The Wild Ginger Man

J P Donleavy (l) with Brendan Behan (r) and Philip Wiseman

This exclusive extract from the Spring 2013 issue of Slightly Foxed quarterly is by Dabbler editor Andrew Nixon, and looks at the dark appeal and extraordinary publication history of J.P. Donleavy’s cult novel The Ginger Man

‘This’, said my father, handing me a battered paperback, ‘is the sort of book that people used to hide behind a newspaper when reading it on the train.’ I was 16. I took it reverently.

It was a 1967 Corgi edition of The Ginger Man by J. P. Donleavy: ‘Complete’ and, most promisingly, ‘Unexpurgated’. Of course I had no inkling then of the tortuous publication saga that lay behind that word ‘Unexpurgated’. Nor was I to know that the novel would come to have a profound effect on me – on the way I thought about literature and language, and about human nature in all its secret darkness. I retreated to my bedroom to devour The Ginger Man, but by the time I’d reached the first sex scene I’d forgotten that it was supposed to be a dirty book because, like so many readers before me, I had become transfixed by the outrageous charisma of its protagonist, that indelible monster Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield.

Discharged from the US Navy, Dangerfield is studying law at Trinity College, Dublin, class of 1947. He is not a good student. In and out of the city’s seediest pubs and vice dens, trading blows and banter with Ireland’s craziest drunks, he spends his time raising hell and seducing vulnerable women. ‘I’m a man for bedlam,’ he declares. His misadventures are frequently hilarious: he flees one bar brawl on an uncontrollable bicycle, starts another dressed as a kangaroo.

Revolving around him is a cast of lunatics and ne’er-do-wells, avant-garde Irish alcoholics and American ex-servicemen hungry for civilian action. Everyone is permanently broke. Denied a regular income by his rich father across the Atlantic, Dangerfield survives by sponging off women and running up credit with shopkeepers, all of whom fall for his good looks, charm and Anglicized vowels (‘I’m down to my accent,’ he observes in a bleak moment). He scurries to the pawnbroker with anything that isn’t screwed down and even one thing that is: a mirror in a pub toilet, which he unscrews with a fork. All ill-gotten gains are spent instantly on booze, and so his life ploughs aimlessly on, a blurred carousel of scrounging and starving, fighting and fleeing, in farce and despair.

Given this, The Ginger Man might have been a bawdy comic romp, with Sebastian Dangerfield the picaresque anti-hero. But it is not, because something much stranger and darker lies at the heart of the novel.

‘Mr Dangerfield, would you pass me your plate. Why do you water that little plant in the front with an eye dropper?’
‘Miss Frost, you’ve been spying on me. On me in my secret moments.’
‘O I haven’t. But why do you do such a funny thing?’
‘I’m poisoning the plant.’
‘Lord save us.’
‘Now look at that plant out there, Miss Frost. Would you say it was much longer for this world?’
‘O Mr Dangerfield I don’t know what to say. That poor plant.’
‘It’s something in me, Miss Frost. I thought to myself why don’t I slip this plant something to kill it.’
‘You don’t mean that.’
‘I’m a killer.’

Such is Dangerfield’s motiveless cruelty. Less amusing is his treatment of his young wife and daughter. Early in the book, a domestic row turns violent:

Marion lunged, her slap landing across his jaw. The child began to scream in the nursery. Sebastian up off the table. He drove his fist into Marion’s face. She fell backward against the cupboard. Dishes crashing to the floor. In tattered underwear he stood at the nursery door. He kicked his foot through and tore off the lock to open it. Took the child’s pillow from under its head and pressed it hard on the screaming mouth.

‘I’ll kill it, God damn it, I’ll kill it, if it doesn’t shut up.’

There is nothing comic about that incident: it is unforgivable wickedness. Donleavy sacrifices our sympathy for his protagonist early on in the book, yet asks us to stay with him, even laugh with him. And despite ourselves, we do. Why? This is the troubling mystery of The Ginger Man.


Over the past half-century a procession of journalists have ventured deep into rural Ireland to track down James Patrick Donleavy and write ‘Whatever Happened to The Ginger Man?’ pieces for the broadsheets. Each paints a similar portrait. Donleavy lives reclusively in a crumbling estate in County Westmeath. Here he has cultivated the persona of an Anglo-Irish country squire: tweedy, formidably bearded and with a bizarre mid-Atlantic accent amalgamating his Bronx upbringing, Irish parentage and pretensions to the English landed gentry.

He combines aristocratic manners with a spiky, almost paranoid combativeness. While serving tea in formal style he tells lurid tales of Dublin in the 1940s when he ran with Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and other hell-raising artists who provided the models for his characters. Most interviews seem to conclude with him leaping up to demonstrate his boxing prowess by throwing seven air punches in a second. Comical perhaps, but it is this pugnacious streak that enabled Donleavy first to get The Ginger Man published, and ultimately to triumph in one of the most bitter and protracted legal battles in literary history.

The Ginger Man was Donleavy’s first novel and it took him four arduous years to write. Convinced it was a masterpiece, he was determined not to compromise on material that was, in the 1950s, certain to be banned for obscenity, with the consequence that the final manuscript was rejected by over thirty publishers in Britain and the United States.

Apparent salvation came when Brendan Behan suggested trying the Paris-based Olympia Press, which was already putting out avant-garde literature by Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller and would soon publish Naked Lunch and Lolita. Olympia’s charismatic owner Maurice Girodias read The Ginger Man and agreed to take it on.

The first inkling Donleavy had that something was amiss came when Girodias complained that ‘the reader does not become engaged in the book . . . until p.100 or thereabouts’. It was on p.100, Donleavy belatedly noticed, that ‘there appeared the first considerable account of a sexual nature’. His suspicions were further aroused when he was required to collect his advance payment in used banknotes from the basement of a seedy Soho bookshop.

Full realization of Girodias’ duplicity came when Donleavy received his first printed copy. For Olympia’s chief source of income was erotica, and with the authorities breathing down his neck Girodias intended to use The Ginger Man to give his business a veneer of literary respectability. To this end he included it in a pornographic series called ‘Traveller’s Companion’, and when Donleavy turned to the back of the volume he saw his precious novel listed alongside such titles as White Thighs, School for Sin and The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe. Furthermore, The Ginger Man was marked as a ‘special volume’. Girodias claimed that this denoted its literary merit but, as Donleavy pointed out, it might also be interpreted to mean that The Ginger Man was ‘a particularly raunchy variety of dirty book’.

Donleavy vowed revenge. He cut the manuscript to meet British censorship standards and took it to the London publisher Neville Spearman, who published the first English edition in 1956. Girodias retaliated by publishing his own expurgated version with a dust-jacket containing a diatribe against Donleavy, who promptly sued him. And so the tit-for-tat legal battle began, both parties claiming ownership of the publishing rights. Counter-suit followed counter-suit for over twenty years, and the saga was only resolved when Donleavy’s wife dramatically bought the Olympia Press from under Girodias’s nose at auction. Thus Donleavy found himself in the position of suing himself, and was able to bring the whole sorry business to a close.


In the meantime, the world had changed. Corgi printed the first unexpurgated edition in 1963. It has since sold over 45 million copies worldwide and has never been out of print. Donleavy went on to write a further twelve commercially successful novels, yet what little critical reputation he still enjoys rests almost entirely on The Ginger Man. This is unfair, but only slightly. A Singular Man and A Fairy Tale of New York are fine works, but only Sebastian Dangerfield is indelible.

Critics have puzzled over The Ginger Man for years without solving its mystery. In the 1960s Donleavy was grouped with the ‘angry young men’, but the snobbish Dangerfield couldn’t be further from a working-class hero. Reviewers have raved, but about completely different things. Dorothy Parker called The Ginger Man ‘the picaresque novel to stop them all. Lusty, violent, wildly funny, it is a rigadoon of rascality, a bawled-out comic song of sex.’ Conversely, John Banville has praised ‘the sense of sweet and delicate melancholy that clings to the pages’.

Lusty and violent, yet sweet and delicate? The answer to the puzzle lies, I believe, in the book’s extraordinary style. From the opening sentence (‘Today a rare sun of spring.’), the deranged, grammar-mangling prose hops ceaselessly between first and third person, past tense and present. As Donleavy himself has put it: ‘I just focused on how to get the words off the page and into the reader’s brain, as directly as possible.’

Growl back to sleep. Pull the legs up in the foetal crouch. Marion wearing my underwear. Sometimes the sun would sneak in. Then Marion beating barefoot on the linoleum. Entreaties. O do get up. In my heart where no one else can hear me, I was saying, now for God’s sake, Marion, be a good Britisher and get down there in that little nest of a kitchen and buzz on the coffee like a good girl and would you, while you’re at it, kind of brown up a few pieces of bread and I wouldn’t mind if maybe there was the suggestion of bacon on it, only a suggestion, and have it all ready on the table and then I’ll come down and act the good husband with, ah darling good morning, how are you, you’re looking lovely this morning darling and younger every morning. A great one that last. But I come down martyred and mussed, feeble and fussed, heart and soul covered in cement.

Dangerfield’s interior monologue is so absorbing that his actions in the physical world appear almost as strange interruptions. He is witty, incisive, delusional, mournful: an all too human mass of contradictions. This is why The Ginger Man is simultaneously ‘violent’ and ‘delicate’, with a realism that shocks even today. In 1992 Donleavy said:

The Ginger Man still provokes reactions. Not on its sexual implications, the so-called obscenity of the book; more because people connect with its reality right away, and once you get into the reality of this work, suddenly what might be obscene hits you much harder.

We know Dangerfield directly, without the interventions of authorial judgement or plot-driven motive, and such intimate knowledge makes it difficult simply to condemn or forgive. This is the mysterious power that has sent generations of journalists deep into rural Ireland, and transfixed 16-year-old boys in their bedrooms.

The final words of The Ginger Man are a prayer. At the end of his adventures Sebastian Dangerfield has learnt no lessons and received no comeuppance. It is scandalous, and yet, when I finished the last page of that battered Corgi paperback I could not help but join in – as I still do today – with Donleavy’s plaintive plea for:

God’s mercy
On the wild
Ginger Man.

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Tarka the Rotter: The Gale of the World

The lead article in the current issue of the excellent Slightly Foxed quarterly magazine is by none other than our own Jonathan Law, who looks at the work of Tarka the Otter author Henry Williamson. You can read the original piece here.
Last week, in the first of two exclusive follow-up articles for The Dabbler, Jonathan explained how Williamson became a committed Nazi, and today he concludes the series by examining his final years, and how he became an unlikely hero for the burgeoning hippy and green movements….

In 1946, at the close of the long war that he had so bitterly opposed, Henry Williamson made a solitary return to North Devon and the landscapes that had inspired him to start writing some 25 years earlier. His marriage had collapsed, he was mentally and physically exhausted, and his reputation was in tatters. And yet at this low point, at the age of 50, he would begin to plan the most ambitious work of his career – a series of 15 full-length novels in which a version of his own family history becomes the basis for a vast panorama of English life in the first half of the 20th century.

A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight would take Williamson over twenty years to complete, with the first volume, The Dark Lantern, appearing to faint praise in 1951 and the last, The Gale of the World, to an awkward silence in 1969. At almost three million words (of which I have read perhaps two thirds) this is without much doubt the longest novel sequence in English – probably more than twice the length of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It needs to be said at once that the books have most faults that a novel can have: they are longwinded, ineptly plotted, and lack both focus and narrative drive; the attempts at social comedy are mostly laughable and the dialogue (literally) unspeakable. But all this said, they have the important merit of being very readable; indeed, once you have chewed your way through two or three of them, they become alarmingly addictive.

Why this should be, I don’t know. It’s a dodgy argument, but I can only suggest that in some odd way the lack of shape and polish works to enhance the feeling of real lives being lived that these books really convey (shape and polish being high on the list of things our lived lives lack). The design of the novels is about as far from the Jamesian ideal as could be; events with no real significance in the wider scheme of the book are treated at length, simply because something of the kind once happened to the author. Despite its obvious drawbacks, this can pay off – most spectacularly in the five books based on Williamson’s experiences in World War I. Here the Chronicle achieves genuine, if intermittent, greatness. The loose structure gives free rein to Williamson’s savant-like powers of recall and description and helps to create an uncanny impression of truth to life: very simply, the books provide a stronger sense of what it must have been like to live through the trenches – the sounds, sights, and smells – than any others I’ve read. This makes them gruelling reading. But some enterprising publisher really ought to get these novels in print again (even if somewhat abridged).

Blessedly, the earlier books in the series show few signs of their author’s ugly politics: indeed, with their generalized social concern and rather obvious attacks on establishment figures (war-mongering journalists, un-Christian clerics) you would probably put their author vaguely on the left. The huge supporting cast includes a few Jewish characters and these are treated with no lack of respect. However, all this changes abruptly when we come to the last four volumes, those dealing with the events of the 1930s and 40s; here it becomes painfully clear that Williamson has not altered his views in the slightest. The novels are overtly fascist – the only English novels I know of which this can be said. In The Phoenix Generation Williamson presents the national socialism of Hitler and Mosley (‘Hereward Birkin’) as a heroic rising from the ashes of war and Depression. A Solitary War – which Williamson dedicated to the Mosleys – gives unstinting praise to the Hitler who (we are told):

freed the farmers from the mortgages which drained the land, cleared the slums, inspired work for all the seven million unemployed, got them to believe in their greatness … the former pallid leer of hopeless slum youth transformed into the sun-tan, the clear eye, the broad and easy rhythm of the poised young human being.

And Lucifer before Sunrise takes a final step into madness, with the dead Hitler lauded as a chaste Saint, above earthly impulses” and a “flawed Christ … killed by the lack of imagination of others.

However inured to the political idiocy of writers you might consider yourself to be, it’s pretty shocking to read this stuff in a novel of the late 1960s. As with those who stayed loyal to the Party after Stalin, after Hungary, after everything anyone needed to know was known, the sin is all in the persistence – the refusal even to think about thinking again. At some point folly this stubborn tips over into something it’s hardly worth trying to distinguish from wickedness. God alone knows what Williamson’s publishers must have felt. Although Macdonald continued to issue the Chronicle, the books were no longer reviewed or promoted – and hardly seem to have been edited. Apart from their other failings, these late novels seem very hastily written: the author who had revised parts of Tarka thirty times now seemed content to publish first-draft material. As he entered his seventies, Williamson must have known that his great project was running out of time.


Fittingly, the very best and worst of Williamson come together in the last Ancient Sunlight novel, The Gale of the World (1969). This is a book that I could not in good conscience recommend to anyone – yes folks, a mostly boring, badly written book that sucks up to Hitler’s ghost and even takes in some half-hearted Holocaust revisionism! A sure thing for Richard and Judy, no? Yet if you have the good taste to ignore this novel you will miss something unforgettable. In the last fifty pages Williamson brings his life’s work to an end with a bang – an absolutely hair-raising account of the freak storm and flood that blasted Lynmouth in August 1952. This is quite simply one of the great set pieces of descriptive writing produced in the last century.

As the rain sheets down onto the already waterlogged bogs of Exmoorand begins to roar into the narrow gorge of the Lyn, all sorts of other stuff is happening and all of it is mental. Outraged at the injustice of the Nurembergtrials, members of the village cricket team are flying through the storm in gliders to rescue Rudolf Hess from Spandauprison (happens all the time, I know). Meanwhile, a half-crazed Phillip Maddison, the H. Williamson character in the books, is up on the Chains, the wildest part of Exmoor, building a pyre for his father’s corpse: he contemplates suicide but is saved from this fate when he is struck by lightning. As the great storm – the Gale of the World – breaks on Phillip’s head, the wild imagery takes us back to the trenches but also sums up the tumult of a life:

These lower, darker cumulus clouds were fuming and tumbling … Forked lightning hissed continuously; air-cleaving bolts released a smell of sulphurous oxide out of rainpools instantaneously seeming to be made to boil and cool again in one stroke. Down flailed blobs of ice, to bounce on back and head of Phillip … After the barrage of hail came the bayonets of rain, stabbing thick and hard; but it was warm after the hail. And soon The Chains, fifteen hundred feet above the sea, was a glittering sheet of water from which a semblance of glassy thistles rose a foot high and side by side, so violent was the down-hurled rain. And the tops of the clumps of sedge-grass were linked by pale blue waving gossamers of St. Elmo’s Fire. Hurray! Hurray! …

How ironic, that I was nearly destroyed by the defects of what qualities I possess! No funeral pyre in this slashing, roaring, lightcracking battlefield night the very elements at war … the old gods come together to thwart my cowardice, to bestow on me their gifts of courage!

Those curious rosy lights playing about below the senior flashes of the sky-cracking purple jags: fire-balls in play, shooting up from moor grass clumps and the wilted white tufts of the cotton grass, to die away and be succeeded by others, each pink ball about two feet in diameter, and all gentle, a rosy play of infants while the giants fling their bolts in great angry veins of electric death!

I can go home after all this, I have a warm place to go to, I am free, this isn’t Passchendaele there all were homeless – I am free …

A cloud directly above him was changing colour from a dirty grey-green to a ghastly swirling white as it heaved like a conglomeration of enormous maggots. It had such a sinister appearance that he stood still upon the tumulus and stared up at it, a discoloured Chinese dragon … then from one tentacle lowering upon the earth issued a stunning flash. He felt a blow on the top of his head, breaking body from legs as the earth rose up to his eyes.

In these pages – and it really does go on and on like this – the Götterdämmerung strain that had always been present in Williamson finds its most extraordinary expression. After the years of bitterness, it’s like a great boil bursting in his psyche. Magnificent, of course – but observe the narcissism that takes a natural disaster on this scale and turns it into a personal catharsis for himself and his hero.


Who read The Gale of the World in 1969, and what the hell can they have made of it? The question is fascinating, not least because Williamson had begun to find an audience again. Suddenly the old fascist had admirers in the burgeoning hippy and green movements. His long-term anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism, and environmentalism were now quite the rage, as were his interests in Eastern religions, Jungian archetypes, yes all that. It seems the hippies saw Williamson rather as the Beats had regarded Ezra Pound in the 1950s: the guy may be a fascist, but at least he isn’t a square.

Indeed, if you look back at the hippyish sentiments in Williamson’s earliest novels, written in the wake of World War I, there’s a curious sense of things having come full circle. While Henry marched against the Vietnam War, his son Harry became a minor figure on the alternative music scene, taking up with various members of Gong and Hawkwind. New offers began to come in: plans were made to film Tarka and Williamson even went on Desert Island Discs (luxury item: a cor anglais). In 1969 BBC TV broadcast a respectful interview from his farm, in which he holds forth on the evils of pollution and city life. He comes across as a sweet old boy: but they had to tweak the footage, to hide the giant swastika he’d painted on his barn.

With a weird synchronicity that Williamson might have liked, he died on a summer’s day in 1977 – just as a crew was shooting the death of Tarka, under the teeth of the hounds, at the wide mouth of the twisting Torridge River.

Jonathan Law is a writer and editor of reference books at Market House Books.

Tarka the Rotter

The lead article in the current issue of the excellent Slightly Foxed quarterly magazine is by none other than our own Jonathan Law, who looks at the work (and alarming Nazi politics) of Tarka the Otter author Henry Williamson. Here is the original piece, and in the next two weeks Jonathan will be delving deeper in Williamson’s strange mind with some exclusive Dabbler follow-up articles…

If we’re honest, most of us have at least one friend that we would hesitate to bring into civilized company – someone too strange or socially awkward, full of crazed notions about God or politics, given to boring on or making horrible scenes: unspeakable when drunk. Something similar holds with writers: there are books and authors that we love quite unreasonably but would hesitate to introduce to anyone nice. Often, these are the authors that we read and read again, however many times we’ve given them up in despair or disgust, promising ourselves that we won’t soil another moment in their company. As with many a difficult friendship, you can end up wondering who is abusing whom. Some knotty thoughts arise: doesn’t allowing ourselves to feel ashamed of someone, anyone, always make us feel a bit ashamed of ourselves? Doesn’t it imply a priggishness – at worst a kind of treachery?

The bothersome chap who prompts these thoughts is Henry Williamson – author of Tarka the Otter (1927), some lesser known but exquisitely written animal stories, and twenty or so full-length novels, now largely unread except by a small band of cultists. Williamson seems a man made for mixed feelings: a naturalist of rare gifts, a writer with a unique voice and vision, but unquestionably a bore, a crank – and here it gets critical – an overt, unapologetic Nazi. As a man, some found him lovable – a strangely feral, childlike creature: others saw something very dark and had the perfect ready-made nickname: Tarka the Rotter.

I mean to deal with the hard stuff, the barking mad Nazi stuff, in another post (or two); we’ll see how this gifted, rather gentle man ended up where he did, a literary pariah still babbling shamelessly about Hitler as a “flawed Christ” in his novels of the 1960s. For the moment, I want to focus on the acceptable side of Williamson and to talk about his best-loved book, written a decade or so before he got all sticky for Oswald and Adolf. But even here it’s hard to ignore the portents – those little signs pointing to where it would all go so horribly wrong …


It’s easy to feel attracted to the young Henry Williamson – the nerve-wracked war veteran, still in his early twenties, who makes his way to North Devon on a battered motorbike, with a head full of Shelley and Richard Jefferies; who holes up in a tiny damp cottage – soon filled with cats, dogs, owls, gulls, a baby otter – and lives a hermit’s or a tramp’s life, exploring the wild country about him and starting to write it all down. This guy we can agree to like, surely: he seems a bit like Snufkin, the unworldly drifter in the Moomin stories. He swims nude, he throws apples at local dignitaries, he scandalizes with his wild talk of Lenin and Christ.

OK, so he’s a bit worrying after all, this young man. But there’s something inspiring, too, about the way he comes to write Tarka by a kind of deep immersion – plunging himself into the creature’s habits and habitats, crawling through spinneys and splashing through rivers to get an otter’s eye view of the world. The tale has been frequently told, perhaps most eloquently by Robert Macfarlane:

Daily, for months, he walked out alone into the great wedge of moor that is held between the rivers Taw and Torridge, where they tumble, divergent, off the north-west slope ofDartmoor. During those seasons of river haunting, Williamson lived through the moor’s different weathers. Big scapular-shaped rain clouds, light trimming the wet rocks, coffee-coloured spate-water. At other times, sunlight, softness, wild swans beating through blue sky. Sometimes he slept out overnight, in the lee of a bank or in a stand of trees. He would wake starred with frost, or hung with dew. In the course of that strange and restless time, Williamson became, by his own reckoning, an otter-man.

In these early days, otter-man took the same heroic trouble with his prose as he did with his fieldwork; Tarka was rewritten some 17 times, a few key chapters twice that. Williamson is, or can be, a virtuoso stylist:

While the pallor of the day was fading off the snow a skein of great white birds, flying with arched wings and long stretched necks, appeared with a measured beat of pinions from the north. Hompa, hompa, hompa, high in the cold air … The beams of the lighthouse spread like Continue reading

My Dear Maggoty Sir – The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough

Our friends at Slightly Foxed (the real readers’ quarterly – buy a subscription now!) have once again kindly allowed The Dabbler to dip into its rich archives.
In this article from the Spring 2004 issue Roger Hudson discovers the “brilliant but eccentric” (not to mention “too licentious to be published”) letters of the great portrait artist Thomas Gainsborough …

If the figures of history are paraded before the mind’s eye, century by century, once the 1750s are reached one seems suddenly to be looking through a zoom lens. The procession of more-or-less august personages, remote and rather incomprehensible, conventionally portrayed and stiffly posed, and speaking or writing in stilted formulae, is elbowed aside by an animated and colourful crowd, all in close focus. Their faces and their pens are equally lively: here at last are men and women with whom we would like to converse, at whose jokes we could laugh, and with whom it would be our good fortune to become friends.

One does not have far to look for the reasons. British portrait painting was entering its most glorious period, lifted to the highest level by native-born painters like Allan Ramsay, Henry Raeburn, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence. If this was partly the result of an increase in self-awareness among the sitters, then perhaps this also explains the outburst of correspondence and journal-keeping at the same time from, for example, Horace Walpole, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the poets Thomas Gray and William Cowper, Fanny Burney, James Boswell and Parson Woodforde. Most people, if the name of Thomas Gainsborough were thrown into the ring, would be more than happy to add him to our list of painters. It is only those lucky enough to have come across his letters who will know that he is also more than worthy of inclusion in the ranks of the writers.

In trying to pin down the qualities that make his paintings so outstanding people have used phrases like ‘shimmering fluency’. Something of the same can be discerned in the letters, which are immediate, sparkling, conversational in their flow. The Reverend Sir Henry Bate-Dudley, a friend of and sitter to Gainsborough, wrote of the ‘ease’ and ‘nervous force’ of his correspondence: ‘a selection of his letters would offer to the world as much originality and beauty as is ever to be traced in his painting!’ Another friend, William Jackson, organist of Exeter Cathedral and would-be landscape painter, said it was, ‘like his conversation, gay, lively and fluttering round subjects which he just touched, and away to another . . . his correspondents, considering the letter as part of their friend, had never the heart to burn it’. While his contemporaries may have cherished Gainsborough’s letters, they were too much for the nineteenth century. A bundle of them, on which someone had written, ‘Brilliant but eccentric . . . too licentious to be published’, disappeared. Only 110 letters have survived, which should please those readers for whom short books are the best. Anyone turning to them for discussion of public events of the period or for social commentary will be disappointed. Instead they will find much on how he painted, his views on portraiture, on his patrons and his family, on landscape painting and on music – these last two were his real loves.

Gainsborough’s life divides into three periods: his Suffolk childhood, his training, marriage and early work in London and then back in Suffolk; his time in Bath from 1759; and his period in London from 1774. His father was, of all unlikely things, a shroud maker, but he produced two remarkable sons in Thomas and Humphry, who was a dissenting clergyman and inventor of a steam engine. The letters throw no light on Thomas’s training in the studio of that pioneer of the rococo style in England, the Frenchman Hubert Gravelot, or his study in the salerooms and dealers’ shops of the Dutch seventeenth-century landscapists; or, indeed, on his marriage to a natural daughter of the Duke of Beaufort in 1746, who brought with her an allowance of £200 a year.

This is because none survives from before 1753. Gainsborough did, however, remark in a letter of 1773 that ‘London was my first school, and deeply read in petticoats I am.’ From such early works as the famous double portrait of Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews sitting and standing on the edge of their cornfield (c1749, National Gallery) it can be seen that on occasion he was attempting to combine what he loved – landscape – with what actually brought in Continue reading

The Ascent of Rum Doodle

Our friends at Slightly Foxed (the real readers’ quarterly – buy a subscription now!) have once again kindly allowed The Dabbler to dip into its rich archives. In this corker — originally entitled A Rum Do – from the Spring 2007 edition (issue 14),author Linda Leatherbarrow looks at W E Bowman’s classic derring-do spoof The Ascent of Rum Doodle…

Mountaineers can obviously take a joke. In 1981, four years before W. E. Bowman died and a quarter of a century after the publication of his spoof mountaineering book, The Ascent of Rum Doodle, he discovered to his amazement that members of the 1959 Australian Antarctic Expedition had affectionately named a small mountain Mount Rumdoodle and that this had been duly incorporated into Antarctic maps.

Travelling recently from London up to Scotland, I took with me a paperback reissue of his book to read on the train. I was going to visit my daughter, Sophie, who has relocated from London to Argyll and now lives in a cottage surrounded by mountains. Most of these are Munros (named after Sir Hugh T. Munro who in 1891 surveyed all of Scotland’s mountains over 3,000 feet). It is a place of wild waterfalls, wind and fast scudding clouds, and her kitchen cupboards are full of ropes and rock-climbing tackle. I thought she would enjoy Bowman’s book and planned to make her a present of it, but first I was keeping up the family tradition of book-giving: well-thumbed and with a bookmark still inside.

The new Rum Doodle contains an introduction by Bill Bryson and plenty of delightful illustrations featuring old engravings and possibly genuine photographs of mountaineering exploits, suitably recaptioned with quotes from the book. Soon I was chuckling and smiling, not something I usually do on trains – all the way up, in fact, until we passed through the Lake District. There I laid down the book, not because it had in any way palled, but because I find it impossible to pass mountains without giving them my attention.

As a child, I lived in a grey granite house on the edge of the Cairngorms. In front of the house, across the road, was a municipal park with asphalt paths and tidy lawns but if you squeezed through a gap in the railings, you could climb up a hill covered with blaeberries and harebells. At the summit someone had built an octagonal pagoda – Scotland, contrary to its dour image, is full of strange fancies and follies – and I used to sit up there, under the gilt roof, gazing across to the rim of blue hills in the distance, where there was snow even in summer.

It was in 1956, three years after the first ‘conquest’ of Everest, that W. E. Bowman published his book. His imaginary mountain, in its mysterious snowy fastness, has never been climbed before. Binder, the narrator, tells us: ‘The various estimates of the height of the true summit vary considerably, but by taking an average of these figures it is possible to say confidently that the summit of Rum Doodle is 40,000 and a half feet above sea level.’

The highest hill Bowman himself ever climbed was Scafell Pike (3,208 feet). He was born in 1911 in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, left school at 16 and spent much of his life in a drawing office as a civil engineer. According to his widow, Eva Bowman, his book was modelled on a 1937 account of Bill Tilman’s Nandi Devi expedition. Nevertheless, many readers believed him to be a famous mountaineer writing under a pseudonym. Surely no amateur could have written so amusingly about the real rigours of climbing? The Ascent of Rum Doodle is crammed with references to equipment and apparatus (including crates of top-quality champagne, for medicinal purposes), the descriptions of gorges, crevasses and precipitous ridges are entirely convincing, and there is much talk of summits, faces, saddles, Base Camp, Advanced Camp, the South Col and the Wall.

It is not, however, the location that has made the book such an enduring cult classic, but its cast of likeable and eccentric characters, all as idiotic as Bertie Wooster, but somehow more touching and human in their fallibility.

As Bill Bryson explains in his Introduction:

There is Binder, the kindly, dogged, reliably under-insightful leader of the party; Jungle the route finder who cannot find his way to any assembly point and is forever cabling apologies from remote and inappropriate locales; Wish, the scientist, who passes the sea voyage by testing his equipment and discovers that the ship is 153 feet above sea level; Constant, the language expert who, through errors of grammar and syntax, constantly provokes to fury the Yogistani porters; and the terrifying cook Pong, whose arrival at each camp spurs the men on to ever greater heights.

Pong’s cooking not only gives the men indigestion (much is made of cramps, stomach aches, nightmares, belches, pills and tablets) but is considered by its creator to be an art form: at any hint of criticism ‘he went into a kind of frenzy and threatened us with knives’. In addition, the men are prone to a series of Continue reading

Edith Sitwell and the English Eccentrics

Our friends at Slightly Foxed (the real readers’ quarterly – buy a subscription now!) have once again kindly allowed The Dabbler to dip into its rich archives. We have handpicked this gem for you — originally entitled A Splendid Attitude to Death – from the Spring 2010 edition, in which author Christopher Robbins looks at Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics.

‘Eccentricity’, wrote Edith Sitwell, ‘exists particularly in the English, and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and birthright of the British nation.’ Ah, those were the days. And just in case this unfashionable declaration of tribal perfection fails to establish Dame Edith’s unabashed élitism, she adds: ‘Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.’

The non-English and the dull, and those of us who lack noble blood or whose genius is yet to be acknowledged, might feel inclined to give Miss Sitwell’s book English Eccentrics (1933) a miss. That would be a pity. This strange holdall of human curiosities is as eccentric in style and form as its theme, and is not at all restricted to arrogant aristos and dotty men of genius. Quite a number of the eccentrics are not even English.

No writer could ever have been more suited to her subject. Edith Sitwell was certainly aristocratic, but born of such unloving parents that from an early age extreme eccentricity became a refuge. Her mother was self-obsessed, a spendthrift and a hysteric. Her father was a miser who cared only for his sons. When his daughter had gained an international reputation as a poet he still maintained that ‘Edith made a great mistake in not going in for lawn tennis.’

In defence, Dame Edith developed a regal and intimidating presence, touchy and grand, but behind the formidable pose was an unloved child with an inferiority complex. Far from being indifferent to the opinion of others, she was hypersensitive to criticism of both her poetry and her looks, and lived in terror of revealing her vulnerable and shy nature. Most of the eccentrics in her book are similarly damaged human goods, retreating into modes of behaviour designed to hold the world at bay.

Edith took eccentricity seriously. She saw it not as a flamboyant display of personality or idiosyncrasy of mind but rather as an instinctive rebellion against the quotidian coupled with an inability to adapt to the world’s norms: ‘Some rigid, and even splendid attitude to Death, some exaggeration of the attitudes common to Life’.

English Eccentrics is laced with sadness and there is a chill to the wit. The elaborate prose is hung with cobwebs, the structure formless and even repetitive, as the author meanders among the strange and often tragic lives of her characters. A modern reader might wish for a severe editor to prune the more tangential ruminations, but such an oddity of a book would crumble and collapse without its antique charm.

The author’s own eccentricity was first of all visual. Dame Edith was an eyeful. Picasso described her face as Continue reading

Chips with Everything: Stephen Potter and Upmanship

Our friends at Slightly Foxed (the real readers’ quarterly – buy a subscription now!) have once again kindly allowed The Dabbler to dip into its rich archives. We have handpicked this gem for you from the Autumn 09 edition, in which author Andrew Martin looks at the ‘Upmanship’ books of Stephen Potter

I first encountered the work of Stephen Potter in a TV sketch show that conflated the great comedy quartet of his ‘Upmanship’ books: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, Lifemanship, One-Upmanship and Supermanship, published by Rupert Hart-Davis between the late Forties and late Fifties. The TV series began in 1974, when I was 12, by which time Potter had been dead for five years. Having recently discovered A. G. Macdonell’s England, Their England, I was just learning that sustained drollery is better than a series of gags, and these programmes seemed another lesson to that effect.

On taking the books out of York Library (you won’t find Potter in many public libraries today) I was struck by the combination of well-mannered elegance in the writing, and the brutality of the cod social advice given: the section in Lifemanship starkly headed ‘How to Make People Feel Awkward about Religion’ . . . or a passage in the same book about how to trip up a man who really knows what he’s talking about. The example is given of an ‘expert’ annoyingly holding the floor after a fortnight in Florence: ‘And I was glad to see with my own eyes that this Left-Wing Catholicism is definitely on the increase in Tuscany’, to which Potter urges the Lifeman to counter, ‘Yes, but not in the South.’ This struck me as not only amusing but also practically useful – a remark that really would check the speaker, and at no cost to the Lifeman, it being completely unanswerable. When Potter added that ‘Yes, but not in the South’ would do for any argument about any place, I believed him, and I still do.

I have always felt a kinship with Potter. By the age of 12 I’d worked out that the sole point of social interaction was to make the other party feel slightly inferior, and he was the first person I encountered bold enough to say so. There was one mystery about him, however. Whereas my own northern, upper-working/lower-middle circumstances would seem to justify a degree of churlishness and chippiness, Potter’s did not appear to do so. I was vaguely aware that he was a shambling, endearing chain-smoker who’d lived the sort of well-padded life that writers used to have, progressing urbanely from public school to Oxford, to the BBC via a stint in academia. But when, in 1980, Alan Jenkins’s excellent biography of Potter appeared, I began to see why he would want to write a series of books setting out the absolute necessity of ‘breaking the flow’ of the man who was genuinely good at golf or billiards; or how to counter ‘the deadly one-upness of the man who, say, has really been to Russia, has genuinely taken a course in psychiatry, has actually read history at Oxford, or has written a book on something’.

Potter was educated at Westminster, but he grew up in Clapham, and his father was an accountant. He became an officer in the Coldstream Guards, but only just (Second Lieutenant), and he was too late to see action in the Great War. He went to Oxford, but he missed out on a First and the Blue that he might have expected in tennis or rowing.

He became a successful BBC radio producer with an iconoclastic style – his trademark was the cross-fading of gramophones – and this is not at all surprising, since his comic books demonstrate a wonderfully acute ear. But he always wanted to be a Great Writer, or at least a literary critic. His first book was a psychologically intense novel, unpromisingly entitled The Young Man. It was praised by Vita Sackville-West and L. P. Hartley, but Potter knew it hadn’t really worked. He then produced a rather po-faced, if competent, study of D. H. Lawrence, for which he would atone in Supermanship by inventing the character of ‘The Lawrence-man’, an arch, ginger-bearded figure whose ploy is deliberately to exasperate people by making wispy remarks such as ‘the cool prying of the North child can never find the secret of Poplihotl’. When invited to ‘make himself clear’, he responds infuriatingly, ‘Can anybody make themselves clear?’

Next came The Muse in Chains, a semi-satirical take on the industry of ‘lit. crit.’, and this laid the ground for the humour that would follow, which itself would be couched, like 1066 and All That, in a quasi-academic style, with footnotes and elaborate, courtly acknowledgement of sources, all meant to give the impression that seeking to be One-Up is a legitimate and widely practised discipline.

The first book, Gamesmanship, is devoted to ‘the art of winning games without actually cheating’ and begins with an account of ‘Joad’s Gambit’, which was essayed during a tennis match in London on 8 June 1931. Joad was Dr C. E. Joad, the pugnacious popular philosopher and Lifeman, who would go on to annoy thousands of listeners to the radio programme, The Brains Trust, every week by responding to audience questions with the supremely patronizing formula, ‘It depends what you mean by . . .’ Joad was a good friend of Potter’s, and they played tennis together, so the story of the gambit – which runs as follows – may actually be true.

In a game of doubles, Continue reading

COMPETITION: Win a Christmas Fox

Christmas Foxes are Slightly Foxed’s special seasonal editions. Beautifully-bound and compact, they make an ideal stocking-filler for the book-lover in your family, or a literary alternative to a Christmas card.

This year’s edition features a delightful short story by author Linda Leatherbarrow. It costs £6.50 in the UK or £7.50 overseas, and more details on the Christmas Fox are here.

Win a Christmas Fox
Slightly Foxed are giving away three (three, no less!) copies of the Christmas Fox to Dabbler readers.

The competition is open to everyone anywhere in the world (you don’t have to be based in the UK).

All you have to do to be in with a chance is to identify the illustrator of the following picture:

Email your answer to  putting “Christmas Fox” in the subject line.

No need to include any personal details, but it would be helpful if you could indicate how you come to hear about this competition (eg. via another blog).

We will pick a winner at random and contact them to get their postal address etc.

The deadline is midnight (GMT) on Monday 13 December. Good luck!

Mr Smith Goes to Arcadia by Richard Platt

Slightly Foxed (the real readers’ quarterly – buy a subsciption now!)  has kindly allowed The Dabbler to dip into its rich archives. We have handpicked this gem for you from the Autumn 09 edition, in which Richard Platt looks at  Dreamthorp by Alexander Smith: the best-loved, least-known book in the English language…

In 1938, with the gloriously musical literary voices of Victoria’s reign just fading from living memory, Oxford University Press published English Prose of the Victorian Era. The table of contents of this 1,700-page behemoth is a literary Who’s Who of the nineteenth century: Carlyle, Macaulay, Newman, Mill, Ruskin, Thackeray, Arnold, T. H. Huxley, William Morris, J. A. Froude, Walter Pater, Robert Louis Stevenson. Though they are now seldom accorded the respect they deserve, they are familiar – though often, sadly, only in name. There is a single exception. One gentle soul has been forsaken. His name is Alexander Smith, and in 1863 he gave us a quiet masterpiece: Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country.

The village of Dreamthorp is the inner sanctuary of a man condemned by financial necessity to a city life, but whose heart and mind are never at ease until his foot sinks into the soft turf of the country, where he can ‘breathe freely as the first man’. It is a world made more real by the stone and mortar of his imagination than it could possibly have been made by the mason’s art. Here his muse can soar. Dreamthorp is an exquisitely melancholy book. It is not the moralizing, brooding melancholy of Hawthorne (whom Smith admired), nor the black abyss of Poe. It is delicate, warm and welcoming, only occasionally touching the threshold of darkness. It is poignant, looking wistfully to the past and hopefully to the future. It is the melancholy of a romantic.

The ruined chapel . . . is a mere shell . . . There are several tombs in the interior bearing knights’ escutcheons, which time has sadly defaced . . . There, on the slab, the white figures sleep; marble hands, folded in prayer, on marble breasts. And I like to think that he was brave, she beautiful; that although the monument is worn by time, and sullied by the stains of the weather, the qualities which it commemorates – husbandly and wifely affection, courtesy, courage, knightly scorn of wrong and falsehood, meekness, penitence, charity – are existing yet somewhere, recognizable by each other. The man who in this world can keep the whiteness of his soul, is not likely to lose it in any other.

Dreamthorp is less like reading than like holding a conversation with an old friend, for having once read Alexander Smith, you know him, and it seems you have always known him. Has anyone better described the passionate ache of an adolescent boy incandescent with impossible love?

To sit in the same room with her was like the happiness of a perpetual holiday; when she asked me to run a message for her, or to do any, the slightest, service for her, I felt as if a patent of nobility were conferred upon me. [She] had a lover . . . Continue reading

And the winner is…

Thanks to all of you who entered our Slightly Foxed competition. The Betjeman quote in full is*:

Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows. (from Summoned by Bells)

We used this random number generator to pick the email from our inbox, the number 44 came out, and the 44th person to enter was…

…Tanya Izzard!

Congratulations to Tanya, who wins a year’s subscription to Slightly Foxed’s wonderful quarterly magazine.  You should have received an email to this effect – just reply with your postal details and we’ll do the rest.

Commiserations to everyone else, but you should get over to Slightly Foxed and buy a sub now; you won’t regret it. Watch out for other Dabbler competitions soon, and don’t forget that you can still win a copy of Second Class Male by improving on Betjeman.

*Or is it? That’s the quote all over the internet, but one Robert Compton, a member of The Betjeman Society, emails us to say:

Some people seem to think that the word “hour” should be inserted after “dark” in the above quotation. But my copy of “Summoned by Bells” published by John Murray in the 1960s has the text as above. Just thought you’d like to know!

If Robert is right (and it does seem to scan better without the ‘hour’, doesn’t it?) then technically everyone should be disqualified except him. However, we decided that would be a bit unfair, could possibly cause a riot, and the ‘hour’ version was the one ‘on the card’. So the original decision stands. But many thanks to Robert for adding to the sum of human knowledge… Thus the dangers of ‘research’ by Google and Wiki; someone just needs to tell the internet now…