Friday 31 May 2013

The International Necronautical Society

The novelist Tom McCarthy is co-founder, with the philosopher Simon Critchley, of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a high-minded organisation given to issuing manifestos, holding press conferences, expelling dissident members and so on. It is McCarthy says, 'devoted to mind-bending projects that would do for death what the Surrealists had done for sex.' If that doesn't snag your interest nothing will.

The INS appears to be dormant at the moment, but we all need to keep our eyes and ears open. Take a look:

The INS at work, at play

Thursday 30 May 2013

On pornography

I learned today that a new pornographic application has already been developed for Google Glass, the innovative gadget thingummy which enables the wearer to see stuff before his very eye.

Whenever a new visual medium or technology emerges, whatever its ostensible use, there's an immediate secondary exploitation by opportunistic pornographers. I expect within hours of the first daguerrotype there were filthy postcards being hawked to tourists in the Tuilleries; the second VT recording was a Russ Meyer bootleg; the second email attachment showed a naked IT nerd sporting a 'come-on ladeez' look, and so on. Pornography seems to be waiting to pounce on and exploit any technology that trades in images, so it comes as no surprise that Google Glass has already been co-opted by mucky film-makers to expand their global empire. We can expect any day now a frightening medical report that links GG pornography and teenage cataracts.

One medium that I thought could never be appropriated for lewd display was the magic lantern, that innocent pre-cinematic entertainment of the last quarter of the 19th century. I was wrong.

Ban this filth!

It seems that between the wars (when moving pictures had almost entirely displaced public magic lantern shows) there were still two markets for the manufacturers of the projectors and the slides. One was the nursery (see above), a setting in which magic lanterns or their descendants still make the odd appearance, although Spongebob Squarepants has taken over from Scenes of the Raj. The other was in private men-only clubs where (in smoke-filled rooms amid much connoisseurial chuckling) sexually explicit images were projected as part of the evening's entertainment.

It's a murky area and there's little archive material relating to what was by all accounts a substantial underground industry, linked to What-the-Butler-Saw machines and similar titillating technologies. But one might imagine, based on the sums of money involved in what one has to refer to as 'the industry', that it's an established driving-force in cultural history. This Google Glass application is simply the latest, and not the last, in a very long line of libidinal exploitation. Hey ho.

Prototype Google Glass?

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Word aversion - a version.

In a recent post on Language Log, the University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman defined the concept (new to me) of Word Aversion:

A feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it's felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.

Common words that people are particularly averse to apparently include not just the obvious ones like puss and ooze and scab but also squab, cornucopia, panties, navel, brainchild, crud, slacks and fudge.

I suppose this is a pretext to mention my own particular hatred for the word whilst. But don't get me started.

Sunday 26 May 2013

More rules for writers

If a rule has an exception it can't be a rule, and the expression 'the exception proves the rule' is almost never used correctly because 'prove' does not mean 'demonstrate beyond question' but 'test to the point of destruction' - as in a proving-ground, or 'the proof of the pudding'. If there's an exception to the rule  then the rule is invalidated, and no longer a rule

This is the case with grammar, which Chomsky once described as 'a set of complicated rules to which there are exceptions.' In other words there are no rules of grammar, complicated or otherwise. So what are there?

Grammar is better seen as any frequently-occurring pattern of words that usage settles on. And these are culturally determined, not naturally inherent to any language. Patterns, not rules, are acquired early in our development and finessed in maturity. The top dressing of what non-linguists think of as grammar is just that - a superficial (if, to be sure, important) addition to the long-acquired (or innate, as Chomsky argued) deep structures of the language. To be sure the patterns of grammar are vital, and without them communications would be much harder (although I expect we'd soon compensate in the search for clarity) - but they are not rules.

Correct grammar is hard to define but quite easy to recognise, at least to those of us who are at ease with it. Bad grammar is also easy to recognise, at least by those of us alert to it. Take this startlingly illiterate blurb from the back cover of a new collection of Stan Barstow's short stories (Parthian Press, an imprint of the Library of Wales)

A classic selection of the best of Stan Barstow's stories covering the last five decades of British life.

A group of young tearaways on a night out that begins with horse-play and ends in tragedy; the loneliness of a drunken miner's wife; a war-shocked ex-sailor forced beyond endurance, a widower is brought to grief by a woman outside his real understanding, a factory worker finding his way through the physical world of his marriage - real and involving, Barstow's stories are urgent slices of life, men and women struggling and succeeding to come to terms with The Likes of Us.

This is beyond wrong, although I'm intrigued by 'slices of men and women'. What's alarming is that Barstow (a very good writer indeed) should be so poorly served by the publishers who employ whoever is paid to write this awful stuff - presumably somebody in the Parthian marketing department. The Library of Wales should be ashamed of itself, but libraries, like publishers, have no shame. What's equally alarming is that the person who concocted this atrocious blurb has no idea how wrong they are - they imagine it's punchy and persuasive copy rather than something the cat's sicked up.

Enough already. The subject of this blog is rules for writers, so here are some, from William Safire of the New York Times. He has plenty of chortling fun with the exceptions that prove the rules:

Remember to never split an infinitive.

The passive voice should never be used.

Do not put statements in the negative form.

Verbs have to agree with their subjects.

Proofread carefully to see if you words out.

If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.

A writer must not shift your point of view.

And don't start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)

Don't overuse exclamation marks!!

Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.

Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.

If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.

Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.

Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.

Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.

Always pick on the correct idiom.

The adverb always follows the verb.

Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

Saturday 25 May 2013

All is profanity

I speculated a while back about the first person to say 'fuck' on the radio - see here.

It was the critic Kenneth Tynan who first said the f-word on television, in 1965 (See here). The second person to do so was, I have just found out, the distinguished journalist, writer and broadcaster Peregrine (now Sir Peregrine) Worsthorne, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph. I have no idea of the context, but if it was during Songs of Praise I'd like to shake him by the hand and buy him a drink

Things went quiet until the fondly-remembered encounter between ITV presenter Bill Grundy and a scowling group of punk jackanapes including Johnny Rotten and Siouxsie Sioux, on 1st December 1976. This prime-time interview caused a great deal of outrage and a prompted a memorable headline in the following day's Daily Mirror

Image © Mirror Group Newspapers

This amused me at the time (and still does) because those wonderfully pompous definite articles suggest some kind of platonic filth and definitive fury, out there for the channelling, biding their time, as in The Power and the Glory or The Sorrow and the Pity or The Agony and the Ecstasy (and finally, but I could go on) The Bad and the Beautiful. And spare a thought for Bill Grundy (1923-1993), whose career was wrecked by two minutes of muttered profanity by the gormless Steve Jones.

Still no closer to establishing who first wireless utterance of 'fuck'. Any suggestions?

Thursday 23 May 2013

The global race

I lost count of how many times the Prime Minister used the phrase 'the global race' in a lengthy radio interview earlier this week, but it was at least half a dozen, perhaps more. He used it to suggest that we are, as a nation and as individuals, participants in this highly-competitive, international race and we all have to do everything we can to win it.

What race is that? When did it start? When and how will it end? Who are the competitors? Who judges the winners, and what do they win? And what about the losers? Are there prizes for those who come second? Third? What rules, if any, govern participation? Can cheats be disqualified? 

Of course there is no global race and never has been. There's global competition, of course, involving what some romantic economists used to call 'market forces', and there's that even more cobwebby expression 'the class struggle'. What there isn't is a race. Or, if you insist on the dull analogy, if there is a race it's a race we've long since lost and we're sitting by the track, breathlessly knackered. Or, rather, there is a race but we're not even invited to take part as the Asian super economies sprint to the finish, watched from the dilapidated grandstand by superannuated runners with only their memories for company.

What's lost in today's political rhetoric is any degree of intelligence or originality. Left or right it's the same slick balls, articulated in those oh-so-predictable tri-partite chunks because that's how they've been taught to speak by consultants - and because tripartite chunks are effective, they're efficient and above all they're memorable. And one has to wonder whether our political leaders use this shagged-out old trope because they think it's effective (in which case they're stupid) or because they think we fall for it (in which case they're even more stupid). Because while tripartite chunks and 'race' metaphors appear to have the form of thought they have no substantial content because they lack what linguists call 'propositional value'. So Cameron can peddle his fluent twaddle and talk and talk and do his breathless keen-as-mustard giggle and yet never say anything.

For more on Cameron's pisspoor rhetoric click HERE

Wednesday 22 May 2013

William Burroughs on film

Well blow me down. This blog comes to you on the day its readership reaches 10,000 (and 18, to be accurate). That's a cumulative total, to be sure, but I seem to be attracting (if that's the word) a hardcore (if that's also the word) daily readership of around 250. We should all meet. No, really. Let me think of a venue. We all have a lot in common, clearly, and there's so much we need to discuss.

Of course, if the entire readership turned up we'd have to move into a bigger place at short notice, or have a series of events spread over several days, or weeks. Then there's transport, catering, security and an events licence. Gawd.

So - here's today's short film, which regular readers expect of a Wednesday. This was brought to my attention by my friend David Holzer. Towers Open Fire (1963) - a nine-minute short written by, and featuring, the talented William Burroughs.

Monday 20 May 2013

On benefits

Here's a question: what percentage of our nation's welfare budget goes to the unemployed in the form of Jobseeker's Allowance?

a.    3 per cent
b.   30 per cent
c.   50 per cent
d.   75 per cent

The answer comes at the end of this blog

You might think from what Tory politicians say that our benefits system has a huge budget largely spent (or frittered away) on the unemployed and disabled (or the workshy and malingerers, if you read and believe the Daily Mail, but if you do that you're unlikely to have read this far.)
The Department for Work and Pensions has plenty of cash at its disposal. It's the biggest-spending government department in the UK, with a budget allocation of £166.98bn in 2011-12. 

It's also true that, of this enormous sum, £159bn was spent on benefits during that period, representing 23% of all public spending (up 1.1% on the previous year)But many people assume that most of the DWP's spending goes on unemployment or incapacity benefit. (Indeed, according to a recent TUC poll, 41% of people think that the entire welfare budget goes to unemployed people.)

The truth, not much in circulation, is that half of UK benefit spending actually goes on state pensions - £74.22bn a year, a lot more than the £48.2bn we spend on servicing our national debt.
That allocation is followed at some distance by Housing Benefit (£16.94bn) and Disability Living Allowance (£12.57bn).

Jobseeker's Allowance, perhaps surprisingly, is one of the smaller benefit allocations – £4.91bn in 2011-12, a trifling 3% of the total benefits bill. So the next time some adenoidal policy wonk from a Conservative think-tank bangs on about 'unsustainable' benefits for those most in need I expect you to shout something at the radio (or television, if you insist). Use your imagination. There's a prize for the rudest entry.

Friday 17 May 2013

Favourite snatches (4)

Today's favourite snatch comes from John Buchan's 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps. The hero Richard Hannay, on the run, encounters a solitary workman on a remote country road in the Scottish highlands. They agree to exchange identities, the workman to sleep off a hangover and Hannay to evade his pursuers. It's one of several exchanges in the course of the story - Hannay loves dressing up and dissembling.

I borrowed his spectacles and filthy old hat; stripped off coat, waistcoat, and collar, and gave him them to carry home; borrowed, too, the foul stump of a clay pipe as an extra property. He indicated my simple tasks, and without more ado set off at an amble bedwards.  Bed may have been his chief object, but I think there was also something left in the foot of a bottle. I prayed that he might be safe undercover before my friends arrived on the scene.

Then I set to work to dress for the part. I opened the collar of my shirt--it was a vulgar blue-and-white check such as ploughmen wear--and revealed a neck as brown as any tinker's. I rolled up my sleeves, and there was a forearm which might have been a blacksmith's, sunburnt and rough with old scars. I got my boots and trouser-legs all white from the dust of the road, and hitched up my trousers, tying them with string below the knee. Then I set to work on my face. With a handful of dust I made a water-mark round my neck, the place where Mr Turnbull's Sunday ablutions might be expected to stop.  I rubbed a good deal of dirt also into the sunburn of my cheeks. A roadman's eyes would no doubt be a little inflamed, so I contrived to get some dust in both of mine, and by dint of vigorous rubbing produced a bleary effect.

The sandwiches Sir Harry had given me had gone off with my coat, but the roadman's lunch, tied up in a red handkerchief, was at my disposal. I ate with great relish several of the thick slabs of scone and cheese and drank a little of the cold tea. In the handkerchief was a local paper tied with string and addressed to Mr Turnbull--obviously meant to solace his mid-day leisure. I did up the bundle again, and put the paper conspicuously beside it.

My boots did not satisfy me, but by dint of kicking among the stones I reduced them to the granite-like surface which marks a roadman's foot-gear. Then I bit and scraped my finger-nails till the edges were
all cracked and uneven. The men I was matched against would miss no detail. I broke one of the bootlaces and retied it in a clumsy knot, and loosed the other so that my thick grey socks bulged over the uppers.  Still no sign of anything on the road.  The motor I had observed half an hour ago must have gone home.

My toilet complete, I took up the barrow and began my journeys to and from the quarry a hundred yards off.

Thursday 16 May 2013

The N-word of the 'Narcissus'

Thinking about the Narcissus legend prompts a reflection on a fine book by a great writer with, alas, a problematic title.

The Nigger of the 'Narcissus': A Tale of the Sea (1897) is a novella by Joseph Conrad. It concerns James Wait, a black sailor from the West Indies who contracts tuberculosis during a sea voyage, and the reactions of the crew, who at one point risk their lives to rescue him from his cabin during a fierce storm. Their humane and selfless courage is contrasted with the ship's inflexible captain and an old salt named Singleton, who attend only to their duties and have no interest in the fate of the sick man. The 'Narcissus', like Melville's 'Pequod', is an allegorical vessel. What interests the author is the value of the crew's self-sacrifice and the humanity that binds us all. It is not, of course, a racist novel.

The book was originally published in the United States as The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle, the American publisher, Dodd, Mead and Company insisting  that no one would buy or read a book with the word 'nigger' in its title. This was not because the word was deemed offensive but because they felt that any book ostensibly about a black man would be unlikely to sell.

In time the two titles became confused:

In 2009 WordBridge Publishing issued a new edition as The N-Word of the Narcissus, claiming optimistically that this would make the book 'more accessible'. Why didn't they simply use the original American title?

It's a great shame that many readers (and, one assumes, publishers) are put off this profoundly humanitarian story by its title. Conrad's suppressed Preface includes the following passage, in which he outlines a writer's desire to appeal to 'our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation--and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope,  in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity--the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.'

As far as the N-word is concerned (and should it always be capitalised, or is that adding injury to insult?) there's a low-voltage debate surrounding its non-appearance in the forthcoming remake of The Dambusters, a film based on Paul Brickhill's account of Operation Chastise, the RAF's wartime attack on the dams of the Ruhr Valley, using the ingenious bouncing bomb invented (as every schoolboy used to know) by Barnes-Wallis. In the original 1955 film (and in real life) Wing Commander Guy Gibson's black labrador was called Nigger, and the dog's name was part of the radio code message confirming that the strategically critical target of the Möhne dam had been breached. Stephen Fry, who has written the screenplay, re-names the dog 'Digger', saying by way of explanation 'no question in America that you could ever have a dog called the N-word". Fair enough, but this prompts and deserves a reflective 'Hmmm'.

Hmmm. It seems that in the States the only living creatures who can legitimately be addressed thus are human beings, and more particularly African Americans, at least in certain contexts such as stand-up comedy and Quentin Tarantino movies (see below). Fry is not being unreasonable, although I'm unsure why he singles out America, as if the word as applied to a dog would be acceptable elsewhere. In any case he might have chosen a name less phonetically similar to the offending word. Fido, perhaps, or Muffin. Perhaps he and the film-makers are straining at gnats and swallowing camels here and missing the point that there are other N-words every bit as offensive as the one we tip-toe so carefully around - Nazi and Nazism for instance. The courageous young airmen of the RAF were fighting an enemy prosecuting more vigorous and vicious forms of racism than we can easily imagine today. The Nazis had it in for everyone, of course. Perhaps another film-maker would explore this, rather than revise a trivial if historically undeniable detail which (one optimistically assumes) is unlikely to give offence to anyone with a sense of proportion.  Of course a sense of proportion isn't a common currency, but the fact remains that the word is unacceptable now (and that's not worth debating) but it wasn't then, or at least not in this canine context. One didn't give labrador dogs deliberately offensive names. Many of these young airmen were also smokers, for heaven's sake. What are we to make of that? And come to that we no longer routinely bomb the shit out of German factories, or tackle U-boats in the North Atlantic. But you get my point.

Conrad's title uses the word inoffensively, as he takes pains to explain in his introduction. The airmen of Operation Chastise used what was in their day and from their perspective a less offensive word than it is today, and used it inoffensively. In Django Unchained, the latest film by Quentin Tarantino, the now-offensive word is used very offensively over a hundred times. Context is what counts, and common sense (which, as Mark Twain pointed out, is what we use after we've exhausted the alternatives).

These alternatives are being noisily explored by hacks at the Daily Mail. The rag recently reported the decision by BBC radio producers to cut the line 'one less white nigger' from Elvis Costello's Oliver's Army, a blistering anti-war song from 1979, and one that has been transmitted uncut countless times over the past thirty years. Amusingly the Mail's blustering self-righteous denunciaion of the politically-correct lefties at the Beeb censoring free speech did not extend to them printing 'the N-word' in full in their report.

Let's agree that, like tuberculosis, it's part of our history and has no place in modern life. But to deny that tuberculosis was a scourge in the past by eliminating its appearance in contemporary medical documents is asking for trouble.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Danish road safety film

The Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer (the Th. stands for Theodore) is one of the very greatest of all film makers - The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Day of Wrath and Gertrud are his masterpieces. He may no longer excite the interest of young cinephiles to the extent that he once did, but his atmospheric, melancholy and poetic films demand regular re-viewing. He handles mist and light like no other director - Vampyr in particular is a study in dissolution that still chills the blood.

In 1948 he made a series of road safety films for the Danish government. Here's one of them: They Caught the Ferry.

Now I know what you're thinking: "A road safety film? In Danish?" Trust me. Take the phone off the hook (if you still have that type of phone), put your feet up (if you still have those kind of feet) and enjoy eleven nerve-shredding minutes of motorcycle angst.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Favourite snatches (3)

A substantial snatch today, from the opening section  of W. H. Auden's The Orators: An English Study (published in 1932 when the author was 25 years old):


COMMEMORATION. COMMEMORATION. What does it mean? What does it mean? Not what does it mean to them, there, then. What does it mean to us, here now? It's a facer, isn't it boys? But we've all got to answer it. What were the dead like? What sort of people are we living with now? Why are we here? What are we going to do? Let's try putting it in another way.

Imagine to yourselves a picked body of angels, all qualified experts on the human heart, a Divine Commission, arriving suddenly one day at Dover. After some weeks in London, they separate, one passing the petrol pumps along the Great North Road, leaving the dales on his left hand, to take all rainwet Scotland for his special province, one to the furnace-crowded Midlands, another to the plum-rich red-earth valley of the Severn, another to the curious delta-like area round King's Lynn, another to Cornwall where granite resists the sea and our type of thinking ends, and so on. And then when every inch of the ground has been carefully gone over, every house inspected, they return to the Capital again to compare notes, to collaborate in a complete report, which made, they depart as quietly as they came. Beauty of the scenery apart, would you not feel some anxiety as to the contents of that report? Do you consider their statistics as to the average number of lost persons to the acre would be a cause for self-congratulation? Take a look round this hall, for instance. What do you think? What do you think about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?

All of you must have found out what a great help it is, before starting on a job of work, tohave some sort of scheme or plan in your mind beforehand. Some of the senior boys, I expect, will have heard of the great Italian poet Dante, who wrote that very difficult but wonderful poem, The Divine Comedy. In the second book of this poem, which describes Dante's visit to Purgatory, the sinners are divided into three main groups, those who have been guilty in their life of excessive love towards themselves or their neighbours, those guilty of defective love towards God and those guilty of perverted love. Now this afternoon I want, if I may, to take these three divisions of his and apply them to ourselves. In this way, I hope, you will be able to understand better what I am driving at.

To start with, then, the excessive lovers of self. What are they like? These are they who even in childhood played in their corner, shrank when addressed. Lovers of long walks, they sometimes become bird watchers, crouching for hours among sunlit bushes like a fox, but prefer as a rule the big cities, living voluntarily in a top room, the curiosity of their landlady. Habituées of the mirror, famous readers, they fall in love with historical characters, with the unfortunate queen, or the engaging young assistant of a great detective, even with voice, of the announcer, maybe, from some foreign broadcasting station they can never identify; unable to taste pleasure unless through the rare coincidence of naturally diverse events, or the performance of a long and intricate ritual. With odd dark eyes like windows, a lair for engines, they pass suffering more and more from cataract or deafness, leaving behind them diaries full of incomprehensible jottings, complaints less heard than the creaking of a wind pump on a moor. The easiest perhaps for you to recognise. They avoid the study fire, at games they are no earthly use. They are not popular. But isn't it up to you to help? Oughtn't you to warn them then against tampering like that with time, against those strange moments they look forward to so? Next time you see one sneaking from the field to develop photographs, won't you ask if you can come too? Why not go out together next Sunday; say, casually, in a wood: 'I suppose you realise you are fingering the levers that control eternity!'

Then the excessive lovers of their neighbours. Dare-devils of the soul, living dangerously upon their  nerves. A rich man taking the fastest train for the worst quarters of eastern cities; a private schoolmistress in a provincial town, watching the lights go out in another wing, immensely passionate. You will not be surprised to learn that they are both heavy smokers. That one always in hot water with the prefects, that one who will not pass the ball; they are like this.You call them selfish, but no, they care immensely, far too much. They're beginning to go faster. Have you never noticed in them the gradual abdication of central in favour of peripheral control? What if the tiniest stimulus should provoke the full, the shattering response, not just then but all the time. It isn't going to stop unless you stop it. Daring them like that only makes them worse. Try inviting them down in the holidays to a calm house. You can do most for them in the summer. They need love.

Next the defective lovers. Systems run to a standstill, or like those ship-cranes along Clydebank, which have done nothing all this year. Owners of small holdings, they sit by fires they can't make up their minds to light, while dust settles on their unopened correspondence and inertia branches in their veins like a zinc tree. That tomato house blown down by the autumn gales they never rebuilt. Wearers of soiled linen, the cotton wool in their ears unchanged for months. Often they are collectors, but of what? Old tracts, brackets picked up on the road, powders, pieces of wood, uncatalogued, piled anyhow in corners of the room, or hidden under tea-stained saucers. Anaemic, muscularly undeveloped and rather mean. Without servants. Each hour bringing its little barrowful of unacted desires, mounting up day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year has made a slag heap miles high shutting out air and sun. It's getting rather smelly. The effort required for clearance will be immense. Dare they begin. Well, you've got to show them they'd jolly well better dare. Give them regular but easy tasks and see that they do them properly. Hit them in the face if necessary. If they hit back you will know they are saved.

Last and worst, the perverted lovers. So convincing at first, so little apparent cause for anxiety. A slight proneness to influenza, perhaps, a fear of cows, traits easily misunderstood or dismissed. Have a good look at the people you know; at the boy sitting next to you at this moment, at that chum of yours in the Lower School. Think of the holidays, your father, the girl you met at that dance. Is he one? Was she one? Yes, they are charming, but they've lost their nerve. Pray God, boys, you may not have to see them as they will be not so very long from now. 'What have you been up to?' you'd think; 'What did you ask for to be given that?' Faces in suffering so ugly they inspire feelings only of disgust. Their voice toneless, they stoop, their gait wooden like a galvanised doll so that one involuntarily exclaims on meeting, 'You really oughtn't to be out in weather like this.' In some a simple geometrical figure can arouse all the manifestations of extreme alarm. Others haters of life, afraid to die, end in hospitals as incurable cases. These are they who when the saving thought came shot it for a spy. Unable to sleep at nights, they look at watches as the train passes, pushed struggling in towards a protracted deathbed, attended by every circumstance of horror, the hard death of those who never have and never could be loved.

©  The Estate of W. H. Auden. The Orators is published by Faber and Faber

Sunday 12 May 2013

James Hadley Chase

George Orwell called it 'a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere'. Graham Greene was equally enthusiastic - but who these days reads No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase?

Published in 1939 it was widely condemned for its explicit depictions of sex and violence, a British take on the pulp excesses of James M. Cain. This of course did no harm at all to sales but it was bad timing - that year saw new developments in violence that eclipsed the most lurid of hard-boiled fictions.

After the war No Orchids was successfully adapted for the stage and filmed (atrociously) in 1948. t may be the film version that sunk the novel's reputation - it was, according to Leslie Halliwell, a 'hilariously awful gangster film [and] one of the worst films ever made'.

The sedate-looking first edition

It became, in those years before the Lady Chatterley Trial, a byword for a literary depravity. Chase substantially re-worked the original in 1962 as he felt the post-war generation would find his descriptions and plot obsolete. I recently read the book n Kindle (and assume it was the 1939 version) It's really very good, and I'd like to see what changes Chase introduced to the revised version - it might reveal something of cultural shifts in the year before 'sexual intercourse began'.

James Hadley Chase (1906 – 1985) was born René Lodge Brabazon Raymond and unsurprisingly adopted several pseudonyms, including James L. Docherty, Raymond Marshall, R. Raymond and Ambrose Grant. Even by the hectic standards of pulp genre writing he was astonishingly prolific, publishing over ninety novels of which fifty were made into films. More then thirty of these were French movies. Imagine that! He's the anglophone Georges Simenon and one of the few British writers to have a large following in France - and there's surely a book to be written on the reputation of English language writers in mainland Europe. In Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century (a bizarre list that's worth a slack-jaw'd look) it comes immediately behind The Catcher in the Rye.

Anyway - back to No Orchids for Miss Blandish. The main character is a psychopath, Slim Grissom, and the plot involves a kidnapping . . . but read it for yourself. Below is a sample passage . . .

That's more like it

Slim, still grinning, held the knife-point just below Riley’s navel and put his weight on the handle. The knife went in slowly as if it were going into butter. Riley drew his lips back. HIs mouth opened. There was a long hiss of expelled breath as he stood there. Tears sprang from his eyes. Slim stepped back, leaving the black hilt of the knife growing out of Riley like a horrible malformation. Riley began to give low, quavering cries. His knees were buckling but the cord held him up. His weight on the ropes pushed the knife handle up so that the blade slowly cut deeper inside him.

Slim sat on the grass a few feet away and gave himself a cigarette. He pushed his hat over his eyes
and squinted at Riley.

‘Take your time, Pal, We ain’t in a hurry.’ He gave him a crooked smile as his fingers traced the sky. ‘Ain’t them clouds pretty?’

Saturday 11 May 2013

Favourite snatches (2)

Anything at all from Wodehouse. But what? I remember yelping when I first read his description of a certain type of girl as 'the sand in civilisation's spinach'. 

Years later I read a very good essay on Wodehouse by V. S. Pritchett who singled out that very phrase and said it 'enriched the mind'. Well, yes. The phrase has everything - wit, compression, truth and startling originality. I expect there's a Greek word for such a figure of speech.

What, though, to choose? Stumped, I flipped open my copy of The Code of the Woosters (1938) and here's an  exchange between Jeeves and one of the girls who provide the sand in Bertie Wooster's spinach:

          “Jeeves, you really are a specific dream-rabbit."

          "Thank you, miss. I am glad to have given satisfaction.” 

"Specific dream-rabbit". You can just see her, can't you?

Friday 10 May 2013

Favourite snatches (1)

Reposted following technical hoo-hah. Apologies.

I thought I might do a short series of blogs featuring my favourite snatches of prose, so here's the first. It's from Nicholas Nickleby, and is the letter written to Ralph Nickleby by Fanny Squeers on behalf of her wicked father Wackford (proprietor of Dotheboys Hall, the prison-like boarding school in Yorkshire) following the escape of Ralph's 'nevew' Nicholas (briefly employed there) and his friend Smike, 'a boy of desperate caracter'.

Since reading this at the age of fourteen I'm afraid cannot see any object made of 'tortershell' without imagining how it might affect the brain if violently inserted. The best line comes with perfect timing more than half way through - 'I am screaming out loud all the time I write and so is my brother . . .'



My pa requests me to write to you, the doctors considering it doubtful whether he will ever recuvver the use of his legs which prevents his holding a pen.

We are in a state of mind beyond everything, and my pa is one mask of brooses both blue and green likewise two forms are steepled in his Goar. We were kimpelled to have him carried down into the kitchen where he now lays. You will judge from this that he has been brought very low.

When your nevew that you recommended for a teacher had done this to my pa and jumped upon his body with his feet and also langwedge which I will not pollewt my pen with describing, he assaulted my ma with dreadful violence, dashed her to the earth, and drove her back comb several inches into her head. A very little more and it must have entered her skull. We have a medical certifiket that if it had, the tortershell would have affected the brain.

Me and my brother were then the victims of his feury since which we have suffered very much which leads us to the arrowing belief that we have received some injury in our insides, especially as no marks of violence are visible externally. I am screaming out loud all the time I write and so is my brother which takes off my attention rather and I hope will excuse mistakes.

The monster having sasiated his thirst for blood ran away, taking with him a boy of desperate caracter that he had excited to rebellyon, and a garnet ring belonging to my ma, and not having been apprehended by the constables is supposed to have been took up by some stage-coach. My pa begs that if he comes to you the ring may be returned, and that you will let the thief and assassin go, as if we prosecuted him he would only be transported, and if he is let go he is sure to be hung before long which will save us trouble and be much more satisfactory. Hoping to hear from you when convenient

I remain 

Yours and cetrer FANNY SQUEERS.

P.S. I pity his ignorance and despise him.

How about that? It's all good, and "two forms are steepled in his Goar" never fails to raise an admiring smile. Dickens is astonishingly funny when he lets rip, and I like the undertow of genuine loathing he feels for the Squeers clan. He pities their ignorance and despises them.

I've never heard this read aloud - would it be better performed by an actress or an actor? For some reason the voice I hear in my mind's ear is that of the late Les Dawson . . .

Thursday 9 May 2013

On perfume

One spring afternoon thirty-five years ago I was floundering alone along the rue de la Trinité in Paris when I suddenly became aware of an extraordinary fragrance. It set my nerves jangling, my head spinning, my pulse racing. Looking around, I saw a small dark-haired woman in a fur coat walking towards Odéon. I was nineteen, she perhaps in her late forties, and intimidatingly chic. In a moment of uncharacteristic bravado I trotted after her and in stammering schoolboy French (it's got worse since then) asked her what in the name of God it was that made her smell like that (a pretty accurate translation of my gauche interrogation). She shrugged and said 'Mais . . . c'est Vol de nuitbien sûr,' and walked away, haughtily I expect. I hope I made her day, because she certainly made mine. I continued my walk along the street in the cool shadow of the grey mass of the great church, rendered light-headed by the gorgeous sense-enhancing aftermath of her passing.

Later that week in the (now closed) department store Samaritaine I tracked down the perfume. Faced with a sceptical and brightly-enamelled assistant I somehow blagged a sample, dabbing it self-consciously on my left wrist. I walked out of the store, smelling like a high class tart, crossed the Pont Neuf and walked eastwards along the Quai de l'Horloge. It was like being in the company of a vapourous spirit guide. I could still catch a wistful trace of the fragrance in my hotel room the following morning. Vol de Nuit has remained my favourite perfume ever since. Here's the bottle:

The creation of Jacques Guerlain, it was launched in 1933 and named after Antoine Saint Exupery's novel Night Flight (an account of the early days of aviation from the author of Le petit prince). The chunky bottle represents a rapidly spinning aircraft propeller and is a lovely example of 30s modernism. The top notes (and I had to look this up) are bergamot, galbanum and petit grain; below that jasmine, daffodil and spices; the base combines earthy woodsy notes of iris, vanilla. It's the most alluring and complex aroma, or succession of aromas,  you can possibly imagine.
Legend has it that the perfume was concocted for, or at least worn by, professional courtesans flying overnight from Paris to North Africa between the wars. Imagine that. It has a fabulous sillage which lasts for hours.
Sillage - pronounced see-yage - is a wonderful word for a wonderful thing: the scented trail left by the wearer of a fragrance. It translates more or less as 'wake' in English - as in the vapourous trace left in the sky by an aeroplane. The wearer makes her mark on the room, on the street, on the air, on the world, by activating the most elaborately complex creation of the parfumier's art using only the heat of her body. 

Sunday 5 May 2013

Ford on Lawrence

Ford Madox Ford, editor of the English Review, recalls the time he discovered D. H. Lawrence

I received a letter from a young schoolteacher in Nottingham. I can still see the handwriting—as if drawn with sepia rather than written in ink, on grey-blue notepaper. It said that the writer knew a young man who wrote, as she thought, admirably but was too shy to send his work to editors. Would I care to see some of his writing?

In that way I came to read the first words of a new author:

   The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston with 
   seven full waggons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed but the colt that it   
   startled from among the gorse which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, 
  outdistanced it in a canter. A woman walking up the railway line to Underwood, held her 
  basket aside and watched the footplate of the engine advancing.

I was reading in the twilight in the long eighteenth-century room that was at once the office of the English Review and my drawing-room. My eyes were tired; I had been reading all day so I did not go any further with the story. It was called 'Odour of Chrysanthemums,. I laid it in the basket for accepted manuscripts. My secretary looked up and said: 'You've got another genius?' I answered: 'It's a big one this time,' and went upstairs to dress. (Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston, 1937), 70-71. 

Ford then goes on, line by line and word by word, to explain why that short paragraph, those three sentences, were enough to convince him that the writer was a genius. It's the best piece of literary criticism you'll ever read, and changes the way we (or at least I) approach any new writer. More on Lawrence tomorrow . . . but do look up Ford's many volumes of (mostly unreliable) memoirs.