Scotland Backyard

Right now, there are some 17,500 files in my iTunes library, ranging from 2 ½ hour productions of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll to clips of speeches by Himmler and Goebbels. I was a little concerned about those speeches when last I traveled to the US. Just days prior to my departure, it was announced that, outrageous as it sounds, the US reserves the right to inspect any laptop and download its content for inspection. What might those Nazi soundbytes have told some officious, uniformed ignoramus about myself, my politics, and my objectives once on American soil?

Anyway, I don’t even know just what kinds of trash or treasure are stored in my archive of sounds, given the vast number of recordings on my hard drive. Most of these files I assume to have little or no connection to my everyday life here in Wales. Much of it is commercial and, commercials aside, rather generic pulp. Last weekend, though, while going through and editing those titles in my library, I came across a surname of a character in a thriller program that reminded me of a framed drawing on display in our living room. How strange it seems, pulling the blinds in the morning (if I get up that early) to be looking at the image of an axe murder; but there he is, the notorious Buck Ruxton, right before my eyes whenever I glance to the left of our view of the Welsh hills. And there he is again, in my virtual library, alongside Our Miss Brooks and the Lone Ranger.

The play in question was produced in the late 1940s or early 1950s as part of the syndicated series The Secrets of Scotland Yard. It tells of an Indian physician who murdered his wife and chopped her into what the narrator describes as “two hundred all but unidentifiable parts.” When last I was up in Lancaster, the English town where the not-so-good doctor lived and practiced, I even came across a pub named after him.

Now, we happen to have in our collection two of Eric Fraser’s original ink drawings for the “Case of the Jealous Doctor,” an article about the Ruxton case that was published in the 12 November 1949 issue of Leader Magazine. The case itself dates back to 1935. Fraser, as you can see, relished in the sensational character of the murder and the trial, but, unlike the producers of Secrets of Scotland Yard approached his commission with a wry, dark sense of humor.

Listening to the dramatization, I was amazed just how minutely the murder—its background, execution, cover-up and detection—was being reconstructed. To be sure, it features one of the worst impersonations of an Indian, which is about as sensitive as the Leader article in its claim that, “behind” the Ruxton case “lay the failure of an Oriental to adapt himself to the Western world.” In other respects, though, the writers and producers of the radio play seem determined to be as painstakingly accurate as possible. I don’t suppose any American listener to Secrets (produced in Britain, but sold to international markets) would have appreciated this kind of attention to historical, regional detail. Nor would I, had I not heard about the murder after being subjected to the image. I would have assumed this radio play to be just another piece of sensational melodrama whose kernel of truth is drowned in a bucket of blood.

Most of all, though, I marvel at the link between the drawing and the recording. Perhaps, I am still compartmentalizing my worlds too much, keeping apart what is distinct yet kindred. It seems that, whatever subject you pursue, whatever object you admire, remote it may seem from your present surroundings (an apartness, perhaps, that attracted you to the subject to begin with), should not be assumed to have no relation to your everyday. Sometimes it takes more of an effort to make the connection, and sometimes the efforts seem not worth your making; but ever so often (as in this instance, or the time we went in search of a rock in a painting that now hangs in our bedroom or spotted that actress in a Hitchcock movie whose likeness we have on a piece of paper), you—or, I should say, I—get this thrill of being able to relate to an artifact in unexpected, even intimate ways. It is then that I most appreciate the work of all those nameless or forgotten artists, writers, and researchers engaged in producing what you might dismiss as impersonal or workaday . . .

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