The Dunst Comparator

This year’s foopball World Cup coincided with the Hooting Yard shutdown, which means I have neglected to keep you lot apprised of the choice witterings of commentators. Each time there is a big foopball tournament, we find ourselves wondering if one of the TV babblers will say anything to match that classic observation from 2010 : “For a moment there, he looked like a baby gazelle who’d just plopped out of the womb.”

My favourite moment from this year came early in the contest. Commenting on one of the Argentinian players, the BBC man said : “He’s five-foot-five, the same height as Kirsten Dunst. A dangerous little winger.”

Was he in possession of a chart matching the heights of foopballers to Hollywood stars? Or is a foopballer’s height relative to Kirsten Dunst a standard measure? These questions were never answered, more’s the pity.

Khue-Reyen

The term ‘nostalgia’ was in fact dreamt up in 1688 by a doctor called Johannes Hofer who was treating young Swiss mercenaries suffering from a strange set of symptoms. They wouldn’t eat, couldn’t summon the will to live and sometimes became dangerously ill with no apparent physical cause. They had fainting fits, high fevers and indigestion. After talking to the young men, Hofer realised they were simply ill for want of home. When he sent them back to the mountains, they invariably recovered.

Even earlier, Swiss soldiers were said to be so susceptible to nostalgia when they heard a particular Swiss milking song, ‘Khue-Reyen’, that its playing was punishable by death.”

Mary Wakefield in The Speccie

Lilliputian Rabbits, Etc.

Henry Fuseli ate a diet of raw meat in order to obtain splendid dreams. Lamb spoke of “Lilliputian rabbits” when eating frog fricassee; and his sister Mary, wielding a knife, chased a little girl who was helping her in the kitchen and then stabbed her own mother through the heart; Hazlitt was perceptive about musculature and boxers; Wordsworth used a buttery knife to cut the pages of a first-edition Burke. Coleridge, his head shrouded in a fog, read poetry badly and moaned gloomily. The dreams of Jean Paul, the crow that loved the storm, reverberated across the Lake District… There were others who helped themselves to dreams. Robert Southey experimented with laughing gas. Ann Radcliffe sought out huge quantities of indigestible food to reinforce her terrible night visions. Mrs Leigh Hunt was proud to have produced an apocalyptic dream, which then appeared in a poem by Shelley. Coleridge, distracted by the scratching of his pen over the paper while transcribing his dream, forgot part of it. And Lamb complained about the derelict impoverishment of his dreams.

From Three Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy (2005). The lives of which she writes are of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob.

Straubenzee!

From a reader’s letter in the current issue of Standpoint:

Whenever I am feeling a little low I call to mind a Sunday morning 30-odd years ago waiting in a queue in a shop in Riberac, Dordogne. The gentleman at the head of the queue, wearing shorts and sandals with long white socks, bellowed at the lady behind the counter: “Je suis Sir William van Straubenzee, ou est mon Sunday Telegraph?”

The Higher Mathematics

Dear Mr Key, writes Andy Martin, I recently read (or tried to read) a textbook on recent developments in mathematics. Its pages are littered with sentences and phrases which often sound as if they’ve been swiped from one of the earlier pamphlets by that chap [Norman Davies] who wrote Further Science.

Mr Martin then lists some of the inexplicable, yet curiously compelling, phrases he has digested, all quoted verbatim from the text:

…degeneracy on a manifold…

…lemmas on ordinary differential operators with parameters…

…sharp regularity estimates for the solution of the oblique derivative problem…

…instability modes in Benard systems…

…codimension-two bifurcations…

…the basic boundary value problems for operators with VMO coefficients…

…time dependent and time independent wave packet approaches to reactive scattering…

…laser excited wave packets in semiconductor heterostructures…

…Feshbach resonances and singular Hodge theory…

…elliptic complexes of pseudodifferential operators and to stratified media…

…singular interaction problems with distribution and hyperfunction data…

…polar materials without director symmetry…

…the mechanical fragility of smectic bookshelf structure…

…quantum dot heterostructures…

…eigenoscillations in diffraction theory…

…molecular integral evaluation…

…material tensors of ranks 2 to 7…

…multiconfigurational self-consistent fields and coupled clusters…

…orientational aspects in pair transfer and multichromophoric systems…

…the Stokes parameters in nonlinear media and self action polarisation phenomena…

…canonical quantization and stochastic wave functions…

…quantum states of bosonic systems…

…phase space distribution functions and the density operator…

As a lover of books, adds Mr Martin, I assume you, too, are profoundly concerned about the mechanical fragility of smectic bookshelf structure. Perhaps you’ve already noticed it. I know I have.

The Pier At Deal

Yesterday’s little winklepicker squib reminded me of a piece I wrote about the pier at Deal in July 2012. Here it is again:

Above is a photograph of the pier at Deal, on the coast of Kent. It is the last pier built in England, opened in 1954, replacing a derelict nineteenth-century predecessor. At its far end, it terminates in a large platform, lower than the main pier, and from this platform, on either side, a set of metal steps lead down into the sea. I think I am right in saying this is an unusual construction for a pier. It is a feature that sparked an idea in the brain of the writer Rayner Heppenstall (1911-1981), who spent the last few years of his life as a resident of Deal.

Early one morning in the late nineteen-seventies, Heppenstall disembarked from a boat and clambered up the steps at the end of the pier. He had come from France, brought across the channel by a somewhat rascally French sailor, who would collect him from the same spot on the evening of the same day. Heppenstall walked along the pier to shore, and through Deal’s dawn-deserted streets to his house. He was careful to ensure he was not seen. As far as friends and neighbours were concerned, he was on holiday in France. He spent the day, very quietly, at home, reading over his diaries of the last few years. Heppenstall was a diligent diarist all his life, and often used them as raw material for his fiction, after which he would destroy the originals. He had brought a packed lunch with him, so he would not need to prepare anything and thus create cooking smells. Similarly, when he smoked during the day he dispersed the fumes and removed the evidence from his ashtray. When the cleaner came, in the next few days, she would find no sign that Heppenstall had been there.

When evening came, and his neighbours had all returned home, Heppenstall took a loaded revolver, fitted with a silencer, and went next door, where he slaughtered the entire family. He then made his way back to the pier, where he was picked up from the steps at the end, and taken back to France.

Or rather, that is what he wished he had done. Many of the entries in his diaries of the time consisted of accounts of his neighbours’ behaviour. They were noisy. They were rambunctious. They were foul-mouthed. They were working class, or “common”. Beneath the cold forensic prose lies Heppenstall’s exasperation, his seething rage, his murderousness. These are the diary entries he transformed into his last, posthumously-published, novel, The Pier (1986). I suppose it is unlikely that the noisy rambunctious working class family in Deal ever read the book.

When The Pier appeared, it was taken as further evidence that Heppenstall had “gone mad”. Certainly what we read is the lethal fantasy of a man driven crackers by little more than whistling, games of kickabout football, loud conversation, and noisy bouts of DIY. One of the reasons he and his wife – who becomes his sister in the novel – moved to Deal was that their last home in London was a flat above a launderette, the din of which he found unbearable. Yet I suspect the real reason he was considered to have gone bonkers was the turn his politics took.

Originally from Yorkshire, Heppenstall had always been a tribal Labour voter, a “progressive”. Since the end of the Second World War, he had worked as a talks producer for BBC Radio. He lived in a literary intellectual milieu. In the nineteen-thirties he shared a flat with George Orwell. He was a regular drinking companion of Dylan Thomas’. He made the first translation into English of Raymond Roussel (with his daughter, Lindy Foord). He published several experimental novels and, in the nineteen-sixties was considered a sort of godfather by younger writers such as Ann Quin and B S Johnson. Both Quin and Johnson, incidentally, committed suicide in 1973. Heppenstall didn’t, but considered doing so. For more than three decades he kept concealed behind his bookshelves a phial of crushed pink pills diluted in water, which he regularly refreshed to maintain its potency. It was his guarantee that death was always in his reach. In the end, he never took it. He died of a stroke.

It was around the time of his retirement from the BBC, in 1973, and his move to Deal the following year, that Heppenstall began to describe himself as a “freelance reactionary”. Come 1979, he even considered voting Conservative, though he very probably did not vote at all. But the break from the world and the mindset he had inhabited is all too clear in some of his diary entries. It is unlikely his colleagues in the BBC canteen or the London drinking clubs would have taken kindly to his analysis of the Middle East, that “the Jews are a civilised race, whereas the Arabs are basically savages”. He came increasingly to loathe the modern world.

Was this madness? The reactionary views, the suicide phial, the murderous fantasy? Perhaps it was something in the air in Deal, home to other London exiles such as the alcoholic Charles Hawtrey (thrown out of every pub in town at one time or another) and Simon Raven. Hawtrey’s house bears a blue plaque, but there is no commemoration of Rayner Heppenstall. His neighbours, the annoying children now adults, may still be living in the same house, all unaware that the elderly, withdrawn, ill-tempered writer who once lived next door plotted to kill them all.

I walked along the pier at Deal yesterday, to the steps where ghost-Heppenstall came and went on his fantasy killing spree. I passed some loud, foul-mouthed, working class people, and also a few well-dressed elderly gents taking an afternoon stroll. I wondered if I might see a small French motorboat tied up at the end of the pier. But the steps were empty, descending into the sloshing sea.

The Real World Is Stranger Than Hooting Yard (Part 94)

I have occasionally muttered in exasperation when the world o’ Hooting Yard is described as “surreal” or “weird”, given that the so-called real world is often so much stranger. Just the other day, there was that business about the (all too real) Valeska Gert anticipating the (wholly fictional) world-famous food-splattered Jesuit.

Now, courtesy of Richard Carter at Gruts, I learn of a real world mother who seems to outdo my fictional mother in Songs My Mother Taught Me.

Neil Armstrong (no, not that Neil Armstrong) reviewing Secret Pigeon Service: Operation Columba, Resistance and the Struggle to Liberate Europe by Gordon Corera in the latest edition of Literary Review:

Among others, we meet Viscount Tredegar, an occultist and friend of Aleister Crowley. He was for a time in charge of the section of the army that supplied MI14(d) with birds but was eventually court-martialled for gossiping about Columba’s work. His defence cited his unhappy childhood and the fact that his mentally ill mother had built herself a large bird’s nest in the living room and sat in it wearing a beak.

The Tremendous Gert

Readers may recall my essay about the world-famous food-splattered Jesuit. I imagined a music hall act of “sheer simplicity. The curtains would open and there, on stage, world-famous and splattered with food, stood a Jesuit. He would extend his arms, almost in crucifixion pose, and gaze at a point slightly above the heads of the audience. There were no frills, no ‘business’ with props. After a few minutes, the curtains would close, and – barring the inevitable encore – that was that.”

It has now come to my attention that, as so often, the real world anticipated the supposedly wacky world of Hooting Yard, and by many decades. Via Strange Flowers, I learned today of Weimar cabaret artist Valeska Gert. “In the 1920s, Gert premiered one of her most provocative works entitled Pause. Performed in between reels at Berlin cinemas, it was intended to draw attention to inactivity, silence, serenity, and stillness amidst all the movement and chaos in modern life. She came onstage and literally just stood there. ‘It was so radical just to go on stage in the cinema and stand there and do nothing,’ said Wolfgang Mueller.”

Here she is in more animated mode: