Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Jazz Age in Londontown

In 1920, the British Empire covered a fifth of the world's surface and contained 400 to 500 million people.  London was, in point of fact, the capital of the world.  Of course there was also a world of trouble brewing: Ireland and India -just for example- were dangerously restive. But if you were young and British in the 1920s - and rich if possible - there was certainly a lot of fun to be had and trouble must have seemed very far away indeed.  London was the biggest city in the world in 1928, and if you couldn't find it in London you couldn't find it anywhere.  

In Up, Back, and Away,  Miles' trip to the capitol is not for fun but for work - he has to find Ada.  And in his search he has to contend with the dark side of Brightest London.  Still, even under the weight of danger and anxiety, he is beguiled by London.  Miles arrives in the capital via the Old Euston station - a fabulous place which was famously torn down in one of the worst city planning decisions of the 1960s.  Here are a few images of  the old (lost) Euston Station:

They tore it down in 1961 and here's what we have today.  Pure vandalism.

Of course Miles a music fan and London was full of great music.

 I enjoyed all the research I did for Up, Back, and Away, but learning about the music and the venues where one could hear it - and dance to it - was the most fun.  The video clip at the top this post records a bit of the spirit of London's nightclubs in the 1920s.  The Music Halls were past their very greatest days, having to compete with cinema, the gramophone and the radio (and those night clubs), but they were still entertaining masses of people. Miles search takes him into the beautiful (fictitious) Diamond's London Pavilion in Leicester Square where he gets to see a variety show that impresses him with the quality of the entertainment and the enthusiasm of the audience.  Ada sings a song there, a song she sang for Miles back at Quarter Sessions, that was already a nostalgia number in 1928.  Here's a nice 1910 recording of that famous song, "Rings on My Fingers," which was a hit in 1909 for Blanche Ring and Ada Jones.  (Ada Ardilaun's mother was so fond of it she named her daughter after Ada Jones).  

The styles and fashions and the music of the 1920s continue to inspire.  (For those with an appetite for even more archival footage, here's a link to a great old documentary about a teenaged flapper in 1920s Britain).

Some of my interest in the 1920s was generated by the work of a wonderfully talented artist and sometime writer, Gladys Peto.  She illustrated all kinds of children's books, a handful of travel books and advertisements galore, including a series of images for Ovaltine, Allenbury's infant food and Erasmic soap.  

Another blogger with a similar interest connected with me some years ago and she has a great website devoted to Peto's works. (Have a look if you like the ad - there's a treasure trove there).  

The internet is giving anyone with an interest great scope to explore the cultural world of the 1920s.  Lots of the artistic productions of the day are falling out of copyright and into the public domain.  (Mickey Mouse famously made his first appearance in 1928 and the US copyright laws have been re-jiggered a couple of times to keep him under Disney copyright) but lots of material is still available for us all to share now.  I'll leave you with a link to a song from a popular musical that I discovered while researching for Up, Back, and Away.  I really liked Mercenary Mary. What do you think? Maybe it's time for a revival?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Little About World War One

A German prisoner helps British wounded make their way to a dressing station near Bernafay Wood following fighting on Bazentin Ridge, 19 July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. (from the Imperial War Museum collection)

I suppose it's foolish to try to say "a little" about the first World War.  It was the greatest man-made calamity in human history at the time - 15 million deaths, 20 million wounded.

I remember a lecture I attended (long ago!) on my first day as a student at McGill University in which a particularly daunting English professor announced, with perfect authority, that the 20th century began with World War I.  I was confused by this at the time since I knew that the War hadn't started until 1914 (ending in 1918) but I understand now what he meant.  The Great War, as it was known until the next world war was placed by its side in the horror scale, swept away an entire world - especially in England.  I have heard it said that World War I did  to England what the American Civil War did to the American south, namely blasted away an entire way of life. Gone with the wind was the Edwardian world of cricket on the green, vicars riding bicycles with straw hats and butterfly nets etc.  We know what came next.

At Quarter Sessions, of course, the War killed all hope of a future that could resemble its past as both Fisher sons were killed.  Critically for Up, Back, and Away, the War killed Taffy Davies and set into motion the events that would eventually compel Miles in 2012 to leave his comfortable home in Texas for England in 1928.

The England of that time, the one that Miles comes to know, is still reeling from the effects of the War.  Miles' new English friends, the Peppermores, have had their lives wracked by the loss of Mr. Peppermore during the War.  In fact, everybody in England in 1928 who had lived through the War would have a story of the War and its impact upon his or her life.  It was a War fought by every layer of society, unlike most of the wars that have followed, and it wiped out the sons of the aristocracy as thoroughly as it did the working men.  The casualties, the maimed and the halt and the otherwise impaired, created a huge new burden on society after the War ended.  There was no National Health Service then - remember the 20th Century was still  being dragged into being - and the old-fashioned hospitals and medicine were inadequate to the task of caring for wounded and damaged veterans. Here's a poster from my own little art collection which was made in 1926 in connection with a fundraising effort to improve the situation.

 Up, Back, and Away's Dr. Slade was terribly burned while carrying out his duties as a medic near the end of the War.  In 1928, when Miles gets to know him, the Doctor is just coming to grips with his disfigurement and also beginning to understand that the lack of marriageable men actually means he is something of a hot property, despite his scars.

It's interesting to note that the population of Great Britain and Ireland before the War in 1911 was about 45 million and in 1921, it was 42 million. (No one should have to do math when they are reading one of my blog posts so the point is that the population actually fell by three million people during that time). When a broad swath of young men is mowed down in their prime, the results are long lasting... How should we calculate the dead of World War I when you also consider how many people never got born in the first place?  Miss Everett, the headmistress of St. Hild's is an example of a woman who is making a life without a husband as many women did in the wake of the War.

I have always preferred to get my history in the form of literature, which allows me to get a feeling for events along with some of the facts. As a result, most of what I know about the War and its aftermath I learned by reading novels and poems.  My favorite books on the topic were written by the great Siegfried Sassoon.  His "Sherston Trilogy" of novels, which follows the arc of the life of  young George Sherston from his peaceful pre-War life through the War and beyond, was a great influence on me.  I recommend it, especially the first book, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (first published in 1928, incidentally).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Vintage English Bicycles!

They make my heart flutter.  Maybe it's because when I was a kid, my mother's 1975 green Raleigh Sport was the "good" bike that we weren't supposed to ride? (We did anyway which may be why it didn't survive).  Miles' bike/time machine is of a considerably earlier vintage.  He has a 1914 Gentleman's Royal Sunbeam that he has, indirectly, inherited from Taffy Davies.  Fortunately for me, a very generous blogger with a deep love of these bikes thoroughly documented the bike I imagined for Taffy, his son Morgan and eventually for Miles.  A period ad from the website (with a few of my own modifications) appears above (thanks to Oldbike.Eu). Click through to have a look at more pictures of the bike that carried Professor Davies from the England of 1918 to Vermont in 1958 and then took Miles back.

You can also find out everything you have ever wanted to know about the beautiful Chater-Lea tandem bicycle that Dr. Slade ordered for Susannah Peppermore - before he got cold feet.  Here's another OldBike ad showing the Chater-Lea.

I have my own a small collection of old English bicylces.  I have had a couple brought back to life and have endowed my daughter with two of those.  When my son gets bigger, I have a Gent's Humber from the 1950s for him.  (Whether he wants it or not - see below).  I have a couple of others that I love to hang from the rafters of the house I imagine I will build someday.  They are art as far as I am concerned.

Here are some pictures of my little bike collection.  Any one of them might be found in stock at the Britannic Wheelman in Austin (if there were such a place - it's fictional but I think it's a great idea!)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Let's Start At the Very Beginning

Because it's a very good place to start.

Up, Back, and Away opens with Miles staring down a ski trail on Ashburton Mountain which is located in far northern Vermont.

In case you were wondering, Ashburton Mountain is fictional - but it is based on a real Vermont mountain, quite close to the Canadian border. (If you know anything about Vermont's ski resorts - or about me - you can probably figure out without too much trouble what mountain I had in mind. It's pretty much my favorite place in the world. We'll save its true identity for another day).

Of course, holy mountains have always been a feature of the human story and Miles is following in the footsteps of the world's great mystical seekers in his own small way when he goes up Ashburton at the command of the mysterious Gypsy.

The Bible is full of stories of people being told to go to this place, do this thing, wait for this man, find this rock etc. I was also inspired in that opening scene by a thousand myths and fairy tales where the rules are laid down very specifically and must be followed if the promised magic is to happen. Like the mysterious witch who tells the soldier in "The Tinder Box" to set down her apron before the three strange dogs guarding the treasure chests filled with copper, silver and gold in order to pacify them. Or in Spirited Away, the great film by Hayao Miyazaki, where the heroine is told by her magician guide not to breathe as she passes over a certain bridge or else her spell of invisibility will be broken. There are a thousand such examples. Rules matter in fairy stories and Up, Back, and Away is, at least partly, a fairy story.

But back to Ashburton Mountain. I chose the name "Ashburton" because it features in an important, if dusty, corner of American and English history. In 1842, the United States entered into a treaty to settle boundary issues between the United States and the "Possessions of Her Britannic Majesty in North America" (a/k/a "Canada"). The treaty was signed by United States Secretary of State Daniel Webster and British diplomat Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton. It is, not surprisingly, known as the Webster-Ashburton treaty.

This is what the U.S./Canadian border looks like for mile upon mile...

Our family owns an old farm in Vermont that crosses over the border and includes some 20 acres of land in Canada. If it weren't for Webster-Ashburton, our old farmhouse would likely be located in Canada! The United States famously built a fort on Lake Champlain in Canadian territory 1816 because of a surveying error. It was known as Fort Blunder and you can see it plainly today when you drive across the bridge to Rouses Point, New York.

From the top of Ashburton Mountain, you could see well into the Province of Quebec. Of course Miles only goes three quarters of the way up the Mountain in his search for the Birch Gate and he has no particular interest in how the Mountain got its name, but I do and I thought you might be interested as well.