The Saga of Colm the Slave

colm_cover2This is my new book. Colm is an Irish slave in 10th Century Iceland. He struggles to win freedom, the Welsh slave Gwyneth, and a place in society. This is a land where slaves might be sacrificed to the gods or killed on a whim. Violence is the foundation of social order and justice belongs to the strong. Some of this book first appeared as stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Available now for Kindle. Tablet users will have to download a free app from Amazon.

Ukraine On The Brink

About an hour ago, news sources began to report that people had been killed in the protests in Kiev. This follows the Ukraine government passing legislation that would ban all protests. Clearly, if people continue coming out into the streets, there will be more violence. A turning point has been reached in the Ukraine.

ukr_molo

A molotov cocktail hurled by a protestor going up in flames. Ukraine, January 23. [dailymail.co.uk]


Just to back up a bit, Ukraine’s was an “Orange Revolution” in 2004, when people took to the streets to protest an election rigged by Viktor Yanukovych. His main opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, was allegedly poisoned with dioxin but continued the electoral battle and ultimately triumphed. Yushchenko proved unable to deliver on the promises of democratic freedom that he had made — indeed, he was accused of graft and corruption — and was unable to repeat his success, his party falling to less than 6% in subsequent elections. So Yanukovych returned to power.
The other popular opponent to Yanukovych has been Yulia Tymoshenko, who is photogenic and attracted a great deal of support from non-Ukraine journalists who never bothered to examine her platform. Tymoshenko is an ultra-nationalist linked to xenophobic and anti-semitic groups. But, nationalist though she claims to be, her strength lies in Ukraine’s east which is pro-Russian in its stance. So, when Tymoshenko allowed a huge energy contract to Russia at a price much higher than Russia was charging other nations, she was charged and imprisoned. Her treatment in prison has raised questions about Yanukovych and she remains a thorn in his side.

That brings us to the critical issue of Russia, who supplies Ukraine with gas and petroleum, and the stated Ukraine desire to join the European Union. Russia wants Ukraine to join its own eastern customs union which should start up next year. Russia is not hesitant to use Ukraine’s energy dependence as a stick to beat it into line.

November, 2013. Riot police and protestors in Kiev after the announcement that Yuchenko's government would not sign the EU agreement. [Guardian]

November, 2013. Riot police and protestors in Kiev after the announcement that Yanukovych’s government would not sign the EU agreement. [Guardian]

So, last November, Yanukovych’s government announced that it would not sign an agreement with the EU to be receptive to advances from that organization. Immediately protests broke out in the western part of the nation. Russia has, several times, pressured Ukraine to steer clear of the EU by raising prices on gas and petroleum and by cutting off various aid incentives. This occurs quite quickly, since Putin gets what he wants without much need for debate or agreement of other government agencies. Last August, before the Ukraine/EU talks, Russia (according to Tim Judah):

…began withdrawing licenses for certain companies—especially those connected to oligarchs in Yanukovych’s eastern heartlands—to export to Russia; and Russian importers began to break contracts already signed for metal products, steel, and cars. In only a few months the level of trade between Ukraine and Russia dropped 25 percent; in eastern Ukraine, one source who asked to remain anonymous told me, production dropped between 30 and 40 percent between May and November.

This was brutal for a country undergoing the kind of economic stress Ukraine was already feeling. Meanwhile, the EU was only offering an ageement to agree on further agreements — nothing definitive that Yanukovych could take to the bank. So, he buckled and didn’t sign. Russia has repaired some of the broken contracts — Putin’s idea of a carrot is to restore part of the rewards beaten away by the stick — and has recently announced its intent to forgive some or all of Ukraine’s debt as well as reducing prices paid by Ukraine for petro-imports. Of course, these pronouncements can be reversed at any time.

Yanukovych at a meeting with Putin. Putin has kept Yanukovych waiting for hours at scheduled meetings and has generally treated him with contempt. [nybooks.org]

Yanukovych at a meeting with Putin. Putin has kept Yanukovych waiting for hours at scheduled meetings and has generally treated him with contempt. [nybooks.org]

Putin has made his personal contempt for Yanukovych very clear and western Ukraine has gotten the message: it is a subject nation meant to serve a Russian master. Eastern Ukraine shrugs and says, “So? What’s new?”
Spare a moment of empathy for Yanukovych, the corrupt politico who tried to poison one rival and has imprisoned another. He is caught in a terrible dilemma. He does not want to be subject to Russia any more than other Ukrainians but he has nowhere else to go. The EU showed very little political sense in dealing with Ukraine as it tried to play one power against the other. There is no middle path, no up the middle for Ukraine. Russia will win — though Putin may have the sense to play his victory down (Ha! Not likely.) Yanukovych, for all his faults, is the guy that Ukrainian democracy, for all its shortcomings, has chosen. He will go to his grave wondering if, after all, he should have signed those silly EU papers. Meanwhile, those using cell phones at a protest in Kiev received a government message : “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” In other words, “We’re watching you. Back off or suffer the consequences.” Yanukovych is signalling that he will use whatever force is necessary to end the protests.
Mind you, all this depends on no out-of-the-blue happenings in Ukraine, such as Yanukovych telling Putin to take a flying jump into the lake, but that eventuality has such dire consequences for Ukraine that it is highly unlikely.

William Price Fox, Jack Davis, Southern Fried

William Price Fox grew up in South Carolina. In 1943, at the age of seventeen, he joined the army. “Horrible mistake”, he says in a later story. But he got through that, went on to New York, where he worked as a salesman and hung out with writers. One day, the story goes, a writer for the Village Voice was unable to fill his daily quota of words and got Fox to step in and write his column for him. Fox says that he never knew it was so easy and began writing full time. He was published in Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated (writing about golf), and other slick magazines of the 1950s and 60s.
I recall once hearing Fox interviewed on the radio. He talked about growing up in the South and quitting high school and the interviewer, some young woman who had recently graduated with a degree in Journalism or Media or something, said that it was amazing that he could go on to be a writer. “Well,” said Fox, “I always was good with my hands.”
In 1962, a number of Fox’s short pieces were collected and published as an original paperback in Fawcett’s Gold Medal line. These paperbacks were usually priced at 35¢ but Southern Fried fetched 40¢ a copy. Maybe the extra nickel was to pay Jack Davis to illustrate the book.
Georgia-born Jack Davis drew comics for EC and Mad and later did movie posters, book covers, and all kinds of other illustration work. Davis is Fox’s contemporary and the perfect choice to illustrate his work.
This post is about Southern Fried but mostly to show all of Davis’ work for this book, which is otherwise (I think) unavailable.

fox_cover
In 1974, some stories were added to the book which was re-issued as Southern Fried Plus Six. Some of the original stories were edited for re-publication including the first one, “Lower Elmwood”, which was re-titled “Lower Mulberry”. The paragraphs that this drawing illustrated were cut for reasons that escape me:

…before the cars there were bikes. There were handlebars to be asjusted and seats that needed saddle-soaping. And they’d take the brakes apart and drop the hundred wafer parts into a shallow pan of gasoline. They’d clean the parts and check for nicks and sand. And then they’d pack the brake sleeve with thick dope applied with a flat popsicle stick and slowly fit the metal wafers into place…
And then the spoke wrench…that tiny little white steel butterfly that looked like a jew’s-harp. And it would be quiet and they’d squat or sit on Coca-Cola crates around the wheel and watch and listen for the warps…

fox_elmwood

The tone here is nostalgic and, in the stories where the main character is a young boy, the time is the early 1940s. Sometimes, to bring the action closer to the present day, Fox hedges events into the 1950s. But, with a few exceptions, think of the time as 1940.

“Wilma” is about a sweet good-time girl who introduces our adolescent protagonists to sex:

fox_wilma

There was a question and answer period and Esco and I really asked them. About Orientals, about fat people, thin people, old people. About dogs and animals, about dogs and people, about goats and sheep. And more, and worse than that and better than that. Nothing fazed her and the few answers she didn’t know, she said she would check.

fox_pitfight

In “Pit Fight” a nasty guy brings in a wildcat to fight dogs in the pits. It is a slaughter. Right here, I should say that Fox may write some funny stuff but he doesn’t blink at the bad parts of the South, either. It is what it is. Anyway, a smart hound is trained to go after the cat and the story is mainly about the boy narrating and his feelings about the whole thing.

fox_easyboy

“Eugene Talmadge and Sears Roebuck Co.” may be about another bad part of the South, at least if you recall that Talmadge was an arch-racist who thought the occasional lynching necessary to keep blacks in line. But Fox’s study is of the man speechifying on the campaign stump, something Talmadge loved to do. Talmadge was governor of Georgia twice in the 1930s, served again 1941-43, was elected a fourth time in 1946, the year he died. His tag-line ending to a speech:

“You got three friends in this here world and I want you to know it.”
“Tell us, Gene.”
He raised one finger, pointed it at the sun, and addressed the back row and the two men leaning on the buckboard.
“You got Sears Roebuck Company — and I want you to know it.”
“That’s right, Gene.”
A second finger…a louder voice to the back row…the two leaning on the buckboard and the two seated in the Ford by the drain ditch drinking corn whiskey out of a mayonnaise jar.
“You got God Almighty — and I want you to know it.”
“That’s right, Gene.”
And then he crashed his steel heels into the gallery boards, snapping his suspenders, rared back like he was going to lift a whole bale of cotton single-handed and roared to the men by the buckboard, the men in the Ford, to the sky, the swamp, and down the drain ditch the length of Calhoun County…
“And you got Eugene Herman Talmadge of Sugar Hill, Georgia, and I want you to know it.”

fox_talmadge

“The Ordeal of Lonnie Register” is a key story in this collection because it’s about story-telling. Lonnie is a door-to-door salesman. He sells “kerosene lamps, chenille bed spreads, hairbrush and mirror sets, and religious statues and plaques that glowed in the dark.” His rival, Frog Jones, is also a door-to-door salesman. No matter how hard Lonnie works he finds it hard to make a sale. Frog, on the other hand, would make two calls and wind up with two sales. They work at night, so that the glow-in-the-dark items can be demonstrated, and during the day hang out at Doc Baker’s drugstore, telling stories. But no matter how good Lonnie Register’s stories are, Frog’s are better.
The frustration of working so hard and showing so poorly against Frog gets to Lonnie and every couple of months he goes on a wild binge that winds up with him under arrest and having to do roadwork on the chain gang. Well, he didn’t wear a chain “but there would be a man in a black hat on shotgun” watching him. Lonnie is on the road gang when it is assigned work in town, right outside Lonnie’s house in fact. His wife has the blinds drawn and has shut the children up in the back so they won’t witness their father’s humiliation. Folks in the drugstore are busy not staring and trying not to make Lonnie feel bad. Frog, who has poor eyesight, doesn’t notice him until Lonnie’s airedale runs up to his master and jumps all over him. “Lonnie tried to shoo the dog away but you know how airedales are.” Frog sees the dog and:

fox_lonnie

Following this humiliation there is an epic story-telling battle between Frog and Lonnie and… But you already know, Lonnie just isn’t going to win.

fox_fastnerves

“Fast Nerves” is about a gambler named Greenwood Knox who succumbs to nervous exhaustion after long episodes of card-playing. For instance, after seeing Joseph Cotten demonstrate Power X in From the Earth to the Moon he leaps up in the movie theater and climbs over the seats, yelling “With that power I could rule the world!” Next thing, he believes that he is Oral Roberts, only better:

…he was grander, wiser, more benevolent than Roberts. He could raise the dead, fertilize the land, cause fish to bite, and most of all he could give away money.

Greenwood gives away all his cash, spreads general mayhem, and is committed to a mental institution. Eventually he is released and goes back to gambling, but his hands start to shake and he knows it’s only a matter of time before he breaks down again. Electroshock therapy steadies him for a while but the treatments take all Greenwood’s money. Then his buddy, mechanic Chauncey Jones, comes up with an idea:

[Chauncey] led him out to the Buick and patted the winged figure on the radiator.
“This old horse will kick up a thousand volts if I put her on the floor.”
“Whoa, now, Chauncey…”
“Greenwood, it ain’t any more than like tipping your tongue to a flashlight battery.”

fox_youallright

Oh, yeah! But it works and Greenwood gets back to his work with hands “steady as ping pong paddles”.

“Razor Fight At The St. Louis Cafe”: Round House Brown doesn’t say much, but when Bad Dave Hill taunts him into a razor fight, Round House communicates in very immediate fashion. This is one of the stories that was edited and a chunk removed for the reprint version. I don’t know why. If the story is racist, then the section that’s removed doesn’t make it less so.

fox_razor

“The Buzzard’s Lope”:  Slim Elmo Brown is from the backwoods — Shell Bluff, Georgia along the Horse Creek Valley — and is pretty shy at the weekly square dance, but he comes out of his shell and shows people how to dance. Or, at least he shows them one version of dancing:

Slim Elmo spins the girl out and jumps up in the air. He comes down hard on one knee with his head back.
“You reckon he’s been taken hold of?”

fox_buzzard

He squats and dances in the squat. He rushes forward in a high head-back screaming leap. The floor boards make a crashing noise and the audience goes wild. Black rubber heel marks are all over…
“…it’s Horse Creek Valley all right. Claims they call it the Buzzard’s Lope down there…”
“You shore he ain’t been taken hold of? Keep an eye on his tongue when he comes by.”

fox_leroyjeffcoat

Leroy Jeffcoat plays for the Columbia Green Wave, an amateur baseball team. “The name must have come from the fact that most of us got drunk on Friday nights and the games were all played on Saturday.” Leroy isn’t much of a ball player, but he owns a snazzy uniform. In fact, he owns two of them, while one is at the cleaners, Leroy is wearing the other. This is his permanent outfit. “His was the long season.”

Fox_leroyuniform
There’s always somebody too hungover to play, so Leroy gets into most of the games. He reads everything he can find about baseball and he can imitate any ball player ever; he can hit like Ted Williams or Stan Musial or Joe DiMaggio except when he’s actually in a game, then he tries to hit like all three of them at once, gets confused, and strikes out. Most of this story is about the time that the Green Wave goes to play the State Penitentiary team, a game that they dread because the convicts play to Win:

We came to bat and Franklin Folk, our catcher, led off. Their pitcher’s name was Strunk and he was in jail for murder. The first pitch was right at Franklin’s head. He hit the dirt. The crowd cheered. The next pitch the same thing. Franklin Folk was white as a sheet.

Franklin becomes too scared to swing and strikes out. The game continues that way:

At the end of five innings we didn’t have a scratch hit. The Pen had fourteen runs and the pitcher Strunk had three doubles and a home run.
We didn’t care what the score was. All we wanted to do was get the game over and get out of that prison yard.

That’s when Leroy Jeffcoat demands to be put in the game. “I can hit that son of a bitch.” So Leroy gets in the game, playing first base. Strunk comes up to bat.

“Let him hit! Let him hit, Ed! I want to see that son of a bitch over here…Send that bastard down here. I want him. I’ll fix his ass.”
The crowd cheered Leroy and he tipped his hat like Stan Musial.
The crowd cheered again.
Strunk bellowed, “Shut that nut up, ump.”
The umpire raised his hands. “All right, over there, simmer down or I’ll throw you out.”
The crowd booed the umpire.
Leroy wouldn’t stop. “Don’t let him hit, Ed. Walk him. Walk that beanball bastard. He might get a double. I want him over here.” Ed looked at Franklin Folk. Folk gave him the walk sign.
Two balls…three balls…
“You getting scared, you bastard? Won’t be long now.”
The crowd laughed and cheered.
Again the Musial touch with the cap.
Four balls…
Strunk laid the bat down carefully and slowly walked toward first. Strunk got close. The crowd was silent. Leroy stepped off the bag and Strunk stepped on. Leroy backed up. Strunk followed. Everybody watched. No noise. Leroy stopped and took his glove off. He handed it to Strunk. Strunk took the glove in both hands.
Leroy hit him with fastest right I’ve ever seen.
…Leroy got him off balance and kept him that way while he pumped in four lefts and six rights.
They led Strunk back to the dugout bleeding.
The crowd went wild.
Leroy tipped his hat Musial-style…

fox_leroyfight

The Green Wave comes up to bat in the ninth with the score 21 to 0 against them. Strunk is pitching. He hits one man with a pitch and walks two more, loading the bases, so he can pitch to Leroy Jeffcoat.

So Leroy came up with the bases loaded and the prison crowd shouting “Leroy Jeffcoat is our boy.”
He pulled his cap down like Musial and dug into the box like DiMaggio. The crowd cheered and he got out of the box and tipped his hat.

fox_leroybasesloaded

All this time, Strunk is getting angrier and angrier. His first pitch is right at Leroy’s head. “Leroy flicked his head back like a snake but didn’t move his feet.” The crowd boos Strunk and the umpire goes to the mound to talk to him. Strunk tells the umpire to go to hell. The next pitch hits the bill of Leroy’s cap and the umpire wants to put him on base.

Leroy shouted. “No. He didn’t hit me. He’s yellow. Let him pitch.”
The crowd cheered Leroy again.
Two convicts dropped out of the stands and trotted across the infield to the mound. They meant business. When they talked Strunk listened and nodded his head. A signal passed around the infield.

The next pitch is perfect and Leroy connects with it for an honest single, but the fielders keep bobbling the ball and Leroy keeps running:

He ran in spurts, each spurt faster than the last. The throw to third got past the baseman and Leroy streaked for home, shouting.
He began sliding from twenty feet out. He slid so long he stopped short. He had to get up and lunge for home plate with his hand. He made it as the ball whacked into the catcher’s mitt and the crowd started coming out of the stands.
The guards tried to hold the crowd back and a warning siren sounded. But the convicts got to him and paraded around the field with Leroy on their backs. The game was called at this point and the reserve guards and trustees came out with billy clubs.

I’ve maybe quoted too much from this story but the writing is just about perfect and so funny. Jack Davis may have thought so, too, because he did more illustrations for it than any other in the book. Anyway, there’s lots more to the story that I didn’t quote and somewhere in there Fox mentions that there is a tale about Leroy Jeffcoat and the Green Wave playing the State Mental Institution but he doesn’t say anything more about it. I’m glad because it’s probably more fun to just imagine what might have happened.

“Dear Diary” and “Dear Diary: Wanda” are two pieces narrated by a young man just in the Army as Fox was in 1943. Our hero is seventeen but: “Air Corps think I’m eighteen. Also think I finished one year of college. If they discover I finished one year of high school, will be washed out, sent home. Maybe should tell them now.”
Our hero trains, gets homesick, gets promoted, goes back home on leave, meets proud parents, and struts into high school. And so on. He has adventures — drinking, fights — and continues growing up. No Davis illustration for the first “Diary” story.
Wanda lives in Odessa, Texas, where the young man is training. He falls in love with her, or else he wants to get into her pants and can’t tell the difference. He pictures her as wife and mother:

fox_diary

Wanda’s dad tells him that she is a slut. Our hero is offended. He sleeps beside her one night but is determined to keep everything chaste. Next day she is in bed with an officer. Our hero’s heart is broken but he is full of forgiveness. Doesn’t matter; Wanda doesn’t want to see him any more:

And to think of that divine creature lying there before me in the moonlight with a slip barely on, squirming and asking for it. That’s right, squirming and asking and begging for it, and me so goddam full of love and horse shit, I didn’t know what to do.
Live and learn…

Yes. And that’s what the “Dear Diary” stories are about: living and learning.

“The B-Flat Cornet” is a sentimental reminiscence by an elderly ex-jazz player. As a memorial to a certain era of music, it works, but it’s far from the best story in the collection.

fox_cornet

Fox says his father was in a band of that era: “My dad played the trumpet, the guitar, and the piano. He sang. He was a member of a half-white, half-black band. They called themselves “The Hawaiians” and sang in Spanish.” He also says his father was in jail, made whisky, and was in the Navy like the father of the “Dear Diary” narrator.

fox_fried

The title story is narrated by a young man working at Doug Broome’s in the Five Points area of Columbia, South Carolina. There’s a soda fountain at one end and the kitchen at the other. This kind of place was all over the South before McDonald’s and Hardee’s came along, but the soda fountain suggests a pre-WWII place rather than one from the 50s.
The narrator works in the kitchen with a black man called “Preacher” because he’s in his last year at Bible College. The soda fountain is run by a white asshole named Fleetwood Driggers. Fleetwood dislikes Preacher and there is racial antagonism there. This boils up into a huge contest between Fleetwood and Preacher over who can work the soda fountain the best. I’m not going to get into the details; it’s a good story and you can read it for yourself.
One thing, of all the editing and re-writing done to stories before bringing out the re-issue, this story (in my opinion) suffers the most. First off, here (and in other stories like “Fast Nerves) Fox uses Oral Roberts as an example of revival preacher, possibly because Roberts was more likely to be familiar to Yankee audiences. Roberts went on great Crusades across the US in the late 1940s and afterwards, sometimes claiming to be able to raise the dead. So a big part of this story is when a Roberts revival lets out and 8000 people suddenly descend on Doug’s Bar-Be-Cue. In the re-issue, all mention of Oral Roberts is removed from every story and his name is replaced by that of a fictitious Sonny Love or even Billy Sunday, who died in 1935. I don’t know, maybe lawyers had something to do with it. Maybe that’s why Doug’s in Columbia was changed to Holly Yates’ place in Moss Hill and all his competitors renamed as well. Here’s a bit cut out of the story, just the last sentence here:

…the heat around the grill and the frypots had risen and nothing would put it down. Sweat was running down Preach’s nose and ears into the barbecue and lettuce and he couldn’t stop it. He grinned at me and said, “Native juice.”

Now why cut that out? The part where Fleetwood calls Preacher a nigger is kept in, so if it’s fear of racism, that fear is misplaced. But maybe this is just an historical artifact, an example of white editors in the 1970s trying to catch up with times that were a-changin’.
In case I haven’t made this crystal clear: it was a mistake to edit these stories at all. Well, there’s two places where it’s not so bad. Changing Lonnie Register’s dog from an airedale to a labrador is all right, and I understand changing Marilyn Monroe to a different sex goddess since she was dead (but Sophia Loren?)

fox_coleymoke

Coley Moke lives back in the swamp and makes whisky. Teen-aged boys come around and give Moke comics books in exchange for being allowed to drink and pass out in his shack. And Coley Moke tells them stories, mostly about his dogs. He claims that, if a “federal man” came around, one of his hounds would grab the bucket of hooch and run off with it into the swamp. Davis illustrated this in the title cut. Coley was married once:

“Yeah, I suspect I miss that old gal. Wonder what she looks like now. She was something all right. Up at dawn, cook a first class meal and then go out and outplow any man or mule in the county and every Sunday, rain or shine, we had white linen on the table and apple pie. …ain’t nothing I like better than apple pie.
“Sometimes we didn’t speak for a week. It was nice then, real nice. As long as I kept quiet and minded the still and my dogs everything was fine. But we started talking and then the first thing you know we were arguing and then she began throwing the dogs up in my face.

fox_nicethen

“Yeah, I was lying here with old Sport. He was Brownie here’s father. He was young then and high spirited and, you know, sensitive. When Emma Louise got up from her chair and come over he must have seen it in her face. They never had gotten along. He crawled off the bed and went outside. If I live to be two hundred, I’ll never forget those words…
“She said, ‘Coley Moke, you are the sorriest man on God’s green earth. Here it is almost winter, we got no money, we got no food, and you just lay there and stare up at that leaky roof. And what’s more, you’ve gone out and taken our last hog and traded it for another dog.’”
Coley smiled and leaned forward. Then his face set mean and hard. “Emma, Emma Louise,’ I said, ‘if I told you once I told you a hundred times. …But since you seem to not hear I’m going to tell you one more time. I traded that hog and I got me a dog for the plain and simple reason that I can’t go running no fox with no hog.”

fox_drinkit

There’s been a lot about making whisky in these stories, but this tale, along with the fine illustration by Jack Davis, is pretty much a primer on the subject. Lamarr Peevy narrates the story of how he drove to New York City to straighten things out with a bar-owner who has been buying his product. It’s a really funny story and I recommend it even if you don’t want to make whisky.

“Monck’s Corner” is a short piece about a drinking adventure — or maybe, an adventure in getting drunk. No illustration.

The last piece in the original collection is called “Tourist” and this is (possibly) the Village Voice story that started off Fox’s career. The narrator is visited by a friend from the South. They do the town, or at least a piece of it:

We hadn’t been south of Thirty-fourth Street, east of Sixth Avenue, or north of Fifty-fourth Street. But we’d been thorough. We’d had pizza, coconut juice, knishes, pig’s feet, paella, and Him Soon York, and Jack had been sick on Broadway and Forty-second Street.

This piece is just about perfect but, like the rest of this book, better in the original than the edited re-issue. Either way, though, reprint or original, you owe it to yourself to run down a copy of Southern Fried. It’s just a whole lot of fun.

Hobbity Houses

After filming all those Tolkien movies, there were a bunch of sets left standing in New Zealand. These have been turned into tourist attractions. A lot of people will pay to tour a hobbit house.

Peter Jackson outside a NZ hobbit house. [ABC]

Peter Jackson outside a NZ hobbit house. [ABC]


Of course, most are now homes for sheep.
hobbit_sheep
The charm of hobbit houses has drawn many people around the world to build and live in them. This one is from Wales:

hobbit_wales
This one may be closed down by neighbors because the builders did not get permits and ignored local building codes. (Article and film here.):

hobbit_nopermit_snow
This one from Montana which has a hobbit village all its own):

hobbit_montana
This structure by artist Zube at Whistler, B.C. pre-dates the Jackson films and was called “The Mushroom House”. It sold for $3.5 Million:

hobbit_mushroom-house
So, of course, there are more Mushroom Houses. You can tour this one (if you’re willing to put up with awful commentary by the realtors trying to sell the place), it is billed as an “Art Icon House”:

hobbit_mushroomnew
Now there is something to be said for living in an objet d’art and a whole lot to be said against it — does the roof leak? what kind of plumbing does it have? and, most important, how do I clean this sucker? It’s one thing to spill something awful on your living-room floor, it’s something else to consider that you have just ruined a masterpiece. But, hey! Isn’t this a swell looking place:

House built by Pennsylvania architects to house Tolkien memorabilia of a collector. That's right, no one lives there! See above link for interior shots -- they are cool!

House built by Pennsylvania architects to house Tolkien memorabilia of a collector. That’s right, no one lives there! See above link for interior shots — they are cool!

But why do these dwellings have such appeal? Perhaps it’s all about curved lines, which are generally more interesting to look at than blocky forms. We live our lives, away from home, in cubicles, so why not rest our psyches, along with our bodies at home? Well, there are reasons — the shapes of furniture and objects that need to be stored and… But say, look at this:

 

Staircase at Gaudi's Casa Battlo.

Staircase at Gaudi’s Casa Battlo.

 

The curviest of architects was Antonio Gaudi who based his lines on natural forms. They are compelling:

Fireplace at Casa Battlo by Gaudi.[©Ignasi de Solá-Morales]

Fireplace at Casa Battlo by Gaudi.[©Ignasi de Solá-Morales]


But there are two differences between Gaudi’s work and hobbit houses: first, Gaudi worked on a larger scale. His buildings are usually large spaces meant for many people to use. Single-family dwellings are exceptions:

One of the two houses completed at Park Guell, originally meant to be a housing development in Barcelona. [via kkmusic]

One of the two houses completed at Park Guell, originally meant to be a housing development in Barcelona. [via kkmusic]


The second big difference between Gaudi and hobbitry is that his work reaches up while hobbit houses lie low. That’s the difference between designing for the open Catalan plains and the thick forests of Europe. Hobbit houses without trees or sticking up above the earth just look wrong:

Hobbiton in Montana. Possibly a hobbit motel. A little more grass and less gravel, a few more trees, closeup, and less of the wretched murals and tschotkes -- you might have something.

Hobbiton in Montana. Possibly a hobbit motel. A little more grass and less gravel, a few more closeup trees,  and less of the wretched murals and tschotkes — you might have something.

But I don’t want to speak against other people’s feelings about these structures, especially when I find some of the New Zealand hobbit houses so inviting:

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Year End Retrospective

Here’s a lookback at some of this year’s posts which seemed to deserve postscripts.

Is North Korea Weird or Is It Us?

That was the question I posed on September 5. There were reports that Kim Jong-un had executed former girlfriend Hyon Song-wol and a number of other musicians for pornography and bible-reading. I questioned whether the reports were true or if North Korea had become just another heading in the News of the Weird section, usually given over to Urban Legends. Well, Hyon Song-wol has not been heard from since last summer. Meanwhile, Kim has released videotapes of the trial of his uncle which resulted in a death sentence. In fact, Kim seems to have executed a number of people recently. So, I have to conclude, it is North Korea and not us. Kim seems to be ruling in the Stalinist mode: be totally paranoid and nurture absolute fear among your courtiers. Rest In Peace Hyon Song-wol.

Upcoming Episodes of Law and Order

This February post talked about three recent crime cases that I thought would make for good episodes of Law and Order — the fact that the show was cancelled three years ago notwithstanding. There were three cases mentioned: first, the murder of self-professed “gun nut” Keith Ratliff; second, the case of cannibal cop, Gilberto Valle, which was then being tried; third, the case of ex-cop Christopher Dorner who had gone on a mad killing spree in California– he was being hunted when the post was written.

The murder of Keith Ratliff has not been solved. Police executed a search warrant on associate Kyle Myer for illegal explosives but found nothing illegal. It is speculated that Myer is a suspect in the murder, although no evidence of official suspicion of the man has been produced.

Gilberto Valle was found guilty of kidnapping conspiracy, which carries a possible life sentence, and a less-serious charge of misusing a government computer. He was due to be sentenced in June but sentencing has been postponed while his lawyers try to get him a new trial.

Christopher Dorner was found dead of gunshot wounds after his cabin was besieged by police, who deny setting it on fire. The fatal gunshot may have been self-inflicted. During the manhunt, the police shot up several vehicles belonging to innocent people. The State of California paid out several million dollars in damages to a 71-year-old woman and her daughter who were both wounded.

Left to right: Myer, possible suspect; Valle,guilty but hoping for new trial; Dorner, shot to death in burning cabin; Bergwall, still institutionalized

Left to right: Myer, possible suspect; Valle,guilty but hoping for new trial; Dorner, shot to death in burning cabin; Bergwall, still institutionalized

Thomas Quick and Sture Bergwall: What Next?

Although Bergwall was cleared of his final murder charge months ago, he is still being held in a psychiatric facility. His blog complains about the food there and promises to give lyrical descriptions of freedom when he is released, although Swedish authorities would clearly rather not do that. Bergwall remains in limbo.

“The Kreutzer Sonata” and The Moonlight, part 1

Eventually I’ll get around to part 2. I came across a pile of writings about Cary’s work that I want to digest first.

Walt Kelly’s Christmas

Best known for Pogo, Walt Kelly was a star artist for Disney in the 1940s. He drew centaurs for Fantasia (silly people added bras to the female centaurs later) and comic books for the Dell publishing company who printed a number of Disney titles. He turned out work at an alarming rate and Dell actually gave him credit for some comics — a rare thing in those days. Among the titles that Kelly worked on were Santa Claus Funnies and some Christmas one-offs, but the book close to his heart was Animal Comics, where Pogo Possum got his start.
Early on Kelly put his characters in Christmas stories. Here’s a few pages from Animal Comics December issue, 1945. Note that Pogo looked alot different then he did later, and his personality is also different: he’s more cunning and sly. The little boy in the story is Bumbazine, gentle voice of reason when dealing with the animals in the swamp. Later, Bumbazine would be dropped from the comic and his personality shifted to Pogo. [Most images in this post can be made bigger by clicking on them.]

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The story concept — putting on a Christmas party for the orphans — is one that Kelly used over and over. Although Albert is identified here as an orphan, a few years later Pogo calls Albert a fake when he claims to be orphaned — it seems his parents are travelling circus performers. Porky Pine becomes the swamp’s token orphan. Although Kelly often re-hashed material, he never bothered too much with continuity.
Kelly’s most famous Christmas trope was introduced in 1948 during a brief comic strip run in a short-lived paper. I mean, of course, the carol, “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie”. Here’s a much later version [from The Return of Pogo, originally published 1965]:

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The lyrics changed over the years; possibly the key version is the one in Songs of the Pogo which you can read here  in its entirety.
“Boston Charlie” was a hit, of sorts. People argued about the lyrics and tried to find meaning in them. Kelly was bemused by this and often said that the song was what it was at any given moment and didn’t mean anything. Of course, no one paid any attention any more then Charlie Manson paid attention when people said Helter Skelter” was just a pop song.
Kelly did other carols, too:

Good King Sauerkraut, Look out!
On your feets uneven.
While the snoo lay round about…
“Snoo? What’s snoo?”
“Not Much. What’s snoo with you?”

And he tackled this gem [from Pogo Sunday Brunch, originally appeared 1955]:

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Then there was Clement Moore’s poem [from Pogo Sunday Parade, originally published 1954]:

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That Sunday page was originally in color and you will be able to see it in all its glory in the Fantagraphics complete Pogo comic strips series when it is printed — volume four, I think, but maybe five.[Pogo, Vol. 1: Complete Syndicated Comic Strips ]
But Kelly’s own favorite Christmas carol was probably the one that he used on his Christmas cards, year after year.

Merry Christmas everyone, be merry and never give in to dismay.

[If you want more Pogo, check out Whirled of Kelly which reprints lots of stuff.]

The Coffins of Arthur’s Seat

Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano just outside Edinburgh. The Seat and other peaks are located in Holyrood Park, a place for tourists and hikers now, but in 1836, sheep grazed here and locals hunted rabbits. Five boys were out after rabbits in the summer of 1836 when they opened up a recess in the rocks and discovered a stack of small wooden coffins, each less than four inches long by an inch wide. The boys threw the small boxes at each other, trashing some of them, but the next day one of their teachers made his way up the mountain and recovered those coffins that he could find. He took them home and pried off the lids to discover tiny wooden bodies. Over the next one and three-quarters centuries, people have speculated on just what these coffins are all about and why they were left where they were.

 

Arthur's Seat from Edinburgh. [Wikimedia Commons]

Arthur’s Seat from Edinburgh. [Wikimedia Commons]


Anthropologists came up with theories about voodoo dolls and the like, and folktale collectors began calling them “Fairy Coffins”, a name that has stuck. There is a notion that these might be in memory of dead children:

a mother carv[ed] them for stillborn or miscarried children: portraits of the sons she never got to raise, made from the toys they never got to play with.

Now, it is not unknown for a woman to have seventeen children, but to have them all die at birth or in childhood seems such cruel happenstance that my mind simply rejects it.

The eight coffins from Arthur's Seat. [National Museum of Scotland]

The eight coffins from Arthur’s Seat. [National Museum of Scotland]


Simpson and Menefee, authors of the key article on the coffins, put forward the notion that the coffins were related somehow to Burke and Hare, who had been convicted in 1829. Burke and Hare killed sixteen people and robbed one grave, so the number of corpses is right. But twelve of the victims were female and — so far as can be determined — all the figures in the coffins are meant to be male. Also, it is possible that the coffins were an on-going project, not meant to end with seventeen objects.
Accepting that their theory is problematic, Simpson and Menefee have suggested that investigators should look for tragedies of the era connected with the Edinburgh area that have seventeen victims — a shipwreck for instance. To date, no one has come up with a better idea and the Burke and Hare murders are given as the reason for the coffins by the Scottish National Museum.

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Arthur’s Seat has certainly had more than its share of violent death: the slaughter of rebellious apprentices at Murder Acre in 1677, a murder-suicide at Hangman’s Crag in 1769, deaths accompanying various Scots attempts to rid themselves of English rule, a mutiny of local soldiers which had one direct death in 1778 and many indirect after the lads were shipped off to India. Corpses are found from time to time, some are possibly those of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s men, some are far more recent.
Once the site of a monastery, the area was considered by locals to be a place of sanctuary and various outcast individuals lived there on the fringe of society. A furnished cave from the 18th Century has been uncovered and explained as a smuggler’s hideout or an outlaw refuge, but any number of possibilities come to mind, a priest-hole, for instance, or a safehouse for Jacobite spies.
The first decades of the 19th Century, as Scotland modernized, were troubling to many locals. Horse-drawn railways constructed to bring coal into Edinburgh proliferated in the 1830s, and others were constructed to the harbors at Granton and Leith. Edinburgh residents were pleased to use the railroads for excursion purposes but were skeptical about the benefits of improving transport to the harbor towns. Leith opened its first harbor in 1806 and its second in 1817 — though it lacked effective city governance for a decade and became notorious as a hangout for thieves and ruffians. Some locals believed that the harbor towns were draining life from the region as they became embarkation points for New World emigrants.
Edinburgh was surpassed by Glasgow as Scotland’s largest city in the 1820s and there was a sense of decline in the city. The “Scottish Enlightenment” had ended before 1800 with the death of such luminaries as David Hume and Adam Smith and such soon-to-be-famous Scots as Sir Walter Scott had yet to make their mark. There was some anxiety about the great changes that were taking place.

Rabbit on Athur's Seat [via Crafty Green Poet]

Rabbit on Athur’s Seat [via Crafty Green Poet]


The Holyrood area was held by the Earl of Haddington whose ancestors had received it from James VI. But after the Earl was accused of non-payment of poor taxes and was found to be quarrying stone from the mountain and selling it in London, in 1831 the Crown removed the noble grant and turned Holyrood into a park, officially named King’s- or Queen’s-Park from that time forward. Locals continued grazing their flocks and hunting rabbits around Arthur’s Seat until recent times.
Modernization combined with a sense of lost importance — quite a bit of turmoil in a short period.
But, of course, the coffins might not be connected with any particular event, nor even the malaise that infected some of the populace; they might simply be the product of a person or persons who thought this a cool project.
Of the original seventeen coffins only eight are still preserved. These are on display at Scotland’s National Museum.

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Here’s what is known and unknown about them:
1– It is unknown exactly where the coffins were found. Various widely separathed places near Arthur’s Seat have been named. Whinny Hill, an eroded volcanic cone to the east, seems a likely candidate, though a place south-east of Arthur’s Seat is favored by some.
2– The coffins were in a niche (probably not man-made) in a hillside. Pieces of slate, perhaps three of them, were used to cover the opening. Reports that these were headstone-shaped are (I think) embellishments.
3–The coffins were arranged in two stacks of eight, and one coffin, possibly the beginning of a new stack, next to them. This description is apparently from one or more of the boys who discovered them but we have no first-hand reports, nor even the names, of these lads.

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4– The coffins are in different stages of decay. Whether this means that they were placed in the niche at different times or simply suffered different amounts of moisture and weathering is unknown.
5–There was no real examination of the niche nor the slate covers. It is possible that no one but the boys actually saw either of these.
6–The eight coffins that have lasted through the years are carved from Scots pine. A knife, possibly with a hooked blade, was used to cut away a recess in a 95mm/3.74inch by 23mm/.9inch block of wood. In one case the knife blade has actually cut through the coffin bottom. Since a woodworker would have (presumably) used a chisel or gouge rather than a knife, it is conjectured that the maker(s) was/were a leatherworker or practiced some other trade requiring a very sharp knife. The 19th Century Edinburgh directories on-line show a number of boot and shoemakers and there is a large saddlery warehouse as well. (The directory for 1835 is not on-line but is available at museums and libraries in the area.)
7– The coffin lids are decorated with pieces of tin. Since tin was used to make shoe-buckles, this points toward a shoemaker.
8– Some of the coffins have rounded corners while others are square. It is conjectured that two carvers were at work.
9– Two of the coffins were originally painted or stained red.
10– One coffin is lined with paper made after 1780.

Figure outside coffin. Note darkening (paint around feet. [National Museum of Scotland]

Figure outside coffin. Note darkening (paint) around feet. [National Museum of Scotland]


11– The wooden figures inside the coffins were not carved for that purpose. Some have had arms removed so that they will fit. Some show traces of black painted boots. Facial features include wide-open eyes. It is thought that the figures were orginally toy soldiers, possibly made in the 1790s.
12–Simpson and Menefee: “single-piece suits, made from fragments of cloth, have been moulded round the figures and sewn in place. With some figures there is evidence of adhesive under the cloth.” Some of the cloth is patterned or printed.
13–Some of the cloth on the figures has rotted away but what remains is in such good shape that it is thought that it could not have been buried long.
14– Cotton thread, used to sew the burial suits, replaced linen thread after 1800. Thread used to sew one of the suits is three-ply which came into use about 1830.
15– No DNA could be recovered on the dolls, cloth, or coffins. Scientific tests that might show age by analyzing paint or cloth have not been done.
So, the best conjectures are that: the coffins were carved by one or more individuals, possibly engaged in a trade that required a very sharp knife; who repurposed a group of toy soldiers for this project; and that at least one of the coffins was made within five or six years of their being discovered, though they may not all have been deposited in the niche at the same time.
That’s it. The mystery of the fairy coffins is likely to remain unsolved, barring the discovery of a pertinent old letter or manuscript in an attic trunk in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, your theory is as good as anyone else’s.

Notes:
The best article on-line is this one by Mike Dash, originally published at Fortean Times.
Article in the July 16, 1836 Scotsman (“The Logic-chair”) describing the discovery of the coffins is available on-line, but it costs..
The 1994 study by Simpson and Menefee is in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, available for £4 plus postage.