Monday, 30 January 2012


In his dreams he saw many strange and wonderful things, and when he woke he tried to turn his visions into poems, though he found that most escaped his memory soon afterwards. But as time progressed, and the drug increased its hold, his visions brought darkness amidst the beauty. He saw a pavilion, set in marvellous gardens above a river, but he knew it was doomed to destruction. He saw himself on a mountain peak near his friend’s home in the Lake District, and listened to the music of the bells ringing in the valleys below, but the songs the bells sang were songs of death. He saw a young bride entering the castle of her elderly widower husband, and she was very lovely, but her stepdaughter saw in her face the yellow unblinking eyes of a serpent. All these things he was tried to record, which helped to relieve his pain. Each time his apprehension increased, but he could not abandon his search now.

After a while, waking and dreaming seemed to merge, and he was left unsure which was which. Sometimes when he walked through the streets at night, plagued by the insomnia resulting from the opium, he thought he had found the wondrous city that he had so long sought, only it was no longer marvellous, but sinister and haunted. Evil lurked around every corner, watching him from a distance, just out of his sight, and the people he met (but could not speak to, nor did they speak to him) were not noble heroes and ravishing beauties, but ghosts, who wore the masks of death. He realised he was being punished for his temerity. His awareness of guilt deepened, until he came to feel he had committed a crime so monstrous, so horrible, that even he could not be told what it was. I have blasphemed against the gods, he thought: no, it is far worse than that: my crime somehow threatens the very basis of the universe; and my punishment will be like none that has ever existed before.

He only knew of one way which might allow him to escape from these horrors: he must set them out in a poem, which would tell of a man who is guilty of a terrible crime and justly suffers an equally terrible punishment, but is eventually redeemed by his suffering and pardoned. Such an ending would provide him with at least some hope of release. But what precise crime would the man in his poem have committed, since he could not know it himself? He consulted his closest friend; also a poet, but more down-to-earth in his ideas. And William pondered for a while, and then said, “I was reading the other day about a sailor who was marooned on a desert island by his shipmates, who were disgusted by the fact that he had shot an albatross. It appears that sailors regard this as a very wicked act, and also an extremely unlucky one”.
"Thank you, William", said Samuel, "I shall write the poem, and I shall call it 'The Ancient Mariner'"


Readers will have noticed in this references to Thomas de Quincey's "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" (1822) as well as to Coleridge. What put me in mind of it was not 'The Ancient Mariner' or "Kubla Khan", but 'Christabel", a less-well-known Coleridge poem (where we also meet the stepmother with the eyes of a serpent). These are the opening verses of the second part of that poem:-

"Each matin bell, the Baron saith,
Knells us back to a world of death.
These word Sir Leoline first said
When he rose, and found his lady dead.
These words Sir Leoline will say
Many a morn to his dying day.

So hence the custom and law began
That still at dawn the sacristan
Who duly pulls the heavy bell
Five and forty beads must tell
Between each stroke; a dying knell
Which not a soul can choose but hear
From Bratha Head to Windermere.

Said Bracy the bard; so let it knell!
And let the drowsy sacristan
Still count as slowly as he can!
There is no lack of such, I ween,
As well fill up the space between.
In Langdale Pike, and Witch's Lair,
And Dungeon-ghyll so foully rent,
With ropes of rock and bells of air
Three sinful sextons' ghosts are pent
Who oft give back, one after t'other,
The death-note to their living brother;
And oft too, by their knell offended,
Just as their one! two! three! is ended,
The devil mocks the doleful tale
With a merry peal from Borrowdale".

From the topographical references, Coleridge would seem to be listening to the bells from somewhere around Ambleside, at the head of Lake Widermere; probably in the hills above Wordsworth's Dove Cottage. But despite the charming nature of the scenery, he has given us what I regard as the most sinsiter lines of poetry in the English language: the only cheerful note is attributed to the devil. This is why I have speculated as to what might have prompted his visions.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Sir Walter Scott and Abbotsford

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) must be credited as the inventor of the historical novel. His best books are based around famous events of Scottish history a century or so before his lifetime: the Jacobite rising of 1745 (“Waverley”), the 1715 rising (“Rob Roy”), the persecution of the Covenanters (“Old Mortality”), the Porteous riot in Edinburgh (“The Heart of Midlothian”) and so forth. I don’t think he is read much these days, which is a pity. His defects as a novelist are obvious: most of his novels are slow to start and the plots are often very unconvincing - usually the rather dim and colourless young hero and heroine get into a dreadful mess, until some powerful and influential person has to intervene and sort things out for them; such as the Duke of Argyll in “The Heart of Midlothian” (In “The Bride of Lammemoor” no such saviour appears, so they die). But Scott’s great set-piece scenes are always fine, and his gallery of lesser Scottish characters is wonderful; clan warriors, peasants, witches, religious fanatics; always colourful, eccentric and sometimes half-mad.

But there is more to Scott than this: he is largely responsible for the popular image of Scotland which is still prevalent today. For a hundred years, no British King had ever ventured north of Oxford, but in 1822 George IV decided to go on a Scottish jaunt. He was a great fan of Walter Scott’s novels, and he announced that when he visited Edinburgh, he would wear the kilt!

(George IV resplendent in Highland dress; by Wilkie)

It is difficult for us to comprehend how radical a step this was. For forty years after the Jacobite Rising of 1745, wearing Highland dress had been a criminal offence, punishable with imprisonment or deportation, and in the interim, most of the old tartan patterns had been forgotten. But time had softened the old fears, and, largely thanks to Walter Scott, the clothes which had once been the garb of the barbarian clansmen from the mountains who terrorised the Lowlanders (for of course no respectable citizen of Edinburgh or Glasgow ever wore a kilt), were now seen as something colourful, romantic and uniquely Scottish. Scott himself masterminded the excursion, and the surviving clan chiefs, who were now highly respectable gentlemen (and in many cases now vigorously evicting the surviving clansmen from their ancient dwellings in order to make way for sheep farming) now hastened to clothe themselves appropriately for the Prince’s visit. If their clan tartans had been forgotten, they instructed clothiers to invent something that looked right! Everything we now see as Scottish; the kilts, tartans, bagpipes and so forth, date from this time, and are largely attributable to Sir Walter Scott.

It was with this in mind that I visited Abbotsford, Scott’s house in his native Border country: a territory not of kilt-wearing clansmen, but a violent land of cattle-rustling, feuds and murder. (Amongst his other achievements, Scott was an avid collector of Border ballads, those magnificent traditional sagas of black deeds, and himself composed many poems in the same vein).

The house is an impressive erection in the 19th century “baronial” style.

Inside is a particularly fine collection of weaponry and several good paintings, but also a selection of Scottish historical rubbish, on the lines of Rob Roy’s toothpick or the comb of Mary, Queen of Scots. The way out, as ever, led through the gift shop, where I overheard the following snippet of conversation between two of the sales staff:
“Do you remember the mice with the tartan ears? Because we sold the last of them to the French disabled, and I can’t remember who supplied them”.
I had this vision of a stream of French people in wheelchairs, all gratefully clutching their tartan-eared mice. But I’m willing to bet the Walter Scott would have collected mice with tartan ears, if he thought they once belonged to Bonnie Prince Charlie!

Monday, 23 January 2012

A Revolutionary Menu

We visited France in 1989. This was of course the anniversary of the French Revolution, and there was much cashing-in. Wine-bottles were decorated with pictures of the storming of the Bastille. The nicest touch I saw was in an optician’s, where the window was decorated with cardboard cutouts of the revolutionary leaders wearing the shop’s spectacles. Saint-Just was given a fetching pair of shades, which I thought was an appropriate touch.

In the little Mediterranean seaside resort of Canet, one restaurant boasted a “Revolutionary Menu” which was worth noting:-

Assiete Marseillaise
Les Delices de Danton
Saumon a la Talleyrand
Terraine des Jacobins
Sole Marie Antoinette
Lotte Marquis de la Fayette
Tournedos Rouget de l’Isle
Magret Joseph Cassagnes
Legumes de la Guillotine
Coup 14 Juillet
Les Boulets de Valmy
Le Gateau de la Convention.

The price was, with a certain inevitability, 178.9 francs.

We thought this was rather expensive, so we didn’t try it.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Guiseppe di Lampedusa: The Leopard

I am not alone in considering this to be the greatest novel of the twentieth century. It was published posthumously in 1958, with the title “Il Gattopardo”, and translated into English in 1960; then filmed in 1963, directed by Visconti, with Burt Lancaster taking the leading role.

It is a historical novel, set in Sicily in 1860-62, during and just after Garibaldi’s invasion which took the island from the forces of the Bourbon king in Naples and led to the unification of Italy. The “Leopard” of the title is the central character, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, an immensely rich middle-aged nobleman. He dominates his family, who are feeble characters, and gives his affection to his nephew, Tancredi, who goes to fight for Garibaldi. Don Fabrizio encourages him, but he himself merely observes events without getting involved.

A deeply symbolic character in the book is Don Calogero Sedara, a coarse man who has risen from humble beginnings and mysteriously acquired great wealth; during which rise his embarrassingly uncouth father-in-law has been mysteriously murdered. Sedara has joined the Garibaldian revolution and become mayor of the town where Don Fabrizio’s favourite palace is sited, then helps organise the obviously fraudulent plebiscite where the Sicilians supposedly vote overwhelmingly for union with the kingdom of Italy; and eventually he becomes a person of national importance. In the film, Sedara is portrayed simply as a comic buffoon, but the author clearly intended him to be a much more sinister figure: when reading about him, one instantly thinks “Mafia!”. But Don Fabrizio, though he disapproves of Sedara, makes no attempt to resist his rise; his nephew Tancredi marries Sedara’s beautiful daughter (which of course would make him “family”); he himself is always very polite to Sedara, introduces him to aristocratic society and even recommends him for the Senate to a representative of the new Italian government, on the grounds that he represents the future of the country.

The book then jumps forward to describe the death of the Don Fabrizio in 1883, and then jumps once again to portray his daughters in old age in 1910. These final chapters, which provide one of the saddest endings to a novel that I have ever come across, were not covered in the film.

Don Fabrizio, though strong-willed and intelligent, is too passive to be the hero of the book: the real hero is Sicily itself. Much of the book departs from the central story to give superb descriptions of the flavour of the island: the strange scenery and savage climate, the grinding poverty of the peasants contrasted with the immense and irresponsible wealth of the nobility (Don Fabrizio’s palace at Donnafugata is so vast that whole suites of rooms have never been entered in his lifetime), the all-pervasive influence of the Catholic church, the squalid feuds, banditry and murders. The prince at one point justifies his passivity by warning the government representative that any attempt to reform Sicily will fail, just as all previous invaders of the island have failed in the task. From the viewpoint of the 1950s when the book was written, Guiseppe de Lampedusa certainly had a point, and one can see it even today.


Since I wrote this, an Italian friend has pointed out certain symbolic or allegorical aspects to the novel which would have been in the author’s mind. Di Lampedusa tells us that he had been pondering his novel for many years before he wrote it, and was greatly concerned about the future of his country in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and this is reflected in the story he tells.
When Tancredi goes to join Garibaldi’s guerrilla force, he explains to his uncle that his motive is to keep power in reliable hands and so ward off a social revolution following a political one. After unification, Tancredi is proud to join the new Italian army; a “proper” army, unlike the Garibaldi an “rabble”, most of whom are promptly dismissed and sent home. The main part of the book ends with the scene of the great aristocratic ball, which is made to coincide with the news that at new attempt by Garibaldi has been crushed by the regular army at Aspromonte and the hero himself has been wounded and captured. One of the officers says that Garibalsi himself was grateful for this: “They freed him from the rabble hanging round him”.
My friend suggested that this was a deliberate reflection of the situation of Italy in 1944-45: the Italian state had collapsed totally, and the initiative in the country seemed to lie with the strongest force remaining: the partisan militia, who were mostly under Communist leadership. Everyone would have wondered what might happen next. After a few years, of course, just as in 1860-61, the forces of order and conservatism were able to regain control and no social revolution was allowed to take place.
It was also pointed out to me that the English title of the book, “The Leopard”, is not an exact translation. A “Gattopardo” is not a leopard, but a different species of big cat. The fact that the Gattopardo is close to extinction might also be a piece of deliberate symbolism, as the world of Don Fabrizio is being replaced by that of the dubious businessman Don Cagolero Sedara.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Harold Macmillan and Shakespeare

The late Harold Macmillan, when Prime Minister in the early 1960s, was advised to make a commitment to relax the betting and gambling laws. “I don’t know about that”, he said, “We already have the Toby Belch vote. We must not antagonise the Malvolio vote”. How splendidly typical of him! One cannot imagine any modern leader coming up with a line like that!

(Source: Philip Ziegler: “Edward Heath”)

Friday, 6 January 2012

Bram Stoker's Dracula

There is a common misconception that Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula bites people in the neck. This is not precisely accurate: his targets are women. The central character, Jonathon Harker, who at the start of the book journeys to the Carpathians to organise Dracula’s move to England, is never threatened directly by Dracula himself, but he does have a very revealing experience (which might or might not be a dream) with three beautiful but sinister female vampires:-

“There was a deliberate voluptuousness that was both thrilling and repulsive …… I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth ….. and could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle …… I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited - waited with beating heart”.

This was written in 1897. It is, by Victorian standards, soft-core pornography: the symbolism of vampirism as sex could hardly be plainer. I consider this is a vital part of the popular appeal of the Dracula myth.
Bram Stoker did not invent the vampire story. Quite apart from the fact that Count Dracula is loosely based on a genuine historical character, Prince Vlad Dracula (alias Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler) who defended his country of Wallachia - not Transylvania - against the Turks, the vampire myth is very ancient: the undead spirit who threatens the living. Even in England as late as the 19th century, suicides might be buried at an unmarked crossroads with a stake through the heart to prevent the ghost from walking abroad.

Stoker was not the first author of the Victorian age to write a popular vampire story. Back in 1872 the Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu published a story called “Carmilla”. The central character is Laura, travelling in Germany with her father, a widowed general. She meets and befriends Carmilla, a girl of her own age, who makes quasi-sexual advances to her. Laura dreams she has been bitten by a strange cat-like creature, and falls ill. Later, her father meets a certain general Spelsdorf, who tells him how has niece had had a similar experience with a girl called Millaraca (spot the obvious anagram!). A priest tells them that the girls have been bitten by a vampire. It is realised that Carmilla/Millarca is the reincarnation of Countess von Karlstein. They open the Countess’s tomb and destroy her body, and the girls are cured.

Did Bram Stoker read Le Fanu’s work? The structure of the two stories is so similar that it seems certain that he did. But there is one major difference.
I first came across Le Fanu’s story in a modern compilation of horror fiction, where it was fittingly renamed “The Vampire Lovers”. The idea of a girl biting and sucking the blood of another girl has deeply lesbian overtones. Similarly, a vampire who sucked the blood of other men would have a homosexual symbolism it would be impossible to overlook. I don’t think the world of popular entertainment is quite ready yet for a gay Count Dracula!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Geographical confusion

The Seven Years’ War (1756-63), where Britain and her allies fought France and her allies, may be considered the first-ever World War. It was a series of different and widely separated campaigns. In eastern Germany Frederick the Great of Prussia battled against the massed armies of France, Russia and Austria, while in western Germany largely mercenary forces paid for with British money held the French at bay. Meanwhile at sea and in North America, the West Indies and India British expeditions took on the French and Spanish. The European wars were effectively drawn, but overseas Britain gained decisive victories. In the midst of all this, King George II of England died (being, incidentally, the first English monarch ever to live beyond the age of 70) and was succeeded by his grandson, George III, who was painfully aware of his inexperience and lack of training for the job, but determined to bring the war to an end.

In 1762 peace talks began in Paris. That September the Duke of Newcastle, who had recently resigned from the government, went to ask the king how the peace negotiations were progressing. George told him that they were going very well, since the French had agreed to demolish all their forts on the Mississippi - or, as Newcastle noted, “His Majesty was pleased to say the Ganges, but I apprehend the King mistook the Ganges for some other river”.
I suppose we should be glad that he got a river at all, even if it was one on the other side of the world!

(Source: Sir Lewis Namier: “England in the Age of the American Revolution”; chapter 5)