Monday, 9 December 2013

A Roundelay for Archducal Dylan.

I wonder whether you’ve noticed that the centenary next June (28 June 1914) of the cataclysmic death of an archduke (Franz Ferdinand of Austria) will be concurrent with the centennial of the birth of another notable honouree of an arch dukedom, namely Dylan Thomas*, Duke of Gweno … an arch ennoblement indeed.

But by whom so archly ennobled? If you have not heard of the King of Redonda, then I should explain it is an invention of M. P. Shiel (1865-1947), celebrated author of The Purple Cloud, a landmark of early British dystopian science fiction.

According to the current pretender to the Redondan throne, eminent Spanish novelist and translator Javier Marías, Redonda [is]:

… a minuscule island in the Antilles of which, at the age of fifteen, Shiel himself (a native of the neighbouring and much larger island of Montserrat) had been crowned king in a festive naval ceremony in 1880, at the express desire of the previous monarch, his father, a local Methodist preacher who was also a shipowner and had bought the island years before, though no one knows from whom, given that its only inhabitants at the time were the boobies that populated it and a dozen men who gathered the birds’ excrement to make guano.
It was within the gift of the past kings of Redonda, Marías affirms, to make ‘…dukes or admirals of various writers who were his friends or whom he admired…’, a patronage that included the elevation of Dylan Thomas to Duke of Gweno in 1947 (he proclaimed his fealty in drunken doggerel), a lineage of patronage that extends up to the present day, with a number of contemporary literary luminaries receiving preferment to aristocratic titles from King Xavier, Marías himself. 

An Awful Solitude. A Vagrant King.

But this minuscule account of mine of a minuscule micronation (named Redonda by Columbus for its roundness) is no more than a prelude, I confess, to a minor footnote I wish to add to the Redondan myth, which Shielian scholars may have overlooked; I cannot be sure.

I can be sure, though, of the fact that from my great-uncle I inherited a number of his bound volumes of the Strand Magazine, which in my childhood I read avidly for the Sherlock Holmes stories first published there in the 1890s, read also by my great-uncle when in his early teens at the time of publication. (His wife, my great-aunt, is presently in good health at the venerable age of one-hundred-and-seven).

So that is how, in my own early teens, I stumbled across a remote island resembling Redonda ... The Eagle’s Crag, described by M P Shiel in Volume 8, published in 1894.

Written when Shiel was 29 years old, it’s a more romantic conception of Redonda, I think. Significantly, Shiel also mentions in this story an ‘old Babylonish king, wet with the dew of Heaven’.  He means Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5:21). I note that The Great King: The Madness of Nebuchadnezzar was a story of his published seventeen years later in 1911. So it was a leitmotif of a vagrant king he sustained well into the 20th Century.

So is this fictional isle of 1894 an evocation of Shiel’s island kingdom? Judge for yourself from this extract from The Eagle’s Crag

… the Eagle's Crag ! This rock stands some miles from the mainland. The old fishermen of Liguria and Etruria in the palmy days of the Roman Republic called it Rupes Aquilina, because of the curious configuration of the summit, which resembles an eagle’s head and beak. And the old name still clings to it. lt rises in awful solitude sheer out of the sea to a height of near two thousand feet. It is shaped somewhat like one half of a cone slit down the middle – quite flat on one side, the other forming a convex surface. On the convex side, the south, not only is life possible, but a few poor men and women actually exist there. This south side has a regular steep incline upward to the very summit, and a bold and skilful climber may even reach the top; but once there, the brain grows dizzy to look down, on the north side, on a smooth wall of rock, falling away from the feet, not perpendicularly, but with a marked inward slant. Those who have so climbed and looked down, by stretching far out over the flat eagle’s beak, will tell you that it is a sight full of terror, making the heart sick. In all this wall of rock there is one break, and only one – a horizontal ledge, three feet broad, which runs right across it at a height of rather more than three-quarters of the rock’s height from the bottom. Quite near the end of the beak on that side a few shrubs grow.
In my personal view, this description is a psychical projection of the island Shiel once knew in his youth, transplanted by a fictionist to the coastal waters of the Ligurian Sea, some way offshore from the province of La Spezia.  

The illustration in the Strand of 1894 by A. Pearse perfectly captures the sombre mood of the vertiginous cliffs that rise on Rodonda’s leeward flank.

The Last Man and Woman in the World.

That the influence of Shiel’s last-man-last-woman fantasy, The Purple Cloud (admired by H. P. Lovecraft), continues to pervade the works of 21st Century writers of fiction is evidenced by my own barely perceptible nod to its meta-ethical survivalist message in my fiction, Lovesong in Invisible Ink, published in Listen Close to Me (2011, Salt), in which the narrator relates key episodes from her on-off love affair with Vivian, an army intelligence officer: 
About this time, Vivian was sent by the Rhine Army on a language course at the Intelligence School at Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps and then transferred to the Special Weapons Training Centre in the same town, in the shadow of Kofelberg’s crags, to learn how to fight in an atomic war.
    ‘How strange to think,’ Vivian once remarked, ‘that, as we rode the perilous cable cars high above Oberammergau, below us my fellow pupils were playing air-to-ground atomic war games.’
    He’d then paused and mused awhile and said, not so inconsequentially: ‘Of course, directly after the war, the Oberammergau passion play was still unregenerate religious bigotry. The crowds were still shouting the Jews were accursed, with blood on their hands and on the hands of their children’s children. Rather small beer, y’know,’ he drawled, ‘in the scale of things, when you’re in your host’s backyard learning how to attack the enemy with tactical atomic weapons for the total annihilation of entire continents.’
    Vivian’s unique meta-ethical viewpoint had been demonstrated to me very memorably at the height of the Cold War.
    We’d been sailing the Solent in his ketch off Cowes one July when, in the blink of an eye, Portsmouth’s naval dockyard exploded in a vast mushroom cloud that grew rapidly into a gigantic pillar of rolling white smoke, and small shards of metal and wood rained down on us.
    I truly thought World War Three had broken out.
    ‘Well,’ Vivian murmured imperturbably at the helm, turning his back on this apocalyptic vision to examine the glowing tip of his cigar, ‘when the balloon goes up I believe it’s incumbent on the last man and woman in the world to mate.’ 
    Then the ash of his cigar broke and fell, and he trimmed the sails and lashed the tiller to a course he’d set for Deauville.
    So we sailed calmly on; he the new Adam and I the new Eve, and we did not leave that tiny double berth forecabin until hours later when the skyline had darkened and the horizon was quite empty.
    We sensed the sea rather than saw it. Gazing into the firmament, we lay on the deck in each other’s arms, and lost all sense of time as slowly the sky seemed to draw us up into it; and so we drifted out in a state of drowsy contemplation towards morning.
    Only much later did Vivian learn that eight ammunition barges at the Royal Naval Armament Depot had been blown up by saboteurs.
That last (factual) ‘reveal’ only goes to point up the methodological maxim I have adopted as a fictionist: A dutiful writer of suspense does not invent; a dutiful writer of suspense just makes surprising connections.

*Hit-or-Miss Scattergun Methodology a Wasteful Virtue.

My earlier postings on Dylan Thomas make clear, I trust, my high regard for his true lyric tongue, a god-given free-flowing crystal fount that few poets – in their youth – can lay claim to. 
However, his ‘free verse’ methodology as an eighteen-year-old poet is considered suspect by perhaps the greatest scholar of his work, Professor Ralph Maud, who quotes Thomas's advice to a schoolfellow:
Why not, for a change, fire off round after round of ammunition from any old gun you can get hold of. You'll miss hundreds of times, but you’re bound to get a bull’s eye a lot of times, too. You'll find the hit-or-miss, the writing with no plot, technique will help you considerably in loosening your mind and in getting rid of those stifling memories which may, unless you are careful, get in the way of your literary progress. (February 1933.)
As Professor Maud cautions the impulsive, who may be inclined to emulate this method, ‘There is no other time when he seems more to have exhibited this kind of wasteful virtue, to have obeyed his instinct to “write, write, regardless of everything.” ’

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