25/02/2010

MY GRANDMOTHER'S BALLROOM...


Octavia (Betty) Thomas in the 1920's


My grandmother. Octavia, was born at the turn of the last century. She was named as such because she was the eighth child in her family. But, to me she was Granny Thomas and, to her friends, she was Betty.




When she married my grandfather, Brian, Betty lived on the top two floors of what had been a Victorian coaching inn in the market town of Leominster. The hotel was built in 1840  but its owner had gone bankrupt by 1851 - when the inn opened up at just the wrong time, at the dawn of the railway era with very little business in the 'old fashioned' coaching trade. 

By the time I knew the building the lower floors were being used as a shopfront, with some rooms above as offices, and the rows of stables built behind provided ample storage space for the agricultural machinery and feed in which my grandfather traded. 

My great grandfather had also worked there. Before owning the property outright, in the late 1800's he became a partner in the firm of Alexander and Duncan. Back then the company specialised in selling ironmongery and the ballroom was used as a showroom, filled with items like iron hearth surrounds, chairs, tables, bed frames and umbrella stands.

When I was a little girl, though the ballroom had fallen into disrepair, my grandmother used to tell me how it once echoed with the sounds of  music and laughter and dancing. She would lead me through these entrance doors -




 And on, into the ballroom, which in its heyday looked like this -

An 1843 engraving of a New Year's Eve ball: the grand opening of The Lion Ballroom

And, nowadays, since my grandmother's death and the subsequent sale of the property, the ballroom has been restored, and has again been used for many cultural events in the town.


I wish Granny Thomas could see it now though I haven't been able to go inside to see the restored room at first hand. These days, the Lion Works coaching inn is filled with too many sad memories and the memory of my beautiful Betty. In my mind it will always linger on as a decaying but magical place that was filled with dust and spiders' webs.

21/02/2010

DEADWOOD: TALES OF THE WILD WEST




The VV has recently been immersed in the American HBO series of Deadwood – and she has been loving it! But, there must be a word of warning for those as yet unacquainted: Do not watch with your coy maiden aunt, or any who might be offended by 'foul language or scenes of an explicit nature'. This is a production with ‘no holds barred’.



First screened in 2004, and written almost entirely by David Milch, the story is based on real events in the 1800’s gold rush town of Deadwood, situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The photography has an atmospheric sepia tone through which scenes are played out on the tented mud streets, with gunslingers, gamblers and drunkards in the saloon and local whorehouse. Combined with a well-researched, intelligent script, and some amazing soliloquies that might almost be Shakespearian, Deadwood is a clever fusion of historical fact and fiction – all peppered with coarse language, crude behaviour and a brutal black sense of humour.

Wild Bill Hicock - Keith Carradine (left) plays his part in Deadwood.


There’s a wonderful, epileptic preacher. There’s Wild Bill Hicock. There's Calamity Jane, and Wyatt Earp. The local bar owner, Jim Swearenger (who lives up to his name in every way) is played to perfection by the actor, Ian McShane.




Deadwood has heart and soul in spades. Relationships are well-observed thoughout, though if you prefer sweetness and delicacy then you should avoid it like the plague - or the case of smallpox that breaks out in the town. Any notion of romance is confined to a nostalgia for the ‘wild west’ genre.  The hard-fighting souls who inhabit the town are more likely to smoke dope and then curse at a whore than to spend their time wooing a decent girl – of whom very few would appear to exist in what was then an illegal camp on the edge of Indian territory.



With plenty of miners around about, there was a good trade for the prostitues who were often paid in gold dust. The painted ladies or soiled doves soon became a prominent fixture, for no laws had been passed to prevent or police such a practice at the time. 




The first to arrive - on a wagon train - had previously worked in California, recorded as having the glorious names of Dirty Em and Madam Moustachio, or more simply Irene Love - who is shown in the photograph above. 

But, such ‘flash girls’ were often only there because of force of circumstance and many would tragically succumb to the succour of opium and alcohol. Suicide was a common event with the town’s doctor always being sure to carry a stomach pump in his bag. And, with the fate of such souls in mind, the following novels spring to s mind.





The first is Missy by Chris Hannan, published in the UK in 2008. It tells the story of the young prostitute, Dol McQueen, who is addicted to ‘missy’ - the slang term for a tincture of opium. While crossing the Nevada desert, heading out to find work in San Francisco, she has a high old time evading an evil and murderous pimp after stealing a crate of opium. The novel begins with this wonderful opening line –“I expect you have the consolation of religion, or the guidance of a philosophy, but when me and the girls get frazzled, or blue, or rapturous, or just awfully so-so, we shin out and buy ourselves some hats...”
Don’t you just wish you’d written that! And the VV can assure you that the rest of the story is just as good. It’s sad and funny and tragic and...well ... read it for yourself and see.



And last, but by no means least, there is a novel that I discovered entirely by chance when researching the theatres of San Francisco. 

Woman of Ill Fame (published by Heyday Books in the US) is written by the talented American author, Erika Mailman. She tells the story of Nora Simms - a hooker with a heart of gold who travels West when seeking her fortune, only to find herself embroiled in a frightening murder mystery. In the words of one reviewer, Joe Quirk –“I read Woman of Ill Fame breathless and heart-tugged, then went back and read it again. What a sexy delight. I love Nora. No-one can stop her.”
The VV loves Nora too, and can’t believe that Woman of Ill Fame has never been published here in the UK.  

09/02/2010

THE BRINGING OF HISTORY TO LIFE...


This is one of the earliest known photographs of a human. A self portrait taken in 1839, it shows a young Robert Cornelius (1809-1893) standing outside his family's lamp-making shop in Philadelphia.

Cornelius was an American of Dutch descent whose knowledge of metallurgical chemistry was to help in perfecting the process of silver-plating, then employed in the production of daguerreotypes.

It had previously been assumed that the time necessary for a photograph to be exposed was simply too long for portaiture to be considered. But, by making this striking image, Cornelius proved the concensus wrong and then went on to develop a chemical means of accelerating the process.

So - an extraordinary and historically important image - but the VV finds it startling for quite another reason.

This photograph was made well over 150 years ago, and yet Robert Cornelius looks as contemporary and 'immediate' as any young man you might happen to pass on the streets today. He might be in a fashion publicity shot, or some moody modern musician. But, the most poignant thing is that what you see is a real man - a man you could reach out and almost touch, a man you could talk to, or even desire.

This daguerreotype did not only change the way we see photography now. It works some kind of alchemy. One glance and it drags us back into the past. It is bringing history to life.

Robert Cornelius at work in 1843


The VV would like to thank Lucy Inglis, the creator of Georgian London for drawing her attention to this incredible photograph. And finally, in Lucy's own words - 'Cornelius isn't some styled dandy approving every brushstroke of a portrait or a miniature: he's just a bloke standing in the street trying out his new camera.'

02/02/2010

THE REAL ALICE IN WONDERLAND ...


 Alice Pleasance Liddell (1852-1934)



In 1864, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - a young clergyman and mathematics don at Oxford university who was soon to become more widely known as the author, Lewis Carroll - presented a charming little girl with the Christmas gift of a 15,000 word, handwritten manuscript.




Lovingly adorned with his own illustrations, Alice's Adventures Underground had been conceived on a summer's day back in 1862 when Carroll had gone on a boating trip with Edith, Lorina and Alice - the three daughters of Henry George Liddell, the dean of Christ Church college.


 The Liddell sisters, with Alice on the right. Photograph by Lewis Carroll




Alice was Carroll's favourite and the star of his fanciful stories. He first met her in the deanery gardens in the April of 1856, and the day was marked out in his diary as one of great significance. Carroll was 24 years old - twenty years older than Alice.






Though in later years he was to claim that the character of Alice had not been based on a real child, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland there are many references to Alice Liddell. 

For instance, her birthday was on May 4th and during the Hatter's tea party we read -

'The Hatter was the first to break the silence. “What day of the month is it?” he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket and was looking at it uneasily...Alice considered a little, and then said, “The Fourth”.'





The epilogue for Through the Looking Glass is in the form of a poem, in which the first letter of each line spells out Alice's full name of Alice Pleasance Liddell -


A boat beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July --

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear
Pleased a simple tale to hear --

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream --
Lingering in the golden gleam --
Life what is it but a dream?



'Still she haunts me' - Carroll's poem possesses a dreamlike yearning and is filled with poignant memories of that balmy summer's day when he rowed along the river with Alice and her sisters. 

His interest in young and innocent girls was also demonstrated in a vast collection of photographs - many of which the artist destroyed before his death. However, surviving images can still be viewed today, held at the National Media Museum, though you need to telephone to make a prior appointment to view them.


Lorina and Alice Liddell, posing as Orientals


Carroll also destroyed a page from his diary in 1863, after which his close relationship with the entire Liddell family was to come to a very abrupt end. In later years, his own family explained that the page in the diary referred to Mrs Liddell being unhappy at what she assumed to be Carroll's courting of Miss Pricket, who was then the children's governess.

It is thought by some that the character of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass was based on this Miss Pricket, described by Carroll in the following way - 

"The Red Queen I pictured as a Fury, but of another type; her passion must be cold and calm; she must be formal and strict, yet not unkindly; pedantic to the tenth degreee, the concentrated essence of all governesses!" 

So, she was firm and not unkindly - yet would such a mature governess really be attractive to the same man who meets the twelve year old Alice Liddell and writes of his disappointment to see how much the child has grown: "changed a great deal and hardly for the better."





Whatever her childhood character, Alice grew up to be a beautiful and assured young woman - so much so that she was courted by Queen Victoria's youngest son, Prince Leopold, when he was studying at Oxford.




However, Queen Victoria was adamant that her son should only wed a woman who was born of royal blood - though when her son did marry he named his first daughter Alice. And when Alice Liddell married too, to another Oxford student by the name of  Reginald Hargreaves - well, perhaps it is mere coincidence that the prince was her son's godfather, and that son was named as Leopold.


Prince Leopold and his wife, doting on their daughter, Alice.


Despite the loss of her royal love Alice went on to become a successful and happy society wife. It was only after her husband's death, when she found herself to be in need, that she finally resorted to selling her original copy of Alice's Adventures Underground

In 1928 the manuscript was auctioned at Sotheby's, achieving the sum of £15,400, which was four times the reserve price. 

In 1948, it changed hands yet again, this time to be bought by a group of American businessmen who donated the precious manuscript to the British Museum in Bloomsbury.



In 1932, to mark the centenary of Lewis Carroll's birth, Alice visited New York to receive an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. The trip was exciting but also exhausting, leading to a deluge of letters and intense interest from the media. 

Alice's death in 1934 was marked by an obituary in The Times. Her ashes are now interred in the family tomb in Lyndhust, in Hampshire, engraved with the following words : The grave of Mrs Reginald Hargreaves, the Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.


The poignant last page of Alice's Adventures Underground





Dreamchild  (1985) is a film scripted by Dennis Potter with Carroll's imaginary characters realised by the puppeteer, Jim Henson. It tells the story of Alice's journey to a Depression era New York with flashbacks to her privileged Victorian youth with Carroll, who is played by Ian Holm. The part of the older Alice is taken by Coral Browne, who went on to recieve a London Evening Standard Film Award for Best Actress. Sadly, I can only find it available in VHS tape format in the UK, but it is available in DVD format from Amazon in the US.