'Green bottle' academic not hanging around
A fiercely intense debate about the nature of scholarship, sparked by the discovery of a fragment of English folk song, has taken a new twist this week with the disappearance of the Canadian scholar who has been a chief protagonist. Dr. Brett Shatner, the musicologist who has been taking his European counterparts to task for their alleged lack of intellectual rigour, was reported missing from his Don Mills, Ontario, residence last Friday.
This sudden vanishing act (Shatner was due to deliver a lecture in North York, Ontario, this morning) brings to a climax a story that began in September. The song that sparked academic acrimony is an unlikely bone of contention: the English ditty Ten Green Bottles, a variant of which is well known in North America as 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.
In all previously known versions of the English song the verses count down to "no green bottles" from the figure 10, thus:
"Ten green bottles hanging on the wall
Ten green bottles hanging on the wall
And if one green bottle should accidentally fall
There'd be nine green bottles hanging on the wall . . ."
However, in September, 1998, a French scholar, Pierre d'Ouidlede, announced the discovery of a page of poetry manuscript, apparently dating from the late 14th century, containing what seems to be an early version. Allowing for changes in language between the Chaucerian age and our own, the scheme of the song seems unmistakably the same:
"Syxthene boetell gryne
Syxthene boetell gryne
Syxthene boetell gryne
An . . ."
Frustratingly, the manuscript breaks off at that point. Nevertheless, musicologists were immediately abuzz at discovering that one of the best-known songs in the English language was some five centuries older than previously thought.
Speaking on the highbrow BBC Radio 3 in November, 1998, Prof. Peter Muddelwheat of the University of Thatcham in southern England declared: "It may be one of our silliest songs, but it is sublimely silly, and I personally am thrilled to think of the like of Chaucer's pilgrims passing the time [by singing it] . . . Obviously there were verses between this and [the verse beginning] 'Ten green bottles' . . . and the unlikelihood that it would have started at a random number such as 16 strongly suggests there are other verses out there waiting to be found."
Shatner, a freelance musicologist and philosopher from Toronto, heard the broadcast while visiting London for a symposium. To the Canadian, the English professor's words were a red rag to a bull -- to which animal's droppings he allegedly alluded in the e-mail he immediately fired to Muddelwheat's office.
The exact contents of that communication have not been made public, but a slightly more restrained version of the same argument was published in The Daily Telegraph a few days later. Wrote Shatner: "It is a profound shock to see the depths to which British scholarship seems to have sunk. If it is "obvious" to Prof. Muddelwheat that verses exist for which there is no material evidence, then he should perhaps change his professional title to 'clairvoyant' rather than 'musicologist.' "
Muddelwheat responded in a letter printed in the Telegraph two days later: "I am not sure what standards apply in Canada," he wrote, "but in Great Britain we have been around long enough to have the confidence to approach questions of scholarship with a certain degree of common sense . . . it is particularly sad that Mr. [sic] Shatner seems unable to distinguish between informal remarks made in a radio broadcast and the very different disciplines of academic publication. Perhaps in his country scholarship does not go back beyond the invention of wireless." The Telegraph allowed one more letter, a reply from Shatner, before declaring the correspondence closed. Repeating his point that deductions must be based on evidence ("It is this that separates the scholar from the layman"), Shatner asserted that there was no exact correspondence between the mediaeval verse and the modern song: "It is a gigantic leap of faith to say they are one and the same. It is, for a musicologist, an unpardonable act to assume the existence of material that links separate entities."
If the Telegraph thought it had quashed the debate, it was mistaken. Three weeks later, in another British publication, Lucas's Curios, Mr. E. C. Poswaithe claimed that he had done extensive research into the song Ten Green Bottles while at university in the early 1950s. He had, he said, proved to his own satisfaction that the song originated in the London underworld of the 1830s.
"Sir Robert Peel's 1829 Metropolitan Police Act had made life much less comfortable for the criminal classes. The bane of their life were the officers of the law known by various popular names: 'bobbies' and 'peelers' in honour of their founder and, on account of their green uniforms and curved helmets, giving them in profile a resemblance to a string bean, 'the Bow Street Runners.'
"To the criminal world, however, they were almost universally known as 'greenbottles' and, since they were responsible for the hanging of many a felon, what could be more satisfying than the thought of 10 greenbottles hanging on a wall?" To those who put forward alternative derivations, Poswaithe said he had a simple answer. "If these are glass bottles, why should they be 'hanging' rather than 'standing' on a wall -- the latter situation would not only be more logical but more likely to precipitate the destructive series of tumbles the song catalogues incrementally."
The matter might have rested there had not Postwaithe gone on to suggest that the discovery of the "lost verse" might be a hoax.
The hitherto silent d'Ouidlede made his first and so far only contribution to the controversy in the January, 1999, issue of Lucas's Curios. "While I cannot comment on the opinions expressed by my colleagues . . . I can assure everyone that the manuscript is entirely genuine. It was found in the collection of a 19th-century Spanish curator, Don Valliparque, and has been authenticated by a number of experts." The magazine carried a photographic reproduction of the fragment.
Anyone hoping for a final word from Shatner is, for the time being anyway, likely to be disappointed. This morning he was due to appear at the North York Centre for Advanced Thought in suburban Toronto to present a paper titled "After the colon: the words before the colon considered in context." However, a spokesman at the Centre, situated above Spice - Wings, confirmed that the lecture had been cancelled as Shatner has been officially reported as missing. Neighbours at his Don Mills residence say he was last seen on Friday, heading in the direction of Hamilton, Ontario.