Marsh, Not Mellow: A Clutch of Constables (1968) and a Pang of Conscience

“We are not a starry-eyed lot.”

Mystery-and-detective fiction, in Britain at least, has been experiencing a decided revival since the mid 2010s, in part owing to – and evidenced by – the re-release of so-called golden-age whodunits by the British Library.  What the public’s readiness to soak up all that blood of yesteryear might tell us about the mores of the present day I shall leave to sociologists to unravel.  I, for one, welcomed that reopening of landmark trials and half-forgotten cases, not only as a chance at armchair detection – especially during pandemic times standing eerily still – but as an opportunity to reflect on my murderous past by returning to those crime scenes in middle age, knowing full well and being quite relieved that, by catching up, I could never go home again to what did not feel like home to begin with.  

That said, picking up the clues and piecing together the puzzle we are to ourselves, I feel a queer consistency – or consistent queerness – at the racing, bleeding or prematurely failing heart of it all.

My transition from children’s literature to ostensibly grown-up fiction did not happen via the young adult section of a lending library.  Fictions about growing up rarely spoke to me, as, back then, they were largely silent about desires that, while no longer criminalized, were deemed unfit for titles on general display.

Murder mysteries, in their indiscriminate pronouncements of death sentences, were reassuring in that respect.  Anyone could be a suspect or victim, and eventually the act of victimization would be disclosed.  Murder, at least, will out.  The most formulaic mysteries were the most agreeable to me.  I did not care for social realism that did not match my felt reality.  Agatha Christie whodunits, in particular, I appreciated for the perfunctory relentlessness of their nursery rhyme catechism in counting down and categorical settling of accounts.

Returning now to detective fiction via some of Christie’s notable but lesser-known contemporary competitors, I look for and find a renewed relevance.  Ngaio Marsh’s Clutch of Constables (1968), a copy of which I spotted in a local charity shop, makes considerable efforts to encourage such a reassessment. 

To begin with, those Constables referred to in the title are not officers of the law: they are patches of the outdoors featured in landscape paintings by the artist of the same name.  I would not have been alive to Marsh’s wordplay that all those years ago, when I was reading A Clutch of Constables in a German translation, removed from the culture in which they were produced and of which they speak.  To be sure, the German title of Marsh’s mystery – Mord auf dem Fluss – is so generic as to leave neither a hint of its origins nor a trace in my memory; I had to consult an old diary to discover that I had indeed read it some thirty-five years earlier.  

Significantly, the Constables in question are not the real thing – and, as I know now, being a reader and writer of art’s histories, even the real thing was not a true picture of parts of Britain but a commentary on changing times.  The same can be said about A Clutch of Constables.

The action of Marsh’s novel takes place aboard the “pleasure-craft Zodiac” as it leisurely cruises on a meandering river.  “For Five Days you Step out of Time,” the operators promise in their advertising – but there is no sidestepping the sign of the times.  And however picturesque the scenery, the river has not escaped pollution, with “detergent foam” muddying the waters and our image of an England steeped in history and yet somehow untouched by it.  Want your murders “cozy”? No soap, says Marsh.

By the time Clutch of Constables was published, Marsh had been in the guessing game for decades, and the whodunit was well past its prime.  Her aim, clearly, was to make her later work resonate with a new generation of mystery readers while remaining within the established boundaries of the genre.

What caught my attention was the self-consciousness with which Marsh’s mystery, for all its adroit plotting, reflected on its grappling with social relevance.  Marsh’s portrayal of two American, er, tourists, at once conservative and conniving, both reflects and reinforces changing attitudes towards the United States during the Vietnam War.  One of the characters, the surgeon Doctor Natouche – black and British – is the subject of harassment, stereotyping and suspicion.  And while readers are not encouraged altogether to rule out his guilt, those who judge him based on the color of his skin – the visiting Americans among them – are proven wrong both morally and intellectually.  

Marsh’s narrative also enables the spouse of her series detective, Inspector Alleyn, to assume center stage.  Agatha “Troy” Alleyn is an exhibiting artist and an astute observer reporting from the scene of the crime.  Even though, eventually, she is unceremoniously dismissed so her husband can take over and solve the crime, that position is justified by Marsh, and a reference to a popular franchise character serves as a reminder that latest developments in crime fiction are far from advanced: “In the Force our wives are not called upon to serve in female James-Bondage and I imagine most of you would agree that any notion of their involvement in our work would be outlandish, ludicrous and extremely unpalatable.”

In A Clutch of Constables, Marsh was making a plea for whodunits as a force for good, capable of making a difference by exposing prejudices rooted in the widely held but erroneous notion of a homogenous British society.  Take this passage, for instance, in which Inspector Alleyn – who is also an educator in and of the police force – reflects on the task of detection:

The moral is: that it takes all sorts to make a thoroughly bad lot and it sometimes takes a conscientious police officer quite a long time to realise this simple fact of unsavoury life.  You can’t type criminals. 

Detective fiction need not be removed from the lives and causes that matter, Marsh seems to say, anticipating the debates of the present day.  Taking the policing genre to task, A Clutch of Constables releases it from the grasp of those clinging to the false memory of a none-too-golden past.  “We are not a starry-eyed lot,” Alleyn insists:

But at the risk of getting right off the track – a most undesirable proceeding – I would like to say this.  You won’t be any the worse at your job if you can keep your humanity.  If you lose it altogether you’ll be, in my opinion, better out of the Force because with it you’ll have lost your sense of values and that’s a dire thing to befall any policeman.

That “dire thing” may also “befall” the writer of cleverly crafted whodunits.  To avoid such failings, Marsh not only communicates her values but, in those asides, advises her peers to not to let go of their fellow feeling at the profitable drop of another clutch of lifeless bodies.

“There [still] ain’t no sense to nothin’”: A Wayward Text Comes Home

“Home at last,” I could almost hear myself sigh as, out of the narrow slit in our front door, I yanked the packet arriving today.  Bearing my name, as few pieces of mail of any consequence or sustenance do nowadays, it contained the volume Audionarratology: Lessons from Radio Drama, to which I had been invited a few years ago to contribute a chapter.  The book was published in July 2021 by Ohio State University, a press renowned for its contribution to the evolving discourse on narratology.  

The titular neologism suggests that an engagement with aural storytelling is proposed as one way of broadening a field that has enriched the interpretation not only of literature but also of visual culture.  Whether such aural storytelling should be subsumed under the rubric ‘radio drama’ is something I debated in my study Immaterial Culture, for which I settled on the term ‘radio play,’ as, I argued, the fictions written for radio production and transmission are hybrids whose potentialities remained underexplored and whose contribution to the arts underappreciated in part due to the alignment of such plays with works for stage and screen.  Nor am I sure that, by adding the prefix, “audionarratology” will be regarded as a subgroup of narratology – which would defeat the purpose of broadening said field.

To the question what “Lessons” may be learned from plays for radio, or from our playing with them, the quotation that serves as title of my essay provides a serviceable response: “There ain’t no sense to nothin.”  The line is uttered by one of the characters in I Love a Mystery, the thriller serial I discuss – and it is expressive of the bewilderment I felt when first I entered the world created in the 1930s and 1940s by the US American playwright-producer Carlton E. Morse.  My cumbersome subtitle is meant to suggest how I responded to the task of making sense not only of the play but also of the field in which I was asked to position it: “Serial Storytelling, Radio-Consciousness and the Gothic of Audition.”

By labelling ‘gothic’ not simply the play but my experience of it, I aim to bring to academic discourse my feeling of unease, a sense of misgivings about explaining away what drew me in to begin with, the lack of vocabulary with which adequately to describe my experience of listening, the anxiety of having to theorise within the uncertain boundaries of a discourse that I sought to broaden instead of delimiting.

Throughout my experience with radio plays of the so-called golden age, I felt that, playing recording or streaming play, I had to audition belatedly for a position of listener but that I could never hear the plays as they were intended to be taken in – serially, via radio – during those days before the supremacy of television, the medium that shaped my childhood.

In the essay, I try to communicate what it feels like not knowing – not knowing the solution to a mystery, not quite knowing my place vis-à-vis the culture in which the play was produced or the research culture in which thriller programs such as I Love a Mystery are subjected to some theory and much neglect.  Instead of analysing a play, I ended up examining myself as a queer, English-as-second-language listener estranged from radio and alien to the everyday of my grandparent’s generation – never mind that my German grandfather fought on the Axis side while the US home front stayed tuned to news from the frontlines as much as it tuned in to thrillers and comedies that were hardly considered worthy of being paraded as the so-called forefront of modernism.  So, a measure of guilt enters into the mix of emotions with which I struggle to approach or sell such cultural products academically.

The resulting chapter is proposed as a muddle, not as a model – although its self-consciousness may be an encouragement to some who are struggling to straddle the line between their searching, uncertain selves and the construct of a scholarly identity.  Its failings and idiosyncrasies are no strategic efforts to fit in by playing the misfit or refitting the scene – they are proposed as candid reflection of my mystification.  

They also bespeak the fact that the essay, unfinished or not fully realised though it may seem, was a quarter century in the making.  It started out by twisting the dial of my stereo receiver and happening on Max Schmid’s ear-opening program The Golden Age of Radio on WBAI, New York, agonising whether to turn my newly discovered hobby into the subject of academic study, enrolling in Richter course “The Rise of the Gothic” at CUNY, and by responding to the essay brief by exploring gothic radio plays and radio adaptations of Gothic literature.

Once I had decided to abandon my Victorian studies in favor of old-time radio, the essay was revised to become a chapter of my PhD study Etherized Victorians.  It was revisited but removed from Immaterial Culture as an outlier – the only longer reading of a play not based on a published script – during the process of negotiating the space allotted by the publisher.  It had a lingering if non-too-visible presence on my online journal broadcastellan as an experiment in interactive blogging, and it now appears in a volume devoted to a subject of which I had no concept when I started out all those years ago.

The draft, too, has gone through a long process of negotiation — of editing, cutting and rewriting – at some point of which the frankness of declaring myself to be among the “outsiders” of the discourse did not make the editors’ cut.

So, home the essay has come; but the home has changed, as has its dweller, a student of literature who transmogrified into an art historian with a sideline of aurality, and who now has to contend with tinnitus and hearing loss when listening out for clues to non-visual mysteries and, ever self-conscious, waits for his cue to account for the latest of his botches, or, worse still, to be met with silence.  Estrangement, uncertainty, and the misery of having to account for the state of being mesmerised by mysteries unsolved – such is the gothic of audition.

“Nance” Encounter: Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965) as a Bad Date

This curated window at the Oxfam Bookstore, Aberystwyth, drew me in.

The themed window of our local Oxfam bookshop here in Aberystwyth was something to behold on that bright July afternoon.  A row of handsome, second-hand but well-preserved copies of once popular fiction beckoned, reminding me of the tag I had chosen for this blog devoted to unpopular culture upon its inception back in 2005: “Keeping up with the out-of-date.”

A novelist friend and avid reader, who had come from London for a visit, treated me to a volume of my choice.  Three of them, in fact, as the £5-for-three deal made it unnecessary to be quite so discriminating.  I passed up on erstwhile bestsellers by A. J. Cronin and Pearl S. Buck, both of whom had vanished from the display a day later, when I returned for another three titles (all six are pictured above).  My first choice, however, had been Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965).

I remember picking up Wouk’s tome Youngblood Hawke (1962), in a German translation, from my parent’s sparse bookshelves.  My grandfather, likewise, was a Wouk reader, even though his chief interest lay in the writer’s Second World War subjects, to which Opa Heinrich, a former POW, could relate.  In my late teens, desultory though my readings were, I enjoyed Wouk’s earlier City Boy (1948) and Marjorie Morningstar (1955).

Volumes I recent additions to my bookshelf

My next encounter with Wouk’s writings dates from my years of graduate studies in New York.  I had decided to ditch Thomas Carlyle as a subject and instead write a PhD study on US radio plays.  Wouk, as I discussed here previously, had started as a radio writer or gagman.  He satirized the industry in Aurora Dawn (1947) and reflected on his experience it in his autobiographical novel Inside, Outside (1985).  From the latter I snatched the phrases “Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?” – a reference to laxative commercials on the air – for the title of one of the chapters of Immaterial Culture to capture the dismissal of commercial radio as a legitimate literary forum by those who had written for broadcasting during the 1930s and 1940s but who gained prominence later as published writers and dramatists.

Long story short, I have a kind of casual relationship with Wouk as a writer, a relationship that at one point turned serious (or academic) due to my interest in radio.  So, when I spotted that copy of Don’t Stop the Carnival, an old book new to me, I felt inclined to get reacquainted.  It turned out to be a bad date.

Don’t Stop the Carnival is a story of middle age.  The action, of which there is plenty, is mainly set on an imaginary island in the Caribbean, anno 1959.  The novel relates the misadventures of a New Yorker – Norman Paperman – who falls in love with what strikes him as a tropical paradise and decides to take over a hotel, having had no prior experience either with the business or with life on a tropical island.  Complications abound, some less comical than others.

Paperman is a Mr. Blandings of sorts, a familiar figure in American fiction.  He’d rather lay an egg elsewhere than suffer his ‘disenchantment with Manhattan’ a day longer:

the climbing prices, the increasing crowds and dirt, the gloomy weather, the slow bad transportation, the growing hoodlumism, the political corruption, the mushrooming of office buildings that were rectilinear atrocities of glass, the hideous jams in the few good restaurants, the collapse of decent service even in the luxury hotels, the extortionist prices of tickets to hit shows and the staleness of those hits, and the unutterably narrow weary repetitiousness of the New York life in general, and above all the life of a minor parasite like a press agent.

Perhaps, as his name suggests, Norman is not to be looked at as man but as a page – scribbled on, rather than blank, over the course of nearly fifty years.  He may feel like turning over a new leaf – but his life is already scripted in ink that is indelible.  Don’t Stop the Carnival sets us up for its conservative moral: stick with what you know, stop kvetching, and don’t even think that the grass could be greener than in Central Park in May.

While it responds to the modernity of its day – to the threat of nuclear war and the growing doubt in the progress narrative of the 1950s – the novel nonetheless shelters in the makeshift of retrospection: it looks back at the end of the Eisenhower years from the vantage point of the violent end of the Kennedy presidency to reflect on the so-called modern liberalism of the early to mid-1960s.  

Was this choice of dating the action meant to suggest the datedness of the views expressed by the characters? What were the attitudes of the author toward race relations, civil rights and liberalism? In other words, what comments on the turmoil of the 1960s did Wouk make – or avoid making – by transporting back the readers of his day and dropping them off on an island that, for all its remoteness is nonetheless US territory, and that is about to be developed and exploited for its exoticism and natural resources?

The titular carnival is both figurative and metaphoric – an extended topsy-turvydom (or chaos) in which black mix and mate with white, queer live along straight folks, and Jews like Wouk’s protagonist Norman Paperman mingle with Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, pagans and atheists.  He encounters bad infrastructure, worse bureaucracy, and political corruption.  This island ain’t that different from Manhattan – which argues getting away from his former life to be futile and pointless.

The Carnival is not only shown to be a dead end but a deadly one.  In the final pages of the novel, two characters are killed in quick succession – one central to the narrative, the other – the decidedly other – being marginal.  The central one is Norman’s island fling, Iris Tramm, whom he knew as a celebrated actress two decades earlier and is surprised or reencounter, washed up but still alluring, as one of the guests in the hotel he decides to buy.  

The island carnival is exposed as a tropical fever that means either death or cure – a cure for an uncommon warmth of non-traditional bonds and realized desires.  Paperman recovers, and his understanding wife takes him “home.”  His lover, meanwhile, must first lose the companionship of her dog, and then, trashing Paperman’s car while trying to reunite with her wounded pet at a veterinarian’s, her life.  Was this the only out Wouk could conceive for a white woman who was the mistress of a black official who dared not to marry her?

It is the treatment of the marginal character of Hassim and his swift, unceremonious and unlamented disposal that lays bare Wouk’s fear of change: the antique dealer Hassim, introduced as a “rotund bald man” with a “bottom swaying like a woman’s,” who openly flirts with young men.  In fact, the island is awash with middle-class homosexuals of all ages.  Even Paperman’s hotel is pre-owned by a gay couple. And although he must have come across some of them in his former job as a Broadway press agent, Paperman is uneasy in their presence when he and Iris, his illicit love, visit an establishment frequented by gays:

Norman found the proprietor amusing, and he was enjoying the songs of his youth. But the Casa Encantada made him uneasy. Men were flirting with each other all around him; some were cuddling like teen-agers in a movie balcony. The boy in the pink shirt, biting his nails and constantly looking around in a scared way, sat at a small table with one of the rich pederasts from Signal Mountain, a pipe-smoking gray-haired man in tailored olive shirt and shorts, with young tan features carved by plastic surgery, and false teeth. Norman was glad when the proprietor finished a run of Noel Coward songs and left the piano, so that he and Iris could politely get out of the place.

Hassim is shot dead by a policeman, despite posing no risk and committing no crimes.  The killing, which occurs in Paperman’s hotel and bar, the Gull Reef, is described in few words and elicits less of a response than the stabbing of a dog a few pages before this incident near the close of the novel.

“As a matter of fact, […] I feel sorry for the poor bugger,” is the response to the death of  Hassim by one character, “munching on his thick-piled hamburger” not long after the killing.

“I’ve known thousands of those guys, and there’s no harm in ninety-nine out of a hundred of them. It’s just a sickness and it’s their own business.  Though gosh knows, when I was a kid working backstage, I sure got some surprises.  Yes ma’am, it was dam near worth my life to bend over and tie my shoelace, I tell you.” He laughed salaciously.  His once green face was burning to an odd bronze color like an American Indian’s, and he looked very relaxed and happy.  “Actually, Henny [who is Paperman’s wife], I almost hate to say this, but I think this thing’s going to prove a break for the Club.  I bet the nances stop coming to Gull Reef after this.”

Such views are unchallenged by the narrator and the main character, who decides to sell his business – to the man expressing those views, no less – and return to New York.  “People thought that this [his death] was a bit hard on Hassim,” the narrator sums, “but that the cop after all had only been doing his duty, and that one queer the less in the world was no grievous loss.”  Case closed. Business open as usual.

Clearly, queers like me were not considered by Wouk to be among his readers.  Targets, yes, but not target audiences.  Even the academic treatment of homosexuality – the suggestion that famous writers of the past, too, might have been homosexuals – is ridiculed in the novel, with one PhD student, the lover of Paperman’s teenage daughter, nearly drowning in the sea.  

Wouk, who died shortly before his 104th birthday in May 2019, lived beyond the middle age of Don’t Stop the Carnival for more than half a century.  I doubt that I shall make him a companion again on whatever is left of my journey.

‘I Think or Not to Be’: Getting All Cogitative Halfway Through The Murder of My Aunt

So historical, I probably won’t finish it.

I have long come to the conclusion that I never quite know what I will say next.  I am determined however, that whatever I say last shall be more memorable than anything I said first or during any of the intervening years, which is probably not saying much.  

So that I don’t end up mouthing what has already been said, I am brushing up on notable quotations to discard.  Like ‘I think or not to be,’ for example, which has already been said first by at least two different people.

I also need to brush up on history – roughly from the Common Era to the somewhat less common Golden Age – which is decidedly more challenging, as history mainly consists of memorable things said by people who do not trouble themselves to say them memorably,  which is why I tend to recall facts largely fictitiously, to say the least.

The vast majority of histories, especially those I have not consulted, are altogether too long, I find.  Things are blow out of all epic proportions, with dates, names and crowned heads – some heavy, some severed – thrust at you, relentlessly (they) and unawares (you), in both quick and bloody succession, ‘succession’ often being synonymous with ‘bloody.’  The saying ‘Uneasy lies the head that facts wear thin’ comes to mind, if vaguely. 

At any rate, I am apparently not epicurean enough – or is ‘epidural’ the word? – which is to say that I have been numb to the pleasures of history since birth, an event that occurred so long ago that I have forgotten most of that, too (that last ‘that’ being different from any other ‘that’ in that sentence).  I am of an epigrammatical persuasion myself, although more so in my reading than in my writing, I have been told.

Speaking of which (reading, I mean): I was turning the pages of The Murder of My Aunt (1934) the other day (Thursday, I think), and I was reminded by its almost forgotten author, Richard Hull, of a history to end all histories – at least British ones, which used to cover more ground than latterly, with more shrinkage more likely than not.  To think that it took a work of detective fiction like Hull’s – which is not, by the way, a continuation of and fatal conclusion to Travels with My Aunt – to point me to a history in which wit is the very soul of brevity, to paraphrase somewhat!

Anyway, according to the narrating nephew of that titular relation, the latter, while yet living (in Wales, no less, to which I can relate, albeit reluctantly at times), had ‘been reading some absurd comic history of England, full, I gather, of elementary humour of the schoolboy variety.’  Apparently, the aunt enjoyed that ‘history’ so much that she named her two dogs after two men – the great and the good – mentioned therein. Just wherein that was the author lacks the accuracy and goodness to state.

The two dogs, meanwhile, are Athelthral and Thruthelthrolth.  After several failed attempts at spelling those names correctly, I scoured the internet, filthy place that it is, to discover that they refer to two ancient rulers that most histories have consigned to oblivion, a state that rulers generally make considerable efforts not to end up in, opting – vainly, as it turns out – for largely unread tomes instead.  

How could I have never heard of Athelthral and Thruthelthrolth, or, having heard, not recall them by name? I am not a native of any of the British Isles, I should point out in my defense – a word, incidentally, that I insist on not spelling with a ‘c,’ as many British people do, unless they are students of mine, in which case they generally do not concern themselves with spelling at all.

But I divagate, as only the Latin still say now.  The point is that the history the aunt made such good use of is 1066 and All That and that it is so good I am quite rooting for her now, even though her survival would make Hull’s ostensible Murder mystery somewhat less of one.  What I like most about 1066 – as a book, not a date – is that it is a) short, b) determined to be memorable (a word frequently used by the authors, Sellar and Yeatman), and c) interspersed with ‘tests’ to help me remember what I just read. 

About Athelthral and Thruthelthrolth, for instance, it asks readers:

Have you the faintest recollection of

1) Ethelbreth?
2) Athelthral?
3) Thruthelthrolth?

I puzzled for a while, but found the next question encouraging: ‘What have you the faintest recollection of?’ Indeed.

1066, somewhat confusingly, was written quite a few years later than its title suggests and published not until 1930, when it must have been hit so hard by the Depression (the great and not so good) that it disappeared under the rock it came to share with me, eventually.  Just before that happened, if ever it did, the book was highly regarded by H. V. Kaltenborn, who, in turn, was a big name in the history of radio, which is the only history that I have not only read but written, a fact that should be reassuring to at least someone, surely.

To get back to those last words of mine, for the breathing of which I am rehearsing at present without any particular urgency. Clearly, I need to cross out another two as unusable: Athelthral and Thruthelthrolth.  Had I thought of them to begin with, I would have been confident that they had not already been uttered.  Not that I am quite capable of uttering them, at least not with any great confidence or without a tissue to hand.

No matter.  I am undaunted by the challenge of having those last words ready for folks to go gentle on me on my last good night.  After all, who was it that said ‘Fools brush past where angels fear to sled’? Rosebud, I think.  Which reminds me to check whether he was Plantagenet or the House of Elsa Lanchester.  I am hoping 1066 and All That will have all the answers.

[This was my eight hundredth post. Most of the others are equal to however you might find this one to be, should you happen to find it at all.]

Forecasts in Hindsight: Wrongly Predicting the 1948 Presidential Election

As my motto ‘Keeping up with the out-of-date’ is meant to suggest, I tend to look toward the past; and yet, I resist retreat.  Retrospection is not retrogressive; nor need it be it a way of reverencing what is presumably lost or of gaining belated control over what back at a certain time of ‘then’ was the uncertainty of life in progress. I am interested in finding the ‘now’ – my ‘now’ – in the ‘then,’ or vice versa, and in wresting currency from recurrences.

Many articles in Crosby’s column made it into this 1952 volume, which is on my bookshelf. The item discussed here did not.

I also tend to look at the ephemeral and everyday, the disposable objects or throwaway remarks we think or rather do not think of at all and dismiss as immaterial and obsolete, as too flimsy to carry any weight for any length of time.  Take an old syndicated newspaper column such as John Crosby’s “Radio in Review,” for instance.  Back in November 1948, Crosby, whose writing was generally concerned with programs and personalities then on the air, commented on a US presidential election that apparently no one, at least no one in the news media, had predicted accurately.  “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune erroneously read on 3 November that year. Having listened to the words dispensed over the airwave on that day after – or, depending on your politics, in the aftermath of an election that paved the way for another term for President Harry S. Truman – Crosby noted:

‘Perhaps never before have such handsome admissions of error reverb[e]rated from so many lips with such a degree of humility as they did on the air last week.’  Truman had been in office since the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945; but in 1948, he had confirmation at last that the public – or the majority of those who made their views public and official – agreed that he belonged there.  As Crosby pointed out, even seasoned political commentators had predicted a Republican victory.

‘[T]here probably never has been an election post-mortem in which the words “I told you so” were not heard at all,’ the columnist remarked, adding that ‘if they were said, [he] didn’t hear them.’  To his knowledge, ‘[n]o professional commentators … told anyone so.’

Among those who, according to Crosby, got it more wrong than others was the ultra-conservative broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr., an opportunist and influencer who, Crosby remarked, had gone ‘far beyond’ his fellow commentators by predicting ‘Republican victories in states where most observers foresaw a seesaw battle.’  

Speaking from the secular pulpit that was his radio program, Lewis ‘fully admitted his wrongness’ after the fact, Crosby noted, reading aloud the messages he received from listeners who ‘invited him to drop dead,’ to ‘throw himself’ into Chesapeake Bay, or to ‘go soak his head in a vinegar barrel.’  Far from remorseful or self-deprecating, such revelling in controversy is representative of right-wing provocation as we experience it to this day.  

A question not posed by Crosby is whether future Barry Goldwater supporter Lewis simply got it wrong – or whether he predicted wrongly to demoralise Truman’s supporters by suggesting that a Republican landslide was a foregone conclusion. Given Lewis’s known bias, the miscalculation was obviously not calculated to rattle Truman supporters out of complacency. So, a question worth asking now not how commentators got it so wrong, but why.

Lowell Thomas, a conservative commentator courting an audience of both major parties, insisted that he had not predicted the election but that he had merely ‘passed along the opinions of others.’  Thomas added, however, that, had he made a prediction, ‘he’d have been as wrong as everyone else.’  Unlike Lewis, this statement suggests, Thomas distinguished between reportage and commentary, the line between which was drawn no more clearly in 1948 broadcasting than it is in today’s mass media, discredited though they are as ‘legacy’ and presumably obsolete by the social media weaponizing political right.

Reporter Elmer Davis who, also unlike Lewis, was critical of then on-the-rise Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Democrat who turned Republican and opposed the Truman presidency for being soft on Communism,  provided this statement to his listeners: ‘Any of us,’ he said, ‘who analyze news on the radio or in the papers must hesitate to try to offer any explanation to a public which remembers too well the lucid and convicing explanations we all offered day before yesterday of why Dewey had it in the bag.’  Commentators had ‘beaten’ their ‘breasts’ and ‘heaped ashes’ on their heads since the election, Davis told his audience; but they still looked ‘pretty foolish’ and should probably wait some time before sticking their ‘necks’ out again.

‘Cheer up, you losers,’ veteran newscaster H. V. Kaltenborn declared on his radio program, ‘It isn’t so bad as you think.’  The peculiar mash-up of scoffing, commiserating, mind-reading and prognosticating did not escape Crosby, who wondered just what went on in the ‘mind’ of someone who, more than having misjudged who lost, might himself have lost it.

The ‘explanations as to why President Truman won were almost as identical as the pre-election prediction that he wouldn’t,’ Crosby observed, namely that the nation ‘liked an underdog.’  Just how much of an ‘underdog’ can a presidential incumbent be? Playing one on TV would prove a winning formula for Donald Trump, at least, and the kind of doghouse he managed to furnish for himself, which is so unlike the residence some of us envision as rightfully his, provides support of that theory.

Summing up the state of desperation among commentators, Crosby stated that ‘many’ of them derived rather ‘odd comfort’ from the fact that US ally turned adversary Josef Stalin, who likewise incorrectly predicted a win for Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, ‘had been just as wrong as they were.’

Sure, there is momentary relief in Schadenfreude, seeing those who got it wrong having to admit – or trying to avoid admitting – the fact that, in hindsight, they were demonstrably wrong, and, being wrong, on the wrong side of the future.  And yet, getting it wrong may also be evidence of wrongdoing, of deceit and deviousness.  As someone relegated to the sidelines, I can offer only one reasonable piece of advice to those who prefer a Truman over a Trump: pay attention to but do not trust folks who are determined to convince you that your vote does not matter much by declaring the game to be over when it is still afoot.

Once Upon a Time in Radioland: A Kind of Ruritanian Romance

The other day, at my favorite bookstore here in Aberystwyth, I was caught in the eye by what struck me as a highly unusual cover for a 1938 edition of Anthony Hope’s fanciful pageturner The Prisoner of Zenda. Mind you, I’m not likely to turns those pages any time soon. I’m not one for Graustarkian excursions. That I found the old chestnut so arresting is due to the way in which it was sold anew to an audience of Britons to whom such a mode of escape from the crisis-ridden everyday must have been sufficiently attractive already. This was the 92nd impression of Zenda; and, with Europe at the brink of war, Ruritania must have sounded to those who prefer to face the future with their head in the hourglass contents of yesteryear like a travel deal too hard to resist.

My copy of the book

Now, the publishers, Arrowsmith, weren’t taking any chances.  Judging by the cover telling as much, they were looking for novel ways of repackaging a familiar volume that few British public and private libraries could have been wanting at the time.

British moviegoers had just seen Ruritania appear before their very eyes in the 1937 screen version of the romance, which make dashing Ronald Colman an obvious salesperson and accounts for his presence on the dust jacket.  It is the line underneath, though, that made me look: “The Book of the Radio Broadcast,” the advertising slogan reads.  Desperate, anachronistic, and now altogether unthinkable, these words reminded me just how far removed we are from those olden days when radio ruled the waves.

The Prisoner of Zenda was recently the subject of a highly successful film,” the copy on the inside states somewhat pointlessly in the face of the faces on the cover.  What’s more, it continues, a “further mark of its popularity” was the story’s “selection by the BBC as a radio serial broadcast on the National Programme.”  To this day, the BBC produces and airs a great number of serial adaptations of classic, popular or just plain old literature; but, however reassuring this continuation of a once prominent storytelling tradition may be, a reminder of the fact that books are still turned into sound-only dramas would hardly sell copies these days.  Radio still sells merchandise—but a line along the lines of “as heard on radio” is pretty much unheard of in advertising these days.

From my collection of Cinegrams.

“This book is the original story on which the broadcast was based,” the dust jacket blurb concludes.  I, for one, would have been more thrilled to get my hands or ears on the adaptation, considering that all we have left of much of the BBC’s output of aural drama is such ocular proof of radio’s diminished status and pop-cultural clout.

Perhaps, my enthusiasm at this find was too much tempered with the frustration and regret such a nostalgic tease provokes.  At any rate, I very nearly left Ystwyth Books without the volume in my hands. That I walked off with it after all is owing to our friend, novelist Lynda Waterhouse, who saw me giving it the eye and made me a handsome present of it.  And there it sits now on my bookshelf, a tattered metaphor of my existence: I am stuck in a past that was never mine to outlive, grasping at second-hand-me-downs and gasping for recycled air . . . a prisoner of a Zenda of my own unmaking.

So to Speke

When not at work on our new old house—where the floorboards are up in anticipation of central heating—we are on the road and down narrow country lanes to get our calloused hands on the pieces of antique furniture that we acquired, in 21st-century style, by way of online auction. In order to create the illusion that we are getting out of the house, rather than just something into it, and to put our own restoration project into a perspective from which it looks more dollhouse than madhouse, we make stopovers at nearby National Trust properties like Chirk Castle or Speke Hall.

The latter (pictured here) is a Tudor mansion that, like some superannuated craft, sits sidelined along Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport, formerly known as RAF Speke. The architecture of the Hall, from the openings under the eaves that allowed those within to spy on the potentially hostile droppers-in without to the hole into which a Catholic priest could be lowered to escape Protestant persecution, bespeaks a history of keeping mum.

Situated though it is far from Speke, and being fictional besides, what came to mind was Audley Court, a mystery house with a Tudor past and Victorian interior that served as the setting of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational crime novel Lady Audley’s Secret. The hugely popular thriller was first serialized beginning in 1861 and subsequently adapted for the stage. Resuscitated for a ten-part serial currently aired on BBC Radio 4, the eponymous “lady”—a gold digger, bigamist, and arsonist whose ambitions are famously diagnosed as the mark of “latent insanity”—can now be eavesdropped on as she, sounding rather more demure than she appeared to my mind’s ear when reading the novel, attempts to keep up appearances, even if it means having to make her first husband, a gold digger in his own right, disappear down a well.

As if the house, Audley Court, did not have a checkered past of its own—

a house in which you incontinently lost yourself if ever you were so rash as to attempt to penetrate its mysteries alone; a house in which no one room had any sympathy with another, every chamber running off at a tangent into an inner chamber, and through that down some narrow staircase leading to a door which, in its turn, led back into that very part of the house from which you thought yourself the furthest; a house that could never have been planned by any mortal architect, but must have been the handiwork of that good old builder, Time, who, adding a room one year, and knocking down a room another year, [ … ] had contrived, in some eleven centuries, to run up such a mansion as was not elsewhere to be met with throughout the county […].

“Of course,” the narrator insists,

in such a house there were secret chambers; the little daughter of the present owner, Sir Michael Audley, had fallen by accident upon the discovery of one.  A board had rattled under her feet in the great nursery where she played, and on attention being drawn to it, it was found to be loose, and so removed, revealed a ladder, leading to a hiding-place between the floor of the nursery and the ceiling of the room below—a hiding-place so small that he who had hid there must have crouched on his hands and knees or lain at full length, and yet large enough to contain a quaint old carved oak chest, half filled with priests’ vestments, which had been hidden away, no doubt, in those cruel days when the life of a man was in danger if he was discovered to have harbored a Roman Catholic priest, or to have mass said in his house.

Loose floorboards we’ve got plenty in our own domicile, and room enough for a holy manhole below. It being a late-Victorian townhouse, though, the hidden story we laid bare is that of the upstairs-downstairs variety. At the back, in the part of the house where the servants labored and lived, there once was a separate staircase, long since dismantled. It was by way of those steep steps that the maid, having performed her chores out of the family’s sight and earshot, withdrew, latently insane or otherwise, into the modest quarters allotted to her.

I wonder whether she read Lady Audley’s Secret, if indeed she found time to read at all, and whether she read it as a cautionary tale or an inspirational one—as the story of a woman who dared to rewrite her own destiny:

No more dependency, no more drudgery, no more humiliations,” Lucy exclaimed secretly, “every trace of the old life melted away—every clue to identity buried and forgotten—except […]

… that wedding ring, wrapped in paper.  It’s enough to make a priest turn in his hole.

Blind Justice; or, ‘1000 for Verdicts’

“It does not matter whether your verdict is ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’ If your reasons for it are good enough you will share in the prizes.” With this peculiar invitation, millions of Americans were lured to their radios, tuned in to WJZ, for a trial in which they, the listening public, were called upon to act as jurors. As previously mentioned here, it all began on this day, 25 November, in 1930. The judge in the case was none other than New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, lending gravitas to a spectacle that was, in more sense than one, a trial broadcast: Would the listeners find society beauty Vivienne Ware guilty of the murder of millionaire architect Damon Fenwicke, a crime for which she could be sentenced to the electric chair? And would they leap out of their armchairs to boost not only their own circulation but that of their local paper be rereading what they heard on the air?

“It is no part of your duty to decide whether or not she shall die,” Senator Wagner insisted. That, he told the listeners,

is the function of the Court and the Law. But you must remember that in endeavoring to secure a conviction of this young and beautiful defendant the District Attorney is but pursuing the business to which you, the people of this State, have set him. You will consider carefully all the evidence as it is presented for you from the witness stand.

Whether or not their voices could kill, those tuning in nevertheless derived their thrills from the importance of the interactive role granted to them. Tune in, have your say, all for a chance to win a substantial amount of dough—what’s not to love!

Leave it to a Hearst paper to conceive of a reality show like The Trial of Vivienne Ware—a trial that sold papers and bought the jury. Those who caught up with the daily broadcasts from the courtroom and read transcripts and analyses in their daily Hearst paper were rewarded for being informed enough to arrive at the verdict they were invited to mail in. No attendance, no deliberations with fellow jurors required. All that was needed, aside from a radio set and a few cents for daily tabloids, was curiosity, rhetoric, and greed.

You might say it was just fiction, this fictional call for justice; but the Hearst press, known to have started a war with mere words, was doing its utmost to make the trial seem as real the joined media of radio and the press could make it, all with the aim at a very real boost in sales through a cleverly manipulative marketing campaign.

More than a radio serial, The Trial of Vivienne Ware is one of the most fascinating media events ever staged. All that remains of it now are a number of newspaper articles and a book touted as “an innovation in both the radio and publishing worlds”—the “first radio novel.”

To be sure, Kenneth M. Ellis’s “novel”—a combination of faux news reportage and courtroom dialogue—has none of the thrills of the original experience. Its failure to excite and convince convincingly argues the power of the media to create a sense of reality through the realities we glean from sensation.

Not Every Tome, Dick, and Harry; or, How to Approach Claudette Colbert

It had been two decades since last a biographer was given the chance to shed light on the life of a woman whose name was written in the bright lights of Broadway and whose radiant presence lit up the silver screen. Considering that the radiant one is my favorite actress, I was eager to clap eyes on Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), a promisingly scholarly tome by Bernard F. Dick. Not that the title inspires clapping, Byronic, bastardized, and bromidic that it is. It sure gave me the first clue, though: whatever it was that Colbert walked in—beauty, grace, wit—was being thoroughly trampled in a clumsy and inept performance that brings out the lambastard in me.

As I advised students attending my seminar in Effective Academic Writing yesterday, a gaffe can be so distracting as to drown out an argument in guffaws and undermine a reader’s trust in a professional writer. Dick’s editors left us with ample occasions to titter and groan. I put down the book often enough just to get some fresh air; but I had not gotten past page two when I was confronted with “the Prince of Whales.” That’s a fine kettle of mammals, I thought.

Not that the royalty thus referred to has anything to do with Colbert; Edward VII, along with Oscar Wilde and Theodore Roosevelt, is merely listed as one of the admirers of Lily Langtry after whom Colbert may have been named. Cumbersomely piled up, trivia like this slows the plodding, meandering account of how She Walked down to a crawl. However thorough a detective, Dick is unable to fashion the evidence he compiled into any cohesive—let alone compelling—narrative. Instead, he rehearses the biographer’s role of examining data:

Without school records, it is impossible to verify whether Claudette was still at Washington Irving in February 1919 [ . . .]. Although she told Rex Reed that she appeared in Grammar in December 1918, she could have graduated at the end of the fall term, in January 1919. Initially, Washington Irving, which opened its doors in February 1913, did not observe the traditional September-June school year. Then, too, there was the matter of Claudette’s missing at least four months of school, and possibly more, in 1916, which would also have affected her graduation date.

The “matter” in question was an accident that very nearly crippled his subject. It is commendable that Dick resists being melodramatic; but his idea of bringing an event like Colbert’s immigration to life for us is to check the records revealing that, “for the end of November, the temperature was a comfortable 45 degrees.” It is difficult to warm to such storytelling.

Fortunate for those who have not burned the book to beat the chill, She Walked gathers momentum once Colbert makes the move from stage to screen. Having watched virtually all of her films, Dick can fill in many of the blanks people are likely to draw when they try to remember any of the films in which Colbert starred before or after It Happened One Night. Most of these movies are not classics; and Dick does not pretend that they are. He nonetheless succeeds in offering a thorough overview of a career that might have been brighter had Colbert not been such a shrewd businesswoman. One of the highest paid actresses, she generally chose projects based on their financial worth to her rather than on their artistic value to us.

Demonstrating that her film career declined in the late 1940s, Dick is faced with an anticlimax that cannot be countered by references to stage performances to which we no longer have access. So, he holds back with the gossip some might have expected from him: was Colbert a lesbian or what? Once again, her biographer lays out the facts with admirable restraint. There is no evidence, besides her childless marriages, the fact that she did not so much as share a house with her first husband, that she had female live-in companions, and that she enjoyed being around gay people. No evidence, in short.

Dick confuses our desire to speculate about an artist’s gender orientation with untoward curiosity. Does it matter whether Colbert (whom Dick refers to as Claudette throughout, while according last names to her male co-stars) ever derived sexual pleasure from the company of another woman? Are those who, like me, are not born heterosexuals, inappropriately trying to appropriate another luminary by pushing her into the dark corner of our longings?

I have often wondered just what attracts me to Colbert, to whose Academy Award-winning performance I was introduced by my grandmother. Even as the pre-adolescent I was then, I sensed that I was gay. It would take nearly two decades more to make me feel cheerful about it. During that time, I rejected most of the gay icons to come out of Hollywood. In the dignified, understated performances of Claudette Colbert I seemed to detect something understood. Her sexuality was not threatening to a boy troubled by the realization that he could not get aroused at the sight of feminine beauty. To me, Colbert was a woman who charmed when others seemed to chide.

When I speculate about Colbert’s intimate life, I do so not with the intention of outing her, but in the hope of learning something about myself. She Walked is designed to put such speculations to rest. Yet no matter how many facts we can gather about others, even those close to us, we never stop wondering about them and our love for them. Once we have people all figured out, they tend to be more dead to us than alive. Such is the effect of setting a queer record straight.

Writing a speech about Colbert in college, I concentrated on her career, of which my fellow students knew little and for which they could not have cared less. That I mentioned the mystique in which her sexuality was shrouded did not seem to have bothered either Colbert or her secretary/companion much. Weeks after sending the only copy of my speech to Colbert’s home in Barbados, I received the autographed image shown here. While I would have liked to engage in conjecture, it was mainly to come out to my own audience, an autobiographical act I ultimately rejected as self-indulgent. A biographer’s predilections and prejudices must not get in the way of the project.

This, I felt, was precisely what kept She Walked from taking flight. Never mind the fanciful title with which Dick tries to evoke the romance he never found or instilled in his subject. Approaching biography with the mind of a bureaucrat, the scholar falls short of meeting the creative challenge at which he balked in duty.

As a failed opportunity to revive interest in someone who, to my great relief, is alive and well in films like the aforementioned Midnight and The Palm Beach Story, She Walked may well put an end to future studies. Yet even if an open-minded publisher can prevent this from being the last word on Colbert, Dick’s eulogy stands out as an act of unpardonable bumbling. Just how graceless a performance it is can be demonstrated by these two consecutive paragraphs, which I have mercifully abridged:

The end came on 30 July. Claudette, barely breathing, said, “I want to go home,” pointing upwards. O’Hagan stayed with her until the end [. . .]

Claudette was fortunate to have a friend in Helen O’Hagan, a celebrity in her own right. Widely known as the voice of Saks, she numbered the leading designers among her circle. In 2000, she hosted a retirement party for Bill Blass at the Waldorf, where she presented a slide show of his career, followed by a luncheon consisting of his favorite foods: meat loaf and oat meal cookies.

Not even if such culinary treats had been served at Colbert’s wake do I want to hear about them, especially not in the wake of the deathbed scene. If “The end came on 20 July” brought a tear to my eye, “oat meal cookies” made me choke—an unpleasant sensation that even the imminent conclusion of book could not alleviate. “A film actor’s life is a palimpsest,” Dick remarks in his Preface; She Walked in Beauty qualifies as an effacement I would like to see overwritten.

He Calls Them As He Hears Them: Joseph Julian Remembers

“The small but rich body of radio literature, which [Norman Corwin] brought so lovingly to life, lies languishing in a few libraries and second-hand book shops, under the titles Thirteen by Corwin and More by Corwin—a great shame and deprivation for the present generation!” My sentiments, entirely. Not my words, though, which is why I had to slap quotation marks on them. The man who said so was Joseph Julian, a once highly acclaimed and sought-after radio actor who starred in a number of plays written and directed by Corwin during the early-to-mid 1940s. Today, Julian’s memoir, a copy of which I recently added to my own library of out-of-print books on broadcasting, is one among those “languishing” volumes, a forgotten voice from a medium whose dramatic potentialities have remained largely unsounded since the late 1950s.

This Was Radio came out in the mid-1970s, a time widely deemed ripe for a reassessment of the aural medium and its derelict theater of the mind. Rather than waxing nostalgic—thereby squeezing the last few bucks out of a defunct business which, back then, most American adults still recalled experiencing first-ear, and fondly at that—Julian takes readers on a trip down memory lane that leads into neighbourhoods they would not get to hear about on an official tour.

His Corwinian class acts aside, Julian appeared on thriller programs like The Falcon, The Shadow, Inner Sanctum, Mr. Keen, Broadway Is My Beat, and The Mysterious Traveler. He was first heard on The March of Time, but as an also-ran-off-the-mouth, in re-enactments that called for crowd scenes. Briefly, he served as a sound man, during which stint he learned what noise a human body produces when it is turned inside out.

I can imagine just what kind of sounds emanated from Julian when he learned that the same thing was happening to his career. An established actor by the early 1940s, Julian remained highly successful throughout the decade, until, in 1950, his name appeared in Red Channels. His career as a radio actor declined rapidly; by 1953, his annual income had dwindled to a mere $1630.

Barred from work at CBS, Julian fired back by filing a lawsuit for libel. Character witnesses during Julian’s 1954 trial were Edward R. Morrow (last talked of here) and the aforementioned Morton Wishengrad. It was “an ugly period in American life and in mine,” Julian comments. His “urge” was “to skip over it”; but he felt a

responsibility as a victim to record some of what [he] went through. A whole new generation hardly knows that such a thing ever happened. But the fact is it could easily happen again if we relax our vigilance in defending our freedoms. Control of broadcasting is one of the first major objectives of those who would take them away.

His lawsuit was dismissed; thereafter, Julian virtually unemployed until William Fitelson, a theatrical lawyer and executive producer of the Theater Guild’s US Steel Hour television series staged one of the actor’s own plays in December 1954. Julian’s fortunes changed as quickly as they had declined; and he once again “getting calls for radio acting jobs.”

Without bitterness, Julian tells it as it is. About Myrna Loy, for instance, he remarks that, “if she had to win [her radio] role in a competitive audition with radio actresses, she wouldn’t have been there. Her voice, isolated from her other attributes, was dull and flat. She was selling her name, not her art.” More problematic still was it to perform a dramatic scene with Veronica Lake, who had such a weak, wispy voice” that the sound engineer could not get her and Julian “in proper balance.”

Lake was handed a “separate microphone across the stage” so that the engineer could “could mechanically raise her voice level to mine.” However effective for listeners at home, her faraway whispers had Julian straining to hear his cues. “Especially since they had her facing front so the audience could see her famous peek-a-boo hairdo. Hardly the way to play an intimate love scene with a lady!”

Of the notorious Hummerts, who “grimly dominated their empire” of soap operas, Julian remarks:

There was something darkly foreboding about [them].  Their stiff presence always evoked a sense of insecurity.  And with good reason.  They had a reputation for firing actors who incurred their slightest displeasure.  And authors.  When Mrs. Hummert once told a writer that she wanted “God” on every page of a script, and his answer was “Who will we get to play Him?” he was fired on the spot.  And whey you were fired from one of their shows it was a catastrophe.  It meant being banned from all their nine or ten others that might be on the air at any given time.

Call him fortunate or not, Julian continued to act on the air well into the medium’s decline. On this day, 4 October, in 1959, he was heard on Suspense, one of radio’s last remaining drama anthologies, in the routine thriller “Room 203.” It is a far cry from Julian’s greatest work; but these days, almost any cry uttered on radio seems distant.