Thursday, 30 April 2009

Jughead's hat

From I'm Learning to Share!, an amazing trivia research post: Search term: "Jughead's hat", which explores why certain American cartoon characters of the 1940s-1960s appear to be wearing crowns. It turns out to be a US fashion - I'd have to say, a remarkably stupid-looking one - of wearing an inside-out raggedly-trimmed fedora, deriving from an originally functional hat made by workers as a homebrew equivalent of the protective beanie. It seems to have been a kind of token nonconformism permitted to teenagers in a totally conformist era, who could signal their nonconformism by wearing a silly hat - commercially produced and adorned wth commercial badges - while not actually doing anything nonconformist. (Found via Languagehat).
- Ray

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The writer, the cancer-merchant, his eccentric wife, and the faux castle

Pearl Craigie, frontispiece,
The Life of John Oliver Hobbes
A knight's leap to Steephill, Isle of Wight, via a bishop's move - that is, The Bishop's Move, a forgotten comedy of manners co-written by John Oliver Hobbes and Murray Carson, that I found while Googling for literature-chess connections.

This led me to investigate John Oliver Hobbes - another author whose many works I'm sure I'll never get around to more than skimming - who turns out to be the American-born English author Pearl Mary Teresa Craigie, a successful and highly prolific novelist and playwright who wrote between 1892 and 1906. She might well have become better known if her career hadn't been curtailed by her sudden death from apparently undiagnosed heart disease, at the age of 38, while staying overnight in London en route to a holiday in Scotland. Craigie - born Richards, but married for a short time to Reginald Walpole Craigie - had converted to Catholicism in 1897, to the surprise of her Calvinist family, and a number of her works have a Catholic philosophical slant. The Internet Archive has a large selection of her books (search on creator:"John Oliver Hobbes") as well as The life of John Oliver Hobbes : told in her correspondence with numerous friends (pub. J Murray, New York, 1911), understandably hagiographic given its compilation by her father, the Boston-born merchant John Morgan Richards.

John Morgan Richards, frontispiece,
With John Bull and Jonathan
If Craigie's creativity is admirable, in contrast her father's probably deserves him a private circle in Hell as an advertising pioneer and entrepreneur who directed his talents to marketing quack patent medicines (such as Carter's Little Liver Pills and Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People 1) as well as being the chief commercial populariser of cigarettes in the UK: 2

His best known business achievement was the introduction of the cigarette into popular use in 1877. Except by foreigners and a few travellers who had acquired the habit on the continent, the now universal cigarette was then little used in England, though well known in America. By means of vigorous advertising, and some ingenious and original methods of trade promotion, he obtained for American cigarettes a very large sale, and thus was the pioneer of a doubtful benefit which he lived to see the subject of legislation, forbidding the sale of cigarettes to children.
- John Morgan Richards, Obituary, The Times, Monday, Aug 12, 1918

Steephill Castle, c. 1910 - Wikimedia Commons
The Isle of Wight connection, anyhow, is that Richards' line of business was lucrative enough for him to move to the fashionable St Lawrence Undercliff in the Isle of Wight and in 1903 buy the now-demolished Steephill Castle - a small Regency mansion with castellated architectural conceits - of which he was the last private owner. See The Forgotten Castle (David Paul, originally in Wight Life, August/September 1973) for a history, from its heyday as an exclusive residence that saw royal guests such as the Empress of Austria, via declining years as a hotel run by the Holiday Friendship As­sociation, to eventual demolition in the 60s, when it was discovered that the
staircases, ceiling and wall panelling, all thought to be oak, proved to be a clever imitation in deal wood. Also, the wonderful ornate carvings were found to be plaster mouldings.
It's an ironic coincidence that the mansion of a cigarette tycoon should have been virtually next door to the Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest, another notable and now-demolished Victorian feature of the Undercliff. Established in 1869 by Sir Arthur Hassall as the National Cottage Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, it took advantage of the same moist, mild microclimate that made the area appealing for rural villas. It closed in 1964, made obsolete by drug treatment of TB, and is now the site of the Ventnor Botanic Garden. There are some nice postcards showing the hospital and Castle in their woodland surroundings at I particularly like this one: whatever one might think of the aethetics, the location was stunning.  See Ventnor - good for lungs and plants for more about the hospital and garden.

The privately-published Steephill Castle, Ventnor, Isle of Wight, the residence of John Morgan Richards, Esq.; a handbook and a history (John B Marsh, 1907, Internet Archive steephillcastlev00mars) is a guide to Steephill Castle and its environs in the early 1900s, when Richards wrote his rather pontificating memoir, With John Bull and Jonathan. Reminiscences of sixty years of an American's life in England and in the United States (pub. D. Appleton, New York, 1906, Internet Archive withjohnbullandj00richrich). It doesn't mention the eccentricities of his wife Laura, which included being in direct touch with Old Testament prophets, wearing a hat decorated with fresh vegetables, and sending telegrams to world leaders with advice such as "The King of Spain. Stop war. Laura Richards".

Pearl Craigie, meanwhile, spent a deal of time in the area writing at her own Isle of Wight retreat in the adjacent St Lawrence Lodge (later Craigie Lodge). Her father's vanity Handbook's intent was to be
of chief interest to the Friends, and Guests — Past, Present and Future, of the genial Host and Hostess of the Castle, which is "the Gem of the Undercliff".
but her death turned it, in mid-writing by John B Marsh, into an elegy for an era that was ending. Until his death, Richards continued to be feted as a model capitalist. In 1914 he wrote the privately-circulated Almost Fairyland, probably his least objectionable venture, an account of his own association with the Isle of Wight. He's not generally remembered. Craigie is well commemorated and documented in a modern biography, Air-bird in the Water: The Life and Works of Pearl Craigie (John Oliver Hobbes) (Mildred Davis Harding, Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1996, ISBN 0838636489).

Update, April 2014: Almost Fairyland is now online. See my review, Almost Fairyland.

1. See George Fulford and Victorian Patent Medicine Men: Quack Mercenaries or Smilesian Entrepreneurs? (Lori Loeb, CBMH/BHCM, Volume 16: 1999, pp.125-45). The Liver Pills were a laxative, the Pink Pills a harmless iron preparation, but both were sold with grandiose claims. Pink Pills had an especial line in scammy advertorial in news format, supposedly testimonial material - A Cardiff Miracle and such like - from people who had been at death's door before taking a course of the pills.
2. To a lesser extent they had been around for a couple of decades. As I mentioned last year, there are cigarette smokers in Dickens' 1857 Little Dorrit (Gutenberg EText-No. 963), though it's actually 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. Richards' "ingenious and original" method of trade promotion, as described in With John Bull and Jonathan, was to recruit chemists as outlets, paying for a tobacco dealing license for any chemist prepared to place his American cigarettes on their counters.

- Ray

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Breaking out of the game

A recommendation: Ian Watson's Queenmagic, Kingmagic (Grafton, 1988, ISBN-10: 0586074147), which Felix just lent me (I re-used the Flammarion woodcut as this is another conceptual breakthrough novel).

An expanded version of Watson's novella Queenmagic, Pawnmagic, it tells the story of Pedino, a "pawn-squire" in a world modelled on chess. Two kingdoms, Bellogard and Chorny, are locked in a centuries-long battle fought by assassination and counter-assassination among the few important individuals (kings, queens, knights, and so on) who have powers of magical teleportation and attack. The story initially follows Pedino's schooling in Bellogard, his elevation to a role in the battle, and his liaison with Sara, a young prostitute who is a spy for Chorny, but it then takes a more cosmic turn. Both sides know that the end of the war is the end of their world, and both have vague awareness of previous cycles of existence; this is leading a few mystics and academics to look for ways to break out of that cycle.

Eventually Pedino finds a way to jump with Sara into other realities based on other games: one world where snakes and ladders provide portals to enclaves of higher and lower standards of living; another based on Monopoly, where society is based on a lethal property ladder run by lottery; and a third, in which soldiers and civilians are muddling through during confused movements of military encampments, based on the scoring stage of Go. Finally he finds himself in a new cycle of existence of the Bellogard-Chorny war, his options cramped by elevation to ineffectual kingship, but with sufficient acquired knowledge to guide more focused efforts to break through the "bubbles" into other planes of existence.

I enjoyed Queenmagic, Kingmagic a lot, with some reservations; it does go on fast-forward toward the end, and some parts I suspect wouldn't be widely understood. Recognising the Russian in-jokes in proper names is a bonus - for instance, Bishop Slon = Bishop Elephant, referring to the piece's form prior to Westernisation. That's not crucial (though I'd like to know what exactly Watson meant by the repeated incantation "Opasnost po Zhivot!" which transliterates as "Опасность по живот" - "Peril to stomach". Maybe flank attack?). However, while most readers know chess at least theoretically, fewer will know Go, much less recognise the troop movements in that section of the book as a description of the rearrangement of stones during the scoring phase). But overall it's great fun, and manages to stay fresh and witty despite the fairly dark scenario of characters fighting the dissolution of their universe.

Queenmagic, Kingmagic obviously isn't the first fiction to be set inside a chess game; the best-known prototype is Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (Gutenberg EText-No. 12). 1 whose story is integrated with a real chess problem (see Gardner's classic concordance The Annotated Alice) though one that contains illegal moves. There's a detailed analysis in Glen Robert Downey's PhD dissertation The Truth about Pawn Promotion: the Development of the Chess Motif in Victorian Fiction which is very worth reading for its exploration of the long history, pre-Carroll, of allegorical chess motifs in Western fiction. In mediaeval times, a succession of authors wrote "chess moralities" that mapped the roles of pieces map on to the real-world hierarchy to morally instructive intent: for instance, John of Wales' Quaedam moralitas de scaccario per Innocentium papum (The Innocent Morality) and Jacobus de Cessolis' Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium (see Power play: the literature and politics of chess in the Late Middle Ages, Jenny Adams, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006, ISBN 081223944X). The drift of such works was generally to reinforce conventional moralities, often via edifying pseudo-origins to the game, but later, Middleton's play A Game at Chess took a more subversive stance and used the chess format for political satire.

Post-Carroll, chess continued to be a popular theme for fiction, particularly science fiction; Poul Anderson's The Immortal Game (F&SF, 1954) is also worth finding for its vivid insider view of a chess game:

The first trumpet sounded far and clear and brazen cold, and Rogard the Bishop stirred to wakefulness with it. Lifting his eyes, he looked through the suddenly rustling, murmuring line of soldiers, out across the broad plain of Cinnabar and the frontier, and over to the realm of LEUKAS. Away there, across the somehow unreal red-and-black distances of the steppe, he saw sunlight flash on armor and caught the remote wild flutter of lifted banners. So it is war, he thought. So we must fight again.

Again? He pulled his mind from the frightening dimness of that word. Had they ever fought before?

(The title and plot refer to the classic "Immortal Game" played between Anderssen and Kieseritzky in 1851, famous for Anderssen's win by audacious sacrifice of major pieces. The final moves of the same game are quoted in the game between Sebastian and Tyrell in Blade Runner).

The Greenwood encyclopedia of science fiction and fantasy: themes, works, and wonders has more examples of this theme.

Ongoing: I recommend A haphazard way to move through life and treasure... at The Growlery, which has further recommendations (that I second) for the works of Ian Watson. Felix mentions that he "personally liked the Go section, finding it the most evocative of the whole book", and I can see why: it is the most realistic depiction of the human condition, akin to the age-old situation of refugees, airdropped supplies haphazardly, being shuffled around between temporary encampments in furtherance of a war whose tactics are indiscernable. I just didn't think it a wise choice of game given - at the time - its relative obscurity (outside cognoscenti) to a Western readership. Now, Internet accessibility, through IGS Pandanet for instance, has greatly increased its player base.

Go itself does have a considerable role in literature and art. Although the absence of identifiable special pieces doesn't lend it to personification in the style of chess, it has attracted a large body of philosophy in relation to war, business, and life in general (the two stone colours map readily on to the yin and yang of Taoism). I'll leave that aside mostly - except to recommend Japanese Prints and the World of Go, by William Pinckard, for its nice overview of its omnipresence in Edo period depictions of legend and everyday life - and move to the narrower field of its manifestation in Western fiction. Go in Western literature, by Brian ‘Chiwito’ McDonald, is a slightly out-of-date but still pertinent commentary on the relatively few Western works to feature Go in a major role. Iain Banks is mentioned (I'd forgotten that his Walking on Glass contained a number of variants on board games) along with Ian Watson, as well as a number of other familiar faces: some members of the aforementioned Oulipo were into Go. McDonald also debunks the common belief that Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game is about - or even inspired by - Go, explaining how Hesse's game isn't physical, and even in its historical form within the book's mythos, used a wire-and-bead system unlike Go.

Oh, I've just recalled too that Katin in Nova knows about Go, but then he would.

And lights dimmed.

The captain hooked in. The grafitti, the scars on the walls, vanished. There were only the red lights chasing one another on the ceiling.

"A shook up go game," Katin said, "with iridescent stones."

Addendum, Friday 28th August The Guardian Books Blog has a piece by Stuart Evers, Why chess is a perfect game for fiction, which recommends the anthology of chess stories, The 64-Square Looking Glass: Great Games of Chess in World Literature (Burt Hochberg, Times Books, 1993, ISBN-10: 0812919297).
- Ray

1. Alice Through the Looking-Glass is a common misnomer.
2. Also worth looking at for Go and the 'Three Games', which explores the idea of three region-related philosophical subtexts to historically classic games: the Middle Eastern backgammon as Fate-dominated; chess playing out the "great myths of the West ... the overthrow of a hero and the crowning of a new hero ... a hierarchical and pyramidal society with powers strictly defined and limited", and the Eastern Go representing processes of pure mentation. Maybe - but this reeks of national stereotype, and ignores that chess - as shogi - is also highly traditional and highly popular in Japan, and that backgammon has been extremely popular in England and Europe: Chambers's Information for the People: A Popular Encyclopaedia, 1854, said of it:

the game has been long established in the country; and, as a fireside amusement of a decorous and exciting nature, is a favourite among clergymen, squires, farmers, and retired professional persons.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Mathematics and Fiction

Kindly forwarded by Felix: the announcement for Mathematics and Fiction, a themed weekend conference run by the British Society for the History of Mathematics which will "will explore the various uses of mathematics in fiction, novels about mathematics or mathematicians, and novels based on mathematical structures". Here are some quick thoughts and associations arising from the topic list:

Melanie Bayley: "Free will and statistics in Middlemarch and Jude the Obscure".

This explores the relation of these novels to "statistical fatalism", a 19th century intellectual scare:

As more and more statistics were gathered during the first half of the nineteenth century, and crime figures were shown to be roughly constant from year to year, influential commentators began to announce that statistics were driving people to behave against their will. Mad as it may seem, the public seized on the idea that people would act in a particular way to fulfil a statistical quota.

See Society prepares the crimes in The taming of chance (Ian Hacking, Cambridge University Press, 1990, ISBN 0521388848) which mentions the particular influence of the Belgian social statistician Adolphe Quetelet.

David Bellos: author, Georges Perec: a life in words, on the Oulipo.

I'll refrain from a wealth of digressions here: this refers to the "Ouvroir de littérature potentielle" group of writers and mathematicians that specialised in bizarrely creative works produced under various constraints of style or content, such as Perec's novella Les revenentes, in which "e" is the only vowel allowed. See this section of Emily Apter's book The translation zone for a section of Ian Monk's translation, The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.

William Goldbloom Bloch: "Navigating Labyrinths in Jorge Luis Borges' story The Library of Babel".

The Library of Babel is perhaps [Borges'] most famous story, and in its scant seven pages, he deploys simple combinatorial ideas to help create a miasmic atmosphere in the service of raising issues about the meaningfulness of our existence.

See The Library of Babel for a translation by James Irby; as the Wikipedia article explains, the Library contains books comprising all possible permutations of text, thus all possible truths, untruths and gibberish. Another Borges story, The Book of Sand, offers much the same in a single infinite book; you can read the text if you care to reconstruct it via Maximus Clarke's hypertext puzzle.

Andrew Crumey, novelist, author of Sputnik Caledonia and Mobius Dick

See the Guardian reviews It's Scotland, but not as we know it and Spatial awareness, and Meltdown moments.

Marilyn Gaull, "Romantic numeracy"

The paper covers a range of allusions from statistics to time, geometry and accounting, even the sizing of clothes and interpreting temperature, all new to fiction during this period as they were new to the culture. My thesis would be that novelists such as Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott used contemporary mathematical concepts and applications to create an illusion of fact in their fiction, which also helped their readers learn and adapt to mathematics. In turn, mathematicians used literary examples and fictional style to explain mathematical concepts culminating in Russell's Tristram Shandy paradox.

Dorothy Ker, composer, "the 19th step: Borges, Maths and Music"

the19thstep project brought three artists together with Marcus du Sautoy to explore Borges' virtual universe. Composer Dorothy Ker introduces the project and talks about how working with a mathematician stimulated new ways of thinking about space in live performance.

Donald Knuth on his novel Surreal Numbers.

See Knuth's own page Surreal Numbers: How two ex-students turned on to pure mathematics and found total happiness. Knuth is an eminent computer scientist whose work explores the skill and art of programming. His Metafont system, which defines fonts mathematically, thus enabling continuous morphing of fonts through a passage - as in Carroll's The Mouse's Tale - has given rise to some delightful typographic explorations such as Daytar's Surrealey, "The poem/song Die Loreley by Heinrich Heine in a form which was inspired by the works of Guillaume Apollinaire".

Nikita Lalwani, novelist, author of Gifted

Nikita Lalwani's Gifted tells the story of a maths prodigy conflicted by her situation as the daughter of Asian immigrants in Cardiff. It was longlisted for the Booker, and won the Desmond Elliott prize (whose brief is to reward debut novels that combine "intelligence" and "broad appeal"). See the Guardian review, Freedom by numbers.

Ann Lingard, novelist, "The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes (with a nervous nod towards quasicrystals)".

Ann Lingard ... is founder of SciTalk, the free national resource that helps fiction-writers to find and talk to scientists, engineers and mathematicians
One of the characters in Ann Lingard’s fifth novel is a mathematician, who works on quasicrystals. Why? Ann will talk about the fun and challenges of making this decision.

The Embalmer's Book of Recipes page at Ann Lingard's website has an interesting tour of the cultural and scientific background to the novel, such as the strange anatomical dioramas of Frederik Ruysch and Frans Lemmens' remarkable aerial photos of Dutch tulip fields

Mark McCartney, "James Clerk Maxwell: A Poetic Life"

I'd run into one or two of Maxwell's poems, particularly his Valentine by a Telegraph Clerk ...

The tendrils of my soul are twined
With thine, though many a mile apart.
And thine in close coiled circuits wind
Around the needle of my heart.

Constant as Daniel, strong as Grove.
Ebullient throughout its depths like Smee,
My heart puts forth its tide of love,
And all its circuits close in thee.

O tell me, when along the line
From my full heart the message flows,
What currents are induced in thine?
One click from thee will end my woes.

Through many a volt the weber flew,
And clicked this answer back to me;
I am thy farad staunch and true,
Charged to a volt with love for thee.

... but I didn't know just how prolific he was. See PoemHunter for 44 of them (unfortunately minus date and context); the whole batch is available as a PDF download. This Selected Poetry of James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) page has a few with in-references to academia and physics explained. James Clerk Maxwell: Maker of Waves at the Victorian Web quotes Peter Guthrie Tait, the Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University:

"Maxwell's early skill in versification developed itself in later years into real poetic talent. But it always had an object and often veiled the keenest satire under an air of charming innocence and naive admiration. No living man has shown a greater power of condensing the whole substance of a question into a few clear and compact sentences than Maxwell exhibits in his verses"

BTW, while the telegrapher poem is whimsical, romance by telegraph was as real as a phenomenon in its time as that by Internet now; see Tom Standage's excellent book The Victorian Internet (Phoenix, 1999, ISBN-10: 0753807033), which explores the telegraph/Internet analogy in depth.

Scarlett Thomas, novelist, author of PopCo and The End of Mr Y.

There are summaries of PopCo and The End of Mr Y at Alex Kasman's Mathematical Fiction site, which is a large browsable compilation of the many works relating to mathematics.
- Ray

Monday, 20 April 2009


Further to Finnish folk roots, a wander on YouTube led me to another brilliant group that has made a seamless crossover from trad folk to highly eclectic fusion (and such experimental eclecticism seems characteristic of the Finnish music scene). Check out Värttinä ("distaff" would be the best translation) whose official site describes it as a "band that has grown from mostly traditional vocal music to combining traditional language and lyrics with modern music and themes". Here's the MySpace page.

The mix is pretty unusual; Värttinä comprises a trio of female vocalists who sing both folk and original compositions in Karelian, drawing on traditional Finno-Ugric close harmony, using lyrics sourced in the Karelian "runo" poetry, but with instrumental backing that recalls elements of Irish, Asian, Cajun, jazz and rock. My favourites so far include Paivan Nousu Nostajani ("Dawn, my rouser" - above), Itkin ("I cried"), and Seelinnikoi (a bride's lament at having married unwisely) and Linnunmieli. Not that it's all gloomy: Värttinä also does gentler material such as the beautifully mellow Suurenmoinen Tyttö ("Magnificent girl" - I think) and Kylä vuotti uutta kuuta (a wedding song, "The Village Awaits the New Moon").

As the Guardian review of the album Miero said, the vocals are "taut, raw and scary. Even scarier when you read the English translations". Finnish folk roots seem come from a darker wilder time and place than the English. Outside death metal, it's hard to think of anything else as ferocious as Äijö, a song about an elderly man - evidently a shaman - who is bitten by a snake and, unable to find it after pursuing it with an axe, deals it a powerful curse 1 - before he dies.
Treacherous and cold-skinned viper,
slithering and slit-eyed fiend,
heather-colored belly-crawler,
learn now of your contemptible extraction,
hear and know your lowly provenance:
Earth it was who first uncoiled you,
as it did much crawling vermin,
even many-colored serpents.

As for what your proper hue be
I can't say, nor does it matter
if you were nine different colors,
whether you are black or greyish
or perchance a shade of copper.

Evil, stinging devil's minion,
never shall my blood refresh you,
nor my flesh sustain your body.
Hissing ghoul with jagged backside,
long-fanged, vicious, wicked creature,
find a hillside in the forest,
hide amongst the tender willows,
slink into a stony hollow,
creep, black worm, into a burrow
and take my affliction with you,
carry off the pain I suffer
to those killing fields of battle,
to the very sites of warfare.
Cleanse the grievous wound you gave me,
rid my veins of this your venom.
Henceforth do not hasten thee hither,
never wend your winding way here,
be, foul thing, forever banished.

I imagine it's even more striking in Karelian, in which it's heavily alliterative (see the lyrics page). The words allude strongly to Finnish pagan mythology, where Äijö is one of the names of its Odin-like chief god Ukko - both "äijä" and "ukko" mean "old man" - who wielded a stone axe (a Ukonvasara) and whose symbol was a viper. (Readers of 2000 A.D. will recognise the name as that used for the dwarf sidekick and chronicler of Sláine).

As discussed on many websites - see Are High Elves Finno-Ugric? and More about Quenya's relation to Finnish in the Net - Tolkien's Elvish language Quenya was inspired by Finnish; no surprise, then, that Värttinä were on the musical team collaborating with A.R. Rahman for The Lord of the Rings stage musical. See the Montreal Mirror - Wizard’s words, woman’s wiles - for background; it also gives further insight into the origins and intent of Värttinä’s "fierce and focused" exploration of darker female emotions.

- Ray

1. This curse is as studied and vicious as that used by Skírnir in the Poetic Edda's Skírnismál to scare Gerðr into agreeing to marry Freyr.

You shall be sent where no son of man
Or god shall see you again,
With earth behind you, on an eagle's mound,
Facing Hel, for ever sit. Fouler to you shall food look
Than the snake seems to warriors.
A sight you shall become ere you come out.

Hrimnir shall leer at you, everyone jeer at you,
A more famous figure you'll be
Than the god's watchman when you gape through the fence.

May error and terror, blotches and blains,
Grow on you, grief with tears.
Crouch low while the curse I pronounce,
Heavy torment and twofold grief.
Orcs shall pinch you the whole day long
In the grim garths of the giants,
Every day to the halls of Frost
You shall creep, crawl without choice,
Without any hope of choice

Lamentation not laughter know,
Dejection instead of joy.
With three-headed trolls shall your time be spent,
Never shall a man come near you,
May your senses be numbed, your sadness weep,
May you be as the thistle, thoughtlessly crushed
Underfoot at the gate of the garth.

To the woods I went, through the wet trees,
For a spell-binding branch,
And a fitting branch I found.
Odin is angry, angry is Thor,
All the gods shall hate you
Base maiden, you have brought on yourself
The anger of all the gods.

Hear me, giants, hear me frost-trolls,
Sons of Suttung, hear me,
What I forebode, what I forbid,
Joy of man to this maid,
Love of man to this maid.

Hrimgrimir shall have you, the hideous troll,
Beside the doors of the dead,
Under the tree-roots ugly scullions
Pour you the piss of goats;
Nothing else shall you ever drink,
Never what you wish,
Ever what I wish.
I score troll-runes, then I score three letters,
Filth, frenzy, lust:
I can score them off as I score them on,
If I find sufficient cause.

- The Elder Edda, trans. Paul B Taylor and WH Auden, Faber & Faber, 1973

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Style Wars - Part 1

Over the past week or so, it's been interesting to see the spectacular fallout from Geoffrey K Pullum's beautifully acerbic hatchet-job - 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice (Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 2009) - on Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, the USA's iconic writing style guide. Pullum is one of the regulars at Language Log, a professor of linguistics and co-author of the 2002 Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and his view is nothing new; he's previously called it "a stupid little book" and "a horrid little compendium of unmotivated prejudices". However, the recent article probably had more of a punch because it argued his case at length, and was timed for the 50th anniversary of Strunk & White's publication.

More on this later; but one aspect immediately obvious from the criticisms is that anyone commenting on grammar and style is wading into a factional war of which one line drawn is transatlantic.  One poster objected to "a Scot writing invectives about an American style guide"  (Pullum replied, "I've been an American citizen longer than you've been alive").  I thought for an entree I'd dust off an account I wrote about a dispute with similar roots, surrounding Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves - a book no longer current but which was extremely popular in 2003 as an exposition of a "zero tolerance" attitude toward incorrect punctuation.

Though it has been a popular success on both sides of the Atlantic, one critic in particular hated it. Louis Menand of New Yorker. His review, Bad Comma, is largely a rant about the punctuation errors he found. He is annoyed by what he perceives as "British laxness", having already said in his review of the Chicago Manual of Style that the British "happen to be complete slobs about citation".

Many of his comments, however, revealed strange views on correct punctuation. As John Mullan asks in this riposte in the Guardian, The war of the commas, since when has it been wrong to use parentheses to add an independent clause to the end of a sentence? Why does Menand think it an error that "Sometimes, phrases such as 'of course' are set off by commas; sometimes, they are not"?

Andrew Franklin, Truss's editor, diagnosed "a twisted colon" as Menand's problem, and judging by the Chicago Manual of Style piece, Menand seems to me to have astonishingly anal-retentive views on written English: "Some people will complain that the new Chicago Manual is too long. These people do not understand the nature of style. There is, if not a right way, a best way to do every single thing, down to the proverbial dotting of the ‘i’ ... The perfect manual of style would be like the perfect map of the world: exactly coterminous with its subject, containing a rule for every word of every sentence".

But not everyone believes that such a One True Way exists. Edmund Morris, reviewing in the New York Times - Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Punctuation and It's Discontents - comments on the wide variability of punctuation style among famous writers. “The semicolon”, for instance, “has caused more fistfights between authors and editors than any other cipher”. Menand’s view that Truss uses too many semicolons, then, is a subjective preference, not a statement of grammatical fact, and I think that this is the overall problem with his review: he treats his own 'house style' as if it were a generally agreed standard for correctness. It ain’t, not even in the USA. My surprise is that subsequent commentators have been so ready to believe that it is, despite the evidence that grammar is subject to factions that promote their own styles.

Media pundits such as William Safire and Menand himself are one example, and in the view of the UCSC linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum they have little authority behind their assertions. In an iconoclastic talk he gave some years back - see here - Pullum argued that "Almost everything most educated Americans believe about English grammar is wrong", and he includes Menand on the "long dishonor roll of myth-creators and fear-mongers". He has written elsewhere about Menand's non-rules: see Menand's acumen deserts him ("It is patently ridiculous [for Menand] to suggest that that sentences like Roy Horn's white tiger attacked him on stage are ungrammatical. Such sentences are commonplace in the work of the finest writers"). Last year, another top linguist, Arnold Zwicky, reported an e-mail correspondence - see Grammaticality, anaphora, and all that - where Menand got into a tangle trying to justify his own use of a construct that he had elsewhere described as a solecism.

Major publishing houses are another faction. In the UK, for instance, Oxford University Press goes against general usage by favouring “-ize” word endings (on etymological grounds) and the ‘Oxford comma’, aka the Harvard or serial comma. Academic language factions exist in the USA too. Morris adds that he wishes “that Truss had devoted a few pages to taking on the usage czars of American academe -- particularly those at the Modern Language Association and University of Chicago Press, whose anti-capital, anti-hyphen, anti-italic stylebooks seek to return modern logography to the uniformity of ancient papyri”. He cites the example of the 1992 Modern Library edition of Middlemarch where Eliot’s "[Dorothea Brooke] was troublesome -- to herself, chiefly" was edited to “…troublesome to herself chiefly”, blunting in the process the wonderfully bitchy emphasis and timing.

This could be where Menand is coming from, as he sees no role in punctuation for timing. To him, it's just as structural markup “to add precision and complexity to meaning” and “increase the information potential of strings of words”. He says: “As [Truss] points out, in earlier times punctuation did a lot more work than it does today, and some of the work involved adjusting the timing in sentences. But this is no longer the norm, and trying to punctuate in that spirit now only makes for ambiguity and annoyance”. It would be interesting to hear eminent writers' views on that.

- originally in The Apothecary's Drawer weblog, July 04, 2004

More to follow.
- Ray

Sunday, 12 April 2009

To Exmouth again

Easter Sunday: lovely weather here, so we went to Exmouth for the afternoon (very nice round walk along the beach to Sandy Bay, then back to Exmouth along the clifftop over the High Land of Orcombe). I must explore there a bit more some time; I've mentioned before being an enthusiast of chines 1 and found at least two near Orcombe Point. One is directly adjacent to the Geoneedle (see Google Maps - a tiny stream starting at the path leds to a deeply incised gully that ends at the cliff edge), and there appears to be a second here, visible from the beach; and the route down to the steps at Rodney Point appears to follow a third.

Geological geekiness aside, before moving to Devon I didn't realise the backstory to the existence of the string of southern Devon resorts such as Exmouth: check out Google Books for Overflowing with fashionables: South Devon Resorts, 1789-1815. This whole-chapter preview of The rise of the Devon seaside resorts 1750-1900 (John F. Travis, University of Exeter Press, 1993, ISBN 0859893928) tells how they largely sprang from upper-crust English holidaymakers seeking alternatives to French destinations made unsafe by the French Revolution, and continued to attract that class of visitor and resident. As such, Exmouth has a large collection of blue plaque locations, such as the past homes of Lady Nelson and Lady Byron - who lived there with her daughter Ada, later to become Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, of computing fame - but unlike Sidmouth and Seaton, it seems to have relatively few direct literary associations. With such a high celebrity count, it's not hard to find peripheral connections. For instance , Frances Burney's 2 friend Marianne Francis lived in Exmouth: their mutual friend Hester Lynch Piozzi (i.e. Dr Johnson's friend Hester Thrale) visited Exmouth with her new husband in 1788; they wrote an "Occasional Prologue" for the local theatre.

By many a wave and many a tempest tost,
Our shipwreck'd hopes are cast on Devon's coast
Where the soft season swells the ripening grain,
And verdure brightens with refreshing rain;
Where lightnings never glare, nor thunders roar,
And chilling blasts forget their freezing power.

- quoted in A Concise Account of the City of Exeter, Shirley Woolmer, 1821, published by E. Woolmer, 1821

Exmouth gets peripheral mention in Hilaire Belloc's On (see onbelloc00belluoft, Internet Archive) in which the short essay "Off Exmouth" laments, as Belloc saw it, the lack of descriptions of England seen from the sea.

That strange, that ever novel, that magical thing — the aspect of one's own land from the sea — is passing out of the literature of the English. I wonder whj' ? I wondered at it the more last week when I went down the coast of Dorset and Devon in my boat under a brilliant sky with a happy north-east following wind and
saw the splendid regiment of cliffs martialled in its vast curve eastward from Strait Point to that faint and doubtful wedge on the horizon which was Portland Bill.

Of landscape from within the land our modern literature has had far more than enough, a surfeit and a gorge of it. The theme came tumbling in with the French Revolution and fairly boiled over. But though our time has all in its favour for catching once again the marvel, the unique emotion, which fills a man when he sees his own land from the sea, for some reason the aspect is forgotten.

Direct associations are thinner on the ground, but they include the poet and writer Patricia Beer, who was born in Exmouth; and the Delderfields. Interesting family, the latter. As the Archives Hub summary says - see Delderfield Papers - they moved to Exmouth in 1923 when William James Delderfield, became publisher of the Exmouth Chronicle, and his two sons, Ronald Frederick and Eric, both became writers. The former was the prolific novelist best known as RF Delderfield (still very readable books specialising, as this NYT review of the televised Diana says, "in stories about young men rising from humble beginnings to positions of assorted prominence"). The latter became a writer of highly successful regional guidebooks (see Eric R Delderfield and Exmoor).

Quick Googling finds HH Munro ("Saki") went to Pencarwick School, Exmouth. There are least two modern novelists who live in Exmouth: the romance novelist Margaret James; and Graham Hurley (though his original home town, where his DI Joe Faraday series of crime novels is set, is Portsmouth). If you know of other writers with a connection, past or present, do add a comment.

Addendum. New addition: Alex Wade, writer, freelance journalist and occasional media lawyer. Author of Wrecking Machine: A Tale of Real Fights and White Collars, and Surf Nation: In Search of the Fast Lefts and Hollow Rights of Britain and Ireland, he went to St Peter's School and lived in Exmouth as a child before his parents moved to Budleigh. He's now a Times columnist, but worked for the Exmouth Journal for an while. He recently wrote about Exmouth's A La Ronde in the Times: seeThe Coaster: a 16-sided basilica in Devon. His column, The Coaster, is worth reading for its historical/literary snapshots of British ports and harbours.
- Ray

1. See The disappearing chine and Seaton, slips and Sabine Baring-Gould.
2. A much under-rated writer, of huge personal courage: see The iron pen: Frances Burney and the politics of women's writing (Julia Epstein, Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1989, ISBN 0299119440) whose preview contains much of Burney's account of her radical mastectomy, performed with a wine cordial, possibly containing laudanum, as sole anaesthetic.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Big Talk at Wreyland

I mentioned Cecil Torr (1857-1928) a while back - see Small talk - and he's definitely one of my role models, a wide-ranging polymath whose copious thoughts ran from personal biographical trivia, through Devon life and folklore focused on Wreyland (a hamlet near Lustleigh), to wider historical research on antiquities of Rhodes, ancient naval architecture and Hannibal's route over the Alps. If weblogs had existed then, he surely would have maintained one.

I've just been reading Big Talk at Wreyland, the further compilation of Torr's inimitable notes put together in his final years after the First World War. Torr definitely hasn't lost his touch: as the Times obit said on Dec 20, 1928, the subjects are "so diverse and so many that few readers (and no reviewer) could resist the fun of seeing how incongruous a list could be made out of them".

My eye was first caught by Torr's interesting background on the Dutch-influenced architecture of Topsham, arising from its origin as a settlement transplanted brick-by-brick, as ship's ballast, by refugees from the mediaeval Friesian town of Torptsen (a.k.a. Dorpsenn, Torpen, Torperen, Torpsum, Turphum, Turschum) as the latter was flooded by the Dollart during the now little-known civil war between the Vetkopers and Schieringers.

Nor did I know the full story of the subtropical microclimate of mid-Devon, both in its ability to support fauna ...

After motoring over to Moreton from Okehampton, a distance
of twelve miles, a man told me that he had met no horses all
the way[;] a camel and an elephant were the only beasts he met.
- Small Talk at Wreyland

... (obviously not native, but nevertheless thriving in breeding numbers following escape from private zoological collections) and on flora. Big Talk expands on how this climate gave rise to a flourishing hemp industry that provided maritime rope and clettering twigs, but with such inevitable and widespread misuse that, as Torr reports:

Parson Davy in his System of Divinity, vol. xix, page 235, which he printed at Lustleigh in 1803, spoke with indignation of "the immeasurable use of that too fashionable and pernicious plant, which weakens the stomach, unbraces the nerves, and drains the very vitals of our national wealth ; to which nevertheless our children are as early and as carefully enured, from the very breast, as if the daily use of it were an indispensable duty which they owed to God and their country."
- Small Talk at Wreyland 1

There is a strong tinge of regret to Big Talk, as Torr saw the end of an era. By the time he reached middle age, Devon hemp farming had all but ceased. Already burdened by various taxes and duties after lobbying by the cider producers, it had never recovered since the entire rootstock was devastated by caryatid (Canephora) infestation in the unusually wet summer of 1879 2. This lovers' charm had become a curiosity of folklore journals:

Hempseed I sow, hempseed I mow,
She (or he) that will my true love be,
Come rake this hempseed after me.
- cited in Devon and Cornwall Notes & Queries. Published by S.N.., 1911

Rural festivals such as the raucous Bodmas 3 were no longer celebrated, and Devon was becoming increasingly mechanised. In 1918 he had written:

This valley has seen another innovation since I last wrote things down. An aeroplane passed over here, 9 September 1918. It was only a friendly aeroplane, just out for exercise; but nothing of the kind had ever been seen from here before, not even a balloon.

The first time that a motor-car was seen here (which was not so very long ago) it stopped just opposite the cottage of an invalid old man. He heard somethin' there a-buzzin' like a swarm o' bees, and he went out to look, although he had not been outside his door since Martinmas. It was a big car, and he said that it was like a railway-carriage on wheels.

He was also fascinated by Wreyland's use as a location for the Devon-set "Westerns" briefly in vogue

And now, recently, a cow-boy on a buck-jumper came galloping down the lane here, firing off his pistols in the air. It was for a film; and the rider (as I learned afterwards) was The Thrill-a-Minute Stunt King himself. 4
- Small Talk at Wreyland

In Big Talk he writes of how, less than a decade later, even after the film studios had closed down, Wreyland had so many motor vehicles that it suffered from, as he put it, "a complete reticular blockage" and furthermore several of his neighbours owned aircraft, including Charles and Flora Fairford. He rented them land for their airstrip at a generously low rate, suffering from obscure guilt after they related to him the story of the latter's great aunt, as a girl in Sussex, suffering a terrifying hallucination after accidentally sampling a sponge cake containing Devonian hemp. The wealth of such digressions and connections make Big Talk a fascinating account.

As I mentioned before, the three volumes of Small Talk are available on the Internet Archive: Volume 1 / Volume 2 / Volume 3. They are greatly worth exploring as a taster.

1. Davy's work was a fairly obsessive exercise in self-publishing (see Literary Labour And Perseverance in The European Magazine, and London Review, 1815, for the story). Nevertheless it must have taken root somewhere, as the diatribe also appears in the 1815 Family lectures: or, A copious collection of sermons, on faith and practice here, lifted wholesale for a sermon by Patrick Delany DD.
2. "The buds, instead of ripening, turned into a glagolitic mass", Torr writes. The weather was the cause of widespread agricultural collapse, as noted in Gladstone's diary, with rainfall for the season not topped until 2007.
3. A fertility rite thinly-disguised under Christian trappings and a retrofitted association with the highly obscure St Bode. Typically eccentrically, Torr rejects the standard etymology for "Bodmas" (from "bode" - to preach the gospel, derived from OE. bodian, f. boda messenger) but traces the name, via Phoenician and the Sgroliau'r Mor Marw found at Cwmbran, to Tibetan roots, mentioning in a letter to Notes and Queries that "Bod-ma" means "female Tibetan" (see The Classical Tibetan Language, by Stephan V. Beyer). Incidentally, Jean Veber's painting Women Wrestling in Devonshire, c. 1898, depicts typical Bodmas activities.
4. The stuntman Charles "Hutch" Hutchinson, then filming Dimpsey on Dartmoor. A romance in which a farmer's son is pitted against the leader of the corrupt ranching clan who killed his father, based on RD Blackmore's Lorna Doone, it was remade in 1950 as Twilight in the Sierras.

- Ray