The Napoleon of Notting Hill – G K Chesterton

Name a British novel written by one of the most celebrated authors of his generation, set (at least at the start) in 1984 where in the future Britain has an government headed by a powerful single ruler telling his populace what to do. No I don’t mean Orwell and his apocalyptic volume written in 1948 and published June 1949, this one was written and published in 1904, was admired by Orwell and one, quite likely, theory for Orwell choosing 1984 as the year of his book was that Chesterton had also used that year for his stab at futurology forty four years earlier.

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Sadly Chesterton’s brilliant work is now largely unread, unlike Orwell’s more famous book set in the same year. My copy is the Penguin Books first edition and was printed in 1946, before Orwell even started his most famous and final book. But enough about Orwell, this is about G K Chesterton’s first novel, he wrote some poetry and biographies with other people before this from 1900 but this was his first work of significance and what a way to start. The premise of the book is spelled out by Barker, one of the three civil servants that we encounter at the beginning of the book, right at the start whilst he is trying to explain how this future England is governed to of all the people the deposed President of Nicaragua who unexpectedly comes walking down the street.

We have established now in England, the thing towards which all systems have dimly groped, the dull popular despotism without illusions. We want one man at the head of our State, not because he is brilliant or virtuous, but because he is one man and not a chattering crowd. To avoid the possible chance of hereditary diseases or such things, we have abandoned hereditary monarchy. The King of England is chosen like a juryman upon an official rotation list. Beyond that the whole system is quietly despotic, and we have not found it raise a murmur.

The ex-President raises the obvious objections regarding the possible sanity of such a person if there are no checks and balances but these are over-ruled by the three Englishmen he is talking to, all of which will be significant in the unfolding tale. One of which is, if not actually mad, possessed of a very odd sense of humour which I had been struggling with up to this point; it turns out that Chesterton is simply trying to illustrate how odd Mr. Auberon Quin actually is. After leaving the restaurant where they had entertained the ex-President, Quin becomes more and more eccentric in his behaviour until they are approached by two policemen.

Two grave-looking men in quiet uniforms came up the hill towards them. One held a paper in his hand.

“There he is, officer,” said Lambert, cheerfully; “we ain’t responsible for him.”

The officer looked at the capering Mr. Quin with a quiet eye.

“We have not come, gentlemen,” he said, “about what I think you are alluding to. We have come from head-quarters to announce the selection of His Majesty the King. It is the rule, inherited from the old régime, that the news should be brought to the new Sovereign immediately, wherever he is; so we have followed you across Kensington Gardens.”

Barker’s eyes were blazing in his pale face. He was consumed with ambition throughout his life. With a certain dull magnanimity of the intellect he had really believed in the chance method of selecting despots. But this sudden suggestion, that the selection might have fallen upon him, unnerved him with pleasure.

“Which of us,” he began, and the respectful official interrupted him.

“Not you, sir, I am sorry to say. If I may be permitted to say so, we know your services to the Government, and should be very thankful if it were. The choice has fallen….”

“God bless my soul!” said Lambert, jumping back two paces. “Not me. Don’t say I’m autocrat of all the Russias.”

“No, sir,” said the officer, with a slight cough and a glance towards Auberon, who was at that moment putting his head between his legs and making a noise like a cow; “the gentleman whom we have to congratulate seems at the moment—er—er—occupied.”

“Not Quin!” shrieked Barker, rushing up to him; “it can’t be. Auberon, for God’s sake pull yourself together. You’ve been made King!”

And so the catastrophe that will be the reign of King Auberon begins. As you can see this is a very different work to Orwell, full of humour but nevertheless there will be tragedy, warfare and death and also poignancy as each featured character gets swept up in the madness which becomes normality before finally it all collapses thirty five years after the start of the novel in 2019. So what is it that the new King does that causes such upheaval? Well for reasons unknown in the early stages of the book he decides to re-introduce the medieval concept of City States but these are not the cities of London, Manchester, Birmingham etc. no he is far too parochial for that, the book is set entirely in London and he creates City States out of the individual boroughs. Now most modern cities (apart from those artificially created such as Brasilia) are a conglomeration of small towns and villages that gradually became swamped by the city itself and became the merely districts. King Auberon pits each of these against the other along with fanciful histories that he creates for them explaining their names and releases “The Great Proclamation of the Charter of the Free Cities” which will force each borough to effectively step back to medieval times not just in their dealings with himself and the other boroughs but with costumes and banners also designed by the King and militias armed with halberds and swords.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility.

“I cannot think,” he said, “why people should think the names of places in the country more poetical than those in London. Shallow romanticists go away in trains and stop in places called Hugmy-in-the-Hole, or Bumps-on-the-Puddle. And all the time they could, if they liked, go and live at a place with the dim, divine name of St. John’s Wood. I have never been to St. John’s Wood. I dare not. I should be afraid of the innumerable night of fir trees, afraid to come upon a blood-red cup and the beating of the wings of the Eagle. But all these things can be imagined by remaining reverently in the Harrow train.”

And he thoughtfully retouched his design for the head-dress of the halberdier of St. John’s Wood, a design in black and red, compounded of a pine tree and the plumage of an eagle. Then he turned to another card. “Let us think of milder matters,” he said. “Lavender Hill! Could any of your glebes and combes and all the rest of it produce so fragrant an idea? Think of a mountain of lavender lifting itself in purple poignancy into the silver skies and filling men’s nostrils with a new breath of life—a purple hill of incense. It is true that upon my few excursions of discovery on a halfpenny tram I have failed to hit the precise spot. But it must be there; some poet called it by its name. There is at least warrant enough for the solemn purple plumes (following the botanical formation of lavender) which I have required people to wear in the neighbourhood of Clapham Junction. It is so everywhere, after all. I have never been actually to Southfields, but I suppose a scheme of lemons and olives represent their austral instincts. I have never visited Parson’s Green, or seen either the Green or the Parson, but surely the pale-green shovel-hats I have designed must be more or less in the spirit. I must work in the dark and let my instincts guide me. The great love I bear to my people will certainly save me from distressing their noble spirit or violating their great traditions.”

All these places are of course within the boundaries of London so no more than a few miles apart and as for forests of fir in St. John’s Wood there probably hasn’t been any forests there since Roman times. The genius of the book is maintaining this ridiculous analogy in all seriousness as it also becomes clear that the King has not done this in madness but simply a a great joke to keep himself amused. And all is strange but well in the land until there rises, ten years later, as Provost of Notting Hill a man who is truly mad in his own singular way and believes totally in the scheme as the only true way for the anywhere to be governed and is prepared to fight to maintain his Notting Hill in all his supposed glory.

This is where the book darkens considerably for there is war to be fought as the surrounding City States of West Kensington, South Kensington, Bayswater etc. are forced into various conflicts with the fiercely independent Adam West, Provost of Notting Hill. It is also where my review will end. To reveal more would give away the book and you do really need to read it. I hope that the extracts I have included will encourage you to do so. Say G K Chesterton to somebody nowadays and if they have heard of him at all it will be the Father Brown detective stories, but there are over eighty books, hundreds of poems, a couple of hundreds short stories and an astonishing more than four thousand essays. He is one of the most prolific writers of all times and to be largely known by the fifty three short stories that make up the Father Brown canon is a great disservice to his legacy.

You can read The Napoleon of Notting Hill on Project Gutenburg here as it seems to have been out of print for quite some time so tracking down a printed copy will need some searching.

Queen of the Elephants – Mark Shand

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This book accompanies a 1995 BBC TV documentary of the same name, which I must admit I’ve never seen, but the book is fascinating. Mark Shand had made a previous trip across India on elephant back and recorded it in his book Travels on My Elephant which won him the accolade of ‘Travel Writer of the Year’ at the British Book Awards in 1992. That time he bought his own elephant Tara for the journey and at the end arranged for her to be looked after. This book starts with him visiting Tara for the first time in three years and renewing their relationship, but it is another lady that he had heard so much about whilst making that first journey that is the reason for this trip. Parbati Barua is a legend amongst people involved with the Asian elephant and she had agreed to help make a documentary about the problems they are facing due to their habitat shrinking so fast as humans encroach more and more into what used to be their territory.

Parbati is distinctly unimpressed by Mark’s previous exploit and when she agrees to take him on it is at the lowest grade in the camp, he has to earn her respect by proving (or in the case of making food rolls for the elephants trying hard but failing as he is too slow) to be good at what she expects before he can ride any elephant that belongs to her. Eventually he does get approval and then a certain limited level of respect as he demonstrates his hard learnt abilities from his last trip. Parbati is not easily pleased and this is something he learns very quickly.

At this point I need to bring up my main problem with the book, lots of local words (presumably Hindi) are used which may have been explained in his previous volume and which it takes a while to work out their meaning (assuming you don’t just google them from frustration) if like me you haven’t read it. Either a better explanation at the time they are first used in this work, or a glossary at the back, would have vastly improved the readability of the text. There is a comprehensive bibliography so the omission of a glossary is all the more surprising.

The three month journey that they undertake through West Bengal to Assam was once heavily forested but now is home to apparently endless tea plantations and the Asian elephant, being a creature of the forests unlike it’s African cousin, is being pushed into conflict with the ever expanding human population. As well as the trip with Parbati, Mark also spends some time with a group charged with keeping the two sides apart and sees at first hand the tragic consequences for both elephant and human when this boundary is breached. Parbati is frequently sent for by forest rangers to assist elephants injured by people just as they also come across humans that have been killed by elephants desperate for food and coming into villages where the locals try, and often fail, to persuade them to leave so annoying a huge and powerful animal. You hear so much about the plight of the African elephant it is fascinating to see what is happening to the Asian version not just in India but across the region.

Mark Shand was the brother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and sadly died on the 23rd April 2014 after a fall in New York. He was leaving a party following a highly successful evening which had raised £950,000 for his elephant charity when he tripped and hit his head on the pavement. Parbati Barua is, at the time of writing, apparently still alive and well and working with elephants.

Asterix and the Chariot Race – Jean-Yves Ferri

This is not the book I was planning to post about this week as I am aiming to do a fuller story of the Asterix books later this year but I was doing a quick scan read to get my head round what I wanted to say and this book came up as extremely pertinent to the current world news, so I have added this short review.

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Now you may wonder why a book set during the time of Julius Caesar featuring a small tribe of Gauls would be so relevant to the present day and I will get to that but first a little bit about the series. The Asterix series of books started with ‘Asterix the Gaul’ written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo in 1961 and now run to 38 volumes although now no longer by the originators. Goscinny  worked with Uderzo on the first two dozen titles until he died in 1977. Uderzo then wrote and illustrated a further ten books until 2009. In 2013 the first book written by Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad appeared and this team have so far produced four titles of which this is their third (overall book 37) and was published in 2017. All comments below relate to the English translation of the text which was done by Adriana Hunter, this was her first time translating Asterix and overall I think she does a good job having taken over from Derek Hockridge and Anthea Bell, who between them translated the first 36 books.

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The story starts with complaints about the state of the roads with potholes everywhere throughout the network in Italy. Consul Lactus Bifidus is challenged in the Roman Senate to do something about it as he is in charge of the roads but instead announces a chariot race to prove how good the roads are. The race is to be open to all comers and will start in the north of the country in what is now Lombardy and speed down to the south with a cup for the winner. Asterix and Obelix decide to enter even though neither of them are charioteers mainly because as the chief of their village, in the English translation he is Vitalstatistix, says

It might be fun bothering them on their home turf for once

A lot of the names are changed in the English translations but I need to point out at this juncture that the significant one from this book is the same in the original French edition ‘Astérix et la Transitalique’. The route of the race can be seen on the flyer shown below.

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Lactus Bifidus is visited at home by the Emperor Julius Caesar and it is made quite clear to him that a Roman has to win or he will be personally fixing the roads in Libya which can definitely be seen as an incentive so he finds a great champion. Now this is where the book becomes a bit weird for those of us reading it in March 2020 as the name of the great charioteer is revealed and he is subsequently cheered on in very large text through the rest of the book.

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Yes you read that right, the person racing down Italy starting in Lombardy, for the honour of the Roman people, in a book published in 2017 is Coronavirus.  To prove that this is the original name and not one which Adriana Hunter came up with below is the original French panel.

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Stay safe everyone and let’s hope that things improve soon.

 

Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter and Emma Thompson

For the 110th anniversary of the first publication of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter in 1902 her publisher, Warne, commissioned a very special edition.

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One thousand copies were printed of this collectors set of the original Peter Rabbit, with some illustrations included for the first time as Beatrix Potter had actually done too many for the book that was first published and indeed almost all subsequent editions. Alongside this the actress and writer Emma Thompson created a new work illustrated by Eleanor Taylor to take the story further. Inside the outer card box you are presented with another box…

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and within that the lined purple inner with the books inside presented in their separate sections.

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This is certainly a luxurious edition of a classic children’s tale, and so it should be for the purchaser got two small hardbacks along with a facsimile letter to Peter from Emma Thompson for the, clearly opportunistic, price of £110.00.

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Now don’t get me wrong the production level of this set is extremely high, the books are cloth bound with a specially designed print and just 1000 copies were made with a retail price of £110, but that is still a large sum for Warne as the margins on books for the retail booksellers are actually quite small and this sold out almost immediately so Warne very quickly made their profit. I paid considerably less than this when the set came out by buying from Amazon and there are currently a couple of sets available on Abebooks for around that price (including postage costs) but the set has largely vanished from the secondary market which may mean that I have made a good investment although that wasn’t the reason I bought it.

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This is probably one of the finest editions of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter yet printed, and I do have the two 100th anniversary editions (cloth or cream leather bound) produced in even smaller amounts back in 2002, (500 cloth and 100 leather bound editions). But this is truly lovely with the purple page edging and the exceptionally fine printing of the remastered illustrations including various versions never before included in a single copy of Peter Rabbit. A prime example of which is shown below as this was in the 1902 first edition but dropped in 1903 for the reprint, not to appear again for 109 years. Other pictures never made early editions for reasons of space but are now included in this printing.

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Emma Thompson actually made a very good job of capturing Beatrix Potters original style and whilst the illustrations by Eleanor Taylor lack the fine definition of Potter’s originals they do still capture the flavour of the much earlier books.

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That they were successful can be seen by the later production of two more titles by Emma Thompson, The Christmas Tale of Peter Rabbit in 2013 and The Spectacular Tale of Peter Rabbit in 2014. The Further Tale is also available as a separate volume outside of this collectors set.

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As can be seen above Peter has not learnt his lesson from 110 years ago and is still intent on exploring Mr McGregor’s garden and the wonderful selection of vegetables to be found there. This time he climbs into his picnic basket, rather than a damp watering can, and eats the sandwiches to be found there before, feeling full, he falls asleep in the basket. Waking in a rocking basket he finds that he is on the back of a cart heading off into the countryside an just manages to escape when he is found to be the picnic thief. Running away he encounters a giant Scottish rabbit

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and ends up as an unwilling participant in the bunny equivalent of the The Highland Games. The gentle humour of the new book is a welcome counterpoint to Beatrix Potter’s quite often more near the knuckle story telling and I can see why Thompson was asked to write two more sequels.

Of the classic twenty three books usually collected in the box sets of Potter’s works all but two have now passed 100 years old, we just have Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes (1922) and The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (1930) to go. There are several others not normally counted such as The Fairy Caravan (first printed in the US 1929 and UK 1952) right up the The Tale of Kitty in Boots which didn’t get it’s own printing until 2016 when it was illustrated by Quentin Blake but this box set includes a fine edition of the first Potter book and also the first official book set in her stories not by Potter. It’s an interesting, if rather expensive, addition to the oeuvre and with the popularity of the tales only increasing with the release of new films it should be regarded as a landmark set for Beatrix Potter collectors.

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Original Radio Scripts – Douglas Adams

The very first broadcast of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was on the 8th March 1978 so this coming Sunday it will be 42 years since that date and as anyone who has read H2G2 will know 42 is a very important number, it is after all The Answer.

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That is, the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. Knowing that to be The Answer leads to the next problem. What is The Question? That unfortunately the great supercomputer Deep Thought couldn’t tell us.

My copy of the scripts is the first edition and was published by Pan Books in 1985 by which time Hitch-Hikers had become a massive success as a series of books, a play, a couple of records, a video game, a TV series, and even a towel, but for some reason it had taken seven years for the original material to be available as a book. I remember the impact those initial broadcasts had, there had been nothing like this before and I, along with many others, was hooked. The book contains all the scripts up to that point so the original six part series first broadcast in March and April 1978, the Christmas special from the same year and the second five part series first broadcast in January 1980. They were so amazingly popular that by the end of 1984 the first series had been repeated five times, the Christmas special six times and the second series had already had four repeats in as many years. Douglas died on the 11th May 2001, aged just 49,  having extended the book series to five and later on these extra three books would (in a reverse of the original process) be converted to radio scripts but what we are concerned with here is Douglas Adams own work rather than the later adaptations even though these were wonderfully done and largely utilised the original cast. But why The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy?

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I have deliberately put this blog into the ‘Book Tales’ category rather than a review because frankly there are plenty of reviews of H2G2 and me adding another would be pointless and probably impossible so I would rather look at how this highly improbable phenomenon came to exist in the first place. Although clearly the book would be very enjoyable with just the scripts each episode is also followed with footnotes that explain what was going on during the production or some interesting facts about some aspect of the script itself. They also include a list of the music sources for each episode where you can check and go “oh yes of course it was, why didn’t I recognise it the first time”. The signature tune for example is from Journey of the Sorcerer by The Eagles, apparently many of the people who wrote in asking what it was were surprised to find that they already had the album it came from. Surprisingly large amounts of the other music used is by Hungarian composer György Ligeti. It is these extra nuggets of information that make this book so much fun. As for the included text Geoffrey Perkins wrote in his introduction.

These scripts include numerous alterations, amendments and additions, often made during recording, which helped to make a little more sense of the whole thing and gave us something to do while we were waiting for Douglas to come up with the next page.

and

Douglas is the only person I know who can write backwards. Four days before one of the Hitch-Hiker’s recordings he had written only eight pages of script. He assured me he could finish it on time. On the day of the recording, after four days of furious writing, the eight pages had shrunk to six.

This he explains is that Douglas was a perfectionist and if he spotted something that could be improved he would do that rather than create the next new part. Douglas himself freely admits in his foreword that he was a champion procrastinator and could come up with excuses for not writing far easier than he could come up with the actual ideas themselves.

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His inability to get things written on time is a constant theme of the footnotes, with scripts frequently being delivered to the actors whilst they were actually recording the episode. These would often be typed by Douglas on ‘snappies’ small booklets of quite flimsy perforated paper with carbon paper between them so he could dash out and hand them new pages of script as they were working. This led to a belief amongst the cast that he was reduced to typing the scripts on lavatory paper as his small office was next to the toilets at the studios. It all got a bit critical with the final episode of the second series, Jonathan Pryce was cast to play the Ruler of the Universe but when he arrived for the recording Douglas hadn’t actually written that bit yet so he played Zarniwoop and the voice of the Autopilot instead. The Ruler (who didn’t know he was) was ultimately played by Stephen Moore who also played Marvin the Paranoid Android along with a couple of other characters. More delays with this episode meant that it was still being edited twenty minutes before it was due to be broadcast but in a studio three miles away from where it needed to be to get on air. They made it but only just…

At the end of the first series, i didn’t really expect with any confidence that anyone would want me to do any more, so I brought the story to a very definite close. This then caused me huge problems getting the story going again for the second series. At the end of the second series I knew I would be asked to do more and deliberately left the ending open so that the next series could get off the ground straight away. Of course, we never did a third series.

Douglas Adams 1985

Happy 42nd birthday Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’ll raise a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster to you on Sunday with a shot of That Old Janx Spirit to chase it down and I will definitely make sure I know where my towel is.

If none of that last sentence makes any sense then go and read the scripts, or the books, or both it doesn’t really matter which but go and read them, then you too can aspire to being a hoopy frood, you’ll thank me for it…