Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Jack Tar: book launch

A post of local interest, via the Devon History Society:

Devon Libraries and Little, Brown are hosting the launch of Jack Tar: Life in Nelson's Navy by Roy and Lesley Adkins. The event is on Wednesday, October 8th, 2008, 6.30-8pm, The Music Room, Exeter Central Library, Castle Street, Exeter, EX4 3PQ. RSVP to Carol Ackroyd, 01392 385919 ( See the official website Roy & Lesley Adkins for more information on the authors and Jack Tar.

It looks an interesting book on a topic that is often subject to stereotypical assessment due to a certain amount of mythology. As Phil Egginton of the Historical Maritime Society writes - What is the source of the myths about Nelson's Navy? - a deal of the picture of Napoleonic-era shipboard life comes from hostile commentators, particularly the ex-sailor William Robinson ("Jack Nastyface") in his 1836 memoirs Nautical Economy, or, Forecastle Reflections of Events during the Last War. While it accords with other accounts in many areas, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that it was in the stamp of reforming pamphlets of the era, and implies that Robinson's demotion from the lucrative post of purser's steward might have coloured his opinion. (see Henry Baynham, "Robinson, William", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008).

Addendum, 28th August Example raised via comments: see Feeding Nelson's Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era (Janet Macdonald, Chatham Publishing, 2006, ISBN 1861762887) for a debunking of the stereotype of disgusting starvation diet aboard ships-of-the-line. By 1800 at least, scurvy had largely been deal with and, according to Macdonald, who did her PhD on the subject, most of the horror stories came from merchant sailors who didn't have the hedge of regulations that gave navy sailors some rights to complain. There are a couple of radio features online: see Feeding Nelson's Navy and, at The Food Programme site, Ship's food. which takes a broader look at shipboard victualling past and present.

- Ray

Monday, 25 August 2008

PK Dick, Ubik and conceptual breakthrough

I just ran into a couple of articles, one old, one new, about Philip K Dick: The Second Coming of Philip K. Dick (Frank Rose, Wired, Issue 11.12, December 2003) and Kick over the Scenery (Stephen Burt, London Review of Books, July 3rd 2008). In many ways it's a sad story of someone who just missed bigtime success. Dick was a cult figure in SF and counter-culture circles; his writing had strong niche popularity, but even when he won the Hugo Award, he never achieved mainstream recognition in his lifetime, or wealth (a situation not helped by his confused personal life). And yet, after his death, a string of cult films have been based (with considerable modification) on his work: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale became Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, The Minority Report became Spielberg's Minority Report, and so on.

It's difficult to assess how this happened. Dick's world-view, as expressed in his books, was unusual; central to it is a conflict, not between good and evil, but between entropy and an ordering principle. The entropy typically involved degradation toward what he called "kipple"
"Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself ... the entire universe is moving towards a final state of total, absolute kippleization."
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
As to the ordering principle, in 1974 Dick, long troubled with mental health problems, experienced visions of being flooded with a "transcendentally rational mind" that he called VALIS, feeling (I summarise very crudely) that it was a manifestation of God drawing him back toward sanity. All this is pretty strange stuff, and yet Dick's works were nevertheless strongly in touch with the mundane human condition. His protagonists tend to be ordinary, not-very-successful people bewildered by events beyond their understanding. Those events, however, often involve changes in the fabric of reality, leading to "conceptual breakthroughs" and explorations of perception and memory of long-standing philosophical interest. As the Wired articles says, such themes are now in the zeitgeist, appearing in films such as The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, Memento, The Truman Show, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

My personal favourite of Philip K Dick's works is his 1969 novel Ubik. Set in a near-future where various psionic abilities are routine, its protagonist is Joe Chip, a typically Dickian debt-ridden little man who works as a tester for a "prudence organisation", which hires out a team of misfits with anti-psionic powers (for instance, to protect businesses from telepathic eavesdropping). The team is lured to the Moon by a hostile client who attempts to assassinate them with a bomb, killing their employer, Glen Runciter. On their return, they begin to experience strange degradations: coffee is cold, cigarettes stale in the packet, though fresh out of the dispensing machine (again typically Dickian entropy), and they find America is reverting toward the 1930s around them. One by one, they begin to die, and Joe Chip finds himself on an urgent quest, guided by graffiti apparently written by Runciter, to find a restoring spray-can product called Ubik (the Dickian God-like ordering principle). Meanwhile, an even more unpleasant possibility is raised: that Joe and his colleagues were killed by the bomb and are in cryonic suspension ("half-life").

Ubik manages to juggle dark comedy, poignancy and outright horror, and (in my view rightly) made it into Time Magazine's 2005 All-Time Hundred Best Novels post-1923 (and was near the top of reader rankings there). Obsessed with Film and many other movie gossip sites report that a film is in the pipeline. Whether that's true, and if so, whether it'll be good, I don't know. More Background on Philip K Dick at the official website,

On a personal note - and I don't add many here - I've backdated this addition from the final substantive post for JSBlog on June 15, 2015, as my favourite of PKD's takes on the terror of dying. There's a fine quotation from Ubik whose pertinence struck me at the death of my friend Felix Grant in January 2014 on the role of those who communicate with us largely over the Internet ...
We are served by organic ghosts, he thought, who, speaking and writing, pass through this our new environment. Watching, wise, physical ghosts from the full-life world, elements of which have become for us invading but agreeable splinters of a substance that pulsates like a former heart. And of all of them, he thought, thanks to Glen Runciter. In particular. The writer of instructions, labels and notes. Valuable notes. He raised his arm to slow to a grumpy halt a passing 1936 Graham cab.
- Philip K Dick, Ubik, 1969.
... and I find I've suddenly become one of those 'wise ghosts', still texting and functioning despite literally hovering between life and death. It may sound melodramatic, but I'm more than a little addled with morphine, and do have moments when I'm not 100% sure if I'm dead or alive.

On June 20th 2015, for instance, I had a long and heavy sleep in the afternoon, and woke with a strange malaise of being dead in an English pastoral sense. Later that aftetnoon, I had a shorter sleep that left me feeling dead only in a kind of technical sense. It's just the morphine, I assume. I got myself up to read, and there was *nothing* else - l'd taken all the necessary pills - and just couldn't think whatver else there was do. Was I a bit stoned or what? I don't think I've ever experienced such a lack of volition - just looking at the wall.

The terror is palpable, though, and PKD expresses it well through the progressive weeding out of Joe Chip's companions, and finally his own encounters with death-like exhaustion and pain.
He lay for a time, and then, as if called, summoned into motion, stirred. He lifted himself up onto his knees, placed his hands flat before him... my hands, he thought; good god. Parchment hands, yellow and knobby, like the ass of a cooked, dry turkey. Bristly skin, not like human skin; pin-feathers, as if I've devolved back millions of years to something that flies and coasts, using its skin as a sail.
I know where it's going to end, but the fear is how precisely. Anyhow ...

Returning to the movie list above: I especially like Alex Proyas' 1998 Dark City and Josef Rusnak's 1999 The Thirteenth Floor. With the timing of their release, they were rather overshadowed by The Matrix, despite handling of the untrustworthy-reality theme just as potently and without all the gun chic and pince-nez mirroshades. Dark City is deeply strange, an intensely atmospheric noir/SF/Gothic mix set in a generic American city where it is always night, yet no-one wonders why, and where the main character's quest to find the Shell Beach of his childhood leads to a denouement that could have been inspired by the classic Flammarion woodcut above. The film is inextricably mixed in my mind with Martha and the Muffins' Echo Beach, which Mark Gane described as springing from similar yearnings - see the official page - and from memories of Sunnyside Beach, Lake Ontario, in Toronto, an area whose map appears on some of the covers ("The lake and beach could have been in the middle of nowhere while the city behind became a 'surrealistic sight'"). It has also been memorably adapted, more than once, on YouTube: it's interesting to compare the works by SkyAboveWater and Eroock, both of whom used it to create a video for Rammstein's Sonne.

The Thirteenth Floor comes from the 1964 Counterfeit World (a.k.a. Simulacron-3) by Daniel F Galouye, who wrote several novels in the 1960s-70s on similar breakthrough themes. The Thirteenth Floor was an early (if not the earliest) exploration of the idea of virtual reality. Dark Universe was a post-apocalypse story set in a cave system where tribespeople live who find their way about using sound; their worldview is shaken by encounters with outsiders bringing light (almost certainly inspired by Plato's Allegory of the Cave, as coincidentally explained by Popeye to Bluto in a current McSweeney's post). The Lost Perception (a.k.a A Scourge of Screamers) is an SF thriller concerning the social upheaval when the Earth, after millennia of shadow, is illuminated by an astronomical body called Chandeen emitting a radiation that vastly enhances perception. All are worth finding.

The list of conceptual breakthrough stories can easily be extended into fiction going way back. The "Conceptual Breakthrough" article in Peter Nicholls' The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Granada, 1981, ISBN 0586053808) likens the general mindset of protagonists prior to such breakthough to that of Rasselas, the Ethiopian prince hero of Samuel Johnson's The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, whose general intellectual discontent leads to him to visit the outside world. One might compare Titus at the end of Gormenghast, and the discontented heroes of any number of generation-starship stories, notably Chimal in Harry Harrison's Captive Universe (a 16-year-old who finds why he is the only intelligent person in a stultifying Aztec society).

There are similarities too in the protagonists of Jeanne DuPrau's Ember series - see The Growlery, where I mentioned to Felix Grant my slight misgivings at the geeky empowerment fantasy inherent in some conceptual breakthrough stories ("misfit finds what's really going on and becomes central to it"). Ember seems a more natural and healthy angle in having young protagonists, like Captive Universe and Hoban's Riddley Walker (another such story, though one where the breakthrough is an intellectual rather than physical one). At this age the curiosity and urge to explore is normal, yet the person small enough in the scheme of things to take a more humble role in what they find. A film based on The City of Ember is forthcoming; there's a trailer at the official City of Ember website.
- Ray

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Literary tw*ttery

It's probably still silly season at the newspapers, as at the moment they're carrying variants on 'Offensive' word to be removed from Jacqueline Wilson book (Alison Flood, The Guardian, August 21 2008). This is the story of how Wilson's latest and favourably-reviewed novel My Sister Jodie is to be amended - the word "twat" to be changed to "twit" - after getting three complaints (against 150,000 copies of the book sold). Bizarre; I can't imagine why a major publisher should cave in to such clearly unrepresentative objections, unless it's about fears of losing a major stockist, the Walmart-owned Asda, to whom Anne Dixon complained. Whatever the word's biological meaning, I'd judge it to be one of the milder UK expletives these days. Here's the context in the book (Harley is a posh geeky boy, Jed a gardener, and Jodie the narrator's rebellious sister):

"I think you'll find that's heavily disputed," said Harley. "In fact some experts think it's the cattle that give the badgers TB."

"Toffee-nosed twit," Jed said softly to Harley, turning his head so that Mr Wilberforce couldn't hear.

"Come on, Sakura, lead the way," said Jodie hurriedly.

We walked out with all three little ones. Harley loped along too, his fists clenched. "Did you hear what he called me?" he said.

"No," I lied tactfully.

"He called you a toffee-nosed twat," said Jodie, thinking she was being helpful. "Nothing to get too steamed up about."

"What? I'm so steaming I'm boiling."

"He didn't mean it. And even if he did, so what? You are toffee-nosed, Harley. No one could talk posher than you. And you deliberately act like a twat half the time, you must admit."

This looks pretty inoffensive to me, and you'd need a tin ear for prose to fail to understand how it has been used here, where animosity between two characters has been cranked up by Jodie's "Chinese Whispers" repetition of a sotto voce comment; and the whole exchange is about defining characters and exploring class conflict via attitudes and reactions to the insult. As Michael Rosen comments in his Guardian blog - Children are swearing already, so why can't Jacqueline Wilson? - "Jacqueline is a sophisticated, knowledgeable and subtle writer. If she chooses to use the word 'twat', it's because she has sensed that it is entirely appropriate".

Of commentary I've seen so far, I was particularly struck by that at the blog i am no friend of mine, which notes the irony of the most-reported complainer finding nothing wrong with Famous Five and Secret Seven by Enid Blyton, about whose works solid arguments have been made concerning their overt racism, sexism and classism ("But wasn't she a misogynistic, racist snob? ... Any basic analysis of Blyton's work suggests so". The Big Question: Should Enid Blyton be hailed as the best writer for children?, Sophie Morris, The Independent, 21 August 2008).

The t-word has made a number of guest appearances in Language Log, mostly focusing on the curiosity of its use in the Robert Browning 1841 dramatic poem Pippa Passes (the story of a virtuous young girl who over the course of a day, her only holiday a year, passes unscathed and unseen through the corrupt streets of Asolo, Italy, unware of the life-and-death scenarios acted out around her, but inspiring people to moral action by her singing - a bit like Amélie, I guess). It turns up in a section where Browning likens the owls and bats to monks and nuns at their night-time devotions:

But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
Toll the world to thy chantry;
Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
Full complines with gallantry:
Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

As Language Log explained (see Twat v. Browning and More on Browning, Pippa and all) this puzzled the editors of the OED too, who asked Browning why he thought the word meant a nun's headgear. He told them he'd read it in Vanity of Vanities, or Sir Harry Vane's Picture, an English satirical broadsheet attacking Sir Henry Vane the Younger. Vane was a Parliamentarian politician in the Civil War who tried to game the system, Vicar of Bray style, to stay in power through both administrations, but was executed for treason on restoration of the monarchy. Among various other jibes of fairly obscure context are found the lines that make Browning's mistake understandable:

They talk't of his having a Cardinalls Hat
They'd send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat

Language Log mentioned another unusual occurrence of the term in Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1871 science fiction novel Vril, The Power of the Coming Race. It features a subterranean super-race, the Vril-ya, who are revealed to be descended from frogs, and features the passage

Among the pithy sayings which, according to tradition, the philosopher bequeathed to posterity in rhythmical form and sententious brevity, this is notably recorded: "Humble yourselves, my descendants; the father of your race was a 'twat' (tadpole): exalt yourselves, my descendants, for it was the same Divine Thought which created your father that develops itself in exalting you."

In this situation, I suspect it might have been inspired by the dialect word "twud" (="toad", according to various dialect glossaries).

Various asides: in the previous post I mentioned the Broadview Press edition of The Water-Babies. Their edition of The Coming Race (ed. Peter W. Sinnema, Broadview Editions, 2008, ISBN: 9781551118369) looks equally interesting for its similar inclusion of appendices explaining the social and scientific context. Bulwer-Lytton, in contrast to Charles Kingsley, was anti-Darwin, and The Coming Race satirises Darwinism; the "twat" comment, for instance, appears in Chapter XVI, which uses the morphological arguments of 19th century Darwinists regarding human ancestry to argue for the Vril-ya's descent from frogs. Darwin appears likewise in Bulwer-Lytton's What Will He Do With It? (Project Gutenberg #7671) as "Professor Long", author of a boring two-volume treatise on limpets.

The "vril" in the book is a kind of electrical life-force energy. Its appearance in the brand name "Bovril" is no accident. Many readers took Bulwer-Lytton's novel seriously - it appealed to a lot of master-race fantasies - and the word got into general parlance via the Victorian mystical circuit: as the Unilever page explains, "Bovril" was coined from "bos" (=beef) and "vril".

Bulwer-Lytton would have been disappointed to know that in some circles he's primarily remembered these days for the introduction to his 1830 novel Paul Clifford (Project Gutenberg EText-No. 7735)...

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

... which is widely cited as an example of the worst of would-be literary style, and which has inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, whose entrants are asked to write more in the same vein for comic effect. His descendant, The Honourable Henry Lytton Cobbold, takes issue with this, and a debate with the competition founder, Professor Scott Rice, is due on August 30th - see 'Literary tragedy' of Bulwer-Lytton's dark and stormy night under debate (Alison Flood, The Guardian, August 19 2008).
- Ray

Addendum: Trivia from The browser (The Observer, Sunday August 24 2008), which notes that ASDA are still stocking Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, with its "no fewer than two mentions of the word 'ass'?". There's a cross-cultural problem here: as mentioned in a number of reviews, US readers think that "ass" means "arse" in sentences like "Of course I'm not talking to you, you ass!" so (at least according to Wikipedia) when the Cartoon Network airs the film, the word is redubbed to "pedant".

Addendum 2: I totally forgot the poem of that name from the punk poet John Cooper Clarke.
- Ray

Sunday, 17 August 2008

The Water-Babies

Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, has had enduring popularity since its publication in 1863. For the benefit of those who don't know it, the basic plot concerns Tom, a boy chimney-sweep who, pursued on false suspicion of trying to rob a stately home, drowns in a stream and, reborn as a "water baby", has aquatic adventures leading to a quest through various dystopias, learning moral lessons on the way, until he is finally restored to humanity. See Glynn Hughes' Squashed Writers for an ultra-abridged version.

However, until recently there has been a strong tendency toward abridged editions that focus on it as a moral adventure story. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; its heart is utterly in the right place (for instance, its stress on the wrongness of cruelty to animals). But the unabridged edition - see Project Gutenberg EText-No.1018 - is definitely worth reading if you never have. Like many children's classics, The Water-Babies wasn't entirely written for a child audience. Although nominally for his son Grenville, who was five, it's full of immensely erudite material that would have been way over the latter's head, and was first published in installments starting in August 1862 in the highbrow journal Macmillan's Magazine.

It reflects a number of Kingsley's concerns: his interest in natural history; an indictment of child labour; sanitation and pollution; his religious views as an Anglican clergyman (slightly non-standard ones, since the Purgatory-like afterlife Tom enters could be viewed as distinctly Catholic); his dislike of quack medicines; his dislike of certain other children's authors; and his views on Darwinism. Contemporary readers were well aware of its intent, and it received equally scholarly reviews in, for instance, the Anthropological Review (Vol. 1, No. 3 (Nov., 1863), pp. 472-476) which recognised its heavy science and highly barbed satire.

... the "land babies", for which it is ostensibly destined, must, however, attain a competent knowledge of biological controversy before they can hope to comprehend it, while the disciples of the false philosophies which it satirises, will hardly relish the castigation which it administers.

The biological controversy to which this refers concerns Darwin's newly-published Origin of Species. Kingsley, it should be remembered, was a science enthusiast (he was made a Fellow of the Geological Society in 1863) and received an advance copy of Origin of Species. It blew him away. He wrote to Darwin:

All I have seen of it awes me
I have long since, from watching the crossing of domesticated animals and plants, learnt to disbelieve the dogma of the permanence of species
I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which he himself had made."

- The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Barnes & Noble, 2005, ISBN 0760769087

In short, Kingsley became an immediate convert to the long-running liberal Christian view that Darwinism could be reconciled with Deism, and to the controversial view that humanity itself might be open to modification. His story-within-a-story of the Doasyoulikes, who devolve into apes after climate change, is pure Darwinism in action ...

And she turned over the next five hundred years. And there they were all living up in trees, and making nests to keep off the rain. And underneath the trees lions were prowling about.

"Why," said Ellie, "the lions seem to have eaten a good many of them, for there are very few left now."

"Yes," said the fairy; "you see it was only the strongest and most active ones who could climb the trees, and so escape."

"But what great, hulking, broad-shouldered chaps they are," said Tom; "they are a rough lot as ever I saw."

"Yes, they are getting very strong now; for the ladies will not marry any but the very strongest and fiercest gentlemen, who can help them up the trees out of the lions' way."

... even if it was initiated by the sin of "doing only what they liked" (Kingsley has a downer on this, very much in tune with his now well-known style of Muscular Christianity; and Tom's final redemption and reunion with Ellie is only achieved by "going where you don't like, and helping someone that you don't like"). Some of this Doasyoulike section reveals a nasty racist streak in Kingsley, by present-day standards, where the first stage of the Doasyoulikes' degradation is that "their jaws grow large, and their lips grow coarse, like the poor Paddies who eat potatoes" - the same Irish he called "white chimpanzees" in a letter to his wife (see Racism and Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England) - and the final stage is a single 7-foot individual who is shot by a hunter after trying, and failing, to say "Am I not a man and brother?" - which fairly explicitly identifies this man-degraded-to-ape with a black person, the words being an iconic anti-slavery slogan. (Kingsley had already used the allusion in his 1857 Two Years Ago for the chapter "Am I not a woman and a sister?" concerning a subplot surrounding an actress' black ancestry).

Kingsley appears not to much like Americans, who he describes as having been made "naughty" by "being quite comfortable" and who he likens to the parliament of hoodie crows, who peck to death one of their number for refusing to be greedy - perhaps alluding to his views that post-bellum Americans had "exterminated their southern aristocracy", then forced the "northern hereditary aristocracy, the Puritan gentlemen of the old families, to retire in disgust from public life" (see Writers, Readers, and Reputations, Philip J. Waller, OUP, 2006). The Jews and the French get snipes too, and this doesn't complete the list of groups he didn't like. There's a deal of literature on his Racial Prejudices; it's hard to say whether he was about par for his time (a time when science seemed to support a scale of racial inferiority/superiority) or whether he was more than usually xenophobic.

That aside, The Water-Babies is full of many academic jokes surrounding biology and other topical subjects. For instance, its references to arguments about a "hippopotamus major" in the brain refer to the debate between TH Huxley and Richard Owen about the significance of the hippocampus minor. All in all, the unabridged Water-Babies well returns the investment of a bit of study. You can get a glimpse of the sheer strangeness and topicality by glancing at the end of Chapter 4 (courtesy of the University of Adelaide Library's e-books) and its list of Victorian quack remedies - can anyone imagine this as written for children? - tried on Professor Ptthmllnsprts to rid of him of the belief in water-babies:

Metallic tractors.
Holloway’s Ointment.
Valentine Greatrakes his Stroking Cure.
Holloway’s Pills.
Morison’s Pills.
Parr’s Life Pills.
Pure Bosh.

The Water-Babies continues to provide academic interest even now. For instance, Charles Kingsley, H. G. Wells, and the Machine in Victorian Fiction (Colin Manlove, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Sep., 1993), pp. 212-239) explores its unusual positive focus on machines, particularly the way Kingsley describes Nature, and even divine creation, in mechanistic terms: whether the workings of a rotifer, Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid (who describes herself as working "by machinery, just like an engine; and am full of wheels and springs inside"), and Mother Carey (who sits in the Arctic at the heart of a factory making self-replicating creatures). Another interesting analysis, from a while back, is Rabelais and "The Water-Babies" (Dorothy Coleman, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Jul., 1971), pp. 511-521) which cites structure and content - such as the grimly comic, morally instructive dystopias at the "Other-end-of-Nowhere" in Chapter VIII and last, and Kingsley's repeated reference to "the coming of the Cocqcigrues" (i.e. the end of time - "Cocqcigrues" being the "Cocklicranes" of Gargantua/Chapter XLIX) showing The Water-Babies to be influenced by Rabelais.

There are a couple of critiques of particular aspects at the Victorian Web - Revising the fairytale: Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, and Charles Kingsley's Water-Babies - and Boston College Libraries has a further list of analytical texts. Though I haven't read it, the Broadview Press edition that came out earlier this year - The Water-Babies, Charles Kingsley, ed. Richard Kelly, Broadview Editions, 2008, ISBN: 9781551117737) looks to have some interesting appendices that further elucidate Kingley's influences and in-references. He wasn't above digs at other authors such as the Bostonian Samuel Griswold Goodrich; an advocate of instructional literature over imaginative who wrote as "Peter Parley", he appears as "Cousin Cramchild". Kingsley also hated American domestic novels for their "execrable goody-goody-ness" and "insipid respectability (utterly untrue to life) of their personages". This passage...

Next he saw all the little people in the world, writing all the little books in the world, about all the other little people in the world; probably because they had no great people to write about: and if the names of the books were not Squeeky, nor the Pump-lighter, nor the Narrow Narrow World, nor the Hills of the Chattermuch, nor the Children's Twaddeday, why then they were something else. And, all the rest of the little people in the world read the books, and thought themselves each as good as the President; and perhaps they were right, for every one knows his own business best.

... takes a swipe at Maria Susanna Cummins' sentimental 1854 The Lamplighter, and Susan Warner's 1850 The Wide, Wide World (the novel that Jo in Little Women spends an afternoon crying over, up in an apple tree), 1852 Queechy and 1856 Hills of the Shatemuc. I haven't been able to find any reference to what The Children's Twaddeday refers to, but I strongly suspect it's The Children's Holiday, the lead story in Mary Botham Howitt's 1853 The Dial of Love: A Christmas Book for the Young (although it's not American, the date and general style otherwise match Kingsley's pattern of dislikes).

As the Anthropological Review said:

Careful perusal, and a thorough scientific education, are preliminaries to the study of this work ...

Coming back to the present day: The Water-Babies is listed in Alasdair Gray's Lanark as a central "Difplag" (diffuse plagiarism) within the latter. Describing The Water-Babies as "a Victorian children's novel thought unreadable nowadays except in abridged form", Gray describes it in Lanark's "Index of plagiarisms" as

a dual book. The first half is a semi-realistic highly sentimental account of an encounter between a young chimney sweep from an industrial slum and an upper class girl who makes him aware of his inadequacies, Emotionally shattered, in a semi-delirious condition, he climbs a moorland, descends a cliff and drowns himself ... He is then reborn with no memory of the past in a vaguely Darwinian purgatory with Buddhist undertones ... At one point the hero, having stolen sweets, grows suspicious, sulky and prickly all over like a sea-urchin! He is morally redeemed by another encounter with the upper-class girl ... and then sets out on a pilgrimage through a grotesque region filled with the social villainies of Victorian Britain.

Although somewhat spun for similarity, this is the plot of Lanark, in which the working-class artist Duncan Thaw, depressed by a failed relationship with the middle-class Marjory Laidlaw, drowns and is reborn as "Lanark" in the dystopian city of Unthank (a dark mirror of Glasgow) where at one point he develops a disease called dragonhide and is redeemed by meeting Rima, Marjory's also-reincarnated counterpart. Lanark's apocalyptic ending even features a throwaway reference to the Cocqcigrues arriving, which is about as definitive a conclusion as you can get.
- Ray

Friday, 15 August 2008

Noir and the North Kent Marshes

The references to Kent in Riddley Walker reminded me of another website I visited recently, Literature and Place. This is the website of a joint project (between the School of English, University of Kent, and the Université du Littoral Côte d'Opale, Dunkirk) to develop a database of literature relating to the Transmanche region - as the map interface shows, Kent and Nord Pas-de-Calais. Although it could be developed further (for instance, Hoban's Riddley Walker isn't there, and a lot more could be said about locations in Russell Thorndike's Dr Syn saga - see The Life and Times of the Rev. Doctor Christopher Syn, Parson, Smuggler, and Sometime Pirate) it's surprising how many authors have connections in this area.

The prime example is probably Charles Dickens, who spent part of his childhood in Chatham and knew the Hoo Peninsula well (he spent his honeymoon at Chalk and later lived at Gadshill): Cooling Churchyard was the prime inspiration for the churchyard with the graves of Pip's siblings where Pip first meets Magwitch in Great Expectations amid the generally desolate background of the North Kent Marshes. This area, due to nature conservancy initiatives, still retains a deal of its characteristic landscape.

Dickens, one could imagine, might well have liked the 1952 film The Long Memory (based on Howard Clewes' 1951 novel of the same name). It contains a number of Dickensian melodramatic elements: false imprisonment, obsessed and wronged hero, interesting mix of characters (both respectable and low-life, with good and bad found among both), and settings that would have been familiar to Dickens. See it if you can; the overall critical view these days is that it's a much under-rated classic of the narrow genre of English film noir, with particular acclaim for its "exceptional use of landscape", moving between the North Kent Marshes and a distinctly Dickensian post-WW2 London (the now-Yuppified Shad Thames - adjacent in Dickens' time to the Jacob's Island of Oliver Twist - and long-gone seedy streets in Northfleet - see Reel Streets - whose limeworks Dickens mentions in Our Mutual Friend). See the critique in British Cinema of the 1950s: A Celebration (Ian Duncan MacKillop, Neil Sinyard, Manchester University Press, 2003, ISBN 0719064899) and the review at Ferdy on Films.

Peter Brown, by the way, is co-editor of Literature and Place, 1800-2000 (Peter Brown, Michael Irwin, Peter Lang Publishing, Incorporated, 2006, ISBN 0820450782) which looks rather interesting: "Ten original essays examine the transactions between real places and the literary imagination, including the reinvention of real places in literary form, from 1800 to the present day". Check out, similarly, the Bookpaths blog, that explores such connections worldwide.
- Ray

Some Dickens bits and pieces. What the Dickens do they think they're doing? - The Telegraph's Max Davidson on the DickensWorld theme park. The Dickens Project at the University of California: lots of material here, such as Charles Dickens' involvement in the Staplehurst Disaster. And Mr Timothy (Louis Bayard, John Murray, 2005, ISBN 0719567025) - a very good sequel to A Christmas Carol featuring the grown-up Tiny Tim; see Tiny Tim Sings a New Christmas Carol and Towering Timothy for reviews. Ever wonder what happened to Scrooge? So have these authors, an article on A Christmas Carol sequels, by Matt McHugh, who has himself written Scrooge & Cratchit, in which we find Scrooge's new benevolence is not without its downside.

Addendum 2
I've expanded the brief account of The Long Memory into a review of both the film and the Howard Clewes novel; see The Long Memory.

- Ray

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Strange cartography

A while back - see Encyclopaedic thoughts - I mentioned a hostile post-WW1 personification of Germany in Cassell's Book of Knowledge:

the map of Germany was not unlike the picture of a stupid helmeted giant, sprawling on all-fours, with a pygmy master on top.

This was just a textual description, but check out Dogs of War at BibliOdyssey for a series of actual satirical maps in this vein; the descriptions are so similar that I suspect that the writer of the Cassell's piece must have had such a map in mind. First the Cartoon, then the War: Europe in 1870 at Strange Maps gives the same treatment to the Franco-Prussian War.

Strange Maps has many more maps with various intents: politics, humour, fantasy, and so on. Skimming, highlights include the classic Charles Joseph Minard map ("The best statistical graphic ever drawn" - see also Revisions of Minard - a multimedia graphic of the harrowing outcome of Napoleon's 1861 march on Moscow); World Government Plan: Aliens to Police USA (a concept, not unlike that in Piers Anthony's SF novel Triple Detente, in which peace was maintained by swapping governments; London's Lost Rivers (one of my topics of interest - see Underground London); Holmes, Sweet Holmes: A Floorplan of 221B Baker Street; and Where On Earth Was Middle-earth? - UCLA geophysicist Peter Bird's mapping of Middle Earth on to European geography, apparently in the recent geological past with lower sea levels.

Oddments connected by theme: Map of Inland (post-apocalyptic Kent in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, from Riddley Walker Annotations); A Buyers Guide to Maps of Antarctica by Catherynne M. Valente, Clarkesworld, May 2005 (this is a story about the rivalry between two cartographers, one devoted to realism and accuracy, the other to creating fantastical maps).

Other previous map-related posts here: Hardy perennials; and Mountweazels and other fictions.

- Ray

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

A book story

"Literature, from the very beginning, has had a single enemy, and that is the restriction of the expressed idea. It turns out, however, that freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea, because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors, and the voice of truth becomes drowned out in an ungodly din? When that voice, though freely resounding, cannot be heard, because the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest, even when the most falsely?"

- Stanislav Lem: His Master's Voice

I borrowed this as one of the favourite quotations of Felix Grant at The Growlery, as it's especially pertinent to an interesting success story that's all over the papers in various forms at the moment: from the Mail on Sunday Author, 93, uses profits from first novel to buy massive house to spare friends misery of care home, or the Telegraph, First time author, 93, saves friends from care homes with book advance. This is the story of Lorna Page, who "has bought a five bedroom house for £310,000 after securing a significant advance for her thriller", A Dangerous Weakness, and plans to use the home to assist friends in getting out of care homes.

This is such a near-perfect news story - human interest, triumph against the odds, altruism in action, right-on social message - that it seems almost crafted to slip under the reality-check radar. It has a payload (a feelgood story) and shielding against critical analysis (only a nasty person would question the facts of a story of an old lady helping others out of unpleasant care homes).

However, I feel less nasty on seeing I'm not the only person to spot that the book is published by AuthorHouse: a print-on-demand self-publishing or author services publisher. Such publishers don't give advances. I suspected this would be the situation the moment I first saw the story in the Aug 9 Western Morning News: local press stories about unlikely first novelists almost invariably boil down to self-publishing in some form. So, to be blunt, it's vanity-published - which would make an advance, especially one significant enough to finance a new house, and becoming (as the Guardian story says) "suddenly prosperous on the advance and sales" extremely unusual. Elaboration of this point would be of interest; it doesn't appear in the June 26th PR Newswire press release. Somewhere, in the process of the press taking up this story, an exaggeration has crept in, and hardly a trivial one: portraying a self-published book of so far unknown prospects as a successful money-spinner.

The story seems to have spread worldwide; however, analysis of the logistics also has. See discussions of Tales of the Big Advance at Making Light. However, the exaggerated version trundles on, with papers recycling the same factoids, as in the Guardian's Michelle Hanson's If only Mavis had a Lorna Page with a big house to save her from the crushing doom of these homes (Tuesday, Aug 12 2008):

Three cheers for Lorna Page, aged 93, who has just written her first novel, a thriller, and with the proceeds has bought a large house

...This week Michele read Blackmoor, by Edward Hogan ... She watched World at War, UKTV History, day after day in dark glasses, with her new cataract-free eye

Ms Hanson presumably hadn't bothered to read the Web, where aspects of this press coverage have been repeatedly questioned. Same goes also for Ros Coward, whose Guardian Comment is free piece, Lorna Page: the write stuff, also also assumes the truth of this success story.

Wednesday Aug 13: gold star to Christina Patterson of The Independent - Where poetry still has power - for going against the general adulation, and doing the proper journalistic thing of actually fact-checking: "Heart-warming stuff. Except that the book is published by AuthorHouse, a company in which the traditional flow of money for publication, from publisher to author, is reversed".

Skimming blog commentary, a frequent comment in defence of the mistake is that no harm has been done and someone may benefit. However, Issendai's Superhero Training Journal points out the downside: "Meanwhile, the story is suctioning common sense out of novice writers' heads as we speak".

Addendum: another gold star to BBC Radio 4's iPM for The 93 year-old and the big advance.... by Chris Vallance, who contacted Lorna Page's publicist and daughter-in-law, Cate Allen, who confirms that the bloggers were right about there being no advance.

Cate tells me that instead of receiving an advance, they paid a small sum to have the novel published, as is usually the case with self-publishing. They chose AuthorHouse because Cate is herself published there. They are hopeful that the book will make money, and that this will enable Lorna to help her elderly friends, but it is early days ... Cate also told me that some media reports "just made up facts" ... As for what she has been doing to correct errors in coverage, Cate says she now makes it clear to journalists how the story has been misreported, and she's encouraged Lorna to go online herself to set the record straight.

iPM is, unfortunately, just a slightly more official grade of blog, it's hard to say if this will filter through to mainstream news.

August 15: the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column likewise reports:
In common with most other papers we reported that 93-year-old Lorna Page, "suddenly prosperous on the advance and sales" of her novel A Dangerous Weakness (93-year-old novelist gives home to friends from care homes, page 5, August 11), had been able to buy a big detached house for herself and three of her friends. Aspiring writers (and housebuyers) should note that her publisher, AuthorHouse, is a self-publishing company whose website states: "For a modest financial investment you can choose what you want for your book."

This correction, of course, will have no effect on writers who haven't seen it, such as the compiler of the Observer's Quotes of the week, August 17 2008, or the Calcutta Telegraph's Till dreams do us part.

Granted, the whole saga is a storm in a teacup with no major consequences whether the distortion of the story takes root or not. However, I'm interested in it as an example of how mistakes can propagate via the press and blogosphere. The next time, it could just as easily concern something important.

- Ray

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Sutherland et al on Johnson et al

Further to Dr Johnson as he really was, see Say it again, Sam (John Sutherland, The Observer, August 10 2008) and Not tired of this life (Philip Hensher, The Spectator, 30th July 2008) and Blame it on Boswell (Christopher Taylor, The Guardian, August 9 2008), three of a number of current reviews of Peter Martin's Samuel Johnson: A Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2008, ISBN 9780297607199). It looks rather good. As Sutherland says, we can't add much to the closely-observed personal detail written by the people who knew Johnson, such as Mrs Thrale who tells us how "the foretops of all his wigs were burned by the candle down to the very net-work" through reading at night. But we do have newer analytical tools that makes Johnson's pecularities more explicable, and cause for sympathy, in terms of depression and Tourette's syndrome.

The Observer review has a footnoted reference to John Sutherland's forthcoming Curiosities of Literature: A Book-lover's Anthology of Literary Erudition (Random House Books, ISBN: 190521197X). From the publisher's blurb:

How much heavier was Thackeray's brain than Walt Whitman's?* Which novels do American soldiers read?** When did cigarettes start making an appearance in English literature?*** And, while we're about it, who wrote the first Western,**** is there any link between asthma and literary genius, and what really happened on Dorothea's wedding night in Middlemarch? *****

Without diminishing the value of John Sutherland's more scholarly works (see his bibliography), for me this looks a welcome return to the discursive, eclectic and immensely readable books - Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Puzzles in nineteenth-century literature and so on - that first brought his work to popular readership (see the previous A Nasty Case Of The Vapours).

* 376 grammes, if we're to believe Dissecting the brains of 100 famous men for science; "The Actual Weight and Tissue of the Brain Are Significantly Correlated with Mental Superiority, Says Dr. E.A. Spitzka --- The Twelve Biggest Brains in the World". (New York Times, September 29, 1912)
** Heinlein's Starship Troopers is on some lists, though not on this fairly standard US Army Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth list where it's quite surprising to find Catch-22.
*** Around 1850? A number of people are smoking them in Dickens' 1857 Little Dorrit (EText-No. 963, Project Gutenberg); the concordance (p925, Penguin Classics edition, 2003) notes, interestingly, that the occurrence is anachronistic for the book's 1820s setting, since they didn't catch on until popularised by soldiers coming back from the Crimea with the habit. This isn't the only time Dickens makes such a mistake; Sutherland's earlier Can Jane Eyre be Happy? wonders why Magwitch in Great Expectations is sentenced to death for coming back to England a decade or two after the death penalty for returning transportees had stopped being enacted.
**** The classic answer is Owen Wister's 1902 The Virginian, a Horseman of the Plains, but Googling finds other contenders such as the many dime novels of Prentiss Ingraham including the 1887 Buck Taylor, King of the Cowboys; or the 1878 Live Boys, or Charley and Nasho in Texas (an account of a trail drive by Arthur Morecamp - a pseudonym for the Texas attorney Thomas Pilgrim); or even various 1860s chapbooks such as William H Bushnell's 1864 The Texan Herdsman: Or, The Hermit of the Colorado Hills. A Story of the Texan Pampas.
***** A long-running topic in academic analysis of the causes of Dorothea Brooke's rapid disaffection with her marriage to the elderly scholar the Reverend Edward Casaubon.

- Ray

Saturday, 9 August 2008

HG Wells adaptations

I just watched the 2005 Spielberg War of the Worlds: a competent enough adaptation run through the usual Hollywood filter of contemporary American setting. I didn't realise until Googling it that there were two straight-to-DVD adaptations also released in mid-2005. One, HG Wells' War of the Worlds by The Asylum is also a modern US retelling; the other, The War of the Worlds from the independent film company Pendragon Pictures, looks intriguing as the only version so far to retain the original setting. In fact the director, Timothy Hines, has stuck as faithfully as possible to the book. I'm not a purism-freak, so this isn't automatically a plus point (for instance, in my view, Wells is tediously didactic in places and the deus ex machina he uses to kill the Martians is pretty lame). Nevertheless, I think it's an interesting take on the adaptation, and judging by the sample material, well done considering the low budget; Pendragon have online a stills gallery and YouTube trailers. Reviews appear to be mixed and have commented on the rather stylised flavour (Hines' deliberate simulation of the style of early film).

Reading The War of the Worlds I've often thought it was ripe for a sequel

Neither is the composition of the Black Smoke known, which the Martians used with such deadly effect, and the generator of the Heat-Rays remains a puzzle. The terrible disasters at the Ealing and South Kensington laboratories have disinclined analysts for further investigations upon the latter.

It's hard to believe governments would give up so quickly with the prospect of having such a powerful weapon, and one could easily envisage an early 20th century made very different by adaptation of Martian technology. Two of many follow-up works, the comics Scarlet Traces and Scarlet Traces: The Great Game by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli, follow exactly this thread to create a steampunk scenario (they've also done a very nice graphic novel version of WotW: see the webcomic).

On the subject of HG Wells sequels, one worth reading is Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships (HarperCollins/Voyager, 1995, ISBN 0006480128). There have been many sequels to The Time Machine, such as KW Jeter's Morlock Night (also steampunk, Jeter being one of the coiners of that genre) and Ronald Wright's A Scientific Romance (see After London). However, Baxter's book, which rightly won numerous awards, was authorised by the Wells estate as the official sequel.

The general thrust of The Time Ships is the increasingly complex, ultimately cosmic, changes to the timeline arising from the Time Machine's invention. At the end of The Time Machine, the Traveller leaves for the future, we assume to go back to Weena. However, in The Time Ships he finds that the future is different, somehow changed by the writing of The Time Machine so that it is dominated by civilised technologically-advanced Morlocks. Accompanied by one of them, Nebogipfel, he returns to the past to warn his younger self, only to be caught up in a battle involving a time-travelling tank from the First World War, which is still going on in 1938 due to a Time War caused by the Traveller's work being developed by both the English and the Germans (who have their own "Zeitmaschine"). And so on.

But more than a straight sequel, which would be good in itself, The Time Ships is additionally a skit on HG Wells works in general, with references to other works such as The Plattner Story, The Land Ironclads, The Chronic Argonauts, The World Set Free, and so on. Do check it out.

These titles, as well as WotW itself, are all available online for readers in the USA, where most of Wells' works are out of copright. Hyperlinks that UK readers can follow - here, he's in copright until the end of 2016 - would probably count as contributory infringement. The World Set Free is, by the way, remarkable for its prediction of nuclear weapons, although Wells was wrong about the mechanism; his "Carolinum" bombs use not a chain reaction, but a large chunk of unstable isotope whose radioactive decay can be held in stasis.
- Ray

Addendum: a couple of out-takes on the deus ex machina of Earth's bacteria killing the Martians in WotW. Firstly, this plot weakness was subverted very neatly in book II of the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (see the earlier Rider Haggard post), altogether an extremely good retelling of The War of the Worlds. In this, the "Earth bacteria" explanation is revealed to be the cover story for the British Government's use of a biological warfare agent against the Martians with deliberate disregard for collateral civilian casualties.

Secondly, the intro and outro to the Spielberg movie featured an animation of these Earth bacteria in a water drop, with a Morgan Freeman voice-over - very hard to take seriously after having heard the poem Morgan Freeman Narration

What is that sound? A familiar voice.
You might want someone else, but you don't have a choice.
Martians, and penguins, and Andy Dufresne;
If you pay me enough, I'll be there to explain.

This is one of the works of film and TV composers Jon and Al Kaplan, who excel in satirical musical adaptations. Their major opus is Silence! Silence of the Lambs: the Musical, which won the Overall Excellence Award: Outstanding Musical at the 2005 New York Fringe Festival: for a sample, try It's Me - lyrics here - based on the part of the film where Hannibal Lecter escapes using the policeman's skin as disguise). Quid Pro Quo (the "lambs" dialogue between Lecter and Starling) is also a particularly good song. The Kaplans' work combines lyrical tunes, clever impressions, and highly witty lyrics. The lyrics are, however, extremely frank, so be warned:
- Ray

Addendum 2: see Woking walker at MetaFilter, where they're discussing Woking’s awesome Martian fighting machine at the architecture blog Deputydog: nice pictures of Michael Condron's WotW-themed art installation, The Martian, in HG Wells' hometown. Also the local Wetherspoons is named The Herbert Wells in homage, and is one of a number of pubs serving Waylands Brewery's Martian Mild.
- Ray

Addendum 3: I just ran into Dr Zeus' nice The War of the Worlds Book Cover Collection. Among interesting images there, the site includes Peter Balch's animations and discussion of the problem of tripod gait, which isn't as straightforward as you might think. Although very stable while standing still, movement requires taking at least one foot off the ground, so it needs as much dynamic balancing as biped walking. Of related interest, Ansible 254 has a quotation from Elizabeth Bear's 2008 Ink and Steel that's food for thought:

Tripodal Stability Dept. 'She crouched on a three-legged stool as if warming herself before the fire, but Will knew her chill would take more melting than that. He knelt down before her. The stool wobbled under her when he took her hands, the one leg shorter than the other that his father hadn't mended in fifteen years gone past.'

- Ray

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Reader's block

I perhaps shouldn't admit it, working in a bookshop, but I find I like very few novels, especially contemporary literary ones. So I was pleased to see I'm not alone: Lost for words (Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian, Friday July 25 2008) writes about what he calls "reader's block", a very common British disaffection with novels. The piece comes with recommendations on how to overcome the syndrome, such as The authors' view (various writers' advice) and quotations from Professor John Sutherland's How To Read a Novel: A User's Guide (Profile, 2007, 186197986X - introduced here and here). Sutherland's view is that you should browse, aggresively: dip into a book at page 69, and don't bother with the book if that random segment doesn't appeal.

The overall advice, including that at the associated Guardian Book Blog post, comes down to experimenting with genres: if novels don't do it for you, try poetry, plays, graphic novels, non-fiction, and so on. I wouldn't disagree: the best things I've read lately aren't mainstream adult novels, but Louis Sachar's Holes (nominally for young readership), Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (a graphic novel), and AK Dewdney's The Planiverse (SF that has more in common with Dewdney's Mathematical Recreations column than a conventional novel).

I couldn't identify personally what turns me off about contemporary literary novels. It's tempting to blame the publishing industry: various factors such as quality of work being only one factor behind publication, and one perhaps subordinate to authors being able to produce follow-up books to recover the publisher's investment, and having a marketable personality, youth especially helping (see Shock news: older writers can also be quite good). There's also the problem of authors tending to come from similar middle-class backgrounds that generate samey books. As Muriel Gray and and Kathryn Hughes say of Orange Prize entrants, many supposedly worthy novels are lightly embroidered autobiographies of their authors' uninteresting lives ("rural teacher syndrome" and "suburban social worker syndrome" - see Now this is the real catfight between the Orange judges, Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian, Thursday March 29 2007). In the past, there are equivalents: as Colin Wilson notes in his introduction to The Strength to Dream (see Google Books) in the early 20th century many "Little Percy" novels - as satirised by Aldous Huxley in Crome Yellow - similarly reflected a characteristic mindset of a generation of male arts-educated novelists ...

Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future."

... and Wilson takes it further back to the 19th century and its spate of clones of Young Werther and Turgenev-style heroes. Sutherland cites Sturgeon's Law - "90 per cent of everything is crap" - and probably this has always been the case for published novels, so there's no reason for guilt about finding it hard to pick ones you like.

- Ray

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The disappearing Chine

I like the way that, increasingly, online availability of old texts makes it possible to dig into history. I was just looking again at George Brannon's 1840s Brannon's Picture of the Isle of Wight (The Expeditious Traveller's Index to Its Prominent Beauties & Objects of Interest. Compiled Especially with Reference to Those Numerous Visitors Who Can Spare but Two or Three Days to Make the Tour of the Island). Perhaps the remarkable thing is that some things haven't changed much in nearly two centuries, but some have, such as the striking "gloomy chasm" of Blackgang Chine ("chine" being a regional name for a deep-cut seaside ravine).

Blackgang Chine you may know to be long-running Isle of Wight coastal amusement park. It was established by Victorian entrepeneur Alexander Dabell, who saw a triple opportunity in the "steep gaunt ravine", the popularity of a nearby chalybeate spring and the skeleton of a beached whale to exhibit, and set up what was probably the first British theme park. Blackgang Chine was first documented in the 1700s. While writing another article a while back, I asked the current owner, Simon Dabell, about its history; he told me that it was "a visited geographical location for at least 100 years before his great-great-grandfather opened the gorge as an attraction in 1842/3" (there are early engravings dated around the 1760s). "However the island was rarely visited by non residents before the 1750s so the mists of time cover any earlier knowledge of the site".

The Chine features in many paintings and prints of the 19th century. This 1816 Peter de Wint print, Black Gang Chine and these images from the 1834/1845 Barber's Picturesque Illustrations of the Isle of Wight, show the waterfall at its foot; and there are various offshore views: the 1837 Brannon print at the NMM showing the wreck of the Clarendon at its foot, and this scene by Charles Cousen, published in The History of Hampshire, 1869. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited in 1843, many Victorian travel guides and accounts mentioned it; it inspired poetry;

Far to southward of Thule's island, by the craggy shores of Wight
Wild and drear, and very lonely, falling on the stranger' sight,
Frowns in all its primal grandeur, like an earth-discovered mine,
What, from ages immemorial, ancient men have called the Chine.

... etc

Black-Gang Chine, J. Albert Way, The Ladies' Companion, Bradbury and Evans, February 1855 - Google Books

and it even turned up in novels, such as Captain Marryat's 1837 Snarleyyow - Or, The Dog Fiend (see the description in Chapter XVI) and Charlotte Mary Yonge's 1889 A Reputed Changeling. Both involve smugglers, and the latter literally features a Black Gang operating there, fostering an apocryphal smuggling etymology (in fact, although undoubtedly smuggling went on, "Blackgang" just means "black way").

However, chines, on a geological time scale, are ephemeral features. They're formed by a nicety of circumstance - seaside stream, soft-rock geology, and ongoing cliff recession - which stimulates rapid erosion. Blackgang has the added factor of being at the end of the Isle of Wight Undercliff, an active landslip zone, which made it ephemeral even on a historical time scale, The landscape had long been known to be fluid. Marryat's Snarleyyow describes the area in 1699, saying that "since that period much of the cliff has fallen down, and the aspect is much changed", and Black's Guide said in 1870: "A fearful fall occurred in February 1799, when a farm near Niton, called Pitlands, and about 100 acres of land, were rent to pieces at one sudden catastrophe. At east end, in 1810, 30 acres were uptorn in a similar manner, and 50 acres in 1818".

The 1869 Charles Cousen print is probable the nearest thing we'll get to a mid-19th century photorealistic image where you can actually identify the geology: the lower brown section of Lower Greensand, with a white topping of what appears to be Upper Greensand Chert Beds or even Chalk, which made this an unusually complete section mentioned in geological texts such as Conybeare & Phillips' 1822 Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales, with an Introductory Compendium of the General Principles of that Science (see Google Books). However, erosive change began to be very evident by the late 1800s, when a lower-level road was carried away. The Chine was still an accessible and impressive, if rather softer-looking, ravine as shown in this 1890 photochrome and early 1900s postcards at Bartie's website. But the process went on over the 20th century, as shown in these postcards from At some point the capping was lost (the Chert Beds are still visible in Gore Cliff behind the amusement park) and the ravine became progressively blunted until now there's just a broad concave area of landslip (see this aerial image at Phil Brace's Isle of Wight Gallery).

The Blackgang Chine amusement park is still hanging in there, though forced to constantly adapt to the changing cliffscape - see Isle of Wight Nostalgia - Blackgang Chine Theme Park - The battle against erosion. I was pleasantly surprised to see, even though the park's theme has drifted from eccentrically genteel to child-orientated, the whale skeleton and Wishing Chair (that I remember as a child, my family being from the Isle of Wight) are still there. Perhaps that explains my abiding interest in this place: this piece of landscape progressively fraying away is a very literal metaphor for the departure of the past into memory, rather like Stephen King's 'Langoliers' that devour the fabric of the past or "the mechanism" in William Gibson's Agrippa (of which more later).

Other chines, however, still exist, and are strangely varied for such small geographical features. My favourites on the Island are Shanklin Chine and Whale Chine, both of which are considerably more stable features as they're outside the Undercliff landslip. The first - see the official site - is a cosy wooded place with waterfalls that has charmed visitors for at least two centuries, and hasn't radically changed over that time, as Brannon prints and later postcards show. The second, in contrast, is stark and weird, almost Martian in appearance - see this and other images at Geograph.

See also: The Silence of Dean Maitland.

Addendum: see the 2011 update, IOW (3): Return to Blackgang.

- Ray

Monday, 4 August 2008

Recommended miscellany #2

Check out Things Magazine, "an online journal about objects and meanings". It's the weblog of the print magazine of the same name, founded in 1994 by writers and historians at the V&A and Royal College of Art with the premise that "objects can open up new ways of understanding the world". The Archive section (page 1, page 2) links to back issues from which a number of articles are online (a sampler: Radiant realms, Peter Davidson on miners' spar box art; What goes around, comes around, Jonathan Bell on boring postcards; The land that time forgot, Rosemary Hill on the Museum of Jurassic Technology). However, while the magazine issues are "occasional", the weblog is constantly updated, my favourite kind of eclectic travelogue of objects that reflect the minds and cultures that made them: art, photography, architecture, cartography, cinema, literature, and so on.
- Ray