Book Corner – January 2019 (5)

Crome Yellow – Aldous Huxley

To my (fairly) certain knowledge I had only read one of Huxley’s works, Brave New World (natch), so I was intrigued to find Crome Yellow in one of those collections of great works of literature you must read before you peg it.

Published in 1921, it was Huxley’s first novel and established his reputation on the literary scene. Critics may say it is much ado about nothing, there is very little in the way of plot or action, and it follows a well-established literary trope of incarcerating half a dozen disparate souls in a country house, the eponymous Crome Yellow, for a long weekend chez Wimbush.

Our guide through the weekend is Denis Stone, a poet, who spends his time pursuing his unrequited love for his host’s niece, Anne, pontificating on matters philosophical and composing, buffing and polishing lines of verse. The book ends when he returns to London, thwarted in his amatory pursuits.

One of the highlights of the book is the beauty of its language. There are many elegantly fashioned phrases to be found on every page, as the author mirrors Denis’ desire to find the mot juste for every occasion. It is a joy to read and anyone thinking about writing seriously would do well to just immerse themselves in the wonder and glory of Huxley’s craftmanship, perhaps heightened by the dearth of content.

Of course, the aspiring logophile that is Denis Stone can get things disastrously wrong. One of the funniest passages in the book is when it eventually dawns upon him that the word carminative, which he chose to describe the sensations caused by love, means something altogether different from the warm sensation of liquid cinnamon trickling down your throat gives. As well as being funny, it is a wonderful illustration of the poignancy of a young person coming to terms with their linguistic inadequacies.

I particularly liked the pessimistic philosopher, Mr Scogan. His rather dystopian vision of the future provides a hint of some of the themes that Huxley explored to good effect ten years later in Brave New World. Scogan also has a set piece in which he expounds upon the futility of taking a holiday to get away from it all, given that we are imprisoned by our selves and social mores. He contends that “metaphorically, we never get farther than Southend”, an image he picks up again when he comments on Gombould’s comment, the rather louche painter, on the First World War being rather like a holiday; “Yes, the war was something like a holiday. It was a step beyond Southend; it was Weston-super-Mare; it was almost Ilfracombe.

Perhaps the funniest passage is Henry Wimbush’s narrative of the life and times of an earlier owner of Crome, the diminutive and ill-named Sir Hercules Lapith. The tale has Swiftian overtones, the lord of the manor constructing a home and recruiting a retinue of retainers in sync with his small stature. He even married a tiny wife and amused himself by hunting rabbits with a “pack of thirty black and fawn-coloured pugs.” Alas, his son, Ferdinando was of normal stature and Sir Hercules’ oasis of dwarfism was ruined when his uncouth son returned to impose his Brobdingnagian values.

I enjoyed the book, although many of the side plots such as the relationship between Anne and Gombauld and whether Mary realises her suxual yearnings remain unresolved. An underdeveloped character, the hard of hearing Jenny, scribbles away in a red book which Denis sneaks a look at, discovers how others perceive him and draws the wrong conclusion.

I’m not sure I would class it as a masterpiece, being very much of its time, but it is an interesting insight into the development of a notable 20th century writer.

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The Streets Of London – Part Eighty Three

Tooley Street, SE1

Running parallel to the River Thames on it southern bank from the point where it joins Montague Close under the arch of London Bridge up to St Saviour’s Dock in the east, Tooley Street has undergone a considerable transformation in recent years with a range of restaurants to suit all tastes, if not all pockets.

I had fondly imagined that this thoroughfare, which once bustled with traffic moving goods to and from the docks to the City of London, was named after some Irishman or other named Tooley. But not a bit of it.

It appears, at least if the maps of the area dating from around the 17th and 18th centuries are to be believed, to be a corruption of the name of St Olave’s church which had stood a little to the east of the then London Bridge. The early cartographers, including John Rocque, record its name as Synt Toulus and other variants are Toulas, Toolis and Toolies. How it came about is anybody’s guess. Prior to that the street appeared in a Woodcut map, dating to around 1561, as Barms Street and in the 17th century was known as Short Southwark.

The church, which is referred to in the Doomsday book of 1086, had a chequered history and by 1736 part of it had fallen down and the rest was on the verge of collapse, principally because graves had been dug too near its foundations. The parishioners raised enough money to build a more substantial church in Portland stone with a square tower and by 1740 it had reclaimed its position as a principal landmark in the area.

Disaster struck on 19th August 1843 when fire broke out in the premises of an oilman near Topping’s Wharf, adjacent to the church, spread to the roof of St Olave’s and destroyed the interior and its bells, although the tower remained standing.

Thank heavens for insurance!

The money from the insurers was sufficient for the church to be rebuilt but it was eventually demolished in 1926 to make way for the headquarters of the Hay’s Wharf Company in what is now St Olave’s House.

With so much riparian industry, shoddy construction and unsafe work practices, fires were commonplace in the area. Some had catastrophic consequences. The Cyclopaedia of Insurance reported that in July 1731 a pot of boiling was overturned, causing a fire which destroyed a large number of vessels on the Thames, a case of setting the Thames on fire.

More famously, on 22nd June 1861 fire broke out in a warehouse in Tooley Street’s Cotton Wharf, raging for two days and not fully extinguished until a fortnight had passed. Many buildings in the area were destroyed in what was one of the capital’s largest conflagrations in the 19th century. One of the consequences of the fire was the passing of the Metropolitan Fire Act in 1865 and the creation of the first publicly funded fire brigade in the capital.

In the 16th century the street boasted a pillory into which fraudulent traders were displayed to public ridicule or worse and a cage to hold drunken and disorderly people, who had been arrested at an hour too late for them to be imprisoned, were held until they had sobered up.

Poverty was never too far away from Tooley Street. Eric Blair aka George Orwell stayed in what was known as a kip on Tooley Street from 19th September until 8th October 1931 while he was carrying out his researches for the book, Down and Out in Paris and London, which he wrote in Bermondsey Library further down the street.

And to end on a literary note, Samuel Pepys gives us an evocative picture of the area in his Diaries when he was forced to walk in a storm in the winter of 1665 – 6 because there was no river transport available; “it was dangerous to walk the streets, the bricks and tiles falling from the houses..we could see no boats in the Thames afloat but what were broke loose and carried through the bridge. the greatest sight of all was among other parcels of ships driven hither and thither in clusters together, one was quite overset, and lay with her masts all along in the water, and her keel above water.”.

Poor Samuel. I’m sure he was glad to get to his bed that night.

Spat Of The Week

Thank goodness we have Prince Philip and Brexit to worry about or else we would be turning our minds to more serious matters.

Take the Norwegians and Canadians, for example. They are involved in an unseemly argument over statues of moose.

For some years the cityscape of Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan has been dominated by a 32-feet tall statue of Mac the Moose, steel-framed and covered with metal mesh and cement. But in 2015 the Norwegians erected Storelgen, a shiny metallic beast, on the highway linking Trondheim with Oslo, apparently in an attempt to reduce road accidents. It stands 30cm taller than its Canadian equivalent.

The city authorities in Moose Jaw have only now woken up to the fact that their claim to have the biggest statue of a moose has been usurped. They are not amused and are scratching their collective heads to what to do now. The most popular suggestion is to give the Canadian moose a bigger set of antlers and there is even a crowd-funding campaign underway to raise the money to do it. The Norwegians, meanwhile, are standing firm.

There is, it seems to me, a perfectly simple way out of the impasse. The creatures are known as elks in Europe and Asia. So, the Norwegians can have the largest elk statue and the Canadians the largest moose.

Now on to Brexit!

Cure Of The Week

I have a long-standing interest in quack medicine and a couple of recent examples caught my eye.

The pain from a bad back can be debilitating and sufferers are often desperate to get their hands on anything that will relieve their pain. But here’s one remedy not to try – injecting yourself with semen.

The Irish Medical Journal, a must-read in any household, reported, in an article wittily called Semenly Harmless Back Pain: An unusual presentation of a Subcutaneous Abscess, that a 33 year-old man had injected himself with his own semen to cure his chronic back pain.

It didn’t seem to help and on a visit to the quack to get a more conventional treatment, the doctor noticed that the man’s arm was red and swollen. Further investigation showed that the man had a skin infection and that an abscess had formed under his skin.

He was put on an intravenous antimicrobial drip which seemed to have helped relieve his back pain but the patient discharged himself before the medics had the opportunity to drain his arm. Perhaps he was attached to it.

In other parts of the world, they swear by camel’s urine, claiming scriptural provenance for its healing qualities from a passage in the Hadith, a collection of sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad. Bottles of the stuff fly off the shelves in Saudi Arabia and if you get your hands on one, be sure to mix it with milk is supposed to release its healing properties.

But, you need to be sure that what you are drinking is the real deal.

Reports have reached me that Saudi health inspectors raided a shop in the port city of Al Qufudhah after receiving reports that the crafty shopkeeper was selling his own urine instead of going to the trouble of getting a camel, a notoriously bad-tempered creature at the best of times, to point Percy at a bucket. Seventy bottles were taken away for analysis.

 

What Is The Origin Of (215)?…

Antimacassar

Never mind where antimacassar came from, where have they all gone?

I remember as a child, and my mother still continued the custom until her death, pieces of cloth, linen or lace, often with floral patterns brightening them up, draped over the top of an armchair or settee and, sometimes, over the arms. They seem to have gone out of fashion nowadays, although airlines use paper versions on the top of their seats.

These antimacassars, for that is what they were, were often as much of a nuisance as a benefit as they would easily dislodge themselves, drop down into the seat of the chair or be thrown in disgust and frustration on to the carpet.

To understand the origin of the unusual name given to this piece of adornment to a chair we need to understand what happened when the powdered wig met its demise at the end of the 18th century. Any man worth his salt during the 18th century would wear a powdered wig on his usually shaven or closely cropped head. The powder used to give the wig their distinguished look was made of starch, a vital ingredient of which was flour.

In the run up to what we now know as the Napoleonic war, the Pitt administration grew both increasingly repressive and fiscally active. Flour became scarce and the imposition of a tax on hair powder in 1795 meant that wigs soon became old hat.

As well as having to grow their own hair, chaps about town were on the hunt for something to keep their barnets in place, smelling nice and looking distinguished. The answer was pomade, a greasy type of ointment used to slick down the hair and often made from mashed apples. Hence its name – from the Latin word for an apple, pomum, via the French pommade, ointment.

Of course, there were lots of types of pomade but one which particularly went down a storm from the first decade of the 19th century was an unguent for the hair marketed by one Alexander Rowland, based in London’s Hatton Garden, and described in later adverts as “infallible in promoting an abundant growth and in maintaining the early hue and lustre of the hair to the extent of human life.” Others stated, “The utility is evinced by preserving the hair from falling off or changing colour, and its elegance by producing the most smooth and beautiful gloss ever known.” Earlier adverts claimed simply that it “preserves, strengthens and beautifies the hair.

The pomade was known as Rowlands’ Macassar Oil. The story was that the sweet oils that made up the unguent came from Sulawesi, then Celebes, and, in particular, from the Macassar district of the Indonesian island. Naturally, that was all moonshine. The principal ingredient is thought to have come from the kusum or schleichera oleosa, a tree native to the Indian sub-continent, which was then mixed with some other oils including that from the ubiquitous olive. Still, never let the truth get in the way of a bit of exotica and the embossed, square glass bottles cut quite a dash on the dressing table.

The problem with wearing a greasy ointment on your hair was that it left a greasy deposit on anything you rested the back of your head against, principally the head rest of a chair. Certainly, by the late 1830s, in a frantic attempt to preserve the integrity of the decorative coverings of their chairs, servants and housewives, the distinction was moot at the time, would put a protective covering over the backs of their chairs.

As they were combatting the dangers presented to upholstery by Macassar oil, the coverings were known as antimacassars, pretty unimaginative but true nonetheless. The frisson of excitement that these protective objects caused can be judged by this passage from the New London Magazine in 1837; “After Ada had brought out an anti-macassar of a new pattern, a present from London, and had received homage, as its possessor, from her envious friend…”

Macassar oil went out of fashion in the 1850s but antimacassars were seen as an invaluable protection from the grime and dirt of diurnal existence and lingered well into the late 20th century and beyond, ably warding off the perils presented by the penchant for using Brylcreem before and after the Second World War.

Gin O’Clock – Part Fifty Seven

 

Whether you like it or not, 2018 was the year of flavoured gins, jostling for attention in the crowded marketplace created by the ginaissance. For me, though, it seems nothing more than a fad, one unlikely to stand the test of time. I have commented more than once that what really floats my boat is a gin that is firmly in the London Dry Gin camp, juniper led and uncomplicated, without too many botanicals jostling for attention.

One gin that firmly ticks all my requirements is the rather delicious and moreish Foxdenton 48 London Dry Gin, a welcome gift from Santa. It comes in a clear, rather squat, cylindrical bottle with a large, beige-coloured label with silver and black script. The bottom part of the label has a tableau of the botanicals that make up the mix and at the top a line drawing of Foxdenton Hall. There is a potted history of the estate on the left-hand side of the label, as you look at the bottle. The neck is covered in black foil with the Foxdenton logo, a bull and crown, embossed in silver. It oozes class and elegance.

Disappointingly, the cork stopper is artificial, you can’t have everything, I suppose, but any momentary disappointment is soon dissipated by the satisfying sound that the cork makes when removed. The aroma released is heavily juniper led, the classic gin smell, with more than a hint of spice. To the taste it is thick and creamy with the juniper making way, but still remaining in situ, for the coriander and a citrusy after note, introducing a refreshing element to what might otherwise have been a little spice heavy. The aftertaste, which is predominantly juniper, lingers and invites you to sample some more.

At 48% ABV it is at the heavy end of the gin spectrum but you wouldn’t guess it when drinking the spirit. There are just six botanicals in the mix, less is certainly more in this case – juniper berries, orris root, coriander seeds, angelica root, lemon peel and lime flower oil. The result is a smooth, rich, well-balanced gin, almost luxurious to the taste. In my book it is just what a gin should be.

Inevitably, there is a story behind the gin. The current owner of the Foxdenton Estate Company, Nicholas Radclyffe started to turn his hand at making fruit liqueurs for his shooting party guests. His concoctions went down well and so he set about producing them, on a relatively small scale. Each of his liqueurs used gin as a base and were made using traditional recipes.

It was perhaps no surprise that Radclyffe should turn his attention to the spirit that underpinned his liqueurs, gin. In collaboration with business partner, John Simpson, and the head of Thames Distillers, Charles Maxwell, whose family has been producing gin since 1700, he set about creating a new gin. After six months of experimenting they produced a gin that met their exacting standards and in July 2009 it was launched on the world. Naturally, it forms the base for their liqueurs, of which I have sampled the delicious Damson.

If you are looking to buy only one gin this year, the superb Foxdenton should be at the top of your list.

Book Corner – January 2019 (4)

Armadale – Wilkie Collins

This isn’t a book for the faint-hearted.

At over eight hundred pages long it is a bit of a doorstep and there are points in the book where it gets a bit turgid but it is well worth persevering with. It is Collins’ longest work, serialised in the Cornhill magazine between November 1864 and June 1866 before being published as a two-volume novel in 1866. It is considered to be up there with the finest of Collins’ novels and I think rightly so.

The plot is incredibly complicated and as I try to restrict my reviews to around 600 words I will not even attempt to summarise it. Suffice it to say, the action is kicked off by a foul murder and the deathbed confession of the murderer and his fears as to what would happen if his son and the murdered man’s son, both called Allan Armadale to add further confusion, ever met. Of course, they did and the rest of the novel plays out what happened.

What comes through loud and clear in this novel is Wilkie Collins’ interest in human psychology. Much of the drama and, certainly, the plotting involves a dream which foretells dread consequences. Ozias Midwinter, the improbable alias of the son of the murderer, seeks to analyse what the contents of the dream mean by way of premonitions and resolves, to the best of his abilities, to ensure that the situations that the vision foretells never occur. This allows the author to delve into the psychology of crime.

Of course, Midwinter’s plans are frustrated, not least by the cunning of one of Victorian fiction’s greatest femmes fatales, Lydia Gwilt. Perhaps the best thumb-nail description of her is that she is a flame-haired temptress, bigamist, laudanum addict and husband poisoner. Her portrayal shocked Collins’ publishers, the critics and readership alike and almost put the kibosh on the book ever seeing the light of day. That would have been a great pity as she is a wonderful creation, conniving, grasping, ruthless.

I cannot help think that Collins, who was highly inventive in his use of names, took care in naming his malevolent female lead Gwilt. There are connotations of guilt and gilt – Lydia is a consummate gold digger – and possibly even a hint of will – she is infinitely resourceful. But inevitably she meets a deserved end, overcome by remorse and guilt when she discovers a potentially lethal switch of victims. Was this Collins’ way of assuaging the moral sensibilities of his critics? After all, as T S Eliot, an ardent admirer of this book calling its construction “almost perfect”, remarked “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Stylistically, the book is a mix of testimony, narrative, letters and Gwilt’s diary, each of which in their own way drive the story on. As you come to expect with Collins, the plot takes some surprising twists and the story relies on more than its fair share of coincidences. But that is in the nature of sensationalist novels of the period and at least Collins is the consummate master of the form.

I did find the middle section of the book hard going and the complexity of the relationship of the protagonists could be perplexing at time without reading the text with some attention. But having taken some time to set the story up the finale is gripping and a page turner and certainly worth the effort of having got there. Of course, there is melodrama but not the saccharine sweet guff of Dickens at his worst.

This is not the book to start one’s acquaintance with Wilkie Collins with but, if you like him, it is one that definitely deserves to be rescued from the obscurity in which it now languishes.