Showing posts with label Britain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Britain. Show all posts

03 August 2016

Writing to Remember


This one is going to ramble a bit, so I will let you know in advance what themes are going to keep coming up: Orkney and the human fight against oblivion.  How's that for a pair?
As I mentioned before, in June my wife and I traveled to Scotland.  I was particularly knocked out by the Orkney Islands, off the northeast coast.  We arrived via a six-hour ferry ride from Aberdeen. 

And that route is not recommended.  By the end of the trip I would estimate that at least a quarter of the travelers were sitting still (or just lying on the floor), afraid to move for fear of losing whatever might remain in their tummies.

So, if you go, take the other, shorter ferry ride, from Scrabster.  Longer road trip to get there but roads aren't as  bouncy as the North Sea.

Relief carving, Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney.



Orkney is a county, made up of about seventy islands, twentyish of which are inhabited.  The main island is called The Mainland, and that's where we spent most of our time. 

And speaking of time, the place is full of it.  We visited four prehistoric sites, where the past just leaps out at you.

You may wonder why these way-the-hell-and-gone isles attracted neolithic peoples.  One tour guide explained it this way: If the sea is a barrier then Orkney is at the far end of nowhere.  But if the sea is a road, then Orkney is a main highway stop.  The Vikings certainly took the latter view.  Maybe the new-stone-age (neolithic) people felt the same way.

But we can only guess about that  because they were, well, prehistoric.  Which by definition means they left no history, no writing.

And writing (this blog is about writing.  Remember?)  is a great tool against oblivion.  But not the only one.

Stennes
Take a look at the Stones of Stenness, an ancient henge, or ring of standing stones.  Whoever dragged these monuments into a circle and stood them on end was certainly trying to us - or somebody - something.  And most of them survived for 5,000 years until 1814 when a farmer named Mackay got tired of visitors trespassing and decided to doom them to oblivion.  He destroyed two of them before he was stopped - on Christmas - with a court order.

Maeshowe
About a mile away you will find Maeshowe, which is a chambered cairn.  That is, a hill tomb with rooms in it.   It's a few hundred years younger than Stennes.  The long tunnel entrance (you have to bend over practically double) is aligned with the sun at the solstice.  (And there is a new theory, by the way, that such entrances served as astronomical devices, blocking out excess light to reveal more stars.)

We don't know much about the people who spent 30 to 100,000 person-hours building it, or what they thought it meant, but we do know it was visited by Vikings (remember them?) about a thousand years ago.  We know that because they told us so by writing on the inner walls.  It is the largest collection of runes ever found.  The writers explain that 100 of them broke in through the ceiling to spend three days out of a snow storm.

Ring of Brodgar, more standing stones.
Well, first of all, there is no way 100 people could have gotten into that space, much less all their weapons and supplies, so I guess that was just a round number.  But what fascinates me is that these travelers must have been new to the art of writing and terribly excited about it.  Because some of the runes translate something like this:

I carved this with an axe.

I carved this up high.

Carved by the best rune-carver west of the ocean.

They were not all so tautological.  The guide told us one of the carvings could be loosely translated:  

For a good time, call Ingehelda.

Right.  It seems odd that these ancient wanderers didn't use the opportunity to tell posterity more about themselves.  Like names and home towns.  But apparently that was not the sort of immortality that interested them.


Skara Brae
And speaking of immortality and the fight against oblivion, in the early twentieth century the land was owned by a man named Balfour.  He noticed that the roof was leaking (where the Vikings had burst in) and, blessed be his memory, he got it patched up.    Even better, he made sure the builders left a clear distinction between the old and the modern.  If he hadn't made those repairs, the place would probably be a mudpie today.

By the way, those original dry stone walls, built almost five thousand years ago?  Except where the Vikings bashed them, they still don't need repair.  Talk about fighting oblivion.


Standing stones in an Orkadian cafe.  Another shop had a dish called Skara Brie.
And then there's Skara Brae,  an entire neolithic village uncovered by a violent storm a century ago.  These are the oldest houses in the world with their original furniture - stone beds and "dressers" on which prized possessions were probably displayed.

If you made it through all of my prattle then you deserve a treat.  So here is Saltfishforty, an Orkadian band we saw performing in Stromness.  Enjoy.








21 May 2016

American English vs. British English



by John M. Floyd



As I mentioned in my column about Ian Fleming a few weeks ago, I've been re-reading all the James Bond novels, in order. That project has reminded me not only of my youth (I devoured all fourteen Bond books when I was in high school) but of the differences in writing style between American authors and British authors. To the British--at least in the 50s and early 60s, when the Bond novels and short-story collections were published--trucks are lorries, flashlights are torches, elevators are lifts, etc. But I had forgotten that there are so many differences.

The following is a quick list I jotted down last week (American usage first, British usage next):

apartment -- flat
gas -- petrol
French fries -- chips
chips -- crisps
hood (of a car) -- bonnet
group -- lot
bathroom -- loo
pants -- trousers
panties -- pants
guy -- chap
trunk -- boot
soccer -- football
trash -- rubbish
cookie -- biscuit
directly -- as soon as
hang up (or disconnect) -- ring off
on vacation -- on holiday



Spellings are also different, in British writing:

- words ending in "ize" are often "ise" instead: realise, recognise, organise

- some words swap "er" and "re": centre, fibre, calibre, metre, lustre

- "e" is sometimes converted to "ae": encyclopaedia, orthopaedic, anaemic

- "-eck" is often "-eque": cheque

- "-ense" is "-ence": offence, defence, licence, pretence

- "or" is sometimes "our": colour, humour, neighbour, honour, favourite, harbour

- "l" is often doubled: jewellery, counsellor

- gray is grey

- cozy is cosy

- mold is mould

- tire is tyre

- plow is plough

- draft beer is draught beer (to draft a letter is still to draft)

- curb is kerb


And sometimes their verbs are different when used with collective nouns:

We say, "The team is winning." They say, "The team are winning."


Punctuation is a special challenge. To British writers, a period is a full stop, (parentheses) are brackets, [brackets] are square brackets, and "quotation marks" are inverted commas. Here are some differences that come to mind:

- ending punctuation in a quote usually goes outside, rather than inside, the closing quotation mark:
My favorite fictional character names seem to be "Jack", "Charlie", and "Kate".

- primary quotes are sometimes single quotes rather than double, with the double quotes inside:
'I re-read "The Lottery" last night', Jane said.

- periods after certain abbreviations are omitted:
Mr Smith, Mrs Peel, Dr Watson

- a period, rather than a colon, is used between hours and minutes:
I met her at 10.15 yesterday.

- the British also seem to avoid the use of the Oxford comma, or "serial" comma (the one before the conjunction in a series):
Attending the movie's premiere were two hookers, the producer's wife and the director's wife.

NOTE: The previous sentence is a good example of why I prefer to use the serial comma. It can prevent unintentional mistakes, and even lawsuits.


One more thing. The British are more likely to use words like spilt, leapt, dreamt, and spoilt, instead of the way we would indicate the past tense of those verbs, and they seem far more forgiving of the use of "ly" adverbs and synonyms for "said." They also seem to prefer "towards" over "toward."


These are only some of the differences I've discovered/re-discovered as I continue my marathon-read of Fleming's works. (I'm in the middle of his seventh novel, Goldfinger, at the moment.) But I must say, I've found these differences to be more interesting than distracting. And I think I now have a better appreciation of the old saying that America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language.


Can you think of other Britishisms that I've left out? I'm sure there are many. And a question for my fellow SleuthSayers Melodie Campbell and Stephen Ross: Does usage/style in Canada and Australia generally agree with British?


As for this reader/writer, it's back to his regular programme. 'And directly I've finalised my endeavour with the Bond novels, I plan to analyse all the Bond movies again', he observed sombrely. As he changed into his colourful pyjamas.





23 June 2015

Scoundrel


William Augustus Bowles

He's a handsome devil, isn't he?  I encountered this gentleman in Mobile, Alabama during a very engaging tour of the historic Conde-Charlotte House.  Dashing Billy's portrait hung on the wall of the second floor  hallway.  My brother, Danny, and I were spending a few days in this beautiful old city that began life as a French fort and trading post, and were taking in a few of the sights.  Our guide, a lovely lady who treated us as welcomed guests, escorted us from room to room explaining the various periods illustrated by the furniture, paintings, silverware, and creature comforts, each room representing a particular period in the long history of the city.  Though Mobile had begun life as a French enclave (and retains much of that flavor to this day), it would, in turn, become an English possession, a Spanish conquest, part of the fledgling nation of the United States; secede with the state of Alabama to join the Confederacy, and finally, return to the fold at the close of the Civil War.
As it happened, we were just finishing our tour and preparing to go back downstairs when the painting caught my eye.  It had not been remarked upon prior.  "Who's this?" I asked, genuinely intrigued by the striking subject in the Native American turban.  Our guide grew instantly more animated, raising an eyebrow and saying, "Mostly it's the ladies who notice Mr. Bowles."  I quickly assured her that it was my interest in Native American history that drew him to my attention.  Brother Danny snorted.  "Well," she went on to explain with a smile, "Mr. Bowles was not an Indian, but he was quite a rogue, and at one time, declared himself chief of the Lower Creeks." 

Declared himself...?  I was hooked...and I think you will be, too. 

What follows is the very large story of William Bowles condensed for the sake of narrative brevity.  There is much left unreported and I beg your understanding.  My thanks to Rhen Druhan at the Conde-Charlotte Museum for her invaluable aid.  Much of the information here was drawn from a wonderful piece on his life in issue 103 of Alabama Heritage Magazine, as well as other sources.


The word scoundrel has many permutations in the English language: When speaking of corrupt politicians we generally intend it as a pejorative.  But there's another category of scoundrel that when we apply the word to them, it's always accompanied by a slight, involuntary smile.  Yes, we know that they're not very good people, maybe even pretty awful ones, yet...we find them charming, entertaining, larger than life, living more fully than we dare, taking risks that most of us never would.  These are the same folks we also use the word roguish to describe, or perhaps, adventurer.  We often write about such people and it's easy to think that they're mostly fictional characters.  Mostly they are.  Then there's William Augustus Bowles.

William began life in 1763 as the sixth child of an English family making its home in the colony of Maryland.  He was remarkable from the start.  Described as an aggressive, vigorous boy with an olive complexion, he excelled at many pursuits.  He leaned to speak French, play the flute and violin, painted, was well-versed in mathematics, history, and literature; was, in fact, an avid reader.  Besides these artistic and academic qualities, he was a good horseman and all-round outdoorsman.  In short, he was gifted with good looks, health, intelligence, and sensitivity.  He was also very headstrong as events would prove.

His family being fervent Tories during the Revolutionary War convinced young William to join the cause of Britain at sixteen years of age.  But after being garrisoned in Philadelphia he found himself cooling his heels for the next several years growing ever more impatient to see action.  Hearing that a military ship was looking for volunteers for duty in Jamaica and Florida, William hastened to join.  He was commissioned as an ensign and set sail.  What happened once the crew went ashore in Florida remains unclear.  What is clear, however, is that young William deserted the ranks (he described it as resigning his commission) and made good his escape in the vicinity of Pensacola.  Think of it, dear reader, our young hero afoot in the palmetto jungle and swamplands of northern Florida; hundreds of miles from home.  He can neither return to Maryland nor go back to Pensacola.  He would surely swing either way. 

But as often seems the case in the life of the daring, the unexpected happens--a party of Creek warriors come upon him and, like many that would follow, are impressed.  So impressed by his personality and verve that rather than harm him, they take him along to their village.
Chief Tomochichi and Nephew

Within a short while he is adopted into the tribe, a tribe that holds sway over much of Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida, becomes fluent in the Muscogee language of the Creeks, and takes a wife.  Always one to live large, William also manages to wed a second lass, a Cherokee, thus uniting two peoples often at odds with one another.  Presumably, being William, he also learns the Iroquoian tongue spoken by his second bride.  Retaining considerable energies, even with two young wives in his household, he begins his first grand adventure.  Learning that the Spanish are attacking British forts along the Gulf Coast, he convinces a number of Creek warriors to join him in the defense of Pensacola.  It is certainly a measure of his remarkable character that he is able to lead braves into battle after having lived amongst them for so short a while.  In any event, the garrison is lost when a Spanish shell blows up the powder magazine and the fort along with it.  Ever a survivor, William flees into the forest with his adopted tribesmen and makes good his escape--a talent of his that would be utilized many more times during his life.

Spanish Troops Capture Pensacola--U.S. Military Museum
In a sudden reversal of fortune, the British army restores him to the rank of ensign as a reward for his service and valor at Pensacola, and William joins a regiment in New York.  Then, in a move that remains unclear, bonny William appears in the Bahamas where he whiles away the balmy days as a portraitist and comedian!  It appears his talents know no bounds, though what brings about this sudden change of career, like the move to Nassau itself, is obscure.  However, duty calls him yet again; this time in the august personage of the governor of the Bahamas, Lord Dunmore.  Having learned of his reputation among the savage races of the Americas, he dispatches William back to the Creek Nation to establish a trading post.  Returning to his, no doubt, pining wives, he swiftly sets up shop proclaiming himself Director-General of the Muscogee Nation!  Perhaps a bit overblown, but young William is never one for half-measures.  There are obstacles.

The Spanish, having taken advantage of Britain's long war with its colonies, now controls Florida and the Gulf coast, and with it the trade monopoly with the Creeks and Seminoles.  The Director-General, undaunted, meets the challenge with vigor--he declares war on Spain!  His Creek allies are somewhat divided on this issue.  They have grown comfortable with Panton, Leslie, and Company, the firm that the Spanish have commissioned as their trade emissaries.  Besides, the British are losing the American war and their defeat is imminent.  Details!  Young William decides that Panton and friends must go.

Again using his powers of persuasion, he is able to convince the more brash among the young men to support him in a strategy of intimidation and violence against his competitors.  Within a short while he has succeeded in making himself the target of His Most Catholic Majesty's ire.  In order to bolster his position, William ups the ante once more, telling the Creeks that if they would only recognize him as Chief of All the Creeks, he would see to it that the British Crown recognize them as a legitimate nation and establish an exclusive trade agreement.  The people, uneasy with Bounding Billy's vaulting ambition, grow ever more divided and fractious.  Yet, he has his supporters; the idea of a separate Indian Nation appeals to many and William's daring is infectious.  Traveling to England he makes his bold claims.  But for all his trouble and bluster, the government remains unimpressed.  There will be no treaty and no recognition of the, so-called, State of Muscogee.  He may, however, act as their sole trade representative to the natives.  Something he is already doing.  This is not what William relates to the people upon his return.

Declaring the negotiations a triumph on all fronts, the leader of the mythical State of Muscogee sets in motion the full machinery of war.  The Director-General proceeds to outfit two schooners as his navy and organize an army of four hundred Creeks warriors, frontiersmen, and former slaves as his soldiers and sailors.  In short order he begins to stock the coffers with the plundered riches and goods of Spain.  The store is now open and the British once again competitors in the contested region.  The year is 1800.
Charles IV of Spain by Goya

Branding the young upstart a pirate, Spain places a huge bounty on his head and it is not long before he is captured and transported to Spain to face justice.  As seems ever the case, the Spanish find William as irresistible as all before them and Charles IV himself(!) attempts to win him over to the Spanish cause.  Our Billy's not having it.  Whatever he may be--scoundrel, liar, pirate, con-man, adventurer--he is English, by God!  Disappointed, no doubt, the emperor has him shut away in prison.  By now you must know what happens next--he makes good another escape, commandeers a ship, probably in much the same manner as hailing a taxi, and returns to Florida. 

 But several years have gone by and William finds much changed in his absence: His rivals once more hold sway and British influence has all but vanished.  Worse yet, important leaders among the Creek peoples have closed their hearts to him, fearing both his ambitions and judgment.  Hearing of an important meeting between both Upper and Lower Creeks William decides to go all in.  Gathering his dwindling supporters around him, he crashes the party and does what Brash Billy does best, demands that he be recognized as "Chief of all Indians present"!  His enemies, knowing William as they did, are prepared for such a move and promptly take him prisoner, handing him over to the Spanish once again.  The Spanish having also taken the measure of our hero, on this occasion transport him to the infamous Moro Castle in Cuba to languish.  This time, however, there is no escape.  Whether he is mistreated, poisoned, or simply dies of neglect we shall never know, but by 1805 Dashing William is seen no more.  He is 42 at the time of his death, having spent 26 years living on the edge; his dream of an independent country for his adopted Creeks dying with him.  I hope that his two wives, at least, mourned his absence, but history remains silent on this question.  Having dared much, he lost it all in the end, and though there is much to be complained of in William Augustus Bowles' character, certainly two things can be said in his defense: He remained loyal to Britain until the end, and he certainly did not lack courage.  Loyalty and Valor do not a bad epitaph make.

The Capture Of Havana (Moro Castle)





                   





     

       

11 March 2015

Foyle's War


I've been on a Brit bender, lately. Here's another one.
FOYLE'S WAR started running in 2002, and it's still on. Like a lot of British television, they only make three or four episodes a season - but each episode has an hour and a half runtime, and has a five-week shooting schedule. For another thing, it's shot on Super 16MM, not high-def video, which is more expensive, but gives the show the feel of a feature picture, depth of field and a nice saturated color. They put the money up on-screen where you can see it.

The gimmick of the show - you want to call it that - is that it's wartime Britain, 1939-45, and superintendent Foyle (who'd rather be actively serving) is assigned to criminal cases, on the homefront. These, given the genre, are murder mysteries, but the war is always present, in the foreground or just over the horizon.

The canvas is quite broad, although the stories generally resolve themselves in the homely and familiar, the domestic disturbances of daily life. The constants, an illicit affair or an unwanted pregnancy, envy, greed, wrath, and pride, are the usual suspects, but they often involve wider anxieties: the German bombing raids, fears of an impending invasion, rationing and the black market, war profiteers, isolationists and Nazi sympathizers, spy-hunters from Special Branch, the code-breaking at Bletchley, the rescue from Dunkirk, these have all figured in the plotlines. Nor is it window-dressing. The war becomes a character.

Foyle is played by Michael Kitchen, one of those actors you sort of remember, but can't quite place the name. I first noticed him in TO PLAY THE KING, the sequel to HOUSE OF CARDS - the original, with Ian Richardson. Kitchen has a lived-in face. He makes Foyle seem approachable, but there's a weariness, something held in reserve, an inner, or even inward, person. Once in a while, the well-mannered mask slips, and the steel shows through.

An interesting director's device I noticed. They use a lot of close-ups, which is common in television, but in this case, there are often long, very tight shots of Foyle, where you see only a slight facial movement, a tug of his mouth, or his eyes downcast, and then an up-from-under glance. The visual equivalent of Columbo's near-exit line, "Oh, just one more thing - "

When you do period drama, it's more than the vintage cars, or everybody wearing hats. It's about the psychological environment, the circumstance, the way people think. I know this myself, from writing the Mickey Counihan stories, which take place in late 1940's postwar New York, and Janice Law, to take a not-so-random example, is careful in her Francis Bacon novels not to fall into anachronism, meaning her world (and Bacon's) is
pushing up against the Modern, but it hasn't quite arrived, yet. It's just around the corner. This is the background music of FOYLE'S WAR. Nobody knows for sure that Hitler's going to be beaten, or whether England will survive. They go about their business with possible calamity waiting in the wings, but they keep their wits, and their common decency. Foyle is heroic, not because he has extraordinary powers, or sees behind the curtain, but simply because he does his job, in a trying time. He rises to the occasion. This is the persistence of the everyday. Life, in its messy particulars, stumbles ahead. The war effort is one thing, just keeping your head above water is another.

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

25 November 2014

Important Thinking On British Televsion Mysteries


Being a trained observer from my police days, it has not escaped my notice that many of my fellow  SleuthSayers are fans of British television mysteries.  It helped that several of you wrote articles on this very subject--these were my first clues.  I suspect that many of SleuthSayers' readers are fans, as well.  I don't have enough evidence to make an arrest, but I think that it's a reasonable suspicion.  So, knowing that I am in good company, I am ready to confess without benefit of counsel, that I, too, enjoy these programs from the misty home of the English language.
English TV Policemen with authentic accents

I've heard, or read, several very good reasons for liking the Brit mysteries (as well as some of their other programming such as "Call The Midwives"), and I have a few of my own which I'm anxious to share.  Firstly, everybody speaks with these really great accents, though sometimes they are difficult to understand.  I have advocated subtitling, but this has not yet been enacted.  What is it about their accents, anyway?  There are dozens of "English" accents being spoken around the globe, from the U.S. to South Africa, but not one of them sound as smart as Englishers themselves.  That's just not fair.  I want to sound smart, too.  But since I can't, I like to watch the British being cultured and savvy.  Sometimes I try on an English accent at home, but Robin either studiously ignores me, refusing to respond to any of my extremely pithy observations, or tells me to stop embarrassing myself.  I feel smarter when I do this, though she says that I don't sound, or look, smarter at all.  She is of Irish descent on both sides of her family and is unreasonably hostile to the English, I think.  Things only get worse when I switch to an Irish accent.

Dreaming Spires
So, the accents are cool, but that's not the only reason I like British television.  There's also the locations.  My absolute favorite is Oxford, the setting of the Inspector Morse, and latterly, the Inspector Lewis, series.  Notice how I worked in "latterly"?  That's how they talk.  Besides being an incredibly beautiful city with its "dreaming spires" (don't ask), it also puts the lie to British weather being lousy.  It's sunny nearly every episode--and this show (in both its manifestations) has a decades-long history!  I can't understand why all the Brits want to move to Spain when they've got Oxford.  If you follow the adventures of Rosemary and Thyme, you'll find that they too walk in beauty beneath a glorious sun and flawless sky.  As soon as Robin retires, we're saddling up for some of that gorgeous English weather!  To hell with Ft. Lauderdale!


Rosemary and Thyme
But the main reason that I like British programming may surprise you.  Yes, the wonderful acting is certainly a draw, but that's not it altogether.  It has to do with the casting.  Have you ever noticed that, unlike American television, British actors are not uniformly attractive?  In fact, in many cases even the actors and actresses in the leading roles of British shows are not in the least bit glamorous.  They're allowed to look like me over there, and still work.  Inspector Robbie Lewis would never be confused for an American television detective.  He might, however, be mistaken for an actual police officer.  Neither Lewis and Hathaway, nor the inspector/sergeant duo on Midsomer Murders appear as if they run ten miles a day and spend an hour every morning in the gym.  I've never seen any of them beat anybody up, which is a daily requirement of their American TV counterparts, and very calorie-consuming.  And since they don't carry guns, they can't shoot any villains.  They actually say that, you know--villains.  As for R and T, they spend all their time investigating murders at various castles, hotels, and estates across England while doing some light gardening, and taking numerous breaks to snack and drink wine.  These Brits appear to drink a lot of wine!  I always thought they were big on warm beer, but no, it's wine for these folks, and it's always being served at things called fetes, which no American knows the meaning of; though they look a lot like parties.  They seem to be held mostly on village "greens" or in gardens.  Though, when the weather doesn't permit (which is almost never--see above) they are held in drawing rooms.  No American knows what kind of room that is either, but it doesn't matter.  This is another thing I like about English life on the telly (sorry, Robin, old girl); they do a lot of partying!  The down side is that the guys almost always have to wear a tux, though they call them something else, I think.  Anyway, it's kind of nice to see men and women who could pass for what I call "normal" populating the screen, with nary a "six-pack" ab between them. 

So there you have it, all the good reasons to watch British television.  Oh...were you thinking it was the clever writing and convoluted plots that form the centerpieces of these programs?  How the hell would I know?  I can't understand half of what they're saying.  I just like how they say it.   
                   

09 July 2014

The Leslie Howard Mystery


by David Edgerley Gates

This is about a personal enthusiasm - although I might not be the only one, if you're into older, classic movies - and it's also a little bit about eating crow.


Leslie Howard was a big star, between the wars. He made his bones as a stage actor, and then hit the big-time when he came to Hollywood. His best-known pictures are THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, PETRIFIED FOREST, and, of course, GONE WITH THE WIND. As it happens, he hated playing Ashley Wilkes. He thought he was way too old for the part, and he remarked that when they got him in costume, he looked like "that sissy doorman at the Beverly Wilshire." Which raises the following question.

I always thought Leslie Howard was kind of effeminate. He certainly camped it up in SCARLET PIMPERNEL. But it turns out, in real life, that he was a disarming charmer, who may very well have slept with most of his leading ladies. ("I don't chase women, but I couldn't always be bothered to run away.") That languid persona he developed for the movies wasn't him at all. He was in fact an earthy kind of guy.

He was also extremely loyal to his friends. The story goes that when PETRIFIED FOREST was made into a movie, from the stage play, Warners wanted Eddie Robinson for Duke Mantee - the character based on Dillinger - but Howard held out for Bogart, because they'd done the play together. Bogart runs away with the picture, and it made him an A-list star.

Howard was deeply loyal to England, as well. He described himself as a man with two homes, America, which had made his fortune, and the UK, where he was born. When the war broke out, in 1939, he went back, and he wasn't the only one. There was a big Brit colony in Hollywood, and some of the guys who could have made a bundle, sitting the war out, went home instead and applied for active service. David Niven, for one, had been to Sandhurst, and was commissioned in the Highland Light Infantry, before he got into movies, and he got his commission back. Noel Coward, who was arguably the most famous of the Brits expats at the time, volunteered for war work, and found himself seconded to the Secret Service. All three of them wound up making propaganda pictures, too. Niven did THE WAY AHEAD, Coward wrote and directed IN WHICH WE SERVE, Leslie Howard put his shoulder to the wheel with 49th PARALLEL.


Niven and Noel Coward survived the war. Leslie Howard didn't. He was on a civil aircraft, flying to Lisbon, when the plane was shot down by German fighters over the Bay of Biscay, in 1943. There's a lot of speculation about this incident. For one thing, the Luftwaffe pilots were operating well beyond their normal patrol zone. For another, did German intelligence know Howard was aboard the plane? Evidence suggests they did. A lot of the German spy nets in Britain had been rolled up or turned, but some were still active, and it wouldn't have been that hard to get the passenger list. Howard was regarded by the Germans as a very able and dangerous propagandist for the British war effort, even possibly a covert agent. But maybe he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Knowing how he died, if not exactly why, puts a different spin on things, in retrospect. Here's where I eat crow. Maybe he really was the Scarlet Pimpernel, masquerading as a hapless fop, an exaggerated stage Englishman, languid and fey. Far from it, it appears.


What changed my mind about him is 49th PARALLEL. This is one of the many collaborations between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger - the most celebrated being THE RED SHOES - but the real muscle behind it is Leslie Howard, who takes no on-screen producer credit. In brief, here's the storyline. It's 1939, and Canada, as a Commonwealth country, has entered WWII in support of Great Britain (the US, as yet, is still sitting on the fence). A roving German sub attacks Allied shipping off the east coast of Canada, and is then hunted down and sunk, but they've left behind a landing party, sent ashore to forage. The surviving U-boat crew tries to evade pursuit, and runs all the way across Canada. Little by little, their numbers are whittled away until only one of them is left.


The trick of the movie is that the fugitive German is the common thread, although he's not sympathetic, but he meets all manner of people while he's on the run, Eskimos, Hudson Bay trappers, Hutterite farmers, Indians, you name it, and it doesn't make a dent. He's a convinced Nazi, and his exposure to these other people only hardens him in his conviction. You'd think he was on a journey of redemption, but it ain't so.


The line-up of cameos is pretty amazing. Laurence Olivier, Finlay Currie, Anton Walbrook, Glynis Johns, Raymond Massie, Leslie Howard himself. They play the characters whose lives the German interrupts, and it's no stretch to imagine Howard, as unnamed executive producer, getting them on board. What - a couple of days on the shoot, and ten minutes of screen time? Olivier, bless his heart, is terrible, phony French trapper accent and all. But when, near the end, you get to the Leslie Howard scenes, it's incredible. He plays his trademark lightweight, silly and dandyish, a sheep to be sheared, and then he suddenly turns into an Old Testament revenge figure, iron in his bones. 

So who was he, really? A shape-shifter. A guy who worked at his trade, enjoyed it enormously, and made good money at it. He once remarked that an actor can't conceal himself. He did a fair job of it, though. The mystery of Leslie Howard isn't in his self-deprecating appeal, but in what he didn't often show. The naked steel.

18 November 2013

Pigs, Horses & Bulls


Back on October 8, 2013, Dale Andrews shared some British phrases, what they mean to the English, and the very different way that listeners sometimes interpret them.  More recently, Dixon Hill wrote about speaking in languages other than American English.
Dale and Dixon set me to thinking about differences in meaning and understanding of expressions right here in the USA.

SleuthSayer readers and writers are spread far and wide.  I was born fewer than thirty miles from where I live now in South Carolina, and today I want to have a few words with you about the language of Southernese.

Anyone who's ever attended a little country church in the South knows that regional preachers often introduce their sermons with an anecdote or joke.  Don't get worried.  I don't preach, but I do want to share a quick story about Southernese with you.



                That's Nice

Two elderly southern ladies are sitting on the front porch rocking.  The first one looks at the second one and says, "See this beautiful silk dress I'm wearing.  My husband bought it for me to show how much he loves me."

Second lady says, "That's nice," and keeps rocking.

First lady holds up her hand in front of the other lady's face and says, "See this gorgeous diamond ring. My husband bought it for me to show how much he loves me."

Second lady says, "That's nice," and keeps rocking.

First lady points to her shoes.  "See these expensive shoes I'm wearing.  My husband bought them for me to show how much he loves me."

Second lady says, "That's nice," and keeps rocking.

First lady says, "And what did your husband do for you to show how much he loves you?"

Second lady says, "He sent me to a fancy finishing school in Virginia so they could teach me to be a southern lady."

First lady says, "And what did you learn?"

The reply:  "They taught me to say, 'That's nice,' instead of 
'bulls_ _t.'"


Bless Your Heart

Right in line with "That's nice" is "Bless your heart," which some people think is a sweet statement that southerners say all the time. They don't understand that it actually has nothing to do with religion or blessings or being sweet.  It's a passive-aggressive way of calling the other person an idiot and frequently follows a negative comment.

Living in High Cotton

Cotton was a key crop in the South for many years.  The most successful harvest came from tall bushes loaded with fluffy white balls because the taller the bush, the greater the returns and the easier it is to pick.  "Living in high cotton" indicates a person is doing well--successful and wealthy. 

Rode Hard and Put Up Wet

"That gal looks like she's been rode hard and put up wet."
Don't think this is a sexual innuendo; it's not.  It means a person looks like they may have had too much to drink or stayed up too long the night before.  It's based on horse grooming. If a horse runs fast, it works up a sweat, especially under the saddle. After running, a horse should be walked around to dry off before going back to the stable.  If this isn't done, the horse will look sick, tired, and worn out, which is rode hard and put up wet.


Madder Than a Wet Hen

Someone who looks madder than a wet hen is being compared to a female chicken who gets irritated at the farmer when eggs are gathered because she wants to sit on them and hatch biddies.  This is called "broodiness," and the cure is to dunk the hen in cold water.  Does a hormonal hen who has had a cold water bath sound like anyone you know?

Happy as a Dead Pig in the Sunshine




I confess that this one isn't as popular as the other examples, but it brings up thoughts of Patricia Cornwell's The Body Farm. I need to connect this column to mystery and/or writing, so I'll share it. Pigs that die outside in the sty, become dried out by the sun. The skin pulls back around the lips giving the dead pig a grin. Hence, a dead pig in the sunshine looks happy.

One More

"That's about as useful as boobs on a bull."

If I have to explain that one, there's no hope for you to learn to speak Southernese.


Until we meet again, take care of . . .you!