Grand Illusions

Last night, Loches played host to an illusionist show that was rather out of the ordinary. Husband and wife team, Grego and Cécile, along with their assistants, were on stage for the very first time. And the show was highly professional. My wife only noticed one little slip-up in a rope trick, but I missed it – and I’m no stranger to magic, albeit table magic, and no stranger to bungled tricks either, à la Tommy Cooper. 

The illusionist couple live and work locally, many of their colleagues were in the packed house at the Espace Agnès Sorel, and there was a jovial neighbourly atmosphere to the whole event. Adults, incidentally, far outnumbered children in the audience. For a first performance, their investment in costly stage props was staggering, unless – which seems unlikely – they made them themselves. There must have been tens of thousands of euros’ worth of stage gear, from boxes and cages to tables and a fake washing machine that fell out of the sky to an extraordinary steampunk number at the end, when Grego and Cécile in different Tardis-like flashing boxes exchanged places in the blink of an eye. Throughout it all, Grego and Cécile acted with warmth, enthusiasm, verve and astonishing skill. 

 I found myself wondering: do they practise this stuff in the kitchen, or in the living room, at home? How did they get the gear here? Certainly not in the boot of the car! Do they also have a gigantic pantechnicon parked outside?

There were illusions of all sorts: a levitating silver ball that obeyed the commands of Grego, a complex trick using two piles of numbered cubes, rope tricks, and a very convincing levitating woman routine. Our little friend Emma was there with her grandparents, Jonathan and Tricia, and it was her ninth birthday: to her delight, she was called up on stage to assist with a rope trick.

By far the greater number of illusions involved a lady in a box. Cécile was handcuffed and chained into one box from which she mysteriously disappeared. She was locked in another that was then set fire to, and of course she survived. She was stuffed into a wicker basket that was then lanced with terrifying looking sabres. When she lost a game of noughts and crosses, she was put into another box and enormous butcher’s blades were shoved in, apparently slicing her like salami. She was put onto an operating table, strapped head and foot with leather – the straps being held taut by two male members of the audience – boxed up, and then sliced in half. There seemed to be no end to the ingenious and murderous torments to which she was subjected.

I began to ask myself serious questions. Why is it always the scantily clad woman who is put in the box and carved, segmented, incinerated or skewered? Well it’s true – it’s never the man! On top of that, it’s his wife. Could it be that in this age of political correctness – when in some countries it’s now a crime to wolf-whistle at a passing woman – this medieval if highly theatricalised misogyny is the last bastion of a certain kind of otherwise taboo male fantasy? And yet, to all outward appearances, it’s a family show! One of the culminating numbers was when, accompanied by a kind of grim reaper figure, she was impaled on a spike on the top of a skull-topped tombstone and spun round like a top. Was I imagining it, or was the truly hearty applause coming from the husbands in the audience?

There was, however, one inadvertently scary moment. In the Tardis body-exchange number, a hooded, masked figure came in with a trolley of gas canisters and an enormous blast gun which he turned on the audience, sending a plume of dry ice smoke into the auditorium. In the light of certain mass shootings in concert halls, cinemas and music festivals, where the crepitation of gunfire was initially taken for fireworks, this was definitely not a good idea…

Be that as it may, a great time was had by one and all. And I could hardly finish this blog post without an illusionist joke, could I?

“What’s your father’s profession?” asked the teacher on the first day of the school year. “He’s a magician, miss,” said the new boy. “How interesting! What’s his favourite trick?” “He saws people in half.” “Gosh. Do you have any brothers and sisters?” “Yes miss, one half brother and two half sisters.”

The Ministry of Appropriateness

I know one cannot condone offensive – or even just plain “bad” – behaviour, but is it just me or does anyone else think there’s something vaguely “inappropriate” about accusing the New York comedian Louis CK of “inappropriate behaviour”? Louis CK has made a living standing up on stage or in front of cameras telling people about how inappropriate his behaviour is in real life, and often lamenting it, or at least the romantic consequences. The more inappropriate he is, the more they applaud and the more airtime he gets. It’s a perfect case of “But I told you so…”. In other words, is nothing unsacred?

So what next? Will we be asking President Trump to be politically correct – or even grammatically correct? God forbid. Here is an extract from his recent speech in South Korea: “Together, our nations remind the world of the boundless potential of societies that choose freedom over tyranny, and who set the free. And we will free, and we will sacrifice, and we will hope, and we will make things beautiful, especially the aspirations of your people.”

With a bit of luck, nobody understood what he was saying anyway, least of all himself, and as one report has suggested it probably sounded better in the original Russian.

But back to the question of appropriateness… 

The word “appropriate” means “suitable or proper in the circumstances” and, in this sense, dates from the early 15th century, stemming from the Latin “appropriatus”, the past participle of “appropriare” (“to make one’s own”, hence the English verb “to appropriate”). The problem is, who decides what is appropriate or not? There is an open-and-shut case here for creating a Ministry of Appropriateness, along with a dedicated Appropriateness Police, then we’d really know where we were.

I have a vague recollection of someone saying something inappropriate to me in a pub about 25 years ago. When I remember who it was, and what they said, I think I’ll sue them. And while we’re on the subject, how long is it going to be – in the inappropriateness stakes – before a man sues a woman? (This reminds me of an old Monty Python sketch, which it would be totally inappropriate to repeat here.)

In the meantime, when every film and series has been scrapped because someone who acted in it behaved or spoke inappropriately, when Netflix and HBO and Amazon have all collapsed like Ozymandias into the lone and level desert sands and the screens have gone blank and the loudspeakers emit only white noise, what are we going to do with our spare time?

Walk the dog, I suppose, which is what I should have been doing in the first place instead of writing this.

My personal wake-up call for the new age? “Appropriate a Life!”

England, My England…

If Britain needed to take a good long look at itself in a non-distorting mirror, there is no time like the present, as the colossally boneheaded Brexit behemoth lumbers forward, the government is sundered by divisions, represented by a Foreign Secretary who is an international laughing-stock and mired in pathetic contemporary and historical sex scandals and other mind-numbingly dreary shenanigans. In the words of W. B. Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In my view, one of the sharpest mirrors of what it is to be English today can be found in two hugely – and rightly – popular books, Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island (1996) and its sequel, The Road to Little Dribbling (2015). 

Bryson is of course a well-known and wide-ranging American writer who after many years in England – and with an English wife and family – has recently taken British nationality and is a lover of (nearly) all things English. In the 1940s, it took a Hungarian – George Mikes – to capture the essence of English eccentricity in his witty little book, How to be an Alien, but Bryson goes deeper, taking insight into national character in his own droll and quietly diagnostic direction.

In both books, his observations emerge naturally from travels, encounters and experiences – though the latter were, of course, undertaken precisely to generate such observations – and they add up to a panoptic snapshot of British society, from north to south and west to east, that it’s hard to quibble with. One reads him with a constant smile, recognising the veracity of his impressions. In many ways, though he denies it, he has mutated into an ex officio Englishman, with a wry and at times cranky sense of humour that few Americans could lay claim to. 

At one point in The Road to Little Dribbling, he describes himself as both an expatriate and a patriot of an adoptive country that no longer exists, and I found myself nodding vigorously. One should read both books in order of composition and publication, because the 20-year gap between the two is undoubtedly a watershed period, and his observations constitute a wonderful bellwether of societal change. His approach is microcosmic. He is a devotee of minutiae, a connoisseur of the banal.

Just over a year ago, he said in an Independent article, that the British have become “more greedy and selfish”, like the US – less orderly, less well-behaved – and described the Brexit referendum as “a completely emotional event, not an intellectual one” that reflected the kind of Euroscepticism that plagued the construction of the Channel Tunnel and emanates from “an irrational feeling of losing a sense of being an island and separate.” He considers that the world is making it harder to be an immigrant, and in the background one senses his own nervousness at being an immigrant in the UK, however well-accepted he is. Indeed, the closing pages of The Road to Little Dribbling are a passionate defence of “good” immigration policies. 

Bryson is also a great lover and defender of the British countryside, and the unique cultural wealth of England. The English, who love to reflect narcissistically on their national identity, are naturally drawn to him, and he is more reliable – because essentially an outsider – than, say, Jeremy Paxman in The English: A Portrait of a People (1998). He is certainly funnier and more self-deprecating than preachy, pompous Paxman…

I would also encourage the French and other Europeans who are somewhat nonplussed by the odd goings on in that right little, tight little island next door, to spend some time in Bryson’s inimitable and good-humoured company – the earlier book is translated into French as the bizarrely titled Des Cornflakes dans le porridge – or, one step beyond, set out to explore and experience the people and place, as he did.

He is no less perceptive about his own country of origin in books like The Lost Continent:Travels in Small-Town America and Made in America, and in Little Dribbling one constantly senses the relief he feels at escaping the mind-numbing monoculture of redneck America for the whimsical oddness and variety of English life, and the fragile hope that the English will continue to cherish the marvels that they have inherited and all too often take for granted. When he sees those singular achievements cavalierly bulldozed through sheer insensitivity and brainlessness, the pain of irretrievable loss is tangible.

The Perfect Uselessness of Diary Writing

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 10.01.27It seems that at Somerset House in London there is a current exhibition called Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendants. It showcases a selection from the 7.500 diaries donated to the Great Diary Project, set up in 2007, to “provide a permanent home for unwanted diaries of any kind”. The diaries are housed at the Bishopsgate Institute of East London.

A similar initiative has been up and running in France since 1992. L’Association pour l’autobiographie et le patrimoine autobiographique (APA) accepts personal writings – memoirs, diaries, personal narratives, autobiographical fictions, and so on – which can either be consulted openly by the public or kept secret for a period of 50 years. Clearly such a venture constitutes an enormous resource in terms of social history, whatever the quality or inherent interest of what people put down on paper.

I have kept a diary pretty much all my life, though I’m not quite sure why I do it. It serves no purpose other than a daily act of introspection, a clearing-house for anything that is going through my head. It is a way of allowing that day to leave its mark. It is also a mechanical act of writing that oils the wheels of the mind for more purposeful writing later in the day. But purposelessness is part of the perfect charm of diary writing. I never re-read the diaries, nobody else reads them – or nobody else is supposed to read them – and I have no ambitions for them whatsoever. Whatever else it is, a “diary” or a “journal” are inextricably and etymologically anchored in the notion of “a day” in the chronicler’s life.

I used to be acquainted with a minor poet whose diaries are bought as and when they are produced by an American library for quite substantial sums of money. How can anyone write a diary in all honesty when the notebooks are conveyor-belted into a minor hall of pending fame so instantaneously, and for instant financial gratification? The whole notion of a diary, as one’s thoughts shared with oneself, is lost. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were originally titled in Greek Ta eis heauton, “To himself”. This feature is what, to me, distinguishes the diary from a blog such as this (mine or Marlowe’s).

One of the most extraordinary diaries I’ve ever read is the Journal of a Disappointed Man by W. N. P. Barbellion (1889-1919). Barbellion was a naturalist at the British Museum’s Department of Natural History in London and he kept his journal from the age of 13 to his death at 30. In 1915 he learnt that he had multiple sclerosis and had five years to live. From that point on, the intensity, urgency and explosive frustration of the diary drives it forward with incredible spurts of dark energy. Its candour is very unBritish and many people have remarked how Barbellion is as close as one gets to Kafka. It is a unique record of a unique, and short, life, written by someone burning with intelligence and emotion.

Here is a sample:

“I have revelled in my littleness and irresponsibility. It has relieved me of the harassing desire to live, I feel content to live dangerously, indifferent to my fate; I have discovered I am a fly, that we are all flies, that nothing matters. It’s a great load off my life, for I don’t mind being such a micro-organism—to me the honour is sufficient of belonging to the universe—such a great universe, so grand a scheme of things. Not even Death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time. And when I am dead, the matter which composes my body is indestructible—and eternal, so that come what may to my “Soul,” my dust will always be going on, each separate atom of me playing its separate part—I shall still have some sort of a finger in the Pie. When I am dead, you can boil me, burn me, drown me, scatter me—but you cannot destroy me: my little atoms would merely deride such heavy vengeance. Death can do no more than kill you.” 

For Barbellion, as for many others, he is his diary. It is what he knows he will become, and towards the end he realised that he was destined for publication. As he says, “A book is a Person and not a Thing.” Journal of a Disappointed Man is at one end of the spectrum, though its cosmic exasperation is not to everyone’s taste.

At the other?

From the Great Diary Project, one Frank Wycliffe writing on 28 February 1972: “I think my uncertainty of whether to go to the hairdressers’ has been solved. I have decided not to, but wait and see what things are like in another month’s time.”

For verily, we are creatures great and small…

W. N. P. Barbellion

W. N. P. Barbellion


Marlowe’s Blog Part 4 – In which I contemplate the sweet felicity of otium ruris and an uneventful life

P1140148 copySince my frenzied flight from the château with Havane and my return to the quiet, ordered world of Les Hirondelles, I have had ample time to reflect upon my lot and conclude that my new life is in fact my redemption, for to have continued thus would have been to fling myself – and indeed my beloved mother – into the very jaws of death. Accordingly, chastised by experience, I have ceased chasing the cats and do not attempt to snaffle their food, and Master has been most attentive to my spiritual wellbeing and development.

True, yesterday Mistress found a pool of yellow liquid in the utility room, but am I to blame for the indiscretions of the little white pooch, Alec? When he heard about it, Master laughed and said “When it rains in Paris, there are poodles in the street!” To cut a long – and no doubt “shaggy dog” – story short, the calm day-to-day life here has been a great solace to me and, the more I ponder this, the more I realise that providence has indeed taken me under her wing, offering me a second chance in life.

At dawn, Master feeds me, Alec and the 11 cats. This he likens to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, for the 11 cats are fed from the contents of but one tin. Master then takes me out, either both on foot, or me accompanying him on his bicycle. Yesterday, this excursion was abruptly curtailed because ahead of us was a farmer spraying poison on his field and Master chose to double back rather than inhale this invisible contagion. Master seemed most put out by this, and indeed it defies belief that these humans should adulterate their own sustenance purely for pecuniary gain, as Master tried to explain to me. He assured me that my own dry food or “kibble” was of the highest quality, and that under no circumstances – even in direst poverty – would he feed me otherwise. 

Following our morning walk, Master cycles on his own before engaging upon his own intellectual pursuits. In the interval before our afternoon walk, the day is also mine to do as I please, and most often this means study in Master’s library. I read in a serendipitous fashion, for life is too short to tackle every magnum opus that global civilisation has produced, but this approach has afforded agreeable surprises. The other day, for example, I came across the following quotation which made me prick up my ears: “It is better to lie on the naked ground and be at ease, than to have a golden coach and a rich table and be worried.” 

Master informed me that he believed these were the words of a great philosopher known as Epicurus, or one of his followers, and that other fine classical minds had expatiated on the merits of a life of leisure devoted to the development of the mind and spirit, including Cicero, Catullus and Petrarch. When I mentioned that I would like to read these wise men in their original tongue, Master said he would teach me a little “dog Latin”, an expression which caused him some merriment, though I am at a loss to say why. 

He apprised me of  the key idea of “otium”, which in Latin signifies the artistically valuable use of leisure time, as opposed to “negotium”, the time-consuming business of the day-to-day world from which it is desirable to retire. In particular, “otium ruris” signifies “rural leisure”, namely the spiritual benefits of rustic country life, as lauded by Horace, Virgil and Seneca. This last seemed most appropriate to my own condition, and helped me comprehend that there was more to life than running around like a psychotic fiend, drawn on by nothing more than the olfactory track of some insignificant wildfowl that, despite my most exhaustive and exhausting efforts, I would never manage to catch even under the most propitious of circumstances.

When I shared these reflections with Master, he picked two more modern books from his bookshelf for me to read: Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness, and Petit traité de désinvolture by Denis Grozdanovitch, a philosopher whom Master warmly recommends and with whom he has had long personal discussions when they met over three days in Nice. 

The “otium ruris”, then, is my natural element, and has been since my emergence into this strange and wondrous world. My knowledge of the town is limited. On one occasion, Master took me to a village fair and, when I mention this, he slaps his hand to his forehead and exclaims – to my shame – “Never again!”, recalling that I pulled on the lead to left and to right, almost dislocating his shoulder, for my senses were maddened by the omnium gatherum of odours, from sugar-coated peanuts to crepes, from barbecued meat to the inevitable micturated lampposts, not to mention the presence of other – more or less well-behaved – canines, which drove me to distraction. “Oh that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that.”

My recent reading of Plato has helped me view my inner turmoil in the cold light of day. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato describes the soul as a charioteer, and the chariot is drawn by two winged horses, a white one which represents rationality and the moral impulse, and a black one that represents irrational passions, appetites or concupiscence. The charioteer must stop the horses pulling in different ways, directing them instead along the path of enlightenment.

That indeed is the path I have chosen, and that indeed is my plight. How well I can steer my chariot only time will tell, though this chronicle will serve as my record of what  – I daresay – will prove to be a prodigious and possibly forlorn endeavour…

Coincidences in a Dovetailed World

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 08.55.39The other day, my wife and I were at Stansted airport with some time to kill before our flight to Tours. We were looking round a perfume store. The sales lady was a friendly middle-aged lady, and I happened to mention that I needed to go online to order a pair of roller skates, a comment that the saleslady overheard. The conversation then continued thus:

Saleslady: What kind of roller skates, inline or quad?

Me: Quad.

Saleslady: I sold over two hundred pairs of quad roller skates two weeks ago.

Me: I’m sorry?

 Saleslady: This is a new job. Before this, I was the manageress of a roller skating rink in Tenerife and it had to be closed down.

We then talked about the relative merits of quad and inline roller skates, the kind of wrist, elbow and knee protection required, and so on. But clearly this was some coincidence, unless the woman was a spontaneous fantasist – though her obvious knowledge of the sport would not support this hypothesis. Apart from anything else, if I hadn’t uttered the words “roller skates” the conversation would never have happened.
I have personally experienced several other extraordinary coincidences of this type, including a series with my daughter Lizzie when she was young, all of which revolved around the number three. Here are the stories.
The Three Bikes
Lizzie, her godfather Dunstan and I were out cycling in Touraine one summer. Lizzie was about 8 or 9. We pretended that our rickety old bikes were horses. Dunstan’s was a big black horse, mine was a big brown horse, and Lizzie’s was a small white pony. This conversation was the source of much hilarity, at least for Lizzie! We arrived in Reignac, put down our bikes and sprawled on the grass beside the river Indre. After a while, I noticed something on the opposite bank of the river. Sheltering from the bright sunlight under a large oak tree were three horses, a big black one, a big brown one, and a small white pony. To add to the eeriness, they were all stock-still and staring in our direction.
The Three Nicknames
Lizzie was around the same age when we were in Amsterdam for one New Year with a friend. We popped into a bar to get out of the snow and the cold and had three drinks, each of which had a cardboard beer mat. Lizzie had a pen and started writing on the mats, then she shuffled them and made us pick out a different one. She had written little animal nicknames for us on the mats. Lizzie was a Lizard, Adrian was a Pelican, and the friend was a Little Ballerina. She continued playing with the cards as we walked out into the street, entering the area of the Keizersgracht where there are a lot of antique shops. We stopped at one and looked in the window. As ever with these shops there were many objects, but amongst them was a statuette of a pelican, another statuette of a ballerina (Degas-style) and a brooch in the form of a lizard.
Three Girls With Violin Cases
Lizzie’s scoliosis, when detected, needed treatment. In particular, she had to have a plastic corset made to correct the distortion in her spine, to be worn day and night. The chief maker of these highly technical corsets is the Espace Ortho Scoliose, 1 rue Jacques Coeur near the Place de la Bastille. At the time she needed fitting for one, we were in the country, in Touraine, and had to take the train to Paris. We drove up to Saint Pierre des Corps and waited on the platform. Curiously, standing beside us were three teenage girls, each carrying a violin case. We got on the train, and the three girls sat diagonally opposite us. At one point, one of them even exchanged a smile with Lizzie. When we arrived at Montparnasse Station, we went into the bowels of the Metro and took a train across south-eastern Paris to the Place de la Bastille, then walked to the scoliosis centre. As we entered, sitting in the waiting room were the three girls, each with their violin case. I couldn’t help blurting, “But you were in the train with us!” One of them remembered us and they smiled at the coincidence. They must have taken the previous metro train to be there before us. And one of them was also coming for a corset fitting, accompanied by her two friends. The violins were never explained.
G. K. Chesterton described coincidences as “spiritual puns”. 
I am sure most of us can come up with similar tales, more or less surprising. I like the one about the 19th-century French poet Emile Deschamps which also involves the number three.
In his memoirs he tells how as a boy he was introduced to plum pudding by an acquaintance named Monsieur de Fortgibu. Ten years later, Deschamps saw plum pudding on a restaurant menu and remembered having enjoyed it. The waiter informed him that, unfortunately, the last piece of plum pudding had just been ordered by the gentleman in the corner – who turned out to be M. de Fortgibu. A number of years later, Deschamps, now in his 40s, was at a dinner party and learned that the dessert was plum pudding. He regaled the assembled company with his unusual experiences with the dessert and joked that the only thing missing this evening was M. de Fortgibu. Just at that moment, the door swung open and in walked that very gentleman. In his senility, he had wandered through the wrong door by mistake.
“Three times in my life I have encountered plum pudding, and three times I have seen Monsieur de Fortgibu,” Deschamps exclaimed.

Marlowe’s Blog Part 3 – in which I return to the château for nine days and slip back into my unruly ways

IMG_1660 copyIt has been some time since I last marshalled my thoughts here and with good cause. I have been back at the château with my dear progenitrix, Havane, without access to a computer or indeed to the outside world. Master was away in his home town, which he calls Londonistan, visiting his own mother, so there was a touching symmetry in our two sojourns, but there the resemblance ended for, regrettably, I slipped back – I confess – into the fractious and unruly ways of the past. 

It is undoubtedly a calamitous blot on my escutcheon, and it mortifies me to confess as much, but at times my feral instincts ride roughshod over my good sense and tenuous differentiation of right and wrong. In short, no sooner had Master delivered me to the château than Havane and I absconded into the night, a moonlight flit that endured three days and three nights before I made my way back to the country house without mater, who had not been able to match my youthful pace and whom I had quite lost track of. A full day later she presented herself in some disarray on the doorstep of the mayor of Le Liège and, thanks to a brass plaque on her collar, the dignitary in question was able to telephone Master Bruno and inform him that the second fugitive had been found.

And so my return to the blue remembered hills of my past was tainted by this wrongdoing which caused anxiety to both my Masters, former and present. Ah, if only one could unravel the errors of one’s ways and learn from one’s mistakes! Even I am confounded by my selfish rapture at these impromptu escapades, and the fact that we could survive without food for so long, with the exception of an occasional bird or rodent corpse. It is the felicity of freedom, the glamour of the forest, the cool revivification of the babbling brook, that draws us ever forward and away from the known creature comforts of home.  I am sure Master Adrian did not comport himself in such a way with his mother in Londonistan… But are our humans ever visited by such ungovernable urges too?

Be that as it may, I sensed that I had tried the patience of Master Bruno and his consort to the limit, and so it was with meekness and contrition, but happiness nevertheless, that I returned to Master Adrian. I was I regret a lamentable sight. I had wounded my chin in one scramble through brambly undergrowth, and there were blood stains on my head – not my own, I hasten to add, for I had been sitting under the kitchen table that lunchtime when they dismembered a duck and received this gory bespattering as a result.

Thus “Merlin” has become “Marlowe” once again, and has resumed his residence at Les Hirondelles. The felines seemed to sense my tribulations and treated me with much kindness on my return, and the little dog Alec – a sort of cotton wool puff ball with a nose and two dark eyes like raisins, at least to outward appearance – also welcomed me gaily, though Lord knows I had persecuted the poor ninny inordinately in the past. Mistress, however, eyed me with sustained disapprobation and no small admixture of apprehension, and I later heard Master comment that she was considering “the unkindest cut of all”, though what that might be I can scarcely venture to guess. 

My adventures have been described as “picaresque”, as in the novels of Fielding and Defoe, with which I am fairly well acquainted, but the merry gladsome resonance of this word in the little world of fiction does not apply should Master be cast down or distressed by my high jinks.

Alas, we all have within us a touch of the “Non serviam” that was the downfall of Lucifer. Yet today Master bought me a butcher’s bone and we have resumed our little daily rituals, be they ever so humble. Phoebus Apollo dispenses his warm autumnal beams with quiet munificence, and I shall now lay me down to sleep, grateful for such small mercies, however undeserved.

Dr Who: The Man Behind the Curtain!

Milada Mathews and Derrick Sherwin

Milada Mathews and Derrick Sherwin

On a trip to London to visit my 92-year-old mother, we had lunch with her and her next-door neighbour Derrick Sherwin (82). He and I had an interesting chat: Derrick has had a long and varied career – as actor, writer, script editor, TV producer, and restaurant owner in Thailand – but in his heyday, he was known as “the man who took Doctor Who into a golden decade”.

In 1968 he joined the BBC production team of Doctor Who as assistant story editor during the Patrick Troughton era, and went on to become the programme’s script editor and eventually its producer. During this time, he commissioned Robert Holmes’ first script for the series, oversaw the transition from black and white to colour and the introduction of the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee. He was also instrumental in conceiving the Earthbound aspect of Pertwee’s career and is credited with creating two of Doctor Who’s most enduring ingredients: the intelligence task force UNIT, and the Doctor’s own race – the Time Lords.

Derrick is still writing for TV. Strange to think that my Mum’s neighbour was one of the prime movers behind the series that kept us all gripped in the 1960s – we would literally hold hands in front of the box when the cybermen or the Daleks came on – and is today one of the BBC’s top grossing titles on an international scale, one of its global super brands. The series is still going strong after half a century! 

Marlowe’s Blog, Part 2 – in which I reflect upon my new life and companions at Les Hirondelles

P1130412So much has come to pass and changed since I moved to Les Hirondelles two months ago that my head is in a whirl, and it could just as well be two years that have elapsed! I scarce know where to begin. Master and Mistress have been passing kind to me though it has not always been an easy task for them to adapt to the excesses of my temperament – I am, let it be said, a creature of passion, and my high spirits, ebullience and jubilant good cheer are not to everyone’s taste. And so I have learnt… I have learnt above all that change begets change, and that it must come from within or not at all. Thus it was that my first colossal task was to acclimatise myself to my new surroundings and the creatures with whom I was to share my new life. Let me jump in at  the deep end, to employ the vernacular, and make a frank confession. I have quirks, propensities and habits that I had never questioned until my arrival at Les Hirondelles. Given my keepers’ reactions, I have now been forced to reflect upon their propriety.

A couple of examples will suffice.

In common with other members of my species, it is my custom, on first making acquaintance, to sniff the groin of the other animal and to accept a reciprocal sniff with equanimity, and in all honesty I did not restrict this practice to fellow canines. It soon became clear that Master and Mistress were dismayed to be welcomed thus and sought to avoid nether contact with my nose. This misdemeanour seemed even more heinous to them when the object of my attentions was a neighbour or the post lady, and they would be forced to apologise on my behalf.

There are also eleven cats at Les Hirondelles and not all take kindly to my olfactory attentions either, however much they too enjoy a good sniff between themselves. In short, I perceived to my horror and chagrin that I was being viewed as a lewd, uncouth and ill-bred creature – by humans and cats alike – a judgement that would have mortified Havane, my mother, were she present to witness it. At the very least, my deportment was considered unmannerly and, as a gentleman by birth, this has discomfited me no end. I have sought, therefore, to rein in my instincts and in this respect may be said to have become more civilised, perhaps at the paltry cost of betraying my natural drives and inner promptings, for in truth, my sense of smell is acute, and humans have no idea of the rainbow of delightful fragrances and odours that assail my nostrils throughout the livelong day.

The practice of licking has also come under review in my new abode. While I can comprehend how sniffing can be seen as somewhat brazen and forward – assuming a familiarity where sometimes there is none – licking seems to me a perfectly acceptable and hygienic practice, carried out purely for ablutionary purposes. The other dog with whom I must share this habitation, of whom I shall speak further at a later date, licks himself incessantly, to which he has the added charm of discharging urine against the furniture with an insouciance that is frankly outrageous. Honestly, there is no love lost between us.

The cats, needless to say, are inveterate lickers and groomers of themselves and each other, yet for them to do so appears to be entirely admissible. The humans even permit the cats to lick their hands, clearly not finding this attention repulsive. My own attempts to lick Master and Mistress are, of course, no more than an exuberant expression of my love and devotion, yet at times they seem to ward me off as if my reactions are disproportionate and need to be kept in check. Mistress was particularly dismayed when I licked her on the face on one occasion shortly after finding and consuming the corpse of a baby rabbit in a field. It is true that the corpse was partially decomposed and maggoty, which no doubt was reflected in my breath, but I am still taken aback by her reaction to my perceived disrespect. Is it because my tongue is large and not abrasive, like those of the cats? I must continue to observe their reactions to the licking convention until I get to the bottom of this behavioural conundrum.

But forgive me, dear reader, for beginning with negative points, or at least aspects of my comportment that patently require adjustment and adaptation. Far be it from me to wish to appear ungrateful. While the move from a château to a lowly farmhouse could be seen as a demotion to some, to me it was nothing of the sort. From the outset I have felt wanted and adored by Master and Mistress, and this – to use a new expression I have learnt – has warmed the cockles of my heart. The garden is mine to romp in as I please, and Master walks me every day in the surrounding fields, come rain or come shine. On other occasions he attaches me with a lead to his bicycle so that we may fly along together like the wind. I live for these excursions and try my best to obey Master’s calls when he screams my name and blows on his whistle until his face turns red, for I know it to be for my own good, so that in my headlong enthusiasm I do not suffer the misadventure of a traffic accident.

My sustenance remains the same as before, though the large bowl of food that is ever on hand for the cats has at times tempted me beyond endurance. I am capable of emptying it in seconds, but Master has now placed it on the buffet, so that the cats must leap onto that item of furniture in order to feed out of my reach. When Master is pleased with me, he gives me a butcher’s bone or a handful of “friandises”, declaring me to be a “Good dog!”, and by these little words and signs of affection I infer when I have done well, and I am pleased.

While reading a short biography of Lenin recently, I learned the curious and perfectly useless fact that “Good dog!” were the Russian leader’s last words before dying from a stroke – uttered of course in his native tongue. He was addressing his dog who had brought him a dead bird. I suspect that Mistress would not say “Good dog!” were I to do likewise! The eleven cats are Grim Reapers indeed, bringing a daily harvest of bird and mouse cadavers into the dwelling, and Master and Mistress most certainly do not exclaim “Good cat!” when they have to deal with the evidence of the massacre.

There are further subjects I wish to address concerning my new life in this curious menagerie – or what Master calls “The Greta Garbo Home for Wayward Cats and Dogs”. My mastery of English has progressed by leaps and bounds – an appropriate metaphor, I hope you will agree, for a dog! – and it is with a certain indignity that I recall that my vociferations were once limited to barking and whimpering like some pathetic imbecile in an asylum.

There is no doubt that language, and Master’s assiduous commitment to advancing my education, has empowered me to understand myself and the world – and what a diverse and mysterious world it is! The days scarcely seem long enough for my studies after our morning jaunt, yet I pack in what I can, furthering my horizons in whatever ways come to hand, I am deeply indebted to Master because he has given me unlimited access to his library and computer, knowing that I shall put these resources to excellent use.

But what of bygone days? I returned but once to the château, and my delight at being reunited with my mother Havane was indeed unbridled, but it was not to last. I am reliably informed that her days are calmer in my absence, and our huge and reckless hunting trips are of course a thing of the past.

But such is life. When one door closes, another opens, and it is our duty as sentient beings to put aside ruefulness and nostalgia for that which will never return and trot ever onwards, following our noses and exulting with unflagging gratitude in the joys and sorrows that each new day brings!

For verily, as the sagacious dictum goes, every dog must have its day, and Marlowe is no exception!


Period Pains

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 23.25.13Thought for the Day…

Watching the film My Cousin Rachel, based on a 1951 Daphne du Maurier novel, the incredibly original thought occurred to me that one reason people love period dramas – this one is set in the 1830s – is the costumes. Not necessarily the satins and velvet of the dandy, but the ordinary clothes that most of the population wore – in wool, linen, or linsey-woolsey, for both men and women. The above photo of Sam Claflin, playing the role of Philip in the film, is a case in point. 

It also occurred to me that if we like them, it’s because they’re frankly much more stylish than what we wear today. Wouldn’t life be different, if only those high-collared shirts and waistcoats and overcoats suddenly came back!

A little research led me to discover that they are indeed still being made, for example by a Sussex clothing company called Darcy Clothing. The company has been in existence since 2004 and provides a wonderful variety of period clothing for men, women and children and says “The clothing is largely made specially for us and is taken directly from original garments. The shapes and fabrics are uncompromisingly genuine. We only ever use natural fibres in any pre C20th garments. We now sell all over the world to everyone from sheep farmers in Wales needing sturdy braces to Hollywood stars playing pirates.” Here is an example of one of their daily-wear Regency waistcoats. 

Screen Shot 2017-09-30 at 11.15.36

Aside from the obvious theatrical and cinematic clientele for these clothes, surely there are those who just like “dressing up”, or who believe that clothes were simply better made in those days, and had that inimitable hand-made feel about them. 

Another company that produces nostalgia fashion (though at astronomical prices) is Private White V.C. Here is what they say about themselves, and the explanation for their name: “Based in the heart of Manchester, Private White V.C. is managed by World War I Victoria Cross recipient Private Jack White’s great grandchildren, who all share his undying love, passion and dedication to British textiles and local industry. In operation for over 100 years, we continue to produce garments in an honest and traditional way; using only the finest British fabrics, trims and components, sourced locally where possible.”

These are not theatre costumes, but clothes designed to be worn by the man and woman in the street – provided they can afford them. A single-breasted overcoat, for example, retails at £1,400. However, the detailing is extraordinary. A chore jacket will have so-called “butcher’s buttons” – beautiful buttons that can be removed when washing the article, a revival of a past vestimentary feature. 

Today, just about anything goes – which means period clothing “goes” too.

At Loches market, near where I live, I’ve often been struck by the number of people who dress eccentrically, with a local collective passion for medieval dress whenever the opportunity presents itself. My own preference, as I am saying, is for Regency and early Victorian, but also Edwardian, clothes, though I no longer, alas, have a “dressing-up box” (not since the age of 9). However, it is in the cyclical nature of things that the old stuff is coming back. A 1950s French chore jacket – “bleu de travail” – will command a very high price on eBay, and the more stained and darned and sun-bleached it is, the better. In much the same way, the Japanese buy ripped and stained old sneakers for ludicrous prices because second-hand is the new first-hand – the more worn something is, the more real, even if someone else did the wearing-in for you.

Clothing is the front line, of course, in the quest for identity and authenticity, suggesting that for the quest to be necessary both are somehow curiously wanting in modern life, or waiting to be invented.

© 2020 Adrian Mathews