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Posts Tagged ‘humour’

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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Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (Hachette 1967)

When I picked up my second Asterix book as a child, I opened it and then put it down again. I thought I had read it before, because it had the same first page: a map of Gaul, transfixed by a Roman eagle but with a magnifying glass on one small unconquered corner in the north-west, the Gaulish village where the pint-sized warrior Asterix lives with his giant friend Obelix.

After I picked up another book in the series, I realized my mistake. The Asterix books all had that first page. Now I realize something more: that the map is important not just to set the scene but also to assuage the humiliation. The Asterix books are ostensibly about clever Gauls getting the better of clumsy Romans, with the Gauls standing in for children and the Romans for adults. But they’re also about the French and the Germans during the Second World War. In fantasy, the Gauls managed to keep one corner of their homeland their own, fighting off and humiliating the Romans every time they tried to conquer it. In reality, France was entirely conquered and the French were the humiliated ones.

The German occupation was no joke. The Roman occupation could be, though. After all, it took place many centuries before Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix was first published in 1967, when the German occupation was still a vivid memory for millions of French. Asterix was a salve for the psychic wounds of a nation, but its pharmacological recipe works outside l’Hexagone.* The bright colours, constant action, chaotic plots, and visual and linguistic puns of Asterix will make you feel cheerful whether or not you’re French. And whether or not you read them in French. But reading in French is best, of course. As I’ve said before, if you’re learning a language you should do two things: use a monolingual dictionary and read comics.

With comics, you see language illustrated by action and objects, so you absorb meaning without your mother-tongue getting in the way. That happens all through Le Tour de Gaule, which is about a bet Asterix has with a Roman prefect called Lucius Fleurdelotus, who has been sent by Jules César to stop Asterix and the other villagers disturbing the “paix Romaine” of Gaul. Lucius has had the village surrounded by a palisade of stout wood and tells Asterix from a watch-tower that he and the other villagers will have to stay on their own small piece of land and be forgotten. Asterix defiantly disagrees: “ROMAIN! NOUS SOMMES CHEZ NOUS EN GAULE ET NOUS IRONS OÙ BON NOUS SEMBLERA…” – “Roman! Gaul is our home and we’ll go wherever we please…” He bets Lucius that the palisade will prove useless and that he, Asterix, can go on a tour of Gaul, gathering the culinary specialities of every region for a banquet to which Lucius is formally invited.

Lucius accepts the bet, promising to lift the blockade if he loses it. So Asterix and his best friend Obelix set off on their Tour de Gaule. First of all, Asterix needs a new flask of magic strength-potion from “le druide vénérable du village”, Panoramix. Obelix doesn’t need potion, because he fell in the druid’s cauldron when he was a baby. Unlike Asterix, he can knock Romans down like nine-pins without a draught from the flask. There’s always a lot of Roman-bashing in the Asterix books, but there are always good new jokes too. One of the best here is the visit made by Asterix and Obelix to a “Chars d’Occasion”, or “Second-Hand Chariot” dealership, where the beaming owner, dressed in a camel-hair coat, sells them a gleaming chariot and glossy black horse. “VOUS NE LE REGRETTEREZ PAS,” he assures them: “You won’t regret it.”

They set off, but the horse begins to tire very quickly. Then it begins raining. “NOTRE CHEVAL A DÉTEINT!” gasps Asterix: “Our horse has changed colour!” And one of the chariot’s wheels falls off. They’ve been sold a ringer: the horse was painted black and the chariot unfit for the road. But it doesn’t stop the Tour. They simply commandeer the Roman char de dépannage, or “pick-up chariot”, that arrives to tow away their wreck. There are lots more new jokes before the end of the book, plus the running gag that sees them meet a long-suffering pirate ship in the Mediterranean. And Obelix, as usual, reacts badly to the suggestion that he’s fat.

Because images accompany the action, I understood most of the French easily, but there were puns and regional jokes that went over my head. I didn’t understand the end of the book either, when Asterix gives Lucius the village’s own speciality: “LA CHÂTAIGNE!” – “The chestnut!” As he says it, he knocks Lucius – TCHAC! – right out of his sandals and high into the air. That couldn’t be translated literally into English and a lot must be lost when you read Asterix in another language. But the images remain and sometimes the translation works better than the original. The village druid Panoramix is called Getafix in English, the rotund village chief Abraracourcix is Vitalstatistix, and the caterwauling village bard Assurancetourix is Cacophonix.

Cacophonix would work in French too, but those names are a rare example of an outsider improving on the original. In their way, the Asterix books are one of the great products of French civilization, full of charm, cleverness and joie de vivre. I don’t think anything could make them more enjoyable, but that subtext about the German occupation makes them more interesting.


*“The Hexagon”, as France is known because of its roughly six-sided shape on the map.

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

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

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

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

BASSEY: That’s terrible.

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

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

CISSIE: Leonard and I went to Greece last year.

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

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

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

CISSIE: Did you see the Acropolis?

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

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

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

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Front cover of Dear Popsy by E. Bishop Potter
Dear Popsy: Collected Postcards of a Private Schoolboy to His Father, E. Bishop-Potter, illustrated by Paul Cox (Penguin, 1985)

This book is a little like a cross between the Captain Grimes chapters of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928) and a manual of sexual pathology, with Saki’s Clovis Sangrail as fairy godmother. It might even have been suggested by a passage in Decline and Fall in which a boy in his early teens sits up well past his mother’s lover’s bedtime:

Downstairs Peter Beste-Chetwynde mixed himself another brandy and soda and turned a page in Havelock Ellis, which, next to Wind in the Willows, was his favourite book. (pt 2, ch. III, “Pervigilium Veneris”)

Waugh is not reporting that maternal neglect with approval, but Basil, the protagonist of Dear Popsy, might well have thrived on it, mutatis mutandis. He’d simply prefer chartreuse to B&S and Firbank to Havelock Ellis, being catamitic rather than heterosexual. Not that he would ever confess so crudely to his status: his postcards flirt and tease, hinting at what’s going on rather than ripping the lid orf. Firbank is definitely another influence: one can recognize his technique in the way the postcards build up a series of private jokes. They make glancing reference to some naughtiness, glide away, glide back:

P.S. Yesterday Bletchworth killed a stray cat with his bullwhip! That boy!


Bletchworth will be in Harley Street on Thursday to see a specialist. Can you put him up for the night? I have told him that you will. Be sure to keep the cats away from him.


This evening the Brides collected Mrs Durham from the nursing home, then went to the Last Faerie for a coming out party. Bletchworth was there in his leather and looked quite crocodilean. How he creaked! Mrs D gave a little whimper when she saw him.

In a novel it would sometimes be difficult to know what was going on, but here every message could literally fit on the back of a postcard: the plot has to be conveyed in parts, so each part has to be easy to understand. Some postcards need smaller writing than others, that’s all: Basil is charming and affectionate, but also selfish, self-centred, and dedicated to his own pleasure, and he doesn’t want to waste time writing full letters to his father. He doesn’t want to write anything at all to his mother, but she has an important role in the highly improbable plot, losing a leg to gangrene after a failed operation for varicose veins. She is given an artificial leg by a “Dr Oosterthing” and adds another entry to Dear Popsy’s burgeoning catalogue of paraphilias. She has come to “loathe” Basil’s father, blaming him for her son’s effeminacy, but when Popsy has his ear bitten off in prison, her cooled affections are fanned back to life by his artificial ear:

Popsy, Mother’s affection is not for you, it is for your ear. HER PASSION IS SURGICAL PARTS! It’s all too scary. When I was having lunch with her on Saturday, a man with one arm sat down at the table next to us. Mother stopped eating, looked at him for at least 10 seconds, then turned to me and said, “What I couldn’t do with that fellow!” Macabre wasn’t the word!

But macabre is the word for Basil’s later encounters with tripe-fetishists and hanging-fetishists, and also for the sex-slaying by the crocodilean Bletchworth:

Courtney Durham’s mother has been found dead in a ditch two miles from the school. Police say she was murdered! Isn’t it ghastly? The head has told that detectives will be here tomorrow to speak to us… P.S. Courtney Durham had to identify the body and took his crochet along! He said it was in shreds — the body that is.

Vice escalates, you see, and Bletchworth, soon condemned as criminally insane, isn’t the only example. In real life, Basil might have ended up in a lunatic asylum too. In print, he and his best friend Gemini Tarqqogan (“yes, two q’s, though he spells it with three!”) can work in a child brothel and then disappear overseas with rich paederasts as the scandal they’ve caused threatens to bring the government down. The book climbs skilfully to that crescendo, first striking delicate notes on traditional decadent themes:

Just back from Mass; too yawnsome for words. (Why is the Elevation of the Host always such a let-down?)


Gemini lost an eyelash in a bowl of lobster soup and was in a ghastly mood all day.


Last night Gemini slept with two orchids in his armpits!

Then the naughtiness begins to escalate, as Basil and Gemini get ever more inventive in their pursuit of pleasure and amusement. Paul Cox’s line-drawings capture the book’s inventions well, from the artificial leg adapted as a hanging basket for “dreamy blue lobelia” to Basil scribbling a postcard in the bath he takes after an itchy fortnight preparing for a “customer” with a “passion for urchins”. I just wish the full text had been printed in the cursive font used on the back cover of my Penguin edition. It would capture Basil’s light, gliding, frivolous spirit better than ordinary type. And the spirit of Gemini too, who believes that “there is only one lesson to learn in one’s youth and that is never to yawn in profile.”

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Front cover of Iron Man by Tony Iommi with T.J. LammersIron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi, as told to T.J. Lammers (Simon & Schuster, 2011)

To understand why this book rocks, you just have to get back in Black. That is, turn to the index and the entry for

Ward, Bill

[…]

   set on fire, 192-4, 369

Other bands go through blues periods or heroin periods or prog-rock periods. Black Sabbath went through a setting-their-drummer-on-fire period. If Led Zeppelin were rock-gods, then Black Sabbath are rock-goblins. Which is one reason I prefer them to Led Zep. Another reason is their music: it’s much more inventive and much less pretentious, in my opinion. You can’t imagine Led Zep setting their drummer on fire and you can’t imagine them recording a song called “Fairies Wear Boots” either. If Led Zep had never existed, it’s hard to see that rock music would be much different today. If Black Sabbath had never existed, rock music might be a lot different. It might also be a lot better, in some people’s opinion, because Sabbath were central to the creation of heavy metal. But their doomy, tolling sound owes something to chance – the unhappy chance of Iommi losing the tips of his right fingers on his last day at work in a factory in Birmingham. He thought it had ended his nascent career as a guitarist, but he found a way to use home-made “leather thimbles” to protect his reconstructed fingertips. All the same:

I’m limited because even with the thimbles there are certain chords I will never be able to play. Where I used to play a full chord before the accident, I often can’t do them now, so I compensate by making it sound fuller. For instance, I’ll hit the E chord and the E note and put vibrato on it to make it sound bigger, so it’s making up for that full sound that I would be able to play if I still had full use of all the fingers. That’s how I developed a style of playing that suits my physical limitations. It’s an unorthodox style but it works for me. (ch. 6, “Why don’t you just give me the finger?”, pg. 24)

Iommi needed determination and willpower to overcome the accident and both are apparent in the photo-section. He looks, to put it simply, like a hard bastard. “Iron Man” is a good name for this autobiography and it isn’t surprising that Ozzy Osbourne was frightened of him. Iommi has been the engine of Black Sabbath in more ways than one: he writes the riffs and rights the riff-raff and he’s been the only ever-present in the band. I wonder how much his music and his menace are owed to genetics: he was born in Birmingham, but both his parents were of Italian descent and Iommi looks distinct from the native Brits Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward, who have lighter hair and milder eyes. Once you’ve seen the photos, the dynamics of the band should come as no surprise:

We also had some bloody laughs there [in Miami during the recording of Technical Ecstasy (1976)], especially when we played jokes on Bill. He would never allow the maids in to clean his room. One day we got a big load of this really horrible, smelly Gorgonzola cheese, and while somebody kept him talking I sneaked into his room and piled it under the bed. [L]ater I came in again and the smell was atrocious. I went: “Phew, Bill, what’s that smell?”

“I don’t know what it is, it must be my clothes.”

Bill is a dirty bugger; he’d pile his filthy clothes in a corner.

“When are you going to clean them?”

“I will, yeah.”

He never sussed out the cheese under the bed. It smelled absolutely vile. He actually started smelling like cheese himself. (ch. 40, “Me on Ecstasy”, pg. 156)

Bill Ward was the butt of the band, as the bassist Jason Newsted was in Metallica. Like Newsted, Ward left the band that made him famous, but unlike Newsted he returned and is still there. He was lucky: he might have left permanently after the final “set the drummer on fire” incident. It put him in hospital and could have killed him, Iommi says in chapter 48, “Ignition”. Or T.J. Lammers, his ghost-writer, says on his behalf, anyway. I was a bit disappointed to see the autobiography was an “As Told To”, but it’s probably for the best, because Iommi admits he had a poor education. And you quickly forget the ghost-writing once you start reading. Lammers doesn’t try to get literary or high-flown and Iommi seems to be chatting in a down-to-earth, Brummie way about his decades in one of the world’s biggest and most influential rock-bands. One of the loudest too. Why is a song on Born Again (1983) called “Disturbing the Priest”? Because they recorded the album in a studio called The Manor in the Oxfordshire countryside and the noise prompted a petition from the neighbours, which was delivered by the local priest. Iommi goes on to explain how the album was heavy metal in more ways than one:

In those days you had to make your own effects. Bill made this particular “tingngng!” sound on “Disturbing the Priest”. He got this by hitting an anvil and then dipping it into a bathtub full of water, so that the “tingngng!” sound slowly changed and faded away. It took us all day to do that, because trying to lower the anvil gradually into the water was a nightmare. It took two people on one end and two more on the other to lower it, with somebody else hitting it. It was so heavy that we couldn’t speak or anything, just sort of nod to each other… All this to create one “tingngng!”, which nowadays you can get from a computer in seconds. (ch. 56, “To The Manor Born”, pg. 224)

So the anvil was a handful, but Iommi doesn’t describe any other sweaty activities. He keeps things clean: chapter 24 describes fishing “out of the window” at the Edgewater Hotel made famous in Hammer of the Gods (1985), but no groupies are introduced to fish in unusual ways. Elsewhere he talks about drugs a fair bit, but there’s more about the music and the menacing. I’d include the jokes and pranks under that last heading. This is the funniest rock bio I’ve ever read, but I’m sure it was less funny to be on the receiving end of Iommi’s alpha-male domineering. Setting Bill Ward on fire or abandoning him, blind drunk, on a boating-lake or park-bench was on the simpler, more spontaneous side, but he also convinced Martin Birch, the superstitious producer of Heaven and Hell (1980), that he was being jinxed with a voodoo doll:

I loved it. I really lived on it. I was looking forward to going in the next day, just to wind him up some more. Martin changed from being this confident chap to being a nervous wreck, going: “What’s happening, what’s going on?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

I got the doll out again and he said: “You’re sticking pins in it! It’s me, isn’t it? That’s me!”

[…] Fantastic, it was a real gem and it lasted the entire recording session. We never told him. He’ll read this book and go: “The bastard!” (ch. 47, “Heaven and Hell”, pg. 190)

In the next chapter Iommi is nearly barbecuing Bill Ward, but a few chapters later, he’s having to rescue someone else from dangerous jokes. On the Born Again tour, whose Stonehenge stage-set inspired a famous scene in Spinal Tap (1984), Sabbath’s then manager Don Arden decided to re-create the “Devil Baby” on the album’s cover. So he hired a “midget in a rubber outfit” to leap off the Stonehenge columns and flash his eyes at the audience before the show started:

The midget was a bit of a pop star, because he’d been one of the little bears in Star Wars. Ozzy at the time also took a midget out on the road; I think he called him Ronnie. I don’t know who had the first one, really. It became a thing. Midgets were in demand. But we had the famous midget because ours was in Star Wars. (ch. 57, “Size Matters”, pg. 233)

But the crew didn’t like the midget’s references to his fame and started to play tricks on him:

We finally decided it was best for all parties concerned if he left, especially after the crew decided to put the lights out on him at the very moment he jumped from the columns onto the drum riser. He went: “Aaaaaah!”

Splat!

He caught the edge of the drum riser and nearly broke his neck. Meanwhile, we were backstage waiting to come on and it just blew the show. We said: “That’s it, he’s gone!”

They would have killed him if we hadn’t fired him. (Ibid., pg. 233)

You don’t get midgets in Hammer of the Gods, to the best of my recollection. It’s another reason to prefer Hammer of the Goblins: this book is better-written and there’s much more humour in the Sabbath story. If it sometimes has a dangerous edge, that makes it like life. Also like life is Sabbath’s music: some is good and some is risible. Their album covers run the gamut too: Black Sabbath (1970) and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) are good, Paranoid (1970) and Sabotage (1975) are risible. But Paranoid contains some of their best music and is named after their most famous song. This was actually a filler for the album after the producer Rodger Bain said to Iommi: “We don’t have enough. Can you come up with another song? Just a short one?” (ch. 18, “Getting Paranoid”, pg. 73)

Covers of four Black Sabbath albums

Two good, two bad — click for larger image

The others “popped out for lunch”, Iommi came up with a riff, then Geezer came up with the lyrics, though Iommi says that he and Osbourne probably didn’t know what “paranoid” meant at the time: “Ozzy and me went to the same lousy school, where we certainly wouldn’t be around words like that” (pg. 74). This uncharacteristically short and fast song brought them their greatest success, including an appearance on Top of the Pops. You can expect the unexpected with Black Sabbath. Also unexpected is that they’re all still around, despite the drugs and the dangerous jokes. Friends of Iommi’s, like John Bonham, Ronnie Dio and Cozy Powell, are no longer around, but he reminisces about them here and about his still-living friends and admirers. For example, he wins tributes on the back cover from Brian May, Eddie Van Halen and James Hetfield. I think the tributes are well-deserved. Iommi’s success is based on inventing music and inspiring metal, not igniting musicians or employing midgets. It’s the latter that make this book so entertaining and memorable, but no-one would want to read it if it hadn’t been for the music:

I thought “Zero the Hero” [off Born Again] was a good track and apparently I’m not the only one who likes it. When I heard “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses I thought, fucking hell, that sounds like one of ours! Somebody also suggested that the Beastie Boys might have borrowed the riff for “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” from our song “Hot Line”… I have a habit of keeping my riffs; I’ve got thousands of them. You know a riff is good when you play it and it gets to you. You just feel a good riff… I found that while I’m still able to keep writing them, I usually don’t go back to the old ones, so I’m only getting more and more. Maybe I should sell riffs! (ch. 56, “To the Manor Born”, pg. 224)

But that is what he has been doing throughout his career: selling riffs and shaping rock. He’s earnt his star on Birmingham’s “Walk of Fame” and deserves the respect he’s paid by everyone from Henry Rollins to Lemmy out of Motörhead. And even if you don’t like his rock’n’roll, you may still find yourself rocking with laughter at his stories.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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Ukridge, P.G. Wodehouse (Everyman, 2000)

Ukridge (pronounced YOO-kridge) is my favorite of Wodehouse’s characters and the only things that disappointed me about this Everyman collection were the unexciting woodblock-ish cover and the fact that it doesn’t contain all the stories of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, “that man of wrath” and “animated blob of mustard” (because of the yellow mackintosh he always wears). He’s a confidence trickster who always has confidence in his own tricks, until they fail and land him in the soup yet again, before, after, or with the friend he’s persuaded to help him. That friend is the narrator here and their friendship is explained in part by the fact that he is the same height and build as Ukridge: “As always when he looted my wardrobe, he exuded wealth and respectability” (“No Wedding Bells for Him”). I’m smiling just thinking about which quote to use in illustration of the way Wodehouse mixes the sublime with the ridiculous, the high-falutin’ with the homely. It’s hard to choose, but this one stood out in my memory:

Ukridge drew the mackintosh which he wore indoors and out of doors in all weathers more closely around him. There was in the action something suggestive of a member of the Roman senate about to denounce an enemy of the state. In just such a manner must Cicero have swished his toga as he took a deep breath preparatory to denouncing Clodius. He toyed for a moment with the ginger-beer wire which held his pince-nez in place, and endeavoured without success to button his collar at the back. In moments of emotion Ukridge’s collar always took on a sort of temperamental jumpiness which no stud could restrain. (“Ukridge’s Accident Syndicate”)

One thing that is always sublime about Wodehouse is his prose, seamed with the gold of Shakespeare, the Bible and the classics. If you can mine that gold (I can’t always), you’ll get much more out of Wodehouse, but he’s great in his own right and he’s at his best in Ukridge, where Stanley battles the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as represented by his aunt Julia and the boxer Battling Billson, before he rounds a nasty corner in the final story and marries the girl of his dreams. Parrots, Peppo, and peculation at the Pen and Ink Club’s annual dance — it’s all here.

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