Thursday, January 26, 2006

Gerard Hoffnung: A Biographical Sketch

Copyright (c) 2006 by Joel Marks

Originally published in The Hoffnung Festschrift, edited by Joel Marks and David E.E. Sloane (Essays in Arts and Sciences, Vol. XXI, October 1992).1

Gerard Hoffnung was born at a very early age (as he was wont to say). Unfortunately he also died at one, of brain hemorrhage at age 34. In that short span (March 22, 1925 September 28, 1959) he was able to cultivate an extraordinary range of comedic talents as cartoonist, raconteur, impresario. Above all he was a personality an amazing blend of sophistication and innocence, a fount of gentle but exquisite humor, a man of boundless good cheer, a Santa Claus, a rather large pixie, a creation virtually indistinguishable from his caricatures of himself.

Hoffnung a quintessentially British humorist was born a German Jew, and consequently his early upbringing occurred under some of the least humorous circumstances the world has known. He was enrolled at a little day school for "undesirable" (i.e., "non Aryan") children located next to Himmler's residence! But even at this time Hoffnung was Hoffnung (and how better to underscore the title of one of his records: "The Importance of Being Hoffnung"?): "his face like a firm apple, rich blond hair, blue eyes: a little angel from a distance! If one looked closer, a most un angelic bonfire of mischief sparkled in those eyes."2 Already he was drawing caricatures,3 playing every musical instrument he could get his hands on (especially percussion), and in general making himself the antic center of attention.

An only child with a loving mother in a well to do family, the young Hoffnung was certainly to some degree insulated from the horrors going on around him. He was exposed to high culture at an early age, already a fan of opera and Stravinsky before his teens. He lived in his own world a world that did contain elements of the macabre (as evidenced by some of his earliest childhood drawings). But it is likely that this interest had more to do with the films he loved and his natural attraction to the hyperbolic, the outlandish, the grotesque than anything in the world of politics.4

(It should be noted that the mature Hoffnung was far from indifferent to social issues. His outlook on race relations, homosexuality, nuclear disarmament, the treatment of animals [especially hunting] and, for that matter, the music of Bartok and Schönberg is liberal and impassioned. Joining the Society of Friends in 1955, he became active in their prison visitation program.)

His family left Germany in 1938, when Gerard was 13, and he was enrolled at Highgate School the following year.5 Gerard was the usual cutup, chafing at the rules. Three years later he finally persuaded his mother to let him go to art school, but even here he wanted his own way too much for school authorities: He was expelled from Hornsey Art College. Ineligible for military service because of his German birth, he found work cleaning milk bottles at a dairy until being hired to teach art at Stamford School in 1945 at the age of 20.

But his accelerated life did not leave him teaching for long. His first published drawing had appeared in Lilliput when he was only 15. By age 22 he was a regular in many periodicals and could at last devote himself fully to cartooning...and just being Hoffnung; the Hoffnung persona itself soon came to the fore.6 A talk entitled "Fungi on Toast" was accepted by the BBC in 1950. Soon Hoffnung was appearing on the Sunday afternoon radio show "One Minute Please." In this way he became a national personality.

During the decade of the '50s Hoffnung made his mark. He was a frequent guest on radio and the new television and his work continued to appear in many publications, including Punch, the Daily Express, and the London Evening News. 1952 saw the first of several "comic oratory performances" at Cambridge Union and Oxford Union and also his first book of cartoons, The Right Playmate. In 1953 came The Maestro, the first of six cartoon books on musical subjects. And in 1956 and 1958 Hoffnung achieved his clowning glory two comedy musical festivals at the Royal Festival Hall in London, featuring such works as "Concerto for Hosepipe and Strings" and "Let's Fake an Opera" and involving such legitimate musical luminaries as Malcolm Arnold, Dennis Braine, and Aaron Copland.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the decade of the '50s was also the period of Hoffnung's courting and marrying (in 1952) Annetta Bennett. They appear to have enjoyed a close and productive relationship. In fact, fully half of the Hoffnung bibliography is posthumous, having been brought to fruition by his widow with the same meticulous care one would have expected of Hoffnung himself. Mrs. Hoffnung has also overseen the production of over 100 Hoffnung Music Festivals worldwide, in which both she and their children sometimes participate.7


1. The scholarly Hoffnung Festschrift in which this biographical sketch first appeared, edited by Joel Marks and David E.E. Sloane, is still available; for information about where it can be purchased, please contact Marks at Other excerpts from the Festschrift can be found by clicking here. An expanded version of the sketch was published in the Encyclopedia of British Humorists, edited by Steven H. Gale (Garland Publishing Company, 1996). See also Annetta Hoffnung's magnificent biography, Gerard Hoffnung (Gordon Fraser, 1988). Hoffnung's cartoon and musical oeuvre can be purchased through the Hoffnung Website.

2. Reminiscence of a teacher, from O Rare Hoffnung (Putnam & Co., 1960), p. 99.

3. Over a thousand of his early drawings (beginning in his sixth year) are extant, and have served as the subject of a scholarly study by Dr. S. M. Paine of London University's Institute of Education.

4. Just before he died Hoffnung was planning a Festival of Horror at the National Film Theatre. His drawing for the Festival program's cover shows a vampire drinking a glass of blood through a straw.

5. Hilde took her son Gerard to England for the educational opportunities; Hoffnung's father, Ludwig, went to Palestine to seek his fortune in the family banking business. The war made the separation inadvertently permanent.

6. A curious aspect of this persona is Hoffnung's apparent age. A neighbor notes that in 1945, when Hoffnung was only 20, "He seemed an old man" (ibid., p. 148). Mrs. Hoffnung remarks in her biography of Hoffnung, "I do not know why Gerard's appearance should have been at such variance with his age" (p. 45). On recordings he sounds like a man in his sixties. The misconception persists: In a review of a posthumous Hoffnung Festival Concert in Canada in 1986, Mrs. Hoffnung is referred to as "Hoffnung's daughter, Annetta."

7. Alas, the final Hoffnung concert was slated for 31 December, 2005, in Lausanne.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Facts and Forms, or, Elementary my dear Clouseau

Copyright © 2006 by Joel Marks

Inspector Jacques Clouseau: Facts, Hercule, facts! Nothing matters but the facts. Without them the science of criminal investigation is nothing more than a guessing game. So consider the facts in the case at hand. Fact: Maria Gambrelli was found standing over the dead man with a smoking gun in her hand. Fact: She had a big smile on her face. Fact: No other fingerprints were found on the gun. So what do we conclude, Hercule?
Hercule LaJoy: Why, that Maria Gambrelli committed the murder.
Inspector Jacques Clouseau: No, you fool! You are forgetting the most important fact: motive.
Hercule LaJoy: He beat her.
Inspector Jacques Clouseau: He was Spanish!
Hercule LaJoy: He tore her dress off.
Inspector Jacques Clouseau: Oh, don't be ridiculous. Would you kill someone who tore your dress off?

-- from the 1964 movie, A Shot in the Dark, starring Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau

Hilarity aside, the cited scene from the classic comedy serves as a perfect example of how logic works, or doesn’t.

Clouseau begins by touting facts as the key to solving a murder, or any crime. And indeed, what could be more noble and useful than a total allegiance to the facts? Not only the detective, but the scientist and any genuine seeker will want to become adept at discerning and uncovering facts. It seems to be practically a tautology. But, in fact, the facts fail him utterly when Clouseau draws his final conclusion, which is that the beautiful Maria Gambrelli is not the murderer. Alternatively we might say that the only fact that really moves the inspector is the beauty of the accused.

The logical conclusion to draw about Clouseau’s reasoning, or about any reasoning, is that it is not facts that decide an inference by themselves but also logic. But what is logic if not the compilation of facts? There is a very precise answer to that question, and its name is validity. Its meaning is that the facts adduced suffice to assure the truth of the conclusion. But how do they do that? Is it just a matter of strong belief? Clearly not, for Clouseau certainly has a conviction that Maria Gambrelli’s physical charms guarantee that she should not be convicted; but of course that is absurd. So the assurance provided by the facts, or as they are technically known, the premises of a logical argument must have a more secure source than the subjective psychology of the person who is presenting the argument.

There are many ways to describe the essential logical element of validity. One simple way is to point to various rules. Perhaps the most fundamental rule is this: If it is true that p and it is also true that q is true if p is true, then q is also true. That rule is traditionally called modus ponens. When it obtains, one can say that the conclusion of the argument follows from the premises; that is, they “follow,” not sequentially, but with logical necessity. The conclusion must be true, given the truth of the premises. The rule given has two premises: (1) p is true and (2) if p is true, then q is true. Note that both premises are presumed to be facts. For example, an argument might be that (1) (it is true that) today is Monday and (2) (it is true that) if today is Monday, then tomorrow is Tuesday; therefore tomorrow is (or will be) Tuesday. This argument is valid because, if both premises were true, the conclusion would also be true -- guaranteed.

Note also, however, that validity by itself does not guarantee the truth of a conclusion. Even though the above argument is surely valid, and hence is a logical argument, its conclusion would not be true if one of its premises happened to be false. Thus, if today is Tuesday, then even though Premise 2 remains true – since it is only a hypothetical assertion – the conclusion is false, because tomorrow would be Wednesday. I should also point out that the conclusion of a valid argument that contains a false premise could also still be true. For example: (1) The Sun revolves around the Earth and (2) If the Sun revolves around the Earth, then (provided the Earth’s rotation is not in unitary synchrony with the Sun’s revolution and there are clear skies, etc.) the Sun will appear to move in Earth’s sky; therefore (provided the Earth’s rotation is not in unitary synchrony with the Sun’s revolution and there are clear skies, etc.) the Sun appears to move in Earth’s sky. In this argument Premise 1 is false; however the conclusion is true anyway. Thus, both facts and logic are required for a sound argument. My point in this essay is only to emphasize that facts alone will not suffice to yield sound reasoning.

Inspector Clouseau, therefore, may have been right about all of his facts; but his inference was faulty because of its illogic. The mere fact of Maria Gambrelli’s beauty does not, by any rule of logic, guarantee that she is not a murderer. But suppose Clouseau insisted upon a second premise, namely: If someone is beautiful, then they couldn’t be a murderer. Fine; logic has been restored to the inference. But of course now the argument is unsound since at least that second premise is surely a false generalization. Thus, Clouseau would have won the logical battle, but lost the rational war. Here again we see facts and logic working in tandem; each by itself is insufficient to guarantee sound reasoning.

The reason I wish to stress the importance of logic over facts, however, is that it is the underappreciated sibling of this pair. People generally are comfortable talking about facts and thinking in terms of facts. But this gets us only so far, and produces a lot of mischief by people who present facts and then draw conclusions willy-nilly. For example: “The destruction of the World Trade Center was an atrocity; Saddam Hussein is an evil dictator; therefore we should invade Iraq.” Why does the crucial component of logic (or illogic!) escape notice so often? Perhaps because it is such an abstract notion; furthermore its nature is relational, a “ghostly” connection between one set of “solid” facts (the premises) and another (purported) fact (the conclusion). Yet this is also wherein resides its power. The way logicians capture these phenomena is with the use of symbols or forms; for example, as we have seen, by the use of lower-case letters like p and q, which can function as variables that stand for any statement whatsoever. The resultant “formal” logical rules have universal application, whether they be about Maria Gambrelli or the Sun or a pig in a poke.

Therefore Inspector Clouseau needs to add one more fact to his repertoire, to wit: In order to crack the case, the facts must fit the right forms.


Click here to read my first published science fiction story ... except that maybe it's not so much "scifi" as "phifi," that is, philosophical fiction. Call it a metaphysical murder mystery if you like, but it is intended in earnest as a reflective inquiry with potentially immense implications for the "real world."

Don't Give the Boot to Backpacks

Copyright © 2005 by Joel Marks

I kid you not, the very morning "Backpacks Bad for Kids" blared across the New Haven Register's front page (January 12, 1997), a package arrived from L.L. Bean's, the outdoor outfitter ... containing a backpack I had ordered for my younger stepson! I don't know which struck me more: the coincidence, or the apparent absurdity. Judging by the headline alone, the news seemed to me on a par with "Vegetables Cause Cancer".

The article itself made a little more sense: School personnel are concerned about excessive weight being carried by formative skeletal frames, illicit contents of the bags, and crowded hallways and classrooms. However I see nothing specific to backpacks about these claims. To this day, for instance, my own skeletal frame is skewed to one side; the slope of my right shoulder I attribute to the jam-packed briefcase I carried everyday to school 35 years ago. If anything, a backpack will redistribute the load equally and also disperse it over the whole back.

(Strictly speaking, a backpack is a bag with an internal frame and resting on the hips. A rule of thumb for backpackers is to carry no more than a quarter of your body weight. A book bag would be a rucksack or knapsack or daypack, carried on the shoulders and suited for lighter loads.)

My own experience is also that the weight of the pack, far from inducing slouching, obliges me to stand tall for comfort. Furthermore, if you're talking safety, the free use of both hands is a big plus for backpacks, especially going down stairs.

But these are quibbles. The positive associations of backpacks carry much the greater weight. To me they represent the outdoors, self-sufficiency, and freedom. It was not until college that I discovered the joys of hiking in the woods, for days on end, and carrying on my back everything I needed to survive. As I grew older and had young charges of my own, backpacking became a wonderful activity to share. How absurd to wait until college-age to become a hiker! I took my twin goddaughters on their first wilderness experience when they were young teens. The first time I met my pre-teen little brother in the Big Brother program, I took him for a hike, with many to follow.

This was also how I became a father to my two stepsons. The older, David, accompanied me to the top of mile-high Mount Marcy, the tallest peak in New York State. I remember how loath he was to begin the climb; it just seemed like work to him. But by the time we approached the summit, and stood on the rocks looking out over a spectacular expanse of high Adirondack peaks, he said to me softly, "Thank you for bringing me here." I put my hand on his shoulder. This was one of the highs of my life ... and not just because of the altitude!

We proceeded to "bag" another “tallest mountain” in a different state each summer. You need to backpack in usually. And it's not just the views that make the trip. Years later Dave remarked that the best experience of his life had been hiking back from the Mt. Katahdin base camp in a downpour, moving as fast as his legs would carry him over the slippery rocks, and weighted down by that heavy backpack!

I would like to think Dave remembers this, whether consciously or subconsciously, as he hefts his backpack through the hallways of high school ….. just as I am imbued with those magical moments that lighten my load, physical or mental, at work or play, since I hardly go anywhere without wearing my pack. This is why people are forever asking me, "Where are you hiking?" But it's simply the best way to carry things, memories included.

So it occurred to me the other day that David's younger brother, Sean, is old enough for a pack of his own. Whereupon I called Bean's and ordered one. "Would you like it monogrammed?" Great idea. And here it sits, next to a newspaper article that labels it poison. Do I dare give it to him now? You bet your hiking boots ... accompanied by this newspaper column (originally published on January 15, 1997, in the New Haven Register)!