Alan Mason continues his personal appreciation of twentieth century writing.
Following the miseries of the First World War, this is often seen as an era of hedonism, but it was also a time of new inventions and new social attitudes.
In the Arts the shift was from Art Nouveau (ar noo vo “new art”) to Art Deco, and something of the spirit of the times is captured by the painting of a “new woman” behind the wheel of a powerful car (1). It is by the artist Tamara de Lempicka (lem pit ska) and the literal translation of the German title (ow toe por trate) is “self-portrait” but it contains a pun as “car- portrait”.
The decade ended with the Wall Street crash and the dawn of the Great Depression. While the second decade was that of the Old World, the Twenties were that of the New World. The flavour of the period is conveyed by the books of Scott Fitzgerald, O’Hara, and Damon Runyon in the USA, and by Dorothy Sayers’ hero Lord Peter Wimsey in the UK. The other novels have more timeless theme
1. The Great Gatsby ……………..F Scott Fitzgerald …………………..1926
2. The Sun Also Rises (Fiesta) …Ernest Hemingway …………………1927
3. The Bridge of San Luis Rey …Thornton Wilder ……………………1927
4. The Story of San Michele……Axel Munthe…………………………..1929
5. The Nine Tailors……………….Dorothy L Sayers…………………….1934
6. Appointment in Samarra ……John O’Hara …………………………..1935
7. Guys and Dolls …………………Damon Runyon ……………………….1932
8. In Search of England…………H V Morton……………………………..1927
1 The Great Gatsby ……………………….F Scott Fitzgerald …………………..1926
This is seen as the definitive novel of the twenties and it has, several times, been made into a film during the succeeding decades. It is short novel told by an observer of events, a quest to understand Jay Gatsby and the origins of his wealth and style (2). It is a story of nostalgia for a golden age of youth.
The novel is set among the great houses of the wealthy in the Hamptons, on the low sandy peninsulas of Long Island, in New York State, facing Long Island Sound (3). It is a holiday area for some, and a home for those whom life is a perpetual holiday. The conclusion is not what the observer would wish to see, when the origins of the cosmopolitan and cultivated Gatsby are revealed. Gatsby was “cool” before the word had been invented. He was also a master of self-re-invention.
Here is a brief extract which gives the flavour of Scott Fitzgerald’s writing. The “hero” or observer in the novel is riding in Gatsby’s large car, heading out of New York City towards Long Island.
“With fenders spread like wings we scattered light through half Astoria – only half, for as we twisted among the pillars of the elevated I heard the familiar ‘jug-jug-spat!’ of a motorcycle, and a frantic policeman rode alongside. All right, old sport,’ called Gatsby. We slowed down.
Taking a white card from his wallet, he waved it before the man’s eyes.
Right you are,’ agreed the policeman, tipping his cap. ‘Know you next time, Mr Gatsby. Excuse me!’
`What was that?’ I inquired. ‘The picture of Oxford?’
I was able to do the commissioner a favour once, and he sends me a Christmas card every year.’
Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders (5) making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queenboro Bridge (5) is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”
The author, Francis Scott Key, (1896-1940) better known as F Scott Fitzgerald, (6) published an autobiographical novel “This Side of Paradise” in 1920 and became the toast of the literati of the East Coast of the USA.
The observer in “The Great Gatsby” (1925) is widely seen as Fitzgerald himself. He considered his best novel to be “Tender is the Night”, an autobiographical account of his wife, Zelda’s descent into mental illness. She entered an asylum in 1930, and he struggled for the next ten years with alcoholism, until he died at the early age of 44 in 1940.
2. The Sun Also Rises (Fiesta) …Ernest Hemingway …………………1927
Ernest Hemingway (7) was seen as, perhaps, the greatest novelist of the twenties and thirties, if not the century, at the time of his greatest success. From our standpoint of a new century this seems too inflated an assessment.
His prose style was ground-breaking in that it was laconic, terse and direct, in contrast to the more stately styles of the early twentieth century writers. This technique has been much imitated and consequently Hemingway’s writing style does not seem quite so revolutionary to modern readers.
He was born in Oak Park, Chicago, Illinois, in 1898, developing an enthusiasm for American football, hunting, and outdoor adventure.
After choosing journalism as a career in 1917, he became a war correspondent (8) during the First World War. He volunteered for service with an ambulance team on the Italian front, and was seriously wounded.
In 1919 he returned to the USA, married in 1921, and left journalism in 1924 to devote himself full- time to novel writing. The first published novel was “The Torrents of Spring” (1926), and “The Sun Also Rises” (1927) was the second. Much of his writing was semi-autobiographical and “A Farewell to Arms” (1929) reflected his experiences in war-torn Italy.
Hemingway was pre-occupied with masculine pursuits like big-game hunting, and game fishing. His books and journalism reflect this machismo. Today, we are more suspicious of an excessively masculine approach to life, and later biographies tell of his sexual impotence, and his final suicide.
Curiously, Hemingway pandered to a British and American view of bullfighting (9) as another of these masculine sports. This is to totally misread it as an activity. It is not a sport at all, not a competition between the man and the bull, but rather a drama, like a play with an inevitable ending. When we go to see “Romeo and Juliet” at the theatre, we do not wonder if, this time, the young couple will survive into a happy old age.
Also toreros (professional bullfighters) tend to be rather small, graceful men, more like dancers than boxers. Their survival depends on intelligence, skill and timing rather than mere strength.
Much of their capework (9) in the arena is like a formal dance and audiences appreciate this for grace, skill and courage. The last act in the drama is the kill, (10) where the matador leans forward over the bull’s horns to place his sword between the shoulder blades deep into the heart.
Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises” is a love story involving a bull-fighter and a group of expatriate Americans. Hemingway writes, “On the hotel stairs we met Montoya.
”Do you want to meet Pedro Romero?’
We followed Montoya who explained, ‘He’s getting dressed for the bull-fight.’
It was a gloomy room and the boy stood very straight and unsmiling in his bull-fighting clothes. They were just finishing winding his sash. His black hair shone, and he wore a white linen shirt and the sword-handler finished his sash and stood up and stepped back.
Pedro Romero nodded, seeming very far away and dignified when we shook hands. Then he turned to me. He was the best-looking boy I have ever seen; he was nineteen years old, alone except for his sword-handler, and the three hangers-on, and the bull-fight was to commence in twenty minutes.
After Romero had killed his first bull Montoya caught my eye and nodded his head. This was a real one. There had not been a real one for a long time. Of the other two matadors, one was very fair and the other was passable. But there was no comparison with Romero.” (11)
As noted earlier, Hemingway’s fiction is semi-autobiographical. In 1925, he went, with a group of friends, (12) to the town of Pamplona in northern Spain, near the Pyrenees, for the festival of San Fermin and the “encierro” (en thee air o) or “running of the bulls”. A group of bulls is allowed to run through specially cordoned streets. One of his friends was the beautiful Lady Dorothy “Duff” Twysden, who was clearly the model for the aristocratic Brett Ashley in “The Sun Also Rises” published two years after the trip.
Hemingway wrote an account of touring Spain, in 1959, following the two leading toreros Ordonez and Dominguin, in a series of corridas (bullfights), known as a “mano a mano”. This translates literally from Spanish as “hand to hand”, but it is better rendered by the English idiom, “head to head.”
It was an attempt to recover the experiences of a lost youth and proved to be a failure. The autobiographical account, “The Dangerous Summer” (13) was published a year later, in 1960. He has said the account, made him feel “ashamed and sick.”
The two principals, Ordonez and Dominguin, have rejected his view of their skills and actions. Thus, Hemingway’s account of the bullfight, in the novel, and his critical comments on Belmonte and Marcial are weakened by the rejection of his opinions by the professionals.
Despite all these reservations, Hemingway’s novel is an excellent story of love and danger in a hot climate and a fascinating culture. The title is a Biblical quotation from the Preacher in “Ecclesiastes”.
[On a personal note, five years after Hemingway’s trip, I was in Pamplona, in the summer of 1964, to see the empty bull-ring and bull-pens. The festival of San Fermin was some weeks away. Days later, I watched a “corrida de toros” (a series of seven individual bullfights) in the nearby larger town of San Sebastian.]
3. The Bridge of San Luis Rey …Thornton Wilder ……………………1927
This is a slim volume, telling of a natural disaster in eighteenth century Peru when five travellers fell from the Bridge of San Luis Rey to their deaths. It is a compassionate examination of the five people and their relationships with friends and family. On another level it is about the nature of human suffering and how we may understand it. The author, Thornton Wilder, an American academic and writer was, to some extent, influenced by French existentialism.
Thornton Wilder adopts a rather quaint style, speaking not quite as a peasant, but like that of an uneducated person with a simple religious faith. The book begins,
“0n Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below. This bridge was on the high road between Lima and Cuzco, and hundreds of persons passed over it every day. It had been woven of osier by the Incas more than a century before. Visitors were always led out to see it. It was a mere ladder of thin slats swung out over the gorge, with handrails of dried vine. (14)
The baggage went down, hundreds of feet below, to pass over the torrent on
rafts, but no one, not even the Viceroy, or the Archbishop of Lima, descended with the baggage rather than cross by the famous bridge of San Luis Rey. St Louis of France himself protected it, by the little mud church on the farther side. The bridge seemed to be among the things that last for ever; it was unthinkable that it should break.”
The Wilder image (15) is of a severe, and buttoned up personality. He was the son of a US diplomat, born in Madison, Wisconsin, but travelled around as his father’s job required. While in school in California he was shunned by his classmates as overly intellectual. “He retired to the library, his hideaway, learning to distance himself from humiliation and indifference.”
Part of his childhood was spent in China, but political instability forced his mother returned to California with all the children. He was a writer from an early age, and was fascinated by writing plays for the theatre.
He graduated from Yale University in 1920, aged 23, with a liberal arts degree, and took an MA in French from Princeton in 1926.
He also studied in Italy, and began teaching French in US schools. His first novel (“The Cabala”) was published in 1926, and the second novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” published in 1927 was a great commercial success. The book won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. He began a university teaching career in Chicago from 1930 to 1937. He won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1938 for his play, “Our Town”.
“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” deals with the problem of human suffering, and why apparently blameless individuals come to harm. The incident is an imaginary one but Wilder uses some real historical persons in the novel.
I find the last few pages extremely moving, not because of what happens, but because of what the characters explain to each other. Each of them is grieving for a person lost in the accident. A woman approaches the elderly Abbess of the convent, whom she addresses as ‘Mother’.
“Camila lurked about the convent church and fell humbly in love with the homely old face of the Abbess, though it frightened her a little.
At last she called upon her.
‘Mother,’ she said, ‘I … I…’
‘Do I know you, my daughter?’
‘I was the actress, I was the Perichole.’
‘Oh, yes. Oh, I have wished to know you for a long while. You too, I know, lost in the fall of the bridge of San. . ‘
Camila rose and swayed. There! Again that access of pain, the hands of the dead she could not reach. Her lips were white. Her head brushed the Abbess’s knee: `Mother, what shall I do? I am all alone. I have nothing in the world. I love them. What shall I do?’
‘My daughter, it is warm here. Let us go into the garden. You can rest there.’
‘A year has gone by, senora, since our accident. I lost two who had been children in my orphanage, but you lost a real child of your own?’
‘And a great friend?’
‘Tell me. . . ‘
And then the whole tide of Camila’s long despair, her lonely obstinate despair since her girlhood found its rest on that dusty friendly lap among Sister Juana’s fountains and roses.”
(I know that this little book is not to everyone’s taste, as I have friends who were bored by it. For me it is one of a small number of books making the tears roll slowly down my cheeks as I read. Even preparing this short review, and OCR scanning a couple of pages at the end of the novel, has the same effect. How could I not include it?)
4. The Story of San Michele……Axel Munthe…………………………..1929
San Michele (mee kay lay) is the name of the author’s house on the Isle of Capri, in southern Italy (18). The book is an autobiography, but one of the oddest ever written. It is a series of disconnected scenes from the author’s interesting life in roughly chronological order, but lacking dates or a coherent description of events.
The author, Axel Munthe, (moon ter) was born in Sweden, and in 1875, at seventeen, he joined a party of friends in the Mediterranean. He sailed in the post boat the ten miles from Sorrento to Capri, went ashore and climbed the Phoenician steps to the village of Anacapri.
This was, perhaps, the defining moment of Axel Munthe’s life. In Anacapri he came across the ruined chapel of San Michele, and he fantasised about buying the property and restoring the chapel. All over medieval Europe it was common for chapels dedicated to St Michael to be built on high hilltops (19). Capri was no exception to this custom.
Axel Munthe wanted to become a doctor, and studied medicine at the Universities of Uppsala (Sweden) Montpellier (France) and the Sorbonne, (Paris). He graduated as an MD in 1880 at the age of twenty-three, and opened a practice in Paris.
He met many of the famous names of the time, notably, Prof. Jean Charcot (jon shar co) a pioneer of the scientific treatment of mental illness, Louis Pasteur doing groundbreaking work in biochemistry and bacteriology, and the authors Guy de Maupassant (gee der mo pass on) and Henry James.
In 1884, Munthe went to Naples (20) in a humanitarian impulse to help in an epidemic of cholera. We now know that the disease is caused by a water-borne bacterium, Vibrio, when drinking–water is contaminated by human sewage.
The cause had only just been discovered in 1884 by German bacteriologist, Robert Koch. Cholera patients suffer continual diarrhoea and vomiting, losing a litre of water an hour. Replacement of this water is vital, if they are not to die of shock and cardiac collapse. Death rates in untreated patients is 60% but no more than 1% with fluid replacement therapy. (“Medical Microbiology” Murray et al, Wolfe, 1990)
Munthe writes, “I left the empty train and stepped out into Naples (21). On the deserted Piazza I saw long convoys of carts filled with corpses on the way to the cholera cemetery.
My offer to serve on the staff of the cholera hospital of Santa Maddalena was accepted, but two days later I left as the right place for me was among the dying in the slums. If only the patients’ agony was not so long, so terrible. They were lying apparently dead and yet still alive. The soldiers and the half-drunk beccamorti (corpse collectors) came at night to throw them into the immense pit on the Camposanto dei Colerosi. (Sacred Field for Cholera Victims)
How many were thrown in there alive?
Hundreds, I should say.” (22)
Axel Munthe’s medical practice in Paris flourished so well that in 1887, at the age of thirty, he was able to move to Capri and fund the project to purchase and reconstruct the chapel. He purchased the chapel ruins from Maestro Vincenzo and set about restoring it. It had been built on the ruins of the villa owned by the Roman Emperor Tiberius (42 BC to 37 AD).
It seems like an attempt on the part of Munthe to recreate a lost youth, which he describes so vividly in the opening of his book. (22)
“I sprang from the Sorrento sailing-boat on to the little beach. (23) Swarms of boys were playing about among the upturned boats or bathing their shining bronze bodies in the surf, and old fishermen in red Phrygian (fridge ee an) caps sat
mending their nets outside their boat-houses.
The little donkey who was to take me up to Capri was called Rosina, and the name of the girl was Gioia (gee oy ee ar = Joy). Her black, lustrous eyes sparkled with fiery youth, her lips were red like the string of corals round her neck, and her strong white teeth glistened like a row of pearls in her merry laughter. My foot stumbled against a broken column of marble,
“Roba di Timberio!” explained Gioia. (Rubbish of Tiberius)
“Timberio cattivo, Timberio mal’occhio, Timberberio camorrista”
and she spat on the marble. (Dirty old Tiberius, the Evil Eyed one, Tiberius the crook)
“Yes,” said I, my memory fresh from Tacitus and Suetonius, (two classical historians) “Tiberio cattivo!” (Naughty old
The old emperor, who lived the last eleven years of his on the island of Capri and is still very much alive on lips of its inhabitants, is always spoken of as Timberio.
In 1890 Munthe was running short of cash for the restoration project, and he had to open a medical practice in Rome, to finance further works.
“The Story of San Michele” does not mention his two marriages, or his connection with England. In 1907, at the age of fifty, he married his second wife, Hilda, an English woman with aristocratic origins. They had two sons, Peter and Malcolm. Axel Munthe took British citizenship during WW1 and served with a French ambulance corps.
Munthe also wrote about the nomadic people of Lapland, the reindeer herders and woodsmen of northern Norway and Sweden. His home in Oskarshamm was right down in southern Sweden, on a level with northern Denmark, and Lapland was about 800 miles further north. He conveys the idea that he knew the far north as a child, but this seems unlikely.
The part of “The Story of San Michele” which describes Lapland is one of the most strange from the point of view of the sceptical reader.
“I thought I heard something rattle on the table. The tallow candle was just flickering out. I could see quite distinctly a little man as big as the palm of my hand sitting cross-legged on the table carefully pulling at my, watch-chain and bending his grey old head on one side to listen to the ticking of my watch. He was so interested that he did not notice that. I was sitting up in my bed and looking at him.
Suddenly he caught sight of me, dropped the watch-chain, glided down the leg of the table, sailor fashion, and sprang towards the door as fast as his tiny legs could carry him.
“Don’t be afraid, little goblin;” said I, “It is only me. Don’t run away
and I will show you what is inside that gold box you were so interested in.”
He stopped short and looked at me with his small, kind eyes. “I cannot make it out,” said the goblin, “I thought I smelt a child in this room or I would never have come in, and you look like a big man.
Don’t you recognize me? It was I who came to your nursery every night when the whole house was asleep to put things straight for you and smoothed away all your worries of the day.”
There seem to be no portraits of Axel Munthe as a young man. The film poster (27) must suffice. It is for the 1962 German film, “Der Arzt von San Michele” (The Art Treasures of San Michele) directed by Rudolf Jugert. O W Fischer starred as Axel Munthe.
The book on San Michele was published in 1929 when Axel Munthe was seventy-two. He died twenty years later in Stockholm, in 1949, aged ninety-two. Today, San Michele is open to the public as an art museum.
5. The Nine Tailors……………….Dorothy L Sayers…………………….1934
Dorothy Sayers is well-known for her detective novels, and the amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey who forms a team with his manservant, Bunter. The film still (28) shows Ian Carmichael as Wimsey and Glyn Houston as Bunter. I am more familiar with her academic work translating, Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (Italian) and “The Song of Roland” (Norman-French). Detective fiction is generally uninteresting to me, so this choice of book means I find it more stimulating than most crime novels.
My interest lies in the book’s poetic quality. Dorothy Sayers was a dramatist, poet and novelist so she brings an extra dimension to an unusual detective story. The relationship between Wimsey and Bunter is decidedly formal; Wimsey always uses the other man’s surname, never his Christian name, and the servant always addresses Wimsey as, “My lord”. Despite the formality, it is clear that there is a great bond of mutual respect and affection between the two men.
Bunter has been batman (officer’s servant) to Lord Peter in World War I, (29) and it was the experience of being in extreme danger together that has forged the bond. In the Britain of the forties and fifties it was quite common for professional men, on friendly terms with each other, to use only surnames. Even in the nineties I had an amiable and cooperative colleague who never used Christian names to men.
The novel is also about old churches and bellringing so I found it scholarly and fascinating. I know very little about bellringing and though I learned a little more from the book it is still very much a mystery to me. I enjoyed the description of the technicalities in much the same way as I enjoy a talk on music. I respect the scholarship, and I know the subject is important and is only incomprehensible because of my own ignorance of it.
The novel begins, “‘That’s torn it!’ said Lord Peter Wimsey. The car lay, helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch, her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank, as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifted snow. (30)
Peering through a flurry of driving flakes, Wimsey saw how the accident had come about. The narrow, hump-backed bridge, blind as an eyeless beggar, spanned the dark drain at right-angles, dropping plumb down upon the narrow road that crested the dyke. Coming a trifle too fast across the bridge, blinded by the bitter easterly snow storm, he had overshot the road and plunged down the side of the dyke into the deep ditch.”
Wimsey has crashed his car in the Fen Country in the depth of winter and has sought refuge in the vicarage. The vicar is a bellringing buff, and he wants to ring a record peal at New Year’s Eve.
His ambition has been compromised by the illness of one of his ringers with Spanish influenza which swept the world from 1919 to 1920. Fortunately, Wimsey is a competent ringer so he joins the vicar’s set to ring the 15,840 strokes of the pattern called, “Kent Treble Bob Major”.
Despite all the background detail, including the frontispiece (31) the church is imaginary, but typical of the region. The Fens are an area of very flat, low-lying country in the east of England in Norfolk, Huntingdonshire, and Cambridgeshire. Originally, the Fens were marshland, but they were drained over the last four hundred years. Now, they are criss-crossed by dykes, or drains, deep, wide, arrow-straight drainage channels.
The title, “Nine Tailors” is a corruption of “nine tellers”, the nine teller strokes of a bell, tolled for the death of a man or of the Old Year.
The Ringers raise their Bells
When at rest, the bells usually hang mouth downwards (32). Before a peal the bells have to be raised so the mouths face upwards. It has to be done gently so the upward-swinging bell does not break the stay which prevents it moving in a full circle. Each of the bells at Fenchurch St Paul has its name, but all are called “she” whether the name is male or female. The biggest bell, “Tailor Paul” weighs two tons, and the smallest, “Gaude” (Latin for “Joy”) weighs a third of a ton. The captain of the bell-ringing team is introduced to Lord Peter, and offers to raise the bell for his new colleague (33).
“Not on your life,” said Wimsey, “it’s a poor ringer that can’t raise his own bell.” He grasped the rope and pulled it gently downwards, gathering the slack in his left hand. Softly, tremulously, high overhead in the tower, Sabaoth began to speak, and her sisters after her as the ringers stood to their ropes. “Tin, tin, tin,” cried Gaude in her silvery treble; “tan, tan,” answered Sabaoth; “din, din, din,” “dan, dan, dan”, said John and Jericho, climbing to their places; “bim, bam, bim, bam,” Jubilee and Dimity followed; “bom,” said Batty Thomas; and Tailor Paul, majestically lifting up her great bronze mouth, bellowed, “bo, bo, bo,” as the ropes hauled upon the wheels.”
Continental bellringers would use a ring of eight bells as an octave to play a tune. English bellringing is based on change ringing. This means that seven of the bells play in a fixed order while the eighth bell gradually changes position between the other bells – “hunting up, and hunting down”. Then a new bell takes over the role of changing its position. The changes are mathematically termed permutations of ringing order.
“The ringers grasped their ropes. “Go”
The bells gave tongue; Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas, and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes… every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging and snapping…out over the flat white wastes of fen, (34) over the spear-straight, steel dark dykes, and the wind-bent groaning poplar trees..bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry…went the music of the bells.”
Dorothy L Sayers was the daughter of Henry Sayers, the chaplain to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and Headmaster of the Choir School. She graduated from Oxford University in 1915 with a degree in modern languages and medieval literature. Her first book of poems was published in 1916. The first Wimsey novel appeared in 1923. She worked as an advertising copywriter for nine years, while writing detective fiction, poetry, and works on religious issues from an Anglican perspective. A cycle of twelve plays on the life of Jesus Christ, entitled, “The Man Born to be King” was broadcast regularly by the BBC around Easter, as it was widely praised by listeners.
6 Appointment in Samarra ……John O’Hara …………………………..1935
John O’Hara is another writer, like Scott Fitzgerald, who is seen as a chronicler of “the Jazz Age”, the USA in the 1920s. This novel was his first book and an instant success. Though published in 1935 it deals with the previous decade. The title, “Appointment in Samarra” is taken from a rather eerie quotation from a W Somerset Maugham play. This begins the novel.
“DEATH SPEAKS: A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to buy provisions. When he came back, white and trembling, he said, “Master, I was jostled in the market-place, and when I turned it was Death that jostled me. She made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.” The merchant lent him his horse, the servant mounted, dug in his spurs and galloped off. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and saw me standing. He came to me and said, “Why did you threaten my servant this morning?” “That was not a threat,” I said, “I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.” W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM
Samarra is an ancient city in Iraq, (36) about 78 miles (125 Km) north of the capital, Baghdad (37). It would take a horse-rider about four or five hours to cover the distance, depending on how much rest he gave the animal. Following the success of O’ Hara’s novel the phrase “Appointment in Samarra” has now come to mean a metaphor for death.
This quotation sets the scene for an inevitable end.
Over a period of three days, a set of impulsive actions destroys the principal character, Julian English. It is never clear from the author, John O’Hara,
why Julian behaves in this way. Perhaps, the social situations described, are so irritating that O’Hara wants to explore what happens when someone decides to violate all the conventions. Other commentators have suggested that the novel is an essay in pre-destination, based upon the essential character of Julian English.
It begins with an incident at the Lantenego Country Club among a group of competitive and socially aspiring young Americans. We all understand the irritation caused by the club bore, and the strong urge to shut him up.
“The vibrations of the orchestra reached the smoking room, where Harry Reilly was telling a dirty story in an Irish brogue, made more funny by his loose teeth, so Harry whistled as he spoke. His listeners always knew when to laugh, because Reilly signalled the pay-off line by slapping his leg just before it was delivered. When all had laughed he would look at each one to if he was getting it. He would follow with a short history of the story, where he had heard it and under what circumstances; and the history would lead to another story. Julian English sat there watching him, through eyes that appeared sleepier than they felt. Why, he wondered, did he hate Harry Reilly? Why couldn’t he stand him? What was there about Reilly that caused him to say to himself: ‘If he starts one more of those moth-eaten stories I’ll throw this drink in his face”?
But he knew he would not throw this drink or any other drink in Harry Reilly’s face. Still, it was fun to think about it. Yes, it would be fun to watch. The whole drink, including three round-cornered lumps of ice. At least one lump would hit Reilly in the eye, and the liquid would splash all over his shirt. Julian said to himself, ‘that I thought it was about time someone shut him up.’ But he knew he would not throw this drink, now almost gone, or the new one he was mixing. The band was playing “Something To Remember You By”, when Johnny Dibble suddenly appeared, breathless, ‘Jeez,’ he said. ‘Jeezuzz H. Kee-rist. You hear about what just happened?’
‘No. No, what was it?’
‘Julian English. He just threw a highball in Harry Reilly”s face.’
The story then moves steadily towards its tragic conclusion. For a fuller discussion of the novel, its title and associated issues the reader is directed to an excellent short article in wikipedia under the title, “Appointment in Samarra”.
John Henry O’Hara was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1905, and earned his living as a journalist, and writer. He began at the age of twenty, as a reporter for the local newspaper. He gained a wider recognition as a contributor to the “New Yorker”, beginning in 1928. Moving to New York, his first novel, “Appointment in Samarra”, was published in 1934, and was an immediate success.
He continued writing successfully, (Butterfield 8, Pal Joey) until the outbreak of WW2 when he became a war correspondent in the Pacific theatre of military operations. After the war, his play, “Pal Joey” was staged in 1952, later adapted as a successful musical, and finally a film.
Sadly, John O’Hara was an unhappy and irascible man, with a deep sense of inferiority over the fact that he never had a university education. His father died when the boy was 19 and the family could not afford to send him to Yale, the university of his choice. None of his many literary awards or financial success seemed to compensate for this. Ernest
Hemingway once said, cruelly but accurately, “Someone should take up a collection to send John O’Hara to Yale.”
7 Guys and Dolls …………………Damon Runyon ……………………….1932
While Scott Fitzgerald and O’Hara reflected the grimmer aspects of the 1920s hedonism in the USA, Damon Runyon showed us a lighter side. His book is rather less well-known than the Broadway musical, and the 1955 film based on some of its stories and characters. A still, (40) shows four of the big stars of the fifties, in their younger days, appearing in the movie, (Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, and Vivian Blaine).
The stories are set in New York among the sub-criminal world of gamblers, hustlers, horse-racing tipsters and ne’er do wells. Runyon’s writing style is idiosyncratic in that he and his characters only use the present tense, everyone has an exotic nickname, and there is a lot of slang.
The main plot line of the Broadway musical and the film is an unlikely romance between a professional gambler, Sky Masterson, (Marlon Brando) and a Salvation Army girl, Sarah Brown, (Jean Simmons) (41).
The Salvation Army is a Christian organisation, begun in 19 C Britain by William Booth, and set up to bring relief to the poor and homeless. It also campaigns against gambling and drink, because of the poverty these caused to women and children. In the fifties, the British “Sally Army” was seen weekly on street-corners, and in the pubs, (with the landlord’s permission) to receive contributions, and give out copies of their newspaper, “The War Cry”.
They were always treated with respect by the men drinking there, because of the good work they did for the poor. By the seventies this had changed totally. I was in a pub in Bristol with a group of students, when a Salvation Army girl entered. The students reacted with amazement, amusement and embarrassment, because they were uncertain how to react. I signalled to the girl, and when she came over, put some money in her tin. She thanked me, and offered a free copy of “The War Cry”, which I accepted. For the students this was a learning experience.
The story of Sarah and Sky, and the Salvation Army among the poor in the streets of New York is based on the first of twenty stories and is entitled “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown”.
“Of all the high players there is no doubt but that the guy they call The Sky is the highest, because he goes so high when it comes to betting he will bet all he has, and nobody can bet any more than this. His right name is Obadiah Masterson, out of a town in Colorado where he learns to shoot craps, (play dice) and play cards. The Sky tells me when he cleans up all the loose scratch (money) around town and decides he needs more room, his old man has a private talk with him.
‘Son,’ the old guy says, ‘I am only sorry that I am not able to bank-roll you to a start, but, not having any potatoes, (money) I am going to stake you to some very valuable advice.
Some day, a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is never broken, and this guy is going to bet you that the jack of spades will jump out and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet him, because you are going to get an ear full of cider.’
Sky is a popular man with the ladies, (42) but meeting Sarah Brown out on the streets, “saving souls”, he soon has eyes for no one else. She gatecrashes the “floating crap game” of Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra).
The story continues when “The Sky says, ‘Good evening. I am trying to win a few souls for you, but I seem to be out of luck.’
‘Well,’ Sarah says, looking at The Sky most severely out of her hundred-per-cent eyes, ‘you are taking too much on yourself. You better be thinking of your own soul. Are you risking your own soul, or just your money?’
I know something about gambling,’ Miss Sarah Brown says, ‘especially about crap games. I ought to; it ruins my poor papa and my brother Joe. If you wish to gamble for souls, Mister Sky, gamble for your own soul. This two dollars against your soul, Mister Sky. It is all I have, but ‘it is more than your soul is worth.’
The Sky’s duke comes from inside his coat, and he picks up the dice and hands them to her and speaks as follows: `Roll them,’ She snatches the dice out of his hand and gives them a quick sling on the table.
Anybody can see she is not even an amateur crap shooter, for they first breathe on the dice, and rattle them good, and make remarks to them, such as ‘Come on, baby !’
In fact, there is some criticism of Miss Sarah Brown afterwards on account of her haste, as many citizens are eager to string with her to hit, while others are just as anxious to bet she misses, and she does not give them a chance to get down. (Make bets)
Scranton Slim takes a gander at the dice as they hit up against the side and hollers, ‘Winner, winner, winner,’
The author was born in Manhattan, not in New York, but in Kansas. He was named Alfred Damon Runyan, but, following a newspaper mis-spelling of his name as “Runyon”, he let it stand, and then used it as a pen-name. He was born into a family of newspapermen, and aithough his father was an editor, commercial failure forced a move from Kansas to Pueblo, Colorado, when Damon was seven. The boy’s youth was spent in Pueblo and he began working in newspapers as a teenager. At age eighteen he joined the US Army to fight in the Spanish-American War.
He did not move to New York until the rather late age of thirty, in 1910. He was principally a sports reporter, specialising in baseball and boxing. Runyon was also an inveterate gambler on horses and dice games. He moved in the society of the mobsters, gamblers and prostitutes described in “Guys and Dolls”. He had two children, Damon Jr. and Mary from his first marriage to Ellen Egan. His second marriage was to Patrice Amati del Grande, a Mexican woman he had met during an American expedition in 1916 unsuccessfully searching for the bandit leader, Pancho Villa. Runyon, a heavy smoker, died of throat cancer in 1946, aged sixty-six.
8. In Search of England…………H V Morton……………………………..1927
This book is of a familiar genre, the fact-finding tour around Britain. The earliest known example is the memoir by Dame Celia Fiennes (1662-1741). Later, the politician, William Cobbett published his “Rural Rides” in 1830, to draw attention to the sufferings of agricultural labourers. Morton explains the reason for his particular odyssey. He was in Jerusalem, (45) after the end of WWI, at the start of the British Mandate from the League of Nations, to administer the land of Palestine. He was worried that his illness was terminal, and was feeling homesick.
He writes, “I was humiliated, mourning there above Jerusalem, to realise how little I knew about England. I was shamed to think that I had wandered so far over the world, neglecting those lovely things near at home, feeling that England would always be there whenever I wanted to see her. I took a vow that if the pain in my neck did not end for ever on the windy hills of Palestine, I would go home in search of England, I would go through the lanes of England and the little thatched villages of England, and I would lean over English bridges and lie on English grass, watching an English sky.”
H V Morton’s book was published at a key time in the twentieth century. The motor car, invented in the late 19 C, had been considerably improved during WWI. By the late 1920s cars were faster, more reliable, and most importantly were affordable by the middle classes or anyone in a well-paid job. In 1926, Morton had set off to drive around England in a “bull-nosed Morris”, (46) an early mass-produced car.
Apart from Morton’s vow above, he was writing for an audience ready to be persuaded to go and see unknown England for themselves. His book, published in 1927, was a result of the 1926 trip. It appeals to me because he writes well, he is something of a romantic and he has a feel for the history of the places he visited. However, there is evidence that his account is a work of fiction rather than an accurate record of real events. In this brief review only two incidents are noted.
Despite touring by car, Morton claims to have met a tramp while walking between Compton and Winchester. “When we came to the outskirts of Winchester he began to hurry. ‘I don’t wanter miss me beer,’ he mumbled.
`’Your beer?’ I said. ‘You can’t get beer now; it’s not yet ten o’clock.’
‘I can get beer all right’
A lane led to the River Itchen, and beyond was a grey gatehouse, a courtyard, and a gateway framing a picture of green trees and old grey stone buildings. (47) Round the porter’s hatchway were two or three men, drinking out of horn mugs and eating dry white bread. The tramp rapped on the door and said: ‘Gimme the wayfarer’s dole!”
Immediately the porter handed out a horn full of ale and a big slice of white bread. I went in through the gateway to the Hospital of St Cross.
Henry de Blois founded the Hospital of St Cross in 1136 to shelter ‘thirteen poor men, feeble and reduced in strength’. They were to be provided ‘with ‘garments (48), beds, good wheaten bread daily, three dishes at dinner and one at supper, and drink of good stuff’. The hospital was also to give food and drink to poor wanderers who came to its gates. “This has been going on for 790 years. The hospital still retains its ancient charter and its buildings. The poor Brethren of St Cross are still sheltered by the ancient walls; the poor men still come from the King’s highway and are not refused. St Cross is the oldest almshouse in England.”
Winchester today is a bustling and busy city with local industry and tourism. Fortunately, St Cross lies on the very edge of the urban sprawl, tucked away and largely un-noticed by the busy world. It still looks very much as Morton described it. Beyond its gates lie flat, unspoiled water meadows around the River Itchen (49). The first time I visited the Hospital, I said, “Give me the Wayfarers. Dole.” and was handed a small square, a quarter slice of bread, and about a quarter pint of beer in a small pottery mug, bearing the cross potent of St Cross (50).
The cow’s horn mugs have been given over for the pottery ones which can be bought in the small shop for visitors. It is possible that really poor wayfarers get rather more than what is offered to tourists. Visitors may enter the very large church of the Inner Quadrangle. This is a magnificent building of the “transitional style” between Norman, (wide drum columns and round headed arches) and Gothic (more slender columns and pointed arches). This is a fascinating complex of medieval buildings, and some are open to the public. The individual cells for the Brothers are, of course, private. Many of the residents are happy to speak to visitors.
A second quote from Morton begins,
“There is a strangeness about Cornwall. You feel it as soon as you cross Tor Ferry. The first sight was a girl driving a cow with a crumpled horn. I knew that I was in fairyland! Then there was a village trying to climb a hill. One cottage had reached the top, but all the others had stuck half-way, with their gardens gazing surprised over their chimney-pots.
I had no idea where to make for in Cornwall. I took the map and one name curled itself round my heart. I do not think that in the whole of England there is a more beautiful name. But to fall in love with a name is like falling, in love with a voice heard over a telephone. A meeting might prove fatal. But not to risk the . . . impossible. I whispered it twice, and took the inevitable road to St Anthony in Roseland! (51, 52)
I am writing in the tiny bedroom of a cottage in St Anthony in Roseland. The thatch comes down so low that the upper part of the window-frame has a stubby beard. I can see when I look out of the window a clump of trees and a field shaped like a green dome; beyond is a vast emptiness of sky that means the sea. I cannot see the water, but I can hear a steady whisper of waves breaking in the little rocky bay below. That and the song of birds are the only sounds in St Anthony in Roseland.”
Morton spent much of his working life as a journalist, joining the Birmingham Gazette straight from school, where his father was the editor. In WWI he served in the Warwickshire Yeomanry but saw no action. After the war he moved to London and wrote for the national daily papers. He had a skill for picking up interesting and unusual stories for his newspaper columns. This became the basis for his first book, “The Heart of London” published in 1925 which was very successful. “In Search of England” followed in 1926, and then he began a series of travel books on the Near and Middle East.
The studio portrait (53) shows Morton with rather raffish, film-star good looks. He was married twice, and had one son. His reputation has been damaged by very recent studies showing he was a serial adulterer and also a Fascist in his political leanings. His apparent enthusiasm for England, and all things English, revealed by “In Search of England” was rather tarnished by his emigration to South Africa and his adoption of South African nationality.
This was at the time when the white Afrikaaners (of Dutch origin) gained political power. Successive Afrikaaner governments began to develop their race laws to create a system of “apartheid” (a port hate) or separate development for white, mixed and black races. It took forty years of punitive oppression before all the people were given the vote, apartheid was ended, and the freedoms enjoyed by H V Morton were granted to everyone.
REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
1. “Auto-porträt” by Tamara de Lempicka (Posterbook)
2. Jay Gatsby’s 1929 Rolls-Royce (google image)
3. The Long Island Shore (google image)
4. “Queenboro Bridge, New York City” a painting by Edward Hopper, 1913
5. Queenboro Bridge today, a colour photograph by RC (google image)
6. F Scott Fitzgerald, novelist, 1896-1940 (google image)
7. Ernest Hemingway, writer, 1899-1961 (google image)
8. Ernest Hemingway as a young man (google image)
9. The Matador works his Bull with the Cape (google image)
10. The Matador with Sword and Muleta (short red cloth) prepares to kill his Bull (google image)
11. A film version of
“The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway (google image)
12. Hemingway, Duff, and friends, 1925, Pamplona, Spain
13. Hemingway, in 1959, returns to Pamplona (“The Dangerous Summer” Penguin Books, 1985)
14. The Inca Rope Bridge at Queswatcha, Peru (google image)
15. Thornton Wilder, 1897-1975 (google image)
16. Crossing the Bridge (google image)
17. An Essential Part of Life in a Hard Country. (google image)
18. The Isle of Capri (google image)
19. The Chapel of San Michele (google image)
20. The Slums of Naples in the Nineteenth Century (google image)
21. Via Roma in Naples (google image)
22. Axel Munthe, a drawing by Feodora Gleichen (google image)
23. Fishing Boats in Capri (google image)
24. The Villa of San Michele (google image)
25. Goblin Selling Umbrellas by M Gill (“The Favourite Wonder Book”, Odhams Press, 1946)
26. The Northern Lights as seen in Norway Lapland (google image)
27. A film on Axel Munthe, “Der Arzt von San Michele” (google image)
28. Lord Peter Wimsey and his manservant, Bunter (google image)
29. British troops at the Battle of the Somme, 1916 (“World War I” by David Shermer, Octopus, 1973)
30. Wimsey’s Daimler comes to grief (Author)
31. The Frontispiece, with the imaginary church of Fenchurch St Paul. (“The Nine Tailors” by Dorothy L Sayers, Coronet, 1993)
32. The Mechanics of the English Church Bell (google image)
33. All the Bells are Raised (google image)
34. The Fens, “Near Feltwell Anchor, Cambs” a water colour by David Gentleman (“David Gentleman’s Britain” Weidenfeld, 1982)
35. Dorothy L Sayers, writer, 1893-1957 (google image)
36. The Minaret of the Ninth Century Mosque in Samarra, Iraq (google image)
37. The Jerusalem Gate, Baghdad, Iraq (google image)
38. The Novelist, John O’Hara (google image)
39. Caricature of John O’Hara, writer, 1905-1970 (google image)
40. Guys and Dolls (google image)
41. Sarah confronts Sky (google image)
42. Sky (Marlon Brandon) is a Most Popular Guy (google image)
43. Stubby Kaye plays a reformed sinner at a Salvation Army meeting (google image)
44. Damon Runyon, writer, 1880-1946 (google image)
45. The Dome of the Rock, Temple Mount, Jerusalem (“Jerusalem and the Holy Land” Berlitz Guide, 1990)
46. The “Bull Nose” Morris (google image)
47. The Hospital (Almshouse) of St Cross, Winchester (google image)
48. Two of the “Black Brothers” of the Hospital of St Cross (google image)
49. Aerial View of the Church and Almshouse of St Cross (google image)
50. The Wayfarers’ Dole at St Cross (Author)
51. The Headland of St Anthony in Roseland, Cornwall (google image)
52. High Tide at St Anthony in Roseland, Cornwall (google image)
53. H V Morton, writer, 1892-1979 (google image)