Monday, August 27, 2012

Toby's Posts: The Peripatetic Pig

During the early years of my Career, my Travels carried me throughout the length and breadth of England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, journeys which included many Features which are still extant today, as well as some others -- such as my birth-place -- which have gone to ruin, or been obscured by new buildings and works. Man is a very restless Animal, and especially in his Towns and Cities seems to think nothing of pulling down one building and putting up another, such that, in the end, his Settlements appear mere Haphazard collections of structures, with little Rhyme or Reason.

Never the less, there are a number of Sights which I beheld in my day which may still be seen at Present, and I thought it might interest my readers to mention a few of these. One of my very first venues was the fair city of Liverpool, the town hall of which at that time boasted of fine Roman columns but had only a flat Roof; a lovely round Tower has since been placed atop it, and thus it stands to this day. I appeared there at the Ranelagh Gardens, which unfortunately have since gone; the site is now occupied by the Adelphi Hotel. In Dublin's fair city, I performed at Astley's Ampitheatre in Peter street -- this establishment closed a few years later, and the premises were taken by a School for Blind Females, who converted the Ampitheatre into a circular Chapel. Today, I am informed, it is merely a block of flats.

It would seem that all is changed -- but a few of my familiar places are yet remarkably intact. In the town of Chester, where I made my final appearance under the guidance of Mr. Bisset, the Inn where we resided -- the Blue Bell -- still stands, as it has since it was first built in the 1400's, its distinctive shape deriving from the joining together of its two houses. It is no longer an Inn, but houses an Eatery known as the "East Glory Oriental Restaurant." My old chambers at Pembroke College in Oxford are much the same as they were in my time, though several new Buildings have been added. Of my journey North, a few ancient Piles that stood then stand there Still, among them Penrith Castle and Lancaster Castle, whose "Hanging Corner" may yet be seen, though thankfully without its Gallows. Indeed, I am informed that this most horrid of human Institutions has been entirely eliminated in Britain as a means of Punishment, which is gratifying news indeed.

As to Edinburgh, that fair City which at last became my Home, I am pleased to discover that very little has changed, at least in the older parts. The Grassmarket, host to my last and most Successful shows, remains a great Commons of human commerce, and my favoured place of resort there -- the Bee Hive Inn -- still offers Refreshment, although the present building dates to after my Time. And of course, my beloved Alma Mater, the University of Edinburgh, is still a mighty Beacon of Learning, and -- this I can only hope -- retains some portion of the affections for Me that I hold for It.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Pigs in Song

The humble pig, although not always admired by humans for his better qualities -- that is, the qualities he has other than in being eaten! -- has never the less been celebrated in song many times over the ages. One of the better ditties is that prefaced to the comical rendition of "General Guinness" as recorded by the Boys of the Lough:

'Twas the pig fair last September,
A day I well remember,
I was walking up and down in drunken pride.
When my knees began to flutter
I fell down in the gutter
And a pig came up and lay down by my side.

As I lay there in the gutter,
Thinking thoughts I dared not utter,
I thought I heard a passing lady say:
"You can tell a man who boozes,
By the company he chooses,"
And, with that, the pig got up walked away.

The song is known generally as "The Pig and the Inebriate," and there are many variants, including one -- "The Famous Pig Song" -- which goes on in later stanzas to include quite a few other animals.

Many people, of course, are familiar with George Harrison's "Little Piggies," although technically I would consider this a song about people, with an unkind comparison to pigs, rather than a song about pigs. Alas, the idea that pigs enjoy wallowing in filth is a difficult one to eradicate, as my novel's narrator Toby himself notes:
The belief that Pigs, simply because they appreciate the cooling properties of some lovely clean Mud, are therefore inured to any sort of Refuse, or even love to Gambol in Faeces or Garbage, has such wide circulation among Humans that we could scarce dissuade them from it if we Could speak.
At the same time, there are a few songs which make reference to piggish gambols without prejudice, and one of the best of these is part of a song cycle -- punningly referred to as an "Operina" -- by my old music professor, the late great Dennis Murphy, and entitled "A Perfect Day." In Murphy's vision, each of the stages of human life is represented by a different animal, with childhood, of course, given over to the pig:
We all begin our lives as little pigs
Though most of us grow out of it,
We're few of us so fortunate,
As ever to resume that happy state!
Then, to a background of sounds of "Oink oink oink," the chorus intones:
We are in a mood, to wallow in our food!
We are in a mood, to wallow in our food!
We are in a mood, to wallow in our food!

The piggy is a happy beast
He has a fault to say the least
He likes to roll in mud and goo
And yet he's just as nice as you (or even me).

However small, however big
There's nothing cuter than a pig!
I'm sure that Toby would forgive any mild imputations of bad character in so lighthearted a song, especially given its positive conclusion.

But perhaps one of the finest -- and the saddest -- songs about pigs is one which touches very nearly on Toby's story; this is the Tiger Lilies' mournful ditty, "The Learned Pig," with libretto by the brilliant Edward Gorey. This pig, born at "the turn of the last century," is exhibited at a fairground on a bucket and forced to answer "stupid questions in a profound manner." Surely something of Toby's original story is at work here, although alas this pig meets a much harsher, and sudden end, than did Toby.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Friends of Toby: Dr. Johnson

Some skeptics having cast doubt upon Toby's acquaintance with the literary greats of his era, your editor has thought it prudent to give a brief account of several of them, and put forth the plain evidence of their connexions. I thought it best to, as it were, start with the top, which without question is occupied by that splendid brainbox, Dr. Johnson.

Johnson had that particular alloy of irritability and genius which, though often imitated, remains extraordinarily rare. He began life as a poor man, so poor indeed that during his brief time as a student at Pembroke College, Oxford, he could not afford new shoes to replace the tattered and nearly useless ones he possessed. A kindly fellow, aware of this difficulty, quietly left a new pair by Johnson's door, but he refused to wear them. When his money ran out entirely, he left Pembroke rather than accept the charity of others. The rest of his storied life would scarce fit in these pages, but his success as a periodical writer, and his great work, the Dictionary, are too well-known to require rehearsal.

But what sort of man was Johnson? He was brusque, opinionated, and so rude on occasion that some latter-day diagnosticians believe he suffered from Tourette's Syndrome. He did not so much speak as blurt, and many of his exclamations have joined the list of immortal quotes: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a Scoundrel," "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," and "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of Life," to name but a few. By the time he met Toby, he was in the last year of his life, and knew it; his visit to his old College was part of a final tour of familiar locations, which ended a few months later in London with his death.

Dr. Johnson's remarks about Toby are well-known, as they are quoted in Boswell's Life, and Toby's own narrative agrees with them almost verbatim, although they are part of a much more extended conversation. "Pig has not been wanting to Man, but Man to Pig" -- such might serve as an epigram for Toby's entire life story. Johnson's connection with Anna Seward -- a "jousting partner of the pen," is also warmly recalled by Toby, as it was by Boswell, although after Johnson's death many of Miss Seward's recollections were rejected by Boswell as uncharitable.

As the reader may have inferred from my introduction, my own picture of Johnson has been, for better or worse, indelibly stamped by Robbie Coltrane's portrayal of him in the Blackadder episode, "Ink and Incapability." The good Doctor's reaction as Blackadder peppers him with portmanteau words -- "interphastrically," "pericombobulations," and "extramuralisation" -- is priceless. And yet it may surprise many to learn that Johnson's own accent was anything but the posh pretentiousness of Coltrane's memorable performance; he had, in fact, a very thick and distinctive Staffordshire accent; according to Jeffrey Meyers' Samuel Johnson: The Struggle, he said "shuperior" for superior, "woonse" for once, and "poonsh" for "punch." I hadn't realized this myself, until on listening to the audiobook version of PYG, I heard Simon Callow's marvellous personation of Johnson's voice, which perfectly and richly evokes both the accent and the man.

I shall leave the last word on the Learned Doctor to Toby himself, in concluding his description of the Banquet given in Johnson's honor at Pembroke:

I was told later that it was at Dr Johnson’s personal insistence that we were brought, and given seats quite near his, seats that many of the Fellows had coveted, as they jostled against one another to gain Proximity to their learned Guest … For that one day at least, I felt that I had accomplished something so very Notable that it distinguished me for ever among all the Animals who have had the benefit of Lessons: I had been invited to dinner by Dr Johnson.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Why PYG?

Those who've heard about PYG will often ask about the "Y" in the title -- after all, why would the tale of a pig who spells out his thoughts with letters written on pasteboard cards misspell the name of his own species? There's a reason, though, and some readers have picked up on it: think PYGmalion. The idea that language, or "correct speech," once taught, confers upon its learner an entirely new sense of self, is as central to my novel as it is to Shaw's brilliant play, and its film and musical adaptations (my favorite is the 1938 version with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller). After weeks of drill and training, Liza Doolittle is able to pass for a duchess in polite society, and yet having done so, she finds herself an exile from both her original world as a Cockney-speaking flower girl, and her new one as a "proper" lady. Like many who have "passed" over the boundaries of race and class, she is beset by a sort of double consciousness, feeling inauthentic -- though for opposite reasons -- in both worlds.

And so it is with Toby, the porcine protagonist of PYG. He of course cannot "pass" as a human, but having been given the seeming-gift of language, he can't withdraw from society either -- while, on the other side, his greatest dread is to be stripped of his difference and sorted with common pigs. In the human world, he's a "freak," a pig with a waistcoat who spells out his thoughts -- but in the pig world, things would be far worse; as he puts it:

Indeed, there was only one manner in which I could shuffle off my status as a Freak of Nature, and it was the one thing I dreaded most: to shed my singularity and return to the common multitude of pigs, sans education, sans waistcoat and—ultimately—sans self.

And so Toby remains 'to double business bound' -- and so, the title.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Toby's Posts: In a Pig's Eye

The old phrase "in a pig's eye" has usually been taken to mean either "from a low point of view" or else that a thing is Impossible. And yet, to those of us who possess pig's eyes as part of our Nature, neither meaning applies: that we are closer to the Ground than some other Animals, cannot be denied, but this Perspective has no correlation to our true Stature. Humans, indeed, though they may call someone "a giant of a man" or "a towering figure," do not confuse the metaphorical with the literal by imagining that the Tall are necessarily of greater importance than the Short -- and indeed, many who have loomed largest in history, such as Napoleon Buonoparte, were shorter than most. And, as for the phrase connoting a thing Impossible, I am sure that is just a confusion with the similar-sounding "when pigs fly" -- and let it be noted, that while such a thing was unheard of in my time, it is common enough nowadays that it ought elicit no Wonder.

For me, the far more pertinent Issue, is how loudly Humans object to reading the views of a Pig regarding their own Species. Were they, by their own kind, peeped out at Infamy, they would complain no less loudly, but somehow, when the Spy is of the Porcine Race, they are far more greatly Embarrassed. Humans have always loved to gawk at those they believe to be their Inferiors, which sight instills Laughter; where as to be stared at by those same creatures, seems to them to add Insult to the Injury, and seems the worst sort of Indignity.

I have, in my Memoirs, reflected at my many disappointments in the Human Race, among whom I came without either the ordinary preparations of childhood, or the usual expectations of future Preferment, that would have been natural to Man. And yet, although I could witness many of their Cruelties at closer quarters than most, and despite the fact that, on at least two Occasions, I came very close to losing my Life to them, I do not blame them for my Troubles. For one, in that my greatest Friend and Benefactor, Mr Samuel Nicholson, was of their kind -- and for two, that at every turn of my short Life, there were others -- Dr Adams, Mr Sheldon, and Dr Cullen -- who took my protection and education in hand, and guided me through the most difficult Obstacles. To them all, I shall always be grateful, and for their sake, although I know its faults in a way few others can, I do not condemn the Human race.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Words of a Pig

Many readers have commented on the language of Pyg, especially its evocation of the style of a late 18th-century novel. Of course it would be both foolish and impossible to actually try to recreate the precise diction of the period, but one can, with care, manage a sort of allusive modern take on this language, creating something that has all the antique feel but -- hopefully -- is eminently readable today, a language the novelist David Mitchell has dubbed "bygonese." And yet, along with the careful use of just the right admixture of the musty and the immediate, there was another challenge awaiting me: I did not want to use any words or phrases that were unknown as of the book's imagined publication date of 1809. Few people would have noticed, I suppose, but it seemed to me vital not to have any anachronistic words or phrases -- particularly Americanisms! -- in a novel meant to evoke a very particular period in British history.

In this task, I called upon the support of several allies. First and foremost was my copyeditor Hazel Orme, whose eye for detail was precise and observant. Second, I had the collective wisdom of the Oxford English Dictionary, certainly the best historical dictionary of its kind. All the same, I found that a third resource -- Google books -- was important as well. For all their wisdom, the editors of the OED had not the ability to scan at once through millions of pages of text; they had to rely on individual readers submitting slips. True, the resources exist today, but revising something as massive as the OED is a considerable task; Rome wasn't built in a day, and the OED won't fully benefit from older digitized books for some time to come yet. Thus, I was able at times to find a word in use during the period the novel is set, even though the OED showed only later examples.

Speaking of Rome, the adage which opens the novel -- "When in Rome, do as the Romans" -- was itself a bit of a "squeaker"; while the Latin form of this proverb dates back many centuries to St. Ambrose, and was famously Englished by Robert Burton, it did not take the exact form used in the novel until 1780 -- scarce a year before Toby's birth. And while we're on "squeak," though that verb was indeed attributed to pigs, along with "squeal," the word "oink" -- the one most readers would specifically associate with pigs -- turns out to be an American coinage dating back only to the 1930's. Among the many other Americanisms which had to go were "passel," the "leg" of a journey, "on the house" (in the sense of complimentary), and "a tad."

And yet there were a few hardy survivors as well: "sticking plaster," "autopsied," and "feel the taste" among them. Hazel thought that "sticking plaster" might be anachronistic, but Google Books turned up a recipe for it in John Quincy's Pharmacopoeia Officialis of 1782 (he recommended a mixture of "common plaster" and "yellow resin"). As for "autopsied," the OED gave 1839, but Google Books pushed the earliest reference to 1823, close enough I thought. Lastly, when Toby vows that he will never more "feel the taste of pasteboard in [his] mouth," I was able to find this synesthesiac phrase in an Edinburgh medical journal from 1771. Google books, indeed, is especially useful for phrases, for which comprehensive reference works are scarce.

I learned caution as well -- many Google books are inaccurately tagged by date -- a date on a bookplate or a call slip is often mistaken for a date of publication, and many books have generic dates such as "1800" which can be as much as 99 years off, or entirely inaccurate; one must use the date range restriction with care. And it certainly can't provide negative evidence as to the lack of a certain usage; the abundance of OCR errors in its searchable text precludes it. Nevertheless, it's a fabulous supplement to the OED, and an invaluable one for any historical novelist seeking to avoid the jangling sound of a word uncurrent to the novel's era.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Pig's Library

No Learned Pig -- and no Editor of such a Pig's memoirs -- could get far without having some books within reach. Toby himself mentions owning and a copy of Johnson's Rasselas, along with Samuel Croxall's edition of the Fables of Æsop, the ever-popular Ruddiman's Rudiments of the Latin Tongue, and Laurie and Whittle's New and Improved Atlas, Divided into Counties, the last of which he singles out as a worthy work of reference. He also tells us that he had a "standing order" from Creech's, the well-known Edinburgh bookseller, such that he could have a look at all their new titles, and purchase those that interested him. He mentions Swift, Smollett, and Pope as among his favourites, and he must have accumulated an impressive personal library; it is an immense shame that it no longer -- apparently -- survives.

As Toby's editor, I too had at hand a library of vital books, although the most useful references were those available online, through whose contents I could instantly search for just the information needed. The most invaluable of these, by far, was British History Online; with its project of scanning all the various county histories, it's possible to take a certain town on Toby's route -- such as High Wycombe -- and instantly discover its features as of the mid-1780's, complete with a little woodcut of the Guildhall he singled out for mention. For biographical details of many of the people Toby encountered, the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was inavluable; a subscription is required, and I'm fortunate that my college library has one. And, although it is sometimes criticized for issues of accuracy, I found the English Wikipedia to be generally quite reliable. Yet no online resource can provide the real feeling and texture of history; for that, I was fortunate to have at hand such texts as Richard Altick's magisterial The Shows of London, David Coke's delightful book Vauxhall Gardens (where, though Toby did not himself appear, so much of the variety of life and amusements characteristic of his time could be found), and Roy Porter's English Society in the Eighteenth Century. And of course, along with Toby, I too sojourned with a variety of characters from the tales of his time, from Humphry Clinker to Tom Jones. For it is from and within books that Toby's world truly comes to life; for him, his manner of relating adventures were modeled upon the stories he had read and enjoyed, and penned -- I am sure -- out of a desire to see his life represented on equal and common terms with them.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Almost like Eating a Friend

The relationship between pigs and humans has been a long and intimate one; according to one recent study, it can be traced back more than 10,000 years. And yet, unlike the human interactions with dogs and cats, which people have commonly named, taken into their homes, and welcomed into the family, Pigs have nearly always been left outside, and their relationship with Humans has generally been concluded with a meal.

Toby himself comments on this early in his Memoirs, when he speaks of acquiring his Name:

When it comes to Pigs, men have long felt that there was little sense in naming them, as their only moment of Note was most commonly their being served for Supper, and found more flavourful or delicate than their predecessor—every one of them nameless save by such Ephemeral sobriquets as Loin or Roast. in such a realm of infinite and infinitely replaceable Parts, a row of dinners one after another, the idea of naming any one such meal appeared as absurd as naming a toenail-clipping, or a Fart.
Now it's not unknown for a particularly favored pig to be kept about, most often for breeding purposes, but the idea of having a Pig within one's house, living as a pet, has never been widespread, though many instances of it are known, even to this day. Miniature pigs have recently become popular, and are doubtless better adapted to the home; many who have taken pigs in have remarked that they are far more intelligent than dogs, and very companionable.

All the same, the many millions of pigs who have, throughout history, been raised for food and slaughtered at a year old, vastly outnumbers those who have escaped a visit to the Butcher.

Before I came to my calling as Toby's Editor, I will confess that I quite often enjoyed a rasher of bacon, or reached for a ham sandwich for lunch. Even as I was at work on the book, I was never averse to such a snack, and if enjoying a salad, would sprinkle some little crispy bits upon the lettuce. But once the book was complete, I developed a very strong and sudden distaste for pork in any form, a feeling that I did not at first associate with Toby. When, at a celebratory dinner on learning of the book's publication, I accidentally bit into a salad with bacon dressing, I found I had to desist, and discreetly send it off within a napkin.

I am not a vegetarian, although as an undergraduate I followed such a diet for some years. I have been known to poke gentle fun at friends who are vegans, followers of macrobiotic diets, or those who insist upon buying what one wag has dubbed "happy meat" -- meat from animals that were, at least until the moment of their demise, roaming freely and contentedly. But now that I have come to know Toby, I find that I really can't eat pork at all -- ever. I do not condemn anyone who would do so -- indeed, in an odd way, I envy them. I will miss the flavor.

So much of the ethical universe seems to depend on sympathy, and so much of sympathy depends on our knowing something of the story of the lives our fellow creatures live. When we can, by such tales, gain a sense of fellow-feeling, imbuing an animal with a sense of Self, we quite naturally draw away from the prospect of eating their relatives. If we can know or name, a living thing, we can more readily imagine it as a companion -- whereas the nameless -- the herd, the crop, the multitude -- can be devoured without so much as a hiccup.

In L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz, there was a character, the fast friend of the Cowardly Lion, who was known as the Hungry Tiger. The Hungry Tiger would really have loved to have devoured a meal of tender little human babies -- but alas, his conscience prevented it. Thus his earned his name, for he was always hungry. Fortunately, the Land of Oz being a fairy kingdom, he could never starve, and had as pleasant a life in every other respect as Dorothy and her other friends. When I get notes from my friends congratulating me on the new edition of Pyg, and suggesting we celebrate with some BLT's, I feel much as that Tiger did.