Monday, February 15, 2010

Because It Involves Alcohol

Today we’d like to wish Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward a happy birthday but unfortunately he’s been dead since 1959.

Nonetheless, this prolific writer would be 127 years young today.

And perhaps he would still be writing – and because of his highly subjunctive longevity, his highly unlikely pen name might have garnered immediate declarative name recognition: Sax Rohmer.

Mr. Rohmer, you see, is the daddy of the devious Dr. Fu Manchu.

And because of this, even by his own day’s standards, Mr. Rohmer was considered politically out of bounds with his depictions of the opium trade and what he coined “the Yellow Peril.”

If only he'd made Fu Manchu a white male - oh, but wait!

In many ways, a writer’s writer, this middle class Englishman made a living on what he penned and like many another writer too heavy for light work and too light for heavy work he never had to go looking for anything else to support himself. He took on all projects – from comedy sketches for music hall performers to short stories and serials for magazines. One of these serials eventually became The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu.

To his defense, Rohmer often visited the Limehouse district in London where he eventaully set the fictional Fu Manchu’s hidehout and where at the time the very real opium dens of the day were full of conniving Chinamen seeking the ruin of souls. You see, he was not arbitrarily picking on people from the orient - although admittedly he was a bit heavy-handed about it.

On the other hand, Rohmer’s vision of a worldwide oriental conspiracy was about 50 years premature.

So no one reads him today – and I’m not sure if that’s a shame or not. What is a true tragic shame is the fact that his second greatest creation – named after his first greatest creation – the Fu Manchu cocktail, has also fallen into disuse.

Rohmer's biographer Clay Van Ash (hard to believe that's a real name, while we're at it!) relates how Rohmer invented the concoction one fine day while visiting the most famous rummery in rumdom – the Myers Rum Distillery of Jamaica in 1932.

Jamaica rum was Sax's favorite drink. In company with Mr. Myers and several members of the staff, he spent the pre-luncheon hour helping to invent the Fu Manchu cocktail. This proved rather difficult, for Sax insisted that it ought to be a mysterious shade of green, but, short of dyestuffs, there is not much which will impart such a color to rum. At the fourteenth attempt they did eventually get it right, but none of them wanted much lunch afterwards. (I understand that this mixture was actually added to the official cocktail list, but I have not been able to find the recipe.).

Whether these were the result of that pre-prandial spree, here are two versions of the drink current in bartending guides – they differ to allow, I presume, for the mood your rum may be in that evening:

Fu Manchu One
Fill glass with ice
1 1/2 oz Dark Rum
1/2 oz Triple Sec
1/2 oz White Creme De Menthe
1/2 oz Lime Juice
Dash of Sugar Syrup
Or 1/4 tsp Sugar
Strain into chilled glass.

Fu Manchu Two
Fill glass with ice
1 1/2 oz White Rum
1/2 oz Triple Sec
1/2 oz White Creme De Menthe
1/2 Oz. - Rose's Lime Juice
1 Dash - Sugar Syrup
1 Twist - Orange
Combine with ice and stir. Strain and garnish with fruit.

And one more note on this mysterious mystery writer before we leave Limehouse and suspicious facial hair behind – perhaps forever - Mr. Sax Rohmer’s is also a story which belongs in the Life’s Great Ironies Hall of Fame.

He died in 1959 of, yep, you guessed it, the Asian Flu.

Sax Rohmer on the Origins of Fu Manchu, or Why a Ouija Board Is No Substitute for a Good Agent for Keeping Your Books in the Public Eye

"I was a young man and I was ambitious. I had written my first story at seventeen, and I had not written another one; perhaps that was why.

"All the time I thought it would be very nice to be an author; you know the sort of thing that appeals to young men in rooms in a London suburb. I suppose all young men in lodgings want to be writers; the trouble is that there are so many lodgings!

"Looking back on those days I was happy enough. You know Stevenson's line about it being better to travel hopefully that to arrive, though I don't think that's true. It would be much better traveling hopefully if you knew you were going to arrive, some day, somehow, somewhere.

"A few of us shared a studio in Clapham Old Town, and we liked to tell one another what we were going to do when we were famous. We also told our guests. How we managed to entertain I don't know. The piece de resistance was roast potatoes and the other course was shredded wheat. There was beer, of course.

"The illusion of fame never left me even at Clapham station. But don't put that down or you will get lots of Claphamites writing in to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder or something of the sort.

"Well, one of the fellows and I bought a planchette board. We were always asking it questions. I remember I asked it whether I should ever be a success as a writer of fiction, and it said that I would. When I asked it in what direction it answered the one word 'Chinaman.' We asked it again and still the answer was definitely and unmistakenly 'Chinaman.' I couldn't understand it at all for I knew nothing in those days about China or Chinamen.

I must have remembered that when I sat down to write a book some time afterwards. All the usual types had been worked to death and so I lighted on the idea of a Chinaman, and what a Chinaman he was going to be!

"He was to be rather tall and rather gaunt, with a tremendous cranial development as befits a genius. So I began to build him up. Then I thought he ought to have some sort of defect, so I made him have a kind of film over the eyes, as with a bird. It was a new one on medical science and still is, but there it was. He was to be a great linguist---a man who knew every civilised language and many dialects. He was to be absolutely impersonal, not criminal according to his own way of thinking, for he was true to his consuming desire to revoltionise civilisation. He was to be the embodiment of the idea that the East has been gaining knowledge while we have been building machines, the supreme master mind hovering on the border of madness, as so great a genius would.

"That was how I turned him over in my mind. Well, when I began to write, it seemed that I knew the man intimately. He assumed his own shape and there he was. He was a success and has continued so. I have now written seven books about him---the Daily Sketch is to publish the seventh---and from beginning to end and taking everything into account I suppose he has made me about 150,000 pounds.

"He has brought me in a spot of bother as well. When I was in New York some years ago the Chinese students at Columbia University organised a protest and, I believe, went to the Chinese Consul about him; said he misrepresented the Chinese character. All I can say is that Fu Manchu is Fu Manchu. He can't help that; no more than I can.
Well, that's the story of the sinister doctor of the Orient. Next time you see him looking out at you with his inscrutable eyes you will know how he came to be there.
- in an interview with Geraint Goodwin, London, Thursday, May 24, 1934.

Excerpt from Rohmer's Writing:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government--which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man. - Nayland Smith to Dr. Petrie, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Chapter 2.

The Max Rohmer Writing Assignment:

1. This one has less to do with writing and more to do with drinking – but it comes to the same thing – a flexing of your imagination. Create a drink (first on paper, perhaps, to avoid wasting alcohol) based on your favorites characters in literature. The drink should have some bearing on the nature of the character. Thus, an Ahab or a Wolf Larson ought to involve rum – the liquor universally associated with life at sea. On the other hand, the Quentin Compson or the Hazel Motes doesn’t necessarily need to include Bourbon – but be ready to defend your decision to use, instead, for instance, Campari in the case of the QC (because Quentin was a bitter young man) or Chartreuse for the HM (the color, duh!).

2. This one has more to do with writing than drinking – but it too comes to the same thing if you like to drink while you write. Just as James Bond made the vodka martini famous and Dr. Tom More made Gin Fizzes/Vodka and Tang immortal, write a scene (for short story or novel) in which a character makes a new drink – perhaps you could borrow from Assignment #1 – or your own real life experiences. In college, I remember staying up late one Sunday night in my apartment. At the end of one rather open floodgate of a weekend with well-irrigated guests, I wound up with nothing in my bar but root beer and tequila. The result, alas, was never worth repeating - but the name I gave the poisonous impotable lives on: Tequila Mockingbird.

3. This one has equal parts writing and drinking: Ask someone other than a bartender - in fact, someone who knows little or nothing about mixology - to make you a mixed drink. Observe the process, the ad-hoc bartender’s style, quirks, etc. and the finished product. Test the finished product. Chances are they are not adequate. Repeat process as necessary. Throughout the entire proceedings, you should be taking notes which will eventually become a descriptive piece of writing entitled “When the Uninitiated Approach the Bar of Mysteries” or somesuch. Nota Bene: Do not wait until the next day to write. Chances are, your notes will be less accessible than Kubla Khan was to Samuel T. Coleridge upon waking.

1 comment:

  1. Imagine if you had a real team of writers about you...