Friday, 30 April 2010

Out-takes: newspaper clippings

A purge of notes from my organiser, mostly items spotted in the newspapers in library / pub / cafe.

We need a dug-out canoe to navigate the net (Ben Macintyre, The Times, 28 January, 2010) on the "fox vs. hedgehog" (generalisation vs. specialisation) approaches to knowledge, and its application to the Internet. Southmouth doesn’t exist. Thank the Green Belt (Tristram Hunt, The Times, 28 January, 2010): celebrates British 'Green Belt' land policy. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter... and now it's the fifth taste (Cahal Milmo, The Independent, 9 February 2010): the rather well-trodden story of umami, and the recent launch of Taste No 5, a commercial umami paste (as if we can't get it from trad inexpensive sources such as cheese, tomatoes, soy sauce, anchovies, etc). Maps - the new rock’n’roll (Andrew Pettie, The Telegraph, 16 Apr 2010): a nice taster for the Britsh Library's recent Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art exhibition. Read my lips (James Fenton, The Guardian, 29 July 2006 - found via more recent comment): debunking the common myth that the ancients, apart from a handful of Great People, were incapable of silent reading. Mysterious snake appears in painting of Queen Elizabeth I (The Telegraph, 4 Mar 2010): news from the National Portrait Gallery (see press release) of how an artist appears to have got cold feet over painting Queen Elizabeth I holding a snake. Verse that will make you feel better (Jeremy Laurance and Amanda Hall, The Independent, 24 Mar 2010): on the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine. Campaign to restore Burton mausoleum (The Times, 26 April 2010): regarding the explorer Sir Richard Burton's unusual 'Arab tent' tomb at Mortlake (see the church page and Borough of Richmond site). What happened when Albert Einstein met Charlie Chaplin? (John Walsh, The Independent, 28 April 2010): "When giants of science, literature and culture get together, we expect to feel the earth move. But these stellar gatherings are as likely to disappoint as dazzle".

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Leaving, by Richard Bradbury

Leaving - a new play by Richard Bradbury.

Jack has lived in the same place all his life but now he is being pushed into leaving. His powerful attachment to the land, though, brings with it contradictory emotions that can only really be explained by understanding his past. "Leaving" is about the fierce passions provoked by a sense of being rooted in a locality. Jack's love for his farm and his rage at what has happened to it over the last 40 years is tempered by the knowledge that the place also has him and his family caught in its tight, almost suffocating embrace.

April 30th and May 1st, 7.30pm at the White Hart, Woodbury, Devon.  Tickets £8 from Joel Segal Books / phone 07917 850258 / or e-mail

From the flyer: Richard's novel Riversmeet, about the ex-slave and anti-slavery and social campaigner Frederick Douglass, won an "Exclusively Independent" award earlier this year, and his last play, Become a Man, was commissioned in 2007 by the Greater London Authority as the first play to be performed in the new City Hall. It went on to play to sell-out audiences at the Hackney Empire. He is currently writing a new play, Blood Meadow, about the 1549 Cornwall and Devon rebellion.
- Ray

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Eyre Affair

I just read - on long-standing recommendation - Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, the first in his 'Thursday Next' comic fantasy/SF series. Briliant: I recommend it too.

The Eyre Affair is set in a 1980s Britain superficially like our own, but with various differences. Genetic engineering has been perfected (England now has wild dodos) but general technology is at a 1950s valve electronics level. Wales is a radical republic, and England and Russia are still entrenched in the Crimean War, of which the protagonist Thursday Next is herself a veteran. But the chief difference is the central importance of literature: just about everyone's name is literary allusion or wordplay, and literature is of consuming interest and controversy, requiring a large hierarchy of Special Operations groups to tackle the many forms of literary crime. The higher, secret, echelons even have access to time travel.

Thursday is an operative in the low-level SO-27 - a literary detective dealing with counterfeiting and fraud - until the theft of the manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit brings her into contact with the secret SO-5. The thief, it appears, is the charismatic and near-invulnerable master criminal Acheron Hades, and Thursday is one of the few surviving people to know what he looks like. She also has unusual abilities: she is able to resist Hades' powers of persuasion, and also is a one of the few who can spontaneously slip between literature and the real world. One of her early memories is of stepping briefly into Jane Eyre as a child and causing the accident where Mr Rochester's horse slips (this isn't previously in the book, which also differs from our version in that Jane at the end goes to Africa as St John Rivers' assistant).

This slippage is central to the story of The Eyre Affair as Thursday's uncle invents a machine enabling anyone to cross the divide (as in Woody Allen's The Kugelmass Episode and the TV series Lost in Austen - see Lost in a book, previously). Hades captures the device and intends to use it for literary terrorism, first removing and killing Mr Quaverley, a minor character from Martin Chuzzlewit, before turning his attentions to Jane Eyre. Thursday is caught between triple interests: her own desire for justice; the plans of Hades; and the sinister Goliath Corporation, which also wants the device.

I won't give away more, but it's great fun. Fforde paints a marvellous picture of this literature-obsessed world where, for instance, Richard III in Swindon is as long-running as The Mousetrap and features Rocky Horror style audience participation (the audience don sunglasses at the words "this sun of York" and stamp their feet at "I, that am rudely stamp'd"). I admit I found it slightly hard to read without constant interruption, as every unfamiliar name repays Googling: for instance, I didn't know Dic Penderyn , who in the book is revered for sparking off the Welsh revolution, was a real Welsh activist.

Much recommended. Jasper Fforde has an extensive - possibly confusing - website, Fforde Grand Central, relating to this and his other books.

- Ray

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Pure bosh: a media scare

We have a cafe bar in Topsham, Route 2, that serves a very nice toffee-chocolate ice cream called "Topsham Mud".

While Googling it for a shop visitor who asked if it was available elsewhere, I ran into something thematically connected but decidely not nice: the Times Archive Blog report The most disgusting Times article ever?, which reports on Times coverage of what appears to be a 19th century urban myth.

The yarn originally kicked off early in March 1870, when a number of publications reprinted a scare story from the South London Press reporting that fat was being extracted from mud at Battersea, to be processed and sold as butter.

Butter From Mud.
A fortnight ago we (South London Press) mentioned the fact that the butter of South London was adulterated with tallow, starch, manganese, salt, and water. We thought then that we had reached the Ultima Thule of adulteration, but an ingenious individual has since added another sophisticating agent. A friend has in his possession a specimen of a pure white fat, tasteless and perfectly inodorous which has been obtained by a clever analytical chemist from — what do our readers suppose? Simply from a portion of the Thames mud, taken from the river at Battersea! And we are afraid that this new discovery of science is no longer a secret, for the owner of a small wharf on the banks of the Thames had an offer this week from a person desirous of becoming the tenant, and on asking the purpose for which the wharf was required he was told it was to be used for manufacturing butter, to be sold to the poor at a shilling per pound! No doubt it was the intention of this philanthropic individual to have supplied the public with dairy butter fresh from the bosom of old Father Thames.
- reprint in Littell's Living Age, Volume 105, page 720

Punch, March 12 1870, took up the story:


Our candle manufacturers complain that they can't live because their raw material has ran up to such a figure. And their raw material has risen in price because it is wanted for making butter. It is a sober fact. It was but the other day that chemistry taught our manufacturers to consolidate and refine all sorts of oils and greases into the raw material of candles. And now science has gone a step farther, and taught us how to turn that, which has but just been made to take form and pressure as dips and moulds, into "prime Irish" and " best Dorset ! " No wonder stearine is going up: fatty matters rising to the surface. Everything with grease in it is worth putting under process. Science will compel its precious oils, and extort its fatness, ut the last discovery, in this direction, is the grandest. It beats what we had hitherto regarded as the triumph of industrial chemistry— the extraction of Champagne out of petroleum. They have actually found out how to turn Thames mud from Battersea reach into butter! And so the whirligig of time brings about its revenges ! We refused to transmute our London sewage into milk on the Maplin sands, through the purifying stages of rye-grass and mangold, and, lo, our sewage, in payment of our stupidity, is coming back to us, via the Thames, in all its naked nastiness, as butter !

It is only fair of Father Thames. We poisoned him, and he means to do his best to poison us ; or, to put it more pleasantly, we turned our fatness into pollution of his bed, and he is giving us back our filth in fatness, whether we will or no !

Here is a triumph for Thwaites, a chance for the Board of Works, a use for the deposits of Barking, a way of turning to account the hundreds of thousands of tons of sewage now poured weekly from the pumps at Abbey Mills. At present they accumulate as Thames mud, and are complained of as a nuisance. You have but to turn that Thames mud into butter, to extract from it a bonus and a blessing ! Write up over the Abbey Mills pumping station "Bazalgette, Butterman to the Board of Works! " and let Thwaites and the Board bind themselves to use their own extract as "the best substitute for butter at breakfast!," And in honour of that reach of Thames where was made the first find of this'choice delicacy for the breakfast table, let Batter-sеа be re-christened and known henceforth as Butter-mere.

The context is rather interesting, making it understandable why such a story could spring up. Victorian London was rather like a modern third-world megalopolis: extremely dirty, with a variety of scavenging trades recycling a variety of waste. Fat from the Thames was in reality collected and recycled to make low-grade grease for lubricating machinery. This fact, however, seems to have become cross-fertilised with a general (and probably justified) paranoia about food adulteration, and public distaste for inferior butter substitutes - prototype margarines - that went under the generic name of "bosh".

The name "Bosh" derived from "Bosch-butter", referring to the Dutch town 's-Hertogenbosch 1, one place where butter-substitute was made, and many descriptions of it are pretty derogatory. For instance, from Samuel Fallows' 1835 The Progressive Dictionary of the English Language:

Bosh-butter - A kind of butter very poor in quality, made in Hamburg, and shipped to England where it is used for adulterating other butters.

This skates around the actual nature of the product. "Bosh" was made from animal fat: one formulation notoriously involved horse fat, collected in England and shipped to Hamburg for processing before coming back to England. Its sale was legal as long as it wasn't labelled as butter, but it frequently was. Nevertheless, not all bosh was poor quality. Whether under the name Butterine, Bosch, Oleomargarine or Artificial Butter, the better varieties were thoroughly palatable. It seems quite significant that the butter-from-mud story virtually coincides with the first commercial impact of margarine proper, patented in 1869 by the French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés. It was the start of an era of considerable infighting between butter and margarine lobbies that persisted for at least a century. In Britain, the fraudulent sale of margarine/bosh as butter was a constant issue in the late 19th century (see the many references in Hansard to the Margarine Act 1887, whose chief purpose was to kill the term "butterine" in the UK). Looking further afield, you can gauge the hostility toward butter substitutes from this 1886 US book by TL McAlpine, Oleomargarine and Butterine: A Plain Presentation of the Most Gigantic Swindle of Modern Times (Internet Archive oleomargarinean00unkngoog).

Whatever the reason, the butter-from-mud story trundled on for years. After an initial debunking in 1870, it resurfaced in late 1876 in more detailed form with purported proof: observation of the work of "mudlarks" and their process of collecting river grease, allegedly for processing into butter substitute marketed as "mild Dorset" or best Brittany". This led to an investigation by a reporter for the Sanitary Record, who found that the collection and recycling was perfectly real, but only for the production of inedible low-grade fat.

We obtained samples of the materials from the men, and afterwards operated upon them to extract the fat, with a view to determine how far it was practicable to purify the fat so as to render it fit for use in the manufacture of butter as alleged. We subjected it to various purifying processes, but completely failed in rendering the fat bright and free from offensive and disgusting odor, and we can have no hesitation in assuring the public that there need not be the least apprehension of their breakfast table being supplied with ' best Brittany ' manufactured from fat recovered from Thames mud. That the refuse fat from the millions of kitchens in London may in part be recovered and utilized is beyond a question of doubt; but it is equally certain that the fat so recovered can only be purified to such an extent as to fit it for use in the manufacture of the most common kinds of soap and dip candles.
- Sanitary Record, reprinted in the Times, December 16, 1876

A few years later, William Mattieu Williams summed up the story in his 1883 Science in Short Chapters:, pointing out that the whole story didn't even make commercial sense:

Chapter XXXVI
The oleaginous products of Thames mud: where they come from and where they go

introduction snipped

My readers need not be told that there are soapsuds in London as well as in Yorkshire, and they also know that the London soapsuds pass down the drains into the sewers. I may tell them that besides this there are many kinds of acids also passed into London sewers, and that others are generated by the decompositions there abounding. These acids do the Frenchman's work upon the London soapsuds, but the separated fat, instead of rising slowly and undisturbed to form a film upon the surface of the water, is rolled and tumbled among its multifarious companion filth, and it sticks to whatever it may find congenial to itself. Hairs, rags, wool, ravellings of cotton, and fibres of all kinds are especially fraternal to such films of fat : they lick it up and stick it about and amid themselves ; and as they and the fat roll and tumble along the sewers together, they become compounded and shaped into unsavory balls that are finally deposited on the banks of the Thames, and quietly repose in its hospitable mud.

But there is no peace even there, and the gentle rest of the fat nodules is of short duration. The mud-larks are down upon them, in spite of all their burrowing; they are gathered up and melted down. The filthiest of their associated filth is thus removed, and then, and with a very little further preparation, they appear as cakes of dark-colored hard fat, very well suited for lubricating machinery, and indifferently fit for again becoming soap, and once more repeating their former adventures.

Those gentlemen of the British press whose brilliant imagination supplies the public with their intersessional harvests of sensational adulteration panics, have obtained a fertile source of paragraphs by co-operating with the mud-larks in the manufacture of butter from Thames mud.

The origin of these stories is traceable to certain officers of the Thames police, who, having on board some of these gentlemen of the press engaged in hunting up information respecting a body found in the river, supplied their guests with a little supplementary chaff by showing them a mud-lark s gatherings, and telling them that it was raw material from which "fine Dorset" is produced. A communication from "Our Special Correspondent" on the manufacture of butter from Thames mud accordingly appeared in the atrocity column on the following morning, and presently "went the round of the papers."

Although it is perfectly possible by the aid of modern chemical skill to refine even such filth as this, and to churn it into a close resemblance to butter, the cost of doing so would exceed the highest price obtainable for the finest butter that comes ,to the London market. A skilful chemist can convert all the cotton fibres that are associated with this sewage fat into pure sugar or sugar-candy, but the manufacture of sweetmeats from Thames mud would not pay any better than the production of butter from the same source, and for the same reason.

Mutton-suet, shop-parings, and other clean, wholesome fat can be bought wholesale for less than fivepence per pound. It would cost above three times as much as this to bring the fat nodules of the Thames mud to as near an approach to butter as this sort of fat. Therefore the Thames mud-butter material would be three times as costly as that obtainable from the butcher, While the supply of mutton-suet is so far in excess of the butter-making demand that tons of it are annually used in the North for lubricating machinery, We need not fear that anything less objectionable—i.e. more costly to purify—will be used as a butter substitute.

"Bosh" in the sense of nonsense/humbug is, incidentally, etymologically unconnected with "bosh-butter", pre-dating it by decades. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word comes from the Turkish bosh (= empty, worthless) and got into English via the popularity of James Justinian Morier's 1834 novel Ayesha: the Maid of Kars (Internet Archive ayeshamaidkars00morigoog). I'm not entirely sure I believe this. A look in Google Books suggests there to have been a vogue in the 1830s for Orientalist novels, and the word is used in them for local colour: for instance, the 1835 The Pacha of Many Tales by Frederick Marryat, the 1840 The Cashmere Shawl: An Eastern Fiction by Charles White, and the 1839 The Romance of the Harem by Julia S H. Pardoe. I'm sure they all contributed.
- Ray
1. Yes, the one where Hieronymus Bosch came from.

Addendum, 20th April 2010: following up a couple of spinoffs Dr C mentioned in the comments.

You'd have to be subjected to the I Can't Believe Its Not Butter tyranny to have really appreciated Bosh.

In my late teens and a bit after, the big marketing push for margarine was the "Can you tell Stork from butter?" roadshow headed by Lesley Crowther (see YouTube). The whole Margarine Act infighting was still going on - retreaded as the Margarine Regulations, 1967 - and Stork SB fell foul of it for the implication that "SB" stood for "soft butter" and its adverts with visuals of cows , thus getting into the territory of butter impersonation. See this abstract from the British Food Journal Volume 80 Issue 1 1978.


The name Boche also, of course, refers to the German Army in WWI. This doesn't seem to stem from the village in the Nederlands but it is unclear where it did come from.

General opinion - compiling online references and the OED - is that it comes from French slang alboche: a conflation of Allemand (= German) and caboche (= cabbage).

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Bryant & May

Fancying something different to read last week, I sub-borrowed my mother-in-law's library book, the 2008 The Victoria Vanishes by Christopher Fowler, and very much enjoyed it. This is one is Fowler's "Bryant & May" series, which features two London detectives named after the London-based match company. Bryant is described as "a wrinkled tortoise sporting windowpane glasses and a frayed brown trilby, wrapped in a moss-green scarf like an unravelling knitted python"; May as "a ramrod-backed gentleman of debonair demeanour, dressed in a rather gaudy Savile Row suit and a scarlet silk tie". They work for the fictitious Peculiar Crimes Unit, a misfit department of the Metropolitan Police; their cases span a period from the London Blitz to the present day.

In The Victoria Vanishes, Bryant & May investigate a serial murderer who is killing middle-aged women in London pubs (somehow managing to achieve this without concealment); as clues build up to profile the motive, it becomes apparent that there is a deeper conspiracy behind the deaths. Bryant & May meanwhile have their own problems: apart from incipient closure of their department, May has a tumour on his heart; and Bryant, on the edge of retirement, fears his mind could be deteriorating, having a clear memory of seeing one of the victims leaving a pub - The Victoria of the title - that closed 80 years ago. (This is a homage, not one I'd have spotted, to the 1946 The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin).

I've clearly dipped into the mythos at the wrong point. The heroes are elderly and ailing, and the ending of this late book in the series could easily be taken as end of its heroes. I'm pleased to see it's not; however, it looks worth going back and reading the books in chronological order. Apart from being pleasantly quirky police procedural full of black humour and eccentric characters - the Peculiar Crimes Unit has no qualms about consulting witches, mediums and conspiracy theorists - The Victoria Vanishes has (I assume typically for the series) a rich feeling for archetypal London. In one sense it pastiches the mystical/psychogeographical Londons of authors such as Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair; in another, it celebrates such 'deeps' of the city through its public houses, whose names and continuity of location reflect ancient events and geography. Without being heavy, the writing is deeply erudite, very English, and steeped in a fascination with the history and curiosities of London. The public houses featured in the novels can be investigated via the annotated Bryant & May London Maps at the author's website.

For more background, see Christopher Fowler's main website and his interesting weblog. Fowler bills himself as "author of urban unease, dark comedy, mystery and horror", and his titles outside the Bryant & May mythos look equally worth investigating.
- Ray

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Sidmouth slip poetry sighting

Sidmouth landslip: click to enlarge
This afternoon we went to Sidmouth to see the recent cliff slippage at Pennington Point, at the east end of Sidmouth seafront where Alma Bridge crosses the mouth of the River Sid (see the Sidmouth Herald: Sidmouth cliff fall closes link to town). An unknown poet has fixed to the bridge the following:

Earth hath not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!


These glowing cliffs reflect the Western light.
The eastern sky's a wash of pink and peach.
All Nature seems (yet merely seems) to prech
A seaside Paradise of calm delight.

A garden fallen is a fearful sight!
This path that's closed, this blockage on the beach.
This bridge to nowhere, anti-tourist fea-
ture's Nature's work as well? Well, no, not quite.

The rock revetments, and those groynes that keep
The Esplanade of Sidmouth free from ill
Effects of littoral drift, displaced the heap
Of eastern shingle. Now, these cliffs could kill!
Dear God! Our mighty leaders seem asleep;
Statistics on erosion? Lying! Still!
This is about the fairly contentious issue of cliff erosion and cliff protection in Sidmouth (see, for instance, Sidmouth Herald: "Time for action to slow Sidmouth cliff erosion"). I wouldn't know all the details, but the bottom line is that any protection measures would only slow cliff erosion. The soft and permeable Keuper Marl cliffs are observably riddled with springs and spectacularly eroded by water from inland. Chips Barber's Sidmouth Past and Present - page 11 - mentions that the cliffs to the east of Sidmouth have receded some 30 metres since 1928. The area has remarkable terrain; for instance, the erosion gullies in the cliffs below High Peak, west of Sidmouth (see below).

East Devon District Council's Pennington Point Cliff Erosion Review (PDF here) has some interesting background, particularly the existence of the Sidmouth Tunnel, a railway tunnel behind the cliff face dug to carry stone for a failed 1830s venture to build a harbour at Sidmouth. The tunnel is already breached by cliff falls: see The railway that never was and Peter Glanvill Photography. The Sidmouth Harbour Company of 1836 explores the background.

See the Devon History Society blog - Sidmouth: a harbour never built - for a more historical take on the subject.

- Ray

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Constance Savery

I've been in correspondence with Eric Schonblom via shared topic interests on Yahoo! Answers. He's just returned home to the USA after a two-month visit to Great Torrington, Devon, with the enviable opportunity to examine a large collection of materials, including unpublished works, relating to the prolific children's author Constance Winifred Savery (1897-1999 - see the Independent obituary).

The first fruit of Eric's work is the website
- Ray

Angels in America

Clare and I have just been watching the DVD of the HBO miniseries of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (trailer above) and we both highly recommend it. Adapated by Kushner from his play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, it won multiple Emmy awards and follows the breakdown of two couples' relationships against the backdrop of Reagan-era politics and the AIDS epidemic.

If there is a central character, it's Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS who begins experiencing visions, first of his ancestors and then manifestations of an angel, leading to his belief that he is a unwilling Biblical prophet upon whom America's fate depends. The angst-ridden Louis Ironson, Prior's Jewish partner, has deserted him because he can't cope with Prior's illness, and begins a relationship with a married Republican Mormon Joe Pitt, whose Valium-addicted wife retreats into a private fantasy of Antarctica. The new relationship between Louis and Joe founders on Louis discovering that Joe was employed by the corrupt lawyer Roy Cohn, who is also dying of AIDS, haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.

This description doesn't remotely do the story justice; it's a gripping and intelligent masterpiece that tackles, and effortlessly interweaves, themes of gay issues, Jewish and Mormon religions, and US politics, with plenty of witty asides such as Wizard of Oz allusions. Throughout, it leaves open whether the various characters' mystical experiences are magic realism or hallucination (for instance, is the Angel real within the story, or a fabulation based on Prior's angel-tattooed nurse?). All the roles are well-cast and well-acted, though Al Pacino stands out for his portrayal of Cohn as a charismatic monster (as in this scene where he is diagnoed with AIDS), and Meryl Streep (in triple roles as Joe's Mormon mother, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and an elderly rabbi). The latter, which achieved some publicity a while back, isn't merely a gimmick, but inherited from the stage play's intentions in doubling up roles to show the fluidity of gender identity.

Do check it out. There are (though I'm not sure there should be) plenty of clips on YouTube. The playscript itself is highly readable and readily findable: for instance Angels in America: Part One [Millennium Approaches] & Part Two [Perestroika] (Nick Hern Books, 2007, ISBN-10: 1854599828) on Amazon.

A couple of snippets I liked from the playscript. There's Hannah Pitt's one-sided phone conversation with the officer who has found the hallucinating Harper wandering in a park after gnawing off a piece of tree in a botanical garden:

HANNAH: Pitt residence.
No, he's out. No I have no idea where he is. I have no idea. I have no idea. No idea. No. No. This is his mother. OH MY LORD! Is she ... You ... Wait, officer, I don't ... You found her in the ... Prospect Park? I don't ... She what? A pine tree? Why on earth would she chew a ... (very severe) Well, you have no business laughing about it, so you can stop that right now, that's ugly. I don't know where that is. l've only just arrived from Salt Lake and I barely found Brooklyn. I'll take a ... a taxicab. Well yes of course right now! No. No hospital. We don't need any of that. She's not insane, she's just ... peculiar. Tell her to behave. Tell her ... Mother Pitt is coming.

Or the Angel's first conversation with Prior Walter:

ANGEL: Greetings, prophet!
The Great Work begins.
The Messenger has arrived.

PRIOR: Go away.

ANGEL: Attend:

PRIOR: Oh, God! There's a thing in the air, a thing, a thing.

Am the Bird of America, the Bald Eagle,
Continental Principality,
I unfold my leaves, Bright steel,
In salutation open sharp before you:
Long-descended, well-prepared...

PRIOR: No, I'm not prepared, for anything. I have lots to do, I...

ANGEL: (with a gust of music)
American Prophet tonight you become,
American Eye that pierceth Dark,
American Heart all Hot for Truth...
The True Great Vocalist, the Knowing Mind
Tongue-of-the-Land, Seer Head!

PRIOR: Oh, shoo! You're scaring the shit out of me...
- Ray

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

John Petty and The Last Refuge

Department of little-known novelists: John Petty.

The chewed-up cover (right) is from the 1968 Penguin edition for his 1966 SF novel The Last Refuge. The cover image, featured on The Art of Penguin Science Fiction site, is "by Richard Hollis, using a detail from a photograph by William Garnett in Geology by William C Putnam, Oxford University Press, 1964".

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Kipling: fantasy, SF and horror

A recent Anecdotal Evidence post, `The Illegitimate Branch of the Profession', reminded me of an interesting Rudyard Kipling short story, A Matter of Fact, involving an encounter with a sea monster, that could almost be considered a precursor to HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos.

Kipling's short story canon has a reputation for more or less realistic character-driven stories, many with Indian settings, but he actually produced a large body of works classifiable as fantasy, SF and horror. In this context, Rudyard Kipling's Tales of Horror and Fantasy (2008, Pegasus Books, ed. Stephen Jones, ISBN10 1933648783) looks very much worth checking out. The Kinokuniya BookWeb entry has a table of contents:

The Vampire
The Dream of Duncan Parrenness
The City of Dreadful Night
An Indian Ghost Story in England
The Phantom 'Rickshaw
The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes
The Unlimited Draw of Tick Boileau
In the House of Suddhoo
The Bisara of Pooree
Haunted Subalterns
By Word of Mouth
The Recurring Smash
The Dreitarbund
Bubbling Well Road
The Sending of Dana Da
My Own True Ghost Story
Sleipner, Late Thurinda
The Man Who Would Be King
The Solid Muldoon
Baboo Mookerji's Undertaking
The Joker
The Wandering Jew
The Courting of Dinah Shadd
The Mark of the Beast
At the End of the Passage
The Recrudescence of Imray
The Finances of the Gods
The Finest Story in the World
Children of the Zodiac
The Lost Legion
A Matter of Fact
The Bridge-Builders
The Brushwood Boy
The Tomb of His Ancestors
With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 AD
The House Surgeon
The Knife and the Naked Chalk
In the Same Boat
As Easy as A.B.C.: A Tale of 2150 AD
Swept and Garnished
Mary Postgate
The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat
A Madonna of the Trenches
The Wish House
The Gardener
The Eye of Allah
On the Gate: A Tale of '16
The Appeal

I thought I knew Kipling's short fiction well, but I recognise very few on the list. The Man Who Would Be King is of course thoroughly well-known: see The Great Game and other adventures and Larry J Kreitzer's analysis of its theological motifs in Borders, Boundaries and the Bible. With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 AD and As Easy as A.B.C.: A Tale of 2150 AD are also quite well-known SF stories of a world dominated by the "Aerial Board of Control", an airship trading monopoly ("The A.B.C., that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons") enforcing its control with non-lethal beam weapons.

Many of the other stories are findable online if you search the Internet Archive for Kipling stories. For instance, The Phantom Rickshaw and 'They', both ghost stories, are in the 1921 Selected Stories from Kipling. The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes, concerning a man caught in a horrific trap, and The Finest Story in the World, in which a writer attempts to capitalise on a naive man who remembers his past lives, are in The Phantom Rickshaw And Other Stories. At the End of the Passage, concerning a man haunted in his dreams (on reflection I do remember that one as a horror classic), and The Mark of the Beast, concerning a man cursed to become a wereleopard, are in Mine Own People And Other Stories. And so on. There are plenty of strange tales to explore.

The New Readers' Guide to the Works of Rudyard Kipling has a good overview by Fred Lerner, Rudyard Kipling and Modern Science Fiction, listing the stories classifiable as SF.

- Ray

Saturday, 3 April 2010

On pseudohistories

I just made it into the local paper with the Express & Echo story "Town 'guide' has residents fuming" concerning my spoof town guide Secret Topsham. Quoting:

One critic, who asked not to be named: "The whole thing is extremely distasteful. It is not in the spirit of Topsham people—we are not like that.

"On Saturday there was a couple visiting Topsham complete with a Secret Topsham quiz they had downloaded from the internet.

"The couple were upset when they realised they had been tricked—disgusted, I think, was the expression used."

A spot of context for those who've come here in response to that story. I maintain the official Topsham website as well as the unofficial "Topsham Ten" page. I also run the weblog for the Devon History Society and co-maintain the Topsham Museum website. From this it should be abundantly clear that I think Topsham's a brilliant place, and that I'm also keen on history.

My short response is exactly as I was quoted in the paper (though I don't recall saying exactly those words): "It is really just taking a friendly poke by someone who loves the town at some of the more formal guides you see."

But of course it's more complex than that. Amateur local history, as an activity and genre - and I'm talking about everywhere, not just Topsham - has a number of foibles. It tends to enshrine concrete anecdote over the often fuzzy reality, and accept personal testimony uncritically. It seizes on the most tenuous connections to famous persons. It likes its history airbrushed: local persons are always worthy, social unrest and the grittiness of the historical past ignored. Like all histories, it reflects the social biases of its compilers (in the case of local history, usually older middle-class people). And it takes itself far too seriously.

Some of these I had in mind as applicable to Topsham. The Vivien Leigh connection, for instance, is an example of the 'famous person' syndrome; she never lived in Topsham, and the only connection is that she was married for five years to someone from the town. But these are far more widespead foibles characteristic of local guide pamphlets, websites and advertorial articles for many towns and villages, and Secret Topsham is satirising the 'local anecdote' format in general.

Anyone who feels "disgusted" after falling for a hoax or satire they found on the Internet should look to the origin of that feeling. This is all about cognitive dissonance, the discomfort that comes from taking on an idea, then having to radically revise it. It's easier to blame the originator than accept responsibility for believing something uncritically - despite it being well-known that the Internet is full of misinformation - then realising your mistake.

Secret Topsham is full of impossibilities, tall stories, joke names, an unlikely concentration of famous connections, and even a link to the famously fictious Dunchideock Treacle Mines. It's hard to see how anyone could believe it for more than a moment.

Addendum: further to discussions in the comments, I just found Granite State of Mind, Christian Wisecarver's lovely parody that transplants Jay-Z's Empire State of Mind to portray New Hampshire as a seething metropolis.

- Ray

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Reproach of Annesley

Another Maxwell Gray (Mary Gleed Tuttiett) book read: her third novel, and the second after The Silence of Dean Maitland that made her name: The Reproach of Annesley. The "reproach" of the title is the stain of unresolved accusation.

Like Dean Maitland, it's primarily an Isle of Wight novel written when Mary Tuttiett lived in Newport. Serialised in 1888/9 and published in 1889, it's a melodrama surrounding a romantic quadrangle - three rival suitors for one woman - taking place in the five years or so before 1871 (the date pinpointed by a reference in the final chapter to civil war in Paris, which would have to refer to the overthrow of the Paris Commune). The central location is "Arden" and its manor house and surroundings - highly recognisable as Arreton - with "Medington" (Newport) and its "Red House" also featuring. "Arden Cross" is Arreton Cross, and the Gales' inn "The Traveller's Rest" is the Hare and Hounds. I can't find the "Gledesworth" that's said to be over the downs from Arden; I suspect it's just derived from the author's middle name. A couple of segments, as with the finale of Dean Maitland, take place in Western Switzerland and the Jura Mountains; these undoubtedly draw on Mary Tuttiett's personal experience, as she mentioned in interview - see previously - having visited Yverdon-les-Bains before she became a permanent invalid.

I have to admit I enjoyed the book, probably because I'm getting attuned to the conventions of Maxwell Gray and/or the three-volume Victorian novel. As with The Silence of Dean Maitland and Unconfessed, the first third of the book is devoted to setting up the conflicts and characters before anything major happens; not knowing this, it could come across as a little slow. Probably the weakest point for me was the predictability of some plot points: from the moment Paul's body isn't found, you know he isn't dead; and when Edward sees the apparition of monk looking exactly like Paul, in the very region he disappeared, who else is it going to be? I'm even getting to like Maxwell Gray's detailed scenery descriptions: although she's very prone to pathetic fallacy, using sunsets and gloomy weather as an emotional soundtrack to the story, the best of them are photorealistic. Take the introduction, describing the road over Arden Down:
The narrow, white high-road ran straight along the summit of the down; it was unfenced on one side where the turf sloped so abruptly towards a rich cultivated level as to make this almost invisible from the road, and on the other bounded by a bank, purple in summer with wild thyme, and crested by a high quiekset hedge, which effectually concealed the northem slope of the down and the wooded country beneath it spreading away to the sea. This thorn hedge, which, in default of leaves and blossoms, bore masses of thick and hoary lichen, instead of growing erect from its bank, running nearly east and west, was arched over to the north-east in an accurate curve, due to the fierce briny sweep of the prevailing winds, and was by the same agency smoothly shorn on the windward side. These strong salt winds, blowing off the sea and frequently rising to gales, give all the trees and hedges within their influence a marked family likeness, stunting their growth, and forcing them to bow to the north-east as if suddenly made rigid in the height of a south-west gale.

But the salt south-west was silent on this cloudy March aftemoon, and in its place a bleak east wind, whirling the white dust from the flinty chalk road, and quieting gradually down as the sun drew nearer the west, was sweeping over the short turf with its low, lonely sound, which is half whistle and half moan. The rich level to the south of the down sprinkled though it was with occasional farms, each having its cluster of ricks and elm-trees, and varied here and there by a village spire rising from a little circle of thatched roofs, looked solitary beneath. the grey sky. It terminated on the east in some picturesquely broken hills, interrupted by a long, level grey band, which was the sea, and on the south in more hills of moderate height and irregular outline, which derived an unusual grandeur this afternoon from the deep purple shadows resting upon them, and emphasizing their contour against the silvery grey sky, a sky full of latent light. On the west again there were hills of gentler outline, beyond these little glimpses of piain and woodland, and on tbe faintest limit a curving break filled with a polished surface of sea, reflecting the dim yellow lustre of the declining sun, which glowed faintly through the curdling clouds above.
The road is a metalled main road now, but the landscape is the same and you can even identify the rough location. Expand the Google Maps view below and have a look around.

View Larger Map

Such scenes in Mary Tuttiett's books are clearly based on detailed personal observation, and she made the most of the few places she had been or could go (in later life when she was an invalid). This makes the books extremely interesting from a 'forensic' point of view; her biography isn't well-documented, but precise scenery provides good leads to where she had visited. On the other hand, it's painfully obvious when she gets out of her scope of knowledge. In The Reproach of Annesley, for instance, she seems to have little idea what a career soldier does; Edward appears to be permanently on leave.

The Reproach of Annesley was made into a movie in 1915 (see IMDb). The book itself is online at the Internet Archive (reproachannesle00tuttgoog: ignore the bad metadata saying it's only Volume 1).

PS Check out also the Arreton Blog.

The Reproach of Annesley is discussed in more detail in my book A Wren-like Note: the life and works of Maxwell Gray (Mary Gleed Tuttiett). See the official site,

- Ray

Songs from the past

Further to the previous post Hardy's poetry: downbeat but great, I just had an e-mail from Ken Trickett Voll of Buena Vista, Wisconsin. His own story is unusual in itself; Ken has part-German, part-Devonian roots, arising from his father Gert being interned at POW Camp No. 42 (Exhibition Field Camp), Holsworthy, during World War II. Ken's mother, Carla Trickett, was a maid in service at Soldon Manor; the two met briefly during one of Gert's several escape attempts and married after the war, emigrating to the USA to avoid prejudice.

Anyhow, to the point of the post: Ken sent me some sound files of partially-restored cylinder recordings and notes belonging to his late mother. According to her diaries, they comprise a trio of songs recorded by Cecil Sharp during a tour of Dorset and Devon in the early 20th century. In his notes Sharp writes of Percy Grainger being present at some of the recording sessions, which places the likely date as 1908, when Grainger is known to have been collecting tunes while on a concert tour of the Westcountry. 2

The first, unnamed, song is performed by Cedric "Brassy" Nupson, a Hampshire-born thatcher and keen fisherman living in Starcross. Unfortunately all but the first two and the last verse were too damaged to recover. "Mr Nupson regaled us with accounts of catches of unlikely size," Sharp wrote, "after which he sang a version of The Unfortunate Rake." This broadsheet song spawned many variants including The Streets of Laredo, and the highly interesting thing in this one is its Exeter setting (it mentions the St James district, near Exe Bridges) which makes it a 'missing link' between the English versions and the American St. James Infirmary Blues.

The second, also by Mr Nupson, is a bawdy song called My Angledog (possibly NSFW); I won't ruin the point of the song by explaining (see footnote 3 for spoiler if you must). It is rather fun because it's a glimpse at the kind of material Sharp obtained as raw recordings; as is well known, he typically bowdlerised his transcripts).

The third, which was the reason Ken got in touch, is a recording of Lydia Garger of Wareham, Dorset, singing a song called Great Things. They recorded in The Angel, Wareham Forest (the pub renamed The Silent Woman after featuring in Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native). Sharp noted "Liddy" to be a tiny but formidable lady, almost a dwarf, who before singing needed to warm up on a prodigious amount of chewing tobacco, along with pale ale "which she downed with great gusto despite her diminutive stature. As she drank she told us of the folly of her youth, when she had 'left her head and heart on the dance floor'. We soon had no money left, but Percy organised a whip-round and all was well". The lyrics of Great Things are the Thomas Hardy poem of the same name I recently mentioned, showing that Hardy wrote it nearly a decade before its publication in his 1917 Moments of Vision. (Of interest, the Mellstock Band have also set the words to music).

Ken tells me he has severe doubts about the pieces being autochthonous folksong, and I don't disagree. The literary origin of the Great Things lyrics pretty obviously suggest it to be a parlour performance piece; conversely there's something of the flavour of music hall about My Angledog - its title word is the only regional dialect word in the song. Not that this necessarily matters: highbrow songs such as Thomas Moore's Oft in the Stilly Night and faux-rustic ones such as the charmingly naive Buttercup Joe have become well-established on the folk circuit.

A quick search through the British Library 19th Century Newspaper online archives rather confirms my suspicions of non-amateur origins, in that The Era for 8th January 1881 finds a Miss Lydia Garger getting star billing in pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Exeter. It's a sufficiently unusual name and the dates look about right. Then as now, I suppose, pantomime was a valuable, if stereotypical, work opportunity for persons of restricted growth. I've had no luck finding any more about Cedric Nupson or why he was called "Brassy".

However, I'm not too bothered; Ken's find is absolutely fascinating, and I'm sure more background will come to light. Enjoy!

1. Files copyright Ken and Hannah Trickett Voll, 2010.
2. See p.125, Percy Grainger, John Bird, 1999.
3. But if you need a spoiler, see Passing down old Devon dialect, Laura Joint, BBC Devon, for "angledog".

- Ray