Monday, October 17, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

Osbert Lancaster “DRAYNEFLETE REVEALED” (first published1949; American edition There’ll Always Be A Drayneflete published 1950)
Osbert Lancaster “THE SARACEN’S HEAD”  (first published 1948)
Osbert Lancaster “PROGRESS AT PELVIS BAY” (first published1936)

A book with beautiful pictures like Trees of New Zealand leads me to consider three books with a totally different sort of beautiful pictures.

When I was a child, all three of the books recommended as this week’s “Something Old” stood side-by-side on my father’s packed bookshelves, their spines equally browned by the clouds of pipe-smoke my father gave out as he worked at his desk.

They now stand on my own packed bookshelves.

Every couple of years I rediscover them and thumb through them, once again enjoying the pictures and occasionally delighting in the accompanying prose. I liked the pictures when I was a child, too, but then I did not fully understand the sharp satire two of them contained, aimed at sophisticated adults.

Let’s give a little background. Osbert Lancaster (1908-1986) was both cartoonist and architectural draughtsman, with a sideline in theatrical set design. He was a very short man with a bushy moustache. He sometimes poked fun at his own lack of height by drawing himself as a kind of dwarf on the edges of some of his cartoons. He moved in the best circles, being Public School and Oxford-educated. He was eventually knighted.

To England’s general public he was best-known for his long-running “pocket cartoons” that appeared, every day for over thirty years, on the front page of the Daily Express. Part of their appeal was the simple fact that they appeared so frequently. In an article which I can’t trace (I think it was in the defunct magazine Punch) somebody explained them with the remark that readers would be delighted to find something topical in the news every day getting such a swift response.

The “pocket cartoons” often ran jokes about snobby aristocrats called the Littlehamptons and their reactions to politics. I think Lancaster’s most famous “pocket cartoon” had Lady Littlehampton, after a Labour Party election victory, leaving a banquet and ordering a servant to  “Call me a tumbril!”

As with his contemporary Giles, selections of Lancaster’s newspaper cartoons were published in book form. I have one such Lancaster collection Studies From Life (1954) on my shelf next to the three books I’m recommending.

Now let’s consider these three beautiful books.

The non-satirical and more-or-less straightforward one is the playful The Saracen’s Head.  Indeed, I once read it to my elder children as a serial bedtime story and I seem to recall they quite enjoyed it. It is literally a medieval tale of a crusader who rides off to Palestine, is knighted because he is erroneously thought to have whacked off a Saracen’s head in battle, and earns the right to wear the device of a Saracen’s head on his shield. The knight is William de Littlehampton, clearly the ancestor of Lancaster’s modern Tory aristocrats. It is illustrated with Lancaster’s black-and-white line illustrations, including technically-correct views of medieval trebuchets and the like, and a wonderful view of a Muslim fort and walled harbour. My child brain delighted in these.

Three times, however, The Saracen’s Head breaks into coloured double-page spreads. The chatelaine farewells the crusaders from a European castle. Crusaders and Saracens face off in a desert battle, with a couple of bloody severed heads lying in the sand. Crusaders storm the walls of a Saracen fort, with falling bodies, impalings and decapitations. Lancaster’s settings are architecturally accurate but his characters are cartoonic, distancing us from the violence in the time-honoured way of storybooks.

I’m sure that its implicit view of alien Muslims and of jolly ancient warfare would now make this book unpublishable or subject to protests. Still it is great –if Non-Politically Correct – fun.

The earlier Progress at Pelvis Bay is a very light-hearted piece of satire, poking fun at town planners and styles of architecture. It purports to be a guide-book to an undistinguished English seaside resort, and the accompanying line illustrations show the development of the town from the late eighteenth century to the present (1936).  Lancaster’s drawing style was then in its early stages, so the drawings are very simple. Text is the type of genteel booster-ism that local guide-books contain, talking up the perfectly mundane features of the town as if they are architectural gems. It first appeared as a series of articles in the English Architectural Review, where it doubtless provoked polite chuckles among architects.

In a way Progress at Pelvis Bay is a foretaste of what I regard as Lancaster’s masterpiece, which came thirteen years later - Drayneflete Revealed (released in America as There’ll Always be a Drayneflete). Again, its seventy pages are a cod guidebook, this time to an English country town. But the time frame is longer. Drayneflete (the name refers playfully to a sewer) begins in the first illustration as a Roman-era village and ends in the last overwhelmed by modern (1949) suburbia. In between, Lancaster’s illustrations carry us through the Caroline, Georgian and Victorian eras, with a distinct nostalgia for the eighteenth century, which is also represented on Lancaster’s cover illustration. A stout and fleshy Muse poses under a tree with the eighteenth century Drayneflete in the distance.

This time, however, Lancaster’s illustrations and text go further than they did in Progress at Pelvis Bay. He now parodies accurately the artworks that hang in stately homes, and the prose and literature of earlier eras. It’s the type of humour that delighted antiquarians like John Betjeman.

The high-point is the last section, “Poet’s Corner”, which purports to celebrate the poets of Draynflete, a mediocre bunch who all conform to the clich├ęs of their age. Eighteenth century Jeremy Tipple writes didactic, sub-Pope verse in rhyming couplets with titles like “The Contemplative Shepherd”. Victorian Miss Amelia de Vere quivers emotionally like a lesser Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In the 1890s Casimir de Vere-Tipple writes decadent verse until forced to retire abroad for (ahem) “private reasons”. In the 1920s Guillaume de Vere-Tipple waxes Modernist and imitates T.S.Eliot with “Aeneas on the Saxophone”. But he discovers in the 1930s that this no longer sells. So he suddenly goes all proletarian and Young Auden-ish, changes his name to Bill Tipple, and produces committed political free-verse pieces with titles like “crackup in barcelona”.

Okay, okay – I know this sort of parody assumes you know something about the development of English poetry. It might therefore be condemned as “elitist” – like most of what is worth savouring in the arts.  If you do know your poetry, however, it’s both accurate and very funny. I once saw the “Poet’s Corner” section of Drayneflete Revealed reproduced in a book called Sense of Humour as an example of “Parody as Criticism”. Fair enough too.

As you might guess, these books are now old friends of mine, familiar as household words. But I may be very discourteous to you in recommending them because, so far as I know, they are all out of print. Indeed, they are the type of things you can buy only in well-stocked second-hand bookshops or from on-line catalogues. Sniff through piles of the superannuated, the neglected and the no-longer-read and they might just be there, caviar to the general.

Happy hunting.

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