Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Dick Turpin Review 2: The Capture

Dick Turpin gets captured so Swiftnick comes up with a plan with the help of Kevin McCallister.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

'Johnson & Garrick, A Friendship in Constant Repair' An Exhibition

Dr Johnson’s House is always worth going to but they are always finding new ways to lure me back. This new reason is the current exhibition ‘Johnson & Garrick, A Friendship in Constant Repair’, which is part of the entry ticket and is displayed throughout the house.

The Garricks lived in Lichfield not far from the Johnsons and had enrolled their sons George and David in Johnson’s school in Edial Hall. This was not a hugely successful venture, numbers vary but it seems that Johnson had up to seven pupils, and not at the same time. Johnson and David Garrick set off to London together, sharing a horse and taking turns to ride it. They both had theatrical intentions, Johnson to get his play Irene produced and David to become an actor. David was rather more successful.

Where Johnson took twenty years to really gain success, David Garrick worked in a wine business for four years before finding overnight recognition in a production of Richard III. Audiences were delighted with his emotional and more naturalistic acting style and many artists, including Hogarth, rushed to paint him. 

Six years later, Garrick took over the license of Drury Lane, getting Johnson to write a grand prologue and proceeding to reform how the theatre worked; stopping people being able to come in halfway through to watch the third act and the afterpiece, he took the audience off the stage and other measures to increase theatre’s respectability.

He married a German dancer, where they settled together in a mansion in Twickenham. In 1769 he created a celebration in Stratford to celebrate Shakespeare’s two hundred (and sixth, oops) anniversary. The event was a total washout but was still one of the great set-piece events of the eighteenth century.

His relationship with Johnson was interesting - Johnson had an almost fatherly relationship with him and all Johnson’s circle knew that as much as Johnson dismissed his acting successes, he wouldn’t let anyway else criticise Garrick. It was one of the many faux-pas that Boswell made when he first met Johnson.

I like their teasing relationship. Garrick did impressions of Johnson and told stories of Edial Hall, whereas Johnson laughed at Garrick’s overused and flabby face. When Garrick died at sixty-two, outlived by Johnson who said that his death ‘eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure’. A lovely way to be remembered, certainly.

Now - for the exhibition. Johnson’s House has mainly got together with The Garrick Club and Lichfield’s Johnson Birthplace Museum to assemble a collection of pictures and objects that tell the story of the friendship, room by room.

My particular favourite objects include receipts signed by Hogarth for prints that Garrick bought, including the Richard III one and his Four Stages of Cruelty. There was the original advertisement placed in the Gentleman’s Magazine for the Edial Hall School, which I loved for its positivity and (misplaced) optimism.

Personal objects of Garrick’s included his favourite snuff box, which included a portrait of his beloved brother George in the lid. From the position of a former snuff-taker, I did think it was a rather big box, probably for table use or something similar. There was also the horn Garrick used to powder his wigs before a performance, an item which made every viewer smile when they saw it (and I watched).

There were also a number of brilliant pictures, some I knew and some I didn’t, including a Zoffany which I thought looked strange due to Garrick’s placement in the frame. The information cards also told the story of their friendship well.

Dr Johnson’s House is a must to visit as it is, but it is now crammed with even more interesting things to see and will host a number of events and talks… so, even more worth a visit.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Review: Piccadilly by Laurence Oliphant

I need to step outside of the eighteenth century for a moment to wade into the swamp that is the nineteenth. 

In one of my habitual jaunts around the remaining desiccated bookshops in Charing Cross, I had to collect five books in order to pay four pounds for them. One of these books was an interesting looking novel called ‘Piccadilly’. It was published in 1870 and my copy was reprinted in 1927. I chose it because it had an interesting and perky first page about a mansion in Piccadilly overlooking Green Park that was chopped up into flats. 

It turned out to be one of the strangest books I have ever read; the tone, the message and the plot are all off-kilter with each other.

The tone is light and fluffy with frequent asides to the reader. The narrating character, Sir Frederick Vanecourt is a rich, idle MP who one day wakes up and decides to write a history of civilisation. Deciding this is too hard, he decides write an account of his life and Piccadilly and assumes that he will find suitably important things to say within that.

Vanecourt is wealthy, vain and convinced that he was an exceptional personality that gives him special access to the truth. He says things like, “something is upside down; perhaps it is my head, but I rather think it is the world generally.” He hangs around with people with names like Spiffington Goldtip and Lord Larkington. It would seem then, that the humour and satire in the book are to be gained from watching an utterly useless young man and his utterly useless friends, sort of like a Wodehouse book.

However, the theme is that the world is sick because it professes rather than practises religion and that a stripped down, honest look at the life Christ recommends is the cure of all society’s ills. The agent of these revelations is also Vanecourt. This means that when he is not twitting about, he’s declaiming long and passionate on the fake religion of the ‘worldly-holies’ and expounding the true faith of Jesus.

His actions do not back this up though. Apart from being vacuous and endlessly self-celebrating, he is cruel, deceitful and frequently underhand, brushing those traits off as his eccentricities. 
“As my readers will have perceived, though my intentions are always excellent, my course is occasionally, under any unusual strain, erratic.”

This means that it’s impossible to know how to take the character’s utterances. Are we supposed to be on his side the whole time (because I certainly wasn’t) or are we only supposed to take some of what he says seriously?

The plot, which is supposed to hold all this together, consists of Vanecourt falling in love with Ursula Broadhem, finding out she loves his best friend but will be married to an Indian called Chundango. His job is then to sort out the Broadhem finances and use that stranglehold over Lady Broadhelm, Ursula’s mother, to engineer a marriage between Ursula and his best friend. There are added complications with gossip, electioneering and playing the stock-markets. He then goes to America with a mystic he met on a street for two pages.

This is a perfectly fine plot for the character of Vanecourt to be involved in but it doesn’t leave much room for the religious theme, so various scenes are squeezed in to give rise to those thoughts.

This is not to mention the racism and sexism. Chundango comes from “a heathen land where a pocket handkerchief is sufficient for clothing” and Mrs Broadhem has to learn to stop trying to sort her own finances out and to let a man do it.

The most attractive thing about the novel are the run of the chapter titles, namely;

The World
The Flesh
The “_____”

I think a better novel could be written with them.

Being a little old fashioned with my criticism, I do like to know a little about an author and previous criticism when considering the work. Laurence Oliphant was the son of minor gentry who led an adventure filled, action packed youth as part of the civil service abroad. One particular moment was in Japan where he fought an irate samurai with nothing but a bullwhip. 

Rather like Vanecourt, he became a half-hearted MP living in Piccadilly where he became disenchanted with established religion and it’s deadening effect on real faith. Shortly after publishing ‘Piccadilly’, Oliphant ran off to America with the mystic Thomas Lake Harris, much as Vanecourt does at the end of the book.

Oliphant then tried to form a utopian society, was a journalist in the Franco-German war and became one of the early leaders of the zionist movement. After his wife died, he wrote a book with her ghost, moved to Twickenham and died. 

This confusing life doesn’t make much sense of the confused book - but at least I can understand the source of the confusion.

I’m not recommending the book though. 

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Review...? My Trip to the Opera ENO 'The Barber of Seville'

I have a confession - I’ve never seen an opera. In itself, I don’t think this is strange, I hardly know anyone who has seen one but seeing as I am professing myself a huge eighteenth century fan and  I have never experienced this most eighteenth century of entertainments - it's a gap I needed to fill.

I decided to rectify this by grabbing myself a ticket for the English National Opera’s revival of an English translation of ‘The Barber of Seville’. Now, this is isn’t exactly an eighteenth century opera (it was written in 1816) but it was based on the third of a trilogy of eighteenth century plays about a man called Figaro, a barber and general getter-together of men and women.

What I found most surprising about the opera, was that there were hardly any songs. I was expecting to go home humming the tunes and really the only one I remembered was the Figaro aria. As a fairly frequent watcher of musicals, I was expecting songs linked with music rather than a run of music. It was odd, people were constantly singing, there was melody but no tune. 

I did really enjoy the music though. The harpsichord is one of my three favourite instruments but I don’t think I have ever heard one live until this opera. It has such a lovely feel to it, like honey running down a ridged surface and it was delicious to hear.

In terms of story, it was a pretty standard plot. Rosina is a beautiful woman kept in close confinement by stuffy old senex Dr Bartolo. She is in love with count Almaviva and Figaro, the barber of Seville helps him get the girl.

Dr Bartolo was brilliantly pompous, Almaviva was a little bland in himself but had great fun with his disguises, Rosina was sharp and feisty and Figaro…does very little, but boasts that he is doing so much more.
I very much enjoyed the jokes - there were some very funny bits of staging with people hiding in cupboards and such. There were even some jokes about opera itself, when fuddy old Dr Bartolo sang a song in the style of operas of his youth and so sung in an absurd falsetto. Obviously, he was ‘doing’ a castrati, and the effect was enjoyably daft.

As much as I enjoyed the story, characters and even music - I was as aggravated by the opera as I was charmed by it. I have a love/hate relationship with Monty Python. There are elements of their humour that make me laugh a great deal - especially their silly side, but I have an extreme hatred for the side of their humour that farts and tarts about. The best example is in ‘Life of Brian’ where Brian is trying to escape by buying a fake beard and Eric Idle keeps getting in the way with irritating asides about haggling. That’s how I felt watching this opera.
At one point, the story had got to its halfway part, all the cast were on stage and the full level of carnage was reached. Time to run the curtain down…but no. A man started singing ‘Like a blacksmith with an anvil, my head is pounding, pounding, pounding.’ This song was then taken up by another character, and another, and another - till they were all singing about their headache. For one, I didn’t believe they all had a headache. For a second, if they had a headache, stop singing and lie down. But for the third - why make their headache the thing to leave the audience with into the interval?
Presumably, the repetition exists because the audience had to understand what was happening. In a noisy, chatty theatre with poorer acoustics and no A/V equipment, it makes sense to repeat things a number of times. Although the director did do his best to make a joke of the repetition and general time-wasting - it didn’t diminish the fact that there was so much if it.

I went last Tuesday, a good day, as I got a pretty decent seat for ten pounds. As frustrating as I found it, I also had could see something loveable about the whole silly affair. I would certainly try again - any suggestions?

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Dick Turpin... the TV Series.

I'm starting a video series where I look at the 1979 'Dick Turpin' series. Here's a simple intro.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Review: Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth

This year I have read a few modern examples of what was once called the Newgate novel, derring tales of adventure and mischief set in eighteenth century and often ending at the gallows. The Virtue of this Jest, Slammerkin and The Fatal Tree are all inheritors of the title but I thought I’d try something a little different; a self-proclaimed heir to the English gothic novel mixed with the Newgate variety. Which is why I get to present, for your delectation, this demented work of over-the-top genius called Rookwood.

I picked this book because William Harrison Ainsworth wrote it from just round the corner where I live, is buried a short walk from where I work and was inspired to write this novel by a house not far from where a grew up. 

Despite coming out in 1834, Rookwood was written ‘in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe’ but transplanted to England with highwayman to serve instead of the Italian brigands. It was a massive success, and Ainsworth wrote another 39 novels inspired by various parts of history including a trilogy on the Pendle witches (whom a friend of mine claims descent), one on Jack Shepherd and novels set around landmarks like St Paul’s and the Tower of London. I plan to give the Jack Shepherd a go soon-ish.

 I feel a little sorry for Ainsworth, Dickens was seen for a while as his protege but has overshadowed him. He also had killer sideburns.

In many ways the plot is superfluous, though there is a lot of fun to be had in anticipating the ways it will twist and turn. In short, Piers Rookwood is dead and his title goes to his oldest son - but who is that, Ranulph, who seems the obvious heir or Luke, who is told that Piers and his mother married in secret? 

Things wouldn’t get quite so complicated if the Rookwoods weren’t quite so cursed. I counted seven prophecies and curses about them by the time of the novel’s close. Whether it be the lime tree that drops branches when important Rookwoods die, or the curse that all Rookwood heirs murder their first wives, or the one about only when the stray rooks marry, the curses will be over… there are a lot of them.

Keeper of this gothic lore, supplier of creepy ballads and generally all-round macabre guy is Peter Bradley. He is the first character we meet, in a crypt naturally enough. At one point he gets annoyed with a background character and curses him, that character is struck by lightning in a later chapter.

If Peter Bradley is keeper of the gothic flame, Dick Turpin is keeper of the Newgate. Essentially he makes the book stand and deliver before taking over for a while. In the preface, Ainsworth says that he used to walk the haunts of Dick Turpin and tell stories about him as child, that he regarded Turpin as last of a breed but I still find Dick Turpin a particularly strange choice to carry this candle. The real Turpin was barely even a highwayman, more of a home invasion/ torture sort of person and the ride to York was achieved by ‘Swift-Nick’ Nevinson. The purpose of the ride doesn’t even make sense in Rookwood, the point is to be so far away, so quickly, that it would seem impossible to ride - but Turpin is followed the whole way.

Add to that, the Newgate parts have almost nothing to do with the gothic. The whole ride to York section is essentially Turpin going back up North to take part in Luke Rookwood’s attempt to get the estate…which he doesn’t really have much of a role in. During the best, strangest and most bonkers chapters in the book, Luke tries to marry his cousin (and fulfil a prophecy that the stray Rook should marry another to keep the money). This happens in an underground crypt in an abandoned abbey where a monk had starved to death. The marriage is officiated by a renegade catholic priest and the queen of the gypsies and all sorts of things go terribly wrong - Turpin is outside guarding the entrance hole, he really is quite unnecessary. 

Not that any of that matters, this book is so entertaining. It’s a genius idea to mix the Gothic and Newgate novels for the simple reason that they don’t have any reason belonging together. One is a phantom, arial text full of ghosts, curses and shifting reality whilst the other is a deeply earthy text, bound with material worries, slang and moments of down and dirty life. The only thing that really connects the two is moonlight.

If you want to read a book that involves a conman dressed as medieval knight; a sarcophagus with a built in booby trap, poisoned hair, a minor character struck by lightning for mood music, desiccated human arms liberally tossed about, wives murdered, revenges attempted and loads of perky songs sung along the way - then this is the book for you. I adored it.