Monday 25 November 2013

A Voyage to Lisbon by Henry Fielding - some thoughts

This little work was published shortly after Henry Fielding died in Lisbon from a variety of ailments. It is a journal of the protracted voyage it took to get him there. Any person reading this and expecting the warm and welcoming personage from Tom Jones needs to be warned that they will not find him here; age, pain and disappointment have made him into something of a grump.

The first interesting element in the book, especially for someone who has enjoyed the tv programme, ‘City of Vice’, is the reflection Fielding has of his tenure of Magistrate of Westminster and the overseer of that early experiment in inner-city policing, the Bow Street Runners. Throughout the book he is certain that he shall shortly die and it is this work that he blames for killing him. He is proud that ‘were almost utterly extirpated, and that, instead of reading of murders and street-robberies in the new every morning, there was, in part of the month of November, and all of the month of December, not only no such thing as murder, but not even a street-robbery committed.’ But he is certain that his efforts to achieve this instead of seeking a cure when he was already very ill have inevitably condemned him. What’s more he categorically states that he has not given his life for the good of his society but for the good of his family, it being so hard to earn a decent wage as a magistrate without being corrupt that has to work himself to death to provide for them.

As a last desperate attempt for health; Fielding, his wife, children and wife’s maid, decide to move to Lisbon in Portugal. The journey doesn’t go very smoothly. In fact, the journey barely goes at all for much of the book as the wind and tide is so against them, they keep finding themselves back towards London, clinging to various southern isles to stop them drifting all the way back home. One of the running jokes in the book is the captain swearing that he is certain that the wind will go in the direction they need shortly before it blows the wrong way or they are becalmed altogether.

The Captain of the ship is one of my favourite characters in all of Fielding’s writing, possibly because he is directly drawn from real life. He is an old man himself, formally a privateer and he wears his military cockade with inordinate pride. It seems that Fielding wants to ridicule the captain, paint him as someone who cannot read the wind as well as he wishes and who is impossibly proud and imperious in his position of captain but he can’t bring himself to do it. Part of this is Fielding’s understanding that as an immobile, grumpy and opinionated person, he is a very difficult passenger and that the captain has to put up with a lot. This element of their relationship comes to a climax after Fielding threatens to shove a bottle up the arse of a sailor who is irritating him - although this causes a big row and nearly has Fielding leaving the ship as soon as possible, it leads him to reflect on how much the captain treats his sailors as a family and how much he cares for them and stands on their side. 

This care extends to the animals on the ship and there is a very funny moment when all activity stops when a cat falls out of the cabin window, with the captain very emotional and his bo’sun stripping down and diving into the sea to rescue him. In a ‘Final Destination’-esque twist, the cat ends up suffocating under a feather bed before the voyage is out. Again the captain is inconsolable.

The captain’s love extends even to the ship itself, in particular the little ship-to-shore boat. It is another running joke in the book that the captain will not let the boat launch under any circumstance, so loath is the captain to see it floating on the ocean. There are many occasions where launching the little boat would have been of great help but it is never launched. Although Fielding would like to attribute this to the captain’s love, he is also willing to concede it may be because it is very hard to get sailors back onto a ship once they have found a nice pub on shore.

On one of the many forced stop-overs, the Fieldings find themselves the guests of friendly Isle of WIght Landlady, Mrs Francis. She is a shrieking, unwelcoming harridan with the meekest husband there ever was, ‘as it was impossible to displease him, so it was impossible to please her.’ Fielding has a particular problem with the way she constructs her bills; charging him separately for cooking, dressing and preparing a dinner - three jobs which to him are the same. She also has a habit of charging for things like candles that they haven’t used and for pricing all these services a little more each day. While she probably wasn’t the most welcoming landlady, at least she provided him with good material.

There is one moment of total beauty. As they near Lisbon they see the sun set on one side of the boat and the moon rise on the other. This is described as one of those numinous moments, the last gasp of heaven for Fielding to see.

Finally, they reach Lisbon. There they have to go through a lengthy and tedious customs process before embarking and entering the city. Fielding, ever the grump, declares it ‘the nastiest city in the world’ unfortunately for us, he won’t have to live there for very long.

Sunday 17 November 2013

CBC Discovery Day and Georgians Revealed at the British Library

On Saturday I took myself to the CBC Discovery Day II and talked about ‘Odes to the Big City’ with an agent. I also went along to the British Library to see their ‘Georgians Revealed’ exhibition.

First was my trip to Foyles. I took my new disgusting ‘tache, first page of my book and some scribbled notes and presented them to Anna Davis of Curtis Brown (who also happened to be the person I spoke to last time). This time I had been organised enough to book myself a place.

I gave her a warning, telling her that I was pitching what every agent must surely be looking for, an eighteenth century picaresque novel. I then outlined poor old Sidney and his plight and emphasised links between the eighteenth century and the twenty-first that would make the book relevant to a modern reader. I compared Grub Street and the unlicensed print explosion to the internet and the similar fears both created. I compared crowdfunding with subscription and I noted that the gap between rich and poor was widening into eighteenth century proportions. Then I showed her my page.

She read it and I tried not to watch her. She described the writing as ‘fun’ and ‘lively’, both words she used about ‘Death of a Dreamonger’. She said I had no issues with my ability to write interesting and readable prose, even when I was trying for a more eighteenth century register. She said the writing was like a rich pudding and enjoyable as it is in parts, it might be too heavy to sustain for a novel.

She then gave me some things to bear in mind as I wrote. That I should make sure the through-line of the plot is very strong and that I should tell some of the story in my high eighteenth century register but drop into something more modern as well. She was pleased when I confessed I couldn’t write dialogue in an eighteenth century style (either large chunks of speech or reported speech) and said that I had to make sure the book was more than an eighteenth century novel. She told me some modern historical novels to look at.

Then she told me she thought the title weak. I have always had a problem with titles.

Next I went to the British Library with a friend to see the exhibition there.

It was pretty brilliant, there was the thrill of seeing Jane Austen’s own tiny spectacles and a few genuine clothes, shows, tea equippage of the era. I loved the miniature children’s library with books like this;

The object that made us laugh the most was a trunk where a regency rake had shoved all his bills throughout his life, leaving them all to a friend before scarpering to the continent. It was the details like that which brought the exhibition to life.

What I most loved about the exhibition was the chance to see many ephemeral pieces. There were trading cards, service listings and stock books. I smiled to see a couple of bonds for the South Sea Company. You could see in a shopkeeper’s own hand what was selling and how much it was. For example, there were six grades of coffee listed from ‘premium’ to ‘threash’. I also smiled at the list of snuffs, knowing that I had tried at least three of the flavours. There was a book of props and settings from Drury Lane, as well as tickets, benefit tickets and flyers. There were adverts for exhibitions and shows, like the rhinoceros and the learned goose. 

There were broadside ballads; letters from Austen and Fanny Burney, Chippendale catalogues and examples of the weekly magazines. It was striking how funny much of the material was, anybody who was reading what was on display was smiling and laughing regularly, calling their mates over to see this or that funny thing.

I was also struck by how books were used by the middle classes as an improving tool. There was the only copy of ‘The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour’, self-taught language and music books and, most confusing of all, self-taught dancing books covered in intricate and almost impossible diagrams.

Finally, the exhibition ends with a huge copy of Roque’s map covering the floor. We spent a long time tracing the streets we knew and imagining what an area must be like (the one with four tanning yards back to back didn’t seem very inviting). Then in best eighteenth century tradition, we went to the country air of Highgate and had a few drinks.

Here's a link to more information about the exhibition.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Jerry White lecturing on Grub Street at Dr Johnson's

A few months ago, I went to see historian of London Jerry White, (author of London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing) at Samuel Johnson's house for a talk about the notion of Grub Street. I liked his style of presentation, he was very amusing and had a slinking cat-like quality which was more interesting then the slightly stodgy nature of some speakers.

The first part of the talk was to illustrate why it began to be possible for people to make money from words. Although I was aware of the rise of literacy before and during the eighteenth century, Jerry White put it into figures. He estimates that in the 1750s, 60% of all males and 40% of all females in London were literate to some level. He even pointed to parish records of the very poor requesting charity and found at least half the males had the literacy needed to sign their name.

Not that a writer needed literacy to get people hearing their words, newspapers and journals were read out in the coffee houses where old copies were bound in together to be looked in at leisure. There were so many newspapers being published in the capital in a month that publications like 'The Gentleman's Magazine' were published, which had the unique selling point of digesting news that would be interesting and suitable to aspiring gentlemen. 

One of the interesting features of this print explosion was that it was primarily centred in a number of cities, particularly London. Regional newspapers were far, far fewer and tended to recycle stories from the capital. Indeed, it makes sense that the street used to 'house' all these writers in popular imagination was a London one. He talked about how foreign tourists would travel to Grub Street to find the writers and be disappointed that it was full of cobblers.

He then went on to an interesting side note about the dubious veracity of some of these newspapers. I already knew that 'The Grub Street Journal’ (not published on Grub Street) used to run a regular feature in which lying reports were exposed but I wasn't aware that the 'Town and Country Magazine' specialised in sex scandals and may have received a good share of it's income through blackmail. Nor was I aware that 'The Flying Post' was also known as 'The Lying Post.' Finally, I don't ever recall hearing the story of Samuel Johnson putting bad news into his reports just to incense Hester Thrale's Mother-in-Law. Nor am I certain this happened, Johnson had left the journal and magazine world  by the time he met the Thrales and Johnson's morals would never have let him print an outright lie in a public medium. Maybe Jerry White was spinning some of his own tales in the style of 'The Flying Post'.

He then went on to talk a little about books and emphasised how they were popular culture. He talked about Dudley Rider (a diarist) making sure he was reading the books that everyone was talking about so he had a subject when he next met some pretty ladies. He also quoted a bit of Lord Formal, a character in Henry Fielding's 'Love in Several Masques' where the Lord complains that he tried to read but the effort had been very tiresome for his eyes and that he 'lost my direct ogle', a true tragedy for any Lord.

Then Jerry Hall talked about the authors themselves. The fact was that as much as the London printing machine needed copy, there were more writers then could profit from it. He was very amusing about how 'the travails of the hackney writer was always very effectively and evocatively pitied; by the hackney writer.'

For a writer to survive Grub Street or to ascend any higher in the literary world, they had to be versatile. Think of Goldsmith, who did everything from writer comic plays to popular science, novels, essays and poems. Or Samuel Johnson, who’s description on the statue at the end of Fleet Street read; ‘critic, essayist, philologist, biographer, wit, poet, moralist, dramatist, political writer, talker.’ 

Writers came from three main areas; actors, medics and lawyers. They were all part of a middle class but it was possible in the republic of letters to move through the social hierarchy to a surprising degree. There were people like Johnson who were invited to all the best houses; or Pope who managed to overcome is Catholic upbringing, deformity and general grumpiness to be something of a secular saint of letters. Of course it could also go the other way, like Samuel Boyce who frequently pawned all his clothes and turned his blanket into a sort of poncho so he could keep on writing.

Finally, the talk turned to the booksellers, paying particular regard to their charity. I was less convinced by this part of the talk, the stories of Newbery and Christopher Smart still ringing in my ears. 

What I went away with more than anything, was Jerry White’s enthusiasm for the society of the marginalised writers. He delighted in their conviviality, their clubbability and the way in which people of all walks of life seemed to mingle around the Grub Street milieu, whether they were drinking coffee in Paternoster row or something stronger down at Tom’s. He represented the society of Grub Street as a place where people could always share a book, a drink or a bit of gossip, a tradition I’d be more than happy to continue.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Ghost of a Gooseberry Fool

My contribution to Halloween, a tad late.

   “Sindy, your turn with the bins.”
   “Ok,” Sindy huffs and starts gathering the black bags. They clink with empty bottles and stink of stale beer and fag buts. She grunts as she swings the sticky bags over her shoulder to carry them. She had imagined seeing the world when she left Australia but it hadn’t been long before that had turned into spending raining mornings and drizzly nights going to and from the pub to work. 

Mr Jones says that she is very lucky working there, that she is working in a place full of history. He lists a bunch of famous dead men including Charles Dickens who drank there and the carving had been done by the King’s own carpenter back in the day. All Sindy can think is that Ye Olde Cock Tavern is too narrow and the uppity clientele too demanding. Still, not long to clock off now, the drinkers have gone and it is only the clean up to go. 

Outside the bins stink even more. They have a rotting sweet smell that wafts up in horrible waves. Dave says that it’s not the bins but the smell of the graves at Saint Bride’s church. He’s a nasty one that Dave, says that the pub used to be the other side of the street and when they moved it they built some of it on the old graveyard. He thinks it’s funny to moan and sneaks up on her when her back is turned. Sindy reckons she like him. As she swings the bin bags into the big bin, she feels someone else watching her.
   “Very funny Dave,” she says but nobody replies. “Dave?”, she turns around. There is a face, friendly but ugly. The face has a large bulbous forehead, a top lip that juts out too far and a bottom lip and chin that seem to go nowhere. The eyes bulge in the head, strange-looking but kind. Then Sindy looks below the head. There is nothing there. The head is floating, benevolent but wrong, hovering above the bins. Sindy screams.

Mr Jones comes out.
  “What is it Sindy?” 
  “Look,” she says and points to the empty space above the bins. She is gulping and breathing, he eyes are stretched wide and she doesn’t take them off the space where the head was. “There was no body.”
  “There still is nobody.”
  “No. No, body.”
  “Exactly, nobody. So what was the scream for. We’ve got to pack up and get gone.”
  “No! A head but no body.” Sindy’s strength fails her and she slumps onto Mr Jones’ shoulders. He manoeuvres her inside and helps her up the stairs, calling to Dave to give her a brandy. He slumps her in a booth and she starts to maintain her breathing. 

Dave clatters up the stairs with a double brandy but promptly drops it when Sindy screams again. The pierce of the smash mixes with the pierce of the scream and everything feels extra quiet afterwards. 
   “What is it now?” Mr Jones says.
   “It was him. That was the head,” Sindy says, pointing at a faded print framed above the booth. The print shows a face, friendly but ugly. The face has a large bulbous forehead, a top lip that juts out too far and a bottom lip and chin that seem to go nowhere. The eyes bulge in the head, strange-looking but kind. 
   “That’s Oliver Goldsmith. You can’t have seen him.”
  “Why not?”
  “He’s been dead two-hundred-odd years. He used to drink with Samuel Johnson in the 1700s.”
  “I saw him. I definitely saw him. His face anyway.”
  “He is buried in St Bride’s,” Dave says. “Probably not far from the bins.”
  “It can’t be him, why would Goldsmith be a bodyless ghost?”

The wind was blowing hard as the man was dying.
  “Doctor Goldsmith, you should not be this sick after the kind of fever you have had. Is your mind at ease.”
  “No,” replied the doctor in his obviously Irish accent, “it is not.” It is clear to the physician that he will not hear much more from Oliver Goldsmith, so he leaves the man to himself. 

Goldsmith hurrumphs in his bed and looks around. He’s assembled some nice things, it’s taken him a long time but finally after years of back breaking toil he has some nice stuff. He even has a name, one better then Doctor Minimus. He may never be out of Sam’s shadow but he can look him in the eye more than ever and know that he has succeeded in packing the crowds into the theatre and making them laugh to the beams shake. Nobody believed he could, not even the dratted theatre people but he’d shown them. He’d shown the world that he could say something. True, he’d still not been paid the amount of praise he’d hoped and he still wondered whether anyone would let him on the stagecoach to immortal fame but it was something. If he concentrated hard enough on his successes, he wouldn’t have to see the shadows. He wouldn’t have to notice the bailiffs stirring from their dark lairs and begin to lick their chops. 

He was quite pleased when he caught a fever, it meant he didn’t have to think about the next play. All the pain as someone read it and decided it wasn’t funny enough and the irritation as he had to argue for everything he put in. It had been nice to feel in charge of his life again, to take his prescriptions in his own hands and get better his way, he was qualified after all, or at least that’s what he’d pretended to everyone. He’d spent a lot of time pretending, anything to leave off thinking about the future.

Whenever Goldsmith had looked at the future it had seemed empty. As a child it looked like a life of work, as a young man a life of poverty and as a middle-aged man a life of celebrity. He’d probably been happiest in Europe, playing the flute and wandering around, winning debates for money and generally bumming around. He’d written about the thread that stretched across Europe to his brother but it was a thread that had never pulled. If only he could have been his brother, content in a little poor parish to be a good man and a generous father. All he had was a group of friends who thought he was their private joke. He smiled to himself.
  “At least this will be the last laugh,” he said as he looked at his Retribution poem. But who was he in it? What part had he in the grand feast of friendship? He was a gooseberry fool. He coughed, spluttered and died quietly to himself and wondered if he was ever going to be anything else and if he had any way of finding out.

(N.B There is an urban legend of Goldsmith's disembodied head being seen out the back of The Cock in Fleet Street. Seems a bit ironic that a man known for writing against the existence of the Cock Lane ghost should become the ghost of the Cock Tavern)

Friday 1 November 2013

Another Photoshoot

Last year for Nano I took some photos of me a tad eighteenth-centuryied up like this one...

This year I took some with a more Quest/Illicit search vibe. Here they are.

I have some proper stuff coming also; a Goldsmithy ghost story, a review on a talk about Grub Street, a look at the Royal Maritime Museum's exhibition on the eighteenth century navy and some thoughts about Samuel Johnson and mental health.