Sunday 30 June 2013

On Bernard Manning and others

I'm in a reminiscing mood, so this is a long and potentially sentimental blog. Stay with me, gentle reader.

Manchester in the late 1970s was the place to be. Still a soot-stained industrial northern city it was an architectural marvel, a labyrinth of silted canals and derelict warehouses, cavernous pubs and vast acres of undeveloped wastelands. It was, for a callow southerner, a bracing environment.  

It was the centre of a richly complex music scene centred on the scruffy Factory Club in Hulme (I lived a few yards away), where bands which have since become legendary performed on Friday and Saturday nights. Not just in the Factory (which was known locally as the PSV club, an after-hours hangout for the city's bus drivers) but in pubs and clubs around a city with the largest student population in Europe. I didn't see them all but I saw a lot - Joy Division, The Fall, Magazine (fronted by the enigmatic hipster Howard Devoto) and (much further down the bill) The Distractions and The Cheetahs and a band called The Selves fronted, in what was to be their only gig, by my pal Steve Garner. I saw Captain Beefheart on his last ever tour perform Bat Chain Puller, and, unforgettably, the Buzzcocks supporting the Ramones. The student unions (three of them) hosted every band touring in the UK - Patti Smith, the Clash, the Stiffs Tour (with Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello and Larry Wallace and Lene Lovich and Ian Dury & the Blockheads and the great, great Wreckless Eric). Gruppo Sportivo and Joe Jackson and Alberto y los Trios Paranoias, John Cooper Clarke and Pere Ubu and Richard Hell, Talking Heads and John Otway (and Wild Willy Barrett) and the legendary Roy Harper. I saw Blondie in Salford (although the gig was cancelled after three songs because the building's structural integrity was compromised, as the Manchester Evening news reported, by the energetically pogoing audience. I saw The Tubes at the Free Trade Hall. And Young Marble Giants at a club called Rafters in Oxford Road.  And Tom Waits, but I can't remember where. All this, of course, before the rise of Tony Wilson's Hacienda Club and the Madchester scene and all that, by which time I had graduated and was sobering up in London.

But what Manchester meant to me then, and even more today, was the comedians. This was before the rise of 'alternative' comedy and the end of a certain type of entertainer was in sight. Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson were performing raucously (as 'Twentieth Century Coyote') in the university's Stephen Joseph Studio but my tastes took me elsewhere - to see Ken Dodd and Tommy Cooper and Dickie Henderson and Frankie Howard at the Palace Theatre and the Opera House. They never pulled in a student crowd but they mesmerised me. Which brings me to the subject of this blog.

Bernard Manning (1930-2007) owned and ran the Embassy or, to give it its full title, Bernard Manning's World Famous Embassy Club on the Rochdale Road in the rough suburb of Collyhurst north of the city centre. It was a hell of a place and (I hope) still is. Manning was the star turn. I went there one Tuesday night in December 1979. 

Parked outside an enormous American automobile - probably a Cadillac - with the registration plate I LAFF announced the owner's presence. There were few other cars around - most punters came by bus or taxi, You trekked to the entrance across a windswept cinder forecourt and paid two quid for a pasteboard ticket at the box office (which I think was managed by Mrs Manning), in a lobby dominated by a photograph of the owner sporting a cartoon crown and topping a miniature cartoon body draped in ermine robes. The club was tightly packed with tables, surrounding a tiny stage, with a busy bar at the back, serving drinks at pub prices (which were very low in those days - 40p a pint). The place smelled like a heated armpit and was fuggy with last night's smoke.  

The walls dribbled and there were locally-printed carnival-style exhortations to play bingo or eat meat pies or join the Christmas Club bubbling with condensation.

Manning's son, Bernard Junior, manned the sound system. The place was rowdy, boozy, smokey and permanently damp - there was no central heating, no air conditioning. Boddingtons beer in aluminium barrels from Strangeways Brewery served in plastic beakers soaked into the sticky carpets and stag nights and hen night parties roared and shrieked as Manning, a chubby, sweaty, rasping behemoth with piglet eyes let rip a relentless string of devastating gags, not all of which were outrageously offensive.

I loved everything about the place and even had a sneaking admiration for the bloated MC himself - he represented something undiluted, uncompromising and (to be fancy) Dionysian. He was a lardy Lord of Misrule, bellowing the unsayable.

So you can imagine my delight at coming across this archive footage filmed at the Embassy Club around the time I was there, and living nearby in student digs. It may not mean much to you, but to me it's a land of lost content.

If you can stand it there's a sanitised anthology of Manning and his peers in Granada Television's The Comedians from 1975. You could do a lot worse, if you have 48  minutes to spare in a busy day, than click here. It's everything we're expected these days to despise. All the performers looked unhealthy at the time, are all now all dead and most of them forgotten, but look out for Frank Carson (very good) and (at 15:54 et seq); the wonderful Ken 'Settle down now' Goodwin; at 27:35 the sepulchral, utterly bizarre Colin Crompton ('They don't bury the dead in Morecambe they stand them up in bus shelters with a bingo ticket in their hand'); and finally at 32:55 a weird buzz-cut William Burroughs lookalike in thick horn-rim glasses whose name escapes me. There's plenty of dross, of course, but some nuggets of comedy gold. I've watched the whole thing - you don't have to.

What may dismay the prim critic is how entirely innocuous their material is - and how funny, for the most part, the quick-fire jokes are. They may of course have edited out the sexist racist stuff, but I think not. The jokes are all about marriage and the things kids say and obtuse Irishmen and mothers-in-law and sharp predatory women and thick men and booze and doctors and sickness and religion and poverty. All human life is there, in gag form. It's mostly funny and also very sad. They're all dead now, and most of their guffawing audience has also been gathered. We're next in line, and what have we got? Ken Goodwin's obituary is here. He was a good man.

Of course television had its own regulatory discretions, and a bowdlerising tendency, but all the same what you get here is something worth knowing about, and valuing, especially if you're under thirty, or even forty. It's the swan song of a certain tendency in working class culture, of course, and preserves a cultural sensibility that offered diversion and consolation to enormous popular audiences. I could bang on about Henri Bergson's Du rire, here, but shan't, because the last word on intellectualising comedy comes from Ken Dodd, who quoted Freud's observation that a laugh is a conservation of psychic energy. But, he added: 'the problem with Freud is that he never had to play the Glasgow Empire second house on a Friday night'.

Saturday 29 June 2013


A magical place, and a memory of childhood holidays in Wales - the wooden toll bridge at Penmaenpool, on the beautiful Mawddach estuary. Look it up.

The area was a popular tourist destination for affluent Victorians - Tennyson and Charles Darwin were visitors, and John Ruskin kept a cottage in nearby Barmouth. Ruskin set up the 'Guild of St. George', an agrarian educational movement which inspired a local woman, Mrs. Fanny Talbot, to fund a project in nearby Barmouth based on his ideas.

Long before the toll bridge was constructed there was a ferry and Gerard Manley Hopkins once came up river by boat with a party of Jesuit priests, and drank beer at the inn, and wrote about it:

Penmaen Pool
For the Visitors' Book at the Inn

Who long for rest, who look for pleasure
Away from counter, court, or school
O where live well your lease of leisure
But here at, here at Penmaen Pool?

You'll dare the Alp? you'll dart the skiff?--
Each sport has here its tackle and tool:
Come, plant the staff by Cadair cliff;
Come, swing the sculls on Penmaen Pool.

What's yonder?--Grizzled Dyphwys dim:
The triple-hummocked Giant's stool,
Hoar messmate, hobs and nobs with him
To halve the bowl of Penmaen Pool.

And all the landscape under survey,
At tranquil turns, by nature's rule,
Rides repeated topsyturvy
In frank, in fairy Penmaen Pool.

And Charles's Wain, the wondrous seven,
And sheep-flock clouds like worlds of wool.
For all they shine so, high in heaven,
Shew brighter shaken in Penmaen Pool.

The Mawddach, how she trips! though throttled
If floodtide teeming thrills her full,
And mazy sands all water-wattled
Waylay her at ebb, past Penmaen Pool.

But what 's to see in stormy weather,
When grey showers gather and gusts are cool?--
Why, raindrop-roundels looped together
That lace the face of Penmaen Pool.

Then even in weariest wintry hour
Of New Year's month or surly Yule
Furred snows, charged tuft above tuft, tower
From darksome darksome Penmaen Pool.

And ever, if bound here hardest home,
You've parlour-pastime left and (who'll
Not honour it?) ale like goldy foam
That frocks an oar in Penmaen Pool.

Then come who pine for peace or pleasure
Away from counter, court, or school,
Spend here your measure of time and treasure
And taste the treats of Penmaen Pool.

The toll bridge and its associated buildings have just come onto the market - for around £200,000 the new owner has the right to collect the 60p toll from travellers, and with an average of 200 cars either way each day that seems to be an easy living.

The agents handling the sale don't mention the fact that the bridge was also the site of a terrible boating accident on July 22nd 1966, when fifteen passengers, four of them children, were drowned as their ferry from Barmouth, the Prince of Wales, hit the bridge and promptly capsized.

Friday 28 June 2013

Women on banknotes

The outgoing Bank of England Governor, Sir Mervyn King, has revealed that Jane Austen's portrait may replace that of Charles Darwin on the £10 note, following complaints that the forthcoming appearance of Winston Churchill, replacing the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on the fiver, will mean all our banknotes will carry images of eminent chaps rather than women (apart from the Queen, of course).

Since 1970, when portraits of the great and the good first started appearing on our banknotes only two women -  Fry and Florence Nightingale - have been commemorated. Austen is an excellent choice, not least because, as Auden noted in Letter to Lord Byron, she is the most subversive and corrupting of writers:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society. . .

© The Estate of W. H. Auden

Her male characters' eligibility hinges on their solvency - Mr Darcy has £10,000 a year.

As a fiscal gynocrat I feel strongly that all our paper money should bear the images of women (as well as the Queen, that is). But who? I'd opt for Margaret Rutherford.

A lexical note: a gynocrat is one who believes in rule by women. I note glumly that recent useage applies the term to those male politicians who choose to 'feminize' their public image in order to appeal to women voters. To which I say: bollocks to all that.

Thursday 27 June 2013

On Nelson Mandela

This carefully neutral tweet comes from Prime Minister David Cameron:

My thoughts are with Nelson Mandela, who is in hospital in South Africa

And this comes from Pauline Kiernan:

Mandela will die soon. Today, tomorrow, this week, next week. It won't be long. Remember this, he out-lived Thatcher. When Cameron latches on the Mandela bandwagon this week remember that in 1985 he was a top member of the Federation of Conservative Students, who produced this poster:

In 1989 Cameron worked in the Tory Policy Unit at Central Office and went on an anti-sanctions fact finding mission to South Africa with a pro-apartheid Lobby Firm that was sponsored by Botha. Remember this when he tells the world he was "inspired by Madiba".

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Bunga bunga!

Is it any wonder that an unsolicited testimonial from a regular reader says that: "the Salvete blog is really the only on-line source that anyone of discernment needs to keep up with the things which really matter."

I am moved by such praise to pose the following topical question:

What links the novelist Virginia Woolf and the Italian statesman Silvio Berlusconi, sentenced this week to seven years in prison for his involvement with underage prostitutes?

Nothing, you might think, and you'd almost be right.

In 1910 a group of English friends, including VW, perpetrated the once-famous Dreadnought Hoax. Blacked up and dressed in exotic costumes rented from a theatrical costumiers, they pretended to to be the Prince of Abyssinia and his entourage and obtained permission to visit the British naval flagship HMS Dreadnought moored in Weymouth Harbour. They were treated with great respect and given a grand tour. Each time the Commander showed them some aspect of his ship, the pranksters mumbled the phrase bunga, bunga to each other. 

The hoax, once exposed, became a national talking-point and bunga bunga became, briefly, a popular catchphrase. It was revived (or rather re-invented) in 2011 when international media began to concentrate on Berlusconi''s sordid cavortings. So now you know.

You can read my review of a biography of Horace de Vere Cole, the man behind the Dreadnought Hoax here.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Frames per second

Between 1930 and 1960 the average length of a shot  in a Hollywood movie ranged between 7 and 10 seconds, but by the early 2000s this had fallen to between 3 and 6 seconds. So films today are generally faster, and predictably shallower. Too many films, regardless of their subject, seem to adopt a Tom & Jerry approach to editing  - a jittery, hyperkinetic cartoonish style that leaves me exhausted and fidgety after ten minutes. It's as if a theme-park white-knuckle roller-coaster aesthetic has overtaken popular cinema, leaving little room (at least in the mainstream) for the slow, the contemplative, the reflective, the human.

My interest in films began in the late 1970s, in the days when cinephiles earnestly debated the relative merits of a pantheon of distinguished auteurs - Vigo, Ophuls, Hitchcock, Welles, Renoir, Ford, Murnau, Godard, Ozu, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Bresson, Rohmer and the rest.  Mavericks like myself advanced the cause of Michael Powell. Firebrands backed Sam Fuller. We took ourselves very seriously indeed because film still mattered politically and philosophically and intellectually. The discourse surrounding film studies was variously informed by Marxist, Maoist, Lacanian, Derridian and Barthesian theory - intense, fluent and pretentious. We had a whale of a time. In the days before video and laser disc and DVD and home cinema we watched films alone together in the dark, sometimes taking notes. But my memory of those films is detailed - because the directors and their editors paced their exposition so that the viewer could follow and understand. Character, motivation, plot - they withstood close scrutiny. The mise-en-scène was distinctive without overwhemling the audience with special effects and post-production razzle-dazzle. There was depth. All this largely disappeared when the studio system was dismantled. I simplify.

Among my very favourite film makers are Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. I'd be very surprised and pleased if you've even so much as heard of them - they're virtually unknown in Britain although highly regarded by a tiny handful of critics. Their wonderful, unforgettable Klassenverhältnisse (1984), based on Kafka's unfinished novel Amerika, can be found, amazingly, cut up into 12 episodes on YouTube and I can't recommend it too highly. (Google Huillet Straub + Class Relations, take the phone off the hook and away you go).

I note glumly that only 160 other people in the entire world have viewed the first extract online, and half that number watched the second, fewer still the rest, and perhaps npbody apart from myself has stuck with it to the (spellbinding, heart-rending) end, so it's fair to say it enjoys cult status and is not for everybody. If you don't know Huillet and Straub's work this is a good place to start. I love it and so, I'm sure, will you.

It's very slow, and although set in America it was, apart from two key establishing shots, filmed entirely in Europe, on 35mm Kodak black and white stock, with mostly non-professional actors and using only local sound to create a dreamlike documentary atmosphere. It certainly does justice to Kafka and is a profoundly unsettling work of art. This is a film David Lynch would admire and envy and is likely to appeal those of you who like the spare, the spartan, the repetitive and the farcical. It really is a Major Motion Picture Event. 

Monday 24 June 2013

Theatrical nudity

In tiny font on a flier for a new play at a local theatre is the warning - Contains mild nudity.

Mild nudity?

I asked a friend."Bums" she replied, wearily. 

I suppose the warning - previously confined to loud noises and strobe lighting - derives from those little labels on CD cases that say things like Features mild comedy peril or Contains sexually explicit images or (and this is a favourite) Contains language.

A few months ago I went to see a new production of Chekhov's The Seagull at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton. Outside the auditorium was a note, erratically capitalised, warning audiences that: 

This Production contains Haze effects, Strong language, smoking, Nudity and gunshots.

How's that for a spoiler? An audience expecting nudity will not, one assumes, be surprised or offended by it - so why do it? By which I mean two things - why include nudity in Chekov in the first place and, if it's included, why tell the audience in advance? The nudity (or Nudity) in this Seagull was a single female breast, briefly exposed and only fully visible from the first three rows of the stalls. A single breast is not 'bums', admittedly, so it counts as Nudity rather than mild nudity. The much-anticipated smoking predictably set off a barrage of bronchitic coughing in an audience that was in any case prone to hack and splutter noisily and phlegmily throughout the entire performance. The gunshots were noisy but again expected; the Haze effects were simply haze effects (prompting another burst of hacking and wheezing) while the Strong language wasn't Strong so much as averagely coarse and, in a Chekovian context, both annoying and distracting. The cigarette moments failed to convince because actors have lost the art of smoking, just as they appear to have forgotten how to eat a stage meal.

Speaking of nudity - do any of my readers remember that byword for permissiveness Oh! Calcutta? A theatrical review devised by Kenneth Tynan which featured, as an opener and until the author withdrew permission for its use, Samuel Beckett's short play Breath? The production was full of nude cavortings. The title was taken from the French phrase meaning "Oh What an arse you've got", which reminds me that the catch-phrase of the camp comedian Larry Grayson - "Shut that door!" - was based on his attempts to pronounce "Je t'adore". But I digress.

Getting back to theatrical health and safety warnings - I do see why the use of strobe lighting effects should be flagged up to protect the epileptic. Not that one sees them much any more. Strobe lighting effects I mean, not epileptics. But I'm annoyed by the tendency, no doubt driven by the desire to pre-empt complaints by affronted ticket-holders, to give away elements of the play. What next? This production features a ghost, stabbing, madness, suicide and flights of angels?

Sunday 23 June 2013

On Norman Cameron

Back in March I wrote something about the poet Norman Cameron - see Mongoose Civique.

Recently the Times Literary Supplement published a poem discovered by Cameron's executors after his death in 1964, and entirely new to me. Here it is:


Lost –
Zombie-like . . .

Andrew McCulloch, writing in the TLS, notes that 'set out along more conventional lines, it acquires the freshness of a seventeenth-century lyric, sliding musically on its “B” rhyme – “gay”, “obey”, “ways” – into an echoing grave'. He's right:

After Beauty cometh Death.
Ev’ry flower gay
Hath its joyful kingdom lost –
Monarch none obey.
Pleading Queens reluctant shall
Tumble unto viewless ways,
Exiles yearning zombie-like . . .

McCulloch adds that the last line may be deliberately clumsy 'to turn a jest into something less easy to accept.'

I don't think I've ever come across a poem that employs the 26 consecutive letters of the alphabet as a structural rule - although I expect it's the type of thing that the Oulipians toss off before breakfast. It's a fun sort of constraint, and more easily done in prose:

A blogger called David (excellent fellow) gets horribly, insanely jealous knowing . . . er . . .   

Damn. Not easily done in prose.

Poem © The Estate of Norman Cameron

Saturday 22 June 2013

Old Possum and the limbs of Satan

Yesterday I blogged about a chance discovery - a typescript letter from T. S. Eliot to his close friend Geoffrey Tandy.

Who was Geoffrey Tandy? His debut appearance in Volume II of Eliot's letters merits only the barest footnote: '1900-1965, botanist, worked at the Natural History Museum, London'. In fact the Eliot connection, while intriguing, is the least of it as I discovered late last year, when I spent two days in the Museum looking through their substantial Tandy archive in connection with my researches into W. H. Auden's brief career in documentary film. Tandy provided the spoken commentary for The Way to the Sea, a 1939 production which included an Auden commentary.  More on this later. 

I remember my mixed feelings when I picking up a thick manilla file unpromisingly labelled 'Algae Correspondence and Papers'. 

To my surprise it turned out to be a wonderful collection of manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, broadcasting scripts, poetry and files of newspaper cuttings about Samuel Pepys, yachts, freemasonry and cats, all Tandy passions. 

Geoffrey Tandy 

Born in Chaddesley Corbett, a small village in Worcestershire where his parents kept a pub, he won a scholarship to Kidderminster Grammar School and then became an Usher at the Cathedral School in Salisbury, until he was called up in 1918, joining the Royal Field Artillery, where he eventually gained a commission as a Second Lieutenant. Thanks to a serviceman's grant Tandy took a degree in Forestry at Oxford and married Doris May Ellis (known as Polly) in 1923. By the age of 25 he was employed as Assistant Keeper of Botany at the Museum of Natural History in South Kensington, post that brought with it a respectable salary and a certain social status.  It was around this time he became friends with Eliot and Stephen Spender. His interest had moved on from Forestry to Marine Biology and in 1928 he undertook an exhibition to the Great Barrier Reef,. In the summers of 1931 and 1933 he joined an expedition to Loggerhead Key in The Dry Tortugas, a group of tiny islands in the Gulf of Mexico where he studied the fauna and flora of the reefs and recorded seeing 'with considerable if not very comprehensible pleasure, the arching roots of mangroves again.' 

In The Listener (20th September 1933) Tandy describes the region:

[T]hese islands are nothing better than wind- and wave- driven heaps of very porous loose sand, no more than ten or twelve feet above high water mark. Therefore there is no permanent fresh water unless you have roof to collect the rain and tanks to store it in. There are such things there to- day, but they weren’t there when the islands were named.

Was there a link between Tandy’s expeditions to this comfortless location and Eliot’s choice of title for The Dry Salvages, ('presumably les trois sauvages'). Perhaps some casual conversation contributed to the composition of Four Quartets, or indeed to Sweeney Agonistes with its cannibal island and bamboo trees. A photograph of Tandy the explorer accompanies a January 1932 Natural History Magazine article and shows him bare-chested in baggy shorts, holding aloft a large barracuda. He is exceptionally tall and skinny, with a modest beard. The beard would become more ambitious as he grew older. 

Eliot liked to make chortling references to his friend's nautical tendencies and in a letter dated 1st November 1927 to the printer and publisher Richard Cobden-Sanderson, a friend of both Eliot and Tandy, he labours an extended maritime metaphor:

[...] I was signalled this afternoon (about 6 Bells) by a Vessell named the Tandy, master one Tandy A.B., and  arranged to lay along side Chiswick Wharf one evening next week, on the understanding that you and Mrs Cobden-Sanderson were likely to cross the bar Later in the Evening. I have arranged to arrive from the Continent  in time for Supper or a shade sooner by Seaplane; so you may hear my engines.

Chiswick Wharf was near the Tandy family home and headquarters of the London Corinthian Sailing Club, of which Tandy was Honorary Secretary in the 1930s. 'A. B.' presumably stands for Able Boatman. A keen sailing enthusiast, Tandy was part-owner of a boat called Aquilla and would throughout his life regard himself as a 'Navy Man'. 

Eliot became a regular guest of the family (now with two young children, Richard and Alison with a third, Anthea, born in 1935), and in 1934 he wrote to Doris:

I only hope that I may be asked again: I have certain gifts as a guest which I like to exhibit; making beds, sweeping, bathing dishes, and cooking corned beef hash.

Tandy enjoyed a measure of celebrity in the 1930s and makes an appearance in a Radio Times article of 19 January 1939 entitled 'Masters of the Microphone'. The piece is illustrated by an impressive double-page photomontage of the foremost broadcasters of the day, assembled in the grand foyer of Broadcasting House. Tandy’s tall and now heavily-bearded figure can be glimpsed in the background, in the illustrious and exclusively male company of, among others, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, Winston Churchill and H. G. Wells.

He was a talented performer, giving the first ever wireless reading of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats on the BBC programme The Children's Hour on Christmas Day, 1937, two years before it was first published. And this is another intriguing link. 

A Practical Cat?

Eliot would sometimes recite the latest Old Possum verses when visiting a later Tandy family residence, Hope Cottage in Hampton-on-Thames. The book’s co-dedicatee was his god-daughter 'Miss Alison Tandy'. As we have seen Tandy père and Eliot shared a love of cats, and the Natural History Museum archive contains a large selection of cute feline snapshots, snipped from the pages of The Daily Sketch (see above). Did Eliot, in an amiable mood after Sunday lunch, riffle through these pictures and take them as a prompt to create Skimbleshanks, Macavity, Old Deuteronomy and the rest of the Practical Cats?

The archive includes an undated typescript note from Eliot to Tandy (on Criterion-headed notepaper) and here it is in full. 

With best wishes for Pentecost.

How’s the fat girl with the eye shade? And how about a glass of the inwariable on Wednesday next? Usual time and place. 

With regards to Pollylorum and the limbs of Satan, and love to the licensee.

The ecclesiastical greeting and bleakly jocular tone are characteristic. The fat girl with the eyeshade remains unidentified - perhaps a colleague or researcher at the Natural History Museum? The usual rendezvous for 'a glass of the inwariable' (i.e. sherry) was Gordon’s Wine Bar, a sepulchral dive in the shadows of Charing Cross Station, still in business today. 'Pollylorum' was Eliot's pet name for Tandy’s wife Doris, (a name that had a particular attraction for Eliot, who used it in The Waste Land, Sweeney Erect, Sweeney Agonistes and the third of Doris's Dream Songs, which became Part III of The Hollow Men). The 'limbs of Satan' are their innocent daughters Anthea and Alison and 'the licensee' is Tandy himself. The note is unsigned, but concludes with a flourish - a confident pencil drawing of a  Prufrock-like gent smoking a large cigar and wearing a piratical eye-patch. Another Eliot drawing can be found in a first edition of Old Possum’s book of Practical Cats inscribed to Geoffrey Tandy - a lively caricature of the bearded dedicatee in his Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve uniform. 

Eliot was particularly fond of Polly ('My dear Polligal', 'Ole Ma Tandy', 'Pollitandy') and, in a letter dated Ash Wednesday 1936, does his best to cheer her up during a difficult phase in her marriage, adopting the guise of a Hollywood tough guy:

If you needs any sistance to keep the Ole Man peaceable you say the word, sister, say the word, and I’ll be along with a mighty powerful monkey-wrench I got handy.

Income from book reviews and BBC broadcasts supplemented Tandy’s museum salary but his finances tended to be shaky. He contributed a Broadcasting Chronicle to Eliot's Criterion Eliot took a keen interest in his friend’s fortunes, and arranged a Faber commission for a natural history book aimed at young readers. This never materialised and Eliot  was mildly exasperated in an undated letter to Polly:

Furthermore, while the broadcasting is all very well, for the meagre sums paid by that corporation do help to keep the kettles boiling; and this book would do more for his reputation, and so for his pocket in the long run.

Eliot recommended his friend to the producer Donald Taylor at Strand Films and Geoffrey Tandy is credited as one of the two commentators on The Way to the Sea, the 1936 Strand production which features a verse commentary by Auden and a score by Benjamin Britten (who described Tandy in a diary entry as resembling 'a stage bug-hunter'). Tandy has a slight Worcestershire accent and his brisk enunciation of Auden's verses is perfectly-judged for this subversive exercise in documentary. His delivery suggests a reined-in sense of anarchic humour that contributes greatly to the film’s success. It was the encounter with Auden in the documentary film movement that led to Tandy's appearance in Letters from Iceland.

Perhaps dazzled by such illustrious company Tandy became increasingly bored and unhappy in his career at the Museum, despite promotion to the post Head Curator of Botany. An undated archive typescript of random quotations and jumbled lines of letters and numbers includes the lines:

          Natural History is a comic subject
          I do not know why we pursue it at all.

Eliot, no doubt remembering his time working in the Colonial and Foreign Department of Lloyd’s Bank, recognised his friend’s frustration, writing to Polly about his 'grasping at activities at the BBC which could not lead to anything, but which seemed to provide an outlet of some kind'.

A very different outlet came with the outbreak of the Second World War. Tandy’s special interest in peace time was in cryptogaphy, the study of certain classes of plant life such as algae, ferns, lichens and mosses which have no apparent means of reproduction - the word’s Greek roots mean 'hidden or secret marriage'. Somebody in authority at the War Office confused Tandy’s specialism with that of cryptography, (i.e. deciphering codes, or cryptograms) and he was posted to Bletchley Park. headquarters of the top-secret team, led by Alan Turing, dedicated to breaking the Nazi’s complex Enigma code. Lieutenant-Commander Tandy, RNVR, was appointed head of Naval Section VI in Block D and known, not too respectfully, as 'Admiral' Tandy by his colleagues.

That at least is the story circulated for many years and is is one which Tandy’s son Miles, who has researched his father’s life in thoughtful detail, remains sceptical about. In conversation recently he confirmed his view the cryptog(r)amme story is no more than an engagingly donnish yarn put about by the inmates at Bletchley park following his father’s arrival. Tandy was no expert on codes, although he was an accomplished linguist and his research skills were also of great value. But Tandy’s moment came in a breathtaking example of serendipity.

An abandoned German U-boat had been investigated by Royal Navy divers who salvaged a pulpy, waterlogged copy of an Enigma codebook. This was rushed straight to Bletchley Park. What was needed, and urgently, was an expert in the handling of saturated organic matter recovered from the seabed. Cometh the hour . . .

Thanks to Tandy’s expert intervention and access to specialist absorbent paper, the leaves of the U-boat’s codebook were quickly made available for examination by the code-breakers. It is now widely accepted by historians that cracking the Enigma code brought the end of the war materially closer, perhaps by as much as two years.

Tandy continued working in intelligence gathering and interpretation after the war. His private life became more complicated and he found a return to civilian life both personally and professionally difficult. A 1950 letter from Eliot to Polly refers to Tandy’s 'mental-physical-spiritual' breakdown, which in the poet’s view had its roots ten years earlier, during the war. Eliot was always a thoughtful and generous godfather, later setting up a formal covenant for Anthea Tandy using some of his substantial earnings from The Cocktail Party (1949).

In 1946 Tandy started a new family with Maire MacDermott, and they had five children together - daughters Genista (now Baroness McIntosh), Francesca, Nicola, Ann (now Jessica) and a son, Miles. Miles has written with great insight and understanding about his father in A Life in Translation: Biography and the Life of Geoffrey Tandy, to which I am greatly indebted.

All quotations from Eliot's correspondence are © The Estate of T. S. Eliot
Images © Hulton Getty; Faber and Faber; Google Images

Friday 21 June 2013

A doodle by T. S. Eliot

Unpublished Eliot letter and drawing

Here's something I stumbled across in an archive at the Natural History Museum earlier this year. It's a short, undated typescript letter on headed notepaper from the offices of The Criterion, a literary magazine edited by T.S. Eliot. It's a note from Eliot to his close friend Geoffrey Tandy, suggesting a drink after work at their regular meeting-place, a subterranean wine bar in the shadow of Charing Cross station. 

The message reads:

With best wishes for Pentecost.

How’s the fat girl with the eye shade? And how about a glass of the inwariable on Wednesday next? Usual time and place. 

With regards to Pollylorum and the limbs of Satan, and love to the licensee.

I'll explain these cryptic references in my next blog.

Instead of a signature Eliot - clearly in a jolly mood - appends a pencilled drawing, possibly a self-portrait, of a Prufrock-like chap sporting a piratical eye patch. The smoke curling from his pipe (clenched at a jaunty angle) is a visual rhyme with the corkscrew hair. You can just about make it out on the image below.

(Tilt screen 180 degrees to see doodle)

Idea for a book - authors' doodles? Anonymised perhaps, with a key at the back. Beckett was a compulsive doodler, as his Murphy manuscript confirms, and James Joyce once turned his hand to this portrait of Leopold Bloom:

LB by JJ

All Eliot content is copyright The Estate of T. S. Eliot.

Thursday 20 June 2013

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a superb first novel that I've been raving about to anyone within earshot since I read an advance copy a month ago. You can read my Times Literary Supplement review here.

The TLS quite rightly cut my first paragraph (too much of the Village Explainer), in which I said:

There are not many experimental novelists, and very few of them are female. Leading the field are Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson (whose Pointed Roofs developed a stream of consciousness technique seven years before the publication of Ulysses). More recently Christine Brooke-Rose, Marguerite Duras, Eva Figes, Ann Quin, Nathalie Sarraute and a handful of others have explored and expanded the novel's formal potential. Eimear McBride is of their number and, on the strength of this brilliantly accomplished first book, equal to the best of them. 

Her book is by turns very funny, intensely sad and utterly astonishing. I've never read anything like it.  You can order a copy here.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Auden's 1939 diary

I am happy, but in debt [...] I have no job. My visa is out of order. There may be a war. But I have an epithalamion to write and cannot worry much.

Auden's 1939 diary - formerly the property of his friend George Davies - was auctioned last week and is now owned by the British Library. It was, said the Christie's catalogue, 'the most significant Auden manuscript to have been offered at auction'. Auden didn't keep diaries as a rule, so this is certainly a rarity - 96 pages covering 11 weeks. It coincides with his move to New York and meeting Chester Kallman, with whom he fell in love.

Woke with a headache after a night of bad dreams in which C [Chester Kallman] was  unfaithful. Paper reports German attack on Poland. Now I sit looking out over the river. Such a beautiful evening and in an hour, they say, England will be at war.

A myth continues to surround Auden's departure for the States with Christopher Isherwood in January 1939. War broke out almost nine months later yet even sympathetic commentators continue to claim that the two men 'fled' the country on the eve of the outbreak. Not so - Auden left for reasons both personal and professional and was certainly no coward, having already been on the front line as an ambulance driver and war correspondent in Spain and China.

The matter was nevertheless raised in parliament. On 13 June 1940 the Conservative M. P. Sir Jocelyn Lucas asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Labour 'whether British citizens such as Mr W. H. Auden and Mr Christopher Isherwood, who have gone to the United States and expressed their determination not to return to this country, will be summoned back for registration and calling up, in view of the fact that they are seeking refuge abroad?'

H. W. 'Bunny' Austin

In his reply the minister confused Auden with H. W. ('Bunny') Austin, a lawn tennis player who had left for the States in December 1939. (Am I alone in thinking this mix-up may have prompted Patricia Highsmith to come up with the plot for her 1950 novel Strangers on a Train, later fllmed by Hitchcock?). Sir Jocelyn corrected the minister and and asked whether Auden and Isherwood 'ought not to lose their British citizenship if they failed to register as conscientious objectors. There was no official position and there the matter rested. But resentment continued to simmer against able-bodied Britons who were by choice or even circumstance absent from the Home Front. Mud was flung, and some of it has stuck.

I suspect it's Evelyn Waugh who is partly to blame. He created the turncoat poets Parsnip and Pimpernel in his 1942 novel Put Out More Flags, who 'fled at the first squeak of an air raid warning'. Sir Jocelyn, incidentally, bred Sealyham terriers. He developed a breed in the late 1940s (which he described as "death to rats") and it was named after him, the Lucas terrier (below).

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Ödön von Horváth and others

A week ago I knew next to nothing of the Austro-Hungarian-born playwright and novelist Ödön von Horváth, but came across him in my researches for a book about Philistinism. I say 'next to nothing' because I was at least aware in a pub quiz way that he was the author of Ein Kind unserer Zeit which, as A Child of Our Time, was the basis for  Michael Tippett's wartime oratorio.

He wrote only in German and I'm currently enjoying a recent English translation of his 1930 comic novel Der ewige Spießer (The Eternal Philistine) which is very funny - if you're looking for an Austro-Hungarian Evelyn Waugh he's your man. Keen to learn more about his life and work I did the lazy thing and Googled his name and found that it's his peculiar death as much as his literary career that attracts interest.

In June 1938, living in Paris following the Austrian Anschluss, he ran for shelter under a tree during a violent thunderstorm. This was on the Champs-Élysées, opposite the Théâtre Marigny. The tree was struck by lightning and von Horváth killed instantly by a falling branch.

A few days earlier he had reportedly said to a friend: "I am not so afraid of the Nazis … There are worse things one can be afraid of, namely things one is afraid of without knowing why. For instance, I am afraid of streets. Roads can be hostile to one, can destroy one. Streets scare me."

As unusual literary deaths go that's hard to beat but the American novelist and short story writer Sherwood Anderson comes close by dying of peritonitis on March 8th 1941 after accidentally swallowing a toothpick while eating a Martini olive. A kindred spirit. He and his wife were on a cruise to South America on the liner Santa Lucia at the time. I  might add that I always ask for two olives whenever I order a Martini cocktail, one green and the other black, in memory of the old doofus.

That's not true. I just made it up. But a cocktail along those lines named a Sherwood would be a stylish tribute.

But back to Ödön von Horváth. His very informative Wikipedia entry includes the following anecdote: He was once walking in the Bavarian Alps when he discovered the skeleton of a long dead man with his knapsack still intact. Von Horváth opened the knapsack and found a postcard reading 'Having a wonderful time'. Asked by friends what he did with it, von Horváth replied: 'I posted it'.

I've just remembered one more odd literary death - Tennessee Williams choked to death on the cap of a medicine bottle. 

Monday 17 June 2013

On Tony Blair

Following rumours that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair had an affair with Wendi Deng, wife of the media billionaire Rupert Murdoch, a spokesman for Blair, speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, said: “If you are asking if they are having an affair, the answer is no.”

We can all savour the texture of that statement while remembering what the veteran journalist Claud Cockburn once said: 'Never believe anything  in politics until it has been officially denied'. 

You know what? On hearing the rumour I had a momentary spasm of of interest before I settled back into my usual state of imperturbability. Am I really so jaded? Why no righteous indignation at the malign unaccountability of the rich and powerful? The trouble is that one has only to hear such a thing to assume it's either true (which is horrible) or something concocted to distract us from an even more jaw-dropping scandal (which is worrying).

It's not just establishment shenanigans. One cannot see a sobbing parent at a televised press conference pleading for the safe return of a missing child without momentarily assuming that he (or, let's be fair, she) is likely to be the one who will end up on trial for abduction and murder. One hears that David Cameron has been left ashen-faced and reeling by news of an illicit affair under his very nose, and assumes without a moment's reflection that . . . but my country's punitive libel laws make such speculation expensive. One reads that this or that gormless celebrity is getting engaged or married to, or divorced from, his or her equally gormless partner, or is in rehab, or bankrupt, and in each case one thinks: so what? Who cares? Who cares about their happiness or misery? Who cares what they feel?

This is bad.

It strikes me in my bleaker moments that if the Germans had won the Second World War and imposed nazi cultural values (if 'values' is the right word) we'd today face the commodification of human beings through brutally exploitative reality television shows, entertainment programmes based on exclusion and humiliation, lots of celebrity, the constant endorsement of material wealth, minutely-legislated social behaviour (health injunctions, for instance), carefully-calibrated tolerances of difference, language taboos and ubiquitous electronic surveillance. And lots of sport, of course.

You catch my drift. But it's a crass and grumpy drift and I'm not proud of it. We are no more saddled with nazi cultural values than we are obliged to drive Volkswagens, swig Fanta or wear Hugo Boss clobber - all nazi legacies, all freely available but shunned only by the ethically scrupulous. What I mean is that in my lifetime the inexorable coarsening of public sensibility (or at least my sensibility) has made us (or me) wearily indifferent to the revelation (or, if you insist, ill-founded rumour) that a powerful man has been getting jiggy with another powerful man's powerful wife, or that a television gardener has some private sorrow, or that a leading banker is a shit, all prompts a wider indifference towards the things that still matter, and will always matter.

To return to the Blair/Deng rumour. Does it really matter? Does it really matter whether or not the former Prime Minister of Great Britain and head of the Parliamentary Labour Party, had an adulterous relationship with the wife of the world's most powerful media baron?

Well does it?

Of course it does. But who cares?