The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘England’

Rare Beasts, Birds, and the Calaboose

September 22, 2016 | by

A brief history of London’s Tower Menagerie.


Royal Menagerie, 1812.

It was New Year’s Eve 1764, and John Wesley—founding father of Methodism, horseback proselytizer, teetotaler—stood before the structure now known as the Tower of London, accompanied by a flautist, who was, in turn, accompanied by his flute. Wesley had traveled to this sprawling complex in the hope of testing a hypothesis. Could music soothe the most savage of beasts? If it did, Wesley might clear up a burning theological ambiguity—the question of whether nonhuman animals had souls. With his contracted companion in tow, he marched through the tower, determined to find some big cats and to smother them with song.

Zoos, as we know them today, did not exist in Wesley’s lifetime—the zoological garden is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Even the London Zoo, one of the oldest “scientific” outdoor sites for animal rehoming, opened six decades after his tower trip. If Wesley wished to glean the spirituality of lions firsthand, the infamous citadel, all arched cages and grilles, was his best bet in England. (Spoiler: the reaction to a live flute performance was mostly lukewarm—only one out of five lions stirred and stood up on all fours—not quite what our preacher had been hankering for.)

For those unfamiliar with the capricious usage history of the Tower of London, it might be hard to imagine parts of the site used as a full-blown menagerie—one that lasted about six hundred years. But through its almost thousand-year history, the place has morphed like a sort of Room of Requirement, having served variously as a palace, a public-record office, an armory, a torture chamber, a private ground for beheadings, and the Royal Mint. Its most recent incarnation is as a magnet for jewel-ogling, cash-happy tourists. Today the tower’s official website reflects this diversity—it includes a Peasants’ Revolt Quiz (“Are you revolting?”), details on venue hire for weddings, and an e-shop peddling miniature armor and replica Lionheart shields. Read More »

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

September 2, 2016 | by

Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago.

Admiralty House, Bermuda.

Drawing of a house in the West Indies.

In the summer of 1986, I finished secondary school, and that autumn I enrolled in a secretarial course in Cork City. It was a course of a kind that I suspect no longer exists, with bookkeeping exercises involving sheets of carbon paper, classes in shorthand, typing learned on manual typewriters. I have a hazy recollection of being instructed in how to walk properly, and of someone who ran a modeling agency coming to talk to us. The talk was of little interest to me, perhaps because my modeling prospects were precisely zero. My secretarial prospects, unfortunately, were not much better, something that didn’t go unnoticed by the tiny, fierce woman tasked with teaching us. Still, I remember fondly the sweeps and curves and wriggles of Gregg shorthand as we practiced giving shape to language. Words like get or racket with their piglet-style tails, or yell and yam and Yale with their resemblance to mutant tadpoles. We took words apart and mined them for sound, converted that sound into something close to art. Read More »

A Jolly Companion

August 17, 2016 | by

Hans Hoffmann, A Hedgehog, sixteenth century.

Ted Hughes was born on this day in 1930. In a 1950 letter to Edna Wholey, he dilated on his love of hedgehogs. Read more of his correspondence in Letters of Ted Hughes, edited by Christopher Reid. Read More »

In Praise of Minor Literature

July 8, 2016 | by


Houseboats by the Thames.

Some of the writers and books I hold in the highest esteem were discovered en passant: buried in the archives of a little-read blog; mentioned in a thirty-year-old essay devoted to more prominent writers; planted near the end of a long list on Wikipedia. (Idleness and obsession are the impetus for most of my discoveries.) Most of these books are rare tastes, not even well known for not being well known. They are not likely to come up at dinner parties, and they are not part of any canon or curriculum. I don’t get any credit for having read them. They are what some people call minor. 

What does it mean to be minor? It’s not the same thing as being obscure. Leon Forrest’s oeuvre is a megalith, but there seem to be about six of us who have read him. Nor is a minor writer a bad writer. Guy Davenport proposed that Thomas Love Peacock, Colette, Simenon, and Michael Gilbert were all “impeccable stylists” but also, next to Tolstoy, Cervantes, Balzac, and Proust, incontrovertibly minor. Davenport, a self-described minor prose stylist who was great enough to be genuinely self-effacing, said that “the theme of a major work must be universal and time-defying.” When judged by this standard, he suggested, even Borges and Poe were minor, since “a Martian could not learn about human nature from either of them.” Read More »

An Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits

July 5, 2016 | by

How Mary Toft convinced doctors she’d given birth to rabbit parts.


Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.

News travels fast in London, where opinions are swiftly made and loudly shared. It is a great irony that the capital of a nation famed for its icy reserve should also be one of the historic crucibles of free speech; where Putney debaters, Clapham abolitionists, and Camden punks have all found voice in the past, and where Hyde Park philosophes, Westminster politicos, and East End grime-spitters still do today. Of course, the most urgent symptom of the loose London gob is Fleet Street, that ruthless, rabid hive of tabloid journalism. There, the byzantine codes of British politesse are redundant: gossip rules and “private lives” are a contradiction in terms. “Privacy is for pedos,” in the words of Paul McMullan, a twenty-first-century London hack of Dickensian aspect, the Platonic ideal of the Fleet Street guttersnipe; “circulation defines what is the public interest.”

When Paris got its first daily newspaper, in 1777, London already had nearly three hundred. Half a century earlier, the French writer César-François de Saussure had traveled to London and observed that the people were “great newsmongers. Workmen habitually begin the day by going to coffee rooms in order to read the latest news.” Step on to the tube in the morning rush hour today and you’ll find much the same: silent tessellated blocks of humanity crammed and twisted like human Tetris patterns, each head uncomfortably bowed into the morning paper. By evening, carriages are ankle-deep with those same pages, now discarded. There are times when the chatter becomes too much, a deafening white noise of rubbernecking intrigue. At other times, when the tabloid hydra has a doe in its jaws, it is as if witnessing one of the public hangings in the city’s good old, bad old days. You hate yourself for it, but you cannot look away as a reputation, a life, is split open like the steaming belly of a sacrificial beast. Read More »

Woman Alive

June 29, 2016 | by

The memoirs of an imprisoned suffragette. 


Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on John Cleland’s very erotic prison novel, here.

In 1908, when she was thirty-seven, Lady Constance Lytton took a vacation by the sea in Littlehampton. She’d accepted a friend’s offer to spend the summer at the Esperance Club, a charity meant to teach working-class women traditional English dances and folk songs. During a walk through town one day, she found a crowd gathered around “a sheep which had escaped as it was being taken to the slaughterhouse.” Watching the animal stagger around to the crowd’s amusement, she wrote,

A vision suddenly rose in my mind of what it should have been on its native mountain-side with all its forces rightly developed, vigorous and independent. There was a hideous contrast between that vision and the thing in the crowd. 

The vision of the sheep comes at the start of her 1914 autobiography, Prisons and Prisoners, in a chapter titled “My Conversion.” “It seemed to reveal for me for the first time,” Lytton continued, “the position of women throughout the world.” Read More »