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Bookworm - Part 3 of 3

Article By: Clyde Donard
Memoir



Final part of my memoir on reading stuff.


Submitted:May 8, 2009    Reads: 101    Comments: 1    Likes: 1   


Picture books again
This time, not children's books, though. I'm going to mention four books that consist mainly of pictures of one sort or another.

The first is All in Line by Steinberg. This book was on Dad's shelves as far back as I can remember. It contains no preface or explanatory notes of any kind, so you can't tell which of the works were previously published, and where or when. A good deal of Steinberg's work, though, was published in The New Yorker. I spent plenty of time looking at these drawings as a young teen. The first half of the book has a decidedly whimsical air. There are a few of the 'paradox' type drawings - a figure drawing itself, or drawing a figure that's drawing a figure that's drawing a figure... There are cute little dogs and tiny, tiny children. Steinberg liked to exaggerate size differences.

There follow some sections on World War II, where the theme is grimmer, but still satirical, with caricatures of Hitler and a little tiny Mussolini. Finally there are sections depicting American troops in places like China and India. These pictures have more of an 'artist's notebook' feel.

A Century of Punch, edited by R.E. Williams, was published in 1956 and given to Dad by Mum at Christmas that year. It contains a selection of cartoons from the magazine Punch, published over the preceding hundred years. In the oldest examples, the drawings themselves are almost incidental. The 'caption' was penned by a writer, and was often quite long, containing several lines of dialogue. An artist would then illustrate the story. The captions of some of these old cartoons have passed into common usage, often by way of the music hall, so that many people would be unaware of their origins as Punch cartoons.
Take, for example, this old chestnut, to which the rather odd illustration adds nothing at all. It dates from 1931. Two male acquaintances meet in the street.
First man: "WHERE ARE YOU OFF TO?"
Second man: "TO THE DOCTOR'S. I DON'T LIKE THE LOOK OF MY WIFE."
First man: "I'LL COME WITH YOU. I CAN'T STAND THE SIGHT OF MINE."

Everyone knows about the curate's egg. But how many know it derives from a Punch cartoon? Again, the picture really isn't needed. It dates from 1895:

TRUE HUMILITY

Right Reverend Host: "I'M AFRAID YOU'VE GOT A BAD EGG, MR. JONES!"
The Curate: "OH NO, MY LORD, I ASSURE YOU! PARTS OF IT ARE EXCELLENT!"
Many of the topics would seem almost equally topical today.
On strikes (1889):
Mechanic: "HULLO, JEM, NOT AT WORK? WHAT'S UP?"
Collier: "OH, WE'RE OUT ON STRIKE."
Mechanic: "WHAT FOR, THEN?"
Collier: "AW DIVEN' KNAW, BUT WE'LL NOT GIVE IN TILL WE GET IT!"
On the cost of hiring skilled tradesmen (1901):
Working Man sitting on the steps of a big house in, say, Russell Square, smoking pipe. A mate passes by with plumbing tools, etc.
Man with tools: "HULLO, JIM! WOT ARE YER DOIN' 'ERE? CARETAKIN'?"
Man on steps: "NO, I'M THE HOWNER, 'ERE."
Man with tools: "'OW'S THAT?"
Man on steps: "WHY, I DID A BIT O' PLUMBING IN THE 'OUSE, AN' I TOOK THE PLACE IN PART PAYMENT FOR THE JOB!"
On rising hemlines (1925):
Kindly Old Soul: "LOST YOUR MOTHER, HAVE YOU? WHY DIDN'T YOU HANG ON TO HER SKIRTS?"
Small Boy: "I COULDN'T REACH THEM!"
In 1910, we have an anxious young man fronting up to his beloved's very formidable father:
Nervous suitor: "I - ER - WISH TO MARRY YOUR DAUGHTER, SIR!"
Parent: "WELL, MY BOY, HADN'T YOU BETTER SEE HER MOTHER FIRST?"
Nervous suitor: "I HAVE, SIR, AND - ER - ER - I STILL WISH TO MARRY YOUR DAUGHTER."
Another one that became a bit of a cliché dates from 1937. Irate stationmaster confronts porter:
"WHERE YOU BEEN?"
"'AVIN' ME 'AIR CUT."
"YOU KNOW YOU CAN'T 'AVE YER 'AIR CUT IN THE COMPANY'S TIME."
"WELL, IT GREW IN THE COMPANY'S TIME, DIDN'T IT?"
"NOT ALL OF IT."
"WELL, I AIN'T HAD IT ALL CUT OFF."
Here's a nice one from 1933:
Little daughter (thrilled by the Customs-officer's search):
"OO-O! HE'S GETTING WARM, ISN'T HE, MUMMY?"
As the years went by, artists began to produce cartoons to which they wrote their own captions. The drawings themselves became more important. One that acquired some fame shows two hippos in a pool somewhere in the wilderness. The sun blazes down and they are almost submerged. This is a place, clearly, where nothing much ever happens. Says one hippo to the other: "I keep thinking it's Tuesday."
In 1952 it would seem there was a rash of jokes about information counters in department stores. On a single page, the book reproduces three of them. The first has a woman laden with parcels going up and asking: "How shall I break all these to my husband?". In the second, two children in school uniform - a girl in pigtails and her younger brother - are bravely standing their ground as the man behind the counter, who has beetling brows and a long dark beard, glares at them and growls: "Because I dislike shaving." In the third, a customer goes up to the desk and asks: "How many more of these Information jokes are we going to see?"
Sometimes there were no captions at all. Giovanetti's strip cartoons of his little animal (hamster? guinea pig?) are enchanting, but can't be described in words.
In 1970, when I was in America, I bought The New Yorker Album of Art and Artists as a Christmas present for Dad. This is a book of cartoons that were published in The New Yorker. As you'd expect, most of them rely heavily on visual effect; there's no way I can describe those ones. But here are three examples where a description might just be possible, to give you the flavour of the thing.
· A struggling bearded artist and a female companion are sitting in a gallery in front of a portrait by a famous artist (something by Holbein, perhaps). The angry artist turns indignantly to the woman and complains: "If I'd painted that, people would say it stank."
· A second struggling artist, a sculptor, has taken a few moments off to peer into a saucepan to see what his wife's cooking for supper. The harassed young woman directs him back to the studio and commands: "Sculpt!"

· Then there's this one by R. Taylor:

"Smile."

The Graphic Work of M.C. Escher is another book I bought in America. Escher, born in 1898, was a Dutch graphic artist, most recognised for spatial illusions, impossible buildings, repeating geometric patterns (tessellations), and his incredible techniques in woodcutting and lithography. There is a lot to see in these works, and the contradictory perspectives in many of them are the sort of thing to make your head go round and round. His work is incredibly painstaking both in concept and execution. Descriptions would be woefully inadequate - you'll have to take a look for yourself if you're not familiar with his work.

Three later works
I'll close with mention of three books that I didn't encounter until after I came to Australia in 1973. They all fall, though, within the 33⅓-year ambit of these memoirs.
Dibs: In Search of Self by Virginia Axline is a slender Pelican book that I bought from the Cairnmillar Institute when I was attending a Human Relations course there (see Drama and HR). It is a beautiful, enchanting, and moving story. I read it in a single day - Sunday 10 August 1975. I started reading it on the platform at Wodonga station while waiting for the train to Melbourne at the end of my Nordic skiing course with the National Fitness Council (see Golf, Skiing, Gym). I read most of the rest of it on the train, and finished it at home that night.
It's the true story of 'Dibs', a very intelligent five to six year old boy in play therapy. At first he was so uncommunicative it was even thought he might be mentally retarded. He scarcely ever spoke to anyone, yet he had acquired a tremendous command of language simply through listening. After a number of session with 'Miss A.' he was coming out with things like:
Independence Day is the soldiers' and the sailors' day. The drums go boom, boom, boom. And the flags are out. It is a gay day. Independence Day! And they are all staggered by their joy. The soldiers are unloading freedom and unlocking all the doors!
Yet even at this stage he was still not saying a word to his parents and was acting quite stupid at school. It's very interesting to see how he progresses. He builds a model city:
...Hedges and trees. Lots of trees. All in a row down the avenue. All these trees with leaves on them. A city in the summertime. The lovely, leafy summer-time! ... And this aeroplane is flying off up in the sky. Look! Over the city, over the city it goes. The big aeroplane cutting Pepsi Cola holes in the sky so the white heaven shines through...
About half the book is Dibs verbatim, and he is very, very expressive. When they eventually measured Dibs' IQ, it was 168.
Published in 1975, Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was something of a cult book of the '70s. It's an autobiographical novel, essentially the story of the narrator's trip across America by motorcycle in the company of his son, aged twelve or thereabouts. But this journey is really a search for a previous self, whom he refers to as Phaedrus. This earlier version of himself is now dead, killed by court order, after he went mad in the search for understanding of that elusive thing we know as Quality. By 'killed' he means subjected to compulsory electric shock therapy, which totally altered his personality. Of the old Phaedrus, little remained. The book is frankly quite hard to come to grips with, for Phaedrus is elusive. The description of the motorbike journey is interrupted by a series of 'chautauquas' named after the travelling tent-shows that moved across America, mainly in the 1920s, to provide edification and entertainment to those living away from the major cities. In these chautauquas, Pirsig delves deeply into philosophical issues and seems to come very close to an understanding of exactly what Quality is, without ever quite getting there. This seems to be essentially what drove Phaedrus certifiably insane.
To understand the book fully one would need to have studied Plato and Aristotle and Socrates and Kant and Hegel and Hume, but Pirsig tells you enough about them all to let you get the gist of what he is saying. In fact the book wouldn't be a bad introduction to the study of these philosophers.
In an attempt to come to grips with it, I wrote for myself a summary of the basic themes and ideas and found that it ran to three pages. I then found that these three pages I'd written were quite incomprehensible. I found myself summarising whole chapters with phrases like:
· F.S.C. Northrop's philosophy of the undifferentiated continuum;
· In a world without Quality everything would be different except rationality;
· Quality as an event which creates subject and object;
· The most important tool in motorcycle repair is a large supply of gumption;
· How to paint a perfect painting: it's easy - just make yourself perfect and then paint naturally;
· Phaedrus becomes furious at Aristotelian dissection of rhetoric;
· Socrates using the dialectic to destroy rhetoric;
· Phaedrus goes insane - committed to asylum;
· Phaedrus destroyed by court order - annihilation ECS.
I mention the book here because to me reading it was such a tantalising experience. It was like one of those dreams where you feel you are on the verge of understanding absolutely everything; then you wake up. I felt so sure that with just a little further reading and thinking about it all, I would finally understand what Quality was, and all the other mysteries of life would fall into place. But of course I didn't, and neither did Pirsig/Phaedrus.
I mentioned we'd get back to Kurt Vonnegut again. In 1975, his book of miscellaneous writings, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons was published. I read it in the second half of 1976. The three invented words in the title all come from an earlier work of fiction by Vonnegut: Cat's Cradle. He explains in the preface:
A wampeter is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve. The Holy Grail would be a case in point. Foma are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls. An example: 'Prosperity is just around the corner'. A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings. Taken together, the words form as good an umbrella as any for this collection of some of the reviews and essays I have written, and some of the speeches I have made.
Vonnegut's writing is powerful, but do not read it if you want to be cheered up. Here's an excerpt from the book, from an address he gave to a graduating class at Bennington College in 1970:
How pessimistic am I, really? I was a teacher at the University of Iowa three years ago. I had hundreds of students. As nearly as I am able to determine, not one of my ex-students has seen fit to reproduce. The only other demonstration of such a widespread disinclination to reproduce took place in Tasmania in about 1800. Native Tasmanians gave up on babies and the love thing and all that when white colonists, who were criminals from England, hunted them for sport.
I used to be an optimist. This was during my boyhood in Indianapolis. Those of you who have seen Indianapolis will understand that it was no easy thing to be an optimist there. It was the 500-mile Speedway Race, and then 364 days of miniature golf, and then the 500-mile Speedway Race again.
My brother Bernard, who was nine years older, was on his way to becoming an important scientist. He would later discover that silver iodide particles could precipitate certain kinds of clouds as snow or rain. He made me very enthusiastic about science for a while. I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how everything worked, and then make it work better. I fully expected that by the time I was twenty-one, some scientist, maybe my brother, would have taken a color photograph of God Almighty - and sold it to Popular Mechanics magazine.
Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable.
What actually happened when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima. We killed everybody there. And I had just come home from being a prisoner of war in Dresden, which I'd seen burned to the ground. And the world was just then learning how ghastly the German extermination camps had been. So I had a heart-to-heart talk with myself.
'Hey, Corporal Vonnegut,' I said to myself, 'maybe you were wrong to be an optimist. Maybe pessimism is the thing.'
I have been a consistent pessimist ever since, with a few exceptions. In order to persuade my wife to marry me, of course, I had to promise her that the future would be heavenly. And then I had to lie about the future again every time I thought she should have a baby. And then I had to lie to her again every time she threatened to leave me because I was too pessimistic.
I saved our marriage many times by exclaiming, 'Wait! Wait! I see light at the end of the tunnel at last !' And I wish I could bring light to your tunnels today. My wife begged me to bring you light, but there is no light. Everything is going to become unimaginably worse, and never get better again. If I lied to you about that, you would sense that I'd lied to you, and that would be another cause for gloom. We have enough causes for gloom.
Not all of the essays reflect quite such a dark outlook. Many of them are simply interesting. He describes a trip on the Intracoastal Waterway of the eastern USA on a yacht belonging to the Kennedys. There are items about Hermann Hesse, the mysterious Madame Blavatsky, and going to the Moon. However, there was one essay in this book that affected me more than anything else I'd ever read as an adult. It's entitled Biafra: A People Betrayed. Perhaps it won't be long before the name Biafra no longer means anything to anyone. It was a predominantly Christian part of Nigeria, whose people were hated elsewhere in Nigeria because they were well-educated and intelligent and got all the best jobs in consequence. Biafra attempted to secede in 1967, calling itself The Republic of Biafra. It surrendered unconditionally in 1970. Vonnegut arrived there ten days before the self-declared republic collapsed. The Soviet Union and the United Kingdom provided Nigeria with arms to crush the fledgling nation, while the USA remained neutral. The hospitals were periodically attacked by Soviet MiG aircraft, but the guns and bombs seemed to play only a minor part in the downfall of Biafra. This was achieved, rather, by the British and Russians imposing a blockade which caused the people to starve to death. The resulting protein deficiency caused a disease called kwashiorkor, which affected mainly the children. Two paragraphs will suffice:
The child's hair turned red. His skin split like the skin of a ripe tomato. His rectum protruded. His arms were like lollipop sticks.
Vance and Miriam and I waded through shoals of children like those at Awa-Omama. We discovered that if we let our hands dangle down among the children, a child would grasp each finger or thumb - five children to a hand. A finger from a stranger, miraculously, would allow a child to stop crying for a while.
I cried when I read this at age 32. I cried to think that anyone could do this to children. And I cried because it was the British who did it, and I was British.
Time, I think, to read Dibs again.




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