September 13th, 2014

The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks

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oldindispensablesI’ve been saving this one up for a rainy day. So, as I watch the grey drizzle blanketing our neighborhood, I have to share one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years: The Old Indispensables–not a romance, but a wonderful comedy of bureaucracy raised to the nth power.

Set in the Circumvention Branch of the Circumlocution Office, The Old Indispensables is a farce in which no one–not the reader and certainly not any of the characters–quite knows what’s going on. Working in dogged earnest in commandeered hotel rooms sometime toward the end of the first year of the World War One, the staff of the Circumvention Branch–a mix of veterans of the civil service wars, well-meaning but clueless young men down from university, and bright-eyed young women continually being sent off with great stacks of papers–labors away on a constant flow of requests of uncertain intent.

All they ever seem to do with these requests is to allow them to age in their in-baskets for a few days, after which they scribble down a brief note and send the package off to another part of the vast machine of the wartime government. And there is such a variety of offices to choose from: Derogation of Crown Appanages Office; the Controller of Tombstones; the Director of Delays and Evasions; the Divagation Commission; the Board of Interference.

The primary focus of the Branch’s civil servants is on advancement of their own careers–as long as it involves the minimal amount of effort. Mr Evans, for example, somewhat self-conscious of having taken his degree from the little-known University of Llangollen, constantly mulls over his chances:

His bath that morning had been disagreeably chilly; and, as he had stepped into it, he had reflected that he was nearly thirty-four and that he would be due for compulsory retirement at the age of sixty. This gave him only twenty-six years in which to reach the summit of his desires and he fancied that he had lost ground rather during the last three weeks. All through the day dark thoughts filled his mind and oppressed him with sinister suggestions. Perhaps he would never be Permanent Under-Secretary, never a K.C.B., perhaps not even a C.B.; and when his good angel whispered to him that the C.M.G. and the I.S.O. still existed, the mocking demons of melancholy arose and extinguished even this gleam of hope.

Meanwhile, the senior bureaucrats battles with rival departments to gain ever-larger numbers of staff–and then to evade the dreaded Towle Committee, which is busily rooting out examples of over-staffing in the government.

A junior member of the Branch, sent off with the vague instruction to “get some facts,” learns that another distant branch of the bureaucracy, the Manx Office, has managed to ensure its existence by disappearing almost entirely:

Here were no machine-guns in sight, no detachments of troops. There were not even any plain-clothes men loitering purposefully about, for, when the grocer had completed his mission by mbarking the empties, and had driven rapidly away, the street was quite empty. Cyril proceeded down it, looking for a brass plate; and at length on the railings outside a small and respectable house, in no other way distinguished from the rest, he saw a brass plate plainly inscribed with the words, “Manx Office.” He paused a moment, finding the appearance of the closed door a trifle unfamiliar in a Government department. At last he went up the steps and pushed at the door. It was locked; and another brass plate requested the visitor not to ring unless he required an answer.

Cyril therefore rang and waited. After several minutes, feeling his desire for an answer still undiminished, he rang again. A prodigious interval went by; and then he heard an uncertain shuffle of feet approaching the door from the inside. There followed the sound of bolts being pushed back and chains undone, mixed with the heavy groans of a lethargic person stirred to uncongenial activity. At last the door fell open and Cyril beheld an elderly man in shirt-sleeves, with no collar, who stood rubbing his eyes and blinking, presumably at the unaccustomed light.

“Is Mr. Choop in?” Cyril asked politely.

“Mr. Choop?” the porter repeated. “Mr. Choop? Is ‘e in? I’ll go and see. Just you wait there.” Cyril advanced into the semi-darkness of the hall and waited, while the porter lumbered into the complete darkness of the stairs and was lost to sight, though not to hearing. After several minutes he returned and said in a dull voice:

“Yes, Mr. Choop, ‘e’s in.” After this he seemed to expect that Cyril would go away.

He does finally get escorted up to the dark alcove from which Mr. Choop presides, and is warmly welcomed. After offering a cigarette and going into great detail about the many fine points of his new lighter, Mr. Choop then rises, saying, “Well, I’m sorry you must go,” and sends the young man off without disclosing a single fact about the Manx Office or its purpose.

In the end, the Circumvention Branch manages to earn a favorable report from the Towle Committee and various staff members earn various sorts of honors. The Armistice is signed–although whether with or without the contributions of the Branch remains a mystery.

For anyone who’s a fan of Yes, Minister, I heartily recommend taking a look at The Old Indispensables

Edward Shanks served on the Western Front until wounded in 1915 and went on to write over a dozen books of poetry and fiction, including the dystopian SF novel, The People of the Ruins. He received the very first Hawthornden Prize in 1919 for his book, The Queen of China and Other Poems.

The Old Indispensables is available online at the Internet Archive (link).


The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks
London: Martin Secker, 1919


 

September 7th, 2014

Little Dog Lost, by Tiffany Thayer (1938)

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littledoglostI wrote about one of Tiffany Thayer’s early novels, Thirteen Women, some years ago. For those who haven’t read that post, I’ll explain that Thayer was an eccentric and unique combination of pulp novelist, self-educated philosopher and follower of Charles Fort, and writer whose ambitions perhaps outstretched his abilities.

I bought a copy of Little Dog Lost after seeing the briefest of synopses, which described it as the story of Hollywood producer turned homicidal drifter. That made it seem a bit like Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels meets Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer — and too odd to pass up.

I should caution that I am no expert on Thayer and defer to those who are in setting down the authoritative facts of his life and work, but I feel safe in speculating that Thayer may have been trying to work through some of his inner conflicts in the process of writing Little Dog Lost. Thayer enjoyed the financial rewards of writing to the lowest common denominator, but he also wanted to pursue philosophy, to continue Fort’s work on anomalous phenomena, and to write a massive serious historical novel based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Like Wittgenstein’s friend, Barry Pink (“Pink wants to sit on six stools at once, but he only has one arse”), Thayer seemed to be struggling to decide which role he preferred.

It’s not stretching comparisons too far to say that Little Dog Lost is something of a modern-day Candide. Thayer launches his protagonist, a highly successful movie producer (think Irving Thalberg or Darryl Zanuck), off on a journey to discover “the common people,” only to find that life among the simple folk is even more complicated than the wheelings and dealings of Hollywood.

Oh, and to spice things up, Thayer sets up his hero, Stanley Franklin, as (a) an orphan who witnessed his father kill his mother and then slit his own throat; (b) the informal foster child of a warm-hearted Brooklyn Italian family; (c) the ward of an enormously wealthy bachelor who plucked Stanley from la familia to raise and educate him as a gentleman; and (d) the brother of a psychopathic criminal. Oh, and (e) married to an infinitely patient and understanding woman who suffers gladly her husband’s every erratic whim.

I will not attempt to outline the plot beyond this. If you’re really interested, there is a detailed account available on Goodreads. Let’s just say that Stanley bounces from criminal gang to college campus to religious community to Communist rally to, well, a bunch of other stuff; joins a kidnapping conspiracy; learns that his real mother and father were not who he thought they were; dabbles in several varieties of 1930s radical politics; and ends up in an insane asylum. Unlike Voltaire, Thayer failed to understand that a good satirist does need to be a bit more organized than the crazy world he’s portraying.

If the whole thing sounds like a gawdawful mess, it is. I sort of admire Thayer’s chaotic energy, which can bring the stalest cliches, unfathomable motivations, absurd coincidences, and a certain manic brilliance together on the same page. I can’t for a moment claim to make sense of it, but I’ll give this to Thayer: he was certainly brimming with ideas.

File under “Eccentric Fiction.”


Little Dog Lost, by Tiffany Thayer
New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1938

Little Dog Lost


 

September 3rd, 2014

“The Spirit of the Bayonet,” from The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford

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Marine Corps recruits

Parris Island, South Caroline, the United States Marine Corp Recruit Depot, and eight-week college for the phony-tough and the crazy-brave, constructed in a swamp on an island, symmetrical but sinister like a suburban death camp.

Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim spits. “Listen up, herd. You maggots had better start looking like United States Marine Corps recruits. Do not think for one second that you are Marines. You just dropped by to pick up a set of dress blues. Am I right, ladies? Sorry ’bout that.”

A wiry little Texan in horn-rimmed glasses the guys are already calling “Cowboy” says, “Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?” Cowboy takes off his pearl-gray Stetson and fans his sweaty face.

I laugh. Years of high school drama classes have made me a mimic. I sound exactly like John Wayne as I say: “I think I’m going to hate this movie.”

Cowboy laughs. He beats his Stetson on his thigh.

Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim laughs, too. The senior drill instructor is an obscene little ogre in immaculate khaki. He aims him index finger between my eyes and says, “You. Yeah–you. Private Joker. I like you. You can come over to my house and fuck my sister.” He grins. Then his fact goes hard. “You little scumbag. I got your name. I got your ass. You will not laugh. You will not cry. You will learn by the numbers. I will teach you.”

Leonard Pratt grins.

Sergeant Gerheim puts his fists on his hips. “If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon, you will be a minister of death, praying for war. And proud. Until that day you are pukes, you are scumbags, you are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human. You people are nothing but a lot of little pieces of amphibian shit.”

Leonard chuckles.

“Private Pyle thinks I am a real funny guy. He thinks that Parris Island is more fun than a sucking chest wound.”

The hillbilly’s face is frozen into a permanent expression of oat-fed innocence.

“You maggots are not going to have any fun here. You are not going to enjoy standing in straight lines and you are not going to enjoy massaging your own wand and you are not going to enjoy saying ‘sir’ to individuals you do not like. Well, ladies, that’s tough titty. I will speak and you will function. Ten percent of you will not survive. Ten percent of you maggots are going to go AWOL or will try to take your own lives or will break your backs on the Confidence Course or will just go plain fucking crazy. There it is. My orders are to weed out all nonhackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps. You will be grunts. Grunts get no slack. My recruits learn to survive without slack. Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. Am I correct, herd?”

Some of us mumble, “Yes. Yeah. Yes, sir.”

“I can’t hear you, ladies.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I still can’t hear you, ladies. SOUND OFF LIKE YOU GOT A PAIR.”

“YES, SIR!”

“You piss me off. Hit the deck.”

We crumple down onto the hot parade deck.

“You got no motivation. Do you hear me, maggots? Listen up. I will give you motivation. You have not esprit de corps. I will give you esprit de corps. You have no traditions. I will give you traditions. And I will show you how to live up to them.”

If this scene seems familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie, Full Metal Jacket. In the film, former Marine drill instructor R. Lee Ermey takes Sergeant Gerheim’s dialogue and embellishes it with his own improvised insults and obscenities, creating an electrifying and unforgettable scene. (You can find it excerpted here on YouTube).

Written by Gustav Hasford, upon whose experiences the novel is heavily based, The Short-Timers (1979) received enthusiastic reviews when it was first published. Newsweek called it, “The best work of fiction about the Vietnam War.” Harlan Ellison praised it as “One of the most amazing stretches of writing I’ve ever encountered.”
Covers of various editions of 'The Short-Timers'
Based on this critical acclaim, the hardback sold several thousand copies and Bantam issued a paperback edition in 1980. It was the kind of book that was passed along and had a much wider readership than its sales figures suggested. A few years later, Hasford was contacted about selling the film rights, an inquiry that eventually traced back to director Stanley Kubrick. When Kubrick began to work on the screenplay, he hired Hasford, along with reporter Michael Herr, whose 1977 book, Dispatches, is widely considered the best non-fiction book about the Vietnam War. The three men were later nominated for the Academy Award for best screenplay adapted from an original work, and The Short-Timers was reissued with an explicit tie-in with the movie.

Although Hasford went on to write a sequel to the book, The Phantom Blooper (1990), as well as a pastiche of the Raymond Chandler-style hardboiled crime novel, A Gypsy Good Time (1992), he had more than his share of personal demons to struggle with. You can read Grover Lewis’ moving account of Hasford’s decline, “The Killing of Gus Hasford,” originally published in the L. A. Weekly in 1993 following Hasford’s death from untreated diabetes, on Alex Belth’s “Bronx Banter” website (link).

The Short-Timers has been out of print since the early 1990s. Hasford’s cousin, Jason Aaron, maintains a website (www.gustavhasford.blogspot.com) devoted to his life and work.


The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford
New York: Harper & Row, 1979


 

August 31st, 2014

The Lent Jewels, by David Hughes (2002)

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Cover of first U.K. edition of The Lent Jewels“Almighty God, who hast created man in thine own image, it so happened in April that our Saab had to be serviced at a garage a few miles west of Carlisle.” This combination of the sacred and the mundane with which David Hughes opens The Lent Jewels immediately establishes the split personality of this book, certainly the most engaging I’ve read this year.

Killing time in Carlisle while waiting for his car to be fixed, Hughes wanders into the Deanery–the residence of the Anglican dean of Carlisle. There he finds a showcase that tells, with bits of paper and a few old photographs, of the death of five daughters of the Dean of Carlisle, Archibald Tait, and his wife, Catharine, over scarlet fever, in the space of one month in 1856:

The five-year-old Chatty, short for Charlotte, was the first to pass over; she died on 6 March.

Her almost two-year-old sister Susan was next to be called home; she died five days later.

Frances breathed her last on 20 March; she died at not quite three years old.

The next, just ten, named after her mother Catharine but called Catty, gave up the ghost on 25 March: the eldest to die.

Her sister May passed on a fortnight later aged nearly nine; she died on 8 April.

Intrigued to understand how two people of faith dealt with such a devastating tragedy, Hughes locates a thick, two-volume biography of Tait, who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury from 1868 to 1882. One short chapter treats of the deaths, mentioning a record written by Catharine some months later as “known and reverenced in every land.” It also quotes Tait’s own diary, an entry written a month after Mary’s death: “Thou hast re-claimed the lent jewels. Yet, O Lord, shall I not thank Thee now? I will thank Thee not only for the children Thou hast left to me [a son and an infant daughter], but for those Thou hast re-claimed…. I thank Thee for the bright hopes of a happy reunion, when we shall meet to part no more.”

The Lent Jewels is the story of Hughes’ attempt, as a non-believing man, a rationalist of the late 20th century, to see life through the eyes of a man and woman whose faith was so profound, so fundamental to their being, that even the loss of five daughters at a stroke could not shake their trust in the wisdom of God.

taits

“What gap was I trying to bridge?” Hughes asks himself:

The time gap was not long, the culture gap subtle, the gap of faith between then and now huge–what else? I wanted to communicate with someone who was in theory better than myself in all human respects: to get in touch with a god, indeed God, who was prepared with good grace to descend an airmile or two, to link the empyrean with the quotidian. It was the gap between what lay within me and what lay beyond.

Perhaps I found The Lent Jewels so engaging because I’ve often looked across the same gap myself. I know people today who seem to hold in their hearts a faith like that of the Taits, who can speak comfortably of the eternity of the soul, of being reunited with their loved ones, and have wondered, like Hughes, just what inspires such belief.

As the book progresses, Hughes traces the lives of the Taits, starting with their residences in London–London House and Lambeth Palace. London House, he remarks, sits not far from the haunts of one of their contemporaries, “Walter,” the anonymous author of the mammoth erotic memoir, My Secret Life, and from this point forward, Hughes repeatedly draws parallels and contrasts between the spiritual life of the Taits and the sensual life of Walter. Despite Hughes’ efforts to obtain some significance from this contrast, it seemed to me unconvincing and distracting.

His pursuit of the Taits evokes in Hughes other thoughts and memories. His visits to the various churches and cathedrals where Tait served reminds him of his time as a member of a boy’s choir while an evacuee from the London Blitz. During this time, Hughes fell under the sway of the assistant organmaster, an elusive character who enticed him into secret corners of the church and masturbated against the boy’s thighs and buttocks.

These experiences, on top of the overwhelmingly secular nature of his everyday life, might have been enough justification for a loss of belief in other men, but Hughes never makes an explicit connection between them. Instead, he wonders repeatedly whether dreams offered the only glimpses we could expect of a spiritual world. “Dreams had an air of permanence, an authority,” he writes at one point, and at another, he says that dreams have a special value because they are “beyond sharing.”

He also seeks to understand the Taits by reaching for a current point of comparison–Geneviève Jurgensen’s book, The Disappearance: A Primer of Loss, which describes the death of her two daughters in a random traffic accident on the autoroute in France in 1980 and Jurgensen’s struggle to cope in its aftermath. “I realised that time numbed but did not heal,” he writes, “time being an anaesthetic applied to the incurable”–a statement I’ve heard echoed in other words by friends who’ve lost children.

While Hughes is following the steps of the Taits, his own life is being taken up with endless details. He and his wife are in the process of selling their farmhouse in Wales, which involves meetings with estate agents, trips back and forth from London, and the long hours and minutiae of moving day. Stretching up to try to peak into the next world, he is constantly being pulled back down to deal with the business of this one.

Hughes’ investigation leads him to locate Hallsteads, the house along the shores of Ullswater, in the Lake District, where Catharine Tait wrote her account of the death of her daughters as a means to recovery in the first few following months. He admits that, by this point, his interest in Catharine had developed into something of an infatuation: “I saw her as a tenderly human guide to the manners–purity, prayer, propriety, sheer goodness–now lost in me, a language I could only stutter.”

In the end, Hughes cannot bridge the gap: “The thinnest of membranes, if an opaque one, divided me from the reality of belief, but at least I knew it was real.” And if his search did not end in any great revelation or break-through, he takes some consolation in the fact that “Not a step fo the way had been attended by angst or hollowed by tedium or taken for granted.” A careful, precise writer, Hughes never rushes to a conclusion or overstates his case, and that precision and delicacy make The Lent Jewels a book one reads carefully, making sure to stay close in step with its writer. Although at no point does Hughes pretend to posses the spirituality of the Taits, in the end, he managed to produce a profound meditation on life in a time when the connection between spirituality and eternity is not taken as a matter of faith.


The Lent Jewels, by David Hughes
London: Hutchinson, 2002


 

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