You are currently viewing archive for September 2008
28 September 2008
The Inn Sign Society has a special section on its website about cats. It says that the first recorded mention of a Cheshire Cat was in 1770, and a pub called The Cheshire Cat in Christleton, near Chester, commemorates this.

Carroll spent his early life in Cheshire, but it's not known if he ever visited this pub. It dates from 1801, which is thirty-one years before his birth; so it is by no means impossible.

He would probably have liked the Inn Sign Society: he was all for saving traditional things.
26 September 2008
Carroll was famous for parodying others, and recently I've been collecting together parodies of Carroll's verse. Here's a verse from a parody of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" from Leslie Barker's "All Us Through the Magnifying Glass". This is a decidedly curious book which marries the author's love of Carroll with his passion for stamp collecting. There are a number of stamp related parodies in the book and here's a verse from Father William.

"The dealer said the Auctioneer
Could trot a mile or so
And that his prices never were
conveniently low
And all the stamp collectors stood
and waited in a row"

The parodies are not of the best, but perhaps the extraordinary thing about them is not how they are done, but the fact that they are done at all!

Also spotted "The Aging Radiologist: "You Are Old, Dr Williams" by Donald Bachman, I am not allowed to access the full text, which is on a radiographer's website. It begins

"You are old," said the youth, "as I mentioned before,
And you have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you do barium enemas all by the score.... "

24 September 2008

Super Victorian binding

Don't suppose any of my children's stories will ever get into such a fine binding as this - circa 1860. But for years I've wanted to write stories for children. It seems like a difficult market to get into - I suppose whether or not people take to fiction is a subjective thing. For the last few months I've been mentally gearing up to making a real effort to get a children's story published. I haven't been able to devote much time to it lately because I've been so busy with the Carroll book. But an early version of the one I've chosen is linked to on the side of this page.

23 September 2008
One of the best things about the "Alice" characters is the way they are ludicrous and unlikely, yet you do meet them out and about. Yesterday in central London I saw a man on a bicycle hung all over with extraordinary things. I plucked up courage to ask him what the washing-bowls fixed over the handle-bars were for. He informed me that they were to keep the wind off his hands when he was cycling, so they would stay warm. I should have waited to see if he burst into rhyme.
21 September 2008
In The Shadow Of The Dreamchild

Probably the most controversial book ever issued about Carroll is Karoline Leach's "In The Shadow of the Dreamchild," which came out in 1999. Leach's book was the first serious study to question the commonly held views that that Carroll was either a sexless saint or a paedophile misfit who was fixated on little girls. Instead, she postulated the idea that Carroll had an adult personal life, which included an affair with Alice's mother, Mrs. Liddell.

Her book caused outrage amongst many scholars. There was no way anyone could lump Leach together with the many cranks who write peculiar books about Carroll. She was extraordinarily well informed, not only about Carroll but about his circle. She followed up little-known references, read many difficult and obscure texts, and made a persuasive case for most of what she said.

The stumbling block for many people - including me - was the idea of an affair with Mrs. L. Not the least of the reasons is that Mrs. Liddell would have needed a death wish to embark upon an affair with anyone, since an adultress generally lost her husband, her home, her children and her position in society.

Still, anyone who writes anything now about Carroll - including me -is indebted to Leach. Anyone interested in Carroll the man needs to read her book, even if they don't agree with it. After a long period out of print, it is coming out as a paperback next month. It is listed for pre-order in bookstores or on Amazon. Not before time.
19 September 2008
A song Carroll wrote at the age of 18 uses underworld slang. Called "Screams," it ends

"...He asked another, "Who's that cove?
And why's the Peeler got him?"

His friend replied, as on they went
"He's rather gone in liquor
He prigged the shiners off a gent
And neatly nabbed his ticker."

The idea of the teenage Carroll creeping round Croft on Tees with black mask, striped jersey and swagbag is appealing but I suppose he must have read this stuff in a book. It shows how he was fascinated by language even as a teenager. He'd probably have enjoyed this site, which includes some odd words which used to be slang and are now in the mainstream, as well as words which have faded ito quaint obscurity. And I wonder what he'd have made of this, on slangsite:
"To overcarrol: (Of science popularisers.) To unhelpfully or excessively use the works of Lewis Carroll as an analogy for particle physics weirdness.
Example: Good book? Yeah, but a bit of overcarrolling in the later chapters. "
16 September 2008
Brick Train

I have nearly finished all the chapters of the book, so strictly speaking have nearly reached the end of my task. However, the digging around has meant I've found some unexpected things.

One is a letter which apparently hasn't been read by previous biographers - or even by scholars. It casts an entirely new light on Carroll's relations with the Liddell family and what Alice Liddell meant to him. I'm excited that I'll be the first one to have the chance to describe it in the book.

I'm also having another look at the Wasp in A Wig - the so called suppressed chapter of "Through the Looking Glass". I don't want to rest till I have got to the bottom of it - to my own satisfaction, I mean. It is either a very clever fake or a very bad but real bit of Carroll's writing.

Then there is the matter of some missing material.... but more later, after I have followed this clue up, since it may lead nowhere at all. I don't want to be too "Conan Doyle" about all this.

Today's picture is a train emerging from a hill very near Carroll's childhood home on Teesside. Darlington was there at the birth of the railways. This (if my model railway memories are correct) seems to be a Class A4 Pacific locomotive, similar to the famous "Mallard" of the 1930s.
14 September 2008

When I walked into this garden yesterday, I felt as if I'd walked into the garden in Looking Glass Land - even to chess pawns on the topiary.

In reality the garden isn't themed on Alice (or on chess) and is in Marvao, Alentejo, Portugal. It's an extraordinary medieval village topped with a huge rambling castle and it could be the setting of many a fairy tale.

10 September 2008
Penmorfa in Ruins

Got a long letter about the Liddell's holiday home, Penmorfa. It came from CADW, which lists buildings of historical interest in Wales.

CADW says Penmorfa isn't architecturally valuable enough to save. They don't take account of its "supposed relationship" with Carroll because, they say, "while Dean Liddell?s daughter is known to have been the inspiration for Alice, there is no documentary evidence the Lewis Carroll ever visited Penmorfa (or indeed that he ever went to Llandudno at all) and it is known that he fell out with the Liddell family shortly after the house was completed."

The replacement building will apparently"reflect the original design of Penmorfa."

My impression of Penmorfa when I visited it some years ago was that it was a grim hotel which had been very badly modernised. It had no atmosphere at all. It could of course have been done up and put to an appropriate use, like an "Alice" centre. I just don't think Llandudno has ever been interested.
09 September 2008

Carroll hated the idea of inflicting pain on helpless creatures. He was raised on a farm, but didn't incline to the rural life and he never kept a pet. But he always did his best to spare animals from suffering and he was sickened and disgusted at the idea of using animals in experiments. He felt that vivisection also had a corrupting effect on the human soul. He rather scarily seemed to anticipate certain 20th century horrors. Here's a link to a paper he wrote about vivisection as early as 1875, when he was 43. It's imbued with the ideas of his time - when people were a lot harsher. The idea that legislating against something just encourages it (which he disagrees with) is not one that's held by most people today. Still, it is an interesting read.
08 September 2008
Carroll was tricksy and he loved codes. He was never much into cryptography - although many people believe that his work was full of hidden messages and I have seen whole books written with the aim of "revealing" what is apparently "hidden" in his works. Usually the writer sees almost entirely the meanings they want to see. (This is a risk that all commentators take of course).

Carroll devised a game called Doublets in which you transform one word into another of the same length, changing one word at a time, with the minimum number of "steps". The link is here.

I wondered if it was possible to change CRYPTIC to DELUDED but stalled instantly on CRYPTIC.

06 September 2008

Over on Lenny's Alice in Wonderland forum is a thread about favourite Alice movies. I vote for Jonathan Miller

It catches the exact flavour of 1960s psychedelic Victoriana. Miller's a genius anyhow but the movie reflects its time. In the 1960s, anything Victorian - buildings, ideas, etc. - were just starting to get back into fashion with young people (like Miller was then). Mostly, Victoriana was considered "hideous" and was neglected, trashed or abandoned.

The best Victorian houses were expensively built and reflected the huge ideas and aspirations that formed the background to the 19th century. They were full of hope and grandeur and self confidence and glory and the best seemed to reach beyond the mundane into a world beyond.

I once went to see a horror film made in what had been a NHS mental hospital converted out of a big house in huge grounds. It had countless echoing and enormous rooms. It wasn't abandoned but was caretaken by a guy in a tiny office in the ground floor and I couldn't believe what a dream it was. Didn't care about the NHS fire escape signs, prefab huts - I remember a long, long corridor going off into the distance, with great big pictures painted on the walls, huge dark rooms, vast grand grounds, towers....

Although some dinosaur developers are still trashing the memories and echoes of big gothic houses (such as in stupid Llandudno, with Pen Morfa - see below) most are now renovating them. Electric gates, private gyms and car parks, not an ounce of mystery or magic. Here's a link to one that's for sale in Virginia Park, Surrey. I hope they sell it but even its best friends couldn't call it dramatic, romantic or even interesting.

I suppose they can't keep them all for film sets and eccentric millionaires. Virginia Park's said to be one of the better developments with a lot of money spent on restoring its great hall.

The moral of that is, you must catch magic while it is there. It doesn't linger - specially when there's lots of money to be made. Now, do go and view Jonathan Miller!
05 September 2008
West End Lights
At last! I've found an image to illustrate the article below.
05 September 2008
For years I've been reviewing children's books (not to mention the occasional bits of non fiction and several books on Lewis Carroll) for our local paper, known to all as the "Ham and High." But it wasn't till last night that I got along to the pub to meet everyone. At long last I could put faces on Barry, Katie, Jo and the other hitherto cyberpeople I'd been dealing with by phone and email. They were all extremely nice and I rather wished I could work in their office instead of in my lonely cupboard here at home.

Among the other freelancers was the writer of the wildlife column. Since this is Inner London I asked if he covered Hampstead Heath, which is in our "patch." No, he said, he usually sticks with REAL London - streets, buildings, etc. His last column was about eating some mushrooms ihe found growing in Islington.

He was a knowledgable environmental officer with Islington council & set me right on the difference between the moths that have been locally infesting the rice and the ones which have been infesting the clothes (moths are incredibly fashionable in London at present). I expect he knows all about bedbugs, which are also almost de rigeur in parts of London these days, but luckily not in our house.

I should have told him about the fox who lives in the communal garden at the back of us. He used to be so mangy, but then a wildlife lover left out some meat liberally laced with anti mange medicine. The fox is now the picture of radiant health and strolls around in broad daylight, often when people are having picnics in the garden.

03 September 2008
Writing a biography has made me think about the whole process of biography writing. It feels strange to be setting myself up as an authority on someone else! I'd never do it even about a member of my own family. It's even harder when the subject is dead, and nobody is alive who can say if I'm right or wrong.

The more I pore over the documents, the more I recognise how Carroll approached life himself. He was very good at showing people just enough to enable them to jump to their own conclusions. He didn't put them right if they were wrong, but he never seems to have actually told lies. He was also very clever and very secretive. Knowing a bit about how his mind worked enables me to form hypotheses about hitherto mysterious events in his life, and I can then check them against facts that do exist.

I've written another little piece about him on Suite101 - this time about his games, riddles and puzzles.
02 September 2008
Most of us were brought up with (or without, if possible) Venn Diagrams. For a while now, these have been replaced by Carroll diagrams, which are better and more versatile. His Game of Logic is on a ?Carroll diagram? board. I suppose he?d have been rather pleased to know his diagram had been adopted as part of the National Curriculum. Here?s a link to a really simple Carroll diagram which very young children could do, and some easy Carroll diagrams using numbers .

I always liked the idea of Carroll being psychedelic. There's no record he used mind altering drugs and didn't even smoke - in fact he was a homeopathic practitioner. But that doesn't mean much. He was not the slightest bit consistent, and is reported to have carried a flask of sherry around with him, which he used to drink instead of having lunch. Doesn't quite fit with his "anorexic" image (see below) but then nothing fitted together with Carroll. Here's Alice on acid which is not PC though makes me laugh.

01 September 2008
Last night I dreamed I had won a scholarship to study for a year at Christ Church, Oxford. In the dream, I was very excited, and devised a plan that would make it so much easier to write my book. I would find a way to attend one of Carroll's maths lectures, and then afterwards I'd invite him out for a cup of coffee in one of the many coffee bars and restaurants that now fill Oxford. Over a cappuccino, I would see if I could confirm any of my ideas about what sort of man he was.

I was really excited about this, and it was only when I woke up that I realised the tiny flaw in my brilliant plan.

Illustration today is a photoshopped version of a wonderful Victorian screen my friend Jane has. Someone in about 1880 cut out innumerable steel engravings from magazines and created a truly dreamlike and mysterious landscape. In reality the screen is dark brown with varnish, and would not make a good photo, which is why I messed around with the colours.

It's wonderful to look at for hours as it is full of strange landscapes, stories and characters. Whatever Victorian lady made it was a genius.

Jane's screen