Saturday, October 31, 2020


Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927)

Jerome was born in Walsall, Staffordshire, the son of a coal mine owner who had visions of grandeur.  He managed to get rid of most his wife's money (she had some) trying to expand his pit mine, then building a church (they were loyal Puritans), and attempting to recoup his losses through iron mongering.  He had ambitions as an architect but failed to realize them and at length was forced to move his family to London, where he took a job at 100 lbs/year.  Jerome became fascinated with London life at an early age and wandered the streets by himself for years before he was sent to Marylbone Grammar School.  He commuted by train or by hitching rides on the back of passing carriages, as the school was on the other side of London.  He did fairly well and had no horror stories of beatings or egregious chastisements.  The hours were nine to three five days a week and learning was encouraged, as opposed to sporting activities.  

"Education is the most important thing in the world, and most mismanaged, which accounts for the continued low intelligence of the human race."

Occasionally the family made excursions into the rural areas surrounding London and Jerome learned interesting things from the local natives:  how to tickle trout, using a slingshot ("not very efficient at annoying birds or cats, but great for windows").  He met a lot of tramps and penurious travelers from whom he learned obscure ways to survive without money or food.  These lessons were useful in later life.  

Jerome left school at fourteen, in part because his father died, and he needed to help support his mother and sisters.  He was hired as a clerk for the London and Northwest Railroad at 26 lbs/year.  Then his mother died and his sisters moved away or married, so Jerome was left alone.  He moved around a lot, and took advantage of his employer's gift of four free tickets a year to visit places he didn't know.  Liverpool was a favorite.  He got acquainted with the different levels of society, attending boxing matches and the theater, touring the Tower of London, and learning the social habits:  smoking and drinking.  He wasn't very good at drinking, disliking most of the tipples except porter, with which he gained a certain amount of familiarity.  The Londoners drank a lot in those times;  a sober person walking the street was apt to be stared at and accosted by pushy drunks.

Jerome became interested in literature and did a little writing, but lost enthusiasm after a while as the literary agents were mostly fat and dirty people.  He quit the Railroad business after a while and became a poster hanger for a theatrical outfit, which inured him to traveling and dealing with sometimes obstreperous persons upon occasion.  Soon he was offered roles in touring repertory companies.  He learned how to live on almost no food and how to sleep in stables and doss houses:  traveling theatrical organizations didn't pay very much and sometimes not at all.  But Jerome became proficient in mastering roles on short notice;  he once said he played every role in Hamlet except Ophelia.

After a few years, he got a job as a reporter in London, being paid 3.5 cents a line.  He was hired in part because he'd learned shorthand.  He started writing theater reviews and even tried teaching in a small boarding school.  He taught Math, English, and sports for a semester and then went through a number of jobs.  He was secretary to a builder, a commission agent(he bought things for people), a parliamentary agent(helping push bills through parliament), and worked in a solicitor's office at which, between other duties, he was hired to manage Ouida's financial affairs (she was a spendthrift without limit).  Finally, after filling waste paper baskets with rejected poems and short stories, he found time to write a book:  "On the Stage - and Off".  The reviews of it were not too encouraging.  Max Beerbohm was angry with him for writing it;  Punch said it was vulgar;  the National Observer panned it;  and The Standard newspaper declared it was a menace to the world of English Letters.  Jerome's second book, "Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow" was a big improvement and sold well.

Jerome knew or became acquainted with many of the literati of the era:  Shaw, Wells, Eden Phillpotts, Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard,  Brett Harte, Arthur Machen, Israel Zangwill and his brother (they both wrote books), Sarah Bernhardt, George Moore, and many more.  James Barrie was very quiet, William Gilbert was fond of Turkish Baths, Rider Haggard was serious, H.G. Wells was shy until he started talking, then he was unstoppable;  George Moore was a kind person, George Gissing was the nervous type, and Twain was poor, but unpredictable:  he could be an elderly droll person, or come across as a young reformer.

Jerome wrote lots of plays and many of them were produced.  "Paul Kelver", a drama about his own experiences, was well received.  Some of his plays were taken around the world, playing in America, China, Australia, and other places.  He collaborated with Eden Phillpotts on "The MacHaggis"and some other plays.  He got a job managing a theater for six months, succeeding fairly well because of Bram Stoker's advice to avoid at all costs the temptation to actually manage anything.  Other plays that were popular were "The Passing of the Third Floor Back", "The Great Gamble", and "Miss Hobbs".  He was hired to edit a popular magazine, "The Idler" and it became a large success.  Rudyard Kipling got mad at him because he had wanted the job himself.  

Jerome seemed to enjoy traveling:  he spent quite a bit of time in pre-war Germany and got to know the German people who he found to be kind-hearted and generous.  But even in the Edwardian period, the streets were occasionally dominated by Prussian-type soldiers who shoved citizens off the sidewalks and generally behaved in a Trumpian manner, appropriating food and drink and bulldozing their way through urban society.  

Jerome made three trips to America, lecturing in cities all over the continent.  He was appalled at the treatment of black persons in the South, but got along well in almost every other area.  He also took vacations to the Alps, where he learned to skate and ski with such varied companions as Kipling and Doyle, but not with W.W. Jacobs who he recognized as a meticulous writer, but in his own words, "to tired to take vacations".  He toured Russia;  when he got off the train, several "huge, bearded ursine behemoths" kissed him and threw him around for a while in order to express their delight in his presence.  Jerome maintained that foreign languages were easy to master;  he claimed that twenty sentences would enable a tourist to get along in any European country.  He thought Bavarians used less than 300 words in ordinary, run-of-the-mill conversation.

He liked sports a lot and rode horses whenever he got the chance.  Boating was a gay affair until Edward came to the throne at which time it became socialized and not much fun.  Croquet was his nemesis:  the only game in which the harder you tried the worse you got;  the most successful players being children who didn't pay any attention to where the ball was going but seemed nevertheless to win every game.  Jerome once had to retrieve a ball from a nearby field and was chased by a bull before he could get back over the fence.

After the war began, Jerome, age 55, got a job driving ambulance at the front.  He described in some detail the rain, mud, lack of food, destroyed villages, the shrieking cannonry, the danger and the pathetic and tragic victims that he carried to safety.  This was toward the book's end, and he seemed, even in print, to have been traumatized by his experiences.  He finished by recording his feelings about religion and its relation to reality:  a pessimistic but, to him, logical conclusion that apparently afforded him some relief and satisfaction.

In some respects, this book was a telescopic vision of London society at the end of the Victorian era.  As those readers who are familiar with the "Three Men in a Boat" might predict, his prose style is replete with subtle and  ingrained wryness, humorous and penetrating at the same time.  I've never seen one of his plays, but from what i've read they're clever, pointed and highly entertaining.  The book was a lot of fun, the information about the peculiarities of some of the chief members of British literary history being illuminating, in particular as regards the theatrical world of that time.  I was surprised that P.G Wodehouse was not mentioned, but perhaps he lived just a little bit later.  It's difficult, however, especially after having become more familiar with Jerome's style of humor, not to feel that Wodehouse's style might have been influenced a lot by Jerome's.  At any rate, Jerome was a fabulously funny and witty person, and his associations with some of the major lights of that era were very interesting...

Saturday, October 24, 2020


Elizabeth Mackintosh (AKA Gordon Daviot and Josephine Tey, 1896-1952)

Henry Morgan was a farmer's son in Wales who left his family at about the age of fifteen and traveled as a deck hand to the West Indies.  He found work on Barbados working for a sugar plantation owner, who initially hired him on a four-year contract.  After two years, however, the owner became insolvent and was forced to let his hired help go, and to free his slaves.  This all took place in the 1650's, during the sporadic clashes between England, Spain, Holland and France.  The major conflicts involved the first two countries, but loyalties shifted frequently and resulted in a generally confused series of alliances that clouded the legal status of many of the 1200 to 1500 privateers and pirates operating in the vicinity.

Released from his job without recompense, Henry became associated with a group of unemployed sailors and hunters who were living off the land and casting about for work.  Their encampment was located near a fresh water creek not too far from the ocean, and passing ships often stopped to replenish their water barrels.  On one occasion, a Spanish ship stopped in the little bay and Henry convinced his compatriots that they should capture it.  So they did, Henry being the first to sneak aboard via the use of moss covered grapnel hooks (to make them silent).  The invaders only numbered 11 men, while a large number of Spanish seamen were engaged in drinking, sleeping, eating, and ignoring their responsibilities in general.  It was in the middle of the night, so the sentries were silenced and the rest of the crew cowed by the sudden assault.  The successful acquisition emboldened the new owners to cement their triumph by sending the former possessors on shore;  then they made sail and headed for Tortuga, a sort of free port where any ship was allowed to anchor, provided they had sufficient funds for satisfying the local merchants.  The ship actually was owned by Henry, as the usurpers had discovered a cache of pearls hidden in the main cabin wainscotting.  The wealth had been shared equally among the new owner/operators, but since Henry wanted sole command, he traded his share to the rest of his mates in return for proprietorship.  The lading was a cargo of logs which they sold profitably to a local carpenter.

Jack Morris, one of Henry's friends, wanted a ship, also, so they sailed back to Barbados in hopes of getting the local governor, Lord Modyford, to issue them Letters of Marque, so they could legally detain Spanish ships.  But on the way they saw the "City of Seville" crossing their bows, so they came about and fired a broadside into her, trusting that the "City" would be angered enough to chase them, so they could later declare that they were only defending themselves if they were accused of taking the ship in an act of piracy.  So Jack got his ship and the two vessels decided to go to the Isle of Pines just south of Cuba. After loading two cargoes of logs, the ships sailed to Port Royal in Jamaica.  Lord Modyford had just been appointed governor of that island and Henry wanted to obtain Letters of Marque from him to legalize his standing as a privateer.  Privateers were considered a step above mere pirates.  Modyford was not in a position to offer them the legal protection that they were seeking, but he indicated that since the island of Santa Catalina had been taken by the Spanish, they might want to take it back;  Modyford's son had recently been killed by the Spanish and this possibly accounted for his permissive suggestion.  This island was situated in the locus of many routes through the Caribbean and was of value for its location as a control point of said routes.  Attacking at night they found that the few soldiers present had decamped and they were able to establish a permanent English presence with some of the sailors settling there permanently.   

Returning to Port Royal, Henry married his cousin Elizabeth and bought a plantation.  He immersed himself in domestic activities for a while, but soon started dreaming about more conquests.  Porto Bello was the shipping point for all the wealth that Spain had stolen on the west coast of the Americas, so was a logical next objective for investigation.  Assembling a fleet of nine ships and 400 men, he sailed to Cuba.  A force was landed on the mainland and, marching inland for thirty miles, they had a clash with Spanish troops who had been informed of their arrival by a seven year old boy.  They feted him later for his courage and resourcefulness at such a young age..  Back at the beach, they chopped up the cows for later food on the Porto Bello expedition.  A drunk sailor, a friend of Henry's, killed one of their French allies and Henry shipped him back to Port Royal for trial, re-affirming to all his interest in justice regardless of race, color, or creed.

The assault on Porto Bello went off without a hitch.  The first fort was abandoned by the Spanish soldiery which allowed the assailants to travel through the jungle to the  back of the town and take it without any resistance being encountered.  They found lots of treasure, and some of the men who had been left on Santa Catalina island were in the dungeons in a fearful state as a result of the Spanish retaking that island.  Bitter hatred against the Spanish was fomented in the invading forces because of their cruelty and avarice.

After another rest period in Port Royal, Henry next organized an expedition to Maracaibo, a large lake in Venezuela around which were located towns with lots of wealth.  The entry to the lake was through a narrow inlet that was guarded by a well-armed fort with alert sentries.  They weren't so alert when Henry's forces were going in, but after assaults of several of the local towns, they were itching for a showdown when the invaders began to leave.  Since the commandant in charge of the fort was familiar with Henry's tactic of attacking from the inland side of towns and forts, he decided to point all his cannon toward the surrounding jungle and provide Henry with a surprise of his own.  But, foxlike, Henry switched his plans and sailed through the straits without losing a ship.

Finally, Henry began planning the invasion for which he has been most famous:  the raiding of Panama City on the western side of the isthmus.  After gathering his ships and men, he sailed to Santa Catalina and reconquered it, then landed on the east coast of Panama and unloaded 1200 men and supplies and began canoeing upriver through the jungle.  They had to get out and chop their way on foot for most of the trip, suffering from hunger, fever, and multitudes of snakes and insects.  They reached the city in parlous condition, only to find tiers of government troops in elegant uniforms ready to repel the weary and suffering assailants.  But when the first shot was fired, the Spanish troops bolted:  they were untried and inexperienced soldiers who were poorly trained.  The governor of the city bolted also, but not before burning the city to the ground, save for the stone buildings.  So there was not nearly as much treasure as the privateers had been hoping to find.  This resulted in grumbling and cast a shade on Henry's reputation.

Back in Port Royal, after a period of rest and recuperation, Henry and Modyford were recalled to London to answer for their extra-legal enthusiasms.  Modyford was temporarily confined in the Tower of London and Henry was vilified by the press until it became clear that he had acted in the best interests of the crown and the state.  Henry met King Charles II and was knighted for his energies in the West Indies and Modyford was freed.  They both returned to Jamaica where eventually Henry was appointed governor.

This was the penultimate book that Ms. Mackintosh wrote.  Well written, of course, and, in the first hundred pages especially, contained the turns of phrase for which she is well known: speaking of the West Indian atmosphere:  "In other climes light is a negative thing, a mere absence of darkness.  But in the islands when the fronds of the palm trees move in the wind the light runs in and out among them like a live thing.  So now when the restless island wind played with the kerchiefs and the petticoats the light, too, danced and ran, and the crowd moved continuously, like a field of flowers in the sun".  She can make scenes vivid in just a few words.  Toward the second part of the book, though, the language became a bit more pedestrian, as if Ms. M was in a hurry to finish her work.  Since she died from cancer and was writing in her last few years, her ebullience and esprit may have been, as one would expect, curtailed.  Still, it was an interesting book, with well depicted and adventurous action scenes in addition to her poetic and enlightening effusions.  I'd not say that this work was on a par with the Alan Grant series, but it held my interest and provoked my curiousity...

Saturday, October 17, 2020



Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

This is the fictionalized history of David Alroy, a member of a group of Hebrews who were captive in the city of Hamadan, Iran, in the twelfth century.  David's uncle, Bostenay, was known as the Prince of the Captivity, being the leader of a Jewish enclave that existed among the general Muslim population as merchants and tradespersons, lace-makers, iron-mongers and the like.  At the opening of the book, David was just about to be crowned as the new "Prince of the Captivity".  Bostenay, his uncle, wanted to retire and also wanted to honor David who was the reputed descendant of sacred kings of Jerusalem.  After the ceremonies and panoply celebrating David's installation, he interviews the Caliph Alschiroch, the governor of the city, outside the city walls, during which conversation Alschiroch becomes incensed at David's anti-slave attitudes and leaves precipitously.  Wandering about, David enters a large coliseum and sees his sister Miriam being accosted by the Caliph.  David seizes a large piece of wood and brains Alschiroch, killing him dead.  Then he tells his sister to go home and mounts Alschiroch's horse and dashes off into the desert, a place of "iron soil and brazen sky".  After several days of mad dashing David reaches the Elbuz mountains and finds a well at which he slakes his thirst.  His horse dies and David climbs the slopes to the top, finding a deep ravine barring his way.  He picks up a rock and finds a steel plate underneath that he lifts up, and, withdrawing a long chain stored within, he throws it across the gulch and it sticks to the other side, being magnetic.  David dances across and meets Jabaster, who lives in a cave and is a cabalist and is one of David's former teachers.  Jabaster lectures him for a while on his idiocy, then gives him a magic talisman to hang around his neck.  That night David dreams of vast armies warring against each other and himself leading one of the hosts in a golden chariot drawn by "strange beasts".  Jabaster tells him the next morning that in order to become the conquerer that he had dreamed he was, he would have to obtain the scepter of Solomon, a token of his descent from that race of kings, and that he would find it near Jerusalem. 

So David sets off on foot through the desert, heading toward Bagdad.  On the way he discovers a vast ruined city, abandoned and decayed, standing by itself in the middle of the wasteland.  A group of bandits seizes him and are about to do him in, when their leader, Scherirah, recognizes him as a fellow Jew and befriends him.  They swear eternal friendship and David continues on to Bagdad where he meets Honain, the brother of Jabaster.  Honain is a doctor and a well-respected person in Bagdadian society.  He's called to the palace of the Caliph to see Schirene, the Caliph's daughter, who is ailing.  David is along for the ride.  Schirene is taken with him and gives him a rosary to remember her by.  They fall in love, but David, intent on his mission, leaves Bagdad and begins walking to Jerusalem, still following the indications of his magic talisman.

Arriving in Jerusalem, he meets Maimonides who tells him of the lost tombs of the ancient Jewish kings somewhere in the vicinity.  Sleeping one night outside the city walls, he has a long complicated dream in which he travels through hidden caverns and crosses subterranean lakes until he finds himself at the foot of a 400 foot high brazen gate.  It creaks open and after entering, David walks along a corridor guarded by statues of kings until he reaches an ivory staircase.  Seated at the top is a stature of Solomon, holding a golden scepter.  David climbs up and Solomon gives him the scepter and then David wakes up with the scepter in his hand.

David returns to Bagdad and, with the help of the band of bandits, conquers the city and begins making plans to subjugate the entire middle east.  Through clever generalship and with the aid of friends, and the killing of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, he accomplishes his goal.  

(spoilers ahead)  David and Jabaster disagree about how to govern the conquered nations.  David wants to accept all religions and conduct a civilized and prosperous empire but Jabaster wants to kill everyone who isn't Jewish.  David marries Schirene and establishes a domestic court, much to the chagrin of Jabaster.  Mrs. David doesn't like the latter and has him imprisoned and he strangles himself in desperation.  Eventually a Turkish warlord named Alp Arslan gathers a large enough army that he reconquers David's empire, and takes him captive.  He spends a lot of time in a dungeon and at the last, after being led to the place of execution, he taunts Arslan beyond the limit of his self control and Arslan grabs his scimitar and beheads him.

I couldn't decide whether Disraeli was telling this story to point out the futility of conquest and ambition, or whether he was in admiration of this Jewish ancestor for his attempt at establishing a civilized state.  At the end it did seem as if he was assuming a wry attitude concerning the history he'd just finished relating, as the tale had an abrupt termination with David's head being lopped off.  But that's not unprecedented in Disraeli's work;  his first book, Vivian Grey(Alroy was his fifth or sixth) had the hero being blown to smithereens at the ending, as well.  I sort of got the feeling with this one that he was perhaps tired of writing it.  But he's a master at describing scenery and ornate oriental palaces, with an enormous vocabulary and a vivid imagination;  I've not read another author who could produce this sort of evocation in quite the way that Disraeli can.  It's not remarkable that he was a very popular author in his day.  I want to thank (Majoring in Literature) for suggesting this book...

Saturday, October 10, 2020


Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960)

Professor Felix Toddleben was a British expert on Lacerta, a genus of reptiles, mainly lizards of the iguana type.  After a long career, he retired to his country estate, Applewood, with his sister Nora and her daughter Mildred.  He entertained himself with dabbling in physics and in supervising the management of his forty acres of garden and woods.  They lived a peaceful and idyllic existence for the most part;  the professor noted once, that "idleness promotes happiness, allowing mental fermentation".  Rex the Great Dane usually participated in the general ambiance as a rule, but one night about 2 a.m. he began barking when there was a loud explosion in the garden, accompanied by a brilliant flash of light.  Dashing outdoors, the professor observed a large round hole in the back yard.  Smoke was issuing from it and its circularity and high temperature indicated that either a meteor had landed, or that imminent volcanism was about to overwhelm the surrounding area.  As the manse was situated in a non-volcanic region, the former premise seemed evident.  So in the morning arrangements were made to disinter whatever laid at the bottom of the 20' hole.  Several workmen on the estate, after some hours of struggle, managed to raise what resembled a giant metallic bullet about 7 feet long and 5 feet in diameter.  Examined in detail, the investigators spotted what appeared to be faint lines around the outside of the object, and by dint of effort, prying with crowbars, they succeeded in opening up the vessel.  Inside were found three small metal boxes.  One held some seeds and another contained a large egg, but the third had simply another box in it.  The professor identified the egg, light blue and leathery, as belonging to the Lacerta genus.  The seeds were apparently meant to provide food for the hatchling, while the remaining box held an assortment of vari-colored leaves.

Felix and Nora planted the seeds and placed the egg in a warm spot next to the fire place.  The seeds grew rapidly and the egg eventually produced a lizard with a very large head and enormous eyes.  His body was dark green with a red crest and dewlaps. The professor had a small addition built onto his house, with a sort of bed and desk and several chairs, and when the lizard, Saurus (named by Felix) was larger, they moved him into it.  Saurus was immediately observed to have extraordinary intelligence, although he was both deaf and dumb.  They acquired a small typewriter which Saurus soon learned to operate, enabling him to communicate with his human keepers.

Meanwhile, Mildred, who worked in London for the War office, had fallen in love with a Russian escapee (this was in the 1930's) named Serge Boluski, who had mysterious  antecedents and connections in the London underworld.

Saurus was soon found to have a brilliant mind, and was a voracious reader, devouring books by the wheelbarrow load.  He wore clothes, slept in his little bed (he was only about 2 and a half feet tall) and absorbed mathematics, literature, and reams of scientific texts.  It was not long before he was able to converse with his landlord, and Felix learned that he originated on the asteroid Hermes, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  They discovered that Saurus lived in a different time scale than humans, his life span being much shorter.  He would become old and die in about a year.  He showed no desire to visit the outside world, but was devoted to his literary and scientific researches, learning all he could about humans and their world.  Mildred, as well as her uncle, spent a lot of time with him and learned a lot.  They also found out that Saurus could read minds.  He couldn't transmit thoughts, but could receive them if they were directed at him;  from any distance, seemingly.  He didn't like to be touched and had an eidetic memory:  he never forgot anything.  Naturally he regarded himself and his race as superior to humans in every way, and demonstrated that conclusion whenever he had the chance.  He opined that "humanity was amazingly wicked, unreasonable and intolerant".  And his often repeated query was "why a conscious being, potentially good, contented to grovel in a mire of evil".  After reading all the books on philosophy he could access, he came to the realization that the only saving grace that might turn the human race around, would be the universal adaptation of the Golden Rule: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you".  But he realized that the chances of that occurring were almost zero.

One night, Saurus was awakened by a thought transmission from Mildred.  She'd been kidnapped by her fiancee and was being held in a seedy London rooming house.  Her captors had tied her up and were threatening torture to make her reveal secrets learned from her job with the War Office.  She had bragged to Serge, exaggerating her involvement in the clandestine operations of her superiors, so he was anxious to return to Germany with important revelations.  But due to Saurus's help, she was soon rescued by the police and the perpetrators were cast into prison.

The balance of the book described Saurus's opinions on good versus evil, the roles of individuals and the problems of gregariousness and how benevolence is so frequently overwhelmed by greed and the lust for power.  Saurus was most attracted to Buddhism, as it held peace to be the primary need and possession of man.  He compiled a sort of thesis which he gave to Felix, describing his thoughts about man's fight with hypocrisy:  basically, force outbids reason in humanity, quantity is valued over quality, freedom is willingly exchanged for slavery, and, most tellingly, competition is merited over co-operation.

Discussions with various persons of status are recorded;  bishops, lawyers, teachers and other philosophers, but Saurus's opinions are not shaken and his intellectual realizations are not altered.  After talking to him for several days, Mildred told him:  "Better to hope and fear like us, than never do either like you."  Toward the end of his life, Rex is his only companion, as Felix and Nora are upset because he won't leave his little house to attend an honorary session of the Royal Society.  And he won't let them read his diary.  His final suggestion is to establish an improved version of the League of Nations, with an emphasis on international law.  But he doesn't understand that if humans can't avoid getting into wars, they surely can't be persuaded to agree on any global legal strategies.  

Saurus passes away in a little over a year, but leaves his diaries for Felix and Nora.  Perhaps the most significant, but perhaps enigmatic, line in them, is: "when science recognizes the true meaning of morality, it will conquer the earth". 

Mr. Phillpotts wrote a lot of books, but his name has gone the way of many competent and interesting authors of the last couple of hundred years.  I haven't read a lot of his work, but i hope to remedy that in the future, as he seems to have given quite a bit of thought to the human dilemma in his long life.  I don't believe i'd recommend this book heartily to everyone;  just to readers who think about man's plight and those who poke into the depths of dusty philosophical tomes from time to time...  the prose is clear and lucid, though, and maybe some might find an esoteric satisfaction in coming to know him and his work...

Saturday, October 3, 2020


Francis Birtles (1881-1941)

August 21, 1907, Francis, escorted by members of the Sydney Cycling Club, left on a trip that was to take him to extreme northern Australia and back, in a circular route that passed by the Gulf of Carpenteria,  on to Port Darwin, and down through Alice Springs to Adelaide and then back to Sydney.   He was an experienced traveler, having enlisted in the Merchant Marine at the age of 15.  He'd circled the globe twice before his seventeenth birthday.  His bicycle was a Royal Speedwell equipped with a three-speed hub with freewheel, and Dunlop tires.  He was traveling light, the bicycle plus the requisite camping, eating, and sleeping supplies weighing 85 pounds.  He took a camera with glass plates and film with him, an aneroid barometer and, among other necessities, an assortment of chemicals.  Boric acid for sore eyes and feet and potassium permanganate for snake, lizard, and insect bites.

The first few days offered a taste of what he was to encounter off and on for the whole trip:  "wild dogs, demented dingoes", millions of ants, and bad water.  Not to mention snakes.  The terrain consisted of deserts, extensive areas of black mud, mountain ranges, loose sand deposits, and rutted and cracked dirt roads.  Each day presented its own challenges.  Several hundred miles north, near Ben Lomond, his brake cable slipped while coming down a big hill, and he luckily managed to evade the boulders littering the eroded road surface and came close to disaster at some of the sharp turns, the only major mishap being the discomfort experienced by his nether surfaces as a result of violent bouncing.  Near Ipswich he took a short cut that was distinguished by the presence of ten foot deep ruts in the not quite non-existent road.  Francis records that his bicycle bucked in alarm and bolted for about fifty yards at the sudden appearance of a three foot snake as thick as his wrist that made a dash at him from the tall grass.  He also describes the habits of alligators in Queensland that slyly lurk in the roadside underbrush until they smell a passerby and then jump out at him.  Once he noticed a brush fire looming in the smoky distance, but figured he could outrun it, which he did, but at the expense of two burned tires, some slightly burned clothes, and singed hair.  So he was forced to pedal the next fifty miles to the town of Gympie on bare rims.  He mentally patted himself on the back for his "saving sense of humor".  Between the towns of Mackay and Charters Towers, he hit a log while swerving around a rock and bent the front wheel into a pretzel.  A sympathetic family in a horse drawn wagon carried him into town and a blacksmith at Massey-Ferguson was able to fix it.  (I found that remarkable).  After being temporarily blinded in one eye by a bulldog ant, Francis cited a joke that concerned Sir S.W. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.  A friend asked him if he'd seen another associate with a sore eye by the name of Jones, to which Gilbert replied, "What was the name of the other eye?".  haha, sort of...  (Birles had a very wry sense of humor which crops up repeatedly throughout the book).  While contemplating a swim in a lagoon, he asked a local resident if there were any sharks in the area and was told that there wasn't.  But just before he jumped in, the local stated, "The alligators ate them all".

The coastal track around the Gulf of Carpenteria was mostly dry and barren, and Francis ended up having to push and carry his bike much of the way due to high grass, black, sticky mud and the lack of any sort of visible road.  The trip wasn't all a struggle against the elements, though.  Near the Gregory river he was surprised and delighted to see millions of multi-colored butterflies dancing in the sun amid the trees, celebrating the variety and abundance of life.  Immediately afterwards, it was back to slogging though muddy sloughs and coping with slick creek banks and peripatetically high water from flash flooding.  The mud got so bad it took him four days to cover fifty miles, and he was almost starving when he was rescued by the mail man.  This occurred near the town of Camooweal, a few low sheds situated by itself in a mud-plain, 200 miles from anywhere.

Further north-west, the muddy terrain changed in character to more of a swampy/jungle habitat, with a lot more water.  It rained 12" in five hours at one spot.  At one point he had to wade through a "blue-bush swamp" for three miles while intermittently up to his neck in water.  After removing the leeches and tending to his cuts, he was faced with eleven miles of pushing the bike through loose, deep sand deposits.  His boots had disintegrated by this time and he was soldiering on in his bare feet.  He ran out of food and had to walk (easier than riding)12 miles back to the last town to acquire provisions.  When the ground became firmer, he lost the track and was saved by  a party of drovers.  He was almost naked because he'd been burning his clothes to keep the voracious mosquitos from eating him alive.  Finally, in Brunette, a friendly storekeeper fed and clothed him, only to have him collapse for three weeks with a bad case of malaria.  Francis had left his bike hanging in a tree before becoming lost, so when he got well, he had to walk back and get it.

Pushing his way through high cane grass and bumping over rubbled and rutted roads, he arrived at last at Pine Creek, beyond the Catharine river.  He covered the final 60 miles in six and a half hours.  He treated himself to new clothes and a green salad, the first one on the trip, and, since he was close to Port Darwin, he cleaned up his outfit as best he could, so he'd be presentable when the Darwin Cycling club rode out to accompany him into town.  He was feted and applauded by all and sundry and observed that a "Chinese waiter had evidently served his apprenticeship in Fillemupagain", upon his refilling Francis's plate so many times.  Another malaria attack lasted eleven days and he left Darwin on July 18, 1908, destination Alice Spring.  He was weak and took his time, only making ten miles the first day, but regained strength quickly in order to tackle the black soil plains prominent on that leg of the trip.  There were lots of snakes, death adders, and centipedes as usual;  one snake was nine feet long.  They were attracted to the bicycle for some reason, possibly related to the whirring sounds produced by the spokes.  Deep sand and spinifex characterized the route, with varyingly deep trenches crossing the road.  A tale illustrating the nature of the underground maze of trenches:  a man lost his dog one day, but could hear him whining as he walked along.  Later that night, the dog appeared out of nowhere:  he'd apparently followed his owner's scent while following the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels underlying the area.  

The final legs of the trek were sketchily described by the author, as they were comparatively tame and uneventful compared to the more northern segments.  He described the ten foot high ant hills and their magnetic natures that were a source of mystery at that time.  The hills are invariably oriented on a south and north axis.  He rested again at Tenant Creek, and at Alice Springs.  Later he noticed a camel caravan herded along by Afghani tribesmen, and collected shell fossils at Eyre Lake, 28 feet below sea level.  Once he reached Adelaide, the road was smooth and uneventful all the way home.  He reached Sydney on September 23, after covering 8300 miles in thirteen months.

This story was only the beginning of Francis Birles' adventures.  Later in his career he circled the continent of Australia twice and bicycled across it seven times.  He did a lot of pioneer motoring also, making some seventy excursions to various parts by automobile.  He took lots of photos on this trip;  he must have been one of the first experimenters in that genre, in Australia any way.  

Some of the descriptions were laugh out loud hilarious and the overall tone of the prose was that particular wry Aussie humor, that sometimes takes a minute to sort out.  Very entertaining to read, however, and clear and informative as well as occasionally scary.