Thursday 22 December 2011

Safety Pins - Christopher Morley

I seem to write my reviews in protracted parts now - there are the bits I can't help typing out and posting as soon as I read them, and then, rolling along months later, comes the actual review proper.  The snippets are probably more enjoyable to read, and certainly speedier to write, but I'll leave that sort of blogging to people like Claire who does it so beautifully.  Me, I like the sound of my own voice.  So not only did I give you Christopher Morley's delightful, wonderful essay 'On Visiting Bookshops' back in July (go and read it now, if you didn't then) but I'll cover the whole collection it came in: Safety Pins (1925).  (I'm pretty sure these essays are collected elsewhere under another name, or scattered through different collections - grab any book of essays with Morley's name on it!)

Morley was best known to me as the author of Parnassus on Wheels, which I love, and its sequel The Haunted Bookshop, which is a curate's egg.  I love little literary or personal essays, and was delighted to find that he had written some - doubly delighted when I discovered that it included bibliophilia of that order.  The rest of the collection is something of a mixed bag - brilliant at its best, and humdrum at its worst.  Actually, that assessment isn't quite fair: I find him fascinating when our interests overlap, and less so when they don't - only the greatest essayists can make a subject compelling which would otherwise be considered dull.  I don't even remember the topics of those that I skimmed through, so let's move on to those I loved?  And when I love Morley's essays, I really love them.

When he writes about books and writing, I am besotted - 'The Perfect Reader' is sweet and sensible; 'On Unanswering Letters' is farcical and yet oh-so-true (how letters are accidentally left unanswered for so long that it is impossible to do so, and no greeting works); he even admits to 'the temptation to try to see what books other people are reading - this innocent curiosity has led me into many rudenesses, for I am short-sighted and have to stare very close to make out the titles.'  But beware the man who falls asleep while reading in a chair:

And here our poor barren clay plays us false, undermining the intellect with many a trick and wile.  "I will sit down for a season in that comfortable chair," the creature says to himself, "and read this sprightly novel.  That will ease my mind and put me in humour for a continuance of lively thinking."  And the end of that man is a steady nasal buzz from the bottom of the chair where has collapsed, an unsightly object and a disgrace to humanity.
Not even Shakespeare is safe from Morley's attentions - in 'On Making Friends', he gives his own views on those tenets laid down in Hamlet:
Polonius, too, is another ancient supposed to be an authority on friendship.  The Polonius family must have been a thoroughly dreary one to live with; we ave often thought that Ophelia would have gone mad anyway, even if there had been no Hamlet.  Laertes preaches to Ophelia; Polonius preaches to Laertes.  Laertes escaped by going abroad, but the girl had to stay at home.  Hamlet saw that pithy old Polonius was a preposterous and orotund ass.  Polonius's doctrine of friendship - "The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel" - was, we trow, necessary in his case.  It would need a hoop of steel to keep them near such a dismal old sawmonger.
You probably sense Morley's tone - and have a good idea whether you'll love him or loathe him.  Some people do have an odd hatred for insouciant humour.  Morley's essays are like A.A. Milne's or Stephen Leacock's or anybody who deals in slightly over-the-top whimsy - but rooted in a love of ideas and a passion for literature.  Morley becomes earnest, when on the track of his hero R.L. Stevenson, but is equally adept at cod-earnestness - for example, in the title essay, in praise of 'Safety Pins':
The pin has never been done justice in the world of poetry.  As one might say, the pin has no Pindar.  Of course there is the old saw about see a pin and pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck.  This couplet, barbarous as it is in its false rhyme, points (as Mother Goose generally does) to a profound truth.  When you see a pin, you must pick it up.  In other words, it is on the floor, where pins generally are.  Their instinctive affinity for terra firma makes one wonder why they, rather than the apple, did not suggest the law of gravitation to some one long before Newton.
Well, quite.  I keep using the word 'delightful', but it is the perfect word for Safety Pins.  If he is not entirely consistent, at least that is better than being consistently dull.  There is plenty here for the bibliophile, and plenty more for those who like to laugh at the little things in life.  I love it - I think a lot of you will too.

Other things to get Stuck into:

Once a Week by A.A. Milne - every now and then I eulogise about AAM, and hope that one or two of you will try him and love him.  The review I link to is really more about Punch, but hopefully you'll be inspired to try Milne's whimsical, clever essays.

Literary Lapses by Stephen Leacock - the great Canadian humorist deserves a better post than I gave him, but you can at least read one of his pieces there.  His sketches and essays brim over with humour, and he was wonderfully prolific too.

Any other humourous essayists you think I would enjoy?


  1. I do love over-the-top whimsy and the combination of that with essays about books and writing is irresistible! I also just love reading essays, partly because it is so easy to skip the bad ones and read only the best. My library appears to have lots by Morley (including a volume of essays that comes in at over 1000 pages) so I'll look forward to reading him.

  2. I suggest James Thurber in answer to your request.

  3. I've never read him and may never do so as books of essays on the whole don't tempt me. But these quotes really made me laugh so you never know.

  4. I love Leacock and enjoyed "Parnassus", so I'll have to see if I can find Morley's essays. In answer to your question on other humorous essayists, please, please read Max Beerbohm's essays (or everything he writes, delightful). Surely, being of Oxford, you've read "Zuleika"? While I can't fault it because I love Max so much, his essays are tighter and have more sparkle. I'd begin with "And Even Now." I also love the short stories in "Seven Men" but recommend looking for 'later' version "Seven Men and Two Others".

  5. Claire - this very definitely sounds up your street! I am rather amazed that he wrote a thousand pages' worth, good on him!

    Peter - thanks for the suggestion - any in particular, or shall I just chance whichever I come across?

    Harriet - you could try his essays, but I would recommend you head for his novel Parnassus on Wheels instead - I think it would be more up your street.

    Bridget - how lovely to find another Leacock fan! I read many of his before I started blogging, but none since. And you will be horrified, but I have not read Zuleika Dobson - however, I do feel much more drawn to And Even Now, thank you so much for the suggestion.


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