Sunday 29 May 2011

Pirates at the London Docklands

On friday I had the extreme good fortune of going to see the ‘Pirates - the Captain Kidd Story’ at the Museum of London Docklands, located in the old West India docks close to the financial hub of Canary Wharf.

The museum is a fantastic museum in it’s own right (and completely free) but I have always had a fascination of pirates since I was little and my mum wrote a pirate story for me and took me to the ‘Pirates - Fact & Fiction’ exhibition at the National Maritime Museum when I was about eight. Now, I and a bunch of people dressed up as pirates had the fun of exploring the exhibition until ten o’clock, with grog, games and lectures also available.

Captain William Kidd was a Scot who was given political and financial backing to go out and capture pirates upon his ship, The Adventure Galley. His crew were paid only in a share of prize money and so were eager to plunder. As the voyage went on, things started to become desperate and he started to prey on ships outside of his agreement (to only attack pirates and French) and so attacked the Quedagh Merchant. It was then his days were numbered. 

Although Kidd managed to hide the majority of his loot, he was captured in 1701, tried and hanged (the rope snapping on first go). Then his body was ceremoniously left in the Thames for three tides before being coated in pitch and being hung on a Gibbet at Tilbury.
Kidd at Tilbury

The exhibit told his story very well, mixing in facts about pirating in general and the relationship between pirate fact and pirate myth. The exhibition also put a very good case forward that Kidd’s transformation from privateer to pirate was due largely to the corruption of the politicians that originally backed him.

My favourite exhibits were the (purportedly genuine) Jolly Roger, the letters of marque and the constitution drawn up by Kidd’s Crew. They were exhibited excitingly with plenty of space to enjoy each object and there was plenty of chances to dress up, grab a sword and feel like the dashing pirate throughout.

Trailer for the exhibit.

Along with a free Kidd badge and a lecture about gay/transgender pirates (there is an academic debate about whether pirate ships were gay paradises or not) I had a great evening.

The next day, finding myself near a central line Station after a bit of work, I decided to go to the Museum of London (The Museum of London Docklands’ sister museum, also free) and check out their Eighteenth Century stuff as last year they had a multi-million pound revamp of the exhibitions from 1660-2011 and I had only the chance to see it once since it opened. This museum is my absolute favourite and I wasn’t disappointed.

There is plenty there to interest any person with the slightest curiosity of London, from depictions of prehistoric London (swampy and warm) to parts of Roman London, to modern London (they even have the ‘Protein Man’s’ sandwich board) there are plenty of well displayed items and so it goes for the C18th.

Wellclose Jail Cell, now rebuilt in the museum

There is a contemporary wax model of Samuel Johnson and friends at ‘The Club’, watches, porcelain and guns made in London. I fantastic mid-century dress, a sedan chair and even a compters cell complete with the carvings of prisoners. I had been reading Evelina on the train over to the museum and had just finished the scene set at Vauxhall, so I was keen to go in the recreation of Vauxhall set up there, which plays scenes on screens. I was delighted to notice that some of these scenes were the ones directly from Evelina.
The Evelina in Vauxhall Experience

After enjoying the exhibits (but being disappointed by the bookshop, not nearly as good as it was) I decided to go for one of my wanders. On the way I went into the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths to see an exhibition about silverwork. The hall was as expected, lots of heavy red carpet and gold colour things, their symbol is a lion. 

Next to their hall is the smaller one belonging to the wax chandlers, or candle makers, who had the slogan ‘truth is the light’ on it and further down there I went to the ‘parliament’ of old London, the Guildhall.

Inside the Guildhall is an art gallery I have never heard of before, (again for free). There was a large collection of Pre-Raphaelite stuff including many cutesy Millais. Underneath they had paintings of London (as you often see in history books) and most surprisingly of all, the remains of London’s Roman Amphitheatre - and I didn’t even know any of it was there.
Some cutesy Millais

So a very entertaining few days altogether... some reviews coming soon and the next instalment of ‘At Home with Samuel Johnson’.
All yours

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure - John Cleland

Fanny Hill is a pornographic novel that was banned for years and can now be bought in a mass produced paperback under a classical imprint.

I had this edition

What is it that has made this book stand the test of time, overcome its unruly provenance and gain a certain amount of respectability? Is it the plot, the writing, the characterisation or some other quality that has managed this feat?

But this is my favourite cover
Starting with the plot, it is in some ways a pretty typical picaresque novel. A young woman from a poor social background has to make her own way in life and finds herself experiencing both high-life and low-life as she does so. Fanny Hill’s adventures start when her parents die and she travels to London to become a maid. Instead of becoming a maid she is lured into a life of prostitution with the aid of Mother Brown and the seductive Phoebe. She is destined to have her virginity sold to an ugly man but he is impotent and storms out in a rage. Fanny then sneaks out with the beautiful and kind Charles.

Some are quite posh
Charles takes her virginity and the two become lovers. However, his father is jealous of Charles’ relationship with a rich aunt and abducts him onto a ship. When Fanny goes to confront him, worse news still, Charles’ father is the disgusting man from before. Fanny is alone and owing rent. Luckily her landlady sets her up with a smart but cold man who needs a mistress. However, Fanny sees the man with her maid and so decides to get her own back with his (extraordinarily endowed) servant Will. He catches her and she is in the streets again.

And some are very rude
Now she works in a brothel, her and girls share stories and lovers. Things get a bit genteel so she has anal sex with a sailor. As time goes by, this brothel begins to dissipate and Fanny goes to live with a sixty-year old man who leaves her his money. One day, the newly rich Fanny goes to her former madam’s grave and sees Charles, back from the Indies. They get together, have sex and live happily ever after...

... I think it’s fair to say the plot is not the reason it has survived. Fanny’s world is one with only limited consequence and we were under no fear that she and Charles would not get together, that the event happened so suddenly and by chance does not help matters.

These are all real Fanny Hill engravings 
Maybe it is the characterisation then and the way the characterisation can discuss matters of importance. With Fanny being a female protagonist and the issue of female sexuality being front and centre, it is tempting to read Fanny Hill from a feminist perspective and to interpret Fanny as a powerful, confident woman using her sexuality to overcome the weakness of men and secure herself a fortune; or as a tale of masculine dominance forcing Fanny into her life of prostitution but I think that both would be wrong.

This film came out in 1964
Fanny is just too stupid to be interpreted as a strong, independent woman like Moll Flanders or Roxanna. There is almost no point in the story where Fanny makes a decision about her life or even seems to understand what is going on particularly. Neither does she seem like a victim as she passively, but contentedly succumbs to whatever experience is in front of her. The closest parallel to Fanny Hill I can think of is that of Forrest Gump. She is too thick to be anything other than a pretty and obliging doormat.

This one in 1983

Most of the prostitutes in the books are similarly bland, a few are lascivious. Charles is a wet blanket and his dad a cartoon ogre. Poor Will is defined only by his large penis. Mother Brown is no more than a money obsessed business woman, but Fanny’s second madam, Mrs Cole is quite interesting. She defends her brothel as no more than enjoyment and is proud that her girls are kept safe and clean. The most interesting character is Mr H, the surly man who keeps Fanny as a mistress. He is intelligent but can’t share that with Fanny, all he can share with her is his body and it frustrates him. I found him interesting because his is a character you see in lots of old men and their trophy wives, but his was not a character that was explored.

So, neither character nor plot make it worth lasting, how about writing. Here I can give good news because this book has some of the most enjoyably over the top descriptions of sex and body parts as I have ever read. What is interesting is that all the best descriptions are of cocks, especially big ones, which would suggest to me that male wonder about penis size has not changed much in the intervening time - but enough about that - It’s time for the top 5 descriptions of penises in ‘Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure’.
Furious battering ram.
Red headed champion.
The dearest morsel of the Earth.
Staff of love.
A splitter indeed.
So with that cleared up, I think it is clear that this is a book worth surviving. Even if it is just because it made me smile.


Tuesday 24 May 2011

At Home With Samuel Johnson (Part One - Sam Moves In)

Part One: Sam Moves In

In which an accident leads to an unusual flatshare.

I have this Welsh friend called Gwyddein who owns an allotment just behind my parents’ house. He often pops into their house after he has spent time tinkering and I regularly see him when I visit on a Sunday. When he is there, he drinks gallons of tea and eats half a loaf in marmite on toast. I think those toast sessions are the only time he eats, he seems the type to forget to. We get on well, joking, talking about old books and sometimes he shows me some of his collection of first editions, all of them in tremendous condition.

One day, I took my parents’ dog for a walk by the allotment and was surprised to find smoke billowing out of his shed - fearing for his safety, the dog and I ran to the shed and opened it to see a machine like nothing I have ever seen before. It was a collection of metal tubes sparking with a blue energy and producing a smoke that stung the back of my throat. Coughing along with me was Gwyddien, who was trying to waft the smoke out of the shed. There was another man in the shed, wearing an old fashioned brown suit and wafting away smoke with a grey wig. 

The smoke stung our eyes and drove us out the shed and into the bare allotment. Just in time as the shed then exploded sending shivers of timber raining around us. 
    “Quick!” Gwyddien yelled, “before the police come. To your parents’ house!” He belted off towards their house with me and the dog following and the strange man close behind. I used the key and we burst into the house, ignoring the protests of my mum as the three of us trod soot, mud and splinters through the house and barricaded ourselves in the kitchen. The dog waited eagerly for his food and my mum banged on the door, demanding to be let into her own kitchen. I switched the kettle on.
     “What is going on?” my mum called from the other side of the door. “I heard a bang.”
     “That was me,” Gwyddien said shyly, opening the door. “I’m not really a gardener. I’m an inventor and I managed to invent a time machine. Unfortunately, it just blew up.” 
    “Unfortunately,” I said, looking at the strange man, who still looks too confused to speak.
    “Meet, Samuel Johnson,” said Gwyddien. 
I looked up at my hero, tall, wide and ugly, his mouth muttering away to itself and dribbling a bit, twigs and dust in a lopsided wig that had already been singed a few times.
     “Delighted to meet you,” I said and extend my hand to shake his. We shake but Johnson is still too dazed to pay much attention and his huge hands hang limp.
     “The trouble is, without the machine, I can’t take him back. Someone’s got to look after him.”
     “What about you?” Mum said. “It was your machine that brought him here.”
     “Have you seen my place? It’s like a cupboard.”
     “Well, I’m not going to have him here, how am I supposed to explain him to my husband?”
     “I’ll have him,” I heard myself saying. “I’m looking for a new flatmate.”
     “What about rent?” Mum asked.
     “I’ll pay his rent,” said Gwyddien. “After all, I brought him here.”
     “Cool,” I said. After all, the man is my idol and I would never have had the chance to meet him, let alone live with him if it wasn’t for Gwyddien’s time machine.
Johnson’s mouth kept moving and his eyes rolled. I leaned forward to listen to his muttering.
     “I have finally lost my reason,” he mumbled. “I am mad.” 
The kettle clicked and I poured. I felt we all deserved one.

Until the next instalment...


Wednesday 18 May 2011

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman - Laurence Sterne (1759-67) Review

Sterne, by Reynolds

This book was one of the big literary sensations of its time, flinging an obscure Yorkshire vicar into the bitchy limelight of London literature. Nowadays it is a book more referenced than read, a strange arcane joke laughed at by people long dead.

And now for something completely different.

But now for something completely different. When the Monty Python group were sitting around and trying to work out the structure of their new sketch show, they decided that the punchline often let down a sketch and that they should have a show consisting of middles of sketches that drift, lurch and shift into each other with only the vaguest of connections. It was nothing new, Larry Sterne was doing that in this book a few hundred years before. Don’t pick up this book expecting a strong plot or tension, the reader needs to just run with it and enjoy each moment as it comes, which is pretty much Sterne’s opinion on living life. 

I read this version, which was clear but, like Mozart had too many notes.

Tristram Shandy is dying after living a very disappointing life, he decides to write down his life and opinions, largely to make excuses for why things did not turn out as they should have. His first excuse was that his Dad was not concentrating enough during his conception; the second is that his nose was broken at birth; his third was his being given the name Tristram and the fourth was his being unwittingly circumcised as a four year old when a window fell on him. These may not seem like sensible excuses, but they all make sense because they are all deviations from the grand plan organised for him by Walter, his father.

Walter (by Cruickshank)

Walter is a very interesting character, a man who uses reason and clear logic to support and conceive ideas much nuttier than anything he could have created out of nowhere. He is so keen on concocting the best ever syllabus for his young son that the boy grows up not being taught anything. He loves his wife and he loves his son but he is so selfishly devoted to his own whims and hobbyhorses that he can’t properly show his love. Walter loves and relentlessly teases his younger brother, Toby.

Uncle Toby (by Cruickshank)

Toby is the finest, most loveable character I have found in all fiction. He’s an ex-soldier who had a flying piece of masonry crush his groin during the Siege of Namur and is now obsessed with the science of fortification. Either the blow affected his mind, or Toby was never the sharpest pike in the pack but he is not all that clever, he knows nothing about social life or the opposite sex and so he is naturally the one who falls in love. Despite being a strong and obsessive warrior, obsessive enough to re-enact town fortifications on the bowling lawn, Toby is so soft and gentle and literally would not hurt a fly.
I ended up falling head over heels for the guy to be honest.
Trim (by Cruickshank)

Toby has an accomplice, a man known as Trim, a sentimental corporal with a fondness for oration. He assists Toby in all of his hobbyhorses and loves him completely and Toby loves Trim back - it’s a love forged by war injury and carried into civilian life. Trim manages to make a whole group of people cry just by dropping his hat in illustration of death.

There are lots of other characters, Obadiah the manservant who loves whistling; Susannah the ditzy maid; the Widow Wadman, so beautiful the reader is given a blank page just to fill in; and finally, Parson Yorick, a man who’s pleasant temper is his downfall. Indeed, there are hundreds of characters except Tristram himself. Tristram barely gets a look in as a character and as a narrator, he is more a series of ticks and eccentricities. 

These characters weave and crash and get in each other’s way, each one riding their hobbyhorses wherever they take them, bickering as they go. There are mock sermons, mock obituaries, mock romances, mock learning, mock socratic dialogue - a whole bunch of mock.
Sterne uses images to help navigate the looping story.

He includes some wonderful phrases and conceits. One of many fine conceits is the one about why all the best writers are clean shaven. He starts with the first principal that a good writer is one who has time to think and that a man who shaves has ample time to think. He then reflects that women writers must have some other time to think seeing as they don’t shave, except the Spanish women of course.   

You could slim this book, cut out the chapters from the fake miscellany about the guys with the big noses or the entire book that dealt with Tristram travelling awkwardly and expensively around France but to cut stuff from the book is not to read it right. 

Run with the book, run with it and accept it and it is one of the finest things you will ever read, full of humour and emotion and quite wonderful. Fight it and it will be a very frustrating few hundred pages.  


Tuesday 17 May 2011

Beggar's Opera in a Nutshell

I sum up the Beggar's Opera by John Gay in a minute.

(Coming soon, review of reading The Beggar's Opera, even better, I'm off to watch a performance of it at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in July - can't wait.)

Big Evelina Read

I'm taking part in the big Evelina Read on The Duchess of Devonshire's Gossip Page

I've read a biography of the author, Fanny Burney and some of her juvenile diaries - she also comes up in many of the Thraliana papers I have read and has a little peek in Boswell's Life of Johnson - so it's about time I actually read some of her writing.

To be frank, I was rather put off her writing by her character, which seems very faux-mousey and the character of Evelina does have that quality - but I am now on the twentieth letter (it's an epistolary novel) and I am very into it and laughing/smiling with great frequency. 

More about Evelina on the 2nd June

(but if you want to here about Eve, check out 'Death of a Dreamonger' on the left hand bar). 


Sunday 15 May 2011

Review: Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

This novel started off as a simple and childish parody but something happened to it. That something was Parson Adams, one of the finest, most likeable characters I have ever read.
(I read a hard-backed copy published by Wayne State Press.)
The full title of the book is ‘The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams’ and luckily Adams gets a lot of air time. He is a hypocritical clergyman, but not in the usual clich├ęd way. He speaks and lectures a very dour, sacrificing and cold version of Christianity but can’t help himself enacting a giving, human and humane version of it.  He is not a canting, affectation filled man, he is free, easy and blustering. He also likes a drink, spoils for a fight and generally bumbles and bluffs his way through the story.

 One of the greatest scenes is a stand-off between him and a tight-arsed squire-clergyman which ends up in the two of them rolling around with pigs. Another wonderful scene is the one where Adams lectures long and hard about living through tragedy stoically and without emotion - he is then told his son has drowned and promptly dissolves in sadness. A minute later the boy turns up, the report being a little premature and Adams dances around the room ‘like a man frantic’, once again Parson Adams’ heart is revealed to be much kinder and truer than his mouth.

 (This is not Parson Adams, but some re-enactor)

I like Adams, it is hard to dislike him, he is such a blundering and blustering man, wandering through life and the pages of this book oblivious to the impact he makes of those around him. There few examples of guileless goodheartedness so worth following and if I could write a character as alive, or be as alive myself, I would be a very happy person. It is also this free heart that means that Parson Adams can fall over, be savaged by hunting dogs and roll around with pigs but he maintains his dignity, because his dignity is based on his openness.

(Not Jospeh Andrews, a young man painted by John Opie.)

What about Joseph Andrews himself? He’s a simple lad and handsome and is related to Pamela, the hero of Richardson’s novel of the same name. Like Pamela, he is propositioned by his employer, the Lady Booby, sister of Pamela’s Mr B. Keen to uphold the ‘virtue of male chastity’, a virtue not recognised by any other footman around him, Joseph Adams turns Lady Booby down so she fires him. It is on lonely walk back home to his sweetheart, Fanny that he bumps into Parson Adams who has come to London to publish his sermons. Adams joins Andrews on the journey back home because he forgot his sermons in the first place. 

(Not Fanny but the delectable Emma Hamilton.)
The lovely Fanny Goodwill, Joseph’s favourite girl, is a sweet natured and simple kind of girl, illiterate and pretty. She leaves home to find Joseph and bumps into him and Adams. Her main job is to be pathetic and pretty and Joseph and Parson Adams find themselves frequently fending off people wanting her favours and being confused as abductors and the like. 

(Gillray's characteristic take on female fashion)

The other characters in the book are on the whole broadly and clearly drawn. Lady Booby is an emotional, childish and lusty woman used to getting her own way and her attempts to seduce Joseph Andrews kick the plot off.

 Her servant, Slipslop is more interesting a lady. She is not ‘remarkably handsome’, a beautifully understated phrase that is followed by a paragraph that lists her physical flaws in clear and lurid detail. She envisions herself as more important than most of the other villagers; she also follows Mrs Malaprop from the rivals in her misguided attempts at trying to sound intelligent by using longer words. 

There is also Wilson, a man who at first seems like a digression from the main story by telling yet another tale of gentlemanly debauchery (as found somewhere in almost every novel from the time) but is actually a very important character to the resolution of the plot. Indeed, many small characters come back later on and play a part in resolving various problems.

(This is Henry Fielding)

This is Fielding’s first full novel (after the short parody ‘Shamela’ and a very successful career as a playwright) but already he has developed a very intrusive narrative style. Some people don’t love Fielding’s tendency to interrupt his own text with mock philosophical and stylistic discussions but I look forward to them.

 Fielding sets his stall out very early with a dig at Colly Cibber, an actor-manager who’s autobiography may have praised it’s subject a little too well judging by the way that Colly Cibber pops up through the whole novel, ironically held up as a paragon of virtue. This quality is one that Fielding expands and perfects later in ‘Tom Jones’ but some people will prefer the less pervasive, though not less subtle narrative voice in Joseph Andrews. 

I really recommend this book as an entry to the world of eighteenth century fiction and to the work of Henry Fielding. It is short, fun and contains all the wonderful characterisation and character that makes Joseph Andrews a satisfying read whilst accustoming the reader to the rhythms and flows of text written at the time.

All yours