Thursday 29 December 2011

Writing News

I am delighted to announce that the first full and complete draft of Death of a Dreamonger has been completed. It is a mysterious, funny work with a thrilling climax - I will be very proud of it. 
While I am waiting for it to simmer down and I can see it with fresh eyes, I plan to start my next book. This book will fit in a little more with the general theme of the site as I plan to write a mid-eighteenth century book. 

The exciting and unique idea is that the novel will not merely be set in the eighteenth century, but will be an eighteenth century novel utilising much of the narrative style, authorial tics and general attitude to the work that is present in books from that time.
This will of course be a difficult and problematic task, but I feel there is so much vitality in the eighteenth century novel, and the varying approaches to it, that this book promises to be something exciting and lively, with much zip and cheek and a big dollop of playfulness.
I plan to use Henry Fielding and Tom Jones as the main inspiration but there will be chapters and sections in the style of Sterne (who I love more than Fielding, but am too cowardly to stick to all the way through) Richardson, Burney, Godwin - as well as sentimental chapters and gothic chapters... The whole concept excites me and is really getting me going.
Although most of my inspiration will be from the mid-eighteenth century, I plan for the title of the book to hark back to those 'blurb title pages' of Defoe. However, this hasn't been fully thought through yet, so I am currently calling it Into the Big City for short.

The story is about a young man, addled by a little learning, who believes himself to be a poet of rare and exceptional talent. He leaves his Warwickshire village and enters London with a view to making his literary fortune.

There he finds things much harder than he expected, getting stuck in the middle of gang warfare between a hardened thief-taker and a highwayman. His stupidity and innocence often save him as he stumbles around the city trying to make his own way.

Will he avoid the criminal's knife and the magistrate's noose? Will he find love or fortune? Will he ever write a poem anyone would want to read? ... Those are the questions we shall find the answers to.

Until next time

Saturday 17 December 2011

Ho Ho Hogarth

Today, on a cold December day I decided to visit Hogarth’s House, newly reopened after being restored from fire damage and to do a little bit of Christmas shopping. 

The house is a thin, modest affair, once in the corner of an orchard but now next to the A4. Among the traffic and the mess is a brewery, I’m sure Hogarth would have liked that. Whether he would have liked the huge roundabout named after him, that is less sure. The political cartoonist, Martin Rowson made his own comment on the roundabout, a print of which hangs in his house. 

Now, the house is not large and does not contain any paintings, if you want them I recommend the Tate Britain and Sir John Soame’s Museum (though would I recommend them anyway) but it does contain several sets of prints, ‘Harlot’s Progress’, ‘Rake’s Progress’, ‘The Stages of Cruelty’ and ‘Marriage a la Mode’. The prints are clear and well displayed and you can get as close to them as you’d like. Indeed, comparing the paintings of ‘Rake’s Progress’ and the prints, the prints are clearer, starker and more interesting. Also, many of the prints have interesting doggerel underneath them, Hogarth’s friend wrote them for ‘The Four Stages of Cruelty’ but I don’t know who wrote ‘A Rake’s Progress’. These prints are the highlight of the Hogarth House collection.

The house also owns a number of personal items, including the stool used by his dog and also an original brass print, an art case, some jewellery and a copy of his ‘Line of Beauty’ book. There is something special about this, Hogarth’s objects in his house. The house has been tidily restored and the whole house is coloured in pearl according to research on the paint used. 
(There is a fascinating article about eighteenth century paint choices here:
Hogarth’s House is a good place, a small bus ride from Hammersmith and no price to enter. Also, it is a very short walk from the also very interesting Chiswick House. This was a house built by Lord Burlington, designed by William Kent and later lived in by William Cavendish and his wife Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire. Although the house itself is not open until April Fool’s day, I got to wander the gardens. They are fascinating, full of grottos and vistas and follies and more statues of chubby emperors and urns then anyone but an eighteenth century lord could ever wish. 

As I wandered the gardens, the shining winter sun cast long shadows through the trees and bounced seductively off the hundreds of urns. What with the hundreds of pretty women doting on bouncing dogs and the families with smug dad’s running after small beamingly screaming children and the place looked like a white middle class vision of heaven - and that’s no bad thing, visions of heaven never are.
The rest of the day continued to be blessed, I went Christmas shopping and found deal after deal, bought more and better presents then I hoped and didn’t hear a single crying child or het up mum. A man even gave me his seat on the bus. 
So I will have a merry Christmas and I hope you will too.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Review of Colonel Jack by Daniel Defoe

Colonel Jack the book is a bit like chewing gum, it bursts forward with plenty of flavour before losing that flavour and becoming bland drudgery; just chew, chew chew.
The first half, the flavoursome half, begins with the birth of Colonel Jack, the bastard son of some gentleman. Jack has been farmed away to keep him from shaming the family. He is nursed by a lady who also has a son called Jack. The two Jacks are joined by another bastard called Jack and the three boys begin to be known by their nicknames; Major, Colonel and Captain.
The boys are left to the street when the kind nurse dies and live in complete poverty, begging for food and sleeping in the sooty grime of a glassblowers – they are also extremely happy with their lot. The Jacks develop different personalities, the Major is a friendly, genial boy easily led astray, the Captain is a rough brutish boy and the Colonel is generous and clever, but the most na├»ve. 
The boys are pulled apart to try different crimes, the Major and the Colonel apprentice themselves under different pickpockets and the Captain joins a gang of kidnappers. Our hero, Colonel Jack, sees this as just another kind of living and works diligently at it, the way he would had he become the apprentice of a more respectable trade. We do not hear much of the Major after this point.
After twenty-six years of pickpocketery, the Colonel joins a group of highwaymen, his disgust at robbing an old lady mean that he decides to give up his life of crime and join the army. At this time the Captain turns up on the run and they run north to Scotland together. The Colonel becomes extremely upset at the Captain’s inability to hold back his criminal tendencies. Cornered in Scotland, they take a boat back to London but it turns out the boat is actually heading for Virginia and the young men are indentured servants, white slaves on the plantations for a fixed period of time. Now it is the time for the Captain to leave the story and never come back.
Up to this point the book has been thrilling. The lives of the raggedy street-urchins are vigorously and directly described. The descent into crime is even more interesting, as the Colonel learns the tricks of the trade, we learn them with him. We learn what is a good haul for a day in other people’s pockets, how to redeem someone else’s banknotes and when an amount is too much too handle. Moll Flanders has a similarly interesting section. Unfortunately the story begins to run out of steam in America.
At first we get the very interesting account of the white slaves of America, how criminals and the destitute went to that country as slaves for a fixed period, to then be given some land to carve for themselves. That the colonies are full of ex-cons doing very well for themselves. The Colonel then becomes an overseer, as overseer we get the interesting black/white divide. The whites are only temporary slaves and can be reasoned with, the blacks are permanent slaves and only respond to the whip. The Colonel makes the revolutionary discovery, treat the blacks as people and they will respond likewise (and not laugh behind your back, as common wisdom had it).
Unfortunately for the reader, the Colonel is freed from slavery to become a prominent merchant and land owner. He also discovers religion, and like Cliff Richard after him, he loses his bite and doesn’t regain it. After a whole bunch of religious stuff, where even he gets bored, the Colonel goes to Europe to join some wars for the fun of it. He marches around a bit, marries a few times and then sails back to his plantation. Then he gets involved in some trade disputes with the Spanish, which trebles his wealth and the novel ends - it really does just whimper to a close.

The character of the Colonel is an interesting one. He is an innovator and a pretty optimistic soul. He sees something and improves it, often in a humane way. He has a photographic memory of everything he ever stole, those items obviously being of worth to him as prizes as well as food. He has a notion that Defoe seems to admire of ‘just getting on with it’. He’s also a bit like Del Boy, moving from one thing to the next knowing that ‘this time next year, we’ll be millionaires’. Like Del Boy, the Colonel is a chancer, willing to take any opportunity.

Weirdly for one of these books, he never finds his old family or inherits off them or anything…not sure if I am disappointed or pleasantly surprised. It does emphasise the fact that, at this stage in its progress, the English novel (or the species of writing that will become the English novel) is more a vaguely logical construction of events rather than what we would recognise as a plot.
 This lack of a plot is a fatal flaw to the enjoyment of the book as a whole, but that is not to say it is not an enjoyable book - it is actually very enjoyable. Defoe’s wish to create and maintain the verisimilitude of the book means that we get hundreds of fascinating details about every aspect of the Colonel’s life. The reader gets an apprenticeship into c18th crime; a revised ‘how-to’ manual on how to treat black slaves; an account of being a merchant and all manner of interesting details.

 I think Defoe was missing a trick with his three Jacks, if he had kept all three going, comparing and contrasting their lives throughout, there may have been more feeling of structure - although that may have introduced too much artifice into the story and taken away from the realistic tone.

Monday 28 November 2011

Exciting News

Back when I was writing about Goldsmith, I had said that I hadn't seen any Goldsmith performed. 

Well, the National are going to sort that out for me by putting on 'She Stoops to Conquer' at the end of January.

The only name that jumps out of me that I recognise is Steve Pemberton, who was in The League of Gentleman, which I adored and also in Psychoville, but I'm going for Goldsmith mainly. 

Can't wait.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Review - Tom Brown’s Amusements, serious and comical, calculated for the meridian of London

As this blog is the ‘Grub Street Lodger’ it seemed appropriate to finally review an archetypical Grub Street production by an archetypical Grub Street writer. 
Like many dyed-through-and-through Londoners, Tom Brown was born outside of London but moved to the city having failed to earn money in other places in other ways. Brown moved to Aldersgate Street, a mere spits from Grub Street where he worked as a translator and wrote a great deal, much of it anonymous and a lot of it satirical. Some famous incidents in his life include a punch up with the publisher Abel Roper, which Roper turned into a bestselling pamphlet ridiculing Brown’s fighting as ‘open-clawed like a cat’ and celebrating his own laconic and effective closed-fist punches to the face. 
Roper had earlier written a preface in a Brown book, where he reflects that Brown hadn’t written the preface himself because he had been paid and so has caught ‘the epidemical disease among some scribblers, who have no wit to sell, while they have money to spend, or can be trusted; but when they are reduced to a low ebb, they’ll sneak, fawn, and cringe, like a dog that has worried sheep, and is fearful of the halter.’
There are many other interesting stories and legends about the bare-faced cheek, the wit and the wheeling and dealing of Tom Brown in a number of books ( ‘Tom Brown of Facetious Memory by Benjamin Boyce, is a good read) but the issue now is the most famous of his works, ‘Amusements, serious and comical, calculated for the meridian of London’, published in 1700. 
There are twelve ‘amusements’ in the book, starting with the preface which he remarks ‘can be as long as I please, for a long preface is an amusement indeed’. The preface is probably my favourite of the amusements (I am beginning to love a good preface) as he flippantly and breezily describes the method he has taken in writing the book. He describes how he plans to pretend an Indian has been ‘dropped’ on London and is going around it, looking at the different parts and making comments. Brown then says that there will be times when he drops this conceit and then takes it up again as he feels like, as it’s his book and it’s up to him what he puts in it. Finally, he describes how not all the amusements will be funny ones, some will be serious, this is because ‘The Whole Life of Man is one Entire Amusement’.
The striking thing about the preface, and the rest of the book also, is the confidence and control Brown has over his material and the light way it is written. Brown comes across as impudent, rude, cheeky but a bit of a charmer. He rules the book his own way and trusts you will be amused by it, and you are. 
None of the amusements are particularly original; jokes about talentless, cringing courtiers, jokes about marriage, including mother-in-law gags, jokes about quack doctors that over latinise their speech to sound intelligent. There are jokes about naughty goings on in theatres, about cloistered unworldly academics, who are secretly very worldly indeed and jokes about gamesters and rakes preying on each other. The key to the amusements, the one that makes them amusing, is that none of these jokes are laboured or overwrought, everything is fresh and instant and readily accessible, even after this time. The book is not great literature but it is (as it wishes to be) amusing, a pleasant and engaging bit of light reading.
Unlike (his contemporary) Ned Ward’s, London Spy, this books doesn’t tell the reader a great deal about London, or provide any realistic vignettes of the city. Tom Brown’s London is a London of his imagination, where the different sections and areas provide him with different things to observe and laugh at. It’s a London of the mind, opposed to a real one.
However, Tom Brown does describe London in a manner that feels even more true in multicultural London today than it did then, and, I believe holds truer then even Johnson’s famous comment about people being tired of London are tired of life. Tom Brown says;
“London is a World by it self. We daily discover in it more New Countries, and Surprising Singularities, than in all of the Universe besides. There are among the Londoners so many Nations, differing in Manners, Customs, and Religions, that the Inhabitants themselves don’t know a quarter of them.”
Which is what really enlivens the city and makes it perennially fascinating place to write about, read about and live in.
Till next time

Saturday 5 November 2011

Passionate Intelligence by Ariel Sachs, Review/Reflection

I bought this book after reading a blurb for it in another book in the series. This series, published by John Hopkins press in the twenties and reprinted late sixties offers some very interesting topics, and I’d like to have a few of them. (Thus far I have read and reviewed; The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith’, 'The Unspeakable Curll', ‘The Grub Street Journal, ‘Clubs of Augustan London’ and ‘Tom Brown of Facetious Memory.)

The book promised to shed light on Johnson’s moral thinking and writings, a promise that the book has fulfilled admirably as well as invigorating my reading of Johnson and getting me raring to reread Rasselas in the new light given by the book. The book's main claim is that all of Johnson’s utterances, but in particular his moral ones can be explained with the two forces of imagination and reason.

Imagination is defined as the force in the human mind  which pictures that which is not currently there and can be projected forward in the forms of hope and fear, but also backward in the form of memory. This causes imagined golden ages and hateful times. Imagination, according to this view of Johnson, springs from man’s temporality, and to follow the ‘choice of life’ is to follow imagination's hallucinatory, delusive and narrowing dance.

 Imagination causes the mind to latch onto earthly things, an ambition to be a successful author for example, and to picture that success until the mind narrows onto this hope for the future and it becomes a driving need, maybe even an obsession. However, when/if this fantasy is fulfilled, the fulfilment is in the temporal and imperfect world, and the mind will find something else to latch onto. The life of imagination can never be fulfilled and it is this that Johnson meant when he described life as moving not from ‘pleasure to pleasure’ but from, ‘hope to hope’. 

Reason is defined as the logical and intellectual link to ‘the choice of eternity’, unlike imagination's way of narrowing the mind and pulling it right into the pain of human drama. Reason takes the mind aloft and looks at these obsessions dispassionately. Reason can curb the imagination and when exercised can change a person from being an obsessive butterfly collector, with no interest in anything outside of butterflies, to a true agent of science. Because imagination focuses the mind on the self and the ends of the self, it is reason that inspires compassion for others and truly humanitarian ends because it sees above the petty squabbles of people.

The problem is, that to to feel that a person can be a completely rational being, or to try and be a completely rational being ourselves is itself one of the delusions of imagination. As people we are inextricably temporal beings, constantly over the precipice of death and it is the hopes, delusions and obsession of imagination that keep us waking up in the morning and living life. So it is not the eradication of imagination that Johnson wants, but the use of the rational side to keep us connected to the larger, more general and universal concerns, to stop imagination leading us down an egocentric tunnel. It is this process which is the passionate intelligence of the title. 

I’m not sure how I feel about this dichotomy, if just because like all of us in the twenty-first century, I have been brought up with the romantic notion of imagination as a positive force and as a storywriter and lover of silliness and playing, especially fond as a child of ‘let’s pretend’ games, I find Sachs' conception of imagination hard to swallow. However, the idea of their being two impulses in a human, one to the narrow and specific and one to the general and universal does seem an accurate description of the world. As does the repeated need of obtaining and remembering that humane and detached view that saves us from our own desires and obsessions. If you can find this book, I recommend to pick it up, it gets the mind thinking if nothing else.

Monday 31 October 2011

Let me take you down to...

Strawberry Hill

I’m sitting on a chair, basking in the warm October sunshine on a lawn outside an eccentric eighteenth century vision on a mediaeval gothic castle, drinking a pot of tea and listening to the chatter some coach party. Life does throw up the odd surprise now and again.

I am at Strawberry Hill, the building adapted and built by Horace Walpole, leader of fashion, writer of very bitchy letters and son of the first prime minister. It’s a nutty place, built according to his whims and fantasies, a fake ancestral castle utilising as many details from gothic architecture, at that point a very unpopular style compared to the Augustin style with its clean lines and symmetry. The house is a study of unsymmetry and it stands, beautiful and ludicrous in Twickenham, just on the south-western outskirts of London. In building this strange hobby, Walpole prompted the gothic revival and in writing about it, he wrote The Castle of Otranto the first gothic novel (and a very odd book indeed). So I have come to visit it.

I still have time before I go in, so I take a wander around the garden where I am attracted to a bench in the shape of a shell, a reconstruction of one of Walpole’s own creations and a famous piece of design in it’s own right. I sit on it and find it a bit of a let down, carved in cheap wood and smearily painted, it looks like something Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen would have built in changing rooms. The fact that it is stained in bird crap and covered in ladybirds makes it a little unnerving, but I sit there anyway.

Despite this, sitting on a clean part of the bench and looking back at the bench I am left with   a feeling of utter pleasure. The details of the house are castle-esque, There is a round tower and a conical one, there are cloisters and crenellations, but the scale is wrong. Looking at the trees towering over the castle or the size of the people against it’s arched windows reveal that it is not much taller than a typical London townhouse, although takes up rather more space. It is a large villa, but a teensy castle and the clearly designed nature of the place reminds me of a building in a theme park, a sort of ‘King Arthur Land’ or something, although with much more charm. Strawberry Hill is not a corporate place (I had to remind them to charge me for my tea), what’s more it still feels what it originally was, the whimsy of a creative man of extensive means having a bit of a muckabout.

When it’s my turn to go in, I am led into a room with a video explaining the background of the house and I am given a little booklet, that reproduces an abridged version of Walpole’s own description of the house, allowing the man himself to lead you through. There are also guides in every room who are very enthusiastic and informative. Indeed, the guides were great, pointing out details I might have missed, like the elaborate Queen Anne lock in the blue room and explaining the tasks of the ongoing and extensive restoration continuing on the house. Some of the previous owners made odd choices, covering eighteenth century painted tromp-l’oeil wallpaper with 80s pink patterns and anaglypta.
The first room is the hallway, it is dark and dingy, there is a staircase going up and a single large lantern hanging from the top. The lantern is decorated in stained-glass, as are a lot of the windows. The stained glass is one of my favourite elements in the building, partly because of the way the glass dapples the light and partly because of the way the glass was obtained. Walpole ordered a job lot from Holland, and they arrived, assorted bits of mismatched stained glass dating back to the 1500s and depicting all sorts from trading to saints. Walpole then went around, arranging the glass in different ways until it fit his wish. There is one room where the corners all featured birds, another features King Charles the first and second. All the glass in the house is worth a closer look.

At the top of the stairs, where Walpole dreamed of a giant fist, a dream that started his novel, there is his library. It is wonderful, the closest thing to The Beast’s library it might be possible to have in a suburban villa and has grand arched bookcases. Impressively the bookcases open, so the books behind the arches can be retrieved. Unimpressively, the collection was sold off and there are actually no books in the library. There is a huge painting on the ceiling, not touched since it was first painted but bright and vivid and a special locked bookcase where Wapole kept the books he printed in his own private press in Strawberry Hill. 

After the library, there is this wonderful dark corridor, lined in ridges of wood to make it feel like you are in a drum and left into the long gallery. A beautiful room in red damask and loads and loads of gilt. Indeed, gilt and grandeur summarise the other rooms in the house.

In summary, I highly recommend a visit to anyone with a few hours to spend enjoying the details and humour of the building, and learning a little about a very odd and wonderfully creative man....he also had an extra overspill library, and I can't help but love a man with one of those.

All yours

Saturday 15 October 2011

The Grub Street Journal - Review

(I think this review is cursed, my computer has ‘pazowwed’ twice when writing this.)

A Copy of the Journal, doesn't look like much...but not a bad read.

I was originally disappointed when I received my copy of ‘The Grub Street Journal’. I was expecting a collection of eighteenth century magazines written by members of the much maligned assortment of hack writers located in and around Grub Street. Instead I received a book about a magazine, which had written as if by hack writers in and around Grub Street, but actually written, partly at the instigation of Alexander Pope as a continuation of The Dunciad.

James Hillhouse explains that he was originally intending to publish the Journal itself, but seven years of popular and consistent publication, there is too much to publish. His second thought was edited highlights of the Journal but this highlighted a problem that would have also affected a full collection. The business of the Grub Street Journal, was to pick entertaining squabbles with other newspapers and get squabbling away. For this reason, it’s hard to simply publish it, as it is principally understood in its relation with other publications of the time. This is what this book’s about, and as such, it is very entertaining.
The first chapter is the driest, but essential to understand the rest. It details how the Journal was developed to pick literary fights on behalf of Pope and other Scribelarians and how it grew it’s own legs under it’s editor ‘Bavius’, a mask worn by a few people but most often a sharp-witted, non-juring vicar called, Richard Russell. It then provided popular entertainment, by picking fights, some literary, others medical and some religious.
The book then takes us through different categories of argument and dispute the journal involved itself in and gives examples of each. The disputes take rather similar forms, even the most abstract arguments descend into ad-hominem attacks and the Journal often finds itself using parody and fake letters from the other side, making it look stupid. They have a particular fondness of attacking other papers, I like the constant refrain of rival paper, The Register as, ‘an obscure little paper’, it seems such a modern way of niggling other publications.

Another running joke I enjoyed were the constant digs at Colley Cibber. I have a real fondness for Mr Cibber (last mentioned in my review of ‘Midnight Mirage’, but also got a mention in ‘Joseph Andrews’). The actor-manager, so popular in comic roles, unexpectedly made poet laureate to be ridiculed at least twice a year when publishing his New Year and Royal odes. The Journal had followed the contest throughout, ridiculing the possible candidates but mostly ignoring Cibber, he being such an outside possibility. When he got the role, they were ready with an epigram or two. For example;
But guessing who would have the luck
To be the birthday fibber
I thought of Dennis, Theobold, Duck
But never dreamt of Cibber
(Incidentally, during the contest, Bavius banned waterfoul puns for Mr Duck as they were being inundated with them).
Or this comment;
Court fools and poets once illustrious lived:
With different titles graced distinct they shone:
But both are now so scarce; ‘tis well contrived
To join a poet and a fool in one.
Every time one of his execrable odes was released, the Journal would look at it in it’s most mock-serious manner and tear it apart. There were frequent niggles at his plays as at his poetry. 

Colley also seems to have provided the age with a phrase used in lots of contexts, much as we would use a famous quote from a film... such as, when chopping too much veg for a curry and putting it in a pan, I remarked that we ‘needed a bigger boat’). The phrase, which I have now incorporated into my own idiolect is something Colley was reported to have said to an actress who had particularly slayed an audience one night that she had, ‘outdone your usual outdoings’. In works throughout the ‘30s, people were described as ‘outdoing their outdoings’ for many different spheres of activity. Of course, Cibber himself often outdid his outdoings as a poet.

Another regular feature was the news roundup. This was more than a mere digest of news, but also a comment on the poor newsgathering techniques of the other papers. It took conflicting reports of the same event, compared them and often a comment by Bavius/Russell. These comments are often of an acid and sardonic nature that pushes (and occasionally crosses into) cruel. Occasionally the reports were written in a rhyme form, something that seems shockingly flippant and rather amusing, for example the fairly famous;
“Yesterday, a poor woman, who I suppose got up to ride,
Fell out of a dust-cart, and immediately died.”

There are many arguments, but the one that most gripped me was the tale of their longest running feud with the quack, Joshua Ward. Ward peddled some pills and drops, supposed to be a panacea for all ills and ended up killing many people, especially the weak. The Journal opened up its pages to anyone wishing to report deaths and crippling from the pills. The pills were based on genuine 18th century medical practice of purging the body of sickness, but they worked too well, purging the body for days and days until the victim purged themselves to death. The campaign was pretty successful, and Ward had to tour the North and keep out of London. 
In all, I enjoyed this book and I feel I know, or have access to knowledge about every aspect of The Grub Street Journal that I could ever want. And that’s something to be pleased about.