Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller

Source: Charles Dickens, ‘Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller’, Household Words, 20 April 1850, pp. 73-77

Text: No longer ago than this Easter time last past, we became acquainted with the subject of the present notice. Our knowledge of him is not by any means an intimate one, and is only of a public nature. We have never interchanged any conversation with him, except on one occasion when he asked us to have the goodness to take off our hat, to which we replied ‘Certainly.’

Mr. Booley was born (we believe) in Rood Lane, in the City of London. He is now a gentleman advanced in life, and has for some years resided in the neighbourhood of Islington. His father was a wholesale grocer (perhaps) and he was (possibly) in the same way of business; or he may, at an early age, have become a clerk in the Bank of England or in a private hank, or in the India House. It will he observed that we make no pretence of having any information in reference to the private history of this remarkable man, and that our account of it must be received as rather speculative than authentic.

In person Mr. Booley is below the middle size, and corpulent. His countenance is florid, he is perfectly bald, and soon hot; and there is a composure in his gait and manner, calculated to impress a stranger with the idea of his being, on the whole, an unwieldy man. It is only in his eye that the adventurous character of Mr. Booley is seen to shine. It is a moist, bright eye, of a cheerful expression, and indicative of keen and eager curiosity.

It was not until late in life that Mr. Booley conceived the idea of entering on the extraordinary amount of travel be has since accomplished. He had attained the age of sixty-five before be left England for the first time. In all the immense journeys he has since performed, he has never laid aside the English dress, nor departed in the slightest degree from English customs. Neither does he speak a word of any language but his own.

Mr. Booley’s powers of endurance are wonderful. All climates are alike to him. Nothing exhausts him; no alternations of heat and cold appear to have the least effect upon his hardy frame. His capacity of travelling, day and night, for thousands of miles, has never been approached by any traveller of whom we have any knowledge through the help of books. An intelligent Englishman may have occasionally pointed out to him objects and scenes of interest; but otherwise he has travelled alone and unattended. Though remarkable for personal cleanliness, he has carried no luggage; and his diet has been of the simplest kind. He has often found a biscuit, or a bun, sufficient for his support over a vast tract of country. Frequently he has travelled hundreds of miles, fasting, without the least abatement of his natural spirits. It says much for the Total Abstinence cause, that Mr. Booley has never had recourse to the artificial stimulus of alcohol, to sustain him under his fatigues.

His first departure from the sedentary and monotonous life he had hitherto led, strikingly exemplifies, we think, the energetic character, long suppressed by that unchanging routine. Without any communication with any member of his family – Mr. Booley has never been married, but has many relations – without announcing his intention to his solicitor, or banker, or any person entrusted with the management of his affairs, he closed the door of his house behind him at one o’clock in the afternoon of a certain day, and immediately proceeded to New Orleans, in the United States of America.

His intention was to ascend the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, to the base of the Rocky Mountains. Taking his passage in a steamboat without loss of time, he was soon upon the bosom of the Father of Waters, as the Indians call the mighty stream which, night and day, is always carrying huge instalments of the vast continent of the New World down into the sea.

Mr. Booley found it singularly interesting to observe the various stages of civilisation obtaining on the banks of these mighty rivers. Leaving the luxury and brightness of New Orleans – a somewhat feverish luxury and brightness, he observed, as if the swampy soil were too much enriched in the hot sun with the bodies of dead slaves – and passing various towns in every stage of progress, it was very curious to observe the changes of civilisation and of vegetation too. Here, while the doomed negro race were working in the plantations, while the republican overseer looked on, whip in hand, tropical trees were growing, beautiful flowers in bloom; the alligator, with his horribly sly face, and his jaws like two great saws, was basking on the mud; and the strange moss of the country was hanging in wreaths and garlands on the trees, like votive offerings. A little farther towards the west, and the trees and flowers were changed, the moss was gone, younger infant towns were rising, forests were slowly disappearing, and the trees, obliged to aid in the destruction of their kind, fed the heavily-breathing monster that came clanking up those solitudes laden with the pioneers of the advancing human army. The river itself, that moving highway, showed him every kind of floating contrivance, from the lumbering flat-bottomed boat, and the raft of logs, upward to the steamboat, and downward to the poor Indian’s frail canoe. A winding thread through the enormous range of country, unrolling itself before the wanderer like the magic skein in the story, he saw it tracked by wanderers of every kind, roaming from the more settled world, to those first nests of men. The floating theatre, dwelling-house, hotel, museum, shop; the floating mechanism for screwing the trunks of mighty trees out of the mud, like antediluvian teeth; the rapidly-flowing river, mid the blazing woods; he left them all behind – town, city, and log-cabin, too; and floated up into the prairies and savannahs, among the deserted lodges of tribes of savages, and among their dead, lying alone on little wooden stages with their stark faces upward towards the sky. Among the blazing grass, and herds of buffaloes and wild horses, and among the wigwams of the fast-declining Indians, he began to consider how, in the eternal current. of progress setting across this globe in one unchangeable direction, like the unseen agency that points the needle to the Pole, the Chiefs who only dance the dances of their fathers, and will never have a new figure for a new tune, and the Medicine men who know no Medicine but what was Medicine a hundred years ago, must be surely and inevitably swept from the earth, whether they be Choctawas, Maudans, Britons, Austrians, or Chinese.

He was struck, too, by the reflection that savage nature was not by any means such a fine and noble spectacle as some delight to represent it. He found it a poor, greasy, paint-plastered miserable thing enough; but a very little way above the beasts in most respects; in many customs a long way below them. It occurred to him that the ‘Big Bird,’ or the ‘Blue Fish,’ or any of the other Braves, was but a troublesome braggart after all; making a mighty whooping and halloaing about nothing particular, doing very little for science, not much more than the monkeys for art, scarcely anything worth mentioning for letters, and not often making the world greatly better than he found it. Civilisation, Mr. Booley concluded, was, on the whole, with all its blemishes, a more imposing sight, and a far better thing to stand by.

Mr. Booley’s observations of the celestial bodies, on this voyage, were principally confined to the discovery of the alarming fact that light had altogether departed from the moon; which presented the appearance of a white dinner-plate The clouds, too, conducted themselves in an extraordinary manner, and assumed the most eccentric forms, while the sun rose and set in a very reckless way. On his return to his native country, however, he had the satisfaction of finding all these things as usual.

It might have been expected that at his advanced age, retired from the active duties of life, blessed with a competency, and happy in the affections of his numerous relations, Mr. Booley would now have settled himself down, to muse, for the remainder of his days, over the new stock of experience thus acquired. But travel had whetted, not satisfied, his appetite; and remembering that he had not seen the Ohio River, except at the point of its junction with the Mississippi, he returned to the United States, after a short interval of repose, and appearing suddenly at Cincinnati, the queen City of the West, traversed the clear waters of the Ohio to its Falls. In this expedition he had the pleasure of encountering a party of intelligent workmen from Birmingham who were making the same tour. Also his nephew Septimus, aged only thirteen. This intrepid boy had started from Peckham, in the old country, with two and sixpence sterling in his pocket; and had, when he encountered his uncle at a point of the Ohio River, called Snaggy Bar, still one shilling of that sum remaining!

Again at home, Mr. Booley was so pressed by his appetite for knowledge as to remain at home only one day. At the expiration of that short period, he actually started for New Zealand.

It is almost incredible that a man in Mr. Booley’s station of life, however adventurous his nature, and however few his artificial wants, should cast himself on a voyage of thirteen thousand miles from Great Britain with no other outfit than his watch and purse, and no arms but his walking-stick. We are, however, assured on the best authority, that thus he made the passage out, and thus appeared, in the act of wiping his smoking head with his pocket-handkerchief, at the entrance to Port Nicholson in Cook’s Straits: with the very spot within his range of vision, where his illustrious predecessor, Captain Cook, so unhappily slain at Otaheite, once anchored.

After contemplating the swarms of cattle maintained on the hills in this neighbourhood, and always to be found by the stockmen when they are wanted, though nobody takes any care of them – which Mr. Booley considered the more remarkable, as their natural objection to be killed might be supposed to be augmented by the beauty of the climate – Mr. Booley proceeded to the town of Wellington. Having minutely examined it in every point, and made himself perfect master of the whole natural history and process of manufacture of the flax-plant, with its splendid yellow blossoms, he repaired to a Native Pa, which, unlike the Native Pa to which he was accustomed, he found to be a town, and not a parent. Here he observed a chief with a long spear, making every demonstration of spitting a visitor, but really giving him the Maori or welcome – a word Mr. Booley is inclined to derive from the known hospitality of our English Mayors – and here also he observed some Europeans rubbing noses, by way of shaking hands, with the aboriginal inhabitants. After participating in an affray between the natives and the English soldiers, in which the former were defeated with great loss, he plunged into the Bush, and there camped out for some months, until he had made a survey of the whole country.

While leading this wild life, encamped by night near a stream for the convenience of water in a Ware, or lint, built open in the front, with a roof sloping backward to the ground, and made of poles, covered and enclosed with bark or fern, it was Mr. Booley’s singular fortune to encounter Miss Creeble, of The Misses Creeble’s Boarding and Day Establishment for Young Ladies, Kennington Oval, who, accompanied by three of her young ladies in search of information, had achieved this marvellous journey, and was then also in the Bush. Miss Creeble, having very unsettled opinions on the subject of gunpowder, was afraid that it entered into the composition of the fire before the tent, and that something would presently blow up or go off. Mr. Booley, as a more experienced traveller, assuring her that there was no danger; and calming the fears of the young ladies, an acquaintance commenced between them. They accomplished the rest of their travels in New Zealand together, and the best understanding prevailed among the little party. They took notice of the trees, as the Kaikatea, the Kauri, the Ruta, the Pukatea, the Hinau, and the Tanakaka – names which Miss Creeble had a bland relish in pronouncing. They admired the beautiful, aborescent, palm-like fern, abounding everywhere, and frequently exceeding thirty feet in height. They wondered at the curious owl, who is supposed to demanded ‘More Pork!’ wherever he flies, and whom Miss Creeble termed ‘an admonition of Nature against greediness!’ And they contemplated some very rampant natives of cannibal propensities. After many pleasing and instructive vicissitudes, they returned to England in company, where the ladies were safely put into a hackney cabriolet by Mr. Booley, in Leicester Square, London.

And now, indeed, it might have been imagined that that roving spirit, tired of rambling about the world, would have settled down at home in peace and honour. Not so. After repairing to the tubular bridge across the Menai Straits, and accompanying Her Majesty on her visit to Ireland (which he characterised as ‘a magnificent Exhibition’), Mr. Booley, with his usual absence of preparation, departed for Australia.

Here again, he lived out in the Bush, passing his time chiefly among the working-gangs of convicts who were carrying timber. He was much impressed by the ferocious mastiffs chained to barrels, who assist the sentries in keeping guard over those misdoers. But he observed that the atmosphere in this part of the world, unlike the descriptions he had read of it, was extremely thick, and that objects were misty, and difficult to be discerned. From a certain unsteadiness and trembling, too, which he frequently remarked on the face of Nature, he was led to conclude that this part of the globe was subject to convulsive heavings and earthquakes. This caused him to return with some precipitation.

Again at home, and probably reflecting that the countries he had hitherto visited were new in the history of man, this extraordinary traveller resolved to proceed up the Nile to the second cataract. At the next performance of the great ceremony of ‘opening the Nile,’ at Cairo, Mr. Booley was present.

Along that wonderful river, associated with such stupendous fables, and with a history more prodigious than any fancy of man, in its vast and gorgeous facts; among temples, palaces, pyramids, colossal statues, crocodiles, tombs, obelisks, mummies, sand and ruin; he proceeded, like an opium-eater in a mighty dream. Thebes rose before him. An avenue of two hundred sphinxes, with not a head among them, – one of six or eight, or ten such avenues, all leading to a common centre – conducted to the Temple of Carnak: its walls, eighty feet high and twenty-five feet thick, a mile and three-quarters in circumference; the interior of its tremendous hall, occupying an area of forty-seven thousand square feet, large enough to hold four great Christian churches, and yet not more than one-seventh part of the entire ruin. Obelisks he saw, thousands of years of age, as sharp as if the chisel had cut their edges yesterday: colossal statues fifty-two feet high, with ‘little’ fingers five feet and a half long; a very world of ruins, that were marvellous old ruins in the days of Herodotus; tombs cut high up in the rock, where European travellers live solitary, as in stony crow’s nests, burning mummied Thebans, gentle and simple – of the dried blood-royal maybe – for their daily fuel, and making articles of furniture of their dusty coffins. Upon the walls of temples, in colours fresh and bright as those of yesterday, he read the conquests of great Egyptian monarchs: upon the tombs of humbler people in the same blooming symbols, he saw their ancient way of working at their trades, of riding, driving, feasting, playing games; of marrying and burying, and performing on instruments, and singing songs, and healing by the power of animal magnetism, and performing all the occupations of life. He visited the quarries of Silsileh, whence nearly all the red stone used by the ancient Egyptian architects and sculptors came; and there beheld enormous singled-stoned colossal figures, nearly finished – redly snowed up, as it were, and trying hard to break out – waiting for the finishing touches, never to be given by the mummied hands of thousands of years ago. In front of the temple of Abou Simbel, he saw gigantic figures sixty feet in height and twenty one across the shoulders, dwarfing live men on camels down to pigmies. Elsewhere he beheld complacent monsters tumbled down like ill-used Dolls of a Titanic make, and staring with stupid benignity at the arid earth whereon their huge faces rested. His last look of that amazing land was at the Great Sphinx, buried in the sand – sand in its eyes, sand in its ears, sand drifted on its broken nose, sand lodging, feet deep, in the ledges of its head – struggling out of a wide sea of sand, as if to look hopelessly forth for the ancient glories once surrounding it.

In this expedition, Mr. Booley acquired some curious information in reference to the language of hieroglyphics. He encountered the Simoon in the Desert, and lay down, with the rest of his caravan until it had passed over. He also beheld on the horizon some of those stalking pillars of sand, apparently reaching from earth to heaven, which, with the red sun shining through them, so terrified the Arabs attendant on Bruce, that they fell prostrate, crying that the Day of Judgment was come. More Copts, Turks, Arabs, Fellahs, Bedouins, Mosques, Mamelukes, and Moosulmen he saw, than we have space to tell. His days were all Arabian Nights, and he saw wonders without end.

This might have satiated any ordinary man, for a time at least. But Mr. Booley, being no ordinary man, within twenty-four hours of his arrival at home was making the overland journey to India.

He has emphatically described this, as ‘a beautiful piece of scenery,’ and ‘a perfect picture.’ The appearance of Malta and Gibraltar he can never sufficiently commend. In crossing the desert from Grand Cairo to Suez he was particularly struck by the undulations of the Sandscape (he preferred that word to Landscape, as more expressive of the region), and by the incident of beholding a caravan upon its line of march; a spectacle which in the remembrance always affords him the utmost pleasure. Of the stations on the desert, and the cinnamon gardens of Ceylon, he likewise entertains a lively recollection. Calcutta he praises also; though he has been heard to observe that the British military at that seat of Government were not as well proportioned as he could desire the soldiers of his country to be; and that the breed of horses there in use was susceptible of some improvement.

Once more in his native land, with the vigour of his constitution unimpaired by the many toils and fatigues he had encountered, what had Mr. Booley now to do, but, full of years and honour, to recline upon the grateful appreciation of his Queen and country, always eager to distinguish peaceful merit? What had he now to do, but to receive the decoration ever ready to be bestowed, in England, on men deservedly distinguished, and to take his place among the best? He had this to do. He had yet to achieve the most astonishing enterprise for which he was reserved. In all the countries he had yet visited, he had seen no frost and snow. He resolved to make a voyage to the ice-bound arctic regions.

In pursuance of this surprising determination, Mr. Booley accompanied the expedition under Sir James Boss, consisting of Her Majesty’s ships the Enterprise and Investigator, which sailed from the River Thames on the 12th of May 1848, and which, on the 11th of September, entered Port Leopold Harbour.

In this inhospitable region, surrounded by eternal ice, cheered by no glimpse of the sun, shrouded in gloom and darkness, Mr. Booley passed the entire winter. The ships were covered in, and fortified all round with walls of ice and snow; the masts were frozen up; hoar frost settled on the yards, tops, shrouds, stays, and rigging: around, in every direction, lay an interminable waste, on which only the bright stars, the yellow moon, and the vivid Aurora Borealis looked, by night or day.

And yet the desolate sublimity of this astounding spectacle was broken in a pleasant and surprising manner. In the remote solitude to which he had penetrated, Mr. Booley (who saw no Esquimaux during his stay, though he looked for them in every direction) had the happiness of encountering two Scotch gardeners; several English compositors, accompanied by their wives; three brass-founders from the neighbourhood of Long Acre, London; two coach-painters, a gold-beater and his only daughter, by trade a staymaker; and several other working-people from sundry parts of Great Britain who had conceived the extraordinary idea of ‘holiday-making’ in the frozen wilderness. Hither, too, had Miss Creeble and her three young ladies penetrated; the latter attired in braided peacoats of a comparatively light maternal; and Miss Creeble defended from the inclemency of a Polar Winter by no other outer garment than a wadded Polka-jacket. He found this courageous lady in the net of explaining, to the youthful sharers of her toils, the various phases of nature by which they were surrounded. Her explanations were principally wrong, but her intentions always admirable.

Cheered by the society of these fellow-adventurers, Mr. Booley slowly glided on into the summer season. And now, at midnight, all was bright and shining. Mountains of ice, wedged and broken into the strangest forms – jagged points, spires, pinnacles, pyramids, turrets, columns in endless succession and in infinite variety, flashing and sparkling with ten thousand hues, as though the treasures of the earth were frozen up in all that water – appeared on every side. Masses of ice, floating and driving hither and thither, menaced the hardy voyagers with destruction; and threatened to crush their strong ships, like nutshells. But, below those ships was clear sea-water, now; the fortifying walls were gone; the yards, tops, shrouds and rigging, free from that hoary rust of long inaction, showed like themselves again; and the sails, bursting from the masts, like foliage which the welcome sun at length developed, spread themselves to the wind, and wafted the travellers away.

In the short interval that has elapsed since his safe return to the land of his birth, Mr. Booley has decided on no new expedition; but he feels that he will yet be called upon to undertake one, perhaps of greater magnitude than any he has achieved, and frequently remarks, in his own easy way, that he wonders where the deuce he will he taken to next! Possessed of good health and good spirits, with powers unimpaired by all he has gone through, mid with an increase of appetite still growing with what it feeds on, what may not be expected yet from this extraordinary man!

It was only at the close of Easter week that, sitting in an armchair, at a private club called the Social Oysters, assembling at Highbury Barn, where he is much respected, this indefatigable traveller expressed himself in the following terms:

‘It is very gratifying to me,’ said he, ‘to have seen so much at my time of life, and to have acquired a knowledge of the countries I have visited, which I could not have derived from books alone. When I was a boy, such travelling would have been impossible, as the gigantic-moving-panorama or diorama mode of conveyance, which I have principally adopted (all my modes of conveyance have been pictorial), had then not been attempted. It is a delightful characteristic of these times, that new and cheap means are continually being devised for conveying the results of actual experience to those who are unable to obtain such experiences for themselves: and to bring them within the reach of the people – emphatically of the people; for it is they at large who are addressed in these endeavours, and not exclusive audiences. Hence,’ said Mr. Booley, ‘even if I see a run on an idea, like the panorama one, it awakens no ill-humour within me, but gives me pleasant thoughts. Some of the best results of actual travel are suggested by such means to those whose lot it is to stay at home. New worlds open out to them, beyond their little worlds, and widen their range of reflection, information, sympathy, and interest. The more man knows of man, the better for the common brotherhood among us all. I shall, therefore,’ said Mr. Booley, now propose to the Social Oysters, the healths of Mr. Banvard, Mr. Brees, Mr. Phillips, Mr. Allen, Mr. Prout, Messrs. Bonomi, Fahey, and Warren, Mr. Thomas Grieve, and Mr. Burford. Long life to them all, and more power to their pencils?’

The Social Oysters having drunk this toast with acclamation, Mr. Booley proceeded to entertain them with anecdotes of his travels. This he is in the habit of doing after they have feasted together, according to the manner of Sinbad the Sailor – except that he does not bestow upon the Social Oysters the munificent reward of one hundred sequins per night, for listening.

Comments: Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a British novelist and journalist. Household Words was a weekly magazine that Dickens edited and contributed to. Mr Booley was an elderly gentleman character created by Dickens who features in three Household Words pieces (a second was on Mr Booley’s experience of the Lord Mayor’s Show). Dickens was an enthusiastic viewers of panoramas and dioramas (see http://picturegoing.com/?p=4387). Those whose health is proposed at the end of the article are panorama showmen and artists, including John Banvard, Samuel Charles Brees, John Skinner Prout, Joseph Bonomi, James Fahey, Henry Warren, Thomas Grieve and Robert Burford.

Links: Available at Dickens Journals Online

Oh, Jolly 3-D!

Source: G.W. Stonier, ‘Oh, Jolly 3-D!’ in Pictures on the Pavement (London: Michael Joseph, 1955), pp. 140-143

Text: Of course, we all insisted we wouldn’t go, but there we were: some frankly excited, others holding aloof, a few remembering their first talkie with Al Jolson imploring the skies, and a very few that Edwardian dark-room at the end of a pier in which, while one enjoyed, say, a vision of rough seas, the theatre itself rolled and pitched. Great days, when custard-pies were custard-pies, and any bicycles without riders would make straight for, and through, the nearest china-shop.

But already the news – stale news from a flat world – was over, and the lights were up. We looked round. Distinguished strangers present: hurriedly we felt for our own spectacles, tried them on, blinked, dandled.

FOR YOUR FURTHER ENJOYMENT

came the beauteous lantern-slide on the screen,

OUR STAFF WILL NOW VISIT ALL PARTS OF THIS THEATRE

(that meant poor fat Annie – charladying days over – with her tray).

PLEASE KEEP TO YOUR SEATS

(which, with Annie, seemed not difficult).

So, sucking the ice-creams which represent, we are told, the sole source of profits to impoverished British film-mongers, we cooled our rising excitement.

Spectacles on! In the confusion old Dr. Crunchbones had his, I swear, upside down, so that probably he’d see everything hollow; but then he always had. Miss Tripp, smiling, had pocketed hers. To a roar of music the title flashed up, Thick Men; it didn’t merely flash, it floated; behind, with a mileage that made us suddenly feel our seats had been pulled from under us, was a man – a thick man – poised on parapet, who slowly leant forward and disappeared, leaving the recession of river, quay, skyscraper, and sunset, into which we might all have disappeared if the foreground titles hadn’t, like a sort of inflamed masonry, held us back. We were discovering who had played the banjo, and who fiddled the hair-do’s, when the splash from below hit us.

The film itself – but how can one hope to imprint such things? Enough that this one was well up, or down, to standard, having taken advantage of 3-D to get back to the heart of things: the heroine (rather charmingly 3-D, I thought) chewed gum and drawled ‘Oh, yeah?’ and the hero, always getting into fixes and out of them, would stop short to exclaim ‘Let’s go’ or ‘You can’t do this to me’; nor could they; ropes and writs wouldn’t hold him; for seven reels – here’s the moral – you may get away with murder, but the eighth will find you out, probably on top
of Chicago’s highest skyscraper. He had an engaging habit, this swell guy, of blowing smoke-rings over us. For 3-D you must know, works forwards as well as backwards. Half the time they were sticking out elbows over the stalls or reclining their feet on the circle, and when the whole mob pulled guns you were fortunate if the muzzles nudged past you to someone else’s waistcoat behind. This – with some relief brought the first interlude.

And there we were, looking like Sunday afternoon on the Brighton front, and remarking ‘Wonderful,’ ‘Better than grandpa’s stereoscope,’ ‘But when they move at all quickly they seem to go off-kind of crinkly, ’ ‘Just as well, I couldn’t stand much more.’

Resuming, we were double-crossed, followed and frisked, run over, dangled from heights, swept to the wail of police sirens through satiny night, plunged into the glory of a night-club-the thick man’s (and woman’s) hide-out. Cops were there too; thicker and thicker; not even they knew one from t’other. We watched from the little high grille in the boss’s office. He was getting that eighth-reel feeling; the heights were calling. ‘Let’s go,’ a farewell to his lady – her lips protruding, filling the theatre like hippopotamus lips – second interlude.

‘Phew!’ ‘She loves him, though, doesn’t she?’ ‘What good’s that, his best friend’s a cop, see?’ ‘Colour a bit patchy.’ ‘Oh, well, can’t expect everything.’

Off again. Bang-bang. He must climb seventy-six floors, and the lift out of order. With that cop close behind. ‘My pal,’ he snarls over his shoulder, as he leaps for the fire-escape.

There’s a scream. ‘He’s pinched my spectacles, the beast!’ ‘What?’ ‘Liar!’ ‘Who?’ ‘Give ’em back!’ ‘Let go!’ ‘Swine!’ ‘I’ll inform the management!’ And in less than no time, followed by more bang-bangs, we were all out in the street shouting, struggling.

Well I wonder. These thick men – who in their time have been jittery, silent men, and then sleek yap-yap or sing-song men, and sometimes, amazingly, rainbow men whisked from beef-red to cheese-green in a trice – I don’t quite know how they’re going to take to their new freedom. Suppose, during a matinee – it’s been a long while coming -one of them were simply to walk off the screen? Would the rest follow? Should we have fugitive Neros, Henry ploughing through the stalls after Anne Boleyn, stampedes from chain-gangs, Carthage, the Titanic? Will there be an end to the Civil War, both sides deserting? It remains to be seen; if need be, resisted. 3-D has come to the local.

Comments: George Walter Stonier (1903-1985) was a British novelist, critic and journalist. His Pictures on the Pavement is a series of short, lightly humorous essays on aspects of London life. There was no 3D feature film called Thick Men, and I cannot identify what film it might be. There was a short-lived boom for stereoscopic feature films in the mid-1950s employing dual-strip projection, requiring audiences to wear special spectacles and intermissions needed for reel changeovers.

At a French Château

Cinema programme used as an illustration in At a French Château

Source: Miriam Irene Kimball, At a French Château (New York: The Lion Press, c.1915, printed for private distribution), pp.

Text: We were thrown into great excitement one night at dinner when the blowing of a horn and at the same time the ringing of the gate bell heralded the information that something of importance was about to take place. Ernest went on the run and soon returned with a flyer, announcing that the great success, “Barnum’s Cinema,” had arrived in town and that a performance would be given that evening, one representation only. That being the case, we could not afford to miss it, and we decided then and there to go en masse. We went early so as to get good seats, our Paris friends joining us on the way. We entered the hall, which was a very small one, its only furniture consisting of two rows of long benches, perhaps six or seven in a row. Having purchased our tickets, we appropriated to our use the three benches farthest back on the left. These seats were upholstered in black oilcloth, while others had either no covering at all or one of a very dirty and ragged coarse red-and-white cotton. The bare benches certainly did not have an inviting appearance, and the red and white were impossible; so for the time and place we felt that we had made a good choice. As yet we were the only spectators, and we now took time to examine the flimsy little slips of paper that served as tickets. To our surprise we found that some of our party had paid one-half franc, some three-fourths of a franc, some a franc, and Billie and I one franc and a half each, the ticket-seller having added in lead pencil the necessary figures to make our little yellow slips of paper of sufficient value.

However, we were allowed to sit together on the oil-cloth-covered seats, whatever the price of our tickets; and others, who came later, apparently had the like privilege of choosing of what was left, the latest comers sitting on the floor and leaning up against the bare, blank walls. I did not exactly understand their system; but it was evident that those traveling show-people were not at all particular what you paid or what seats you occupied. There was one advan[t]age, however, Billie and I had the satisfaction of knowing that we held reserved-seat tickets (there were none better), though we sat one on each side of Madame R. who had purchased a third class billet. The tickets were not demanded and I still have mine among my valued souvenirs.

Our early arrival at the show gave us an excellent opportunity to watch the country people come trooping in. They came by families, and having finally deposited themselves, awaited with expectant faces, the beginning of the great moving-picture show. There were blowzed peasants, young and old, in their coarse blue frocks and trousers, and clattering wooden sabots; fat, almost toothless and altogether corsetless old women, in their loose blouses, tied down by their coarse blue aprons; young women of generous figures, some of them rather good-looking, with babes in arms; frowzy-headed little girls, with front locks tightly braided, with perhaps a tiny, tiny bit of narrow ribbon by way of ornament; boys of all shapes and sizes, in their short socks, black cotton aprons, and wide-brimmed straw hats; and, last but not least, coquettish rusticity, revelling in the companionship of her bel amoureux, though in the eyes of the world he must appear but an “unlettered hind.” All the men, except those of our party, sat with their hats on, most of them vociferously puffing their tobacco throughout the entire performance. That they do otherwise seemed not to have been expected of them; and, as the women wore no hats, no polite invitation that they remove them was necessary. I have said that all the men except those of our party wore their hats during the performance, but that statement is not strictly true. I was pleased to see that our Ernest had not only dofifed his apron but sat with head uncovered, thus showing himself a little higher in the social scale than the gens de la campagne.

While the people were gathering, the operator, a dark, fat, greasy-looking individual, proudly marched up and down the aisles, smiling blandly upon his audience, with the air of one who is about to give them a great treat, which he is confident, must meet with their unqualified approval. His very attitude proclaimed in unmistakable words, “I would do anything for you.” Perhaps it was this attitude that gave Billie the assurance necessary to slip to the casement and swing it open, thinking that a breath of pure air would be quite agreeable and perhaps blow out a little of the smoke. But, behold! a change now comes o’er the man. With the intensest of excitement he leaps to the spot, with a “No, no. Monsieur! No, no. Monsieur!” and on the instant everything is made fast again. The windows must not be open, for there are rogues and rascals outside who might look in and get the show for nothing.

As for the show, well, it was quite like those given in America, no better, not much worse. There were the ascension of aviators, cosmopolitan dances. Biblical representations, elopements of fond lovers, with tyrannical parents, and the mischievous city kids, who go to grandfather’s farm to give their parents a rest, spill the ink on the parlor carpet, steal the jam, overturn milk pans, make bonfires of the haystacks, and let out all the live stock.

The operator seemed to think that the pictures needed a great deal of explication and kept up a flow of talk very amusing, both to those who understood and to those who partly understood. More than that he gave his opinion of what was being enacted before the eyes, and made jocular remarks concerning the deeds done on the screen, especially when they chanced to be all about love and the bel amoureux, all of which were highly appreciated by the audience. In fact, it was as responsive an audience as one often sees. Like Sir Roger de Coverly, they took the situations seriously and applauded where they approved, and talked over the scenes presented as though they were a part of real life. In fact all through the performance they discoursed with each other audibly.

One novel feature was an intermission of ten or fifteen minutes when the performance was about half accomplished. At this time a man smoking a cigarette passed through the hall selling little favors done up in twisted papers and loudly bawling out an urgent invitation for people to buy. It was then that I noticed for the first time our blanchisseuse in clean blouse and apron, looking radiantly happy. Then, too, that there might be no cessation of entertainment, a ruddy-faced old rustic, in clumsy wooden shoes, took it upon himself to get merry and jump over one of the benches. A roar of laughter rewarded the old chap for his pains. The Château party ate French lemon drops and peppermints from paper bags, and breathed deeply of the fresh air that was then entering, for during the recess there was no objection to open doors and windows.

The show lasted something over two hours. Even the franc-and-a-half people had had their money’s worth. Disregarding the Cinema, the real enjoyment had come from seeing the peasant class at a show. That was a novel experience and worth the price. As I went out the door, the ticket-seller said to me, “C’est bon, n’est-ce pas, Madame?” And I answered, “Oui, Madame, très amusant” using the same phrase that Mademoiselle L. had used in speaking of Billie. This seemed to give such entire satisfaction that I couldn’t help feeling quite a bit of pride in my proficiency in the French tongue.

Comments: Miriam Irene Kimball was an American teacher who spent the summer of 1913 at a chateau at Soisy-sur-Seine in France and produced a privately-printed account of her experiences, from which the above extract is taken. ‘Barnum’s Cinema’ would have had nothing to do with the deceased American impresario P.T. Barnum, except through appropriating his name to denote glamour. The programme reproduced in the book is curious, as the films it announces are from widely different dates, and it has some English text. It may not be genuine.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Hospital-Ceiling as a Screen for Moving Pictures

Source: S[amuel] Begg, ‘A Hospital-Ceiling as a Screen for Moving Pictures: a Cinema for Bedridden Wounded Soldiers at a Base in France’, The Illustrated London News, 10 August 1918, p. 1, reproduced at http://www.illustratedfirstworldwar.com/item/a-hospital-ceiling-as-a-scren-for-movig-pictures-a-cinema-for-bedridde-iln0-1918-0810-0001-002/

Comments: Samuel Begg (1854-1936) was a British artist, who was raised in New Zealand, and who became well-known as an illustrator for the British magazine The Illustrated London News. The text that accompanied it says:

A novel use of the cinematograph has been introduced into certain American base hospitals in France. For the amusement of wounded men who are unable to sit up or leave their beds, pictures are thrown on the ceiling above their beds by means of portable projectors. Thus they are enabled to enjoy the antics of Charlie Chaplin and other heroes and heroines of the “movies,” like their more fortunate comrades, who can move about and attend the ordinary type of cinema entertainment. How great a boon this ingenious device has proved to bedridden patients may be easily realised by anyone who has ever spent long and tedious hours in bed watching the vagaries of flies crawling on a ceiling.

The image and text were based on this original published in the American magazine Popular Mechanics, July 1918 p. 163 (unnamed artist):

Links: Illustrated London News image available from illustratedfirstworldwar.com

Popular Mechanics illustration available from Hathi Trust

The Film Gone Male

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance: The Film Gone Male’, Close Up vol. IX no. 1, March 1932, pp. 36-38

Text: Memory, psychology is to-day declaring, is passive consciousness. Those who accept this dictum see the in-rolling future as living reality and the past as reality entombed. They also regard every human faculty as having an evolutionary history. For these straight-line thinkers memory is a mere glance over the shoulder along a past seen as a progression from the near end of which mankind goes forward. They are also, these characteristically occidental thinkers, usually found believing in the relative passivity of females. And since women excel in the matter of memory, the two beliefs admirably support each other. But there is memory and memory. And memory proper, as distinct from a mere backward glance, as distinct even from prolonged contemplation of things regarded as past and done with, gathers, can gather, and pile up its wealth only round universals, unchanging, unevolving verities that move neither backwards nor forwards and have neither speech nor language.

And that is one of the reasons why women, who excel in, memory and whom the cynics describe as scar[c]ely touched by evolving civilisation, are humanity’s silent half, without much faith in speech as a medium of communication. Those women who never question the primacy of “clear speech”, who are docile disciples of the orderly thought of man, and acceptors of theorems, have either been educationally maltreated or are by nature more within the men’s than within the women’s camp. Once a woman becomes a partisan, a representative that is to say of one only of the many sides of question, she has abdicated. The batallions of partisan women glittering in the limelit regions of to-day’s world, whose prestige is largely the result of the novelty of their attainments, communicating not their own convictions but some one or other or a portion of some one or other of the astonishing varieties of thought-patterns under which men experimentally arrange such phenomena as are suited to the process, represent the men’s camp and are distinguishable by their absolute faith in speech as a medium of communication.

The others, whom still men call womanly and regard with emotion not unmixed with a sane and proper fear, though they may talk incessantly from the cradle onwards, are, save when driven by calamitous necessity, as silent as the grave. Listen to their outpouring torrents of speech. Listen to village women at pump or fireside, to villa women, to unemployed service-flat women, to chatelaines, to all kinds of women anywhere and everywhere. Chatter, chatter, chatter, as men say. And say also that only one in a thousand can talk. Quite. For all these women use speech, with individual differences, alike: in the manner of a façade. Their awareness of being, as distinct from man’s awareness of becoming, is so strong that when they are confronted, they must, in most circumstances, snatch at words to cover either their own palpitating spiritual nakedness or that of another. They talk to banish embarrassment. It is true they are apt to drop, if the confrontation be prolonged, into what is called gossip and owes both its charm and its poison to their excellence in awareness of persons. This amongst themselves. In relation to men their use of speech is various. But always it is a façade.

And the film, regarded as a medium of communication, in the day of its innocence, in its quality of being nowhere and everywhere, nowhere in the sense of having more intention than direction and more purpose than plan, everywhere by reason of its power to evoke, suggest, reflect, express from within its moving parts and in their totality of movement, something of the changeless being at the heart of all becoming, was essentially feminine. In its insistence on contemplation it provided a pathway to reality.

In becoming audible and particularly in becoming a medium of propaganda, it is doubtless fulfilling its destiny. But it is a masculine destiny. The destiny of planful becoming rather than of purposeful being. It will be the chosen battle-ground of rival patterns, plans, ideologies in endless succession and bewildering variety.

It has been declared that it is possible by means of purely aesthetic devices to sway an audience in whatever direction a filmateur desires. This sounds menacing and is probably true. (The costumiers used Hollywood to lengthen women’s skirts. Perhaps British Instructional, with the entire medical profession behind it, will kindly shorten them again). It is therefore comforting to reflect that so far the cinema is not a government monopoly. It is a medium, or a weapon, at the disposal of all parties and has, considered as a battlefield a grand advantage over those of the past when civil wars have been waged disadvantageously to one party or the other by reason of inequalities of publicity, restrictions of locale and the relative indirectness and remoteness of the channels of communication. The new film can, at need, assist Radio in turning the world into a vast council-chamber and do more than assist, for it is the freer partner. And multitudinous within that vast chamber as within none of the preceding councils of mankind, is the unconquerable, unchangeable eternal feminine. Influential.

Weeping therefore, if weep we must, over the departure of the old time films gracious silence, we may also rejoice in the prospect of a fair field and no favour. A field over which lies only the shadow of the censorship. And the censorship is getting an uneasy conscience.

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves. British Instructional Films was a British production company which specialised in instructional and educational films.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

The March of Japan

Source: Edgar Lajtha, The March of Japan (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, [1936]), pp. 109-114

Text: The twentieth century has allowed the Japanese to live again their middle age through the cinema, and when the Japanese wants to escape from glaring modernity, he can find solace in the world of the Japanese fighting-spirit films when he sees the virtues of his ancestors rise up from their graves.

In Tokyo’s film street, where every building is a cinema, there are posters with gigantic coloured photographs of the stars and dramatic scenes from the film displayed at every entrance. Japan’s history lives again on these façades, and sometimes a large flaming sword covers the front of one cinema, or two warriors’ heads, or simply the head of a weeping woman. But the swords predominate, for in these eventful days the sword is the matinée idol of the people.

Between two historic heroes a good looking Tarzan may be jumping naked out of the jungle on to a crocodile’s back, laughing down at the blonde head of Greta Garbo, his vis-à-vis. The heads of the Western stars look unfamiliar; for the Japanese the faces of Garbo, Barrymore and Bergner would lack character, and the poster-artist retouches their faces, as the Japanese photographer does his portraits, thereby suppressing their true personalities.

The Chinese use other methods, and when I saw the Garbo’s head outside a Hongkong cinema, she had wrinkles at the side of her mouth and almond-shaped eyes.

An endless stream of people pass through the Asakusa from morning till night, the men in grey kimonos, the women in colour, and the children most brightly dressed of all. The clatter of their wooden sandals on the hard street blends with the music from the cinema doors. Flags displaying the tides of the films in large letters flutter in profusion in the glare of street-lights. Sometimes the names are written in Japanese characters on net flags and fly like dragons above the heads of the crowds.

As the people pass along on both sides of the streets, they often stop in front of one cinema trying to decide whether to go in. It is no easy decision, for the choice is so wide and the prices so cheap, seats can be had from five sen. The propaganda in the street is cleverly conceived and it dims their eyes. Who can withstand the power of a flaming sword as big as a rowing-boat? So I, too, reeled into a cinema.

A samisen orchestra accompanies the silent historical films and an announcer, who stands following the film like one of the audience, speaks the actors’ parts out of the darkness. He follows the lip-movements of men, women and children and adjusts his voice accordingly. As I was at the last evening performance, the announcer was becoming hoarse.

The audience had their eyes fixed on the screen. Women clutched crumpled handkerchiefs, wrapt in another world. In these warrior-films Japan is again shut off from contemporary life. Japanese fight only Japanese; the clock has been put back a hundred years.

The Japanese landscape was unfolded before us in black and white. We could see silver lakes glinting in the light, dark islands and black trees. White steam rose out of a deep crater and rice fields basked in the sun. Suddenly the black silhouette of a Samurai overshadowed this peaceful picture. Two swords hung at his side, the long one for his enemy, the short one for himself; for the Japanese warrior is never taken alive. The excitement began when a speck could be seen on the horizon, gradually becoming bigger and bigger, till we could see that it was the enemy of our Samurai.

The two Japanese warriors were now face to face, staring silently with unwinking eyes and proud mouths. Only their fingers twitched, convulsively clutching their swords.

The moment they drew their swords with a lightning movement the scene became alive with other warriors jumping from behind bushes and rocks. There were about fifty of them, Japanese against Japanese, and if one was threatened in the back, he whipped round as if he had eyes there too. The Samurais’ training in fencing, which lasted for years, was no ordinary one, for it taught them to concentrate their five senses on one thought, so that they learnt to feel the sword-point in their backs the instant before it was thrust.

The Samurai turned round with a sudden spring that repulsed his enemies for a yard or so; while he cut in two the man who had been about to kill him, the others had time to regain breath. Swords clashed. This catlike stratagem came off again and again; if he did it once, he did it five times until he had reduced his fifty enemies to ten.

In a short time they fled and disembowelled themselves.

Similar warriors attacked the Samurai on his way home through the countryside. When he finally reached his village, he found that his home had been plundered of his goods and his loved ones. He knew at once that it was the work of these same enemies, and set out to find his young lover.

A steep coast on the ocean. A weeping girl was wandering under the steep cliffs, dressed in a light striped kimono, with her hair arranged in the old style, above her white, oval, classical Japanese face.

She strayed from one rock to another. Sometimes jumping down, and sometimes springing from stone to stone to keep her kimono from trailing in the sea. At other times she would be high up, where one false step meant certain death. She had been wandering on this coast for days, for every minute represented months, and her hair began to fly in the wind. Now she held a new born infant in her arms, her tears falling on its little face while she stood far above high rocks and the surging sea. She looked down hopelessly at the waves. Then a strong hand drew her back.

The Samurai had at last found his lover. He laughed and wept with joy, but she no longer wept but only laughed shrilly. She was mad. She handed him the child, and even as he bent down to see the first smile on his first-born’s lips, the waves were surging over the woman’s head.

The Samurai, still wearing his two swords in his belt, and with the child in his arms, looked down dumbly at the waves. They soon surged over his head too.

The Samisen orchestra burst into jazz, for the second film on the programme was more modern.

Two marriages seemed to be going awry! In one the husband was too Westernised and the wife too conservative, in the other the situation was reversed. After an hour of complications the husbands and wives reached a compromise and the film closed with a happy ending.

The third film was at last a sound film. It was concerned with the problems which Western civilisation have brought to Japan, the problems of the middle-class youth who are still undergoing wedekindian trials. A “modern boy” had fallen in love with a “modern girl.” When the girl’s father found his daughter in the boy’s flat, he shot her, whereupon the boy came out of his hiding place and shot the father. The youthful murderer then became a haunted wanderer of the night. Homeless and at the end of his strength, he fled to a friend’s house. The friend forgave him and the murderer wept on his breast. Later he gave himself up to the authorities and was acquitted.

The films were not directed properly and the stories were drawn out to appalling length with streams of dialogue. But that did not seem to disturb my neighbours who must have been paragons of patience. The great fault of all film producers is also committed by Japanese directors. They do not stick to realities, and their players are not true types. The sets in the films are always ultra-modern milieus where the Japanese would like to live but will never see in all their life. A foreigner is particularly struck by the absence of mimicry and gesticulation. The gamut of passions is never expressed with more than a nervous twitching of the lips, and kissing does not exist. In love scenes two heads nestle together and tears fall, and one comes away from the Asakusa cinemas with the impression that the sons of one of the manliest nations in the world weep more than any of their fellow men.

But if the photography of Japanese films is considered by itself, all the faults are forgotten. Every picture is a feast for the eye and even the most prosaic scenes are filled with poetry.

The educational films are the most beautifully photographed of all. They enlighten the people and they pulsate with the force of Japanese life. The possibilities of expansion are pointed out in a lovely series of pictures, showing an immense landscape of cherry blossom. Suddenly a volcano erupts: “Strengthen your spirit. … That is the fate of the Japanese.”

The young Japanese intellectuals do not often frequent the Asakusa for its cinemas cater for provincial tastes; but provincials are typical of the Japanese taste as a whole.

The cinemas outside the Ginza district show American films principally. Two hundred and fifty films are imported annually from Hollywood, and while the Japanese film predominates in the suburbs and the provinces, American productions are more popular in the better quarters of the large towns. These films teach the youth about the latest developments of Western civilisation, and pleasure is a secondary consideration. They are also useful as a means of giving English lessons to those who cannot go abroad. But the mogas find them useful for showing the latest Hollywood fashions.

Comments: Edgar Lajtha (1910-?) was a Hungarian travel writer. His account includes a description of a benshi performer, who provided audiences with Japanese an interpretation of the action. Silent films continued for a longer period in Japan than they did in the West, and programmes in the mid-1930s could comprise a mixture of silent and sound films. I have not been able to identify the films he describes.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust