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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Typee Mortarkee!

Updated: Dec 24, 2020


In July of 1842, the 21 year old Herman Melville jumped ship at Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands - at that time one of the most remote inhabited locations in the world - and shortly found himself the enforced guest of the inhabitants of Taipi Valley. His month-long sojourn there served as the inspiration for his beguiling first novel, Typee, in which his alter ego, Tom, survives four months of isolation from his native culture in the company of a tribe who enjoyed "a prodigious notoriety" for fierceness and alleged cannibalism.

Melville's beautifully sustained depiction of Typee life is both idyllic and suspenseful. Are the charming courtesies the seemingly easygoing natives extend to their unexpected visitor to be taken at face value, or are they merely a deceptive means of fattening him up for slaughter? Tom's difficulty in navigating the complex web of kinship, custom and taboo that binds the valley together is subtly dramatized in scenes of comic unease and misunderstanding, but perhaps most concisely through issues of language. Just as the Typee chieftain, Mehevi, can't cope with Tom's monosyllabic name, so Tom (or Tommo, as he becomes) appears to struggle with the Typee words for "good" (mortarkee) and "bad" (motarkee), which are either near identical, or mean the reverse of what he takes them to mean, or are possibly the same word modified by context and the individual pronounciation of different speakers .

All of which is a long-winded way of welcoming you to my own Typee Valley. Not, I hope, as inscrutable and potentially dangerous as Melville's nor, I'm afraid, as intermittently enchanting, but intended as a source of harmless diversion for those kind enough to glance at it from time to time. It is well over a decade since I first contemplated a blog containing writing about some of the things that interest me in literature and the arts, but habitual indolence and innate technophobia, combined with employment that regularly keeps me out late into the evenings, have prevented me from creating it. Now, home alone with only habitual indolence and innate technophobia to hold me back, I am finally taking the plunge.

So first, a few words about my background, tastes, and what you can expect from me in the posts to come.

I was born in Malta - a place I still feel considerable attachment to - as long ago as 1960 to a Welsh father and a Maltese mother, though I grew up largely in the innocuous Greater London village of Sunbury-on-Thames. I gained an MA in English Language and Literature from King's College, London (a happy experience), later starting and abandoning a literary PhD at another institution (less happy). For over half my life I have worked in bookselling - first for Waterstone's in Birmingham and Manchester, and currently for a celebrated independent in the delightful Fenland city of Ely, where I have lived now for over a decade, and from where I do not see myself moving any time soon.

In my 20s and 30s, I directed and acted in quite a few amateur theatre productions of both classic and new work, most notably for the enterprising Coventry-based group AVP Theatre.

The best of these last were well above the usual amdram standard and an achievement all of us involved in still look back on with some pride.

During my time in Birmingham I reviewed Science Fiction for the (now sadly defunct) semiprozine Critical Wave and later, in Manchester, my reviews of a wide range of books, both fiction and non-fiction, appeared regularly in the pages of City Life Magazine. I have also, though sadly not for some time, had long essay-reviews of poetry published in PN Review.

In addition to this, I have for over quater of a century played timpani with Birmingham Symphonic Winds, an ensemble at the very top of the British amateur wind orchestra scene with whom I have must now have given a few hundred concerts, as well as making near professional standard recordings, being involved in the commisioning and first performances of much new music, competing strongly in various competitions, and touring extensively abroad.

The valley which I invite you to explore with me will, I suspect, be chiefly a literary landscape. Since childhood I have been a voracious and - if I say so myself - adventurous reader. I can't honestly say I find much time for contemporary mainstream fiction these days, but I do read widely in classic British, European and American literature, the latter being a particular obsession, as are Shakespeare and the great Jacobean dramatists. I also enjoy science-fiction - at least the more literary end of the genre - and try to read at least a little poetry each week. My non-fiction forays extend to history and archaeology, literary and musical biography and criticism, and ocassionally popular science. As will probably become apparent, I have a distinct taste for the encyclopedic and experimental, seldom being detered by a book's length or complexity, even though I have sometimes been defeated. My aim in the book-related posts to follow is to offer thoughts on what I consume rather than reviews as such. As a professional bookseller, I meet many authors in the course of my work and will try to avoid commenting in a hostile way on the writing of those whom I am likely to encounter in the near future. I will also refrain from posting my advance thoughts on books I am reading for either of the two reading groups I attend, though I may well comment after meetings have taken place. Needless to say, all views offered up here are my own and in no way should be taken as reflecting those of my colleagues or employers - let alone those of publishers.

Yet, though the valley is primarily a bookish place, it should boast other attractions. Musical ones, for a start. I am immensely lucky to have inherited an intense and unquenchable love of music from my parents, both of whom played the piano to a decent standard and had a vast knowledge of the classical and operatic repertoire. They had a great fondness for the early classics of Tin Pan Alley, but never took to rockn'roll, or anything else much that came after it. Thus, it was only at university in the early 1980s that I really gained any familiarity with (and, in some cases, enthusiasm for) modern pop. Even now, though pop and world musics have afforded me a good deal of pleasure over the years, I tend to regard them as essentially for live consumption and rarely listen to them at home. Perhaps their charm is destroyed, rather than enhanced, by contemplative listening - certainly, I rarely find the self-serving drivelings of rock journalism in any way illuminating - but, whatever the reason, I make no apology for devoting most of my musical posts to the last quater-millenium of Western art music.

It will be seen that, within the classical field, I have relatively little time for the glories of the baroque, but a lot for orchestral, chamber and operatic music from the dawn of romanticism onwards, as well as what some might find a disproportionate patience with the modernist and experimental. Some of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my life have resulted from listening to challenging new work and I hope I can convey some of that excitement in direct and non-technical language. Ideally, it would be gratifying if readers familiar with the works I describe were prompted to consider the extent to which my various opinions coincide with or diverge from their own, whilst those unfamiliar might be tempted to try out something new.

This introductory post has probably gone on far too long but, before concluding, there is a third major route into the valley, which I must briefly mention. I am coming to suspect that, of all my entusiasms, my love of film is the one that most dates me. Few of the bright young people I meet or work with these days seem to take any kind of informed interest in movies. Most of them rarely go to the cinema, don't watch films shown on tv, and evince little knowledge of film history. In so far as cinema impinges upon their lives at all, it is in the form of franchise or superhero movies. Anything black and white or in a foreign language would appear as drab and culturally remote to them as displays of Mycenaean pottery. One can hardly blame them for this. Today's cinemas are not the cheap places of resort they used to be and theatrical movies have become a minor, relatively inaccessible part of television scheduling, largely confined to weekday afternoons and the darkest watches of the night where they are more often than not grotesquely distended by adverts.

For many of my generation, however, cinema was the great democratising art form of the 20th century and had about it a special aura of glamour and excitement. I was fortunate to spend my impressionable years of early adulthood in London at a time when art house and repertory cinemas were still flourishing, and exotic subtitled movies from around the world jostled for attention with the latest products of the Hollywood New Wave. At the moment, of course, live cinema-going is an imposibility but, until things return to something like normal, I do have a fair library of DVDs I can turn to, including several of interesting looking releases from the last few months that I haven't got round to viewing yet. As with my music posts, I hope I can communicate something of my own pleasure with as much honesty and directness as possible.

So, here it is at last, that distinguished thing, as Henry James once said in sobering circumstances. How distinguished it is will be for you to decide, as we descend into the valley, navigating between its three main thoroughfares by way of sundry diversions into such areas as travel, politics, art, architecture, even perhaps cookery. Until I can obtain some hands-on technical assistance, the way might look less inticing than I would like, but before long photographs and other decorative matter should gradually start to brighten things up. Until then, just the unadorned product of the interaction between clumsy fingers and recalcitrant keyboard. Pure typee. Will it be mortarkee, motarkee, or something in between?

Let's see...

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Jul 07, 2020

Well this is going to be fun. Great start!

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