27 May 2018

Semi-carnally

I’m reading a collection of Harlan Ellison stories from the mid 1970s. In one of the introductions he compares his literary style unfavorably to Cyril Connolly. Who?

In the mid 70s, Connolly was a famous figure, apparently a dazzling writer but never able to write a great novel. He was mainstream enough to be part of a Monty Python joke, featuring in the “Eric The Half-A-Bee” song at the end of the Fish License sketch on one of their albums. He also appears as a fictionalized character in several other famous authors’ novels. But today, I suspect you’d have a hard time finding anyone under the age of 50 who has even heard of him. His schoolmate George Orwell, on the other hand…

Looking at Wikipedia’s page about Connolly, I can’t help noticing that he was referenced all the time in the 1960s and early 70s, but that dropped off to practically zero after the 80s. With all of his work falling into the post-mouse copyright regime, I’ve a feeling he will soon be forgotten completely. But as he apparently wrote himself:

A writer must grow used to the idea that culture as we know it may disappear and remain lost for ever or till it is excavated, a thousand years hence, from a new Herculaneum.

Good luck with that, Cyril.

Another Monty Python literary reference to a now forgotten figure is to “Rogue Herries” by Hugh Walpole. (Cheese shop sketch.) According to reviews Walpole was once a more celebrated literary figure than Charles Dickens, and his novels were runaway bestsellers! Yet his Foreign Office boss John Buchan is likely more widely remembered for his spy novels like “The Thirty-Nine Steps” than Walpole is for his once famous Herries Chronicles. (Buchan himself will probably be forgotten long before Ian Fleming, the author who followed in his footsteps and was compared to him constantly.)

Walpole is somewhat lucky in that “Rogue Herries” has escaped copyright in at least one country, so future generations will be able to find and read it if they want to. But will they want to? I can’t imagine it.

Anyway, this line of inquiry led me to wonder who Sir Stafford was, that Dawn Palethorpe’s pet clam would be named after him. Given the clue that he was “the late Chancellor”, that would be Stafford Cripps. Since he left office in 1950 and Dawn Palethorpe’s showjumping career was in the 1950s too, to put it in contemporary terms, that would be like Pippa Funnell having a pet clam named Sir Gordon after the ex-Prime Minister.

Does that work as a joke? Maybe. I had to look up an appropriate name for a famous and decorated British female showjumper of the appropriate era, and it was somewhat tricky to find one. Perhaps the original Python reference was overly obscure even in 1970. Then again, in that past world where there were three TV channels, two were BBC channels at least partially dedicated to broadcasting what people from Oxbridge thought was important. In those days posh people on horses got a lot more TV coverage than they do now, and I remember the Horse of the Year Show theme from my distant childhood as one of those pieces of music that meant “Time to reach for the ‘off’ switch”. For the more TV addicted in 1970 it was a choice of watching that or an arts review feature about unemployed actors, and with horses there was always the chance that someone would fall off amusingly.

Amazingly enough the BBC has a searchable database of TV and radio listings that will tell you exactly what was on at the same time as “Horse of the Year Show” in 1970. I think they’re overcompensating for erasing all those episodes of Doctor Who. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind listening to that feature about a bilingual budgerigar that was broadcast on the Home Service in 1958

© mathew 2017