Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Before parody

“Know, prince, that when Alphonso set sail for the Holy Land--Is this a season for explanations? cried Theodore. Father, come and unite me to the princess: she shall be mine--in every other thing I will dutifully obey you. My life! my adored Matilda! continued Theodore, rushing back into the inner chamber, will you not be mine? will you not bless your--Isabella made signs to be silent, apprehending the princess was near her end. What, is she dead? cried Theodore: is it possible? The violence of his exclamations brought Matilda to herself. Lifting up her eyes she looked round for her mother--Life of my soul! I am here, cried Hippolita: think not I will quit thee!--Oh! You are too good, said Matilda--but weep not for me, my mother!” – Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto

Much as English has changed since the 18th century, I’m sure “you are too good” has always sounded like a response to being offered a slice of cake.

[The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, Thomas Lowndes, 1765. Startlingly influential gothic story – and about the worst-written “classic” novel I’ve read, not excluding Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii. It is short, however, and some of the jokes may be intentional.]

Monday, June 28, 2004


"Julia Reed saw it as one of her functions to provide me with authentic American experiences. On one memorable evening in New York she arrived at my apartment in a chauffeur-driven limousine with a bottle of whiskey, three tumblers, and her voluptuous schoolfriend from South Carolina, Courtney Cowart, a fun-loving Anglican theologian. The limousine delivered us to the Radio City Music Hall for a concert by Ray Charles." - Alexander Chancellor, Some Times in America

Ah, those fun-loving Anglican theologians. So quintessentially American.

[Some Times in America, by Alexander Chancellor, Bloomsbury, 1999. Distinguished former Spectator editor spends enjoyable time out of his depth on the New Yorker. A thicket of dropped names.]

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Henry James of the PCC. "Isabel looked at her companion in much wonderment; it struck her as strange that a nature in which she found so much to esteem should break down so in spots. 'My poor Henrietta,' she said, 'you've no sense of privacy.'
"Henrietta coloured deeply, and for a moment her brilliant eyes were suffused, while Isabel found her more than ever inconsequent. 'You do me great injustice,' said Miss Stackpole with dignity. 'I've never written a word about myself!'" - Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
Non-British or non-journalistic readers can find out what "PCC" means here. They are likely to be disappointed.
[The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James. Adequate praise would require more space and more time than is available on a blog. Wendy Lesser could start you off, though.]

Play nicely, children. This, from Jeremy Paxman's The Political Animal, is about the election defeat of the former Tory whip Derek Conway: "By teatime on polling day, Conway knew his time was up. Astonishingly, Shrewsbury, a town which had remained the plaything of the landed gentry long after universal suffrage, was to be represented in the next parliament by a Labour MP. Conway claims that he took the blow philosophically. But pick at the scab and the poison is still bitter. The 1,800 votes taken by the two anti-European parties could have given him victory. 'Had it not been for James Goldsmith's intervention I'd have won. He died of pancreatic cancer,' he says, and then adds in the most chilling tone, 'I hear it's the most painful of deaths. I'm so pleased.'"
Goldsmith's own reputation for niceness was not of the highest, of course. But still.
[The Political Animal: An Anatomy, by Jeremy Paxman, Michael Joseph, 2002. The political animals anatomised are British MPs, and the main question considered is why we - and Paxman in particular - so despise them. Fluent, readable, funny, well-researched (although he says the Rector of Stiffkey was eaten by a lion, which is wrong) and almost unbearably smug.]

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Self defined. "In later years Murray liked to tell of a dream he had that illustrated Samuel Johnson's likely reaction to his appointment. Boswell seemingly asked the Great Cham, 'What would you say, Sir, if you were told that in a hundred years' time a bigger and better dictionary than yours would be compiled by a Whig?' Johnson merely grunted. 'A dissenter?' Johnson shifted, a little uneasily, in his chair. 'A Scotsman?' Johnson started, and began to speak: 'Sir...' But Boswell persisted. 'And that the University of Oxford would publish it.' 'Sir,' roared Johnson, unable to contain himself. 'In order to be facetious, it is not necessary to be indecent.'" - Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything
Murray, you will have guessed, is James Murray, of Oxford English Dictionary fame. Cf, if you get the chance, Max Beerbohm's for-and-against versions of how Johnson would react to the restoration of his house in Gough Square. You'll have to go to the house to do so, because they are written in pencil on a caricature hanging in the hall. But it's probably worth it.
[The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester, Oxford, 2003. Vast store of juicy anecdotage roughly connected to the construction of the OED. The devil's side of the bargain is a somewhat slack-minded approach to history and lexicographical crit, and an authorial presence so insistent you could slap it.]

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Green Cross Code Man, pray for me. This is a long one, and before we start, you need to know that 'Park' is Chicago school sociologist Richard E. Park. Ready now?
"To get from my flat to the nearest tube station, I have to walk round two sides of a grassy square full of pigeons, then cross a tumultuous main road on which heavy trucks persistently thunder. Park seems to suggest that because these trucks fulfil someone else's 'recognised needs' I ought to say to myself: 'I don't mind being kept hopping in fear of my life for ten minutes at the side of the road, because quite clearly Mr X needs to transport his tractor parts to the Continent in container lorries and I recognise his right as a fellow citizen to temporarily inconvenience me.' In fact I feel about the road much as a primitive tribesman might feel about a dangerous river given to unpredictable floods. I personify and apostrophise it, I attribute mysterious and malign volitions to its traffic, and it frequently disturbs my dreams. The example is perhaps frivolous: the general point is not. When the needs and reason for things of 'culture' become sufficiently divorced form our own personal needs and wishes, they turn as intractably alien as anything in nature. A road full of container trucks blocking my path seems to me, at the time of barely-avoided impact, almost uniquely irrational; a park full of grass, trees and pigeons strikes me as a thoroughly sensible arrangement." - Jonathan Raban, Soft City.
[Soft City, by Jonathan Raban, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1974. Although rather dated in the intensity of its despair about civic planning, this captures a lot of the sensations of being new and lost in a big city. And if only they'd bring it back into print, I could stop buying secondhand copies and giving them to people.]

Dropped intro. Frederic Reynolds, 12 years old, thought he was going to die. He was walking down the narrow passage between Vinegar Yard and Bridges Street at nine o'clock on a May evening in 1777, when he heard a terrible noise above his head. The sudden, tremendous rumble made him sure that Drury Lane theatre, which formed one side of the passage, was collapsing, and that he was going to be killed. He covered his head with his hands and ran for his life, but 'found the next morning that the noise did not arise from the falling of the house, but from the falling of the screen in the fourth act; so violent and so tumultuous was the applause and laughter.' He had passed by the opening night of Sheridan's new play, The School for Scandal." - Fintan O'Toole, A Traitor's Kiss
[A Traitor's Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, by Fintan O'Toole, Granta, London, 1997. I never realised that Sheridan had so much politics in him; nor that they were of such a good democratic sort. And you can judge the journalistic pizzazz from the above.]

The years of cholera. This is from a passage in Jonathan Glancey's London - Bread and Circuses praising the construction of the city's sewage system: "Mind you, the job was only done because of the Great Stink of 1858, which meant that the windows of the Palace of Westminster had to be draped with curtains soaked in chloride of lime to mitigate the disgusting smell. The stink came from the Thames, an open sewer for all the city's effluence after a law was passed in 1847 banning domestic cesspits. No longer did salmon leap along the Thames as they had done at the beginning of the century (they returned in 1974). The river was effectively dead. And dangerous. Cholera epidemics broke out soon afterwards."
This means that in the Macaulay passage below, the progress of the centuries is being measured against a social evil that was fresh the previous year. That makes him tougher and even more heedless than I thought.
[London - Bread and Circuses, by Jonathan Glancey, Verso, London, 2001. Beautifully illustrated polemic on London's need for municipal socialism. Buy; lend; draft author for mayor.]

Difficulties of being God. "Two years after Nicole was born, Dennis and Angela's next youngest child, Anne, was knocked down by a van outside their house and died in hospital a few hours later. I have avoided direct presentation of this incident because frankly I find it too painful to contemplate. Of course, Dennis and Angela and Anne are fictional characters, they cannot bleed or weep, but they stand here for all the real people to whom such disasters happen with no apparent reason or justice. One does not kill off characters lightly, I assure you, even ones like Anne, evoked solely for that purpose." - David Lodge, How Far Can You Go?
This chatter is programmatic: demystification of narrative in a novel about the demystification of the Catholic church. It being a demystified novel, you are later told so. But it's uncomfortable in ways that I'm not sure were planned. The sense that talking like that is somehow cheating is probably meant to be there; but the sense of disclaiming responsibility for a world one designed is probably not.
[How Far Can You Go?, by David Lodge, Secker and Warburg, London, 1980. Smarter and more serious, I think, than the campus novels. Same coy experimentalism, though.]