31 July, 2009


Mrs Roth, it seems, has been harbouring a boy. We saw it there on the screen, between his legs, sticking nonchalantly out, not a care in the world: horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. We can't be certain, said the woman; it could be a large clitoris. But there was no mistaking that member. His name, come four months, will be Owen. Owen Roth, 'tis a handsome name, is it not?

21 July, 2009

Alexandra Park, crépuscule

I had been cooped all day at the Library. When I got home, against the night, I was restless, walkative. To see a place in the dark. Alas, so few places will be dark in the city, what with all the sodium lampadaires. Nothing is handsome in dun orange, nothing promissory. One has to find a natural darkness to obtain the possibility of promise. This can be achieved even in daylight. I had found it in the blank corridors and walkways in the weekend shadow of Tower 42; in the hard cavern under the Westway as it crosses Wood Lane, the sun overhead making the dark more spectral and unreal, a gasmasked youth spraying a wall—I had not courage enough to take a picture—and also beside Old Billingsgate, under a rickety jetty beneath Water Lane, at low tide, beyond the comfort of tourists, where the shingle gave way to debris, sand, quick and fungal underfoot, and the river lapped insouciantly at my shoes.

But at night, a natural darkness is found only in the city's parks. Someday after midnight, jump a gate at Regent's Park, cross the boating lake, walk out onto the broad grasses to the north, where we played cricket at school, walk until the trees around the lake are black masses far behind, and the trees edging the Zoo are black masses far ahead. There is no comparable space in London, locked alone in the Park, the sky and the earth differentiated only in shade.

I did not have the benefit of Regent's Park within walking distance. So I made for Alexandra Park, only ten minutes from my door—a space dominated by the palace at the top of the hill, but concealing a reasonable variety within its borders. It was not yet twilight. My path is always through the development, the New River Village. This is, of course, not a village. It is not even like a village. It is a series of contemporary apartment blocks in the young professional style: featureless surfaces, glass, lots of white, a few stilts, empty mock-modernist sculpture, awkward angles, sad stretches of grass, plastic windows and balconies in lime green and purple. They've added a gym and a minuscule art gallery, and built a restaurant into the old canal pumphouse, but still the place has no life. The whole very much resembles an architect's drawing, the sort you see on billboards outside construction-sites. There are a lot of these in the city. I am glad to have one here, at the edge of the park, to cleanse the palate. Walk five minutes into the Village, alongside the canal if you like, or on the tricky pavement shingle, and you are no longer in the redbrick Edwardian wastes of North London. You curve around the back of the Village, and find the old council houses of the Campsbourne Estate, and facing them the reservoir, a dilapidated playground, and then, the entrance to the park.

The reservoir, in fact, is one of the park's secret attractions. Along the eastern edge of the slope down from the palace, hidden by trees. There are three openings to it, from the path (above) that leads up to Bedford Road on the hill.

Each of these latent ways leads to a viewpoint onto the reservoir. I stopped at each, methodically. A man was walking his collies, allowing each off the leash in turn, to yap and frolic, each returning, conscientiously, in a few moments, to restraint, as would I, soon enough. I had a decent shot of a giant slug, the light was still enough, just.

When I first came walking here, I was delighted to find these viewpoints furnished, behind the railings, with wooden frames, against which one can rest to look at the reservoir, and luxuriant with quisquilian foliage. I have long felt an affection for reservoirs, as against ponds and lakes, say those of the Heath. Man finds the basic forms of nature and recreates them; in the process those forms are made meaningful. Pyramids and temples gave purpose and meaning to the mountain, houses gave meaning to the cave, canals to the river, and so reservoirs to the lake. The reservoir is not as grand or impressive as the lake, but it is more significant. It refuses to be beautiful or pretty; rather, its beauty springs from the possibility of meaning.

The other great aesthetic appeal of a reservoir is its privacy. As part of the industrial landscape, you can only ever approach a reservoir, observe it through a fence or other barrier. You can never grasp the meaning of the water, and so never exhaust it. In this taste I find a reflex in myself of the ancient love of order, of hierarchy: the devout kept from the tabernacle. Better to have mystery, the awe of the invisible—subterranean, mechanical, hieratic—than to be left with an open society, bright surfaces, transparency. In such a city, nobody could experience a pleasure like this, a sublime profanation.

The new reservoir buildings, above, completed this year, are a great disappointment. The ideal reservoir architecture is castellar, like the Edwardian turrets around Lockwood, or the brute concrete hulk (1955) on Siward's Howe, north of York. These are dismal, plastic barns, with bathetic curving roofs, which might have housed a furniture superstore out on the M1. I remember these structures still as skeletons, incomplete. Then they were terrific. Now they dilute and spoil the oppressive intimacy of the landscape.

The sun finally set for good, 8.46 pm, behind another wall of trees ringing the pitches. Let the trees be dull, let the grass be dull, let the barn and stands be dull. Let us seek an aesthetic equipollence in the twilight. I find this an underrated mood. It is a shame, for the city, all cities, excel particularly in it. I hurry up the hill, approaching the palace from the east, through the rose garden—prim and clipped, as you would expect, so as to balance out the lower slopes. In the gloom I can see the inglory of North London spread out into the distance. 7.8 miles away, One Canada Square, the tallest building in the city, but soon to be usurped from this throne, winks sadly at me, as if in acknowledgement of impending senescence. The bus passes, empty, a lit cell passing up to Muswell Hill, through the unsung park. The dusk allows the palace none of the sham magnificence it enjoys during the day, leaving it shabby, ungainly, not sure what to do with itself, and so melancholy, magnificent. It is not beautiful, not like the other Victorian follies, and this cannot be disguised by pointing a camera cleverly. And so it has the park it deserves; or the park has the palace it deserves. The authenticity is commendable.

Returning to Hornsey, down the western slopes, this was as close as I could come to the cricket fields of Regent's Park. The camera would not serve the scene, but you have the idea. The far lights of Wood Green add and detract in equal measure. It is a fair walk, not cold, and there is food on the table, and work still to be done. I do not count the two hours in my log of strolls; I saw nothing new, but only newly the old. The one is material to be memorised; the other, to be cherished and remembered.

16 July, 2009

Shakespeare at Charlecote Park

Since Mrs Roth got out of hospital, I have been reading her Baron Munchausen. The first time I read this, I made the mistake of using one of the many modern bastardised editions—my copy had Ronald Searle illustrations, with a short but hyperbolic introduction by S. J. Perelman—but this time I returned to something like the original text, in a Dover reprint with the Doré plates. (The chapters are a little rearranged, but the prose is much the same.) Munchausen, written in English by a German, Raspe, and first published in 1785, is rife with grammatical peculiarities. When the Baron is posted to keep the Sultan's bees, his duties are
to drive the Sultan's bees every morning to their pasture grounds, to attend them all the day long, and against night to drive them back to their hives.
'Against night'? That Middle English idiom was long dead; the OED's latest citation is Stansby's 1634 Malory, and before that, Lord Berners' archaising 1523 version of Froissart. Raspe, of course, knew it as good current German idiom—gegen Abend, 'as the evening approaches'. Raspe also seems to have had difficulty with preterites: 'In an instant I took my gun from the corner, run down stairs, and out in such a hurry. . .', 'My ball had missed them, yet the foremost pig only run away. . .' The third edition, much expanded, makes the same mistake: 'while the whale was running away with the ship she sprung a leak'. But this expansion, which contains most of the material plundered by Terry Gilliam for his film, was written by a different hand: the anonymous hack paid to continuate Raspe's adventures perpetuated his solecisms as well.


The modern reader who has already heard a few of the Munchausen tales will be startled by the casual brutality of the original narrative. A fox is literally flogged out of its skin, a wolf eats its way through a horse's body and becomes trapped in the carcase, another horse has its rear end dissevered by a falling portcullis, and keeps on running nonetheless—in the continuation, the Baron nonchalantly slaughters 'several thousand' polar bears:
I had heard an old army surgeon say a wound in the spine was instant death. I now determined to try the experiment, and had again recourse to my knife, with which I struck the largest in the back of the neck, near the shoulders, but under great apprehensions, not doubting but the creature would, if he survived the stab, tear me to pieces. However, I was remarkably fortunate, for he fell dead at my feet without making the least noise. I was now resolved to demolish them every one in the same manner, which I accomplished without the least difficulty; for although they saw their companions fall, they had no suspicion of either the cause or the effect. When they all lay dead before me, I felt myself a second Samson, having slain my thousands.

Clearly, this is not a book most parents will want to read to their children. Later, the Baron finds himself with King David's sling in his pocket, and uses it to extricate his friends from a pickle. This episode gives rise to a digression on the sling. "You wish (I can see by your countenances) I would inform you how I became possessed of such a treasure as the sling just mentioned. (Here facts must be held sacred.)" (The insistence on probity and accuracy had been a motif of the outrageous fable since Lucian's True History; at the start of Baron Munchausen, the Baron's fidelity is testified at Mansion House, the Lord Mayor's seat, 'in the absence of the Lord Mayor', by Sinbad, Aladdin and Gulliver.) In this digression, the history of the sling intersects with another body of folklore:
One of its possessors, my great-great-great-grandfather, who lived about two hundred and fifty years ago, was upon a visit to England, and became intimate with a poet who was a great deer-stealer; I think his name was Shakespeare: he frequently borrowed this sling, and with it killed so much of Sir Thomas Lucy's venison, that he narrowly escaped the fate of my two friends at Gibraltar. Poor Shakespeare was imprisoned, and my ancestor obtained his freedom in a very singular manner. Queen Elizabeth was then on the throne, but grown so indolent, that every trifling matter was a trouble to her; dressing, undressing, eating, drinking, and some other offices which shall be nameless, made life a burden to her; all these things he enabled her to do without, or by a deputy! and what do you think was the only return she could prevail upon him to accept for such eminent services? setting Shakespeare at liberty! Such was his affection for that famous writer, that he would have shortened his own days to add to the number of his friend's.
Ho ho ho, said the reader of 1786, by which time the Bard's reputation had been solidified; the literate gentleman knew this bit of lore, Shakespeare the Deer-Stealer, quite well. It was Rowe, in the seminal biography he prefixed to his 1709 edition of the Works, who had given the story popular currency:
[The young Will Shakespeare] had, by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing, engag'd him with them more than once in robbing a Park that belong'd to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that Gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and in order to revenge that ill Usage, he made a Ballad upon him. And tho' this, probably the first Essay of his Poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the Prosecution against him to that degree, that he was oblig'd to leave his Business and Family in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.
Exciting, eh? The Greatest Writer of all Time™ began life as a mischievous rebel: not wicked, just naughty enough for a little frisson of insubordinacy. Mort aux vaches, indeed. Only last week was I browsing my little 1903 octavo of the Essays of Douglas Jerrold, Bard enthusiast and author of the bizarre satire, 'Shakespeare in China', when I chanced across his prose vignette, 'Shakespeare at Charlecote Park'.
One of the culprits was specially distinguished from his companions, more by the perfect beauty of his face than by the laughing unconcern that shone in it. He seemed about twenty-two years of age, of somewhat more than ordinary stature, his limbs combining gracefulness of form with manly strength. . . And as he doffed his hat to a fair head that looked mournfully at him from an upper casement, his broad forehead bared out from his dark curls in surpassing power and amplitude. It seemed a tablet writ with a new world.
Shakespeare's escape, here as in Munchausen, is obscure: "The servants rushed to the cellar—but the birds were flown. How they effected their escape remaineth to this day a mystery, though it cannot be disguised that heavy suspicion fell upon four of the maids." And as with Munchausen, Jerrold insists that the story was corroborated, in this case by one 'John-a-Combes'.

The legend has become something of a totem or shibboleth among Shakespeare scholars. Thus Sam Schoenbaum, one of the most influential of the poet's biographers, dismisses it as 'a picturesque relation deriving, one expects, from local Stratford lore passed on to Rowe's informant, the actor Betterton'. Schoenbaum notes that Lucy had no park at Charlecote until 1618, two years after Shakespeare's death; the apparent evidence of a pregnant pun in The Merry Wives of Windsor is dismissed as a coincidence, and not much of one.
One wonders if the legend might not have originated in Stratford long after The Merry Wives of Windsor was written and its author dead, among locals who read the play, recollected jests about luces and louses, and interpreted the passage in accordance with their own resentment against a powerful neighbourhood family.
"Time plays tricks," he concludes, sounding for a moment like a smug Iain Sinclair; "events merge." But he does not deny the story's romantic appeal, quoting Sir Thomas's descendant, Alice Fairfax-Lucy: "If it were ever authoritatively disproved, children of the future would be deprived of something that for centuries has made the poet live for them." And he allows that certain respectable scholars, including A. L. Rowse, give the tale credence.

René Weis, a Romantic at heart, when he came to write his own Shakespeare biography a few years ago, concluded that there wasn't much of interest still to be said on the subject, unless one simply accepted all the stories ever told about the Bard. What if. . . ? It is an original approach, in this sceptical age, to be sure. And a fun book. Weis has an entire chapter, not unexpectedly, on the Deer-Stealer. This passage is typical of the book:
Though its credibility has been repeatedly impugned, this is the only account with roots reaching back into the seventeenth century to offer any explanation for Shakespeare's abandonment of his wife and family. At the very least it has the authority of a written source with links as far back as Shakespeare's lifetime, and unless there is a reason to think that Rowe, and with him Betterton and, possibly, Davenant, aimed to mislead posterity, there is no good reason to distrust Rowe.
The argument from authority comes into its own on the next page:
Rowe had no interest in making up a scabrous piece of gossip. It is worth remembering that the greatest Shakespeare scholar and antiquarian of the nineteenth century, James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, and Sidney Lee, the author a classic essay [sic] on Shakespeare in the original DNB, both admired and trusted Rowe.
We should trust Rowe's story, not for any intrinsic plausibility, but because two scholars of a century later admired his moral character. Sure, it's preposterous, but what else was Weis going to make of the afternoon he'd spent reading O H-P and Sidney Lee? About the deer, Weis has clearly done his homework, but his evidence never rises above the fabulously circumstantial. True, there was no deer park at Charlecote until 1618, but
There was certainly a warren, with plenty of game in it for hunting, including hare, pheasants and roe deer—the roes of Charlecote may have been in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote 'fleeter than the roe' in Taming of the Shrew. . . As a game reserve, the Lucys' warren was patrolled by several gamekeepers; they were there for a purpose, and perhaps one of them arrested the young Shakespeare.
Weis does himself a disservice with all this hedging. Let our leaps be unbridled! Let our baseless assertions at least be made with some deuced conviction, like in the good old days! Damn it man, the roes of Charlecote were in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote 'fleeter than the roe'; a gamekeeper at Lucy's warren did arrest the young Shakespeare. And he was subsequently freed when an old Monkhouse solved an itchy problem for Good Queen Bess. If we would embrace a legendary of Shakespeare, the latter story is as good as the first. No, better. We live in a gelded age, my friends. Munchausen is now only ever by proxy. We no longer have tall tales; only lies, and historians.