It has come to my ears, from the lips of someone whose words matter much to me, that my recent journal entries were rather too disdainful of British culture, too shrill in my complaints about the poverty of television programming enjoyable to me or the media’s lack of regard for the old movies I cherish. Having studied British literature and culture of the 19th century, I have been dwelling here in spirit long before migrating; and whenever I travel in Britain, which I do quite frequently now, I find reminders of novels I read, films I have seen, and pieces of history I have studied and half forgotten. It might be, however, that by not engaging enough with 20th or 21st-century British culture as it surrounds me, I am having rather too much of a hankering after things made in or originating from the US. Am I being nostalgic after all?
Nostalgia. There are few words in the dictionary that offend me more. To be pining for the unattainable and imaginary seems to me such a waste of time. I’d much rather go after what is and make it my own, no matter how remote in time or culture it might be. So, I am forever in search of the old to be made present by wondering and writing about it.
The other night I recorded a British adaptation of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers after happening upon Bad Movies, a spot close on the dial and in spirit to the Horror Channel. When I discovered this satellite outpost not mapped by the Radio Times, I was treated to George Coulouris slumming it in a British cheapy titled Woman Eater (1959). A far cry from his days with Welles’s Mercury Players, to be sure; yet what a treasury of cultural trash.
So, a revision of my attitude toward the supposedly barren box is in order. It is a mistake to assume that “old” is a synonym for “classic.” A classic is merely something that happens to have survived or is revived in a later period. This is not simply a matter of quality, but depends on our ability and willingness to keep a certain work of art alive.
There are a great many agendas underlying such promotions. My only agenda is to give an old work some time to speak to me—and then to talk back. I am not particularly interested in arguing that a certain book or film or radio play ought to be considered a classic, even though this would greatly enhance its chances of becoming more readily available and appreciated by my contemporaries. To resist the label “classic” means to challenge the canon, to insist on giving neglected works another chance to work on and for us, of allowing them to tell us something about culture, about lives present and past, and about ourselves.
A fine example of a cultural product that is Victorian without being classic is the once hugely popular novel The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist by Henry Cockton. It came to my attention during my doctoral studies, since it deals with the phenomenon of ventriloquism, a kind of pre-microphonic broadcasting in the flesh . . . and out of it.
Throwing a voice, disembodying, and finally re-embodying it, is ancient-time radio drama, and Cockton’s eponymous hero is an expert at amusing himself casting his voice broadly and confounding his listeners. He is both Edgar Bergen and Lamont Cranston—irreverent, mischievous, and eager to expose the follies and evils of the world he inhabits. Here, in a typical scene of Valentine’s exploits, Cockton comments on the wonders of sound effects, on the thrills exploited by later radio terrorists like the men and women behind Lights Out! and Inner Sanctum Mysteries:
“Ha! ha! ha!” cried Valentine [. . . ,] at melodramatic intervals throwing his voice [. . . ]. There is nothing in nature which startles men more than a noise for which they cannot account. However strongly strung may be their nerves: however slight may be the sound which they hear, if they cannot account for that sound, it at once chills their blood, and in spite of them, sets their imagination on the rack.
Cockton, too, is a ventriloquist. He uses Valentine to voice his own concerns about the legal system in Britain, a system that made it quite easy to do away with certain individuals by locking them up in lunatic asylums, a fate that befalls one of Valentine’s friends. “During the progress of this work,” Cockton claims in his Postscript, that a number of “influential journalists” objected to the “essentially humorous” treatment of the subject. However, the author, thought otherwise, arguing
that to embellish fact with fiction would be to render truth more attractive; that, by surrounding those revolting scenes with scenes of harmless playfulness and gaiety, the contrast would be more striking, would take deeper root, and yield more extensive sympathy; that where dozens only would know of the existence of the evil if treated in a less popular style, thousands would become cognizant of it, and would exclaim, with feelings of horror, “Can such things be!”—that those thousands would ascertain if such a system were in existence, and, having satisfied themselves on this point, they would denounce it from one end of the kingdom to the other; the effect of which would be all-powerful, seeing that, in its sublime love of Justice and of Truth, the Voice of the People is indeed the Voice of God.
This might well have been a justification for a work of fiction at time frivolous and, on the whole, thoroughly commercial; yet Cockton’s bathetic piece of marketable propaganda is nonetheless worth revisiting. Aside from the to me intriguing connections to broadcasting, Valentine Vox reverberates strongly today as it deals with the endangerment of privacy, liberty, and identity as we sense it at the present time. There are many rewards in digging up something decidedly un-Classic.