Wednesday, 27 May 2020

The Clandestine Marriage at the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle (Part Two)


The first online meeting of the Dr Johnson’s House Reading Circle having been a success, we scheduled another for the next week. So far we had performed the first two acts of The Clandestine Marriage for each other and, it not being a well known text among us, we wanted to see what would happen next.

Alas, the technology gods were not with us in this session. Some people fell in and out the programme, there were audio and visual aids and I found myself literally phoning in a performance to a speakerphone that was then heard on the video conference. What’s more, at times the voices became strange and tinny. Ever wanted to hear an eighteenth century as performed by daleks? Garrick certainly never had those problems.

Despite the comedy of technical errors, the show had to go on and we went into act 3 where some lawyers were discussing their business. I have to admit, I was sure if there were jokes in this part that I wasn’t picking up on, maybe something about the breezy way the lawyers decided cases in advance. Maybe it was a spot on parody of the way lawyers talked to each other and the type have evolved since then.

Up to this point we have established that Sir John is set to marry Betsey, Sterling’s elder daughter but actually is in love with Fanny, his younger. Unknown to him, Fanny has secretly married Lovewell, the family steward. When Sir John asks to swap daughters, Sterling is shocked. He declares that he is no ‘African Slave Trade’. Of course, Sir John wins him over financially, letting Sterling out of financial obligations that were set in place with the older daughter. It’s hard to say whether we’re supposed to be on Sir John’s side. Fanny has already told him that she doesn’t wish to marry him, yet he’s bribing her father into swapping brides without any thought to her at all. 

Poor Fanny, her older sister and her Aunt Heidelberg feel that she has been pretending to flirt with Lovewell to conduct a secret affair with Sir John. What annoys them most is that Fanny is so very nice, she just needs a shepherdess outfit and a lamb under her arm to be a picture of innocence. What’s more, she’s good to servants, says please and thank you and treats them politely, that can only be hiding depravities galore. Of course when Sterling meets up with them, he changes his mind about the whole marriage-swap thing, he has no backbone and Aunt Heidelberg is on Betsey’s side and promises to bring much more money in the future than Sir John.

Finally we met up with Fanny and her secret husband Lovewell, they decide that the best person to convince Sir John off her case is Lord Ogleby and Lovewell decides that Fanny is the person to make their case. Unfortunately, Lord Ogleby is so enamoured with the idea of himself as a magnet for all the ladies, he thinks that Fanny can’t marry Sir John because she loves him so, an idea that he finds utterly understandable despite their huge age difference. When the Lord suggest this to Sterling, he quickly tots up the figures and agrees - and that is where we left the plot this week.

It seems like the central joke of the piece is that everyone wants Fanny and the bumbling and misunderstanding each character undergoes provide the laughs. Unfortunately for a modern audience, Fanny herself doesn’t have enough to say, she is more plot point than character and it makes most of the men in the piece seem rather creepy. Thank goodness for Aunt Heidelberg, a character with power and influence, which is of course secured by her wealth.

We look forward to next week to discover if the play becomes a little more satisfying but even with the dated comedy, the technical mishaps and the plague swirling about somewhere out there, it was still a pleasure to meet up with however we could and discover a new text together.



Wednesday, 20 May 2020

The Clandestine Marriage at the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle (Part One)

The previous Dr Johnson Reading Circle, in which we looked at William Cowper, was one of the last events before corona-virus closed all museums and, it seemed, any sort of fun. Now on a glorious May evening, with the government guidelines are as clear as the Fleet Ditch, the Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle meet again, online. 


Meeting as a panel of faces, we did what we could to eighteenth-century ourselves up. Some wore bonnets, some hats, others wore wigs, whether out of material or homemade from paper. There was even a custom background of Dr Johnson’s House. It’s amazing what people can pull together when locked at home.  

We had planned to read through George Coleman and David Garrick’s, The Clandestine Marriage but we took the opportunity to split it up and this time read the first two acts. It was not a play many knew much about but it was in the same volume that supplied us with She Stoops to Conquer and that had provided a lot of entertainment. 

The introduction gave the plays slightly troubled origins, co-authored by Coleman and Garrick, who argued with each other about who deserved the credit, it was also based on the early pictures of Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode and a novel by a man called John Shebbeare called The Marriage Act. As the picture series was tragedy, the novel a polemic and the play a comedy, I’m sure there are some major differences.

We begin with Fanny Sterling and her secret husband, Lovewell. They meet in secret under the watchful eyes and tight lips of Betty, who only wishes she could tell a few people, not that it makes much difference, they are so obviously lovey-dovey. At the same time, her older sister is negotiating a ‘proper’ marriage with Sir John Melvil, who is distinctly unromantic. Sir John and Lord Ogleby go to the Sterling’s country house to finalise details for the marriage.

There are added complications though, Lord Ogleby’s determination to prove himself a lady’s man aside, it turns out that Sir John is not a cold-hearted lover at all, it’s that he is far keener on the younger daughter, Fanny, than the older. What’s worse, he thinks he has Lovewell on his side to help him woo her.

The first two acts involved a lot of setting up of character and situation, with all the pieces moved into place for future shenanigans. While lacking the big laughs (so far) of the other comedies we’ve read, there were moments of humour. These included Mr Sterling’s desire to take everyone on the tour of his garden and show all his improvements, however vulgar. His sister, Mrs Heidelberg’s conviction that she herself is not ‘wulgur’ and knows how to mix with the ‘qualaty’. Then there were Lord Ogleby’s pretensions towards gallantry, which would be much easier if his back didn’t twinge so.

Add to that, outrageous French accents, perfumed paper being passed through video screens and the sheer pleasure of doing something different and fun, the evening was a success. 

The next two acts take place on Tuesday 26th May, contact the Reading Group on Facebook for the link.






Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Review: A Pickle for the Knowing Ones by Timothy Dexter


If last week’s entry Hurlothrumbo was a little unusual, A Pickle for the Knowing Ones is something utterly bonkers. I was introduced to it in a slightly odd way, a Polish teacher working at the same primary school as me ordered a copy for her year 4 (aged 8-9) class. I never heard an explanation of why this book was chosen, whether it has a particular cultural relevance in Poland or what the book was for. All I knew was that there was a this very badly made rich-text print-on-demand text written in the eighteenth century and of captivating oddness. So I prigged it.

A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress was originally a free text given out by an eccentric Massachusetts businessman named Timothy Dexter. Largely uneducated, it shows in the book which consists of lots of scraps of writing, badly spelt and not at all punctuated, often making very little sense. Ever listened to a Legendary Stardust Cowboy album or spent time in Anti-vax Facebook? If so, the incoherence and tone will be recognise-able. I, however, Have spent the last 11 years reading children’s scrawls in exercise books - I can do this.

The first part is a description on his house and garden, much a Horace Walpole did for visitors to Strawberry Hill. His house in Newburyport was decorated in forty wooden statues of great people set ‘hiw up’ so that people can ‘peape sly and feele glad’ at considering such great people. This leads him to consider the nature of greatness and on the greatness of American Presidents in particular. He considers that being a president is like being a king but should ‘pleas the Peopel at large.’ 

He addresses himself to ‘Mr Pintterr’ (alas, not Mr Editor) and describes/rants about the people who have wronged him in the past, including the lawyer hired by his son-in-law to beat him up. This leads him to a philosophical (as in the thoughts of a ‘flosofer’) about the nature of mankind. 
“Tell trouth Man is the best Annemel and the worst”. He concludes that me resemble different kinds of animals, ‘sum like a dog sum Lik horses sum bare sum Cat sum Lion sum like Ouls sum a Monkey sum Wild Cat sum lam sum A Dove sum a hogg sum a oxe sum a snake” - though he doesn’t really elucidate in what way people are like this though he does extend the idea, deciding that there are lot’s of different kinds of people, “there is Grat Minds and littel minds Grat sols anf littel sols grat minds and littel minds”.

In the next section, he tells us his disdain for people of learning, which doesn’t surprise anyone up to this point. He also dislikes priests.

The next section is his plan to build a great  great ‘mouserum’ if none of his enemies murder him first. He plans to fill this place with many examples of greatness and while he’s at it he concocts a plan for world peace. This plan consists of world leaders meeting round a common table to discuss problems, a precursor to the UN perhaps, he thinks the chair of this meeting should be that peaceful soul, ‘boneypartey’. He warns those who scorn his museum that they shall look silly in the end. Then he talks about meeting the devil…I think…and the devil came in the form of a black slave…to be honest, this was the bit I couldn’t understand at all.

The next part is a longer denunciation of the lawyer who beat him up at the orders of his son-in-law.

Now he seems to have a transcriber, perhaps it originally appeared in the newspaper. The ideas still have the same strident tone and car-crash pileup, but they are properly spelt. The first part is a call against ruffians in the neighbourhood. The second is a little more philosophy, that the world s “one very large living creature”, possibly a precursor to Gaia theory. On this living creature, man is the head animal and “the whale is the head fish”. Then the section goes into his own full style and he talks about how he hates his learned son-in-law and considers his wife to be like ghost.

The next section is about how the masons won’t let him in because he has ‘toue much knowledge in my head” but it doesn’t matter, because they’re rubbish anyway.

The next section again details his grievances, that his son was an idiot, that his daughter married a cruel thief who hired a lawyer to beat him up and that his wife is a cruel ghost. It’s not that he’s a bad person, he wouldn’t hurt man nor beast, well, perhaps some beasts. 
“I Meane no hurt to A Flie only when he bits me when I kils the flye if I can”. You should feel sorry for such a man, his family are really mean to him and it makes him sad.  “with tears in my Eys I Can’t see to Rite Aany more”.

The next part is how he made his money. He collected useless currency and then sold it back to the government at a fraction of the cost but more than he paid for it. He sold warming pans to the Caribbean, although they used them as molasses ladles. He hoarded whalebone and got lucky when the French started a fashion for men’s corsets. He sold Bibles to Asia, not to the people living there, but to missionaries. He caught stray cats and sold them as mousers to plantations. He sold woollen gloves in the East Indies to a group of Portuguese traders going to Alaska. Finally, he literally managed to sell coal to Newcastle as the coal miners were on strike when his ships arrived. Was it luck? Was it intelligence? Who knows? This ranty mess doesn’t help clear that up.

The next part is a repetition about how evil his son-in-law is and a repetition about how his wife is a malicious ghost at that you can ‘count the scars on my head’ if you don’t believe him.

The next section changes tack - his son-in-law has just died. The world is a wonderful place.

The next section is about drought I think - I got lost on this part also.

The next part is a summing up, a boasting of his achievements despite his not having much. He boast that one of the few skills he has is to “play on A Jous harp” which was so good “it would mak my mouth warter and the ladeys sumthing warter”. I’ve heard the Jew’s Harp and I didn’t realise it had aphrodisiac qualities but Timothy Dexter claims it’s true.

In the next section he feels bad again. Everyone in the world except him is a liar and what’s worse, “the burds will Chip offen before I Can git to sleep”.

The last part is not written by Timothy Dexter but by Jonathan Plummer, whom he paid to be his poet. He must have paid fairly well as Plummer writes a panegyric that trumpets Dexter’s wisdom and literary qualities, a particular irony for anyone having struggled through it. However, he didn’t pay Plummer enough to make the poem any good.

As an afterward is the best part of the book. In the second edition, Dexter responded to to complaints that there were no punctuation marks in the book with a page of them and the instruction for the reader to salt and pepper the writing as they pleased.

The Pickle for the Knowing Ones may be short but it’s incredibly hard work. While I’d argue that Hurlothrumbo has, or at least reaches for, artistic merit, The Pickle for the Knowing Ones has none whatsoever, nor does it even try to achieve any. It is nothing more than the rantings of an illiterate man which an over-inflated sense of himself, it may as well be a Trump speech.



Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Review: Hurlothrumbo by Samuel 'Maggoty' Johnson





The first thing that needs to be made clear about Hurlothrumbo is that although it’s by a Samuel Johnson, it’s not by that Samuel Johnson. This Samuel Johnson was a Cheshire dancing master and one of the last official family fools and who was also known as Maggoty. He was a man who amused a lot of important people, including members of the Rockingham Whigs and Robert Walpole.

The second that needs noting about Hurlothrumbo is that it was incredibly successful, running for 50 nights, coming close to The Beggar’s Opera’s 62. The other Samuel Johnson’s play Irene ran for 9 which was considered decent. This means that ‘Maggoty’ Johnson would have received at least sixteen benefit nights as the author, not counting any benefits or wages given to him as one of the performers.

The last main thing to note, is that Hurlothrumbo’s success makes absolutely no sense. Ridiculed as a peculiar mess when it was first performed, Johnson’s appearance as Lord Flame, sometimes on stilts and sometimes not is utterly baffling. Even more baffling now we have no clear report of how it was staged and what effects it created other than, ‘odd, whimsical and original’. As far as I can tell, this was a play people went to so they could talk about it and laugh at it, much as people may watch The Room or other films noted as so bad, they’re good.

The play is set in a Kingdom somewhere, where the King Soarethereal rules. He is a daydreamy person, given to intellectual pursuits. A character describes him as being ‘above this sublunary world,’ who ‘keeps his court in the horizon’ and ‘makes a foot-ball of the globe’. Apparently he also ‘plays bowls with the sky’. He’s also in love, having absconded a Princess of Spain with the help of her brother Theorbeo. 

There’s unrest in his realm, some of his noblemen have sold off their property, a sure sign that they are squirrelling money away incase of unrest and the Dutch King Lomporhomock has been sighted but these should not be a problem as Hurlothrumbo, a general brave enough to have a murdered a lion in a Roman gladiatorial match, is on hand to protect them.

Unfortunately, the rebels bribe Hurlothrumbo and the King and his allies find themselves outnumbered, outgunned and facing a sticky end. Theorbeo, the Spanish prince finds himself sent to ‘The House of Burning Glass’, a way of killing people with refracted sunlight. 

Fortunately, King Soarethereal and his allies win despite the odds, the rebels exiled, Lompohomock driven off and Hurlothrumbo very sorry and condemned to wear a coat with his crimes written on them for the rest of his life.

Oh - and Lord Flame is there. 

His role is a real conundrum. He’s a spurned lover, sometimes he serves as Greek chorus, sometimes he simply talks. He’s always remembered as the main character but he isn’t, although I can see why he was the most memorable one.

The real mystery I have about this play is the intention. Certainly the version I have (essentially a photocopy of the second edition) is packaged like a comedy, there’s a comic tag line on the title page which reads;


Similarly, the epilogue seems to acknowledge the ridiculous nature of the play. The Biographia Dramatica of 1782 described the epilogue as having been written ‘by a friendly hint’ to point out ‘the absurdity of the play’. 

There’s also ‘Maggoty’ Johnson’s reputation as a professional fool (in the jester sense) and his performance of the character of Lord Flame, which the Biographia described as ‘sometimes in one key, sometimes in another; sometimes fiddling, sometimes dancing, and sometimes walking in very high stilts.” Surely it must be intended a comedy, of the author performs his character in such a strange way. 

Yet…

As jokey as everything surrounding the play is, the play itself feel serious, not only serious but grand and important, it’s like the play is desperately trying to reach a weight and beauty that condemns it to nonsense. 

There are certainly a semblance of structure and definite themes, of the conflict between ambition and contentment, and a conflict between worldly and unworldly characters. Our heroes, Soaretherial (and to a lesser extent Flame) are flighty, their eyes fixed to the heavens - in his stilts, Lord Flame sometimes was with his head in the clouds. The bad characters are more grounded, concerned with money rather than higher things like love and the heavens.

The title character of Hurlothrumbo is the central battleground between the high and low. At his best, when fighting the lion, he is a man of ideals but at his worst can be paid off. This might be the moment to note that the description of the lion fight must be one of the most wonderfully over the top monologues ever. 


He’s also described as being so on the alert, that his very pores have sentries.

The sun also pops up a lot. It’s not a controlled metaphor, nothing in the play is controlled, but it is frequent. The sun is gazed on, reached for, straddled, ridden, burns out of people’s eyes. When Theorbeo is caught by enemies he is taken to ‘The House of Burning Glass’ to die like a dog in a closed car but is rescued by a lucky cloud. At one point Hurlothrumbo compares the Earth to meet roasting on a jack, the fruits ripening much like meat cooks and he wishes that the sun would come closer and kill everyone. The problem with the sun metaphor in the play is that it stands for whatever is needed at each moment, it’s not a sustained or controlled motif. There’s also the specificity of the metaphors which derail them, like the Sun and Earth like roast meat on a jack, or the king pledging to feed his troops brandy mixed with gunpowder as it will make them like dragons and; 
      “Then Swift lightning bolts from the nostrils flies, and lightning bolts from the anus.” He simply gets too enthused by the image that has caught his imagination.

The best discussion of Hurlothrumbo I found was in an introduction to an eighteenth century  book  The Bog-House Miscellany, that records graffiti on toilet walls that was attributed to an author called Hurlothrumbo. The author of the piece reckons that Samuel ‘Maggoty’ Johnson was the author of  the bog house book also and has a little discussion of Hurlothrumbo itself where he says that the play is not intending to be a satire of tragic excess but is the work of;
    “The mystic whose tendency is to merge the high and the low, the sublime and the absurd, within a single work”.

I described this play to my friends as eighteenth century The Room and I think what happened to that film is what happened to Hurlothrumbo. The Room was intended to be a moving domestic tragedy but due to technical incompetence, over-stuffed writing and a truly eccentric performance from its writer/director/star that it became a loved comic work. That writer, Tommy Wiseau, quickly declared he had been intending a back comedy all along and since toured the film to be ridiculed and loved at cinemas all over the world, accepting the ridicule but also the love. 

I feel that Samuel ‘Maggoty’ Johnson may have done something similar with Hurlothrumbo, to have reached for something so sublime and so very idiosyncratic that it was a source of ridicule but to have leaned into it to enjoy the love that we have for something that makes us laugh (not forgetting the serious financial benefit of a 50 night run and two editions of the script sold in quick succession). 

This confusion with the piece is reflected in the prologue. On one hand, it acts as a warning, that the piece is ‘unchained by `art’ and gives ‘crticks’ the warning to ‘be gone’ because like swine, they wouldn’t understand the pearls that were to be cast before them and that as wolves howl at the moon, so critics hate anything not as earthbound and sluggish as they. On the other hand it revels in its lack of artistry, declaring that;
“Rules were by coxcombs made to cramp the mind, by nature free, unfetter’d and unconfin’d.” 

Not enough of the performance, or the context for it, exists now to really get why this play was the success it was. The script is quite hilarious in small bursts but rather tiresome overall and the character of Lord Flame, on stilts or not, makes absolutely no sense to me. I think you really had to be there, but I can get the ghost of a glimpse why.

(Also, as a total aside, the Hurlothrumbo was the name of the ship owned by Joshua Norton, one of my favourite historical oddities, who later declared himself Emperor of the United States and Lord Protector of Mexico, and was actually obeyed in San Francisco.)




Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Review: 'Charlotte' by Kathryn Shevelow


In 1717 a four year old girl woke up and got out bed. She went downstairs where she found her father’s coat and sword but most importantly, his luscious, bouffant periwig. She walked out the house and went into a ditch, where she marched up and down, doing impressions of her father in as gruff a voice as her young larynx would allow. People stopped to look at the strange vision, a miniature version of one of the most famous actors of the day. Her father was Colley Cibber, the little girl was Charlotte.

Charlotte and I have met a number of times. She’s popped up in original cast lists of Fielding plays, she’s appeared lurking around in various Hogarth prints, she took part in Christopher Smart’s Mother Midnight transvestite review. 


However, I first met her in the book Midnight Mirage by Karen Harper. I’d picked up that book at a bus stop for its garish cover but find inside a well researched and fascinating story taking characters from history, including Charlotte Cibber, who I’d described as ‘a liberated crossdresser who was much fun’.

I’ve had this biography sitting on my shelves for a number of years and I am so upset I hadn’t picked it up sooner, as it is a well told story about an engaging person living in a fascinating world. In some ways it would be much better to talk about Charlotte and define her separate from the men in her life but it’s not possible, the fact that she was daughter to a leading actor, that her older brother, Theophilus viewed the Drury Lane Theatre as his birthright; that she’d grown up into (what could have become) an acting dynasty, that she so identified life with theatre that she would always use a theatrical reference to explain it (like nerds and their media) and that she spent a large part of her career performing parodies of her male relatives, mean that she is inextricably linked to them. 

I really took to her as described in this book, much as I did in the novel. She seems to be such a resolute, playful individual. When her family disowned her, she simply worked for a rival theatre company. When the new licensing laws shut that down, she had elaborate puppets made and put on plays. When she got sick and had to sell the puppets (at a loss) she starts selling oil, then sausages, then becomes a strolling actor, then an author - she simply doesn’t give up. 

For a while she ran her own theatre company called the ‘Mad Company’. They performed The Beggar’s Opera in Roman dress and planned on a revival of Samuel ‘Magotty’ Johnson’s Hurlothrumbo with Charlotte as a cross-dressed Lord Flame (though whether is stilts, it wasn’t said). 

This was about the time Charlotte started dressing as a man off stage as well as on. Why, exactly she did it can only be speculated on, it probably fulfilled many different needs at different points in her life. It’s certain that she spent a period of her life as ‘Mr Brown’ with a woman known as ‘Mrs Brown’ but the extent of that relationship isn’t clear. Nor is it clear how much her crossdressing were factors in her family disowning her, but there is something fascinating about a woman who lived boldly as herself (whatever that self actually was).

I have Colley Cibber’s memoirs, I’d love a copy of Charlotte’s - though this biography gives us more just a life, it’s a really good summary of the politics and the precarious lives of actors. We also meet people like Theophilus, in the novel I described him as, “a selfish, vindictive, tosser who spends his wife’s money on gambling and has no theatrical knowhow.’ This book agrees that he was a difficult man but not that he was untalented. I was fascinated to learn that he was born during the Great Storm and saw that a metaphor for his life and relationships, finally he would die in a little storm in a boat travelling to Ireland. For all of his excesses (and it’s hard not to see him as a villain when it comes to Susannah Arne - the topic of the novel), I felt sorry for him. He was a man who could never quite become the person he thought he should, and he stuck with Charlotte when no one else did.

He deserved better, as did Charlotte - I’m beginning to think Colly deserved less. Thankfully though, Charlotte has received fair, even glowing treatment in this utterly readable and very interesting biography.






Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Popular Fiction by Women 1660-1730 (Title Page)




Having worked through this anthology systematically, it seemed sensible to have a page where each review can be linked to with maybe a small summary review of each piece.

This is that page.
The History of a Nun by Aphra Behn
A constant surprise and delight with a great ending.

The Secret History of Queen Zarah by Delrivier Manley (but not actually)
A little flat, not particularly sparkling characters but interesting to read after watching the film ‘The Favourite’.

Love Intrigues by Jane Barker
A well told story of miscommunicated love with a slightly disappointing ending.

The Adventures of the Count de Vinevil by Penelope Aubin
Racist, islamaphobic, all together icky and generally unpleasant which made in engaging in an anti-likeable way.

The British Recluse by Eliza Haywood
Well told brace of ‘rake’ stories which are good examples of their genre and don’t go on forever and have an empowering ending, unlike some (*cough* Clarissa *cough*).

Fantomina by Eliza Haywood
Utterly nutty and daft with a wonderfully batty story seen through to the bitter end. Best story here.

The Reformed Coquette by Mary Davys
Also wonderfully over the top, especially in terms of all the cartoony-sneaky rakes who want to abduct our heroine. Second best book here. 

Extracts from Friendship in Death by Elizabeth Singer Rowe
Perhaps this makes sense in full better than as extracts, but letters from dead people to living, telling them all the secrets they’ve learned since they died, it’s rather strange.




Sunday, 19 April 2020

Journal of the Plague Year 2020 (Entry Eight: The Easter Walk)




Entry Eight: An Easter Walk
(11.4.20-17.4.20)



Easter Sunday, I went for a stroll
Through empty streets to Gladstone Park
I wandered freely without a goal
Needing to leave behind home’s dark

Instead of left, I dared to turn right
Where daisies smiled, glad to be seen
Their petals were so brilliantly white
A star map spread out on the green

A dandelion yellow with its crown
Corona shining bright and gay
Another was decked in fleecy down
I blew the fairy seeds away

Off they flew like wishes or warning
Droplets in the air that morning







Entry One: A Cough in a Box (22.2.20 - 28.2.20)
(Coronavirus is a rumble among other stories but silly stories start early.)

Entry Two: Eat More Garlic (29.2.20 - 6.3.20) 
(A song and a wash, rising paranoia.)

Entry Three: A Guilty Sigh (7.3.20-13.3.20) 

(Confusion at school, a new variation on 'it' and a new chat up line.)

Entry Four: A Week as Schrödinger's cat (14.3.20-20.3.20) 

(A week at school where it's open, closed then repurposed as something else.)

Entry Five: Lego and Ice-cream (21.3.20-27.3.20)

(In which much of what we called life goes online.)

Entry Six: A Reverse Joker  (28.3.20-3.4.20)
(A trip to the supermarket in this new era.)

Entry Seven: Fine Dining (4.4.20 - 10.4.20)
(A posh dinner - ish.)

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Review: Friendship in Death by Elizabeth Singer Rowe


The last part of this anthology consists of only a selection from the text, which is a pity because if any text in this anthology deserves the chance to speak fully for itself it’s ‘Friendship in Death’ by Elizabeth Singer Rowe. The notion is not completely original, there’s a late classical model, but there’s something very strange about the central notion, dead people writing to the living.

The selection is such: The first is a letter to an atheist Lord from a friend declaring that atheism might not be the way forward; the second is the two year old son of a countess asking why she mourns his death when he’s having a great time with the cherubim, the third is a woman now glad she died before running off with a young lover, the fourth is a very confusing story about mislaid babies which may mean he is the recipient’s dead lover and brother and the fifth is a dead brother telling his sister how great it is to be dead.

It strikes me that this book points to the morbid and sentimental excesses of the Victorian Era in all of it’s cloying unpleasantness. Or it’s yet another innovative way to tell the same four stories about rakes, shepherds and such. I’m not sure. Perhaps it makes better sense as a whole.


Whichever it is, these extracts are such an unsettling and destabilising way of ending the anthology, I have to applaud them.


Sunday, 12 April 2020

Journal of the Plague Year 2020 (Entry Seven: Fine Dining)


Entry Seven: Fine Dining
(4.4.20-10.4.20)

On Saturday and Sunday I became gripped with an insatiable urge to clean everything. Each book was taken off the shelf and individually dusted, each bookcase washed down, all my trinkets and knick-knacks polished. I even pulled my bed out to the other side of the room to tackle the dust down there. This urge was abetted by my landlord’s installation of a washing machine in the unrented flat next door to use as a laundry room during this whole corona period. All day and deep into the night I was washing and drying all the various sheets and bits and bobs I’ve had laying around. 

For a break, I took my clothe’s horse down to the front of the house along with a chair and a book. There I sat, slightly jutting out on the path, enjoying some of the first good sun this year, a year mostly defined by rain and storm. Normally I wouldn’t consider sitting out on the street like that but all normality be hanged.

Politically, this was the week that the Queen gave a very measured speech and PM Boris Johnson was moved into intensive care but whereas I had found myself raking through twitter and reading all the news possible, I began to feel that a cursory glance is enough. Certainly, headlines about mass graves do not foster an attitude of ‘resilient good humour’.

On Thursday I took my official government mandated walk™ through Gladstone Park. The sun was shining and the sky was blue, everything was glorious and wonderful. I was naughty, sat on the grass a long way away from anyone else and just sat. After a while sitting became laying and after a while laying became snoozing. Suddenly, this almighty roar woke me and I sat straight up. What was that terrible racket? It was a plane. I grew up next to Gatwick Airport, I should not be surprised by a plane but there was something so violent about the noise, so strange seeing it lumber through the sky after only a few weeks not seeing one.

My nap interrupted, I started walking back home, half skipping through the grass, picking up white dandelions to blow on and let fly. As I was gambolling around, I felt a deep and wonderful peace with the world, then I slipped on a dogshit and fell over. Luckily I didn’t fall into it and I only had one shoe to clean but it ended my reverie for the moment. I plodded home, trying to scrape my shoes and watched a jogger run past me in a rainbow unicorn onesie and snowboots.

On Thursday night, I had something a little special planned. People at school were having a video formal dinner, the idea being to have something to dress up for and feel like there was something to look forward to. There was even a proper invite.


I tried to cook something sort of posh, more than my usual stews and curries.




I also dressed in my velvet jacket and bow tie, even lit a candle.


For most of the first bottle of wine, things were genteel. Then they deteriorated. Somewhere before the half bottle of Drambuie I danced with a chair. There were chats about body part names, a woman from South Africa who said that corona was saving lives because the murder rate was brought down, something about pom bear porn - porn bears? There was also a chat about people spending less time washing after the loo because they were so washed the other times, and a comment that the weekly clap for the NHS was the wildest thing happening in High Wickham these days.

After that, I’m not totally sure. I managed to get home to my bed from my table but I’m not completely sure how.


We plan to do it again next week.





Entry One: A Cough in a Box (22.2.20 - 28.2.20)
(Coronavirus is a rumble among other stories but silly stories start early.)

Entry Two: Eat More Garlic (29.2.20 - 6.3.20) 
(A song and a wash, rising paranoia.)

Entry Three: A Guilty Sigh (7.3.20-13.3.20) 

(Confusion at school, a new variation on 'it' and a new chat up line.)

Entry Four: A Week as Schrödinger's cat (14.3.20-20.3.20) 

(A week at school where it's open, closed then repurposed as something else.)

Entry Five: Lego and Ice-cream (21.3.20-27.3.20)

(In which much of what we called life goes online.)

Entry Six: A Reverse Joker  (28.3.20-3.4.20)
(A trip to the supermarket in this new era.)

Entry Seven: Fine Dining (4.4.20 - 10.4.20)

(A posh dinner - ish.)