‘Everybody Dies’: bodies in art

Sam Mendes’s current production of King Lear at the National, starring Simon Russell Beale, is fascinating in many ways, perhaps the most notable being the ramping up of the body-count of this bloody play. In most stagings, the Fool disappears, his death referenced in a passing sigh, “my poor Fool is hanged”; at the National, he is beaten to death in front of us. Goneril and Regan, too, both die onstage, contrary to the stage directions, as does Gloucester, whose heart “bursts smilingly”. Add in Lear, Edmund and Cordelia, and that’s quite a pile-up.

But this steep body-count isn’t a modern invention. There are 66 deaths in just 11 of Shakespeare’s plays. (Titus Andronicus has a hefty 14, The Winter’s Tale has only one, if you assume that a man who “exits, pursued by a bear” isn’t going to get very far.) In fact, that Shakespeare and blood go hand in hand is so well known that the National’s bookshop sells a poster entitled “Everybody Dies”, with handy pictograms of the fates of Romeo, Juliet and their unfortunate friends.

So the recent pout from the playwright David Hare, who has called the high death rate in contemporary crime-drama “ridiculous” seems wilfully obtuse. “At what level of reality is this meant to be happening?” he huffed.

The obvious answer is, at no level. That’s why it’s called “drama”, not “reality”. Aeschylus, who knew a thing or two about drama, reminded us to “Call no man happy until he is dead” – we can’t know how a person’s life turns out until it’s over. Since one of the joys of drama is that it gives shape and coherence to the random events that constitute our lives, death is a dramatic necessity.

It’s not as if this is a secret. Almost all opera could be subtitled “Dead Women”. Elizabethan drama would have to pack up and go home without murder: “When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good”, says the central character in The Revenger’s Tragedy, before killing his enemy by giving him a poisoned skull to kiss – oh, that old trick – and for good measure pimping out his sister. In The Spanish Tragedy, two of the characters die before the curtain rises, but nevertheless have speaking roles.

If we were to stipulate that reality was the starting-point for drama, where would crime-fiction, films and mini-series be set? Not in Europe or North America for a start, with their death rates hovering between 5 per 100,000 (ultra-violent US), 1.8 (calm Canada), and 0.6 (safe Sweden). Monaco would be out: 0 per 100,000. Sorry, Mr Bond, no Casino Royale for you, you’ll have to head to Honduras instead: 82.1 per 100,000.

Hare, promoting his new BBC drama, Turks & Caicos, says that he wants to “restore tension”, like Hitchcock who “never killed anybody”. Say what? The Hitchcock I know had no problem killing his characters, from the 1920s The Lodger, which begins with a woman being murdered, through Rope (the victim not merely strangled, but then stuffed in a box on which dinner is served – more “reality”, no doubt). And unless I’ve misread Psycho all these years, Marion doesn’t get out of that shower, dry her hair and find a good place for brunch. There is even a film-clip on YouTube where, to save time and trouble, 36 Hitchcock films have been spliced into 2 minutes and 50 seconds of murderous denouements.

Chekov’s gun is a famous theatrical dictum: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” This is more a warning against dragging in material that isn’t going to be used. But it also returns us to Aeschylus. Until the end is known, until we get to the ever-after, no story can be judged. And art, finally, is judgment. Reality is death. None of us gets out of here alive.

First published in The Telegraph

‘Stuff vs. Theory’: Types of history-writing

In a rather acid moment, my publisher once said that all my books could secretly be titled ‘Fun Stuff I Have Found Out’. He did not mean it unkindly, or at least I tell myself he didn’t. And up to a point it’s a fair cop, guv. I came to history-writing by the back door. I was writing a biography of four Victorian women, and to understand their own particular lives I felt I needed to know more about the lives most women of their background and time lived. My next four books, to a greater or lesser, extent focused on exactly that: how did the people of the time live; what did they do, what did they see, feel, smell; how did they amuse themselves, what was available to them on a day-to-day basis? If we don’t know about ordinary life, goes my brain, how can we understand what motivates the less ordinary?

The historian Robin Winks divided history into ‘three things: what happened in the past, what people believe happened in the past, and what historians say happened in the past’. This tripartite division is a good description of what history is. History-writing, however, can just as well divide into two schools: theory, and ‘stuff’. Stuff falls into Winks’ ‘what happened in the past’ category, while theory spills across the other two. But stuff encompasses more than just ‘what happened’. It is also ‘what was it like when it happened’.

Take urbanization, for example. Theory discusses the broad sweep of city growth and the socialization of populations. Stuff uncovers that, in the new cities, when traffic began to be segregated according to different types of transport, carts went in one lane, pedestrians and horses in another: the division was wheels vs. legs. Not an insight that alone will set the world on fire but one that, nonetheless, does indicate a mindset revealingly different to our own.

The source-materials for stuff are also pleasantly far-ranging. I would never take Tennyson’s description of ‘streaming London’s central roar’ as evidence of ‘what happened in the past’. It might mean the city was noisy, or it might be a flight of fantasy. Nor Dostoevsky calling London a city filled with ‘the screeching and howling of machines’ – he is hardly known as being the most even-keeled of writers. But then there is Dickens. Novel after novel abounds with throw-away lines like this from Our Mutual Friend, where one character asks another, ‘Would you object to turn aside into this place…[to one] where we can hear one another better than in the roaring street?’ Add in visitors’ reports of being unable to hear a sermon in St Clement Danes on a Sunday over the sound of the traffic in the Strand, or Jane Carlyle complaint of the ‘everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, waggons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay…’ from her small by-street in Chelsea, and Tennyson and Dostoyevsky now appear to be merely reporting.

I do understand the qualms of the theory-ers, who question whether the experiences of individuals alone can be the basis on which to formulate more abstract ideas about society. Yet stuff allows us a mosaic-style formation of a picture. One tile tells us little: it is too highly coloured, or too pale; but combine the many, many tiles that make up stuff, and a vivid picture emerges. We can stop with these pictures – that may be all we ask of ‘what happened in the past’. But my view is that, carefully assessed and weighed, stuff can indeed lead more naturally to theory, to understanding how the people of the past thought about what happened.

It took me a phenomenally long time to discover exactly how a doorstep was whitened in the nineteenth century. Every household-management book assured its readers it had to be done daily, but detailed instructions were scanty, for the simple reason that it was done daily, and so everyone knew how. I was finally enlightened not by a book, but by my great-aunt (born 1905). The step was scrubbed down with boiling water. After it dried, a white paste was applied. (Details to be found in The Victorian House, should any of you kids decide to try this at home.) It was done first thing in the morning, she said, before they went to school, so she and her sister had to jump from the threshold to the path, because walking on the step would mark the white. How, I asked, wondering, did they get back in again after school? This was the revelation: ‘You could walk on it after eleven; everyone had seen it.’

This stuff therefore has two parts. First, the step was scrubbed before it was whitened; the whitening was not part of the cleaning process. And secondly, it was the very ephemerality of the white that was crucial. Whitening a doorstep was not about cleanliness, it was about respectability. The transient nature of the white indicated to others that you had it: you had cleaned that day, and would clean again the next. So here, stuff leads to theory. What happened, what people thought about it, and why.

For the book I am currently working on, an attempt to outline the development of the idea of home, I am by the nature of the subject dealing more with theory than I ever have before. For the first year, I felt like a cow in ice-skates: please let me have my stuff back, I cried. I can trace the development of artificial lighting with no trouble. I can do it with both arms tied behind my back. Please please please don’t make me write about why, as lighting became brighter, cheaper and more accessible, window-curtains moved from being rarities to being routine, or why the trends in decoration pronounced darkened rooms more aesthetically pleasing. (Although my stuff-nature leapt upon the nomenclature. In Germany in the late nineteenth century, one especially gloomy tendency was known as the braune Soße – gravy – style of interior decoration.)

Sometimes I think theory is like dealing with a particularly inquisitive five-year-old. Why was there an Industrial Revolution? Because of the consumer revolution. OK, so why was there a consumer revolution? Because of the… and we’re off, an endless series of ‘whys’ pushing each question further and further back.

At other times, I am amazed not so much by the material (although that is astonishing too), as by Winks’ second category: ‘what people think happened’. Or, in some cases, what they refuse to believe happened; we refuse to move from stuff to theory. Dutch academics have produced exceptional work on sixteenth-century inventories, comparing the paintings of the Golden Age to the actual design and contents of the houses supposedly depicted. There is, they show, little overlap – barely any houses had marble floors, brass chandeliers, carpets on tables or even owned musical instruments; meanwhile many items that were in common use, such as strip-matting on the floors, were rarely or barely ever painted. The Dutch of the sixteenth century knew these pictures did not depict reality; it is we, in the intervening centuries, who have lost sight of that.

But the fascinating thing is how little purchase this work has had, how rarely it has been incorporated into the mainstream of general knowledge, despite – or indeed because – of the popularity of the paintings. The reason for this obscurity, of course, moves us from stuff (the inventories) to theory. The curator and design-historian Peter Thornton knew of this work, but continued to argue for verisimilitude of Dutch golden age art: the departure from reality for artists ‘is never all that large’, he wrote. And how, he challenged, if there were no carpets in houses, could artists ‘find carpets on floors to depict so accurately’, taking for granted that artists paint only the world about them, that they do not own props, nor create staged settings to paint.

In part, Thornton’s rejection of the research may have been one of age. He had relied heavily on paintings and engravings for his great histories of interior decoration; to accept the heavily symbolic nature of supposedly realist works  which emerged as he reached his eighties would bring into question a lifetime’s work. But his refusal mirrors the seemingly inexplicable obscurity of such fascinating material.

His refusal is ours. We really don’t want to know that these paintings are not realistic. From their re-popularization in the nineteenth century, these paintings have been a major component in what we think of when we think of the word ‘home’. We want those tranquil, golden-lit rooms to have been real, to be, now, a place that once existed, and might therefore exist again. If we accept they are imaginary, we must accept that our own notions of home are, in part, imaginary too.

Is this theory correct? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: stuff doesn’t lie.

First published in The Author

My turn, Straight Pride UK

A student named Oliver Hotham posted the following on his blog. He had contacted an organization called Straight Pride UK (yes, apparently not a parody. Who knew?), telling them he was a freelance journalist, and asking some questions. They sent him a press release. Noting that some of his queries were not dealt with, he returned to them, asking them for further answers ‘for my article’.

Once he posted his blog, including their emailed press release, Straight Pride UK (you know, it really is hard to type that with a straight face) told him it was ‘private’ material, that he had no right to reprint it (despite it being a press release), and that, as he was not an ‘official’ (sic) journalist, he must take it down. Unable to take the time, or the possible cost, of legal action, he complied.

Now, as all except Straight Pride know, the UK has no system of accreditation for journalists. The National Union of Journalists may be as close as we come. As a dance critic, therefore, and an NUJ member, I am, apparently, more ‘accredited’ to write about Straight Pride (nope, still as ridiculous as before) than Mr Hotham. So, here is Mr Hotham’s blog. Please, ‘accredited’ journalists everywhere, do copy, retweet and disseminate, not only this fine piece, but Straight Pride’s shabby attempt to initimidate and censor.

AUGUST 3, 2013

It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah

There has never been a better time to be gay in this country. LGBTI people will soon enjoy full marriage equality,public acceptance of homosexuality is at an all time high, and generally a consensus has developed that it’s really not that big of a deal what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms. The debate on Gay Marriage in the House of Commons was marred by a few old reactionaries, true, but generally it’s become accepted that full rights for LGBTI people is inevitable and desirable. Thank God.

But some are deeply troubled by this unfaltering march toward common decency, and they call themselves the Straight Pride movement.

Determined to raise awareness of the “heterosexual part of our society”, Straight Pride believe that a militant gay lobby has hijacked the debate on sexuality in this country, and encourage their members, among other things, to “come out” as straight, posting on their Facebook page that:

“Coming out as Straight or heterosexual in todays politically correct world is an extremely challenging experience. It is often distressing and evokes emotions of fear, relief, pride and embarrassment.”

I asked them some questions.

First of all, what prompted you to set up Straight Pride UK?

Straight Pride is a small group of heterosexual individuals who joined together after seeing the rights of people who have opposing views to homosexuality trampled over and, quite frankly, oppressed.

With the current political situation in the United Kingdom with Gay Marriage passing, everyone  is being forced to accept homosexuals, and other chosen lifestyles and behaviours, no matter their opposing views. Straight Pride has seen people sued, and businesses affected, all because the homosexual community do not like people having a view or opinion that differs from theirs.

Are your beliefs linked to religion? How many of you derive your views from scripture?

Straight Pride aims are neutral and we do not follow religion, but we do support people who are oppressed for being religious. Only today, Straight Pride see that two homosexual parents are planning to sue the Church because they ‘cannot get what they want’. This is aggressive behaviour and this is the reason why people have strong objections to homosexuals.

You say that one of your goals is “to raise awareness of the heterosexual part of society”. Why do you feel this is necessary?

The Straight Pride mission is to make sure that the default setting for humanity is not forgotten and that heterosexuals are allowed to have a voice and speak out against being oppressed because of the politically correct Government.

Straight Pride feel need to raise awareness of heterosexuality, family values, morals, and traditional lifestyles and relationships.

Your website states that “Homosexuals have more rights than others”. What rights specifically do LGBTI people have that straight people are denied?

Homosexuals do currently have more rights than heterosexuals, their rights can trump those of others, religious or not. Heterosexuals cannot speak out against homosexuals, but homosexuals are free to call people bigots who don’t agree with homosexuality, heterosexuals, religious or not, cannot refuse to serve or accommodate homosexuals, if they do, they face being sued, this has already happened.

Straight Pride believe anyone should be able to refuse service and speak out against something they do not like or support.

There is a hotel in the south of England, called Hamilton Hall which only accepts homosexuals – if this is allowed, then hotels should have the choice and right to who they accommodate.

What has been the response to your campaign?

The response to Straight Pride’s formation has been as expected; hostile, threatening, and aggressive. Homosexuals do not like anyone challenging them or their behaviour.

We have had support from many people saying that if homosexuals can have a Pride March, and then equality should allow Heterosexuals to have one too. After all, the homosexual movement want everyone to have equality.

Why would you say that heterosexuality the “natural orientation”?

Heterosexuality is the default setting for the human race, this is what creates life, if everyone made the decision to be homosexual, life would stop. People are radicalised to become homosexual, it is promoted to be ‘okay’ and right by the many groups that have sprung up.

Marriage is a man and a woman, homosexuals had Civil Partnerships, which was identical to Marriage with all the same rights, they wanted to destroy Marriage and have successfully done so.

If you could pick one historical figure to be the symbol of straight pride (just as figures like Alan Turing, Judith Butler or Peter Tatchell would be for Gay Pride) which would you choose?

Straight Pride would praise Margaret Thatcher for her stance on Section 28, which meant that children were not  taught about homosexuality, as this should not on the curriculum.

More recently, Straight Pride admire President Vladimir Putin of Russia for his stance and support of his country’s traditional values.

How do you react to anti-gay attacks and movements in Russia and parts of Africa?

Straight Pride support what Russia and Africa is doing, these country have morals and are listening to their majorities. These countries are not ‘anti-gay’ – that is a term always used by the Homosexual Agenda to play the victim and suppress opinions and views of those against it.

These countries have passed laws, these laws are to be respected and no other country should interfere with another country’s laws or legislation.

We have country wide events which our members attend, and ask people their opinions and views, on such event at Glastonbury this year was very positive with the majority of people we asked, replied they were happily heterosexual.

For the record, Straight Pride did not respond to these questions:

“Pride” movements such as Gay Pride and Black Pride were making the argument that the stigma against them meant that proclaiming their “pride” was an act of liberation from oppression. Can being heterosexually really compare?

A problem that Gay rights activists cite is the issue of bullying, and the effect this can have on young LGBT people. Do you think a similar problem exists with straight children being bullied by gay children?

I will obviously add to this if they do respond.

[End of Oliver Hotham’s blog]

The Mystery of the Albert Hall

What is the Albert Hall up to?

Despite my best endeavours, damned if I know.

Summer is Prom season for many. At the Albert Hall, it is also queuing season, whether you’re a Prommer or have bought a seat. The Albert Hall ushers are now all armed with scanners. Your ticket is scanned on entry (slower than being merely checked by eye, but an acceptable bar to counterfeiting, if that is indeed a problem). And then, oddly, the ticket is scanned again on exiting the venue at the interval. This is slow, causes queues at each exit, and cuts down on the time one can meet friends, discuss the concert, stretch, smoke, walk – all of the other things one does in the break.

I have been trying, therefore, to find the rationale for this behaviour. No other venue I have attended, from small to large, has any such mechanism in place.The tickets are not scanned at the end of the performance, so it is not a measure to ensure that the venue has been emptied.

I asked four ushers; none could tell me. I emailed the press office; no response. Finally, I tweeted, asking if others know.

Among the many responses, the tweets prodded the RAH into life.

The answer was indeed ‘hard to condense’, because it made no sense at all.

I tried to make some sense out of it:

Their reply adds to the mystery:

Let’s dissect.

1. Their system ‘requires’ a double-scan for an ‘accurate’ attendance count. Why? Are we breeding in the hall, and more people going coming out than went in? (And if so, some people are having more fun than I am, certainly.) Or are some of the Proms fatal, and will fewer exit than entered? Short of births or deaths, why the double-counting? (We will ignore the fact that their ‘system’ doesn’t ‘require’, the people running the system do – unless HAL has taken over the RAH.)

2. ‘The need to monitor capacity is relevant to the standing areas of the Hall’. That would make sense, if it were just the standing areas that were being scanned in and out. The Prommers’ entrances, however, are separate from those for seated ticket-holders. So, are we to understand that up to 5,000 people are being scanned so that 1,000 (in an entirely different area) can be monitored?

Surely the tickets themselves, on entry, are doing precisely that job, as, historically, tickets have for over a century? One ticket, one seat (or standing place). How is scanning a ticket on exiting monitoring capacity?

Answer comes there none. The final paragraph in the RAH’s email above is a response to my suggestion on Twitter that the only reason I can think for this procedure is to monitor audience behaviour patterns, which can be sold on to third parties. The Albert Hall assures me this is not the case.

What, then, is the answer? Because as their two emails stand, we have behaviour that is annoying, intrusive, cumbersome. And that makes any sense at all.

What your mother never told you.

I had a recipe published in the Guardian yesterday. The Graun cut out all my footnotes, for space reasons I presume. I hadn’t realized how many chicken-soup enthusiasts there were out there, and there have been lots of additional queries. So in the hope that the footnotes will solve some of those problems, here is the recipe in full.

Chicken soup like Momma used to make:

Essential ingredients:

1 boiling fowl[1] + 1 carcass + as many giblets[2] as you can sweet-talk the butcher out of (1-2 minimum)

1 swede, cut in quarters

1-2 small onions or 1 large, peeled[3]

2 carrots

2 celery stalks

1 very large bunch parsley

1 large bunch dill (and by large I do not mean the weedy few twigs you get from the supermarket: if you are buying from there, you need at least 2 of their bunches)

Optional ingredients:

1 leek (slit lengthways to remove grit, but otherwise leave whole)

1 tomato (this is almost rank heresy in most people’s opinions)

5-10 whole peppercorns

1 bayleaf (ditto on the heresy front)

You must start this the day before you need the soup. It makes 6-10 servings, depending on the size of the chicken. If your children finally come to visit, it can be stretched. If they don’t, well, you have the makings of the traditional Jewish joke to hand.

Wash the chicken[4], carcass and giblets and put in a stockpot, add enough cold water to cover both the chicken and the vegetables which you will put in later. Put the lid on and bring to a gentle simmer.

The vegetables don’t need to be peeled (if they are organic), but just scrubbed, and left whole, except the swede, which will be too big for your pot, so chop into quarters. (Obviously, if any of the other vegetables are too big, chopping them up isn’t going to hurt – except for the tomato, which must be left whole – but don’t make them too small, as then the end bit is a chore.)

Skim froth as it comes to the surface (it will probably need to be skimmed three times, letting it simmer in between each skim). When no more froth comes to the surface, add the rest of the ingredients, and cover with the lid slightly askew.

Allow to simmer very gently (only the odd bubble should rise to the surface) for 3 hours or more. It is best to use a heat diffuser if you have one, as the very low simmer is hard to maintain otherwise. Do not let the soup boil: if it does it will become cloudy.

After 3-4 hours, the chicken should disintegrate when you lift it up with a spoon. Take it off the heat, and separate out the stock from the solids.[5]

Strain the liquid to remove any random bits of meat etc., salt to taste, then put the soup in the fridge overnight. (This is very important.)[6] In the morning, a layer of fat will have formed on the surface, which can be removed with a spoon or skimmer. (If you have really done well, the soup itself will be almost jelly: the sign of what Jews call ‘Good strong soup’.)

Remove the fat, then ladle the soup into another bowl/container: there will be a layer of sediment at the bottom of the bowl which needs to be thrown away, so be careful as you get towards the bottom. (If you need every last drop, you can pour the broth through a strainer lined with kitchen paper, which will get rid of the sediment.)

The soup can then be used, or frozen. I am told, if freezer space is at a premium, you can boil the soup down hard, and freeze the ‘essence’ in ice-cube trays, reconstituting it with water when you need it. I have never tried this, and think that it might make the broth bitter.

And there you go, you are now a certified member of the Jewish Housewives League. All you have to do is follow the above directions, and never, never, NEVER add any other ingredients. Those who tell you to add garlic, potatoes, spices, God-knows-what, are heathens and are leading you astray.

[1] You can use just a regular chicken, but the soup will not be as strong or meaty. If you do have to use a regular chicken, I recommend buying either an extra carcass, or 6-10 chicken wings, and throwing them in as well. Also, I usually ask the butcher to cut the chicken into 4, to make it easier to fit into the pot.

[2] Many cooks say not to include the livers in the soup, as they make it cloudy. I have never actually noticed a difference, and just put them in or not depending on how many packs of giblets I’ve got.

[3] If you haven’t got a particularly good chicken (i.e. you have a watery supermarket one), then wash the skin of the onion, and add it to the soup with the vegetables: this will make the soup a better yellow, although it won’t add to the taste (and you will have to strain it carefully, as little bits of peel will lurk).

[4] The proper way to deal with the chicken is to remove carefully all the stray pin feathers, then hold the chicken parts over the gas on the cooker, to burn off the tiny feathers you can’t see. I never do this, but it is considered the hygienic thing to do.

[5] If you have used a boiling fowl, the meat is no good for anything except giving to a neighbour’s dog; if you used a regular chicken, you can make chicken salad or something with the meat. I throw out the herbs, then purée the rest of the vegetables, and the next day use some of the stock to thin it, making a vegetable soup known in my family as ‘Garbage Soup’.

[6] If you haven’t given yourself enough time, you can de-fat the soup by using kitchen paper, skimming it across the surface of the soup. I never do this if I can possibly avoid it: it is incredibly messy and disgusting, and leaves much more fat than the overnight method.

Selfridges, history and TV: a rant

In 2008, I reviewed Lindy Woodhead's book, Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge. It was, by a long way, one of the worst books I had ever read: sloppy, repetitive, self-contradictory and filled with factual errors. It has, of course, now been made into a television 'period drama'. I reprint my review, with no further comment.


Harry Gordon Selfridge is a terrific subject for a biography. A hustler and a go-getter, he built one of the great department stores of the twentieth century, was a brilliant publicist and, over two decades, an astute reader of consumer trends. When he lost his touch, his fall was as spectacular as his rise. Born in Wisconsin in 1856 to a mother who had lost her husband in the Civil War (Mr Selfridge senior wasn’t dead, he just took the opportunity to vanish), he started work at Chicago’s foremost department store, Marshall Field’s, in 1879, as a stock-boy; within eight years he was the general manager, and a junior partner three years after that. Refused a full partnership, he moved to London, planning to take on London’s retailers, who were coasting by on the innovations of the previous half-century.

Selfridges department store opened on Oxford Street in a blaze of publicity in 1909 – a blaze entirely engineered by Selfridge, who spent Pounds 36,000 on advertising in his first week. He sent lavish gifts to newspaper editors, set up a club room in the shop for journalists, complete with typewriters, telephones and a bar. When Bleriot flew the Channel, Selfridge hurried down to Kent to get permission to display the plane in-store, with advertisements boasting “Calais – Dover – Selfridges”. In 1925, John Logie Baird demonstrated his “televisor” at Selfridges (Baird was grateful for the £25 a week).

But Selfridge’s extravagances were growing alarmingly, both at work and at play. He took fifty of his staff on a whistle-stop tour of the United States to inspect American merchandising methods, insisting on including the store’s wine buyer, although Prohibition was in full swing. His private life became public when he took up with the Dolly Sisters, dancers by profession, who actually lived off rich men and gambling, the former subsidizing the latter. By the time the Prudential, a major shareholder in Selfridges, engineered his retirement, he owed the Inland Revenue a quarter of a million pounds and his “account” with the store was £100,000 in the red. Lindy Woodhead describes his pathetic last days, living in a small flat in Putney, taking the bus into town every morning to stand outside what had once been his store. The pathos is affecting, but Woodhead fails to remind us that Selfridge was the Conrad Black, or the Robert Maxwell, of his day; he used the money from a public company as if it were his own.

This lack of context and analysis is unfortunately typical of Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge. There is no exploration of character – the most the author says, in attempting to explain a man who lived with his mother his entire life is that they were “such great friends”. Instead, Woodhead relies heavily on Selfridge’s own words, taking them at face value, without exploring the motivations behind the arch-self-publicist’s statements. She retells the story of his daughter, disguising herself with a wig, in order to get Selfridge to donate money a bogus charity. It passes belief that he didn’t recognize his daughter, but the anecdote is recounted unquestioningly and without comment here. More worrying is the book’s lack of sources. The “notes” are simply a list of book titles, and there is a sentence expressing the “hope” that “by early 2008” detailed sources will be available online. It is not as though the text does not raise questions for the reader now. Sentences begin, “It has been said”, and Woodhead is filled with a biographer’s certainty: Selfridge “must have”, “no doubt”, “would have” known.

It is, however, the historical foundation that is shakiest. It is one thing for Selfridge to claim he had built “London’s first custom-built department store”, but that doesn’t make it so, and his biographer should surely point that out: the Bon Marche, purpose-built, opened in Brixton in 1877, thirty-two years before Selfridges. Woodhead writes that Selfridges was the first, “possibly”, of any “retail store in the world” to light its windows at night. (In fact, Johanna Schopenhauer, a visitor to London in 1803, particularly admired the city’s night-lit shop windows.) Woodhead says Selfridge “pioneered the policy of browsing”. (Sophie La Roche, in her diary of the 1780s, records hours of browsing.) Marshall Field’s is described as “a monument to new technology” in 1902, with its elevators and pneumatic cash-carriers. (Wylie and Lockhead in Glasgow had lifts in 1855; pneus were everywhere from the 1880s.) At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the “world’s first pre packaged tea” appeared. (Tea was sold packaged as early as 1786.) And so on.

The age Selfridge lived in – from the gilded excesses of the 1890s, through the First World War and the frenzied 1920s – is presented to the reader as a series of out- of-focus photographs, the background a blurry haze, while Selfridge himself is a gross caricature. Unconvincing in broad outline and full of misinformation, Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge is a wasted opportunity.

TLS, 4 April 2008

Bad Writing at its Best

Oh, happy, happy day, the Bulwer-Lytton prize for the worst opening sentence in a novel has announced its 2012 winners (here). The prize has a long and proud history. Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a 19th-century novelist and friend of Dickens whose books have deservedly fallen out of favour. (Trust me, I’ve read a bunch for work; you don’t want to.) His novel Paul Clifford began with the sentence:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This was then picked up by Snoopy, who used the first clause for his own always-under-construction masterwork. And then in 1982 the Bulwer-Lytton Prize, run by the English department at San Jose State University, was born.

The prize now has many categories — worst opening line for a children’s story, worst opening line for a detective story, fantasy fiction, historical fiction — in fact, worst opening line in almost every genre you’ve ever heard of.

A random selection of my favourites:

What shocked Juliette as she entered the room was not that there was an escaped convict under her coverlet snuggling with her best teddy bear, but that there was a knife through his back, “And who,” she wondered out loud, steadying herself against the faux-taffeta wallpaper, “would stab a teddy bear?” — Katie Alender, Studio City, CA



The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife, not even a sharp knife, but a dull one from that set of cheap knives you received as a wedding gift in a faux wooden block; the one you told yourself you’d replace, but in the end, forgot about because your husband ran off with another man, that kind of knife. — Lisa Lindquist, Jackson, MI


It was a dark and stormy night – actually not all that dark, but more dusky or maybe cloudy, and to say “stormy” may be overstating things a bit, although the sidewalks were still wettish and smelled of ozone, and, truth be told, characterizing the time as night is a stretch as it was more in the late, late afternoon because I think Oprah was still on. — Gregory Snider, MD, Lexington, KY

Not all winners are of the convoluted, BL-type. This is simply perfectly terrible:

The day dawned much like any other day, except that the date was different. — Geoff Blackwell, Bundaberg , Queensland, Australia

But I think I should end with

It was a stark and dormy night – the kind of Friday night in the dorm where wistful women/girls without dates ovulated pointlessly and dreamed of steamy sex with bad boy/men in the backseat of a Corvette – like the one on Route 66, only a different color, though the color was hard to determine because the TV show was in black and white – if only Corvettes had back seats. — David Kay, Lake Charles, LA

mostly because I read a page of 50 Shades of Grey over someone’s shoulder on the tube yesterday and I was mesmerized by the following paragraph opening: ‘After our tasty and nutritious meal…’ After our tasty and nutritious meal? Really? Really? You can write that, and still have 12 million readers?

Maybe Bulwer-Lytton was on to something.

Holyrood bed-trick?

The historian of design Mario Praz reports that, when Darnley was ill at Kirk o’ Field, Mary Stuart had her bed moved to Holyrood, saying she would sleep there: that night, the house blew up. The assumption is she liked the bed well enough that she didn’t want to lose it, and had it moved, knowing the explosion was going to happen. (Moving your furniture with you was of course an old aristocratic tradition.)

Praz gives only an oblique source for this story — it appears to be either from Stefan Zweig or from Swinburne (or even Zweig quoting Swinburne?). Does anyone reading this know if the story has any foundation in fact?