Saturday, 31 July 2010

Autochrome world

Autochrome colour pictures from the early 1900s, from the globe-spanning collection of Albert Kahn.




Lots more here. (h/t Mike Beversluis)

Friday, 30 July 2010

Introducing Key's Cupboard

Mr Frank Key, the legendary podcaster and proprietor of Hooting Yard, will be opening his Cupboard of interesting items in a weekly feature on The Dabbler, including exclusive Dabbler material.

To whet your appetite, Frank has agreed to allow us to publish here the terrifying tale of a man who is impugned by a peasant. This is the title story of his latest paperback collection, due out in the autumn, Impugned By A Peasant & Other Stories. You can read more of Mr Key, download his podcast and buy his astonishing books here.

Impugned by a Peasant

I was impugned by a peasant. It was a Thursday afternoon and I was walking along a lane, between aspens and larches. I saw the peasant up ahead. He was leaning against a stile and as I got closer I saw he was idly swinging a flail to no great purpose. As I passed him, he impugned me, in some sort of rustic invective I barely understood. I would have dashed him to the ground with a single blow, but alas!, I am a milksop and a weakling and I merely passed on by along the lane, blushing and furious.

Later, as I sat in a countryside canteen drinking a tumbler of Squelcho!, I reflected upon this peasant and his impugning. What was he doing, leaning against that stile? Why was he swinging a flail? In what brutish argot did he speak? Much to my disgust, I realised I was obsessed by him, as, in Death In Venice, Gustav von Aschenbach is obsessed by Tadzio, or in Love And Death On Long Island, Giles De’Ath is obsessed by Ronnie Bostock. But Tadzio and Ronnie are young and beautiful, whereas my peasant – my peasant! – was old and snaggle-toothed and filthy and wretched. My hands were shaking, and I slopped some of my Squelcho! on the canteen table, drowning a fly.

As I returned along the lane, I adjusted the cravat around my neck, to give it a more rakish look, and I primped my bouffant, and I modified my trudge to a sort of flouncing prance. As I neared the bend in the lane beyond which the stile would come into view, my heart began to thump violently and my mouth became so dry I gasped. Would my peasant still be there? Would he impugn me again? I wanted to run back to the safety of the canteen, but at the same time I was desperate to see him once more, so filthy, so rustic, so ancient, so vile!

How can I express the sickening sensation I felt as I rounded the bend and saw that my peasant was gone? It was as if a knot of vipers writhed within my guts. Sunlight dappled through the aspens and the larches, a breeze refreshed the air, and there was the stile… but leaning on it now were two impossibly attractive youngsters, playing conkers. Closing in on them, panting like a monster of depravity, I saw they wore name-badges. One was Tadzio, the other Ronnie. I was barely coherent as I babbled at them, asking if they had seen a peasant, an old filthy snaggle-toothed peasant with a flail, had they seen in which direction he had gone, and when, and was he going fast or slow, with purpose or without, and did the sunlight glisten on his greasy matted hair?

First Tadzio, then Ronnie, impugned me. In particular, they impugned my cravat and my bouffant and my flouncing. I crumpled to the ground, weeping and neursathenic. I would have welcomed death, there and then. But of course, I did not die. An hour or two later, I got to my feet and dusted the muck of the lane from my Italianate suit. The sun was sinking in the west, and Tadzio and Ronnie were long gone. I picked up a pebble and chucked it inexpertly at a linnet perched in an aspen. I missed the bird, of course, and I pranced away from the stile and made my way home.

Years later, looking back on that afternoon, I can no longer picture the name-tagged youths, but the vision of the peasant is as clear to me as if he were sat here opposite me. I do not have him, of course, but I have his simulacrum, posed in the armchair, built of cardboard and wire and wool, with piano keys for his teeth and a light dusting of authentic countryside muck, and when I activate the console he impugns me in that mechanical, guttural, rustic invective I had a character actor record for me, and which, still, still, I barely understand.

The ultimate sequel (or perhaps penultimate)

Titanic 2 is in about to be released. Now that would test a screenwriter's ingenuity.

H/t Ben.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Would you like some tacos with that?

“I’ve never tasted anything like this before,” said Tim Burroughs, a recent customer at Hankook Taqueria. “It’s as if they’re making up a cuisine as they go.”

Korean tacos - forget cupcakes - are the next big thing apparently. Mexican-style taco shells 'stuffed with soy- and garlic-marinated beef, along with chicken and pork, all barbecued in the Korean style.'
“The meat makes it Korean,” said Mr. Ban, who marinates chuck roll in a soy and garlic sauce that is traditionally used with Korean barbecue dishes. “The tortilla and the toppings are a way to tell our customers that this food is O.K., that this food is American.”

Tortilla as an indication of Americanness? Strange but it makes sense, and it sounds delicious. I also enjoyed the other fusions that have involved the taco:
...kalbi tacos topped with Asian pear slaw...kalbi tacos and pesto fries...short-rib tacos with homemade kimchi...short-rib quesadillas and chicken satay tacos...Japanese chicken tacos...

The inspiration for these new fusions is, it seems, fairly straightforward:
...Tan Truong and Jonathan Ward rolled out Kung Fu Tacos, a bright yellow truck, selling nun chuk chicken and wu shu char siu to office workers in San Francisco’s financial district.
The partners had planned a trip to Los Angeles to sample Kogi’s food. But then it hit them. “My wife is Chinese,” Mr. Ward recalled. “Why would I try Korean tacos when I could try Chinese tacos? So I texted Tan. I wrote ‘char siu taco.’ And he wrote back ‘brilliant.’ ”

Clearly, the possibilities are endless.

Anyway, despite not being sure what's actually in some of these fusion dishes (kalbi? pear slaw?) I'm quite sure that I'd like to try them. Isn't the rule of thumb that things starting on the West Coast of the US take a couple of years to reach us over here? However, when it does arrive it will, of course, be adapted to suit local tastes: the chicken tikka taco may be just around the corner.

H/t Marginal Revolution.

The Cobham Cuckoos

If you visit Longleat and safely negotiate the lions and herpes-infested monkeys, you can enter the vast Elizabethan mansion and – via a circuitous route taking in such stately home essentials as the Saloon, the Red Library and the Dress Corridor – finally arrive at the Grand Staircase, at the top of which you will find the multiple eyes of this portrait staring at you.

Painted in 1567 by the suspicious-sounding Master of the Countess of Warwick, it depicts William Brooke, the 10th Baron Cobham, his second wife Frances Newton (standing) and their offspring. The lady sitting is Frances’ sister Johanna. She’s holding Henry. The other children are Maximilian, William, twins Frances and Elizabeth, and Margaret.

They all, you will note, have the same face. Ageless, like Midwich Cuckoos the children gaze at the nothingness beyond the limits of our perception. Margaret on the right is clearly the leader, her dark artistry fathomless, the evil palpable in her smirk – it is no coincidence that her pet, or dæmon, is a black cat.* The twins are soulless automatons, their actions controlled by infant hound-master Maximilian (left).

Their mother, Frances Newton, is an empty husk, all colour drained from her features. The Baron himself prays ceaselessly and furiously for redemption. Only Johanna, the aunt, knows the true nature of the Cuckoos; they revealed themselves to her one black night and now command her wholly.

*Or possibly marmoset, which is just as sinister if you ask me.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

River views

Let us start with the river - all things begin with the river and we shall probably end there, no doubt - but let's wait and see how we go.

So begins William Boyd's most recent novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms. It began with the river in more ways than one according to the author:
The idea for the novel started when I read that every year in London they take 60 bodies a year out of the Thames, usually at the bend in the river near Greenwich. That's more than one a week, but you never hear about them. And then I thought immediately about the opening scenes of Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and the body being pulled out of the river. And I figured out that there was a way of writing a novel in the way that Our Mutual Friend does, from the very top of society to the very bottom. It all began to come together.

I found the book curiously underpowered and often sloppily written, from the very first sentence: '...we shall probably end there, no doubt'. Well, what's it to be?

I went back to Our Mutual Friend, which contains passages like this one:
The squall had come up, like a spiteful messenger before the morning; there followed in its wake a ragged tear of light which ripped the dark clouds until they showed a great grey hole of day.
The were all shivering, and everything about them seemed to be shivering; the river itself, craft, rigging, sails, such early smoke as there yet was on the shore. Black with wet, and altered to the eye by white patches of hail and sleet, the huddled buildings looked lower than usual, as if they were cowering, and had shrunk with the cold. Very little life was to be seen on either bank, windows and doors were shut, and the staring black and white letters upon wharves and warehouses "looked." said Eugene to Mortimer, "like inscriptions over the graves of dead businesses."

This was Dickens' last completed novel and passages like the one above strike me as very modern. It appears to sit just a little upstream of another description, perhaps the most famous of the estuarial Thames, from Conrad's Heart of Darkness:
The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

Perhaps it's unfair on Boyd to measure him against these two masters but there's really nothing in his book to compare - almost literally. It's a thriller so we shouldn't expect too many literary extravagances but nevertheless the language is so flat and indistinct it fails to draw us in. Here's the main description of the river from the first couple of pages:
Adam walked over to the high stone balustrade that curved the roadway into Chelsea Bridge and, leaning on it, looked down at the Thames. The tide was high and still coming in, he saw, the normal flow of water reversed, flotsam moving surprisingly quickly upstream, heading inland, as if the sea were dumping its rubbish in the river rather than the usual, other way round... [H]e didn't feel as if he were in the middle of a huge city at all: the trees, the quiet force of the surging, tidal river beneath his feet, that special luminescence that a body of water throws off, made him grow calmer - he'd been right to come to the river - odd how these instincts mysteriously drive you, he thought.

Not bad but hardly captivating. It's imprecise, it lacks particularity: 'high' (repeated), 'normal', 'surprisingly', 'usual', 'a body', 'special', 'mysteriously'. It tips its hat to the river's mystical influences but can't be bothered to do any more. You feel neither the reality of the river nor its resonances and, as a consequence, the character and his context are deprived of depth and meaning.

But how about a more contemporary comparison? This is from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall:
He steps into his barge for the first time, and on the river, Rafe tells his news. The rocking of the boat beneath them is imperceptible. The flags are limp; it is a still morning, misty and dappled, and where the light touches flesh or linen or fresh leaves, there is a sheen like the sheen on an eggshell: the whole world luminous, its angles softened, its scent watery and green. He stares down into the water, now brown, now clear as the light catches it, but always moving; the fish in its depths, the weeds, the drowned men with bony hands swimming. On the mud and shingle there are cast up belt buckles, fragments of glass, small warped coins with the kings' faces washed away. Once when he was a boy he found a horseshoe. A horse in the river? It seemed to him a very lucky find. But his father said, if horseshoes were lucky, boy, I would be the King of Cockaigne.

Pointing out the differences seems superfluous (the river is treated brilliantly throughout her novel).

Ordinary Thunderstorms isn't a bad book; it's readable and diverting. But one gets the sense of an opportunity missed. As the doorman of a riverside tavern remarks in Our Mutual Friend, "There's ever so many people in the river." But you will look in vain for them in Ordinary Thunderstorms: the river remains firmly confined by its own pages. When Boyd begins, 'Let us start with the river...,' he's stepping into a tradition in which he barely even dabbles.

Monday, 26 July 2010

6 Clicks for the Endless Voyage: Brit

In Anthony Burgess’ short story The Endless Voyager, a businessman throws away his passport and wallet mid-transit and, unable to enter any country, spends the rest of his life shuttling from airport to airport. He eventually goes mad. Today, of course, such a traveller might stave off purgatorial insanity by dabbling on his iPhone or netbook.

In this post, The Dabbler's own Brit selects six cultural links that might sustain him in an interminable succession of departure lounges.

1. The Beatles, Sie Leibt Dich

"If it wasn’t for Churchill/the Americans/D-Day/the Spirit of the Blitz/your Grandad, we’d all be speaking German by now." Hearing John and Paul sing the British pop song par excellence in Deutsch is like a glimpse at an alternative universe. Of course that universe could not have existed. Sie Leibt Dich makes the familiar strange.

2. Picasso, Still Life with Bust, Bowl and Palette

While at school I cut some tokens out of the newspaper and sent off for a free Picasso print, primarily because I thought that having it on my bedroom wall would make me look offbeat and cool. I didn’t really appreciate it as a piece of art; if anything it was a bit of a joke. When I went to university I put it in a wooden frame from a charity shop and displayed it on my wall for much the same reasons as before but gradually I came to appreciate that there was something inexpressibly pleasing about the way the shapes were put together. Then as I became more aware of Picasso I realised that, in fact, Bust Bowl and Palette one of the least interesting and pleasing of his works, but nonetheless it was the only one I had and I felt an obscure loyalty to it. When I became a bit more solvent I invested in a proper frame and transferred the print to that.

While other artworks have come and gone, Bust Bowl and Palette has adorned the walls of all of my abodes. Now, I realise when looking at the picture, any aesthetic appreciation I might once have felt for it has retreated to irrelevance; its appeal is almost entirely based on comfort and familiarity. Never, ever, until the day I die, shall I willingly get rid of Picasso’s Still Life with Bust, Bowl and Palette. And where is the picture now, you ask? It’s in the attic, waiting until we have a bigger house, because my wife doesn’t like it.

3. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
All the follies of human existence are laid bare in this book's wicked definitions, now available online. Worth it just for: Predicament (n): The wage of consistency. Anyone who has ever entered into a lengthy blog argument will know the truth of that one.

4. Atherton v Donald, Trent Bridge 1998

Cricket was never about vicars and teas and the village green for me. I grew up watching the West Indies: cricket was about surviving violent assault. I was a keen, reasonably talented opening batsman at schoolboy level, but the first time my body took a battering from a proper fast bowler I became painfully aware, in all senses, that I didn’t have what it takes.

In the second Test between England and South Africa at Trent Bridge in 1998, Allan Donald was, more or less, trying to kill Mike Atherton by bowling 90mph at throat-height from round the wicket. Atherton, a Charlie Brown-like geek – gangly, toothy, vaguely bookish – stood there and took the worst Donald could chuck at him and survived it. Really, Mike Atherton had none of the attributes of a great sportsman except the rarest and most important one.

5. Sagrada Familia image gallery
Some excellent judges of taste have informed me that Gaudi’s still-unfinished cathedral Sagrada Familia is quite uniquely ugly. “For people who like cacti”, as one blogger memorably put it. Perhaps so, but Barcelona was the first holiday I took with my wife and we were broke and 21 years old so everything about that city is wonderful. But even if Sagrada Familia is ugly and possibly even a bit naff in the student-poster way that Salvador Dali is naff, the mere fact of its existence is remarkable enough. A vast wasps nest still under construction, in Europe, in 2010, for the glory of God. God was supposed to be dead by now.

6. Handel, I Know That My Redeemer Liveth

Sacred music is about humans, God is the justification. In the Godless eternal airport lounge, in Richard Dawkins’ post-religious world, where middle distance-gazing professionals gather in conference centres to discuss painless suicide techniques, where the Sagrada Familia construction work has been cancelled and where reclining in First Class on the Eurostar we eat Asian Fusion food from recyclable boxes and tap secret, bleak poems into our iPads, I Know That My Redeemer Liveth will still make perfect sense. More sense, if anything – the poignancy will verge on unbearable.