Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Sheridan's School for Scandal at the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle



It could have been the scorching heat, the decision to move the wine into the reading room, the fact it was the last meeting of the year or the fact that we were performing Sheridan’s ‘School for Scandal’ to each other - but something put the the Dr Johnson Reading Circle in a festival mood.

Cast lists had been sent out in advance; everyone had the chance (if they wished) to step out of their normal boundaries and try different roles. Perfectly lovely men played sneering, gossipy women whilst perfectly lovely women played hypocritical, conniving men. A prudent curator became a spendthrift wastrel and I had the opportunity of exploring my inner coquette.

The plot is one of those things that makes sense while being swept along but almost impossible to recount in the cold light of day. There’s an old husband and his young wife, trying to work out how to be married, there are two brothers whose characters are being tested by their rich uncle in disguise, there’s a young innocent who is loved by both the brothers and there is the school for scandal, an intimate group of male and female gossips who love nothing more than to spoil a good reputation.

What was surprising, is how Oscar Wilde-ish much of Sheridan’s dialogue is.  One member of the school explains that she destroys reputations in retaliation for her own being tattered and is told that, ‘nothing could be more natural.’ Another member of the group constantly spreads gossip in the same breath as denouncing it, while yet another member declares, “ I have no malice against the people I abuse. When I say an ill-natured thing, ’tis out of pure good humour.” A character called Mr Snake who is paid to do a good deed and begs that no-one else is told of the good deeds as it would spoil his reputation. This combination of restoration-comedy-esque intrigue and Wildean wit creates a sense of pleasure and abandon. 

The characters’ actions are not completely realistic, this would make a truly ludicrous novel, but on the stage, with the quick pacing (many of the lines are written to interrupt each other) smooth over gaps in plausibility and set up gags and set-pieces galore.

I had particular pleasure (as Mrs Candour) in rattling off long, digressive speeches full of nasty gossip and weak admonishments against gossip. I also had the joy (as Lady Teazle) in alternately flirting and arguing with my husband, Sir Peter. However, my favourite scene was probably one I wasn’t in, where Charles Surface (the profligate but honest brother) sells his collection of family portraits to his uncle, who is in disguise to test him. 

We enjoyed reading the play so much, that when our allotted time ran out, we took our books to the local pizza place and read there, laughing as cues were lost in mouths of mozzarella and reaching a triumphant conclusion while the staff were ready to kick us out. I do feel we should have included the epilogue (as it was a long speech for me).


‘School for Scandal’ is genuinely enjoyable, and even fairly scandalous. There are performances of it in Finsbury Park until July 7th, which it might be worth getting tickets for. If I can’t, and if you can’t, I recommend doing what we did - get some friends over, pour some refreshments and read it together. It certainly worked for us.



Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Reading Casanova Volume Three


Volume three starts exactly where volume two’s cliffhanger left us. Casanova is about to perform some fake sorcery in order to defraud a man of his money and virgin daughter. The clock strikes midnight…
…Casanova starts the incantations, a storm begins to rumble overhead. As he reaches the climax of the ceremony, the storm crashes ahead and lightning throws down its barb├ęd forks. This makes him think twice about what he his up to, so he makes amends and scarpers to Naples.
On the way, he meets an old Hungarian officer who is accompanying a young French soldier - who is clearly a woman in a uniform. The two cannot converse and mainly make do with sign language, so Casanova lends a hand. Naturally he falls in love with the young French woman. He makes plans to steal her away from the officer in Parma, but, in his translation duties, discovers that she wants to leave him in Parma anyway and that he is resigned to it. When they arrive at Parma, Casanova steps in as a gentleman and escorts the lady to a shared house.
Here name is Henriette - if you watch the BBC adaption of Casanova with David Tennant, she is the love of his life. They do indeed set up home and Casanova talks about them living ‘as married’ and the time being one of the happiest he ever enjoyed. But there’s a problem. Henriette is on the run from her family in France and Parma is under heavy French control and influence, so it’s not long before she has to leave Casanova behind and return to them. She scratches a command in the window for him to forget her and he proceeds to cry for several days. 
In his weakness, a man manages to convert him to sober and religious life. He then finds out charges in Venice against him have been dropped so he returns to his patron, Bragadin’s house and falls back to his old ways.

With friends at home and money in his pocket, Casanova naturally buggers off to France and has fun. There he is shocked and pleased by the louche-ness, makes a few faux-pas with the language and learns the phrase ‘je ne c’ext quoi’. He has a few flings, pimps for Louis XV, fakes himself a master of cabbala and makes a bunch of friends before moving onto Dresden, Vienna and then back home to Venice.
Where this volume started with a love of his life, it also ends with one. A disreputable friend of his has a gorgeous, young sister he falls in love with. Her father is a respectable merchant who has banished the disreputable son and wouldn’t countenance Casanova as a suitor but he falls head over heels, arranges the necessary false names and hideout, then proceeds to a common-law marriage.


She is taken away and ensconced in a nunnery on one of the other islands in the Venetian Lagoon and he arranges a system of secret letters and a ring that has a secret trap-door in it that contains a picture of his face. Thus we leave him, longing for his ‘wife’ with her brother trying (and failing) to hoodwink him.
I found Casanova more likeable in this volume then the other ones. His violent, even murderous impulses are less (though I do recall him waving a pistol around and shooting at stableboys at one point) and his romances seem less like flings and more like the proper love he always claims it is. Slightly more queasily, some of these loves are thirteen/fourteen at most and that is a rather icky area it might be best to chalk up to different cultures (though still quite unpleasant to realise).

It was also a pleasure to be reading Casanova in his beloved Venice, even if he didn’t get to spend much time there, and even if I hadn’t got to the famous bit of him escaping the ceiling-jails of the Doge’s Palace. That escapade happens in volume four - and I shall be sharing it with him at some point soon-ish.



Wednesday, 7 June 2017

A Few Words on my Trip to Venice

Last week I was in Venice and I now have sore eyes. How could I shut them in such a beautiful and interesting place? 
Everything about Venice fascinated me; from its foundation as a refugee camp fleeing from the Mongol and other ‘barbarian’ invasions on the flailing Roman Empire, to the development of a unique and peculiar republic that fought the battle of Lepanto - the last major battle fought with galleys and battering rams, to the masked and revelrous world that birthed Casanova and finally, the tourist magnet it is today.

What struck me most was how I had been mislead by the word ‘canal’. I had in my mind the British form of canal that was championed by the Lunar Society. It is a purposeful, dug-up system created to make transport easier. Venice’s canals and waterways are what have shaped the city, often as an obstacle to be overcome. Even today; food, toilet rolls and other necessities are boated into the Venetian islands where porters load up handcarts and push them all around the city. It reminded me of eighteenth century London, which also boated in products to be carried throughout the city - it created a thriving atmosphere, the porters providing a bloodline throughout.

I wasn’t there long but in that time I managed to boast myself around the lagoon, exploring the glassblowers of Murano (where one of Casanova’s lovers was ‘safely’ ensconced in a nunnery), the astonishingly pretty Burano (birthplace of influential eighteenth century composer Baldassare Galuppi) and the tranquil Torcello (where I sat on ‘Attila’s Throne’).

I also explored the Jewish ghetto - a specifically Venetian word that originally meant factory but eventually applied to all deprived, squeezed and downtrodden areas. On a lighter note, Venice also gave us the word ‘sequin’, named after the zechinni, a small shiny coin of the republic.

To the art or museum fan, Venice has far more than can possibly be enjoyed in less then three weeks. I enjoyed a number of churches, from the ancient one on Torcello to the famous St Mark’s - though I most enjoyed the trip to the Doge’s Palace. First I was fascinated by the system of government, the various councils and committees, the secret postboxes to denounce heretics and the Bridge of sighs over to a warren of dank prison cells. I spent hours wandering the halls of power and listening to chunks of tours. Finally, I also explored a few museums in St Mark’s square where there was much to enjoy.


It’s hard to explain how many interesting things I saw..in writing this, I feel I can either write a page on each thing or a sentence. If you haven’t been to Venice, I’d recommend it straightaway and I’d ask if you fancied taking me.

Yours



P.S 
A hilarious contribution to the genre of 'ugly baby Jesus' paintings.






Saturday, 27 May 2017

Boswell's Life 1773-76 at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle



Again the Dr Johnson Reading Circle gathered to discuss a section of Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’ but this time there was tension in the air. Could we discuss a different section of the same book for the third time? Could we really unpack what it was we had read? 
The section we looked at were the years of 1773-76 and, because they were years where Boswell and Johnson had an unusual amount of contact, they were unusually dense with small details if not any big ‘plot points’ in terms of Johnson’s life. 

This is deep in the book and full of the book's meat and drink, evenings where Johnson meets up with various conversational foes and engages in verbal combat. As Johnson himself said, he liked to ‘dogmatise and be contradicted’. These sections discuss nationhood, the role of the aristocracy, poetry and poetic forgeries, the role of women, how to write in the voice of little fish and possible uses of dried orange peel.
One of the things that reading so much Johnson (or purported Johnson) is that it’s harder to have an idealised view of him anymore. It struck many that as modern as Johnson can be in some things, he still manages to be a figure marked and distanced by his time.
Johnson’s view on adultery, that a man may be sort-of excused but an adulterous woman is a whore ‘and that’s that’. His insistence that sub-ordination, the strengthening and proliferation of an unfair class system was vital to the stability of a country, and his singularly unromantic expressions about marriage (even amid his own sentimental mourning of Tetty) all caused discomfort in the group. 

Most dividing in the room were his opinions about an unchecked democracy - he felt that landed men should only have the vote as their landowning gave them a stake in the country whereas a full franchise would open the gates to crowd-pleasing buffoons and orators. In a world of Foreign Minister BoJo and President Trump, there was an uncomfortable sting in Johnson’s conclusions.
Johnson’s less admirable side also jumped out when he would shut discussions down that were going down avenues he wouldn’t pursue. These avenues were frequently of a religious or morbid nature and it’s reflective of his soft underbelly how much pain certain topics could cause him.
On the positive side, we still had Johnson the steady moralist, the champion of education, clear-headed exposer of Ossian forgeries and, (one of my favourites) Johnson the joker. The man with the ‘laugh like a rhinoceros,’ whose infectious chuckles could cause others to laugh, even when they didn’t get the joke. We also had cheeky Johnson, who wouldn’t say why he collected orange peels and narrated for an imaginary biography how it would remain a central mystery in his life. Apologetic Johnson, who frequently was called forth to resurrect the dignity of Goldsmith; and sympathetic Johnson, who rushed back to the Thrales when their eldest son died, only to be told his comfort wasn’t needed.

Rather then running out of things to say, we could have spoken for a number of more hours. 





Next week I am off to Venice, where I shall take a volume of Casanova's memoirs and plan to soak in the atmosphere.



Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Review: The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott


If this book were a person in the eighteenth century they would be hanged for theft, which is no bad thing in itself - it was an era of theft and people have thieved from it ever since. 
The Newgate Calendar, which emerged from penitential ‘last-words’ stories became the Newgate Novel, with writers such as Dickens and Ainsworth “borrowing” from the criminal legends of the eighteenth century. This tradition of stealing continues today, with ‘Slammerkin’ and ‘The Virtue of the Jest’ being two examples I’ve looked at this year, not to mention my own Grub Street/Covent Garden/Newgate novel ‘Odes to the Big City’.
However, the key to being a good thief is lightness of touch and ‘The Fatal Tree’ is such a botched theft that it becomes something quite criminal.
It is broadly the story of Edgeworth Bess, accomplice and muse to Jack Shepherd, delivered in her own words. We follow her entry and acclimatisation into London’s criminal underworld and her struggles, torn between the cruel authority of Jonathan Wild and the reckless liberty of Jack Shepherd. I was very excited to read this, the story of Jack Shepherd, whose short but illustrious career as serial prison-escapee and symbol of London defiance is always ripe for a novel. Ainsworth wrote a novel about him and inspectors in the nineteenth-century were dismayed that more schoolchildren in London had heard of him then Nelson. 
I was also excited that this was from the perspective of Bess, who comes into the traditional narrative as a temptress but also an inspiration, a burden to one prison escape but the key to another, and Jack’s firm partner in crime but also the person who peaches him to the authorities for her own freedom. She should be a complex and intriguing character.
Unfortunately, the character of Bess in this book is just cribbed from other eighteenth-century prostitute tales. The thefts come thick, fast and obvious in the beginning; we start by lifting from ‘Moll Flanders’, proceed into the first picture in a ‘Harlot’s Progress’ and continue into ‘Fanny Hill’ - and so we continue, with barely a scene or moment that hasn’t been borrowed from some other book.
Towards the end, Bess feels guilty of her actions and regretful of her past, but this is mainly conveyed by inner voices (in italic) repeating nasty things about her. We never get her sense of an individual, nor do we get any sense of agency. Bess is merely thrown this way and that because that is what these sorts of women in these sorts of novels do.
Jack Shepherd is also let down by the book. We are given a sense of manic energy, he is often described as a ‘fiery angel’ and there is some feeling for the lack of self-confidence he suffers that charges his independence and later vanity - but the central relationship between he and Bess never quite gels. This is partly through Arnott’s choice of phonetically representing Shepherd’s s-s-s-stutter at every opportunity. 
Which leads us to the key to the book’s failure, its (mis)use of eighteenth-century slang. I touched on this in the cant piece below, but the truly clod-eared use of slang in the book is something that sinks the book utterly. I said before that it seems like the novel was written in standard English but then translated into cant by a computer programme.
The reason for this is that the author doesn’t seem to realise that people use slang in their own ways and even those who use great swathes of slang do not choose the slang term at every single opportunity. Just because a person has a slang word for ‘eyes’ or ‘stairs’ doesn’t mean they only use those words every single time they want to describe eyes or stairs. In this book ‘eyes’ are always ‘glaziers’, ‘stairs’ are always ‘prancers’, ‘tea’ is always ‘prattle-broth’ and a bad feeling (whether it’s morning sickness or grief) is always ‘crank’.
We simply don’t get the opportunity to enjoy the romance of Bess and Jack, thrill to Jack’s prison escapes or feel hatred to Jonathan Wild because the whole thing is mired in the gloop of canting verbiage. It becomes a tremendous slog.
However, we do get a silver gilt to this black cloud, while the main story is painful to read,  the sub-plot is very interesting. It’s about the (fictional) writer who Bess is telling her story to. Being a literary man he writes the parts about himself with a far greater flexibility in his use of slang and releasing this stranglehold of patter makes it more enjoyable.
It also works better because it’s a less-told story, the secret life of a molly - a member of London’s gay subculture. As well as his times in the mollyhouses, he is also a conman in Wild’s employ and a friend of John Gay (who may have been had leanings that way himself). None of it was new to me, Arnott’s key sources ‘Mother Clap’s Molly House’ and ‘John Gay: A profession of Friendship’ were books I looked at on the precursor to this site. The thefts from these books are less then subtle; many of the Gay scenes has the man quoting bits of his own (twentieth-century) biography and the mollyhouse scenes and characters are ripped right out of Rictor Norton’s seminal work on the subculture. But, with the exception of the TV show ‘City of Vice’, I had never seen them in a work of fiction, which kept my interest in most of these bits. 

Again though, the writing choices let it down a bit. These sections are phrased as letters from the author to Applebee a (factual) publisher of last words. This means that when Applebee’s actions enter the book, the author often tells Applebee of his own recent action. All I could imagine was Applebee reading it and saying ‘I know I did that, it was only last month’.

I bought this book at full (over)price from Foyles, pulled in by the subject matter, the reading list at the back and the beauty of the cover design. I have to say, it was the biggest letdown in a year that has not provided me with many books I have really enjoyed. 

(I did appreciate the Christopher Smart shoutout though.)

Next week I am off to Dr Johnson’s house to discuss more chunks of Boswell and the week after, I am going to read Casanova - whilst in Venice.

All exciting then

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Canting Crew

I had the delightful pleasure of being on the train to Staines last week. There I overheard a  most mysterious conversation. Alas, I didn’t have my notebook on me to write it all down but I recall them discussing a distaste for the feds, a desire to set up a k-tent to encourage all the k-holers to spend bare p’s on the k’s. They shared stories of their own k-holes, one describing himself as having once had a jaunt down a k-canyon.
I say mysterious, I could understand what was meant and I had heard most of the terms before; but the fluency of it, the stringing together of so many slang terms in a rhythm completely different to my own, was something of a revelation. 

Normally, hearing the British police being referred to as ‘fed’s’ irritates and reminds me of the children I work with who, at the age of ten, aren’t aware that 911 isn’t our emergency number and that dollars will do very little for them in a shop. But hearing this group, was like hearing the language of the street brought to a perfection. Their speech was virtuosic, poetic and generally fantastic - but without someone to write it at that very peak, we’ll be left with the dregs of their patter. There needs to be some kind of spy, to record what they hear.


The early eighteenth century had such a spy in Ned Ward, the London Spy. One of the real pleasures of him, and his regional copycats like the York Spy, is the sensation of overhearing genuine street-speech in all its colour. How else would we hear the tour-de-force insults of the Thamesmen such as, 
     ‘You were begot by huffling, spewed up and not born, and christened out of a chamberpot.’ Nor its rejoinder of,
   ‘You shitten rogues, who worship the fundament because you live by turds.’
However, it would be foolish to accept such reports without question, Ned Ward and his like were consciously creating entertainment. They were not anthropologists, or members of a mass observation group - there must have been craft in their reports of everyday speech.
London had long been fascinated with its underclass, particularly the way they spoke. Robert Greene’s coney-catching pamphlets reported the tricks and language of Elizabethan beggars and thieves for a shocked middle-class audience. Dictionaries of criminal slang, beginning with 1699’s ‘The Canting Crew’, predate and outnumber the dictionaries and wordbooks of standard English. There were also ballads, pamphlets of criminals’ last words and the Newgate calendar which all employed cant in various ways.
I have copy of that first slang dictionary and it is interesting the words that have survived from 1699 cant. If your lugg-holes are open and your gob is shut then you may be a dabb hand at eavesdropping such words in ordinary patter.
Nor did cant stay only in the ephemera of Grub Street. Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ includes cant terms in the songs and dialogue as well as the names of the characters - Jenny Diver, Betty Doxy, Ben Budge, Nimming Ned and Jemmy Twitcher all have names originating from cant terms for various lays (or criminal practices). Fielding’s ‘Jonathan Wild’, dealing as it does with criminal matters, also uses it. 
Again, it’s interesting to wonder how closely all of these uses, both from Grub Street and the more esteemed literary circles, actually reflect language as it was spoken. If the eighteenth century speakers were anything as inventive and interesting with their language as those I overheard on the train to Staines, then it is unlikely a few instances, or a dictionary of words could really capture the language of the canting crew.
What’s more, in a time where common people had fairly small stomping grounds and few means of mass communication (especially among the less-literate) it is probable that each job, each area and each individual criminal corporation had their own way of using slang. Add to that, those that have passing acquaintance with those who used it, and those who mixed it with other vocabularies (like the sailor’s argot which even the linguistically nimble found hard to decode) it is likely that what we have is only a poor shadow of the exciting language use of the eighteenth century underclasses.

Such language is, however, a very easy tool for modern novelists to use when they want to add a little urban, eighteenth century gangster flavour and many of the novels I have read recently have used it in this way. 

‘Golden Hill’ and ‘Slammerkin’ both front-loaded the texts with cant to put them in the eighteen-century frame of mind but were kind enough to either explain the meanings directly by means of internal monologue or an innocent character asking for definition. ‘The Virtue of this Jest’ used cant as a vibrant painter would with a bright colour, splashing it about all over the place. 

The book I am currently reading…has a problematic relationship with cant. The entire book is written in it, but it feels like it was written by a computer with a criminal cant setting instead of standard English. There is no feel for the ebb and flow of the words, an individual’s use of their own cant or the way some people hide behind their slang and the way others use it to show off. It’s cant as wallpaper, and that is pure flapdragon.



Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Video: Rasselas in Under a Minute

A tense, nailbiting test of summary and tongue control... wait till I try Clarissa.