Saturday, 19 September 2020

The Gunpowder Plot.

You think you know all the details of an event, a historical event that has been written about for literally hundreds of years, and then you discover that what you know is only the most visible part of a mass event whose true proportions remain out of view, tucked discreetly beneath the line of history. Especially given that the circumstances  of the Gunpowder Plot were historically foggy at best...


Tuesday, 15 September 2020

"Handles" with Care.

                                      A Timely Timey Whimey message from The Good Doctor....

                                     (Thank you , Joanne, all that regenerating must be exhausting.)

Mr Foote's Other Leg.

 Oh my giddy aunt, what a life. You could not make it up. Well, actually, I suppose you could but you would have a tough time convincing anyone reading it it was a true tale. Yet, like the legends of The Force, it is all true and almost entirely forgotten. All the more astonishing when you consider that for a brief time the name of Samuel Foote was known wherever the English language was spoken. Mind you, in fairness, that brief time was way back in 1776 and quite a lot has happened in the world since...ahem.

              Samuel Foote's rise to fame and tumble into shame and infamy is a tale worth telling and the writer Ian Kelly does an admirable job of it. The details of this man's bizarre and complex life would stretch credulity despite the best efforts of any writer. his brief but brilliant flame burning all too brightly all too briefly. In that way that certain luminous beings do. Oddly, his life story holds a warped mirror to the times we are presently trying to navigate. It should act as a cautionary tale to those who seek to traverse the hazardous waters that are the way to success and fame based wealth. This was a man who defied the strict conventions of his age, performing in female attire, a successful trans entertainer in an age when gender roles were rigidly defined and reinforced. And, most astonishingly of all, he wrote and performed a series of roles for the stage created specifically for one legged actors, following a practical joke which went disastrously wrong, resulting in the loss of one of his legs. A terrible experience he narrowly survived to become a successful performer and a much loved national personality, although in the end it was a combination of the mores of his age which served to bring him down. 

               The eighteenth century had never seen anything like him, his career a perplexing mix of the real and the imagined. Real life actually bled into his performances, as he made the ups and downs of his life the very stuff of his act.His life experiences and the details of them served as an inspiration for his act. These details being well known thanks primarily to his own writing as he reasoned he might as well be the author of his woes as opposed to someone else doing it. Becoming a player in his own play rather than a cog in the life plans of someone else. Fame and infamy both sides of the same sword weilded to progress in the fashion of the ultimte rake of his time and the night must have its rakes, after all. 

               The characters who populated Samuel Foote's life reads like a whos who of the Georgian Era. If you were in Samuel Foote's little black book you were worth knowing, from the cream of the acting profession (in this era that profession was viewed as the home of wastrels and jackanapes.)although some of his fellow thespians were less than enamored by this one-man spitting image machine. He would write and perform satirical sketches based on events of the day, lampooning pomposity and class based entitlement making him the darling of the baying galleries who mercilessly wolfed down his razor sharp and precise witticisms.  Playful and wicked, bizzarrely heroic, he was loathed and admired, castigated and feted. A scandal generating "celebrity" who was giving birth to the nationally accepted notion of celebrity. his first truly major success being a detailed account of a murder which took place within his own extended family.A fratricide, a date with the gallows, the poor and the rich lapped it up in much the same way that todays red tops and scandal sheets masquerading as newspapers continue to do. 

                The misjudged and truthfully regretted practical joke which cost him his leg lifted him, after a hard won recovery, to even more success and a semi-protected status, in a truly mind boggling series of events.  It really is the most amazing story, this tale of a mercurial man living through the Georgian era of social and political upheaval.  He was eventually to be brought down by a sex scandal , when a surly,footeman?..accused him of a lewd act, which resulted in a public trial that dominated the newsprint of the age, throwing shade on the then current dtails of the American War of Independence, which off course was not as interesting as a celebrity sex scandal...

               ..the more things change the more they stay the same...

Andy The Furniture Maker.

Many years ago, in the golden years of Channel Four's formative years, I saw this amazing documentary about andy, Andy the furniture maker of the title. A complete rascal of a fella, a cheeky hedonistic young vagabond, who would steal the eye out of your head and break your heart. i had not thought about it for decades and finding it on Youtube was a real joy. The years seemed to flashback, rewinding to a time I lived in my folks attic, drifting through my life, rudderless, directionless and happily stress free. Despite all the madness of those days, and I saw quite a bit of it, I never knew any better.

               I thought "well, this is what life is like."
               Which indeed it was.
              Its a great documentary about a cheekily free spirit who demonstrates surprising depths. There was something special about Andy. He had a touch of Ariel about him. A faerie sprite with a dirty mind and a dirty laugh. He was like a walking talking Smiths record sleeve, working class, witty and sexy, and not one to be nailed down by anyone. An absolute hand full off course but you had to love him.
                 Its a great piece of work by documentary film maker Paul Oremland. Quite bold for its day and a perfect little time capsule for days now long passed.
                 I wonder what became of Andy. Did he grew from a young bespoke furniture maker to a business man owning his own firm. With paperwork, employees and taxes to pay? its hard to picture him in such a scenario. Mind you, I suppose the younger me could not reconcile his older self being me.
                Not when that young man dreamed of trips to the moon.


Found this book on a post lockdown book ramble. Thought it had a very haunting cover, with this otherworldly child in a curious costume, looking like he was passing through our world on his way to some lost kingdom. Some photographs have that phenomenal aura a about them, particularly some older black and white prints. the title also caught my eye.  I vaguely remembered it from a  Youtube video by John Rogers, the London Perambulator man, who likes to take long walks in and about London, discovering lost or forgotten corners and sharing insights and stories, past histories and urban legends. The back catalogue of his recordings take up many, many hours on Youtube and are a remarkable archive, which are never a chore to watch. In fact they often feel like the ramblings of an old friend, as he shares his stories (his walks with Iain Sinclair are particularly interesting.) I remembered the name Austerlitz as having some connection to an old Jewish cemetery in London but could not remember the context. Anyway I picked up this copy of the book and it sat in a carrier bag next to a copy of Michael Moorcock's King Of The City which seem to yield a curious symmetry. 

              I am now so glad I did pick this very special book up. it is so beautifully written, with long rambling passages, the train of thought of a beautiful thinker. The book is not broken up into chapters which serves to make it a long continuous read. A recollection of conversations shared. Years and years of friendship and a search for a life not lived. 

              As a boy Austerlitz was smuggled out of Europe to escape the advancing Nazi horde. As a lonely snowy haired child he was adopted by a Welsh minister and his wife and brought up in a remote house by two equally remote adults. I do not know if smuggled is the right word,  evacuated or rescued would be more accurate, given shelter by a childless couple who were perhaps not suited for such a situation, though one cannot fault them for trying to provide a shelter for a lost boy. His previous identity was stripped away, reduced to a blank, with no one making a substantive effort to create a new one. Too young to form memories that would act as a foundation for what was to come Austerlitz grew unaware off all that had come before, as surely as if he had landed in a cornfield in Kansas after a long journey through space from the lost world of Krypton. The ghost of the person he might have been, dislocated, disconnected, cut asunder from those who birthed him, who might best have cared for him. The trauma of that seperation becomes the invisible ghostly companion that dogs the steps taken in his new life, whatever that might be, as he grew.

              And grow that child did indeed do, but really into a larger version of that boy in the costume. A brilliant scholar, filling his life with books and the observations of others. Offering him a life time of learning and reflection, everything from classical architecture to the life of silk worms and their relation to the construction and organisation of internment camps (Really....)His was a luminous intelligence, locked the a fragile human cage, gasping for understanding and at times paralysed by revelation.

               The book is illustrated by seemingly random pictures which are always pertinent to the dialogue. Like the fingerprints of a life lost and looked for, ghostly proof of the scene of a crime. The crime being man's inhumanity to man, the cruel indifference of man made systems. 

               Yet Austerlitz is also brave enough to ask other questions, one being was this life of academia actually a wasted life. Consider the many years of study by Austerlitz, filling notebooks with learned information, note books he eventually threw on a bonfire, lit during a breakdown. As if to eraze another lifetime the accumulated knowledge of a live not quite lived. Austerlitz seemed the embodiment of the lonely academic, the sad and distant face of the lonely scholar. Using knowledge as a shield to all the random collisions and casual brutalities of daily life the world over.

                He does manage to discover who he was born as, where he came from, and that knowledge comes as a fracturing collision, plummeting him into a lengthy state of ill health. His early life experiences do not prepare him with the ability to absorb that knowledge. Even personalities require foundations to carry the crushing weight of life. It needs something to rest upon. Childhood seeds the years and can bear a bounty of strange fruit. For a while he crashes and burns , a mental breakdown follows and his meandering recovery does take time. The undercurrents of this old life off ours can be treacherous and unpredictable and can ruin a person. mind you, it helps to have a few good friends along the way for times like this. 

             I would not wish to suggest to a possible reader that this book is simply dipped in melancholia,there is so much more going on in it. For me the only stretch in credulity was the detail of the vast stories recounted, the way in which the stories are remembered and relayed in quite beautiful detail. A court stenographer would have had his work cut out with Austerlitz's ramblings. Especially as there is no pausing for chapter breaks, barely a moment to draw a breath before recounting more. A prodigious memory, or perhaps the real storyteller.

              Find a space somewhere on your shelves for a copy of Austerlitz. find a home for his words, a place for him to be. something he searched for all is life. 

              Both of them. The boy he was and the man he almost became.

Jokers Wild.


Spirited Conversations.

 Sir John Dee and Edward Kelley invoke an otherworldly being, a spirit to act as an advisor or guide. The danger of such attempts in manifold. The most obvious one being the difficulty in telling the differerence between a sublime angelic being and a sly demon of ye olde schoole. 

                                      Tread warily, there are adders in the darke.

Elizabeth; Apprenticeship.

 Having sampled something of the life of the grizzly old lion I decided to have a look at the early years of The Lion's Cub. i thought i was fairly familiar with the details of the young queen's life having recently re-watched the seventies BBC production with Glenda Jackson in a career best. Yet this detailed book tells me there is always more to learn. The thing is, looking back on historical events is a done deal, all outcomes have been worked out, for good or ill. It is what it was.  And with a figure like Elizabeth the First, there were so many twists and turns, so many possible outcomes, one could fill a shelf with biographies, but it is David Starkey's which is in front of me. 
            As I said, looking back on events and thinking we understand all possible outcomes is a gift of hindsight. given the circumstances of Elizabeth's birth, the complicated nature of her parents relationship, it was by no means certain that she would ascend to the throne of England. It all seems so obvious now, that Elizabeth was to become the Faerie Queene, the most famous of all the kings and queens of england, rivalled in reverence only by Arthur the fictional king. 
             Hazardous is the word which springs to mind most readily upon learning of the early years of this young woman, a princess decreed illigitimate by virtue of her mother's fall from favour. Henry's passion for her mother tore the medieval world apart, but it was a passion that ended in bloody execution. Setting the template for how history would remember her father. Imagine growing up in the shade thrown by two such figures. Imagine the force of will it took to step out from that shadow. 
             Most of the book takes place before Elizabeth becomes queen. oh my giddy aunt, talk about your early years of struggle.  Always the focus of other peoples plans and schemes, the offsping of Henry Tudor and Anne Boleyn had to circumnavigate most treacherous waters. There were so many who just wished to use her as a stepping stone in their own ascent to power. This was the real game of thrones, played for real. The young Elizabeth had to use every ounce of her prodigious intelligence just to stay alive, to not go down in bloody complicity with those who schemed their way to the throne. 
             Who to trust?
              The great question of Elizabeth's life. 
              It is a great life story. One even more interesting than her own fathers. Perhaps it is because she had so many forces alligned against her. I suspect even in her early years, "weak and feeble" as she was percieved to be, every now and again a flash of Henry in her eyes would have reminded all she was the cub of a lion. As Hilary Mantel once mused through an observation by Thomas Cromwell "you can rub and stroke the royal fur 
but just imagine what those claws would do."
               I tried to imagine the suppressed rage of a young woman who would be reminded every day that her father had caused the death of her mother, that she had been unjustly disinherited and declared a bastard, who had been taken in and then abused by her uncle, who had been sent to the Tower of London, within walking distance of the very spot her mother had been beheaded. Then factor in a thousand daily sleights as she moved through her early years, treated as little more than a means to an end, and at the end of the day to sit upon the throne of England, Glorianna...
               Why her claws would give Shere Khan pause...

Henry Virtuous Prince.

 It was supposed to be Arthur the first born. It was in Arthur his father the king had invested the bulk of his hopes, to anchor the Tudor dynasty, to cement its in the shaky foundations. Named after the most famed ruler of Great Britain and destined to rule through a new golden age, an echo to a legendary time passed...

            Alas, the best laid schemes of mice, men and kings, gang aft-a-gley....

            And yet, for good or ill, Henry V!!! is one of the most enduring and iconic figures in the history of the monarchy and I also suppose, for good or ill, David Starkey is one of the most enduring writers on the subject of monarchy. He is possessed of a vast knowledge on the subject of the history of the rulers of the British Isles with seemingly a particular fascination for the Tudor dynasty and it is certainly understandable as it is an inexhaustible subject.The impact and the influence of this breath takingly dysfunctional family and their religion and politics continue to reverberate the generations that followed. Henry was not born to rule, that honor had been intended for his older sibling who died but five months in his marriage to Catherine Of Aragon, throwing his father's plans into disarray. He not only loved his eldest son but he needed him to cement the hard won and delicately balanced union between the empires of Spain and Great Britain. Its how they did things in those days. Shared blood lines were the very best form of contract, keeping the hoi poloi on top. David Starkey manfully grapples with the early years of Henry's kingship, an attempt to resurrect a golden era of heraldry and the more romantic and idealised notions of monarchy, a new Arthur indeed. The young Henry was the envy of Europe, a ruler the many kingdoms of that troubled continent would have been proud to lead them, an upright, powerful and virtuous prince., before the corruption set in, which would warp this promising prince into a disease filled pyscopath. Here was a living breathing example of the time worn trope that ultimate power will corrupt ultimately, as one charts his journey from aspiring rightful ruler to selfish despotic and sadistic brute. 

              I cannot help but come to the conclusion that there was a pathologically murderous streak of insecurity running like a ripe vein through the blood stream of the Tudors. i suppose their claim to the throne was so tenuous that it could be rightfully said that many of those who hung like ermine draped vultures about the throne had stronger claims to that position. most interestingly about this book is also the rise of Cardinal Wolsey, friend and mentor to the young king, the man who would serve him most loyally and be abandoned most profoundly. Henry killed a lot of his friends and indeed his lovers. Literally mad, bad and dangerous to know.The Tudor's throw shade on anyone else's claim to courtly infamy. And by all accounts David Starkey knows his stuff, he even acted as a special advisor on the television series The Tudors, although that struck me a bit of a mix of bawdy carry on movie and Dawson's Creek. Perhaps Carry On Dawson's Creek. 

             Really dis enjoy this book and learning the details of the earlier period of Henry VIII's life. When you spring from a family tree like The Tudors it is usually the people you know who will be the death of you. Yet it was Henry who made everyone else a pawn on the board of his life, not a man to be checkmated. 

              Henry was no pawn in anyone else's game.

              A game he sought to win by flipping the board.