Gone Garbo

Well, let’s skip it. The convivial “Well,” I mean, with which I have been wont to begin my posts for over two and a half years now. Things haven’t been well for quite some time, and I hardly feel gregarious enough to have use for such a hokey opening. For once, I am not going to assume the well-worn persona of the casual, nonchalant reporter or produce another impersonal, labored piece of prose commemorating the birth of a celebrity long deceased. That will have to wait.

This journal has been in somewhat of a shambles since my return from New York and London, during which carefree time of easy living I was reminded—if any reminder were needed—that I am truly an urbanite at heart. Matters were not helped when I fell ill soon after coming back to the countryside; nor has facing the first month of the year, bleak and blank as it looms before me, ever felt like a particularly uplifting or inspiring period to me. Renewal? I have yet to sense it.

I feel my isolation keenly at times, and sometimes I appear to be revelling in it as if in a state of martyrdom. Now, by calling this period—and I sincerely hope it is just a phase—Garboesque, I am already in defiance of this journal, Garbo being the only major Hollywood actress not to appear on the radio, the medium to whose stars, stories, and strictures broadcastellan is devoted.

For a moment, feeling either overmastered by the task of keeping up with myself (the recent posts from Gotham and the Big Smoke having been mere placeholders, some of which I have at last begun to fill, as in the case of my getting caught in The Mousetrap), or feeling reluctant to look back, being wary and weary of nostalgia, I contemplated putting an end to broadcastellan. Only, saying “farewell” sounded rather too melodramatic, and, I nearly felt but certainly still hoped, rash and premature.

Its arcane subject matter and frosty euphuisms notwithstanding, this is a personal journal. It has to matter to me before it can matter to anyone. And recently I have been unable to matter much to myself. Not taking myself too seriously has generally been an asset to me; but you can take not taking yourself seriously too far, at which point you drift into a desolate place reverberating with the hollow laughter of self-contempt.

Let us say—or permit me to say it on behalf of myself—that, speaking Garboesquely, I have been in my Two-faced period, a wavering to which those less anxious to find just the right expression or indifferent to the joys of such a challenge refer as crossroads; but I have decided to go on, falteringly and doubtfully, instead of calling it quits without having half the cold heart to disguise such a move as the height of dignity . . .

Digging the Mole: Language, Memory, and the Dirt of Native Soil

Well, I am back in Wales after a week in the Czech capital. And, as is always the case following such travels, I seem to have left behind some part of me that keeps spinning, endlessly and unclaimed, like a piece of luggage on a carousel forcing it back into view with every turn. Retrieving some of its content piecemeal—and in full view of anyone around me—I am devoting the next few entries in the broadcastellan journal to the grabbing at that stubbornly revolving case and the spreading out of whatever I might snatch from it for all to see.

Traveling to Prague was not simply a matter of going on a trip to me—unless, you might say at the risk of sounding like some hideous pop tune, it was a matter of going on a trip “to me.” It was the closest I have been to walking on what my German passport claims to be home turf in about seventeen years (apart from a subsequent stopover in Amsterdam, during which we took the train into town for a meal and a walk along the grachten).

If that nearness to what I have been trying to get away from weren’t enough to cause anxiety, Prague is full of reminders of the cultural contributions of my forebears, from the writings of Franz Kafka to the attempt at exterminating Jewish culture, impressions to be shared in subsequent entries. I was relieved, amid “collective guilt”-ridden visits of the Jewish Quarter and the angst-fest that is the Kafka Museum, to come across Krtek, the mole. Perhaps it was a matter of closing my eyes and ears for a while (moles, unlike Krtek, being short-sighted and hard of hearing) and of not resurfacing for a while, getting so close to being home-soiled.

I grew up digging Krtek, a cartoon character created by Zdeněk Miler. Former Czechoslovakia was a chief purveyor of children’s television entertainment both in Eastern Europe and Germany during the 1970s. As it turns out, Krtek is celebrating his fiftieth birthday this year, which is why he was prominently on display in the shopwindows of Prague. I could not resist sharing my rediscovery by donning above t-shirt. Never mind that I look like Mr. Magoo avoiding the glare of an otherwise welcome sun.

To me, Krtek will always be “Der Kleine Maulwurf,” which is how I got to know him during my childhood. “Maulwurf”! What a wonderful word. Literally, it means “snout throw” (or “muzzle toss”). The German language is marked by a directness largely lacking in Latin-quartered English, an openness and simplicity I did not come to appreciate until I dug a hole out of the place I chose not to call Heimat and picked up the works of Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, whose to English ears mannered idiolect (termed “Carlylese”) comes alive in metaphors and loan-translations.

A number of poets and novelists living in Prague in the early 20th century circulated their thoughts in the linguistic isolation cell of German, a marginality so keenly felt by Kafka. Being already in a heap of clay dug up by Krtek, I am currently reading Gustav Meyrink’s Der Golem (1915), the famous legend of the clay-made aider of the Jews, about which and whom I will have more to say in the near future.

Having lived outside Europe for so long, I am sometimes overwhelmed (and not always pleased) by the memories tossed back in my face at the mere sight of something like a little mime of a mole, memories that come to life chiefly in images but, when recalled in words, insist on sticking out my native tongue at me.

I know. It seems as if I were making a mountain out of one of his hills; but watching Krtek in this charming little movie, I am reminded how much he, too, dug the radio, and how this love for foreign sounds brought about his isolation . . .

Little Town Blues; or, Melting Away

Well, “it won’t be like that in town.” That is a remark you would have heard frequently, had you been eavesdropping in on us talking about our anticipated move out of the country later this month. As it turns out, we will have to wait far longer to prove or confute our hypotheses about the differences between urban and rural dwelling. Our plans to relocate to Aberystwyth, the Welsh seaside town romanticized in the quirky murder mysteries of Malcolm Pryce, have been thwarted. The potential buyer of our present abode has nixed the deal, making it impossible for us to buy the house currently owned by the person desirous to take possession of our buyer’s home. There’s a neat little triangle gone Bermuda.

Meanwhile, our cottage is once again cut off from the world, due to an ongoing problem with the telephone lines. I am in town now to file this report, sitting, in fact, not far from the Edwardian house (pictured) we were hoping to occupy. After the welcome interlude set aside for this lament, I am once again singing the blues where no one can hear me sigh . . .

Old-time Radio Primer: B Stands for broadcastellan

Well, before I was being whisked off for a daytrip in observation of one of those red-letter days on which we are expected to celebrate the gradual approach of our inevitable demise, I subjected myself to a rather probing interview, conducted by the eminent if irascible radio reporter Wally Windchill. Are we ready, Mr. and Mrs. North America, and all the ships at sea?

As the laundry basket said to the ironing board: let’s go to press.

Windchill: You call yourself “broadcastellan.”

broadcastellan: Yes. Only in the blogosphere, mind you.

Windchill: I get it, a surfname; but what does it stand for?

broadcastellan: Well, it all started about a year ago, when, one quiet afternoon . . .

Windchill: Please, we are pressed for time.

broadcastellan: Sorry. The handle is meant to suggest that I am writing about broadcasting and that I consider myself a keeper of records, one who manages a neglected vault of half-forgotten radio treasures. A castellan in the castles on the air.

Windchill: So, it’s another one of your awful puns, basically.

broadcastellan: A pun, at any rate.

Windchill: Never mind the rate; it’s cheap. But about radio. As your first and only reviewer on one of those traffic generator sites put it so succinctly in his single-word comment: Why?

broadcastellan: Well, I am very much intrigued by aural drama as an alternative to visual entertainment; and, having written a dissertation on the potentialities and shortcomings of these stories in sound, as they played out in the minds of millions during the 1930s and ’40s, I thought I had something to share that . . .

Windchill: You don’t do short sentence, do you?

broadcastellan: Not true! I even “do” incomplete ones. On occasion.

Windchill: Cute. But, about radio. Why the old stuff?

broadcastellan: Radio drama has a fascinating history. It’s a tradition that, in the US at least, has been all but abandoned in favor of television.

Windchill: And that’s bad?

broadcastellan: I think so, yes.

Windchill: But why American radio? You live in England, don’t you?

broadcastellan: Wales, actually.

Windchill: As if anyone outside the UK could tell the difference. Why not British radio, then? I hear it’s still going strong over there.

broadcastellan: I am just not that impressed by what’s being done nowadays. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, radio was it, not fringe culture. The voices, the sound effects, the storytelling—the commercials. It’s the showmanship I admire, the theatricality. And nobody does showmanship better than the Americans. What I love particularly about US radio is its strong connection to old Hollywood; hearing those great stars. Everyone did radio in the 1930s and ’40s—everyone, except Garbo, who very nearly did. They don’t have stars nowadays; just celebrities.

Windchill: I see.

broadcastellan: Besides, I didn’t grow up with those voices. In Germany, where I’m from, movies are dubbed. Radio taught me a lot about the sound of American English, about idiom and jargon.

Windchill: Not that you got it down. Some queer diction you’ve got going on there, Mr. “broadcastellan.” So, you’re going to keep exposing others to your . . . radiology? Not a lot of people out there care, you know.

broadcastellan: I am aware of that, but undaunted by the general indifference. Yes, I’ll keep on blogging. My first anniversary is coming up, on 22 May.

Windchill: I guess we’re going to read all about that in a few days, then.

broadcastellan: Probably. Perhaps we could do another interview.

Windchill: It would have to be a slow newsday.

The Present Is Shared Pasts

The day recalled in my previous blog entry was of such monumental significance to old-time radio enthusiasts that I thought it appropriate to shroud myself in the silence to which US radio drama was sentenced back in 1962. Actually, I was away for a long weekend up north in Manchester, England—but the timing was fortuitous. Now this past break presents itself as an opportunity to escape the rigidity of my “On This Day” feature, even though I shall continue it before long. In my attempt to avoid waxing nostalgic, I have become too much of an historian by letting past dates dictate my present thoughts. Now it is time for the present to have its day. Well, sort of . . .

Historians seek to make the past present. Those afflicted with nostalgia make their present past. The personal pronoun is significant. Nostalgia is a more self-centered engagement with the long ago. It is openly impressionistic and subjective, which makes it an endeavor at once intellectually dubious and honest. The researcher feels compelled to cover up the subjectivity underlying all our thoughts. As a refugee from the here and now, the nostalgic wanderer is not in need of such subterfuge.

Now, as I wrote when I inaugurated this blog, my approach to the past is neither historic nor nostalgic. Historians make it their business to discourse on the past and its relevance; nostalgic people tend to remove themselves from the everyday, the onslaught of a present they are at a loss to confront. Instead, they surround themselves with like-minded dreamers and reminisce about what they sense to be missing. How can anything we dream or think about be missing? It is there, present in our mind—and, in the act of sharing, it is being represented.

Why such reflections now? Well, having been away for a weekend alone in a big city, I felt detached from those around me. I went out for a few drinks one night and was so tired of standing by myself in the crowd that I went back to the hotel room to catch a late-night TV screening of The Curse of the Cat People. I was not wide-awake enough to follow it, but I had more of a sense of a shared experience watching something broadcast for everyone to see than I had staring at and being stared at in a barroom of unknown anybodies.

I had hoped this journal would make it possible for me find a few somebodies in a vast space of anyones—connected in the spirit of sharing. Thus far, my modest ambitions have not been realized. Anyway, this is the present, and I will get past it.

Castles in the Air; or, No, No, Nostalgia

I am moving in.  At last I am beginning to feel more at home sharing my thoughts in this way. It seems somewhat daunting, at first.  If not altogether arcane, the internet as a communal space, an event in which to partake rather than a means for the taking or the taking in is still unexplored territory to me.  How can I file my claim in a land whose boundaries I do not yet grasp?

I am not calling this journal broadcastellan for nothing.  The past to me is not a dungeon cluttered with artifacts, nor a fortress to be taken.  It is a castle I am building with materials I gather while listening.  Tuning in, belatedly, to live broadcasts of the 1930s or ‘40s, I seem to be living on recycled air; but what I come across can still feel like a fresh current, not an atmosphere that is stagnant or miasmic.  Catching a reverberation of the past, I am breathing it in and breathe in it.  This stronghold is well ventilated.

I have always been suspicious of both history and nostalgia as motivations for looking (or listening) back.  History is the effort to make sense of the past, a figuring out—rather than a figuring forth—of it; nostalgia, by comparison, strikes me as an act of self-absorbed pillaging, a heedless appropriation.  If the former lacks creative freedom, the latter means taking liberties rather too freely.  In a review of a friend’s book I once called “nostalgia” the “fruitful reverie of a past whose text is a history of longing.”  Now, even I don’t quite know anymore what that might mean—but I can still feel it ringing true.

Nostalgia is a longing for an elusive and largely undefined bygone, while history is a longing for knowledge of what has truly been going on all along; but neither approach enables us to achieve a sense of belonging as we behold or hold on to the past.  Listening to historic broadcasts, I dwell on air; I do not linger in a vacuum.  I might be the creator of this castle, but its stuff—the found matter that is its foundation—has to be weighed, handled and shaped with care and understanding.

What is my place in this castle I am constructing? What is the responsibility of a broadcastellan—the present keeper of a home for live records of the past?

Unpopular Culture; or, the Return of the Magnificent Montague

Popular culture is generally understood to be the mass-market consumer culture of the present.  As the culture of the everyday it is especially vulnerable to obliteration.  What happens to the popular of the past, to the dime novels, movies, television programs or radio entertainment no longer of interest to a larger public, no longer deemed marketable or relevant? Does it become fodder for historians? Is it fuel for nostalgia? I am going to investigate this heap of discarded objects, review products of a by now “unpopular culture,” and relate them to my here and now.

This attempt at a blog is an unacademic continuation of my doctoral study Etherized Victorians. It will chiefly concern movies, television and radio programs that may have fallen out of favor or are favored by the few only but are still available to anyone using contemporary media (TV, radio, and the internet; as DVDs, mp3s or in plain old print).

Unlike my academic writing, this journal will allow me to broadcast my findings immediately upon discovery and to share my impressions with others who, like me, are passionate about presumably stale pop, whatever their cultural or educational background.  It also permits a more personal approach than did my dissertation, in which I never referred to myself in the first person singular.

My [initial] signature, “The Magnificent Montague,” [was] appropriated from a US radio sitcom of the same name (1950-51). In it, a hapless and proud thespian (portrayed by Monty Woolley) finds himself stooping to radio work to make ends meet. This obscure reference [was] meant to express the confrontation of cultures high and low, of trends and traditions, of personal predilections and public personae—confrontations broadcastellan will bring about in the months to come.

[As I became more confident writing about myself and saw the need to lay claim to my own words, the “Montague” cloak became cumbersome and worthless.  It was retired on 24 October 2005].