Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Remembering Troyte – Edward Elgar’s dependable friend

A stone monument was erected at the summit of the Worcestershire Beacon (the highest point in the Malvern Hills) to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It features a toposcope, which allows visitors to identify the hills, and other features, that they can observe from this point (see above). The current toposcope is an exact replacement of the original, which was stolen (but subsequently recovered), and it was designed by Arthur Troyte Griffith (1864-1942), a well-known Malvern architect of the time (see below).

Troyte was educated at Harrow (where his father was a master) and at Oriel College Oxford. Percy M Young [1] describes him as “an all-round scholar, with special interests in art and literature”, who loved nature and painted water colours, played chess to a high level, and who was also an enthusiast for crossword puzzles. After Oxford, his interest in buildings led him to architecture and he moved to Malvern to set up a practice. 

In 1896, Troyte became friends with Edward Elgar, who was seven years older and who, at that time, was living in “Forli”, a house in Alexandra Road, Malvern Link. Elgar was well-known locally as a teacher, musician, and composer of pieces for various instruments and ensembles, but he was a difficult man [2], with a strong need for recognition and praise; sinking into self-pitying gloom when he felt things were not going well for him. A contrasting side of Elgar’s personality was his love of “japes” and the exhilaration provided by being outdoors in the natural world, and these were both traits that Troyte shared. He was later celebrated by Elgar in Variation VII of the Enigma Variations, where the composer highlights his friend’s lack of skill as a musician. Michael Kennedy writes [3]:

The variation is not a portrait. It merely records “maladroit essays to play the pianoforte; later the strong rhythm suggests the attempts of the instructor [Elgar] to make something like order out of the chaos, and the final despairing ‘slam’ records that the effort proved to be [in] vain.”   

As music was so important to Elgar, and he had the facility to play several instruments well, one can imagine his frustration. It is not unusual for musicians to have a low tolerance of the performance of those less gifted than themselves, but the strong bond of affection, and shared interests, between the two men overcame Elgar’s likely intolerance. Indeed, Troyte remained one of Elgar’s most valued friends for the rest of his life; many letters being written between the two [1] that show Troyte’s dependability and support in all manner of practical matters, including interior design [4]. He was also a valued guest at dinner parties and other social events, where the two could enjoy their love of what we now call banter.

If Troyte’s contribution to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was the toposcope on Worcestershire Beacon, Elgar’s was his Imperial March, a composition that impressed London audiences [3] and which began the progress to world-wide recognition. In 1897, the two men had been friends for a year and it was in 1899 that Troyte was celebrated in the Enigma Variations, the piece that cemented Elgar’s fame and which remains so popular today.

I wrote earlier about my recent walk on the Malvern Hills [5] and I began my stroll close to Troyte’s old house in Lower Wyche Road on the flanks of the Worcestershire Beacon. On reaching the top of the Beacon, I had the reminder of Troyte on the Silver Jubilee monument and, in addition to being surrounded “by a feeling of Elgar”, it was also good to remember one of Elgar’s most valued friends. We know that Elgar had generous musical support from Augustus Jaeger (of Novello and Company - fondly recalled as Nimrod in Variation IX of the Enigma Variations) and from many others, but Troyte provided a substantial “anchoring role” in the gifted composer’s life. Those of us who are moved by Elgar’s music probably owe Troyte a good deal.

[1] Percy M Young (ed.) (1956) Letters of Edward Elgar, and other writings. London, Geoffrey Bles.

[2] Michael De-la-Noy (1983) Elgar: the man. London, Allen Lane.

[3] Michael Kennedy (1968) Portrait of Elgar. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[4] Michael Kennedy (2004) The Life of Elgar. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

For a recording of Variotion VII of the Enigma Variations, see

For a biography of Arthur Troyte Griffith, see

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Elgar’s inspiration

I have loved Elgar’s orchestral music since I was a child. There is something about it that brings a connection with Nature and the outdoors, summed up by Jerrold Northrop Moore [1]:

The country had filled Elgar’s music as it had filled the greatest English art. It is a pastoral vision reaching back through Samuel Palmer and Turner and Constable, through Keats and Coleridge and Wordsworth.. ..This was the heritage that shaped Elgar and his music, and that touches his music’s audience still.

It wasn’t until I watched Ken Russell’s BBC documentary [2] that I knew much about Elgar the man, but that programme set me off reading biographies and articles. For some reason, I came to view Elgar as a person whose love of the countryside was similar to my own, although I have no skill in communicating that love in music, or in any other way for that matter. 

In crude terms, his music “touched my soul” (whatever that means), and it is difficult for me to listen to some pieces without feeling strong emotions. I’m not frightened by that, but for many years I put off visiting the Malvern Hills, an important source of inspiration for Elgar, because I thought I might be disappointed. Last week, however, I walked up to the top of the Worcestershire Beacon from the woods surrounding the Hills.

Moore [1] relates a story about Elgar at the end of his life:

It was the music of the Cello Concerto that remained with him then. As he lay dying early in 1934, he “rather feebly” whistled the 9/8 sequence of up-and-down to the friend who had tried to provide his opera libretto: “If ever you’re walking on the Malvern Hills and hear that, don’t be afraid. It’s only me.”

I carried this thought with me on my walk and found myself humming the 9/8 theme, so I was carrying Elgar with me. The walk began with leafy paths and it then became more open as I climbed, admiring the views all the while. This is a brief photographic record of the day:

It was exhilarating to stroll up to the Beacon and I can see how it provided inspiration for the beautiful pastoral music of a great Romantic like Elgar. At the risk of gaining an entry in “Pseuds Corner”, there was a sense of being on Earth, but also looking out from above it, at the wide vista on either side. It was a joyous experience and I can’t understand why I hesitated walking on the Malvern Hills for so many years. 

I’m already looking forward to going back and the 9/8 theme of the Cello Concerto now brings new memories.

[1] Jerrold Northrop Moore (2004) Elgar: Child of Dreams. London, Faber and Faber.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Giant sea scorpions.. ..and other foods

In his book Why Not Eat Insects? Vincent M. Holt [1] does not confine himself to this group of invertebrates. In addition to remarks about slugs and snails, he also has this to say:

..Spiders have been relished as tid-bits, not only by uncivilized nations, but by Europeans of cultivation. For Reaumur tells of a young lady who was so fond of spiders that she never saw one without catching and eating it. Lalande, the French astronomer, had similar tastes; and Rosel speaks of a German who was in the habit of spreading spiders, like butter, upon his bread.

Spiders are chelicerates and, had Holt travelled to China, Thailand or Vietnam he would have been aware of other chelicerates, scorpions, being eaten, often as “street food”. Scorpions have a sting that is used to inject venom but, when cooked, the venom becomes denatured and the whole animal can be eaten. A common method of preparation is to line scorpions on skewers that can then be grilled (see below), or they can be stir fried. Those who eat scorpions compare their flavour to
that of crabs, or shrimps, and scorpions are rich in protein, so provide a readily available and nutritious food [2].

The largest chelicerates, the eurypterids, became extinct about 250 million years ago, so there is no possibility that they co-existed with humans, or close human ancestors. However, just as we like to imagine co-existing with reptilian dinosaurs (equally impossible), it is fun to think what our attitude to eurypterids would be should they still be present today.

In the image above, adapted from an illustration in a paper by Braddy, Poschmann and Tetlie [3] we see the body form of the eurypterid Jaekelopterus.  It is typical of the “sea scorpions” in having four pairs of walking legs, chelicerae (limbs with claws), a pair of paddles and a segmented body ending in a flattened extension. Two compound eyes are present and, in a comparative study of the fossilised remains of eurypterids of several types, it is concluded that Jaekelopterus was likely to be an active predator and that competition with more successful vertebrate types led to its extinction [4], alongside all the other eurypterids.

The location of fossils shows that Jaekelopterus lived in “marginal marine environments” [3] so, had these creatures survived to modern times, they would have been easily accessible to humans and, no doubt, would have been made extinct by human hunting. At this point, we need to consider the size of the animals: the scale bar in the illustration shows 1 metre, so specimens of Jaekelopterus were up to 2 metres long and thus substantially longer than the average human (2 metres being equivalent to 6 feet 6 inches). If their chelicerae were disabled, they would be easy to catch and they did not have the defensive sting present in today’s scorpions (they are not closely related).

Letting our imagination free, we can fantasise that Jaekelopterus, with its long and muscular body, would be good to eat, especially when prepared using the cooking skills of modern humans – “eurypterid thermidor” anyone? Nonsense of course, but what fascinating creatures they must have been, had we been able to observe them.

[1] Vincent M. Holt (1885) Why Not Eat Insects? Faringdon, E.W.Classey Ltd.

[3] S. J. Braddy, M. Poschmann and O. E. Tetlie (2008) Giant claw reveals the largest ever arthropod. Biology Letters 4: 106-109.

[4] V. E. McCoy, J. C. Lamsdell, M. Poschmann, R. P. Anderson and D. E. G. Briggs (2015) All the better to see you with: eyes and claws reveal the evolution of divergent ecological roles in giant pterygotid eurypterids. Biology Letters 11: 2015.0564.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Death of a devout Christian

We don’t like talking about death, yet it is a natural process that we must all go through. The stages of dying are described factually in The Natural Death Handbook [1] and anyone fearing the event will hopefully be comforted by the account given in the book. That also applies to those around the dying patient, as it is as hard for the watchers as it is for the dying: shown clearly in Edvard Munch’s painting By The Death Bed (1896):

Of course, death can also be sudden and dramatic and the act of dying may not follow the sequence described in the book. There is also the emotional involvement in the process that religious belief has conditioned into us. In Christianity, death is the end of our time on Earth before our soul passes to an afterlife and, hopefully, entry to Heaven. The “fire and brimstone” school of Protestant preaching is designed to make us scared of the alternative: something that might happen if we move away from a particular set of religious beliefs and practices that some preachers espouse.

Although I am not a Christian, I would have thought that belief in Heaven and the death of Jesus to save our souls would bring comfort, but I wonder if it does? To try and find an answer, I wanted to see what happened to Philip Henry Gosse as he was among the most devout Christians that I have read about.

Gosse was an outstanding naturalist and achieved both popular, and scientific, fame from his books, papers and lectures. It can be argued that the most important events of Henry Gosse’s life were the death of his first wife Emily; his young son Edmund being “saved”; and the challenge to Creation (as described in Genesis) provided by ideas on evolution and the concept of geological time. He was a member of the Brethren (leading his own group) and had a profound belief in the imminence of the Second Coming, when believers would be carried up to Heaven in rapture.

Emily died of breast cancer [2] after being subjected to an “alternative” treatment that was more like quack medicine. During her final days, Henry was busy on writing and natural history projects, so Edmund and Emily spent much time together. Later, Henry wrote an account of Emily’s last days and I have not read it, nor am I likely to, as there are few copies still in existence [3]. She had a deep Christian faith and, while suffering a great deal of pain, I imagine that, at the end, she was happy to make the transition to Heaven, her main anxiety being that Edmund would be “saved” after the adult baptism that the Brethren practised.

As it turned out, Henry arranged that Edmund would be baptised as an “adult believer” three weeks after his 10th birthday, an act so unusual that people came to Torquay from miles around to witness the act. In his autobiography, Edmund, too, recognised that this was a very significant event in his life [4], but he went on to reject the rigid beliefs that Henry followed and this caused much tension between the two men. Edmund was also very involved in the Arts World of the time and Henry could not identify with this, or with Darwin’s important work in promoting ideas on evolution. In the year that Emily died, Henry had published Omphalos [5], that contained his theory that everything was created in six days; even rock strata that appeared to be millions of years old and which contained the fossilised remains of plant and animals. Unsurprisingly, Omphalos was rejected by both the scientific, and religious, communities and this further isolated Henry, making him even less able to shift from his strict literalist stance. I’m not sure how happy he was after becoming estranged from Edmund; being ridiculed by some readers of Omphalos; and generally worrying about being on the straight and narrow, although he was so dogmatic on that front that his passport to Heaven must have been assured in his own mind. 

He did enjoy the company of his grandchildren (the photograph above shows him in old age) and Edmund describes a happy time when the family spent 19th September 1887 at Goodrington, collecting along the shore [6]. It was shortly after this that Henry became ill with congestive heart disease and he died at “Sandhurst”, his home in Torquay, a little before 1 a.m. on 23rd August 1888; his nurse recording his last words as “It is all over. The Lord is near! I am going to my reward!” [7]. It was a peaceful end, as one would expect of someone with such a strong religious faith. Yet we know that, in the days before, Henry was angry with God, as his belief in the Second Coming was so strong that he hadn’t contemplated the act of dying that he had seen Emily pass through. How odd that such a devout Christian felt let down by God because he had to die, even though this is the fate of all humans.

Henry’s final days are described by Eliza [7]:

Even within the last fortnight, seeing me distressed, he said, “Oh, darling, don’t trouble. It is not too late; even now the Blessed Lord may come and take us both up together.” I believe he was buoyed up almost to the last with this strong hope.

Although Eliza describes being supported by Henry, Ann Thwaite [8], in her brilliant biography, details Henry’s own distress:

Eliza said that, though Henry Gosse had never had a revelation that he would himself be “one of the favoured saints who shall never taste of death”, he had waited and hoped and prayed. “This hope of being caught up before death continued to the last and its non-fulfilment was an acute disappointment to him. It undoubtedly was connected to the deep dejection of his latest hours on earth.”

So, does a religious faith help us when dying? I guess it all depends on the nature of one’s beliefs, whether one feels bad about past misdemeanours, and whether there are terrible threats of what might happen if one is on the wrong side in the afterlife. Of course, I don’t know whether I will make a deathbed religious conversion and I have no idea when, or how, I will die. However, I’m grateful to have been able to be broad and imaginative in my thinking and not constrained to what seems like the straitjacket of religious belief. Fancy going through all that for nothing.

[1] Stephanie Wienrich and Josefine Speyer (eds.) (2003) The Natural Death Handbook. London, Rider.

[2] Robert Boyd (2004) Emily Gosse. Bath, Olivet Books.

[3] R.B.Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse – A Bibliography. Folkestone, Dawson.

[4] Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: a study of two temperaments. London, William Heinemann.

[5] Philip Henry Gosse (1857) Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot. London, John Van Voorst.

[6] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: the life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[7] Eliza Gosse (1896) Appendix I in Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: the life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[8] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: the life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber.