Monday, 25 April 2011

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

If you didn't see the program and are in the UK, the 94-minute fact-based drama The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is worth checking out on ITV Player (it's available for 30 days from the broadcast date, 25th April).

It's based on Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House, which tells in novelised format the true story of the investigation of a notorious child murder in 1860s Wiltshire. Here's the offficial site:

In June 1860, Francis Savill Kent, the 3-year-old son of a respectable family in Road (now Rode) near Frome, was found stabbed to death in the privy outside their home. Local police having failed to find the murderer, national outcry led to the talented Scotland Yard detective Jonathan ("Jack") Whicher being assigned to the case. Whicher strongly suspected Constance Kent, Savill's 16-year-old half-sister, and her brother William of murdering Savill out of half-sibling resentment. He had Constance arrested, but the case collapsed on lack of evidence, and he was pensioned off in disgrace with "mental depression arising from congestion of the brain". Five years later, however, Constance got religion and confessed to the crime. She received a death sentence, commuted to life imprisonment, and was released in 1885. She emigrated to Australia, joining William (who became an eminent marine biologist), and lived the remainder of her life as a respected nurse, dying aged 100 in 1944.

The drama conveys very well the frustrations of police work in an era before forensics and in a community where social hierarchies conspired to prevent unbiased investigation. As the Metropolitan Police Service account puts it - see Constance Kent and the Road Hill House Murder -

It is a classic illustration of how early investigations were directed heavily by magistrates, of the influence which well-to-do people could exert over local police officers, and of the importance of immediately searching and questioning the whole household at the scene of a crime, regardless of social status.

Then, as now, the public were horrified by child murder and wanted a result, but equally horrified by Whicher's then-unprecedented detective investigation of the Kent family (he evidently understood the unpalatable reality that family members are, with statistical justification, the prime suspects for child murders). Viewed purely as a drama, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher had strong resonances with Priestley's An Inspector Calls, with its unpicking of conflicts within a middle-class family with zero end result except their traumatic self-knowledge.  Kate Summerscale - see the September 2008 Bookslut interview - further likens it to The Turn of the Screw (the TV adaptation strongly focusing on the theory that Constance and William Kent committed the crime together).

As the Wikipedia page for Constance Kent says, the Road Hill House case impinged on major issues including Priest-penitent privilege in England. The 1865 vindication was too late to save Whicher's police career, but he became a successful private investigator. A friend of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, he was the prototype for "Sergeant Witchem" in a number of Dickens crime stories such as The Artful Touch, and "Sergeant Cuff" in the 1868 The Moonstone (see p139, Reassessing British literature, 2007). Elements of the Kent case also featured in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's 1862 Lady Audley's Secret. For other connections, see The prince of sleuths (Kate Summerscale, The Guardian, 5 April 2008).

- Ray

Sunday, 24 April 2011

The baffled readers were we

Occasionally Yahoo! Answers gives a glimpse into bizarreness that is being taught as English grammar, commonly in ESL contexts, but not always. The asker of a question I saw today quoted a homework sheet about predicate pronouns (pronouns in object position that refer to the subject of the sentence).

Here are some points to remember about predicate pronouns.
1. Predicate pronouns follow linking verbs such as am, is, are, was, were, shall be, and will be.
2. A predicate pronoun renames, or refers to, the subject of the sentence.
3. A sentence with a predicate pronoun will usually make sense if the subject and the predicate pronoun are reversed.

The kicker was HE.
HE was the kicker.

Always use subject forms of pronouns for subjects and predicate pronouns.

INCORRECT: The runner was HER.
CORRECT: The runner was SHE

Based on that, the sheet evidently expected these ludicrously archaic and unidiomatic answers:

2. The most excited spectators were we.
7. The dog trainer we admired the most was she.
10. The best hockey player on the team was she.
12. The man slicing green beans for dinner is he.

Those are pretty weird, and I doubt any native English speaker on Planet Earth would spontaneously use such sentences. Nearly a decade ago, Pullum & Huddleston's The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language recently came out vigorously against forms such as "It is I" that use nominative pronouns in object position, noting them to be stuffy and highly formal to the majority of speakers. The sheet, however, falls into exactly the prescriptive error described in their A Student's Introduction to English Grammar (see pages 4-5): teaching an unusually formal (if not sufficiently unidiomatic to be outright wrong) construction as simply "correct".

As far as I can tell, in the USA at least, the prescriptive rule on predicate pronouns was stated most explicitly in grammar texts of the late 19th and very early 20th century, notably in the 1899 A First Manual of Composition and the 1902 A Text-book of Applied English Grammar by the prolific writer and rhetorician Edwin Herbert Lewis (Ph. D., LL. D.,. Professor of English, Lewis Institute, Chicago).

It's I. / It's they.
It's he. / It's who.
It's she. / I thought it was he.
It's we. / I fear it's I whom you mean.

So the subject-pronouns and the predicate-pronouns are the same.

In conversation it is permissible to say It's me, but It's I is better.
- A First Manual of Composition

In answer to the question "Who is it?" we are permitted to say " It's me," instead of "It is I." But it is just as simple to answer merely the word "I." Such questions as "Was it I that you wanted?" are very common among correct speakers, and are not pretentious. But even if we allow ourselves to say "It's me," we must not allow ourselves to say "it's him," "it's her," "it's them." These are vulgarisms.
- A Text-book of Applied English Grammar

Now, a over century later, this advice is hopelessly outdated. As the press release for The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language put it:

Myth: Expressions like "It was me" and "She was taller than him" are incorrect; the correct forms are "It was I" and "She was taller than he."

Pullum responds: The forms with nominative pronouns sound ridiculously stuffy today. In present-day English, the copular verb takes accusative pronoun complements and so does "than." My advice would be this: If someone knocks at your door, and you say "Who's there?" and what you hear in response is "It is I," don't let them in. It's no one you want to know.
- Monumental New English Book Helps Debunk Grammar "Rules"

Googling tracks the content of the worksheet in question to this document on the TeachersWeb site for the Language Arts department of Bella Vista Middle School, California. The fine print credits it to "McDougal, Littell & Company" - now merged into Holt McDougal, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

- Ray

Saturday, 23 April 2011

A Happy Working Song

Skip straight to song.

A Happy Working Song from the Disney film Enchanted. I didn't think much of the movie overall, but the high point was this Disney self-parody (of the Whistle while you work scene from Snow White and A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes from Cinderella) in which Princess Giselle, transported to modern New York, enlists the help of the available wild creatures to clean the apartment where she is staying.

We adore each filthy chore that we determine.
So, friends, even though you're vermin,
We're a happy working thro-ong!

- Ray

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Prospect and refuge in a beer glass

The vivid green-and-yellow coastscape yesterday reminded me a lot of this design on a Badger Brewery glass I photographed a while back.  It seems a classic example of Jay Appleton's "prospect-refuge theory" (see previously: Landscapes in mind) - the idea that satisfying landscape images should contain a view ahead in the background (the prospect) and a safe place in the foreground (the refuge).  In this case the prospect is the cliffscape, with possibilities further indicated by the signpost; and there are two refuges, the badger field and the folksy village.  It is a very satisfying image.

- Ray

Straight Point

Looking west to Exmouth from West Down Beacon
It was the warmest day of the year so far, so we took a walk in the Sandy Bay area. Much as I like the route via Sherbrook Chine, we thought the walk up from Budleigh would be a drag in what was rather close heat, so got off the Budleigh bus at the junction of Budleigh Road and Castle Lane here, went down Castle Lane and up the easy climb across the golf course to West Down Beacon, then turned west along the coast path to Sandy Bay, then back to Exmouth along the beach. It was visually stunning, with the gorse bushes and oilseed rape fields in flower (above).

Littleham Cove and Straight Point
Today also had the lowest tide I've ever seen at Straight Point, so at Sandy Bay we were able to explore a little the section of shore at Straight Point described in Notices of the Flowering Time and Localities of some Plants observed during an Excursion through a portion of South Devon, in June, 1851 (Edwin Lees, Esq. FLS, pp530-541, The Phytologist: a popular botanical miscellany, Volume 4, Part 2, J. Van Voorst, 1852).

A long point of sandstone extends far into the sea between Budleigh Salterton and Exmouth, after passing the highest range of cliffs; and on either side of this were some singular, secluded, deep, gloomy dens, excavated by the sea, as if intended for the perpetration of deeds of darkness. On the western side of the point the sea had so broken down the sandstone rocks, that it seemed as if a huge quarry had been excavated there, such monstrous masses lay scattered about in all directions; the cliff itself shattered almost to fragments.

Sandy Bay from west of Straight Point
The cliffs here are streaked white with guano from long-occupied kittiwake roosts; this normally inaccessible section is stiff with seabirds who clearly didn't like the intrusion. I was rather feebly mobbed by one kittiwake, but they mostly went no further than having a lot to say.  Their cry - from which they get their name - is conventionally transcribed as "kitti-waak" or similar, but to me it sounded, appropriately, more like "Bugger off!".

west side of Straight Point

Kittiwakes roosting

See previously: Riddle of the sand.

- Ray

Monday, 18 April 2011


Ástor Piazzolla - Libertango

It's mildly irritating when you've felt you're among the cognoscenti who know a piece of somewhat obscure music, and then it turns up in a car advert. I'm thinking of Ástor Piazzolla's Libertango and the Volvo S60 R-Design ad.

Never mind; it's a brilliant piece, whose name (Libertad + Tango) represents its Argentine composer's break from classical tango form. The definitive original is embedded above. But there have been any number of very good covers and adaptations. They include the excellent adaptation by Grace Jones - Strange (I've Seen that Face Before), which featured prominently in the film Frantic; this terrifyingly brilliant solo accordion version by Richard Galliano at the concert Piazzolla Forever; and this quite nice version by the classical crossover string quartet Bond.

The official Ástor Piazzolla website is One interesting fact I found from on a quick skim is that the main theme for the film 12 Monkeys is Piazzolla's Suite Punta del Este, arranged and incorporated into the score by the composer Paul Buckmaster.

It's on my agenda to learn Libertango on the bayan, though I think I'm going to have to get a score. I can play the legato section reasonably, but the more staccato section has some moderately nasty syncopation.

Addendum, 12th April 2012: I finally got around to doing it. The general syncopation eluded me for months, so I left the piece on the back burner. I tried again early in 2012, and suddenly found it feasible. This is a pretty basic arrangement, but I'm working on developing it. (The strange right-hand position when playing lower notes is down to the narrowness of the room - I was recording in the bathroom for the good acoustics, but kept banging my elbow on the shower-screen).

- Ray

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Royal Photographic Society: Plymouth historical conference

This isn't about books, but I know we have photographer readers. The Royal Photographic Society just sent me, via the Devon History Society, flyers for its forthcoming Plymouth conference, which focuses on the Plymouth roots of a number of major figures in early British photography.

Amateurs and Artists: 19th and 21st Century Photography in the South West
A conference to be held by Royal Photographic Society, Historical Group
13th–15th May 2011, Lecture Theatre 2, Roland Levinsky Building, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus, Plymouth PL4 8AA

Early photography in Plymouth is an untold story. Robert Hunt, independent inventor of photographic processes, Richard Beard, the first daguerreotype licensee, Charles Eastlake RA, first RPS president, and Linnaeus Tripe, an early calotypist, were all from Plymouth. W.H.F. Talbot, inventor of the positive/negative (calotype negative) process, photographed Plymouth in 1845 and Roger Fenton photographed the Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash, in 1858. Local interest in photography was such that the Devon and Cornwall Photographic Circle was established in January 1854.

The conference is linked closely to three exhibitions. Amateurs and Artists: Early Photography and Plymouth at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, on display 9th April to 30th July 2011. Out of the Ordinary, a group exhibition of work by members of the Royal Photographic Society, South West Contemporary Group is on display at Sherwell Centre, University of Plymouth, 9th to 27th May 2011. The third exhibition, Chemical Traces, is a response to Amateurs and Artists: Early Photography and Plymouth, and will be on display in Scott Building, University of Plymouth. Tours of these exhibitions form part of the conference on Friday and there will be a special viewing of Amateurs and Artists on Friday, 5.30 – 7.00 pm.

See the RPS page for the event for full details. Apart from the main conference, there are two optional free events on Sunday May 15th:

  • A calotype demonstration. Revisiting the site of William Henry Fox Talbot’s photograph The Victualling Office, Plymouth, 1845, a view from the Battery at Mount Edgcumbe across Plymouth Sound. Take the Cremyll Ferry, Admirals Hard, Stonehouse, Plymouth, to Mount Edgcumbe. Ferry fare is £1.20 each way, journey time 8 minutes. Meet at the Orangery (café), three minutes walk from the ferry (there is a car park if you wish to drive there) at 11.30 am. The calotype will be made at the Battery, approximately 12 noon.
  • FREE Reconstruction of the position of the early 19th century Camera Obscura on The Promenade, Plymouth Hoe with an opportunity to view the optics and the panorama within the Fotonow VW Camper Obscura. The Fotonow VW Camper Obscura will be operating on The Promenade, Plymouth Hoe, Friday 13th May until Sunday 15th May, 2011, 9 am until 6.30 pm.

- Ray

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Bayan time (4)

Progress report. The bayan is still going extremely well, except for one setback. I felt sufficiently up to speed to take it along to the session at the Globe on the first Thursday of the month - and found, embarrassingly, that it's slightly sharp, enough for the sound to be gruesomely incompatible with all the English accordions and squeezeboxes there. As it's clearly very well in tune in the self-consistent sense, I can only assume this is some regional tuning issue. Accordion tuning is a major and not inexpensive undertaking at the best of times, and I gather there are special problems with bayans (see The Classical Bayan, by Henry Doktorski); so I think I'll have to live with this. It's not going to make any difference from a busking/solo point of view, or playing alongside tunable instruments.

I have to admit to an interesting sensation. I've dabbled with various instruments before. Generally, seeing virtuosos just makes me feel there are skill levels that are inhuman: I can't imagine how anyone can play like that. The odd thing is that with chromatic button accordion, I don't get that feeling. I admire the skill of virtuosos, and know I'll never be that good: but I don't feel they're on another planet. I think that must be a good sign; I've found an instrument that I'm very much in tune with.

- Ray

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Shagbut, Minikin, and Flemish Clacket

Oh, excellent. An anonymous commenter drew my attention to the fact that the classic BBC radio early music spoof, The Shagbut, Minikin, and Flemish Clacket, is now on YouTube. See the updated Boschian Instruments.

- Ray

Cork Clubs

A while back - see The More We Are Together - I mentioned the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers.  I just had an enquiry via the Devon History Society about another defunct semi-charitable drinking institution: Cork Clubs. The correspondent said:

These existed in public houses from Victorian(?) times and have been described as a poor man's freemasonary. The Cider Bar in Newton Abbot has a club still in existence and I have references to clubs in Greenwich and Rushden.

A quick Google confirms: the Scrumpy User Guide entry for Ye Olde Cider Bar has brief mention and a picture of the Long Bar Cork Club that last met in 1911; the Rushden Research Group has an account of how Rushden Cork Clubs worked; and there's similar at the Greenwich Phantom (May I See Your Cork, Brother?). The "cork" referred to the insignia of membership - a brass-bound cork - and the charitable aspects - usually ploughed back into the club to fund an outing - were funded by levying fines for swearing (helped along by the general disinhibition of the clubs' drinking sessions).  Perhaps this disreputable angle is what makes information on these clubs hard to find; perhaps the general invisibility of working-class leisure and social life in the mainstream record. Anyhow, I was able to track down just two references in The Times:


The mention that a cork club was held at a public house led Mr Wallace to ask, "Has it anything to do with cork?"

Mr George Elliott, K.C. (for the licensee)— I believe not. I understand that it is a harmless holiday club, but it is just possible that corks may be remotely connected with the holiday.

Mr Bodkin, who opposed, said that the members of such a club competed in collecting corks, the rule being that the corks must have been drawn from bottles, the contents of which had been consumed by the competitors. (Laughter.)

Mr. Elliott.— I have never envied my friend's brilliant imagination more than now. (Laughter.)

- page 3, The Times, Jun 20, 1912


There was further discussion at the licensing meeting of the London justices at the sessions house, Newington, yesterday, as to what constitutes a "Cork Club."

Mr Wootton, representing a licensee, said that the clubs had strict rules. At their meetings a cork was placed at the centre of the table, and if there was any breach of the rules the offender was fined a penny or any sum agreed upon, the fines being afterward spent on a holiday.

Sir Douglas Straight, one of the justices, said that he understood that a cork club meant that members were compelled to carry a cork wherever they went, and were called upon to "stand" drinks all round if challenged when they had no cork in their possession.

- page 3, The Times, Jun 21, 1912.

One of the online examples, the Cork Club of the Bull's Head, 39 Market St. Oakengates (see here) has a slightly different name, "Merrington's Jolly Corks".

I don't know if this implies any connection with a similar organisation in the USA around half a century before, the Jolly Corks. As described at Charles Vivian & The Jolly Corks, this was originally founded in New York City in 1867 by a group of musicians and entertainers, who organised private variety shows to get around the "blue laws" forbidding Sunday drinking. They took their name from a "cork trick", a semantic dodge to con someone into buying a round, and, like the later English cork clubs, required members to carry a cork. They rapidly affiliated on a more formal basis as a benevolent organisation, rebadged in 1868 as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, which still exists as one of the the leading US fraternal organisations.

There's a minor local connection. As described in A biographical sketch of the life of Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian, founder of the order of Elks : together with anecdotes and reminiscences of his work and travels (Imogen Holbrook Vivian, 1903, Internet Archive ID biographicalsket00vivirich), the main founder was an English émigré born in Exeter in 1846, and the son of "a clergyman of the Established Church". The biography says:

He never tired in describing to me the long walks by the sea he used to take in boyhood days by his father's side, near Exeter, in fair Devonshire, always alluding to him in the most affectionate terms, with fond remembrance of those delightful hours spent in pleasant and instructive conversation as they walked the sea-girt shores of old England.

I haven't yet tracked who his father might be; some accounts say "Vivian" was a stage name, and that Vivian's real name was Charlie Robertson. Accounts also differ as to his birth date.

Addendum: I just found another reference, showing that the English cork clubs weren't necessarily all harmless bonhomie.

Among the many new clubs that have been of late established, few possess the advantages to members offered by a club at Runcorn in Cheshire, called the "Cork Club." This club, it is stated, is at present attracting much attention in the town, owing to the exuberant spirits of its members, who are bonded together by fraternal ties, and by the rules of the club are bound to assist each other in time of trouble. Their fellowship, however, is carried almost too far for the comfort of such of the inhabitants of Runcorn as have not the honour of belonging to the club, and recent cases before the magistrates have elicited the information that the members of the club are in the habit of surrounding unsuspecting persons and chastising them severely, doubtless not without reason, but still more severely than is technically justified by law. Several of the members enter a public-house, one of them picks a quarrel with a stranger, and a fight is arranged. If the member of the Cork Club is getting worsted, his fellow members join in the fray. The police are therefore making a raid at present on the club, owing to the number of serious assaults reported as having been committed by its members, and on Tuesday the chairman of the club was committed to prison for a month, having assaulted a volunteer in the drill-hall. This, of course, casts a gloom for the moment over the club; but the month will soon pass away, and the chairman be at liberty again. The token of membership of this interesting fraternity is the possession of a cork, and any member found to be minus the cork is compelled to "stand drinks" for the person who makes the discovery.
- The Pall Mall Gazette, December 17, 1874

Ah, the good old days ...

- Ray

Friday, 1 April 2011

A hundred words for mud

If you follow Language Log, you'll know that the yarn that Eskimos have a gazillion number of words for snow has been thoroughly debunked (see, for instance, Geoffrey K Pullum's chapter The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax from his 1991 book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language).

Nevertheless, specialist and ultra-specific vocabularies do exist, such as niche terms in particular trades, and I was pleased to find an example last week in a short monograph issued as a small octavo sized pamphlet, The Exe: Piscatorial Jottings (Philip S King, Whittaker and Company, Exeter, 1871). I assume the author is the same Philip S King who regularly contributed to Notes and Queries in the mid to late 1800s, including one entry about salmon fishing.

The pamphlet lists various East Devon terminology about fish and tackle that I'd encountered before (such as "wrinkling", "snooding", "lask", "bobbin pale", and so on (see Wayland Wordsmith's piece on Eden Philpotts' novel Redcliff - Fishing from Lympstone, 1922). The section where it describes traditional Exe estuary salmon fishing - seine fishing with a draw net, on foot from the mud flats at low tide - also lists the local terms for various mudbanks: Black Oar, Bull Hill, Withies Mud, the Reach, etc.  But in addition it has an interesting glossary of terms used by Exe salmon fishers for the mud itself.

Modder - generic mud, that found on a mud-flat.
Grease - grey mud.
Roody - red mud.
Nore - black mud.
Apsamite - mud off Topsham.
Clissle - mud at the mouth of the River Clyst.
Darlen - the sandy mud off Lympstone.
Roodlag - a thin layer of red mud deposited on grey.
Greylag - a thin layer of grey mud deposited on red.
Verdygrease -  mud that has acquired a skin of green algae.
Musslecrake - mud with mussel shell fragments, deposited by a rising tide after a storm at a sea.
Plurge - nearly liquid mud.
Sleesh - semi-solid mud at the channel edge, too soft to cross on foot.
Stettle - sleesh that has dried sufficiently to support a boy's weight.
Steddish - stettle that has dried sufficiently to support a man's weight.
Drag-me-down - a patch of deceptively soft mud that falsely appears to be steddish.
Stank - foul-smelling mud.
Dartymore - mud speckled with bird footprints, thus resembling the arrowed cloth of convict uniforms
Lords-mercy - an isolated patch of steddish, where an unwary fisherman stranded by the rising tide may safely wait until the water is deep enough for a boat to approach.
Boggies-nest - a tangle of buried vegetation that can trap the ankles.
Tautplash - flecks on the face, from mud thrown off when a mooring rope goes taut.
Jack o' daddock - a log or baulk of timber half-buried in the mud
Poleon - a Jack o' daddock that from a distance resembles a muddied corpse.
Griffen - the human-shaped hollow left in firm mud after the extrication of a person who has fallen in it.
Abram's nammet - a rare edible mud deposited after a clean calm high tide, used as a spread upon bread.
Gammet - Abram's nammet befouled by sea-birds, so "fit only for a gannet to eat".
Moon modder - mud purported to have curative properties after exposure to the light of a waxing April moon.
Fool's modder - mud applied inexpertly to the boots and clothes in aid of the pretence that one has been fishing rather than in the public house.

Although short of 100 words, that's still enough to be a good example of how a large jargon vocabulary can grow up, in this case reflecting the importance in the fishermen's lives of a thoroughly mundane substance.

- Ray