Friday, 3 July 2015

So, really, was Agatha Christie anti-Semitic?

Long, golden hair

Giant's Bread, by Agatha Christie, 1930
I came across a reference to a straight novel Agatha Christie had written with a Jewish musician as hero, so I bought it and read it. The uneappealing title is Giant’s Bread, and she published it in 1930 under the name of Mary Westmacott. A friend, Nan Kon, dropped a hint that she had guessed the book’s true author. Not surprising, since Christie used chunks of her own experience.

The central character, Vernon Deyre, does indeed become a composer, but his father is a decayed English gentleman who has married a button-shank heiress from Birmingham in order to hang onto his ancestral home, Abbots Puissants. Christie is good on the stifling boredom of childhood. Vernon is from a “privileged” background, all right, but he hardly ever sees his parents, or the rest of the enormous house. He spends most of his time in a small nursery with “Nurse”, or being led on sedate walks around the gardens or along the road. He develops a vivid imagination and many imaginary companions.

His life changes when his cousin Josephine comes to live with them. The two become great friends, and one day they meet the boy next door – Sebastian Levinne. He too becomes part of the gang, and another girl, the rather drippy Nell Vereker, is accepted on sufferance.

The book drags rather until the characters grow up. Vernon’s father dies in the Boer War and his mother moves back to Birmingham and lets the house. The Levinnes are portrayed sympathetically, but today we would not harp on Sebastian having a “yellow” face, or a slight lisp. Fortunately Christie stops indicating this, but poor Mrs Levinne is burdened with lines like “Teath ready, dearths”.

“Jet dangled and twinkled on her immense bust. A large black hat with feathers sat on top of her elaborately arranged coiffure.” Later Vernon reflects: “Funny, fat, old Mrs Levinne with her jet and her diamonds and her greasy black hair, managed to be more understanding than his own mother.” It’s rather hard to tell which year the story is set in, but we can work out that the young characters are the same age as Christie herself, who was born in 1890. In 1905 jet was old-fashioned, and diamonds during the day were a no-no, but would Mrs L really be wearing a feathered hat indoors at teatime? And would Sebastian really say “Personally I’m quite satisfied with Jehovah”? Later, they discuss a possible buyer for Abbots Puissant. Nobody wants “a vulgarian who will fill it with gilt and spurious old masters”.

The four young people throw themselves into Edwardian life, determined to be modern. Josephine (Joe) becomes a suffragette. Sebastian is in love with her, and becomes a theatrical producer. You long for Christie's usual satire, wit and snappy dialogue. Dramatic events happen offstage, and characters converse in long, stodgy speeches about their purpose in life. She’s even sometimes guilty of this kind of thing:

“‘You wouldn’t have him accept it?’ flamed out Joe.”

Vernon meets Nell Vereker again and finds that she has become exceptionally pretty. Her mother is launching her in society in the hope that she will make a “good marriage” – code for “marry a rich man”. They haven’t much to live on. “‘Someone devoted is always useful,’ said Mrs Vereker, reverting to her utilitarian standpoint. ‘He mustn’t, of course, spoil your chances with other men.’” Mrs V reflects on “The ease with which friends dropped you if you ‘couldn’t keep up with things’, the slights, the snubs – worse – the galling patronage!”

Christie is quite down-to-earth about the marriage market. Her own family lost most of its income through mismanagement and trusting the wrong people, and her father died when she was young. Her mother was nothing like the shallow, grasping Mrs Vereker, but Mrs Miller did not hide hard facts from her daughter. Christie also grew up in a beloved house with a big garden – not a “historic house” with ruins as in the book, but a  massive Victorian villa.

A fifth character joins the gang: singer Jane Harding. She has a light, lovely voice, but pushes herself to sing Wagner and Strauss. She says to Nell: ‘If you like to come round to my flat, I’ll try your voice, and I can tell you in two minutes just what your voice is good for.’ ‘Would you really? That’s awfully kind of you.’ ‘Oh, not at all. You can trust me. You can’t trust someone who makes their living by teaching to tell you the truth.’ (Good tip, by the way.)

Christie uses Jane’s character to relive her days as a student in Paris. I believe she desperately wanted to be a singer, though she was nervous of performing in public. Eventually she met the teacher honest enough to tell her the truth: that her voice just wasn’t good enough, and she’d never make it. (Later, she sought writing mentors with the same clear-sightedness.) She obviously loved the avant-garde composers of the day, and this book shows that she understood them thoroughly.

Vernon becomes a composer, intending to remake music entirely. He writes an opera based on a fairy story (I skipped a lot of this bit), and Jane stars in it, losing her voice as a result. Yes, the plot is preposterous and beyond melodramatic. I also skipped quite a lot about a modernist setting of the Peer Gynt story. “Great art” crops up now and then in Christie’s writing, and usually sounds dire – like sculptor Henrietta’s output in The Hollow. But I admire her for taking it on. Would we appreciate Vernon's masterpiece: a musique concrète depiction of the mechanisation of man? I think I would.

The war hasn’t even started yet, but “free love” is talked of, people “defy convention” and live together, or become “that kind of woman”. Sebastian has a futuristic moment: ‘I don’t think it’s got anything to do with ideals. It’s probably a question of transport. Once you get flying going on a commercial scale and you fuse countries together. Air charabancs to the Sahara, Wednesdays and Saturdays. That kind of thing. Countries getting mixed up and matey. Trade revolutionized. For all practical purposes, you make the world smaller. You reduce it in time to the level of a nation with counties in it. I don’t think what’s always alluded to as the Brotherhood of Man will ever develop from fine ideas – it will be a simple matter of common sense.’

War breaks out, and Vernon and Nell get married and live in furnished rooms while he trains for the army. He is sent to the front, and Nell becomes a nurse. Suddenly we’re back with the witty, observant writer we know and love: “Mrs Curtis was benign and affable. She was enjoying her importance and was convinced that she was a born organizer.”

We learn some details about Christie’s life as a nurse that didn’t make it into her autobiography. The volunteers disregard their backgrounds, usually so inescapable, and all muck in together, calling each other by their surnames. The professional sisters, however, are desperately trying to be genteel: “‘I only passed the remark, so to speak.’ ‘Pushing herself forward. Always the same thing.’ ‘Would you believe it, she forgot to hold the towel for the doctor’s hands.’ ‘I said to Doctor this morning …’ ‘I passed the remark to Nurse …’” I’d have liked to hear more about the “feuds, the jealousies, the cabals”. Entertainment is laid on for the wounded, and Christie gets in a dig at the untalented: ‘Anybody who thinks they can sing, but has never been allowed to by their families, has got their chance now!’

From this point on, the narrative revs up, and Christie casts her usual page-turning spell despite the crazy plot. Sebastian continues to be a good egg, though there are occasional lines like this: “A sudden quick suspicion came into his shrewd Jewish mind,” and “It was a feeling peculiarly and exclusively Jewish. The undying gratitude of the Jew who never forgets a benefit conferred. As a child he had been an outcast and Joe had stood by him – she had been willing to defy her world.”

Though the book lacks Christie’s usual beady eye for fashion and décor, at one point Nell looks at herself in the mirror: “She saw the waved and shingled hair, the manicured hands, the foamy negligee of soft lace, the cobweb silk stockings and little embroidered mules. She saw the hard cold beauty of the rose-coloured diamond.” And an ill Joe manages to parody Victorian literature: “This reminds me of the books one reads as a child. Edifying death-bed scenes. Friends and relations gathering round. Wan smiles of heroine.” (This paragraph is for Clothes in Books.)

Read it yourself if you want to find out what happens and who ends up with whom. It’s a romance, but there are no Mary Sue characters – everybody is flawed. Nell herself appears as a heroine out of Sir Walter Scott, with her slender shape and long, golden hair. Along with the Wagner-loving Jane, she also is Christie’s avatar: she had a moment as a beautiful girl with long blonde hair and strings of admirers, some of whom offered “safety”. She chucked them to marry Archie Christie, one of the first RAF pilots. And thereby hangs a tale.

More on Christie's alleged racism here, and links to the rest.
More Christie reviews here.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Yet More Corny Old Jokes

Lecturer: I found your book very difficult to understand.
Philosopher: Oh, THANK you!

Philosopher: We have one solipsist in the department and he's elderly. We look out for him because, y'know: when he goes we all go... (Sam Leith ‏@questingvole)

An Oxford professor’s highest accolade was to mark an essay “B+++?+”.

Are you a genie?
I’m a genius!
Do you grant wishes?
I wish for grants.

Professor 1: I have some interesting conundra about pendula.
Professor 2: We have better things to do than sit on our ba doing sa.

Why are there no decent chemistry jokes? Because all the good ones argon.
(Michelle Martin ‏@m000sh)

I heard that Oxygen and Magnesium were going out, and I was like “OMg”.

What do grammarians want?
Government by, with or from the people, to or for the people.

You remind me of the sea.Wild and romantic?
No, you make me sick.
My wife's going to America. Which state?
Alaska. Don't bother, I was just making conversation.
(Dave Turner ‏@mrdaveturner)

Concerned onlooker to soldier back from Dunkirk: What was it like?
Soldier: My dear! The noise! And the people!

Diner: Waiter, waiter, this coffee tastes like mud!

Waiter: Well, sir, it was only ground this morning...

Customer: Waiter, do you serve crabs?

Waiter: We serve everyone, sir.

Q: What do you get if you cross an octopus with a chimpanzee?
A: A cessation of funding and a stern rebuke from the ethics committee.
(Geoff Robbins ‏@_TheGeoff)

Man to young lady who has fallen over: Can I help you – I saw your predicament?
Young lady: Well, if you were a gentleman you wouldn’t mention it!
(Donald McGill)

In the US Tax Court

Witness: As God is my judge, I do not owe this tax.

Judge: He’s not. I am. You do.

Counsel: You've a remarkable intelligence for someone of your background.

Witness: Thanks. I'd return the compliment, if I wasn't under oath.
(both from Gary Slapper ‏@garyslapper)

An incompetent lawyer can delay a trial for months or years.
A competent lawyer can delay one even longer.

A lawyer went swimming off the Australian coast and the sharks never touched him.
Why? Professional courtesy.

Why is the London Overground like a fish scale? Because it's a whale weigh!

Sign outside dancing school: GONE CHOPIN, BACH IN FIVE MINUETS


Get me a crocodile sandwich and make it snappy!
I like Waitrose.  It keeps the riff-raff out of Fortnum's.

Jokes about white sugar are rare, but brown sugar - Demerara.
Your teeth are like stars - they come out at night.
You can lead a horse to water but a pencil must be lead.

Doctor, doctor, I’ve got Bright’s Disease and he’s got mine!
Meetings: where people take hours to take minutes.

Why are there no horses in Cornwall? They prefer Cowes to Ryde.
Why are there no aspirins in the jungle? Because the parrots et’em all.

Don’t trust atoms – they make up everything.
Euripides trousers? Eumenides trousers!!!
(Douglas Murphy ‏@entschwindet)

The train now standing at platforms 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 has come in sideways.
Will the passengers taking the train on Platform 9 please put it back.

My paper aeroplane won't fly. It's completely stationery.

Old demographers never die. They just get broken down by age and sex. (@conradhackett)

If it wasn’t for Venetian blinds it would be curtains for all of us. (efrog@cix

What do ghosts eat? Ghoulash!

Two silk worms have a race. It ended in a tie.
I phoned the local ramblers club today and this bloke just went on and on...
Aeroplane theft – it’s taking off.
Exit signs – they’re on their way out.
(from the MD of

Nathan Rothschild, of the legendary financial family, is at work at his desk in London. A peer of the realm is brought in. Rothschild, intent on his ledgers, invites him to take a seat. Offended, the visitor blusters about his high standing. "Take two seats," Rothschild says.Queen Victoria is seated at a banquet next to a Russian dignitary.
Queen Victoria: And how do you like Britain?

Russian: I like it veeeeeery much. There’s just one thing. Your place names! They are so long!
Queen Victoria: So long???Russian: Yes: Leeeeeeeds, Baaaaaaath! In Russia: Ekaterinoslav.
(Brahms and Simon)

One Christmas Day at Jesus College in Cambridge, staff have the day off, and the phone lines are all plugged through to the Master's Lodge. The phone rings:
Caller: Hello, is that Jesus?Master: Yes. Can I help you?
Caller: Happy Birthday to You, Happy Birthday to You...

Two elderly Victorian ladies exit a production of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra: “How different, how very different from the home life of our own dear Queen.”


Our local theatre is threatened with closure. The director has asked the council to act. They say they will, as soon as they have finished looking into the holes that have appeared in the High Street.
And some burglars have taken all the loos from the local police station. The police say they have nothing to go on.

Egg left at crime scene. Police scramble resources.

A tall man and a midget are suspected: police are looking high and low.

In later news: A milk float and a lorry carrying eggs crashed in the High Street this evening. Police have taken both drivers into custody. (from RN and MB)

Two hippies harangue their school-uniformed son about banning the bomb, free love and saving the planet.
Small boy: Mother, father, must you go on so?(Old Private Eye cartoon by Michael Heath)

More here, and links to the rest.