Friday, 31 December 2010


Grinsteins Mischpoche play Bayatılar

I like interesting attribution trails. Yesterday in the pub I heard Stereo Love, a boppy yet wistful electropop piece featuring a catchy accordion riff as its central motif.  A look at Wikipedia finds it to be Romanian, written by Edward Maya and featuring the vocalist Vika Jigulina; after its release in 2009 it became a long-running Euro-hit.

The central riff, however - as noted at - comes from Bayatılar, a composition by the Azerbaijani composer Eldar Mansurov, which from its 1989 release by Brilliant Dadashova had percolated across to the pop circuit of some 60 countries. Eldar Mansurov's YouTube Channel has a number of clips of the varied interpretations of this extremely infectious tune: I especially like the laidback klezmer brass version by Grinsteins Mischpoche, and Bayaty by the Italian folk fusion group Cantodiscanto.

As with the Men at Work's "Kookaburra" quotation (see Kookaburra fossil exposed) this led to copyright issues; but this one seems to have been sorted amicably, with Maya and Mansurov signing an agreement to co-authorship of Stereo Love

Geeky background: "Bayatılar" is the plural form of "Bayatı", a traditional Azerbaijani lyrical folk poetry form based on quatrains. The dotless i - ı - is the character in the modern Latin-based Azerbaijani alphabet representing the close back unrounded vowel.

- Ray

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Ribstone Pippins

Continuing my project to read the works of Maxwell Gray, I just finished her 1898 novel Ribstone Pippins: A Country Tale.

Ribstone Pippins is a short novel (148 pages) that takes place over a few days in the life of Jacob Hardinge, a young carter who lives with his grandmother at "Westway" (perhaps Westridge, near Chale) on the south-west coast of the Isle of Wight.

Jacob has made the decision to propose marriage to his sweetheart, Elisabeth Woodford, and plans to fit this into a delivery to "Estridge" (probably Yaverland), where she is in service. He packs a gift of choice apples - the eponymous Ribstone Pippins - and takes his wagon first to "Oldport" (Newport), where he endures the embarrassment of going into a posh shop to buy Elisabeth a blue kerchief, then on to Estridge.

On arrival, however, he finds Elisabeth is not there, and a serving-girl tells him she has run off to Portsmouth with a soldier called Hopkins. The next day, tormented by visions of her fate and imagining she might have turned to prostitution, he travels despondently homeward back through Oldport. At the smithy at "Malbourne" (Calbourne), however, he and his fellow carters hear a cry from the roadside, and find the gravely ill Elisabeth lying there with a head wound. They take her home, where she lies at death's door.

A few days later Jacob receives an illiterate letter from Estridge saying that "hall you was tolled fryDay nite was lyes throo jellusy". He hurries to see Elisabeth, who is roused by his tearful presence and wakes to recognise him. The truth is revealed; Elisabeth didn't elope to Portsmouth, but fell ill in service and was sent home. Worsening en route, she was taken to the infirmary in Oldport, and on her partial recovery tried to walk the eight miles home, not realising how weak she was, and had fallen on the road. She recovers, and the next spring she and Jacob marry.

It's admittedly a slight story, and somewhat idealised; Jacob is a kind of noble savage, untutored but honest, honourable and in tune with nature. But its strength is its warm and realistic treatment of Jacob and his friends Moses and Ben, carters who banter through the day (although, oddly, never swear) as they manage their heavy horse team, Thunder, Cherry, Farmer and Diamond (a potentially lethal job, whose procedures and terminology - the lead, thill, body horse, etc - are closely observed). An added point of interest is that the dialogue is in 19th century Isle of Wight dialect ...
I minds en and I minds wold clack ever zence I wer the tittiest little maäid, avore I could chipper no zense

I remember it and I remember the old clock ever since I was the tiniest little girl, before I could talk any sense
... which, despite daunting first appearances, rapidly becomes accessible.

I strongly suspect - in fact I'm absolutely certain, from close similarity of spelling and vocabulary choice - that Maxwell Gray wrote the novel with a copy of William Henry Long's 1886 A Dictionary of the Isle of Wight Dialect to hand.  I read them side by side, but a hypertext edition referencing the dialect words would be very handy. Overall, it's hardly a deep novel, and the central plot twist is a bit unlikely, but it's enjoyable for its snapshot of the rural Isle of Wight of a century and half ago. Ribstone Pippins is online at the Internet Archive: ID ribstonepippins00graygoog.

A Dictionary of the Isle of Wight Dialect makes interesting reading in its own right. The book was published by subscription (i.e. sponsored), and its subscribers form a list of Isle of Wight worthies at the time, such as A Harbottle Estcourt (the Deputy Governor of the Isle of Wight) and Hallam Tennyson (Alfred Lord Tennyson's eldest son). It's not just a glossary of local terms (which include "mallishag" = caterpillar, "cocksettle" = overturn or somersault, and "nammet" = a snack), but also includes illustratory anecdotes, as well as folk songs, a dialect Christmas play, and an Isle of Wight "Hoaam Harvest". The content was obsolete even at the time of writing - it's billed as "A Treasury of Insular Manners and Customs of Fifty Years Ago" (i.e. 1836), and this places the likely time slot for Ribstone Pippins. The dialect is virtually extinct now, although I'm sure a few words and turns of phrase persist (I remember an older relative saying that she called caterpillars "mallishags" as a child).

Addendum: I've just been reading contemporary reviews of Ribstone Pippins. They're divided between those that considered it a pleasant and gentle romance, and those that thought it ghastly. I can't resist quoting in full one of the latter, from an 1898 edition of the New York based Chap-Book Semi-Monthly:
WERE it not for the device of a rivulet of prose wandering through a meadow of margin 1, this small "country tale," Ribstone Pippins, could barely be expanded into its present slender volume. The prose appears to be deftly divided — after the well-known manner of Miss Murfree 2 — into alternate leaves of dialect and and description. One suspects that the latter may be designed to heal the blows of sound made by the intolerable consonants of the peasant "vearmers". Jacob, the carter, is no clod to whom a yellow primrose is yellow and no more 3, but he has "clean, young, healthy blood leaping in his strong pulses," and can gaze at the harvest moon o' nights and sigh with any man. And of course he goes courting with eleven red apples — Ribstone Pippins — in his handkerchief, taking his wool sacks to the town at the same time as becomes a farmer poet. A pretty enough journey it is, too, with Thunder, the big stallion, and Charlie, the sober thill horse, as they ride along the early English ways, scattering vowels of strange shire-song along the morning peace. It would have been better and fairer and more humane had Jacob's journey ended as lovers' journeys should in lovers' meetings. The quite needless insult which meets him at the little door, where he had pictured his Alisbeth's face, quite mars what should have been all pure joyous pastoral. For having ruthlessly plunged her sweethearts into woes of her own making, their author is obliged to drag them out again perforce. This is done by one of those deathbed recoveries which are the despair of science and the recourse of the hard-pushed romancer. If, indeed, desperate illness tied at the approach of a proper carter, how might that fading trade look up. Shorn of its willful fine writing, the book would barely amount to more than a pleasant sketch of magazine length. To put it forth with the full pretentions of a book seems to have but little other ground than that once—or twice—its author has done better.
1. An allusion to a line in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal.
2. The American author Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1992), who wrote dialect fiction in Appalachian settings.
3. An allusion to Wordsworth's Peter Bell.

- Ray

Friday, 24 December 2010

Ghost stories for Christmas

You have to wonder if Western Morning News photographer Richard Austin would have been quite so keen to capture images of world famous giant stags had he ever read William Shakespeare's famous words…

Oft have you heard since Herne the hunter dyed,
That women, to affright their little children,
Says that he walkes in shape of a great stagge.
So begins Martin Hesp's story in the Western Morning News today, An Exmoor stag ghost story for Christmas, inspired by the strange media tale of the "Emperor of Exmoor". This, widely reported a couple of months ago, was the contentious story that Britain's largest wild animal had been shot by a trophy hunter. But, as John Vidal told in the Observer - see Dead or alive? The Emperor becomes an Exmoor legend - it gradually became evident that there was little evidence for the story, or even the Emperor's existence.

On the subject of ghost stories, I'm pleased to see that BBC is returning to its tradition of a Christmas Eve ghost story with the showing of a new adaptation of MR James's Oh, whistle and I'll come to you, my lad:
A chilling new single drama, Whistle and I'll Come to You is the thoroughly modern re-working of the evocative Edwardian ghost story Oh, Whistle and I'll come to You, My Lad by MR James, adapted for BBC Two by Neil Cross. Cross's adaptation delves into themes of ageing, hubris and the supernatural, with a horrifying psychological twist in the tale.

James Parkin has just left his wife in the care of a nursing home. Pensive and emotional, he travels to their old favourite destination for rambling, an off-season British seaside town. There he encounters an apparition on a desolate beach, which begins to haunt him - with terrifying consequences.
Details at the BBC2 website, where for UK visitors it's on iPlayer for six days from now.  (Update: I just watched it, and it's a very good reworking.  According to the Kent Film Office, the beach scenes below the chalk cliffs were at Botany Bay and Kingsgate Bay; the external locations for the hotel where Parkin stays were here.  The dune locations appear to be elsewhere: Camber Sands in East Sussex).

If this leaves you with a taste for more MR James ghost stories, many of the classic TV adaptations - A Ghost Story for Christmas - are on YouTube: Number 13 is a good entry point.

- Ray

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Edward Capern, the Postman Poet

While browsing some Devon literature (a copy of the long-defunct Devonia magazine) I ran into the work of Edward Capern (1819-1894), the Bideford "postman poet".

There's a good biographical account - The Devonian 'Postman Poet', Edward Capern - at John Lerwill's Devon History site.  Capern was born in Tiverton, and after a difficult early life , he gained the position of Rural Postman of Bideford - not as deliverer, but as a messenger between Bideford and Appledore. These daily treks evidently gave him plenty of time to think, as he took up poetry. Contributions to local publications attracted the attention of the Barnstaple stationer and philanthropist William Frederick Rock, who helped him put together a subscription-based (i.e. benefactor-sponsored) anthology. This was highly successful, and the start of a career that brought him to national attention with a patriotic poem about the Crimean War, The Lion-Flag of England, earning the praise of the then Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, a Civil List pension, and a State funeral at the end of his long life.

The lion-flag of England!
Say, Britons, shall it wave,
The scorn of every base-born serf,
And jest of every slave;
A sign to tell them how they beat
The bravest of the earth,
And teach them by our England's fate
To magnify their worth
"Forbid it Heav'n," the nations cry,
In council gravely met;
"We'll send her aid across the seas,
And she shall conquer yet."

- stanza 1, The Lion-Flag of England

As to the rest of his poetry, most of it falls well into a category I mentioned a while back (see Let me count the ways ...) that is long out of vogue:

The Poem You Must Not Write
3. Let Me Tell You How It Is.
This poem states obvious truths or preaches a little sermon urging readers to accept what is already generally believed: God is good, death is deadly, good is better than evil, nature is lovely, etc. Commonplace and preachy poems are never successful

Capern's poems, while perfectly literate, are extremely trite by modern standards. Fields are green, flowers and the countryside are beautiful, summer and love and Christmas are joyful, winter and lost love and death are depressing, and so on. A sample.

Say, my little robins,
Singing on the bough,
Heralding the Autumn
With her yellow brow,
Why the woods are vocal
With your merry lays,
While our summer songsters
Sleep away their days ?

Lovingly I linger'd,
Listening to their tale,
When a gush of music
Answer'd through the vale;
Every hedge was vocal,
Every tree and bush,
Singing, Little Robin
Is October's thrush.

"When the Spring and Summer
Make all nature gay,
Other minstrels warble
Through the sunny day:
Tis their joy and pleasure,
But our office, know,
Is to carol comfort
In the hour of woe."

- The Robins' Chorus, Edward Capern, Wayside Warbles

Even in his lifetime and shortly after, opinion on his work was divided. WHK Wright, in his 1896 West-Country Poets: Their Lives and Works (section transcribed here) was hagiographic; and Capern was praised by writers such as the historian James Anthony Froude, who wrote in Fraser's Magazine ...
Capern is a real poet, a man whose writings will be like a gleam of summer sunshine in every household which they enter
... and Walter Savage Landor, cited in the reviews for Capern's anthology Wayside Warbles, who called him "a noble poet". The Inquirer put him up with the greats:
There runs throughout these Poems that refined tone of thought, to the expression of which a metrical form is a necessary condition—we find rich tissues of imagery, playful fancy, plentiful invention, and above all that translation of thought into representative circumstances that ever characterizes the true Poet—such is the distinguished excellence of Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, and Alexander Smith, in all of whom the true poetical constitution has been pre-eminently visible.
Sabine Baring-Gould was in a minority with his very acerbic summary:
Postman Poet, Edward Capern, has been hailed as the Devonshire Burns, but he has no right to be so entitled. Burns, at his best, sang in the tones and intonation of his class and country, and it was at his worst that he affected the style of the period and of culture, such as it was. Now Capern aspired to the artificiality and smoothness of the highly educated and wholly unreal class of verse writers of the Victorian period, of whom John Oxenford may be thrust forward as typical, men who could turn out smooth and finished pieces, rhythm and rhyme correct, but without a genuine poetical idea forming the kernel of the "poem."
- from Edward Capern, Devonshire Characters and Strange Events, Sabine Baring-Gould
Reading the Fraser's review by Froude is worth reading in full, as it's very enlightening about the popularity of Capern. I think it's more than just poetic taste.
Our readers, however, must judge for themselves whether wo have over-estimated Capern's poems. When an English working man becomes conscious of genius, the effect of it is usually to throw- him into fierce hostility with the social system which depresses him, and, like Ebenezer Elliot or Gerald Massey, he boils over in fierce and stormy fury. We are not to complain of such men. Their anger often is but too keenly deserved, and they are Nature's instruments to avenge the world's injustice. Yet there is something higher, nobler, better, in rising superior to evils of which we cannot see a practicable remedy. It is a sign of a loftier nature, instead of repining at what Providence has refused, to catch with open hand the fair gifts which it offers to all alike,—the enjoyment of the beauty of nature, the indulgence of the rich emotions of humanity, which are the choicest treasures that God has bestowed upon our being.
- Poems, by Edward Capern, Fraser's Magazine, April 1856
There's a similar idea in the Eclectic Review, which notes that he wisely invested the income from his anthology, and is keen that he shouldn't get too rich from his poetry or be promoted.
It [his poetry] has evidently been to him " its own exceeding great reward ; it has soothed his afflictions ; it has multiplied and refined his enjoyments; it has endeared solitude ; and it has given him the habit of wishing to discover the Good and the Beautiful in all that meets and surrounds him." And " an exceeding great reward " it will continue to be to him as long as he keeps it to its present function as a grace and an ornament, and does not endeavour to convert it to a means of living. It has alreadyafforded him, we are glad to learn, substantial help, and we trust it will yield him a good deal more; but let him still regard it as an auxiliary, and not a main source of subsistence. His inspiration is from the fields and green lanes of Devon, and he should not, if he values his happiness, hope to find it in dingy towns, and at the " desk's dead wood." "We rejoice to see that the first edition of his book has produced him £150, which has been wisely invested in an annuity for the joint lives of himself and Mrs. Capern. The Post Office, too, has increased his salary to twelve shillings a week, and relieved him from his Sunday duties. This is better than making a nine days' wonder of him, and relegating him, when the excitement was over, to his old difficulties with a spirit less calculated to encounter them. It is better, too, than taking him out of his accustomed sphere, and placing him in a position where he would find none of those associations which have hallowed his life hitherto, and gilded with their happy radiance his ungenial fortunes.
- Poems, by Edward Capern, review, p559, Eclectic Review, Volume 1, 1857
It seems he was liked because he fitted into his role as a minor cog in the system; was happy with his lot and rocked no boats (unlike the political activist poets Elliott and Massey); was patriotic; was financially prudent; perpetuated belief in a English rustic idyll; and had made maximum use of his limited education, writing in standard English rather than dialect. He was, in short, a poster boy for the deserving poor: the obedient working class that the middle/upper classes wanted.  I believe that was his appeal.

The Internet Archive - see search - has his chief works online: Poems (1856), Ballads and Songs (1858), Wayside Warbles (1870), and Sungleams and Shadows (1881)

As reported in the Exeter Express & Echo, a modern biography is in print - Edward Capern: The Postman-poet, Ilfra Goldberg, Vanguard Press (2009). It was highly commended among contestants for the Devon History Society Book of the Year and Hoskins Award 2009.

- Ray

Monday, 20 December 2010

In praise of The Mathenauts

I just re-read Norman Kagan's 1964 short story The Mathenauts, which I first encountered in a secondhand Judith Merrill's 1965 10th Annual SF anthology. At 11-ish I didn't remotely understand it; only the sheer strangeness came across. But it gets better on each return visit.

The Mathenauts is set in a near-future where "Brill-Cohen flight" has been discovered: the ability to take a ship into the raw mathematical space underlying reality. Ships, which look like a radio minus the casing, are crewed by eccentric high-flyer mathematicians, but their internal reality is held together by a "psychic ecology" of students with more mundane mindsets.
The ship, the Albrecht Dold, was a twelve-googol scout that Ed Goldwasser and I'd picked up cheap from the NYU Courant Institute. She wasn't the Princeton IAS Von-Neumann, with googolplex coils and a chapter of the DAR, and she wasn't one of those new toys you've been seeing for a rich man and his grandmother. Her coils were DNA molecules, and the psychosomatics were straight from the Brill Institute at Harvard. A sweet ship. For psychic ecology we'd gotten a bunch of kids from the Bronx College of the New York City University, commonsense types - business majors, engineers, pre-meds.
Jimmy, the mathematician narrator, tells how there is a horrific in-flight accident when the "isomorphomechanism" (that keeps the internal reality stable) fails, affecting another member of the crew.
Instrument racks and chairs and books shrank and ballooned and twisted, and floor and ceiling vibrated with my breath. It was horrible. Ted Anderson was hanging in front of the immy, the isomorphomechanism, but he was in no shape to do anything. In fact, he was in no shape at all. His body was pulsing and shaking, so his hands were too big or too small to manipulate the controls, or his eyes shrank or blossomed.
Jimmy repairs the fault, but Anderson, occupying the same space as the "immy", is rejected by the "commonsense circuits" and disappears. After an unsuccessful search of a ship and mathematical discussion of where Ted might have gone, there's a further scare when the ship's psychic ecology - students in a facsimile of a New York streetcar - breaks down.
The walls were firm, the straw seats scratchy and uncomfortable. The projectors showed we were just entering the 72nd Street stop. How real, how comforting! I slid the door open to rejoin Johnny and Ed. The subway riders saw me slip into freefall, and glimpsed the emptiness of vector space. Hell broke loose! The far side of the car bulged inward, the glass smashing and the metal groaning. The CUNYs had no compensation training!
Johnny Pearl, the ship's "psychist", restores the ecology by singing a college anthem, and the crew finish their search and begin the tests the voyage is intended for. At that point, a ghostly Ted Anderson reappears and reveals an uncomfortable truth: that the raw mathematical space is the real universe. He gives Jimmy a glimpse of the creatures that inhabit it.
— I saw a set bubbling and whirling, then take purpose and structure to itself and become a group, generate a second-unity element, mount itself and become a group, generate a second unity element, mount itself and become a field, ringed by rings. Near it, a mature field, shot through with ideals, threw off a splitting field in a passion of growth, and became complex.
— I saw the life of the matrices; the young ones sporting, adding and multiplying by a constant, the mature ones mating by composition: male and female make male, female and male make female — sex through anticommutivity! I saw them grow old, meeting false identities and loosing rows and columns into nullity.
— I saw a race of vectors, losing their universe to a newer race of tensors that conquered and humbled them.
Reality as humans know it, Anderson explains, is the creation of a "Great Race" in this mathematical universe, who lost their powers but left mathematics as a "seed" by which humans might regain the ability to inhabit that reality. He then disappears permanently, leaving his notebook.

The surviving characters go on to live their lives, dealing with that revelation in different ways: one marries and has 15 children; one gets religion and writes a book about Ted's views; and Jimmy, the narrator, concentrates on the business side of marketing Ted's ideas, multidimensional products that make a paradise of Earth.
Me, I'll stick to the Earth. The "real" planet is a garden spot now, and the girls are very lovely.

Ted Anderson was recorded lost in topological space. He wasn't the first, and he was far from the last. Twiddles circuits have burned out, DaughtAmsRevs have gone mad, and no doubt there have been some believers who have sought out the Great Race.
The story, at one level, is a pastiche. Kagan wrote it when he was a mathematics student, and it abounds in punning use of mathematical terms and its characters' hardboiled mathematical exclamations ("Great Gauss!", "Holy Halmos!" etc). For that reason, I guess, it's often classed as humorous SF (as in the 1982 anthology Laughing space: funny science fiction). Its extensive mathematical content, and its excellent portrayal of the ethos of mathematicians, also accounts for its presence in Rudy Rucker's 1987 niche anthology Mathenauts: tales of mathematical wonder.

Nevertheless, I think it's an altogether better story than that, as an examples of "conceptual breakthrough" story (see PK Dick, Ubik and conceptual breakthrough and Breaking out of the game) that, despite the pastiche and generally positive outcome, leaves the reader with a continuing sense of unease that the assumptions of reality have been revealed hollow. It tackles the still-topical questions of Platonism and Neoplatonism: the idea that reality may have a mathematical structure, since mathematics describes it so well. An example of such theories is Antony Garrett Lisi's Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything, which proposed that elementary particles correspond to the symmetries of a vast mathematical group called E8. All that aside, though, the strange and bold vision in The Mathenauts still makes it as fresh reading as when I first encountered it. It's a pity it's not online anywhere, but secondhand anthologies containing it aren't too hard to find.

Norman Kagan wrote several other mathematical stories, notably the 1964 Four Brands of Impossible, but didn't go on to an SF writing career.  According to the blurb in Rudy Rucker's 1987 Mathenauts anthology:
What ever became of Norman Kagan anyway? He left math for film and still lives in Manhattan. He's written a number of books on cinema, and is currently involved in putting together a TV science news magazine to be called "Spacetime Continuum News." When I pressed having once written a mathematical mystery story called The Venn Data Vendetta — but he lost the only copy.
I don't know what he's doing now (or even if he's still alive), but I assume these books - on the cinema of Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, Robert Zemeckis and Roibert Altman- are by the same Norman Kagan.

Addendum: a personal note, via discussion with Felix Grant. The story is particularly memorable for me as one of the first SF stories I read. I got into the genre via my great-uncle Dennis, a nice autodidact polymath among my Wiltshire relatives who I regret not fully appreciating at the time - but I was only 11, so I guess it's excusable - and who gave me heaps of secondhand SF Book Club editions (including the brilliant The Hole in the Zero) and copies of Analog magazine. On those grounds, this post is dedicated to my late and excellent Uncle Den.

- Ray

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Google Books N-gram - wow!

Google just blew my bibliographic socks off.

Geoff Nunberg at Language Log (see Humanities research with the Google Books corpus) just posted news and some links concerning the Books N-gram Viewer that just went live.

I've enthused previously about the power of Google Books to hack into historical texts in a way that would have been impossible less than a decade ago. The Books Ngram Viewer adds to this facility with a powerful search interface that accesses a humungous corpus of texts (the English one, for instance, covers 360 billion words) and can graph, singly or in comparison, normalised frequencies. The possibilities are immense. As the Science research article abstract says:
We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of "culturomics", focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. "Culturomics" extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.
- Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books, * Michel, et al. Science 1199644DOI:10.1126/science.1199644
What this actually means, even at a trivial level, is that anyone can do linguistic studies that would have taken years (or even be impossible). You can chart the continuous decline of "whom" in British English over nearly two centuries.  You can compare change of acceptable usages with time: for instance, Mohammedan vs Moslem vs Muslim or Esquimaux vs Eskimos vs Inuit.  You can get long-term statistics for inflected vs. periphrastic versions of adjective comparisons: e.g. "pleasanter" vs. "more pleasant". You can plot the fate of variant spellings: such as how "focused", originally a minority spelling, overtook "focussed" around 1900 and came to dominate it.  You can check age of words: for instance, how people have been "holidaying" (often taken to be a neologism) since 1840. You can look at the history of coexisting forms, such as "none of us is" vs "none of use are" or "Devonshire" vs "Devon".  This is a delight for lexicographical enthusiasts.

The setup isn't perfect. As I and others have mentioned, bad metadata and OCR errors can be a problem. For example, Mark Liberman's follow-up at Language Log - More on "culturomics" - mentions how attempts to trace the history of the word "fuck" in print (see graph) are confused by the "long s", so that pre-1820 you're actually finding occurrences of the word "suck" (like this). More fundamentally, though, once you get away from raw lexical observation and into sociological analysis - the "culturomics" part - it shouldn't be forgotten that frequency of appearance in books is a merely a proxy for the multiple social factors driving that frequency. It would be, for instance, an unreliable conclusion that the British have steadily become less interested in love over the past two centuries because the word's appearance in print has more or less continuously declined.

Nevertheless, searches I've tried often reveal striking patterns, even if they may be inexplicable. Why the seemingly cyclic book references to red sunsets? Why have references to Sherlock Holmes steadily grown over the 20th century? Why do occurrences of the word "fat" rise steadily from 1840 to peak in the late 1870s? What do the peaks in references to opium mean? (this one can be partially answered; two of them coincide with the Opium Wars).  Why are there two 19th century peaks for "Batman" (it seems to be a confluence of coverage of people withthat surname, notably John Batman). Does the post-1960 rise in references to "Frankenstein" mean anything culturally or does it just reflect the success of particular movies. I have a feeling I'm going to be making a lot of use of this.

The Guardian has a more general piece on it here: Culturomics and the new Google tool for tracking cultural trends. See also the official Culturomics site.

Addendum: the paper Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books (Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1199644) - free registration with Science is required - is very worth reading. It mentions some highly interesting areas including:
  • The recent massive growth in the English lexicon (over 70% during the last 50 years).
  • The trade-off of dictionaries in balancing comprehensiveness and conciseness, with the result that over half of the English lexicon comprises "dark matter" that doesn't appear in dictionaries.
  • The ability to track trends such as the regularisation of verbs, such as the shift from "-nt" endings to "-ned" (e.g. "burnt" to "burned").
  • The characteristic trajectories of appearance in print as a proxy of fame.
  • Detection of censorship by non-appearance in print: notably the absence from German texts of individuals identified as undesirables under the Nazi regime.
  • Culturomics - the identification of "fossils" of cultural trends through print frequency (e.g. "influenza" being mentioned a lot in print at the time of known pandemics).

The epidemiology example illustrates an important limitation to "culturomics". As quoted in Wired:

Patterns that can be queried from its cloud are not necessarily answers unto themselves, they say, but a way of illuminating subjects for further investigation.

"It’s not just an answer machine. It’s a question machine," said study co-author Erez Lieberman-Aiden, a computational biologist at Harvard University. "Think of this as a hypothesis-generating machine."
- Cultural Evolution Could Be Studied in Google Books Database, Wired, Dec 16th 2010

A look at the references to "cholera" shows peaks that may correspond to epidemics, but the largest, in the mid-1880s, more likely corresponds to the topicality of Robert Koch's isolation of Vibrio cholerae in 1884.

Addendum: discussion at Language Log - see True Grit isn't true - highlighted another significant problem with the setup.  For some reason (maybe to do with OCR, indexing, tokenization or the search interface) Google Books N-gram Viewer seemed to underestimate by three to four orders of magnitude (!) occurrences of forms with apostrophes. This made it useless for examining historical occurrences of contractions in English. Correction: see Google n-gram apostrophe problem fixed.


Monday, 13 December 2010

The Fatal Oak

Just a quick link to another article of bibliographic interest I wrote for the Devon History Society: The Fatal Oak, concerning Anna Eliza Bray's novel Warleigh; or, The fatal oak. A legend of Devon, which relocates the (probably) true story of an Elizabethan murder to the English Civil War.

- Ray

Goold Macbeth on BBC4

Yesterday I watched the television adaptation of Rupert Goold's Macbeth (BBC4, 12th December, 2010, with Sir Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in the lead roles - see TV blog). This ran to good reviews from its original at Chichester Festival Theatre, via the West End, to Broadway. Filmed in the subterranean rooms and tunnels of Welbeck Abbey 1, it takes the play into an Eastern European warzone, with explicit resonances between Macbeth and Stalin (alluding, for instance, to the episode when Stalin forced the portly Kruschev to dance the strenuous gopak - "When Stalin says, 'Dance!', a wise man dances") . The witches become malign nurses involved in necromancy (the wounded soldier at the beginning of the play becomes their victim); the moving of Birnam wood becomes soldiers in ghillie suit camouflage.

It was superb: watch it if you haven't already. As Simon Horsford's preview in the Telegraph says:

It is the perfect riposte to cynics who argue that Shakespeare’s plays demand the intimacy of a theatre

and I've taken this view for a long time. Much as I appreciate that many people enjoy theatre, I find cinema and television a superior medium for Shakespeare. This may not apply to small and intimate productions where the audience is, effectively, inside the action, but I really can't see how sitting in a large auditorium watching from one (often distant) viewpoint can compare to the director's tightly-managed control of every nuance of the experience - viewpoint, sound, visual effects and location - that film and TV offer.

If you have access to BBC iPlayer content, Macbeth is available until 9.59pm on Sunday, 19 December.  US readers I think can watch it at PBS Video.

1. The home of the 5th Duke of Portland, whose subterranean obsession inspired Mick Jackson's novel The Underground Man.

- Ray

Religious questions of attribution

Anyone who follows the topic of misattributions will know that there's an inexorable pull toward attaching quotations to celebrities, and I recently bumped into a couple of unexpected examples. While browsing for biographical details of Thomas Carlyle, I found these quotations:
The best lesson which we get from the tragedy of Karbala is that Husain and his companions were the rigid believers of God. They illustrated that numerical superiority does not count when it comes to truth and falsehood. The victory of Husain despite his minority marvels me!
- attributed to Thomas Carlyle

If Husain fought to quench his worldly desires, then I do not understand why his sisters, wives and children accompanied him. It stands to reason therefore that he sacrificed purely for Islam.
- attributed to Charles Dickens
These refer to the death of Husayn ibn Ali, who died under harrowing circumstances at the Battle of Karbala (680 CE) and is annually mourned as a martyr by Shi'a Muslims; the quotes, among others, are widely cited on Shi'a websites as examples of Western endorsement of the significance of the event.  It is of massive historical and cultural significance, even to the point of the commemoration transplanting into other cultures - see Hosay - and a number of eminent Western authors have commented sympathetically on it, such as Gibbon ...
In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hosein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader
- page 441, Edward Gibbon, The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, 1828
... and the orientalists Reynold Alleyne Nicholson and Sir William Muir. 1

However, Carlyle and Dickens are both authors whose works and biographies are known extensively, and I've not been able to verify the attribution for these. It's not theoretically impossible that Carlyle wrote the first - he wrote extensively (if ambiguously) on Muhammad in his On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History - but the earliest citation I can find for it is a 1978 edition of The Light, a journal of the Bilal Muslim Mission of Tanzania. For the Dickens one, the earliest reference I can find is to the 1977 book The Martyrdom of Imam Husain, Grandson of the Holy Prophet (ed. Yousuf Lalljee). Can anyone shed further light on their origins?

If they're misattributions, it would be highly unfair to single them out as Islamic examples, as many other (and far more egregiously contrived) examples are findable in Christian literature and website texts. An especially rich lode involves American founders, who have been posthumously conscripted into endorsing a theist agenda for the governing of the USA. Sometimes this is by outright misattribution of author, and sometimes by massaging out-of-context material. The weblog Fake History documents a good selection, with well-researched paper trails of how the misattribution developed. Examples include:
We recognize no sovereign but God and no king but Jesus!
- attributed to John Adams and John Hancock, but debunked by reference to primary sources

What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ
- attributed to George Washington, but actually constructed by splicing invented text into a fragment from Washington's reply to the Delaware Nation.

My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.

Religion is the basis and foundation of government
- attributed to James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance; but actually spliced from material in an entirely different context:

SECTION 15, Because finally, "the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion according to the dictates of conscience" is held by the same tenure with all his other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consider the "Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of government," it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis.
A further class of religious celebrity attribution problem is the celebrity anecdote. See, for instance, the completely fictional Internet meme that Albert Einstein proved the existence of God to an atheist professor (Malice of absence, and Lady Hope's story that Darwin recanted (The Lady Hope Story,  I've no doubt many more can be found.

1. The source here - Clinton Bennett's Victorian images of Islam - makes interesting reading on how Victorian orientalists combined a genuine cultural interest in Islam with an agenda that such knowledge was beneficial to colonial control.

- Ray

Monday, 6 December 2010

John Foulston's Devonport

Mostly just a hyperlink today, to a post I wrote for the Devon History Society: Devonport Column and Foulston's Devonport.

A Western Morning News report led me to a pleasant excursion into the story of redevelopments nearly two centuries apart, and the strange architectural world of John Foulston whose 1820s design concept for the newly-badged town of Devonport (pictured above in the 1832 Devonshire & Cornwall Illustrated) mixed Doric, Corinthian, Egyptian and "Hindoo" styles in a civic centre that is still mostly extant (though partially endangered), and one of the foci of the current redevelopment of Devonport. Highlights include the 1828 Plymouth and Devonport Guide; the splendid, but At Risk, pseudo-Egyptian frontage of the Civil and Military Library (now the Oddfellows Hall); the Bing Maps Birds Eye view; and a Flickr photoset by Denna Jones documenting her Devonport Column Site Visit - Summer 2008.

- RG

Friday, 3 December 2010

"Ten thousand Objects hurtle into view"

A puzzle arising from the previous post. The following inspiring lines, in whole or in part, are moderately widely quoted in mid-Victorian books, including the travel guides of Mackenzie Edward Charles Walcott.

"I'll see these Things!—They're rare and passing curious.—
But thus 'tis ever; what's within our ken,
Owl-like, we blink at, and direct our search
To farthest Inde in quest of Novelties;
Whilst here, at Home, upon our very thresholds,
Ten thousand Objects hurtle into view.
Of Int'rest wonderful.'

The above version is the first citation I can find, and dates from 1829, where it's just credited as "OLD PLAY" on the title page - here - of Edward Wedlake Brayley's Londiniana: or, Reminiscences of the British metropolis: including characteristic sketches, antiquarian, topographical, descriptive, and literary, Volume 4.

Any thoughts on what old play?

- Ray

Mackenzie Edward Charles Walcott

It's one of my mild bibliographic ambitions to identify the anonymous authors of the 1848 Legends of Devon, the book that kicked off the locally-set story (now enshrined as regional legend) of the Parson and Clerk at Dawlish (see Parsons unknown).  No luck so far, but in passing I ran into the works of Mackenzie Edward Charles Walcott, 1821-1880.

A particular work, available in full through Google Books, is his 1859 A guide to the South coast of England, from the Reculvers to the Land's end, and from Cape Cornwall to the Devon foreland. It's highly readable, sometimes entertaining, sometimes geeky and completist. In skimming the local sections, I noticed the cold dead hand (then warm, I guess) of Legends of Devon in a couple places, as in the section on Dawlish where The Legend of the Parson and Clerk - a "legend" written only 11 years previously - gets an outing (page 428) and the sub-Shakespeare The Legend of Babicombe Bay gets upgraded to "fairy tale" (page 443).  In both cases, the source is uncredited despite the specifics showing Legends of Devon to be the primary source.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Walcott was a career clergyman with a strong sideline in  antiquarian and ecclesiological subjects:
Walcott contributed articles on his favourite topics to numerous magazines and to the transactions of the learned societies, and he was one of the oldest contributors to Notes and Queries. His works mainly comprised historical accounts and guides to the English cathedrals and other ecclesiastical buildings in the British Isles ... William of Wykeham and his Colleges (1852) ... He contributed to the Revd Henry Thompson's collection Original Ballads (1850) and ... presented to the British Museum manuscript materials for a history of cathedrals and conventual foundations in England.

See Google Books - inauthor:"Mackenzie Edward Charles Walcott" - for more of his extremely prolific output, which includes the companion volume The east coast of England from the Thames to the Tweed. It's interesting to read, however, the footnote in Nigel Yates's Anglican ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910:
Walcott was described by Dean Hook of Chichester as 'a grandiloquent as well as an inaccurate writer ... He has much miscellaneous archaeological information but is very inaccurate', A. McCann, 'Archives and Antiquaries', in M, Hobbs (ed.), Chichester Cathedral: an historical survey, Chichester, 1994, 199

- page 123, ibid.
The full letter from Dean Hook is online at the National Archives here.  Hook notes that Walcott had been "severely castigated" in the Saturday Review, and concluded:
I do not think that the Sussex Archaeological Journal will gain much if he shall [sic] be appointed editor. He is, however, an amiable man and I am always glad to have him as my guest.
Although it's not strictly a scholarly work, the same doubts apply to A guide to the South coast of England: virtually none of the content is credited. Walcott's not alone in this fault; the book is typical of a style of Victorian learned compilation: a mixture of fact, factoid, hearsay and outright invention. Modern critics of the Internet rightly point out the risks of using indiscriminate Web results for research, but the problem really is nothing new. Some writers have always been slack in their attribution and sourcing.

Nevertheless, I'm overall inclined to like Walcott's work.  I couldn't agree more with the outro in all of his regional guides, where Walcott quotes these lines - further good advice to any weblog maintainer - in praise of finding continuing fascination close to home.
'Tis ever what's within our ken,
Owl-like, we blink at, and direct our search
To furthest Inde, in quest of novelties;
Whilst here at home, upon our very coasts,
Ten thousand objects hurtle into view,
Of interest wonderful.

- unknown - more later
- Ray

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A Sapphic leap in Dorset?

Following on from the recent post about Swinburne and chalk cliffs - see Swinburne, Culver climber - yesterday I read Thomas Hardy's poem A Singer Asleep, his elegy to Swinburne written at Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, on the occasion of Hardy's visit to Swinburne's grave there.

The poem, which celebrates Swinburne as a kindred spirit to the Greek poet Sappho, has a particular verse that refers to Sappho's alleged suicide by jumping off a "white cape", Cape Leukas (now called Cape Lefkada) out of unrequited love for a sailor called Phaon - a yarn especially propagated by Menander's mostly-lost play Leucadia (aka The Lady from Leukas). See Sappho and the Leucadian Leap (Gary Hoffman, Opera today, 18 Sep 2005) for more on this.
His singing-mistress verily was no other
Than she the Lesbian, she the music-mother
Of all the tribe that feel in melodies;
Who leapt, love-anguished, from the Leucadian steep
Into the rambling world-encircling deep
Which hides her where none sees.

- from A Singer Asleep, Thomas Hardy
This brings me to another "white cape" at the easternmost tip of the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset; see Google Maps and this excellent aerial photo by Phil Brace. The overall formation is, as a 19th century description puts it, a broken promontory "called promiscuously Foreland, Handfast Point, and Old Harry Head". As described, with further good photos, in Dr Ian West's geological account Harry Rocks and Ballard Point, within it there are various structures including "Old Harry" and "Old Harry's Wife"; and the gap between the mainland and the first offshore rock appears on maps as "St Lucas' Leap".

"St Lucas Leap" is a name of considerable antiquity that appears on the 1580s Richards Treswell map of Studland Parish (see top right here) and, if the map is accurate, predates the collapse of the promontory into separate stacks 1. The stated origin stories reek, to me anyway, of folk etymology. The predominant one is that:
It was close by, at St. Lucas's Leap, that a pair of pedigree greyhounds belonging to a certain squire at Studland, while coursing a hare, are said to have leaped clean over the cliff and have been dashed to pieces, the name St. Lucas being afterwards given to the spot where the tragedy occurred to commemorate the name of one of the favourite hounds which perished so suddenly and tragically. It was said that the old gentleman did not long survive the disaster, as he was so greatly attached to the dog and its fortunes."
- Old Swanage or Purbeck Past and Present: A collection of articles, topographical, historical, antiquarian, biographical and anecdotal, WM Hardy, 1910
A second version, repeated in Anthony Mills' 1977 The place-names of Dorset, is that is refers to Richard Lucas, rector of Studland 1536-78.

I was interested, however, in the earliest appearance of the name in Google Books, which is Thomas Hardy's relatively early comic novel The Hand of Ethelberta.  Set partly on the Isle of Purbeck, it features several vivid descriptions of sailing past the promontory: Hardy calls the whole formation "Saint Lucas Leap" in the original 1876 Cornhill Magazine publication and the first book imprint (see the Internet Archive handofethelberta02hard). In later editions, for some reason, he revises it to the real name, "Old Harry Point".  

I think Hardy's original name gives a glimpse into his creative processes, because the novel concerns a widowed poet called Ethelberta Petherwin who is fending off several suitors.  She is a poet and writer that Hardy twice identifies with Sappho:
He lived by teaching music, and, in comparison with starving, thrived; though the wealthy might possibly have said that in comparison with thriving he starved.  During this night he hummed airs in bed, thought he would do for the ballad of the fair poetess what other musicians had done for the ballads of other fair poetesses, and dreamed that she smiled on him as her prototype Sappho smiled on Phaon.
‘Well, it is an old and worn argument—that about the inexpedience of tragedy—and much may be said on both sides.  It is not to be denied that the anonymous Sappho’s verses—for it seems that she is really a woman—are clever.’
This makes me strongly suspect that Hardy must have had Sappho's "Leukas leap" in mind when he upgraded "St Lucas Leap" to a full promontory.

1. It's not clear when the collapse of the Old Harry promontory happened. HB Woodward, in 1890, contains the anecdote that
"about one hundred and twenty years ago a man could creep along a narrow path from the mainland to Old Harry"- (page 78, in Swanage (Isle of  Purbeck) Its History, Resources as an Invigorating Health Resort, Botany, and Geology, John Braye, 1890).
But this is unreliable, as it appears to be recycling an 1837 anecdote that refers to an entirely different rock a little westward along the coast, The Pinnacle:
"In one place, nearly half way between Ballard Point and Old Harry, is a rock about 100 ft. high, with mould and grass on the top. It is at the bottom a square of, say, 11 yards; and there are 49 tiers of horizontal flint. I was informed that some very old men recollect that, about seventy years ago, they could creep along a narrow path out to this rock; but, about fifty years ago, it was disjoined, but scarcely any other change has taken place." - On the Strata near Swanwich, in the Isle of Purbeck, James Mitchell, page 591, Magazine of Natural History, Volume 1, 1837.

- Ray

Monday, 29 November 2010

I've come to kill your monstaaah!

I finally watched Beowulf, Robert Zemeckis' 2007 digitally enhanced live-action film adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon epic. I wasn't disappointed.

The epic of Beowulf is a strangely disconnected narrative with its separate Grendel and dragon episodes, but the writers of the screenplay, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, very neatly weave the Grendel and dragon episodes into one ongoing thread: a demonic bargain (and curse) that first afflicts King Hrothgar, then Beowulf himself. There were other nice touches such as the use of Anglo-Saxon and sub-Anglo-Saxon in the dialogue; self-reference to the process of mythologisation (how real events get massaged in the telling to fit hero-myth format); and, unusually in an epic film, showing the hero in the declining phase of the Campbell Cycle (see Heroes) as the city-founder who has fallen from grace. Admittedly, beyond Ray Winstone's much-ridiculed lapses into London accent, there were moments that were difficult to take seriously, such as the constantly-interposed objects to hide Beowulf's groin during his naked fight with Grendel, and Angelina Jolie's demon with integral (and anachronistic) high heels. But overall Gaiman and Avary have scripted a very neat reinterpretation of the legend.

I previously recommended another film adaptation, The Thirteenth Warrior (see Beowulf meets Ibn Fadlan); this was based on Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead, a demythologized Beowulf in which the monsters are a relict group of Neanderthals. Another book adaptation especially worth checking out is John Gardner's Grendel, which retells the first episode of Beowulf from the viewpoint of the antagonist, a highly intelligent monster who watches the rise of humans and whose conflict with Beowulf arises ultimately from his bafflement at culture and the power of language and world-view. See chapter 4 of Understanding John Gardner (John Michael Howell, 1993) for background. (This is, by the way, this John Gardner, not this one).

- Ray

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Mark Twain: good blogging advice

This is completely lifted from Mark Liberman's post at Language Log - From Mark Twain's autobiography - but it's such good advice that I can't resist quoting it:

Finally, in Florence in 1904, I hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography: start it at no particular time of your life; talk only about the thing which intrests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.

Also, make the narrative a combined Diary and Autobiography. In this way you have the vivid things of the present to make a contrast with memories of like things in the past, and these contrasts have a charm which is all their own. No talent is required to make a combined Diary and Autobiography interesting.

And so, I have found the right plan. It makes my labor amusement — mere amusement, play, pastime, and wholly effortless. It is the first time in history that the right plan has been hit upon.

- page 220, Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, Mark Twain, ed. Harriet E. Smith, Benjamin Griffin, Victor Fischer, Michael B. Frank, Sharon K. Goetz, Leslie Diane Myrick, University of California Press, 2010 - originally "Author's Note" in Mark Twain's autobiography, Mark Twain, Albert Bigelow Paine, 1924

Mark Liberman comments, "This is also the right plan for successful blogging, in my experience".

I couldn't agree more, particularly if you extend the concept to the balance between "personal" (day-to-day authorial experience) and "external" (topic material encountered or uncovered). It's an approach that has kept me interested in JSBlog for four years - despite an initial dread of running out of ideas -  and it's the one used by the weblogs that I read most regularly, as well as pre-weblog diary accounts such as Cecil Torr's Small Talk at Wreyland (a diary of an antiquarian landowner).  A similar format can be very successful in fiction, as with WG Sebald's Rings of Saturn (which combines the narrator's walking tour of East Anglia with meditations on the history of places visited).

- Ray


The Internet can always be relied upon for the serendipity of unexpected sidetracks. While browsing for a historical article, I just ran into a rich lode of mostly unfamiliar terminology:

It is on the south side of the chancel near the altar, and consists of a freestone table, upon which lies extended the figure of Sir Thomas, clothed in the armour of the time. The pauldrons and coudieries are ornamented, and the brassarts and vambraces puffed or ribbed. Taces, to which are appended deep lambeaux of overlapping plate; a large apron of chain-mail and broad-toed sabbatons complete his costume and he is armed with sword and misericorde 1.

- An account of Sir Thomas Grenville's tomb in Bideford church, and also of the long bridge in Bideford, By Rev. Roger Granville, M.A., Rector Of Bideford. Exeter. Transactions of the Diocesan Architectural and Archaeological Society, 1894

Naturally I had to go to Wikipedia's Components of medieval armour, and in the process of going through the list ...

Aventail, Bevor, Gorget, Pixane, Brigandine, Cuirass, Culet, Plackart, Fauld, Hauberk, Codpiece, Lance rest, Loin-guard, Ailette, Besagew, Couter, Gauntlet, Pauldron, Rerebrace, Spaulder, Vambrace, Chausses, Cuisses, Greave, Poleyn, Sabaton, Schynbald, Tasset, Tonnlets, Bases, Gousset, Lamé, Rondel

... I spotted a disambiguation link from sabaton to Sabaton (band), and naturally ended up at YouTube.

Sabaton (official site here) are a Swedish power metal group who specialise, strangely, in English-language songs about pivotal events in historical wars. I feel I shouldn't like them, but the music is highly listenable and weirdly invigorating (the sort of music to play while working out); the nearest description I can find is that it's metal/rock opera about wars, with no particular agenda (some of the songs could be viewed as glamorizing warfare, others are distinctly anti-war).  Primo Victoria (about the D-Day landings) and Attero Dominatus (about the fall of Berlin) are characteristic.

I can't find any account of why, but the band is (I assume) named after the sabaton, as one features on the "S" of its logo.

1. In case of confusion: Sir Thomas is armed with a knife, not a small shelf (though both have the same etymology, misericordia = "act of mercy").
- Ray

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Broken Tryst

I just finished reading The Broken Tryst (Maxwell Gray, 1879).

It's a melodramatic romance, set mostly around the village of Brightdale, telling of the loves of Ethel Arden, nicknamed "Brightie" by her family. A 19-year-old orphan, she was rescued from a shipwreck as a baby, and brought up by her indulgent foster-parents, the elderly Ardens.

Ethel has a gently flirtatious friendship with Will Brackenbury, a nice-but-irresponsible miller's son, which goes sour when he asks to marry her and she replies that she could only marry a man in uniform. In response partly to this, and partly to his father's criticism for high jinks including suspending an old farmer from a tree while scrumping apples, Will quits town and joins the army incognito.

Ethel is hurt, but not much, and aims her sights loosely at Cecil Wymmering, whose family owns the nearby Wymmering Manor; but she snubs him at a party when she meets the world-weary Major Leslie Tempest, 15 years her senior. The two develop a strong mutual attraction - despite, unknown to Ethel, Tempest's intended engagement to a society heiress - and after a picnic, they agree to meet the next day in a clifftop dell. Ethel goes home to find a mysterious visitor called Mr Richards, evidently known and disliked by her foster-parents, who gives her a gift of a gold bracelet.

The next day Ethel goes to the dell, but Tempest doesn't turn up (the "broken tryst" of the title). Unknown to her, the previous night Tempest had a near-fatal fight with the stranger, and both have left town. It's later explained that the two are enemies over an earlier disagreement over gambling. Tempest sends a short and formal note of apology for breaking their appointment. Ethel is deeply upset, and has no backup (Cecil is engaged to someone else). She throws herself into study, and time passes. She nearly dies of a fever, and on her recovery goes to stay with London relatives of the Ardens, touring Europe with them, and starting to enjoy life again.

Meanwhile, Will Brackenbury has returned to Brightdale, having earned an honourable discharge for saving his colonel, Lord Lyndon, in battle. After initial resistance, his father and he make their peace. At the time of his arrival, a man has been found dead after an accidental fall near Brightdale; it is "Mr Richards", revealed to be Richard Arden, the elderly Ardens' son and Ethel's dissolute father. His earlier visit to the Ardens had been to claim Ethel as his daughter, a scheme he only gave up when the Ardens gave him their money saved as Ethel's inheritance. Will is sent to London to fetch Ethel home for the funeral.

Will finds Ethel at a vulnerable point, just shaken by seeing Major Tempest with another woman at a concert, but she comes home with Will; both are favourably impressed by the other's new-found maturity. Ethel arrives just in time for Richard Arden's funeral, and Will explains to her the family history; she is upset, but delighted to find that she is her foster-parents' grandchild. Over time, Ethel and Will become closer, and the two marry, though with considerable misgivings on her part because she's still thinking of Tempest.

After their first child is born, Will's old commanding officer, Lord Lyndon, comes to visit Brightdale to thank the young soldier who saved his life. Ethel is horrified to find that Lord Lyndon is Leslie Tempest (Will knows about Tempest, but not that his commanding officer was the same person). Tempest has come to ask Ethel to marry him, but he does the decent thing and takes his leave. Ethel's upset after he has gone, however, gives all away, and the incident drives a further wedge between between Will and Ethel.

On rather frosty terms, they continue for a few years, Will becoming a gentleman farmer and acquiring a manor house in idyllic surroundings, until finally they see a newspaper story telling that Tempest has died in action. Ethel is finally able to cry and release her pent-up disappointments, and the two are reconciled to live happily ever after.

Location / chronology questions

I found The Broken Tryst very readable; as a single-volume novel, it tells the story quite tersely, and it's virtually free of the highly purple landscape/sunset descriptions of MG's later novels. It's not explicitly set in the Isle of Wight, but as I wrote earlier - see Brightdale - an added interest is that its location there is highly identifiable.  Brightdale is Brighstone; the route over the down to Wymmering Hall locates it as Westover Manor, Calbourne (though the architectural details differ from the reality); and the landscape description of the manor where Will and Ethel finally make their home matches Mottistone Manor.

Despite the whole family complications and interlocking past history being a bit contrived, the book worked for me. However, I did get distracted by needing to Google frequent puzzles about fixtures and dates, and I agree partially with the Belfast News-Letter reviewer's comment at the time:
As for the author's chronology, all we can say is that it baffles us completely. We should like it to be explained to us what Spanish sea fight is recollected by the lieutenant, and also in what Eastern campaign young Brackenbury gains two medals and a clasp.
Actually the chronology is reasonably consistent. The general setting appears to be late 1860s: Ethel's visit to St James's Hall to hear "Nilsson" sing must refer to Christina Nilsson, and most likely to a celebrated concert in 1869 marking the move of the Philharmonic Society to that venue. Tempest's having a "pile of photographs" places it after after affordable paper prints came in (see Google Books) and Lieutenant Arden's prized roses, the Marshal Niel and Cloth of Gold, would have been fairly new varieties (this 1913 Biltmore Rose Catalogue dates the Marechal Niel's introduction to 1864). As to Will's "Eastern campaign", the timeline would fit the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia, which was launched from India.

None of this fits Lieutenant Arden's rant about an English sea-battle "exactly this day twenty years by my log-book" with "a Spanish squadron" - unless he means that he was 20 years old. There are a few such naval engagements in the 1796-1808 Anglo-Spanish War, and the timeline would work if we assume him to be in his mid-80s. On the other hand, some of the specifics are plain authorial invention: the "late affray with the Neilghoorkees, at Bombadore", in which Tempest dies, is fictitious, and I'd bet money it was inspired by the title of Major William Murray's 1834 An account of the Neilgherries, or, Blue mountains of Coimbatore, in Southern India.

- Ray

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Churches of Exeter

Bedford Circus after the Bltiz
Bedford Circus after the Blitz, Albert Charles Bown.

Churches of Exeter, by Christine Trigger, is now in stock. From the preface:

This seventh book in the series Postcards from Exeter contains over fifty images of churches and chapels.  it includes districts that were once places outside Exeter that are now incorporated within the city boundaries, such as Alphington, Exwick, Pinhoe, Heavitree, Countess Wear and Topsham.

The book records ancient places of worship long vanished for various reasons: destroyed by enemy action in World War II, demolished due to neglect or rebuilding schemes, or have been converted to different uses.

Some old postcards may bring nostalgic memories to older Exonians - St. Lawrence, High Street, the St. Kerrian's church tower, North Street, St. John's in Fore Street and the Methodist churches at The Mint and Mount Pleasant.

Researching family history has become a popular hobby and postcards of buildings where ancestors were baptised, married or buried can give an added dimension when compiling a family tree.

All the postcards in this book have been selected from the Exeter postcard collection owned by local historian Christine Trigger who has also written the text.

Churches of Exeter costs £7.99 from Joel Segal Books, or by mail order from Precious Moments (

Friday, 19 November 2010

Swinburne, Culver climber

Following on from The Alabaster Coast previously, it'd be an omission to write about anything involving chalk cliffs and the poet Algernon Swinburne without exploring the factoid that he was the first to climb Culver Cliff. (some 500 feet up the chalk cliff face from beach level). I say "factoid" because although it's near-universally and uncritically repeated, the story lacks any reasonable standard of proof: the sole primary source for this exploit is a letter written years later by Swinburne himself.

Swinburne tells how at 17, after having been told by his family that he wouldn't be allowed to join the army, he set out to prove himself not a coward.
It was about the middle of the Christmas holidays, and I went out for a good hard tramp by the sea till I found myself at the foot of Culver Cliff; and then all at once it came upon me that it was all very well to fancy or dream of 'deadly danger' and forlorn hopes and cavalry charges, when I had never run any greater risk than a football 'rooge'; but that here was a chance of testing my nerve in face of death which could not be surpassed. So I climbed a rock under the highest point, and stripped, and climbed down again, and just took a souse into the sea to steady and strengthen my nerve, which I knew the sharp chill would, and climbed up again, thinking how easy it would be to climb" the whole face of the cliff naked—or at least how much more sure one would feel of being able to do it—if one did not mind mere scratches or bruises; but to that prehistoric sort of proceeding there were obviously other objections than the atmosphere of midwinter. So I dressed and went straight at it. It wasn't so hard as it looked, most of the way, for a light weight with a sure foot and a good steady head; but as I got near the top I remember thinking I should not like to have to climb down again. In a minute or two more I found that I must, as the top part (or top story) of the precipice came jutting out aslant above me for some feet. Even a real sea-gull1 could not have worked its way up without using or spreading its wings. So of course I felt I must not stop to think for one second, and began climbing down, hand under hand, as fast and as steadily as I could, till I reached the bottom, and (equally of course) began to look out for another possible point of ascent at the same height. As I began again I must own I felt like setting my teeth and swearing I would not come down again alive —if I did return to the foot of the cliff again it should be in a fragmentary condition, and there would not be much of me to pick up. I was most of the way up again when I heard a sudden sound as of loud music, reminding me instantly of 'the anthem' from the Eton Chapel organ, a little below me to the left. I knew it would be almost certain death to look down, and next minute there was no need: I glanced aside, and saw the opening of a great hollow in the upper cliff, out of which came swarming a perfect flock of 'the others,' [his idiolect for seagulls] who evidently had never seen a wingless brother so near the family quarters before. They rose all about me in a heaving cloud—at least, I really don't think the phrase exaggerates the density of their 'congregated wings'—and then scattered. It did flash across me for a minute how nasty it would be if they flew at me and went for my indefensible eyes; but, of course, they never thought of anything so unnatural and unfraternal. I was a little higher, quite near the top or well within hail of it, when I thought how queer it would be if my very scanty foothold gave way; and at that very minute it did (I assure you on my word of honour that this is the exact truth, strange as it sounds and is), and I swung in the air by my hands from a ledge on the cliff which just gave room for the fingers to cling and hold on. There was a projection of rock to the left at which I flung out my feet sideways and just reached it; this enabled me to get breath and crawl at full speed (so to say) up the remaining bit of cliff. At the top I had not strength enough left to turn or stir; I lay on my right side helpless, and just had time to think what a sell (and what an inevitable one) it would be if I were to roll back over the edge after all, when I became unconscious—as suddenly and utterly and painlessly as I did many years afterwards when I was 'picked up at sea' by a Norman fishing boat upwards of three miles (they told me) off the coast of Etretat, and could just clutch hold of the oar they held out; 'but that is not in this story—which I only hope is not too long for the reader.' On returning to conscious life I found a sheep's nose just over mine, and the poor good fellow creature's eyes gazing into my face with a look of such kindly pity and sympathy as well as surprise and perplexity that I never ought to have eaten a mutton-chop again.

- Algernon Charles Swinburne, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Mrs. Disney Leith, Putnam, 1917
I don't dismiss it entirely. As can be seen in this Flickr image by Ian Johnston - Culver Cliff - Spring Low tide - Close up and personal (5) - on the Sandown Bay side Culver is steep but not vertical, and its crumbly chalk somewhat stabilised by vegetation. But I wouldn't care to try it.  Swinburne doesn't say where this (alleged) climb took place, but the "great hollow in the upper cliff" sounds extremely like Hermit's Hole, a feature repeatedly mentioned in historical Isle of Wight travelogues.  It was accessed by a notch in the clifftop:

At the eastern part of these Cliffs, about a hundred feet below the summit, is a natural cave fourteen feet deep in the rock ; the width of it being ten feet, and the height six feet. The prospect from this cave, varies but little from that of the Cliff above it, which is given in the plate entitled Path to Hermit's Hole. This describes the path by which alone it is possible to get at the cave; and commands the whole sweep of Sandown Bay, with Shanklin, Horseledge, and Dunnose, in the distance.

The path to Hermit's Hole, is fit only to be explored by those who are in the habit of climbing these tremendous Cliffs; for, besides the narrowness of the path, which in many places is not more than a foot wide, a dreadful precipice of five hundred feet beneath, presents to the eye a fearful prospect, which may so bewilder the imagination of the person who ventures to tread these dangerous passes, that he may miss one necessary step, and then no return of recollection can save him from destruction. Nor is this the only danger that awaits him : the Cliff affords no other footing than small projections of its tender substance, and these will frequently give way under the pressure of the unskilful traveller.

- image and text from A tour to the Isle of Wight: illustrated with eighty views, drawn and engraved in aqua tinta, Volume 2, Charles Tomkins, pub. G Kearsley, 1796
Hermit's Hole was, according to Helge Kökeritz's 1940 The place-names of the Isle of Wight, Issue 6, called Harmwood Hole in 1759 - it mutated to Hermit's Hole on the map in Richard Worsley's 1781 History of the Isle of Wight. It becomes a fixture of Isle of Wight handbooks for over a century, often with embellishments. The account in The Gentleman's Magazine for January 1816 (page 25) tells how the cavern is a refuge for sheep, and the path so narrow that if you meet an oncoming one you have to fall flat and let it run over you. A later account tells a more fanciful version:
Those who utilise this narrow path should remember that sheep often stray down it. The boatmen tell us that this fact bears with it an unexpected danger, for the sheep, frightened by the sound of footsteps, will rash up the path and would readily thrust a man over the edge into the sea. They say that the course which they invariably adopt is to open the legs wide and to allow the sheep to get past in that way.

- The zones of the white chalk of the English coast, Dr Arthur W Rowe, Proceedings of the Geologists' Association, Volume 20, 1908
Folksy stories apart, I found in the British Library 19th Century Newspapers archive two instances of deaths at this location. One was accidental: The Hampshire Advertiser for June 13, 1874 reported on HORRID DEATH OF A FERN GATHERER, when an old man, Isaac 'Matt' Cooper, who collected ferns and gulls' eggs and had made a temporary home in the cave, was found dead at the cliff foot. The other was suicide: the Isle of Wight Observer for March 02, 1878 tells of the death of a servant girl, Louisa Staite, who left her outer clothes on the path to Hermit's Hole and presumably threw herself from the cliff.

Hermit's Hole disappears from the guidebooks at the beginning of the 20th century. A look at Old Maps shows its location to have been about here - it persists on OS maps until 1973 - which agrees with the view in A tour to the Isle of Wight . However, nowadays there's no sign even of the notch in the cliff leading down to it - see the high-res aerial shot by Ashley Middleton - so we can assume it has been long since lost to erosion. It's probably just as well: it sounds a health and safety nightmare, and I have a bit of a weakness for scary paths.

Culver Down is, incidentally, the eastern outcrop of the Isle of Wight's chalk 'backbone' running east-west. Unlike the western outcrop that terminates in The Needles, the headland is not, contrary to appearances from either end, a single point but a pair of concave faces with a frightening overhang.  As shown in A Druid Thurible's Whitecliff post and page 66 of Wight Hazards, these are only visible from sea or air.

Of further related interest to this and the previous post: England and France aren't the only places with such scenery. I'd never made the connection before, but the illustration of the cliff above Hermit's Hole reminded me of Caspar David Friedrich's painting Chalk Cliffs on Rügen. The location is now what is the Jasmund National Park on the Baltic island of Rügen, where the chalk cliffs of the Stubbenkammer promontory, with a capping of mature beechwood, create a scenery with its own take on the familiar-yet-strange - in this case, a bleakness compared to the cosiness of the English and French landscapes with the same geology. These cliffs too are in a constant process of erosion, as evidenced by the collapse of the features called the Wissower Klinken early in 2005.

Addendum: for another lost Isle of Wight cave, see Micah Morey's Cave.

- Ray