Tag Archives: Hamlet

Information Received

A review of Information Received by E R Punshon

Being somewhat anally obsessive, these days I tend to read detective series in chronological order. It allows me to get an insight into how the author develops their style and their principal character. However, with E R Punshon I dived in halfway through his Bobby Owen series with The Dark Garden from 1941 and worked my way through to the 1948 novel, The House of Godwinsson. Now was the time, I thought, to go to the start of the series, Information Received, published originally in 1933 and reissued for a modern readership by Dean Street Press.

The first thing that struck me was the similarity with Basil Thomson’s Richardson’s First Case, both of which feature a rookie copper setting out on their path to greatness, and both, curiously, published in 1933. I wonder which one got there first. While Thomson’s approach is more procedure based, Punshon takes a more literary approach to introducing his protagonist who will see him through 35 books over twenty-three years and makes for a more satisfying read.

Like Richardson, Owen is simply a bobby on the beat, rather bored with his lot. He does have that happy knack, though, of being in the right place at the right time, being on the scene when the body of Sir Christopher Clarke is discovered, and the initiative to follow leads with or without official sanction. Owen, too, sufficiently impresses his superiors to achieve a transfer to CID.

One of the delights of the book is the developing relationship between Owen and Superintendent Mitchell, sufficiently long in the tooth to recognise that there is a spark worth developing in the youngster. Beneath his gruff exterior and teasing demeanour – he delights in playing a practical joke on his junior and is not loathe to put him in his place – there is a friendly, father figure. I shall be interested to see how that plays out as the series progresses. It will bear some looking into, as the Superintendent might say.

The plot is quite complicated as there are two separate crimes for the police to solve, although at the outset that is not immediately evident. For an ardent reader of detective fiction, the identity of the murderer of the financier, Sir Christopher Clarke, is not too difficult to spot. There is a tell-tale trope which seems to establish an alibi but doesn’t when investigated. Continuous noise emanating from a room always puts me on the alert. Curiously, this as the basis for an alibi is not challenged and the resolution of the murder of Clarke is reliant upon a long, written confession. There is a danger of viewing these plot devices with jaundiced modern eyes when, in fact, they were fresh and novel when used.

The other part of the puzzle, the almost simultaneous robbery of Clarke’s safe which leads to discoveries of financial malpractice and leading to murder, an attempt to frame an innocent, speedy and clandestine marriages and a dramatic trap with fatal consequences, receives the lion’s share of the attention. It offered more possibilities for red herrings and dramatic tension, but leaves the book feeling somewhat unbalanced, as though Punshon realised that the plot had become too unwieldy for the size of book he had in mind and that the Marsden/Carsley part of the story offered more dramatic possibilities and opportunities for red herrings.

The story starts with two theatre tickets from which Clarke recoils. They hold the key to his murder as they are for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In fact, his murder is Hamlet in reverse, a clever device on Punshon’s part, although he doesn’t make as much of it as he might have done. One note that surprises this reader was that Shakespeare was not very popular in the early 1930s, perhaps a result of having been force fed to unwilling pupils at school.

I enjoyed the book, as I always do with Punshon, and I’m sure that if I had not already done so, it would have tempted me to explore the series.

Book Corner – April 2020 (1)

Some Must Watch – Ethel Lina White

This taut, psychological thriller, published in 1933, spawned a 1946 film, The Spiral Staircase, directed by Robert Siodmak. Some later editions of the book were also entitled The Spiral Staircase as they sought to cash in on the film’s success, but Lina White’s title, which comes from Hamlet, “for some must watch, while some must sleep: So runs the world away”, perfectly encapsulates this gothic-influenced tale.

Down on her luck, unemployed in the depression, a domestic servant, Helen Cadel, takes a post as a lady’s help in a remote house on the Herefordshire, Shropshire, Welsh borders. There are eight others in the house, including a bedridden, testy aunt of the head of the household, Professor Warren. Four young women have been murdered in the area and the location of the murders are getting nearer the house. When out walking at the start of the story Helen gets the sense she is being watched. Her sense of unease continues until she reaches the safety of the house.

The bedridden aunt, though, punctures Helen’s sense of security by hinting that she might be in danger. To add to the gothic atmosphere a gale is blowing outside making it difficult for the occupants to leave. And then there is the new nurse, given the seemingly impossible task of looking after the aunt. She is huge and cumbersome, prompting speculation amongst the household that she is really a man and not only that, but some kind of madman soon to wreak a trail of destruction. So prevalent is the speculation that the nurse frequently overhears it when she enters the room.

The nurse is well-conceived and adds a dash of humour to what might otherwise be an overwrought thriller. Indeed, part of Lina White’s genius is the quality of her characterisation, each of the characters are believable and have characteristics that make them slightly sinister, whilst it is easy to find Helen a sympathetic innocent stuck in the middle of something that is beyond her wit to comprehend. The other quality that stands out is Lina White’s mastery of narrative prose. The book zips along at pace, wringing out every drop from the atmosphere she has created and leaving the reader anxious to find out what happens next.

The action is confined to just a 24-hour period and for Helen, her sense of unease growing as she senses that there is really someone in the house to get her, it gets worse. For good reasons, members of Professor Warren’s entourage start leaving the house. Helen is there with just the aunt and the nurse, or so she thinks.

I won’t spoil the denouement but, suffice it to say, it is not a let-down.

There is a slight eugenic tone in the book. Helen is chided by the professor for wearing a cross. In her defence, she says, “The cross represents a Power which gave me life. But it gave me faculties to help me to look after that life for myself”. Someone, though, has decided that her life is not one worth living. The question is: Who? I will leave you to find out.

A La Mode

Chopines

Fashion is cyclical, I’m told, and my wardrobe, basically unchanged since the 1980s, bears testament to this. Occasionally, my tried and tested garments come back into fashion and I can preen myself that I’m on trend with little effort from myself.

One of the oddest fashions to my mind is the platform heel. It has a long legacy – there are statues of Aphrodite in elevated footwear and there is evidence that Roman women wore them, perhaps to lift their clothing from the mud and detritus in the streets. But perhaps the most extreme form of platform heel was the chopine, a popular fashion accessory in Spain and Italy, principally Venice, during the 15th to 17th centuries.

Seeing women tottering around on ludicrously high heels has always drawn scorn from unreconstructed males. William Shakespeare, no less, could not the opportunity pass, Hamlet noting in Act 2 Scene 2 “By y’r Lady, your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine.” English visitors to Venice scratched their heads and called these fashion victims “half wood, half woman.

Spanish chopines, which seem to have been adapted from the Moorish footwear style, were made of cork with highly worked and embossed leather. As the Spanish women wore their skirts down to the top of the chopine, their intricate design was shown off to the full, contrasting with the sombre black of their outerwear. Some of them had diamonds and other gems sewn into them, hardly indicating that their sole purpose was to protect the wearer from the mud. Rather, perhaps, their purpose was to suggest that beneath the woman’s dour black mantle there was to be found splendid and colourful vestments. In other words, they were indicators of the wealth of the wearer. So popular were they in their day that the confessor to Queen Isabella noted “there’s not enough cork in all of Spain to meet the needs of women in regard to their chopines.

Italian chopines, on the other foot, were made from wood and were known in the local lingo as zoccoli, from the Italian zocco meaning a stump or block of wood.  They were worn in a different way from the Spanish style, being incredibly tall, some boasting heels of up to twenty inches, and were completely covered by the skirt. As much of Venitian economic power came from its control of the textile trade, it would seem that the primary motivation of elevating a woman was to boost the sale of fabrics and to demonstrate the fineness and luxuriance of the materials. Effectively, they were a form of undergarment.

It is also worth remembering that the lot of a Venetian noblewoman was not a happy one, being confined to barracks for most of the time and were only seen in public on ceremonial and state occasions, often atop a float bearing testament to the affluence of their family. Walking in the ludicrous chopines was a trial, certainly beyond the competence of an aspiring Naomi Campbell, and often the poor woman could only move around with the aid of a couple of servants to keep her steady. A considerable accomplishment would be to be able to walk unaided and perhaps even shake a leg during a mannered and stately dance.

Mercifully for all concerned, the chopine eventually fell out of fashion, reflective of the fall from influence of the Venetian empire. What replaced it was a new development in footwear fashion, the heel, which began to find favour in the French court via the Near East and was adopted by men.

Eventually women caught up!

What Is The Origin Of (101)?…

bowls

Rub of the green

This phrase is often deployed to explain some piece of bad luck, often in the game of golf, where the player has managed to miss what seemed to the bystander a regulation put. The ball hit an unseen obstacle or took a diversion but, hey, that’s the rub of the green, they might say phlegmatically.

The key to our understanding the origin of this phrase lies in the word, rub. Rub, as a verb, appeared in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale with the meaning that we attribute to it today, smoothing, “He rubbed her upon her tender face”. In Middle English a rubstone was a synonym for a whetstone, presumably because its purpose was to smooth a surface.

But rub makes an appearance as a noun in the late 16th century in the gloriously titled The Paine of Pleasure published in 1580 and attributed to Anthony Munday. In describing the delights and tribulation of playing a game of bowls, the fourteenth pleasure, he wrote, “How some delight to see a round bowl run/ smoothly away, until he catch a rub:/ then hold thy bias, if that cast were won/ the game were up as sure then as a club”.  Rub is clearly being used as some kind of imperfection in the bowling green, an obstacle or impediment to a true lie.

Shortly afterwards, in 1586 to be precise, it made another appearance, this time in Hooker’s History of Ireland and its usage is metaphorical, “whereby appeareth how dangerous it is to be a rub, when a king is disposed to sweep an alley”. Perhaps the most famous usage of rub in a metaphorical sense is to be found in Shakepeare’s famous to be or not to be soliloquy in Hamlet. “To die – to sleep/ to sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/ when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/ must give us pause”.

Interestingly, the expression ay, there’s the rub did not appear in the First Quarto of 1603, although some scholars view the text as unreliable, but it made an appearance in the Second Quarto (1604) and the First Folio (1624). Ay, though, was written as I and appeared in this format well into the 17th century, probably owing its origin to the use of the first person pronoun as a form of assent. Be that as it may, Shakespeare uses rub to mean an obstacle or a form of hindrance.

The long walk ruined, to echo Mark Twain’s glorious description of golf, is particularly prone to be subject to the lie of the land or the rub of the green. We find it used in a golfing context in 1812 in the rule book of the game issued by the Royal and Ancient club in St Andrews, “whatever happens to a Ball by accident must be reckoned a Rub of the green”. The phrase can be used to describe a piece of good fortune – a lucky in-off or a wayward shot being diverted back on course by an imperfection in the topography – as well as ill fortune.

In a sporting context, its origin is from the game of bowls, not golf. Nowadays we use the term in a general context as well as in a narrow sporting context, to explain an unexpected or unanticipated outcome.

So now we know!