For as long as I can remember, Tom and Jerry have been a part of my life. My earliest TV memories are of waiting for it to start, even as a youngster hoping it would be an earlier one. Fred Quimby, its producer, was a legend in our house for some years. My enjoyment never ceased, and I owned videos – and now DVDs – of these perpetually-funny cartoons.
I’ve always loved the pure silliness of it: Tom’s stupidity; Jerry’s smartness; the improbable supporting characters; and especially the appearance of random objects. Were it not for Tom and Jerry, I would probably have no idea to this day what an anvil looks like.
So that was it: along with other things that made me laugh, I’d just defined my sense of humour as “silly.” It wasn’t until much later – in fact, I’m ashamed to admit it was only a couple of years ago – that the boyfriend identified that my comedic affinities leaned at a very definite angle towards slapstick. And, to prove it, he introduced me to Laurel and Hardy.
This was a revelation. The first Laurel and Hardy film I watched (A Job To Do) rendered me completely useless. I laughed until I cried, and then more until I ached. I can’t remember how many films we watched that day, but I know I wasn’t in a good physical state by the end of it; just incredibly happy.
It’s easy to pick similarities between the two pairings; and it seems obvious that the creators of Tom and Jerry had Laurel and Hardy in mind when they created the cartoons. But gosh, I’m glad they did. Aside from giving me the opportunity to really laugh when I watch them, they’ve also inspired me to play with my writing in a way that is different from my usual style. Slapstick will never work as well in writing (it relies too much on visuals for that), but I’m working on achieving some form of it on paper.
So why do we hardly ever see either on mainstream TV any longer? I believe that some of the cable channels run modern versions of Tom and Jerry, but these are unlikely to be a patch on the originals. Not because I’m some sort of nostalgic purist (although granted, I am), but because any newer version will have suffered the same “modernisation” as the Beano: where Dennis the Menace no longer has a catapult, and Walter the Softy now has a girlfriend, so Tom running into an anvil, or smacking at Jerry with something large and far too heavy, is seen as no longer culturally relevant. Or, worse, too violent.
I grew up on those old cartoons and I have never yet done anything violent with a grass rake. Likewise, the boyfriend grew up on Laurel and Hardy and has shown no signs of outrageous violence, stupidity or sexism. Given the profusion of repeats on television, it’s inconceivable that we don’t see these shows because they’re simply old. Why are we denying a new generation the joys of some seriously funny TV? Is it just because these shows are seen as too offensive/politically incorrect for our modern sensibilities? Or is our taste these days too complicated for anything as beautifully simple?
Thank goodness for DVD. Chez Smith, slapstick really does rule.
Enjoy a fab Laurel and Hardy clip below. Not much slapstick, but fab music and a great performance by the two top guys.
Much as I might not want to face it (what happened to the rest of the year?), the festive season is fast approaching. Under instruction, I’ve been making my Christmas wish list of books, an annual event which gives me much joy but inspires muted terror in my nearest and dearest.
It’s the usual mixture of fiction, Enid Blyton, random collections and social history. As I was putting together the latter, I was mentally listing my favourites, and I thought I’d share some early 20th century books here. Fiction, after all, would be a big ask, although I did kind of have a go a few months ago
. And I think we’ve already established that this period is very much my thing.
None of these are dry tomes – they’re all perfectly readable. They won’t have the heavy analysis that one might expect from more academic volumes, but that makes them no less valuable. I’ve recommended them to be enjoyed, with a little something to be learned along the way.
Will any of these end up on your own wish list?
- Max Arthur – Lost Voices of the Edwardians: 1901-1910 in Their Own Words
- Juliet Gardiner – The Thirties: An Intimate History of Britain
- Joan Mant – All Muck Now Medals: Landgirls by Landgirls
- Fiona McCarthy – Last Curtsey: The End of the English Debutante.
- Lucy Moore: Anything Goes – A Biography of the Roaring Twenties
- Jeremy Musson – Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant
- Juliet Nicolson – The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War
- Juliet Nicolson – The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911
- Virginia Nicholson – Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939
- Virginia Nicholson – Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Men After the First World War
If you’ve read any of the above, I’d love to know what you think. Similarly, if you have any suggestions for similar, please leave me a comment. I’m always on the lookout for the next good read, and the wish list hasn’t been finalised yet!
Last week, I had the privilege of seeing The Elephant Man
performed at the excellent Archway Theatre
. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was easily one of the best plays I’ve seen.
Bernard Pomerance’s play depicts the true story of Joseph Merrick (pictured) – the Elephant Man – as he is hacked around freak shows by an exploitative manager, ending up under the care of the London Hospital. I’m not going to give a whole synopsis – this can be found in detail here
– but the play warrants discussion even without a step-by-step guide.
In modern times, Merrick’s history of the workhouse, an untreated condition leading to gross deformity, and his residencies in freak shows is hard to accept. It’s difficult to imagine what would have happened to him had Dr Theves not intervened when he did.
In fact, early in the play, I found myself questioning Theves’s motivation. This, it transpires, is entirely decent, however the use of Merrick as a fundraising vessel for the hospital highlights that not everybody there has the same pure intentions. As Theves slowly socialises the unfortunate Merrick, so we see a little of the doctor’s human side coming out. Merrick himself is portrayed as warm and surprisingly funny.
I’ve no idea what these two men were like in real life, but the play draws in the audience: to both men’s worlds, to their feelings, to their very different experiences of life. As Merrick grows as a person, so Theves seems to shrink: the enormity of his task, both with Merrick and with medicine as a whole, is illustrated in a nightmare scene which is sinister and very effective.
A supporting cast provides texture and diversity, Merrick having been befriended by the rich and famous. During the Christmas gift-giving scene, the great and the good line up to offer presents – then tell the audience that they each see a little of themselves in Merrick. This desire to “own” him is little different from our propensity now to own those who are popular or famous, and his position as the toy of the famous simply renders him part of a new, more altruistic freak show.
When Merrick finally dies – from asphyxia – it unleashes a variety of emotions. That someone with such intellect and wit should be taken so early seems a great waste, yet Merrick was never going to have a completely normal life; the play touches upon his lack of a sexual relationship, for example, and his much improved life under Theves could never comprise true liberty.
This play is beautifully written, focusing on a subject which should draw empathy from anyone who sees it. The lack of prosthetics or make up to deform the actor playing Merrick is refreshing: instead this is done at the beginning by the power of suggestion. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it.
The production as put on by the Archway Theatre was admirable: strongly acted and suitably atmospheric, its standout scenes being the nightmare scene and Merrick’s death – each done with sensitivity and without sensationalism. Anyone living in or around Surrey would do well to investigate this little gem of a venue. Read a short account of Joseph Merrick’s life here.
This is the first of my Why I Love
series to focus on a radio show. Not that I originally intended it solely to involve books; it’s just the way it’s worked out until now. But as this wonderful series on Radio 2 has progressed, so I’ve become more drawn in by it.
Its premise is best described by the Sounds of the 20th Century (SOTTC) blog
: “Sounds Of The 20th Century is an audio journey through five decades of triumph, tragedy and trivia in 50 hour-long episodes. Each programme is dedicated to one year from 1951 to 2000 and features nothing that wasn’t heard, seen or read at the time. There is no presenter, no explanation, no hindsight, no ‘I-heart-the-80s’ reminiscences, just the music, the news, the radio, the TV and the movies as they were first experienced.”
Yes, the programme has its own blog. And its own Twitter account. In fact, keep an eye on #SOTTC on Twitter on a Thursday night and you’ll see that the latter is certainly effective. It speaks volumes, I think, that they’ve given this discrete show such a strong web presence. Radio 2 knew they were onto something big when they came up with this idea.
What’s so great about it? Well, in a previous blog post
I talked about how the best way to learn about history is to hear it from contemporary accounts. This is simply an extension of that thought: it’s an aural collage of hit records, archive clips, news broadcasts and vox pops from the year in question; a great overview and a good spring board for finding out more about any particular event.
Of course, it’s also a great source of ideas for writing.
I’ve made it obvious on here that my main historical interest is early 20th century, which means that anything from about 1950 to my own awareness of current affairs (let’s say somewhere in the 1990s) is a little fuzzy. This show helps fill in the gaps. We all know about the major news stories over the years, but the show’s genius lies in its identification of smaller events, or ongoing political situations about which one might be less aware. And the, “Gosh, I’ve not heard this in ages!” reaction to a particular tune is always a welcome surprise.
The upshot is that at the end of each instalment you have a feel for the year in question – which might well be very different from the previous one. It’s a great illustration of how quickly things move on; this will surely become even more apparent as changing attitudes and emerging technologies are featured in future episodes.
The series comprises 50 programmes, and I believe this week it will be halfway through. Which gives you another 25 years (well, OK, episodes) to explore, if you’ve not yet heard this fantastic show. I’d suggest you visit the SOTTC website
if I’ve in any way tempted you. SOTTC is broacast on Radio 2 on Thursdays, 2200-2300.
I’m no snob about buying goods second-hand. In fact, when it comes to books I almost prefer it. I especially appreciate older books with their thin paper, their musty smell and (if I’m lucky) their inscriptions on the inside cover.
Some years ago now, I received Patrick Balfour’s Society Racket
as a birthday present. I’d used a library copy for my previous 1920s research, but found it difficult to part with once I’d finished. The book’s been out of print for years, and I believe my copy was procured through the wonderful Abe Books
. That same birthday saw me receive (all second-hand) Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels
, the diaries of Chips Channon and Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat
They were all in such good condition, given their age, that I hesitated even to open them. This is the problem with second-hand books: you buy them because you (presumably) want to read them, but they become even more sacred than new ones.
I have a similar feeling about the goblets pictured here. I bought them this week, from a second-hand shop near where I now live. A combination of home-making and impulse drove me finally to commit, having spent the last fortnight admiring them in the window. Upon getting them home, I unwrapped and checked them (not a chip in sight) and started imagining how lovely it will be to drink red wine from them.
But a little part of me – the tiniest bit – was thinking: but what if you break one? Or more? What if you damage these perfect relics of someone else’s life?
Well, I bought them to use; not to display or to present on any of the (numerous) TV antique shows. There are eight goblets, and I live on my own, so unless I’m incredibly careless I’ll hardly find myself short any time soon.
Once I’d eventually stopped stroking my latest acquisitions, it struck me that someone else had owned them until relatively recently. And that someone had clearly looked after them – maybe they were a treasured possession, maybe they had sentimental value, or perhaps they were simply displayed and never used. Despite the fact that I will be using the goblets as they were intended, I nonetheless feel a responsibility to continue the care bestowed upon them. Likewise when I find an inscription in a second-hand book: I end up wondering why the named person got rid of it (did they not have the space? Did they pass away, even?) and vow to take the same care of it that they clearly did.
All of which illustrates why I prefer the term “pre-loved” to describe second-hand purchases. “Used” is functional, and “vintage” is trendy, yet some of the items which have passed into my ownership were certainly loved at some point in the past. It’s up to me to continue it. From “pre-loved” to “loved” – and one day, when it’s my turn to donate them somewhere, “pre-loved” again. It’s a beautiful cycle, one which keeps favoured possessions, heirlooms and antiques precious. It’s also a blessing for the creative mind – all those potential stories hidden in the inscription of a book, or a set of goblets.
So what’s your favourite second-hand purchase? And have you ever been inspired creatively by one?
Over the weekend, I was going through some of the quotes I compiled a decade ago when writing about the 1920s. They’re so entertaining that I thought I’d share a few. So, I bring you, from the gossip column of the Illustrated Sunday Herald, 23 January 1927, the following snippets on entertaining at home:
Sausages are the dance dish of the moment. Kippers and grilled
bones used to be the choice of the fashionable after midnight, but
they have palled.
Sit-down suppers are quite demodé, mainly because they mean
too much expense when hostesses give little parties two or three
times a week, as they do at present. Also, the servants object!
What we shall have after grilled sausages I don’t know.
Probably stewed eels – a delicious, if plebian, dish which
Mayfair has yet to discover.
‘Vulgar’ dance snacks now in favour are seldom served sitting
down. At one party I was at last week footmen handed them to
guests seated on the floor. A coffee stall was imported at another.
At one ‘early’ party the other day the hostess cooked eggs and
bacon for her guests in the ballroom. Two footmen stood by a
spirit stove and frying pans, while the butler hovered in the
background with the rashers and eggs.
My favourite quote, however, comes from the same column, and has always made me smile:
Afterwards several of the party amused themselves doing
gymnastic tricks – the latest ballroom game among young
people who keep themselves in trim.
As if all the dancing weren’t enough!
It’s easy to see from these where the populist idea of the Bright Young Things’ parties began to take hold. Sausages? Cooking in the ballroom? Gymnastics?? No wonder parents and Times readers began to despair of the younger generation. The truth, of course, is never quite as clear cut. I’ve used the quotes above because they’re good fun, rather than to prove a point.
I find it difficult to imagine that middle/upper class parents lowered themselves to reading gossip columns, although it may have been their only means of establishing what the young were doing. Alternately, word of mouth (and the consequent Chinese whispers) could have been responsible for the rising concern about the young’s antics.
Reverting to the present day briefly: I heard a scandalised man on the radio over the weekend say, “I’ve just found out my daughter’s on Facebook.” He was genuinely shocked that his (young) daughter had set up an account without his knowledge.
I’d already been pondering something along the lines of, can you imagine if the Bright Young Things had had access to Facebook? But then I realised that social networking, in the original sense of the term (ie, minus the internet) was exactly what they did have: those gossip columns were there for a reason, as were all manner of other society columns. I heard this man talking, and picked up an echo of the, “What is our youth up to?” that you find in the 1920s youth scene.
So, really, nothing much changes. Time passes, we become more tolerant, and fashions change; but eventually each generation finds a way to outwit its elders. Stewed eels, anyone?
When I logged into Facebook
this evening, I was presented with a link to a review of Twenties London
, by Mike Hutton.
I’ve not read the book, but the review (on the fascinating Jazz Age Club
website) tells me it is, “well written and readable … a highly entertaining collection of facts, anecdotes, gossip and stories covering a vast array of subjects that include dancing, drugs, cocktails, hotels, department stores, horse racing, night-clubs, boxing, jazz, tennis, fashion, film, stage, books, magazines, suburbia and scandal and murder.”
It is, in short, the book that I wanted to write.
So was Bright Young People
, by D J Taylor. When that was published, back in 2007, there was much snarling and gnashing of teeth chez
Smith, as I kicked myself for missing the boat. I mention in my Why I Love Vile Bodies
post that I read a lot about this subject for my degree dissertation; it was always my intention to revisit that work and make it something more substantial, taking on board the feedback I received about it. Hours of studying newspapers and other paraphernalia promised new riches. I didn’t see how I could ever bore of the subject.
I’m still intrigued by it. The biggest joy of reading other books about one’s favourite subject is the bibliographies provided: I’ve found some gems in these over the years, and have scouted second-hand book outlets to get hold of them. There’s always something new to learn.
My reaction to this book being published got me thinking. I’m sure I’ve read fiction and thought afterwards, “I wish I’d written that,” yet nothing springs immediately to mind. But other people, especially writers, must feel this on a regular basis – or at least, like me, see a new book published that they were half planning themselves.
So what book do you wish you’d written? Who beat you to your intended publication?
Let’s keep it friendly, with no sour grapes (I know I’m rueful, but at the end of the day there’s another 1920s book out there for me to read, so how bad can it be?). I’d be interested to know if others have found themselves in the same situation.
Back in 2007, I dragged the boyfriend off to the Riverside Studios
, to see a play called Forgotten Voices
. All I knew was that it was about the first world war (a particular interest of mine), featured the experiences of people who’d lived it, and starred Matthew Kelly.
Until that point, I’d not encountered Max Arthur’s Lost/Forgotten Voices
series, all featuring first-person accounts – snippets, if you will – by those who were lived through the respective era. I hadn’t realised, before going off to the Studios, that the characters in the play would quote from Forgotten Voices of the Great War
, or that the play was pulled from the accounts therein.
We enjoyed the play. I cried at the end. The boyfriend spoke to Matthew Kelly. And afterwards, in the foyer, they had this book on sale. Only later did I realise that the copy I’d bought was signed by the author. Dog-eared as it now is, it’s a treasured possession.
With accounts drawn from the Imperial War Museum
sound archives, Max Arthur has put together a book full of accounts of the Great War: from all points of view, by many different people, of the many aspects. Soldiers, airmen, housewives, munitions workers – they’re all here, and they’re not confined to just the British. The snippets are long and short, sad and funny. It’s a book you can read from cover to cover, or dip into as and when. But it’s not easy to stop, once started.
Reading it is an excellent way of learning about history – how better than from the participants themselves, in their own words? I’ve mentioned before
that I read a lot of early twentieth-century history, but nothing has brought it alive in the way that this book has. Its key omission is also its main strength: the lack of any commentary allows the voices themselves to be heard clearly with nothing getting in the way.
There are other books in the series: WW2, the Edwardians, the Battle of Britain, plus other volumes about those left behind and anniversary collections. Predictably enough, I’ve read most, if not all, of them. I’d recommend them to anyone interested in the periods stated, but especially anyone writing about them.
Most importantly: read them to enjoy them. If you like your history to come alive, these are the books for you.
Some ten or eleven years after I bought this book, I still have problems believing that a chance purchase can have had such an influence on my life.
I was still doing my degree at the time. I had never really heard of Evelyn Waugh (probably still thought he was a she, to be honest), but I bought it simply because I liked the cover. Penguin Modern Classics has since chosen a different cover image, but the one I bought can be seen here
. I still find this image compelling.
For those who’ve not read it, Vile Bodies is set around 1920s party culture with all its reputed hedonism. If there is a main story it is that of the hapless Adam Symes and his quest to earn enough money to marry fianceé Nina Blount. Both currency and Nina continue to slip away from him in the most unorthodox ways. The story is interwoven with the escapades of many other characters to the point where it’s hard to identify a definite main character at all. This is one of those great books that lurches from one episode to the next, never losing pace and capturing the mood of the period in a way that – if not necessarily accurate – certainly feeds into common conceptions of how it was.
Waugh himself was a reluctant participant in the party scene, and I find it interesting that he clearly doesn’t like most of his own characters. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that I find it fascinating how a book in which the author despises his characters can work so well. There’s one for further discussion! The commentary in my copy (by Richard Jacobs) makes reference to the fact that Waugh’s wife left him while he was writing Vile Bodies, and suggests that this underpins the somewhat dour mood of the latter half of the book. I think he’s right.
So, what grabbed me? The hedonism, certainly, and the sense of the period it covered; the humour – it is extremely funny in places. It’s well, and cleverly, written. And it made me want more. It was when I read Vile Bodies that my 1920s fixation began – to the extent that when I came to write my degree dissertation, I focused upon 1920s party culture. It was a good excuse to sit in the National Newspaper Library
and read old newspapers; in fact the research I did for that piece cemented my interest in the 1920s. By the time I submitted it, I was irreversibly hooked.
Studies completed, of course I had to read more Evelyn Waugh, working my way through most, if not all, of his novels and letters. My interest in the 1920s expanded into The Great War, and then slowly and surely into a love of anything early-twentieth century. Vile Bodies is responsible for most of my current non-fiction reading, a lot of my fiction reading, some of my favourite music and (very probably) my degree. I have a lot to thank it for. And I still get as much satisfaction out of reading it now as I did that first time.