Archive for The Phoenix and the Carpet

Page 17, #18

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2020 by dcairns

Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight, and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have often troubled patients, some of whom had becomes conscious of the nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments upon themselves. ‘As to an imaginary cry,’ said I, ‘do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp int makes of the telegraph wires.’

Evelyn crouched on the window seat, elbows on the sill, her hands cupped to the curve of her cheeks, their pressure making it easy to smile. Softly, she sang. It was strange to hear for she did not know music; she did not read and had not been told of music. But there were birds, there was the bassoon of wind in the eaves sometimes; there were the calls and cooings of small creatures in that part of the wood which was hers, and, distantly, from that part which was not. Her singing was made of these things, with strange and effortless fluctuations from an instrument unbound by the diatonic scale, freely phrased.

As the last fold was unrolled something hard and loud-sounding bumped out of it and trundled along the nursery floor. All the children scrambled for it, and Cyril got it. He took it to the gas. It was shaped like an egg, very yellow and shiny, half-transparent, and it had an odd sort of light in it that changed as you held it in different ways. It was as though it was an egg with a yolk of pale fire that just showed through the stone.

This was the time of a botanical renaissance, brought about by the classification of plants by the Swede Linnaeus and more especially by the voyage to the South Seas by Sir Joseph Banks and Captain Cook, killed in Hawaii in 1779. Cook carried back to Europe not only fantastic landscapes and images, from the ice world of the Antarctic to the gigantic heads of Easter Island, but a treasury of plants: three thousand species, one thousand of them unknown to botany. The world was alive with news of itself.

Elizabeth Taylor, the last of the old-style Hollywood actresses, has retained her hold on the popular imagination in the two decades since this piece was written, a quality she shares (no thanks to myself) with almost all the public figures in this book – Marilyn Monroe, Reagan, Jackie Kennedy among others. A unique collection of private and public fantasy took place in the 1960s, and may have to wait some years to be repeated, if ever. The public dream of Hollywood for the first time merged with the private imagination of the hyper-stimulated 60s TV viewer. People have sometimes asked me to do a follow-up to The Atrocity Exhibition, but our perception of the famous has changed – I can’t imagine writing about Meryl Streep or Princess Di, and Margaret Thatcher’s undoubted mystery seems to reflect design faults in her own self-constructed persona. One can mechanically spin sexual fantasies around all three, but the imagination soon flags. Unlike Taylor, they radiate no light.

Again, Apollo’s destruction of the Python at Delphi seems to record the Achaeans’ capture of the Cretan Earth-goddess’s shrine; so does his attempted rape of Daphne, whom Hera thereupon metamorphosed into a laurel. This myth has been quoted by Freudian psychologists as symbolizing a girl’s instinctive horror of the sexual act; yet Daphne was anything but a frightened virgin. Her name is a contraction of Daphoene, ‘the bloody one’, the goddess in orgiastic mood, whose priestesses, the Maenads, chewed laurel-leaves as an intoxicant and periodically rushed out at the full moon, assaulting unwary travellers, and tore children or young animals in pieces; laurel contains cyanide of potassium. These Maenad colleges were suppressed by the Hellenes, and only the laurel grove testified to Daphone’s former occupancy of the shrines; the chewing of laurel by anyone except the prophetic Pythian Priestess, whom Apollo retained in his service at Delphi, was tabooed in Greece until Roman times.

Meanwhile, every actor secretly dreads the surprise announcement of “Reload!” as the crews’ eyes roll up and the director’s roll down and their fellow actors’ eyes turn somewhere away. Then they have to get themselves back together to start again or – worse for many actors – pick up where they left off. In particularly emotional scenes, actors often never quite get back to their pre-reload intensity. (Of course, it can be argued that the pressure imposed by a running camera leads to an intensity and concentration that mere rehearsal cannot accomplish, but not many actors would agree with that claim. I’d submit that there’s certainly enough pressure to perform without that added by the celluloid whizzing through the camera.)

Back by unpopular demand (mine)! Seven extracts from seven page seventeens from seven books I’ve randomly picked up. I wasn’t going to do anymore, or I was going to switch to video, but I missed them…

The Signalman, by Charles Dickens, collected in The Penguin Book of English Short Stories; The Phoenix and the Carpet, by E. Nesbit; More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon; The Billion Year Spree, by Brian W. Aldiss; The Atrocity Exhibition (introduction), by J.G. Ballard; The Greek Myths: 1, by Robert Graves; Movie Speak: How to Talk like You Belong on a Film Set, by Tony Bill

You Know… For Kids!

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on January 5, 2015 by dcairns


Item 1. I hadn’t given HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and its sequel the go-by on the big screen, but having caught up with the first film on Christmas TV, I’m now kicking myself. It’s beautifully designed visually (the characters are proper cartoons, not obsessively over-detailed monsters with pores and broken capillaries) and structurally, and it’s not only funny but extremely emotional, and I even overlooked the weird voice casting that has adult Vikings played by Scots (Gerald Butler and Craig Fergusson, both excellent) and the kids all-American (Jay Baruchel particularly effective in the lead). The laughs come not out of ingenious gags, but out of character animation — pure performance in stop-motion CGI form. Great father-son mutual embarrassment scene, for instance.

I’m still a little confused by the film’s politics. It starts out with the dragons as deadly threat, and then we learn that, pace Renoir, even dragons have their reasons, and it becomes about the need for understanding and friendship across boundaries. But then it becomes a story where the good guys invade the bad guys, kill their evil leader and make them into pets. I guess the good news should be that as of release date 2010, that kind of narrative is only credible in fairy tales.

But I don’t want to put you off — if you had any doubts about the movie, dismiss them and check it out. This is a golden age for two things: US TV drama, and animated features.


Item 2) Foolishly, right before Christmas I visited the library and got a ton of interesting books. Then I got a bunch of interesting books for Christmas, including three volumes of Gerald Kersh short stories (among other things, some of the best short-form horror out there) and a Patrick Hamilton. So the only library book that got read was The Steel Claw, a collection of comic strips originally published in the sixties in boy’s comic Valiant then reprinted in the seventies in Vulcan, which I guess is where I became familiar with the character, though I have no memory of Vulcan being a thing.

The Steel Claw concerns a junior scientist/lab assistant type with an artificial hand, who gets blasted by an exploding experiment so that he gains the power to become invisible whenever he receives an electric shock. All except his steel claw, which stays eerily floating about. Curiously, he never thinks of removing it, despite the fact that it’s a major handicap in his life of crime. For this is what our hero decides to do — like the Wells/Whale Invisible Man, he sets out to blackmail the world with acts of wanton destruction, all lovingly depicted in Jesus Blasco’s noirish inks (for some reason, nearly all British comic artists in the seventies were actually Spanish).


The story is frankly ridiculous, even allowing for the goofy concept, but I found myself enjoying the furious pace. Each weekly installment was only two pages, so writer Ken Bulmer (a great name for an author of thick-ear pulp) has to cram in a resolution to an outgoing crisis right away, and then dash ahead to the next tense situation to create a suitable cliffhanger at the end. All wasted on the tiny me, who only saw a couple of isolated issues of whatever the strip was appearing in, but a thrill to read all in one sitting, in the bath (for instance).

Alas, my scans don’t capture the fabulous liquid BLACKNESS of the art, which is what made it so exciting and scary to me as a kid. I must read some more stuff from this era of British comics.


Item 3) Apart from foolishly visiting the library, I foolishly visited that nice second-hand bookshop in the Grassmarket, and lucked into the complete kids’ trilogy of E, Nesbitt: Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and the much rarer The Story of the Amulet. I’m halfway through the third one now, which features time travel, and a rather advanced description of time all existing at once, explaining why you can hop about in it (Nesbitt fears no paradoxes). Great stuff, and the kids in it are properly thoughtless, stroppy and destructive like the real thing. And I like how she used the pronoun “it” when referring to the group: “each child felt that it…” etc.

My favourite bit in Amulet so far is the massacre on Throgmorton Street by time-travelling Babylonians, perhaps because that sort of scene happens so rarely, even in children’s stories, and perhaps because Throgmorton Street is my favourite London street (because it is narrow and high like a canyon, and because it is called Throgmorton Street).

Item 4) Still got DESPICABLE ME lined up on the Tivo. Never seen that one either.