Still More Things That Aren’t Films

Seeker! Ken Campbell His Five Amazing Lives is the second biography of my hero Ken Campbell to appear. Merrifield was a friend and collaborator of Campbell’s, so his book has a more intimate rapport with its subject than Michael Coveney’s The Great Caper did. Merrifield GETS Campbell better.

Unfortunately, he’s in bad need of an editor, so that although his book is more in-depth, a good part of its bulk is made up of repetition and meandering. But it was great to get the inside track on Schlatzer’s Bouquet, a production I saw, written by JM, and which doesn’t rate a mention in the Coveney. Still nothing about Memories of Amnesia, though. Did anyone else see that one?

The productions I wish I’d seen are obviously Illuminatus! and The Warp (which played Edinburgh — I can remember the posters — but I was too little then), but his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with Chris Langham as Arthur Dent, the audience pushed around the theatre on a hovercraft, and a flat set painted red and green so that when you put on your tinted glasses it pops out into 3D — that must have been quite something.

Both books are essential for the True Seeker, although artistically Nina Conti’s moving, hilarious documentary Her Master’s Voice is the finest of the Campbell tributes. What’s great is that there’s so little overlap: I think maybe the only story used in both bios is the one about Campbell and friends descending in an elevator.

“Quick, on the floor!” orders Campbell, and they all lie down with their legs up in the air.

Ground floor: the doors slide open before startled onlookers.

“Well, that came down at a hell of a lick!” says Campbell.

***

I thought I’d gotten hold of all Richard Hughes books, and read two of the four, but then I’m in a Stockbridge charity shop and I find The Spider’s Palace. Remarkable that the author of A High Wind in Jamaica (strikingly filmed by Alexander Mackendrick), which has a rather leery view of childhood, should have written children’s fiction — a book of fairy tales from 1931 that seems to anticipate the iconoclastic absurdity of The Goon Show.

In Living in W’ales, the first story, a little girl and a labrador move into a whale, like Jonah and Pinocchio before them, but find the lack of food and bedding a problem…

Meanwhile the whale began to get rather worried about them. He had swallowed them without thinking much about it; but he soon began to wonder what was happening to them, and whether they were comfortable. He knew nothing at all about little girls. He thought she would probably want something to eat by now, but he didn’t know at all what. So he tried to talk down into his own inside, to ask her. But that is very difficult: at any rate he couldn’t do it. The words all came out instead of going in.

A friendly parrot creates a speaking tube out of a snake with the ends snipped off, and the whale interviews his intestinal tenant. The tube also allows him to feed her rice pudding. But then the little girl asks for a bed.

‘She wants a bed,’ the whale said to the parrot.

‘You go to Harrods for that,” said the parrot, “which is the biggest shop in London,’ and flew away.

When the whale got to Harrods, he went inside. One of the shopwalkers came up to him and said, ‘What can I do for you, please?’ which sounded very silly.

‘I want a bed,’ said the whale.

Mr Binks The Bed Man came up and looked rather worried.

‘I don’t know if have got a bed that will exactly fit you, sir,’ he said.

‘Why not, silly?’ said the whale. ‘I only want an ordinary one.’

‘Yes sir,’ said the Bed Man, ‘but it will have to be rather a large ordinary one, won’t it?’

‘Of course not, silly,’ said the whale. ‘On the contrary, it will have to be rather a small one.’

I like this because of the stilted formality, childishness, and the fact that it really makes you picture a whale in Harrods. It’s like the Goons in that it creates word-concepts that recoil from visual imagining.

From As They Were Driving:

‘Now,’ they said, ‘we are not afraid of the Stones, even if they do attack us: the Curious Brothers, and the Spotted Mother and Child, and the Fossil Brothers, and the Plain Brothers, and Mrs Mogany, and the Fierce Man Moffadyke, and all.’

Maybe not, but I’m terrified of them, just by their names. “I can picture all of them,” said Fiona. The book might be too scary for our flimsy modern children. Children in the 30s were made entirely out of snot and knee-scabs, so they could handle anything. Even WWII. In The Gardener and the White Elephants the aged gardener has to fight a vicious rabbit to the death — he throttles it with his bare hands. And in The Man With A Green Face, we get this ~

Nightmare fuel. But, on a lighter note, from Nothing ~

‘Good gracious!’ she said, ‘what a mess these children do leave on the table, to be sure!’

‘What have they left on the table?’ called the cook from the kitchen.

‘Well, there’s a drop of milk,’ said the maid.

That’s not so much to make a fuss about,’ said the cook.

‘There’s also a dead Chinaman,’ said the maid.

‘Never mind,’ said the cook, ‘it might be worse. Has he just died, or was he always dead?’

‘I think,’ said the maid, ‘he was born dead, and was dead when he was a little boy, and finally grew up dead.’

‘What else is there?’ asked the cook.

‘There’s a tooth, and I think it has dropped out of some passing shark.’

‘Dear, dear,’ said the cook, ‘children are that rampageous!’

‘There is also,’ said the maid, pulling up the blind and looking at the table more carefully, ‘unless I am much mistaken, a live Chinaman.’

‘Tut-tut!’ said the cook; ‘what a fuss you do make. And was he always alive?’

‘I don’t know.’

***

Next to this, Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, a parody of the Gothic school written by an actual friend of Shelley’s, seems positively staid, but it does have a couple of good laughs, and the blend of philosophy and bedroom farce is unusual.

Ironical fact: Thomas Love Peacock did not actually love peacocks.

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7 Responses to “Still More Things That Aren’t Films”

  1. The best children’s fiction has a wary view of childhood: David Copperfield, The Night of the Hunter, Eloise.

    Was looking at the film version of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy just the other day on cable. It almost works but not quite.

  2. simon kane Says:

    Aw, congratulations! My father read The Spider’s Palace to us when wee. In fact, this reminds me, I think I also made a tape of me reading it for someone I fancied. It is thoroughly beautiful.

  3. Beautiful and strange. Hughes has a wary view of EVERYTHING. And rightly so.

    The Hitchhiker’s movie is watchable, but I disliked the way they sold it as the film Adams would have approved. In fact it’s the film they could only make after he was dead and couldn’t interfere. The narration in places is horribly truncated so as to lose entirely the elegance of the jokes, but there’s some fine (and surprising) casting. In a way, I’d have enjoyed it more if it had less to do with the book.

    “Engineer’s humour” was Campbell’s somewhat dismissive view, feeling that the thing lacked a story. The gimmicks in his production were intended to compensate for this. “People said, ‘You could do Hamlet with the audience on a hovercraft too.’ Well, you could, but that hovercraft would be sitting still for quite a bit of the time.”

  4. Your Richard Hughes quotes sort of remind me of Lucy Clifford’s ANYHOW STORIES (which you’re probably already familiar with from DOOM PATROL). Talk about nightmare fuel…

  5. “Those stories scare the hell out of me, and I’m a hard bastard.” Yes, although Hughes is always a bit whimsical and wry. Clifford’s The New Mother is just plain terrifying.

  6. When you say ‘I thought I’d gotten hold of all Richard Hughes books, and read two of the four,’ do you mean his novels? He also wrote In the Lap of Atlas, more short stories. set in North Africa, , The Sister’s Tragedy & Other Plays and Poems. For completists only.
    Probably other books too.

  7. Thanks! I’ll keep an eye out. I think I’d been misled by my old Penguins of In Hazard and A High Wind in Jamaica, which offered very incomplete “also by” lists.

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