Monthly Archives: November 2018

Easily does it

Seat D23 on LNER train from King’s Cross to York, yesterday afternoon.

Aisle seat beside me occupied by (?)lecturer annotating essays at great length. The offerings before her seemed to be on the topic of the artist’s easel — and presumably how that piece of furniture formulates and predicates the image produced and displayed thereon.

Nice question.

It provoked me to muse that the easel represented the whole swathe of self-definitions of  ‘what am I, the artist?’ Not the least of which might be, ‘Now I’ve got my own easel, I must be at least semi-professional’. And therefore distinct from common humanity, and distinctive.

But what about those ghastly splotchinesses on offer at Montmartre?

Even so, my mind kept coming back to Norman Rockwell’s own highly-ironic image:

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Hello, darkness, my old friend …

Stop me now if this one looks at all familiar:


That’s the Arizona 4th Congressional District.

I took one look, and my reverse-imaging facility produced:

That’s the original Gerrymander of Massachusetts. Both were Republican Party stitch-ups.

It makes the Alabama 4th, the 30th most Republican district in the entire nation. It ensures the re-election of Paul Gosar, despite his vote dropping below 70% for the very first time.

Gosar is more than a bit of a whack-job:

  • he tried to organise a boycott of Pope Francis, unless the Pope committed to denounce ‘violent Islam’, and come out against climate change (i.e. revoke the encyclical Laudato si’);
  • was convinced the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally was a ‘false flag’ operation financed by George Soros;
  • has made a reputation as the hardest-liner on immigration, even to the point of denouncing immigration lawyers as assisting in a crime who should be prosecuted as well;
  • deplored all Native Americans as wards of the federal government, because of a dispute (which Gosar largely stirred) over a land-swap between the Apache and Resolution Copper Mine;
  • reckoned the FBI and the Department of Justice were complicit in ‘treason’ over the Nunes memorandum.

Gosar has seven siblings. Six of them urged voters not to support him.

And Gosar feels impelled to meddle in UK politics, because we are not sufficiently fired up on hate for Moslems. This summer he felt we Brits needed his morale-stiffening, so came to London to speak for scofflaw Stephen Yaxley Lennon. He frothed on the topic of  “disgusting and depraved” Muslim immigrants.

Next week, he and a small circle of similar weirdos are offering to host Yaxley Lennon in Washington. That’s, of course, if somehow US Immigration can overlook Yaxley Lennon’s ‘previous’ — repeated assaults, drugs convictions, mortgage fraud and trying to enter the US on someone else passport.


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The story you are about to hear is true; …

… but the names have not been changed to protect the guilty.

My personal Dragnet has trawled up a couple of juicies the last few days.

The Eastern Daily Press was a staple for my youth. The reports of landings were the marker of the declining fishing industry. If only we had recognised it.

So the EDP is ever close to my heart. And it offered up a gem:

Toothless man tried to bite police constable following street violence

I defy any newsprint (or on-line) addict not to be sucked in by a headline like that. It gets better:

A toothless man has been told to pay a police officer £25 after he tried to bite him following a town centre fracas.

Edward Gemmell, of Summerfield Gardens, Lowestoft, admitted assaulting a constable when he appeared at Great Yarmouth Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday.

It followed an incident involving Mr Gemmell, 37, and Kerry Ann Gemmell, 30, of no fixed abode on October 15.

Whereupon my internal register switches to broadest Norfolk:

Robert Barley for the Gemmells, said: “Coming from Lowestoft, it is fair to say the Gemmells are well known to me.

“The situation is that they are a couple that have appeared before the courts on a regular basis and people that you see around the Lowestoft high street area on a regular basis.

“They both have an addiction to alcohol. I am reasonably confident that I know who the other parties involved in the fracas are. They would not have co-operated with the police in a month of Sundays.

“There was some kicking and a punch and Miss Gemmell was thrown to the floor. Mr Gemmell describes himself as ‘properly intoxicated’ and he apologises.

“He is an alcoholic and continues to be one.

“It would not have been a very pleasant incident for anyone in the high street to have witnessed.

“He does not have a tooth in his mouth. He is completely toothless.

“He (the police officer) was not to know that Mr Gemmell was toothless and that behaviour cannot be accepted at all.”

Both parties admitted using threatening/abusive/insulting words/behaviour with intent to cause fear of/provoke unlawful violence.

Onward and upward …

My regular trip into York’s ‘bustling’ centre takes me the length of Petergate. Before I reach Kings Square (which is neither royal, nor a square), I pass a ‘ginnel’ or ‘snickelway’ to my left, Hornpot Lane would take me to Holy Trinity Church. ‘Snickelway’ is, as far as I can see, a neologism wished on the language in the 1980s by Mark W. Jones —and good luck to him.

Without exception, these little alleys have redolent names (and, after a boozy Friday night, whiff accordingly):

  • Mad Alice Yard (she did for her husband in the early 19th century);
  • Lady Peckett’s Yard (more up-market: she was wife of a Lord Mayor);
  • Mucky Peg Lane (sadly renamed as Finkle Street);
  • Pope’s Head Alley (almost the eye-of-a-needle);
  • and, inevitably, Grape Lane (the bowdlerised Gropecunt Lane).

But featured this week is:


Hornpot Lane

In September 1540, York merchant Miles Cooke and his wife had a baby son. They planned to have the little boy baptised at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate. The quickest way for them to get to the church would have been to cut through Hornpot Lane, the little alleyway leading from Low Petergate.

For some reason they didn’t do this, and instead walked all the way down Petergate to King’s Square, planning to turn left up Goodramgate and get to the church from the alleyway beside Lady Row.

As soon as they reached King’s Square, however, they crossed the parish boundary into the parish of Holy Trinity King’s Court. Immediately Roger Threpland, a chantry priest from this latter Holy Trinity stopped them and demanded that they bring the baby to his own church for baptism … along with the usual fee.

Mr Cooke ran off to get John Holme, the Rector of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, who was dressed in his surplice ready to conduct the ceremony. The Rev Holme rushed out to confront the Rev Threpland, and the two men began jostling each-other. A joiner by the name of Richard Graves then took hold of the Rev Holme — and was promptly hauled before the Archbishop’s Court on a charge of sacrilege for assaulting a man of the cloth…

As I’ve suggested, these snickleways may not be the most fragrant. Beware of puddles and pigeon droppings. The name of ‘Hornpot Lane’ is the give-away. If this was the centre of York’s horn-curing area, one of the key ingredients in the process would be urine.

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When worlds collide …

Of itself, that headline could be taken as an admission of guilt. It was the title of a deservedly-obscure bit of early-1930s SciFi. Only now do I recall buying a copy, probably from the threepenny rack outside Greene’s bookshop in Clare Street, Dublin. I guess it fell apart in my hands.

If I walked, rather than took the bus, back from TCD to the cold-water basement flat in Ballsbridge, I could afford to eat and read.

Malcolmian aside:

Romantic Dublin’s dead and gone. It’s with Sinnotts (of South King Street), Bartley Dunne’s (‘a piss-elegant pub for piss-elegant people’) and now Kiely’s of Donnybrook (of Ross O’Carroll Kelly fame) in the developer’s skips.

Greene’s (it had an after-life, operating, I’m told, on the industrial estate out at Sandyford) was something special. It had been around, even in my day, for a century and a half. Some of the stock might have been that old, too.

It smelled like a bookshop. It had the sepulchral silence of a bookshop. It turns up as a location in films of the time.

My most recent collision …

… involved Mathew Shardlake, of sixteenth-century Lincoln’s Inn and the Wall Street Journal.

A further Malcolmian aside:

Now that #1 Daughter is back in the Land of the Freebie, there may be a chance of again riding the Midtown Direct into Penn Station. Which affords opportunity of picking up the bits of ill-considered trifling newsprint others discard.

Or, being a business-type herself, maybe she’s again subscribing to both the Times and the Journal. Which means I get to read the sections these dedicated professionals neglect.

And the review sections of either journal are exemplary.

For the WSJ was where I read Allan Massie’s review (20 February 2015) of C.J. Sansom’s Lamentation. Here’s another personal observation: I see shelved to my right all seven of the ‘Shardlake’ novels. I notice only four are in hardback — which must date when I got serious about them.

Err, not quite true. There is a copy of the latest, Tombland, is up on the top shelf. Still in its postal packaging. It’s a signed edition. The ‘working’ copy is my bedside reading. Not entirely an extravagance. I had prepurchased both before publication date — and forgotten the duplication.

This is how Massie begins his review:

‘I did not want to attend the burning.” The first sentence of C.J. Sansom’s Lamentation plunges us straight into the horrors of Henry VIII’s reign. It was a time of faith and heresy, persecution and martyrdom, a time when politics was a matter of life and death, when a man might fly high one day and the next be consigned to the Tower of London and a traitor’s death on the block. Life was cheap, murder and affray common. Gentlemen carried swords, the lower orders knives and clubs. London was a stinking metropolis, also a glittering one. Spies, informers and secret agents abounded, and for the first half of the century the monstrous shadow of the king, England’s Stalin, brought terror wherever it lay.

Historical fiction has long languished in the doldrums, despised by critics as an inferior genre. Those days are past, and it is enjoying a revival. Much credit is due to Hilary Mantel, whose two novels about Henry’s most able and terrifying minister, Thomas Cromwell, have been popular and critical successes. Thoroughly researched, thoroughly imagined, written in accessible style, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) deserve their success, even though I think she is too indulgent to Cromwell, too harsh on his rival and victim, Sir Thomas More.

In itself, that’s worth a passing, partial Fisking.

Many may wince at Henry VIII Tudor as ‘England’s Stalin’. Stalin had totalitarian powers over a vast empire: the body-count of the Yezhovshchina is one of the great untellables of twentieth-century history, and one can write one’s own preferred quantum of victims. We are assured of just 92 executions under Henry, all done in by judicial murder and in public. Numerically the comparison fails. Yet Sansom’s Shardlake sees the collateral damage: the starving poor, the maimed former soldiers, all being crushed under Henry’s efforts to raise England to be the European power its economy couldn’t support (sounds horribly familiar). And doing so in a world where shitty open sewers and contagion was the norm: life expectancy 30-35 years (less for a fertile female). So: argue that parallel among yourselves.

Certainly Henrician London, where Life was cheap, murder and affray common is no wild imaginative stretch. English cities would remain in that state for generations to come. Green Lanes, Hackney, anyone?

Spies, informers and secret agents abounded, and would continue — in Sir Francis Walsingham’s improved version — under Elizabeth Tudor. And later. They just have become electronic.

My main quibble there is the implication that Hilary Mantel got in first. The first Shardlake novel was Dissolution, published in 2003. And I’d disagree with Massie on other points: Cromwell was just the better politician (at a time when the trade was still in its infancy) and the sainted Tommy More, quite a trimmer when it suited him, almost deserved what he got.

Back to Massie’s review

Massie has a better perspective with this overview:

Tudor England has long offered rich meat to the historical novelist. Sir Walter Scott’s “Kenilworth” (1821) centered on the mysterious death of Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, who but might hope to marry Queen Elizabeth. One of Scott’s early disciples, Harrison Ainsworth, gave a vivid account in “The Tower of London” (1840) of Mary Tudor’s reign. (I loved it as a young teenager, and haven’t read it since; so I don’t know how it stands up today.) Ford Madox Ford’s trilogy “The Fifth Queen” (1906) is a wonderful bravura fiction that prompted Graham Greene to ask whether a novel had “ever before been lit as carefully as a stage production.” John Buchan’s “The Blanket of the Dark” (1931), a novel of the young Henry VIII and a pretender to the throne, offers a sunlit picture of Merrie England before tyranny and treason darkened the century.

Most of that stands up.

Scott is out-of-fashion. I slathered over Ivanhoe, Redgauntlet and Rob Roy from those half-crown Heirlooms Classics from Woolworths that appeared in my Christmas stocking and for birthday presents (and which I still have). In early 1950s Norfolk I took my delights where I found them. When the filmed versions turned up, months after release, at the Wells-next-the-Sea Regal,     the delights of young(ish) Elizabeth Taylor or dashing Richard Todd added more lustre.

I was, it was told me, full-marks, top-scorer on the spurious ‘English Literature’ element for Norfolk County Council’s 11+ exam. in my year. Since the test was  ‘tick the box’ for author (essentially the aspirational middle-class test), I do not regard that as my greatest life-time achievement.

Harrison Ainsworth — the Jeffrey Archer of his day — produced his pot-boilers at a fantastic rate. He filled the gap between Scott and Dickens (and may have given the young Dickens a few pointers — they became close friends). He deserves credit for the Dick Turpin myth in his Rookwood and for the low-life of Jack Sheppard. There’s a TV-serial adaptation lurking in the second of those. Ainsworth’s Tower of London, sadly, became a school-prize staple (faux-leather bound): it probably destroyed more beginner-readers than any other.

However — with nods at Massie’s Scottish Tory sympathies, did John Buchan ever manufacture less than a gaslit and ultra-Tory picture of Merrie England?

And so to bed, and a few more chapters of Tombland.

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Graham ever-Greene

I regularly buy the London Review of Books. So I was somewhat mystified by their email that I hadn’t been opening the regular postings. Did I wish to continue?

But of course.

However, featured on the associated web-page was Michael Wood’s review-essay on the republication, last year, of Greene’s short-stories. So I immediately acted (via Amazon) on his recommendation of:

Charles Drazin’s excellent In Search of The Third Man (Limelight, 1999)

That, of course, mainly features Carol Reed’s film, still ranked #2 in Time Out’s 100 best British films of all time. And only that because it is — unfairly, in my mind — demoted below Losey’s Don’t Look NowIt’s the sex wot dun it.

A long while ago I had to fulfil the GCSE~task of finding a reputable 20th-century British writer to put before less than motivated (and mainly male) students. Recognising the concentration span of the intended audience, and the need for a bit of blood-and-gore, I went for Greene.

Another factor was Greene’s even shorter story The Destructors had sold well with the same audience, a year younger. I defy any teacher not to recognise total success (yeah!)  when the class sits expectant, and awake, that the denouement of that tale achieves.

I remember reducing the whole critique and exam-preparation to a single A4 page, albeit 4 sides reduced to print both sides. Those were the Thatcher years — and teachers had their phot0-copying severely rationed. Shades of Philip Hammond’s nice gesture of little extras.

Were it not for impermeable electronic media (3.5-inch floppies — lost and gone forever), I’d happily reproduce those works of educational e-genius.

Come the presentation, the first barrier was Carol Reed did the business in monochrome. The young have innate resistance to anything not in color©. I’m not sure to this day how effective my disquisition on film-development, post-WW2 stringencies, and Nino Frank‘s film noir went, or would go today with a similar audience.

Anton Karas quickly breached that barrier — I had a surge of inner warmth as the hardest man in the class exited on the change-of-lesson bell, humming the theme:

Now, in sequestered retirement and two hundred miles north of East London, I have time and opportunity to consider.

Just what was going on with Greene and Reed and British literature in the late 1940s?

One thought has to be profound scepticism.

I cannot claim to have been ‘aware’ of the change at the time. Yes, my first political memory is Dear Old Dad fiddling with the Cossor radio to pick up American Forces Network, out of barely-unoccupied Germany, for the (4 November) 1952 Presidential election. Down the road, at Sculthorpe, the USAF would soon be basing their RB-47 nuclear-capable Stratojets. My generation grew up aware, only too aware, of urban bomb-sites, the nuke threat, international crises (Trieste, Korea, etc.,  but above all, Berlin), the abominable legacy of Nazia and the Holocaust.

Only older, if not wiser, did realisation grow: the ‘Modernist’ phase of Anglo-American culture was over and done for ever. Yeats had caught the start of that with his The Second Coming:

The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats, in his near-dotage, was elbow-deep in extremist politics. Pound, Wyndham Lewis, TS Eliot — even DH Lawrence — were to one extent or another complicit.

Greene began publishing in the 1930s. At first he was heavily debating with himself where his Roman Catholicism took him in the contemporary world. The up-side of that was a wider vision than the little Englanders. He was, in those age, a Modernist.

Then we turn to the novella that is The Third Man.

There’s a theme there (largely unrecognised in the movie) of a personal debate of where fiction is going. Holly Martins has made a precarious living as the author of pulp-fiction Westerns. Such works, however trite, have a stern moral code — the white hats versus the black hats. Martins finds the wild frontier of post-War Vienna where the hats are interchangeable.

The monologue that opens the movie has all this:

l never knew the old Vienna before the war, with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better.

l really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We’d run anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay. Of course, a situation like that does tempt amateurs … but, you know, they can’t stay the course like a professional.

Now the city, it’s divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power —  the American, the British, the Russian and the French. But the center of the city, that’s international, policed by an international patrol, one member of each of the four powers.

Wonderful ! What a hope they had, all strangers to the place … and none of them could speak the same language, except a sort of smattering of German.

One of the filmic mysteries there is who is talking? In the British release it’s Carol Reed, in one generally-accepted account because the production had run out of money. In the American release, I gather, it was re-recorded by Joseph Cotten. Neither makes too much sense: the bitterness, the cynicism belongs to Orson Welles as ‘Harry Lime’:

Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we ? They talk about the people and the proletariat. l talk about the suckers and the mugs. lt’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans, and so have l. You used to believe in God. l still do believe in God, old man.

Or even Trevor Howard’s ‘Major Calloway’, the soldier who has seen it all, and is somewhere between the Greek Chorus and the deus ex machina of the piece. Or Bernard Lee, rather more than a mere spear-carrier, as ‘Sergeant Paine’.

Back to Michael Wood’s essay for his volta.

Lost you there, did I?

When I taught the Shakespeare sonnets, I evolve a scheme for my students. It invited them to look for the ‘conceit’, the essential thought, which would usually be seen in the repeated image of key words. And then to locate the ‘tuning-point’, or volta, most likely leading into the final couplet

Wood locates the film’s volta in the excruciating scene where Martins is shown the consequences of Lime’s penicillin racket:

In the film Martins witnesses some of the results in a children’s hospital. We know that, as Calloway says, the lucky children are dead, and the film doesn’t show us a single sick or damaged surviving child. We see Martins seeing their beds, and get an excruciating close-up of an unharmed teddy bear. Nothing like metonymy when you’re at the movies: the next-door object rather than the thing itself. And Karas’s zither music at this point is worse than the bear: schmaltzier and cheerier than ever, the alienation effect at its uncosy best.

And then there’s the ending — which Carol Reed vastly improved. We see Martins waiting in the cemetery for Anna Schmidt. She walks past, not acknowledging him, He lights his cigarette.


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