The shock-haired comic and the shock of recognition

MMFB

Michael McIntyre Life and Laughing: My Story
Michael Joseph / Penguin 2010

With the notable exception so far of North America, there seem to be few parts of the English-speaking world that haven’t heard of Michael McIntyre: Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, even Dubai, Norway and Singapore seemed to have lapped him up. He has broken records for sell-out tours and venues in the UK, and the DVDs of his arena shows do well. He seemed, as is the nature of things, to have suddenly emerged as a fully-fledged and confident comic into public consciousness in the first decade of this century, but of course success is rarely an instant rags-to-riches story. In McIntyre’s case not at all — if anything, it was a riches-to-rags-to-riches tale, as this autobiography outlines.

McIntyre is first and foremost Continue reading “The shock-haired comic and the shock of recognition”

Enthusiasm, experience and expertise

keys

Charles Rosen Piano Notes:
the World of the Pianist 
Penguin 2004

The late Charles Rosen, who died in 2012 aged 85, is remembered as both pianist and writer, and Piano Notes is in large part a personal response to the art and pleasure of keyboard playing. I found this a wonderful book, full of enthusiasm, experience, expertise, knowledge and humour, and it helps that this reviewer largely shares the writer’s philosophy (though, sadly, not the experience, expertise and knowledge). Continue reading “Enthusiasm, experience and expertise”

A liminal world

redhouse

Mark Haddon The Red House Vintage 2013 (2012)

A week in a holiday cottage away from the city; what could be more idyllic? Escape to the country, forget your woes, chill out, enjoy yourself.

Except it doesn’t always work out that way, does it? Because when you go you inevitably — if unconsciously — pack up your troubles in your luggage. And then you spend the week trying to ignore them, only to have them appear whenever you least expect it, or be picked over by others you hoped you’d never see again. Hell is other people, Sartre declared. But true hell is people with destructive secrets. Hell is you.

Siblings Angela and Richard have been estranged for some time. A father they barely knew, a recently deceased mother who had dementia, then an opportunity for them and their respective families to come together on neutral ground, to become re-acquainted, to rebuild bridges. A liminal world: a holiday just before the 2010 UK general election and a change of government; a cottage on the borders of Wales and England; the world turning, ghosts emerging to haunt the living; a solitary fox appearing, and the Venerable Bede’s sparrow recalled: Continue reading “A liminal world”

How to speak improper

A plate of oysters by Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827) Oyster: "a gob of thick phlegm, spit by a consumptive man"
A Plate of Oysters by Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827) http://www.chrisbeetles.com/gallery/cartoon/plate-oysters.html
Oyster: “a gob of thick phlegm, spit by a consumptive man”

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
Foreword by Max Harris
Senate / Studio Editions 1994 (1811)

No, that’s not good enough. The title page of the original (a facsimile is included in this edition) is much more informative as well as entertaining, and is worth reproducing, after a fashion.

Lexicon Balatronicum
=========

A
DICTIONARY
OF
Buckish Slang, University Wit,
AND
PICKPOCKET ELOQUENCE.

==========
Compiled originally by Captain Grose.

AND NOW CONSIDERABLY ALTERED AND ENLARGED,
WITH
THE MODERN CHANGES AND IMPROVEMENTS,
BY A
MEMBER OF THE WHIP CLUB.
ASSISTED BY
Hell-Fire Dick, and James Gordon, Esqrs. of Cambridge; and William
Soames, Esq. of the Hon. Society of Newman’s Hotel.

So just what is this Lexicon Balatonicum and what was its purpose? To answer the last first: it was a spoof dictionary, a compilation of obscure and not so obscure words and phrases put together for a laugh. The clue is in its first title: Continue reading “How to speak improper”

No Zeroes here

Willem P Gerritsen, Anthony G van Melle editors
Tanis Guest translator
A Dictionary of Medieval Heroes
Boydell Press 2000

Anglophone Arthurians should from time to time contemplate a different European perspective on the Matter of Britain and its contemporary analogues, and this Dictionary of Medieval Heroes (with the snappy subtitle Characters in Medieval Narrative Traditions and their Afterlife in Literature, Theatre and the Visual Arts) by two Dutch academics gives just such an opportunity. Here we are introduced to such figures as Aiol, Berte aux Grands Pieds, Heimbrecht, Parthonopeus of Blois and Ruodlieb, heroes and heroines certainly previously unfamiliar to this reader but popular with a significant proportion of medieval European readership, featuring in tales that certainly stand comparison with accounts of Arthur, Galahad, Gawain, Merlin or Perceval.

This is a very user-friendly edition for English-speakers: Continue reading “No Zeroes here”

Curious interpretations

arthurtomb

Anne Berthelot
King Arthur: Chivalry and Legend
Arthur et la Table ronde: La force d’une legende  translated by Ruth Sharman
Thames and Hudson 1997 (1996)

First published by Gallimard in 1996, this English version is part of Thames and Hudson’s New Horizons series and follows a similar format: a well-illustrated chronological survey of the chosen subject, followed by extracts from select documents, bibliography, credits and index. The author was Professor of Medieval French Literature — and now of French & Medieval Studies — at the University of Connecticut (does that make her a Connecticut Frank at the court of King Arthur, perhaps?) and so her discussion of developments in Arthurian literature, from Wace and Layamon up to 20th-century cinema, is authoritative and thought-provoking. For instance, she clearly charts how the Matter of Britain moved from chronicle format to poetry(eg Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace’s Brut) and then back to chronicle style, and how this reflected shifts in taste from pseudohistory to the flowering of chivalry and courtly love and then returning to the burgeoning nationalistic stance in England, as evidenced by Malory.

It is when she deals with the historical context of the legend, however, that we get some curious interpretations. Continue reading “Curious interpretations”

Endlessly endearing

Historical map of Sicily by Piri Reis (Public Domain)
Historical map of Sicily by Piri Reis, oriented to show north at top (public domain, Wikipedia)

Andrea Camilleri The Snack Thief
Il ladro del merendine (1996)
translated by Stephen Sartarelli (2003)
Picador 2004

Every time I pick up this or another Inspector Montalbano mystery I can’t help myself: I always hear the wonderful strains of Franco Piersanti’s tango, the signature tune to RAI’s popular TV series.

As a musician I love the quirky nature of this piece, the insistent dance rhythm, the melodic fragments promising but rarely delivering development, the dark chocolate of the double bass — Piersanti’s own instrument — counterpointing wind and upper string fragments. In a way, the cornucopia offered by this short opening credits sequence matches both Montalbano’s dependable unpredictability and his self-evident delight in the range of Sicilian cuisine. And of course the various themes, short as they are, are the counterparts of the several distinctive plot lines that are woven together in this and every Montalbano novel. Naturally Sicily, at a geographic crossroads in the Mediterranean, is full of cultural strands too, from prehistoric peoples, ancient Greeks and Romans, Iberians, North Africans.

A Tunisian shot dead on a Sicilian fishing boat at sea, a retired businessman knifed in a lift, youngsters plagued by a child who steals their snacks; for Commissario Salvo Montalbano these all appear to be unrelated incidents along the south coast of the Sicilian triangle. But as investigations continue all is not as it seems. Continue reading “Endlessly endearing”

An idiosyncratic reading of Arthurian origins

Howard Reid Arthur, The Dragon King:
the Barbaric Roots Of Britain’s Greatest Legend

Headline 2001

Howard Reid apparently has all the right academic credentials – an unpublished PhD thesis in anthropology based on research among hunter-gatherers in Brazil – and, as well as practical experience from living with Tuaregs in North Africa, he has made documentaries about ancient civilisations for the BBC, Channel 4 and the Public Broadcasting Service in the USA. So you would expect him not only to declaim knowledgeably with his Indiana Jones hat on but also to discuss with scholarly rigour wearing his mortar board.

Not a bit of it. Continue reading “An idiosyncratic reading of Arthurian origins”

Don’t follow me if…

follow

Social media is a funny thing when it comes to readership. For many it is a matter of numbers, about how many friends you can get on Facebook, how many followers on Tumblr. On Instagram it can reach ridiculous heights with desperate requests, often multiple, aimed at Instagrammers to FOLLOW ME?

On WordPress the atmosphere is different: no intrusive posts as on FB inviting you to befriend ‘people you may know’, no requests to become a ‘friend’ even if you’ve never heard of them, no despairing pleas to include in your social circle complete strangers posting selfies. And yet there are the bloggers who hope you will be their ersatz companion in their virtual world. Who are they, and how do I know whether they’re genuine or not?

Well, first they never ‘like’ a post, nor do they comment. (I’m not talking spammers here, by the way, but Crikey do they comment.) This is the first sign that they haven’t read your posts, and really don’t know the content of your blog.

Second, they have something to sell. It may be religion (“How to take Jesus/Thor/Gaia into your heart.”). It may be how to get more followers — for a fee. It may simply be someone hoping that you’ll think their novel, published in chapter-length posts, is just the thing to light up your world and give them that validation that they want; well, I understand that — we’re nearly all of us by posting looking for validation, are we not? — but surely this is not the way to go about it.

WordPress have useful advice on getting more traffic and, by extension, getting more followers if that’s what you want. If you want more views, they say, read and comment on other blogs. They suggest you “find the people that care about the same stuff that you do”. They then think you should “subscribe to their blog and get to know them a bit. When you see an article that interests you, click through to their site and leave a comment with your thoughts.” As Mr Punch says, that’s the way to do it.

Blogging is not just about you (though it’s tempting to think so). It’s about how you connect with other people, even if you don’t care whether you have a thousand, ten or zilch followers, otherwise you wouldn’t air your thoughts online. And it’s that connection that I’m interested in, not bigging up my legion of camp followers.

So, don’t follow me if you don’t read my blog, or if you’re not interested in my ideas. But then, hey, if you’ve read this far you probably are interested — in fact, you and I may have been conversing a long time. I really won’t be offended if you neither ‘like’ nor comment. But it would be nice if you did.

And now that reminds me, where are those blogs I’ve followed and neglected to read, like or respond to in a long time? Or indeed ever…

Two societies, two cultures, two lives

caldicot

Kevin Crossley-Holland Arthur: the Seeing Stone Orion Publishing 2001 (2000)

If you haven’t read this then you may be in for a treat. Following its publication in hardback it deservedly won the Smarties Prize bronze medal and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 2001. Everything that the reviewers quoted at the front of the paperback say is spot on. So why the accolades?

This Arthur is living in the Welsh Marches as the 12th century turns into the thirteenth. His life is paralleled by the young Arthur of legend, Continue reading “Two societies, two cultures, two lives”

Heavenly conjunctions

canis

Diana Wynne Jones Dogsbody Harper Trophy 2001 (1975)

A ‘dogsbody’ is of course a common way of describing a drudge, a Johnny Factotum, the office boy who makes the tea, the hapless school student on work experience. And there is a drudge in this story: Kathleen, who fulfils the role of a Cinderella under the thumb of a surrogate stepmother. But the title of this novel is also the starting point for the notion that a celestial being can inhabit the body of a dog, and that is the main trigger for this story. The most famous celestial body with a canine association is the so-called Dog Star, Sirius, so the question is, how does Sirius come to be incarnated in a puppy just about to be drowned at birth?

I love the way that Diana Wynne Jones novels work: Continue reading “Heavenly conjunctions”

On being a literary omnivore

books.png

Maybe you’re a bit like me — given a cereal packet, a receipt, a magazine, a leaflet, a poster, a road sign, I’ll start reading and instantly lose myself. During everyday conversations my eyes soon start drifting around, looking for literary matter. Faced with bookshelves my head twists to one side to scan the titles (which, thankfully, these days mostly read vertically one way — unless they’re fat textbooks or foreign language titles). Maybe you’re even trying to scan the book titles in the illustration heading this post.

In addition you may have noticed Continue reading “On being a literary omnivore”

The essence of good storytelling

Philip Reeve Here Lies Arthur Scholastic 2007

glastonbury_crossMy expectations for a historical-fiction Arthur-type character are rather specific. I don’t rate at all highly any back-projections of Malory, Tennyson or even Geoffrey of Monmouth into a sub-Roman context, with medieval concepts of round tables, grails and swords embedded in stones appearing anachronistically in Late Antiquity. And so my heart sank when I began reading a scenario involving a Lady in a Lake in this young adult fiction book.

But, dedicated Arthurian that I am, I persisted, and am very glad to have done so. For the essence of every good story-teller (and Philip Reeve is one of these) includes the gift of using such motifs sensitively. What we have presented here is a tale within a tale, where Reeve weaves a story of how Myrddin embroiders narratives around the exploits of a minor warlord, so that we almost believe that this was the way the Arthurian legends could have come about: with pagan mythology and imagination hijacked by a bard to boost the reputation of a barbarian chieftain.

In a note the author reminds us Continue reading “The essence of good storytelling”