Bringing back the past via the Internet

Scarce memories recovered in valued books and LPs

Some books keep popping up on readers’ Most Wanted lists every decade or so. Relegated to the bottom shelf of some dusty cupboard, suddenly a forgotten, perhaps lambasted, novel is popular and back in demand. Some novels have been doing this for Jack-in-the-box trick for 40 years or longer.

To Kill a Mockingbird 

Take To kill a mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Fifty years after it was published the novel is now  (June 2013) a bestseller in the UK. More than 30 million copies of it have already been sold worldwide, and you would think the world has had enough of it. Sure, it won Lee a Pulitzer Prize way back when, but the subject – small-town racism in the 1930s in Alabama – would seem an unlikely candidate for universal, continued appeal. Yet, despite it being such a quiet, little old lady of a book in the big-name, rah-rah maelstrom of Modern Literature, it is making an international comeback.

The “Masha” series

And it gets stranger. Masha, by Mara Kay, is a children’s story published in 1968, set in early 19th century Russia, in which a girl is plucked from poverty to attend the famous Smolny Institute. At the time of publication, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union had undergone a marked thawing. It was the time of “Back in the USSR” by the Beatles, and Masha, and its sequels, offered little girls a popular vision of a less-threatening Soviet Union, with all the most romantic elements thrown in – nobility, palaces, country dachas and the Bolshoi Ballet. Out of print since the 70s, the books are now suddenly, crazily in demand, and tattered old copies with their vaguely pop-art cover designs are being snapped up on internet auction sites for $400.00 or more each, by fans from London to New York to Melbourne.

The “Flashman” series

Also quite obscure and quirky, is Flashman, a 1969 novel by George Macdonald Fraser, which is now popping up all over the internet. Fraser wrote 12

Flashman adventures, from 1969 to 2005, about a Victorian soldier who is “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and oh yes, a toady.” High Art, it wasn’t. Unbelievably, the wholly subversive Flashman character now even had a blog dedicated to him: Flashman’s Retreat, “producing a compendium of Flashman quotes, one damned entry at a time.” (Unfortunately, it is no longer being updated.) When Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal was interviewed in 2009, he said he was reading, of all things, “Flashman” – and he liked it! Stephen Fry, in his speech at the 2010 BAFTAs, compared the way the British treat the BBC to how Flashman treats his servants,  “…with disdain, contempt, snobbery and a mean rudeness bordering on the pathologically cruel”. As if that wasn’t unlikely enough, smartly turned-out Conservative British MPS are now being called “Flashman” in the British press.

Powerful tropes and memes

Why is it that these novels, some meant for children, some “once-off wonders”, some silly and superficial, have staying power? They keep being read by generations of people, somehow return to being in demand every so often, and become cultural points of reference, not only in their country of origin, but all over the world.

The answer is probably that they contain universal “tropes” or  pervasive “literary memes”. A literary trope has come to mean a commonly recurring literary device, motif, or cliché. Tropes are storytelling devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the readers or audiences’ minds and expectations. If a novel that was written in the 60s contains a trope that appeals to readers today, it is either because history is repeating itself or because the writer used a timeless and universally appealing trope.  This is why the very short, very superficial romances of Barbara Cartland sold so well in the 70s and 80s. They have become classics of Romantic Fiction and contain every known trope in the genre  – in spades.

Barbara Cartland's novels - Always filled with heaving-bosomed beauties, strong-jawed noblemen and repressed passion (until the final pages).
Barbara Cartland’s novels – Always filled with heaving-bosomed beauties, strong-jawed noblemen and repressed passion (until the final pages).

Tropes do not merely provide a way for us to talk about how we think, reason, and imagine, they also represent our common human experiences, particularly the ones that are relevant and important right now. So long as the device, convention, idea, expression or theme is “hot”, the book that contains it will be hot too. As a result, a new generation of readers and viewers, those united across the globe through shared tropes, are talking about old authors and obscure novels. While some tropes are boring, racist, stereotypical or disconcerting, others can be funny, comforting, sweet and entertaining. The tropes that make books or movies perennial favourites contain the latter type of tropes.

Some examples

  • To Kill a Mockingbird contains highly satisfying, classical tropes such as “A Lawful Good Character” (Atticus Finch) who believes in the goodness inherent in all beings and lives according to an ideal code of conduct, despite threats and pressure. It was written at a time of civil unrest in America and gave readers the hope that good will conquer evil so long as individuals stand up for what is right. This is the same message that people want to hear today, while ordinary people endure the second dip of the global recession caused by dishonesty and greed in big corporations.
  • Masha is a fine example of the You Can’t Go Home Again” trope, and is chock-full of the “Glory of Imperial Russia”. Apart from its currently appealing glam version of the former Evil Empire, it shows that happy endings and home lives are possible in a world where nations are increasingly populated by émigrés who cannot go back to where they came from.
  • Flashman is a typical and well-executed example of “The Flawed Hero” trope, and, more subtly “The Only Sane Man” – since he wisely recognizes the insanity of war and runs from it. But predominantly he is a “Magnificent Bastard”, as satisfyingly nasty and likeable as Lt. Aldo Raine in Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds, which in itself is one long, whopper of a “Revenge Fantasy” trope. It reflects society’s growing acceptance of vengeful tactics, rather than passivity and forgiveness, in response to acts of terrorism. James Bond is a character in the classic “Flawed Hero” style – with bit of “Magnificent Bastard” thrown in for longevity.

Another odd throwback to the sixties which is now scoring high and is almost unobtainable, is the rare and slightly weird vinyl recording called Magic Egg.

The 1970s recovered in “Magic Egg”

The interesting thing about the internet is that we spend a lot of time on it and it connects people so fast that distances between places disappears. You are messaging someone on Facebook whom you know and they message back immediately and even while you’re talking, you realize, hey, this guy’s in Scotland right now. Or Russia – or Ghana or wherever. And like it connects people in space, it also seems to connect the past with the present. Documents, incidents, stuff that you vaguely remember from when you were a child, turn up as if they happened yesterday. Not only do they turn up as a historical record, but as an entry on someone who is thinking about them now, this very moment, elsewhere in the world, united by some trope or other.

Take Magic Egg. This was in Public Libraries in the 1970s as a children’s record, with some quite memorable items. But Magic Egg was not a children’s record at all! It was an avant garde (for its time) “spoken word” folk album by a hairy-legged, cheesecloth-wearing bunch of performance artists, not even singers, really, called The Barrow Poets. Now, it is a really obscure, hard to come by 1971 LP, worth a heap of money, quoted as a cult folk classic. One item on it, made up of sort of mooing, bubbling noises, was apparently an experimental piece about the Loch Ness Monster, perhaps recorded while they were feeling really…high?

How to Paint a Perfect Christmas, by Miroslav Holub

One of the pieces on the LP was How to Paint a Perfect Christmas – and really, now one realizes it was never meant for children. (Mind you, the album cover does carry a Warning to Children and a Warning to Parents.)

“On top you paint
a sky as gossamer-thin as seaweed.
Below you pour on a little darkness
heated to room temperature
or a little higher.

In the dark a small tree will
scratch its way up with cats’ claws,
the most beautiful tree
beyond the dreams of
all the world’s forests.

And the little tree starts
shining by itself
and the whole picture sings
with green joy,
with purple hope.

And under that tree
you must now place
what is
most important,
what you most wish for yourself,
what crooners with guitars
call happiness.

It’s easy for a cat.
A cat will put a mouse there,
a captain will put there
the biggest jet-propelled halberd
which can shoot, fire and salute,
a sparrow will put there
some blades of grass for it to nest,

a bureaucrat will put there
a closed file with red tape,
a butterfly will put there
a new latex peacock’s eye,
but what will you put there?

You consider, consider
till the daylight fails,
till the river has nearly flowed away,
till even the light-bulbs begin to yawn,
you consider
and eventually
in that darkness you blot out
a hazy white spot,
a little like a ducat,
a little like a boat,
a little like the moon,
a little like the lovely face
of another person,

a hazy white spot,
perhaps more of an emptiness,
or the opposite of something,
like non-pain,
like non-fear,
like non-anxiety,

a hazy white spot,
and you go to bed
and tell yourself:
yes, now I know,
next time
I’ll paint
the best Christmas

Yangtze Po / Chinee Bumboat Man, by George Willis (1870s)

Another item was a ditty that started, “I’ll sing you a song of trouble and woe that will cause you to shudder and shiver, concerning a Chinese bumboat man who sailed on the Jangtze River.”  As a child, I just enjoyed the quirky words, and to me they sounded like something Lewis Carroll could’ve written. I had no idea what the song – accompanied by whacks of cymbals and kinds of oriental-sounding moans – actually was. The Barrow Poets had recited it, but on Youtube there is a sung version performed by Clam Chowder, a folk group from the late 70s and early 80s that sang anything from sea shanties to traditional folk songs from around the world. When I read the actual words, I realized I’d been reciting that poem about the Chinee Bumboat Man  (Or: The Ballad of Wing Chang Lu) wrong for all these years. It seems that the Barrow Poets took a bit of liberty with the lyrics to clean them up.

Apparently this rather rude, racist and rarely printed comic song was the work of Petty Officer George Willis, USN, assigned to the Asiatic Fleet in the 1870s. Willis, a Civil War veteran, is also credited with having written the lyrics of the well-known “Cumberland’s Crew” in Pensacola shortly after reading of the fight between CSS “Virginia [formerly USS “Merrimack]” and the sloop-of-war USS “Cumberland”. “Bumboats” was a general Naval reference to small boats that would come alongside ships at anchor to sell vegetables, fruit, any anything else a sailor needed. Often the goods were of the female kind  – a sort of miniature floating brothel. Well. Now we know why Wing Chang Lu had such trouble keeping the delightful Ah Choo Fong out of the opium-dealing pirate’s hands!

“I’ll sing you a song of trouble and woe that’ll cause you to shake and to shiver
concerning a Chinese bumboat man who sailed the Yangtze River
He was a heathen of high degree as the doss-house records show
His family name was Win Chang Lu but the sailors just called him Jim Crowie-i-oe-i
Itchicum itchicum ya ya ya sailor man no likee me ya [Ooh, isn’t this racist?]
Come savvy the story of Win Chang Lu too much of the Barbariee-yi-ya

Now Win Chang Lu he fell in love with a girl called Ah Chu Fong
Her eyes they were like pump-a-kine seeds and her slippers were two inches long
But Ah Chu Fong loved a pi-i-rate bold with all her heart and her liver
He was captain of a double decked junk and he sailed on the Yangtze river-i-iver-i
Itchicum itchicum ya ya ya sailor man no likee me ya
Come savvy the story of Win Chang Lu too much of the Barbariee-yi-ya

When Win Chang Lu he heard of this he swore a horrible oath
If I can’t marry Ah Chu Fong then I’ll make sausage meat of them both
So he hoisted up his big red battle flag and put into the Yangtze river
He sailed to the North and the South and the West the pirate for to disciver-i-iver-i
Itchicum itchicum ya ya ya sailor man no likee me ya
Come savvy the story of Win Chang Lu too much of the Barbariee-yi-ya

Now the drums they beat at quarters and the cannons did loudly roar
The red hot dump-i-lings filled the air the scuppers they ran with gore
The pirate he strode the quarter deck with neither a shake nor a shiver
He was shot up the arse by a hard boiled egg which pen-e-itrated his liver-i-over-i
Itchicum itchicum ya ya ya sailor man no likee me ya
Come savvy the story of Win Chang Lu too much of the Barbariee-yi-ya

The dying pi-i-rate feebly called we’ll give that foe more shot
If I can’t marry Ah Chu Fong then Win Chang Lu shall not
Then a hot pease pud hit the bum-boat’s side which caused this horrible scene
It upset a pot of hot bow-wow soup and exploded the maga-zi-een-i-een-i
Itchicum itchicum ya ya ya sailor man no likee me ya
Come savvy the story of Win Chang Lu too much of the Barbariee-yi-ya”

Arizona Nature Myth, by James Michie

Sun and Moon animatronic figures dancing in an exhibition in Swarovski's Kristallwelten in Innsbruck, Austria
Sun and Moon animatronic figures dancing in an exhibition in Swarovski’s Kristallwelten in Innsbruck, Austria

And lastly, there was the “Arizona Nature Myth” of which I could only remember the first 5 lines as a child, because, in the second verse, it goes, “Sheriff, nervy…” and I always thought this was someone’s name, like Sheriff Hervie or Sheriff Nerby or something, which got me stuck. (Misheard lyrics are called “mondegreens” and this was a good example of one.)

“Up in the heavenly saloon
Sheriff sun and rustler moon
gamble, stuck in the sheriff’s mouth

The fag end of an afternoon.

There in the bad town of the sky
Sheriff, nervy, wonders why
He’s let himself wander so far West
On his own; he looks with a smoky eye

At the rustler opposite turning white,
Lays down a king for Law, sits tight
Bluffing. On it that crooked moon
Plays an ace and shoots for the light.

Spurs, badge, and uniform red,
(It looks like blood, but he’s shamming dead),
Down drops the marshal, and under cover
Crawls out dogwise, ducking his head.

But Law that don’t get its man ain’t Law.
Next day, faster on the draw,
Sheriff creeping up from the other side,
Blazes his way in through the back door.

But moon’s not there. He’s ridden out on
A galloping phenomenon,
A wonder horse, quick as light.
Moon’s left town. Moon’s clean gone.”

Scarcity in retrospect

The question is why this album, and these particular voice recordings, have stayed with me – and a lot of other people – some thirty years after the LP was produced? People value this LP because, as Spoken Word recordings, it contains strong examples of literary memes or tropes  – tropes-in-a-nutshell, so to speak. The “Chinee Bumboat Man” is a fine instance of  the “Yellow Peril” – an Oriental so terribly typecast as to be comical. Arizona Nature Myth features the “Gunslinger”, the “Quick Draw” and “Riding Into the Sunset” tropes.

But the LP, and the aforementioned books, are also valued because they were produced at a time when memories were not recorded digitally, before the days of Facebook and blogs and websites. The period they were created in resulted in memory scarcity, and scarcity of any kind, in retrospect, results in increased value. This is particularly true of recording mechanisms that are difficult to play back or locate, like out-of-print books, LPs, tape recordings, 8 mm film and Betamax videos. I found a box of tape cassettes from the 1990s in a box the other day, and wondered how I am going to play them back, since our car – the last refuge of cassette players – now has a CD player in it. These things combine universal appeal through their tropes and memes, with rarity.

If we manage to access those memories, by ripping vinyl LPs, finding old cassette players and film projectors, the accessed memories become invaluable. Perhaps it is us, people of a “certain age”, who grew up when music was analog and acoustic and things were printed on paper and not e-mailed, who have the greatest need to address this paucity of memories. No doubt, as different technologies emerge, future generations will find themselves in the same situation.

Because many people around the world now have access to the same information, and share devices carrying that information (PCs connected to cell phones connected to iPads connected to the Internet), location, medium or even culture are no longer barriers to the understanding, acceptance and popularity of books, audio recordings or movies. A British novel series with appealing tropes can become a hit with readers in Beijing. The idiosyncratic Swedish series of detective novels by Henning Mankell, featuring detective Kurt Wallander, has a fan base stretching from Stockholm to South Africa – despite it being idiosyncratically Swedish in style.

Thanks to the increasingly international nature of popular culture, tropes make their way around the world, showing up in completely unexpected media. So long as a book, film or song satisfies our yen for a particular trope, generation after generation (re)discover it, make it their own, and give it the stature of timelessness and coveted memories, collective memories.