Wednesday 17 September 2014

Brought to Book: The Table Talk of Chris Ackroyd (key words, Koestler, Ruskin, Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne, Kevin Costner, Proudhon, Naomi Klein)

Chris Ackroyd was my Art History tutor at Manchester Polytechnic (as was). A lovely, refined fellow (and I realise now I have no photograph of him). He invites me to cricket matches, and although I’m too long in the tooth to start taking an active interest in cricket now, the thought is appreciated. Anyway, he's retiring from tutoring at Manchester Metropolitan University, and is having to move out of his flat at Didsbury Halls of Residence (where he served as warden, a related post) in a hurry. He's got thousands of books which I said I would help shift for him on eBay. I taped a bookish conversation for publicity reasons, partly, but Chris’s conversation is a delight in itself.

D’Anvers, History of Art

I don’t think anyone would be interested in it, except art historians. It’s a very unusual book. I picked it up completely by accident, and I used it in my dissertation. History of art didn’t exist in Britain. It starts in Germany. Germans were ahead of the game in applying scientific, rationalistic ideas to how art evolves in the period of the Italian Renaissance or whatever. It’s D’Anvers. D, apostrophe… It’s a French name, but it’s in English, and it’s a very early example. It’s straightforward. It says, The History of Art. All of it [including music]. 

The cover’s fallen off. That might be quite a rare book actually. I found it in a second-hand bookshop.

Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation

When I was young and read more, Darkness at Noon was a really daunting, chilling, intriguing book. It’s about an interrogation. A whole novel about an interrogation. That is more objective and scientific. You might disagree with a lot of it, but it’s about how creativity and imagination works. That’s what he’s trying to explain. He talks about how jokes are structured. Now, you’ve probably come across books which try and explain why humour is funny. And they’re the most unfunny books to read. Well, so is that. But he does analyse jokes in terms of how, even in a few sentences, you set up a narrative, and then you cut across it, and he draws analogies with other ways of creating. It’s disconcerting. Not the climax you were expecting. I can’t remember it exactly. He uses some anecdotal things, like some scientist who invented the idea of molecular theory, and the idea that electrons whizz around a nucleus, which we learned at school when we were eleven or twelve in Chemistry. 

It was a mathematician, I think, and he fell asleep in front of the fire in that half-awake, half-sleeping thing, which people do find interesting, because of the the interplay between your subconscious and consciousness… And he woke up suddenly in front of the fire with this image of snakes chasing their tails, loads of them, around and around. He was trying to understand molecular theory. Snakes biting their tails. A visual metaphor. I remember little bits like that. 


There were six volumes of  Modern Painters with an Index. Some of the others, like Time and Tide, the one I mentioned – “Letters to a Working Man of Sunderland” –  they’re what I would class as “scruffy books", but because they’re Ruskins I class them together. The Ruskins I have at home are a bit special. One of them is vellum bound, and in a box, and it’s an original. 

I lodged for a while with one of my tutors, called Roger Jones, who died tragically young. He was descended from a duke. He was posh and he was clever: Oxbridge, Courtauld Institute. And some of the books that I’d bought off him (I didn’t nick them), he’d inscribed in the front, in very nice writing “R.B.S. Jones”. Roger Jones sounds a bit common. Roger, Beauchamp, and then, I think, Spencer Jones. Maybe he was related to the Spencers. I know he was aristocracy. Nicholas Penny, who is now the head of the National Gallery, taught with Roger when I was doing my degree. And Nicholas Penny was a stratospheric high-flyer; even when he was young he was destined for greatness. And they wrote a book together on Raphael. And that was the last book he did, and Nicholas Penny was his executor, along with his partner, Jane. But they were in London, so I helped them get rid of Roger’s scruffy books, because they brought in book dealers for the expensive ones. Because he had quite a collection. I mean the only warm room in the house was his, now that I think about it.

I liked him even though he wasn’t that likeable. He was an unusual guy. And Nicholas Penny rated him highly. To cut a long story short… Well, I’m not cutting a long story short. Never mind. They gave me several books actually, but particularly a Ruskin, and I think that’s a first edition…

As soon as you mention one I go off on half a bloody lecture. Sesame and Lilies was by far and away his best seller. Later in life he started to adopt weirder and weirder titles. Modern Painters tells you what it is. Stones of Venice, kind of, you know. Sesame and LiliesSesame, somehow, is men, and Lilies is women. And it’s part of his developing theory about the relation of the genders. By then he’d been through a divorce, a very messy thing for such a prominent figure in mid-Victorian London. But it outsold anything he ever wrote on art and architecture. It’s kind of an interesting insight into the Victorian mind. He gave lectures on it. It wouldn’t go down well now. Not PC. I think he gave lectures in Manchester on it. 

In the 1840s and 1850s he’s writing more specifically about art and architecture, but beginning to develop ideas as to how a society expresses itself through art and architecture. And then most of what he published in the 1860s is more to do with proto-socialism and the political economy of society really. I used to know more or less the whole chronology of what he published. Because I had to. He wrote a lot. And in the last twenty years or so of his life, he was in and out of insanity. He wrote a lot of stuff, which, on the page, is still clever, but it got more and more convoluted, with stranger and stranger Latin titles. And often he was repeating, or going over ideas that he’d been talking about for years. 

Edward William Godwin was a really interesting architect and interior designer, and a friend of Whistler’s. This is scurrilous. Ruskin dies about the same time as Queen Victoria, in 1900. He made the century out. She dies in 1901. He’s starting to go off the rails in the mid-1870s, but by then he’s an almost saintly figure, like Tolstoy, up in the Lake District, in Brantwood. People used to make pilgrimages to see him. And Godwin in the 1870s wrote a very intelligent article about contemporary architecture and design, etc. And he wrote “Is Mr Ruskin living too long?” That must have stung him. Because this was the younger generation coming up and going, "Mr Ruskin, you’re wrong to say that beauty only comes from a morally beautiful society; it comes from not so nice societies too." There was like a generation gap there. I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be nasty, but they were very witty, you know. 

Symonds, Renaissance in Italy

That’s a good volume. It was a school prize-book, I think. Kirkby College or something. And it’s nicely bound. It’s one of a series of several volumes, but I’ve only kept one. Gosh, he was a turgid writer, but he took over the mantle of writing for the British public about Italian art. He took over where Ruskin left off, but he’s a much less interesting writer. A very interesting homosexual though. He’s part of that 1890s gang. He more or less discovered Davos Platz in Switzerland. Now it’s an extremely fashionable and expensive place to go ski-ing. He was wealthy enough to be able to divide his time between Venice - he may have known Rolfe, but Symonds was up there and Rolfe was just getting by. But Symonds was going for the gondoliers, and in Davos Platz, it was the hefty young yokels. He had a gay old time, literally. Oscar Wilde’s trial happened, bang in the middle of that, and I think they had to be a bit more discreet thereafter. 

Macaulay, History of England

Now not many people read Macaulay, but you know we were talking about Thomas Carlyle, and his racy, speed-you-through the French Revolution way of approaching history? Macaulay was the one most of them read. Well they probably read both. Macaulay is much more meticulous, pain-staking, incredibly detailed. But, though you struggle with some of his essays, they’re really good. Thomas Babington Macaulay, yeah. But it’s a scruffy volume. 

Peter Ackroyd, The House of Doctor Dee

 I can’t read his novels. I love his history. I think he’s one of the best contemporary writers on English history and the history of art that there is. He’s exhilarating, and there’s an incredible amount of research and detail, but it’s not laboured, and he writes as well as anyone ever, about London. He’s published a lot of books on London. I love that kind of writing. But he wrote a biography of Dickens, for example, who I love, and he made a huge mistake, to my mind. At the end of every chapter, he intersperses a bit of his own fancy. He takes characters out of a Dickens novel and then he writes his own little fictional thing. Little bits in-between the chapters, and eventually, oh, I can’t read this, get to the next chapter. I want to know more about Dickens, not this tosh. 

I’ve tried with his novels. He chooses really interesting subjects. How do these people write as much as they do? He’s written one about Hawksmoor, a very interesting architect from the seventeenth century, in the wake of Christopher Wren. So it’s very well historically researched, but when somebody starts putting words into the mouth of a real person, it has to be really good for me to be able to bother with it. I think, why am I reading this? The non-fiction is better than the fiction. There are exceptions. Hilary Mantel wrote a book about the French Revolution, called A Place of Greater Safety. It’s about Robespierre and Danton. That’s really good. Again it’s extremely well-researched, historically researched, but it’s also an extremely good read, and doesn’t put stupid things into their mouths. 

The Old West, Time Life, four volumes inc. The Gunfighters, The Great Chiefs, The Cowboys, and The Soldiers

I don’t think you’ll get much for them, but I really enjoyed reading them. I read all of it. I know how much a cowboy hat costs. A Montana hat is different from a Texan hat. Cowboys with cowboy boots, with their heels and that, felt themselves to be a cut above the clod-hopping farmworker, and there was a certain rough elegance in cowboy boots. Really interesting. Time-Life is not negligible, and it is a bit gung-ho America, except that one of them is very good on the Indians. 

I bet Kevin Costner has read stuff like that. There are accounts in each one, whichever volume, about how taciturn cowboys were. They said very little to each other. Sometimes if you were ramrodding on a herd and that, you’re all rough and sleep on the ground, and there was a lot of camaraderie as well, but they were men of few words. I can’t remember the exact details of it, but this guy comes into a town, into the saloon, has one drink, and says one word and someone when he went out: “talks a lot doesn’t he?” 

I think Kevin Costner has made some of the best cowboy films ever. Because it used to be thought that cowboy films were over, and there was only Clint Eastwood and spaghetti westerns and strange things that came out in the sixties and seventies that were really more about the sixties and seventies than they were about cowboys. But Open Range is one of my Top Ten films, and Wyatt Earp; and again, quietly, they’re well-researched. There’s a lot of this business about cowboys not saying much, subtly woven into very clever dialogue. 

I better go soon Mike because I’m fading a bit, but it’s really interesting. 

Robert Hichens, The Green Carnation; Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde; Frank Harris, My Life and Loves 

The idea of the green carnation was that it was unnatural. The flower is a natural thing, but you don’t get green ones. Now you can get it by putting them in dye, and I think that’s what they did. Again, it’s a homosexual thing - it became a kind of tacit message, if your button-hole is a green carnation. It’s a novel, written in the 90s, based around that idea. 

Richard Ellman, a very good biography. Frank Harris. Again, another braggart. Nice old word, braggart. He boasted and that, but he really looked after Oscar Wilde. Chalk and cheese in many ways, because he was a very masculine man. And he wrote ridiculous fiction boasting about himself all the time. But when Oscar Wilde was due to get arrested, Frank Harris went to him and said, we can get you on a boat to Dieppe tonight. And he wouldn’t go. And he thought that he chose to take the punishment, on the treadmill at Reading Gaol, as a kind of self-punishment. He could have escaped. Lots of people did if they were of that social level, and they got into trouble. They’d go to Dieppe. It’s cheaper than Paris, and just across the water. And Frank Harris tried to bully him to get out of England, but he wouldn’t go. Interesting. It’s a good biography. The Frank Harris one. It’s a ripping read. He might have made up a few things, and there’s a bit of self-aggrandisement: “I told Oscar this, I told Oscar that”. He was a real figure about town, Oscar Wilde. 

Algernon Swinburne, Love’s Cross-Currents

What an unpleasant little man he was. Interesting again. Vigorously homosexual. There were male brothels in St Johns Wood where you could go and get whipped. You could get anything you wanted. Oscar Wilde need not have been so public about what he was doing. He need not have got into trouble. Swinburne was at it like a rabbit. 

It’s what they call an epistolatory novel. It’s written in letters. I can’t remember what the story is about, because it gets a bit complicated, but it is what it says on the cover, Love’s Cross-Currents, and it’s the ups and downs of being in love. I think it’s ambiguous again. 

God knows where I picked these things up. It’s just browsing in second-hand bookshops. These aren’t specialist bookshops. 

W. Wilkie Collins, The Life of William Collins

Wilkie Collins is the novelist who wrote The Woman in White and The Moonstone, and he was the son of the artist William Collins. Turner did a very interesting painting to do with the funeral of William Collins (this is like the 1840s).

Dennis Wheatley, The Devil and All His Works

Devil-worship. It’s a hard-backed thing. I did buy a lot of stuff on whim, and think, I might look at that and then hardly did. Or I might have a drink after I’d been to the Oxfam shop and flick through it and not go back to it. 

J.G. Robertson, The History of German Literature 

Actually rather good. Very thorough. Tedious, but it is what it says. 

Paul Maas, Textual Criticism

See I just go off on one. Textual Criticism

It wasn’t just Darwin that undermined that ability to believe in the truth of the Bible and the Scriptures and so on. It was actually Textual Criticism that properly brought down the whole fiction that the Bible had been dictated by God 6,000 years ago. Because people started to study the original Hebrew text from which the Bible had been originally translated. And from the study of language, and the development of Hebrew, they were able to work out that they were thousands of years apart, some of the original texts. It’s like Ruskin said, geology also undermined the whole thing. The earth and humankind couldn’t be 6,000 years old. It was millions. The tap, tap, tap of the geologist’s hammer, he said, is what spoiled my ability to believe in Christianity, as I was taught it. But it is a dry and tedious little book. 

G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

 I think the Surrealists were interested in The Man Who Was Thursday. I seem to remember Andre Breton talks about it. I don’t know the detail, and I’ve not read it. 

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

It’s a very good read, because Daniel Defoe would have been around in the early 1800s, or later? But he’s writing about the Plague of the mid-seventeenth century. A very vivid account of people trying to get away from London, and not having anywhere to go, and how some people died, even though they hadn’t been near anybody who was infected. Other people were in amongst them and survived. He’s a good writer, Daniel Defoe. 

J. Hampden Jackson, Marx, Proudhon and European Socialism

Proudhon was a writer in the middle of the nineteenth century. He was very important for the development of anarchist ideas, when anarchism wasn’t just about throwing bombs, it was about creating more humane, small-scale societies in contrast to places like Manchester. So there’s a continuity through it. William Morris and News From Nowhere was popular with hippies. It does connect. This idea of an alternative to an industrialised and materialistic society. 

Naomi Klein, Fences & Windows 

She’s a good writer. A very sensible hard-headed Feminist writer. There’s one of them, not that one: one of her early ones, I can’t remember what it’s called. She talks a lot about how the genders are divided at school. She also talks a lot about product placement, putting Coca Cola machines in schools, and in America, part of the school finances comes from the things that are in the corridor. So she’s very good at cutting through that stuff. 

One of the other ones, it might be Fences & Windows, is about how some Feminists deface and alter billboard advertising, so they turn things like a woman in a fur coat, and they paint blood on it, and how they adapt and subvert the advertising message into a political message. That’s an interesting one. 

1001 Books You Must Read, ed. Boxall  

It’s interesting to dip into, and I’m sure there’s another 1000 that aren’t in there, but it doesn’t matter. I’m going to have to go in a bit, Mike. But I might have a drink on the way out. 

John Matthews, The Mystic Grail; Dan Burstein, Secrets of the Code; Richard Andrews & Paul Schellenberger, The Tomb of God; Lynn Picknett, Mary Magdelene; Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code; Graham Phillips, Act of God, et al 

You think you’ve uncovered the Christian side of me, but no. It’s to do with this course I’ve been doing for a few years on art and spirituality. It’s a big argument: essentially it’s still Darwinism against the Creationists. They’re variations on those themes. Some of them are whacky, by Americans, frankly. Not just Americans, but you know what I mean? They’re so certain in countering the whole tradition of enlightenment and rationality. Flat denial.

William Hazlitt, Table Talk

That’s falling to bits. It was one of the first books I owned, actually. Hazlitt was an important writer. Table Talk is like dinner-party conversations but each chapter is on a theme. Hazlitt is early eighteenth-century. 

Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship; Julian Symons, Thomas Carlyle 

Julian Symons is again 1890s. He’s part of that group - I think he was a poet as well - around Whistler and so on. But Carlyle was in a previous generation. He was in Chelsea. I mentioned Edward William Godwin, the architect who wrote “Is Mr Ruskin living too long?” He designed a lot of the houses in Tite Street, Chelsea. Again, this turns into a lecture. There was a thing in the mid century which they referred to in London as “the Great Stink”, because all the sewage went into the Thames, and one of the first really effective sewage systems was designed to cleanse London, and it was like a herringbone system of sewers by a man called Bazalgette. Phenomenal. If he was an architect above ground he’d be as famous as Christopher Wren. He cleaned up the Thames. This was in the 1860s. And then they developed the Embankment. The bit that sounds like what it is, an embankment, because formerly it was mud flats with shit all over it. It stank to live in Chelsea. And then Chelsea becomes a fashionable place to live. Whistler’s house in Tite Street was designed by Edward William Godwin. Oscar Wilde was lodging with somebody down the road, an artist (I can’t remember his name). Again, designed by Godwin, and just around the corner is this eminence grise Thomas Carlyle. And Whistler paints Carlyle. So a tight-knit intellectual circle. And Julian Symons was part of that, so it’s not that odd that he would be writing about Thomas Carlyle, who probably by then was out of fashion an an historian, but still an interesting intellectual. Have a little dip into The French Revolution. It goes at the speed of a stagecoach. Out of control. I never got to the end of it, but I read enough. It’s good. 

I’m going to have to go, because I’m really flagging now. 

But this is interesting and next time I’ll be in better fitness. But books are interesting. You’re probably already getting a glimpse of how ambitious I was to know about this, that and bloody everything. I never read anything cover to cover, but… 

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