Thursday, December 29, 2016

Mimi and Toutou Go Forth

A slightly daft fellow named Spicer-Simson was stuck at a desk job in 1915 when a slightly daft assignment fell into his lap: he was to lead an overland expedition from South Africa to the Belgian Congo, transporting a pair of armed motorboats to neutralize the German naval presence on Lake Tanganyika.

He christened the motorboats Mimi and Toutou (after his original names had been rejected, Miaou and Bow-wow). They were transported from Captetown to Elizabethville by train, but after that had to be dragged by steam-tractors and ox-teams over a difficult terrain.

Spicer-Simson had been court-martialled twice and had a "reputation for disaster." Vain and full of preposterous boasts, he smoked monogrammed cigarettes, claimed to speak Chinese, used a form of semaphore unknown to anyone else, and took to wearing a khaki skirt (not a kilt) to better show off his heavily tattooed body.

Africans called him Lord Bellycloth and some regarded him as a god, worshipping clay statues of him. His men had a different view, and by the end of the expedition he was communicating with them only in writing.

After the war he was awarded a DSO but never another command. Years later he settled in Canada and died in Courtney BC in 1947.

The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika

Despite Spicer-Simson's eccentricities, Mimi and Toutou captured the first German vessel they encountered and renamed it Fifi. They also took prisoners, including an African stoker who switched sides and remained on the job when the Mimi and Fifi attacked and sank a larger German vessel.

With a British land force advancing toward Bismarckburg (now Kasanga), Spicer-Simson was ordered to prevent the Germans from fleeing by water. Intimidated, however, by the fort's wooden cannons, he took no part in the operation. For this, he received a dressing down from the commander of the British column and fell into a lethargy, taking to his bed for months.

Literary Echoes

There are passing references to Livingston and Stanley, both of whom travelled through the area around Lake Tanganyika searching for the source of the Nile, and to Joseph Conrad who made his Congo River journey in 1890 (which provided him with the material for Heart of Darkness) approximately 25 years before Spicer-Simson's expedition. There are several quotes from Remote People by Evelyn Waugh, who visited the area in 1930.

The penultiimate chapter in Mimi and Toutou Go Forth is devoted to The African Queen. Spicer-Simson's expedition was the inspiration for C.S. Forester's book. Scenes for the movie version were filmed in the Congo, with Katherine Hepburn recording her memories of the shoot in The Making of the African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Houston, and Almost Lost My Mind. 

Peter Viertel, a screenwriter who worked with director John Huston on the film in Africa, portrayed Huston in a novel, White Hunter, Black Heart, which itself was subsequently filmed.

The Author

The final chapter of Mimi and Toutou ends with an account by the author, Giles Foden, of his own visit to the area and a trip on the MV Liemba on Lake Tanganyika. The vessel was originally the Graf von Gotzen, the Germans' largest asset on the lake and which they scuttled. Refloated by the British after the war, it now serves as a passenger ferry.

Foden received the Somerset Maughan award for his first book, The Last King of Scotland. Mimi and Toutou Go Forth was published in 2004 and has helpful maps and delightful illustrations for chapter headings drawn by his wife, Matilda Hunt.

At the back are silhouettes of the vessels involved and a useful bibliography. The endpapers of the hardcover edition show a fuzzy photographic image of Spicer-Simson in semaphore mode -- a nice touch for an entertaining and well-researched book.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


The Violent Birth of Halifax

The bulk of Jon Tattrie's bio of Edward Cornwallis covers the period 1749-52 -- that is, between the year of his founding of Halifax and the year of his return to England.

The difficulties in starting a new colony were many, not least of which was the quality of the "settlers," who were described by the chaplain as "profligate wretches debilitated by drink."

For about half of his time spent in Nova Scotia, Cornwallis remained in bed due to rheumatism. He is notorious for the bounty he placed on Mi'Kmaq men, women and children. The bounty was verified by scalps.

Before Halifax

Cornwallis came from an aristocratic family. His father was a baron and his mother the daughter of an earl. George II and his son the Duke of Cumberland were family friends. Edward's twin brother became George's personal chaplain and later the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1745 Cornwallis fought under Cumberland's command at the Battle of Fontenoy in Flanders. Although a disastrous defeat for the British, Cornwallis was rewarded with the post of Groom of the King's Bedchamber.

In 1746 he served once again under Cumberland at the Battle of Culloden. Afterwards he took part in the "Pacification" of the Scottish Highlands, a campaign of terror that sanctioned rape. "In later years, Cornwallis's operation was remembered as one of unrestrained violence."

After Halifax

He became a member of a group of dandies known as the Corinthians. One of this group was Admiral Byng, "infamous for his brutal floggings," who in 1756 was given command of a force sent to relieve a British garrison on the island of Minorca. When the expedition returned without attempting to land its forces, Britain was outraged, and Cornwallis and others were burned in effigy. Following a court martial, Byng was executed by firing squad.

In 1757 Cornwallis joined an expedition to invest the French port of Rochefort. It turned out to be a repeat of the Minorca fiasco with the leader, General Mordaunt, being court-martialled. The not-guilty verdict so angered the King that Cornwallis and others were removed from his staff.

George II died in 1760 and was succeeded by George III, who did not care for his grandfather's favourite. Cornwallis was "quietly released from his post at the king's bedchamber with no notice."

In 1762 he resigned his seat in Parliament -- he had spoken only once and was not well-liked -- to become governor of Gibraltar. It was a post that he was unhappy with, but his pleas to resign went unnoticed by London. He died there in 1776.

The book ends with this question for the reader: "You now know Cornwallis's full story: is this a man you wish to honour?"

A Few Ironies

The ship that brought Cornwallis to Nova Scotia was named after a mythological monster -- the Sphinx.

One of the first streets in Halifax suggests the name of a former acquaintance, Lord Sackville, who took part in the Battle of Fontenoy and the Pacification of the Highlands. In 1759 Sackville was cashiered and court martialled for his role in the Battle of Minden. The ruling stated that he was "unfit to serve his Majesty in any military capacity whatsoever."

Edward's nephew, Charles Cornwallis, surrendered in 1781 to French and American forces at Yorktown, Virginia, and became known as the general who lost the American colonies.

The Pacification inaugurated the Highland Clearances, which continued into the 19th century, bore similarities to the Expulsion of the Acadians, and resulted in many Highlanders emigrating to Nova Scotia. At the Halifax Citadel re-enactors wear replica uniforms of the 78th Highlanders, who were stationed there in 1869-71.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Jungle Books

Kipling's Jungle books are beast fables, the animals having names and able to converse with each other. The tales are delightful and impossibly romantic, especially the eight that concern Mowgli ("the Frog"), a toddler adopted by a wolf pack.

Mowgli is charmingly innocent and childishly brave, but sometimes rather imperious. Other animals, even Shere Khan the tiger, look away from his stare. Some of the wolves resent this and turn against him. He leaves the jungle and lives for a while in a village with a woman who may or may not be his mother.

The three Mowgli stories in the first Jungle Book are particularly good, being deftly told and having a satisfying organic unity. The remaining Mowgli stories are in the Second Jungle Book and add non-essential details that occurred within the span of the first three.

The stories are a little darker than the movie versions. There are other differences as well. Kaa the rock python is a wise and important friend, not an enemy. There is no King Louie in the books, he is a Disney fabrication.

Of the non-Mowgli stories, "Rikki-tikki-Tavi" is probably the most well-known. In "The Undertakers" there is an interesting Dickensian character, a crocodile called the Mugger. The tales I liked least are the two that take place in the Far North, one of them in the Canadian High Arctic.
Kipling was the first writer in English to win a Nobel Prize for literature, but is now somewhat out of fashion for his dated views on empire. Nevertheless, these stories are classics, and we cannot seem to get enough of Mowgli and his literary descendant, Tarzan. A new movie for each was released this year, and another version of Mowgli comes out next year.


1. Mowgli’s Brothers

The wolves take in Mowgli despite the protests of Shere Khan. Ten years later years the tiger turns most of the pack against Mowgli. Forewarned by Bagheera the panther, Mowgli steals a glowing coal from a village and uses a fiery brand to drive away Shere Khan. “Up, dog!” Mowgli cried. “Up, when a man speaks, or I will set that coat ablaze!”

2. Kaa’s Hunting

When Mowgli is imprisoned by monkeys in the Cold Lairs (a lost city), a rescue attempt is led by Baloo and Bagheera, but it is only with the timely aid of Kaa that he escapes. It is the monkeys that Kaa hypnotizes with his eyes, not Mowgli.

3. “Tiger! Tiger!”

Mowgli spends time in a village with a woman, Messua, whose baby was taken by a tiger. When he learns that Shere Khan is planning to lie in wait for him at the village gate, he orchestrates a stampede of water buffalo that kills Shere Khan. As he skins out the hide, he is accused of being a shape-changing sorceror, and returns to the jungle. The story ends this way:

    “Man-Pack and Wolf-Pack have cast me out,” said Mowgli.  “Now I will hunt alone in the Jungle.” 
    “And we will hunt with thee,” said the four cubs.
    So Mowgli went away and hunted with the four cubs in the Jungle from that day on. But he was not always alone, because years afterwards he became a man and married.
    But that is a story for grown-ups.

4. The White Seal

A seal in the Pribiloff Islands leads others to a place safe from hunters.

5. “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”

A mongoose protects a human family from a pair of vengeful cobras.

6. Toomai of the Elephants

The son of a mahout, Little Toomai, accompanies elephants one night when they meet in the jungle to dance.

7. Her Majesty’s Servants

A man overhears a conversation by military pack-animals: a baggage-camel, a troop-horse, an elephant named Two Tails, a pair of gun-bullocks, two mules (and at the very end a dog named Vixen).


1. How Fear Came

During a drought, Hathi the elephant proclains a water truce. When Shere Khan boasts of having killed a man, Hathi tells a tale of how the First Tiger killed a man, thus teaching men how to kill.

2. The Miracle Of Purun Bhagat 

The Prime Minister of a state in India renounces society and takes up a begging bowl. He ends up in a mountain village where his friendship with animals -- “as often as not he would find a furry ape sharing his blanket” -- gives him advance warning of an avalanche.

3. Letting In The Jungle

People respond to the events in “Tiger! Tiger!” by planning to kill Messua and her husband. They are freed by Mowgli and escape to safety, after which he organizes the destruction of the village and its cultivated fields.

4. The Undertakers 

A very old crocodile reminisces with a jackal and an adjutant stork. He talks about the fat times during the Mutiny when the river was full of bodies, and longs to meet again a child whose hand slipped away unharmed from his bite. He gets his wish but the child is now a man and has a gun.

5. The King’s Ankus

Kaa and Mowgli visit an old white cobra who guards ancient treasure beneath the Cold Lairs (the once great “City of Twenty Kings”). Mowgli takes a bejewelled ankus, which as the cobra warned is cursed.

6. Quiquern

Set near Bylot Island starving Inuit are saved by what appears to be a two-headed eight-legged creature. (Kipling misuses the word "Inuit," which is plural, not singular.)

7. Red Dog 

Kaa and Mowgli execute a plan to stave off an attack by a large pack of dholes.  After much blood-shed, the dholes are defeated. Before he dies, Akela, the old leader of the pack, urges Mowgli to return to his people.  

8. The Spring Running 

Mowgli, now just short of 17 years old, is "strong, tall and beautiful, his long black hair sweeping over his shoulder" and "might easily be mistaken for some wild god of a jungle legend." By this time his wolf parents have died and Baloo is nearly blind. Unsettled by the spring mating season, Mowgli leaves the jungle and returns to live among humans.

Friday, August 19, 2016


Published at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, this book sheds light on why so many of the Lost Generation fled America -- it was to get away from people like George Babbitt.

He's a shallow, ignorant, self-important and "conventionally honest" realtor, a direct descendent of the characters who peddled a slice of swampland to Martin Chuzzlewit and called it Eden.

The storyline takes a wandering path through Babbitt's life, acquainting us with his foibles and deceptions. But underneath his smugness there is a feeling of dissatisfaction which finally bursts burst forth when his best friend goes to jail for a violent crime. Babbitt rebels by becoming liberal in his views and libertine in his private life -- but only temporarily.

Despite his faults he is not inherently evil and has a few redeeming qualities, which allow Sinclair Lewis to bring the novel to an adroit ending. Like Homer Simpson, Babbitt is an American Everyman misled by the American Dream.


Babbitt lives in a town famous for its condensed milk and pasteboard cartons, for its "bathrooms, vacuum cleaners, and all the other signs of civilization." It's a swell place to live if you have lots of zip and pep, but no time for unions, immigrants, and fine arts.

Yet for all their boosting and boasting, Babbitt and his pals often sound like bumpkins, addressing each other as: old hoss, old socks, old rooster, old lemon pie-face.

At times their folksy conversation is semi-literate: yump, pee-rading, pleasmeech, but zize saying, boyses and girlses, speaknubout prices, snoway talkcher father, whadde do?

Alone, the names of various characters seem innocuous, but when considered together they drip with derision -- Opal Mudge, Carrie Nork, Chum Frink, Vergil Gunch, Otis Deeble, Albert Boos.


"Folks are so darn crooked that they expect a fellow to do a little lying."

"In other countries, art and literature are left to a lot of shabby bums living in attics and feeding on booze and spaghetti, but in America the successful writer or picture painter is indistinguishable from any other decent business man." 

"I think this baby's a bum, yes, sir, I think this little baby's a bum, he's a bum, yes, sir, he's a bum, that's what he is, he's a bum, this baby's a bum, he's nothing but an old bum, that's what he is – a bum!"

Sinclair Lewis

He was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Lit, and Babbitt is, I think, his most famous novel. I'm not sure if he's read much any more, but if so that's a pity because Babbitt is very modern, especially since boosterism is still with us in form of modern advertising.

The novel's impact was such that the word "babbitt" has entered the lexicon as "a narrow-minded, self-satisfied person with an unthinking attachment to middle-class values and materialism."

Other works of interest that Sinclair Lewis wrote: Main Street, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, It Can't Happen Here.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Heinlein & Norton

Craving some light summer reading, I opted for a couple of books by Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton. I have very fond memories of their YA titles, which I devoured as a kid. 

These two are among their earliest, Red Planet being published in 1949 and Star Man's Son 2250 AD in 1952.

In both books two young men clash with authorities and undertake a perilous journey to escape pursuit. There are alien creatures in each book, as well as a bond between one of the young men and a non-human character.

  Red Planet                      Star Man's Son
The hardcover editions had illustrations that made the books extra special for me. Those in Red Planet were done by Clifford Geary, in Star Man's Son by Nicolas Mordvinoff. In each there was one that made such an impression that it became inseparable from my enjoyment of the book.

To my knowledge, the above illustration from Red Planet is the one of the very few that made it into the paperback editions, but with a little searching you can find most of the others on the web. (I have taken some liberties by cropping the Mordvinoff drawing, as it was originally done as a two-page spread.)

Red Planet

Red Planet takes place on a Mars with canals, indigenous flora and fauna, and three-legged Martians who live in ancient cities. Humans inhabit several bubble settlements and work for a company engaged in an atmosphere project. The canals ice over in winter and provide an escape route for the two boys when they put on skates to flee. One of them has a Martian “roundhead” or “bouncer” as a sort of pet.

When outdoors, people must wear respirators, one of which is portrayed in the Clifford Geary illustration and used as a frontispiece in my Ace paperback edition. The zebra stripes are personal decoration.

After finishing the book, I made a surprising discovery. The version I read had been so mangled by an editor that Heinlein considered removing his name from it. Not until 1992 was a restored edition published by Del Rey.

In Imagining Mars, Robert Crossley devotes a few pages to Red Planet, saying, “Heinlein insists that Red Plant be read as an allegory, with Earth as the exemplification of Law and Mars of Freedom.”

Heinlein re-used some of the ideas he developed in Red Planet for his later best-seller, Stranger in a Strange Land. Though I have enjoyed a few of his adult books, my favourites are all YA titles, especially The Rolling Stones, Tunnel in the Sky, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Have Space Suit Will Travel.

Daybreak 2250 AD

Star Man's Son (reissued in paperback as Daybreak) takes place on Earth after the “Big Blowup” has caused mutations in people and animals, and rendered some areas uninhabitable due to radiation.

Fors has white hair which plainly marks him as a mutant and turns him into an outcast. But he also has superior hearing and night vision, and a non-verbal form of communication with a mountain lion – a vague sort of telepathy – that enables them to work as a team when hunting or battling foes.

Leaving his mountain home, he arrives on the plains and rescues a stranger named Arskane. They are put to flight by rat-like “Beast Things,” which were once confined to abandoned cities but are now venturing into the countryside.

To meet this threat Fors helps unite three suspicious groups of people, and it is here that Daybreak, like Red Planet, offers a moral. The groups are mountain-dwelling knowledge-seekers (Whites), plains people on horseback (native Americans) and drum-beating newcomers (Blacks) who have been displaced by a natural disaster. It's a well-intentioned but somewhat clumsy device.

Donald Wollheim, an influential editor at Ace Books, estimated that by 1971 a million copies of Daybreak had been sold.

As with Heinlein, my other favourite Nortons all came early in her SF period: Star Born, Galactic Derelict, The Last Planet, and Star Guard.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Mushroom Hunters

On the Trail of an Underground America

The bland title and cover don't do this book justice. Instead, pay attention to the subtitle, then imagine picking mushrooms with Hunter S. Thompson. Yes, guns are involved.

According to the author, mushroom hunting for profit is so secretive it shares "certain similarities with drug smuggling."

That's because there's a lot of money to be made. Some pickers go armed, and the harvesting is often done illegally in restricted areas, or in backwoods America where "your average passing motorist with a flat tire would hesitate to knock on any of the doors."


The author tags along with a couple of expert foragers who are quirky but likeable. One is a former sous-chef who supplies wild produce directly to restaurants in New York and on the West Coast. Since pickers want cash he makes frequent trips to banks, but without the slightest concern over his appearance. When setting up a new account on a buying trip to Montana, he looks homeless or deranged -- unshaven, dishevelled, hands black with dirt. "Hard work was his mantra."

The other person is a former logger and commercial fisherman who's been diagnosed with Parkinson's and is awaiting a new set of teeth. He's served in the military, spent time in drug rehab, had two dozen concussions, and drives a car called the Blue Pig. He manages without a phone, bank account, or (after three divorces) a wife. He does not use maps or GPS, yet has never gotten lost. He smokes pot through a mushroom, and once earned $6000 in two days picking matsutake.

The supporting cast is large enough to populate a novel, and includes chefs, restauranteurs, mycological geeks, meth-heads, and hardworking immigrants whose "lives had been full of tumult and misfortune." One of them says, "I don't pick for money, I pick for survival."


Inherently mysterious, they take strange shapes that can be deadly, delicious, or hallucinogenic. Evolutionarily (says the author) they're closer to animals than plants, which perhaps explains common names like oyster, lobster, hedgehog, hawkwing, shaggy mane, bear's head, man-on-horseback, chicken-of-the-woods.

The adventurous author goes truffling in Oregon, picks hedgehogs in Washington, hunts for black trumpets and yellow chantarelles in northern California, and sets himself the goal of picking 100 pounds of morels in a single day in the Yukon.


How about squid-ink pasta, oxtail ragu, stinging nettle soup, eider-poached oysters, Pinot-Noir-braised pork belly, and "pickled quail eggs, bone marrow, and green juniper berries."

My favourite: seven-minute duck eggs with goat-shit oil and wild purslane.


Dried porcini have an earthiness that is quite frankly mind-blowing to the newcomer. Put your nose in a bag of dried porcini and inhale -- and be prepared to suck in the woods and the duff and the very dirt where the mushrooms live. It's a big aroma: toasty, terrestrial, rugged.

I could hear the muffled voices of two men, then the sharp ringing of at least thirty rounds of automatic gunfire unloaded into the woods mere yards from my car.

Zimmerman ran his hands through the chantarelles and chortled like a pirate sifting his pile of golden booty.



There aren't any, so here are three of my own.

To the left is a morel growing in Yoho National Park in BC at an altitude of 2000m. I remember picking these guys as a kid growing up on the prairies. The other two are from the Annapolis Valley at the opposite end of the country: hen-of-the-woods (not to be confused with chicken-of-the-woods) fruiting at the base of an oak tree, and a chaga mushroom (looking like a lump of burnt wood) picked by a friend of my wife. It grows on birch trees and can be used to make a medicinal "tea."

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


Poor Marcovaldo. He's a debt-ridden labourer with a complaining wife, mischievous children, and a cramped home with stained walls.

He longs for decent food, better health, a good night's sleep, a glimpse of stars in the night sky, but his schemes to achieve such things inevitably go awry. Even the simplest tasks -- shovelling snow, collecting firewood, returning home from a movie, taking his family to a supermarket just to gaze at the food -- have ridiculous consequences.

Three times he ends up in hospital, and even when he takes his ailing children out of the city for fresh air, they end up on the grounds of a sanatorium.

Some of the stories have an almost cartoonlike quality, as when Marcovaldo steathily lowers a line from a restaurant's roof into a fishtank, only to lose his catch to a cat. Or when he is entrusted with the care of a potted plant and mounts it on his motorbike to chase after a passing raincloud.

In the final story Marcovaldo becomes a company Santa and delivers presents. When his children get involved, the Society for the Implementation of Christmas Consumption comes up with a new gimmick "to speed up the pace of consumption and give the market a boost" -- destructive gifts.

The book's 20 stories have a fable-like quality due to their beguiling simplicity, seasonal ordering, and presence of many animals. As we chuckle at Marcovaldo's foibles we come to realize that his longings are our own, and that no matter where we live -- city or country -- it's a chimerical world.

The book ends in this fashion:

There was a line where the forest, all black, ended and the snow began, all white. The hare ran on this side, and the wolf on that.

The wolf saw the hare's prints on the snow and followed them, always keeping in the black, so as not to be seen. At the point where the prints ended there should be the hare, and the wolf came out of the black, opened wide his red maw and his sharp teeth, and bit the wind.

The hare was a bit farther on, invisible; he scratched one ear with his paw, and escaped, hopping away.

Is he here? There? Is he a bit farther on?

Only the expanse of snow could be seen, white as this page.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Blue Tattoo

The Life of Olive Oatman

She was 14 years old when her family was massacred by Indians. She was enslaved by the killers for a year, then traded to a neighbouring tribe, the Mohaves, with whom she remained for another four years. When she returned to white society she wore a Mohave tattoo on her chin.

She became the subject of a best-selling book, The Captivity of the Oatman Girls, and gave lectures about her experience to packed houses, yet for the rest of her life remained a somewhat shadowy and retiring figure, in part because of her freakish appearance.

So powerful was her story that it took on a life of its own. It was frequently repeated in newspapers -- usually incorrectly -- and attracted the attention of people who fabricated a connection with her.

"For all its recycling," writes Margo Mifflin, author of The Blue Tattoo, "the only constant about the Oatman story is that no two authors agree on what happened."

Olive Oatman has morphed into a sort of mythological figure, her most recent incarnation appearing in the TV series, Hell on Wheels

The Mohaves

Up to the time of her capture, the Mohaves had had little contact with white culture. They occupied a green valley along the Colorado River "for at least a thousand years." Their society was marked by affection, generosity, and laughter. The men were universally described as tall and strikingly handsome. They were excellent swimmers and "said to routinely run 100 miles at a stretch."

The Mohaves, then, were close to an early "state of nature" as idyllic as Rousseau might have described, and explains why Olive may not have wanted to leave. Although she gave contradictory statements about her time with them, it seems likely she was well-treated. Whether or not she ever felt completely at ease in white society is unclear.

In less than 10 years after she was repatriated, the Mohaves were shuffled off into reservations.

Captivity Literature

Amazingly -- 150 years later and despite its many errors and distortions -- Captivity of the Oatman Girls is still in print. It belongs to a genre I'd never heard of before, stories about women captured by Native Americans, and of which "nearly two thousand were published by 1880."

Blue Tattoo mentions a few such women: Mary Rowlandson, Mary Jemison, Hannah Dustan, Cynthia Ann Parker -- whose son became a Commanche chief, Quanah Parker -- and Eunice Williams, captured at age 7 in Massachusetts and taken to Canada where she was adopted by a Mohawk family at Kahnawake.

The context of captivity literature in the 19th century is discussed, particularly among women for whom it "presented a tantalizing alternative to enforced domesticity."


Olive was raised by Mormons, her father a reckless fellow who styled himself a preacher and a healer. In their trek west, he aligned himself with a splinter group led by a deluded prophet named Brewster. Squabbling among themselves further divided the group until the Oatman family ended up alone in a single wagon, continuing on despite the warnings of others. Their food was nearly gone when they were attacked.

After being rescued, Olive fell under the influence of a Methodist preacher named Royal Stratton, who ghost-wrote Captivity, described by Margo Mifflin as a "racist, religion-soaked tract" that "omitted, exaggerated, and fabricated information in order to deliver a title that was at once pious and titillating."

He died in an insane asylum.


Standing now astride two cultures, Olive unwittingly made history: she was the first known tattooed white female in the United States.

The year Olive was captured, 1851, saw the publication of Moby-Dick, the first American novel in which tattoos defined an important character, Queeqeg.

The tattooed captive became a common circus theme throughout the 1880s and '90s.

Fascinating and well-researched, Blue Tattoo includes an index, bibliography, footnotes, and numerous B&W illustrations. The 2011 paperback edition contains a new postscript in which a recently discovered letter by Olive is reproduced.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Great Expectations

One of Dickens's most beloved works has a marvellous opening, Pip in a graveyard where his father, mother, and five brothers are buried. Having no memory of them, he forms an impression of their appearance based on their tombstones.

Like David Copperfield, the novel is a coming-of-age story written in the first person. Pip and David are both "posthumous" children, and like Dickens they are ashamed of their origins. As they strive for status, they acquire nicknames (Pip's handle being Handel and David's Daisy), are repeatedly bilked by their servants, and fall in love with the wrong woman.

David becomes a famous writer and arrives at happy matrimony after the convenient death of his first wife, the ditsy Dora. Pip too becomes a gentleman, but his world is turned upside-down when the woman he loves marries a cad and the source of his wealth turns out to be an embarrassment. It is not Miss Haversham who endowed him, but Magwitch the escaped criminal.

Biographer Fred Kaplan refers to David Copperfield as "a thinly concealed autobiographical fantasy." In Great Expectations the ugly truth is revealed and the happy ending ditched, making the book a sort of David Copperfield gone wrong. Some critics have seen this as a re-imagining of Dickens’s own later life: a wealthy and respected writer afflicted with marital unhappiness and longing for a woman he could not have, at least not publicly.

Ellen and Estella

Estella is believed by many to be based on Ellen Ternan. The agony Pip feels over the difficulty, if not impossibility, of winning of Estella is similar to that of Dickens in being unable to claim Ternan, at least openly. If so, he may have received some bitter satisfaction over the ironic reversal of their positions. Pip fails to win Estella because he is her social inferior. Dickens was in the opposite situation – wealthy and famous while Ternan was a relative unknown.

Whether or not his interest in Ternan was consummated remains as inconclusive as the ending of Expectations. How apt!

The Ending

The original ending was unequivocal: Pip and Estella do not end up together.  But Dickens was persuaded by Bulwer-Lytton to rewrite the ending, which, although I was prepared to dismiss it, I found myself preferring, my main reason being that the original ending is too brief, no more than half a page. The revised ending is fleshed out better.

Many however do not like it because they see in it a suggestion that Pip and Estella will eventually get together, which goes against the tenor of the book.  The possibility is there, but whether or not it happens is unclear. It is in fact an ambiguous and very modern ending.

The Problem of Orlick

First of all there is the improbable rescue of Pip by Herbert et al, who save him from being murdered. Yet after this violent scene Dickens then makes Orlick a comic figure by having him rob Pumblechook and getting drunk in the process. The humour seems misplaced.

It is interesting to see how movies deal with this. The Pumplechook business at the end can be easily omitted, but how to handle the improbable saving of Pip? 

The 1999 version (with Charlotte Rampling as Miss Haversham) makes a clever adjustment by having Orlick let Pip go. He does it to prove that he is better than Pip or at least better than Pip thinks he is. Thus the improbable arrival of Herbert is unnecessary, and yet is in keeping with the theme of forgiveness in the book.

The 2011 mini-series (Gillian Anderson) has Pip besting Orlick in a fight, hence needing no rescue.

The 2012 film (Helena Bonham Carter) goes one step further – it removes Orlick from the story entirely.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Full Tilt

Ireland to India with a Bicycle

Dervla Murphy's first book describes a journey undertaken in 1963. It took her six months to travel 3000 miles with an "average cycling day" of 70-80 miles.

The subtitle, however, is somewhat misleading, as the portion between Ireland and Teheran is covered in an 18-page introduction. The rest of the story is told in diary format with the first two chapters covering Iran and the final one India.

Thus the bulk of the book is devoted to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is full of praise for the wild beauty of the mountains and the instinctive honesty and generosity of the people she met. It is refreshing to read such a positive view of these two countries, but one cannot help wondering how well those characteristics have survived over the last 50 years. 

The book has three maps but no photos. The cover shows a pass in the mountains between Kabul and Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

Personal Safety

She carried a .25 calibre pistol with her and had to use it three times, the first when she was attacked by wolves in what is now Croatia, the second just before she reached Iran, when she used it to scare off a would-be rapist.

In Iran she used the gun for the final time to chase off three elderly men with shovels when they tried to seize her bicycle. Shortly afterwards she foiled another rape attempt (a police officer this time) with a kick to the balls. Occasionally she had stones thrown at her by kids, also in Iran.

Her only serious injury happened on a crowded bus in Afghanistan -- a rifle butt to the ribs delivered accidentally by an angry tribesman trying to get at the driver because of a sudden increase in fare. A week later she was stung by a scorpion the size of a mouse.

Due to the extreme differences in temperature, travel through Pakistan was physically the most challenging portion of the journey. It was there that she suffered heat stroke as well as dysentery.

The only thefts she experienced were minor ones and occurred in Iran and India.


She travelled from Herat to Kandahar, Kabul, and Jalalabad, with side trips to the Hindu Kush. She praises the splendour of the mountains and compares the Ghorband Valley (with its "neat vineyards," and orchards of "apricot, peach, almond, apple, and cherry") to the Garden of Eden. 

In Bamiyan she saw a 180-foot statue of Buddha carved into a cliff face (since destroyed by the Taliban), as well as the ruins of the "city of sighs" sacked by Genghis Khan in 1222.

Afghanistan was the only country "where not one single man of any type has made the slightest attempt 'to get off' with me." Men may be "hot-tempered and uncontrollably ferocious when roused, but once a dispute is settled without loss of honour on either side" they embrace each other and "sing a duet."

"The other day in a tea-house I made a casual remark to a total stranger about the postal rates here and he immediately offered to pay all my stamp bills -- a man with no shoes to his feet! This is typical."


She travelled the famed Khyber Pass to Pakistan, and continued on through Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and Lahore, with excursions into the Himalayas and the Karakoram Mountains.

She visited the Swat, Indus, and Kaghan Valleys, and saw ibex, the pugmarks of leopards, and butterflies the size of British robins. When travelling by horseback along precipices she became "so trustful that I positively enjoyed looking down to see nothing whatever between me and the torrent, 1500 feet below." 

She dined on goat meat and stewed clover, and drank salted tea and a local wine called Punial Water. Afterwards she cleaned her teeth with walnut bark, which she found better than ordinary toothpaste.

She saw a thrilling polo match where "blood was soon streaming from over half the twelve players' heads and hands and backs" yet "no tempers were lost." Meanwhile a band "played non-stop."

She was repeatedly "astonished by the hospitality and kindness of everyone in this part of the world." Starving peasants were willing to share their last egg with her yet reluctant to accept money.

Wheels within Wheels

Full Tilt ends abruptly in India, but -- as mentioned in her 1979 autobiography, Wheels within Wheels -- she then worked for six months without pay at a Tibetan refugee camp. She also describes how Full Tilt came to be published and felt it "less a personal triumph than the fulfilment of an obligation to my parents."

She began secretly planning her trip to India at the age of ten when she received an atlas and a bicycle as birthday presents. When her father died, she felt smothered by the task of caring for her demanding invalid mother. It was not until 1962 when her mother died that Dervla was free to make the trip that she had been planning for more than half her life.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Mortal Engines

A robot-themed collection (hence the title) selected by the translator, Michael Kandel, who in the intro divides Lem's work into three categories:

  comic-satirical fantasy
  realistic SF

About half the stories in this volume come from the Polish collection, Fables for Robots, which fall into the first category. They are light and silly reading, with titles like:

“Three Electroknights”
“How Erg the Self-Inducing Slew a Paleface”
“Tale of the Computer that Fought a Dragon”

They're sprinkled with whimsical terms: thinking powder, a knot in space, an ultradragon, an antimatter blunderbuss, a supernova extinguisher.

Characters plug their heads together to wrestle with a problem, and make remarks such as, “Something feels wrong inside, I must have blown a tube.”

The stories are very similar to those in The Cyberiad, though without (at least not in this edition) any of Daniel Mroz's delightful illustrations.

Consciousness Is Suffering

In the intro Kandel refers to his editorial strategy as being “a general progression from light to dark, from comic to tragic, from robot to human.”

This progression begins with the final three stories in the group mentioned above. They are more a little more weighty than the rest:

 "Automatthew's Friend”
  King Globares and the Sages”
 "The Tale of King Gnuff”

The next two stories, “The Sanatorium of Doctor Vliperdius” and “The Hunt” reunite us with two of Lem's favourite characters, Ijon Tichy and Pirx. “The Hunt” is a refreshing change of pace, as it not only falls into the category of realistic SF, but also features Pirx's distinctive voice. (It also appears in More Tales of Pirx the Pilot.)

The final story, “The Mask,” is the longest at nearly 50 pages, and together with “The Hunt” takes up more than a third of the book. Elements in it reminded me of Zelazny and Kafka, Alien and Terminator. I found it rather heavy going despite some fine turns of phrase. The ending is ambiguous, unsettling, and therefore typically Lem.

It is the most clearcut example of Kandel's remark that Lem is similar to Dostoevsky in the belief that “consciousness is suffering.”