Wednesday, 18 May 2022

'The Turkish Embassy Letters' at Dr Johnson's Reading Circle

The Dr Johnson Reading Circle can be a far flung lot. Some of us are in Switzerland, some in Cumbria, some flit between the US and UK - some even live in Ealing. There were a fair amount of travels in the eighteenth-century but for all the young men going on the Grand Tour, there were few people travelling as far as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. We sat, five days before her 333rd birthday and discussed The Turkish Embassy Letters.

Travelling to Turkey, pregnant and with a young daughter, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu made the best of her situation. Not only did she travel with her bed, she travelled with an open mind and a smart, witty pen. 

The journey to Turkey exercised her snarky voice more than her open one. She laughs at a private collection for having nothing old in it and laughs harder when the curator protests that some of the exhibits have been on the shelf for almost forty years. She derides the overdecorated reliquaries as being a waste of jewels and describes a church full of statues as looking like a toy shop. What’s more, following a stay in Vienna, Montagu concludes that the people can’t dance, have been dancing the same old dances for too long and need to come up with something new. They’d get there eventually. There was also a page on the Tuscan practise of the cicisbeo, which would have been handy during our reading of Elizabeth Griffith’s The Times.

However, the letters really open up when she starts to mix with Turkish culture. Her first encounter is with an effendi called Achmed Bey (but not the famous one). First, he surprises her by having a well-stocked wine cellar. He argues that seeing as God made grapes and grape make wine, a little tipple is quite acceptable but that alcohol causes problems in bulk and so the laws against it protects the average person. She’s very taken with this argument and repeats it a number of times, it seems to indicate to her that things aren’t all haram or halal, there is room for rational discussion and decision. If anything, it shows an openness on the part of the scholars of Islam. He also shows her Arabic poetry and tries to explain it to her. She’s immediately entranced by it, enjoying the different qualities it has to the poetry she is used to and attempting her own translations of it to send to Alexander Pope. 

When she arrived in Turkey, she delighted in the differences, correcting many of the assumptions her correspondents wrote to her with. She very curtly informs a well-to-do lady that she will not be bringing back a slave in her duty-free for her, though she’s happy to bring back colourful outfits and the mysterious ‘Balm of Mecca’, a skin cream which may have been very effective once the swelling went down. She also buys a mummy at one point.

Montagu was very aware of the travel and fictional literature that dealt with the Islamic world and she repeatedly informs her correspondents that she will have to disappoint their romantic notions by writing nothing but the truth. However, when she does come across something incredible, like the Sultana’s outfit (the gems of which she tots up in her head), she can’t help but be reminded of the Arabian Nights.

Other than her openness to Islamic culture and her rigid preference for the truth, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu stands out for her gender. Being a woman she was able to go into the women’s spaces, the baths and harems, and report on them. First, she is taken with the looks of the women she sees, almost all of them are described as beautiful and she takes particular notice of their flawless skin (having suffered heavily from the smallpox herself). She finds the bath-houses places of beauty and luxury, where women are naked together, something which dampens class differences and brings them together. She doesn’t get naked herself, and the women in the bath mistake her stays to be some sort of chastity cage she has been put in by her husband.

She revels in women only spaces, feeling a freedom from men that she finds impossible in her English life. What’s more, women were given a financial independence that meant a rich Turkish wife could live in luxury and could even slip out with the handy anonymity of the veil. This independence made the rich wives of Turkey “the only free people in the Empire” as she saw it, and possibly the freest people alive. 

Unfortunately, her time in Turkey didn’t last very long. Her husband was relieved of his position as ambassador and they had to travel back to Britain’s “scanty allowance of daylight.” As well as her silks, her mummy, copies of Arabic poetry and a new daughter - she also brought back a common Turkish medical practice. The practice of inoculation against smallpox. Not only had she been disfigured by the disease, her brother had died and so her son was the first English person to undergo inoculation, where a little smallpox was introduced to a patient to build their immunity. Her young daughter was the first to have the procedure done inside the UK and, after an experiment with condemned prisoners, she managed to get the Princess of Wales on board. Although Edward Jenner would later create vaccination from cowpox, her own push for inoculation started the process that lead to smallpox being the only disease eradicated through human action and she is remembered for it in a plaque in Johnson’s own hometown of Lichfield.

We enjoyed these letters. They showed a wide open curiosity with a dedication to true reportage, they opened doors locked to most travellers at the time and they were quick and fun to read. They show a genuine letter writer ‘writing to the moment’ and really crafting those letters for different audiences. She’s cultural writing to Pope, warm to her sister and utterly businesslike and cold to her husband. He was hardly mentioned in the letters but he does not come off very well at all. One of our earlier forays into the eighteenth century, I think we’d all be happy to recommend The Turkish Embassy Letters.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

The Books I Read in France

 Naturally, my going to France in April meant that my reading theme for the month was French books. In the end, what with going to Disney and exploring Paris, I didn’t get through as many books as I may have. 

First I read Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac. 

The family Grandet are so well described by the description of their house, an old, rundown and pleasureless place where very little ever happens. Eugénie spends the first twenty-three years in the house, quietly sewing next to her mother, being doled out her lunch of a bit of bread and some fruit in the morning and not really noticing how stultifying her life is. Her mother accepts this life because she aspires to sainthood, her father is the cause of it. The older Grandet was a cooper who has moved into landowning and wine production thanks to the dowry from his marriage, essentially it was his wife’s money but he hangs onto it tightly and grows it at the expense of everyone else. He institutes a threadbare, thrifty lifestyle on his family, who fear even small expenses like a little extra sugar or some butter for their slice of bread. What’s more his lust for gold, spurs him to become an almost supernaturally successful businessman, causing a mixture of envy and admiration from his neighbours.

Neighbours are important in this book. It’s set in a small town and gossip is almost a character in itself. As well as gossip about Grandet’s finances, there’s gossip about the status of his daughter, Eugénie. There are two camps that do what they can to inveigle their way into the Grandet household in order to marry her, despite the fact that she has no particular feelings for them and they have none for her. Eugénie is trapped in a world where money is the only real value and she is seen as the valuable inheritor of Grandet’s finances.

This all changes with the sudden arrival of her cousin, Charles. He’s from Paris, he’s handsome and because he was given the impression that his uncle was a rich country gent, he is dressed in all his best togs with a beautiful travelling case. Eugénie  gets her mother and their faithful servant, Manon to give Charles luxuries they don’t have, like a heated room and a decent lunch. There’s an element of naughtiness to their hospitality as the older Grandet would be (and is ) utterly against it. What Charles doesn’t know is that he’s been sent to the country because his father has become a bankrupt and shot himself, leaving the young man with nothing. While this makes him a burden in Grandet’s eyes, it makes him more approachable and human to Eugénie and they have a short but fulfilling romance which culminates in a kiss. This is where Balzac is a cruel bastard, as he reveals to the reader that Charles isn’t some sensitive, deep-hearted figure but is just as greedy and grasping as everyone else in the world. It just so happens that Eugénie meets him at a moment when he is down and vulnerable. She gives him twenty-three rare gold coins, her lifelong birthday presents, to set him up in his new career in the West Indies. He leaves his travelling case, declaring it the most important item to him.

The handling of time in this novel is rather odd. After a timeless description of the house and how it’s been going for twenty-odd years, the bulk of the action happens over a week. Starting with a party where the rivals for Eugénie’s hand try and schmooze, the arrival of Charles, the period of romance, the exchange of the coins - it’s all in a tiny time. We then build up months to the New Year, when Grandet likes to see Eugénie’s coins. It’s tense. We know she doesn’t have them and we know he’ll be furious about it. We also learn of his dodgy financial wheelings and dealings.

When the confrontation about the coins comes, it is explosive. At one point Grandet threatens to damage Charles’s precious travelling case with a knife and Eugénie threatens herself with a knife in reply. The shock brings Eugénie’s mother onto a spiral of illness, and Eugénie herself is locked up with only bread and water. However, as her mum dies, she feels closer to God and as Eugénie suffers, she knows it was for the good of her beloved - so there’s a certain purpose and positivity to the suffering. 

Then there’s another sweep in time. Following Eugénie’s mother’s death, Grandet gets Eugénie to sign her inheritance to him but as time flies, Grandet gets old and dies, leaving Eugénie a rich woman. She patiently awaits Charles, who returns to Paris after his years in the West Indies a loveless and greedy man who is engaged to a poor but titled woman. Although she has been hanging deeply on his memory and also his travelling case, he has forgotten her and asks for the travelling case as an afterthought. Eugénie then marries one of the people she had no interest in and carries on living her dry, dusty life, following the habits Grandet instilled in her as a child.

It’s a cruel book. There is another way this story could have been told, with a deathbed redemption of the miser, a return of the golden young man or with the character of Eugénie finding something that makes life worthwhile to her - and I think many authors would have taken this options, as it is, this is a murmured tragedy of lives quietly wasted and its powerful for that. I found it powerful and sad in a quiet way and I’m interested to see what else Balzac has in his rather large body of work.

The next I read was Scenes from the Latin Quarter by Henri Murger  which should have annoyed me. The lives of amoral, egotistic, snotbags who think they are a special kind of person because they make ‘art’ usually turn me right off - I hated ‘Rent’. But I loved this book, finding the characters very endearing and their stories funny.

One of the main reasons I think I enjoyed this, is because the Bohemian society at the centre of this book (Schuanard, Marcel, Colline and Rodolphe) know that they are only going through a phase in their life and hope (if they survive it) to come out the other side as respectable artists. Nor do they display a feeling of superiority about their way of life, they don’t think they are better people for their hardships, nor do they think poverty improves their art. Indeed, there is a group of artists in a different club called ‘the water drinkers’ who ban one of their members because he’ll take up commercial uses for his sculpting skills and the main Bohemian club in the book feel the water drinkers are pretty stupid for this attitude. 

The reader is introduced to Schuanard the musician first and I thought he was to be the main character. He’s the tricksiest of the group, a scourge on landlords everywhere. We meet him slipping out of a room he can’t pay for and, with a series of slights-of-hand, becomes the co-renter with the artist, Marcel. A lady’s man, he has one trick where he uses fake coins to trick dancing girls to go out with him. His nightwear is one of the dancing girl’s pink petticoats. When the characters of the the men’s girlfriends enter the picture, he is paired up with the wildest, Phéme. Although he’s the catalyst for the group to get together, he becomes the least mentioned of the main four. I loved the story of how he comes into some money by playing very loudly and badly on a piano to annoy a rich man’s next door neighbour.

The next we meet is Marcel. He’s a painter who is originally flush with cash but, like all the characters when they come into money, seems to get through it quickly. He’s been painting a depiction of the Egyptians being swept by the Red Sea for four years but it keeps being sent back. He retools the painting to depict other things but that doesn’t work either. Later, he makes a small fortune selling it for an inn-sign. His girlfriend is Musette. She’s a beautiful courtesan and the two of them fall in love despite knowing that it can’t last, as Musette will have to go with someone richer eventually. Even when she does leave, she is still romantically entwined, dropping a rich keeper to spend time with him whenever he’s in funds.

Then we meet Colline the philosopher. I mainly liked him for his large, hazel overcoat filled with books. I have a large, old coat that often has a book in the pockets but he has an entire library. It’s even organised with a ‘foreign languages’ pocket. He considers a day lost when he doesn’t buy at least one book, I know how he feels. His romantic partner is never named or seen, though we are told he has one. He’s probably the most stable of the four, whatever that’s worth.

Finally we meet Rodolphe the writer, who becomes the main focus of the book. He is the editor of a fashion magazine and the trade magazine for hat writers but he gets called to do other commissions, such as when his uncle locks him in a house with no clothes to write a book on wood-burning stoves. He falls in love with Mimi, and theirs is the most fractious relationship in the book. It’s presented as semi-abusive, with he being on the alert for other lovers and she looking for them. Eventually, she’s the one to suffer the emotional death. 

I think my fondness for this book was helped by the fact that I read it eight floors up in a Parisian loft, with a view of the rooftops and the Sacré-Cœur glowing on the hill. It also helped that I have been a grubbing writer for the last twenty years and have served my time in my own bohemia. Like the people in the book I experienced real want and hunger but I also found true friendship and kindness. Despite their messy lives, it’s the friendship of the four men that shines most in this book. 

Next I read The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola.

It had a really striking beginning; a man who had been starving for over ten years in a hellish prison camp has managed to escape back to France and has made it to the outskirts of Paris only to not recognise the city he called home after its renovation under Napoleon III. He faints on the bridge and is take to Les Halles, Paris’s new state-of-the-art marketplace under steel and glass pavilions, a starving man surrounded by food. The descriptions of the vegetables being unloaded in the early morning light were painterly, a watercolour in blues and purples with the greens of the vegetables becoming more striking as the sun rises.

Each of the (absurdly long) chapters has a particular food to theme it. The fresh healthiness of the vegetables in chapter one, the luxury of the charcuterie products in the second, the queasy, slippery beauty of the fish in the third - these become increasingly unpleasant, reaching in a musical symphony of cheese-smells. These food descriptions take up a lot of the page-space but are not only wonderfully done, but make a point about the obscene plenty that is rushing into Paris at the time.

An alternative English title of this book is Thins and Fats. It could be easy to see this as have and have-nots or rich and poor, but it’s not. Most of the characters in this book are Fats, even the poor woman who eats table scraps from posh events and the two street urchins who live in the crevices of the market. The difference is not how much the person receives but their satisfaction. The Fats are the satisfied, comfortable people, happy with the status-quo and afraid of anyone causing disruption. Florent, our main character, is a Thin, he’s hungry for change, particularly political change and his hunger is a threat to the Fats around him.

This is a book with some really striking scenes. The one where Florent has his little niece Pauline on his lap and is describing his escape from a prison camp, including the bodies of those less lucky pulsating with all the crabs inside eating them - while Florent’s brother and assistant are making black pudding, is a highlight. I also liked how the people became the food they worked with, whether they became like a ham, had buttery skin, smelled of flowers, had slippery hands like a fish - in this world you aren’t only what you eat, but what you worked with.

It was also interesting how the market is a woman’s world. Not only are women the main store-holders and customers but all the men in the book are cowed under them. Their strength, heartiness and physicality is almost fetishised by the writer who takes rather more pleasure in describing big bosomed women having a scrap than he possibly should have.

Another striking element of the book is how the ending is sealed in place before the book even begins. Like Jean Valjean, Florent is marked and there is no going back, only onwards to the last line, which almost acts as a sardonic punchline to the whole book.

My last French book was another Zola, Zest for Life (as my translation called it - had Iggy Pop in my head for ages). I chose this because the main character was someone I had met before, Pauline, the daughter of the charcuterie owners in the previous book. I needed have bothered, it says very quickly that Pauline forgot her old Paris life and she was essentially a different character. The prissy, over-dressed, over-indulged little girl we met in that book only really came through to this one on her satisfaction in life.. her Zest for Life perhaps. Though, this book being French, the happy title is bitterly ironic.

Although there’s no real carry-through of Pauline’s character or experiences from The Belly of Paris, Zest for Life could be seen as a mirror-image of it. In ‘Belly’, a Thin - or unsatisfied person, is shopped by the whole market society of Fats - those satisfied with the status-quo. In ‘Zest’, a Fat, satisfied person is strip-mined of everything she has by a group of unsatisfied Thins. 

In some ways, the book surprised me. My blurb gave the entire plot away beat by beat, so I was expecting the family Pauline moves in with to be unpleasant and abusive. They aren’t, they love her and the love lasts a long time until the son is ruined by university and launches on a bunch of daft schemes he doesn’t have the stickability to make work. To aid these schemes, his mother starts taking Pauline’s inheritance, which makes her hate Pauline. What’s more, Pauline falls in love with this son, Lazare. She not only sacrifices her inheritance but also her time, patience, love and essentially life to this worthless man. It’s one of those loves where the reader feels that if Pauline had met any other male her age, then she wouldn’t be in love with Lazare. It’s a very frustrating relationship and turns the book into a slog.

Another element that turns the book into a slog is how unrelentingly bleak it is. At one point one character has a fever near to death, then there is a huge gout attack, then someone has dropsy and dies, then another massive gout attack and then most prolonged, painful and claustrophobic descriptions of a difficult birth I’ve ever read, then another gout attack - all while Lazare is moping about in that solid steel egocentric bubble that comes over a person with depression. It’s exhausting.

Then there’s a surprise suicide at the end and, like the other Zola book I’ve read, the last line comes across as a sort of summary/bad-taste punchline to the rest of the book.

I did enjoy my French books though I was rather hemmed in by tragedy and weighed down by stories of money. Something I had little of when I returned from Paris.

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

My Trip to France

 During the Easter Holidays, my parents, my sister, her fiancé and I went to Disneyland Paris. The trip was a present to my sister for her 30th birthday, which had been during 2020 and so we didn’t get around to it until 2022. Here’s a couple of photos from Disney.

It was a strange place. We went one week away from its own 30th birthday and big chunks were closed off or covered by scaffolding, even parts of the front entrance. However, I do love the themed lands, enjoy a bit of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and found the Alice and Wonderland maze really fun. We had a good time and even had a meal at Remy the rat’s restaurant in Ratatouille. 

After a few days in the park, we spent one in Paris, where my family went home and I stayed a few days in the city by myself. My airbnb was up 6 flights of a very well worn staircase with decorative iron banisters with flakey red paint. From my windows I saw the rooftops of Paris and the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur lit up. I’d highly recommend where I stayed, on Rue de Lancry near the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th Arrondissement. 

I spent the next few days eating as much pastry as possible, even managing score a free chocolate beignet from one place. As well as this, I explored. 

The first day I hopped on the Metro to Notre Dame Cathedral. Of course it wasn’t possible to go in, with the fire they had in 2019 but the hoardings around the site gave really interesting information about the building and the new things they were learning about the cathedral in rebuilding parts of it. Also, as I walked around, it was possible to see support timbers and parts of the building never usually seen - so it wasn’t a total waste. Also it was fun walking down the Seine and seeing the little bookshops.

Another draw near Notre Dame was Shakespeare and Company, the American bookshop where writers in the early 20th century would crash and use as a base in Paris, also the first place to publish Joyce’s Ulysses - except it’s not. It’s a bookshop run under similar principles though and still a pretty special place. The downstairs is a normal bookshop but the upstairs is a wonderful hodgepodge of books pile everywhere as well as places to sit. I sat in a warm, comfortable room with sunlight pouring in, reading a really interesting looking book about a gay man comparing himself to a witch (I wrote the name of him and the book in my notebook.. but more about that later). As I read, the bookshop’s cat came and slumbered on my lap, purring. It’s a pretty special place.

After that I crossed a bridge and went to the Conciergerie. Originally a palace built by Phillip the Fair, you were ushered into this huge room with gothic columns. It has been the soldier’s mess hall when first built but took in a number of other roles too. Along from that was the kitchens, a round stone room with four huge fireplaces. Along from the hall were recreations of prison cells. After its use as a palace it became a courthouse and prison, becoming the main prison of the revolutionary period. Four-thousand people were sentenced to the guillotine there, including Marie Antoinette and Robespierre.

It was interesting reading the justifications of the time known to British people as The Terror. There were videos with historians arguing that the system was far fairer than under kings, that there was a kind of court in place, that they processed cases quickly instead of keeping people in prison for a long time. There was even a historian arguing how the guillotine was revolutionary in its fairness as kings and commoners alike had the same method of execution. Apparently the revolutionary government planned to abolish the death penalty but never found the time quite right.

It was a fascinating place to visit, seeing the cells and the place where Marie Antoinette was kept. The experience is added to, by an augmented reality system called histopad which showed you recreations of the places you stood at different time periods as you looked through it. They also had a silly thing where you could put your face in historic people’s portraits. I did a few but it unfortunately only sent the one of me as Robespierre.

I continued my wanderings, nearly being sold seventy euros of nougat, looking at the church of St Surplice and coming into the back of the Luxembourg Gardens. I didn’t know what they were but found them very charming, with little formal gardens and statues, including the first model of the Statue of Liberty. There were chairs littered about that everyone could sit on, which I thought was a good touch, and much better than Green Park’s deckchair hiring scam. Then I turned round, saw that I’d been walking in the shadow of a massive and very beautiful palace. There were people singing in a bandstand and I sat in the sun and soaked up the songs and atmosphere for a while.

Then I went to the Place de Edmond Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac shout-out) to the Panthéon. Originally started as a church dedicated to Paris’s patron saint (the very cool St Genevive who stood up to Atilla the Hun and Frank invaders) the revolution abolished religion and the building became a secular temple. It’s the strangest place. It looks like a church, feels like a church, they even have churchy music playing every now and then but instead of an altar, there’s a huge statue of France. The vaults hold a number of France’s most revered people including Voltaire, Rousseau, Dumas and Zola. The Curies are also down there and the man who invented Braille. It’s odd, these vaults are open to the public and you just wander about to see who’s buried where.. there’s a lot of space for future people. I picked up a copy of Zola’s The Belly of Paris there and a little bust of Voltaire for my bookcase.

The next day was calmer. I walked from my place to Montmartre, sat and read my book in the gardens and then wandered the streets taking in Le Lapin Agile, seeing Satie’s house and then going to Montmartre Cemetery, which feels like a little town for the dead. I saw graves of the inventor of the saxophone, of the can-can, of numerous artists, of Foucault and I read a chapter of Henry Murger’s Scenes from the Latin Quarter on a bench next to his grave. 

That night I joined a singalong in a bar on the street I was staying. There was a disco and I danced, I drank, I spent all the money I had and I got on the Eurostar the next morning with a very sore head and my notebook somewhere in a Paris bar. I loved my couple of days in Paris, found the people very friendly and the city very safe and easy to navigate. I’m tempted to go again sometime.

(It is crazy how often they change their street names though.)

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

Review: The Heavens by Sandra Newman


I read this book last year and found it very intriguing, as well as a spot-on look at what it means to be a Millennial this days. It's the book that inspired me to make a pile of other time travel books and I think I wrote a decent review - not filler, honestly - I'm not posting filler (mumble, mumble, cough).

The Heavens is a strange mix of time-slip, love-story, dystopia and possibly schizophrenia story but if it’s about anything, it seems to be about the experience of being a Millennial. Born as the cold war ended, growing up in a time of relative peace and prosperity (in some countries anyway) but as we reached adulthood 9/11 happened, the war on terror, the credit crunch and austerity stripping all health and social care. Compared to the optimism we were born to, the world now seems like a dystopia. 

Ben and Kate meet at a party in 2000, but it’s not quite the 2000 we know, the world has had a year without war and the human race seems to have really made a good start at tackling climate change. For much of her life, Kate has had a vivid dream life but now she finds herself going back in time in her sleep and living the life of Emilia Lanier, an Elizabethan poet and possibly Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’.

Every time she wakes up from the dream world, the modern world has started to shift, at first in small ways but these accumulate quickly. What’s more, these shifts are to a world grimmer than the one she remembers, both for her personally and in general geo-political terms. This element was my favourite in the book, seeing how the characters we know have subtly changed in accordance with the world around them. It also means this is a love story where we don’t completely understand the progress of Ben and Kate’s relationship, as it’s rewritten every time she wakes up. At first her friends see her confusion at the world as a quirky ‘Kate’ thing but as things change more, they start to feel she is seriously ill and she is diagnosed as schizophrenic.
Some people read this as a book as one about schizophrenia but if she were schizophrenic, the reality of 2001 would have stabilised once she reached ours, especially as she is declared ‘better’ near the end of the book. As such the world becomes worse than ours; the mental ward with branded clothes and adverts is not our reality, not to mention talk of having launched pre-emptive nuclear weapons and a more draconian version of the patriot act. I think this makes it clear that she has been time-travelling and the world really has been changing around her.

What’s more, she’s not the only time-traveller. Before she met Shakespeare as Emilia, he also time-travelled in his sleep to help the rise in Alexander the Great, who had himself time travelled as Cassandra and seen the fall of Troy. He’s put that behind him now and is working on becoming a renowned writer, which she helps with. In the present day, she also meets José who is also a time-traveller and explains the whole deal. Time-travel was invented in the future but only worked with certain people, it caused a chain reaction that meant that each time-traveller helps the previous one become a ‘great person’ in history and later become one themselves. This has a negative side effect, each time-traveller that becomes a ‘great person’ sours the future and brings the coming apocalypse closer, so while Kate has been helping Shakespeare as Emilia, she’s been making her own present worse.

The solution would be for Kate to break the chain, to not become a ‘great person’, which José fro the future describes as a grassroots leader of some kind of rebellion but at the end of the book, Kate is doing just that, claiming that she can’t save the world so she may as well be happy. I can’t say I thought this ended the book on a hopeful note, by the end. It’s the same whistling into oblivion attitude we’ve all adopted to climate change and other existential terrors, the Millennial non-answer.
As a book, I was gripped by the way Kate’s reality shifted under her and the implications of the form of time-travel though I found the Elizabethan stuff a bit hey-nonny-nonny-ish for my taste. The book successfully encapsulates the feeling of being in a world that looks nothing like (and is far more threatening than) the one we were promised as children and sadly reaches the conclusion of wilful ignorance that seems to be one of the only ways to cope with that.

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Review: The Memoirs of XXXX (Part Three: Johnson and Psalmanazar, a note on the preface)

I wish Johnson has written more about his Grub Street Years. So much about his character in his older, more settled years seems to stem from the unsettled years of hack writerdom. One thing we know is that Johnson made some friendships that seemed baffling to Boswell and those who knew him later. One glimpse at these lesser-known years is Johnson’s biography of Richard Savage, a friendship based on politics and poetry. 

Another strange friendship was his one with George Psalmanazar. Indeed, Johnson describes Psalmanazar in ideal terms, describing him as the best man he’s ever met who “was so well known and esteemed, that scarce any person, even children, passed him without showing him signs of respect”. Johnson, in his later years, was a huge enemy of fraud, being of the team of experts being sent to uncover the truth of the Cock Lane Ghost and being a relentless doubter of the Ossian papers yet he speaks of the Formosan Fraud with nothing but glowing terms. Why is that?

I think the biggest clue to Johnson’s respect for Psalmanazar can be found in preface to the memoirs, a thirty page essay on redemption and the pursuit of a Godly life. It’s essentially a sermon and it reads a lot like Johnson’s writing. Psalmanazar uses the very Johnsonian technique of threes, putting three supporting points into a long sentence to create a full argument. The rhythms are like a Rambler essay with their very controlled movement between ideas. His use of alliteration, talking about ‘passions and prejudice’ sound like Johnson and he even does the classic Johnson move of using metaphors with strong verbs, like when he described life as ‘wading into a stormy sea.’ Honestly, the preface reads like vintage Johnson. 

What’s more, the ideas are very Johnsonian. The beginning of the preface is about how he has been conducting his turn to God. He disputes the claim that such belief can be sustained on reason alone and that to follow a Godly life, there needs to be an element of faith as human reason is not strong enough to sustain it. This sounds very much like Johnson’s own doubts of the strength of human reason when faced with human passion and links to Johnson’s strong belief in hope and faith as a way to keep strong and good. 

Psalmanazar talks about how making the decision to lead a good life and commit to God is a good one but making that commitment is the job finished. A person needs not to be complacent and to remain ever vigilant that they are continuing on the right path. This also seems like very Johnsonian advice, ever mindful of human weakness, he believed that a person should check on themselves periodically and keep relationships in good repair. Similarly, both Johnson and Psalmanazar would sit and write formal prayers on feast days, fast days and on days of personal significance.

Psalmanazar also talks about how he is to live in hope of redemption and strive for the best without the certainty that he’d done enough to fix the mistakes of his past. Johnson similarly was very concerned he might not have done to be in God’s good books and could only hope.

It could be that the two discussed religion and writing, it’s almost certain they did. Reading Psalmanazar’s preface it doesn’t seem impossible that he rubbed off on Johnson a little and that the younger Samuel took Psalmanazar’s example as he wrote his own works. The similarities could also be that they both were fans of similar work, both found William Law’s ‘A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life’ important in their religious development. For Johnson, who’d taken to mocking christianity in his teen years, it was the book that set him back on the path of Christianity and for Psalmanazar, it was the book that helped him turn a wish to change from his days as a fraud into practical action. 

In my reading of Psalmanazar’s Memoirs, I expected the details of the fraud to be the part that most engaged me, however it was the second part, detailing his life in Grub Street that grabbed me more and also the preface - the preface is a mini marvel.

Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Review: Memoirs of XXX by George Psalmanazar (Part Two: Descent into Grub Street)

When we last left George Psalmanazar, he’d been discovered by a shady Scottish clergyman who’d coached him in how to keeping his story straight, baptised him into the Church of England and declared to British society that he was a Formosan. 

It’s not that Psalmanazar was completely believed, there were numerous debates. One was at the Royal Society where Edmund Halley tripped Psalmanazar up with facts and logic, asking him a question about how the stars would look and pointing out that Psalmanazar’s answer couldn’t be the case. However, Psalmanazar was a great improvisor by now and said that in his part of Formosa, the people lived underground and saw the stars through angled chimneys that changed the view. This claim about living underground also explained why he was pale with blonde hair, only poor Formosans lived outside and tanned. One of the biggest doubters was a French Jesuit who’d been to Japan and people were more invested in not believing the Jesuit than they were to doubt the Formosan. 

Psalmanazar was also helped in his deception by the truly peculiar accent he’d picked up in his travels, which made him sound like he was from anywhere and nowhere. Another help was Psalmanazar’s invented Formosan language, which he’d become very fluent in, translating the Anglican Book of Common Prayer into it to present to the Bishop of London. It’s since been lost and if anyone has the patience and know-how, it’d be a great thing to forge a copy. I’d love a furore about a forged copy of a fraudulent document, it’d be great.

Another factor that helped Psalmanazar’s deception was the fact that there was no greater purpose behind it. He wasn’t a deep-cover operative for the Catholic church designed to make the Anglicans look silly, nor was he connected or supported to any other cause. He was simply an imaginative young man who, through a series of daft circumstances, found himself trapped in the persona of an exotic traveller and newly Christian convert. He says that he already felt things had got too far at this point but he was too deep into the deception to back out. 

One of the rules he set himself was to never change anything he’d previously stated about his past or his supposed country of origin. For this reason, he’d now established that most Formosans lived underground where they were naked except for a gold plate over their genitals, that the men were polygamous and the husband was allowed to eat wives that strayed. He also found himself committed to the ‘fact’ that Formosans committed a great deal of human sacrifice. So much sacrifice that the more canny mathematicians in the audience wondered how the population grew at all, leading to more claims about the fecundity of Formosan women. These tales eventually went into his book An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan which he wrote in Cambridge whilst supposedly preparing a course in Formosan language for future missionaries. Even there he added more deceptions, sleeping with his candles burning so it looked like he worked all night as well as all day. Later in his life, he was glad that the stories he’d constructed were so ludicrous as it would make them more obviously false to future readers.

The book was a success, running two editions quite quickly, but Psalmanazar didn’t get rich off it. As interest in him waned, he tried to patent a white form of the black lacquer known as Japan-ware but it didn’t sell. He also took to painting fans with fake Formosan scenes but they didn’t take off either. This was his dark times where nothing went right for him and. “I seldom failed at reaping some pungent shame, mortification, or disgrace, where I expected approbation and applause,” - we’ve all been there. In the end he descended into the anonymous depths of being a Grub Street hack.

I imagine most readers find the end of this book ‘the boring bit’ but for someone with an interest in the lives of Grub Street, I actually found it the most fascinating part of the book. Psalmanazar, always interested in languages, taught himself Hebrew, partly by hanging around East London synagogues. He wrote a tragi-comic play in Hebrew which, unsurprisingly, didn’t do very well. Later he wrote a sequel to Pamela and sent it to Richardson who described it as, ‘ridiculous and improbable’. (I imagine it’d have been very entertaining though).

Psalmanazar took part in a number of larger projects, including  A General History of Printing and a number of chapters for A Complete System of Geography, where he wrote about the real Formosa and, for the first time, admitted his fraud in print. The last twenty pages of the book are about his involvement in the Universal History, a huge multi-author attempt to write a history of everywhere, everywhen. We get as real sense of the bickering and in-fighting that went into a project like this, and a real sense of what it was to be a Grub Street hack, slaving everyday on one of the many big anthologies that were the key staple for many writers. Psalmanazar was given a number of chunks to write but his biggest, and the work he was proudest of, was his history of the Jewish people. Presumably he was chosen because he could read Hebrew. Unlike other writers on the project who were late with deadlines or didn’t do the research, he wrote his chapters on time and with great diligence. Also, unlike the writer of the Roman sections, he didn’t try and take up more than his space. Psalmanazar is polite about his colleagues but it’s clear that whoever wrote the Roman sections really pissed him off. For the first part, the un-named writer clearly thought his topic the prestigious section of the book and handed in too much, at the detriment to the other sections. For the second, the writers had made an agreement that where a conflict happens, the history of that conflict would be written by the person writing the history of the location of that conflict. The Roman writer ignored this, butting his elbows into the other people’s history when the Romans invaded and, in the case of the Jewish Wars, doing it half-arsedly.

The book then cuts off at the end of this section without a conclusion, I imagine he died before he could finish it.

I read these memoirs expecting to find a cheeky little trickster who enjoyed his scam and had lots of fun, instead I found a man deeply sorry for his imposture and deeply driven by a religious need to atone for that. The book has a heavily moral tone throughout but it comes across as deeply felt, this is no ‘sorry/not-sorry’ type of books but a true confession of a man who, I think, didn’t do much that was wrong. His life could be seen as one with the high-point of his entrance into England and a slow decline after but that’s not how it seems reading him. He talks about his Hebrew studies like a giddy fan, delighted in the new vistas of knowledge opening to him and about his hack writing as a good piece of solid work he can be proud of. He’s far prouder of his Jewish history than his fake Formosan one and if he did suffer from hunger and discomfort in his Grub Street years, his long life and positive attitude did not show it. He seems happiest as an anonymous yet diligent writer and that’s quite cheering.

Next week I want to talk about his connection with Samuel Johnson.


Wednesday, 6 April 2022

Review: Memoirs of XXX by George Psalmanazar (Part One: The Road to Britain)

I first heard of George Psalmanazar the same place I heard of Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates and William McGonagall, Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins. I was also aware that the young Samuel Johnson was friends with him during Johnson’s Grub Street years. My interest in him was re-ignited when I read a number of books and saw the film about Princess Caraboo - both were claimed to be foreigners from distant lands and both created their own distinct writing styles and languages to convince others of their foreignness. The main difference was, Psalmanazar wrote his own confession.

The book starts with Psalmanazar’s will, where he entrusted his executors with a number of papers, some work on the Hebrew language and his memoir. He hopes the publication of the papers will pay off any remaining debts and also the cheapest funeral possible, desiring to be buried in ‘the common burying ground, and there interred in some obscure corner of it’, ‘performed in the lowest and cheapest manner’ and without a coffin. These instructions may be reflective of his financial situation, his guilt over his imposture or even for a slightly more ghoulish reason. Before this quiet burial he wishes that his body be ‘kept so long above ground, for as long as decency or conveniency will permit’, in other words, till he is not fresh enough to be taken by bodysnatchers. The formally famous Formosan fraud may well have been a tempting proposition to a resurrection man and keeping the body out for a while before dumping it quietly and unmarked in a common grave may have been the best preventative.

The work proper starts with a lengthy preface, which I imagine is often skipped over but I found a fascinating piece in itself. What starts as an account of his state of mind in beginning his memoirs becomes a sermon about the possibility of repentance and change. These ideas feel honest and are beautifully expressed, it seems he felt real shame for his lies and that they’d been eating him up inside his whole life. One of the reasons he wanted the memoirs published posthumously was the embarrassment of admitting that he’d lied about who he was and been believed by some truly good people whom he couldn’t face. He seems more repentant than his acts really deserve, as most of the public would have either forgotten about him or remembered the brief Formosa craze as a fun memory.

It’s also in the preface where he talks about his drug addiction. That he first took Laudanum to look cool and debonair, finding that he was pretty resistant to its more pernicious effects. When asked about his habit in the past, he’d recommended taking it with orange juice, having heard that the acid dialled down the mania but maintained the high. He recounts how he tried to go cold-turkey, which was okay in the summer but he found hard in the winter. In the end he settled on twelve drops (just under a grain of opium) in a mug of punch at the end of a long day writing. He claimed this not only kept him going but may be responsible for his good health, after all, he did die at the age of eighty-four.

Psalmanazar fails to give the main details of his life in the memoirs. He never says exactly where he was born and grew up (though it’s supposed somewhere in the Gascon region of France) or what is actual name is. He says this is so that his family would never have to hear of his shame. He does say that his father was of a noble family that had lost its fortune and had gone to Germany to seek work while he stayed at home with his mother. 

A bright child, Psalmanazar took to Latin very quickly and was soon at the top of the top class, outperforming students twice his age. Given this aptitude, his mother sought places to further his education. The first was in a private school where the tutor was very knowledgeable about logic but found it harder to lecture on metaphysics or ethics. However, the tutor was really taken by the young prodigy and signed papers to say he had passed the courses, which allowed him to go to university at the age of sixteen. University was very different and there were no allowances given to his youth or the gaps in his knowledge, which made him give up on them. His later self declares that he was lazy and proud, the two faults which were to drive his life. Even at this later date, he mainly blames the teachers and institutions he fell into for not helping or inspiring him to do better - which to be fair is pretty much my feelings about my own university experience. (Though I am aware that this is quite a childish notion for both Psalmanazar and I to have held, if we had both been less lazy or proud, we could have worked harder).

Psalmanazar wanted to return home but was in no financial state to do so. He hit upon the idea of playing a pilgrim, stealing a staff and cape from a church and forging a document that said he was an Irishman on his way to Rome. He then specifically begged clergymen and monks in Latin, telling of the persecution he endured back in the home country. By doing this, he managed to get back home and then, on his mother’s recommendation, to go all the way to Germany to see if his father could help him. Unfortunately, his father was in no real state to lend any assistance but advice, telling him to go to Holland, where his skill with Latin would open tutoring jobs. Having a few near misses with his Irish persona, he altered the document to say he was Japanese and then created his own constructed alphabet, which he grew very fluent in. 

His journeys didn’t turn out as he wished and Psalmanazar found himself in military service, though never in active duty. He noted the rowdiness of the soldiers, was horrified at their swearing, drunkenness and assignations with prostitutes. For a while he kept the lie that he was a converted Japanese person but began to have more fun pretending he was not a christian. He claimed to worship the sun and even wrote a whole prayerbook in his invented language. The joke for him was that despite being a ‘heathen’, he lead a more Godly life than the christians around him, he also enjoyed it when clergymen tried to convert him as his previous studies allowed him to walk theological rings around them.

One such clergyman was Alexander Innes, a Scottish padre attached to a Dutch legion. Rather than try to convert Psalmanazar, he got him to translate the same part of Horace into his fake language twice. When these two ‘translations’ were obviously different, he didn’t immediately expose Psalmanazar but told him to be more careful. The two constructed a plan to ‘covert’ and baptise Psalmanazar into the Anglican faith and to use this as a way into British society. Thus Psalmanazar was given the first name George and his nationality became Formosan (from Taiwan) as it was an even harder place to disprove.

In part two, Psalmanazar's adventures in England

Wednesday, 30 March 2022

Review: The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott

Andrew McConnell Stott starts The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi a little inauspiciously. He attends a church service held by clowns every February and concludes that he doesn’t really like clowns and finds them drab and uncanny. Luckily for the reader, this dislike doesn’t translate into what is a fascinating history of Joseph ‘Joey’ Grimaldi, the ur-clown. Even more lucky for this reader is that Joey wasn’t a Victorian figure, he was a late-eighteenth century/ Regency figure, ensuring that his story is filled with larger than life characters, improbable events and sheer fun. 

It doesn’t start fun though. Joey’s father, also called Joseph is a true monster of a person. Descended from a long line of performing Grimaldis, including ‘Iron Leg’ Grimaldi who caused an international incident when he vaulted from a stage into a box and accidentally broke a chandelier over a visiting dignitary, the young Joey had a lot to live up to and his dad made sure he did by using terror as his chief encouragement. The older Joseph was also a choreographer in Drury Lane which gave him access to lots of pre-pubescent girls he forced himself on, including Joey’s mother. The older Joseph locked children in cages when they got their steps wrong as well as beating them, that young Joey was a prodigy in clowning was not really an option for him. (Interestingly, one of the father and son’s early acts involved older Joseph comically beating Joey and swinging around by a chain - an act very close to one that young Buster Keaton had with his own dad. Though Buster claimed he loved every minute). Old Joseph was also a creepily morbid person, pretending to lay dead to see the reactions of his sons, leaving tuppence to the children who had disappointed him, and including a stipulation in his will that his daughter should cut his head off to ensure he was dead before being buried.

When old Joseph finally did leave this mortal coil, young Joey could really begin to make his own way. He secured contracts in Drury Lane and the summer season of Sadler’s Wells and married a woman he was besotted by after an awkward romance. She died only a year later and although Joey did remarry, it seemed to be out of gratitude to a nurse then love to a wife. On stage he was a star, possessing a comic talent that everyone seemed to recognise but no-one could explain, off stage he was a depressive, convinced that any good part of his life would have to be paid for somehow.

With daring and creative show-writers he changed the character of clown, adding the now recognisable make up and costume. He was a huge success, replicated in china, in print and in imitation. Navigating the tricky politics of regency theatre he played stints at all the main theatres, running from one to another to play two houses a night. All this took a heavy toll on his body, notwithstanding accidents (of which there were many, including accidentally shooting himself in the foot with a prop gun), his act was punishing and he was crippled by his mid-forties. Left to the mercies of theatrical charities and well-wishers, he had hope in his son, another promising clown. However, that son, JS was haunted by the ghost of his father’s act, he was always good but never quite as good. He fell into drink, drugs and epileptic fits which started after he fought a policeman and was hit on the head with a truncheon. He died before Joey, while getting ready for a performance, possibly poisoned by a jealous husband. A truly pathetic story tells of Joey and his wife Mary agreeing to kill themselves, taking pills and laying on the bed asking each other if they were dead yet. They didn’t need to try, they both died shortly after.

After a story so grim, how could I describe this book as sheer fun? The fact is, that although this is a biography of Joseph ‘Joey’ Grimaldi, he often fades into the background. His wishes and aims, a comfortable and stable family life and a successful career based on hard work, were simply more pedestrian than many of the exaggerated events and people around him.

There’s the tale of Sadler’s Wells, a theatre whose USP was a free pint of port with every ticket, which later redirected a river to make a huge water tub in which they held ‘aqua-dramas’. These including miniature recreations of naval battles with children manning scaled down man o’ wars, or melodramas where drowning children were saved by ‘Carlo, the Wonderdog’. There was also the dog ‘Moustache’, who was dressed in military uniform and led dog armies in battle recreations. Incidentally, Sadler’s Wells had a backstage code of conduct that included a fine for farting.

Other near-unbelievable stories include the one about the French clown who single-handedly sailed a ship through a storm from Ireland when the sailors all gave up, or the strong-man who became the British Museum’s main agent in Egypt, stealing all the treasures for them. Not to mention the circus proprietor who was on the wrong side of the channel during the French Revolution, escaped prison by swimming down the Seine and retired back to England where he wrote poetry about how much he hated his wife and kids. Or the story of William Betty, the twelve year old boy who became a huge star for a year playing leading Shakespeare roles in adult companies, including Macbeth and Richard III - a career which lessoned off after his voice broke. Even the relatively staid Joey and wife, Mary, found themselves being wined and dined by highwaymen posing as rich theatre fans.

There’s a lot more, this is a packed book and surprisingly, it all hangs together very well. It also explains what the original pantomime actual was and makes an attempt to explain what made Joey such a star. 

The pantomime was a form of afterpiece played after the main performance and originally based on Italian commedia dell’arte, though it had been going its own direction for some time. In a pantomime, the audience were given a situation, usually from folk-tale, though it could be inspired by other stories and even topical happenings. The characters had large immobile masks on during this part. Then, one of characters is given a magic sword (the original slap-stick) and the masks are taken off, revealing the four main characters to be one of four stock figures (This is when the Clown usually said ‘here we are again’.. meaning back as these stock figures. A catchphrase later associated with Dan Leno). The stock figures were; Harlequin, originally a trickster but increasingly a lover, Colombine, his beloved and Pantaloon, the old father/rival lover of Colombine. Finally there was Clown, a country rustic who worked for Pantaloon. This part of the pantomime was called the Harlequinade and it sounds nuts. Harlequin uses his magic wand to transform items to create chaos and outwit his rivals to Colombine.

Joey’s big revolution was to detach Clown from the country bumpkin servant role, to make him colourful and otherworldly and make him a figure of pure chaos, as unhelpful to Pantaloon as anyone else. Another skill Joey had was to perform slowly and carefully, with a wide-eyed, childish innocence. Some of his gags of transformation reminded me of Chaplin, who could transform shoes into a delicacy. In one pantomime, Joey made a snowman figure out of vegetables that then tried to box him with turnip hands - I’d love to have seen that.

McConnell Stott has a real skill at describing the ludicrous without losing the general plot of things, which makes me really excited that he wrote a book about Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee - I think he’d handle that story very well.