My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl (1979)

‘Is this exactly what happened?’ Sir Charles asked me.
‘Every word of it, sir, is the gospel truth,’ I lied. (p.45)

Apart from his well-known children’s novels, Dahl also wrote movie screenplays, TV scripts, and some fifty-four short stories for adults which appeared in various magazines throughout his career, the first in 1942, the last in 1988. It was these which formed the basis of the Tales of the Unexpected TV series I watched as a teenager in the 1970s.

My Uncle Oswald is his only full-length novel for adults, sort of. The fictional character of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius is described as:

‘the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women, and without much doubt, the greatest fornicator of all time.’

He first appeared in two short stories, The Visitor and Bitch, first published in Playboy magazine and published in book form in the 1974 collection Switch Bitch, which I’ve reviewed.

It’s no surprise that Uncle Oswald eventually had a novel devoted to him, indeed it’s a surprise it took so long, he is such a garish, larger-than-life and transgressively monstrous creation.

As ‘the greatest fornicator of all time’, by the age of seventeen he’s already ‘had’ some fifty English lovelies, and goes to stay in Paris, where he swives nubile French daughters (Madamoiselle Nicole), the wife of the British ambassador (Lady Makepiece) and an energetic Turkish gentlelady.

After you adjust to the bantering tone about sexual conquests and the deliberately obscene subject matter, you begin to realise that arguably the real appeal of the book is the deliberately dated and nostalgic setting. The nameless narrator claims to be quoting verbatim from scandalous Uncle Oswald’s multi-volume diaries, specifically Volume XX, written in the 1938 when Oswald was 43 years old and much of the texture of the book is filled with young Oswald’s appreciation for fine wine, gourmet meals, and very early motor cars.

Thus the opening sequence is set as long ago as 1912, during the pre-Great War imperial heyday, when a chap could still travel the world flourishing his big British passport.

1. The Sudanese Blister Beetle aphrodisiac (1912)

The first story tells how Uncle Oswald made his fortune by learning, from a disreputable relation of his, about the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world made from the ground shells of the Sudanese Blister Beetle. Inspired, he sets off himself to the Sudan where he does a deal with the head porter at his hotel to get a few bags full of the precious powder, and brings it back to Paris.

Here he is staying with friends of his posh father (William Cornelius, member of the Diplomatic Service) and sets up a little chemistry lab in the rooms he’s been allotted, and proceeds to produce home-made aphrodisiac pills which, with an eye for marketing, he describes as products of a certain Professor Yousoupoff’s secret formula (foreign names impress the gullible).

Put in summary form like this, you can see that – although the theme is supposedly pornographic, as Oswald couples with women tall and short, foreign and British – in fact the basic ideas and the childish way they’re described (‘the greatest fornicator in the world’, ‘the most powerful aphrodisiac known to man’) are closely related to his children’s books (Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and so is the often funny and deliberately ludicrous way he describes his umpteen couplings:

‘Were you ever a gym teacher?’ I asked her.
‘Shut up and concentrate,’ she said, rolling me around like a lump of puff pastry. (p.34)

Also played for laughs is the conceit that Oswald is subject to vivid hallucinations while he is on the job – thus the second time he swives the nubile 19-year-old daughter of his hosts in Paris, we are treated to an extended and deliberately comic comparison of the whole thing to a medieval tournament, in which he appears as a knight in armour with an unusually long, firm lance and goes about his business to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd – ‘Thrust away, Sir Oswald! Thrust away!’ (p.27)

There is also a good deal of humour at the expense of national stereotypes, especially in the dinner he gets invited to at the British Ambassador’s residence in Paris, attended by ambassadors from Germany, Russia, Japan, Peru, Bulgaria and so on, each a lively cartoon version of their national stereotype from the short, ultra-polite Japanese to the gruff German with his thick accent. It is to this assembly of bemedalled men that Oswald first explains the nature of the powerful aphrodisiac he has discovered.

The little Mexican clapped his hands together hard and cried out, ‘That is exactly how I wish to go when I die! From too much women!’
‘From too much goats and donkeys iss more likely in Mexico,’ the German ambassador snorted. (p.43)

When we are told (a bit later on) that a sexy young woman student he embroils in his schemes is named Yasmin Howcomely (p.90) we remember that Dahl worked on two movie adaptation of Ian Fleming novels – You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the female lead of which is named Truly Scrumptious). And these connections made me see the gruff and candid German ambassador in this scene being played by the fabulous Gert Fröbe, who plays Goldfinger in the film of the same name, and the cartoon dictator, Baron Bomburst, in Chitty Chitty

Anyway, Oswald manages to enchant these rich VIPs with visions of the staying power afforded by his aphrodisiac pills and (very cannily) gives them each a free sample presented on a puff of cotton wool in a stylish little jewellery box. Soon they are coming back for more and he sells them for an outrageous amount (1,000 Francs) to the national ambassadors and, by word of mouth, to their fellow countrymen who come flocking.

So that’s how wicked Uncle Oswald made his first fortune.

2. The freezing sperm scam (1919)

The Great War comes, Oswald serves his country and ends the war as a captain with a Military Cross. He goes up to Cambridge and studies Chemistry with a brilliant if rather shabby tutor, A.R. Woresley, whose moustache is coloured yellow by his pipe.

One evening, over a fine bottle of port (Oswald who is, as you might expect, a confident connoisseur of wines and spirits) Woresley tells him a cock and bull story about how he has carried out extensive experiments and perfected a method for freezing sperm, specifically bull sperm.

This is the pretext for a grotesque story about the tutor and his brother stealing the sperm of the prize bull of his brothers neighbouring farm, by taking along an in-heat cow one night, smuggling it into the field with the bull and, as the bull gets and erection and goes to cover the cow, instead manhandling his pizzle into a fake rubber cow vagina, which then captures the bull’s ejaculate, with the tutor then getting onto his pushbike to wobble off along country lanes carrying a bag with a fake cow vagina full of bull semen back to the lab they’ve rigged up at his brother’s farm complete with liquid nitrogen to freeze the semen.

(In case it wasn’t obvious before, this story makes you realise the book is not intended as pornography, even soft pornography, but is instead a Rabelaisian satire on the whole preposterous subject of sex and its indignities and absurdities.)

Student Oswald goes home and lies in bed at night pondering the implications of his tutor’s experiment and realising… there is a fortune to be made selling the frozen semen of Great Men and Geniuses to women who want to be the mothers of the children of Great Men.

He recruits a lively young filly from Girton – the half-Persian Yasmin Howcomely mentioned above – who is sex incarnate.

The plan is for her to seduce the great and the good, writers and discoverers and scientists, with a sideline in the kings of Europe – slipping them each a dose of beetle powder, then clapping a sturdy rubber johnny over their manhoods as they attain rutting speed, in which the precious spermatazoa can be collected, before she makes her excuses and dashes back to Uncle Oswald who’ll be somewhere with the liquid nitrogen ready to pack and store the precious fluid.

What could possibly go wrong with such a hare-brained scheme?

The tutor thinks it can’t possibly work, at which point Oswald – who loves a challenge – makes Woresley his first conquest, sending Yasmin to him, getting him to sign a form for her (supposed) autograph book, and then to eat a chocolate with the fateful beetle powder in it. From his concealed position Oswald watches while stuffy, staid old Woresely is transformed into a virile stud and ravishes young Yasmin, who manages to collect a rubber johnny full of his sperm. Next day Oswald brandishes a container of the sperm and his signature in the tutor’s face. QED. Theory proved.

So they form a team and draw up a hit list of the Great Men of the age (an interesting list in itself). When it comes to the royals, Oswald reveals that he has faked introductory letters from King George V to all the crowned heads of Europe introducing Yasmin as an aristocratic lady in need of a private audience about a sensitive matter.

Imagine a particularly bawdy, not to say crude pantomime, and you have the spirit of the thing. The whole world of the arts and sciences is reviewed not in terms of achievement, but their potential spunk donations. The only snag is that the list of Great Men to be despunked includes some rather elderly ones that they worry might have a heart attack during the process.

‘Now see here, Cornelius,’ A.R. Woresley said. ‘I won’t be a party to the murder of Mr Renoir or Mr Manet. I don’t want blood on my hands.’
‘You’ll have a lot of valuable sperm on your hands and that’s all,’ I said. ‘Leave it to us.’ (p.115)

Woresley will remain Cambridge, doing his day job but also setting up the permanent sperm bank, while Oswald and Howcomely tour Europe collecting the sperm of Great Men!

So they set off on a grand tour of Europe and the first king to be milked is King Alfonso of Spain who, we discover (in this scandalous fiction at any rate), has a clockwork sofa which moves up and down and so does all the hard work for him while he remains more or less motionless ‘as befits a king’. Yasmin bounces out of the palace a few hours later with a johnny full of royal sperm and Oswald motors her back to the hotel where he’s set up a small lab to mix it with preservative, and then freeze it in liquid nitrogen.

And that sets the pattern for the following fifty or so pages. Next up is 76-year-old Renoir who is confined to a wheelchair, but still manages to deliver the goods and who leaves Yasmin in raptures about his greatness.

Followed by: Monet, Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Proust (for whom Yasmin dresses like and pretends to be a boy, the seduction treated like a Whitehall farce), Nijinsky, Joyce, and then Puccini in his Italian villa – in the moonlight by the lake where Oswald prepares Yasmin by teaching her one of the maestro’s favourite arias. Thus when she starts singing it outside his window, Puccini is smitten, and swiftly has his way with her, but is charming and amusing and courteous.

Compare and contrast with Sigmund Freud, who admits this troubled young lady to his consulting rooms who promptly gives him a chocolate (laced with the aphrodisiac), the whole encounter a broad satire on Freud (who Dahl obviously despises).

And so on. It might have seemed a funny idea at the time but this litany of encounters with famous men soon pales, not least because the pattern is the same time – Yasmin introduces herself, offers them a chocolate spiked with beetle dust and precisely 9 minutes later they are stricken with untamable lust, she pops a rubber johnny over their member, then lets herself be ravished, then finds some way to extricate herself (sometimes being forced to use a hatpin to jolt the man off her) before rushing outside to hand the johnny full of Great Man sperm over to Oswald, who motors them both back to his hotel room where he mixes it with a preservative, secretes it into tooth-pick thin straws (a convenient way of dividing up the sperm), then pops these into the cabinet of liquid nitrogen.

In Berlin they harvest Albert Einstein – the only one of the victims to smell a rat – and then worthy-but-dull Thomas Mann, before returning to Cambridge to deposit the straws of frozen semen at the master vat kept by Dr Woresley. And then an English tour taking in Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and an extended passage satirising pompous, opinionated, dray-as-dust vegetarian George Bernard Shaw.

I suppose a lot of the pleasure of the book is meant to come from a) the outrageousness of the central premise, compounded by b) satirical portraits of various great men, plus c) the comic vulgarity of the actual sexual descriptions, which often sound like a grown-up children’s story. Of the encounter with George Bernard Shaw:

‘There’s only one way when they get violent,’ Yasmin said. ‘I grabbed hold of his snozzberry and hung on to it like grim death and gave it a twist or two to make him hold still.’
‘Ow.’
‘Very effective.’
‘I’ll bet it is.’
‘You can lead them around anywhere you want like that.’
‘I’m sure.’
‘It’s like putting a twitch on a horse.’ (p.182)

In the book’s closing passages Oswald and Yasmin embark on another European tour, milking the kings of Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Denmark, Sweden but are finally brought up short with the king of Norway (the country of Dahl’s parents). For here Yasmin makes her first mistake and is merrily badmouthing the King of England and even pointing out the queen’s lovers, all on the basis that the beetle powder will kick in and transform the king when… the beetle powder kicks in on her. She has taken the wrong chocolate! She tries to jump on king Haakon and ravish him but he has his guard throw her out, where she reports all to Oswald and they decide to make a quick getaway to Sweden and so back to Cambridge.

And here the partnership falls apart. Yasmin has had enough, and who can blame her. Oswald wants to press on to America – Henry Ford, Edison, Alexander Graham Bell – but Yasmin insists on a month long break and says she’s going to stay with an uncle in Scotland.

They agree to reconvene in a month’s time and Oswald buys tickets on the Mauretania to sail to the States. Then he goes on a massive bender in London, bedding a different member of the aristocracy every night. Until a terrible day. He is dallying in the bath with a duchess who decides she’s had enough and wants to go home. Oswald is unwisely rude to her and she – having got out the bath, dried and got dressed – contrives to lean over the bath and play with his parts while secretly removing the bath plug. Result: there is a sudden tremendous suction of water and Oswald’s goolies are sucked down the hole. His screams of agony can be heard all across Mayfair! Which leads him to warn us against aristocratic women or, as he puts it in a long-cherished motto:

Ladies with titles
Will go for your vitals

It takes weeks to recover and he is still hobbling with swollen privates when he arrives back in Cambridge at old Woresley’s house to discover a note pinned to the door. They’ve scarpered! Yasmin has married Worsely! And they’ve done a bunk with all the Great Men sperm. All except Proust that is, who Yasmin didn’t take to at all.

Oswald goes mad and trashes Woresley’s house, demolishing every single piece of furniture. Then conceives his final plan. On the last page of the book he tells us how he finally made his fortune. He goes back out to Sudan and buys up the entire area where the rare Blister beetle breeds, sets up plantations with native labour and builds a refining factory in Khartoum. He establishes secret sales operations in the world’s leading cities (New York, London, Paris etc)

There is some last-minute throwaway satire on generals, for Oswald discovers that retired generals are his best sales agents. Why? Because there are retired generals in every country; they are efficient; they are unscrupulous; they are brave; they have little regard for human life; and they are not intelligent enough to cheat him.

If you add this to the page or so satirising aristocratic ladies a few pages earlier, it confirms your sense that, although the theme of the book is sex, its real purpose is to be a scattergun, blunderbus satire against all respectable values, people and institutions.

Kings, queens, aristocrats, inventors, Oxbridge dons, men and women all come in for Uncle Oswald’s robust, take-no-prisoners attitude. It is a bracing and hilarious read and like many an older satire, if the narrative structure, if the ‘plot’, feels patched together and made up as he goes along, that, too, is part of the satirical intent.

If the reader was expecting anything remotely serious or dignified or carefully planned, then the joke is on us, too.

Credit

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl was published by Michael Joseph Ltd in 1979. All references are to the 1980 Penguin paperback edition.


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A Curious Turn @ the Heath Robinson Museum

The Heath Robinson Museum must be one of my favourite places. It never fails to put a smile on my face and prompt happy laughter from all the visitors around me.

Its latest exhibition is actually not a home-grown product, but has been curated by the Craft Council and is finding its London home at the HR Museum as part of a tour round the UK.

A Curious Turn is a collection of 30 intricate and imaginative automata, beautifully made, complicated and entertaining contraptions. Heath Robinson didn’t, apparently, turn any of the thousands of ridiculous contraptions depicted in his cartoons and illustrations into actual three-dimensional models, but his spirit hovers over the whole show, and it includes a couple of wonderful illustrations by his characteristically convoluted inventions.

But this is first and foremost an exhibition of moving machines.

A Busy Day at No.12 West Street (2012) by Fi Henshall

A Busy Day at No.12 West Street (2012) by Fi Henshall

What is an automaton?

The dictionary defines automaton as:

  • a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being
  • a machine which performs a range of functions according to a predetermined set of coded instructions

According to the wall labels, the post-Newtonian vision of the world, indeed of the universe, conceived of as an enormous machine following the clear mathematical laws which Newton had discovered, helped to make the 18th century the Golden Age of Automata, characterised by high-end mechanical devices constructed of expensive components, designed to entertain the rich, such as the Writer made by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in 1774.

The Writer by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in (1774)

The Writer by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in (1774)

During the 19th century cheaper, more accessible devices were created to entertain the masses at circuses and fairs. However, at the turn of the 20th century new mechanical marvels came along to entertain the people, not least the cinema. Watching an elaborate machine recreate a small circuit of human actions paled into insignificance compared to the watching the Keystone Cops or Charlie Chaplin’s madcap adventures at a penny a go.

The taste for, and the manufacture of, automata went into a steep decline. The exhibition singles out two exceptions – the moving sculptures Alexander Calder made in the early 1920s (and which I was lucky enough to see for myself at the 2015 Alexander Calder retrospective at Tate Modern) and the elaborate contraptions devised in the 1950s by the inventor Rowland Emett.

Emmett is best known nowadays for creating the elaborate inventions of Caractacus Potts in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) but a number of newsreels from the 1950s and 60s capture him and his world of elaborate contrivances.

The 1970s revival

It was only in the 1970s that automata began to undergo a revival. Instead of expensive toys for the rich, or gewgaws for Victorian gawpers, the revival was associated with folk and craft elements from traditional sources.

The exhibition attributes a lot of this revival to the work of Sue Jackson, the founder of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. Apparently, she encouraged makers in Falmouth, Cornwall, to build automata to sell at her local craft shop, Cabaret and, as you read on and progress through the exhibition, you come to realise that almost all the artists and model-makers included in the show are or were associated with Sue and the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. It’s not an international show. It’s very much about this one lady and the group of model-makers she gathered around her.

Sue Jackson and Paul Spooner outside Cabaret, Falmouth, 1983

Sue Jackson and Paul Spooner outside Cabaret, Falmouth, 1983. Image courtesy of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre

This new generation of automata moved away from the 18th and 19th century pleasure of machinery for its own sake, and placed it much more within the context of contemporary art and sculpture, of folk motifs, incorporating craft techniques with wood and fabric.

A little later, from the 1980s onwards, there is the growing influence of the Steampunk movement in comics and novels.

So not only are almost all the works on display associated with the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, but almost all the automata on show are MODERN – there are no examples from the 18th or 19th century. Almost all of the 30 or so examples on display date from the 1980s onwards and, I didn’t count but I’d guesstimate that about half of these date from the 2010s.

This is not an overview of the History of Automata: it is an exhibition of very modern-day moving machines, which display a very modern range of subject matter and often dry, ironic temperament.

Dia de los Muertos (2016) by Wanda Sowry

Dia de los Muertos (2016) by Wanda Sowry

Influenced by the creaky contraptions of Emett and Heath Robinson, modern-day artists like Keith Newstead, Tim Hunkin and Jan Zalud explored how you can use the form or genre of mechanically moving human or animal puppets to make sculptures which satirise, explore or glorify the weird and wonderful world around us.

Certainly there’s a lot to bewitch and amaze the visitor. Bring children. Almost all of the displays have BUTTONS to push which make the contraptions perform in exotic and imaginative ways. Possibly the most compelling of all the devices is this wonderfully ornate flying machine by Keith Newstead. Press the button and all manner of cogs and cams whir and click to make the driver pedal, the wings flap and the wheels go round.

Transports of Delight (2010) by Keith Newstead

Transports of Delight (2010) by Keith Newstead

But there’s also a wide range of looks and styles. Since the turn of the 21st century the style has moved away from a folk-craft style. The influence of Steam Punk is just one among many diverse trends, some artists returning to the elaborately metallic roots of the automaton but combining this with an expansion into a much broader range of styles and techniques.

Many of the works coming into the ambience of contemporary fine art, becoming interesting sculptures in their own right as well as clever or entertaining ‘toys’.

Take this piece by John Grayson, which initially looks like something from the Victorian era because of the use of porcelain and the dresses, hair and beard style of the figures. But it was in fact made in 2016 and, if you read the texts in the newspapers which are flowing down in front of the main figure, you realise that they are about Brexit and the Leveson Enquiry and all kinds of contemporary issues which fill the headlines.

This very knowing use of ceramics combined with an up-to-the-minute text or pretext reminded me very much of Grayson Perry.

The Discombobulated Brexiteer (2016) by John Grayson

The Discombobulated Brexiteer (2016) by John Grayson

A different spin is given to the form by artist Melanie Tomlinson who uses a great deal of illustration to decorate her sculptures. In her work the complex machinery so obvious in works by someone like Keith Newstead is completely concealed beneath a metal carapace which is itself printed with beautifully intricate drawings of folklore and fairy tales, images which gently come to to life when the sculptures move.

And then I saw a deer by Melanie Tomlinson (2006)

And then I saw a deer by Melanie Tomlinson (2006)

Among the smallest works of art I’ve ever seen is the tiny series of circus acrobats by Laurence and Angela St Leger, which are only a centimetre or so high, and hand made in exquisite detail.

Two Acrobats (2016) by Laurence and Angela St Leger

Two Acrobats (2016) by Laurence and Angela St Leger

Summary

The making of automata, or mechanical moving models, is an area on the border between art and craft which you rarely hear about.

You sometimes see odd examples of old automata in local museums, but it’s extremely rare to get the opportunity to see the work of contemporary artists who are developing and expanding this old format into ever-more inventive, more earnest or more comical channels – artists like Keith Newstead, Melanie Tomlinson, Paul Spooner, Sam Smith or Tim Lewis. Which makes this a rare and fascinating exhibition.

It’s also funny. It’ll make you laugh. It’ll make you marvel at the intricacy of the workings and the cleverness of the conceits. You’ll get to the end and wish, like me, that there were more buttons to push and more automata to watch whirring and moving.

A Curious Turn is another thought-provoking, inspiring and above all happy-making triumph for the Heath Robinson Museum.


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Reviews of other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

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