Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tuesday Night Blogs: Accents and Cape Coders

Edmund Wilson, the well-known American man of letters wrote an infamous essay in the New Yorker in 1945, entitled Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? [scroll down to second essay], which has been taken apart by aficionados of the genre ever since. Wilson's purpose in this, the second essay of three, that were going to destroy detective stories for ever (and we all know how successful that effort proved to be) was to explain that he did do his best to like the books and even took people's advice to read Dorothy L. Sayers, the best, as he had been told, or, at least, the most literary of the writers. He read Nine Tailors and thought it was the dullest book he had ever opened, which shows that Mr Wilson had led a very sheltered life. He obviously had never tried reading Chernyshevsky's What Is To Be Done? despite producing one of the best analyses of Socialist ideology and its history in To The Finland Station. Now that is dull. Possibly, as my father once said to me, the worst book ever written.

Among other things he found annoying and embarrassing was the plethora of accents various characters used in the novel. When I read this I decided that Edmund Wilson clearly had a cloth ear. Alternatively, he had no real knowledge of England and the geographic and social importance of accents. Come to think of it, accents are of some importance in the US as well and that is one of the themes of this blog.

What Sayers was trying to do was not to embarrass sundry literary critics (though I do not suppose she minded that) but to present a picture of a village and its environs, in which the way people spoke depended on their place of birth, their age and their educational level. The old man who had never left the three Fenton villages in his long life was barely comprehensible to others and different in his speech from the younger inhabitants who had been away, perhaps even to London or abroad like Jim Thoday; They, in turn, spoke differently from the state school educated engineer Wimsey meets, from the Oxford educated, probably upper middle class rector and, of course, Wimsey himself, who is unlike anyone else in speech. One could argue that Sayers was not successful in her attempts to reproduce the variety of accents but to suggest that she ought not to have tried even but had everyone speak exactly the same, is to display, well, a cloth ear.

What, I wonder, would Edmund Wilson have thought of Asey Mayo's accent in Phoebe Atwood Taylor's books. Mayo is the Codfish Sherlock who appears in twentyfour novels between 1931 and 1951. He is also a master rather than a jack of all trades and, during the war, a man with a highly important job to do with tanks (previously it had been cars though the details are always a little vague). He goes to Washington for meetings with very important people, probably the President himself and we are reminded in the later books that his broad Cape Cod accent mysteriously disappeared when he attended those meetings.

The question is why does it exist at all. It fools nobody and it irritates the reader (well, this reader, certainly). Nobody else, apart from a few fishermen or layabouts speak in that accent. Why does Mayo? Unlike Sayers's characters whose accents are part of their social and geographic position, Mayo's is completely phony. Yet he goes on with it, stretching out every single statement and comment and adding what might be called local colour, which would have been provided quite adequately by his knowledge of the area, every single road in it, the various families though not everything about individual members.

It so happens that until now I have managed to find only wartime and postwar Asey Mayo novels but found it intriguing that the early ones are supposed to be darker and considerably less farcical. So I was very pleased to be able to lay my hands on The Tinkling Symbol, published in 1935 and the seventh in the series.

If there is any darkness in the early books, it must be in the first six, as The Tinkling Symbol (no, I am not telling you what it stands for) is as much of a screwball comedy as the later ones with Asey Mayo, unfortunately for the reader's patience and good will, spending even more time making long speeches, all in Cape Cod hayseed accent. The other Cape Coders, even the ones, we are told, who had settled families in the area twelve or thirteen generations before the mid 1930s (an unlikely story) speak the American equivalent of the Queen's English; fishermen and layabouts wander into regional speech but Mayo is the only one to keep to it consistently.

The book consists largely of people popping in and out of doors, windows and, especially, cars. Everybody repeatedly piles into one roadster or another and if they are not shot at and they do not find a knife in the upholstery then they race off to accuse somebody else of murder. Highly entertaining but not altogether satisfactory as a detective story. As a clue there is the last word the dying man (actually, victim number five but the first four had been done in before the book starts) speaks and it is solved very near the end by Mayo.

It is not till page 212 of 288 that we even hear of the reason behind the murders and it is shelved as there is another mad car ride and accusations of murder, easily dismissed by the sister of the accused in this case, till page 257 when we are told a certain amount to be picked up again on page 260. From page 266 on we get the explanation, much of which consists of Asey Mayo explaining all that he had been doing for weeks and, especially, in the last day and all that he had asked the police to find out for him. None of it had even been hinted at throughout the book. Finally we find out the most important fact about the murderer, one that has also not been hinted at and one that Mayo discovers completely by accident.

Comparing this book with the later ones I would hazard a guess that Phoebe Atwood Taylor may have decided to tighten up the plots a little. The later ones actually make some sense and there is the odd clue throughout the books. Doc Cummings, who appears very little in The Tinkling Symbol, plays a major part in all the later ones, Syl and Jennie Mayo, Asey's cousins, appear and  become important and the Cape Coders, uniformly unpleasant, appear and disappear. My guess is that Charlotte MacLeod was heavily influenced by Phoebe Atwood Taylor both in her Peter and Helen Shandy series of novels and the Bittersohn Kelling one. MacLeod is more determinedly farcical, there tend to be more bodies and her characters all do something but the latter may be just because times have changed and even Cape Coders cannot just sit around doing nothing.

For all the reasons listed above Taylor's later novels are more appealing but there is one problem: Asey Mayo's accent remains and is as phony as ever. I am sure Edmund Wilson would have been very sniffy about it.

Friday, April 15, 2016

You know you can trust the BBC

First of all, let me declare a certain lack of interest: I do not pay TV license and have not done so for decades for the very good reason that I do not have a TV set. I have not had a TV set for a good many years and have not missed it one iota. But I do look at the BBC website and read their news and other stories. And I do sometimes listen to the radio though more in the Proms season than at other times.

This story did catch many people's eyes: Around 50% 'hold authoritarian views'. Tsk, tsk I thought or would have done if I had not had a number of debates with people who think what is acceptable about what is authoritarian and populist. For the first paragraph says:
As much as half the adult population may share a political world view researchers describe as "authoritarian populist".
Do they, indeed? And what constitutes "authoritarian populist"? You'll never guess.
They favour rolling back the state and are negative about immigration, human rights and the EU, a study claims.
I am sorry. Rolling back the state is authoritarian? Being negative about the EU is authoritarian populist? Being against unlimited immigration, particularly of people who behave like this is somehow illiberal, which is what authoritarian populism is?
This study boasts it is the first systematic empirical analysis of the prevalence of a "mind-set" it dubs "authoritarian populist" in Britain.
Wonderful. A groundbreaking study, apparently, that cannot even define its own terminology. What is so depressing is the BBC's apparent agreement with it.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Tuesday Night Blogs: Crime on the Home Front

This blog is now back as part of the Tuesday Night Bloggers' Club and the author this month is Phoebe Atwood Taylor, a remarkable American thriller and detective story writer, who wrote under her own name a series about the Codfish Sherlock, Asey Mayo, a detective I took to as soon as I read a short story about him, under the name Alice Tilton about a retired English teacher, Leonidas Witterall, who looks so like Shakespeare (a likeness he tends to help along, naturally enough) that he is usually called Bill and under the name Freeman Dana just one thriller, Murder at the World Fair.

I have read only one Witterall book, The Iron Clew, which is being written about by a number of my co-bloggers, all of whom know far more about Ms Atwood Taylor than I do (I shall put up links at the end of the posting) but I have read several Asey Mayo ones and decided to have another look at them as well as try to find some new ones.

It so happens that I have devoted some attention to tales of crime at the home front in the Second World War. Partly that is because I have found that Foyle's War, heavily praised to me by a number of people, is available on YouTube and I watched the first three and partly because I picked up a Patricia Wentworth novel, The Clock Strikes Twelve, which deals with a crime back home, the story taking place in the last few hours of 1942 and first few days of 1943. Astonishingly, a number of comments of Goodreads and even on relevant blogs get that wrong, largely I suspect, because the notes on the cover say 1940 rather than 1942 but the date is made clear in the book. This does make one wonder whether people always bother to read detective stories before they comment on them.

Setting aside Foyle's War, I became interested in the difference between the way the war is covered by the two writers, both of whom set a number of their novels in those years. For a reason I cannot quite work out Patricia Wentworth needed to have a good many young men involved in the plot and had to think up reasons as to why they were around instead of some far-off shore or, at least in an army camp. Usually, it is because they do research and are far too good at it to be sent off for ordinary soldiering.

When people do get sent off we do not know where it is. Could be the Middle East, could be somewhere else. Of course, the war was a lot closer and information had to be controlled a great deal more. Or, possibly, the Ministry of Information thought that by this control of information morale was kept higher.

Not so in Cape Cod where everybody seems to know where their young men are serving. Jobs are taken on by their elders and the womenfolk who seem to manage better than the young men - does not bode well for that homecoming. If Eddie's kid sister and aunt are better at running the garage and petrol pump than he ever was, how is he going to cope when he returns from the Pacific?

Asey Mayo is, probably, too old to be called up and, in any case, his work is vital for the defence industry. Unfortunately for him, however vital it is, he still goes home on leave to be roped into all sorts of unpleasant activity such as going to an auction by his cousin Jennie and to become involved in criminal activity of various kind. Doc Cummings looks after the sick of the home front and is beginning to find it something of a chore but he can always relax by helping Asey Mayo or patching up when he has been knocked out AGAIN. Really, the man gets into more jams than Sexton Blake.

So the situation is far more relaxed - nobody gets unpleasant telegrams (or letters either), nobody seems to worry about the way the war is going or not going, in fact nobody bothers to talk about it. Not that they do much in The Clock Strikes Twelve either. It is entirely possible that people kept their sanity by not discussing the war news.

Then there is rationing. It is easy to forget that there was rationing in the US as well, though it was clearly not as stringent as in Britain, let alone on the Continent. It is hard to tell from the novel what, apart from petrol and car tyres, was rationed but bacon seems to have been though not clams. (One wouldn't want riots in New England.) Naturally, where there is rationing, there is barter and even black market though the latter is not mentioned in the Taylor novel.

Barter yes: when Asey Mayo forgets to bring his ration book with him, Jennie has to swap two jars of put up strawberries for breakfast bacon into which Doc Cummings manages to make great inroads. Could it be that butter and sugar were not rationed? Certainly Jennie seems to be able to produce an unlimited amount of sugared ginger bread and strawberry shortcake without any mention of margarine.

We are told that the earlier Asey Mayo novels are darker, perhaps reflecting the effect of the Depression. By the time the wartime books were written, the darkness had been lifted and the books are hugely entertaining. Going, going, gone has its sad moments but few and far between - mostly it is a screwball comedy with people popping in and out of doors and windows often misunderstanding everyone else's motives. The war seems a very long way away.

Circling round the subject

There seems to be far too much ink (metaphorically speaking) spilled on matters to do with the Brexit referendum but occasionally there might be something to add even by this blog. For example, there is the question of what is to be done (as both Chernyshevsky and Lenin asked in their day) with the leaflet so thoughtfully sent out by HMG to every household in which the said households were being chided to do the right thing and vote to remain in the European Union.

It so happens that I was discussing that very point with a friend on the phone when the postman hove into view and delivered my copy of it. I suppose before I do anything I ought to have a look at it but, somehow, the mood is not upon me. 

Is this actually legal I ask. After all, MPs and Councillors are not allowed to use official facilities to conduct election campaigns and HMG is not allowed to send out leaflets telling the benighted voters to vote for them because they are so wonderful though, clearly, a government in place has certain advantages over the opposition in matters electoral. Why are they allowed to use official facilities and, thus, taxpayers' money to tell us which way to vote in a referendum? 

Anyway, everything has been said on that subject as well so the only question that remains is what is one to do with this document. I am afraid the paper is a little too shiny for my cats' litter tray (they don't like it); Nigel Farage's advice, as usual, is of no use as it is not in an envelope and, therefore, cannot simply be returned to sender; I have no desire to spend money on the postage. 

I could put it in an envelope, address it the Rt Hon. David Cameron, 10, Downing Street etc and put no stamps on it or stamps that add up to some minimal tiny amount, thus forcing the flunkeys to pay for the postage. If a few hundred thousand of us did it, there would be a great deal of dissatisfaction in Number 10. Or, perhaps, one of the organizations, say Vote Leave or Grassroots Out (GO), could issue a call to collect as many of these leaflets as possible and then deliver them to the gates of Downing Street in a van or lorry. I have not heard of such an initiative so I have to make some kind of a decision myself. 

Meanwhile, we have had a great deal of excitement about the Dutch Referendum that rejected the Ukraine-European Union treaty and the highly predictable fact that the EU is going to ignore it. To be fair, it is hard to see what the EU can do about this. Even as far as the Dutch government is concerned a referendum in that country is advisory but it would be a foolish Dutch politician who ignored it. As far as the EU is concerned 32 per cent of the Dutch electorate is not of any real importance. Nor is it of importance from a democratic point of view. They are a tiny minority of the EU's population and even 64 per cent of that tiny minority does not amount to much. Exactly whom do they represent? Slightly more people than the Eurocrats do but not by much. One cannot have a referendum about something those who are asked are not in control of.

All this shows the dangers of direct as opposed to representative democracy. Those who whine about "not being represented" by our elected representatives had better consider the possibilities of major decisions being taken in the wake of completely unrepresentative direct plebiscites. 

Of course, it is unpleasant to have any section of the people saying NO to whatever they are told is good for them. Does this show growing euroscepticism in Holland or a general fed-upness with yet more migrants from Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the figures tell you nothing. But it is worth noting that 68 per cent may not have turned out to vote against the agreement but neither did they turn out to vote for it. So, perhaps, dissatisfaction is genuinely growing. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Nice to have the Mises Institute on side

Louis Rouanet writing on the Mises Institute website produces an adequate but far from earth-shattering analysis of why the European Union is, in fact, the very antithesis of Europe and European history. It's a short piece but worth reading.
Contrary to what is often said, the European Union has nothing to do with peace, freedom, free trade, free capital and migration movement, cooperation, or stability. All this can very well be provided in a decentralized system. The European Union is nothing more than a cartel of governments that tries to gain power by harmonizing the fiscal and regulatory legislation in every member State. Article 99 of the Treaty of Rome (1957) clearly states that indirect taxation “can be harmonized in the interest of the Common Market” by the European Commission. As for Article 101 of the same Treaty, it explicitly restrains regulatory competition “where the Commission finds that a disparity existing between the legislative or administrative provisions of the Member States distorts the conditions of competition in the Common Market.”
Can't disagree with that and the more people say it the better it is for all of us.