Librarians and beautiful people

March 4, 2015

Norman: She’s not a beggar.

Sarah: Maybe not. But it would be stupid to make out she had a very wide choice as regards a possible husband. She’s not—well …

Norman: She’s beautiful.

Sarah: I’m not going to argue. Certainly no-one could describe her as beautiful. I’ll admit she has a great deal of—

Norman: Anybody I love is automatically beautiful.

Sarah: Oh, Norman, don’t be ridiculous.

Norman: Have you never felt that way? Perhaps you’ve never been in love.

That comes from the first scene of Alan Ayckbourn’s Living Together, part of his trilogy The Norman Conquests. Watching the 1977 Thames Television version with someone once, on reaching the line ‘Anybody I love is automatically beautiful’ we both emitted an inarticulate sound that seemed to suggest a strong identification with the sentiment. I hadn’t heard it expressed by anyone else before, but I had certainly thought it myself.

Perhaps you have too. You’re so caught up in the love you feel for someone and the beauty you see in them that you ask yourself, do I love this person because they’re beautiful, or do I find them beautiful because I love them? The two may be so inextricable as to make the question unanswerable.

One of the reasons I like Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests so much is that the hero (or anti-hero) is an assistant librarian, if not a very professional one.

Ruth: I’m amazed they keep you on.

Norman: I’m a very good librarian, that’s why. I know where the dirty bits are in all the books.

There’s something pathetic about assistant librarians. I don’t know what it is that makes an assistant librarian infinitely more ludicrous than a librarian, but it is the case. If you haven’t been one yourself, you may not have realised it. There aren’t many of us in literature. The only other one I can recall is the protagonist of Kingsley Amis’s world-weary That Uncertain Feeling. So it’s nice to meet an assistant librarian who’s a gigolo, albeit, by his own admission, one trapped in a haystack.

The subject of Norman and Sarah’s conversation at the top of this post, the woman Sarah believes no one could consider beautiful, is Annie. In the TV version, Annie is played by Penelope Wilton. You have to suspend your aesthetic faculties. I mean, any list of the most beautiful people in the world that didn’t include Penelope Wilton in 1977 is one I would refuse to countenance. When I saw it at the Old Vic a few years ago, Annie was played by Jessica Hynes — also beautiful. The role was created on stage by Felicity Kendal. I mean, what?!

Penelope Wilton in Table Manners (1977)

Penelope Wilton in Table Manners (1977)

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I was in love with 1970s-era Felicity Kendal when I was ten years old, but it’s statistically possible that she leaves some people unmoved. I’ve been thinking about beauty a lot recently, even more than usual, and partly because of things I’ve read. A recurring motif in John Irving’s novel In One Person is the idea of the democracy of the emotions, having crushes on the wrong people, our inability to choose the people we fall in love with or find beautiful. (Incidentally, if you want a book with a sexy librarian in it, look no further.)

My own conceptions of beauty tend to the unorthodox. Living in Cambridge, you’d expect me to be devoted to King’s College Chapel, wouldn’t you, and it is very nice, yes; but no more beautiful to me than the brutalist architecture of Churchill, where I was a student. A tower block can be as moving as a place of worship.

Churchill postcard, 1960s

Churchill College in the 1960s

I’m hardly alone in being turned off by images of homogeneously ‘beautiful’ bodies propagated throughout the media, here anorexic, here pneumatic, but I find even the faces of supposedly beautiful people homogeneous. Amy Adams, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts. I couldn’t pick them out of an identity parade. Even Natalie Portman I struggle with. Carey Mulligan I know, Michelle Williams I’ve just about got the hang of. Prosopagnosia, it’s called. Face blindness. I have the same problem with male actors. I’ve seen Michael Fassbender in Hunger, Inglourious Basterds, Shame, 12 Years a Slave, and still I have no idea what the man looks like.

Perhaps the root of my love for British character actors is their sheer identifiability, then, but I think it’s more than that. It’s not just because I can recognise Roger Livesey or Anton Walbrook that I have to have a sit down whenever I see them. (Generally I’m sitting down already, in fact.) It’s how utterly interesting they look. Is there a more beautiful man in film history than Walter Fitzgerald, I wonder. In every frame of every film he’s in you see honour and decency in his eyes. I’m not sure I’d want to go to bed with him, but he’d probably say the same of me and you can’t have everything.

Walter Fitzgerald in The Cruel Sea (1953)

Walter Fitzgerald in The Cruel Sea (1953)

A personal history of Wilde

February 19, 2015

Oscar Wilde

The first I knew of Oscar Wilde was ‘The Selfish Giant’. When we were ten or eleven my friend Daniel and I were headhunted to write some incidental music for a school puppet play of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, which we then performed live at school and even took on tour to a local primary school. To be brutally honest I didn’t think the play was up to much (the only performance that has stayed in the mind is that of the drama teacher’s unexpected son, who played some kind of flamboyant old crone — the Snow Queen herself? no, I think she was called Mrs something), but I was proud of the music. I had a list of 20-odd cues written down, and intended to record them on tape for posterity (already an obsession of mine) but didn’t get around to it. I don’t remember a note of it now. It was about this time that I made a photocopy at school of ‘The Selfish Giant’, inspired to write some music for it, perhaps to accompany a real-time reading (aloud or silent) of the story. I thought I could capture its poignancy. Anyway, I never did it. Too much like hard work.

I’ve been thinking about Wilde quite a bit recently, particularly The Importance of Being Earnest. Stephen Fry tells a story of his own discovery of Wilde: he caught the 1952 Anthony Asquith film of Earnest on television, was captivated by it, started addressing people at every opportunity as ‘the visible personification of absolute perfection’, and devoured Wilde’s published works. It was the same for me. I’d have been fourteen or so when I first saw the film, and I marvelled that something more than a century old could be so funny. I borrowed a Penguin edition of De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol from the library and did flick through it, but I decided the letter was too dense and the poem too long. More of the apathy that has plagued my whole life. Think of what I might have achieved. By the time Schubert got to my age he was dead.

The way I got to know the play properly was by listening to a BBC radio version that starred Geraldine McEwan as Lady Bracknell (when I read it now I still hear certain lines in her voice), Simon Russell Beale as Jack and Robert Bathurst as Algernon. I recorded it off the radio and listened to it ad nauseam. There is a scene in Alison Bechdel’s brilliant Fun Home, which I read earlier this month, where Bechdel feeds lines to her mother, who is rehearsing for a production of Earnest. I found I knew the dialogue off by heart. I can’t recite the play from beginning to end, but watching it I generally know what the characters are going to say the moment before they say it. Actually, I can do one bit:

Apprised, sir, of my daughter’s sudden flight by her trusty maid, whose confidence I purchased by means of a small coin, I followed her at once by a luggage train. Her unhappy father is, I am glad to say, under the impression that she is attending a more than usually lengthy lecture by the University Extension Scheme on the Influence of a permanent income on Thought.

I’ve seen it staged a few times, once with Patricia Routledge at the Theatre Royal in Bath, once a Cambridge student production with a male student in drag as Lady Bracknell. I think this is a fairly well established tradition, reaching its logical extreme in Gerald Barry’s recent operatic adaptation, where the role is sung by a basso profondo.

Listening to the McEwan/Bathurst radio version tuned my ears to comic nuance. I saw a production of the play done by students of the University of Westchester, let’s call it, several years ago at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Its gimmick was that the action had been updated to the 1980s, which I presume was a way of getting out of spending money on fin-de-siècle clothing. There was one gratuitously sexual dialogue-free vignette in a club, which I imagine embarrassed the performers as much as it did the audience, and a couple of lazy tokenistic amendments to the script (Lady Bracknell ranting about ‘the worst excesses of the last Labour government,’ Cecily moaning about having to study her ‘horrid, horrid Thatcherite manifesto'; no one laughed).

The performances were pretty OK as far as I recall, though the chap playing Jack said ‘irrevockable’ at the end, which made me shudder slightly, but there is one exchange that I remember especially:

Lady Bracknell. Good afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well.

Algernon. I’m feeling very well, Aunt Augusta.

The way Bathurst delivers that line is delightful: ‘I’m feeling very well.’ He glosses over the changed verb and emphasises the ‘very’, to divert his aunt’s attention from the fact that he has specifically not answered her question. This is a man used to wrapping people round his little finger and getting his way. The student Algy opted for ‘I’m feeling very well.’ This reading draws attention to the verb, which is something Wilde’s writing really doesn’t demand, and makes Algy seem cringing and obsequious, which he isn’t, even in the presence of his aunt. It’s hard to do comedy if you haven’t got the ear for it.

Tread softly

January 28, 2015

When I was a student the name of Theodor Adorno was one to strike fear into my heart, more through his reputation than through my own experience. I don’t quite know how I got through the degree without reading any theory whatsoever, but somehow I managed it. It left me dangerously underqualified for a career in musicology, but oddly that hasn’t mattered.

There is one Adorno book I would gladly read, though, his Dream Notes. This is a series of unvarnished transcriptions of his dreams, both banal and entertaining. Example here.

Other people’s dreams can be so dull, can’t they. You may wish to stop reading here. This is what I’ve been dreaming about in recent years.

6 June 2009
The French Open women’s singles final. It is being played indoors on carpet, but it’s so hot that both players are topless. One of them is Venus Williams, the other unidentifiable though presumably she is a seed.

26 June 2009
I am playing the organ for a service of choral evensong at a church called St Olave’s situated on a cliff in Coventry. During the final voluntary a little girl comes up to me. Her mother says to her, of me, ‘That’s Gianfranco Zola. I think he’s gay.’

1 July 2009
Vague dream in which I think of a brilliantly biting insult involving the word ‘balls’ that I cannot remember when I wake up.

3 July 2009
I make a recital programme for a singer, but accidentally print it before it’s finished. She gets quite upset during the recital.

6 July 2009
I am going to Finland. I need to leave the house at 4.30pm to catch my plane three hours later, but forget to pack and miss the flight.

29 July 2009
I am in the company of a group of naked French postulant monks. They have poor social skills.

22 September 2009
There is a small wooden (but live) lizard in my room that I have to kill. It continually eludes me. My iPod has turned into a tablet dispenser. The tablets either come out of the place at the top where the lock button is or are dispensed from lower down by pressing the lock button.

1 January 2011
An erotic dream about a pigeon. Details vague.

14 January 2011
My flat is besieged by flies. I am rescued by spiders, which I now like much more than I had previously.

2 August 2011
I encounter James Dreyfus in the street. He seems down on his luck now that his TV career is flagging and he is selling TV spin-off books and board games from a tray strapped to his chest. He takes payment in sugar. Perhaps this is the apocalypse. I buy a Family Guy game from him and he gives me a kiss as we say goodbye. I feel sorry to wake up.

5 September 2011
I am inside St Paul’s tube station to attend a performance of a miracle play adapted by Jon Snow with music by Howard Goodall. Des Lynam approaches and asks me to help him find a branch of Gap. We locate one inside a nearby airport, but have to take shelter when a gangland shooting breaks out.

October 2011
Guest post: I appear in someone else’s dream, dressed as Hitler. I ask, ‘Is this a bit much?’

25 December 2011
A horrible premonition that Grandpa will give me another shoddily made telescope that I don’t want for Christmas.

3 February 2012
I meet Gary Lineker in the Westway Precinct in Frome. He is really nice.

4 February 2012
I am two hours late for a play in London. It starts at 6.30, but I arrive at 8.30 following delays on the tube. When I get there, I find Roger Allam sitting in the seat next to mine (or perhaps he joins me later). I say to him, ‘I thought you were in the play.’ Him, despondent: ‘I’ve only got 56 lines.’

25 March 2012
Dream about a never-ending episode of 2Point4 Children.

9 June 2012
I attend a committee meeting at which George Osborne gives a speech that is hateful to me in some way and I am filled with a murderous rage that does not dissipate on waking.

28 June 2012
I do my James Mason impression to a group of people and it is not the unmitigated success I had expected it to be.

13 September 2013
I make bread and butter pudding using a shop-bought cheese sandwich (granary bread), dipping the bread in cream.

13 February 2014
I wake up laughing at 5am, having dreamed a brilliant joke about Herman Wouk. Once fully conscious I cannot remember the joke, but given I know nothing of Herman Wouk or of his work perhaps it involves a pun on his name.

15 March 2014
I buy some fish and chips for £8.50 and give them to a friend to look after while I go to collect some train tickets. When I get back the friend has thrown them in the bin. I didn’t even really want fish and chips, and there weren’t enough chips, but given how much I’d paid I was determined to eat them, and I wouldn’t have given them to my friend if I’d known he was going to do something treacherous like that. Infuriating.

Fish and chips.jpg

Fish and chips” by © Andrew Dunn,
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Speckled Tim

January 19, 2015

I have an attention span of approximately four seconds, which is probably why I search Google about 50 times a day. If I’m really well behaved I can make it through a film without resorting to my laptop, but more often than not these days I have my TV and computer on simultaneously, and give each of them half of my attention. I’m your typical 21st-century consumer.

This is by way of explaining how, a few years ago, I came across a number of Blackadder transcripts full of delightful and sometimes endearingly outlandish typographical errors. I suspect they date from before the publication of the scripts in book form. In one of them Darling compares Melchett’s moustache to a ‘private hedge’. You can find them now on any number of websites if you look for them.


Here are some selected highlights from one episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, ‘Corporal Punishment’. I hope this post doesn’t come across as an opportunistic assault on the illiterate or, as I suspect was the case with the original transcriber, the foreign. My intention is merely to shed light on some of the difficulties of writing things down if you don’t understand the language; if it makes you smile then that is quite coincidental. Several of the mistranscriptions arise from a lack of knowledge of what Doctor Johnson famously called ‘demotic Anglo-Saxon’ (Blackadder the Third, ‘Ink & Incapability’).

Edmund: You’d like to book a table for three by the window for 9.30 PM, not too near the band, in the name of Obel-ointment Fungentula.

[Oberleutnant von Genschler]

Edmund: We have orders for six meters of Hungarian crushed velvet curtain material, four rock salmon and a ha’pence of chips and a cab for a Mr. Redgrave picking up from 14 Arnost Grove Raintop Bell.

[14 Arnos Grove, ring top bell]

George: Rather we don’t want those sort of orders, we want orders to Deck Old Glory.

[death or glory]

Edmund: (puts on a record) “A wandering minstral eye in the…(record goes off, Edmund speaks) ..on Gail Force Eight.

[‘A wand’ring minstrel I’ / gale force eight]

George: I say, come on, sir, what’s the message? I’m on tenderhooks, do tell!


Baldrick: Look, it’s got a little ring ’round it’s leg, there’s a novelity!


Edmund: Well, sir, call me a bluffo traditionalist, but I was always taught to wait for the order to attack before attacking.

[bluff old traditionalist]

Melchett: I don’t care if he’s been watering the Duke of York with a prize-winning leak!

[rogering / leek]

Edmund: Not when he’s the finest mind in English legal history. Ever heard of Bob Mattingburg?


George: But anyway, let me open up my defence straight away, by saying that I’ve known this man for three years, he’s an absolutely gawking chap.


Melchett: The case before us is that of the crown vs. Captain Edmund Blackadder, the flanderous pigeon murderer!


Melchett: Nonsence! He’s a hound and a rutter, and he’s going to be shot!


Firing Squad Leader: Ahh, wish I could pause, sir. I really wish I could, but I can’t, you see, cos I’m a tabler, you see.


George: Ah, I think this calls for a celebration, don’t you? What about a toss of old Morehen’s Shredded Sporum, which Mum has just sent over?

[a tot of Old Moorhen’s Shredded Sporran]

George: (awaking) Oh, my head! Ah, my head! Feels like the time I was initiated into teh Silly Buggers society at Cambridge. I misheard the rules and push a whole oberjing into my earhole.



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