Monday, 21 March 2011

Christopher and his Kind

I've not read a great deal by Christopher Isherwood - in fact almost nothing. But 'Christopher and His Kind', starring Doctor Wh...sorry Matt Smith, shown on BBC 2 last Saturday has, I think, inspired me to get reading.

Christopher Isherwood
If you haven't seen it yet I strongly recommend you look it up on iPlayer. Based on the book of the same name, it's certainly the best TV drama I've seen in a while. The production values are high and the acting is top notch. I've never really been much of a fan of Doctor Who though Matt Smith has always struck me as being very personable and certainly gives an excellent performance as Isherwood. After 'Christopher and His Kind' I watched the 1969 Omnibus (also on iPlayer) with Isherwood and realised how perfectly Smith has managed to emulate his voice and mannerisms. I'm generally of the opinion that there's always room for improvement but here I struggle. Frankly the make-up job on the aged Klaus (played by Douglas Booth) was a bit laughable but, short of getting another actor, unavoidable I suppose.

W.H. Auden makes a few appearances as do the inspiration for Sally Bowles and Mr Norris. Mr Norris is a particular favourite of mine and I'm already looking for a copy of Mr Norris Changes Trains.

In short, a cracking view. People expecting a quaint literary biopic might be caught off guard by the fairly raunchy bedroom scenes but generally it will appeal to anyone with an interest in 20th Century, and particularly '30s, literature. 

Friday, 4 March 2011

Patrick Hamilton

A friend of mine co-edits a rather good online literary journal entitled 'middlebrow'. Essentially I think the idea is to reclaim the term and turn it from one of derision (see Virginia Woolf) to one of praise. It celebrates intelligent but unpretentious art and literature...or something.

For the first edition I wrote an article on one of my favourite authors; Patrick Hamilton. The aim was to (re) introduce people to this marvellous and sadly forgotten author and persuade them that there is more on offer than just Hangover Square. You can either click this link (and maybe explore some of the other stuff on there) or read my piece in its entirety below.

The reason I'm posting this now is because I've just found out to my delight that Hamilton finally has a blue plaque in London. Unfortunately it's in Chiswick where he briefly lived rather than the far more apt Earls Court.

Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton

If you’ve ever felt out of touch with modernity, if you’ve ever felt aware of the meagreness of human existence, if you’ve ever been to the pub for one drink and stayed until you fell off your chair, or if you’ve ever been so deluded to believe that everything will be fine if you could just live a sober life with a cat in Maidenhead, then you really should probably read some Patrick Hamilton. Even if you’ve never been so low or mad for any of the above to apply (which is unlikely) then read him anyway. Despite enjoying popularity in his own inter-war era he is now tragically forgotten, even amongst literary circles. Perhaps it is because his work lacks the explicit philosophical themes of his contemporaries (Graham Greene, for example) and has therefore avoided entering the highbrow canon. Similarly it is sufficiently brilliant, complex and intelligent to avoid the abyss of popular easy reading. In fact it falls somewhere in between, one might say mid….well, you know. However, as one of my favourite novelists, I want to persuade you that there is more to Hamilton than his well known Hangover Square.
If you read only one other thing, make it Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. Possibly Hamilton’s magnum opus, it is actually a trilogy of novels (The Midnight Bell, The Siege of Pleasure, and The Plains of Cement) which follow the fortunes and, more frequently, futile loves and humiliations of three characters connected to the ‘Midnight Bell’ pub near Tottenham Court Road in London. Each book in the trilogy follows one of the principal characters and consequently is told from a limited, vaguely subjective perspective (though still third person). The effect of this is that each novel adds, once completed, an extra layer of emotional, historical and contextual depth to the story. You fall so hopelessly for the characters that each betrayal or deceit, of which there are many, feels as if it were perpetrated against you, personally. Hamilton’s brilliant characterisation should not come as too much of a surprise though, as much of the trilogy is touchingly autobiographical.
In 1927, whilst still a young man, Hamilton fell madly in love with a prostitute named Lilly. Perversely such behaviour seems to have run in the family, his father having had a similar affair years before. His father’s folly ended in tragedy (suicide) – Hamilton’s with a strong sense of empathy for the downtrodden and destitute. However, as convincing and personal as Hamilton’s evocation of character inevitably is, what for me is even greater is his evocation of the time and place that these people inhabit. Twenty Thousand Streets is a book about London, but it is even more a book about pubs – the sort of floridly decorated Victoriana swathed pubs that are still to be found partially preserved as branches of Sam Smiths or not so well preserved and to be discovered decaying in the backwaters of the East End. Within this atmosphere Hamilton brings to life the routine, smells, sights and, most wonderfully of all, the sounds of 30s England. He captures what J.B. Priestley described as ‘the complacent platitudes, the banalities, the sheer idiocy of pub talk’. The Midnight Bell, like any pub, has its habitués – from the pretentious Mr Sounder, who is forever in the throes of composing some ‘Little Thing’ to send to the papers or a sonnet to evensong at Westminster Abbey (‘music wave on wave’ his ‘soul did lave’) to the ubiquitous letches after the barmaid. Though public houses no longer have saloon and public bars or serve Black and White or halves of Burton, Hamilton captures the universals which link his time and ours.
From London pubs to provincial boarding houses, a very different novel is The Slaves of Solitude. Whilst Twenty Thousand Streets effortlessly succeeds in blending pathos with a powerful vein of dark, cynical humour this later novel, published towards the end of Hamilton’s writing career, is pure cynicism. ‘God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us’ ends this bleak work; and these are clearly the author’s own sentiments, rather than the protagonist’s. Having established that this book is not for people seeking, say, an alternative to PG Wodehouse, I want to make clear that it is not ‘depressing’. It is involved and deeply moving. It follows one Miss Roach, a middle aged spinster who has given up hope of marriage long ago and is living in the Rosamund Tea Rooms as a refugee from London. Poor, pathetic Miss Roach is courted by American officers and bullied endlessly by Hamilton’s two best (and really only) villains – the suspiciously German Vicki Kugelman and the truly despicable Mr Thwaites; a man with a mental age of twelve who delights in bullying our unlikely heroine. Hamilton in turn seems to delight in mocking Mr Thwaites and the result is a cacophony of schadenfreude calculated to appal and delight in equal measures and actually, on occasions, induce laughter. Though set in wartime there is almost no reference to battles or victories, except those between the inhabitants of Thames Lockden. What the book is about is the language of war, the peculiar language of those involved in war, and the endless irritation and isolation of those people unlucky enough not to be using the war as an excuse to have a jolly good time.  It’s hard to know how to ‘sell’ The Slaves of Solitude except as the natural progression for those who have read Twenty Thousand Streets and Hangover Square. With each successive novel the plot becomes less important and we start to share, almost conspiratorially, Hamilton’s like, dislikes, and twisted sense of humour.
As might be apparent, the two novels described above are not to be dipped in and out of at will. To appreciate them you need to fully engross yourself – and not to do so is a challenge in itself. In fact to read Twenty Thousand Streets and, to a lesser extent, The Slaves of Solitude feels, in a sense, like a challenge. You don’t ‘finish’ them but ‘overcome’ them. And with that comes an immense amount of satisfaction. No other author I can think of so perfectly captures an entire era with its linguistic and cultural idiosyncrasies. It is a genuine tragedy that Hamilton is recognized only by his, frankly, most two dimensional novel. If you thought Hangover Square was even vaguely readable then please, go to your local library or book shop now and ask for Patrick Hamilton. You will not be disappointed

Anthony Burgess - Exciting News

"I'm a composer, really"
Some time ago I contacted the University of Texas, Austin about the music of the late Anthony Burgess. Having read an excellent but scathing biography of the man by Roger Lewis (very controversial but highly recommended) I have always been fascinated by his music which, according to Burgess, was superior to his writing. Posterity perhaps indicates to the contrary as recordings of his compositions are more or less impossible to obtain. 

Anyhow, to cut a long story short, the lovely people at Austin University will soon be sending me a couple of piano scores by Burgess. Although copyright issues will very likely prevent publication of the scores I intend to learn them and then post recordings. Watch this space...

Wednesday, 23 February 2011


Last night the BBC aired episode one of their new legal drama, Silk. Two criminal barristers, one male, posh and pompous and one female, working class and Northern, compete for the honour of taking silk (becoming a QC). Although I suspect it will be slated for some piss poor acting, predictable plot and two-dimensional characters I for one thought it was a cracking piece of entertainment.

Although the first few minutes had me sighing with annoyance when 'good' barrister wins a jury trial and then leaves the Royal Courts of Justice (civil trials and criminal appeals only - no jury trials) I found, as the episode went on, that the inaccuracies and absurdities were what made the programme so enjoyable. The pupil barrister who is apparently 21 years old and has only the barest knowledge of criminal law and procedure was a particular highlight. Rocking up on his first day in a beanie hat with a turned up collar is, I suspect, not the best way to create a good first impression. Nor is stealing your wig and gown from an outfitters past which he will have to pass almost every day of his professional life. The cocaine snorting, violent, exciting, highly charged impression given is perhaps not particularly accurate but on the basis that it makes lawyers seem less like the anally retentive, callous bastards that they are I suspect it will be popular amongst the legal profession. Certainly this morning the talk in the robing room was of little else!

I keenly await the next episode where I gather (from the 'next time' ending sequence) that things get even more exciting when Martha (good barrister) acquires a stalker. I've been shouted out, almost assaulted, and told I'm going to burn in hell but this really tops it all. What fun...

If you missed it, Silk can be viewed on iPlayer for the next seven days or so. I recommend it. 

Monday, 21 February 2011


Appalled during their last visit by the fact that I didn't own a teapot my parents have deigned to send me one which has just arrived. I think it's rather smashing - simple and understated. Appropriately the tea in my 'dictionary of tea' mug is in fact Earl Grey. Which I'm now drinking...

PS: It's from Whittard in case you're interested.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Bizarre and Beautiful World of the Medieval Bestiary

The stunning Aberdeen Bestiary
What are Bestiaries?

Bestiaries are essentially compendia of animals and plants (and often inanimate objects) both fictional and real. They take the form of illuminated manuscripts of often staggering beauty. However, beyond their aesthetic value they provide a unique insight into the medieval mind. In a world seemingly teetering between paradise and the inferno, ruled by an all powerful church, and lost in a thousand year void of reasonless ignorance, ancient biblical dragons and huge vultures that could rise from the dead seemed only too plausible. In the fifty or so bestiaries still in existence even mundane animals are given the most wonderfully curious mythologies. For example the bear:

“the bear bringeth forth a piece of flesh imperfect and evil shapen, and the mother licketh the lump, and shapeth the members with licking.... For the whelp is a piece of flesh little more than a mouse” - Bartholomeus Anglicus

Bear cubs were believed to be born shapeless, without eyes or ears. The mother would lie upon the cub to warm it, and then mould arms, legs and features with her tongue. Hence the phrase ‘to lick into shape’. Even more absurd, and a personal favourite, is the Myrmecoleon; the offspring of a lion and an ant (don’t ask). Such creatures fail to proliferate as the lion head can only consume meat whilst the ant’s body can digest nothing but grain. The curiosities are endless from hedgehogs having spikes in order to collect grain and hyenas that feed from the graves of the deceased.

Truly disturbing: The Manticore - Rochester Bestiary

Why were they created?

Far from being mere catalogues of natural history, bestiaries were designed to draw parallels between the natural world and the divine world. Pelicans teach us about the sacrifice of Christ by plucking their breasts and feeding their young with their own blood. The vulture, reproducing as it does without intercourse, is hailed as evidence of the virgin birth. The devil is also well represented by creatures such as the blackbird, tainted by the blackness of sin. Although they take their inspiration from ancient Greek texts, medieval bestiaries are dripping with Christian theology and indeed give us many of the myths and superstitions surrounding animals that we maintain to this day. The ability to date bestiaries fairly accurately not only from construction materials but also the style of image and script allows us to follow the history and development of theology and cultural beliefs. Until recently a sound knowledge of Latin and the ability to infiltrate the university libraries of England and France was required to view and understand these documents. Fortunately they are now available in beautifully curated online archive format. The Aberdeen Bestiary for instance, one of the world’s finest examples, is now available in full on Aberdeen University’s website and is well worth spending a rainy afternoon perusing.

How were they made?

The process of creating a bestiary, or indeed any illuminated manuscript, was arduous. Generally one person wrote the text whilst another painted the images. However, the list of expertise extended from the creation of parchment or vellum, the production of gold leaf for gilding, and of the course the ability to mix paint from pigment and glair. Generally a single monk would mark lines and then write the content. The vellum would then be passed to another monk who would draw the images with silverpoint, and then add gilding. Finally, the image would be painted with glair based paint – glair being a sort of whisked concoction of rotten egg whites. A rather nice and fairly accurate animated video of the process can be found here.

An attempt at recreation…

Inspired by the stories I discovered in various books of beasts and being of an artistic bent I decided a few months ago to try my hand at recreating the Tiger page from the Aberdeen Bestiary. Having equipped myself with a sheet of vellum from Cowley Parchment Works (one of the only remaining producers of parchment in the world and exceptionally helpful) I set about the extremely arduous task of researching in depth all of the processes of drafting, marking, gilding and painting with glair. This included learning from scratch how to write in black letter script with a dip pen. Several months on and the result so far can be seen below. Admittedly I have worked on it extremely intermittently (setting up the equipment takes a very long time) but thus far I’m fairly pleased with my progress (obviously it's shoddy at the moment but has potential). When I’m finished rest assured I shall post images of the finished result and go into a bit more detail on its creation.

Very much a work in progress

A small selection of the tools required

So there you have it. An exceptionally brief introduction into medieval bestiaries. It’s a huge subject and one I could write on for hours. However, I don’t want to lose you so I’ll stop here. Perhaps I’ll post more on illumination and medieval art in the future. In the meantime, explore for yourselves.  

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Inaugural Post!

Well hello! Welcome to The Yellow Book. The idea of this particular blog is not to be boringly subject-specific but to cover the entire gamut of what might slightly pretentiously be called ‘culture’. It’ll be interesting to see how that pans out….

If you are, like me, something of a frustrated aesthete, then I very much look forward to hearing from you / cyber-virtually meeting you. As I hope that last coinage might suggest, this blog is violently anti-technological though not necessarily anti-modernity. It is pro-art but anti pomposity (most of the time). Anti-politics and pro unintelligent, sensationalist political comment.

The original Yellow Book
The Yellow Book is, as of course you will have guessed, inspired by the periodical of the same name that ran between 1894 and 1897.  In its short life it became the symbol and leading light of 19th Century aestheticism and decadence. Whilst this 21st Century version does not presume to such lofty heights it is, I hope, guided by the same spirit and philosophy of ‘art for art’s sake’. 

Finally, please…comment! If you like, dislike, disagree with or angrily vomit over any of the idle tidbits I see fit to spew into cyberspace then I desperately want to know.

Otherwise, just enjoy (I hope).