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Fortissimo

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the strange world of Forteana, suggesting that it was the sort of thing that would probably appeal to me. She was right in this belief – in fact, I’d come across the work of Mr Charles Fort before. I’d often passed the house in Bloomsbury where he lived in the 1920s while studying at the British Library (it’s on Marchmont Street, marked with a silver plaque, if you’re interested). I’d looked into the work of this fellow, and discovered that, unconsciously, I was already familiar with it.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by weirdness – ghosts, alien abductions, monsters in lakes, the lot. Believed in most of it, too. It was only when I got a bit older, developed the ability to think critically and learnt the difference between “true” and “things you really want to be true” that I developed that healthy level of scepticism that has prevented me from, e.g., giving heinous amounts of money to a homeopath every time I get the sniffles.

Charles H Fort is legendary in the circles that take an interest in strange phenomena – in fact, he more-or-less invented the concept of paranormal studies (or Forteana, as such studies are often called in tribute to the man). It may come as little surprise to sceptics among you to learn that he was not a scientist himself – in fact, he was a writer by profession. As anyone who’s read Dianetics can tell you, few things are more irritating than a writer who acts like he has scientific expertise without any actual academic study.

However, he did read widely. From a young age he took a great deal of interest in science. Like Yr. Humble Chronicler, he would appear to have been a science groupie rather than an actual scientist. He was born in New York in 1874 and, from a fairly young age, showed an independent streak (which I think is a polite way of saying “obstinate little bugger”).

His interest in science, combined with his rebellious tendencies,logically led him to take an interest in anomalies that science couldn’t explain. Anything weird and paranormal seems to have entered this field of interest, from spontaneous human combustion to rains of fish to UFOs. The only thing uniting his collection of oddities was the fact that science did not have a definitive explanation for them.

This, disciples of Fort are keen to emphasise, was the point of his work – that science does not have all the answers, and we shouldn’t mindlessly accept the opinion of the scientific establishment. This, I think, is a very fair point. After all, some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history have come from going against what is generally accepted as truth. It used to be accepted that the sun revolved around the earth and that ants have eight legs, but now we know better. Similarly, what we now consider to be a scientific truth may tomorrow be equally discredited.

Unfortunately, it’s here that Fort’s lack of a scientific background makes itself evident. The trouble is that, for all his impish mischief, Fort’s assembly of strange phenomena doesn’t really say anything to the scientific establishment that the scientific establishment doesn’t already know. No legitimate scientist would claim to have absolutely all the answers. Even theories that are pretty well established are constantly being refined and modified as new evidence comes in – consider the effect that the discovery of DNA had on studies of evolution, for instance.

In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the time, it’s the Forteans themselves who more closely fulfil the stereotype of the stubborn and short-sighted student of science. There is a tendency among believers in paranormal phenomena to say “If not X then Y,”  e.g. “If those lights in the sky are not any of these things, they must be alien spacecraft!” That is to say, they have no evidence specifically for their conclusions and don’t admit to the possibility that there may be yet another explanation that hasn’t been considered. This, to me, is just as narrow-minded as outright denying the existence of flying saucers, sea serpents, the Duck Beast of Wincanton &c, &c.

One wonders how seriously Fort himself intended his theories to be taken. His sources were often very dubious, he seems to have simply taken every record of weirdness at face value with no discrimination between scientific studies and anecdotal evidence. Some of his followers view him as a genius shining a light on the falsehoods of the scientific establishment, others view him as a Swiftian satirist out to troll everyone. Perhaps the final word on the matter should come from the man himself.

My own notion is that it is very unsportsmanlike to ever mention fraud. Accept everything. Then explain it your own way.

Make of that what you will.

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Fully Booked

Right, chums, I think I’ve finally got the last of my Christmas shopping done. Hmm, that’s odd, I seem to recall having more money than that. Oh well.

I realise that many people here are not so fortunate – indeed, I myself have only got mine complete now as a result of a short-term change in my working hours. I feel I ought to do something to help. Here, therefore, are six of my favourite specialist bookshops for those obscure volumes that you can’t find anywhere else that make awesome presents if you know people of a literary bent and that.

I’m going to steer clear of second-hand and bargain bookshops, and also chains. So much as I’d love to, I can’t talk about Forbidden Planet or The Lamb, although both are excellent in their own way. I am also steering clear of those bookshops attached to museums, though these too are fine places for that specialist tome (The Cartoon Museum and the London Transport Museum both have excellent selections on their respective subjects) for the simple reason that they’d likely end up dominating the list. But do bear them in mind.

Anyway, without further ado…

1. Gosh! Comics

Specialises in: Graphic novels

Where is it? 39 Great Russell Street, WC1B

Nearest Tube: Tottenham Court Road or Holborn

There’s no shortage of comics shops in London, but to my mind Gosh! is the best. Comic shops have a tendency to be slightly grotty and a little intimidating to the novice. Gosh! is far more user-friendly, with less emphasis on mouldering racks of old Marvels and more on indie graphic novels, the kind of hip things that get reviewed in The Guardian. There’s also a superb selection of classic illustrated children’s books if you want something for the kids. An occasional treat for comic geeks like me is the signings they had – Hurricane Jack and I were once privileged to attend a signing by the great and hirstute Alan Moore. He’s really very friendly in real life.

http://www.goshlondon.com/

2. Motor Books

Specialises in: Car and other transport books

Where is it? 13-15 Cecil Court, WC2N

Nearest Tube: Leicester Square

Motor Books describes itself as “the world’s oldest motoring bookshop,” and it’s situated on the eminently bumble-able street of Cecil Court. It has a fantastic selection of books on all transport subjects, but as the name suggests, particularly specialises in those related to automobilia, arranged by category and marque. I’m no petrol-head, but even I was able to almost instantly find one of the books I was searching for. The staff are marvellous, and were able to pinpoint the second book right away. Given that both titles were fairly obscure, I must say I was most impressed.

http://www.motorbooks.co.uk/

3. Persephone

Specialises in: Obscure 20th century books by female novelists

Where is it? 59 Lambs Conduit Street

Nearest Tube: Russell Square or Holborn

Persephone is both bookshop and small-press publisher, publishing mainly female-authored books of the twentieth century that have been allowed to go out of print. Famed authors in their day now unjustly forgotten, lesser-known works by well-known writers and even cookbooks and diaries from bygone eras, all are liable to appear in the distinctive grey covers of Persephone. The bookshop has a real intimacy about it, and not just because it’s small. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and ready to provide advice (Yr. Humble Chronicler being less than familiar with between-the-wars women’s fiction). There’s a regular newsletter, too, and you get the feeling that Persephone is the sort of place that likes to nurture a regular customer base. Which is super.

http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/index.asp

4. Housman’s

Specialises in: Radical literature

Where is it? 5 Caledonian Road, King’s Cross

Nearest Tube: King’s Cross St Pancras

I suspect this is a shop whose time has definitely come, what with the Coalition working hard to piss everyone off simultaneously. Therefore, you may find this place just the ticket if you’re looking for an alternative. Opened in 1945 as an offshoot of the pacifist movement, it offers a massive selection of political literature, including books, pamphlets and zines. However, if you’re not a very political person, but you are a regular on this blog, you may also wish to examine their massive wall of London-based books. Up the workers, and so forth.

http://www.housmans.com/index.php

5. Gay’s The Word

Specialises in: LGBT books

Where is it? 66 Marchmont Street

Nearest Tube: Russell Square

Gay’s The Word proudly advertises itself as the only specialist gay and lesbian bookshop in London, and its selection is very impressive indeed – they cover the whole spectrum from light-hearted fiction to in-depth political tomes, not to mention a fine range of cards and magazines on queer topics. I was rather taken by Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, as well as a couple of books on the history of gay London. Recommended to anyone with an interest in gender politics, regardless of orientation.

http://freespace.virgin.net/gays.theword/

6. The School of Life

Specialising in: Philosophy, life improvement, self-help… I’ll get back to you on that one.

Where is it? 70 Marchmont Street

Nearest Tube: Russell Square

The School of Life was founded by Alain de Botton. Not strictly a bookshop, it nevertheless does sell an excellent range of books on topics that are related to improving your life. How to enjoy work, how to be ethical, how to take advantage of the simple pleasures of life, how to make relationships work, how to be happy – anything relating to life that’s not easily categorised. The chances are that you’ll find three or four different books you’ll want yourself, along with a bunch for your friends. Bring money, is what I’m saying.

http://www.theschooloflife.com/

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Bona blog

Very near where I work is a house that was once inhabited by the late, great Kenneth Williams. It’s on Marchmont Street, if you’re interested. Just a couple of doors down from Charles Fort’s old place. Stop in at the School of Life if you’ve got time.

Kenneth Williams is, undoubtedly, most famous for his appearance in the Carry On films. From his point of view, this is probably ironic, as he always wanted to be a serious actor. Unfortunately, he happened to be very good at OTT comedy, which doesn’t exactly suggest “subtlety” to casting directors. And given the choice between Art and paying the rent, most actors will go with paying the rent. When Yr. Humble Chronicler was treading the boards back in the day, his fellow actors would glory in arthouse film and prestigious stage productions, but what they really wanted was a long-term soap.

For all Williams’ comic persona paid the rent, it didn’t pay it too well – the Carry On films paid very poorly. Fellow star Sid James would supplement his income with product placement on the sly. Producer Peter Rogers considered Williams very good value for money, as the films were very profitable and cost peanuts to make. For all that, Williams never openly hated the series, and indeed, appeared in more of them than any other actor. Carry On Screaming was my favourite, for the record.

"Frying tonight!"

Before the Carry Ons, Williams’ distinctive style actually managed to lose him the gig for which he had hitherto been best known, as a regular in Hancock’s Half Hour. He would play various supporting characters whom Tony Hancock would encounter in the course of his adventures (much as the same handful of characters may appear in several different roles in The Simpsons, say). Sadly, Hancock, like Williams, believed that silly comedy was a bit beneath him. In a drive for more highbrow humour, he eliminated anything he considered unrealistic – and that included Williams’ smarmy characters.

While the Carry On films were taking off in the 1960s, though, Williams appeared in what might have been his best work (in my not-at-all-humble opinion, at least). I speak of Beyond Our Ken and, better yet, Round the Horne. These were innuendo-laden sketch shows starring Ken Horne. Horne would play the straight-man role while Williams, along with Hugh Paddick, Bill Pertwee, Douglas Smith and Betty Marsden, would play an array of bizarre characters he would meet along his way.

The best-remembered of these were undoubtedly Julian and Sandy, a couple of characters played by Paddick and Williams. A typical sketch would involve Horne requiring a service of some sort and entering a Chelsea business, only to find that it was staffed by the screamingly camp Julian and Sandy. Basically, the whole thing was an excuse for lots and lots of gay innuendo. For instance, there was the time when Horne discovered that the pair had started a political party (“Shake hands with yer prospective member!”), the occasion when he required legal services (“We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time.”) or when he tried to get a book published (“Trade’s been a bit rough lately…”)

What’s quite astonishing is how much they get away with. Bear in mind this was the BBC, Auntie Beeb, one of the Moral Guardians of the Nation. Yet here were two actors (both of whom were openly gay) basically making lots and lots of jokes about sexing up other men. Granted, it’s never openly spoken of, but even so, you have to wonder how they got it past the censors.

Julian and Sandy’s other great legacy was the popularisation of Polari. Polari was a form of slang dialect made up of elements of criminal cant, cockney rhyming slang, backslang, Romany and tinker dialect and bastardised Italian (the name means, in pseudo-Italian, “talk”). It was commonly used as gay slang, enabling homosexuals to talk openly without anyone having a damn clue what they were on about. It also served as a sort of cultural signifier. A few words of the argot have become more widely known, e.g. “naff,” “troll” (as in “to troll around,” a possible origin for the Internet slang term), “zhoozh,” “bevvy,” “bimbo,” “drag” (as in clothing), “bijou.” Julian and Sandy would pepper their dialogue with bits of Polari as appropriate, in one sketch translating Shakespeare’s “Seven ages of Man” speech into the dialect.

Not everyone welcomed the attention Paddick and Williams brought to the cant, and there are plenty who believe they were directly responsible for Polari’s decline, which coincided with the era when Round the Horne was broadcast. After all, with these characters using it every week on national radio, how could it be used to keep secrets?

If I might offer an alternative theory, the decline of Polari also coincided with the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain. Even before legalisation, it was perfectly possible to be openly gay, just so long as you didn’t get caught. It’s true that in the 1950s there was a wave of arrests, but the police themselves seemed to largely view it as a bit of a waste of time (one somewhat miserably described spending so much time in public lavatories that his cigarettes tasted of bleach). When homosexuality became broadly legal in 1967, in the middle of Round the Horne’s run, there was no real need for any kind of secret language.

Like Polari, though, Julian and Sandy were very much of their time. The idea that you could build a series of sketches around a couple of men going on about the fact that they were gay while reciting gay slang in shrill, effeminate voices would, I think, be loudly shouted down today. Not out of intolerance, you understand, but quite the opposite. As a straight, white, middle-class male I never know what the line is between spreading offensive stereotypes and reclaiming offensive stereotypes. Oh well, I’m off to oppress some minorities.

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