Horror writer Shirley Jackson maintained that, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality,” and in times like these, escapism certainly has its charms. Approached properly, escaping can help you retool and rearm. As Neil Gaiman explained, “Once you’ve escaped, once you come back, the world is not the same as when you left it. You come back to it with skills, weapons, knowledge you didn’t have before. Then you are better equipped to deal with your current reality.” And as C.S. Lewis pointed out, “The only people who hate escapism are jailers,” of one sort or another. My preferred escape route usually involves books since reading utilizes at least six major brain centers (versus two for video watching), thereby providing a deeper, more satisfying escape.
Rereading Patrick O’Brian’s 7,000-page Aubrey-Maturin series does it for me, immersing me in gloriously evocative words and thoughtful, illuminating insights into human nature. Escaping doctors’ waiting rooms, airport layovers, and one memorably long night on the overheated Siberian express with highly intoxicated Russian soldiers returning from the Chechnyan front, O’Brian always transports me.
He’s a big boy writer, though, sometimes spicing things up with obscure antiquated terms and expecting his readers to have good vocabularies and access to big, fat dictionaries to parse it out. For example, when Maturin proudly announces to Aubrey, “I am now a urinator,” he refers to its obsolete meaning of “deep-sea diver.” Recently, while consulting my big, fat unabridged American Heritage Dictionary on an O’Brian-related search, it toppled from its stand, spilling out papers stuffed into it over the years including an article about how stargazy pie helped a village escape famine in the 1500s.
Stargazy pie’s “a pastry-based fish pie which, by tradition, is filled with whole pilchards.” “Pilchards” are Brit-speak for sardines, who consider “sardines” to be young pilchards (less than six inches long), though both names refer to “small, oily forage fish in the herring family.” “Critically, the pilchards must retain their heads, which they poke through the pastry top, appearing to gaze at the stars. The position of the fish allows the oil that is released during cooking to drain into the pie, adding a fuller flavor.”
Traditionally served in the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole during their festival of Tom Bawcock’s Eve, it celebrates his catching a boat load of fish on Dec. 23 during a particularly stormy winter. According to legend, Bawcock’s “entire catch was baked into a huge stargazy pie, encompassing seven types of fish and saving the village.”
Alfred E. Neumann, the iconic logo figure for Mad Magazine, along with his “What, me worry?” mantra, has to be escapism’s poster boy. In 1956, Mad’s editor, Al Feldstein, wanted an identifiable logo figure, like the New Yorker’s Eustace Tilley and Playboy’s bunny. He hired artist Norman Mingo, a born-again Christian, who specialized in girlie pin-ups for calendars, to draw a boy who “looked like an idiot — I want him to be lovable and have an intelligence behind his eyes. But I want him to have this devil-may-care attitude, someone who can maintain a sense of humor while the world is collapsing around him.”
All was well until 1965, when the widow of illustrator Harry Stuff sued Mad for copyright infringement since in 1914 her husband had created and copyrighted a visage similar to Neumann’s. The Mad team escaped by asking readers to help disprove Stuff’s claim by looking for and forwarding even older art that looked like A.E. Neumann. Soon evidence poured in: a 1942 ad for a Longhorn, Texas auto parts store, the 1939 label for Happy Jack soda, a 1908 calendar for Antikamnia, a heroin-based pain-killer, and a 1905 ad for painless dentistry (“It Didn’t Hurt A Bit!”) all featuring boys looking remarkably like Neumann. The courts ruled in Mad’s favor, and later the true origin emerged; “The New Boy,” a popular comedic play touring widely in the US in 1894 starred two similarly-visaged Neumann-lookalike actors, and the play’s posters featured their gap-toothed grin.
As that marvelous escape-facilitator, author Terry Pratchett, noted: “There is nothing wrong with escapism. The key points are what you’re escaping from, and where you’re escaping to.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.