Readers Rediscover Mr. Finchley's England

Mr. Finchley Discovers His England (1936/1972/2013/2018)
By Victor Canning
Macmillan, 260 pages.

First things first: You will notice numerous publication dates for a work I read this spring as a “new” e-book. This makes more sense if you’re British. Mr. Finchley Discovers His England (1936) was the first of three comedic novels penned by Victor Canning (1911-86). It’s a whimsical tale of a bachelor clerk in a London solicitor’s office forced by a new boss to take his first holiday. It became an overnight sensation that allowed Canning to quit his own clerkship and become a fulltime writer*.

The second thing that will help you appreciate Canning’s novel is to locate it in its own time period and circumstances. Holidays were not a given in the early 1930s, and 45-year-old Edgar Finchley had never taken one under his old boss. Finchley knew little of England beyond London’s metropolitan limits. As Brits had been doing for several hundred years, Finchley’s abstract idea of a vacation was to book a hotel in the faded Kent seaside resort of Margate in Kent–some 80 miles distant. To put it in contemporary terms, it’s the equivalent of a middle-aged man from Trenton taking his first vacation in Atlantic City.

Finchley never made it to Margate. At the rail station he is asked to watch someone’s fancy “motor,” as automobiles were often called in the days in which they were still relatively new. Finchley crawls into the backseat, falls asleep, and awakes to find that he has been spirited away by a thief. It would be the first of several zany mishaps to befall Finchley, many of which involved the fact that a tweed-covered bald man carrying a rucksack and wearing city shoes is not exactly prepared to trudge across moors, fall into ditches, sleep in haystacks, scramble over stone walls, or plunge through nettles. Along a zigzag journey that will eventually take him across Devonshire, Finchley befriends or battles with farmers, gypsies, con men, an itinerant artist, orphans, a street band, a self-proclaimed philosopher, a lunatic, snooty elites, and a smuggler.

You also need to know that the times were somewhat gentler, the recent war (World War I) notwithstanding. Even gun-toting thieves were polite, police were respected, gender roles were prescribed, much of the population was peripatetic, and residents in the countryside routinely took in scruffy strangers in need of a meal and/or bed. It was also a time in which rural roads were such that if cyclists wanted to get away from someone chasing them in van, they could reverse direction and get a half mile lead before the van could turn around and gain on them.

All of this is to say that Canning’s breakthrough novel has a quaint throwback charm for modern readers. To experience that charm one must surrender to it rather than filtering it through today’s realities. It’s almost enough to make one lapse into romantic dreams of “simpler” times. Key word: almost. It’s doubtful that today’s readers will admire Canning’s (non) structure. What we read is a series of vignettes disguised as a novel. Some have compared the Mr. Finchley books to comedian Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean series. It’s a decent comparison, as both characters are basically nebbish innocents overcome by events. To this I would add that Michael Palin’s “Cycling Tour of Cornwall” sketch for Monty Python owes a debt to Canning. I don’t know this for certain, but Palin’s character name of Mr. Pither might be a wink to those who know that Canning originally called his character “Pitchley.” In any event, Pither’s encounter with rural England is similarly fraught with misfortune.

To move from the speculative to the literary, the Mr. Bean and Monty Python analogies work as they call attention to the fact that the Mr. Finchley “novels” are actually disconnected sketches basted together loosely. Many Brits actually know the Finchley books as an individual BBC Radio programs that aired in the 1980s and were revived in 2005. As we see, the Finchley novels also enjoy frequent revival. The moral, I suppose, is that charm, innocence, and frothy frolick transcend time. It would be too much to rank Mr. Finchley–or Mr. Bean for that matter–among the classic works of 20th century humor, but it won’t hurt anyone to take an unexpected detour now and then.

Rob Weir

*In the British legal system, a solicitor generally handles civil cases, whereas more prestigious barristers argue cases in court. A “holiday” is what North Americans call a vacation. Canning spent most of his life in Devonshire near the port city of Plymouth. He was born to working class parents and, though he qualified for Oxford University, there was no money for such an extravagance and he became a clerk at the age of 16. He is perhaps better known in North American for creating the Rex Carver detective series.


Hurry Hurry to Catch Rube Goldberg Exhibit

The Art and Wit of Rube Goldberg (through June 9, 2019)
Frank E. Schoonover: American Visions (through May 27, 2019)
Norman Rockwell Museum (Stockbridge, MA)

 {Click images for full-size views}

I have fond childhood dreams of chortling over syndicated cartoons featuring the improbable inventions of Reuben (“Rube”) Goldberg (1883-1970). In part that was because of my obsession with his board game “Mousetrap,” but it was also because of Goldberg's backdoor social commentary. As a college student I learned of the philosophical principle known as Occam’s razor*, which is often shorthanded as “the simplest solutions are the best.” That’s not quite what it means but any way we look at it, Rube Goldberg was the anti-Occam’s razor. There was no small task Goldberg couldn't transform into an antigodlin contraption. 

A small but delicious and (alas!) soon-to-close show at Norman Rockwell Museum in the Berkshires dusts off Goldberg’s wit for those who recall it and serves as an introduction for the non-initiated. Goldberg was one of the few people whose name became an adjective; a Rube Goldberg machine is one that uses whimsical and overly elaborate methods to accomplish the mundane. If you're a Wallace and Gromit fan, Wallace's madcap inventions are directly inspired by Goldberg. But even Wallace looks tame in comparison to Goldberg. His alter ego, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, complicated every task, be it shading one’s self from the sun, keeping a buttonhole flower fresh, or polishing shoes. I’m sure there many today that will still find humor in his machine for helping viewers better appreciate modern art.

Goldberg won many awards in his lifetime, but his 1948 Pulitzer was for political cartooning, an overlooked aspect of his career. He saw two world wars and viewed each as a terrible waste. Goldberg called attention to the bitter irony of living in a world that simultaneously promotes the global cooperation and celebrates robust bodies, and one plagued by the eviscerating effects of warfare. Although he held Western Cold War assumptions after World War II, he also saw the atomic arms race as madness rather than deterrence. One can only image his war dead cartoon today, with added crosses for every conflict from Korea and Vietnam through the idiotic Gulf wars. 

I wonder what Goldberg would make of today’s app society. He was one of the first to lampoon self-photography, so I’m sure he’d find lots of fodder in a world of selfies, useless apps, and latter-day Rube Goldberg inventions. I think of Goldberg whenever I read that some investor with more cash than commonsense sinks money into things such as “smart” water coolers, iBeer, and apps that sound like an electric shaver or a flushing toilet. My car’s user’s manual is over 400 pages, which means there’s a lot of senseless gadgetry involved when all one really needs to do is turn it on and put it in gear. (If you’re wondering about the navigation and music systems, those are separate tomes.)  We also have such mind-boggling inventions such as microwave scrambled eggs–which take twice as long as making them from actual eggs–underwear built for two, and a putting green you can use when you’re using the loo. (I suppose now we need a virtual putting green that synchs with the flushing toilet sound app.)

Where’s Rube when we need him? Lord knows we need someone to make us laugh at our foibles. For a few more weeks his work will be at the Norman Rockwell Museum. 

A show closing in just a few days at the NRM features painter Frank Schoonover (1877-1972), who was one of the many illustrators and painters trained and/or influenced by Howard Pyle (1853-1911). (That list includes Maxfield Parrish, N. C. Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell.) Schoonover isn’t as well known but you’ll certainly see Pyle’s handprints all over Schoonover’s canvases. Like most from the Brandywine River School, Schoonover loved dramatic stories of explorers, pirates, knights, and Joan of Arc. He was especially drawn to the American West, the struggle between man and nature, and writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London.

When he needed to, Schoonover wasn’t afraid to cross into commercial terrain. Note the subtle advertisement in the attached camping scene. Some might find that Schoonover’s work transgresses the porous border between historical and histrionic–his first typewriter painting, for instance–but I quite enjoyed my introduction to his oeuvre.

There is also an exhibit that explores the connections between Rockwell and his friend and one-time therapist Erik Erikson. Erikson has long been among those psychologists whom I most admire. His stages of life theories of psychological development has always made more sense to me than theorists such as Jean Piaget who claim that our basic personalities are already shaped about the time we enter primary school. Who knew that Erikson also sketched and painted? My assessment? As an artist, Erik Erikson was a great developmental psychologist.

Rob Weir 
*Razor means “principle” in philosophy and has nothing to do with removing body stubble!



Molly Tuttle: May 2019 Artist and Album of the Month

Molly Tuttle
When You're Ready
Compass Records

Looking for the next Alison Krauss? Molly Tuttle has been hiding in plain sight. She's not a fiddle player, but to say that Molly Tuttle plays the guitar well is a bit like saying Van Gogh painted a little. She's the only woman to have been named Guitarist of the Year by the International Blue Music Association and, for heaven's sake, she's just turned 26. It staggers to imagine what she will go on to accomplish.

I was floored to find that, though Tuttle released an EP in 2017, When You're Ready is Tuttle's debut full-length album. Recall can get hazy when you've been listening to an artist since she was in her teens. I've seen Tuttle three times, but now that this California native is making her mark in Nashville, it's probably going to cost more to see her. It will worth every damn penny! The title track alone sounds like a better single than you'll ever hear on commercial radio, but it's just one of 11 stunning tracks Tuttle wrote or cowrote. Tuttle has said that Townes Van Zandt was a huge influence on her songwriting, and you can't do much better in picking a musical role model. 

Let's start with the guitar. Tuttle's the mistress of flat-picking, but lately she's added more firepower to her fretted arsenal. Watch this clip of "Take the Journey." If you're wondering what she's doing, she has transposed claw hammer banjo to guitar. You probably shouldn't try this at home! "Light Came In (Power Went Out)" is another string burner, one whose love-in-the-dark sparks could illumine a village. On the slower-paced "Sit Back and Watch It Roll," Tuttle's guitar creates a meditative groove.

My Alison Krauss comparison is most evident in Tuttle's voice. I intend no disrespect toward Ms. Krauss, but Tuttle's a better vocalist. Call it all of the sweetness, but far more powerful and clarity. On "High Road" Tuttle lays down quiet licks appropriate for a tale of two people going in opposite directions. Listen as she soars and then drops back into heartache terrain. She repeats that feel in "Sleepwalking," which is like a small bird taking flight into a dream-gauzed sky. "Million Miles" is tender and vulnerable, as befits a song about needing to be in that special place with a certain someone who is far away.

This amazing album is supplemented by guest artists such as Nat Smith (Cello), Sierra Hull (cello), Jason Isbell (backing vocals), and Rachel Baiman and Mike Barnett (fiddles). If I had to nitpick a single concern, it lies in splashes of overproduction. Kris Donegan adds electric guitar on several tracks, but it's simply overkill, especially on "Make My Mind Up." I've heard Tuttle sing this song and she doesn't need any help. But let me assure you that this is indeed a trivial point on my part. This is easily the best record I've heard in 2019 and, as you'll see from some of the clips linked in the review, what you hear is genuine, not a bunch of studio tricks. Molly Tuttle is more than ready; she has arrived.

Rob Weir