Sunday, 27 February 2011

Bill Jarrett and the Orientation debate.

For most of us toilet paper orientation is a small matter of personal preference.
Some prefer to leave the roll with the final sheet ‘over’, reducing the risk of brushing their hand against the bathroom wall and making it easier to locate the end of the roll.
Others will opt for leaving the final sheet ‘under’, giving a tidier look to the roll as the sheet can be rolled out of sight and making it less likely that children or household pets could unravel the roll while playing with it.
For Bill Jarrett it is an obsession.
He has spent years, working out of his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, attempting to organise a national vote on the subject that would then allow a democratically chosen orientation to become law in the United States.
Jarrett is hopeful that once a decision is taken, which would been enforced by police officers and a failure to adhere to the new regulations be punishable in law, it would settle an argument that has raged for decades:

“Next to the wall, or away from the wall. This argument has been going on since 1882 when roll toilet paper first came on the market. That’s when people found out there was two ways to hang it, and started arguing.”

For a man so tied up in the issue Jarrett has refused to reveal his own preference for fear of ‘affecting the vote.’ When journalists visit his home to discuss the progress of his mission he removes all the toilet paper from the dispensers in his home and leaves them on the floor.
Jarrett makes it clear that what drives him isn’t a desire to see his own choice of orientation become law but rather to save confusion.
By his estimate each citizen in the United States spends half an hour a year looking for the end of toilet roll as there is no predetermined location.
He calculates that a universal agreement on orientation will save Americans 90 million hours per year at home and save employers $300 million dollars per year in lost productivity in the workplace.
Jarrett has devoted all of his energies in retirement to this cause. He remains optimistic of a positive result:

''My final goal in life is to put an end to this most winnable debate and declare a 'National Toilet Paper Hanging Way,' '' he writes. ''I am 79, feel good, but at this age, who knows.''

Monday, 21 February 2011

Henry Darger and the Vivian Girls

Having endured a difficult childhood, Henry Darger spent his adult life determined to help children that had fallen on hard times and protect them from the perils he saw all around him.
Born in Chicago in 1892 Darger lost his mother, who died giving birth to his sister, when he was four years old and was taken away from his from his father, who was physically and financially unable to raise his children, when he was eight years old.
He was initially placed in a boy’s home but he exhibited a range of behaviours and disciplinary problems that proved to be beyond the ability of the home to cope with.
His actions, which included a compulsion to make strange noises, would seem to indicate the possibility of his suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome but this diagnosis was never made and instead he was institutionalised in an asylum in nearby Lincoln in 1905.
Darger hated life in the asylum, which mostly involved intensive work and harsh punishments for the smallest transgressions. After a series of attempted escapes he was eventually successful in 1908 and returned to Chicago where he found work in a hospital as a cleaner.
In this manner he managed to support himself until he retired in 1963.
Once Darger had secured employment and found himself a place to live he decided to dedicate his life to ensuring that other children never had to suffer the trials of the institutions he had been placed in.
His initial plan was to adopt a child but, despite his many attempts, the authorities were unwilling to trust a single man with a small income and a history of mental illness with the welfare of a child.
Darger also attempted, with the help of a friend called William Shloder, to establish an organisation called the ‘Children’s Protective Society’ which would be dedicated to helping abandoned and neglected children to find adoptive parents.
This plan also came to nothing.
Darger was obsessed with the welfare of the children of Chicago and amassed a huge archive of clippings from newspapers about children who he felt he could have helped.
He became particularly interested in the case of Elsie Paroubek, a five year old murder victim, whose picture Darger carried with him until it disappeared from his locker at work.
Darger was distraught by the loss of the picture and tried an elaborate series of prayers during his daily visits to Church to try and ensure its return. This didn’t work and his lack of knowledge of the particular edition of the paper he had clipped it from meant that a visit to the newspaper archive was also a waste of time.
At this point Darger determined that he would use the inspiration of the memory of Elsie Paroubek to create a personal memento that could never be taken away.
He had recently started work on a novel which was based on the idea of a holy war between Christian forces and a godless race known as the Glandelinians.
Darger knew that he wanted the Glandelinians to be the epitome of evil but was still unsure what their particular transgressions would be. The story of Elsie Paroubek helped him to decide.
The Glandelinians would be child murderers.
The novel would be the story of a war between the Glandelinians and the people of Abbieannie who are led by the Vivian Girls, the seven daughters of Robert Vivian and princesses of their nation. The war is sparked by the murder of Annie Aronburg, a child labour rebel, by the Glandelinians.
The Vivian Girls lead an army of children in a bloody war against their oppressors in the hope that their valiant deeds and holy purity will defeat the Glandelinians and bring freedom to Abbieannie.
Darger himself was unsure how the war would end. He wrote two different endings for the story, one where the Vivian Girls are triumphant and another where the Glandelinians manage to suppress the rebellion.
It seemed that Darger was determined that, even if he couldn’t help the children around him, he could create a world in which they at least had a fighting chance.
The full title of the novel was ‘The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.’
Darger worked on it for over forty years and also produced hundreds of drawings and watercolour paintings to illustrate the story.
By the time it was finished the entire manuscript was 15,145 pages long.
This work, along with Darger’s other projects which included a book called ‘A History of my Life’ which spends 206 pages covering his early life before transforming into a work of fiction about a tornado called ‘Sweetie Pie’ that goes on for another 4,672 pages and a sequel to ‘The Story of the Vivian Girls...’called ‘Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago’ and details the life of the Vivian Girls in contemporary Chicago and runs for over 10,000 pages, were discovered by the landlords of his apartment in 1973 and they ensured that it found its way into the world where it became celebrated.
Darger himself would never know of the fame his work would enjoy.
He died shortly after his work was discovered, in the same Catholic mission that his own father had died in sixty-eight years earlier.
Darger is buried in All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois.
His headstone is inscribed ‘Artist ‘ and ‘Protector of Children.’

Sunday, 13 February 2011

William Sharp and his Seeress

William Sharp was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1855 and was a writer and editor who played a vital, if unorthodox, role in the Celtic Revival of the 1890's.
Having studied Literature, Sharp left University without a degree in 1872.
He initially took a position in a lawyers office in Glasgow and was employed there from 1874 to 1875. Poor health forced him to travel to Australia for a year in 1876 and on returning he found work in a bank in London.
Once in London his literary life began to flourish. Introduced to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sharp became a noted member of Rossetti’s literary circle and began to find work as a poet, journalist and editor. His cousin Elizabeth had been a childhood companion that shared many of his interests and they married in 1884. With Elizabeth’s support Sharp found that his literary work became more and more popular and eventually he devoted himself fully to writing from 1891 and took the flexibility of this new employment to travel widely.
On a journey to Italy in 1891 the Sharps met Edith Wingate Rinder, the niece of one of one of Elizabeth’s childhood friends. Although William and Edith were acquainted in London they had never spent any real time in one another’s company. In Italy they did and eventually fell in love.
There is nothing to suggest that the relationship was consumated but for William the experience was life-changing. In Italy he wrote and privately printed a slim volume of love poems, ‘Sospiri di Roma’ that was of significantly greater quality than anything he had previously produced.
He also began work on a novel called ‘Pharais, A Romance of the Isles.’
Set in the Western Isles of Scotland, it was the tale of a doomed romance with the inspiration seemingly being his own situation with Edith.
William had some concerns about the new direction his work was taking though.
Firstly he was sure that critics would not take a work of romantic fiction by William Sharp seriously and, more importantly, he felt sure that anyone who read the novel and knew of his friendship with Edith would be able to trace the roots of the story.
William decided the safest route would be to publish under a pseudonym and named his literary alter ego ‘Fiona Macleod’. He felt using a woman’s name would throw people of the scent a little more and would confuse even further the aliases of the characters in the book from their real-life counterparts.
There is also a possibility that Sharp was working with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at this point. The Order, a gathering of practising magicians largely drawn from literary and theatrical circles, were doing a great deal of work on the concept of the ‘divine feminine’ during this time and it would have been seen as a major magical working to produce such successful novels with a mystical element under the guise of a woman.
In his own writings Sharp described Macleod as an ‘ancestral seeress’.
‘Pharais’ was published in 1894 and in 1895 Fiona Macleod produced ‘The Mountain Lovers’ another West of Scotland romance. Both books attracted an enthusiastic readership and no little critical acclaim.
Fiona Macleod became a minor literary phenomenon.
Sharp began to live a literary double life. He continued to write and edit and helped to produce significant works on Ossian and Walter Scott that were key to the Celtic Revival.
This served to confuse matters somewhat when W.B. Yeats, another important figure in the movement, declared that he didn’t enjoy Sharp’s work but did like Macleod’s.
The more Sharp became immersed in the Macleod deception the more complex it became.
He acted as her agent and declined meetings and public appearances on the grounds of Fiona’s desire for privacy and a quiet life in the Highlands.
When it was necessary for Fiona to correspond with someone Sharp would dictate the letters to his sister so that it would be written in a feminine hand.
Later in life Sharp even refused to reveal the subterfuge to the Prime Minister.
When Lord Salisbury offered Fiona Macleod a Civil List pension Sharp had to regretfully decline, fearing that it would reveal his deception.
Poor William Sharp would never be considered for such an honour...

Sunday, 6 February 2011

An African in Greenland

Born in Togo in 1941 Tété-Michel Kpomassie was an unremarkable boy.
One of twenty-six children that his father and eight wives had produced Kpomassie, having enjoyed six years of elementary education, was expected to perform the duties of any other young man in his village.
This included such mundane chores as collecting coconuts which is what Kpomassie was doing on the fateful day that transformed his life forever.
While high up in the tree, collecting the coconuts as normal, he was surprised by the appearance of a massive python on the branch he was sat on. Startled, he slipped and fell from the tree and was seriously injured in the fall.
While he recovered reasonably well physically, Kpomassie remained lethargic and feverish long after the accident.
His father decided that the incident with the python had a spiritual element and decided to consult with the priestess of a python cult who was based nearby.
The priestess confirmed the family’s worst fears. Kpomassie had been cursed by the python as he fell from the tree and without her intervention he would surely die.
She informed them that she could lift the curse and save Kpomassie’s life, but there would be a price. Once cured Kpomassie would have to join the cult and live in the jungle, alongside the snakes that terrified him, for seven years.
His family saw no alternative and so agreed to the arrangement.
Incredibly, the cure worked and Kpomassie was sent back to his village to recover and prepare himself to pay off his treatment in service to the cult.
While convalescing Kpomassie visited the local library, ran by Jesuit missionaries, and found a book that would inspire the rest of his life.
It was a children’s book on Greenland and specifically the lives of the Inuit people who lived there. Kpomassie was intrigued by this land that was so different to his own.
Not only did Greenland not have snakes, it didn’t even have trees that snakes could hide in...
As soon as he was fully recovered Kpomassie ran away from home. He had decided that his destiny lay away from the jungles of Togo with it’s perilous wildlife and cults that would claim him for years of his life. His destiny was Greenland.
He travelled for twelve years across Africa and Europe, mastering as many languages as he could on the way and working his passage mainly as a translator.
Eventually, in the mid-1960's, he found himself on a boat to Greenland and arrived there to live among the Kalaalit people.
He was fascinated by their lifestyle, so alien to his own background but with many echoes.
While the diet and many of the customs of the Kalaalit tribe held little appeal to Kpomassie he felt comfortable to be among a community based around hunting and found that both his native tribe and his hosts shared a belief in the ability of the soul to travel independently of the body.
Kpomassie himself was a revelation to the Kalaalit themselves. Unused to visitors generally, they had never seen a Black man before and were flattered by the determination of their visitor to reach the land he had read about so many years before.
Eventually Kpomassie settled in France and published an account of his adventures, ‘An African in Greenland’, in 1977.