The Ghost Stories of M.R. James

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You never know what your legacy is going to be.

There once was a scholar at Cambridge who dedicated probably 90% of his adult waking hours to scholarship - cataloging dusty old manuscripts, caring for fragile old artifacts, studying creaky old churches. He never married, never had children, never retired. In the other 10% of his time, for kicks, he wrote and recited stories… stories about bachelor scholars went looking for dusty old manuscripts, found fragile old artifacts, and poked around creaky old churches, and oh yeah, these things were all cursed and studying them meant confronting unspeakable horrors.

M.R. James is iconic because of what he did in those rare moments he wasn’t giving his heart and soul to academia - those nights and weekends when he smirked and wondered “How can I scare the crap out of my friends?”

Terry Pratchett's Discworld

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I spent 28 apparently forlorn years without reading any Terry Pratchett outside of Good Omens. One month ago, my book club was reading his The Wee Free Men. And just like that, I was an acolyte. A convert. 

Which doesn't necessarily make Discworld an easy candidate for an Iconography episode. How does one map onto our world a fantasy world that rides around on the back of a turtle, where there is no London or England - or, to be more precise, where those places exist, but only in a magicless round world that’s kept in a glass sphere at Unseen University?

I went to the HisWorld exhibition at the Salisbury Museum to find out.

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Here's the outfit referenced in the episode: "Black cane, with a silver head - literally a head, the head of his most famous character Death. Black satchel bag, black T-Shirt, black leather jacket, and crowning it all, the piece de resistance, the black Louisiana fedora. The cane and fedora, joining his round spectacles and white beard, would put one in mind of John Hammond, a kindly old dreamer with a twinkle in his eye. But this was John Hammond taking fashion tips from Ian Malcolm; be old-fashioned, fine… but spice it up with some darkness and danger."

The label below the mannequin reads in part: “I don’t become a real person with the hat on. I become an unreal person with the hat on. It’s tough under there, sometimes the hat has to come off. The hat is an antidisguise.”

In the same room, there's a reconstruction of Terry Pratchett's study: "The centerpiece of the exhibition, even more alluring then the mannequin in Terry’s clothes, is the full reconstruction of Terry’s office, with his old desk topped with six screens. Every once in a while, an invisible Terry Pratchett types a few paragraphs about Sam Vimes or plays Doom while emails from Neil pop up, and you can feel everyone in the room inhale. It almost feels like he’s there."

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The walls of the HisWorld exhibition were gilded with fantastic art from Josh Kirby, Paul Kidby, and even Pratchett himself. These drawings of Tiffany Aching are from Paul Kidby.

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In the same room, the famous hard drive (recently steamrolled) containing Terry's manuscripts is on display, as well as Paul Kidby's Pratchett bust, part of his work on the 7 ft.-tool Terry Pratchett statue that will soon be in Salisbury. 

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There' plant of humor in the exhibition (as one would expect), but nothing made me chuckle more then a detail I caught on the way out - a Nac Mac Feegle in the donations box, eagerly awaiting your contribution.

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The Legacy of Dunkirk

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Here's the second half in a series inspired by Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. This episode goes far beyond what that film focuses on - it goes from Chamberlain to Churchill and from Sedan to Petain, and yes even to Charlottesville, Virginia. I simply couldn't have expected the condemnation of Nazis and their symbols to have become so relevant when I started this episode, but I hope I did the condemnation justice. I should warn you that there is some audio from Charlottesville in the episode; not much, but it could still trigger some truly harrowing emotions. On a lighter note, I do an impression of Queen Wihelmena of the Netherlands in this episode, so you'll probably want to see how that goes.

A Tapestry of Dunkirk

If you could only learn about Dunkirk from the stories that have gravitated towards it; from Mrs. Miniver and Atonement and The Snow Goose – the novels and films – and from Their Finest and The Battle Of Britain and the Dunkirk movie that was made in 1958, and the Dunkirk movie that just came out… If that’s all you had… what could you learn?

Would you understand how the French Army, supposedly the world’s supreme fighting force, bolstered by alliances with Belgium and England, and by an unbreakable border fortification, the Manginot Line, fell in one month?

Would you be able to explain how the 30,000 men that British high command hoped, optimistically, to be able to evacuate before the Nazis closed in turned into 300,000?

And, what would you learn? About Britain, about France, about Nazis… about soldiers, about civilians… about war, peace, victory, defeat, and humanity.

This episode, I imagine what’s just on the periphery of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk; who else, besides Mr. Dawson, is setting off from England in a little dinghy? Who is up in the air monitoring fuel readings alongside the self-assured RAF Pilot Farrier? Who else, besides the baby-faced private Tommy is ducking the Luftwaffe amidst the dunes of Dunkirk?

Paddington

Last month, Michael Bond passed away at 91. Inspired by a lonely teddy bear he saw at Selfridge's on Christmas Eve, 1956, Bond created Paddington Bear. 

That bear has overshadowed the station that leant its name to Bond - people flock there just to see his little statue, unaware that the statue on Platform 8 depicts the greatest engineer of his (or any?) age. This episode, we consider why.

Richard the Lionheart

This episode we consider the legacy of Richard the Lionheart - was he a disobedient son, a bad governor, a harbinger of death? This far out from the 1190s, does it matter anymore who he was, or does it matter who he's become?

To help, I pulled in three films that feature Richard: The Lion in Winter (1968), The Crusades (1935), and Robin and Marian (1975).

Robin Hood

This episode: one of our most iconic stories, one that has been popular for centuries. A lot of people wonder if the Robin Hood legend us based on historical fact – was there a real Robin Hood – but what I think we should be asking is “How much is history, the history we think we know, based on this story?”

The Full English Breakfast

This episode, it's our first culinary icon! (Researching this episode was great.) What does it mean for a national cuisine - one that finds itself frequently derided for its blandness - to be tied so obviously to a meal as fickle - as subject to trends, whims, diets, advertising forces, and let’s be honest, early morning laziness - as breakfast? And what do the French have to do with it? 

Plus: Why are these the foods that, when gathered together, give us the Full English breakfast? Why are some of them - eggs especially - so tied to breakfast in Western culture to the point of looking out of place in any other meal, and why are some of them - beans especially - so specifically English? Each ingredient of the fry-up tells a fascinating story about what breakfast has been to the English, and what it still is despite all odds. This episode, we'll tell the story of breakfast with some help from Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope, Nigella Lawson, a taunting Frenchman, and Misters Snap, Crackle, and Pop.

Spice Girls (Part 2)

This episode: why Britpop orphaned the very British, very popular Spice Girls, and why feminists refused to adopt them. Along the way: what a big step Ginger's Union Jack dress was, and how the phrase Girl Power evolved from Riot Grrrl to Spice Girl.

This is part two of a two part series, so be sure to check out part one.

Spice Girls (Part 1)

20 years ago, in March 1997, our world was, in truth, a Spice World. Revisit those heady days with me as we take a look at Girl Power and at its influence today.

This is part one in a two part series on The Spice Girls. I wouldn't have pegged Posh, Baby, Sporty, Ginger, and Scary as candidates for Iconography's first multi-part treatment when I started researching, but that's the beauty of doing this podcast. I pick topics that I don't know much about and let them sneak up on me in unexpected ways.

Twelfth Night

What happens when an icon dies? It's not just people that pass away, or buildings that get demolished... ideas can be weathered away by time. Twelfth Night, as it was celebrated in England for centuries - as Shakespeare knew it when he wrote his comedy (not) about the iconic revel - is but a ghost of its former self. But that's the thing. If an idea is big enough, and lucky enough, it can still persist in the strangest places, finding its way into people's lives with anyone even realizing it.

Ebenezer Scrooge

Every day of the holiday season, there is probably someone in your neighborhood watching or reading some version of A Christmas Carol. If you think about it, that means that (outside of World War II) we probably see early Victorian England as often as any other time period. What has kept the story so vital? What is the key to Scrooge's enduring appeal, and how did a young Charles Dickens engender so much empathy for such a miserable man? Maybe it's because he saw more than little bit of himself in the striving workaholic.

The Remembrance Poppy

Remembrance poppies are unmissable in the United Kingdom, and in the Commonwealth nations. How ironic is it, then, that the two women who championed the poppy are from the United States and France, two countries where the poppy has largely faded into obscurity? This is the story of those two Poppy Ladies, Moina Michael and Anna Guerin; the story of the World War I poem that inspired them; and the story of the poppy enchanting me with its simple elegance, its powerful symbolism, but also... scaring me a little. 

Colonel John McCrae

Colonel John McCrae

Amid the carnage at the Second Battle of Ypres, mourning a young comrade, Colonel John McCrae wrote a poem that would forever change the poppy into symbol of remembrance. Not that it didn't take some legwork. American Moina Michael wrote a response verse and promised to wear a poppy forevermore. She also signed away her work to a lecture bureau in hopes that her idea would take hold.

That's where she hit a roadblock. Getting into business meant making the poppy into something more... complex. The Liberty Emblem didn't catch on, and by the time Moina was back in the game, another woman was being praised as "The Poppy Lady."

Moina's failed Victory Emblem. Imagine this, but with a whole lot of colors.

Moina's failed Victory Emblem. Imagine this, but with a whole lot of colors.

Anna Guerin had been touring the United States as a lecturer since the start of the war, and was now hosting Poppy Days as a representative of La Ligue Americaine Francaise des Enfants. Soon after ensuring the American Legion would use artificial poppies made by French widows, she and her representatives set up similar deals in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand... Anna was busy.

Anna Gurin

Anna Gurin

The relationship between the two Poppy Ladies did not truly boil over into disdain until Moina focused on writing her autobiography, shoring up her legacy as the true Poppy Lady. Anna refused to give Moina permission to use her name and words until she could see what Moina was planning to say about her. And so, in the finished book, The Miracle Flower, Anna is only referred to in veiled terms like "the French visitor." Which makes it seem like Moina couldn't even bring herself to say the name Anna Guerin. And by that point, hey, maybe she couldn't.

Poppies are everywhere today in England, and not just in November. This picture was taken in Salisbury cathedral, where regiments are commemorated with wreaths.

And in Westminster Abbey, where the Unknown Soldiers tomb is surrounded by red poppies, another tomb in Poet's Corner commemorates all the War Poets, including Rupert Brooke.

The Many London Bridges

Many people who cross London Bridge today wonder why the bridge to the east looks like the London Bridge they imagined. The fact is, London Bridge has fallen down - many times. Timber bridges pulled down by Vikings. A medieval bridge stuffed with houses that crumbled because of a queen's financial mismanagement. A nineteenth century behemoth that was very shrewdly sold in pieces to an American eager for tourist dollars. This is the story of all those bridges, and the bridge that stands in their place today, unlikely to fall for a long time because it prioritizes being a bridge over being an iconic bridge.

Show Notes

Most people who arrive at London Bridge are either there to cross it (because they've got stuff to do), or to do this:

That is Tower Bridge, the bridge many confuse with London Bridge (which Tower Bridge, sometimes calling itself London Tower Bridge, is more than happy to along with, the sneaky bastard).

London Bridge doesn't get quite as many pictures taken of it. It does its job well - its wide and uncluttered, which is a nice feature in a major bridge. If it weren't for its magical name, its unlikely anyone would give it a second thought.

Its most striking feature is the spike that protrudes from the Shard-side of its southern entrance. Unadorned by any plaque, it marks the spot where the heads to traitors like William Wallace and Jack Cade would have sat above the Southern Gate starting in 1577. 

The dragon in the background protects the entrance to the City of London.

The dragon in the background protects the entrance to the City of London.

Directly to the west of this spike is a building called Colechurch House. Peter de Colechurch doesn't have a Wikipedia page, the poor guy, but at least he has this building (unless it happens to be named after St. Mary Colechurch, but considering its proximity to the bridge Peter made famous, that's doubtful).

Face away from Colechurch House, and you're facing the beautiful Southwark Cathedral, formerly St. Mary Overy. This is the spot where Mary, daughter of the miserly ferryman John, founded her convent using his riches. You can see a plaque dedicated to Mary in front of the Golden Hinde dock, immediately to the northeast of the cathedral.

Speaking of grand churches, cross London Bridge going north, and head a bit east. Here, in the shadow of Christopher Wren's Monument to the Great Fire, you'll find one of the many (many, many) churches he rebuilt in that fire's wake - St. Magnus the Martyr. The steeple has an arched walkway - close your eyes and imagine walking under it and onto the modified London Bridge of the eighteenth century. Be sure to head inside and check out the model of medieval London Bridge in all its glory.

The model in St. Magnus.

The model in St. Magnus.

You may as well visit Wren's masterpiece, the reconstructed St. Paul's while you're in this neck of the woods. While you're there, check out the sculpture of Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, being martyred in the churchyard. Remember, he's the whole reason Peter was able to get funding for his grand bridge in the first place.

One more stop on the church tour. You may have noticed while you were in St. Magnus the Martyr that St. Magnus was dressed as a viking. I know I wondered "Was he a Viking?!" when I saw him. Well, he was conscripted by Vikings, but, in his saintliness, refused to viking with them. But St. Olaf, who pulled down one of the timber London Bridges, was a Viking, and you can find St. Olave's House on Old Jewry Street, about halfway between St. Paul's and St. Magnus. 

Ain't Them Vikings Saints?

Ain't Them Vikings Saints?

To wrap up... this has nothing to do with London Bridge, but I found it an amusing indication of what you can see when you walk around this area today. For your pleasure: a man in a top hat playing a tuba that emitted bursts of fire.

This tuba-playing fire man seems to please Shakespeare. As he should.

This tuba-playing fire man seems to please Shakespeare. As he should.