The Happy Prince and other stories by Oscar Wilde (1888)

In May 1888, 4 months after the 22 year-old Kipling published ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’, the 33 year-old Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde published ‘The Happy Prince and other stories’, nine fairy tales for children. I’m rereading them in a lovely illustrated old Puffin edition (1973). It cost 25p. Wilde takes up Victorian sentimentality where Dickens dropped it, but whereas Tiny Tim or Little Nell were accompanied by the comic, the grotesque and Dickens’s unquenchable verbal energy, Wilde strives for a melodious smoothness, clothing his sweetly weeping tales in fin-de-siecle silver and gold.

“Pale poppies were broidered on the silk coverlet of the bed, as though they had fallen from the tired hands of sleep, and tall reeds of fluted ivory bare up the velvet canopy, from which great tufts of ostrich plumes sprang, like white foam, to the pallid silver of the fretted ceiling.”

The Happy Prince and other stories on Amazon

Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling (1888)

When he was 21, Kipling’s editor at the Indian Civil and Military Gazette, the newspaper he worked on based in Lahore, allowed him to begin publishing a series of short anecdotes, yarns and stories about Anglo-Indian life, under the banner ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’.

When he’d amassed 40 or so, Kipling got them published in book form in January 1888, just after his 22nd birthday. Throughout the rest of that year he published no fewer than six more (slim) volumes of short stories, as well as keeping up his steady output of miscellaneous poems. You can see why the young Kipling burst on the literary scene as a phenomenon.

There had been other memoirists of Anglo-India, but Kipling stands out (apparently) for the sheer range of stories. I’m surprised by how many are ghost stories or tales of the uncanny – while others are social comedies often featuring the imperious grass-widow Mrs Hauwksbee – or rough anecdotes of army life based on the three squaddies who give their name to the volume Soldiers Three – or tales of native life laced with Indian words and phrases which show an amazing range of knowledge and expertise of Indian life.

One consistent thread is that, whatever sphere of Anglo-Indian life he’s describing or satirising, he does so with the boundless confidence in his own knowledge. Almost every sentence is freighted with a cocksure knowingness. He is keen to show us he understands it all, he’s an old hand, he’s knocked about a bit. Whether it’s the precise mechanism of the Martini rifle or the fates of bright young civil servants just off he boat, whether it’s opium addict slang or social etiquette in a hill station, Ruddy’s the man, he’s an old hand, he knows a thing or two.

It’s this this aggressive, showy knowingness which makes such an impression, and was to remain a, maybe the, central feature of Kipling’s style.

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Conlon Nancarrow weekend @ the South Bank

22 April 2012

To the South Bank for part one of their Conlon Nancarrow weekend. An American ‘maverick’, Nancarrow (b1912), became a communist, fought in the Spanish Civil War, was invalided home where he was harassed for his beliefs and found no taste for his difficult music, and so exiled himself to Mexico, where he lived and worked till his death in 1997.

Nancarrow pioneered a revolutionary approach to combining tempos, ie having multiple ‘melodies’ or sequences of notes playing simultaneously, creating works so fiendishly complex no human being could play them; instead, he laboriously punched out the music, by hand, hole by hole, into paper rolls for player pianos. Each piece typically took a year to create and lasts 2 or 3 minutes. 50 pieces in all. Even among the avant-garde his work only became known in the 1980s.

This weekend of events has been two years in the making, most of which involved tracking down the kind of player piano he used, restoring it and his tattered piano rolls, standing it on the stage of the Purcell Room, and having two player piano experts take turns loading each roll and briefly introducing each piece. Plus an opening lecture by people who knew and championed his work, an hour-long biographical film, and an evening concert in the QEH of orchestrated versions.

There’s no doubt it’s a hard listen, but sometimes you can make out the structure; other times enjoy the ‘Nancarrow Lick’, the mad glissandi playing swoops of notes impossible for the human hand; or the ‘swarm’ effect of hundreds of notes being played nearly simultaneously. Junior noticed that many of them end with a cheeky flourish. Speakers on the film testified he was a warm and charming man, and the jokiness of some of the pieces reflected his sense of humour. But he wanted to avoid warmth or sentiment; he adapted his player pianos to give them a brighter, harsher sound.

Canon X (Study 21) is relatively easy to understand: the ‘right hand’ starts playing a series of notes very fast, the ‘left hand’ a series very slow; and then they take about 3 minutes to reverse their speeds, thus crossing over half way through, hence Canon X.

Conlon Nancarrow, Study for Player Piano No. 21 (Canon X) on YouTube

The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories by Rudyard Kipling (1888)

In 1888 Kipling published Plain Tales from the Hills, 40 brief stories which put him on the map as a chronicler of Anglo-India. In the same year he published six more slim volumes of stories – an explosion of output – and all before the age of 23!

This cheap Wordsworth paperback contains all the stories from the last three of the 1888 volumes, Under the Deodars, The Phantom Rickshaw and Wee Willie Winkie.

Under the Deodars
1. The Education of Otis Yeere
2 At the Pit’s Mouth
3 A Wayside Comedy
4 The Hill of Illusion
5 A Second-rate Woman
6 Only a Subaltern
7 In the Matter of a Private
8 The Enlightenments of Pagett, M. P.

The Phantom Rickshaw
1. The Phantom Rickshaw (1889) First person narrative (most of them are) told by Theobald Jack Pansay who had a ship-board romance with Agnes Keith-Wessington, wife of another officer in the service, but then breaks it off in order to concentrate on his fiancee, Kitty. Agnes, however, refuses to accept the end of the affair and plagues Pansay, following him everywhere, turning up at the most embarrassing junctures in her yellow-panelled rickshaw.

Pansay’s (emotional) brutality makes her pine away and die of a broken heart, not that he cares much. But as he squires pretty Kitty around Simla – the rest town for British officers in northern India – to his horror, the rickshaw and dead Agnes appear again and again, parked across the road, blocking his path when they’re out riding, and everywhere Pansay hears the ghost’s pitiful voice declaring it’s all some ‘hideous mistake’.

When he overcomes his horror enough to try talking to the ‘ghost’, his friends think he’s talking into empty air and is drunk or going mad. Kitty breaks off the engagement with a man who’s become the laughing stock of the town. Pansay’s life falls to pieces and the final section of the text is journal entries in which the narrator describes himself waiting resignedly for his own inevitable death.

Pity me, at least on the score of my ‘delusion’, for I know you will never believe what I have written here. Yet as surely as ever a man was done to death by the Powers of Darkness I am that man.
In justice, too, pity her. For as surely as ever woman was killed by man, I killed Mrs. Wessington. And the last portion of my punishment is ever now upon me.

2 My Own True Ghost Story (1888) The narrator devotes pages and pages to showing off his in-depth knowledge of India and its temporary accommodation for Imperial officers, the dreaded dâk-bungalow, along with a breezy expertise about Indian ghosts.

There are, in this land, ghosts who take the form of fat, cold, pobby corpses, and hide in trees near the roadside till a traveler passes. Then they drop upon his neck and remain. There are also terrible ghosts of women who have died in child-bed. These wander along the pathways at dusk, or hide in the crops near a village, and call seductively. But to answer their call is death in this world and the next. Their feet are turned backward that all sober men may recognize them. There are ghosts of little children who have been thrown into wells. These haunt well curbs and the fringes of jungles, and wail under the stars, or catch women by the wrist and beg to be taken up and carried. These and the corpse ghosts, however, are only vernacular articles and do not attack Sahibs. No native ghost has yet been authentically reported to have frightened an Englishman; but many English ghosts have scared the life out of both white and black.

After all this build-up it is a comically debunking story. In the depths of the night the narrator is convinced he can hear billiards being played in the room next door, though it is a basic bed room just like his. Next morning the servant says it used to be a billiard room thirty years ago when the white men were building the local railway, which puts the narrator into mortal terror.

But at the end of the story he walks into the ‘haunted’ bedroom and sees the loose curtains banging against the windows to produce the sound of billiard balls clacking. What a fool!

3 The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes (1885) Another first-person narrative, this time told by a young officer in India who takes his horse, Pornic, for an impetuous ride and trips, stumbles and falls down a steep sandy slope into a bizarre village of the undead.

Out of the holes they have excavated into the side of the sandy slope shuffle the nightmareish inhabitants. They were all Hindus, who were thought to be dead, whose bodies were lovingly prepared by their relatives to be burned and cremated, but then (as sometimes happens) stirred with life and revived. Since their religion had ceremoniously moved them on beyond this world they were not allowed to return to normal life but consigned to this open air prison for the living dead, unable to escape up the high, almost vertical, sand sides of the enclave.

Jukes sees that the settlement is open to the river on one side but when he tries to wade out into it, rifle shots are fired from a boat which guards that exit. Even at night, when the boat goes away, the sandy spits in the river turn out to be treacherous quicksand, impossible to escape.

This is all bizarre enough, but the story turns on the relationship between Jukes and a ‘native’ who shows him the ropes, Gunga Dass. Dass is by turns abjectly servile, until his knowledge of the village of the undead reverses the tables and he lords it over Jukes – until the latter restores the good order of the Empire by giving him a good kicking.

He threw himself down on the ground and clasped my ankles. But I had my doubts about Gunga Dass’s benevolence, and kicked him off as he lay protesting… Brahmin or no Brahmin, by my soul and my father’s soul, in you go!” I said, and, seizing him by the shoulders, I crammed his head into the mouth of the burrow, kicked the rest of him in,  and, sitting down, covered my face with my hands.

Jukes discovers that another white man had fallen into the settlement and had been working out a route across the quicksand, a little every night, when Dass treacherously shot him dead with his own revolver. Jukes establishes that the white man had made a map of sorts, and is preparing to try it out that night, after the gun boat leaves, when Dass – knowing his plan – hits him over the head, knocking him unconscious. When Jukes comes to, he groggily hears his loyal servant, Dunnoo, his dog-boy, calling over the lip of the sand. Dunnoo had trailed Juke’s horse’s tracks to the Village of the Dead and now throws down a rope, allowing Juke to escape in a flash. Did Dass escape using the map? The narrator and reader never find out.

The strangeness of the subject should dominate but is tainted or even superseded by the casual brutality of the narrator and his assumption that it is fine for a white man to kick an Indian into obedience.

4 The Man Who Would Be King

Wee Willie Winkie
1. Wee Willie Winkie
2 Baa, Baa, Black Sheep
3 His Majesty the King
4 The Drums of Fore and Aft (1889) Quite a long story, the gist of which is that an inexperienced Indian Army regiment is brought up to the North-West Frontier, and involved in a massed attack on a force of Pathans, alongside a Gurkha regiment and some Highlanders. Being completely inexperienced and – crucially – lacking older soldiers and officers with experience of the terrain and of fighting Afghans, the first attack of fifty or so Muslim fanatics armed with terrifying man-high machetes makes the Fore and Aft break in a screaming panic and run back to the pass they emerged from. The two coarse orphan fourteen-year-old drummer boys who were with the band, Jakin and Lew, are left behind in the mad flight, recover a drum and fife, have a swig of rum from a canteen of one of the casualties, and set about playing the stirring military tune, ‘the British Grenadier’, marching up and down between the Afghan lines and the trembling regiment cowering in its retreat. Shamed by their officers and humiliated by the example of the boys Jakin and Lew, the regiment regroups and charges back out, this time co-ordinated with attacks by the Gurkhas and Highlanders on its flanks, and decimates the Afghans, though not before both boys have been shot dead by the enemy.

There’s story enough here, but not much below the surface is a blatant tract or pamphlet lamenting the lack of training, the shortness of service and the disorganisation which can lead to such lamentable catastrophes. Also it is very violent. Early on, while still in barracks, Lew and Jakin establish their street credentials by kicking the crap out of an officer’s son they find spying on them. The battle itself is described with, for its day, pretty stomach-churning realism.

The English were not running. They were hacking and hewing and stabbing, for though one white man is seldom physically a match for an Afghan in a sheepskin or wadded coat, yet, through the pressure of many white men behind, and a certain thirst for revenge in his heart, he becomes capable of doing much with both ends of his rifle. The Fore and Aft held their fire till one bullet could drive through five or six men, and the front of the Afghan force gave on the volley. They then selected their men, and slew them with deep gasps and short hacking coughs, and groanings of leather belts against strained bodies, and realised for the first time that an Afghan attacked is far less formidable than an Afghan attacking; which fact old soldiers might have told them.
But they had no old soldiers in their ranks.
The Gurkhas’ stall at the bazar was the noisiest, for the men were engaged — to a nasty noise as of beef being cut on the block — with the kukri, which they preferred to the bayonet; well knowing how the Afghan hates the half-moon blade.

‘To a nasty noise as of beef being cut on the block’. Wow.


I hadn’t expected so much range – social comedy à la Oscar Wilde, tales of flirtation and adultery in hill stations, soldier stories from the barracks, ghost stories, Edgar Allen Poe-esque macabre, and a surprising number of stories set in England, and about children.

Along with the torrent of poems he unleashed at the same time, I begin to understand how Kipling came to dominate the 1890s and beyond.

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Age of Elegance: 1890 – 1930 @ the Guildhall Art Gallery

17 April 2012

To the little-known but fabulous Guildhall Art Gallery. They have a vast collection of art works from which they permanently display a choice selection of later Victorian paintings. Currently they’re putting on the lovely ‘Age of Elegance: 1890 – 1930’, portraits of society ladies, panoramas of Imperial London, pre-Raphaelite ladies in idyllic meadows, and a few daringly experimental things from the 1910s leading up to a section on one Lady Lavery, a Beauty of the 1920s, surrounded by jewellery, scarves and accessories created by modern designers. All free. All frightfully civilised!

The Age of Elegance at the Guildhall Art Gallery

The Sinking of The Titanic @ the Barbican

15 April 2012

To the Barbican to see and hear Gavin Bryars’s ‘The Sinking of The Titanic’. He takes a line of music from a tune we know the small string orchestra played on the ship as it sank, and repeats it for more than an hour, overlaying sound effects of docks and liners, the waves and the long ship’s wake, morse code, the noise of icebergs calving, all combining to convey the strange ethereal effect of the ship sinking down, down beneath the waves, creaking metal, watery echoes.

Accompanied throughout by a film projected on giant screens in black and white edited from contemporary footage – faces and figures smiling mutely from another age, so far distant and yet so upsetting. A haunting, insistent and poignant soundworld.

The Sinking of The Titanic

The Sinking of The Titanic by Gavin Bryars on YouTube

Rudyard Kipling: The Best Short Stories

It’s always puzzled me that if you look for Kipling’s great masterwork, there isn’t one. The Light That Failed is an unsuccessful novel about an artist who goes blind; Stalky and Co is an unpleasant collection of stories about beastly chaps at prep school; Captains Courageous is a boys’ adventure yarn; the Jungle and Just So books are for children.

Only Kim survives the wreckage of his reputation as a long and successful narrative. So whence Kipling’s fame?

Because for a decade or more he was a mood, an atmosphere, created by a prolific stream of texts (over 250 short stories, hundreds of poems commenting on all aspects of the age) singing the praises of Hard Work, Duty and Discipline, describing the Empire’s wars and woes head-on, giving voice to the common squaddie and stoker, making himself the Voice of a Generation.

Because no other writer had anything like his ambition or scope, Kipling became the pushy, cocky voice of the British Empire, ramshackle, crudely jingoistic, unthinkingly racist, unremittingly patriotic – though he often embarrassed the patricians and politicians who ran the thing with his criticism and sarcasm and general vulgarity.

But his fiction – his art – is far larger than his cartoon reputation. Having read the 13 stories in this collection, what emerges is not at all the racist Jingo I was expecting, but a mouthy aficionado bursting to let you know that he understands all about the newfangled radio and electric lights and motor cars, about steamers and soldiers’ slang and conditions in the East End, scrambling his stories down in quick workmanlike prose, beneath whose bluster lies a strange, eerie, haunted imagination.

I hadn’t expected there to be so many ghost stories and weird premonitions. I hadn’t expected his prose to be so prone to odd phrasing and unexpected angles.

The stories are often short, slight, not very well-written – and yet have an eerie gripping power.

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Every walk I try to identify one new wild flower. In the Lakes I was struck by the hosts of not-yet-flowered bluebells, their shiny green leaves like a carpet of seaweed beneath the trees; the equally long floppy bright green leaves of ramsons or wild garlic, bulging pods about to burst into ragged white flower; and the minty, toothed leaves and almost invisible flowers of dog’s mercury. Some herb robert was flowering in cracks and crannies of the dry stone walling.

And tucked into the wet nooks down by the beck were plentiful clumps of golden saxifrage, looks like a euphorbia, but the leaves are tougher, rubberier. A shy, retiring, sweet little English flower.

Golden saxifrage down by the Troutbeck in Cumbria

Golden saxifrage down by the Troutbeck in Cumbria


10 April 2012

To Windermere in the Lake District, to the Troutbeck youth hostel, to be precise. The whole family have sailing lessons Saturday and Sunday mornings; then I spend the afternoons walking, up and round the valley to Jesus Church with its Burne-Jones east window, down to Brockhole activity centre, to the viewpoint at Orrest Head behind Windermere, and on a long one to Ambleside and back up and over Wansfell in a horizontal rain storm.

I discover that standing in freezing lake water in the morning and being pelted in the face with sleet all afternoon seems to be a perfect recipe for Man Flu.

I asked a taxi driver why there were so many Chinese everywhere, the hostel was heaving with them. He replied, It’s Beatrix Potter. In Windermere is the Beatrix Potter World Attraction (and her house is somewhere nearby) and it turns out the Chinese learn English using Beatrix Potter’s books. And so Windermere is stuffed with Chinese people all year and frequently to be seen walking round holding enormous fluffy Peter Rabbit cuddly dolls.

View over Lake Windermere

View over Lake Windermere

In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway (1925)

‎’In Our Time’, Hemingway’s first book, was published in the experimental Paris of the early 1920s. It contains 14 short stories and 18 ‘vignettes’ – or one and 2 paragraph prose poems, moments. The whole thing refers directly or indirectly to the Great War, its killing and brutality and shattering aftermath.

Few books have announced the arrival of a complete style which has gone on to change the way virtually everyone writes. Compared with the floribund Victorians of only a generation earlier, or the Georgian Sassoon and Blunden, trying to preserve their English idyll, Hemingway, aged just 25, has grasped the real nature of the 20th century and invented a new world and a new style to express it. A stunning, amazing achievement. A truly seminal book.

‘In Our Time’ on Amazon

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