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Wilde about Algy: Oscar, Algernon, and Gilbert Too

If someone who gets the blame for what someone else did is a scapegoat, someone who gets the credit for what someone else said has to be a scapequote. And the greatest scapequote of them all has to be Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). It’s not surprising, though, because Wilde was a very clever and sharp-witted man. For example, you may well read that the painter James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), also reknowned for his wit, once jealously remarked of one of Wilde’s bon mots: “I wish I had said that.” To which Wilde replied, “You will, James, you will.”1

Pretty sharp, wasn’t it? The problem is that it was really the other way around: Wilde was jealous of something Whistler had said, and it was Whistler’s put-down. See what I mean about Wilde being the greatest scapequote of them all? And it isn’t just other people’s repartee Wilde gets the credit for:

Behind the fun of Gilbert’s lines stands the quite serious business of satire. Generally his targets are common human attitudes – hypocrisy, class distinction, and so forth; but with Patience he descended from the general to the particular and burlesqued the aesthetic movement of the time, typified by Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, J.M. Whistler, and their self-professed disciples.2

He didn’t, you know. Gilbert is W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911), and Patience (1881) is one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, but Gilbert did not write Patience about Oscar Wilde and the school of poetry Wilde typified: he wrote it about Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1903) and the school of poetry Swinburne typified. And I can’t believe anyone at the time thought otherwise: Swinburne was far more famous than Wilde and, as we shall see, is unmistakably caricatured in the hero of the opera. It’s Wilde’s fame since then that has caused history to be re-written – to the point, I was amused to discover, that one biographical dictionary credits him with even more than inspiring Patience :

WILDE, Oscar … (1854-1900), Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, poet and wit, born in Dublin … In 1881 his first volume of poetry was published, Patience, and the next year he embarked on a lecture tour of the USA …3

Wilde’s first volume of poetry was in fact called Poems, and is in fact a good piece of evidence that Patience wasn’t written about him, because it was published in July 1881 and Patience was first performed in April. Is it likely that the hero of Patience, who is a poet, was based on someone who hadn’t even published his first volume of poetry? Not very, and it becomes even less likely when we look first at the name of the hero, which is Reginald Bunthorne, and second at his precise classification, which is “Fleshly Poet”. Reginald Bunthorne is clearly meant to suggest Algernon Swinburne, and “Fleshly Poet” is clearly meant to be a reference to

Fleshly School of Poetry, The, the title of an article in the Contemporary Review (Oct. 1871), in which Robert Buchanan[,] under the pseudonym of “Thomas Maitland”, attacked the Pre-Raphaelites[,] especially D.G. Rossetti. This attack was the prelude to a long and bitter controversy.4

Conducted in part by Algernon Swinburne, who was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and whose verse was one of the chief targets in Buchanan’s article, just as it is one of the chief targets in Gilbert’s libretto for Patience :

“OH, HOLLOW! HOLLOW! HOLLOW!”

What time the poet hath hymned

The writhing maid, lithe-limbed,

Quivering on amaranthine asphodel,

How can he paint her woes?,

Knowing, as well he knows,

That all can be set right with calomel?

When from the poet’s plinth

The amorous colocynth

Yearns for the aloe, faint with rapturous thrills,

How can he hymn their throes

Knowing, as well he knows,

That they are only uncompounded pills?

Is it, and can it be,

Nature hath this decree,

Nothing poetic in the world shall dwell?

Or that in all her works,

Something poetic lurks,

Even in colocynth and calomel,

I cannot tell.

[Exit BUNTHORNE.

ANG[ELA]. How purely fragrant!

SAPH[IR]. How earnestly precious!

PA[TIENCE]. Well, it seems to me to be nonsense.

The vocabulary and phrasing are characteristically Swinburnian: limbs are lithe in “Dolores”, for example:

Thou shalt blind his bright eyes though he wrestle,

Thou shalt chain his lithe limbs though he strive;

In his lips all thy serpents shall nestle,

In his hands all thy cruelties thrive. [lns. 201-4]

And Patience’s verdict on Bunthorne – “It seems to me to be nonsense” – echoes the verdict of many on Swinburne: for Tennyson he was “a reed through which all things blow into music”5 and for A.E. Housman a kind of poetic “sausage-machine”.6

But then Housman did admire Swinburne greatly in other ways, and Swinburne himself was well aware of his own prolixity and tendency to sacrifice sense to sound:

From the depth of the dreamy decline of the dawn through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine,

Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower that flickers with fear of the flies as they float,

Are they looks of our lovers that lustrously lean from a marvel of mystic miraculous moonshine,

These that we feel in the blood of our blushes that thicken and threaten with throbs through the throat?

These are the first lines of “Nephelidia”, a self-parody published in The Heptalogia in 1880. Perhaps Swinburne heard that Gilbert was at work on a Swinburlesque, and decided to get in with his own first; in either case, he was already familiar with parodies on his verse. In 1866 he had published the first series of his Poems & Ballads, and had been condemned in very strong terms for the blasphemies and obscenities of poems like “Dolores”:

Cold eyelids that hide like a jewel

Hard eyes that grow soft for an hour;

The heavy white limbs. and the cruel

Red mouth like a venomous flower;

When these have gone by with their glories,

What shall rest of thee then, what remain,

O mystic and sombre Dolores,

Our Lady of Pain? [lns. 1-8]

O lips full of lust and of laughter,

Curled snakes that are fed from my breast,

Bite hard, lest remembrance come after

And press with new lips where you pressed!

For my heart too springs up at the pressure,

Mine eyelids too moisten and burn;

Ah! feed me and fill me with pleasure,

Ere pain come in turn. [lns. 25-32]

By the ravenous teeth that have smitten

Through the kisses that blossom and bud,

By the lips intertwisted and bitten

Till the foam has a savour of blood,

By the pulse as it rises and falters,

By the hands as they slacken and strain,

I adjure thee, respond from thine altars,

Our Lady of Pain. [lns. 113-120]

But by far the cleverest and most telling critique of Poems & Ballads, in general, and “Dolores”, in particular, was written by a Cambridge don called Arthur Clement Hilton (1851-77):
OCTOPUS

By Algernon Charles Sin-Burn

(Written at the Crystal Palace Aquarium)

Strange beauty, eight-limbed and eight-handed,

Whence camest to dazzle our eyes?

With thy bosom bespangled and banded

With the hues of the seas and the skies;

Is thy home European or Asian,

O mystical monster marine?

Part molluscous and partly crustacean,

Betwixt and between.

Wast thou born to the sound of sea-trumpets?

Hast thou eaten and drunk to excess

Of the sponges – thy muffins and crumpets,

Of the seaweeds – thy mustard and cress?

Wast thou nurtured in caverns of coral,

Remote from reproof or restraint?

Art thou innocent, art thou immoral,

Sinburnian or Saint?

Lithe limbs, curling free, as a creeper

That creeps in a desolate place,

To enrol and envelop the sleeper

In a silent and stealthy embrace,

Cruel beak craning forward to bite us,

Our juices to drain and to drink,

Or to whelm us in waves of Cocytus,

Indelible ink!

Ah breast, that ’twere rapture to writhe on!

O arms ’twere delicious to feel

Clinging close with the crush of the Python,

When she maketh her murderous meal!

In thy eight-fold embraces enfolden,

Let our empty existence escape;

Give us death that is glorious and golden,

Crushed all out of shape!

Ah! thy red lips, lascivious and luscious,

With death in their amorous kiss!

Cling round us, and clasp us, and crush us,

With bitings of agonized bliss;

We are sick of the poison of pleasure,

Dispense us the potion of pain;

Ope thy mouth to its uttermost measure

And bite us again!7

A good parody is worth a thousand moral condemnations – or a thousand literary criticisms. The best critical essay on Swinburne I have ever read is A.E. Housman’s “Swinburne”, whose “sausage-machine” verdict was quoted above, but even if the essay wasn’t rather sour and disdainful in tone it would still take a long time to read – particularly by comparison with these lines from G.K. Chesterton:

He was defeated in several battles by the celebrated Arnhold brothers – the three guerilla patriots to whom Swinburne wrote a poem, you remember:

‘Wolves with the hair of the ermine,

Crows that are crowned and kings–

These things be many as vermin,

Yet three shall abide these things.’8

And yes, anyone familiar with Swinburne’s political poetry would remember. Not those exact words, of course, because Chesterton has made them up, but the verbal dexterity and the passionate but naive anti-monarchism.

Chesterton wrote at least one more parody of Swinburne, and it’s another example both of how effective parodies can be as a method of literary criticism and of how enjoyable they are. A parody is a work of art in its own right, and instead of sniping at its target from the groves of Academe it’s fighting on the same ground and with the same weapons. Housman’s essay on Swinburne is very good, but would much better have been accompanied or even replaced by a parody of him – which Housman, unlike most literary critics, would have been well capable of supplying. The asperities of Housman’s judgments in prose would have been softened in a parody, conveyed by example rather than explication, and Swinburne addicts like me would have had another purified extract to inject. In some ways Hilton’s “Octopus” has the same advantage over “Dolores” itself as Chesterton’s lines have over Housman’s essay: it distils and concentrates an essence, and allows one to savour Swinburne’s pungencies and spices in twenty couplets and a minute rather than, as in the original, two-hundred-and-twenty and half-an-hour.

Mutatis mutandis, the same is true of Chesterton’s second Swinburne parody in “Old King Cole – Variants of an Air”:

In the time of old sin without sadness

And golden with wastage of gold

Like the gods that grow old in their gladness

Was the king that was glad, growing old;

And with sound of loud lyres from his palace

The voice of his oracles spoke,

And the lips that were red from his chalice

Were splendid with smoke.

When the weed was as flame for a token

And the wine was as blood for a sign;

And upheld in his hands and unbroken

The fountains of fire and of wine.

And a song without speech, without singer,

Stung the soul of a thousand in three

As the flesh of the earth has to sting her,

The soul of the sea.

And, with increasing silliness but also increasing affection, Mortimer Collins’ “Salad”:

O cool in the summer is salad,

And warm in the winter is love;

And a poet shall sing you a ballad

Delicious thereon and thereof.

A singer am I, if no sinner,

My muse has a marvellous wing,

And I willingly worship at dinner

The sirens of Spring.

Take endive… like love it is bitter;

Take beet… for like love it is red;

Crisp leaf of the lettuce shall glitter,

And cress from the rivulet’s bed;

Anchovies foam-born, like the Lady

Whose beauty has maddened this bard;

And olives, from groves that are shady;

And eggs – boil ’em hard.

And Barry Pain’s survey of “The Poets at Tea”:

3. Swinburne, who let it get cold

As the sin that was sweet in the sinning

Is foul in the ending thereof,

As the heat of the summer’s beginning

Is past in the winter of love:

O purity, painful and pleading!

O coldness, ineffably gray!

Oh, hear us, our handmaiden unheeding,

And take it away!

And, finally, Richard le Gallienne’s “A Melton Mowbray Pork Pie”:

Strange pie that is almost a passion,

O passion immoral for pie!

Unknown are the ways that they fashion,

Unknown and unseen of the eye.

The pie that is marbled and mottled,

The pie that digests with a sigh:

For all is not Bass that is bottled,

And all is not pork that is pie.9


APPENDIX 1: How did Wilde become so strongly associated with Patience?

Nihil novi sub sole, inquit Ecclesiastes. Nothing new under the sun, saith the preacher. I don’t actually believe that, not completely, anyway, but it’s certainly true that many things are not as new as we think they are. Marketing campaigns and advertising hype, for example. Very twentieth-century, aren’t they?

Well, yes. But they’re also very nineteenth-century. A name nearly as closely connected with Gilbert and Sullivan as they are with each other is D’Oyly Carte. As in the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901) and the D’Oyly Carte Company he founded to produce Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas. And a company it was in both senses: the operas were produced to make money, and if you want to make money you also have to avoid losing it. Pirating of the operas in America lost D’Oyly Carte money, and he was always anxious about their reception there.

But the problem he felt Patience might have was not with piracy but simply with popularity. The opera satirized English institutions that the Americans would be unfamiliar with, and his apprehensions may have been increased by a verdict passed after the first British performance by the “critic of the Referee”, who

noticed that some of Gilbert’s shots went over the heads of the audience, perhaps because the fusillade was too rapid: this opera is packed with subtleties of humour – the very title Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride is a joke, for Bunthorne is the only one who is not married off at the end.10

That last point is yet another piece of evidence for the thesis of the article: Swinburne was aged 44 in 1881 and still, remarkably, unmarried; but Swinburne could hardly be expected to help publicize an opera making fun of him and his art. An up-and-coming young poet with a hunger – craving, even – for fame might be expected to, however. Particularly one who would later write that “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.11

D’Oyly Carte worked also as an agent, and there was just such a young poet on his books: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, who was aged 27 in 1881 and still, not very remarkably, unmarried. D’Oyle Carte arranged for Wilde to undertake a lecture tour of America with a profitably comprehensible Patience following in his wake: audiences who had seen Wilde posing and posturing on stage with a lily in his hand could now understand, and laugh at, Bunthorne doing the same.

In short, and in D’Oyle Carte’s own words of denial, Wilde was sent out as “a sandwich[-board] man for Patience”.12 To the Americans, familiar with Swinburne’s poetry but not with his person, Bunthorne became Wilde, and the misidentification – helped, perhaps, by changes in the opera – travelled back across the Atlantic to last to the present day. And it is likely to last, perhaps, for good: modern audiences are familiar neither with Swinburne’s poetry nor with his person, but Wilde, in Swinburne’s shadow at the beginning of his career, now looms larger than ever.

And so it is that the anomalies of Wilde-as-Bunthorne go ever more unnoticed: Swinburne’s surname, like Bunthorne’s, is disyllablic and a trochee:13 Wilde’s is neither; in real life Swinburne was, like Bunthorne on stage, short and bearded: Wilde was tall and clean-shaven; Swinburne, like Bunthorne, was an English aristocrat: Wilde was Irish and not particularly aristocratic; Swinburne was Bunthorne: Wilde was not.


APPENDIX 2: Lewis Carroll’s parody of “Dolores” in Sylvie & Bruno

‘Why, that are one of the Professor’s songs!’ cried Bruno. ‘I likes the little man; and I likes the way they spinned him–like a teetle-totle-tum.’ And he turned a loving look on the gentle old man who was sitting at the other side of his leaf-bed, and who instantly began to sing, accompanying himself on his Outlandish guitar, while the snail, on which he sat, waved its horns in time to the music.

In stature the Manlet was dwarfish–

No burly big Blunderbore he:

And he wearily gazed on the crawfish

His Wifelet had dressed for his tea.

‘Now reach me, sweet Atom, my gunlet,

And hurl the old shoelet for luck:

Let me hie to the bank of the runlet,

And shoot thee a Duck!’

She has reached him his minikin gunlet:

She has hurled the old shoelet for luck:

She is busily baking a bunlet,

To welcome him home with his Duck.

On he speeds, never wasting a wordlet,

Though thoughtlets cling, closely as wax,

To the spot where the beautiful birdlet

So quietly quacks.

Where the Lobsterlet lurks, and the Crablet

So slowly and sleepily crawls:

Where the Dolphin’s at home, and the Dablet

Pays long ceremonious calls:

Where the Grublet is sought by the Froglet:

Where the Frog is pursued by the Duck:

Where the Ducklet is chased by the Doglet–

So runs the world’s luck!

He has loaded with bullet and powder:

His footfall is noiseless as air:

But the Voices grow louder and louder,

And bellow, and bluster, and blare.

They bristle before him and after,

They flutter above and below,

Shrill shriekings of lubberly laughter,

Weird wailings of woe!

They echo without him, within him:

They thrill through his whiskers and beard:

Like a teetotum seeming to spin him,

With sneers never hitherto sneered.

‘Avengement,’ they cry, ‘on our Foelet!

Let the Manikin weep for our wrongs!

Let us drench him, from toplet to toelet,

With Nursery-Songs!

‘He shall muse upon “Hey! Diddle! Diddle!”

On the Cow that surmounted the Moon:

He shall rave of the Cat and the Fiddle,

And the Dish that eloped with the Spoon:

And his soul shall be sad for the Spider,

When Miss Muffet was sipping her whey,

That so tenderly sat down beside her,

And scared her away!

‘The music of Midsummer-madness

Shall sting him with many a bite,

Till, in rapture of rollicking sadness,

He shall groan with a gloomy delight:

He shall swathe him, like mists of the morning,

In platitudes luscious and limp,

Such as deck, with a deathless adorning,

The Song of the Shrimp!

‘When the Ducklet’s dark doom is decided,

We will trundle him home in a trice:

And the banquet, so plainly provided,

Shall round into rose-buds and rice:

In a blaze of pragmatic invention

He shall wrestle with Fate, and shall reign:

But he has not a friend fit to mention,

So hit him again!’

He has shot it, the delicate darling!

And the Voices have ceased from their strife:

Not a whisper of sneering or snarling,

As he carries it home to his wife:

Then, cheerily champing the bunlet

His spouse was so skilful to bake,

He hies him once more to the runlet,

To fetch her the Drake!


NOTES

[1]I did read this once, only the other party wasn’t described as being Whistler.

[2]Michael Hardwick, The Osprey Guide to Gilbert and Sullivan, Osprey, Reading, 1972, Patience, pg. 91

[3]Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ed. Magnus Magnusson, W & R Chambers, Edinburgh, 1990.

[4]The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Literature, ed. John Mulgan, Oxford, 1957.

[5]Algernon Charles Swinburne: Selected Poems, ed. L.M. Findlay, Carcanet, Manchester, 1982, introduction, pg. 2

[6]“Swinburne”, in A.E. Housman: Collected Poems & Selected Prose, ed. Christopher Ricks.

[7]Unauthorized Versions: Poems & their Parodies, ed. Kenneth Baker.

[8]From the story “The Fairy Tale of Father Brown”, in The Wisdom of Father Brown, pg. 306 of the 1983 The Penguin Complete Father Brown.

[9]These are taken from Imitations of Immortality: A Book of Literary Parodies, E.O. Parrott.

[10]Leslie Bailey, The Gilbert and Sullivan Book, Spring Books, London, 1966, “Patience: A Caricature of the Follies of the Age”, pp. 210-1

[11]“The Picture of Dorian Gray”, ch. 1

[12]Letter from D’Oyly Carte to Helen Lenoir, December, 1881, quoted in The Gilbert and Sullivan Book, pg. 212

[13]Other phonetic similarities between Swinburne and Bunthorne are too obvious to mention.


© Simon Whitechapel 2004

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Futurism, Richard Humphreys (1999 Tate Publishing)

The future of Futurism has come and gone, and in some ways it was exactly what Futurists wanted. They demanded speed, noise, and violence, after all, and the twentieth century provided enormous amounts of all three. And when I say “demanded”, that is exactly what I mean: like a political party, the Futurists had a manifesto, penned by Filippo Marinetti. Clause nine was this:

We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

And if you’re thinking that sounds rather, well, fascist, you’re right, because Futurism, despite being an avant-garde, fetishistically modern movement, was closely allied with Italian fascism. If that news comes as a surprise when you open this book, prepare for another surprise as you leaf through it, because Futurist art, at least from masters like Umberto Boccioni or Giacomo Balla, is actually interesting, even, whisper it, skilful. Sometimes attractive too.

What it isn’t, however, is particularly distinctive: much of the art reproduced in this book could have appeared in other books in the series, which covers movements in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth-century avant-garde like Cubism, Minimalism, and Surrealism. No, what makes Futurism distinctive is its bombast, its manifestos, and its political allegiances. They’re all described here, and refreshingly they’re not described in the usual stale bourgeois academese of most modern criticism in the arts.

That’s not to say all the text is worth reading: for me, analysing a picture is like analysing a joke: it destroys any spontaneous enjoyment. Art is about images and intuition; analysis is about words and logic. They take place in different parts of the brain and they shouldn’t be mixed. Perhaps that’s why it’s easier to take Futurist paintings seriously than it is to take Futurist prose:

We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.

Perhaps the most appropriate response to Futurism in theory was Evelyn Waugh’s vignette in Brideshead Revisited (1945) of Futurism in action:

We were joined by a Belgian Futurist, who lived under the, I think, assumed name of Jean de Brissac la Motte, and claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes. (Part II, 3)

The battle in this instance was against the lower classes of Britain during the General Strike, and the attempt to join it ended like this:

Jean, who joined another company, had a pot of ferns dropped on his head by an elderly widow in Camden Town and was in hospital for a week.

But the embers of Futurism are glowing yet, and this book is a good short survey of the pre-war fires of energy and excitement that created them.

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Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper (1994)

Despite everything, football – in the true sense of the word – is still the best and most beautiful sport on earth. Disliking it because of some of the people who take part in, run it or support it would be like disliking the English language because Tony Blair speaks it or Will Self writes in it. English is bigger than them and football is bigger than sets of Red Devil golf-clubs. Football even has good books written about it. This, unlike Nick Hornby’s far better-known Fever Pitch, is one of those good books. Hornby reminds me of a nose-picker. Yes, he may have devoted a great deal of time to his hobby and derived a great deal of pleasure from it, but why tell the world?

You don’t need to ask that question about this book, because football is the world’s most popular sport and this book is an exploration of how it influences the world’s culture and politics in all manner of strange and unexpected ways. Sometimes disturbing ways too. Or amusing ones. Or both:

The general director agreed to an interview (for free) and the next day I found him in his office. It is basic and battered and located in the basement of the Omnisports Stadium, just a few doors down from the room where he kept 120 pygmies from the Cameroonian rainforests locked up last summer. Milla [a Cameroonian star at the 1990 World Cup] had invited the pygmies to play a few games at the Omnisports, to raise money for their health and education, but he imprisoned them there, issued them with guards (one of whom wore a Saddam Hussein T-shirt) and seldom fed them. A tournament spokesman explained to Reuters: “They play better if they don’t eat too much”. As for the imprisonment: “You don’t know the pygmies. They are extremely difficult to keep in control.” The Omnisports cook concurred: “These pygmies can eat at any time of the day and night and never have enough”. The little hunters themselves were too frightened to comment.

Their tournament was a disaster. Team names included Bee-sting of Lomie and the aptly named Ants of Salapoumbe, but only 50 fans bought tickets, and most of these came strictly to shout abuse at the pygmies.

Absurdity, as the Theatre of the Absurd taught us, can be cruel as well as funny, and Africa can be an absurd place, to the fullest extent of both senses. Football, there as elsewhere, reflects regional character:

Recently, three contracts have appeared for the sale of one player from Torpedo Moscow to Olympiakos Piraeus. One contract is for the Greek tax inspectors, one they show to the player, and the third is the real contract, but no-one knows which is which. (ch. 5, “The Secret Police Chief at Left-Half”)

The former Soviet Union is riddled with corruption, and so is its football. You’ll also learn in this chapter that clubs from Eastern Europe with “Dynamo” in their names were usually set up and run by the Secret Police. That is why they were so unpopular, unless they managed to associate themselves with nationalist aspirations, as Dynamo Kiev did. Kuper devotes a chapter to the club, with fascinating details of the “science of football” developed there that allowed Kiev to dominate European football during the mid-’80s with a team of super-fast, super-fit “robots”.

But I wonder whether pharmacology played its part in their success, as it may have done during the 1982 World Cup, hosted and won by Argentina. Two Argentine forwards, Kuper writes, carried on running for an hour or two after one game, in order to work off drugs they had been injected with on the orders of Argentina’s military dictators. Winning the World Cup was important for public morale, and the generals were prepared to go to any lengths to help the team win it.

Few other sports can affect the mood of an entire nation for better or worse like that, and none can do it as powerfully as football. That makes football uniquely susceptible to corruption, and uniquely placed to reflect national character. Football isn’t the world, but you can find much of what’s important in the world and its people there. If you find yourself wondering how, let Kuper show you, all from the rivalry between Holland and Germany to the Pope’s season ticket at Barcelona by way of an American journalist who holds 0•3% of the shares in Charlton Athletic.

The only complaint I have about the book is the prose, which betrayed occasional tendencies towards one of my pet hates: what Fowler’s Modern English Usage describes as “elegant variation”: that is, referring to a “spade” as a “spade” once, then as a “pedally operated earth-moving implement” before you refer to it as a “spade” again. It’s an aesthetic flaw and that’s a shame in a book about the world’s most aesthetically pleasing sport.

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Crash: The Limits of Car Safety, Nicholas Faith (Boxtree 1998)

It’s got the same name as J.G. Ballard’s book and David Cronenberg’s now notorious film of J.G. Ballard’s book, but Nicholas Faith’s Crash could never have attracted as much attention at those two. A fiction about people deriving sexual pleasure from deaths and injuries in cars is much more important than the reality of deaths and injuries in cars. Rather in the way the fact that Princess Di died was much more important than why she died – which was because she was travelling in a grossly overpowered machine in a crowded city.

Lots more examples of the psychological paradoxes and lunacies of our love affair with the car can be produced, and this book produces them: “[D]uring Ulster’s quarter-century of Troubles, more deaths have been reported from road accidents than from the civil war.” But road deaths aren’t deliberate and malicious, so there’s no satisfying moral frisson to be had from them and they get ignored. Plus, we simply don’t like to face the truth – it’s too horrible to face it. Unless you stay inside all your life, you have to get near cars sometimes. That means that you can die in a very unpleasant and painful way by being hit by a car, whether you’re inside another car or not.

It’s much worse if you’re not, of course, because pedestrians take sixth or seventh place in the priorities of city-planners and architects. And car-designers:

One gesture that motor manufacturers could make an effort to reduce pedestrian injury would be to make the front of cars more pedestrian-friendly. The most dangerous vehicles are those with high ground clearance and ornaments, especially bull-bars – designed to show that the owner is used to herding cattle or elephants. These should be forbidden (or, at least, their owners assumed to be guilty if they ever hit a pedestrian).

They won’t be forbidden, because some people think they look good and they make cars more expensive, which helps the profits of the manufacturers, who have been putting profit above people for a long time. Cadillacs, for example, used to have “a prominent knife-like projection just above the instrument panel. It was designed to prevent reflection of the instrument panel onto the windshield. To accomplish this minor task, they produced as lethal a device as is seen in any American car.”

And was it removed when its lethality was pointed out? Maybe. If that didn’t interfere with profits. During the investigation into the way cars built by Ford were catching fire very easily, an American investigator

found various crucial Ford documents, one of which was a letter from the Ford Motor Company arguing why they should not make fuel-tank system improvements. They said that there will be 180 burn deaths per year at $200,000 value per burn death, there will be 180 serious burn injuries at $67,000 value per serious burn injury, and there will also be thousands of burned vehicles and there was a value on that. When you added all those numbers together it came out to an annual benefit of $50 million. Ford said we can fix the problem for $11 per vehicle but if you multiply the $11 per vehicle by the many millions of vehicle made per year, that came out to $150 million. So Ford was arguing that it was cheaper to let ’em burn.

The same kind of designers and the same kind of priorities were putting cars on the roads in Britain and Europe at the same time – and still are – and if car-manufacturers here were getting up to the same tricks as some American ones it’s quite possible that they got away with it, because we don’t have the same freedom of information laws:

Perhaps the most nefarious example of GM [General Motors]’s power emerged only in the 1970s through a Senate investigation. This revealed that it had headed a group of major companies that had bought and then shut down the light rail systems used for mass transit in Los Angeles, replacing it[,] partially and inadequately, with buses, nine out of ten of which were made by GM. The 1964 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles were directly traceable to the inhabitants’ inability to get to work by public transport.

That sort of thing shouldn’t be unexpected, but some of the other facts in the book should be. Seat-belts save lives, don’t they? Well, yes, of course they do. Or do they? Maybe not. Studies have been done that show they don’t seem to have had any effect, because they make drivers feel safer, drive faster, and crash more often and with worse effects. Paradoxical, but “paradoxical” is a word that comes to mind a lot when you read this book. Cars have very strange effects on our psychology and for all the huge damage they do and the deaths and injuries they cause, we don’t seem prepared to do anything about them.

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Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinoüs, Royston Lambert (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1984)

Antinoüs was the Bithynian catamite of the Emperor Hadrian and was discovered dead in the river Nile, apparently drowned, in 130 AD. He was about 19 years old. But why did he die? How did he die? That’s been a mystery ever since. This book is a discussion of the possible solutions and of the way Antinoüs’s life and death have influenced Western art and culture right to the present day.

Unfortunately, although Beloved and God has a good crisp title, with a subtle double entendre, its title isn’t matched by its prose. This book is dense and sometimes difficult to read, with some spectacularly crass metaphors. But it’s still rewarding, if partly as an illustration of how biography is more a disguised (and sometimes not-so-disguised) way of talking about oneself than it is of talking about one’s subject. Royston Lambert was presumably a paederast in the classical sense, and when he talks about the complexity of Hadrian’s personality or the beauty of body and soul of Antinoüs, he’s really writing disguised autobiography or sexual fantasy. But as Lambert talks about himself, he also packs in a lot of classical history and tells the fascinating story of how the cult of Antinoüs was created by Hadrian and spread throughout the empire.

I don’t like Antinoüs’ looks or the cult that surrounded him: there’s something bloated and sickly about both of them. But nihil humanum and all that: there were plenty of boy-bandits in the ancient world and there are plenty today, which is why this book has had several editions. And it does have an interesting story to tell. Among other fascinating sidelights was the story of the Paedogogium in Rome (Trajan’s and, to a lesser extent, Hadrian’s boy brothel) and the grafitti scratched there, which seems to record an early Christian pupil being mocked by his peers: there’s a crude donkey-headed Christ crucified, with the subscription ALEXAMENOS WORSHIPS HIS GOD. Elsewhere, Alexamenos seems to have struck back by proclaiming himself ALEXAMENOS THE FAITHFUL, which even I found touching. More importantly, there’s a good overview of the representation of Antinoüs in sculpture and coinage. And Lambert manages to convey the power of Antinoüs’ death in the Nile very well, describing the ancient worship of the river and the only occasionally successful attempts to placate its ferocity and caprice. Anyone drowned in the river, however humble their origin, automatically became a god and had shrines erected to them, but Antinoüs was special to someone very important and his cult became the biggest of all.

So what are the possible solutions to the mystery of his death? Lambert lists them: a boating accident; a murder by jealous rivals; a botched castration meant to preserve his youth; suicide prompted by the disappearance of youth and hence, inevitably, of Hadrian’s affections; a sacrifice to reverse successive failures of the very important Egyptian grain-harvest, which would soon have triggered trouble throughout the Empire. Traditionally the way to appease the Nile was to sacrifice to it and perhaps Antinoüs chose to die for the sake of his lover. Royston Lambert sacrificed in another way, because he was at the end of his life when he wrote this book and it was published posthumously. He could have been doing other things in the time he had left, but he wanted to leave a legacy and guide more people around the Antinoüm. But although this book is a memorial to Hadrian and Antinoüs, it’s also a memorial to Lambert himself. We can’t escape death and very few of us manage to escape ego.

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The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club, Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster 2009)

Well, I was wrong. This book isn’t funnier than the first part of Peter Hook’s autobiography. Nor is it as funny. In fact, it was a big disappointment. Not that I’m an ideal reader for a book about a legendary nightclub. Drugs, crowds, bright lights and deafening music. Who could ask for more? Me. Or not me. I’d ask for a lot less. I don’t find this kind of thing amusing:

That [PA] set-up lasted until 1988, when we splashed out for a huge system from Wigwam Acoustics […] that made everyone’s nose tingle because of the huge bottom end, and deafened audiences for a whole week. Eventually we had to turn it down from 140db to 130db because doctors were phoning up to complain – too many patients with Haçienda hearing problems. (“1984”, pg. 84)

But I do find this kind of thing amusing:

A fine example [of our incompetence] was Teardrop Explodes [sic] in May 1982. They were massive at the time and Rob [Gretton, New Order’s manager] paid them £3000 to do a ‘secret’ gig (nudge-nudge, wink-wink, but you’re supposed to let the word out so everyone will come).

We kept it so secret only eight people turned up. (“1982”, pg. 45)

This was amusing too:

We continued to make mistakes. For example, the place would be repainted every week, which cost a fortune. But, rather than wash out the paint tray and rollers, the staff would throw them in a pile then go to B&Q and buy new ones. I found that pile after we went bankrupt and it was like fucking Everest, had two Sherpas and a base camp on it. (“1984”, pg. 82)

And it’s also amusing that both the Haçienda and its cat received catalogue-numbers, Fac 51 and Fac 191, from Factory Records, the home of Joy Division and New Order. But there’s not enough amusing stuff here. For me, the best bits may have been the set-lists for two of the many bands who performed at the Haçienda. This was the Cocteau Twins on Thursday 8th December, 1983:

‘When Mama Was Moth’, ‘The Tinderbox’, ‘Glass Candle Grenades’, ‘In Our Angelhood’, ‘From the Flagstones’, ‘My Love Paramour’, ‘Sugar Hiccup’, ‘Hitherto’, ‘Musette and Drums’ (pg. 71)

And this was Einstürzende Neubaten on Thursday 28th January, 1985:

‘Seele Brennt’, ‘Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T.’, ‘Meningitis’, ‘Armenia’, ‘Yü-Gung (Fütter Mein Ego)’, ‘Sehnsucht’, ‘Sand’, ‘Negativ Nein’, ‘Letztes Biest (Im Himmel)’, Hör mit Schmerzen’, ‘Tanz Debil’, ‘Die Genaue Zeit’, Abfackeln!’ (pg. 100)

Just from those song-titles you know that those were two bands who, in their very different ways, were doing something very strange and interesting. Or bloody interesting, in the case of Einstürzende Neubaten and their pneumatic drill: “The gig ended when the singer’s throat burst and he started screaming blood all over the mic. Our sound-guy Ozzie got onstage and knocked him out. ‘I’d warned him once,’ he said.” But Hook doesn’t write about the Cocteau Twins or talk much about gigs by anyone except Einstürzende Neubaten and The Jesus and Mary Chain. The Chainies blew through the Haçienda on their “17 Minutes of Feedback Tour” in 1985. Hook says: “I thought, ‘That sounds quite interesting’, so made sure I worked security that night.” (pg. 93)

Alas, the gig was “excruciating”, because “17 Minutes of Feedback” was exactly what the audience got. Having listened to this, Hook removed the human shield that was protecting the Chainies from the people they’d deliberately provoked: “I was so wound up after they’d finished, I pulled the bouncers off and let the punters at them.” They were quickly sent on their way. But that was in the mid-’80s and soon the gigs at “the Haç” got fewer and fewer as the DJs took over. I think bands and their gigs are much more interesting than DJs and their sets. Joy Division and New Order were interesting, for example, but Hook doesn’t write about them much here either. He refers to New Order mostly as the source of the money poured into the bottomless pit of the Haçienda. As Tony Wilson of Factory Records put it: “About three years after opening the Haçienda we realized that everybody in Manchester was getting free drinks – except for the people who actually owned it.” (pg. 108)

But Hook, Wilson & Co. weren’t content with one bottomless pit: they opened another in the form of a bar called Dry. That too fell victim to the gangs who began to poison Manchester’s night-life in the 1990s. The Haçienda tried to fight fire with fire by hiring thugs to police thugs. That’s why they brought in the Manchester-Irish crime family called the Noonans:

Dominic Noonan, who worked with his brother [Damien] for the club, later told documentary-maker Donal MacIntyre that the Haçienda was a ‘tough door’; that gangs from Moss Side, Cheetham Hill and Salford would turn up, all wanting to get in for free, so ‘me and some of the lads who ran the door said enough was enough, let’s take the trouble to them – and we did.’

He and another doorman paid a visit to a pub, his mate with a shotgun, Dominic wielding a machete. ‘One of the gang lad’s dogs was about [dog-lovers and vegetarians might want to look away now] so I just chopped its head off, carried the head inside the pub and put it on the pool table. I more or less told them, “Stay away from the Haçienda or the next time it’ll be a human head,” and they never came back. (“1993”, pg. 260)

That warning for “dog-lovers and vegetarians” is funny, but it might have been added by Hook to something written by someone else. That story about Dominic Noonan and his machete is from one of the mini-histories in italics that punctuate the text (and that appear in Hook’s Joy Division book too). And why do I think Hook wasn’t responsible for the mini-histories? Well, they don’t always read like him and at the beginning of this book, a mini-history describes a controversy over a record-sleeve for Joy Division. It was designed by Peter Saville with a photograph of “the Appiani family tomb” on it. The record came out shortly after Ian Curtis’s death and Factory Records were accused of making a “tasteless reference to the suicide”. The mini-history says: “A bemused Saville pointed out that the design had been finalized prior to Curtis’s death.” (pg. 15) I don’t think Hook wrote that line. Guardianistas use ugly and pretentious words like “finalized” and “prior to”. As I noted previously, he isn’t a Guardianista (so “bemused” isn’t his kind of word either).

If he were a Guardianista, perhaps he would have avoided making some definitely tasteless references like this:

When drum’n’bass and hip hop became popular in 1995, we ended up being unable to hold so-called ‘black-music’ nights because there was so much trouble. Even the police encouraged us not to promote these shows and our bouncers eventually refused to work at them too – and don’t forget that our bouncers were lunatics themselves (in the nicest possible way). But even they said these nights couldn’t be policed. (pg. 238)

As Barry Miles did in one of his autobiographies, Peter Hook is just feeding a stereotype of violence and disorder in the black community. First of all, there is no more violence and disorder in the black community than in any other community. Second, okay, although there is a lot more violence and disorder in the black community, this is caused by hegemonic white racism and the legacy of slavery. And the very violent Noonan family weren’t black, which proves it. So there.

Anyway, this book disappointed me, but I’m not an ideal reader for a book about a legendary night-club. Lots of other people have been and will be. And it’s got a good index. Plus, I learned that the cedilla in Haçienda was (maybe) there to make the “çi” look like the “51” of its catalogue number. Good arty idea, that.

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George Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 2013)

I didn’t find this a very well-written or coherent book, but I thought it had one big thing in its favour: it doesn’t treat Orwell like a saint. The world-famous author of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945) was not an infallible prophet nor a flawless logician. He contradicted himself. He criticized people for saying things that he would later say himself. He often got things wrong.

But who didn’t, particularly before and during the Second World War? And the irreverence shown by Robert Colls towards his subject seemed to me to deepen into hostility at times. Does the South Shields lad Colls have a chip on his shoulder about the Old Etonian Orwell? I don’t know, but all biographies are also autobiographies. If an anti-hagiography is the opposite of a hagiography, then Colls seems at times to be writing one. That’s definitely what John Baxter was doing in his biography of J.G. Ballard, but English Rebel is a better and more interesting book than that.

It’s also much more eclectic. I like books that can quote from the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety at one moment (pg. 224) and from Richmal Crompton at another:

There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ ’em jus’ a bit, but not so anyone’d notice, and there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves. (ch. 3, “Eye Witness in Barcelona”, pg. 95, quoting “William’s friend Henry” in Crompton’s William the Bad, 1930)

As a summary of politics in the 1930s, that isn’t so far off the mark. It certainly captures the spirit of Communism at a time when many intelligent and educated people thought that Communism was the only and ethical hope for the human race. Orwell agreed with Crompton, not with the intellectuals. As Colls points out, he disliked and distrusted intellectuals while being one himself and moving in intellectual circles.

But there’s another connection between Orwell and Crompton: they were both very good writers, still delighting and diverting readers long after their deaths. Orwell was the greater and more serious of the two, but literary criticism can’t explain either of them. It can’t say why they were such good writers and such pleasures to read. All it can do is discuss their ideas, their influences, their culture and their life-histories. That’s not enough and although Colls is a cultural historian rather than a literary critic or (worse) a literary theorist, English Rebel fails to explain Orwell’s greatness just as surely as every previous biography and literary analysis.

And “Englishness” is not a very interesting topic. England and the English can be, but that’s partly because they’re so varied. You might also that Englishness is unconsciousness. The people who want to analyse it or feel the need to go in search of it are outsiders in some way. Orwell was born in British India, which made him an outsider in one way. He went to Eton on a scholarship, which made him an outsider in another. And he had French ancestry, which made him an outsider in yet another.

But I’ve never seen any critics or biographers of Orwell make much of his Frenchness. It’s there in his features and must have been there in his brain and psychology too, because genetics influences both of those. And that’s where Englishness can get interesting: at the genetic and biological level. You won’t find any of that here and bio-criticism isn’t a big subject anywhere yet. It will be, sooner or later, and that’s when Orwell will be better understood. In the meantime, books like this are here to speculate and make suggestions. And despite his irreverence and hostility, Colls does seem to appreciate the greatness and the moral stature of his subject: “Orwell spent his life fighting those who wanted to ‘control life’ and ‘entirely refashion people’ ‘with an absolute authority which penetrates into a man’s innermost being’.” (ch. , “Life after Death”, pg. 224)

That final quote is from the Jacobins and the Jacobins are still with us, using ever more advanced technology to satisfy some very primitive urges for power and domination. Orwell understood the urges and prophesied the technology. This book isn’t worthy of Orwell, but I’m not sure any biography or critique could be. It’s eclectic and interesting all the same. And it’s got a good index and some photos I’d never seen before.

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The African Queen, C.S. Forester (1935)

Sometimes you read a book, like it a lot, and start hunting down more material by the same author. And sometimes you read a book, like it a lot, and don’t do that.

At least, that happens to me. I’ve liked The African Queen a lot every time I’ve read it, but I’ve never hunted down anything else by Forester. I think I came across one of his Hornblower books once, set on the high seas during the Napoleonic wars. But I didn’t like it, so I was confirmed in my disinclination to try anything else. I think I’m wrong, because I doubt that The African Queen is a one-off. It’s the excellent and engrossing story of two nobodies, a “Cockney engineer” called Charlie Allnutt and a missionary’s sister called Rose Sayer, who pull off an extraordinary feat by navigating an old steam launch down an unnavigable river in tropical Africa during the First World War.

The book takes its name from the launch. So did the film, a cinematic classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. I think the film may explain why I’ve never hunted down more of Forester’s work. It was entirely self-contained and I’m pretty sure I saw it before reading the book, so it might have influenced my idea of the book. But the book would have been sui generis anyway and it’s better than the film. Books usually are and in some ways they can’t be beaten. There’s a magic in mere words that is intensified when words become silent, sitting as static black ink on white paper. An ancient part of biology, the eyes, collaborates with an ancient piece of technology, the book, to create a world inside the head.

Film is superficial, literature is submarine. It dives beneath the surface, entering the inner worlds of its characters, exploring their psychology, motives and history in a way that film can’t. But action can be important in literature too and Forester, like H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson, can make the real world grow dim while you read. And this book dives beneath the surface in more ways than one. When the propeller and shaft of the launch are damaged in some dangerous rapids, Allnutt has to remove them for repairs:

The African Queen was moored in moderately still water in the eddy below the rock, but only a yard or two away there was a racing seven-knot current tearing downstream, and occasionally some whim of the water expressed itself in a fierce under-water swirl, which swung the launch about and usually turned Allnutt upsidedown, holding on like grim death in case the eddy should take him out into the main current from which there would be no escape alive. It was in one of these swirls that Allnutt dropped a screw, which was naturally irreplaceable and must be recovered – it took a good deal of groping among the rocks beneath the boat before he found it again. (ch. 8)

If he’d been by himself, he would never have attempted the job. He knows too much about machines, you see, and Rose knows too little: “He sighed with the difficulty of explaining mechanics to an unmechanical person.” But Rose’s ignorance gets them through. She’s the stronger character of the two and persuades Allnutt to try the repairs. To his surprise, he succeeds. Rose is an African Queen in her way and Forester is only partly ironic in naming her after England’s national flower, because she’s attractive in her way too.

But her attractions were fading, worn down by drudgery and subordination to her brother, when the war broke in on their remote African mission in a German colony. Her brother dies of fever, shattered when the German army requisitions goods and labour from the mission, so Rose wants to strike a blow for England in revenge. But how can she, a “weak, feeble woman”, do anything against the might of Germany? The arrival of the African Queen and Allnutt, “the Cockney engineer employed by the Belgian gold-mining company two hundred miles up the river”, gives her an idea. The two of them will take the launch downstream to “the Lake” and sink another African Queen, the “police steamer” Königin Luise that allows Germany to rule those inland waves.

Allnutt laughs at the idea of sailing down the river, but Rose persuades him to try and he agrees, thinking that he can easily sabotage the mission before it gets dangerous. But he’s caught up in the powerful current of Rose’s now unrepressed personality, and decides to do what she wants. He’ll do his best to get to the Lake. And here Forester becomes like one of his characters: he has “the difficulty of explaining mechanics to an unmechanical person.” It’s the mechanics of boating, navigation and hydrography. The African Queen is a quest-story, like the Lord of the Rings, and the best quest-stories read easy but feel tough. Forester has to write well to convey the hardships that his questing characters face: the rapids, the broken propeller, the ugly leeches that lurk beneath beautiful water-lilies, and the hot, stinking, malaria-ridden mangrove swamp that is the last and almost insurmountable obstacle before the Lake. Charlie and Rose have to pole and pull their way through the swamp.

Then they reach the Lake and the hardest part of the quest begins: sinking the Königin Luise. Forester has set up a grand finale and even threatens his characters with extinction, because the Queen will have to ram the Königin with high explosives in her bow. Charlie says that he’ll do it alone, but Rose refuses to leave him: “It all ended, as was inevitable, in their agreeing that they would both go. There was no denying that their best chance of success lay in having one person to steer and one to tend the engine” (ch. 14). And so they’ll both be close at hand when the high explosive goes off. In other words, they’ll both be killed. By then, that prospect will matter to you: you’ve suffered and sweated with Charlie and Rose, so you want them to succeed. The film brings you close to its characters too, but the film had to alter Forester’s ending. What works on cellulose doesn’t always work on celluloid. Literature is subtler, slyer, more sinuous, rather like a river.

And did Forester take the seed for this book from the sly and subtle W. Somerset Maugham? There’s a missionary’s sister, a working-class man, and a steam launch in Maugham’s short story “The Vessel of Wrath” (1931). And, just like Rose, the missionary’s sister in Maugham’s story is neurotically worried about rape, before she and the working-class man fall in love. The similarities are suggestive, but if Forester was influenced by Maugham’s story, he only took the seed from it. The African Queen has grander themes and is more exciting. And Maugham can’t write about action the way Forester can. Maugham was interested in psychology, not steam-launches. Forester was interested in both and a lot more beside. His wider interests make for richer reading and enhanced excitement.

And The African Queen is historically and sociologically interesting too. Forester was born in 1899 and his Victorian roots were still showing in 1935, when the African Queen was published. But he’s candid about sex in a way no respectable Victorian novelist could have been. There’s nothing explicit here, but his unmarried questers are lovers long before the climax of their quest. It all seems plausible: a novel is a kind of machine too and Forester was an excellent literary mechanic. If you’ve seen the film, try the book. It’s better and bigger and I really do need to hunt down more by Forester.

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Britannia Obscura: Mapping Britain’s Hidden Landscapes, Joanne Parker (Vintage 2014)

An excellent and unpretentious guide to a subject that can go sadly awry in the wrong hands: psychogeography. Whether she’s writing about stone-circles or ley-lines, Joanne Parker keeps an open mind but never allows her brains to fall out. Her message is: “Here’s what people have thought and done – now make up your own mind.” Or maybe that should be: “Now go and see for yourself.” This book is both a guide and a goad, because after reading it you’ll want to look at what it talks about.

But stone-circles, in chapter two, and ley-lines, in chapter four, are esoteric excursions amid earthly or aerial realities. Chapters one and two are devoted to caves and canals. Then the book takes to the air for a look at flight-paths in the fifth and final chapter. Parker must have planned that journey from the underground to the aerial, from the subterranean to the celestial. The themes of the book are firmly established in that first chapter: there’s much more out there than readers may have supposed.

In fact, there’s a whole new world beneath your feet. Caves are fascinating places both physically and psychologically. Merely knowing about them alters the way you view a landscape. When you enter and explore them, another landscape changes – your own mind. But caving isn’t just about exploration: it can also involve excavation. Cave-systems can be extended or brought together by digging. It’s tough and dirty work and the cavers who undertake it are running risks like those faced by their mining fathers and grandfathers before them.

But one big difference is that they aren’t being paid for the risks they run. One of the genetic legacies of agriculture may be a propensity to enjoy activity for its own sake, because a farmer’s work is never done. Hobbies are a kind of work and our conscious motives for them may be no more than rationalizations for urges that literally uncoil from our DNA. But the urge to compete must be older than anything agricultural:

When Nixon discovered Titan, reducing Gaping Gill to the second largest cave in Britain, he was, he confesses, “delighted to steal the crown, as it were” from Yorkshire. While sprawling underground passages may stretch underground like colossal sleeping dragons, with a prehistoric disregard for county borders and human rivalries, one spur to diggers is certainly local pride. […] The connection of Lancashire’s Ireby Fell caverns to Rift Pot in Yorkshire was celebrated proudly with Eccles cake, Lancashire cheese, Black Sheep beer and Yorkshire teacakes, as the Three Counties system took its penultimate step towards deposing Ogof Draenen. And for many other cavers, making their local caverns deeper, longer or more complex than caverns further afield becomes a challenge akin to the race between medieval parishes to build church spires ever closer to the heavens. (ch. 1, “Underground, Overground: The Caver’s Map of Britain”, pg. 26)

So that chapter delves deep into the earth; the next delves deep into history as it looks at “Prehistoric Patterns: The Megalithic Shape of Britain”. But the caving chapter has prepared the way, because caves were among the first places occupied in prehistory: “The Torquay cave also boasts a human jawbone, dated between 38,000 and 40,000 years old, making it one of the oldest fossils from modern man ever to have been found in Europe” (pg. 16). No stone-circle is as old as that and maybe human beings weren’t capable of creating them so long ago. In some cases, matching a stone-circle would be a big challenge even today, with the full resources of our technological age. The architectural expertise and astronomical alignments of sites like Avebury and Stonehenge should stir the stolidest mind.

So could the subject of chapter three, the “Hidden Highways” that form “The Lost Map of Britain’s Inland Navigators”. In other words: canals. They were the veins and arteries of the Industrial Revolution. Then thrombosis and gangrene set in, because advancing technology made roads and railways more economical, so the canal network is much smaller than it used to be. Economics expanded it, then choked and contracted it.

But canals had become part of psychogeography, so their decline hasn’t been irreversible. Water has always been an esoteric element, as John Buchan conveyed in one of his best short-stories, but canals were a new variation on an ancient them: they were river-like, but they didn’t flow and they didn’t swing or swerve. Sometimes they dove straight through hills. The strangeness and romance of canals are well-summed up for me in the fact that Robert Aickman, one of England’s greatest macabre writers, was the founder and early vice-president of the Inland Waters Association. And people who love canals don’t like to see them disappear:

The Wey and Arun Canal Trust are working piecemeal on the canal, in the hope that some day its full length might be revived. Many other canals around the country are, similarly, waiting for their second coming, trusting to the undiminished enthusiasm of optimistic volunteers – to the successors of men like the late David Hutchings, who, after his groundbreaking restoration of the Stratford Canal in 1958, proclaimed simply, “Fortunately none of us were experts, or we should all have known that it was impossible.” (ch. 3, pg. 89)

Hobbies can be hard work. For some people, they wouldn’t be fun if they weren’t. But the ley-hunting of chapter four is usually more leisurely than caving or canal-recreation. Ley-lines are earthbound, but they capture the imagination in a special way. The man who introduced them to the world, Alfred Watkins, had the right name: earthy and English. And he chose the right string of monosyllables for the title of the book he published about ley-lines in 1925: The Old Straight Track. His theory was the British landscape still bore the signposts used by ancient traders in salt, flint, furs and other necessities of prehistoric life. By using hill-tops, stone-circles and churches built on ancient sites, he mapped what he called ley-lines, or the routes used in ancient times to travel in the most direct way across the landscape.

But there’s one of the difficulties with his theory right away: the most direct way across a landscape is rarely the easiest or most convenient. Why climb up and down a hill or wade through a marsh when it’s quicker to go around it? And are the alignments that Watkins identified really deliberate? In some ways it didn’t matter: ley-lines captured the imagination of countless people and have inspired countless expeditions. And adaptations of his theory have slipped the surly bonds of ergonomics: some people say that ley-lines are about earth-currents, not economics. There’s a lot of speculation, insubstantiality and even UFOlogy to ley-lines today. I don’t know what Joanne Parker herself thinks. She presents all sides of the arguments and chapter four becomes part of the camera obscura offering an overview of the wildness, weirdness and wackiness of British psychogeography.

Then, after the UFO flight-paths of chapter four, the book takes to the wing for the real flight-paths of chapter five. Except that the earliest human aeronauts in Britain weren’t on the wing: they were under the basket. Balloons were the first stage of man’s conquest of the air. They’ve never gone away: like canals, although they’re obsolete in strictly practical terms, there’s something special about them that invites and sustains serious devotees. But the planes that replaced balloons, like the trains that replaced canal-boats, have more devotees. Maybe Parker should have included a chapter on trains and their tracks, but I don’t think the book misses them. This is Britannia Obscura and trains aren’t obscure. I like them, but I can read about them elsewhere.

I’ve never read about Britain’s “Flight Paths and Regions” before. Air has always been an emblem of fluidity, but there’s a lot of rigidity up there now:

The practical problem with so much free airspace being gobbled up [by commercial aviation] is that it makes routes across the country more and more difficult for general aviation. “Where I live in the south-east,” Brian Hope says, “you can fly between airports at the moment to get north or west. But if Farnborough and Southend airports both get controlled airspace, that would block those routes.” It’s a little like a gated community suddenly being built in the middle of the Pennine Way or halfway round the South West Coast Path. And it’s not just close to London that these problems exist. The controlled airspace around Birmingham and Manchester is also notoriously difficult to avoid, and Bristol’s controlled airspace has recently joined up with Cardiff’s to create a vast impasse in the west. (ch. 5, “Highways in the Air: The Map of Britain’s Skies”, pg. 151)

I hadn’t thought about any of that before, but I hadn’t thought about a lot of the things in this book before. It’s been a mind-expander and an eye-opener, teaching me a lot and prompting me to look for more information elsewhere on everything from Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, “one of the seven wonders of the canal world” (pg. 70), to the Belinus Line, a ley that stretches the entire length of the British Isles and seems to connect Inverhope, Inverness, Carlisle, Birmingham, Winchester and Lee-on-Solent.

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The Church Hymnary, Various (Oxford University Press 1927)

Books are also boats. They sail down the river of time and they get more interesting the longer they sail. This book is old enough to contain a hymn attributed to “Frederick Lucian Hosmer, 1840–”. That is, he was born in 1840 and when this book was published in 1927 he was still alive. It’s a useful reminder that the Jazz Age had many millions of Victorians in it, men and women who had been born and grown up in the nineteenth century. George Orwell captured the same truth in the following decade:

Coleridge Grove was a damp, shadowy, secluded road, a blind alley and therefore void of traffic. Literary associations of the wrong kind (Coleridge was rumoured to have lived there for six weeks in the summer of 1821) hung heavy upon it. You could not look at its antique decaying houses, standing back from the road in dank gardens under heavy trees, without feeling an atmosphere of outmoded ‘culture’ envelop you. In some of those houses, undoubtedly, Browning Societies still flourished, and ladies in art serge sat at the feet of extinct poets talking about Swinburne and Walter Pater. – Keep the Aspidistra Flying, 1936

This hymnary was printed for the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian churches both in Britain and overseas in countries like South Africa and New Zealand. It reminded me of Swinburne in two ways, one positive, the other negative. The verse is often technically excellent, which is positively reminiscent of Swinburne. But it lacks inspiration, which is negatively reminiscent of Swinburne. There’s very little poetic fire here and nobody seems to be drunk on language the way Swinburne often was. The versifiers are on their best behaviour rather than writing at their best. Here, for example, are two very big names at far from their best:

Let us with a gladsome mind
Praise the Lord, for He is kind:
For His mercies aye endure,
Ever faithful, ever sure. – Hymn 11

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust;
Thou madest man, he knows not why;
He thinks he was not made to die;
And Thou hast made him; Thou art just. – Hymn 142

Can you guess who wrote either of those? I doubt it. Hymn 11 is by John Milton and Hymn 142 is by Alfred Tennyson. And their hymns remind me of a line from an essay by A.E. Housman: “In fact, what Swinburne wrote, and what Pope and Dryden wrote, was not, in the strictest sense of the word, poetry. [… I]ts appeal was not to the core of the human mind and the unalterable element in its constitution.” Milton and Tennyson could and usually did write poetry in the strictest sense, but not here.

That puts them in the majority. I would say that most of the hymns here are versification, not poetry. The words are clever but cold. My favourite hymn in this book is an exception:

Who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round with dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound – his strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might, though he with giants fight;
He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.

Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit
We know we at the end shall life inherit.
Then, fancies, flee away! I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.

I think that literature wasn’t a secular activity for John Bunyan in the way that it was for Milton and Tennyson. He truly and deeply believed, so his hymn is true poetry and could stand on its own without a tune. But I think the best hymn quâ hymn is this:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;
His day is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of all before His judgment seat.
O be swift, my soul, to answer Him; be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make us holy, let us die to make all free,
While God is marching on.

That’s included in a section entitled “His Coming in Power”. And it is indeed a powerful hymn: I would predict that Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) had a broad face and lots of testosterone. Some of the other female hymn-writers here don’t give that impression:

Part in peace: Christ’s life was peace,
Let us live our life in Him;
Part in peace, our duties call us;
We must serve as well as praise.

Amen. Hymn 543

That’s by Sarah Flower Adams, who was born in 1809 and died in 1848. Did she have a chronic illness and write to console herself for that? Her very brief and yearning hymn gives that impression. The hymnary as a whole would certainly appeal to people who like calm, order and hierarchy. It’s also very well-printed too, still solid and sturdy as it approaches its centenary with its springy black cover and gilt-edged pages. I’m glad that the river of time has carried it into my hands, because it’s a messenger from another time and culture.

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