Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Exeter: Elaine Goodwin mosaic

Mentioned previously - Exeter Fountain Project and other public art - where I mentioned my favourite piece of Exeter's public art being the Elaine Goodwin mosaic in the entrance of Broadwalk House. I took another look today.

As Exeter Memories says, the mosaic is Roman-inspired, depicting the Garden of Livia in Naples from the time of Augustus. It's a beautiful piece of work, incorporating a mix of tesserae that range from the obviously specialist or custom-made - such as the gold-coloured and green-yellow iridescent ones - to ones sourced from found ceramics, particularly the brown-white crockery designs in the tree trunk and branches below the blackbird.

If you don't know it, do check it out.

If you like mosaics, see also Tree of Life.

- Ray

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Topsham: top view

While tidying my office, I found a CD dating from August 2004 with some rather nice photos of Topsham and the Exe I took that summer from the tower of St Margaret's Church. It was, I recall, a regular feature of Town Fayre Week to let visitors up the tower for a small fee. That arrangement's been discontinued long since, probably on safety grounds; the steps were very slippery with sand and grit crumbled off the friable Heavitree Stone breccia the tower's largely made of. But the mildly scary ascent was worth it for the view.
Click any image to enlarge.

- Ray

Monday, 27 May 2013

The Wiles of the Wicked

Small world: while Googling the geography of a recent walk (see Microclimate) I ran into a novel with a local setting in part, William Le Queux's 1900 The Wiles of the Wicked. It's a mystery thriller, distinctly far-fetched in some major aspects, that's nevertheless very readable, and intriguing in the puzzle its narrator has to solve. It concerns a man who calls himself Wilford Heaton:

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Sherbrook later

One Saturday afternoon I took myself off to Budleigh again. Last time - see Sherbook now (9th February 2013) - it was chilly, overcast and drizzling, and I was only just creeping out of the exhaustion of chemotherapy. How different now. Even as I walked up Rolle Road toward the esplanade - the air smelt of chips and sea - there was a promise to the afternoon; and it turned out completely up to expectations.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Gormless protoplasm

I just had a brief e-mail exchange with a correspondent (US, I think) who was very amused by my use of the word "gormless", not having encountered it before (no reason to - it is a Britishism). A word I've known from childhood, I love it for its sheer insultingness - its implication not merely of stupidity, but of inept and pitiably-baffled stupidity - and the discussion prompted me to look into the background.

The Oxford English Dictionary tracks it back to the dialect form gaumless / gawm(b)less, where the "gaum" part means "heed, notice, understanding" and goes back to Old Norse gaum-r (masculine), gaum (feminine). From that, I assumed "gormless" must be an old word on the decline, but Google Books Ngram Viewer produced a surprise ...

click to enlarge - gormless 1870-2000
... which is that "gormless" has seen a steady rise in print use since around 1920, taking off dramatically from the competing dialect forms "gawmless" and "gaumless":

click to enlarge - gormless,gaumless,gawmless 1870-2000
Why the word should suddenly catch on in the mainstream is anyone's guess (see the addenda, below, on this). Why it should catch on in that spelling is perhaps more explicable, in that "gaum-" and "gawm-" are pretty peculiar in terms of standard English orthography, whereas "gorm-" (pronounced /ɡɔːm/ in the non-rhotic RP English) is  a normal-looking way of rendering the sound very well. With "gaum" coming from Old Norse, you'd expect "gormless" and its precursors to have a Northern English origin - a relic of the Danelaw era - and they do. Quite apart from appearing in Wuthering Heights ...
Did I ever look so stupid: so "gaumless," as Joseph calls it?
- Heathcliff
... the "gaumless" / "gawmless" forms appear from the early 19th century in a number of northern English regional dialect glossaries and the occasional work of regionally-set fiction (Google search on "gaumless" OR "gawmless").

I thought for a moment I'd beaten the OED's first citation (1883) for the form "gormless" - Google Books produced a handful of earlier hits. But I soon found that the majority of 19th century hits arose from a murk of amusing optical character recognition errors, mostly for "germless":
But there are real occurrences only a little later than the OED's, such as the English Dialect Society's 1886 documentation of "GORMLESS, adj. dull, stupid" in Stockport dialect (see A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Chester, Robert Holland, Pub. for the English Dialect Society, by Trübner & Co., 1886, Internet Archive ID aglossarywordsu00hollgoog).

By complete coincidence, this ties in with the current Language Log post by Mark Liberman, Ngram morality. When Google Ngram Viewer was launched - see Google Books N-gram - wow! - one of the aspects that was hyped was its potential for "culturomics": quantitative research into social trends as reflected in language: this was outlined in the paper Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books (Science, 14 January 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6014 pp. 176-182).

This is a powerful idea, when the results are interpreted with a lot of caution (I described previously - When pufh comef to fhove - how an apparently robust pre-Victorian era when it was OK to use the word "fuck" in print is entirely an artifact of the word "suck" being printed with a long-s as "ſuck").

But as Professor Liberman and others have discussed, there are those, often seeking confirmation for some world-view, who are ready to wade in with no such caution. One of the dubious forms of analysis is the completely simplistic conclusion that the frequency of a concept mentioned in print is a direct indicator of how that concept applies in society. By that line of argument, the steady rise of "gormless" over the past century means society has become more gormless over that time.

Ngram morality looks at a current op-ed column by the NY Times pundit David Brooks, who applies precisely the same reasoning, based on several like-minded papers, to conclude that society is going to the dogs, as evidenced by the rise and fall of certain words.

Addendum 2:
Martyn Cornell of Zythophile has offered in the comments a theory on the rise of "gormless".
It may or may not be a coincidence that the rise of "gormless" begins at about the same time as the rise of BBC radio: could it be because Northern English comedians were introducing the word to southerners, who took it up with enthusiasm? More research needed ...
This looks a very good start. I don't have any evidence of his using it, but the comedy persona of the immensely popular George Formby was regularly described as "gormless".

- Ray

Saturday, 18 May 2013

"For older ones there's the Madeira Walk"

I briefly mentioned Madeira Walk, Exmouth, in a previous post (see Microclimate). In that connection, I just managed to hack out of Google Books snippet view a piece of Victorian doggerel about Exmouth.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Devonport Column open to public

Foulston's Devonport centre, Ker Street
from Devonshire & Cornwall illustrated (1832)
A bit over two years back - John Foulston's Devonport (6th Dec 2010) - I mentioned the 1820s development of a new civic centre when the district Plymouth Dock became the independent borough of Devonport. Its central landmark structures - a "picturesque group" - were a Parthenon-inspired town hall (now Devonport Guildhall), an Egyptian-style library (now the Oddfellows Hall), the  "Hindoo style" Mount Zion Calvinist Chapel (unfortunately demolished in 1902), and a 124-foot column commemorating Devonport's rebadging.

View Larger Map - Column under wraps during renovation in 2012

Nearly 200 years on, the Grade 1 listed Column, following a three-year refurbishment, reopened to the public on Saturday, the first time there's been full access since the 1950s. Being a great fan of tower views, whether modern or cathedrals, I'm going to have to give this one a visit some time soon. I see they've been on the safe side and put a wire cage around the observation gallery at the top, but it doesn't cover the gaps in the balustrade, so there's no impediment to photography. Apparently you can see all the way to Dartmoor.

I've written a little more about the reopening at the Devon History Society site - Devonport Column reopens to public - and you can check out the Devonport Guildhall website for visitor details, a history, and a gallery of images of the column and its illuminations at the opening party (there's a full-length video of the opening event projections).

- Ray

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Windows 8: inexplicable language

Windows 8: Beautiful and fast

Sorry to be a vector for viral marketing, but I just love these Windows 8 ads for the East Asian market, originally released under the collective title Windows 8 Training Camp (there is a third, Multitask, that's mildly amusing but rather flat compared to these other two, which make perfect use of the "rule of three" construction).

Windows 8: The power of touch

The humour being chiefly visual, they work perfectly well even if you don't know the language - except that it seems no-one does, not even people from East Asia.

Victor Mair analyses the language at Language Log - The enigmatic language of the new Windows 8 ads - and the article and ensuing discussion covers theories including its being some obscure minority dialect of Chinese; some East Asian language mangled by non-native speakers; ditto by illiterate local speakers contracted in cheaply; or some well-constructed Sino-gibberish, with a certain amount of Mandarin embedded, made to sound like an East Asian tonal language. All Microsoft has said of the videos is this ...
We created these online-only social videos for the Asian market, where they were well-received.
... although they work so brilliantly minus language that even this is a trifle suspect; maybe they always were meant for the Western market.

- Ray

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Iron Thorn

Science Fiction Book Club edition
I just had the pleasure of re-reading an SF novel 40 years on: The Iron Thorn (Algis Budrys, Science Fiction Book Club, 1967, reprinted in paperback as The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn).

The book opens with a tribal hunter, Honor White Jackson, pursuing a winged reptilian alien across a desert. His prey - an 'Amsir' - is not stupid: it's leading him further and further from the Iron Thorn, a landmark structure that powers the 'honning cap' that enables Jackson to breathe. Eventually the Amsir leads Jackson out of sight of the Thorn, and he collapses, choking. The Amsir attacks, saying, "Yield, wet devil!", but Jackson overpowers and kills it, recovering his breath by sucking on an oxygen-generating organ from its corpse.

Jackson returns to the Thorn, the kill having gained him the title Honor Black Jackson, and we find more about his culture: a hunting-farming community clustered around the Iron Thorn (which we now understand to be some kind of local terraforming machine). Now a full Honor, he gets initiated into the society's secrets: that Honors are an elite presiding over a precariously-maintained ecosystem, a completely static society held together by taboo and a Darwinian belief that everything that happens makes things better. Jackson has been spotted by the elders as unusual (he has, for instance, artistic talents) and has every chance of rising to the top. But he finds the picture bleak, and is more interested in the mystery of what lies beyond the Thorn, evidenced by a particular thing the elders don't understand: that Amsirs speak, and why they ask Honors to surrender.

paperback edition
Pondering this, Jackson goes to the desert again, where he's ambushed by a rival Honor, who badly wounds him in the elbow with a hunting dart. Jackson is about to be killed, but the surprise arrival of an Amsir enables him to kill his attacker (thus becoming Honor Red Jackson) - and he decides to surrender to the Amsir.

The Amsir leads him across the desert to its own enclave, an Amsir village with its own Iron Thorn, where he's taken to see the crippled Eld Amsir. Within the limits of seeing him as a devil, the Eld Amsir treats him kindly and gives him a task: to open a door in a smaller Thorn before he starves to death. It has been preoccupying the Amsirs for centuries, and they've been capturing a long succession of Honors to try to do this on the basis of an observation: that the door kills Amsirs, but not humans (they know this because occasional more humanoid mutants among them are unharmed by the door). Jackson is given a minder in the form of one such mutant, the powerful but stupid Ahmuls, to keep him under control if he gets the door open.

 After a deal of contemplation, Jackson (by now very hungry, his arm badly infected) finally opens the door; it's voice-activated to admit only humans, and finally responds to "open up, you dumb bastard". He finds himself in a spacecraft. The ship's computer accepts him as commander and obeys his first order, to trap Ahmuls in the airlock. Jackson gets fed, his arm repaired by the robot doctor, and then receives an implanted education ...
you are now an Honors graduate in Liberal Arts from Ohio State University. You have a special Masters in Command Psychology from the University of Chicago and three semester hours in military journalism from the Air Force Academy.
 ... which qualifies him to command the ship. It also teaches him the martial arts necessary to defeat Ahmuls. He attempts to communicate with the Amsirs, but the ship won't let him, telling him he's contaminating an experiment (we, along with Jackson, now know that the Amsirs and his own tribe are experimental colonies on Mars). He, along with the hospitalized Ahmuls, returns to Earth.

On Earth, Jackson finds himself to be an anachronism. The ship being centuries old, Earth culture and civilisation have completely changed to a post-technological leisure society, with every physical need catered for bee-like ' exteroaffectors', the mobile agents of Comp, a benign world computer intelligence.

Alluding to the introduction of Tarzan to society, he introduces himself as Jackson Greystoke. He and Ahmuls are received cordially enough, but Jackson soon finds that jealousy and bullying are still fixtures of the human condition. Kringle, the nominal leader, is angry about the woman Durstine's interest in the newcomer, and also starts antagonizing Ahmuls, who has the sense to leave the group. Nevertheless, their chief interest is in novelty, and their mood perks up when Jackson agrees to participate in an 'actuality' - the live performance of his hunting an Amsir, recreated and controlled by Comp.

This he does, to great acclaim, but he's underwhelmed by the experience - the mock Amsir was a deliberately weak opponent - and doesn't understand the media conventions of the edited replay.  Neither does he relate to the ensuing enthusiasm to recycle his experiences into aesthetic forms. Comp creates a 'party Thorn' for a gathering, where the Earth people produce attempts (sincere, but to Jackson, naff) at artistic interpretation of his experience: the women mime the role of women of his tribe; one man writes a poem supposed to represent Jackson's feelings about the Thorn; and another dedicates a crassly-done painting to him:
You could tell it was a Honor because it was wearing something on its head that looked like a cross between the German helmets of World War II and the Franco-Prussian War. It was intended to be a honning cap, Jackson supposed.
Jackson puts a downer on the whole event by not praising the painting as he's expected to, and by drawing in charcoal a riposte to it, showing his world as he saw it. He walks out on the party.

He talks to Comp, asking if he can have a spaceship, but the answer is no. It seems Jackson is stuck with Earth and a future of having no-one to talk to "except them and things like them" (Comp has ensured that Ahmuls is content enough, running with the buffalo in a game park). But one of the women, Pall, follows Jackson, and assures him that he'll eventually fit into society, and that she understands him.
And then he thought, To me I am the only sane man conceivable. And she's just cookoo enough to go along with it if I take her. "Oh, come on," he said, turning away from the tent, holding her wrist.
They walk off into the fields, with no particular destination in mind, as Jackson tells her what it was really like on Mars:
The floor of the world is rippled like the bottom of the ocean, running out to the edges. Those edges are high and they're cruel. At sunset the eastern horizon is the far wall of the crater. It's black. Blue-black..."
His words, meanwhile, are already being recorded by Comp as another 'actuality' for public consumption.
"Great stuff! Marvelous!" Comp whispered admiringly in his ear. "Forgive me. I thought all you were going to produce was some sort of cliché. Any cliché from you would be admirably dramatic, of course, with great and wide appeal. But I do not want you to think for a moment that I can't appreciate the raw, honest ring of visceral truth. The audience for it isn't as big, of course, but that's all right—it's good for them. Don't compromise. Don't soften it up just because you want to please her. Make it ring, boy! Tell it like it was!"
The gap of 40 years makes some interesting changes in how you perceive a novel. When I first read The Iron Thorn, I remember enjoying it as SF - a conceptual breakthrough story - up to the point of Jackson's reaching Earth; the rest seemed rather dull. Now I find it's all of a piece, an extended examination of the treatment of misfits, as the driving characters are (Jackson, the Eld Amsir, and Ahmuls) - although let down a trifle by the lead character, presented as a thinker through most of the story, coming across as a culturally inflexible macho twit at the end. The Earth-based section has now, however, acquired an applicability that didn't exist when the book was written, as a sharp satire on reality TV. The ending made me think of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror episode 15 Million Merits, in which a man outraged with a media-driven culture breaks on to a reality show to make an impassioned protest, but when that protest is acclaimed as authentic experience, sells out and becomes a celebrity with that protest as a trademark act.

(Note: The Iron Thorn is not to be confused with the 2011 novel of the same name by Caitlin Kittredge. The latter does look of possible interest, as young-adult steampunk with HP Lovecraft borrowings).

- Ray

Thursday, 9 May 2013


Just purging my camera, I found this photo I took a while back in a department store in Exeter.

I don't normally photograph dresses in shops, but this one struck me because its zones of mismatched patterns are highly reminiscent of the dazzle camouflage (a.k.a. razzle dazzle or dazzle painting) used on World War One ships: as Wikipedia puts it, "not by offering concealment but by making it difficult to estimate a target's range, speed and heading".

It wasn't until I was reviewing the photo that I read the label, and found, Googling, that it's part of the Anya Madsen Copenhagen range for larger-sized wearers. Is the design meant to disguise the wearer's outline, to make it difficult to estimate the wearer's range, speed and heading? But whether intentional or not, the resemblance of this migraine-inducing design to the camouflage system - see more images - is striking.

Camoupedia ("A blog for clarifying and continuing the findings that were published in Camoupedia: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage, by Roy R. Behrens, Bobolink Books, 2009") has examples of precedent for the use of dazzle camouflage in mainstream fashion: see Dazzle Camouflage Swimsuits, Dazzle Swimsuits Déja Vu, and Vaccination Camouflage and More Swimsuits. The blog Evil Mad Scientist has noticed similar: Dazzle Camouflage in Fashion.

Olympic with Returned Soldiers, Arthur Lismer, 1919
Wikimedia Commons
Observer (Auckland NZ), Volume XXXVIII, Issue 20, 19 January 1918
via Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

- Ray

Tuesday, 7 May 2013


The Geoneedle - Exmouth (far left) invisible in the mist
Odd day yesterday. It was sunny in Topsham, so we decided to go for one of our usual walks, the six-mile circular walk from Exmouth to Sandy Bay and back, at the western end of the Jurassic Coast. But in Exmouth, just five or so miles to the south, it was distinctly overcast from a mist blowing in from the sea.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Dreadnoughts

More YouTube serendipity: while listening to the Dropkick Murphys (see, previously, Celtpunk!) I just ran into another band so far unknown to me, The Dreadnoughts.

They're a Canadian folk-punk band who have been described as "One part roaring sea shanty, one part haunting Irish melody, and a solid chaser of gut-crunching street punk". Their influences are highly eclectic: English folk, Eastern European and klezmer, polka, and even a spot of Finnish 'humppa' (an ultra-fast foxtrot). Check out Gintlemen's Club, a song of London low-life; The Cruel Wars, a raw a capella fusion of Johnny I hardly Knew Ye and High Germany; the wistful Avalon; the shanty Old Maui, a straight a capella cover of the traditional Rolling Down to Old Maui (the tune is very close to The Miller of Dee); Amsterdam (a kind of grim modern shanty / cautionary tale with Russian-influenced music); the Eastern European influenced Sleep is for the Weak; (one commenter says, "This song makes me wanna binge on vodka while dancing"); the laidback instrumental Clavdia's Waltz; the French-Canadian Poutine (a reference to the heart attack inducing Quebec dish); the frenetic Goblin Humppa; and the humppa-meets-Wurzels West Country Man.

I'll travel far and wide
Yes, I will, yes, I will
With comrades at my side
Yes, I will, yes, I will
West Country is a place that you can find
But furthermore, a state of mind
So drink thee cider down
An' pass the jug around,
listen the Wurzels when you can
Live loud and free, soon enough you'll be
A real West Country Man.
- West Country Man, The Dreadnoughts

- RG

Friday, 3 May 2013

The Linhay on the Downs

I just put on the Devon History Society blog a brief post on Weston Plats (a rehash of Dunscombe: Spring is in the air) and in the process was Googling "linhay" - a Westcountry word now most often found in names of cottages and chalets, but originally referring to agricultural lean-to sheds.

In the process I become interested enough to hack out of the Google Books snippet view this 1927 story by Henry Williamson (naturalist, farmer and author, best known for the 1927 Tarka the Otter). The story tells of a dark afternoon of the soul when the WW1 veteran narrator and his female companion are caught in a storm, and take shelter in a linhay - along with others. Written around the same time as Tarka, it's pretty clearly based on the circumstances when Williamson and his first wife Ida Loetitia née Hibbert were living at Georgeham, North Devon. "Windwhistle Cross" is a location that figures in a number of Williamson works; the name appears to be fictional, but the location (as in this story) is somewhere on the coastal upland near Barnstaple Bay. Williamson died in 1977, so I'm aware that the copyright is distinctly 'grey' - but I take the view that this was written 86 years ago and is otherwise going to be sitting lost in archive limbo.

The Linhay on the Downs

On the high down above the sea, in the corner of the last rough grazing field, stands a linhay, half fallen into ruin. It is built of boles of spruce fir, unhewn but barked, and boarded with rough wooden boards. It has a roof of corrugated iron. The roof is intact, but many of the wooden boards have fallen with the rusted nails. Those boards remaining are green and damp, and shaggywith gray lichens.

The linhay had been built with its eastern end open for bullocks to shelter in stormy weather; but the gentleman farmer had sold the down with his other land after the Great War, and the new owner had let it fall ruinous. Battering winds and rain straight from off the Atlantic, and the hot sun of summer, had warped and rotted the boards and opened two other walls to the weather.

On windy days buzzard hawks lie over the down on crooked wings, watching for rabbits in the heather slope below ; or turn and glide over the line of the hill. It is a beautiful and desolate place, where the spirit can spread itself wide and airy as the sea and the sky.

One morning I set out for the linhay with a companion. As we climbed the road to Windwhistle Cross the wind blew harder, and found cold places in our clothes. Past the spinney the way lay over fields, cutting across the broad and rushing gale. I was more hardened than my companion, who covered her face with her gloved hands and walked with bowed head. After a while we reached a wall of stone and earth, tunneled by rabbits and lying broken in gaps. The wind, seeking to level all things, was whipping up bits of stone and earth over the wall, and we had to shield our eyes. Plants growing on the crumbling riband of earth remaining on the top of the stones were pressed tightly down, guarding their leaves among the mosses from the stripping storms. Wrhite splashes marked the stones, where in still weather the buzzards had waited and watched for rabbits to lollop out of their buries.

We reached the ruined linhay, and realized it would give no shelter for a fire, as in other expeditions.The hollow was frigid in shadow, and scoured by the wind. The last stone wall before the heather and brambles of the wild seaward slope stood a few strides away, and behind this we sat down and rested. An easy matter to break the old boards with a fifty-pound slab of ironstone fallen from the wall, but not so easy to make a fire. Half a box of matches and chips sliced with a knife, however, changed the acrid smoke of deal wood into flame, and the flame into red and black brittle embers, which wasted in sparks over the grass.

While we were munching our sandwiches in the sunshine my companion,who had been staring into the shadow-cut interior of the linhay ten yards away, asked me if I saw anything above a stone against the inner wall. Yes, I saw a pair of ears upraised, and a dark brown eye below them.

I stood up, and the ears went down flat; but the brown eye continued to watch. A rabbit was squatting there.I sat down out of the wind, and soon afterward the ears were raised again. The wind tore at the flames, and rocked a loose stone on the wall behind us. It was blowing harder. We moved away,  a raincoat before a derelict plough which old grasses had partly covered. Sea gulls, shifting and slanting in swift, uneven gliding, began to appear above our heads, first in pairs, and then in many numbers. The sunlight was put out, and it was instantly chilly. I got up and looked over the wall.

I saw a grand and terrible sight. The headland, which lay out into the bay, dark and puny under the vastness of sky that seemed to begin just beyond my feet, was blurred and lost. Beyond a mile or two from the extended sands below, where hundreds of gulls were standing, still and tiny as scattered whitish seeds, all was chaos. It was as though the sky was falling; as though a monstrous spectre had risen out of the vast sea and was moving to overthrow the land.

We picked up our raincoats, gathered them back from the wind, and allowed ourselves to be billowed into the linhay. The air blows thudded against the boards of the intact side—the shippen was open west, south, and east, except for the round support posts, gnawn with damp at the base, which remained upright. Wind, rebounding from the single wall, flung over us like a comber, dropping dust and straw specks in our ears and the corners of our eyes. It was cold on the rough trodden floor, whereon lay flakes of blard, and dried dung of bullocks. The slabs of stone lay against the wall, about six inches from the bottom board, and in the space the rabbit was crouching, its ears pressed on its shoulders, its life quivering behind the staring dark eyes.

The headland was gone; the sky was falling. Beyond the forming ridges of distant waves the sea seemed to be taking a wrinkled dull gray skin, like molten lead in a trough; and as we watched, the falling darkness was riven, and in the rift a snout arose, and spread upward in the shape of a funnel as it traveled over the surf to the shore. We saw the tiny white seeds sprout with wings, and settle on the sands again. The open linhay trembled, and we buttoned our coats to the neck.

A ladder was fixed to the middle post of one side, leading to the tallat, or loft, through an open trapdoor seven feet above our heads. We climbed up, and were in an open space crossed by beams under slanting corrugated iron sheets, lit at the seaward end by a window frame without glass. The floor was rotten in places. Wooden pegs of shares, some with tarnished brass-wire loops, were thrown in one corner, with a sack. The skull of a mouse, with brittle bones interlocked in grayish fur, lay on one beam, where an owl had roosted. I looked through a break in the floor; the rabbit was still beside the stone. Wind noises ran through the bleak tallat, coming in at the eaves, the floor cracks, the window frame stripped of putty and paint, where owls had perched. They filled the loft, like the hollow and curious voices of straying things, never of the earth or its life. The light drained from the rafters, the floor, each other's face. The plaining voices were lost in the buffets of the iron roof. The skull of the mouse rolled on the beam, and the bones fell aslant, joining a trickle of broken straws along the floor. My companion wrapped her coat closer round her legs. I peered through an empty square of the window, and saw greyness rushing up the heather slope of the down. I saw the fire by the wall, already gutted of embers, kicked as though by an invisible foot. The charred lengths of board, flecked with yellow and red points of flame, rose up and flew yards, and fell flat, smoking violently in the grass.

The voices wailed and shrieked, seeming to dissolve the substance of the tallat in a pallor of darkness. Straw specks and mice bones whirled on the floor, suddenly to rise up and scatter. The linhay was shuddering in the wind. Would the inner core of its uprights hold in the storm ? I trod a careful way to the trap-door, and the wind threw up the wide skirt of the raincoat into my face.

We waited, our backs to the screaming draughts racing up the corrugations of the iron roof. Suddenly a hatch in the walled angle above the trapdoor burst its wooden latch and flung half open, before wedging against the floor and shaking on the ragged grass background of the field below. An amazing object moved slowly across the grassy rectangle cut by the lichen-frayed door. My companion saw it and clutched my arm.

The object moved on three thin legs, threw its head up and down with a roll and a flop. It paused, got its hind legs under it, and took another hop forward, dragging something on the ground. Each forward movement, which needed about five seconds to prepare, took it perhaps six inches nearer shelter. By its head and tail it was a fox — but was it a fox ? The tail hung like a piece of old rope, the small head was almost without hair, the ribs showed under creases of skin muddy and stuck with tufts, through which the sharp points of shoulders and hips seemed about to  break with the weight of the swelled body.

I had just turned my glass into focus and seen that it was a vixen, dragging the chain and iron peg of a rusty rabbit gin clamped on its foreleg, when the first hail smote the roof with an immense clattering crash, and the linhay rocked with the hollow thunder of the wind. I feared it would turn over, crumple, clattering crash, and the linhay rocked with the hollow thunder of the wind. I feared it would turn over, crumple, and be carried through the stone wall immediately behind. The field space below the door was a gray blank; the day was torn up and hurtling past us. Jets of icy air were driven through the floor, and up between body and clothes. The sack slid over the green and rotting floor boards, reached the square of the trapdoor, jumped to the rafters, on which it moulded itself before falling. It was snatched through the hatch.I yelled in my companion's ear that it would be best to stand by that hatch, to jump clear when the linhay should buckle and rise. I took her by the hand, cold as stone, and guided her along one of the joists lest the floor break under our shoes.

We had reached the eastern end when the black of the storm fell on the down. Immediately we were under a torrent. I saw alarm with the misery in the dim face beside mine. The linhay was lurching under the falling flood. Skits blown in from the open window tasted salt on my lips. And the sea was a mile away, at the end of a downward slant of fifteen degrees! It must have been a waterspout we saw rising in the rift.

The earth under the linhay was awash. The water ran in wrinkled sheets prickled with rain. I could see nothing of fox or rabbit. The smashing of wood for the fire had given me warmth, but this warmth was used and gone after five more minutes in the tallat. My companion was rigid, as though being enclosed in an icicle; her teeth chattered. thorns under our nails and in our jawbones, and drew its brambles down our ears and cheeks. Our toes were broken in glacial gins.

There was no grandeur in the elements now; imagination was disharmonised from the sun. Nature was indifferent to the sufferings of all life. I could bear the screeching icy jets with fortitude, but my companion suffered, having no dolorous background in to make the present ineffectual. In that background for me were days and nights in water and clay-marn to the waist, with death above the leafless winter hedge shot stooping-high; days and nights without sleep, weeks and months without hope, without liberty — life with neither present nor future, worse than death, for death was release — life more terrible than being in a gin, for God has blessed Man with the power to reason, and I knew that if I sought release and failed, or escaped from killing men I did not hate, nor had ever seen before, I should be caught and shot before sunrise in peace-time clothes, with a bandage over my eyes and a white paper mark pinned opposite my heart, still joined in spirit to the mother who bore me in pain and after-joy, and my name and my regiment would be read out on three successive parades to every soldier in the British Army in that alien country. These memories of 1914, and later ones far, far worse, made a background in endurance for the human spirit that had suffered and survived them. The pain as of thorns pushed under finger nails was nothing — it would pass.

The linhay withstood the storm, as it had others, held by the stout cores of its upright posts. The day began to grow again in the glacial twilight of the loft. Old boards grew swiftly green; the battering on the roof suddenly ceased with a few lingering taps against the  iron sheets. Drops falling by the empty squares of the window were white; they glittered! — and blue and white sea and  sky were beyond.

Kneeling down, and moving my face to a crack between the floor boards, I looked for rabbit and fox. Sight was limited, so I crawled stiffly — sometimes blowing through my half-clenched hands for warmth — to the trap, and peered over. The floor of the shippen was like the Salient in the winter of 1917 seen from a low-flying aeroplane. Hoof holes, shapeless and trodden into one another, were filled with water to their broken edges. Wind wrinkled the sky gleams by the posts. Against the inner wall the vixen sat, on one of the slabs of ironstone. Her back and neck were curved like a snail shell, and her nose touched the mud. She was shivering with every breath. The foot of the broken foreleg, and the gin that gripped it, were in the mud. Beside her on the other slab, about eighteen inches away, sat the rabbit. It looked about it with the relaxed movements and expression of an animal at ease. I had heard of timid and preying animals sheltering together innocently during a storm, but this was the only time I had witnessed such a pleasing sight.

A sound from above, from my companion, made vixen and rabbit look up together. We kept still, and they relaxed. I saw the vixen turn her mangy head toward the rabbit, which continued to nibble its forepaw. The narrow head began to droop, and a voice above me begged to be allowed to get down. I had forgotten those bluish hands, rough with chilblains. The field was a brilliant green, and steaming in the hot rays of the sun. As I climbed down the ladder I saw, from the tail of my eye, the rabbit in a series of splashes crossing to the grass beyond the round posts.  It disappeared. The vixen had risen on the stone. Her mouth was open, showing her teeth. She stood on three legs placed close together, swaying to keep balance, her brush pressed against the wall. She tried to stay herself with her broken leg, but it gave no support, and each time she nearly tipped into the mud.

There used to live in the village an old trapper who nearly died of the effects of a fox's bite, which festered and made his hand swell, and his joints painful with inner corruption. This animal must have been feeding on slugs, beetles, and carrion left by magpies and buzzards — rats thrown out of gins in cornfields, broken carcasses of rabbits — and its teeth were probably more dirty than those of a healthy fox. How else had it survived, limping for weeks, or months(long before clicketing time, perhaps), dragging the gin clanking on every stone, and rattling on the hard ground? I was afraid of its bite, having seen some years before a fox dead in a gin with lockjaw. Better to kill it, and so put myself out of my misery, for it was a woeful sight; and, although the poor beast might have been used to its slow and  crippled ways, there were the cubs, soon to be born. Better to knock the 'viccy' on the nose with my stick, and bury her under a heap of stones.

My companion and I ran over the grass in the wind and the sunshine, swinging our arms, and laughing at each other with the pain in toes and fingers. We had a warm, dry cottage in the valley over the down, a garden filled with vegetables, fruit trees, stores of apples, potatoes, and wood for firing; shelves of books to read, clothes to wear, and flowers to tend in the coming spring and summer; we had a merry little babe with six teeth, who watched the rooks flying over the roof with sticks for their nests, and shouted " Dukaduk ! " to them. So when we were warm again we returned with the sack to the linhay, and putting it over the head of the vixen held her easily in her weak struggles, carried her into the field, trod on the steel spring to open the iron jaws of the gin, and lifted out the paw. An easy matter to snick with a knife the frayed tendons, and to bind the stump with my tie, securing it with string. Then the sack was pulled away, rolling over the vixen. She kicked and scrambled on her three and a half feet, and faced us, snarling, with arched back and ears laid  flat. I tapped the gin beside her with my stick and she snapped at it. Pushing the end through the spring, I drew it away; she lifted the stump and made the other foreleg rigid, as though to resist. Slowly we walked backward, drawing the gin over the wet grass. She whined, holding out a quivering stump. Five yards, ten yards, twenty yards — slowly we drew away from her, while she watched with raised ears and shifting feet.

We stood still. She arose and hobbled away, as though still dragging the iron. We watched her to the grass-tied plough under the wall. Here she smelt food, and down went her nose, searching for scraps of bread and boiled bacon left by us for the birds. We saw her rolling on her back in the sunlight before she disappeared through the gateway to the slope of furze and heather.

The daffodils in the garden broke yellow and danced for weeks in the wind until their blooms were frayed ; the sand/martins and the chiff/chaffs came back to the headland. We saw the first swallows flitting over the seaward slope of the down. A trapper called to us from the bank, stopping his work to tell us of what he thought was a very strange thing. He had found something in one of his rabbit gins in the sand hills. The sand had been laid by rain after he had tilled the gins the afternoon before, and visiting them that morning he had seen the prints of a walking fox, the marks of scurry round the gin it had sprung, and the trail leading away. How the bit of raggedy stuff had got in the gin he couldn't think. Had he got it? No, he had drowed it away, not thinking much of it at the time; 't was a bit of old raggedy black stuff, with yaller stripes on'n. Aiy, like a wasp!'

I knew that regimental tie.

- Henry Williamson, The Linhay on the Downs, The Atlantic Monthly, Vol 140, 1927

Check out the Henry Williamson Society for more about the author.

- RG

Thursday, 2 May 2013

How do you do/moo?

Further to Song recollections (April 10th), I just tracked down a musical memory.

In 1972 or so, when I was still at school, I went on a week-long geological excursion of Devon and Cornwall, sponsored by Shell (or maybe BP - that part's hazy). It was an opportunity: dangled in front of me was the experience of the previous star pupil who had gone on the course a year or two previously, and been offered a scholarship and job at the end of it. It turned out a disappointment in that respect, because they didn't offer me either. But it was an excellent tour, a mix of fieldwork and case study classwork; we stayed at Seale-Hayne Agricultural College (not far from here - I never thought I'd end up living in the area), and went to a lot of scenic and geologically interesting places including Meldon Quarry near Okehampton, Cligga Head near Perranporth, Hemerdon Tungsten Mine near Plymstock, and the museum at Camborne School of Mines. I also got horribly sick on the last night from drinking cider and rum, which is probably why I like neither of them.

However, it also left me with a four-decade earworm, a rather catchy song that was playing on the van radio on one of the days when it was chucking it down and we were all, including the organisers, disinclined to look at a quarry in the rain. I've tried Googling, but despite the catchiness, all I could remember of the lyrics was a "N'Na N'Na" section that invariably led to the wrong song, Mah Nà Mah Nà.

But imagine my surprise when the song appeared this evening on a TV advert (embedded above) for yoomoo, a brand of frozen yoghurt. They've slightly changed the words to "How do yoomoo" (here's the full track on SoundCloud), but it rapidly tracked down to the 1972 How Do You Do by the Dutch pop duo Mouth & MacNeal. It was a hit in the USA and Europe, but for some reason flopped completely in the UK. I must have caught one of its few British radio airings.

I'll inflict the original on the rest of you.

- Ray

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Old Sailor - procrastinatory fog

I generally can't stand AA Milne. The pathetically lame Christopher Robin. Winnie the Pooh, and Pooh sticks (infantile scatological names made acceptable by sticking an extra letter on the end, at the level of calling a character Winnie the Shitt). And so on. But I have to accept that The Old Sailor is fine psychological commentary.

There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew
Who had so many things which he wanted to do
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,
He couldn’t because of the state he was in.

He was shipwrecked, and lived on a island for weeks,
And he wanted a hat, and he wanted some breeks;
And he wanted some nets, or a line and some hooks
For the turtles and things which you read of in books.

And, thinking of this, he remembered a thing
Which he wanted (for water) and that was a spring;
And he thought that to talk to he’d look for, and keep
(If he found it) a goat, or some chickens and sheep.

Then, because of the weather, he wanted a hut
With a door (to come in by) which opened and shut
(With a jerk, which was useful if snakes were about),
And a very strong lock to keep savages out.

He began on the fish-hooks, and when he’d begun
He decided he couldn’t because of the sun.
So he knew what he ought to begin with, and that
Was to find, or to make, a large sun-stopping hat.

He was making the hat with some leaves from a tree,
When he thought, “I’m as hot as a body can be,
And I’ve nothing to take for my terrible thirst;
So I’ll look for a spring, and I’ll look for it first.”

Then he thought as he started, “Oh, dear and oh, dear!
I’ll be lonely tomorrow with nobody here!”
So he made in his note-book a couple of notes:
“I must first find some chickens” and “No, I mean goats.”

He had just seen a goat (which he knew by the shape)
When he thought, “But I must have boat for escape.
But a boat means a sail, which means needles and thread;
So I’d better sit down and make needles instead.”

He began on a needle, but thought as he worked,
That, if this was an island where savages lurked,
Sitting safe in his hut he’d have nothing to fear,
Whereas now they might suddenly breathe in his ear!

So he thought of his hut … and he thought of his boat,
And his hat and his breeks, and his chickens and goat,
And the hooks (for his food) and the spring (for his thirst) …
But he never could think which he ought to do first.

And so in the end he did nothing at all,
But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl.
And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved -
He did nothing but bask until he was saved!

This is very close to home. I knew technically about "chemo brain" aka "chemo fog" aka "post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment", but I hadn't quite imagined that I'd get it. It's real. I don't know the etiology. Theories include effects of the toxicity of chemotherapy drugs; physical effects of the cancer itself; psychological effects of cancer and its treatment; or combinations of the lot.

Whatever: I'm just so slow. If I get kicked into action, I don't think there's any impairment. This afternoon, it become urgent that I do a logo for a local organisation. It took about 35 minutes: use Internet resources to find a forgotten font (using a font-finding service); download it; create the logo to specifications in the GIMP, using that font; save various copies; and send. I'm still thoroughly on form, once I get moving.

But I'd been sitting looking at that job for about three weeks. Every time I saw it, I'd start ... then suddenly divert to having a cup of tea first, or worrying about some other task of around the same priority, or watching Jeremy Kyle, or going all nihilistic and thinking "what does it matter?" and going for a 3-mile walk.

I'm not like this normally. AA Milne is horribly accurate.

There's a lot more in the same vein at The Procrastination Equation.

- Ray
(credits for this post to Clare, for drawing my attention to this poem, and producing the book, which I didn't know we had in the house).