The autobiography of a once-famous British comedian and game-show host isn’t perhaps an obvious place to find oneself wrong-footed by obscure words and phrases but Bob Monkhouse’s contains a bunch which had me scurrying to the dictionary. Here in no particular order are some of them, to which I’ve appended definitions for any readers who may be as ignorant as I recently was:
nimeity (noun): an excess, redundancy, more than what is required.
inessive (grammatical case): indicates the state of being in or inside a location.
poco curante (adjective, sometimes written as a single word): nonchalant, relaxed in manner, aloof, apathetic, blasé, breezy.
autarky (noun): economic independence or self-sufficiency. “‘Autarky’ [says one authority] is invariably used pejoratively to mean self‐government in a manner condemned by the speaker. A regime is autarkic if it tries to be self‐sufficient by cutting off trade and intercourse with the rest of the world.”
catechumen (singular noun): in theology, a person who receives instruction in the Christian religion in order to be baptized; (loosely) a person learning the elementary facts, principles, etc. of any subject.
cantrip (noun): a magical spell of any kind, a mischievous or playful act, a trick.
tardive dyskinesia (noun phrase): a medical condition where the face, body or both make sudden, irregular movements which you cannot control.
Un tant soit peu (idiomatic French phrase): a little bit. (Monkhouse has this as ‘tant soi peu,’ which may be a printer’s or publisher’s error)
To see how Monkhouse deploys these words you’ll have to read his 1993 book for yourself — and it’s worth finding a copy if you can because it’s an extraordinary piece of work. To begin with, it’s a whole lot more honest than most such efforts. I’ve read quite a few of them and they tend to follow a pattern. First comes the family background with stiffly-posed photos of grandma and grandpa and blurry snaps of childhood holidays on beaches and on outings to the countryside. Then we have the early struggles in showbiz with attendant failures and disasters, which is always the most entertaining part of the book especially if the disasters are amusing in retrospect, and finally comes Success — and now the blinds tend to be drawn to protect the privacy of current spouses and children, and the book turns into a sort of c.v. with often-boastful accounts of hit shows and awards won accompanied by photographs of the star with their famous mates, being presented to royalty etc. People who seek fame and fortune on the stage or screen don’t usually do so because they want to hide their light under a bushel.
Monkhouse’s story broadly follows the pattern. His childhood was worse than most and his anecdotes are funnier, but his story is most interesting for its psychological self-analysis. When he was young Monkhouse was a bit of a shit… correction: he was a lot of a shit, lying, cheating, screwing around and so forth …..
“We are many of us foxes in youth [he writes], initially loyal only to self. We must be taught humility, consideration for others, the constant business of fair exchange, the development of such innate human qualities as modesty, honesty and fidelity. It’s the last of these, faithfulness to family and colleagues, allegiance to those who require it of me, that I’ve had the greatest difficulty in cultivating and which has consequently become as paramount to me as the display of his sense of humour to the person who has none. I had to invent, or perhaps manufacture, my own scruples. They were never built in when I was originally delivered. […] I have been so grateful to discover that, as one grows older, artificially assumed characteristics become real.”
By a sort of effort of will, and with the support of his second wife Jacqui, Monkhouse seems over the years to have turned himself into reasonably decent person — though of course we have only his word for it. Still, all credit to him for trying. So many people don’t.
I originally read the book because I was very interested in comedy and wordplay, though I never found Monkhouse laugh-out-loud funny. Clever, yes, but back in the day I preferred Benny Hill. I liked Monkhouse’s love of words, however, for as he himself put it:
“The English language is an adventure playground with a treasure hunt, full of puzzles to solve and silly meanings to be found.”
Indeed it is.
P.S. Monkhouse’s follow-up volume (Over the Limit, 1998) is less erudite, though I did notice the words squamulose and peripeteia lurking therein. There are more good showbiz anecdotes but rather too many descriptions of wining and dining in expensive places which, as with sex, is more fun to do oneself than to read about other people enjoying.
Here’s fun! See if you can identify these famous people who sat for the painter John Bratby:
Starting with the easy one in the top left-hand corner and working across and down to the bottom right I’ve placed known and unknown subjects alternately, with the solutions to the known ones at the foot of the page. With the others your guess is as good as mine, and we’ll see in a moment why the artist might have chosen not to identify some of his subjects — but why is this artist a particular irritant to me?
Well, for nearly ten years I worked as an editor for John Murray (Publishers) Ltd, an old and rather quaint firm in the heart of posh Mayfair whose original claim to fame had been to publish the works of Lord Byron. The main room on the first floor was like a sort of shrine to Byron with a large oil painting of the poet on the wall , a marble bust of him over there, a glass case containing one of his shirts over here, and between them the very fireplace in which Byron’s scurrilous autobiography had been consigned to the flames, to the lasting shame of the later Murrays. The firm had published other distinguished writers since Byron’s day, of course, and at some point had commissioned portraits of some of the living ones from John Bratby.
I had become aware of his work when I was at school and Bratby was featured in the new colour supplements as the founder of the ‘kitchen sink’ school of art with paintings like this one:
Kitchen sink realism was a movement in which artists used everyday objects like dustbins and beer bottles as subjects of their works, which are often thickly-laden portraits or paintings. It began in the early 1950s and has been considered an aspect of the ‘Angry Young Men’ movement… Bratby often painted with bright colours, capturing his middle-class family’s daily lives. The faces of his subjects often appeared desperate and unsightly. Bratby painted several kitchen subjects, often turning practical utensils such as sieves and spoons into semi-abstract shapes. He also painted bathrooms, and made three paintings of toilets. [–this paragraph is adapted from the Wikipedia entry[
Time passed. Fashions in art changed as in everything else, and Bratby found that he was no longer the enfant terrible of the British scene. He needed new outlets and new ways of earning money, and hit upon the idea of painting people’s portraits — but he didn’t hang about waiting for commissions; he wrote to possible subjects telling them that he was preparing an exhibition of portraits of Notable Figures of Our Time (or something like that) and would they be willing to sit for him? No charge, and it wouldn’t take more than an hour or two. Many of them rose to the bait, a sitting would be arranged and a portrait speedily done, and when it was done Bratby shrewdly and correctly judged that many of the sitters would wish to buy the finished picture for themselves, and many of them did. I have read in several autobiographies how flattered the writer was to be selected for such an honour and how proud they subsequently were to have an original Bratby hanging in a place of honour over the fireplace. There is no limit to the vanity of some people, as Bratby knew very well judging by the very large number of self=portraits he painted.
How Bratby came to paint the Murray authors I don’t know, and the finished pictures weren’t allowed in the Byron room but hung on the walls of the stairwell. No.50 Albemarle Street is a tall, narrow building and the department I worked in was right at the top, so in the years that I was there I went up and down those stairs many, many times, and there they always were: Sir John Betjeman, Sir Kenneth Clarke, Dame Freya Stark, Jock Murray and several others. These paintings were executed in Bratby’s sketchiest, blobbiest manner, recognizeable only if you knew in advance what the subject looked like; if not, they could have been rorschach tests in which you might or might not discern some sort of pattern or likeness. I like to see some evidence of skill or technique in art, and I hated them.
Some years after I’d left to start my own company Murray’s was taken over by Hachette and now survives only as an imprint within that much larger international company. The house in Albemarle Street is still there, gifted to the National Trust I think, with the Byron room opened up occasionally for launch parties. I wonder whether the Bratbys are still there on the stairs, but I never want to see them again.
KEY TO THE PICTURE GALLERY
Top row, left to right: Michael Caine, unnamed female celebrity, Ken Dodd, unnamed female celebrity
Middle row, left to right: Michael Palin, female celebrity [possibly Noele Gordon]. Richard Briers, unnamed male celebrity [Sean Connery? Jeremy Irons?]
Bottom row, left to right: P.D. James. unnamed male celebrity, The [late] Queen Mother at the races, portrait of an unnamed man [Francis Bacon?]
I’d guess btw that the reason why some of these portraits are unnamed is that they are of sitters who declined to buy their own portraits, and that Bratby certainly wasn’t going to give them any free publicity. He was a pugnatious character.
Arachibutyrophobia is the fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth.
Babies: It’s said that every new-born baby looks like Winston Churchill, and recent arrivals tend to prove that this is indeed so. Luckily most of them soon grow out of it.
Banzai! I wrote a light-hearted bit about Japan in an earlier Jottings which set me thinking in a more serious vein. I don’t consider myself to be in any way racist, but in comics and movies when I was a kid the Japs were the enemy. We’d all seen The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), set in a Japanese prison camp in Burma where the prisoners were treated very cruelly, while at school some of my classmates were keen on war comics which bore names like Action! and Commando! and often featured Japanese pilots who yelled “Banzai!” as their Kamikaze planes flew to their doom. Pretty soon these same boys were yelling “Banzai!” as they attacked each other (and me) with pillows after lights out. There were some nasty books circulating too dealing in rather too much detail with Japanese war atrocities, such as The Camp on Blood Island and The Knights of Bushido. These things revolted me but they were inescapable, yet as the years went by and as the dust of Nagasaki and Hiroshima settled our perception of the Japanese slowly changed, and by the 1980s my company was trading with Japanese publishers very happily and for some years now I’ve been driving Japanese cars, but though It’s probably unworthy of me I can’t help wondering where all the cruelty went. In peacetime did it just melt away, never to be seen or mentioned again? Perhaps I’m wrong even to mention it here.
Deafness, partial: “I have one curious trait which I believe to be inherited from my father … Whenever ten or more people are gathered together in one room, chattering away like broiler-fowl at feeding-time, I go deaf. It is as if the input channels of my ears become overloaded and automatically cut out as a precaution against short-circuiting and bursting into flames. For me, social convocations for drinks or meals turn, when warmed up and under way, into surrealistic happenings in which lips move, tongues wag, eyebrows plunge and soar but nothing that could be remotely described as human speech reaches me.” — Humphrey Lyttelton from Last Chorus: an autobiographical medley (2009) I almost cheered when I read this, for I suffer from exactly the same ailment and had always thought it was a weird thing peculiar to me but to find that Humph, a jazz musician and popular radio host, had it too and lived a very happy and successful life despite it was heartening. When I was younger and went out socializing a lot it was a real handicap in the chatting-up stakes — I was the original guy you’d always find in the kitchen at parties — but these days I don’t go to parties and it’s no problem at all.
Diana: the Musical: The recent kerfuffle over Prince Harry’s book Spare reminds me of a couplet from this bizarre musical work when Diana looks at her newborn baby and sings “Harry, my ginger-haired son / You’ll always be second to none.” As a prediction this was way off the mark, of course, and the show contained many other cherishable lines, e.g.
● Some paparazzi chasing Diana: ”Better than a Guinness, better than a wank / Snap a few pics, it’s money in the bank.”
● AIDS patient to Diana: “I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell.”
● Charles angry at Diana’s dance routine with Wayne Sleep: “How about for a start / Don’t act like a TART.”
● Diana, bored at a cello recital by Rostropovich: “The Russian plays on and on / Like an endless telethon / How I wish he were Elton John!”
● Diana at a fashionable party: “Nights like this, I envy the poor / Their parties can’t possibly be such a bore.”
The original stage production was much delayed by Covid and was trounced by the critics when it finally did appear (in The New York Times Jesse Green wrote, “If you care about Diana as a human being, or dignity as a concept, you will find this treatment of her life both aesthetically and morally mortifying.”) but it has been filmed for Netflix and many clips from it can be found on YouTube.
There’s a particularly good (i.e. bad) one here, and a chunk of the soundtrack here which amongst other things gives us the word fruffles.
Earworm: I got this one — an earworm, as I’m sure you know, is one of those annoying tunes that gets into your brain and won’t go away — on a visit to New York in 1986 when I was in a taxi taking me from one appointment to the next, and a record came on the radio. I heard only snatch of it, a high-pitched voice singing “ooh-ooh baby blue” or something like that, and I didn’t hear who was singing it or the title of the song. But it stuck in my mind and has remained stuck there ever since, damn it. I tried quite hard to identify it, looking at the US charts for the period to see what records might have been hits there at the time, and even singing the bit I remembered to friends who knew more about music than I did. No luck with any of that. Had I got it wrong? Had the high-pitched voice been singing “ooh-ooh Betty Boo” or “Dicky Doo” or something similar? Eventually I gave up the search, but the earworm remained. Imagine my surprise, then, when idly flicking around YouTube the other day I came across a video called Two-Hit Wonders of the 1970s and there it was! Long story short: it had been a a big hit in the USA and elsewhere in 1975 — the NY radio station must have been playing it as a golden oldie — but was virtually unknown in the UK, and it was ‘Jackie Blue’ by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, a group hitherto unknown to me. The high-pitched voice turned out to belong to the drummer, a hairy fellow who also wrote it. It took me 35 years to identify the thing, and then I did so only by accident. Anyway, I downloaded the track and now play it two or three times day in the hope of getting sick of it and banishing the earworm forever, but at the moment I still like it.
If you want to risk hearing it and getting the earworm yourself it can be found here.
More family stuff: One of my ongoing projects is to find and archive family photographs to get them all into decent-quality digital form, and amongst my late mother’s things I found a folder of very old pictures which I’m scanning and retouching one by one: a voyage of discovery as I’d never seen many of them before. Here’s one of my mother’s family, the Smiths, from the 1920s:
On the left is my Nana who I claim as the original Betty of Bettys Café fame — she was never very keen on smiling for the camera — then my mother, then my grandfather J.J. who ran Bettys for many years but died young, and finally Uncle Ray. It doesn’t do to dwell too much in the past, however, and I’m glad to say that my family in New Zealand are keeping me plentifully supplied with photos of the new generation:
That’s Mia at the back, then (from the left) Isabelle, Finn and Madeleyne: one great-nephew and three great-nieces. Can these beautiful kids really be related to ugly old me?
Language note: In recent months a lot of americanisms have crept into the speech of our politicians and public speakers: drilling down, doubling down, ramping up, etc., but the one that really irks me is the use of likely instead of probably, as in “It will likely rain tomorrow.” This is now becoming widespread: in today’s newspaper former British Army Colonel Philip Ingram is quoted as saying “Western response would likely be the conventional destruction of every Russian piece of kit inside geographic Ukraine.” Col. Ingram really ought to know better.
Lewis, C.S.: My father knew him personally and would send me copies of his books when I was a teenager away at boarding school, including these Pan editions which are still the best cover designs I’ve seen for these titles. (Pan retitled Perelandra as Voyage to Venus.) I have them still. Still good.
Meat, red: “I caused looks of utter horror on Masterchef when I said I didn’t go along with the fashion for serving pink lamb. ‘I like mine well-done and crispy-skinned. Good old falling-apart lamb, like Granny used to cook,’ I said. ‘Why do we have to copy the French?’ Needless to say, I wasn’t invited back.” —June Whitfield, from her autobiography.
I like mine well-done and crispy-skinned too. When I bought my first house in the mid-1970s and started to learn how to cook properly — or as properly as it ever got — this coincided with a sudden vogue amongst my generation for serving meat semi-raw. “It’s much more tasty this way,” said friends serving me slices of nearly raw meat slopping about in tepid blood, and some of them sneered at me for not following this new fashion. Well, over the years I have eaten meat prepared in many different ways and stubbornly I still prefer it well-done, and it was good to find sensible person like Dame June agreeing with me.
Monopoly: Interested to see that there’s now a Harrogate edition which has Bettys Cafe as one of its stops. Regular readers if this blog will know of my family’s early links to Bettys.
New Zealanders eat more ice cream per capita than any other nation. Fact.
Pronunciation: When I was research student long ago my father used to annoy the hell out of me by pronouncing it ree-search (“How’s your ree-search going?”) at a time when everyone else pronounced it with two equal syllables as in reverse or rehearse. Well, times change, and now ree-search seems to have become standard. I don’t like it, but even worse is the now almost universal pronunciation of kilometre with the emphasis on the middle syllable: kill-OM-eter. It makes no sense, as we don’t say kill-OLL-eter for kilolitre or cen-TIM-eter, but I’m afraid it’s here to stay. I blame Top Gear for this. Grrrrr.
Punctuation: “Kipling, of course, found a new use for the colon.” –from Tavern Talk by Collin Brooks (1950). Did he, indeed? Being very interested in such matters — and isn’t that ‘of course’ annoying? — I had a look through Kipling’s works to see if I could spot this so-called new use, but the only unusual use of the colon that I could see occurred at end of the first two stanzas in Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’, though in some editions it’s been replaced by a semicolon, no doubt by editors who thought they knew better than the author. If this is what Brooks means by ‘a new use’ it seems hardly worth mentioning — but perhaps I’ve missed something. Tavern Talk has a bit more to say about punctuation, however: “Bart Kennedy, that almost forgotten man, thought he could make a new use of the full point. For a while his technique was effective, but it grew tedious. Parody eventually killed it.” When I first read this in the 1970s I could find out nothing about Bart Kennedy, but now we can google him and get the basic facts, which are that he was … well, here‘s a link to his Wikepedia entry. Some of his books have been published online too, and we can see his innovative use of the full point in a succession of short often verbless sentences:
Other writers have since employed this sort of staccato style, e,g, Peter Tinniswood in his later works like The Stirk of Stirk, and no doubt many other too.
Finally, there’s a punctuation mark used to signify irony or sarcasm that looks like a backwards question mark [⸮] but since it doesn’t feature in most computer fonts it isn’t widely used,
Rhyming slang: In an earlier Jottings I made the suggestion that scarper, meaning run away, leave, scram, might be rhyming slang from Scapa Flow (=go), but my friend Bob was quick to point out that this was not so, and that it derives from the Italian ‘scappare’ – to escape. This has been in use since the 17th century. Swell’s Night Guide, 1846 includes the quotation: “He must hook it before ‘day-light does appear’, and then scarper by the back door.”
Saddest book title:Leftover Life to Kill by Caitlin Thomas (Dylan’s widow).
Saucy books of the ‘sixties: I belong to various online groups devoted to the celebration of vintage paperbacks, of which I possess hundreds, where members upload pictures of the books in their collections and of their latest finds. Most of these books are from the genres of thrillers and science fiction with splendidly lurid covers, and occasionally one of these brings back sharp memories, e.g. The Passion Flower Hotel which was considered a very naughty book in the early 1960s. It was read avidly by my sister Carol and the other girls at her boarding school where it had to be hidden from the teachers and, at home, from parents too. Tee hee. I wasn’t averse to a bit of sleaze myself and remember a few books that I read at the time in search of cheap thrills. One was The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy, which I enjoyed and actually admired as a novel, but sleazier by far was The Carpetbaggers. Does anyone read Harold Robbins these days? I doubt it.
Wasabi: Most wasabi paste isn’t real wasabi, which is expensive.
X-Ray Specs: I knew that they would be a con, and that they wouldn’t really enable me to see through women’s clothes to their naked bodies — something I was very keen to see when I was 13 or so — and when I finally got hold of a pair (of x-ray specs, not yet naked women) by a most circuitous route of course they didn’t.
Zoom: Over the Christmas/New Year holiday we planned a Zoom session between England and New Zealand but I was in such a dismal state with cold and general low spirits that I knew I wouldn’t be able to give a good account of myself — maybe we’ll try again at Easter — so to end on a more upbeat note here‘s a record that I used to have on a compilation tape and always liked.
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.
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.
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)
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.