A quick update to previous posts and news about some changes to this site.
In ‘What’s Going On’ I suggested that the Colston Hall in Bristol be renamed, and much more influential people thought likewise so a few days later it was. It’s now called the Bristol Beacon, and the statue of Edward Colston has been removed and put into storage somewhere.
When I wrote ‘Who Was Betty?’ I couldn’t find a photo of my maternal grandmother and put in a random pic as a placeholder. Later I found and scanned photos of both grandparents which have now taken their place where they should have been in the first place. To save you scrolling down here’s my Nana, in my view the real Betty. One of the good things about a blog is that things can be changed and mistakes rectified.
On that score, I revised ‘Home Alone Again Unnaturally’ in the light of subsequent events which didn’t work out as I’d hoped they would. That’ll teach me to write anticipatory pieces. I wish life could be changed retrospectively. The warnings I included about the dangers of quitting lockdown too soon and flouting the advice about social distancing have proved all too valid, alas.
I’ve revamped the site in various ways, the main change being the addition of an Image Gallery. Clicking on GALLERY in the strapline above will take you to this pictorial wonderland. I’m really no great fan of my own work but some people have been curious about what I actually did in my earlier life (though they’re too polite to put it quite like that) so for them I’ve included some scans of my designs and illustrations, and since a blog like this is inevitably something of an ego-trip I’ve made sections for family photos and pictures of friends. But no selfies!
The inclusion of some of these Friends has raised the odd eyebrow, if an eyebrow can be raised via email. An e-brow perhaps. Was I really friends with William Empson, for instance? Well, sort of. He was the Professor of English at Sheffield University when I was an undergraduate there and we often lunched at the same pub and over the course of the three years that I was there (at the university, not just in the pub) we got to know each other a bit, starting with just a little nod of acknowledgement of my presence from him and eventually we’d be chatting over our pints. What we talked about wasn’t his poetry, however — he was a formidable figure and I wouldn’t have dared to broach that subject — but cricket.
So the Friends section should ideally have been subdivided into categories like friends, colleagues, clients, writers I’ve known, drinking companions at one time or another, and so on, but these categories all overlap. Some of the writers I published became friends as did some colleagues, some friends became writers, some people I knew only casually but liked and remember fondly, and quite a few of them are now dead … so for better or worse they’re all bundled together. Sue me.
Since starting this blog I have after much hesitation about engaging with social media created a Facebook page [www.facebook.com/jonesrglyn] which has proved to be a very good move, putting me in touch with many people who I thought might have forgotten me. I’ve been trying to link the blog with this Facebook page as I think the Comments would be better there but haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet. I’ll get there eventually but meanwhile the Comments are back in the sidebar on the right.
Autumn is my favourite time of year. I have no patience with those who complain of cooler weather, falling leaves, the nip in the air, darker evenings etc. I love these things and this is England, for heaven’s sake. Sun-worshippers should live somewhere else.
Summer was a bummer. For many it was a season of uncertain weather, travel restrictions, masks, social distancing (ignored by lots of young people, with the consequences we’re now seeing) and the general frustrations of a pandemic-stricken world. For me it was an even more joyless time with much of it devoted to a stepped-up course of cancer treatment. Strong prescribed laxatives played a large part in this.
The daily drive across North London to the hospital was no fun at all, consisting of rat-runs, speed bumps and white vans which seemed to be on a concerted mission to clip off my wing mirrors. Once there the staff in the radiology department were as wonderful as NHS staff always seem to be, overworked but friendly and gorgeous and very tolerant of a sometimes difficult patient, but there was an awful lot of just hanging around, waiting. There were unpleasant side-effects of the treatment too, depressing to manage at home on my own and not helped by a quarrel with someone I thought was sympathetic to my situation but who turned out to not to be. To some extent it was probably my own fault for poking my nose in where it wasn’t wanted, or simply being old and sick and boring when there was fun to be had elsewhere, but it was painful to have my friendly overtures spurned so callously and in the process to be made into a laughing-stock. Nasty stuff, and being somewhat autistic• I found this more than usually difficult to cope with. Still do.
After that shitstorm I was desperate to get out of London. Driving south down the motorway and leaving the suburban sprawl behind I felt my spirits gradually lifting. The trees were still green — no autumn colours just yet — and speeding through the gently rolling countryside gave me a feeling of freedom and exhilaration that has been on furlough lately. I stopped at the services to buy some food for later and a couple of cans of a lager called Hells, which seemed apt for the occasion. I thought that if I could sink that and expel it in the all-too-familar way it might act as a sort of symbolic purging of a rotten time, but it didn’t.
Broadstone was looking a bit sad even before the pandemic hit, and every time I approach it these days I find Iris Dement’s ‘Our Town’ running through my brain. I first heard this as it played over the closing credits of the very last episode of Northern Exposure, maybe my all-time favourite US tv series, when it actually brought a little tear to my eyes. Listen to it here. Seems to suit the general mood. What has been called The Death of the High Street has hit such places hard as people increasingly shop at trading estates or online, and lockdown made things even worse in Broadstone with many of the long-established shops and cafés now closed and the premises vacant. Gone are Irené’s dress shop; Pampurred Pets where we bought things for the cat and who found her a new home when my mum had to go into care; The Owl’s Roost where my parents often went for morning coffee; Harris and Nash where we got our electrical goods and who mended them on the premises when they went wrong; McColl’s the biggest and best newsagent’s with a fine array of magazines … and I’m particularly sad to find that the Oxfam shop has now closed, where for years my mum worked as a volunteer doing the accounts and generally helping out. This sort of thing is happening all over the UK but it’s especially sad when it’s your own patch, which holds so many bittersweet memories.
Even so, I’m more than glad to be here. The house is looking better than it has for some time thanks to the gardening skills of Raymond who has been loaned to me by my neighbours and has been looking after the place while I’ve been away, so the lawns are neatly mown, the bushes pruned and the hedges clipped. It’s been raining almost continuously since I arrived but I don’t mind a bit. There have been no mists and no fruitfulness, mellow or otherwise, since a deer got into the back garden and ripped the leaves off the little fruit trees that I planted a couple of years ago — a beautiful creature but in gardening terms a pest — but there may be hedgehogs, which would be welcome. They eat slugs. Celia next door has found evidence of them in her garden though she hasn’t actually seen one so far (neither have I), but ‘ghost hedgehog’ signs can be spotted around the area, and I’ve joined The Dorset Mammal Group to try and do my bit to help.
I’m still reeling from the effects of the treatment I’ve received. I’ve been taking things quietly since I’ve been here and have been feeling better day by day, and have even managed to get a few things done: a new computer, a decent-seized bed at last. My neighbours here have been such good friends, inviting me round for meals and drinks, listening patiently to my moans, and gently setting me straight when I seem to be going astray. Their daughter Michelle, who knows about medical stuff — she’s just got her Ph.D — bought me a bottle of tonic to help with my depleted energy levels, and it works! I’ve ordered further supplies, and since we’re all Bob Dylan fans we’ve been sipping from a bottle of Bob’s personally blended bourbon, Heaven’s Door, which helps in other ways.
Broadstone isn’t exactly Heaven but for me it’s the nearest thing and I’m very fortunate to be able to spend time here, but I have to go back to London in a couple of days and I’m dreading it. It’s a long time since I was able to enjoy the things that London has to offer and I’ve been living in the same house and locality for much too long. It has all become over-familiar and boring, and there’s no reason for me to be there except for the cancer treatment. There are indications that it may not have worked too well, with the damn thing spreading into other parts of my body. This is what killed my beloved sister over ten agonizing years and I know all too well how it may progress, so the next round of tests and scans may not be the routine things that we expected, and as I’m now feeling like a pariah in my own neighbourhood I’m finding it difficult to be positive and brave, let alone cheerful — and a new lockdown has just been decreed. Fucking hell.
Meanwhile I try to live in the moment. At the bottom of the garden are two lovely trees, an aspen and a huge beech. Next time I come here their branches will be bare, but today I’m very happy just to sit and watch the leaves turn from green to gold.
I’ve wanted for a while to write about being autistic but found it very difficult to do without sounding self-pitying. which on the whole I’m not. If I can find a way of doing it I’ll post it on this blog.
The prospect of a Zombie Apocalypse, which I’m assured is imminent, raises the question “Who would you most like to see returning as one of the undead?” which takes its place alongside other topics for late-night debate such as “Where would you go if you had the free use of a time machine for 24 hours?” and “Are you happy? No, really happy?” God, we have fun. Anyway, here’s my candidate for zombiehood.
1977. A crowd of around 150 people gathered in the cemetery at San Antonio to see a large wooden crate being lowered into the pit that had been excavated to receive it. Inside the crate was the corpse of a beautiful young woman named Sandra West seated at the wheel of her favourite sports car. This is her strange, sad little story.
Born and raised in southern California, Sandra Ilene Hara had a fairly prosperous childhood. Her parents ran a store selling classy children’s clothes and Sandra often saw wealthy customers coming and going, which may have given her ambitious ideas about how her own future should be. Details of her schooling and adolescence are scanty but she was bright and grew into an attractive young woman, soon becoming popular on the local dating scene.
She wanted much more than casual dates, however, and her first serious shot at bagging herself a rich husband was by starting an affair with a guy named Sol West whose money came from extensive cattle and oil interests in Texas, but Sol was a womanizer and serially unfaithful — and Sandra had discovered that his older brother Ike was the real heir to the West fortune, so she switched her attentions to Ike. On the face of it he seemed even less promising than Sol as husband material, having been banished by his family to Mexico to try and cure his booze and drug dependency in the care of a sort of bodyguard, but Sandra was not deterred; she travelled to Mexico to meet Ike and ‘with loving patience’ (as one account puts it) she helped him to clean up and convince the family that he was fit to take charge of the business, with Sandra by his side of course. They married soon afterwards and moved to California to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle together.
It didn’t last long. They moved into a Beverly Hills mansion and spent lavishly on the fine things of life, including the blue Ferrari 303 America that would eventually become Sandra’s coffin, but Ike’s bad habits soon returned and he died at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in 1968 ‘under mysterious circumstances’ according to my source, which gives no more details. Whatever had happened, Ike’s demise left Sandra a very wealthy widow. She wasn’t shy about flaunting her new wealth and soon she was dating the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nicky Hilton and even Elvis Presley, and her behaviour became flamboyant. She was liable to appear in public dressed as a Texas Rodeo Queen, and she once drove up to exclusive Chasen’s restaurant, made a grand entrance, ordered a single hamburger to go, then drove off at speed into the night munching it. She bought more cars — she had a bit of a thing for Ferraris — and wore more and more jewellery. It looked as though she was having a fabulous time but people who knew her said that she was lonely, and as the years went by she became increasingly reclusive and her behaviour more eccentric.
She became fascinated by the Ancient Egyptians, especially their practice of being buried with their worldly possessions, and she made a will insisting that she ‘be buried next to my husband in a lace nightgown seated in my Ferrari with the seat comfortably slanted’. She crashed the car in 1976 but the damage was fairly minor and she didn’t bother to have it repaired as she was now pretty much a shut-in heavily dependent on drugs, which like many rich Californians (and Elvis) she was able to obtain easily despite being under the supervision of a nurse, and her death in March 1977 was due to an overdose of barbiturates and codeine.
There followed a long legal battle over her will. No-one disputed that brother-in-law Sol — remember him? — was the only realistic heir, but Sol wanted the money without going to the trouble and expense of interring Sandra in her car, so while the wrangling went on she was buried in a temporary grave until things were resolved. The California court eventually ruled that Sol would only get the dough if Sandra’s wishes were carried out to the letter, so the blue Ferrari was sequestered and Sandra’s body was dug up and both were transported to San Antonio in a large wooden crate, where Sandra was dressed as she had wanted and placed in the car: an unusual job for the morticians who presumably did it. Diggers made a large pit in the ground and a large crane was brought in to lift the crate into it. The grave was then covered with a thick layer of concrete to prevent anyone getting at the crate and its contents — not so much Sandra as the Ferrari which would now be worth around $2 million. The site was marked with a simple stone slab placed alongside that of her late husband Ike, and it has now become something of a tourist attraction in the local area even though there’s nothing much to see.
Come the Zombie Apocalypse, when the dead rise from their graves, I would love to see the turf part and the concrete shatter and the crate splinter, and Sandra come roaring out of the ground in her Ferrari (also miraculously restored to life) to wreak a terrible revenge on the people who had treated her so shamefully.
As I was drafting this piece I heard from my former colleague Isabel Lloyd who by an odd coincidence has recently published Gardening for the Zombie Apocalypse subtitled ‘How to Grow Your Own Food When Civilization Collapses (Or Even If It Doesn’t)’, which within a humorous framework is a thoroughly researched and superbly presented guide to growing vegetables and fruit in extremis. Click on the picture for more info on the book, and here for the website.
Isabel worked with me for a few years until my company folded, and subsequently went on to much greater things in the field of magazine publishing. I’d like to take credit for talent-spotting Isabel but It’s clear that she’d have done extremely well anyway, and her husband Phil Clarke (co-author of the book) has progressed from being a scuffling stand-up comedian to one of the UK’s leading comedy producers (Big Train, Brass Eye, Peep Show, I May Destroy You and many more) now running his own very successful production company.
Personally I’d welcome the Apocalypse. I’m old and my life doesn’t matter much but I’d like to hang around long enough to see a bunch of annoying Millennials have their smug little brains sucked out by zombies and their toned, tanned bodies ripped to shreds. Bring it on!
My claims to fame as a publisher are small-to-nonexistent but if I’m known for anything it’s as the one responsible for Christine Keeler’s book Scandal which was made into a very successful movie in 1989. In the process I got to know Christine pretty well, and even now people sometimes ask me what she was really like.
I’ve tried a few times to write about her but found it difficult. The thought of summarizing the whole Profumo Affair of 1963 by way of introduction seems superfluous since there have been so many books, movies and tv series about it and anyone who’s only casually interested can find plenty of material on Wikipedia and elsewhere, and a further problem is that although Christine herself is now dead she has relatives and friends still living and I wouldn’t wish to embarrass them, especially her son Seymour whom I got to know and like, so I’ll confine myself to a few brief anecdotes.
Background: The producers of the movie Scandal wanted to tie it in with my publication of the book, which was good news for its prospects (it became a best-seller, earned Christine quite a lot of money and got me the house I still live in) but meant that Christine would have to do a lot of promo, and having parted company with her agent she asked me if I would take on that job as well. I should also explain that although we had some tricky moments I liked Christine very much and deplored the way she had been treated, so I felt obliged to look after her interests as best I could.
OK, here are the anecdotes.
♦ She was scheduled to appear on the BBC’s prime-time chat show which was then being hosted by Sue Lawley, and the day before there had been the usual briefing in a hotel with an assistant running though possible questions Christine might be asked and assuring us that it would be a friendly interview.
Next day at the Beeb the makeup girl was applying cream to Christine’s face and Christine liked the results. “That’s marvellous stuff!” she said; “What is it?” “Oh, I’m afraid this is only for sale to professionals,” said the girl, and we were hustled on to the green room where we got to meet John Hurt who was also appearing on the show, having played Stephen Ward in the film. Fine actor, very nice guy.
Just before Christine was due to appear the assistant from the previous day arrived in some distress. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “but I’m afraid that Sue Lawley has decided to take a much tougher line of questioning. Really sorry.” There was no time to reconsider so we made our way down to the set and if the camera had panned a bit wider I might have been seen more or less shoving Christine onto the stage hissing “Good luck.”
I thought she handled it pretty well in the circumstances — judge for yourself here — and as we left I felt a tug on my sleeve and slowed down. It was the makeup girl: “I didn’t like to tell her,” she whispered, “but that stuff was actually hemorrhoid cream.”
♦ I got to see a bit of the high life myself. I wonder what the neighbours would have made of me in full evening dress being picked up from our quiet backwater by a chauffeur-driven stretch limo to take me to the movie première, but I don’t think any of them were watching, damn it. There were a few other such glitzy occasions too, and I remember:
Noticing a famous newsreader sneaking out of an awards ceremony with a full bottle of scotch in each hand.
Seymour wearing jeans to the star-studded Scandal première.
Finding myself alone in a lift with Britt Ekland who was looking fantastic in a shimmering and very tight-fitting outfit. “I can’t sit down in this dress,” she said with a dazzling smile. I’m still trying to think of a suitable reply.
Escorting Christine to some function and being asked by the paparazzi outside “Who are you?” and telling them that I was nobody in particular and certainly not the new man in Christine’s life, though I did look rather carefully at the newspapers the next day …
Feeling rather miffed at never getting to meet Joanne Whalley, who had done a beautiful job of playing Christine in the movie. She missed all the Scandal promo by going to the US to make another movie and marrying Val Kilmer. So selfish.
Walking through the West End and hearing a cry of “Richard!” It came from John Hurt, who was sitting by himself drinking coffee at a table outside a pub. I was amazed that he remembered me and even knew my name, but I joined him and we had a friendly chat, mostly about Scandal and Christine, whom he had liked very much. As I said, a nice guy.
♦ It promised to be an exciting day out, a glimpse into the world of rock stars, movie-making … showbiz! Christine had been approached about making a cameo appearance in a video promoting Bryan Ferry’s new single ‘Kiss and Tell’, which meant a trip to Pinewood Studios with the full star treatment. The call was for 12 noon with a chauffeur-driven limo laid on, so we left Christine’s council flat in some style with Christine’s son Seymour, then a rather stage-struck teenager, and my assistant Liz. On the way we listened to a tape of ‘Kiss and Tell’ and by the time we got to Pinewood we were sick of it.
Christine was given her own spacious suite there. We settled ourselves in and waited … and waited. At various times people came in and told Christine that she was wanted in make-up or wardrobe and she disappeared for a while, and Bryan himself popped in to say hello, and we went down to the set to see the guitarist miming his solo, but mostly we just waited. We were told that we could help ourselves to food from the buffet downstairs, and we did — the Beef Wellington was excellent — but mostly we just waited.
Liz and I snuck off to have a look around Pinewood and found that the door to the huge James Bond set was open, so we went in and Liz took a photo of me climbing up a rope that was dangling from the high roof, 007 to the life, then we wandered around some more before returning to Christine’s suite to find that nothing was happening. More food, more desultory conversation …
Evening came and as it was clear that it would still be some time before filming would start they put the limo at our disposal for a couple of hours, and we cruised around the Berkshire countryside for a while before going to an historic old pub that I knew in Penn, but none of us wanted to drink — Christine was on her best behaviour — so we headed back to Pinewood and yet more hanging around.
It was midnight before Christine was eventually called to the set. Dressed in furs she looked very stylish but for some reason there was a wind machine, and Liz and I were ordered off the set when her hat blew off and we laughed. The video did get made eventually (Mandy Smith played the younger woman who had also supposedly kissed and told. She was beautiful and friendly.) and the result can be seen here and there’s a bit more of Christine to be seen in the extended version here. The limo took Christine and Seymour home in the early hours but dawn was breaking by the time Liz and I got back to Crouch End.
Seymour and I agree that what had looked to be so exciting turned out to be one of the most boring days of our lives, and neither of us ever want to hear ‘Kiss and Tell’ again.
♦ During the course of the Scandal promotion strange things were happening back in the office. There were repeated phone calls from a man wanting to set up some sort of meeting with Christine in the Birmingham area. He wouldn’t say any more to my secretary so I took the calls. He said that a group of businessmen wanted to set up this rendezvous and that there would be money involved. It sounded extremely dubious but Christine was always pretty keen to earn money and this was her moment in the spotlight, so trying to be a conscientious agent I tried to find out exactly what would be involved, but the man was vague and wouldn’t even tell me his name. In the end I just told him that we didn’t take anonymous phone calls and hung up on him whenever he called.
I still wonder what was really going on with those calls. Was it an attempted newspaper sting or, worse, MI6 poking about trying to find out whether I’d be tempted to act as Christine’s pimp, the new Stephen Ward? The publicist Max Clifford wasn’t so well known then but it soon became apparent that he wanted to get in on the Scandal buzz, and he signed up a woman called Pamella Bordes who had been ‘seeing’ various famous men and soon she was being prominently featured in the newspapers as ‘the new Christine Keeler’, not without substantial payment I imagine.
Max Clifford died in prison in 2017 after a sex scandal of his own so I guess I’ll never know if he was the mysterious man from Birmingham. Ms Bordes appears to have changed her name and retired into private life.
♦ When she wasn’t telling her story for the umpteenth time Christine had a great sense of humour. Whenever we met she usually had a new joke to tell or a new bit of scandal to share, and she liked to tease me. “Why aren’t you married, Richard?” she once said mischievously; “You’re such a nice chap.” [I’m not making this up, honest] “Well, how about it then, Christine,” I replied; “You and me. You could teach me such a lot.” “Oh, I don’t think so.” she laughed … and so on. She could be great fun.
♦ Pam the PR woman was in a panic when I arrived late at the Hilton: “Where the hell have you been, Richard? They’re chasing Christine all over the place.” I’d got caught up in the traffic in Park Lane — some royal event going on down the road, I was told — and found that there was indeed a sort mobile scrimmage inside the hotel with a pack of photographers pursuing Christine, who showed a remarkable turn of speed for a woman her age. Pam was annoyed because although she’d summoned the press she’d told them that there was to be no photocall and she’d pretty much lost control of the situation: a pity as she’d been hoping to be voted Publicist of the Month.
I joined the chase and confronted the leading paparazzo and told him that if he didn’t stop it I’d smash his camera to pieces. We stood there glaring at each other for a moment, then we both burst out laughing and went our separate ways while Christine disappeared.
The event was the monthly lunch of the BSME [British Society of Magazine Editors] with Christine and the US singer/actress Diahann Carroll as the guest speakers. It was a fairly dull occasion, though Pam was impressed (“Just look at the power in this room!”) with Diahann making a pretty little speech and Christine answering a few polite questions from the editors, who had realized that Christine was no speech-maker.
Pam didn’t get to be Publicist of the Month, but the experience gave me one little insight that I pass on freely to any future biographers: despite her protests Christine had absolutely loved being chased round the corridors.
♦ When the fuss had died down Christine and I met for coffee in a West End hotel to tie up a few loose ends and have a chat. As I’ve said, when the pressure was off she was good company, and I occasionally caught glimpses of the Christine of 1963 who had been so irresistable to men.
By now I had sat with her through many interviews and knew her answers to most of the questions she had been asked. In some circles she was now being seen as a sort of socialist heroine, “the girl who had brought down the Conservative Party”, but it occurred to me that no-one had ever asked what her own politics were, so I did. “Oh, I’m a Tory,” she said; “People like me do better under the Conservatives.” I looked to see if she was making a joke, but she wasn’t.
Note The use of hemorrhoid cream on the face is not recommended, but anyone trying it should be sure to use a fresh tube.
Many thanks to Seymour Platt for good-naturedly allowing me to publish these memories of his mother. His own elegant tribute site is here and has much biographical information about Christine and many rare images. Seymour is also mounting a campaign to overturn her conviction for perjury (here) which I fully support.
Retrospective thanks too to all who helped during a busy and rather testing period: to all at Palace Pictures, especially Stephen Woolley who dealt with a very amateurish agent very kindly and patiently; to Desmond Banks who handled Christine’s legal affairs very capably for all of her adult life; to Tiffany Daneff who skilfully turned a scrappy manuscript into a publishable book; and to my staff, especially Liz (wherever she may be), who supported me patiently and so well.
‘”Seigneur, I have invented forty new dishes for to-night’s banquet,” François said pathetically, his eyes creeping out until they hung on the rims of their sockets like desperate people wavering on the edges of precipices.’ (George Viereck and Paul Eldridge, Salome The Wandering Jewess, 1930)
Connoisseurs of strained similes, mangled metaphors, grisly grammar, excessively purple prose and all writing that is differently good will love Thog’s Masterclass, a regular feature in David Langford’s monthly newsletter Ansible®, essential reading for anyone who wants to know what’s going on in the binary worlds of science fiction and fantasy.
Thog the Mighty is a not terribly bright barbarian hero, the creation of John Grant (Paul Barnett) in his “Lone Wolf” fantasy novels loosely based on Joe Dever’s gamebooks. He first appeared in The Claws of Helgedad (1991) and was soon identified as the presiding genius behind much bad genre writing, with many fans avidly collecting examples of his influence, as they continue to do.
Mr Langford has very kindly allowed me to include a selection of some vintage Thogs here. They’re mostly from SF stories, but not all. My own passing thoughts are in green.
‘Long-since dusty hopes are about to float away on the invisible ink of time, he thought.’ (Robert Newcomb, The Fifth Sorceress, 2002)
‘A minute later, he was vomiting up the breakfast he had not eaten.’ (Peter Straub, Lost Boy Lost Girl, 2003)
‘A thick branch crashed through the tunnel, just missing Filidor’s nose, and he carefully sliced it away before resuming his slow upward progress.’ (Matthew Hughes, Fools Errant, 1994)
‘… a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.’ (Morrissey, List of the Lost, 2015)
‘… the pain marched across my shoulder like a shark army might have.’ (L.E. Modesitt Jr, The Fires of Paratime, 1980)
‘Somehow, the mackerel paté of memory had escaped its wrapper, skipped its kitchen dish, and turned into a flickering silver shoal, darting and twisting in terror against an empty darkness.’ (‘Gabriel King’, The Wild Road, 1997) My memory quite often does that too.
‘She had an annoying habit of running her tongue over his teeth, and as she did that, he realised there was absolutely nothing between them.’ (Jackie Collins, Hollywood Wives: The New Generation, 2001)
‘The wagon lurched forward like an armadillo trying to mate with a very fast duck.’ (James P. Silke, Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer, Vol II Lords of Destruction, 1989)
‘She shrugged, quivers manifest beneath the thin material of her blouse, the breasts, unbound, moving like oiled balloons.’ (E.C. Tubb, Eye of the Zodiac, 1975)
‘She knew how to embroider and milk a cow.’ (Connie Willis, Doomsday Book, 1992)
‘The underwriter seemed equally amused, frisking up the ends of his moustache, eager for them to join in the fun.’ (J.G. Ballard, Cocaine Nights,1996)
‘A pair of bushy eyebrows jutted out above his orbits like two hands cupped over the brow of a man peering into an unfathomable distance. At the same time, his dense windswept sideburns swerved back dramatically behind his earlobes, as though his mind was speeding faster than the rest of his head.’ (Edwin Black, War Against the Weak, 2003)
‘He was handsome and blond, with the same height and almost the same muscular build as Chastity, except her chest-circumference measurement involved different lumps from his.’ (Robert L. Forward, Saturn Rukh,1997)
‘O’Malley had a face like an inflated punctuation mark.’ (Joel Goldman, Motion to Kill, 2002) Yes, but which punctuation mark – a semicolon? The mind boggles.
‘”Are either of you aware of the fact that there’s nothing between us and the pole to break the wind but an occasional stray reindeer?”‘ (David Eddings, Castle of Wizardry, 1984)
‘She sat down in that earthy way that said she was all there.’ (L.E. Modesitt Jr, The Fires of Paratime, 1980) I know women like that
‘It was dark. No darker than it had been while she fell through her dialectical hole, but no lighter, either. It was the kind of disorienting dark that, had she been a feather in a large, unopened can, she wouldn’t have the faintest idea which way was up.’ (Jenny Diski, Monkey’s Uncle, 1994)
‘I felt my molars reach for each other.’ (Kathy Reichs, Death du Jour, 1999)
‘Jocelyn came through the fog wall, muttering, her breasts swaying like two angry red eyes looking for a fight.’ (Gregory Benford, Furious Gulf) Thog seems to have a bit of a thing about breasts doesn’t he.
‘The horse’s fall had the sound of a bag filled with rocks and lamp oil, landing beside him and rolling over his legs.’ (Steven Erikson, Gardens of the Moon, 1999)
‘She looked up, and the silence stopped. The carbonized sky howled as the Milky Way cracked its sternum, exposing its galactic heart.’ (Bryn Chancellor, Sycamore, 2017) The mind boggles even more.
‘Other-ness plays the same part in urinating as in producing poetry.’ (Colin Wilson, The Philosopher’s Stone, 1969)
‘… there is always something magical about the moment when your eyes touch nipples running free; nipples are a door from one world to another, from the grey of the everyday to a place of enchantment.’ (Francesco Dimitri, The Book of Hidden Things, 2018) … and there he goes again with the breasts.
‘Vienna, in that perfunctory way of hers, has sighed and spread her legs to be shagged by the winter solstice.’ (Adrian Matthews, Vienna Blood, 2001)
‘Somewhere in Snowfield, were there living human beings who had been reduced to the awful equivalent of foil-wrapped Pop Tarts, waiting only to provide nourishment for some brutal, unimaginably evil, darkly intelligent, other-dimensional horror?’ (Dean R.Koontz, Phantoms, 1983)
‘”Pleased to meet you,” Arnstein said, and took the offered hand. It felt like a wooden glove inside a casing of cured ham …’ (S.M. Stirling, On the Oceans of Eternity, 2000)
‘Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take.’ (Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama, 1973) No comment, absolutely no comment.
‘Hope was a classic, a classic barmaid, one whose broad behind leaves an imprint on the pages of history.’ (Robert Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, 1957)
I’ll leave Thog there contemplating Hope’s historic behind, and knowing his predilections I’m sure she had epoch-making breasts too. My own hope is that these quotations will serve as a caution to all practicing writers as well as providing fine entertainment for the rest of us — and budding science fiction writers should bear in mind that Thog is watching.
There are hundreds more examples of Thog’s influence lurking on the Ansible website and here http://thog.org/ Do visit and have a click around (free but donations are welcome) and if you find any particularly good (bad) specimens please email them to me at email@example.com then maybe we’ll be able to publish another selection here.
Huge thanks to David Langford for allowing me to do this.
My sister Carol, then aged 13, had got a holiday job as a waitress in one of Southport’s big department stores, the sort of place where ladies of a certain age would go for afternoon tea. One particular old biddy was there every afternoon for a toasted teacake and a pot of tea for one (she appeared to have no friends) and she was proving to be distinctly unpleasant, constantly finding fault with the food and the service and never leaving a tip.
Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant — I never have but I’ve known several ex-waitresses over the years and they all have shocking tales to tell — will know that upsetting the serving staff is not a sensible idea. Revenge may be taken, sometimes in terrible ways: the ‘sneezer’ in Friends was a mild one. My sister was not a vindictive person but the kitchen staff didn’t like to see her treated this way, so before toasting the teacake they would play football with it behind the scenes, then slice it in half and toast it before having another kickabout on the kitchen floor, then Carol would take it to Miss Miserable and serve it with a flourish and a little curtsy (¨Your teacake, ma’am¨) trying to keep a straight face, which was difficult as she had a keen sense of humour and a broad grin.
My own involvement in the food-serving business was brief and dramatic, and not in a restaurant. I had got a few days’ work at the Southport Flower Show as a bar porter. It wasn’t exacting. I had to take the full crates from the car park over to the beer tent in the morning then bring back the empties during the course of the day. There was a lot of hanging-about time, and on the final day the Catering Manager summoned me. “You’re a public-school boy aren’t you?” I admitted that I was. “I thought so,” he said; “You see, you were lounging about with your hands in your pockets, and an ordinary chap wouldn’t dare to do that here. Come with me, I have a special job for you.” It was a curious method of selection but I said “OK, sir” and tried to look pleased and a bit honoured.
My special job was to carry a dish bearing a whole poached salmon over to the trestle tables on the far side of the field where the Lord Mayor was holding a celebratory lunch for the high-ups of the Flower Show plus various wives and assorted dignitaries, all dressed up to the nines. The dish was quite heavy but off I went, and I’d got about half-way across the field when I tripped and fell, sending the salmon spilling in fragments onto the grass. I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed this unfortunate mishap and expected cries of outrage from the Manager and anyone else who might have seen, but in the afternoon heat everything seemed to have gone strangely quiet, the Mayor and his party appeared to be miles away on some far-off horizon, the beer tent was merely a distant buzzing and time seemed to stand still, so I did what any decent, honest, godfearing public-school boy would have done: I bent down and scooped up the chunks of salmon with my bare hands, plonked the fragments back onto the platter and then patted and moulded them into the approximate shape of a fish, looking nervously about to see if I was being observed. I hoped that any odd bits of grass or other greenery clinging to the reconstituted salmon would pass for garnish.
I wiped my hands on my pants and made it to the high table without further incident, where I placed the dish gently in front of the Lord Mayor praying that he wouldn’t notice anything amiss, but he just said “Ah, the piéce de resistance” and started serving it. I muttered “Bon appétit” and went over to the beer tent as quickly as I could without actually sprinting, and there I lurked for the rest of the afternoon doing my best to turn invisible. It seemed only a matter of time before one of the diners would discover a fag-end, or worse, in their salmon, and it would be all too obvious who had been responsible. But there was no immediate outcry, and it soon transpired there were other things to experience behind the beer tent: I was a fairly naïve youth and rather shocked to find that the bar staff, who to my young eyes seemed at best middle-aged and some of them actually old and distinctly ugly, were having sex back there, usually opting for what was then and maybe still is known as a knee-trembler, doing it standing up against one of the tent-posts, and if there was a height difference there were plenty of boxes and beer crates around for the smaller partner to stand on. And I’d thought that sex petered out at the age of about 25.
Back home with my guilty pay packet, I kept quiet. I watched the local tv news expecting to see reports of an outbreak of botulism or salmonella poisoning at the Flower Show, and scanned the local paper the next day expecting headlines like
FLOWER SHOW FATALITIES
POLICE SEEK BAR PORTER
I didn’t tell my parents what had happened because I knew that if I had done my father, with whom I wasn’t getting on too well, would make a big deal out of it, making me write a letter of apology to the Lord Mayor or something like that and blowing the whole thing wide open. I didn’t even tell my sister Carol because I knew that she would find it hilarious and tease me about it, probably concocting a little performance of me effing and blinding while desperately scooping up the salmon. I wouldn’t have minded this because we got on very well and Carol could be extremely funny, but I knew that my mother would soon be in on the joke, and then my dad … I said nothing, but the headlines in my mind grew worse:
SOUTHPORT SENSATION – MISHAP OR MURDER?
After a couple of days with still no hue and cry I began to venture cautiously out into the town with my shades on and my collar turned up, looking nervously about for passing policemen and steering well clear of hospitals and flower shows. I started growing a beard.
My family knew nothing of my fish fiasco but when the parents weren’t around I told Carol about the goings-on behind the beer tent expecting her to be a bit shocked perhaps but also amused — big bro being a bit sophisticated y’know — but she had a better story. She said that she had gone to the basement toilet in the department store and pushing open the unlocked door had found one of the kitchen hands “having a bit of fun with himself”, as she put it. (The expression “having a wank” was not yet current in 1963, at least not in respectable Southport.) Other young girls might have found this traumatic and needed councelling in later life but Carol just found it wildly funny, and suggested that perhaps he might have been making a special ingredient for the Cream of Mushroom soup ordered by the snooty couple at Table 12, and there were more variations on this theme (“Was our home-made mayonnaise to your taste, sir?”), and I realized that li’l sis was rather more wordly-wise than I’d suspected.
I never did tell the family about the salmon — indeed, I’ve never old anyone about it until now, even as a joke. I’d like to say that confessing it has been a relief, an unburdoning of a guilty secret carried for far too many years, and beg the forgiveness of those ancient diners, but after all this time who gives a toss.
For anyone who likes to waste their time on pointless puzzles here’s one, and it’s even more pointless than most because I can’t supply the solution. If you can you’ll be saving me from even more grief.
In my sorting through old papers I came across a single typed sheet headed NON ALIAS PLOT with a list of various names which I soon realized were all anagrams of each other. The typing was done on what looks like my old Olivetti portable and the paper size is quarto, not A4, which would seem to date it back to the early 1970s. But what does it mean, what on earth was I thinking? Above all, what are all these names anagrams of?
At that time I was doing illustrations and writing various things for some of the more adventurous (meaning small-time and unsuccessful) periodicals of the day, and it looks as though this might have been an attempt at some sort of avante-garde piece. Perhaps these characters were to feature in a story or playlet; I can imagine Pat Lion Sloan as the very posh p.a. to a top executive and maybe Alan Tinspool as a rather self-important manager in the grocery business, but after them things take a more bizarre turn. Lon (‘Piano’) Salt is obviously an itinerant boogie-woogie piano player, perhaps in a vague partnership with Pliant Alonso the eccentric dancer, while Spain O’Tallon, Nina Last Loop and Lopo Slantani seem to be denizens of the US underworld, but I can offer no clues about Polliana Sot or Alan T. Loopins. Maybe the denouement of my little tale was to have been that all these characters were actually the same person. I was always trying to be clever in those days, with little success then and not much more now. J.G. Ballard I was not.
I’ve spent more time puzzling over this than I want to admit. The letters in these names obviously came from something, some key name or title or phrase — I wouldn’t have just chosen them randomly — but searching what’s left of my brain produces absolutely no memory of it. I’ve also tried feeding the letters into various online Anagram Solvers but the solution remains a mystery, although they did come up with a few amusing variations: the onanist Pallo making a mess on the post-anal lino and getting a notional slap from his indulgent mum. I feel that the answer is staring me in the face, that with a bit more effort it will reveal itself, and when it does I’ll cry out “Of course! Why didn’t I see it?”
But so far it hasn’t. If one of my devoted readers can figure it out please post the answer in the Comments and put me out of my anguish.
A few day ago I decided to try and make contact with my relatives in New Zealand. There’s been a family feud going on for years but as I get older I realize how stupid these things can be so I sent what I hoped was a conciliatory email to my niece Juliet half expecting her to ignore it or to tell me to get lost — but no: her reply was welcoming and forgiving, and she also put me in touch with my nephew Andrew whose email address I had lost and who has proved equally accepting.
They live close to each other in Tauranga and both now have families that I’ve never met and whose existence I was only barely aware of. Now we’re friends again and they have sent me photos, everyone looking so happy and healthy, and the little kids so damn cute:
I’m as proud as if they were my own, and I’m tempted to print off copies and take them to the park to shove under the noses of complete strangers. I won’t do that, of course, but I’m so damn pleased. It’s a lift I needed because last weekend I was very upset by the antics of … never mind. Finding that I have this amazing family and am not totally alone in the world far outweighs such nastiness. It also means that next time the hospital asks for the names and details of my next-of-kin I’ll be able to tell them, and maybe bring out the photos. I’m finding it hard not to wander about with a great big grin on my face.
Naturally I’m tempted to hop on a plane to New Zealand right now to go and give these people a big hug and possibly do the Lord of the Rings tour as well (would the kids like to come along? I’m determined to be a much better uncle from now on), but alas that’s not possible at the moment. But it’s something to look forward to, something indeed to live for.
Talking of uncles, I was once staying overnight in a cheap hotel and having checked in at midday and done the business I was there to do I realized that I had a long solitary evening ahead and had brought nothing to read. The local shops had nothing resembling a bookshop or even a decent newsagents but there was an Oxfam shop, so I had a look at what reading matter might be on offer there.
It wasn’t promising: the usual Jeffrey Archers, paperbacks by people I’d never heard of and knew I wouldn’t like, tattered gardening manuals etc. so in desparation I had a look at the children’s section and a book called Uncle caught my eye. I’d forgotten to bring my specs with me and the author’s name seemed to my blurred vision to be J.B. Morton who I knew and loved as Beachcomber, the humorous columnist for The Daily Express. Had he written a children’s book? I decided to take a chance and bought it.
After a nasty takeaway eaten sitting on the edge of the bed and with nothing on tv — only three channels and no Netflix then — I examined my purchase and found that it was in fact by a certain J.P. Martin whom the blurb informed me was a retired Methodist Minister, just like my dad. Not necessarily a good omen but I started reading anyway and was soon entranced.
Uncle is the fabulously rich owner of a sort of castle called Homeward, though ‘castle’ doesn’t do justice to this astonishing place with its towers, moat, private railways and wonderful collection of residents: Goodman the cat with a taste for detective stories, the little lion who can make himself heavy just by concentrating , the two Respectable Horses, and many many more. Uncle is an elephant, by the way. On the other side of the moat is Badfort, occupied by a crowd of ne’er-do-wells led by Beaver Hateman, and they are Uncle’s enemies. They dress in ragged sacking, get drunk on Black Tom and Leper Gin, and they constantly plot and scheme to embarrass and bring down the Dictator of Homeward. Rev. Martin had an incredible, teeming, hilarious imagination, and if I’d worried that there might be some sort of moral attached to all this I needn’t have. It was pure nonsensical bliss.
I was enjoying Uncle so much that I had to ration myself to a chapter at a time, going outside for a cigarette break in between bouts, and when I returned to London I wanted to know if there were any more of these amazing books. The good news was that there were six of them in all, and the bad news was that they were incredibly hard to find. I was a haunter of second-hand bookshops in those days and luckily found the second volume in a local one, the late-lamented Ripping Yarns in Highgate, but I could never find the others, even in dealers’ catalogues. There was a rumour that a wealthy American collector was snapping up any that copies that came to light, and it may have been true for I was never able to get my hands on one.
Years passed. Then out of the blue came the news that there was an omnibus edition in preparation: all six books in one handsome volume with the original illustrations by Quentin Blake (now Sir Quentin) and encomia by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Martin Rowson, Andy Riley, Kate Summerscale and Justin Pollard. Other famous fans of Uncle included Will Self, Spike Milligan, Philip Ardagh, Richard Ingrams, Ekow Eshun and David Langford — and I’d thought I was the only fan, the sole discoverer! It was expensive but I had to have it and it didn’t disappoint. Lots more bliss.
The omnibus is even more expensive now but some of the titles have now been made available as Kindles, for anyone who wants a taste without forking out too much cash. Uncle won’t be everyone’s bucket of cocoa but I think those who like him will like him very much indeed.
Back to Stroud Green, the beating heart of North London, with distinctly mixed feelings. I know that in the next few weeks I’ll have to do a lot of work if I’m going to get the house here a bit further along the way to selling it, but I’d been looking forward to seeing friends again and getting out and about a lot more now that lockdown has been eased and for many completely junked. I had pleasant visions of strolls in the park, pub lunches, outings to garden centres, evening drinkies — shopping! — and generally getting back to a more normal life, but as the new reality bites I realize that it’s not going to be like that at all. Not for a while, anyway. Not for me.
As an extremely vulnerable old person (cancer, chronic asthma and a few other jollies) I must continue to shield myself as best I can; I don’t trust the Government’s chaotic and contradictory advice on this as they seem much more concerned with refilling the Treasury’s depleted coffers than with looking out for sick fucks like me, especially when independent scientists with no political agenda are telling everyone to be much more cautious, wear masks, keep well apart etc. A message arrives in my inbox from the (non-Governmental) Coronavirus News and Service Updates which reads in part:
We’re not back to normal yet. It is vital that you continue to keep a safe distance from others. Don’t put your loved ones at risk. In situations where you can’t keep two metres apart, stay at least one metre apart while taking other extra precautions.
and Professor Susan Michie from UCL (my alma mater) goes further:
The change [from two metres to one] is a disaster waiting to happen. Opening indoor areas in pubs is probably the top of the level in the hierarchy of riskiness. If you look around at people trying to keep two metres apart, most are actually more like one-and-a-half metres, which is significantly safer than one metre. If you go down to one metre, actually that is about the distance that people you don’t know and are not intimate with are distant from each other just generally going around and about their business. So basically you have lost the whole concept of social distance. And once you have lost that, you really are in trouble.
Most of my family and old friends are now either dead or widely dispersed so I wasn’t exactly living in a giddy social whirl anyway, but I did manage to maintain a few contacts and find ways of enjoying a bit of social life now and then. All that now seems like a distant memory, and as I’m following the scientists rather than the Government my life will certainly not be back to “normal” any time soon. I know that catching the coronavirus would almost certainly kill me.
Two weeks later
Pippa Kent, a sufferer from cystic fibrosis who has been shielding since the start of lockdown and whose experience is not unlike my own, writes in today’s Guardian:
“I have only ventured out three times in the first week and remain cautious. The guidance almost suggests that we should open our doors, simply forget the rhetoric we’ve had drilled into us over the past few months and get back to ‘real life’. But for those of us whose pre-existing medical conditions greatly increase the risk from Covid-19, we are naturally a little hesitant to embrace this sweeping change.
“Speaking to other high-risk shielders it seems experiences have been mixed. While a few have felt safe sitting outside cafés and restaurants or popping into shops, the majority are yet to take these steps.
“Some have had outings to normally quiet coastal locations, now crowded as people holiday in the UK, where social distancing seems completely non-existent. Others, during essential trips to a car mechanic, have found they needed to make several requests for staff to comply with putting on masks and gloves.
“Unlike at the start of lockdown, when most people seemed very willing to support those who were shielding, the reality is that many seem to have virtually forgotten the last three months; hugging for pictures on social media, crammed into bars, flouting the use of masks and ignoring ongoing guidance around distancing. They seem oblivious, or indifferent, not only to the risks to themselves, but potentially to those who are more vulnerable around them.”
As for me, in the intervals between the cancer treatment there’s gardening to be done, or I could just stay indoors and get on with the fucking plastering. My hair needs cutting again. It’s great to be home.
Yesterday the MP for Brent, Dawn Butler, was stopped by police while driving across North London to meet friends for lunch. Ms Butler is black. In the US it seems that black people are often prepared for such unpleasant encounters by what is called ‘the talk’.
Just about every teenager gets copious safe-driving tips from their parents when they get their first driver’s license. But for black teens, the freedom and independence that comes with driving necessitates an added conversation — one often referred to simply as “the talk.”
This one offers advice for safely navigating potential encounters with police.
Dwayne Bryant was inspired to write his book The Stop: Improving Police and Community Relations after having a positive encounter with an Indiana state trooper. Bryant says the talk is necessary for black children and teens in particular because they bear a greater risk of harm in those interactions.
“The reality is the community can do 100% of everything the officer says and they can still get killed,” he said. “That is the reality of being black in America. So what I do is I talk to them about many things, from understanding their rights to being respectful, but also understanding what their future is, because ultimately you do not want to have a 20-minute encounter derail 20 years of your life.”
Child development specialist and Erikson Institute adjunct faculty Angela Searcy says “the talk” should not be just one talk, but a series of open-ended conversations throughout a child’s life — and not only black families should have them. Searcy, the author of Push Past It: A Positive Approach to Challenging Classroom Behaviors, says it’s important to prepare all children for a world that often perceives black children differently from other children, and that having those talks can empower children, rather than scare them.
“Learning about racism and racial violence is not as scary as experiencing it … Just like a tornado can be scary, or a fire drill can be scary, if you know what to do when there’s a fire, you actually feel empowered,” she said. “Also not just talking about how black children may feel, but also including all children within this conversation that some children feel unsafe, what we can do about it, how we can support them, and how we can respond when there is a situation that is scary. This doesn’t lead to mental health issues, this actually stops us from having mental health issues.”
Reuben Jonathan Miller, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and the author of the forthcoming book Halfway Home: Race, Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration, says his studies of criminal justice policy and mass incarceration primed him for these discussions with his own children.
“Black children particularly and black people have been stripped of our innocence. The research tells us this, we know that police officers view black boys as older [by] four years on average, it reports them being [perceived to be] less innocent,” he said.
Along with advising compliant and respectful behavior towards police to his children, Miller says it’s “very important for me to let them know, sometimes, in fact often, you’re stopped for nothing that you’ve done at all. You’re stopped for just being, just hanging around. So it’s about working very hard to make sure they don’t internalize that it’s their problem, that it’s something they’ve done.”
And though black families have extra reason to speak to their children about police encounters, Miller says that when it comes to criminal justice, white families have every reason to have “the talk” too.
“Mass incarceration does not stop at the threshold of the black family. Thirty-nine percent of white boys will be arrested before they turn the age of 23 in this country,” he said. “So this is a national problem of epic proportions. Black folks are stopped at a much greater rate, but white families are not absolved from needing to address this crisis.”
Going through some old papers I found various letters and cards from my father which he had signed “from the Aged Parent” or just “Aged P.” Dickensians will of course recognize this soubriquet from Great Expectations which as a family we knew from the TV version, one of the classic serials that the BBC showed at Sunday teatimes in the 1960s. The scene in question occurs when Mr Wemmick is showing Pip round the odd little wooden house that he has built for himself and his father in the manner of a tiny castle complete with battlements, a flagpole, a minuscule moat with a drawbridge, and a small cannon on the roof which is fired every night at nine o’clock to please the otherwise deaf old man, whom Wemmick refers to as the Aged Parent. This greatly amused my father who promptly adopted the title for himself, even though he was then only in his fifties — considerably younger than I am now, I realize with some shock.
I think I dimly perceived at the time that Dickens was playing games here and that Wemmick’s house was a sort of manifestation of the expression “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” but I thought no more about it and read no Dickens until I was obliged to when Our Mutual Friend was set as one of our A-level texts: not one of Dickens’s greatest hits (and why were our set books so damn long? There was also Nostromo, another monster), though Our Mutual Friend has its delights early on. One that sticks in the memory is the hapless young man at the Veneerings’ dinner party who keeps trying to start a conversation in French but gets no further than “Esker…”.
It did make me realize, however, that Dickens ought to be read rather than seen in film and tv adaptations, which may portray the characters and settings brilliantly enough but inevitably miss the language games that Dickens loved to play when he wasn’t rushing to meet a deadline. And so, with the additional encouragement of a university tutor, I became a sort of part-time Dickensian, and when I happened upon Craig Raine’s essay ‘Dickens and Language’1 I gobbled it down and was soon made aware of how much of Dickens’s cleverness — and fun — I had missed in my all-too-casual reading of his novels.
It’s a brilliant piece of analysis. To quote one of his examples, of Miss Tox in Dombey and Son he writes:
She is a genteel lady in reduced circumstances, someone of “limited independence”. But before Dickens discloses her financial circumstances, we are shown Miss Tox’s inability to make ends meet: “it was observed by the curious, of all her collars, frills, tuckers, wristbands, and other gossamer articles – indeed of anything she wore which had two ends to it intended to unite – that the two ends were never on good terms, and wouldn’t quite meet without a struggle.” The indirectness of Dickens’s method seems itself an example of tactful decorum totally suited to Miss Tox.
Raine finds many other examples of Dickens “literalizing the commonplace”, as he puts it, including Mrs Grandgrind in Hard Times being ‘a bit dim, not very bright’, Wilkins Micawber’s singing in David Copperfield, and
In Bleak House, there is Phil Squod whose experience of life’s vicissitudes has literally made him ‘go to the wall’, as the expression is: “He has a curious way of limping round the gallery with his shoulder against the wall, and tacking off at objects he wants to lay hold of, instead of going straight to them, which has left a smear all round the four walls, conventionally called Phil’s mark.”
Putting the book aside I turned on the tv and found myself hooked into a rerun of Minder, a particularly fine episode featuring the wonderful Richard Griffiths as the hedonistic and totally irresponsible custodian of a rock star’s mansion2, but I had forgotten the subplot in which Arthur Daley is cojoled into investing someone else’s money in three mechanical flying pigs: the sort of coin-in-the-slot machines that used to be positioned in playgrounds and supermarket car parks for kids to ride on.
It’s clear to the viewer that this is one of Arthur’s dodgy deals and very unlikely to pay off, and of course it doesn’t, but in discussing its chances no-one ever says “And pigs might fly.”
For popular tv writing this is pretty subtle stuff, and Minder was always worth watching not just for its characters but also for its language, especially in the episodes written by Leon Griffiths, the creator of the series (no relation to the actor Richard), who gave the world ‘Er indoors (often mentioned but never seen) amongst other delightful things. Griffiths always denied that he had invented the rhyming-slang expression ‘pork pies’ for lies, but no-one believed him, and he should probably be given credit for actually adding a new expression to everyday speech. Practically everyone in the UK knows what’s meant if someone is accused of telling porkies.
With these things in mind I’ve been trying to think of any such Dickensian metaphors in my own eclectic reading, but the only one that comes to mind is in Charles Platt’s The Garbage World 3, the world in question being an asteroid called Kopra (geddit?) where other worlds discard their very unpleasant rubbish. It could be seen as a novel-length literalization of being dumped on from a great height.
1 in Craig Raine: Haydn and The Valve Trumpet (1990), currently available as a Kindle for £3.99. A snip.
2 Minder, series 3 episode 5, ‘Dreamhouse’, written by Andrew Payne and Leon Griffiths (first shown in February 1982).
3 The Garbage World (1967), first serialized in New Worlds in 1966.
Neologisms for coronavirus communication, by Jay Martel, from The New Yorker (print edition), July 20, 2020.
Maskhole An individual who wears a mask in a way that makes it completely ineffective — e.g., below the nose, under the chin, on the back of the head.
Face naked The state of facial exposure that occurs when an individual declines to wear a mask in public. For example, “Pence went all face naked to the Mayo Clinic.”
Body mullet What most people wear on Zoom calls: a nice top and, below the waist, underwear or less. (“Business up top, party down below.”)
The NOVID-19 The nineteen minutes after a too-close interaction with a maskless stranger during which you experience a thickness in your throat and a certainty that you’re dying. This sometimes lasts longer if frantic hand washing, antiseptic gargling, and estate planning are not readily available.
Overdistancing When the guy in front of you in line has a metric understanding of the six in six feet, allowing twenty feet to open up between him and the next person in line, which then allows others to interpret that next person as the end of the line and to cut in front of you.
Domino distancing When the person behind you in line stands too close, causing you to crowd the person in front of you, and on and on until everyone dies.
Emotional distancing Deciding that now really isn’t the time to make big decisions about a relationship or, for that matter, to have a conversation about it.
Covideo A short video featuring a quarantined individual’s child doing something adorable and/or profane, the public sharing of which falls somewhere between cute and a cry for help.
Stockholm syndrome The assumption that everyone would be just fine without any government restrictions.
Someday, Noneday, Whoseday?, Whensday?, Blursday, Whyday?, Doesn’tmatterday Days of the week.
Parenting The ability to figure out why the PlayStation isn’t working with the Wi-Fi.
Body Zoom-morphia Finding your own image on a group video call so unappealing that you are unable to focus on anything else.
Quorumtine The minimum number of family members necessary to decide what to watch on TV.
Pan-demic A potentially dangerous increase in the baking of bread in a quarantined home.
COVID-30 Formerly COVID-15; the amount of weight gained by an average adult during quarantine. Sometimes related to a pan-demic.
Helter shelter That moment in the quarantine day when everything seems dirty and chaotic and you feel like saying, “Fuck it, let’s go outside. I don’t care if we die and a bunch of other people do, too.”
Flattening the curve Trying to fit into your jeans after three months of sweatpants. (See COVID-30.)
Germophobe Formerly, crazy people (e.g., Howard Hughes); now everyone except crazy people.
Every day in my inbox amongst the spam and those persistent emails urging me to buy another solid oak coffee table is one from an outfit called Delancey Place1 with an excerpt or quotation from a book that these people view as interesting or noteworthy. They are pretty good at choosing from books that are interesting to me too, and as I have always admired the paintings of Edward Hopper this recent post intrigued me. Hopper, they say, “was able to masterfully convey powerful emotions through genuinely American landscapes and scenes that were simple, stark and spare. Among those themes most often recurring in his work were disenchantment, solitude and eros.” and they quote this extract from Gail Levin’s book.2
When he wanted to convey disenchantment, Hopper turned to melancholy of dusk. In Summer Twilight (1920), he presented a man standing before a woman seated in a rocker, a sleeping dog lying by her side. The man appears tense, his head angled downward, his hands in his jacket pockets, although the woman’s fan implies that it is hot. She looks away, refusing to meet his gaze; a distance exists between them. The twilight of the title suggests not only the end of day and onset of night but, by allusion, the end of something, an impending termination, bringing with it uncertainty and gloom. With a pessimism that would later become characteristic of his work, Hopper captured a summer romance in its waning hours; the couple’s idyllic summer setting will inevitably yield to the harsh realities of winter. Hopper’s working sketches of Cape Cod Evening (1939) reveal that the painting evolved through several stages. Initially, he considered having only one figure: a woman seated on a doorstep with a dog standing close by, facing her. Then he tried the woman standing in blowing grass with the dog. His resolution — a man beckoning to the distracted dog from the doorstep with a morose-looking woman standing before the window — changed the entire content of the painting. We now confront a disenchanted couple: she detached, in a world of her own thoughts and dreams, he trying to communicate with the dog instead of with her. The evening here once again alludes to the twilight of a relationship.
Communication does not work, and as Hopper commented on his inspiration and intention in Cape Cod Evening, even the dog listens only to a distant whippoorwill. The presence of a dog, both here and in the etching Summer Twilight, suggests that Hopper relied on this familiar symbol to make his own ironic comment on the couple’s deteriorating relationship. Certainly, he knew and admired what he called “the honest simplicity of early Dutch and Flemish masters,” embodied by Jan van Eyck’s fifteenth-century Arnolfini Marriage Portrait, in which the dog is a symbol of fidelity and devotion. But Hopper may have also been aware that later, in Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century, a dog often connoted lasciviousness or gluttony, in an ironical reversal of the original symbolism.
In Hopper’s 1947 painting Summer Evening, the time of day again corresponds to a stage in a couple’s relationship. The young couple in the painting — she scantily clad for the summer’s heat — seem engrossed in an unpleasant discussion while they lean against the wall of a porch with only the overly bright electric light — no romantic moonlight for them. The porch of the clapboard house recalls Hopper’s boyhood home in Nyack, suggesting that his conception in Summer Evening was based on distant memories.
Indeed, he claimed that the painting had been in the back of his head “for twenty years.” The woman’s face is twisted in a grimace, while her shoulders are arched defensively — like the back of a provoked cat. The man, the focus of her discontent, holds his left hand on his chest as if protesting. Hopper poignantly expressed the torment of a passion gone sour: the fresh excitement of spring about to turn into the disillusion of autumn. As in Summer Twilight and Cape Cod Evening, dusk here symbolizes the melancholy of lost desire, opportunity surrendering to inevitable decay.
1 DelanceyPlace.com sends ‘a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy. Eclectic excerpts delivered to your email every day.’ Subscription is free and all DelanceyPlace.com proceeds are donated to children’s literacy projects. 2 Gail Levin: Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography (Knopf, 1995)
I have books the way some people have — what? I was going to say mice but who has 2000 mice? Every feasible wall in my house is lined with bookshelves and every corner has a bookcase in it, but the books have long ago overflowed these and they lie in piles on the floor, on the stairs, all around the bed and sometimes in it. I have an awful lot of books.
There is some excuse for this. My career was in publishing, and publishers do tend to accumulate books as well as spawning new ones, but I think it would have been much the same whatever I was doing. The fact is that I like books. A lot. I could read before I went to school at the age of three and have been reading voraciously ever since. My very first reading memory is of Mary Mouse, one of Enid Blyton’s early creations, and soon after that came Rupert, Molesworth (did you know that Hogwarts is a place in one of those still-funny books?), Just William and The Beano … but this isn’t a nostalgia trip: it’s about books as physical objects and what the hell I’m going to do with them all now I’m moving to a smaller house.
I give them away when I can. Lots have gone to charity shops and freecyclers, and I’ll press a few books onto anyone who seems even vaguely interested, but this is like chipping away at an iceberg with a penknife: it makes no discernible difference to the vast bulk of the thing.
When I’m driving down to the new house in Dorset I load the car with boxes full of books, and I’ve been fitting as many bookshelves as I can cram into the place to house the books I want to keep. It turns out that I want to keep quite a lot of them, but there are very many left behind in London.
I’m looking to sell the London house, so I need to clear it out and most of the remaining books have to go — but where? If anyone out there knows of some charity or organization that would welcome a lot of books, all good and all free, please contact me.
One of the incidental pleasures of starting a blog is that it’s putting me in touch with old friends that I’ve neglected for much too long. One of them is Charles Platt* who I’m delighted to find is alive and well and posting some fascinating material on Facebook, including this recent piece which I include here with Charles’s permission.
Tonight I watched Wild City on Bluray, the penultimate film from the amazing Hong Kong director Ringo Lam, whose movie City on Fire was ripped off by Quentin Tarantino when he made Reservoir Dogs and established himself as an “innovator” by copying a director who almost no-one had heard of at the time.
My favorite Lam film of all time was Full Contact, which pushed the Hong Kong gangster genre beyond all previous boundaries, featuring Chow Yun Fat up against a totally deranged knife-wielding gay gangster in a gold lamé jacket.
Wild City was made in 2014, seemingly 100% on location in Hong Kong and environs. Like all Ringo Lam movies, it shows people under extreme personal stress, trying to make ethical decisions. In this case an ex-cop is struggling to do the right thing with his no-good half-brother, when they get mixed up with a mainland Chinese woman who has a suitcase crammed with cash belonging to a corrupt lawyer ex-boyfriend. The complexity of the plot is astonishing by comparison with typical Hollywood action movies, yet Lam still has a kind of naïve, almost clumsy charm which creates a sense of realism even when the action escalates to extreme levels.
US critics were condescending and snide about Hong Kong action movies in the 1990s, and twenty years later they were still condescending toward Wild City when it was released, with the added bonus that they complained it was not as good as Lam’s early work (which they had forgotten they trashed at the time).
For me Wild City is a wonderful extension of those 1990s movies (which I loved), using the capability of modern movie equipment to display scenes of such detail, there is a feeling of deep immersion. I almost feel I don’t need to visit Hong Kong, now that I have watched this movie. And, of course, it is very poignant in view of recent political developments. Those wonderfully crazy, extreme action and kung-fu movies were so much a product of exuberance in a city that was enjoying wild growth as a function of minimally controlled capitalism. We’re not going to see anything like that under CCP control.
The cover image at left is inappropriate, failing to show any of the three principal actors. I suspect it was used only on US-region exported versions of the disc, to avoid showing Asian faces to American buyers.
* See my earlier post ’Nigel aka Simon’. Charles has been a prolific writer since the 1960s and is currently writing his autobiography; the second volume, An Accidental Life, Volume 2, 1965-1970: The New Worlds Years, has for various reasons been withheld from distribution in the UK so far but may be made available here soon, and if it is I’ll let you know.