Sunday, 26 December 2010

Heinrich Himmler

It is widely known that Himmler, chief of the S.S. and the Gestapo and architect of the Holocaust, was heavily into astrology and fringe medicine as well as extreme racist theories, but it is less well known that he also had strong ideas about porridge. One of his plans was to produce the master-race of the future through the "Lebensborn" breeding homes for the purest specimens of Aryan manhood and womanhood. He thought the mothers' diet was very important, and insisted they should eat porridge for breakfast. When the women complained that porridge would make them fat, Himmler wrote back as follows:-
"I want them to be told that Englishmen, and particularly English lords and ladies, are virtually brought up on this kind of food.... To consume it is considered most correct. It is just these people, both men and women, who are conspicuous for their slender figures. For this reason the mothers in our homes should get used to porridge and be taught to feed their children on it. Heil Hitler!"

This letter was dated December 12th 1941: in other words, at exactly the same time as Himmler was overseeing the construction of the first gas chambers in the death camps in Poland. You cannot describe someone like this as second-rate, or third-rate, or even tenth-rate: but simply as his appalling unique self.

(Source: Manvell & Fraenkel: "Heinrich Himmler")

Holy Relics

In the early 16th century, Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, possessed 19,000 holy relics. These included a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, a crumb from the Last Supper, a twig from the Burning Bush and 204 bits of the children massacred by King Herod. Anyone who viewed these on the correct day of the year and made the necessary gitfs of money would be spared two million years in Purgatory. One can see why one of Frederick's subjects, Martin Luther, began to have doubts on the subject!

(Source: B. Gascoigne; "The Christians")

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Glasgow 40 years ago

I once spent three months in one of the small towns which surround Glasgow. I can boast that during this time I taught the 8th stream in a Glasgow comprehensive school and survived to tell the tale. Actually it must have been quite a well-run school, since nobody actually threw anything at me. On the other hand, I was booed the first time I walked up the school drive. I thought this was strange: after all, for all they knew I could just have come to read the gas meter; what had they got against me? Then I thought; I'm wearing my college scarf; What colour is it? green and white! the Celtic colours! Whoops! These things matter in Glasgow! I hid the scarf for the remainder of my stay. This proved wise: the art master at the school asked me, “Didn’t I think Catholics must have a warped view of life?” and also said, “Celtic have sometimes had to play Protestants in their team, ‘cos Catholics aren’t all that good at football; but Rangers have never played a Catholic, and they never will!” (Sadly, this no longer applies).

I had to teach a history syllabus that I regarded as somewhat odd, because it was exclusively English history, not Scottish; so I was teaching Henry VIII's Reformation to a class containing not a single memebr of the Church of England, one of whom had never previously come across the word "vicar". Two days before the end of term, myhead of department approached me first thing in the morning and asked, "What are you and Mr Thompson doing with the third form first period today?" "Nothing, really", I replied, "It's their last period with us this term and we've covered everything we intended doing". "Well, you'd better think of something", she told me, "because an inspector's coming!" I hastily cobbled something together, being materially assisted by the said Mr Thompson, who contrived to take twenty minutes collecting in the dinner money, including spilling it all over the floor and sending a boy with a severe limp to change a £10 note at the school office; after which he hissed, "I've helped you all I can: it's up to you now!" I just about kept going till the end of the period. The inspector complained that the lesson hadn't been very interesting. He was right too.

On the whole I think I did better than my friend Jimi. He was a Nigerian, a splendid chap who spoke like a negro in an old-fashioned film, and who had volunteered to go to Scotland because he wanted to learn to ski, not realising that Glasgow was a long way from Aviemuir. He ended up teaching biology at a very puritan school in the city centre, where he wasn’t allowed to teach sexual reproduction of hydra. (One pupil looked it up in the textbook and asked about it. “Oh”, said Jimi, “I haven’t bothered to do it, because it only happens in very cold winters at the bottom of deep ponds!”) When the inspector came to visit Jimi, he conducted a lesson revising what the class had learnt about spirogyra. "Can anyone tell me how they breathe?" he asked. A forest of hands shot up, because they all liked him. "Och, shmtbchkltf sir!" a boy answered. "Yeah, that's very good!" said Jimi, "Now, can someone else tell me how they move?" "Och, khlnmdctr sir!", "Yeah, I'm really pleased with your work this term!" This continued for the whole lesson, at the end of which the inspector said, "This is all very well, Jimi, but why don't you build the lesson round their answers a bit more?" "Oh", said Jimi, "That's because I can't understand a word they say!" However, they passed him. I think they passed everyone.

On Saturdays I used to take the train into Glasgow city centre. On my first visit I walked the wrong way down St Vincent Street and ended up somewhere around the Broomilaw before beating a hasty retreat. The strangest Saturday was when, with a masterpiece of timing, the university Rag coincided with Celtic meeting Rangers in a cup-tie. Total mayhem prevailed. I realised it was going to be an unusual occasion when I found a male striptease being conducted at Glasgow Central Station. I travelled on the city underground, which had rather charming little toy trains. In my compartment was a Celtic supporter, already hopelessly drunk, swaying around the compartment singing obscene songs attacking Rangers and falling onto someone’s lap every time the train went round a corner. Fortunately everyone was too amused to thump him. I wonered whether he got to the match at all.

Leaving Glasgow for the last time, I drove through Hamilton, where there was a sign proclaiming the town to be "Bingo Capital of Scotland!" I felt this was somehow appropriate.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

More Clerihews

Steinbeck: "The Grapes of Wrath"

John Steinbeck's family Joad
Should have taken a different road
They received only brutal kicks
Travelling on Route 66

Index under:-
Jagger, Mick; travel recommendation of; refuted

(A photograph of a displaced family, by Dorothea Lange)


Heller: "Catch 22"

Adolf Hitler once read Joseph Heller
But he didn't think much of the feller
He thought there was no way Yossarian
Could ever have passed for an Aryan

Index under:-
Criticism, literary; irrelevant
Point; missing the

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Ghosts of M. R. James

If you glance at any anthology of classic ghost stories you are likely to find in the table of contents “Count Magnus”, or perhaps “The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral”, or “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, my Lad”. These are just three of the stories of one of the great masters: M. R. James.

Motagu Rhodes James (1862-1936) hardly seems a likely author in this genre. He was above all a scholar; an antiquary, mediaevalist and church historian whose particular expertise was Apocryphal texts (Jewish and early Christian religious writings not accepted into the Authorised Bible). He served as Provost of Eton and Fellow and Provost of King’s College, Cambridge; but is best known to the general public as the author of ghost stories, which he originally wrote to read at Christmas to his friends. I have heard it alleged that they would threaten to lock him in the cellar until he wrote one! He produced his first story in 1894: thirty of his stories were published in collections between 1904 and 1931. In the 1970s dramatisations of his stories were televised every year under the appropriate title of “A Ghost Story for Christmas”. We can be confident that some of his best stories will continue to appear in anthologies for as long as these continue to be published.

James’s stories are almost all set in the England of his own day, though frequently they refer back to manuscripts or other writings from an earlier period. For the most part they are not, strictly speaking, ghost stories, since very few ghosts as such are involved: they most typically involve malignant spirits or demons whose essence is never explained or accounted for. Usually the “spirit” (for want of a better word) seems to have been raised by someone in the past, perhaps to guard buried treasure, and is awakened by an incautious man of the present day who is investigating a manuscript, tomb or painting (as in “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book”; my personal favourite), or even casually inviting the spirit to appear to him (“Count Magnus”). We are never told precisely how the spirit was invoked in the first place, since James avoided any detailed “occultism” such as we find in the stories of, for instance, Algernon Blackwood; nor are we told how to get rid of the spirit once it has reappeared, except by such time-honoured methods as burning the particular manuscript or picture. The usual solution is simply to flee the scene, leaving the impression that the spirit is still lurking somewhere. The general message is that we should leave well alone. James is not a bloodthirsty writer; although several of his stories do lead to a death, he usually refrains from gory details, and in many other stories the incautious heroes escape intact.

James has several strong points. He is very good on his descriptions of the spirits, where the information is usually sparse but effective. The spirits are almost always entirely non-human; thin, hairy, dwarfish, dirty. Often they are initially sensed or touched rather than seen. Sometimes they take bizarre forms: a roll of dirty flannel with eyes (“The Uncommon Prayer-Book”), a bed sheet that shapes into “a face of crumpled linen” (“Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad”), an engraving that changes every day (“The Mezzotint”), or grotesque carvings that come to life (“The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral”). In many stories (such as “Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance”), the horror occurs in a dream. James is almost invariably successful in building up a dark and threatening atmosphere in preparation for the appearance of the spirit. (I remember reading James for the first time when I was still at school. It was dark, I was alone, because my parents had gone out for the evening, and after reading several of James’s stories I felt very uneasy going outside to get the coal! Of course, I told myself that there was nothing there, but even so ……..!)

Naturally, James has his weaknesses. Modern readers might find his stories slow to get going; and he is far too fond of introducing characters who are made to talk at length in lower-class dialects, often making stupid and irrelevant comments, which can often be irritating to the reader. But very few of his stories fail: he has always had an audience of appreciative followers, and will continue to do so.

The BBC has, over the years, attempted manydramatisations of James's stories, under the general title of "A Ghost Story for Christmas". The classic production was in 1968: "Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You. My Lad", directed by Jonathon Miller and starring Michael Hordern. The Christmas we are promised a new version, starring John Hurt. It is a little disconcerting to learn that the story will be "modernised" (how can you have really sinsiter ghosts under electric light? Surely much of the atmosphere should depend on the light being limited to a single flickering candle, which duly goes out at the crucial moment?). But if a TV adaptation leads to more readers for M. R. James, it can only be a good thing.

For many years now, Rosemary Pardoe has edited a magazine called “Ghosts and Scholars”, devoted to material about M. R. James and to new stories in the James tradition. This can be found by entering her name into the Google search engine.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Appearing on "Mastermind"

My only appearance on television was on the BBC quiz “Mastermind” back in 1981. I would never have got on the show without the good advice from a neighbour, Mrs Horrocks, who had won the final in an earlier year (she was a Tolkien specialist). She told me two very important things when making an application: firstly, that it was useless to admit to being a teacher, since a clear majority of the applicants were teachers; and secondly, that it was necessary to choose an unusual special subject to be tested on. (She had given up teaching to have a baby just before her own application, and was thus able to describe herself as a "housewife") So I duly described myself on my application as a “sportswriter” (I had actually published a number of articles on gymnastics in various magazines), and nominated as my special subject, “The gangster age in the USA, 1919-41”, which I thought might be sufficiently eye-catching. Before I knew it, I had been summoned for an interview!

This took place at a hotel in central Birmingham. I met Roger Mackay, the producer of the show, who told me I was the first sportswriter to apply, and the first person to want to answer questions on the gangsters (thank you, Mrs Horrocks!). Then he asked me twenty general knowledge questions, of which I got about sixteen right, and said they would, in the time-honoured showbiz phrase, “let me know”. A few weeks later I received a letter telling me I’d been accepted. This appeared in retrospect such a hit-and-miss selection process that I’m surprised they didn’t end up with a number of complete duds.

My programme was filmed at Bradford University at the end of August. Actually, two episodes were filmed on the same day, to be broadcast on successive weeks. We all had a number of tickets for the audience, to be given to friends. We met Magnus Magnusson, who was then the quizmaster. All I can really remember about him is that he had enormous hands, like wicket-keeping gloves. In the afternoon we had a rehearsal, which was actually for the benefit of the sound and lighting technicians, but which had the benefit of making us feel less nervous. It involved sitting in the famous black chair, whilst Magnus asked us a series of very easy questions, and said, “Correct” regardless of what we answered. The actual programmes were shot that evening.

I was first one up in the first programme, which was fine as far as I was concerned, since I hate hanging about waiting for anything. People afterwards always asked me if I was nervous, and I always said it was like being in a big sports match: the most nervous moment is when you walk out onto the pitch and wait for things to start: once you’ve touched the ball, you stop feeling nervous (it’s much the same in a play, while you wait to deliver your first line). One important thing about the quiz is that although the TV audience can see the scores up on the screen, the contestants have no idea how many they’ve got until their time is up. As it happened, I scored 13 and the gangsters and 17 on general knowledge, for a total of 30. And I lost by one point! This was especially annoying since my last question was, “Who built the dome on Florence Cathedral?” and all I could remember was “It’s B-somebody!” I should have known it! Incidentally, the contestants in my round were three teachers pretending to be something else, plus a lorry-driver - and since the lorry-driver won, I had my doubts about him too!

When my round had finished, the audience was shuffled around, Magnus Magnusson was given some fresh makeup, and then after a pause the opening sequence was played again and he announced to the cameras, “For the second week running, we’re at the University of Bradford”, and the next episode to be broadcast started. Even when this had been completed it wasn’t quite the end. I had to return to the chair for a second attempt to film the section when I was told the answers to the questions I’d passed on. Then the producer decided the opening sequence with its portentous music wasn’t quite up to standard, and we had to have four or five retakes before he was satisfied. The two programmes were to be screened in October, and we were all sworn to secrecy about the results until then. There was, of course, no prize money, only travelling expenses.

The special subject questions are set by someone who is considered an expert in that field. I found out afterwards that mine had been set by Professor Adams of Keele, an American History specialist. But I didn’t really approve of his choice of questions: when I was revising for the quiz over the summer I read half-a-dozen books on organised crime in New York, but he didn’t ask me a single question about New York. I did ask the producer about a rumour I’d heard that a contestant was once invited to set his own questions, and apparently this did once almost happen. As I recall the story, there was a contestant wanted to answer questions on the life and work of the composer Chopin, so the BBC contacted the Chopin Society to ask for a well-qualified question-setter. They were given the name of a certain man and duly wrote to him - and he told them he was actually the contestant! I wonder whether he ever felt tempted to dishonesty there?

I have no record of this, my solitary TV appearance, because at the time I did not know a single person who possessed a video recorder. That in itself is enough to show the difference between those times and today!