Sunday, December 02, 2018

‘The Frankenstein Phantasmagoria’, Dundee Congregational Church & The Howff, 24th November

From Wikipedia’s entry on the Phantasmagoria:
a form of horror theatre that (among other techniques) used one or more magic lanterns to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons and ghosts onto walls, smoke or semi-transparent screens, typically using rear projection to keep the lantern out of sight. […] Some shows added all kinds of sensory stimulation, including smells and electric shocks.
Shocks and smells aside, that is a fair description of the second half of this magic lantern show by Jeremy Brooker, assisted by his wife Carolyn: they used mirrors against the lantern’s lenses to project spooks around the church walls and roof, and the previously flat screen was drawn back to reveal several more layers, including a semi-transparent gauze, a rainbow-shimmering, swaying surface which turned out to be bubble-wrap kept moving by a fan, and at the back the contours of a body topped by a skull in the centre of the screen-space. The effect of the projections on this was quite dazzling, much of it softened by the layers so that it became purely a visual pleasure (shoegaze for the eyes, cathedrals of light), but scenes came and went too, making the body and skull more or less obvious. Alongside this, Timothy Didymus played an instrument made from twelve glass turntables and wine glasses, a kind of reverse-engineered glass armonica, but softer-sounding, as (he explained afterwards) he had leather pads pressed against the sides of the glasses, producing the sound. It was a beautiful, immersive experience: memento mori ameliorated.

The whole event was immersive, actually. It began at the nearby Howff, a graveyard in the centre of Dundee with graves from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Guide Eddie Small met the audience there, in the dark and in the rain, wearing a black cloak and accompanied by two assistants dressed as friars, with lamps, who herded us this way and that, out of the way of the traffic. Small started by explaining something I didn’t quite catch about the Howff and Mary Shelley (she dug up bodies there and made a prototype monster, perhaps?), before going on to explain that James Bowman Lindsay, inventor of the incandescent light bulb, was not buried there, but in Dundee’s Western Cemetery. What the Howff did have, was an open-air mortuary (‘people were dying to get in’), and none the people buried there had a funeral, because, he said, there were none in Scotland for four hundred years prior to 1920. Is this really true? It doesn’t pass the quick Google test, but who knows? It certainly created a nice ghostly feeling, which was only intensified by walking down a dark side street to the church’s back entrance, past a large back-projection of the reanimation scene from Bride of Frankenstein in one of its windows. In the church hall before we were permitted access to ‘the other side’ (the church itself, where the performance was), organisers Keith Williams and Matthew Jarron wore white lab coats, and the darkened room boasted an impressive array of grisly medical equipment from the university’s collection, the better to consider the way of all flesh, bone and sinew prior to the main event.

The magic lantern show, as Brooker explained in a talk afterwards, was not a re-telling of Frankenstein. Rather, it explored themes relating to the novel, using a combination of genuine Victorian slides, copies, and entirely original slides. He told us that there are no Victorian magic lantern slides telling the story of Frankenstein, so he had to be inventive, adapting and recontextualising. He said he had made seventy slides for the show (one was of the entrance to the Howff), which is an extraordinary amount of work: I hope it survives in some form, either a recording or repeat performances (there were just two over the weekend). It would definitely bear repeat viewings.

Here are some of the slides which stood out: a woman in profile, full length, looking through a door at a body against a black background (more like a medical diagram than a ‘real’ body), I think a skeleton to begin with, then with layers of muscle. Similar but more horrific was a woman in medium shot, holding a black mask in front of the top half of her face, with just the eyes showing through. All set for a masquerade. She moved the mask down, so you could see her face. Then back up, and down again, and the top half of her face had become a skull, as though the flesh of her face were itself a mask. It made me think of Mark Fisher’s discussion of horror and pornography in his essay and blog post ‘Let me be your fantasy’, which I read recently in his gigantic posthumous collection k-punk:
‘Why stop with the genitalia?’ Baudrillard asks, ‘Who knows what profound pleasure is to be found in the visual dismemberment of mucous membranes and smooth muscles?’ Cronenberg’s early work – from Shivers and Rabid through to Videodrome – is an answer to that very question. Cronenberg famously posed his own question, ‘why aren’t there beauty contests for the inside of the body?’ (Mark Fisher, k-punk, p. 64, and online here.)
There was nothing explicitly sexual about the magic lantern show (though there was a slide featuring a suggestively growing nose), but perhaps the peeling back of flesh for entertainment necessarily entails a sexual element.

There was also the fascination of: how was that done? All sorts of trickery is possible, between the magic lantern’s three lenses (allowing superimposition) and the manipulation of individual slides. But at the same time, it is all done live and there is nowhere to hide: everything is visible, blown up to screen size. There was an arctic section, with a ship in silhouette moving like a ghost from slide to slide. There was a whaling scene in which the sea went red with blood. Brooker said that this was his modern sensibility: Victorian whaling scenes tend to be heroic rather than horrific. There was a section on acrobatics, which I think was there on Brooker’s previous visit to Dundee, when he put on a Christmas show at the university. That was magical, because, to an audience used to video and computer graphics (and no longer used to overhead projectors), magic lanterns represent an entirely different way of manipulating images. It has a nostalgic feeling to it, sure, and the Victoriana is part of the appeal, but it’s also alien to see movement on a screen without Frames Per Second. The whirling phantasmagoria of the finale to this show, with its textures, layers, and its sprites and brownies darting around the periphery of our vision was something else again. Near the end of this sequence, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Death is not the End’ was played, like a pilot announcing a landing, signalling that we had strayed well beyond a story about science and the reanimation of flesh, to the territory of the soul. The screen, the entire place, was haunted.


The Frankenstein Phantasmagoria was part of the Being Human Festival, and timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication.
Jeremy Brooker is chair of the Magic Lantern Society.
Timothy Didymus’ Kosmiche Glass LP (this is also the name of his wine-glass instrument) is available on Bandcamp.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Muriel Spark – ‘Memento Mori’

My second Muriel Spark novel, after The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and, as in that book, much of the story happens elsewhen. The peer group skewered here (‘friends’ would be wrong) are all in their seventies and eighties, and have started to receive anonymous telephone calls which tell them ‘remember you must die’. A history of infidelities going back half a century binds the group together: there is blackmail, and the frequent changing of wills as new facts emerge or are imagined. It’s all about the money. Mrs Pettigrew, the blackmailer, selects a convenient enough version of reality for herself: she has a facelift, and within a few years is convinced that she hasn’t had one. She also denies that she has received an anonymous phone call, and believes that too. The facelift is presumably what allows her to pass for a relative youngster, and in addition to seriously depleting the capital of her employer Godfrey Colston by threatening to tell his wife about his decades of infidelity, she makes a little ready money by allowing him an occasional titillating glimpse of suspender.

As the novel begins, Dame Lettie Colston, Godfrey’s sister and an overweight philanthropist, has been receiving the calls for about six weeks. She reports them to the police, and also to a retired policeman of her acquaintance, Henry Mortimer, whom she then begins to suspect of making the calls himself. Mortimer summons the targeted group to his house for afternoon tea and a denouement in which the evidence diverges in as many directions as there are witnesses: the caller is a middle-aged man, a young Teddy-boy; his voice is ‘cracked and rather shaky’, ‘strong and sinister’ (p. 146); he is foreign, or not; he has a lisp, or not; he is, in Mortimer’s case only, a she. After the guests have left, his wife reflects:
        ‘How I wish,’ said Emmeline, ‘you could have told them outright, “Death is the culprit.” And I should like to have seen their faces.’
        ‘It’s a personal opinion. One can’t make up one’s mind for others.’ (p. 151)
Mortimer is one of only three sympathetic characters in the novel, two of whom are relatively minor. The third is Godfrey’s wife, Charmian Piper, a famous novelist in her day, whose books are coming back into fashion and being reprinted, which arrests and to some extent reverses the dementia to which she is prey in the early part of the book. Amongst her confusion about who is who (she tends to think everyone is her estranged son, Eric), there is still a sharpness of perception. Talking to Godfrey:
        ‘Ah,’ said Charmian, ‘you are taking your revenge, Eric.’
        ‘I am not Eric,’ he said.
        ‘But you are taking your revenge.’ (p. 73)
He is, indeed. After many years of resentment about not being the breadwinner in the marriage, he finally seems to be gaining the upper hand with Charmian’s worsening memory: ‘he could never feel really well unless she were ill’ (p. 153). Initially, he wants to send her to a nursing home, then loses so much money through blackmail that he thinks they can’t afford it. Given a new lease of life (and money) by her re-printed novels, Charmian eventually leaves on her own terms. Her recovery is heartening, given that she is the moral core of the book, but it is kept below the level of miraculous. In one scene, when Godfrey and Mrs Pettigrew are both out (she following, wanting to control him), she prepares her own afternoon tea in an agonising scene which makes it clear how dangerous this is, at the limit of her physical capacity. Carrying the tray is beyond her, so she makes many trips between kitchen and living room, taking the items one by one.

Charmian’s former maid, Jean Taylor, is the third sympathetic character (it is interesting that two of them are working class, in a story mostly about the rich), and her bed in an NHS geriatric ward contrasts with the private room her former employer has at the nursing home. She is visited by Lettie, and by Alec Warner, a tragi-comic presence, a Casaubon, who is collecting behavioural evidence for the long-term study of the elderly which he intends to be his life’s work and legacy: several times he sends letters to characters making shocking, gossipy revelations and asking them to take their pulse and report back. Miss Taylor sees exactly how ridiculous he is:
She had discerned, after many years, that his whole approach to the female mind, his only way of coping with it, was to seem to derive amusement from it. When Miss Taylor had made this discovery she was glad they had never been married. He was too much masked, behind his mocking, paternal attitude – now become a habit – for any proper relationship with a grown woman. (p. 62)
It’s possible that his research could reveal scientific truths about ageing, but in observing, he has quit the field of human interaction (she might advise him, ‘remember you must live’). Charmian is quitting it slowly, as her memory goes. Godfrey was never much interested in it, he just wants sex and power. Mrs Pettigrew just wants money. Miss Taylor finds herself in posh isolation, a servant with a fine critical mind after years of sharing her employer’s intellectual life. No one is comfortable, no one has reached contentment by virtue of having lived a long time: the squabbles of a lifetime continue to the end.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

April to September

I keep reading books and not writing about them. Which isn’t really the idea, is it? See also: November 2011. It isn’t the Kindle’s fault this time, as that is tucked safely on a shelf, too late for its bashed screen, but it works fine if you turn the light off. However, its time (or certainly its peak) seems to have passed, and books are books once more. Since To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve read Mike Barnes’ Captain Beefheart, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life
Octopuses in at least two aquariums have learned to turn off the lights by squirting jets of water at the bulbs when no one is watching, and short circuiting the power supply. At the University of Otago in New Zealand, this became so expensive that the octopus had to be released back into the wild. (p. 55)
… Elif Batuman’s The Idiot
I told him my theory. Most people, the minute they met you, were sizing you up for some competition for resources. It was as if everyone lived in fear of a shipwreck, where only so many people would fit on the lifeboat, and they were constantly trying to stake out their property and identify dispensable people – people they could get rid of. […]
        ‘Do you see yourself as one of the dispensable people?’
        ‘The point is I don’t want to get involved in that question, and it’s all most people want to talk about. The number of people who want to understand what you’re like instead of trying to figure out whether you get to stay on the boat – it’s really limited.’ (p. 142)
…some of Bill Drummond and Mark Manning’s Bad Wisdom (I got disgusted), some of Douglas Adams’ The Salmon of Doubt (which was on Kindle, actually), some of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring (also on Kindle, also unfinished), some of Lloyd Clark’s Arnhem (second attempt, unfinished again), Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which fits the Hark, A Vagrant! characterisation of its author to a T:
beside my abandoned wretch of a husband, the base, malignant Grimsby, and the false villain Hargrave, the boarish ruffian [Hattersley], coarse and brutal as he was, shone like a glow-worm in the dark, among its fellow worms. (p. 346)
…and Claire Tomalin’s A Life of my Own, which has pointed in so many different directions (Karl Miller, Michael Frayn, Samuel Pepys) that I’m in a quandary over what to read next. A nice sort of problem to have.

I think I’d probably have done better at finishing those books if I’d written posts on them, and it could have been a good set of posts too. On the other hand, one wants to be free to flit about.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Harper Lee – ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

[Spoiler alert: usually I try to avoid discussing the endings of books, but here it seemed unavoidable.]
One Christmas I lurked in corners nursing a twisted splinter in my foot, permitting no one to come near me. When Uncle Jack caught me, he kept me laughing about a preacher who hated going to church so much that every day he stood at his gate in his dressing-gown, smoking a hookah and delivering five-minute sermons to any passers-by who desired spiritual comfort. I interrupted to make Uncle Jack let me know when he would pull it out, but he held up a bloody splinter in a pair of tweezers and said he yanked it while I was laughing, that was what was known as relativity. (pp. 86-7)
Fiction is often the spinning of the yarn in order to reveal the splinter. Narratives drift in a certain direction, either leading the reader to a conclusion, or providing the framework for an argument which could lead in several directions. To Kill a Mockingbird uses the yarn of childhood innocence to pick at the festering splinter of racism in 1930s Alabama, and it does it in the main by showing the genteel end of white society (the respectable inhabitants of the town rather than the country bumpkins), set in their ways, living alongside black society only insofar as they employ black people as servants: the splinter is well hidden, only perceptible to the young, who have yet to absorb the prevailing attitudes of their time and class.
Jem was scratching his head. Suddenly his eyes widened. ‘Atticus,’ he said, ‘why don’t people like us and Miss Maudie ever sit on juries? You never see anybody from Maycomb on a jury – they all come from out in the woods.’ […]
        ‘Well, what if – say, Mr Link Deas had to decide the amount of damages to award to, say, Miss Maudie, when Miss Rachel ran her over with a car. Link wouldn’t like the thought of losing either lady’s business at his store, would he? So he tells Judge Taylor that he can’t serve on the jury because he doesn’t have anybody to keep store for him while he’s gone. So Judge Taylor excuses him. Sometimes he excuses him wrathfully.’ (p. 244)
Well-off whites outsource the responsibility of judgement to the poor, and since it is the poor whites who live in close proximity with black communities, it is they who, fed by trickle-down resentment, insult and abuse them. Mayella Ewell, the lonely and mistreated daughter of drunkard Bob, assuages her condition by making advances to Tom Robinson, a black labourer and young father, whose daily walk to work takes him past the Ewell house. She asks him to fix things in the yard at first, and then, having bribed her siblings into making themselves scarce, she asks him into the house and makes a pass at him. Her father, returning at the wrong moment, spots them through the window and intervenes, chasing off Tom and savagely beating Mayella. This then becomes a charge of rape against Tom, who is also blamed for the beating. The court case is the talk of the town, and Scout and Jem gradually become aware of a wave of public disapproval directed against Atticus, whom Judge Taylor has appointed the defence lawyer in the case. It’s a very distanced way of telling the story: the basic facts of it emerge slowly, and the characters involved in its defining scene are flung to the periphery. It’s not a story about the victim (Tom), or even the perpetrators (Mayella and Bob), but about the layers of society above them: the internal struggle within well-off white society between those (the majority) who want to see the black man executed for having broken a taboo the rules of which prevent the instigator from being blamed, and those (Atticus, Judge Taylor) who know this is wrong and make a valiant attempt to sway justice in the direction of justice, based on such slivers of conscience as they can encourage in the jury.

Most of the time, this is a book about growing up: from Scout’s first day at school to when she’s eight years old and dresses up as a joint of ham for a pageant (she fluffs her entrance, so is a failure as a ham actor – I wasn’t sure if the pun was intentional). She plays in and around the house with Jem, and Dill, a friend from out of town who spends his summers with an aunt in the same street. They become obsessed with a neighbour who never leaves the house, Boo Radley, who becomes a kind of ghoul in their imagination, but is actually very tolerant of their unwanted attentions, leaving small presents for them to collect in a hole in a tree in his yard (‘Two Indian-headed pennies, chewing gum, soap dolls, a rusty medal, a broken watch and chain’ p. 267). He is white, of course, or he couldn’t be a neighbour, but his constantly absent presence is almost certainly a comment on a society living alongside people it chooses to never really see, and on the paranoid myths the mind will construct around the unseen. His only appearance in the novel is right at the end, when Bob Ewell, eaten up by rage at Atticus for the things he accused him of during the trial of Tom Robinson, attacks his children on their walk home in the dark from the pageant. He leaves Jem with a broken arm, and crushes Scout’s chicken-wire ham costume, which fortunately protects her long enough for Boo Radley to come to their rescue.

In the wake of this attack, with Jem safely in bed, sheriff Heck Tate and Atticus debate what to do about the aftermath: Bob Ewell lies dead under the tree from behind which he sprang, a bread knife thrust under his rib cage. Did Jem do this? Did Boo? Did Bob fall on the knife? For a while Atticus insists that this killing must come to trial, such is his belief in the law and due process. The sheriff is against this, seeing that justice has already been served, and seeing also the injustice of bringing the reclusive (now heroic) Boo Radley into the limelight of a trial. And so the yarns of the book pull in opposing directions: Atticus is a moral ramrod for most of its length, but the final pages show that he is not unswayable in his devotion to the law. It, and society, are arguably moving in the right direction (evidence for this: it took the jury a long time to make the wrong decision about Tom Robinson), but at a glacially slow pace. The novel makes a powerful case against segregation, but more than that, its purpose is to show how racism can sustain itself within a society, how entrenched it can become within its structures. That, and the power of youthful idealism against it.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

John E. Smith (with illustrations by Annabel Wright) – ‘The Robert Stories’

In the dying days of Melody Maker, I tore one issue to pieces in frustration at the lack of any content worth reading, with the exception of a short interview with Annabel Wright of The Pastels towards the back, which I kept, in which she talked about her connection with Stephen being founded around their being the two ‘committed Swell Maps fans’ in Scotland. Something like that. Now she has illustrated a book of stories by her father about his childhood in a suburb of Birmingham in the 1950s, and I wonder if that background played into her admiration for Swell Maps, who came from Birmingham. In any case, it’s strange (and wonderful) to think of that city having a place in Pastels pre-history, though it makes sense in the light of Wright’s previous city-based artwork. Here, the cranes and riverscapes of Glasgow are replaced by terraces, brickwork, a suburb-centre with a Boots, ’50s cars and buses, Victorian buildings. Some of the drawings use perspective, and are very detailed (like the terraces above); others are more impressionistic (like the graveyard used to play Cowboys and Indians in), or design-oriented (floral aprons are great throughout). There is a river, but it has a concrete bottom, so it’s hardly the Clyde.

In each of these eight brief stories three young boys get up to mischief, and the smallest of them, Robert, who is never the initiator but always a keen participant, always seems to come off worst. John is the one who suggests things to do to while away an hour after school; Alan (his brother) is something like his second in command; Robert (from across the street) is the fall guy, even when there is absolutely no need for one. In ‘Robert and the Matches’, the three of them build a den on some waste ground and pretend to be explorers. One day John brings along some matches so they can have a fire, but it gets out of control and has to be put out by the fire brigade. They escape without getting caught, but just to be on the safe side John gives the matches to Robert, and then:
as his mummy folded his trousers the box of matches dropped out. ‘Where did you get these matches, Robert? You know it is dangerous to play with matches,’ she said sternly.
        ‘John gave them to me when the den caught fire,’ said Robert.
        ‘You naughty boy! You must never play with that John Smith again,’ said his mother. (p. 26)
Other chapter titles include ‘Robert and the Apples’, ‘Robert and the Greenhouse’ and ‘Robert and the Gunpowder’. With each one you sort of know what’s going to happen in advance: Robert’s going to get caught stealing apples / breaking glass / blowing something up, and the joy of the stories is in the unexpected way he invariably finds of doing just that. He has an irresistible knack of landing himself in trouble, when it wasn’t his fault, and when it would be the easiest thing in the world simply not to confess, but this never seems to occur to him. Then again, his mother doesn’t enforce her command that he ‘must never play with that John Smith again’, so he doesn’t suffer too much for his honesty.

The stories are great to read out loud: I tried them out on S., who loved them (in hysterics within 30 seconds most of the time), and my 3-year-old nephew, with whom I got deep into discussion about why the boys had tucked their jumpers in and filled them full of apples, which tends to be his way of absorbing a story.

The sad background (not mentioned in the text) is that John has Motor Neurone Disease, and the book is both a way of preserving his stories, and of raising money for MND Scotland. Available from Monorail.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber – ‘Harpo Speaks!’

Susan Marx’s illustration for chapter 14, ‘Croquemaniacs of the World, Unite!’
On page 89 of his autobiography, while still in his teens, Harpo Marx finds himself in the middle of a murder ballad:
A week later Mrs. Schang finally sobered up. She had absorbed so much gin it stopped having any effect, and this seemed to make her madder than ever before. She came in the back room and grabbed me off the piano stool. ‘Get in the buggy, out front,’ she said. ‘You’re driving tonight.’
        By the time I got my derby and got in the buggy she was already there, waiting for me. Then she told me to run to the kitchen and get a meat knife. When I did, she slit her pocketbook and stuck a pistol and a pint of gin between the cover and the lining. She said to get going, and fast.
        I asked where we were going. Mrs. Schang said, ‘Keep driving east until we get to the Pot O’Gold. I’m going to kill Louie Neidorf.’
        I didn’t know who Louie Neidorf was, and I didn’t care. I had never seen anybody fire a gun before. The prospect was so thrilling I could hardly hold the reins.’
There is a clip of a newspaper story included in the photo section, reporting the arrest of the gang, which Harpo suspects was enabled by a tip-off from Louie Neidorf, who in the event (possibly tipped off himself) kept clear of the Pot O’Gold that evening (it even sounds like the Bucket of Blood from Nick Cave’s ‘Stagger Lee’). This is the most brutal, low-life anecdote in the book, but not the only one which makes you wonder ‘can this possibly be true?’ The other is the story of how Harpo undertook a tour of the U.S.S.R. in 1933, and was asked by the U.S. ambassador to smuggle some papers taped to his leg when he returned home, which he did. This story is even more gripping, set up with a tricky entrance to the country, when he is suspected of bringing in roubles from an unofficial source, so when he leaves, this time with something genuinely to worry about, it is almost unbearably tense. Both of these stories are somewhat at odds with what I thought I knew about Harpo, so I checked in Joe Adamson’s book on the Marx Brothers, and the Russian episode doesn’t feature (at least, it’s not in the index or between Horse Feathers and Duck Soup), but he does say this about his early years:
To hear Harpo tell his life story in the book by Rowland Barber, you would think he wandered through his salty boyhood of gang fights, hostile police, meatless meals, irate landlords, roughhouse saloons, painted women, murderous madams, fast-moving swindlers, killers and thieves in the same serene state of semi-delight he later lavished on the Algonquin Hotel and his grapefruit ranch. (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and sometimes Zeppo, p. 23)
That’s a great book too. Motor-mouthed in a way Harpo Speaks! is not, more in the spirit of Groucho. When it gets to the bad Marx Brothers films at the turn of the 1940s, it becomes hilariously indignant: Adamson’s response to The Big Store is to spend the best part of a page listing other films around the same time with the word ‘big’ in the title. Harpo doesn’t mention The Big Store at all in his book, and doesn’t even talk about the good films very much. He says The Cocoanuts was simply a filmed show, with ad-libs discouraged because they made the crew laugh (a sound-proof booth was installed to get around this*), and the brothers had to be locked up so they didn’t wander off; after that, the next time he mentions a film it’s to say that they were getting into a rut by the time of Duck Soup (what a rut!), from which Irving Thalberg rescued them with A Night at the Opera. That might be it for film mentions. I’d thought he might bring up Love Happy, which was very much his project, or the LPs he made with his son in the 1950s (these are mentioned in an afterword by that son, William Marx). But no, the focus is on the years of touring (powered by his mother, Minnie, who got him a harp to add class to the act), on his great friendship with the critic Alexander Woollcott, and on his marriage to Susan Fleming, at the grand old age of 48. In a way, he’s right: the twenty years in vaudeville before The Cocoanuts came out in 1929 (when Harpo was 40) were what made The Marx Brothers: their characters were already a fait accompli by then.

As well as the Algonquin crowd with whom Harpo spent most of his time towards the end of the 1920s (Woollcott, Herbert Ross, Dorothy Parker et al.), he also visited the Randolph Hearsts, at Sam Simeon, which is interesting for the glimpse it gives of what became Xanadu in Citizen Kane (a better 1941 film than The Big Store):
The dining hall in the San Simeon castle was grand enough to have suited King Arthur and all his knights and all their ladies. When you came into dinner, ten-foot logs were blazing in the fireplace and hundreds of candles were burning giant silver candelabras. Candlelight flickered against the historic battle flags that flew from the beams, against the gleaming top of the seventy-foot-long banquet table, and on the little islands of glassware that dotted the length of the table. Each of these little islands was composed of a bottle of ketchup, a bottle of horseradish, a diner-type sugar dispenser, a water glass full of paper napkins, and pepper shakers in the shapes of Mickey and Minnie mouse. (p. 293)
All of which is barely to scratch the surface of this expansive, warm-hearted book. Harpo often alludes to himself as the listener of the Algonquin set, and his book is full of interest in the people around him (he attributes the same quality to Woollcott), and full of the practical jokes he played on them too. He seems to have been someone people liked to have around, who could lighten any situation. He’s such a joy to watch on screen, but this book only adds to his charm: it’s a relief to discover he didn’t have his head in the clouds all the time, and that his persona was a way of dealing with (and improving) the world, rather than a way of avoiding it.

* A myth, according to Wikipedia, which points out that all talkies used sound-proof booths.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

John Wyndham – ‘The Day of the Triffids’

Talking of apocalypses, here’s one from 66 years ago, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, but after Hiroshima, and very definitely of the modern technological era. Rockets have led to satellites, and these, thirty-odd years before Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ project, led to speculation:
From time to time there would be a panicky flare-up of expostulation when reports circulated that as well as satellites with atomic heads there were others with such things as crop diseases, cattle diseases, radioactive dusts, viruses, and infections not only of familiar kinds, but brand-new sorts recently thought up in laboratories, all floating around up there.
Factor number two feels more contemporary still:
Every year we were pushing the northern limit of growth for food plants a little farther back. New fields were growing quick crops on what had historically been simply tundra or barren land. […] For food was then our most pressing problem, and the progress of the regeneration schemes and the advance of the cultivation lines on the maps was followed with almost as much attention as an earlier generation had paid to battle fronts.
It is technology which allows this expansion to happen, and the novel’s narrator, Bill Masen, is a biologist working in a related area. His speciality is triffids, tall walking plants with lethal stings, but also source of a new wonder oil which has replaced fish oil on the food market. They have been around since his boyhood, when he was stung by a small one, and are, he says, ‘the outcome of a series of ingenious biological meddlings’ (Russian meddlings, he hints). The impetus behind triffid farming is commercial rather than existential, though: it is the fact that triffid oil can undercut fish oil that brings it to dominance, and brings about all the triffid nurseries which cause so many problems when it happens.

I was surprised that it – the moment when the world stops functioning – is not caused by the triffids at all. Green lights are seen in the sky, and for everyone who does see them they cause blindness. The blind are easily picked off by triffids, who can feed on the bodies once they have decayed sufficiently. There is also a mysterious plague which wipes out a large proportion of those who escape the triffids. For a monster talking over the world, the triffids are having an awful lot handed to them on a plate, I thought. This, though, is the point: technology creates many dangerous things, manageable under normal circumstances, but take away that crutch, and they can get out of control. Bill suspects that both the wave of blindness and the plague (a bit like typhoid, but with a shorter incubation period) are the result of the weapons satellites malfunctioning. The triffids simply take advantage.

Within a very few weeks, England (and we are to presume the wider world) is reduced to a skeleton population of scavenging survivors, who live initially on supplies raided from cities, but later move to the countryside to avoid the plague. While Bill is still in London, he faces a dilemma to either help the blind to scavenge, and prolong their lives by a short while, or desert them with an organised group of mostly sighted people, with the idea of setting up a community than can survive long-term. He chooses the latter, but is kidnapped with the rest of the party in a raid organised by Wilfred Coker, who forces them all to look after a group of the blind, handcuffed to minders. Once forced, he has enough humanity to continue to look after his group even when free of the minders, abandoning them only when plague gets them and it is pointless to stay. Coker realises the error of his hard-line tactics, but there is another group which continues militant, using Brighton as its base, and intending to build up an army in order to conquer other depleted countries at the first opportunity. This is the real cynicism of the book: not that technology can go wrong, but that even reduced to a stump, the human race would still contain that contingent (about 5%, Bill reckons) convinced that it knew best and was entitled to stamp its authority on the majority.

In London, Bill meets and falls in love with Josella Playton, notorious author of ‘Sex is My Adventure’ (perhaps the most modern touch of all – that, and the gentrified farm house in the commuter belt), but loses her during Coker’s raid. Much of the rest of the book is the story of his search for her, but late on comes this description of a blind man taking a walk to the village shop, which is the most effective account of triffid terror in the book:
Most of the next day Dennis devoted to contriving a kind of helmet for himself. He had wire net only of large mesh so that he had to construct it of several layers overlapped and tied together. It took some time, but, equipped with this and a pair of heavy duty gauntlet gloves, he was able to start out for the village late in the day. A triffid had struck at him before he was three paces from the house. He groped for it until he found it, and twisted its stem for it. A minute or two later another sting thudded across his helmet. He could not find that triffid to grapple with it, though it made half a dozen slashes before it gave up. He found his way to the toolshed, and thence across to the lane, encumbered now with three large balls of gardening twine which he paid out as he went to guide him back.
There is plenty that is daft here: not least, mobile plants that kill for food but can’t actually eat it until it has decayed, by which time they are probably somewhere else (though Bill does say that in common with insects, ‘Separately they have something which looks slightly like intelligence; collectively it looks a great deal more like it’). People committing suicide on a mass scale immediately they realise they are blind. The blindness, caused by looking at the sky at the wrong time, affecting quite such a large proportion of the population (weren’t any of them inside?) There is definitely something in this, though:
My first tentative trip [to London] I took alone, returning with cases of triffid-bolts, paper, engine parts, the Braille books and writing machine that Dennis so much desired, the luxuries of drinks, sweets, records, and yet more books for the rest of us. A week later Josella came with me on a more practical search for clothing.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Onion Club – ‘American Apocalypse Now!’ at Hospitalfield Arts, Arbroath, 27th January

In the week that Mark E. Smith died, we ventured out for (I think) our third winter Onion Club show of recent years, at the best venue they play, a sort of mini-castle with a chandelier and a huge oil painting (or at least its frame) visible through a first storey window, and rooms with curved walls which snuggle together to make a courtyard. The room where they play, on the ground floor, has a low ceiling and tastefully lit stone walls. I imagine they probably live there all the time, playing non-stop, and every so often have the public around to see how they’re getting along. Which era they’ve reached, what spin they’re putting on things. As previously reported, their touchstone era is the 1920s, and they interpret songs from other times and places as though all times and places were the Weimar Republic. I am reaching the end of my historical tether here, but a quick search throws up:
Like few others, the names Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht are synonymous with the radical politics and cultural innovation of the Weimar Republic. Most famously with their hit Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), but also with numerous other collaborative pieces, the duo represented everything that the Nazi regime declared its enemy. The Jewish Weill and the Marxist Brecht were thus some of the earliest and most obvious targets of Nazi cultural oppression. (From
In taking on the State Of America And How It’s Going To Kill Us All Before Trump’s First Term Is Up, via a cabaret show, The Onion Club are connecting with a powerful moment of twentieth century history. When the public got to choose between glitter and gold, and chose the wrong one. Clearly the public has not learned a damn thing, in the intervening years.

Opening with a mournful, shattered take on Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Going to a Town’ (‘I’m so tired of you, America’ the dominant refrain), they embarked upon a more sombre apocalypse than might have been expected. Much of the tone of the show, though there were plenty of fun moments, was quietly regretful, the big surprise for me how beautiful they made Radiohead’s ‘Lucky’: I’m not a fan, but it was great, funereal, lost, delicate as dew. And, as, S. pointed out, ‘pull me out of the aircrash’ works as a retrospective 9/11 reference. I’m also not a fan of Depeche Mode or The Doors, but wonders were done with ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘The End’, for the first of which Pauline became a hectoring preacher, here’s a bit of her intro:
The bad news is you are all damned to eternal hellfire and perpetual torment on account of making diabolical deals with the devil who is walking among us on this earth, who is among us this very evening in the so-called hallowed halls of the arts, which as we know is a breeding ground for lefties, liberals, lesbians and pinko faggots [delighted yelps from the audience here]. The good news is, ah can save you. […] You just need to form an orderly line and get your CREDIT CARDS READY, ALRIGHT!
Stephen pared back his piano playing to thumped notes, and added some extra bass fizz with the Microkorg at his elbow. The preacher bluesed it up for all the cash he could charm or scare out of his congregation. Meanwhile ‘The End’ was a plink plonky vamp with a chilling interlude in which New York was glimpsed, after the bomb. No, wait, after the Martians’ death rays. Of course.

As well as the Microkorg, there was another synth stage left, just past the angel wings, used for helicopter noises after ‘Crack of Doom’ and in the run up to ‘Lucky’. This was quite a radical departure for a group that is usually hard line piano, singing and dressing up. That, and the fact that none of the songs in the set (as far as I could tell) pre-dated the 1960s felt like a shift of approach: facing up to a more modern world, perhaps. After the heavy stuff, and the religious stuff (‘God is in the House’ and ‘God’s Away on Business’ remained from previous sets) Pauline donned an American flag and a big gold star for Randy Newman’s ‘Political Science’, its jokey tone horribly close to the actual political discourse of Trump:
We give them money, but are they grateful?
No, they’re spiteful and they’re hateful
They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise them
Let’s drop the big one and pulverise them
What followed as an encore was anything but jokey: John Grant’s ‘Glacier’, a stately and defiant unravelling of the order of things (specifically, the straight, theocratic order of things), a plea not to blindly follow, to trust your own convictions. The personal a rejection of the political (at least, as politics is now). The image of the glacier as pain, ‘carving out deep valleys / And creating spectacular landscapes’ is beautiful. I didn’t know it, clearly I need to listen to more John Grant. In a prolonged instrumental section at the end, Pauline handed out some felt pens for people to write on her arms and back with, bringing the audience in directly at the end of a vulnerable song. I guess this was a counter to its individualism: once the ‘fuckers’ of the lyric have been rejected, it’s important to rebuild too. After the rejection, or after the apocalypse.



Links accumulated writing this review: The Tiger Lillies – ‘Crack of Doom’, Kurt Weill bio, Laurie Anderson – ‘O Superman’, Allen Ginsberg – ‘America’, Father John Misty – ‘When the God of Love Returns There’ll be Hell to Pay’ (lyrics), ‘Pirate Jenny’, Randy Newman – ‘Political Science’ (lyrics), John Grant – ‘Glacier’ (lyrics), ‘Glacier’ (Guardian piece & video).

Misgivings: Is it fair to pile on the links to Weimar when there were no songs from that period, and their sound has moved on? Probably not. But also, in the opposite direction:

Goodnight, Mark E.

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