Friday, 30 December 2016

To Walk Invisible - brief thoughts

Charlotte, Emily and Anne

BBC’s prestige drama To Walk Invisible, written and directed by Sally Wainwright, was a pleasure to watch as it charted the evolution of the Brontë sisters from homebodies with no prospects, concerned about what will happen after their father dies as their house is tied (not a problem in the event as he outlived them all) to published authors.  Admittedly it suffered from the common BBC problem of poor sound quality at times, swelling music over-emphatically directing the viewer’s emotions to the detriment of being able to hear what was being said.  But there was much to admire, particularly in the scenery (cgi very well used), faithfully recreating Haworth and the surrounding moors, and reminding the viewer that the parsonage was not isolated but was part of a thriving, and grimy, industrial district.

Characterisation was plausible, displaying the mingled affection and irritation which comes from living in each other’s pockets.  Charlotte is the shrewd ambitious one who nags a reluctant Emily, seeing how brilliant her poetry is.  Emily though lacks confidence, hiding it behind a facade of prickliness and undertaking the bulk of the household chores while the other two write (there is a lot of the domestic stuff shown, countering the assumption that writers lead rarefied lives while tending to reinforce the grim-up-north stereotype).  Anne wants to keep up creatively yet is conscious, as is Charlotte, she is not quite in the same rank as Emily and Charlotte; perhaps an unfair depiction as Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall have been reassessed in recent years and found to be surprisingly tough-minded.  Useless alcoholic brother Branwell, with delusions of talent, lacks application and is resentful because of it, knowing he can get his own way if he is obnoxious enough.  And father Patrick is long suffering, always naively optimistic with no foundation that Branwell’s latest crisis will be a turning point leading to his recovery, and taking the girls for granted despite his affection for them.  That he is spectacularly unaware of their prodigious literary activities is brought home when Charlotte enters his study and to his astonishment diffidently mentions she is the author of Jane Eyre and it is doing rather well.

The surprisingly deep bond between Emily and Branwell is touching, evident when they sit on a five-bar gate with their heads resting together looking at the moon before baying companionably.  On a Sunday morning the sisters walking to church find Branwell in the lane clutching a wall in a terrible state.  They blank him and continue tight-lipped, suddenly Emily stops and turns round, not to give him a deserved punch in the kidney but to take him back.  The film is full of such touches: I especially liked the moment where Arthur Bell Nicholls has helped to bring an incapable Branwell inside, losing his hat in the passage, and he and Charlotte awkwardly stoop together to pick it up leaving Arthur on his knee, foreshadowing their marriage; by contrast the homage to Henry Wallis’s The Death of Chatterton with Branwell out of it was too studied and the effort to endow him with a tragic aspect unwarranted.  The suggestion Branwell accidentally caused Emily’s death from TB three months after his own by coughing blood into her face as she nursed him is horrifying.  He never gave anything of value to his family, instead bringing chaos and pain into it.

It struck me afterwards that it would be possible to map Wainwright’s depiction of the siblings onto Enid Blyton’s Famous Five (or at least four-fifths of the Famous Five, though the film’s large but mysteriously little-seen dog obviously intended to suggest the model for Pilot in Jane Eyre could stand in for Timmy).  So the go-getting and bossy Charlotte is Julian.  In-your-face Emily is George.  Branwell appropriately is Dick, even if Branwell never follows Charlotte’s orders as Dick does Julian’s.  And pretty Anne Brontë, dragged along in her sisters’ wake, doubles the feminine slightly drippy Blytonian Anne.  Where the Famous Five go adventuring on Kirrin Island the Brontë sisters mount expeditions into their imaginations.

However, the story is not about the novels themselves, though there are glimpses of what inspired them.  Primarily it is about the struggle of the three sisters to make something of their lives in a world which does not look favourably on independent female achievement, and attain on their own behalf the financial security their father’s death would remove and Branwell could never provide.  In true Yorkshire fashion creativity is allied to business sense, as the scene in which Charlotte, Anne in tow, descends on her publisher George Smith in London indicates.  If practical business also entails an element of invisibility, such as assuming the pseudonyms Acton, Ellis and Currer in order for their words to be judged rather than them, so be it.

After a bizarre episode on the moors with the three sisters backlit – godlike – by a triple sun, an almost transcendental experience presumably inserted to remind viewer that notwithstanding all the talk of business their legacy is greater than something merely produced for money, hackwork, the film more or less concludes with Branwell’s death, his sisters’ fates relegated to a brief postscript.  Unfortunately, by stopping when it does it makes their sad ends seem subordinate to that of their feckless and undeserving brother.  If he was the centre of attention in life, there is is no reason he should be in death.

We finish with shots of the parsonage as it is now, concentrating on the shop selling trinkets which would surely have made the Brontës’ toes curl.  The old place is certainly a lot cleaner than it was in the 1840s, and I was pleased to see a healthy ethnic mix looking at the key rings and mugs; as I recall, during my visit to Haworth the clientele was homogeneously white.  But why suddenly insert tacky commercialism into the moving story of this talented set of writers who have enriched our culture so profoundly, botching the last moments of a fine two hours of television?

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Harry Lockhart’s psychic dream


My great-grandfather, Henry James Lockhart, generally known as Harry (1861-1905), was an elephant trainer, as were his two brothers Samuel and George.  Sam and George were far better known than Harry, who has rather been forgotten, perhaps because more of his life was spent in the United States.  Research needs to be done to excavate his career, which may have been as illustrious as his brothers’.

An intriguing anecdote about Harry can be found in the El Paso Herald from 18 January 1904, p. 8, almost exactly a year before his death.  It is headed  ‘HARRY LOCKHART, ELEPHANT TRAINER, REACHES MOTHER’S BEDSIDE JUST IN TIME.’  He was in El Paso, Texas, for a few days en route to Mexico City where he was working for Orrin Brothers’ Circus, which had opened a Circus Teatro building in Mexico City in 1894 (Kanellos, p. 98).  El Paso seems to have been his usual stopping-point and he had good friends in the town.

From the article it can be seen that Harry was a popular man, described as ‘The famous elephant trainer and traveler, and prince of good fellows, genial Harry Lockhart’.  Harry was a larger-than-life character: ‘“Business is good" wherever Harry goes’ the journalist claimed, before noting that he had a great reputation as a joker.  On a more serious note, the journalist, who must have sat down with Harry over a few drinks, recounted a dream Harry said he had had:

‘Mr. Lockhart. while traveling through the west recently, dreamed that his mother was ill in Paris. He at once telegraphed to Mrs. Lockhart, who replied that she also had had a similar dream.’

Presumably at this point his mother was not unwell, or she would have said so.  But a dream was enough to set Harry off to Paris: the account concludes:

‘That settled it – Lockhart took the first train for New York, which left in ten minutes, and from there took the first steamer for Europe. arriving in Paris to find his mother seriously ill and praying for him to come. Mr. Lockhart has left a host of warm friends in this city behind him who will be always glad to welcome him back. He intended leaving yesterday, but his friends. Bloom and O'Brien, hid his baggage and he could not get away.’

His mother was Hannah Pinder, through whom the Lockharts are related to the illustrious Anglo-French Pinder circus family.  The dream was most likely precognitive, because when he had it Hannah was apparently not ill.  No more details are given, so the nature of the ailment is unknown.  We do not know how close in time her dream and Harry’s were, nor precisely how similar.

Hannah was born in 1826 so if the dream had occurred in 1903, she was 77, an age when a dutiful son might be worrying about her health.  But that would not explain him making a trip from the western United States to France to see her.  He may have made the entire incident up, but lying about your mother’s health is on a different level to pulling a journalist’s leg.  If he had been telling a yarn, surely it would have been a better one.

The article’s headline implies Harry arrived just in time to witness his mother’s demise, but Hannah outlived Harry.  She died in 1910, while Harry died of pneumonia in Mexico City on 31 January 1905 (family lore says that he had been out in the rain organising shelter for the elephants), and was buried in the city’s English Cemetery (Panteón Inglés, Real del Monte.).  It was almost exactly a year after the spectacular death of his brother George on 24 January 1904, when he was crushed by a runaway elephant at Walthamstow, London.

The El Paso Herald carried a story on 1 February 1905, p. 3: ‘Mrs. Harry Lockhart, wife of the well-known elephant trainer, passed through the city yesterday en route to the City of Mexico to join her husband, who is seriously ill there. “Harry” is well known here and his numerous friends hope that he may pull through and continue to delight the circus goers with his famous trained animals.’  Sadly by the time she arrived he was already dead, and there is a further family story of his wife and young son, also Harry, arriving at the cemetery as the mourners were leaving it.


Reference

Nicolás Kanellos. A History of Hispanic Theatre in the United States: Origins to 1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990).

Friday, 9 December 2016

Are you gay? If so, apparently there’s good chance you are possessed by a ghost


An article appeared in Pink News (primary focus of interest fairly obvious) on 7th December highlighting an article on a website run by the Spiritual Science Research Foundation (SSRF) which asserts that an overwhelming reason for homosexuality is possession by a ghost.  This is not a good thing as it has a deleterious effect on the possessed person’s ‘capacity’.  The SSRF article in question is ‘Symptoms of Ghost Affecting or Possessing a Person’ and it includes figures to back up the argument.  It seems ‘about 30% of the world’s population is possessed by ghosts.’  Only 5% of homosexuality is accounted for by hormonal changes; 10% is psychological, such as a gay encounter that was pleasurable; and a whopping 85% originates in ‘spiritual causes’, largely meaning ghosts.  Ghosts, it should be added, encompass a variety of phenomena, not just the expected discarnate spirits: ‘demons, devils, negative energies, etc.’.  The spiritual perspective is Hindu.

Unfortunately most people don’t realise they have been infected as only saints, characterised by being above the (scale undefined) ‘70% spiritual level’, or those possessing an ‘advanced sixth sense’, can tell.  That leaves a huge number of people possessed by ghosts while unaware of their position.  There are ways to diagnose it, but the symptoms listed are wide-ranging, often vague, and easily confused with other ailments, presumably why ghosts can get away behaving in this outrageous manner with impunity.  When it comes to sex, things get complicated.  Possession by a ghost can lead either to an increase or a decrease in the sexual drive, so that isn’t much help in assessment.  There are however differences according to whether one is possessed by a ghost of the same of a different sex:

‘If a female ghost possesses a woman, it attracts other male ghosts either directly or through the medium of other males possessed by male ghosts. Such women do not feel the need for getting into a formal relationship with the opposite sex like getting married. They come up with some excuse or the other to avoid such relationships.’

So a woman who is single and not in a relationship is a bad sign.  Oddly there is nothing about the effect a male ghost has when inside a man.  Presumably they remain confirmed bachelors.  It gets really interesting when it comes to cross-sex possession.  The main reason behind men being gay is that they are possessed by female ghosts, and the female ghosts are attracted to living men.  Conversely some women are occupied by male ghosts and they are consequently attracted to females.  The ghost’s consciousness is stronger than the living person’s and can control it in the desired direction.

This of course presupposes the ghosts are heterosexual.  Would a male gay ghost inside a woman be attracted to men, and a female gay ghost inside a man be attracted to females, thus from the outside looking exactly like a non-ghost heterosexual situation?  What about bisexuals; is that the result of a bisexual ghost, or one with a low libido unable to exert full control over the host?  Later on there is a reference to ghosts inside married couples, leading to disharmony, but no mention of the differential effect of the ghost’s sex.  Women should either be spinsters or lesbians according to whether they have a female or male ghost in them so there is some faulty logic somewhere.  The good news is that this deplorable situation can be combated by practices such as hypnotherapy, chanting and focusing energy flows.  In this way ‘homosexual tendencies and desires’ can be overcome, though it’s unclear what happens to the invading entity when the homosexual is freed.

So what about these findings from a body with science and research in its name, do they bear scrutiny?  The first thing to say is that offensiveness or peculiarity of a claim does not automatically render it invalid.  One may have a gut feeling about its plausibility, but guts are not reliable indicators; it’s the evidence that counts.  So what is the evidence?  Unsurprisingly, there does not seem to be any.  The methodology has not been included to allow others to follow the process.  As far as I can tell the statistics have been plucked out of the air, perhaps arrived at by a process of meditating and concluding ‘that feels about right’.  If determining the presence of a possessing ghost is so difficult I’m baffled as to how one could conduct any kind of survey that would give an accurate figure, assuming of course the idea of ghosts possessing the living is valid (leaving aside occasional cases where spirits were said to overshadow the living in the psychical research literature).  The data collection, if it exists, should be released immediately to allow independent parties to assess it.

Further, there is a page on the SSRF website which is essentially homophobic, referring to gay parades as becoming more ‘gruesome’ (i.e. flamboyant), gay pride a form of egotism, and homosexuality a sign of society in decline: ‘Indulging in homosexual activity or supporting it invites sin’.  Russian attitudes to gay marches are cited with approval, a stance offensive to anyone keen to uphold liberal values.  The result of all this gayness, we are warned, will be an increase in unhappiness.  (The counter-argument is that if you want to see people having a huge amount of fun you could do worse than witness a gay pride march.)  The suspicion arises that the information presented by the SSRF stems from prejudice, not scientific research.

Following the Pink News article, Hayley Stevens wrote an article for her blog criticising the SSRF.  What was surprising was how, when links were posted on the Society for Psychical Research’s Facebook page, hostility was directed at Pink News and Stevens – not to mention the SPR’s Facebook administrator (OK, me) – rather than at the SSRF.  Some of it seems to have been because there was actually support for the SSRF’s claim, with resentment at seeing it criticised, though the support was not overtly specified.  Others obviously didn’t bother to read beyond the headlines and assumed it was Pink News and Stevens who were saying gay people were possessed by ghosts (it was generally difficult to disentangle whether comments along the lines of ‘this is crap’ referred to the SSRF’s claim or to the coverage by Pink News and Stevens).  There may have been New Age discomfort that an eastern religion could display bigotry.  One or two commenters were firmly of the belief that ‘yeah, demons’.  Possibly others felt such unsavoury matter should not be given an airing whatever the slant.  There was little calm consideration of what should correctly be called the ‘Spiritual’ Pseudoscience Research Foundation’s unsupported statements, which was somewhat depressing.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun


The idea of Victorian entertainments might initially conjure up parlour games of an improving sort, or an evening round the piano exhorting Maud to come into the garden.  The latest free exhibition at the British Library takes a more expansive look at the world of Victorian show business thanks to conjuror Harry Evans, aka the Great Evanion.

In 1895 Evans was on his uppers and was forced by necessity to sell his collection of posters, playbills, sheet music and other ephemera, some 6,000 items in all, to the British Museum for £20.  That was apparently the most the curators could spend on a single transaction without having to seek approval from the trustees, who would probably have turned their noses up at the offer.

British institutions are not particularly noted for having this sort of foresight, but Evans’s loss was a huge gain for our understanding and appreciation of popular entertainment in the late nineteenth century.  If not the greatest show on earth, the British Library has conjured up a wonderful little one to put us in the mood for the festive season.

The exhibition encompasses magic, circus acts, menageries, mesmerism, dioramas, waxworks, panto and more, together giving a splendid insight into the way our forebears spent their hard-earned leisure in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  There are five main sections, devoted to stars of varying kinds, and degrees of celebrity: John Nevil Maskelyne, Dan Leno, ‘Lord’ George Sanger (a distant relative of mine), Annie De Montford and the Great Evanion himself.  Why these five were selected is not made clear, presumably because there is enough available in the archives relevant to each to constitute a cohesive presentation.

Evanion is not very well known today, but it would have been impolite to omit him, considering he has largely made the exhibition possible.  He was a magician who after appearing in front of royalty (there is some dispute about their precise status) thereafter billed himself as the ‘Royal conjuror’.

Maskelyne was manager of the Egyptian Hall in Regent Street, ‘England’s Home of Mystery’, in partnership first with George Cooke and then David Devant.  Egyptian Hall Posters on display tilt at Theosophy in the form of Koot Hoomi and the Mahatmas, hinting that there was often a seriously sceptical intent behind Maskelyne’s magic.

De Montford, ‘the psychological star’, was originally a millworker but carved out a career as a mesmerist, an unusual occupation for a woman, situated on the blurred line between science and entertainment.  To indicate how popular mesmerism was, on display is the music for Harry Castling’s song How I Mesmerise ‘em, as sung by Charles Gardener.

Sanger was the purveyor of ‘something new under the sun, twice daily’, as both a travelling circus impresario and later at Astley’s Amphitheatre.  A copy of his 1908 autobiography is in one of the cases, and its title, Seventy Year a Showman, does not seem an exaggeration.  Next to it is a ‘memoir’ by one of his acts, Toby the learned pig, which I think it can be assumed was ghost-written.

Finally, tucked round the corner is a section devoted to George Wild Galvin, better known as Dan Leno, comic singer and versatile performer, including as a clog dancer and pantomime dame.  He was allegedly the funniest man on earth (in admittedly a fairly small field).

The star attraction of There Will Be Fun has to be the wonderful posters.  They conjure up the greasepaint and sawdust and are marvels of the printer’s art.  Designed to be disposable, it seems a miracle they have survived in such fine condition.

Bulking out the gems from the Great Evanion’s collection there are films, such as one from 1902 of Dan Leno’s family larking about in the garden, and early sound recordings.  Further objects have been loaned by the Magic Circle, including rather oddly the spend-a-penny toilet lock invented by Maskelyne.

As well as the archival material, there are new films of actors recreating the old routines, and supplementing the exhibition is a series of live performances in the library – probably mounted in the name of ‘access’ but all to the good if it focuses attention on the collection.  The curators have dressed the display in a gorgeous red circus-themed paper with evocative gold text to reinforce the Victorian atmosphere.

Performing was one way someone from humble origins, with talent and some luck, could carve a lucrative career in a society where opportunities for social mobility were limited.  Sadly though, a lot of the greats who dedicated their careers to entertaining our ancestors came to unfortunate ends.  Of those showcased here, Annie De Montfort died in 1882 at the age of 46; Dan Leno spent time in an asylum and died in 1904 aged 43; impoverished, Harry Evans died in 1905 in Lambeth infirmary of throat cancer; George Sanger was murdered with an axe in 1911.

However, their legacy lives on in this excellent little exhibition and for anybody dropping in to see it one thing is certain – there will be fun!  It runs until 12 March 2017.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Juergen Teller selects Robert Mapplethorpe

Muffin, by Robert Mapplethorpe

It is easy to forget quite how young Robert Mapplethorpe was when he died in 1989.  The exhibition currently on display at the Alison Jacques Gallery in Berners Street, London, was mounted to commemorate what would have been his 70th birthday.  Juergen Teller has collaborated with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York to choose 48 images. encompassing Polaroids and silver gelatin prints, spread over two floors.  A note at the entrance wisely points out that the contents are not suitable for children, though they can all be found on the gallery’s website.

I can’t make up my mind what I think about Mapplethorpe’s photographs, and my visit didn’t help clarify my opinion.  They were ably selected by Teller (a good choice of curator for such challenging material), but on this showing what mainly distinguishes Mapplethorpe was his indifference to taboos surrounding the explicit depiction of male genitalia and anuses, and I’m not sure the intention to provoke, which must have been an element of his method, is enough to put him in the first rank of photographic artists.

That said, there is a lot more to him than naked men, and this was a welcome reminder of the variety of subjects at which he pointed his camera.  There are still lifes and animals as well as the portraits for which he is best known.  Patti Smith is present of course, but not wearing a shirt, in fact not wearing anything up top at all as she presses her breasts to a window pane, hands up in a pose evoking Maya Derren and so reinforcing Smith’s credentials as a significant artist.

Mapplethorpe is particularly adept at juxtapositions, whether with the contents of an image – a small statue of a devil with a pitchfork about to spear a penis looking like a hotdog – or titles – a classical statue with its arms flexed, as if stretching after sleep, called ‘The Sluggard’.  Gisèle Freund was photographed with one of her pictures of Virginia Woolf on a shelf next to her, rather a startling addition to a Mapplethorpe.  One wonders what Woolf would have made of all this.

In aesthetic terms the still lifes work well: eight frogs on a plate (or is this a portrait? – you don’t expect a still life to have the capability to jump), seedpods, bread in profile at first glance looking unsettlingly like dung; but inevitably they are secondary to the explicit depictions of the human form,  These often have a playfulness and sense of collaboration which neutralises any sense of seediness they might otherwise have had.  If it should seem crude on occasion, most notably in the explicitness of ‘Fist Fuck’, that says more about the prejudices of the viewer than it does about the photographer.

Mapplethorpe clearly had a way with people to earn such trust, and his empathy is revealed in the connection he makes with his subjects, but my favourite of the whole show has to be the dog Muffin pictured looking like an indolent nineteenth-century French courtesan.  Some of the other work is a little obvious or doesn’t quite succeed – ‘Corn’, in which a cob inevitably looks like a penis; a pair of cocoanuts resembling breasts; a grid of apartment windows marred by an ugly shadow that would be frowned on in a club competition; a long exposure making flowing water look velvety (‘Puerto Rico’), already a cliché in 1981 when it was taken.

Such reservations notwithstanding, Teller is to be congratulated on choosing an interesting group, as is Alison Jacques for showing it.  I would have liked to have seen more of Mapplethorpe’s corpus so finely printed, but am grateful these have been made available.  I’m still agnostic on their lasting value, but you could never say Mapplethorpe was a dull personality, nor, with the odd exception (the 1982 one of a television is surprising in its banality), producing boring photographs.