Wednesday 29 November 2023

Review: Arabian Satire: Poetry from the Eighteenth Century by Hmēdān Al-Shwē’ir.

I’ve been reading eighteenth century literature a long time, and I’ve read many eighteenth century satirical poems, most of them from (and about) London. So I was very intrigued when I picked up Arabian Satire: Poetry from the Eighteenth Century, a collection of poems by Hmēdān Al-Shwē’ir. 

He lived in the Najd region in what is now Saudi Arabia in the first half of the eighteenth century. He lived at the same time as  Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, a reformist preacher who teamed up with Muhammad bin Saud, the Emir of Diriyah the first of the Saud dynasty. Wahhab strikes me as the Muslim John Wesley, leading a sort of back to basics movement.. not that Al-Shwē’ir is any part of this, he lives further south and the only poem that may be referring to the two reformers is one about rutting camels.

Al-Shwē’ir styles himself as a peasant, a hard-working man who has spent countless years developing rows of dates that he had to abandon when the shifting political strifes trampled his area. He describes himself as having advised a Shaykh, but not a very good one, who bottled during a raiding party leaving Al-Shwē’ir and everyone else to die. He represents himself as an old man within his family, with a screeching harridan for a wife, children who don’t respect him and an eldest son who is lazy and luxurious, heaping all his money and attention on a beautiful but useless second wife. There’s an element of ‘old man shouts at cloud’ about the poems, but he plays into that agéd duffer persona for effect.

The poems are written in the Nabati style, a colloquial form of oral poetry that is still practiced today. There was a discussion in the introduction about whether Al-Shwē’ir was even literate. Interestingly, the Arabic of the region is an old one, and so many of these colloquial, oral poems share a lot in common with classical, formal poems of other places. Metre is an important element, with different metres being employed for different themes and styles. Like a lot of oral poetry, there is also a lot of use of stock phrases and images - though the introduction does say that Al-Shwē’ir plays a little fast and loose and invents his own elements. It’s a shame that the translation doesn’t really communicate these different metres, but it is a translation which is clear and easy to read.

What struck me, as a reader of English eighteenth-century satirical poems, were the similarities and difference between Al-Shwē’ir’s works and the Scriblerans. 

Satire is often ugly, maybe not in form, where it can take beautiful language, but in purpose. The British satirists thought their role was to scourge the hypocrisy of the world, they weren’t afraid to name names and attack individuals. Pope took particular pleasure in his Dunciad in condemning all those he thought were degrading culture to having pissing contests and swimming in shit - he furthered the thrust by suggesting they might like it. 

Al-Shwē’ir similarly attacks hypocrisy and pretty much every poem includes a curse on what he would like to happen to someone or another. People, often the residents of whole cities, are invited to boil in the sand, be attacked by wild animals or be gruesomely murdered by their enemies. In some ways he goes further, condemning his own family and neighbours to terrible strife for perceived slights. 

However, the British satirists seem pampered in comparison. Even Swift, in his full baby-eating ‘savage indignation’ seems a soft touch compared to Al-Shwē’ir. While the British satirists did have real problems to attack, like Swift at the indifference of the government to the Irish plight, most of the times, their arguments were about silly culture wars. They spent most of their time arguing viciously against academic practices or modern writing styles they didn’t appreciate. Al-Shwē’ir’s problems include rival groups massacring towns or the very real threat of desert-based drought or starvation.

While the British satirists wrote to an audience in coffee houses and living rooms, Al-Shwē’ir’s point of view is characterised by extreme paranoia. No-one is trust-worthy, everyone is useless, his life seems made of death, revenge, violence and the desperate grab of power. He may invoke stock phrases about praying to Mohammad as often as a dove coos on a tree, but there’s no religion or tempering agent in the poems. He lives a life where the only morality is ‘do violence unto the other person before they do violence unto you.’ There’s no time for beauty or rapture, only pain, disappointment and fear. There’s even a grovelling poem, the Scriblerans would never have feared enough to have to write a grovelling poem. What’s more, as much as Al-Shwē’ir attacks hypocrisy, there are a number of times he advises it. He doesn’t live in a world where truth has much purchasing power.

Al-Shwē’ir does live in a world with sex though. The British satirists (especially the Scriblerans of Pope, Gay and Swift) are an oddly assexual bunch but Al-Shwē’ir is not. He clearly appreciates a small waist and large bum, and is prepared to go far more explicit. The two pornographic poems, coming after a spate of advice poems, were very surprising. Even more so when you realise the sex he’s describing/imagining is between his son and daughter-in-law. He and the Scriblerans would have agreed that women are evil though.

One of the things I most enjoy about the British satirists is their playful way with literary forms. The notes told me Al-Shwē’ir also did a lot of this - but not having a lot of knowledge of Arabic literary forms, I could only be told he did. It’s also very possible my characterisation of the bleakness of Najd life and the whole piece in general is simply a result of my ignorance. Certainly, someone coming to the British satirists without an understanding (and more importantly feeling) of the time would see a bunch of privileged twits being overly nasty to each other about really petty things… indeed, that’s one of my favourite elements of their work. So, it’s likely I took Al-Shwē’ir’s bleak depiction of his life too literally without really appreciating playfulness or pleasure within it.

With the caveat of my own ignorance in mind, I didn’t enjoy this work, finding in Al-Shwē’ir a broken old man who hates and is suspicious of everyone he sees, shouting cynical wisdom into an empty desert and occasionally daydreaming about his son having kinky sex.

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Reading Naomi Mitchison

My planned reading list took a left turn this year when I discovered the name Naomi Mitchison. I’m not sure exactly how I found it, I was at work and looking something else up and found one intriguing thing that led to another which led to her.

Hers seemed an incredibly interesting life. She died in 1999, having lived for the whole of the twentieth century and a little more. Born to the landed Haldane family of Scotland, she went to Oxford and published her first novel in 1923. She was to publish another 90 books, in genres as different as science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, ethnography, poetry, memoir, political writing and works for children. She was also one of the initial ‘b-readers’ for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which she was very positive about.

She was a member of the Fabian Society, took part in some light espionage, stood as a Labour candidate and later married one who became a Lord, giving her the title of Lady (which she never used). She became a member of the Bakgatla tribe in Botswana and advocated for them. She campaigned for women’s rights and birth control and although becoming a Life Fellow of the Eugenics Society, she quit it because of their politics.

When asked by Who’s Who what her hobbies were, she stated “burning rubbish.” When asked, on her 90th birthday, what she most regretted she said “all the men I never slept with”. She was an author definitely worth checking out.

I’ve had other focus writers. Leon Garfield will always have my heart (and I just discovered, and bought, a book by him I hadn’t heard of). I also very much enjoyed reading all the works of Patrick Hamilton and Penelope Fitzgerald.. but Mitchison’s ninety might take a bit more time to locate and read.

I’ve managed ten.

Travel Light

Memoirs of a Spacewoman

Behold Your King

Early in Orcadia

The Bull Calves

The Fourth Pig

The Corn King and the Spring Queen

To the Chapel Perilous

The Blood of the Martyrs

Not By Bread Alone

Within that selection lay some of her biggest hits and a few lesser known pieces. They contain some historical fiction, some sci-fi, a collection of fairy tales and what could be described as a YA novel.

I can’t say I have loved reading Naomi Mitchison as I’d hoped. The humour found in To the Chapel Perilous is not to be found in many of the other books. I found many of her characters to be a little opaque, and her style to sometimes be detached to the point of cold. On the whole, I’ve found her to be an author I’ve admired more than enjoyed, which is not to say there is no enjoyment.

Her skill at world-building is wonderful. Memoirs of a Spacewoman has a very well thought out society of space explorers, with a wonderfully practical integration of time-dilation on a space traveller’s personal relationships. It also deals with the fascinating subject of ethnography, especially if stretched out to different planets and species. Each alien race encountered has a fully formed little eco-system and method of communication which stems from the biology. Whether that’s the difficulties a spiral, multi-handed race has with making definitive decisions, or the tragic life cycles of the pleasure-caterpillars and the shame-butterflies.

The Bull Calves remains one of the most impressive historical novels I’ve ever read. Not only does the book manage to look at the position of post-Culloden Scotland from lots of different angles, it does it through characters whose different outlooks are deeply rooted in their different experiences. It reaches an authenticity that I’ve rarely read in a historical novel.

Her takes on Christianity, Behold Your King and Blood of the Martyrs share this authenticity but apply it to the last twenty-four hours of Jesus’s life and the fates of a small church in Rome during the reign of Nero. They both create characters that feel suitably alien and of a different time and culture, but also recognisable and understandable. They both also offer a wonderful vision of how Christianity could have gone, had it not been subsumed by the Roman Empire.

This alien-ness of past cultures is also a theme in Travel Light and The Corn King and the Spring Queen, the latter being her most critically successful work. I personally found the creation of Marob both entrancing and frustrating. It did seem to be a very plausible and interesting culture, but I found myself too alienated from it - a strange position when Spartans are the most understandable characters in the book. Early in Orcadia does a similar thing for the Orkney Islands, trying to imagine into the pre-historic past and see the development of a stone-age culture.

Not By Bread Alone tries to apply this systematic, ‘big picture’ quality to a future where world hunger is solved, but the book feels somewhat methodical and mechanical. The Fourth Pig introduces the notion of ‘the Debateable Land’, somewhere between human and faerie where he rules of both can be debated. It’s a fascinating notion, and one I think could be explored more fully but in the stories featured in the book it can be hard to follow, as the events happen somewhere the certainties of both realms don’t hold full sway, being something closer to a dream than anything else. 

While Naomi Mitchison didn’t quite develop into being my next obsession author, she’s on the list of writers like Muriel Spark, Beryl Bainbridge and Elizabeth Von Arnim that I’ll always keep an eye out for in a second hand shop and never turn down. She may not always grip me totally, but she’s always doing something interesting, and that’s worth a lot.

I made a list challenges of almost all of her work here - I only have 80-odd to go.

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Video: All About The Cistercian Number System

 I recently taught myself the Cistercian number system because it’s easy and the kind of thing I like to teach myself.

It looks like this…

I decided to make a video to teach it to other people. Like all my videos, I pull silly faces, like this…

I also make a rather good joke involving this…

But to find out what it is, you need to watch this…

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Trip: The Museum of the Home

 The other week I went to visit the Museum of the Home in Hoxton. I’ve wanted to visit it for a long time. In fact, I’ve wanted to visit it for so long that when I originally planned to visit it, it was still called The Geffrye Museum. 

Presumably, the change in name stems from the fact that Robert Geffrye, former Lord Mayor of London, president of the Bridewell and Bethlam institutes and described in his memorial as ‘exemplary in charity, virtue and goodness” was a slave trader. It’s also likely that the change is because it’s hard to know what a Geffrye Museum is, but a Museum of the Home is a much clearer title.

It’s this very focus on home, and the many different things home has meant to people, Londoners in particular, that makes the museum special. There are some stand-out objects within the museum, such as John Evelyn’s cabinet of curiosities, which are unique, but the real highlight of the museum are the collections of ordinary, often mass produced items that have helped people make their houses into homes throughout history.

It starts conceptually, with the question ‘what is a home?’. There are photos and videos of modern Londoners sharing all the different kinds of home, whether they be shared houses, family houses, bedsits or hostels. These are compared with the servant’s box - the only space in a house private for a servant, a lockable wooden crate containing their things. From there, the rooms talk about personal touches, private memories and objects, conceptions of comfort - always comparing different time periods. The impression is that of comparison and recognition, although the stiff-backed Victorian chair may not seem like comfort to a modern person, for a woman in structured clothing, it helped ease the weight. 

There’s a wonderful vein of same but different. Eighteenth Century fish counters are displayed alongside a game of Frustration, with a playable SNES next to that. A wooden pipe, of the kind that supplied water to Londoners, sits next to a kitchen sink. A selection of books ranges from Dan Brown to The Reformed Coquette by Mary Davys. (There’s also a copy of Nivelon’s The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour.) It’s this that makes the museum truly inclusive, reminding all visitors of their basic domestic needs and pleasures, and showing the different ways they have been addressed. 

After the thematic section, there runs a series of galleries that show a central living room chronologically. Here a living space in constructed with a story, as if the people are invisible ghosts or have just walked out the room, allowing visitors to see how a room looked and functioned. This is the more famous part of the museum and the part I most wanted to see but I was actually more moved by the earlier parts. I think it was because each living space was roped off and felt like a tableau. While the earlier galleries has lots of objects to touch and cases that encourage to move around the room, the tableaus are arranged in a straight line which can be quickly looked at and marched past. Though one little boy while I was there is obviously a regular visitor because he loves to sit and stare at the pretend ‘crackling fire’. Something he was keen to show me.

As the homes become more modern, the stories they are based on become less homogenous. The earlier tableaus are all based on heterosexual families of British heritage but the 90s flat is based around a gay couple who have been protesting against section 28 and the 70s living room shows a family with origins in St Vincent. The 70s living room is hideous, but that’s not because of the St Vincent connection, but because it was in the 70s.

The Museum of the Home is free and fascinating and definitely worth a look, I just wish I could have walked through those living rooms instead of past them.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Review: The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor by Shaenon K. Garrity

 Having read a lot of gothic literature over the last few years, I’ve started pushing out into unknown areas. The other month I read a (translated) version of Belarusian gothic novel King Stakh’s Wild Hunt and watched an opera adaptation of it in Belarusian. Last week a delved into something really strange and unnerving to me, a book that is not only designated YA (pronounced “yah!”) but also a graphic novel.

Haley is a gothic novel nut. She’s written four essays about Wuthering Heights, she knows the dance, she dresses in long skirts and waistcoats, the other children laugh at her and her teacher begs her to write about something else. Walking home from school on a dark and stormy night (naturally) she sees a figure in the river and wades in to save him. She finds herself transported to Willowweep Manor, where all the rules and tropes of gothic literature come to life.. sort of.

Willowweep has a large imposing manor, which is actually a castle. You can tell the book is American, the main character complains the castle is “three centuries and four European architectural traditions smushed together”, as if that’s not exactly what is expected from one. 

 The Manor houses three brothers; one is a light-hearted flibbertigibbet with a curled moustache, one is surly and strong and the third is missing. There’s also a stern housekeeper and a ghost. There’s some fun with Haley’s knowledge of the gothic and these characters, asking if the housekeeper ever fondles her mistresses lingerie (which we later find out she does, but not in a Rebecca kind of way). We learn the surly brother manifests an Irish Wolfhound whenever he sits down. We also learn that the ditzy younger brother has gambling debts, despite never having gambled and he also has “bills from gentleman’s clubs that only exist in quantum possibility.”

Of course, the castle holds a big secret, but the secret is not a curse, or the sins of the fathers, it’s a sci-fi doo-hickey that holds their pocket dimension together - it’s not even a secret, it’s in the blurb. The characters of Willowweep even know this, which is why the younger brother knows the clubs to be only quantum possibility. Much like the world itself, the elements of gothic romance are only a skin on a sci-fi engine, and a rather thin skin at that, merely ticking a number of checkboxes. 

This mix of sci-fi, gothic, and self-conscious lampshading creates some fun moments. There’s a moment when all the gothic bad guys burst out of a room, including their core component, Italians (blaming Radcliffe for that). There’s some fun with cute possessed animals getting punched and even my favourite thing, an ornamental hermitage. But mixing gothic with the tone of the Scream movies doesn’t really work because gothic is  already a genre that is pulling itself apart between its full-blooded commitment and its rampant theatricality - it simply cannae take it.

I liked Haley. I liked her commitment to the things she loves and her enthusiasm when she enters the gothic(ish) world. I liked her snarky comments about maidens in gothic novels having little power other than to ‘tutor unsettling children’ (Though I did disagree with that. Women protagonists in gothic novels, despite their tendency to faint, are remarkably resilient and often (especially in a Radcliffe novel) are some of the only characters to come out the other side and live a happy life.) I also liked the brothers, especially Cuthbert in his dim-witted cheerfulness.

One of the most noticeable features of a gothic novel is the oddly stiff tone which takes a little getting used to. The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor is instead light and breezy. Another element are the long pages of description, which are replaced her by images. This, of course works in gothic cinema and may have worked here if the illustrations had been woodcuts, or charcoal with chiaroscuro effects but instead the images are digital, plasticky and bright. There are a few rain lashed moors, and dark castle interiors but I have seen episodes of Scooby Doo with more atmospheric visuals.

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor is entertaining, and I’m sure lots of people have (and will) enjoy it but there isn’t all that much in it for someone wanting an unusual take on the gothic novel.