Tuesday, January 23, 2018

My Log 586 Jan 23 2018: Chronicles from [almost] the Tenth Decade: 23; My experience in India in 1951 as editor of a weekly news-sheet in an experimental village; but could it be called journalism?

I was just about to write that I had worked as a journalist in five countries, when I came to a sudden halt. Could I really describe what I did as editor of the English-language edition of the Kurukshetra weekly in India in 1951 as journalism? I sat pondering the question, then came to the conclusion that the story is so entirely mad, end to end, that I should devote to it an entire issue of the Chronicles, which has turned into two issues.
It all began with my letter in 1950 [when I was 22] to Pandit Jawaharlal  Nehru, Prime Minister of India, telling him how eager I was to move to  his country, and undertake some work devoted to its improvement. His great book, Glimpses of World History, written from prison as letters to his daughter Indira, had opened my eyes to the real meaning of colonialism and imperialism, a view of history that they had carefully avoided in our schools. In addition Gandhi’s Autobiography had sensitized us to the glories of their ancient culture.
At the time I was working as a reporter on a small daily newspaper in northern Queensland, Australia, and my wife Shirley was teaching school. I had just read an article printed locally about this praiseworthy experimental colony for refugees, somewhere north of Delhi, designed to uplift the life of the surrounding villages.
Within what seems not to have been much more than the flick of an eye, I received an answer from the Prime Minister’s private secretary, thanking me and warmly welcoming my interest, pointing out that it would be an advantage if my wife and I were to know the local language, and telling me that the Prime Minster had forwarded my letter to a newspaper in Allahabad with which he had had some connection, and to the administrator of the experimental colony in question, Nilokheri. Within another flick of an eye, I received a letter from that same administrator, by name of S.K. Dey, describing himself as the HTA or Honorary Township Advisor, a letter so overflowing with warmth, welcome and enthusiasm for my idea to work in India, as to make what would nowadays be called a mind-blowing impact. This man, whom I later came to realize could be described as a madman, or [let’s be generous], a mad person, in comparison with any ordinary man or woman on earth, outlined, in the most enthusiastic prose possible, that what was underway in his colony was what he called their collective  search for the Mazdoor Manzil, or “the music of the muscles,” a concept he had developed when he had come across the 400,000 refugees from the newly created nation of Pakistan, camped on the field of Kurukshetra, which, he said, was the site of the dialogue between Arjuna and  the Lord Krishna, as recorded in the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita. As I was later told by someone, these refugees were mostly money lenders who had never done a day’s hard work in their lives.
As the manager of General Electric for south-east Asia, the partition of his country in 1947 had been an epiphany causing him to abandon his job and offer his services gratis to the new government of India. Himself a man of humble origin, from a peasant family, he had somehow managed to get himself an education at an American university, so he was accustomed to overcoming barriers to his advancement in life. Given the cold shoulder by various officials, he managed to start up a workshop among the refugees on Kurekshetra designed to equip them for their new lives. When Panditji toured the refugee camp, the only positive thing he saw going on was S.K.Dey’s workshop. The upshot was that, after talking to the man and noting his unusual combination of learning with a slightly insane enthusiasm, the leader made available to him a plot of unused scrubland 85 miles north of Delhi, and sufficient funds to get going on creation of an entirely new concept of rural village. He wrote me that he had arrived with a group of his followers --- peasants gathered from Kurukshetra --- and had lived in tents as they cleared the land and laboriously built adobe-style mudhuts in which they began the great adventure, which had, he added modestly, attracted people from around the world, people just like us.
He said they had all the attributes and equipment needed to publish their own newspaper, all they were awaiting was a mad person willing to join their adventure. I wrote him back and said we were on our way, and indeed we embarked in Fremantle, Australia’s west coast port, a few months later, headed for Bombay.
After suffering the greatest culture shock we could ever have imagined, namely, the spectacle of Bombay with its hundreds of thousands of desperate people living on the sidewalks under pieces of cardboard or rags for shelter, their starving babies lying on the point of death in full view, we duly arrived at Nilokheri, where we were greeted by a somewhat reserved man in his white dhoti, which as we soon learned seemed at the time to be more or less de rigeur dress as a sign of support for Nehru’s Congress Party. This man, who seemed not altogether to approve of our presence, apologized for the absence of the HTA, who was in Bengal, where he had undertaken the development of a sister village. He would return in a few days. Meantime he had arranged for us to move into one of the little adobe houses, for which there would be no charge, although unfortunately, he said, there was no money to pay for our services. We had not even thought of such a thing.
I do not remember if the HTA in his letter had said he had vowed to be the last person to move from a tent into a house, but that indeed was so, and we soon were shown his magnificent, luxurious tent, the last tent still standing in the village, where he was still living with his wife and family. Before he arrived we were told the HTA had another honorary position as assistant secretary to the Indian government’s Department of Rehabilitation, which also required him to be away frequently. This was not too much of a burden because he had his own chauffeur-driven car in which he could make the 85-mile trek back and forth. When Pandit Nehru had a distinguished overseas visitor, he invariably took them to see this selfless patriot, living in the most simple way in a tent as he devoted himself to his task of uplifting the lives of everyone around him.
On his arrival the HTA summoned us to his small office upstairs in a little round building, where he told us that his trust in Panditji was so complete that if the great man ordered him to jump out of the window, he would jump. We were honoured guests, he said, having come from Panditji, [a detail which I would rather had not been bruited around among the villagers, since it was quite inaccurate, being based merely on my having written him a letter]. But he set up there and then for me to become editor of the English-language edition of their weekly publication Kurukshetra, on which I could work alongside Thakur Dutt, the editor of the Hindi-language version. This man turned out to be a genuine Hindu eccentric, who spoke virtually no English, and appeared to have none of the skills needed for editorship of anything. It was now that I discovered that this vast assemblage of equipment of which the HTA had boasted in his letter, capable of printing the most complete newspaper, was, in fact, just a collection of pre-industrial single-letters that had to be assembled, letter-by-letter, word-by-word, by a workforce who themselves knew no English, beyond the most rudimentary ability to recognize different letters. This was indeed going to be interesting work, difficult to achieve, since I had to be not only editor but sole contributor to this English-language edition. I did not yet know that the HTA himself would contribute the editorial which always occupied the first of the four pages, and that invariably he would retreat into his tent to meditate for some days before producing his words of wisdom at the last possible moment on Thursday evening, for early Friday publication. These were pretty well impossible conditions, but somehow we managed to get the sheet published every Friday during the few months of our residence in Nilokheri.
Having come from Panditji, as they all said, we naturally were objects of curiosity to the core of Indian Civil Service administrators who in fact ran the village. The village had been established as the seat of co-operation, everything, every business, was supposed to be run as a co-op, but the ICS guys, accustomed to the sclerotic workings of the colonial government in which they were raised, did not agree, and were doing everything they could to ensure the village became
 a government-run institution free from all this progressive co-operative nonsense.
This did not sit well with some of the outside experts who, as the HTA had told us, had been attracted from all over India to lend a hand. These included some very remarkable people who, too bad, I found were at almost the end of their tether, having been stymied at every turn as they tried to create new-type structures for governance. In particular one man, P.K.Gupta, commonly called Manik, who was from the family in Calcutta that had published most of Panditji’s great works, was an enthusiastic socialist who had nothing in common with the ICS types. He, like me, was a dreamer of a socialist better world and we got along famously from the first. He invited me to work with him as a sort of secretary, helping him write letters, and keeping up the pressure on the administration to fulfil the original aims of the village.
[To be continued tomorrow]

Monday, January 22, 2018

My Log 585 Jan 22 2018: Chronicles from [almost] the Tenth Decade: 22; A brutally heavy book tells more than you need to know about the Marx Brothers and the inspired lunacy of their lives and films

For the last several weeks I have been reading a book that is absolutely brutal.
I don’t mean it is brutal in the information it contains. I just mean that the book itself --- its massive size, its weight, the tiny print jammed on to all its 504 large-sized pages --- is almost more than I can manage. I do all of my book-reading in bed, hard enough on the neck even with a paperback, but having to hold up this two-and-a-half pound book has been a strain on both my arm muscles --- one of which, my left upper arm, already has some mysterious old-age ailment --- and my eyesight.
Well, I guess no reader is interested in these problems. They might  rather like to know what the book is about. It is about the Marx Brothers, that madcap quintet of comedians whose films, all made in the 1930s or 1940s made generations of people around the world laugh until, as someone wrote after one performance, “the audience was lying in the aisles laughing helplessly and uncontrollably.”
This book, however, is about far more than the crazy antics of these comedians. It is a detailed account of the vaudeville industry which ran successfully in local theatres all over the United States between 1885 and 1925, by which time it had almost run its course. As author Robert S. Bader shows in Four of the Three Musketeers, published by Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois --- only an academic publisher could have produced so weighty book, surely --- these sons of Minnie and Frenchy Marx were active in vaudeville for the 20 years from 1905, before graduating to Broadway, a more serious form of theatrical endeavour that, nevertheless, they managed to reduce to chaos in show after show.
The fact is, their route to getting there, to becoming rich and famous, was a pitiless grind.  Julius, eventually known to the world as Groucho, the third in age of the brothers, the first boy to follow his uncle the already famous Al Shean [of Gallagher and Shean], into show business, was not yet 15 when he took to the boards as a singing act, first with two other boys, then as Lily Seville and Master Marx, then as one of Gus Edwards’ Nine Postal Telegraph Boys, then as part of the cast of a four-act melodrama, then as one of four young men and fifteen chorus girls in  A Sideshow, before, when he was still only 16, being joined by one of his brothers, Milton, two years younger, in The Three Nightingales. In these two years he had performed at least 131 times in different theatres in 23 of the 48 states, two Canadian provinces, and in at least 100 different cities and towns by that time, including 10 in Canada, a scarcely believable workload for a young boy in such a short time.
The following year they were formed into the Three Nightingales, and their mother Minnie joined the act at the age of 43. She insisted that Adolph, who became known as Harpo, the son totally without talent, they believed, because he could not sing, should become part of the act. He was instructed just to open his mouth when Julius opened his.
Eventually the Brothers began to introduce comic bits into their routine: Mr Bader shows that almost all the stories they later told about themselves and their history were inaccurate, or simply invented, and  one of these was that their first bit of comedy was based on an incident with a runaway horse that occurred outside the theatre where they were playing in 1909 in Nacogdoches, Texas. Mr Bader says no record of their ever having played in that town has ever been found. Evidently the odd name appealed to their sense of the ridiculous. However, from that moment on their vaudeville act was one of comedy pieces linked by music. Their first real success was called Fun in Hi Skule, performed by Minnie Palmer [a name Minnie adopted for a while] and Her Seven Happy Youngsters, of which only two were her sons.
The handed down tales have become show business legend of how Minnie Marx [born Miene Schönberg in Germany, the daughter of entertainers, emigrated to the United States in 1880, married Samuel Marx, who was from  Alsace in France and was thereafter known as Frenchy] took over the management of her sons,  arranged the incredible schedule of their bookings, driving hard bargains with managements who were accustomed to paying as little for their acts as they could get away with.
By the time they reached New York’s Broadway stages in 1924 the Marx Brothers’ act was more or less in the form in which it later became well-known around the world through their films.  Every act, every joke, every comedy routine, had been tried out repeatedly before audiences for many years. Their show I’ll Say She Is had been played in several cities successfully for almost a year before they opened with it in New York, where it ran for more than 330 performances, and took the town by the ears. Now, an aura of respectability began to attach itself to them for the first time. Alexander Woollcott, critic of the New York Sun, wrote of Harpo’s speechless act: “Surely there should be dancing in the streets when a great clown comes to town, and this man is a great clown.” Harpo became a friend of Woollcott, began to hang out with him and his high-powered intellectual friends, and was thereafter always regarded as perhaps the supreme talent among the Marx Brothers, a reputation that took him to the Soviet Union, where he received a clamorous reception, which was thus described the next day in the New York Times:

Making his first appearance before a Russian audience in his celebrated knife-dropping act, the American comedian brought down the house in the Leningrad Music Hall as a capacity audience of usually phlegmatic Soviet theatregoers applauded, stamped, and cheered for twenty-five minutes after his six-minute act. He wore a wig, played a harp, and preserved his usual waggish silence, and was assisted by two members of the cast of the Moscow Art Theatre, with whom he had rehearsed for ten days.
Thereafter the Brothers were able to work with famous writers of musical comedies, such as Irving Berlin and George S. Kaufmann. They were now competing with the top talents of the American theatre who were tough competition. For instance, Abie’s Irish Rose opened and ran for five years. It was royally denounced on opening by the Life magazine critic, Robert Benchley, who thereafter had to find a one-line put-down of the play every week. Eventually he pleaded, “Will the Marines never come?”  That’s about the only Broadway joke Mr Bader has not tracked down.
As they transferred their stage shows to film, the Brothers hired several writers, who undertook the arduous task of giving their shows some minimal structure, around which the Brothers ad-libbed ferociously. The humourist S.J. Perelman first saw the Brothers in 1917 in their vaudeville act, and he wrote an acid account of their feeble jokes which, to his dismay, had not an ounce of nuance about them.  This did not prevent him from taking the job fourteen years later of writing the script for Monkey Business. One of the  movie jokes attributed to Perelman as writer was Groucho's remark after  chasing a lady up a ladder into a barn, that “‘tis better to have loft and lost than never loft at all,” which indicates that Perelman wasn't above making his own corny jokes, however superior he might have thought himself intellectually. It is also recorded that when Groucho read Perelman's first book in 1929, he sent the humorist a note that “from the moment I picked it up until I laid your book down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend to read it”.
In writing a book a couple of years ago about the creation of the Troubadour coffee house in London by a young Canadian couple, Michael and Sheila van Bloemen, I was told that one of their customers, a keen motor-tourist, had struck up a friendship with Perelman, with whom he quarrelled just as they were about to enter Peking on a motor tour in an old MG.  This customer, Eric Lister, wrote a book about that trip which he called Don’t Mention the Marx Brothers, for whom, apparently, Perelman had developed a ferocious dislike while working with them on their films. There is a clue to this antipathy given by Mr Bader, when he says that, having read Perelman’s first draft, Groucho dismissed it by saying “it stinks!” thereafter hiring four or five other writers to supplement the parade of jokes.   [Lister, incidentally, later wanted to make up the quarrel with Perelman, but found the man  stubbornly refused to talk to him again.]
In the rest of the book --- which is divided into 392 pages of text, and 107 pages of closely printed lists and references --- I was able to luxuriate in having seen at least seven of the Brothers extraordinary films, and having been amazed throughout my life at the continuing appeal of their humour over generations from my parents to my children. The very names of the characters played by Groucho are enough to bring back memories of the films:  Captain Spaulding in Animal Crackers 1930; Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup 1933; Otis B. Driftwood in A Night at the Opera 1935; Hugo Z. Hackenbush, A Day at the Races 1937; and Wolf T. Flywheel The Big Store 1941.
If there are those among you who have enjoyed the Marx Brothers films, I need hardly say anything more.