Monday, July 13, 2015

Patrick O’Brian — ‘Master and Commander’

My second go at this, having batted it away in its Kindle edition with some fool comment about the mechanism of character (eh?). Since then it has kept popping up in second hand shops, nagging at me that ebooks don’t hold the attention as well as the real thing, and that it deserved another attempt. And so it proved. There is plenty of good characterisation, most obviously with the hearty Jack Aubrey and the precise Stephen Maturin, but taking in too Captain and Molly Harte, and James Dillon. Chapter three is a whirlwind of unfamiliar sailing terms which drives you to a dictionary every few lines (why is there no glossary?), and to Google if that fails, but that diminishes to some extent in later chapters, and is, in any case, integral to the way the book works, because the ship herself is a character, and the navy another, both dragged out of history on to the page through a very specific vocabulary. Set in 1800, it finds the British navy at war with the Spanish and French, patrolling the Mediterranean, safeguarding the passage of trade ships and disrupting the activities (both trade and military) of the enemy. Jack Aubrey is given his first command, the Sophie, and invites Stephen Maturin aboard as surgeon. Maturin has nothing to lose at the time, and is a lost soul:
Stephen Maturin was not afraid of any vulgar betrayal, nor was he afraid for his skin, because he did not value it: but he had so suffered from the incalculable tensions, rancour and hatreds that arise from the failure of a rebellion that he could not bear any further disappointment, any further hostile, recriminatory confrontation, any fresh example of a friend grown cold, or worse. (p. 95)
Both Stephen and the Sophie’s lieutenant, James Dillon, were involved in the United Irishmen Rebellion, and it affects them in different ways. Stephen is relatively apolitical, for someone with such a history: he is interested in science, particularly zoology, and his passions tend to be in the realm of intellectual inquiry. By contrast, James is consumed by the rebellion’s failure, and frustrated that he can’t speak out about it. He and Stephen do discuss it, one night, but he regrets this: nothing can be right with the world while the injustice remains, and he seems to feel he has only belittled his intense loyalties by talking about them. His is a tough, brooding presence in the book, as professional as he is inscrutable. Jack can’t work him out at all and, having once gained his friendship, loses it at a stroke by sending him aboard a ship bound for America to root out two supposed Frenchmen on the run. From their descriptions, James realises they are Irishmen from his own organisation, and seethes with divided loyalty: he can’t betray them, but that doesn’t make foregoing his duty to the navy an easy thing to do. He longs for action as a way of coping with these emotions. Stephen observes all this and records in his diary:
when JA is in a rage with his superiors, irked by the subordination of the service, spurred on by his restless, uneasy temperament, or (as at present) lacerated by his mistress’ infidelity, he flies to violence as a relief — to action. JD, urged on by entirely different furies, does the same. The difference is that whereas I believe JA merely longs for the shattering noise, immense activity of mind and body, and the all-embracing sense of the present moment, I am very much afraid that JD wants more. (p. 303–4)
There are a few great set pieces of action, most spectacularly the taking of the Cacafuego, a Spanish ship with a crew which outnumbers the Sophie’s by 319 to 54 because, although the Sophie usually holds 90 crew, they have captured several ships recently, and 40 men are away returning them to Port Mahon, where their base is (there seems to be a thin line between piracy and warfare, because the men directly profit from the ships they capture, even referring to them as prizes). In a feat almost worthy of Douglas Fairbanks’ Black Pirate, the Sophie slips under the Cacafuego’s guns and gives her a succession of broadsides from a distance of six inches, before the fifty-three sailors board, leaving Stephen alone at the tiller. As for The Guardian’s claim that Patrick O’Brian is ‘Jane Austen at sea’ – that’s about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Intelligent and sensitive though it is, Master and Commander is really about rough and tumble, ambition, real men doing what they have to do, and the politics of life in the navy. Its focus on money and status, I guess, are a connection to Austen, but there are almost no women, and the only romance is between Jack and Molly Harte, which is decidedly short-term, as Stephen observes at one of her dinners:
Stephen felt the odd bareness on his knee that meant his napkin had glided to the floor; he dived after it, and in the hooded tent below he beheld four and twenty legs, six belonging to the table and eighteen to his temporary messmates. Miss Wade had kicked off her shoes: the woman opposite him had dropped a little screwed-up handkerchief: Colonel Pitt’s gleaming military boot lay pressed upon Mrs Harte’s right foot, and upon her left – quite a distance from the right – reposed Jack’s scarcely less massive buckled shoe. […] in time Mrs Harte rose and walked, limping slightly, into the drawing room (p. 272)
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New words: holystones, antiscorbutic, roborative, hypnogogue, carotid, drabble-tail, pake, strake, futtock-shrouds, kelson, fid, top-maul, bilboes, orlop, specie, libeccio, patareroes, abaft, mizen, luff, tompion, loblolly, anamometer, stanchion, taffrail, genet, solomongundy, tramontana, xebec, cullions.

(There is more of the vocab in this Goodreads review, which also makes a good point about the desultory nature of the Sophie’s cruises.)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Wyndham Wallace — ‘Lee, Myself and I: Inside the Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood’

The strings are like veins swelling with blood — slowly at first, then increasingly uninhibited. A hint of horn and a tease of oboe offer brief flashes of bare skin, the melody floating over its surface. The song suddenly shifts up a key, and I gasp: it’s like we’ve reached the peak of a treacherous mountain, and now, below us, as clouds part, we’ve discovered at last hidden hillsides and dark, unknown forests. I’m entering Freudian territory. Man, I really am stoned. (p. 31)

This is a description of ‘Leather and Lace’ from Cowboy in Sweden — of Wyndham Wallace hearing it for the first time, and getting it right between the thighs. It’s the early ’90s. He’s been out to a Mark Eitzel show which finished abruptly when a heckler went too far causing Eitzel to storm off, and ended up, via a few games of pool, in a Camden flat inhabited by The Rockingbirds, hogging a joint and falling hard for Lee’s music. It’s some introduction, some description. Scenes of Wallace taking his first tentative steps in the music business from a privileged starting point which he sees as a disadvantage (how times change!) are woven in with his first meeting with Lee, five or six years later, in a hotel bar in New York. It doesn’t start well:
‘How the fuck old are you? Thirteen?’
I’m not even shit on his shoes. (p. 18)
Wallace is actually 27 by this point, and runs the UK arm of City Slang (or possibly is the UK arm of City Slang). Steve Shelley is in the process of re-releasing some of Lee’s records and has involved Wallace for UK promotion. Faxes have bleeped back and forth, and now the launch party has occasioned this meeting with his hero. It’s a bit tense, but he gets through it without alienating Lee too much.

The book is the story of how these unpromising beginnings lead to a real friendship. Lee is difficult, Wyndham indulgent; gradually trust starts to build. It’s also the story of a comeback: the discography at the back shows a prolific career losing momentum in the mid ’70s, skipping the ’80s entirely and never really getting its mojo back right until the end, with 2006’s Cake or Death. Though there are reminiscences of the glory days, the focus is necessarily on the nineties and noughties, some comeback concerts (particularly at Nick Cave’s Meltdown in 1999 — though Cave’s one appearance in the book is stand-off-ish in the extreme), and Lee’s cancer, of which he died in 2007. It’s a fine memoir, but it makes you thirst for a similarly meticulous account of the sixties and seventies. A project to get down some of Lee’s anecdotes while he can still tell them is mooted late on, but there’s a problem with that idea: ‘Lee rarely speaks about the music on his old records. He’ll talk until your smile muscles ache about all sorts of things, but not the contents of the albums he made.’ (p. 195). There are a few indications in the book that there was a depressive side to Lee – at least, that he was a man who needed his own space. That made me think of ‘Friendship Train’, and the line ‘when you’re blue I’ll lie and say you’re not feeling like yourself today’. When you’ve sung that, really, why elaborate?

Except that one of the chief pleasures of this book is hearing Lee speak. It doesn’t much matter what about, and in fact, it’s hard to find anything very concise or even to the point. It’s just nice to do. Here he is reminiscing about making someone else’s records (‘Bubba’ is his nick-name for Wyndham):
        ‘You know, we started making Duane Eddy records in 1957, in Phoenix, Arizona. That’s over forty years ago. Corky Casey’ – he relishes the sound of her name as it rolls off his tongue – ‘played rhythm on a lot of them. She didn’t play in the band in person, but Corky was always on the records. You know, what Corky Casey may have been is the first American rock lady guitarist in America. I haven’t found anybody who can say otherwise, and I’ve talked to several people about it. They say, “1957? That’s waaaay back there, isn’t it?” So if you know of anyone, Bubba – and I don’t mean your grandmother who played in a band – then I think you ought to tell me.’
        ‘I don’t think my grandmother ever played in a band,’ I laugh, surprised by the notion, since I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned her before. ‘She was more of a wannabe poet.’
        ‘Aha! I like the sound of her.’ (p. 96)
Miss you, Lee.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

P. G. Wodehouse — ‘Something Fresh’

        ‘What cheese would you recommend?’
        ‘The gentlemen are speaking well of the gorgonzola.’
        ‘All right, bring me some. You know, Adams, what I admire about Americans is their resource. Mr Peters tells me that, as a boy of eleven, he earned twenty dollars a week selling mint to saloon-keepers, as they call publicans over there. Why they wanted mint I cannot recollect. Mr Peters explained the reason to me, and it seemed highly plausible at the time, but I have forgotten it. Possibly for mint-sauce. It impressed me, Adams. Twenty dollars is four pounds. I never earned four pounds a week when I was a boy of eleven. In fact, I don’t think I ever earned four pounds a week. His story impressed me, Adams. Every man ought to have an earning capacity…. Tell me, Adams, have I eaten my cheese?’
        ‘Not yet, your lordship, I was about to send the waiter for it.’
        ‘Never mind. Tell him to bring the bill instead. I remember that I have an appointment. I must not be late.’
        ‘Shall I take the fork, your lordship?’
        ‘The fork?’
        ‘Your lordship has inadvertently put a fork in your coat-pocket.’
        Lord Emsworth felt in the pocket indicated, and, with the air of an inexpert conjuror whose trick has succeeded contrary to his expectations, produced a silver-plated fork. He regarded it with surprise, then he looked wonderingly at Adams.
        ‘Adams, I’m getting absent-minded. Have you ever noticed any traces of absent-mindedness in me before?’
        ‘Oh, no, your lordship.’ (pp. 43–4)
Once upon a time, I doted on Wodehouse, and particularly the Blandings stories. Their appeal is simple: it’s an idyll, a place it’s charming and relaxing to visit (Trollope’s Barsetshire has a similar attraction at times, though it’s obviously more extensive and less comic. But there are real points of crossover: both The Small House at Allington and Something Fresh feature breach of promise to marry as a theme). They turn on the character of the Clarence, Ninth Earl of Emsworth, who wants to be left alone by the world to potter around Blandings, enjoying the gardens, and looking in on the Empress, his prize pig, around whose condition (i.e. fatness) various labyrinthine plots are constructed. The recent BBC TV series got it all wrong by being madcap: Blandings is about calm. Of course things happen to intrude on that calm, generally to imperil the Empress’ girth when she’s about to be entered into a show, and then the Earl will be troubled, within his exceedingly narrow focus. But it’s a joy to observe that narrow focus, and a comfort to watch his ruffled feathers settle as the status quo is restored. Something Fresh is the first Blandings novel, from 1915, and the pieces aren’t all in place yet (there’s no pig, and no Lady Constance to keep Clarence on his toes), but on the other hand it has characters who feel things for each other, and a plot stacked high with farcical potential.

The plot turns on a scarab that the Earl unconsciously pockets: the pride of the collection of American millionaire Mr Peters, whose daughter Aline has unaccountably become engaged to Freddie, the Earl’s vacant youngest son. Mr Peters is furious when he discovers the loss, but can’t accuse Emsworth of the theft for fear of jeopardising his daughter’s marriage. Emsworth becomes convinced that the scarab was intended as a present, and gives it a prominent place in the museum at Blandings castle. Mr Peters lets it be known he’d give $5000 to get the scarab back, which causes a rush of people (well, three) to the castle to retrieve it. Two of them pretend to be domestic servants: Joan Valentine, an old school friend of Aline Peters, who once was the target of a stream of love letters and poems from Freddie, whom she impressed as a chorus girl; and Ashe Marson, a fitness fanatic and reluctant writer of the Gridley Quayle detective stories which Freddie, cooped up at the castle with no allowance, adores. Joan pretends to be Aline’s maid, and Ashe the valet of Mr Peters — who, I forgot to mention, is dyspeptic and on a diet he can’t stand, of nuts and greens. Then there is R. Jones, whom Freddie has paid £500 to get back the letters he wrote to Joan, lest she raise a breach of promise case and endanger his marriage to Aline. Joan didn’t keep the letters, and tells R. Jones so. He leaves, and is just in time to listen at the door when Aline arrives, and tells Joan about the reward for the scarab. This gives him an idea for squeezing more money out of Freddie.

There’s more, but that’s the gist. Most characters have two functions which dovetail nicely into a wall of confusion. Now you mention it, it doesn’t actually sound all that calm; but don’t forget that the Earl is 99% oblivious. Without the pig to focus his attention, his only real concern is being at Blandings:
The Earl of Emsworth was one of the world’s leading potterers, and Sunday morning was his favourite time for pottering. Since breakfast he had pottered about the garden, pottered round the stables, and pottered about the library. He now pottered into the museum. (p. 213)
Doesn’t that sound delightful?

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Anthony Trollope – ‘The Small House at Allington’

Who does not know how terrible are those preparations for house-moving – how infinite in number are the articles which must be packed, how inexpressibly uncomfortable is the period of packing, and how poor and tawdry is the aspect of one’s belongings while they are thus in a state of dislocation? (p. 538)
Well, quite. S. and I moved earlier this year, to a house of our own, with an art room for her and a music room / library for me (hedging my bets), and while much of the house is tidy and functional, these two rooms are still Xanadus of boxes: all the things we couldn’t bear to part with, but aren’t strictly necessary. It’s ever so slightly tempting to lock them up and go digital. Mrs Dale and her two daughters, with whom Trollope sympathises above, don’t have that option, of course: it’s the 1860s, and they feel that their position as occupiers of the Small House at Allington is no longer tenable. They have lived there for many years, under the aegis of the squire, who lives next door at the Great House. His brother was Mrs Dale’s husband, and has left her a widow with a very small income. The squire, taking them under his wing in a practical sense, finds it impossible to show fondness (though it is not lacking) through his manner, so they always feel a little distant from him. When he tries to consolidate the family fortune, by marrying off the elder sister, Bell, to his nephew Bernard, they see it as a step outside his authority, and plan to leave the Small House for much plainer lodgings at nearby Guestwick. Whether they will go through with this or not gives some tension to the closing chapters of the book, alongside the greater question of whether Lily Dale will marry Johnny Eames. Certainly the book ends well, with these two gentle crescendos, and sets the reader up for more Barsetshire in the sixth and final book of the series.

While I did enjoy this book, and generally become more enamoured of Trollope the more I read, it didn’t quite live up to Framley Parsonage, which wove such a rich tapestry of old and new characters. The Small House feels more limited, though it’s unclear why this should be so: it takes in country, town, rich and… less rich. It contains a vicious and thoroughly enjoyable demolition job on the de Courcys, who move from respectable titled folk to in-fighting money-grubbing horror show without changing at all. There are scenes of clerk-dom at the Income Tax Office, which (say the notes) may draw on Trollope’s own time at the Post Office. There are comic scenes in a low rent guest house, and there is passionate, doomed love at Allington in two directions. There is a terrific scene showing how bored men get when women choose carpets. Money is everywhere, of course, but it’s not quite the actuating force it was in Framley Parsonage. Greed is more generalised; want, too. The lessons to be drawn are perhaps a little obvious: don’t run from the arms of the one you love into those of the daughter of an earl for whom you don’t care a jot. And – on the other side – don’t fall in love with a swell; don’t be a Cathy for the first dashing man who comes along, because he probably isn’t a Heathcliff.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Robert Tressell – ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’

This is a big, polemical, bloody minded book about working men in the early 1900s, and – not their struggle against, but their acquiescence in the condition of poverty to which capitalism has brought them. They are taught from a young age not to question their situation, but to trust in their Liberal or Conservative political masters. Class divisions are absolute, and ‘the likes of us’, as the men refer to themselves, think only of beer, women, football and racing; never of anything that might improve their circumstances. The men live and work in Mugsborough, a town on the south coast of England, and they are house painters. For the first half of the book, they are engaged in doing up a house belonging to the head of the company they work for, Rushton & Co. They are bullied into working as fast as possible by a man variously known as Misery, Hunter and Nimrod, who is Rushton’s right-hand man. He does all Rushton’s dirty work, and all his thinking too: calculating the cost of jobs, and creeping around trying to catch the working men not working, in order to be able to sack one of them and keep the rest on their toes – and ideally to force down the wage for which they are prepared to work . Below him is the foreman of the job, Crass, who does his share of creeping, and gives himself the easy task of mixing paints. This hierarchy is rotten to the core, and is a microcosm of the system of commerce in the wider world, which rewards cunning and greed, and scorns talent and craftmanship:
What Misery did not know about scamping and faking the work, the men suggested to and showed him in the hope of currying favour with him in order that they might get the preference over others and be sent for when the next job came in. This is the principle incentive provided by the present system, the incentive to cheat. These fellows cheated the customers of their money. They cheated themselves and their fellow workmen of work, and their children of bread, but it was all for a good cause – to make profit for their master. (p. 462)
There is a lot of talk of the ‘present system’ in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The central character, Frank Owen, is a socialist, who tries to kindle a sense of outrage in his fellow workers. He tells them that money is the cause of their poverty, and they laugh at him, because it sounds like it makes no sense. But it does make sense:
money is the cause of poverty, because poverty consists in being short of the necessaries of life: the necessaries of life are all produced by labour applied to the raw materials: the raw materials exist in abundance and there are plenty of people able and willing to work; but under present conditions no work can be done without money; and so we have the spectacle of a great army of people compelled to stand idle and starve by the side of the raw materials from which their labout could produce abundance of all the things they need – they are rendered helpless by the power of Money! (p. 588)
Tressell goes so far as to prefer feudalism to capitalism:
It would have been much better for them if, instead of being ‘Freemen’, they had been slaves, and the property, instead of the hirelings, of Mr Rushton. (p. 315)
Because then he would have taken care of them, ‘as he would of his horse’. Money cuts ties, creates abstractions. Rushton can pay them when there is work to be done, and lay them off when there isn’t: it’s like a zero hour contract, without the contract. And so the workers strive for the right to earn not enough to live on, and when they are out of work they and their families starve. The council is run by Rushton and his cronies Sweater, Grinder and Didlum, purely for their own profit, and the only councillor who stands up to them, Weakling, is so unpopular he gets voted out. Not because he is unpleasant, or an ineffecive speaker, but because he is not selfish enough, and this puts him in a position of weakness, which the voters can’t stand. Everything continually gets worse, and Tressell has only contempt for the charities which claim to want to help:
If it were not for all this so-called charity the starving unemployed men all over the country would demand to be allowed to work and produce the things they are perishing for want of, instead of being – as they are now – content to wear their masters’ cast off clothing and to eat the crumbs that fall from his table. (p. 428)
Charity is invariably tied to the Church, which sanctifies ‘the system’, and never, ever does what Jesus would have done. Witness the vile Rev. Mr Belcher:
If he had removed the long garment, this individual would have resembled a balloon: the feet representing the car and the small head that surmounted the globe, the safety valve; as it was it did actually serve the purpose of a safety valve, the owner being, in consequence of gross overfeeding and lack of natural exercise, afflicted with chronic flatulance, which manifested itself in frequent belchings forth through the mouth of the foul gases generated in the stomach by the decomposition of the foods with which it was generally loaded. But as the Rev. Mr Belcher had never been seen with his coat off, no one ever noticed the resemblance. (p. 202)
He has been made ill by his disgusting over-indulgence, and the most disgusting thing of all is that the children of his Sunday school are made to collect money from people on the poverty line to send him on holiday to recover.

I kept expecting the workers and the unemployed to form a society to help themselves – the ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’of the book’s title. But they are too divided for that. The meaning of the phrase is actually the reverse: that the workers are the source of their masters’ riches, which they essentially donate, via the ‘money trick’ that forms the basis of Owen’s best lecture. Here is his illustration of that trick:


The solution to this problem? It’s not very likely to come about, I’m afraid:
Public Ownership of the Machinery, and the National Organisation of Industry for the production and distribution of the necessaries of life, not for the profit of a few but for the benefit of all! (p. 596)
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Thanks to my Secret Santa for this book. I do like the fact that it came to me via work.

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