Sunday, March 18, 2018

Wilkie Collins's missing person

Here's a fun trivia question for anyone who's as big a fan as me of the works of Wilkie Collins - he was strangely fond of giving supporting characters in his novels a title of distinction coupled with an unusual surname starting with "Ben". Scattered among his books you can find Father Ben----, Doctor Ben----- and Captain Ben------. Anyone who can fill in the blanks and name the books deserves a special prize, which I'll provide once I've looted it from a revered Indian idol. I'll provide the answer below, after a brief spoiler-space filled with ramblings about 1860s English literature, so if any genuine Collins-lovers happen by this blog, look away now, until you've remembered the answer.

When it comes to Victorian fiction, I think I'm what the people back then would call "modern" in my tastes - I can do without Charles Dickens, in fact, but if I'm ever exiled to the Desert Island Discs island, I'd have to take some kind of mega-compilation of the entire works of Wilkie Collins and Mrs Henry Wood. The two of them comprise everything you really need to read if you want the best writing of that particular era. I don't know if either of them would have wanted to be grouped together like that - Mrs Wood especially, who in her late-1860s editorial reviews in the Argosy magazine was repeatedly rude about Collins and the "sensation" writers he inspired. She certainly didn't consider herself to be one of that breed, and is probably turning in her grave at the way most modern commentators (if they mention her at all) lump her in with those types. And of course, those reviews couldn't have been anything to do with the way her own brief star was in decline at that point, while his was shining ever brighter and brighter. Anyway, one thing I'm going to do one day, maybe, eventually, is a fully detailed analysis and commentary blog dedicated to the Johnny Ludlow stories. Look forward to it, if I ever have the time and energy to write it!

But to return to Wilkie and his Bens, the answers are the scheming Jesuit Father Benwell in "The Black Robe", the horrible (but strangely likeable) vivisectionist Doctor Benjulia in "Heart and Science" and the entirely nice and benevolent Captain Bennydeck in "The Evil Genius", who comes back at the end of the book and marries the wayward girl.

In that respect, Captain Bennydeck is another of Collins's recurring themes. He shares more than just a rank with the unfortunately-named Captain Kirke in "No Name"; they both also share the extremely common plot function of the good man who is absent from the main action of the story (for virtuous, self-denying, heroic reasons, of course), only to return at the climax and sweep the heroine off her feet. Bennydeck, in fact, is at least a presence throughout the book even when he's not around; Kirke makes just a brief token appearance early on, before popping up at the end and providing the happy ending. The whole trend started with Walter Hartright in "The Woman in White", but Collins revisited it over and over again in later years.

The one I find particularly strange, is the good man who doesn't return! There's something a bit strange about the novel "Man and Wife", and I don't mean Wilkie Collins's obsession with marriage laws or the evils of sports (a subplot in the book repeatedly asserts that anyone who participates in athletic events will inevitably die young of complete physical breakdown and also become an evil, immoral villain), it's the disappearance of Mr Kendrew.

To summarise the story briefly, it starts with a prologue - two women, Blanche and Anne, swore eternal friendship as children despite the difference in their social class. Blanche married the baronet Sir Thomas Lundie and had a daughter also called Blanche; Anne married the horrible cad Mr Vanborough and had a daughter also called Anne. The prologue describes an eventful evening's conversation between Vanborough, his friend Mr Kendrew and a lawyer, Mr Delamayn. Delamayn confirms that due to a legal loophole, the Vanboroughs' marriage is invalid. This pleases Vanborough, who wants to forge a parliamentary career for himself and wants a wife with better connections, who'll help him attain his eventual goal of a peerage. He heartlessly discards Anne and their daughter without any compunction, much to the horror of Kendrew, who ends their friendship immediately. How Kendrew, a decent, moral, principled man, became friends with Vanborough in the first place is unnarrated, and just has to go down as one of life's mysteries.

The second part of the prologue then briefly summarises what happens to everyone over the next twelve years. Anne dies, naturally - a broken heart was always a fatal condition in Victorian novels. Blanche (Lady Lundie) takes young Anne into her household as young Blanche's governess and companion. Lady Lundie later dies, leaving Sir Thomas to remarry before dying himself and thus giving the rest of the novel a comic-relief supporting character in the second Lady Lundie. Vanborough marries Lady Jane and enters parliament, but doesn't prosper simply because nobody likes him. Delamayn also enters parliament, prospers wonderfully and eventually is made Lord Holchester. Vanborough eventually commits suicide.

And as for Mr Kendrew, the prologue goes into detail about him too.

"How the husband’s friend marked his sense of the husband’s treachery has been told already. How he felt the death of the deserted wife is still left to tell. Report, which sees the inmost hearts of men, and delights in turning them outward to the public view, had always declared that Mr. Kendrew’s life had its secret, and that the secret was a hopeless passion for the beautiful woman who had married his friend. Not a hint ever dropped to any living soul, not a word ever spoken to the woman herself, could be produced in proof of the assertion while the woman lived. When she died Report started up again more confidently than ever, and appealed to the man’s own conduct as proof against the man himself.
He attended the funeral—though he was no relation. He took a few blades of grass from the turf with which they covered her grave—when he thought that nobody was looking at him. He disappeared from his club. He travelled. He came back. He admitted that he was weary of England. He applied for, and obtained, an appointment in one of the colonies. To what conclusion did all this point? Was it not plain that his usual course of life had lost its attraction for him, when the object of his infatuation had ceased to exist? It might have been so—guesses less likely have been made at the truth, and have hit the mark. It is, at any rate, certain that he left England, never to return again. Another man lost, Report said. Add to that, a man in ten thousand—and, for once, Report might claim to be right."

And then we go into the real action of the book. It can be summarised pretty quickly - Geoffrey Delamayn, second son of Lord Holchester, grows up to be a celebrated sportsman and unspeakable cad. He gets young Anne, virtuous governess who just has that one little moral lapse, "in a scrape". She insists that he marry her; he doesn't want to; she threatens to kill herself; he grudgingly agrees to a private marriage. She goes to take a room in an inn nearby, presenting herself as a married woman in order to get a room. Geoffrey is supposed to join her there and make an honest woman of her, but is suddenly called away by news that his father is ill. He sends his friend Arnold (also young Blanche's fiance) to the inn to explain things. A storm forces him to spend the night there, claiming to be Anne's husband. When Geoffrey finds out that this maybe, possibly, means that Arnold and Anne have got married under Scottish law, he's delighted and uses this as a good excuse to abandon her.

The main characters - Geoffrey, Anne, Blanche, Arnold and Blanche's uncle Sir Patrick Lundie - then fill the required length of a Victorian three-volume novel by running around at cross-purposes for ages and ages, always telling each other everything except the one important piece of information they need to know in order to take a sensible course of action and resolve everything. The novel then redeems itself at the end with an absolutely wonderful climax, real edge-of-your-seat stuff of the type that only Wilkie Collins could produce, following which the good end happily and the bad unhappily, and Sir Patrick marries Anne. Old men marrying young women was a good thing in those days, except in the works of radical moaners like George Eliot.

But where's Mr Kendrew? Surely the prologue is setting things up for him to be the one who comes back to marry poor Anne in the end? He's never mentioned again after that prologue, and instead Sir Patrick (who isn't mentioned at all in the prologue) fills that role. I think Wilkie Collins just made a mess of the prologue somehow, assigning the wrong roles to the wrong men - in the main story, Sir Patrick's legal knowledge and background is an essential part of the plot, while Lord Holchester (the former Mr Delamayn) shows no traces of ever having been a lawyer, being just a grumpy old peer with a scoundrel for a son. I'm convinced that he intended the lawyer of the prologue to go on to be the lawyer of the story, only to realise after the prologue had been published (the novel was serialised in Cassell's Magazine) that he'd somehow turned the lawyer into Geoffrey's father and the layman into the potential future husband of Anne. What an unfortunate cock-up, but never mind. Take another draught of opium, Wilkie, and invent someone new. Sir Patrick.

I know this isn't the kind of writing Wilkie Collins is famous for (indeed, he was widely derided by his fellow authors of the late 19th century for actually knowing how his novels were going to end before he started to write them!), but he was still a Victorian writer, and he wasn't above making it up as he went along if he had to. "Armadale", as John Sutherland explains at length in one of his wonderful essays, was obviously written on the fly without the extensive planning that Collins preferred. "Jezebel's Daughter" is even more glaring - he tries to write it as the personal witness testimony of the narrator, but after half a novel of David being present at every important event and conversation, seeing and hearing everything on both sides of the villain's schemes but telling nobody what he's witnessed, Wilkie seems to realise how stupid the whole thing is and packs David off back to London, saying that the rest of the novel he knows from reading people's diaries in later years. It's not very good, that one - we could even leave it out of my Collins/Wood compilation if we wanted to save a bit of paper. "Man and Wife", though, I recommend to everyone - if you haven't read it, do check it out and see if you agree with me about the strange case of Mr Kendrew...

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Saturdays like they used to be

What do you think I've been doing all day today? Well, I'll tell you, we won't make it a guessing game (because you'd probably guess no end of appalling things, I know what you're like). I've spent all day doing practice runs of each and every discipline from the upcoming Canadian Open! Yes, all ten of them! I shudder to think how long it's been since I did a full national-standard memory competition in one day. It's the kind of thing that doesn't happen much nowadays; people tend to split the real events over two days, unless they're very cool people like the organiser of my Friendly Championships.

But in days gone by, I used to happily spend an entire Saturday doing memory training. It would more usually be the hour disciplines, but let's take things one step at a time. My scores were pretty terrible, and by the time I'd got to the spoken numbers my brain was absolutely good for nothing, despite which I'm happy about today. I haven't actually done any paper-based memorising since the French competition last year, not even in training. In fact, looking at my handwriting in the words discipline, it occurred to me that I never write with a pen any more! Paperless offices, emails, phones, they take away your ability to write. I need to practice my penmanship a little before I get to Canada, just to make sure my words are halfway legible.

Once I get to Canada, incidentally, I need to find a way to get from Edmonton to Westlock. It's 45 miles, apparently, but Westlock doesn't seem to welcome visitors who use public transport - the internet suggests the best thing to do is get a bus to a middle-of-nowhere place nearby and then a taxi the rest of the way. I'll see if I can hitch a lift with a competitor or passing lorry-driver. I don't really want to go to the trouble of hiring a car and having to remember what side of the road they drive on in Canada.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Back to school again

I don't mention nearly enough that I went to school with Robert Webb. It's an important claim to fame, you know. Nobody's heard of any of the things I've done, but everyone knows the one from Peep Show who isn't David Mitchell. But the point is, I've just been binge-watching "Back", starring Mitchell and Webb, on 4OD, having discovered at the weekend that the series exists (I don't watch telly nowadays, you know), and I absolutely love it! It's absolutely hilarious, and I urge anyone who hasn't yet heard of it (ignorant fools though they obviously are) to go and check it out!

I went to school with that one there, you know.

Sunday, March 11, 2018


As well as splashing out on plane tickets this month, I treated myself to something I really should have bought long before now - the collected edition of "Meltdown Man", the under-appreciated series that appeared in 2000AD in 1980-81. It came up in conversation with my brother recently, and I just had to get it to remind myself how cool it was. It's a real classic - tough SAS sergeant Nick Stone (remember the SAS-worship of the early eighties? Comics were jam-packed with tough SAS sergeants!) is caught in a nuclear explosion and finds himself flung into another world, where humans rule with eugenically-enhanced animals as their slaves. He gets straight to work setting things to rights.

For fifty consecutive issues, writer Alan Hebden handled the difficult task of fitting a weekly adventure into just four pages of comic (you have to get a lot of action into each page to do that!), aided by the downright awesome artwork of the type that only Massimo Belardinelli could produce. Two hundred pages of this kind of thing, all under one cover!
Honestly, it's that good, you can stare for hours at the artwork, even after getting through the epic storyline (complete with extremely weird and unsatisfying ending) - just look at the effort that's gone into that bottom panel!

 Belardinelli, seen here eating his synthetti while drawing Tharg's latest commission, was probably the greatest art robot ever to grace the pages of 2000AD. It's only in recent years that people have started to really rave about how good he was; maybe it's just the unappreciated-in-his-own-lifetime effect - he died in 2007, had retired long before the internet came along, and at his peak he never got the praise that some of the other droids did. Maybe it's because he was part of the furniture of 2000AD from the start, but took a while to warm up - he's there in the very first prog (indeed, the only creator credited in the first issue, having had the sense to write "Art - Belardinelli" on his artwork!), drawing the Dan Dare strip that was intended to be the main feature. He got the job not by being particularly good, but by being Italian; it was a lot cheaper to hire European artists than British ones back then. His first work is quite bland, but on Meltdown Man he really came into his own, and showed what a flair he had for drawing weird creatures!

There's Nick Stone on the far left, with the eyepatch, along with just a few of the other characters Belardinelli drew over the years! But his real talent wasn't characters themselves, it was the insane amount of little details he'd cram into every single picture - some artists only look good in colour, but Belardinelli was the old-fashioned type who was at his best when just using a whole lot of black ink on newsprint.

Splundig Vur Thrigg!

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Whither Canada?

As I've mentioned once or twice before, Alpha Flight is an all-time favourite comic of mine. And the localities the superheroes visit in the course of their adventures have always been on my "I must go there some day..." list.

So when there's a memory competition announced in Westlock, Alberta (not too far away from Edmonton), I can't help jumping at the opportunity to go there and meet the rapidly-growing Canadian memory community! The championship is on April 7th, I'm going to fly out there a few days before and see the sights of Edmonton, it'll be great! It's been quite a while since I did this kind of thing with the competitions in New York, not to mention quite a while since I went anywhere exotic and expensive, but my paying-off-my-debts campaign really has reduced them to minimal levels by now, so I don't mind splurging this once and taking another month to get totally financially stable.

I can't believe I've never been to Canada before. I've been all over the place, you'd think I would have found a reason to visit before now.

Friday, March 02, 2018

The path the others wish to go has been obscured by drifting snow

Wow, twice in one winter we've had huge deep snow! It's the kind of thing that gives me a good excuse to say "when I were a lad", because when I were a lad you could count on getting days like this once a year, and in really exceptional years it would stick around for weeks. Nowadays, it's much more exceptional.

I don't mind snow so much when it's thick and soft underfoot like this - the problem is when it's packed solid and icy, so you can't walk anywhere without falling down. On my way home from work on Wednesday night, before it had really started coming down thickly, I was walking down the hill and pushing my bike rather than trying it the faster but more lethal way, and slipped on the ice and fell down in a heap. But my knees, which I can usually rely on to do horrible things any time I move them unexpectedly, were perfectly okay with it, so maybe I should be a bit less careful of falling down in future.

I've been working from home the last two days, anyway, which is a very boring way to spend your time, especially if you're trapped in the house with no snack foods. I've got plenty of real food, but if I haven't got a bag of sweets in the place, I feel well and truly starved. So I've been out to the corner shop tonight to stock up, and it's a real wade-through-the-snowdrifts kind of a walk.

Still, the BBC weather solemnly promise me that by Monday it'll be 5°C and not a snowflake in sight, so maybe I'll be able to go to work in the morning without too much ice and mayhem.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Another reason I need to play more othello, which I forgot to mention in my blog yesterday (to be fair, I wrote it after coming back from the traditional Saturday night Indian meal, which I also forgot to mention, but was very nice and came with booze) is that talking with Emmanuel and Matthias over lunch, we established that they've been to more countries for othello reasons than I've been to for memory-related things.

I think my total is 14, including the UK - Ireland, Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Turkey, USA, Brazil, China, Japan, Malaysia, Bahrain. Are there any others I've forgotten? I bet there are. So I should definitely try to play the other EGP tournaments and add places like Poland and the Netherlands to my mind-sports passport-stamp collection.

In any case, today wasn't very spectacular for me, although it started out okay with a very fun and complicated game against Benkt which I was probably losing all the way through but felt like it could have gone either way and ended up 33-31 to him. I then beat Remi Tastet, son of Marc, and lost not too heavily to Tom, leaving me on five points and hopeful of getting to six and beating the 50% target I always aim for at these things. But then I made a complete pig's ear of my final game against Bruce, and was completely slaughtered, to finish on only five, and well below the half-way mark.

1:  10.  pts [903]   TASTET Marc (2) {FRA}
  2:   8.  pts [911]   BERG Matthias (5301) {DEU}
               [855]   WETTERGREN Niklas (150009) {SWE}
               [831]   LEADER Imre (79) {GBR}
  5:   7.5 pts [840]   KORTENDIJK Albert (5012) {NLD}
  6:   7.  pts [874]   EKLUND Oskar (150016) {SWE}
               [840]   SCHOTTE Tom (2795) {BEL}
               [825]   PLOWMAN Guy (320) {GBR}
               [814]   LAZARD Emmanuel (11) {FRA}
 10:   6.5 pts [862]   KASHIWABARA Takuji (839) {FRA}
               [727]   FREIBURGHAUS Kim (150060) {SWE}
 12:   6.  pts [838]   LEVY-ABEGNOLI Thierry (3598) {FRA}
               [805]   PRASEPTYO Linda (5159) {NLD}
               [792]   ROSSLER Daniel (70002) {DEU}
               [762]   KYTE Bruce (2078) {GBR}
               [759]   STEENTOFT Benkt (1301) {SWE}
               [751]   SNEEK Marcel (5083) {NLD}
               [680]   MURAWSKI Stefan (5324) {DEU}
 19:   5.5 pts [818]   DE GRAAF Jan C. (4012) {NLD}
 20:   5.  pts [734]   JOHANSSON Erik (1493) {SWE}
               [729]   PRIDMORE Ben (4019) {GBR}
               [669]   TASTET Remi (50053) {FRA}
               [661]   BRAND Richard (2341) {GBR}
               [646]   WIDMAN Linnea (150055) {SWE}
               [642]   PLOWMAN Luke (2069) {GBR}
               [610]   PLOWMAN Mark (100027) {GBR}
 27:   4.  pts [682]  -JORDAN Yvette (2093) {GBR}
               [599]   KLATTEN Linda (120116) {NLD}
               [586]   TASTET Sophie (50081) {FRA}
               [559]   BRAND Sophie (100026) {GBR}
               [547]   PLOWMAN Jessie (100029) {GBR}
 32:   3.  pts [539]   BRAND Henry (100023) {GBR}
 33:   2.  pts [500]  -JORDAN David (100040) {GBR}
               [483]  -PLOWMAN Anya (100037) {GBR}
 35:   1.  pt  [466]   BRAND Lucy (100025) {GBR}

That gave us a final between Marc and Matthias, a third-place playoff between Niklas and Imre, and a children's final (new innovation!) between Remi and Mark (Luke doesn't count as a child any more; I forget what the age limit is but he's all grown up nowadays). I'm sure these games have happened by now, but I had to leave to get the train (and rail-replacement-bus between Leicester and Nuneaton) back here.

But there'll be more othello to come this year! It's my latest resolution!