June 11, 2013

Adolf in Blunderland: a treasure from the basement

Adolf in Blunderland.
Alice in Wonderland is one of my favourite books and I love coming across it in any guise - from the Swahili version I encountered on the Internet archive library to the Mervyn Peake-illustrated edition which was the star of the University of Sheffield Library's exhibit Mervyn Peake’s Alice a few years ago.

You can imagine, therefore, how intrigued I was to come across an old, cardboardy book called Adolf in Blunderland in the Central City Library basement. The cover bears a caricature of Adolf Hitler in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit looking up at a giant caterpillar with Neville Chamberlain’s head, moustache, top hat and all, as he sits on a mushroom with a cap that resembles a map of the world. The Caterpillar is clearly about to offer Adolf a chance to take a bite out of it, just as the real Chamberlain did.

The book was published in Great Britain in 1939 and donated to the library by a Mr Griffiths in 1984. The authors are James Dyrenforth and Max Kester, James Dyrenforth being a noted lyricist of the 1930s and 40s who wrote the sorts of songs that are recorded by musicians with nicknames and their own orchestras, such as "Skitch Henderson and his orchestra".

The parodies of the Alice poems in this book are, in fact, very clever:

"You are old, Kaiser Wilhelm," young Adolf said,
"And your famous moustache now falls flat…"


'Twas the voice of the Fuehrer ! I heard him declare,
"If you want a good massacre, bomb from the air…"

However, the best moment for me in the whole book is the tea party, where the March Hare has become "March Into", and the Mad Hatter is the "Flatterer". And the dormouse? Read on:

March Into: No room! No room!
Adolf: There's plenty of room.
Flatterer: Only if we annex Hungary, as the great March Into suggests.
Doormat (weakly): Germany is hungry.

syndetics-lcAt the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival this month, I was lucky to get a chance to interview Sir Max Hastings, author of All Hell let loose (a history of World War II that Hamish Keith thinks is the best ever written) along with many other fine books, including a funny memoir of his dysfunctional childhood I'm reading right now, Did you really shoot the television? A family fable. I took Adolf in Blunderland along to show him.

I told him about how when I found it, I was delighted by its cleverness, but after I'd finished reading it, it didn't seem as much fun as I had thought. Hastings said, kindly, "Yes, parodies usually aren't as successful out of their times", but that wasn't what I meant. It wasn't that the style was anachronistic - it was the story itself, and knowing, unlike the authors, how it would end: the carnage and the millions dead.

It occurred to me that writing a parody like this, for two Englishmen, was a bit like when I used to write poems about my sadistic high school science teacher, likening him to a turtle, or a camel, as the mood struck me. It's not the last laugh, it's what you have instead.

Read this post on Booktryst about an outstanding collection - nearly 500 books - of "Wonderlandia" at the University of British Columbia Rare Books and Special Collections Department. Yes, Adolf in Blunderland is there.

June 04, 2013

Sir Lloyd Geering at AWRF 2013: "How Humans Made God"

There aren't a lot of attractions which can inspire me to make an exception to my Never-Early-on-Sunday rule, but Lloyd Geering delivering the AWRF's Michael King Memorial Lecture, introduced by Brian Boyd, is one of them. How could I miss the chance to hear the theologian who's been called "the devil incarnate" and "the new Galileo" for saying "Of course, Man has no immortal soul"?

My notes say there were 1200 people present; although I didn't note how I knew. I wasn't counting, and I can't believe that Brian Boyd, who introduced the lecture, would have been reciting the latest capted tweets about the session as some AWRF presenters were doing. What I do know is that -- and I can't swear it was the only time this happened at the festival, because of course I couldn't be at all sessions, but it was certainly the only occasion on which I witnessed it -- the applause which started up with the last line of Prof. Boyd's introduction didn't just increase, but doubled, when Lloyd Geering emerged from the wings and stepped up to the lectern.

"The assertion that humans made God is one that only a century ago most people would have found blasphemous and even now most people consider silly and absurd," he began, by way of leading into a discussion of the notable thinkers from the mid-nineteenth century and beyond who have been his inspiration for just such an assertion.

He took us from Hegel ("the first philosopher to say God is dead was not Nietzsche but Hegel, and he did this by introducing to the Western mind the notion of historical development, thus preparing the way for evolution") to Karl Marx, who saw man moving towards the classless society, and then on to David Strauss, who revolutionised the study of the New Testament, in particular the historical investigation of Jesus, and, finally and above all, to Ludwig Feuerbach, "the first theologian to assert we humans made God".

Geering's three revolutionaries:  Copernicus in cosmology, who revolutionised our idea of the Cosmos; Darwin in biology, who revolutionised our idea of our origins; and Feuerbach in theology, who "revolutionised our understanding of religion by turning religion upside down".

Feuerbach said that man created God as an idea in the human mind. It was a creation was made possible by the evolution of language. "Language above all differentiates us from the apes," says Geering. "Language enables people to construct a thought world, a world that can be passed on to future generations. We call it 'culture'."

"This world evolved and is still evolving in tandem with the world of language. Language began 50,000 years ago, by naming objects. Things which could not be seen but only felt took longer to name."

"It's misleading to use the terms 'religion' and 'science' in speaking of the primitive world. Gods were as much a creation of primitive science as of primitive religion in that they explained the mysteries of the natural world."

"The cultural age of the gods lasted a very long time, but a time arrived when the gods ceased to be the most convincing way of explaining the world." Geering dates the birth of God to 500 BC, the era of the Jewish prophets, the first appearance of the commandment  'Thou shalt have no other gods but me'. "It is here that their word for God assumed the status of a proper name."

I liked his take on the Origin Story. "In the old days, a thesis didn't have to be proved, it just had to make sense. And this story made eminent sense."

Religion, Geering postulates, is really anthropology, or, as he quotes Feuerbach, "We project onto God all the talents we would like to possess".

God played a powerful role in taking us to the modern world. "The idea of God is great", Geering says, "and it enabled people to believe that they lived in a universe and not a multiverse. Feuerbach said it allows us to live life to the fullest by learning how to embody our highest values."

"I say," says this intrepid 95-year-old, possibly the only person I've known of in a developed country to have faced a charge of heresy (not quite "The Spanish Inquisition!" but certainly suggestive, nonetheless...), "the idea of God has done its work and it's up to us to shoulder the responsibilities we once expected a heavenly parent to bear".

June 01, 2013

Ron Brownson on Pat Hanly and "The Joy of Art" at AWRF 2013

I was very happy to discover upon arriving at the Auckland Art Gallery that this session was a sell-out, landing Ron Brownson and Pat Hanly up there with the rock star and the war stories, but as more and more people disappeared through the door to the auditorium I became a little apprehensive that I would be that one fan who wouldn't make it in.

As it turned out I was found a place among those circumstantial seats in the very front row, practically under the podium, and there was Ron Brownson himself, a few seats over, waiting to go on. When he spied me, he popped conspiratorially into the seat next to mine and anticipated to me that there was a good line about Auckland Libraries coming up.

The line was "I was recently outed by Auckland Libraries. Someone said, 'That took a long time!'"

I count on that being a reference to his having taken part in "Review Revue", the event I ran during this year's Pride Festival highlighting the world of gay fiction, which made me very proud. On that occasion, Ron read a very funny story he'd written about his experiences as a boy going to the library to look for books about sex, rather unsuccessfully, unless you count the Kinsey report a good read. But he loves Auckland Libraries, where I first met him ten years ago over books ... not about sex, but about Persian carpets. ("That's Ron Brownson. He knows everything about Persian carpets." a librarian had whispered to me as he approached.)

At the Art Gallery, Ron was there to talk about the great New Zealand artist Pat Hanly, about whom he also knows a lot, both as a personal friend and as an art curator (Senior curator for NZ and Pacific Art, to be exact).

He confided that when he chose the title of his talk, people didn't like it. But he insisted that it was right for Pat's art.  "It's for joy. It adores living."

He went on to recall the state of New Zealand art in the 1950s, when Pat Hanly left for Europe, as many artists were doing. It's easy not to realise that there were probably not 50 people in New Zealand working full time as visual artists. "There was not a community of artists here," Ron said dryly, adding that the Art Gallery did not show contemporary artwork until the 1960s.

Then, luckily for New Zealand art, in 1962, after he'd been sucking at the "European teat" (to borrow the term Hamish Keith used to him) for five years, being influenced by Chagall, Francis Bacon and Pop Art, Pat Hanly decided that he preferred the "blue antipodean freedom of New Zealand or Australia" and came back.

At that point, Rita Angus was a full-time artist, but Peter McIntyre was having to do family portraits to get by as an artist; neither were Toss Woollaston or Colin McCahon full-time artists. All did become full time artists after Pat's return and for Ron,  "I am convinced it was Pat who made that happen."

One of the changes Ron pointed out was how Pat's beach paintings from the 1960s were urban paintings: "These are not farmers we see."

Ron talked about the clear light, the bright colours. "I'll tell you the reason some people don't like his paintings. It's because they are about joy and happiness".

Pat's self-portrait: "It's seeing oneself as part of a very large world. The word for this is cosmic".

And then Ron read us Robert Sullivan's wonderful poem "Arohanui":

Big love, that's what it means.
Aroha Nunui means huge love.
Aroha Nunui Rawa means very huge love.
Aroha Nunui Rawa Ake means bigger very huge love.
Aroha Nunui Rawa Ake Tonu
          means bigger enduring very huge love.
Aroha Nunui Rawa Ake Tonu Atu
          means biggest enduring hugest love,
which are some of the lengths and times of our longing.

And closed by saying

"I'd like you all to think about Pat Hanly, how much he's meant for our city and for our cohorts."

A wonderful hour, graced by the presence of photographer Gil Hanly, Pat's wife, taking photos, reminiscing with Ron, appearing with Pat in old photos Ron showed, such as Marti Friedlander's famous portrait from 1969, now in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.


The Auckland Art Gallery holds 92 works by Pat Hanly which you can browse here,

Ron also showed us the beautiful new book Hanly from Ron Sang Publications, with an essay by Gregory O'Brien, plus contributions from John Coley, Quentin McFarlane, Barry Lett and Dick Ross, and Gil Hanly as photographic editor.

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