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:

hobbit_invitingnz

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.]

pogo_ani1

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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]:

pogo_boston

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]:

pogo_12_1pogo_12_2

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.

arth_closeup

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.

The Man Who Walked Through Walls: Marcel Aymé

The movie poster below is for a 1951 film version of Marcel Aymé’s story “The Man Who Walked Through Walls”, first published in 1943 while German forces occupied France. No doubt a great many people wished they had the ability to pass through walls then.

Poster for the 1953 film version of The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Poster by surrealist Felix Labisse.

Poster for the 1951 film version of The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Poster by surrealist Felix Labisse.

Before the War, Marcel Aymé had written several novels set in rural France. These were disdained by the snobbish Parisian literary establishment as was Aymé’s style, which incorporated Anglicisms and the patois of the Franche-Comte, where he was born in 1902. Even his children’s stories, collected as Stories from the Perching Cat [Les Contes du chat perché], were savaged by these critics. It didn’t help that Aymé often satirized the bourgeoisie and their hypocrisy. He ignored the critics and kept on writing.
Aymé was apolitical. He had tried to escape conscription but, at the age of eighteen, was taken into the army where he served as part of the French occupation of Germany in 1920. Before 1935, Aymé was considered a leftist, but in that year he signed a petition opposing French action against Italy for the invasion of Ethiopia. The petition was essentially a pacifist plea but contained troubling words that called the Ethiopians a “pack of tribes” and suggested that Italy was bringing Western civilization to savages. More to the point, the petition noted that France had a large empire of its own and had no business criticizing other nations until it cleaned up its own house.

Marcel Ayme, 1940s.

Marcel Ayme, 1940s.

The petition was signed by a number of right-wing intellectuals, including many connected with Action française, an extreme right publication that had begun life as an anti-Dreyfus journal. Other signatories included many French fascists including Robert Brasillach (of whom, more later). The petition was denounced by many on the left as a document of “fascist intellectualism”. It should be noted that, at this time, there were pacifists on both the left and the right (yes) and that anti-bourgeois sentiments were common to both. The left tended to be secular and republican with Marxism the core philosophy; the right was Catholic and royalist with a philosophical bent toward fascism.
France had a great many outright fascists who admired Mussolini’s model and there were many more who shared certain principles — nationalism, militarism, anti-semitism — with them. After the collapse of the French army in 1940, many of these became supporters of the Vichy puppet regime. Some openly proclaimed their satisfaction with the German conquest. “A divine surprise,” Charles Maurras called it.
German occupation of France was intended to be a soft affair, one that wouldn’t upset the citizens too much, and for a while, it was. Independent France still existed — on paper — in Vichy, which gave people an excuse to go along with the Germans, since it meant protecting France. The Germans put Francophiles in charge of occupied Paris – some were married to Frenchwomen — and they were quite sensitive to French feelings. French artists in particular had freedoms not known in other parts of occupied Europe.
Some French residents, such as Gertrude Stein, actively took up the cause of Marshall Pétain, “the savior of France” and head of the Vichy regime.  Stein translated a work of Petain’s into English. This book, which included long anti-semitic diatribes, was meant for publication in America. Stein wrote a foreword in which she compared Pétain to George Washington and Benjamin Franklin — in other words, the Nazi collaborator was the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers. Stein took up residence in Vichy territory. Her Paris apartment, full of priceless artwork, was sealed. When the Gestapo decided to open the seal, Picasso warned Bernard Faÿ, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale, who was unofficial Vichy Minister for Culture and Stein’s protector.  Faÿ ordered the Gestapo away. The Pétain book was never distributed in America.
Some others, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, intensified the expression of their thoughts. Céline, who was about as nasty an anti-semite as could be found anywhere, continued a series of anti-Jewish books that he had begun before the War. André Gide, by no means a fascist, defended the first, pre-war, volume as over-the-top black humor. And it may be possible to read Trifles for a Massacre [Bagatelles pour un massacre] that way. But, in 1941 when Céline was still openly calling for the elimination of all Jews, the joke was hard to find:

Beating up Jews (by Jew I mean anyone with a Jew for a grandparent, even one!) won’t help, I’m sure, that’s just going around in circles, it’s a joke, you’re only beating around the bush if you don’t grab them by the strings [tefillins], if you don’t strangle them with them. [via Tony Judt in the NYRB]

"Tefillen" are the straps used to attach phylactery prayer-boxes, as on this Israeli soldier. Cocteau is saying that they should be used to strangle Jews.

“Tefillen” are the straps used to attach phylactery prayer-boxes, as on this Israeli soldier. Cocteau is saying that they should be used to strangle Jews.

Céline was a friend to Aymé who had championed his work in the past. Both satirized the bourgeosie, both played with language, though Aymé was a humanist who tended to smile at human foibles while Céline seemed to desire the kind of dark destruction that appealed to fascist romantics. But Aymé was loyal to his friends.
Meanwhile, others determined to resist. Albert Camus saw a friend shot by the Germans and came to the conclusion that sometimes one had to make a choice, a decision about which side you were on. And he wrote in his journal about Vichy, “Now the only moral value is courage, which is useful here for judging the puppets and chatterboxes who pretend to speak in the name of the people.”
Jean Texcier wrote his pamphlet “Advice to the Occupied” which gave instructions on dealing with the Germans: “Have no illusions. They are not tourists, they are conquerors…” Don’t deliberately insult these conquerors to their face, give them a light if they ask for it, but do not befriend them, don’t invite them into your home.
There were incidents — violent confrontations — in the countryside from the beginning of the occupation, but these were unorganized. By the end of 1940, a number of groups of resistants had formed across France, some were Communist, some ex-army, some criminals, some adventure-seekers, and some were ordinary folk, unwilling to put up with an occupation that was becoming, outside Paris, more and more bloody. In early 1941, these groups began to cooperate and function as a united Resistance.

Combat office in 1944. Camus at left, Andre Malraux in uniform at right.

Combat office in 1944. Camus at left, Andre Malraux in uniform at right.

The Resistance published its own journal, Combat, which was staffed by many of the leading lights of French literature, in particular Albert Camus, but also Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, Raymond Aron, and others. At the same time, the right-wing Je suis partout [I am everywhere -- scary, right?], with Robert Brasillach as editor, displaced Action française as the main organ for Vichy collaborators. Aymé wrote four articles for this journal in 1942. None were political.
The resistants’ war became more and more bloody. German troops were killed in the streets of Paris, resulting in the kind of reprisals already familiar in the countryside. The occupation became more onerous to ordinary citizens: France had to pay the costs of the German occupation and currency values were rigged to favor the deutschmark. Most of France’s gross domestic product flowed back to the Third Reich. Young Frenchmen were drafted into the Labor Corps. And the arrest and transport of Jews began in July of 1942, with more than 70,000 French Jews murdered by the War’s end.

Arno Breker sculpting Cocteau.

Arno Breker sculpting Cocteau.

As things became more serious, the casual disdain for political affairs displayed by certain artists dissolved into fear. Picasso became afraid and begged Jean Cocteau for help. Cocteau was a fascist sympathizer who contacted Arno Breker, “Hitler’s favorite sculptor”, on Picasso’s behalf. According to Breker, he kept Picasso from being shot. Meanwhile, the Resistance had become popular and Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover, begged to be allowed to join. No one trusted him, though, either because of his connection to Cocteau or because he was a blabbermouth, and Marais never found a resistant willing to recruit him.

Jean Marais, Cocteau at rear, 1939.

Jean Marais, Cocteau at rear, 1939.

In 1943, Marcel Aymé published a book of short pieces titled  The Man Who Walked Through Walls [Le Passer-muraille]. The stories are mostly fantastic and satiric. Aymé’s method is to take a single fantastic situation and then push it to a climax.
“The Man Who Walks Through Walls” is the story of a civil servant named Dutilleul who, at the age of 42, discovers that he can walk through walls. This power does not interest him, in fact it bothers him, so Dutilleul goes to a doctor who prescribes medication that will take away this unwanted talent. Dutilleul takes one tablet, then shuts the rest of the pills away. He continues using doors and ignoring walls until his boss is replaced by someone disagreeable. Eventually, Dutilleul is driven to use his power to bedevil this new boss to the point of madness. After he is driven from the scene, Dutilleul finds himself with a taste for more devilment. He becomes a thief and eventually reveals himself to the police, who, of course, cannot hold him in a cell. Dutilleul relishes his notoriety. He takes a lover whose husband locks her in at night, and his life is going well until, one day, he has a headache and pops a pill he finds in the cupboard. It is one of those that the doctor prescribed for him. He goes to meet his lover and winds up stuck in the wall, unable to move.
But the most interesting story in the collection is “The Ration-Card”["La Carte"]. It is presented as a diary:

There’s an absurd rumor going around the neighborhood about new austerity
measures. In order to ward off shortages and insure a greater output from the
laboring element of the population, there will supposedly be executions of
non-productive consumers: the elderly, the retired, those of independent means,
the unemployed and other non-essential persons. Deep down, I feel that this
measure would be quite fair.

But the diarist discovers that:

…putting all the non-essential to death is out of the question. The plan will
simply cut back on their time alive. Maleffroi explained to me that they will be
entitled to so many days of existence per month according to their degree of
uselessness.

So people thought to be useless will have less time alive. The narrator is allowed only fifteen days a month of life. He is indignant, but is told that, after all, writers are useless. The narrator goes to pick up his ration card:

I waited three hours in line at the 18th district city hall to get my time
ticket. We were there, lined up in double file, around two thousand unfortunate
souls dedicated to the appetite of the laboring masses. And this was just the
first little batch. About half of the number looked to be elderly. There were
pretty young women whose faces were languid with sadness and who seemed to sigh:
“I don’t want to die yet”. … In the waiting lines, I recognized, not without emotion, and, I must admit, with
secret satisfaction, comrades from Montmartre, writers and artists: Céline, Gen
Paul, Daragnès, Fauchois, Soupault, Tintin, d’Esparbès and others. Céline was in
a dark mood. He said that it was just one more maneuver of the Jews, but I think
that on this particular point, his bad mood led him astray. As a matter of fact,
in the terms of the decree, it allows Jews, without distinction for age, sex, or
activity, one-half day of existence per month. On the whole, the crowd was
irritated and tumultuous. The many officers assigned to security duty treated us
with great disdain, clearly considering us the scum of the earth. Again and
again, as we grew tired of this long wait, they appeased our impatience with
kicks in the ass.

By now the reader must recognize this story as an allegory of current events. The Nazis called those they condemned to death — cripples, the insane, the old, the feeble-minded –  “useless eaters”. As for the artists, well, we have met Céline, the painter Gen Paul was not a fascist, and Soupault was on the run from the Gestapo, arranging a Resistance radio network. So, one must ask, how did this manage to get published in occupied Paris in 1943? Presumably, because the Nazi censors nodded when presented with fantasy. There may be an answer in the French Gestapo files for 1943 but these are sealed for several decades yet.
Anyway, the ration cards and the life they represent begin to turn up on the black market. Some can buy extra days of existence. The narrator adds five days to June, existing to the 35th. Eventually, with the wealthy buying up all existence and extending their days for many months, the authorities concede that the plan has not aided the economy one bit and they discontinue the cards.

People rummaging through scraps at a market in occupied Paris. [photo by André Zucca, who took pictures for the Germans.]

People rummaging through scraps at a market in occupied Paris. [photo by André Zucca, who took pictures for the Germans.]


Another story deals with the entry into heaven of an evil man. There are so many dead soldiers waiting to get in that St. Peter just waves in the lot. The wicked person hides in the crowd.
One tale is not fantasy but a bitter description of life in rationed France. People waiting for food talk about their harsh lives. One says simply, “I am a Jew.” He need say nothing more, everyone recognizes that he has the hardest life. Once again, all this went through German censorship.
By now, everyone could see that the tide had turned against the Germans. Some Vichy officials, like François Mitterrand, became surreptitious resistants.
After D-day, some collaborators and sympathizers, Céline for example, fled the country. Others hung around, trusting in the concept that Vichy had saved France to save them. But the “Purification”, l’épuration, spared no one. Pétain and many members of his administration were imprisoned to await trial for treason. In the countryside, justice was more summary. Resistants took over villages and killed many who were suspected of collaboration or who, one way or another, offended them.
When the trials began, one of the first was that of Robert Brasillach. He was found guilty of aiding the enemy and sentenced to death by a judge who had once served Vichy. Marcel Aymé took up the task of saving his live. He asked numerous artists and writers to sign a petition asking for clemency. Some agreed. It is unlikely that Cocteau’s signature was of value in this instance but François Mauriac was a hero of the Resistance. Sartre and Picasso refused to sign, possibly because the Communist party advocated revenge. Albert Camus answered Aymé’s request with a letter. During the War, Camus had called for justice for the collaborators and Vichyites. He said, no one could forgive them except the families of those who had been killed. He wrote to Aymé:

I have always been horrified by the death penalty, and I have judged that as an individual the least I could do was not participate in it, even by abstention….This is a scruple that I suppose would make the friends of Brasillach laugh. And as for him, if his life is spared and if an amnesty frees him as it probably will in one or two years, I would like him to be told the following as concerns my letter: it is not for him that I join my signature with yours, it is not for the writer,  whom I consider to be worth nothing, nor for the individual, for whom I have the strongest contempt.

Mauriac took the petition, with Camus’ signature, personally to De Gaulle. But, in January, 1945, Brasillach was shot. His last words: “Vive la France.” He was the only writer to be executed during the Purification. A number of other Vichyites were sentenced to death, although de Gaulle commuted Pétain’s sentence to life imprisonment. Aymé was widely attacked and accused of collaboration. The Ethiopian petition and the articles in Je suis partout were mentioned, but the real crime was  Aymé’s friendship with fascists like Brasillach and Céline. The charges were not pressed. Still, Aymé was labeled with the quasi-official term “blame without [overt] display” (“blâme sans affichage”), which I take to be something like “thought crime”.
In 1945 many claimed to have been resistants or anti-Vichy, whose resistance was, at best, minimal. Gertrude Stein, for instance, claimed to have aided the Resistance, though evidence for that is difficult to find. She was certainly, at minimum, a Pétainist. Some felt that the best way to proclaim their own resistance to the Germans was to attack anyone else who might be suspected of any kind of collaboration.
Aymé was disgusted with this kind of hypocrisy, which, at that time, might mean a matter of life and death. His politics were personal and extended to those around him. He despised grand organizations and causes. You not betray a friend or, for that matter, any human being for the sake of an ideology.
In 1948 he published Uranus, a novel describing the events in a newly liberated village. Young Communists murder  social democrats and Trotskyites in the street, and sometimes they kill other people for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. In one scene, townspeople who had been prisoners of war return. The Marseillaise is played and the mayor makes a speech while five Communists locate a man in the group that they call a Pétainist. They throw him on the ground and begin to beat him. Everyone stands aside and the mayor continues his welcoming speech as the man is beaten to death. At the novel’s center is an alcoholic tavern-keeper, Leopold, a sympathetic character who winds up being executed.

Gerard Depardieu as Leopold in the 1990 film version of Uranus.

Gerard Depardieu as Leopold in the 1990 film version of Uranus.

Uranus is the third novel in a trilogy that depicts life in a French Village from the late 1930s to 1944. Neither of the first two, published in 1941 and 1942, has the harsh bitterness expressed in Uranus. (Although the first, Travelingue, contains sharp satire of leftists during the Popular Front.) Tony Judt calls Uranus hard-bitten and cynical, and puts it in company with the writing of others at the time who said much the same sort of thing.
Even a non-cynical person could not fail to find something corrupt in the offer of the Legion of Honor to Aymé in 1949. He turned it down, warning against “the extreme lightness with which [this honor] was thrown at the head of a bad Frenchman like me…”
In that same year, Aymé took up the cause of another writer, Maurice Bardèche, a scholar of 19th Century literature and Brasillach’s brother-in-law, who was accused of excusing war crimes. Bardèche was definitely a fascist sympathizer before the War and after it, but was not an active collaborator. He was sentenced to a year in prison, something that made him more defiant, and he became a Holocaust denier and Nazi apologist.
In 1950, Céline was convicted in absentia of “acts harming the national defense”, a much less damaging charge than treason. He was sentenced to a year in prison, which he served in Denmark, where he was living. In 1951, his lawyer negotiated an amnesty for Céline, and he returned to France. During this period, Aymé wrote pleas and letters and circulated petitions  to aid his friend.

Celine, at left, with Ayme in 1955.

Céline, at left, with Aymé in 1955.

As Camus had foreseen, the harsh treatment of collaborators had diminished to the point where pardons became the norm. But who could have predicted, in 1945, that eight years later it would become a crime to label anyone a collaborator? By the end of 1951, more than 50,000 French citizens had been charged with various offenses under the Purification Acts. After that, the French government came to think that there was more harm than good to be found in continuing the program, so the official position was completely reversed. Anyway, France had more immediate problems: inability to form stable governments, a stuttering economy, relations with the U.S., the Cold War, and the collapse of the French empire, first in Indo-China, then in Algeria. Men and women who had been united in Resistance found themselves split on these new questions.
It is very wrong for anyone, who has never had to face something like occupation by invaders, to make easy judgements on the actions of those who underwent this experience. Still, it is necessary to examine such historical events for whatever lessons and moral instruction may be taken from them. One may believe, with Camus, that sometimes a person must take sides, with all the moral complications that may ensue from acts of resistance and rebellion. Artists are not immune to criticism because they are artists, they still have a duty to act. But Camus himself came under fire for his position, or lack of it, on Algeria. Algerian-born, he decried the use of indiscriminate violence to spur revolution. He said that, if a bus were bombed and his mother killed, then he would be on his mother’s side, not the bombers’. This runs close to Aymé’s personal politics.
Texceira’s instructions on how to deal with occupation forces boiled down to: don’t befriend them but don’t antagonize them for no reason except to make yourself look good. In fact, that (IMO) is the program followed by most of those in occupied France. This approach does not rule out resistance or armed rebellion, but it does try to apply some common sense to the situation faced by ordinary people.

The Ayme memorial by Jean Marais in Montmarte. [photo: Andre Derain via philibert.sportblog.fr]

The Ayme memorial by Jean Marais in Montmarte. [photo: Andre Derain via philibert.sportblog.fr]


Aymé died in Paris in 1967, at the age of 65. In 1989, a memorial was commissioned near his home that was sculpted by resistant-wannabe, Jean Marais. It depicts the final bit of “The Man Who Passed Through Walls” when the hero, depicted here as Aymé himself,  finds himself unable to pass through to one side or the other but is immured in the wall itself.

Notes:

The only English translation of the collection, The Man Who Walked Through Walls, is this one.
Two of the stories (and one from another collection) with the original French versions, are available on-line here.
The 1951 film version of Passer-muraille is a slapstick comedy with little relation to Aymé’s story. You can watch the entire movie here.
Les contes du chat perché is not available in English. The stories concern two girls spending time at a farm. They speak to animals and have adventures. Some of the stories have been adapted into stage plays, animated movies, and comic books.
Uranus is unavailable in English. The 1990 film is good but also has no current DVD version with subtitles. A subtitled version sometimes plays on television, though. Watch for it.

An excellent account of artists in occupied Paris is Alan Riding’s And the Show Went on: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris

This article by Tony Judt surveys several books about France from the thirties to the fifties.
Gertrude Stein’s Vichy role is summarized here.
Céline’s anti-semitic work is reviewed here.

Kingdom of the Beaver

In 1946, the Argentine Navy, far from the most intelligent military outfit you’ve ever heard of, got a bright idea. They would bring in some Canadian beavers, set them loose in Tierra del Fuego, and then the local folk would profit off of selling their fur. Tierra del Fuego, at the very tip of South America, is an island inhabited then by only a few people, mostly natives who would love to rake in the fortunes possible in the fur trade. What could go wrong?

Release of Manitoba beavers into Tierra del Fuego, 1946. [LambAir.com]

Release of Manitoba beavers into Tierra del Fuego, 1946. [LambAir.com]


Well, let me count the ways. First of all, the beaver fur trade has not been a big deal since the mid-19th Century. Canadians know all this but let me spell it out for the non-Canucks. Beaver fur was turned into excellent felt used to make hats. Once the European beaver had supplied the trade but they were hunted close to extinction. When Europeans discovered Canadian beavers — much larger and furrier than their Euro-cousins, they said, “Sacré bleu!” and “We’re gonna be rich rich rich!” depending on their mother tongue. Oh, and did I mention that they had plenty of natives willing to do the grunt work in exchange for pots and pans, crummy muskets, blankets, and rum. And some non-native people did get rich until, quite suddenly, people stopped wearing felted fur hats and switched to silk hats (if they were upscale) or felted wool or cotton (if they were otherwise). Beaver stopped being a valuable commodity, the Hudson’s Bay Company turned over its territory to Canada, who changed it into Manitoba, and… You get the idea: there is no large-scale market for beaver fur.

Argentine beaver trying to figure out why the trees are gone. [WorldNomads.com]

Argentine beaver trying to figure out why the trees are gone. [WorldNomads.com]


Second, the native Tierra del Fuegans weren’t particularly interested in hunting beaver, there being no pots, pans, muskets, blankets, or rum on offer for them, so they ignored the furry beasties. Which was probably just as well since no one from the Argentine Navy had bothered to clear the project with whatever ministry was in charge of wildlife and it wasn’t really legal to hunt them until 1981. Nowadays the bulk of Tierra del Fuego’s population is comprised of urban refugees from Buenos Aires, many of whom think the beaver are really cute.

Beaver fast-food joint in Ushuaia. Unfortunately, they don't serve beaver. Nobody there finds it palatable. [JonsAdventure]

Beaver fast-food joint in Ushuaia. Unfortunately, they don’t serve beaver. Nobody there finds it palatable. [JonsAdventure]


Third, the beavers set about doing what beavers do, chewing down trees (man, do they love them some Argentine varieties — much tastier than willow or birch or aspen or any of those uninteresting Canadian trees) and reproducing. Beaver are rodents and they reproduce rapidly. A beaver pair will have two kits a year that will stay with Mom and Dad for another year while two siblings are born, then the young beaver go out and settle their own territory. The original imported 25 beaver pairs have now more than 200,000 descendants.[YouTube link]
Oh, and they can swim. So the fact that they are on an island doesn’t matter a whole lot. They crossed the Strait of Magellan at least as early as 1994. Now the beaver have spread into south Argentina and neighboring Chile.
But Wait! you say: Aren’t beaver good for the environment? Like in Three Against the Wilderness  where a family repopulates B.C.’s Chilcotin region and helps stave off drought and floods and stuff. But that was in Canada, where beaver are part of an established eco-system. They gnaw down trees, build dams, hold water in ponds that eventually become bogs and meadows and then forest again. All kinds of flora and fauna are just ready and willing to occupy that space at each and every stage of its development. But Tierra del Fuego isn’t British Columbia. Native trees are not adapted to beaver-kill, unlike North American varieties that can regrow from the roots. So the forests there are disappearing into beaver-made bogs faster than the environment can cope. Sure, give the place a few centuries and there’ll be a sort of balance achieved, the same way that, if you allow Europe or the Mid-East a few centuries of untrammeled murder and ethnic cleansing, neighborly communities will arise.

This used to be forest, now it's bog and dead snags, thanks to beavers. [JonsAdventure]

This used to be forest, now it’s bog and dead snags, thanks to beavers. [JonsAdventure]


Did I mention that southern Chile and Argentine Patagonia are really lush territory? At least now, before they get beavered.
This problem has raised diplomacy between Chile and Argentine to new heights and these nations have agreed on a massive beaver hunt. They will cooperate in slaughtering every single one of these lovable animals that exist. It will take eight or nine years and involve helicopter gunships wasting every beaver lodge they find. No doubt this plan was developed after studying American success in eliminating communism in S.E. Asia or perhaps it’s based on the Soviet triumph in Afghanistan. I think Australia tried something similar when they were overrun by rabbits with minimal success. Now Australia has that big “rabbit-proof” fence that stretches for miles across the outback — sort of like the wall between Israel and Palestine or the one between China and Mongolia — that is supposed to keep the unwanted species out. Anyway, there is serious doubt that the South American beaver can be exterminated. Sooner or later, someone is going to suggest biological warfare, some kind of toxin or anti-reproductive substance that will target only beaver. There’s been a lot of that kind of thing over the years, aimed mostly at insects but sometimes at rodents. I don’t think that either mosquitoes or cockroaches show much population loss, though. And, of course, you can always introduce some species that will attack beavers. Something big and nasty and hungry with fangs and sharp claws, something that won’t bother human beings at all. No.
Note:
The single best on-line source for this that I have found is JonsAdventure. This entry is cited above several times. There is a good map of beaver expansion, too.