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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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Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh (1928)

If Waugh had died after completing Decline and Fall, just as if Swinburne had died after completing Atalanta in Calydon (1865) or Poems & Ballads (1866), his reputation in English literature would still be secure, I think. Swinburne’s reputation in fact would be higher and though Waugh’s wouldn’t – he never lessened the impact of his early genius with much hack-work in old age – Decline and Fall remains an astonishing achievement not just as a first novel but as a novel full stop.

Though to be strictly accurate it wasn’t a first novel: that honour had gone to The Temple at Thatch, “about madness and magic”, which Waugh burnt in manuscript after his friend Harold Acton was unenthusiastic about it. The “magic” in question was black magic, so perhaps there is something Pagini-esque about Decline and Fall. Did Waugh sell his soul to the Devil in return for the supreme skill as a novelist that he would go on to confirm with books like Black Mischief (1932) and Scoop (1938)?

It’s certainly plausible: Decline and Fall is not only extremely well-written in a deceptively simple style à la Hemmingway, but also extremely witty in a way Hemmingway never was. It tells the tale of Paul Pennyfeather, who is blown hither and thither by the winds of vicissitude but is ultimately weighty enough to settle into a sheltered niche. At the beginning of the novel, he is set upon and debagged by upper-class hooligans while studying theology at Oxford. With gross injustice, the college authorities promptly send him down for indecent behaviour, so he’s forced to take up school-mastering to earn a living. His first and, as it happens, only employer, Dr Fagan of Llanabba Castle School in Wales, is not shocked to learn the true reason for Paul’s expulsion from Oxford. “[T]rue to his training”, Paul confesses all:

“I was sent down, sir, for indecent behaviour.”

“Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the teaching profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal. …”

But Dr Fagan is not sufficiently blasé to forget to force a reduction in salary out of Paul because of his misbehaviour. It’s a compounding of the original injustice that will happen again and again as the novel proceeds. At Llanabba Paul meets Captain Grimes, whose single appearance in this book was sufficient to secure him a permanent place in English comic writing, and begins teaching the son of the woman he will eventually marry.

But I won’t quote more and give more details of the plot, because that would spoil the book for those who haven’t read it. I’ll just say that Paul sees the idiocies of education from the inside, then resigns to marry and suffer more grotesque injustice. Decline and Fall should be read by anyone who loves prose and wit for their own sake. Imagine a Wodehousian farce written by a more cynical and sophisticated Wodehouse who was an even greater master of prose. Decline and Fall is perhaps the best first – or first-published – novel ever written in the English language. Or any language. High praise? Read it and see if I’m not right.

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Still William, Richmal Crompton (1925)

An early and excellent entry in the William canon. Like P.G. Wodehouse and J.P. Martin, Richmal Crompton is an author who inspires me to ration myself. I stop myself reading too much at one sitting, because it’s easy to be greedy when the pleasure of reading is so great. But it’s the prose and the playfulness of Wodehouse and Martin that are pleasurable. Their writing is so light and inventive that it makes me feel happy just to read it.

Crompton is different: her prose isn’t particularly good, but her characters and humour certainly are. As I said in my review of William in Trouble (1927), she’s very good at capturing the psychology of children. She’s also very good at capturing dialogue and bringing characters to life by the way they speak:

“So this is little William,” said Uncle Frederick, putting his hand on William’s head. “And how is little William?”

William removed his head from Uncle Frederick’s hand in silence then said distantly:

“V’ well, thank you.”

That’s from “William’s Truthful Christmas”, in which William is inspired by a Christmas sermon to “cast aside all deceit and hypocrisy” and speak only the truth. The consequences are predictable: William does what he always does and introduces chaos into the well-ordered and well-regulated adult world. He might be small in stature, but he’s big in influence.

So is Violet Elizabeth Bott, the angelic, lisping and iron-willed six-year-old who makes her debut here in “The Sweet Little Girl in White”. William has no defence against her ability to conjure tears at will, as she does in that story, or against her threat to “thcream and thcream and thcream until I’m thick”, which first appears in “William the Match-Maker”. But if William can’t control Violet Elizabeth, nor can his family control him. After he’s plunged his beautiful elder sister Ethel into more embarrassment with his match-making, Ethel makes a plaintive request:

“Mother,” she said, “can’t we do anything about William? Can’t we send him to an orphanage or something?”

“No, darling,” said Mrs. Brown calmly. “You see, for one thing, he isn’t an orphan.”

“But he’s so awful!” said Ethel. “He’s so unspeakably dreadful!”

“Oh, no, Ethel,” said Mrs. Brown, still darning placidly. “Don’t say things like that about your little brother. I sometimes think that when William’s just had his hair cut and got a new suit on, he looks quite sweet!”

Anyone who knows William will also know that “sweet” is not the mot juste, but Mrs. Brown always tries to see the best in her children. She represented calm and William represented chaos in 1925, when this book was first published, and they still represented calm and chaos forty-five years later in 1970, when William the Lawless, the last William book, was published. They never aged and their world never took on any more solidity. Geography and landscape didn’t interest Crompton: character and dialogue did. William is one of the best characters in children’s literature and he’s at his best here.

But today he’s no longer at his most popular. That’s why I’m glad that my copy of Still William is older than I am. My battered hard-back was awarded as a prize in 1951 to “Michael Weatherill” at the Jesmond Road School, overseen by the “West Hartlepool Education Committee”. He won it for “Perseverance”, which is very appropriate. William perseveres, always trying to extract fun and excitement from an often difficult world. Fun isn’t guaranteed, but excitement always is. Without William, life would be duller for both his fictional family and his fiction’s fans.

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Something Fresh, P.G. Wodehouse (1915)

Another book to remind you that only the mediocre are always at their best. At his best, Wodehouse is sublime, but it was impossible for such a prolific author to always be at his best. And particularly not when he was still learning his craft. This novel is the first devoted to Blandings Castle and its eccentric master Lord Emsworth, but the title promises something that isn’t delivered.

The style isn’t fresh: it’s clogged with Victorian facetiousness. Wodehouse hasn’t taken to the literary wing, as he would in the Ukridge and Mulliner stories. He hasn’t learnt how to mix simplicity with silliness and cerebrality, as he would in the Jeeves stories. Jeeves definitely isn’t my favourite Wodehouse character. I’d even say I dislike him, but some of the Jeeves stories are undoubtedly classics and they’re very enjoyable to read. Perhaps Wodehouse was at his best in a short story. I’ve certainly given up on some of his novels – this one, for example. Lord Emsworth is eccentric here but not amusing. When he carries off a valuable scarab by mistake from an American millionaire’s collection, it’s a plot-device, not something that seems natural.

And although the Efficient Baxter appears here too, he’s a shadow of his future and formidable self. The Empress of Blandings isn’t even a shadow. At least, I saw no hint of her presence in what I read and there was no mention of her on the back cover. Blandings without the Empress is like strawberries without cream. And this novel is like straw without berries. It’s dull, contrived and unamusing, Wodehouse at far below his best.

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Headlong Hall (1816) / Nightmare Abbey (1818)

Dubious disciple of Tarzan expresses proud ornithophilia (6,4,7)

I’m no good at cryptic crosswords. I’d like to think this is because I didn’t do them as a kid, but then I never felt any inclination to do them as a kid. Where there’s no inclination, there’s often no ability. Either way, it’s a pity, because cryptic crosswords can be great fun. The fun lies in playing with words and ideas in a light-hearted way.

Rather like reading the books of the writer this review is about. His name is concealed in the cryptic clue above. If you haven’t worked it out, don’t worry, because I wouldn’t have either if someone else had invented the clue. So let’s take it a step at a time. Who was a dubious disciple? Well, he was a bit more than a disciple, but “apostle” didn’t alliterate (among other things). My saying that should allow you to work out that the first word is THOMAS. Now, forget about the bit in the middle and concentrate on the bit on the end. “Ornithology” is bird-study, so “ornithophilia” must be bird-love. And it’s proud. But is that “proud love” or “proud bird”? My asking that should allow you to work out that the third word is PEACOCK. Now let’s try the bit in the middle. A disciple of Tarzan called Thomas is expressing his love for peacocks. How might he go about it? Well, how did Tarzan go about expressing the same emotion? Tarzan love Jane. My explaining that should allow you to work out that the full answer is THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK.

He sounds like a ’sixties psychedelic band, doesn’t he? Maybe he was – if he wasn’t, he should have been. First and foremost, though, he was a writer, born in 1785, died in 1866. In Weymouth and London, respectively. He was only a minor literary figure even in his day, but that’s part of what I like about him. That and his name. And his books.

Well, two of them, anyway. He wrote seven-and-a-bit: Headlong Hall (1816); Melincourt (1817); Nightmare Abbey (1818); Maid Marian (1822); The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829); Crotchet Castle (1831); Gryll Grange (1860); and Calidore (which he never completed). I’ve tried four of them, and given up with two. The two I gave up with were The Misfortunes of Elphin and Crotchet Castle. The two I didn’t give up with were Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey.

Those two are also his most famous books, which suggests that they’re his best. And his best is very good. Headlong Hall is a satire on, among other things and other people, the Romantic Movement and figures like Shelley and Byron; Nightmare Abbey takes a narrower view and satirizes the Romantic Movement through just Shelley and his hopeless love-affairs. For a flavor of the first, here is Mr Foster, the perfectibilist, who believes that the human race is getting better with every generation:

“In short,” said he, “everything we look on attests the progress of mankind in all the arts of life, and demonstrates their gradual advancement towards a state of unlimited perfection.”

Foster and his perfectibilism are adamantly and absolutely opposed by the deteriorationist Mr Escot, who believes that, on the contrary, the human race is getting worse with every generation:

“[T]hese improvements, as you call them, appear to me only so many links in the great chain of corruption, which will soon fetter the whole human race in irreparable slavery and incurable wretchedness: your improvements proceed in a simple ratio, while the factitious wants and unnatural appetites they engender proceed in a compound one; and thus one generation acquires fifty wants, and fifty means of supplying them are invented, which each in its turn engenders two new ones; so that the next generation has a hundred, the next two hundred, the next four hundred, till every human being becomes such a helpless compound of perverted inclinations, that he is altogether at the mercy of external circumstances, loses all independence and singleness of character, and degenerates so rapidly from the primitive dignity of his sylvan origin, that it is scarcely possible to indulge in any other expectation, than that the whole species must at length be exterminated by its own infinite imbecility and vileness.”

But Escot and Foster are opposed, or perhaps balanced, by Mr Jenkison, the statu-quo-ite, who believes that the balance of good and bad remains the same from generation to generation:

I have often debated the matter in my own mind, pro and con, and have at length arrived at this conclusion – that there is not in the human race a tendency either to moral perfectibility or deterioration; but that the quantities of each are so exactly balanced by their reciprocal results, that the species, with respect to the sum of good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, happiness and misery, remains exactly and perpetually in statu quo.

Throw in more philosophers and scholars attached with equal fervor to other, and odder, world-views, mix with absurd incidents, absurder love-affairs, and season with genuine learning and wit, and you have the recipe with which Thomas Love Peacock has appealed to a small but select audience ever since Headlong Hall was first published in 1816. Two years later, in 1818, he followed it with Nightmare Abbey, which is less a feast than a single dish, but no less delicious for that. Even better, you can buy both for a pound in the Wordsworth series at a bookshop near you now.

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The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe 2The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe, Edmund Glasby (Linford 2013)

A patchy book that will be best appreciated by those who know the north-west of England and the seaside town of Morecambe (pronounced MOR-kum). It will be best un-appreciated by that group too. As you might expect, some people will find The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe funny and some will find it insulting. Any Lovecraft fan who has visited the town since the 1960s, when cheap air travel ended its popularity as a resort, will have been strongly reminded of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. In Lovecraft’s story, an outsider discovers that the crumbling town of Innsmouth is full of strange, fish-faced folk and swirling with undercurrents of madness and menace. That’s a lot like Morecambe, believe me. One of those Lovecraft fans has now based a novel on the parallels. These are the opening lines:

For past eighteen months, the old man had wandered the streets of the increasingly derelict Lancashire coastal resort of Morecambe – contender for the unenviable title of “The most depressing town in Britain”. None of the Morecambrians knew where he had come from, for none had ever stopped to speak with him, his mysterious background becoming the stuff of local lore. The few who were aware of him speculated that he was a re-housed murderer or paedophile living out his miserable existence in a nondescript squat somewhere along the West End – the great haven for dole-dossers, junkies and other down-and-outs.

It’s not surprising that The Visitor, Morecambe’s local newspaper, hasn’t reviewed this book, because it doesn’t paint an attractive picture of the town and its southern neighbour, the village of Heysham. The old man is Professor Mandrake Smith, once Professor of Anthropology at Oxford University, now an alcoholic tramp squatting in an abandoned hotel in the “largely gerontocratic dump” of Morecambe, whose “lifeblood” is “anti-depressants and cheap booze” (pg. 25) and whose “xenophobic” inhabitants are “morose and unwilling to embrace change”, “content almost to wallow in their pervasive, impoverished despair” (pg. 83).

Edmund Glasby, who grew up in Morecambe according to this web-page, has fun letting Nyarlathotep and other Lovecraftian monsters loose on the gerontocratic dump and its xenophobes. “Pervy” Stan, as Professor Mandrake is now known, is ready to top himself at the beginning of the story, but finds new purpose in life by joining the battle against the eldritch horror of “darkness and insanity that awaits Morecambe – and the entire world…” Other characters fare less well, like “Heysham’s ugliest and fattest man, ‘Big’ Barry Crowley” (pg. 25), who is eviscerated and turned into a zombie; “The Troll”, an otherwise nameless “benefit-scrounging misfit” and single mother of eleven, whose mind is destroyed by a “gigantic octopoid head” peering over the hills to the north of Morecambe’s famous bay as the tide pours in; and Bill Draper, a “cantankerous old sod” who owns a newsagent’s in Morecambe’s misleadingly named West End, enjoys reading the “large obituaries section” in The Visitor, and makes the mistake of opening the door to his storeroom, despite the “overpowering fishy stink” that is leaking through it.

The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe by Edmund Glasby

The Weird Shadow… (large print edition)

The characters are tongue-in-cheek but true-to-life. Even Jacob Wyzchyck could really exist somewhere in the town. He’s a voyeur who spends most of his time sitting in “dirty underpants” in his “squalid third-story bedsit” overlooking “Westminster Road”, equipped with a pair of “binoculars, bag of popcorn and large bottle of vodka” (pg. 242). He sees the first outbreak of homicidal violence that will soon erupt into “full-blown chaos”, as “lunatics and anarchists” rampage “largely unchecked through the streets”. This part of the book reminded me of Stephen King’s Needful Things (1991), in which King has fun destroying his invented town of Castle Rock: “Much of Morecambe was now ablaze, with fires burning uncontrollably from Bare to Heysham, from Torrisholme to the outskirts of Lancaster” (pg. 318).

But in the end the “Crawling Chaos” is beaten off and Morecambe is saved. In the epilogue, there’s even a “day of glamour and hope”, as the old Midland Hotel in which Professor Mandrake once squatted is re-opened after restoration: “psychic waves of goodwill and hope were transforming Morecambe, for one day at least” (pg. 353). If you get that far, you’ll find the book entertaining but unsatisfying. Too much Lovecraft is borrowed direct and the horrors are too crude and explicit. Morecambe will also remind some of a giant Alan Bennett play, and a subtler writer like Ramsey Campbell could have made more of the strange contrast between the urban decay of the town and the beauty of the bay on which it is set.

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The Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories by John BuchanThe Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories, John Buchan (Penguin Books 2009)

“How the devil could one associate horror with mathematics?” A Lovecraft fan will answer: easily. But that question was asked by John Buchan in a story first published in 1911. Buchan is most famous for the character Richard Hannay, hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), but just as there is much more to Doyle than his detective, so there is much more to Buchan than his battler.

As you’ll see in this collection. Like Doyle, Buchan ranged from horror to humour, from realism to romance, from outdoors adventure to indoors introspection. He could write vivid descriptions of everything from dinner with the Devil to a storm at sea. Doyle was obviously an influence on him; so were Kipling and Stevenson. He doesn’t always match their quality, but that’s hardly surprising: writing formed only part of his very full and active life. According to the chronology here, he trained as a barrister, became President of the Oxford Union, worked as secretary to the High Commissioner of South Africa and served in the Intelligence Corps during the First World War, then became successively a director of Reuters, a Conservative member of parliament, President of the Scottish Historical Society, Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Governor-General of Canada and Chancellor of Edinburgh University.

During all that time, he was also hunting, fishing and tramping the wilderness of Scotland, South Africa and Canada. And he was reading in several languages on many subjects: there are quotes here from Suetonius, Shakespeare, the Bible, Burke, A.E. Housman, Verlaine, Pascal and Poincaré. The last two supply the seed for “Space” (1911), his proto-Lovecraftian story of mathematics and menace:

All Hollond’s tastes were on the borderlands of sciences, where mathematics fades into metaphysics and physics merges in the abstrusest kind of mathematics. Well, it seems he had been working for years at the ultimate problem of matter, and especially of that rarefied matter we call aether or space. I forget what his view was – atoms or molecules or electric waves. […] He claimed to have discovered — by ordinary inductive experiment — that the constituents of aether possessed certain functions, and moved in certain figures obedient to certain mathematical laws. Space, I gathered, was perpetually ‘forming fours’ in some fancy way. (“Space” in The Moon Endureth: Tales and Fancies – in this online version of the story, the opening quote is by Tertullian)

Like one of Lovecraft’s protagonists, Holland is doomed by his discovery. So is the antiquarian Dubellay in “The Wind in the Portico” (1928). He is visited by the narrator, who is “busy on a critical edition of Theocritus” and wants to see a rare codex owned by Dubellay:

I had made a portrait in my mind of a fastidious old scholar, with eye-glasses on a black cord, and a finical Weltkind-ish manner. Instead I found a man still in early middle age, a heavy fellow dressed in the roughest of country tweeds. […] His face was hard to describe. It was high-coloured, but the colour was not healthy; it was friendly, but it was also wary; above all, it was unquiet. He gave me the impression of a man whose nerves were all wrong, and who was perpetually on his guard. (“The Wind in the Portico” in The Runagates Club)

He’s right to be: having excavated an “old temple” in the woods, he’s foolishly renewed worship of a “British god of the hills” called Vaunus. What happens to him seemed startlingly Lovecraftian when I first read the story, but when I read it again the Lovecraftian charge was muted. It’s hard to be startled twice and a story with powerful images can be disappointing when you return to it.

Buchan uses a similar theme in another story, “The Grove of Ashtaroth”, but in that case the story holds its power when I read it again. It has a different ending too: the doom is averted and the deity is ambivalent. Baleful or beautiful? Grotesque or glorious? It depends partly on one’s race and the story is about atavism and the way ancestry can overthrow environment. Or rather: can re-emerge in the right environment. Like Doyle, Buchan accepted some shocking and long-exploded ideas about the influence of genetics on brains, bodies and behaviour. They’re shocking to modern sensibilities, at least, but they might prove less exploded than some suspect.

Buchan himself may be evidence for them, because he’s another example of the disproportionate Scottish influence on English-speaking culture and literature. He died in Montreal but he was born in Perth near the east coast of Scotland. This background means that some of the strangeness in this collection is a matter of perspective. If you’re not Scottish, it will be strange. If you are, it won’t be. Take “Streams of Water in the South” (1899) and the apparent tramp who suddenly appears and helps a shepherd get his flock across a deep and dangerous flood. The shepherd asks the narrator of the story if he knows who the tramp is:

I owned ignorance.

“Tut,” said he, “ye ken nocht. But Yeddie had aye a queer crakin’ for waters. He never gangs on the road. Wi’ him it’s juist up yae glen and doon anither and aye keepin’ by the burn-side. He kens every water i’ the warld, every bit sheuch and burnie frae Gallowa’ to Berwick. And then he kens the way o’ spates the best I ever seen, and I’ve heard tell o’ him fordin’ waters when nae ither thing could leeve i’ them. He can weyse and wark his road sae cunnin’ly on the stanes that the roughest flood, if it’s no juist fair ower his heid, canna upset him. Mony a sheep has he saved to me, and it’s mony a guid drove wad never hae won to Gledsmuir market but for Yeddie.” (“Streams of Water in the South”)

The mixture of formal literary English and broad Scots heightens the richness and earthiness of the Scots. But perhaps “earthiness” is the wrong word. Language is like water: fickle, fissile, rushing over the landscape of history and culture. So Scots runs through southern English like the streams after which, via the Bible, the story is named.

The tramp Yeddie is named after them too: his real name is Adam Logan but “maist folk ca’ him ‘Streams of Water’”. He both loves water and gains power from it. As he carries fifteen sheep, one by one, across the dangerous flood, he stands “straighter and stronger”, his eye flashes and his voice rings with command. He reminds me of Kipling’s jungle boy Mowgli, who’s at ease with natural forces in a way most people don’t understand and are disturbed by.

The power of this story is Kiplingesque too: it will stay with you, partly for its strangeness, partly for its sadness. Unlike his beloved streams, Logan can’t defy time and where he was once familiar, he will one day be forgotten.

Politics and the May-Fly” (1896) also involves water and also uses Scots. It’s memorable in a different way: not sad, but sardonic. It’s psychological too, involving a battle of wits between a Tory farmer and his radical ploughman. High-born Buchan, the future Governor-General of Canada, could understand and sympathize with all stations of men. But there are things common to all men: “Politics” is a Machiavellian tale in miniature and not something that Lovecraft could have written.

Lovecraft didn’t like fishing or the great outdoors, after all, and he couldn’t explain their appeal as Buchan can. Nor could he have written “Basilissa” (1914), a story that involves both life-long love and rib-cracking wrestling. You’d have to look to Robert E. Howard for a story like that. And this, from a story with a Lovecraftian title, is like Clark Ashton Smith:

Sometimes at night, in the great Brazen Palace, warders heard the Emperor walking in the dark corridors, alone, and yet not alone; for once, when a servant entered with a lamp, he saw his master with a face as of another world, and something beside him which had no face or shape, but which he knew to be that hoary Evil which is older than the stars. (“The Watcher by the Threshold”, 1900)

So Buchan could write like all of the Weird Big Three. I think he must have influenced them too. The Thirty-Nine Steps is a classic, but it doesn’t reveal Buchan’s full range, erudition and intelligence. This collection does. I don’t think all the stories are good, but at his best he isn’t so far behind Kipling, Doyle and H.G. Wells. With a less strenuous public life, perhaps he would have matched them. But if he’d had less appetite for work, he might have had less appetite for landscapes and ideas too. There are lots of them here, from Scottish hills to Canadian forests, from mathematical pandemonium to the “Breathing of God”.

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Six Uncollected Stories by Saki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“William.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William roused himself from his bewilderment.

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

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

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

“Now you get one,” he ordered William.

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

“Oo—ou!” he said. “Crumbs!”

Thomas emitted a peal of laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s William in trouble again.

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

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

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

Dear Mr. Alan Coles,

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

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

Yours truly,

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

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

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

Maxin notes this elusiveness elsewhere in the book:

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

Other people thought the same:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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