Wednesday 23 February 2022

Daniel Lambert the famous fat man.

 A few years ago my parents moved to Stamford, a pretty stone town in the East Midlands. Like a lot of that area, I was surprised how important Stamford almost was. Once an important walled city that made cloth that was famous as far as Venice, it’s now rather unknown.The could have put its wool-riches into industry but the Lord Burlington didn’t want railways or canals near the place. It was touted as the third place to have a university town after Oxford and Cambridge but Durham beat it to it. As such the people of Stamford have to be happy with (and are proud of) living in a pretty little town best known as a go-to location for period dramas.

While there are a number of interesting things about the town, like a running of a bull held there for hundreds of years, during my visit in 2020, not much was open but church graveyards. One of the graves is for Daniel Lambert, here I am at it.

Why was his grave particularly noted on the ‘visit Stamford’ notice-boards? His grave explains.

“He measured three Feet one Inch round the Leg
nine Feet four Inches round the Body
and weighed
Fifty two Stone eleven Pounds!”

You need to be a rather large person for your measurements to be celebrated on your gravestone.

Born the son of Leicester gaol’s keeper, Daniel was into sports and outdoor pursuits. Quite rarely for his time, he learnt to swim and gave swimming lessons to other children. He also liked hunting, horse-racing and breeding dogs for sporty pursuits (most of them involving in the death of some animal). He worked as an engraver for a while but ended up working with his dad in the prison, later taking over his dad’s job. It was while doing this largely sedentary job that he started to gain weight. He was reputedly very well liked in his position, being considered honest and kind to those under his watch. He also carried on dog breeding, reportedly punching a dancing-bear in the head to rescue one of his prize dogs from the bear’s paws.

However, when the gaol was closed, he was made redundant. Because of his good standing, he was given £50 a year pension and he still made money from his dogs but he began to grew more reclusive and to gain in weight. Soon, his weight was famous and people game to look at him. He was so discomforted by this, that he didn’t leave the house. That was until his finances forced him to.

He had a specially built coach made, rented rooms in Piccadilly in London and charged people a shilling to meet him. Then he and his guests would chat, often about dogs, races and other sports, though some guests would ask him questions about his weight. When one person asked him how much his large coat cost, Daniel told him that whatever it was, he’d be happy to do without the material brought by the enquirer’s shilling. Soon the shy, retiring Daniel Lambert was a media sensation and taking his private showings on tour around the country. It has to be asked (and has been by John Woolf in his book The Wonders) how this shy man became so keen to get himself ‘out there’ that he took himself on tours and crowd funded portraits of himself to be engraved and sold. It’s also strange that being forced against his deepest desires to exhibit himself out of lack of money, he had enough for the outlay of a purpose built carriage and lodgings in Piccadilly. 

From then on, Daniel Lambert alternated touring and pursuing his sporting interests. He developed his dog breeding and found a lot of success in that. Often he’d mix business and pleasure and it was at the end of a tour when he visited Stamford to watch the races and make some money showing himself off. It may have even been his planned last engagement as he’d made enough money to live comfortably off. The morning of the race he woke up, set to shaving and experienced trouble breathing. He died ten minutes later.

His funeral was a huge affair in Stamford, with crowds gathered to watch the specially-made xxxxl coffin being taken to the specially enlarged grave. He wasn’t the fattest man on record for long, an American soon pipped him to that post but he is still a local legend and even has a beer named after him. 

You could do worse.

Wednesday 16 February 2022

My Month of Time-Travel Fiction

As I pulled out books I fancied reading in the year ahead, I found myself piling them up into discreet groups with vague but persistent thematic similarities. One of these piles consisted of novels related to time-travel and January being the month of new beginnings, time-travel seemed appropriate. In all, I read eight books that featured time-travel somewhere in the blurb and it was interesting to see how a concept can be spun in many different directions and came to a few interesting conclusions.

First of all, it’s interesting how rarely time-travel is used for its own sake. Only one of the eight books was really about time-travel. The Society of Time by John Brunner told the story of a world in which the Great Armada had succeeded and the future was based on the traditions of Imperial Spain. As such, it is now 1988 and the world is stagnated technologically and socially. There hasn’t been an agricultural or industrial revolution, slavery is still common and women are also property – but there is time-travel. In this case, the discovery was made by a priest and functions by a simple machine of alternating metal pieces. This discovery is regulated by The Society of Time, a religious order who function as both time police and pious monks. I found the mixture of religion and time travel particularly interesting as there’s a notion that God has ordained time to be as it is and going back and interfering is messing with the divine plan. 

This means when an exquisite piece of Peruvian art looks too new, it’s an offence against the church as well as time. It’s important that the item is returned in a way that vibes with history as it has already been played out. Things are even trickier when renegade members of the society attempt to create the perfect killers and things go a little wrong. Finally, it all goes wrong and history is changed. The notion is that any reality with time-travel in it is too unstable, too vulnerable to people going back to have a little tinker that it will eventually become one without time-travel, that people will stop going and changing things only when the option is no longer available. This means poor Don Miguel, a decent and intelligent if not particularly fleshed out protagonist, is stranded in a world completely different to any he knows – ours. The seemingly alternate reality world isn’t at all, it’s our world as it originally was before people mucked about with it.

While The Society of Time showed time-travel as having huge implications, even reality warping possibilities, the rest of the books were more content with using time-travel to explore personal stakes. Only HG Wells’s OG time-travel story, The Time Machine travelled into the future. The Time-traveller introduces the idea of time as a fourth dimension, and like the ones of height, length and width can be travelled in. So he does, taking his machine to the far, far, distant future.

What I found most interesting about the book is how the Time-traveller puts together his observations to form theories. He notices that there are no private houses, only large communal dwelling places and decides it’s the result of a form of communism. Then, watching the innocent future people, the Eloi, frolic around without any animals or even stinging plants, he concludes that he is seeing humanity after their peak - that he has stumbled into a world post-utopia where humanity solved all life’s problems and as a result are devolving. I really liked this idea of post-utopia, that it’s only through having problems to solve that humanity reaches towards its best self, the Eloi are so blasĂ© that they accept one of their number drowning without even trying to help. 

It’s the discovery of the Morlocks, the albino, underground troglodytes that changes his views, there was only utopia for some. Seeing they come from underground, hearing machinery coming from beneath and seeing how the Eloi are clothed and fed without any effort on their part, he now concludes that the Eloi are the idle class and the Morlocks a working class mutated to serve them… However, when he travels under the ground and sees a Morlock feast, he realises the truth, that the (literal) underclass are (literally) eating those above them. It’s this parable, this warning that the book is really about and time travel was our way of getting there.

Where Were You, Robert by Hans Magnus Enzensberger also uses time-travel to explore other ideas. Robert is a teenager who finds that when he stares at an image and rubs his eyes, he falls into it and the time it was created. First he falls into a documentary about Soviet Siberia and finds himself there, then he goes to the cinema and falls into its filming in Australia, then an old photo, even sketches. A particular problem for Robert is that he can only fall backwards in time as images are always created before the time he is in. Another problem is acclimatising and adjusting to the different places and times he finds himself in. 

At first, I thought the book was about that, about the ability for people to adapt and create new lives for themselves, Robert has to do it time and again. However, as the book continued, I began to realise it was about the strain of having to do that. The book takes place over two years in Robert’s personal timeline, he is changing in himself. Not only that but the need to create a new life in each new time and place means he becomes many different people; from spy, to painter, to brigand. How can Robert maintain his sense of self and what is a self when it can’t even be charted along a timeline? The book ends with Robert back in his own timeline and at the age he left, yet he’s had two years of intense development. There’s an odd, lingering queasiness to the way he’ll have to suppress the experiences he’s had and pretend to be the person he was which really lingers. After all this, Robert will never be the same Robert again. (Besides the fact that there isn’t any reliable way of knowing he won’t find himself shooting off into time again).

Another character who finds himself lost in time is Ibn Shalaby in Khairy Shalaby’s The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets. He has a bad case of the Billy Pilgrim’s, finding himself unstuck in time.  As he wanders Cairo, he finds himself slipping into moments of the city’s history, from its founding to various rebellions and riots.  He seems to have little control, barrelling into different times and situations. Sometimes he can sense where he’s going, occasionally seeing the future as layers above him, like a layers in archeology, going as far as tickling the feet of the future people walking above him. He’s not the only one, there are historians who wander in time but they seem to have more control than Shalaby. It’s surprising how many non-time-travellers accept the arrival of Shalaby and have met other time-travellers before - indeed, the whole essence and mechanics of time-travel are rather fuzzy.

Naturally they are fuzzy, like most of the time-travel books I’ve read, the travel is a tool to explore other elements. This book uses time-travel to explore ideas of psycho-geography and to create a picture of Cairo through the ages and the people who walked through it. Interestingly, the picture of the Egyptian people, specifically the ‘Brothers of Shalaby’, the vendors and kiosk-people, are downtrodden followers of every herd, invasion and coup. He traces this as a result of them being the serf class in the days of the Pharaohs and that this inherent servility is the secret of their survival through centuries of political torment.  Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown also sought to create this comprehensive overview of one place through time but the blurb lied, the main character didn’t travel in time at all, he was just someone daydreaming of other periods.

Finally, there were the books were time-travel was used to solve specific problems. The children in Dyan Sheldon’s The Difficult Job of Keeping Time had to go into the Victorian era and dodge some devious adults to find the deeds of a church which held time together. Al Choudrey in Ross Welford’s Time Travelling with a Hamster and Huck in Gillian Avery’s Huck and Her Time Machine went back to solve family problems.

Huck’s problem is that her family are known screw-ups, famous in their town for outlandish behaviour. She takes members of her family back in time to teach them a lesson but accidentally (and I’m not sure how) has them possessed by previous ancestors who turn out to be just as bad as the ones she lived with. The message being one of accepting your family despite their flaws. This is a strange book in general, the time machine (which is actual the one that HG Wells’s time-traveller used) is found in a dump by Huck’s brother, Barty. It’s actually Barty’s point of view we remain in and although Huck goes back in time, her brother, and so the reader, never does. There’s also a lot of fudging over the end over whether the story we just read actually happened or not, I found it quite an unsatisfying book.

Far more satisfying is Time Travelling with a Hamster, where Al is given a letter that his dead father had left him to open on his twelfth birthday. It turns out his father had built a time machine and wants Al to use it to prevent an accident which would later turn out to kill him. The time machine in this book is a mathematical code which runs on a laptop and displaces a connected object, in this case an old bath, in space-time. There’s a lot of fun in the book about the machine being such an unwieldy object, this is further complicated that it is located in a secret basement in their old house and Al has to repeatedly break into the house to use it.

This was also the only book other than The Society of Time which had actual time-travel rules, something I was expecting a lot more of. HG Wells’s protagonist goes to the future which is less paradox heavy, Ibn Shalaby and Robert interact with the past but don’t seem to change anything in particular, Huck’s story may or may not have happened and the children in The Difficult Job of Keeping Time go on their quest to change one thing and there’s no particular consequence to their other actions. The main rule in Time Travelling with a Hamster is that a person can’t travel to where they already are, a no doppelgänger rule. However, his attempt to save his dad does have a horrifying effect, in that he (and the hamster, Alan Shearer) accidentally kill his dad at the age of eight. Rather than wipe Al out of existence it leads him back to a present where his Dad is still dead but his mum has no idea who he is. It’s a scene which taps into a really strong childhood fear of having your parents not recognise you. I leave it to any reader to see how that gets cleaned up.

My month of time-travel books was a really interesting little exercise which made me realise how peripheral the time-travel is to so many stories about it and also made me realise how many stories using this device are still out there, many unwritten.

Wednesday 9 February 2022

'The Times' by Elizabeth Griffith at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle (Part Three, Final)


Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle came back to their screens to see how The Times by Elizabeth Griffiths plays out. At the end of Act 4 we were left with marital confusion, imminent financial ruin, a big party with extravagant costumes and an obviously significant pair of earrings that have passed through many hands. I predicted a dramatic ending.

Act 5 starts with the servant Forward setting up for a night of gaming at the Woodleys’. As usual, he’s out to grab what he can, earmarking the expensive candles, the nice cards (not the bent ones covered in snuff) and even the specialised card tables for his own use. The Woodleys walk in to finalise the details. They are sweet together, holding hands and giving each other little compliments. After confusion over who Sir William is trying to marry Louisa to, Mr Woodley finally admits to his wife that they are seriously short of funds. He’s expecting Lady Mary to react badly, the audience is expecting her to react badly but instead she says that she’d happily live in Dorset(shire) without a full complement of servants as long as she can still be with Mr Woodley. He’s delighted that she’s taken the news so well, his fear of telling her has been his main conflict in the play and he leaves happily. Then she makes the longest speech, where she even quotes Hamlet, and declares that she’s happy to give up all the glitz for her true love but she will miss society and the friendship of people like Mrs Bromley.

Then follow a couple of short scenes, one where Woodley and Colonel Mountfort are annoyed that they can’t get in contact with Louisa, and one where Louisa is talking with Sir William, which is why she can’t contact the other two. As usual Sir William is not listening to anyone else and is sympathetically trying to tell her that her marriage to Belford (who she doesn’t wish to marry) is off while she’s trying to tell him about the Woodleys’ decision to go to the country.

Then follows the main scene the play has been building towards, an evening of various card games at the Woodleys. The room has been set so that different games occur in different areas and the conversations of the whist, loo and quadrille players interject, overlay and interact with the conversations had by the main cast. It’s a pretty dynamic piece of staging and we imagined there was probably a lot of business happening that isn’t in the stage directions. Were we more knowledgeable of eighteenth century card games and the language that went with them, all the talk of pams, loos, monsters and beasts may have added to the meaning. As such, they added to the texture.

Early on in the scene, Lady Mary tells Mrs Bromley of her decision to move to their country house and invites her to visit but she is rebuffed and starts to look at Mrs Bromley differently. Then she sees that Mrs Bromley is wearing her earrings from the beginning of the play which she thought were being added to but were actually sold to Mr Bromley. When Mrs Bromley rudely gloats that they are hers now as she actually has the money to pay for them, Lady Mary is repelled. Then Mrs Bromley sits down to play loo and is immediately found cheating. She looks to Lady Mary for support but finding none, storms out. Then there’s a message that bailiffs have come, sent by Mr Bromley, and the room clears, everyone owing something to somebody.

Louisa wakes Sir William up to help, the bailiffs having been shooed away by Colonel Mountfort and his money. William blusters and bluffs, saying how the Woodleys deserve prison for their spendthrift ways but is clearly pleased that this hasn’t happened because of the good Colonel, who actually he rather likes now and has probably always liked, even if he argued with him in the previous act. They come together and Sir William, pleased by the Colonel, allows him to marry Louisa. Also pleased with Lady Mary’s decision to move to the country, he decides to settle the Woodleys’ debts and give them the house so they can come to London for the season. He talks over everyone’s attempts to thank him and the play is over.

It must be said, The Times ends on something of an anti-climax. While it was clear that Sir William had the power and means to solve everyone’s problems, it seemed there needed to be rather more happening to bring him round. Set up as pig-headed and blinkered, unable to hear anyone’s views but his own, he changes his mind considerably at the end of the play. Similarly, Lady Mary, who seemed to be completely immersed in commercialism suddenly decides that she loves her husband more than any of the fripperies she had been spending thousands of pounds on. While Mrs Bromley was exposed as a card cheat and hissed out of the room, Mr Bromley isn’t on stage in the last act and his comeuppance is a hasty line about being imprisoned for tampering with his bills. The beginning of the play teased a big masquerade, where Lady Mary would be dressed as a Sultan, dripping in jewels, this never happened. And while the earrings did play a role in Lady Mary’s opinion of Mrs Bromley, they didn’t have the huge Desdemona’s Handkerchief level significance that the play seemed to have been building to.

There were fun characters and good set-ups but it felt like the play hadn’t given them enough to do or escalated into an intractable ball of confusion to be sorted out at the end. Whereas other eighteenth-century comedies we have read together needed a flow-chart to understand, The Times felt a little rushed and easy. That said, it did have the dynamic card table scene, the joy of Sir William’s bluster, Lady Mary’s easy spending and the Bromley’s fun two-facedness. It was a fun play but just a little undercooked.

Part One here.

Part Two here.

Wednesday 2 February 2022

'The Times' by Elizabeth Griffith at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle (Part Two)


On Tuesday the Dr Johnson Reading Circle sat down at their computers again to read The Times by Elizabeth Griffith. The first two acts had mostly dealt with setting up the characters, setting and theme. Principally we were introduced to Mr Woodley and his wife Lady Mary who are seriously low on funds, though Mary doesn’t know it. Their situation is not helped by Mr and Mrs Bromley who pressure the couple to spend more. The solution: make up with their rich, argumentative uncle William - but that doesn’t look very likely. 

Now we’re all set up, it’s time for the fun to begin and in this instalment there’s lots to be had with Lady Mary’s ignorance of her position, Sir William’s bull-like attempts at match-making and a real exposure of the Bromleys’ two-facedness. A lot of these two acts are taken up by three characters I didn’t fully introduce in the first section: Louisa, related to the Woodleys and of marrying age; Counsellor Belford, Sir William’s friend who is not of marrying age and Colonel Mountfort, who loves Louisa and is loved back. 

Sir William has decided his friend Belford and his relative Louisa would make a really good couple. He hasn’t asked them their opinions at all, nor does he consider the fact that Belford is old enough to be her father a real drawback. As far as he is concerned, they are both good people (i.e they do as he says) and so are a perfect match. With his customary tact, he brings up the notion of marriage with Belford, leading his hints closer to his proposed match and becoming increasingly peeved that he is not understood until he has spell out the idea in full. Like many things, the proposed marriage seems self-evident to Sir William, Belford said that Louisa would make someone a happy man and doesn’t Belford want to be one? When Belford suggests that maybe his being forty-eight and her eighteen might be a problem, Sir William simply tells him not to reveal his age. The more Belford tries to tell Sir William that although he is flattered by the suggestion, he doesn’t think it very fair on Louisa, the more Sir William takes it to mean that he accepts it. It’s a great scene, with one character railroading the other into accepting a hand in marriage that the woman in question hasn’t even offered.

In the next scene it is Louisa who is forced into accepting the proposal and Sir William leaves happy with his machinations for the day. She and her prospective husband meet and, without the influence of Sir William, manage to talk sensibly about their strange predicament. It’s clear that Belford wouldn’t mind being Louisa’s husband but doesn’t want to cause her distress and is content to be her ‘old friend’ - with an emphasis on old. He’ll even put in a good word for Colonel Mountfort.

Louisa appears to have two guardians, the older Sir William and the younger Mr Woodley. Colonel Mountfort succeeds in getting Mr Woodley’s permission to marry and is even the first to hear of Mr Woodley’s financial troubles. Now he has to get the elder. Sir William is in a good mood at first but certainly isn’t when the Colonel asks to marry Louisa. It seems clear to Sir William, the Colonel is just a soldier, he can get any woman so he should leave his Louisa alone. The two argue and Colonel Mountfort leaves. Then Belford comes in to reject the offer of Louisa’s hand and those two argue and Sir William storms out. For now, Louisa’s fate is uncertain (well, it’s not, the play’s a comedy, of course the lovers will get together, but how?)

Interspersed with these scenes, we see more of Lady Mary and Mrs Bromley, as well as Mr Woodley and Mr Bromley. The Bromleys are given more asides than they were in earlier scenes, allowing them to show their untrustworthiness more explicitly. Both have been encouraging their Woodley to spent exorbitant amounts of money but now Mr Bromley finds out the Woodleys are running out of it, he realizes it’s time to make one last hit before they move on to someone else.

In a little aside, I find it interesting that Mr Bromley’s first name is Robert and he frequently calls himself ‘Honest Bob’. Despite it being many years after the Walpole administration, it still seems that the name Bob indicates a money grabbing and devious character. 

In the last scene of the fourth act Bromley and his wife talk privately for the first time. He wants to cash in and sue the Woodleys for the eye-watering sum of seven thousand pounds. What’s more, he considers it a fair exchange for keeping the foolish couple company and introducing them to the ‘best’ people. Mrs Woodley wants to wait till after the big ‘do’ the women have been preparing for but she’s placated by the gift of the earrings which were passed about so much in the first two acts. The pair prepare to make their score, muttering asides about their dislike for each other and twirling their respective moustaches. We are set up for the big event and a number of large confrontations. It should be a dramatic finale. 

(Click here for part one)

(Part Three)