Tuesday, 28 June 2011

To Moretonhampstead and back

I like the sign for the Royal Oak inn at Dunsford, Devon. I don't know who painted it, but the psychedelic-era retro style is surprising to see in a very traditional village: yet it works. I especially like the way the word "Dunsford" is incorporated into the tree roots.

I photographed it while the bus was stopped on the way back from Moretonhampstead (we were visiting my mother-in-law in hospital there). The 45-minute bus trip from Exeter (the Country Bus 359) is worth doing, as it goes through remarkable countryside. First climbing from Exeter, through rolling foothills with deeply-cut valleys, as far as Dunsford, it then reaches a striking escarpment - see Geograph - when it crosses the River Teign at Steps Bridge, and continues to climb up one side of the wooded gorge of the Teign past an alpaca farm before dropping slightly to Moretonhampstead, which is in a kind of bowl-shaped plateau with views of Dartmoor's uplands beyond.

Devon. Digital Elevation Map
Landmap Project via Internet Archive.
The whole terrain is highly explicable geologically: see the geological map of Devon. As far as the Teign, the road is crossing Carboniferous sandstones, and the escaprment is the edge of the outcrop of Dartmoor granite. It's so handily reachable from Exeter that we'll definitely go back to walk there some time.

As the DEM (left) shows, Devon is extremely hilly, with rapid elevation changes. The flood plain of the Exe (Exeter is the yellow dot) is about the only moderately large flat part of Devon.

- Ray

Friday, 24 June 2011

The wreck of the Tehwija

Wayland Wordsmith just had an interesting post - The wreck of the schooner 'Viga' - about an account in Pulman's Weekly of a shipwreck off Exmouth in 1907.  Apologies to WW for poaching the topic, but I can fill in the details with a Nautical Magazine account I managed to hack from Google Books snippet view. The copyright's a bit "grey", but it's an article that would otherwise just languish in the archives.

The Wreck of the Tehwija
by Anne Walsingham

TWO pictures on a "jumble" stall at a recent Exmouth fete attracted the attention of two young children, who bought them for a penny each and took them proudly home to their father. He was surprised to find that they were photographs, nearly fifty years old, of one of the most famous wrecks in Exmouth's sea-faring history — the Norwegian vessel Tehwija which was smashed to pieces off Orcombe Point on October 10, 1907.

She was a three-masted Russian schooner and two months previously Uno Baarman and his crew of seven had loaded a cargo of deal battens and boards at their home port of Hango in Finland. They left Hango on August 29, and battled through the Baltic in variable weather, with head winds and occasional fog. Early on the morning of September 14 a freshening wind and a stronger current set the ship towards the land, and for the safety of his crew, his ship and her cargo, Captain Baarman was forced to put into Mingo for shelter. Here they stayed for a week, till the bad weather subsided a little, and a tug was hired to take the Tehwija out to sea.

On her course once again, she struck more variable winds in the North Sea and English Channel, but made good headway. Arriving off Exmouth about 4 pm on October 9, Captain Baarman signalled for a pilot. Then began a nightmare which the older members of Exmouth Lifeboat crew discuss today. With the wind freshening from the SE, Captain Baarman waited nearly two hours for a pilot, but the weather was so bad that it was impossible for the little pilot boat to put out. With the sails close reefed, Captain Baarman headed the Tehwija for the open sea, away from the towering, red cliffs and the vicious rocks. The winds and the seas grew worse throughout the night, and when a wild grey dawn broke, the Tehwija was already drifting towards the land.

At 9 am Captain Baarman again set course for the Exmouth bar, and once more signalled for the pilot. He and his crew stood anxiously waiting with both anchors ready to let go; they stared out over the heaving waters around the Pole Sands and Maer Rocks. Somewhere on board was a little creature even more terrified than the men — Captain Baarman's little Pomeranian dog. By now conditions were so bad that neither pilot nor tug could reach the straining vessel. It was impossible to discern the entrance to the Exmouth channel — had Captain Baarman attempted to cross the treacherous seas around the Pole Sands, it would have meant certain death for him and his crew. Fighting for her life, the Tehwija drifted towards the shore.
Both anchors were dropped, and for two hours there was a short respite. Then, without warning, the port anchor chain snapped, and instantly the ship headed toward the breakers. As the men hoisted the distress signal she struck the sand — her rudder smashed. Within minutes she had a strong list to windward and the heavy seas were lifting her cargo and pounding it back on her decks. So fierce was the wind that in less than an hour more than half her deck cargo was washed away, and for hundreds of yards the beach beneath the cliffs was strewn with planks.

Ned Bridle and the gallant crew of the old pulling and sailing lifeboat, Joseph Somes, fought their way toward the Tehwija — she was not much more than a mile from the lifeboat station and only yards from the beach. Coxswain Ned tried to take the lifeboat through the swashway, but every stroke of the oars was repelled by the heavy seas. By this time, news of the wreck had filtered through to the town, and crowds of watchers thronged the shore, waiting in agonised silence as the two ships fought out their battle with the furious waters. Sick with horror they stood helpless as the unequal struggle went on; an eye-witness has recalled that at one moment the lifeboat seemed to standing clear upright on her stern, her outstretched oars black against the tossed white crests of the waves. "She looked like a beetle on its back, and was just as helpless," folks said.

The Exmouth men never ceased their efforts but the task was impossible, and only in the end was the Teignmouth lifeboat able to come up to the bar on a fair wind and take off Captain Baarman and his crew. The little dog was by now so terrified that it was impossible to get her off the wreck, and Captain Baarman was forced to leave his pet behind. The men were brought ashore and taken to the old Sailor's Rest which stood on Chapel Hill. Though the Exmouth life-boat crew were unable to complete the rescue, their efforts have always ranked as one of the "finest hours" of any local lifeboat crew.

The wreck of the Tehwija split in three pieces and was washed on to the sands at the corner of Orcombe Point. The beach was littered with cargo and timber. Beside the wrecked cabin huddled a drenched, quivering little dog who was later safely returned to her master. Most of the fitments were sold at the site of the wreck. The timbers and cargo were salvaged and carried on rafts to the Exmouth dock, where the wood was auctioned by my grandfather, the late Mr. Herbert Bridle (strangely enough, no relation to the lifeboat coxswain). It is said that the proceeds of this auction actually realised more than the original worth of the cargo. The wheel and compass of the Tehwija now hang in the new Sailor's Rest buildings in St. Andrew's Road, Exmouth.

- Anne Walsingham, The Nautical Magazine, pp355-356, Volumes 175-176, 1956

The Devon Local Studies Library has a photo of the wreck, which you can see is on the Exmouth side of Orcombe Point, as well as one of Captain Baarman's Pomeranian dog. I also found a geneaological record with what's most likely a picture of Captain Baarman himself (there can't be many people called Uno Baarman working as "Sjökapten").

One slight puzzle is the ship's name, as accounts vary. Modern ones call it the Tehwija, as does the Times report for Oct 11, 1907; but Pulman's Weekly called it the Viga and the Devon archive photo captions say "Twija". I was inclined at first to think "Tehwija" to be garbled reportage for "the Viga" - but Lloyd's Register of Shipping for 1901 finds a Tehwija registered to the Latvian port of Riga. Given that, my best guess is that the ship's name was Tēvija: Latvian for "fatherland" or "homeland".

(The whole scenario rather reminds me of the beginning of Dracula, all the more so because in Bram Stoker's novel, Jonathan Harker's employer was the Exeter solicitor Peter Hawkins. I hope that no coffins of earth were found aboard, and that the Pomeranian dog was all it seemed!).

- Ray

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Stupid: comparatives

A while back - More fierce and most fierce of all... - I mentioned Professor Arnold Zwicky's Language Log posts on comparatives (Inflected Adj/Adv and commoner) which looked at disputes over comparatives of adjectives.

To recap: comparative and superlatives can take two forms. If we have a hypothetical adjective "zonky", it can either take the 1) inflected form (zonky / zonkier, zonkiest) or 2) the periphrastic form (zonky, more zonky, most zonky).  Some adjectives take form 1, some take form 2, and some can take either. The difficulty is which form to choose. For a particular adjective, you find that different grammatical authorities, and even different individual speakers, disagree strongly.

A case in point: I ran recently into a query about the situation for the adjective "stupid". To me at least, the quickest way to answer this was a corpus check using Google Books Ngram Viewer.  Here are the results:

"stupider"/"more stupid" - UK EnglishUS English
"stupidest" / "most stupid" - UK English / US English

The data shows them to be long-standing co-existing forms. Within the time slot covered, in both UK and US English, "stupider" has always been a less common form than "more stupid", though in US English, over the past 30 years, the two have come to be used about equally. "Stupidest" and "most stupid", in contrast, have been used about equally since 1860, though again in US English, over the past few decades the inflected form "stupidest" has risen to be the dominant one.

Here, furthermore, are examples of "stupider" used by writers of impeccable credentials:
  • The stupider I am, myself, the stupider I think books ... - John Ruskin
  • You have liked many a stupider person - Jane Austen
  • His father was certainly the stupider of my two brothers ... - Algernon Swinburne
  • I have seen a duke (No matter which) turn politician stupider - Lord Byron
  • ... only in my obstinate persistence, like a man trying to dig though up to the neck in mud, grew stupider and stupider! - Thomas Carlyle
  • the stupider and clumsier they grew ; till at last they were past all cure - Charles Kingsley
  • Do not do an unjust thing now, and imagine Kanaka legislatures do stupider things than other similar bodies. - Mark Twain
  • I think that most modern people are much stupider than those in the age of my father - GK Chesterton
  • both your husbands have run away from you to much plainer and stupider women - George Bernard Shaw 
  • It was also found that the stupider animals, such as the sheep, hens, and ducks, were unable to learn the Seven Commandments by heart. - George Orwell
  • I might have made a tolerably good buffoon, if I were a little stupider and a little more high-spirited - Aldous Huxley
  • How much stupider! Michaelis knew at once he had made an impression on her. - DH Lawrence
  • On the other hand he is in many respects stupider than the animals - CG Jung
  • Besides, Lord Lambeth's no stupider than any one else - Henry James
  • But at the next lower level he is replaced by a stupider homunculus ... - John R Searle 
All this data I imagine would be lost on the author of Literally, the Best Language Book Ever: Annoying Words and Abused Phrases You Should Never Use Again (Paul Yeager, Perigee Books, 2008). On his associated weblog post - Stupid Grammar Error - Paul's associate (or partner?) Sherry Coven states categorically that "stupider" and "stupidest" are wrong. It's a classic piece of "nothing is relevant" prescriptivism, with its dismissal of dictionary inclusion ...
finding a word in a modern dictionary doesn’t make it legitimate, standard English
... and irrelevant appeal to logic and comparison:
Stupid is just like lucid (same -id ending) ... In fact, in general, -id words use more and most instead of –er and –est.
This may well be the case for "-id" words in general, and Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that for "lucid", the inflected forms are very rare (see "lucider" / "more lucid" ... "lucidest" / "most lucid"). However, there's no reason, beyond wanting language to be tidy, why "stupid" should behave the same way as "lucid", and the observed print usage shows that it doesn't now and never has.

The reality is that the choice between inflectional and periphrastic comparatives is a very complex matter, and research has shown that it varies not only with time and between speakers, but also with register (situation and subject matter).  Papers and books have been written about it: see, for instance, Competing forms of adjective comparison in modern English: What could be more quicker and easier and more effective? by Merja Kytö and Suzanne Romaine; and English adjective comparison: a historical perspective by Victorina González-Díaz. The idea that such a subtlety can be summed up with a blanket statement that "form X is the only correct one" is quite bizarre. As Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar puts it - see You don’t really get language, do you? - it springs from a centrally mistaken and counterfactual assumption that there is One Right Way for any usage situation.

- Ray

Monday, 20 June 2011

The Green Table

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5.

Via MetaFilter, an example of the excellence of the Internet:

The Green Table: A Dance of Death
Kurt Jooss' lament for the futility of war, The Green Table: A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes is a masterpiece of modern dance that premiered in 1932--just month's before Hitler's rise to power would propel Europe inexorably toward chaos for the second time in as many generations. A performance by the Joffrey Ballet is available on YouTube in five parts.

The Green Table is an astonishingly innovative ballet for its time. Accompanied by a fairly minimalist single-piano score, it broke many ballet conventions (for instance, by avoiding points, and dancers making use of flexed feet).  It begins with politicians (Gentlemen in Black) posturing around a green table, before proceeding to six scenes of war presided over by a barbarously-dancing skeletal Death (The Farewells, The Battle, The Partisan, The Refugees, The Brothel, and The Aftermath), before finally returning to the politicans.  I'm by no means a ballet fan, but I recommend it; I've only seen it once before, on TV decades back, and find it gripping. (I'm also chuffed to have found a dance piece that Clare, who knows about these things, had never seen).

- Ray

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Bayan time (5)

I'm just in the process of learning Acker Bilk's signature clarinet piece Stranger on the Shore. Pardon the murky tin-bucket sound quality (the microphone on Clare's HP laptop isn't great) and the image reversal that for some reason is the default for the HP video capture software. The intro needs especial work.

General bayan progress: slow but steady. As you can see, I feel much more relaxed than when I recorded the Bluebell Polka - no multiple takes and sigh of relief on getting through the piece - and the Орфей no longer weighs a ton. It's been four months, and the chief ongoing tasks are building up my technical keyboard skill, learning a repertoire (because I don't sight-read well), getting more comfortable with playing in front of people (I've rashly promised to play in some capacity at the Town Fayre in August), and getting familiar with the counter-basses (which my old accordion didn't have).

- Ray

Passage House Inn bar canopy

If you're in town, the new backlit stained glass bar canopy at the Passage House Inn, Topsham, is worth seeing purely on its merits as an artwork. Depicting the Topsham river frontage and Exe estuary, it's by Roberta Ayles of Aylesglass, Totnes.

Click to enlarge. Sorry about the piecemeal photography, but the angles make it impossible to get straight-on photos of several of the sections.
panel 2 (detail)
panel 2
panel 3
panel 4
panel 5 (detail)
panel 6

Monday, 13 June 2011

In the dark

In 2009 (see Echoes of SF) I mentioned Daniel F Galouye's SF novel Dark Universe, in post-apocalypse survivors live in a cave system in total darkness, finding their way by echolocation using "clickstones".  At the time, I'd only just encountered the reality that human echolocators exist in the real world. At the time, a Times article - Blind taught to ‘see’ like a bat - mentioned that no scientific research had been done on the technique. However, Felix Grant just sent me the 2011 paper "Neural Correlates of Natural Human Echolocation in Early and Late Blind Echolocation Expert" 1, which reports functional brain scan results on blind users of the technique, showing that they actually use the primary visual cortex to process the sound data. As the work of Daniel Kish shows, the method is teachable, but it appears unclear if it's generally learnable or if you need a innate aptitude to excel at it.

Addendum: PLoSBLOGs has a very good overview of the subject: Getting around by sound: Human echolocation, by Greg Downey.

This brings me to an Exeter connection: James Holman FRS, aka "The Blind Traveller". An Exeter-born naval officer, he went blind at 25. Kicking against the restrictions of being pensioned-off to a ghastly ritual posting at Windsor Castle that involved twice-daily church attendance, he instead went to university, then on a Grand Tour of Europe, and then on extensive and intrepid world travels. He's the historical poster boy for human echolocation, and is said to have accomplished this using a tapped cane or ambient sounds such as the hoofbeats of horses.

I say "said to" because while his echolocation methods are mentioned in many modern books and articles, I can't find mention of them in any of Holman's travelogues, nor in other contemporary accounts of him; William Jerdan's 1866 Men I Have Known, for instance, just talks of his other senses being intensified in a general way, and Holman's own preface to his 1834 The narrative of a journey, undertaken in ... 1819, 1820 & 1821, through France, Italy, Savoy, Switzerland, parts of Germany bordering on the Rhine, Holland, and the Netherlands says

... it must, however, not be forgotten, that the loss of one sense, is uniformly compensated by superior powers of those that remain unimpaired, in consequence of their being more called into action; and it is well known, that the sense of touch, in particular, acquires so great a delicacy, as to afford degrees of information, which under ordinary states it is incapable of: besides this advantage, he acquired an undefinable power, almost resembling instinct, which he believes in a lively manner gives him ideas of whatever may be going forward externally.

But however he did it, the achievement is remarkable. His travel works are online at the Internet Archive.

Such extensive travel journals require notes, and a point of of interest is how Holman made them.  Mostly, as you'd expect, by dictation, but described in A Voyage round the World: Volume 1, pages 6-7, he also used a device he called the "Nocto via Polygraph", shown in the frontispiece of the fifth edition of The Narrative of a Journey (here). Invented and sold by Ralph Wedgwood of London, the device - variously called a Noctograph or Noctopolygraph ("nocto" for night, "poly" because it produced duplicates) comprised a rectangular frame crossed by parallel brass wires, that held two sheets of plain paper with carbon paper sandwiched between. The user wrote with a stylus, guided by the wires, the carbon creating the prints (one original, one reversed copy) on the plain paper. The top-of-range modes had stretchy spring grids so that you could write proper descenders on letters. There's an detailed account of the device , and its advantages and difficulties, on pages 117-118 of George Ticknor's 1864 Life of William Hickling Prescott.

Although Wedgwood's device was a well-known, and patented, one, the idea wasn't wildly original. The Catholic Encyclopedia's section Education of the Blind has a good historical overview of the many similar devices assisting the blind in writing:

... the tablets of Généresse (1807) and of Bruno, the typhlograph of Passard, Dr. Nord's skotograph, Dr. Woizechowsky's amaurograph, Count de Beaufort's stylograph, Wedgewood's noctograph, and the writing-frames of the Elliot brothers, of Thursfield, Dooley, and Levitte.
line-cell frames or tablets, the best known are those devised by the Rev. Joseph Engelmann of Linz (1825), James Gall of Edinburgh, Mercier-Capette, Hebold, Dr. Llorens of Barcelona, by C. E. Guldberg of Copenhagen (1858), Galimberti of Milan, Martuscelli of Naples, Moon of Brighton, England, Kemps of Grave, Holland, Ballu, Brother Isidore of Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, Belgium, and Mlle Mulot of Angers, France.

These gadgets weren't solely for blind users. One with a literary connection is the Nyctograph, a fairly low-tech version devised by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) for making notes in the night. This constrained the writing even more into a shorthand, each letter written in a square pigeonhole in a card grid.

Any one who has tried, as I have often done, the process of getting out of bed at 2 a.m. in a winter night, lighting a candle, and recording some happy thought which would probably be otherwise forgotten, will agree with me it entails much discomfort. All I have now to do, if I wake and think of something I wish to record, is to draw from under the pillow a small memorandum book containing my Nyctograph
- Lewis Carroll, letter to The Lady magazine, October 29, 1891

It's an odd thought that over a century later, I'm still using a very similar setup; the Graffiti input system on my Palm M100 organiser, which uses a cut-down shorthand alphabet written with a stylus in a square area, doesn't seem conceptually far different.

- Ray

1. Thaler L, Arnott SR, Goodale MA (2011) Neural Correlates of Natural Human Echolocation in Early and Late Blind Echolocation Experts. PLoS ONE 6(5): e20162. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020162.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Under the cliffs again

I don't normally rate glossy regional publications very highly; they have a habit of recycling local factoids. But the 2011 Summer issue of East Devon Coast & Country has a very interesting article by the Seaton historian Ted Gosling - The Platts at Branscombe - on coastal potato farming at Branscombe.

I've mentioned previously how the slopes of the Hooken Undercliff were used to raise early young potatoes. I didn't realise that this extended to the "plats" - the more usual spelling than "platts" - that were tiny sloping fields all along the cliffside at Branscombe, where early daffodils, crocuses, tulips, broad beans and strawberries were also grown. It must have been ghastly work: donkeys were used to cart seaweed up from the beach for fertiliser, and a regular task was "drawing forehead" (carrying slipped soil from the bottom of the field up to the top). The Branscombe Project has in its postcard archive - here - views of these fields, described by the Sidmouth historian Peter Orlando Hutchinson in 1858 as "a beautiful undercliff, a sort of stage, half way down to the sea, well cultivated with corn, potatoes, etc".  Cheap imports have long since made obsolete this arduous and precarious use of the sheltered cliffside; see the modern view.

On the topic of undercliffs, I've an update to Seaton, slips and Sabine Baring-Gould. Baring-Gould's 1900 novel Winefred, a story of the chalk cliffs is now on the Internet Archive (ID winefredstoryofc00bari).

The opening paragraph ...

One grey, uncertain afternoon in November, when the vapour-laden skies were without a rent, and the trailing clouds, without a fringe, were passing imperceptibly into drizzle, that thickened with coming night, when the land was colourless, and the earth oozed beneath the tread, and the sullen sea was as lead — on such a day, at such a time of day, a woman wandered through Seaton, then a disregarded hamlet by the mouth of the Axe, picking up a precarious existence by being visited in the summer by bathers.

... definitely compares with Maxwell Gray and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and it gets distinctly geeky in places, as in this description of the Axton - Lyme Regis Undercliff and its microclimate:

But, as every tyro in geology knows, the chalk is built up over the green sand, below which are impervious beds of clay. The rain soaking down through the faults in the chalk reaches the argillaceous stratum, and, unable to descend farther, forms innumerable land springs such as come forth at the base of most chalk hills. But where the chalk cliffs rise out of the sea, the water converts the gravelly stratum into a quicksand, and that is liable to be carried into the sea, and this causes subsidences, much as would occur if you lay on a water-bed 1 that had in it a rent out of which would rush that which swelled the mattress.

There had been no sinkages of any importance along this coast within the memory of man. Nevertheless, an observant eye would have noticed that Captain Rattenbury's cottage stood on the undercliff, and was on a lower level than the down, but was nevertheless cut off from the sea by a sheer face of precipice. This undercliff formed an irregular terrace that overhung the sea. It was reached by an easy descent from the down above, and lay sufficiently below it to be sheltered from the north winds. His garden was consequently a warm spot even in mid-winter; whenever the sun shone, primroses starred the ground there even at the end of January, and crane's-bill there was never out of flower. The entire undercliff, raised three hundred feet above the sea, had a ruffled and chopped surface, was broken into ridges and depressed into basins, and was densely overgrown with thorns, brambles of gigantic growth, ivy and thickets of elder.

Nevertheless, it's very readable and a good story ("Love, iniquity, treachery, smuggling, redemption"), in which the heroine Winefred Marley, made homeless, is torn between the twin heritages of her mother (who comes from rustic stock among the smugglers and seafarers of East Devon) and her gentleman father (who moves in Bath high society). The smuggler Jack Rattenbury and the evil ferryman Olver Dench, who is after Winefred's mother's cache of gold, are thrown into the mix, with the Great Bindon Landslip of 1839 being the climax of the novel.

1. Yes, a water-bed in 1900. They're actually even older: see Victorian waterbeds.
- Ray

Thursday, 9 June 2011

George Merryweather's Tempest Prognosticator

Image (left) from page 217, Frank Leslie's New York Journal, 1855.

Via the Barometer World website, I just ran into "The Tempest Prognosticator" aka the "Leech Barometer". At first glance I assumed it was named after a Mr Leech; but no:

First exhibited by the inventor in 1851 at The Great Exhibition in London. designed in the style of Indian temple architecture, it is a complex and glorious extravaganza to predict storms using leeches.
- Barometer World

The rationale of the device, invented by the Whitby physician George Merryweather MD, was that leeches allegedly become agitated before storms and climb out of the water, and the Tempest Prognosticator comprised a set of vials with attached chains leading to a bell. Supposedly the imprisoned leeches, on the approach of a storm, would disturb the chains and ring the bell. There's no evidence of it working.  The original device has been lost, but Whitby Museum has a replica made in 1951 and Barometer World museum in Merton, Devon, has a newer replica on display. Here's a nice Flickr image of the one at Whitby; see also Martin Packer's Victorian Web article Dr. George Merryweather’s 1851 Tempest Prognosticator.

Merryweather's 1851 monograph about the device - An Essay Explanatory of the Tempest Prognosticator in the Building of the Great Exhibition for the Works of Industry of All Nations - is online at the Internet Archive (ID: anessayexplanat00merrgoog) and Google Books. It's a marvellously flakey mix of observations on weather wisdom, Whitby, leeches, animal instinct and atmospheric electricity. A member of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society, Merryweather was a correspondent with Michael Faraday and a friend of John Wesley.  Nor was it Merryweather's only invention: his others include a "Platina Lamp" and an "apparatus for maintaining a uniform temperature". He was also curator of Whitby Museum.  A classic eccentric Victorian polymath, then; the combination of Whitby and leeches would have made him a great bit part in Dracula.

- Ray

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Donald McGill Museum

Ryde, Isle of Wight (mentioned in passing, previously) is a place I normally never see except in transit; it being the FastCat terminus for Portsmouth, we're usually in a hurry, carrying luggage, en route to or from Newport. On our recent IOW visit, however, Clare and I fitted in a half-day there.

It's a slightly odd town. The sea-front is a long draughty north-facing promenade - with a beach that was very smelly when we visited, allegedly due to rotting seaweed - that hasn't altered in essence since the 1960s, and the very steep main street is mostly an unexceptional town shopping street with the usual complement of charity shops. There's a slight air of neglect, the paint peeling on deco and Victorian villas whose construction suggests a lot of smart money in the town - but a century or more ago. But amid all this, Ryde does have a degree of redevelopment, and a good selection of quirky and interesting independent shops; for example, in the refurbished Royal Victoria Arcade there are some good music, memorabilia and book shops (I managed to find a copy of Isle of White Ghosts III, which features my great aunt's house).

More or less opposite the arcade is another highlight: the Donald McGill Museum. It's behind the Orrery Café, which is interesting in itself for the giant grasshopper on the roof, the trompe-l'œil globe hanging outside (which looks like a mirrored sphere until you notice that it isn't reflecting you, and contains a Tyrannosaurus), and the Alice in Wonderland / astronomical decor done in association with Greaves & Thomas, the Ryde-based commercial globemakers.

McGill - see Wikipedia - was the classic exponent of double-entendre seaside postcard art, producing some 12,000 postcards.  The one-room museum behind the cafe documents his life and work from its successful era, via a nadir in the 1950s that saw his prosecution and police destruction of cards, to a modern revival where his original works are worth thousands of pounds. I'd never previously seen his wartime anti-Nazi propaganda cards, nor the homophobic ones that invariably depict gay men as wearing makeup, pageboy hairstyles and exaggerated Oxford bags trousers. Whether you find the works quaint and inoffensive by modern standards, or reflective of a ghastly era with multiple prejudices, the museum is very worth a visit.

Personally, I don't find them very troublesome; the redeeming feature is that everyone is insulted; for every card with a sexist depiction of women, you can find one depicting lecherous men as buffoons. George Orwell, despite not knowing whether McGill was a person or a house name, wrote an an astute analysis in 1941, "The Art of Donald McGill" (Wikipedia / article online) that argued McGill's work to be an authentic expression of an irrepressible side of working-class human nature that rebels against high-minded middle-class values.

Society has always to demand a little more from human beings than it will get in practice. It has to demand faultless discipline and self-sacrifice, it must expect its subjects to work hard, pay their taxes, and be faithful to their wives, it must assume that men think it glorious to die on the battlefield and women want wear themselves out with child-bearing. The whole of what one may call official literature is founded on such assumptions. I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of fuhrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal.
They stand for the worm's-eye view of life, for the music-hall world where marriage is a dirty joke or a comic disaster, where the rent is always behind and the clothes are always up the spout, where the lawyer is always a crook and the Scotsman always a miser, where the newly-weds make fools of themselves on the hideous beds of seaside lodging-houses and the drunken, red-nosed husbands roll home at four in the morning to meet the linen-nightgowned wives who wait for them behind the front door, poker in hand. Their existence, the fact that people want them, is symptomatically important. Like the music halls, they are a sort of saturnalia, a harmless rebellion against virtue.

See the official museum site - www.donaldmcgill.info - for more background. The British Cartoon Archive has a couple of hundred McGill cards.

- Ray