Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Pig Arrives

In 1798, a "Learned Pig" first arrived in America under the proprietorship of a certain Mr. William Frededrick Pinchbeck. Much as had his British forebears, Pinchbeck's pig read and spelled words, told the time of day by consulting a watch, and answered questions freely from the audience on arithmetic and any other matters. And now, a mere two hundred and fourteen years later, he has now arrived again, under the proprietorship of Penguin Books, as the U.S. and Canadian publisher of PYG: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig. As the Editor of this volume, I very much look forward to acquainting readers with the history of this remarkable Animal, wish to reassure them that, in every way, Toby's story is firmly grounded in fact.  That there was such a pig, and that he first appeared in 1781 under the management of one Mr. Silas Bisset, making quite a splash upon the stage in Liverpool, Dublin, Chester, and eventually London, is amply documented in handbills, newspapers and other accounts of the day.  And yet, until now, the public have had only secondhand reports by which to judge the wit of this Sapient creature. Now, for the first time in more than two centuries, readers can once more enjoy Toby's story as told by the Pig himself, describing his human handlers, Friends, and Enemies, sparing no Person with his frankness. The life and opinions of Toby are, of course, suffused with the flavor of the period, and include his encounters with Dr. Johnson (who invited him to dinner), William Blake (who gave him a copy of his first book of poems), and Robert Burns, who stoutly refused the invitation of a Countess unless she should invite Toby as well.  This new edition is also accompanied by an Appendix, which gives all manner of helpful glosses, as well as brief sketches of the people mentioned therein, and translations of the Latin words and phrases employed by Toby (who studied both at Oxford and at the University of Edinburgh).  It is my hope that it will be as warmly received as were Mr. Pinchbeck and his learned Companion, who toured the eastern seaboard for many years, finding warm welcomes in cities from Boston to Washington.  Here on this blog, I will appraise those interested in Toby's continuing progress, as well as adding further notes on the remarkable details of his Career.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

PYG Audiobook read by Simon Callow

From an author's point of view, there's no prospect as potentially gratifying -- or terrifying -- as the first listen to the audiobook of one's novel.  One will either cringe as one's words are put through deadening paces, or thrill to hear them declaimed in dulcet tones, with just the right tweak of emphasis on each  phrase. Happily, in my own case, it's been the latter -- in fact, I simply can't imagine a better rendition of Pyg than that given it by Simon Callow. Indeed, there are numerous moments of verbal delight to be had in his rendition which I could hardly have anticipated myself.

Part of this, of course, is because Callow gives the book the British accents in which it's always been meant to be read, accents I could never have managed myself.  As an actor with an enormous range of voices and characters, he brings both just the right regional accent, and just the stamp of personality, that each personage demands: Sam gets a touch of a Manchester accent; Dr. Johnson's imperious tones and slippery Staffordshire s's ring out perfectly, and one can almost hear the kindness and empathy in William Cullen's subtle Scots brogue. Toby himself, of course, can't be said to have had an "accent," since he spelled out his words with letters, and had not the gift of articulate speech bestowed on such fanciful latter-day porkers as Babe -- and yet, in Callow's measured and reflective embodiment, one can hear Toby's essential character as clear as a bell.  I was quite amazed, when I first received the CD's, to see that Callow had even read out the scholarly appendix to the book, and delighted to discover on listening that he'd deliberately adopted a somewhat stuffy, know-it-all tone, such that even the least footnote was imbued with personality.

For American and Canadian readers who may not immediately recognize Simon Callow's voice, I always say "Don't you remember Four Weddings and a Funeral?  His was the funeral!"  But this of course gives only the slightest slice of Callow's career -- a man who has, variously, done one-man shows as Shakespeare and Dickens, a professor possessed by the spirit of Aleister Crowley, and the Reverend Mr Beebe in the classic Room with a View.  For my part, a favorite recent role was the turn he did as "Vernon Oxe,"the maddeningly self-important manager of a perhaps-to-be-revived British rock band in the "Counter Culture Blues" episode of Inspector Lewis.  Mr Oxe's preferred method of malefaction was known as a "macerator," a device of which I had not previously heard -- it's something like a kitchen dispose-all, but much much larger.  Fans of Orson Welles will also know Callow for his scholarly books on the great director, and in this guise he often pops up in unexpected places, like the special features disc of the Criterion Collection edition of Mr. Arkadin.  Wherever he appears, he is always 'in good voice' -- and it's a voice that I feel tremendously honored gave Toby his own.

US readers can obtain the audiobook at audible.com or iTunes, and those in the UK can find it at audible.co.uk.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Friday, July 20, 2012

Origins of the Learned Pig

The origins of the "learned pig" are very nearly lost in the proverbial mists of time; the immense popularity of the act led to such a vast number of imitators that it's not easy to be certain which pig came first. Nevertheless, thanks to the researches of G.E. Bentley and the indefatigable Ricky Jay, it's possible to identify the Subject of our Novel, who really was the very first such pig -- from among the plethora of porcine pretenders. This pig was named Toby (a name borrowed by many later pigs), and was trained by a Mr. S. Bisset (exactly what the S. stands for is a bit unclear; some sources give Samuel and some Silas, and one refers to him as John). Bisset, who was said to have been born in Perth, Scotland, took up animal training in the middle way of life; as described by one period source, his newfound passion began when,

"Reading an account of a remarkable horse shewn at the fair of St. Germain's, his curiosity led him to try his skill on a horse and a dog which he bought in London, and he succeeded beyond all expectation. Two monkies were the next pupils he took in hand; one of these he taught to dance, and tumble on the rope, whilst the other held a candle with one paw for his companion, and with the other played a barrel organ. These antic animals he also instructed to play several fanciful tricks, such as drinking to the company, riding and tumbling upon the horse's back, and going through several regular dances with the dog."

From dogs, monkeys, and horses, he moved on to cats -- certainly as "intractable" an animal as one can imagine -- and taught a group of them how to strike their paws upon dulcimers, while yowling along and pretending to read from sheets of music! This "cat orchestra" was his first public success, and to it he added his trained monkeys, horses, and a hare which beat upon a drum with its tail. Having the idea that a pig would be the most difficult animal of all to train, he purchased one and set about putting it through its paces; doubtless he discovered, as have researchers today, that in fact it was one of the most intelligent of animals. Within a year, he took this new act on the road, to universal acclaim.

It was deceptively simple: under Bisset's direction, Toby selected from among a set of pasteboard cards upon which numbers and letters were written; by this means, he asnwered questions from his Master and audience members, told the time from a pocket-watch, picked out married and unmarried people, and even "read the minds of ladies, but only with their permission."

This was in or about the year 1783. In later years, learned pigs -- many of them also "Toby" -- continued to appear throughout the next few decades in both Britain and the United States. Indeed, the act has been revived in the twentieth century, and I would not be surprised to see it practiced again today. But it was Toby who first made his name upon the stage, and whose career inspired PYG.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

How to Raise a Learned Pig

Many have been the studies and histories of sundry learned Pigs, published over the course of 200 years and easily filling several shelves. But only one of these, curiously enough, actually offers instruction on how to raise such a pig one's self. I must emphasize at the outset that I do not myself recommend such a method -- in fact, I object to it in the strongest terms! -- but in the interests of Science, this account, penned by one William Frederick Pinchbeck, contains many points of interest, and gives us something of an idea of how Mr. Bisset, Toby's first trainer, might have approached the matter.

Pinchbeck, who traveled the United States in the early nineteenth century with a learned pig of his own -- counting among his customers Thomas Jefferson, who paid a shilling for the privilege -- included his training instructions in a book, The Expositor, or Many Mysteries Unravelled, in which he "spilled the beans," as it were, on a variety of acts and stage magic routines, the Pig first among them.

Mr Pinchbeck's first step would likely, for most, be the most difficult:

Take a Pig, seven or eight weeks old, let him have free access to the interior part of your house,until he shall become in some measure domesticated.
After this, the procedure becomes more structured:

When familiar, you may enter upon his instruction: Take him to anapartment for the purpose of teaching, sequestered from any interruption, and three times a day instruct him as follows: Put a card into his mouth, and hold it shut, giving him to understand he is not to drop it until you please to take it from him. At first, he will throw it from his mouth every moment, which you must immediately pick up and replace, reprimanding him in a loud tone of voice. In a short time, he will understand when you are displeased, and consequently will hold the same patiently. You must give him a small piece of white bread, or a piece of an apple, &c. whatever he is most fond of. Be very observing not to suffer any person to feed him but yourself.
Then comes the key part of the training:

If you have taught him to hold the card, as described in my last, you may lay it on the floor, with one corner bent upwards; then forcing his head down to the card, put it in his mouth, and hold it up with the card, not suffering him to drop it; and so repeatedly. Do not forget to encourage him for his good performances; and when he will pick the card off the floor without your assistance he is master of the second Lesson. You must now lay down three cards. He will naturally try to take the one the most convenient for him; and your business is to check him, not snuffing your nose; and, taking it from him in an angry tone of voice, replace the same, and force him to take the one next to him, or the third, snuffing your nose. By persevering in this manner a few days, he will soon understand he must not take hold, until you give him the signal, which is breathing from your nose. When you have learnt him this, you may continue increasing the cards;and that animal, who in his rude state appears the most stupid, with the least share of tractability amongst all other quadrupeds, will be found sapient, docile, and gentle.
Thus far this would seem to accord with Toby's account of Mr. Bisset's training, save that he used a shuffling of the foot, rather than the snuffing of the nose, and added other, redundant signs as well. Apparently, however, the act did well enough without them; from "A.B." -- Mr. Pinchbeck's supposed correspondent in these lessons, he soon received this news:

The Pig is completed! I have already exhibited him to anumber of persons, men of ingenuity and talents, in whose judgment I can confide : They are astonished beyond description. None can account for the knowledge he apparently possesses, or discover the secret communication betwixt myself and the Pig. In fact, amongst the learned, I am thought a man of talents, whilst others less informed accuse me of the Black Art, and condemn me as a wizard. Shall I remonstrate with bigots ? Shall I patiently sit down, and earnestly detail to them the cause ? They would not believe me. No: I leave them to the enjoyment of their different reflections, and for my security and reward look to men of knowledge, whose approbation is more congenial to my feelings than the unbounded ├ęclat of a barren multitude.
The mock indignation of the correspondent is delightful, and he seems even to have succeeded faster and better than his teacher! The "learned pig" act, whether based on this method or some other, seems to have continued unabated in popularity, with Mr. Pinchbeck having the credit -- if that is the right word for it -- of introducing it to the newly independent American colonies.