Friday, 30 March 2012

"Ursula" and Blackgang

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 A while back - see The Red House and the Sewells - I mentioned the Sewells, a high-achieving family in 19th-century Newport, Isle of Wight, and particularly one of the daughters, the novelist and educator Elizabeth Missing Sewell. I've been a little brainless, possibly because the Victorian Web assessment of her novels - as pious and dull - put me off investigating. I didn't spot that (as with Maxwell Gray) at least one of her works, Ursula, has a fictionalized Isle of Wight setting. It's unsurprising, considering that she was born in Newport in 1815 and spent much of her life on the Island, dying at Bonchurch in 1906.

I spotted the reference in the 1895 Black's Guide to the Isle of Wight (Internet Archive blacksguidetoisl00moncuoft) which cites Sewell's 1858 novel Ursula: A Tale of Country Life in its section on the Undercliff at the southern tip of the Island:
Miss Sewell, who has described this neighbourhood in her novel, Ursula, tells us : "The ground is tossed about in every direction, and huge rocks lie scattered upon it. But thorns and chestnuts and ash-trees have sprung up amongst them upon the green-sward ; ivy has climbed up the ledges of the jagged cliffs ; primroses cluster upon the banks ; cowslips glitter on the turf ; and masses of hyacinths may be seen in glades, half hidden by the foliage of the thick trees, and through which the jutting masses of gray rock peep out upon the open sea, sparkling with silver and blue some hundreds of feet beneath them."
There are several copies of Ursula in the Internet Archive (for instance, the single-volume 1886 edition is ursulataleofcoun00sewe) and a quick skim finds some detailed descriptions of the southern Island. For example, there is a scene in which the narrator recalls her childhood, and the view from "St. Anne's Hill" and "Sandcombe Down", which are clearly St. Catherine's Hill and St. Catherine's Down,

We walked over to Dene late one bright summer's evening, about two months after the plan had been first talked about. I just remember that. I don't recollect what the country looked like ; but it must have been very beautiful if it at all resembled — as of course it did — what I have known it since. The down behind Sandcombe is a long ridge, as I have said ; but towards the south it rises up in a great hill, called St. Anne's Hill, from the summit of which there is a view for many miles round, over the land and over the sea; for it is very near the sea, not above a mile distant. The coast forms part of a great bay, indented by smaller ones. The shore is closed in with red sand-cliffs, rather low, broken, and jagged; but away to the west the red sand changes into chalk, and the cliffs become very steep, and rise to a great height ; standing out against the sky, when the sun shines on them, until they almost dazzle the eye; and at other times covering themselves,. as it were, with a blueish veil of mist, and looking out proudly from behind it. ... Below the ridge of Sandcombe Down the ground is very flat for a long way. From the edge of the cliff it is level for miles, cut up into corn-fields and pastures, with a few trees dotting the hedge-rows. People have said that it is a barren-looking country, and wanted wood ; but it was never barren to me. There was always variety in it. The clouds., when they drifted over the sky, cast shadows upon the fields ; and the sun, when it burst out, gleamed across them in long streaks of light ; and sometimes touched the tower of a church, or seemed as if it were trying to light up the old castle, standing on the hill close to Hove. For we could see as far as Hove, and beyond it, from Sandcombe Down : away, indeed, to where the river, which had its source close to us, and was then only a tiny brook, became quite a broad stream, and deep enough to float vessels. We could follow it till it reached a little seaport a few miles from Hove, and trace beyond it a blue line of sea, appearing here and there, as the land rose or sunk. There was an opposite coast, too, in that direction, and we could plainly distinguish the houses, looking like white dots, and the great chalk-pits, like patches on the sides of the misty hills. I was never tired of the view ; yet it was not so grand as the open sea, and the white cliffs from St. Anne's ; and I think it gave me more thoughts of the world.

More on most of these locations shortly - but briefly, don't be confused by "Hove". It's evidently Newport, the old castle Carisbrooke Castle, and the river is the Medina. The part about the opposite coast refers to looking northward across to the Hampshire mainland, and the chalk pits are on the southern face of Portsdown Hill, the down that backs Portsmouth Harbour. Further:

Mrs. Weir's new house was not exactly in Compton ; it might have been pleasanter for her if it had been. She would have been nearer the church and the parsonage. I don't know that I could describe the situation well to any one acquainted with the neighbourhood, and who did not know the kind of country that lay on the other side of St. Anne's Hill, between it and the sea. But supposing a person was standing on the top of St. Anne's facing the sea, and then was to go down the hill on that side, he would come to the top of a steep, jagged cliff, broken into uneven ledges, bare and sharp, except where here and there some green plant had I taken root in the crevices, and managed to grow in spite of the fury of the south-west winds, which, in these parts, are the fiercest winds that blow. Before coming to the top of the cliffs, it seems that there is nothing between them and the sea, but on reaching the edge there is a sight which makes a stranger start. For below lies, not the sea, but a broad tract of land, tossed up and down in little hills and valleys. It is scattered all over with huge rocks, which look as though giants had thrown them about in their play, and it slopes down in a steep descent towards the top of a second range of cliffs. This range cannot, of course, be discovered immediately underneath the upper cliffs, but it can be traced towards the west for many miles, forming the outline of Compton Bay. A dreary-looking country it is, but it has a charm even for that very reason. As a child I only saw it occasionally, and always thought of it as connected with haunts of smugglers, and wild storms ; roaring waves, and shipwrecks, and heavy sea mists, gathering over the hills, and shutting out the light which was the only hope of the seaman's safety. It must have been a fierce time on earth when the land sank away from the upper cliffs, and the great rocks were hurled down, and the streams, which have now worked their way through the lower cliffs, and formed deep chasms, first began to flow. But those days are not within the memory of man that I ever heard. Yet even now it is solemn to stand and think of what once has been. When I first remember that part of the country it was, so to say, unknown and untraversed. There was no road through it. Persons wishing to go from Hatton to Compton had to go up Hatton lane, and over the hill; only foot-passengers went over the cliffs, and with them it was a difficult task to find their way, especially on a dark night. They might stumble among the rocks, or wander to the edge of the cliff, and be over before they were aware of it. Some people, at that time, thought it an unsafe country to live in, and said that the rooks would fall again ; but there was little enough really to fear, though certainly things did seem terrible to those who were unaccustomed to them. Perhaps the country looks all the more wild from the contrast with that which immediately adjoins it. For to the east of St. Anne's Hill, just beyond Hatton, the land turns towards the south, and the warm sun shines full upon it. The ground is tossed about still in every direction, and huge rocks lie scattered upon it But thorns, and chestnuts, and ash trees have sprung up amongst them upon the greensward, ivy has climbed up we ledges of the jagged cliffs ; primroses cluster upon the banks; cowslips glitter on the turf; and masses of hyacinths may be seen in glades, half hidden by the foliage of the thick trees, and through which the jutting masses of grey rock peep out upon the open sea, sparkling with silver and blue, some hundreds of feet beneath them.
I'd formed an extremely good impression where this is: with St. Anne's Hill being St. Catherine's Down, the tumbled landscape is the Undercliff between Blackgang and Niton that I described and photographed last year: see On the lost road. However, Miss Sewell was helpfully explicit in her autobiography, identifying many locations that still exist (except for the two houses in the Undercliff, long-destroyed by landslip):
Ursula, which was published in 1858, is, as regards scenery, more entirely part of my early associations than any other of my tales — for Dene, Ursula's first home with her brother Roger, represents the Hermitage, where my happy holidays were so often spent.
The places mentioned in the neighbourhood of Dene are those which are really near the Hermitage. Compton is Chale; Hatton is Niton; and Hove is Newport; Sandcombe is a farm known as Downcourt; and Longside another farm called Fairfields. Every description is in fact taken from reality. Compton Heath represents the scenery and the houses near Blackgang Chine. In my childhood there was no high road to Blackgang. Persons wishing to drive from Chale to Niton were obliged to follow the cart-track over St. Catherine's Down. Mrs. Weir's cottage, "The Heath," is one amongst the many small villas which have sprung up between Niton and Blackgang. I think it is now called "Ninestones". Stonecliffe is Southlands, a large house on the lower edge of the cliff.
Probably many persons may consider I have exaggerated the beauty of the view looking from the cliffs under St. Catherine's over the rocks and trees to the sea: but I speak of it in Ursula as it was to my young imagination, before villas and roads had intruded upon its quiet loveliness. The drive along the Undercliff from Niton to Bonchurch has great attractions still, but nothing can restore the lost charm which haunts my remembrance to this day as a prophecy of the beauty of a future and better world.
- The Autobiography of Elizabeth M. Sewell (Elizabeth Missing Sewell, Eleanor L. Sewell, 1907, Internet Archive autobiographyel00unkngoog
On the former Blackgang-Niton Road, Blackgang landslip, Oct 2011
For me the description is very evocative; as regular readers will recall, I know this landscape well, both from my childhood and now. I don't have a nostalgia in the sense of regrets about how things have changed. It's been quite opposite: enough things have stayed the same that revisiting was possible, and I hadn't imagined the impact that being able to connect past and present would have on me. As I said in the earlier post, visiting the "lost road" and the ruin of the Shakespeare Memorial Fountain was the most intense experience of landscape I've had for decades. I knew it would be interesting in a kind of post-apocalyptic urban exploration way, but that didn't prepare me for the sheer terror of crossing the narrow cliff path to get there (and the elation at having over-ridden the terror and done it), or for the flood of memories - the sense of touching the past - when I got there.

Consequently I decided, after some months' thought, to commemorate it with a new tattoo, a slightly stylized image of the remaining logo from the Shakespeare Fountain. "TAR AND THE RO" is all that's left of a quotation from Two Gentlemen of Verona, apposite to the landscape - "The water nectar, and the rocks pure gold" - chosen by the installer, Charles Letts, to commemorate the tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth. So I guess it counts as a literary tattoo as well. The work is by Lewis at Glory Bound, Rolle Street, Exmouth, who also did my bayan tattoo.

Shakespeare Memorial Fountain, Oct 2011, detail

Shakespeare Memorial Fountain, Oct 2011
- Ray

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Route 2: Exmouth to Topsham on foot

As I mentioned in the previous post - Round The Point: Exmouth - on Saturday I was in Exmouth, and on impulse decided to walk home to Topsham along the recently-completed National Route 2 Exe Estuary Trail (the segment that runs up the east side of the Exe).

Monday, 26 March 2012

Round The Point: Exmouth

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Saturday 24th was a beautiful and extremely mild Spring day, sunny but hazy. As Clare was at a writing event and I had an errand to do (of which possibly more later), I decided to take myself to Exmouth.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

High ...

photo by Martin Stork
Just had a very successful evening, music-wise. First, I went to the TOPJAM session at Topsham Rugby Club. We (the organisers and core regulars) felt majorly low about the poor turnout this evening. I guess the unseasonably warm weather, and the longer day after the clocks went forward, might have something to do with this. It was, weather-wise, a brilliant evening today: a clear dusk, with Venus, Jupiter, and the waning moon in close conjunction. Quite a few people might prefer to be lounging outside a country pub contemplating the planets rather than being at an indoor music do.

Nevertheless, I played the set I'm working on for a forthcoming busking engagement at the beginning of June, and it went seriously well - that is, it had the desirable combination that the audience thought it did, I thought it did, and Clare (my best critic) thought it did. I felt, for the first time there, very relaxed about playing. At some level, I'm sure I was still anxious - by the end of the set, sweat was starting to drip off my nose - but whatever tension was causing it didn't seem to interfere with playing.

Due to the sparsity of attendance, we finished early, and after a useful chat about promotion and similar issues I went down to the rival engagement, the Topsham Folk Club, had a pint there (it was too late to play, as they schedule the lineup very early), then went next door to the Lighter Inn. There I got into conversation with some other people who'd moved on from the Folk Club, and it led to their requesting a brief demo of the bayan. We got dispensation from the bar manager, so I played my party piece, Ástor Piazzolla's Libertango. Again, it went extremely well despite my being a trifle ... errrm, discoordinated ... from the couple of beers earlier. The outcome was a commitment to go and play at next week's Folk Club session - and we have potential attenders for the next TOPJAM.

For a couple of months, I've been feeling pretty disconsolate about progress with the bayan - I'd hit the wall of starting to get middling-good, but being dragged down by repeated fumbles due to performance anxiety - so this was a highly encouraging evening. Good result. I'll get some current pieces up on YouTube soon.

- Ray

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Multiplying devices

click to enlarge

Some mathematics-related oddments. I was pleased to find the above nice curio - a pair of circular slide rules, complete with manual and wallet - very affordably in the local Estuary League of Friends. Charity shops are getting increasingly savvy and commercialised these days, to the point where you rarely see anything as obscure and interesting as this.

Both slide rules are made by the Concise Corporation, Japan, and the instruction leaflet says the agent is Takeda Drawing Instrument Mfg. Co. Ltd. The little one, a bit over 8cm in diameter, is a Concise No. 28N, a basic model with D, C, CI, A, K scales on the front and a metric-imperial conversion table on the back. The larger 11cm one, the Concise No. 300, is a full-featured log-log slide rule:

  • K, A, D, C, CI, B, L on the front / LL3, LL2, D, C, S, T1, T2, ST on the back.
  • Especially designed for professionals, this circular slide rule enables you to make various calculations ranging from general multiplication and division to the square root, cube root, trigonometric function and even logarithm and descending series.

I know all this because, surprisingly, they're still manufactured - here's the Concise No. 28N and Concise No. 300 - and available by mail order from the Concise website. The No. 28N costs ¥1,000 (a bit under £8) and the No. 300 costs ¥2,600 (around £20). Concise have diversified, and companion products include various drawing and measuring tools, stationery, and personal kit for the traveller.

There was a kind of synchronicity to this, because I'd just run into a couple of other mathematics-related topics, one of them being the interesting link at Ptak Science Books, Alan Turing--Report Card Teachers' Comments, 1926-1931 (which references Turing’s school reports at the website of the author Alex Bellos). Alex comments that "It’s interesting to see how he changes from an untidy and careless mathematician to a distinguished scholar", and John notes the snarkiness of some of the comments that describe Turing in such terms as "absent-minded":

It may be easy to judge some of the remarks as intemperate, the teachers unable to clearly see the genius-in-the-making who (70 years later) we can so clearly see today. I think the remarks need more careful consideration than that, and that is where they become interesting.

True. There is a standard "teachers are unable to recognise genius" meme, and people who remember their schooldays with hostility latch readily on to this (especially given the regular data points from celebrities who went on to great careers after being written off as the "class clown"). It is, however, a lot more complex than that. I'm not remotely in the intellectual league of Turing, but I can recognise from my own experience the syndrome of erratic achievement in academically good and mathematically-inclined pupils in traditional British education.

In part, the syndrome lies in the system. Good teachers recognise bright students and give them appropriate work to keep them interested; poor ones don't. And I must have run into the latter. I also had a number of reports, at junior school, saying I was "absent-minded", and the description is completely unrecognisable. What I do remember is being intensely bored; in mathematics, I remember with especial loathing what were called "Problems", page after page of identically structured sums that read like primers in capitalism (and sexism):

1. A man buys 10 oranges for 2s/6d, and sells them at 4d each. What profit does he make?
2. A man buys 11 apples for 1s/7d, and sells them at 1½d each. What loss does he make?
39. A man buys 19 pears for 2s/9d, and sells them at 2d each. What profit does he make?
40. A man buys 13 carrots for 2s/0d, and sells them at 2½d each. What profit does he make?

I remember similar sets of what seemed interminable repetitions - continuing the exercise long after (at least for me) the point had been driven home - for long multiplication, and I recall not finishing the sets because I'd start playing with other ways of doing them (I knew from books at home about Russian Peasant Multiplication and what's now called Lattice Multiplication).

That said, there are equally faults of working that bright students can get into spontaneously, and a major one stems from over-confidence: a tendency to "wing it". That is, letting trust in one's being good enough to improvise solutions over-ride the need to consolidate basic knowledge. For example, I don't think I ever properly learned many of the useful trigonometric identities such as sin(2x) and cos(2x) because I trusted in being able to derive them as needed from De Moivre's Theorem cos(x) + i*sin(x) = e^(ix) - despite the extra time needed to do that.

With other faults - "untidiness" - it's really hard to tell where the fault lies. Traditional schooling placed what I think was an unnecessary emphasis on format over content - and it goes against the reality of mathematics to expect a perfectly laid-out solution first time. Again, good systems existed, that allowed sufficient space for rough work that didn't count against the final "fair copy". Handwriting has been always been an issue: for some, poor handwriting is involuntary (a symptom of, for instance, dyspraxia); for others, it's a repairable result of poor initial instruction. Personally, I've always found it very difficult, for no reason I can fathom. That may even have helped steer me away from English and History, both of which subjects I enjoyed and still do, because physics and mathematics required much less writing.

And just as I was thinking about that, along came, via Yahoo! Answers, a relevant online paper: Mathematical justification of some non-traditional methods of multiplication (Y. D. Deshpande, Bulletin of the Marathwada Mathematical Society, Vol. 10, No. 2, December 2009, Pages 8–15). This is an interesting paper on on three unorthodox multiplication methods, explaining why they work: the Urdhva Tiryakbhyam method, the Ganesh method and the Russian peasant multiplication method.

Though the paper calls them "non-traditional", they're perfectly traditional, just methods that pre-date the dominance of the standard long multiplication algorithm. The Ganesh method is a slight variant on the lattice multiplication known across a number of cultures, the Russian Peasant Multiplication goes back to Ancient Egypt, and the Urdhva Tiryakbhyam method - a method from Vedic mathematics - is in the same territory as the merchants' multiplication systems I mentioned in November in the post Tagliente's multiplication by columns.

Although ancient India produced some serious innovation in mathematics, Vedic mathematics is something different: a system presented by the Indian author and scholar Bharati Krishna Tirthaji in the early 20th century. I say "presented" because it seems extremely doubtful that it comes from ancient Hindu sources as the author claimed. It comprises a set of algorithms, presented as fundamental "sutras", for performing rapid calculations on, usually, a one-line basis. I can't really disagree with one main criticism: that it was more relevant to pre-calculator days; and furthermore, the algorithms have the fault of it not being 'transparent' as to how they work. That said, I find Vedic mathematics interesting for that very reason; as with the previously-mentioned Tagliente method and similar, untangling the algorithm can make a diverting puzzle.

There are a number of websites and books about the topic. They vary between the adulatory (see Vedic Mathematics Academy) - via enthusiastic but straight expositions (see the Google Books preview of Vedic Mathematics, 1992) to the distinctly hostile. For example, Vedic Mathematics - 'Vedic' or 'Mathematics': a fuzzy & neutrosophic analysis (WB Vasantha Kandasamy, Florentin Smarandache, 2006) frames a technically accurate description of the system with the assertion that its popularity in India reflects its appeal to those with a right-wing caste-driven fundamentalist Hindu agenda. It reports an impressive body of signatories to a statement to the effect that "it is largely made up of tricks to do some elementary arithmetic computations. Its value is at best recreational and its pedagogical use limited". On the other hand, "the fuzzy and neutrosophic" method the book uses to analyse opinions on Vedic mathematics looks a majorly unproven dialectical method (and from the description here - Neutrosophy - my immediate feeling is that it could even be pseudomathematics).

- Ray

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Garmoshka meets Schwyzerörgeli

Some subjects, even when you think you know them well, keep throwing surprises at you; and this surprise was two accordion variants I'd never heard of.

At the beginning of December, the Guardian's Eyewitness series carried an excellent photo of electoral officials visiting villagers - Eyewitness: Gryaz, Russia (5 December 2011, Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters - see zoom) - with a gentleman playing accordion in the foreground.

Angela Williams of Literary Places sent me a link to the Reuters Photographers Blog, An accordion for Ablogin, which tells of an unexpected spinoff to the photo. Maddalena Bucher, in Britain, noticed the shabby state of the accordion (the player's name is Vladimir Ablogin) and contacted Reuters to arrange to send him her late husband's accordion, a "Schwyzerörgeli" button accordion. It's an immensely kind gesture, and a good story.

However, there is a telling line in the Reuters account ...

the new instrument which he has yet to learn to play with the same virtuosity as his old Russian garmoshka

... and the pictures reveal the likely reason. Although both the garmoshka and Schwyzerörgeli are superficially similar button-key accordions, they have a very different configuration: Mr Ablogin's garmoshka has a two-row diatonic system right-hand keyboard, and the Schwyzerörgeli is three-row, with a fingering like the "club system". The order of the bass buttons of the Schwyzerörgeli is also the reverse of the usual Stradella setup on accordions.

It sounds a monstrous learning curve to switch between the two. I found switching from piano accordion to chromatic button-key accordion bad enough, but at least it had the advantages that the bass configuration was the same, and the right hand work was a clean break: the new keyboard bore little relation to the old. Then again, I do know musicians who seem capable of switching between different configurations of instrument (for instance, between bisonic and unisonic accordions). I really do hope Mr Ablogin gets on with the Schwyzerörgeli, because it does look (and sound) a very nice instrument.

"Garmoshka", by the way, is a diminutive of гармон ("garmon") / гармоника ("garmonika"); as with the Finnish "harmonikka", the Russian "garmonika" means accordion, not harmonica (an example of a linguistic false friend). "Schwyzerörgeli" means "Swiss accordion" ("örgeli" - accordion - is the diminutive of "örgel" - organ).

Addendum: This is a very difficult situation to analyse. Is this a very imperfect outcome being spun by Reuters as a feelgood story? Is it so good-intentioned a gesture that I should ignore the very real practical problems? (I do feel very churlish pointing them out). Is Mr Ablogin so poor that the generosity of the gift blows him away despite the downside that he most likely can't play the thing? I don't know.

- Ray

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Britain's First Photo Album

A brief recommendation if you didn't catch it: Britain's First Photo Album, the ongoing BBC2 series in which John Sergeant is recreating the itinerary of Francis Frith, who "embarked upon a colossal project to photograph as much of Great Britain as possible during the second half of the 19th century".

This evening's instalment started with visits to a couple of locations I know intimately: Blackgang Chine (which has been a recurring topic on this blog) and Ventnor Botanic Garden (where the Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest formerly stood). I found it surprisely moving to see these places celebrated on television - the landscape and history of the Island has become so intertwined with the whole rediscovery of my past and family that I feel a powerful connection to it, especially the southern coast, even to the point of having direct personal links to its story (for instance, I'm distantly related by marriage, via one of my sisters, to the family who own the Chine theme park; and another relative was coxswain of the Brighstone lifeboat in the 1880s). The programme is on BBC iPlayer for 15 days from now: Isle of Wight to Stonehenge.

There's a commercial site,, which sells products based on the Frith collection; it does, however, provide a searchable index of reasonably-sized previews of Frith's photos

- Ray

Wild at Heart

A sentence in an article I cited in the previous post just jogged my memory:
An attempt to recreate the river trip immortalised in Jerome K Jerome's classic book with two girl friends turns into a strange hybrid of Wind in the Willows and Apocalypse Now, writes Joanne O'Connor
- How three women in a boat took a trip back in time, The Observer, Sunday 2 July 2006
As it so happens ... I wrote this short story a few years ago. It's failed to get placed in a number of competitions, notably the Kenneth Grahame Society's 2008 competition (despite its invitation for creative angles on The Wind in the Willows). So, rather than have it languishing on file forever (furthermore, a file that I very nearly lost through computer crashes), I thought I'd post it here. I don't recall having read the Observer article back then, but it could conceivably have been the inspiration. Enjoy.

Update: I've moved the post here - Wild at Heart.

- Ray

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Stream of Pleasure

Henley - from The Stream of Pleasure, 1891

This afternoon - it was very quite in the the shop - I was reading a very nice book: The stream of pleasure. A narrative of a journey on the Thames from Oxford to London (1891, Joseph Pennell & Elizabeth Robins Pennell, illustrated Joseph Pennell, Internet Archive streamofpleasure00penn).

As I mentioned previously (see Elizabeth Robins Pennell on Margate and London at play: on Margate's sands) ERP was an American journalist, writer and critic whose work in the late 19th and early 20th century including affectionate portraits of London life and leisure for the US market. The Stream of Pleasure is an evocative account, co-written with her artist husband Joseph (who also produced the illustrations), of a trip down the Thames, from Oxford to Richmond, in the Rover, a Thames camping skiff:

It was only a pair-oared skiff, shorter and broader than those generally seen on the Thames — "a family boat," an old river man called it with contempt ; but then it had a green waterproof canvas cover which stretched over three iron hoops and converted it for all practical purposes into a small, a very small, house-boat. By a complicated arrangement of strings the canvas could be so rolled up and fastened on top as — theoretically — not to interfere with our view of the river banks on bright days ; or it could be let down to cover the entire boat from stern to bow — an umbrella by day, a hotel by night.

Under it we could camp out without the bother of pitching a tent. We had already talked a great deal about the beautiful nights upon the river, when we should go to bed with the swans and rise up with the larks, and cook our breakfast under the willows, and wash our dishes and ourselves in quiet clear pools. What if river inns were as extortionate and crowded as they are said to be ? we should have our own hotel with us wherever we went. In the midst of a weak and damp hurrah from one ancient boatman, and under a heavy baptism not of champagne, but of rain, the Rover was at last pushed off her trestles and with one vigorous shove sent clean across the Thames to the raft where we stood under umbrellas, while Salter's men at once began to load her with kitchen and bedroom furniture. They provided us with an ingenious stove with kettles and frying-pans fitting into each other like the pieces of a Chinese puzzle, a lantern, cups and saucers and plates, knives and forks and spoons, a can of alcohol, and, for crowning comfort, a mattress large enough for a double bedstead. It filled the boat from stern to bow, covering the seats, burying the sculls and boat hooks, bulging out through and over the rowlocks. It was clear if it went we must stay, and so we said, as if we rather liked the prospect of roughing it, that we could manage just as well and be just as comfortable if we slept on our rugs ; for we carried all the Roman blankets and steamer rugs we possessed, together with a lot of less decorative blankets borrowed from our landlady in London, and the bundle they made took up the place of two people in the boat. The locker was stored with our supply of sardines, jam, chocolate, tea, sugar, biscuits, towels, and tea-cloths. Our bags were stowed away with the kitchen things. And then at last we crawled into the long green tunnel.

Despite all these mod cons, on the first night the Pennells went all nesh and stayed in an inn because it was raining, and thereafter abandoned the option of camping out in the skiff. Nevertheless, it's still an interesting journey, a genteel account of the inns, villages and towns they visit en route during their month-long trip. The book could be viewed as a serious countertext to Jerome K Jerome's 1891 Three Men in a Boat (which also involved a skiff holiday on the Thames, between Kingston and Oxford). Both books were written in the same time-slot, when commercial traffic on the upper Thames had ceased, and boating holidays had become a Victorian craze.

Much of the flavour of the Thames of the time is captured in the works of the Oxford photographer Henry Taunt, who was both a documenter and populariser of the upper Thames, chiefly through his guidebook Taunt's Illustrated Map of the Thames, which in the 1875 fifth edition covered the whole river from Thames Head to the Houses of Parliament. Another, later, good guide is the 1897 The Thames Illustrated: a picturesque journeying from Richmond to Oxford (Internet Archive thamesillustrate00leylrich), which is copiously illustrated with high-quality photos.

The riverscape has changed remarkably little since these books were written. In 2010, a Millennium Project by photographers Jeff Robins and Graham Diprose, In the footsteps of Henry Taunt, revisited and rephotographed Taunt's locations; the English Heritage Viewfinder site has a 22-page photo-essay, In the footsteps of Henry Taunt, with a number of comparison images such as Salter's boatyard in Oxford, the Beetle & Wedge pub, and the church of St Thomas of Canterbury at Goring.

You can even still  take Thames skiff holidays - though personally, being in a shallow-draft rowing boat alongside powered river traffic doesn't sound my idea of a relaxing holiday. I may be wrong - see How three women in a boat took a trip back in time (Joanne O'Connor, The Observer, 2 July 2006). But the Thames Path National Trail looks more to my taste.

Related further reading:
  • The book of the Thames : from its rise to its fall (Samuel Carter Hall, 1859, Internet Archive bookofthamesfrom00hall).
  • Evenings on the Thames; or, Serene Hours, and what they require, Volume 2 (Kenelm Henry Digby, 1864, Google Books)
  • Dickens's dictionary of the Thames, from its source to the Nore: an unconventional handbook (Charles Dickens, 1883 and other eds., Internet Archive dickenssdictiona1885dick).

- Ray

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Lady, Come Down

This isn't the movie version for copyright reasons, but an extremely good cover of the song by Daniel Mitchell and Jacob Gooden, from their own filmed version of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Clare and I are great fans of Oliver Parker's 2002 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (see the Internet Movie Database). It's a charming interpretation, with a strong cast, perfect costume and setting, and a deal of creative expansion that opens out the play as a movie, in ways unexpected without being obtrusive: for instance, Cecily's Pre-Raphaelite-inspired daydream sequences such as this scene inspired by Millais's The Knight Errant (see also The Beautiful Necessity blog); Gwendolen and Jack getting tattoos (thoroughly authentic for the period); and a relaxed and upbeat ragtime-jazzy soundtrack by Charlie Mole, including the duo serenade Lady, Come Down sung by Colin Firth and Rupert Everett.

A quick Google of reviews suggests people either love or hate this film. Personally, I think it's excellent theatre as well as a good film; isn't it a staple of adaptation to subvert a text, or bring a creative spin to it, through staging and design? Its angle is to bring great warmth to what can be played as a very cynical take on the nature of relationships. For example, the vivid Pre-Raphaelite sequences portray Cecily's fictional journal-keeping as the act of someone with a rich and culturally-informed inner life rather than a gormless fantasist. And it even provides a rational reason why Gwendolen is so set on marrying a man called Ernest.

I didn't realise until we got the DVD that the lyrics of Lady, Come Down are actually by Wilde, from his poem Serenade, concerning Helen of Troy and Paris:

(for music)

The western wind is blowing fair
Across the dark Ægean sea,
And at the secret marble stair
My Tyrian galley waits for thee.
Come down! the purple sail is spread,
The watchman sleeps within the town,
O leave thy lily-flowered bed,
O Lady mine come down, come down!

She will not come, I know her well,
Of lover's vows she hath no care,
And little good a man can tell
Of one so cruel and so fair.
True love is but a woman's toy,
They never know the lover's pain,
And I who loved as loves a boy
Must love in vain, must love in vain.

O noble pilot tell me true
Is that the sheen of golden hair?
Or is it but the tangled dew
That binds the passion-flowers there?
Good sailor come and tell me now
Is that my Lady's lily hand?
Or is it but the gleaming prow,
Or is it but the silver sand?

No! no! 'tis not the tangled dew,
'Tis not the silver-fretted sand,
It is my own dear Lady true
With golden hair and lily hand!
O noble pilot steer for Troy,
Good sailor ply the labouring oar,
This is the Queen of life and joy
Whom we must bear from Grecian shore!

The waning sky grows faint and blue,
It wants an hour still of day,
Aboard! aboard! my gallant crew,
O Lady mine away! away!
O noble pilot steer for Troy,
Good sailor ply the labouring oar,
O loved as only loves a boy!
O loved for ever evermore!

- Oscar Wilde, 1881, via

Colin Rudd's version of Serenade is a rather nice straight folk arrangement; I'm not sure about the Darwin Prophet one.

- Ray

Monday, 5 March 2012

What D'you See in Pictures?

In the Picture / Three Cases of Murder (1954) via National Media Museum

Above, the results of a partially successful search: an introductory segment from the seldom-shown 1954 film Three Cases of Murder. This British film, a portmanteau film of a sort no longer made, comprises three murder-themed shorts, all featuring Alan Badel, and all excellent. One, You Killed Elizabeth, is a very English darkly comic whodunit concerning a rivalry between two business partners for the attention of a woman that leads to murder. Another, Lord Mountdrago, features a Somerset Maugham psychological drama with Orson Welles as a high-ranking politician whose thoughts turn to murder when he experiences humiliating dreams involving Owen, a Welsh MP whose career he ruined - dreams whose content Owen seems aware of. However, the third, In the Picture, seems to be the one that people find most memorable.

In the Picture (directed by Wendy Toye from a screenplay by Donald Wilson adapted from a Roderick Wilkinson story), is a wonderful piece of English Gothic that starts in a picture gallery with Badel's character - who is never named -  sitting opposite a painting with broken glass. He accosts a mild-mannered guide, Jarvis, enquiring about the latter's fascination with the painting - a country house in a gloomy landscape titled Landscape - Artist Unknown. After expressing the view that the composition could be improved by a light in a window, "Mr X" proceeds to talk Jarvis closer and closer and into the painting with him. They enter the house to find a draughty expressionist interior and its two other occupants: an unnamed woman and an artist-taxidermist called Mr Snyder. It turns out that the three have been "assigned" to the painting as a kind of purgatory, and Mr X is the artist who painted it. The visit rapidly turns to horror for Jarvis, who finds he's the pawn in a bargain between Mr X and Snyder; Mr X gives him Jarvis as a vivisection victim in exchange for the use of Snyder's coveted candle. We hear a scream from the painting as Mr X lights the candle with Jarvis's matches. The segment ends with Mr X dissatisfied with the composition - he wants another light - and he exits the painting again to sound out another victim, a young woman with a cigarette lighter.

There's been a deal written about this piece: see, for instance, the account at British Horror Films (Three Cases Of Murder); and Drawn and Quartered: Wendy Toye’s In the Picture (Jorge Didaco, Senses of Cinema, Issue 34), which says of it:
British cinema has drawn extensively on these patterns of ghastly horror (from Hammer to Amicus and beyond), but rarely so quietly shocking and perverse as in Wendy Toye’s adaptation of Roderick Wilkinson’s short story “In the Picture” (with a screenplay by Donald Wilson)

I was interested in tracking down the original story, and as I said above, I was partially successful. It was slightly difficult because virtually all accounts get the story name wrong: it's not In the Picture but What D'you See in Pictures?. I managed to trace it, or at least a reprint after the film was made, to a 1964 edition of Short Story International magazine (Google Books snippet view here - though the Google Books metadata is wrong; the edition is Short Story International, Volume 1, No. 11, September 1964). The blurb runs:
What D'you See in Pictures? by Roderick Wilkinson
Have you ever seen a painting that made you want to walk right into it and become a part of the scene? Don't ever wish too hard. What D'you See In Pictures? is reprinted from Courier Magazine, a British Publication.
A trifle annoyingly, this is one of those instances where Google Books snippet view doesn't recover enough to skim the story, and often purports to show snippet view but shows an irrelevant or blank portion of the page. All that was findable was the start and finish of the story. The start is similar to the film, except that the narrator is a draper ...
If I say a word of it to the authorities — or even to my wife — they'll take me away. But I'll tell you.

It was in July. You remember the hot spell we had — lovely summer weather. I was in the park one Tuesday afternoon (I'm a draper by trade and Tuesday's my day off). I felt very warm out there so I came into the Galleries because I thought it would be cooler. The Galleries were very quiet — and I didn't meet anyone until I came in here. And it was here I met him. He was sitting here on this very seat. I sat down beside him. He was a queer-looking type — dressed in a black raincoat with a sort of cape at the shoulders, and he wore a big-brimmed hat; it was black too. ...
... and at the end, the narrator escapes the painting, failing to rescue another character from it.
another form in front of me — the dark form of the hole in the ground.

"I've found it!" I yelled. "Quick — I've found the hole!"

I threw myself head and shoulders first through the cavity, shouting all the time — "Come through — come through. Give me your stick — your walking stick. I'll pull you through."

I don't know what happened. I think I must have fainted. When I came round to my senses the first thing I saw was the grain of that wooden floor in the art galleries. When I got to my feet I stared at the painting.

He was there — just as you see him now — hanging by the neck from the third gallows.

Sane? Mad? I don't know. I have only one small link in the chain to show me that I must be sane. It must have happened. When I picked myself up from that floor in the galleries I was leaning on his walking stick.
I don't know what happens in between - maybe it's excellent - but the narrator's survival rather puts in the bracket of "cosy" horror. Donald Wilson's screenplay, with the urbane and completely amoral Mr X as framing character and chief driver of the plot, makes it a much darker and stronger story; and Wendy Toye's overall visual treatment of the piece, including the stunning chiaroscuro of the best black-and-white films of that era, raises it to perfection.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

A Devon Estuary, by HM Tomlinson

Via an unconnected search, I just ran into this chapter from HM Tomlinson's 1922 Waiting for Daylight. It's not the Exe estuary - there isn't a lighthouse - but the landscape it evokes is similar. I've been unable to find which, if any, guide-book described which estuary as "this dreary expanse".

A Devon Estuary

September 11, 1920. "This dreary expanse, the guide-book explains, "will not attract the tourist." The guide was right. I was alone to that degree beyond mere solitude when you feel you are not alone, but that the place itself is observing you. Yet only five miles away long lines of motor-cars were waiting to take tourists, at ruinous prices, to the authentic and admitted beauty spots. There was not, as the polite convention would put it, a soul about. It was certainly a dreary expanse, but the sunlight there seemed strangely brilliant, I thought, and, what was more curious, appeared to be alive. It was quivering. The transient glittering of some seagulls remote in the blue was as if you could glimpse, now and then, fleeting hints of what is immaculate in heaven. Nothing of our business was in sight anywhere except the white stalk of a lighthouse, and that, I knew, was miles away across the estuary whose waters were then invisible, for it was not only low tide, but I was descending to the saltings, having left the turf of the upper salt marshes.

You felt that here in the saltings you were beyond human associations. The very vegetation was unfamiliar. The thrift, sea lavender, rocket, sea campion, and maritime spurge did not descend so low as this. They came no nearer than where the highest tidal marks left lines of driftwood and bleached shells, just below the break of the upper marshes. Here it was another kingdom, neither sea nor land, but each alternately during the spring tides. At first the sandy mud was reticulated with sun-cracks, not being daily touched by the sea, and the crevasses gave a refuge for algæ. There was a smell, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, which reminded you of something so deep in the memory that you could not give it a name. But it was sound and good. Beyond that dry flat the smooth mud glistened as if earth were growing a new skin, which yet was very tender. It was spongy, but it did not break when I trod on it, though the earth complained as I went. It was thinly sprinkled with a plant like little fingers of green glass, the maritime samphire, and in the distance this samphire gave the marsh a sheen of continuous and vivid emerald.

The saltings looked level and unbroken. But on walking seaward I was continually surprised by drainage channels. These channels serpentined everywhere, and were deep and wide. Sometimes they contained nothing but silt, and sometimes they were salt-water rivers. I came upon each canyon unexpectedly. The first warning was a sudden eruption from it, a flock of dunlin, a flock which then passed seawards in a regimented flight that was an alternate flash of light and a swift shadow. Dunlin, curlew, oyster-catchers, or gulls, left a gulley just before I knew I was headed off again. In one of these creeks, however, the birds left me more than their delicate footprints to examine. They left there a small craft whose mast I had long taken to be a stump projecting from the mud. A young man in a brown beard, a brown shirt, and a pair of khaki trousers was sitting on its skylight. He hailed, and showed me how I could get to him without sinking up to more than the knees in this dreary spot.

"Stay here if you like," he said, when I was with him. "When the tide is full I'll pull you round to the village." It was a little cutter of about fifteen tons, moored to the last huge links of a cable, the rest of which had long been covered up. I thought he was making holiday in a novel way. "No," he replied, "I'm living here."

It seems (I am but paraphrasing his apology) that he returned from Cambrai, bringing back from France, as a young officer, some wounds and other decorations, but also his youthful credulity and a remembrance of society's noble promises to its young saviours. But not long after his return to us the sight of us made him feel disappointed. He "stuck it," he said, as long as he could. But the more he observed us the worse he felt. That was why he gave up a good position a second time on our account. "What was the good of the money? The profiteers took most of it. I worked hard, and had to give up what I earned to every kind of parasite. London was more disagreeable than ever was Flanders. Yet I think I would not object to sweep the roads for a community of good people. Yes, I thought nothing could be worse than the dead in the mud. But I found something worse. The minds of the living who did not know what I knew in France were worse to me. I couldn't remember the friends I'd lost and remain where I was with such, folk about me. It was more awful than that German--did you ever meet him?--who lay just the other side of the parapet for weeks and weeks."

His only companion now is a paraffin stove, which does not, perhaps, require a gas-mask to aid in its companionship, though about that I won't be sure. The only conversation he hears is that of the curlews subdued, cheerful, and very intimate voices, having just that touch of melancholy which intimacy, when it is secure and genuine, is sure to give, however jolly the intimacy may be. He said that at first he was afraid he could not live on what little money he had, and must earn casually, after buying the boat, but "it's easier to live than I thought. There's not nearly as much worry needed as I used to suppose. It is surprising how much one can do without. I was rather scared at first when I got rid of my sense of duty. But, after all, it is not so hard to be free. Perhaps the world already has more soft and easy people than is good for it. I find one benefit of this life is that, being free of the crowd, I feel indifferent about the way the crowd chooses to go. I don't care now what the public does--that's its own affair, and I hope it will enjoy it." After a silence he said "That sounds selfish, I know. And I'm not sure yet that it isn't. Anyhow, if one could help one's fellows one would. But is it possible to help them? When did they last listen to reason? The only guides they will listen to are frauds obvious enough to make an ass lay back his ears. Well, I think I'll wait here till the crowd knows enough to stop before it gets to the edge of the steep place--if it can stop now."

I asked him what he read. "Very little. I fish more than I read. You'd think it would take only a week to learn all there is here. I should have thought so once. I see now that I shall never thoroughly know this estuary. It's a wonderful place. Every tide is a new experience. I am beginning to feel right again." In the boat, going round to the village, he learned I was a writer, rested on his oars, and drifted with the tide. "I'll give you a job," he said. "Write a book that will make people hate the idea that the State is God as Moloch was at last hated. Turn the young against it. The latest priest is the politician. No ritual in any religion was worse than this new worship of the State. If men don't wake up to that, then they are doomed." He began then to pull me towards humanity again.

-  A Devon Estuary, Chapter XXXI, Waiting for Daylight, Henry Major Tomlinson, 1922 (Internet Archive waitingfordaylig00toml).

The context of this chapter was Tomlinson getting his head together after experience of the Great War during 1914-1917, when he was a war correspondent in France for the Daily News. As mentioned in Jonathan Atkin's 2003 A war of individuals: Bloomsbury attitudes to the Great War (page 229) he was removed from the job for being too "humanitarian" in his coverage:

When I was recalled from France that spring I ceased to be a war-correspondent because Lord Northcliffe's representative on the Newspaper Proprietors' Association, so I was informed by my own newspaper, had objected to me as a "humanitarian".
- H. M. Tomlinson, Fred D Crawford, 1981

Waiting for Daylight is an account of Tomlinson's reaction to the war and its aftermath, told as a chronological series of 33 short essays.

Henry Major Tomlinson is one of a number of highly prolific authors of the early 20th century who are now scarcely remembered. As Wikipedia says, "He was known for anti-war and travel writing, novels and short stories, especially of life at sea". Six of his works are on Project Gutenberg (see search):

  • London River (1921) is an evocative account of the East London docklands, now long-destroyed by war and redevelopment;
  • The anthology Modern Essays (1921) contains one Tomlinson piece, Bed-Books and Night-Lights;
  • Nonsenseorship (1922), a collection of polemical essays on various aspects of prohibition and censorship, contains his satire A Guess at Unwritten History, which extrapolates from the use of censorship to suppress critical thought during World War 1 to a state-dominated far future.
  • Old Junk (1918) is an anthology of Kipling-eque short stories and essays.
  • The Sea and the Jungle (1912) is "the narrative of the voyage of the tramp steamer Capella from Swansea to Santa Maria de Belem do Grao Para in the Brazils".
  • Waiting for Daylight (1922) - as described above.

Eldritch Press has a detailed bibliography of his works: H. M. Tomlinson 1873-1958. The intro says of him:

Henry Major Tomlinson grew up in the East End of London, the great seaport (described in London River, destroyed in the Blitz). He became a shipping clerk, a journalist, a war correspondent, a newspaper editor, and a travel writer and novelist. He was greatly affected by the futile slaughter of World War I. His first book was ignored at the time but has been frequently reprinted since for a small, discerning audience such as yourself; his other works have not remained popular, at least in the United States. Deaf, bald, he always wore the black bowler hat of an East End clerk.

Professional writers should not read Tomlinson. No doubt any who try will throw away their keyboards in disgust when they compare their own frail abilities. His style and thinking must have been influenced by Emerson and Thoreau but is really that of the King James Bible, Homer and Shakespeare. His subject matter is often natural history or the foolishness of mortals who do not always realize the transcendental reality behind a common glance. His accounts of the sea, travel, and the Great War have not been surpassed. He is one author who produces quotable paragraphs on each page and can be read with pleasure again and again. It is time today to acknowledge his greatness.

Eldritch Press also has online Tomlinson's 1953 A Mingled Yarn: Autobiographical Sketches. The date would normally give me pause regarding copyright issues, but EP states that all the works on its site are either public domain or used by permission).

- Ray

Friday, 2 March 2012

Impractical costume

MetaFilter just had a good compendium of links to articles critical of the sexist conventions of superhero costumes in comics (see "You don't remember anyone named Dick?" "No." "Garth? Dustin? Vic?" "I can't recall." "Lilith? Gar?" "You are boring me.") - to which the antithesis is the excellent Women Fighters in Reasonable Armour.

I finally got a good picture of the lady above, who - apparently suffering from severe hip dysplasia - has clothing highly unsuited to wielding a flame-thrower. She comes from the van of a local firm, who deserve some kind of prize for the most jaw-droppingly naff and sexist trading logo I've seen for years. Some artist actually went to the considerable effort of designing it for them: did he or she not advise them how wildly inappropriate it is as a professional logo in the 21st century? It's tempting to "name and shame" the firm, but that risks giving them better Google ranking.

The design has a strong similarity to this wallpaper image of Lucy Liu for the 2003 movie Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. While just as impractical, it's rather more decent; and she at least looks like she's serious about the flame-throwing, unlike the strangely simpering character on the van. In the film - see this filming locations page - she wears a long-sleeved high-necked tunic and gloves.

- Ray