Bruce Robinson May Love Jack But He Hates The Victorians

jack

Considering how much credit I’ve got on my Amazon account at the moment, it really was rather naughty of me to have bought this in Waterstones, but I justified it by picking up a couple of Lego Batman figures while I was there*. It’s also had very good reviews, was longlisted for a number of awards and was recommended to me while I was reading the blurbs on the back by a little old lady with a mauve rinse as being “the best of the lot”. So it wasn’t much of a contest really.

Now, I have to confess that I’ve only read the first chapter (and it’s a rather thick book) but I’ve already alternated between outrage, horror and a couple of giggling fits. Bruce Robinson, a wonderful American screenwriter, wastes no time in stripping the veneer off Victorian values and showing them up for the hypocrites they were. He does it with a caustic wit that I can see myself quoting rather a lot for the foreseeable future. If I may offer a few quotes:-

“Reactionary nostalgia for the proprieties of Victorian England is unfortunate, like a whore looking under the bed for her virginity.” (That’s the opening sentence. What a start.)

*In 1888 you could f*** a child for five shillings, but you couldn’t read Zola. What the Establishment didn’t like about Zola was his treatment of the working class, who he had the French neck to represent as human.” (I rather like Zola as well.)

“MPs call themselves ‘Honourable’ because no-one else would.” (Ouch)

I have not come across a book so righteously – and rightly – angry in a very long time. I think in this era of right-wing Little England mindset (and I daren’t know what to think about the other side of the pond, apart from it being quite terrifying) this kind of “Victorian values” thinking is all too common. It’s lovely to have a blunt, honest appraisal of what it was really like, and what bloody appalling double-standards were applied, even if this is meant to be a book about a murderer. It may yet be – I’ve got another twenty chapters to read yet. If they are half as good as the first one, I’m going to be delighted.

And I really must buy that little old lady a cup of tea next time I see her. She really does know a good book when she sees one.

* I got Commissioner Gordon and Mr Freeze.

DUDLEY AND STEPHENS – A VARIATION ON THREE MEN IN A BOAT

raft

This is an old case from the mid-1800s but is interesting because it raises quite a few questions about what constitutes a defence to murder. It also continues a theme I have previously broached on here, which some people may find offensive. It doesn’t bother me much as I don’t eat meat anyway.

After a shipwreck in the mid-Atlantic, Messrs Dudley and Stephens found themselves adrift in a small boat with the 18 year old cabin boy, Richard Palmer (there was a fourth man with them, but he played no part in what happened next, so I’m ignoring him). After a week, they had run out of food and had minimal fresh water left, and there was nothing on the horizon to indicate that there was a chance of rescue. So they decided to draw lots on the principle that the loser would be murdered and eaten, to give the others more chance of surviving. No prizes for guessing who drew the short straw.

So, Dudley and Stephens promptly slit the poor lad’s throat and proceeded to live off him until they were finally rescued about three weeks later. They were near to death when they were picked up and freely admitted what they had done, but claimed they had killed the boy “out of necessity.” Unfortunately, the Court disagreed that it was ever necessary to kill anyone, so Dudley and Stephens were found guilty and hanged.

Now I was thinking about how this principle applied, especially since many years later, the survivors of an air crash in the Andes were acquitted of the same charges in very similar circumstances – but then the penny dropped. The Andean crash survivors hadn’t killed anyone. They survived by eating people who had already died, so they hadn’t committed murder and consequently could not be liable.

Clearly, it seems to be the Court’s way of thinking that in such a situation, a person would simply have to starve, unless they can show that the person they are eating died without their assistance – which could be tricky, given where most of the evidence will end up. That said, it’s worth bearing in mind in case you ever find yourself stranded on a life raft with someone you don’t like very much and you’re miles from the nearest takeaway.

Fifty Shades of Magnolia

Let’s face it, when you think of a magnolia, this is usually what springs to mind – or worse, if you live in rented accommodation (like I do) something like this –

Something vaguely cream, off white, inoffensive and bland are words usually used to describe magnolia. In plants, I often think of spring, cascades of gorgeous flowers and sweeping up petals about a week and a half after they bloom. They do get everywhere. So imagine my glee when I discovered that there are over 200 types of magnolia in the world – and they certainly don’t all look like that! In fact, very few of them are actually magnolia coloured – and yet again, I’m surprised.

The most common variation in magnolia is the colour, and the overwhelming majority of magnolias are various shades of pink, as you can see here:

This is Magnolia Betty, a deep pink/mauve which retains the “traditional” shape of the magnolia flower. Another, Magnolia Marilyn, combines the pink and white in a beautifully contrasting flower:

It’s a bit of a showstopper isn’t it? I’d be delighted to have that in my garden, although I’d need to keep her well pruned back as magnolia do like to take up space.

A very unusual type of magnolia is the star magnolia, so called because they have beautiful stellate flowers. They also come in a range of colours but the one I’ve chosen is almost pure white – simply gorgeous:

It doesn’t really look like a magnolia does it?

And, because I simply can’t resist finding a flower that totally bucks the trend, here’s a yellow magnolia – just to prove that they really do come in all shapes and sizes:

I’m fairly sure if I looked hard enough, fifty shades of magnolia wouldn’t be difficult to find at all.

Fear of the Other

I found this on t’interweb a while ago:

Whilst on the one hand it made me smile – there’s nothing quite like humour to take the edge of terrorist incidents – it did make me think as well, but that’s partly because of what I know about language and also some of my favourite TV shows when I was growing up. And I’m not sure I liked what I concluded.

Daleks, as most people know. are the quintessential Dr Who villains; a totalitarian hive mind of slightly demented pepperpots intent on taking over the world. But has anyone (apart from me, who spends way too much time doing this) actually thought about what Dalek means? It’s a Serbo-Croat word that means “foreigner”.

Star Trek is just as bad, although we need to look at some of the latter day series to really see where they were going. They introduced us to these ugly bugs:

Now I had long gone under the impression that these were Romulans, but I am reliably informed (admittedly by Wikipedia) that these are Ferengi. Ferengi is Sanskrit for (wait for it) – “foreigner”. And if you hang around Thailand long enough, you’ll soon hear the word “farang” which also means foreigner and comes from the Sanskrit.

So now I’m wondering if my childhood viewing has tried to make me believe that all foreigners are bad guys and should be treated with suspicion. I doubt that this was ever the intent – and certainly Terry Nation was much cleverer than that – but it is bothering me. It’s that right wing idea that anyone who isn’t like us is to be feared and separated, which is almost a sure fire way of ensuring that they harbour prejudices in the future. And in light of recent terrorist events, that kind of separation, ghettoisation, “us and them” mentality really isn’t helpful.

That said, if anyone does have any photos of Daleks falling down the stairs at Baker Street Station, they’d certainly cheer me up.

ROMANTIC OUTLAWS by CHARLOTTE GORDON

Of late, I’ve found good biographies pretty difficult to find. Good biographies that are interesting and easy to read are rare enough; but a biography that is interesting and easy to read whilst simultaneously telling two life stories side by side is about as easy to find as unicorn poop. Finding this book, which details the lives of two women I’ve long found fascinating, can only really be described as a fine example of the best unicorn poop I’ve come across. If you see what I mean.

It helps, of course, that Mary Wollestonecraft and Mary Shelley were mother and daughter and, in their own way, blazed particularly distinctive trails, one as an early feminist and political libertarian, the other as a noted Gothic novelist whose greatest creation survives today. One of the (many) things which struck me, however, is how despite having written a number of novels between them, each woman was best known for her first work – Wollestonecraft for A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Shelley for Frankenstein.

The book interweaves their lives, giving each woman a chapter in turn – the first and final chapters are, if you like, joint chapters – shows the parallels their lives took to remarkable effect and allows the reader to show just how deeply the daughter was influenced by her mother, despite never having known her.

The central figure linking both women is William Godwin, husband to one and father to the other. Gordon does not paint a terribly flattering picture of him and the most charitable view of him from the biography is of a curmudgeonly old hypocrite more interested in extracting money from his son in law than in having any kind of social relationships. Indeed, he frequently ignored his family members, noticing them only if a bill was to be paid or they had some money with which to settle the outstanding (and rising) debts.

Of course, it is impossible to write about Mary Shelley without mentioning the Romantic poets, given her marriage to Percy Bysshe Shelley and the close association both of them had with Lord Byron. Both of the poets came across realistically, but I can’t help wondering if Gordon instinctively felt closer to the Romantics than she did to Godwin. Of course, there is always the possibility that Godwin really was a curmudgeonly old hypocrite and both poets were arrogant and idealistic, although Shelley seemed the more empty-headed and flighty of the two.

Gordon makes extensive use of the women’s unpublished writings, relying on letters and journals to illustrate their mental processes and the development of their respective outlooks on life. For both women radical politics were of fundamental importance and their interpretations of what it meant to be a woman at the turn of the 19th century is still worth reading today. It doesn’t feel like much has changed sometimes, although at least wives are no longer their husband’s property – for now.

This book was a chance find in my local library and I’ve loved every page of it. It’s an essential read if you love either of the main subjects, or even radical politics or Romantic poetry. It doesn’t feel like a heavyweight book, which is an amazing achievement for 500 plus pages.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Yesterday, upon the stair
I saw a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh how I wish he’d go away.

My first version of this blog was, I will admit, entirely different, mainly because I’d always thought this poem was written by someone else and wrote the entire blog about that person. This means, of course, that my wonderful theory about the underlying message in a piece of nonsense verse has become, of itself, nonsense. Poetic really.

That said, the story behind this poem is still quite interesting. It was written by William Hughes Mearns, a child psychologist who believed that silly poems which attracted children’s attention would improve their language development and encourage creativity. It’s certainly easy to remember, and the silliness of seeing a man who wasn’t there is something that a lot of children do find appealing. And, because I thought it was written by Spike Milligan, led me to all sorts of interesting thoughts about mental illness that I’m going to share them anyway – even though they bear no relation to the poem whatsoever.

At the time that Milligan was writing some of his best known nonsense verse – including my favourite, In the Land of the Ning Nang Nong – a common way of referring to people who suffered from mental health issues was to say that they “weren’t all there”. It’s not such a leap, especially for a child, from “not all there” to “not there”. As Milligan himself suffered from mental health problems, including depression, I’m quite sure he would have seen this aspect of the poem quite clearly.

Looking at the poem in that light, it loses its silliness and becomes quite poignant. Can you imagine – being the man who wasn’t (all) there, not (all) there again today, and someone wishing you’d go away? What an indictment on how we treat the mentally ill!

Although the next time I write a post about a favourite piece of nonsense verse, I’ll make sure I’ve established who wrote the poem well in advance of writing.

A Host Of Golden – seriously?

Every so often, I like to confuse people by demonstrating that flowers aren’t always the colours we seem to think they are. We may believe that irises are all blue, but they’re not – and when Mother Nature got her clever little mitts on the humble daffodil, she was hell bent on proving Wordsworth to be a pretty good poet but not much of a naturalist.

daffs

Most people are quite used to seeing daffodils in various shades of yellows – the lovely bright golden yellows, some with white petals and yellow trumpets, yellow petals with orange trumpets and even white petals with orange trumpets. The lovely thing about these are that they bloom at slightly different times, so you can have a display of narcissi (to use their technical name) for quite a long time by being inventive with the varieties. They come in different sizes as well, so you can vary minis with standards and even giants. It’s really very pretty.

Then Mother Nature starts with her curve ball…

pink-daffs

No, these haven’t been Photoshopped and there’s nothing wrong with your eyesight. These are, quite genuinely, pink daffodils, or Narcissus rosa to use their technical term. In all my years (and there are many) I’ve never seen a pink daffodil before – and since I found this picture, I’ve seen loads. There are even mauve ones as well:-

purple-daffs

Wordsworth is really starting to look a bit daft now, isn’t he? I have to say, though, that my favourite is the Dragon Daffodil, presumably invented by a deranged Welshman:

dragon-daffs

So – don’t ever tell me that all daffodils are yellow. I may just be forced to get my paintbox out.