Uncle

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.

Charles Dickens and the flying pigs

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.

Wemmick's house
Wemmick’s house

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.

One of the flying pigs

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.

Hopper

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)

Wild City

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.