Thursday, January 16, 2014

`When Our Senses for a Moment Are Alive'

I love happening upon a passage like this: 

“Everything in the end comes back to a question of taste. Why should one prefer a Corona cigar to a `gasper,’ a turkey to tripe, a magnum of Mumm to a quart of `swipes,’ crêpe de Chine and georgette to ninon, Gerald du Maurier to a patter comedian in a suburban pantomime, Titian to Kirchner, or a Savile Row suit to a `reach-me-down’?” 

Some of the references remain opaque but we get the idea. This is not the same as parading one’s knowingness. The density and specificity of allusion is convincing and attractive. One thinks: here’s an interesting fellow with an eye for detail and an ear for pleasing sounds. We’re flattered that he shares with us what he knows. He is an impresario of the obscure. The author is S.P.B. Mais (1885-1975) and the passage opens the brief chapter on Charles Lamb in his 1921 volume Why We Should Read--. The initials stand for Stuart Petre Brodie. My university library holds eight of his many volumes. Mais was a working man of letters, a species now almost extinct.   

I learned of Mais this week from Nige, who writes: “The speed of S.P.B. Mais’s output was such that Churchill himself (no slouch at the word-churning) joked that it made him feel tired to think about it. And, on top of the writing, Mais was also a successful broadcaster, who originated the Letter from America some 13 years before Alastair Cooke made it famous.” 

Let’s do a bit of Kinbotean annotating of the passage quoted at the top. “Corona” refers to a good cigar of a prescribed size -- 14 centimeters long, 17 millimeters in width. “Gaspers” is English slang for high-tar cigarettes such as Woodbines or Gauloises. The OED gives “a cigarette, esp. a cheap or inferior one. Now somewhat dated,” and cites Mais’ usage. “Mumm” is a “champagne produced by the house of Mumm in Rheims, France,” while “swipes” is “poor weak beer; small beer; hence, beer in general.” Dickens uses it in Oliver Twist: “It’s been as dull as swipes.” Crêpe de Chine, georgette and ninon are sheer fabrics, often of silk. None is chintz. 

Gerald du Maurier (1873-1934) was an English actor best known for playing George Darling and Captain Hook in the 1904 premiere of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. (And in the Maisian spirit of trivia celebration: A brand of gaspers was named “du Maurier” after the actor as part of an endorsement deal.) For patter, the OED gives: “rapid or fluent speech often used by a comedian or other entertainer to maintain the attention of an audience.” (Another Mais-esque digression: “Patter” derives from Paternoster, as in a prayer mouthed mechanically. And yet another: In the film of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade says of the gunsel: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”) Titian painted Venus and Adonis. Kirchner painted Naked People Playing. Savile Row, of course, designates “a tailor with an establishment in Savile Row [London], associated with fashionable and expensive styles or items of clothing, esp. men's suits.” A “reach-me-down” is not, as I had assumed, a hand-me-down, but rather a “ready-made rather than made to order” article of clothing. The OED cites S.J. Perelman: “He wore a reach-me-down mackinaw, a pair of mismated overshoes, and a yellow sou'wester by courtesy of Scott's Emulsion.” 

Another of Mais’ volumes, Books and Their Writers (1920), includes a review of Logan Pearsall Smith’s always amusing Trivia (1902). He writes of Smith, but in reality of himself: 

“It is his whimsical sense of the incongruous that so endears him to us, his catching and nailing down those sweet fleeting impressions which seize upon us when our senses for a moment are alive.”

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