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.

Blog archive