Thursday, 30 April 2009
1. The fact or quality of being verisimilar; the appearance of being true or real; likeness or resemblance to truth, reality, or fact; probability.
In very frequent use from c 1850.
1603 HOLLAND Plutarch's Mor. 1031 If we wil use the rule of probability and verisimilitude. 1654 R. FLECKNOE Ten Years Trav. 30 Truth has no greater Enemy than verisimilitude and likelihood. 1661 GLANVILL Van. Dogm. 64 Verisimilitude and Opinion are an easie purchase; and these counterfeits are all the Vulgars treasure. 1727 WARBURTON Tracts (1789) 83 Was it but Falshood's Mask of Veri-similitude that we doated after. 1764 REID Inquiry vi. §19 His conjectures have more verisimilitude than dogmatic theories. 1826 MISS MITFORD Village Ser. II. (1863) 289 A depth of tenderness in her large black eyes..gave a great verisimilitude to her representation of the lovelorn damsel. 1870 J. H. NEWMAN Gram. Assent II. vii. 221 They are nothing more to me than..judgments on the verisimilitude of intellectual views, not the possession and enjoyment of truths. 1892 STEVENSON & OSBOURNE Wrecker i, To add a spice of verisimilitude ‘college paper’ had an actual marketable value.
b. esp. Of statements, narrative, etc.
1671 MILTON Samson, Of Tragedy, The Plot,..which is nothing indeed but such conomy, or disposition of the fable as may stand best with verisimilitude and decorum. 1733 G. CHEYNE Eng. Malady I. vi. §1 (1734) 48 If what I have advanc'd..have any Truth or Verisimilitude. 1777 ROBERTSON Hist. Amer. II. V. 60 They would appear..so extravagant, as to go far beyond the bounds of that veri~similitude which must be preserved even in fictitious narration. 1817 COLERIDGE Biog. Lit. xvii. (1882) 165 The characters..have all the verisimilitude and representative quality that the purposes of poetry can require. 1858 MERIVALE Rom. Emp. lv. (1865) VII. 2 We must accept in the main the verisimilitude of the picture they have left us of this arch~tyrant. 1875 JOWETT Plato (ed. 2) I. 422 The traditional form was required in order to give verisimilitude to the myth.
Defoe was, of course, crucial in the development of empiricism within prose; as a journalist and travel writer, he recorded transactions and economies at work; exchanges of goods in the material world. His is a crucial voice in cataloguing the progression of British capitalism and culture on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. This comes across in his novels; Moll Flanders (1722) consistently foregrounds the exact details of her financial gains and losses, at the end of each episode within its picaresque narrative. There is a concern with documenting what is perceived to be the truth of things, and it is telling that money is made so prominent - might this sort of honesty better become some of our post-modernist novelists today? It should also be noted that Moll's voice at times takes the form of a satirical rebuke to The Way Things Are, and the novel is not simplistically endorsing an obsession with money.
It is unquestionably before its time, as the introduction to The Great English Short-Story Writers, Vol. 1 on Project Gutenberg states; Defoe creates a sense of totality and symmetry, with accumulative details establishing a precise veracity. He clearly delineates time and its passage, with the circumstantial details and context of Mrs Veal's visitation meticulously recorded.
It is also partially an advertisement, with the extensive prominence given to the French Protestant Drelincourt's Book on Death, recommended through the comfort it most assuredly gives the Mrs' Veal and Bargrave in the narrative. Defoe's open, if subtle, didactism reflects the biases of the time, with Catholicism and ritual disdained in British culture, post-'Bloody' Mary.
This selective inclusion - designed by Defoe to lobby for an English translation of the text - chimes with the unnamed narrator's assumed mantle of journalism. Relevant, complicating details that have a bearing upon the story are not withheld, but disclosed in imperative terms: 'Now you must know Mrs. Veal was a maiden gentlewoman of about thirty years of age, and for some years past had been troubled with fits, which were perceived coming on her by her going off from her discourse very abruptly to some impertinence.' (my emphasis)
The narrator's word is taken to be true, and he explicitly refers to calumniators who have openly slandered his witness, the good Christian Mrs Bargrave, who is the source for this apparition story. Once the details of the said story have been related, the narrator makes it clear that Mrs Bargrave has been much in demand for audiences who want to hear the story. He tackles the critical point as to whether there was any pecuniary interest in her newfound calling as oral storyteller: 'And it is to be observed that, notwithstanding all the trouble and fatigue Mrs. Bargrave has undergone upon this account, she never took the value of a farthing, nor suffered her daughter to take anything of anybody, and therefore can have no interest in telling the story.' In addition, she 'never varies' in the slightest detail of her story, convincing the narrator of her essential veracity.
The final paragraph articulates Defoe's journalistic principles in an exemplary manner: 'This thing has very much affected me, and I am as well satisfied as I am of the best-grounded matter of fact. And why we should dispute matter of fact, because we cannot solve things of which we can have no certain or demonstrative notions, seems strange to me; Mrs. Bargrave's authority and sincerity alone would have been undoubted in any other case.' There is no romanticising or sensationalising of the strange, but rather a forensic justification of strange circumstances. This latest online short-story must be commended; it is intensely influential in all sorts of ways - not least to the development of the short-story as a form in itself.
Wednesday, 29 April 2009
says Donny Flair
our golden age PM.
Let's give ourselves
A pat on the back.'
While this story disappointed a little, inevitably in comparison with 'Theatre of War' (and Ballard has surely covered this territory brilliantly), there is much that is, or was, bracingly relevant. The epigraphs to each chapter or section, quoting Diana or reports regarding the media circus, inform a dystopian view of Britain: e.g. '[...] I wonder how they and all the grey men who put her down feel now? The people have spoken.' - Michael Winner, News of the World, September 7th 1997.
There are astonishing bursts of irrationality like this, from Julie Burchill, conflating patriotism with idolatory of Diana, and defining 'us', the people, against 'them', the foreigners, the Greeks and Germans: '. . . The Royal Family often seem to behave in ways which could actually be called unpatriotic, and their denial of Diana, the world's sweetheart, was the biggest betrayal of all. But then, what can you expect from a bunch of Greeks and Germans . . . Her brave, bright, brash life will forever cast a giant shadow over the sickly bunch of bullies who call themselves our ruling house. We'll always remember her, coming home for the last time to us, free at last - the People's Princess, not the Windsors'. . . .We'll never forget her. And neither will they.' - News of the World, September 7, 1997. Moorcock's scholarly selection of these epigraphs is insightful, but they could be more strongly tied to the narrative at times, which has a loose, freewheeling feel about it, in stark contrast to the concise control of a Ballard.
There are pertinent juxtapositions of Diana's professed views on landmines with her role as a martyred figurehead in the internal conflicts of this parallel Britain; and indeed the civil war is depicted in bloody terms, with plenty of descriptions of para-military and indeed military activities.
In terms of Cornelius, this seems to be an exercise in bathos: Jerry cuts a sickly figure in this story, suffering from 'convulsions' and playing little active part. Maybe this is part of Moorcock's subverting of the hero figure in science fiction? One suspects you need a thorough grasp of the character and what he has previously been (in various novels and shorts) to get a full picture of his portrayal here. That might a criticism of Moorcock in that he presumes a familiarity with these characters - maybe the first of my shorts surveyed which requires this sort of awareness of backstory. It can still be enjoyed, but is a curious, slightly distancing read at times.
Jerry does make a crucial comment - 'Long ago [...] Far away. Obsolete ikons. Failed providers. Lost servers. Scarcely an elegy, Miss Scarlett. Hardly worth blacking up for. Government by lowest common denominator. A true market government. Poets have been mourning this century ever since it began.' - which is close to one of the ruefully defeated reflections by the mysterious academic Robinson in Patrick Keiller's diptych encompassing London and Robinson in Space (1994/7), of which I am sure Moorcock is well aware, being a London writer.
Una Persson is a more attractive and proactive figure in the narrative; this chic revolutionary (or terrorist) wouldn't be out of place in a Luke Haines song, being introduced thus: 'Una Persson, stylish as ever in her military coat and dark, divided pants, straddled the fire, warming her hands. Her pale oval face, framed by a brunette pageboy, brooded into the middle distance. 'Don't buy any of that cheap American crap,' she told Major Nye. 'Their tanks fall apart as soon as their own crappy guns start firing. Get a French one, if you can.' '
She is a European anarchist, fashioned from the 60s and 70s, but timeless in herself; she has indeed appeared in several of Moorcock's different books and series': Elizabethan alt-history Gloriana, the Unfulfill'd Queen (1978), the Jerry Cornelius quadrilogy (1968-77), The Dancers at the End of Time (1974-76) , The Nomad of the Time Streams (1971-81), etc. The last of these series fascinatingly is centred around and narrated by Oswald Bastable, one of the Treasure Seekers of Edith Nesbit's 1899 children's novel, and finds roles for Churchill, Enoch Powell and Mick Jagger... a must-read, now that I have finished Donald Barthelme's excellent novel The King (1991), with its depiction of Arthurian myth transplanted to WW2. [finished as of: 17/05/09]
Una is a kind of refraction of that sphere of British music that runs from Roxy Music to the Human League, where things European and avant-garde were utilised. In terms of who might be the ideal Una in a film, Moorcock comments on his Multiverse website's forum, 'There might be one or two suitable actresses, but mine are associated either with US film noir or French nouvelle vague (or thereabouts). Or Beatles Berlin...' Anna Karina, perhaps? Or Jenny Runacre if British? She is clearly portrayed as aware of feminism, reading Meredith's Diana of the Crossways (1885) - Moorcock conveying his love of the forgotten and arcane in literature, as well as liberated, anarchistic women.
Overall, it is a rather ramshackle, freely associating narrative, written in a style that is somehow difficult for me to get used to; definitely an original voice, who I will pursue at longer length - the Nomad series? Critical to understanding it is Jerry's comment: 'But I have a feeling it won't go down too well in the provinces. I'm beginning to think this has been a poor career move. Market forces abhor the unique.'
'Murdering the opposition:
It is a last resort.
He came up that morning
From Scunthorpe or was it Skegness.
You know, don't you?
The last resort.'
Once cited by Paul Morley as one of his favourite short-stories, particularly suitable 'for those with short attention span', this is one of the shortest of shorts I have read thus far; less than 1000 words.
This magical realist author here focuses on a brief episode entirely realistic, but carrying a charge beyond its seemingly modest confines. It contains resonances for me of Harold Pinter's short and harrowing political play One for the Road, and is from the same year of 1984, pivotal in many ways. Pinter's underrated play has grown more timely by the year, with waterboarding, extraordinary rendition and other such pursuits by the US coming to light. As with Pinter's polemic, the country is unspecific, stressing the transnational nature of torture and oppression; they can be carried out by Western governments if transplanted to a 'safe' country. Aurelio Escovar, the 'dentist without a degree', clearly marks this out as being in South America, but it is never made specific, making the point that this could be anywhere.
In this torture scenario, the tables are turned here; the dentist, through line of work, has power over the oppressive mayor, and is able to exact pain through his work, extracting a tooth. There is the chance for a larger revenge on the Mayor, but he does take it, staying true to medical codes of practice. There is not rancour but 'a bitter tenderness' in his voice when he spells out the situation: "Now you'll pay for our twenty dead men".
It all ends on a rather obviously portentous note with the Mayor's statement that the town and himself are practically the same thing. It is a relatively slight vignette, unable to move or shock or point out folly in quite the same way as One for the Road; but then that was a piece of theatre with sets, lighting, actors and forty minutes to play with. This, in its 918 words, has to go down as one of those short-stories that impresses me, but does not inspire; I can see what he is trying to do and it works, to an extent.
Monday, 27 April 2009
And it's all over now, Baby Blue.'
The allure of the highway, the American way to... where? Here, there is not infinite promise, but a distinct threat attached to the going away. Connie, a fairly average fifteen year-old, thinks herself in control of a rather aimlessly itinerant (within set perameters) life - much idealised at the time and since. Enjoying casual teenage liaisons and yet clinging on within the home environment. The social side of her life - the going out with boys and girl-friends - is 'this one good thing' for her, which comes to haunt her. This story subverts all of this, with the ironically named Arnold Friend invading home territory, with parents and family away. There is a slight premonition of Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) in the collision of worlds: picket-fenced normality and alluring, yet possibly deadly, low-life.
Connie's personality is still forming, with its vague dreams embodied by pop music of the time:
'She and that girl and occasionally another girl went out several times a week, and the rest of the time Connie spent around the house—it was summer vacation—getting in her mother s way and thinking, dreaming about the boys she met. But all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling, mixed up with the urgent insistent pounding of the music and the humid night air of July.'
She is listening to the radio when Arnold Friend and Ellie pull up at her house; Friend has been at the restaurant where Connie was previously enjoying a date - saying 'Gonna get you, baby'. His attire and bearing is similar to all but he does not quite fit, somehow:
'She stared at Arnold Friend. He stood there so stiffly relaxed, pretending to be relaxed, with one hand idly on the door handle as if he were keeping himself up that way and had no intention of ever moving again. She recognized most things about him, the tight jeans that showed his thighs and buttocks and the greasy leather boots and the tight shirt, and even that slippery friendly smile of his, that sleepy dreamy smile that all the boys used to get across ideas they didn't want to put into words. She recognized all this and also the singsong way he talked, slightly mocking, kidding, but serious and a little melancholy, and she recognized the way he tapped one fist against the other in homage to the perpetual music behind him. But all these things did not come together.'
A chameleon, a chancer, a charmer, Friend appropriately assumes the voice of the radio DJ; a man of thirty living a charade, dressing as and claiming to be a teenager. Oates' descriptions mark him out almost as a Lynchian devil:
'Then he began to smile again. She watched this smile come, awkward as if he were smiling from inside a mask. His whole face was a mask, she thought wildly, tanned down to his throat but then running out as if he had plastered make-up on his face but had forgotten about his throat.'
This story expresses the all-American macabre, the flipside of youth freedom and pop cultural tropes; the sense that you can go up to anyone and ask 'do you fancy a ride?' I should mention Oates' facility with ratcheting up the tension; this is at times a gut-wrenching read, evoking the end of a sort of innocence. It is notably ambivalent about Connie; she is discernibly no angel, but clearly not deserving of this bullying, disturbing Friendly attention.
Sunday, 26 April 2009
directed to the reflection of a little girl of thirteen or so (as nearly
as I could judge), who passed every day on a balcony just above the
upward range of my limited field of view.'
(Victorian Short Stories: Stories of Courtship, http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/15381)
This one engages me much more than the Trollope, perhaps because it is so of its time in a more radical sense. Gilbert, of course, admits to desire and the whole state of mind that that entails. Vestiges of propriety may be maintained but like in Wilde, there is a sense of conventional assumptions being overturned and confounded. It was published in September 1890 in the Century Magazine, as a new cultural era was taking root.
As with the Trollope, this presents a rather curious picture of 'Victorian Romance' - but this time with the emphasis on love in signs and interpretations of what love is. It takes a while for the 'poor paralysed fellow' who is the main focus and narrator of the story, to be revealed as definitively English - but it certainly makes sense that he is: 'she threw up her hands in a pretty affectation of despair, which I tried to imitate but in an English and unsuccessful fashion.'
There is a rather poetic conceit, suitably visual coming from this man of the theatre (noted for burlesques, melodramas and operas, of course): that the would-be suitor only sees his paramour in reflection in the canal water; a mirror image which one cannot rely on. Gilbert shows that his narrator's interpretation of her basic friendliness as love is down to his loneliness and wishful thinking - it could almost make an early Pulp song, this scenario!
It is all chaste in explicit terms; as this girl becomes mature, possibly sixteen or seventeen he ardour becomes manifest - though one is entirely unsure how she regards him. This brief vignette is so determinedly fixed from one vantage point that it resembles an unlikely precursor to Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), one of the greatest of films. Flowers seem to be a token of love, but are they? 'Tis a rather profound question raised by this story; our narrator interprets them as he will:
'But I soon took heart of grace, for as soon as he was out of sight, the little maid
threw two flowers growing on the same stem--an allegory of which I could make nothing, until it broke upon me that she meant to convey to me that he and she were brother and sister, and that I had no cause to be sad.'
It is rather 1890s in its revealing of the feelings and complexities beyond mere virtue and evil; in its small way, 'Angela: An Inverted Love Story' contributes to the Wilde-Shaw-Pinero destabilising of melodramatic conventions. What makes it all the more interesting is how Gilbert may be adding greater depth to the previous, rather roseate view of romance in some of his Operas (whilst slyly referencing The Gondoliers, which opened at the Savoy in the previous December); he is clearly coming to terms with stories like 'A Sphinx Without a Secret'. As in that story, male desire is satirised and the female character is unknowable, impossible to pin down in the standard ways their narrators demand.
“Whenever I feel bored, I like to go to bed with a Trollope.”
And now for a week of stories all taken from online sources, and indeed for a slice of unadulterated Victoriana. I was interested to read some Trollope, favourite of that conflicted traditionalist PM who ushered consumerism into Britain, Harold Macmillan - and also of the deluded 'Pooter'-ist John Major, who was unable to reverse any of the changes wrought by Thatcher which had shattered forever that world.
One can well imagine a long-suited commuter in the 1970s or 80s, amid the new urbanism of London or Newcastle finding their limited refuge in this kind of thing, dreaming of England as it was - http://www.newstatesman.com/books/2009/05/england-english-rural-series - hiding from all futures, whilst unknowing creating our very specific one through voting Thatcher.
And indeed this embodies a well-versed, staid Englishness, right from its opening preamble, which is gazetteer-style hymning of various lesser-known places in Devon - locating the story in one of these hidden gems: 'Men and women talk to me on the matter, who have travelled down the line of railway from Exeterto Plymouth, who have spent a fortnight at Torquay, and perhaps made an excursion from Tavistock to the convict prison on Dartmoor. But who knows the glories of Chagford? Who has walked through the parish of Manaton? Who is conversant with Lustleigh Cleeves and Withycombe in the moor? Who has explored Holne Chase? Gentle reader, believe me that you will be rash in contradicting me, unless you have done these things.'
Published in 1861, this is merely ten years after this - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Exhibition - the height of Britain's thrusting, industrial spirit. This might be identified as within what Wiener defined as the gradual turning away from this enterprising spirit into nostalgia, ruralism and spirituality - or towards humanity, as Dickens or Hardy might. London life is that which barely bears speak its name in 'The Parson's Daughter of Oxney Colne'; the unchanging rural life forms its lead character's destiny, whereas the chance of marriage to a city gentleman is held up as a charade - she is above his patronising attempt to mould her in etiquette. The very title locates the story, grounds it in rusticity, the ways of thought and action prevalent in a country village that is in every sense an outpost.
It strikes me as Austenesque in many ways other than just addressing the 'Gentle Reader'; the heroine has some of Fanny Price (Mansfield Park, 1814)'s purity of purpose, contemplating but turning down overtures from men who she ultimately deems unsuitable. The difference is that this short story leaves little doubt that she is to live out the rest of her days as an 'old maid' - there is no pure and apposite union, as with Edmund in Mansfield Park.
This is unusual in my survey for the writer's use of an interested first-person voice which is also omniscient; the 'I' is never located within the action at any point - is always at a remove, but able to catalogue the action at some length. Trollope's prose is hardly economical or concise; the detail is meant to matter, to imbue this rural life with colour - but he fails to do that, compared with Hardy, say. There are cumbersome, long sentences, yet, unlike Dickens, there is little spark or humour to grab you by the lapels. Despite the close proximity of the narrator, the feeling is of detachment; of a conscientious Victorian completing a journal aiming to capture verisimilitude - as he sees it - but actually revealing more about its writer and his society in its fastidiousness and assumption of the stiff-upper-lip.
Whilst I couldn't say I particularly liked this, overall, it does not especially put me off reading a novel of Trollope's; admittedly, he has not arisen to the top of my list as some have, but, being interested in the Victorian era, he is a key part of the literary equation. In its stoical acceptance of a seemingly predestined fate, this story seems to enshrine a rather stolid sort of Englishness thoroughly alien today - anti-metropolitan and insular. Limited village values, writ large; whilst a story of 'Victorian Romance', this is not romance as Flaubert, the Brontes or Hardy would know it. To the modern perspective, the ending is almost perversely anti-romantic, which sets it apart from a lot of the writers Wiener identified as attacking the Industrial Spirit. One can exactly see the appeal to Tories seeking to hide from the present and their own role in burying Trollope's world of thrift, stoicism and practicality - when the countryside was not merely a retreat.
Saturday, 25 April 2009
(Patricia Craig, ed., The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, Oxford University Press, 1990, p.320)
This is drawn from a book of 'English Detective Stories', though the actual detection side of things is minimal; it is a study of crime and in how to build tension. Allingham was the creator of Albert Campion, a detective initially taking off Lord Peter Wimsey, who starred in a long series of novels and shorts (1929-65), including The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), described by John Lennard as a 'great later work'. (Of Modern Dragons and Other Essays on Genre Fiction, Humanities-Ebooks, 2007, p.35) That novel was adapted by the redoubtable Roy Ward Baker in 1956, who at 92 is clearly now one of the last survivors of British cinema as it was. His Tiger didn't even include Campion - relegated in the novel to 'background passivity and observations' - as a character. (Lennard, p.35) This short is likewise missing a detective personality, and works perhaps all the better for that, given the rather grim modernity of it - set in a recognisable contemporary England, in its phase of budding consumerism.
It is all rather Hitchcockian in tone, with a woman in peril, the third in a line of women married by the serial killer, Ronald Frederick Torbay, who had struck previously in the North, engineering a fatal accident. Allingham makes a little of how that crime was reported in the media: they had 'entitled the article with typical northern understatement 'Honeymoon Mishap'.' (p.319) In its low-rent grimness, allied with a sardonic humour, this reminds me a bit of the work of Patrick Hamilton, Ten Rillington Place (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1970), as well as ATV's Thriller anthology series (1973-6), which has several episodes revolving around a similar theme - typically starring an assiduous, eerily smooth Michael Jayston adopting guises to disguise a series of killings. Very British in its focus on mundanity and terror; awful things happening behind an impeccable front of respectability.
There is a wealth of detail here - not forensic, but poetic in its effect. Torbay, his own name redolent of English coastal dreams, is captured superbly: every bit the slightly-behind-the-times casanova, pitching himself as a smooth salesman to this would-be third victim, Edyth. He tellingly first sees her 'sitting alone at a little table under the window' - of that most English places of living death: the seaside hotel. (p.319) He is a low-rent English imitation of the romantic tactics to be found in women's romantic fiction, and a man constantly living up to the promise: 'A New Career in A Town' (David Bowie, Low, 1977). Taking things ever so carefully, feeling himself the master of his destiny: 'He was certain he was infinitely more clever than most human beings but he did not dwell on the fact'. (p.318) He is a pallid, middle-aged chap who considers what he is doing almost in scientific terms: 'It lent his designs upon them a certain pseudo-scientific atmosphere that he found satisfying.' (p.319) He might be placed in the John Reginald Christie mould; Allingham is clearly influenced by real-life criminals in this particular case, but careful not to be specific.
I shall not go too much further, as time is in the essence in writing up what has became a backlog of short-stories! (I am reading one a day fine, but the writing hasn't quite occurred) Allingham's excellent story must be read. Fascinating in its subtle evocation at the end of female empowerment, turning Torbay's and perhaps the prurient reader's expectations on their head. A very interesting female development of the Hitchcockian.
'There is no phenomenon in nature less understood, and about which greater nonsense is written than dreaming.'
(Peter Haining, ed., Great British Tales of Terror: Gothic Stories of Horror and Romance 1765-1840, Penguin, 1973, p.496)
Another tale from the same Haining anthology as the Thackeray, and from the same year. This is notably more melodramatic, less satirical and creates a good deal of tension. Not a great deal to say other than that this is a notable piece of Scottish Gothic, rooted in Edinburgh - progressing to a subjective Hell.
Nice to see some accented dialect captured; this has been relatively rare in my survey; Barstow and Lawrence, obviously, but relatively few others that come to mind. Dialogue such as points the way towards Kelman and the like: 'Weel, weel, ye maun tell him that he mauna keep that engagement at no rate.' (p.504) 'no' rather than 'not', is another example.
Hogg plays with ambiguity and mystery in how he presents the central dream of George, the coach-driver, only being certain that we cannot be certain - and that the whole affair was of course extraordinary. A notable feature is the present narrator, seemingly Hogg himself, declaiming as in the epigraph above; pontification discounting rational explanations for dreams is followed by his telling of George's story.
It is all rather enjoyable; a before-its-time presentation and manipulation of the state of dreaming. Perhaps lacking that extra dimension Poe brings - as in 'The Facts of M. Valdemar' (1845) - but it is a canny old read, foraging almost unknowing into the uncanny.
Wednesday, 22 April 2009
'it appeared that the holy father could not manage the desired prayer.'
(Peter Haining, ed., Gothic Stories of Horror and Romance 1765-1840, Penguin, 1973, p.492)
This is the first of two stories drawn from a Peter Haining curated anthology of 'Gothic Stories of Horror and Romance'. Unsurprisingly, given its moniker, this tale tends towards emphasising the horror side of things.
Thackeray opens with a Gothic flourish which surely even in 1836 had an element of the parodic - presumably deliberate. It is a florid, archetypal setting of the scene that deserves quoting in full:
'It was the hour of the night when there be none stirring save churchyard ghosts - when all doors are closed except the gates of graves, and all eyes shut but the eyes of wicked men.
When there is no sound on the earth except the ticking of the grasshopper, or the croaking of obscene frogs in the pool.
And no light except that of the blinking stars, and the wicked and devilish wills-o'-the-wisp, as they gambol among the marshes and lead good men astray.
When there is nothing moving in heaven except the owl, as he flappeth along lazily; or the magician, as he rideth on his infernal broomstick, whistling through the air like the arrows of a Yorkshire archer.
It was at this hour (namely, at twelve o'clock of the night,) that two things went winging through the black clouds, and holding converse with each other.'
He then breaks with this studiously ominous prose style; there is an almost debunking bathos in his reversion to a duologue remisicent of one of Poe's more philosophical asides: reminding me of 'Mesmeric Revelation' (1844), for example. This dialogue is established between a demon-messenger, Mercurius, and the soul of Sir Rollo, a dead knight in purgatory, whom the demon is supervising, indeed keeping him in line through winding his tail around his neck. The two establish a wager that would enable Rollo to ascend to heaven - if only he can get a living person to save an ave (prayer) for him, given three opportunities. First he tries his niece, who is startled by the visitation 'and of course fainted' (p.486) and when revived refuses to save the ave because the knight goes on to insult her current suitor, Edward. In a move which sums up the freewheeling style of this tale, Thackeray spells the niece Matilda's name in at least three different ways.
Next the pair intrude upon a friar, Father Peter, and his drunken company, who are predictably most amused by the spectacle: 'a person with hoofs, horns and a tail rather distubred the hilarity of the company.' (p.491) As is clear in my epigraph, this inebriated friar is unable to utter a prayer, and indeed is manipulated by Mercurius - who edits the hymnbook - into singing a satirical, anti-Church song:
'My pulpit is an ale-house bench,
Whereon I sit so jolly
A smiling rosy country wench
My saint and patron holy.'
A decided dose of satirical humour is evident throughout this tale, bringing this horror tale perhaps surprisingly into the orbit of WMT's novel, Vanity Fair (1847-8). The third visit is to Rollo's brother, a prior who had entered into a pact with the devil 'never to say a prayer.' The dead knight is by this point unable to contemplate winning the wager, faced with a gloating Mercurius, cutting 'a hundred jokes at the expense of his poor associate.' (p.493)
He enters the room of his brother, a 'wicked and maligant sorcerer', with no hope; as amusingly put by WMT: 'he entered his brother's room more for the five minutes' respite than from any hope of success.' (p.494) Yet, Rollo manages to develop a more wily strategy, taking Father Ignatius into his full confidence and then tricking him into saying the ave, and thus leading to his brother taking his place in hell. Thackeray's vivid tableau at the end includes a memorable description of the miserable Ignatius being dragged downwards by Mercurius towards hell: by his long beard.
This story was enjoyable, much like one of the tales inserted by Dickens within hihumours contemporaneous saga, The Pickwick Papers (1836-7). Thackeray tells a basically moral tale, but invests it with enough diabolic incident and satiric good humour to make it a worthwhile read.
Tuesday, 21 April 2009
"Heart-of-oak. From the peculiar time of your call upon me, I suppose you purposely select stormy weather for your journeys. When the thunder is roaring, you deem it an hour peculiarly favourable for producing impressions favourable to your trade."
(Herman Melville, The Complete Shorter Fiction, Everyman's Library, p.130)
This story takes us back to Tynemouth, as the aforementioned volume was acquired there, whilst retaining Ballardian interest - Moby-Dick was cited by JGB as one of his top ten novels. It also takes us much further back than any other tale so far, and across the 'pond', it being a staggeringly American work, despite being instantly set in the Acroceraunian hills, Albania - and it is worth considering where it accords and differs from current U.S. values.
It treads intriguingly between the melodramatic and the allegorical, perhaps showing that their closeness. Melville's style is well poised between the portentous and the dryly amusing; at times one does not quite know how to take this. In an uncanny pre-echo of the Richard Hughes story discussed a few days ago, there is a stranger who enters a house dripping wet, in the midst of a storm. In contrast to the two fugitives in a contingent setting, here we have a strange, unctuous chap intruding within an unnamed gentleman's abode - going so far as to admonish him!
Rather than being 'Jupiter Tonans' - a metaphor for the thunderous weather - as the householder calls him, this chap claims to be able to guard against the effects of the storm, through offering him a lightning-rod - for money. Melville shows acquaintance with the tactics of capitalism; the constant hyperbole deployed to make the case that he needs this product of science. If indeed it is a product of science... Indeed, 'Tonans' develops some odd, presumably spurious hypotheses not backed up by evidence: "Are you so grossly ignorant as not to know that the height of a six-footer is sufficient to discharge an electric cloud upon him?" (p.132)
The salesman's sense of drama would befit an Irving interpretation in theatrical melodrama - there is a sense of the exaggerated tumult of weather mirroring pyschology present in stagings of Leopold Lewis's The Bells (1871), including of course Irving's most revived role, Mathias, the Burgomaster: "I can make a Gibraltar by a few waves of this wand. Hark, what Himmalayas of concussions!" (p.128) False promises, false dawns, as always offered by Kapital? His wares are never truly tested but the implication is strongly that he is fraudulent in his dealings: "Only one dollar a foot." (p.129)
He constantly shouts "Hark!" during his jerky, distracted speech, marked by Melville with extensive use of hyphens: "Only twenty dollars, dir - a dollar a foot. Hark! - Dreadful! - Will you order? Will you buy? Shall I put down your name? Think of being a heap of charred offal". (p.132) The salesman's tactics are ultimately seen through by the formerly ambiguous householder, who turns out to have the strength of his convictions, being able to cast this charlatan out of his house - almost a Jesus throwing the traders out of the temple moment, with his breaking of the rod: 'I seized it; I snapped it; I dashed it; I trod it'. (p.133) This follows the manipulative trader's descent into violence, following the householder's verbal repudiation and refusal to buy: 'He sprang upon me; his tri-forked thing at my heart'. (p.133) This is a wonderfully melodramatic moment, matching what was on the English stage at the time in its dramatisizing of wrongs being righted; virtue triumphing over evil. The wrongdoer being punished without any compunction, and the comeuppance is depicted in vivid, visual terms.
Melville subverts and problematizes this moral certainty with his last sentence: 'But spite of my treatment, and spite of my dissuasive talk of him to my neighbors, the Lightning-rod man still dwells in the land; still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man.' (p.133) Thus, he avoids glibness and homilies; the moral point might stand in the strict confines of the main action, but Melville indicates things may not be so simple in wider society.
I am aware of interpretations that stress a science v. religion theme; there could be something to that, but I would as much emphasise the anti-consumerism. Rugged Individualism, so crucial a theme in American culture and identity, rears its head too. Whilst the allegorical characters are not particularised, the householder stands as an embodiment of individual self-sufficiency, with faith in god and the sanctity of his home. For good or ill - and the ill tends to predominate, economically, at least - these values have defined America; Obama may mark a turn towards greater collectivism, that remains to be seen. The householder certainly represents the male prospector, taking on the mantle of hardy masculinity: 'And why don't he, man-fashion, use the knocker, instead of making that doleful undertaker's clatter with his fist against the hollow panel?' (p.127) Melville is almost in the DH Lawrence position of not backing the standard political or philosophical horses; this is not simply pigeonholed as a right-wing John Wayne Western, as pro-capitalist or pro-collectivist, but simply pro-individualist in a more abstract sense, ballasted by Christianity. If I knew more about U.S. history of the time, I could probably explain more clearly some of the issues he is responding to. One certainly does imagine, however, the horror-struck invective which he would use to depict the ungainly hybrid of Christianity and commerce in the Union of George W. Bush...
In conclusion, a peculiar tale, a fascinating read; about time I read such a distinctive, vivid writer - not afraid of a bit of the old blood and, indeed, thunder coarsing through the veins.
Monday, 20 April 2009
Hearing of the great writer's death means a change to the schedule, for a day - and Ballard will form the first exception to the 'one story per writer' rule of this site. He will be allocated a second one relatively soon; this I just want to write about briefly, on the spur of the moment as it were.
This story is archetypally Ballard; as Martin Amis said today on Channel 4 News, the style is unmistakable, it could not be anybody else's. Of course, Ballardian has now become an adjective and has had a tremendously productive influence upon music and culture, as detailed at this exceptional site: http://www.ballardian.com/index.php. Crucially, his aim is (the present-tense must be affirmed) to write of the here and now in a way few others have done. He embraces and inhabits the new forms of technology and existence that have marked the post-war world; all the better in order to satirise their effect on humanity in his mischievious yet serene way.
A New Kind of Man, indeed. Here, two contrasting gentlemen are placed in what is obliquely revealed - almost as an afterthought - to be a love triangle; and a bizarre one at that. Their very names sound like East Anglian places - Maxted and Sheringham - and the latter's eccentric obsession is archetypally English but displaced, taken somewhere else entirely. Sheringham is a 'rim, unattractive man, with his pedantry'; he almost appears like a Martin Bryce (of Ever Decreasing Circles) figure, still in Surrey but on different plane - part of a truly modern, radiophonically charged Britain. Skolimowki's The Shout (1978), adapted from Robert Graves's short story, also comes to mind, with its added element of John Hurt as an avant-garde sound engineer, tinkering at the edges - fighting a seemingly losing battle of sounds with sinister force-of-nature, Alan Bates.
Here, Sheringham seems a crank and remains so, but his recordings, truly a labour of love, take on a greater, macabre significance. Suffice it to say that we are talking Delia Derbyshire, Kevin Shields or Basil Kirchin type command of sound - though the use he puts it to is hardly similar. This story, in the way it inhabits technology is light years ahead of the television of its time - Billy Bunter had still got a few years left to run when this was published! Whilst there is a kinship of sorts with Kneale's Quatermass I would imagine that is more in the radiophonic sense rather than any thematic similarity (although it must be said that Kneale's excellent The Stone Tape, BBC2 Christmas Ghost Story, 1972, is a kind of MR James / Ballard meeting). This story was featured in this Resonance FM show, available for MP3 download here and featuring an excellent looking soundtrack: http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2008/09/a-bite-of-stars-a-slug-of-time-and-thou-episode-10/
'Track 12', with its title evoking a forlornly unrecognised CD playing in iTunes, is another superbly twisted, confounding tale from a master whose stature can only grow. Along with Poe, Wilde and Angus Wilson, he has inspired my interest in the short story as a form and I will be surprised - and very pleasantly at that - if anyone's shorts are as consistently great as his are. The Ballardian is embedded in our dreams and nightmares - long may it linger and pollinate.
Sunday, 19 April 2009
'She cancelled the sale of the work of art, and a few days later Deplis learned with a sense of consternation that she had presented it to the municipality of Bergamo, which had gratefully accepted it.'
(The Dragon's Head: Classic English Short Stories, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.176)
The second story of week #4 is from the same volume of stories collected in the 1930s. Munro, better known as 'Saki', was Burmese born, but raised and schooled in England - and this is clearly the work of a cosmopolitan Briton, taking up the baton from Wilde and others. There is a dark humour, cruelty and effortless development of a conceit reminiscent of Wilde and possibly looking forward to early Evelyn Waugh.
This is one of the Clovis Chronicles, and yet not about the aforementioned Clovis at all; it is a bizarre tale told to Clovis by a journalist friend - though it all takes off as a result of an offhand, presumably typical expression of Clovis's irritation at a woman's 'art-jargon': 'She's so fond of talking of certain pictures as "growing on one", as though they were a sort of fungus.' (p.175)
Saki's wonderful conceit - of Henri Deplis gaining money and spending it on some 'harmless extravagances', including getting the tattooist Signor Andreas Pincini to cover his back with 'a glowing representation of the Fall of Icarus' - is utilised to the absurdist and satiric hilt. The framing of the story reminds me, in its truncated, deliberate truculence, of the way 'A Sphinx without a Secret' opens - highest praise from me. Deploying the Wildean trope of a human being a work of art, it unfolds with inexorable black humour, without the sense of socialism Wilde imbues in most of his tales, but much glorying and mocking of aestheticism. In some senses, the style might be said to prefigure Kafka or Orton or shame something with G.K. Chesterton. The world-view is notably bleak, back into line with the first few stories assessed as part of ASSAD, and it is unsurprising that this reminds me of Dahl, as I believe that writer used Saki's conceit for an episode of the TV anthology series, Tales of the Unexpected.
Henri Deplis, 'traveller of commerce', is a perpetually unfortunate native of Luxemburg, buffeted around, unable to move freely around regions or nations. Once the 'work' is ruined, he is kicked out of Italy 'as an undesirable alien' and ends the story as an absurd relic in Paris - and I won't quote it anymore to avoid any more spoilers. Read it! Bizarre, amusing stuff; I certainly look forward to more Saki in future.
(The Dragon's Head: Classic English Short Stories, Oxford University Press, 1988)
'A Night at a Cottage' is almost a textbook example of how to craft a ghost story; very brief, chosen as I am struggling to get back on track with reading and writing about my 'one a day'. There is not a great deal of depth or ceremony about this story; Hughes simply gets on with delivering macabre chills in as few words as possible. The impression is of the narrator having to get the story out of him, placed under some constraints - as perhaps indicated in the way it ends. The extended clauses of the opening sentence establish exactly the sort of Gothic ground being trodden upon: 'On the evening that I am considering I passed by some ten or twenty cosy barns and sheds without finding one to my liking: for Worcestershire lanes are devious and muddy, and it was nearly dark when I found an empty cottage set back from the road in a little bedraggled garden.' (p.38) There has been heavy rain earlier in the day. It is also established that the narrator has recently left Worcester jail, now surfaced possibly as a fugitive - and certainly not wanting to return. (p.39) The ambiguity quite as to the 'various reasons' why our unnamed narrator does not want to return there, is typical of a story that revels in what it omits.
Unsurprisingly, I tend to intepret this Worcestershire as the mythologised Worcs. of Elgar and Rudkin; deepest England, if not entirely as associated with weird fiction as other counties might be. It seems apt to wonder whether the devious lanes include a sign for Pinvin at any stage. In its central motif of the drenched intruder, the story does attain a diabolic power akin to an M.R. James miniature, or a less ceremonious Dennis Wheatley (who I will concede I have never read). The fellow fugitive, the stranger who relates the story of the cottage owner's drowning of himself, turns out to be rather more than he might seem... He is also given a colloquial mode of speech - 'Gho-asts' 'fo-aks' 'hisself' 'childer' 'Drownded' (p.40) - that may have been fairly common in conemporary horror, if one is to go by the satirical horror classic, The Old Dark House (dir. James Whale, 1932), itself adapated from J.B. Priestley's novel Benighted (1927).
I enjoyed the brevity of this; Hughes conjures a limited but potent ghost story that does not waste a word. This is not really one to shake you to the core, but it delivers an agreeable measure of eerieness.
Friday, 17 April 2009
(Edmund Crispin, ed., Best SF: Science Fiction Stories, Faber, 1955)
This story is the last of a week's offerings drawn from my parents' bookcase; written by John Christopher, aka. Samuel Youd, this was selected as his work sounds interesting - disaster fiction, dystopias, ruined earths. He is perhaps most known for his Tripods trilogy, which was dramatised for television by the BBC in 1984-5. It was from a battered old Faber edition of Science Fiction stories that caught my eye on the bookcase - includes others like Wyndham and Bradbury, both of whom I will get around to eventually in this survey.
One is presented with a portentous scenario, which develops along a fairly predictable course - in line with the sort of themes Christopher is reputed to use on his Wikipedia page. In itself, this is not a terrible story, but its disaster is handled with a much more melodramatic flourish than you would find in the work of that measured, intoxicating surrealist JG Ballard. It is more along the lines of Wells, but given a fairly generic treatment. Things start out as recognisably bland, with a couple about to part; a male and a female scientist musing over their respective inventions; Harl with his tube which entails time travel and Ellen with her telepathic concerns - "Your own Project X?" (p.169). The setting is perhaps apposite in its cardboard, standard nature: 'They were walking up through the trees towards a misty sunset' and the parting is handled with a predictably clipped sentimentality. (p.168)
Admittedly, Christopher goes onto convey a fairly intriguing mysterious scenario of a deserted future earth. The equation is squared, as the vanquishing of humanity has been caused by the meddling of Drewitt and Ellen with the very form of humanity "What we are going to do is to change the human race in one sweep." (p.170) This is a standard genre science-fiction trope of scientific boundaries being pushed too far too quickly, and leading to disaster. There is a nice bit of melodrama in how JC resolves the scenario, but it hardly compels like the best classic theatrical melodrama or cinematic horror.
I am making this sound rather threadbare, but there is some low-key purchase to be found in descriptions of a ravaged, deserted Detroit: 'As they went into the city, there were fewer trees, and grass grew only in patches. For quite large stretches the works of man still held an almost undisputed sway. But the houses were shuttered and empty. They advanced to the city centre, and then turned and back-tracked towards the ship.' (p.177)
The whole is competent, efficient, but not particularly inspiring or challenging; I suppose the comparisons with the force of Priest, Poe or Lovecraft's or the inimitable Ballard are bound to count against this modest, if not wholly unengaging effort.
Thursday, 16 April 2009
'no messing about with building societies. That's a stroke of luck.'
(Stan Barstow, The Desperadoes, Corgi Books, 1974, p.45)Chosen as being brief, in contrast to the 71 pages or so that the previous two have comprised. Chosen also as Barstow was another author influential to my dad - particularly the novel, A Kind of Loving (1960), filmed with the redoubtable Alan Bates a few years later.
This is set in the same West Riding town as featured in that novel; presumably either Ossett, where Barstow has spent most of his life, or the larger Wakefield, which is nearby. This is consciously written in what is already an established northern stream of literature by 1961; Billy Liar, Braine, Sillitoe, Storey and Delaney, as well as this author's initial works. Barstow captures a world which consumerism doesn't really seem to intrude, although contemporary mores and laws certainly do.
It is fascinating to read of the couple here being offered the chance to buy a house for £600 outright or pay £150 and take on the burden of a £500 mortgage. UK house prices have risen from an average of £11,288 in 1975 to £156,828 at the end of 2008 (which had fallen 14.7% from the near 184k of a year before!). I would be interested to see whether mean household income has risen x 13 times in the last thirty-three years...
The absurdity of our present-day nation's 'dream' is made clear when one looks at the properties advertised in my area (SR2). The north-east is the poorest region in terms of household income (definitely less than £20000 per household) and yet property prices are exhorbitant; how the market works of course. The media onus on ownership has a lot to answer for, but also people for going along with it and growing excessively attached to sometimes exceedingly small spots of land and temporal bricks and mortar. And the least said about Newcastle city-centre 'studio apartments' (one bedroom boxes) advertised for £140,000 (probably being sold for more than double that a year or two ago)... this whole world is as divorced from reality as Noel Edmonds:
Barstow's prose can be judged as successful in capturing 'a recognisable society', as the back cover claims; the expectations of this couple - an older man having an affair with a young woman possibly even still a teenager, it is implited - are grounded in bathos. The man's age only becomes clear when he is described thus: 'this thin balding figure in the ill-fitting sports coat and creased flannel trousers'. (p.43) There are no illusions; the house is 'no palace', simply a functional base for 'living in sin'.
The moral dimension is ambiguous; Barstow is of course careful not to impose any definite judgement on the characters. It is made clear that the woman who they arrange the mortgage with - in effect, a landlady - will find out at some point. Her adherence to the conservative social views still dominant in a Britain still eight years away from the passing of the Divorce Act, is unclear: 'wondering what change there would be in the woman's brisk friendliness were she to tell her that he had left his wife and they wanted somewhere to live in sin.' (p.44)
'A Lovely View of the Gasworks' sets up a rather tortuous situation for its protagonists, with the unnamed man's wife also seen as likely to intrude. They are full of doubt, yet also a desperate form attachment, the girl displaying a possessiveness one could only form at such a formative age. Things are left tantalisingly up in the air at the end: 'Yes, all our troubles'll be over then' deployed and then echoed with notable irony.
Wednesday, 15 April 2009
(Wolf Mankowitz, Make Me An Offer, Expresso Bongo and other stories, Hutchinson Educational / Unicorn, 1961, p.85)
There are interesting contrasts to be drawn with the Sitwell; this is focused on the urban scene that is used as marker of oddity against which people in staid Newborough are judged. The style is hard-boiled, rather than florid; clearly the cosmopolitan Mankowitz draws influences from all over - Damon Runyon, for example - rather than the aristocratic Sitwell, rooted in English culture. As with Sitwell and his criticisms made of society as it was, Mankowitz is well-qualified to cast an acidic eye on life in the metropole, being very much part of it himself.
The concern with money is universal in the delocalised world; everything is a show, in a way closer to the modern free-market than to the drowning Victorian age depicted by Sitwell. Mankowitz writes from a Jewish and London perspective entirely new to this blog; perhaps tangentially related to Harold Pinter, though clearly leaning more towards depicting the actuality of the characters' activity in The Dumb Waiter than capturing menace. He has an interest in low-life types and a keen perception of how urban life and pop culture was developing, placing them in the same lineage as musical theatre and Hollywood - with the depiction of a has-been mogul important at the end. Judy Garland is a motif, and high culture is seen inextricably linked to the popular; the dyspeptic talent impressario Mr Mayer professes to be an opera fan, who hates the new-fangled sounds - yet he knows where the money is and invests in Bongo: 'Yet from this disc lunacy I make money.' (p.77) The mogul's films, clearly of the Cecil B. deMille variety, are reappraised by the young: 'He was so dead that the long-haired cineastes (who hate live film makers) put three of his pre-accountancy-era movies into a National Film Theatre series.' (p.92)
Mankowitz is good in capturing talk, if hardly a Pinter; he captures the bravado very nicely, and the whole effect is as much to satirise as to mythologise the pop life: 'you are great with the teen-age public just so long as you're one of them.' (p.88) He creates the sense of this important new consumer group, the teenagers, who would not have been existed a decade before; the dress-sense in the Italian coffee bar is all string-ties and velvet-collared coats and pony-tails for the girls. (p.76) Coffee and pizza are clearly relatively new imports too, enjoyed by the band and their initial fanbase - also, the manager enjoys one of London's Chinese restaurants. It is very much the same sort of picture as that conveyed in the Daniel Farson-helmed TV documentary of 1960, Living for Kicks, with the Brighton youth constrained, envious, looking to America for the answers. Indeed, Mankowitz uses a similar TV documentary, Teen-age Rebellion, as a means of showing how Bongo Herbert becomes popular: 'The shots of him beating the life out of Mother and Hoxton in the shape of a pair of midget drums had real power.' (p.82) The same page describes how the documentary featured, along with other 'delinquent types', 'a magistrate, a psychiatrist and the governor of a Boys' Remand Home.' (pp.81-2) I cannot recall whether the Farson programme counterpoints the views of the young with the old or not...
But, those views are perceived as as irrelevant as the treasures uncovered by those combing the sands in 'Low Tide': 'The older generation, with a belly full of wars and post-wars, was too tired from jumping over rising costs and crises to see the worry behind its children's gaiety.' (p.86) Mankowitz is very perceptive on how the older generation - perhaps anyone who did national service and older? - are excluded from this new world. The provinces too, are secondary; reputations are made in 'the Smoke', the capital; 'According to them [booking agents], in the provinces the public didn't watch television or read the newspapers. But the fact of no bookings apart, maybe to let Bongo get lost up North for a few months would be bad business wise.' (p.83) Restrictions are still in place, though, even in London; the 'small-time nude revue off Brewer Street' that the manager attends has a 'tableau vivant' in which, rather absurdly, neither the female artiste nor the horse is permitted to move - by law. The Lord Chamberlain's veto on theatres and other such moves on censorship were still in effect. Ironic perhaps that Cliff Richard stars in the film of Expresso Bongo (1959) - which portrays a cynicism towards censorship as much as towards the pop phenomenon - when ten years later he would be a close ally of Mary Whitehouse in her 'Festival of Light' campaign against filth on television, the stage and in popular culture generally.
The somewhat hypocritical nature of the fanbase is made clear; these are easily manipulated, by a fan-mag which absurdly portrays Bongo as 'giving Mum big play for her golden heart and undying faith' - she is actually more concerned in him becoming a standard breadwinner. Perhaps this is merely intended as a reassurance for the older generation; the teenagers clearly revel in how rebellious Bongo is in the early throes of his success.
I have not yet seen the film of this, but would imagine it would at least be interesting; Val Guest is one of the more durable veterans of British cinema, involved in everything from The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), to The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961; an apparently fine science-fiction film), to Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974) and surely a nadir in British cinema and culture, Cannon and Ball's The Boys in Blue (1982). Fascinatingly, in view of both how Crompton's series developed into the 1960s, he actually directed a 1947 film entitled Just William's Luck, which I had never heard of before: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040503/ This does not appear to be available on DVD, and I can never recall it having been screened on TV in the last ten years.
The book which contains EB is part of a series of 'Unicorn' hardbacks, with a fairly abstract uniform cover design, with a unicorn at its centre. Being Hutchinson Educational, they are clearly intended for fairly intelligent schoolgoers; other Unicorns included The Red Badge of Courage, Huck Finn, The Day of the Triffids, Doctor Syn and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - which certainly reflect a culture in the early-60s that encouraged the questioning of authority, tying into what was going on in pop culture. My parents' edition is ex-library, with due-to-return dates of 26 SEP 1967 and 23 FEB 1972; it is from Bramhall County Grammar School, I gather in or around Stockport, where my parents lived and taught from about 1974-8 (though not at this school). Paul Morley went to a very similar grammar-school, Stockport GS itself (?), around this time; interesting to consider whether he might have read this in the late sixties - I need to read his superb memoir Nothing again soon.
It is very much a moot point whether Mankowitz glamourises his first-person narrator, who is an archetypal pop svengali - though more a manager than a producer. There is an offhand moment of Spector unpleasantness, dished out to his female secretary with singing aspirations which is not editorially commented upon. However, perhaps his fate, outwitted by a Bongo who is clearly intent upon donning the lucrative, though less vital, mantle of the 'all-round entertainer', ending up with nothing is seen as just desserts in his world. What lingers perhaps more in the mind is how he promotes the first record in terms bound to capture a voracious youth: 'Hate him or hug him, Bongo has something that's new, a swaying calypso beat woven around a rock foundatio. Here it is, kids. Bongo, you beasts.' (p.79)
I love those words.'
Mankowitz touches on how important this was becoming; however restrained capitalism was in comparison to the last thirty years we have witnessed, the old drives, suppressed for so long, were returning.* The essential vitality offered by the narrator and by Bongo would clearly have been difficult to resist for the young. The Tom-Tom club's 'yokels from Elephant and Castle', and Bongo with his 'hoarse Hoxton voice' are a deft portrait of young Londoners who have simply had enough of the very limited world offered by the older generation at this stage. Yes, one will get more depth in terms of interpreting language, mores and behaviour by reading the contemporaneous works of Harold Pinter or Angus Wilson, but this is a very prescient early development of the pop narrative - admittedly one that has since been tiresomely overused in films and literature over the last fifty years. Whilst the utter vitality and necessity of pop culture must be stressed, most would acknowledge that it held greater power when in opposition to an established order with values, rather than in league with a capitalism without values - as has been the case since 1984 and the crucial victories of Thatcherism.**
* Martin J. Wiener, in English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit (1981) records the gradual retreat of the British from the sort of urban capitalism, industry and enterprise that had led to Empire and the growth of cities. He fixes upon this as the high watermark of commerce: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Exhibition - and the retreat, whether into ruralist, religious or socialist values is more marked from this point. He uses examples from Dickens and Hardy, as well as the more expected examples of Chesterton, Wilde and Morris, to show how the culture recoiled from what it had done.
Wiener's was an important book in the establishment of Thatcher's monetarist reforms, providing ballast for the case to be made on changing the culture; a copy was distributed to every cabinet member when it was published.
** The articulate cellist Zoe Martlew made the point on Newsnight Review last night (17/04/09) that from 1950-75 we had a funding of classical music youth orchestras which actually compared with the rest of the world - our Local Authority Music Services. This meant free access to tuition and instruments. The Education Reforms of the Tories They were discussing the excellent Venezuelan policy of giving all children (including the poor) a music instrument and subsidising lessons, bringing them into orchestras - resulting in the Sounds Venezuela concerts under review. Portillo, generally making fatuous points on the other topics, made the obvious but pertinent observation that it is 'culturally impossible' for people to be raised in this country by classical music. The urgency, enthusiasm, the training to listen could not be achieved in our current culture, where, as he said, disadvantaged people have no belief in bettering themselves through an artistic education. This is a human right in Socialist Venezuela, and should be everywhere, including Britain. As it stands, classical music is branded as elite; the politicians and educationalists will have nothing to do with it. It is left as the preserve of the pushy, well-to-do middle-classes, who can afford to pay for private tuition; yet one more aspect of our class divided society. Like Martlew, Goldie knows what should be done; like with the youth centres, subsidise; people won't be raised in any other way. And popular music itself will be richer for the interaction and antagonism with the classical. We know it works, it has before.
Tuesday, 14 April 2009
'The Boer War was dreadful, but apart from the revelation of human brutality and degradation offered by the obstinate desire to fight on behalf of their country shown by those brutal, bearded farmers, there had never been really much reason for worry. After all, we were an island, and brute force had never won yet ! And we had the Navy, and our generals too. Of course it was true that there were "cranks" at large in London, "Fabians" who wished to overturn the whole system of civilized society. But one did not hear much of them now at Newborough.'
(Osbert Sitwell, Alive-Alive Oh! and other stories, Pan Books, 1947, p.168)
'Oh I do like to be beside the seaside,
I do like to be beside the sea,
I do like to stroll along the prom, prom, prom
Where the brass bands play
(Music hall song, 1907, by John A. Glover-Kind (1880-1918)
'Low Tide' is described by the author as almost a nouvelle, with the intention of depicting 'a decaying civilisation', and how people and their rituals contribute to this decline. (p.6) It is by his own admission his favourite of the five stories collected in the Pan Book that was on my parents' shelves; a composite drawn from two earlier collections, Triple Fugue and Dumb Animal. It holds particular interest for being a relatively rare piece of fiction set in North Yorkshire; in Scarborough, a seaside resort I have visited a few times, a rather more sedate variant upon its twin on the other coast, Blackpool, with atmospheric castle ruins spread along a cliff-face and Anne Bronte's grave nearby. Sitwell wrote a novel, Before the Bombardment (1926), also set in a thinly-disguised Scarborough, which I will certainly have to read. In his melancholy vision here, the seaside is no comfort even for those who do like to be beside it, as they are caught out of time; this evokes Alan Bennett's superb Sunset Across the Bay (1975), Morrissey's 'Every Day is Like Sunday' (1988) or any number of cataloguers of English maladies.
Sitwell's style is florid and grounded; the prose is pointed in a dexterous, elegant manner. There is an amazing accumulation of detail, with motifs recurring and tallying as the piece develops throughout its well-formed 47 pages. For example, there are telling little asides from the narrator, presumably Sitwell himself here, regarding the North Sea: 'Beyond the garden, as far as the eye could see, rolled what in our childhood we were taught to regard as the "German Ocean"'. (p.149) Born in 1892, Sitwell would have picked this up in the years when the Germanic heritage was emphasised in our royal family. Also, the Boer War is introduced early, to be returned to later, and the seemingly innocuous aside concerning how Panama hats came to be fashionable and retailing at £100 for 'a good one' turns out to be rather important in terms of who their patron was...
Sympathies are evoked, and yet there is nothing ultimately to be mourned in the passing of an age that the author clearly sees to be a dead-end. Victorianism was more clearly over by 1924, when Sitwell wrote this, and British Imperialism was ebbing if not yet dead. The depiction of Scarborough, where OS had spent a lot of his life, is barbed; 'Newborough' is a place of limited horizons, with the populace shown as terse and uncharitable towards the perceived 'odd' sisters, the Misses Fanny and Frederica Cantrell-Cooksey. Whilst initially Sitwell encourages one to feel some empathy with the sisters - nearing sixty and yet dressing in the most extravagant fashion, with feathers 'raped from the osprey', in a typically evocative phrase (p.159) - their 'essential goodness and kindness within' is indeed not clear-cut. (p.146) They are a living embodiment of Victoriana; whilst others still profess the same values, they do not actively live them out in all their contradictions. Both the sisters and the town are implicated in a process of irrefutable decay, edifices, surfaces and certainties splintering as the new century takes root.
The Cantrell-Cookseys were brought up by a curate father, were devoted to him until his death and then with the inheritance bought a lavish red-brick house on the cliff's edge, overlooking the sea. Despite the provincial perception of them as outre, as potentially 'drugged', the irony is that they tend to share the same values as the Newborough townfolk; they are not a breed apart - they are avid churchgoers and share Mrs Sibmarsh's horror of oddity. They have rejected the noise and They are just as insistent on keeping up appearances and all manner of absurd etiquette, only that they have made no accomodation at all with a changing world; they are true believers in a world of doubters: theirs is a 'roseate view of life inherent in those gifted with the Romantic Temperament. In fact they still believed in the Age of Miracles.' (p.145)
The rouge-pot and other cosmetics mark them out as merely extreme exponents of the Victorian veneer; the sisters almost stand as representatives of what the townspeople have turned their back on. They are Victorian exemplars in their love of Wagner and Gilbert and Sullivan (whom even their curate father liked, in the case of The Gondoliers), and represent the showy colour of that age with the 'extreme vividness of their exterior'. (p.146) This is the immediate description of how they appear:
'Mild and timed in bearing, they yet boasted a singular bravery of apparel [...] They were bedizened and a-jingle with little crinkling ornaments, ruby-bars, gold-bangles, slave-bracelets, small watches set with half-pearls hanging from enamelled-brooches shaped like true-lover's knots; they were decked out with little pieces of lace, numerous ribbons and a thousand other joyous trifles.' (p.142)
A fair amount of sympathy is elicited as Sitwell's unnamed narrator describes how they are subtly shunned by the town, yet remain untouchable in their own world, with servants and the never to be realised expectations of entertaining guests. Sitwell builds a thoroughly convincing portrait of the loneliness of these 'Real Aunt Sallies!' as a local old biddy refers to them; a loneliness kept at bay merely through convention and ritual.They are fundamentally out of their time, for vanity's sake refusing to wear glasses despite poor eyesight and therefore appearing all the more out of the ordinary: 'Resultantly, they looked like a pair of music-hall sisters, some popular variety turn of the late seventies, left over from that age but defiant of time - looked as though they had been made up for their entertainment by the green, value-changing gaslight of mid-Victorian times, and after a Rip Van Winkle slumber, had woken to find themselves here [...] in the hard new dawn of a new, rather sinister, century.' (p.143)
'Not by one syllable would either admit that the world had changed.' (p.174)
The story has almost a two-act structure; with the first setting up the background of the sisters and the town, and the second delivering their comeuppance, which becomes redolent of an entire society, too: 'Their eccentricity had turned [...] into the final agonizing pretence that all was as it should be.' (p.182) All of the seeds for their downfall are sewn in the opening act.
The first misfire, which exacerbated the frosty relationship with the townsfolk, was the vanity and absurdity of the sisters giving their ages as 26 and 28 in the census returns - a sign of their distance from reality, a flightiness disdained by the locals: 'By 7.30 the next night every dining-room in the town was discussing this lamentably absurd lapse from verity.' (p.158) Then, most fatally, is their liking for gambling, manifested in Miss Frederica's market speculations, investing in 'South African Mines and other speculative concerns', indeed investing their whole fortune in these, having utter faith in the words and deeds of one Cecil Rhodes - a maverick British imperialist. Sitwell highlights the inability of Miss Frederica to think for herself as a citizen, or of her sister to raise any questions about the wisdom of this gamble; the main factor is that Rhodes' roseate view accords with theirs and that the newspapers are advising them to do so - to 'Think Imperially'. (p.169)
The inevitable failure of the media-promoted 'golden future' in free-market imperialism (which Sitwell could clearly see coming in the 1920s too, and virtually all in Britain were blind too in the last ten years) leads to their decline, a fall in financial and social standing that they attempt to allievate by keeping up appearances, though without servants and with limited funds, their get-up takes on an increasingly faded, grotesque aspect. The whole final passage, detailing the decline, is subtly harrowing and remorseless; carrying a chill appropriate to the north-eastern coastal locale. There is, tellingly, an increased emphasis on the difficulties the sisters face, in a cheap bording-house, living a pauper's existence in all but the garish external face they (increasingly infrequently) show the world. The winter hits hard; both in terms of the actual cold and the metaphysical chill of the out-of-season seaside resort.
It is telling that the only remotely friendly rapport they have is with the vagrant types, who scour the gold sands for stuff washed ashore from the north sea during storms. Others, whom the sisters paid when they had the resources to do so, were quick to abandon them and join the mockers. Following bankruptcy and the repossession of their property, they are granted by relatives a small allowance, to distributed on a fortnightly basis in the form of a bursar - a position volunteered for by 'dear old' Miss Waddington, as an ostentatious show of doing 'good works'; the old lady actively dissaudes any of her circle to attend the absurd 'tea parties' she holds for them before handing them the allowance. In addition, some small-shop owners, whom the Cantrell-Cookseys had liked, start to go to the wall: 'Newborough was altering [...] things were not prospering with the smaller shops.' (p.178)
Overall, this is a compelling tale that lingers, haunting the mind; there is play on memory and the sense of even a fairly recent past being a foreign country - clearly this sort of writing leads productively to such chroniclers of English foibles as L.P. Hartley (whose work covered the East Anglian coast - The Shrimp and the Anemone, 1944, set in Hunstanton), Laurie Lee and Angus Wilson. The vividness of the character portraiture and period details is certainly in line with Wilson's excellent short-stories (of which I have read all - or at least all in Such Darling Dodos, The Wrong Set and A Bit Off the Map, if they be all; tell me if there are more!) of the 1940s and 50s. Sitwell's historical perspective is astute and, perhaps surprisingly for a writer so 'off the map' in current literary terms, very relevant - in terms of what he has to say on the subject of investments.
I will sign off for now by quoting the final passage, which describes the sometimes-drunken men's forlorn findings from stuff washed up on the sands from the northern sea, emphasising that the Victorian age is just as temporal as any other: 'They found that morning a William-and-Mary gold piece; a small chest covered with rusty iron nails and green with age, with nothing in it; a small box, hermetically sealed, of China tea; a straw ship in a glass bottle, and two George IV four-shilling pieces.' (p.184)
Monday, 13 April 2009
'From village to village the miners travel, for a change of cinema, of girl, of pub.'
(D.H. Lawrence, England, My England, Penguin, 1966, p.42)
And finally I get round to reading some DHL, my dad's favourite prose writer (appropriately picked for his birthday), and who was rather in fashion in the 1950s and 60s in literary circles in a way that is simply not the case today; just look at the generally unfavourable reactions on the ILX - I Love Books forum, or the lack of TV literary adaptations, even in comparison to Trollope and Thackeray, let alone Hardy, the Brontes, Gaskell, Dickens or Austen. He is I am sure more read than Galsworthy, Shaw or Bennett, Anthony Powell or Angus Wilson, but not necessarily by that much.
Hardy is probably the closest reference point for me, having recently read Under the Greenwood Tree. Like that oddly upbeat novel, this is a tale of an England beyond Bloomsbury or the metropolitan. It is industrial England as particularly manifested in the Midlands, presumably Lawrence's Nottinghamshire. And it is a new vision we are presented with; the emancipations and profound dislocations wrought by WW1 are being felt here. Lawrence attempts to portray the effects of modernity - or the modern way of being - on a relatively realistic Midlands community. Rather than in the troubled idyll of Hardy's Wessex we are 'in the sordid streets of the great town.' (p.41) Whilst the city is not depicted at length, the mechanised life experienced by the characters is akin to urban life, the mode of existence that spread throughout the twentieth century and still seems to many an ideal.
Lawrence uses an extraordinarily long sentence to open the story, and his quixotic temperament seems to infect the story, with its movement from verbose sentences, myriad clauses setting out the full scope of the tramways' passage, towards shorter, sharper action and dialogue, as the narrative develops.
The community is disparate, forged through the happenstance of work. Whilst DHL professes elsewhere to despise work, making the non-Labourist point that a revolution should banish toil and money forever, the vivid, complicated scenes he sets in motion revolve around a workplace. It would not be a work approved of by William Morris or G.K. Chesterton, perhaps; the dangerous, hardy, racketing passage of the tramways through the Midlands - with generally young men and women making up the workforce, conducting and driving. The men at work on the trams include those too crippled for active service in WW1 and the 'delicate young men, who creep forward in terror.' (p.42)
Lawrence captures the new sorts of people who emerged from Britain's industrial revolution; they seem beyond 'towing the line' in terms of work, as the process of work in this environment is shown to be pretty anarchic - yet they forge their own way and maintain an order of sorts, Annie for example able to 'hold her own against ten thousand.' (p.43) There is a roughness in these characters suggesting Lawrence sees them as forces of nature, as much animal as human, and he does not hesitate to use such metaphors as these: 'Strange wild creatures, they hung on him and rushed at him to bear him down.' 'He lay at last quite still, with face averted, as an animal lies when it is defeated and at the mercy of the captor.' (p.51) And indeed, John Thomas displays an ambiguous, fox-like cunning to emerge from his seeming defeat as a potential victor. (pp.52-4)
Etiquette, manners and social position seem wholly irrelevant in the milieu that DHL establishes; this world exists as it is. The primary concern is about primal interactions between the genders, perhaps loosed, perhaps constrained, by the new industrial age. The work enables John Thomas Raynor to encounter many available females of a young age, yet he is trapped by his profligacy with them; a revenge is plotted and carried out in the climactic passage. Yet this is hardly a simple tale of feminism, expressing a new confidence in women to stand up to their oppressors; it could be read any number of ways: Lawrence is careful to leave things ambiguous and ambivalent. Much depends upon how one views the idea of commitment; JTR embodies the presumed masculine impulse to want women as 'nocturnal presences', whereas Annie wants a deeper relationship rooted in the everyday: 'Here she made a mistake. John Thomas intended to remain a nocturnal presence; he had no idea of becoming an all-round individual to her. When she started to take an intelligent interest in him and his life and character, he sheered off. He hated intelligent interest. And he knew that the only way to stop it was to avoid it. The possessive female was aroused in Annie. So he left her.' (p.46)
I am sure that feminists would take issue, yet Lawrence hardly insists that one takes John's side, although the resolution might make one think this, with the female tram workers hypocritically 'anxious to be off'. (p.54) The overall effect is of a very individual voice making clear his contrarian nature; in its depiction of the battle of the sexes, DHL is intrigued yet impatient for things to improve.
The sense of ownership inherent in marriage is not supported at all, instead subtly derided with the choice that JTR is presented with. DHL insists upon an intrinsic difference between men and women, a 'realism' different from the Bloomsbury privileging of androgyny; 'Lawrence criticized equality as an ideal, but not because he wanted property and power to be distributed unequally. He wanted them abolished or, better, outgrown. For capitalist and patriarchal ideology he had only contempt. For socialist and feminist ideology he had instead fraternal impatience, precisely because they seemed to have no higher end in view than more property and power for their constituencies. The undeniable justice of this demand did not, he believed, make it any less a dead end.' http://www.georgescialabba.net/mtgs/1986/05/a-fool-for-love-dh-lawrence-at.html
As with the previous story surveyed, Google Images does not throw up the cover from the copy I am reading; the sixties Penguin edition of England, My England is a composite image of three photographs from the contemporaneous Granada Television series of adaptations of DHL's short stories - a series my dad remembers as important. Lawrence's 'The Fox' was adapted by Norman J. Warren for a fascinating curio of late-70s horror, Prey (1977). Obviously there were the Ken Russell adaptations, but also less widely noted is the influence on British 'kitchen sink' films, novels and plays of the 1956-63 period; Barstow, Waterhouse, Sillitoe and Storey clearly draw influence from Lawrence's battle of the sexes - women as making the best of life as it is, men dreaming of life outside society. Oddly, 'Tickets, Please' was originally published, three years before collected within E,ME, in the Strand, which would still be publishing Sherlock Holmes for around a decade. This sense of several worlds colliding is what makes the immediate post-WW1 period and the 1920s as fascinating a time as the 1970s.
DHL is perhaps a truly revolutionary writer in the sense that he is attempting to envisage an existence where pecuniary and worldly advantages are not important for men and women. He does not want, or indeed depict, merely incremental change to the existing capitalist system, but tries to shatter it for ever. He does this without imagining a utopian enjoyment of work and fellowship as William Morris does, but through what he perceives as innate natural connections and disjunctions. Forces of nature and self-expression are to supplant the forces of Kapital. Lawrence is perhaps so unfashionable because his idiosyncratic world-view does not fit into either the Labourist or Neo-Liberal paradigms that most in Britain have believed in, post-WW2. A free Communism, an essential non-western anarchism beyond the compromises of society or Kapital? One can see the appeal to a generation coming of age in the 1960s. This is an intriguing story, and makes me want to read more of this very curious writer - Katherine Mansfield's short story has a sophisticated appeal that is clearly more universal today than this in its aestheticism. There is rawness in this, DHL playing with inarticulacy, upon what are perceived as fundamental rather than whimsical differences between the genders.