When children appear, we justify all our weaknesses, compromises, snobberies, by saying: "It's for the children's sake."
— Anton Chekhov
When children appear, we justify all our weaknesses, compromises, snobberies, by saying: "It's for the children's sake."
— Anton Chekhov
New York Magazine presents the results of a number of recent studies which, taken all in all, suggest that wealth makes people "more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes."
A lot of the research reported there sounds weak (for instance, correlating desirability of car with assholeishness — assholicity? — of driver). But I think we can still say, same as it ever was.
An opportunity to quote from a novel of Amis Sr.'s underrated middle period: I Want It Now (1969), in which you can detect the last gasps of the leftism of Kingsley's youth. One day I'll take you through his Fabian Society pamphlet Socialism and the Intellectual.
In pursuit of the beautiful Simona Quick — known, puzzlingly, as Simon — Ronnie Appleyard has spent a good deal of time in the company of her appallingly rich family and their friends, and been appalled. Appearing on a television panel programme with Simon's mother, he takes the opportunity to lay into her class:
Some rich people have got the strength of character it takes to be rich and remain a human being. I'm not talking about them. They're rich in the sense that they have more money than we have, Hemingway's rich. I'm talking about Fitzgerald's rich — I don't know why everybody seems to think he lost that exchange, he saw more than Hemingway did, as always — I'm talking about the rich that are different from us. They're different, and they're worse, not because they're worse by nature, but because of their opportunities. Opportunities for power without responsibility ... If you're rich you can afford to abandon reason, justice and good manners whenever you feel like it.
Or is it the other way round: abandoning reason, justice and good manners is the high road to fortune? I can see how that would work.
What a lot of readers find hard to take in Michael Innes's detective stories is the superficial snobbery — the excessive attention to people with titles, to grand houses and social forms. Which can get wearing, I admit.
What I like about him is the way that, under the formal surface, nightmares seethe. The apparatus of nightmare infests his books: doubles, chases through endless dark spaces, messages that evade sense, vanishings, substitutions, betrayals. Often, the stories seem to be elaborate constructions designed solely to contain scenes snatched from dreams (an early book, Appleby's End, is set at a country house called Long Dream). Pigs, women and simple-minded yokels are turned to statues. A boy in a cinema realizes that the boy sitting next to him in the cinema is himself, and that he is committing a murder; on a night train, a middle-aged man encounters an elderly midget, an eight-foot schoolboy, a Chinese lady holding a white monkey on a chain, and a living mummy. A young man on a beach by night falls under the spell of an older, naked man who emerges from the sea. Lions cringe like lapdogs; a man is addressed by a child dressed as a cat; a girl seeking her vanished lover thrusts herself down a darkened crevice into the Library of Babel...
In the Forties and Fifties, Innes was mildly obsessed by the nightmare of mass destruction, of atom bombs and uncontrollable viruses — but hey, wasn't everybody? This is the nightmare of Hare Sitting Up (1959), offered at the very beginning. The title page carries as epigram a quotation from Women in Love:
You yourself, don't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?
The story revolves around a vanished scientist, his twin — so nearly identical that nobody can tell the difference — and a mad, bird-loving lord who wants to leave the world free of the burden of us. Along the way, Sir John Appleby, our hero, is distracted by a big red herring in the shape of the great auk, or garefowl, close relative of the penguin: a rumour surfaces that it has been spotted on a Scottish island, a century after it was hunted to extinction.
As always with Innes, there's a lot of hyper-literary chitchat, some Latin tags ("But there just have to be limits, it seems to me, to the fiat justititia ruat coelum attitude" ... "Ne sutor ultra crepidam is my motto.") and some dreary whimsical banter. But he chills the whimsy with some lines from Measure for Measure: "Our natures do pursue, / Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die."
This is the first Penguin edition, 1964. The cover has one of Alan Aldridge's simpler, more striking designs on a Marber grid. Abundant and cheap, so hold out for a copy in good nick.
You may or may not be aware that a new Batman film is about to appear in cinemas [SPOILER ALERT: It's called The Dark Knight Rises].
Perhaps you feel that you don't understand enough about this "Batman" thing. Here is some help:
1) In a paper entitled "Trajectory of a falling Batman" graduate physicists at the University of Leicester ask whether the Batman's cape would, as depicted in Batman Begins, enable him to glide. [SPOILER ALERT: It wouldn't.]
2) The Finnish loss-making mobile-phone company Nokia has published a series of three-dimensional maps of Gotham City. [SPOILER ALERT: It's a bit like New York.] More Gotham topographical resources here.
3) Nice Catherine Shoard, of the Guardian, considers the politics of Batman [SPOILER ALERT: They're a bit right-wing.]
4) LogoDesignLove links to a video and some well-researched writing on the Batman logo. [SPOILER ALERT: Pointy ears.]
5) Batman is kind of gay, or at least fairly bi-curious. (One commenter points out: "... just because hew has no permanent relationship with a woman does not mean he's a homosexual,he can not put a woman in his life due to his oath in fighting crime" [sic, passim]. That's what they used to say about Edward Heath, too.)
Hope that all helps.
UPDATE: At the Telegraph, Robert Colvile agrees with Catherine Shoard but thinks Batman's right-wing views should be celebrated. (I thought conservatism was all about respecting social institutions: Batman uses his wealth to ignore them. Puzzling.)
From a Guardian profile of the naturalist and television presenter Chris Packham, written by Patrick Barkham:
In a nation traditionally distrustful of public intellectuals, Packham may be too clever by half for some tastes. Every year he slips song titles into Springwatch, beginning with his beloved Smiths and continuing this year with David Bowie.
Where to begin? What does he think — oh, never mind. Just pass the hemlock, will you?
When Peter Boyle died in 2006, all the headlines could think to say about him was that he'd been the grumpy dad in Everybody Loves Raymond and the monster in Young Frankenstein. But at the start of his career he was a tough, charismatic character actor who added individuality and intelligence to a number of films.
He got attention in 1970, in the title role of Joe — in effect, Archie Bunker with a gun. In 1971 he turned down Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, leaving it to Gene Hackman to collect the Oscar. That may have been his big career mistake: Hackman became Hollywood's bald character actor of choice. But Boyle was more interestingly and aggressively bald than Hackman, with an ugly fringe of black hair around the edge of his scalp: perhaps that was too much of a fuck-you to Hollywood standards of beauty and grooming for him ever to make it really big. Still, he kept getting work, and he was on an upward curve in 1973, when Slither and The Friends of Eddie Coyle were released.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an adaptation of one of George V. Higgins's crime novels, about a small-time Boston hood who makes money by selling guns to bank robbers and stays out of jail by snitching. Robert Mitchum played Eddie: he looks worn out and ripe for a fall, and it's a shame that he gets stuck with some lengthy speeches about the hardships of the criminal life — they feel like a clumsy lunge at significance by a director who doesn't have enough faith in plot, action and actors. (That's Peter Yates, by the way: if you ask me, it's the same problem that afflicts Bullitt, where poor old Jacqueline Bisset gets stuck with some very dreary stuff about the brutalizing effect of Steve McQueen's police work.) Boyle has better luck with his part: he's Dillon, a barman in the bar Coyle likes to visit — ordinary looking, but quite early on we learn that he's snitching to the same Treasury agent as Coyle, whining about his money problems and how much he needs the puny twenty bucks the Treasury guy pays him every week. Turns out he's a hitman, though, at five grand a pop (the still above shows him negotiating his terms of payment). Like Coyle, Dillon's trying to play off both sides; but he's a lot better at it.
Boyle plays Dillon as a man without much of a personality, just a series of masks and ploys. There's nothing remotely romantic about his hitman — no samurai professionalism, no existential relationship with death, not even a particularly impressive fee structure. It could easily have been a turn — it could have been his Popeye Doyle; instead, he tries hard to make him real.
Slither was a change of pace, though it's still about crime and still about losers. James Caan, fresh out of jail, is given the secret of "unimaginable" wealth by a friend who's just been gut-shot and is about to blow himself up with some sticks of dynamite. To get the money, he has to find a man called Barry Fenaka, who turns out to be a danceband leader with a strong line in tacky comic patter and an enthusiasm for "recvees" (recreational vehicles). There are echoes of North by Northwest, but with the glamour and suspense all sanded away — Cary Grant gets trapped by the bad guys at an art auction; the same thing happens to James Caan at a trailer-park bingo game. And the language, with its calculated banalities and characters becoming obsessed with certain words, put me in mind of Charles Portis (The Dog of the South, not True Grit). It's a slow film, amusing rather than funny, aiming for puzzlement more than suspense. Caan has to carry it, but Boyle supplies most of the comic energy; and he wears what must be one of the most heroically self-sacrificing combovers in film history:
Great love hath no man than this: that he has really shitty hair for the sake of the movie. But shitty hair will never make you a star.
Author's note: Just re-read this; it doesn't work. Will re-write later. Come back and have another look in a few days.
Sticking with Shaw:
Homelife is no more natural to us than a cage is natural to a cockatoo.
(from the preface to Getting Married, 1908)
In his will, George Bernard Shaw imposed on the Public Trustee the duty of finding and publishing a new, more rational alphabet. He had been railing for years against the idiocy of using an ancient Latin alphabet for a modern, largely Germanic language; and argued that the stupidity was compounded by spellings that reflected a word's history rather than its sound and meaning. It had taken the First World War to bring us British Summer Time; perhaps it would take another war to force us to rationalize our spelling: "...I shall not grudge it. The waste of war is negligible in comparison to the daily waste of trying to communicate with one another in English through an alphabet with sixteen letters missing." Sense of proportion, much?
Shaw wanted an alphabet of at least 40 letters, the extra ones replacing compounds such as SH or OW, and to eliminate diacritical marks (this is, I guess, a development of his disdain for apostrophes — youll see that he didnt use them in his plays). Once the alphabet had been established, a phonetic expert would be employed to transliterate Shaw's 1913 play Androcles and the Lion into it, working on the assumption that the pronunciation would be approximately "that recorded of His Majesty our late King George V".
There was some legal trouble about the will: in the end, the British Museum, RADA and the National Gallery of Ireland — who between them stood to get whatever wasn't spent on the new alphabet — stumped up for a competition to find the best design. 450 entries were received; the judges decided that, rather than pick an outright winner, they would split the £500 prize four ways. One of the four winning entries, by Kingsley Read, was used for Androcles; Penguin published the result in 1962, 12 years after Shaw died. It includes a parallel English text, which is a relief.
Copies are surprisingly common, and shouldn't cost much: mine was a measly quid, though years ago. Cover by Germano Facetti, by the way. If you are buying, do make sure the copy comes with the detachable reading key:
Read's squiggling alphabet looks something like Pitman shorthand. The sounds and signs follow patterns: for example, "tall" letters are mostly unvoiced consonants (T, P, F); "deep" letters, got by turning tall letters upside down, are the voiced versions (D, B,V).
On the obverse of the reading key is a guide to help anybody who wants to write the damn thing:
Androcles is a silly little slip of a play, which is likely why Shaw thought it was worth transliterating: imagine trying to transcribe the squeals of Eliza Doolittle into the tones of George V, or to hack your way through the thickets of Man and Superman.
Speaking of which: underneath a comic surface the play has a Nietzschean subtext. Androcles (the one who pulls a thorn out of a lion's paw) is a Christian slave — Christianity being to Nietzsche the religion of slave-morality. The characters include Ferrovius, a superman who continually suppresses his terrific strength and will to power to serve Christ. Ferrovius believes he has converted many pagans, when really all he has done is terrify them into paying lip-service to Christianity — his version of Christ's message being oddly hard to distinguish from a threat of violence. Androcles, on the other hand, is genuinely peaceable and submissive but such an animal lover that he is almost goaded to violence by the sight of a gladiator armed with a whip:
ANDROCLES ...I cant bear the sight of a whip. The only time I ever hit a man was when he lashed an old horse with a whip. It was terrible: I danced on his face when he was on the ground.
Cf. Nietzsche, supposedly driven mad by the sight of a horse being beaten on the street in Turin. Presumably not a coincidence: in the preface to Androcles and the Lion Shaw name-checks Nietzsche twice, and mentions his madness (though not the horse).
Alphabets, whips, wild animals, madness: I can't help muddling it up with Saki's "Tobermory", in which a man called Cornelius Appin teaches a cat to speak:
Tobermory had been Appin's one successful pupil, and he was destined to have no successor. A few weeks later an elephant in the Dresden Zoological Garden, which had shown no previous signs of irritability, broke loose and killed an Englishman who had apparently been teasing it. The victim's name was variously reported in the papers as Oppin and Eppelin, but his front name was faithfully rendered Cornelius.
"If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast," said Clovis, "he deserved all he got."