A Refreshing View of John Waters; Revisiting Hakluyt's Voyages

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:40

    Hundley, who I'm figuring is young enough to be his daughter were he so inclined, clearly did her homework before talking to him. His new Cecil B. Demented is, as you know, about "cinema terrorists" and plays on tropes of 60s radicalism. Hundley is able to discourse with him knowledgeably about Weatherman, Days of Rage and Bernadine Dohrn's miniskirts (she offers her age cohort a handy and excellently compressed thumbnail history as a sidebar). As a result, they get a nice cross-generational groove on. Waters tells her of the WTO rioters in Seattle: "I watched them almost as pin-up pictures, as pornography, because the kids looked so cute! They had such good looks! Such good haircuts! Really good accessories! They were really dressed well for the riot, for the photo ops with big magazines. All good terrorists have good fashion. I really respected that generation for that."

    This is the ninth issue of the bimonthly Mean, which is edited by Jay Babcock, who used to write about music for us. Maybe that's why I've paid it more attention than I might. It's straight out of the mold of 90s Gen-X zines: the great one-syllable title, the high irony, lots of movie and music coverage, Foxy Brown art direction and a slack tone (the masthead calls Babcock the "editorial fella") that suggests most of the small staff skateboards to work. As an example of the genre, I like it. The huge Waters spread is in a tradition of extravagant career retrospectives of artists whose careers you wouldn't have thought needed another retrospective at this stage?Peter Sellers, Fela Kuti?but they work anyway, because Mean's writers, like Hundley, put some real work into them, where most magazines of this type would fall back on lazy boilerplate and cool illos. The music coverage is good, and even some of the really dated slacker gambits succeed. A few issues back they ran a funny, inept phone interview with Beverly D'Angelo, who hung up when she was told she'd only made #2 on the top 10 list of "MILF magazine." She wasn't told that MILF stands for Mothers I'd Like To Fuck, which made her hissy fit that much funnier. (See meanmag.com for material from back issues.)

    All at Sea This time of year, when everyone's going somewhere and then coming back with tans and travel horror stories, I reach for my Hakluyt's Voyages, the compendium of eyewitness travel accounts originally published (as The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation) in 1589. Mine is a 1981 Houghton Mifflin edition of selected entries edited by someone named Richard David. The latterly 1500s being the great age of discovery for the Brits, you get stories from all over the world, some famous journeys, some not. Raleigh in the Americas, Frobisher up north, Drake circling the world, plus assorted ship's mates, sailors and traveling merchants recounting their voyages to Muscovy and Persia and the Indies. There's surprisingly little high adventure in these accounts. I guess that was all left to the novelists and balladeers. I also gather that David left out a lot of the more blood-n-guts stories of sea battles with pirates and such, figuring you could get plenty of that elsewhere. He seems to have had a weakness for the more "ordinary," and in that sense perhaps neglected, sort of tales. Most of what you get from them, then, is a sense of how arduous and tedious sea travel was, when it was not killing you. Not all that different, in that sense, from the travel horror stories of today.

    One of my favorite entries is by a Master Dionyse Settle, telling his part in Frobisher's hard-luck voyage to Newfoundland and points north in search of the Northwest Passage in 1577. It was cold, there was mutiny and dissent, the Eskimos were unfriendly. Of the landscape Settle reports:

    "The countries on both sides the straits lie very high with rough stony mountains and great quantity of snow thereon. There is very little plain ground, and no grass, except a little which is much like unto moss that groweth on soft ground such as we get turfs in. There is no wood at all. To be brief, there is nothing fit or profitable for the use of man which that country with root yieldeth or bringeth forth."

    Of the Eskimos, with whom Frobisher's men sporadically tussled, he writes:

    "I can suppose their abode or habitation not to be here, for that neither their houses or apparel are of such force to withstand the extremity of cold that the country seemeth to be infected withal, neither do I see any sign likely to perform the same. Those houses or rather dens which stand there have no sign of footway or anything else trodden, which is one of the chiefest tokens of habitation. And those tents which they bring with them, when they have sufficiently hunted and fished they remove to other places; and when they have sufficiently stored them of such victuals as the country yieldeth or bringeth forth they return to their winter stations or habitations. This conjecture do I make for the infertility which I conjecture to be in the country.

    "They have some iron whereof they make arrow-heads, knives, and other little intruments to work their boats, bows, arrows, and darts withal, which are very unapt to do anything withal but with great labour. It seemeth that they have conversation with some other people of whom for exchange they should receive the same. They are greatly delighted with anything that is bright, or giveth a sound.

    "What knowledge they have of God, or what idol they adore, we have no perfect intelligence. I think them rather anthropophagi, or devourers of man's flesh, than otherwise, for that there is no flesh or fish which they find dead, smell it never so filthily, but they will eat it as they find it without any other dressing; a loathsome thing, either to the beholders or hearers."

    Another favorite of mine is The first voyage or journey made by Master Laurence Aldersey, merchant of London, to the cities of Jerusalem and Tripolis, etc. in the year 1581. Penned and set down by himself. Merchants' voyages tend to be some of the driest tellings and, one must figure, the least prone to exaggeration or effect. They have a merchant's-eye view of the places they go, exacting and measuring, tsk-tsking over the prices of everything, complaining about the lodgings, making disparaging remarks about the most lavish festivities they see or the most renown pilgrimage sites they visit. In short, they sound much like your average tourist today.

    Aldersley sailed out of London April 1, 1581, passing through the Netherlands to the Rhine, then down to Venice, which he uncharacteristically, if not unaccountably, liked. "This city of Venice is very fair and greatly to be commended," he records, "wherein is good order for all things; and also it is very strong and populous... In the city of Venice no man may wear a weapon except he be a soldier for the Signory, or a scholar of Padua, or a gentleman of great countenance; and yet he may not do that without licence.

    "As for the women of Venice, they be rather monsters than women. Every shoemaker's or tailor's wife will have a gown of silk and one to carry up her train, wearing their shoes very near half a yard high from the ground. If a stranger meet one of them he will surely think, by the state that she goeth with, that he meeteth a lady."

    Sailing from Venice he gets in trouble with the Italian seamen, who are all of course Catholics and are ready to pitch him overboard when he, being a stout Church of England man, refuses to kiss the image of the Virgin Mary that the monks who are his fellow pilgrims keep marching around the deck. This unhappy experience may explain the lack of enthusiasm one detects in his descriptions once he is set ashore in the Holy Land. In and on the road to Jerusalem he is shown numerous pilgrimage sites?"the lions' den; the fountain of the prophet Jeremiah; the place where the Wise Men met that went to Bethlehem to worship Christ, where is a fountain of stone"?and sounds singularly unimpressed by it all:

    "Being come to Bethlehem we saw the place where Christ was born, which is now a chapel with two altars whereupon they say mass. The place is built with grey marble, and hath been beautiful, but now it is partly decayed...

    "In the mid way from the monastery to Jerusalem is the place where John Baptist was born, being now an old monastery, and cattle kept in it. Also a mile from Jerusalem is a place called Inventio Sanctae Crucis, where the wood was found that made the cross.

    "In the city of Jerusalem we saw the hall where Pilate sat in judgment when Christ was condemned, the stairs whereof are at Rome as they told us. A little from thence is the house where the Virgin Mary was born. There is also the piscina or fish-pool where the sick folks were healed, which is by the walls of Jerusalem; but the pool is now dry.

    "The Mount of Calvary is a great church, and within the door thereof, which is little and barred with iron, and five great holes in it to look in like the holes of tavern doors in London, they sit that are appointed to receive our money, with a carpet under them upon a bench of stone and their legs across like tailors. Having paid our money we are permitted to go into the church. Right against the church door is the grave where Christ was buried, with a great long stone of white marble over it, and railed about. The outside of the sepulchre is very foul, by means that every man scrapes his name and mark upon it, and is ill kept..."

    He maintains that deadpan tone throughout. "Going out of the valley of Jehoshaphat we came to Mount Olivet, where Christ prayed unto His Father before His death; and there is to be seen (as they told me) the water and blood that fell from the eyes of Christ. A little higher upon the same Mount is the place where the apostles slept and watched not. At the foot of the Mount is the place where Christ was imprisoned. Upon the mountain also is the place where Christ stood when He wept over Jerusalem, and where He ascended into heaven. "Now, having seen all these monuments, I with my company set from Jerusalem the 20th day of August..." And soon enough he fucks off back to Merry Old, where he can expect to encounter no papist heathens parading around with their icons.

    You can find a couple editions of Hakluyt in print. Meanwhile, I might have to join London's Hakluyt Society . For $50 they send you two or three publications a year with titles like To the Pacific and Arctic with Beechey: The Journal of Lieutenant George Peard of H.M.S. Blossom, 1825-1828 and An Elizabethan in 1582: The Diary of Richard Madox, Fellow of All Souls and Agatharchides of Cnidus: On the Erythraean Sea. Oh shucks, I just talked myself into it.