LEAVES from a commonplace book

Some of the items in my collection are what one might call high-end artefacts – beautifully-crafted and formally-produced, such as limited edition fine prints or bound volumes. However elegant and precious these might be, I often find myself far more attracted to – and excited by – the odd little vernacular trinkets found at the other end of the scale: hand-written postcards, personal ephemera, amateur photographic montages or scrapbook compilations. Objects such as these were created without any interest in commercial value or posterity, and in addition to their sense of honesty and charm, they often provide a window into how our ancestors amused themselves in private. 

Compiling commonplace books was a popular pasttime well into the 20th century, and one might argue that contemporary online practices such as blogging and website such as Pinterest are a continuation of the same impulse. Commonplace books are compilations of quotations, useful passages from books, epigrams and so on, copied out into one’s own notebook and often organised thematically or by the addition of an index or other keys, They developed from the medieval florilegium or ‘gathering of flowers’, in which the scribe would select what he regarded as the wisest texts from earlier writers – just as a bee extracts nectar from the most attractive flowers – and arranged them under thematic headings. Although there was always this tradition of serious, intellectual self-improvement – the philosopher John Locke published his A New Method of Making Common-Place Books in 1706 – there was also a more light-hearted approach that saw compilers decorate their favourite quotes with colourful illustrations, cartoons or floral emblems. Sometimes others would be invited to write their own texts or verses onto the pages, producing some overlap with autograph and visitors’ books. Such books might well be compiled as someone was about to get married or leave the country: it would be an opportunity for friends and family to choose appropriate words of wisdom or poetry, to which they could add their own messages.  

This, I suspect, was the background to this particular commonplace book, which I picked up for a pittance in a second hand bookshop last autumn. 

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An extract from William Cowper’s poem ‘The Task’ (1785)
The above verse – An Adventure, sometimes referred to as An Adventure on Wheels – seems to have started appearing in American newspapers in 1900 and clearly held popular appeal.

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This exquisite watercolour appears to be the work of Edward Rimbault Dibdin (1853-1941), art critic and curator of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

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These lines are from a hymn, ‘Kind Words Can Never Die’, adapted from an old Gospel song and made popular in America after it was set to music by Abby Hutchinson Patton (1829-92)

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Sketch of Stonehenge, made on the occasion of a drive with Mrs Wilkins and her daughter, from Salisbury to Stonehenge and back, August 1878.

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George Morland’s oil painting ‘Inside of a Stable’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1791 and is now in London’s National Gallery.

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The first line of the Latin prayer (trans. O Jesus, living in Mary, come and live in your servant also…’) It originated with the 17th century mystic Charles de Condren and also provided the inspiration for one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems.

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A postcard of Lacock Village by Joseph Pike
Given my interest in Joseph Pike, I was especially delighted to find this postcard of Lacock as the final image pasted into the book, doubly so as Lacock was of course the home of pioneer photographer Henry Talbot. My commonplace book certainly contains an eclectic mix of words and images, which raises the intriguing question – if you were to get family or friends to contribute some personal lines or favourite pictures to a similar project in 2015, what would it look like? 

Stones of evil: Stonehenge through the ages

A couple of days ago I finished reading Bryan Cooper’s novel Stones of Evil (1974), which follows the experiences of a stone worker, Haril, in ancient Britain five thousand years ago. A skilled craftsman with expertise in working with flint, he finds himself among the workmen constructing Stonehenge under the direction of high priest Vardon. Initially impressed by the scale of the project and the quality of the stone, he becomes troubled at Vardon’s cruelty, especially after the priest switches his allegiance from the Sun God to the Dark One….

It’s not the sort of novel I tend to read, but I came across it in a junk shop and was intrigued by the idea of a horror tale being set in ancient Britain. Along the way, Haril meets a variety of individuals and tribes, including families from the dark ‘forest people’, groups of roaming hunters, and a religious caste that might be the precursor of the druids. The story itself provides yet another theory regarding the origins of Stonehenge, and Haril’s concluding thoughts are certainly true: ‘For the rest of time perhaps, people would come and stare silently at the ruins, wondering what had led men to build it in the first place.’

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‘Stonhing’ in a print from 1575

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William Stukeley’s ‘Stonehenge, a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids’ (London, 1740) recognised that Stonehenge was built in alignment with celestial bodies

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Stonehenge as imagined in Francis Grose, ‘Antiquities of England and Wales’ (1773-6.)
Theories connecting the stone circle to Arthurian legend (above top, 1575) and Druidic practices (above, 1776) continue to the present day, alongside fanciful suggestions about UFO landing strips, sacred energy transmitters, ancient racecourses, healing temples or the tomb of Boadicea.

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John Britton, ‘The Beauties of Wiltshire’ (1801-25)
John Britton – who worked with Pugin – was one of the first to publish sober and accurate delineations of antiquities.

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Stonehenge as it appeared when I visited in September 2013

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A fanciful image of Avebury stone circle, about 25 miles north of Stonehenge, from the spooky TV series ‘Children of the Stones’ (1977)
Although it was set in Avebury rather than Stonehenge, the seven episode HTV series Children of the Stones made use of many theories that had been applied to Stonehenge: Druidic rites, folk magic and advanced astronomy were fused with a plot about time-loops, supernovas and psychic control.

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Perhaps the threat posed by the ancient stones might actually be more mundane
Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of summer, and traditionally attracts tens of thousands of visitors to Stonehenge to witness the sunrise.

Early Birds: Du Maurier’s Precursors

The terrifying concept of wild birds turning upon humans was presented to cinema audiences in 1963 with the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s screen adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story, The Birds, first published in 1952. The idea was not entirely new, however, and in today’s post I’m going to focus on two earlier novels: Melville Davisson Post’s The Revolt of the Birds (1927)  and Frank Baker’s The Birds (1936.)

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Dust jacket of the first edition

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The binding, blind-stamped with gilt images of birds in flight

West Virginian lawyer and author Melville Davisson Post (1871-1930) is perhaps best remembered now as a crime writer, and the creator of such brilliant detectives as Uncle Abner, Randolph Mason, Colonel Braxton and Sir Henry Marquis of Scotland Yard. A qualified lawyer, he had travelled in Europe and beyond, and his prolific output reflects both his wide experiences and love of the great outdoors. The Revolt of the Birds was published in New York by Appleton in 1927, three years before Post died following a fall from his horse. 

The Revolt of the Birds is set in the China Sea, and – rather like an M.R. James ghost story – is relayed through an anonymous narrator as he listens to Bennett, a seaman with the notorious Wu Fan Shipping Company. The two men are seated in a warehouse bar in Hong Kong. Bennett, an Englishman, has a copy of The Times and The Passing of Arthur which shows ‘quaint pictures of the three queens, who came in the legend, in a mystic barge to take Arthur to Avalon.’ When they start discussing whether or not such a thing could ever happen, the conversation shifts to strange happenings in the Orient and Bennett begins to tell his tale – about Arthur Hudson, his unhappy affair with an English girl, his dreams of a mysterious ‘slender, dark-haired girl’ who always appears with a flock of birds around her or beside her, and his quest to find this girl in the islands of the China Sea….  The Revolt of the Birds differs from Du Maurier’s story in one very significant point – the intention of the birds towards the humans – but it introduced the idea of a large number of birds acting together in concert against the laws of nature.

There had been some precedents for this idea – Arthur Machen’s The Terror (1917), for example, features sustained attacks on Cornish folk from an array of wild animals, including birds and moths. The disturbing suggestion that individual birds might work together in order to carry out an organised mass attack also appeared in Philip Macdonald’s short-story ‘Our Feathered Friends’ which was published in Lady Cynthia Asquith’s anthology When Churchyards Yawn (London: Hutchinson, 1931.) Macdonald actually worked as a screenwriter on Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) – also an adaptation of a Du Maurier story – and ‘Our Feathered Friends’ was reprinted in the anthology
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories for Late at Night (New York: Random House, 1961.)Five years after Macdonald’s story, author Frank Baker (1908-82) published his full-length novel The Birds, exploring the possibility of birds carrying out a sustained war of terror against mankind.

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The Birds (London: Peter Davies, 1936) dust jacket
There is no reason to doubt the claim of Daphne du Maurier that she was completely unaware of the existence of Baker’s novel when she came to write her own story with the same title. Apart from the basic concept, the two texts have little in common, and she actually drew her inspiration from something she witnessed near her Cornish home at Menabilly House. near Fowey. She was able to rent Menabilly from 1943 until 1969 because of the success of the book and film Rebecca, but she had known the area since the late 1920s when the family began taking holidays there, and was friendly with many of the locals. One day, while walking across to Menabilly Barton farm from her house, she saw a farmer named Tommy Dunn out ploughing in his field above Polridmouth Beach. Above his head, seagulls were swooping and diving, and she began to wonder what might happen if they suddenly began to attack….
 
She went home and began to develop this idea, turning Tommy Dunn into Nat Hocken, and suggesting that the birds become aggressive after a harsh winter with little food. Seagulls are the first to start attacking, but they are soon joined by birds of prey and finally even small birds. The setting is clearly rural, the characters are limited to Nat’s family and neighbours, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of wartime Britain with its fears about coastal invasion and German air raids.The story was first published in Good Housekeeping magazine in October 1952, with the text broken up into fragments and printed between pages 54 and 132, interspersed with sections of other short stories and juxtaposed with dozens of housekeeping tips and adverts: “Bread stays good longer when protected with ‘Mycoban,'” “Childcraft: America’s Famous (14-volume) Child Guidance Plan” or “Jell-O Salads: Like to add a touch of glamour to dinner tonight?” This homely material seems incongruous with the grim subject matter of Du Maurier’s story, which the editors clearly regarded as potentially unpalatable – the tagline proclaimed: ‘The Editors present this, not as the most popular, but perhaps as the Most Distinguished Short Story of the Year.’
Reading the story within the context of ‘good housekeeping’ tips does, however, draw attention to the prominence of domestic and familial concerns.  Nat is a former soldier who was injured during the war and receives a disability pension, but works part time on local farms doing light work in order to provide for his wife and two young children, Jill and Johnny. When the bird attacks begin, he uses his handyman skills to protect his family, boarding up windows and setting up barbed wire barriers, while his (unnamed) wife deals with the housekeeping matters: ‘It’s shopping day tomorrow, you know that. I don’t keep uncooked food about. Butcher doesn’t call till the day after.’ (Fridges were still a rarity in Britain in the early 1960s.) To distract the children from the horror, she makes them an early supper: ‘Something for a treat – toasted cheese, eh? Something we all like?’ Little details such as the need to stock up on candles, or heating up left-overs for the children, would resonate with the magazine’s readers, perhaps prompting them to think about how well they would cope in such circumstances.

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1952 artwork by Seymour Mednick
The story was reprinted in Du Maurier’s collection, The Apple Tree: a short novel and several long stories (London: Victor Gollancz, 1952.) Editions of the anthology published after the movie were issued under the title of The Birds to capitalize on the publicity.

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Comparison of the 1952 and 1963 covers
Hitchcock – who had made film adaptations of Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and Rebecca (1940) – spotted the story and included it in his anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents: my Favorites in Suspense (New York: Random House, 1959) as well as securing the film rights. He was reminded of the story after reading newspaper reports of bird attacks in the Californian press in April 1960 and August 1961 and within a few weeks had commissioned Evan Hunter to write a screenplay – but one that retained only the title and basic concept of Du Maurier’s story.  Apart from the obvious switch from Cornwall to California, the changes are too numerous to mention; it is only really in the siege scenes in the house where Du Maurier’s story can be recognised, although here and there little echoes of phrases and events recur. Other elements – such as the attack on a woman in a telephone booth, and the intrusion of an unusual female into the relationship between the male hero and his widowed mother – can be traced back to Baker’s novel.
In 1962, when Baker heard that a film was being made of The Birds without any apparent reference to his story, he wrote to both Hitchcock and Du Maurier to protest.  The director never replied, but Du Maurier responded with great sympathy; anyone who has read her letters will be aware of the tender solicitude she often showed towards her correspondents, answering questions in detail and almost acting as an ”agony aunt’ towards many of the lonely souls who contacted her. 

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In the wake of the film, Frank Baker’s novel was reissued in 1964 as a Panther paperback

Baker heavily revised the text of his novel for the 1964 edition but only a fraction of these changes were implemented by Panther.

A new edition was published by Valancourt Press in 2013 which incorporates all of Baker’s original revisions, and comes with a nine page introduction by Ken Mogg, who runs ‘The MacGuffin’ webpage devoted to Hitchcock scholarship. Those wishing to know more about Baker’s life should read Paul Newman’s biography, The Man Who Unleashed The Birds: Frank Baker and his Circle (Abraxas Editions, 2010.)

hanging in the air

Earlier this week I stumbled across this old photograph amidst a damp-stained and dirty heap of junk at the back of a shop. Somewhat scuffed, with traces of glue on the back where it had been pasted into an album or scrapbook, it had no other identifying marks or dates. At first glance I thought the uniform looked vaguely Russian, but upon peering closer I was able to make out the letters RFC on the collar badge: Royal Flying Corps.
The RFC was the forerunner of the Royal Air Force, which dates this photograph to the period between April 1912 – when the RFC was founded – and April 1918 – when it was amalgamated with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the RAF. The absence of any ‘wings’ badge on the tunic suggests that the serviceman was not (yet) a pilot. I think the single pip on his epaulette must indicate the rank of second lieutenant, or equivalent. Perhaps the photograph was taken near the beginning of the war, as he was starting his training?
At the start of World War One the RFC’s role was chiefly that of observation and reconnaissance, including aerial photography (above), involving hot air balloons as well as aircraft. This soon extended to include dropping hand-grenades and petrol bombs on the enemy, defending British airspace against Zeppelin attacks, and aerial combat with German airplanes. The latter were far superior in technical terms, and the RFC sustained heavy losses – most notably in ‘Bloody April’ 1917 when 245 aircraft were shot down, leaving over 200 aircrew dead and over 100 prisoners-of-war. Over 9000 aircrew were killed in total during the 1914-18 conflict. As Roland Barthes wrote, ‘The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.’ [Camera Lucida 36]. This picture tells us nothing about the fate of this young man, and whether we are seeing him at the beginning or the end of his life.

Peter Sasdy at 80

 

Today is the 80th birthday of director Peter Sasdy, and I wanted to pay a little tribute to the man and his work.

Peter George Sasdy was born in Budapest on the the 27th May 1935. Although he survived the war and the devastation of Budapest, he was forced to leave Hungary after the failure of the 1956 uprising. Arriving in England, he studied drama and journalism at Bristol University before joining ATV in 1958. His first task there was directing numerous episodes of Emergency Ward 10 (1959-60.) He was promoted to director of drama at ATV, before going freelance in 1964. His work included a range of series and standalone plays, ranging from police dramas such as Ghost Squad (1963-64), Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel (1964, his first collaboration with Peter Cushing) to two Brontë adaptations, Wuthering Heights (1967) and the four-episode series The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1968-69) starring Janet Munro as Helen Graham.

He also directed no less than three productions of Sherlock Holmes, beginning with an ITV episode in 1965 that starred Peter Cushing as the detective. This was later followed by the Polish-British co-production Sherlock Holmes (1979) starring Geoffrey Whitehead, and finally Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (TV movie 1991) starring Christopher Lee.

He came to know the two great masters of British horror very well after being taken on by Hammer studios, with whom he made his feature film debut in 1969. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), was the fifth Hammer film about the Transylvanian count and the fourth to feature Christopher Lee, although Dracula himself has very little screen time. In compensation for some awful dialogue the production values are relatively high, with lavish 19th century sets, shadowy Gothic lighting and some brilliant camera work.

Sasdy followed this up with Countess Dracula (1971), starring Ingrid Pitt as bloodthirsty Hungarian aristocrat Erzsébet Bathory (1560-1614.) Unlike most other Hammer horrors there was a genuine interest in the film’s historical basis, due partly to Sasdy’s nationality being shared by the producer Alexander Paal and the leading man, actor Sandor Eles. Nonetheless, Sasdy and Paal frequently fell out on set and had blazing rows in Hungarian in front of the cast and crew. Ingrid Pitt found the tense atmosphere intolerable, so she went away and learnt a few Hungarian swear words, which she let rip the next time the two men started arguing. The film failed to realise its potential, partly because of Sasdy’s over-restrained direction.
Sasdy’s next film for Hammer was Hands of the Ripper (1971), an original take on the story of Jack the Ripper that imagines that he had a daughter who inherited his murderous traits. The traumatised young girl (Angharad Rees) is found by a psychiatrist (Eric Porter) who – naively – imagines he can help her. His motives are not entirely altruistic of course, and the nuanced performances by Porter and Rees give their relationship both depth and sympathy, despite the increasingly bloody activities of the girl. Sasdy’s direction gives the film something of a giallo feel, introducing elements of a modern ‘slasher’ film to what might otherwise have been another Hammer period piece.

The Stone Tape is probably Sasdy’s finest work and . Shown on BBC2 on Christmas Day 1972 as part of the BBC’s tradition of broadcasting ghost stories at Christmas, Nigel Kneale’s script was unusual in fusing traditional elements – a Victorian mansion haunted by ghostly screams and apparitions – with modern technology. The story focuses on a crew of electrical researchers who have moved into the old house of Taskerlands to concentrate on their new project: to devise an alternative recording medium to magnetic tape, so as to outgain their industrial rivals in Japan. Although the researchers – especially Jill (Jane Asher) – both see and hear apparitions in the house, their sophisticated equipment is unable to record any trace of these – inspiring the team leader Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) to propose a theory: that the supernatural occurrences are actually phenomena that have been recorded by the room itself, and are being replayed through the senses of those present. Does this ‘stone tape’ provide a solution to their technical quest?

The originality of these themes, and the subtle, intelligent way in which they are handled are startling, and it remains a deeply unsettling film even today despite its dated acting style (it comes across as a filmed play, complete with some overtly theatrical performances) and limited effects. The chills come from the sound design rather than the visual effects, as Brock’s team cranks up the noise in order to increase their chances of recording a response from the room’s ‘presence.’

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Ghost in the machine? When ‘The Stone Tape’ was made, computers were still an alien concept to many.

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Jane Asher as Jill Greeley in ‘The Stone Tape’ (1972)
Doomwatch (1972) was an intriguing Tigon production based on a TV series
starring Robert Powell, John Paul and Simon Oates that had been inspired by Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass. Again, it was well ahead of its time, tackling the issue of environmental pollution and government cover-ups, albeit with a creepy atmosphere and marketing campaign that would have been more appropriate for a Hammer horrors than for the actual film itself.Both Paul and Oates reprised their roles, with Powell’s place taken by Scottish actor Ian Bannen, and George Sanders playing an admiral. It was filmed in Cornwall, around the area of Polkerris and Polperro.
Nothing but the Night (1973) starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, also involved sinister occurrences on an island. Like Doomwatch, there are similarities with The Wicker Man, which had just been released. Nothing but the Night was the only film made by Lee’s production company, Charlemagne, which seems a shame given the promise shown here. Once again Sasdy demonstrated his skill at exploring psychological horror, against a background that includes a spate of bizarre murders, a remote orphanage and ritual burnings.

Some of other Sasdy’s films don’t merit much attention, however, and amongst his worst is Sharon’s Baby (1975), which aimed at replicating the success of Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) but fails. Miserably. Attempts to repackage it as I Don’t Want to Be Born, It’s Growing Inside Her and The Monster did not succeed any better. Sasdy even managed to pick up a Razzle Award for Worst Director after The Lonely Lady (1983), an adaptation of Harold Robbins’ best-selling novel that starred multiple Razzle Award winning ‘actress’ Pia Zadora. Of much greater interest was Welcome to Blood City (1977), a science-fiction film that explores the idea of virtual reality over twenty years before The Matrix.

Alongside his film output Sasdy continued doing working for television, including episodes of popular series such as The Return of the Saint (1978-79), Minder (1979) and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ (1985-87.) His association with Hammer ensured he was kept on board when the studio broke onto the small screen with The Hammer House of Horror (three episodes, 1980) and The Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (three episodes, 1984.) His last TV production was an Omnibus documentary on another Hungarian director, Alexander Korda, whom Sasdy has often cited as a major inspiration. The disproportionate contribution made by Sasdy’s countrymen to the visual arts has led some to wonder what it is about Hungary that has produced so many brilliant photographers and film directors. But as Korda himself once quipped, ‘It’s not enough to be Hungarian – you must have talent too.’