This Week’s Page Turners

London

I haven’t caught up with any graphic novels for a while, so I tried Albert Monteys and Ryan North’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse 5’. It was never a favourite novel of mine, an uneasy and peculiar mix of satire, war memoir, farce and science fiction, but this is a superbly realised project that captures the freewheeling strangeness of the original and actually improves it in places. The art is appealing and the script never puts a foot wrong.

I’m a fan of certain 1940s noir films but found the much-lauded ‘The Fade Out’ to be all fur coat and no knickers, I’m afraid. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ take on old Hollywood studio corruption is sumptuous and at times dazzling, especially in its atmospheric recreation of Los Angeles architecture and its scuzzy nightlife, but the characters are hard to care about and the mystery is unsatisfying, turning the final fade out into a fizzle. Why do writers get so seduced by Hollywood noir? Was it ever satisfying again after ‘Sunset Boulevard’? At least it all looks beautiful.

‘National Treasures’ by Caroline Shenton is about saving Britain’s art treasures in wartime. There had been a plan in place for nearly two decades before war broke out. Museums, galleries and galleries had come together to protect the nation’s most valuable artefacts, but covertly moving them to places of safety tested the mettle of everyone involved.

The Domesday Book had been hidden in Somerset and other priceless pieces had to be tucked away in country houses, mines and underground tunnels. Getting them there and keeping them from being bombed was the job of ordinary men and women working in the arts at an extraordinary time. Ms Shenton has uncovered some delightful untold human stories. I shall be repeating the packing crate story for months.

I’ve talked about ‘The Bloodless Boy’ here before. Robert J Lloyd is a fine, erudite storyteller, and his use of the real-life Robert Hooke as an investigator is inspired. Its setting in 1678, swooping about in a London overrun with assassins, plots and Catholic suspicions, is superbly realised, and there’s a sequel not far behind.

The world’s greatest architects took commissions but what did they really want to build? According to Philip Wilkinson’s ‘Phantom Architecture’, if left to themselves they came up with crystalline skyscrapers, robotic walking cities, pleasure pavilions, horizontal homes in the sky, supersized glass streets and the infamous Watkins Tower.

The need to construct on a massive scale seems common to most of these dreams – a spherical cenotaph bigger than the pyramids! Most super-tall buildings failed because of structural problems caused by wind load. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Illinois tower was planned to be a mile high but was doomed for a variety of factors. How would the enormous number of people using such buildings get there? How would they live? Today the Shard looks like a dumpy version of the Illinois, so we’ve a long way still to go.

 

 

28 comments on “This Week’s Page Turners”

  1. Jan says:

    Apparently Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke weren’t exactly best of buddies. Detested each other.

    I think Newton blocked or tried to block Hooke’s entry to the Royal Society. Feuding went on for years. Newton was the one history remembers – thanks to the apple probably, but Hooke was no slouch and although more an applied scientist his work on telescopes and microscopy made a profound difference to scientific developments. Funny isn’t it? That rivalries, disputes, jockeying for position it’s everywhere. No matter how fine the minds are people can be weird.
    Being a genius doesn’t seem to stop anyone also being daft

  2. Ian Luck says:

    There’s also the curious affair of nobody actually knowing what Hooke looked like – he had but one portrait painted in his lifetime, and that ‘went missing’ after his death. It is suggested that Newton (a certified genius, who invented the cat flap) being of a rather vindictive frame of mind, had a lot to do with the loss of the portrait, to attempt to, if you will, ‘Stalin’ Hooke out of history.
    A few years ago, the revamped ‘Cosmos’ TV show, presented by the great Neil deGrasse Tyson, had a whole episode devoted to Hooke and Newton. Animations showed Hooke in shadow or from behind, which made him rather sinister, unfortunately.
    Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren had a small laboratory underneath the Monument in London, the tube of which they were hoping to use as a huge telescope. This didn’t work, but the lab is still there, and can be visited occasionally.

  3. Roger Allen says:

    I’ve probably recommended it before, but if you like 1940s noir Martin Roiwson’s transformation of “The Waste Land” into a graphic novel is a great improvement on the original.
    Hooke is often quoted as the man who invented the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Robert Merton wrote a fascinating history of it going back a long way further. Hooke and Newton were both unpleasant personalities: in Newton’s case it’s thought the mercury he used in alchemical experiments was to blame – could the same be true of Hooke? He certainly went in for large-scale self-medication. which isn’t a good idea.
    The Louvre was in even more danger than the National Gallery – there’s two fine films, “The Man Who Saved the Louvre” a documentary and “Francofonia”, a curious meditation and spy story showing how its director, Jaujard and Metternich, the German art expert supposed to supervise its looting, saved its works between them. One of Humphrey Jennings; wartime short films shows a lunchtime concert by Myra Hess in the empty National Gallery.

  4. davem says:

    National Treasures and The Bloodless Boy now on order – thanks Chris

  5. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Thanks for “National Treasures”. Am reading “The Bloodless Boy” which my locally owned bookseller here in Santa Rosa, CA had on the shelf. It is a great story and has sent me to Google more than once to look something up.

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    The only graphic novel I’ve read to date was the wildly imaginative ‘The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer’ by Sydney Padua (Penguin/2016). A well-informed, annotated historical portrait of two eccentric Victorian geniuses — mathematician Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, whose writings are considered the first attempt at general computing theory and Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, an enormous clockwork calculating machine that would have been the first computer, had ever finished it.

    And, in parallel, a delightful ‘steampunk’ imagining of what might have happened if the steam-driven analytical engine in all its brass cogs and gears glory had actually been built — allowing Lovelace and Babbage to solve crimes, redesign an economy, and parse written language. Add to this, interactions with the likes of Queen Victoria herself, Charles Dickens and ‘Lewis Carroll,’ previously unpublished drawings of Babbage’s creation (and ray guns) along with copious footnotes and you have a fascinating mélange of beautifully drawn and realized fact and fiction.

  7. Peter+T says:

    The Newton-Hooke rivalry and antipathy was at the beginning of modern science and has been repeated ever since, especially when there’s a mix of experimentalist, thinker and mathematician around together. Most often the one who writes an equation and shouts sufficiently loudly about it is the most remembered. In their case, Newton produced a load of equations and so we know him well.

    Graphic novels: somehow the French ones, bande dessinée, seem more exciting than ours. Strangely, the characters are often British. Italian ones are good as well.

  8. Martin Tolley says:

    Caroline Shention is/was an archivist at the Houses of Parliament. Back in 2013 she published “The Day Parliament Burned Down” (it was 1834). That too is a fascinating read based around a little-told story; lots of inspirational and fascinating nuggets of information in there too.

  9. Jan says:

    I’ve been in that boxed lab beneath the monument Ian. Interesting site. Very damp foundations though the Monument’s foundations must be quite close to the Walbrook or the Fleet.

    Atop of the monument is a golden coloured metal “vase” with flames coming out of it. (As the structure is there to mark the Great Fire ) The flames are there instead of flowers!
    This whole “vase” on its base hinges back and in that way the viewing tube part of the telescope is exposed. It never really worked that well the telescope too much light interrupted viewing from the City. Which is why the Royal observatory ended up over @ Greenwich. Funnily enough there’s an old “well” telescope there at Greenwich that’s not often talked about. That must have been very weird, and claustrophobic thing to operate.

    I had read that about the missing portrait of Hooke but didn’t know that was the only likeness of the man. There’s maybe elements of the arguments that would develop in following centuries around applied v ‘pure’ science in this dispute but it’s more than that. Surely it was a right old clash of personalities /egos.

    Dunno if I’ve misunderstood what you’ve written Roger but is it right someone’s created a graphic novel out of TS Eliot’s “Wasteland”? Or have I really got the wrong end of the stick? I can’t quite imagine how that would work. (There would be scope for a good few pictures thats for sure.)
    It’s such a strange idea but virtually anything would be an improvement on the Eliot job which can hardly even claim to be original in a sense. A tapestry version would likely be an impovement! The Wasteland is sort of like a poetry version of painting by numbers or “sampling” songs without music!

  10. Roger Allen says:

    There was an earlier Royal Observatory in the Old Deer Park in Richmond. If it hadn’t been moved, we’d have the Richmond Meridian instead of the Greenwich Meridian. Until Henry VIII decided he didn’t like the name and adopted the name of his Yorkshire base it was West Sheen (that’s why you can’t fond it on a map). The West Sheen Meridian lacks a certain something, so it’s just as well we missed it.

    It’s The Waste Land, Jan – two words – and Rowson’s book is a noir crime quest into it.

  11. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin ‘Why do writers get so seduced by Hollywood noir ?’ Probably because the combination of the Hollywood glamour of the ’30s and its attendant sleaze and corruption is an easy target. The well-established milieu or backdrop is ready for the taking, perhaps permitting a greater focus on character development.

  12. Stu-I-Am says:

    In terms of ‘National Treasures’ — Art pillaging was not unique to the Nazis, who were perhaps the most ravenous . The French did their fair share, principally based on Gallic logic that France was the best place for the masterpieces looted by representatives of the French Revolutionary National Convention.And when Napoleon was put in charge of the Army of Italy he carried on the expropriation, invoking the ‘aims of the Enlightenment,’ and bringing back to Paris enough art — 600 paintings and sculptures — to fill what would become the Louvre. Of course, (polite clearing of throat) — the Rosetta Stone, Benin Bronzes, Elgin Marbles, Gweagal shield and the Moai head statue, among other artefacts, represent the same tradition.

  13. Paul C says:

    Lisa Jardine’s biography of Hooke is superb and Gleick’s short biography of Isaac Newton is a really brilliant book even for science dunces like me. .

    Have ordered National Treasures which looks great.

    The best graphic novel I’ve read is From Hell by Alan Moore about Jack the Ripper and the psychogeography of London. A very graphic graphic novel. Strongly recommended.

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    If you’re looking for a harrowing page turner that would make a terrific graphic novel (although its word images are graphic enough as they are), I suggest the source of the forthcoming  Guillermo del Toro neo-noir film, ‘Nightmare Alley,’ which CF mentions on Twitter. An earlier 1947 version starred Tyrone Power. The 1946 same-titled book by William Lindsay Gresham.was recently reissued. And speaking about del Toro, now that ‘Nightmare Alley’ is in the can (or in the cloud or Digital Cinema Package, these days) I think it’s time he returned to fantasy or the supernatural and revisit making ‘Spanky.’

  15. Andre says:

    Robert J Lloyd’s second book about Robert Hooke and Harry Hunt is called “”The Clockwork Assassins” and it is available. Mr Lloyd was on this blog sometime back and dropped a hint about book three. So if Mr Lloyd is watching, could you drop us a title?

  16. Rob says:

    Thanks for including me and The Bloodless Boy again on your blog, Mr. Fowler! You’ve championed the book in various places now, and as you know are largely responsible for it being noticed by Melville House. I’d like to thank you,, again, and of course my agent.
    Roger, if I can be slightly pedantic – I’m in that kind of mood – the phrase ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ dates back a very long way, but was used by Isaac Newton in a letter to Hooke in 1675.
    Andre, the second book has been renamed. It’s now The Poison Machine (which suits it far better) and is due in November next year. I’m working hard to finish the third, another Harry Hunt/Robert Hooke adventure, which currently has the title ‘The Bedlam Cadaver’.

  17. Jan says:

    Cheers Roger I kept thinking it couldn’t be, just couldn’t be that godawful poem turned into a comic ….. It was bonkers beyond belief. But I think I ‘ve just reached the practically anything is possible somebody will give it a try stage in life.

    I never knew there had been a Royal observatory in Richmond Park. Would it have been within the parks present boundaries? – I take it that it would have been. That’s quite interesting.

    Do you happen to know roughly where? My sister lives near Richmond Park and I have walked in there for years. I know the idea with Greenwich was getting the observatory out of the pollution, and particularly light pollution, of the City and Richmond would have pretty much the same as Greenwich out in the countryside.

    With Richmond Park you’ve got that ancient line of sight stretching from the King Henry’s mound right over to St Paul ‘s, interrupted now unfortunately, but obviously in existence for a long old time. That mound is apparently an modified prehistoric burial mound (Much like the one @ Marlborough School) and an outlook point since prehistory.

    It’s an interesting thing the Meridian the whole thing especially the international wrangling behind where the line would be sited I can really bore for England on this subject it’s an odd thought that it could have been there rather than ending up in the similarly ancient surroundings of Greenwich.

    Agreed Paul C “From Hell” is really good.

  18. Paul+C says:

    Rob – really enjoyed The Bloodless Boy and hope someone snaps up the film rights soon. Who would you like to play Hooke ?

    Perhaps a future title could be ‘By Hooke or By Crook’ (if that’s not too corny)

  19. Roger Allen says:

    The old observatory in the Old Deer Park, not Richmond Park, Jan. If you walk along the towpath between Kew and Richmond you can see a couple of markers for the meridian and the Observatory itself.
    We’ll have to agree to differ about The Waste Land: I think it’s one of the great poems of the twentieth century. If you look at George Simmers’s Great War Fiction site you’ll see some interesting discussions of Eliot’s effect on his detractors and their parodies.
    The patron has written about the problems of literary Englishness in the USA on Crime Reads.

  20. Rob says:

    Thanks Paul+C. Much appreciated!
    I always imagine Peter Cushing as Hooke, which dates me, doesn’t it?

  21. Jan says:

    Roger Its one of me day for getting things well mixed up and wrong here!! (I have plenty of them) Is it George 3rd ‘s observatory that we are talking about here the one in “Arcadian London” – the so called Arcadian Meridian ? By the river.

    Dunno that Greenwich didn’t actually precede this place which is partly what threw me out it’s an interesting thing this idea of “Arcadia” spread around the Thames around this part of town and I’m pretty certain I don’t understand it properly. I have done the walk from Hampton Court through to Richmond and theres a good few interesting sites both N+S of the Thames. In fact if I remember at least halfway correctly (pushing it I know) Mr. F asked me about the Arcadian Meridian ages and ages back and I had trouble remembering about it then.

  22. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan Despite the fact that the official and Royal Observatory had been established in Greenwich a hundred years earlier, George III decided he needed his own, personal, Richmond observatory and meridian in 1769. Not unusual, since idiosyncratic meridians and mystical ley-lines connecting manmade and natural structures have been common since ancient times. Anyway, George was no stranger to territorial marking having decreed the ‘Proclamation Line’ marking the westward boundary of expansion for the American colonies; his then (temporary) empire. And according to some, George’s Richmond meridien symbolically connects five primary landmarks or sets which symbolised his Arcadia:

    *Hampton / Hampton Court Palace
    *Kingston upon Thames
    *Ham House / Marble Hill House / Twickenham
    *Richmond upon Thames / Old Sheen
    *Syon House and Abbey

  23. Jan says:

    Aye that’s the very place!

  24. Roger Allen says:

    Whoopsadaisy!
    I’d always thought the Richmond Observatory came before Greenwich – I should have realised that the building’s architecture meant it couldn’t possibly be older.
    Apologies.

  25. Stu-I-Am says:

    @RogerAllen Roger — and which you can now rent monthly (as a four bedroom home) for £50,000.

  26. J says:

    Lurker in the US. Nothing of substance to add, except to say I look forward to Chris’ posts and the ensuing conversations in Comments. I always learn something and often find a new author/book/film to enjoy. You are a bright spot of humor and sanity to offset the Onion version of America in which I seem to be living. Many thanks to all of you.

  27. Joan says:

    Just got my copy of the Bloodless Boy from our Library, looking forward to reading it!

  28. Helen+Martin says:

    Definitely looking for the Bloodless Boy after finishing A Corruption of Blood (the third Ambrose Parry). I am definitely overdosing on medical historical mysteries.

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