Believing in Labels; or Long-distance Travel, Hands On

I am somewhat of a ‘jacket potato,’ as my mother-in-law recently labelled a certain garden-variety of vegetables, soi-disant, that ostensibly thrive in domestic interiors.  A book-jacket potato, perhaps; but straitjacket comes to mind as well in these sport-jackets-are-for-hangers days of sitting none-too-pretty.  

Not that, in my case, being pomme-de-terrestrial is a recent development.  When I was a child, my mother-by-law used to admonish me for being what in my native tongue is called a Stubenhocker: someone not readily dissuaded from following an inclination not to venture beyond the threshold.

I was that all right; but persuading in other than laid hands-on ways was complicated by the fact that I grew up in one of the most unappealing and polluted parts of flat-as-tarmac North Rhine-Westphalia.  There’s a pre-industrial reference to that region in the opening paragraph of Candide, which the editors of Norton’s explain thus to the reader: ‘Westphalia is a province of western Germany, near Holland, and the lower Rhineland.  Flat, boggy, and drab, it is noted chiefly for its excellent ham.’  Voltaire himself, so the editors note, described the region as ‘vast, sad, sterile, detestable countryside.’  A frank enough assessment to cure any ham of homesickness.

Creating a new virtual home for myself was one of the projects this summer; and my Sitzfleisch (buttocks to you) was sorely tested as I was scanning items from my ephemera collection for online display.  Take these luggage labels, for instance, which I exhibited as part of my (Im)memorabilia exhibition back in 2014 and reserved another spot for in Travelling Through in 2018.  Their erstwhile collector, whose Latvia-to-London history of wartime displacement is still waiting to be told, probably did not visit most of these places and ‘palaces,’ but the labels may well have been a source of vicarious enjoyment as the trading of Glanzbilder – glossy pictures sold in sheets at the local kiosk for trading among pocket-money possessed youngsters – was for my former self in bleak Westphalia.

But I am in danger of veering off-topic, self-imposed and accommodating as it is.  I was speaking travel – a language that’s beginning to sound a lot like Latin.  There is so little of it this year that the aforementioned outing to Hay-on-Wye seemed like an exploratory mission to a Shangri-La of normalcy.  To think that, in 2019, I started out in Sydney and ended up in Lisbon, with extended visits to my old neighborhood in Manhattan and trips to Amsterdam, London, and Florence in between.  It’s the Stubenhocker in me that shall pull me through the pandemic; that, and lexical acrobatics.

I picked up some examples of these former suitcase adornments and searched online for the places they advertise.  Are any of them still operating, I wondered? Or might this year have dealt a final blow to yet another pile of real and conceptual bricks in the service of an industry that, for decades, naturalised and solidified our bourgeois divisions of home and abroad, work and leisure, of holiday and everyday?

Luggage label, Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Cologne, Germany

Cologne Cathedral caught my eye – natch – and brought back memories of countless walks past that sooty Gothic spire rising next to the main train station that was my terminal for entering and exiting the ancient city of Köln.  It’s a sight that, decades later, became a lingering presence in my Gothic Imagination lectures – the cathedral, I mean, not the station, although, come to think of it, the back then equally sooty and rather more mysteries-filled and fantasy-fueling Hauptbahnhof haunts my teaching as well.

The Excelsior Hotel Ernst was – and is – about as likely a place for me to flop as is the Tomb of the Three Magi that is housed in the cathedral nearby.  The only five-star hotel in the old part of the city, it is so close to Dom, in fact, as to warrant its domination of the label design.  On its booking website, the establishment claims to have been privately owned since 1863; but the original building, which predates the 1880 completion of the permanent construction site that is the cathedral, was torn down in 1909.   Two decades later, the rebuilt hotel was reserved for the British army, which occupied it and much else besides until 1926.  Another two decades after that, it was still standing, albeit not without damage, having survived, like the battered Dom, the air raids of the Second World War.  And, yes, it weathered the economic fallout of COVID-19, opening again in May 2020 after a brief shutdown.  The fragile label, meanwhile, has lost little of its gloss.

Luggage label, Hotel Viking (now Hotel Royal Christiania), Oslo, Norway

Resisting my cultural conditioning – the notion of vacationing, in my German childhood, being associated with going down south – I picked up the label promoting the Hotel Viking in Oslo.  It opened in 1951, an influx of visitors being expected in 1952, the year Oslo hosted the Winter Olympics; it was the first year in which Germany (both East and West) were permitted to participate since Berlin hosted in 1936.  Norwegians were not likely to relish the idea of uniformed German delegates and their concomitant supporters invading their capital.  The label design frames the new site in a traditional context, suggesting that, even when viewed from more venerable landmarks, it is a sight to behold. The hotel, now called the Royal Christiania – thus declaring itself traditional by referencing the erstwhile name of the city – is still open for business. The label drives home that the hotel was modern by declaring it to be approachable by car; these days, advertisers are less likely to turn the parking space into a feature.

Luggage label, Hotel Wittebrug, Den Haag, Netherlands

Now, I have never been to Oslo; but on one of my most recent trips to the continent – if ‘recent’ is the word – my husband and I took the train from Amsterdam to spent a few hours in Den Haag, where I had never been until then.  I now lecture in landscape art, so seeing paintings of that genre right where they were created in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic was as thrilling to me as the fantasy of time travel, dismissed as such pictures were by eighteenth-century academics, and many now still under their influence, as prosaic.  However, I would have looked in vain for the Hotel Wittebrug, which was torn down in 1972.

The labels are the stuff of daydreams for me at the moment; but they certainly invite further research.  Who designed them, and when? How does the design correspond with, or misrepresent, the site depicted? It is a project for someone who, like me, does not believe in the label ‘fine art’ and is not dismissive of products of culture that, like seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes, were commodities sold and bought on the market long before they ended up, removed from our everyday, in pay-to-enter venues set apart for our veneration of them and of the collections that now hold them.  

Handling these flimsy pieces of paper now, I am reminded most of all of what I am missing while the world is a world away.  Being out of touch does not quite feel as joyous when the sense of touch cannot be exercised occasionally by hugging an old friend or holding onto what seems more echt, or genuine, if it can be had, momentarily, for the holding …

Joan Blondell in Dachau

A cigarette card image of Joan Blondell on display at Dachau
I am no historian. At least not in a traditional facts-and-figures sense. Early in life, I became doubtful of efforts to account for the present by recounting the past of a place or a people. Growing up – and growing up queer – in Germany during the 1970s and 80s, I was not encouraged to find myself in such accounts.  After all, how could I have developed a sense of being part of a national history? The present did not make me feel representative even of my own generation, while the then still recent past was presented to me as the past of a different country. A different people, even. A people whose history was not only done but dusted to the point of decontamination.


Visiting Dachau, June 2015
That many of those people – those old or former Nazis – were all around me and that the beliefs they held did not get discarded like some tarnished badge was apparently too dangerous a fact to instill. Pupils would have turned against their teachers.  Children would have come to distrust their parents.  They might even have joined the left-wing activists who were terrorizing Germans for reasons about which we, endangered innocents and latent dangers both, were kept in the dark.
As I have shared here before – though never yet managed adequately to convey – I left Germany in early adulthood because I felt uneasy about my relationship with a country I could not bring myself to embrace as mine. It’s been a quarter of a century since I moved away, first to the US and then to Wales.  For over two decades, I could not even conceive of paying the dreaded fatherland a visit.  Eventually, or rather suddenly, this changed. In recent years, I have found myself accepting offers to teach German language, history and visual culture, assignments that made me feel like a fraud for being second-hand when imparting knowledge about my birthplace.  I realized that I needed to confront the realities from which I had been anxious to dissociate myself.

This summer, I visited the Dachau concentration camp for the first time.  There, in the face of monumental horrors, I was drawn to one of the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential object on display: a cigarette card featuring the likeness of 1930s Hollywood actress Joan Blondell.

“Beaten to death, silenced to death”:
A memorial to the homosexuals killed during
the Nazi regime, made in the year I came out.
Dates and figures are no match for such a fragile piece of ephemera. To be sure, the macabre absurdity of finding a mass-manufactured collectible—purchased, no less, at the expense of its collector’s health—preserved at a site that was dedicated to the physical torture of real people and the eradication of individuality could hardly escape me.  But it was not this calculated bathos alone that worked on me.  It was the thought that I, too, would have collected such a card back then, as indeed I do now.  Investing such a throwaway object with meaning beyond its value as a temporary keepsake, I can imagine myself holding on to it as a remnant of a world under threat.

Looking at that photograph of Joan Blondell at Dachau, it was not difficult for me to conceive that, had I been born some forty years earlier, I might have been sent there, or to any one of the camps where queers like me were held, tortured and killed.  That minor relic, left behind in the oppressive vastness of the Dachau memorial site, speaks to me of the need to take history personal and of the importance of discarding any notion of triviality. For me, it drives history where it needs to hit: home—home, not as a retreat from the world but as a sense of being inextricably enmeshed in it.

Joan Blondell, meanwhile, played her part fighting escapism by starring in “Chicago, Germany,” an early 1940s radio play by Arch Oboler that invited US Americans to imagine what it would be like if the Nazis were to win the war.

Gotham/Gothic; or, A Tale of Two Strawberries

Visiting Strawberry Hill

Much of what I know about English literature I learned in the Bronx.  The peculiar indirection of my path—a German approaching British culture by taking the Lexington Avenue Express—did not escape me then; and even though I had no doubt as to the qualifications of those who taught me, I decided, upon finishing my Master’s thesis on the Scottish essayist-translator Thomas Carlyle, to go after something that, geographically speaking, lay closer to my temporary home. 

Never one for obvious choices, I wrote my doctoral study on US radio drama, a subject that, however arcane, struck me as being rather more compatible with life in a Mecca for the enthusiasts of American popular culture among which I numbered.  It also made it possible for me to take advantage of some of the resources particular to Manhattan, the isle of Radio City.

Not that I considered studying British culture so far removed from the Globe Theatre, the Scottish Borders, or the wilds of Yorkshire much of a disadvantage, being that I had adopted a subjective mode of reading that favors response over intention, that explores the reception of a written work rather than tracing is origins.  Call it rationalizing, call it kidding yourself—I thought that I should make a virtue of vicariousness. 

 
Living in Britain now, I am rediscovering its literature through the landscape rather than by way of the library; and I am finding my way back to those old books by stepping into even older buildings.  One such book and one such building is Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), otherwise known as Strawberry Hill.
 
A most un-Gothicbut gloriousday at Strawberry Hill

Originally a small cottage in rural Twickenham, Strawberry Hill was transformed by Walpole into a gothic castellino; it also housed the author’s own printing press, although Otranto was published in nearby London.  The crenelated battlements were made of wood and needed to be replaced more than once in Walpole’s lifetime.  “My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole famously declared, “and both will blown away in ten years after I am dead.” This could well have happened; but, despite the relative weakness of his materials—a spurious medieval romance and the less than solid additions to Chopp’d Straw Cottage—both survive today as a testimony to Walpole’s enduring influence on popular tastes in architecture and literature.

 
And yet, however exciting the experience, walking around Strawberry Hill after all those years of living and studying so close to Strawberry Fields, Central Park, brought home nothing more forcibly than that getting to the heart of the matter that is art is not a matter of inspection but of introspection. Stripped of most of its furnishings, Strawberry Hill is a tease. Beyond the stained glass windows and the restored façade, there is little left of Walpole’s story or his antiquarian spirit.  To be sure, even if Walpole’s library had not been emptied of the contents that makes and defines it, it would remain inaccessible to those looking around now without being permitted to touch and turn the pages.

Visitors to historic houses, like readers of fictions, must always be prepared to supply the fittings, to construct in their mind’s eye what the supposedly first-hand experience of seeing for ourselves can never make concrete and, therefore, never quite smash or supplant.  Where, if not in our reading, dreaming, thinking selves does the spirit of literature reside?

The audio guide at Strawberry Hill is a self-conscious acknowledgment of this sightseeing conundrum; it plays like a radio drama—my studies of which have not gone to waste altogether—that teases us with the voices of the dead and the echoes of their footsteps. Our own footfall, meanwhile, is muffled by the protective plastic coverings provided for our shoes at the entrance to the site.

Walpole’s paper house has been given a permanence in the midst of which I am reminded of the paper-thinness of my own existence.  What lingers is the anxiety of leaving here—or anywhere—without having left a trace at all.

Better the DeMille You Know

“Take Back UR Power Now,” the letters on the marquee read. I am standing in front of the Music Box Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Whose power? I wonder. Who took it? Who lost it? And just who is telling me—or anyone else reading—to seize it? Take it from me, perhaps? Do I have it? Did I ever have it? Am I supposed to have it? If so, to do what with? Storm the box office? Take to the stage? Tear down the building and plant a tree? A windmill? Hold it. Is this one of those tiresomely postmodern Barbara Krugerisms? As my friend Clifton once put it, “I could look [it] up . . . but it’s more fun to speculate.”

The imperative “Now” intrigues me. It strikes me as incongruous, anachronistic. And, yes, antagonistic. It does not seem to denote the “Now” of 2011, my “Now” on this bright, sunny afternoon spent in one of the most frivolous locales in the western hemisphere. The look of the venue, the somewhat run-down surroundings, the slogan and its lettering transport me back to the early, bleak, violent, recession-shaken 1990s. Why am I thinking race relations? Could this not just as well be some hackneyed Tea Party catchphrase? Or else, a sign of things to come . . .

The time is ripe for warping. I’ve just been to Grauman’s Chinese, placing my palms into the imprints left by stars long gone out. I’ve been taking in all those names on the Walk of Fame, and it felt like treading on gravestones. And I arrived here, at the Music Box, transported by a longing, by the kind of nostalgia I am so wary of.

I did not expect to be reminded of the 1990s, to be taken aback instead of simply being taken back, if that were ever achieved ‘simply.’ Sure, I was prepared to be late. Seventy-five years late, to be exact. If it were in my power, I would be standing here, back in line with hundreds of other enthusiasts, to take a gander at Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Ruby Keeler, or Claudette Colbert. Not on the screen, mind, but live and in person. The Music Box, after all, was once the venue for the Lux Radio Theater, a Monday afternoon extravaganza hosted by showman-director Cecil B. DeMille. Merle Oberon, Marion Davies, Joan Crawford. Back in the summer of 1936, they were all here. I am in awe.

That is why I have come to this spot—on a Monday afternoon, no less, as I would later realize. I was dreaming. Now I feel tired out, and a little bit stupid, having caught myself chasing after ghosts. It is as if I had been hoping to get hold of the breeze stirred up by some wispy number long since mothballed. The spirit of the place does not “send me,” as swooning teenagers used to call it (the state of swooning, I mean). If anything, it sends me back to where I started this reverie. It takes me back into the ether, the mythical non-space I can fill, at will, with the voices of Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Ruby Keeler . . . as they were performing for millions of listeners, broadcasting live from the Music Box stage. It takes me back.

Wait. When was it again that I discovered these recordings for myself? The early 1990s. Well, what do you know! I guess, looking at that marquee, I have been forced to catch up with myself, and I find that self wanting, historically lost to the world. Years spent circling in representations of a past not alive to my being. Is it time to take back whatever I squandered? Is there still time? Do I have the energy to matter, the power to mean? I wonder . . .

The Touchables

The folks who proved that they had made their mark in Hollywood by leaving it in the cement slabs in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre had one thing in common. Besides having the stature of a movie star or Tinseltown personality, I mean. They could all stand up, bend down, and exert whatever pressure is required to produce those imprints. Even Charlie McCarthy, apparently. I always thought that it might please the supposed untouchables to be commemorated in a medium that is not as telltale about our inescapable senescence as a photograph or moving image. Many of us can stand up far longer than we can stand looking in the mirror.

Then again, the moving hands of time are readable in our footprints. Shirley Temple’s tiny imprint reminds us that, on 14 March 1935, she was at the height of a career that diminished as she increased in size. Still, the prints are meant to bespeak immortality. We don’t get to see the tracks of Christopher Reeve’s wheelchair, for instance. Nor is Zsa Zsa likely to be given the honor now to join those ladies in cement. These prints are all solid, no matter how much the concrete crumbles. The stars have bodies—and they are able and sound . . .

There is something reassuring in that solidity—if it weren’t for those cracks, and the puzzled looks I come across in the crowd gathered here to take pictures, mainly of themselves in front of a Hollywood landmark. Who was Rudy “My Time Is Your Time” Vallee, anyway? Norma Talmadge, who’s she? What were the Ritz Brothers all about? And who was that Sid fellow for whom they left those cryptic messages?

I got the space to myself as I have my picture taken with Marion Davies’s dainty indentations (dated 1929), my palm covering the hollow. No one is likely to pull a Lucy now; the Duke is still standing. Most walk right past—no, over—Ezio Pinza, whose block of concrete has become a mere steppingstone. Not a soul stoops to Monty Woolley. He’s the actor to whom my dog owes his name (I’m telling no one). I, too, I am out of touch.

There is one imprint, though, that keeps impressing after nearly sixty years. You can tell from the grime in the handprints of Marilyn Monroe just how many visitors have bowed down to approximate her posture, crouching over to show that they still look up to her. Screen partner Jane Russell’s palms are eloquently untainted by comparison. Marilyn—and we call her by her first name in recognition of her vulnerability—would be dead within ten years after being immortalized at Grauman’s. Our reaching out to her now is a belated, selfish gesture. You can’t expect rectitude from a crowd bent on lowering themselves for a photo opportunity. Remaining upright here means to be indifferent.

“Wipe your mucky paws,” I want to cry out. Yet these cultural touchstones are unlike other memorials to the untouchables. Here, we touch what we deem worth preserving. We bestow genuine stature with our own hands. We grasp at the chance to grease the Hollywood machine with our grubby palms, to fashion destinies with our filthy fingers. Since greatness does not rub off, most of us leave little more than a smudge. There is humanity in the residue of perspiration.

Crosstown Stitch: Embroidering on a Favorite Subject

Salut au monde!” That is a greeting the narrator of Norman Corwin’s “New York: A Tapestry for Radio” extended to the never quite statistically average American listener—anybody tuning in to the nationally broadcast play cycle Columbia Presents Corwin back during World War II. And that is how I, returned again to my old yet ever changing neighborhood in uptown Manhattan, am reaching out to the potentially even more multifarious roamers of the World Wide Web.

Why Salut, though? Why go for the highfalutin when something lowbrow like hiya would do? After all, French is not among the languages most closely associated with the Big Pomme. Sure, there is that French lady who greeted the multitudes who came across the big pond to get a bite out of it; but only because she’s made of copper doesn’t make her a coined phrase.

Corwin was not going for the definitive—the single, representative tongue with which to tie up an argument only to contradict it. Symbolic of the promises and failures of the Versailles treaty, the imported salutation is part of a pattern designed for a sonic romancing of immigration central, where nations become nabes and the world’s people are “living side by side so effortlessly, no one calls it peace”—a cosmopolitan locale to which nothing could be more foreign than the homogenous or the homo-logos.

As LeRoy Bannerman describes it, Corwin’s voice collage
advocated world unity, exemplified in the polyglot harmony of New York’s people. It possessed threads taut with the strain of war and the urgency of an all-out effort, symptoms of concern that greatly colored Corwin’s work with tints of patriotism.

The colors in Corwin’s fabric—that crowd-pleasing fabrication of Gotham (what do you call it? Gothamer)—are red, white and blue all right; but when Corwin waves the flag, he does not make difference stand out like a blot on Old Glory. Corwin’s aural tapestry is rich in the variations that the theme demands, distinguished by the “speakers of the foreign and the ancient tongues,” the “conjoined creeds—the Jew, the Christian, the Mohammedan.”

The speech is American, which is to say that it is not exclusively, let alone officially, English or any variation thereof. “Do not mistrust [folks] because of their accent,” the narrator cautions those who stand their ground by calling it common, “for we ourselves might be incomprehensible in Oxford.” The Queen’s English ain’t the English of Queens, New York.

“The people of the city are the main design,” the narrator insists. Seemingly random utterances by speakers nameless to the audience constitute the “individual threads” of an intricately woven fabric whose pattern, unlike the grid formed by the city’s streets, cannot be visually apprehended. “How can you tell, from Seat No. 5 on the plane from Pittsburgh, what goes on here?” Nor can it be comprehended by the unaided ear—at least not by anyone well out of earshot. As I put it in Etherized Victorians, the way to arrive at the design is microphonic, not macroscopic.

The narrator invites “Americans on this wave length” to follow the threads of “interwoven hopes” by “listening acutely” to the peoples of New York City, be they from “German Yorkville” or the “outlying Latin quarters.” Their voices are brought into a meaningful relation through the aid of the radio, of which the main speaker as receiver, amplifier and transmitter is an abstraction.

At the moment—and being in it—it is easy to lose sight of the wireless, even as I walk past Radio City. I feel no need for a hearing aid or a translator. I am a part of a grand, Whitmanesque design, which is both spoken and understood.

Clash by Day: A D-Day Reminder

It was a crisp, bright afternoon in April when we visited Trebah Garden, one of the most beautiful spots in all of Cornwall. The sun had come out from behind a curtain of threatening clouds and the air was fragrant with a promissory note of summer that even the leafless, wintry trees in the distance were powerless to gainsay. As we walked down the sloping path, past the Rhododendron and Magnolias, beyond the dell of young Gunnera plants that, in time, would grow into a subtropical jungle, we reached a gate that led to a secluded beach. The sea was calm, peaceful the prospect; and even though the name of Trebah had been recorded in the Domesday Book, I felt far removed from the affairs of the world, present and past, as if sheltered in a reserve beyond the reach of history.

When I turned back toward the gate, that sense of detachment was shattered in an instant. I was reminded just how connected I was, even here, with the history of the world. I was yanked out of this perceived Eden by no uncertain notice of our fall: a sign telling me that, from it this secluded spot, thousands went into battle to secure the peace that I had enjoyed.

The memorial at Trebah tells of the 175th Combat Team of the 29th US Infantry Division, some 7,500 strong. On the 1st of June in 1944, those men embarked from that very beach to take part in the D-Day landings and, by carrying out their duty, face all but certain death.

“This is the hour,” Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in her “Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army,” recited by Ronald Colman during a special radio broadcast on D-Day,

this is the appointed time.
The sound of the clock falls awful on our ears,
And the sound of the bells, their metal clang and chime,
Tolling, tolling,
For those about to die.
For we know well they will not all come home, to lie
In summer on the beaches.

And yet weep not, you mothers of young men, their wives,
Their sweethearts, all who love them well—
Fear not the tolling of the solemn bell:
It does not prophesy,
And it cannot foretell;
It only can record;
And it records today the passing of a most uncivil age,
Which had its elegance but lived too well,
And far, o, far too long;
And which, on History’s page,
Will be found guilty of injustice and grave wrong.

At Trebah Garden, where a Military Day is still being held each year, I was found guilty of the “grave wrong” it is to be walking in the splendor of oblivion. I shall not soon forget that sudden admonishment, that unsought clash by day.


Related recording
“Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army” (6 June 1944)

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 above) 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.

Some such mystery house with a Tudor past and Victorian interior was of Audley Court, the fictional 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, 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 Essex.

“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, if indeed she read at all, Lady Audley’s Secret, 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.

Best in Show: Dean Spanley as Out-of-Homebody Experience

My records show that I watched some 250 films in 2008. They range from silent one-reelers to noisy epics, from British wartime propaganda to Third Reich comedy, from the obscure Lottery Man (1916), which I enjoyed, to the biggest blockbuster of the year (The Dark Knight), which I did not. For all this variety, the majority of the titles on my list (continued to the right of this journal entry) are Hollywood films of the studio era, many of them from the 1930s and 1940s. Conventional as I am in this, I concur with those who hold 1939 to be Hollywood’s best vintage.

Later decades, the present one excepted, are poorly represented in my annual account. There are two films from the 1990s (one of them a television movie about the inclusion of which the pedant in me had a long debate with myself); a lone film from the 1980s (the tonally misjudged if beautifully languid A Handful of Dust, based on one of my favorite novels of the 1930s); and less than a handful of 1970s pictures, two of them by one of the greatest directors of Hollywood’s golden age, Alfred Hitchcock. There is to me no surprise in these statistics; they are an adequate reflection of my cinematic tastes and predilections. Prejudices, you might say.

What distorts the picture are my travels. They broaden to the extent that, against the pertinacity I cannot bring myself to pass off as better judgment, something like Hulk (sat through in New York), The Day the Earth Stood Still (endured in London), or Midnight Meat Train (suffered in Riga) slips in. Still, if it weren’t for those bouts of wanderlust, I probably would not have had the pleasure of catching Guy Maddin’s hypnotic My Winnipeg, featuring noir dame Ann Savage, who passed away on Christmas day last year; nor would I have seen Tarsem Singh’s stunningly surreal The Fall or Toa Fraser’s quietly quirky Dean Spanley, a film I caught at the Little Theatre in Bath, England (pictured above).

Dean Spanley is based on a 1936 novella by Lord Dunsany, which has been republished with Alan Sharp’s screenplay and commentary. It is more accurate to say that the film is inspired by My Talks with Dean Spanley, a casual, witty discourse on reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. Inspired it certainly is.

As the title slyly suggests, the heart, soul and center of these talks is a clergyman who, in a former life, was what an intoxicated person afflicted with temporary dyslexia might call a “Spanley.” Without resorting to puns as crude as mine, the narrative plays with the idea that a man who wears a dog collar might have been barking at the moon before he learned to preach; that a clergyman may have had a past existence entirely at odds with his preachings about the afterlife; and that, in order to arrive at the secret of a dull, reserved, and abstemious man, one must drink him under the table to get him to reminisce about a time when he belonged there:

It was [the] remark about the woods and the night, and the eager way in which he spoke of the smells and the sounds, that first made me sure that the Dean was speaking from knowledge, and that he really had known another life in a strangely different body. Why these words made me sure I cannot say; I can only say that it is oddly often the case that some quite trivial remark in a man’s conversation will suddenly make you sure that he knows what he is talking about. A man will be talking perhaps about pictures, and all at once he will make you feel that Raphael, for instance, is real to him, and that he is not merely making conversation. In the same way I felt, I can hardly say why, that the woods were real to the Dean, and the work of a dog no less to him than an avocation.

The film much expands on the original material without evaporating any of its charm. Distilling its essence, screenwriter Alan Sharp turns the talks with the Dean (wonderfully portrayed by Sam Neill) into a story of self-discovery and healing in which the clergyman’s secret, arrived at by way of methodically yet unscrupulously administered Tokay, into the key to the troubled relationship of the narrator (Jeremy Northam) with his cantankerous father (played by Peter O’Toole). Rather than exploiting it strictly for laughs, Toa Fraser’s sensitive treatment of Lord Dunsany’s novella is a rare and winning—and so rarely winning—combination of wit and sentiment.

Yes, travel broadens. Coming back home, you might even look differently at your own dog as he gives you that “and-where-have-you-been look of mingled joy and reproach . . .

“Oh no he isn’t” (“Oh yes he is”): Mickey Rooney in Bristol

When I read that Boys Town dropout Mickey Rooney was to appear once again on the British stage, I resolved to adjust our vacation schedule accordingly and ring in the new year in Bristol, England. Why not cheer on the late-octogenarian trouper as he performs his way into the Guinness Book of Records, I thought. Rooney, who has been on the boards and in the studios for nine decades, can currently be seen as Baron Hardup in the pantomime Cinderella at Bristol’s old Hippodrome. Granted, I was not exactly panting for panto, unaccustomed as I am to that most British of holiday theatricals. The first one I caught, back in 2005, boasted Ian McKellen . . . in drag. It felt as if I had crashed a fancy dress party, with everyone around me too inebriated to permit me to catch up or on. The experience left me more bewildered than tickled. I failed to find amusement in such consummate waste of thespian talent in what struck me as a vulgar, charmless production of Aladdin at the Old Vic in London. I did not understand that vulgarity is the very charm of British panto—an outrageous spectacle befitting the topsy-turvitudinous twelve-nightly revels.

This time around, having just had my fill of Pulitzer Prize-winning drama (August: Osage Country), opera (Hansel and Gretel), and musicals (The Sound of Music and Carousel) in London, I was ready for something decidedly more lowbrow. Besides, the Hippodrome’s presentation of Cinderella presented us with the opportunity to meet up with friends, among them Michelle Collins (aforementioned), who was cast as the Wicked Stepmother.

We ended up spending quite some time backstage, then dined and partied with cast members after Mickey had slipped out of the theater. The superannuated Andy Hardy made it clear that he was not to be approached for signatures or photo opportunities; nor was he to be seen anywhere but onstage, not given to mingling with his British co-stars whose names can mean nothing to a Hollywood legend.

His exclusivity is a wise precaution, no doubt. Who, at his or any age, would relish the prospect of being badgered after a night’s work while stepping into the icy dark of a backdoor alley, being coughed and sneezed at by the occupational hazards that are autograph hunters some of whom, if they had just come out of the show, were still somewhat musty after being shot at, as was my misfortune, with a giant water pistol fired by comedian Bobby Davro? Indeed, it was rather sporting of the hardy one to fulfill his contractual obligations, being that his eighth wife, Jan, who was slated to join him as the Fairy Godmother, had taken ill.

So, how was Mr. Rooney, you ask? Well, he was . . . there, or very nearly so. It appeared that only few members of the audience particularly cared. I doubt that many were quite aware just who this old fellow was. A couple seated in front of us, pointing at the oversized keepsake playbill, shook their heads at the sight of his picture, whereas the photograph of Ms. Collins triggered nods of recognition. It’s a long way from 1930s Hollywood to 21st-century Bristol, you know.

You might think that, with a name like Joe Yule, the man who made a name for himself as Mickey Rooney was born to spread Christmas cheer; instead, as if finding himself on stage quite by accident, the distant star twinkled beyond the reach or ken of a high-spirited crowd eager to laugh at Buttons (Davro), hiss the Wicked Stepmother (Collins), or cheer the juveniles—that is to say, interact with the characters in the traditional panto fashion. To the children, the action-slowing walk-ons of Rooney’s kindly grandfather figure must have been either inconsequential or else incomprehensible, a lost within the noisy glare of the spectacle. Still, there he was, aware, no doubt, that such showcases as the pantomine are about the only opportunity left to an actor of his years to make what is little more than a stage cameo.

For all the fun of Cinderella (and jolly good fun it certainly was), there was something pathetic about yesterday’s Huck Finn being benched on the sidelines, looking on benevolently if slightly bewildered. Mr. Rooney, who had two short musical numbers, including a wistful rendition of “Smile,” spent most of his time seated to the left of the stage while nominally assuming its center. The tunes suited him, but were incongruous all the same with a production that relied heavily on contemporary pop music as if out to turn the fairy tale favorite into High Jinks Musical.

Not far from the Hippodrome, on the vast emptiness that is Millennium Square, there stands a forlorn statue of Bristol’s native son Cary Grant, unheeded by tourists (of which there were few) and locals (who may well shun the space) alike. Still, there it is, clutching the script for To Catch a Thief as if determined to catch the next flight back to California. Like small-statured Rooney, his stage presence and its reception, the statue brought to mind the quest (the questionable) upon which I had embarked when I, feeling displaced and unsure of myself, commenced this journal back in 2005: to keep up with the out-of-date as if rehearsing my exit in a state of conspicuous invisibility. Yet, here I am, forever behind . . . like a pantomime horse’s ass.