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Archive for October, 2015

Latest Reviews (20/x/2015)

Avens AboveHarrap’s Wild Flowers: A Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland, Simon Harrap (Bloomsbury 2013)

Place of GladesA Dictionary of British Place-Names, A.D. Mills (Oxford University Press 1991)

De Minimis Curat Rex?Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World, Amir Alexander (Oneworld 2014)

Seen and Not HeardThe Greatest Albums You’ll Never Hear, ed. Bruno MacDonald (Aurum Press 2014)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Harrap's Wild Flowers by Simon HarrapHarrap’s Wild Flowers: A Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland, Simon Harrap (Bloomsbury 2013)

The botanist Simon Harrap photographed every plant in this book but for one: the Cornish heath, Erica vagans, on page 399. That’s an impressive achievement. An enviable one too, because he had to combine a lot of expertise with a lot of travelling. On page 70, for example, there are chalk milkwort, Polygala calcarea, and mountain avens, Dryas octopetala. The milkwort is found in southern England and the avens in northern Scotland, as you can see at a glance from the map that accompanies each flower.

The scientific name of the avens means “the eight-petalled wood-nymph”. Botany doesn’t just please the eye and nose: it’s fun for the tongue too, even if you don’t eat anything of what you see. The milkwort and avens please the eye on page 70 and so do the “frothy, creamy-white clusters” of meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, on page 71. Meadowsweet also pleases the nose: its flowers are “heavily scented, recalling musk or honey”.

But Harrap says that its “name refers to its use in flavouring mead and other drinks, rather than a predilection for meadows”. Information like that is rare. Even though he isn’t trying to be comprehensive, he has a lot of plants to cover and usually limits himself to the botanical minimum: descriptions of appearance, habitat, growing season and any similar species. This is a field guide, after all: “take the book to the plant, not the plant to the book”, as he says in the introduction.

The bigger and heavier the book, the harder that is to do. But I’d call Harrap’s Wild Flowers a work of art and not just a field guide. It’s well-designed and a pleasure to leaf through, full of attractive colours and interesting shapes, and the photographs seem like little windows on spring and summer. But summer can be sinister: the section devoted to the Orobanchaceae family (pp. 241-6) has the strange parasites known as broomrapes and toothworts. Their stems jut from the ground in almost predatory fashion, coloured in putrefactive browns, yellows and purples. You could imagine them growing in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Garden of Adompha”, fertilized by corpses. And the flowers of purple toothwort, Lathraea clandestina, look like a convention of hooded priests, conspiring together in a graveyard. It has “no aerial stem, the flowers arising in clusters directly from the underground rhizome”.

However, the beauty of flowers like peach-leaved bellflower, Campanula persicifolia, outweighs the beastliness of the broomrapes, and this book is a sunny read. I would make only two changes to it. First, the maps use dark green dots to indicate where a particular plant has been recorded. That’s fine when it grows inland, where the green stands out against white, but when it’s a coastal species the green is sometimes hard to make out on the black line of the coastline. A different colour or lighter green would have been preferable.

Second, Harrap doesn’t always record when a plant is poisonous. Monkshood, Aconitum napellus, and deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, get info boxes about their deadliness, but hemlock, henbane and thornapple don’t (Conium maculatum, Hyoscyamus niger and Datura stramonium, respectively). Nor does hemlock water-dropwort, Oenanthe crocata. These omissions save space but make the plants less interesting to the uninitiated. I don’t think anyone will be put in danger by not being told about henbane, thornapple and company – poisonous plants generally look unappetizing – but you look at a plant in a new way when you know it’s poisonous and a little symbol like a skull-and-crossbones could have been added if there wasn’t room in the text.

But these are minor flaws. Harrap’s Wild Flowers is delightful to look at, easy to use and deserves a place on every British botanophile’s bookshelf, whether you’re interested in avens above or helleborines below.

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Oxford Dictionary of British Place-Names by A.D. MillsA Dictionary of British Place-Names, A.D. Mills (Oxford University Press 1991)

A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been scraped clean and used to write something new. But the original manuscript can still be glimpsed under the new writing. British place-names are like that, except that they’re a palimpsest of a palimpsest and some of the oldest names are still there. Germanic languages like Anglo-Saxon and Norse replaced Celtic ones like Welsh and Gaelic, but those languages may have replaced something even earlier:

Some river-names, few in number but the most ancient of all, seem to belong to an unknown early Indo-European language which is neither Celtic nor Germanic. Such pre-Celtic names, sometimes termed ‘Old European’, may have been in use among the very early inhabitants of these languages in Neolithic times, and it is assumed they were passed on to Celtic settlers arriving from the Continent about the fourth century BC. Among the ancient names that possibly belong to this small but important group are Colne, Humber, Itchen, and Wey. (Introduction, “The Chronology and Languages of English Place-Names”, pg. XV)

I don’t see how they know that language was Indo-European. Perhaps it was a linguistic isolate or related to Basque or Etruscan. Or perhaps it was Indo-European but had preserved something even earlier. The names of rivers are usually the most ancient of all, because rivers are visually and psychologically powerful things. Whatever the truth about those river-names, there’s a strange power in the thought of an entire language reduced to a few syllables, like a sea shrinking to a few salty pools. I’m reminded of the doomed siren in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Sadastor”, confined to the pool that is all that remains of a world-ocean.

When we say “Humber” or “Wey”, we step into a pool of that ancient language and it lives again for an instant. If the theories are correct, that is. There is a lot of conjecture and uncertainty in toponymy, the science of place-names. This entry is like a fairy-tale in miniature:

Warnford Hants. Warnæford c. 1053, Warneford 1086 (DB). ‘Ford frequented by wrens or one used by stallions’. OE wærna or *wæærna + ford. Alternatively the first element may be an OE man’s name *Wæærna.

Wrens, stallions or man? The entry in the Domesday Book (DB) didn’t record the exact quality of the vowel, so the original meaning is lost. Something similar happens in the preceding entry, but this one is a fairy-story by the Brothers Grimm:

Warnborough, North & Warnborough, South Hants. Weargeburnan 973-4. Wergeborn 1086 (DB). Possibly ‘stream where criminals were drowned’, OE wearg + burna, though wearg may have an earlier sense ‘wolf’, hence perhaps ‘stream frequented by wolves’.

But far more onomastic fish were caught by the Domesday Book than slipped through. It was a net cast by the Normans over their new kingdom and historians have been feasting on the catch for centuries. Very few names were recorded much earlier. One of those that were hasn’t survived unaltered:

Hebrides (islands) Arg., Highland, W. Isles. Hæbudes 77, Hebudes 300. Meaning uncertain. The Roman name was Edudæ or Ebudes, and the present name resulted from a misreading of the latter, with ri for u.

I like fortuitous changes like that. Is it another pre-Celtic name? Perhaps. But mysteries can rise from clear meanings too:

Caithness (district) Highland. Kathenessia c. 970. ‘Promontory of the Cats’. OScand. nes. It is not known why the early Celtic tribe here were called ‘cats’; the cat may have been their token animal.

We know what the name means, but not why it got that meaning. We’ve lost so much of the past and that’s one of the powerful things about this book. George Orwell summed up the feeling in another context:

When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves’ names are known to you? I can think of two, or possibly three. One is Spartacus and the other is Epictetus. Also, in the Roman room at the British Museum there is a glass jar with the maker’s name inscribed on the bottom, ‘FELIX FECIT’. I have a mental picture of poor Felix (a Gaul with red hair and a metal collar round his neck), but in fact he may not have been a slave; so there are only two slaves whose names I definitely know, and probably few people can remember more. The rest have gone down into utter silence. (“Looking Back on the Spanish War”, 1942)

So have most of the people who lived on the British Isles. Kings have reigned here and been utterly forgotten. But here and there a name survives with no story attached to it:

Broomfleet E.R. Yorks. Brungareflet 1150-4. ‘Stretch of river belonging to a man called Brūngār’. OE pers. name + flēot.

Who was Brūngār? Was he important? Was the name a joke? If the name hadn’t been recorded so early, we might now think the name refers to a plant, like “Broomfield, ‘open land where broom grows’”. Misinterpretations must happen a lot in toponymy: Celtic words with one meaning look like Anglo-Saxon words with another, pre-Celtic names may have been folk-etymologized, and so on.

That raises another haunting question, which Orwell addresses here in another and more serious form:

If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened – that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death? The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. (Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Part 1, ch. 3)

Suppose that an apparently transparent place-name like Greenfield or Shepton is a re-working of an older name with an entirely different meaning in Celtic or pre-Celtic. Does the truth survive in any sense? Or does the meaning of the new name change the truth? This must have happened many times in Britain and elsewhere.

The reverse is rarer: some apparently mysterious names might be scribal slips or lost words in familiar languages. This village in Worcestershire has a strange name that may be thousands of years old:

Tardebigge Worcs. Tærdebicgan c. 1000, Terdeberie [sic] 1086 (DB). Possibly a Celtic name from Brittonic *tarth ‘spring’ + *pig ‘point, peak’.

Or does it go back even earlier, to that vanished pre-Celtic language? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s really Anglo-Saxon, distorted or otherwise. Unless a chronoscope is invented, we may never know the truth and mysteries like that may remain.

But mysteries are rare. Viewed in the context of local topography or history, place-names usually have obvious meanings. And they tell us what we’ve lost. Britain used to be a place of glades:

Lanercost Cumbria. Lanrecost 1169. Celtic *lannerch ‘glade, clearing’, perhaps with the pers. name Aust (from Latin Augustus).

It used to be a place of wolves too:

Greywell Hants. Graiwella 1167. Probably ‘spring or stream frequented by wolves’, OE *grææg + wella.

And of witches:

Hascombe Surrey Hescumb 1232. Possibly ‘the witch’s valley’. OE hægtesse + cumb.

And of Woden:

Wednesbury Sandw. Wadnesberie 1086 [DB]. ‘Stronghold associated with the heathen god Wōden’. OE god-name + burh (dative byrig).

But the forests were cut down, the wolves were slaughtered, and the grey Galilean triumphed over Woden. So another layer of meaning washed over the landscape and new languages appeared in place-names, like Latin and French: Eccles means “church” and Beaulieu means “beautiful place”, for example. To survive, some of the old paganism had to be obscure:

Sawel (Samhail) (mountain) Tyrone. ‘Likeness’. Samhail Phite Meadhbha c. 1680. The full name is Samhail Phite Méabha, ‘likeness to Maeve’s vulva’, referring to a hollow on the side of the mountain.

Most of the etymologies in A Dictionary of British Place-Names are mundane, not Maevish, but age can lend glamour even to the mundane. Some place-names in Britain are very old and this book is a good way to feel the years.

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Infinitesimal by Alexander AmirInfinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World, Amir Alexander (Oneworld 2014)

Infinitesimal is an entertaining read on a fascinating topic: the pioneers of a new form of mathematics and those who opposed them. Amir Alexander claims that “the ultimate victory of the infinitely small helped open the way to a new and dynamic science, to religious toleration, and to political freedoms unknown in human history” (Introduction, pg. 14).

It’s an extraordinary claim and I don’t think he manages to provide extraordinary proof for it. In fact, he probably gets cause-and-effect reversed. Is it likelier that new mathematics opened minds, dynamized science and transformed politics or that open minds created new forms of mathematics, science and politics? I’d suggest that support for the new mathematics was a symptom, not a cause, of a new psychology. But Alexander makes a good case for his thesis and there is no doubt that the world was changed by the willingness of mathematicians to use infinitesimals. Calculus was one result, after all. The book begins in Italy and ends in England, because the pioneers lost in Italy:

For nearly two centuries, Italy had been home to perhaps the liveliest mathematical community in Europe. … But when the Jesuits triumphed over the advocates of the infinitely small, this brilliant tradition died a quick death. With Angeli silenced, and Viviani and Ricci keeping their mathematical views to themselves, there was no mathematician left in Italy to carry on the torch. The Jesuits, now in charge, insisted on adhering close to the methods of antiquity, so that the leadership in mathematical innovation now shifted decisively, moving beyond the Alps, to Germany, England, France and Switzerland. (ch. 5, “The Battle of the Mathematicians”, pg. 178)

Why were the Jesuits involved in an esoteric mathematical dispute? You might say that de minimis curat Loyola – Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits, cared about anything, no matter how small, that might undermine the authority of the Church. In the view of his successors, the doctrine of indivisibles did precisely that: “in its simplest form, the doctrine states that every line is composed of a string of points, or ‘indivisibles’, which are the line’s building blocks, and which cannot themselves be divided” (Introduction, pg. 9).

Indivisibles must be infinitesimally small, or they wouldn’t be indivisible, but then how does an infinitesimal point differ from nothing at all? And if it isn’t nothing, why can’t it be divided? These paradoxes were familiar to the ancient Greeks, which is why they rejected infinitesimals and laid the foundations of mathematics on what seemed to them to be solider ground. In the fourth century before Christ, Euclid used axioms and rigorous logic to create a mathematical temple for the ages. He proved things about infinity, like the inexhaustibility of the primes, but he didn’t use infinitesimals. When Archimedes broke with Greek tradition and used infinitesimals to make new discoveries, “he went back and proved every one of them by conventional geometrical means, avoiding any use of the infinitely small” (Introduction, pg. 11).

So even Archimedes regarded them as dubious. Aristotle rejected them altogether and Aristotle became the most important pre-Christian influence on Thomas Aquinas and Catholic philosophy. Accordingly, when mathematicians began to look at infinitesimals again, the strictest Catholics opposed the new development. Revolutionaries like Galileo were opposed by reactionaries like Urban VIII.

But the story is complicated: Urban had been friendly to Galileo until “the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue on the Copernican system and some unfavourable political developments” (pg. 301). So I don’t think the mathematics was driving events in the way that Alexander suggests. Copernicus didn’t use them and the implications of his heliocentrism were much more obvious to many more people than the implications of infinitesimals could ever have been. That’s why Copernicus was frightened of publishing his ideas and why Galileo faced the Inquisition for his astronomy, not his mathematics.

But Amir’s thesis makes an even more interesting story: the tiniest possible things had the largest possible consequences, creating a new world of science, politics and art. In Italy, two of the chief antagonists were Galileo and Urban; in England, two were the mathematician John Wallis (1616-1703) and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Alexander discusses Wallis and Hobbes in Part II of the book, “Leviathan and the Infinitesimal”. Hobbes thought that de minimis curat rex – “the king cares about tiny things”. Unless authority was absolute and the foundations of knowledge certain, life would be “nasty, brutish and short”.

However, there was a big problem with his reasoning: he thought he’d achieved certainty when he hadn’t. Hobbes repeatedly claimed to have solved the ancient problem of the “quadrature of the circle” – that is, creating a square equal in size to a given circle using only a compass and an unmarked ruler. Wallis demolished his claims, made Hobbes look foolish, and strengthened the case for religious toleration and political freedom. But I don’t think this new liberalism depended on new mathematics. Instead, both were products of a new psychology. Genetics will shed more light on the Jesuits and their opponents than polemics and geometry textbooks from the period. Alexander’s theory is fun but flawed.

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The Greatest Albums You'll Never Hear ed. Bruno MacDonaldThe Greatest Albums You’ll Never Hear: Unreleased Records by the World’s Greatest Musicians, ed. Bruno MacDonald (Aurum Press 2014)

This book is a who, why, where and when of what-might-have-been: albums that never appeared or that came out much later in different forms. It’s fun to read:

Pretentious, confessed Pete Townshend of the concept that haunted him for three decades, “is just not a big enough word. … I could explain it to Roger [Daltrey] and John [Entwistle] and Keith [Moon] … and they’d say, ‘Oh, I get it, you put these suits on and you put a penny in the slot and you get wanked off.’ I’d go, ‘No, no, it’s much bigger than that.’ ‘Oh, I get it, you get wanked off and you get a Mars bar shoved up your bum…’” (The Who, Lifehouse, pg. 46)

The maverick [Neil Young]’s abrupt changes of mind bewildered not only fans and critics, but even his own band. “No one ever mentioned we were doing an album ever,” Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampedro told biographer Jimmy McDonough. “We just played and recorded. Every once in a while Neil would say – and I remember it shocking us – ‘Hey man, I sent in a record.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah? What was on it?’” (Neil Young, Chrome Dreams, pg. 90)

“I have no problem with bootlegs,” the star told the New York Times, “although every time I say that, my lawyer says, ‘Oh yes you do.’” (Paul McCartney, Cold Cuts, pg. 113)

Rod Yates (RY) is a Sydney-based journalist who has written about music and film for the past twenty years. Now editor of Rolling Stone Australia, he has edited Australian editions of Kerrang! and Empire. … He has a weakness for hair metal, perhaps because he has no hair. Or taste. (“Contributors”, pg. 249)

The book is also fun to look at, because skilful designers like Heath Killen, Bill Smith, Damian Jaques and Isabel Eeles have created mock-ups of the lost albums. Some covers are cleverly dated or clichéd, but some could be timeless classics, fitting the artist so well that it’s hard to believe they’re not real. I particularly like the rainbow vees and veiny man on The Who’s Lighthouse (pg. 45); the so-simple-it’s-sophisticated fence-and-flat-landscape on Neil Young’s Homegrown (pg. 81); the time-lapse doll’s head on Jeff Buckley’s My Sweatheart the Drunk (pg. 165); the city-lights-through-rain-(s)wept-glass on Robert Smith’s not-yet-materialized solo album (pg. 202); and the sharp-text-over-blurred-photo on U2’s Songs of Ascent (pg. 232).

Which is not to say I like U2. I don’t. I don’t like Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna, the Clash or rappers like 50 Cent and Dr Dre either. It didn’t matter: the might-have-beens are still interesting to read about and you can always dream a bit bigger. Okay, the Clash never released this album, but what if the Clash had never existed at all? What if N.W.A. had accentuated the niggative too successfully and never had a career either? This book also made me think about the opposite: not real bands vanishing, but unreal bands existing. Imagine a book about artists that never existed. They could be distorted versions of real ones: Deirdre Bowie, Turquoise Floyd, the Strolling Bones, Splashing Munchkins.

Or they could be entirely new: the Autumn Spiders, Klimmosh, Trevor Blacknett. Good musicians have often failed while bad ones have succeeded. And unlike science or mathematics, genius isn’t constrained by reality in the arts. The possibilities are far greater in art and what might have been dwarfs what actually has been. This book peeps through a keyhole at a few might-have-beens and allows you to dream about many more.

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