25 May 2016

Atiq Rahimi: Syngué Sabour: Pierre de patience | The Patience Stone (2008)

The characters aren’t named in this book (trans. as The Patience Stone), and could in fact be many other people in Muslim societies such as this one, which an initial page tells us could be Afghanistan (the country from which Atiq Rahimi (born in 1962) escaped in 1984) or elsewhere.

An unnamed war is being waged, and a woman’s husband lies on a mattress in a coma after a brawl with one of his own fellow fighter who’s insulted his mother, and in which he gets shot in the neck. The shedding of blood, to men –  especially those living in a phallocratic society, whether fighting or deflowering women – is a source of pride, a badge of honour.

He’s on a drip and his wife sits by his bedside reciting from the Koran, using, hah, a peacock feather as a bookmark. Or at least that’s how it starts, but the man becomes a symbol from Persian mythology, the syngué sabour, or patience stone, of the title, to whom she can tell her secrets, reveal her confessions.

The woman has been married for ten years, although the man has been fighting for so long that she has only lived with him for three years. He wasn’t even present when she married him (only his photo and kandjar (ceremonial knife)), and she only met him three years later, although he wasn’t much of a lover, didn’t even kiss her, probably because he didn’t know how to. They have two children though, and she has grown to kind of love him.

Well, they have two children but. In a phallocratic society fertility is all-important, and if you’re infertile like the woman’s aunt (with whom she and the children stay at night) then you’re thrown aside, left for people (such as the aunt’s father-in-law) to use as a sex object. But the woman isn’t infertile: the man is. So the man’s mother takes her to a pimp, and a loveless relationship with a faceless man in the dark produces two children: see, a happy family, and no one to complain.

The man’s emasculation is complete when the woman – having avoided being raped by one of the soldiers by pretending to be a prostitute – forms a sexual relationship with a sixteen-year-old boy, only she teaches him, she takes the lead.

And taken together, all these confessions to the syngué sabour make the stone explode, lead to apocalypse.

An angry tale full of symbols, such as recurring ones concerning emasculation (yes, quails really are phallic, come to think of it), full of feminist power, eminently re-readable. A triumph which won the 2008 Prix Goncourt.

23 May 2016

Jacques Godbout: Salut Galarneau ! | Hail Galarneau! (1967)

Québecois writer Jacques Godbout's third novel is Salut Galarneau ! (1967), which anchors the writing more firmly to Québec province than his two previous ones: L'Acquarium (1962) is set in a nameless country and Le Couteau sur la table (1965) in both French- and English-speaking Canada. Salut Galarneau ! is all the more closer to home and largely set in the Montreal area. Here, the narrator François Galarneau has a mobile stall (called Au roi du hot dog) from which he sells hot dogs and chips, although much of the time he spends contemplating, in particular contemplating the book he's writing, which is really the book we're reading here, and which his brother Jacques and his girlfriend Marise have urged him to write.

The chapters are not given titles in numbers or words but capital letters, which slightly cryptically spell out François's restaurant: 'AUROIDUHOTDOGAUROIDUHOTDOGAU'. Just to give an idea of the content of the novel, the second R chapter begins, and I translate:

'There's an accident near the bridge.'
'That's three hot dogs?' [Last two words in English.]
'Yes, all dressed.' [Last two words in English.]
'There are often minor collisions on Friday evenings.'
'Do you know where I can buy a cat?'
'The island's full of them, you've just got to ask around.'
'I'd like a really nice one, a Siamese.'
'Sorry, I don't know.'
'OK, bye then.'
'Good evening.'

One obvious point to make here is that weirdness is as common in François Galarneau's world as cats are on the island, but also of course the bastard nature of the language in Québecois life. It's French language (and by extension the life of Francophone people) on an American continent, in a country which is largely English-speaking, which is under examination here. François and his fellow people from Québec are bombarded, largely from TV advertising, by products of American society: Americans have occupied the consciousness of the French speakers. And for people such as François, this is an existential problem.

It's not just because his wife (and to a certain extent her family) married him under false pretenses, not just that Marise is now transferring her favors to Jacques, that he decides to have a wall built around his home from which he doesn't want to escape: he wants to escape from physical and existential hegemony by another people.

But he's not really going mad, and there's a positive way out of this. Writing, of course, is an extremely powerful weapon, and you can dictate your own terms.

20 May 2016

Alphonse Daudet: Tartarin de Tarascon (1872)

Tartarin de Tarascon is one of Alphonse Daudet's delightful mock-heroic novels – which even delighted Flaubert – about a small, fat man with a super-large ego: he portrays himself as an adventurer, a lion-killer, a first-rate hero. Problem: he lives in the small town of Tarascon in Provence, and has never dared to even venture across the small bridge that separates Tarascon from Beaucaire (although I did so some time ago and obviously lived to tell the tale). He wears exotic clothes, has fearsome exotic weapons on his walls, cultivates exotic plants, and yet doesn't fulfil exotic expectations.

Reading, certainly, is part of the problem, and just think of the unfortunate fate of Emma Bovary. But the kind of fiction Tartarin is reading is adventure material by the likes of Fenimore Cooper and Gustave Aimard. Don Quixote (ah, windmills!) was another one whose head was skewed by books, and interestingly enough the narrator of Tartarin de Tarascon sees Tartarin in a similar light to him, but also likens him to Quixote's servant Sancho Panza. So both the would-be (but ridiculous) knight gallant Quixote and the careful (even pragmatically cowardly) Panza figures in Cervantes's novel co-exist in the same person: one pushes forward, the other pulls back.

Evidently the Panza side has triumphed up to now, but the all-important matter of what the tarasconnais think of the apparent hero is vital and Tartarin's credibility as a hero is wearing laughably thin, so he is forced into action by setting off with many weapons and much ammunition to, er, Algeria. Where he is of course taken for a number of rides.

Inevitably, Tartarin learns that Algeria is far from lion territory, and although he falls in love with, indeed gets together with Baïa, he is still risking his reputation in Tarascon, so he determines to hunt these elusive lions. Unfortunately the only one he encounters is a prized blind one, which (financially) costs him dearly, although he sends the skin back to Tarascon and returns (accompanied by a devoted camel) to great acclaim. A tall story about a short man? Yes of course, but it's irresistible.

18 May 2016

Jean-Christophe Rufin: Rouge Brésil | Brazil Red (2001)

Jean-Christophe Rufin's Rouge Brésil won the Prix Goncourt in 2001, and concerns a rather obscure time in France's history: when an attempt was made to conquer a small part of Brazil around Rio, in 1555, by forces led by Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon (1510–71).

At 600 pages, this is a long story, and a substantial part of it is taken up by events that happened before the long voyage and during it. Particularly significant here are the roles of Just and 'Colin', two people who were chosen for their youth and therefore their supposed facility with languages, indicating that they will be able to communicate with the native Indians and quickly serve as interpreters for the French. However, they turn out to be a little older than expected, and they (unknown even to themselves) are not the siblings they were initially thought to be – and (to the surprise of the crew) 'Colin' in fact being the female Colombe.

Colombe does in fact mix with the Indians very well, learning the language quickly, joining them in their nakedness, and forming friendships with them. She sees herself on equal terms with them (and certainly they don't eat French people!), unlike her arrogant European counterparts, who at first see the Indians as potential slaves, savages who should wear clothes to conform to Western standards, etc.

Indians are also useful, of course, for trading purposes. And trading is vital here. The rouge doesn't only allude to the Indians' skin and cosmetic colourings, or to the great amount of blood that will be spilled here, but also to the highly esteemed red wood from which Brazil takes its name, and a great deal of which loads the ships' cargoes for return journeys.

This is a Foulcauldian universe in which diverse powers strive for dominance, where people act as double and triple agents, the duplicity can be cut with a knife, the 'reinforcements' brought from the continent bring about even more of a war of religions, more bloodshed, more tension. Here there is traffic in convict slaves, the existing French interpreter Le Freux can sell the local Indian-made alcohol (partly made from the women chewing manioc) and the local girls to sexually service the crew, boiling the religious wrath of Villegagnon: And this is really just the start of the problems: the Portuguese haven't even come to have their say in the invaders' activities, for instance. An interesting book about interesting events, and the author's Afterword attests to his assiduous researches behind this novelization.

17 May 2016

Philip Larkin in Cottingham Cemetery

1922 – 1985

This is one I missed last time I was up there: too busy hunting toads, I suppose.

7TH MAY 1922

A little behind Larkin's grave is that of his long-time partner Monica Jones. Unfortunately, I missed the grave of Maeve Brennan.

My other Philip Larkin posts:

Larkin with Toads in Kingston upon Hull
Philip Larkin in Newland Park, Hull
Philip Larkin in Coventry, Warwickshire

16 May 2016

Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #4: Sunk Island

Sunk Island was land on the Holderness peninsula reclaimed from the sea and added to the mainland in 1826. Holy Trinity church (1877) there was designed by Ewan Christian. Winifred's Cold Island Colony in South Riding was clearly modelled on Sunk Island.

My other posts on Winifred Holtby:

Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #3:Withernsea
Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #2:Hornsea
Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #1: Rudston

Winifred Holtby in Cottingham and Hull

Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #3: Withernsea

27 Waxholme Road, at the northern end of Withernsea, and where the writer Winifred Holtby stayed from the middle of April to the end of June 1934. Here, she worked on Women and a Changing Civilisation. Withernsea was probably part of the composite of 'Kiplington' in the novel South Riding.

My other posts on Winifred Holtby:

Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #4: Sunk Island
Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #2:Hornsea
Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #1: Rudston
Winifred Holtby in Cottingham and Hull

Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #2: Hornsea

71 Cliff Road, Hornsea, East Yorkshire, where Holtby stayed between February and April 1935, and which probably contributed to the fictitious Kiplington in South Riding.

'Winifred Holtby
Novelist and
Social Reformer
1898 – 1935



Nearby Holtby Gardens in Hornsea also remembers the writer.

My other posts on Winifred Holtby:

Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #4: Sunk Island
Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #3:Withernsea
Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #1: Rudston
Winifred Holtby in Cottingham and Hull

Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #1: Rudston

Winifred Holtby was born in the East Yorkshire village of Rudston, where in the church graveyard there stands a prominent prehistoric monolith to the east of the chancel:

POSSIBLY circa. 2000 B.C.






The parish church sells the Winifred Holtby Guide, partly written by her biographer Professor Marion Shaw, and an important link to the Holtby sites in East Yorkshire. Most of my information for my future posts is culled from this leaflet.

My other posts on Winifred Holtby:

Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #4: Sunk Island
Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #3:Withernsea
Winifred Holtby in East Yorkshire #2:Hornsea
Winifred Holtby in Cottingham and Hull

10 May 2016

Patrick Chamoiseau: Solibo Magnifique (1988)

Solibo Magnifique is Patrick Chamoiseau's third novel, and was published four years before his Goncourt success Texaco (1992). I can't pretend to understand too much of this, particularly as a great deal of it concerns the relationship of French creole (both language and culture) to the dominance of the 'mother' French language and culture, and because there is so much untranslated French creole here.

Solibo Magnifique is a storyteller. He is said to have been strangled by the word, and indeed there is no evident reason for his death, so the police launch an investigation, driven by the false premise that he has been poisoned. This is a cue for the French cop Évariste Pilon and the local Bouaffesse to have the main suspect Bateau Français (also known as Congo) – a maker of manioc graters – savagely beaten up, causing him to leap out of the window to his death.

Also witnesses in the question of Solibo's death are the drummer Sucette, and Antoinette Maria-Jésus (or Sidonise) who has two children by the dead man – and is heartbroken. A number of other colourful characters appear here, including one Patrick Chamoiseau, who is listed as a storyteller too (not a writer), although (like most of the witnesses here) he is listed as having no profession.

This is carnavalesque, polyvocal stuff, and the meaning is deadly serious: what, exactly, is the nature of the death(s), which is surely more than creole itself, its of the loss of community, freedom of...what?

8 May 2016

Denis Humbert: Les Demi-frères (1999)

Denis Humbert's father worked for UNESCO and his family consequently spent many years overseas, and although the writer now lives in Martinique he spent many years in the Auvergne, and most of his novels are noted for their setting in this part of France: Les Demi-frères is one of them.

There are a several interlinked threads in the novel, all of which eventually become revealed bit by bit. The two 'half-brothers', who aren't half-brothers by blood but simply grew up together, are René and Louis. René is over sixty and called 'the old man' ('le vieux'); he has never married and spent all his life in his tumbledown house in the Auvergne, living from poaching and hunting in general, in touch with nature but more in touch with the bottle. Louis, on the other hand, is a comparative sping chicken at fifty-two, has travelled a great deal, loved a great deal, made a great deal of money, and is now in trouble over shady dealings in Africa and returns to the Auvergne to hide himself.

But Louis is more of a good guy than a shady one if compared to Paul Teilhède, who lives in Le Château, which isn't a castle at all but perfectly in keeping with Teilhède himself, who pretends to be a nice guy but is anything but. In fact René is in hospital when Louis calls, the victim of an attempted murder dressed up as an accident that Teilhède's thugs Maurice and Franck inflict on him. Why? Well, René knows a little too much, or rather a lot too much.

And then there's Susan, the English scientist researching foxes and disease, who gets invited to dinner at Teilhède's would-be castle, then invited to a hunt the next day, almost gets raped by Maurice, escapes and falls into the arms of the older Louis, who's of course done it all before but when she falls for him he blows cold so there you are. Maybe.

You see, Susan has also pulled in a visit to the nearby grave of the man her mother wishes she'd married, which of course would have meant Susan would never have been born, but anyway... Brian Allister was a young guy in the RAF during the war, but died in this area of the Auvergne when the plane had to force land. Coincidentally, wouldn't you know, René happened to see this landing, happened to note that Brian had recovered, and led French collaborators (led by Teilhède) back to Brian because if not they might have killed René, an eighteen-year-old Resistance sympathiser. And René has to live for decades with the guilt of shopping Brian and watching Teilhède kill him in cold blood.

But it's many years until Franck, who had little to do with the aggression on René, gets to kill Maurice, gets to kill Teilhède, who used to mock him because he was surely far better off as a hired thug than plucking chickens or breeding maggots?

In the end Louis gets off quite lightly, gets to live in the castle which isn't a castle, and is picking Susan up from Clermont-Ferrand as she's coming to see him for a two weeks, and who knows what will or won't happen? Fortunately, not a sewn-up happy ending, especially as René has died, leaving Louis heartbroken.

6 May 2016

Albert Cohen: Mangeclous | Naileater (1938)

Charles Dickens on acid, with strong hints of Rabelais. That's my impression of the huge (only 421 pages, but it seems much bigger) novel Mangeclous (1938), which itself is only the second episode of a tetralogy by Albert Cohen (1895–1981), the other novels being Solal (1930), Belle du Seigneur (1968) and Les Valeureux (1969). The only other book of Cohen's I'd read before this is the autobiographical Le Livre de ma mere (1954), which made me cry; this, however, made me laugh: it's a riotous, digressive, insane, hyperbolic, wholly unbelievable novel full of much-larger-than-life characters who don't seem to belong anywhere outside of a comic book, and yet make it their business to appear to belong everywhere. Albert Cohen has performed a tour de force.

This is the story, for want of a better word, of five Jews in Cephalonia (Cohen was in fact born in Corfu) who are French-speaking, or at least speak a kind of French, although they look and behave like no other known group of people.

Mangeclous is the main character, and the English translation of this book has a literal title translation: Naileater. Mangeclous is only his nickname, and his real name is Pinhas Solal, although no one calls him that: as a child, he was once so hungry that he swallowed a dozen screws, so the (surely slightly – and intentionally – incorrect?) name has stuck to him forever after. On leaving the womb he was hungry, but on receiving nothing went back inside for the lovely milk, but was pulled back by forceps and in the process developed a gulley in his skull in which he now keeps cigarettes and pencils, etc.

Mangeclous is many things, but perhaps a liar in particular, as he sees lying as a great asset. He calls himself a lawyer, although he doesn't quite have the training. And he delights in otherwise embroidering on reality: you might say he has the gift of the gob. He virtually never bathes, usually goes about barefoot, and has green fungal growths between his toes and has been known to put his feet on the table, play with the moss and roll it into balls.

He's married to a huge woman who sits on a chamberpot and is obsessed with pharmaceuticals, and has three young children who talk like characters from centuries old books and whom he doesn't feed much, until he reads the occasional article about rickets and then force-feeds them. He's an atheist Jew when it suits him to be so, and comes up with the paradoxical sentence 'Je ne Lui pardonnerai jamais de ne pas exister' (I'll never forgive Him for not existing.') (This reminded me of the earlier Dipychus of Arthur Hugh Clough, tolling the glory of a non-existent God: 'Ting, ting, There is no God; ting, ting', and also the later Endgame of Samuel Beckett: 'The bastard! He doesn't exist!')

The other main characters in the Solal family (the 'Valeureux') are the very small and shy dry-swimming Salomon; the one-armed Mattathias, who is avaricious, has developed a squint from looking sideways into dark alleys to make sure no one has dropped anything there and who walks around with a magnet to attract metal objects people may have dropped; the quiet and courageous Michaël; and the older Saltiel, who receives the letter that will lead the five (with hope) on a journey to fortune in Geneva via Marseilles.

And this also leads to many other digressions, on the boat going, then to Scipion (a compulsive teller of tales about the women who can't resist him) following the group to Switzerland and him bumping into Jérémie and the pair posing as ambassadors from Argentina, and Solal finally meeting up with the motley band, who go camping and...well, that's the kind of book it is. It loses itself, its readers lose it, but then surely that's the idea.

3 May 2016

Marie-France Pisier: Le Bal du gouverneur (1984)

Marie-France Pisier (1944–2011) was born in Đà Lạt, Vietnam (then called Indochina), before the Dien-Bien-Phu regime and where she spent her first six years. Her second six years were spent in New Caledonia, where Le Bal du gouverneur is set. Pisier is best known as an actor, particularly in François Truffaut's 'Antoine Doinel' films, although she also co-wrote the screenplays of Jacques Rivette's Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) and Truffaut's L'Amour en fuite (1979). She directed and wrote the screenplay of the cinematic versions of her novels Le Bal du gouverneur (1990) and Comme un avion (2002). Her death in her swimming pool at St-Cyr-sur-mer is something of a mystery and was probably due to a heart attack or something similar, but suicide seems extremely unlikely.

Le Bal du gouverneur is Pisier's first novel, and is set in New Caledonia amid conflicts at the turn of the French colony into French overseas territory. Théa Forestier is the protagonist, the fourteen-to fifteen-year-old daughter of the general secretary of New Caledonia. Isabelle Demur is her best friend, and the novel depicts the two girls' sexual and psychological development against a backdrop of industrial discontent in this, an important nickel-producing country.

Françoise Xenakis: Regarde, nos chemins se sont fermés (2002)

Françoise Xenakis's Regarde, nos chemins se sont fermés (2002) ends the series of books that she has written about her composer husband Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001), or Ianis as she calls him in her dedication here to her dead husband. The other books are Aux lèvres pour que j'aie moins soif (1970), Le Temps usé (1992), Moi, j'aime pas la mer (1994), and Elle lui dirait dans l'île (1997).
This short book (187 large-print pages) is punctuated by pages in italics from her previous books, and she excuses herself for repetition and not writing in chronological order by explaining that it speaks of an illness made up of repetitions, made in a disorderly fashion.

Iannis Xenakis suffered from a form of Alzheimer's disease and diabetes. The book is also punctuated by a series of section headings in which the words are reconstructions of Françoise calling the 'pompiers' to have her husband readmitted to hospital.

It is painful reading of a mind disintegrating, but this account is obviously very honest.

2 May 2016

Thomas Thomas at the White Hart, by Robert Hughes


Thomas Thomas was the innkeeper of the White Hart Inn, Lower Maudlin Street, Bristol. He could also have been my great-great-great-great-grandfather.

In a city where there were not only many Thomas Thomases, but where at least two who were publicans, it is difficult to identify one individual and attribute a life story to him. Here we do at least make the attempt, but we have to start below: this is an engraving of the British Needle Mills, said to have been the biggest needle factory in the world.

Samuel Thomas was my great-great-great-grandfather, and much has been said about him on this blog. The eccentric writer Lionel Britton, author of Hunger and Love, is among his many descendants.

Although Samuel Thomas (1807-1878) built this mighty factory complex while still in his twenties or very early thirties, there is as yet no record of how he obtained the money to do it. Supposing he had a big fortune behind him in the first place, there would be nothing remarkable as to how he afforded his endeavour, although it was an outstanding enterprise by any standard.

However, Samuel was thought to have started life a ‘simple workman’. Consider this press cutting below, concerning his will after he died.

The contest over Samuel’s will is a whole different story, but what concerns us here is the narrative about his career. Was he really the ‘self-made man’ of this account? (He died 6th Sept, not 4th, and he was 71 not 72. Just to get that straight.)

On the face of it, this is the kind of story which inspired Victorian England. Even if he did not literally start life as a simple workman, his achievement was immense. Lionel Britton was not a great fan of ‘Trade’, and the British Needle Mills were nothing less than ‘Trade’. We have been able to conclude that Hunger and Love is a long (and yes it is long!) primal scream against his own background.

Samuel Thomas may not have been the easiest of men to love, and in other articles we can see he quite openly had a mistress set up in a separate establishment over more than a decade, giving rise to the notorious Redditch Horsewhipping case of 1865. On the other hand, there are articles in the press archives which describe him giving out coal to the poor, receiving an award for generosity to his workpeople, and being ready to lend a hand when it was needed.

So he was an eminent man in his town, and yet did anyone have a clue where he had come from or how he financed the British Needle Mills? It certainly looks as though Samuel felt free to manufacture his own myths alongside his world-renowned needles.

Lionel Britton said that his great-grandfather ‘came from Wales with sixpence to his name’. This was quite likely to have been the prevalent myth within the family, and yet it is nonsense.

Samuel was born in Bitton, Gloucestershire. Three censuses attest to that, including the astonishing record of 1861 where he is at the home of his mistress in Spring St, Edgbaston. On the same day he is recorded in Redditch, where whoever filled in the form put NK as his place of birth. Nowhere else in my researches have I found another individual recorded in two places at once on any of the censuses!

Bitton was a large straggly parish between Bath and Bristol. Somewhere in the village is a stone proclaiming Bath is 6 miles and Bristol is 6 miles.

At the western end of the parish was the chapelry-of-ease at Hanham, where it was convenient for the locals to have their children baptised. Interestingly, we have an example of where a child seems to have had a baptism ceremony in Hanham and also in the parish church of Bitton: Ann Thomas was baptised 29 Jul 1805 at Hanham, and then 25 Aug 1805 at Bitton. The parents were James Thomas and Jane. We can return to this in a subsequent article, as another child of this couple later turns up in Redditch.

Samuel Thomas was baptised 9 Feb 1807 at Hanham. From his tombstone in Redditch, photographed by my cousin David Guillaume before everything was torn up to make whatever Redditch is supposed to be now, he was born 16 Jan 1807. The likely baptism record gives us Samuel Stephens Thomas, and his parents were Thomas Thomas and Jane.

Samuel Thomas of Redditch who built the British Needle Mills was not known to use any middle initial, except that there is one intriguing record. His much-loved daughter Maria died in Paris in 1860, and this clip from the Worcestershire Chronicle quotes that middle initial:

So who were Thomas Thomas and Jane? The only marriage in the Bristol Diocese which would fit was one between Thomas Thomas and Jane Pennington, 13 Apr 1801.

Does this make them the the parents of Samuel Thomas? An argument in favour would be that although Sam is the only child recorded in Bitton rather than in St James, he receives a middle name, like three of the other children of this couple but unlike around 90% of the rest of the population.

An argument against would be that Samuel had 11 children and never called any of them either Thomas or Jane. In the old days, it was something of a norm that names of parents were passed on to children. The only way we can reconcile this with the idea of Sam’s parents being Thomas and Jane is if we postulate that he was a bit of a radical, and wanted to branch out…perhaps even that he had had a breach with them and decided consciously to avoid any name that would honour them. That circumstance would be very sad indeed, but the evidence that those were indeed his parents’ names is rather strong.

He could have been the child of another and unknown Thomas and Jane, who were just passing by in Bitton (or the chapelry of Hanham). Persuading us against that however is that there is a tribe of Thomases in Hanham, and indeed James Thomas (born in Bitton) turns up as a needlemaker in Redditch in several censuses, and raises a big family.

Thomas Thomas and Jane Pennington seem to have had four children besides Samuel Stephens Thomas if he is indeed one of theirs. There is a Jane Thomas baptised in the parish of St James, Bristol 5 Sep 1802, then much later, also in St James, on 24 Mar 1816 three children are baptised at once. In the order in which they appear on the record:

Mary Anne Thomas

Thomas Pennington Thomas

John Pennington Thomas.

No place or abode is mentioned, but the father’s profession is “Brewer”.

The Bristol trade directories for 1819 and 1822 list a Thomas Thomas at the White Hart, Lower Maudlin St.

This website contains the following: The inn was offered for sale by auction in 1824, described it as old-established and well accustomed with brewhouse and good cellarage attached, for many years in the occupation of Thomas Thomas, tenant at will. It was 'situated ajacent to the steps leading to the church yard of the parish church of St James', link here.

A Thomas Thomas of Maudlin Lane was buried 19 Mar 1829. Maudlin Lane is now known as Lower Maudlin St, and it could be that at the time both descriptions were used interchangeably.

By the time of the 1841 census, we have Jane Thomas in a household in a neighbouring street (Great James St) with her son John. She is ‘ind’ which signifies independent means. In 1851, she is back in Lower Maudlin St at No 1, again with her son John who is described rather insensitively as an ‘idiot’ living on Parish Relief. Jane is an ‘annuitant’ which is the same in effect as ‘ind’. This record includes the very important information that she was born in the parish of St George’s, Pill, but she spoils it a little by saying this is ‘Glos’ when in fact Pill is in the parish of Easton in Gordano, Somerset. Jane was probably never going to have been a significant intellectual: note that she signs with a cross on her marriage certificate.

She died just a couple of weeks after the 1851 census, so we are lucky to have that.

John was with his brother Thomas in 1861, but his eventual fate is not yet clear. Given that in 1861 he was a labourer, and a probable record of 1871 gives him as ‘epileptic’, he was unlikely to have been an idiot and could have been simply…epileptic!

Thomas Pennington Thomas is easier to trace thanks to the happy fact that his middle name was included in his death record. He died 19 Nov 1874, said to be aged 62, and was a shoemaker or shoemaker clicker on every census except 1861 when he was a labourer. Possibly he had fallen on hard times in that year, or he chose not to elevate his station above that of his brother.

He married Ann Collings at Bedminster, then Somerset, on 27 Apr 1832. They had three known children:

Clara Ann Thomas, born 18 Apr 1844.

Angelina Pennington Thomas born 25 Jan 1849.

Thomas Alfred Thomas born 29 Mar 1851. These records are from GRO certificates in my possession. Clara Ann Thomas is in this Public Member Tree on Ancestry.co.uk.

Assuming the hypothesis is correct and Samuel Thomas was the child of Thomas Thomas and Jane Pennington, then I have identifiable fifth cousins with whom to make a DNA comparison which would prove it beyond all reasonable doubt.

The ‘Bristol’s lost pubs’ website gives us this image from the 1950s, which is out of copyright and can be freely used. The information includes the fact that Thomas Thomas was the landlord from 1816-1823. This is rather interesting as you will see the church of St James behind the pub and it is tempting to construct a narrative that whatever he had been doing before, he was now settling into running a pub that literally abutted the churchyard of St James, and that he then thought it was high time to have his hitherto unbaptised children christened in the church. This would put him right with the locals.

An item of family legend talks of an itinerant trader, (scrawled family tree by Charles Frederick Guillaume). Thomas may have been exactly that, and made enough to install himself in the White Hart and to increase his fortune by brewing as well as retailing beer.

Neither Thomas Thomas nor his widow Jane made a will unless an exhaustive search of the records has missed something, so is it not possible that Samuel Stephens Thomas, as the eldest son at the death of his father in 1829 acquired a decent pot of cash which he used to expand his needle business?

This is all in the realm of speculation at the moment. We would like to see some confirmation and will welcome any contributions from readers of this blog!

A final note: Ida Thomas (1902-2004) wrote a number of letters to my cousin David Guillaume who was trying to piece together the family tree. The following extract from one dated 30 Jan 2008, when she was already 95 years old, relates that “Original Samuel and a brother came together from Wales S. brother went to Leeds in the shoe manufacturing line…”

Could this be a bit of family legend which contained at least a nugget of truth? Allowing for a mix-up between Leeds and Bristol (large cities NOT London or Birmingham!) and for the fact that we know Samuel himself did not come from Wales, this could be a description of Samuel Stephens Thomas and Thomas Pennington Thomas. One founded the British Needle Mills in Redditch, the other became a shoemaker.

25 April 2016

Marcus O'Dair: Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt (2014)

It's only relatively recently that I bought The Soft Machine Volumes One and Two (1968 and 1969), although the first album of Robert Wyatt's that I bought was a number of years before: Old Rottenhat (1985), which is in essence political, and of course firmly left wing. The song 'Alliance' (concerning the formation of the Social Democratic Party by three right-wing members of the Labour Party whose names I couldn't be bothered to key in) contains two wonderful lines that should be a rule to live by: 'I think that what you're frightened of more than anything | Is knowing you need workers more than they need you.' And, typical of Wyatt, he extends the politics to global proportions: 'The United States of Amnesia' refers to what was essentially the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans, and 'East Timor' is about the occupation of East Timor by Indonesia.

Some years after I bought Old Rottenhat I happened to be looking at a few places featured on the Heritage Open Days programme around 2000, and decided to make the Humberston Fitties in Lincolnshire one of the places to visit. This was an area of salt marshes now occupied by holiday chalets – mobile homes, cabins and the like – and although I'd previously noted that Robert Wyatt had a home there part of the year (he lives half an hour away in Louth the rest of the time) I certainly didn't have him in mind as my partner Penny and I walked round this fascinating place.

Until, that is, a beaming, bearded, avuncular figure in a wheelchair outside his home greeted us and ushered us inside. There, it seemed like a whole different world. He introduced us to his wife Alfie (the artist and creator of almost all of the art on his albums, including Schleep (1997), a poster of which was stuck to the kitchen wall), whose full name is Alfreda Benga, who was born of a Polish mother and Austrian father. I didn't let on that I knew who he was (although in 1990 he claimed that he used to be Robert Wyatt to Morning Star journalist David Granville).

I collected a little
of the above information from Marcus O'Dair's biography, a book of which I wouldn't have been aware if I hadn't been browsing the website of the Morning Star, which sells the book: unlike many people as they age, Robert Wyatt has fortunately never rejected his left-wing roots and become a boring right-wing old fart: in fact he's anything but an old fart.

With the generous lists in the Discography, Notes and Sources and Index, this book weighs in at 460 pages: this is an extremely well-researched, well-presented and well-written book to treasure. 'Authorised' can of course mean 'censored', and although unauthorised biographies can have the benefit of being more honest than the others, they don't have the supreme power that interviews from the subject himself/herself can endow: and make no mistake about it, this is as 'warts-and-everything' a biography as you're likely to find. Not only does Wyatt's first wife Pam declare that Wyatt (during The Soft Machine's grueling tour of the States) 'shagged his way across America' and Wyatt himself admits that he got in a 'tangle' in LA, causing him to spend a few more months there after the other Softs had left, preventing himself from seeing his wife and child back in England. And towards the end of the book Alfie (far from being anti-drink herself) sees the booze as becoming too much of a problem for Robert, hence the ultimatum: stop drinking or leave. That was in 2007, and apart from a few initial hiccups he's now teetotal, although maybe he needed the drink for his creativity as he's not produced a solo album since. I could mention Wyatt's pulling the plug on Matching Mole as a little extreme, but this paragraph is already overweighted.

The half-title Different Every Time comes from the first line of Robert Wyatt's 'Sea Song' on his Rock Bottom album, as well as the double album of the same name (on which, surely oddly, 'Sea Song' doesn't appear). And while we're on the subject of individual songs, I may as well mention the only thing I don't like about the book, an ever-so-tiny niggle: all the song titles are italicized, along with the album titles, which I don't just find unconventional but plain confusing. (Yes I know, it's pathetic of me, isn't it?)

But I could go on and on about the joys of this book, the songs it's introduced me to, the knowledge it's given me of one of rock's finest musicians, from the unrecorded The Wilde Flowers; through (The) Soft Machine (a band which dropped the definite article to, I imagine, fall in line with, er, the fashion of the day); through Matching Mole (a pun on the French for 'soft machine': 'machine molle'; to final solo singer.

I haven't even said anything about the almost fatal accident, his suicide attempts, the Softs snubbing him out of his own band, the jazz, avant-garde and pop influences, or all the associated outsider performers (Ivor Cutler, Gilad Atzmon, Slapp Happy (and Dagmar Kreuse in particular), Green Gartside, etc, etc). Or the literary influences, such as the name The Soft Machine coming from William Burroughs's novel title. Or even family friend Robert Graves and Deià in Mallorca. Oddly, there's even a mention of the very weird Edward Gorey (see my blog post of his Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts home) here. But I found even weirder (although perfectly understandable in so many respects) the influence on Robert Wyatt of the 'Pataphysics of Alfred Jarry (see my blog post on him and his grave here). It appears that Wyatt never took LSD (he was never into illegal drugs), but then if you have Jarry in you so much who needs it? A very English musician? Well, in a few ways, but then in others not.

This is a truly wondrous book about two amazing people. And friends.

ADDENDUM: and here is Robert Wyatt, with his inimitable voice which he has described as 'Jimmy Somerville on Valium', singing perhaps his most famous song (written by Elvis Costello (lyric) and Clive Langer (music)): Shipbuilding.

22 April 2016

Scholastique Mukasonga: Cœur tambour (2016)

Plunged in Rwandan myth and legend, Scholastique Mukasonga's Cœur tambour (literally 'Drum Heart') is in three parts: 'Kitami', 'Nyabingui', and the very brief 'Ruguina'.  The events in 'Kitami' take place before 'Nyabingui', and 'Ruguina' is a question mark about how the fateful event in the first section took place.

Kitami is a singer with a band of three rasta drummers, one from Guadeloupe, one from Jamaica, and one from the African continent. She is possessed by the spirit of Nyabinghi (or Nyabinghi), queen of the kingdom of women struggling against colonialism and masculine authority. One of the drums, Ruguina, is sacred and has been saved from destruction-by-museum by Kitami herself. Her voice is enchanting, usually inhabited by the spirit of  Nyabinghi. Kitami's unexpected death is mysterious.

The second section involves Prisca and her development in Rwanda. From a gifted student she becomes a manifestation of the spirit of Nyabinghi, meets the three musicians in the above paragraph, and 'inherits' the sacred drum.

How Katami dies is an open question, although perhaps she sacrificed herself under the magic drum.

René Frégni: Tu tomberas avec la nuit (2008)

Tu tomberas avec la nuit is written with a great deal of anger because it's a true story. René Frégni is a writer from Provence who makes his living as a writer and as a teacher of writing in local prisons and to a lesser extent in lycées. He is well known locally and well respected both as a teacher and a writer. Divorced, he enjoys having his loving daughter Marilou with him weekdays while his working ex-wife takes her at weekends. The trouble starts when Karine, a young woman whose male friend is in one of the prisons he teaches at, decides (without any formalities or offers to share petrol expenses) to join René on his weekly visit to that prison.

As Karine only sees her friend for twenty minutes and René is tied up teaching for three hours, Karine just sits in the car and waits for René to finish. Or rather, she doesn't, and René discovers that she's been taking his car for jaunts while he's teaching, even though she doesn't even have a licence. That's the end of her sponging off René, or so he thinks: Karine belongs to a family of violent thugs, and they won't allow René to reject Karine without making his life a misery.

Which is exactly what they do, and along with the insults that he receives from members of her family, they also start bullying Marilou at school, which the family rules with a powerful grip. René retaliates by using violence, although violence of course breeds violence, so both father and daughter are in a very stressful situation. Time to call Max.

Max is an ex-con René has taught. A very big and powerful man who is known by many people in the area, and who is forever grateful to René for teaching him the joys of reading, the power of language. You don't mess with Max, and a few very calmly voiced threats on his part to the family from hell soon eases the situation considerably, and René and Marilou can go about their lives in peace.

It's when René joins Max in a restaurant project in Manosque that the real problems start, and we shift from the hell that one family creates to the hell that one man – an obviously psychotic judge – can cause. And this is a Kafkaesque situation in which a totally innocent person is consistently held to be guilty.

René is arrested for three days because of his association with a criminal, held in a room without toilet facilities, and where he learns to identify the unbearable smell of fear. The judge, who doesn't even look at him, declares that he can no longer use the restaurant and no longer travel beyond the boundary of the département, meaning in effect that he is out of work. His car has also been confiscated and he must report to the local police station every Friday.

It becomes obvious, through such extreme measures as the judge ordering (slightly reluctant) policemen to again search his home, and ordering him to be psychiatrically examined (twice), that the judge has personal problems which have nothing to do with the reality of René's predicament. But although murdering the judge may be a perfectly understandable reaction, the author/narrator evidently opts for the saner choice of destroying the man through the written word. Riveting reading.

21 April 2016

Daniel Pennac: La petite marchande de prose | Write to Kill (1989)

This, the third part of the Saga Malaussène, felt a little like coming back to a well-loved family: Benjamin Malaussène the expert scapegoat himself, his younger sister Clara and the older star-gazing sister Thérèse, the publisher Queen Zabo, not forgetting Julius the smelly epileptic dog, etc.

Wikipédia calls this a 'roman policier', or 'detective novel', which in a way it is, only it's comedy at the same time, but 'comic detective story' doesn't hit the right button either, as this is literary fiction at the same time: I can't imagine there's an equivalent of Daniel Pennac in the Anglophone universe.

Clara, still in her teens, is marrying Clarence, who's three times older than her and the director of a model prison based on enlightened influences of such teachers as A. S. Neill and Anton Malarenko. Benjamin is very unhappy with the forthcoming marriage and in his distraction decides to part company with Queen Zabo (who is of course based on Françoise Verny, but that's a different story). And then Clarence gets savagely murdered, and all the convicts mourn his passing.

Queen Zabo's prize author is the hugely successful J. L. B(abel), an ex-minister and writer of trashy literature he labels as a new genre – littérature libéral – and who has preferred to keep his anonymity, although Queen Zabo desperately wants Benjamin to pose as the author, an offer which Benjamin takes up under certain conditions. Until, that is, he is shot through the head at a 'coming out' (as J. L. B.) speech, whereupon he falls into a coma. More killings ensue .

Benjamin's partner, the intrepid journalist Julie, tries to track down the killer, who is none other than the real J. L. B., a convict who is killed towards the end and whose organs are used in a miraculous 'kidneys-pancreas-heart-lungs' transplant, which allows Benjamin to be reborn, and of course to continue the saga. Totally unbelievable? Of course, but the 403-page trip is certainly worth it. And this volume is, like its two predecessors, translated into English by the Oulipo member Ian Monk.

My other posts on Daniel Pennac:

Daniel Pennac: Journal d'un corps
Daniel Pennac: Au bonheur des ogres | The Scapegoat
Daniel Pennac: La Fée carabine | The Fairy Gunmother

Agota Kristof: C'est égal: nouvelles (2005)

This is a collection of twenty-five forgotten short stories written over some years following Agota Kristof's exile from Hungary to Switzerland in 1956, and there are a few hints here of her most well-known work, La Trilogie des jumeaux, or The Twins Trilogy.

This is no comfortable read. The atmosphere a number of the stories is often of strangeness,  surrealism, anguish, unfulfilled hopes, anxiety, the futility of life, and (desire for) murder, madness, although not suicide. There is paradox, and irony. And there is also an odd anonymity: virtually none of the characters has a name.

The back cover of this edition cites 'Mon père' as 'certainly the most autobiographical' of the collection, although there are beyond any doubt more 'hidden' autobiographical factors at work here: Kristof, for instance, didn't like marriage, and there are three marriages in three stories in particular which stand out outright failures.

Right from the beginning, 'La Hache' plunges us into a murder, in which a woman has summoned a doctor, telling him her husband has fallen on an axe at the side of the bed in his sleep, although the doctor's first thought is to send for an ambulance for the woman herself, who has obviously used the weapon on her husband. In 'L'Invitation' it's the wife's birthday and the husband says that although she'll have to wait until the end of the month to receive a present he can afford, he'll just invite some of his friends round for a meal and drinks, and he'll do all the work for a change. The wife says she'd rather he take her to a restaurant than he bring his friends round, but this is not to be: the wife does all the cooking, in fact everything while her husband and friends have a great time feasting and drinking. At three in the morning the party is over, and as the narrator ironically says, 'The chums have left, the husband snores on the lounge sofa, exhausted, poor thing.' Time for the wife to clear everything away, but before she does the washing up she takes a long look at herself in the mirror.

This is disturbing stuff.

My other posts on Agota Kristof:

Agota Kristof: La Preuve | The Proof
Agota Kristof: Le Grand cahier | The Big Notebook
Agota Kristof: Le Troisième mensonge |The Third Lie

18 April 2016

Tom Baker in Lincoln

Elm House, Upper Long Leys Road, Lincoln.

TOM BAKER (1911–1998)

George Boole in Lincoln

3 Pottergate, Lincoln.
LL.D., D.C.L., F.R.S.
1815 – 1864

William Logsdail in Lincoln

19 Minster Yard, Lincoln.

ON THE 25 MAY 1859.
(1827–1905) HEAD VERGER
1858 – 1902'
William Logsdail spent many years in Venice the last decades of the 19th century, and at the beginning of the 20th century spent two years in Sicily before returning to the United Kingdom. One of his most famous paintings is Saint Martin-in-the-Fields (1888):
 William Logsdail - St Martin-in-the-Fields - Google Art Project.jpg

T. E. Lawrence in Lincoln

33 Steep Hill, Lincoln, with plaque to the viewer's right of the bay window.

1888 – 1935

My other posts on T. E. Lawrence:

T. E. Lawrence in Moreton, Dorset
T. E. Lawrence at Clouds Hill, Dorset