thefilthycomma #14 | | DJS

thefilthycomma #14

The title for this post is from ‘In The Bath’ by Flanders and Swann. Towards the end, they suggest that they can ‘see the one salvation of the poor old human race/In the bath, in the bath!/Let the nations of the world all come together face to face/In the bath, in the bath!’, a splendid idea that I have no doubt will become mandatory for the United Nations should Garden Naturalist ever come to power.

My husband is a marvellous man: generous, funny and delightfully easy to please. His favourite things, in no particular order, are as follows: his bed, his garden, potato-based foodstuffs, tea, nudity, books, his wife and his bath. For the entire duration of our relationship (some thirteen years at the time of writing), we have indulged in an activity that neatly encapsulates the last four items on this list: reading aloud at bath-time.

The LiteracyWhore/Garden Naturalist household laughs in the face of hosepipe bans, abandoned power showers and brushing one’s teeth dry. We have two water-butts, which even after a dry winter are both full, Garden Naturalist having rigged up a terribly clever arrangement linking them to each other and to the downpipe using a length of plastic hose he found in a skip. We also conserve water (although this is not our primary motivation, dear readers) by sharing the bath. This fact seems to cause other people to raise their eyebrows, so I suppose it must be slightly kinky[1]. I promise you, however, that as well as saving water, sharing a bath is not only highly entertaining, but with the addition of reading matter, educational. Our current bath-time book, for example, is The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. In its favour I can say that it rattles along, packing plot into the pages as a goose-botherer might pack food into a slow-moving bird; we are a hundred pages in, and already several gruesome and ingenious murders are behind us (including one involving a giant poisonous centipede, a horrid thing which is killed with a golf club), along with a bizarre dream sequence David Lynch would be proud of. Nevertheless, do not be deceived: this is a very, very bad book. For one thing, it is breezily racist (“we yet were cut off, were in the hands of Far Easterns, to some extent in the power of members of that most inscrutably mysterious race: the Chinese!”). The Asian characters are invariably described as “little”, “yellow” and “impassive”, with the obvious exception of Dr. Fu-Manchu himself, who for some reason defies racial stereotype sufficiently to have bright green eyes. Many of Fu-Manchu’s minions are “little brown men” of various kinds, referred to as thugs, dacoits or lascars and they are all primitively dressed in loincloths or similar, despite living in London all the year round. Another major fault is Arthur Sarsfield Ward’s[2] inability to calm himself when describing his diabolical villain. His muse, already palpitating, turns quite hysterical whenever it is in the presence of the devilish doctor:

Of him it has been fitly said that he had a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan. Something serpentine, hypnotic, was in his very presence … chained to the wall, two medieval captives, living mockeries of our boasted modern security, we crouched before Dr. Fu-Manchu … never turning away the reptilian gaze of those eyes which must haunt my dreams for ever. They possessed a viridescence which hitherto I had only supposed possible in the eye of the cat … I can speak of them no more!

Ward is an old-fashioned writer. He is not keen on characterisation except of the blandest and most obvious sort, and descriptions are breathless, cliché-ridden affairs. He does not shy away from statements in which style rides roughshod over meaning in the interests of maintaining something approaching dramatic tension[3]. Our narrator, chronicler and occasional pronouncer of the blindingly obvious is the sub-Dr. Watson, Dr. Petrie, brought in without so much as a by-your-leave to assist the cardboard cut-out colonial that is our other hero, Mr. Nayland Smith. The reader learns all he needs to (and, indeed, all he is going to) from Ward’s initial description: “a tall, lean man, with his square-cut, clean-shaven face sun-baked to the hue of coffee … I had thought him in Burma!”. Ward riffs on this occasionally as the story progresses, telling us in moments of heightened excitement that Smith “tugged the lobe of his left ear”, “paled beneath his tan”, or that “his square jaw grew truculently prominent”, whatever that means. Ward is also a bit of a dunce when melodrama really has him by the throat, exclaiming at one point that “Smith struck a match and re-lighted his pipe. His eyes were literally on fire!” (one is reminded of Tom Lehrer in The Masochism Tango‘: ‘my heart is in my hand. Eugh.’). Ward is also old-fashioned in the sense that he doesn’t understand (or see the point of?) women. We can see ample evidence of this in the clergyman’s daughter Greba Eltham, who obligingly faints twice after seeing Dr. Fu-Manchu’s inexplicably green eyes in the early evening. Then, “becoming charmingly confidential, as a woman often will with a tactful doctor”, she tells Dr. Petrie she has seen a mysterious creature climbing over the walls of the building[4]. “Do you know anything with a long thin body?” she asks guilelessly:

For a moment I offered no reply, studying the girl’s pretty face, her eager, blue-grey eyes widely opened and fixed upon mine. She was not of the neurotic type, with her clear complexion and sunkissed neck; her arms, healthily toned by exposure to country airs were rounded and firm, and she had the agile shape of a young Diana, with none of the anaemic languor which breeds morbid dreams.

Greba aside, the only female character of note is the other cliché of this sort of rip-roaring nonsense: the exotic and possibly treacherous beauty. This provides the reader with another joy inherent in the reading of any such adventure books: the unintentional double entendre. The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu is littered with these[5], and never more so than when the implausibly-accented Kâramanèh is wafting about in her trademark “gossamer silk” nighties and “barbaric ornaments”, clasping Dr. Petrie by the lapels, quivering with passion of various sorts and panting important bits of plot into his ear. After a conversation of no more than a few pages, she falls wildly in love with him; Dr. Petrie, like the stiffly-upper-lipped pillar of the British Empire that we know him to be, does his best to resist (this proves to be “harder than I could have dreamt of”, fnar fnar). Enslaved to Dr. Fu-Manchu by means that have not yet become apparent, she refuses to leave him of her own free will, but instead begs Dr. Petrie for a quick bit of S&M while they wait for the fiend to commit his next murder (‘“… carry me off” – she clutched me nervously – “so that I cannot escape, beat me if you like … my lips will be sealed no longer.”’). For the aid of baffled readers, Nayland Smith offers the following explanation for this misogynist twaddle: ‘“You don’t know the Oriental mind as I do … if you would only seize her by the hair, drag her to some cellar, hurl her down, stand over her with a whip, she would tell you everything she knows … and she would adore you for your savagery, deeming you forceful and strong!”’. Ah. I see.

Reading aloud is becoming a lost art, and yet it offers so much: a chance to read books at a leisurely pace (rather than devouring them in a few hours, as is my habit); a shared activity that can be tragic, hilarious or thought-provoking depending on the book of choice; and numerous opportunities to practice one’s funny voices. The longest book we have ever tackled in this fashion is Bleak House, which totally exhausted our stock of comedy accents and took nearly six months to read. I also have a cherished memory of our friend N reading aloud to the assembled guests at last year’s Applefest party from Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul (the passage about hunting elk in the forests). For his encore, he chose a book at random, which turned out to be In the Springtime of the Year, probably the most depressing book in the house (it tells the story of a woman whose husband dies by being hit on the head with a tree in the first few pages, and who then develops a deep and meaningful attachment to a donkey). The most unlikely books can lend themselves to reading aloud. Obviously the adventure genre has much to offer here (Treasure Island, A High Wind in Jamaica and North to Adventure! were all hits; Robinson Crusoe a surprisingly boring miss), but I also recommend gentle Englishness in the form of P. G. Wodehouse, E. F. Benson, Barbara Pym and Saki, and/or books with potentially lurid subject matter (we particularly enjoyed Consuming Passions and The Debt to Pleasure). The acid test of any book is this: turn to page 56 and read the second paragraph aloud (you may read more if this turns out to be a passage of dialogue or if the paragraph consists of merely one or two words, as is so often the case). This exercise is the only way to distinguish between something you will tire of by page twelve, and something you will look forward to wresting from your partner. Here is the relevant paragraph from page 56 of The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu:

“Oh! I don’t quite know what I do mean, Dr. Petrie. What does it all mean? Vernon has been explaining to me that some awful Chinaman is seeking the like of Mr. Nayland Smith. But if the same man wants to kill my father, why has he not done so?”

Why indeed? Tune in tonight.

[1] I can’t see why. One is prepared to enter into any number of other activities that involve one’s partner being in the nip, after all.

[2] Naturally, the absurd moniker ‘Sax Rohmer’ under which the Fu-Manchu books were written is a pen-name.

[3] Consider, for example, the following baffling sentence, clearly attempting to mimic Conan Doyle in its use of the word ‘singularly’: “Weymouth entered, big and florid, and in some respects singularly like his brother, in others as singularly unlike”. I’ve read this four times now and I still have no idea what it means.

[4] It turns out not to be a creature at all, Ward having played his Weird Animal Accomplice card earlier in the book with the aforementioned giant centipede.

[5] “Beside me, Nayland Smith was straining and twisting. I think his object was to touch Kâramanèh, in the hope of arousing her with his foot.” At this point in the narrative, Smith and Dr. Petrie are strapped to a boat that is on the point of sinking into the murky waters of the Thames. It’s the middle of the night and Dr. Fu-Manchu has just leapt overboard, clasping a staunch London policeman in one hand and a hypodermic needle of unknown provenance in the other. In other words, it is neither the time nor the place.

Image: with the heading Retirement is like taking a bath. After awhile it’s not so hot.

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