Pictures in the Fire

Mr Pond nodded; he seemed to be suddenly smitten with a fit of abstraction. At last he said: “I sometimes wonder whether things weren’t better when pictures meant the pictures in the fire, instead of the pictures on the film.”

Sir Hubert Wotton gruffly suggested, in a general way, the dingy fire in a Third-Class Waiting Room was not one in which he would prefer to look for pictures.

“The fire pictures, like the cloud pictures, went on Mr Pond, “are just incomplete enough to call out the imagination to complete them. Besides,” he added, cheerfully poking the fire, “you can stick a poker into the coals and break them up into another picture, whereas, if you push a great pole through the screen because you don’t like the face of a film star, there is all sorts of trouble.”

I picked up GK Chesterton’s The Paradoxes of Mr Pond second-hand, tempted by some very nice opening paragraphs. It’s more of the same: short stories of impossible crimes and paradoxes solved by a beatific eccentric. There’s a little less Christian propaganda than in the Father Brown stories, but you can rely on the criminal to turn out to be an atheist or a Jew, if one has been established. It’s for this reason that I prefer John Dickson Carr, who also provides colourful 1930s language (even in those books written in the 60s). Carr never propagandizes for anything except strong drink.

I was nearly finished the book when I hit the only really offensive story, which begins with a character deploring the mistreatment of the Jews in Europe (this was 1936). This character, unfortunately, is Wootton, the blustering bureaucrat who is always wrong, and he’s swiftly mocked by the comedy Irishman who makes some humorous remarks about kicking Jews, and then Pond tells a crime story in which the Jew turns out to be the bad guy. Had this been the first story in the book, I would have read no further. In fairness to Chesterton, he did write Eugenics and Other Evils, but that doesn’t let him off the hook.

Image from Julien Duvivier’s LYDIA.


23 Responses to “Pictures in the Fire”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    There was a big ruckus caused by this piece on English cultural anti-semitism by Harold Bloom,
    Apparently a lot of England’s best writers had expressed anti-semitic opinions at some point before WW2 directed them towards anti-Nazism. Though T. S. Eliot tried to stray away from obvious antisemitism to covert antisemitism.

    The only writer whose anti-semitism really upset and offended me was Dostoevsky largely because I liked his books so much and still do and couldn’t understand how someone that obviously smart had such vile opinions, which made me realize that he was a lot closer to his deranged characters than I believed.

    Odd that Jorge-Luis Borges who loved Chesterton and English literature so much was such a great philo-semite writing anti-Nazi articles in the 30s and 40s which really upset the powers-that-be(and eventually Argentina became a hotbed for runaway Nazis)

  2. That’s the problem with eccentrics, innit.
    I love Forster’s take on the whole hateful business in Three Cheers For Democracy. Although I think I’ve lost it so can’t quote anything, sorry.
    Hey David have you seen “Happy Go Lucky”? Cesar Romero takes a musical to the Edinburgh Festival called “Frolics to You”.

  3. “Happy Go Lovely” that should read. Sorry.

  4. I’ve been meaning to see Happy Go Lovely for that very reason — it’s one of several generic-looking discs available for cheap and I never remember which one it is when I’m in the bargain store.

    Chesterton’s eccentricity is enjoyable, the problem seems to come more from his orthodox side, the Christianity.

  5. La Faustin Says:

    ‘I took a note of everything likely to affect an affair like this,’ answered the official. ‘He was a widower; but he did once have a row with a man about his wife; a Scotch land-agent then in these parts; and Raggley seems to have been pretty violent. They say he hated Scotchmen; perhaps that’s the reason . . . Oh, I know what you are smiling grimly about. A Scotchman . . . Perhaps an Edinburgh man.’

    ‘Perhaps,’ said Father Brown. ‘It’s quite likely, though, that he did dislike Scotchmen, apart from private reasons. It’s an odd thing, but all that tribe of Tory Radicals, or whatever you call them, who resisted the Whig mercantile movement, all of them did dislike Scotchmen. Cobbett did; Dr Johnson did; Swift described their accent in one of his deadliest passages; even Shakespeare has been accused of the prejudice. But the prejudices of great men generally have something to do with principles. And there was a reason, I fancy. The Scot came from a poor agricultural land, that became a rich industrial land. He was able and active; he thought he was bringing industrial civilization from the north; he simply didn’t know that there had been for centuries a rural civilization in the south. His own grandfather’s land was highly rural but not civilized . . . ‘

    ‘The Quick One’, The Scandal of Father Brown

  6. Did Johnson dislike Scots? Boswell was an Edinburgh man, and Johnson did famously visit Scotland, which suggests an interest (he didn’t travel much otherwise). Chesterton may be ascribing his own prejudice to others here…

    Great find though!

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    Chesterton’s attitudes were far too common in the pre-war era. I remember picking up a TEACH YOURSELF GERMAN type book written in 1939 by a schoolmaster that contained drawings of friendly S.S. men helping a German family now in England with a flat tyre. The big problem is whether the son can go to school in Fuhrerland because of Great aunt Rebecca! Apparently, the problem is solved.
    I’ve often wondered what happened to the author. Probably immediate internment in September 1939?

  8. Not necessarily… not if he was English. It would just depend on how aware the authorities were of his opinions. But certainly 1939 is pretty late for that sort of stance!

    The antisemitism continued, but at least after the war it became a guilty secret, to be hidden away rather than bragged about. A measure of appropriate shame was attached.

  9. I believe Graham Greene was also a practitioner of the “Mind you I’m no fan of Mr. Hitler, but …” maneuver. Some of the worst examples I’ve seen were from those fun-boys at “Punch” circa 1935 or so.

    Prewar British antisemitism seems far less virulent and bloody-minded than, e.g., French proto-Vichyism, but in some ways it’s more infuriating because it doesn’t seem to be motivated by conscious ideology, or seized-upon “ideas,” or religion, or medieval superstitious holdovers — some combination of which can be attributed to someone like Dostoyevsky and lends him an element of ambivalence — but just by a vapid, twittish notion that this is how Our Sort think. Look at how Eliot became an antisemite in pursuit of his aim of becoming one of Our Sort.

  10. It obviously got ingrained early, presumably at public school, and was difficult to shift. My friend Lawrie was guilty of traces of this attitude, which I’m afraid I overlooked since he was 77 when I first met him. Also, there was no malice in him whatever. He was completely unable to grasp the language of political correctness, but the general principle of decency to others was ingrainedin him. He would say odd things like, “You get very cultured Jews, or else very vulgar ones,” which could be said of people in general. Possibly some of this prejudice stemmed from his dealings with his Jewish business partners, who got him into the porn business by buying the rights to Naked as Nature Intended

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    I don’t think Greene was in this camp. He joined the Communist Party during the 1920s in the hope that he would get a free trip to Germany (along with Claud Cockburn) but dropped his membership soon afterwards However, HUAC would use this against him and refuse him a visa to enter America.

    David C. Anti-semitism was rampant in the USA towards the end of WW2 and even in Britain in the post-war era despite the hideous revelations.I think Simone Signoret also mentions its presence in the post-war era in her autobiography NOSTALGIA ISN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE .

    I think you’ve described this prejudice very well with your friend Lawrie. Negative descriptions of Jews appear in most pre-war thrillers by writers who were unaware of what this prejudice would lead to and others who were fully aware of the implications such as Peter Cheyney. To his credit, Greene attempted to modify this description after the post-war era. But the worst examples appear in the “Sapper” BULLDOG DRUMMOND novels with references to “Jews and lower-class clerks with a thin veneer of education” and some Sax Rohmer novels that describe a group of drug addicts in an opium den discussing the “most perverse aspects of art, music, and literature” and at least one Jewish clerk working for Fu Manchu in THE HAND OF FU MANCHU. This attitude was rampant in the pre-war era but soon diminished in the post-war world but still existed underground with the British Union of Fascists and former blackshirts who wrote memoirs such as BLACKSHIRTS AND ROSES (“I kid you not, this autobiography definitely exists).

  12. Well, the Fu Manchu stories are inherently racist, in a variety of more or less insidious ways. I recall a vile line, “The door was opened by a negress, unspeakably gross,” which just made me want to cry. Fu is the leader of an unholy coalition of all the non-white races.

    It’s striking that even post-war, Lean and Guinness saw nothing wrong with the portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist, until the reviews came out.

  13. Though neither is a prize, Fu’s far less racist than Nayland. When I found that out, I started cheering for the other team, so to speak. Sax Rohmer was so culturally ignorant it never occurred to him that Thailanders might just despise Chinese (for just one example). This is what makes The Mask of Fu Manchu so funny – they gather all the dusky race stereotypes and have them cheering Fu on (I can just hear Nayland saying, “the great tide of mud is upon us, gentlemen”), not caring if an Arab would sit cheering alongside a Sikh.

  14. Yes, it’s white man paranoia alright. A student of mine made a Fu Manchu short where Fu is a completely innocent fugitive from the demented Nayland Smith, as we gradually discover. “A note! ‘Please leave me alone, I have done you no harm.’ Obviously some beastly code!”

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    Sounds very similar to the representation of Professor Moriarty in THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION.

  16. Christopher Says:

    oh yeah…that was an interesting spin on Moriarty in Seven Per Cent Solution.

  17. My student’s version has added political commentary, since Smith’s racism is now even more plainly revealed.

  18. David,
    Any dacoits in the short? I don’t mean like those in the book, but someone else Smith could torment for being nothing but Burmese or Indian. And please tell me that in the short, the government approved of Smith’s appalling behavior. Or at least looked the other way. That’s the way I’d play it. I might make Fu an Inuit or any non-Chinese race that resemble the Chinese. After all, he need only look Chinese for Smith to feverishly consider him the one and only Fu Manchu.

  19. I don’t recall any Dacoits (difficulty of pronunciation?). And Abner Bieberman was unavailable. The only other speaking part was his Dr Watson type pal, who was completely blinded by Smith’s “brilliance” and took everything he said at face value.

  20. Tony Williams Says:

    From THE HAND OF FU MANCHU. Zarmi in disguise – “For those of you whom the authorities wish to” respcet your betters” by watching the new UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS series.

    “She possessed beauty of a sort, of course, but without being exactly vulgar, it was what I may term `ostentatious’; and as I entered the library I found myself at a loss to define her exact place in society – you know what I mean.” (Seacaucus, N.J.: Castle Books, 1983, , 33)

  21. Nothing more dangerous than somebody whose place in society can’t be defined! Think of Cluny Brown.

  22. Tony Williams Says:

    “Ta, Guv, Y’ere a real toff!

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