Friday, July 13, 2007

The Celluloid Holmes

I first encountered Sherlock Holmes when I was around eight, and sad to say the relationship did not get off to a promising start. I was ill in bed, and my mother brought me home a book from the library which she thought might appeal, probably based on my interest in Nancy Drew and mysteries: a collection of stories about the great detective. I know I read one or two—'The Speckled Band' stuck in my head, as did 'Silver Blaze'—but they didn't make much of an impression. A year later I was involved in a radio play production of 'The Red-Headed League' for my grade five class, and was assigned the rather small role of Duncan Ross; but at the last minute the girl playing Holmes got a bad case of stage fright and begged for a smaller role, which request the teacher accommodated by having me switch roles with her. Even this was not enough to encourage me to seek out the stories; that had to wait a further two years, until grade seven, when our class was assigned 'The Speckled Band' to read and write about. My contribution was a stage play entitled The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, an unabashed rip-off of the plot of 'Speckled Band' with the surprise twist (spoiler alert!) that Holmes was actually in cahoots with the villain. The play was staged twice for the students of Emily Carr Middle School in Ottawa, with the author once more assuming the role of Holmes, after which the play was retired (although a copy does exist and is before me as I write, showing that I arrived at the title some years before Jeremy Paul did).

I don't know why—perhaps third time was indeed the charm—but I was hooked. I promptly went out and bought all the Holmes tales by Conan Doyle, and devoured them; but when they were done I wondered what to do. Fortunately, this was in 1976, when a Holmes revival was in full swing, and I soon realised there was a good deal of material out there about the great detective and his world. One intriguing fact, amongst many, was that there had been a large number of films made featuring Holmes, and I began to wonder how to go about finding them: a thing more easily wished for than accomplished in those far-off days before video, DVD, Netflix, and 300 channels of television.

One thing seemed to be agreed upon: that the best Holmes films made to date starred an actor named Basil Rathbone, and that the best of these was a version of The Hound of the Baskervilles made in 1939. All very well; but how to actually see it? Imagine my delight, then, when TV Guide for early December 1976 announced that the Rathbone Hound would be broadcast on CBS as their late movie on 14 December—starting at 12.30 a.m.

This was indeed a problem. In those pre-VCR days, a movie had to be viewed when it aired; and I was shrewd enough to realise that the chances of my parents letting a twelve-year-old stay up until 2.30 in the morning—on a school night—were slim. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and the question was asked; and after some deliberation my parents, realising that, unlikely as it seemed, this was important to me, agreed on a compromise: I could go to bed early and wake myself up at 12.15, then go to bed as soon as the movie was over (and no complaining about being tired next morning).

I jumped at the chance, and thus it was that in mid-December 1976 I woke myself up, crept downstairs with only Tabitha the cat for company, and, in the glow of the lights on the Christmas tree in the family room, immersed myself in The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was probably my first 'grown up' film, my first black and white film, my first old film, and my first time staying up that late by myself, and I revelled in every second of it. As the images flickered out into the room I sat enraptured as the now familiar story played out, thrilling to the action. The clipping from TV Guide is before me as I write, and on the reverse, in my best grade seven handwriting, are the words 'Tabby came down with me and was startled when the hound was heard howling across the desolate moors as it did often. I loved the movie (so did Tabby).'

Thus began several love affairs: with staying up into the wee small hours, with old movies in general, and with the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes films in particular. Fortunately for me, a northern New York TV station began airing the Rathbone films late on Sunday nights shortly after that fateful December night, and my parents let me stay up to watch them (they began at the slightly more acceptable hour of 11.30 p.m.). Towards the end of the summer of 1977 we moved back to Vancouver, where I was overjoyed to see that ABC in Seattle was airing the Rathbone films on Monday evenings, again at 11.30 p.m., so I was able to continue to indulge my passion, even going to the extreme of using my trusty portable tape recorder to tape large sections of the films, which I listened to over and over and can still remember to this day (I was recently somewhat relieved to find out that I am not the only Sherlockian to have done this).

The Rathbone films—particularly the later, 'modernised' ones set during the Second World War—continue to divide Sherlockians to an extent. Rathbone's performance as Holmes is generally accepted as above criticism, but other aspects of the movies, particularly the (then) modern setting and Nigel Bruce's portrayal of Watson, continue to be a source of debate. As far as the WW II setting goes, my attitude is 'no harm done'; Conan Doyle had done much the same thing when he brought Holmes out of retirement to help the war effort in 1914, and if the detective could serve as a propaganda figure for one war, why not for another? Besides, as Kim Newman astutely pointed out a couple of years ago, the Second World War setting of these films is further away from us now than the Victorian period was in the 1940s, and thus the films have a period charm of their own which is almost as enchanting as that of the world where it is always 1895.

As for Bruce's portrayal of Watson: I'm on record as being an admirer of it. He may not be as strictly canonical as we might like, or are conditioned to after such fine Watsons as James Mason, David Burke, and Edward Hardwicke, but his is a warm portrayal, and there is a real affection between Rathbone and Bruce which convinces us these characters shared a deep and abiding friendship, even love, despite the fact that they inevitably get on each other's nerves. Besides, when you compare Bruce's portrayal of the good doctor with most of those which came before him, it quickly becomes apparent that Bruce was a huge step forward. His Watson displays courage and loyalty, and also a fair bit of intelligence; it is Watson, and not Holmes, who first deduces the solution of the mystery in The House of Fear, which is a major departure from previous Watsons, who look amazed when Holmes deduces what day of the week it is.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was such a success that the studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, immediately followed it up with another film the same year: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which pitted Holmes against his arch-foe Professor Moriarty, memorably played by George Zucco ('smiling and smiling and being an absolute bounder', in the words of one critic). These two films were the only two set in the Victorian period (astonishingly, the Fox Hound was the first Holmes film to be set in the correct canonical era). After this Fox let the option to the character drop, and it was picked up by Universal, who made twelve contemporary films starring Rathbone and Bruce between 1942 and 1946.

Much has been written about these films, although the further we get from their making the more tenuous and scarce our actual links to them become. Imagine my amazement and delight, therefore, when a special guest was announced at the gala banquet we attended in Minneapolis last week for the 'Victorian Secrets and Edwardian Enigmas' Sherlock Holmes conference: Terry Kilburn, who, when he was twelve, appeared as Billy the Page in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Although somewhat frail now at age eighty, Mr Kilburn was happy to meet with admirers, and Christopher took a picture of Tim and me with him to commemorate the occasion. A living link with the past, and with the Holmes films I have loved so much for more than three decades now.

Curiously, I could have had another link with the films, had my maternal grandfather not been such a gentleman. Years ago he recounted to me how he had been in Victoria, British Columbia during the Second World War and had, while sitting in the lobby of the venerable Empress Hotel, heard a familiar voice. Looking round, Grandpa immediately recognised the speaker as Nigel Bruce, with whose face and voice he was familiar. 'I didn't want to go up to him and say anything,' my grandfather said to me, 'as I didn't want to be rude and intrude; but if I had known then that one day my granddaughter would be such an admirer, I would have done.'

I still have my tape recordings of the Rathbone films somewhere, as well as LP recordings of them; but fortunately technology now allows me to watch them anytime I choose, courtesy of DVD. It's wonderful to have them available to watch at any time, in beautifully crisp prints; but somehow they don't look quite right unless viewed late at night when the house is still and the lights are off and everyone else is in bed. If only Tabby were still here to enjoy them with me, and hear the hound baying across the desolate moors once more!

All the Fun of the Fair

When I was a child, one of the red letter days of the year was the annual Pacific National Exhibition, which was held for the last two weeks of August at Hastings Park in the eastern end of Vancouver. Every June, when the final report card came from school, there was a pass for a free child's admission enclosed, and it was a reminder to my brother and I (as if a reminder were needed) that the PNE was coming. (For years I assumed that we got these passes because our school was in Richmond, just south of Vancouver, and that the passes were confined to schools within easy reach of Vancouver; imagine my pleasant surprise and nostalgic delight when Tim got his last report card of his kindergarten year here in Ashcroft, 200 miles from Vancouver, five years ago, and a 'free admission' pass for the PNE fluttered out, a tradition that continues to this day.)

The PNE was my father's domain, and the night before our visit he would dust off the battered blue knapsack which, for 364 days of the year, hung on a nail in the laundry room. Next morning my mother would put in sandwiches (always egg salad, in my memory), and we would set off, by car to downtown Vancouver and thence by special PNE Express bus to the fairground. I suspect this served three purposes: free parking on a side street as opposed to paying for a lot near the PNE; no driving around searching for a place; and the buses deposited patrons at the end of the fairground furthest from the midway, which was of course the area that my brother and I most wanted to visit, and something that Dad always wanted to leave until he'd had a chance to look around.

We would pass through the turnstiles after relinquishing those treasured passes—Charlie must have felt something similar when he handed the golden ticket over to Willie Wonka—and then wait while Dad bought tickets for the prize draw ('Get your tickets here! Win a house, win a car!'). First stop was the Show Mart building, full of all manner of gadgets and items and cleaning products you didn't know existed, and certainly didn't realise you needed, and then next door to view exhibits built around that year's theme. The Show Mart building was fairly interesting, the theme exhibits less so (to John and me, at any rate), but we knew it was the price to be paid. Every time we emerged from the buildings, blinking into the sun, we would cast our eyes eastward towards the midway, from which faint screams could be heard even at that distance.

Then it was on to the Agrodome, bursting with animals of all sorts. The PNE was originally an agricultural fair, and the Agrodome was a reminder of these roots, full of earnest children exhibiting their 4-H animals, milking demonstrations, pig races, an incubator full of baby chicks you could hold in your hand (these were a favourite), and Jersey cows the colour of coffee with cream, and possessed of huge brown eyes that looked patient and gentle. We would usually sit in the stands in the arena and eat our egg sandwiches, watching a horse show of some kind, inhaling the clean scent of straw and sawdust and the less clean—but not, somehow, unpleasant—scent of animals, and then Dad would wipe his hands and we would emerge into the sun once more.

We were, by this time, close enough to the midway to be able to hear the happy screams quite clearly, and pick out details of the Wild Mouse. However, there were still the Modern Living building and the B.C. Pavilion to look through; probably my father's favourite part of the exhibition. The former contained exhibits of household gadgets of all kinds, and Dad would end up with handfuls of pamphlets and brochures and samples, all of which carefully went into the knapsack, never to be seen again. The B.C. Pavilion contained—in another nod to the PNE's agricultural roots—entries in the craft and food competitions: case after case full of jams, jellies, needlepoint, quilts, flowers, vegetables: if it could be grown or eaten or created by hand, it was there. The Pavilion also boasted the Challenger Relief Map, a source of endless fascination for John and me. It was actually built to house the map, the brainchild, and creation, of the Challenger family of Vancouver, who had decided to build a scale replica in relief of the province of British Columbia. What began as (I presume) a fairly modest project turned into the largest relief map in the world, according to The Guinness Book of World Records: measuring 75' by 82', it occupied the centre of the Pavilion, and could be viewed from three levels, while a motorised bridge ran from side to side on the lowest level and accommodated a guide and anyone who wanted to hover over the province. Mountains, lakes, rivers, and streams were all delineated, and placards indicated towns and cities. It was an amazing sight to see, but unfortunately is not currently on public view; the city of Vancouver, honouring a commitment to return some of the PNE site to a public park, tore down many of the buildings, including the B.C. Pavilion, several years ago, and the map has been in storage ever since.

When we left the Pavilion we were so close to the midway we could almost taste it. By this time we were in the midst of a row of vendors selling every kind of food known to man: Buckeye Root Beer (sold out of kegs) and Tom Thumb donuts were great favourites, and we would usually get some at this point, the root beer icy cold, the donuts small and sweet and still hot. We would usually take a turn at the Mad Artist booth, squeezing paint onto a rapidly rotating rectangle of coated board to produce psychedelic artwork, and then while Dad held our masterpieces gingerly by one corner while the paint dried, we would advance to the midway proper, but not before detouring to take in the lumberjack show adjacent to the midway, where we would thrill to demonstrations of log-rolling, axe throwing, wood-cutting, and pole climbing. The act always contained a clown scaling one of the poles and balancing precariously on top while the ringmaster tried to talk him down; just as he seemed about to start back to the ground he would overbalance and fall, to the shocked screams of onlookers, only to be caught by a safety rope he had surreptitiously fastened to himself, a never-ending source of thrills and delight to my brother and me.

By now my father must have realised that the inevitable could not be postponed a moment longer, and we would be on the midway. The noise! The smell! The heat! To this day, the smell of fried onions takes me back instantly to the midway of the PNE on a hot August day (I'm sure it rained on occasion, this being Vancouver, but in my mind it is always hot and sunny at the PNE). Dad would purchase tickets for the two of us, and we would be off to the rides, clambering on board one after the other, Dad a constant presence (usually at a considerable distance below us) leaning against the metal fencing surrounding whatever ride we were on, while we exulted in the speed, the height, the giddiness, the sheer joy of being young and (relatively) fearless.

Last week I was in Minneapolis, at the Mall of America, with Tim, who was going on some rides; and while leaning on a fence watching him, I wondered when I had become my Dad, standing by rides watching my child. I did not feel old, precisely, but rather sad, as the realisation struck that I would never again experience the joy of the fair the same way I did when I was a child, and the way Tim does now. Yet while the rides at Mall of America are state of the art, and bright and clean in a way the PNE rides never seemed to be, there did not seem to be the same joy about them that I remember from my childhood. Perhaps the setting had something to do with that, although I think it more likely that it was the warnings which leached some of the delight from the scene. Every ride was preceded with a cheery yet faintly menacing recorded warning to, in essence, do nothing but sit there. The Wave Rider swing warning cautioned riders not to try to kick the swing in front of them, and I was appalled: that was half the fun of the Wave Rider, and the reason I always tried to get a swing that was some distance from my brother! The Bumper Cars ride warning told riders to avoid head-on collisions, and really, if you're not going to crash into people head-on while you're on the Bumper Cars, what's the point? Even the carousel warned riders to stay seated until the ride stopped, and not to stand up on the pedals or try to change seats mid-ride.

After we had had our fill of rides at the PNE there was an opportunity to play a few games of chance—Whack-a-Mole became a great favourite—and make a trip through the Haunted House. As someone who has always loved ghosts and ghost stories, this was a place of shivery delight, now long gone. One year—I was eight or nine at the time—my father stopped by the booth where radio station CKNW was broadcasting from, as he knew Merv Meadows, the announcer on duty, and to our delight my brother and I were put on the air to talk about the fair. I can't remember precisely what I said, although when asked what my favourite part of the PNE was I announced without hesitation 'The Haunted House'.

By then it would be getting late, and the lights on the midway would be coming on, bathing everything in a glow that was magical. We would walk back towards the entrance and stop at the Food Building for dinner: more Buckeye Root Beer for my brother, fresh lemonade for me, and something deep fried or barbecued which always seemed to be the perfect food for that time and place. Then it was back out through the gates, after one last glance back to the midway, and on to the bus and home, the fair over for another year.

We moved from Vancouver in 1973, and when we returned in 1977 I resumed my PNE attendance; but it wasn't quite the same. It wasn't long before my brother and I were able to go by ourselves, or with friends, and it somehow lost something without Dad standing by the railings, waiting. For two years in the early 1980s my father was an assistant to PNE President Erwin Swangard, and I went down with him to the fair on a few of those days, arriving well before the crowds did. I found I had more interest in the exhibits than in the rides, although it was still fun to wander the midway, listening to the shrieks of riders and the patter of the carnies. In 1997, the year we moved from England back to British Columbia, I took Christopher to the PNE in what turned out to be its last year in its old incarnation. I was eight months pregnant, so couldn't go on any rides, but I could still enjoy the sights and sounds as much as ever; and the Buckeye Root Beer was still there, as cold and delicious as ever.

The PNE is still going at Hastings Park—2007 marks its 100th anniversary—but many of the landmarks from my childhood are gone. Most of the permanent buildings have been torn down and their sites returned to parkland; the Haunted House, as mentioned, has vanished; the Mad Artist booths are nowhere to be found; the Challenger Relief Map is in a storage facility somewhere; and the rides have grown more flashy and heart-stopping (although none of them can, in my opinion, hold a candle to the 1958 wooden roller coaster, still going strong and designated a 'Coaster Classic' by ACE, the American Coaster Enthusiasts). But the ticket sellers still call out 'Win a house, win a car!' with all the fervour of their predecessors, and the Tom Thumb donuts (now called Those Little Donuts, apparently because no one could remember what they were called and instead referred to buying some of 'those little donuts') are still hot and sweet, and the shrieks from the midway are as as enticing as ever, and I sometimes wish I could be Tim's age again and visiting the PNE for all the fun of the fair on a hot August day when school still seems a distant prospect and a Sno-Cone and cotton candy are the height of gastronomic delight.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must go: West Coast Amusements has rolled into town and set up a funfair down by the railway tracks in town, and I've promised Tim a trip. There'll be Sno-Cones and cotton candy, and rickety-looking rides that don't come with warnings before they judder to a start, and with luck the smell of fried onions. Can't wait!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Deep Water

I had no idea that this documentary—released in the U.K. in December 2006—existed until a friend, knowing of my interest in the Donald Crowhurst tragedy, told me about it. The film has not been shown in North America—apart from at the Telluride Film Festival in the fall of 2006—nor is it available on North American DVD; but it is available on British (Region 2) DVD, and I promptly ordered a copy, which arrived yesterday. Thanks to our multi-system DVD player I was able to watch it, and was deeply impressed, as was Christopher. Even our nine-year-old son Tim watched the whole thing, and agreed afterwards that it was excellent: high praise indeed, considering that most children of his age would, I suspect, have to be paid a substantial sum before they watched almost any sort of documentary, at least outside school hours.

The filmmakers were able to draw on the audio tapes and films which Crowhurst took while he was on board the Teignmouth Electron, and which were found, intact, when the boat was recovered. There are also revealing and candid interviews with a number of people who were intimately connected with the drama, notably competitor Robin Knox-Johnston, Crowhurst's best friend Ron Winspear, Crowhurst's son Simon, and his widow, Claire, who is completely honest about the experience and clearly still saddened by the events of almost forty years ago, which she admits, in the press kit available on the film's web site, she thinks about several times a week even now. Effective use is made of excerpts from Crowhurst's logbooks, including the chilling 'It is the mercy' passage which I quote in a previous entry, and the final shots of the film will bring a lump to the throat of anyone with a pulse.

The filmmakers have resisted the urge to demonise anyone. Crowhurst may have been a deeply flawed man, but he is presented sympathetically, and presented in such a way that it is easy to see how at every step of the voyage he faced terrible choices, all of which led inevitably to death, or ruin, or public humiliation. In his position, faced with his choices, what would any of us do? Rodney Hallworth, Crowhurst's press agent, comes in for the most damning examination, and in a fascinating extra feature many of the journalists who were involved in covering the Golden Globe race try to determine how much culpability any of them had for what occurred. While there is some inevitable ducking for cover, at least one journalist confesses that he must, he feels, accept some responsibility for what happened to Crowhurst, and that he must live with that on his conscience for the rest of his life.

In addition to the film itself, there are a number of fascinating extras, including lengthy (five to ten minutes each) video features about the other eight competitors, all of which draw on archival footage and some of which feature new interviews with the participants, such as Knox-Johnston, or the widows of some of the competitors, such as Nigel Tetley's wife Eve and Bernard Moitessier's wife Françoise. It's interesting to note how Claire Crowhurst, Eve Tetley, and Françoise Moitessier—who are shown in the film, in footage from 1968, as the 'sea widows'—have all come to terms with those events of so long ago, and the inner voice which compelled their men to take part in an event which most sane people would consider suicidal. All three, in different ways, express the view that one must follow one's dreams, no matter the cost, and that however insane they may have appeared to outsiders, something in all three compelled them to do this thing, so that their wives could no more dream of stopping them than they could of flying.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Golden Globe race and the Crowhurst tragedy, from the perspective of many of those who were intimately connected with it, should make every effort to see Deep Water, a fascinating documentary which does a fine job of bringing a four-decades-old tragedy to vivid, and devastating, life.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Tunes You Could Hum

In the 1972 film Sleuth (being remade as we speak) there's a scene at about the halfway point where the character of Andrew Wyke is making himself a late-night snack, while in the background Cole Porter music plays: 'Anything Goes', 'You Do Something To Me', and 'Just One Of Those Things'. He is interrupted by the unexpected, and unwelcome, intrusion of Inspector Doppler of the Wiltshire County Constabulary, come to ask a few awkward questions; but not before the policeman cocks an ear to the music and says appreciatively, 'Ah, those were the days, sir. Tunes you could hum.'

All of which preamble is by way of saying that I'm in complete agreement with Inspector Doppler (and Anthony Shaffer, who wrote the line, which incidentally doesn't appear in his original play script; according to the stage directions, Wyke is listening to Beethoven's 'Seventh Symphony' at this point in the proceedings). If Fred Astaire danced to it, or sang it, or both—even if he only could have danced to it or sung it—then I'm happy to listen to it until the cows come home, and for a considerable period thereafter. Imagine my delight, then, to discover that XM Satellite Radio, which we started to get a year ago, has a channel—number 4, called 'The Savoy Express'—dedicated to music from the 1940s, with forays back into the 1930s and even the late 1920s. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Vaughan Munro, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Glenn Miller, Billie Holliday, Margaret Whiting, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, The Ink Spots, Duke Ellington, Betty Hutton, Johnny Mercer, Lena Horne: all are in constant play here, and it's the soundtrack by which my day is usually accompanied. No matter how harried or busy or complicated things get, just hearing—to name a few random favourites—'I've Got A Gal In Kalamazoo', 'I Love New York In June', 'Sing Sing Sing', 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye', 'On the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe', 'The Way You Look Tonight', 'Easy To Love', 'One For My Baby (and One More For the Road)', and 'The Lady is a Tramp' never fails to cheer me up. And when I look up from my computer, I'm greeted by the smiling face of Jimmy Stewart as Glenn Miller, in an 8.5 x 11 black-and-white photo signed by Mr Stewart himself: two favourites together.

There's something about these songs, with their lush arrangements, playful lyrics, leisurely instrumental introductions, and consummate professionalism that appeals to me. The lyrics might not be profound, but they're heartfelt and sincere; the singers might not always be as vocally proficient as one would like, but they knew how to sell a song; and the tunes have the wonderful merit, as Inspector Doppler noted, of being instantly hummable, as well as easily understood and catchy as all get out.

Nickelback? Franz Ferdinand? Justin Timberlake? Fergie? Carrie Underwood? I'm sure they're great. But if you'll excuse me, I have to go; Don Kennedy is hosting 'Big Band Jump' on The Savoy Express. 'I'll never smile again / Until I smile at you.'

It Is The Mercy

In 1967, Englishman Francis Chichester sailed solo round the world in Gypsy Moth IV. He was not the first man to accomplish the feat, but his was the fastest such voyage yet recorded; and unlike others, who had stopped at several ports along the way for provisions and repairs, Chichester made only one stop en route, in Australia. His feat caught the imagination of the world; nowhere more than in England, still reeling under the blow of World War II, aware that its glory days as a world leader were behind it, and searching for a new hero. Chichester and his voyage caught the public imagination in England, and he joined a small, select group of men which included Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Edmund Hillary, and Roger Bannister, all of whom had been crowned as heroes by the British people. When Chichester arrived in England the event was broadcast live on British television (amid speculation that after so long at sea his legs might give out when he went ashore; they didn't), he was greeted by 250,000 people lining the shore at Plymouth Hoe, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and he was lionised throughout the country and the world.

It was perhaps inevitable that others would try to emulate Chichester's accomplishment, although it was clearly not enough now merely (!) to sail single-handed around the world; the voyage must be done faster, and without any stops at all. The sailing fraternity was not slow to take up this challenge, and almost immediately several men began making plans to attempt the feat. The Sunday Times newspaper, which had sponsored Chichester's voyage, sensed the commercial possibilities inherent in the quest; but how to exploit them? Difficulties at once emerged. The nature of the men planning to take part meant that each was anxious to be 'the first', and potential competitors were busily planning their voyages and would be off as soon as they were ready. There was no question of participants hanging around to wait for others so that they could all set off with the boom of a starter's gun, so how to decide a winner? There was also the problem of persuading people to actually take part in an official race; what if someone declined to take part and simply set off on his own? After some deliberation, the ST got round these obstacles by announcing that there would be a five month window during which competitors could depart—from 1 June to 31 October 1968—and that anyone at all who decided to sail around the world solo without stopping, and who departed during this time period, would be part of the competition, whether they wanted to be or not. Participants were not allowed to put into any port, or receive any assistance from another boat or person. There would also be two prizes: the Golden Globe itself would go to the first person to complete the venture, while a prize of £5000 would go to the competitor who finished the race in the shortest period of time.

The rules, such as they were, meant that since anyone who departed during the stipulated time was taking part in the race, the Sunday Times had no control over who was part of the event, and could not, therefore, insist on assessing participants before they left for such basics as seamanship or mental stability; nor could the paper ensure that the participants' vessels were suited to the voyage, or that they were properly outfitted or supplied. Thus it was that Donald Crowhurst, whose knowledge, and practical experience, of sailing was minimal, whose boat was poorly designed (by himself) and built, and whose supplies were woefully lacking, was able to take part in the most gruelling sea race yet devised.

Hours before the 31 October deadline, Crowhurst set sail in his trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron. To say he was woefully unprepared would be an understatement. The ship-building process had been fraught, to say the least, and the boat was not properly finished; the trial run had been little short of a disaster; Crowhurst's much-vaunted (and self-designed) computerised running system was a jumble of wires that led nowhere; all was confusion aboard the boat; and vast quantities of supplies, including a bag of gifts from his wife, remained on the dock when Crowhurst finally sailed. The situation was so obviously desperate that a BBC-TV crew, there to film Crowhurst's departure, was quietly told by the man in charge—who sensed a tragedy in the making—to stop filming and help with the loading of the boat instead.

When Crowhurst set sail he was, like the other eight competitors, heading into the unknown. It is almost impossible, in these days of Global Positioning, instant messaging, faxes, computers, and the Internet, to appreciate what these men were facing. Their radio communication with anyone at all would be sporadic at best; they could go weeks without being able to send or receive a message. They would be calculating their position using chronometers and sextants, putting them closer to Cook, Ross, and Franklin then to sailors today, a mere generation later. The Sunday Times, which had not been able to vet competitors or their ships, was able to enforce the rule about no contact, so on the rare occasions when the men were close enough to another ship to retrieve a bundle of letters or newspapers from home, they were unable to receive even these small comforts. These men were, in essence, even more isolated and alone than Apollo astronauts, in a voyage that could last anywhere up to a year.

It takes a certain amount of mental stability and toughness to endure this sort of isolation; and it quickly became apparent to several of the competitors that this element would be the most difficult to endure. In the end, of the nine men who set out, only one completed the voyage successfully; and given the title of the book which heads this entry, it's not giving anything away to say that Donald Crowhurst was not that man. On 10 July 1969, the Royal Mail Vessel Picardy discovered the Teignmouth Electron floating, abandoned, in the mid-Atlantic, about 1800 miles from England. The vessel was quickly identified as that of Donald Crowhurst, taking part in the Golden Globe race, who at that point was supposed to be heading home in triumph, having completed the most gruelling portion of his trip; his sporadic radio accounts, while somewhat vague as to his precise location, had indicated that the novice sailor was defying the odds and looked set to become a hero when he returned to England. There was no sign of Crowhurst on the boat, however; the last logbook entry was dated 1 July, and while the boat was in some disarray, there was nothing to indicate a disaster. It was surmised that he had been swept overboard by some freak accident—perhaps a rogue wave—and after searching the area the Picardy departed for England, with the Teignmouth Electron hoisted on board.

It was a sobering end to what had been shaping up as a miraculous voyage, and Crowhurst looked set to be memorialised as a hero. However, when the Picardy arrived in England and the logbooks were examined, a very different, and deeply unsettling, story emerged. I will not spoil that story by going into further detail here. Suffice it to say that the account of it—immortalised by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall in The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, first published in 1970 and recently reprinted (with a new introduction by Jonathan Raban) by McGraw Hill as part of its 'Sailor's Classics' series—is one of the most harrowing, and terrifying, books I have ever read. Tomalin and Hall's reconstruction of the events strikes me as flawless; it is almost as if one or both were there, on board, watching as Crowhurst descended into madness, a process which takes place before our eyes in the course of the book. By the time the story comes to its inevitable—but no less horrifying for that—conclusion, you will be drained, and hoping that this is the closest to true madness that you ever come. Near the end of his final entry, Crowhurst writes chillingly:

I will only resign this game
if you will agree that [on]
the next occasion that this
game is played it will be played
according to the
rules that are devised by
my great god who has
revealed at last to his son
not only the exact nature
of the reason for games but
has also revealed the truth of
the way of the ending of the
next game that

It is finished—

It is finished


Like the narrator in 'Bartleby the Scrivener', when I consider these words I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Those whom the gods destroy, they first drive mad, indeed.

The background of the Golden Globe race, and accounts of the other participants, are touched on in Tomalin and Hall's book, but it is, as the title suggests, mainly concerned with Crowhurst. Those who would like to find out more about the race as a whole, and the other competitors, are encouraged to seek out Peter Nichols's A Voyage For Madmen (Harper-Collins, 2001), which fills in many of the background details about the Golden Globe and the other competitors. Even without Crowhurst's presence, the race would have made for an electrifying account, and Nichols, who in addition to being a writer is a skilled sailor, has the literary and sea-going talents to ensure that his book is a page-turner from start to finish. The nine men who took part were very different in terms of temperament, seamanship, and motivation, and Nichols does a skilful job in assessing each one, and trying to find out why they did what they did. This is, as Nichols himself admits, an almost impossible question to answer; even those driven to attempt feats which most of us would consider life-threatening, foolhardy, and well-nigh impossible, in approximately equal measures, usually have no satisfactory answer, unless it's along the lines of George Mallory's response, when asked why he wanted to climb Mt Everest: 'Because it's there.'

Both The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst and A Voyage for Madmen are highly recommended, in and of themselves and as complementary volumes. I'd even go so far as to say that these accounts of exploits on the high seas would make perfect summertime reading; unless, of course, you are planning a sea voyage of your own, in which case you might want to save them until you return home.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Murder Most Funny

I have always been a reader of mystery and detective stories; I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew, thrilled to the adventures of The Three Investigators, discovered Sherlock Holmes at an early age, segued into Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and after that there was no looking back. Ngaio Marsh, Wilkie Collins, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Morrison, Edmund Crispin, Jacques Futrelle, Anthony Berkeley, Elizabeth George, sundry Victorian and Edwardian rivals of Arthur Conan Doyle: I read them all, and then some.

Of course, I could not hope to read everything in the field, and there came a time when I began to drift away from the mystery story and read other things. I rather lost touch with the genre in the late 1980s, which perhaps explains why I did not hear of British author Sarah Caudwell until within the last two years or so, when a friend began to mention that he thought I'd quite like her mysteries. Knowing that this friend had yet to steer me wrong as far as book recommendations went, I decided to take a look, and was able to pick up three of Caudwell's books on a trip to Seattle last year. Unfortunately, I was in the midst of World Fantasy Award reading and judging at the time, and the books, alas, had to go on what is referred to, somewhat wistfully and a touch erroneously, as my 'to be read shelf': wistful because I sometimes wonder if I'll ever get to them all, and erroneous because it's not so much a shelf as a small bookcase.

Last week, however, something—a feeling in the air, an alignment of stars, a touch of rheumatics, call it what you will—told me that the time was right, and I picked the first Caudwell novel, Thus Was Adonis Murdered, off the shelf and commenced to read. I must have been all of four pages in before I realised that here was something very good indeed, and I polished the book off over the course of two nights, then eagerly went on to the second and third books, finishing the third off last night. The good news is that there is more Caudwell yet to read; the bad news is that 'more', in this case, only amounts to one more title, because the author only wrote four books before dying in 2000 at the age of sixty-one.

Caudwell came from a distinguished family: her real name was Sarah Cockburn, her father was the writer Claud Cockburn, and her mother was actress and journalist Jean Ross, who is regarded as the original of the character Sally Bowles in Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin. Caudwell (to use her pen name) graduated in Classics from Aberdeen University and read Law at St Anne's College, Oxford before being called to the Bar and practised as a barrister in Lincoln's Inn. It should therefore be no surprise that her books are as erudite as they are witty (and they are very witty indeed), and that she should have chosen to set her mysteries against a backdrop of a Chambers in Lincoln's Inn, inhabited by several young barristers who take turns acting as principals and chorus throughout the novels. There is the cool, calm, and competent Selena Jardine; Julia Larwood, brilliant when it comes to navigating the intricacies of the Finance Acts but decidedly hapless when it comes to navigating her way to a table without tripping over briefcases and spilling prawn salad on unfortunate patrons; the unflappable and incorruptible Desmond Ragwort; and the raffish Michael Cantrip, the sole Cantabrigian amongst a flock of Oxonians, who often sounds as if he had stumbled in from a particularly exuberant Wodehouse novel. Around these central characters hover Julia's Aunt Regina, who has had four husbands and yet retains an admirably clear view of life: 'It's true of course, as I suppose you know by now, that very good-looking men aren't to be trusted, but you must also remember that even quite ugly men often aren't to be trusted either. So in the end you might just as well enjoy yourself and be let down by the good-looking ones'; Timothy Shepherd, another barrister in the chambers who is often obligingly absent; Henry, the clerk, constantly trying (and failing) to maintain some semblance of order; Cantrip's Uncle Hereward, a formidable ex-Army officer who has an eye for a pretty girl, an endless fund of reminiscences, and a handy way with a gun; and Basil Ptarmigan, the smooth-tongued senior barrister.

And then, of course, there is Professor Hilary Tamar, a Fellow of St George's College, Oxford, Tutor in Legal History, amateur detective, and firm believer that Scholarship is the servant of Truth and can own no other allegiance. Hilary is considerably older than the others, and while it is mentioned that the Professor was once Timothy's tutor, no other explanation is given as to why Tamar has formed such a close bond with Selena, Julia, Cantrip, and Ragwort. Indeed, throughout the novels (which take a somewhat epistolary form and are narrated by Hilary) there is no clear indication of whether the Professor is male or female. In other hands this could turn into a cheap running gag or an irritating distraction; it's a tribute to Caudwell's skill—and the Professor's vividness as a character—that it's neither, and in the end it doesn't matter whether Hilary is a man or a woman: Professor Tamar is a wonderfully drawn character, and deserves to be amongst the best-known names in English detective fiction. That this is not the case is perhaps partly attributable to the fact that the four Tamar novels were written over a period of twenty years: Thus Was Adonis Murdered was published in 1980, The Shortest Way to Hades appeared in 1985, The Sirens Sang of Murder came out in 1989, and then there was a gap of more than a decade before the final book, The Sibyl in Her Grave, was published, posthumously, in 2000.

Those looking for a classic English murder mystery in the cosy style, with all the clues fairly distributed for the keen-eyed reader to spot, will not be disappointed in the Hilary Tamar novels; but they are much more than that. The central characters are engaging to a man or woman; there are liberal amounts of erudition and classical allusion; the language is never less than beautifully clear and wonderfully literate; the plots are intricate enough to satisfy the most demanding aficionado of the whodunit; and the settings are vividly depicted (Venice, Cyprus, the Channel Islands, and that most beloved of murder mystery locales, the English village, complete with map). As if all that were not enough, the books are wonderfully funny; be careful if you read this in a crowded room, lest you be overcome with a desire to quote large chunks aloud—if, that is, you can stop laughing long enough.

I have one more Professor Tamar novel (The Shortest Way to Hades) left to acquire and then read, although I will do so with the sad knowledge that once the last page has been turned there will be no more Sarah Caudwell books to read. When the fourth and final novel, The Sibyl in Her Grave, was published, Amanda Cross wrote of the characters, 'I hardly know whether to cry for joy at their return, or to weep for the finality of this bittersweet adventure.' At least the four books will always be there on the shelf; and while I don't often re-read books, I have a sneaking suspicion that I'll be dropping in to No. 62 New Square, Lincoln's Inn Fields, and then nipping off for a glass of Nierstein at The Corkscrew, once again, just to check up on Selena, Julia, Cantrip, Ragwort, and the wonderful Hilary.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Too Many Words

An article on the Times online site details how Orion Books is slimming down some classics in order to make them more appealing to modern readers who are strapped for time, but still want to be able to say that they've read the originals. According to Malcolm Edwards of Orion, research confirmed that 'many regular readers think of the classics as long, slow and, to be frank, boring'. Presumably sensing a marketing opportunity, Orion realised that 'life is too short to read all the books you want to'; thus the decision to trim David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, and Wives and Daughters by 30–40%, by eliminating words, sentences, paragraphs, and even whole chapters. As the above makes clear, it's not just readers' busy lives that Orion is concerned about; there's also the fact that the classics can, in their view, be somewhat on the difficult and boring side. The cuts have been made in an attempt to 'make the story and characters emerge', and make the books that much easier for poor twenty-first century readers to understand. Said Mr Edwards, 'Moby Dick must have been difficult in 1850—in 2007 it’s nigh-on impossible to make your way through it.'

Orion seems to be playing up the time—or lack of it—element more than the difficulty side, pitching their new editions as the perfect solution for those who want to appear well-read but simply don't have the time, in our busy modern world, to sit down and read every page of the originals. Oddly enough, I'd have a bit more sympathy if they played up the difficulty angle, because a good many classic books can, to a modern reader unfamiliar with the world depicted and the language used, be somewhat daunting. Here, though, I agree with Matthew Crockatt, a London bookseller who says, 'I’m afraid reading some of these books is hard work, which is why you have to develop as a reader. If people don’t have time to read Anna Karenina, then fine. But don’t read a shortened version and kid yourself it’s the real thing.'

Well said, Mr Crockatt. As readers, we all start off with books on the level of the 'Dick and Jane' titles that were still in use when I was in Grade One, and then graduate to progressively more difficult works as we work our way through school, until we're reading Macbeth in high school and (if the education system has done its job) understanding it. The trick—although it's hardly that, more common sense and a bit of work—is to build gradually, going from book to book until before you know it you're reading Our Mutual Friend and recognising that while the setting and language might be different to what we're used to, the characters and their reasons for acting the way they do aren't so very far removed from the people we see around us, and read about in the newspapers, each day. To use a sporting analogy, no one would advise an armchair athlete who wanted to run in a 10 kilometre event to just lace up a pair of trainers and go do it; instead, he or she would be advised to follow a programme which starts off slowly—running for one minute out of every five the first week, say—and then builds on that over the course of several weeks until, by the end of training, he or she is running the entire distance. In this way, a goal that seemed daunting, if not impossible, at the outset of training can be accomplished (of which I am living proof; I used such a programme, and was able to complete three 10K runs and even a half-marathon, a triumph of determination over innate physical ability if ever there was one. But I digress).

However, building one's way up to reading Moby Dick does take a fair bit of—and here's that word again—time, which, according to the well-meaning folk at Orion, is something of which we simply don't have enough. Their thoughts, apparently, are along the lines that if someone doesn't have time to read the unabridged version of Moby Dick, one certainly doesn't have time to do all the reading that will get him or her to the point where they can sit and read Melville's book. Here is where I start to get a bit cross. I can understand, and to a degree sympathise with, the point of view which says 'Such-and-such is long and difficult; not only do I not really understand it, it's a bit on the dull side, and I'm not enjoying it.' I'll read just about anything you care to put my way, doorstopper-sized classics included, but even I, moi qui vous parle, confess to having been somewhat bored by a few Approved Classics By Revered Authors that I've read (no names, no pack drill; but I can't think I'll ever be picking up Dickens's Barnaby Rudge again, at least not without a healthy financial incentive). Books are meant to be enjoyed; if you're not enjoying what you're reading, for whatever reason, put it down and go on to something else. But don't start whingeing about how you don't have time to sit down and read Wives and Daughters or David Copperfield. If something is important enough to you—whether it's reading a book or planting a garden or taking part in amateur theatricals or pick-up hockey games—you'll find the time to do it. How many of the people who claim they don't have time to read Vanity Fair will tell you, in the same breath, that they won't miss an episode of Lost or House or Desperate Housewives, or that they've made it to level 379 of some video game or other, or that now that baseball season is here they find they have a lot less spare time than they used to?

The bottom line is that those who want to read David Copperfield will read it; those who don't, or who don't feel they have the time, won't, and chopping 40% of Dickens's text is unlikely to make much difference to the latter group. The Orion 'compact' editions will doubtless make a bit of a splash for the short term; but in ten years or so I suspect that Dickens's unabridged version will still be readily available, while the Orion version will be long forgotten (the less than compelling cover illustration—see above—won't help much, either). For those who do pick up and read the abridged version: good for you. But don't try telling me you've read Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, or I shall be compelled to point out that no, you haven't, not really: you've read what someone else thinks Charles Dickens's David Copperfield should be, which is a very different matter; one that's as true as taxes is, and nothing, as Barkis points out, is truer than them. At least, Barkis points this out in the original; whether he continues to do so in the Orion version remains to be seen.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Miss Alice Merriwether's Long Lost Cakes

While it's undoubtedly a boon—for those of us who live a good ways from the nearest bookstore—to be able to purchase books via the Internet, practicality's gain is often serendipity's loss. Online book sites are excellent—as long as you know precisely what you want. In a real bookstore, however, the customer is free to wander the aisles at will, pull this or that book off the shelf purely on the basis of a whim, read the jacket copy and perhaps a paragraph or two, and decide if this relationship is meant to be. It's pleasing to emerge from a bookstore with a book you went in knowing you wanted; it's even more pleasing to come out with a book that you had no idea existed.

Christopher discovered Barry Aitchison's Miss Alice Merriwether's Long Lost Cakes & Further Arcane Inducements to Wonder (Velluminous Press, 2006) on a table in a Barnes & Noble in New York this past January. I don't know what about the book particularly caught his eye; perhaps the eye on the cover caught him. At any rate, it was added to our purchases, and Christopher read it not long after we got home. Searching the shelves the other night for something to read, I spotted this title, and remembered that Christopher had enjoyed it; and having just finished it, I can say with some confidence that a good many people will enjoy Aitchison's romp, which is part-fantasy, part-science fiction, and part-small town comedy. It concerns the small midwestern town of Parcival—pop. 2800 or so—which, one Sunday evening, disappears off the face of the Earth. Unfortunately, no one—including the Parcivalians—notices this fact until Tuesday morning.

The finger of suspicion immediately points to mysterious newcomer Quentin C. Coriander, who arrived in Parcival one day without anyone seeing him: he was simply there, a part of the landscape, and accepted by the townsfolk as something of an odd duck, but essentially harmless. However, once Parcival and its inhabitants find themselves nowhere on Earth, people start disappearing, and Coriander displays a seemingly unwholesome interest in fresh-cooked meat—despite the considerable inducements of Miss Merriwether's spectacular cakes, made specially for him—the townsfolk decide that Something Must Be Done, although they're not quite sure what.

Aitchison—whose first novel this is—displays a sure touch, juggling a large cast of characters and telling the story in brief bites which tell just enough to move the plot along, but always leave you on tenterhooks, wanting to turn the pages faster to see how this particular plot strand develops. His observations of small-town life are spot on, and the book is laugh-out-loud funny in spots. Beware: it's the kind of book that you shouldn't read with other people in the room, or you'll spend a lot of time reading bits out to them while trying not to laugh too hard. You'll also develop a serious craving for baked goods, after reading the author's descriptions of some of Miss Alice's cakes. Aitchison has included recipes for some of Alice's creations; if anyone bakes up the non-poisonous version of the 'Gourmet Chocolate and Brandy Cream Cake', I'd be much obliged for a slice.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Boys' Own Books

The Guardian recently reported the following:

'The runaway success of "The Dangerous Book for Boys" has inspired Penguin to start a list of "boy's own" classics. Six end-of-empire adventure tales are being given nostalgic covers, aimed squarely at the Father's Day market in June. They are: The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; She by H. Rider Haggard; The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope; The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers; The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan; and The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. A dashing collection for any middle-aged boy's bookshelf.'

One commentator has pointed out that five of the six titles listed above were not originally aimed at boys; rather, they were intended for adults. Surely it should be four-and-a-half, for The Lost World is prefaced by a verse which reads:

'I have wrought my simple plan
If I bring one hour of joy
To the boy who's half a man
Or the man who's half a boy.'

Of course, quite where this leaves female readers is unclear, both regarding Conan Doyle's book and the six titles as a whole. Did ACD think that neither girls nor women would enjoy The Lost World? And do the folk at Penguin think that these books—with their emphasis on adventure, thrills, and derring-do—are more apt to strike a chord with men than with women? I've read three of the books on the list and enjoyed them thoroughly, and expect I would enjoy the other three equally as much; indeed, they're all on that ever-expanding list of books that I mean to get to before I shuffle off this mortal coil, and at the rate the list is growing I shall have to live well beyond my allotted three score and ten in order to fit them all in.

It does make me ponder, though, the difference between men and women when it comes to reading. All my life I've read widely and happily in a variety of genres. When I was younger I was as apt to pick up a Three Investigators book as a Nancy Drew, and these days I'll read Robert Goddard, John Buchan, and George MacDonald Fraser as readily as I will pick up books by Joanne Harris or Patricia Carlon. However, a quick look at the list of books I've read over the last three years shows that the vast majority are by men, and are probably aimed at a male market. The preponderance of books about the Arctic probably skews things to a certain extent: as a novel I read recently comments, relatively few women seem to be interested in, say, the Franklin Expedition, and I suspect more men than women have read Sebastian Junger's A Perfect Storm, Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, Eric Lomax's The Railway Man, and Andrew Greig's Summit Fever (all of which I would highly recommend; more of Greig in a future post).

The point is, however, that while many women undoubtedly pick up and enjoy books that are aimed at men, fewer men would consider reading anything that seemed, however vaguely, to be aimed at women. When I was reading Nancy Drew books I would have been happy to read Hardy Boys adventures as well, and probably would have had I not gone on to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie at an early age; but how many boys who gobbled up the Hardy Boys books would have been equally comfortable reading Nancy Drew? Not many, I'd wager.

So I wish Penguin every success with their new line of classic 'boys' own' adventures; but I'd be interested to know how many women end up picking them up and enjoying them too. They'd certainly make as good a Mother's Day gift as a Father's Day gift, with the added advantage that they'll last longer than flowers, contain fewer calories than chocolates, and provide more enjoyment than an overpriced Mother's Day brunch at a crowded restaurant.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Road to the Stanley Cup: 1

Eighty-two regular season hockey games have come and gone, and now the real fun begins: the Stanley Cup playoffs. Sixteen of the thirty teams in the league make it to round one, and the Vancouver Canucks—whose fortunes I've followed since they joined the league in 1970—are one of them. The first round pits the ’Nucks (3rd overall in the Western Conference) against the sixth place Dallas Stars, and game one started last night (11 April) at 7.00 pm PDT. It ended a few minutes ago on 12 April, around 12.30 am PDT, just a couple of minutes shy of the end of the fourth overtime period; it's now the sixth longest game in Stanley Cup playoff history. Sudden death overtime is bad enough; four periods of it is apt to have players and fans alike reaching for an oxygen mask. Fortunately the Canucks prevailed 5–4, so that's one game down, as many as twenty-seven to go (fingers crossed). I don't know if I can take too many more games like this one, though.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Recommended (Arctic) reading: Part One

The interest that Dan Simmons's The Terror has stirred up regarding the Franklin Expedition has prompted a handful of people to ask me to recommend some good non-fiction books about it, as they want to read some more. Herewith a few books that might be best saved for summer reading, to cool you down when the temperatures rise.


The keystone work in this field is still Canadian historian Pierre Berton's The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818–1909 (Random House), which gives an excellent overview of the subject. The dates weren't chosen randomly: 1818 was the year in which Franklin made his first foray into the north, and 1909 saw not one but two men claiming to be the first to reach the North Pole. The Franklin Expedition and the expeditions which went in search of it are covered extensively. Berton wasn't Canada's best known, and most popular, historian without good reason: The Arctic Grail is, like all his works, immensely readable, although an overview like this can only give a taste of some of the larger-than life personalities who were drawn to the Arctic.


Two books cited by Simmons in his acknowledgements for The Terror are both excellent overviews of the Franklin Expedition in particular. Owen Beattie and John Geiger's Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition (Bloomsbury/Graystone) details the exhumation, in 1984 and 1986, of three Franklin Expedition sailors who died early on in the voyage and were buried on remote Beechey Island. The sailors' bodies were remarkably well preserved, enabling Beattie and his team to carry out autopsies and analyses which showed far higher levels of lead in the sailors than is considered healthy, and gave rise to the theory—believed by some, debunked by others—that the lead used in the tins of food which the expedition relied on was one of the main causes of the tragedy. Be sure to get the revised edition, which includes an interesting foreword by Margaret Atwood, who discusses the influence that the Beattie expedition had on some of her own fiction.

Scott Cookman's Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Expedition (Wiley) also fingers the tinned food as a culprit, but posits that it was botulism, not lead, which contaminated the food. Tinned food was an innovation in 1845, and many felt that it would alleviate that most dreaded of sailors' diseases, scurvy; but the processes necessary to ensure that the food was thoroughly cooked prior to the tins being sealed were not always in place, and the problem was compounded by the food freezing and then thawing over the course of the voyage, and not being heated properly prior to being consumed. The suspicion that the tinned food had something to do with the tragedy is borne out by the fact that the officers—who ate more of the tinned food (which was considered a delicacy) than the common seamen—suffered a disproportionate number of losses early in the expedition.

Ken McGoogan's Lady Franklin's Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History (HarperCollins) is a superb look at a remarkable woman, to whom the adjective 'indomitable' is applied with monotonous (but accurate) regularity. She was a woman who was far ahead of her time, and undoubtedly the driving force in the Franklin household: McGoogan paints a convincing portrait of a woman who lived vicariously through her husband, using his various appointments as a way to see and do things that would otherwise have been denied her. The volume focuses more on Lady Franklin than on her husband, and thus the Franklin Expedition is seen through the eyes of the woman who was left behind, and whose indomitable will sent governments scrambling to send expeditions in search of Franklin and his men. Ironically, more men were lost searching for Franklin than were lost on the expedition itself; their stories are as fascinating, and as fraught with tragedy, as Franklin's own, and will be the subject of another post.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

One ordinary day with pictures

Ah, the first tentative appearance of graphics on the blog! This can only mean that I'm starting to find my way round; either that, or I have far too much time on my hands (or both). Thanks to Christopher for sorting out the pictures and the Terror cover, which really is splendid, and far nicer than the cover of the British edition. Why publishers seem obsessed with having different covers for different markets leaves me puzzled, particularly when one of the designs is so much better than another. This photo shows Christopher (far right), our son Tim (centre), and me with Terror author Dan Simmons in Seattle in February of 2007; many thanks to John Pelan for taking the picture.

The photograph that accompanies my profile was taken in summer 2006, and bears, I think, a passing resemblance to a respected British actress. Some people are fortunate enough to look like Nicole Kidman or Catherine Zeta-Jones or Kate Winslet; if the resemblance is indeed there, I look like Penelope Wilton from, amongst other things, Shaun of the Dead. Ah well, it could be worse; I could look like that film's Nick Frost.

Here's another picture, taken in January 2007. I'd like to say that this shot was taken in front of a portion of our library, with me in my usual around-the-house garb, ready for a cosy night in, but truth in advertising laws compel me to admit that it was taken at the formal dinner of the Baker Street Irregulars in New York, and that this is not standard attire at the Roden household. We do have several bookcases that look almost as impressive, though, if not quite so tidy.

And here's one more, taken at the BSI dinner in New York in 2005. Not only am I standing with three distinguished gentlemen—from left Peter Straub, Michael Dirda, and Christopher Roden—but the picture was taken by another distinguished gent, Neil Gaiman.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Strange things done in the midnight sun

I can't now remember when or why I first become interested in Arctic exploration. My father, who was a Royal Canadian Mountie for twenty-one years, gave me several books about the early days of the Force, and the two stories which fascinated me both took place in Northern Canada: the story of the Lost Patrol of 1910, which disappeared on what was supposed to be a routine trip between Fort McPherson and Dawson, and the saga of the Mad Trapper of Rat River (who was not a trapper, and almost certainly not mad, and didn't live in Rat River, but that's neither here nor there). The first true Arctic adventure I ever read about was the voyage of the R.C.M.P. vessel St Roch, the first ship to navigate the Northwest Passage from west to east; the ship itself is now at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, for anyone interested in paying a visit.

In the mid-1980s I became fascinated with an expedition to remote Beechey Island in the Arctic, to disinter and autopsy three men who died early on in the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. Since that time I have read many books dealing with Arctic and North Pole exploration in general, and the Franklin expedition—and the expeditions which it in turn inspired, many of which were pretty eventful in and of themselves—in particular, fascinated by these men who, time and again, braved incredible hardship and the constant threat of debilitating illness, or death, or both, in search of something which was either a figment of the imagination (the Open Polar Sea), unnavigable by ships of the time (the Northwest Passage), or a featureless spot on an expanse of ice that is of no practical or strategic use (the North Pole).

What drove these men? What forced them, time and again, to pit themselves against the elements, and sometimes each other, return to civilisation (if they were fortunate), and then do it again? The wives of some of these men called themselves 'ice widows', and it is hard to understand why they did what they did. After two or three winters iced in, battling rats, scurvy, starvation, and cold, you'd think that the men who made it safely home would kiss the ground and swear never to go near the Arctic again. Yet as soon as the Admiralty, or the American government, announced another Arctic expedition, these same men would be lined up, ready and eager to sign on.

I'm also a lifelong admirer (and occasional writer) of ghost and supernatural stories; so when I found that Dan Simmons had written a novel called The Terror, which combined the saga of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition with a supernatural element, I was almost counting the days until the novel came out. I picked it up in New York the week it was published, began reading it before I returned home, and finished it in three days once I was safely back; no mean feat when you consider that the novel is more than 750 pages long. To say I was impressed with the novel would be an understatement; it's one of the finest books I've read in some time, and I could wish that it had been published in 2005, as it would then have figured very high in my own shortlist as a World Fantasy Awards judge.

I don't often write reviews for All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society, which I edit—I prefer to leave that to other, more capable, hands—but I was inspired to review The Terror for the journal's pages; it will be appearing in the spring issue. Here it is, for those who can't wait.

THE TERROR by Dan Simmons

Little, Brown, 2007; 769pp; hbk; US$25.99/Cdn$32.99; ISBN 978-0-316-01744-2

Reviewed by Barbara Roden

On 26 July 1845, Sir John Franklin and the 128 men aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror sailed out of sight of the western world and entered the realm of legend. They were charged with discovering the fabled Northwest Passage, the northern sea route which was thought to link the Atlantic with the Pacific and which was the Holy Grail of northern Arctic explorers. To the man who discovered the Northwest Passage would accrue honour and glory beyond his wildest dreams; or, in this case, to the man who commanded the expedition which found it, for this was firmly Sir John Franklin’s show, known as ‘The Franklin Expedition’ before the ships had even set sail. On paper, Sir John may have seemed a likely candidate to lead the project—he had already led three Polar expeditions—but in hindsight his qualifications were less than stellar. None of his previous expeditions had been a success: indeed, his disastrous 1819 venture had led to Franklin being known throughout England as ‘the man who ate his boots’, a nod to the privations the group suffered (it now seems certain that others in the group ate something worse than their boots), and Franklin never entirely shook off his reputation of being a capable duffer who achieved the heights he did through connections and the influence of his indomitable second wife, Lady Jane Franklin, rather than through any innate ability or qualities of leadership.

For these we must look to the expedition’s second-in-command, Captain Francis Crozier, in charge of the Terror and a far more accomplished Polar explorer, sailor, and leader of men than Franklin could ever hope to be. Crozier, an Irish Presbyterian, had repeatedly seen other men—less qualified, but more ‘acceptable’—promoted over him, a point which festered; and while he was almost certainly looked on as the leader of the expedition by the men under him, it would have been Franklin who received the plaudits and attention, and whose name was forever attached to the expedition. A pity, that, for if it had been ‘the Crozier expedition’ it might well have had a very different and much less tragic outcome; in much the same way that if another real life drama involving cannibalism, which unfolded at almost precisely the same time, had been ‘the Reed party’ rather than ‘the Donner party’, tragedy might have been averted altogether.

Erebus and Terror had been outfitted as state of the art icebreakers, utilising the most up to date technology available at the time, including engines to drive the ships, with their specially reinforced hulls, through the ice. The ships were also provisioned with enough food to last them three years on full rations and up to five years on short rations, a luxury achieved through the use of that new innovation, tinned food, supplied by a provisioner named Goldner whose bid was so low, and promises regarding quality and delivery time so grandiose and optimistic, that warning flags should immediately have gone up. As it was, the provisions were delivered so late that the ships had to be largely unpacked so that the food could be stowed, and there was no time to inspect the provisions for quality, a factor which contributed greatly to the tragedy which was soon to unfold.

What we know about this tragedy firsthand is rather sketchy. As with a tragedy which occurred thirty years later, albeit in a very different setting—the massacre of General George Custer and his troops at Little Bighorn in 1876—there were no white survivors to tell the tale, and native accounts were contradictory or vague or both. It was not until 1848 that the first search parties set out in search of Franklin and his men, and the first traces of the ill-fated expedition were not discovered until 1854, when John Rae met with a party of Inuit who had relics which could only have come from Franklin’s party. The story they told was of a forlorn and desperate group of kabloonas—white men—who had staggered out of the north, leaving a trail of dead behind them, along with evidences of cannibalism. Rae took his findings back to England, where he was roundly denounced for suggesting that British sailors would eat their dead shipmates but in 1859 another search party found remains which showed unmistakable signs of cannibalism. This same party also discovered the only written record left behind by the expedition: a document stored in a cairn, which contained two messages, one written in 1847 indicating all was well and another written around the margin of the first a year later, stating that Franklin and more than twenty others were dead, and that the survivors were heading south. Ironically, the search teams looking for Franklin and his men succeeded where he had failed: not only was it established that there was no direct Northwest Passage—or none that could be traversed by ships of the day—but most of the remaining blanks on the map of the Arctic were filled in for once and all.

Another similarity which the Franklin expedition shares with the Custer tragedy is that the bulk of what we now know about the two events has only come about in the last two decades or so, using modern forensic techniques. In the case of Custer, a fire which raged across the Little Bighorn site enabled scientists to uncover a wealth of previously hidden evidence, and thus piece together exactly what happened. In the case of Franklin, a scientific team led by Dr Owen Beattie exhumed the remarkably preserved bodies of three early casualties of the Franklin expedition, buried on desolate Beechey Island near the start of the voyage, and discovered astonishingly high levels of lead in the men. This, in turn, led to an investigation of the tins of food taken on the voyage—abandoned tins from the Franklin Expedition may still be found in the Arctic—and the discovery that they were soldered with lead on the inside, thus allowing the lead to leach into the food over the course of the voyage. Writer Scott Cookman took this a step further in his book Ice Blink, showing that the provisioner, Goldner, not only failed to ensure that the tins were soldered completely, thereby allowing bacteria into the tins, but that the food was inadequately cooked prior to delivery, thus making sure that thriving colonies of bacteria were present in many of the tins.

Dan Simmons acknowledges his debt to Cookman’s volume at the end of The Terror, a masterful look at, and reimagining of, the expedition and what happened. It begins in 1847, at a point when Sir John Franklin is already dead, and then switches back and forth in time, now recounting the origins of the expedition and the histories of some of the men involved, now shifting to the present, when the men are already starting to show signs of that most dreaded of sailor’s diseases, scurvy. The ship’s medical crew know that for some reason fresh food—particularly lemon juice—is an effective antiscorbutic, but their lemon juice has lost its efficacy, and there is little fresh food to be had, the men relying more and more on Goldner’s tinned food, which they have little means to heat thoroughly. Thus the men are now dying of lead and food poisoning, neither of which would have been understood by the medical men. In addition, both Erebus and Terror have been frozen in the same spot for more than a year, with no hope of escape in sight; both ships are being relentlessly ground to pieces by the ever-moving ice packs; the temperature dips as low as -100º F., and the men have no way of getting or keeping warm, or of drying out their sodden, frozen layers of wool clothing; Franklin, their leader, is dead; the men realise that there is so little hope of rescue from outside parties that they might as well be on the moon; and when the food runs out they face the very real prospect of having to eat their dead.

For most novelists all this would be horror enough, and Simmons superbly evokes the despair and misery of the increasingly tortured survivors who, under Crozier’s lead, abandon their ships to the ice and set out on a journey across the frozen wastes which would have taxed even healthy men on full rations, and which takes its inevitable toll on the diseased and starving men. Some of the most horrific passages in the book detail exactly what happens to the human body when scurvy takes hold, or how best to dissect a human body so as to get at the flesh and fat, and Simmons brilliantly describes and evokes the tortuous passage of the men across the ever-shifting ice, man-hauling sledges which weigh more than half a ton each:


Somehow Des Voeux had kept them moving to the northeast, but every day the weather worsened, the pressure ridges grew closer together, the necessary deviations from their course became longer and more treacherous, and the sledge sustained serious damage in their Herculean struggle to haul and shove it over the jagged ice ridges. Two days were lost just repairing the sledge in the howl of wind and blowing snow.

The mate had decided to turn around on their fourteenth morning on the ice. With only one tent left, he gauged their chances of survival as low. They then tried to follow their own thirteen days of ruts back to the ships, but the ice was too active—shifting slabs, moving bergs within the pack ice, and new pressure ridges rising in front of them had obliterated their tracks. Des Voeux, the finest navigator on the Franklin Expedition except for Crozier, took theodolite and sextant readings in the few clear moments he found in the days and nights but ended up setting his course based mostly on dead reckoning. He told the men that he knew precisely where they were. He was sure, he later admitted to Fitzjames and Crozier, that he would miss the ships by twenty miles.

On their last night on the ice, the final tent ripped and they abandoned their sleeping bags and pressed on to the southwest blindly, man-hauling just to stay alive. They jettisoned their extra food and clothing, continued to man-haul the sledge only because they needed their water, shotguns, cartridges, and powder. Something large had been following them for their entire voyage. They could see it through the spindrift and fog and pelting hail. They could hear it circling them each endless night in the darkness.


And here we have—at last—the reason this book is being reviewed in All Hallows: the Thing on the Ice. It has been dogging the expedition since their first icy winter, and in the beginning the men view it as simply a large Arctic bear of the sort they have been encountering throughout the journey. However, the Thing rapidly proves to be more than a bear: it has certain physical similarities to, but is far larger than, even the largest polar bear, and possessed of a keen intelligence and the ability to materialise out of nowhere and disappear as suddenly. At first it confines itself to picking off men who are unfortunate enough to be on the ice on their own; but in one terrifying set-piece it gets into one of the ice-bound ships, leaving a trail of death and devastation which continues above decks, where Ice Master Thomas Blanky takes refuge in the spars and ropes and then tries to elude the creature among the pressure ridges and seracs on the ice, desperately searching for a space large enough to hide in yet small enough that the Thing cannot follow. Later, as the survivors press on by sledge, they are aware of the creature always following, yet the attacks cease—for a time. When they resume, it is with a ferocity that shakes the survivors to the core, as they wonder what will kill them first: the cold, starvation, the diseases wracking their bodies, or the malevolent creature dogging their trail. Following the committal to the deep of three of the party—or at least as much of their bodies as have been found—the surviving medical officer, Harry Goodsir, writes:


All of us, I believe, were Thinking that these words were a Eulogy and Farewell for each one of us. Up until this Day and the loss of Lieutenant Little’s boat with all his men—including the irreplaceable Mr Reid and the universally liked Mr Peglar—I suspect that many of us still thought that we might Live. Now we know that the odds of that had all but Disappeared.

The long awaited and Universally Cheered Open Water was a vicious Trap.

The Ice will not give us up.

And the creature from the ice will not allow us to leave.


The novel is written in a series of chapters told from the points of view of a large cast of characters, and it is to Simmons’s enormous credit that each of these men has an individual and distinct voice. From the bare facts known of these men—many of whom are, at this remove, merely names on a muster roll—he has created a series of fully-rounded characters, taking the barest of clues and hints and suppositions and spinning them into something wholly convincing. For example, Scott Cookman writes, in Ice Blink, that one of the bodies, that of a steward, was found years later with a pocketful of possessions, including a notebook belonging to Petty Officer Harry Peglar. Writes Cookman, ‘Peglar, starving, had either died on the march or been left at Erebus Bay and entrusted the book to the steward who, despite his own sufferings, tenderly carried it homeward, intent on delivering it to Peglar’s relatives.’ Simmons has expanded on this brief reference and the word ‘tenderly’ to build up a wholly convincing friendship, even love, between Peglar and Steward John Bridgens, whom he posits met on the voyage of the Beagle in 1831; these references to such contemporary people and things as Darwin, telegrams, and Poe (one brilliant section owes much to ‘The Masque of the Red Death’) remind us that while these men were stuck in a featureless landscape at the top of the world, life continued, however impossibly far away. Surgeon Harry Goodsir begins the book as a rather comical figure, inclined not to be taken seriously by anyone, yet over the course of the book he grows into a strong and dignified man who has earned the respect of the survivors. One by one Simmons does this with many of the characters, showing how extreme hardship brings out the best—or worst—in humans: characters who start out as seemingly honourable are shown to harbour a darkness within them which is even more terrifying than the malignancy of the creature stalking them, while other men, like Goodsir, rise to the occasion, and become, almost in spite of themselves, better. Nowhere is this more marked than in the case of Crozier, who begins the novel as a bitter man who is seldom sober, and who decides that when his private supply of whisky is exhausted he will take his own life, rather than face the horrors around him without the numbing effects of drink. By the time that moment arrives, however, Crozier finds that the flames of life and responsibility burn too fiercely for him to give up, and that the man he has become will not allow him to throw his life away while there remains a hope of survival. To that end he endures a nightmarish withdrawal scene which leads him to the brink of death, and also lays the seeds for the revelations of the book’s final 100 pages, where all the threads are drawn together into an ending which is as strangely beautiful, yet horrifying, as it is right.

Simmons has also managed brilliantly to work within the known facts of the expedition, finding explanations which fit logically and seamlessly into his interpretation of events to answer some of the anomalies which still puzzle Franklin experts. Why, for example, did the men abandon ship yet drag with them so many articles—Bibles, novels, writing desks, china—for which they had no practical use? Why was one of the sledge-mounted boats found, with two skeletons—one intact, one in pieces—miles away from where the survivors are known to have gone, and facing in the wrong direction, that is northwest towards the abandoned ships and not southeast towards their hope of escape? Why did the officers on board both ships suffer a disproportionately large number of casualties early in the expedition? And what of the reports of some Inuit that one of the men survived, and spent the rest of his life living in a native village? All of Simmons’s explanations fit perfectly, as does his only significant addition to the known cast of characters: an enigmatic Inuit woman known by the crew as Lady Silence, who many are soon convinced is a Jonah, or witch, and who may be in league with the Ice Creature.

The Terror is a superb book, and that comparatively rare beast, a historical novel which does not ring false at any point. It is also a terrifying novel of the supernatural, with more than a few echoes of Algernon Blackwood. Its length may seem daunting, but make sure that when you start reading it you have a few days clear: for once you pick it up, you will not want to stop until the story ends.