In the early years of the twentieth century, the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, who had previously focused on impressionist presentations of landscapes, was moving in a more abstract direction. Moving from the Netherlands to Paris in 1911, he was visiting his home country upon the outbreak of World War One, which made returning to Paris somewhat difficult. Already influenced by the new art style of cubism, Mondrian’s stay at the artist colony at Laren during the war allowed him to met other artists, such as Bart Van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg. The three artists, all moving towards abstract art, collaboratively began an art movement named De Stijl, or “The Style”, with a journal by the same name publishing essays on the movement and its theory of art, which Mondrian called “Neoplasticism”.Continue reading
Bath Abbey feels like graveyard folded up and over on itself into a church. Every stone you stand on is a memorial, dedicated to an honoured (read: military or wealthy) individual. When the floor was repaired and upgraded with better heating systems a few years ago, these stones were carefully removed, their exact position marked, and returned to their original resting place. Similar, if in better shape due to not being stood on, memorials line the walls of the Abbey up to just above my full height, meaning they tower over most visitors. These memorials are often personal, marble inscribed with the names and stories of those they remember, listing their virtues as persons. Often they didn’t live most of their life in the city of Bath but rather across the world, working in the united states (including a US senator), Africa, the Carribean, India…
It is easy to miss, as I did initially, that these memorials, dating from the seventeenth and eightheenth centuries, are often memorialising those directly involved in British colonialism, up to and including the capture, sale, purchase and torture of slaves. It is, for obvious reasons, rarely mentioned on the memorials. Except for when it is, with pride. One of the largest monuments is to William Baker, who was the director of the East India Company and later Governor of the Hudson Bay Company, two power private companies that helped establish the British Empire’s colonies in India and Canada, and who controlled vast amounts of the global trade network of the eigthteenth century. Above the plaque listing his life stands a carving showing a woman, representing London, obtaining resources from figures representing the various colonies.
Much like the Pitt Rivers museum, the Abbey is well aware of this history, and has been taking steps to address it. In the North transept stands the Monuments, Empire and Slavery exhibit. It was this exhibit that alerted me to the nature of the monuments in the church, and how, like so many institutions of the British Isles, the Church and the City of Bath profited massively from the colonialism of the British Empire and the slave trade it engaged in for many years, the Church of England outright owning plantations that used slave labour. The Abbey is, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, examining and making public this dark history of both the Abbey and those it memorialises. It is a good exhibition I think, particularly at the beginning, where it lays out very clearly the overarching history and issues it is confronting, and at the end, where it discusses what the Abbey is planning to do further and the organisations such as the Black in Bath Network and the Bath Ethnic Minority Senior Citizens Association that they are partnering with. There is a prayer, which I do understand is important for a Christian church, and it is acknowledged in the prayer itself that action must be taken to address this, as well as a poem, Dark Shadows, written by the local black poet Mark De Lisser a reading of which by the poet is avaliable here.
The middle of the exhibit is for me the weakest part of it, or at least the weakest part of the content, where it focuses more on specific stories involving the Abbey’s links to slavery, but it felt rather more…not outright apologetic, but pulled itself back a bit from its criticisms of them, describing how, for instance, a man hired as an explorer by the Royal Africa Company wrote in his personal log how he didn’t personally agree with slavery but he brought slaves at a market under orders of the RAC anyway. The poster ends on a line about how he viewed it as his duty, which just felt incomplete. In some ways it feels like the opposite of the musical Hamilton, which was happy to criticise Hamilton and his contemporaries on a personal level but struggles to criticise them on a political level, which explains the issues the musical has in approaching issues like slavery. Here, the exhibition is perfectly willing to make criticism on a political level, clearly laying out the moral failings of institutions, but seems to struggle with extending that criticism onto the people who made up those institutions, the people who’s memorials decorate the Abbey’s walls and floor. This issue of who’s stories are told in the exhibition extends the other way as well. While there are still discussions about enslaved people at the Abbey, including some who got baptised while they and the ones who currently enslaved them were visiting Bath, as far as I could tell and as far as I remember there weren’t any direct names or stories of the enslaved people given in the exhibit. Even in an exhibit discussing slavery and how we memoralise those involved in it, there were no stories of the enslaved.
That choice, whether due to unconcious bias or practical issues in the records the Abbey has historically kept (i.e. the evidence of the slave owners is far better perserved than the enslaved), is kind of a microcosm of a major issue with history. History is not the past. The past is far larger and includes everything, all the information lost to time, malice and apathy, all the people who’s story has, for whatever reason, not been told, but history is the stories we tell about the past, informed by the information that survives and reaches us in the present day and by our own biases and views. Every new examation of history, every narrative constructed in someway attempts to rewrite history, for better or for worse, and part of that is often establishing what information you think should be examined and what you think is important to leave for future historians when we become history ourselves.
And it is this, the information that is left behind and how it is preserved, that is probably my biggest issue with the exhibit. The monuments in the Abbey are old, centuries old, and are impossible to miss whether on the walls or beneath your feet. The stories as framed by those rich enough to have them carved into marble are a permanent part of the abbey, carefully replaced in the exact places they originally lay when the floor beneath them was modernised. The exhibition, for all the geniune good in it, is a temporary fixture, running till the fourth of september 2021, literally the day this blog post goes live. The posters are placed in a quiet corner of the Abbey, not as immediately eye catching as the monuments, and are on temporary wooden boards, not stone designed to last long after we are gone. It is a good step to make, and I wish Bath Abbey and its partners the best in their attempts to bring to light to these dark shadows, but I simply could not escape the contrast between wood and stone, paper and carvings.
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Like so many cities, the Bath is defined by its geography. Crossing several hills, the core of the city is the hot spring that still bubbles away today, producing millions of liters of water at temperatures of 46 degrees centigrade. Rainwater that fell on the hills thousands of years ago slowly drops through the rock below until it is heated enough by geothermal energy it is forced back up through a fault in the Earth’s crust. This spring is the only hot spring in the british isles, and it has been a major focus throughout human habitation here, and that has been a long time.
Bath is an old city. According to legend, as told by a sign near a statue of a man and his pig, the city was founded around a millenia before the arrival of the romans by a figure named Bladud, one of many individuals proclaimed at one time or another to be “The Rightful King of the Britons”, but was unable to take the throne due to contracting leprosy. Bladud was banished to become a swine herd, wandering the edge of the provience, where his pigs found a strange bath of hot water and mud. Upon bathing in it, the pigs’ various afflictions were miraclously cured, and so was Bladud’s when he followed their lead. In gratitude, after returning to the throne, he established a city around the healing springs, dedicated to the celtic goddess Sul. Later on the Romans arrived and called this place Aquias Sulis, a place sacred to the goddess Minerva, combined with Sul as Minerva Sulis. They build a complex combining a spa, what we might almost consider a health and leisure centre, and a temple, using the waters for worship, curses, health and pleasure at once. Once the romans have disappeared, the temple is built over with monestries and a new road plan, leaving the ruins untouched below the city for centuries. An Abbey is created where a king of England is crowned in a cermony that becomes the blueprint for all future corinations of English royals. The city starts as a royalist stronghold in the city The georgians return the focus of the town to a spa, the rich of that era flocking to the waters and the city to both heal and entertain themselves. The astronomer siblings William and Caroline Herschel lived and observed in the town. There is a museum in what once their house, but I didn’t have time to visit them, or the botanical garden further out of the city.
I found the story of Bladud on a sign in the city’s Parade Gardens, a waterside green space by the side of the river Avon, overlooking the Georgian era Pulteney Bridge and a v shaped weir built in the 1970s. The park, unusually, charges to enter the well maintained space: another sign explains that it was a private park for people living in the expensive nearby road, but a deal made years ago allows for public access as long as the council charges a small sum for upkeep. It is a very nice park, and for a single visit £2 is not bad, but it would be a lot if you lived nearby and used the space regularly like I do with my own local park. The gardens are below the level of the modern streets, the parades they are named for, and a private stair case still stands opposite to the public entrance I came in by. Another sign explains the history of the round band stand, decorated with musical notes, that stands in the middle of a lawn that was once a bowling green. Another details how this space was once outside the city walls, under the ownership of the first abbey of Bath, with a very small ruined wall left standing here that was once the Abbey’s mill. There is huge wall plaque detailing all the rewards Bath has won for the aesthetics of its city centre, like Britian in Bloom. The flowerbeds in the gardens are indeed impressive. To the right of the stairs leading up to the plaque are the public toilets, which charge 20p each, an issue in a post covid world where we have been encouraged to pay by card for so long I rarely carry physical cash. One of the flushes doesn’t work.
There is also a giant wooden slug big enough to be sat on, which isn’t really relevant. There are also photographs of an exhibit that once stood in the gardens, a trio of bears made from flowers grown, I assume, on a metal frame, surrounded by disapproving looking men in a style of dress I am unable to place other than “in the past”. I am both disappointed and very grateful these bears were not still here: it would be fun to see, but their eyes are hauntingly creepy just in these photographs and I am a crybaby who can write and GM horror but not experience it myself. Instead there stands a Armilary Sphere Sundial, with a note the time given on the sundial will need to be corrected depending on the time of year. I know I once knew exactly how to explain the plot it gives to explain the correction, but I have forgotten it now. It was cloudy anyway, so the sundial didn’t work.
Looking up from the gardens is like looking up at a collaged skyline, with buildings cut from history. The modern, the georgian and the medivial intermix and layer upon each other, and I already know there is more here, more history that I just cannot see while standing where I am.
For lunch, we go up to Pulteney Bridge, which is not just a road bridge but a whole street, with shops and cafes down the side. From the gardens it looked like the road was covered, but this was simply a strange optical illusion with the roofs of the buildings lining the side. The shops are varied and often specialist. One sells handmade masks and kits to make roman style mosaics, which I thought about but did not buy (although I did make a note to do some mosaic style collages), which shared a door with a shop buying and selling rare coins, while across the road is a shop that seems to only sell merchandise for the Bath Rugby team. Further down, a sign in the window of another shop proclaims that they only buy and sell geniune antique maps and that they do not sell reproductions: I look at the prices in the window on the old maps and wince. Finally we reach the end of the bridge, and find A.H.Hale Ltd, a pharmacy established in 1826, which, like so much here, wears its history on its sleeve, the window spilt between advertising for modern drugs and showing old pharmacy equipment and products once sold, a hand operated pill making machine next to a box declaring the wonderful hair brush inside made of that most magical material, plastic. We look at the houses beyond, and while there is something vaguely interesting looking at the end of the street, hunger instead proritises wandering back across the bridge this time looking at the cafes avaliable, not the shops. We find a pleasant cafe selling decent sandwiches and sit down, planning to visit two more locations in the afternoon. The Abbey and the remains of the roman baths.
Throughout this trip, and throughout other trips I’m going on with my family this week, I am making notes in a notebook and thinking about how I can put this together, both for my own sake, remembering the information I’ve learnt and the experiences I’ve had on the trip, but also thinking about how I can use this to create new things, whether taking reference photos for a collage or pulling all the notes together into a blog post like this, both for the sake of creating and to produce content for the internet.
History is not my field. I am interested in it, both the history of things I am otherwise invested in from mathematics to atmospheric science to Pokemon, and how history is used to tell stories about ourselves here and now, both on a personal and a political level, but I feel I need to establish now, during this slightly rambly introductory post to these three posts inspired by my visit to historical places in Bath that I am not speaking as an expert. Still, I hope I bring up some interesting points.
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I’ve recently temporarily moved back in with my parents in my home town of Oxford, England, while I sort out obtaining some form of income and finding a new place of my own. It is a rather strange experience, both in terms of adapting to no longer living on my own and just returning to old haunts and the streets I remember from my childhood. Oxford is a small city and very much built to encourage cycling, including to places that I mentally have always classified as being too far to cycle: Boars Hill and Shotover Hill, both just outside the town, are places that as a child I always visited by car, not by bike, but they are well in cycling distance for me now as an adult. Moving closer in, the city centre is a bizarre mixture of stasis and decay; the colleges and the libraries, all the buildings that give the city the moniker “City of Dreaming Spires” remain, surrounded by closed down shops, driven out of business by a combination of the pandemic and lockdowns and the incredibly high cost of land around Oxford, both driving up the shop’s rent and limiting the number of people who can afford to live and work here. Oxford, with its incredibly high house prices and turnover in vital jobs like teachers and medical staff, feels rather like a zombie city; still very much alive, but very much dying.
That’s a discussion for another post though, because today, in the torrential rain, I hopped on a bus and headed towards one of those dreaming spires: the Oxford Museum of Natural History, and the Pitt Rivers museum attached to it.
Beginning construction in 1855 to house the new natural philosophy and science departments established in 1850, the museum is, even before you enter, an incredibly striking building, deliberately so. A lot of effort was put into the aesthetic of the building, both inside and out. With the central tower, long wings and the neo-gothic architecture it appears as a secular church, and indeed the construction was partially funded by the sale of bibles. Given that one of the most famous events to occur in the museum was the debate between Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford on evolution verses creationism. this appearance makes me giggle somewhat.
Having been a nerdy child who grew up in Oxford, the Museum of Natural History (or, as we usually call it, the Dinosaur Museum) is a place of fond memories. Following the trail of casts of Megalosaurus (the first dinosaur to ever be described) across the museum lawn, the anticipation of the short, shadowy antechamber as you enter, the charismatic megafauna of the central collection of fossils, which have stood there mostly unchanged for as long as I remember, with the iguanodon and tyrannosaurus rex casts greeting me like old friends directly ahead of the entrance doors, not quite as imposing as I remember, but still grand and impressive. The museum is incredibly light, with the main public area being enclosed by a glass ceiling, held upright by thin iron work pillars, with images of flowers and foliage incorporated into them. Around the edges, separated from the centre with pillars each made from a different type of rock run cloisters with specimen tables to one side and glass cabinets leading you through the geological eras of earth on the outside (as well as the mandatory somewhat overpriced museum shop). Another layer of cloisters is upstairs, giving fantastic views of the central covered courtyard and the architecture of the museum.
Indeed, in this new visit, it was mostly the architecture that really got my attention, rather than any specific exhibit on this visit. I wasn’t in a super detail orientated mood, preferring to just wander around and enjoy the cool space. In a neat piece of serendipity, the museum had a presentation about itself among the mammal skeletons, explaining its history and its design, letting me fill in gaps I sort of already knew from years of visiting it. That wandering established something for me: The Oxford Museum of Natural History is one of my favourite spaces to visit, architecturally speaking.
It was the thin iron support pillars that really caught my attention here. With the arches they make as they reach the roof standing in the aisles of the museum feels like standing in the ribcage of some vast, ancient animal which has swallowed me along with the elephants, dinosaurs and whales who’s bones stand here. It is a place meaningful for me as one of the first places I was allowed to really explore by myself, feet meeting the stones at my own pace, something that I find psychologically really important. It is precious to me as a place of learning, a place of exploration, a place of history both personal and natural, and as a place in and of itself.
However, there is one place within it I never went as a child. Through a pair of doors in the outer wall, you drop down a few stairs and find yourself in the main room of the neighbouring Pitt Rivers museum. The Pitt Rivers is a museum of anthropology, built around the collection of Augustus Pitt-Rivers, a Victorian scientist and military officer, with all the baggage that that sentence implies. The collection is housed in many, many, many cabinets of dark wood crammed throughout the room, dominated by a huge faded totem pole, taken from a Haida community, originally created, according to the A4 piece of paper sitting at the bottom, to celebrate the adoption of a young girl. It is an absolutely huge collection of artefacts from across the globe, including, for many years, a number of shrunk heads which have now been removed from view. The space feels small due to all the cabinets and pieces jammed inside, and the dark wood and opaque ceiling contrasts dramatically with the airy light of the Natural History Museum you’ve just left. Even before we talk about the colonial history of the collection or the curious way it is laid out, simply the physical space feels oppressive. I never went into the Pitt Rivers as a child not because I was scared of anything in there, but I was geniunely unsettled by just the aesthetics of the museum itself. It feels like If the Natural History Museum’s bone-like architecture matches its exhibits, then the Pitt Rivers matches its name in that it feels like you are standing in a pit.
The collection itself is organised not by time or location or cultural origin of the items on display but rather it is organised by what the objects are and how they are used. Japanese noh masks are next to masks from the African savannah and native american ritual masks. Instruments from around the world sit like a ghostly orchestra in their pit organised into strings, woodwind, drums. Weaving and textiles line the left hand wall in their glass cases. The idea is to allow direct comparison between cultures and time periods with objects intended to fulfil the same function, and while it does sort of work (and I suspect someone with more relevant training and historical background would get a lot more out of it than me) With the size of the collection there will almost certainly be something here that interests you, although due to covid restrictions I only had a limited time window so I didn’t spend too long in this section…and I just really don’t like being there in that space.
I don’t, however, want to sell the current staff of the museum short. The Pitt Rivers museum has done a lot of work trying to decolonise their activities. Numerous pieces have been noted to have been returned to cultural owners, exhibits like the aforementioned shrunken heads which displayed human remains and which focused on displaying other cultures as savage have been removed, and most visibly in the museum itself is a meta analysis of the museum itself, directly discussing the different ways colonialism expresses itself. Some exhibits have next to them annotated examples of how the museum used to label them, discussing how even in something as seemingly “objective” as a description, cultural assumptions and colonialism still slip through. Again, this is very much not my field: there is a reason that most of this post has focused on the feelings that the basic architecture, lighting and layout of the museum inspires in me, rather than deep discussions of the content of the museum. I have no experience in any of this, only what I’ve read around the issue since getting back this afternoon, but as far as I can tell from various articles, such as this one on Maasai tribal elders visiting the museum to assess and attempt to reclaim objects from the Guardian (which also raises the simple issue that a lot of the Victorians who collected this stuff in the first place just didn’t actually know what they were picking up, so there’s plenty of mislabelled objects in the collection), this one from the Uncomfortable Oxford organisation, a group dedicated to examining, as the name implies, the less comfortable aspects of the city and university’s history, and this post from Returning Heritage.. The consensus seems to be that the Pitt Rivers is doing a lot more than most museums to face up to and overcome its colonial past, with the two “but”s of a.) there is still plenty of other issues, such as legal issues around returning artefacts, practical issues about who to return them to, and, let’s acknowledge it, issues within the museum itself and b.) the museum is incredibly rooted in the history of colonialism, down to even its name, so it will still take a huge decolonialism effort to overcome this. Still, I want to acknowledge the work the museum has done, and continues to do.
It is just a little hard to look at the totem pole, erected for the adoption of a girl into a family, and not feel it is drastically out of place in this dark room.
One of the ways the museum has been trying to improve is by inviting in a wider range of individuals and groups to contribute to the museum, and in a brightly lit side room to the main display area sits an exhibition of particular interest to me, as a nonbinary trans individual. “Beyond the Binary”, an exhibit on a variety of queer experiences from around the globe spilt into categories including indigenous identities, rituals and identity, objects of power (whether created by or claimed by the queer community) and representation from queer individuals. Like the rest of the museum, it is an extremely dense display of objects and text surrounding them, although a number of centrepieces are given more space to show themselves than in the main section. Three that physically stood out were a pair of pianos with personal history for queer musicians, a wall designed to look like the tiles of a public toilet which was a common location for queer people to leave messages and trade secrets via writing on the walls, which is replicated here with a set of markers left for visitors, and the central figure of the exhibition space, a telephone booth covered in trans supportive stickers, featuring inside a tv screen giving the history of the local trans sticker artists. One that particularly stood out to me was a display featuring intersexuality, explaining the violence done to intersex people, and that made note of the differences, allegiances and tensions between the non-binary and intersex communities.
It was, overall, an extremely well done exhibit in the most part, but I do worry that it is a bit too inside baseball as it were as a public installation. While I understood a lot of the cultural background of what was on display, I’m not sure how someone unconnected to the community at large would approach it. It definitely does some things right, such as providing a sign of common community terminology at the entrance (for example, noting that the word queer is seen as offensive by some community members but has in general been reclaimed, and how it can be used as a noun, verb and adjective depending on the situation). Then again, the focus of the exhibit does not seem to be on telling one story (a practice that the museum is, of course, trying to get away from), but as many different stories as it can, some that I wasn’t even able to see because the full text required the scanning of a QR code, which my phone often refuses to do so I only do it when needed.
And that was my visit to these two museums. As I said, I was in a somewhat non-detail orientated mood, so my takeaway ended up being more on the museums themselves than the exhibits. After a quick browse through the museum shop, being tempted by a book on the history of the natural history museum and how it was built until I winced at the price tag, I left the building into the cloudy but not rainy afternoon.
I then got annoyed with myself for not remembering to go check if the bee hive on the stairs (a glass hive with exits through the wall to the outside of the building, not one that just lets out bees onto the stairs) was still there, but, unable to re-enter due to the covid visiting restrictions, I headed home, and wondered what other Oxford museums I could visit, and possibly write about here.
The Pokemon franchise has been a long running and consistent companion for me from when it was first released in the UK back in 1998. The first choice of which starter to take (I choose Squirtle), opening my first booster pack of trading cards to reveal a shiny Zapdos, finally leaving Mount Moon after getting lost there long enough to have a Blastoise, first seeing the second generation games when a neighbour down the street had a Japanese copy of Pokemon Gold, first discovering online battle simulators in the fourth generation…honestly, that sentence was originally just going to be three points long but I just kept finding things to add to it.
Pokemon, for those unaware (however many there are left; one of the things I found funniest about the recent trailer for the live action Detective Pikachu movie was how it assumed everyone watching knew the world already), is an RPG game franchise set in a world populated by the titular Pocket Monsters, or Pokemon. It is a mainstay of Nintendo consoles, and is one of the company’s signature games along with the likes of Mario and Zelda, but it isn’t actually developed by Nintendo, being spilt between the companies Game Freak and The Pokemon Company. The player takes the role of a Pokemon trainer, journeying through the various regions of the world, catching Pokemon in devices known as Pokeballs and battling other trainers. The ultimate goal of each game is two-fold; to defeat the Pokemon League, the best trainers in that region (each game being set in a different location in the world), and to complete the Pokedex (an encyclopedia of Pokemon) by catching every Pokemon in the area; hence the tagline “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!”. Usually along the way you must battle a team of criminals, with motives ranging from Pokemon trafficking to awakening Legendary monsters to boil the sea, flood the land and/or rip apart space and time, or in the case of the wonderfully pathetic Team Skull, not get beaten up by random children.
This is part one of the theme month for January 2019, focusing on the works of Agatha Christie. For other posts in this series, click here.
If we are going to begin examining the works of Dame Agatha Christie, I feel it makes sense to structure this as one would the summation of a murder mystery. Motive, means, opportunity, and finally the crime itself. The four discussions in this month will follow this pattern, and I shall explain how in turn, but for now let us turn to the first of the four; motive.
In 1945, Edmund Wilson wrote an essay in the New Yorker called “Who Cares Who Murdered Roger Ackroyd?”, arguing that the very genre of the detective story itself to be a waste of time, and to not be literature.
My desire here is not to suggest he is inherently wrong. It is equal parts interesting and frustrating that evaluating any kind of fiction will require a degree of subjectivity, an idiosyncratic response to the piece. We don’t gain anything by denying these responses, saying that such a response is inherently wrong, but nor do we gain anything by pretending we may not disagree with such a response. We will focus on this more at the end of the month.
For now, I don’t want to actually respond to Wilson directly, partially because it has been a while since I’ve read the essay and I haven’t been able to find a copy of it while writing this piece. Rather I want to try and set down why I do enjoy the kind of cosy murders that Christie specialises in, and why, in that rather large genre, I like Agatha Christie so much in particular.
Cosy murders, specifically English cosy murders, tend to be set in places that are otherwise treated as being asperational. The two natural habitats of it are in high society – the first class carriage of the Orient Express, English country mansions, and archaeological digs financed by eccentric millionaires – and the English country village – quaint, quiet villages filled with “very nice people”. The show Midsomer Murders basically specialises in the latter, being set in a fictional county of the UK filled with lovely village fetes and hilariously over the top murder methods, and it is the natural haunt of Christie’s other most famous detective Ms Marple. These are locations that are usually treated as being inherently English, and therefore better. This is the idea of Middle England, a political term used to describe and often romanticise a very particular conservative image of Britain, one that lacks the poor, racial and sexual minorities, and the other countries that make up the UK (note the switch between England and Britain I used there).
And the plot of a cosy murder usually involves ripping this to shreds.
It isn’t just that one of the very nice, very proper people who live in Middle England is murdered by someone else from that community (a community that often initially assumes that it must be an outsider who did it, as they are all very nice people). Rather, the need for red herrings and to have suspicion thrown on everyone requires the entire structure to be rotten. It isn’t just that there’s a murderer in the village, but there’s at least six affairs, two cases of blackmail, and the vicar is smuggling drugs. This is kind of the appeal to the classic Poirot ending, where all the suspects are called into a room while the detective systematically rips apart the facade. Everything is revealed to everyone.
This is a nice trick that gives people two different ways to enjoy the story. If you dislike the idea of Middle England, then you can enjoy it being ripped apart, while if you are an inhabitant of Middle England, you get to see a story set in an environment you know well. I kind of hit both; I grew up in an area separate from Middle England enough for me to resent the way it was treated as an ideal to reach, but also an area with plenty of very nice people with lots of secrets, to the extent that there is actually a book heavily based on the road I grew up in that is basically about this (although the secrets are not murder. Usually)*. There’s a third way, but I’ll get into that at the end of the month.
Moving on from the sociopolitical part, while Wilson may not like the whodunnit aspect of the story, that is definitely part of the appeal. A good cosy detective book should give you the ability to follow along and try and solve the murder yourself. They are puzzle books as well as a narrative, like a crosswords book with characters. It even gives you a variety of puzzles. The difference between motive, means and opportunity is really important to these books, because each is a different kind of puzzle to solve. Want a human based psychological puzzle? Then find the motive. Want a technical puzzle? Work out how the murderer managed to kill someone in a locked room. Want a logistical puzzle? The murderer was supposed to be on the other side of the village, work out how they got to the victim and back in time for the tea and scones to be served.
On the flip side, you don’t need to have to solve the puzzle to enjoy the story. I often have cosy detective shows on as background noise while working because they tend not to be so distracting I can’t focus (unlike a more action packed police procedure), but it doesn’t matter that I miss parts because, well Poirot explains it all at the end. We have again this double appeal; if you want to pay attention and focus on the story, you get the enjoyment of solving a puzzle, while if you simply want to sit back and enjoy it, you get to enjoy the detective solving the case themselves. It even usually manages to surprise your with the answer but don’t make you feel stupid because, well, no one else got it either. The stakes of the story are high; we are trying to catch a murderer, but not too high. The fate of the world rarely hinges on this case.
Following on from this, there is also the fact that most of the detectives are just really fun. Poirot is a fussy, egg shaped dandy who’s intellect is matched only by his ego, while Ms Marple switches between acting as a doddery old dear and a honed mind who seems to take joy in matching wits with murderers. Part of this emerges from the fact that the stories are usually basically stand alone. You can’t spend time reintroducing a deep and nuanced character everytime you do a short story where they foil a jewel theft. Far easier to have one big character you can bring in quickly, and then seed bits of depth in around the main stories.
This also means that you can basically read the books in any order. Some references to earlier stories may be seeded in, but you don’t need to have read the previous book or seen earlier episodes to understand the characters and concepts for this story. This was really good for me when I was getting into the stories, since I wasn’t able to reliably obtain the books or see the episodes in the publication order.
That last point kind of borders onto a final point about Wilson’s essay. Christie’s work are not high literature. Her prose is fairly simple and straightforward, the characters are big and easy to understand, and the books are not really linked together as a series outside the premise and characters. The flip side of this is that her work is still incredibly accessible to new readers. Christie is still one of the best selling writers in the world. The simple writing leans itself well to translation into other language. They are excellent books for younger readers moving into adult writing, but the plots are complicated enough to be worth examining in greater detail. It’s a fun trick of the genre. A constant theme, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, in this essay is the idea that the stories can have seemingly mutually exclusive appeals to different readers. They both appeal to people who dislike Middle England and the residents of Middle England, they both provide a puzzle for those who want to solve it and allow those who just want a show they can enjoy with their brains in neutral to sit back and get carried along. I think that, in many ways, it is precisely this wide appeal that makes them worth examining, if not as literature, but definitely as culture.
“The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”
“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
The bell struck twelve.
Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him. “