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Archive for May, 2014

Plates from the GreatShots from the Front: The British Soldier 1914-18, Richard Holmes (HarperPress 2008; paperback 2010)

Math for the MistressA Mathematician’s Apology, G.H. Hardy (1940)

Sinister SinemaScalarama: A Celebration of Subterranean Cinema at Its Sleazy, Slimy and Sinister Best, ed. Norman Foreman, B.A. (TransVisceral Books 2015)

Rick PickingsLost, Stolen or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature, Rick Gekoski (Profile Books 2013/2014)

Slug is a DrugCollins Complete Guide to British Coastal Wildlife, Paul Sterry and Andrew Cleave (HarperCollins 2012) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Shots from the Front by Richard HolmesShots from the Front: The British Soldier 1914-18, Richard Holmes (HarperPress 2008; paperback 2010)

This book is a well-judged mixture of interesting photographs and enlightening commentary. Richard Holmes is good at pointing out how scenes are staged and spotting when subjects are playing games: “it is clear from his mates’ expressions that the centre soldier, shovelling a huge spoonful of mashed potato into his mouth, is engaged in a wind-up” (pg. 26).

And those soldiers have “just come out of the line”, with the crumpled and mud-stained uniforms to prove it. There was a lot of mud and misery in the First World War, but there was fun too and even fraternization, like the football played between British and German troops on Christmas day in 1914. There are no photographs of that: cameras weren’t everywhere and the photographs wouldn’t have been officially approved anyway.* History is divided into B.C. and A.C. – Before Camera and After Camera – but that doesn’t mean history was always more accurate or truthful when cameras arrived. Sometimes the camera simply meant new ways to lie.

But back then there were things it couldn’t lie about. Some of the faces, expressions and postures in this book look like what they are: a century old. But some could be from much more recent wars. There’s actually a lot of genetic information here, because faces are a record of ancestry and race. So are machines, in another way. Military technology is the application of high intelligence to low extermination. It’s part of what Richard Dawkins calls the extended phenotype and it evolves much faster than the bodies it’s intended to destroy – or simply injure, because a wounded soldier can be more harmful to the enemy than a dead one. But for the most part armies haven’t innovated in their weaponry, merely refined what was being used a century ago: the guns, the grenades, the bombs and the first tanks, military aircraft and gas attacks.

Those last three made the First World War something new, separating it from everything that had gone before. Bullets are like arrows or slingshots and even artillery has ancient parallels: Roman siege-engines threw boulders and fired bolts, for example. But the tank made “its first appearance on the Somme in September 1916” on the British side. The German response was a huge anti-tank rifle, a captured specimen of which is being shown off by grinning New Zealanders on page 148. But the tank wasn’t a wonder-weapon: it was slow and liable to get trapped on bad ground. It was also difficult to communicate with and from: one of the photographs shows a carrier-pigeon being released through “an armoured port in a tank”. Holmes comments that this is a “perfect illustration of the way in which the war often combined ancient and modern” (pg. 91).

Another example is the photograph of a “highly successful mounted charge” in 1917 by the “4th Australian Light Horse Brigade” on page 155. That was in Mesopotamia and although the authenticity of the photograph is disputed, it’s certain that cavalry were used on that front. By then there was aerial combat over the fields of France in sophisticated aircraft. But this book is about soldiers, so the only aircraft shown is an “Australian kite balloon” being inflated on page 103. Aircraft are implicit elsewhere: there are three aerial photographs of “Faffémont farm, near Combles on the Somme”, taken from great height before and after bombardment. You can see trees and buildings in the first photo, taken in April 1916; rubble and matchwood in the second, taken in July; and a landscape of craters in the third, taken in September.

Other photos show the effects of such a bombardment from the ground: dead men and dead horses. But this isn’t a ghoulish book and there aren’t many corpses, partly because photographs of them were thought bad for civilian morale. So there are more photographs here of living men preparing to create corpses: fitting fuses, loading shells, sighting machine-guns, digging tunnels to lay explosives, sitting at the top of poles to spot for artillery. Fig. 100 “shows two Australians preparing jam-tin bombs at Gallipoli”. And they were literally jam-tins, filled with gun-cotton and, in this case, with “sections of barbed wire” to increase their lethality. Holmes notes that the two men are wearing “felt slippers, for this was no place to light a spark” (pg. 133).

Small facts like that help you understand the war better. So do small facts like these, included below a group photograph of some scruffily dressed troops:

That winter the first goatskin coats arrived. They came in a variety of colours, but were often unhelpfully light. Although they attracted both moisture and mud, and were noticeably goaty even when dry, they were very popular in that first chilly winter of trench warfare. (pg. 126)

And on page 237, Holmes notes something that the photographer almost certainly didn’t intend to capture: behind a machine-gun crew, a soldier is “‘chatting’, removing lice, ‘chats’ in soldier’s slang, and their eggs from the seams of his greyback shirt”. This familiar routine was “almost never photographed”. War is a big thing that is affected by small things like felt slippers, goatskin coats and lice. It’s also a bad thing, as the lice suggest, but that’s part of why it’s interesting. This book isn’t intended to be a history of the war and it won’t help you understand the strategists and generals. It’s about ordinary soldiers and their officers, joining up, fighting, sometimes dying, sometimes surviving.

The final section is called “In Parenthesis?”. The words are from the title of David Jones’ “great poem” about the war, but the question mark was put there by Holmes. Jones thought he had stepped outside the “brackets” of the war in 1918. But the 1920s and 1930s were actually between brackets: he hadn’t fought in the war to end all wars. The Second World War was more and worse and its origins can be seen in this book. But the First World War also looks back to the nineteenth century, when the Scottish quartermasters in fig. 45 must have begun their service. One is fat, one looks ferocious. They both have extravagant moustaches. Those men and their moustaches are long gone, but the First World War is still important. This book is a good way to understand what it was like to fight then, but an index would have made it even better.


*Update 31/v/14: In fact, there are photos of that.

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Front cover of A Mathematician's Apology by G.H. HardyA Mathematician’s Apology, G.H. Hardy (1940)

The World Wide Web is also the Random Reading Reticulation – the biggest library that ever existed. Obscure texts and ancient manuscripts are now a mouse-click away. A Mathematician’s Apology is neither obscure nor ancient, but it wasn’t easy to get hold of before it became available online. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time. And now I have.

Alas, I was disappointed. G.H. Hardy (1877-1947) was a very good mathematician, but he’s not a very good writer about mathematics. And in fact, he didn’t want to be a writer at all, good, bad or indifferent:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds. (Op. cit., Section 1)

But is philosophy of mathematics work for second-rate minds? At the highest level, I don’t think it is. The relation of mathematics to reality, and vice versa, is a profoundly interesting and important topic, but Hardy doesn’t have anything new or illuminating to say about it:

It may be that modern physics fits best into some framework of idealistic philosophy — I do not believe it, but there are eminent physicists who say so. Pure mathematics, on the other hand, seems to me a rock on which all idealism founders: 317 is a prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped in one way rather than another, but because it is, because mathematical reality is built that way. (Section 24)

He experienced and explored that mathematical reality, but he can’t communicate the excitement or importance of doing so very well. I wasn’t surprised by his confession that, as a boy: “I thought of mathematics in terms of examinations and scholarships: I wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively” (sec. 29). He says it wasn’t until he had begun his degree at Cambridge that he “learnt for the first time … what mathematics really meant” (ibid.).

In this, he was very different from someone he helped make much more famous than he now is: an unknown and struggling Indian mathematician called Srinivasa Ramanujan, who sparked Hardy’s interest by sending him theorems of startling originality and depth before the First World War. Hardy brought Ramanujan to England, but barely mentions his protégé here. All the same, his respect and even perhaps his affection are still apparent:

I still say to myself when I am depressed, and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people, ‘Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with both [J.E.] Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.’ (sec. 29)

Very few people could have done that: a mere handful of the many millions who lived at the time. So it would be wrong to expect that Hardy could both ascend to the highest peaks of mathematics and write well about what he experienced there. He couldn’t and A Mathematician’s Apology supplies the proof. That’s a shame, but the text is short and still worth reading. Hardy had no false modesty, but he had no delusions of grandeur either:

I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating. And that I have created is undeniable: the question is about its value.

It was valuable: that is why Hardy is still remembered and celebrated, sixty-seven years after his death. He is also still famous as an atheist, but you could say that he spent his life in the service of Our Lady – Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics Mistress of the World.

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Sinister Sinema

Scalarama: A Celebration of Subterranean Cinema at Its Sleazy, Slimy and Sinister Best, ed. Norman Foreman, B.A. (TransVisceral Books 2015)

The Scala Cinema. Long gone, much lamented. By Garry Guggan, TransVisceral C.E.O., among many others. He was a regular attendee at this London locus of the teratic and tenebrose. So he’s asked another regular attendee – Norman Foreman, B.A. – to compile a book of interviews and reminiscences for the benefit both of those who share fond memories of the Scala and of those who never had the chance to become acquainted with its unique mixture of the sleazy, the slimy and the sinister. As a taster for the book – due out next year – here are some extracts from an interview Norman has conducted with Phil Barbarelli, an actor from New York who was a dedicated member of the Scala Tribe…


Norman Foreman: The Scala has legendary status among keyly committed core components of the counter-cultural community. Can you explain what contributed to its feral appeal?

Phil Barbarelli: A trip to the Scala felt like a trip back to a 1950s 42nd Street “grind house” or ’60s Soho sleaze sinema or a below-the-Mason-Dixon-line drive-in or a back-room stag-film fest. It had a sticky floor, stale popcorn retro vibe that was catnip to outré film aficionados. It was a place where you could see an all-day festival of British nudie cuties and naturist films. Or a rare bargain-basement biker or slasher film. Where else would I have had the chance to meet the legendary Pamela Green or question the director of Tom Jones Meets Lady Godiva? Going to the Scala was a guilty pleasure. The only time I felt uncomfortable there was when they showed without warning a mercifully short bestiality film among some soft-core films. They should have warned us. I sensed that most of the audience felt that we had been compromised and our trust abused.

Norman Foreman: What was the Scala audience like?

Phil Barbarelli: The audience was mainly what were then (early ’90s) known as “slackers”. Hey, who else could afford to spend an entire workday in an itch house watching Grade-Z slasher films? Or spend an all-too-rare sunny Saturday in a smelly, dark room watching British naturist films? There were also out-of-work actors (is there another kind?), musicians and the occasional dirty-mac wearer. The latter were bound to be disappointed by the relatively tame material. And, I saw a few City Gents complete with bowler hats and rolled umbrellas.

The audience was almost entirely male with a few bored/bewildered chicks dragged along on dates. The behaviour was the same as you’d see in any cinema. But on special occasions, e.g. Q&A sessions or book-signings, people would be a bit chatty. But most folk were anxious to maintain a “hipper than thou” aloof demeanour. Did I dream it or did some of them watch the films with their sunglasses on? Most dressed in black or T-shirts decorated with the names of bands you never heard of.

Norman Foreman: You are of Italian heritage and had a Catholic upbringing. How far do you think this has fed into your purulent passion for the teratic and tenebrose?

Phil Barbarelli: Speak English! But, yes, Roman Catholicism does tend to warp a young man’s mind. It’s full of guts and gore and it taught us that sex was dirty while at the same time making us obsess about it. It was a nun who asked us at the age of seven if we ever had impure thoughts or had committed impure acts with members of our family or animals. Well, I certainly hadn’t thought about it until she gave me the idea. And, I’m happy to report that incest and bestiality remain outside my ken.

But, I was also influenced/damaged by seeing old-fashioned Coney Island freak shows. And, by growing up in the very lurid atmosphere of 1950s Brooklyn. Read Henry Miller and look at the photos of Weegee to get an idea. It was technicolor, violent, vibrant, funny, sexy, beautiful, ugly – all at once.

But, I find that kitsch and trash are often more entertaining and instructive than middle-brow crap. Case in point: Henry – Portrait of A Serial Killer is a more frightening, powerful and truthful film than The Silence of The Lambs. Guess which I saw at The Scala? So, I enjoy and continue to nurture my interest in all things off-beat. And, the Catholic rule to not look/read/listen to something spurs me to look/read/listen to anything I like. So there.

Norman Foreman: You mentioned seeing a genuine autopsy film on a big screen in NYC. Please say more.

Phil Barbarelli: A hipster cinema in Tribeca showed a film called Autopsy. It was a B&W film of an actual autopsy shot by one of the first “under-ground” filmmakers, whose name escapes me. He had a friend who worked in a NYC morgue and that friend arranged the filming with the stipulation that the corpse remain anonymous. In fact, the dead person may have been a “John Doe”. It was interesting to see how few of the hipsters lasted through the film. Several ran for the toilets, retching as they ran. Imagine if it had been in colour. The same thing happened at The Scala when it showed a double bill of Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Henry. This was the un-edited version of Henry and not cleaned for general viewing.

Massacre was a giggle. Henry was truly terrifying. The “not so tough” trendies headed for the exit.

Norman Foreman: You’ve talked about the “Catholic gaze”. What about the “male gaze”? Didn’t you see something interesting at a strip-show?

Phil Barbarelli: I saw many interesting things at strip-shows. (Ba-da-boom.) I think you mean the demonstration of the male desire to see what he should not. I was at a strip-show on 42nd street in the era of the film Taxi Driver. NYC was at its sleaziest. The strippers would end their act by putting a dirty rug/mat on the front of the stage floor and lie down on it and spread their legs showing everything they had. You could see their tonsils. They would often masturbate or pretend to. Some would allow men to come up and taste their charms for an additional fee. This was a popular pastime for Japanese tourists.

But, directly upstage of them was a door leading to the dancers’ dressing room. Sometimes as a girl was downstage displaying her charms this door upstage would open. When it did, every man in the audience would take his eyes off the woman’s vagina to sneak a look at what he was not supposed to see in the back room.

Norman Foreman: How often in New York did you see films with gimmicks, like The Tingler?

Phil Barbarelli: My childhood (’50s and early ’60s) was the heyday of the gimmick films made by William Castle and others. I was too young to see House of Wax starring Vincent Price, which was the first major 3-D movie. But, my brother gave me his 3-D glasses and told me how things seemed to jump off the screen. There were also 3-D comic books that came with a set of glasses. Trying to read these comics without the glasses was an early psychedelic experience.

All the kids in my Brooklyn neighborhood would go to the “pitchers” on Saturdays to see triple bills with the main movie almost always a horror film.

We got the Hammer films and many low-budget British horror films – X – The Unknown, Horror of The Black Museum – “filmed in hypnovision”. This movie seriously terrorised a generation of children. It’s the only horror film I saw that I think should not have been shown to anyone under 18.

When the skeletons flew over our heads in The House on Haunted Hill we threw things at them. We wore special glasses to see the ghost in 13 Ghosts and we loved The Tingler.

In the late ’80s, an art house in Tribeca showed The Tingler with the original buzzers attached to the seats. They gave a very mild shock, akin to the joke hand-shake buzzers.

By coincidence, in 2013 I was in a terrible play in the West End that was supposed to be a comic homage to Castle and the gimmick horror films. We squirted the audience with “blood” in the dark and threw “insects” on them. My character was loosely based on Castle. I made an oblique reference to The Tingler. This line got a very few knowing laughs. It was obvious that this genre of gimmick film was not well known enough for a comic homage to work.

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Lost Stolen or Shredded by Rick GekoskiLost, Stolen or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature, Rick Gekoski (Profile Books 2013/2014)

In her hilarious hatchet-job on her departed idol Susan Sontag, the lesbian academic Terry Castle describes the “relentless quizzing” she underwent in the “early days” of their friendship:

I almost came a cropper when I confessed I had never listened to Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek. She gave me a surprised look, then explained, somewhat loftily, that I owed it to myself, as a ‘cultivated person’, to become acquainted with it. (‘I adore Janáček’s sound world.’) A recording of the opera appeared soon after in the mail – so I knew I’d been forgiven – but after listening to it once I couldn’t really get anywhere with it. (It tends to go on a bit – in the same somewhat exhausting Eastern European way I now associate with Sontag herself.) (“Desperately Seeking Susan”, London Review of Books, 17th March 2005)

In other words: Sontag was a gasbag. And is there a sulphurous whiff of antisemitism in the phrase “Eastern European”? I fear so. I also fear that this book tends to go on a bit à la Janáček and Sontag. Which was a disappointment. I would like to have read it properly, but I couldn’t: like The Hitch, Rick Gekoski, who has a D.Phil. on Joseph Conrad, doesn’t use English as though it is his mother-tongue. Which is a pity. There are some interesting topics here, from the “carbonized” but still legible papyri in an ancient library at Herculaneum, which were bequeathed to posterity by the eruption of Vesuvius, to the richly jewelled cover of a “bookbinding executed in 1911” for Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which was lost with the Titanic. Plus the alleged “wanking fantasies” in Philip Larkin’s diaries, which were destroyed on Larkin’s own instructions after his death.

There are also some Guardianista topics: the book is based on a series on BBC Radio 4, like Gekoski’s earlier (and better) Tolkien’s Gown and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books (2005). And so there are constant references to the Holocaust and to white man’s inhumanity to non-white man, like African blacks and the Māori. There is also a lot about giants of European culture whom I don’t like: Joyce, Mahler, Kafka, Conrad and so on. True, I agree with Gekoski when he says, in the chapter about the looting of Iraqi antiquities, that Donald Rumsfeld was “indefatigably loathsome”, but I’m rather worried that I do. And I don’t like that way of putting it. Christopher Hitchens might have put it like that, though not, in his later days, about Rumsfeld. Gekoski is a successful book-dealer and knows a lot about art and literature. I just wish he could convey what he knows more elegantly and concisely.

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