B.L.Z. Bubb meets Santa: Claus & Claws

Alexander Bell: Claus & Claws: A Christmas Tale (Kindle, 2016)

Claus and ClawsOne summer’s day Santa Claus is hoeing his garden, feeling hot in his red suit, ‘but he had to keep up appearances’. Thus begins this charming retelling of the Santa Claus story, with a hint of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol but with a more steely, less sentimental glint in its eye – more like Wall Street in fact.

After hitting his head in the vegetable plot, Santa undergoes a personality change – he develops a taste for Coke and fast food, and starts to be bossy and overbearing with the genial elves, who are bewildered by his new manner. Rudolf faces an uncertain future.

I shan’t say too much more about the plot, except that Santa’s new friend, Nick Claws, has a particularly sinister, Machiavellian air (hint to children: speak aloud his alias, ‘B.L.Z. Bubb’ with an American ‘zee’). Dastardly Nick encourages his polar friend to adopt an entrepreneurial approach to the usual task of delivering presents to the children of the world. He outsources gifts to a tacky, cheap Chinese outfit. He sacks the elves and reindeer. They won’t even be delivered on the night before Christmas. A new callousness has taken over.

Drastic action has to be taken to save the situation.

This story will delight children of most ages: my ten-year-old grandson loved it – he didn’t get the ‘Nick’ references, but this didn’t seem to spoil his pleasure. Adults will enjoy the gleeful satire on the commercialisation and rampant consumerism of Christmas. I write this after the now annual madness in the UK of a US-style ‘Black Friday’ that seems to last a fortnight.

According to his profile on the Amazon Kindle site, where this e-book is available, Alex Bell has spent many years in marketing: it shows. This story skewers the amorality of corporate practice with wicked glee.

Claus & Claus has some good jokes, too (like Nick’s being described during an excruciating corporate golf match as being a ‘demon’ on the course – how could grandson not get that?! ) It only flags occasionally, and would make an excellent filler of virtual stockings. It’s just long enough at the equivalent of 112 pages to deliver its Scroogean message.

The Empress penguin of the South Pole is delightful: she and her fellow penguins manage to make just standing around on the ice look purposeful. She’s the one who has the vision to perceive what Nick Claws is plotting, using Santa as his dupe: Christmas, she realises, will cause ‘nothing but unhappiness’:

“Santa will be held responsible and his name will be reviled throughout the globe. The custom will quickly die out and cease to exist. There will be nothing to bring joy and happiness in the mid-winter when people need it most, no moment for people to consider their fellows and extend towards them love and humanity.”

Interesting to reflect that this was written before the American presidential election result…

A salutary story for us all.

 

 

 

The Chaucer of Monaghan: Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1975; first published 1938)

This is I suppose an autobiography, but it reads like a novel or loosely linked sequence of short stories or vignettes about the growth of a young poet in rural Ireland.

The frontispiece gives this account of the ‘facts’ about him (in this post-truth world that translates as ‘opinions’):

PK was born in Enniskeen, Co. Monaghan in 1904, the son of a cobbler-cum-small farmer. He left school at the age of thirteen, apparently destined to plough the ‘stony-grey soil’ rather than write about it, but ‘I dabbled in verse’, he said, ‘and it became my life.’ He was ‘discovered’ by the Literary Revival veteran AE (George Russell) in 1929 and his poems began to appear in Irish and English journals. In 1936 his first book of verse, Ploughman and Other Poems, was published.

The Green Fool followed in 1938. He published several more volumes of poetry and prose before his death in 1967.Kavanagh, The Green Fool

So what does his autobiography add to these bald facts? A great deal. We are given an intimate view of what it was like to be raised in relative poverty, from his infancy in a cradle made from an onion box through childhood learning (badly) his father’s trade as cobbler-farmer, to young adulthood as an aspiring poet.

Each of the 32 short chapters relates a different anecdote, building up a sort of collage portrait of the artist as a young man. Unlike Joyce, Kavanagh is intent on doing so with more wry humour and quirky character sketches than socio-cultural perspectives.

This means the account often veers too close to whimsy. But the warmth and charm of the narrative voice just about prevented me from giving up on it. I liked ch. 6, ‘Pilgrimage’, about Paddy’s first trip to the Lady Well, a sacred pilgrim site for ‘the people of Monaghan and Cavan and Louth. It was one of the many holy wells of Ireland.’ Every year all his neighbours made the journey and returned with bottles of its holy water:

These waters were used in times of sickness whether of human or beast. Some folk went barefoot and many went wearing in their boots the traditional pea or pebble of self-torture.

Kavanagh’s account of the piety of his people is neither patronising nor reverential. This is just the way things were, he suggests – though he maintains a healthy scepticism about the many miracles attested to by the locals – ‘on whatever feeble evidence founded.’

The scene that follows reads like a prose version of Chaucer’s pilgrim tales: some were ‘going on their bare knees’ as in medieval times –

some others were doing a bit of courting under the pilgrim cloak. There was a rowdy element, too, pegging clods at the prayers and shouting. A few knots of men were arguing politics. I overheard two fellows making a deal over a horse.

The priests didn’t like this well or these demonstrations of popular piety:

They said it was a pagan well from which the old Fianians drank in the savage heroic days. The peasant folk didn’t mind the priests. They believed that Saint Bridget washed her feet in it, and not Finn MacCoole.

It’s characteristic of Kavanagh’s generous spirit that the chapter ends with the family so ‘fagged out’ when they return home at 4 a.m. that they forget all about the holy water – but the narrator concludes that Our Lady ‘was not displeased’ despite the ‘doubters’ and ‘cynics’ and ‘vulgar sightseers’ among the pilgrims:

She is kind and no doubt she enjoyed the comic twists in the pageant round Lady Well.

There’s the note of whimsy I mentioned. A shame, because this is an entertaining, heart-warming account of the growth of a poet’s mind (without Wordsworth’s transcendental portents) despite the hardships and human foibles to which young Paddy was exposed. His long walk to the hiring fair, looking for a farmer to take him on helps persuade him he’s maybe not cut out for the agricultural life. But his much longer walk to Dublin to seek out his literary heroes is far more disappointing for him.

He learns to plough his own furrow.

Poe and Marginalia

I intended posting today about the book I recently finished, Patrick Kavanagh’s autobiographical The Green Fool, but I’ve been busy on other tasks, such as preparing classes on the Romantics and nature, doing the laundry, supervising the gasman (boiler service) and keeping tabs on delayed trains for my homecoming spouse.

Instead, so that the end of November doesn’t slip quietly into oblivion on Tredynas Days, here’s a little something that I hope will be of interest: the Marginalia of Edgar Allan Poe.

‘In the United States Gazette and Democratic Review of November 1844, volume XV, pages 484-94, Poe published the first of the seventeen installments of the Marginalia, a word that he invented for this collection of observations and brief essays…they took shape as a “farrago”… of remembered bons mots, puns, excerpts from his past reviews, and new observations on matters of literature, social events, personalities, psychology, and the arts in general. Many might be shown to contain the germ of his own creative efforts and sometimes those of his readers, such as Baudelaire and Valéry…The allure of the “form” of the Marginalia for Poe must have been the “abandonnement” as he terms it…, or the relaxed ease of the short discursive essay, so different from the neat and predetermined construction that he had always demanded for the tale and the poem.’ (from the online introduction to his 1985 edition by Burton R. Pollin).

Poe in 1898 (from WikiMedia Commons)

Poe in 1898 (from WikiMedia Commons)

The electronic text contains almost 300 ‘articles’ and many more ‘instalments’. In an old notebook of my own such ‘marginalia’ I found this item, published in the online Works of Poe in the Introduction to his own jottings; the symmetry of sentiment with which I like to make such jottings chimed pleasingly with Poe’s cheerful words:

IN getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general. Where what I have to note is too much to be included within the narrow limits of a margin, I commit it to a slip of paper, and deposit it between the leaves; taking care to secure it by an imperceptible portion of gum tragacanth paste.

This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of mere memoranda — a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt. “Ce que je mets sur papier,” says Bernardin de St. Pierre, “je remets de ma mémoire, et par consequence je l’oublie;” — and, in fact, if you wish to forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered…

just as the goodness of your true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability, so is nonsense the essential sense of the Marginal Note.

I’ve posted before on ‘obiter dicta’ and other such random notes. It’s long been my habit to make such jottings and marginalia, for reasons very like Poe’s stated above. What he whimsically calls their ‘helter-skelter-iness’ is also what appeals to me.

Do you do this? If so, what form do your marginalia or jottings take? Do you revisit them, or, as Poe suggests, do they slip quietly out of mind, never to be revisited? And do you commit the ultimate horror of annotating books in INK not pencil? (let alone glueing in slips of paper, as Poe confesses. I’m reminded of reading about a visitor’s horror at the sight of Wordsworth cutting pages of newly delivered books with a greasy butterknife at the breakfast table.)

 

 

The sensuous Celtic type: DH Lawrence, ‘Samson & Delilah’

It’s been a busy time at work, and emotionally fraught (a serious family illness), but I don’t want Tredynas Days to languish. Here then is a short piece based on notes compiled for a course I’m teaching on ‘Sense of Place’: it follows on from several recent posts on DH Lawrence’s letters written in Cornwall,mostly from a rented cottage at Higher Tregerthen, near the village of Zennor, west of St Ives.

Lawrence’s story ‘Samson and Delilah’ tells of a Cornish miner who, like many others in the late Victorian period when tin and copper prices fell, emigrated to America, abandoning his wife and new-born baby. Some 15 Years later he returns to the

Tinners Arms

The Tinners Arms as it looked back in August this year

fictionalised Tinners Arms (called in the story ‘The Tinners Rest’) at Zennor, where his wife is landlady. At first she doesn’t recognise him, but when he insists on staying, and that she is his wife, she calls on some soldiers, stationed there – the story is set early in WWI – to restrain him. He escapes and resumes his attempts to win her over, telling her he has amassed £1000 – a fortune at that time (remember he paid an annual rent of £5 on the Higher Tregerthen cottage!)

Probably written in 1916, it was published in March 1917 as ‘The Prodigal Husband’ in the English Review; a revised, retitled version appeared in a collection of his stories, England, My England (1922 in the US, 1924 in the UK) – Online text here; it was made into a short TV play in 1959 and a short film in in 1985. A longer version was an episode in the ITV ‘Play of the Week’ series in 1966.

img_4302Here at the start of the story the protagonist, Willie Nankervis, arrives in the desolate, economically deprived mining village – a hint at why he left there years earlier – on the Penzance to St Just bus:

Tall, ruined power-houses of tin-mines loomed in the darkness from time to time, like remnants of some by-gone civilization. The lights of many miners’ cottages scattered on the hilly darkness twinkled desolate in their disorder, yet twinkled with the lonely homeliness of the Celtic night… The houses began to close on the road, he was entering the straggling, formless, desolate mining village, that he knew of old.

After ordering drinks at the bar Willie encounters a girl working there; we later discover this is his daughter. Note the characteristic ambiguity in the depiction of the Cornish people (in a letter he’d venomously dismissed them as vermin, insects, in response to what he perceived as their passive acceptance of militarism and ‘King and Country’).

She disappeared. In a minute a girl of about sixteen came in. She was tall and fresh, with dark, young, expressionless eyes, and well-drawn brows, and the immature softness and mindlessness of the sensuous Celtic type…

 

She replied to everybody in a soft voice, a strange, soft aplomb that was very attractive. And she moved round with rather mechanical, attractive movements, as if her thoughts were elsewhere. But she had always this dim far-awayness in her bearing: a sort of modesty. The strange man by the fire watched her curiously. There was an alert, inquisitive, mindless curiosity on his well-coloured face.

‘I’ll have a bit of supper with you, if I might,’ he said.

She looked at him, with her clear, unreasoning eyes, just like the eyes of some non-human creature.

‘I’ll ask mother,’ she said. Her voice was soft-breathing, gently singsong.

Not very complimentary about Willie’s womenfolk, is it. But much of the story is narrated from his skewed point of view – but even his ‘alert, inquisitive…curiosity’ is ‘mindless’, to match the girl’s ‘unreasoning’ gaze. None of these Cornish characters emerges with much dignity. Later the focalisation changes to Willie’s wife. Does she really fail to recognise him, like some kind of inverted form of Penelope, faithless to the returning anti-hero who’d abandoned her and her baby?

The story’s title encourages this interpretation, for it draws attention to the central theme of betrayal by the wife of her husband, who is captured by the military; this act deprives him temporarily of his manhood and independence.It’s about one of DHL’s familiar concerns: the struggle, as he put it in a letter from Cornwall, between the old Adam and the old Eve.

It’s a slight story, but interesting as one of his rare pieces of fiction set in the locale where he spent nearly two years 1916-17. Ch. 12 of his novel Kangaroo (1923) is called ‘Nightmare’, and provides a fictional account of those Cornish years, which culminated in his being arrested with Frieda on suspicion of spying for the Germans and banished from the county. His love affair with the Celtic wildness of Cornwall was over for ever. His ‘savage pilgrimage’ across the world began.

Anastasia the Pharmakolytria, or deliverer from potions

I posted yesterday on the word ‘demonifuge’ – a substance or medicine used to exorcise a demon. Today I came across a note I made a couple of years ago that has some bearing on that.

St Athanasia of Sirmium is known as PHARMAKOLYTRIA, meaning ‘deliverer from potions’. The website Christian Iconography has this account of her:

St Anastasia

Byzantine icon from late 14C, now in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Medieval lives of St. Anastasia, including the one in the Golden Legend, conflate elements from the stories of two different saints of the same name and same century. One is Anastasia of Sirmium, who was burned at the stake. The other is Anastasia of Rome, a disciple of St. Chrysogonus who was crucified and then beheaded. The conflated Anastasia in the Golden Legend and the Roman Martyrology is a Roman noblewoman who was both “tied to poles” and then burned at the stake, apparently an attempt to reconcile the different deaths in the two stories.

She acquired her name because of her practice of visiting Christians who’d been incarcerated for their faith during the persecutions of Diocletian, and using her medical knowledge to tend to their illnesses and wounds. Legend has it that she protects those who invoke her name from poisons and other harmful substances.

St Anastasia

From a Book of Hours, Liège, late 13C; the saint holds a book and palm of martyrdom

Later legends introduced hagiographical tropes such as the miraculous protection of her three Christian serving girls: when the pagan prefect locked them in a kitchen and tried to molest them sexually,

In his folly he thought he was grasping young women as he kissed and embraced the pots, pans, kettles, and the like. When he was sated, he left the room with his face all sooty and his clothes in tatters.

(the Golden Legend); Anastasia was herself protected from malicious sexual advances by her cruel pagan captor by his being struck blind; she survived 60 days of starvation in prison, was delivered miraculously from execution by drowning, etc. When her corpse was burned after execution finally succeeded, it remained unscathed.

Her relics are preserved at the cathedral named for her in Zadar, Croatia. She is commemorated in the Roman liturgy on December 25th (22nd in the Orthodox church) though her feast-day is January 15th.

St Anastasia

Fresco at the Gesù, Rome. Image from Christian Iconography site, which attributes the photo to Richard Stracke

The iconography site above states that she’s normally depicted holding a flame, either in a bowl, as in the image left, or in the palm of her hand (presumably an emblem of her mode of martyrdom in some legends).

Sirmium, the saint’s home town, was in the ancient Roman province of Pannonia, modern-day Serbia.

Compare the legend of the Holy Unmercenaries, Cosmas and Damian, another pair of Eastern saints associated with medical aid, about which I wrote a while ago HERE and HERE

Images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated.

Demonifuge

Asides

OED online sent me a while back this ‘word of the day’:

demonifuge, n.

Etymology: classical Latin daemōn demon n. + i- connective + -fuge comb. form used in nonce-words to signify ‘driving away’, from Latin fugere ‘flee (from)’ – a nice example of folk etymology paying scant heed to semantics. It means the opposite of ‘driving away’. Here’s the OED online definition:

A substance or medicine used to exorcize a demon; (also more generally) anything thought to give protection against evil spirits.

The citations that follow this definition include incense and holy water as examples.

Cf ‘demonagogue’: A medicine used to exorcize a demon (the entry adds).

Lamia

The daemon Lamia, as painted by Herbert Draper, 1909 (Wikipedia image)

Must try to slip this into conversation soon.

When I googled the word I discovered it’s also a name of a character in a lurid sequence of graphic novels, which seem in turn to be spin-offs of online ‘ultragothic’ games, set in the ‘Warhammer 40,000’ future world, in which the ‘Adepta Sororitas’ called splendidly Ephrael Stern, a sort of witchy superheroine, so far as I can tell, goes back to planet Parnis to rediscover her past, which she seems to have forgotten. She was once ‘a seraphim’, though I’d always thought that was a plural noun.

They’re a strange lot, these gamers. No stranger, I suppose, than football fanatics or people who watch dramas about the English (ie German-Greek) royal family, as in the newly released Netflix series (here in the UK) ‘The Crown’.

My wife will shoot me for this, but I hate this type of thing. Downton Abbey is in a similar category, for me: that soap-opera formula which encourages – invites –  a deferential reverence for the privileged classes among those of us from the proletariat. They’re just like us, really. Of course.

 

 

November pigs in calendars

Calendar pages for November

Those wonderful people at the British Library regularly feature on their ‘Medieval Manuscripts’ blog relevant ‘labours of the months’ and other beautiful materials from illuminated MS calendars in their collections, so here’s a flavour of some items for this month, November.

The London Rothschild Book of Hours (aka the Hours of Joanna I of Castile – a tenuous ownership connection; more detail at this link)

Rothschild Hours Nov

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is BL Add MS 35313, f. 6v: entry in Digitised Catalogue, with full apparatus on contents and links to images. Here’s their blog entry description of the scene:

Threshing and winnowing is taking place: in the background, a male figure wields a flail, beating wheat to separate the grains from the husks.  Two peasants in the foreground are beating flax to break down the stem fibres, while a woman to the right in the background is using a stick known as a ‘swingle’ to ‘scutch’ or dress the flax.  A woman is pouring swill out for the pigs, while doves and pigeons gather in the dovecote and on the thatched roofs of the barns waiting to feed on any loose grains. This month, marked by the Zodiac symbol of the centaur for Sagittarius, saw the celebration of several important festivals in the Christian calendar, each illustrated in the roundels to the left…

Here’s a link to a Jan. post on the BL blog which gives more background information on this MS and its provenance.

A comment on the blog post for Nov. finds a similar scene in this page (f. 12v, another calendar, made in Bruges c. 1515) from Morgan Library MS 399, which shows more clearly men working inside a ring of flax for beating, and behind them a woman engaged in the scutching process. In the village street behind, pigs and chickens feed – a seeming visual reference to the usual ‘pig-feeding’ image for this month.

The images on this site appear to be copyright, so I’ll simply provide a link here – but I’d urge you to take a look – there is clearly an iconographical pattern here which painters of illuminations for such scenes followed carefully – as did visual artists of hagiographical scenes – ie devotional images of the saints, many of which would be found in the relevant pages of calendars, as well as in stained glass windows, other devotional texts like legendaries, etc.

This image was tweeted today by @melibius, who kindly supplied the relevant link to the BL catalogue entry; it’s from BL Add MS 21114, the Psalter of Lambert le Bègue (‘the Stammerer’) of Liège, 1255-65 (though he died 1177; its provenance is the Béguine house of S Christophe, which he founded). Interesting departure from the usual pig-feeding scene here; less fun for our porcine friends this time – one’s been slaughtered, and the outlook for the other doesn’t look too good.

bl-nov-cal-pg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image from the BL catalogue for the November page from the famous Bedford Hours also wouldn’t load when I tried it, so here’s a link to the BL blog dated today, in which this MS page is shown in full, with glorious marginal decorations, plus an enlarged detail of the pigs-with-acorns scene (and a centaur).

It follows the usual iconographic practice of showing a peasant knocking acorns from trees while pigs cheerfully snuffle them up under the branches. What the happy pigs don’t realise is that they’re being fattened up for slaughter in the winter. The borders are intricately and beautifully decorated with twining vines, with stylized leaves and flowers.

I’ve posted on previous months (links for October here

And April and May here)

In those posts I’ve shown the calendar pages from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry. Here’s the November page, which also shows the traditional pig-feeding scene for that season:

Berry November scene

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The born-again flâneur, ambulant signmaking: Iain Sinclair lights out for the territory

Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory (1997) is topped and tailed by epigraphs from Huckleberry Finn – the second of which provides the title of this loose collection of nine essays about wanderings in London:

I reckon I got to light out for the Territory…I been there before

Huck is in danger of becoming ‘sivilised’ again as he returns to sedentary, comfortable town life after his picaresque adventures with Jim, and he tramps off into unknown America – the ‘Injun Territory’ – to escape this terrible fate. These words close the novel.

This literary appropriation is typical of Iain Sinclair’s method. But his urban tramps through the streets of his adopted city of London (though he retains a bolt-hole in chi-chi St Leonard’s-on-Sea in Sussex) bear little resemblance in their purpose to shoeless fugitive Huck’s. Still, he’s unashamedly content to adopt the pose of the vagabond fleeing into the (urban) wilderness to liberate himself from modern life’s vulgar depredations. The horror. Unreal city.

I’m afraid it often descends into invertedly snobbish celebration of romanticised East End low-life and rapturous evocations of Elizabethan charlatan magus John Dee – who Sinclair prefers to the grim realities of Thatcherite-capitalist ‘redevelopment’ of 90s London.

My Penguin paperback edition of Lights Out for the Territory

My Penguin paperback edition of Lights Out for the Territory

Yes, it’s deplorable that decent working-class citizens have been ousted by gentrifying, speculator hipsters; but this is a process of change that’s existed in cities – not just London – for centuries. The silk weavers of Spitalfields and the dockers of Alf Garnett’s beloved West Ham are long gone. Sweet Thames, run softly. And the fictitious docker Garnett was a bigot – not one of the admirable Cockney-sparrer rascals Sinclair celebrates.

He writes a bizarre mash-up of Beat-poetry riffs and brusque, verbless Hemingwayesque bromides on urban decay, as he sees it, in the form of exploitative ‘regeneration’ schemes. One suspects he’d like to restore the rookeries and slums that Dickens described with such outraged horror; this might satisfy his misguided desire for Eastender authenticity. Heritage chic.

Let’s try to substantiate this claim. Essay 1, with his trademark punning playfulness, is called ‘Skating on Thin Eyes’. It has its own epigraph, name checking that esoteric magician, John Dee (who often crops up in the text):

the magus dee dreams of a stone island in force, dying in poverty, drunk on angelspeech…[etc.]

 A capital-free jive on the free Capital sets the tone for the essay. This guff by Richard Makin is presumably admired by Sinclair. His own style often stoops to such folly, seemingly not noticing its resemblance to the ill-advised excesses and self-indulgence of Dylan’s amphetamine-fuelled verbal doodlings on the sleevenotes of his early-period albums. There’s also too much Ginsberg, and Blake at his impenetrably weirdest, with a dash of dirty realism.

This first essay begins with a typically portentous mission statement:

The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking.

Meaning what, exactly? He goes on (with ever-increasingly pretentious alliteration) to plot a walk from Hackney, his home, to Greenwich Hill, back along the River Lea to Chingford Mount, ‘recording and retrieving the messages on walls, lampposts, doorjambs: the spites and spasms of an increasingly deranged populace’.

Not very complimentary to Londoners, is it? Maybe he means the despised gentrifying profiteers he despises, unconsciously mimicking their parasitic behaviour while jeering at them and their lego-block houses and grandiose skyscrapers. He’s against everything in the ‘culture of consumerism’ except the arcane and the archaic. He lights out as a King Lud-ite. Moorcock, Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, history, pentacles and Interzone Neoism. ‘The aesthetics of provocation.’ Slogans shouted by the apolitical, no perspective, no prospect.

His style is catching. Not fetching.

He mitigates this cultural-political hypocrisy by adducing the usual dodgy heroes. Apart from visionaries like Blake and druggy De Quincey, there’s a touch of Defoe’s plague journalising, Milton’s epic demons, cut with the situationist-surrealist reinterpretation of the flâneur posited (more subtly) by Benjamin via Baudelaire and Poe, and celebrated in works by expat London tourists from Apollinaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine to Céline, and crazed homegrown punk psychogeographers like Stewart Home and Tom Vague.

Sinclair’s ‘curious conceit’ is expressed in paragraph one:

The physical movements of the characters [he’s just cited his novel Radon Daughters] across their territory might well spell out the letters of a secret alphabet. Dynamic shapes, with ambitions to achieve a life of their own, quite independent of their supposed author. Railway to pub to hospital: trace the line on the map. These botched runes, burnt into the script in the heat of creation, offer an alternative reading – a subterranean, preconscious text capable of divination and prophecy. A sorcerer’s grimoire that would function as a curse or a blessing.

Not only does he seem to take this kind of ley-line mysticism seriously, he expects us, with that hippy-Gothic dog’s-dinner New-Age style, to admire him in the process of transcribing what he calls the ‘pictographs of venom that decorated our near-arbitrary route.’ (Simon and Garfield got there much earlier, and only slightly less embarrassingly, with their ‘words of the prophets’ written on the ‘subway walls, tenement halls’. I find graffiti difficult to admire, no matter how venomously done, how grimy the grimoire.)

Yes, there’s a creative energy here, and he turns some neat phrases – some excellent ones. But one has to endure paragraphs, pages, essays of pretentious tosh like this along with them. And his dislike of verbs renders his prose broken-backed, brandishing its ‘look at me, I’m avant-garde’ eccentricities that are so habitual they become mannerist clichés.

I sympathise with some aspects of his deranged scheme:

Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. [p. 4]

 

I too love to get to know a strange city on foot. But Sinclair can’t resist going verbally too far; he doesn’t just crave exploration of the city; he wants to ‘exploit’ it. He doesn’t mean this in a capitalist-developer sense: they are the real villains of the text. No, he means this approvingly. Only psychogeographers tuned in to the arcane-mystical ley-lines, the proverbial beach beneath the street (that the rest of us are too insensitively materialistic or addled to perceive) can fully appreciate this aspect of city walks.

He goes on, perhaps realising how he’s beginning to sound (pretentious):

To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy – but the born-again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything.

 And he’s off for another 9 small-print lines of prose, listing the random trivia/effluvia of the street detected by his superior sensory antennae and alchemised into gold by his visionary/literary caméra-stylo. He needed a judicious editor, because this flood of detritus ends up making for the very ‘poetic of entropy’ he’d decried earlier.

Any ‘underlying pattern’ that he claims to discern comes largely from his own febrile imagination. He portrays it in arabesques of prose that derive (as the dérive itself over the asphalted earth does, d’abord, from Debord) from the hallucinatory meanderings of De Quincey and Kerouac, with a pinch of Pynchon (sorry, it’s catching, this verbal gushing). Here’s the closing sentence of the paragraph I quoted from just now:

Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together: the illicit cocktail of bodily exhaustion and a raging carbon monoxide high.

This is the loose, prose-poetry, adjective-heavy kind of outpouring derided by Capote in Kerouac as being not writing but typing. Why must every key word be replicated synonymously? Not just ‘walking’ but ‘moving’. How exactly does walking ‘stitch it all together’, and why (and how) would one even want to try to do so? Seeds sown in the sewer. In what ways is this metaphorically mixed, stitched cocktail ‘illicit’? The prose is itself a cocktail of heady, mismatched, intoxicated ingredients. A good drink spoiled.

What a shame. In many ways Sinclair is on to something. I’m not averse to a psychogeographic dérive: I wrote about one (in Berlin; I can name-drop, too) on the blog some time ago. But don’t blot the copy by expressing it in the kind of psychedelic agit-prop rhetoric that was embarrassing when I was a student in the 70s. Lay the ley-lines to rest (see? It’s still contagious.)

This makes for a dyspeptic reading experience. How else could he justify, on the next page, this vomitorium (in the misconceived sense) about his intended route, part inspired by the quixotic ‘temperature traverses’ across London in the late 50s described by TJ Chandler, which were, he says,

An apparently scientific excuse for a glorious clandestine folly, joyriding the tail of the cosmic serpent. As with alchemy, it’s never the result that matters; it’s the time spent on the process, the discipline of repetition. Enlightened boredom.

Too much boredom, for me, and insufficient enlightenment. Anyone who can cite ‘a sorceror’s grimoire’; a ‘preconscious text’ of graffiti that ‘wink like fossils among the ruins’ and that are like ‘Polaroid epiphanies’; cosmic serpents, ‘botched runes’ and alchemy — without irony, or celebrate the funeral of a psychopathic Kray twin gangster as if it were Gandhi’s, has lost the plot. This is a weird kind of pompous, distorted hipster nostalgia.

By dressing it all up with half-digested geomancy, necromancy, Tarot cartomancy-mysticism, occult paranoia and laudatory, bookish reference to the Dissenters’ cemetery at Bunhill Fields doesn’t lessen the disrespect for the kind of Londoner (they’re called workers) I feel Sinclair would run a mile from if he had to sit and have a drink with them in one of the pubs he professes to admire so much.

Oh dear, I’ve only got as far as Essay 1, and had better stop there for now. I’ll maybe return to this infuriating, intermittently wonderful but mostly dire book later this week, as I have time off work.

Or I might just go off on some purposeless drifts.

 

 

 

 

 

Daddy had a number of guns. Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River

Barbara Comyns, Sisters By a River First published 1947

Daddy had a number of guns, he kept them in the billiard-room, there was a revolver too, he was always threatening to shoot himself, his creditors or both with it, the big guns, some of them had double barrels to make it easy for bad shots and cross-eyed men, they were intended for shooting game, although quite often they were used on cats and people, towards the end of his life he got obsessed with the idea of shooting my red setter.

Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River: cover Recently I came upon a blog by ‘Heloise Merlin’, who writes enthusiastically about the weird mix of jauntiness in the narrative voice and the contrasting bleakness of the disturbing events this novel contains.

She rightly (in my view) sees the darkness beneath the ‘quirky humour’ and ‘affirmative attitude’ of that voice’s owner – just look at that opening quotation. I also like her identification of the idiosyncratic orthography [spelling mistakes, dodgy syntax] as that of a psychologically damaged adult, not the child it’s sometimes taken to represent. [The narrator gives several clear indications that she’s an adult, as we shall see – e.g. she reveals she’s married to one of the characters who appears fleetingly in the story].

So that makes sense: some of the lexical slips hint at underlying significances – though ‘Heloise’ doesn’t elaborate on this.

So here are some fairly random examples to illustrate/substantiate these points.

Mary was the eldist of the family, Mammy was only eighteen when she had her, and was awfully frit of her, but Daddy thought she was lovely and called her his little Microbe, I don’t know why, maybe microbes were just coming into fashion then like we have germs now. (p.6)

See what Heloise hinted at? The matter-of-fact ingenuousness of ‘had her’ for ‘gave birth’, the naive speculation about germs and microbes, non-standard spellings and colloquial ‘frit’ all indicate the quirkiness that’s Comyns’ signature tone. But that throwaway ‘Microbe’ reference, this early in the novel, foreshadows the parental viciousness, neglect and abuse that’s to come.

After she had had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind couldn’t bear the noise of babies crying any more…Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsoflia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentences half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’ which was a favourite expression. Sometimes when she was showing visitors round the garden she would suddenly come upon us playing some wierd game, she would look quite startled as if she had never seen us before and say something like this ‘The children, grubby, playing dont you know, such a number of them, I married very young, quite a nice governess’ and hurry her guests away, which was just as well because we had rather abomonable manners…(13-14)

Now the ‘vague’ mother is shown as equally culpable in her neglectful, scornful, hands-off attitude to her children. Her possibly psychosomatic deafness shows that she too isn’t unscathed by her husband’s cruelty and volatility (maybe he hit her and caused her deafness – the narrator is too detached to dwell on this. Her bland aloofness masks the turmoil beneath the narrative surface – but by including these details she hopes we’ll join the dots in a way she can’t endure to).

The following passages I think speak for themselves:

When Beatrix and I were about four, we did a frightful thing, we tried to ride the tame rabbits with the most drastic results, we had seen pictures of children riding rabbits and thought we could do the same, bur we couldn’t and for years people said ‘these are the children who squashed the rabbits.

One evening we elder ones returned rather late after a visit to the cinema, we were all kind of in a coma, degesting the film we had just seen, but we were soon rudely awakened, there was an awful uproar, Mammy was screaming and crying in the morning-room, and Daddy bellowing away like a bull, as we came into the room he hurried out without speaking to us, he locked himself in the billiard-room, always his stronghold during rows. Mammy was in the most frightful state, it was difficult to make out what had happened, she seemed almost crazy, and I felt all sick. (87-88)

 

I hated dancing class so much and had a kind of sick feeling in the pit of my stomach before I went, I called it dancing class feeling, and still have it sometimes, when I’m applying for a job, or getting married and similar occasions. (92)

There’s the evidence of an adult narrator. The juxtaposition of job application with marrying and the dismissive ‘similar occasions’ is chilling. Beneath the jaunty humour there’s a traumatised voice suppressing its pain. The loose syntax – all those dangling commas – dramatically heightens the sense of the narrator’s incapacity or unwillingness to differentiate between experiences that were terrifying or unnatural from those that were perceived as ‘normal’.

[From a chapter called ‘Dampness and Illness’] When we had not got colds there were plenty of things like measles and chickenpox to have, there always seemed to be someone in the family with measles, the Grownups didn’t get ill very often, Daddy did once get a stroke and go stiff all down one side, but he came loose again quite soon, the parrot missed him so much while he was ill it died, and we had a funeral, the next parrot wasn’t very nice, it smelt, Kathleen was supposed to clean it but she didn’t (133-34)

Illness is dismissed with the same airiness as other visitations on the children’s vulnerable young lives. That all are treated with equal (apparent) insouciance suggests a narrator flinching from confrontation with a more ‘grownup’ gaze at these damaging events. By describing the father’s stroke with the same lightness as having common childhood ailments, Comyns shows the emotional numbness that this chaotic upbringing inflicted.

It’s a powerful, dark, bizarre novel. Don’t be taken in by that intrusive, superficial ‘quirkiness’; this is as disturbed and disturbing as any fictional autobiography you’re likely to read.

My piece on Comyns’ Woolworths is HERE

Link to Heloise Merlin’s post HERE

Tilling and sowing: the Très Riches Heures in October

It’s the first day of the month, and I intended writing about the last book I read: another Barbara Comyns novel – Sisters by a River. I wrote about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths in a post in January. But I find I don’t have much to say about it right now. Might come back to it shortly, if I feel inspiration.

So as I did for April and May, I’m turning to the beautifully illuminated pages of the calendar in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, painted mostly by the Limbourg brothers in the early 1400s, although this page might be by a later artist who completed the work after the Limbourgs and their patron died (probably of the plague) in 1416.

A book of hours was a book of private prayers and devotions based on the church liturgical pattern. The kalendarium in medieval texts was originally a checklist of saints’ festivals for each month. Over time the tradition evolved so that illustrated versions included, by the 15C, scenes of the occupations associated with each month.

The Limbourgs painted landscapes from different scenes for most months – places owned by their noble patron, or which he’d visited, as here.

October in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

via Wikimedia Commons

In the background of the October sowing and tilling scene is the Louvre Palace, owned at that time by the Duc’s elder brother the king of France. Originally built in the 12C as a fortress, the Louvre was converted into the main royal residence late in the 16C. When Louis XIV made Versailles his main palace in 1782, the Louvre became largely a repository for the royal collection of artworks. This in turn was taken over as a public museum after the Revolution.

Its name perhaps derives from its origins as a wolf-hunting den (Latin ‘lupus’, wolf), according to Wikipedia, but this seems unlikely to me. OED cites a dance named in English from the French palace, but says the origin is obscure, and possibly derived from Latin and Icelandic terms for chimney.

Between the three towers on the palace’s outer wall are two bretèches (anglicised as ‘brattice’). These are small machicolated balconies. Machicolated? This means an opening between the projecting supports or corbels of a fortification’s wall through which missiles, boiling water or cooking oil, etc., could be dropped on to attackers beneath the walls. The word probably derives from OF ‘mâcher’, ‘crush’ + ‘col’, ‘neck’ (OED online).

On the terrace outside the palace walls can be seen people walking and chatting (presumably not peasants, and therefore they don’t have to labour in the fields). Several dogs prance and pose. At the bottom of riparian steps women appear to be doing their laundry in the water of the Seine, which flows in front of the palace. A boatman is embarking or arriving at a mooring.

It’s in the foreground that the main ‘labour of the month’ scene is depicted. A red-clad peasant whips on a horse pulling a harrow, weighted down with a rock to make the prongs dig deeper into the soil and thus bury the sown seeds. Nearer to us another lugubrious looking peasant sows seed by hand from a pouch. Behind him greedy crows and magpies gobble up what he’s sown.

The artist shows a nice eye for detail: we can see the footprints left in the freshly-turned earth by the sower.

The field behind has already been sown. It’s guarded by a scarecrow in the guise of a bowman, and a network of strings threaded with white feathers or rags.

Overhead there’s the usual solar chariot crossing the gorgeous blue of the arch of the starry heavens. There are the usual astrological and lunar cycle symbols around the outer arches.