Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Devon: more prospect-refuge

click to enlarge
A couple of book covers caught my eye today as nice examples where Jay Appleton's prospect-refuge theory looks applicable (see again Landscapes in mind).

The first, from Eric R Delderfield's Just Wandering in Devon (Raleigh Press, Chapel Hill, Exmouth, 1954 - this reprint 1955), is pretty classic, with the foreground buildings as refuge and the road leading off to the coastline prospect. The composition, apart from the intruding giant signposts, is very similar to that on the Badger Brewery beer glass I mentioned last year (Prospect and refuge in a beer glass). The book itself is interesting; it's not a general travelogue but a batch of essays on topics that grabbed the author, including Eggeford, Molland, mining history of Heasley, wildlife of Devon, various churches, bellringing, Brayford stone quarry, Honiton's Leper Hospital, fire insurance history in Devon, vilage blacksmiths, a Crediton viola-maker, and the Golden Hermoina. Eric R Delderfield was, by the way, the brother of the novelist RF Delderfield. Both lived in Exmouth for part of their lives (their father William was editor of the Exmouth Chronicle, and the family and paper have a Blue Plaque) and were writers, but Eric specialised in travel guides rather than fiction. The Topsham Bookshop currently has a couple of copies of the book.

click to enlarge

The second image, with its village refuge and moorland/coast prospects, comes from a general guide to South Devon, Rambles in South Devon (Hugh E Page, 1949) published by British Rail. The walks are still extant; the rail links, unfortunately, are largely not, closed within a couple of decades of the book's publication.  For instance, the days when you could get to Lustleigh and Moretonhampstead via the Moretonhampstead and South Devon Railway are long gone. The cover painting is by Chris Watkiss; the original - a 28 x 38cm done in gouache - sold for £320 in 2010 (see the Morphets catalogue entry). I haven't been able to find out much about the artist, except that he was a watercolourist and poster painter, Christopher David Watkiss, born in 1911 and active as an artist in the 1940s and 1950s.

- Ray

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Yew-men beings and the dragon-rat

I've mirrored this topic from Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog to increase the chance that someone in the know might see it.

Dr B recently wrote about a historical puzzle - see Dragon Rats in Oxford - concerning an anecdote about Jacob Bobart the Younger (botany professor of Oxford, d. 1719), which first appears as a footnote in James Granger & Horace Walpole's A biographical history of England, from Egbert to the Great revolution: A supplement,:

Mr. Jacob Bobart, botany professor of Oxford, did about forty years ago (in 1704) find a dead rat in the Physic Garden, which he made to resemble the common picture of dragons by altering its head and tail, and thrusting in taper sharp sticks, which distended the skin on each side till it mimicked wings. He let it dry as hard as possible. The learned immediately pronounced it a dragon, and one of them sent an accurate description of it to Dr. Magliabecchi, librarian to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Several fine copies of verses were wrote upon so rare a subject; but at last Mr. Bobart owned the cheat. However, it was looked upon as a masterpiece of art, and as such deposited in the museum or anatomy school at Oxford.
- A biographical history of England, from Egbert to the Great revolution: A supplement ..., 1774, page 404

The anecdote trundled on, unaltered and mostly unanalysed, right through the 19th century and into the 20th century, despite complete lack of corroboration.

Dr B has been looking to see if these "verses" still exist, and one lead was an enquiry by an HT Bobart (presumably a descendant) to the Victorian equivalent of the Internet, Notes and Queries (see page 428, N&Q, April 30, 1853) and Willis's Current Notes (see June 1852). In a connected thread in the same enquiry, Mr Bobart referred to a couple of obscure-sounding poems: Poem upon Mr. Jacob Bobards Yew-man of the Guards to the Physic Garden, to the tune of the ‘Counter-Scuffle’. Oxon. 1662 and A Ballad on the Gyants in the Physic Garden in Oxon, who have been breeding Feet as long as Garagantua was Teeth. I managed to find the second, in Hyder Edward Rollins’s 1927 Pack of Autolycus (pages 108-), but the poems, curious though they are, refer not to the dragon-rat but to "Gog and Magog", a pair of topiary giants that guarded the entrance to the garden. He had quite a detailed reply, though not on the point of the dragon, from an Edward F Rimbault (see N&Q, June 11th, 1853).

So - does anyone have any leads on Bobart's exercise in rat-dragon taxidermy, and on the "fine copies of verses" written about it? If you do, leave a comment to Dr B via Dragon Rats in Oxford.

Addendum: A little further Googling finds that HT Bobart was indeed a descendant of the Oxford Bobart: Henry Tilleman Bobart, author of the 1884 A Biographical Sketch of Jacob Bobart, of Oxford, together with an account of his two sons, Jacob and Tilleman. The book isn't online, but there's a section  on the Bobarts in An account of the Morisonian herbarium in the possession of the University of Oxford, together with biographical and critical sketches of Morison and the two Bobarts and their works and the early history of the Physic garden, 1619-1720 (1914) (Internet Archive cu31924001707821). It's a glimpse into a world of intense botanical geekiness, eccentricity and academic politics, revealing that JB the Younger probably wasn't actually a professor. It also mentions the yew-giants:

After ye walls & gates of this famous garden were built, old Jacob Bobert, father to this present Jacob, may be said to be ye man yt first gave life & beauty to this famous place, who by his care & industry replenished the walls with all manner of good fruits our clime would ripen, & bedeck the earth with great variety of trees plants & exotick flowers, dayly augmented by the Botanists who bring them hither from ye remote Quarters of ye world ;
that in the north wall which admits entrance from the City being fairest built ; by this old Jacob some years past set two yew trees which being formed by his skill are now grown up to be gigantic bulky fellows, one holding a Bill, th'other a Club on his shoulder.

These specimens of topiary work afforded a fertile theme to the wits of the time. Edmund Gayton wrote two ballads about them, Upon Mr. Jacob Bobart's Yew-men of the Guard to the Physick Garden, to the tune of the Counter Scuffle (Oxon. 1662), and A Ballad on the Gyants in the Physick Garden in Oxford, who have been breeding feet as long as Gargantua has Teeth (Oxon. 1662). Another poem, entitled Upon the most Hopefull & ever-flourishing Sprouts of Valour, the indefatigable Centrys of the Physick- Garden (Oxon. 1664), Wood attributes to John Drope, a Fellow of Magdalen College.
- ibid. page xix

The 1912 Oxford Gardens (Internet Archive oxfordgardensbas00guntrich) has the full text of the third poem (page 189), with a sketch of the two topiary sentries.

- Ray

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Andrew Lang: a sampler

Andrew Lang, from Century magazine,
Volume 47, Issue 3 (January, 1894)
Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog, in a recent post on Dragon Rats in Oxford, provided a news link to a good Scotsman appreciation of the largely forgotten work of the Selkirk-born writer and critic Andrew Lang (1844-1912): see Andrew Lang: the life and times of a prolific talent (Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman, 30 January 2012).

Andrew Lang is best known for his academic works on folklore and anthropology (notably his compilations of fairy tales as Andrew Lang's Fairy Books).

Author Edmund Gosse wrote of Lang that "no other such combination of poet, scholar and journalist has been known in Fleet Street". Lang had published slim volumes of poetry already, as well as academic books on comparative mythology and translations of Homer and Aristotle before his 40th birthday.
By the time of his death in 1912, his name could be found on 249 individual books and his collected journalism would run to thousands of articles. No wonder that some people suggested that "Andrew Lang" did not exist, and was a pseudonym used by a cabal of different authors from different genres.

But as I mentioned previously, he continues to surprise by the breadth of his works: his The Mark of Cain, for instance, brings a university don detective into a murder mystery with science-fictional elements. Kelly's article continues with pointers to other works written or co-written by Lang.

Although Lang is still remembered for one series of books, his other attempts are significant. He collaborated with Rider Haggard on a novel called The World’s Desire, which was the biggest failure of its day, and rather more successfully with AEW Mason on a novel called Parson Kelly. Lang’s biographer, the writer Roger Lancellyn Green, makes the brave claim that his antiromantic children’s book about an insufferably brilliant young man who does not believe in magic, Prince Prigio, ought to be ranked alongside Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

One minute Lang would be inventing the genre of popular history (with such books as The Voices of Jeanne d’Arc, Pickle the Spy and James VI and the Gowrie Conspiracy), the next he would be writing critical studies of contemporaries (Alfred Tennyson, The Puzzle of Dickens’ Last Plot), then debunking people who believed that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, then writing some of the greatest works in the much-scorned genre of “belles-lettres” (Does Ridicule Kill?, New And Old Letters To Dead Authors). In between, he would continue to write academic works on spiritualism, totemism, Homeric epic and early French romantic poetry, spliced with works on his passions of golf, cricket and angling. No wonder some people hated him.
there is one book by him which I will re-read, on account of its sheer oddness and ingenuity. Old Friends was written in 1890 and has a dazzling premise: if literature really did describe the world rather than invent it, why should characters be restricted to their own books? ... It is the beginning of crossover literature, which reaches its heights with works such as Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Christine Brooke-Rose’s Textermination, and its pulp incarnation in Pride And Prejudice And Zombies and Android Karenina

Checking out some of these titles: The World's Desire (Gutenberg #2763) is an erudite sword & sandal fantasy novel continuing the adventures of Ulysses when he returns from his "second unsung journey" to find Penelope dead, so goes off on new wanderings to Egypt.  Parson Kelly (Gutenberg #38684 - sometimes titled Parson Kelley) is a picaresque historical novel set against the events of the Jacobite "Atterbury Plot" of 1722.

Prince Prigio is a literary comic fairy tale, telling of the adventures of a prince who has been given the fairy gift of being "too clever" and brought up by his sceptical mother not to believe in magic. He is nevertheless thrown by circumstances into magical adventures. I've skimmed, and this one is rather good: see for a scan of the nicely illustrated 1889 edition. It has a Shrek-like flavour, being set in the world of pre-existing fairy tales: the sceptical Prince Prigio's family ancestors include Cinderella, the Marquis de Carabas of Puss in Boots, and "Madame La Belle au Bois-dormant".

Then there are the works of popular history; these are not lowbrow exposition. The Voices of Jeanne d’Arc is an essay in a larger work on historical mysteries, The Valet's tragedy, and other studies (Gutenberg #2073). Lang describes them as "studies in secret history". Pickle the Spy or, The incognito of Prince Charles (Gutenberg #6807) is a study of "Pickle", the chief spy for Prince Charles Edward Stuart after 1750, who Lang identifies as the Scottish Jacobite Alestair Ruadh MacDonnell. James VI and the Gowrie Conspiracy (Internet Archive jamesviandgowri01langgoog) is a detailed attempt to unravel the events of the "Gowrie conspiracy" of 1600, when a visit by James VI to the house of John Ruthven, 3rd Earl of Gowrie, ended with Ruthven and his brother killed. Did they die in a failed attempt to kidnap James? Or did James invent the kidnap story as cover for his retinue assassinating the brothers? We don't know.

Old Friends is, as Kelly says, an early example of crossover fiction. It's a compilation of parodic essays, in the form of letters between fictional characters, that originally appeared in the St. James's Gazette. As Lang writes in the introduction:

Every fancy which dwells much with the unborn and immortal characters of Fiction must ask itself, Did the persons in contemporary novels never meet? In so little a world their paths must often have crossed, their orbits must have intersected, though we hear nothing about the adventure from the accredited narrators. In historical fiction authors make their people meet real men and women of history—Louis XI., Lazarus, Mary Queen of Scots, General Webbe, Moses, the Man in the Iron Mask, Marie Antoinette; the list is endless. But novelists, in spite of Mr. Thackeray's advice to Alexandre Dumas, and of his own example in "Rebecca and Rowena," have not introduced each other's characters.

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that despite reading a deal of Victorian fiction, I didn't know who half of these characters corresponding were. Treat this, if you like, as a puzzle to identify these people (who are not all fictional). The answers are hyperlinked.
The Internet Archive (search creator:"Lang, Andrew, 1844-1912") has 889 hits for works by Andrew Lang.

- Ray

Sunday, 19 February 2012


This is one of the images that dates the previously-mentioned Wonders of the World: the Lebensbaum (Tree of Life) wooden sculptural facade to Bernhard Hoetger's 1931 Haus Atlantis in Böttcherstraße, Bremen.

As Wonders of the World puts it,

The outstretched figure here shown does not represent Christ, but embodies the idea common to all religions of self-sacrifice for an ideal. The surrounding Sun Disc connects this with the myth of Odin, whose annual death was said to give birth to the New Year.

This is more than a little of an underexplanation. As can be seen in the detailed images at the House Atlantis page on the Böttcherstraße website, the figure is a kind of Odin-Jesus symbol, surrounded by a wheel with runes and a quotation of the episode in the Poetic Edda where Odin suffers self-sacrifice to gain the power of the runes ...

Ich weiß, daß ich hing am windigen Baum neun Nächte lang, vom Ger verwundet, dem Odin geweiht, ich selber mir selbst.

I know that I hung on a windy tree, nine nights long, wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin, myself to myself.

... while the three-pronged structure at the base is recognisably an Odinist "Toten" rune (aka death rune). There are more images at Jeff Diehl's Haus Atlantis Odin page, and this particularly clear one in Lionel Gossman's 2009 biography of Marie Adelheid, Brownshirt Princess: A Study of the "Nazi Conscience" (page 10):

The symbolism of the piece draws on a manufactured tradition of Nordic-Atlantean myth favoured by top-ranking members of the Nazi party. Furthermore, the whole Böttcherstraße architectural project, bankrolled by the decaffeinated coffee magnate Ludwig Roselius and designed by Hoetger, was dedicated to the prime mover of these myths at the time, the lay historian-scholar Herman Wirth (see Nationalist Uses of the Atlantis Myth in a Nordic Framework, Vanessa Ward, 2008). Hoetger, however, fell out of favour when his expressionist sculpture was denounced as "degenerate art"; he settled in Switzerland, where he died in 1949.

The Lebensbaum sculpture was largely destroyed by fire following Allied bombing in 1944. Unlike the rest of the street, it wasn't restored (unsurprising, perhaps, given its history and symbolism) but the frontage of Haus Atlantis was eventually given a redesigned restoration in 1965 with a circular brick-pattern mosaic by Ewald Mataré, another German artist whose work had been considered degenerate.

Böttcherstraße now remains a major artistic and cultural tourist attraction in Bremen.

- Ray


A piece of bygone marketing material from a 1930s edition of Wonders of the World ("a popular and authentic account of the marvels of nature and of man as they exist to-day" from Odhams Press, Long Acre, London). The wrapper, rather being than a decorative cover for the book itself, consists entirely of agressive marketing for another book in the series.

This wrapper-folder, which has helped to protect your Presentation Volume during its transit to your home, contains full particulars of an astounding new offer of vital importance and value to every thinking man and woman, which has been specially planned as a great concession to all who have qualified for the "Wonders of the World."

The offer is the option to examine on free approval (but not quite - it's a shilling postage per book) "this magnificent New Pictorial Atlas of the World" and "as an additional privilege" editions of The New Treasury of Verse and The Holy Bible. The books themselves cost £6/- each, or £8/6d for the De Luxe editions.

I well remember Wonders of the World from my childhood. The edition we had was probably the 1911 one, which is on the Internet Archive (ID wondersofworldpo00hutcrich), the authorship credited to "eminent travellers including Sir Harry Johnston, G.C.M.G., K.C.B., Alan H Burgoyne M.P., F.R.G.S., Perceval Landon, J. Thomson, F.R.G.S. and many others". It's worth reading for its glimpse into the exotic parts of the world in a period when relatively few people travelled and sensibilities were different: for example, in the days when the Mummies of Guanajuato (below) were simply propped up in the catacombs.

Mummies of Guanajuato, Wonders of the World

The later edition the advertising wrapper came from is undated, but from internal clues I guess it to be mid-1930s (for instance, Bernhard Hoetger's wonderful 1931 House Atlantis in Bremen is featured, but there's no reference to World War 2).

- Ray

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Vapaassa Tilassa

Moving on from creaky renditions of Peg O' My Heart ...

I've enthused before about the brilliance of Finnish fusion music, and about the work of Johanna Juhola. The above video is the title track of the album Vapaassa Tilassa ( (In a Free Space, Texicalli Records, 2007) which is a collaboration between Juhola and Timo Alakotila, a musician and composer acclaimed as the father of Finnish "chamber folk" music. The style is moderately unclassifiable - folk freestyle, but with elements of jazz improvisation, tango and chillout - but whatever it is, it showcases one of the greatest exponents of accordion as an expressive and versatile modern instrument. There are a couple of other tracks in full, Heini and Kevään ensimmäinen tango, at the WOMEX entry, and samples of all the tracks at the digital-tunes page. The Johanna Juhola official site has some others in its media player list; one of my favourite Juhola pieces, Paluu, is there, and also on Vapaassa Tilassa.

Check out also the official Timo Alakotila site;  the Music page provides an excellent sampler of his work, which ranges through solo piano, chamber folk, and neo-classical work for string quartet and full orchestra; the general flavour is very reflective and wistful. I notice he recently released another duo album, Åkerö, in collaboration with another of the great modern Finnish accordionists, Maria Kalaniemi (samples at the CDRoots page show that one track is a beautiful accordion / vocal / piano arrangement of the previously-mentioned Koskaan et muuttua saa).

Out of purely geeky interest, if you compare the images to this post and the previous, you can see the difference between the keyboards of the C-system accordion played by Johanna Juhola, and the B-system one I play (they're mirror images of each other).

As to the whole issue of skill level that seeing the top players raises with me: I know I will never be as good as this. I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. At one level, it's quite depressing. I know I don't have a major aptitude; as I've said, music for me is part of a generalism, one of a whole list of things I'm medium-good at. But at another, it's an inspiration, and there are crumbs I can pick up: angles on style and arrangement.The positive thing, perhaps, is that I don't feel about accordion the way I feel about, for example, unfretted strings or brass instruments: not being able to imagine how anyone does it. With accordion, I can see colossal skill, but I feel I'm somewhere - however low down - on the same skill ladder.

Sorry, but I think I'm going to be rather boring with angst about this in the long term. Over the past year, the bayan accordion has become a very major part of my life (as you may know, this much). Martin Stork kindly sent me this nice atmospheric photo from the Topjam sessions.

That's what my fingers feel like when I play in public!

- Ray

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Bayan time (14): Peg o' My Heart

I was inspired to learn Peg o' My Heart while watching the current repeat showing of Dennis Potter's musical psychological drama The Singing Detective. It's amazing how old some of these tunes are: long before its re-use as Potter's theme tune, I remember it as being a classic on the radio in my childhood, and it ultimately tracks back to 1913, when it featured in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway.

This is a fairly light busking arrangement; I deliberately avoided the common tendency with accordion arrangements of Peg o' My Heart to bury this very catchy tune in a soup of chords. I loosely based the intro on that of the 1956 Gene Vincent cover.

As with a lot of well-remembered popular tunes from the 19th and early 20th century, the piece known as Peg o' My Heart is actually just the refrain of the original. You can see the original score at the Duke University Library's Historic American Music Sheet collection (item a0021). On YouTube, Ted Kloba plays a very nice arrangement of the full version on a Chemnitzer concertina (Peg O' My Heart - credit to Clare for spotting this). I've been practising it this very evening.

"Peg", according to the song sheet refers to "J Hartley Manners' wonderful character Peg in Oliver Morosco's production of the comedy Peg O' My Heart at the Cort Theatre, New York" (John Hartley Manners  was a London-born playwright of Irish extraction). Manners' original text was a romantic but, in places, fairly polemical novel concerning the tribulations in English society of Peg, a poor but feisty Irish-American girl who is born of the romance between "an Irish agitator" and an English lady. She finds she is to inherit a fortune - but only on condition that she doesn't see her father for three years and is trained in English manners by her mother's upmarket family. See Project Gutenberg, E-Text No. 3621.

Getting this video up was a bit of an encouragement. I felt very depressed after last Sunday's Topjam session, because I messed up two of the pieces (possibly not in ways as painfully audible to the audience as to me) through sheer performance anxiety (previously discussed). I start getting into a funk the moment anyone or anything's observing - even the video recorder on the laptop. My previous YouTube bayan videos have generally required a dozen increasingly irritated takes and splicing the best bits together; this time it just took two goes, with no splicing!

- Ray

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Odyssean Landscape

Die Odysseeische Landschaft - click to enlarge

I was very struck by this evocative landscape on the cover of the paperback of Freya Stark's classic of travel writing, Ionia: A Quest.

The book's front material credits it only as "a detail of a painting by Emilie Mediz-Pelikian", but a bit of Googling identified it as her 1902 Die Odysseeische Landschaft (The Odyssean Landscape). There's a very small reproduction of it in the catalogue of the Fine Art Photographic Library (AA3652) and a zoomable monochrome image at Bildindex der Kunst und Architektur (Objekt 32012136 - Deutsche Fotothek). The latter gives the artist's name as "Emilie Mediz-Pelikan" (1861-1908) and places the location as "Lokrum, Insel"; that is, the island of Lokrum (called Lacroma by the Italians) in the Adriatic just offshore from Dubrovnik.

I find the vista stunning. I've previously mentioned Jay Appleton's prospect-refuge theory (see Landscapes in mind) - the idea that satisfying landscape images contain a safe place in the foreground, and a view off into uncertain distant prospect in the background. This painting seems to subvert all that. The apparent refuge of the grove is in an extremely precarious location, and it seems to block access to the distance; meanwhile, the actual refuge appears to be in the prospect, where there's lower ground and less precipitous coastline. I'm sure it's symbolic - Mediz-Pelikan was a leading Austrian Symbolist - as the journey of Odysseus home did involve dangerous and temporary refuges en route to the real refuge home at Ithaca. And purely on a personal level, for me it has strong resonances to the western tip of the Isle of Wight.

I'm not convinced that the location is entirely Lokrum. A look at Google Maps and images shows it to be generally rather rounded in profile, not with a great prows of cliff rising as in the foreground of Die Odysseesische Landschaft.  Furthermore, the foreground is identical to Mediz-Pelikan's other 1902 painting Bild auf Lacroma, which shows the same scarily-perched grove on a promontory with nothing but open sea beyond. Evidently Die Odysseeische Landschaft is a composite.

- Ray

Bild auf Lacroma

Shellular automata

We just had our bathroom renovated, and this rather nice seashell is hanging on the light pull-cord. I got it a while back at B&Q as a curiosity, but this is the use they were selling it for. I forget the country of origin - somewhere Indo-Pacific - but I recall the label said these particular B&Q ones were produced on a sustainable basis; the molluscs are used for food, and the empty shells sold as decorative objects or collector's pieces.

The particularly neat thing about this one is the pattern: a classic example of pattern-forming processes that have been successfully analysed mathematically. The mollusc, when it's alive, has a mantle whose edge contains cells that deposit pigment on the shell lip as it grows. These cells interact with their neighbours - they can switch on and switch off each others' pigment-making according to well-defined conditions - so the whole band of cells has a dynamically-changing linear pattern of pigment production; and as the shell grows, a record of that pattern is left behind.

The Algorithmic Beauty of Sea Shells
One of the classic expositions of the theory on this is Hans Meinhardt's The Algorithmic Beauty of Sea Shells (Springer, 4th ed. 2009, ISBN  978-3-540-92141-7). Meinhardt analyses the patterns in terms of hormone diffusion, successfully simulating the patterns on a range of shells. As part of Springer's Virtual Laboratory series, it comes with companion software for playing with the simulations. If the maths is not of substantial interest to you, it's still a compendium of beautifully -photographed shells - although at nearly £40 it's rather expensive as a coffee-table book. Springer have an online preview: see the intro page and reader.

Whatever 'computational engine' drives the pattern changes on the shells is effectively a close analogue equivalent of the digital algorithmic device called a one-dimensional cellular automaton (you can play with an applet here). The outputs are very similar in appearance, and one celebrated example, Cymbiola innexa, displays Sierpinski triangles, a classic fractal pattern produced by many 1D cellular automata.

The rather peculiar aspect is - what function do these patterns serve? In many species of mollusc, the patterns aren't visible during life, as they're covered by a dull-coloured protective "periostracum", so camouflage or identification (the usual reasons for animal patterns) don't seem to apply. Do they have a function we don't yet know? Are they fossils of a past function that's better served by the tough periostracum? Or are they "spandrels" (the term borrowed from architecture by Gould and Lewontin for non-adaptive by-products of other adaptively evolved functions)?

- Ray

Mindbender 4

I've been following for a few weeks the daily Mindbender puzzles in the Western Morning News, and documenting my solutions for some: not through any claim to brilliance, but because they often present interesting angles on techniques for solving mathematical problems.

This one proved a classic example for a very powerful technique that's not well-known outside the maths/sciences circuit.

See solution.

- Ray

Monday, 13 February 2012

I was coming to that ...

Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog just featured an interesting post, An Aberystwyth Mermaid, an account from the 1800s that strongly recalls the Robert Graves poem, as read above by Richard Burton. I love this poem: it manages to be simultaneously funny, surreal and sinister.

Welsh Incident

'But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.'
'What were they? Mermaids? dragons? ghosts?'
'Nothing at all of any things like that.'
'What were they, then?'
'All sorts of queer things,
Things never seen or heard or written about,
Very strange, un-Welsh, utterly peculiar
Things. Oh, solid enough they seemed to touch,
Had anyone dared it. Marvellous creation,
All various shapes and sizes, and no sizes,
All new, each perfectly unlike his neighbour,
Though all came moving slowly out together.'
'Describe just one of them.'
'I am unable.'
'What were their colours?'
'Mostly nameless colours,
Colours you'd like to see; but one was puce
Or perhaps more like crimson, but not purplish.
Some had no colour.'
'Tell me, had they legs?'
'Not a leg or foot among them that I saw.'
'But did these things come out in any order?'
What o'clock was it? What was the day of the week?
Who else was present? How was the weather?'

'I was coming to that. It was half-past three
On Easter Tuesday last. The sun was shining.
The Harlech Silver Band played Marchog Jesu
On thirty-seven shimmering instruments
Collecting for Caernarvon's (Fever) Hospital Fund.
The populations of Pwllheli, Criccieth,
Portmadoc, Borth, Tremadoc, Penrhyndeudraeth,
Were all assembled. Criccieth's mayor addressed them
First in good Welsh and then in fluent English,
Twisting his fingers in his chain of office,
Welcoming the things. They came out on the sand,
Not keeping time to the band, moving seaward
Silently at a snail's pace. But at last
The most odd, indescribable thing of all
Which hardly one man there could see for wonder
Did something recognizably a something.'
'Well, what?'
'It made a noise.'
'A frightening noise?'
'No, no.'
'A musical noise? A noise of scuffling?'
'No, but a very loud, respectable noise ---
Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In Chapel, close before the second psalm.'
'What did the mayor do?'
'I was coming to that.'

- Robert Graves

Graves commented on the origins of the poem in The Listener of 28th May 1970: see Where the crakeberries grow - Robert Graves gives an account of himself to Leslie Norris.

Perhaps one of your best-known poems is 'Welsh Incident'. Could you tell us the story behind the writing of that poem?

The Irish used to say that you write one sort of poem with your right hand and another with your left, and I think it was the same with the Welsh bards. But the right hand is the constructive one and the left is the satiric one, and you can't be serious the whole time. Occasionally you have to have a satire, which is pleasant joking, and this is what 'Welsh Incident' was intended to be. It started when my father and I were in a train compartment of the old Cambrian Railway. The train was going round that curve from Barmouth, through Llan-bedr, round into Harlech where you see the sea stretched out; and there was a policeman aboard, a Welsh policeman. He got very excited and started telling my father how he had recently seen a mermaid. He wasn't joking either: it was in perfect seriousness and made a very powerful impression on us all. Mermaids come into that poem, you may remember. And, of course, I'd been to those sea caves-, I'd been taken there by Professor Lloyd Williams, a botanist by profession, who was also one of the great Welsh mythologists. You could go there only at low tide about once a year. The caves had a very great fascination for me. But about 'Welsh Incident' - I wrote it in a Welsh accent.

The satire is evidently directed at the Welsh, regarding both their reputed fondness for discursive storytelling and their religious conformism (the creatures being quite the opposite of conformist - "Very strange, un-Welsh ... each perfectly unlike his neighbour"). In the original version of the poem, called Railway Carriage, the sound the creature made was "a loud belch". As Douglas Day describes in his 1963 Swifter than reason: the poetry and criticism of Robert Graves:

Then, having issued this brief evaluation of Welsh stuffiness and religious fundamentalism, it fades into the sea.

The forum quotes the critical commentary from Michael Kirkham's 1969 The Poetry of Robert Graves.

- Ray

Friday, 10 February 2012

Chinese lunch at St Thomas

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This rather striking Italianate frontage belongs to the St Thomas Building, built as an upgrade in 1861 to the station offices of Exeter St Thomas Station (see Exeter Memories, St Thomas Station, for background). Now no longer part of the station, it's been through a couple of recent incarnations as offices and a Chinese restaurant.

Today: just a recommendation, on the assumption that some readers of JSBlog will be local. We were passing through St Thomas on the way to buy paint at B&Q, and were sidetracked by the Winmede Chinese supermarket underneath the railway arch to the right of the building. It was rather unavoidable to be drawn to have lunch in the Wok Cafe, which opened just two days ago in the adjacent St Thomas Building.

"Authentic" is an overused word, but this Hong Kong style fast-food cafe definitely qualifies. Its style is genuinely Chinese, unlike that of highly Westernised Chinese takeaways; the daily specials included carp head, and the menu has many unusual items such as Red Bean and Sago Delight, Grass Jelly, and Bubble Tea; I noticed that most of the other lunch customers were Chinese. Nevertheless, there's plenty on the menu that won't frighten the horses; Clare had satay chicken with fried noodles, and I had won ton soup with vermicelli noodles (from the fixed-price noodle menu where you can pick-and-mix from half a dozen daily special toppings; several noodle styles, from ho fan to ramen; and a choice of sauce). It's all very affordable, freshly cooked in the open kitchen, and the place has a clean bright cafeteria decor and friendly counter service. If you need lunch while at the St Thomas shopping complex, check it out:

- Ray

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The art of Carlos de Asumendi

Another finding from my late mother-in-law's effects: this wonderful example of kitsch artwork from a tin of Churchill's Chocolate Chunk & Hazelnut Biscuits. The embossed metal design is credited as "Madeleine ... based on the painting by Carlos de Asumendi".

The artist, sometimes listed as Carlos Asumendi, appears to work entirely in the niche of metallic paintings in Art Deco style; apart from appearing on biscuit tins, his works are sold as aluminium foil prints. Check out the German firm Fantastic Pictures for works including Lady in White and Lady in Black; Morgan and Ondine; Arabella; Butterfly; Cat Crazed and Floating Feline; and White Tiger.

Though not credited as such, Lady in Black, White Tiger and Lady in White actually form a continuous (if somewhat mismatched) triptych; and Madeleine on the biscuit tin is Lady in White with the flower vase from White Tiger. Georgina gets the tiger.

- Ray

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The best of writers, the worst of writers ...

It would be remiss of me not to mention that today is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens on 7th February 1812. There's all you could possibly want about this at the Dickens 2012 celebration page. But personally, two angles on Dickens struck me today.

One was Sydney Padua's fine summation of Dickens at 2D Googles:

Many happy returns of the day, Mr. Dickens! I am sure we are all spending this bicentenary eating gruel, fitfully walking the streets at midnight, drinking punch, speaking in thousand-word paragraphs interrupted by semi-colons; constructing elaborate book-length metaphors winding like dark trash-strewn rivers through a metropolis of words; enduring unspeakable losses and delighting in the simple pleasures of life, encountering more silly pretty females than one quite likes, and generally marvelling that one pen could produce such a torrent of ink.
- Many Happy Returns of the Day, Mr. Dickens!

The other was the ain't-it-awful commentary from Claire Tomalin, author of Charles Dickens: A Life:

Leading Charles Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin has said children are not being taught to read with the attention span necessary to appreciate the novelist's works.

Tomalin said Dickens's depiction of an unequal society was still "amazingly relevant", ahead of nationwide celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Children were now unable to appreciate this due to "being reared on dreadful television programmes", she said in an interview with the Press Association.

"Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that's a pity."
- Children lack ability for Dickens, says biographer Tomalin, BBC News, 5th February 2012.

What Ms Tomalin says may or may not be true: I don't know enough about current education to judge.  But Dickens in my view is a rotten data point. He's rightly viewed as great for many qualities, such as his superb portrayals of character and his social realism. But - and I say this as an avid reader of Victorian novels - his style is monstrously dense and verbose, even by the standards of books of his time. In part, he got away with it by packaging his novels in digestible chunks: readers would have been familiar with the serialised versions in advance of tackling the whole novels. Reading conventions were different too; commonly, novels would be read aloud with all the family together, allowing for pauses to gloss or recapitulate difficult sections.

So, I thoroughly agree with Nicholas Lezard in The Independent: Dickens always was a struggle. I really hadn't the capacity in childhood, or even teens, to grasp singlehanded the social and personal subtleties of a Dickens novel or many other complex works of the period. I used to feel ashamed of this - I felt stupid for my bafflement at the 'worthy' reading list we were given for English Literature O-Level (for example, A Tale of Two Cities and the unabridged versions of Moby Dick and The Water-Babies). Now I'm sure that feeling was misplaced: reading Victorian novels is a specialist task, and there's no discredit in not tackling them - however iconic they may be - until you're good and ready.

- Ray

Fitting designs (continued)

Further to Fitting designs - which looked at the history of the classic puzzle of making an object that will fit three holes of different shapes: square, circular, and triangular - Emily from the largely mathematics/nature blog Ephemeral Curios commented:

These might also be the inspiration for Douglas Hofstadter's "trip-lets"-- the blocks on the cover of Godel, Escher, Bach that cast three different letter shadows.

Thanks! Yes, the GEB "trip-let" (left) is identical in concept to the object with three orthogonal letter shapes objects spelling "PSM" in Popular Science Monthly for July 1927 (see Arthur L Smith's A Square Peg in a Round Hole).

But I'm not clear if (as is quite possible) it was independently conceived; Hofstadter wrote in the intro to GEB:

The trip-let idea came to me in a flash one evening as I was trying to think how best to symbolize the unity of Gödel, Escher, and Bach by somehow fusing their names in a striking design. The two trip-lets shown on the cover were designed and made by me, using mainly a band saw, with an end mill for the holes; they are redwood, and are just under 4 inches on a side.

Does "idea came to me" mean the whole trip-let concept, or just the idea of using it for the cover?

There are plenty of interesting spin-offs. Googling found a nice page by Humberto José Bortolossi of the Mathematics Department, Universidade Federal Fluminense - Triplets - which has rotatable models, along with an intriguing reference to the generalisation of the idea. Objects can exist with an arbitrary number of specified shadows when illuminated from different directions. This is not merely theoretical, but has actually been applied to the creation of the "digital sundial" designed by Scharstein, Scharstein and Krotz-Vogel: see U.S. patent 5,590,093 and Digital Sundials International.

Another good page is The magic of trip-lets at mariano tomatis blog, which shows the design (not trivial to achieve) of an "EMC" triplet for the Eseential Magic Conference. It also raises the possibility of trip-let type objects in the past - that is, objects designed to look different from different directions - via the example of a 17th century carved crucifix by the Franciscan monk Fra Innocenzo da Petralia, deemed miraculous for its ability to show different expressions on the face of Christ (suffering, dying and dead) according to viewing angle. This looks to me an equivalent of the "Noh Mask Effect": the ability of masked actors to convey expression change in Noh drama by tilting the head to give different viewpoints of their rigid masks. See Michael J Lyons, Noh Masks & Facial Expression Perception, which has several research papers. The concept seems to be pretty widespread: see, for example, Perceiving faces of Buddha statues, Same miraculous statue; different expressions, and How Moving Light Changes Expression on Face of Small Statue.

- Ray

Monday, 6 February 2012

Richard Jefferies memorial

Richard Jefferies - click to enlarge

I did spot one literary connection in my visit to Salisbury Cathedral on Saturday: the memorial to the Victorian pastoralist and nature writer Richard Jefferies. The inscription reads:


Jefferies isn't buried in the cathedral, nor, though Wiltshire-born, did he even have any much connection with Salisbury. The memorial, unveiled on March 1892, was placed there as the result of a fundraising campaign by his friends and admirers, as described in The Spectator: Volumes 64-65, 1890, page 116:


[To The Editor or The "Spectator." Sir,—It may interest your readers to learn that this unrivalled delineator of country life is no longer to remain unhonoured. A wish has been expressed of late by many that some memorial of Richard Jefferies should be erected, and inasmuch as he was a native of Wilts and fond of his county, Salisbury Cathedral appeared to be the most appropriate spot for that purpose. Mr. Charles Longman, an attached friend of Richard Jefferies, and Mr. Walter Besant, the happy author of the "Eulogy," regarding the proposal with favour, a committee has been formed for placing a marble bust of the prose-poet of the Wiltshire Downs in this grand old cathedral, the Bishop of Salisbury and the Dean having most cordially given their assent to this project. The execution of the proposed memorial has been entrusted to Miss Margaret Thomas, an artist of acknowledged ability. The estimated cost of this work will be about £150. It is believed that little difficulty will be experienced in raising this small fund among the admirers and readers of the most remarkable man produced in the Diocese of Salisbury for many years. The committee consists of the Bishop of Salisbury and the Dean, Mr. Burdett-Coutts, M.P., Mr. Walter Pollock, Mr. Andrew Lang, Mr. Rider Haggard, Mr. J. W. North, Mr. George Smith, Mr. Andrew Chatto, Mr. Alfred Buckley, Mr. Osborne, Mr. C. P. Scott, Mr. F. G. Heath, Mr. Walter Besant, and Mr. Charles Longman. The two latter gentlemen will act as honorary secretaries, and I have willingly accepted the office of treasurer, and opened an account with Stuckey's Banking Company for subscriptions.—I am, Sir, &c.,

Haines Hill, Taunton, July 21st. Arthur Kinglake.

The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Volume 27, issue 79, June 1893, pages 69-99 has a report on the unveiling of the memorial, and an extended contemporary appreciation and bibliography of Jefferies. "The Euology" referred to is Walter Besant's 1888 The Eulogy of Richard Jefferies (Internet Archive eulogyrichardje00besagoog), an immediately posthumous biography and appreciation.

I haven't read much by Jefferies; I admit Victorian nature-mysticism isn't really my cup of tea; and some of his writing is even stranger, such as the 1883 autobiographical The Story of My Heart, which expresses deeply personal epiphanies about his life and his soul's journey (it reads to me as if written on opiates - he was undergoing a series of painful operations). But I may well have misjudged him, because his work had wider scope, including a number of interesting-looking novels. For example, in the 1875 Restless Human Hearts:

Nature and nature mysticism are sharply contrasted with the decadence of fashionable Mayfair society. Brimming with original and often audacious ideas, the novel is also notable for its gallery of women characters – Heloise, who experiences mystical raptures alone on the downs but marries a brutal and debased peer; Georgiana, a feminist intellectual who defies convention by entering on a trial marriage with her lover; and the sin-stained Carlotta, a cross-dressing femme fatale whose nemesis comes in a close encounter with a cobra in a train compartment.
- description at Richard Jefferies Society site

One RJ novel I have read is his 1885 post-apocalyptic novel After London: Or, Wild England (Internet Archive afterlondon13944gut) is worth checking out. London has become a toxic swamp, and England, deserted by most of its populace, has largely reverted to woodland. The remaining populace consists of small feudal kingdoms in constant conflict with invading Welsh armies, tribes of gypsies and savage "Bushmen". The actual story - the novel's second section, Wild England - isn't so great. It's an adventure involving a baron's son, Sir Felix Aquila, who is frustrated by the lack of opportunity to prove his worthiness to marry the Lady Aurora Thyma, and so goes on a canoe voyage of exploration to seek his fortune. Unfortunately, the human and cultural side isn't well thought-through. Jefferies, like more than a few authors of post-apocalyptic novels, has just jumped back to mediaeval times rather than plausibly inventing a future. His future culture doesn't contain the 'fossils', via language, names, and half-remembered cultural fixtures, of a world built on a collapsed Victorian England. However, the first section, The Relapse into Barbarism, describes vividly and plausibly the development of the woodland ecology of an English landscape that has ceased to be cultivated.

See the Richard Jefferies Society for more background. The Society also has web pages on the Wilts Community Web - here - with many of his published works, and its journal and newsletter.

- Ray

Sunday, 5 February 2012

In Salisbury Cathedral

click to enlarge
Yesterday Clare went to a writing workshop in Salisbury; as my brother-in--law lives there, it was a chance to meet up for a meal, so I came along too, and spent a few hours mooching around the charity shops. It was a perishingly cold day, and began snowing later in the afternoon, so I revisited the cathedral.

It's one of England's iconic cathedrals, and its spire still dominates the views all around the city, just as it did in the days when it was painted by Constable (see here and here) and Turner (see here). Inside, the vaulting gives some marvellous vistas, with Piranesi-style arches-within-arches.

click to enlarge
click to enlarge
Although his external views are better known, Turner also painted these interiors (see here and here). Other features worth looking at are the Chapter House, which houses one of the four originals of the Magna Carta (no photo, because they don't allow it, but see their webpage) and the Cloister (again no photo, because my camera batteries died - but see Salisbury Cathedral Cloister Garden at

Salisbury Cathedral press release image
mobile phone image - pardon the poor resolution
One feature definitely worth seeing is the new font by the water sculptor William Pye. It's brilliant on every level: religiously, aesthetically, and practically.  For obvious reasons, it's cruciform, and is continuously supplied with water and drained from its four corners - symbolically representing the idea of baptism in "living water". But beyond this, the continuously draining corners - ripples can't reflect there - rapidly damp out surface disturbances, and with the black interior, the water surface is a perfectly smooth reflector for the vaulted ceiling. The effect is dizzying, like looking down into a vast well.  See the Cathedral's press release - Salisbury Cathedral's new font - a modern treasure - and more photos.

Vandalism tends to be viewed as a modern malady, but for an antidote to that view, check out the tomb of John, Lord Cheney, who died in 1499. His polished marble effigy is heavily scored all over with graffiti, chiefly initials. It's hard to see how, in more religious times, people found the opportunity to do this; deeply scraping your initials on stone isn't something done in an instant.

Addendum: Ah, the stupid! It burns! Angela Williams of Literary Places just sent a photo of similar graffiti on the tomb of Bishop Stafford in Exeter Cathedral, dating from the time of the English Civil War. I didn't see any dates on the Lord Cheney graffiti, but I was subliminally misdirected by seeing "VR" and assuming the damage to be by Victorian-era tourists. But I completely forgot that the tomb is old enough to have existed at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1500s, and the English Civil War of the 1600s, both of which times saw vandalism of religious artifacts. Salisbury was occupied by the Parliamentarian army in the winter of 1644, and there's some evidence of anti-icon damage and theft from the Cathedral in this period (though not necessarily as much as commonly associated with Cromwell's reputation) - see Who destroyed the images at the west end of Salisbury Cathedral?, page 119, The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Volume 3, 1857.

image courtesy of Angela Williams, Literary Places

- Ray

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

When That Man Is Dead And Gone

Further to the previous post, here's a similar video by cappnonymous - "a brief contrapuntal study in audio-visual propaganda" - which juxtaposes, to ironic effect, footage from Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 Triumph des Willens and the 1941 cover by Al Bowlly and Jimmy Mesene of Irving Berlin's 1941 When That Man Is Dead And Gone.

An anti-Hitler satirical song ...

Come on now, we're going to celebrate.
He's the guy that's spreading hate.
His account is overdrawn.
And his chances are in pawn.
Some fine day the news will flash
Satan with the small moustache
Is asleep beneath the lawn.
When that man is dead and gone-
What a day to wake up on!
What a way to greet the dawn!
When a certain man is dead and gone!"

... it was nevertheless a fine jazz composition, and covered by other well-known artists such as Mildred Bailey (YouTube) and Glenn Miller (YouTube). It was rather a twist of fate that When That Man Is Dead And Gone was Bowlly's last recorded song; he was killed by a Luftwaffe parachute mine at his home in 1941. His legacy was an iconic list of recordings that are still being referenced today.

- Ray
Thanks to Trebots of kalebeul for jogging my memory in a comment to the previous post; I saw the cappnonymous video last year, but had forgotten it.