03/27/13

Enter Christopher Marlowe – Again


Back in the late 1990s, I wrote an essay about the “controversy” over who actually wrote the works of Shakespeare. I wrote, then,

Not everyone agrees that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The challenge to his authorship isn’t new: for the last three centuries it’s been the most popular whodunit of literature: trying to uncover the true identity of the author of the world’s greatest dramas and comedies. I can’t think of another author of note in the world who is considered not to have written the works under which his or her name is penned. Even Shakespeare’s many contemporaries are considered the author of the works under their names – Jonson, Marlowe, Fletcher, for example. But not Bill the Bard.

I don’t think of it as a controversy as much as a conspiracy theory, since, like UFOs and chemtrails, it doesn’t get any significant traction in academia. The dating of a particular play, or even if it belongs in the canon, may be controversial, but not conspiratorial.

However, it’s one of the oldest conspiracy theories, at least in the literary world (Atlantis, the Noachian flood, and Freemasonry may be older, but not literary). And I have to admit to still enjoying reading about it. This old conspiracy still has legs. Plus, it has generated serious, intellectual and scholarly debate for centuries.* It’s even become a meme, thanks to the internet.

History PlayA couple of years ago, in my endless search for books on the Bard, I picked up History Play, by Rodney Bolt (Perennial, New York, USA, 2005). I only started to read it last week. Bolt revives an old idea: that Christopher Marlowe, contemporary playwright, was the actual author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Like that of the contemporary favourite among literary conspiracy theorists, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, Marlowe’s life presents a significant challenge to explain in terms of the theory: Marlowe was murdered in 1593.

That’s twenty years before the last known works by Shakespeare were penned (Henry VIII, and Two Noble Kinsmen). de Vere, at least, died in 1604, more than a decade after Marlowe, so his supporters have a shorter time to cover.

The “solutions” for this rather uncomfortable historical fact are either that the person in question didn’t really die, but rather went into hiding and continued to write, or that he (or she in the case of those who attribute the plays to Elizabeth I) wrote them all before, and they were released sporadically after that death.

For Marlowe, it was even more inconvenient to “die” at age 29. Considering he was in university until 1587, that doesn’t leave a lot of time to write the 36-plus plays and numerous poems attributed to Shakespeare. Unless, of course, we was really alive all this time, as Bolt suggests.

Bolt overcomes this significant problem in grand fashion: Marlowe faked his own death and fled to the continent with a copy of Hollinshead’s Chronicles in his chest (Chronicles was, of course, one of Shakespeare’s prime sources). The book is full of Elizabethan spy stories – if nothing else it’s wildly entertaining.

Marlowe has been presented as the actual author of the Bard’s works since at least 1819 (this article dates it to 1895). While it’s accepted that Marlowe influenced Shakespeare, his death usually involves some rather fantastic explanation to make him stand up among the other conspirators.

The argument is generally that a “lout” like William Shakespeare had neither the education nor experience to write about such a wide range of topics as he did. Only a nobleman like de Vere and Bacon had that background. Marlowe, despite being raised in a middle-class background similar to Shakespeare’s (Marlowe\s father was a cobbler) had better tutelage and Cambridge schooling. As it says on Shakespeare-Oxford.com:***

1) It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare’s works could have been composed by the person to whom they are traditionally assigned.

2) The qualifications necessary for the true author of these works are more adequately realized in the person of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, than in the many other candidates proposed in the last two hundred years.

So how did Shakespeare’s name get put on them? The real, noble authors would lose face if they were identified as the authors, so they used a minor actor as their mouthpiece.** Wikipedia notes:

Reasons proposed for the use of “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym vary, usually depending upon the social status of the candidate. Aristocrats such as Derby and Oxford supposedly used pseudonyms because of a prevailing “stigma of print”, a social convention that putatively restricted their literary works to private and courtly audiences—as opposed to commercial endeavours—at the risk of social disgrace if violated. In the case of commoners, the reason was to avoid prosecution by the authorities: Bacon to avoid the consequences of advocating a more republican form of government, and Marlowe to avoid imprisonment or worse after faking his death and fleeing the country.

Savage ChickensThat argument, however, doesn’t hold a lot of water since many nobles in the Elizabethan era wrote plays and poems openly, including de Vere.

It all hinges on how you perceive talent and genius. There’s a certain snobbishness in believing that one needs noble birth and university degrees to have the talent to be creative and artistic. Yet every notion we have of genius says that it belongs to individuals regardless of background, upbringing and formal education.

The argument against Shakespeare as the author overlooks simple plagiarism, too. Shakespeare’s sources are well known, and it’s clear that he lifted many of his plots, characters and settings from the works of others, even some of the dialogue. His genius lay in how he assembled them into his plays.

In Shakespeare, Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes:

You cannot reduce Shakespeare to any single power, of all his myriad gifts, and assert that he matters most because of that one glory. yet all his endowments issue from his extraordinary intelligence, which for comprehensiveness is unmatched, and not just among the greatest writers. The true Bardolatry stems from this recognition.

Personally, I find all of the arguments against Shakespeare flimsy and contrived.  Most of the arguments in favour of alternative authors depend on a lot of circumstantial evidence,  “what-if” suppositions, and interpretations of internal “evidence” in the plays.****

The conspiracy looks for answers in the shadows and ignores those in common sight. And simply because 400-plus-year-old records are incomplete or were kept in ways different from our practices today doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

But back to Bolt. His tale is fascinating reading, and he makes it clear his belief in Marlowe’s authorship is absolute. Quotes from the plays are identified as Marlowe’s work from the first pages. Yet Bolt pulls back in his afterword and teases us by saying it is all the “purest conjecture.” Despite this, and despite the trips along what is clearly leaps of intellectual faith, what Bolt offers is entertaining and well researched, and in the end a rewarding read.

If only all conspiracy theories were so much fun to read.

~~~~~

* In his book, Contested Will, James Shapiro identifies at least 50 persons have been put forward as potential authors of the Shakespearean canon, since the notion of alternate authorship was first raised, in 1785. Wikipedia includes other dates for doubters.

** I’ve heard similar conspiracies about local blogs.

*** The site also boasts an “honor role” of skeptics who doubted Shakespeare as the author. However, simply because others believe in it, does not make it true, regardless of the perceived eminence of the skeptic. Just because some doctors smoke does not make the practice healthy or sanitary, no matter how good they are as surgeons. I cannot see any names of literary scholars or historians on the list, but there are a lot of actors.

**** I’m seldom convinced by interpretations by critics, historians and scholars that try to tell me what the author intended, thought, believed, or felt. Only the author can do that. Interpretations too often assume that what is written is not what was meant.

03/14/13

The Consolation of Literature


For Boethius, it was the Consolation of Philosophy*. For me, it’s literature. Not to write about it so much as to read it. Consolation from the act of reading.

And read about literature. Sometimes literature is made more meaningful, brought into sharper focus by analysis and deconstruction. I started reading Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays Were Made (John C Meagher, Continuum, New York, 2000) last night. He opens by saying:

There are as many legitimate ways of reading Shakespeare’s plays as there are of having a conversation, making a meal, or rearing children.

I suppose we assign meaning to whatever we read – the Bard and everyone else – according to our circumstances and moods. I might read Othello now with a different eye than when I read it a few years ago. I might perceive Iago as a more real, more cunning and more malicious villain today than I did then. Iago – who at one point swears by Janus, the two-faced god – tells Roderigo:

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Announcing himself to be a deceiver. Later in Act One, Iago contemptuously says of Othello:

The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

Such villainy, such deception. But of course, without Iago, there would be no drama. We want drama in literature, if not always in life.

Similarly, in The Tempest, which I recently restarted, Caliban seems a darker, more monstrous figure than he did when I first opened the play. Prospero mutters quietly about,

…that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates…

Although there is some redemption to be had, towards the end of the play. There often is redemption in literature. It cleans things up, closes the circle, completes the cycle. But life isn’t like literature – more’s the pity. Redemption does not always pour oil on our troubled waters in life.

Meaning, of course, derives from context, and separate quotes cannot convey that properly. Everyone’s understanding is different, so we read into things what we want to see. Intent and meaning may not be parallel paths. The fullness of the play carries the real meaning, not simply lines drawn at random.

Over the weekend, I read these lines in Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust (part one). Faust himself speaks:

Ah, happy he who can still hope to rise,
Emerging from this sea of fear and doubt!
What no man knows, alone could make us wise;
And what we know, we could well do without.

They seem deeper, richer than I recall them from my first reading. A few pages further, Mephistopheles comments to the audience after the deal with Faust has been signed:

So, knowledge and fair reason you’ll despise,
The highest powers by which you mortals rise.
The Prince of Lies it is that edifies you,
With all the flash of magic he supplies you

Ah, that crafty Prince of Lies. The opposer who leads humankind astray. Satan, if you believe in that sort of thing. Me, I see it as a metaphor for more human manifestation, something archetypal: Coyote, Loki, and Trickster. Br’er Rabbit with evil intent. Or is it Br’er Fox? Either way, a deceiver also creates drama in literature.

Is what we read really what the author intended, or is what comes through the veil of our own circumstances the truer meaning? Literature as the psyche’s mirror? Is it more valid to read Shakespeare, indeed any playwright, novelist or poet, looking for your own intent rather than the author’s?

Meager seems to think so. He says we can never really see the author’s true intent, no matter how we strive to find it:

…a search for the author’s intention is not a proper way to read a text…

I think Harold Bloom might disagree somewhat with him. In his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverside, New York, 1998), Bloom wrote:

…no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than one hundred major characters and many hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages. The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare,the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe… They abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us…

Which suggests to me that he means our own contextual understanding, the through-the-personal-lens view, is limited, and we must search for the greater, even universal, meaning in the author’s intent. Look for the intrinsic, not the extrinsic.

Of course, trying to understand Shakespeare at any reasonable level of comprehension depends on having some grasp of the author’s own background, his education, his cultural, political and social influences, and his language. What I read into, say, Julius Caesar’s comment,

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Or Casca’s description to Brutus of Caesar being lauded by the crowd:

Why, there was a crown offered him: and being
offered him, he put it by with the back of his hand,
thus; and then the people fell a-shouting.

…is filtered through my own experience. My derived meaning may not be even close to Shakespeare’s intent. Shakespeare’s references might be not to historical (Roman) times, or even to the general human condition, but to characters or events at Elizabeth’s contemporary court. It could be a veiled comment on politics of his day.

Reading Shakespeare is always like that: layered. Yet four hundred years later we can still find resonance in his writing. Which is why I still pick him up and read him with awe.

Whether what I read in those words reflects the author’s intent or is merely a mirror to my own imagination I can’t say.

All I know for sure that, opening the pages of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chaucer, Cervantes, Austen or any of a number of works by great writers, gives me respite from the daily turmoil. Consolation and reflection.

~~~~~

* From Wikipedia:

Consolation of Philosophy was written during a one-year imprisonment Boethius served while awaiting trial … for the crime of treason … This experience inspired the text, which reflects on how evil can exist in a world governed by God (the problem of theodicy), and how happiness can be attainable amidst fickle fortune, while also considering the nature of happiness and God. It has been described as “by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen.”

..

 

02/24/13

Another Zen tale


Hermit tarot cardCarrying on in the tradition of my last post, here’s another of the stories from Paul Reps’ book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Before I repeat it, consider the story of Diogenes, the Greek philosopher and founder of the school of Cynics (cynos is Greek for dog, thus the “dog” philosophers). Diogenes once complained that, “Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.” I might add municipal politicians to that list…

He broke almost every rule of civic and social convention to teach his philosophy, almost like a Zen master using koans to break the bonds of rigid logic. Diogenes has a certain ambivalent attraction for Westerners, because of his iconoclastic,

“…talent for undercutting social and religious conventions and subverting political power…”

Yet his flagrant dislike for artificiality makes us uncomfortable because of our social herd instinct and our collective passion for shiny new toys. His contempt for convention, and his acts in flouting them are, we are told,

“…for the sake of promoting reason and virtue. In the end, for a human to be in accord with nature is to be rational, for it is in the nature of a human being to act in accord with reason.”

Yet Diogenes is also seen as very negative, rough, unwashed, misanthropic… and yet wise. Plato, when asked about Diogenes, sneeringly called him a “Socrates gone mad.” His sayings show a remarkable wisdom that is almost Zen-like:

“Those who have virtue always in their mouths, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp, which emits a sound pleasing to others, while itself is insensible of the music.”

Diogenes apparently asked, rhetorically I suppose,

“Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?”

Editors feel the same way.

He also said that, “there was one only good, namely, knowledge; and one only evil, namely, ignorance.” A phrase like that could be well repeated today. Author George Iles once said, “Whoever ceases to be a student never was a student.” We can never stop learning, searching for answers and knowledge, because when we do, we cease to move forward. We start to die, to shrivel when we cease to learn.

Another of Diogenes’ sayings would challenge those who want the most, the best, the most expensive of all things: “He has the most who is most content with the least.”

There’s a tale told about Diogenes that’s worth repeating because it captures some of his method and madness:

In winter Diogenes walked barefoot in the snow. In summer he rolled in the hot sand. He did this to harden himself against discomfort.

“But aren’t you overdoing it a little?” a disciple asked.

“Of course,” replied Diogenes, “I am like a teacher of choruses who has to sing louder than the rest in order they may get the right note.”

Diogenes and the lamp

According to legend, Diogenes used to walk around the streets of Athens in the daytime with a lit lantern. When asked by passersby about why he needed a light in the daytime, he would reply to them that he was “looking for an honest man.” That image of Diogenes has been passed down to us in many forms, including the Hermit card from the major arcana of the tarot deck (image at top). But it also relates to the Japanese story, below.

Other reports have phrased his response differently:

Diogenes has trouble finding such humans, and expresses his sentiments regarding his difficulty theatrically. Diogenes is reported to have “lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, ‘I am searching for a human being’” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 41).

Honest man, human being – the translation isn’t as important as the metaphor (it is intellectually similar to Thoreau’s statement in Walden that, “To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”).

And that’s where the Zen tale comes in:

In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns wee used with candles inside.

A blind man, visiting a friend one night was offered a lantern to carry home with him.

‘I do not need a lantern,’ he said. Darkness or light is all the same to me’

‘I know you do not need a lantern to find your way,’ his friend replied, ‘but if you don’t have one someone else may run into you. So you must take it.’

The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him. ‘Look out where you are going!’ he exclaimed to the stranger. ‘Can’t you see this lantern?’

‘Your candle has burned out brother,’ replied the stranger.

An interesting difference. In the Diogenes tale, everyone can see the lantern, but it doesn’t illuminate anyone. In the Zen story, everyone but the holder who needs it most can see it (and see it has been extinguished). Diogenes is the lamplighter, the blind man is only the carrier.

Zenmonkeys suggests this is the moral:

Using ideas of one person to enlighten another is like the blind man with the lantern; the light may go out along the way and you’ll never know.

And that certainly resonates (and it is this resonance that made me think of this tale as a lesson to ponder). But, turning again to Thoreau’s statement, the blind man is not fully “awake” in that he lacks one critical sense. He cannot effectively borrow that sense. No one can “look him in the face” because his lantern has gone out.

The Buddhist story has many iterations that alter it subtly but significantly. For example, this one:

Late one night a blind man was about to go home after visiting a friend.

“Please,” he said to his friend, “may I take your lantern with me?”

“Why carry a lantern?” asked his friend.

“You won’t see any better with it.” ”

No,” said the blind one, “perhaps not. But others will see me better, and not bump into me.”

So his friend gave the blind man the lantern, which was made of paper on bamboo strips, with a candle inside.

Off went the blind man with the lantern, and before he had gone more than a few yards, “Crack!” — a traveler walked right into him.

The blind man was very angry. “Why don’t you look out?” he stormed. “Why don’t you see this lantern?”

“Why don’t you light the candle?” asked the traveler

The message/moral here is quite different: if the lantern represents ideas, then it says you have to use them as intended, not merely carry them. And that unrealized ideas do not enlighten anyone. But here the responsibility lies on the blind man for not bothering to check if the lantern was lit (easily done with a candle – just feel the heat) and taking it for granted that others would take responsibility.

But here’s a rather different version of the story I came across today:

A blind man was leaving a friend’s house at night when he was suggested to carry a lantern. Laughing aloud, the blind man snapped, “What do I need light for? I know my way home !”

His friend patiently replied, “It’s for others to see – so that they won’t bump into you.”

Sneering, the blind man agreed to use it. A little down the road, someone accidentally bumped into the blind man, startling him.

Fuming, he yelled, “Hey! You’re not blind! So make way for the blind man!”

Further down the road, another person bumped into him. This time, he got angrier, shouting, “Are you blind? Can’t you see the lantern? I’m carrying it for you!”

The stranger replied, “You are the blind one! Can’t you see your lantern has gone out?” The blind man was stunned.

Upon closer look, the stranger apologised, “So sorry, I was the ‘blind’ one. I didn’t see that you really are blind!”

The blind man uttered, “No no, It is I who should apologise for my rudeness.”

Both felt greatly embarrassed, as the man helped to re-light the lantern.

Even further down the road, yet another person bumped into the blind man. The blind man was more cautious this time, asking politely, “Excuse me, did my lantern go out?”

This second stranger replied, “Strange! That was what I was about to ask you myself! ‘Did my lantern go out?’”

There was a brief pause… before they asked each other, “Are you blind?”

“Yes!” they replied in unison, bursting with laughter at their predicament, as they fumbled with their lanterns, trying to help re-light each other’s.

Just then, someone walked by. He saw their flickering matches just in time, and narrowly avoided bumping into them. He didn’t know they were blind, or he would naturally had helped. As he passed, he thought, “Perhaps I should carry a lantern too, so that I can see my way better, so that others can see their way too.”

Unbeknownst to all, the blind man’s friend was all along following behind quietly with a lantern, smiling, making sure that he has a safe journey home, hoping that he will learn more about himself along the way.

Does this story have the same moral? Not really.It mixes all sorts of metaphors. The poster goes on at length about the lessons in this more convoluted tale, including this:

The blind man’s unexpected bumping into strangers on the way home represents our unexpected stumbling onto obstacles on the path of practising the Dharma. Each and every obstacle however, need not be seen as obstacles but an invaluable opportunity or stepping stone to learn more about oneself, a chance to become wiser and kinder.

Yes, the bumps in the road can be seen as obstacles or challenges for improvement on our journey. But I also read in it a suggestion of the controlling force stealthily walking behind the blind man, not so much to help but to direct. But yet this “friend” doesn’t help when the blind man stumbles and collides with others, simply watches while the blind man makes the mistakes. There’s a lesson in that, too.

Local references? Take them as you see fit. I didn’t write the tales, just reprinted them..

02/17/13

Perfect Sense


Perfect SenseI have always liked sandbox stories; tales in which the author could stretch his of her imagination, place ordinary characters into a seemingly normal situation, then see what happened when the conditions were changed.*

Sandbox environments are virtual places were you can test ideas, explore paths, examine consequences to actions without spilling over into the real world. They have all the appearance of the real world, but the parameters can be changed to suit the tinkerer.

Programmers often create sandbox environments to test programs; anyone who does web development does so in a sandbox before putting the pages into use. Games like SimCity and Tropico are sandbox games where players construct virtual societies in a semi-realistic setting.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a great sandbox novel. So was Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Both were made in to movies, as well.I, however, seems to have been written solely for film.

Warning: spoilers below.

Perfect Sense is a story about what happens to the world when one thing, one little thing, goes wrong. How would we deal with the loss of our sense of smell? How would we change, how would we cope; what would it mean to ordinary men and women trying to maintain relationships, jobs and families?

In Lord of the Flies, it was the loss of the social anchor of the urban environment that starts the downhill slide; we watch the children descend inexorably into primitive, tribal behaviour.

In Blindness, the majority of people lose their sight, and the author asks us to imagine what life would be like for not only them, but for the remaining few who prove immune to the blindness. In Saramago’s sandbox world, the “one-eyed man” is not king, but either tyrant or slave.

The former is set on an uninhabited island, the latter in an unnamed city. Despite the differences, both are “jungles.” Perfect Sense has a worldwide backdrop,but is predominantly set in the streets of urban Glasgow.

In both Golding’s and Saramago’s novels, humans show themselves unable to cope effectively with significant change: becoming violent, brutal, authoritarian and cruel. Once the veneer of civilization is rubbed away, the authors tell us, we become little more than animals. By extension, the authors imply that authoritarian states are therefore uncivilized and barbarian.

While the image of the children becoming savages was chilling, Saramago is far more graphic in his description of the madness and brutality.

Also in both these novels, the change from civilized to uncivilized setting is abrupt and overwhelming, crashing down upon people unprepared for the event. In Perfect Sense, it’s a gradual descent, a slow but inevitable slide.

Perfect Sense doesn’t tumble you into some apocalyptic nightmare: it eases you in, lets you see how people cope, come back to their jobs a little less whole, but still carry on. But the stiff upper lip trembles a little more with each step.

The film stars Ewan McGregor as a chef, and Eva Green as an epidemiologist, both competent and believable actors. McGregor is probably best known as playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the last Star Wars films. Green starred as the deliciously evil Morgan in the otherwise forgettable Camelot TV series, as well as in other films. They work well together, playing two somewhat disaffected, disenchanted and slightly flawed, self-centred characters who have so far been unable to connect closely with others. As the world crumbles, they unite with one another, two against the odds.

It’s actually quite poignant at times, and pleasantly steamy. The DVD cover calls it an “apocalyptic romance.” But the romance isn’t quite given the time and space it needs to blossom – it’s a bloom doomed to wilt before it opens fully. They’re not going to be the new Adam and Eve in the reborn world of the future.

What is intriguing in this film is how the author, Kim Fupz Aakeson, stages the collapse, like a slowing falling line of dominoes. First we lose our sense of smell. But we adapt, we work around it, and learn to live in a world with one less sense. But then we lose our sense of taste. That’s more difficult – what would a chef do in a world where no one can taste the food? Again we struggle, but eventually come to grips with the loss.

Each time we come back, each time it hurts more, and takes longer to surface. Each loss is accompanied by something else, an emotional or physical trauma – a brief bout of overwhelming depression, an unstoppable urge to eat, a profound sense of loss, violent anger… But humans are resilient. We manage. The seeming “ordinariness” of it all is what creates the counterpoint to the tension of the descent.

Then comes the loss of hearing. That almost shatters us, but we crawl back one more time, shaken and scarred, but we adapt as best we can. Until the end, of course.

You can see it coming. The disease is pitiless, relentless. It strips us of our senses, and our humanity. When one loss fails to devour us, another follows. How much chaos, tragedy and disruption can humankind stand before crashing into madness and anarchy? Where is our tipping point? After hearing goes sight. And after that…

Unlike Blindness, there is no indication that anyone is immune. The disease strikes everyone. There are no unaffected few to guide the rest – or at least no indication of any – no one to shepherd the afflicted. Unlike typical “survivor” tales – the Walking Dead, the BBC series Survivors, Day of the Triffids, etc. – everyone falls prey to the disease. No enclaves of saved and safe souls to rebuild the world later. As a parable for humanity, it sure has an unhappy, albeit predictable, ending.

The film has had mixed reviews. While not exactly an uplifting flick, it’s got great production value, stylish sets, good acting, and the premise makes you wonder how you yourself would manage the loss while you’re watching others struggle with it. “What if…” will go through your mind many times after the film has ended.

For the $5 price tag** , it’s a good buy.

~~~~~

* Novels that brush up against the borders of science fiction and fantasy may also be sandbox novels, although by far not always – usually only when the scifi or fantasy setting is a metaphor or allegory for the modern world rather than the focus of the tale.
** I found it at the discount store in the former Shopper’s Drug Mart in Collingwood.

02/16/13

Albert and the Lion


Book of Albert poemsA recent comment on Facebook – “You just can’t resist poking the bear…”* made me remember a poem by Marriott Edgar that I enjoyed as a child in the 1950s: Albert and the Lion. I actually first heard it orally – we had a collection of old 78s and a wind-up gramophone in the basement. Among the musical treasures were several monologues by Stanley Holloway who read this and several other poems about Young Albert, accompanied by a piano that accented his words.

There was a book, too, probably brought from England by my father when he came over in the late 1940s. It had this and several other poems by Marriott. It was published in the 1930s and had great illustrations.I found the cover online at another blogger’s site. The poems were funny, but also darkly comic, like this one:

I’ll tell of the Battle of Hastings,
As happened in days long gone by,
When Duke William became King of England,
And ‘Arold got shot in the eye.

Albert and the 'eadsman
Or this one about the headsman and the ghost of Anne Boleyn:

The ‘Eadsman chased Jane round the grass patch
They saw his axe flash in the moon
And seeing as poor lass were ‘eadless
They wondered what what next he would prune.

He suddenly caught sight of Albert
As midnight was on its last chime
As he lifted his axe, father murmered
‘We’ll get the insurance this time.’

Boy's Own AnnualI may still have a copy of Edgar’s wonderful book in my own collection. Not sure what became of it, but it was well-read even when I first found it. I remember it well. remember the feel of it, how the pages smelled, how it folded in my hands as I sat on the couch and read it. It had the English price on the cover, which was a number very odd to a boy raised in Canada. Just added to the magic.

My father had brought an odd assortment of books with him, including several Boys’ Own Annuals, some dating from the early 1900s. I read them, too, in that basement, while 78 rpm records played. I still have a couple of those Boy’s Own books, upstairs. We used to get parcels at Christmas with Beano and other British comics in them. But I always went back to the Albert poems.

I can still hear Holloway’s Lancashire voice intoning the words as I read them in the book. “Sam, Sam, pick oop tha moosket, Sam,” said Holloway, dryly. My father was from the north, outside Manchester, and probably didn’t find the accent funny or his odd grammar mysterious, but I delighted in it and loved to imitate it.

I loved those recordings. I listened to them over and over and I can still remember many verses and lines. And of course many of these are on YouTube today. Wonderful memories… here’s what I used to hear. Imagine an eight-year-old strutting, pretending to be the characters, making faces like the bemused parents, frowning like the dour magistrate, poking his imaginary stick at the lion:

Here’s the poem itself. The verses that came to mind are in bold:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
‘E’d a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

They didn’t think much to the ocean
The waves, they was fiddlin’ and small
There was no wrecks… nobody drownded
‘Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

So, seeking for further amusement
They paid and went into the zoo
Where they’d lions and tigers and cam-els
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent posture
With the side of his face to the bars.

Now Albert had heard about lions
How they were ferocious and wild
And to see Wallace lying so peaceful
Well… it didn’t seem right to the child.

So straight ‘way the brave little feller
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took ‘is stick with the’orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
And pushed it in Wallace’s ear!

You could see that the lion didn’t like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im
And swallowed the little lad… whole!

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence
And didn’t know what to do next
Said, “Mother! Yon lions ‘et Albert”
And Mother said “Eeh, I am vexed!”

So Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly, when all’s said and done
Complained to the Animal Keeper
That the lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it
He said, “What a nasty mishap
Are you sure that it’s your lad he’s eaten?”
Pa said, “Am I sure? There’s his cap!”

So the manager had to be sent for
He came and he said, “What’s to do?”
Pa said, “Yon lion’s ‘eaten our Albert
And ‘im in his Sunday clothes, too.”

Then Mother said, “Right’s right, young feller
I think it’s a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we’ve paid to come in!”

The manager wanted no trouble
He took out his purse right away
And said, “How much to settle the matter?”
And Pa said “What do you usually pay?”

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said, “No! someone’s got to be summonsed”
So that were decided upon.

Round they went to the Police Station
In front of a Magistrate chap
They told ‘im what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his o-pinion
That no-one was really to blame
He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing
“And thank you, sir, kindly,” said she
“What waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy lions? Not me!”

~~~~~

Memory’s like that.  Sometimes the oddest things happen. I spent a pleasant morning finding this stuff.

Albert and the Lion
* The comment was not related to the poem, by the way, but rather ab irato; critical comments by another blogger about what I write here.

01/25/13

Another day on the job in Paradise… chapter one


Mayor QuimbyMayor Ralph “Bosco” Hearne, whistling softly “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” under his breath, gazed at the wood-and-polished-brass, 19th-century front doors of town hall and nodded slightly in approval. He stopped whistling, paused, and breathed out a gentle sigh of satisfaction. The gleam of the brass was unobstructed; his view extended through the big glass window clear into the atrium and to the back with its veined marble wall without a single thing to distract it. A few short minutes and the doors would open; town hall would be bustling with staff; residents would come and go, doing their municipal business, checking tax records, buying dog tags. Yet at almost 8:30, with the sun already peering onto the main street, there was no one waiting to be let in; no one tapping impatiently at the glass trying to attract staff’s attention; no one pacing nervously in front of the doors and muttering darkly at the inability of staff to tell time.

Any morning that began with an empty entranceway promised to be a good day for Mayor Hearne, because any day that began without an early morning encounter with Caroline Rune was a morning to enjoy. Meeting her always involved a tirade led into a slew of accusations about how he and council were trying to destroy not only the town, but the region and even democracy in general. Not seeing her waiting for him gave him hope he would not develop one of those nail-in-the-temple headaches before noon. He could keep the whiskey locked up in his desk drawer until at least mid-afternoon. It could, just maybe, be a normal day in town hall, maybe even in all of Neuville.

He looked up and down the street, a little nervously, expecting any moment to see a harridan in full flight coming towards him, but the sidewalk was empty, except for old Nick Charnley slowly sweeping in front of his bookstore; his daily exercise, after which he would retreat behind a desk and remain there until closing, nose deep in a book.  And down further a young couple were emerging from the doughnut shop with hands full of coffee and sugary delights, laughing. A few pigeons pecked at the curb, undisturbed by the noise and bustle of pedestrians that would soon develop. Another day in paradise. Mayor Hearne smiled and stepped towards the door, fumbling a bit for his keys.

Before he could retrieve them, inside, a dark figure coalesced from the shadows and waved in his direction. He saw only the silhouette, but he knew who it was. Janet Sparling, the mayor’s executive assistant. She opened the door, smiled, and took his briefcase from him, then glanced hurriedly up and down the street before closing the door with a satisfying snick of the lock.

Hearne and his assistant exchanged sly smiles at the empty streetscape. No one said the name; no one wanted to invoke the demons of bad luck and thus draw down on them the fury of Caroline.There was, after all, a hurricane once named Caroline and it caused only a fraction of the havoc the local one had wreaked upon the town staff.

“Morning, Janet,” Hearne said, and headed to his corner office with his assistant tailing behind. His Blackberry buzzed at his waist, but he ignored it. “Anything up today?”

“Nothing much this morning. A meeting with Tony from the developers’ association at 10, something about east end servicing. Andy wants to speak to you about the waste water plant and I’ve got him in at 10:45. I think he wants money for an upgrade. I told him he should wait until for budget before bringing it up, but he insisted. Kelly is coming at 11:30 to discuss a library issue, something about personnel, probably wants more front desk staff because Judy is retiring this year. And then you have a ribbon cutting at noon for the new hair salon on Barricade Street. But nothing booked until 10, so I pulled out the county report for you to go over. They want it reviewed by council before the end of the month.”

Janet’s idea of “nothing much” was usually a day where meetings were scheduled to allow bathroom breaks between them, but little else. For her a busy day meant overlapping appointments, a slate of crucial decisions that had to be made within minutes, and photo-op commitments until at least 8 p.m. All without the breaks. Lunch, if he was lucky enough to grab it, would be a toasted bagel, usually received cold, then shovelled into his mouth between meetings or in his car, rinsed down by enough coffee to keep half the town jittery and awake for a week. Janet lived to fill his schedule. For her an hour without a scheduled event was a personal failure to fulfill her job requirements.

“But this afternoon is a bit busy,” she continued, following him into the office and putting his briefcase on his desk as the mayor looked at the full inbox with a frown. The county report was bulging over the sides. “You’ve got the police services board about the upcoming police contract talks at one, at 1:45 the mall owners are coming in. They want to you to lower their taxes so they can attract more businesses. At 2:30 the downtown merchants have a petition about pigeon control they want to present at the next council meeting. And the animal shelter wants the town to pay for more dog runs. They’ll be here at 2:45. Then at three, you have to present a certificate for 25 years in business to the Smalleys at their clothing store. Not the secondhand one on Wine Street, the one on Carson. And then the paper wants Sean to interview you about the condition of the bridge over the Beau River. I have that scheduled for 3:30. But I’ll bet he wants to sneak in some questions about your brother’s trip to Florida last winter. Betty overheard him saying something at the coffee shop last week and she thinks he plans to phone the condo office to find out who paid for it. After that the planning department wants…”

“Don’t you ever stop to take a breath?” Hearne interrupted, and then laughed when she looked hurt. “Sorry. I sometimes wonder what a day without a crisis, a crucial meeting that couldn’t be postponed, or a ribbon cutting would be like. Have I got time to call the flower shop and order something for my anniversary this week?”

“Already done. A nice arrangement. I asked them for something tropical, maybe some ginger blossoms and a bird of paradise or two. Tasteful but not too expensive. I used your credit card. The personal one, of course, not the town’s. Don’t want to upset you-know-who. I’ve also booked you and the missus at the steak house for dinner at seven, but you’ll have to leave by 8:30 because the Presbyterian church has a service to pray for peace in Somalia and they expect you to be there. So that means just one glass of wine and no liqueur afterwards.”

“You always amaze me, Janet. You’re so efficient that one day the dictionary will have your picture instead of a definition of the word. Thanks. Let me get started on this report before the masses start to line up. Are there any staff comments to go along with it, or am I on my own?”

“The rec department report is attached, and planning sent an e-mail…”

She never got to finish. The words got caught in her throat by a screeching, “A ha!” from the hallway that made the mayor’s teeth hurt and dogs within a quarter mile perk up their ears ready to bark. Caroline Rune had arrived, unseen and late, but certainly not unheard. “There you are! Mayor Hearne, I know what you and council are planning for the old Brown property and if you go ahead, I promise you there will be hellfury and damnation.”

“Morning, Caroline,” said Hearne, trying not to roll his eyes and shake his head. Janet put a hand to her mouth, and debated within herself whether to step between them or flee to her own office. The choice was between ignoble flight and putting her hands, at least metaphorically, into a raging blender. She chose flight, and, nodding apologetically at Hearne, scuttled past the woman in the doorway to the safety of the hallway beyond.

“Won’t you have a seat?” Hearne asked, resignedly, feeling the edge of that headache creeping up and pressing on his temples. He pointed at a chair across from his desk, then rubbed his temples with small circular motions. “Perhaps you could tell me what you think we’ve done so I can set the record straight and get on with my day’s work.”

“I don’t think,” the woman replied as she stepped towards the chair, then sat down heavily. “I know.”

Hearne gave her a tired smile, refusing himself the opportunity to make a wisecrack at her statement. Once upon a time he had had a crush on Caroline Rune, back when she was Caroline Crumby. Back in the school days, those hormone-filled teen years, so long ago. When he still played football, and he didn’t pack the oversize midriff he sported these days. Back then Caroline, to his testosterone-laced jock brain, was a hottie. Back then Caroline didn’t dabble in crystals, astrology, UFOs, or politics. Back then Caroline didn’t build conspiracy theories out of every council motion or bylaw.

She was still a slim, attractive woman, with shoulder-length brown hair and a shapely figure for her age. As long as you didn’t look at her eyes, didn’t look into the slightly wild and whirling pupils, you might still be attracted to her. Until, of course, she opened her mouth. Once that happened, you entered a world that belonged in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. Or the X-Files. Something not quite connected with reality. A fantasy of lies, conspiracies and accusations in which Mayor Hearne played a leading role.

For Caroline, everything was a conspiracy. From changing the parking rates to zoning amendments, she saw the dark hand of evil forces at work, saw the local branch of the Illuminati pulling the strings from the shadows. In an age of vampire pop, Hearne was her Nosferatu.

As he lowered himself into his leather chair, Caroline was busy digging into her purse. She pulled out a sheaf of papers and waved them at the mayor, the rustle of the sheets loud in the room.

“I mean to file these today. I will find out what you’re doing. And once I do, I will tell everyone about your plans. I will tell the press. I will post it on Facebook. I don’t care what it costs. People have to know.”

Freedom of Information requests. A dozen, maybe more from the look of it. She filed at least that many almost every week, so many that the clerk’s office kept a supply of them with her name and address pre-printed, just for Caroline’s unceasing demands. But this week she looked like she would outdo herself in filing. She tucked the papers back into her bag and settled back with a satisfied smile, waiting for the mayor to respond.

“Okay, Caroline, I give up,” he said. “What have we done now? Last I recall, we were entertaining a request to re-zone the property so a developer could build a strip mall out on the east end of town. It’s all been done in public meetings. The Brown family sold the land after the old house fell down, and the new owner wants to change it from residential to commercial zoning. What’s wrong with that? Residents in the east end want something nearby so they didn’t have to drive into town just to get a bag of milk.”

“You can’t pawn me off with some lame excuse, Ralph Hearne. I know what’s going on. You and that cabal you call a council have been offered a lot of money to turn the east end into a resort and casino development. Once you get this foothold, you plan to expropriate all the homes along the waterfront and sell the land to developers. Of course you’ll get a kickback. Then you will take your wages of sin and buy properties in Bermuda or Barbados so you can live in luxury while the rest of us have to deal while the effects of crime, social degradation and gambling addiction decimate our community.”

“Come on, Caroline. That’s a bit of a stretch, even for you. We’ve got an application for a convenience store, an oil change shop, and a fishing tackle place. That’s a pretty long way from a casino and resort. You couldn’t fit a motel on that property, let alone a resort.”

“It’s just a smokescreen,” she replied. “I know you’ve been meeting with people from the government about building a secret casino. Lobbyists, too. There are rumours of big commissions being paid. Hush money to local real estate agents. I know what you’re planning. You’re going to make your brother manager, too. Keep the money in the family.”

“Caroline,” Hearne said, trying to smile but feeling it rise to a grimace. “Peter isn’t going to be manager of anything. He already has a job and he’s looking at retirement soon, not changing careers. No one’s proposing a casino or resort for the east end. I wish they would because we could use the taxes and jobs. But this is just a small strip mall, nothing more sinister than that.”

Nothing more? It’s a foot in the door for organized crime. The next thing you’ll be privatizing the road and turning the whole area into a gated community for crime lords and millionaires. Private facilities. Private clinics. I know what happens when they get a foothold. You want to make us into Las Vegas north. I will fight you to the bitter end, Ralph. I will file my Freedom of Information requests today so I can make it public and warn people about you.”

“It’s your money,” Hearne said, resignedly. “But you might want to save it for at least a week. We haven’t even approved the zoning change. Until then, there’s nothing much we can give you.”

“Wait?” Caroline snorted. “So you can direct staff to hide the records and falsify the reports like you always do? Not on your life, Ralph Hearne. You can fool others, but not me. I can file now and later. That way you won’t be able to hide anything.”

“I’m not trying to fool you, Caroline. I’m just trying to save you some money. But it’s yours and you can spend it anyway you wish. Did you get anything from the last requests you filed, the ones about the ice rink?”

Caroline glared at the mayor, then glowered at the doorway where Janet was seen fleetingly peering into the office. “You know I didn’t. You’ve got everything too well hidden.”

“I could have told you we weren’t planning to buy a fleet of helicopters for council’s personal use. It’s not something we could hide in the budget. Besides, where would we put  a dozen choppers?”

“Don’t patronize me, Ralph. I still believe you plan to put them in that tent you’re building over the ice rink. Why else would you want to cover it?”

“It’s not a tent, Caroline. It’s a high-tech architectural membrane structure. A tent is something you go camping in. And we wanted to cover it so kids could skate year-round.”

She sniffed. “Call it what you like. Might as well call it a bubble. We know it’s just another boondoggle. You’re building a hanger for your helicopters and your jets. No child in this town will ever skate inside it.”

Jets? Where’s the runway? Don’t we need a runway for jets?”

“Oh, you’ll build one, I know you. You’ve got plans to bulldoze all those houses on Lane Street so you can fly to your mansion in the Caribbean. You think we don’t know about this? That’s why you prevented Doctor Basildon from opening his clinic there. You need the space for your runway.”

“Caroline, Caroline,” Hearne muttered. “Where do you get these ideas? Basildon started building his clinic without permits, in an area zoned residential. We had to stop him from breaking the law. It was a minor delay for his own sake. We don’t want to have to charge him. We went out of our way to make it easy for him to get his paperwork in order and finish the construction.”

“You have not. You forced him to pay usurious charges for the privilege of creating jobs and paying taxes. You want to bankrupt him before he even opens his doors.”

“No, we don’t. He has to pay the same development charges and permit fees every other developer has to pay for a commercial property as per our bylaws and the county’s rules. They’re not secret. If he had applied for a permit before he started building, he would have known about them.”

“You could have given him an exemption as a medical clinic. It’s a necessary service. After all, you said we need the jobs, and the community desperately needs his medical services.”

“No we couldn’t. The province doesn’t allow us to bonus any private business. Even if we could, half of the charges are the county’s and we have no control over them. Besides, he’s a chiropractor and we already have more of them than we have doughnut shops in this town. A few extra weeks won’t make a lot of difference to our general well-being.”

“You are such an ignorant man, Ralph Hearne,” she snuffed. “It’s a wonder you ever got elected by anyone who can read. But we’ll change that, next election. For your information, Dr. Basildon is bringing the latest in proven alternative health services here. We will be the centre of a health care revolution in this province. The healing energy radiating from his site will cure everyone within miles, even if they’re not his patients. Think of the money everyone will save from not having to go to the doctor or hospital once he opens. We’ll be able to close the hospital in a few months. Of course that means you won’t be able to get your under-the-counter payback from the Ministry of Health any more.”

“Caroline, the ministry doesn’t give me a dime. You already looked into that, what, two months, three months ago? Basildon is planning to put in a hot tub with big magnets and crystals around it. The only thing that will change is the direction compasses point and a few lighter wallets. I don’t think the hospital will be able to close very soon.”

“Not like you’ll ever know. You’ll be flying to Antigua or Tortuga or some island paradise with the money you get from developers and crime lords long before he ever opens.”

“If I do, I’ll be sure to send you a postcard. Now is there anything else you need from me? I have several meetings today and need to read this…” He gestured at the county report in his inbox. “…sometime very soon. I’d like to get it started before I’m too old to lift it.”

“Your phone records. I want to see your phone records.”

“We’ve gone over this before, Caroline. You filed that request already and got them.”

“But the numbers were blanked out. You’re hiding them.”

“Like the clerk told you, the numbers are private and we need the permission of the caller to show them. We have to respect their privacy.”

“You think you can hide those calls you make to Antigua and your bank in the Bahamas? We’ll find the truth. You won’t get away with it forever. I’ll keep filing requests until the truth comes out.” At this she pulled the sheaf of papers out of her purse and brandished them at the mayor again.

Hearne sighed. “You do that. That’s the wonderful thing about living in a democracy. No one can stop you from spending your money on lost causes.”

But Caroline wasn’t listening. She was already on her feet and halfway out the door by the time he finished speaking. She headed in the direction of the clerk’s office. A few seconds later, Janet stuck her head in the doorway, looking sheepish. “Can I get you a coffee? Maybe a cookie or a doughnut?”

“Thanks, I could use the coffee. But I better pass on the dessert.” He patted his bulging midriff. “If it’s not too late, call the clerk’s office and warn them Caroline is on her way.”

“Already done. They have last week’s requests for her ready to go.”

“The ones about why we chose the heritage paint colours for downtown?”

“That and the correspondence on the shape of the new wayfinding signs.”

“That’ll be rivetting reading. I’m always tempted to drop in some hints about being abducted by aliens into my emails to staff and council. Give Caroline and her circle something to gnaw on for a while, the proof they’re always looking for. Council is controlled by aliens. The truth is out there, so they say.”

“Didn’t she already file for that when she got your automobile mileage reports? Something about travelling to Nevada?”

“Yeah, looking for unexplained trips to Area 51. I can’t keep track of all my secret meetings with the aliens and crime lords. I’m glad you manage my schedule for me. I might end up in Bogota when I’m supposed to be in a spaceship.”

Janet smiled, then vanished, heading briskly towards the front door and the coffee shop a few doors away. Ralph watched her go, briefly thought about going home and getting back into bed, then picked up the heavy county report and started reading.

…to be continued…