Thursday 31 October 2013

Hallowe'en blog - on Dr Pretorius

To mark Hallowe'en here's the wonderfully strange actor Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961) as Dr Septimus Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale in 1935. In this short scene he presents the unsettling results of his quest to create human life "using my own seed". However that got past the censors I can't imagine.

The Bride of Frankenstein is a great film, and a rare example of a sequel bettering a fine original. The camera effects in this sequence are still, eighty years later, utterly astonishing. 

Thesiger, brother of the renowned explorer Wilfred, was the most marvellously exotic eccentric who enlisted in the army at the outbreak of the World War 1 hoping to be assigned to a Scottish regiment because he wanted to wear a kilt. Wounded in action he returned to England and when asked at a dinner party what it had been like in France famously replied "Oh, my dear, the noise! and the people!" He was an expert in needlework and in 1941 published a book on the subject, Adventures in Embroidery. I have a tatty copy, stamped "For use of H. M. Forces, not for resale". There's a lost world in that.

I cherish Thesiger's elaborately camp and querulous performance as Horace Femm in The Old Dark House (also directed by James Whale and based on the novel Benighted by J. B. Priestley), in which he repeatedly says "Have a potato", somehow making the word 'potato' seem utterly depraved. At one point he says, with sepulchral relish: "Gin. I like gin". Wonderful.

A memoir written near the end of his life is housed in the Ernest Thesiger Collection at the University of Bristol. Why on earth is it unpublished?

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Katie Price - a provisional bibliography

Katie Price is a media personality, reality TV star, author, former glamour model (known as Jordan), occasional singer and businesswoman, with a personal fortune (is there such a thing as an impersonal one?) estimated at £45 million. She is also a best-selling author who later this month publishes her fortieth book - Love, Lipstick and Lies. Listed below is, I believe, the first bibliography of her work.

She has so far published four autobiographies:

Being Jordan (2004)
A Whole New World (2006)
Pushed to the Limit (2008)
You Only Live Once (2010).

There are nine novels:

Angel (2006)
Crystal (2007)
Angel Uncovered (2008)
Sapphire (2009)
Paradise (2010)
The Comeback Girl (2011)
Santa Baby (2011)
In the Name of Love (2012).

Her one non-fiction book is about fashion: Standing Out (2009)

There are two series of books for children, both apparently now complete: Perfect Ponies and Mermaids & Pirates. A complete list of these titles appears at the end of this blog.

All are the work of professional ghost writers and I suspect (without condescension) that the author herself would be hard-pressed to name all of the titles published under her name. This is not a criticism - government ministers rely on slick speech writers to render them intelligible so why shouldn't celebrities employ underlings to write their books? Works attributed to Katie Price no doubt bring pleasure to readers who are presumably aware of the publishing arrangements and approve of them. One doesn't, come to that, expect David Beckham to blend and bottle his own-brand cologne personally.

You're probably wondering why I'm blogging about a writer who isn't a writer. This is not a sneering attack on Katie Price, who I believe has overcome many personal setbacks and insecurities (not all of her own making) to become the public figure she is today. It's her status as a best-selling author that interests me because of what it says about our literary culture in general.

Since the 1980s we've seen the emergence of what can be described as a cultural free market which, like the free market itself, asserts its legitimacy through two important claims: that it's efficient (let's agree not to go there) and that it's non-judgmental. This last claim is of particular interest. A cultural free market insists that no individual or institution can make any legitimate or authoritative claim on behalf of the public as to what is in the best interests of the public. Such a patrician assumption harks back to the days of Lord Reith at the BBC and is simply not to be countenanced. Modern society is made up of countless fragmented constituencies (the argument runs) so how can anyone presume to know what is best for all?

The political right exploit this line of reasoning when it comes to the provision of public services - healthcare, libraries, state housing, arts subsidies - because, they argue, state-sponsored institutions are incapable of reflecting the wide range of needs and expectations to be found in our diverse and complex society. Take this principle, extend it to the arts and by a simple line of unreason say goodbye to critical gatekeepers, custodians of quality, anything to do with informed judgemental values. Who dare proscribe? Who has the authority?

Katie Price's publishing output is the result of a deregulated cultural market and the triumph of populism and celebrity culture. It's hard to talk about her books at all without appearing judgemental and therefore (in that wonky 'therefore' of populist reasoning) indefensibly elitist. As a writer I happen to prefer her to, say, Margaret Atwood, but that's just me.

Defenders of her children's books would claim that 'at least it gets kiddies to read', although by the same token one might argue in favour of McDonalds fast food - "at least it gets them to eat". That her Princess Pony books are cheap and nasty-looking is irrelevant. So are Faber print on demand novels. More alarmingly Katie Price is a reportedly a popular role model for many girls and young women who see her material success as an empowering validation of their own hectic lifestyle choices. That has to be a very bad thing, because there's only one Katie Price.


Children's books attributed to Katie Price are:

Perfect Ponies (2007-2010) 
Here Comes the Bride, Little Treasures, Fancy Dress Ponies, Pony Club Weekend, The New Best Friend, Ponies to the Rescue, My Pony Care Book, Star Ponies, Pony 'n' Pooch, Pony in Disguise, Stage Fright!, Secrets and Surprises, Wild West Weekend.

Mermaids & Pirates (2008–10)
Follow the Fish, I Spy, Let's Build a Sandcastle, A Sunny Day, Telescope Overboard, Time for a Picnic, All Around, Hide and Seek, Katie the Mermaid, Katie's Day, Peter's Friends, Pirate Olympics.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

My 300th blog

My 300th blog, and by way of celebration here are links to a year's worth of my reviews and commentaries in the Times Literary Supplement. You may think this is a cop-out, and in certain moods I would agree. But this is also a pretext to include my favourite TLS cover (below) featuring Powell and Pressburger's sublime masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death. I'll write about this film some time. 

So, in order of publication:

Noriko Smiling - a fine book about Ozu's cinematic masterpiece by Adam Mars-Jones.

The Projection of Britain - an absorbing history of the wonderful GPO Film Unit.

More Worthy than Lark - how the death of T. S. Eliot was reported by the BBC.

Music Wars by Patrick Bade - a fascinating account of musical culture during the Second World War.

A Point of View by Clive James - a collection of essays and postscripts from his Radio 4 series.

The Literary North - wide-ranging academic essays on northern writers.

Lucky in Love Journals  - 1946-1995 by Stephen Spender.

I'm a Believer - a short note in defence of Neil Diamond.

London E1 by Robert Poole - the only novel by this forgotten working-class writer.

In every dream home . . . Maynard L Parker: Modern Photography and the American Dream  

Blokelore and Blokesongs - Robert Conquest's sprightly collection of poetry.

Gob impressive A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride. The first review of a book that has now become famous, by an author hailed by Anne Enright of The Guardian as 'a genius'.

On Writing with Photography edited by Liliane Weissberg  and Karen Beckman.

Class Difference The Likes of Us - Stories of Five Decades - short stories by Stan Barstow.  
Twitter and Brimstone Four novels by Gerald Kersh: Night and the City, The Angel and the Cuckoo, Nightshade and Damnations and Fowlers End. 

Why Photography Matters by Jerry Thompson - a little gem of a book.

There are others, I'm afraid, and more to come But this will have to do for now. Tomorrow's blog may be a world first . . .

Monday 28 October 2013

The Hamlet Doctrine

The Hamlet Doctrine (the title of  a recent book by the by the philosopher Simon Critchley and his wife Jamieson Webster, who is a psychoanalyst) comes from Nietzsche, although it puts me in mind of Salman Rushdie's witty idea for the title of a Robert Ludlum version: 'The Elsinore Equivocation'. 

It's a collection of short pieces, some brilliantly illuminating (on the subject of mourning conventions, for instance), others thought-provoking, some quite silly. Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Hegel, Freud, Lacan and Nietzsche are all roped in, but it strikes me that while a psychoanalytical or philosophical approach to the play certainly enriches our knowledge it may not add to our understanding.

In a Guardian article about their book the authors say, rather weirdly "The banal, biscuit-box Shakespeare needs to be broken up and his work made dangerous again."

'Biscuit-box Shakeapeare'? No, me neither. There's a glaring typo on the first page which augers ill - "I say there shall be no mo [sic] marriage. The prose is uneven and there are rather too many threadbare hipster colloquialisms - has Hamlet really 'lost his mojo'? I mention this because I hope the authors would be equally impatient if I blundered into their respective fields and wrote things like "Wittgenstein was a well brainy dude". Tone, see?

A more pervasive weakness is that the authors settle on one entirely conventional interpretation of both Hamlet and Hamlet (although one that only gained currency in the early 20th century), namely that the Prince is banjax'd by indecision and that it is his failure to act that leads to his tragic downfall.

Yet by the final curtain Elsinore is a necropolis, proof that Hamlet is certainly capable of decisive action - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been despatched to their off-stage deaths, Ophelia maddened into self-destruction, her father stabbed (a particularly decisive moment, surely?), Gertrude poisoned, his usurping uncle Claudius both stabbed and poisoned, while Laertes and Hamlet himself are both stabbed with the same poisoned rapier. Practically everyone dies apart from Horatio and Fortinbras. Of course if Hamlet acted immediately on hearing from the ghost of his father that he should avenge murder most foul, the play would be over in ten minutes. Then where would we be?

The Hamlet Doctrine is full of good things, although nothing as memorable as these lines from Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in which Rosencrantz (or possibly Guildenstern) consider how best to question the Prince:

"To sum up: your father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?"

Sunday 27 October 2013

Noel Gallagher on literary fiction

The rock musician Noel Gallagher recently launched an attack on the art of fiction, and people who read novels and review them, and was widely reported for doing so. He might even be said to have 'sparked off a debate'.

His line of reasoning was developed in conversation with the journalist Danny Wallace in connection with Gallagher's becoming GQ magazine's 'Icon of the Year'. Wallace pulled that age-old reporter's trick of transcribing his interviewee's thoughts with all the repetition, redundancy and inarticulate profanity that journalists usually omit:
"I only read factual books. I can't think of ... I mean, novels are just a waste of fucking time [...] I can't suspend belief in reality … I just end up thinking, 'This isn't fucking true'."

Gallagher went on to explain his preference for books "about things that have actually happened", giving as an example Ernest R May's The Kennedy Tapes, an account of goings-on in the White House during the Cuban missile crisis:
"I'm reading this book at the minute … Thinking, 'Wow, this actually fucking happened, they came that close to blowing the world up!'"

He takes a particularly dim view of folk like me, because in his view:

"[P]eople who write and read and review books are fucking putting themselves a tiny little bit above the rest of us who fucking make records and write pathetic little songs for a living."

Apart, I suppose, from those who write and read and review the kind of "factual books" that Gallagher admires. Of course, in the case of The Kennedy Tapes what interests the reader is precisely something that never happened, but almost did. That quibble aside, isn't Gallagher, in assuming such a judgemental position, putting himself just a tiny little bit above those of us who happen to find pleasure and fulfilment in reading novels? Can a fabulously wealthy pop star really be so chippy and thin-skinned? Can anyone be so thick?

Isn't, come to that, the kind of music he offers itself a low grade form of escapist fiction? What would he say to a view that his "pathetic little songs" are not only pathetic but also dull, boorish, derivative and pretentious? What would he say if I compared his gormless brand of radio fodder with the work of Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen, or Neil Young, or Leonard Cohen. None of these performers appeal to me especially, but they are, let's agree, pre-eminent in their field. I could be wrong but I have the impression that Gallagher's band, Oasis, are little more then Beatles copyists, churning out humdrum stadium anthems to a blokeish crowd. 

The Bookseller's Cathy Retzenbrink believes that Gallagher has made an "incredibly serious point", which is overstating the case. He's merely made an incredibly commonplace observation, and one which could be applied to anything that has minority appeal, including his brand of music. She adds excitedly that: "[h]e's saying what loads of people in this country think, but don't normally have a platform to say. There are vast amounts of people who feel this way, who do feel that people who are comfortable with words look down on them."
This is untrue. People who are 'comfortable with words' (whatever that means) do not as a rule look down on those who are not. Those who are uncomfortable with words may choose to feel that they are looked down upon, but that's their problem, and has more to do with poor self-esteem and a compensating sense of oppression and exclusion. This is understandable, but it's not an argument. I expect Noel Gallagher would find many reasons to look down on me, not least because my taste in music is even more bigoted than his taste in books, and because I don't have a personal fortune estimated at £60 million. If I had I expect I'd be tempted to spout bollocks about things I don't like or understand to attendant journalists.

"He's saying what loads of people in this country think" says Retzenbrink. So is the oafish UKIP leader Nigel Farage, so what's her point? 

And what on earth does she mean by ordinary folk not having 'a platform' to express their dislike of literary fiction? They don't need one, in a popular culture that is nothing but one enormous platform championing the counter-literate, marginalising readers and endorsing pampered oafs like Gallagher. You won't see the late Dame Iris Murdoch elected 'Icon of the Year' by GQ magazine, or even, come to that, The Bookseller.

When a fading pop star decides to sway his biddable constituency with such gormless bigotry I feel I should speak up on behalf of those of us who still find a place for fiction in our lives - as writers, as readers, as reviewers. If Gallagher can find no space in his heart or brain for George Eliot or Graham Greene or Iris Murdoch or James Joyce or V. S. Pritchett or even Terry Pratchett - that's his loss. Those authors withstand his contempt. If the laddish readers of GQ find their own counter-literate tendencies articulated by this Icon of the Year (which seems a distinctly short-term honour) they can contentedly carry on being rowdy wankers in bars and pubs and clubs. If Cathy Retzenbrink has qualms about ordinary people not having a platform to whine about those of us who write and read and review fiction perhaps she's in the wrong job.

There are likely to be more readers of fiction in Britain than there are Oasis fans, and there are probably more readers of novels in my part of North London alone than there are Oasis fans world-wide. Yet in one respect I find myself agreeing with Noel Gallagher. When I'm out of sympathy with a writer of fiction (and yes, it does happen), I find myself crossly and sceptically challenging everything they say, however innocuous. Thus when an author writes:

It's a warm Kilburn afternoon when Mr Theodopolus flags down a passing taxi and tells the driver to take him to the Whittington hospital.

My reaction, like Gallagher's, is to say: 'This isn't fucking true' before chucking the book away. Whereas when Orwell writes:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Well, I'll read on. And who, apart from Noel Gallagher, wouldn't?

Saturday 26 October 2013

Lady Mondegreen

The American author Sylvia Wright coined the useful term 'Mondegreen' in her essay "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," published in Harper's Magazine in November 1954:

When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

Wright had misheard the last line, which reads "And laid him on the Green", and 'Mondegreen' has since been available (although not much used) as a descriptor of any confusion that results from close homophonic resemblance between two distinct phrases. I've blogged about this before - when W. H. Auden mischievously suggested 'New Directions' as the name for a publishing house bacause he imagined prim schoolmarms asking bookstore assistants whether they had nude erections.

Another example of a Mondegreen is "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear" (from the line in the hymn Keep Thou My Way by Fanny Crosby and Theodore E. Perkins -  "Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I'll bear"). As a child I thought the mournful Jim Reeves lyric was "I love you, big horse, you understand dear...".

Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames  by Luis d'Antin van Rooten is a variant, a clever set of English nursery rhymes rendered into plausible French, published in 1967 and once surprisingly popular. An example:

Jacques s'apprête 
Coulis nos fête. 
Et soif qui dites nos lignes.


A final example of Mondegreen virtuosity is a fondly-remembered 1976 comedy sketch featuring Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker (The Two Ronnies). Written by Barker it's immensely popular in Britiain but may be unknown elsewhere. It's called Four Candles and, apart froma clumsy punch line, is quite a piece of work.

Friday 25 October 2013

Gynophobia and misogyny

The American playwright Bonnie Greer, speaking in a recent interview about the enduring malignities of racism and sexism, and the relative tolerance that seems to surround the latter, used the term 'gynophobia'. This, she unnecessarily explained, means 'a fear of women'. This fear, she insisted,  underlies sexism in all its ghastly manifestations.

Fear? If only. It was Germaine Greer (no relation) who, in The Female Eunuch, memorably wrote: 'Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.'

Bonnie Greer combines such intelligence and eloquence that I was surprised by the uncharacteristically lazy thinking behind her use of the term (and the fact that she found it necessary to gloss its meaning shows how inappropriate it was in the context).

What she labels gynophobia is misogyny. The prefix 'miso-' (as in 'misanthrope') is what's needed to imply hatred, not the suffix '-phobia'. I like to think that hatred is expressed as a prefix because it pre-empts the subject (or rather the object of the hatred) while fear is a suffix because it follows exposure to the thing that's feared - but let's not get too fancy.

Pursuing this theme - use of the phobia suffix is exemplified in the hair-trigger use of the term 'Islamophobia', applied to almost any criticism of certain extreme and unrepresentative aspects of Muslim thinking.

I am not Islamophobic because fear forms no part of my thinking about Islamism (which I know is unrepresentative of the mainstream faith). Not fear, no, but a profound loathing of the misogynistic convictions held by certain religious leaders (invariably male, invariably uneducated), convictions that have no place in any liberal democracy or among true Muslims living within a liberal democracy. My views naturally reflect my belief in secular, democratic and enlightenment values and in equality. I loathe bigotry, and I see it everywhere I look - in politics (and not only among the loons of UKIP), in religion of course, in the media (and not least in the way the Daily Mail treats the Muslim community). I do not fear bigotry. I hate it, but that won't make it go away. Fear (which is to a greater or lesser degree the basis for all religious belief) is not something I do. That (to take one example) woman are forbidden to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, and are severely punished if they dare to do so, tells me a lot about Saudi society and something about the perversion of Islam by misogynist zealots. What I feel about that is not fear, but anger.

Speaking as a fully-paid up bien-pensant I'd hypocritically like to see a little less tolerance afforded those - whatever their background or status - who express views incompatible with the hard-won equalities that underlie our liberal democracy. This applies as much to EDL thugs attacking Islamism as it does to adherents and apologists of this warped and hateful form of the Muslim faith. It applies as much to Paul Dacre (the very nasty editor of the Daily Mail) as it does to the very nasty Abu Qatada. Fear and loathing (when the latter is expressed as a principled opposition to unreason) should not be conflated. One may lead to the other, of course, but that's another blog for another time.

Thursday 24 October 2013

Francis Ponge

In a recent review I compared the photographs of Walker Evans to the writings of the French poet  Frances Ponge. Both artists based their work around the close contemplation of the humble, the quotidian. Ponge perfected a form of prose poem dedicated to such everyday objects as potatoes, oranges and cigarettes. He's not an acquired taste - you 'get' him immediately, in French or in translation.

In 1967 Ponge published Le Savon, a long prose poem about soap. Here's an extract, followed by my attempt at an English version:

Si je m'en frotte les mains, le savon écume, jubile...
Plus il les rend complaisantes, souples,
liantes, ductiles, plus il bave, plus
sa rage devient volumineuse et nacrée...
Pierre magique!
Plus il forme avec l'air et l'eau
des grappes explosives de raisins
L'eau, l'air et le savon
se chevauchent, jouent
à saute-mouton, forment des
combinaisons moins chimiques que
physiques, gymnastiques, acrobatiques...

If I lather my hands, the soap suds, joyously...
The more it smothers them - supple,
slick, ductile - the more it slathers, the more
its wrath gains volume, pearl-like...
A wonder stone!
The more it forms with air and water
explosive clusters, grapes of aromatic froth...
Water, air, soap
blend and play,
leapfrog to form
combinations less chemical than
physical, gymnastic, acrobatic...

French original © The Estate of Francis Ponge

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Kevin Coyne

Kevin Coyne is the most intense and troubling performer I've ever seen. Here he is performing House on the Hill on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973, with guitarist Gordon Smith and percussionist Chilli Charles. Such a voice.

His British career was erratic and blighted by drink and mental illness until a move to Nuremberg in 1985 led to a wonderful creative and personal recovery - his late recordings are slowly being released. 

My favourite Coyne song is the grim two-minute epic Marjory Razorblade - you won't have heard anything like this before so keep the lights on. 

Marjory Razorblade has haunted me for forty years and there was a time when, in my cups and unhappy, I'd sing along like there was no tomorrow. If he has any counterparts they wouldn't be singers at all but Weimar-era actors such as Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt. 

Monday 21 October 2013

Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road

Not sure who sings this beautifully mournful version of Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road - Harry Champion, perhaps. The subtitles may come in handy.

Noël Coward taught Marlene Dietrich the same song. Imagine that. Or rather don't imagine that - hear her massacre the ditty here. Very unusual, this.

Had enough? You can find Shirley Temple performing this song on YouTube (but I can't be bothered to add the link. Please do so, if only to savour what follows in today's blog.)

It was Twentieth Century Fox lawyers who sued the English magazine Night and Day following its publication of Graham Greene's shrewd 1937 review of Wee Willie Winkie. The paragraph which caused all the fuss is worth repeating:

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders--their property diminishes in value every year.   
Time's chariot is at their back; before them acres of anonymity. Miss Shirley Temple's case, though, has a peculiar interest: infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant's palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood that is only skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers--middle-aged men and clergymen--respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.

The trial was held on 22 March 1938. Greene had left for Mexico on 29 January and did not return to Britain until May. The judge fined the magazine a bankrupting £3,500. Greene went on to write one of his greatest novels, about a whiskey-priest in Mexico - The Power and the Glory.

Temple was the biggest child star of all time and there will never be another. She's still with us, aged 85 and living in Santa Monica, California. What an extraordinary life.

Extract © The Estate of Graham Greene

Sunday 20 October 2013

Rainbow Dance and A Colour Box

From 1936 here's Rainbow Dance, a very short advertising film by Len Lye, made for the General Post Office.

The dancer is Rupert Doone, partner of the theatre director Robert Medley. Together the two men ran the avant-garde Group Theatre which staged, among many other noteworthy plays. Auden's Dance of Death and the Auden / Isherwood collaboration The Ascent of F6. As a fellow Gresham's schoolboy it was Medley who, on a Sunday afternoon walk, had asked Auden whether he wrote poetry at all. As Auden later recalled in Letter to Lord Byron:

          I never had, and said so, but I knew
          That very moment what I wished to do.

Doone appears as a tennis player and hitchhiker (both quintessential 1930s activities) and Lye does extraordinary things with colour.

Len Lye was a prodigiously gifted artist from New Zealand who went on in later life to make the most extraordinary kinetic sculptures - look on the internet for his amazing Wind Wand and other constructions.

But back to Rainbow Dance. It's lovely, but not as lovely as the pure abstract films Lye made around the same time. One of these used to be screened on a loop in Tate Modern, although not in a suitably darkened room so the brilliant colours were washed out. These films were made without a camera, Lye painstakingly painting each frame by hand using a variety of techniques - twenty four frames per second. It's tempting always to freeze a Lye film and enjoy each frame as a unique (and highly desirable) abstract artwork. You'll see what I mean in A Colour Box (1935) with catchy music by Don Baretto and his Cuban Orchestra.

Still © British Film Institute / The Estate of Len Lye

Saturday 19 October 2013

Breaking America

Now here's a thing. For the past month (and for the first time in this blog's short history) I have had more readers in the United States than here on my dim little island.  

This prompts two questions. Should this blog reflect such a this demographic shift, and if so how?

The Times Literary Supplement apparently sells more issues in the U.S. than the U.K. and this is to an extent reflected in the choice of books under consideration and the style and content of the reviews. So for instance, when writing in their pages about Gerald Kersh recently I avoided references that might baffle a non-British reader, while at the same time striving to write in a style that one admirer once described as 'readable'.

Perhaps any appeal this blog has for American readers, whoever you lovely people are, is that it's essentially British, like Monty Python or The Avengers or Downton Abbey - all those PSB series that attract small but discriminating Anglophile audiences and which have nothing whatever in common with Britain as experienced by those who live here. 

But here's another thing. Looking back over past blogs I see that the lowest-ever readership was for something I posted on (and indirectly about) the Fourth of July. I really hate to repeat myself (as I've said on countless occasions) but to mark this demographic watershed there's a three-minute clip here. Enjoy!

Friday 18 October 2013

On Rube Goldberg

Almost 42,000,000 people have already seen this short film, and marvelled at it, and then watched it again and perhaps again. But it's new to me, and I expect many of my readers will be unaware of it.

So, here is an American (?) band called OK Go performing (or given the context presumably miming along to) their song This Too Shall Pass. The music is humdrum but the fabulously elaborate Rube Goldberg device synchronised to their performance is quite marvellous in its ramshackle kinetic ingenuity - it really beggars belief. Was it all done in one continuous take? I find that very hard to believe, but what the hell. Click here and wonder.

Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer and inventor and the American equivalent to Britain's Heath Robinson.  Goldberg's forte was the design and construction of complex contraptions to perform simple, mundane tasks.

In 1987 the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss applied Goldberg's approach in the art film Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go), an epic thirty-minute chain reaction involving  tyres, chairs, tables ladders, soap, oil drums, old shoes, chemicals, fire and water. It's an hypnotically watchable study in causality (although it does appear to have multiple edits to create an illusion of continuity).  Unlike the OK Go video this has been seen by a few thousand viewers only. You can watch it here.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Favourite snatches (14)

Here's another favourite snatch - an extract from Experience, the biographical memoir by Martin Amis, in which he recalls his father Kingsley's extraordinary talent as a mimic:

This is my father doing Lord David Cecil, the handsome, theatrical, effortlessly affected and above all aristocratic English don (who among other distinctions failed Kingsley's B. Litt at Oxford):

"Laze . . . laze and gentlemen, when we say a man looks like a poet . . . dough mean  . . . looks like Chauthah . . . dough mean looks like Dryden  . . . dough mean  . . . looks like Theckthpyum [or something barely recognisable as 'Shakespeare']  . . .  Mean looks like Shelley [pronounced 'Thellem' or thereabouts]. Matthew Arnold [then prestissimo] called Shelley beautiful ineffectual angel. Matthew Arnold had face [rallentando] like a horth. But my subject this morning is not the poet Shelley. Jane . . . Austen . . ."

Matthew Arnold

Amis fils goes on to say that whenever he thinks of what a poet looks like, he thinks of Robert Graves, whom he met in Mallorca as a boy when the Amis family visited Deià, where Graves lived.

I saw Graves in person only once, at a poetry reading in the Royal Festival Hall in, I think, 1975. I was with a school group. He was almost completely gaga and looked terrific in a sand-coloured linen suit, yellow shirt and chocolate-brown suede shoes, his tanned and nobel head with a corona of snow-white hair. He hobbled suavely onto the stage with a sheaf of papers from which he began immediately, before reaching the microphone, to read. Once he'd worked through the sheaf he started again from the beginning, and got as far as the middle of the second poem for the second time when somebody gently ushered him off.

Here's a favourite Graves poem - one that I have read many times to my wide-eyed son. It's called Welsh Incident:

'But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.'
'What were they? Mermaids? dragons? ghosts?'
'Nothing at all of any things like that.'
'What were they, then?'
 'All sorts of queer things,
Things never seen or heard or written about,
Very strange, un-Welsh, utterly peculiar
Things. Oh, solid enough they seemed to touch,
Had anyone dared it. Marvellous creation,
All various shapes and sizes, and no sizes,
All new, each perfectly unlike his neighbour,
Though all came moving slowly out together.'
'Describe just one of them.'
'I am unable.'
'What were their colours?'
'Mostly nameless colours,
Colours you'd like to see; but one was puce
Or perhaps more like crimson, but not purplish.
Some had no colour.'
'Tell me, had they legs?'
'Not a leg or foot among them that I saw.'
'But did these things come out in any order?'
What o'clock was it? What was the day of the week?
Who else was present? How was the weather?'
'I was coming to that. It was half-past three
On Easter Tuesday last. The sun was shining.
The Harlech Silver Band played Marchog Jesu
On thrity-seven shimmering instruments
Collecting for Caernarvon's (Fever) Hospital Fund.
The populations of Pwllheli, Criccieth,
Portmadoc, Borth, Tremadoc, Penrhyndeudraeth,
Were all assembled. Criccieth's mayor addressed them
First in good Welsh and then in fluent English,
Twisting his fingers in his chain of office,
Welcoming the things. They came out on the sand,
Not keeping time to the band, moving seaward
Silently at a snail's pace. But at last
The most odd, indescribable thing of all
Which hardly one man there could see for wonder
Did something recognisably a something.'
'Well, what?'
'It made a noise.'
'A frightening noise?'
'No, no.'
'A musical noise? A noise of scuffling?'
'No, but a very loud, respectable noise ---
Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In Chapel, close before the second psalm.'
'What did the mayor do?'
'I was coming to that.'

 I'll admit I'm not a great admirer of Graves's poetry in general, preferring the work of his wife Laura Riding. But Welsh Incident is wonderful. How many poems leave you, desperately, wanting more?

Welsh Incident © The Estate of Robert Graves / Faber and Faber Ltd

Wednesday 16 October 2013

On Grayson Perry

The artist Grayson Perry is delivering the 2013 Reith Lectures, a series of radio talks that commemorates the stern and high-minded Director General of the BBC in the 1930s, Lord Reith. I listened to the first one yesterday.

Grayson is a likeable, accomplished and amusing speaker - informal, bright, eloquent and droll. His flamboyant transvestite alter ego is rather a tiresome distraction but that hardly matters on the radio. 

Anyway - the first lecture began with lots of gossipy insider-talk about the art world. The tone might best be described as 'debunking'. I particularly liked this extract (as it appeared in transcript in the Financial Times):

I did a bit of research myself and I think I have found the 21st-century version of the Venetian secret [the 19th century hoax that fooled Benjamin West, president of the Royal Academy] and it is a mathematical formula. What you do, you get a half-decent, non-offensive kind of idea, then you times it by the number of studio assistants, and then you divide it with an ambitious art dealer, and that equals the number of oligarchs and hedge fund managers in the world.

Nicely put. But elsewhere, if engagingly, Perry is only doing what everybody involved in public art has been doing for as long as I can remember. He sets out (with the best intentions) to "demystify" the subject (and the art world of curators and dealers and suchlike). Yet most contemporary art, and most curating, has been aggressively dedicated to this popularising agenda for as long as I can remember, or at least since the 1980s when the Victoria and Albert Museum branded itself as "an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached".

Demystification - making stuff more accessible - has been going on for so long (and to so little effect) that I'd like to call a moratorium.

What I'd like to see is a re-mystification of art. Not a move to obscurity and pretension but an end to the chirpy debunking and irreverent register that characterises most arts reporting and too much museum and gallery curating. I'd like to see a return to seriousness.

Kenneth Clarke set a high bar in his ground-breaking television series Civilisation - urbane, cultivated, judgemental and (needless to add) wholly assured in his value judgements (which are the only judgements of any value). His approach was high-minded and unashamedly (or unselfconsciously) elitist - though without a trace of condescension - and he made connoisseurs of us all.

Make it new, as Pound said. Make it strange. But what do we get?

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Ask the Family

Watch this short clip of Ask the Family,  a popular early evening BBC Television parlour game from the 1970s (when families had parlours and played games in them). The type of families that used to appear on it are nowadays routinely mocked - tweedy polytechnic lecturer dads, mumsy homebound mums, their geeky bespectacled nine-year-old sons and (sometimes) their startlingly fruity teenage daughters. They came from places like Truro and Catterick and Uttoxeter and were quite unlike my own family, or any family I knew. They were always absolutely nuclear - questions would be directed at "Father and eldest child only" or "Mother and daughter only". These days such kinship assumptions are no longer possible. "Birth father and elder surrogate only." 

The question master (no other title will do) was the eloquent and erudite Robert Robinson, he of the mellifluous and chiding tone, lounge suits and combover starting at the hip. He was a feature of my childhood and adolescence and I remember regularly watching Call My Bluff with my grandmother on Monday evenings, another enjoyable low-budget quiz hosted by Robinson and featuring two teams of resting actor types, led by the humorist Frank Muir (of fond memory) and journalist Patrick Campbell, with his extraordinary stammer. Would he be employed by the BBC today?

But returning to Ask the Family - what sort of family would the producers dig up today? And what would future viewers make of them in forty years' time? There were no prizes, at least I don't remember any. Taking part was its own reward. And one could hear a sound now lost - that of reasonable people quietly conferring together before coming up with a consensually-negotiated answer. It was possible, then, to be right or wrong about something without a raucous audience's wild applause or jeering censure. There were no flashing lights or snatches of electronic music. Today's television quiz shows have a jittery, fruit machine aesthetic - the 1970s versions were mostly oatmeal-coloured (see above).

And returning to Robert Robinson. He wrote a superb comic novel set in Oxford (Landscape with Dead Dons, published in 1956). It features a journalist called Mr. Bum and has one of the most brilliant clues I've ever missed in a detective story. Imagine Tom Sharpe with real brains.  I'd like to read it again.

Bob (as I am not entitled to call him) was also behind the very best television documentary about a writer I've ever seen. The Auden Landscape, broadcast (by the BBC) in 1982, was written and narrated by Robinson and prompted my lifelong interest in the poet and his works. I'd love to see it again.

Monday 14 October 2013

Ice cream vans

Ice cream vans! We'll miss them when they finally disappear forever, wiped out by parental scepticism, home refrigeration and health inspectors. The fairground liveries, the windows thick with stickers, the generous strap line FRESHLY MADE - JUST FOR YOU and the cautionary legend on the back MIND THAT CHILD. The raucous rasping chimes, the taste of stale wafers and cones, the amateur graphics (approximating Disney characters), the slight whiff of the unreliable.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Collard and Collard

This blog is only incidentally about my family name. It's actually about the piano manufacturers Collard & Collard, to whom we are distantly related. Few piano makers, I'm pleased to report, have  a more distinguished literary pedigree.

From The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, originally appearing in Punch magazine from 1888 and published in book form in 1892:

After my work in the City, I like to be at home.  What’s the good of a home, if you are never in it?  “Home, Sweet Home,” that’s my motto.  I am always in of an evening.  Our old friend Gowing may drop in without ceremony; so may Cummings, who lives opposite.  My dear wife Caroline and I are pleased to see them, if they like to drop in on us.  But Carrie and I can manage to pass our evenings together without friends.  There is always something to be done: a tin-tack here, a Venetian blind to put straight, a fan to nail up, or part of a carpet to nail down—all of which I can do with my pipe in my mouth; while Carrie is not above putting a button on a shirt, mending a pillow-case, or practising the “Sylvia Gavotte” on our new cottage piano (on the three years’ system), manufactured by W. Bilkson (in small letters), from Collard and Collard (in very large letters).  

Thus begins what may well be the funniest comic novel in the language (unless you have a grumpy resistance to this kind of thing). Mr. Pooter is an ancestor of Leopold Bloom - lower middle class, of modest means and prone to pomposity. 'The three year's system' was a form of payment by instalment, what in my childhood was known, disparagingly, as 'the never-never'. The Grossmiths skewer the pretension of "W. Bilkson", a fictitious firm, with connotations of "bilking" or fraud, whose inferior quality pianos bear the more reputable manufacturer's brand. Nothing changes.

Collard and Collard upright (1874)

Speaking of Bloom I'm pleased to note that there's also a Collard and Collard piano in Ulysses. In the Sirens chapter (the one with a musical theme set in the Ormond Hotel that begins "Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing Imperthnthn thnthnthn.") It features the two barmaids Lydia Douce and Mina Kennedy, who strain to see the viceregal cavalcade passing by:

Miss Douce's brave eyes, unregarded, turned from the crossblind, smitten by sunlight. Gone. Pensive (who knows?), smitten (the smiting light), she lowered the dropblind with a sliding cord. She drew down pensive (why did he go so quick when I?) about her bronze, over the bar where bald stood by sister gold, inexquisite contrast, contrast inexquisite nonexquisite, slow cool dim seagreen sliding depth of shadow, eau de Nil.

—Poor old Goodwin was the pianist that night, Father Cowley reminded them. There was a slight difference of opinion between himself and the Collard grand.

There was.

—A symposium all his own, Mr Dedalus said. The devil wouldn't stop him. He was a crotchety old fellow in the primary stage of drink.

—God, do you remember? Ben bulky Dollard said, turning from the punished keyboard. And by Japers I had no wedding garment.

'A slight difference of opinion' with a grand piano? And is Joyce adding to the musical theme by the  near homophonic rhyme of Dollard and Collard (& Collard)?

Now, with a faint stink of the lamp, here's the history bit:

F. W. Collard was a director of the company Clementi & Co., a well respected piano manufacturer of the late 18th century.  Collard was apparently a mechanical genius, and awarded several patents for piano design and construction. When Muzio Clementi retired in 1815 the name of the firm was changed to the noble and euphonious 'Collard & Collard', becoming one of the great British piano makers of the 19th century. The 'cottage style' as acquired by the Pooters were small uprights, although the company also made concert grands. 

In 1929, the firm was sold to the Chappell Piano Company of London, but pianos bearing the Collard & Collard name were produced until about 1960. They're rather baroque objects for today's tastes - lots of ornate transfers and candelabra and what-not - can be picked up today on eBay for next to nothing. I'm tempted - but there's no space here, not even for a baby grand.

Camden was home in the 19th century to many piano-makers, as easy access to the canal network meant that materials could be brought in and the finished instruments could be shipped out around the country. The Collard & Collard factory and showroom can still be seen - it's the distinctive circular building in Oval Road.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Waiting for G'deau

Watch Beckett's American publisher, Barney Rosset of the Grove Press, introducing a 1961 television production of Waiting for Godot with a cast including Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith. Click here but be warned - you may want to stay for the whole show, which runs for a brisk ninety minutes.

Mostel (as Estragon) has clearly modelled his vocal delivery on Oliver Hardy, which seems right to me as Stan and Ollie were certainly prototypes for Vladimir and Estragon, not least in their shabby bourgeoise headgear. There are some surprising direct addresses to the audience (or at least the camera) and there's no shortage of mugging - but it was produced for a large popular audience. Fat chance of that happening now.

As ever I marvel at the U.S. pronunciation of a play's title. Everywhere else, including in the original French, it's pronounced with a stress on the first syllable of the last word of the title i.e. Godot. Quite why Rosset of all people should say "G'deau" is beyond me, unless there's a wish to avoid a whiff of blasphemy by saying God, even as a blameless syllable. That wouldn't astonish me, in a nation that (attractively, I think) has produced such euphemisms as "Jumping Jehoshaphat!" and "Jiminy Cricket!".  

But the absent Godot, let's remember, was not God. As Beckett himself said, wearily one suspects: "If by Godot I had meant God I would have said God, and not Godot."

By way of conclusive proof that Godot should be pronounced Godot consider the scene between the two tramps and the newly-arrived Pozzo:

ESTRAGON: (undertone). Is that him?
ESTRAGON: (trying to remember the name). Er . . .
POZZO: I present myself: Pozzo.
VLADIMIR: (to Estragon). Not at all!
ESTRAGON: He said Godot.
VLADIMIR: Not at all!
ESTRAGON: (timidly, to Pozzo). You're not Mr. Godot, Sir?
POZZO: (terrifying voice). I am Pozzo! (Silence.) Pozzo! (Silence.) Does that name mean nothing to you? (Silence.) I say does that name mean nothing to you?

To confuse Godot with Pozzo (which is always pronounced POT-zo) would hardly happen if Godot were G'deau. Plus - am I alone in finding "G'deau" incredibly camp?

Extract from Waiting for Godot © The Estate of Samuel Beckett

Thursday 10 October 2013

Beckett and slapstick

Slapstick (inverted)

The other evening I listened to the author Mark Billingham on Radio 4's  Pick of the Week, a selection of the preceding seven days' broadcasting.

Something he said made me scribble a note - the basis of this blog. Speaking after a clip from a documentary about film music he somehow got on to Samuel Beckett and, in the chortling stand-up comic register that seems to be the default setting for Radio 4 presenters, said: "[Beckett] was rubbish at slapstick, which is why they cut the custard pie scene from Waiting for Godot."

Billingham was wrong. Beckett was supremely adept at slapstick, as any reading of his novels and plays will confirm. There was, to be sure, no custard pie scene in an early draft of Godot but the mechanics of slapstick are certainly there. The term 'mechanics' is the mot juste. Here's an extract from Henri Bergson's Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique (Laughter, an essay on the meaning of the comic), first published in 1900:

Laughter can be caused by ugliness, but ugliness is not always comic. To laugh about ugliness, we need to have a naive, immediate, original approach, not to think. We also have to focus on a specific feature of the person and to associate the person with this feature. It is the same with cartoonists, who exaggerate physical and natural features of people. Our imagination sees in everyone the efforts of the soul to dynamise materiality, the soul or the mind give flexibility, agility and animation to the rigid body and to materiality. However the body tends to rigidify itself, and it produces a comic effect: When materiality succeeds in fixing the movement of the soul, in hindering its grace, it obtains a comic effect. To define comic in comparison to its contrary, we should oppose it to grace instead of beauty. It is stiffness rather than ugliness.

Henri Bergson (1859-1941)

So - as Bergson goes on to argue - humans are comic to the extent that they embody the mechanical. Hence Wyndham Lewis in his comic masterpiece Tarr describing one character as 'a bag of pickled rods' . . .

Bergson's phrase ' the efforts of the soul to dynamise materiality'  applies to Vladimir and Estragon and their desperate exchanges. The music-hall syncopations of their speech combine with their physical gestures to incarnate the slapstick. Waiting for Godot contains a wonderful stage direction in which Vladimir and Estragon exchange three hats (one of which was abandoned by Lucky in the first act):

Estragon takes Vladimir's hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky's hat on his head. Estragon puts on Vladimir's hat in place of his own which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes Estragon's hat. Estragon adjusts Vladimir's hat on his head. Vladimir puts on Estragon's hat in place of Lucky's which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes Lucky's hat. Vladimir adjusts Estragon's hat on his head. Estragon puts on Lucky's hat in place of Vladimir's which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes his hat, Estragon adjusts Lucky's hat on his head. Vladimir puts on his hat in place of Estragon's which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes his hat. Vladimir adjusts his hat on his head. Estragon puts on his hat in place of Lucky's which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes Lucky's hat. Estragon adjusts his hat on his head. Vladimir puts on Lucky's hat in place of his own which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes Vladimir's hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky's hat on his head. Estragon hands Vladimir's hat back to Vladimir who takes it and hands it back to Estragon who takes it and hands it back to Vladimir who takes it and throws it down.

You can see Beckett's mechanistic slapstick schtick performed here. Then watch Chico and Harpo Marx do the same kind of routine with Edgar Kennedy (master of 'the slow burn') in Duck Soup (1933), twenty years before Beckett recycled it in Godot. Nothing new under the sun.

Stage directions from Waiting for Godot © The Estate of Samuel Beckett

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Captain Beefheart

Here's Don Van Vliet (1941-2010), better known, of course, as Captain Beefheart.

The twenty-eight songs comprising his 1969 masterpiece Trout Mask Replica were written in an intensely creative eight-hour burst after which The Magic Band (consisting of the Captain himself and Zoot Horn Rollo, Antennae Jimmy Semens, The Mascara Snake, Rockette Morton and Drumbo) rehearsed non-stop for a year. The whole double album - dense, erratic, overwhelmingly original and without equal in modern music - was recorded in a single six-hour session. I love the whole record and I love this song. It's completely American. Click on the title and sing along.

The dust blows forward 'n the dust blows back

Once or twice each year the mood takes me to play the whole record straight through (now of course as a single dinky compact disc), but I've held on to my original vinyl in the gatefold sleeve. It's the Burgess Shale of avant-garde music. Dig it.

© Columbia records/Don Van Vliet

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Favourite Snatches (13)

Here's an extract from Canto XII, which appears in A draft of XXX Cantos by Ezra Pound (1930).

When I read this I hear  in my mind's ear the voice of Jimmy Durante. So after you've read Pound's wonderful verses to see The Great Schnozzola himself perform his immortal  Inka Dinka Doo.

There once was a pore honest sailor, a heavy drinker,
A hell of a cuss, a rowster, a boozer, and
The drink finally sent him to hospital,
And they operated, and there was a poor whore in
The woman's ward had a kid, while
They were fixing the sailor, and they brought him the kid
When he came to, and said:
            "Here! this is what we took out of you."

An' he looked at it, an' he got better,
And when he left the hospital, quit the drink,
And when he was well enough
            signed on with another ship
And saved up his pay money,
            and kept on savin' his pay money,
And bought a share in the ship,
            and finally had half shares,
Then a ship
            and in time a whole line of steamers;
And educated the kid,
            and when the kid was in college,
The ole sailor was again taken bad
            and the doctors said he was dying,
And the boy came to the bedside,
            and the old sailor said:
"Boy, I'm sorry I can't hang on a bit longer,
"You're young yet,
            I leave you re-sponsa-bilities.
"Wish I could ha' waited till you were older,
"More fit to take over the bisness..."
            "But, father,
"Don't, don't talk about me, I'm all right,
"It's you, father,"
            "That's it, boy, you said it.
"You called me your father, and I ain't.
"I ain't your dad, no,
"I am not your fader but your moder," quod he,
"Your fader was a rich merchant in Stambouli."

© The Estate of Ezra Pound. The Cantos published by Faber and Faber

Monday 7 October 2013

Best. Sellers. Ever.

In the history of publishing only six works of fiction have sold more than 100 million copies. Can you guess what they are?

Six clues, one per book:

1.  The main character of this, easily the biggest-selling novel of all time, is a dissipated English barrister.

2.  W. H. Auden said that the author of this epic had in some cases outdone Milton's achievement in Paradise Lost.

3. Written by an intrepid aviator whose exploits inspired a French parfumier.

4.  First published in serial form in the Daily Express, this story was originally set on Nigger Island and featured characters named Lawrence Wargrave, Vera Claythorne, Philip Lombard, General John Macarthur, Emily Brent, Anthony Marston, Dr Edward Armstrong and William Blore.

5.  An 18th century dynastic tale by an author who died in alcoholic poverty.

6.  An earlier book by the author of one other novel on this list

Intrigued? Scroll down for the list (courtesy of Wikepdia), followed by some thoughts.
BookAuthor(s)Original languageFirst publishedApproximate sales
A Tale of Two CitiesCharles DickensEnglish1859200 million
The Lord of the RingsJ. R. R. TolkienEnglish1954–1955150 million
Le Petit Prince Antoine de Saint-ExupéryFrench1943140 million
And Then There Were None 
(aka Ten Little Niggers)
Agatha ChristieEnglish1939100 million
紅樓夢/红楼梦 (aka Dream of the Red Chamber)Cao XueqinChinese1754]–1791100 million
The HobbitJ. R. R. TolkienEnglish1937100 million

Like you I've read them all - apart from 紅樓夢/红楼梦 (entirely unknown to me) and . . . er . . . A Tale of Two Cities. Never got around to it for some reason. I haven't, come to that, read Martin Chuzzlewit or Barnaby Rudge, but we all have our gaps. Dickens is a double surprise - for the truly astonishing sales and for the fact that A Tale of Two Cities, with its French revolutionary setting, is such an unDickensian novel. 

I read And Then There Were None during a damp holiday in the Channel Islands, aged 13, in an edition that carried its unfortunate original title (see below). I associate Agatha Christie's books with musty hotel lounges and the smell of fruit cocktail in heavy syrup. Her combined sales are simply mind-boggling - her 85 books have sold between 2 and 4 billion copies. The only author to outsell her is Shakespeare, although he's had four centuries to build up an audience.

Once you get way from individual books and look at the career totals for the most popular novelists (and Shakespeare) the mind begins to reel - both at the numbers and at the absolute nullity and fatuity of all but two of the writers in the top fifteen. The table below shows, from left to right, the author's name, their estimated minimum and maximum sales, the language in which they first appeared, the genre with which they are most associated and their nationality. Read this and wonder.

William Shakespeare2 billion4 billionEnglishPlays and poetryBritish
Agatha Christie2 billion4 billionEnglishWhodunits including the Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot series85British
Barbara Cartland500 million1 billionEnglishRomance723British
Danielle Steel500 million800 millionEnglishRomance120American
Harold Robbins750 million750 millionEnglishAdventure23American
Georges Simenon500 million700 millionFrenchDetectives, Maigret570Belgian
Sidney Sheldon370 million600 millionEnglishSuspense21American
Enid Blyton300 million600 millionEnglishChildren's literature, Noddy, The Famous Five800British
Dr. Seuss100 million500 millionEnglishChildren's literature44American
Gilbert Patten125 million500 millionEnglishAdolescent adventures209American
J. K. Rowling350 million450 millionEnglishHarry Potter11British
Leo Tolstoy413 millionRussianAnna KareninaWar and Peacephilosophical works48Russian
Jackie Collins250 million400 millionEnglishRomance25British
Horatio Alger, Jr.200 million400 millionEnglishDime novels135American
R. L. Stine100 million400 millionEnglishGoosebumps series, Fear Street series, Horror, Comedy430+American
Corín Tellado400 million400 millionSpanishRomance4,000Spanish
Dean Koontz325 million400 millionEnglishHorrorThrillerScience fiction91America

I've left in most of the links so you can, if you're so inclined, learn more about these authors - several of them, such as Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon, entirely unknown to me.

One other thing that strikes me is the approximate parity between male and female writers; of the top seventeen - seven are female. Make sense of that who will.

An do, please, take a closer look at Corin Tellado (1927 - 2009) who published, as you can see above, 4,000 romantic novels. That's right - four thousand. Most of these were only 76 pages long and issued weekly (as required under her draconian contract with the Barcelona publishers Braguera), but she still makes Georges Simenon look like a workshy dabbler.