Poor Old Alan Turing: Historical Inaccuracies in The Imitation Game by Someone Who Has Read the Book

Spoiler alert: don't read this piece before seeing The Imitation Game, if you want to keep what happens as a surprise. The writer is no respecter of secrets himself...  




The Imitation Game is an enjoyable film, but I overheard a very telling conversation on exiting the cinema, last Orange Wednesday. 

She: This is something I would like to know more about. 

He: I wonder how much of it is true? 

She: Probably not much. 

God bless the scepticism of youth! The old folk, the mums and dads of this beautiful couple (by which I really mean my dad and grandma), only had to be see the line “based on a true story”, to swallow any fanciful farrago or manipulative and mendacious half-truth. So how much does The Imitation Game apply Hollywood tropes to reveal the poetic truth of Alan Turing’s life, and how much of it is complete cobblers?  

I’m no expert. I mean, I’ve read Andrew Hodges’ book, Alan Turing The Enigma, and my partner is a member of the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee, and Keeper of History at the School of Computer Science, Manchester – http://staff.cs.manchester.ac.uk/~navarroe/outreach/ – and I have met Professor Bernard Richards, Turing’s last MSc student, and met the late great Stan Kelly, who attended a lecture by Turing at Cambridge. Hmm! One degree of separation x 2. This probably makes me an expert. Competent enough, anyway, to point out some of the more obvious howlers of The Imitation Game

Alan Turing possessed a high-pitched squeak of a voice, not at all like Benedict Cumberbatch’s superb, rounded, thespian tones, even if he does throw in a stammer to convey moments of high stress. 

The hostility of his co-workers and superiors at Bletchley Park is overplayed. This, to satisfy the sacred Hollywood rule that the maverick must overcome the establishment against insuperable odds all the time. Of course,  Turing didn’t go over his boss’s ahead to appeal directly to Winston Churchill. It happened that the wartime leader visited Bletchley Park and it became his pet project. There wasn’t only one machine for Enigma analysis, but several, and they were known plurally as ‘Bombes’, not, singularly, as ‘Christopher’. And ‘Christopher’ wasn't installed at Bletchley, but the Bombes were dotted around various obscure corners of Buckinghamshire, maintained and monitored by Wrens, female members of the Royal Navy. The military top brass, far from attacking them with spanners, spoke of Bombes with affection, as “Eastern goddesses” and “oracles”.  By all accounts, Bletchley was the happiest period of Turing’s life, and the camaraderie among the code-breakers was warm. 


The sub-plot about the Russian spy is pure hokum; the idea that the Nazi salute “Heil Hitler” provided the key to cracking Enigma is fatuity itself: trite enough to conclusively prove that computers can vie with Hollywood scriptwriters for intelligence. And the idea that the workers in Hut 8, as well as cracking Enigma, were responsible for deciding which bits of information to act on and which to ignore to lull German suspicion, is just preposterous. The scene when a fellow code-breaker realises that his brother’s convoy faces imminent attack may be a neat way to dramatise a moral dilemma, but as history it’s risible. 




Joan Clarke didn’t look like Keira Knightley, but even Keira Knightley doesn’t look like Keira Knightley in some scenes, which is to her vast credit. Joan certainly wasn’t recruited to Bletchley on the basis of her ability to solve crosswords. Nobody was, and there was no examination supervised by Turing, so no opportunity for him to side with Joan against establishment stuffed shirts. 

There is just a hint that Joan is smarter than Alan, though crushed by the sexist attitudes of the day. The model here seems to be the 1975 Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman film, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. And the slap on the face that signals the end of Alan and Joan’s engagement mirrors a scene I saw just the night before in an old episode of Frasier – season three, episode 11, ‘The Friend’, to be precise. In both, the hero (Turing/Frasier) feigns emotional coldness to bring closure. On the surface, his behaviour is contemptible; in secret, it is heroic. How noble! How self-sacrificing! How Hollywood!

And it goes on. In the fifties scenes, Manchester University might not exist, and the film gives the impression that Turing built the world’s first stored-program computer, the Baby, single-handedly in his living-room in Wilmslow. But it’s in the depiction of his arrest for indecency that the film tips into libel. We’re supposed to accept that Turing broke his vow of secrecy and told the policeman all about his wartime activity to save his skin. This is manifestly untrue (the role of Blechley Park in WW2 didn’t enter public consciousness until 1974, with the publication of F.W. Winterbotham’s The Ultra Secret) and it's senseless in terms of narrative. If Turing managed to convince the policeman that he was a war-hero not a spy, it didn’t do him much good: chemical castration was the same end result. So is the business with the policeman intended as a formal framing device? That’s unnecessary too, what with clunking captions like ‘Bletchley, 1941’ and ‘Manchester, 1952’ signposting the obvious to the viewers. 



There’s nothing about morphogenesis, so the film draws a veil over Turing’s discovery of the building blocks of life and focuses on his other main achievements: winning the war and inventing the computer. The Imitation Game is the last stage in the process predicted by an old quote:

“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”

(Sometimes attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, in fact the words were those of Nicholas Klein, a union activist, from 1918.)

Poor old Alan Turing! But spare some sympathy for Andrew Hodges. After reconstructing Turing's life so faithfully, and offering the most full and convincing portrait we're ever likely to have, the credits of The Imitation Game include the damning line – ‘Based on Alan Turing The Enigma by Andrew Hodges’. Screenplay writer Graham Moore will probably receive an Oscar for his efforts: Andrew Hodges might never work again. 

Troubled Soul, or In Search of the Perfect Spin: Revisiting Northern Soul




Thanks to the film of the same name, Northern Soul is everywhere. Not to be left out, I’ve exhumed  a piece I contributed to a small magazine (‘Saturday Night Fervour’, The Buzz, July 1996), given a slight make-over here. The idea was to get movers and shakers to choose the ultimate Northern Soul record, and I then filled in with a bit of social detail and personal bias. At this distance, 1996, the date of publication, falls midway between the actual phenomenon and Elaine Constantine’s cinematic celebration. It’s long enough ago to evoke a bitter-sweet feeling itself. Of the contributors, Dave Godin died in 2004. Ace Records’ four-CD series, Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures (the first one appeared in 1997), is his legacy. Steve Parry, whose chaotic lifestyle outstripped anything seen in the film (it’s hinted at in the text), finally got in too deep and ended it all by throwing himself into the North Sea. So let’s dedicate this blog to the memory of Steve Parry, who was a True Believer and a great lad. 







The Four Tops’ ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ provided a blueprint: a sincere, heartfelt statement delivered by a histrionic singer to a frenetic dance beat. Back in the sixties, countless small US labels poured out thousands of 45s in an attempt to emulate the glories (and profits) of Tamla Motown. These records barely dented public consciousness and met, at best, with some limited regional success. By a strange quirk of fate, foremost among these regions was the North of England. 

In 1967, Dave Godin was the proprietor of Soul City, a specialist record shop on Deptford High Street. He noticed how visitors from the North, invariably in town for football matches, stuck loyally to Chicago/Detroit-based sounds. Godin coined the term Northern Soul to distinguish this music from JB-styled funk, its streamlined successor. 

So the term applies to English geography, and not to its country of origin, the USA, notwithstanding the fact that the biggest record-producing centres – Detroit, Chicago, New York – are North American cities. In fact, Northern Soul can come from anywhere. Benny Spellman’s ‘Fortune Teller’, a great club favourite, is pure New Orleans. It can also, on occasion, skip racial boundaries. Country singer Ronnie Milsap’s ‘Ain’t No Soul (In These Old Shoes)’ was a firm favourite at Wigan Casino, and, for a while at least, his ethnicity was a closely guarded secret. 

‘Southern Soul’, on the other hand, exclusively refers to Afro-American music made in the Southern states of the USA, which tends to be slow, stripped back and searching and tortured in feeling. There was some crossover. ‘Get Out of My Heart’ and ‘My Elusive Dreams’ by Moses and Joshua Dillard and ‘Any Day Now’ by Chuck Jackson, exemplars of Southern Soul, could be frequently heard at The Twisted Wheel. Generally, the North/South divide in soul music is a thorny, textual matter, and best side-stepped altogether by dropping ‘Southern Soul’ and adopting ‘Deep Soul’, another Dave Godin coinage. 

But let me throw open the floor to assorted back-flippers and spinners. A random cross-sample of movers and shakers were each asked to nominate a disc that embodied Northern Soul. This was the response.  

Tim Brown, Goldmine/Outta Sight: – 




Darrell Banks, ‘Open the Door to Your Heart’ 

The perfect combination of Detroit groove and Southern emotion. ‘Open the Door’ has a good melody, and great words. It has everything. The flip, ‘Our Love (Is in the Pocket)’, is very strong too. It qualifies as the best Northern double-header. It’s a Twisted Wheel record, really. It was far too slow for the Wigan Casino.

Tim Brown, in 1996, co-owned Goldmine, and these days is involved in another reissue label, Outta Sight. He is author of The Wigan Casino Years, a study of the Golden Age of Northern  Soul (1973-1981). ‘Open the Door to Your Heart’ can be found on the CD, The Twisted Wheel Story (Goldmine Soul Supply).   

PC Mark Bridges, first generation North Soul fan and a community policeman with a beat in the Manchester Gay Village: –    




The Salvadores, ‘Stick By Me Baby’ 

This was a massive club anthem and monstrous at the Casino. I think Richard Searling discovered it. You heard it and you just had to dance, it grabbed at your heart, and pulled you down the stairwell to the dance floor.

Bridges is enlightening on the accessories and favourite shops of True Believers. The t-shirts (two or three were needed over the course of an all-nighter), Fred Perry bags made to measure at Harvey and Ruperts on Brown Street and, the heaviest item of all, Church’s brogues made by Jones’ in Bolton. “They cost £50 even in those days,” says Bridges, with undiminished incredulity. 

Steve Parry, Middlesbrough-based DJ (Soul Survivors): –


       

Dena Barnes, ‘If You Ever Walk Out of My Life’ 

Way back in the halcyon days before House and Garage, Disco Music was in its infancy. A band of fanatical followers of sixties soul music with a passion for frantic dancing and collecting obscure American Soul 7” records gathered each weekend in such exotic locations as Wigan, Wakefield, Sheffield and Warrington to engage in their passions, not unlike the trainspotter anorak we know and love. I was not a teenage werewolf, I was a Teenage Northern Soul Boy. My friends and family couldn’t understand my passion for travelling hundreds of miles every Saturday evening to listen and dance to records like Richard ‘Popcorn’ Wylie’s ‘Rosemary What Happened to Your Baby’ or Dana Valerie’s ‘You Don’t Know’. What they didn’t know was that the whole Northern Soul scene was more of a religion or a cult in the real sense of the word. The unbelievers were to be either scorned or converted to the ‘faith’ by the Chosen Few. As I write this I still believe we were just as fanatical as the followers of Charles Manson or David Koresh.

Ominous words. His wife, when I rang on a Wednesday tea-time, said she hadn’t seen Steve since 6am on the previous Monday. Her scorn suggested that this state of affairs wasn’t entirely novel. If You Ever Walk Out of My Life, indeed. 

Dave Godin’s experience at Soul City suggested the link between football and Northern Soul. Harry Pearson alludes to the subject in an excellent book, The Far Corner (subtitled A Mazy Dribble Through North East Football). In this description of Darlington on a typical mid-seventies Saturday afternoon, Pearson’s describes a shabbier Soul Boy than PC Bridges’ paragon. 

“And then there were the Northern Soul Boys in their star-patterned tank-tops, flapping about the place in Oxford bags with the button-shut pockets running from hip to ankle. Once, in a record shop in Darlington, I heard one say to another, ‘Well how many spins can you get off a push then, kidder?’ It was the only time I’ve heard one man threatening another with dance steps.” 

Raymond ‘Ginger’ Taylor, DJ, Todmorden Ukie Club, Burnley Rose Room, Cleethorpes Catacombs, Wigan Casino etc: – 




Ruben, ‘You’ve Been Away’ 

Within a month of surfacing in the States, ‘You’ve Been Away’ was bootlegged under the name Eddie Parker. The singer sounded like Eddie Parker, who was a real singer, and had a monstrous record in Torch days with ‘Love You Baby’. I located a copy of the original, on the Kapp label, down in Texas on a record-hunting tour of the USA. It’s certainly worth £100. 

The Roman Empire provides a precedent. Signs of decadence and decline are clear at the moment of its greatest height. The mid-seventies zenith of Northern Soul was marked by rampant piracy, inflated prices and self-absorbed collectors who prized obscurity above all else. DJs would routinely scratch off the artist’s name from the labels of 45s, to guard the source of the groove from rivals. Bogus Northern Soul records were manufactured by record producer Ian Levine under the name Wigan’s Ovation. A bad end was nigh. Steve Parry’s screed, quoted above, continues: 

As time progressed and the word spread the inevitable happened: the cracks began to appear, the hierarchy or high priests (DJs) sold out and the Northern Soul phenomenon became the subject of newspaper articles, TV documentaries and eventually a victim of pop chart success. 

“I became disillusioned with the whole affair as did many of my fellow devotees and we hung up our dancing shoes for the very last time. Or so we thought. In the mid-eighties we travelled to a Soul Weekender at Southport to see what all the fuss was about. The fire was rekindled as soon as I heard my all-time favourite Northern Soul track: Dena Darnes, ‘If You Ever Walk Out of My Life. I was reborn as a devoted follower of Soul Music but this time embracing the whole Black Music spectrum, and not just the Northern Soul sect. In time I became one of the high priests myself, as I now run the highly successful Soul Survivors, providing quality DJs at soul venues all over the country. 

Dave Godin, founder of Soul City record shop and label, compiler of Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures, commentator and soul lexicographer: –

From a fax dated 14 May 1996: 

Dear Mike, 

Many thanks for your letter which I got this morning. As your deadline is looming so threateningly, I thought I’d fax this small contribution. 

The problem is when you ask me to choose a record which “defines Northern Soul”… There were so many subtle, and almost imperceptible changes in the sounds this term was applied to from when I first coined the term, but right at this precise moment in time (next week it’d probably be a different one!) I think I’d nominate: 




Jimmy Robins, ‘I Can’t Please You’, Jerhart 2016 

A thunderous and almost ominous beat which is startlingly defined, matches Jimmy’s superb vocal which is soulful, impassioned and declamatory. In many ways this record brings together so many different threads and influences from Blackamerican music, and, like all Soul records, it’s all about the difficulties we all have from time to time with affairs of the heart. Mean and yet apologetic; angry and conciliatory; indifferent and yet still besotted; these contradictory elements (so true to life itself) produce what all great creativity should contain: tension! And, it is in the relating to the lyrics, and the ability to work along with the tension through dance, that makes ALL Soul records such a powerful weapon in our fight against what Reich termed the emotional plague of mankind. We ignore the important need for ritual in our psyches at our peril, and records like this, whether they realise it or not, help induct young people into the world of “adult” knowledge; when we are kids we think that when we are “grown-up” everything will then “be alright”. Records like this teach us that this was a very serious error of judgement on our part! This may sound a bit pseudo, but by god, the therapy of the music works as well for us as it has for any Blackamerican over the years. Just ask any Soul fan!! 

As an added bonus, I also consider this single the best double-sider EVER, since on the flip, Jimmy Robins has one of the greatest Deep Soul outings of all time too [‘I Made It Over’]… but that’s another story! 

Hope the above is of help. Please ring if you need to. 

With best regards, 

Dave Godin 

Plainly, Godin’s analysis goes deeper than most Soul Boys would permit. In his urge to link social (and emotional) reality with the music, Godin is akin comparable to writers like Amiri Baraka or Valerie Wilmer. But neither does Godin over-intellectualise. His commentary, like his taste, rides on pure emotion. As he says, “I need to talk about what the grooves are saying.”  

Mike Butler, the present author (why not?): –

For me, soul music is the best pop music there is, and delivers on the promise of the best pop: uncomplicated pleasure, excitement and romance. I didn't insist on up-tempo beats and manic high energy, or even obscurity (I mean, Aretha Franklin is alright by me), so I was content to watch Northern Soul from the sidelines, and it was many years before I visited Wigan, and then not the Casino, only the town, and I was sorely disappointed.

But Northern Soul is great because it comes up from below; that's the music, the musicians, and the fans.

My sole Northern Soul intervention happened in 1975, when I still at school, and held down a Saturday job selling singles on a stall outside Alan Fearnley Records on Linthorpe Road, Middlesbrough (I might add, the legendary Alan Fearnley Records…). I was at my post when a large consignment of USA cut-out 45s arrived from the States. Stylistically diverse, the 45s were mostly old; all had been previously mouldering away in one of those mythical warehouses that could be found in the USA in 1975 and are virtually extinct today. I was told to mark the records with the price Al Fearnley thought appropriate - variously 5p, 15p and 28p – and he gave me a thick marker pen to carry out the task. The word spread, and soon Northern Soul collectors descended from all points to pick through this treasure trove. I still have conversations with ageing Soul Boys who say things like, "with hindsight, the 5p's were probably better than the 28p's," before chastising me for scrawling on the labels of their most treasured 45s with an ungainly hand. (Lofty, I mean you.) 

My choice of Soul 45 came from the 15p box. 



Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson, Picking Wild Mountain Berries b/w Pure Love and Pleasure, SSS International  

It’s Deep Soul rather than Northern Soul, but I don’t care, and though the A-side with it’s propulsive backbeat and breezy sexiness is the obvious floor-filler, I’m nominating it for the B-side, which is an explosion of raw emotion that has rapture bouncing off the walls as Peggy and Jo Jo commit in wild, tuneful screams. Note, the instrumentation is as stripped back as it’s possible to get – just bass, piano and drums – and it’s as far from Wigan as heaven is from hell.

Jon Vipond, DJ, rig-worker, chef: –

There was one other contribution to the piece which didn’t get included at the time (whether because it missed the deadline, or was omitted for reasons of space, I can’t remember): a letter from Jon Vipond in Middlesbrough. I came across it in a folder with the other materials for the article. I include it here, in the awareness that Jon Vipond was another wild and doomed working-class lad. It seems that ‘Troubled’ and ‘Northern’ are interchangeable as a prefix for ‘Soul’. (Or would any charting of random working-class lives from a distance of three decades produce as many tragic stories?) 

Dear Mike, 

Regarding my favourite record at Wigan Casino. Although this record was better known at the Blackpool Mecca, I first heard it at Wigan Casino in about the Summer of 1977. The record is... 



Eloise Laws, ‘Love Factory’ 

History: (Holland/Dozier/Holland). Time: 3.24. Gold Forever Prod. Holland Dozier Wylie. Licensed from: Demon Records Ltd in association with the Holland Bros 1973. When first hearing this record, if most definitely sent shivers down my spine and pointed me in the direction of the soul music that I still listen to today. The record had more of a Southern Soul feel with a mid-tempo beat which was quite unique, as most of the records played at Wigan were very up-tempo. Even now it is still one of my favourite records and when I DJ I still play it regularly. 

I hope this information is helpful to you. 

Regards, 

Jon Vipond 


Jenny Hval & Susanna, Meshes of Voice


Jenny Hval & Susanna 



Meshes of Voice 

SusannaSonata 

www.susannasonata.com 
www.jennyhval.com 
www.susannamagical.com 

Apparently, Jenny Hval and Susanna’s Meshes of Voice is partly influenced by Maya Deren’s 1943 film Meshes of the Afternoon. This moved me to try listening to Voice with Meshes accompanying on youtube. Naturally with the sound down: as a silent, Meshes of the Afternoon has thrown the gauntlet to every budding electronics composer who spends too long in his bedroom. May I say that the soundtrack Jenny Hval and Susanna provide is definitive. Try playing part two – (the split is arbitrary, imposed by youtube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fi9STrSihws) – alongside track seven of Voices, ‘Thirst That Resembles Me’. The result is the perfect pop video, as good in its way as Madness, but more profound and disturbing. 

An ominous drone and the sight of a hooded figure on a garden path. A key issues from a mouth (Maya’s own: she is the director and plays every part except one). A door opens onto a domestic interior, a mysterious wind source ruffles Maya’s hair. The hooded figure, silhouetted, carrying a flower, ascends a staircase. Maya follows, is buffeted, recovers herself, at once awake and swooning, she is radiant. Above the protracted drone Hval suddenly breaks in: “There is a thirst that resembles me / Sparks do find us…” Susanna picks up the line in softer, more dulcet tones, and now the voices multiply, making the “mesh” real. “How do you know?”, “How do you spell it?” come the senseless questions, soothing and lulling enough to weave a spell of incantation, aiding the drift into a deeper, subconscious state. Just the kind of state expressed in Maya’s images, in fact. “This is a thirst to enter…” 

The shrouded woman has no face… The key turns into a knife… Maya, in a sinister pair of oculist’s glasses, hovers threateningly with the knife over a sleeping Maya in an armchair. A man appears, and, carrying a flower, he leads her upstairs… The ambient drone is pulsating now, and the choir of voices is cracked and fractured, but a single word can be heard above the clamour: “Dark-ness”. Maya slumps in the same armchair, blood trickling out of her mouth. 

Meshes of Voice offers a glimpse into a woman’s interior world. It’s sensuous and yearning, and more than a little disquieting, with recurring words (“honeydew”) that are lingered over and caressed and corrupted. 

It gains its force by its assimilation of two contrasting female types, which, extrapolated from the strange idiosyncrasies of Hval and Susannah, are universal enough to be archetypal. Jenny Hval bravely explored the far frontiers of sex and desire with her last, Innocence is Kinky, a compelling outburst of prime psycho-sexual Scandinavian freak rock. Whereas Susanna is the living embodiment of innocence. The charm of her 2006 covers album, Melody Mountain, lay partly in hearing jaded rock ’n’ roll anthems like ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top’ and ‘Crazy, Crazy Nights’ delivered with such freshwater purity. Her retreat from repressive desublimation (that is, the permissiveness that Hval embraced) culminated in her exploration of the courtly love songs of Henry Purcell in If Grief Could Wait

But surrealism is not surrealism if it doesn’t overturn all the old certainties, So here, Susanna surrenders low-key chamber music for sonic expansiveness, just as Hval trades angst for euphoria. Meshes of Voice is as personal as a dream, and, like a dream, everything is permitted, and self-censorship is evaded by a resort to mystery. 

Xylouris White, Goats


I’m getting behind on my album reviews. Here are a few of the most immense new releases to come my way… 



Xylouris White 

Goats 

(Other Music Recording Co.) 

www.othermusicrecordingco.com 

It’s the lute, but not as Julian Bream would recognise it. That is, George Xylouris comes from Crete, and plays with a madly uninhabited feel, full of Arabesque tonalities and Mediterranean fire, yet with an elegance that comes from long immersion in the culture (his father is famed lyra wildman Psarantonis). Jim White adds an unpredictable element on drums, and rattles around those unspooling lute lines like a goat in springtime on a Cretan mountaintop. And though the music is often beautiful (‘Psarandonis Syrto’) it never settles or stays still, so that serene harmonics might evolve into brooding unease (‘Suburb’), or, just as spontaneously, the duo might conjure up a rustic rumble of thunder (‘Chicken Song’). George’s vocalising on ‘Fandomas’ expresses an ancient sublimity that free jazz seldom achieves. 

Brought to Book II: The Peter Bellamy Connection (key words: Rudolph Valentino, Grundy, Herman Melville, John Renbourn, Good Soldier Svejk)


There’s nothing like an old book for making tangible the reality of other people and other places, long since gone. I described how I came to be in possession of several boxes of tomes, dusty and otherwise – http://www.dyversemusic.com/2014/09/brought-to-book-table-talk-of-chris.html. Browsing through them, I fell to wondering about the people behind the inscriptions and signatures on the front leaves. All these refined, self-educating, intelligent people, happily oblivious to their own mortality and the concerns of future generations of book dealers. Book people (and record collectors) should take heed: we're none of us owners but custodians, because the lifespan of a book (or record, properly cared for) is greater than the lifespan of a human being.      



I wondered about Jack Atkinson, who was awarded a copy of The Sheik by E.M. Hull as a prize for regular attendance by Girlington Wesleyan Band of Hope on March 26, 1923, and was impressed by the broadmindedness of Girlington Wesleyan Band of Hope, who passed The Sheik (with a frontispiece photograph of current heartthrob Rudolph Valentino) as suitable reading for a lad of impressionable age. The altogether more edifying The Essays of Elia and Eliana by Charles Lamb, was clearly not intended as a giveaway: it was a fixture at the Zion Baptist Sunday School, Burnley, as two antique stamps, as old as the book (1867), reveal. 

And what was Neil Darlington doing taking out A Portrait of Britain From Peril to Pre-Eminence 1688-1851 (by Lindsay and Washington) from Marple Hall County Grammar School For Girls on "10/9/74"? Can we reasonably deduce that sometime between publication in 1962 and 1974, Marple Hall County Grammar School ceased to be a single-sex institution? An entire social history can be constructed from ephemera such as this. 


We already know something about R.B.S. Jones of Pembroke College, whose neat hand adorns The Way of All Flesh, Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited by Samuel Butler, E.L. Woodward’s History of England and Mrs Grundy: Studies in English Prudery by Peter Fryer. Chris Ackroyd: “I lodged for a while with one of my tutors, called Roger Jones, who died tragically young. He was descended from a duke. He was posh and he was clever: Oxbridge, Courtauld Institute. And some of the books that I’d bought off him (I didn’t nick them), he’d inscribed in the front, in very nice writing, “R.B.S. Jones”. Roger Jones sounds a bit common. Roger Beauchamp, and then I think Spencer, Jones. Maybe he was related to the Spencers. I know he was aristocracy. The only warm room in the house was his, now that I think about it.” 

But what stopped me in my tracks was the legend on the inside cover of a cheap, hardback USA edition ($1.75, The New American Library) of Typee by Herman Melville. It read, “Peter Bellamy, 11 Victoria Street, Norwich NR1 3QX Telephone: 0603 60411.” 



This can only be the late Peter Bellamy, the great Norfolk singer, celebrated for recordings  with the group Young Tradition and solo outings such as Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye and Tell It Like It Was (quite a few made by Bill Leader: you may remember that I’m writing a book about Bill Leader). Peter Bellamy moved from Norwich to Keighley, West Yorkshire, which is where he died and had a splendid funeral. 

The discovery led to an enquiry about the reading matter of sixties folk musicians, directed at John Renbourn.  I had recently interviewed the Pentangle guitarist in the course of my Bill Leader researches, and followed through with an email asking about the books he had in common with Nat Joseph, the chief of Transatlantic Records. Apparently, both had a passion for Elizabethan literature. This is Renbourn’s reply: – 


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was certainly one. Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur was probably another. We talked about John Donne and Robert Herrick. Other books that came obliquely into the folk equation for me were Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess

“Don’t remember discussing literature with Pete to be honest. He was clearly well read. Quite a coincidence that one of his books should have turned up. 

“Bert [Jansch] wasn’t a Goethe man as far as I’m aware [the German heritage and romantic sensibility had misled me]. He did enjoy The Good Soldier Svejk though. 

“Are you considering the sort of reading matter that would have been prevalent on the folk scene at the time? 

“Interesting slant if you are.”    



Brought to Book: The Table Talk of Chris Ackroyd (key words, Koestler, Ruskin, Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne, Kevin Costner, Proudhon, Naomi Klein)


Chris Ackroyd was my Art History tutor at Manchester Polytechnic (as was). A lovely, refined fellow (and I realise now I have no photograph of him). He invites me to cricket matches, and although I’m too long in the tooth to start taking an active interest in cricket now, the thought is appreciated. Anyway, he's retiring from tutoring at Manchester Metropolitan University, and is having to move out of his flat at Didsbury Halls of Residence (where he served as warden, a related post) in a hurry. He's got thousands of books which I said I would help shift for him on eBay. I taped a bookish conversation for publicity reasons, partly, but Chris’s conversation is a delight in itself.
  



D’Anvers, History of Art

I don’t think anyone would be interested in it, except art historians. It’s a very unusual book. I picked it up completely by accident, and I used it in my dissertation. History of art didn’t exist in Britain. It starts in Germany. Germans were ahead of the game in applying scientific, rationalistic ideas to how art evolves in the period of the Italian Renaissance or whatever. It’s D’Anvers. D, apostrophe… It’s a French name, but it’s in English, and it’s a very early example. It’s straightforward. It says, The History of Art. All of it [including music]. 

The cover’s fallen off. That might be quite a rare book actually. I found it in a second-hand bookshop.



Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation

When I was young and read more, Darkness at Noon was a really daunting, chilling, intriguing book. It’s about an interrogation. A whole novel about an interrogation. That is more objective and scientific. You might disagree with a lot of it, but it’s about how creativity and imagination works. That’s what he’s trying to explain. He talks about how jokes are structured. Now, you’ve probably come across books which try and explain why humour is funny. And they’re the most unfunny books to read. Well, so is that. But he does analyse jokes in terms of how, even in a few sentences, you set up a narrative, and then you cut across it, and he draws analogies with other ways of creating. It’s disconcerting. Not the climax you were expecting. I can’t remember it exactly. He uses some anecdotal things, like some scientist who invented the idea of molecular theory, and the idea that electrons whizz around a nucleus, which we learned at school when we were eleven or twelve in Chemistry. 

It was a mathematician, I think, and he fell asleep in front of the fire in that half-awake, half-sleeping thing, which people do find interesting, because of the the interplay between your subconscious and consciousness… And he woke up suddenly in front of the fire with this image of snakes chasing their tails, loads of them, around and around. He was trying to understand molecular theory. Snakes biting their tails. A visual metaphor. I remember little bits like that. 



Ruskin 

There were six volumes of  Modern Painters with an Index. Some of the others, like Time and Tide, the one I mentioned – “Letters to a Working Man of Sunderland” –  they’re what I would class as “scruffy books", but because they’re Ruskins I class them together. The Ruskins I have at home are a bit special. One of them is vellum bound, and in a box, and it’s an original. 

I lodged for a while with one of my tutors, called Roger Jones, who died tragically young. He was descended from a duke. He was posh and he was clever: Oxbridge, Courtauld Institute. And some of the books that I’d bought off him (I didn’t nick them), he’d inscribed in the front, in very nice writing “R.B.S. Jones”. Roger Jones sounds a bit common. Roger, Beauchamp, and then, I think, Spencer Jones. Maybe he was related to the Spencers. I know he was aristocracy. Nicholas Penny, who is now the head of the National Gallery, taught with Roger when I was doing my degree. And Nicholas Penny was a stratospheric high-flyer; even when he was young he was destined for greatness. And they wrote a book together on Raphael. And that was the last book he did, and Nicholas Penny was his executor, along with his partner, Jane. But they were in London, so I helped them get rid of Roger’s scruffy books, because they brought in book dealers for the expensive ones. Because he had quite a collection. I mean the only warm room in the house was his, now that I think about it.

I liked him even though he wasn’t that likeable. He was an unusual guy. And Nicholas Penny rated him highly. To cut a long story short… Well, I’m not cutting a long story short. Never mind. They gave me several books actually, but particularly a Ruskin, and I think that’s a first edition…

As soon as you mention one I go off on half a bloody lecture. Sesame and Lilies was by far and away his best seller. Later in life he started to adopt weirder and weirder titles. Modern Painters tells you what it is. Stones of Venice, kind of, you know. Sesame and LiliesSesame, somehow, is men, and Lilies is women. And it’s part of his developing theory about the relation of the genders. By then he’d been through a divorce, a very messy thing for such a prominent figure in mid-Victorian London. But it outsold anything he ever wrote on art and architecture. It’s kind of an interesting insight into the Victorian mind. He gave lectures on it. It wouldn’t go down well now. Not PC. I think he gave lectures in Manchester on it. 

In the 1840s and 1850s he’s writing more specifically about art and architecture, but beginning to develop ideas as to how a society expresses itself through art and architecture. And then most of what he published in the 1860s is more to do with proto-socialism and the political economy of society really. I used to know more or less the whole chronology of what he published. Because I had to. He wrote a lot. And in the last twenty years or so of his life, he was in and out of insanity. He wrote a lot of stuff, which, on the page, is still clever, but it got more and more convoluted, with stranger and stranger Latin titles. And often he was repeating, or going over ideas that he’d been talking about for years. 

Edward William Godwin was a really interesting architect and interior designer, and a friend of Whistler’s. This is scurrilous. Ruskin dies about the same time as Queen Victoria, in 1900. He made the century out. She dies in 1901. He’s starting to go off the rails in the mid-1870s, but by then he’s an almost saintly figure, like Tolstoy, up in the Lake District, in Brantwood. People used to make pilgrimages to see him. And Godwin in the 1870s wrote a very intelligent article about contemporary architecture and design, etc. And he wrote “Is Mr Ruskin living too long?” That must have stung him. Because this was the younger generation coming up and going, "Mr Ruskin, you’re wrong to say that beauty only comes from a morally beautiful society; it comes from not so nice societies too." There was like a generation gap there. I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be nasty, but they were very witty, you know. 



Symonds, Renaissance in Italy

That’s a good volume. It was a school prize-book, I think. Kirkby College or something. And it’s nicely bound. It’s one of a series of several volumes, but I’ve only kept one. Gosh, he was a turgid writer, but he took over the mantle of writing for the British public about Italian art. He took over where Ruskin left off, but he’s a much less interesting writer. A very interesting homosexual though. He’s part of that 1890s gang. He more or less discovered Davos Platz in Switzerland. Now it’s an extremely fashionable and expensive place to go ski-ing. He was wealthy enough to be able to divide his time between Venice - he may have known Rolfe, but Symonds was up there and Rolfe was just getting by. But Symonds was going for the gondoliers, and in Davos Platz, it was the hefty young yokels. He had a gay old time, literally. Oscar Wilde’s trial happened, bang in the middle of that, and I think they had to be a bit more discreet thereafter. 



Macaulay, History of England

Now not many people read Macaulay, but you know we were talking about Thomas Carlyle, and his racy, speed-you-through the French Revolution way of approaching history? Macaulay was the one most of them read. Well they probably read both. Macaulay is much more meticulous, pain-staking, incredibly detailed. But, though you struggle with some of his essays, they’re really good. Thomas Babington Macaulay, yeah. But it’s a scruffy volume. 




Peter Ackroyd, The House of Doctor Dee

 I can’t read his novels. I love his history. I think he’s one of the best contemporary writers on English history and the history of art that there is. He’s exhilarating, and there’s an incredible amount of research and detail, but it’s not laboured, and he writes as well as anyone ever, about London. He’s published a lot of books on London. I love that kind of writing. But he wrote a biography of Dickens, for example, who I love, and he made a huge mistake, to my mind. At the end of every chapter, he intersperses a bit of his own fancy. He takes characters out of a Dickens novel and then he writes his own little fictional thing. Little bits in-between the chapters, and eventually, oh, I can’t read this, get to the next chapter. I want to know more about Dickens, not this tosh. 

I’ve tried with his novels. He chooses really interesting subjects. How do these people write as much as they do? He’s written one about Hawksmoor, a very interesting architect from the seventeenth century, in the wake of Christopher Wren. So it’s very well historically researched, but when somebody starts putting words into the mouth of a real person, it has to be really good for me to be able to bother with it. I think, why am I reading this? The non-fiction is better than the fiction. There are exceptions. Hilary Mantel wrote a book about the French Revolution, called A Place of Greater Safety. It’s about Robespierre and Danton. That’s really good. Again it’s extremely well-researched, historically researched, but it’s also an extremely good read, and doesn’t put stupid things into their mouths. 



The Old West, Time Life, four volumes inc. The Gunfighters, The Great Chiefs, The Cowboys, and The Soldiers

I don’t think you’ll get much for them, but I really enjoyed reading them. I read all of it. I know how much a cowboy hat costs. A Montana hat is different from a Texan hat. Cowboys with cowboy boots, with their heels and that, felt themselves to be a cut above the clod-hopping farmworker, and there was a certain rough elegance in cowboy boots. Really interesting. Time-Life is not negligible, and it is a bit gung-ho America, except that one of them is very good on the Indians. 

I bet Kevin Costner has read stuff like that. There are accounts in each one, whichever volume, about how taciturn cowboys were. They said very little to each other. Sometimes if you were ramrodding on a herd and that, you’re all rough and sleep on the ground, and there was a lot of camaraderie as well, but they were men of few words. I can’t remember the exact details of it, but this guy comes into a town, into the saloon, has one drink, and says one word and someone when he went out: “talks a lot doesn’t he?” 

I think Kevin Costner has made some of the best cowboy films ever. Because it used to be thought that cowboy films were over, and there was only Clint Eastwood and spaghetti westerns and strange things that came out in the sixties and seventies that were really more about the sixties and seventies than they were about cowboys. But Open Range is one of my Top Ten films, and Wyatt Earp; and again, quietly, they’re well-researched. There’s a lot of this business about cowboys not saying much, subtly woven into very clever dialogue. 

I better go soon Mike because I’m fading a bit, but it’s really interesting. 



Robert Hichens, The Green Carnation; Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde; Frank Harris, My Life and Loves 

The idea of the green carnation was that it was unnatural. The flower is a natural thing, but you don’t get green ones. Now you can get it by putting them in dye, and I think that’s what they did. Again, it’s a homosexual thing - it became a kind of tacit message, if your button-hole is a green carnation. It’s a novel, written in the 90s, based around that idea. 

Richard Ellman, a very good biography. Frank Harris. Again, another braggart. Nice old word, braggart. He boasted and that, but he really looked after Oscar Wilde. Chalk and cheese in many ways, because he was a very masculine man. And he wrote ridiculous fiction boasting about himself all the time. But when Oscar Wilde was due to get arrested, Frank Harris went to him and said, we can get you on a boat to Dieppe tonight. And he wouldn’t go. And he thought that he chose to take the punishment, on the treadmill at Reading Gaol, as a kind of self-punishment. He could have escaped. Lots of people did if they were of that social level, and they got into trouble. They’d go to Dieppe. It’s cheaper than Paris, and just across the water. And Frank Harris tried to bully him to get out of England, but he wouldn’t go. Interesting. It’s a good biography. The Frank Harris one. It’s a ripping read. He might have made up a few things, and there’s a bit of self-aggrandisement: “I told Oscar this, I told Oscar that”. He was a real figure about town, Oscar Wilde. 



Algernon Swinburne, Love’s Cross-Currents

What an unpleasant little man he was. Interesting again. Vigorously homosexual. There were male brothels in St Johns Wood where you could go and get whipped. You could get anything you wanted. Oscar Wilde need not have been so public about what he was doing. He need not have got into trouble. Swinburne was at it like a rabbit. 

It’s what they call an epistolatory novel. It’s written in letters. I can’t remember what the story is about, because it gets a bit complicated, but it is what it says on the cover, Love’s Cross-Currents, and it’s the ups and downs of being in love. I think it’s ambiguous again. 

God knows where I picked these things up. It’s just browsing in second-hand bookshops. These aren’t specialist bookshops. 



W. Wilkie Collins, The Life of William Collins

Wilkie Collins is the novelist who wrote The Woman in White and The Moonstone, and he was the son of the artist William Collins. Turner did a very interesting painting to do with the funeral of William Collins (this is like the 1840s).



Dennis Wheatley, The Devil and All His Works

Devil-worship. It’s a hard-backed thing. I did buy a lot of stuff on whim, and think, I might look at that and then hardly did. Or I might have a drink after I’d been to the Oxfam shop and flick through it and not go back to it. 



J.G. Robertson, The History of German Literature 

Actually rather good. Very thorough. Tedious, but it is what it says. 



Paul Maas, Textual Criticism

See I just go off on one. Textual Criticism

It wasn’t just Darwin that undermined that ability to believe in the truth of the Bible and the Scriptures and so on. It was actually Textual Criticism that properly brought down the whole fiction that the Bible had been dictated by God 6,000 years ago. Because people started to study the original Hebrew text from which the Bible had been originally translated. And from the study of language, and the development of Hebrew, they were able to work out that they were thousands of years apart, some of the original texts. It’s like Ruskin said, geology also undermined the whole thing. The earth and humankind couldn’t be 6,000 years old. It was millions. The tap, tap, tap of the geologist’s hammer, he said, is what spoiled my ability to believe in Christianity, as I was taught it. But it is a dry and tedious little book. 



G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

 I think the Surrealists were interested in The Man Who Was Thursday. I seem to remember Andre Breton talks about it. I don’t know the detail, and I’ve not read it. 



Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

It’s a very good read, because Daniel Defoe would have been around in the early 1800s, or later? But he’s writing about the Plague of the mid-seventeenth century. A very vivid account of people trying to get away from London, and not having anywhere to go, and how some people died, even though they hadn’t been near anybody who was infected. Other people were in amongst them and survived. He’s a good writer, Daniel Defoe. 


J. Hampden Jackson, Marx, Proudhon and European Socialism

Proudhon was a writer in the middle of the nineteenth century. He was very important for the development of anarchist ideas, when anarchism wasn’t just about throwing bombs, it was about creating more humane, small-scale societies in contrast to places like Manchester. So there’s a continuity through it. William Morris and News From Nowhere was popular with hippies. It does connect. This idea of an alternative to an industrialised and materialistic society. 



Naomi Klein, Fences & Windows 

She’s a good writer. A very sensible hard-headed Feminist writer. There’s one of them, not that one: one of her early ones, I can’t remember what it’s called. She talks a lot about how the genders are divided at school. She also talks a lot about product placement, putting Coca Cola machines in schools, and in America, part of the school finances comes from the things that are in the corridor. So she’s very good at cutting through that stuff. 

One of the other ones, it might be Fences & Windows, is about how some Feminists deface and alter billboard advertising, so they turn things like a woman in a fur coat, and they paint blood on it, and how they adapt and subvert the advertising message into a political message. That’s an interesting one. 



1001 Books You Must Read, ed. Boxall  

It’s interesting to dip into, and I’m sure there’s another 1000 that aren’t in there, but it doesn’t matter. I’m going to have to go in a bit, Mike. But I might have a drink on the way out. 



John Matthews, The Mystic Grail; Dan Burstein, Secrets of the Code; Richard Andrews & Paul Schellenberger, The Tomb of God; Lynn Picknett, Mary Magdelene; Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code; Graham Phillips, Act of God, et al 

You think you’ve uncovered the Christian side of me, but no. It’s to do with this course I’ve been doing for a few years on art and spirituality. It’s a big argument: essentially it’s still Darwinism against the Creationists. They’re variations on those themes. Some of them are whacky, by Americans, frankly. Not just Americans, but you know what I mean? They’re so certain in countering the whole tradition of enlightenment and rationality. Flat denial.


William Hazlitt, Table Talk

That’s falling to bits. It was one of the first books I owned, actually. Hazlitt was an important writer. Table Talk is like dinner-party conversations but each chapter is on a theme. Hazlitt is early eighteenth-century. 


Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship; Julian Symons, Thomas Carlyle 

Julian Symons is again 1890s. He’s part of that group - I think he was a poet as well - around Whistler and so on. But Carlyle was in a previous generation. He was in Chelsea. I mentioned Edward William Godwin, the architect who wrote “Is Mr Ruskin living too long?” He designed a lot of the houses in Tite Street, Chelsea. Again, this turns into a lecture. There was a thing in the mid century which they referred to in London as “the Great Stink”, because all the sewage went into the Thames, and one of the first really effective sewage systems was designed to cleanse London, and it was like a herringbone system of sewers by a man called Bazalgette. Phenomenal. If he was an architect above ground he’d be as famous as Christopher Wren. He cleaned up the Thames. This was in the 1860s. And then they developed the Embankment. The bit that sounds like what it is, an embankment, because formerly it was mud flats with shit all over it. It stank to live in Chelsea. And then Chelsea becomes a fashionable place to live. Whistler’s house in Tite Street was designed by Edward William Godwin. Oscar Wilde was lodging with somebody down the road, an artist (I can’t remember his name). Again, designed by Godwin, and just around the corner is this eminence grise Thomas Carlyle. And Whistler paints Carlyle. So a tight-knit intellectual circle. And Julian Symons was part of that, so it’s not that odd that he would be writing about Thomas Carlyle, who probably by then was out of fashion an an historian, but still an interesting intellectual. Have a little dip into The French Revolution. It goes at the speed of a stagecoach. Out of control. I never got to the end of it, but I read enough. It’s good. 

I’m going to have to go, because I’m really flagging now. 

But this is interesting and next time I’ll be in better fitness. But books are interesting. You’re probably already getting a glimpse of how ambitious I was to know about this, that and bloody everything. I never read anything cover to cover, but… 

« Previous Page