America's Best, Britain's Finest: A Survey of Mixed Movies. Reid worked on the set for a few days, and has some behind-the-scenes background on the large amounts of what sounds like spectacular footage that didn't make it to the final cut. He comments particularly that it was "a Poverty Row film in reverse"; it superficially looks low-budget, but in fact was filmed with a very high budget, and with great attention to details that we only rarely glimpse (as in the repulsive canapés and the Bosch painting).
You should have seen the Red City street down which I and about two hundred meticulously costumed extras wandered. The shops. Wow! All filmed with the weirdest, most bizarre, most inventively created produce and goods that highly imaginative designers and set dressers could imagine. And what do we actually see on the screen. Zilch!
- Ray

Tuesday, 24 April 2012


We've just been watching the BBC DVD set of its 1982 BAFTA-winning dramatisation of Anthony Trollope's The Barchester Chronicles. I somehow managed to miss it the first time round, but it's still very fresh: a marvellously wry social satire in which the clerical politics and relationships in a provincial cathedral city are a microcosm of the clash between "high church" and "low church" in 1850s Victorian England. I very much recommend it.

The series is based on the first two Barchester novels, The Warden (1855) and Barchester Towers (1857) which, you may or may not know, focus on an otherworldly clergyman, Septimus Harding, who is caught up in a newspaper-driven controversy over his occupation of a well-paid post of nominal responsibility, warden of the almshouse Hiram's Hospital. At first, Harding accepts the patronage of those helping him to stay in the post (and to reinstall him when it becomes vacant), but later he comes to question the ethics of the situation. The Victorian Web has a good appreciation and summary by Annalise K Walker of the full series: On Trollope's Barchester Series.

I had somewhat wondered where, if anywhere, Trollope's fictional "Barsetshire" is set. The Warden begins with a basic description ...
the cathedral town of ––––; let us call it Barchester. Were we to name Wells or Salisbury, Exeter, Hereford, or Gloucester, it might be presumed that something personal was intended; and as this tale will refer mainly to the cathedral dignitaries of the town in question, we are anxious that no personality may be suspected. Let us presume that Barchester is a quiet town in the West of England ...
... but unlike Thomas Hardy, who interacted with readers and critics in mapping "Wessex" highly consistently on to real locations, Trollope didn't create a detailed geography at first, but sketched it out later as he wrote the 1860 Framley Parsonage. The paper Mapmaking in Barsetshire (Lance O. Tingay, The Trollopian, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Jun., 1948), pp. 19-32) mentions how this didn't come to light until 1927. Prior to this, enthusiasts had produced maps: the USA Trollope Society website has that painted by George F Muendel for Spencer Van Bokkelen Nichols (here), and another was produced by Monsignor Ronald Knox, who later wrote the 1935 novel Barsetshire Pilgrimage

Knox, initially working in 1922, showed that the books were inconsistent with Trollope's sketch, and even with each other. As Gillian Hill's 1978 Cartographical Curiosities (British Museum Publications) describes:
Trollope's Barsetshire, on the other hand, suffers from an excess of local topographical information. The general picture of the countryside is fairly clear, but contradictions abound in the detail. Ronald Knox brought these to light when he attempted to map the county in 1922, more than fifty years after the novels were written. At the beginning of the first of the Barsetshire novels, The Warden, the cathedral is at the west end of Barchester, but in the later novels it has moved eastwards, and stands by the London Road. Similarly, the distance between Barchester and Plumstead shrinks from nine miles in Barchester Towers to less than five in The Last Chronicle of Barset. The railway, too, has its idiosyncrasies: it passes within a mile and half of Courcy, which is a considerable way from its route.
The Tingay paper mentions many more such cartographic problems. Later maps include Morris Weightman's map (here) for Angela Thirkell's 1930s Barsetshire novels. But inconsistencies apart, details such as train routes - eastward to Paddington, north-west to Bristol, and south-west to Exeter - plausibly put Barsetshire somewhere in the general area of the Wiltshire / Dorset boundary.

Trollope's own accounts of the inspiration also give geographical clues. The standard story in his Autobiography, as told in Trollope and the Close (Salisbury Cathedral Close Preservation Society, Annual Lecture - October 2006 - by Pamela Neville-Sington) was that it happened in Salisbury:
I had stood for an hour on the little bridge in Salisbury, and had made out to my own satisfaction the spot on which Hiram's hospital should stand.
But he was also inconsistent on the matter, and in the last weeks of his life he told the historian EA Freeman that Barchester was based on Winchester (where he had attended school) and that Hiram's Hospital was based on St Cross. This is consistent with the chronology of a mid-Victorian scandal concerning Francis North (nepotistically appointed as Master of St Cross by his father, the Bishop of Winchester) misappropriating funds. However, it's by no means the only contemporary scandal. There's a very good analysis of the whole background in the notes to the Broadview Press edition of The Warden (Anthony Trollope, ed. Geoffrey Hardy, Broadview Press, 2011, ISBN 1551111381) - see, for example, "The origins of Barchester" (from page 9), "Trollope's comments on the genesis of The Warden" (from page 237), and "The major scandals alluded to in The Warden" (from page 247).

I mention all this background not out of viewing it as some definitive "meaning" to the novels, but out of the way it gives a handle of the social history of the period. Victorian England was a time of vast social change, and the conflict between the reforming and evangelical "low church" and the "high church" (the Anglican church run by a long-entrenched moneyed elite) was a major topic of debate, especially in the provinces.

In Exeter, for example, Henry Phillpotts (Bishop of Exeter, 1830 to 1869) was a classically controversial high church bishop who commanded a vast income by astutely gaming the preferment system. At a time when a grass-roots clergyman might earn £40 a year, he swung a non-residential canonry at Durham worth around £4000 a year in addition to the £3000 he earned as Bishop of Exeter, an appointment highly unpopular locally); this double income funded the building of his residence at Torquay (now the Palace Hotel). Niebuhr and Wilkinson's 1956 The Ministry in Historical Perspectives described him as one of the last of "a clerical aristocracy, who, whatever their origin, expected to live on a scale comparable to that of the nobility". He was satirized in the pseudonymous 1832 pamphlet Bishop Toby's Pilgrimage; Or, The Method of Procuring a Mitre., and gets a brief allusion in The Warden as Henry, one of the three sons of Dr Grantly.

Addendum. Small world. Angela at Literary Places just sent me the detail, from WHK Wright's West-Country Poets (page 167) that  Bishop Henry was the great uncle of the writer Eden Phillpotts. I'd wondered if there was a connection, but was busy pursuing the Barchester thread.

- Ray

Sunday, 22 April 2012

London Devonian Year Book 1910

Colonel ET Clifford - a Devon DWM
A find from the Internet Archive: The London Devonian Yearbook 1910-1912 (ed. R Pearse Chope, pub. London Devonian Association, ID 19101912devonian00londuoft).

The objects of this Association were:
  • (a) To promote friendly intercourse amongst Devonians residing in London and district, by means of meetings and social re-unions.
  • (b) To foster a knowledge of the History, Folklore, Literature, Music, Art, and Antiquities of the County.
  • (c) To carry out from time to time approved schemes for the benefit of Devonians residing in London and district.
Its yearbook is very interesting. Admittedly there's a deal of adulatory gush about Devon and its offspring, and the whole flavour is very DWM (Dead White Males - admittedly then living). But apart from being a Who's Who of the great and the good among early 20th century Devonians, it's a very rich lode of Devon-related historical material. I'm sure I can get a few blog posts out of it!

R Pearse Chope - another Devonian DWM
The 1910 issue includes The Worthies of Devon, a list of famous Devonians (page 39); A Devonshire Garland, a compilation of literary quotations about Devon (page 91); The Folklore of Devon, a lecture by R Pearse Chope (page 109); and The Origin of the Devon Race, a highly learned but ultimately pesudoscientific piece of anthropology by John Gray that, in aid of demonstrating historical continuity, conveniently manages to reconstruct a "Primitive Devonian" who looks exactly like a modern one (see (page 134).

In the 1911 issue: Captain Scott's Antarctic Expedition - an appeal for funding (page 36); Devon To Me!, a poem by John Galsworthy (page 41); Prominent Living Devonians, from Who's Who (page 42); The Map of Devon, a geographical analysis by GEL Carter (page 62); The Rivers of the Moor, a lecture by Cecil RM Clapp (page 69); The Birds of our Leas and Estuaries (page 76); The Devonshire Regiment and Territorials (page 86); Devonian Epitaphs (page 101); London and Devonian Proverbs (page 106); The Early History of Devon as told in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (page 108); and Devonshire Fiction (page 119).

In the 1912: Eden Philpotts, Poet and Novelist; The Coasts and Forests of Devon and their Birds (page 69); The Historical Basis of Kingsley's "Westward Ho!" (page 84); and The Mythical History of Devon (page 107).

Eden Philpotts
The highlight of the whole text is Eden Philpotts, Poet and Novelist (1912, page 43) a lecture by WHK Wright. This is a detailed contemporary appreciation of Philpotts, then 50 and living in Torquay. The account, written at the height of his career, focuses on his Dartmoor stories and nature studies., a decade before he took an interest in East Devon and wrote the Lympstone-based Redcliff.

Addendum: see also London Devonian Year Book 1913-1915.

- Ray

Friday, 20 April 2012

Elegant route

I dabble in mathematics at a puzzle-solving level. Although I took it as a first-year subject at university, I never had that extra spark of aptitude that makes a mathematician. However, very very rarely I find problems that briefly touch what I imagine real mathematics to be.

Recently I encountered this problem:

Solve (x+2)(x+4)(x+6)(x+8) = 9

Now the temptation is to charge straight at it, and I did, first expanding terms of the left hand side and rearranging to a standard quartic ...

(x+2)(x+4)(x+6)(x+8) = 9
(x^2 + 6x + 8)(x + 6)(x + 8) = 9
(x^3 + 12x^2 + 44x + 48)(x + 8) = 9
x^4 + 20x^3 + 140x^2 + 400x + 384 = 9
x^4 + 20x^3 + 140x^2 + 400x + 375 = 0

This proved to be horrible. A lot of slog through possible small-integer zeros found x = -5 to be a solution. This enabled a long division by (x+5) to give this factorisation:

(x + 5)(x^3 + 15x^2 + 65x + 75) = 0

But the remaining cubic seemed impossible to tackle without using a maths package.

But then I noticed the symmetry of (x+2)(x+4)(x+6)(x+8) around x+5, and I tried this substitution:

Let p = x + 5 ... so the problem becomes:

(p - 3)(p - 1)(p + 1)(p + 3) = 9

This leads nicely to a reverse application of the standard "difference of two squares" factorisation, and a greatly simplified result.

(p - 3)(p - 1)(p + 1)(p + 3) = 9
(p - 3)(p + 3)(p - 1)(p + 1) = 9 ... rearrange terms
(p^2 - 9)(p^2 - 1) = 9 ... expand to a pair of "difference of two squares"
p^4 - 10p^2 + 9 = 9 ... expand
p^4 - 10p^2 = 0 ... simplify

This is easy to solve for p:

p^4 - 10p^2 = 0
p^2(p^2 - 10) = 0
So p^2 = 0, or p^2 = 10
So p = 0, or p = √10 or p = -√10

And finally we can reverse the substitution: x = p - 5

So x = -5 or x = √10 - 5 or x = -√10 - 5

It's only a puzzle, but the elegance and clarity of the second solution route compared to the murky dead end of the routine one is oddly satisfying.

(The quartic has only three zeros, all real, by the way, because its central maximum at x = -5 touches the x-axis).

- Ray

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Drake window: Furlong

Drake window, Furlong - click to enlarge
In the previous post about the Exeter glasspainter, novelist and poet Maurice Drake (see Maurice Drake and WO2), I concluded with an unresolved thread about his last work, a window he designed for Mr H Wilson Holman, of Furlong, Topsham, and I wondered if it was still extant.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Coming Back of Laurence Averil

A gallery of images from Maurice Drake's The Coming Back of Laurence Averil, originally published as The Salving of a Derelict (Maurice Drake, London: T. Werner Laurie, 1910). These are from the New York: Edward J Clode 1915 edition, illustrations by AW Parsons, Internet Archive comingbackoflaur00drakiala). Maurice Drake (1875-1923) was an Exeter-based glass and stained-glass expert with a sideline in maritime crime fiction. See previous post for biography and bibliography: Maurice Drake and WO2.

Maurice Drake and WO2

I just followed up the reference in Adventure through Red Devon to "Maurice Drake's strange novel WO2", since it turns out to have local connections.

Around Red Devon

To all of us there come days when the earth is stale, flat and tedious.... At that extremity of misanthropy some men start a revolution and others take to drink; but for my part I go to sea. Every man to his own recreation.
- Raymond B Cattell, Under Sail Through Red Devon
I've just been reading Adventure through Red Devon, the 1984 Obelisk paperback republication of part of Raymond B Cattell's 1937 Under sail through red Devon: Being the log of the voyage of 'Sandpiper.', which is an account of the author's sailing trips around the South Devon coasts and estuaries in the early part of the 20th century.

I have to admit that - with honourable exceptions - I usually can't abide sailing memoirs. They tend to be obsessed with the technical minutiae, and often have an irritating subtext of macho mysticism, of superiority over the 'landlubber'.  However, Adventure through Red Devon is nothing at all like that; it's energetic and erudite account of coastal sailing trips by an intelligent generalist who admits to being a hybrid between sailor and writer, and who has as keen an interest in towns, landscapes, hikes, houses, and the people he meets as in the maritime detail.

This particular volume tells first of his round trip from Torbay to Lyme and back, sailing in the 13-foot Dolphin with his friend John. Their adventures include involvement in an illicit expedition to blast for gold in the (then) recently-discovered seam at Hope's Nose; misadventures with a miniature cannon; an appreciation of Oddicombe and Watcombe;  a critique of Newton Abbot (described as not sleepy but unconscious); navigating the coastline by the Parson and Clerk (with an intriguing reference to "Maurice Drake's strange novel WO2", which I must check out); the difficulties of coming to anchor in Littleham Cove ("At first I thought we had rammed a wandering waterlogged buoy but presently there arose, roaring in our wake, a vast and bulky man with a bald head"); an account of Sidmouth, Jack Rattenbury, and the 1839 Rousdon landslip; being caught in a storm off Lyme Regis; an interlude teaching a lady called Beryl how to dive; and a walk from Lyme to Torquay via Budleigh, Woodbury Common, Topsham and the Haldons. It then moves on to a later part of his life, with an account of the now-gone community on the sandhills of Dawlish Warren, where he lived for a time with his first wife, Monica; an encounter with phantom ships on the Exe; the acquisition of Sandpiper, a German collapsible sailing kayak; a fishing expedition in the dangerous currents around Exmouth Bar; an expedition in Sandpiper up the Exe to Bickleigh, including a round hike  to Witheridge; and a final dangerous return to Torquay.

The book ends with a bit of polemic about visitors spoiling Torquay and the treachery of the natives that accommodate them, but it is in general a very affectionate and informative personal portrait of south Devon in the 1930s - an affection that that the author recalls to the end of his life, writing in recollection from Hawaii.

I didn't make the connection until Googling the name that the author of Red Devon is the Raymond B Cattell (1905-1998), better known as one of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. He was born near Birmingham, but the Devon connection is that he was brought up in Torquay, from which he acquired an intimate knowledge of the Devon coastline:
... my brothers, the village boys and I sailed, swam, fought group battles, explored caves, landed on rocky islands, and occasionally drowned or fell over cliffs. My parents were carefully shielded from knowing about the times we had nearly been blown out to sea.
- A History of Psychology in Autobiography: Volume 6, Gardner Lindzey, 1974
He later taught at Exeter University, but moved permanently to the USA in 1937. His daughter Devon Cattell maintains an informative memorial site: A Memorial to Raymond Bernard Cattell (it has a picture of him in his sailing kayak Sandpiper here).  Another good online biography: Raymond Bernard Cattell (1905-1998) A View Of His Life With Reflections.

Under Sail through Red Devon, Raymond B Cattell, Maclehose, 1937.
reprinted in two parts as:
Adventure through Red Devon, Raymond B Cattell, Obelisk Publications, 1985 (ISBN 0 946651 03 5).
Under Sail Through South Devon and Dartmoor, Raymond B Cattell, Obelisk Publications, 1985 (ISBN 094665106X).
The hardback original is pretty scarce, but the Obelisk paperbacks are reasonably findable.

- Ray

Monday, 16 April 2012


Geoneedle site, looking east to Exmouth
I fancied a break after a dental appointment first thing, so we went to Exmouth for a quick walk to look at the redeveloped Geoneedle site at Orcombe Point. This artwork by Michael Fairfax, unveiled in 2002, marks the western end of the Jurassic Coast world heritage site. The redevelopment, done early this year, includes a gravelled trail with a wall and adjacent seating, and a "hopscotch trail" of slabs of various Jurassic Coast rocks matching those in the Geoneedle itself.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Bayan time (16): videos

I just uploaded the long-promised videos to YouTube. I'd delayed it because of the recordings coming out very murky-sounding; the solution turned out to be simply to reduce the laptop microphone input volume. (And I recorded these in the bathroom - the tiles give nice acoustics).

I've embedded them in the updated Bayan time (15): Angry Birds (11th April 2012) and Libertango (18th April 2011) posts, and the direct YouTube links are here: Libertango / Angry Birds.

I'm simultaneously very pleased with the progress, and dismayed at how much better others on YouTube are: comparison reveals a lot of weaknesses in my technique. There's a long haul ahead ...

- Ray

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Damned by Destiny

I was looking at the pile of books Lily was selecting for the new thematic window display at the Topsham Bookshop, and saw this.

Damned by Destiny (David Williams and Richard P. De Kerbrech, Teredo Books, 1982) is a fascinating and long out-of-print book about the surprisingly large number of major passenger liners (20,000 tonnes and up) that never made it to their intended purpose, or at least didn't last long in it:
A complete account of all the World's projects for larger passenger ships, which, for one reason or another, never entered service. Some were still-born, some met with disaster after launching, and some were diverted to other purposes during war. Potentially, some were the greatest liners ever conceived and would have surpassed the most famous, not only in speed and splendour, but in their very size and appearance. They were victims of circumstances.
Examples include the unfinished White Star Oceanic III; the SS Justicia (built as a replacement for the Lusitania, but immediately requisitioned as a troopship and torpedoed after a few trips); the Principessa Jolanda, that sank at launch; the Kashiwara Maru and Izumo Maru, that became the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carriers Jun'yō and Hiyō; the never-built President Washington and Cunard "Q3"; and many more.

This is a superb book, exhaustively researched and well-illustrated; if you're interested, it's currently (11th April) in the window of The Topsham Bookshop.

It's well-illustrated, that is, except for the odd piece of art on the cover. It obviously represents the Moirai, the classical Three Fates: Clotho at left spinning the thread of life, Atropos at centre cutting it, and Lachesis at right, as far as I can see just going "OMG". Presumably the implication is that the thread of life for these ships went straight from being woven to being snipped, without Lachesis getting a look-in to do the measuring; but the artistic execution is very naïve. It's uncredited, as far as I can see, and I wonder at the editorial processes that went into considering it an asset to the cover image.

The contemporary reviewer in Ships Monthly agrees with me:
Teredo Books are famous for their publications and this one does not let them down, except for the peculiar design of dust jacket which shows the three Fates, representing Destiny, and a shattered portrait of the White Star's third but never completed Oceanic. However, the rest of the book is splendid ...
- Ships Monthly, Volume 17, 1982
Teredo Books was, incidentally, a highly respected publisher of maritime titles founded by the sailor and author Alexander Anthony Hurst (1917-1999).

- Ray

click to enlarge

Bayan time (15): Angry Birds

Last Sunday I went to the Topsham Folk Club (at its current temporary venue in Route 2 Cafe Bar while The Globe is being renovated). I'm not terribly into folk - at least in its English folk club incarnation - but at the moment I'm getting in as much public performance practice as I can, as I'm due to play on Topsham Quay on June 2nd. There was a full turnout, so I only played one slot, but I took along a couple of Finnish tunes: a very slimmed-down instrumental version of Koskaan et muuttua saa (a.k.a. Adagio Cardinal), and the decidedly non-folk Angry Birds theme by Ari Pulkkinen. They went down very well, and the second one definitely raised a chuckle in the back row.

On the off-chance that you don't know it, the Angry Birds theme backs the Rovio Mobile strategy puzzle game originally developed as an app for Apple iOS devices such as the iPhone:
Ari Pulkkinen’s most famous composition so far, Angry Birds theme reflects the silliness and different phases of anger of the Angry Birds – the first phase is the peaceful phase of the birds when they are happy and have all of their eggs (it’s also famous for its ability to stuck to everyones mind), second phase is when the Birds realise that their eggs have been stolen and the last phase is when the Birds are chasing the pigs for the crimes against birdmanity.
I think one can overanalyse! It's a vigorous and witty tune - here's the original - that has inspired a number of arrangements such as Lara's piano version, this klezmer-style Genevieve Trio version for soprano sax and piano accordion, the comic duet by the excellent Pomplamoose, this London Philharmonic Orchestra one ... and, naturally, standalone piano accordion. It's also perfect for bayan.

- Ray

Girls and Boys in Storyland

An Exeter event for local readers: while in town yesterday, I had a quick glance at the current Exeter Central Library exhibition, Girls and Boys in Storyland, which runs until April 31st.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Stacking diacritics: "awesome but rubbish"

You may have seen some peculiar breaking-the-box typographics in novelty signatures on web forums, like this:

Ray Girvaก็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็

Purely out of interest, I checked out what's going on for this particular subset of the things.

It comes down to Thai "stacking diacritics". The Thai character "ก" ("ko kai"), which happens to resemble an English " n", can have several different diacritic marks: "ิ" ("sara i"), "็" ("maitaikhu"), and "้" ("mai tho"). If you append one of these diacritics to "ko kai", you get a combination character: "ก" + "็" = "ก้".

However, someone has discovered that, via a quirk of web page display coding, you can repeat the process and append multiple copies of the diacritic marks, each superscripted to the previous superscript. Hence these:

ก็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็ กิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิ ก้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้ ก็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็ กิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิ ก้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้ ก็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็ กิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิ ก้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้้ ก็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็็ กิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิิ ก้้้้้้้้

I haven't worked out the full implementation (mainly because it isn't of the slightest practical or aesthetic use to me), or indeed how they manage to break out of the current text line, but that's the basic explanation. As a commenter at this stackoverflow discussion said, "That is truly awesome! But also a bit rubbish."

Edit: the rendering of these things differs with browser. On Firefox on my PC, these diacritics stack in a slanted column cutting across several screen text lines; but on Safari on the Mac at the bookshop where I work, they just overlay into a little superscripted blob.

- Ray

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Conan the Barbarian

The trailer for the 1982 Conan the Barbarian entirely emphasises the violent action sequences, missing out its many character-driven and reflective scenes.
Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!
- introductory voiceover, Conan the Barbarian
Since the previous post on Total Recall not unnaturally mentioned Arnold Schwarzegger, I thought I'd follow up with a post on the film with probably his most iconic role outside the Terminator series, the 1982 Conan the Barbarian.

The movie has its roots in the "sword and sorcery" stories of Robert E Howard, an American pulp writer of the 1920s-1930s, but its plot is an original story - scripted by John Milius, adapting a draft by Oliver Stone - drawing loosely on episodes and characters, including Conan himself, from Howard's mythos of the fictional Hyborian Age (with more than a few homages to other movies). It's an epic and violent adventure - filmed in Spain around Madrid and Almería - that tells first of Conan's early life, starting with his enslavement as a child and training as a captive warrior, then moves on to his quest to kill Thulsa Doom, the magician-warlord who killed his parents.

The casting was unusual but effective. Arnold Schwarzenegger was perfect by physical type, and James Earl Jones charismatic as Thulsa Doom, and there were smaller roles for seasoned character actors: Mako (Mako Iwamatsu) as Akiro, Conan's magician mentor, and a cameo from Max von Sydow as King Osric. But the remaining characters were played by actors whose specialisations had hitherto not been in acting: Sandahl Bergman (Valeria, Conan's lover) was foremost a dancer; Gerry Lopez (the archer Subotai) was a champion surfer; and Ben Davidson and Sven-Ole Thorsen (as Thulsa Doom's sidekicks Rexor and Thorgrim) were an American Football player and a bodybuilder. This brought a confident and vigorous physicality to the roles.

Even with the relative lack of dialogue, there's never any doubt about what anyone, including Conan, is thinking and feeling. The film's emotional power is further driven by the acclaimed score by Basil Poledouris. The soundtrack is Wagnerian in its use of leitmotifs, the Conan theme - "The Anvil of Crom" - starting in epic form, then being requoted in calmer scenes and as the Love Theme. Thulsa Doom gets a choral leitmotif reminiscent of O Fortuna from Orff's Carmina Burana, but in fact based on the Dies Irae, and the film ends with a more explicit statement of the Dies Irae. It's good orchestral music by any standard, and I've appended YouTube links to Poledouris conducting Conan: The Symphony, an orchestral workup of the soundtrack.

Despite its generally macho storyline, I find Conan the Barbarian a strangely reflective film. Underneath all the action, there's a subtext of a personal journey. Conan begins as a traumatised dehumanised individual who knows nothing except fighting. Yet as the film proceeds, he acquires friends, learns of love and loss, and ultimately chooses full self-determination and freedom from the quest that has dominated his life. At this level, its story is about becoming human, and it's one of my favourite films.

I haven't seen the 2011 remake, but the reviews haven't been good, and in any case it shares little with the 1982 film except the character name.

- Ray

Wikipedia: Conan the Barbarian (1982 film)
The Filmgoer's Guide to Conan the Barbarian - analysis at The Blog That Time Forgot
Conan the Barbarian - Music Soundtrack Suite

Conan The Symphony, Basil Poledouris:
Part 1 (Anvil of Crom - Riddle of Steel / Riders of Doom)
Part 2 (Gift of Fury / Atlantean Sword / Love Theme)
Part 3 (Funeral Pyre/ Battle of the Mounds)
Part 4 (Orphans of Doom / The Awakening)
Part 5 (Anvil of Crom - Encore)

Addendum: Julie Heyward - thanks! - just drew my attention to The Whole Wide World (1996), a film exploring the relationship between Robert E Howard and  Novalyne Price (Ellis) based on the latter's memoir of her friendship with Howard, One Who Walked Alone, during the final years of his life before his suicide (see book review). Both the book and film look interesting.

Friday, 6 April 2012

We can remake it for you wholesale

Above, the trailer for Len Wiseman's August-scheduled remake of Total Recall. From the overall appearance, it's strongly based on the 1990 Paul Verhoeven original (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside and Rachel Ticotin) which in turn was loosely based on the 1966 Philip K Dick short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

For those who haven't read the original, it's one of PKD's 'existential problem' stories. It concerns a lowly Chicago clerk called Douglas Quail (renamed Quaid in the movie) who, to his wife's derision, yearns to visit Mars. Unable to afford the trip, instead he goes to Rekal, a company which can implant memories. Rekal technicians begin the implant - a memory involving Quail going to Mars as an "Interplan" secret agent - only for them to find in mid-process that he really has visited Mars in that capacity. They sedate him and dump him in a cab wth half of his fee refunded, but he becomes curious about the half-remembered Mars trip; he's uncertain if it's a real memory or a failed Rekal implant. At this point he finds himself pursued by police and the Interplan agency, who have a telepathic tracking device in his skull, but he makes a deal with his trackers that he will surrender if they can reliably erase the Mars memories. An Interplan psychiatrist determines that Quail has a craving for adventure that will always drive him to seek out Rekal. The only way to reliably dislodge the Mars memories appears to be to replace them with a powerful fulfilled fantasy that will make Quail happy to live a mundane life yet simultaneously feel vastly important. Interplan finds this in one of Quail's childhood memories: the fantasy that he saved the lives of some tiny aliens ("like field mice") who in gratitude deferred their invasion as long as he is alive. He is, in effect, the most important person on Earth - simply by doing nothing. They begin to place the implant ... only to find that this story too is true.

I'll always watch the 1990 Total Recall, and in fact most Schwarzenegger films - I won't even distance myself by claiming them to be a guilty pleasure. Schwarzenegger, despite his limitations as an actor (such as his Austrian accent, and the much-ridiculed gormless "Eueraaaaaargheugh!" all his characters make in anguished scenes) always turns in a characterful performance, and has shown his adaptability in being capable of delivering emotional subtlety, self-parody (in The Last Action Hero) and pleasant light comedy (in Twins). He has not escaped the parodising of Jon and Al Kaplan, who have produced the songs Crom, from an imagined Conan the Barbarian: The Musical, and, pertinently to this post, The Mountains of Mars from Total Recall: The Musical.

The co-writers of the 1990 Total Recall screenplay are clearly highly familiar with the PKD story, whose plot the film tightly follows until the end of the Recall visit, and some specific elements make it into the film, such as the robot cab and the Recall receptionist experimenting with colours (though in the story, it's not her nails; she's topless - PKD's futures often contain highly quirky clothing - and her breasts are painted blue one day, orange the next). By taking it to Mars as an action movie, the film picks up and runs with PKD's reference to a Martian secret agent, yet extends the existential side in characteristic PKD fashion. In the story, we have no doubt what is real and what isn't, and the film's additional twist that that the whole Mars adventure may be part of the Recall implant is very much in tune with similar motifs in other PKD works. This is especially so at the point where the Recall psychiatrist turns up on Mars to talk Quaid out of the implanted adventure.

The remake of Total Recall, by all accounts, removes the Mars aspects and confines the story to a dystopian Earth, where Quaid is caught up in a political conflict between "Euroamerica" and "New Shanghai". From the trailer, it looks a visually excellent film. While I like the original a lot, I'm keeping an open mind on this new contrafactum.

It's an odd quirk of pop-culture history that the works of Philip K Dick, who spent most of his career in near-poverty, have inspired a long series of popular movies made after his death: Wikipedia lists Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, and The Adjustment Bureau. Although, mostly, they've been padded out into action movie format, there's something about PKD's take on the uncertainty of reality that appeals to the modern zeitgeist. However, one notable omission so far is the superb Ubik. Last year there were reports - e.g. in Empire Magazine - that Michel Gondry is working on a screenplay for an independent film. I hope it will materialise soon.

See the previous post, PK Dick, Ubik and conceptual breakthrough, and the detailed analysis of Total Recall (its thoroughly ambivalent stance on politics, race and gender issues, and its relation to PKD's ideas) in Memory Prime: Total Recall, chapter 2 of Future Imperfect: Philip K. Dick at the Movies (Jason P. Vest, Phillip Lopate, University of Nebraska Press, 2009). Described as "the only book to examine the first eight cinematic adaptations of Dick’s fiction in light of their literary sources", from this previewed chapter it looks altogether good reading.

- Ray

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The art of coastal change

An out-take from the previous post: Art as a tool in support of the understanding of coastal change (Dr Robin McInnes, Marine Estate Research Report, Crown Estate - Caird Fellowship, 2008).

This is a seriously interesting 106-page cross-disciplinary study exploring - with its main focus the Isle of Wight - the use of historical artwork as data for past coastal profiles. Such data can be unreliable: for instance, artists exaggerated cliffs for dramatic effect and, the paper notes, publishers even commissioned artwork from artists who'd never even been to the depicted place. But the accuracy can often be assessed by correlation with later photogaphs, and many artworks are photorealistic in their depictions of coastscapes.

Check the paper out even if you just look at the pictures; it showcases a lot of lesser-known Wight artworks and artists. Much of the text is pretty dry stuff about sources and methodology, but there are also plenty of specifics. The subsection "A description of the landscape paintings of the Study Area" is particularly good as a history of the artists (and the mid-Victorian intelligentsia in general) for whom the Island was a magnet. There are also nice case studies comparing images from different times/sources, and an extensive glossary of the cited artists and their relevant works.

As an example, here's one remarkable photo (undated and uncredited) of the western end of the village of Blackgang. The report says:

The small village of Blackgang (below) developed in the mid-19th century close to a rapidly eroding and unstable cliffline. The development was speculative at a time of enormous demand for seaside residences on the Isle of Wight. Coastal erosion and instability, probably aggravated by development activities, has resulted in the loss of all the land and property in the foreground, including the hill in the mid-distance, roads and most of the terrace of cottages.

click to enlarge

Low-resolution image reproduced in accordance with dissemination statement: McInnes, R. 2008. Art as a tool in support of the understanding of coastal change. The Crown Estate, 106 pages, ISBN: 978-1-906410-08-7 First published 2008

For comparison, see this bird's-eye view from Bing Maps. It's centred on what remains of the row of cottages - The Terrace - at top right in the above photo (you can see the same cottages in the distance in this postcard). The viewpoint of the above image appears to be grid ref SZ 48403 77036, now somewhere in mid-air above the mud slip.

- Ray

William Adams: The Old Man's Home

Pursuing a continuing thread about little-known Isle of Wight authors, in The Autobiography of Elizabeth M. Sewell (1907, Internet Archive autobiographyel00unkngoog) I just ran into a reference to the clergyman and author William Adams (1814-1848).  Adams was an acquaintance of Miss Sewell in the final six years of his life; he retired to Bonchurch suffering from tuberculosis, and died there at the age of 33. He's buried in the churchyard of the Old Church, Bonchurch (see page 69, Illustrated Handbook to the Isle of Wight, Volume 1, Edmund Venables, 1860). There's a blue plaque at his Shore Road house, Winterbourne - see Open Plaques - where, incidentally, Dickens wrote part of David Copperfield and the watercolourist Myles Birket Foster stayed when he painted On the beach at Bonchurch.

During his final years, Adams wrote a series of "Sacred Allegories", which were well-received in their day. While their didactic religious style tends not to be to modern taste - each section is followed by a concordance explaining the allegory - they're nevertheless classifiable as fantasy novelettes, and interesting in that light: see William Adams' Sacred Allegories in Jessica Amanda Salmonson's excellent "Weird Review" series.

image of Undercliff from 1882 Rivington edition

The most successful (and most accessible) of the Allegories was The Old Man's Home, which is set in the Isle of Wight, and begins on a cliff path near the village of B— (undoubtedly Bonchurch):
There is a scene on the coast of the Isle of Wight with which I have long since become familiar, but which never fails to exercise a soothing influence on my mind. It is at the eastern extremity of the landslip. Large portions of the cliff have fallen away, and formed a dell so broken and irregular, that the ground has the appearance of having at one time been agitated by an earthquake. But Nature has only suffered the convulsion to take place, in order that afterwards she might bestow her gifts upon this favoured spot with a more unsparing hand. The wild and picturesque character of the landscape is now almost lost sight of in its richness and repose. The new soil is protected from the storms of winter by the cliff from which it has fallen, and, sloping towards the south, is open to the full warmth and radiance of the sun. In consequence of this, the landslip has, as it were, a climate of its own ; and often, when the more exposed parts of the country still look dreary and desolate, is in the enjoyment of the blessings of an early spring. Such was the season at which I first visited it. The grey fragments of rock which lay scattered on the ground were almost hid by the luxuriance of the underwood, and countless wild flowers were growing beneath their shade. Below, the eye rested upon a little bay, formed by the gradual advance of the sea ; and all was so calm and peaceful, that as I watched the gentle undulation of the waters, I could fancy them to be moving to and fro with a stealthy step, lest they should disturb the tranquillity of the scene.

I have said that a visit to this favoured spot never fails with me to have a soothing influence. I feel as though I were treading on enchanted ground, and the whole scene were allegorical; for it reminds me that, in like manner, the wreck of all our earthly hopes and plans may but lay open our hearts to the influence of a warmer sunshine, and enrich them with flowers which the storms of life have no longer power to destroy. But I cannot now tell whether these thoughts have their origin in the scene itself, or in an incident that occurred the first time I visited it.

It was on the evening of the 18th of April, 1843. I had been long gazing upon it, and had imagined that I was alone, when my attention was arrested by a sigh from some one near me. I turned round, and saw a venerable old man seated upon a fragment of the fallen cliff ...
The man, a benign but somewhat confused 93-year-old called Robin, says he is "on his way home" and wants to get to B—. The narrator helps him toward the village, where a group of men unexpectedly take Robin into custody: he is an escapee from the asylum at the nearby town of N— (Newport) and, his minders say, has been mad for more than 50 years.

The narrator decides to investigate Robin's background, and the next day - with a strong intuition that Robin's "going home" is actually a metaphor for his impending death - goes to N— asylum and enquires.  Robin has indeed died (peacefully) overnight, and the asylum superintendent tells the narrator his story; that Robin was a formerly violent inmate who in old age had acquired a kind of saintly calm through the continuing delusion that he had a wife and family "at home", and would soon join them. This belief had proved infectious, with a calming effect on other patients, as well as on the superintendent's young daughter, Annie, who it turns out is seriously ill and later dies.

Finally, the narrator, determined to save Robin from a pauper's grave, pursues the only clue: a Bible belonging to Robin and dedicated to a Susan Wakeling. He enquires around the village of B—, and eventually finds an elderly widow who has very vague recollections of a Wakeling family. She does, however, strongly recall an epidemic of fever many years previously, and suggests that the narrator look in the churchyard. There he finds a tombstone that explains both the old man's destination on their first meeting, his firm belief in having a family, and the cause of his insanity: his wife and three children died in the epidemic 60 years previously. Robin - whose real name was Robert Wakeling - is finally "home" with his family.

While pious and sentimental, it's actually a rather good investigative and psychological mystery story: a plausible account of a benign delusion told in a highly realistic setting, so realistic that you suspect Adams of having built the story around a real person. But as Edmund Venables wrote, concerning the Old Church, Bonchurch:
It may not be unnecessary to inform the readers of "The Old Man's Home" that they will search in vain for the tomb of "Robert Wakeling" and his family, who are entirely creations of the author's fancy.
- p214, The Isle of Wight, A Guide, Edmund Venables, 1860
... and Adams himself was obliged to give a disclaimer in the preface to the third edition of the standalone volume of The Old Man's Home:
The Author is induced to annex this statement to the present Edition, in consequence of an erroneous impression which has prevailed, that the Old Man's Home is a true story. He trusts that he may look upon it as a sign that the picture of poor Robin has not been overdrawn; he enjoyed very peculiar advantages in the delineation of its outline, from having been long in the habit of hearing his father speak of the softened form which mental disorders assume under a gentle system of treatment, and at times accompanied him in his visits to Hanwell Asylum.

With respect to the local allusions which the narrative contains, he was led to introduce them from his affection for the scenes in the midst of which he wrote; and indeed the broken, yet rich and luxuriant, scenery of the Undercliffe seemed to have a kind of natural harmony with the Old Man's character.
image from 1882 Rivington edition
The Old Man's Home, William Adams, Fourth Edition, 1847 -  Google Books full view.
Sacred allegories, William Adams, 1849 - Google Books full view.