Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ur-prof Kenner

I can't remember the last time I read or heard Hugh Kenner,  the archetypal professor. Some days ago I was hearing some podcast from NPR featuring an author or authority, jogging my memory; something in the speaker's voice recalled Kenner's. There was an unusual quality about it, a sinus irregularity coupled with eccentric wit. 

I wondered if Kenner was still alive? The prognosis was was not too good, being that I may have last seen him 2 decades ago on some program like William F. Buckley's Firing Line. Sure enough, he departed this mortal coil nearly a decade ago, in 2003. Pictured left is how I remember him: classic seersucker and bow tie, with professorial hair.

His field was literature, often a guest on PBS shows. I probably first heard him discuss Waugh on an epilog to the first broadcast of Brideshead Revisted.
Do we still have characters like this in the audio visual public realm?  I tend to doubt it. The newer higher brow (and for that matter, lower brow) pundits are more telegenic.  The topics discussed are more pithy, less idiosyncratic. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Saturday Book

John Hadfield, editor and author, lived up into recent times (1999.)

Here is a bare-bones paragraph from Wikipedia, describing Hadfield's labor of love, and subject of this post:

The Saturday Book was an annual miscellany, published 1941-1975, reaching 34 volumes. (It) provided literary and artistic commentary about life in Great Britain during the Second World War and ensuing decades. It covered a range of arts, including ballet and music. Many writers contributed verse as well as essays.

The above paragraph is perfectly objective and correct, but arid. I am grateful that there is even a wiki entry; it would not have surprised me if the book were entirely unacknowledged in today's world. Its many thousands of beautiful pages have evidently fallen into obscurity.

A typically high-quality photo from the Saturday Book, which accompanied a history and guide to London street markets

I rarely meet a Briton who has heard of The Saturday Book; this seems odd, for the publication looks to be an institution spanning decades (1941-75), printed yearly around Christmas with craft and care as a substantial hardcover book. I have collected it for years, owning about half of the volumes. They are becoming rarer these days, but not overly valuable. Each new acquisition is the subject of anticipation, every page worth poring over.

Respective volumes have loose themes, amply illustrated with line art, photographs, and reproductions of various artifacts both in color and black and white. The books themselves are works of art, the typeface crisp as each engraving, printed with the slight relief of letterpress. Chapters and sections are printed on varying tints and textures of paper; this was the era when a great deal of thought and effort was put into printing.

A photo of a painting by James Pryde, which accompanied a monographic article, by Derek Hudson, on the unusual artist. Such essays were the norm in the Saturday Book, bringing to light forgotten and strange curiosities at each turn of the page, recalling the thrill of turning a corners within a quixotic, private museum.

The name Saturday Book implies leisure, weekend, or something done outside of one's real vocation. The entries seem to be products of extremely competent amateurs—amateurs in the old sense of the word, such as Sherlock Holmes being an Amateur (hence, the best) detective. Eccentricity reigns. Authorities and historians stroll down lanes of memory, opening up to us dear niches. Early cigarette trading cards, seaside paperweights, taxidermic dioramas of nursery rhymes...

What makes the Book so compelling is that it is a nostalgia for a nostalgia. Inevitably the writer will be describing some phenomenon wistfully, thinking of Victorian or regency times, around 1890 or 1912. That does seem to be a span back there, but it is within the living memory of the writer. 

In 1962 he is describing 1912—a scant 50 years previous: the same amount of time that now divides his writing from my reading of it. 

In this way there is a mystery and mysticism within each and every photo and word. The author's nostalgia transfuses into my own nostalgia. I imagine and smell the wooden desk and typewriter of that time, as well as the poignant smells of taffy, cigars and seaside from the earlier time, subject of the author's memory. 

The Saturday Book offers a window into a world that seems whole and wholesome, glazed or preserved not by one nostalgic layer, but two. Double-glazed!

Monday, January 23, 2012


The cold, crispy snows of January in Norway function as a mirror. The antiseptic sheen blankets stimulus from the outside environment, turning the mind inward, grasping for associations, to ancient memories.

So was it just now, when I poked through a shopping cart of remainders from Christmas, in search of goodies for half price. My eyes settled on a small plastic bucket of large, candied cockroach carapaces (or so it seemed.) No, those are... oh yeah, those things that were also hallowed and known in the US during Christmas... Figs--no, that's not what they were... Dates! Dates, that's what they're called.

That's right, hadn't thought of them in a while. I never liked them much, cloyingly sweet things with a crispy, exoskeleton texture on the outside. They were things of tradition, from an era before the world was not awash in processed sweets. My immediate family did not have them, but I associate them with my grandparents, who had an abundance of such traditional things at Christmas.

There, also to be studied and wondered over, examined in wooden bowls, were unusual nuts, never seen before. I didn't particularly like these either, again perhaps due to their skeletal or mummified looks. One strange one recalled a dried peach pit, itself full of pits that looked deep enough to prevent there being much of a nut inside. There was the visceral wall nut, a hard brain, whose flavor was underwhelming after the effort required to crack it, using the finger-pinching, toothy nut-cracking pliers, quick to slide off the smooth, hard shells, plowing into, pinching and gauging finger flesh.

The most grotesque of all these nuts was the swarthy, armored fossil of hardness, the nigger toe (or so my grandpa called it.) Later I learned its more appetizing name, the Brazil nut. I don't go out of my way to find these.

So, did I buy any dates from the half-priced cart? No, that's OK--just seeing them was food for thought. I'll just buy some peanuts and chocolate.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Echo of Gary Coleman

In December I was walking down the street in Milan, window-shopping galleries. What is that strange little canvas?...

What in the world? It looks like a silkscreened face of...

Gary Coleman!
Oddly, this is not the first time I've seen his mug smiling in the Northern Italian city of fashion and art. The face has become a glyph in the lexicon of street art, stenciled mysteriously on the tag-sotted nether quarters of many buildings, along with Andre the Giant's acromegalic grimace (Obey!)

Gary Coleman was a cherub, full of cheer, an early Micky Rooney Puck, a sputtering mirthful spirit, quite different from Andre's bulk and portent. Some writers might be able to dig out psycho-histories involving minstrel shows and such.  

He has become a meme, a sign; put your story in as you like...

There is something going on!

He was very small in stature, but I wouldn't want to have tangled with him. He managed to take on larger people, putting them in the hospital both with his bare hands, and with machines. Throughout his post-cherubic life the tabloid press kept track of his many adventures and misadventures in courts of law.

Numerous health problems dogged him and lead to great financial stress. His coup de grace fell in 2010.

Ecco of Gary Coleman c. 1985 by this blogger
location: lost