George Bernard Shaw saws wood

IMG_20160306_0001Found – a sepia photo of George Bernard Shaw sawing wood. The photo measures 8 inches by 6 and on the back is written “GBS 88th birthday”. It was probably a press  photo taken in the grounds of his garden at Ayot St Lawrence.  It was 1944 and nine of his  plays were staged in London during that year – he was undergoing a revival in his popularity but was concentrating mainly on journalism…He died six years later at the age of ninety-four of complications precipitated by injuries incurred by falling while pruning a tree. The hat  looks Russian, possibly leather, and is rather splendid.

Action list from John Osborne

Found in Christoper Herold’s Mistress to an Age. A Life of Madame de Stael (Hamish Hamilton, London 1959) a list scribbled on the front endpaper. The book came from the library of the playwright John Osborne (1929 – 1994). It has a posthumous book label reading ‘From The Library  of the Hurst. The John Osborne Arvon Centre Shropshire.’ The Hurst was his final residence – a large country house, now a cultural centre owned by the Arvon foundation. The writings are Osborne’s notes to himself about changes possibly needed (or not) in his life.

Handwritten  notes-to-self are not uncommon in second hand books, although they tend to be in self-improvement or psychological/ spiritual works. In a jot from 2013 we show a copy of  48 Laws of Power with notes by King of Pop Michael Jackson. The connection with Osborne and Madame de Stael is obscure. Osborne appears never to have referred to her in a play.. He has a few notes about her on the rear endpaper: ’How that girl plays at sensibility writing letters from room to room..’ He notes a quotation from Voltaire about Diderot: ‘No one has ever written more amusingly on famine.’

He also highlights something that Madame de Stael wrote to her husband -‘What I love about noise is that it camouflages life..’ His biographer writes that Osborne had a life-long hatred of noise, often writing complaining letters about it. This action list /cri de coeur probably comes from a period in the 1980s when he was at a low ebb, especially as his film production company (Woodfall) which had (1970s) made a fortune from the worldwide success of Tom Jones (he wrote the script) appeared to be in a serious financial mess. The endpaper notes read:

1. Sex

2. Desire to work

3. No desire to work

4. Whether to give up work altogether. 

5. Desire to do something else altogether. Pure leisure e.g.

6. Decision to give up drink

7. Decision to go on drinking and resign to an early grave.

8. Decision to change way of life and live sober/ industrious (illegible) life  dedicated to self-improvement and tough grappling with all problems mostly   (illegible)

9. Give up Woodfall

10. Not give up Woodfall for reasons of sentiment, cowardice and expenditure

11. Seek new place in which to lead better, less wasteful life

12. Stay put

13. Go on holiday.

14. Stay put.

15. No. More (illegible – cats?)

Marlowe in Abadan

Another humorous piece from the papers of  'EVOE' i.e. Punch editor E.V. Knox. A Kit Marlowe parody…


 "Our methods of dealing with Persia have scarcely been those of Tamburlaine the Great," I wrote; and then (remembering a recent dramatic performance) I thought "How very strange if they had been." Something, I suppose, after this sort.

Enter, from underground holes, MR. MOUSSADEK and the BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY, with great voluted swords.

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John Osborne’s review slip

This review slip was found in a book from the library of the playwright John Osborne (1929 – 1994). It was loosely inserted in Bertrand Russell's Fact and Fiction (Allen & Unwin, London 1961) with a handwritten signed letter written on headed notepaper from The Daily Herald, P.O. Box 196, 2-12 Endell Street, Long Acre, London W.C.2., dated October 11th 1961 and addressed to Osborne from their literary editor Frederick Laws. Consisting of about 40 words it says he is not sure if Osborne can find time for reviewing but hopes that the enclosed will interest him.

The typed slip from the same address is a standard covering note for reviewers saying the review is for their 'Book a Day' feature and gives details of how long the review should be and how it should be presented. Finally he says: ' Should you decide that the book is not worth reviewing, will you let us know as soon as possible? We do not want to notice books which are uninterestingly bad and unlikely to mislead anyone.  If, however, the book strikes you as important but you are unable to review it, please return it to Frederick Laws'.

Not sure if Osborne ever reviewed the book; there is very little evidence that he read it. In our experience reviewers seldom return review copies to source, free books that can be later sold are one of the few perks open to reviewers...

The face that launched a thousand ships

In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus the hero greets Helen of Troy with two of the most famous lines in English literature:

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium ?

It was always assumed (for some reason) that this arresting imagery could not have emanated new-minted from Marlowe’s imagination, and for years scholars tried to find a source. Classical texts were ransacked for clues and in 1938 the art historian W. S. Heckscher, writing in the Journal of the Warburg Institute, reported that in an exchange between Hermes and the cynic Menippus in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead he had discovered the following lines which had been prompted by the two men surveying a pile of skulls of the once famous, who included the former beauty, Helen of Troy:

Menippus: And for this a thousand ships carried warriors from every part of Greece;
Greeks and barbarians were slain, and cities made desolate.. (translation by F. G. Fowler )

Heckscher argues that this democratic dictum of mors omnia aeqat (in death we are all equal)-- that the facial characteristics of beauty and ugliness which distinguish us in life-- are wiped out in death, was  quite common in the later period of the ancient world. He also speculates that the learned Marlowe probably met with the Lucian dialogue from the translation by Erasmus of circa 1535.
Of course, a similar message can be found on gravestones in Britain from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. One epitaph that never fails to chill my bones accompanies a most life-like skull:

Remember man, as you walk by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so shall you be ….


Many thanks Robin...Eliot's lines from The Waste Land inevitably come to mind:

Gentile or Jew  
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Consider Phlebas? Good title for a novel...

Hope Mirrlees The Counterplot (1925)

Found in the Donald Rudd collection of detective fiction at the back of Death of a Millionaire (Collins 1925) amongst the publishers announcements of forthcoming books this summary of the plot of the very rare Hope Mirrlees novel The Counterplot. These publishers advertisements  are useful to dealers, scholars, collectors etc., as they are able to ascertain what a book is about without the tedium of reading it. Also they are particularly useful for collectors of fantasy to see whether there is any supernatural content. Hope Mirrlees did write one fantasy Lud-in-the Mist published by Collins in 1926. This novel was described by Neil Gaiman as 'one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written.' Her novel The Counterplot contains within it a 100 page play. Hope is also celebrated for her ultra modernist long poem Paris (Hogarth Press 1919).

The Counterplot

The Counterplot is  a study of the literary temperament. Teresa Lane, watching the slow movement of life manifesting itself in the changing interrelations of the family, is teased by the complexity of the spectacle, and comes to realise that her mind will never know peace till, by transposing the problem into art, she has reduced it to its permanent essential factors. So, from the texture of the words, the emotions, the interactions of the life going on around her, she weaves a play , the setting of which is a Spanish convent in the 14th century, and this play performs for her the function that Freud ascribes to dreams, for by it she is enabled to express subconscious desires, to vent repressed irritation, to say things that she is too proud and civilised ever to have said in any other way.