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Sunday, 28 August 2011

Lord Dunsany's Last Book of Wonder

Lord Dunsany (1878-1957) is little enough read nowadays, and seems to be mostly noted as an influence on H.P. Lovecraft. But Dunsany was a great writer, and didn’t have that much in common with Lovecraft, though the latter considered him a great influence. Dunsany certainly had a better sense of humour - not difficult, admittedly.

Image from

My introduction to Lord D. came with the volume Time and the Gods (Millenium, 2000 ("Fantasy Masterworks" series)). This volume includes 6 collections of D.'s stories, all from his early career: from his first, The Gods of Pegana (1905) to The Last Book of Wonder (1916). All fit into what now would be called fantasy, but they show an interesting progression. My preference is for the later stuff, and I think The Last Book of Wonder is the best of the lot.

What's immediately notable about Dunsany is his sumptuous prose style: very King James Bible-ish and classically inflected. The 20th century doesn't intrude into his style at all, and he's a real master of his chosen style. He's also great at coming up with names - "the greatest of name-coiners", in Lovecraft's words. Sardathrian, Inzana, Limpang-Tung, to take some from the opening pages. But this sort of thing won't endear him to all, though you can't help but admire the writing, and indeed the quality of his imagination.

The later stories, like those in The Last Book of Wonder, show the same stylistic virtuosity and lush imagination, but what makes these short (mostly very short, a lot only 4 or 5 pages) stories such a pleasure is the edge of mockery that gradually appears. Take, for example, "Why the Milkman Shudders when he Perceives the Dawn", its very title combining grandiose language with the most prosaic of contexts, for what could be less grandiose than the profession of milkman? (No offense to persons of that profession). More and more the everyday world starts invading Dunsany's tales, to ridiculous effect, though his prose never loses its cool, or descends to the level appropriate to the banalities it is documenting - and that, indeed, is its charm.

Another interesting story in The Last Book of Wonder is "The Three Infernal Jokes". If you've seen that Monty Python "Funniest Joke in the World" sketch you'll see that Dunsany pre-empted them by over 50 years with this tale of a man who meets a mysterious stranger who offers him three jokes on three pieces of paper, each of which will cause all hearers to die of laughter. Once used, though, the joke erases itself from the paper and when the protagonist tries to repeat it, he finds it has no effect. Dunsany gives the text of one of the jokes as repeated without the paper by the man, and it's decidedly unfunny, but, as the narrator notes: "No joke sounds quite so good the second time it is told." And, anyway, who's to know if he remembers it right? It seems unlikely that the Pythons were actually familiar with Dunsany's story, probably more a case of great minds think alike. Dunsany got there first, though, but not a lot of people know that.

Best of all, for me, is the chess story "The Three Sailors' Gambit". Dunsany was a highly respected chess player and this ingenious tale concerns a crystal ball that informs its possessor of the correct move at any point in any chess game, against any master of the game. Three somewhat dim-witted sailors use it to win small sums of money from challengers in public houses, and so on. The humour partly lies in the contrast between the aloof and refined prose of Dunsany and the coarse speech of the sailors as they apparently perform feats of chess playing unknown to men. It's a great story.

The Last Book of Wonder is available to read free online. Which is nice.
The volume I mentioned with 6 early Dunsany collections is available at Amazon US at the link below

Also at Amazon UK:

Of course, lots of other collections/anthologies of his stories are available as well, some of more recent vintage.

Lord D. hit the big screen a few years ago with a film of his 1936 novella My Talks with Dean Spanley (film just called Dean Spanley, and starring Sam Neill, Peter O'Toole and Jeremy Northam). A very good film, too, I might add. Not sure if that's the first ever film of one of his works, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was. Anyway, in conclusion, Dunsany is a really beautiful writer, and deserves to be more widely read than he is, and some of his works show an excellent line in dry, understated wit.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Pete Townshend's Lifehouse Demos - Unadulterated Genius

YouTube is a treasure trove for many reasons; for me, one of the greatest reasons is the presence of the Pete Townshend Lifehouse home demos, his one-man band recordings from 1970-71 that were to form the backbone of an ambitious project involving audience participation, transcendental oneness and a mind-bogglingly complicated story. As Pete said about Lifehouse: "It was like the Brabazon aircraft of the 50s, magnificent in concept and appearance but too big to get off the ground." From the ashes of this project came The Who's massive 1971 album Who's Next, containing "Baba O'Riley", "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Won't Get Fooled Again". Great as that album is - and it is great - it is but a pale shadow of what Lifehouse would have been.

Pete's demo for 1972 non-album single "Relay", originally a part of the Lifehouse project.

For the Lifehouse project, Pete had prepared about 20 new compositions in demo form. "Demo" probably isn't the right term as it wasn't just Pete plonking away on guitar and singing along. All the instruments were overdubbed by Pete for a full band version. He was heavily into synthesizers at this time, and programmed them for the basic track, then played guitar, bass, drums and whatever else needed to be played. So before the rest of The Who had even heard the tracks, there was a set of high-quality recordings, which are great music in their own right, and set Townshend's extraordinary talent and vision in greater relief.

The quality of the Lifehouse songs is uniformly high. In fact, it seems as it Townshend was incapable of writing a bad song at this point. That's my impression listening to this stuff, anyway. Genius in full flow. Pete did release a massive 6-CD set called The Lifehouse Chronicles in 1999, and released it on his personal website. It's no longer on sale, but second-hand copies can be found around and about. have it going for $325 a pop. $325! You'd be a fool not to buy it! Nah, I'm joking. That's actually quite expensive. Pete also released a one-disc version called Lifehouse Elements at a more affordable price. Can't say I've heard it, but it sounds like a good alternative.

There's also a DVD of a concert Pete did in 2000 in which he performed all Lifehouse songs. It was a "tribute to Lifehouse" rather than a Lifehouse performance. That's an important distinction because an actual Lifehouse performance would have demanded all sorts of audience participation and searching for the universal note that expressed all the audience and players, along the lines of what Pete outlined in "Pure and Easy", the first song written for Lifehouse, and the genesis of the concept.

Lifehouse demo version of "Pure and Easy". Very long.

No, I haven't bought that DVD either, but have relied on YouTube for all my Lifehouse needs. However, someday, when money is less of an object, I will buy the Lifehouse Chronicles boxset, and it will take pride of place in my CD collection, because I think in 100 years time people will see Pete's body of work from that time in 1970/71 as one of the great songwriting achievements of rock music.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Kevin Myers, Rudyard Kipling and Imperialist Rhetoric

It should, I suppose, come as no surprise that Kevin Myers’s poet of choice is Rudyard Kipling, “the poet of empire” as he was known, and as Kipling’s own official website proudly proclaims. In Myers’s Independent column of yesterday, 9 August 2011, he quoted a verse of Kipling’s on the solder’s life in Afghanistan in the late 19th century, as part of his tribute to 37 US soldiers killed in a helicopter crash.

Myers is our day and our country’s  prosodic poet of empire, a “believer in the American imperium”, as he puts it in his orotund way. “It is the most benign global force that there has existed… It is an association of the free. No one has to join.” 

Myers has, I suspect, been reading a lot of Kipling and other 19th century imperialists, as he is coming out with a rhetoric very much of the same sort. Aside from the fact he’s talking about the US and not Britain, it’s the very same. Is he nostalgic for the old times when Britannia ruled the waves? And now he seeks to approximate this golden age in the form of an US empire, “a benign global force”, if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms: benignity won’t get any force very far along the road to global domination.

Kipling was originator of that famous phrase “the white man’s burden”. His poem of that name is a stirring ode to imperialism:

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples
Half devil and half child.

Half devil and half child. Nice. And so on over several verses. The sort of stuff, I am sure, that Kevin Myers gets misty-eyed about, and from which he has learned many lessons of rhetoric. It is the same exhortatory and inflated tone that Myers himself aims at. It can be a powerful weapon in competent hands, such as, undoubtedly, Kipling’s. Another Kipling favourite is “Ulster 1912”, an address to the unionists of Northern Ireland as the spectre of Home Rule loomed:
The dark eleventh hour
Draws on and sees us sold
To every evil power
We fought against of old -
Rebellion, rapine, hate,
Oppression, wrong and greed
Are loosed to rule our fate
By England's art and deed.

The faith in which we stand,
The laws we made and guard,
Our honour, lives, and land
Are given for reward
To murder done by night
To treason taught by day,
To folly, sloth, and spite,
And we are thrust away

The evil powers of rebellion, rapine, hate. That would be the Irish Catholics, I suppose. Hardly an even-handed approach to the problem of Home Rule. Folly, sloth and spite as well. As an Irishman, I find this a nasty piece of work. But anyway, the rhetoric of English dominion over Ireland was always the same as the rhetoric of empire in other parts of the world, and it’s the same as Myers’s pro-American spiel:

“What we are seeing in the Hindu Kush is part of an epochal struggle between the primal and the complex: between the nihilism of jihadist fundamentalism, and rule of reason, law and science. There is no guarantee that the latter will prevail.”
America is reason, law and science and Afghanistan is nihilism. Simple. When one can see the world in such binary terms it’s easy to justify imperialism. But given how close Myers is ideologically to English imperialists of bygone days, I wonder what his attitude to the old British Empire and British rule in Ireland is. I’m not familiar enough with the entire body of his work to know – and don’t intend to attain that familiarity – but still I would like to know, because his line of reasoning seems to assume the more technologically advanced nation is necessarily superior, and has the right, nay the duty, to stamp its foot down on the lesser race, for what end I’m not sure.

Having been recently reading Thomas Carlyle and some other commentators on English imperialism and the Irish question, I find echoes of that attitude in Myers, and it is there, too, in the studiedly patrician tones of his voice; a man who clearly likes to consider himself of an emperor race. Not knowing his full geneology, I believe he is second-generation Irish, so I would be interested to know his views on the anti-Irish aspect of Kipling, who he quotes so admiringly. Does he note any similarity in how Kipling saw the Irish and how he saw the people of the Indian subcontinent? Does he see any similarity in Kipling’s Irish and his, Myers, view of Afghans and the like? Even better, read Carlyle on the Irish. Had Kevin Myers been born some generations earlier he, as an Irishman, would have been spoken about as he now speaks of Afghans. Does this fact give him any pause for thought at all? Even for the briefest moment? That is what I’d like to know.