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Archive for August, 2013

Brown StudyWilliam in Trouble, Richmal Crompton (1927)

Bleeding BlackWatch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns n’ Roses, Stephen Davis (Michael Joseph 2008)

Toxic TailsIn the Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture, Barry Miles (Serpent’s Tail 2011)

Leaf BriefWhat a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses of Your Garden — and Beyond, Daniel Chamovitz (Oneworld 2012) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Electrify Your EyesThe Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body, Frances Ashcroft (Penguin 2013) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of an Armada edition of William in Trouble by Richmal CromptonWilliam in Trouble, Richmal Crompton (1927)

This may be my favourite William book, which means that it’s very good. Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) had ambitions to be a serious adult writer, but I doubt her books for adults can be as good as her books for children. Which are books for adults too and may even be informed by the classics she studied at university. My theory is that the Outlaws represent the four Greek humours: the gang consists of William Brown and his three chief friends, Ginger, Henry, and Douglas. William is choleric, Ginger sanguine, Henry phlegmatic and Douglas melancholic. Their names seem to reflect this: choleric literally means “bilious” and bile is brown like William’s surname; sanguine literally means “bloody” and Ginger has red hair; melancholic literally means “black-biled” and Douglas is from the Gaelic Dubhghlas, meaning “dark river”:

“We can’t fight him — not if he’s grown-up,” said Douglas gloomily. Douglas was always something of a pessimist. (ch. 10, “William to the Rescue”)

But the Outlaws are also miniature satyrs, lordlings of misrule who introduce chaos into the orderliness and calm of what J.G. Ballard, a fan of the series, called a “curiously empty middle-class world”. I don’t think the emptiness of the world is deliberate: Crompton just doesn’t seem interested in topography and architecture. The homes of William and his friends, the old barn they use as a headquarters, the countryside they roam, the church they reluctantly attend, the shops and high street in their village — they’re just settings for what really interests her: children and their psychology. This, from the slightly earlier More William (1922), is an excellent piece of prose and observation, capturing the fearlessness and skills of early childhood:

He [William] was getting jolly hungry. It must be after lunch-time. But it would spoil it all to go home too early. Here he caught sight of a minute figure regarding him with a steady gaze and holding a paper bag in one hand. William stared down at him.

“Wot you dressed up like that for?” said the apparition, with a touch of scorn in his voice.

William looked down at his sacred uniform and scowled. “I’m a scout,” he said loftily.

“’Cout?” repeated the apparition, with an air of polite boredom. “Wot’s your name?”

“William.”

“Mine’s Thomas. Will you catch me a wopse? Look at my wopses!”

He opened the bag slightly and William caught sight of a crowd of wasps buzzing about inside the bag.

“Want more,” demanded the infant. “Want lots more. Look. Snells!”

He brought out a handful of snails from a miniature pocket, and put them on the ground.

“Watch ’em put their horns out! Watch ’em walk. Look! They’re walkin’. They’re walkin’.”

His voice was a scream of ecstasy. He took them up and returned them to their pocket. From another he drew out a wriggling mass.

“Wood-lice!” he explained, casually. “Got worms in ’nother pocket.”

He returned the wood-lice to his pocket except one, which he held between a finger and thumb laid thoughtfully against his lip. “Want wopses now. You get ’em for me.”

William roused himself from his bewilderment.

“How — how do you catch ’em?” he said.

“Wings,” replied Thomas. “Get hold of their wings an’ they don’t sting. Sometimes they do, though,” he added casually. “Then your hands go big.”

A wasp settled near him, and very neatly the young naturalist picked him up and put him in his paper prison.

“Now you get one,” he ordered William.

William determined not to be outshone by this minute but dauntless stranger. As a wasp obligingly settled on a flower near him, he put out his hand, only to withdraw it with a yell of pain and apply it to his mouth.

“Oo—ou!” he said. “Crumbs!”

Thomas emitted a peal of laughter.

“You stung?” he said. “Did it sting you? Funny!”

William’s expression of rage and pain was exquisite to him. (More William, ch. IX)

William isn’t always triumphant in the series, you see, and in one story (“April Fool’s Day”, I think) he’s even humiliated by a much less formidable figure than Thomas. Crompton doesn’t write a lot about the sadism of childhood, but it’s there all the same, as that extract shows, along with the irrationality, superstition, and love of noise and excitement. William supplies a lot of all those, particularly the last two, being the ugly, dirty, disruptive opposite of his calm mother and beautiful sister Ellen. In “William and the Fairy Daffodil”, the second story in this book, he’s an unauthorized addition to a play being performed by a girls’ school. The audience is shocked and disturbed by a “curious apparition” in “yellow butter muslin”, which delivers its misremembered lines, then sits down, “stern, bored and contemptuous”, until:

…a light as at some happy memory came into its face. It pulled up the butter muslin to its waist, revealing muddy boots, muddy legs and muddy trousers, plunged its hand into its pocket and brought out a nut, which it proceeded to crack with much facial contortion and bared teeth.

William’s mother is in the audience to witness the spectacle, as members of his family so often and improbably are when he breaks the rules. The embarrassment he causes them is always an important part of the stories. So are his chivalry and wayward but strong sense of honour. That’s how Violet Elizabeth Bott, his lisping, iron-willed, six-year-old female admirer, manages to control him and the other Outlaws. She’s not at her best in William in Trouble, but does utter her famous catchphrase when forcing the Outlaws to admit her to the staff of the paper they’ve set up:

Violet Elizabeth dried her tears. She saw that they were useless and she did not believe in wasting her effects.

“All right,” she said calmly. “I’ll thcream then. I’ll thcream, an’ thcream, an’ thcream till I’m thick.”

More than once William had seen the small but redoubtable lady fulfil this threat quite literally. He watched her with fearsome awe. Violet Elizabeth with a look of fiendish determination on her angelic face opened her small mouth.

“’Sall right,” said William brokenly. “Come on — write if you want to.”

The domineering William much prefers the demure and dimpled Joan, who’s happy to let him control events. “The Mammoth Circus” he arranges to welcome her home in this book succeeds in introducing more chaos into the adult world. He hides its star performers in the apparently empty Rose Mount School and they end up driving out the foolish and credulous women who have flocked there to a convention of the Society for the Study of Psychical Philosophy.

Crompton often uses William like that to deflate pretentious, superstitious and self-important adults. Later in the book he’s mistaken for a musical prodigy and produces a “Bacchanalian riot of inharmonious sounds” on the Vicarage piano, which the wives of the vicar and squire compete to praise. Bacchanalian is the mot juste: the eternally youthful William, eleven both when the series began in 1921 and when it ended in 1970, introduces the drunkenness of the irrational and unplanned into middle-class adult sobriety, as some of Saki’s anti-heroes do. Crompton doesn’t have all of Saki’s subtlety or much of his malice, but in her way she’s rebelling against the same conformity and rigidity, while recognizing that rebellion has its own flaws.

She’s one up on Saki in having an excellent illustrator, Thomas Henry, who enhances her books as Tenniel did for Lewis Carroll’s or Quentin Blake did for J.P. Martin’s. Henry obviously enjoyed portraying the ugly, stocky, shockheaded William and although the pictures here aren’t the best I’ve seen by him, one is a classic: William on stage as Fairy Daffodil, confronting the dainty Fairy Bluebell:

“It’s not my turn,” he hissed. “I’ve just spoke.”

That’s William in trouble again.

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Front cover of Watch You Bleed by Stephen DavisWatch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns n’ Roses, Stephen Davis (Michael Joseph 2008)

The back cover calls the book “AN EPIC TALE OF EXCESS, DEBAUCHERY, ADDICTION, PARANOIA, MANIA AND GREAT F**KING MUSIC”. It gets five out of six right. Stephen Davis is also the author of the Led-Zeppography Hammer of the Gods, first published in 1985. Since then, his writing has got better and his subjects have got worse. I don’t like Led Zeppelin much and I don’t think Robert Plant is a very good singer. But Led Zep sound good set beside Guns n’ Roses. They sound subtle too. A few of GNR’s songs start well. I forget what happens to them after that. As for “November Rain”… Sheesh. It’s so wrong on so few levels that it’s probably prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Yes, you understand American foreign policy better after hearing – and watching – what GNR do to rock music:

Niven cautions that Guns didn’t think Spinal Tap was funny. (ch. 6, “The Big Guns n’ Roses Adventure”, pg. 159)

But the main explanation for what’s wrong with GNR isn’t that they found success while based in Los Angeles. That isn’t fatal for a band. Mötley Crüe did too, but they are entertainingly cartoonish. GNR are obnoxiously cartoonish. No, the main explanation for what’s wrong with GNR is simple: W. Axl Rose. Davis holds his nose – hard – and takes the lid off the kid from Lafayette, Indiana. Racism, sexism, homophobia, killing small dogs – it’s all here in unflinching detail. But Axl has a bad side too. And the cycling shorts are by no means the worst of it. There’s also the plagiarism:

Then something crucial happened. Photographer Robert John took Axl to see a group he was shooting: Shark Island, the house band at Gazzari’s on the Strip. Shark Island was supposed to be a great metal band, but they were too fond of melodies, plus their hair was all wrong, and so they would never break out of the L.A. metal circuit. But Richard Black, Shark Island’s lead singer, was a charismatic front man with killer stage moves, the kind of small-venue choreography that could make a packed club break out in a communal, drenching sweat and get the joint rocking on its foundations. Axl watched Richard Black with total fascination and then proceeded to appropriate his act. …

According to Robert John, “In Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns, Axl jumped straight up and down, holding onto the mike stand for balance. Axl later admitted he’d got the whole snake move, that S-curve, from Richard. He once told me that he even wanted Richard to somehow get credit for this. Most of Axl’s moves” – the headlong run across the stage, the furious stomp, holding the mike stand straight out with both hands, the blatantly sexual snake dance – “that’s all Richard Black.” (ch. 4, “The Treacherous Journey”, pp. 60-1)

In a better world, Shark Island might have had the big success and GNR the bit-part in their four-hundred-page biography. But success would probably have corrupted Shark Island too and swollen Richard Black’s head. Still, it’s impossible to believe that they would ever have become as bloated and excessive as GNR or that Black could ever have out-assholed Axl. GNR are one of the Big Three among the bands that I hate. The other two are The Clash and Oasis. But GNR are odious in a more entertaining way than those two. I can’t imagine even picking up a biography of The Clash. And if I ever try a biography of Oasis, it will be strictly out of primatological interest. This, on the other hand, is a readable book about risible people. I couldn’t read all of it, but it’s hard to believe Stephen Davis doesn’t sometimes feel the same about the people:

One time, after [Bret] Michael [of Poison] had slagged Guns, Axl confronted Poison backstage and told them, to their face, that they sucked. Bobby Dall, whose band already had a record deal, replied: “Maybe fucking so – but you gotta suck, sometimes, to make it in this business – and you guys will never make it at all.”

This stuck in Axl’s craw. Sucking was against everything W. Axl Rose believed in. (ch. 3, “The Treacherous Journey”, pp. 74-5)

That’s funny and I hope that Davis meant it to be. But the joke wears thin well before the end of this book. Okay, three of the band – Axl, Slash and Duff McKagan – looked good for a bit, early on, but the best thing GNR ever did was inspire this article in The Guardian:

Minute five: Is mainly taken up with Slash being a rock god. For those readers who are unfamiliar with this song – which is possibly a criminal act, may I add – you know when Regina Spektor sings “The solo’s real long, but it’s a pretty song” in “On the Radio”? This is the solo she means.

A helicopter flies around Slash, giving us rockgodness from all angles, although possibly putting his cigarette out in the process, which is not a bad thing, as it will kill you.

Smoking, I mean, not guitar solos. Although if any guitar solo could kill, it would be this one. You can tell Slash is a rock god because his stance is so wide he is almost doing the splits. (Read on: Guns N’ Roses – November Rain)


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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Front cover of In the Seventies by Barry MilesIn the Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture, Barry Miles (Serpent’s Tail 2011)

This book needs an ad break. Barry Miles didn’t have adventures: he made ventures. And pretty dull ones. Which is disappointing, when you consider that Serpent’s Tail have previously published counter-cultural colossi like Stewart Home (Thighway to Mel: Six Years, Eleven Months and Eighteen Days as a Terrified, Traumatized and Tearful Toy-Boy Tonguing the Tepid and Toxic Tvotzke of Top Social Conservative Melanie Phillips), radical researchers like Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (Doubled Slaughter: Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust in the Music(k) of Simon and Garfunkel, 1965-2010) and visceral visionaries like David M. Mitchell (A Sustainable Future: Fourth Annual Report to the Welsh Parliament on Renewable Energy Resources). But Miles isn’t a key/core component of any of those communities, i.e., he’s not a counter-cultural colossus, a radical researcher or a visceral visionary. Serpent’s Tail have been a bit dishonest too. The Clash are prominent on the front cover and are named first as “Legends of the Decade” on the back cover. But they don’t get a lot of space inside and Barry Miles doesn’t make them look very good:

I saw them a lot, at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, the Roxy in Covent Garden, in recording studios and rehearsal rooms. They never seemed to have any money. I was struck by the fact that after they played three sell-out nights at the Rainbow Theatre, I saw Bernie Rhodes pull away in a car with personalized number plates reading CLA5H, while Mick Jones was waiting for a bus outside. … Joe [Strummer] certainly went along with the posing and pouting – none of the other punk bands came anywhere near the Clash in terms of [where’s an Ex-term-in-ator! when you need one?] adopting classic rock ’n’ roll poses as soon as a photographer removed their lens cap, and the music rags were happy to print the pictures of the Clash looking moody in front of burnt-out buildings, in front of bare brick walls, the Clash in camouflage fatigues in Northern Ireland, the Clash posing in the same way that all of the pop groups of the sixties posed, in fact. Never a smile; they were masters of the moody profile, particularly Paul Simonon, who became a real pin-up in punk circles.

It paid off eventually, of course, and they went on to become one of the most successful bands of the era, a seventies equivalent of the Rolling Stones, until Joe took Bernie’s advice and sacked Mick Jones. With the only musically talented member of the band gone, the Clash degenerated into a parody of its old self and folded. (ch. 15, “1976: Punk”, pp. 229-30)

That The Clash ever degenerated is news to me. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible. Miles does say good things about The Damned and The Ramones – “I particularly liked the Damned because they injected humour into punk, something sadly lacking with bands like the Clash” (pg. 232) – but they get less space than The Clash, unfortunately. So do Paul McCartney and Patti Smith, also “Legends” on the back cover. Little space for Patti Smith is fine by me. None at all would have been even better. As for Ian Dury: he’s on the back cover but doesn’t seem to appear at all in the book. He’s not in the index and I didn’t come across him as I read. I could easily have missed him, because I skipped a lot, but it looks as though Serpent’s Tail promised something and didn’t deliver. In Ian Dury’s case, I’m not complaining.

However, I’m definitely dubious about this bit, where Miles describes a robbery he suffered while living in New York:

Inevitably, given where we lived, it was not long before we were robbed. One day we came back from the A&P supermarket at 8:30 in the evening, walked up the stairs to apartment 4C and, just as I was fiddling with the key, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked round to see the stubby barrel of a handgun held by a large black man. His partner was holding Ann [Buchanan, Miles’ girlfriend] against the wall at knifepoint. (ch. 4, “1970: Chelsea Days, pg. 61)

That was disturbing to read. I mean, is the so-called race of a so-called criminal ever relevant? And why does Miles have to say that he was “very scared” that “they might rape Ann”? That’s pandering to a vicious stereotype about blacks. Okay, it’s an accurate stereotype, but what does accuracy matter? Just because blacks commit a heck of a lot of violent crime doesn’t mean people should say that they do. If we stopped saying it long enough, perhaps they’d stop doing it for a bit. Or stop enjoying it so much. It seems unlikely, but it’s worth a try, surely. They’re driven to it by racism and injustice anyway. What else could it be?

But the black robber doesn’t get a lot of space either. No, Miles writes most about working as a kind of secretary-cum-archivist for Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. This is where the dullness really kicks in. Or nods off. I don’t like the writing of Ginsberg or Burroughs and their eccentric behaviour and lives – sorry, lifestyles – don’t do anything for me either. But if you’d like to hear about Allen’s long phone-calls to New York from the countryside and about how Bill’s flat in London got cold in the evenings because that’s when the storage-heaters stopped working, go ahead and make your own day.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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Hawt’ in the ActWhatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey, Wes Butters (Tomahawk Press 2010)

Lez ReddThe Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson, Louis Barfe (Atlantic Books 2012)

Fetch and CarryThe Surfrider, compiled by Jack Pollard (K.G. Murray 1963)

Bri’ on the SkyWonders of the Solar System, Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (Collins 2010) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Playing on the NervesIn A Glass Darkly, Sheridan Le Fanu (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Whatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey by Wes ButtersWhatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey, Wes Butters (Tomahawk Press 2010)

Food was rationed during the war, so Britons couldn’t eat to excess. This is supposed to have made them very healthy. Something similar may apply to Charles Hawtrey and the Carry On films. You look forward to his appearances and savour them while they last, because they’re often very brief. He was rationed, so he couldn’t act to excess. That’s part of why Hawtrey is my favourite Carry On actor. He didn’t have Kenneth Williams’ talent or range, but he spent much less time on-screen and couldn’t outstay his welcome.

He didn’t have Williams’ desire to chronicle his own life either, so he left no diaries or long letters. In this biography Wes Butters has to rely on what Hawtrey left on screen and in newspaper archives and the memories of his fellow actors. Hawtrey was carefree and sociable on screen, so his “Oh, hello!” catchphrase delighted pantomime audiences – if he was sober enough to ration it. But off screen and off stage he lived up to the stereotype of the miserable funnyman. He centred his life on his mother and his cat, then on the bottle. After his mother died, he used her name as another way to keep the world at a distance:

Dear Mr. Alan Coles,

Thank you for your letter addressed to Mr. Charles Hawtrey.

Mr. Hawtrey is no longer available, his whereabouts are private, and no letters are forwarded to him.

Yours truly,

Alice Dunne. (ch. 11, “The Deal Years”, pg. 232)

Butters notes that the signature is in Hawtrey’s handwriting and that the letter is typed on the same machine “used for all those begging letters stored in the BBC’s Written Archive” (pg. 233). Hawtrey was begging for work in his early years, even though he appeared “pretty much weekly on their radio network” (ch. 6, “Desperate Times”, pg. 104). Perhaps he was trying to prove to the world that he existed. But acting, like alcohol, was no cure for his existential ills. Ernest Maxin, a television producer who worked with Hawtrey during the 1960s, says that:

I always felt very sorry for him, he was a very lonely man and odd in type. He was rather like a character that you read about in a comic, a drawing rather than a real person. I always felt that when I was speaking with him, with Hattie [Jacques] and Bernard [Bresslaw] I was speaking with real people, but with Charles it was more like a Disney character. … The only time I saw him walking was on the set! It was spooky in a way. I honestly don’t think there was a real Charles Hawtrey. (ch. 8, “Carry On Charlie”, pg. 155)

Maxin notes this elusiveness elsewhere in the book:

You never saw him go or arrive [on set]! It was amazing. You’d get in for early morning rehearsals … and he’d just appear like a ghost! Same too when he left, he’d never say goodbye. … After we did Best of Friends I often used to ask people if they’d seen Charles but no, and the strange thing is nobody ever spoke about him. It was almost as though he wasn’t a real person. (ch. 7, “On the Up”, pg. 131)

Other people thought the same:

Spencer K. Gibbons: We never ever saw him sign an autograph. I never saw him come out of the theatre. It was as if he disappeared, by magic! (ch. 10, “Drink! Drink! Drink!”, pg. 215)

So Hawtrey was both unhappy and elusive. He was also part of a famously English film-series. It’s no surprise that Manchester’s Most Miserabilist Messiah was a fan:

The normally publicity-shy Morrissey would go on to eulogise Hawtrey in the NME [New Musical Express] as “the very last comic genius. [He was] sixty per cent of Carry On’s appeal. By never giving interviews and, by all accounts, being unfriendly and friendless, Hawtrey’s mystique surpasses Garbo. I personally loved him.” (ch. 12, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, pg. 239)

It’s part of Smithology that Morrissey wanted to sing with Hawtrey, who had made records himself before the war. But Hawtrey never replied to his letter, so Mozza turned to Sandy Shaw instead. It helped revive her career and it might have done the same for Hawtrey’s. Or perhaps it was beyond revival by then. On film, it had stretched from silence to smut. He was born in 1914 and first appeared as a “waif and stray” in Tell Your Children in 1922. Five decades and a world war later, he was appearing in Zeta One (1969), a “soft-core pornographic tale” about a “race of topless, large-breasted women from the planet Angvia” (ch. 9, “Death in Hounslow”, pg. 185).

In between, he’d had hopes of higher things: he had known Laurence Olivier, Errol Flynn and Charles Laughton. But he was never able to match their success. And he resented it: like Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, he disliked what had brought him most success and popularity, the fey and unthreatening character who appears under various names in the Carry On films. My favourite variations on his theme are Seneca in Carry On Cleo (1964), Big Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), the Duke de Pommefrite in Carry On – Don’t Lose Your Head (1966), Captain Le Pice in Follow That Camel (1967), Private Jimmy Widdle in Carry On… Up the Khyber (1968), Charlie Muggins in Carry On Camping (1969), Tonka in Carry On Up the Jungle (1970) and Eustace Tuttle in Carry On Abroad (1972), his last film in the series.

He acted in twenty-three of the thirty Carry On films that appeared during his lifetime. Loyal to the series, he didn’t publicly express his bitterness at how little he earnt or at the typecasting he thought he’d endured:

Let’s face it, the Carry On films aren’t like ordinary films. They’re an institution, a corner of comedy that will be forever England! [They] haven’t made me rich, but they’ve given me a world-wide identity. (ch. 1, “The Death of Charles Hawtrey”, pg. 27)

He was right: they didn’t make him rich. Wes Butters says he earnt “£46,000” from the films and the TV specials that accompanied them. It’s little enough for the pleasure he brought to millions and continues to bring. You can re-live some of that pleasure in the stills and lobby-cards reproduced here. Hawtrey played sunny characters but didn’t live a sunny life:

Sir Laurence Olivier: I was coming down the Pinewood road [and] I saw this pathetic figure in an old mac, with two brown carrier bags struggling along the road, and I was sure I knew him. So I lowered the window and called out, “Isn’t it Charles Hawtrey?” and the figure looked up and said, “Oh, yes, Sir Laurence.” So I said, “Come in and I’ll give you a lift.” He told me he struggles along that road every day, getting the Tube from Uxbridge, to film the Carry On pictures which must make a lot of money. Surely they’d provide a motor-car for him? (ch. 9, “Death in Hounslow”, pg. 193)

No, they didn’t, but they did make him a famous face, if not a famous name. His last film was The Princess and the Pea in 1979, his last appearance in the children’s television series Supergran in 1987. He spent his retirement by the sea in Deal on the Kentish coast, hiring rentboys, being rude to local residents and pursuing “Drink! Drink! Drink!” He and his unhappiness are gone, but his comic creations shine on.

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Front cover of The Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson by Louis BarfeThe Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson, Louis Barfe (Atlantic Books 2012)

I don’t like TV and would be happy never to see it again. But I can’t deny that it’s introduced me to some good things. One of them is the humour of the Mancunian comic Les Dawson (1934-93). This biography is pedestrian and occasionally PC, but it’s a good introduction to Dawson’s life and career. One notable thing about that career is that the politically correct don’t have to wring their hands much over it. Dawson’s motto was “Be Nice”. The main source of his humour was himself, his short, fat physique and his alleged difficulties with life. Other comics constantly joked about race in the 1960s and ’70s, but Dawson avoided the topic on TV series like Lez Sez and only occasionally sinned by being homophobic. Unlike his fellow Mancunian Bernard Manning, he never told jokes that began: “A nigger, a paki and a poof walked into a bar…”

And when Dawson told jokes about his mother-in-law, he did so with her full approval, according to Barfe. This was his routine when he appeared with Shirley Bassey in 1979:

DAWSON: Well, I’m glad you noticed that I’m not my usual ebullient self. I never slept a wink last night, Shirley. I kept getting this hideous recurrent nightmare that the mother-in-law was chasing me with a crocodile down the banks of the Nile. I was wearing nothing but a pith helmet and Gannex spats. I could smell the hot rancid breath on the back of my neck. I could hear those great jaws snapping in anger. I could almost see those great yellow eyes full of primeval hate devouring me.

BASSEY: That’s terrible.

DAWSON: That’s nothing. Wait till I tell you about the crocodile. (ch. 5, “Farewell to Leeds”, pg. 182, Shirley Bassey, series 2 show 4, tx 10th November 1979)

It makes me laugh even in print. The routine is also a good example of Dawson’s mock-erudite style, which is another difference between him and his rival Manning. Dawson didn’t lift other people’s material either. He didn’t have to, because he was intelligent and inventive enough to create his own. He had his influences – the phantasmagoric Beachcomber, for example – but his humour was unique and no-one has ever replaced him.
Front cover of Les Dawson's Lancashire by Les Dawson
Another important influence on him was his home-county. His book Les Dawson’s Lancashire (1984) is a good introduction both to the reality and to his surreal humour. And he found an illustrator worthy of his inventions: John Ireland. Lancashire also inspired his famous drag double-act with Roy Barraclough, the gossiping Mrs Cissie Braithwaite, played by Barraclough, and Mrs Ada Shufflebotham, played by Dawson:

CISSIE: Leonard and I went to Greece last year.

ADA: Oh, Bert and I have been to Greece, with Wallace Arnold’s Sunkissed Package Holiday and Inter-Continental Tours.

CISSIE: Oh, really? Did you have the shish kebabs?

ADA: From the moment we arrived. All down that side.

CISSIE: Did you see the Acropolis?

ADA: See it? We were never off it. Our Bert were bent double. He’s not been right for years, you know. There’s no Vaseline over there you know. (ch. 5, “Farewell to Leeds”, pg. 174, The Dawson Watch, series 1, 2nd March 1979)

Part of the joke was that Dawson used his normal voice for Ada, despite wearing woman’s clothes and hitching occasionally at a roaming breast. But Ada doesn’t just speak Lanky: she unspeaks it too. The two women are supposed to be former mill-girls, which means that they had learnt to lip-read amid the din of the looms. So Ada will occasionally mouth her gossip rather than say it. This is funny whether or not you know the character’s background, but knowing it enriches the humour. That’s part of what makes this book valuable: the more you know about Dawson, the more you appreciate his comic skill. He was a highly intelligent and knowledgeable man and though he won a mass audience, his comedy reflected his intelligence and his wide interests.

He wrote books too, but Les Dawson’s Lancashire is the only one I remember clearly. There’s a photograph here of Dawson in what’s called his “book-lined study”, but the books visible are cheap bestsellers (including Child of the Sun, a novel about the scandalous cross-dressing Emperor Heliogabalus). If Dawson had been taller and slimmer, or had received an education worthy of his intelligence, he might never have become a comedian. And if he had, he might not have been as good. This biography can’t prove how good he was, but it does make you appreciate him better on screen and in print.

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Front cover of The Surfrider compiled by Jack Pollard
The Surfrider, compiled by Jack Pollard (K.G. Murray 1963)

On land it’s skiing; in the air it’s gliding; at sea it’s surfing. What is it? The most elegant and elemental sport. Using the simplest of equipment, man creates speed and grace from some basic aspect of nature: snow, air, water. Surfing has something in common with both skiing and gliding. Like skiing, you need good balance and coordination; like gliding, you need quick and sure reactions to an ever-changing medium. Like gliding too, but unlike skiing, surfing is ultimately powered by the sun. In theory, you could ski on Pluto, because all you need is a slope and a coating of snow. Gravity will do the rest. But the wind that carries a glider also creates the waves that carry a surfer. That idea of being carried is part of the joy of both surfing and gliding. We usually have to carry ourselves or exploit an animal or machine. In surfing and gliding, by applying a little ingenuity and skill, you get a free ride at high speed. Surfing is really brain against brawn: the brain of the surfer against the brawn of the sea.

But human brawn may be required to set that confrontation up: you have to carry your board and paddle out to catch a wave. Being small or slender is a disadvantage in big-wave surfing too. It’s not a fatal one, but being timid, unlucky or unskilful can be: “Every big wave rider can tell you of his narrow escapes from death,” writes the Australian surfer Bob Pike in his chapter of this compilation from 1963. Perhaps in the end he wished he had died while surfing. The book contains more now than when it was originally published, because everyone in it, however young and casually athletic then, is either old or dead now. Great athletes, and the best surfers are definitely great athletes, do not enjoy long careers by sedentary standards. Bob Pike, a world champion in 1962, committed suicide in 1999, after an injury had stopped him surfing. He looks like a surf-god in one of the black-and-white photos here, calmly riding a huge but glassy wave at such speed that his board is hydroplaning, or lifting partly free of the water. But he was mortal rather than divine and moments like that were one day only memories.

I don’t believe he really wrote the chapter credited to him either, because it’s too professionally crisp. But he must have approved it and he did indeed think that “Competitions are all against the spirit of surf-riding, which is supposed to be a communion with nature rather than a hectic chase for points.” Another chapter of the book, Jon Donohoe’s “Your Body is Enough”, suggests that the communion is even closer in body-surfing, which doesn’t use a board. But I’d say that the board is an essential part of what makes surfing so compelling. A board is simple but allows human beings to do something spectacular. Penguins and seals body-surf, after all, but no animal can ride on water the way humans can. The board is even attractive as an object in its own right, an elegant shape for a chaotic medium.

But the chaos of water has its own elegance and its own regularities, and one of the most interesting chapters is Jack Mayes’ “How Waves Are Formed”. For example, did you know that the power and height of waves depend on their “fetch”? That’s the distance they travel before they reach the shallow water near land. The further they travel, the bigger they are at the end. This explains why islands like Hawaii and Tahiti, isolated in the vast Pacific, have some of the world’s biggest waves. Big waves display the ocean’s grandeur and beauty, but there’s something sinister in this chapter too. Doubly so. The rip-currents created by water rushing back out to sea threaten incautious surfers not only with drowning, but with dentition too. One kind of rip-current “sometimes contains sharks”. To surf, you generally have to confront the sea and the sea is a dangerous place. But, like its grandeur and beauty, the sea’s danger has an essential place in surfing: Pike’s chapter is called “With Your Whole Heart Jumping”. Colour photography and videos are available nowadays to help you understand why so many people give their hearts to surfing, but this simple black-and-white book from the early 1960s is more than enough.

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