When I Grow Up I Wanna Be On TV!

It was like old home week the other night, watching Chris in another Masonic Magical Mystery Hour on History channel, this one being about the supposed treasure buried on Oak Island. (Curse of Oak Island Drilling Down: Founding Fathers S7/E6)

I thought that Chris looked both adorable and intelligent; Chris kept saying how good Akram Elias was.  Neither one of us really enjoys seeing ourselves on television.  In my case, I have gone to war each and every time with the video DP, all of them determined to drench me with enough light to illuminate a football stadium.  It’s always the same battle cry – “Will you please pull back?”  It gets me nowhere.  On one of them, Chris stood behind the camera and checked to make certain they weren’t getting a surgical close-up of my nose hair.  So the little bastard did what they all do; he fixed it in post, doing a cheesy optical zoom that put the camera right back up my nostrils where he clearly felt it belonged, my round, over-lit face glowing like the rising harvest moon.    

In any case, the days of tracking Chris' illness by the way he looked in various shows are now past.  I thought he looked glowingly healthy, and about thirty-two years old. 

As for the unexplainable presence of William Shatner, I can take it, I guess.  He’s obviously signed himself into indentured servitude with History (you’re still not supposed to add “Channel”) where he has another show called The UnXplained.  Am I spelling that right?  They’re obviously going to use him as Spook Host in a bevy of crossover stuff, including this Season Seven episode of Curse of Oak Island.  (Season Seven?)  Shatner isn’t as bad an actor as people say.  Calling him a lousy actor, for awhile there, was this huge national bromide, a cliché as worn as “Wanna buy a duck?”  But he can be good, especially when he’s got a director to sit on him and knock some of the hot air out of him.  When Shatner went head to head with Stanley Kramer, the result was his subtle and easygoing performance in Judgment at Nuremberg.  He’s so laid back you hardly recognize him. 

This episode of Oak Island was called The Founding Fathers, its premise being that the Templar treasure with the Ark of the Covenant that we all know is at the bottom of the island’s deep, deep hole was raided to help finance the American Revolution.  A stretch when you consider that all of Nova Scotia was in British hands at the time.  Also a stretch when you consider that our fledgling nation-in-revolt was in constant, hardscrabble debt, rattling the tin cup to anyone who passed by.  But what the hell, Britain and France were constantly at war in the 18th century, leaving them both bankrupt.  Why not play hardball like the big boys? 

And of course they ended up at Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, with connective tissue so vague as to be absurd.  At this point, you can’t say the word “Freemason” on TV without doing either Rosslyn Chapel or the hidden symbols in the streets of Washington, D.C.  And then they have the gall to wonder why my husband’s email is so cluttered with meandering, scary missives from the anti-Illuminati crowd, vaguely accusing him of being a Satanist.  These types have been hanging around since the Reverend Jedediah Morse climbed into his pulpit and scared hell out of everyone over the Bavarian Illuminati in 1798, though I find no comfort in this. 

However, once you blow away the pixie dust, the history at the core of the typically meandering episode was fascinating.  This constant battle over Nova Scotia where Oak Island sits was part of the incessant naval warfare that characterized the 17th and 18th century, much of it exacerbated by religion, most of it dominated by the battle of the Continental powers for first dibs on all the richest lands to colonize, not to mention the trade routes between.  The British tried to turn Halifax station into another Gibraltar, a major military outpost.  Americans loyal to their King fled to Nova Scotia during the Revolution, while, in the War of 1812, it served as the operations headquarters for the British blockade of over 2,000 miles of American coastline. 

But what was fascinating about this episode of Oak Island was the log entry claimed to have been from one of the ships of the D’Anville Expedition.  Of course, they made it sound shiny and new, though they’ve talked about it in past episodes.  In actuality, this supposed partial log entry has been in the National Archives in France for many years.  You know, like the founding documents of the Priory of Sion, which the Bibliothèque Nationale just comes out and tells you is a forgery.  But tales of a lost treasure of the D’Anville Expedition have been around for at least a century, along with all the requisite ghost stories.  This sort of thing is a treasure hunter’s Holy Grail, though their explanation of it wasn’t very detailed.  The episode had some lovely photography, though. 

The French navy doesn’t have much of a reputation, and to some degree that’s unfair.  I bought a book that just arrived called Napoleon’s Admirals, a brave attempt to shed some light on French naval history by offering biographies of the 26 flag officers listed on the Arc de Triomphe, where the roll-call of French military heroes is vastly outnumbered by the other 634 names of the generals and marshals who fought on land.  Sad to think there wouldn’t be a United States of America if it hadn’t been for the French navy. 

In the show much was made of the expedition leader being a Rochefoucauld, an important family of French nobility.  This particular flag officer was Louis Frédéric de la Rochefoucauld de Roye, the Duc d’Anville of the marine d’état, and he led a massive French force across the Atlantic in what is called the D’Anville Expedition to Acadia.  Though they sound like a bunch of Greek shepherds drinking wine out of goatskins, the Acadians were descendants of the French who colonized the whole area of Quebec, many of them of mixed blood, métissage, just like here in Indiana, in the Metis settlements along the Ohio.  The British eventually tried to drive them out, in what's called the Great Expulsion.  Their descendants still speak a variety of unusual French dialects, including Cajun.

The dogged British had attacked Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia six times before they finally took it in 1710, setting off the French, who attacked it, almost mystically, another six times, including D’Anville. 

As for the expedition, there’s a reason most people don’t remember any of this, apart from general indifference to history.  The 18th century may have been the Age of Enlightenment, but you’d need a cheat sheet to keep track of all the wars, the mini wars folded, you might say, into the maxis.  This invasion was part of King George’s War, which was part of the War of the Austrian Succession, which bled into the Seven Years War, our French and Indian War, which preceded the Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars.  I once did a blog about one of the minis, the comically-named War of Jenkins' Ear, a ten-year naval war between England and Spain in the Indies.  Yes, there was a real ear, cut off a real guy named Jenkins.  These brawls in the Indies were ongoing.  Places like Martinique changed hands between Britain and France so often they didn’t have time to redo the street signs.

This armada was put together to revenge the taking of Louisbourg the year before, after a siege by the British backed up with a force from New England.  In a major snit, D’Anville was tasked with taking back the capital of Annapolis Royal, also called Port Royal, which was very near Louisbourg.  Afterwards, he was supposed to invade New England, burn down Boston, bombard New York, then attack the British West Indies and destroy some major plantations, all before winter set in.  People in Boston were braced for invasion all that summer.  Unfortunately, due to one foul-up after another, D’Anville didn’t even leave France until June, and he didn’t arrive for three months, at which point fall was in the air, and the forces waiting for him in Canada assumed the whole war was cancelled.

D’Anville’s Expedition has long been a textbook example of an epic naval fiasco.  The Oak Island guys said it was 64 ships, my book says 73.  Never mind, just call it a whole bunch of ships.  But due to incompetence, bad judgment and the primal forces of nature, it was a debacle.  Events were typical of grand naval disasters like the Spanish Armada, in which a variety of catastrophes occurred – after a difficult, disease-laden crossing, short on supplies, the men began dying even faster on arrival, of scurvy and various fevers, having also been whacked by a major storm, scattering some of the vessels as far as the Caribbean.  Lightening hit a magazine and blew up one of the ships, at which point a sensible man might have decided that God wasn’t on his side. 

Only half of them ever reached the military objective.  Like the Walcheren Island debacle and so many others, disease was far deadlier than the enemy.  A lot of it may have been typhus.  Some sources say D’Anville died of the disease devouring his men, while others say he had a stroke a week after he arrived.  I guess you can’t blame him.  Days after his death, when the extent of the failure seemed clear, his second-in-command, Vice-Admiral d’Estournelle, retired to his cabin and fell on his own sword.  Even this was muffed, and he survived the suicide attempt.

The whole thing limped to a close, which is why the unsupported supposition of the show has some weight, this being that, if they had treasure, the remnants of the invasion force wouldn’t have wanted to attempt to re-cross the Atlantic with it, where it would surely have ended up the property of King George. 

So, they buried it, on an unnamed island in the bay, according, at least, to the scrap out of a log by an unnamed seaman of an unnamed ship of the fleet.  And this isn’t unheard of in naval history, though it’s a bad tactic, because the buried goods tend to go missing.  Me, I smell another forgery, but I’m a cynic. 

Yes, the whole show gets bilious and silly, and makes wild unsupported statements, particularly in regard of the Templars.  But for me, in the end, I’m in favor of anything that might get a sixteen-year-old kid interested in history.  Of course, what gets lost in all this is the Founding Fathers of the title, who never put in an appearance, except in a few vague connections of Canadian land speculation.  

As for Shatner’s part in it all, it was typical of History.  He walks around in a really bitchin leather jacket, beautifully reading the prepared script as if it just came to him, then he sits in on a conference in the Oak Island War Room, looking both thoughtful and attentive, nodding and occasionally tossing off a “hmm,” or a “wow,” or in extreme cases, an “Oh, really?”  It’s not a bad gig, at his age.  Listen, I’ve had that gig, and I can tell you, it’s not at all bad.  The difference being that I didn’t get paid for it.  I did get a great deal on a really bitchin leather jacket at Overland. 

I’d like to see Chris do more of these shows, which is a bone of contention.  I mean, he ended up on this one because, when History emailed and asked if he could do one, I said he really shouldn’t say no again, as he’s done for several years, because they’ve been so good to us.  And they have been very good to us, especially when Chris was sick.  So, he said yes, to whatever they wanted, and it turned out to be The Curse of Oak Island.  What are you gonna do? 

If you’re interested, Anatomy of a Naval Disaster by Professor James Pritchard is the go-to book on what happened.  To the French navy, at least.  For the treasure, you're on your own. 

 Order Heart's Blood from Amazon.com

The Professor and the Madman and the Mystery of the Funky Little Cap

Read on, but be warned - semantics will drive you nuts. 

Last night, Chris and I watched a film I didn’t even know was in production, The Professor and the Madman, with Mel Gibson and Sean Penn.  It was based on the book of the same name by Simon Winchester, called The Surgeon of Crowthorne in Britain, Crowthorne being the village where Broadmoor is located.  It’s the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the part played in it by two men – Professor James Murray, a great linguist, and Dr. W.C. Minor, a volunteer who played an important role in crafting it, and who also happened to be an inmate at Broadmoor, an asylum for the criminally insane, a thing Murray didn’t know for a decade.  Chris and I are now part of a select group, those who actually saw the film. 

I’m a writer.  The 20-volume Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary sits on a pier table behind my desk, and I use it nearly every day.  One of the things that makes it so remarkable is that it attempts to track every single word to its earliest known usage, then to move forward from there through important changes in spelling and usage reflected in quotes from the works where it appears, a monumental task.  On my old historical-word blog, Historiograpy, I never used those initials, OED, without their being followed by Praised Be Its Name.  For anyone who loves English, it’s a master work, an essential, and something of a miracle. 

I bought Winchester’s book over twenty years ago when it was published, and I always thought it would make a terrific film, as with so many other books of what the trade contemptuously calls “popular history.”  Most are ignored by filmmakers.  Apparently, I wasn’t alone in understanding how cinematic a story it is. 

Quite often when a film goes off the rails the reason is all over the trades, but tracking down the complicated story of what happened to this one was a bit tougher.  Apparently, Mel Gibson had dreamed of doing this story for two decades, and it had been in pre-production since at least 2001, when John Boorman and Todd Komarnicki wrote the first screenplay.  To save time, let’s flash forward to 2016, when Gibson’s co-worker on the film Apocalypto, Iranian writer/director Farhad Safina, was brought in to do a fresh version of the screenplay, for a film that was now on the front burner.  Gibson and his Australian partner Bruce Davey have a company, Icon Productions, and as a rule they raise the money on their own for their films and keep creative control.  But this time, tragically, they brought in another company as a production partner, Voltage Productions, headed by French-born Nicolas Chartier, doubtless for the sake of financing.  Chartier is a talented writer/producer and a bit of a hustler.  Maybe Gibson had a lousy lawyer for this one, but it does seem that Voltage, clearly afraid of losing money, stepped in and took over all sorts of things that Gibson claimed had been forbidden them in the original partnership contract, and he promptly sued to have it nullified, and to take back his own film.  This was the case that he lost.  The judge’s public statements sounded confused by it all.  What’s tragic is that the film only cost 25 million.  I know, I know, but in the film business nowadays, that’s practically a low-budget indie.  The film, as it stands now, was, according to Gibson, “a bitter disappointment to me.” 

It began shooting in Dublin back in 2016, but disorder in the court kept it from any release, such as it was, until summer of 2019.  In finding out what really happened, it doesn’t help that, after a long court wrangle between all parties, lawsuits and counter-suits, much of the matter was put under seal.  The director, Farhad Safina, had his name removed from the credits, always an ugly bit of business.  The film’s distributer, Vertical Entertainment, pretty much took it directly to DVD and the small screen, with a limited theatrical release, the hallmark of a disaster in which no one has any confidence, treatment generally reserved for films like Howard the Duck. 

I have a lot of respect for Mel Gibson, which would startle most of my friends, who would invariably bring up what they call “the Jewish thing.”  Yes, I’ve got a thing about the Jews.  Since I was a teenager I’ve studied Hebrew and the Bible and Jewish history, ancient and modern, I’m a complete Zionist pig, and though I’m not fashionably looking for racists under the bed each night, I don’t much care for anti-Semites.  But if the conversation between them was properly recorded by the cop that arrested Gibson on a DUI that night in 2006, I think you’re dealing with a man who was, and perhaps is, in desperate need of help.  Aren’t they all nuts, you ask?  Yep.  Actors are flashfire people who can’t balance their own checkbook, as a rule, and artistic brilliance is often a bitch clawing at your back.  I think what Gibson has going for him as an artist is pathetically rare these days – a fairly good understanding of the sort of film people want to see.  People don’t want to sit through a film depicting Jesus as gay, which is not only complete rot historically, it’s clearly and deliberately provocative, a middle-finger held up in the face of the paying audience. 

The Professor and the Madman is the kind of film people are dying to see.  The reviews for it have been incredibly mixed – the professional trade reviews were savage, as if a vengeful Chartier slipped them cash under the table.  But the reviews from real people, though mixed, were far more positive, a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Take a look at the ones on Amazon.  Many are glowing, and from obviously intelligent viewers.  I think one of the reasons for this is simple.  People are incredibly hungry for films that inspire, films that tell the story of dogged determination and courage, that show a positive view of the partnership of marriage, and that even, horror of horrors, while not being a “Christian” film, occasionally reference the Bible without its being in the hands of a tattoo-covered pederast and serial killer.  This film is all of the above, and so, even in its wounded form, it hit those nerves. 

Okay, let’s take a look at the wreckage, available for viewing on Amazon. 

As we watched, it was with an increasing blend of adoration and frustration.  The story itself is wonderful, begging to be told, and this alone kept it going.  The performances as well are solid, no matter what you might have heard.  Gibson is fine as Murray, the self-taught linguist who left school at 14, clearly making him a threat to academia.  Penn, as well, does a great job, and if he’s a bit over the top at times, the role calls for it.  If I had a minor complaint about the tech, it would be that the sound in many scenes is a bit muddy.  Between Penn’s ramblings and Gibson’s Scottish brogue, some key stuff was difficult to hear, especially when the two start trading off words at lightening speed, an incredibly good idea for a scene that gets hurt by it. 

The major complaint here is that the whole thing has a feel of being slapped together.  Not surprising, in light of its history. 

A director and his editor have what can only be described as a marital relationship.  One of the main bones of contention in the lawsuit is that Voltage claimed the right to control content and brought on a pair of editors to whack down the director’s original two hour-forty minute cut, a thing he was already doing himself.  Safina rightly demanded his original editor, who knew the project, be rehired, and lost this point – the judge, for some reason, found that Voltage had the right to hijack it. 

My Chris was a film editor for years, and he’s got a favorite rant.  Not surprising, to those who know him.  Americans are still the finest film artists on earth, but all through the late 1990s and into the millennium, Chris and I watched as film after film was sunk by two things – a lousy script and bad editing.  Editing was once a very different process.  Each shooting day you put together the rushes of that day’s filming, slowly knitting them together into a workprint.  Workprints were generally screened in a theatre, by a group of people who’d worked on it, in a way similar to what was to come, when the film was released.  Now, editing is one more thing that’s done on a computer, in a little room, quite often all alone.  I once thought this great leap forward was a godsend, and you would too if you’d ever dealt with miles of workprint.  But later, we both began to see something subtle happening.  Films were getting longer, as a rule, films that couldn’t carry two extra reels.  The days of the cleanly-cut 112-minute feature were passing.  Even Jaws, with its epic feel to the last half, came in at a relatively tight two hours under the flagship of the great Verna Fields.  But so many films we saw were coming in at a sloppier two hours twenty minutes, if not longer, and as a rule they weren’t the better for it.  Editors weren’t as good anymore at knowing where to flick off the fat.  Of course, epics were always longer – they had a bigger story to tell.  

That’s why it was so odd, because with The Professor and the Madman, the problem was just the opposite; even at a bit over two hours, it felt too short.  There was a sensation that it had been hurriedly sewn together.  The passage of incredible amounts of time was never conveyed.  Too many story arcs weren’t followed, too many things were left unexplained, things you really wanted to know.  The crescendo moment, when Murray discovers that his long-time correspondent isn’t, perhaps, a doctor at Broadmoor, but rather a murderer and an inmate there, is pushed up way, way too fast, as if they just couldn’t wait to get to it.  The timing is lousy, and the moment loses some of its power for that reason. 

A great supporting cast is wasted – for example, the wonderful actor Ioan Gruffudd, who plays Henry Bradley, another brilliant, self-taught linguist who came on as an assistant and eventually became joint senior editor with Murray.  He’s literally thrown away.  Maybe he had a couple nice little scenes, but they ended up on the floor.  Jennifer Ehle is her usual wonderful as Murray’s wife, and Steve Coogan as his friend and co-worker, Frederick Furnivall, is also especially good.  

I’ll give only one example of the sort of storyline confusion that plagues it here and there, I think the most egregious one.  There were several physicians and “alienists,” doctors who treated lunatic patients, on staff in this period at Broadmoor.  They’re given more detailed treatment in the book, but the only one on film is a Dr. Richard Bayne, a late arrival in reality, thanklessly played by Stephen Dillane.  The character in the film seems to be a composite of all of them.  In the opener, when Minor arrives at Broadmoor, Bayne is played as a soft-spoken, kindly physician with a very modern attitude about madness.  He even points to a chair once used to tie down the insane, brushing it off as a relic of a sad past.  By the end, he’s portrayed as a complete bully and probable nutcase himself, subjecting Minor to some sort of horrid “treatment,” again never explained by anyone, in which Minor’s own hands, in rubber gloves, are forced down his throat until he vomits, while Bayne stands off madly snapping pictures of the whole thing.  In truth, I think the first physician was the kindly Dr. Nicholson, who retired in 1895, having never recovered after an attack from one of his patients, while Bayne was the one who took over for him, after Minor had been a patient for decades.  And yes it’s true, not only that Bayne was a little martinet despised by all, but that, after the grisly incident of Minor cutting off his own penis in the throes of a major breakdown, Bayne came down on him hard, taking away his many privileges and subjecting him to horrific treatment.  The separation of the two, played by two different actors, would have made this all clear, or at least some enlightening dialog.  As it is, it leaves you scratching your head.  It was after this that Murray campaigned for Minor’s release from Broadmoor, going to then-Home Secretary Winston Churchill, and he succeeded.  Minor went home to America, and died in 1920 in Hartford, Connecticut, in an elderly home for the mentally ill. 

Safina’s 2016 screenplay is available online, being Exhibit A in the court case, and I’d love to take the time to read it.  I find myself wondering if much of what I seek, what feels absent on film, is to be found there. 

One of the battles between the two production companies that got reported was that five more shooting days at Oxford were slated, and Voltage denied the funds to do this, or Oxford refused, or both, depending on the article you read.  Clearly Gibson and Safina were right.  It does lack a certain Oxford feel.  I think of the original miniseries of Brideshead Revisited, in which Oxford University is like another character, and, like the great country house of the title, a palpable presence throughout.  Since the OED is one of the ultimate achievements of the oldest university in the English-speaking world, it would have been nice if that were the case for this film. 

Critics often plead for the audience to read the book the film was based on, but in this case it may be your only chance to really get the whole story.  Simon Winchester is a good popular historian, and the book is a quick, fun read.  My only major complaint is that such a work should have no index.  The back of the book contains lots of goodies Winchester calls a “postscript,” but there’s no index, which has grown increasingly common, in the battle over who’s going to pony up the lousy three hundred bucks.  Traditionally, for reasons that pass all understanding, this cost was laid on the author rather than the publisher, and in an increasingly embittered battle between them, with advances at an all-time low, authors are commonly refusing to pay for it, while publishers won’t step into the breach as they damn well should. 

Broadmoor asylum was only nine years old when William Chester Minor was sentenced to it in 1872.  Increasingly judges were sentencing the criminally insane to hospital rather than prison, and, as in America, these were open-ended sentences, with the inmate released at the King’s pleasure.  Minor had been a captain, a medical officer in the Civil War, an educated, well-born man from New Haven, Connecticut who’d been in London only a year when the murder occurred.  The case briefly became something of an international incident.  He’d fled to the Continent to escape his demons, and ended up obsessing on prostitutes and contracting gonorrhea, worsening his sexual fixations, if that was possible.  On the night of the crime he chased brewery worker George Merrett through the streets of Lambeth and gunned him down, admitting at once that he’d shot the wrong man – he was after one of “them.”  He was a paranoid schizophrenic, and in the daytime he could seem perfectly rational.  It was at night that the pixies came, to torture him and sexually abuse him.  Everyone involved knew he was mad as Moses.  Having a regular income, and being neither epileptic nor suicidal, Dr. Minor was sent to Block Two at Broadmoor, which was far nicer, the block for the “swells” in the lingo of the day.  (The way epileptics were treated in institutions is appalling.)  It seems odd to us that he was given so many privileges, but this wasn’t uncommon.  Broadmoor was, for its day, a progressive institution, especially compared to St. Mary of Bethlehem, the “Bedlam” of legend.  He had two rooms, with a paid servant to help keep them clean, all the books and art materials he wanted, even wine and tobacco.  He played the flute, and gave lessons to the other inmates.  The American consul in Britain kept track of his treatment. 

The American consul also put together funds for the widow of his victim, Mrs. Merrett, and her seven children.  Minor’s step-mother contributed to it, while Minor himself gave up part of his stipend from the American army.  Merrett and Minor did develop a relationship, perhaps not as romantic as the one portrayed in the film.  But she did bring him books over the course of many months, apart from the ones he bought himself, and this was how he found out about James Murray and his appeal for volunteers, on a paper tucked into one of them.   

But this is a story, as Winchester says, with two protagonists, and if for no other reason, buy this book to read the biography of James Murray; it will make you feel like a worm.  He was astonishingly brilliant and almost entirely self-educated, what was once called a polymath, a man with too many areas of knowledge to be listed.  But for Murray, language was the siren’s song.  He spoke dozens of them, studying everything from the sheep-counting numerology of the Wowenoc Indians of Maine to the Syriac Peshitta, and he raised himself from an impoverished bank clerk with a dying wife to arguably the most important scholar in the British Empire, taking on a project most had deemed impossible.  Many men worked over the course of seventy long years on the first edition of the OED, but Murray is the one who’s remembered.  The union of these two men, Murray and Minor, is a story worth reading. 

And the film The Professor and the Madman is one worth seeing.  It’s on Amazon Prime with an appallingly cheap price.  Right now, you can buy it for $4.99.  It’s certainly worth that much to screen it for yourself, and take from it all that is good, while you try to forgive what is bad.  In all, it was a noble effort. 

For my own part, I have only one question left, the Mystery of the Funky Little Cap they're both wearing.  It's like that hoary old gag about the pope, "I don't know who the guy in the beanie is, but the other one's Bernie Schwartz."  To my annoyance I can find no reference to it in Winchester’s book, but on the cover is a picture of Dr. Minor, in the garden at Broadmoor.  He’s wearing a funky little cap.  In several famous photographs of James Murray in his scriptorium, he, too, is wearing a similar cap, though his looks more like the four-sided Sir Thomas More cap, a probable precursor to our pasteboard graduation cap.  In More’s day it was some sort of master scholar’s cap that made bilious and silly headlines when Chief Justice Antonin Scalia wore one he’d been given by the Thomas More Society to swear in Obama.  Let the conspiracy theories fly.  Even the website of the Society has only a vague explanation of what the cap means, that it's definitely something academic.  Versions of it are called an Oxford cap or a Tudor cap.  Having never been matriculated by the British university system, I’m much in the dark about its meaning, but I suspect Minor’s cap may have been a gift from Murray.  I’ve spent hours searching, and it’s sort of outrageous that nobody anywhere is even mentioning it, much less explaining it.  Of course, in our present society, scholars don’t rate much ink anyway.  If you really want attention, you have to be a stripper who slept with the president. 

If anyone out there knows about it, I’d love to hear.  I hate hanging chads. 

It's About Architecture

It seems odd to do a post about the first time Chris laughed again, when he was undergoing cancer treatments.  But it’s a story I’d love to get down.  I think it's a keeper. 

I really loathe academia.  I have an unfortunate way of speaking, a thing I can’t control, that gets me labeled an academic, all the time.  Maybe it’s because I do history, but even in high school they used to needle me by calling me “the Professor.”  But hate them I do, more with every year that passes. 

There are basically two kinds of books out there on the subject of history.  One is contemptuously labeled “popular history,” because what academics despise about it is that anyone can read it.  It’s my very favorite sort of book, a genre that uplifts and one that constantly produces classics, as, for example, all the works of Barbara Tuchman, particularly A Distant Mirror and The Guns of August. 

The other kind is academic histories.  When you write historical fiction, you quite often end up forced to read them, because you need oddball information that only academics have ever covered in depth.  Academic histories, many of them outgrowths of a PhD thesis, are, first of all, grotesquely expensive as a rule.  Some have a startling price tag, I’m talking over two hundred bucks, and you know instantly that this book is being foisted on kids for a class somewhere, so money is no object, at least, not for them.

The other aspect of academic histories is far more disturbing, this being that the authors, every man-jack of them, are Marxists.  No, I don’t mean “liberals,” and I don’t even mean “Leftists.”  I mean hard-core political officers for Communism, running a constant litmus test on other works that may admit a little free thought.  For example, one book I needed was called The Beginnings of Commercial Sporting Culture in Britain, 1793 – 1850.  I was writing about boxing in the Regency.  Took me nine months to find a copy that was under a hundred bucks.  But I did find, online, the author being excoriated for the capitalist ideology he’d allowed to creep into his work, forcing him to come online and defend his Marxist credentials. 

Sure, I had Communist professors back in the 1980s.  It was already de rigeur for the fashionable pedagogue.  But we were still a long way from people being fired because they weren’t Marxists. 

God had been kind to me up to this point, and I mercifully knew nothing of the feminist concept of The Gaze, wherein men, i.e. the Patriarchy, dehumanize Women, i.e. the Victims, by gazing at them, for the gaze becomes an expression of the asymmetry of social and political power.  In other words, if you’re a man and you look at a woman, you’re a pig.

I needed a book on Regency architecture, and I was about to get a crash course in Gazing.  The pickings were lean, and the only promising one I could find was entitled The Pursuit of Pleasure.  The author, Jane Rendell, came out of something called Matrix, a “feminist architectural cooperative,” with, of course, a non-hierarchical management structure, and a passionate belief that women are oppressed by spaces designed by men.  Okay.  She says up front that this history of the great Regency pleasure haunts was written around two works, one being Life in London by Pierce Egan, the other an essay by French feminist Luce Irigaray, 'Women on the Market.'  Egan was a sportswriter, and his popular book, written in 1823, is a comic tale of Tom and Jerry and Bob Logic and their sprees through Regency London, a vital work to understanding the slang of the period.  Irigaray, adored by the author, is a “phallocentrist,” believing that the world and everything in it is designed and organized around the male sexual organ.  It says everything about this book that Egan is mentioned in second place, after several pages lauding Irigarary.  What dismayed me was that all this personal garbage that should have been in a preface was designated Chapter 1, implying I was about to get a very long dose of it. 

I’m working on a blog post about Life in London, a really fun book.  For now suffice it to say that the wise King Solomon was wise indeed when he said there’s nothing new under the sun, including dreary political correctness.  Despite the incredible popularity of his work, including the stage show based on it, there was grumbling in various dictatorial Victorian quarters about the sexual freedom of the book, not to mention all the drinking and the gambling.  In 1828 Egan wrote his mea culpa, The Finish to the Adventures of Tom and Jerry, and to his career as well.  In this book all his beloved characters die, most of them of a social disease.  No, I’m not kidding.  Only Jerry survives, to return home to Hawthorne Hall in the clean-green English countryside and be properly married, and nevermore visit the evil stewpots of London town.  I think it sold about fifty copies.

What’s annoying to me about this sort of feminist screed isn’t just the incessant ragemongering over events two centuries in the past, getting all steamed over a culture literally gone with the wind.  What really bugs me is the self-indulgent tendency to take something simple that’s understood by anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the past, that something in this case being that in the 19th century there were places ladies didn’t go if ladies they wished to remain, and spend page after page ruminating on it in cryptic language, until you just want to pull your teeth out.

But I was trying, I really was.  

In the old days, before Chris got sick, we used to read to each other quite often.  Apart from interest, it was a way to get your thoughts out, and to hear one another’s opinions on a work that needed to be thoroughly understood.  Of course, I hadn’t done this in some time.  But Chris was always a bug on design, and had read many books on the subject.  I was so curious to see what he thought, that I went back to the bedroom and sat on the bed and asked if he’d listen for a minute. 

He was pretty listless, but he said he was willing, so I gave it a shot, starting with a passage that had me doing a lot of head scratching.  I wanted to see if it sounded like bullshit to someone else, or was I just not getting it.  The following was on the subject of historical documents and representations of buildings that “marginalize women’s relation to public space.” 

Representations of space or architecture may also be gendered, not only through the inhabitation of space by men and women as geography or anthropology would suggest, but also through representations of such patterns of occupation.  Representations of cities and individual buildings too may be gendered, both in terms of their formal similarities to biological bodies in shape, colour, texture, but also in relations to other gendered notions, such as domesticity.  For example, in associating the city with the feminine or the labyrinthine, connections have often been made between the chaos of the city, the uterine form of the female body and the patriarchal notion of the unknown, or the other, as an unknowable entity.  In order to look at the ways in which gender is structured and represented in signifying systems, feminist theory has used psychoanalytic as well as semiotic models.  Feminist art historians in particular have drawn on psychoanalytic concepts in order to discuss how subjectivity is sexually differentiated, and how gender difference is structured by the relations of looking and being looked at, desiring and being desired. 
I hadn’t finished, but here he stopped me, and I looked up.  He was just staring at me.  He blinked a couple times, then kept on staring, until he finally asked, “What did you say this book was about?” 

“Regency architecture.” 

He blinked again, and then his mouth got very stiff.  I thought maybe he was mad about something, then for a second I thought he was in pain.  Finally his shoulders started to shake, and fairly soon his face was red, his eyes were watering, and he was laughing so hard he knocked his chemo bag off the nightstand.

It fell, of course, into the Hodapp lexicon.  Now, when we’re on the road, and we drive past some postmodernist piece of brutalist Soviet architecture by some nimrod like Thom Mayne, Christopher starts bitching, and I always remind him that at least it’s gendered with a uterine form in a healthier dialectical relationship of society and space, and I get a smile.  Makes the drive more pleasant.  

Thom Mayne may have his PC credentials, but I'm sorry,
this high school in Pomona he designed constitutes a phallus.
In fact, it may constitute rape. 

We're getting warmer. Though the architect said it was a limp phallus. 

We've arrived! Model for Endless House, by Friedrick Kiesler. He said he designed it on a uterus.
Maybe he never actually saw one. At any rate, no one ever ponied up to have it built.