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Posts Tagged ‘England’

The Sound of a Voice That Is Still

May 7, 2015 | by

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“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.

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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 »

Impressions

March 16, 2015 | by

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From Photographs of British Algae

Some claim that Anna Atkins—born on this day in 1799, in Kent—was the first woman to take a photograph. Others that hers were the first photos ever printed in book form.

Atkins was a botanist, an artist, and an accomplished nature photographer. Her father was a scientist, and he encouraged his daughter’s early interest in botany. Both her father and her eventual husband, John Pelly Atkins, were friendly with the pioneering photographer and inventor William Henry Fox Talbot; it was probably Talbot who introduced her to the techniques she would come to use in her art.

In her books on British algae and her later work on plants and ferns, Atkins worked by contact-printing cyanotype photograms, and by “photogenic drawing,” the process by which light-sensitive paper is exposed to the sun. Read More »

The Great Bottle Conjurer Hoax

March 13, 2015 | by

A representation of the Bottle Conjurer from an English broadside dated 1748-49.

From William S. Walsh’s Handy-book of Literary Curiosities, a 1909 compendium of “bibelots and curios” from the world of letters. The critic Barbara M. Benedict has written that the Bottle Conjurer “promised to bring literature to life; to reverse power relations; to incarnate onanism; to make monstrosity—the transgression of physical boundaries—humorous. Instead, he made the audience fools of their own desire ... The explosive result revealed the danger of unmonitored curiosity.”

Perhaps the most gigantic hoax ever perpetrated was that known to history as the Great Bottle Hoax.

Early in the year 1749, a distinguished company of Englishmen were discussing the question of human gullibility. Among them were the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Chesterfield. “I will wager,” said the duke, “that let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.”

“Surely,” returned the earl, “if a man should say that he would jump into a quart bottle, nobody would believe that.”

At first the duke was staggered. But having made the wager he held to it. The jest pleased the rest of the company. They put their heads together and evolved the following advertisement, which appeared in the London papers of the first week in January: Read More »

Jane Austen: Teen Historian, and Other News

January 30, 2015 | by

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An illustration of Henry VII by Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister.

  • In 1791, a fifteen-year-old Jane Austen wrote The History of England, a satirical pamphlet “by a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian,” featuring watercolor illustrations by her sister, Cassandra.
  • Out of print and in demand: What are the most sought-after books no longer being published? Norman F. Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976) leads the list—there’s also “an enthusiast’s guide to building bamboo fly-rods” and Madonna’s Sex.
  • Tom Stoppard’s new play is opening at the National Theatre in London. Tickets are very hard to come by—it might be easier just to write your own Tom Stoppard play. Here’s a step-by-step guide. Remember, “what you’re aiming for is intellectual sparring that manages to be tragic and comic at the same time, while alluding to a universal emotional truth and revealing a vast, in-depth knowledge of the literary canon. Basically like the way you think you talk to your oldest friend when you’re both drunk. Do not shy away from paradox and metatextuality!”
  • Or maybe you’d rather try your hand at some fiction from Africa. In 2006’s How to Write About Africa, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina advised, “Always use the word Africa or Darkness or Safari in your title … be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention ... Africa is doomed.” But in the years since he made those pronouncements, “writing from Africa has flowered, and many of those clichés have been dispelled … This is a fertile moment when young writers are emerging as some of the elders they grew up reading are still at their peak … This cross-generational richness enhances a literature that today ranges from dirty realism and crime thrillers to science fiction, digital serials and graphic novels.”
  • One man’s intrepid journey into the craft of hand-making lace: “I had no teacher, and unlike knitting classes in knitting stores, never considered that I could find one even in a metropolis like New York City. Indeed, if you ask employees in yarn stores if they have any tatting supplies, half will not know what you are talking about and say no, and the other half will know what you are talking about but still say no.”

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God, Satan, Waugh

October 28, 2014 | by

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A portrait of Waugh by Carl Van Vechten.

Evelyn Waugh was born today in 1903. You can read his Art of Fiction interview here, but there’s also, courtesy of the Spectator’s seemingly endless archives, this unverified bit of trivia from a letter to the paper sent in 1971:

Sir: Colin Wilson, your reviewer of Graham Greene’s autobiography A Sort of Life quotes from a supposed remark that Evelyn Waugh made to Greene—‘You know, Graham, you’ve made more money out of God than Wodehouse made out of Jeeves.’

I believe there are other versions of this story, although I cannot now remember who told me mine.

A few years ago, while in New York, I was but a stone’s throw from the Algonquin Hotel, Mr. Waugh and Mr. Greene were staying in the hotel. Late in the night Mr. Waugh popped into Mr. Greene’s room where a publisher’s party was still going strong to celebrate another Greene book. At some point during this party Evelyn Waugh announced: ‘You know, Graham, you’ve made more money out of the Devil than I’ve made out of God.’

Apocryphal or otherwise, the story does contain a more typical Waugh bite than the Jeeves analogy.

Michael Hastings

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