Lazy Sunday: A Visit to 1 Gonzo Mansions

So today I cleaned my study — well, honestly, I did not do that much to it, but thanks to intelligent prep work by my wife, it looks pretty good. I thought — because I have no idea what to write — that it would be fun to look at the space where the blog is usually written (although it is not being written there at this moment for iconoclastic reasons). 

Anyway, enjoy these half-assed photos with even halfer-assed labels. Tomorrow I will _try_ to write something a little more contentful, but no promises. 

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It continues off to the right a bit more, with more and more Viking-y stuff and some very short books. 

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It’s like that bit in The Muppets where they show the room where the ropes and narrow-gauge cables were stored. 

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Lazy Sunday: A Visit to 1 Gonzo Mansions

Things I Like: The Work of Larry Gonick

Every so often — and it is actually not as rare as all that — I run into someone who is not really interested in history. Not intimidated by it, not curious about one aspect of it but not others … someone who genuinely doesn’t really care about it. Now to me, obviously, this is a bizarre and incomprehensible attitude, but it’s not really all that uncommon. And it’s then that you realise that the things that make you you aren’t inherent to everyone, necessarily. They aren’t even really inherent to you. You learned them. 

In my case, it’s no surprise that I learned them from my parents. Both of them studied history or related fields — economics and economic history in my mother’s case, linguistics and political science in my father’s. And when I was young, they both encouraged me (and my brother, although he didn’t develop the same fascination to the same extent) to be interested in history. 

Now, when I was a kid I loved comics, of course — still do. And my parents being old-fashioned about literature in some ways did not wholly approve of this fascination. But they did what parents do, and tried to harness that enthusiasm in an educational way. So if they saw comics that they thought would be educational, they would grab them. That is how I came to be acquainted with the work of the otherwise not very well known Chinese philosopher Hong Yingming or Hong Zicheng and his work Vegetable Root Discourses — my dad picked me up a comic adaptation of the thing. 

Now, now that I’ve begun this story I don’t remember whether I actually got my first volume of Larry Gonicks’ Cartoon History of the Universe from my parents, but I’m pretty sure. Not completely, but mostly. It might have come from my favourite local bookshop, Know Knew Books, tragically no longer where it once was on California Avenue in Palo Alto but still up and about. Where was I? 

Anyway, Gonick’s history is selective and particular. He goes into particular incidents in huge detail and glosses over other things entirely. There’s also a certain amount of “common misconception” stuff, and he oversimplifies some of the cause and effect. But it was in Gonick’s comics that I first read about the early centuries of Islam, about the French and Indian War, hell, about the Peloponnesian War. His comics are clearly influenced by the 70s underground style, and they’re gorgeous, with lovely bold lines and great little characters. His style for some of his other books, like The Cartoon History of the United States, was a little more jagged, but in time I came to love those as well. I must have read each of those books a dozen times, often on nights when I couldn’t sleep. There were a lot of those when I was younger. 

A few years ago, I was in some online debate — about the whole Muhammad-cartoon thing, I think — and I emailed Larry Gonick, hardly thinking I would get a reply, but he wrote me a very interesting answer about the matter from the perspective of a cartoonist and historian. Class. 

If you want to turn out like me — and who doesn’t — you should get your hands on a set of these. No lie, there’s some good stuff in there. 

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It is a Thing I Like. 

Things I Like: The Work of Larry Gonick

A completely convincing story about a fight

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Now, if François Villon is famous for anything — I mean, apart from poetry — it’s being a little bit of a hellion. I am no expert on Villon, but I came across an incident that happened to him in 1455, recounted in Jean Verdon’s Night in the Middle Ages, a very strange book. 

One of the things that I like without being able to name or understand is that quality that depositions and incident reports have — when summarised, people’s recollections of things that happen to them have this odd, slightly stiff, slightly jumbled quality. This seems particularly the case in the middle ages, which I think is probably something to do with the scribal style, I don’t know. But if you read any trial transcripts from the middle ages or the Renaissance, they have this particular quality about them. It’s exactly the quality that true-crime books don’t have. 

Anyway, I don’t have the original document, so I’m just going to give Verdon’s summary of the record here. This is what happened to François Villon on June 5, 1455 — or at least, according to him. 

… at around nine o’clock at night, François was sitting on a stone bench on the rue Saint-Jacques with a priest and a woman going by the name of Isabeau. They were happily chatting when a priest, Philippe Sermoise, and Jean le Mardi suddenly appeared. Seeing Villon, Philippe shouted, “I deny God! Master François, I’ve found you; you can be sure that I’ll make you angry.” Villon replied, “Have I done you wrong? What do you want of me? I believe I have done you no harm. Dear brother, what are you angry about?”

He got up to offer him his seat, but Philippe refused … Sermoise drew his dagger and struck him in the face, cutting his lip. Villon’s two companions had discreetly gone off … Villon backed off, a stone in his right hand, a dagger in his left. As the priest pursued him, Villon stabbed him in the groin. 

Then he went to a barber-surgeon to have his wound treated. To follow police rules, the barber asked his name. Villon said he was Michel Mouton …

For me … I think the thing that does it for me is the “I deny God!” bit. Like, François backing away and being all “but what have I done?” is something you could find in any old statement by a guy trying to prove self-defence. But “I deny God” seems like over-egging the pudding a little bit, don’t you think? “Oh, yeah, officer, he was shouting all kinds of stuff about how he hated God. Then he just attacked me for no reason. What could I do but stab him in the dick?”

A completely convincing story about a fight

Translation

It is late and I am tired, so today’s post is pretty short. It is also about translations. 

I have in mind a particular text: this is Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, a translation of some Anglo-Saxon medical texts made in the 1860s by Oswald Cockayne. While looking for something or other (I didn’t find it) I read through these texts, and I was struck not by the content of the translation but by the translation itself. Click on the link; you can see the whole thing in facsimile. It is awesome. 

Anyway, my point is that Cockayne’s translation is full of fancy, using words with close relationships to the Old English words to make his text sound all theesy-thousy (so, for instance, he says “hight” instead of “called” a lot). But what really struck me was how squeamish he is about some things. For instance, there’s a section on what to do if a female patient misses her period. Cockayne translates this as: 

In case mulieribus menstrua suppressa sunt; boil in ale brooklime, and the two centauries, give her this to drink … 

OK, so, Victorian clergyman a bit prudish, no surprise there. But later on the same page Cockayne is happily talking about how you should take a certain mixture and “apply to the netherward part of the vulva”. I checked; it’s not in Latin in the original. It’s all in Old English. So Cockayne is translating this to Latin while translating everything else to modern English. He’s also totally happy telling you to collect goat turds (he says “tords,” but whatever) and apply them to various symptoms, so it’s just this one thing that seems to need to be rendered into Latin, so that … what? So that ladies and the lower orders won’t read it? But it’s OK for them to read about bathing vulvas and goat shit. It’s all a bit … I don’t know!

Anyway, the main point is that you should read that book if you want to find out what to do in case someone you know is being messed with by elves. My comment is just a side note. 

Translation

A quick post: swag!

In one of my day jobs, I teach history in a local further education institution. This has its benefits and its drawbacks, but today I want to talk about the benefits. As I was passing by the library, I saw a couple of tables of books — withdrawn stock being given away. Now, there isn’t much point in getting contract law textbooks a couple of years old, particularly if, like me, you don’t give a hoot about contract law. But I did come away with a few good freebies! Observe: 

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That subtitle, in case it isn’t clear from the photograph, is With a 17th-c. Conversation between a Periwig-Maker and a Gentleman buying a Periwig. Which seems like a reasonable conversation to have. 

 

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Don’t you love Shire Books? I do. Their earnest collections of pipe-stems and hedgerows. So fascinating! The contents fascinate me as much as the fact that they exist — that someone has put in all this work to catalogue dozens of forms of lamppost or pillar-box or whatever. 

A quick post: swag!

Movie Monday: The Desert Fox (1951)

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When I have no film in mind for Movie Monday, my thoughts turn toward that genre which I call, in my mind, “World Bore Two,” that set of worthy, more-or-less straight war films that the studios churned out throughout the 50s and 60s and on into the 70s. They go hand in hand with the countless paperback war memoirs that seem to survive for the period — I must have read a couple of dozen, although I couldn’t tell you anything about except that one of them was by Mark Clark and one of them was called Horio You Next Die, which should tell you something about the general standard. 

What was I talking about? Right, Rommel. So, this film is not like that, a fact I think may be because it was made so early? I mean, it has a lot of wartime newsreel footage in it, but other than that and a sort of gratuitous action scene thrown in pre-credtis, there isn’t a whole lot of actual fighting — it’s mostly Rommel, his family and other various German types standing around talking about what to do about Hitler. 

I was going to talk about the whole cult of Rommel — the great military genius and the only German general it was/is OK to feel good about liking (the only famous one, anyway). This film is obviously a big part of it — Rommel is portrayed as a principled sort of character, whose secondary virtues of loyalty and detached professionalism delay expressing primary virtues until it is, tragically, too late. I think the proximity of this film to the war might account for the weird narrative structure — we never actually see Rommel being this great general, but then perhaps audiences in ’51 didn’t have to. Also, of course, this film is an adaptation of Desmond Young’s book, which is mainly concerned with Rommel’s death. 

Young actually plays himself in the film, something I only found out when I looked it up afterward. This explains two things that struck me as strange at the time: first, why Young is so goofy-looking when everyone else in the film is your basic handsome actor type, and second, why Young’s voice completely changes from his on-screen appearance to his role as voiceover narrator. 

Um … what else? The cult of Rommel in general. I think … I think it’s telling that the phrase “magnificent bastard” was coined to describe Rommel, although the film doesn’t particularly portray him as a bastard. But we have a tendency to respect people who are good at their jobs, and there is or was a certain inclination to look for guys on the other side you could respect. It’s probably a bit sad that we have to admire Rommel on the grounds that he wasn’t a complete monster, merely a highly efficient professional supporting a complete monster. 

Mind you, one of the interesting things is that the film addresses that — the narrator calls Rommel “the enemy of democracy and civilisation,” or words to that effect, and yet the film closes with words about how chivalrous he was — again, the only example of this we see in the film is Rommel not violating the rules of warfare; this is supposed to be an example of his particular chivalry, I guess? But that was the opinion of him at the time — and given the sadism and indifference displayed by most of the combatants — and given the pressures on Rommel to be as much of an asshole as his peers — I guess it’s something. 

As for the story of Rommel’s death, I think everyone is more or less aware of it at this point, although I’m sure that when Young’s book came out in 1950 it was a bit shocking. 

I was surprisingly gripped by this film, which I was not expecting to be. I continue to have my doubts about the whole Rommel thing, but that’s life. 

I found the cheerful playing of The Caisson Song and similar jaunty military tunes over footage of tonnes and tonnes of bombs blowing the landscape beneath them to smithereens — actual footage of that actually happening — kind of jarring. 

Next week I promise I’ll try to find something I can really seethe and rage about. 

Movie Monday: The Desert Fox (1951)

I might have addictions.

So, I have addictions, like most people. Mostly I am pretty good about acquiring or consuming things I don’t need. But one exception is historical replica-type books. Like these ones:

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These are just a few of the books from the relevant shelf; they’re just the ones that look the most different from each other. But I like all of them. Time Capsule is a series of books that Time magazine published back in the day reprinting articles from its pages in a given year. Sadly, the typography isn’t reproduced, and the photos aren’t that great. But the rest of these are much more faithful in their reproduction. 

They’re both fascinating and, in the case of Advising the Householder on Protection Against Nuclear Attack, chilling. The Home Guard Manual makes me feel kind of bad, as well — it’s actually for the Australian Home Guard, and it’s in case of an invasion by the IJA, which would have been a pretty bad scene. If things in WWII had gone badly enough that the Japanese were staging a full-scale invasion of Australia, I’m not sure the Australian Home Guard would have the muscle to do it. It would have been pretty horrible. 

But others are fantastic. If you, like me, don’t really have the scratch to fill your shelves with genuine antiquarian texts, this kind of thing is a great conversation starter. I’ve had some wonderful conversations just off the back of Dont’s For Husbands (for instance, we are informed that you shouldn’t spend too much time in your flying machine, lest it upset your wife). But in general, they’re interesting in that window-on-history way. The Sears-Roebuck catalogue is particularly amazing, with its glimpse of the aspirational durable household goods of 1909 America. What strikes me about it is just how wordy it is — people were willing to read a lot of text in order to be sold boilers and Masonic cufflinks and hate. Also, an amazing art collection, all in that fiddly engraved Victorian style. 

So this is a thing that I like. Tomorrow: Movie Monday again. 

I might have addictions.