30 May 2016

Marcel Pagnol: Le Château de ma mère | My Mother's Castle (1958)

This novel, translated as My Mother's castle, is a continuation of Pagnol's autobiographical work, being the second volume of the Souvenirs d'enfance cycle. Essentially, it traces Marcel's successful progress through school, although he prefers to play with his male friend Lili, prefers the natural world which he unsuccessfully attempts to escape into away from the continuation of his schooling.

Much is made of his holiday periods to La Bastide Neuve, near the village of La Treille now in the 11th arrondissement of Marseille. There's not as much hunting as in La Gloire to mon père, although the descriptions of the journeys on foot to their holiday home get a little repetitious. A perfectly readable novel which accelerates rapidly in time at the end, but nothing to shout about.

My Marcel Pagnol posts:
Marcel Pagnol's Birthplace, Aubagne
Le Petit Monde de Marcel Pagnol, Aubagne
Claude Berri's Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources
Marcel Pagnol: La Gloire de mon père | My Father's Glory
Marcel Pagnol: Le Château de ma mère | My Mother's Castle
Marcel Pagnol: Marius
Marcel Pagnol in La Treille, Marseille
Marcel Pagnol: Le Schpountz

29 May 2016

Matt Woodhead and Richard Norton-Taylor (ed. and compiled): Chilcot

In a deeply unpopular decision on 20 March 2003, Tony Blair declared that Great Britain was at war with Iraq. The majority of the public of Great Britain was against it, realising that this was a decision that Blair had made with George Bush long before, realising that it was a disastrous move, and realising that Tony Blair was a hypocrite, a serial liar, and a stupid clown. How could so many politicians have been hoodwinked into voting to destroy a country, to kill countless innocent people there, and to create Daesh, making the world a much more dangerous place to live in? How could such a calamitous international action, the closest in terms of importance to the (far less calamitous) Suez crisis of 1956, have taken place?

Well, this is of course what the Chilcot Inquiry (or the Iraq Inquiry) was about, and its findings will at last be published on 6 July 2016. It is of course well known that the results will come down heavily on Blair and his supporters in government, although probably everyone also realises that Blair will never end his life where he belongs: behind bars.

The Chilcot report of the inquiry is a 2.6 million word document: not exactly a work that can be summed up in a few words, although Matt Woodhead and Richard Norton-Taylor's dramatization of some of the key words used during the inquiry (premiered at The Lowry in Salford) goes some way towards understanding the gist. Here we have actors using the words of such people as Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon, Alastair Campbell, and of course the main offender, Tony Blair, talking a great deal, but none of them actually saying anything: this is the language of spin, designed to impress by its rhetoric but these days only fooling a certain number of fools (largely the remaining Blairites in the Labour party who think Jeremy Corbyn is a menace).

The main piece of real sense in the play (apart from the words of the Iraqi victims detailing violence on the part of anti-Iraqi forces during the invasion, and the violence that followed after Iraq had been, er, liberated) is when Clare Short speaks. She was Secretary of State for International Development before resigning in 2006. She felt that she had been 'conned' into accepting the 'weapons of mass destruction' nonsense. Surprise, surprise, but what took her so long to realise this?

Tony Blair's legacy is in tatters, like Iraq itself. The world is far more dangerous. Oh, and he inevitably managed to more or less destroy the Labour party, which will also probably never recover from his destructive policies, meaning the country will not be able to fight back against the privatisation lust of the EU-supporting fat cats.

Great play though.

Marcel Pagnol: La Gloire de mon père | My Father's Glory (1957)

Marcel Pagnol's La Gloire de mon père (trans. as The Glory of My Father) is the first part of his autobiographical Souvenirs d'enfance cycle, and both this and the second volume, Le Château de ma mère, were immensely popular. I'm not too sure why though, and the Provençal literature of Jean Giono and Frédéric Mistral is much more powerful. I think its popularity has much to do with the readers' memories of Provence, the glorious sun, the smell of the herbs, the slow pace of life.

La Gloire de mon père, then, tells the story of Marcel Pagnol's formative years around Marseille, concluding before he was nine years of age. Marcel lives with his schoolteacher father Joseph, his mother Augustine, his younger brother Paul, and relations between aunt Rose and her husband Jules are close. Like any child, Marcel grows up half in the 'real' world of what's happening around him, and half in a fantasy world, in his case (for someone preoccupied by language and the magic of words) particularly by the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Gustave Aimard (whom Pagnol calls 'Aymard' on both occasions the writer is mentioned.)

The problem for me is that the book concerns not so much information about Provence itself, even its wildlife as such, but the savage hunting of it, the tearing apart of it. In Claude Chabrol's movie Partie de plaisir, the protagonist scoffs at his lover's squeamishness about using a tiny crab as fishing bait, and almost merrily rips the carapace off for her to use; a little later he summons her to watch as he positions a ladybug in a spider's web and they watch the arachnid savagely eat it: his lover is appalled by the violence which is of course normal in the natural world. This is done for suspense by Chabrol, being an indication of the pathological nature of the protagonist. However, there's little suspense in this novel, and when Marcel performs atrocities on insects and other smaller members of the animal kingdom, he is just learning about the natural world, there's nothing pathological about this or about his father's approval of Marcel learning about the natural world.

The first time I visited Provence was a fair while back although I vividly remember sitting with my partner of the time on a bar stool in front of the zinc in Saint Remy de Provence, when suddenly locals around us greeted a visitor as if he were a movie star: he was in fact a bull-fighter: we were horrified, and made a hasty exit. But violence to animals appeared to be a part of the DNA of Provence.

In La Gloire de mon père we have naming of parts, those parts belonging to Joseph's father's rifle, designed not to destroy the parts of humans as in Henry Reed's poem 'Naming of Parts', but of the parts of 'game' – what a hopelessly insensitive and violent euphemism that is! – referring to birds in particular, although almost any moving wild animal is par for the killing course, and this is what the novel is largely about: Marcel's bookish father becoming a real man by killing a brace of rock partridges: that is what is 'The glory of my father'. Pathetic, cowardly, macho and shameful, many people would consider this as today. The book doesn't even redeem itself by brilliant writing.

My Marcel Pagnol posts:
Marcel Pagnol's Birthplace, Aubagne
Le Petit Monde de Marcel Pagnol, Aubagne
Claude Berri's Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources
Marcel Pagnol: La Gloire de mon père | My Father's Glory
Marcel Pagnol: Le Château de ma mère | My Mother's Castle
Marcel Pagnol: Marius
Marcel Pagnol in La Treille, Marseille
Marcel Pagnol: Le Schpountz

28 May 2016

Tim Bobbin in Urmston, Trafford, Greater Manchester

The Tim Bobbin pub, Flixton Road, Urmston, Trafford, Greater Manchester, named after the writer and caricaturist John Collier (1708–86).

Inside the pub, apart from unfortunate reflections of windows and myself:
'Tim Bobbin

This J. D. Wetherspoon pub takes its name from Urmston's very own poet
John Collier, alias Tim Bobbin. Collier was born in 1708, one of nine children
of a teacher and curate, in a cottage opposite Urmston Hall. He came to
national notice in 1746, with his best-known book, Tummus and Meary,
which was hailed as a classic. However, his concentration on writing in
dialect largely confined appreciation of his work to the North West.'

My other post on Tim Bobbin / John Collier:

John Collier / Tim Bobbin in Rochdale

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)

Québécois 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 added together slightly cryptically spell out (twice) the name of 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 Québécois 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 colonised the consciousness of the French speakers (pace Wim Wenders). 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.

My other Alphonse Daudet posts:

Alphonse Daudet in Fontvieille (13)
Alphonse Daudet in Fontvieille (13) again
Alphonse Daudet and Tartarin de Tarascon in Tarascon (13)

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.

My other Jean-Christophe Rufin posts:

Jean-Christophe Rufin: Sept histoires qui reviennent de loin
Jean-Christophe Rufin: Le Collier rouge

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.

My other Albert Cohen post:
Albert Cohen: Belle du seigneur

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.