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Thursday, 22 February 2018

2018: Year of the Typing Dog

“What did you do on such a wet and miserable weekend?” asked a friend the other night. “What’s your latest project?” Her query, as always, managed to convey the impression of sincere interest. “I’ve started researching for a paper about Snoopy being the best-known typist of the last quarter of the 20th century,” I said, in all seriousness. Her eyes lit up. “Oh, yes,” she said, as she scrunched her fingers together, turned them down and began making a two-paw typing action. “I remember Snoopy sitting on top of his dogbox using a typewriter.” And, talking of wet and miserable weekends, did she also recall the opening line of the novel Snoopy never got to finish? “It was a dark and stormy night … ”
Time didn’t allow me to explain that this was not actually a Snoopy original. The celebrated incipit was dognapped by Snoopy’s creator, Charles M. Schulz, from Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (above), a mid-19th century English novelist, poet, playwright and politician who also coined phrases such as “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar” and “the pen is mightier than the sword”.
Generally speaking, Schulz was anything but a plagiarist. He was very much a God-fearing Christian who didn't covet other men’s sayings. Yet since Schulz’s death in 2000, biographers have analysed him as a man who used his famous Peanuts comic strip to get square with people against whom he had long-held grudges. Some might have been bullies from his school days, for whom a bit of comeuppance through a cartoon might seem only fair and reasonable. But others were girlfriends who ditched “Sparky” Schultz for other more desirable suitors, and a lifelong bitterness over this does not perhaps reflect well on a man who made us all laugh out loud when our raw nerves were tickled at one time or another from the early 1960s on into the 21st century.
So, apparently, Lord Lytton’s line about the pen being mightier than the sword came to represent a sentiment in which both Schulz and Snoopy, each of them ultimately vengeful above all else, truly believed. Still, it was on a “dark and stormy night” that Snoopy got stuck for evermore, never to advance in writing The Great American Novel. Lytton had used it in the opening of his 1830 work Paul Clifford, but managed to get past it : “… the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets …”. In spite of many attempts, Snoopy failed to make anything really work beyond the first seven words. He was doomed to eternal writers’ block, washed up on the rocks of that dark and stormy night.

In a 2000 book called Charles M. Schulz: Conversations, edited by M. Thomas Inge, Schulz said the Lytton quotation came to him first, the idea of a dog typing on top of his box after that. “ … each theme that you think of seems to serve its purpose by giving you an outlet for all the ideas that come to you. Now some of the ideas for puns that Snoopy writes could never be used in this strip itself; they are simply too corny. But when Snoopy writes them, and writes them with sincerity, then they are funny. You don’t think that Snoopy is being stupid or anything like that. You like him for his naïveté because he innocently thinks he has done something great, and that makes it acceptable.”
For all that, the naïveté of Snoopy and of other Peanuts characters, notably Charlie Brown, may well have shrouded something a little more sinister, an underlying aversion to life and the people Schulz found in it. Peanuts was first published under syndication in 1950, with a title which Schulz absolutely despised. David Michaelis’s 2007 book Schulz and Peanuts says:

 “In the end, the strip itself would be acclaimed an epic cycle. Cultural historians would describe the saga of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and Linus as arguably the longest story told by a single artist in human history and as a whole different way of telling a story. But for all the will to see it as a continuum of melancholy sweetness, it began with a precise declaration of feeling, shocking in its candour for a children’s strip … ‘Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown,’ says Shermy, the straight man … who is sitting on a curb as his friend passes by: ‘Good ol’ Charlie Brown … How I hate him!’ ”
Naturally, Charles Schulz’s son Monte disliked Michaelis’s book, saying he wanted to tell newspapers he thought it was stupid. But most reviewers raved about the book, praising Michaelis for highlighting Schulz’s ability to rise, as so many great funny men have done, above his own depression, in order to entertain the world.  Peanuts ultimately ran in 2400 newspapers in 68 countries and in 21 languages. This ensured that Snoopy, while never actually a sergeant-major in the Foreign Legion or a World War I air ace flying a Sopwith Camel, or a golf pro or an astronaut or Joe Cool, was in all reality the world’s best known typist in the last quarter of the 20th century. No other typist came near him.

A great typist? Yes. A great writer? Maybe. Snoopy was unquestionably a comical extension of the truly serious writer Schulz deep down always wanted to be - a confession he apparently made only to the truest, albeit passing, love of his life. Seemingly, Lucy represented the woman Schulz did marry.
For all those aspiring authors out there who dream of writing the Great Australian (or American) Novel, take heart from one of my favourite strips. Lucy tells Snoopy, “You should write a book that is powerful, yet heartwarming!” Snoopy thinks, “I'm having trouble with the first sentence ...’’

(First published on this blog, March 1, 2011)

Monday, 8 January 2018

70 Things To Do in My 70th Year

I turn 70 this year and between January 1 and December 31, intend to achieve 70 things I’ve never done before. The list has only 24 items on it so far, meaning I’m only about a quarter of the way toward completing it. So I’d welcome any suggestions or challenges. But there’ll be nothing involving great heights: I don’t plan to bungee jump, skydive or hang glide. With the possible exception of a hot air balloon ride – notwithstanding what has happened in my old stamping ground of Luxor - I won’t be risking life and limb at the end of a bit of rubber, some nylon, aluminium alloy or synthetic sailcloth.
Some of these events may seem a little trite, trivial and insignificant, but they each will have their place in helping me round out my life. Here is what is on the list so far:
1.    Go to Araluen, bushranger country outside Canberra.
2.    Listen to Steve Earle sing Copperhead Road on a jukebox in the pub at Araluen.
3.    Teach my partner Harriet to jive, and jive with her (but not at Araluen).
4.    Watch a Super Bowl on TV in its entirety (I did watch one in 1968, 50 years ago, but that was in black and white on film).
5.    Spend Easter in Christchurch, New Zealand, which is about as easterly as I plan to travel this year.
6.    Attend a school reunion in Christchurch. Yes, that’s a “first” of sorts.
7.    Celebrate a senior milestone birthday in my native New Zealand (my 70th in Queenstown on April 5).
8.     Attend the Anzac Day Dawn Service in Canberra.
9.    Travel to Warren in New South Wales in search of Ponty Reid’s All Black rugby jersey on Dubbo Street.
10.                       Travel to Grenfell in search of Lawson Oval, named after the great Australian writer Henry Lawson, who was born there. I know it’s on the corner of Henry Lawson Way and Stan McCabe Drive and I might get there for the Henry Lawson Festival on the June long weekend.
11.                       Eat something that has tentacles. Calamari maybe?
12.                       Publish a novel.
13.                       Run in a road race.
14.                       Acquire an Underwood 5 typewriter in good working condition.
15.                       Try to match Eric the Eel’s time by breaking one minute swimming 50 metres.
16.                       Meet a tiger at the National Zoo and Aquarium in Canberra.
17.                       Eat King George whiting in South Australia.
18.                       Get to see Uluru and the Alice in Central Australia
19.                       Take a steam train trip in New South Wales, or in Canberra if they can find the bits of train stolen over Christmas.
20.                       Go on a hot air balloon ride in Canberra
21.                       Work on a year-long project to transform our garage, inside and out, making it possum-proof  and poisonous redback spider-free and getting rid of all other beastly creatures.
22.                       Get to own my own laptop.
23.                       Watch Paris, Texas in its entirety (and maybe even Kramer v Kramer, and Sophie’s Choice).
24.                       Go to Maryborough in Victoria to find Princes Park, where the locals beat the British rugby team on June 27, 1888.

Please comment with any more suggestions.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Your Holiday Typewriter Crossword

6. These wonderful little portable typewriters were made in Groton, New York (plural, 6 letters).
7. French typewriters, featured in the movie Populaire (plural, 5 letters).
9. A typeslug is attached to the end of it, a type... (3 letters).
10. Earliest typewriter company, once owned by Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict (9 letters).
12. ETCetera magazine has, since October 1987, - - - of typewriter collectors worldwide (3 words, 3, 3, 5 letters).
15. and 19. Considered the first portable typewriter, a single type element machine which was decades ahead of its time (14 letters, 11 and 3).
17. If the word average of speed typists was judged according to five-stroke words, what did one letter constitute? (2 words, 3 and 6 letters).
21. During World War II, German typewriter designers were designated as this by the US Patent Office (5 letters).
22. Fastest typist in the pre-war era, using Underwood and Royal standard-size manual typewriters, Albert - (7 letters).

1. Typewriter company founded by Ed Hess and Lewis Myers in Brooklyn in 1904 (5 letters).
2. In the days when newspaper reporters used typewriters, their copy was set in - type (3 letters).
3. What you carry your typewriter in, its - (4 letters).
4. Typewriters create difficulties when it comes to shipping them, because they are a - - (2 words, 5 and 4 letters).
5. Underwood 5s and Olivetti Lettera 22s are - in terms of typewriter quality and design (7 letters).
8. Shift 6 on your typewriter keyboard provided you with under... (plural, 6 letters)
11. The home city, in England's East Midlands, of the Imperial Typewriter Company (9 letters).
13. There are a great many of these when it comes to the origin of the QWERTY keyboard configuration (singular, 6 letters).
14. In the earliest days of typing, you did this when using a machine with the carriage placed over the top of the circular typebasket, type - (7 letters).
16. What Richard Polt still does for a Sphinx typewriter (it remains at the top of his wish list, (5 letters).
18. The book cover features a typewriter and it's called "Great Men Die Twice: A Fitting Tribute to Mark - " (4 letters).
20. Ted Munk's exhaustive and authoritative Typewriter Database provides, through serial numbers, an accurate guide to the - of your typewriter (3 letters).


Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Lola Ridge, Genius Poet and Typist

Lola Ridge at her typewriter. Below, her typescript of "Firehead".
The West Coast, my home district in New Zealand, was where the great American anarcho-feminist poet, writer and artist Rose Emily “Lola” Ridge nurtured her astonishing range of skills. Ridge, born at Dolphin’s Barn in Dublin, Ireland, on this day (December 19) in 1873, spent 27 of the first 30 years of her life on the goldfields of the West Coast, having arrived there with her mother Emma Ridge as a three-year-old. She moved to Sydney with Emma in November 1903 and, after her mother’s death, to San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York in 1907. From 1918 until her death from pulmonary tuberculosis in Brooklyn on May 19, 1941, Lola Ridge was one of America’s best known and most critically acclaimed poets.
The New York Times, 1941
New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, March 1903
After marrying an alcoholic West Coast gold miner and having two sons, the first of whom died in infancy, Lola Ridge turned her attentions to writing and illustrating at the age of 27. Her first published short story, “The Trial of Ruth”, appeared in the August 1903 edition of The New Zealand Illustrated Magazine. Lola also provided the finely detailed drawings which accompanied the story.
“The Trial of Ruth” is a thinly-disguised autobiographical piece, about an educated, refined woman called Ruth Dove who marries a drunkard, a “common digger” and “fourteen stone of irresponsibility”. Lola described Ruth as “small, and pale, and quiet”, with “smooth dark brown hair brushed straight back”. A portrait of Lola, taken by Greymouth photographer James Ring, had appeared in the March edition of Illustrated Magazine, accompanying a brief profile of Ridge (“now preparing some short stories and also a volume of verses for publication in book form”). The gravure image clearly shows a woman identical to the word picture Ridge later drew of Ruth Dove. Ruth was married to Paul Sullivan, who in real life was Ridge’s wine-sodden, “common digger” husband, Hau Hau-born Peter Sanderson Webster (1870-1946). “The Trial of Ruth” is set in Kitonga Valley and Jacob’s Flat, fictional place names which represent Hokitika and Kanieri Forks.
Lola had Ruth as a favourite with the “swearing sex” and was cutting about her being surrounded by settlers’ daughters, the other “society ladies” of Kitonga Valley – one was described as “a wide mass of girl, with a ridiculous post of a nose sunk in a paddock of face”. Lola’s story comes across as a cry for escape from the social confines of Hokitika.
No “settler” herself, Emily Ridge was a single mother, listing herself as a widow, when she arrived in Hokitika from Dublin. Three years later, in 1880, she married a Scottish miner, Donald McFarlane. In 1895 her then 21-year-old daughter, calling herself Rosalie Ridge and listing her occupation as painter, married Webster. The young couple settled in a two-room hut at Kanieri Forks, where Webster was a shareholder in the Lemain and Party sluicing claim. A son, Paul, was born a year later, but died at 12 days of bronchitis. Lola’s second son, Keith, was born in 1900. Between the two births, Lola continued her Trinity College (London) musical studies at St Columbkille’s Sisters of Mercy Convent in Hokitika, gaining intermediate honours in 1898. Below, the convent in 1900:
But writing and drawing gradually took precedence, and in 1901 the first of more than 30 of Lola’s poems to appear in The Bulletin in Sydney was published. “A Deserted Diggings, Maoriland” was signed simply “Lola” – it was her first use of this pen name. It ended:
Where are ye now, old comrades?
Past alarms,
Past lust of gold or gilt!
The sinews of a nation
In your arms,
Out of your strength and folly
A Nation ye have built!

The next year Lola had her first poems published in New Zealand, by the Otago Witness and by the Illustrated Magazine. The second of these is titled “Lake Kanieri” and began:
Blue veined and dimpling, dappled in the sun
Lies Lake Kanieri, like a timid child
Wide eyed, close clinging to the spacious skirts
Of old Tuhua, that big, brawny nurse,
On whose broad lap I lie. No need to serve,
Or suffer, or regret: it seems life holds
No future and no past for me but this
Sun-lighted mountain and the brooding bush;
Nor art, nor history, nor written page
Could touch me now. It is enough to be,
And feel the slow and rhythmic pulse of Earth
Beat under me; and see the low, red sun
Lean on the massive shoulders of the range.
0 lone, heroic, melancholy Hills!
A photo the English crime writer Agatha Christie took of Lake Kanieri in July 1922. Christie described it as “one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen … mountains all around it and the dense bush down to the water’s edge.” It was a claim Christie was to repeat in an autobiography written toward the end of her life (she died in 1976).
Although “The Trail of Ruth” ends on a positive note, with Ruth Dove rejecting the advances of Paul Sullivan’s partner Harry Dunn, saving her husband from being killed by Dunn and setting out to restore their marriage, less than three months after the story’s publication Lola left Webster, and Hokitika, for good. She and her mother (who left her husband in the Seaview mental hospital), along with the three-year-old Keith Webster, settled in North Sydney. As well as continuing to write poetry (insisting that her married name of Webster not be used), Lola was studying art and paying for her lessons by working at the Julian Ashton Art School at The Rocks. Julian Rossi Ashton (1851-1942) was an English-born artist and teacher who emigrated to Melbourne in 1878 under contract to David Syme's Illustrated Australian News, before moving to Sydney. He established the Art School in 1890 and its selection committee included Norman Lindsay.
The New York Times, 1927
Emma Ridge died, aged 74, of acute gastroenteritis and cardiac failure at Ellis’ Coffee Palace on King Street in Sydney on August 2, 1907, freeing her daughter to travel further afield with her son. By the following March Lola was contributing to Overland Monthly in San Francisco, while still sending poems back to Australia and New Zealand. It was her first contribution to the New Republic, “The Ghetto” in 1918, an imagist sequence about the Hester Street Jewish community of the Lower East Side of New York, that established Lola’s reputation as one of the leading American poets. During a lecture tour of the Midwest in 1919, she spoke in Chicago on “Woman and the Creative Will”, rejecting arguments of biological essentialism and exposing how socially constructed gender roles hinder female development. “Woman is not and never has been man’s natural inferior,” Ridge said. Later that year, Lola, aged 46, married a second time, although she was never divorced from Webster. This time she took on a kindred spirit, Scottish-born engineer, writer and radical David Lawson (born Charles Whipple, 1886-1980). Lola was almost 12½ years his senior, but was soon bringing her birth date forward, taking eight years off her age in a 1924 US passport application made with Lawson.
The 1924 passport photo of Lola and Lawson.
Lola Ridge’s high US reputation has been largely restored in the 21st Century, with biographies and other books published extolling her genius, her ground-breaking poetry and her consistent stand on major issues of equality and justice. Most of these works, however, have offered only passing (and often very inaccurate) references to her many years in Hokitika and Sydney. Academics and biographers have also, in the main, seen these as times of deprivation and hardship, and as Lola living an early life which honed her later deep empathy for the poor, disadvantaged and underprivileged of America. Such comments reflect a gross ignorance of life in urban Australian and country New Zealand at the turn of the last century. Lola’s years in Kanieri and Hokitika were doubtless often tough and quite lonely, but would not have been without some comfort and rewards. These included, in time, opportunities and outlets for her to express her artistic abilities. In Sydney, what’s more, she attended an art school of the very highest standard, hardly a sign of her own deprivation. Wherever she lived, Lola Ridge always found a way to support herself, to travel freely and be independent and independently-minded. This enabled her to express herself fully, mostly in poetry that was, even in the first half of the 20th Century, regarded as being well ahead of its time.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Mystery of Sam Mitchell’s forged Victoria Cross

One of the Victoria Crosses awarded to Sam Mitchell for gallantry in the Tauranga Campaign of New Zealand's Māori Wars is in the West Coast Historical Museum in Hokitika; the other was last known to be in the hands of an Auckland collector. But this is no VC and Bar story. Sam Mitchell was awarded one VC (the first ever presented in Australia, the 300th awarded anywhere), for his actions in the British humiliation at the Battle of Gate Pā on April 29, 1864. So one of the two VCs in existence is a forgery, and although the one in Hokitika seems most likely to be the Real McCoy, there can be no absolute certainty on this matter.
A painting of Sam Mitchell wearing his New Zealand Medal.
The confidence West Coasters may feel about the Mitchell VC in Hokitika being the genuine article is perhaps in large part based on a letter Sam Mitchell’s daughter, Edith Mitchell, received in Mikonui, south of Hokitika, in 1957, from Captain Peter Wyatt, commanding officer of the Royal Navy’s School of Aircraft Direction and Meteorology at Kete in Pembrokeshire. This school was the latter-day HMS Harrier, bearing the same name as the sloop-of-war upon which Sam Mitchell had served in New Zealand in 1864.
Soon after taking up his position at Kete, Wyatt (left) had been approached by the Canadian family of a 12-year-old boy, Wayne Burton, who had found the second Mitchell VC buried in sand and driftwood under a wharf at Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver, British Columbia, in August 1956. The family had sent Wyatt photographs of this Mitchell VC, hoping to get it authenticated. Wyatt, in turn, had immediately offered to buy this second Mitchell VC from the Burtons.
Before the transaction took place, however, Wyatt also received a letter from Edith Mitchell, who had read Canadian Press stories about the Burton find. Edith also sent Wyatt photographs of the Hokitika VC. Wyatt took both sets of photos to a Mr Dawes at Hancocks of London, casters of the VC (“probably the most knowledgeable man on the subject alive today”). The two VCs are identically inscribed, but based on photographic evidence alone, Dawes told Wyatt the Hokitika VC was the “true one” and the Canadian VC was a counterfeit. The two VCs have never been compared in reality, but the Canadian version has been described as more worn.
Could it be that the original VC finished up in Vancouver BC, where the man who bought it at auction in 1909 had his will resealed in 1938? Or that the VC sold to Mitchell's daughter in 1928 by this owner's son was a forgery? We shall never know.
Both VCs were eventually recovered from overseas and reached New Zealand - the one in Hokitika was bought by Edith Mitchell for £70 from British diplomat Alvary Trench-Gascoigne, the son of a wealthy English collector who had bought it at auction in London in 1909, the other in 1995 by the Auckland collector, who had bought the Canadian VC at auction in London.
A drawing of Mitchell as a young man.
Mitchell, born at Apsley Guise, Woburn in Bedfordshire on September 8, 1841, drowned in the Mikonui River, close to his farm south of Ross, on March 16, 1894, aged 52, still wondering what had happened to his original VC. He had returned to Sydney from England in 1865 and left the VC with other belongings at a boarding house in Sydney, when he went on to New Zealand in late 1868 to decide whether to settle there. Mitchell did opt to spend the rest of his life on the West Coast, and sent word to a couple believed to be called Goodman, owners of the boarding house, asking them to send his sea chest, including the VC, to New Zealand. He heard nothing back, and contacted police. He was told the Goodmans had returned to England. The prevailing presumption is that they took Mitchell’s VC with them, and sold it to a collector.
Agnes Mitchell
Mitchell's VC was next heard of in early January 1909, when New Zealand newspapers reported that it had been sold at auction for £50 by Glendining’s Galleries in London. Sam's widow, Agnes, contacted Walter Dinnie, the then Commissioner of Police in Wellington, who advised that the VC had been sold to colliery owner Colonel Frederick Trench-Gascoigne DSO of Lotherton Hall, Aberford, just east of Leeds, Yorkshire. Glendining’s had got it from the executors of the estate of a collector in Bradford.
 Frederick Trench-Gascoigne, above, and Lotherton Hall below.
Agnes maintained her efforts to have the VC returned, and after she died in 1918 her daughter Edith took up the cause. Between them they wrote to MPs, Government Ministers, Governors-General, High Commissioners, Returned Servicemen’s Associations, the British Empire Service League in London and British Freemasons. All to no avail, until on March 11, 1927, when the Duke of York (the future King George VI) visited the West Coast and Westland MP Tom Seddon (with whom the duke stayed in Greymouth) pressed the royal to intercede on the Mitchell family’s behalf.
Sir Alvary Trench-Gascoigne at Lotherton Hall.
Duly, in June 1928, Edith Mitchell wrote to Colonel Trench-Gascoigne, who said he had sold the Mitchell VC to his son, Alvary (later Sir Alvary Trench-Gascoigne), a diplomat who lived in Barkston Ash, West Yorkshire. Through public subscription, Edith raised the asking price of £70, forwarded it to the New Zealand High Commissioner in London, Sir James Parr, and in August 1928 the VC finally reached Mikonui. When Edith died in 1963, the VC was gifted in trust to the Hokitika Museum.
The Trench-Gascoignes hardly needed Hokitika's £70 - when Frederick died in June 1937, he left £688,976 12 shillings and 2 pence to Alvary and his widow. Intriguingly, his will was resealed in Vancouver, British Columbia, in April 1938. We know not why. But does that explain how the other Mitchell VC turned up in Vancouver, one must wonder?
Wayne Burton in 1992
The existence of the second Mitchell VC came to light while Edith was still alive, in August 1956. Canadian Press reported that 12-year-old Wayne Burton, of Nanaimo, had found it while hiding from friends under a wharf at Kitsilano Beach. The second of two Canadian Press stories on the find, in March 1957, mentioned Captain Wyatt and his offer to buy this VC, presumably for HMS Harrier. Edith wrote to Wyatt about this story, and in a reply in October 1957 was told “Mr Dawes [stated] with more decision than I expected from such wary people that yours was the true one, and that found in Vancouver a certain counterfeit.”
Nanaimo Daily News, British Columbia, August 30, 1956, and March 15, 1957.
The story can’t end there, of course. Dawes’ certainty was formed from viewing photographs, nothing more. The more than 40-year gap between the discovery of the loss of the VC in Sydney in 1868 to its auction in London in 1909 leaves far too many unanswerable questions – not to mention the gap from 1868 to 1956! The unsealing of Frederick Trench-Gascoigne's will in Vancouver in 1938 adds yet another twist. No information about the Goodmans and their movements can be found. Perhaps it’s time to bring the Hokitika and Auckland Mitchell VCs together, in an effort to ascertain some absolute truth in the matter. But the mystery of the Mitchell VC found in Vancouver in 1956 will no doubt tantalise military historians forever.