The Case of the Gigantic Can’t Be Arsed

March 23, 2010

Do you know what I’m sick of? I’m sick of this goddam essay (essay not included). With each word I add it becomes longer and boringer. And the addition of each subsequent word becomes more laborious. And the whole thing toils along with a stillborn tediousness.

I’m thinking of entirely giving up on the idea of putting words next to each to create a meaning greater than the individual particles. I don’t think it works. Not sure there’s anything in it. Outmoded flummery. Soon we’ll be able to move ideas around with our EYEBALLS and then what sort of idiot will I look?

I’ll tell you what I do like though. I like the little pretend stories put at the beginning of actual stories that you get sometimes. Presumably fun ideas the author had which didn’t quite fadge, or amusing whimsies, help add a bit of solidity to the whole thing. This sort of thing, Sherlock Holmes of course, The Musgrave Ritual –

“There are cases enough here, Watson,” said he, looking at me with mischievous eyes. “I think that if you knew all that I had in this box you would ask me to pull some out instead of putting others in.”

“These are the records of your early work, then?” I asked. “I have often wished that I had notes of those cases.”

“Yes, my boy, these were all done prematurely before my biographer had come to glorify me.” He lifted bundle after bundle in a tender, caressing sort of way. “They are not all successes, Watson,” said he. “But there are some pretty little problems among them. Here’s the record of the Tarleton murders, and the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant, and the adventure of the old Russian woman, and the singular affair of the aluminium crutch, as well as a full account of Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife. And here–ah, now, this really is something a little recherché.”

I want to know about the singular affair of the aluminium crutch. Not about a treasure map, which 12 generations of Musgraves haven’t been able to work out is a treasure map, despite clearly being a treasure map. Actually, might as well put it here, some of the lines are a bit abstract admittedly, but I’ll give you a clue, there’s one line that is a dead giveaway –

“‘Whose was it?’

“‘His who is gone.’

“‘Who shall have it?’

“‘He who will come.’

“‘Where was the sun?’

“‘Over the oak.’

“‘Where was the shadow?’

“‘Under the elm.’

“How was it stepped?’

“‘North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under.’

“‘What shall we give for it?’

“‘All that is ours.’

“‘Why should we give it?’

“‘For the sake of the trust.’

400 years this imbecile family performed this ritual without ever wondering what it was about.

Ornamental stories. Here’s a good one from The Reigate Puzzle –

It was some time before the health of my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes recovered from the strain caused by his immense exertions in the spring of ’87. The whole question of the Netherland-Sumatra Company and of the colossal schemes of Baron Maupertuis are too recent in the minds of the public, and are too intimately concerned with politicians and finance to be fitting subjects for this series of sketches. .. Even his iron constitution, however, had broken down under the strain of an investigation which had extended over two months, during which period he had never worked less than fifteen hours a day, and had more than once, as he assured me, kept to his task for five days at a stretch. Even the triumphant issue of his labors could not save him from reaction after so terrible an exertion, and at a time when Europe was ringing with his name and when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams I found him a prey to the blackest depression. Even the knowledge that he had succeeded where the police of three countries had failed, and that he had outmanoeuvred at every point the most accomplished swindler in Europe, was insufficient to rouse him from his nervous prostration.

So here’s a boring story about Reigate involving preternaturally stupid criminals and witnesses. That guff about it all being too recent in the mind and too intimately concerned with politicians and finance is massive lies by the way. Read the first story in His Last Bow if you don’t believe me – doesn’t bother him there. Actually don’t. It’s really bad.

Here’s a couple of good ones from the short story Opening the Door by Arthur Machen –

I must allow, however, that during my ten years or so in Fleet Street, I came across some tracks that were not devoid of oddity. There was that business of Campo Tosto, for example. That never got in the papers. .. My news editor was struck by something odd in the brief story that appeared in the morning paper, and sent me down to make inquiries. I left the train at Reigate; and there I found that Mr Campo Tosto had lived at a place called Burnt Green – which is a translation of his name into English – and that he shot at trespassers with a bow and arrows. I was driven to his house, and saw through a glass door some of the property which he had bequeathed to his servant: fifteenth-century triptychs, dim and rich and golden; carved statues of the saints; great spiked altar candlesticks; storied censers in tarnished silver; and much more of old church treasure. The legatee, whose name was Turk, would not let me enter; but, as a treat, he took my newspaper from my pocket and read it upside down with great accuracy and facility.

And then there was the affair of the J.H.V.S. Syndicate, which dealt with a Cabalistic cipher, and the phenomenon, called in the Old Testament, ‘the Glory of the Lord,’ and the discovery of certain objects buried under the site of the Temple at Jerusalem; that story was left half told, and I never heard the ending of it. And I never understood the affair of the hoard of coins that a storm disclosed on the Suffolk coast near Aldeburgh. From the talk of the longshoremen, who were on the look-out amongst the dunes, it appeared that a great wave came in and washed away a slice of the sand cliff just beneath them. They saw glittering objects as the sea washed back, and retrieved what they could. I viewed the treasure – it was a collection of coins; the earliest of the twelfth century, the latest, pennies, three or four of them, of Edward VII, and a bronze medal of Charles Spurgeon. It is very clear, for example, that the hoard was not gathered by a collector of coins; neither the twentieth-century pennies nor the medal of the great Baptist preacher would appeal to a numismatologist.

It’s probably just his ancient little folk again, but still, it might not be. Might be time travel. Might be an early version of Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. That’s the great thing about these little ornamental stories, they provoke the imagination.

Anyway, back to writing. Not going to happen. Never going to tell the strange story of Faber Finds and the Great God Mammon burning Human Flesh in his Court of Gold, the case of the Cowardly Italian and the Medieval Snail Combat, or the Mysterious Flying Cars of de Montherlant, or even The Story of the Rescue of Reality by Tintoretto and Its Eventual Dissipation by Magnasco. How can I? I’ve been writing the same paragraph over and over again for two months.

Just going to go all floppy. Drift for a bit. See what’s on the telly. New Fall album’s out soon.

‘That’s another evening gone’

November 23, 2009

Thanks to the excellent Baroque in Hackney blog, I’ve been watching this wonderful little 1964 interview between John Betjeman and Philip Larkin in Hull.

Larkin’s voice has a wonderful dolorous tone to it, diffident but weighty, that is especially pleasing in the not infrequent moments of wry humour.

I’m reminded of the anecdote Kingsley Amis tells somewhere or other, on seeing son Martin talking to Philip Larkin across a crowded room. Philip was talking earnestly and moving his hands and arms in emphatic support of his argument.

Later Kingsley asked Martin what they had been talking about – poetry perhaps? Literature? Art?

No, said, Martin, not quite, he was complaining (and here you must imagine Larkin’s ponderous tones) about BILLS. You get one BILL and then you pay it, and the next day you get ANOTHER BILL. All these BILLS.

Speaking of Kingsley Amis, note the gravestone in the cemetery where Betjeman and Larkin go, which has the name J Dixon on it. It was Larkin who Amis was visiting at Leicester, when he walked in to the common room and thought ‘Someone should do something about this,’ and so Lucky Jim was born, dedicated to Larkin, who made many recommendations for the revision of the original draft.

Anyway, do watch it, it’s only about 15 minutes, in three parts on YouTube. There’s an excellent reading of Church Going with its memorable speculation about the future, feeling almost like science fiction – rather like the ruined society of the final Quatermass for instance – but mainly notable for the remarkable articulation of a sympathetic secular understanding of, well, not religion exactly – whatever it is to do with churches that he evokes in the poem in fact. Which previous inexpert statement shows both the worth of poetry and the skill of Larkin.

Oh, and one final note, I’m going to try putting this blog up on Google Wave, simultaneous with the site here: for what it’s worth, it’d be quite nice to have comments and notes that can be expanded in the actual text I think. We’ll see anyway.

And here’s the link to this one –!w%252BWNL9i5VNF

MR James, R Kipling, D Welch – Three Ghost Stories for All Hallows’ Even

October 31, 2009


‘Ah,’ he said, ‘Count Magnus, there you are. I should dearly like to see you.’

‘Like many solitary men,’ he writes, ‘I have a habit of talking to myself aloud; and, unlike some of the Greek and Latin particles, I do not expect an answer. Certainly, and perhaps fortunately in this case, there was neither voice nor any that regarded: only the woman who, I suppose, was cleaning up the church, dropped some metallic object on the floor, whose clang startled me.’

Despite their capacity to create mortal fear, the presentation of ghosts must be delicately handled. They are sensitive entities, with a particular aversion to being overdescribed, which leads many of them to avoid the light. We must tread carefully, so that we don’t frighten them.

Read the rest of this entry »

JG Frazer on the X-Factor

October 24, 2009

When this bejewelled exquisite lounged through the streets playing on his flute, puffing at a cigar, and smelling at a nosegay, the people whom he met threw themselves on the earth before him and prayed to him with sighs and tears. Women came forth with children in their arms and presented them to him, saluting him as a god.

Uh oh, wait a sec –

…as the young man ascended the stairs he broke at every step one of the flutes on which he had played in the days of his glory. On reaching the summit he was seized and held down by the priests on his back upon a block of stone, while one of them cut open his breast, thrust his hand into the wound, and wrenching out his heart held it up in sacrifice to the sun. The body of the dead god was not, like the bodies of human victims, sent rolling down the steps of the temple, but was carried down to the foot, where the head was cut off and spitted on a pike.

‘Oh, my lamb’

September 5, 2009

How I hate this world. I would like to tear it apart with my own two hands if I could. I would like to dismantle the universe star by star, like a treeful of rotten fruit. Nor do I believe in progress.

Peter de Vries was an American humorist and writer of Dutch Calvinist extraction. Anthony Burgess called him ‘one of the great prose virtuosos of modern America’, Kingsley Amis said he was ‘the funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic.’ Absurdly, he is now little known.

At times the pith and wit of his comic novels can to me feel slightly relentless. In The Blood of the Lamb however, this pith and wit is transformed into a biting wisdom. The book deals unsparingly with the limits of faith and the limits of doubt. And it does so without being at all pretentious because of the authority of its grief and the directness of its writing.

Brevity is here not just the soul of wit but the blade of tragedy; suffering is briefly dealt with and lasts as long as life. De Vries does not spare the reader with melodrama and he does not romanticise. It is all the more powerful because the bravery within the book’s covers is the bravery that we will all have to show to greater or lesser degrees in our own lives.

Its briefly lyrical moments are hard earned and are very painful and beautiful.  It’s one of the best books I have ever read and the only one I’ve read that’s made me cry, which is, if I may be dry about it, a testament to the care with which it is structured and the skill of the writing.

The clear-eyed sanity with which it is written is at times unbearable. If that comment seems slightly melodramatic itself, I would example the end of Bend, Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov, where the author relieves Adam Krug of his sanity in order to relieve him of his intolerable grief. Peter De Vries cannot, will not do this. Thus the unbearable is shown to be bearable, only by the fact that it is borne.

So The Blood of the Lamb is incredibly sad but it is also, remarkably, often funny. It will not, I suggest, make you depressed, or gloomy. This is because although I said the book deals with the limits of faith and doubt, this is not what it is about. Ultimately it is a hymn of praise, and a  memorial to its subject.

There are no pictures at the house of contempt

January 22, 2008

In the interests of scrupulous honesty and a desire not to get done, as it was termed at school, I ought to point out that the banner is by Primaticcio and was lifted from this excellent but now sadly defunct site and that in general I will use images wantonly without any reference to copyright laws. This on the principle that I don’t really believe anyone who finds their way here will give a tinker’s cuss.


If interested parties object in any to the use of any of the images appearing on these pages then I will, grumblingly, take them down.