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Posts Tagged ‘England’

I Kissed the Rod

November 20, 2015 | by

Beneath its old-fashioned exterior, Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (1922) radiates transgression.


I really think I like Radley better than anyone else in the world. I simply loved being whacked by him.

This extraordinary confession comes in the first chapter of Ernest Raymond’s 1922 novel, Tell England. It is offered in the dormitory after lights-out, whispered to the schoolboy narrator, Ray, by his friend Doe. Radley is their teacher, a tall, strict, athletic history master. You’d be hard-pressed to find a school story, or indeed a school, that didn’t go in for hero-worship, but Doe’s ardor overruns even that cup. Unlike Alec Waugh’s contemporaneous The Loom of Youth, which sought to expose the sexual and emotional realities of life in a boys’ school, Tell England is an old-fashioned, innocent, fundamentally Edwardian school story, a strange place to find such an extravagant declaration.

Raymond wrote more than sixty novels, but his most popular by far was this, his first. Though panned by critics, it was reprinted fourteen times in 1922, became a movie in 1931, and by 1939 had sold 300,000 copies. Today, though, Tell England is largely forgotten. From its psychological and sexual cluelessness to its glorification of military sacrifice, the novel can feel tediously dated. It’s an odd hybrid, half public-school novel, half paean to World War I. It includes all the trappings of the classic school story: athletics, classical learning, chivalry, Anglican Christianity, romantic friendship, and, of course, corporal punishment. Like most school stories, it is a narrative of character development. After its young hero enters the school at the bottom, he learns the ways of its world, undergoes trials, and grows into a leader. Read More »

Can These Dry Bones Live?

November 2, 2015 | by

In the second of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur looks at the necrotopology of the churchyard.

Henry Alexander Bowler, The Doubt: ‘Can these Dry Bones Live?’, 1855.

The churchyard was, with few exceptions, a lumpy, untidy place. Gravediggers have always instinctively known this; they dug in ground that had been turned over for centuries. From very near the beginning they intercut, hacked through, turned over, tossed out earlier tenants to make room for new ones, and every few hundred years or so apparently leveled the ground and started again. In centuries-long cycles, the fact that there were dead bodies in the ground was made evident on its surface. The dead are really there. The lumps we can still see today in a few churchyards escaped one last round of recycling when the bodies stopped coming or when a local landscaper decided to leave them be. Read More »

Sympathy for the Devil

October 29, 2015 | by

Melmoth the Wanderer and the bizarre appeal of gothic horror.

From the Penguin Classics edition of Melmoth.

I have long been a rather reluctant fan of gothic horror. The reluctance comes from never quite knowing if it’s a genre worth caring about. How well, really, do any of my favorite works hold up? Is The Castle of Otranto actually good, or just campy? Is The Monk great literature? Probably not—but as genres go, there’s none quite so pleasingly ridiculous as this one.

Gothic horror usually revolves around the sinister absence of God inside some religious framework. These are stories that couldn’t exist outside a culture obsessed with sin and hellfire, and yet they’re not morality tales: the only lesson to be drawn from most gothic romances is that the supernatural can be easily substituted for the divine. Any benefits to leading a religious life seem to be completely erased in these stories, with paranoia and persecution complexes to take their place. There seems barely time to contemplate the afterlife when everyone’s so busy trying to escape the traps laid for them on earth—traps set by heredity and fate. The “good” characters are, for the most part, idiots: foolish clergyman, one-dimensional lovers doomed to die horrible (sometimes cannibalistic) deaths, and so on. The only character with any power of personality happens, more often than not, to be the devil himself.

This is especially true of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a shapeless tale of transformation, loneliness, and evil as shown in complete isolation from good. Maturin, an Irish clergyman and great-uncle to Oscar Wilde, wrote the book in 1820, at the height of the vogue for gothic romance. By the end of the nineteenth century, the book had taken on cult status. Baudelaire adored it. Balzac wrote a sequel to it. Wilde himself, after being released in disgrace from Reading Gaol, based his entire identity around his uncle’s story, renaming himself after its hero, Sebastian Melmoth. What was it in the story that spoke to them so deeply? Read More »

The Gay Lothario

October 28, 2015 | by

A caricature of Coates as Lothario.

Strange as it seems now, there was a time when I was responsible for writing a best- and worst-dressed list. I had no qualifications, I felt uncomfortable doing it, and I admired extravagantly those celebrities who had the gall to flout convention and throw themselves squarely into the “bad” category like early Christian martyrs among lions. I was reminded of this unlikely interlude in my career while looking at the fashions from this weekend’s MTV Europe Music Awards, many extravagantly ludicrous. Visible underwear! Macramé! Polychrome! Monochrome! Bieber! The mind boggled, the soul leaped.

A pilloried celeb is usually defiant, and understandably. There are varying degrees of ingenuousness often correlated to the degree of celebrity involved, but the gist is usually: haters be damned. The best of all sartorial retorts, though, belongs to the celebrated London macaroni and amateur of drama, Mr. Robert “Romeo” Coates, whose early nineteenth-century exploits are chronicled in Edith Sitwell’s peerless English EccentricsRead More »

The Sound of a Voice That Is Still

May 7, 2015 | by

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 6.57.53 PM

“Listening to the Master’s Voice,” from Black and White, 1891.

In April 1889, only a few months before he died, Robert Browning became the first major literary figure to commit his voice to wax. At a dinner party held by the artist Rudolf Lehmann, Browning stood before the Edison Talking Machine—then new and exceedingly novel—and recited his poem “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.” The problem: he couldn’t remember his lines.

“I forget it—er,” Browning stammers only three lines in. Then, after another false start: “I—I am most terribly sorry that I can’t remember my own verses.” (Imagine if, today, poets were expected to have all their own poems memorized.) “But one thing that I will remember all my life is the astonishing sensation produced upon me by your wonderful invention.” Read More »

Something Serious

May 4, 2015 | by

Kingsley Amis’s “most unpleasant” hero.


A still from the 1970 film version of Take a Girl Like You.

It’s fair to say that in the late 1950s Kingsley Amis was riding high. In 1954, Lucky Jim had made him the leading novelist of his generation. He had held off an attempt by a new boss to have him fired for “inefficiency” from his post as a lecturer at University College of Swansea. His marriage had recovered from his wife Hilly’s love affair with one of his friends. (Amis’s mistress also abandoned him for a time, but she came back, too.) Though he mocked them in private and in public, he was identified with Britain’s twin literary insurgencies, the Movement poets and the Angry Young Men. He was much in demand as a reviewer and journalist, and he could afford monthly visits to London, where he would drink from lunch until closing time. Despite his famous capacities, he wasn’t always compos mentis by the end of such nights; after one strenuous lunch he was hit by a passing car. He spent a few hours in Charing Cross Hospital, and was taken home by his friends Geoff and Mavis Nicholson. The next morning, a young neighbor stopped by their house; he was pursuing a master’s in literature, and told the Nicholsons his favorite author was Kingsley Amis. Just then a bandaged man in his underwear staggered into the room. This, Mavis told her guest, is Kingsley Amis. The Nicholsons are the dedicatees of Take a Girl Like You. Geoff was his former student, and Mavis his mistress. Amis led a complicated life. Read More »