Proto-Poldark?

Many followers will have realised, I think, that I kept my previous post in pole position for a month because I thought it might give my last batch of prospective publishers a good idea of the book’s scope and, dare I say it, novelty. I am aware that at least one follower is waiting with bated breath for an announcement on 30 September about the book’s future — and he shall have it, he shall have it.

Meanwhile, I thought it was about time that I posted a sample of George’s reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement, which was first appreciated by the novelist, critic, poet and Times naturalist Derwent May in his Critical Times: The History of the Times Literary Supplement (2001). Mention of the novels of Cornishman Arthur Quiller-Couch in two recent Comments by Clare Hopkins sent me straight to this by George, published in the TLS of 29 October 1908, pp. 376-77:

‘David Bran’

The people of Trescas, the Cornish village in which Mr Morley Roberts lays the scene of DAVID BRAN (Eveleigh Nash, 6s.), are not quite like the people of other villages. Their speech is full of dark sayings about wisdom and destiny and the heart of man; they pass their lives in a state of wonder at each other and at the ways of heaven. They are cast in heroic mould; the women all have strong hearts and strong hands; the men are giants; and, as for David himself, seven at a blow would be nothing to him. The old men in the blue jerseys, smashing their pipes by the shore, do not spin yarns and crack ribald jokes, as in other seaside places, but wag their beards continually over David and his love affairs. There is very little mental life in Trescas, except wondering about David and Lou and the white maiden with the shining golden hair and the eyes of blue. David had a wonderful way with the women; they used to waylay him in the dark and say, ‘Oh! be good to me; kiss me once, David’, but he never really cared about it. He loved but two. This is the story of how he wooed a dark maiden and a fair maiden at the same time, and could not possibly do with less. And when he married Kate he would still punch Isaac’s head if he so much as spoke to Lou. Mr Roberts has the courage of his opinions. He detects a bigamous instinct in man, and justifies those that give it active expression because they fulfil their nature. His heart bleeds also for the women who never marry; and he would like to kill both these birds with one stone. About the instinct of many men he is no doubt right, though the instinct is not universal; and, indeed, other men-novelists have often made the bigamous instinct the theme of their novels (women-writers never — each sex demands monogamy in the other); it is the basis of ‘Richard Feveral’ and ‘Harry Richmond’, of Tourgeniev’s ‘Smoke’ and ‘Spring Waters’. But Mr Roberts presents the theme in its most unconvincing aspect. In real life there is always parenthesis, or eclipse; in ‘David Bran’ both passions are present in equal force at the same moment. While David is kissing Lou on the cliff he is thinking about Kate, and on the eve of his wedding with Kate he is leaning against a wall and crying because he feels that it is a kind of separation from Lou. The book is interesting; but it moves slowly; there is really no more than material in it for a short story, and this is eked out with not very recondite moralizations by the author, couched in an archaic Trescas dialect, compounded out of Malory and Moses and Dr Gilbert Murray’s Euripedes.

This review is a good example of what Derwent May calls George’s ‘witty scepticism’, which ‘aligned him wholly with the younger group on the paper’ that included Virginia Woolf and Percy Lubbock. What made it possible for Mr May to write his fascinating history was the fact that the authorship of the unsigned reviews had been cracked by matching the number of lines in the review to the payments by line in the TLS account books. This revealed, for example, that George had written 54 reviews between 1905 and 1912, earning him a useful £13,160 at today’s prices. He was originally taken on to write about ‘serious’ subjects like folklore, Russia, the Balkans, psychical research, but the editor, Bruce Richmond, discovered by chance that George was most entertaining on novels, of which he reviewed fifteen in 1908 alone.

What intrigues me about George’s review is that it seems to display a Cornish novel that already contains features — one might say stereotypes — of other Cornish novels through Daphne du Maurier down to Poldark and Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness (1993). Was there already, in 1908, a recognisable Cornish equivalent to the ‘kailyard school’ of Scottish novels? Is the Cornish novel a purely literary genre that can be practised by anyone, whether Cornish or not, or is it strictly speaking a nationalist genre, in which case are its topos-es (‘stereotypes’) supposed to be genuine features of Cornishness? I look forward to someone telling us!

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Edwardian love, sex and the ‘T’other’

The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2017 is undoubtedly right to intone the mantra ‘edit, review, revise and then edit again’, but when you have read your 420-page typescript as many times as I have in the last six months, and made over a thousand changes, you need some specific stimulus to make you read it closely yet again.

A fortnight ago, that stimulus came along in the form of the discovery of the Visitors Book for Acton Reynald, the nineteenth century home of the Corbet family in Shropshire. A sensational find! Lady Caroline (Nina) Corbet had first met Kittie when they were very young, they became inseparable as teenagers, it was known that Kittie stayed at Acton Reynald many times until Nina remarried in 1913, and Nina got on well with George.

Visitors Books are invaluable to biographers. The one for Foxwold (q.v.) exists, and Mr John Pym deserves a medal and my undying gratitude for having copied out for me every entry for the Calderons from 1912 to 1940. If only the Visitors Book for nearby Emmetts existed too, as the Calderons were regular visitors and it would help date, for instance, George’s Cinderella: An Ibsen Pantomime, which was first performed there.

The Acton Reynald Visitors Book has a very special significance. I had worked out long ago from circumstantial evidence when Kittie and, I presumed, George, stayed there. For instance, it was clear from the envelope of a letter written by William Rothenstein to Kittie after settling George on his ship to New Zealand in a delicate nervous state in 1906, that Kittie did not see George off herself, she left for Acton Reynald to stay with Nina Corbet. Similarly, a letter from George at St Andrews in December 1909, following the Glasgow premiere of his translation of The Seagull, reveals that he and Kittie are off to spend Christmas with the Corbets at Acton Reynald. On other occasions, for example the funeral of Nina’s husband Walter on 23 December 1910, I had assumed both Kittie and George were present, and in the latter case stayed on until New Year as they had the year before. But only the Visitors Book could confirm such things and supply firm dates.

I cannot thank the descendants of Walter and Nina Corbet warmly enough for finding the Acton Reynald Visitors Book, copying out every entry for Kittie and George from 1893 to 1913, and supplying me with images of many of them.  It is an amazing document in itself. Clearly the Corbets welcomed a steady stream of guests. Many of the names in the image below are familiar. For instance, G. Ormsby Gore, below George’s signature, is 3rd Baron Harlech, Sir Walter’s commanding officer in the Shropshire Yeomanry. The mysterious Mr Jones, placed between Kittie and George, is their dog.

George and Kittie in a Visitors' Book 1902

A page of the Acton Reynald Visitors Book for 1902

The first entry for Kittie (with her mother) is Christmas 1893, two years after Walter Corbet inherited the baronetcy and moved into Acton Reynald. In August 1894 she stayed there with Archie Ripley, who was to become her husband the following year. However, Ripley never visited Acton Reynald again before his death in October 1898, although Kittie did, both alone and with her mother. (Bear with me, this may be significant.)

George first stayed at the Corbets’, with Kittie, in September 1901, ten months after their wedding, then again in 1902 and 1903. After that, though, I discover from the Visitors Book that the pattern changed somewhat. I had assumed they both attended Lesbia Corbet’s christening on 18 March 1905, but in fact only Kittie (one of the two godmothers) did. Kittie’s next visit to Acton Reynald was as George was leaving for New Zealand/Tahiti in April 1906, when she stayed (with Mr Jones) for over a fortnight. In 1907 both Calderons were at Acton Reynald in August, but George absented himself for a week on a lone walking holiday. The only other occasion — according to the Visitors Book — that George and Kittie were together at Acton Reynald up to January 1913 was the Christmas of 1909, whereas Kittie visited on her own four times and probably more.

What struck me first from the Visitors Book is that, contrary to my assumption, George never accompanied Kittie on any occasion that was particularly personal for Nina, viz. Lesbia’s christening, Walter’s funeral, or Nina’s second wedding at the Corbet family church in January 1913. It is extraordinary that George did not attend the funeral of Sir Walter, whom Kittie described as ‘nice to look at and nice right through’ and whom George, as far as I can see, liked. Kittie stayed with Nina afterwards for a fortnight. This took in the whole of the Christmas season 1910. So where was George? He had been at Acton Reynald with Kittie the Christmas before, but that was his last recorded visit ever.

Of course, there could be practical reasons why he was not with Kittie in 1905, 1910 and 1913. In 1910 both he and Kittie may have been committed to spending Christmas with the Lubbocks at Emmetts, Walter Corbet died after a short illness on 20 December, the day Kittie arrived at Nina’s side, and perhaps they had agreed that one of them, at least, should keep the Lubbocks’ invitation. In January 1913 George may have been ill. However, there is no obvious reason why he could not travel to the christening in March 1905.

Naturally, I don’t wish to compose a spoiler to my book, but the relationship between Nina Corbet and Kittie vis-à-vis Kittie’s two husbands is a vital thread in it. Nina and Kittie’s relationship long predated Kittie meeting Archie Ripley and George Calderon. It seems to have been about as close as friends can be. They had often slept in the same bed together as children and teenagers, but there would be nothing unusual at the time about that. When Kittie was depressed, Nina promised to ‘coodle you up, and up and up’, which was presumably Edwardian for ‘give you a really good cuddle’, whatever that involved. Even after Nina married, Kittie would accompany the couple on tours as a companion and chaperone, and when accommodation was divided by gender they again shared a bed. However, in letters that were meant to have been burned after Kittie’s death but miraculously turned up in another part of the country six years ago, Archie Ripley makes it clear that he has to draw the line at vacating the marital bed for Nina when she comes to stay after their marriage. Kittie insisted on telling George all this before they agreed to marry, which is probably why George was afraid Nina would ‘dissuade you [Kittie] from loving me’; but Nina didn’t. The biggest problem Kittie had during George’s courtship of her was his physical passion compared with Ripley’s, who seems to have been transiently homosexual.

Caroline ‘Nina’ Corbet, c. 1890

So did George accept Kittie’s very close relationship with Nina Corbet? The evidence is, yes. He understood that Nina needed Kittie; she needed her for comfort, advice, understanding and joie de vivre in all kinds of (documented) situations after entering into what was essentially a dynastic marriage of convenience. I don’t think George was always happy with the situation, any more than Ripley was, for obvious reasons, but George decided he must respect that side of Kittie’s life and let her pursue it freely. You will have guessed, then, that what I feel the newly discovered Visitors Book demonstrates is that George decided to leave himself out of the relationship at Acton Reynald whenever he could. The closeness of the two women’s bond, incidentally, is movingly borne out by another discovery made at the same time. They had always called each other ‘My T’other’. On an unknown New Year’s Eve Nina addressed an envelope ‘For my T’o.’ and enclosed a card in French with a pansy on (for pensées) and a French phrase meaning ‘My last thought is of you, 31 December 11.59 p.m.’. In a word, all this new material suggests that Kittie’s relationship with Nina was even more exclusive than I had thought before and the Calderons’ marriage more ‘open’ on that side than I had suspected.

The key document here is George’s letter of 17 August 1902 to his friend the French Slavist Paul Boyer; a letter that Boyer, in his reply of 15 November 1902, described (in English translation) as ‘a veritable moral diagnosis, which I shall preserve as a precious document exposing the “state of mind” of the English of our day’. A key document…which unfortunately has not survived in Boyer’s archive in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

It is not difficult, however, to work out from Boyer’s letter what George had told him. Boyer had asked George ‘an indiscreet question: one of those that we are sometimes rather embarrassed to ask men of your nation’, viz. about English sexual mores and ‘hypocrisy’:

I think you are absolutely right and your analysis of the English character in this matter is perfectly just, viz. that (1) they display “modesty”, (2) they have a secret “tother-thing”. Personally, from what I know of England and the English myself, I don’t share the opinion of so many continentals that the English are essentially hypocrites. What some call English hypocrisy is in reality merely their natural reserve. […] I am very touched by the frankness of your reply.

Boyer, surely, could not have known the significance for George of that particular spelling ‘tother’. In cruder times, ‘tother-thing’ may sound uncomfortably like ‘a bit on the side’. But I think this is to underestimate the other word, ‘secret’ (i.e. reserved). By ‘modesty’, I think, George is referring both to fidelity to the contract of marriage and continence in extramarital relationships. Perhaps he even meant it is a single, exclusive extramarital relationship, as in the case of Kittie. And this is kept not only ‘discreet’ but ‘secret’. Within the Edwardian marriage, then, there would be no hypocrisy, just an acceptance of the ‘t’other’. The trouble is, of course, that we think of this as the classic Edwardian vice of ‘keeping up appearances’. Yet for the Calderons, say, or the Newbolts (a live-in Lesbian and heterosexual threesome), there were no appearances to keep up: everyone involved knew the situation, accepted it, and regarded it as nobody else’s business.

An acquaintance with the volumes of  À la recherche du temps perdu set in the Edwardian period suggests that Boyer was probably amazed by the difference between British and French sexual mores, just as one might be today on learning of the French ‘5 to 7’!

If the above was George’s belief about English arrangements within marriage, did he have a secret ‘tother-thing’ himself? I used to think not, because of the unfailing love and tenderness of his letters to Kittie. However, I know of at least four women in their twenties with whom George inimitably flirted when he was in his thirties and older; but no Edwardian would have paid any attention to the age difference, as it was normal for men to marry in their thirties women who had just reached twenty-one (the Corbets, and the Wrens in The Fountain, would be cases in point). There is absolutely no evidence that George’s relationships went beyond flirtation, but then there wouldn’t be, would there? Two sentences in his anti-suffragist pamphlet of 1908 have always intrigued me:

We men, with few exceptions, are all Mormons at heart. We have made the great sacrifice of monogamy, and much must be forgiven us.

Is there a touch of guilt about these assertions? The idea that we are ‘all’ potentially promiscuous, and there is a lot we must be forgiven, might suggest it. And what if women too had made ‘the great sacrifice of monogamy’?

Yes, the Edwardians were masters of ‘discretion’ — what today we might call secrecy, spin, disinformation, or downright hypocrisy. They were so successful at it that for decades their descendants believed the bulk of Edwardians were paragons of monogamous familial rectitude. We have been naive about the Edwardians in this respect, as in so many others. If what George said to Boyer about the ‘tother-thing’ was widely true, the Edwardians’ attitude to amorous and sexual arrangements was far less hypocritical than the Victorians’: it was actually a ‘reserved’, un-self-advertising recognition of gender reality.

So the discovery of the Acton Reynald Visitors Book, related material, and previously unknown testamentary documents of Kittie’s, has led to my tweaking dates, facts and statements throughout my biography. This may not amount to much new text, but the shift in presentation of George and Kittie’s marriage is significant. And re-reading my whole text, I was struck for the first time how the penultimate chapter, which recounts Kittie’s life 1915-22, is actually the most visceral, because it includes the impacts of both George’s and Nina’s death on her.

*                    *                    *

Paragraph three of my ill-starred but now settled Introduction tells readers ‘There has been a popular interest in the love life of Edward VII and his courtiers, say, or the Edwardian elite’s open display of wealth, and even the life of the Edwardian working class, but the life of the Edwardian professional class is relatively unknown to the nation.’ Even as I wrote it I wondered whether ‘a popular interest in the love life of Edward VII and his courtiers’ was still true, because Anita Leslie’s classic Edwardians in Love was first published in 1972, the TV dramas about Edward’s mistresses Lily Langtry and ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’ also date to the 1970s, and even Diana Souhami’s Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter is twenty years old. But then, last year, the following was published by Biteback:

Click the cover to find this book on Amazon.

Sure enough, the blurb assures us that ‘For Alice Keppel, it was all about appearances’…  Keppel was a mistress at managing those, as well as the King. ‘Both intriguing and astonishing, this book is an unadulterated glimpse into a hidden world of scandal, decadence and debauchery.’ From the publishing point of view, the author also has the advantage that Mrs Keppel was the great-grandmother of the present Duchess of Cornwall.

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A P.S. to paradox

After the flights of fancy of my previous post, I ought to make it clear that what really interests me about paradox is (1) why were Edwardian writers, particularly George Calderon, so mad on it, (2) is it yet another of the things that puts us off their writing today, and (3) what does the phenomenon add up to? Paradox is an intriguing aspect of what is perceived as the Edwardians’ superficiality. So, committed as I am to re-evaluating the Edwardians through my exploration of George and Kittie’s lives, I have to grapple with paradox.

The most famous paradoxer of the age was George Bernard Shaw. His ‘cleverest’ characters always talk in paradoxes. But this was probably perceived by audiences as just a ‘Socialist’ development of the epigram in Oscar Wilde’s and other Late Victorians’ plays (not to mention Restoration comedy). The element of surprise in Shaw’s ‘outrageous’ paradoxes doubtless provoked gales of laughter, but did anyone take his paradoxes seriously? As my friend Bryan wrote in one of his emails, ‘they are the intellectual equivalent to the old custard-pie-in-the-face gag: it amuses the onlooker but nobody really gets hurt because it’s just froth’. Moreover, Shaw’s clever men talk just like Shaw, whom George plausibly termed a ‘solipsist’.

George’s most successful play, The Fountain, is in many ways a parody of a Shaw play, and in it the Fabian hero Wren spouts paradoxes throughout; in fact his problem and his comedy is that he just can’t stop talking, even as the curtain descends on him at the end. But he also keeps saying things about the Edwardian rich and poor that make sense. Even his paradoxes aren’t just ‘froth’. For example, the words of his that I take as my epigraph to Chapter 10: George Calderon the Dramatist, are:

This general ignorance is the oddest feature of modern life. I knew a case of a temperance mission entirely supported by brewery shares.

The last sentence trips beautifully off the actorial tongue, it sounds witty, it surprises by its Shavian paradox, but perhaps there is something more serious underneath? To quote my mathematical friend again:

I would regard the temperance mission supported by brewery shares as a perfectly logical arrangement, generating a kind of economic negative feedback loop which would be much more stable than alternatives. If the work goes badly, the shares will rise and there will be more resources to beef up the mission; if the work succeeds, the brewery will fail just as the mission’s work is completed. A modern comparison: Cancer Research UK advertises that its scientists are working to put themselves out of a job.

So the paradoxes in George’s full-length plays, The FountainCromwell: Mall o’Monks, and Revolt, are more like Jim Al-Khalili’s P2s and P3s — ‘perceived paradoxes’ and ‘resolvable perceived paradoxes’.

But what I really wrestle with is the problem of George’s self-referential paradoxes, which are P1s in the Al-Khalili classification, i.e. statements ‘constructed in such a way that there really is no way out of the loop’. This type of paradox is at the heart of several of George’s stories and one-act plays. In ‘The Lieutenant’s Heroine’ (1900) kismet (fate, destiny) is proven, disproven, proven, disproven…; in Geminae (1913?) identical twins are identical (one person), aren’t identical, are identical, aren’t identical…; in The Two Talismans (1913/14) character is fate, isn’t fate, is fate, isn’t fate… As Raymond Smullyan says in Alice in Puzzleland (1982), this kind of paradox is akin to saying ‘I know a man who is both five foot tall and six foot tall’. In the case of George’s stories and short plays, it makes them feel curiously empty in the centre. If they just present vicious circles what is the point of them, one asks today?

I have recently come to the conclusion that they are probably products of George’s belief in Taoism (q.v., as they say, along with Raymond Smullyan). George immersed himself in Taoist texts around 1905 and it is possible to find elements of the ancient philosophy in all his subsequent works. The object of creating a play in which the terms of the conflict cancel each other out, would therefore be to prove/suggest that there is a deeper reality (the ‘Tao’) beneath the appearances of the everyday world. This is particularly observable in The Fountain, where Wren refers to himself as ‘the sage’, i.e. the hero of Lao Tsu’s ‘sayings’, and preaches ‘doing nothing’ in order to ‘achieve wonders’ because ‘Progress is Nature’s affair’ — strongly suggestive of the Taoist doctrine of wu wei, ‘action through inaction’. However, this does not make George’s self-referential paradox plays any more likely to appeal to modern audiences.

It may be that in both Shaw and Calderon the paradox is just a means of ‘making strange’ in order to provoke laughter and critical thought simultaneously, and it is only because this Making Strange isn’t part of a whole rationalistic engaged theatre of Alienation Effects, like Brecht’s, that we can’t make sense of it.

Equally, you may think: ‘Give over, Patrick, you’re making ridiculously heavy weather of this, it’s all just Edwardian Fun!’ Hm…well that’s probably how contemporary audiences did take it in George’s plays, but don’t get me started: the Edwardians’ concept of ‘fun’ is as problematical as their love of ‘amateurism’!

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A not-paradox, a not-paradox, a most ingenuous not-paradox

In my post of 8 October 2016 I discussed George Calderon’s love of paradox and suggested that the ‘self-referential’ paradoxes in his plays might have been influenced by his following ‘developments in set theory in the 1900s, as he was an excellent mathematician’. In particular, I wondered if George was not taken by Russell’s Paradox (popularly known as ‘the barber paradox’), but I had to admit that my maths was not up to saying whether the Calderonian paradox is a literary form of Russell’s Paradox.

Five days later, I had a long email from my friend Bryan, who is a Cambridge graduate mathematician I have known for over forty years. He explained that ‘most mathematicians would regard contradiction as the essence of paradox; indeed would probably regard the two as synonymous’. But for mathematicians the ‘form of the paradox is not really of interest, since it is just a big “Stop!” sign saying you have a false assumption, go back and find it, correct it and proceed’. From the Calderonian literary examples I had given, my friend felt that I regarded paradox not as contradiction but mere incongruity, ‘a much weaker standard’. All this set me thinking more about what a paradox really is…

Then in February this year Bryan appeared unannounced at my front door, gave me the first mathematical explanation that I have been able to understand of why Russell’s Paradox is nonsense, and presented me with an inscribed copy of this book:

Click the cover to find this book on Amazon.

(A brief parenthesis on Bryan. He is a terrifyingly clear, logical thinker, but also a lover of the arts including, I think, Chekhov. He is a great fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, but hearing the song ‘A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox’ in The Pirates of Penzance, even as a child he said to himself: ‘There is no paradox here; it is just a description of how the calendar works.’ Not surprisingly, he knows Lewis Carroll inside out. He can be relied on to break the ice at parties by reciting ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’. Pace C.P. Snow, he does not believe there are ‘two cultures’.)

I am exceedingly grateful to Bryan for his crystalline explanations in two long emails and over the kitchen table, and for giving me Al-Khalili’s book, which has further expanded my understanding of this subject and which I can heartily recommend to followers.

Jim Al-Khalili starts with a vital distinction:

A true paradox is a statement that leads to a circular and self-contradictory argument, or describes a situation that is logically impossible. But the word ‘paradox’ does tend to be used more broadly to include what I prefer to call ‘perceived paradoxes’. For such puzzles there is a way out. It may be that the paradox has hidden within it a trick or sleight of hand that deliberately misleads the listener or reader. Once the trick is uncovered, the contradiction or logical absurdity disappears. Another type of perceived paradox is one in which the statement and the conclusions, while initially sounding absurd or at the very least counterintuitive, turn out on more careful consideration not to be so, even if the result remains somewhat surprising.

For the purposes of this post, let’s call Al-Khalili’s ‘true logical paradox’ P1, his ‘perceived paradoxes’ relying on sleight of hand P2, and his resolvable ‘perceived paradoxes’ P3.

He further defines P1 as ‘a statement that is constructed [my italics] in such a way that there really is no way out of the loop’. It seems to me that ‘the barber paradox’ is P1 and so are the self-referential paradoxes that George has constructed in ‘The Lieutenant’s Heroine’, ‘The Little Stone House’, ‘The Fountain’, ‘Geminae’, ‘The Two Talismans’ and ‘The Lamp’, not to mention his ‘chopper paradox’ and ‘unexploded bomb paradox’ described in my original post. The classic example of a P1 is the ‘liar paradox’ (‘This statement is a lie’). All P1s, surely, are artefacts. Their makers are people endowed with powers of creative fantasy, e.g. the Greeks or George Calderon.

Without further ado, Al-Khalili tells us that his book is not about such paradoxes, it is about P2s and P3s, and especially P3s in physics, all of which, ‘or nearly all’, can be ‘resolved with a little bit of fundamental scientific knowledge’.

When Laurence Binyon said of George as a student that ‘paradox attracted him’ and ‘his dialectical skill seemed rather sterile’, it is natural to think Binyon was referring to P1s. Perhaps, however, the paradoxes that George perpetrated at Oxford were more ‘incongruities’, to use Bryan’s word? George’s love of incongruities is familiar from his writing in Russia, and is something he shared with Chekhov. But perhaps some of George’s ‘paradoxes’ were P3s.  For instance, in a long letter to the Daily News of 13 February 1899 about overcrowding in London — a great issue of the day — George states that ‘the more houses you put together in one place the less living-room will there be for the people that will come there’. This is a P3 (resolvable perceived paradox) because any modern town-planner would agree that to ease overcrowding you have to decentralise, e.g. to Eastcote where George then lived and which was ‘not in the least overcrowded’.

In his first two chapters, Al-Khalili explodes a number of P2s, especially Zeno’s, then gets down to the P3s in science that naturally interest him most as a theoretical physicist. These include such fascinating ‘paradoxes’ as Olbers’ Paradox (why does it get dark at night?), Maxwell’s Demon, The Pole in the Barn Paradox, and the Paradox of the Twins. The reason I put ‘paradox’ in quotes here is that as P3s they are of course not paradoxes at all: they are resolvable by Einsteinian relativity and quantum physics. This still, in my view, leaves the tricky category of what science calls ‘Anomalies’. For instance, contrary to expectation, the density of water suddenly starts decreasing as temperature falls below 4 degrees C. and goes on decreasing until at zero it is floating on the top as ice. The ‘anomalous expansion of water’ may be completely explicable by the change in molecular bonding of hydrogen below 4 degrees C., but what explains that change? It’s still incongruous, and very fortunate for the survival of life in Earth’s rivers and polar oceans.

The bulk of Jim Al-Khalili’s Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics is about astrophysics, relativity, quantum mechanics and chaos theory. If, as a layman or arts person, you were to digest his clear, direct, ‘popular’ explanations of the P3s in these areas and combine it with a reading of John Polkinghorne’s Quantum Physics: a Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2002), I reckon you would have as good a grasp of these mind-bending subjects as you could hope for. In chapter 7, however, Al-Khalili moves broadly on from P3s and this is where I find myself taking issue with him.

Chapter 7 is entitled ‘The Grandfather Paradox: Going back to the past and killing your grandfather means you would never have been born’. The subject has not got off to a good start on page 14 of the book, where Al-Khalili says that ‘physicists have not yet ruled out the possibility, certainly in theory, of time travel’. A possibility that is certainly theoretical is a very attenuated possibility (feasibility) indeed. Al-Khalili describes the Grandfather Paradox as an ‘argument that goes round for ever in a self-contradicting circle’. It is therefore a P1 and not a P3. The P3s that Al-Khalili considered in his previous chapters had a basis in hard science. Time travel is at most an hypothesis, but one that is unverifiable. He seems to admit as much when he proposes the ‘multiverse and wormholes in space-time’ as ‘a possible solution to time-travel paradoxes’, but writes that such ideas ‘remain just outside conventional science: fun to consider but impossible to verify’. The last third of his book confusingly mixes such ‘ideas’ with P3s like Fermi’s Paradox that have an empirical basis. Actually, time travel, the multiverse and wormholes in space-time seem to me not only unverifiable, but unfalsifiable. They are therefore not science at all, but ‘thought experiments’.

‘Thought experiments’ are all the rage in science today. Anyone, of course, can devise one. Here, for instance, is the Paradox of Miles’s Cricket, which would slip easily into Al-Khalili’s penultimate four chapters:

I have a cricket that I keep in a matchbox. The cricket can travel at 1.1 times the speed of light whilst remaining subject to the Earth’s gravity. As soon as the matchbox is opened wide enough, it jumps out. To the human observer, will the cricket always appear to be just inside its box?

Whether the thought experiment is the Grandfather Paradox, Schrödinger’s Cat or String Theory, it is an act of pure creative fantasy, although String Theory is commonly said to be elegant mathematics as well. The thought experiment in modern science therefore has more in common with metaphysics and P1s — even with literary paradoxes like George’s — than with what Al-Khalili terms ‘resolvable paradoxes in physics’ (P3s). The thought experiment may be ingenious, it may be delightful, it may be intriguing, it may be disturbing, it may be maddening, but it has no scientific content.

The mathematical physicist John Polkinghorne has extended ‘thought experiments’ to theology. Thus, to take an example from The End of the World and the Ends of God (2000), for him the ‘carrier of continuity’ in our bodies is the ‘immensely complex “information-bearing pattern” in which that matter is organised’ and ‘it is this information-bearing pattern that is the soul. […] At death that human “pattern” is held in the divine memory, to be re-embodied in the “space-time matter” of the new creation’. Polkinghorne believes this. Yet it is only a thought experiment. It has no religious content. This is a fundamental disagreement between us.

A strange similarity between Al-Khalili’s book and Simon Baron-Cohen’s, which I looked at five posts back, is that the standard of writing and/or proofreading deteriorates alarmingly towards the end. I am reminded of the 79-year-old Lord Weidenfeld’s claim at a Frankfurt Book Fair that books were being rushed out before they were fit for publication and ‘extraordinary howlers’ were appearing in print largely because publishers under financial pressure were bringing out books quickly and cheaply, at the expense of editorial and design quality. I think he had a point.

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Whoosh and bang!

A correspondent reminds me that on 7 July I wrote:

Since the last approach I made to any of the 31 publishers on my A list was 1 June, I am inclined to think I should wait until at least 1 August before giving up with commercial publishers. I don’t want to do this, as I intended to take a decision about self-publishing by 15 July, but I’ll compromise by making that the 25th.

Clearly, I did not take such a decision by 25 July. The correspondent therefore quotes to me the immortal words of Douglas Adams: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’

Yurss… I think I catch the heft of my correspondent’s drift. I am sure many other followers also wondered whether this was another case of the ‘O fallacem hominum spem!’ (‘How vain are the hopes of men!’, Kulygin, Three Sisters) leitmotif of my posts in 2016, when I was constantly overrunning deadlines for finishing the book. I would humbly ask readers to consider, however:

  1. I did post about the situation on 25 July; I hadn’t forgotten the date!
  2. When I returned from holiday shortly before, I found the situation completely changed, with as many as four publishers in play.
  3. Deadlines are vital if you are to get from A to C.

The situation has changed radically again. I have just lost two publishers in two days. I had to sack one, and the other sacked me within hours of receiving their commissioning editor’s positive report! This makes a total of three, outwardly respectable publishers that I have had to fire myself since the whole campaign opened in January. I fear I cannot say more: to paraphrase Wittgenstein, ‘What one cannot talk diplomatically about, one should keep silent about.’  But, in entirely different ways, these big names were a sad disappointment when we got down to the nitty gritty.

So it is not just ‘whoosh’, but ‘bang’ — I have no contracts on offer at the moment, and just two of my original 31 A list publishers in play. I  spend a morning, then, taking a rigorous look at the ten publishers on my B list (which I hoped never to have to touch). For a variety of reasons, including, woe, the presence of a difficult Russian publisher’s reader, I drop six of them definitively. Fortunately, though, the nice commissioning editor at X, who has read the book, recommends to me two that I hadn’t thought of.

The current situation, then, is: two publishers in play (one academic) and six to approach seriously next week. A friend reminds me: ‘Publishers never answer emails.’ I am currently thinking therefore that the deadline for a decision on self-publishing may have to be 30 September. I go into Waterstones every week looking at the new biographies for promising new publishers, but I don’t find them.

Thud..!

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It makes you think

An anniversary has just passed: three years ago on 30 July I posted my first entry on Calderonia.

I have just asked my blogmaster to analyse the rather confusing statistics generated daily by WordPress, in order to compile a list of the top six views over the last six months, but that wasn’t possible because of the site migrating to its new address over a year ago. (Posts predating that still get hits.) What he has been able to assemble with accuracy, however, is a ranking for the past twelve months:

1. 29 October 1914: ‘toothache in the ankle’
2. 4 June 1915: The Third Battle of Krithia
3. Guest post: Clare Hopkins, ‘One Man and his College’
4. ‘The errors of democracy’
5. 6-8 May 1915: The Second Battle of Krithia
6. Guest post: John Pym, ‘A bit of fun with Calderon’
7. And the asp jumped over the chimney sweeper!
8. 28 April 1915: The First Battle of Krithia
9. The Nastiness Factor
10. Tahiti: An Imagined World?
11. Guest post: James Miles, ‘Schulz and Peanuts’
12. ‘He was away, far away…’

I find it very interesting. Remember that it does not include you the subscribers, as you ‘hit’ every post, whether you read them all or not… It is a list of the top twelve viewed by people all over the world who are looking for something. Not surprisingly, the battles of Ypres and Krithia score well during this centenary; and my posts of them include maps, so that may help. Similarly, there are an awful lot of alumni of Trinity College out there, they have been told about Clare’s superb post on George the student, and evidently they have followed it up! One can also tell from the little flags that WordPress appends to hits that it is mainly Tahitians who investigate the link between George Calderon, Gauguin and Loti.

It all makes me think about what the blog has achieved, where it is going now, and what is its future.

Calderonia (the name invented by James Miles) was first mooted in 2013, when I had been writing the book for two years. Several people impressed upon me that I must increase George’s Web presence — at that time there wasn’t even a Wiki entry on him — and that a regular blog would help achieve that. You only have to read the recent Comment by Lord Strathcarron, chairman of Unicorn Publishing Group, to see they were right about its ‘marketing’ value. There is no doubt in my mind that Calderonia is responsible for a large part of my comparative success in approaching publishers.

Although I could see the sense of what people were telling me in 2013, I was rather wary at first as I couldn’t see how I was going to present the blog; to be blunter, what I was going to write about. It was the enormous interest in the centenary of August 1914 that simply drove me to the ‘blography’ of George’s (and Kittie’s) first year of the war, i.e. posting almost every day about that until George fell at Gallipolli and 30 July had come full circle. I am proud of having got through that year of blography, but it was so eviscerating at times and such hard work that I was ready to stop there.

But again numerous pragmatic friends, notably Andrew Tatham, author of  the wonderful groupphoto.co.uk, told me I would be mad to give up and waste all that marketing potential for finding a publisher and selling copies, especially if I found no commercial publisher and had to self-publish… I hastily took their advice.

In fact, as followers will appreciate, I have found plenty to write about since July 2015, and I have enjoyed it immensely, despite the fact that it has been a quite different experience from ‘1914-15’ when I was living the war from day to day, two-timing writing the blog and the last chapters of the book, and doing goodness knows what else. But it’s now time to ask again where the blog is going and what it’s brought me.

I have written over a quarter of a million words. I have never written so much in three years in my life before. It’s been exceedingly liberating, because I could write about what I liked, and that’s still a major attraction. But…there has to be more to life and letters than marketing? I don’t have anything against journalism; in fact I have an enormous respect and admiration for journalists, their economy with words, the quality of much of their writing, and their ability as professionals to do it perfectly even when they don’t want to. The blog is the nearest I shall ever come to journalism, however, and it’s not my forte. I fear that the blog has had a deleterious effect on my own prose, especially as the social media encourage you to emote onto the screen without exercising proper rational, aesthetic and editorial control. In the last three years, whilst I have been simultaneously finishing George Calderon: Edwardian Genius and composing the blog, I have written nothing else, excepting about three haikus!

Yet I think there are still things I will want to put down on blog-screen, there are still issues with improving the book, with finding the best publisher and doing the deal, and above all there will still be themes and new discoveries about George and Kittie, which I hope followers will still be interested to read about and perhaps (please) Comment on. And that’s quite independent of marketing.

So, unless there is a wave of emails telling me in the kindest possible terms to call it a day, I shall soldier on, with roughly a post a week, until publication day. Is that reasonable? Should one discuss reviews? In the theatre, you are advised to pretend you haven’t even read them. At the moment, I am thinking of a final image of the cover and announcement informing everyone how to buy the book, of always replying of course to comments, but taking a rest then for a year or two until I (might) start up a different blog altogether.

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28 July 1917: A letter to Mrs Calderon

July 28th 1917                                    Havelock Barracks,  Lucknow, India

… we are having some terrible weather out hear, its never stop raining for five days, I don’t think I have ever witnessed it in England to rain, how it does out hear, it comes down heavy to, I hope you like the Indian Rose I am sending you, we don’t often see Roses growing out here, morest we see, is Ants, the land is fairly alive with them, and after it has been raining, and the sun comes out we often have a plague of flying Ants, especialy at night, they always make for the lamps we have hung in the Bugalow, the light seems to attract all the insects there is, what with Grass Hoppers and Moss Keaters, you don’t get much rest…

…you ask me what I mean to do, after I have done out here, well if I have the pleasure of learning Engineering, I think it would suit me up to the Mark, I am saying this as highly interested in anything of that line, so if I am spared to come home, and work till I get a few shillings, and then I can pay to learn. I have wrote to London, to the International Schools for a Book of Engineering hoping I succeed in getting it, I can see I have been a fool to myself in the past, but I’m only young (“prime of life”), but I have learned more this last three years than ever I new, it will be three year’s on the 5th of August, since I listed, of which I am pleased in one way and not in another, as I don’t think I should ever had of joined the colours if the War hadn’t of broke out…

For more about the writer of this letter go here. On the envelope containing ‘Letters from men at the front in the last war’ one of Kittie’s executors, Louise Rosales, wrote: ‘Quinn seems a rare character.’

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Decisions decisions

The most gratifying thing about the whole process of finding the right publisher for my biography of George, which has been going on since January, has been the enthusiasm so many publishers have shown for George himself and his story. ‘So many’ needs qualifying, of course: actually six out of the thirty-one publishers I approached with a letter and synopsis asked to see chapters or the whole thing. But that is far higher than I expected or than my writer friends predicted, because (forgive the refrain, long-term followers) ‘Nobody knows who George Calderon is’… I am truly amazed, then, that relatively many publishers were that interested; I am hugely relieved that several said they were convinced George needed a biography; and I am rather impressed by their open-mindedness.

I’ve now returned from a week away, to a new and unexpected situation.

First — sensationally! — a commissioning editor emails me that she likes my Introduction ‘very much’. This is possibly the first time anyone has said something positive about it since I wrote Draft 1 in 2013. She had just read Draft 18.

Second, having dropped one and a half offers, I now have two good ones and two academic presses waiting in the wings. I really hope to move things on fast with the first two, as time is passing. If I find myself unable in any circumstances to do the things they request, I will have to take up with the academic presses immediately. But I am not sanguine about the latter publishing the book in less than eighteen months, and the absolute latest date it must come out is 2 December 2018, George’s 150th. So I am simultaneously firming up the budgets for the various self-publishing alternatives.

It looks as though there will be some hard decisions over the next three weeks. I am blessed in having such good literary and business friends who give measured, hard-headed advice from their superior experience. In personal terms, after investing six years of my life in this project, there is much at stake.

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Plum pie in the sky

I was intending to post about this subject in February, but my attention wandered and the relevant newspaper cuttings got buried. I am very glad that I put it off, as I have now read this recently reprinted book, which startlingly addresses (answers?) many of the speculations I found myself making five months ago:

Click the cover to find this book on Amazon.

The Times of 28 December 2016 carried a full-page article entitled ‘How Wodehouse answered his critics’. It reported that a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s account of his wartime experiences had just been deposited in the British Library, and quoted from it his ‘detailed and spirited defence against accusations of being a Nazi sympathiser’.

For those unaware, Wodehouse (‘Plum’) was arrested by the Germans at Le Touquet in 1940, interned for nearly a year in Germany, and shortly after his release into the Reich gave a series of radio broadcasts from Berlin in which he portrayed his experiences of internment with his inimitable epigonic-Edwardian, public schoolboy humour. This provoked outrage in post-Blitz Britain and after the war Wodehouse was investigated by MI5, who concluded he was not a Nazi sympathiser, just ‘naive’. But I have to say, the quotations from the document printed in The Times are not so much a ‘defence’ as a lethally honed attack on some of his denigrators, e.g. A.A. Milne, and on this evidence Wodehouse was not naive in any usual sense of the word.

At the time, it was a cause célèbre (Wodehouse never returned to Britain). I had read George Orwell’s essay ‘In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse’ years ago, and sure enough next day The Times carried a reader’s letter referring to it. The reader called it ‘a well-informed analysis of why Wodehouse was slandered’, but I don’t think Orwell believed Wodehouse was slandered, simply that all kinds of people with their own agendas had generated a witch hunt that had gone on for far too long. Orwell’s essay is a complex masterpiece well worth reading. The Times reader rightly stressed that Orwell had defended Wodehouse’s art and called for the ‘incident’ to be ‘closed’, but he omitted to mention that Orwell believed Wodehouse had demonstrated ‘stupidity’ and that he, Orwell, thought ‘the really interesting question is how and why he could be so stupid’. Orwell was right: this is indeed the interesting question.

I have always found it surprising that Orwell exonerated Wodehouse from allowing himself to be a ‘useful idiot’ (Lenin’s phrase) for a homicidal political system. Of all people, Orwell was the least likely to accept Wodehouse’s defence that he was ‘never interested in politics’. Rather as Chekhov said in the nineteenth century that ‘writers must engage with politics to the extent that it is necessary to defend themselves from politics’, Orwell is renowned for believing every individual must ‘interest themselves’ in the politics of the totalitarian age or soon find themselves its victims. So why, apart from his own humanity and compassion, did Orwell forgive Wodehouse his ‘stupidity’?

Two days later The Times published another letter on the subject, which made me sit up. The reader quoted Evelyn Waugh’s belief that ‘Wodehouse’s world can never stale and he will release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own’, adding from himself: ‘In Wodehouse’s exquisite descriptions of worlds that never really existed, the reader escapes beyond the often bleaker nature of those that do.’ It so happens that I know this to be literally true. In the leaden depths of the Soviet era I asked Muscovite expert on English literature Gabriel Yegorov how he could put up with queuing for hours for potatoes, say, or a pair of pants, and he replied: ‘I just dream of Blandings…’ He explained that he really meant it. He could stand there for hours imagining life in ‘Plum’s’ Blandings and himself taking part in it.

So, I reasoned, Wodehouse’s writing is escapist. Orwell gives a brilliant analysis of how closely it relates to the Edwardian world in which Wodehouse started publishing, but he also emphasises that it hardly developed, so that even in 1936 ‘Plum’ was still writing about the life of the Edwardian man-about-town, the ‘knut’. In any case for Orwell this innocent, sunlit pre-1914 world never really existed, and ‘Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round about 1915’. The sheer length, unreality and stasis of Wodehouse’s oeuvre, then, make it not so much an idyll as a Utopia. It is pie in the sky.

This realisation alarmed me. I have never been able to get ‘into’ Wodehouse’s world. I have known so many highly intelligent people who are Wodehouse addicts that I have driven myself to read him several times, but I have never got further than a few pages. He is clever, often hilarious, but I simply cannot relate to his world; it leaves me cold. His language is very precise, but rather one-dimensional. The range of emotion and body language of his characters may not seem small, but it is limited. There is no sense whatever of a physical life outside what you are reading on the page. As Orwell put it, you can’t imagine a love affair in Wodehouse’s world being consummated; I would add that you can’t imagine any lavatories. ‘Plum’s’ world is not just a Utopia, it is a kind of system.

At this point I began to wonder whether Wodehouse was simply Aspergic. I don’t know how far the syndrome was recognised by the 1940s, but I do think it possible that Orwell intuited something clinical like this in Wodehouse and that is the only reason he absolved him from personal responsibility for being a useful idiot. ‘If my analysis of Wodehouse’s mentality is accepted’, wrote Orwell, the idea that Wodehouse consciously abetted the Nazi propaganda machine was ‘untenable and ridiculous’. Wodehouse was not ‘a person capable of understanding the nature of quislingism’ (my italics); he had a ‘complete lack of political awareness’ and seemed unable to acquire one.

Orwell had already investigated the psychopathic mutations of utopianism. In his 1940 essay ‘Inside the Whale’ he wrote that English intellectuals ‘can swallow totalitarianism because they have no experience of anything except liberalism’. Of a line in one of W.H. Auden’s fellow-traveller poems, he observed:

Notice the phrase ‘necessary murder’. It could only be used by someone to whom murder is at most a word.  Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. […] To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person. The Hitlers and Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness, and they don’t speak of it as murder; it is ‘liquidation’, ‘elimination’, or some other soothing phrase. Mr Auden’s amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.

But there is another way of looking at these (undoubted) facts. It is perfectly excusable for people to have ‘no experience of anything except liberalism’ or to not know that fire is hot, but it is not excusable for them to fail to exercise their imaginations, to fail to make the effort to understand, what genocidal totalitarianism or fire are. In fact their failure is so extraordinary that one is bound to ask, as with Wodehouse, whether such people are psychologically capable of it. Is the kind of lack of empathy that Orwell describes a symptom of psychopathy, or at least autism, or at least Asperger Syndrome?

At this point in my February meditations, I paused. Is it conceivable that imaginative literature, of all things, can be Aspergic? To write, I reasoned, you have got to experience feelings and you have got to extend yourself, for heaven’s sake, to other people’s feelings. In fact fiction is essentially about other people’s feelings, isn’t it? If as a writer you lacked empathy, how would you have anything to write about and why would readers, who we assume largely have empathy, want to read you?

A moment’s reflection, however, suggests that these assumptions are wrong. For a start, the autism spectrum is broad, and so many people lie somewhere on it, that it is highly likely some writers are Aspergic or autistic, can live with the fact, or may not even be aware of it. In any case, when you read a novel or short story, you know nothing about the author, whom you do not see, you only see and read his/her text. So what is it about the text that might be described as Aspergic or autistic?

I gave this some thought. I could not actually think of a creative text, a piece of fiction, that I would call ‘autistic’. In the late 1970s, I think it was, Norman Stone infamously described the voluminous historiography of E.H. Carr as ‘autistic’ because, in Stone’s view, it was a purely abstract account of Soviet history based on official statistics that Carr could not bring himself to accept were lies and it never mentioned the horrific sufferings of flesh and blood Russians; it had therefore lost contact with reality and was Utopian. Personally, I agreed with Stone. But Carr’s History of the Bolshevik Revolution is non-fiction.

However, I can say what it is about someone’s writing that I associate with the adjective ‘Aspergic’. The writing is in some way — perhaps some attractive or even beautiful way — etiolated, unreal, one-dimensional. The language lacks ‘thickness’, emotional allusiveness of any sort. It has, perhaps, a hugely impressive forward-driving ‘horizontality’, but no ‘vertical’ dimension. Similarly, characters have no imaginable life outside the work (within which they may well be lively enough), and there is no reality felt or imaginable outside the world of the work itself. This loss of contact with the real world (the world that readers are still living in) may go unnoticed, as the author’s world may be so vividly realised, but it is a very significant lack; it is bound to make the ‘Aspergic’ text’s world approximate to a detached utopia or dystopia. Writers who always produce a sense of their text being connected to a wider world (for example, I would say, Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Chekhov, Proust), have been described as practising ‘anacrusis’, i.e. instinctively leaving in extra bits and loose ends continuing ‘offstage’, away from the focus of the text into the world outside. If you stop to think of it whilst reading an ‘Aspergic’ text, you realise that it is totally self-contained; it is precise, even ‘exquisite’ as the Times reader put it, but there is no more to it than its literal meaning; it is low on reality’s dirt and roughage; it is remarkably ‘finished’; it is remarkably systemised.

Personally, I feel G.B. Shaw’s work is ‘Aspergic’. Its single-minded concern with ideas and argument does not correspond to my own experience of people or the world. Most of the time his characters’ speech is ‘head-speech’, not ‘art-speech’, to use D.H. Lawrence’s term. This is not to say, of course, that Shaw’s plays are not great and witty polemics, but with a few exceptions I do not feel they are continuous with mucky reality. They hardly move me. It does not surprise me that Shaw denied the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges, insisting that they were figments of British propaganda. And, of course, it is inevitable that comic worlds like Wodehouse’s, or the worlds of children’s literature like those of Ransome and Stevenson, should be reduced or simplified worlds without grime and blood. But I still find the world of Swallows and Amazons creepily unreal — unreadable as an adult — and I sense there may be a connection between that and Ransome’s eccentric belief in Russian communism. Gulliver’s Travels has several features that might be called ‘Aspergic’, but they are perfectly attuned to Swift’s purpose — incomparable satire. Ezra Pound would also be on my list of writers of ‘Aspergic’ texts, and the beautiful constructivist world of Bolshevik Evgenii Zamiatin (see my post of 5 July 2016) seems to me full of traits that match the syndrome. Perhaps it is significant that all these writers are male. I have never ever met a woman who liked Wodehouse.

But enough, I told myself back in February: these are all very good writers! It follows, then, that there can be nothing inherently negative about Asperger Syndrome, despite the fact that you overwhelmingly read about it being bad for you and others. Indeed, I thought, most of the best mathematicians, engineers, physicists and structuralists that I know are blatantly Aspergic, so where would we be without them? At that point I stopped thinking, as I felt I had already exceeded my qualifications in this area.

Simon Baron-Cohen addresses the issue of my last paragraph in his brilliant chapter ‘When Zero Degrees of Empathy is Positive’.  The empathy difficulties of people with Asperger Syndrome are ‘associated with having a brain that processes information in ways that can lead to talent’. ‘People with Asperger Syndrome […] systemise to an extraordinary degree’, they have ‘a brain that is exquisitely tuned to notice patterns’, and ‘spotting such patterns is key to our ability to invent and improve’. Moreover, they are fascinated by timeless patterns (they do not like change). Their ‘systemizing mind steps out of time to seek truths that are not tied to the present’, and ‘at least among the natural patterns, the truths may be eternal ones’. Human society ‘owes a special debt to those who have innovated in the fields of technology, music, science, medicine, mathematics, history, philosophy, engineering and other systemizing fields. The fact that they may be challenged when it comes to empathy is all the more reason to make our society more Zero-Positive-friendly’. I recommend reading the book from cover to cover.

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Punching on

The campaign to publish continues to develop in unpredictable ways.

I have lost three publishers, through no fault of their own. One of them does no real marketing, but saddest of all is the fact that Giles de la Mare, grandson of the poet, is not taking on any more titles whilst he seeks a new owner for his firm. He is a superb publisher of biography, with a distinguished record at Faber before he retired, and I have always thought Giles de la Mare Publishers would be ideal for my book. Incidentally, Walter de la Mare was greatly encouraged at the beginning of his career by Henry Newbolt and the latter’s mistress Ella Coltman, which means he may well have met George Calderon. I confess that I tried every blandishment with Mr de la Mare, including the mantra 80 is the new 50, but I do understand his resolve to retire in earnest.

Simultaneously, an excellent publisher has responded to an approach I made on 5 May attaching Synopsis and three chapters…unfortunately, they have now asked to see the ill-fated Introduction, so I have had to set about ‘improving’ it yet again in the light of swingeing recent criticisms.

The interesting thing about this initiative is that it has taken two months to come about. Since the last approach I made to any of the 31 publishers on my A list was 1 June, I am inclined to think I should wait until at least 1 August before giving up with commercial publishers. I don’t want to do this, as I intended to take a decision about self-publishing by 15 July, but I’ll compromise by making that the 25th.

So at present I am being ‘read’ by only two publishers. I am tempted, therefore, to get on and approach some publishers on my B list. The trouble there, however, is that the best are ‘academic’ publishers and my book has deliberately been written without footnotes, which I compare to caltrops, i.e. those spikey iron things thrown down to stop the progress of horses in WW1. I admit that the book is neither academic nor fictive, so it is possibly too fictive for academic publishers and too academic for commercial ones.

Altogether, the present plan must be to attack on all fronts at once: A list, B list, and self-publishing. As I have said before, the latter isn’t new to me. Three friends of mine have run their own presses since the late 1970s and I have been a partner in the samizdat Anglo-Russian press Sam&Sam since 1980. I am therefore beginning to make plans for a small print run of the book in hardback, like many produced in Russia by Sam&Sam. I won’t say that the reason I don’t want to go down that route is that it takes up so much time and energy, since in my experience dealing with commercial and academic publishers can be just as time-consuming and draining. As many, many people have said to me, if you want the book to come out as you have written it, publish it yourself. If I sold the hardback satisfactorily, I would prefer to sell the paperback rights to someone to coincide with the publication of a fresh edition of my Brief Life of Chekhov (2008).

Thank you, all who emailed me after my last post on this subject. Your advice, recommendations and encouragement are hugely appreciated and all go into the equation. I also thoroughly agree with Ian Strathcarron in his Comment that marketing is the problem for the self-publisher. I thank him again for putting this to me with all the force of his publishing experience. It’s true that we couldn’t get much of a head start with the marketing, but if I went for a Sam&Sam production I would at least get it out before Christmas and could perhaps relaunch for the 150th.

On with the job, then, and I shall next report on 25 July.

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The Petersfield parenthesis

Happy the person who can combine work with a holiday in a lovely place. Definitely in need of such a break, we spent four days in the Petersfield area of Hampshire at the beginning of the month. We had not been down there since September 2011, when I was trying to establish where Kittie had lived during those ‘lost’ years 1923-33 and I visited some of the places associated with her time in Hampshire.

Of course, the chapters dealing with her life after George’s disappearance at Gallipoli were written over a year ago; but it is still not too late to tweak them. I had come to my own conclusions about why she left London for the village of Sheet in late 1922, why her residence there was so broken, and why she basically abandoned it in 1933, but I thought that with all my knowledge and mulling since, I might be able to clinch the answers by revisiting the place and meeting more of today’s inhabitants.

To see how stressed Kittie was about leaving London to live on the edge of Sheet, and how stressed by living in Hampshire generally, you only have to look at her ‘Fragment’ that I posted on 7 June.

We made straight for the National Trust property of Harting Down, which Kittie mentions in her diary as being a place of particular solace to her:

View from Harting Down on 3 June 2017, with South Harting below and Sheet in the distance left of mound (Torberry Hill)

It was a beautiful hot day, bees and burnet moths were whirring through the chalkland flora around us, a buzzard sailed through the valley below… But what you can’t see is the thirty or so other people sitting around us also having their lunch! Presumably, in Kittie’s day it was wilder and less visited, not to mention the time when the Calderons’ friend Thomas Sturge Moore had written ‘On Harting Down’, the only poem of his to make it into The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. If I tell you that this remarkable poem begins ‘Once, when their hearts were wild with joy,/They bedded on the downs’, I probably need say no more.

We tried to work out how Kittie would have got to Harting Down, which is about seven miles distant from Sheet as the crow flies. There were footpaths, of course, but the evidence is that she could not walk more than a mile or two. We looked at the old railway tracks on maps. She could have got nearer by rail, but there would still have been a long plodding climb. Most likely she hired a car to take her there, or her godson Alan Lubbock took her in his. On one occasion, she seems to have been driven to Harting Down by her god-daughter Lesbia Corbet, aged twenty-one. She could actually see the Downs from her back bedroom and take short walks on their lower slopes.

At Sheet itself, little seemed to have changed (the village itself is firmly enclosed within three ancient streets), but the London Road (A272) separating the Old Mill area where Kittie lived from the village proper, is busier than ever, and the Lane on which Kittie’s house ‘Kay’s Crib’ was situated has morphed into the B2199. When I took the photograph of Kay’s Crib below in 2011, I could stand in the Lane and I don’t recall there being any traffic at all. In 2017 that was impossible: an unbroken stream of cars roared along it.

View of the Victorian cottage ‘Kay’s Crib’, taken 29 September 2011

The hedge in the photograph above is probably the remains of the one you can see in the photograph below, which is the only picture we have of Kittie at Sheet. She is holding her Cairn terrier Bunty and may be wearing a Russian embroidered linen shirt brought back by George. The person on the left is Sophie Malcolm (‘Ess’), the wife of a retired surgeon, who had bought the biggest house in Sheet in 1929. When Jack Malcolm died in 1937, Kittie, who was then living near Ashford in Kent, ‘went suddenly to be with Ess’ (diary).

Sophie Malcolm (left) with Kittie Calderon and Bunty, c. 1930

Behind Kay’s Crib it was as quiet and idyllic as ever:

The Old Mill at Sheet, 5 June 2017

Kelly’s Directory tells us that in the 1920s the Old Mill House was lived in by the Misses Malet. Kittie seems to have been on good terms with them; judging from the war memorial in Sheet’s church one of them may have lost a husband in the First World War, like Kittie.

The church of St Mary Magdalen, Sheet, 4 June 2017

Although it meant having an early B&B breakfast and driving sixteen miles, I was determined to attend the ten o’clock service at St Mary’s for a variety of reasons. First, we had not been inside it on our 2011 visit, although we had been hugely impressed by its spickness and garden outside. Second, Kittie had been an active member of St Mary’s and it would be interesting to see whether it is as important a part of village life as it was in her time. Third, I hoped that if we were invited to coffee afterwards I might be able to pick up informed gossip that would help me clinch my answers to the vital questions: 1) why did Kittie come here? 2) why did she not really enjoy it? 3) why did she leave?

The church was full, the service a really appealing blend of ‘happy clapping’ and traditional elements, and there was a fantastic sense of community in the congregation. Most people, I think, went off to the adjoining hall for coffee. Here we were introduced to everyone.

A lady apologised to me for the length of the sermon. I said that I hadn’t noticed as it was so spontaneous and sincere, unlike the half-hour tracts of my youth, and I added that everything about the church, including its website, seemed so well-run. ‘It should be,’ she replied, ‘there are seven naval officers on the church council.’ This was interesting. She herself was the widow of a naval commander.

Although ‘a building of stone in the Early English style’ (Kelly’s, 1927), the church was erected only in 1868. Like George Calderon, then, its 150th is going to be celebrated next year. A number of events are planned in this connection and I met the energetic archivist who is heading a team to research the funding, construction and early activity of the church. I explained who Kittie was, that she had been a parishioner, on the Fabric Fund, and collected for the Clothing Club, but I forgot to mention that she also taught in the Sunday School and her lesson notes have survived. The archivist asked me if I would give a talk about Kittie during the 150th celebrations. Would I!

A place that we had not visited in 2011 was Adhurst St Mary, a seven-bedroom Victorian pile about half a mile outside Sheet. I had not at the time realised that it was lived in by Kittie’s godson Alan Lubbock, who had married the owner, Helen Bonham-Carter, in 1918. However, when I caught up with this fact in 2013 I Googled on the place and found that it was up for sale. It looked pretty derelict. Talking to people over coffee at Sheet, I heard that it was now being renovated, but in formidably acrimonious circumstances. On 5 June we took the wrong turning down its private road, reversed immediately we realised our mistake, and just had time to take this photograph:

Adhurst St Mary, built for John Bonham-Carter in 1858

The rest of Sunday 4 June we spent at Steep, a village about a mile and a half from Kittie’s cottage. It seemed appropriate to start an afternoon’s walking with lunch at ‘The Harrow’, as this popular pub prides itself on its unreconstructed 1920s style.

Thomas Sturge Moore and his family left 40 Well Walk, the house next door to the Calderons, in 1919 and settled at Steep. His main motivation, it seems, was to enable his children (great favourites of George’s) to attend Bedales School; when they had completed their education there in 1927, the Sturge Moores moved back to London. We walked up Church Street past Bedales to ‘Hillcroft’, number 29, which has a plaque on its front commemorating Sturge Moore’s stay.

‘Hillcroft’, Steep, 4 June 2017

It seems that Edward Thomas and his wife Helen also moved to Steep to enable their children to attend Bedales, where Helen taught in the kindergarten. They lived there on and off between 1909 and 1916. Thomas’s poetry and his reasons for joining up in July 1915 have been one of the backgrounds to ‘Calderonia’. Some of his finest poems and prose were written at Steep. We therefore devoted ourselves now to the four-mile Edward Thomas literary walk.

Following it as numbered on the map, rather than being tempted at point 2 by the sight of the waterfall to head straight for the Poet’s Stone commemorating Thomas, has a significant advantage: you ascend relatively gently through woodland and along metalled roads to a magnificent view of the valley from the top of Shoulder of Mutton Hill, and then descend to the Poet’s Stone halfway down the hillside. The spectacle of those toiling up to it from the waterfall brought home to me vividly why the place is called Steep.

Memorial to Edward Thomas erected on Shoulder of Mutton Hill, Steep, in 1937

When we were walking along Church Road in Steep, we were struck by the number of houses in the Arts and Crafts style. Indeed, it turns out that Bedales itself was designed by Ernest Gimson, one of the leaders of the Cotswold School of A&C. A bonus of the Edward Thomas trail, however, was that as we walked along Cockshott Lane we came upon the workshop of Edward Barnsley, another key A&C man, who specialised in furniture:

The entrance to the Edward Barnsley Workshop, Froxfield, 4 June 2017

For more information on how Edward Barnsley came to end up here, go to the Edward Barnsley Workshop website. The point is, I knew Kittie had viewed his furniture in London, but I did not know that by the time she moved to Sheet Barnsley was already at Steep. I have now found his address there in one of her address books. Almost certainly, I would think, she visited the workshop. Like the painter Arnold Pienne, Barnsley was in his early twenties, and she liked to encourage such young talent.

Next day, Monday 5 June, we set out in the morning for somewhere totally different: Hayling Island, which is about twenty-five miles south of Petersfield.

Various people we know had cast aspersions on the place, and I daresay at the height of the summer holiday season it isn’t seen to its best. But the drive down the eastern side is very pleasantly rural: a bit like Romney Marsh. The ‘Inn on the Beach’ and bathing huts on West Beach were in excellent nick, I thought, and Sinah Common, stretching westwards to the closest point to Portsmouth, is not only a popular golf course but a very rich nature reserve. The Common was actually our main destination.

During the First World War the island was taken over by the School of Musketry. Every home with a spare bedroom had a soldier billeted on it, including one George Calderon, and the military took over the Royal Hotel (built in 1825):

The restored Royal Hotel, Hayling Island, today ‘luxury apartments’

Already in the autumn of 1914, two impressive ranges were being set up on Sinah Common: one with targets on the southern shore, the other on the north side firing, it seems, towards Langstone Harbour. The musketry course sought to convert soldiers from the ‘Bisley style’ of deliberate shooting to the rapid fire of the First British Army that helped check the German advance in the first months of the war. The other course for which Hayling was famous was its Machine Gun Course, which George took in the spring of 1915. It seems to have lasted at least a fortnight.

As far as I and three extremely helpful advisors at the Tourist Information Office could work out, very little remains of the School of Musketry’s presence 1914-18 compared with the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery and Mulberry Harbours that played such an important role in World War II. However, this is a view at Gunners Point on the south shore of Sinah Common, where the Machine Gun Course probably operated:

Gunners Point, Hayling Island, 5 June 2017

On our last morning in Petersfield, 6 June, we had a meeting with Vaughan Clarke, whom I had never met before but who had helped me enormously after our 2011 visit in establishing the history of Kay’s Crib. Vaughan is now Chairman of Petersfield Museum. He and his team are managing a fantastic project to expand and diversify the Museum after taking over the old Police Station. They are able to add all this new space to the premises that they previously occupied at the back, preserving the original Police cells, exercise yard etc as historical attractions in their own right, increasing storage space for collections by 85%, creating a fifty-seat lecture hall in the old Courthouse, and setting up a new Edward Thomas Study Centre to house the Museum’s archive collection and library relating to the poet’s time at Steep. The work involves an army of volunteers and has been made possible by a major local benefaction and support by the Heritage Lottery Fund. As the brochure puts it: ‘A fully re-imagined Petersfield Museum will open its doors in 2021.’

The new frontage of Petersfield Museum, 6 June 2017

Meanwhile, Vaughan gave us a personal tour of the Museum. We lingered particularly long over the display of wedding dresses and suits from the Bedales Historic Dress Collection housed at the Museum, the Flora Twort Gallery, and the extraordinary recent finds made at Petersfield’s Bronze Age barrow cemetery. This is already a local Museum not to be missed, with an amazing range of temporary exhibitions, family events, talks, town walks, and forms of educational and community engagement.

As one would expect, Vaughan Clarke has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Petersfield past and present. He is also a great raconteur and told us some hilarious true stories. For my part, of course, I had one or two specific questions to ask Vaughan, which he was more than able to answer. He filled out for me my vague impression of Petersfield as a cultural centre long before the Petersfield Arts and Crafts Society was founded in 1934. In particular, I had not been aware of the musical dimension. The Petersfield Musical Festival was revived after WW1 and Adrian Boult became its conductor and lifelong supporter! Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst also conducted for the Festival and there were some very eminent local musicians. The artist Flora Twort, whose family lived not far from George and Kittie in the Vale of Health, had also opened a bookshop and craft workshop on the market square as early as 1918.

I cannot thank Vaughan Clarke warmly enough for his tour and Q/A session, as well as the curators of the costume and Edward Thomas collections, and volunteer attendants, who gave so freely of their hard-pressed time. It was one of the most varied, vivid and satisfying of the many research trips my wife and I have made in the course of the whole Calderon project. I thoroughly recommend the area for a healthy and enjoyable break!

*               *               *

I drew the following conclusions:

(1) By 1922 the Arts and Crafts movement was more active at Petersfield and Steep than I had thought. Kittie not only knew the Lubbocks at Adhurst St Mary and the Sturge Moores at Steep when she decided to move near them, she probably knew of Flora Twort’s activities at Petersfield even if she did not know her personally (which she might well have). Moreover she already knew Edward Barnsley, which I had not appreciated before, and would have been attracted by the musical element in Petersfield’s cultural life, of which I had been ignorant. The answer to the question ‘why did she move to Sheet?’, then, is confirmed as being a mixture of her extended family and of culture, with more emphasis on the latter than I had previously understood. There was probably an element of fashion about it, too, and she felt she would be mixing with people like herself.

(2) But in the latter she was not entirely correct. Until I spoke to people in the Petersfield area today, I had not realised that the naval officers who populated the area were not all retired officers (the next two owners of Kay’s Crib, in fact, had high naval ranks). They lived there, and still do, because they work at Portsmouth. I knew that Kittie had had an early run-in with an army officer, but I now think it more likely that she had difficulty socialising and working with the great preponderance of naval officers, who ran such things as church committees and village fêtes, and ran them Bristol fashion and with an emphasis on pecking-order. She was a Hamilton, after all, the widow of a man who had insisted on joining up and giving his life for his country, and she retained a Bohemian-liberal streak from living twenty years in Hampstead amongst writers and artists…

(3) As well as serving navy and army officers, there was a contingent of retired professional people at Sheet in the 1920s who might also not have been as flexible as Kittie was used to, and I can’t believe there were that many native villagers. Sheet society, then, was socially top-heavy. Even today, one senses that in this part of Hampshire there is perhaps above-average potential for conflict — which is doubtless amicably resolved long before it gets out of hand. For Kittie in the 1920s, though, the phenomenon turned into what she called ‘the idiot kink in village socialities’. She could not reconcile herself to it, spent long periods away from Sheet, and eventually put her house on the market.

On my return to Cambridge, I tweaked my final chapter a bit in those directions.

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Publication: the state of play

Contrary to my original dread, I can’t possibly claim that the process of approaching commercial publishers has been dull and predictable…

I explained my strategy in a post on 18 January. I had just sent the advance party out and was waiting for an answer before working down the publisher-list in descending grandness, aiming for a decision willy-nilly by 30 June about whether we would have to publish ourselves in order to get the book out by Christmas. Unfortunately, we were well into February before it was clear that the advance party had been, er, exploded. I could see myself having lost a month, then being unable to reach that decision by 30 June, and if I hung on for replies after that it would be difficult to get the book out ourselves by Christmas. But completely unexpectedly, I appear to be back on track.

In March I started sending proposals over the top in tens and by 1 June I’d tackled all 31 publishers on the short list. I have had 7 rejections, 5 of which were after asking to see samples; 3 requests to read the whole typescript; 1 publisher is still reading the sample they asked for; and the other 20 haven’t yet replied. Presumably some will reply (they can take up to three months), but to have the whole thing being read by three publishers now means that the publishing future of the biography might be settled by mid-July.

There is, of course, an infinitude of things that can go wrong… Two developments, concerning the publishers currently ‘reading’, are so unexpected and unusual that I can’t possibly describe them here. However, one’s worst fear is always that a contract will be offered conditional on massive cuts. That, certainly, would mean adopting the advice of various writer-friends to self-publish ‘because you get what you want’.

I don’t think I’m inflexible in the matter of publishers’ editors requirements/demands, but I’m more used to cuts in the theatre, where you accept them pronto because you see they are pragmatically necessary; and move on. I don’t feel that way about the 450-page George Calderon: Edwardian Genius that I have spent the last six years writing…

I hope I shall have a positive decision to announce by the middle of July about publication in 2017. If not, may I point out that 2018 is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of George’s birth. That’s got to be a good marketing opportunity, hasn’t it?

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Fragment of Kittie

Life once more whisked me away from the Sussex Downs — they had made me learn a lot about England & these Islands all of them each in there [sic] particular way – Ireland – Scotland – England – – and yes London[.] London stands alone demanding like the the [sicLand does some vital response from her children – I learnt that when I stepped into that train waving my hands to my friends on the platform desparingly [sic]- I wept salt tears into my coffee cup that first morning in Hampshire. My beloved London I had left forever – of course I would go back into those streets – to visit my friends – to shop – to go to the theater [sic] – theatres perhaps hold hand out to me because of George’s plays – – but it was London Herself I was leaving forever – – –  & for two whole years I had loathed living there – – & this Hampshire was to be my prison – – I did not know that I was going to thank God fasting [?] for that Glimpse [of the South Downs] each morning from my bed – & the shortest walk in any weather to such a panorama of them as lifted one’s soul to extasy[.]

This is one of fifteen fragments of memoir written by Kittie during World War 2. She was then in her late seventies and suffered from poor sight and a chronic illness. My reason for quoting it will be clear from my next post but one. She knew the ‘Sussex Downs’ from lengthy visits during and immediately after World War 1. She was born in Donegal, spent her early teens in St Andrews, and moved to London with her widowed mother in about 1885. She left at the end of 1922 for the village of Sheet in Hampshire, following the publication of George’s selected works under her editorship and the death of Nina Astley (Corbet).

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A slight hitch, aaargh!

I fell in love with this picture the moment I saw it in 2012:

‘The Family at Tea’
Reproduced by kind permission of John Pym and the National Trust

I had come across it on the website for the National Trust’s property of Emmetts in Kent. It is no longer available there, but actually it is an illustration to a superb article by Richard Wheeler, National Specialist in Garden History at the National Trust, entitled ‘Frederic Lubbock and Emmetts: Stereoscopic Views of an Edwardian Plant Collector’, which appeared in the Trust’s Historic Houses & Collections Annual 2010, pp. 26-33.

The article explains how John Pym, a great-grandson of Frederic and Catherine Lubbock, who owned Emmetts 1890-1927, made available to Wheeler a staggering collection of nearly two hundred colour and black-and-white photographs taken on glass with the Autochrome process and illustrating the singular specimen gardens that Frederic Lubbock had created at Emmetts. These plates were of invaluable use to the NT in restoring the gardens to how they had been during the Lubbocks’ residency. I cannot recommend warmly enough a visit to Emmetts (near another NT gem, Chartwell) to enjoy the achievement: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/emmetts-garden .

What wowed me about this photograph?

Well first, it has to be admitted, that mellow, early autumnal light that we (daftly) associate with the Edwardian era, and the Seurat-like grainy texture that we also (mysteriously) associate with Edwardian England but which is merely a product of this ingenious early colour photography process. Then the scene, the clothes (those hats and white shoes!), the wicker chairs, the style and distinction of it all, seem quintessentially Edwardian…and there in the middle I instantly recognised George Calderon.

However, it is no exaggeration to say that my relations with this photograph have been as misguided, obsessive and fictive as some of Alexander Masters’s theories/assumptions in pursuit of the heroine of A Life Discarded (see previous post).

Naturally, I put the picture straight on my list of twenty-five illustrations to my book. But these have to be arranged chronologically. Where did it go?

With brainless ease, I dated it as September 1904, when George had raced back to England from Cap Gris Nez to meet Kittie at Emmetts, and indeed told her what clothes, cigarettes and pills to pack and take there for him. George is undoubtedly the man in black tie and boater sitting left of the hostess in the big hat, who is undoubtedly Catherine Lubbock. But where was Kittie? She was thirty-seven in 1904 and therefore could hardly be the demure figure sitting right of the young man extreme left, who is pretty certainly Percy Lubbock.

At this point I must explain that in 1972 I was standing in the yard of the Chekhov family rented property in Moscow discussing with an expert the famous Chekhov family photographic portrait taken there in about 1888. I mentioned in passing that Chekhov’s youngest brother, sitting next to Anton in the front row, was holding under his arm a large chicken that he had somehow got to look straight at the camera. Deafening silence and perturbation. No-one, it seemed, had ever noticed this before.

Unconsciously applying this talent for apophenia and pareidolia (see my post of 25 June 2016), I convinced myself that the blackness in front of the lady third from the left was Jones, the Calderons’ Aberdeen terrier, sitting on the lap of Mrs Mary Hamilton, Kittie’s mother. Even so, where was Kittie, who was not known to be photophobic? Well, obviously, she had been sitting in the empty chair in the middle, but had vacated it to improve the staging and had been the person who pressed the shutter… The figure right of Mrs Hamilton and Jones is undoubtedly Charles ‘Evey’ Pym, the man right of Catherine is Frederic Lubbock, the young man extreme right must be a son. I thought. So the photograph went into the Illustrations list in the 1904 position and was referred to by that Fig. number in my text.

Alas, at the time I had not read the whole of Richard Wheeler’s article, a copy of which has been very generously donated to me by Mr Pym. The penultimate paragraph of the article explains that the Autochrome process was ‘invented by Louis and Auguste Lumière in 1903, and first marketed in 1907’ and everything I have read since confirms that. There were no colour processes before 1907 that could have produced the quality of ‘The Family at Tea’. This cannot be a photograph of George before 1907, therefore. I had misdated it (not to mention misidentified Mrs Hamilton, who died in 1906) and misnumbered it in my list of illustrations to the book, which means that I have to change the text in the book referring to the photograph, and renumber all the other Fig.’s from 1905 to 1911 in subsequent chapters. Aaargh!

So when was the photograph taken, why isn’t Kittie on it, and who might the unidentified persons be?

If the old lady in black is not Mrs Hamilton with Jones (who died in 1909), then the photograph could have been taken when Kittie was not staying at Emmetts but George was. There were many occasions when Kittie stayed there on her own, as she was related to Catherine Lubbock by her first marriage, but there’s only one documented occasion when she was in Kent with George but left a day earlier than him. This was in 1912, when they both in fact stayed at nearby Foxwold, where Evey and his wife Violet Pym (the Lubbocks’ only daughter) had recently taken up residence. They arrived together on 30 September 1912, Kittie left on 7 October, probably to attend to their recent purchase of 42 Well Walk in Hampstead, and George left the day after with Percy Lubbock. The photo could therefore have been taken in the afternoon of 7 October 1912…

By then, however, Evey and Violet had been married seven years and had two children, so could the figure right of Percy really be his sister? And the only son of the Lubbocks who would be the right age in 1912 for the man extreme right is Roy (born 1892), who because of his technical interests, John Pym suggests, may have been the family’s Autochrome photographer. How, though, did he manage to be in the picture as well? Again, whose was the empty chair? Was that where the person who pressed the shutter had been sitting? What did Roy Lubbock actually look like in 1912? Was he that tall? Did he have black hair?

Myself, I have gone fictive like Alexander Masters and decided to call the lady in black ‘Mrs Mortley’. I already imagine her life story. Before long, that is who she will ‘become’…

I am deeply indebted to John Pym, Richard Wheeler, and Annina Lubbock, for their unstinting assistance in reading this picture correctly.

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A skipped life

For my taste, this book is the most innovative biography since Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life (see 15 October 2016). Although reviewed positively when it appeared last year, it is so original that I defy anyone to get their head quite round it. But equally, I defy anyone not to be grabbed by it:

Click the cover to find this book on Amazon.

A further complication in my case is that when I read it I discovered that I have known four of the real-life characters who appear in it, one pretty well. It has taken some effort to block out the interference from that, but I think I have. I must try and concentrate on the the essentials. I will attempt to make this a low wall of words.

Like Masters’s previous two ‘lives’, Stuart: A Life Backwards and Simon: The Genius in my Basement, this is the biography of an ‘unknown person’, as Masters calls them, but the subject here is even more unknown. 148 diaries were found in a Cambridge skip. They started in 1952 and ended in 2001, but there are about 800 missing covering periods between 1965 and 1999. They were written at a rate of approximately 2000 words a day. Masters calculates this means they totalled forty million words.

Reviewers expressed frustration that it was difficult to describe the narrative of  A Life Discarded because that would be to ‘give the ending away’ (although there are several endings, in fact). But I think it is necessary to commit this spoiler in order to get a grip on what Masters is doing. So: three quarters of the way through, he discovers that the writer of the diaries is still alive, aged 73, and living on an estate in Cambridge.

However, he has hitherto fought against finding this out. He begins by thinking the writer is dead and is convinced it was a man. He resists for as long as he can putting the diaries in chronological order. All the bleeding described at one point is not from a knife fight: the diarist is a woman. She makes much reference to ‘Whiters’ and Masters imagines a complete persona for this butler-like figure. It turns out that ‘Whiters’ is a grand house outside Cambridge. Masters visits the site, but the house has been burned down. He makes no attempt to investigate its past through Kelly’s Directory, say, and he absolutely refuses to look at electoral rolls. He prefers to consult a graphologist and private detective (there are beautifully told chapters on each). The graphologist points out the diarist’s date of birth in a diary, which Masters has missed. Someone in another diary blurts out the writer’s name: Laura. The dominating and belittling male with whom Laura has an unconsummated affair between the ages of fourteen and forty, turns out to be a woman pianist fifty years older than her… And so on.

What is clear is that Masters enjoys imagining who the diarist is and what is going on in her diaries infinitely more than he would enjoy the prospect of  factually researching them. Every biographer will recognise this: the elated extrapolation…the delayed forensic gratification…creative fantasy…the excitement of the pursuit of the unknown…the pleasure of spinning a fiction…the temptation to believe that you know the truth about your subject better than any facts could. And this process, in Masters’s hands, is suspenseful, absorbing, hugely entertaining. You are driven along by the desire (his desire) to find out who the diarist is and yet not arrive there.

The life of Laura, the failed librarian, failed great writer, failed great pianist, failed great painter, failed great Shakespeare scholar and failed housekeeper, who buys cauliflowers in sevens because that is practically all she eats, then reheats the stalks, and who was almost psychologically destroyed by a schoolgirl crush that lasted twenty-six years, is utterly mundane and utterly weird. Apart from her diary, she has achieved nothing; in her almost complete solipsism, she has succeeded in skipping life. Like Masters himself, you may well sob, roar with laughter, rant and despair over this woman, but you will keep turning the pages. He wanted to ‘keep reading Laura’s diary entries, even when they are agonisingly tedious’, and realises it’s ‘because they are true. […] She has absolutely no awareness of your presence. Her drama is that she is not fiction’.

She is not fiction… ‘Everything that this woman locked up in her bedroom late in the evening writes, and by writing makes interesting, could be replaced by a single, endlessly repeated sentence: I am alive. I am alive. I am alive.’

The pressures to consult the online electoral register eventually become too great. The first three-quarters of the book, entitled ‘Mystery’, end, and factuality breaks in for the rest (‘Crisis’). He discovers her full name: Laura Francis. ‘Ten minutes later I was looking into her living room on Google Earth.’ They meet and she approves the publication of his book. For many readers, I imagine, this last quarter will be an anticlimax. But Masters now produces a series of slim, elegant prose pieces that in my view avoid that: we have two parodic academics ‘interpreting’ for him what he has done in this book, we have the climax of the sub-plot (the death and funeral of his literary collaborator for twenty-five years), a transcription of the recording of his first meeting with Laura Francis, a formal four-page ‘Biography’ of her, a very short ‘PS’ with a further twist in it, and four pages of ‘Acknowledgements’ in a smaller font that are practically a story in themselves.

And literally at that moment, it occurs to you that ‘Laura Francis’, for a host of reasons, cannot be the diarist’s real name. It is fictitious. A Life Discarded is the biography of a fictitious person. The whole Shandy-esque narrative is enclosed in a fictitious identity. Masters has written, then, what he always really wanted to write: fiction…

A Life Discarded seems to have sold well, but it evokes a wide fan of responses from readers. If you have read it, I would be very interested to hear from you through the Comments column.

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Empires end like this…

There are two reasons that obtaining Permissions has taken so long, in my case at least (see 17 April and 20 April). First, although I rapidly earmarked the sixteen ‘major’ sources of quoted unpublished material in my biography, e.g. William Rothenstein, Grant Richards and Laurence Binyon, and secured the permission of their current copyright holders pretty quickly (plus approval from the relevant archival institutions), I soon realised I had forgotten lots of shorter quotations and lesser folk, as it were. So the first thing I had to do was re-read the typescript meticulously. I stress ‘meticulously’, because it was thanks to reading my typescript too fast the previous time that I had missed these people. There is an almost unstoppable urge, when you are reading your own work for the umpteenth time, to get carried away by it and miss things. So this second time I read at the rate of 100 pages a day and it took me four days.

It produced twenty more sources of quotations for which, according to our risible copyright law, I have to obtain permission to publish from a ‘current copyright holder’ (I am beginning to doubt whether that expression really means anything at all). Admittedly some of these quotations are only fifteen or so words long, but some of their authors turn out to be significant, e.g. Charles Villiers Stanford, Rupert Brooke, Mary Cholmondeley… Some, however, e.g. clubland friends of Archie Ripley’s, are not.

At this point, the second decelerating factor kicks in: you have got to find out who is the institution or descendant who officially owns the ‘rights’ to this unpublished material, even though it was usually written over a hundred years ago. Obviously, in the case of Stanford or Brooke, this is not difficult. In the case of semi-famous correspondents of George or Kittie, it is more difficult and time-consuming. For instance, William English Harrison, the eminent barrister in whose chambers George ‘read’ after graduating, has a clear single female line of descent to a great-great-granddaughter, a Mrs Annette Gough, born 1939, but where does one even start to look for her (or her nearest descendants)? I have half a dozen cases like this. Even archives that possess the papers of Harold Dowdall, say, or Dr Albert Tebb, don’t know who their current copyright holders are.

Fortunately, I have a fantastic genealogical research assistant in Michael Welch, who performs miracles. But it all takes us both time. I should think between us we have so far spent three weeks on Permissions, and we still have thirteen cases to crack. All the feelers are out for these, and in eight of them approaches have been made to the people we believe ‘own’ the copyright. However, it would surprise me if it took us less than another ten days to mop up all thirteen (the original sixteen have been resolved).

This could be regarded as the nadir of the whole business. Five unpaid weeks work on something cooked up by the British Government and an EU Directive! In the name of a Gogolian and Kafkian irrationality! And the prospect of it going on forever as one chases the descendants of Edwin Lankaster in Java…the collateral descendants of Kittie’s gardener…George’s batman… It’s enough to make you lose the will to live.

But life begins the other side of despair!

This whole exercise has produced something that, if I had thought about it more, I might have suspected, but which I find incredibly heartening. Indeed I would go so far as to say that my recent discovery has made this ghastly business all worth while.

When I first blogged about the idiocy and Dullness of a copyright law that insists we trace the descendants of King Alfred or Dr Albert Tebb if we are to be ‘allowed’ to quote from their unpublished works, I suggested that it had all the hallmarks of totalitarianism: a po-minded Utopian belief that it should forbid everything that wasn’t explicitly permitted, a determination to control the past, and a formula for exponentially expanding bureaucracy. But a ray of light has appeared!

I intimated that I believe the way to oppose this law is to assert one’s libertarian belief against its totalitarianism. (As Berdiaev said, ‘love is attained by loving, freedom is attained by acting freely’.) In other words, to ignore it and pursue Permissions only for, say, unpublished material whose author died less than seventy years ago, as I and numerous of my literary correspondents believe is sensible. But I decided not to assert my freedom this way for two reasons: 1) six years work on George Calderon: Edwardian Genius is too much to put at stake, 2) as a feeble Englishman I of course believe in observing the law, be it never so stupid howmsoever, as Lord Denning might have said. I have therefore plodded on into the desert created by this UK/EU legislation known as the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, faithfully pursuing mirage after mirage…

But I find that many of the institutions and persons I approach, like oases of hope, about specific persons’ copyright, do not deign to reply. They are prepared to let me expire in the Act’s Taklamakan Desert; and they are our salvation from the Act’s totalitarianism. They have said to themselves, to me, and to the Act: ‘Get lost!’ They are not prepared to perpetuate this madness. And thank you to them wherever they may be! They have called an end to it, they have given me an excuse for claiming I have made ‘all reasonable efforts’ with this lunacy! They have unwittingly brought me peace.

It is people like these who bring empires to a close. They decide to ignore, or fudge, the dictates of empire, and those empires start to die from the edges. It is what happened to the Russian and Soviet empires. As an Englishman I feel an obligation to obey Parliament/EU Directives, but I think many EU member-states have never felt that…

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