Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Faux Chinese sighting

Felix Grant and I have discussed from time to time the often ingenious calligraphic device of imitating letterforms from other scripts (see Double delight / Faux Cyrillic sighting / This mesto in Salisbury).

MetaFilter just had a post - Square Word Calligraphy: English that Looks Like Chinese - that drew attention to a very nice example: the Chinese artist Xu Bing's 1994 installation Square Calligraphy Classroom. This showcased an attractive style of writing, invented by the artist, that goes beyond merely imitating letters, but also arranges them into words in a manner closely imitating the internal organisation of Chinese characters.
Essentially, New English Calligraphy is a fusion of written English and written Chinese. The letters of an English word are slightly altered and arranged in a square word format so that the word takes on the ostensible form of a Chinese character, yet remains legible to the English reader. As people attempt to recognize and write these words, some of the thinking patterns that have been ingrained in them since they learned to read are challenged. It is the artists' belief that people must have their routine thinking attacked in this way. While undergoing this process of estrangement and re-familiarization with one's written language, the audience is reminded that the sensation of distance between other systems of language and one's own is largely self-induced.
See Square Calligraphy Classroom; and also the Omniglot page Square Word Calligraphy, concerning Dr David B. Kelley's development of it modified for a more consistent Chinese-like appearance to the words.

Addendum: a little experimentation with this system finds that although it's simple in concept, it requires considerable calligraphic flair (more than I have) to use characters flexibly to make the most aesthetic packing within the square. Here's my effort on my name, using GIMP, which clearly fails to achieve the uniformity of stroke thickness.

- Ray

Monday, 27 August 2012

Brideshead Revisited (2008)

I'm not sure if it has been on terrestrial television before, but we finally saw Brideshead Revisited, Julian Jarrold's 2008 film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.

If you're English and of a certain age, it's bound to attract comparison with the classic and much more detailed 1981 TV serial of the same name, starring Jeremy Irons. I enjoyed this on re-watching it recently, and - from distant recollection of having read the book decades ago - I think it retained a great deal of the subtlety of the novel. The 2008 adaptation is necessarily highly condensed, but it was nevertheless a highly polished version, with Matthew Goode playing Ryder creditably.

What is does do, in contrast to the earlier version, is make it far more overt that Ryder not only wishes to be part of the aristocratic lifestyle of the Marchmain family, but also actively covets the stately home Brideshead itself. It was also interesting to see that the blurb for the trailer (above) ...
Adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's classic novel, focusing on the doomed love affair between Charles and Julia Flyte and how Catholicism destroys their relationship and their families.
... specifically spins it as a critique of the influence of Catholicism on the characters.

At the time of publication, however, the novel was perceived as a Catholic apologia. Waugh, a Catholic convert, described the novel as being about "what is theologically termed 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself". In those terms, the Marchmain family is dysfunctional and decadent, but its members are ultimately redeemed by religiously-motivated decisions that lead them variously to good works, deathbed conversion, and rejecting relationships unacceptable within their religious framework.

But I don't think the 2008 film is saying anything wildly new. That always has been a possible alternative interpretation of the novel, and I recall thinking the same on reading the book and seeing the 1981 adaptation. The Marchmains' dysfunction is in being unable to break the family programming - it's rather irrelevant that it's Catholicism - that damages their ability to relate to people outside the framework of a stultifying ruleset. Sebastian is a self-destructive alcoholic because of the programmed guilt that prevents him coming to terms with his homosexuality in a straightforward way (in contrast with Blanche, who ultimately proves to be the most perceptive and self-aware character in the book). The same programmed guilt makes Julia break off a perfectly workable relationship with Ryder.

This ought to make the outcome readable as a tragedy, but for some reason it finally comes across as merely irritating, when Ryder accepts Julia's mutually destructive decision as valid, and, on revisiting Brideshead years later as a "homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless" Army officer, gets a glimmering of faith himself.

- Ray

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Apothecary's Drawer: merged and purged

As part of a project to rationalise my web presence, for a while I've been merging here, backdated, anything significant from my other blog The Apothecary's Drawer. The process is now complete.

 You might want to check out the last few posts that I moved today:
- Ray

Friday, 24 August 2012

Lawson Wood's "Mr and Mrs" series

I just scanned these images for The Topsham Bookshop, but I doubt Lily will mind my reproducing them here. They come from a little compilation volume of Lawson Wood's "Mr" and "Mrs" series, 4"x4" children's books originally published in the 1920s and featuring the adventures and misadventures of a number of characterful anthropomorphised animals. There is a slight Devon connection: the brief obituary in The Times for Tuesday, Oct 29, 1957 mentions that the artist, born in 1878, died in Sidmouth, whose museum has a collection of his works.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Go figure

I was amused by this box image from the Michael Stanfield (MS) Go set. The makers haven't gone for the obvious Japanese-themed illustration, and have instead tried to portray a kind of 1960s middle-class sophistication. Full marks for the depiction of the man using the correct traditional stone placement method (between index and middle finger). But the game itself is a bit of a mystery: there are a lot of peculiar stone placings that don't further the game's aim, to surround territory, usually starting with the corners and then the edges.

It is, however, vastly better as a portrayal of a Go game than the completely random board position in Kunyoshi's 1843 Raiko Tormented by the Ground Spider. Considering the general attention to detail, you'd think Kuniyoshi would have known better.

image from The Many Faces of Go software package

A real Go game tends to look like this at the end of the opening phase:

This is the Wikipedia image of Game 1 of the 2002 Korean LG Cup final between Choe Myeong-hun and Lee Sedol.

- Ray


Not much on the face of it, but this photo out of our front door shows a significant thing: a crane over the rear of the Salutation Hotel. I mentioned this a year back - see Salutation Inn - as being under renovation: after years of decline as an increasingly scruffy pub, and subsequent closure, it's to become a boutique hotel. The crane is for lowering the arched roof skeleton into place over the old courtyard, which is being converted into a long saloon, one of the near-final stages of the renovation. The completion date is now, I'm told, estimated to be November this year.

- Ray

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Zestful Gollopers

click to enlarge
In a couple of posts I've mentioned in passing the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers (A.O.F.B.). If you missed them, this was a humorous charitable organisation found by one Alf Temple in 1924 to raise money for children's charities in gratitude for life-saving surgery by Sir Alfred Downing Fripp, who became a leading light in the society's management until his death in 1931, when A.O.F.B. came to an end through various factors, personal and financial.

A.O.F.B. was essentially a drinking club whose chapters ("vats") met in pubs nationwide, with weird rituals and hierarchies; it collected charitable donations through membership fees, merchandise, and various forfeits (such as failing to wear membership cufflinks). Its motto was "Lubrication in Moderation" and part of its description was:
"A sociable and law abiding fraternity of absorptive Britons who sedately consume and quietly enjoy with commendable regularity and frequention the truly British malted beverage as did their forbears and as Britons ever will, and be damned to all pussyfoot hornswogglers from overseas and including low brows, teetotalers and MPs and not excluding nosey parkers, mock religious busy bodies and suburban fool hens all of which are structurally solid bone from the chin up".
- Wikipedia quote from the AOFB handbook
Then, as now, the promotion of drinking attracted criticism, and it may well have not been a terrifically healthy pursuit. But it must have a significant source of bonhomie in an era still reeling from World War One.

This repeat post is because I just got a flyer about the 130-page book The Zestful Gollopers (The Amazing Story of Bert Temple, Sir Alfred Fripp & Ye Ancient Order of Froth Blowers) by David L. Woodhead and Ian Brown.
The full story of Ye Ancient Order of Froth Blowers from its inception in 1924 when it had its first two members, Bert Temple and Sir Alfred Fripp, to 1931 when both men were dead - but 688,000 people had joined their charitable Order and over £100,000 had been collected for all 'Wee Waifs'. It describes its rapid growth in 1926-7, its fight with the Temperance Movement and the reasons for its sudden decline.
The book - a definitive account of the A.O.F.B. - is the fruit of considerable research by David and others into this largely forgotten organisation. For background and photos, see Ian Brown's Friends of the Froth Blowers (" a site dedicated to the memory and preservation of the A.O.F.B.").

The Zestful Gollopers is available for £6.49 + p&p from eBay (you can also get it via Blurb.com at various prices depending on format).

- Ray

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Lime milkshake and Kunzle cake

I just had a Proustian moment, as in Proust's account of the vivid memories evoked by the taste of petites madeleines dipped in lime-flower tea (see the relevant section of À la recherche du temps perdu).

It arose from a conversation on Wednesday, when I was working at the bookshop. A lady came in to shelter from a torrential shower, and during a very pleasant chat - it turned out she was from Portsmouth, and had lived in the Isle of Wight - the name Verrecchia came to mind. In the very early 1960s, my grandmother sometimes took me on shopping trips to Portsmouth, and as a treat we'd go and look at the budgerigars in the aviary in Victoria Park, then go to Verrecchia's.

Invariably called by the misnomer "Vereeshee's", Verrecchia's was a long thin cafe by the Guildhall, adjacent to the bridge where Commercial Road, Porstmouth's main shopping street, went under the railway. It was all wood and glass, with a central aisle and marble-tabled snugs where you pressed a bell for service. The foyer had tea and coffee machines, and a row of optics containing prettily-coloured milk shake syrups. I just found a description:
c. 1910
Guildhall Square, Portsmouth
Externally this is a shabby, two-storey building sited uneasily on the north side of the Guildhall. The interior of 1933 is a delight; within a complex section, entered through a shop at the east end, the sitting area is raised half a floor over the kitchen forming a tall space in which the extraordinary furnishings are intact. The tip-up seating and marble tables are in bays enclosed by tall timber screens with inset decorated glass panels. The walls are panelled to a height of eight feet, each bay having an elliptical mirror centrally placed. This produces an effect of continuous visual change, glimpsed through the ranges of screens and reflections from the mirrors.
- Portsmouth, Alan Balfour, City Buildings series, London : Studio Vista, 1970
The News, Portsmouth, as a nice external picture (here), whose caption explains that it was demolished for 1970s developments; see Google Maps for what the location looks like now. There are a couple of pictures of the glasses and internal decor, from Portsmouth Museum, at the foot of this post - Vintage Ice Cream - at the Come Step Back in Time weblog.

I'd invariably have a lime milkshake float, a beatiful pale green and white swirl drunk with a straw from a fluted glass, and it was made with real ice-cream, not the aerated palm-oil shaving foam that generally passed for ice-cream in those days. I'd also have a Kunzle cake, a now-defunct brand of cake: pre-wrapped in brown cellophane, it comprised a chocolate shell containing cake topped with some kind of fondant mousse and a further topping of candied fruit or chocolate decoration.

This recollection gave me a hankering to try lime milkshake again - I haven't tasted it for perhaps forty years - and pursuing the experience proved mildly difficult: no-one seemed to make the syrup. But Googling found that our local Waitrose stocked a "special edition Crusha Mixa Lime". The packaging is all very "yoof" and aggressive - a long-standing brand of milkshake syrup, Crusha has revamped its marketing image for the modern age. The taste, however, is just as I remembered it. I didn't have a Kunzle cake, but as I drank an ice-cold glass of lime milkshake, I shut my eyes and was back in Verrecchia's.

- Ray

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

"Do your own homework"

screen shot, 12.45pm, 15th August

A number of news outlets have carried news of the lazy toad high school student who asked on Yahoo! Answers for someone to do a summary of DC Pierson’s novel The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, and got a reply by the author, essentially saying "do your own homework". For example:
Student asking Yahoo Answers to summarise book he hasn't read for homework gets a response… from the author
A student has gained online notoriety after he tried to get away with not reading a book for a school assignment only to be caught out by the author himself.
The student took to Yahoo! Answers earlier this week, asking for a book summary of The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To by DC Pierson, admitting he had not finished the book.
By the next day the student, whose username was 'Idiot America', got a response from Pierson who was not impressed.
The author reprimanded the student posting: ‘I'm bummed out that you don't want to try and finish it, and not even because you think it's bad, but just because it seems like work instead of like fun.’
- Alex Ward, Daily Mail, 15th August 2012

Pierson's reply- click to enlarge
I'm more than a trifle suspicious that Pierson's reply to this Q&A - Can someone completely cover the book 'The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To' to me ? - is still extant on the Y!A site at the time of writing (12.45pm, 15th August).

There's a Y!A help section Is it okay to ask for help with homework? which is very explicit on this point:
Note: Responding to a homework help question with "Do your own homework" or "Read your textbook" is not okay.
Whatever one may think of the question and its lazy-toad asker, Pierson's reply (right) is clearly an extended "do your own homework". The question asked for a complete review of the book; it does not provide that, so it's a non-answer violation, and should have been deleted (along with the many other similar replies that made no attempt to answer the question).

It's hard to believe that it hasn't been reported, and if it was, as a first post by a new account, it would easily drop under normal circumstances. A suspicious person might conclude Y!A have flagged it as unreportable to preserve it for its publicity value.

Edit: as of some time this evening, the whole question has been deleted. It's unknown why.

- Ray

Monday, 13 August 2012

Warp spasm!

Athletes tend to be highly superstitious when it comes to anything that might improve performance. So they're a ready market for commercially-hyped scientifically-unproven talismans, which this Olympics manifested in the practive of sticking magic blue go-faster tape on themselves (see Olympians Showcase Superstition With Mysterious Kinesio Tape, Scientists Doubtful, Peter Murray August 12th, 2012).

Whatever the actual claims for this stuff may be, a number of news media sites have circulated this factoid about its claimed mode of operation:
... it separates the upper layer of the skin from muscle tissue. This extra space allows for muscles to fire and recover more quickly.
 I don't know who originated this, but did no-one put brain into gear about this statement? The skin is anchored by the underlying 'superficial fascia' to the fibrous 'deep fascia' that sheaths the muscles. To separate these would involve major subcutaneous tearing of tissue, and I doubt that would do much for athletic performance ...

I was tickled by one commenter's ridicule of the idea - "you could turn round in your own skin" - as it reminded me of the ríastrad (battle frenzy) of the Celtic mythological hero Cúchulainn, as described in the prose epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (aka The Táin). Turning around in his own skin was just one of many weird physical transformations; Cieran Carson, one translator of The Táin, rendered "ríastrad" as "torque", but I much prefer Thomas Kinsella's term "warp spasm". One such description is:
"The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front… On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child… he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram's fleece reached his mouth from his throat… The hair of his head twisted like the tange of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage."
I first ran into the word, not realising its credentials, in the comic strip Sláine in the comic 2000 AD. Its barbarian hero Sláine is somewhere between Cúchulainn and Conan the Barbarian, and the series is a very ingenious adaptation of Celtic mythology as fantasy with SF elements.

Sláine in full warp spasm
Redbubble / ISODIAWD Drawing and Illustration HQ / Comic Art Thread #4 - SLAINE

- Ray

Haslehust mystery painting

Three years ago - see EW Haslehust ... and artfight! - I mentioned the work of Ernest William Haslehust (1855-1949), a watercolourist who specialised in slightly prettified, but nevertheless skilful and evocative, paintings of English landscapes and townscapes. His work was a mainstay of Blackie & Sons' classic Beautiful England series.

Arising from that, Susan Henderson sent me an image - reproduced by permission - of a  unknown Haslehust painting that belonged to her husband's grandmother.

click to enlarge
Does the scene ring any bells with anyone? I've made a best guess at perspective and lighting correction. My initial theory is that this is a mid-Victorian villa, judging by some stylistic features (the gabled porch and pseudo-Jacobean square profile chimney stacks) - compare these mid-1800s estate cottages in Kingston, Dorset, Betteshanger House., and South Lodge, Mentmore Towers. Any number of architects of this period were designing houses in approximately this style.

A quick skim of sources - so far unsuccessful - has produced some lovely books. Check out:
It makes for an interesting impression of the contribution of the moneyed middle to upper classes to the architectural stereotypes of the Home Counties landscape.

See also Haslehust Mystery Painting #2.

- Ray

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Edward Douglas Fawcett

click to enlarge
It was a pleasant reminder to see the name Edward Douglas Fawcett on Torquay's Other History.

One of the first SF anthologies I owned, back in the 1960s, had an extract from Fawcett's best-known work, the 1893 novel Hartmann the Anarchist; or The Doom of the Great City. Hartmann is a terrorist very much in the genre of the 'dynamite fiction' of the late 1800s and early 1900s: fiction reflecting a cultural scare about dynamite - highly akin to modern post-9/11 paranoia and fear of suitcase nukes - following Fenian dynamite attacks on English cities in the 1880s (see Explosions, previously). But he also resembles other obsessive supervillains of early SF, such as Captain Nemo and Robur, - Fawcett was strongly influenced by Verne - and his terrorism takes the form of aerial attacks on London with artillery, dynamite and incendiaries from an airship, the Attila. The novel is online: see Internet Archive ID hartmannanarchi00fawcgoog.

Fawcett was a keen chess player, and there's a good biography at the Keverel Chess club website: E. Douglas Fawcett (1866 – 1960). It mentions his other SF works: the 1893 The Secret of the Desert, or How We Crossed Arabia in the “Antelope“, whose catalogue description was ...
The story of three young Englishmen who form a relief party to succor a college friend who had made an expedition to Central Arabia two years previous and never been heard from. The Antelope, upon which they travel, is an invention of one of them; it runs on wheels, is propelled bv a gas-engine, and fitted up with electricity, search-lights, etc.; they have thrilling adventures, and finally discover their friend and an immense treasure.
 ... the Antelope being esssentially an armoured tank; and the 1894 Swallowed by an Earthquake, which was essentially a retread of Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth. (The hollow earth scenario was one actually believed in by Edward's brother Percy Fawcett, who's probably best known for his disappearance in the Brazilian jungle while seeking the Lost City of Z). Only Hartmann is findable online, unfortunately.

Edward Fawcett's other books focused more on the philosophical and spiritual (he was a Theosophist, and into Eastern mysticism). He wrote a number of very heavy works in this territory, including the 1893 The Riddle of the Universe, the 1909 The Individual and Reality, and the 1916 The World as Imagination, and its 1921 sequel Divine Imagining. They may well be worthy, but they're the kind of books I'd "leave laying in the same position".

One other Fawcett book that isn't online is his first work, the 1880 The Wrath of Ana, a self-published epic fantasy poem written when he was 13. The Bookseller of Novermber 5th 1880 said of it, somewhat ambiguously:

Composed by a boy, aged 13, while at Westminster School, on a mythical and heroic subject, in some 1,500 lines of blank verse. The young poet writes with considerable fire, and has caught as true a sense of poetic numbers as many older versifiers ever attain. He has not studied Homer for nothing. We would recommend him next to try a few home subjects, and to study rhyme.

I was able to find an extended contemporary review of it in The Newtonian, the house magazine of Newton Abbot College.

by a present Newtonian

TRULY a terrible title! And what of the author? Can this be the mythical schoolboy for whom the world has been waiting since the days of Macaulay? Or is it a sign of the march of intellect, when a lad of thirteen boldly plunges into an epic poem of one thousand and ever so many lines? Pope tells of himself that he 'lisp'd in numbers,' and it has been said of Pindar that 'when he lay in his cradle the bees swarmed about his mouth': but here is a gerund-giinding schoolboy of the 19th century, a dealer in longs and shorts, sketching the outline of an epic with inimitable sang froid.

The preface is a masterpiece of modesty: "Perhaps, as Ovid says, there may be some who will deem these unpretensive (sic) lines the superfluous emanations of an overteeraing imagination. They are not such, my readers, but merely the rude effusions of an uncultured pen kindled by the daily intercourse with the Classics. Their noble sustained beauties and elegancies cannot fail to impress a peruser with the idea that our language is far inferior in its idioms, expressions, 'and modes of conveying notions. These elegancies combined cannot but produce a constant habit of thoughtfulness, which will ever prove a boon. How heavenly it is to reproduce scenes long passed, to vividly repaint them in the mind when Imagination's glorious hand sets off every incident!" Truly our young friend is intoxicated with 'the exuberance of his own verbosity.'

To pass to the actual poem, there is much to admire, while there is naturally much to condemn. The chief faults consist in a profusion of epithets, and an unfortunate tendency to make a break in the middle of each line, whereby the rhythm is apt to become terribly monotonous. Take the following description of the palace of the Storm-Goddess:
Onward with forceful grasp
She winged his journey, till before his eyes
Rushed the dire palace of the Queen of Storms:
Majestic in its grandeur, far and wide,
It stretched a vast expanse, its massive dome
Glittered with diamonds, and its golden walls
Shone with effulgence. Midst the fleeting clouds
Arose its pinnacles. Gay rosaries
The roof sustained, while from the fertile soil
Embracing creepers sprung, which ever bloom
Unfaded. As the wildered youth approached
The portal grim, fresh mysteries anew
Oppose his passage: on the frowning front
Sculpture stood prominent such as excelled
The art of Phidias, or th' adorning touch
Of Denmark's chisel. In her early youth
The goddess graved them. As the two drew near,
Obsequious the mighty gates recede
With laboured swing, and when their mistress passed
Resumed their guard.
In spite of its faults there is a Miltonic swing about this passage, of which many a riper poet would not be ashamed.

That 'daily intercourse with the Classics' has produced some effect on our author's mind cannot for a moment be denied. Such terms as 'immits the reins,' 'omniconquering rule,', 'ineffable in fraud', 'the tardy pinnacle,' &c, if bold in design, yet smack suspiciously of the Mantuan bard. The following passage reveals the poet either in the light of a profound metaphysician, or as a heartless jester poking fun at Father Time :—
To whom an able mate
Came Time, the offspring of Infinity,
His sister Limitation. These when born
Yearned for their homes and in their madness chased
Infinity. He caught with thrifty hand
Compressed blank-space: each roving particle
Adhered to others. Then he loosed his grasp
And space rebounded, but the solid mass
Remained intact.
But leaving this vexed question, we cannot refrain from presenting to our readers a few of the sugar-plums of .this remarkable poem. The metaphor conveyed in the line,
Floats amidst
The tossing billows of Uncertainty,—
if not new, is certainly clever.

Again, after describing the clamber up the Temple of Fame, the poet remarks that
The wearied few
Embrace delights, and fanned by Glory's hand
Contented doze.
Neat too is the expression
Th' immortal pair
Champed for their ruler.—
when the brazen car of Ana awaits her coming.

To our mind however the following passage is the gem of the poem, not so much for its intrinsic worth, as for the boldness with which this youth has ventured to tread in the steps of his great masters. Describing the pictures in the palace of Ana, he says:—
Midst this fine array
One beamed conspicuous, where Bellerophon
Seized Pegasus: hard by, the sacred font
Of pure Pirene. On th' adjoining wall
Narcissus was depicted gazing fond
Into the waters, where the image danced
In bright reflection. Next this doedal work,
Glittered the form of Idas in his car,
Poseidon's gift, bearing afar his love
The sweet Marpessa and defying the wrath
Of fierce Apollo. With such noble scenes
Teemed the huge hall.
But space warns us to be brief. Having introduced our poet, we cannot part from him without imploring him to clip his wings for a season, if only to leave some legacy to the school in the shape of a Carmen Newtoniense, which has yet to be written: and finally we must launch our Parthian shot, and ask him if ' in his daily intercourse with the classics' he has yet come across the Horatian maxim:
Nocturna, versate manu, versate diurna?1
1. turn over [the pages] by night and by day - A quote from Horace's Art of Poetry where he advises close study of Greek verses. - Ray

 - The Newtonian, Volume 5, No.2, February 1880.

- Ray

Friday, 10 August 2012

Torquay's Other History Month

A plug for an excellent website: The People's Republic of South Devon. This was established in 2005 with the ethos "we wanted to mix it up a bit and offer an alternative source of news and views".

The site features a regular column by local historian Kevin Dixon called Torquay's Other History. I've probably bitched previously about Devon local history, with its focus on mainstream fame and safe heritage - Agatha Christie, Sir Francis Drake, the Duke of Monmouth passing through, Vivien Leigh, and happy artisans plying their trade and gurning as they hold up the biggest salmon ever caught. Torquay's Other History is a counterblast to this, and looks at the off-the-wall and less-known aspects of the Torquay's history: social, anti-establishment and counter-cultural history; lesser-known figures; and lesser-known connections of famous figures.

For August, this column has been upgraded to a daily entry, and so far it has been a fine batch: Aleister Crowley's early career; the Torquay origins of the Communist-hating Sir John Armstrong Spicer; the Fascist MP Charles Rosdew Burn; Dame Edna Everage's sidekick 'Madge'; the Lolita actor C Denier Warren; Joss Stone and the Torquay-based lesbian kiss in Snappers; the actor and writer Stephen Sheppard; the poet and artist Frances Bannerman; the science fiction of Edward Douglas Fawcett; and the anarchist George Powell Ballard.

Check out Torquay's Other History.

- Ray

Thursday, 9 August 2012

How calmly does the fig tree branch

click to enlarge

I'm at a very loose end this morning - desk, for once, clear - so took a moment to stand on the path behind our house. The sunlight through the fig tree was beautiful. The Tennessee Williams poem from Night of the Iguana - the magnum opus of an aged poet confronting his mortality - sprang to mind (see previously How calmly does the orange branch).

How calmly does the olive branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair

Some time while light obscures the tree
The zenith of its life will be
Gone past forever
And from thence
A second history will commence

A chronicle no longer gold
A bargaining with mist and mold
And finally the broken stem
The plummeting to earth, and then

And intercourse not well designed
For beings of a golden kind
Whose native green must arch above
The earth's obscene corrupting love

And still the ripe fruit and the branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair

Oh courage! Could you not as well
Select a second place to dwell
Not only in that golden tree
But in the frightened heart of me

- Tennessee Williams

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Desire of the Moth.#3

OK, the conclusion to my reading of Maxwell Gray's 1913 novel Something Afar aka The Desire of the Moth.

So, our hero, the retired bank clerk Ronald Leith, has discovered that his shooting in Sicily decades before wasn't down to betrayal by the Italian contessina he loved. So now he's off to Switzerland, with his wife Blanche and daughter Beatrice in tow, to reconnect with the past.

The Leiths get to Lucerne, where Blanche gets a little addicted to gambling on roulette and the Petits-Chevaux. Leith is perturbed by seeing Beatrice crying after talking to a mysterious man; it turns out to be Giorgio, the young baron she knew from London, and Beatrice confesses that he had kissed her passionately. “Who and where was this brute of an Italian?” Leith muses. “And ought he to be kicked if found?”

They travel on Lugano, where they stay at the Hotel Magnifico. Unknown to them, another family is staying there: the Baroness Bice di Gagliardini and her grown-up children Remigia and Gino. The Baroness recognises Leith, and when Leith takes a solo boat trip to a nearby villa, they meet. She turns out to be the Beatrice that Leith fell in love with decades before, and they are reconciled as friends. She never married Leith's rival Malorio, having escaped by having a breakdown after Leith's supposed death, but is now widowed with two surviving children from marriage to another man. Her scheming Mafia-connected uncle Onofrio - the man who shot Leith - is still alive.

Onofrio, now the Count della Rovesca, is getting bad dreams relating to the events surrounding Leith's disappearance. He's also struggling with gossip containment, playing down to Remigia stories that her fiance dishonoured a young woman, who subsequently committed suicide. Although Remigia is really in love with the young composer Mario Melata, for some inexplicable reason she has agreed to marry Malorio.

Leith resolves to help, and starts plans to foil Onofrio in aiding Remigia and Mario, as well as brokering the match between his daughter Bice and Gino (who is the Giorgio from London, and a nice chap despite his hotbloodedness). He begins by telling Gino about Onofrio's criminal past. He also talks to Remigia, who explains that she is bound to marry Malorio through an obligation of family debt; but Leith's investigations have proved that she has been conned – no such debt exists, but their properties have been mortgaged dishonestly by Onofrio. Over the next few days, the Leeses and di Gagliardinis become firm friends; Ronald tries to explain his past to the nice-but-dim Blanche, though she doesn't fully grasp its importance to him.

Onofrio, not yet realising that Leese is in the process of thwarting him, is growing impatient with inexplicable delays in settling the marriage plans. He is enraged on coming with Malorio to the Hotel Magnifico and finding Remigia hasn't turned up for a promised meeting. Remigia takes Onofrio on a mountain walk and springs the first part of the revenge, confronting him with what Leith has told her of his fraudulent dealings. She then leaves him behind, but at the top she runs into Malorio, and tells him she won't marry him. He is enraged, but she threatens to throw herself off the cliff and talks him down by appealing to his better nature. The two then go to investigate a cry for help.

Leith has meanwhile been shadowing Onofrio, and finally confronts him in a wood, explaining how he survived Onofrio's ambush decades before (a silver flask in his pocket deflected the bullet). They grapple – Onofrio has a gun – and as they fight, an accidental shot hits Remigia.

The scene moves to the following Christmas in the Leith household. They are joined by the Baroness, Gino and Remigia (who survived the shooting). Malorio has done the decent thing and formally dissolved the engagement; and Leith has coerced Onofrio (by threatening to reveal the extent of his dodgy dealings) to return to the family the money he has appropriated. The young couples get engaged, and all ends amicably.

I read this book with a floundering sense of dismay in places, and I just had to revise the plot summary, because on first reading, I mistook a large section for flashback, and I was wondering why one character had changed her forename and also named her two children the same as ones in a previous generation. Then I was puzzling how a Pomeranian dog - life expectancy 12-15 years - had survived several decades, until I read back and found I'd missed the detail about the family always keeping the same breed and naming it the same.

It isn't actually a bad novel once you've thoroughly digested the detail and got it into context, but it shouldn't be such hard work. Some of the plotting - particularly the handy bequest that bails the Leiths out of their financial doldrums - is a bit deus ex machina. However, MG nicely describes the atmosphere of pre-WW1 Lugano and its environs, with little of the overblown pathetic fallacy of landscape and weather that plague her earlier books. The Bookseller review is fair enough ...
The Desire of the .Moth, by Maxwell Gray, will attract the attention of all fiction readers, for the author's "The Silence of Dean Mainland" blazed a trail for all her other novels. This is a dramatic and vivid romance of the Italian Lakes, with scenes so full of human passion controlled and uncontrolled that in the hands of a less skillful author would be lurid and sensational. London is the setting of the early situations, where a father of a family is the central figure of a plot as unusual as it is complicated. The man's early romance, which includes a tragic incident that resulted in his friends believing him dead, colors his life and is an ever present background to the love affairs of his daughter which are absorbing. The Italian temperament is depicted with vividness and there are passages of extremely fine writing. The diversity of character introduced and the tenseness of the situation, together with the wreakage that weakness brings in its wake, and the unexpected turn life frequently takes, makes this a novel of prismatic emotional interest with the central figure of Ronald Leith always predominately fine and unselfish.
- The Bookseller, Newsdealer and Stationer, Volume 39, Nov 1, 1913
I did spot an Isle of Wight reference: the well-known whale skeleton, which still exists, at Blackgang Chine.
Como was a favorite place for honeymooning, the baroness thought, commenting on the wastefulness of choosing the most beautiful spots for that class of travelers, who ought to be too happy to care where they went; while Gino cynically hinted at a need of consolation in such cases, to the great indignation of Blanche, who held that a honeymoon could be spent with equal enjoyment in a balloon or a coal mine. "Ours," she said, "was in the Garden of England— that is, in one of them—the darling little Isle of Wight— inside a whale. How happy we were inside that sweet whale!"

"A honeymoon inside a whale, Signora? Una balena?" the baroness asked, mystified.

"So poetic, dear Baroness. It was, of course, quite innocuous—dead, long dead, and may be so still for all I know. Ah me! the days that are no more—just like a church aisle, only the arches got smaller toward the tail and began on the ground so there were no pillars. How it all comes back—the bones, the bliss, the starry night, one is afraid to say how long ago, but that tall child tells such sad tales. We walked up and down the whale, realizing the sensations of Jonah. So sweet and scriptural! There was melon at dessert that very evening."
On reaching the terrace, Blanche was much comforted by coffee, which she said reminded her more strongly than ever of the Garden of Eden and that of England, and caused her to produce more reminiscences of the long defunct whale, whose remains embellished the hotel grounds in Blackgang Chine.
- Ray

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Desire of the Moth #2

So, I've been continuing with Maxwell Gray's 1913 novel Something Afar aka The Desire of the Moth.

Where did I leave off? Yes, we've been introduced to Ronald Leith, a married and recently-retired London clerk, living on a reduced income because his career was blighted by his covering up for an in-law who'd embezzled money and fled the country. Leith, it turns out, has a rather dashing history; as a young army officer, he was shot in Sicily after a letter of betrayal by a young Italian Contessina he loved. But he has just found enciphered annotations showing the letter was written under duress.

The scene now moves to the Hotel Magnifico in the resort of Lugano, in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. The notable guests are the aristocratic di Gagliardini family, staying incognito - the middle-aged Baronessa Beatrice (aka Bice) and her two grown-up children, the Baron Gino and Baronessina Remigia (nicknamed piccina - "little one" - a bit too close to piscina for my liking), and their annoying little yappy Pomeranian dog Biffo.

Over extensive travelogue and description of the Lugano area, we find that the di Gagliardinis are taking a break to hide from pressure by Remigia's guardian, her uncle Onofrio, to get her to marry a man she hates, Ettorino Malorio. She is in fact sharing her love of music in secret meetings with Mario Melata, a young composer.

Meanwhile the Baronessa, shadowed for her protection by Gino, is on a pilgrimage to do penance for some wrong in her own past. Further complication arrives in the form of gossip from Sicilian guests, the Caluzzi family, to the effect that Onofrio and Malorio are actually Mafiosa; and finally the unwelcome arrival at the hotel of the suave and sinister Onofrio and Malorio themselves. We know they're up to no good because Biffo doesn't like them, and of course dogs can detect evil.

Meanwhile, in London, the Leith family are out of penury in one bound through a bequest from cousin Stanley, the relative Leith bailed out decades ago. He buys a new house and a grand piano for his daughter, and, evidently hoping to unravel the past, books a family tour to Switzerland ...

Maxwell Gray is getting weird. At the end of the 19th century, she was becoming increasingly touchy and peeve-ridden about what she saw as encroaching modernism and decline of traditional values.- see "A plea for the silence of the novelist" - and this increasingly leaked into her novels. In this one, expounded via a rumination of the lead character, there's a characteristic peeve about typewriters.
Typewriting, he observed, tossing it aside to make room for a cup of coffee, was part of the colorless, characterless monotony of a democratic age; it gave one no hint of the writer, or the nature of the letter. It might be anything, from an announcement of the highest promotion to that of the death of a dearest friend; there was nothing to blunt the shock or temper the violence of the communication; it was a rude and mannerless device, only fit for savages. But, as people were paid for typewriting, one might learn the craft one's self, and turn an honest penny by it. That was worth thinking of though, by the time he had acquired the art, he was afraid it would be superseded by some newer and still more deadly device—thought-photography, perhaps —one's ideas might be snap-shotted in a train, in the street, even in church; people would have to take out copyright in their own souls, and these would, no doubt, be heavily taxed.
She'd have loved mobile phones and the Internet!

- RG

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Who you lookin' at?

Squirrel on Bath Road, the wooded pedestrian road at the foot of the red sandstone cliffs on the seaward side of Exmouth. This was taken with an inexpensive General Imaging Z1300 digital compact from Argos: increasingly, this is all I use for general photography.