Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Review: A Visit to The Foundling Museum

This visit to the Foundling Museum almost seems like a companion piece to my visit to the Bedlam Museum of the Mind. Both are long-running institutions that are still running, both have opened a museum/art gallery and both have been refurbished recently.

The Foundling Hospital, now the Coram Institute, was founded by Thomas Coram, a retired sea captain who was shocked by the child poverty of the city he had returned to, viewing the child poverty as both inhuman suffering and also a waste of potential human resources. 

He took twelve years petitioning and gaining influential supporters before building a large semi-rural home for unwanted girls and boys where he would train them to become maids and sailors. To keep the enterprise afloat, he would have visiting days (much like Bedlam) where the wealthy could pay to see the children.

He was also supported by artists and musicians. Hogarth painted a number if pictures for the hospital and encouraged other artists to do the same. The Foundling Hospital was at one point the closest thing London had to an art gallery. Handel also performed ‘Messiah’ in the chapel after it had flopped in the Covent Garden Theatre. The piece was a success in the chapel and the piece has become linked to the Foundling Hospital ever since.

The museum tells this story very quickly. Where the Bedlam Museum of the Mind had a through narrative that asked very interesting questions about whether mental health diagnosis and care has really evolved in time, the Foundling Museum just arranges a few objects together and plonks them there.

Some of these objects are really interesting. There was Thomas Coram’s notebook where he registered the various titled people he had asked help from, interesting to note that he targeted women. There is also the registration notes and keepsakes that came with the children. Children left at the Hospital were registered with some cloth or an object so that if the parents’ fortunes changed they could pick their child up by describing it. Very few children were ever picked up and it is very moving seeing all the odds and ends, from beer labels and gaming chips, to broaches and comfort blankets. It’s also interesting seeing these items of everyday 18th Century life. 

Children entering the Hospital had their names changed and their are many early names of children on the wall. I looked at these a long time, I wished I had written them down because they are gold. Some are named after famous people (there’s a William Hogarth) some have bits of famous names (Fredrick Wilkes) and some have names from an 18th Century novel (Nathaniel Clusterbucket). 

Then there’s a bit with some talking heads describing what it was like being a foundling in the later stages, it would appear it was full of sunshine and roses. And that’s it.. that’s the history. No interesting questions about how social services acts now compares to then, no introspection about the huge death rate of the early hospital or the abuses people made in the name of the hospital (I recommend anyone to read ‘Coram Boy’ to read about those) - that’s the history done.

All that’s left is art. My favourite was Hogarth’s ‘March to Finchley’, it’s a busy painting of soldiers going off to muster against the Jacobites in the ’45 and is full of life and detail. I was even more pleased with how the Hospital received it. Hogarth had put out a lottery to win the painting but so few people bought tickets to for it that he dumped over a hundred with the hospital so they won it.

Hogarth’s portrait of Thomas Coram was as warm and human as I had been informed, his painting of Moses was as constipated as I had expected and the other portraits were a mushy, slushy, faded Reynolds type.

The boardroom was a green, grand affair with mouldings that would not have looked out of place at Strawberry Hill, it also included paintings of other charitable London institutions, including Bedlam. I was interested to be told that the entire building had been further in the field and had been taken apart and carefully reconstructed where it now stands, that’s interesting.

The art project/exhibition that they were holding was called ‘Found’, it consisted of found art. I don’t get art very well; I like a story being told and I’m fond of impressionistic effects of air and light but some magazines Jarvis Cocker found in Romania or a stick someone used to sit paint doesn’t wake my sensibilities much. I looked at reviews, apparently it was pretty special but it takes someone of a more visual (and less verbal) bent to appreciate it.

Finally, there is the Handel room. Four comfortable chairs with speakers in it play bits of Handel on request (without a volume adjuster) and the cases have Handel’s bits and bobs, including his will and some of his book collection. If there was something I could take with me it would probably be ‘The March to Finchley’ but Handel’s books would have been a second.

I had been planning on going to the Foundling Hospital for several years but was put off by the £10 price tag. I would say that if I were to recommend an institution based museum I would definitely recommend the Bedlam Museum of the Mind over the Foundling, it was far more incisive and confrontational in the way it told its story - but the Foundling was a good afternoon nonetheless.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

List Challenge

I had great trouble sleeping one night, so I went through this blog, trawled through all the different references to different books and created one of those list challenges. 

Have a go and see how many books from this site you've read.

(Even I hadn't read all the books I mentioned.)

The Grub Street Lodger List

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Mini-Review: Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub

Swift re-read this book years later and sighed that he was ‘a genius then’. Samuel Johnson thought it so good that he didn’t believe Swift had written it - but the thing has not aged very well.

Part allegory of religion, part satire on modern forms and attitudes to writing and criticism, it delves deeply into hot topics and comic goldmines which do not run very true for me as a modern reader.

While I could enjoy Smart’s satirical writing because of it’s silliness, Fielding’s controlled use of tone, even Tom Brown’s eye for specific language and detail - there is nothing in the very dense Swiftian writing that really gave me nuggets of pleasure to pull me through.

That said, there were some brilliant ideas in it that might work well now, the essential pitch - a self satisfied modern writer laden with all the new fashionable concepts tries to sum up all of modern learning, might work very well for a book now. Maybe one laughing at all the divides and isms, that gets ludicrously tied up in post-post-post-modernism, and does it all in a baroque manner - could still pull in the punters. 

Swift puts it best, ‘If we look into primitive records we shall find that no revolutions have been so great, or so frequent, as those of human ears’. My ears, though fairly well attuned to eighteenth century registers, did not pick up the tune Swift sang.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Review: Brothers of the Quill by Norma Clarke

I’m not sure how many books I have with a cover featuring Hogarth’s ‘The Distressed Poet’ but now I have another one; ‘Brothers of the Quill’ by Norma Clarke.

It’s a book that focuses on Oliver Goldsmith but it’s not a biography exactly. Primarily, it tries to put him and his writing into a new context. Instead of seeing Goldsmith as the jester of Johnson’s court; a strange, vain little man who knows nothing but writes with a simplicity, purity and warmth of an angel - we seem him as an Irish hack writer, grubbing the same grubby trade as the rest of Grub Street.

It’s impossible to tell how close the portrait of Goldsmith is to the real man, but this is the only book about him I have ever read where he felt like one. It justifies his skills and talents, teases out the craft of his writing and the depth of his satire without going to the ludicrous lengths of ‘The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith’, where Goldsmith is described as being a genius of a softer satire. 

Instead, Goldsmith is presented as a writer, whose primary need is food and (if possible) enough gold to not look like a hack. In his works, he tries on different costumes to poke at the English in a way that satisfies their warm regard for themselves and to do it in a style that is crisp, clear and precise. 

The discussion of ‘Citizen of the World’ was an interesting one, talking about how Goldsmith transferred his lower status otherness as an Irishman into the elevated otherness of a Chinese man. The one on ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ makes brilliant points about how the novel could be read as an allegory for Irish/English relations, with the kind but gullible Primrose Family representing the Irish. The best thing about this book is that these points are not pressed too hard. Clarke doesn’t insist that they are the only interpretation of the work but that considering them brings to light new humour and new commentary that might otherwise be overlooked.

Clarke also talks about the life of other Irish writers that Goldsmith mingled with, like Samuel Derrick; breathless poet, secret porn cataloguer and the successor to the Little King of Bath, Beau Nash. We also spend time with John Pilkington, the son of the subject of previous Norma Clarke book, Laetitia Pilkington and we meet James Grainger. 

I found his the most interesting story apart from Goldsmith’s. I knew him as the author of the Sugar Cane, a West Indies Georgic that may or may not have had the immortal line, “Now, my muse, let us sing of rats’. I had assumed he was a typical plantation dilettante like Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates, an atrocious actor who managed to get on stage by brute bribing then any talent.  It turned out Grainger was, like Goldsmith, a medical man who had gone to the Indies (much as Goldsmith once planned to do) as a doctor and had married well. The discussion of the thorny issue of slavery, that Grainger was a man for liberty and was used to English colonial oppression as an Irishman, but turned an almost blind eye to slaving because it gave him a security he could never hope for without it.

There was also some measure of security given to Goldsmith by his ‘sort-of’ patron, Robert Nugent, MP for Bristol, Lord Clare of Ireland and, judging by his bastard son’s depiction of him, a hard and harsh man. There was a parallel to Grainger, with Goldsmith accepting the assistance of a man who had many facets he disliked but requiring the safety, and enjoying his company also. It was a great reminder of how life is not a straight battle between good and bad and that levels of necessity and company can bleach the darkest stains - especially for someone living a life as fragile as the writing life.

And so Goldsmith is shown, not as an idiot or a genius but a man scrabbling around as best he can in a world that regards him with very little regard.

I love a bit of Norma Clarke, I recommend her ‘Rise and Fall of the Women of Letters’ and her ‘Dr Johnson’s Women’, I’ve yet to read the Pilkington book. ‘Brothers of the Quill’, a book about Goldsmith in Grub Street, was almost calculated for my personal enjoyment.

The blurb promises that the book shall make the reader, ‘laugh and cry at the absurdities of the writing life’.I did laugh and some ‘beamy moisture’ may have wet my eyes.

 It did exactly what it set out to do.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Review: The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by Rudolf Raspe and everybody else.

The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a book with a confused provenance. It has been attributed to everyone from the German poet August Bürger; the emigre Rudolf Erich Raspe, a club of people including Raspe and Bürger, and even the titular Baron himself. There has even been debate over whether it was originally written in German or English.

As far as I can get the story straight, Raspe wrote a small book containing what are now the first six chapters of the book in German in 1781. He took as his inspiration from Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen , a popular citizen of Bodenwerder who would regale his friends with extreme, over-the-top, clearly impossible recounts of his military actions which he would deliver in a completely straight manner. He did not do this because he expected to be believed but because it amused him to tell ridiculous stories in this manner. It’s unknown how many of Munchausen’s actual tales were retold by Raspe and how many Raspe invented.

In 1786, Raspe, having been disgraced on the continent, was stuck in Britain and stuck for cash so he rewrote his version of Munchausen’s tales. Over the next three years the books were expanded by various unknown hacks and in 1792 a sequel was written, which was also included in my copy of his adventures.

The book starts with Raspe’s chapters. These are mainly sporting events - lots of killing animals, riding horses and having outrageously good hounds. In these chapters he escapes from a lion and a crocodile when the lion pounces into the crocodile’s mouth and chokes it; he punches a wolf in the mouth and turns it inside out, rides another wolf and has his fur cloak bitten by a mad-dog which then turns crazy and eats the rest of his wardrobe. 

Subsequent writers put the Baron further on the world stage - cheeky, tricksy whales; temporary enslavement by the Sultan of Turkey, trips to the moon, riding along the bottom of the sea on a seahorse (with legs), meets Vulcan and Aphrodite down a volcano and has an epic ride around the world on an eagle…and that’s the end of the first book.

I really loved this first book, the Baron is essentially a cartoon character before there were cartoons and as such, he operates completely by cartoon logic. This is Raspe’s wonderful innovation here, the Baron can do anything, achieve anything and survive anything in just the same way as Bugs Bunny - it’s no wonder one of the earliest cartoons was of Munchausen. It also explains the structure of Raspe’s and later episodes, they are all cartoon shorts; quick, visual and a lot of fun.

The next writers take this cartoon logic, have more fun with going to the moon, under the sea and around the world by a massive eagle (which nests in Deptford, who knew?) They also take the Baron and and apply him to (slightly more) real events. These next few chapters reminded me of Forrest Gump a little, the Baron makes a massive impact on history but for the sake of good form lets others have the glory.

The Baron single-handedly lifts the siege of Gibraltar, because he has a fondness for the bravery of the British. In standard history, the siege lasted for over three years and was resisted by General George Eliott, but now we know the truth.

His Polar-Bear killing skills are also the reason That Captain Phipps had to turn back from finding the fabled north-west passage because the amount of skins he carried back made the ship too low to carry on. (Incidentally, that voyage was one of the first that Midshipman Horatio Nelson went on… I was surprised a later writer didn’t go back, add him in and beef up his relationship with Munchausen).

These ‘historical’ parts work well, letting the cartoon figure of the Baron into real events. What is important here is that nothing he does changes history from it’s actual course - it just changes the reason that a historical event turned out the way it is, rather like a good historical episode of Dr Who. When we come to the sequel, the Baron causes things to happen that weren’t in history, thus ruining the fun of having him in a historical event, rather like a bad historical episode of Dr Who. (I’m looking at you, ‘The Next Doctor’, giant cyberman in London…pah!)

Then we have the sequel. The Grub Street denizen/denizens who wrote this had no idea what made Baron Munchausen work.  Instead of having a cartoon’s prerogative to laugh at everybody, it has specific satirical targets. Instead of short, crazy adventures he has one long, sustained one. Instead of going alone and occasionally meeting up with people, he has a retinue. Instead of being of no real nation (but with a soft spot for the British, like The Doctor) he takes his retinue on a mission to colonise the white people of Central Africa, and accepts being a Governor General under the King. His journey has financial backers that he has to make money for - Baron Munchausen, pleasing financiers, it’s not him!… it’s all wrong.

The worst part is when The Baron, as Governor-General of Central Africa, is unpopular with his subjects because he wants to force them to cook their meat rather then eat it raw. The people make satires against him and dejected he goes to a member of his retinue called Hillario Frosticos for advice, and receives it. The Baron does not despair, he does not ask for advice and he certainly never takes it. He should be the madman (with or without box) who does things alone.

(Incidentally, I tried to see where the name Hilario Frosticos came from - a little bit of Googling turned up the name as a villain in some 1950s pulpy sci-fi but not much else.)

Also, the sequel keeps pushing the Baron and his retinue’s mode of transport like it should be funny or entrancing or something. It consists of a sphinx, some huge bulls and giant crickets and the giants Gog and Magog (which were statues on Fleet Street) who pull a life-size, wooden replica of Westminster Hall along. Once might be somewhat amusing, but every time they go anywhere, we have to have the whole description again.

After conquering Africa, building a bridge from there to London, fighting on it with Don Quixote, having a trial to sort out the fight, chasing a bird around the world and defeating the French Revolutionary Congress, the sequel ends - thank goodness.

No prizes for guessing which parts of this book I enjoyed. Baron Munchausen is such a brilliant idea - an eighteenth century superman/popeye/bugs bunny that I am not surprised that so many films, cartoons and other books have been inspired by it. I’m tempted to create some Munchausen fanfics myself.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Video Review: Fanny Hill by the BBC

My first proper video, in which I look at how the BBC turned a daft pornographic novel into a daft middle-brow drama.

Link to my text review of the book here.