Sunday, 31 March 2013

"Make of thee a city"

I guess most settlements have their historical myths, and Topsham is no different. I've been meaning for a while to check out the origins of a verse about Topsham that regularly crops up in the kind of books and magazine articles that don't question local historical factoids:
Topsham, thou'rt a pretty town-—
I think thee very pretty,
And when I come to wear the crown
I'll make of thee a City!
It's attributed (an attribution often cited as hard fact) to the Duke of Monmouth in the late 1600s.

However, the first print citation I can find for this rhyme is the late 19th century, and it comes with plenty of qualifications.
Monmouth had always been singularly popular in Devonshire. Five years before the death of his father he had been received in Exeter with royal honours, and more than loyal enthusiasm. Even to this day some oral traditions of his visit are preserved in the neighbourhood. He is said to have visited Topsham, the port of Exeter, and to have composed these doggerel lines, which may with more probability be attributed to some local poetaster:
<poem snipped>
- Quarter Sessions under James II, AHA Hamilton, Fraser's Magazine, August 1877, p228.
And other contemporary sources take the same cautious view:
Topsham and the Duke of Monmouth.— According to Mr. A. H. A. Hamilton, in his work on Quarter Sessions from Elizabeth to Antic, Monmouth is said to have visited Topsham, the port of Exeter, and to have composed these doggerel lines:—
<poem snipped>
Mr. Hamilton hints that they " may with more probability be attributed to some local poetaster." I think so, too, but shall be glad to know if they were derived from oral tradition or from written record. Kearly.
- The Western Antiquary, Volume 6, Page 48, 1887
Slightly later sources start losing the doubt element. For example, this one quotes Hamilton, removing all reference to his opinion about the origin:
<poem snipped>
Said by the Duke of Monmouth when he visited the port of Exeter.  Quarter Sessions from Elizabeth to Anne, by A. H. A. Hamilton : CY. vi. 48.
- English folk-rhymes, a collection of traditional verses relating to places and persons, customs, superstitions, etc (GF Northall, pub. London, Paul, 1892, Internet Archive ID englishfolkrhyme00nortuoft)
At Topsham, near Exeter, we find a reminiscence of the ill-fated Monmouth rebellion, crushed at Sedgemoor. The Duke is recorded to have said—
<poem snipped>
- The Gentleman's Magazine, Part 2, Page 70, 1900
[These lines] "are represented as having been probably spoken by the ill-fated Duke of Monmouth on his return from Plymouth with Charles II. in 1670 (or rather July, 1671) as they drove over Haldon on their way from Dartmouth to Exeter, and looked down on the estuary of the Exe. Even if the Duke accompanied his father on that visit, which does not seem certain, though mentioned by Jewitt in his History of Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall, may I suggest a far more probable occasion?  In August, 1680, at the instigation of the Earl of Shaftesbury, the Protestant Duke set out upon a quasi-royal progress  through the western counties, a district not too well affected towards the Throne ... His progress brought him to Exeter, and after spending the night with that well-known Whig, Sir Walter Yonge, at Otterton, he set out next morning for Exeter, and doubtless his route led him through Topsham, which was at that time the busy port of Exeter and at the height of its prosperity "whither the merchants convey on horses their Serges and soe load their shipps which comes to this place all for London" (Miss Cecilia Fienne's Diary). The tidings of his visit had preceded him, and a vast crowd assembled to greet him, "a brave company of stout young men, all clothed in linen waistcoats and drawers, white and harmless, having not so much as a stick in their hands," met him on the way and escorted him into the city. They ran "into toon crying 'God bless the Protestant Duke and the devil take the Pope ' " — an expression hardly in character with their spotless raiment (Hist. MSS. Rep. 12, App. 7, p. 170). This hearty reception may very well have given rise to the sentiment expressed in the lines which local tradition attributes to the Duke ; and a "Monmouth Street" and a "Monmouth Head" inn-sign still commemorate the event.
- Roger Granville, Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries, Volume 6, Part 1 - Page 163, 1911
This last is a very naughty conflation of irrelevant local colour and unproven assumptions: "doubtless his route led him" / "may very well have given rise to".

The bottom line seems to be that there are no contemporary accounts of Monmouth visiting Topsham or commenting on it, and (at least in works scanned by Google) no attribution trail to the poem prior to AHA Hamilton's 1877 account.

- Ray

Friday, 29 March 2013

Robot & Frank

publicity still from official site
A minor recommendation: Robot & Frank, a 2012 independent film directed by Jake Schreier, currently on at the Exeter Picture House.

The central character is "Frank" (played by Frank Langella) an elderly man living alone and managing poorly due to the onset of dementia, whose son buys him a helper robot of a design similar to the Honda ASIMO. Frank initially resents the unnamed robot, which forces him to eat properly and maintain a scheduled day, but changes his mind when the robot helps him in a minor act of shoplifting - by some oversight, legality is not part of its programming. We then find that Frank is an ex-burglar, and he warms to the possibilities of restarting his career. The robot, whose prime directive is fostering Frank's physical and mental health, accepts Frank's enthusiasm and concentration on the project as beneficial to his well-being, and so it helps him with a crime. I'll leave the plot description at that point.

I'd probably have spotted Robot & Frank sooner if I'd noticed it was borderline science fiction. It's not greatly stressed in the blurb, but it's set in the near future, subtly indicated by differences in mobile phone styling and considerable advances in speech recognition and AI, and less subtly by Frank being the last book reader of a print library that's being closed down in favour of e-resources and a robot librarian. As such, the film is unusual in presenting the consequences of technological change quite neutrally; the library closure is dystopian from our viewpoint, but there are equally no doubts as to the benefits Frank gains from his robot helper, quite apart from it being a criminal accomplice. It won an Alfred P Sloan Prize for this portrayal of technology.

I say "minor recommendation" because it's a rather more 'gentle' and far less dark film than I'd normally spend money on seeing at a cinema. Clare was originally going to see it with friends, but they immediately dismissed it on seeing the R-word in the title. This is very much their loss: it proved to be worth every penny. Quite apart from Langella's excellent central performance, it tackles its theme very nicely, interweaving the threads of Frank's memory problems, the obsolescence and removal of the books he loves, and his discussion with the robot of its own erasable memory - all in the format of a "last adventure" plot. A pleasant, subtly humorous, and ultimately moving film, it's well worth seeing.

The official website is here.

- Ray

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Strange and wonderful propaganda

A spot of anecdote / folklore that was new to me:

Strange and wonderful news from Exeter: giving an account of the dreadful apparitions that was seen by Mr. Jacob Seley of Exeter on Monday, September the 22th, 1690, who gave the full account to the judges the next day, who were going the western circuit (published London : Printed by T.M 1690).

I can't find a transcript of this pamphlet online anywhere that's not behind a paywall or institutional password, but a couple of book accounts paraphrase it:
The traveller [Seley], going to Taunton, stopped at an inn and called for a pot of beer and a noggin of brandy. Proceeding on his way he met a country-like farmer, whom he was persuaded to accompany three miles, on the promise of good lodging. Presently the farmer and his horse vanished away, and immediately there appeared a hundred or two—men, women, and children; "some like judges, some like magistrates, some like clergymen, and some like country people." The last made at the stranger with spears, upon which he adjured them in the name of the Trinity. Of this they took no notice, but covered him with a net. Then he alighted off his horse, and when he let go the bridle the horse disappeared, and he never saw him more. In this plight he waited till four in the morning, and, being constantly attacked, thrust at his assailants with his sword, finding nothing but shadow, though he presently perceived a "man was cut, and his four fingers hung by the skin, and a woman was cut in the forehead, leaving blood upon the sword." After this came along ten funerals, one after the other; then two bodies were dragged along, both apparently just slain. In the morning the traveller got away, and happening to meet the Judges on their way to Wells, he gave them an account of his adventure.

If anyone wished to be satisfied of the truth of this story, he was to go to Mr. William Brown, next door to the Windsor Castle, Charing Cross.

Omitting to notice the consumption of beer and brandy, the narrator suddenly remembers, "'tis remarkable" that on the sign post of the inn one of Monmouth's men was hanged, and that about there several were buried who had been either killed or executed.
- p. 57, On some Somerset Chap-Books, Emanuel Green, Proceedings, Volume 24, Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, pub. F. May, 1879. 
And the second:
And now, to finish up with Exeter witchcraft while we are about it, we may as well relate the sad story of Mr. Jacob Seley, which set all the ever faithful city gossiping so long ago as .Monday, September 23rd, 1690, and is very worthy to be remembered even yet. Mr. Seley, it appears, set forth from his own home in Exeter on the day just named, with the full purpose and intention of riding to Taunton in Somerset. As far as we can gather he jogged along quite comfortably for a considerable distance, following the road through Hinton Clist to Blackdown, at which place there is a public-house called Cleston, "where the coach and waggons usually lodge on that road." Here Mr. Seley stopped some time, and refreshed the inner man. Perhaps he was a thought imprudent; for after he had called for a pot of beer, he had also a noggin of brandy ; but if there was excess, surely even rigid moralists will admit that his punishment was more than he deserved. For when he at last resumed his journey, (the quotation is from a tract entitled "Strange and Wonderful News from Exeter,") "he met with a country-like farmer, being about seven or eight at night; and in the country-like farmer persuaded Mr. Seley to ride back a mile and a half to lodge, telling him there was very good quarters, but at his return, he supposed it to be about three mile; and then he brought him to a plat of ground near the house, and the country-like farmer and his horse vanished away."

This of itself was sufficiently startling to a tired man, and might serve to point the moral how rash it is to ride back upon your road with people whom you do not know. But mark the sequel. "Immediately near 100 or 200 appeared to him, men, women, and children, some like judges, some like magistrates, some like clergymen, and some like country people; and the country people had spears who made at him, and then he made use of Scripture, but they made him no answer. Then he did abjure them." We may pause to remark that it might have helped him more if he had abjured noggins of' brandy. "He did abjure them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; for it is written, the seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent's head." However, there seemed to be something wrong in the abjuration, for Mr. Seley did not succeed in bruising the serpent's head, though having laid about him with a hanger which he wore, he formed the conclusion that he had cut off some of its fingers. At any rate there was blood upon his hanger, and then the enemy hung over his head "something like a fishing net," with what purpose exactly does not appear, but no doubt it was a wicked one. All this went on by Mr. Seley's account in a plat of ground not above four yards square. "At last he lighted off his horse, and his horse laid his nose on his shoulder as if he had been a Christian." But even this sorry comfort poor Mr. Seley did not long enjoy; for the spirits gave his horse "something like treacle, and then he let go his horse and never saw him after."

There is a good deal more of this story, prepared doubtless for the consumption of Mrs. Seley when her lord returned. But where Mr. Seley really was all this time is a matter of pure speculation.
- pp46-47, Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall, Arthur Hamilton Norway, pub. Macmillan, 1898.
What a complete crock. The chiefly notable thing about this story is that it's timed precisely five years after the 'Bloody Assizes', retributory trials of Monmouth sympathizers conducted, in Taunton and elsewhere, in the aftermath of the Monmouth Rebellion. As such, there's more in it than merely (as the retellings suggest) some meaningless drunken hallucination; as an indictment of the establishment executioners as hostile apparations, it's clearly pro-Monmouth propaganda.

I ran into Mr Jacob Seley on the staff page of Dr Lucy Ryder of the University of Chester, author of the just-published The Historic Landscape of Devon, a write-up of her PhD at the University of Exeter. Her research area looks very interesting:
"the intersections between folklore and archaeology (evidence in published and forthcoming work), and my current research interests focus on the relationship between landscapes and folkloric traditions; using folk belief to examine how societies functioned in past".
I don't terribly trust folklore as having any clear meaning, because its agenda is highly malleable. Ronald Hutton's Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain has a particular local example of how bonfire celebrations in southern England, such as that at Ottery St Mary, have clear-cut origins in anti-Catholic celebration, but have been reinvented as having vastly ancient pagan origin. But the thrust remains: the existence of traditions attached to a location seems to indicate that something was significant about the place.

- Ray

Monday, 25 March 2013

Bayan time (18) - Mysteries

Panic time,  more like! I've signed up to play in the band for a local production of The Mysteries, Tony Harrison's adaptation of the mediaeval mystery plays - rather strange retellings of Biblical stories where the canonical texts are embellished with folk-myth accretions and contemporary dramatic elements.

Ben Beeson, the musical director, was looking for a slightly off-the-wall band line-up, and asked me if I'd like to take part. It's quite a challenge. The production is on in about a month, and my sight-reading is very slow; plus I've had to rapidly sharpen my ability to find specific notes and chords on the bayan. However, the first rehearsal went pretty well, and it seems more people than I realised are in not so different a position.

From the flyer:
Tuesday 23rd to Friday 26th April, St Margaret's Church
The Mysteries

Tony Harrison's adaptation of the mediaeval mystery plays, presented by Estuary Players: Director Alan Caig / Musical Director Ben Beeson
Tickets £8 from Topsham News or telephone 01392 873043

"The Mystery Plays represent the beginnings of English drama. Performed by the craft guilds around mediaeval cities, they were designed to teach the stories and lessons of the Bible - Old and New Testaments - at a time when not only was the Bible not translated into English, but most people could not read anyway.

"They are a rugged but poetic way of telling stories, and are told with humour, passion, and a relentless devotion to moving the plot along.

"Estuary Players are aiming to make this a big production, with a live band throughout, a large cast and all in the exciting setting of Topsham's magnificent parish church. We are using the adaptation made by poet Tony Harrison for the acclaimed National Theatre production in the early 80's, although that eventually extended to three full plays, and included long plays about the Harrowing of Hell and Doomsday which we are not going to attempt.

"Harrison drew on all the extant cycles, the complete ones of which are the York, Wakefield and Coventry versions, and he retained the mediaeval English where it was understandable still, but where not he retained a Northern rhythm and vocabulary so that the whole is as authentic as it can be and still be perfectly understandable to modern audiences."
Elaborating on this: "I've had to rapidly sharpen my ability to find specific notes and chords on the bayan". It may may sound surprising, pretty lame even, that I haven't practised this as much as I might. But the bayan strongly depends on muscle memory (particularly for the left hand, whose buttons the player can't see) and when playing I'm chiefly aware of the relative positional relationships associated with the key of a tune - tonic, dominant, subdominant, relative minor - rather than what their note names are. I don't often need to (say) hit a G# with no context.

To help with this, I ran up a little reference chart for the white notes.

The convention with button-key accordion note charts is near-invariably to present the keyboard like this as if you were looking at it lying on your side. I don't know why - maybe it's ease of fitting on a page, maybe it's piano accordion influence - but I've never found it very easy to use.

The one I made (right) breaks with that convention, by being orientated the way you actually see the right-hand keyboard if you lean over and look down at it, and I find it a lot more helpful.

- Ray

Sunday, 24 March 2013

On not going back

In November 2011 I wrote a post - On going back - that explored a circumstance where returning to places and people of my childhood - always an experience to be approached with caution - had worked outstandingly. It doesn't always. I've been floundering over how to tackle this topic, but I'll start with a spot of social history.

Gosport, Hampshire, the town where I was brought up, has a long history as a naval and military town supporting the infrastructure and defence of Portsmouth harbour. Until well into the 20th century, this role required defence of the town, which was thus crammed into a small area within ramparts. It was very scruffy but vigorous, judging by the number of pubs and industrial premises (see There are Six taverns in the Town and Public Houses in Gosport High Street area, c. 1850), though not without affluent areas on the High Street, and a shore area called Coldharbour (later Clarence Square) where high-ranking naval officers had Georgian town houses. However, the 20th century brought major changes: in the early 20th century, expansion of suburbs sidelined the old town area, which began to go downhill; and World War Two devastated it. As a local history book described it:
The centre of the town was left as a decaying rubbish heap, jagged blocks of masonry represented the old Thorngate Hall ... The new cinema erected just before the war remained a burned out shell ... The Trinity Church still stood, with fire bomb marks through its roof but the area around was a burned out slum, hideous to see, in the midst of which stood a few decaying almshouses. Clarence Square, once the home of Admirals, was a sordid wreck.
Few towns of its size had suffered so heavily during the war and at one stage more than half its habitable homes had been more or less severely damaged or obliterated.
- The Story of Gosport, LFW White, pub. SWP Barrell, 1966
As with many other towns similarly devastated, the post-war priority was restoring housing capacity - in the context of a rising birth rate - rather than reconstruction. This mostly continued to happen in the suburbs, hastening the decay of much of the old town area. Over the next few decades, virtually all that remained of it, except for the High Street, had been razed. In the mid-1960s, what was left of the southern side of the town had become open space planted with tower blocks, and the northern harbourside become industrial development. Much else, since the late 1970s, has filled in with further solely residential development, with large areas devoted to car parks. You can get an idea of the changes - click to enlarge the images - by comparing the 1850 map (nearly all of the depicted area was built-up with the traditional tight conglomeration of mixed working, trading, and residential space) and the present-day aerial view.

To get to the point, over the past few days I've been suffering an intense nostalgia. I was born in 1956, and I just about remember Gosport harbour-front in the early 1960s, before the shorefront tower blocks were built (here's a view c. 1960 of the site where Seaward Tower now stands) ...

Gosport 1960s W N Mansfield - from Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.
... and also remember, from the mid-1970s, the last remnants of the northern side of the old town, the seedy North Street (see 1900 image), and Sea Horse Street that branched off it, both interrupted by bombed-out empty lots partly overgrown with buddleia. There were pubs, though I was too young to go into them: at one end of North Street was The Crown (now closed, see Google Maps Street View); and at the other, the Fox Tavern, which is still extant, though sadly run-down externally.

But their context is gone. North Street just exists as a couple of short segments on either side of a modern housing development, and much the same is true of whatever else exists of the old town. I can't blame the post-war planners - their decisions made perfect sense pragmatically within financial restraints - but it has left a town centre with little overall physical continuity with its past.

I'm not saying there's nothing to be found if you look. As I said previously, Gosport is heavily imprinted with the relics of the Victorian Cold War that resulted in the Palmerston fortifications, along with other military installations (see, for instance, Priddy's Hard). But I've visited those, and they're geeky-interest aspects of the town that have engaged me intellectually, but not especially emotionally. I can't tell how much of it is symptomatic of my current health problems, but I'm getting an uncomfortable yearning: a wish that I could re-connect with that Gosport I just about remember, when the harbour-front wasn't all aseptic marinas and I could wander out on the mud and find sailors' clay pipes, and whole streets still carried a strong echo of what it had been a century before. But that town is gone.

- Ray

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Slightly different shaped buttons

I just encountered - thanks, Vickie - an article I somehow missed in the Guardian's Occam's Corner series, Why I'm feeling so crabby about cancer conspiracy theories. It'd be worth reading just for one memorable analogy:
Briefly, killing cancer cells while leaving normal cells unharmed is like trying to win an old fashioned infantry battle in which both sides are wearing the same uniform, except some of the enemy have slightly different shaped buttons, others have slightly longer bootlaces, others have slightly lacier underwear, and all have the ability to suddenly change clothes halfway through the fight.
- Why I'm feeling so crabby about cancer conspiracy theories, Cath Ennis, The Guardian, 7 December 2012
- Ray

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Frank Herbert's Dune

trailer for Frank Herbert's Dune

I mentioned my liking for Dune - both the book and the 1984 David Lynch movie - a while back (see Dune, 10 October 2008). But for some reason, I only just got around to watching the 2000 TV mini-series, Frank Herbert's Dune. It's excellent.

Although the Lynch film is very watchable, it brings in a number of innovations (for instance, the decision to change the novel's "weirding way" from a martial art to a sonic weapon technology); a lot of general exaggerations for cinematic impact (I recall way back seeing ridicule of the portrayal of the villain, Baron Harkonnen, as "a bubonic buggering balloon buffoon"); and, more insidiously, altering Frank Herbert's message - "The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes" - into an ending that treats Paul Muad'Dib's heroic, even Messianic, status as a good outcome.

As described in this article - DUNE: Remaking the Classic Novel ("Executive producer Richard Rubinstein and director John Harrison discuss creating the new mini-series") - the mini-series came about because the executive producer, Richard Rubinstein, found that Dino De Laurentis had not acquired the TV rights. Harrison went back to source. There are some additions that he put in to emphasise aspects of the book that he thought Herbert conveyed too subtly - such as the central role of the unseen narrator, Princess Irulan, in the politics of the Dune universe - but it sticks pretty faithfully to the novel's text and spirit. The whole production, filmed with an international cast, largely on studio sets in Prague, looks very good, with interesting costumes ranging between Expressionist and mediaeval in style. It portrays the Harkonnens as they are in the book: vicious and decadent, but not the ridiculous grotesques of the Lynch film. And, nicely, it doesn't neglect the water rituals and cultural quirks of Arrakis.

If you haven't seen the mini-series, it's worth checking out. It probably shouldn't be on YouTube, but it is: Part 1 (2:47) / Part 2 (1:57).

- Ray

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Standing room only

A minor enduring meme of the 20th century has been the idea that the entire population of the world would fit on the Isle of Wight. Depending on assumptions, population growth appears to have made this obsolete around 1970, hence the title of John Brunner's 1968 dystopian SF novel Stand on Zanzibar.  I haven't been able to trace the precise origin of the Isle of Wight version of the meme, but the earliest citation I can find at this instant is to 1886:
... when we remember that the whole human family, every man, woman, child  on earth this day, could comfortably stand on the Isle of Wight ...
The Three First Chapters of Human History, The Very Rev. H Martyn Hart, Dean of Denver, Colorado, The Quiver, p239, 1886
Any advances welcome!

A number of early 20th century citations stem from a source a decade later, in the address of Sir John Wolfe Barry on his assumption of the Presidency of the Institution of Civil Engineers:
One is apt to get lost with these figures of millions of our fellow-subjects, and to think for an instant that our own is the culminating epoch of the world's history, and that over-population stares us in the face. This is a merely parochial idea, the absurdity of which can be realised when we remember that the population of the world can stand upon the Isle of Wight.
- Sir John Wolfe Barry, Minutes of Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineers, Volume 127, Session 1896-97, Part 1. Speech given November 1896.
One particular expression of the meme was the rather odd fantasy novel All Moonshine (Richard Whiteing, 1907). The narrator of All Moonshine goes to sleep while obsessing about war and world population, particularly focusing on a statistic he has seen ...
" It has been calculated that, at four persons to the square yard, the entire population of the globe, standing shoulder to shoulder, could find room and to spare in the Isle of Wight."
... and wakes up to a strange phenomenon, the populations of the world coming to visit the Island and play out their conflicts in astrally projected form, the narrator meanwhile falling in love with one of the astral visitors, the South Sea woman Nykie. It's highly polemical, both anti-war, and dismissive of the dangers of overpopulation. The reviewer of the Boston-based The Independent (a journal whose religious roots gave it a mystical leaning) loved it ...
We have had some very remarkable literary works published in England since I sent my latest article to The Independent. One of the most remarkable is the novel called "All Moonshine," written by Richard Whiteing and published by Messrs. Hurst & Blackctt, of London. I have called this book a novel because it presents itself to the reading world merely as such, but the name of novel would certainly not prepare the reader for such an extraordinary literary production as that which Mr. Whiteing has given to the world. It is at once a dream-story, a love-story, a poetic allegory in prose, and a rapturous anticipation of of a time soon to come when mankind is to be freed from the devastations of the war spirit. It is sometimes a satire, sometimes a prose-poem, sometimes a fairy tale, and the reader absorbed in its pages finds himself unable to say in which of these fields of literary production the author makes the greatest success. The love-story, which runs thru and keeps together the whole narrative, is in fact a continuation of a novel, “The Island,” written by Mr. Whiteing some years ago. For Mr. Whiteing's present purposes the gods annihilate both time and space, but not to make two lovers happy—rather to help them in the accomplishment of a magical work which is to make the whole world happy by reestablishing the reign of peace. The critic is spared all the trouble of raising questions as to possibilities or probabilities when dealing with the dream-story, which proclaims itself to be "All Moonshine". The reader will find  himself carried away by the story in all its moods and and will fancy many a time that he is actually looking on sonic of the marvelous scenes which the author causes to pass, panorama-like, before his eyes. All the brilliant peculiarities of Whiteing's style, peculiarities which have made for him a distinct reputation, are shining thru the pages of this book. The author is now humorous, now melancholy, now sarcastic. now grimly severe, and in each mood he seems to find the same felicities of expression. “All Moonshine" may, of course, be classed among what used to be called novels with a purpose, but in many even of the most successful and famous novels which used to be described by that name the reader sometimes found that the purpose over-shadowed or almost extinguished the story and that he was only reading a tract put into allegorical form. This fault cannot certainly be found with Mr Whiteing's new story, because we feel from first to last the deepest interest in the hero and the astral Nyleia [sic], notwithstanding the devotion which they both display to the promulgation of the arts of peace, and notwithstanding also the magical means by which the crusade for peace is supposed to make its way. Richard Whiteing has indeed long been recognized as a man not merely endowed with great talents, but with that gift which must be called genius, and I feel well convinced that "All Moonshine" will give the world of readers another reason for admitting him to that limited circle of living authors on whom such praise is fittingly bestowed.
- The Independent, Volume 63, page 1420, 1907
... but the NY Times Saturday Review was less impressed:
The first in point of importance is Richard Whiteing's " All Moonshine," published by Messrs. Hurst & Blackett, and distinctly a noteworthy book, though it must be confessed It is also an exasperating one. Mr. Whiteing in his typical manner of "No. 5 John Street" leads us through a story which obviously does not mean very much to him, and consequently cannot mean very much to us, for the sake of showing us his point of view on some serious Question and for the sake of teaching us some sort of lesson ... Who could hope to reconcile us to a book the action of which takes place almost entirely in a dream — and it is another relic of childish taste that we resent dream books nearly as bitterly as books with evident morals — the heroine of which is a South Sea Islander in her astral form, and all the rest of the characters astrals, too? Who could make us read with conviction thumb-nail sketches of all the world as seen by the dream-hero ...
- New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art, further citation details unfindable
All Moonshine (Richard Whiteing, pub. Hurst and Blackett, 1907, Internet Archive ID allmoonshine00whitgoog).

The Island, mentioned by the first reviewer, is Whiteing's 1888 satirical fantasy in which the narrator, disaffected with London life, flees civilization and is shipwrecked on Pitcairn Island. There, guided by Victoria, the Chief Magistrate's daughter (the same character who later appears as "Nykie" in All Moonshine) he compares the Edenic socialistic lifestyle with Western culture, and departs a wiser man. In the light of recent revelations about the culture and mores of Pitcairn, the book's idyllic picture makes horribly ironic reading. See The Island, Or, An Adventure of a Person of Quality (Richard Whiteing, pub. Tauchnitz, 1888, Internet Archive ID islandoranadven01whitgoog).

The Island has an immediate sequel, No. 5 John Street (1899, Internet Archive ID nojohnstreet00whitgoog) in which the situation is reversed. The narrator of The Island, Lord —, having died, his friend is asked to report back to the Pitcairn islanders on life in London, experiencing a deal of London low-life in the process.

- Ray

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Larking about

Portsmouth Harbour: HMS Warriors, with Gosport's 1960s flats beyond
On Friday we were in Portsmouth, en route to the Isle of Wight, and despite it being a dismally overcast day, we had a brief look at The Hard (Portmouth's harbour frontage).

View Larger Map
Pan left/right to compare to 1925 image below.
click to enlarge
It's an area of strange contrasts: on one side, huge amounts of money have gone into the adjacent Gunwharf Quays; and on the other, the Dockyard has undergone a deal of development as a heritage site around the Mary Rose, HMS Victory, and HMS Warrior. But in between, The Hard remains distinctly downmarket: an anodyne paved harbour frontage adjacent to the Hard Interchange, opposite a rather shabby frontage with a few folksy traditional pubs set among businesses of an extremely mundane flavour, such as a betting shop, a Co-Op, a car rental, a Chinese restaurant, a chip shop, and (weirdly) a Creationist museum.

There are undoubtedly commercial and practical reasons why it's this way; particularly, piecemeal rebuilding in gaps created by World War 2 bombing damage. But I feel it could be redeveloped now in a way that melds upmarket and traditional - as has been done at the Gunwharf Quays - without killing the Hard's use as a working harbour and transport interchange. Portsmouth does have plans, but nothing very rapid seems to be happening.

I did spot one evocative and fairly new feature: Michael Peacock's bronze sculpture commemorating the Portsmouth Mudlarks, children and adults who traditionally foraged for coins thrown from the pier. I just about remember seeing the Portsmouth Mudlarks in the very early 1960s, when I used to go to Portsmouth with my grandmother (the same trips we went to Verrecchia's - see Lime milkshake and Kunzle cake). From the descriptive sign:
The nearby statue commemorates the generations of Portsea children who enjoyed mudlarking here - entertaining travellers by retrieving coins they threw into the mud below the bridge to the harbour station and Gosport Ferry. Boys and girls would scramble to find the money tossed down, sometimes diving into the mud, performing handstands or dipping their heads in it. Many Portsea families lived in poverty, so the small change was welcomed. Usually, what the children did not spend on sweets or pie and chips was given to mum to help out the family finances.

Most parents disapproved of their children's activities, while the police regarded mudlarking as begging and tried to stop it. Mudlarking supplemented other ways of earning a few shillings, such as carrying passengers' bags or finding drivers parking spaces. The building of the new bus terminus in 1976-7 put an end to mudlarking.
Michael Peacock's website has more pictures, and background on the commissioning and construction of the sculpture: Portsmouth Mudlarks.

Mudlarks, depicted less glamorously, from The Headington Magazine, 1871
"Mudlarking" does have a much darker story than its final 20th-century incarnation as a form of begging / street entertainment. The original mudlarks were general scavengers, particularly of muddy foreshores adjacent to busy commercial harbours. As the Wikipedia entry for "mudlark" mentions, Mayhew's 1851 London Labour and the London Poor features an interview with a young mudlark (see, and Richard Rowe's Episodes in an Obscure Life (volume 3) has a chapter on the subject, A Brood of Mudlarks, which interestingly opens with an allusion to the Victorian urban myth of Thames mud being converted to butter substitute (see previously Pure bosh: a media scare):
A factory, the newspapers say, has been started for the extraction of grease out of Thames mud — grease to be exported to Holland, and thence brought back as Dutch butter. Whether any poor Londoners do really get their butter from the river's slimy bed I cannot state, but there is a little army of poor Londoners who pick their bread out of those steaming mudbanks.
- Episodes in an Obscure Life
 There have also been a number of fictional accounts, such as Captain Marryat's 1840 Poor Jack (which goes into the illegal aspects of mudlarking, where mudlarks actively connived in fencing goods and materials thrown off ships by sailors).

State-of-the-art ships in Portsmouth Harbour:
left, a Type 45 destroyer; right, HMS Warrior
- Ray

Monday, 11 March 2013

To see Swainston

Swainston Manor
This weekend Clare and I visited The Silence of Dean Maitland territory. Our original plan was to go to Calbourne - "Malbourne" in Maxwell Gray's novel - but we had a rapid rethink on discovering there's no bus off-season. A bit of intuitive calculus (as you head west from Newport, the extant Yarmouth bus route and Calbourne roads diverge) found the nearest bus-accessible point to be a place called Lower Watchingwell, some 2km north. Check out Google Maps Street View; you might get the impression they're not keen on advertising that this is a public footpath. From there, we struck out cross-country across some seriously muddy footpaths and bridleways, and went to Swainston Manor first.

Swainston Manor
Swainston Manor - the chapel
 Swainston Manor ("Swaynstone", the home of the local landowner Ingram Swaystone in Dean Maitland) is now - intermittently, it seems - a hotel, but was originally the seat of an extensive estate. Its immediate scenery is distinctly geology-driven: a few hundred yards north of house, which is on Tertiary clays, is the boundary with the Cretaceous chalk downs that form the backbone of the Island; this creates a spring-line that feeds Swainston's ornamental lake (the same copious spring-line that feeds the streams at Carisbrooke, a few miles to the east).

Vaulted well or spring - one of many issues below the Calbourne Road ...
... feeding the lake (view south from road)
The grounds of Swainston are beautifully landscaped, undoubtedly organised to include the view of the Temple, the 18th century Doric-style folly built as part of the estate on the chalk hillside to the south.

The Temple - the narrow window of view from the Calbourne road

Edmund Venables' 1860 The Isle of Wight, a Guide calls it "The Temple of Boreas", but this is the sole occurrence of the name I can find. The listed building entry says:
Ornamental garden building, being converted to dwelling at time of survey. c.1790 but possibly reusing the foundations of an existing estate building of the Swainston estate. Built in the form of a Doric temple. Front has very deep plinth of stone rubble. 3 steps. 6 ashlar Greek Doric columns surmounted by entablature with pediment and triglyph frieze. Plain entrance in plinth. Side walls of coursed stone rubble. At time of survey part of a side wall and the rear wall was not present. Cellar has blocked in round-headed arch, probably the remains of an earlier estate building.
- listed building entry (English Heritage Building ID: 393011)
In the novel, the Temple is the family home of Alma Lee, the coachman's daughter made pregnant by Maitland, and the copse behind it is where Maitland accidently kills her father.
They have just passed the entrance-gates of Swaynestone — lonely gates, unfurnished with a lodge — and the waggon stops with interrupted music at some smaller gates on the other side of the road, where the upland still rises, not in bare down, but in rich meadow, to a hanging wood, out of which peeps dimly in the dusk a small white structure, built with a colonnade supporting an architrave, to imitate a Greek temple — Alma's home.
Now they passed Swaynestone, where Sir Lionel reigned no more, having been gathered to his fathers; and there, on the left, stood the sham Greek Temple, its colonnade gleaming white in the sunlight, and its architrave sharply outlined against the fatal green coppice cresting the hill behind it.
- The Silence of Dean Maitland
Being a bit of a Goody Two-Shoes when it comes to "Keep Out" signs, and having failed so far to track down the owner for access permission, I made do with a photo from the adjoining field. Only these guys seemed interested in us.

However, the fence being down in places, I did check out the well-trodden path into the woods below the Temple, where there's a memorial obelisk, in appropriately Classical style, to "Andrew Wyld 1949-2011" (the other three sides are carved ΧΡΗΣΤΟΣ / ΜΕΓΑΛΟΦΥΗΣ / ΓΝΩΜΩΝ).

The name didn't ring bells with me, but a quick look in NewsBank finds this to refer to the late owner of the Temple, Andrew Wyld, an eminent art dealer who specialised in English watercolours.
One of Wyld's greatest loves was the Isle of Wight, where in the mid-1980s he acquired a ruined Doric folly. This he stabilised without rendering it habitable, preferring to sleep in comfort at The George at Yarmouth and enjoy The Temple by day and for parties.
- Andrew Wyld - Dealer in watercolours and one-time Agnew's expert whose cultivated eye identified a Turner and several works by Peter de Wint, obitary, The Times, November 19, 2011
To take in Calbourne itself would have added a couple of miles to a soggy walk that already promised to be about 7 miles, so we left it for another day and walked back to Carisbrooke, via a set of farm tracks and footpaths that partly follow the route of the old railway line. Interesting how things have come full circle; in the mid-Victorian era as portrayed in The Silence of Dean Maitland, the only way to get to parts of the central Island was to walk or have your own transport - no change, then.

- Ray

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Dunscombe: Spring is in the air

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Yesterday it started out misty, but the sun burned through by lunchtime to make a fresh warmish afternoon, the first of the year. I went on a walk near Sidmouth with Ralph (of Wayland Wordsmith). The landscape here is the "combes" - deeply-incised valleys - that cut down to sea level along the coastline between Sidmouth and Beer, East Devon. The South West Coast Path runs along here, and it's one of its most strenuous sections, with several 500-foot ascents and descents.

We didn't do all of this section, just a circular walk taking in three combes. We went from Salcombe Regis down the combe to Salcombe Mouth, eastward along the beach via the promontory called Hook Ebb as far as the next stream outlet, Weston Mouth, then up to the clifftop and back to Salcombe Regis via Lincombe, a third combe that doesn't terminate at sea level. It doesn't sound like much, but the beach section is quite hard work, especially across the flint rubble at Hook Ebb, and it's a stiff 500-foot climb up Dunscombe Cliff from beach to clifftop.

Geology - looking up to the Cretaceous strata of Dunscombe Cliff

Found art on beach at Salcombe Mouth

Gypsum veins in fallen block at Hook Ebb

Geologically, the coast section here is getting interesting. At the western end of the Jurassic Coast, "Jurassic" is a misnomer: here, just west of Sidmouth, the cliff base is Triassic, but it's topped by an 'unconformity' - the Jurassic is missing - with overlying Cretaceous Greensand and Chalk  The beach at Hook Ebb has a collection of slipped material including Triassic rocks, with pretty veins of gypsum, and a variety of Cretaceous rocks such as flints (which forms much of the beach) and chalk with fossils.

looking toward Weston Cliff from Hook Ebb

Weston Plats - a sheltered undercliff formerly used for agriculture.
One feature of the geology is that in places the upper surface of Triassic rocks forms a sloping ledge below the Chalk crags, Rempstone Rocks. Historically, this south-facing sheltered land was used as fields - 'plats' - for raising early vegetables (see previously Under the cliffs again) and one such area, Weston Plats, has been cleared and preserved by the National Trust. It's a beautiful and relaxing place.

Rempstone Rocks - Chalk crags of a kind ubiquitous to the southern coast of England

Returning along the South West Coast Path, past ancient quarries above Rempstone Rocks

Great to be out again!
- Ray

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Habitation One: guilty pleasures

This is one for Felix Grant, who commented recently,
One of my favourite guilty pleasures is reading potted reviews of one and two star rated films.
A conversation elsewhere, that touched on dystopian books and movies, brought to mind a definitely one-star SF novel I read years back, Habitation One (Frederick Dunstan, Fontana, 1983), and I found a few juicy reviews online.
"A conservative Christian allegory ... whose gratuitous cruelty is equalled only by its tedium" — Mary Gentle, Interzone
- quoted in The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, David Pringle, 1995

Another new name in 1983 was that of Frederick Dunstan, whose Habitation One is both extraordinary and alarming. It describes the life and death-throes of an inbred community occupying the top of a vast tower three and a half centuries after the nuclear holocaust that drove its ancestors up there. Heavy with gruesome and macabre incidents,  mutilations, impalings, cannibalism and necrophilia, the book obviously intends to alarm, in the grand old Gothic manner. More disturbing than that, this murky brew of tobacco-fug, misogyny and Christian cant was dreamed up not by the usual decrepit don or febrile cleric, but by a nineteen-year-old Birmingham schoolboy. Having now graduated in English from Brasenose College, Oxford, Dunstan doesn't intend to write any more SF: he doesn't regard it as 'a serious genre'. Thank goodness we shall be spared Habitation Two and Three. One is plenty.
- British Book News - Page 138, 1984
And there's the extended White Dwarf review by David Langford, reprinted in The Complete Critical Assembly:The Collected White Dwarf (And GM, and GMI) SF Review Columns:
The book is a wondrous cornucopia of things for young writers to avoid ... lumpish prose and wooden characters ... gratuitous nastiness ...
Hurled skyward and pulverized from the waist down by an immense steam-catapult, one public hero nevertheless retains consciousness throughout his flight, successfully shoots an arrow into the madman who (for reasons never all that clearly explained) is dangling from a rope high up, fields the small nuclear device with which said madman planned to destroy the entire plot, and arcs onward, nuke in hand, to glorious immolation somewhere over the edge of the world. I forgot to mention earlier on that he was tortured by having his moustache ripped off with hydraulic jacks.
... a cringingly sententious epilogue which ascribes the unlikely happy ending to divine intervention. I don't see why God should carry the can for the ineptitudes of F. Dunstan. A real running sore of a book, this.
- for full review, see pp 48-49, The Complete Critical Assembly, David Langford, Wildside Press LLC, 2002
Don't get the idea that Habitation One is so bad as to be amusing and worth seeking out; it isn't. I read it once, and don't intend to again. The worst part of it, for me, was not the nastiness, but its excruciating pomposity, which was echoed in author interviews with the pipe-puffing 21-going-on-middle-age Dunstan. I remember particularly loathing that he should get validation as an author via this execrable book inexplicably getting into print. But it's consolation that there's no evidence of his having written anything else that was published. Perhaps, like Grunthos the Flatulent, "his own major intestine—in a desperate attempt to save life itself—leapt straight up through his neck and throttled his brain" to save the world from further works.
There's a certain poignancy in coming across a copy of Frederick Dunstan's Habitation One, a curious post-apocalyptic novel, in Derek's Bookstall in Preston, and reading in the author biography of Dunstan's "lifelong desire to be an author" and that in 1983, when Habitation One was published, he was "at work on his second novel". No second novel ever appeared.
- Nicolas Royle, Lives & Letters, The Guardian Review, January 12, 2013
- Ray