Thursday, 31 May 2012

Kimmo Pohjonen and accordion wrestling

My brother-in-law Andrew (who now clearly knows the combination of weirdnesses that tend to grab my attention) sent me a link to a Guardian piece I didn't spot, Accordion wrestling – squeezy does it (Stephen Moss, 29 May 2012).

This concerns a current show on world tour, a "a sport, theatre, dance, music performance art piece" by the Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen, who has been nicknamed ""the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion", which combines accordion with choreographed acrobatics and grappling by Helsinki wrestlers. The concept, he explains, derives from a genuine historical scenario:
How did he get the idea? "Around 15 years ago, I was in the north of Finland and an old accordion player told me he used to play for wrestling matches. I thought it was a joke – but I discovered it was true. It started in the 1920s and was common in the 40s and 50s, when wrestling was the most popular sport in Finland. That was also when accordion players were stars."

Finnish wrestling has little of the camp theatricality of the sport ITV used to show on Saturday afternoons. It is very serious. A bout can take hours as the two competitors grapple for an advantage. The accordion player entertained the crowd the whole time. Another important function, he says, was to cover up the farts emitted by the wrestlers. "One of the old players said he was told to watch the eyes of the wrestlers, and when you see the fart is coming to produce some special effect to cover it." Not something you are taught at the Royal College of Music.
There are several other YouTube examples - search on "accordion wrestling" - and the official site for the performance tour is here. UK performances are:
6 June Manchester Royal Northern College of Music, 7.30pm, £15.00 (£13.50 conc), / 0161 907 5555
8 June, London York Hall promoted by the Barbican, 8.00pm, £20, / 020 7638 8891

I'd run into Pohjonen a while back, and find his music exciting as another example of where accordion fusion is going. Much of his work is hard to classify, spanning folk fusion, rock, modern jazz, contemporary classical, and avant-garde. Check out, below, Regenerator, a track from his Earth Machine Music Symphony, which combines accordion with raw and percussive sampling from farm machinery.

Again, there are plenty of further tracks on YouTube. For example: Routa and Vala (from Pohjonen's soundtrack pieces for the Kalevala-inspired Finnish-Chinese film Jade Warrior); Emo (part1) played by Pohjonen along with the Kronos Quartet; Animator, a dark solo multimedia performance; Genesis, an initially atonal piece with the Tapiola Sinfonietta; Sumo, a moody piece by the accordion / guitar / percussion trio K Cube; and Keko, a kind of accordion / folk fusion / beatbox improvisation that builds to a frenetic climax and collapse (the implication seems to be that the accordion is finally playing the player until it kills him - it reminds me of  HP Lovecraft's The Music of Erich Zann).

See the Kimmo Pohjonen website for background:

Switching from the sublime to the mundane: I am, by the way, scheduled to play an accordion spot on Topsham Quay on the afternoon of June 2nd - provisionally at 2.45 and 3.30.

Addendum: it went ... acceptably. I got very distracted at one point in mid-piece when the T bus backed, beeping, into its parking bay adjacent to the stage, and the ensuing mistakes flustered me for the next two pieces. But the audience reception was very good: clearly it didn't seem as bad to them as it did to me!

- Ray

Skye location

image from the Prometheus international launch trailer

A quick geographical jump. I'm probably about the billionth person to notice this, but I was interested to see the above scene of rock formations at The Storr, Skye, at around 0:40 in the international launch trailer for Riddley Scott's Alien prequel, Prometheus. A number of newspapers have carried pictorial features on this Skye location, such as the Daily Record (Scottish connection to stunning Alien prequel Prometheus) and the Daily Mail (A Skye-fi thriller: How Scottish island became the perfect landscape for new Alien blockbuster Prometheus).

The Storr, Skye, image by "Wojsyl", reproduced under
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
I visited Skye in the summer of 1977, and am not sure I fully appreciated it. I was in a poisonous mood, angry and depressed after finishing Cambridge with none of the "glittering prizes" (good degree, interesting job, relationship, lots of friends) I'd hoped, expected even, to come of it . In addition, I felt actively cheated by family and other advisors who'd dangled those prizes in front of me as a certain outcome of going there and staying the course, and also enraged at what I felt was my own weakness in failing to achieve these goals. Not a fun time, really, but a planned holiday in awesome surroundings seemed the right thing to do.

Anyhow, the Skye landscape at least remains a positive memory, particularly that of the Trotternish peninsula. It's vaguely pertinent to recent weblog posts here, as it has strong resonances with the kind of undercliff landscapes I like in southern England, though writ very large. It is a kind of 'Jurassic coast' - the rocks at sea level are soft Jurassic shales - but these are overlaid with thick Tertiary basalt lava flows (see Scottishgeology). As with the Lyme Regis and Isle of Wight undercliff coasts, this hard-over-soft geology gives rise to landslips; but the greater coherence of the overlying basalt means the slipped blocks tended to be larger and to stay more intact, and the colder climate means this geology doesn't get overgrown.

Trotternish is some 30km long, and contains some of the most spectacular scenery of Skye, notably The Storr, with its eroded rock pinnacles (the tallest is the "Old Man of Storr"); and the Quiraing, an area of escarpment edge with features such as The Needle, The Prison, and The Table - a slipped grassy plateau surrounded by towers of rock, and only accessible by ascending a stone chute.

Quiraing - by "Stinging Eyes"
reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The Trotternish landslip is one of Britain's most unusual landscapes, and Prometheus isn't the first film to use it. The Quiraing featured as one of the locations in the 2007 Stardust, the extremely good adaptation of Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel Stardust.

- Ray

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Ventnor - good for lungs and plants

The Palm Garden, Ventnor Botanic Garden
We went to Ventnor again on Friday 25th, a very hot day.  By coincidence, after just mentioning the "New Humorists" of the late Victorian period, I just ran into this piece by one of them, Israel Zangwill:

I did not get to Ventnor without a struggle. Everybody that I met held up hands of horror. "What! Going to Ventnor? You will be roasted before your time." My friends grieved, my very publishers wrung their hands, my newsvendor took me aside and besought me to live on a high hill. Yet through the whole of August I sat coolly writing on a low terrace. There is a superstition about Ventnor, and none of the people who talk glibly about its temperature have ever been there. But I think I have discovered the origin of the great Ventnor myth. The place is a winter resort of consumptives; and Mr. Frederick Greenwood, who was the chief charm of Ventnor, told me that you may take coffee on your lawn in November. The town, then, is warm in winter. The popular mind, with its hasty logic, thinks that this is tantamount to saying it is broiling hot in summer. I fancy there is a similar fiction about Bournemouth. But as a rule the British climate pays no heed to guide-books. By the natives, Ventnor, though as beautiful as a little Italian town, seems to be regarded as a good place to go away from, for every other man keeps a coaching establishment (I don't mean a school), and you cannot walk two yards without being accosted by a tout, who resents your walking the next two. Its regatta is a puerile affair, its own boating crews going off by preference to rival regattas. But in illuminations it comes out far better than Cowes, whose loyal inhabitants throw all the burden of fireworks upon the royal and other yachts anchored in the bay. And besides, Ventnor has a carnival, which I saw in the shop-windows in the shape of comic masks.
Bonchurch, the suburb of Ventnor, which plumes itself upon a very artificial pond, furnished in the best style with sycamores, Scotch firs, elms and swans, is more interesting for containing the old churchyard by the sea which received the bones of John Sterling and inspired the best poem of Philip Bourke Marston:--
Do they hear, through the glad April weather,
The green grasses waving above them?
Do they think there are none left to love them,
They have lain for so long there together?
Do they hear the note of the cuckoo,
The cry of gulls on the wing,
The laughter of winds and waters,
The feet of the dancing Spring?

I was married in Ventnor. At least so I gather from the local newspapers, in whose visitors' lists there figures the entry, "Mr. and Mrs. Zangwill." I do not care to correct it, because, the lady being my mother, it is perfectly accurate and leads to charming misconceptions. "There, that's he," loudly whispered a young man, nudging his sweetheart, "and there's his wife with him." "That! why, she looks old enough to be his mother," replied the young lady. "Ah!" said her lover, with an air of conscious virtue and a better bargain, "they're awfully mercenary, these literary chaps." The reverse of this happened to a young friend of mine. He married an old lady who possessed a very large fortune. During the honeymoon his solicitous attentions to her excited the admiration of another old lady, who passed her life in a Bath-chair. "Dear me!" she thought: "how delightful in these degenerate days to see a young man so attentive to his mother!" and, dying soon after, left him another large fortune.

- Without Prejudice, Israel Zangwill, 1896, Internet Archive withoutprejudic00unkngoog.

(The book is a collection of pieces that originally appeared in Zangwill's column in Pall Mall magazine; and this piece comes from the travel writing section Here, There, and Somewhere Else: Philosophic Excursions. See the previous post - Sharland grave, Bonchurch Old Church - for PBM's poem).
Ventnor in October 2010 - very different weather
Personally, I've also found Ventnor's climate to differ from its general reputation. Its sheltered south-facing cliffside aspect undoubtedly makes it mild in general, but being on the English Channel, it gets its share of blustery days, and I've found it pretty chilly and bleak off-season. The east winds can be especially cold. Nevertheless, the overall picture - one studied in detail in James W Williamson's 1884 Ventnor and the Undercliff in Chronic Pulmonary Diseases (Internet Archive ventnorandunder00willgoog) - is of a climate beneficial for pulmonary cases, and this is what led to the foundation by Arthur Hill Hassall of a sanatorium, the National Cottage Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, about a mile west of Ventnor.

Hassall's an interesting character. Despite being consumptive himself, and frequently unable to work because of it, he managed a long and energetic life (he died at 77) involved in areas such as the betterment of conditions for tubercular patients, campaigning for better water quality, and reporting on food adulteration. Edwy Godwin Clayton's 1908 Arthur Hill Hassall, Physician & Sanitary Reformer (Internet Archive arthurhillhassa00claygoog) is a good short biography. It contains an account of the hospital (see page 45), which arose directly from Hassall's own move to Ventnor in 1866 while recuperating after a near-fatal lung haemorrhage. There's more about Hassall and the hospital in his 1893 autobiography - The Narrative of a Busy Life - which reveals him to be an extremely geeky polymath who took on a humungous workload that would exhaust even a healthy person.

The Ventnor sanatorium - later renamed The Royal National Hospital for Consumption ad Diseases of the Chest - no longer exists; made obsolete by drug treatment of tuberculosis, it was closed in 1964 and demolished in 1969. However, the same climate that benefited TB sufferers enabled the establishment of Ventnor Botanic Garden on its 22-acre site.

View Larger Map

It's not a huge general-purpose botanic garden, but a specialist one designed to exploit the conditions of the Undercliff, showcasing plants from the subtropical climate zones of the world (South Africa, The Mediterranean, New Zealand, Australia and Japan). The overall layout is of a roughly east-west vale, with the drier habitats (hosting rock plants, cacti and exotic succulents) on its south-facing northern slope, and moister ones (largely hosting trees and shrubs) in the central vale, which is sheltered from the wind by the wooded higher ground on the coastal boundary of the gardens.

It's not remotely been plain sailing; the planting needed to accommodate the thin chalky soil, and the generally mild microclimate has had spectacular exceptions. The hardest winter for 150 years, in 1986/7, killed around 40% of the plants; and the garden suffered major storm damage in 1987 and 1990. Nevertheless, it's thoroughly flourishing now.

Even if you're not a plant aficionado (and I'm not especially) it's visually interesting and has a delightfully relaxing atmosphere. Admission is free, apart from parking, and it's on the Undercliff bus route between Ventnor and Newport. See the official website: Ventnor Botanic Garden.

Cacti and succulents section

Cacti and succulents section
The hothouse - it may not look it, but it
was about 105F with 100% humidity in here.

Looking down to central vale

The Palm Garden

In the Australian Garden
I was smug in thinking I recognised this plant as a Pōhutukawa (as mentioned in the previous post, Hutu and Kawa). However, it appears to be a species of Callistemon, as is the yellow one below.
In the Australian Garden
Australian section - a soakaway makes a humid spot for ferns
Mild microclimate or not, the day was sweltering
Something we somehow missed: the tunnel entrance in the middle of the garden (see Wikimedia Commons). It's not open to the public, but there are pictures at the urban exploration forum - Ventnor Hospital Tunnel - Isle of Wight - which explains that it was a chute used by the hospital to dump rubbish in the sea.

- Ray

Monday, 28 May 2012

Sharland grave, Bonchurch Old Church

We visited Bonchurch Old Church (aka St Boniface) in October 2010 - see Isle of Wight flying visit (3) - but it's such a charming location (and I missed quite a few details the first time round) that we had another look on Friday (May 25th). This rather odd mountain-shaped gravestone near the entrance gate caught my attention, and as far as I know, no-one has offered any analysis of the story behind it. The inscription reads:

JANUARY 20th 1871, AGED 60.
APRIL 19th 1895, AGED 69.

A quick sum with the dates shows that Richard Sharland was 25 years older than his wife, and as tends to be predictable with such arrangements, he predeceased her and left her with 24 years of widowhood. That she died in Japan - Chōfu is a centrally-located city on Honshu, now part of Tokyo Metropolis - strongly suggested that she didn't spend those years idly. The short answer is that she became a self-funded missionary. A number of missionary magazines contain obituaries, particularly relating to her time at Chōfu in the last f'ive years of her life.
Our Japan Mission is again bereaved, in the death of Mrs. Ellen Sharland of Shimonoseki, Japan, who passed away on April 19, in the seventieth year of her age. Mrs. Sharland, having some fortune of her own, has for many years devoted herself to labors for the salvation of the destitute in various parts of the world. Dec. 9, 1890, she was appointed a missionary of the Union, in special relation to the Woman's Society of the West, and has since that time labored in connection with the Baptist mission at Chofu, a suburb of Shimonoseki, Japan. She not only supported herself but contributed largely to the missionary work, of her own means. Mrs. Sharland was of a sweet and deeply pious character, greatly beloved by those who were associated with her in missionary work. For some time she has been laid aside from active labors, but has been of continual assistance to the mission school and work by her counsels. Her example is one which ought to be largely followed. There are a multitude of the followers of Christ who have means sufficient for self-support, and who, if they would, might give themselves without expense to missionary societies or to the church at large, to useful labors among the heathen. Having means for self-maintenance their time is a talent which the Lord has committed to them. How shall they account for the use of this talent on the great day if they have spent their time in idleness simply because labor was not necessary for personal support.
- Baptist Missionary Magazine: Volume 75, 1895

Mrs Ellen Sharland came under the auspices of this Society as a self-supporting missionary in 1890, and was assigned to the newly opened station of Shimonoseki as an associate in the work of Miss Browne. Possessed of wide experience gained on missionary fields in India, China and Japan, together with a consecrated and self-denying spirit, she at once won the love and esteem of her co-workers. Her usefulness greatly increased from year to year until Miss Browne wrote of her: "Mrs. Sharland is an indispensable member of the Mission, being helpful to all. She supports one Bible woman, keeps up one of the eleven Sunday-schools, maintains a young man in school who is preparing for the ministry, and shares equally with me the burden of the "Orphanage." "An indispensable member of the Mission!" And yet a few months later, April 19, 1895, the Lord of the harvest called His busy worker out of the field into the rest that remaineth for the people of God. "Auntie" Sharland, as she was called with a tender familiarity of love, will long be remembered as a faithful follower of Him who said "By their works ye shall know them." She had, in an unusual degree, the true missionary instinct, laboring continually for the conversion not of the heathen only, but the Romanist and the Jew. She was faithful in the discharge of her daily duties, even when weakened by pain and disease. Taigo Fuslaida, her son in the Gospel, deeply realized that she had no other purpose in leaving her home and coming to a foreign country except the burning desire to give the knowledge of salvation to sinful man. This, indeed, was the key-note of a life ever loyal to Christ and consecrated to His service.
- Women's Society of the West, 25th Annual Report, 1895
Much else remains unknown, including her pre-1890 missionary work; everything concerning her husband; how a Bideford banker ended up in a grave in an Isle of Wight churchyard; and the reason for the mountain-shaped gravestone.

Addendum: Jane Clark kindly e-mailed me with some further background on the Sharlands.
I was fascinated by your piece on Richard Sharland's grave at Bonchurch Old Church, I.O.W. I believe Richard Sharland to be the son of my 3xgreat Grandfather, also a Richard. Richard married 'Nellie' Bartlett in 1866 at Croydon. Her real name was Ellen S.Bartlett, daughter of a Captain Bartlett of Bideford, there was no issue. Ellen's travel may have been inspired by her father being a mariner. The gravestone was certainly unusual. 
If you know any more pieces that fill in the picture, let me know, and I'll forward it to Jane.

- Ray

Above are some of my October 2010 photos of Bonchurch Old Church. Its churchyard is widely documented for the handful of historically interesting people buried there, including ones with literary connections. One, as I mentioned, is Charles Hassard Wilcox, cousin and godson of Lewis Carroll, who died of tuberculosis after a stay in Ventnor - then a health resort for chest diseases - failed to cure him. Others include the authors John Sterling and William Adams (I mentioned this author of Christian allegories recently - see William Adams: The Old Man's Home). These two also died of TB; perhaps this explains the presence of Richard Sharland too? More about the hospital in the next post.

Addendum 2: I just ran into Philip Bourke Marston's The Old Churchyard of Bonchurch, a rather depressing poem which refers both to the chruchyard and the instability of the landscape here.

The churchyard leans to the sea with its dead,—
It leans to the sea with its dead so long.
Do they hear, I wonder, the first bird’s song,
When the winter’s anger is all but fled;
The high, sweet voice of the west wind,
The fall of the warm, soft rain,
When the second month of the year
Puts heart in the earth again?

Do they hear, through the glad April weather,
The green grasses waving above them?
Do they think there are none left to love them,
They have lain for so long there together?
Do they hear the note of the cuckoo,
The cry of gulls on the wing,
The laughter of winds and waters,
The feet of the dancing Spring?

Do they feel the old land slipping seaward,—
The old land, with its hills and its graves,—
As they gradually slide to the waves,
With the wind blowing on them from leaward?
Do they know of the change that awaits them,—
The sepulchre vast and strange?
Do they long for the days to go over,
And bring that miraculous change?

Or love they their night with no moonlight,
With no starlight, no dawn to its gloom?
Do they sigh: “’Neath the snow, or the bloom
Of the wild things that wave from our night,
We are warm, through winter and summer;
We hear the winds rave, and we say:
‘The storm-wind blows over our heads,
But we here are out of its way’”?

Do they mumble low, one to another,
With a sense that the waters that thunder
Shall ingather them all, draw them under:
“Ah, how long to our moving, my brother?
How long shall we quietly rest here,
In graves of darkness and ease?
The waves, even now, may be on us,
To draw us down under the seas!”

Do they think ’t will be cold when the waters
That they love not, that neither can love them,
Shall eternally thunder above them?
Have they dread of the sea’s shining daughters,
That people the bright sea-regions
And play with the young sea-kings?
Have they dread of their cold embraces,
And dread of all strange sea-things?

But their dread or their joy,—it is bootless:
They shall pass from the breast of their mother;
They shall lie low, dead brother by brother,
In a place that is radiant and fruitless;
And the folk that sail over their heads
In violent weather
Shall come down to them, haply, and all
They shall lie there together.

- Ray

Shepherd aesthetes and Barry Pain

For a long time I resisted getting an Internet-capable phone, but it has proved invaluable on holiday for pursuing trains of thought that come out of conversation. A couple of days back, on the train to Portsmouth, Clare recalled a snippet of a song she'd had to learn at school. Googling found rapidly it was The Shepherd's Song: one of the Seven Lieder of Edward Elgar, a cycle of songs with lyrics by various authors. Here it is on YouTube sung by Mackay Choral Society's Male Chorus - The Shepherd's Song - and here are the lyrics:
Down the dusty road together
Homeward pass the hurrying sheep,
Stupid with the summer weather,
Too much grass and too much sleep,
    I, their shepherd, sing to thee
    That summer is a joy to me.

Down the shore rolled waves all creamy
With the flecked surf yesternight;
I swam far out in starlight dreamy,
In moving waters cool and bright,
    I, the shepherd, sing to thee
    I love the strong life of the sea.

And upon the hillside growing
Where the fat sheep dozed in shade,
Bright red poppies I found blowing,
Drowsy, tall and loosely made,
    I, the shepherd, sing to thee
    How fair the bright red poppies be.

To the red-tiled homestead bending
Winds the road, so white and long
Day and work are near their ending
Sleep and dreams will end my song,
    I, the shepherd, sing to thee;
    In the dreamtime answer, answer me,
    In the dreamtime answer, answer me.
The Eliza Stories, the 2002
Prion Classics collected edition
I find it fairly ludicrous; this narrator is in the long tradition of shepherd aesthetes with idyllic lifestyles (this one involves admiring poppies and going for long starlit swims). However, I was interested that the lyrics are by Barry Pain, author of the 1900 Eliza.

If you like observational humour of the style of George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody, Eliza is very much in the same vein, a gentle send-up of late-Victorian social aspiration. It tells of the long-suffering Eliza and her husband, a pushy junior clerk who is trying to get them up the social ladder from working class to lower middle class. Do check it out: Eliza, Project Gutenberg E-Text 23783.

When Barry Pain is remembered, if it all, it's generally for Eliza and its sequels. But I hadn't realised, until I looked at the Wikipedia page and Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, the breadth of his writing. As a contributor to Punch and the Cornhill Magazine, much of his work was humour and parody, some of it very barbed (though, like a lot of historical parody) a trifle inaccessible when its targets have been forgotten. A couple of his classics in this area are Marge Askinforit (Gutenberg #26204) , a parody of the self-obsessed and name-dropping autobiography of Margot Asquith ...
I was christened Margarine, of course, but in my own circle I have always been known as Marge. The name is, I am informed, derived from the Latin word margo, meaning the limit. I have always tried to live right up to it.

We were a very numerous family, and I can find space for biographical details of only a few of the more important. I must keep room for myself.

My elder sister, Casein—Casey, as we always called her—was supposed to be the most like myself, and was less bucked about it than one would have expected. I never made any mistake myself as to which was which. I had not her beautiful lustrous eyes, but neither had she my wonderful cheek. She had not my intelligence. Nor had she my priceless gift for uttering an unimportant personal opinion as if it were the final verdict of posterity with the black cap on. We were devoted to one another, and many a time have I owed my position as temporary parlour-maid in an unsuspicious family to the excellent character that she had written for me.
... and If Winter Don't (Gutenberg #27375), a parody of the style and format of ASM Hutchinson's family saga If Winter Comes. In the introduction, Pain comments on the fashionable stylistic foibles of the time, ridiculing novelists who would write the tongue-twister (or drunkenness test) “She stood at the door of Burgess’s fish-sauce shop, Strand, welcoming him in” as:
Across the roaring Strand red and green lights spelling on the gloom. ‘BURGESS’S FISH-SAU.’ A moment’s darkness and again ‘BURGESS’S FISH-SAU.’ Like that. Truncated. The final —CE not functioning. He had to look though it hurt him. Hurt horrible. Damnably. And his eyes traveled downward.

Suddenly and beyond hope she! Isobel-at-the-last. Standing in the doorway. White on black. Slim. Willowy. Incomparable. Incommensurable. She saw him and her lips rounded to a call. He sensed it through the traffic. Come in. Calling and calling. Come in.

“Come in....

“Out of the rain.”
Barry Pain, from the 1891
In a Canadian Canoe
This kind of thing wasn't to everyone's taste. Pain was caught up in the controversy over what was characterised as "the New Humour" (as exemplified in the works of Pain along with writers such as Jerome K Jerome, WW Jacobs, Israel Zangwill, JM Barrie and William Pett Ridge). Critics considered it arch, self-conscious and over-written, as described by this critique by Andrew Lang (Mr Andrew Lang on the new Humour, Press, Rōrahi XLVIII, Putanga 8040, 8 Hakihea 1891, Page 2, syndicated from Longman's Magazine).

But humour was just one aspect of Pain's highly varied output. As the ODNB says:
... it was his serious writing that earned critical acclaim during his lifetime. He was admired for his narrative ability and economy in a range of books that included novels, fantasies, a theological study, a detective story, and a series of parodies that were widely admired. In all, he wrote over sixty books and a mass of uncollected articles and short stories in every conceivable vein.
- N. T. P. Murphy, ‘Pain, Barry Eric Odell (1864–1928)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 28 May 2012]
A sampler of other Barry Pain works online:
  • In a Canadian Canoe, The Nine Muses Minus One, and Other Stories (1891, Internet Archive inacanadiancano00paingoog) - his first collection of stories and essays, many originally in Granta, the style varying through humour, whimsy, reflective essay, and fantasy. This is the work that Andrew Lang so disliked as "the New Humour".
  • The Octave of Claudius (1897, Internet Archive octaveofclaudius00painrich) - a macabre fantasy/SF novel about an impoverished young would-be novelist who is given £8000 by a mysterious benefactor as long as he agrees to be the subject of an experiment (which turns out to be along the lines of Dr Moreau).
  • De Omnibus (1901, Internet Archive deomnibus00paingoog) - these Cockney humorous stories may not be to everyone's taste, but Pain comes up with the occasional gem, such as his narrator's garbling of the well-known riddle as:
    Mothers an' fawthers 'ave I none,
    But this man's sister was my brother's son.
  • Lindley Kays (1904, Internet Archive lindleykays00paingoog) - a then long-awaited serious novel from Pain, telling the story of a man who breaks away from a stultifying trading family to become a successful dramatist.
  • The Memoirs of Constantine Dix (1905, Internet Archive memoirsconstant00paingoo) - a collection of crime stories featuring the anti-hero Constantine Dix, a gentleman of leisure whose public life is devoted to helping criminals go straight, while privately he is a successful thief.
  • The Exiles of Faloo (1910, Internet Archive exilesoffaloo00painuoft) - a dystopian novel set on a Pacific island, and focusing on the increasingly tense politics within the "Exiles Club", an elite governing group formed of criminals and outcasts from English society.
  • The New Gulliver and Other Stories (1913, Gutenberg #33542) - a collection of satirical fantasy stories, the lead one concerning Gulliver's visit to the dystopian Ultima Thule, where the late-Victorian class system has been exaggerated into a society ruled by an intellectual/technical oligarchy.
- Ray

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Tres Hombres

Pardon the break: I've been away. Clare and I spent a couple of days on the Isle of Wight visiting my dad and getting in a bit of walking - I've come back sunburnt and blistered. Quite a few relevant blog posts will follow over the next few days.

But one interesting sight en route, with a bit of Topsham relevance, was this ship moored off the Gunwharf Quays at Portsmouth Harbour on Thursday: the brigantine Tres Hombres, a sailing freighter operating as a venture to transport trans-Atlantic cargo on a Fair Trade carbon-neutral basis.

Tres Hombres was due to moor at Topsham Quay on October 14th 2011 (see the Exeter Express & Echo, Sailing ship to highlight Fair Trade message), but due to maritime-political complications it didn't happen. One local tale I heard was that the cost of pilotage was too high; Tres Hombres has no auxiliary engine, and would have to be towed to Topsham. The TOWT - TransOceanic Wind Transport - site indicates that it might have been feasible, but nobody was prepared to take the risk of towing the ship up the river in case it ran aground on the mud. See From Topsham to Brixham … or what future for the historical Port of Exeter?

Anyhow, after that missed opportunity, it was cool to see the Tres Hombres elsewhere.

Check out its official website: The sailing vessel and cargo ship Brigantine Tres Hombres.

- Ray

Click to enlarge all images.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Life in Life

Via MetaFilter, Life in Life:a video of a remarkable piece of coding - OTCAMP - that runs a Conway's Game of Life simulation inside Conway's Game of Life.

It strongly reminds me of the theme of Daniel F Galouye's 1964 SF novel Counterfeit World (a.k.a. Simulacron-3), which had a theme of nested simulations. In Counterfeit World, a virtual reality city has been set up for market research; but after a death and a mysterious disappearance, one of the researchers twigs that his own reality (i.e. ours) may itself be inside another simulation.

Counterfeit World was filmed in 1973 as Fassbinder's TV mini-series Welt am Draht (World on a Wire), which is on YouTube, though without subtitles (part 1 / part 2), and as the 1999 The Thirteenth Floor. The latter is a much under-rated film, mostly through unfortunate timing; appearing in the same year, it was eclipsed by The Matrix.  In 2011, Janus Films released a digitally restored and subtitled version of World on a Wire.

US trailer for World on a Wire, Janus Film, 2011

- Ray

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Les Visiteurs

Godefroy and Jacquoille

I've just been rewatching the DVD of Jean-Marie Poiré's 1993 cult comedy Les Visiteurs (The Visitors) and thoroughly wishing I knew more French. As you probably know, it concerns the misadventures of a mediaeval knight and his servant (played by Jean Reno and Christian Clavier) who are accidentally transported by a spell to modern France (see synopsis). It works very well as broad farce (at the level of the mediaeval characters washing in the toilet bowl and trying to roast meat using an umbrella as a spit), and the English DVD credits predictably liken it to Monty Python and Blackadder. But I began to twig that there's a lot more going on at the level of wordplay and social satire, most of which is lost in translation to subtitles. That it's far funnier to French speakers would probably explain how it become one of the highest-grossing French films ever.

In some areas, the subtitlers made a very good effort. For example, the servant's name, Jacquouille la Fripouille, incorporates a pun on "Jacques" and "couille" (a vulgar term for testicle), so it could be interpreted as something like "Jack Bollock the Crook". This was neatly adapted to Jacquasse la Crasse (i.e. readable as Jack Ass the Crass). They also went to reasonable effort to find equivalents for some of the archaic French used by the knight Godefroy: for instance, rendering "fillot" / "fillote" (archaic words for a young boy / girl) as "youngling", and "ça puire" (the archaic form of "ça pue" - "it stinks") as "it stinketh". Nevertheless, not much else remains of the flavour of Godefroy's speech, which is described within the film as "a mixture of Old French and Latin", but was described by one reviewer - see Les Visiteurs: Dinnnnnngue! - as "un mélange de vieux français et de délire des 2 scénaristes" ("a mixture of Old French and the delirium of two screenwriters").

On top of this is the whole interplay of language and social class. Godefroy speaks some flavour of formal Old French, Jacquouille a more robust slang. In the future, they find the classes inverted: Jacquouille's descendant is the nouveau riche castle owner Jacquard, and Godefroy's is the impoverished (at least to opulent middle class) Béatrice, whose aristocratic speech is peppered with franglais and French Yuppie affectations such as "Okéééééé" and "Dingue!" (i.e. crazy / far out *) that Jacquoille enthusiastically adopts. There's also Ginette, a bag lady who speaks in a downmarket Parisian accent.

A number of accounts intrepret this mix of people and circumstances as a very edgy microcosm of French culture and how it reflects through language. There's a particularly good analysis in this light in Lucy Mazdon's  2001 France on Film: Reflections on Popular French Cinema: see page 41, Anne Jäckel, 'Les Visiteurs: a feelgood movie for uncertain times'. The section on language notes that the film became so popular that phrases such as "fillotes", "ça puire" and the closing line "Mais qu'est ce que c'est ce binz" ("But what is this mess?" **) became national catchphrases.

- Ray

* The subtitles translate "Dingue" as "Freaky". I strongly suspect this to be informed by Un vendredi dingue, dingue, dingue, the French title of the 1976 film Freaky Friday - the standard translation of "dingue" appears to be "crazy" / "far out".
** ... to put it politely. The argot term "binz" is more akin to "foutoir" - a bloody mess or shambles, with sexual connotations. In the content of Les Visiteurs - the modern Jacquard finding himself in 12th century France - "But why is everything so f*cked-up?" might be a better idiomatic translation of "Mais qu'est ce que c'est ce binz".

Addendum: I just found Mortecouille et Tudieu! Le vocabulaire médiéval, a glossary of archaic French with its modern equivalents, at Pauline Laloua's blog. Googling some of the phrases led me to the interesting coincidence (if it is a coincidence and not an in-joke by the screenwriters of Les Visiteurs) that the leading 19th century lexicographer of historical French was also called Godefroy.

Part of his multi-volume Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française et de tous ses dialectes du 9e au 15e siècle is on the Internet Archive (see internal search).The full set is on Gallica (see internal search). It's worth a browse if you like words. One I ran into with a distinct connection to  the above topic was "couillard". It's a siege engine like a trebuchet, but with two weights. A number of online accounts say of it "Quant à son étymologie, Napoléon III remarqua déjà qu'un seul coup d'œil sur sa silhouette suffisait à la comprendre!" ("As to its etymology, Napoleon III already remarked that a single glance at the shape was enough to understand!").

Friday, 18 May 2012


Firefall cinematic trailer - best seen in full screen.

I'm continually impressed by where animation is going these days. The above is the cinematic trailer for the Firefall multiplayer SF combat game; the particular scenario involves space marines protecting a mineral extraction device from the local wildlife it attracts. It's naff on many levels: hardware-obsessed, stereotypical gender exaggeration, unfeasible armour, dispensable ethnic character ... And yet the animation is so polished in terms of lighting, depth, chiaroscuro, attention to detail, and overall atmosphere, that I find it compelling to watch.

And then there's this second one, Sintel. Its origin is interesting: it's one of a number of collaborative animation projects produced by the Blender Foundation, the non-profit group responsible for the development of the open source 3D animation package Blender. The central character Sintel (Dutch for "ember") is a feisty teenage girl in a generic fantasy world, and she finds a dragon. Though it's entirely opposite in spirit to the Firefall one, it too is compelling, and for more than just the technical quality. It's possibly not safe for work, but not for the usual reasons: it is ... very moving.

Sintel - best seen in full screen.

- Ray

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The King of the Cats

I had to draw this, because Cosmo
wouldn't wear a tinfoil crown.
Following on from the story of the cat funeral (attributed by Jean Cocteau to Keats) in MK Joseph's poem The Rosy Cats of Doctor Paracelsus ...

It's a very good yarn, which Cocteau retold in his 1969 The Hand of a Stranger: (Journal d'un inconnu). Admittedly, this must get some kind of prize for the retelling most embroidered with irrelevant waffle about the angsts of the storyteller.
On a Cat Story
To be not marvelled at, but believed

As far as I know, Keats' cat story has never been written. It has been passed down by word of mouth, changing as it goes. There are a number of versions about, but the mood is always the same. A mood so subtle that I wonder if that is not why the story better fits speech, with its leisureliness, than the pen, which is impatient.

These are the facts : Keats was to go to the village of F. to lunch with a friend who was the parson there. He had to cross a forest. On horseback, he lost his way in it. Dusk made the labyrinth inescapable. Tying his horse to a tree, he decided to wait for daybreak, and try to find a charcoal-burner's hut where he might shelter overnight. While he was wandering round, afraid to go too far out of sight of his horse, and taking care to blaze a trail wherever he went, he noticed a light. He made his way towards that light. It came from a sort of ruin not mentioned by any guide book, that of an ancient amphitheatre, a Coliseum, a confusion of arches, steps, tumbled stone, collapsed walls, gaps, brambles. The light, which was very peculiar, quivered and lit up the dead amphitheatre. Keats went close up, slipped through a gap past a pillar, and peeped.

What he saw pinned him there with stupefaction and terror. The auditorium was occupied by hundreds of cats, side by side, like the crowd round a Spanish arena, they were milling about everywhere, miaowing at the top of their voices. Suddenly he caught the sound of miniature trumpets, and the cats were motionless at once, their phosphorescent eyes turned to the right, from where came the flickering confusion of light and shadow. The light came from torches, carried by fifty jackbooted cats, heading a procession of other cats, magnificently clad, with cat pages and heralds trumpeting, cats carrying banners and cat standard-bearers.

The procession filed right across the arena and began to wind back, when there appeared four white and four black cats, with cocked hats and swords, they too, just like the others strutting on their hind legs. These four were carrying on their shoulders a little coffin on which lay a small golden crown. Behind this came more cats, two by two, bearing cushions on which were pinned orders, the diamonds of which sparkled in the light of the torches and flashed in the moonshine. The procession wound up with drums. Keats told himself that he must be dreaming, he had fallen asleep on horseback and this was a dream. But dreams are one thing, reality another. He was not dreaming and he knew he was not. He was lost by night in a forest, he was the witness of a rite of which no man should have seen anything, and he was afraid. The moment his presence was discovered that crowd of cats would rush out of the amphitheatre and tear him in pieces with their claws. The heralds trumpeted, the standards fluttered, the coffin was borne, all in a silence made painful by those arrogant little trumpets. After one turn of the arena, the whole procession moved away. The trumpets died down. The lights were extinguished The crowd of cats left the tiers of the amphitheatre. Many of them leapt out through the breach in the wall into which Keats now made every effort to efface himself. The ruin became a ruin again, with only the moonlight to occupy it.

It was now that a much more dangerous idea than the scene he had witnessed came to Keats. It was that he would not be believed. This was a story he would never be able to tell. It would be classified as a poet's falsehood. Now, Keats knew that poets do not tell lies. They bear witness. [And he knew] that it is believed that they do lie. And he became frantic, at the thought a secret like this would remain his property, that he would never be able to relieve himself of it, sharing it with other men. A catafalque of loneliness.

Shaking himself, he went back to his horse. resolved to leave the forest, whatever it cost him. He then succeeded in reaching the parsonage, where he was no longer expected.

The parson was a very cultivated man. Keats had great respect for him, considering him, indeed, competent to understand his poems. He told his story, but without referring to the amphitheatre of cats. The parson had been in bed, and had got up again. The parson's valet was asleep. The parson laid a meal for Keats. Keats ate in silence. The parson was astonished to find him so distracted, and asked if he were not feeling unwell. Keats replied that he was not, but admitted that he was under the influence of a worry, the cause of which he was unable to tell. The parson gave him a friendly shake and said he certainly must explain what he meant. Oysterlike, Keats wriggled, but in the end the parson got him to give way, for once his guest had admitted that his anxiety was he would not be believed, the parson promised to believe him. Keats was not satisfied with a mere promise, but made the parson swear over the Bible. This however the parson could not do. But he did declare that his promise as a friend was really quite as good as the oath of a priest.

"I am all ears," he said, and lay back in his armchair, smoking his pipe.

Keats was about to tell, when he thought better of it. Fear overcame him again. The parson, now very interested, had to let him have his way and say nothing, in order to free his tongue. But at last Keats closed his eyes and told the story. The parson listened in the gloom, the window open on the stars, the fire dying down. Keats described the ruin, the strange gathering and the strange happening. From time to time, he opened his eyes, to shoot a glance at the parson ...
... section unfindable
Then it happened, just as sudden as a clap of thunder, without either Keats or the parson really grasping what was taking place. Keats had got to the procession, the torches, the trumpets, the pennants, the drums, and was describing the costumes, cocked-hats and high-boots. "Four white cats," he said, "and four black cats, were carrying a coffin on their shoulders. On the coffin lay a golden crown."

He had scarcely got these words off his lips when the cat which was sleeping in front of the fire arched its back. Its hair stood on end. "But that means I am now the king of the cats," it cried out in a human voice, and leapt out of the window.

- The Hand of a Stranger (Journal d'un inconnu), Jean Cocteau, Horizon Press, 1959
I haven't been able to track it to Keats - this seems to be an invention or mistake on the part of Cocteau (perhaps he was thinking of the remark by WB Yeats on Swinburne's death). But Mary Shelley repeated in her 1824 On Ghosts this version ...
A gentleman journeying towards the house of a friend, who lived on the skirts of an extensive forest, in the east of Germany, lost his way. He wandered for some time among the trees, when he saw a light at a distance. On approaching it he was surprised to observe that it proceeded from the interior of a ruined monastery. Before he knocked at the gate he thought it proper to look through the window. He saw a number of cats assembled round a small grave, four of whom were at that moment letting down a coffin with a crown upon it. The gentleman startled at this unusual sight, and, imagining that he had arrived at the retreats of fiends or witches, mounted his horse and rode away with the utmost precipitation. He arrived at his friend's house at a late hour, who sate up waiting for him. On his arrival his friend questioned him as to the cause of the traces of agitation visible in his face. He began to recount his adventures after much hesitation, knowing that it was scarcely possible that his friend should give faith to his relation. No sooner had he mentioned the coffin with the crown upon it, than his friend's cat, who seemed to have been lying asleep before the fire, leaped up, crying out, 'Then I am king of the cats;' and then scrambled up the chimney, and was never seen more.
... by Matthew G Lewis. who told it to the Shelleys. It appears as an English fairy tale - The King o' the Cats - but, interestingly, one often collected many decades after these literary sources. However, it appears many times in 19th century publications. There's an extremely erudite verse retelling in The Mouser-Monarchy, a piece by John Hamilton-Reynolds in The New Monthly Magazine, Volume 75, Part 3, 1845. Fraser's Magazine in 1837 has a verse retelling "narrated by Washington Irving as having been told by Sir Walter Scott to him" (here). It's also in the 1836 anonymous collection Poems on Several Occasions, from 1793 to 1816 (page 41), and also in the letters of Lord Lyttleton (see Letters of the late Lord Lyttelton, Volumes 1-2, 1785, pp 35-36). And it appears in folklore versions: Notes and Queries, for Dec 15th 1860, mentions the variant story about someone being told by a cat, "Tell Dildrum [that] Doldrum's dead". Stephen Vincent Benét's 1937 short fantasy The King of the Cats is based on the same story.

Addendum, 31 Jan 2013: I'm not sure now I missed this one first time round, but David Platt of Small Finds from the Spoilheap kindly sent me a scan and pointer to Joseph Jacobs' version The King o' the Cats (from his 1894 More English Fairy Tales, Project Gutenberg, E-Text No. 14241).

Right: a low-res image of the nice artwork by Alan Howard accompanying the reprint of Jacobs' version in Northern Lights: Legends, Sagas and Folktales, ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland, Faber & Faber, 1987.

- Ray

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Rosy Cats of Doctor Paracelsus - and other poems

Further to The Time of Achamoth, and before that The Hole in the Zero, I've just been looking at the poetry of the 1950s-70s New Zealand author MK Joseph.

He was pretty good. The Poetry Archive has a feature on him - MK Joseph - with nine of his poems; but I just found a very good weblog, Reading for Believers, which has a number of his hard-to-find poems (check out the internal search) such as The Rosy Cats of Doctor Paracelsus. There are undoubtedly copyright issues with this poem, but he's long out of print and I reproduce it out of sincere homage to a great writer.

The Rosy Cats of Doctor Paracelsus M.K. Joseph

(paste-up, with montage of old movies)

Paracelsus claimed that he could make homunculi
(Little men) a span high, growing the lifeseeds
in vessels buried in dungheaps to maintain
a mild and even heat . . . Wise Paracelsus believed that if a rose
was burned in a crucible to finest ash
then in the heatshimmer as the smoke ascended
it would hover and shape itself into the grey
ghost of a rose. My grey ghost hand
plucks from the air, presents to you
This ghost of a rose.

When Nijinkski danced the Spectre of the Rose
leaving the dreaming girl he seemed to
float out of the window into the moonlight
light as a rose petal
then fell into a chair
backstage, where two attendants worked him over
like a heavyweight boxer's seconds with towel and sponge.

That was Jean Cocteau's story, perhaps he was lying.

Cocteau the magician conjured an Orpheus
who could walk through mirrors into death's kingdom.
He also had a story about cats. It went like this.

'The English poet Keats once rode
At night-time through an gloomy wood
When all at once he seemed to hear
A sound of tiny trumpets near.
Dismounting from his horse he sees
Small torches flickering through the trees
Bobbing and twinkling two by two
And presently came into view
Cats all dressed in funeral black
Marching along the woodland track.

Only the tap of drum is heard,
Six drummers pass without a word,
Then the trumpet's mournful cry
As six cat-trumpeters march by,
Six cats in mourning for the dead
Wave six black banners overhead,
With trumpets' cry and tap of drum
And flapping bannners on they come.

Then guards-men cats with arms reversed
Of which six musketeers were first
To fire the volley at the grave,
Six swordsmen-cats with whiskers brave,
Six grenadiers with drooping tail,
Six pikemen with pikes at trail,
Six cat-princesses glided by
Blackveiled and sobbing bitterly.
Last came six blackgowned pallbearers
Bearing heavily on their shoulders
The coffin draped, and on it set
A tiny golden coronet.
Silent they marched by where he stood
And vanished in the darkling wood.

When many a weary mile was past
Keats reached a friendly house at last.
Beside him on the hearth-rug sat
And purred a handsome ginger cat
As resting by the fireside
He told of his strange evening ride -

Torches and drums and minstrelsy
Banners and guards and heraldry
Princesses sobbing bitterly
But when he came to the coronet
Upon the little coffin set
The cat said: That means I'm king
Of all the cats.
With sudden spring
He cleared the windowsill and quite
Disappeared in the summer night.'

(And when Swinburne died - so Karl Stead
told me - Yeats said
Now I'm king of the cats).

but Mary Shelley heard of this from Monk Lewis
at Geneva in the summer Frankenstein,
she also believed that if a cat ate roses
it would turn into a beautiful woman.

'Quickly, come quickly, the little cat
is eating the roses. It will turn into a beautiful woman
with green eyes and short sharp fingernails.'

O catwoman mother of monsters
may the pads of your paws be
as soft and pearly as rose petals
your claws no sharper than thorns.
(A huge hand ripped off in a closing door
clawed with gigantic thorns.
Where could this be? In the arctic hut in
The Thing from Outer Space
the tall walking vegetable vampire*
whose seedlings must be nourished
with human blood. Trapped in the end
screaming in electric arcs
fried down for compost.)

*(played by James Arness later known as Matt Dillon.)

[Samuel Johnson had a cat named Hodge.
When it fell ill his friend the barroom doctor
Levett prescribed a nourishing diet of oysters.
Dilemma: should he send his black servant
Francis Barber who might feel put upon
running errands for a fat old cat?
Solution: Doctor Samuel Johnson went himself
to Billingsgate to purchase oysters for
Hodge who recovered. This is a digression.]

Doctor Pretorius (played by Ernest Thesiger)
was a paracelsian who kept his homunculi
imprisoned in glass belljars; when they knocked
with tiny fists upon the glass it rang
like toy telephones: this in The Bride of Frankenstein
In which the Bride (the Monster's of course: Frankenstein's
bride was played by Valerie Hobson who later
married a British Cabinet minister named
John Profumo, which is strange but not relevant)
was played by Elsa Lanchester who in 'real'
i.e. offscreen life was married to Charles Laughton
who was Quasimodo in the second Hunchback
of Notre Dame
and Doctor Moreau in The Island
of Lost Souls
in which the leader
of the Beast Men was Bela Lugosi who
(need I say it?) played the title-role in the original
Dracula in which Renfield the madman
who ate flies was Dwight Frye who acted
the malignant hunchback who in Frankenstein the first
selected the wrong brain for the poor Monster
(doomed from the start) who was played
by Boris Karloff who was played by
a very gentle Englishman named
William Henry Pratt.

Ash in the crucible revives
Roses and monsters hover in the mind.

Bernard de Fonatanelle who lived for a century
And dreamed of men dwelling on other stars
Also listened-in on the conversation of roses.
He overheard one rose say to another
No gardener has ever been known to die.
As a paste-up, it may well have meaning only discernible to the reader, but it's readable as a stream-of-consciousness piece by a writer who had wide interests across literature and popular culture. MK Joseph's interests show through in this poem - echoes of Samuel Johnson and Dr Pretorius turn up in The Hole in the Zero (see the update) and one of the future vignettes in The Time of Achamoth repeats the Paracelsus and Mary Shelley stories.

See The king of the cats for a follow-up on the Keats allusion.

- Ray

Coast: at The Needles

Scratchell's Bay - from The Atlantic Islands as Resorts
of Health and Pleasure, S. G. W. Benjamin, 1878.
The always excellent BBC series Coast returned for series 7 yesterday. Episode 1 - The Mysteries of the Isles - included an interesting segment in which Andy Torbet climbed a treacherous chalk stack, one of The Needles off the western tip of the Isle of Wight, to collect a sample for the British Geological Survey.

If you're in the UK, it's available for viewing on BBC iPlayer until 24th June 2012: The Mysteries of the Isles. The Isle of Wight segment is from around 24:30 to 33:45. Apart from the ascent itself, the segment begins with a nice but brief flyover of Shanklin and Shanklin Chine, views of Alum Bay and The Needles, and a landing at the seldom-visited Scratchell's Bay, which is only accessible by sea.

Scratchell's Bay from Needles New Battery, my photo, October 2009
The beach is about 120m (400ft) down.
Ian West's The Needles page at his  Geology of the Wessex Coast of Southern England has many spectacular photos of this striking headland, along with a detailed geological description; it also includes historical drawings showing "Lot's Wife", a further pinnacle that collapsed in the 18th century (though accounts vary as to the location and date). The forum of 28dayslater - The UK UE Urbex Urban Exploration Forums - has an intriguing report of an expedition in 2008 to the Needles Old Battery, Sea Level Fort.

By the way, check out SGW Benjamin's The Atlantic Islands as Resorts of Health and Pleasure, , 1878 (Internet Archive ID atlanticislandsa01benj). It's rather cool that he considered the Isle of Wight worthy of inclusion alongside "The Bahamas.--The Azores.--The Channel Islands.--The Magdalen Islands.--Madeira.--Teneriffe.--Newfoundland.--The Bermudas.--Belleisle-en-Mer.--Prince Edward Island.--Isles of Shoals.--Cape Breton Island". The section starts at page 234.

- Ray

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Time of Achamoth

Yesterday afternoon I did a first-pass reading of a book I'm sure I'll return to: Michael Kennedy Joseph's 1977 science fiction novel The Time of Achamoth. MK Joseph (1914-1981) was a British-born New Zealand author and academic who wrote in fairly diverse genres (historical, war, adventure, and SF), all tending to be characterised by erudite historical and literary interests, traditional morality and philosophy, anti-war views, and a distinct interest in experimental writing. I've enthused previously about his experimental SF novel The Hole in the Zero (see The Hole in the Zero and the Update), so it was an opportunity I couldn't miss when I found an affordable UK-sourced copy of The Time of Achamoth on Amazon; it's moderately rare, and was only published in New Zealand.

The Time of Achamoth is a time-travel novel set initially in  near-future New Zealand. It begins with the historian protagonist, Mark Hollister, suddenly finding himself with a rifle in the Waitomo Caves about to shoot an Asian military officer. He doesn't do so, but while fleeing the scene he meets a young man called Harry who somehow knows what has happened. Harry takes him to Tau Station, a secluded research establishment, where he is rapidly recruited into a group called Tempo that is conducting time travel experiments.

Hollister is sceptical, so Tempo offer to send him to "some nice safe neutral spot" as a demonstration. In fact it sends him into the thick of battle in the World War One trenches, where he finds himself as a British officer and only narrowly escapes with his life. On his return, he gets the full explanation: that Tempo is using mental time travel into past lives, mediated by telepathy and the "The Man Upstairs", a shadowy figure from the future.

Hollister goes on three further trips: to the final days of the Paris Commune in 1871; to a jousting tournament (closely modelled on the Eglinton Tournament) at the faux-mediaeval estate of a Victorian aristocrat; and to a house party at a Georgian mansion, where he finds himself using anachronistic methods to solve a murder mystery.

During these trips, it becomes increasingly clear that the Tempo travellers are being attacked by hostile rival travellers from similar projects in the USA and Russia. However, this investigation is curtailed when Hollister returns to find Tau Station under attack by an armed student protest group. While escaping, he is captured in a gas attack, and finds himself imprisoned along with Russian and American travellers, at the Chinese equivalent of Tempo. Although Feng, who heads the project, is initially suspicious, they compare experiences and conclude that they are being set at each other by some unknown party, which is orchestrating the destruction of time travel projects. They agree to cooperate and undertake the dangerous experiment of going forward in time, in the hope of gaining information.

Feng tries, and dies. Hollister goes second, passing through many glimpses of the centuries to come: a dystopian New Zealand of feral teenagers and gated communities; neo-Puritan book burning at Oxford University; a wandering cleric plying airports; a child being told as a bedtime story a far-future mutated retelling of The Emperor's New Clothes; various glimpses of an increasingly decentralised low-population future as humanity eventually reaches the stars ("new planets named such like Poenamo, Elsinore, Merdeka, Kamikaze") ... Ultimately he finds himself in an android body talking to "the Caretaker", who is the "Man Upstairs" who has been guiding the travellers. In fractured English the Caretaker explains to Hollister that their common enemy is a Gnostic sect (headed by the demiurge Achamoth) which seeks to bring about the premature end of humanity by possessing individuals to commit destructive acts at key points in history (this is evidently what had happened to Hollister at the beginning of the novel). In Hollister's era, its instrument is the evil and ancient telepath Achamoth, and the Caretaker gives him a vision of its lair, a stone tomb with a giant head.

Hollister returns to his own time, where he and his colleagues identify the location: Karl Marx's tomb in Highgate Cemetery. Police reports show a recent enigma: the finding in a vault of a giant corpse shot with nylon-tipped arrows, and that of a Russian clerk. Achamoth, it seems, is already dead - but to close the timeline, Hollister and another traveller, Kornilov, have to go back make sure this showdown plays out exactly as history records. Hollister survives the encounter, and finds himself back on his original timeline in the abandoned ruins of Tau Station.

Just viewed as time travel SF, it's a well-constructed novel (its structure is strangely reminiscent of Keith Laumer's Dinosaur Beach). But it works on a number of other levels, primarily as a take on the problem of evil - in fact the same territory as tackled by Colin Wilson in The Mind Parasites, an attempt to explain the perception that history has repeatedly and spectacularly been driven by the dark side of humanity over the past few centuries (the Caretaker and Achamoth are not explicitly identified as God and the Devil, but the implication is there). Joseph's anti-war sentiments also show through, in his vignettes of the horrors of conflict; in a prefatory note, he credits the World War One poets Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden.

As with The Hole in the Zero and Joseph's mainstream novel I'll Soldier No More, the narrative makes strong use of existential vignettes - snippets of time that Hollister experiences - and Joseph's vivid and erudite prose conveys these powerfully. Many of them appear to be allusions to other writers and works: for instance, Hollister experiences at one point the mind of HG Wells as he coins the word "Morlock", and at another he becomes one of the prisoners in a scene clearly referring to Doré's classic engraving of Newgate Exercise Yard. I'm sure there are other allusions that I haven't yet identified. The Note says:
Readers may recognise that Hollister's narrative has association with the work of other operatives in the field including Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Karl Baedeker, Frank Jellinek, Ian Anstruther, Arthur Bryant, Dorothy Stroud, James Bruce, Steven Runciman, Hans Jonas and, of course, Herbert George Wells.
Frank Jellinek in particular must be the source for the Paris Commune segment; his 1937 The Paris Commune of 1871 is a classic account from a Marxist perspective. Ian Anstruther's 1963 The Knight and the Umbrella undoubtedly informed the segment based on the Eglinton tournament. The book cover is recognisably Karl Marx as depicted on his tomb; the New Zealand Book Council biography mentions that Joseph attended St Aloysius's College, Highgate Hill.

Tomb of Marx, Wikipedia photo by 'JohnArmagh'

Very little seems to have been written about The Time of Achamoth, but Bruce Alvin King rates it highly in his 1991 The Commonwealth Novel since 1960:
The Hole in the Zero (1967) and The Time of Achamoth (1977) ... were also the first New Zealand novels, possibly since Erewhon, to move into any variety of fantasy, apart from Frame's more psychic variations. Again, Joseph surpassed the realists, for instance, in Achamoth's vivid historical episodes, and in futuristic scenes that rival Wells and Burgess at the same time as they graciously allude to them. Achamoth neatly flips over the conventional role of New Zealand in futuristic fiction as post-cataclysmic haven, by presenting that notion from the local point of view.
- Ray