26 June 2016

A signature on a fly-leaf

 Urbain Grandier

One of the pleasures of a second-hand book is speculating about the person behind an inscription on the fly-leaf. It is always nice if a date is given; sometimes there is a message as well (To dearest Mary, Xmas 1949), which makes you wonder who Mary was, to whom and why she was dear, what happened to her after 1949, and under what circumstances her Christmas present found its way to a second-hand bookshop.

In 1973, at a shop in Long Crendon, I acquired a copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun. I used to buy many second-hand books and this was one I had never got round to reading. It had remained half forgotten on my shelves, the lettering on the spine becoming less and less legible as the years passed. The other day something made me decide to seek it out.

The edition was issued jointly by the Readers’ Union and Chatto and Windus, and is dated 1954. Francis Helps is written on the fly-leaf in an old-fashioned hand:

As this is an unusual name, I idly ran a web search, not expecting to come up with more than an unreliable or ambiguous result, if that.

However, a Francis Helps is listed on a number of sites to do with fine art. He was an English artist, born 1890, died 1972. You can see a selection of his work here, for example; a brief bio can be found here:

‘Francis Helps was born in Dulwich. In 1908 [he] studied at the Slade School of Art where he was taught by Henry Tonks and Fred Brown. In 1915 Helps volunteered for service with [the] Artists’ Rifles Expedition, serving in France. In 1924 he joined the 1922-4 Everest Expedition as an official artist, completing 80 paintings and drawings, most now in America. Between 1931-34 Helps taught at the Royal College of Art, then volunteered to be evacuated with it to Ambleside in the Lake District in 1940-44. From 1953 until his retirement Helps was head of the school of paintings [?] in Leeds, where he settled. Helps showed with [the] RBA [i.e. the Royal Society of British Artists], of which he was elected a member in 1933 and in 1924 had a show at [the] Alpine Club Gallery of his Himalayan work. Further shows were at City Art Gallery, Leeds in 1959, Manor House Museum and Art Gallery, Ilkley in 1971 and South London Gallery in 1979. His work is represented in a number of public galleries (see BBC Your Paintings).’

Had my copy of The Devils of Loudun really belonged to this talented and adventurous man? The signature is that of someone who was educated at a time when copperplate writing was taught – around the turn of the last century, say – and the 1972 date of death is consistent with the date of my purchase, 1973. Maybe his library was disposed of by the executor of his estate; maybe this particular book ended up in the London auctions, where the proprietor at Long Crendon told me he often went for his stock.

On Portrait of an Indian Woman, 1924 I found this signature:

Here again is the signature on the fly-leaf:

It is possible that it was Helps’s eyes that directly preceded mine in reading the words printed on the pages of my copy; that it was his mind that processed and reacted to the gloriously hubristic rise of Urbain Grandier, whose errors of judgement, moral turpitude and general idiocy prepared him for his fate – of being tortured and then burnt alive as a result of the political manipulation of moral hysteria. I wonder what Mr Helps made of it all, he whose life had apparently been as productive as it had been blameless. If he had read the book on receiving it in 1954 (the Readers’ Union was a book club) or shortly afterwards, he would have been about the age that I have reached now, with perhaps the same weary opinion of politics that informs Huxley’s book; Huxley was sixty when it was first published.

The connection between Helps and me is as fortuitous as it is tenuous, but it tickled me to think that I was following in the visual footsteps of such an Englishman. It also made me rather sad. His art would now be denigrated by snobs and philistines; his patriotism and sense of duty despised; his interest in and evident respect for the people he encountered in Asia dismissed as patronizing, or worse.

On page 19 I found this:
There are many people for whom hate and rage pay a higher dividend of immediate satisfaction than love. Congenitally aggressive, they soon become adrenaline addicts, deliberately indulging their ugliest passions for the sake of the ‘kick’ they derive from their psychically stimulated endocrines. Knowing that one self-assertion always ends by evoking other and hostile self-assertions, they sedulously cultivate their truculence. And, sure enough, very soon they find themselves in the thick of a fight. But a fight is what they most enjoy; for it is while they are fighting that their blood chemistry makes them feel most intensely themselves. ‘Feeling good’, they naturally assume that they are good. Adrenaline addiction is rationalized as Righteous Indignation and finally, like the prophet Jonah, they are convinced, unshakably, that they do well to be angry.
Now why should that have made me think of our present moral hysteria? And why does it make me glad that I am not on Facebook or Twitter, and prefer instead to read a second-hand book?

15 July 2015

Just a note to say that I have taken six months off, but I haven’t given up. I have started a new novel, which may or may not come to anything.

Meantime I will go on blogging. Here is an observation on an aspect of the Russian character from Dostoyevsky’s The Insulted and Injured, which I’m reading at the moment:

“Why, it was there, in Paris, at Mme Joubert’s, we broke an English pier-glass.”

“What did you break?”

“A pier-glass. There was a looking-glass over the whole wall and Karp Vassilitch was that drunk that he began jabbering Russian to Mme Joubert. He stood by that pier-glass and leaned his elbow against it. And Joubert screamed at him in her own way, that the pier-glass cost seven hundred francs (that is, four hundred roubles), and that he’d break it! He grinned and looked at me. And I was sitting on a sofa opposite, and a beauty beside me, not a mug like this one here, but a stunner, that’s the only word for it. He cries out, ‘Stepan Terentyitch, hi, Stepan Terentyitch! We’ll go halves, shall we?’ And I said ‘Done!’ And then he banged his fist on the looking-glass, crash! The glass was all in splinters. Joubert squealed and went for him straight in the face: ‘What are you about, you ruffian?’ (In her own lingo, that is.) ‘Mme Joubert,’ says he, ‘here’s the price of it and don’t disperse my character.’ And on the spot he forked out six hundred and fifty francs. They haggled over the other fifty.”

30 January 2015

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”

I first read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when I was seventeen, and was aware even then that a thorough understanding of Catch-22 was not the best preparation for an unclouded adulthood.

To me, the most notable manifestation of Catch-22 is any organization set up to ameliorate or eliminate a perceived problem. I should make it clear that this principally concerns the public sector, which nowadays includes certain charities, many of which receive much or most of their funding from the taxpayer.

At first all seems well. Progress is made and everybody is keen to see the organization succeed. But some of those employed in it soon begin to perceive that amelioration or elimination of the problem is not in their best interests because this will cost them their jobs. The more idealistic members of staff – typically those who, at the outset, were the most enthusiastic – either resign in frustration or are sidelined and dismissed. The people left behind are the ones interviewing replacement candidates and will obviously engage others like themselves. An ethos develops in which jobs in the organization, and the organization itself, become more important to its members than its original aims.

The organization next undergoes another change: it henceforth exists in order to perpetuate and if possible exacerbate the problem. Exacerbation of the problem allows the organization to grow in size and (as far as the perception of society at large is concerned) value. Those at the top, those directing the organization, can thus command higher salaries and juicier perks, and join the ranks of the great and the good.

The evidence is all around us. It is not in the interests of the police to eliminate crime, of the National Health Service to keep the populace healthy, of your local council to be efficient, nor of the bodies dealing with race relations and gender politics to promote harmony. Most damaging of all, it is not in the interests of those in government that welfare dependency and the national debt should do anything but grow.

It is possible that our armies of politicians, quangocrats and civil servants think they are doing the right thing. It is equally possible that they don’t. The more senior they are, the more suspect their motives.

In ancient China, apparently, doctors were paid only if their patients remained healthy. A solution along those lines might be conceived: but, really, no one can do anything about this problem, because that would mean setting up an organization to deal with it, and that, my friends, is the biggest catch of them all.

26 January 2015

Not quite there yet

Alerted by Nate Hoffelder’s blog to the ingenious Text Clock by Ross Goodwin, I next had a peek at Mr Goodwin’s blog and noticed that he has devised and made public a fiction generator.

Of course I tried it out, feeding in some character-names and adjusting the “depravity” slider leftwards (I’m a prude like that). Then I hit “Generate”. The machine did its thing, drank some coffee, smoked a cigarette, did its thing some more, guzzled a bit of whiskey (or so it claimed), and came up with a shiny new novel, all 209,687 words of it.

Here is the opening paragraph:
Chapter 1
Other Scrapovitch?”
, a comprehensible ship, no more than a manageable handful could be sur- veyed in two glances; Iona looked, and was where Iona was and what to do. But in this liner Seara for an able master. In that ship Anaia could see at once way to take unless Kamil had a good memory. No understood could not see where Iona was, and would never know which designed with a cunning informed by ages of sea-lore to move came to Jett in that hall of a measured and shapely body, non-irritant skin permitted to stand there to afford man an New York’s skyscrapers, which this planet’s occasionally daring. But with the knowledge that this wall must be apparent reason to be gratified with Iona’s own capacity and that little opened in Anaia’s altitude, Iona found Iona in afloat there came no sense of security when, went through, for Iona was puzzled as to direction. Iona’s last ship a spacious decorated interior which hinted nothing of a ship.
(I did not input any of these character-names, though the ones I did suggest occur later.)

While this may not make the New York Times bestsellers lists, one can see clear evidence of phrasing and sentence-structure. There is only one spelling mistake and (with a few trivial exceptions) there is no problem with the punctuation. It is an impressive feat, several steps on from the poetry generators (like this one) that take advantage of the free form and, frankly, pretentiousness of much modern poetry. Prose is less elastic than poetry and demands less effort on the reader’s part.

As a means of understanding language and our response to it, trying to write a fiction generator is an interesting and useful project. It also reminds us how advanced and amazing – in the true sense of that word – are the abilities of the human brain, for Nature and education have gifted us not only countless thousands of quirky and unique fiction-generators but millions upon millions of equally complicated fiction-interpreters.

14 January 2015

Leave it out

Part of the story-teller’s craft is knowing what not to describe. Omitting an inessential scene has two benefits: the flow of the narrative is improved and the reader is drawn in deeper. Besides inviting him to create images from the words before him, you make him fill in the gap. This is done by providing him beforehand with the building-blocks to construct – in any way he sees fit – the missing material for himself. His vision can be modified later with references to what happened during, or arose from, the absent scene. Correctly handled, this technique may cause the reader to believe, once he has finished the story, that he has actually read what isn’t there.

(Omitting whole scenes is analogous to the excision of unnecessary words, particularly descriptors. Parsimony with descriptors leads the author to search for the right noun or verb, improving the flow still further.)

A writer can get into trouble if he doesn’t understand that some of what he has imagined should not be exposed. Sooner or later his ploughshare will hit a rock.

I got stuck like this with The Tide Mill, which is set in the 13th century. The story opens with the arrival of the economic-refugee protagonist, aged nine. I was satisfied with the first chapter and in the next continued with an account of the nine-year-old’s new life, but after a thousand words of that I came to a halt and didn’t know why. I assumed the problem was in the first chapter and rewrote it several times, even changing from third-person to first-person narrative. In the end I gave up.

Months later I was listening to a radio adaptation of a novel and noticed that the author had, without ado, jumped his narrative forward by a number of years. I finally realized that the next significant event in my hero’s life required him to be older and more independent, so I junked what I had written of Chapter 2 and started it again, three years along from the end of Chapter 1. That second chapter is one of the easiest I have ever written.

Eliding those three years indicates that they are of little interest and brings the spotlight to bear on the central event of Chapter 2, which determines everything that follows. Moreover, the reader’s perception of the missing years is enriched as the story unfolds and he learns more about the setting and the local way of life.

I believe that writer’s block is usually caused by an instinctive or subconscious awareness of a technical fault. Sometimes the fault is huge – the whole idea of the story is unbelievable – while at other times it can be trivial. In this case I got blocked because the first version of Chapter 2 lacked momentum. Like a shark, a story must keep moving forward. If there is excess baggage the narrative will be slowed down and made less readable. If the baggage proves too cumbersome, the story may even be impossible to write.

This phenomenon helps illustrate the mysterious and wonderful collaboration between reader and writer. The reader finds unnecessary prose tiresome; if there is too much of it for his taste he will lay the book aside – as will the author himself, temporarily or not.

4 January 2015

Tales of Chinatown

Tales of Rubovia was a TV puppet show for children airing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was seriously and addictively bizarre, owing much to steampunk. The creator was Gordon Murray.

“When asked if the costumes might suggest that Rubovia is set in the Queen Anne era, Gordon Murray made it quite clear. ‘That would be a big mistake,’ he said. ‘The time is the present. It’s just that Rubovians are out of touch. Everything in their blissful country stopped at gas and steam. They love clockwork, and spring-driven gramophones, and things worked with bellows and bits of string. They’ve no telephones either. You see, they’ve never heard of electricity. That’s why they're so happy.’” (Radio Times, 19 January, 1963): quote found here.

The hero was the ingenious Mr Albert Weatherspoon, who bore an unsettling likeness to a younger Winston Churchill. His inventions and interventions often saved the day, likewise his companion, a misshapen cat named Rubia, whom he used to address as “Puss”.

You can see that the production was not very sophisticated, but then neither were we. We liked the simple plot-lines, the gentleness, and, without then being aware of it, the confection of English values and sensibility. Fairness and right always triumphed.

Certain sayings from the show became playground mantras: “Ye-es, my love” was one, taken from moments when the henpecked king assented to yet another intractable demand from his haughty queen. These demands always seemed to devolve upon Mr Weatherspoon, drawing from him the ejaculation “Ooh, Puss!” once he and Rubia were alone again.

This last has remained with me all my life. Now and then I find myself thinking or even uttering it when faced with an imponderable. Usually, these days, the imponderable is nothing like those that once beset Mr Weatherspoon.

Anyone with an internet connection can explore alternatives to the mainstream media. Here conspiracy theories are aired, potentially libellous material is posted, and ordinary people try to make sense of globalism and its integral themes of social division. We read of powerful individuals corrupting the institutions of state. We are told about horrible crimes committed by the highly placed, about victims and whistleblowers silenced – some permanently. How much of it is true? I have no idea.

Another filmed production has lately come to my mind: the 1974 movie Chinatown. Its world is the very obverse of Rubovia. I think especially about the final line of the script. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Now that I am much nearer the end of my life than the beginning, that seems to me a better response to the imponderable.