Out of Mayhew: Punch

The performer of Punch that I saw was a short, dark pleasant looking man, dressed in a very greasy looking and very shiny green shooting -jacket. This was fastened together by one button in front, all the other button holes having been burst through…

‘…I suppose in my old age I shall have to take to the parish broom. All out forefathers died in the workhouse. I don’t know a punch’s showman that hasn’t. One of my pardners was buried by the workhouse; and even old pike, the most noted showman as ever was, died in the workhouse…

‘Punch, you know, sir, is a dramatic performance in two hacts. It’s a play, you may say. I don’t think it can be called a tragedy hexactly; a drama is what we names it. There is a tragic parts, and comic and sentimental parts, too. Some families where I perform will have it most sentimental — in the original style; them families is generally sentimental theirselves. Others is all for the comic , and then I has to kick up all the games I can. To the sentimental folk I am obliged to perform werry steady and werry slow, and leave out all comic words and business. They won’t have no ghost, no coffin and no devil; and that’s what I call spiling the performance entirely. It’s the march of hintellect wot’s a doing all this — it is sir.’

Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, ‘Our Street Folk’; ‘Street Entertainers’.

Victorian London; Etext; Amazon

Who Wants to See my Eccles Impression?

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Will the gentleman who threw an onion at the Union Jack, and repeatedly and noisily tore cloth during the singing of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, at the Orphans’ Outing on Thursday, write to Colonel Sir George Jarvis Delamain Spooner, late of Poona, telling him what right he has to the Old Carthusian braces which burst when he was arrested?

1) We’ll be doing this in numbered points. No particularly good reason. And we’re not starting exactly where this left off. Also, I won’t try to be funny. That’s a stupid thing to do when dealing with an actually funny writer. However, the first point I’d like to make is rather trite, and it is that The Best of Beachcomber has the ugliest cover of any book I own:

2) Beachcomber – and I’m talking about the J B Morton incarnation here, not the earlier D B Wyndham Lewis (!=Percy) version, or the 90s revival, neither of whom I’ve read – suffers from his admirers. I didn’t read him for a long time, since I’d only heard him bigged up by two classes of people: those who go on about The Goon Show, and professional humourists. You could almost hear his fans chuckling to themselves as they wrote about his marvellous characters, like ‘Dr Strabismus (Whom God Preserve) of Utrecht’. You can probably see how the punchable wryness slips in as soon as those brackets open. How could I not despise Beachcomber?

3) The previous statement is kind of false. I haven’t heard his name in ages. He doesn’t really have vocal proponents any more and is completely out of print as far as I can see. I assume that if you were sitting next to Miles Kington at dinner, he would talk your ear off about the brilliance of Beachcomber; however, I don’t think the claims for B’s genius have been made so much in public in the last ten years. Shame. Still, it would have been Miles Kington making the claims, so I most likely wouldn’t have listened.

4) Point 3) makes me think that people no longer know how much O’Brien, in his Na Gopaleen form, takes from Beachcomber. ‘Research Bureau’ = Dr Strabismus, The Cruiskeen Court of Voluntary Jurisdiction = Justice Cocklecarrot, and the Plain People of Ireland = Prodnose. Swathes of the Cruiskeen Lawn are pretty much a Dubliner version of Beachcomber. A lot of is better; much of it isn’t. They share a lot of tricks and tics – complete control over conventional journalistic and belletrist idiom for parodic purposes, abrupt tone changes, breaking the frame, the sense of a fast mind entertaining itself – and Beachcomber’s neglected in comparison.

By the way, this isn’t doing down O’Brien: there’s few I love more, and though I haven’t read any of Morton’s 29 non-Beachcomber books, I don’t imagine any of them can lay a finger on The Third Policeman. I just want to point out that the brilliance of Cruiskeen Lawn isn’t ex nihilo or sui generis and that the generis from which it in fact exes is hella good on its own terms.

5) You can back and forth when comparing: the puns are better in Myles; but I prefer Beachcomber’s playlets; Beachcomber has a stronger sense of narrative; but there’s nothing like Na Gopaleen’s insane gaelic lexicon fun; Myles gets the bores; Beachcomber nails the oddness of manners.

6) My gift to desperate post-colonial academics: two solid-gold propositions that you can spin out to an article.

a) Cruiskeen Lawn is an appropriation and subversion of the idiom of the Humourous English Newspaper Column, as embodied by Beachcomber. What appear to be borrowings are in fact strategic rewritings.

b) Beachcomber’s creation ‘Big White Carstairs’ is one of the great satires of late imperial Britain.

Only one of these is true, and it’s the second one.

7) Which is part of the point about Beachcomber. He’s one of the best and most fun writers of mid-century Britain. He does ha-ha-smart-serious more than I’d have thought from reading the people who keep repeating the funny names: taking apart and stretching and squeezing empty rituals and good manners and weird social codes and journalese and middling art, and making something startling. It’s sort of impenetrable sometimes, and tricky to get past the stupid names and passing jokes about stuff only dead people have heard of, but worth it.

I’ll try to post some over the next while, but it’ll make my stuff look a little pale. We’ll see.

Flann O’Brien, Catholicism and some other stuff

Hello! Someone called Nicola Byrne in The Observer is commenting on last year’s big news:

It is a bizarre twist that would not have been out of place in one of his novels. After suffering ignominy and ridicule during his lifetime, the Irish writer Flann O’Brien is enjoying a huge revival in Britain, Ireland and the United States, thanks to the hit television series Lost.

Nicola Byrne, if you ever go vanity surfing, Nicola Byrne, I hope, Nicola Byrne, you find this: you’re an idiot. Stay away from books. If your editor ever again asks you to do anything involving literature, either refuse or do some fucking research. Do you not understand that it’s just plain rude to take the life of one the greatest enemies of clichés, a man who mocked, with true imagination and wit, any idiocy or slackbrained phrase that got into print, and then mangle that life into a cliché itself? And an enormously inaccurate one:

O’Brien, whose real name was Brian O’Nolan, counted James Joyce, Dylan Thomas and Graham Greene among his small but devoted band of admirers. However, the mainstream rejected him as an eccentric crank.

Yeah. From what I remember, he was reduced to sitting around Dublin, writing for underground ‘zines like the Irish Times.

If you have to use clichés – perhaps you once had a novel thought, it traumatised you and you won the case where you sued your brain for being a bit scary – there’s a perfectly serviceable ‘talent wasted drunkenly’ box that you can just about bash his life into. The Third Policeman was rejected, too, so you can try this for the second sentence:

After suffering rejection and falling prey to alcoholism during his lifetime, the Irish writer Flann O’Brien is enjoying a huge revival in Britain, Ireland and the United States, thanks to the hit television series Lost.

Still makes little or no sense, but at least we’ve got it down to ‘clichéd and pretty misleading’, rather than ‘did a badly broken machine write this?’

Enough. To happy thoughts.

I enjoyed the recent O’Brien/O’Nolan/Na Gopaleen action over at Golden Rule Jones: I’d seen this piece in The Guardian (that by grace of intelligence, warmth towards the subject and some wit survives the awfulness of ‘doing’ O’Brien while writing about him) which makes similar points about his Catholicism. Makes sense to me. I’m not much interested in O’Brien as a metatextual postmodern prankster: there’s no need for a Scotch House Nabokov. The number of narrative levels that are transgressed in At Swim-Two-Birds doesn’t have much interest for me in itself; I like the abusrdity, tone switches, the mimicry and mockery, extrapolations, the whole texture of it. Same goes for the columns: if you try to sell me something about deictic strategies w/r/t the Plain People of Ireland, you’ve instantly tattooed yourself as a bore.

Even truer of The Third Policeman. There’s something spooky and a bit nauseating – in a most excellent way – about the inventions in that book. It feels very far from pomo tricks: more focused, cleaner and more powerful. (I haven’t read Keith Hopper’s book book on The Third Policeman, and people who know about these things say it’s good. It might persuade me differently, but it’s like an academic book, and do you have any idea how much I have to read? So I’m probably not going to read it – apologies to the author.)

I can go for a lot of this as being the result of a Catholic sensibility. Maybe O’Brien can explain it himself. I’d never seen this article of his on Joyce before now:

The number of people invited to contribute to this issue has necessarily been limited. Yet it is curious that none makes mention of Joyce’s superber quality: his capacity for humour. Humour, the handmaid of sorrow and fear, creeps out endlessly in all Joyce’s works. He uses the thing, in the same way as Shakespeare does but less formally, to attenuate the fear of those who have belief and who genuinely think that they will be in hell or in heaven shortly, and possibly very shortly. With laughs he palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic. True humour needs this background urgency: Rabelais is funny, but his stuff cloys. His stuff lacks tragedy.

You’d take that as the critic recasting the artist in his own image, wouldn’t you?

I’d be hard-pressed to say which parts of O’Brien I’d see as coming from Catholicism – and I mean Catholicism as much as it can be separated from Irish Catholicism here. Something about finding the world absurd and faintly disappointing; something else too in the tendency to parody, doing styles just because he can, since they don’t mean anything in themselves and the whole earthly shebang is rather flimsy in comparison to the Big Things.

By the way, I am well aware I may just be arguing for O’Brien’s Catholicism since I was raised a papist, and want an opportunity to sit there and say ‘Yeah, Catholic sensibility, I’ve got one of those. They’re dead brilliant.’

The English converts of the early Twentieth are a good comparison point. There’s something of O’Brien’s hell in the ending of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust; and while that comparison could go a lot further, I’ll leave it for now, since I want to ramble on about Beachcomber, a.k.a J B Morton, a.k.a. the English Myles Na Gopaleen.

In the introduction to The Best of Beachcomber, Michael Frayn takes his own pass at ‘Catholicism and gags – are they related?’

I think one would know Mr Morton was a Catholic from reading him, even without any direct reference. There is an echo in his work of that tone of voice, hard to describe yet curiously distinctive, which sounds through a great many of the English Catholic writers. Perhaps it is a certain intellectual perverseness. I find it can become irritating, particularly when it takes the form, as it does, not in Morton, but in Chesterton and Graham Greene, of a galloping obsession with paradox.

I’m in two minds about whether you can apply some of that to O’Brien. ‘Intellectual perverseness’, yes; but he’s got nothing, really, of Chesterton.

Morton and O’Brien, however –

Wait –

This post is far too long –

I’m going to continue on Beachcomber later. For now, Clive James’ copy of Morton’s Memoir of Hilaire Belloc on ABE.

It Happened Here

I just came across this photo of the Edmonton Swastikas at MeFi. Looking at it gave me a real dose of the uncannies; I tried to place exactly where I’d had the feeling before, and I remembered: it was watching It Happened Here a few years ago.

It’s one of the most extraordinary films I’ve seen; it’s also been on my mind a little lately because of a new release on DVD. If you don’t know it, it’s a black-and-white, documentary-seeming feature that follows a nurse trying to find work in Britain after the Allies’ defeat in the Second World War. There’s a ton of deep creepiness: the scenes everyone comes back to are of Nazi officers on leave, doing touristy things in London, but it’s all the stuff that doesn’t make a fuss that gets me, the way it goes along in a plain manner: we see this polite fascist state that for a lot of the film doesn’t impinge on day-to-day life, and you keep hearing those English accents saying please and thank you in nice RP while the whole background is just slightly off. It’s alittle stilted and clipped, too, since the majority of the cast aren’t actors (which only helps the naturalism). There’s the landscape too: sections are sunlight-and-elms Englishness of A Canterbury Tale but again with this dim sense of dread hanging behind it.

(The effects are almost like those peculiar moments when you’re in central London, for whatever reason, and the Household Cavalry rides by the ICA, or you see a brougham heading roughly in the direction of the palace, or catch sight of a horse being fed and stabled behind a half-open door on Whitehall. You’re suddenly aware of living in this slightly ridiculous Monarchy that just sits there on top of everything that you do, and goes about this pompous, expensive game that involves chunks of the armed forces and swathes of Westminster and which crosses your path from time to time even though you can’t imagine it having anything to do with anything.)

The genre of counterfactual historical fiction (my, there’s a tangle) isn’t so interesting to me generally; I just have this bad feeling that writers are going to feed me research about which ship, exactly, McArthur needed to lose for Myanmar to be speaking Japanese right now. Roth, you’d imagine, can do it as well as anyone: I was sort of enjoying The Plot Against America, but then put it down about halfway through. I guess I’ll finish it eventually. It was well-formed, everything was right and three-dimensional and good, but it left me a little flat (it’s usually the way with me and Roth, for all that friends I trust insistently recommend him). I just sort of want to clap at most of the scenes, and say ‘well done. That did everything it should, and did it really really well. You are a top-notch writer. You are not putting a foot wrong.’ That’s not sarcasm – he’s evidently an amazing writer – but it’s not really a good response either.

The Man in the High Castle is the counterfactual I like: but, really, once you’ve got characters writing counterfactuals (or rather the I’Ching writing it for them) within the counterfactual, you’re on the royal road to Crazy PKD fun, and how could it go wrong?

That was a divagation leading to this point: what gets me about It Happened Here is that it’s so calm and plain about the whole set up. It doesn’t make a fuss, keeps lulling you into thinking you’re watching a slightly dull bit of Free Cinema about nurses. It doesn’t push the LOOK! NAZIS! angle, which is why it has power.

I’ll guess it’s a big influence on 28 Days Later. That has a lot of the same elements recombined; I think it’s one of the main reasons I had a lot of time for that film. That and the zombies.

Links: Bronlow’s book on the making of the film; Winstanley, which I have never seen, but one of these days…; interview with Brownlow at the BFI; this post is very good, and reminded me that Brownlow and Mollo were teenagers when they started making the film.

they have my respect

Who did this?

Who put all that effort in to mock the kind of European Literature that – pace these good types – almost no-one reads? And the kind of magazine that no-one sees, much less reads?

Who did this?

It’s unholy. An abomination. Jesus is weeping at how you have spent your time.

Who did this?