The Elizabeth Gaskell umbrella mystery.

jenny uglowPerhaps it’s because we’ve lacked rain for two months that my attention was caught, the other day, by a reference to umbrellas in Jenny Uglow’s excellent biography of Elizabeth Gaskell.  I turn up all sorts of intriguing oddities when preparing for classes.  Some I can use, but there are always nuggets that don’t have a place in my course plan.

This one tantalises because its thrown in so casually, in reference to Gaskell’s honeymoon in Wales.  Uglow says:

At Beddgelert Elizabeth had to overcome her terror of umbrellas, at least the mundane variety.

As the old saying goes, ‘and that’s all she wrote’.

Surely I can’t be the only reader who expects such a statement to be followed by an anecdote? The biography is, in other ways, admirably explanatory.  Where possible, events are referenced by extracts from letters, they’re put into historical context, and possible conclusions are identified.  If something is being guessed, Uglow provides her justification for drawing assumptions.

I’d been involved by Elizabeth’s story, frequently forgetting that this is a non-fiction.  Call me picky, but I’ve two problems with this sentence.

First, is the inclusion of the word had. Why is it there? Uglow could have said, ‘At Beddgelert, Elizabeth overcame her terror of umbrellas.’  I’d have accepted that.

I’ve met people with surprising and unsurprising phobias, and seen how the word ‘terror’ is attached to them.  People can and do confront their phobias for all sorts of reasons. What the word had implies to me is a very specific need that forces the issue. Had, means a story, and I longed to know it.

Chekov said that if you introduce a gun into your narrative, it’s a promise, and needs to go off before the story ends. True, he was talking about fiction, and yet, don’t some of the same rules apply to non-fiction too?

Uglow’s second half of that sentence, intensifies my problem.

At Beddgelert Elizabeth had to overcome her terror of umbrellas, at least the mundane variety.

The ‘at least’ picks up the implications of ‘had’: it says, ‘by the way, here’s some ammunition.’  At least means this was not a casual event, it refers to a crisis.  Elizabeth was placed in a situation that forced her to confront a major fear (terror) and it was not an easy battle, because she only partially succeeded.  That, is the heart of most stories.

This quibble doesn’t quite stop here, I have one more question.  Forgive me if it seems a little frivolous, but I really want to know, what does a ‘mundane‘ umbrella look like, in 1832?


Dangerous statements.

I came across this Andy Warhol statement the other day and have been niggling at it ever since. ‘An artist is a person who produces something we don’t need to have.’

Self-Portrait 1967 by Andy Warhol 1928-1987The thing is, all I know about Warhol has been picked up incidentally, because I’ve seen dramas where he was either a main or secondary character.  This means my version of him has been created from a series of fictions, plus my scanty knowledge of his most famous pictures, and I can’t work him out.  Maybe I don’t need to.

Perhaps all I need to do is decide how I feel about his pictures.  Except he said we don’t need to have them – any of them.  Maybe that was a joke.  How else do you explain a man who made a great deal of money from his art, and influenced a huge number of people in more than one branch of artistry, saying we don’t need to have it?

If we don’t need to have art, in any form, why do we seek it out?  According to Aristotle, I read the same seven stories, over and over.  I can’t quarrel with that.

PB_Warhol_Skulls.inddI’m frequently aware that I’m reading yet another re-working of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella or some other archetypal narrative.  Sometimes the stories are barely disguised.  Still, I read them, even re-read them.  I truly believe that I need them.  What would I do if they didn’t exist? Perhaps I’d invent a story. If I didn’t, I’m sure someone else would.

Most of us like things we don’t need to have. Once we’ve accumulated all the goods we need, we don’t usually stop acquiring. I’ve met several minimalists, and what I’ve wondered about hasn’t been their abstinence, rather it’s their ability to discard.

Had you asked me to guess where that quote came from, my first suggestion would have been Groucho Marx. Except Groucho would surely have capped it off with a neat piece of lateral observation.  Maybe that’s what I need for this, some kind of conclusion, and really who better to find the kind of sense I best understand, than Groucho?

Well Art is Art, isn’t it?  Still on the other hand east is east and west is west, and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.  Now tell me what you know.

Groucho MarxTo miss-quote another Groucho quip: These are my thoughts, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.



A word-play writing exercise

book of wordsThe first entry in The Superior Person’s Book of Words, by Peter Bowler, is ABECEDARIAN.  It has two meanings:

i. Arranged in alphabetical order

ii. Elementary, devoid of sophistication.

Superior persons, it seems, do not ‘fuss-about’ with mundane entries like Aardvarks or other double-voweled list-leap-frogging words, they favour the obscure and archaic.  It’s not a word designed to trip easily off my tongue.  What trick will lodge it on the easily-to-hand shelves of my memory?

book shelvesOh those dusty shelves.  Forget the endless virtual library in my head, I can’t remember how this book came to rest amongst my physical books. Maybe I bought it. I usually remember which books I’ve been given.

But enough digression, it’s time to be purposeful.  Why am I rabbiting on about superior persons when I’m so clearly failing to meet the bar?  Because the second entry in this book is: ABECEDARIAN INSULT.  It means exactly what it sounds like, an insult arranged in alphabetical order. Peter Bowler provides one:

‘Sir, you are an apogenous, bovaristic, coprolalial, dasypygal, excerebrose, facinorous, gnathonic, hircine, ithyphallic, jumentous, kyphotic, labrose, mephitic, napiform, oligophrenial, papuliferous, quisquilian, rebarbative, saponaceous, thersitical, unguinous, ventripotent, wlatsome, xylocephalous, yarning zoophyte.’

Try reading that aloud, it’s a tricky flow.  Only seven words are not underlined by the spell-checker.  I’m not sure how to pronounce most of it.  However, I did like the translation:

‘Sir, you are an impotent, conceited, obscene, hairy-buttocked, brainless, wicked, toadying, goatish, indecent, stable-smelling, hunchbacked, thick-lipped, stinking, turnip-shaped, feeble-minded, pimply, trashy, repellent, smarmy, foul-mouthed, greasy, gluttonous, loathsome, wooden-headed, whining, extremely low form of animal life.’

The spellchecker doesn’t like buttocked, but accepts the rest. I’m sorry the ABECEDARIAN aspect has been lost.

The language is a little antiquated, I wonder if I can be offensively eloquent without using swear-words or obscenities? Don’t take the following personally:

‘Addled basket case! Digest effluent, foul gibbering halibut. I judge knowing liars malignant numbskulls of putrid qualities: retract scandalous talk, undo verminous words. Xenophobe, you’re zero.’

Hmm, maybe I’m a ‘rasorial searcher after words’:

hensRASORIAL: Constantly scratching around in search of food, like a fowl (or a sister’s boyfriend). Pronounced more or less in the same way as risorial (laughter provoking) and rosorial (rodentlike; gnawing). ‘I’m sorry if I sometimes seem ambivalent in my attitude to your mother, Natalie; it’s just that I find it very hard to make up my mind whether I see her as essentially rasorial, rosorial, or risorial.’

I wonder how ‘elementary and devoid of sophistication’ it’s possible to be when creating an ABECEDARIAN INSULT?

I think I could develop this.  Apply some of the ‘5 Ws & H’ to it, and character might grow.  After that, who knows…

  1. Who?
  2. What?
  3. Where?
  4. Why?
  5. When?
  6. How?

I’m beginning to see ABECEDARIAN INSULT as an oxymoron… a word to shelve in the reference section of my virtual library, and dust off occasionally.

As for the book, who knows what other potential ‘warm-up’ exercises are lurking amongst it’s pages?


*Painting: William Baptiste Baird, 1847 – 1917

When, and how, do I say goodbye to a book?

My Penguin copy of VS Pritchett Collected Short stories is disintegrating.  It’s well read, and is a 1982 reprint, so some might say it’s had it’s day. Every time I open it pages flutter around my feet, and they’re not designed for independence, so the loose leaves are getting brittle.

disintigrating book.2 jpgI’m not good at throwing books out.  Passing them along is one thing: destroying them quite another.  I’ve listed my reasons in this case, but prioritising has been tricky.

First, Pritchett has not yet been recognised with a ‘retrospective’, even though The Royal Society of Literature have been awarding a £1000 short story prize in his name since ‘the beginning of the new millennium’ (I’m afraid you’ve just missed this year’s deadline, maybe next year?).  Without reprints, even fragments of his writing have especial value.

Point one-A:

“There are worse crimes than burning books.  One of them is not reading them.” – Ray Bradbury.

Second, several stories in this copy are not repeated in the three other Pritchett collections I own, or in any of my twentieth century story anthologies. So, I’d need to trawl the second-hand market for the missing ones, which are in at least three other Pritchett collections.  My short-story shelves are already overflowing, therefore I’d need another shelf…

Point Two-A

” The oldest books are still only just out to those who have not read them.” ~Samuel Butler, 1835 – 1902

Hmm, I’d discover more of his stories, and gain a shelf: that means more book space.

Point Two-B

Pritchett collections are scarce, and I’m afraid to report that – don’t look, Ruth, unless you’ve removed your bookseller hat, this will distress you –  one of the copies bought for the course I’m just completing was sold WITH PAGES MISSING.  I suppose a few gaps are less tricky in collected short stories than in a novel, then maybe pulping, or (gulp) burning can be justified.  But what do we do with still-complete fragmenting books?

Point Two-C:

“It is there, where they burn books, that eventually they burn people.”  ― Heinrich Heine 1797 – 1856

Point Two-D:

“It hardly matters why a library is destroyed: every banning, curtailment, shredding, plunder or loot gives rise (at least as a ghostly presence) to a louder, clearer, more durable library of the banned, looted, plundered, shredded or curtailed.”  ― Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night. 2008

Thought three carries a warning for sensitive, book-purists: my Pritchett contains multi-coloured highlighted sections, plus both pencilled and penned notes in the margins. This is not random vandalism, each mark signals appreciation.  I suppose, in time, I could replicate those responses in other copies, but would they still mean the same things?

Point Three-A

“[I]t is pleasanter to eat one’s own peas out of one’s own garden, than to buy them by the peck at Covent Garden; and a book reads the better, which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots and dog’s-ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins, or over a pipe…  – Charles Lamb, letter to S. T. Coleridge, October 1802

disintigrating bookConclusion:  Do loose pages matter, so long as I keep them together?  I’ve a pot of elastic bands, I could combine them with my distressed books and solve two recycling problems. Perhaps that new shelf I mentioned will be a refuge for delicate books.

“I have friends whose society is delightful to me; they are persons of all countries and of all ages; distinguished in war, in council, and in letters; easy to live with, always at my command.” – Francesco Petrarch, 1304 – 1374

“Far more seemly were it for thee to have thy study full of books, than thy purse full of money.” ~John Lyly, 1553 – 1606

“What wild desires, what restless torments seize
The hapless [wo]man, who feels the book-disease…” ~John Ferriar, “The Bibliomania, An Epistle, To Richard Heber, Esq.”, 1809

disintigrating books

Tom Jones, Sophia Western, and a dog called Cromwell: time-travelling in Upton.

Two weeks ago, when the hot weather was just getting established here in the south-west, I found myself with a couple of hours to kill, in Upton-upon-Severn.  That’s only a little way over the county-border, but somehow we generally pass-through, rather than visit.

It’s a two street town.  A woman in a hurry could walk along both and be out on the other side in about five minutes, but I drifted, peering through windows in a dream of book-titles, turning over pages.

As well as charity stores there were plenty of other shops. I could have bought a horse-drawn funeral or a Chinese massage; pots of herbs, a bicycle, a flower arrangement, a fishing rod, an ice-cream or kitted out a kitchen.

I drifted along the narrow pavement. There was just room for two people to pass, and the town was busy with cars and lorries going west.  Squinting into the sun I saw that I’d reached the church spire.  Beyond it were the trees and fields of the flood-plain.  I swopped to the shops on the other side of the road.

Half an hour later I was back at my starting point, facing The White Lion Hotel. Maybe I was two-hundred and seventy-two years (plus a few months) too late to bump into Tom Jones, Sophia Western and Benjamin Partridge, but I thought I ought, really should, go for a cooling beverage in ‘that Inn which in their eyes presented the fairest appearance in the street’.

the white lion upton 2From the outside, it looked pretty much like an illustration I remembered seeing.  ‘Yes,’ the receptionist confirmed, ‘this is the Tom Jones Hotel.’ Then she flitted through a door to become the barmaid.  Was I expecting to step back through time?  That would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

After I’d settled in the lounge a man came in.  ‘Beer, please, Anna,’ he said.  ‘  You’re looking a bit harassed, what’s up?’

‘We’re out of laminating pockets,’ she said, ‘and I need to finish these menus.  You don’t have any at your place, do you?’

IMG_20180621_153326He hadn’t.  As poor Anna began phoning round, I sat back, looking through my new books.  Portraits of Tom, Sophia, Henry Fielding and Prince Rupert looked down on me.  I wondered what they would have made of the leather arm chairs and wall-to-wall carpet.  There were plenty of doors for a confusion of entrances and exits, but I couldn’t imagine any of my hoped-for companions using them.

CromwellBack in the street I spotted ‘Cromwell’ and couldn’t resist a closer look.  The six-foot high grass-dog was sitting at the base of ‘The Pepperpot’ – an ancient tower that houses the tourist centre.  I kid you not, and to prove I was not hallucinating, here’s a photo.

I think he might be a labradoodle, in need of grooming.   I patted his rough hide, and felt recompensed for the absences of Henry and his cast of characters.  Funny how I never find what I’m looking for on a second-hand book hunt, but always find something worth thinking about.