Sunday, 29 June 2008

More from Flatland

Last year I mentioned EA Abbott's curious 1884 mathematical/ SF/ philosophical work Flatland. Today, at a fete at Exmouth I found a related book, AK Dewdney's 1984 The Planiverse (you can see a preview at Google Books). Purporting to be an account of contact with Yendred, an inhabitant of a two-dimensional world called Arde, the book is an ingenious exploration of the implications of a 2D universe.

Abbott's Flatland was a 2D world in a horizontal plane (i.e. like looking down on a map) , whereas The Planiverse is in a vertical plane, where the only available directions are left-right and up-down, with gravity applying. This means, for instance, that buildings are impossible because they would present impassible barriers; houses and other structures have to be multi-level burrows whose entrances can be jumped or bridged with a lid. Even passing other inhabitants has to be done by climbing over them, according to rules of etiquette. Some simple devices are impossible: for instance, nails are useless for fixing materials together, since in 2D a hole straight through something breaks it into two pieces. For the same reason, nothing can be porous, so there's always the danger of suffocation in any kind of enclosure. But some complex mechanisms, such as steam engines and paddled boats, and even rocket planes and a space station, can be contrived to work.

The story follows Yendred as he embarks on a religious quest, which provides a travelogue of his world that is pleasantly engrossing and full of wry humour. At one point, for instance, a female at the balloon port says to him:

You my egg to buy do want? It a beautiful blue is and very large and good to sit upon.

It's when you cross-reference this with the biology of Arde that you realise he has been propositioned by a prostitute. The Planiverse is even quite poignant in places (a couple of reviewers at the Mathematical Fiction Homepage mentioned below said it had made them cry). The Internet Archive for Math Awareness Month 2000 has a nice set of sketches from Dimensional Geographic, a project by Suttirat A Larlaub, showing Yendred's Journey through Ajem Kollosh.

If you are similarly geeky enough to seek out other fiction on mathematical themes, Alex Kasman's Mathematical Fiction Homepage is a good reference point.

- Ray

Thursday, 26 June 2008

LOL Manuscripts!

Recommended weekend humour: LOL Manuscripts! in which Sarah Redmond, a a PhD student in Renaissance studies, annotates early woodcut illustrations, often using Kitty Pidgin, and also provides intelligent satirical critique of the generally weird content and original context ("LOL Manuscripts is how I amuse myself as I scour EEBO for research"). Thrill to the 1643 Popemobile; Wound Man (the picture - here's another variant - that led to Hannibal Lecter's capture, as mentioned in Red Dragon); English monarchs annotated; sheep exacting their revenge; rude and amusing typography; and more (language and cultural references possibly offensive). The site has a number of good links out to online historical texts.
- Ray. Thanks to Liz at I Speak of Dreams.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

More on finding poetry ... and search tricks

I mentioned recently having been searching for a poem for years.  Googling "identify a poem" shows it's a common problem, one made difficult by the general tendency to remember (or misremember) poems as fragments without attribution. The trad advice used to be to write to the Poetry Society, but now the Internet is a good option. One of the best-looking forums for this purpose is at the Poetry Archives, which has a very busy Lost Poetry Quotations section (check out also the spinoff groups with the same format at

By coincidence, at the Poetry Archives I ran into a post by Lily about an unidentified "poem that mentions St. Francis".

St. Francis...thou and all the saints are here...while one man knows that all creation is but a rose...smells (?) like a rose and has the rose's thorn...

This takes me to my other recommended option, Google Books. As I also mentioned previously, there is the impediment of fragmentary results in books only provided in snippet view. A guess at a few keywords - Francis creation "rose's thorn" - clearly takes us into the right territory but finds isolated snippets like this:
and while one man loves birds and flowers
St. Francis,
you and the company of saints are here,
while one man knows
With Belloc's Lord High-Bo I mentioned the strategy of jigsaw-style correlation. Another Google trick you can use is a more systematic 'sideways' search, looking for adjacent material by searching on distinctive strings at the edges of that already found. In this case, doing new searches on "and while one man loves" and "here, while one man knows". Proceeding in this wise rapidly recreates the otherwise inaccessible full text of the poem, which turns out to be The Saint by Humbert Wolfe - see the comments for the text.
- Ray

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Placenames: prescription vs description

In Ghost in the Machine, one of the TV Inspector Morse series, Morse deduces a suicide note to be a forgery because of a spelling convention: an educated person, he declares, would use spellings such as "realize" (rather than "realise").

I don't suppose I'm the only viewer to have boggled at this. Morse is actually expressing a local prejudice; like his creator Colin Dexter, Morse has Oxford University connections. The Oxford English Dictionary uses "-ize" endings on a number of words whose etymology tracks back to Greek "-izein" and Latin "-izare" (canonize, characterize, organize, idolize, patronize, realize, etc). It lists "-ise" merely as "a frequent spelling of -ize, suffix forming vbs". Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Nature and (due to Noah Webster's choice on the same grounds) Americans go with this convention. It is, however, a minority one in the UK, where most publishers and mass media printers go with "-ise" endings; even The Times, a long-standing "-ize" user, dropped the convention in the 1980s. However, both "-ize" and "-ise" still coexist; the choice comes down to etymology vs custom-and-usage.

Locally, we have a very similar issue: is "Topsham" pronounced "Top-shəm" or "Top-səm"? (This symbol - ə - is a schwa). It's a matter of observation that the majority pronunciation is the former; yet magazine articles regularly state that the latter is definitively correct because of the town's origin as "Toppa's Ham" (possibly a self-perpetuating factoid because it's the one favoured by the subset of people that journalists consult on such matters). In the distant past, the etymology and pronunciation matched - historical documents are full of references to Topsam, Topsom and even Apsam - but now the spelling is standardised to Topsham, this connection has loosened and usage strongly favours "-shəm". Nevertheless, it's a common assertion that etymology trumps usage. Even in 1943, a Devonshire Association Report and Transactions here stated that "Topsham was habitually, if incorrectly, pronounced Top-sham, or rather Top-shum" - a classically prescriptivist statement (the descriptivist view is that the habitual pronunciation is by definition the correct one).

The background to the Top-shəm/Top-səm divide is complicated, with elements of social class and affiliations and, as Peter Howard's Heritage: Management, Interpretation, Identity says, "insider" versus "outsider" pronunciations. Characteristically, "insider" pronunciations are the historically long-standing ones that tend to disappear as a community becomes less isolated, but in the transition period they tend to be embraced by "elite incomers"as a shibboleth. Ultimately the Top-shəm/Top-səm situation is very similar to the "-ise" vs. "-ize" one. Neither version is correct or incorrect; it merely depends whether you buy into etymology or usage as defining pronunciation.

This is actually quite a common situation with places originating as "Someone's Ham". Generally there's a historical drift toward "-shəm" pronunciation with increasing urbanisation as "outsiders" outnumber "insiders". Nowadays a number of fairly isolated places retain the "-həm" ending: Masham is pronounced "Massam", and Bosham - a Sussex village remarkably similar to Topsham - is "Bozzum". Others, such as Lewisham, Amersham and Evesham, are invariably pronounced "-shəm". Lewisham moved from "Loosam" centuries ago, and Cosham has moved from "Cossam" to "Coshum" within the 20th century. Topsham, it seems, has just gone over the same cusp, and is ultimately likely to follow the trend.

Placename pronunciation is a topic with a long history of dispute. Dipping into the British Library 19th Century Newspaper Archive, I found a letter in the Liverpool Mercury, September 11, 1835, concerning a speech made by Lord Brougham, when he raised laughs by speaking of "Lunnon" and "Brummagem". A correspondent from Wigan pointed out that these were acceptable, notes the tension even then between provincial and metropolitan pronunciations, and gives a list of other pronunciations listed as correct in the 1759 book Every Young Man's Companion. More are quoted at the weblog Turpin.

How reliable the guide is for the period, I don't know. The author, William Gordon, was Scottish, and this might have affected his taste on pronunciation (e.g. he might have preferred "Lunnon", still-extant in Cockney/Estuary English, because it matches the Scots Lunnon). Conversely, being an 'outsider' might make him more reliable - non-natives can often bring an unbiased ear to commentary on language (I'm thinking of Otto Jespersen, and of Steve Thorne's work on non-native perception of Brummie). Whatever - it's interesting 250 years later to see which are still perfectly normal and which, though they make sense in regional accent, have long gone obsolete. (Click on the graphic to enlarge).

- Ray

Thursday, 19 June 2008

In defence of Belloc ...

I'm not sure if this was coincidence or synergy, but at The Growlery, Felix Grant recently posted the full text of Hilaire Belloc's Tarantella. Felix reports that it attracted a surprisingly hostile postbag (see In defense of verse or worse and The tail of Tarentella) taking him to task for quoting a "doggerellist" rather than some poet of more stature. I find this pretty strange. I'll take the central points in turn.

Was Belloc merely a "doggerellist"? Clearly not: a glance at any biography shows that the light comic verse for which he's now best known - not that Tarantella comes into this category - was only one thread in a prestigious output: Catholic apologetics, histories and biographies, very sharp essays, travel writing, farce and satire.

Is Belloc's Tarantella doggerel or otherwise insignificant as a poem? Again, I don't think so. It seems to me very dark. I don't know at this instant if Belloc ever explained his intended meaning for the poem, which he presented to Miranda Mackintosh 20 years after they had met at an inn in the Pyrenean hamlet of Canranc on the River Aragon in 1909 (see Anyway "the author is dead" - but I don't think it's an unreasonable analysis to start by noting that the very title, Tarantella, refers to a dance with mixed connotations: on the positive side, courtship; and on the negative a form of dancing mania or dancing believed to cure tarantula poisoning.

The poem itself has two sections. The initial section, imitating the tarantella rhythm, is a recollection of an inn with a frenetic but threatening atmosphere (fleas, wine tasting of tar, jeering muleteers thumping on the door - a real Hammer Films / Wicker Man inn by the sound of it).The second section is an aftermath of doom-laden silence whose repetition of "Never more" could well be an allusion to Poe's The Raven. It doesn't come across at all as being merely about a scruffy inn that has become deserted. I find a strong implication of a remembered sexual encounter (various hints: the focus on bedding, the motion phrases "Backing and advancing ... out and in", and the muleteers' behaviour that matches a charivari). I may be completely off the mark, but whatever the intent, it clearly expresses a powerful emotional experience.

However, as Felix said, these issues are somewhat beside the point. Even if the accusation of "doggerel" and "doggerellist" are untrue in this case, it still leaves the judgement by Felix's correspondents that such poetry isn't worth quoting. More on this later.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Cordwainer Smith

From Hilaire Belloc's poems to the science fiction works of Cordwainer Smith. This is not entirely a non sequitur; both were strongly religious, and both wrote about aristocracies. But where Belloc's Peers are harmless eccentrics, Smith wrote about the Lords and Ladies of an"Instrumentality" using powers of life and death to shape human history.

Cordwainer Smith was an original, with a background among the most distinctive among 20th century SF authors. Born Paul MA Linebarger - see the biography - he worked variously as an academic, diplomat, and military expert in psychological warfare (of sufficient eminence to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery). I was interested to find yesterday confirmation of a story that appears in the preface to JJ Pierce's anthology The Best of Cordwainer Smith:

While in Korea, Linebarger masterminded the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops who considered it shameful to give up their arms. He drafted leaflets explaining how the soldiers could surrender by shouting the Chinese words for 'love', 'duty', 'humanity' and 'virtue' - words that happened, when pronounced in that order, to sound like "I surrender" in English. He considered this act the single most worthwhile thing he had done in his life. and confirm my untutored conclusion that these words in Mandarin come out as "ài zé rén dé". Neat.

This PsyOps experience comes across strongly in Linebarger's SF works: those in power achieve results through a combination of the deeply humane and the deeply cynical, often outright cruel (his Lords of the Instrumentality will mastermind the death of millions for a greater good, then erase the memory of the perpetrator and survivors so that they will feel no trauma). As the Arlington National Cemetery biography says, his works were also suffused with religious imagery from the very beginning, with the Christian allegory and the quasi-religious ritual of the Scanners in his first story, Scanners Live in Vain (no relation, incidentally, to Cronenberg). The same applies to his later The Dead Lady of Clown Town, in which a Joan of Arc figure brings redemption to the semi-animal Underpeople that feature in one segment of Smith's timeline. Painful redemption of some kind is a recurring theme such as in The Lady Who Sailed The Soul, whose heroine sacrifices her youth to rejoin her lover, or A Planet Named Shayol, a Boschian nightmare where political criminals atone with decades on a planet where parasites cause spare body parts to grow for organ harvesting.

Smith was a skilled exponent of the technique of planting linguistic fossils such as garbled placenames (Meeya Meefla, for instance, is Miami FL) to suggest a rich and mostly forgotten historical backstory. He also draws on techniques such as Chinese storytelling. The kinds of literary sources he used are exemplified in one of his most vivid stories, Drunkboat. It concerns a man who appears naked on the lawn of a hospital; the subject of an experiment, he has travelled interstellar space unaided, and has been driven temporarily insane by the experience. His name is Artyr Rambo, and his eventual account of what he saw in "space three" is surreal and poetic.

"I was a boat where all the lost spaceships lay ruined and still. Seahorses which were not real ran beside me. The summer months came and hammered down the sun. I went past archipelagoes of stars, where the delirious skies opened up for wanderers. I cried for me. I wept for man. I wanted to be the drunkboat sinking. I sank… I heard phosphorescence singing and tides that seemed like crazy cattle clawing their way out of the ocean, their hooves beating the reefs. You will not believe me, but I found Floridas wilder than this, where the flowers had human skins and eyes like big cats… I can’t forget the pride of unremembered flags, the arrogance of prisons which I suspected, the swimming of the businessmen!”

Although I assumed Rambo was named after the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, I only discovered recently that his words are an extended quotation from Rimbaud's Le Bateau ivre (The Drunken Boat) - it's depressing, if you happen to be a writer, to consider that Rimbaud came up with this powerful and assured imagery at just 17. There's an extended account of the story's origins in Karen Hellekson's The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith (judging by the Google Books preview, this is a book I want to find).

There are a number of analytical sites about: apart from the excellent run by Rosana Hart, one of his daughters, two essays are particularly enlightening: Cats, cruelty and children ("Idealism and morality in the Instrumentality of Mankind") and Christianity In the Science Fiction of "Cordwainer Smith" ( James B. Jordan, Mundum, No. 2 Winter 1992). Some of his stories are available online.

Addendum. See also The Jet-Propelled Couch.

Addendum 2 (March 2010): over at The Apothecary's Drawer, my old personal weblog, John Cowan just sent me some interesting further comment on language wordplay and allusions in Cordwainer Smith works. I'd mentioned how

Smith/Linebarger is a very interesting author linguistically, as his character and placenames reflect his wide experience in different languages. For instance, his Lords of the Instrumentality Sto Odin and Jestocost are transliterations of сто один (101) and жестокость (cruelty) in Russian. As shown by these tasters for the "A" and "R" sections in Anthony R Lewis' Concordance to Cordwainer Smith, his work abounds with this wordplay ... the Australian continent features the vast ruins of the Chinese city Aojou Nambien ("Ao Zhou" = "Australia" in Mandarin).

John also confirmed the "I surrender" transliteration, and sent me some further examples I wouldn't have spotted:

Indeed, aì zé rén dé, or 爱责仁德. Note also the numeric names like Panc Ashash (Sanskrit for 56), Femtiosex (Swedish for 56), and Tiga-belas (Malay/Indonesian for 13).

Quite by coincidence, a few days ago I ran into the Hebrew term B'dikat Hametz, and immediately thought of Smith's A Planet Named Shayol, where the bull-man guardian of a prison/punishment planet is called B'Dikkat. John's comment jogged me into a quick search for others (these days it's a lot easier to do cross-linguistic searches online). There's a Lord Crudelta in Drunkboat: "crudeltà" is Italian for barbarity/cruelty.
- Ray

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Belloc's Lord High-Bo

Bibliographic bliss. Three years ago, on my own blog, I posted a request about a mystery poem that my wife and I remembered, but which was proving unusually difficult to find. We were more or less certain it was a Belloc, in the flavour of his Peers series in Cautionary Verses. But there was no sign in anthologies. However, sources have come at last into the Google Books database, and it is indeed a Belloc poem, Lord High-Bo.

Lord High-Bo, getting tired of trains,
Would binge about in Aero-planes,
A habit which would not have got
Him into trouble, had he not
Neglected what we know to be
The rule of common courtesy.
Past bedroom windows he would sail,
And with a most offensive hail
Disturb the privacy of those
About to wash or change their clothes.

Google Books finds two sources: William Cole's 1959 The Fireside Book of Humorous Poetry, and Robert Speight's 1958 Letters from Hilaire Belloc. Neither of us recalls reading either of them. Still, it's great to know it's not a mutual figment of the imagination. It's certainly a little-known one though.

A search tip that may be useful: it's often quite feasible, as I had to with this example, to reconstruct text from search hits that are restricted. We remembered this much ...

[someone?] ... growing tired of trains
Would binge about in aeroplanes.
Past bedroom windows he would sail,
And with a most offensive hail
Disturb the privacy of those
About to wash or change their clothes.

... which turns out to have a couple of minor wording mistakes, lacks the identifying name, and misses out a central section. A search on a phrase we were most sure of, "most offensive hail", found two books giving only snippet view search (i.e. fragments of variable usefuless including the search phrase). Inside one, Letters from Hilaire Belloc, searching on some remembered phrases - "tired of trains", "binge about" and "would sail" returned some snippets- not enough to complete the poem but indicating that the title character to be Lord (High?-??). Passing "Lord High" to The Fireside Book of Humorous Poetry found it's "Lord High-Bo". Passing "Lord High-Bo" back to a general Google Books search got the whole intro to the poem, ending with the words "not neglected what we". And so on, a process of search refinement, correlating the snippets and the Google Books results until there was enough crossover to complete the text.

This kind of iterative search and "Dead Sea Scrolls" approach can be very useful in getting the gist of texts that show up on Google, but don't give full access. As well as books, this also works with journals in restricted-access archives such as JSTOR or Project MUSE, which contain a lot of interesting literature-related material. More on this later.
- Ray

ES Turner

A couple of times I've mentioned ES Turner's ABC of Nostalgia - see Nostalgia - but assumed the author's name was too familiar to need explanation (clearly my age and reading habits are showing). Nor did I realise he died only recently. Ernest Sackville Turner was an astonishingly venerable freelance journalist whose career began in the late 1920s, included 50 years writing for Punch, and continued until his death at 96 in July 2006. See the Guardian obituary and this 1998 London Review of Books interview, Seventy Years in a Filthy Trade.

Turner's specialism was British social history, written in a witty and cultivated Edwardian tone. His perspective was of someone old enough to remember the early-mid 20th century, but objective enough to balance affectionate nostalgia against the often darker side of the past. Here's a nice example of his work: Petting Cafés!, a review of Donald Thomas' An Underworld at War: Spivs, Deserters, Racketeers and Civilians in the Second World War, which reveals a reality of wartime crime that makes Foyle's War look tame and is completely at odds with the usual rosy picture of a nation united. The London Review of Books has a number of his other reviews online.

- Ray

Monday, 9 June 2008

Tracking bee story

One of the neat things about the current development of online sources is the increasing depth of coverage of historical materials.

Particularly since the concerns over Colony Collapse Disorder, newspapers and similar sources have repeatedly quoted a factoid about Einstein and bees. For instance, The Guardian had a classic exposition of the story recently in Last flight of the honeybee?: "According to Albert Einstein, our very existence is inextricably linked to bees - he is reputed to have said: 'If the bee disappears off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left'". This quote, with suitably qualified attribution, has been prominent in the publicity (as in the Guardian ad above) for the new book A World Without Bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum (Guardian Newspapers Ltd, ISBN 0852650922).

While loss of bees would almost certainly be disastrous, bibliographically at least the story appears bogus: there's no provable attribution to Einstein and, as says - Einstein on Bees - the story gained parlance in 1994 during a not entirely disinterested protest by the National Union of French Apiculture.

As to the comment about access to historical materials, I was interested to find a reference to this statement well predating 1994:

Professor Einstein, the learned scientist, once calculated that if all bees disappeared off the earth, four years later all humans would also have disappeared.
- The Irish Beekeeper, v.19-20, 1965-66, p74.

The source cited is Abeilles et Fleurs (i.e. Bees and Flowers), June 1965: which happens to be the house mag of the Union Nationale de l'Apiculture Française - same organisation which was propagating the story in 1994, and is still pushing it like mad. If the story originated in French, this might explain the difficulty mentions in antedating it.

Addendum. Techie aside: it does appear that the (alleged) Einstein statement is an exaggeration anyway. It had already crossed my mind that a number of important staple starchy crops are safe: potatoes, for instance, are propagated from sprouting tubers, and the cereal crops - which are all basically jumped-up grasses - are wind-pollinated. But I further had an interesting e-mail from Felix Grant who (as a 'roving scientist') has spoken to experts in the field of CCD. The general view was that loss of honeybees would be very nasty, but not a human extinction scenario. The status of bees as chief pollinators is largely an artificial one down to the human use of travelling monocultures of bees, which have an altered an ecology that bees originally shared with other pollinating species - moths, butterflies, hoverflies and other flies, beetles, etc. With loss of bees, with proper management these other pollinators would in time return to fill this niche.

Addendum 2: nice to see this making it to mainstream reportage: Einstein was wrong: Demise of bees won't bring humanity to its knees, Jenny Haworth, The Scotsman, 8th May 2009, which is citing Marcelo A. Aizen and Lawrence D. Harder. "The Global Stock of Domesticated Honey Bees Is Growing Slower Than Agricultural Demand for Pollination". Current Biology, 2009; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.03.071. The authors of this paper note that there appear to be political/economic factors, rather than biological ones, behind the growth in demand - only over the last 50 years - for pollination-dependent produce. More detail at ScienceDaily.

Addendum 3: I've since generalised the phenomenon, and postulate a term for false celebrity quotations: the Hillfinger.

Addendum 4: see That bee story (May 2010) again for an update; I've managed to track the roots of the story even further back, to a similarly fake attribution to Darwin.

Addendum 5: see 2012 update Einstein, Darwin and bee apocalypse.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

The More We Are Together

A while back - see Nostalgia - I mentioned reading about the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers, a 1920s charitable drinking fraternity, in ES Turner's An ABC of Nostalgia.

I was tickled to see its anthem, The More We Are Together (an Irving King adaptation of Ach du Lieber Augustin) is still around - ironically for a drinking song - on the nursery circuit (minus all all but the original chorus, and with the title morphed into The More We Get Together). From the nursery it has broken back into popular music with examples such as this Trish Thuy Trang song and, just this week, a Wrigleys Extra advert.

Here, at the Friends of the Froth Blowers site, is the original performed by Clarkson Rose; and there's an intensely catchy contemporary foxtrot version on YouTube, The More We Are Together by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra.


Friday, 6 June 2008

Will Shakespeare's disease - maybe

I noticed at Colin Wilson World an article by Colin Wilson and Donald Leslie Hotson on a book in preparation, Will Shakespeare's hand, which - to cut to the chase - asserts definitive proof of the identities of "Mr WH" and the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets.

It isn't the first such claim, and I'm sure it won't be the last. As William Boyd describes in the Guardian - Two loves have I - the game of identifying these characters is a long-running one. It even surfaced in the Dr Who episode The Shakespeare Code, which identified the Dark Lady as Martha Jones (a nice turn on the theory that the Dark Lady was black or mixed-race). In a more literary context, the same idea is central to Anthony Burgess' Nothing Like the Sun (see the Literary Encyclopedia entry here). Written in a beautiful freewheeling English, through the device of a drunken lecturer whose descent into delirium mirrors that of Shakespeare, it focuses on Shakespeare's imagined relationship with an African prostitute in Bristol.

Nothing Like the Sun ascribes its fictionalised Shakespeare's decline and pessimism to syphilis, and this is also the thrust of Will Shakespeare's hand. This theory has a long pedigree too, although much of the evidence is speculative, based on references in Shakespeare's works. The definitive recent examination of this theory appeared in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases in 2005: Shakespeare’s Chancre: Did the Bard Have Syphilis? by John J Ross draws on textual evidence, contemporary gossip and the detail of Shakespeare's life. A crucial indicator would be signs of poisoning from the mercury treatment for syphilis that Shakespeare was rich enough to afford. Ultimately, Ross concludes, there's no evidence of Shakespeare suffering the cognitive impairment that would accompany such poisoning, and many observed features (such as bloatedness that could be caused by kidney damage from mercury toxicity) have mundane explanations. "Perhaps Shakespeare had simply become corpulent in his retirement". And who can tell if Shakespeare's baldness was down to mercury treatment or simply male pattern baldness? (Forensics could settle this easily, if anyone was prepared to risk the curse).

Colin Wilson connections

As towns go, Topsham doesn't have vast literary connections; the few I know of tend to be more by proxy, the most famous being that of the cousin and early sweetheart of Thomas Hardy, Tryphena Sparks, who in later life married a Topsham publican, and is buried here. Another such connection, coincidentally pub-related, is that Barry Stock, landlord of the Steam Packet here, is related by marriage to Colin Stanley, bibliographer of (and probably the chief authority on) the works of the philosopher and author Colin Wilson.

I first met Colin Stanley a few years back after he had achieved brief, and undeserved, minor notoriety for his self-published novel, First Novel. Personally I didn't much like it for the self-referential games (it was set in a town called Tapshed - unmistakably Topsham - and its hero was writing a novel about a fictional town called Topsham, which wasn't quite this Topsham as the street names were different ... and so on). It also had a flavour of an author using a novel for personal gripes about publishers, colleagues and so on. However, the local fuss concerned the sex scenes (in fact no more, nor more explicit, than many other modern novels) that got it banned from the Exeter WH Smith.

I first met Colin a while after this had long since blown over, found him quite unlike my expectations, and we've had a number of chats since. If you're interested in Colin Wilson's works, Stanley's Nottingham-based publishing house Pauper's Press has a large portfolio of works by and about Wilson, as well as links through to Abraxas, Paul Newman's interesting magazine of literature, philosophy and ideas, focusing on Colin Wilson.

These days, the impact of Colin Wilson's early works is largely forgotten. His The Outsider (I strongly suspect inspired from his own outsider status as a working-class intellectual) had a brief vogue, popularising existentialism, but since he has produced a huge output of variable quality: philosophy, litcrit, criminology, fiction and rather flakey New Age stuff. In later life, tongue-in-cheek self-revelations and hostile reviews from the highbrow papers - see 'Now they will realise that I am a genius' and I was a teenage nail biter in the Guardian - have fostered a current view of him as a hackwriting crank, which is highly undeserved in the light of his best works.

My particular favourites are The Strength to Dream and The Mind Parasites. The former is one of the best critiques I know on imaginative literature in the late 19th / early 20th century period that Wilson views as crucial (see the full view on Google Books). The latter is a philosophical SF/horror novel that uses, at the suggestion of August Derleth, a Lovecraftian concept of alien parasites and ancient evil to explore Wilson's central philosophies. The parasites, apparent aliens that live in the subsconscious and sap human energy, are a vehicle for an existential look at a central problem of the human condition, the inability of most of us to utilise the powers of our own minds. (Colin Stanley confirmed that it is one of the important books in Wilson's canon). See this review and the discussion of its themes in The Novels of Colin Wilson.

For more about Colin Wilson, see Colin Wilson World. The Fortean Times has an interview here that isn't a hatchet job.


Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Cold Comfort Farm on stage

I mentioned Stella Gibbons and Cold Comfort Farm here in 2006: see Beyond the woodshed.

This evening we went to Cold Comfort Farm, Paul Doust's stage adaptation, at the Exeter Northcott. Mixed impressions, really. The acting and production values were of high standard, and there some very clever set pieces (for instance, using a human tableau to create the effect of cattle on stage) but the text of the adaptation was rather strange. It didn't come across as terribly affectionate toward the source material, with silly slapstick additions such as a repeatedly exploding clock - thankfully, if peculiarly, also done by human tableau, rather than a prop that "explodes" as the playscript specifies - and Rennet portrayed as a lunatic sleepwalker. It was also full of self-referential comments on its own theatricality, and occasionally completely lost track of the comic nature of the story (in one symbolic scene, the whole cast stood entwined by tendrils, chanting in unison the words of the controlling Aunt Ada Doom). And it cut out Mrs Beetle and Mr Mybug. Overall worth seeing, but probably not if you expect a 'straight' adaptation like those of the 1968 and 1995 TV versions.

If you've never read the original novel and want to try it for flavour (Roger Ebert describes it well as "like Thomas Hardy rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse") you can preview it at Google Books. As I mentioned previously, there's an extended article on the book's origins at the now-defunct official Stella Gibbons website - see Cold Comfort Farm at the Internet Archive.

Addendum: more on this at Further beyond the woodshed.
- Ray

Sunday, 1 June 2008


From the BBC press site: BBC Sport collaborates with Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn for Beijing Olympics. Hewlett and Albarn are the creators of the virtual band Gorillaz, and have brought a similar visual style to the BBC's Olympic credit sequences (larger image here) , which will be based on the classic folk epic Journey To The West aka The Monkey King. (They have already produced, under the direction of Chen Shi-Zheng, a spectacular musical stage adaption, Monkey - Journey to the West).

Journey to the West is Wu Ch'eng-en's vastly mythologised and embroidered fantasy, written in the mid-1500s, on the real-life journey of the 7th century Chinese monk Xuan Zang, who travelled to India and brought Buddhist scriptures back to China. A while back I found another nice picture, in anodised titanium, of the chief characters on the September 2004 cover of the materials journal JOM (like the BBC, I assume, JOM chose the story as an metaphor for East meeting West). The priest Xuanzang is escorted by Sun Wukong (Monkey, a powerful trickster-god constrained to aid him), and his companions Zhu Bajie (Pigsy) and Sha Wujing (Sandy), who are also divine and forced to atone for misdeeds by demeaning reincarnations - the former as a pig, the latter as a cannibal sand monster. Tripitaka is, incidentally, a misnomer for Xuanzang; it's not actually his name, but an honorific for priests who had mastered the Buddhist scriptural canon called the Tripitaka - "three baskets" in Sanskrit.

The story has been retold many times. A very accessible book version I recommend is Alison Waley's Dear Monkey , which abridges down to handy paperback size the partial translation (30 of the 100 chapters) by her father, Sinologist Arthur Waley. Online, has a summary and illustrated retelling. I'm not ashamed to admit that I know the story primarily from the cult Japanese TV series starring Masaaki Sakai - see Monkey Heaven and YouTube). Despite the dire special effects and peculiar English dubbing, the series was remarkably faithful to the original stories; for instance, Monkey's bizarre powers, as described in this appreciation by Matthew Craig, or the Five Pillars at the End of the Universe incident, are perfectly authentic.

- Ray

Addendum: the animation is now up at BBC Sport - see Meet Monkey.

- Ray