Monday 25 April 2016

Video Review: Fanny Hill by the BBC

My first proper video, in which I look at how the BBC turned a daft pornographic novel into a daft middle-brow drama.

Link to my text review of the book here.

Monday 18 April 2016

Bethlem Museum of the Mind - a trip

I seem to be quite obsessed with the idea of delusion and self-delusion, particularly in how a certain level of self-delusion is good for a person can be spill out and become bad. Of my three finished and one un-finished novels, delusion plays a bit part in all.

The first was about a teenage boy who falls in love and takes advice from his imaginary friend, my second about how the population at large delude themselves that there is a suicide disease, the third is about a young man who believes he is the greatest poet who has ever lived and the fourth about a group of people who create delusions in other people using a fantastical machine. Of these books, the third has a number of chapters in 18th century Bedlam, and the fourth is inspired by the delusions of one of the inmates there. So it seemed like a reasonable trip to visit the Royal Bethlem Hospital where they have a gallery and a museum of the mind.

Now in it’s fourth incarnation, the hospital has a collection, which was rehoused last year in the former administrative building and given a huge facelift. 

On entering the building, there was a little shop on the left and an exhibition of artwork by a current service user (as I learnt the phrase is) to the right. I liked the art; some abstract expressionism, some ecological stuff, some notepad doodles - all of it too expensive for my pocket. I particularly liked one called ‘Field’ which was a huge canvas, consisting of many carefully spaced green lines, the notes said they were to remind me to notice each blade of grass and they did.

Into the hallway there’s a grand flight of stairs and flanking the stairs, the ‘Brainless Brothers’. A pair of statues sculpted by Gabriel Caius Cibber (Colley’s dad) representing manic and melancholy madness. Manic is strained, held down by chains but I thought Melancholy has a little smile on his face. His position was later mirrored by Hogarth in The Rake’s Progress. It was moving to see these two figures, formally the symbol of the eighteenth century Bedlam and to consider all the souls that passed under them to their various fates.

Upstairs there was also a choice of gallery to the right and museum to the left. I chose the museum.

It’s not a huge space but it is well used, with many interactive and audio-visual displays that actually engaged and helped the message of the museum, rather than being a distraction. The museum is also displayed in themes; visiting Bedlam, diagnosis/labelling, treatment and recovery. 

 The visiting section had a large screen which mixed historical accounts of visiting Bedlam to modern people talking about going to the new site for school trips, to walk the dog, as patient, as nurse and as museum visitor. It made me wonder whether my visit was any different to those people who want ‘to view the lunatics’ in the eighteenth century. There was also an original Moorfields collection box, a replica of which has received my two pound donation.

The diagnosis/labelling section was all about how naming a mental disorder may go some way to helping, or hindering. There were phrenology photographs depicting what a ‘typical’ melancholy or delusional person should look like, there were Wain paintings of cats that became increasingly psychedelic and may have shown an increase in psychosis and there were three incoming patients books. One from John Munroe’s private madhouse in 1766, one for the 1850s and a blank one that new service users are encouraged to write in on committal.

There was also a large desk with an inset monitor displaying a history of rude names and terms, when you clicked on one, it gave you an etymology. I learned that:

  • Doolally comes from an Indian term.
  • Dotty, from Scotland.
  • Div is English and may come from the word divided.
  • Window-Licker, was the name of an Aphex Twin song from 1999. 

I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be feeling angry at the insensitive language or impressed at the wide range of linguistic diversity.

There is a little bit about humour theory, a very nice light show with the four humours colour coded and projected, There is also a blank ‘reflection’ space, I didn’t need it because I can reflect in non-designated zones.

The next area is about therapies, this is split into three sections. The first is about restraint, there’s a padded room which was recently de-commissioned and four audios playing from two nineteenth century letters and two modern testimonies. There is also the information that The Royal Bethlem Hospital still has some padded cells in operation. The next cabinet has a selection of restraint devices; from strait-jackets, to manacles and chastity devices. Looking at them and remembering that they were really used to hold people down is a moving experience. Interestingly, these are placed next to examples of chemical restraint and a modern electronic-tag worn by modern Royal Bethlem service users.

Further on there are some electro-shock devices and related paraphernalia together with a documentary about the short term benefits and long term drawbacks of the process. Next to that there are examples of modern arts and craft to show modern therapies.

Finally there is the section on Recovery. This includes ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs and letters from past patients. The final item is a painting called Recovery? which features a very sad face.

That’s when it hit me what had been bugging me. In presenting the museum thematically it seemed that I was being told that eighteenth century madness and today’s mental illness are in essence the same thing and that the treatments today were little more than modern updates of the treatments of the past. Instead of a chronologically based story of the improvement in the understanding of the mind and it’s ailments, the message was that nothing has essentially changed. It was strange, a far more challenging message then I was expecting.

I was thoroughly provoked by my time in the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, I was sad that I was the only one there - you should go, it’s free and can be Oystered from London.

Monday 11 April 2016

Video Review: Boswell's London Journal - the album.

I received a camcorder for Christmas and have long wanted to have a video element to this blog.

The plan is to take an adaptation of an eighteenth century novel (or perhaps a novel/biography set in the eighteenth century) and see how the filmmakers have altered the novel to fit their audience/tone/running time.

This video is a bit of a test, just seeing how my set up can go and if I can remember how to edit videos. It's a review of something very odd...

...a jazz concept album about Boswell's London Journal. 


I forgot to say that I actually enjoyed the music on the album, so het up was I with how little it had to do with the emotions and situations of Boswell.

My next post (or two) will be about a visit to the Royal Bethlem Hospital's gallery and museum.

The next video post will ask the question, 'How do you turn a pornographic novel into a tasteful drama?'

Till next time.

Monday 4 April 2016

Review: Marcel Theroux, 'Strange Bodies'.

This is a novel published in 2013 and set in 2008/9, which would seem a little too modern for the interests of Grub Street - hold your horses, you’ll see why shortly.

Ostensibly, it’s a metaphysical mystery, rather similar to Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y, Dr Nicholas Slopen dives down his own rabbit hole of identity loss and confusion after finding some possibly new letters by Samuel Johnson…. - see, told you this book would be relevant to this site.

Nicholas Slopen is quite the stock character; a lecturer and editor of Samuel Johnson’s letters, who is ashamed of his past, ashamed of his poverty and has a wife and children who are ashamed of him. He matches Ariel Manto in The End of Mr Y, and could fit in any number of David Lodge books. 

In investigating these new Johnson letters he falls into a conspiracy involving eccentric music producers, Russian gangsters, Russian utopians and a mysterious process called The Process. In doing so, he muses on identity - how much it comes from a physical unity, a unity of memory or whether it is just the epiphenomena of words. 

I’m not going to reveal much more about the plot, it had enough twists and turns to keep it lively and Slopen was a critical and interesting enough character to walk around in the head of for several hours - oddly, this aspect of identity borrowing wasn’t really touched on.

I did enjoy the modern London setting; characters watch films at the Prince Charles, buy prints in Cecil Court, mooch around Green Park and go to various pubs I have also been to. I got the sense that, wandering around London in 2009, I might have actually met these characters.

But what really brought the book alive for me was the Samuel Johnson fan-wank.

Slopen is a Johnson fan, and when he reads the possible Johnson letters, he describes them as meeting with an old friend, recognisable by the ‘sinousity of the sentences’ in the same way he recognises the individual walk and shape of a lover. There are a number of other times when Slopen reads Johnson, and Marcel Theroux, the author of this book, describes the feeling of reading Johnson very well.

It turns out the letters are forgeries, written by a man called Jack who believes himself to be (or may actually be) Samuel Johnson. My favourite favourite part of the book is when Jack and Slopen live together for a few weeks and we get to see Johnson navigate the 21st century.

Hanging out with Sammy J in the modern streets of London is a bit of a daydream of mine, I have written a few little sketches on here about Johnson in the modern day and had a number of other scenes planned. I also have, deep in the recesses of my scribblebook, a plan for a novel which engineers Johnson into modern London in a time travel variation of Aristophanes’ ‘The Frogs’

Whether he is watching Brief Encounter, consoling Slopen on his divorce, declaring lamb dhansak ‘a practical joke’ or extolling the delights of melted cheese at a pizza place, the proxy-Johnson is a brilliant character. Theroux takes a lot of the parts of Johnson’s character I planned to; for example, the part when he goes ice-skating and the story I wrote of Johnson at a roller disco both relate to his fondness for ‘sliding’. This vision of Johnson in the modern world also deals with the main problem I had in writing it, and the reason I stopped. Johnson was a man unhappy in his body in his own timeline, it was impossible to imagine his move to the 21st century would cause him more distress - and so it does in this version, Jack/Johnson needing to be medicated and even restrained on a number of occasions. 

I was left wondering, why did Theroux choose Johnson for this book? The theme of identity was tackled by him, but not really one of his most prominent themes. Why not ‘resurrect’ a writer of travels like Swift, or an envisioner of the future like HG Wells, or one of the Russian writers that were regularly referred to? I think part of it is material, we already have a solid picture of Johnson in Boswell and his own works and it is easier to feel we have ‘met’ Johnson then other, blurrier figures. There is also Johnson himself; solid, wise and empathetic - that is irresistible.