The Points of View Challenge – A Bundle of Letters – Henry James

Henry JamesHenry James (1843 – 1916)

American novelist (The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Bostonians), ghost story writer (The Turn of the Screw), short story writer, critic, playwright and travel writer.

A Bundle of Letters, first published in The Parisien magazine, 1879

Available to read online here

This is the third and final story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Letter Narration. They describe A Bundle of Letters as “a collection of one-way correspondence by characters who because they are together do not write to each other but about each other; since the person each is writing to is a mere listening post, the letters are like entries in a diary.”

They go on to conclude: “although the novel of letters enjoyed its greatest vogue in the eighteenth century, when it was used universally to make fiction more plausible […] the use of the technique continued in the nineteenth century but was used selectively, for certain effects only. Although today’s novel is more likely to combine correspondence with other techniques than to tell a story entirely through letters, epistolary short stories continue to crop up.” Remember this commentary was published in 1966. In the twenty-first century, emails and texts are much more likely to be the norm.

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

A Bundle of Letters

 

On 5th September 1879, an independent and outspoken young American woman, Miranda Hope, writes to her mother in Bangor, Maine, from her hotel in Paris. She travels alone, determined to steep herself in as much culture as possible. She wants to learn some of the language too, and to that end by the time she writes her mother another letter on 16th September, she has moved into the house of Mme de Maisonrouge, for conversation practice with Madame and her family. Madame has other paying guests; English, American, and German.

But living under one roof will always bring out animosities.  The next letter is from the other young American woman, Violet Ray, to her New York friend, in which she calls Miranda “the most extraordinary specimen of artless Yankeeism that I ever encountered; she is really too horrible”. Another letter is written by Louis Leverett, a Bostonian, to his friend Harvard. He cares for neither of the young American women: “they are both specimens of the emancipated young American girl—practical, positive, passionless, subtle, and knowing, as you please, either too much or too little”. But he has fallen for the sweet looks of the Englishwoman Evelyn Vane. An update letter from Miranda to her mother reveals that she is learning a lot from Mme de Maisonrouge’s cousin Mr Verdier, that she doesn’t get on with Violet because she is “haughty”, she is inspired by Leverett’s enthusiastic intellectualism, disappointed in Evelyn’s lack of ambition, disgusted by her brother’s lack of respect and flattered by the attention of the German professor.

Evelyn meanwhile confesses in letter to her friend that, apart from Violet, all the guests are various degrees of frightful, Verdier makes it clear in a letter to his friend that his intentions with Miranda are far from honourable – not that she appears to mind – and the German professor, Dr Staub, reveals himself to be a nationalistic bigot who sees all interaction between foreigners in terms of how weak they are and how glorious Germany will step in and rise to supremacy: “…between precipitate decay and internecine enmities, the English-speaking family is destined to consume itself; and that with its decline the prospect of general pervasiveness, to which I alluded above, will brighten for the deep-lunged children of the Fatherland!”

The last word goes to Miranda, who in a letter dated October 22nd, advises that she’s going to move on to somewhere else – not sure where yet, but noting that everyone has been kind and attentive: “especially Mr. Verdier, the French gentleman, from whom I have gained more than I ever expected (in six weeks), and with whom I have promised to correspond.” Did Verdier get his way with her? I guess we’ll never quite know.

This is a very funny and cleverly constructed story; the grand joke in it all is that no one knows precisely what everyone else thinks about them, and the behaviour of each of them on the surface is likely to be completely different from what’s going on inside their heads! It’s also beautifully written in terms of the individual characterisations of those people lodging chez Mme de Maisonrouge. Miranda can’t understand why she upsets and offends people with her plain talking because surely everyone should share the same ideas that she does? Evelyn retreats into English snobbery as she cannot bear the company of all those ghastly common people. Verdier is a louche ne’er-do-well, bragging to his mate about the progress he’s making. Perhaps most entertaining of all is Leverett’s delightfully pretentious use of language, his mind on a self-consciously higher level as the only things that matter to him in life are self-expressioni and Art.

James was fascinated by the differences between Americans, the English, the French and other European nationalities. In this little story he gets to explore nationalistic stereotypes to his heart’s content. Maybe there is a degree of caricature, particularly with the snobbish Englishwoman and the nationalistic German. Much has been made of how the characterisation of Staub was remarkably forward-looking and predictive, with the German’s disdain for the behaviour of his fellow residents, describing Verdier as homunculus, despising any show of decadence, his pompous mocking of anything that isn’t German, and looking ahead to good times for the Fatherland.

James impresses with his ability to tell a fascinating tale but leave much untold too – he demonstrates that there’s great eloquence in silence. What did happen between Miranda and Verdier? Why does she despise William Pratt so? What is buried Mme de Maisonrouge’s past? And many more questions besides.

Apparently, James wrote this in one sitting, which maybe explains how beautifully it flows. Hugely entertaining, a rather elegant and classy read that gives a good insight into the times and prejudices of the day. This could well make me want to read some more Henry James!

The next story in the anthology is the first of the two diary narration stories, and the reason that I bought Points of View in the first place – Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. I am really looking forward to reading this story again!

The George Orwell Challenge – A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935)

A Clergyman's DaughterAdvice to budding novelists often includes the recommendation to write about what you know about. Down and Out in Paris and London was a memoir of Orwell’s times spent in those two capitals deliberately living with the poor and homeless. Burmese Days was the result of his experiences with the Indian Police Service in Burma in the late 1920s. Gollancz initially rejected it for publication, largely due to fear of libel as there was little concealment that the fictional Kyauktada was in fact the real town of Katha, where Orwell had been stationed. History repeated itself with Orwell’s next novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, which was written with the insight provided by two of Orwell’s personal experiences, that of living “on the beach” (homeless) in London, hop-picking in Kent, working in a minor private school in Hayes, Middlesex, becoming friendly with the curate of a local church, and finally more school teaching experience at a larger college in Uxbridge. Homelessness, poverty, hop-picking, teaching in private schools and the machinations of the day to day running of a parish church are all essential elements of his new book, and Gollancz had the same reaction that they had to Burmese Days. They insisted on many cuts and amendments before they would publish, to which Orwell reluctantly agreed. However, partly (but not solely) because of this censorship, he was very unhappy with the final outcome of the book and, initially at least, refused permission for it to be reprinted after his death. This was, however, a decision he came to alter when he consented to the printing of cheap editions “of any book which may bring in a few pounds for my heirs” following his death.

Burmese DaysAs I mentioned in my blog post about Burmese Days, when I started my George Orwell Challenge I decided that I just wanted to read, reflect, and jot down my personal reaction to what he wrote, and leave any more serious criticism to other more intelligent souls. So here’s my reaction to A Clergyman’s Daughter: it’s a hotch potch of brilliant and not-quite-so-brilliant writing, with a fascinating central character who goes on one helluva journey, with some extraordinary plot turns, a too-easy resolution to her main story, and a too-neat ending. There’s also a section which is written as a play text, which, perhaps surprisingly is the sequence that Orwell felt was the best thing in the book; I think it’s the worst. It’s a very experimental book, and – as an experiment – some aspects of it work and some don’t. But, as when I see a play, I try always to value a brave failure over a lazy success, so I have to admire Orwell for a work that he himself didn’t value much. God loves a trier as my mother-in-law would say. Big spoilers alert – it’s impossible to write about this book without telling you the story so if you haven’t read it and want to, please go away and read it. I’ll be fascinated to know what you think of it!

The book is split into five chapters, each of which are split into smaller parts. Chapter One introduces us to Dorothy, a clergyman’s daughter, who spends all her days looking after either the said clergyman, or his parishioners, in numerous ways. She makes the costumes for the village children’s plays, she tries to raise money for the church upkeep, she gets up early to make her father’s breakfast; the list of her duties is endless. But she does it all with spirited grace, backed up by her firm faith. There is one murky presence in her life – Mr Warburton, a middle-aged lounge lizard, who’d like to add Dorothy’s notch to his bedpost. Dorothy, however, has no intention of being anyone’s bedpost notch ever. He is persistent, and so is she; and chapter one ends with her refusing his advances and going back to making the children’s costumes. However, the local gossip Mrs Semprill sees her and Warburton in a late-night clinch, suspects the worst, and isn’t afraid to mention it to all and sundry.

HopsWhen Chapter Two opens, you don’t know where you are; and nor does Dorothy. It turns out that she had some kind of amnesia attack and suddenly finds herself in London, unsuitably dressed, knowing neither her name nor occupation, with no home and no money. She falls in with some youths off to Kent for some hop-picking; and she ends up begging and getting arrested. However, after a while, her memory comes back so she writes to her father to explain what has happened and ask for him to come and get her and bring her home. Several letters in fact; and no reply to any of them. Chapter Three sees her so down and out that she spends a night with the tramps in Trafalgar Square, freezing cold, and abjectly miserable. In Chapter Four she is tracked down by her uncle’s servant and employed at a private school by one Mrs Creevy, who has elevated meanness and cruelty to an art form. Whilst Dorothy enjoys teaching the children (and they have a good relationship with her) her modern approaches to education aren’t appreciated by their neanderthal parents – and Mrs Creevy is only in it for the money (well, and the sadism), so Dorothy has to revert to teaching in the old-fashioned, boring way.

At the end of the chapter Mrs Creevy boots her off the premises with no references, notice or thanks. But Chapter Five sees her rescued by Mr Warburton and taken back home where her reputation has kind of been reinstated, as Mrs Semprill has been discredited by other lies that she told in the past. Warburton offers marriage but she refuses; but she admits she has now lost her faith. This isn’t a springboard to the freer life that Warburton thinks she should enjoy, but simply means she goes back to her old duties, but without faith; so with an element of hypocrisy and meaninglessness. She has made progress as a character, but the book ends the same way that Chapter One ends – just with her previous faith replaced by a gaping void. Does she live miserably ever after, or does she go round again on another amnesia-driven journey of self-discovery? You decide!

There’s a huge amount to enjoy in this book. Like Burmese Days, I found myself devouring it, reading it quickly and avidly, and frequently marvelling at those amazing Orwellian turns of phrase. Chapter One is a delightful account of Dorothy’s life in this turgid parish, with her ungrateful, un-Christian vicar father, full of wonderful observations and cracking characterisations. Chapter Four, also, is a great read, as we follow Dorothy’s struggles living chez Creevy, a money-grabbing vicious old bag who never does a kind act if an unkind one is possible. Chapter Two is a return to Orwell’s already published experiences of hop-picking and living down and out in London, which sometimes feels as though he has just lifted extracts from his Hop Picking diary and plonked them into the story, and just added Dorothy and a few other characters for good measure.

Trafalgar SquareChapter Three is a bizarre straying into the world of drama, but with little information about the people who populate Trafalgar Square, and not very convincing voices for many of his characters there; it makes the one night that Dorothy spent there feel very long indeed. And finally Chapter Five finishes the book where we began, with a lot of soul-searching about how Dorothy can continue doing the same things without faith, and, frankly, frustrating the reader that her journey didn’t create a more fulfilling result for her. “Beliefs change, thoughts change, but there is some inner part of the soul that does not change. Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.” So, personally, I loved Chapters One and Four, found Two acceptable, Five frustrating and Three utterly tedious!

There’s no doubt that Dorothy is a great and rather complex character. When we first see her, we rather admire her ability to put on a brave front in the face of being subjected to some raw treatment from her father who just treats her like a skivvy. There are menial tasks to perform but she does them keenly and earnestly. But we’re quickly alarmed by her self-harming which appears to be driven, not by mental ill-health, but by an almost medieval sense of self-punishment if her mind strays from the letter of the Gospels. Any uncharitable thought, any deviation from the Word of God, and out comes her pin to prick herself, preferably to the point of bleeding.

But this stops when her amnesia kicks in, and she can no longer remember her old life – or even that she had a life; nor does she pray. Instead she faces the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with stoicism, kindness, optimism, and a sense of ambition – to get out of the situation in which she finds herself but without causing additional hurt to her father. She throws herself into providing stimulating education for Mrs Creevy’s pupils, but when these efforts are thrown back in her face, she puts her job first, as she knows to avoid another Trafalgar Square situation at all costs. She’s imaginative, but realistic. The book ends with her in a position of near-stasis, which is frustrating and disappointing, but probably inevitable. Her dislike of anything physical means she was never going to accept Warburton’s offer of marriage – anything else would have been totally unrealistic. Her experiences have confirmed to her what she doesn’t want out of life, but not what she does want.

Warburton offers a reason for Dorothy’s amnesia. He maintains that her faith was never genuine, and just a convenient excuse for her day-to-day existence. ““You’d built yourself a life-pattern – if you’ll excuse a bit of psychological jargon – that was only possible for a believer, and naturally it was beginning to be a strain on you.” He saw that she did not understand, and explained to her that loss of memory is only a device, unconsciously used, to escape from an impossible situation. The mind, he said, will play curious tricks when it is in a tight corner.” I presume that if he is correct in his explanation, then there should not be a recurrence of amnesia after the book ends.

As usual, Orwell fills the book with a few strong supporting characters who are beautifully written and come to life on the page. Warburton is a total louse, completely devoid of shame, who doesn’t remotely care if his approaches to Dorothy are spurned, no matter how much he presses her. A vital plot point that was by necessity censored from Orwell’s original text was that Warburton had attempted to rape Dorothy, so any sense that he is a lovable rogue is misplaced. He has no compunction about lying to get Dorothy on her own. If nothing else, Dorothy is much wiser after her London experiences, and is not going to be taken in by him. He is insightful though: “a favourite saying of Mr Warburton’s […] if you took 1 Corinthians, chapter thirteen, and in every verse wrote “money” instead of “charity”, the chapter had ten times as much meaning as before.” Interestingly, this Bible chapter would become the epigraph for Orwell’s next book, Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

There’s also the appalling Mrs Creevy, by profession a head-teacher but in reality, a parsimonious self-centred bully, who takes her revenge on the clients who pay less by treating their children worse; vice versa, if they pay well, their children can get away with murder. She guards the marmalade pot with her life; deliberately slices the breakfast fried egg so that Dorothy gets less than her share; turns on her in front of the parents to threaten her with the sack; and only laughs when she’s swindled someone out of some hard-earned cash. “So long as she could think of a way of docking Dorothy’s dinner of another potato or getting her exercise books a halfpenny a dozen cheaper, or shoving an unauthorised half guinea onto one of the “good payers” bills, she was happy after her fashion.” She even manages to cheat Warburton out of half-a-crown. She advocates physical violence against the children: “the best thing with children is to twist their ears”. As a delightful irony, she only sees Shakespeare as a source of immorality; so much for a private education. There’s something of the Wackford Squeers about her; I wonder if Orwell had been reading his Nicholas Nickleby at the same time, as there is a character there called Miss La Creevy (although she is kind!)

And we have the thoroughly unpleasant Reverend Charles Hare, Dorothy’s father, Rector of St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, Suffolk; a fictional location, much to Gollancz’s relief, no doubt, but strongly suspected to be Southwold, where the book was written. In one of those marvellous, to-the-point descriptions of a character and his behaviour that Orwell executes so well, we understand immediately the kind of person he is. “The Rector, in cassock and short linen surplice, was reciting the prayers in a swift practised voice, clear enough now that his teeth were in, and curiously ungenial. In his fastidious, aged face, pale as a silver coin, there was an expression of aloofness, almost of contempt. “This is a valid sacrament,” he seemed to be saying, “and it is my duty to administer it to you. But remember that I am only your priest, not your friend. As a human being I dislike you and despise you.””

Unsurprisingly he hates Harvest Festival. “Do you suppose […] it is any pleasure to me to have to preach my sermon among festoons of runner beans? I am not a greengrocer.” He’s also a snob; being “the younger son of a younger son of a Baronet […] had gone into the Church for the outmoded reason that the Church is the traditional profession for younger sons. His first cure had been in a large, slummy parish in East London – a nasty hooliganish place it had been, and he looked back on it with loathing. Even in those days the lower classes (as he made a point of calling them) were getting decidedly out of hand.” He keeps his money to himself, leaving Dorothy to fend off creditors; he finds it particularly distasteful that tradesmen should want to be paid.

Hop pickersDorothy meets a range of colourful characters on the road; but these are perhaps not quite as memorable as the others. This is curious, as two of them, Ginger and Deafie, were real people about whom Orwell wrote in his hop-picking diaries; if Gollancz feared a libel case, this was maybe his closest shave. The details about Deafie were true; a) that he was stone deaf and b) that he continually exposed himself to women and children, despite being essentially decent. The details about Ginger were attributed to Nobby in the book – that he was a fearless and charismatic guy who often lived on Trafalgar Square and whose wife had died in childbirth, had been to Borstal, and was a master of thefts, both great and small. However, for the most part, the people she meets hop picking and on Trafalgar Square just don’t inhabit your imagination. Chapter Three – the drama scene – doesn’t do anything to fix these characters firmly in the reader’s mind’s eye. If you had already read Orwell’s essay Hop Picking, which he had published four years earlier, none of Dorothy’s experiences or Orwell’s observations on the whole phenomenon would come as a surprise. I did have to fight a suspicion that Orwell simply created Dorothy’s hop-picking experiences simply so that he could put his own experience and writing to good use. Cynical of me, I know.

Orwell is at his best when revelling in beautifully worded imagery and impactful sentences that just yearn to be read out loud. In that opening scene, he goes into terrific detail to reveal the horror of a putrid Holy Communion service, with Dorothy having to share the communion wine with the unpleasant Miss Mayfill. “Miss Mayfill was creeping towards the altar with slow, tottering steps. She could barely walk, but she took bitter offence if you offered to help her. In her ancient, bloodless face her mouth was surprisingly large, loose and wet. The under lip, pendulous with age, slobbered forward, exposing a strip of gum and a row of false teeth as yellow as the keys of an old piano. On the upper lip was a fringe of dark, dewy moustache. It was not an appetising mouth; not the kind of mouth that you would like to see drinking out of your cup.” It’s a magnificent piece of writing – you can almost smell and taste Miss Mayfill’s saliva as it dribbles over the cup.

I love Orwell’s description of the clients at the “fully licensed” Knype Hill Conservative Club “from whose bow window, any time after the bar was open, the large, rosy-gilled faces of the town’s elite were to be seen gazing like chubby goldfish from an aquarium pane”. When Dorothy has returned to the parish, she notices “that the ash tree by the gate was in bloom, with clotted dark-red blossoms that looked like festerings from a wound”; which dazzles you with its comparison of nature’s beauty with grim disease. In one of his many descriptions of Mrs Creevy, he highlights her personal habit of noisy inelegance: “Mrs Creevy got up from the table and banged the breakfast things together on the tray. She was one of those women who can never move anything without banging it about; she was as full of thumps and raps as a poltergeist” – which is a fantastic simile. Another is when he describes tearing down bines of hops: “huge, tapering strands of foliage, like the plaits of Rapunzel’s hair that came tumbling down on top of you, showering you with dew.”

Macbeth TextIn an amusing nod to the quotation from Macbeth that got Dorothy into trouble with the school parents, when Warburton takes Dorothy to lunch in Coventry Street, among the side vegetables she found “tiny, pearly-white potatoes that had been ripped untimely from their mother earth”. There’s a lovely observation when Dorothy has been having a busy day in the parish: “The sun, burning in the cloudless sky, scorched her back through her gingham frock, and the dusty road quivered in the heat, and the hot, flat meadows, over which even at this time of year numberless larks chirruped tiresomely, were so green that it hurt your eyes to look at them. It was the kind of day that is called “glorious” by people who don’t have to work.” There it is – a typical, Orwellian, killer finish!

Down and out in Paris and LondonI was interested to see a continuation of the disapproval of the way a Labour government, in an attempt to make things better for working class people, actually made things worse. This was a theme that started in Down and Out in Paris and London. One of the farmers employing hop pickers has stated that he will only take on “home pickers”; as Mrs McElligot explains: “dem as has got homes o’ deir own […] dat’s de law nowadays. In de old days when you come down hoppin’, you kipped in a stable an’ dere was no questions asked. But dem bloody interferin’ gets of a Labour Government brought in a law to say as no pickers was to be taken on widout de farmer had proper accommodation for ‘em. So Norman only takes on folks as has got homes o’ deir own.” And, Orwell, never a friend of communism, refers to the life that Dorothy was now leading in London: “the enormous sleepless nights, the cold, the dirt, the boredom and the horrible communism of the Square.”

He also takes the opportunity to deliver a diatribe against private education; something he himself had benefited from, and some elements of which were required to be censored by Mr Gollancz. “There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England. Second-rate, third-rate and fourth-rate (Ringwood House was a specimen of the fourth-rate school), they exist by the dozen and the score in every London suburb and every provincial town.” “…There is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is, that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money. Often, except that there is nothing illegal about them, they are started in exactly the same spirit as one would start a brothel or a bucket shop.” Dorothy “heard tales of schools that were worse by far than Ringwood House. She heard of a cheap boarding-school where travelling actors dumped their children as one dumps luggage in a railway cloakroom, and where the children simply vegetated, doing absolutely nothing, reaching the age of sixteen without learning to read; and another school where the days passed in a perpetual riot, with a broken-down old hack of a master chasing the boys up and down and slashing at them with a cane, and then suddenly collapsing and weeping with his head on a desk, while the boys laughed at him. So long as schools are run primarily for money, things like this will happen.”

The regulation of the schools was nonsense; “one day a Government inspector did, indeed, visit the school, but beyond measuring the dimensions of the schoolroom to see whether each girl had her right number of cubic feet of air, he did nothing; he had no power to do more.” I must say, Mrs Creevy’s watchword that you do what the parents want and that’s the most important thing in private education was certainly not my experience of going to a private school. If a parent went to my headmaster and quibbled with the way their son was being taught, he’d simply have recommended them to withdraw him from the school!

One final note of interest: I saw that the unfrocked Mr Tallboys, homeless on Trafalgar Square, sang (to the tune of Deutschland über Alles) “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” which would of course go on to be the name of Orwell’s next novel.

I know it’s a cliché, but this book really is the archetypal curate’s egg. The opening chapter is so full of brilliant observations and terrific characterisations, that you can’t wait for the next page. Similarly, the sequence where Dorothy is shacked up at the abominable Creevy’s makes your heckles rise with its injustice. The reader is very concerned about Dorothy’s wellbeing; we really want her to do well, to rise above all the things that have gone wrong for her and to create a happy and successful future. So when it looks like that’s not going to happen, it’s genuinely disappointing; but on reflection, all other outcomes would be artificial. I still feel that the hop-picking episode was written just because Orwell had had the experience and wanted to write about it; and the dramatext-style chapter three just seems totally unsatisfactory.

Keep the Aspidistra FlyingNevertheless, I enjoyed the book very much and would certainly recommend it. Next in my George Orwell Challenge comes his third novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I read this as a teenager – or maybe in my young 20s – but I have absolutely no memory of it. So it will be like reading a brand new book! I’ll read it over the next month or so and then write down my thoughts as usual. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.

You can’t have too many old theatre and dance memories – August to October 2008

  1. Under the Blue Sky – Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 9th August 2008

David Eldridge’s three-act play, performed without an interval, comprises of three conversations between six people over a period of two and a half years, and had very good reviews. We chose to see it because we were huge fans of Catherine Tate at the time and wanted to see how she’d be on stage (brilliant.) Very funny and very thought provoking.

  1. Rambert Dance Company Eternal Light Tour – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 11th August 2008

Eternal Light was the new production by the company, choreographed by Mark Baldwin,  and was the first dance on offer in a programme that also contained Siobhan Davies’ Carnival of the Animals, Mikaela Polley and Alexander Whitley’s Two Solos as a Tribute to Norman Morrice, and Garry Stewart’s Infinity. So much talent and so enjoyable.

  1. Mary Poppins – Birmingham Hippodrome, 23rd August 2008

The big show that is still packing them out today in London, Richard Eyre and Matthew Bourne’s production was a huge crowd-pleaser and I still remember with awe the amazing dance that Bert performs when he taps around the entire stage, defying gravity. Daniel Crossley was an amazing Bert, Caroline Sheen a practically perfect Mary Poppins, plus Valda Aviks as the Bird Woman. Our nieces adored it.

  1. They’re Playing Our Song – Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 31st August 2008

Mrs Chrisparkle had heard the soundtrack of the original London production of They’re Playing Our Song so many times that she knew it like the back of her hand – I loved it and played it all the time – but she had never seen it, so it was perfect timing that this production should come to the Menier – the first time that we had visited the theatre that would become a firm favourite venue. Alistair McGowan and Connie Fisher were the leads. My memory is that it wasn’t a patch on the original, but still very enjoyable.

  1. Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray – Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, 6th September 2008

New Adventures’ new production of Matthew Bourne’s new vision for Oscar Wilde’s well-known character was highly anticipated but my memory is that it was a little disappointing – primarily I found it hard to follow. A great dance cast though, with Richard Winsor as Gray, Michela Meazza as Lady H, Aaron Sillis as Basil, and massive choreographer of the future Drew McOnie in the ensemble.

  1. Enjoy – Oxford Playhouse, 8th September 2008

The Theatre Royal Bath’s production of Alan Bennett’s 1980 play looked like it was going to be a smash hit, with the wonderful promotion picture of Alison Steadman doing the hoovering in a ball gown. Unfortunately none of the script came up to the promotional photos, and I remember this being extremely boring and not at all funny.

  1. Hofesh Shechter’s Uprising/In Your Rooms – Oxford Playhouse, 18th September 2008

Moving past the London Press Night of Eurobeat, which we’d already seen earlier that summer in Milton Keynes, our next show was Hofesh Shechter’s double bill of Uprising and In Your Rooms, which I remember as being very lively and talented although perhaps a little samey. Incredible dancers, though.

 

 

 

  1. Calendar Girls – Festival Theatre, Chichester, 27th September 2008

This was the first outing for what would become Tim Firth’s much loved play about the Women’s Institute group who made a nudie calendar to raise money for charity. Very funny, but full of pathos. The “taking the pictures” scene is an absolute modern classic. A great cast included Elaine C Smith, Lynda Bellingham, Patricia Hodge, Sian Philips, Gaynor Faye, Julia Hills and Brigit Forsyth.

  1. Carousel – Milton Keynes Theatre, 15th October 2008

Ignoring a third and final visit to Eurobeat (a UK Eurovision fan club outing), our next show was to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s immortal musical Carousel. I’d never seen it before, and frankly, it didn’t come to life and felt very dated, despite choreography from Adam Cooper and direction from Lindsay Posner. Heading the cast was Lesley Garrett – except that her understudy was performing that night. She wasn’t ill or indisposed, she just had a better offer for the night, which really annoyed me!

  1. Flashdance the Musical – Milton Keynes Theatre, 31st October 2008

One of my favourite musical movies, I was keen to see how Flashdance transferred to the stage. Memories are weak, but I think it was pretty good. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt shone as the welding dancer Alex Owens, with the late Bernie Nolan as her mother Hannah.

Review – The Comedy Crate at the Black Prince, Northampton, 16th September 2021

Comedy CrateA coincidence that the Last Night at the Black Prince for 2021 came the same week as The Last Night of the Proms? I think not. A double whammy for us all to contend with at this time of the year. And, to make it just that little bit more challenging, the pub organised a band gig in their back room to vie for our aural attention out in the garden – but we could easily ignore them as we enjoyed the company of a great line-up of comic talents.

Jamie AllertonOur host, new to us, was the enthusiastic powerhouse that is Liverpool’s Jamie Allerton; with his vocal projections the band had no chance of making an impact. He gave us a great mixture of MC welcome and interaction together with plenty of his own excellent material thrown in for good measure. He nicely played on his physical presence to ensure that none of us felt guilty about putting on a few pounds during lockdown. A lively, chatty host who made the show go with a great swing.

Brennan ReeceWe’d seen all the acts before, although first up, Brennan Reece, we’d only seen online at a Comedy Crate/Atic gig back in March. He’s a very likeable chap, who uses his camp-but-straight personality to great comic effect. He strikes up a great rapport with the audience and has some brilliant put-downs when some audience members get a little above themselves (yes Hetero John, we’re all looking at you). He reacts quickly and smartly to what goes on around him and never fears to leave behind his prepared material for a great comic opportunity, which is the mark of a great comedian.

Angela BarnesNext up was Angela Barnes, whom we saw at a Screaming Blue Murder nine years ago, since when her career has gone on a fully deserved upward trajectory. Exuding confidence and presence, she has a great attacking delivery, and her set was full of inventive new material. She’s recently married, which provides for some fun new observations; and she had a wonderful throwaway line about Prince Andrew, after which she had us all in the palm of her hand. Brilliantly funny.

Stephen BaileyOur headline act was Stephen Bailey, whom we first saw five years ago as the support act for Katherine Ryan, and his comic presence is as immaculate and perfectly presented as his good self. In the bizarre setting of the Black Prince garden, he found himself competing for lighting with the next door municipal car park, but he quickly found his stride with his trademark cheeky gayness, taking the whole event as one big hen party. Stephen is now partnered up with lawyer Rich, whose main attraction appears to be that he has a house. His set was full of brilliant comic observations, including a very nice routine about “straight pride”. A great way to end the evening.

That was indeed the last of the Comedy Crate nights at the Black Prince for this year, but their programme continues with loads of excellent acts at the Charles Bradlaugh, the Picturedrome and other local venues – all the information is here!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Endless Night (1967)

Endless NightIn which young Michael Rogers narrates his own tale of acquiring a property at Gipsy’s Acre, despite the warnings of local people that the property and land is cursed; and how he also gets to meet the girl of his dreams. They build a fabulous architect-designed house on the land; but do they live happy ever after, or does the gipsy curse ruin their lives ahead? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Vale-of-GlamorganThe book is dedicated “to Nora Prichard from whom I first heard the legend of Gipsy’s Acre.” Nora Prichard was the paternal grandmother of Mathew Prichard, Christie’s only grandson, and Gipsy’s Acre was a field located on a Welsh moorland near Pentre-Meyrich in the Vale of Glamorgan. Mathew’s grandmother lived in this location, where many years earlier a nearby gypsy encampment was cleared and the head gypsy cursed the land. Either as a result or by coincidence, it became the site of several road accidents. Endless Night was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 30th October 1967, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. In the US it was also first serialised in two parts in The Saturday Evening Post from 24 February to 9 March 1968.

William BlakeThe book begins with an epigraph – a quotation from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence: “Every Night and every Morn Some to Misery are born. Every Morn and every Night Some are born to Sweet Delight, Some are born to Sweet Delight, Some are born to Endless Night.” This quotation – or at least parts of it – are repeated at times throughout the book, almost as a leitmotif; its relevance is never clear until the end.

WriterAs she entered her final decade (not that she knew it, of course!) Christie hit the ground running with this magnificent book, that you might describe as “late-flowering genius”. On average, it took her three or four months to write a novel, but she said she wrote Endless Night in six weeks. And you can tell; not because it’s slapdash or lacking in detail or finesse, but because it flows immaculately as a stream of thought. Christie must have planned this book to the minutest degree because it’s full of fake clues that the reader picks up and thinks must be significant; and full of real clues that the reader never notices. The result is an extraordinarily engrossing, deceptively simple, un-put-downable read that makes it unquestionably a Christie Classic. As I mentioned in my blog about Third Girl, I’ve never been familiar with Endless Night because we were reading it as a family at the time my father died. Whether it’s simply because I associate it with sadness, or because I (understandably) couldn’t concentrate on it properly, it’s a book that has never stayed in my consciousness; indeed, for many years, I believe I didn’t have a copy of it. I suspect that when I read it recently as part of my Christie Challenge, that might well have been the first time I’ve properly read and appreciated it. And that’s definitely been my loss, because it’s an absolutely brilliant book and probably one of her top ten.

chauffeursYou couldn’t really class this as a whodunit, more a whatshappening. It doesn’t feature any of Christie’s usual detectives, and the only police presence is a minor character who receives reports of certain strange goings-on. It’s written, crucially, in the first person; and the narrator, Michael Rogers, is a complicated guy. He’s not particularly gifted or remarkable; he hasn’t got much money, but nor does he have a work ethic. Recently he’s been working as a chauffeur, but he’s used to having many jobs, that he chucks in as soon as he gets fed up with them – one of those things that was very common in the 1960s when work was plentiful. He neither respects work nor workers: “I’ve driven a lot of people who’ve made money, who’ve worked hard and who’ve got ulcers and coronary thrombosis and many other things as a result of working hard. I didn’t want to work hard. I could do a job as well as another but that was all there was to it.”

1960s DollybirdHe has a poor, distant relationship with his mother; he serially dallies with several girlfriends none of whom come to anything; like most young men he’s much more interested in sex than relationships, and he just moves on to the next young woman when he’s bored – rather like his relationship with jobs. Despite all these faults, he’s strangely likeable, primarily from what you feel is the overwhelming openness and honesty of his narration. He has no misgivings about his own nature; he knows precisely who he is and what his interests are, and, unlike most men, he’s not afraid to express what he feels. In fact, he’s charmingly self-effacing: “I don’t know much about writing things down – not, I mean, in the way a proper writer would do.” He’s also surprisingly fanciful and dreamy in his imagination: “build me a house […] and I’d find a girl, a wonderful girl, and we’d live in it together happy ever after. I often had dreams of that kind.”

Question MarkBecause of the nature of this book, it’s difficult to discuss it without giving way important aspects of the story, and I really don’t want to spoil it for you. The plot has distinct parallels with two of Christie’s previous novels, which I won’t identify at this stage, but you’ll easily see it for yourself when you read it. That’s not to say it’s in any way unoriginal; it’s very much its own book, with a slow, fascinating build to a crescendo that overwhelms the reader. Once you’ve started to work out exactly what is happening, Christie deftly makes you suspect a whole raft of characters of masterminding whatever plot there is, until you realise you were wrong all along. From that point of view, it’s extraordinary.

PlymouthDespite the setting of Gipsy’s Acre being in Wales, this story is firmly Devon-based, with Michael and Ellie getting married in Plymouth; the other locations – Kingston Bishop (the village where The Towers/Gipsy’s Acre is located), Helminster and Market Chadwell, despite sounding rurally plausible, are all inventions of Christie; but we do know from Michael’s narration that the whole area is near the sea. Some of the story takes place in New York, and there are some characters in the book who are truly citizens of the world, being located in Paris, San Francisco, and so on.

Robert Louis StevensonOther references to investigate are primarily quotations from poems or songs. We’ve already seen that Blake’s “some are born to Endless Night” is a recurring theme. Ellie likes to a sing a song about a fly: “Little fly, thy summer’s play My thoughtless hand has brushed away”. This is another work by Blake, simply called The Fly, taken from his Songs of Experience. And when Michael is finally coming home from his gruelling spell in New York, he quotes “Home is the sailor, home from the sea And the hunter home from the hill”, which is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem Requiem – although Stevenson’s original line is “home from sea” rather than “home from the sea”, but it frequently gets misquoted.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Money plays an important part in this book, so it’s not surprising that there are several sums that are quoted. When Michael is wandering down Bond Street, he spies a pair of shoes in a shop window that he quite likes – £15 the pair. Out of his league financially, the equivalent today would be £190. That’s expensive but probably not bad for Bond Street. Even more out of his league is the painting that he enquires about, only to discover it costs £25,000. That pretty sum is well over £300,000 today – no wonder he admired it! When Ellie bought a picture on her honeymoon in Venice, it cost the equivalent of £6, which today would be £75 or so – still quite pricey for a piece of tourist trash, but then again Venice is always expensive. Philpott is knowledgeable about the cost of domestic linen: “do you know what a linen pillow case costs? Thirty-five shillings”. That’s of course £1.75 in decimal currency, and the equivalent today would be £22. I suppose that’s not too bad if it’s top quality material. The sum of £300 was found under the floorboards in someone’s property (I shan’t mention whose at this stage) and that today would be worth £3,800. That’s quite a lot to hide under the floorboards. Ellie mentions that they paid off the oil heiress Minnie Thompson’s first boyfriend the vast sum of $200,000. Today that would be $1.6 million – or, in sterling, £1.15 million. Probably worth being bought off!

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Endless Night:

 

Publication Details: 1967. My copy is a Harper Collins Paperback, the eighth impression of the Agatha Christie Signature Edition collection, published in 2007, bearing the price on the back cover of £6.99. The cover illustration by David Wardle shows a crow flying across the moon and with some blood spattered on the white lettered title. Not that relevant, really. The Tom Adams illustration on the Fontana paperback is much more telling, with a dead owl and a knife plunged into it, with a message attached.

How many pages until the first death: 212 – but that’s misleading because the Agatha Christie Signature Edition books have much more spacing; the book is 302 pages long whereas most Christie’s normally come around the 190 mark.

Funny lines out of context: The first one for a long time. When Michael tells us that he helped Ellie get on her horse for her morning ride, what he actually says is: “I mounted her.”

Memorable characters: Far and away the most interesting and memorable character is the narrator Michael, with his complex motivations and psychological hang-ups. Ellie is inversely fascinating in that she is a very rich young woman with all the power in the world, but she is content to be a mild-mannered, undemanding person; maybe it’s a rebellion against her brash family and associates. Mrs Lee, the gipsy who is full of prophecies of doom, is memorable, although her characterisation (and that of the hedge-cutting chap Michael meets at the beginning of the book) is pure pantomime. I also liked the character of Andrew Lippincott, with his lawyerly reticence to say anything that could possibly compromise any situation; you can never be absolutely sure you know where you are with him.

Christie the Poison expert: As you read this book you don’t think that poison is going to play a part in it at all; but you’d be wrong. Cyanide is employed, but I shan’t say how or by whom!

Class/social issues of the time: Following on from Third Girl, and Poirot and Mrs Oliver grappling with the Swinging Sixties, there are a couple of references to Michael’s love- (sex-)life that continue to explore that theme of how young people live today. When he and Ellie are starting to learn about each other’s past, he says “I don’t want to know anything about what you’ve done or who you’ve been fond of” and she comes straight out with “there’s nothing of that kind. No sex secrets.” I can’t imagine the likes of Bundle (The Secret of Chimneys) or Anne Beddingfield (The Man in the Brown Suit) having that kind of conversation. As Art gained some rather louche connotations in the previous book, it continues here, with Michael describing the presentation of pictures in a window, “artily arranged with a drape of limp velvet” as “cissy”; with the best will in the world, I can’t imagine Michael being an advocate for gay rights.

Some of Christie’s own personal hang-ups come through Michael’s personality; as a young working-class man with little regard for work it’s nevertheless curious that he should hold an opinion like “not just all this tame security, the good old welfare state limping along in its half-baked way”.

Michael refers to the space race: “a world where man has been able to put satellites in the sky and where men talk big about visiting the stars”. 1967, when Endless Night was published, saw both Apollo 1 and Soyuz 1 missions; two years later man walked on the moon.

The usual low-level xenophobia/racism that can be found in most Christie books is here replaced with an anti-gipsy sentiment. Mrs Lee is seen as a money-grabbing hypocrite who is only in the game for the “cross my palm with silver” aspect of fortune-telling. No opportunity is left untaken to denounce gipsies as thieves. Whilst no one ostensibly believes that the gipsy curse is to be taken seriously, there’s a devilment provided by the gipsy warnings that hangs gloomily – sometimes stagily – over the entire book.

Classic denouement:  There is no denouement in the traditional sense of the word. The story just reaches its astonishing climax organically, in its own time and manner.

Happy ending? No!

Did the story ring true? There are a number of minor loose ends that never get tied up, and a serious coincidence that is never really explored; but somehow, they don’t matter at all. Despite all the reasons why this story really shouldn’t ring true, it does. Michael’s honest, confiding and open narrative style that lulls you into accepting all the events of the book without questioning them; so the reader has absolutely no problem taking the story at face value.

Overall satisfaction rating: I very nearly read this book in one extended sitting, over the course of one day. That never happens to me! If I hadn’t had other commitments, I would have done. But I read it over two days and found it absolutely gripping. I’m very glad to have re-discovered it! 10/10 no question.

By the Pricking of my ThumbsThanks for reading my blog of Endless Night, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is By the Pricking of my Thumbs, and a chance to catch up with Tommy and Tuppence in their later years. Our last encounter with them was in 1941’s N or M? which I currently have as my least favourite Christie book – so I’m hoping for some improvement here!  As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Myra Dubois, Dead Funny, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th September 2021

Dead FunnyOn reflection, it was a bit odd that this was first time we had seen Myra Dubois, as it coincided with her (alleged) death and conducting her own funeral in person; but as she said, it wasn’t the first time someone had died on stage in Northampton (and I suspect she says that in every town she visits!) Yes, Yorkshire’s Rose has passed away, and Radio Rotherham laments this fact as we enter the auditorium to a series of amusingly inappropriate tracks in expectation for the show.

Frank LavenderAs a warm-up for the main event of the evening, we meet Frank Lavender. Who he? He’s Myra’s brother-in-law, a bluff and gruff Yorkshireman who enjoys ill-health and sports a hairstyle to rival William Gladstone. Frank’s a lugubrious but strangely likeable presence, someone who has taken to the stage even though they have none of the attributes required to be any form of entertainer. As Myra says, she only has him on as her support act so that people are ready for a laugh by the time she appears. Of course, it’s also a way for Myra, through a miraculous stage osmosis, to meet some of the audience before she takes to the stage. Frank sets himself a target to achieve about 30 laughs during his set, and Julie in the front row had to take an official tally. Julie had an amazing infectious laugh, by the way, that really helped the show bed in. He met his target, with a few groans to spare.

Myra DuboisAfter a longer than usual interval – required for Frank to transform himself into Myra – Rotherham’s favourite glamour puss arrived on stage in a scintillating white shroud, and the process of sending her to her eternal rest could get underway. It’s a funny pretext for an hour or so in Myra’s catty company, jibing with the audience with some occasionally very personal observations, getting away with some extremely iffy material because it was delivered with such panache as well as fabulous timing – as well as being extremely funny. We are treated to her glorious voice for a few numbers, in which the audience are welcome to join. There’s a marvellous sequence where audience members assist in delivering the service; it’s based on a ludicrous amount of repetition which can be a recipe for disaster in a comedy act and which some people (yes, I’m looking at you Stewart Lee) can’t get away with anymore; but this was hysterical. Myra traded banter with a few of what she calls the Acronym Community; our friend David in the second row took it all in very good heart.

Myra and EdnaNot having seen the act before, I was struck by the similarity between Frank Lavender/Myra Dubois and Les Patterson/Edna Everage. Both sets of characters are somewhere on the grotesque spectrum, with remarkable abilities to interact (in other words get away with murder) with the audience and set up great callbacks that you can’t see coming. Additionally, facially, Myra and Edna share that same heavily-lipsticked gurning pout of disgust; and both have – shall we say – heightened opinions of their own vocal range. But it’s far from a copycat act, and Myra is her own delightfully caustic comic creation. I don’t think I’m revealing any spoilers when I say that news of her own passing is revealed to be premature come the end of the show, and I’m sure Myra will be back on stage dispensing her South Yorkshire pearls of wisdom again soon. Great fun!

Myra draped over coffinP. S. A word on Covid-Care in the Underground Studio at the Royal and Derngate. We had been reticent about coming to see shows here in these pandemic times, because the studio always has been essentially an airless box, usually packed with laughing, drinking, carefree comedy punters. However, I can report that the new ventilation system, which brings fresh air in from outside, and well-spaced seating made the venue feel much safer than expected. We wore masks, most didn’t; but this made no difference to the banter and interaction between the stage and the audience. So if you’re concerned about coming to the Underground at the moment, I’d say that they’ve made every effort to make it as safe as possible.

Review – The Take That Experience, Buxton Opera House, 9th September 2021

Take That ExperienceI’ll be honest with you, gentle reader, the main reason I booked to see The Take That Experience on the last night of our week’s holiday in the Peak District was finally to take a peek inside the Buxton Opera House, a building I’ve known about for decades but never seen a show there. And I have to say it’s quite a curious place. The lavish gilt decoration inside Frank Matcham’s 1903 building, as it drapes itself around the proscenium arch and the balconies and galleries, gleams beautifully with true wedding-cake magnificence, full of luxury and grandeur. The flooring, however, as you make your way to your Stalls seats, is a dull grey lino, and the Stalls Bar has all the comfort and style of a 1960s urinal. If more than three people are waiting at the bar, the queue reaches outside and gets mingled with the queue waiting to go into the Ladies’ loo, so do be careful with your orienteering skills. So, something of a mismatch, but I’m glad I’ve now chalked it off my list of Theatres I Haven’t Visited Yet.

Take That ExperienceWe’re quite partial to a spot of Take That; Mrs Chrisparkle, in particular, has been a bit of a secret fan since the early 90s. In fact, there’s no secret about it at all. The story that she was once heard shouting out I Love You Jason! may or may not be apocryphal, and may or may not have taken place at a Take That concert. In recent years we’ve seen Never Forget, which, try as we might, we never will, The Band, which was surprisingly superb, and the lads themselves at Milton Keynes. But we’d never before seen a straightforward, honest to its boots, tribute act.

Take That ExperienceIt does me no credit when I confess that I didn’t have much in the way of expectation for this show. But – guess what? – The Take That Experience does exactly what it says on the tin, providing two hours of high energy, top commitment and super skilful performance that had the pensioners of Buxton (and ourselves) on our dancing feet from the earliest possible opportunity. The show opens with “Gary”, “Mark” and “Howard” doing a few, mainly more recent, numbers, including a song that has recently become a favourite of mine, These Days, and a terrific performance of Shine fronted by “Mark”. Take That ExperienceThen we met “Robbie”, who, of all the performers, is perhaps the least physically like his famous counterpart but makes up for it with a magnetic personality, terrific rapport with the audience, and a very athletic and bouncy performance style. “Robbie” sang us a few of his solo songs; and then, after the interval, we went back in time to the original five-guy-group (welcome on stage scream “Jason”) for a thoroughly entertaining retrospective concert of all their greatest hits – every one an instantly recognisable winner.

Take That ExperienceIt certainly delivered a lot more than it promised, and we had a terrific time. If you love your Thats, you’re going to love this bunch. They’re on an extensive tour of the UK until the end of the year and I thoroughly recommend them!

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

The Points of View Challenge – Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General – Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose BierceAmbrose Bierce (1842 – 1913/4*)

*date of death uncertain, disappeared sometime after December 26th 1913

American short story writer, journalist, poet, and Civil War veteran.

Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General, first published in The Wasp, 1885

Available to read online here

This is the second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Letter Narration. They describe Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General as “a crisscrossing of letters, with excerpts from other documents and a deposition thrown in for good measure.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General

 

WaspOn 3rd November 1861, the Secretary of War writes to the Hon. Jupiter Doke to inform him that the President has appointed him a brigadier general of volunteers. Will he accept the honour? Oh yes he will! He replies on the 9th that it will be the proudest moment of his life. The Secretary of War writes to Major General Blount Wardorg that the new Brigadier General is to be assigned to his department and is to take command of the Illinois Brigade at Distilleryville, Kentucky. Wardorg, however, deliberately instructs Doke to take a route that he knows will be ambushed; he and his men are to be an instant sacrifice. But Doke sends his wife’s cousin in his place (because Doke never likes to get that involved) and it’s poor Mr Briller who gets sacrificed.

As the letters and diary notes continue, we see that Doke has taken to his new status like a fish to water – all apart from the military skill aspect. Wardorg quickly realises that Doke’s is a woefully poor appointment and that he and his men will have to be sacrificed due to their incompetence and stupidity, with the cutting remark to the Secretary of War: “I think him a fool”. After all, Doke is the man who has been collecting 2,300 mules in preparation for each of his men to ride one into Louisville as a form of dignified Retreat. The Confederate Army generals report that a freak of nature in the form of a tornado completely wipes out their men and Doke gets the credit. However, according to the eyewitness Mr Peyton, what really happened was that, at the first sounds of the oncoming enemy, Doke jumped through a window to escape and startled the mules so badly that they stampeded down the road towards the Confederates… I guess any that survived the tornado – if there really was a tornado – were muled to death! Result: Major General Jupiter Doke.

So despite all evidence to the contrary, when the President appointed Doke as Brigadier General, he might just have chosen the right guy! Doke quickly settles in to his new high office, spending all his time enjoying his peripheral benefits, appointing and recommending family members and friends, filling up his expense claims, publishing his speeches and over-egging his heroism, leasing a prominent residence in which to instal his wife and family, and engaging his brother in law to supply arms and regalia (much as you would with PPE today). When it comes to actual military matters, his judgment is pathetic, accidentally sending men to their death, and marching his men into town to be attacked because they were taken for the enemy, and when they returned to camp the real enemy had moved in.

This is a wonderful account of how someone can be promoted way beyond their ability, yet, by a series of extraordinary accidents and misjudgements, the final outcome has them smelling of roses and decorated accordingly. Every decision Doke makes is wrong, primarily because he spends all his time reaping the cash or status benefits of his new-found authority. Bierce portrays him as a magnificent example of small-town pomposity, concealing his own ineffectuality with flattery and self-aggrandization. He never misses a chance to improve his own standing, sneaking in an application for the Gubernatorial Chair of the Territory of Idaho, moving into a “prominent residence” whilst its previous incumbent is fighting in the war, writing a nonsense account of his own heroism for publication in the newspaper. However, the truth is that he is a coward who’ll escape through a window at the first sight of the enemy.

The story improves enormously on a second reading; for 21st century British readers not that familiar with 19th century American idiom and history, it’s easy to miss a few very important details on a first reading. Bierce himself had enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry at the start of the Civil War in 1861 and had a great deal of active involvement in several battles and campaigns, so we can trust his experience when it comes to the military procedures and the type of manoeuvres that feature in this story. An excellent satire on how to muck up a war and the elevation of a clown to high office. Now, why does that ring a bell today?

The next story in the anthology, and the last of the three letter narration stories, is A Bundle of Letters by Henry James. As an English graduate, it is to my shame that I have never read any James, so it’s definitely time to put that right.

Lockdown Armchair Travel – Hanoi, Vietnam – March 2013

Coming to the end of the alphabet now, and V is for Vietnam, a country we visited as part of an Indochina tour in March 2013. We visited too many places to put them all in one armchair travel blog, so I’ve concentrated on Hanoi, the capital of the north, and with a very different vibe from most of the rest of the country. So when you think of Vietnam (or Hanoi), what do you think of? Maybe something to do with this:

The mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh dominates the city as does his legacy. But let’s start off with something a little gentler. The first thing we saw in Hanoi was an out-of-town water puppet theatre, in the village of Dao Thuc.

Puppeteers work behind the stage and under the water to bring their stories to life.

It all feels like the product of a very innocent age. The puppeteers are all local farm workers, who put the shows on in order to keep the tradition alive. At the end of the show we give them a round of applause.

And they applaud us back. After the show we were invited to go “backstage” (as it were) to see the puppets for ourselves. And, as always, they take on a sinister appearance when they’re not on stage.

Back in the city, we visited the 900 year old Temple of Literature, a Confucian sanctuary and historical centre of learning.

We also visited the Museum of Ethnology, a park containing replica buildings, textiles, musical instruments, etc, showing the diversity of people who make up the country of Vietnam.

At night, everyone seems to gather around the Hoan Kiem Lake, to engage in all sorts of pastimes. Tai Chi, exercise classes, rollerblading and breakdancing, all to a Michael Jackson soundtrack! Not what I would have expected from Communist Vietnam.

The following morning we were ready for The Big Sight. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. There’s a museum devoted to him of course, but the queue was too long for us to join.

The same applied to the mausoleum! These people are queueing to get in.

There’s no doubt it’s architecturally outstanding – in a very Soviet way.

It’s located on a vast, but otherwise empty, square, just to make it stand out. And you can’t stand too close to the building. Come back you two, you’ll get into trouble with the police!

Nearby is the more modest, and more classically attractive, Presidential Palace.

You can’t linger here either. But you can at the One Pillar Pagoda, an attractive wooden pagoda originally constructed in the 11th century, standing in an elegant lotus pond.

Before we say goodbye to Hanoi, let’s just meet some of the people. Boys will be boys, right? You just know they’re up to no good.

Everyone relies on motorbikes.

And dining is informal, taken wherever you can.

The mausoleum is patrolled by men in smart uniforms.

But farming is the heart of the country.

Much to our guide’s horror, I took a photo of a protest. He was furious, saying the police would rip the camera from me and we’d all get into terrible trouble.

We didn’t. But it was a fine example of how Hanoi had a very anxious and tense feel that the rest of the country didn’t. Instead, envy the children, who aren’t yet too worried about things!

If you’d like to read about our visit in greater detail, I wrote a blog post at the time that you can find here. Now that lockdowns are (hopefully) a thing of the past, it makes sense for this to be my last Lockdown Armchair Travel post. However, if we’re all confined to barracks again, I expect I’ll go back to the letter A and start all over again!

 

 

 

More theatre and dance memories? You impetuous thing, you! April to July 2008

  1. Nederlands Dans Theater 1 – Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, 5th April 2008

Always a pleasure to see any of the NDT dance companies – and this was a tour by their Number One group, comprising of Jiri Kylian’s Wings of Wax, followed by Lightfoot Leon’s Signing Off, and finishing with Kylian’s Tar and Feathers. This would be the last time (to date) that we have seen NDT1 – let’s hope it’s not for ever!

  1. James Son of James – Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 11th April 2008

This was a fun and inventive show from the now defunct Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, full of anarchy and lunacy but tremendously exciting theatre from a hugely talented group of dancers. Really enjoyed it.

  1. Billy Elliot The Musical – Victoria Palace Theatre, London, 3rd May 2008

An unpopular opinion here, but I think the stage version of Billy Elliot is vastly inferior to the original film. Superbly staged and performed, of course, but for some reason we just didn’t connect with our Billy – I don’t know which actor it was who played it on our performance, (although I know it wasn’t young Layton Williams, I would have remembered him) and I just felt rather let down by the whole thing.

  1. Doctor Dolittle – Birmingham Hippodrome, 11th May 2008

We took our nieces to see this show, starring Tommy Steele and with all the old familiar Leslie Bricusse songs from the original film. One of those productions that I’m sure was perfectly good but I cannot for the life of me remember anything about it – not even going to see it in the first place. I must be getting old.

  1. The Good Soul of Szechuan – Young Vic, London, 17th May 2008

We’d heard excellent things about this new production by Richard Jones of Brecht’s Good Woman of Szechuan – and those excellent things were correct! An excellent translation by David Harrower, with a fantastic central performance by Jane Horrocks, with great support from the likes of Liza Sadovy and John Marquez. Enjoyed it enormously!

  1. The Cherry Orchard – Festival Theatre, Chichester, 7th June 2008

Philip Franks directed this new version of Chekhov’s classic by Mike Poulton, and there were fantastic performances from a plethora of brilliant actors. Diana Rigg played Ranyevskaya, with Michael Siberry as Lopakhin, Natalie Cassidy as Dunyasha, William Gaunt as Gayev, Jemma Redgrave as Varya, John Nettleton as Simeonov-Pishchik, Maureen Lipman as Charlotta Ivanovna, and Frank Finlay as Firs, in what was I believe his final stage appearance. Immaculate and superb.

  1. Hairspray – Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 28th June 2008

The original London production had already been running for a good nine months before we finally got around to seeing it – and it was a total delight from start to finish. Michael Ball was Edna and Ian Talbot was Wilbur, with the brilliant Leanne Jones as Tracy, the excellent Ben James-Ellis as Link, and the fabulous Tracie Bennett as Velma. Many great stars of the future lurk further down the cast list, including Adrian Hansel as Seaweed, Sandra Marvin as Lorraine, and Michael Vinsen as Brad. The show’s popularity has never gone away, and why would it?

  1. Sail Away – Lost Musicals at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London, 6th July 2008

Another of Ian Marshall Fisher’s fantastic rejuvenations of an old lost show, Noel Coward’s 1961 show is set in New York City, and this production included many of the Lost Musicals favourite performers, including James Vaughan, Stewart Permutt, Ursula Smith and Vivienne Martin.

 

 

 

 

  1. Twelfth Night – Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College Gardens, Oxford, 12th July 2008

Bill Bankes-Jones’ hilarious production of Twelfth Night was perfect in the gardens of Wadham College, with brilliant performances throughout, although James Lavender’s Malvolio in particular was a superb mix of ridicule and despair.

  1. Eurobeat The Musical – Milton Keynes Theatre, 18th July 2008

The first of three times that we saw this particular version of Eurobeat – which is without question the original and best. Wonderfully funny presentation from Les Dennis and Mel Giedroyc, and ten fantastic parody songs; the winner that night (and on the third time we saw it) was the KGBoyz with Ice Queen for Russia, but the second time (which was the London Press Night) it was Ronan Corr’s La La La for Ireland, which remains my favourite song from this selection. A tremendous spoof, done with real heart and incredibly funny.