Tuesday, December 29, 2020

After Silence

Thinking of Hamlet's last words, "the rest is silence," Aldous Huxley writes,

. . .all the things that are fundamental, all the things that, to the human spirit, are most profoundly significant, can only be experienced, not expressed. The rest is always and everywhere silence.

After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

After Silence is the title of the new album by Voces8. It celebrates their 15th anniversary, which just makes me regret that I wasn't aware of them until this year. Many thanks to the friend and colleague who shared their music with me.

The album is divided into four sections: Remembrance, Devotion, Redemption, and Elemental; but as the inexpressible for Hamlet is his own death, the pieces included in each section touch on mortality or irrevocable loss. As you'll hear, the music is both elegiac and uplifting, thanks to how superbly the voices blend and how beautifully the dynamics are shaped by artistic director Barnaby Smith.

From Remembrance, "Drop, Drop, Slow Tears," music by Orlando Gibbons, words by Phineas Fletcher, both Shakespeare's contemporaries:


Drop, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from Heaven
The news and Prince of Peace.

Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.

In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.

Voces8 has been accused of being almost too smooth, too technically perfect, which is a curious complaint. Of course, smoothness can shade into blandness if it is pursued to the exclusion of all other values, but Voces8 performs a wide-ranging and challenging repertoire. No one listening closely to what they are doing (and aware of the difficulty of achieving it) is likely to think that their performances are bland.

Unlike some other British a capella ensembles, Voces8 does not focus exclusively, or even, perhaps, primarily, on music of the Renaissance and Baroque. They have commissioned many new works, and the majority of the pieces included in After Silence (including all those in the final section, Elemental) were written in the 20th or 21st centuries. Well-known composers such as Arvo Pärt and Jonathan Dove are represented, but for me the most compelling music on After Silence is by composers I hadn't known before, such as Philip Stopford (his version of "Lully, Lulla, Lullay" is gorgeous and sad) and Eric Whitacre.

From Devotion, Whitacre's "A Boy and A Girl," the words a translation of "Los Novios" by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz:


Stretched out on the grass,
a boy and a girl.
Savoring their oranges, giving their kisses
like waves exchanging foam.

Stretched out on the beach,
a boy and a girl.
Savoring their limes, giving their kisses
like clouds exchanging foam.

Stretched out underground,
a boy and a girl.
Saying nothing, never kissing,
giving silence for silence.
Tendidos en la yerba
una muchacha y un muchacho.
Comen naranjas, cambian besos
como las olas cambian sus espumas.

Tendido en la playa
una muchacha y un muchacho.
Comen limones, cambian besos
como las nubes cambian espumas.

Tendidos bajo tierra
una muchacha y un muchacho.
No dicen nada, no se besan,
cambian silencio por silencio.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Enemy of All Mankind

Steven Johnson, Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History's First Global Manhunt, Riverhead Books, 2020

In September 1695 off the western coast of India an English pirate ship attacked the trading vessel Ganj-i-Sawai ("Exceeding Treasure"), which was laden with gold, silver, jewels, luxury goods, and dozens of pilgrims returning from Mecca to the Mughal court. The Ganj-i-Sawai (which the British called the Gunsway) was a formidable target: it carried 80 guns and 400 soldiers to defend the cargo and the 600 crew and passengers. The pirates were outgunned and outmanned by large margins. But they had surprise, speed, terror, and accident on their side.

The Ganj-i-Sawai was a luckless ship. The pirates' first volley brought down its mainmast, one of its cannon exploded and caused a fire on the gun deck, and its captain fled down into the hold rather than encouraging his men to fight. Despite the long odds the pirates were able to capture and plunder the ship ("plunder" included the torture of members of the crew and the gang rape of the female pilgrims). This act set off an international crisis that nearly resulted in the expulsion of the British from India.

The pirate captain, Henry Every, and the bulk of his crew were mutineers. Two years before the attack on the Ganj-i-Sawai a four-ship expedition had set sail from England bound for the Caribbean to salvage treasure from sunken Spanish ships. However, after making port in Corunna in the northwest corner of Spain the expedition was held up for months waiting for its authorization to sail. Unpaid since the start of the expedition and sick of waiting in port, Every, the charismatic first mate on the expedition's flagship Charles II, ultimately led a mutiny, seized the ship and sailed out of port. Renaming the ship the Fancy, Every navigated not west towards the Caribbean but south down the coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, and then northeast into the Indian Ocean.

His goal was the mouth of the Red Sea, a waterway less than 20 miles wide that would funnel Arabian and Indian traders right towards where his ship was waiting to intercept them. And although a convoy of trading vessels managed to slip past the Fancy by sailing through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait at night, afterwards the convoy separated. The Fancy, a ship that had been stripped down for speed, was able to catch up to and capture two of its ships, the Fath Mahmamadi and the Ganj-i-Sawai.

Anonymous 18th-century engraving of Henry Every, with the Fancy engaging with another vessel in the background. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The haul was immense. Pirate ships were floating collectives, and the Fancy's crew had decided to divide any captured loot equally (with the captain getting a double share). Most members of the crew wound up with money and goods worth hundreds of pounds, and Every's share was at least £2000. In comparison, the annual wages of an ordinary seaman in the Royal Navy might have been £10. It's no wonder that piracy held such attractions.

When word of the loss of the ships to the English pirate reached Dehli, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb assumed that Every, like many other privateers, was operating under a letter of marque issued by the British government. He ordered the arrest of the British factors in the port city of Surat, the seizure of their goods, and for his armies to prepare to assault the East India Company fort at Bombay. Cooler counsel ultimately prevailed, in part because Britain put a bounty on the heads of Every and his men, and in part because the East India Company agreed to provide armed escorts to accompany Indian merchant ships. Not only did this provide immediate income for services rendered, it placed the trade of the Mughal Empire under the protection, and ultimately the control, of the Company. It was a key shift, one of the many occurrences that over the succeeding decades would enable the Company to dominate most of the subcontinent.

Proclamation for apprehending Henry Every, alias Bridgeman, and sundry other pirates, 1696.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Johnson, a popular writer on business and technology, has hit on a fascinating story that, in retrospect, is an inflection point in British relations with India and in the development of global trade. Along the way he discusses the brutal and dangerous lives of seventeenth-century seamen; press-gangs and the slave trade; the history of piracy; the violent succession of Mughal Emperors; the rise of mercantilism and the creation of the joint stock company.

Johnson's tale is engagingly told, but he makes some mistakes, both minor and major, along the way. An example of the former: he writes of pirate Thomas Tew's Red Sea raid of 1693 (which probably inspired Henry Every's plans),

. . .most of the men on board took home roughly £2000 after the prizes had been fully allocated by the quartermaster. Recall the terms that James Houblon had offered the experienced crew of Spanish Expedition Shipping: £82 for the entire voyage. A midshipman on [Tew's ship] the Amity had earned fifty times that much in a six-month voyage. (p. 114)

More like 25 times that much, but still a handsome reward. Although his prize share had been between four and eight thousand pounds, enough money on which to live in peaceful retirement for the rest of his life, Tew unwisely returned to the Red Sea in 1695 and was briefly allied with Every. However, the Amity had its own encounter with the Fath Mahmamadi, during which Tew was struck in the abdomen by a cannonball and killed. If the rewards of piracy were great, so were the dangers.

Sometimes Johnson gets the math right, but calculates from the wrong assumptions. He writes that immediately after the mutiny,

Every's most pressing need was not for food or armaments, but rather men. The eighty pirates aboard the ship would not give Every enough manpower to exploit the Fancy's full potential in an exchange with another vessel. Each of the great guns on deck required at a minimum six men to man them in the heat of battle; with forty-six guns on board, Every knew he needed at least three times his current crew to fire a full broadside. More would be needed to fire the muskets, man the sails, and storm enemy ships if the Fancy were able to overpower them. (p. 111)

So by Johnson's calculation of six men per gun, during an encounter the Fancy would need 280 men to fire a broadside, plus more to "fire the muskets, man the sails, and storm enemy ships." Only, sailing ships didn't generally carry enough crew to man every gun onboard because ships fought side-by-side and during an engagement could usually at any time bring only half of their guns to bear. If the ship maneuvered during battle to change the side facing the enemy, the gun crews simply moved across the deck.

This can be confirmed by examining the crew complements of British 46-gun ships launched or acquired between 1680 and 1700, which range between 128 and 230 men and average about 170. For her armament the Fancy was undermanned at the start; Every probably wanted to double the size of the crew, but not (as Johnson has it) increase it by a multiple of three or four. Sailing ships were small and crowded and men needed food and water, which had to be stored onboard; any crew beyond the minimum necessary were burdens on a long voyage. In the event Every was able to recruit additional crew from the English, French and Dutch prizes the Fancy took on the way to the Red Sea. [1]

This is not the only error in the book that could have been corrected by a quick internet search. Johnson approvingly quotes historian John Keay's description of the Mughal Empire's use of some of the gold and silver paid for Indian spices and fabrics as "'nullifying its economic potential by melting and spinning the precious metals into bracelets, brocades and other ostentatious heirlooms.'" Johnson then adds his own description of the process as "the equivalent of winning the lottery and decorating your house with wallpaper made of hundred-dollar bills" (p. 50).

Jigha turban ornament, 18th century. White jade (nephrite), diamond, spinel and emerald in 22K gold. 14 cm. Photo by Robert & Orasa Weldon/GIA. Image source: GIA.edu

This seems like a false comparison. For one, the value of metals, gems, and other materials is not destroyed by their incorporation into jewelry; if anything the reverse. For another, jewelry, brocaded fabrics, and other luxuries possessed symbolic value: they were worn by rulers (not only in India, as portraits of English kings and queens attest) as highly visible manifestations of power and status; they could be given as gifts to reward the loyalty of subjects and reinforce networks of influence and patronage. Finally, even if you want to make the case that the manufacture of jewelry was not the most productive use of India's huge trade surpluses, the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707) is probably not illustrative of the point: he was highly devout and enforced the prohibition in Islamic law against men wearing gold. [2]

So what happened to Every and his men? After the spoils were divided up, Every sailed the Fancy back around the Cape. Reprovisioning only at Ascension Island, an uninhabited six-mile-wide volcanic speck in the middle of the South Atlantic, he sailed on to Nassau in the British Bahamas. [3] There the Fancy, all the goods in her, and a large sum of money were offered to the governor, who (probably for reasons both of prudence and profit) accepted the deal. The crew dispersed, with many heading to the American colonies. 

Every and twenty companions acquired a single-masted boat, the Sea Flower, and sailed northeast across the Atlantic to Ireland, where they split up. [4] Returning to the British Isles seems like a highly risky choice, and so it turned out to be: eventually eight crewmen were identified, arrested and put on trial in London for piracy (a fascinating story in itself, which Johnson tells well). 

But Every was not among those arrested. One of the captured crewmen who claimed to have traveled with him on the Sea Flower, Joseph Dann, testified that Every was headed for Scotland but had said his ultimate destination was Exeter in southwestern England, near where he'd been born. (Although, given the consequences of being found, how likely is it that Every would reveal his true destination?) 

Tantalizingly, Dann also reported an encounter just a few days before his arrest with the wife of the Fancy's quartermaster, Henry Adams, at St Albans, a stagecoach stop northwest of London. Mrs. Adams and Dann knew one another well, as she had met and married Adams in Nassau and had been one of the voyagers (and the only woman) on board the Sea Flower. Mrs. Adams was boarding a coach, traveling alone, and told Dann she was going to see Every. Interestingly, although Johnson doesn't mention it, St Albans was on the Great North Road, and a traveler boarding there was probably heading towards Yorkshire or Scotland and not towards Devonshire. 

But Mrs. Adams' reference to him, if true on both her part and Dann's, is the last known trace of Henry Every. After this moment he vanishes. His ultimate fate remains unknown.

  1. See the website Three Decks, which compiles known information about ships in the Age of Sail: https://threedecks.org/index.php 
  2. See Dona Mary Dirlam, Chris L. Rogers, and Robert Weldon, "Gemstones in the Era of the Taj Mahal and the Mughals," Gems & Gemology, Fall 2019, Vol. 55, No. 3, https://www.gia.edu/gems-gemology/fall-2019-era-of-the-taj-mahal-and-mughals, and Alice Keller and Terri Ottaway, "Centuries of Opulence: Jewels of India," October 11, 2017, https://www.gia.edu/jewels-of-india
  3. That the Fancy could navigate to a six-mile-wide island in the middle of a 2400-mile-wide ocean says a great deal about the skill of the men on board. Amazingly, 17 members of the crew elected to stay on Ascension rather than risk capture and execution in British territories. 
  4. Another remarkable feat of sailing and navigation.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley (1947), screenplay by Jules Furthman based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, directed by Edmund Goulding.

Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power, playing against his usual romantic-hero type) is a carny, drifting along and looking for a hustle. Trading on his good looks, he seduces the sideshow psychic Zeena (Joan Blondell) and tries to get her to reveal the secret code she used in her mind-reading act with her husband Pete (Ian Keith) before he took to drink.

Zeena refuses at first, but when Pete dies after drinking a bottle of wood alcohol he mistakes for moonshine (an accident that Stan has a hand in), Zeena needs a partner for her act and agrees to teach Stan the code.

Thanks to his hard-knock life, Stan also turns out to be able to draw on a deep well of pious patter ("It's what they used to give us at the orphanage on Sundays after beating us black-and-blue all week") and a gift for cold-reading—intuiting facts about someone (and the vulnerable points through which they can best be manipulated) through non-verbal cues. It's a gift that will fail him, though, at a crucial moment.

Stan is two-timing Zeena with Molly (Coleen Gray), another (younger, prettier) performer with an electric girl act, who is the girlfriend of the strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki).

Once they have the code and their lovers have discovered their betrayal, Stan and Molly leave the carnival and head for the big city to make their fortune.

Their upscale nightclub act, in which a blindfolded Stan (as "The Great Stanton") divines the contents of the audience's written messages thanks to Molly's coded questions, is wildly successful. In the audience one night is "consulting psychologist" Lilith (Helen Walker, with tightly coiffed/repressed hair), who asks The Great Stanton a trick question.

Stan dodges the trap and impresses Lilith against her better judgment. She invites him to her office the next day:

Lilith: "How did you know [my question was fake]?"
Stan: "I didn't. I just had a feeling that your question wasn't on the level. I figured you were trying to make a chump out of me. Just common sense."
Lilith: "It's not so common."
Stan: "I don't know about that."
Lilith: "Why?"
Stan: "I've got that same feeling right now."

Stan learns that Lilith records all of her sessions with her wealthy clients, and realizes that their confessions are a gold mine. It doesn't take long for Stan to convince her to help him launch an even bigger hustle: spiritualism. With the details he gleans from Lilith's recordings Stan can convince the credulous rich that he is communing with their departed loved ones, and in return they shower him with cash. But even if Lilith's name wasn't enough to tip him off, Stan should have listened to his instincts. . .

The carnival sequences are authentically seedy, in part because a real carnival was rented and installed on the backlot.

But the final third of the movie feels a bit rushed: transitions are abrupt, Stan uncharacteristically lets down his guard at a key moment, some actions seem inadequately motivated, and some major plot developments (such as a police manhunt for Stan) are left unresolved. 

It feels a bit as if director Edmund Goulding (Dark Victory, The Razor's Edge, Pickup on South Street) was forced to shorten the movie by 30 minutes, although clearly the Production Code is playing a hand as well. In William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel, for example, rich mark Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes) is racked by guilt because his youthful sweetheart Dorrie died in a botched back-alley abortion, something that veteran screenwriter Jules Furthman (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep) obviously couldn't allude to. And the ending of the film, which in one of its many instances of doubling/repetition grimly echoes the beginning, still offers a faint gleam of consolation entirely missing from the novel.

But Power gives an excellent performance as Stan, a guy for whom no scam, however successful, is ever quite enough, and whose fall leads him to make a desperate choice. And Helen Walker is a chilling femme fatale. She would later appear in Call Northside 777, Impact, and The Big Combo—I'm planning a personal Helen Walker film festival right now.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Semi-Attached Couple and the Semi-Detached House

Emily Eden by Simon Jacques Rochard, August 1835 (detail). Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London

The critic Q.D. Leavis identified the Victorian writer Margaret Oliphant as the bridge between Jane Austen and George Eliot. But there's another writer who might also be characterized as a connection between the two: Emily Eden. 

Eden was born in 1797, the year in which the 21-year-old Austen was writing First Impressions (later to be published as Pride and Prejudice), and died in 1869, the year in which the 49-year-old Eliot was writing Middlemarch. Eden's witty, ironic style was strongly influenced by Austen's work, and her fictional themes anticipate those of Eliot and other late Victorian writers such as Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell.

Eden never married. After her mother's death in 1818 she lived with her brother George and her sister Frances in London and later in India, where George served as governor-general between 1836 and 1842. On their return she published a book of her own lithographs, Portraits of the People and Princes of India (1844), and later an account of her travels in Simla, Up the Country (1869). 

She also wrote two novels. The first to be published (anonymously) was The Semi-Detached House (1859); its success motivated her to publish a novel she'd written and put in a drawer thirty years earlier, The Semi-Attached Couple (1860).

Title page of The Semi-Attached Couple. Image source: Internet Archive

The semi-attached couple is Lord Teviot and Helen Beaufort. Lord Teviot,

with five country houses—being four more than he could live in; with 120,000l. a year—being 30,000l. less than he could spend; . . .and the good looks of the poorest of younger brothers—what could he want but a wife? Many people (himself among the rest) thought he was better without one; but he changed his mind the first time he saw Helen. [1]

Helen is the youngest daughter of Lord and Lady Eskdale:

Yes, I knew Helen from her childhood, and had thought that such a gentle, gay creature could never be touched by the cares and griefs that fall on the common herd. . .Why was she to escape? I do not wish to be cynical; but if a stone is thrown into our garden, is it not sure to knock off the head of our most valuable tulip? If a cup of coffee is to be spilled, does it not make a point of falling on our richest brocade gown? If we do lose our reticule, does not the misfortune occur on the only day on which we had left our purse in it? [2]

After a "long attachment" of a few weeks and several balls, Lord Teviot proposes, and is accepted. But as this foreshadowing suggests, the marriage is not a success, and "cares and griefs" soon follow. He is short-tempered and jealous, and she is quick to take offense. They seem to willfully misunderstand one another. Their travails are dissected with schadenfreude by their gossipy, ill-natured neighbors, and seized on by opportunistic acquaintances who want to widen the rift between them for their own purposes.

The novel also follows the fortunes of Eliza Douglas, an unmarried daughter of one of those ill-natured neighbors. While visiting with Lord and Lady Teviot at their estate St. Mary's she meets Colonel Beaufort, Helen's cousin, and is smitten:

Poor girl! little did she think that while she sat quietly in the carriage, pondering over Colonel Beaufort's tritest remarks, [and] hoarding [them] up as most important recollections. . .little did she know that the ungrateful creature had dismissed from his mind all the conversations that had ever passed between them. . .and that she was merely to him a good-humoured little Miss Something whom he had met at St. Mary's. Shocking discrepancy! but so it will be, when young, ignorant girls fall in love as, I grieve to say, they often do with blasés men of the world. However, give them time and opportunity, and there is no saying whether the warm heart will not soften and conquer the hard one at last. [3]

I'll avoid spoilers, but I want to highlight the ironic narrative voice that Eden inherited from Austen but makes her own in passages such as these.

Of a marital dispute between Mr. and Mrs. Douglas about her suspicions of Lord Teviot:

[Mrs. Douglas] assured Mr. Douglas. . .that if she saw any chance of being of use to Helen the next day, she would do what she could; but as for not thinking ill of Lord Teviot and Lady Portmore and Colonel Stuart, and indeed of most people, she really could not oblige him by going so far as that. [4]

Of Mrs. Douglas musing on a prospective suitor for her eldest daughter Sarah, Mr. Wentworth, who is "drab-coloured in look, coat, and ideas": 

There was what artists would call a good deal of neutral tint in his composition; but he was well-principled, good-natured, reasonably wealthy, and attached to Sarah, so, as times go, she had reason to be thankful. It is well to lay hold of the exception, when the rule generally is, that the men who may marry our daughters are neither good, rich, nor attached to anything but themselves. [5]

Of the particular perspective that a life of extreme privilege affords:

Lady Eskdale had been dorlotée [coddled] through a prosperous life into a quiet belief that everything was for the best; and well might she think so, for she had had the best of everything. [6]

Title page of The Semi-Detached House. Image source: Internet Archive

The heroine of The Semi-Detached House is Blanche, Lady Chester, who, while her husband is away on a diplomatic mission, takes the abode of the title during her pregnancy (a word that never occurs in the novel; you have to read carefully not to be surprised when she goes into labor). "Semi-detached" means, in the way of all real-estate listings, completely attached, and Blanche is at first concerned about the proximity of her plebeian next-door neighbors, the Hopkinsons: he is a merchant captain away at sea, and she is the plump mother of two daughters, and grandmother to a three-year-old boy. But Blanche is soon chastened when she comes to know of the Hopkinsons' decency, generosity, and goodness. 

And she soon learns as well of the dangers of snobbery and prejudice, as exemplified by the Baroness Sampson. As the near-Old-Testament name suggests, the Sampsons are coded as Jewish, despite their ostensibly Christian faith. The Baroness shuns the two Hopkinson girls, whose sweet, guileless, and considerate natures her niece Rachel has discovered:

'I never saw two more uninteresting girls—no manner, no usage du monde [worldliness]. What could you find to say to them, Rachel? I am sure you have seen nothing like them in my set.'

'Nothing whatever that bears the slightest resemblance to them, Aunt.' [7]

Baron Sampson is as odious as capitalists come:

The conversation was gradually drawn by the Baron to foreign trade, to China, and finally to a projected Hongkong railroad. 'I am delighted to obtain such valuable information from such excellent authority; I have taken a few shares in this company—not, as you may imagine, with any idea of profit. . .I feel that railroads, and harbors—in fact, facilities for trade are the best means for the conversion of our Eastern brethren. . .Though these railroads may carry opium, Christianity will have its ticket too.' [8]

The Baron alludes, of course, to British trade with China, which involved military invasion and occupation to compel the Chinese to buy British opium (grown in India) in exchange for porcelain, silk, and, above all, the substance to which Britons were primarily addicted: tea. The Baron is clearly a model for the mendacious railroad financier Melmotte in Trollope's great novel The Way We Live Now (1875).

Emily Eden's fiction features scenes of marital disharmony, class snobbery, political chicanery, and financial fraudulence, but it is not primarily for their plots that her novels deserve to be read. Instead, it is her witty and ironic narrative voice that makes her seem to speak to us so vividly.

The full texts of The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House are available online through Mary Mark Ockerbloom's "A Celebration of Women Writers" project. For other formats, see archive.org.

  1. Any echoes of "a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" are entirely intentional.
  2. Emily Eden, The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. I, Ch. I.
  3. The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. II, Ch. VI.
  4. The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. II, Ch. IV.
  5. The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. II, Ch. VII.
  6. The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. II, Ch. VIII.
  7. Emily Eden, The Semi-Detached House, Ch. XVI.
  8. The Semi-Detached House, Ch. XVI.