Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives


Some modern eccentrics #2. Rupert T. Gould: scholar, broadcaster, officer and not-quite-gentleman

Rupert Gould and his wife MurielA few years ago, I offered some small help to Jonathan Betts, the curator of horology at the National Maritime Museum, while he was writing his biography of my boyhood hero, Rupert Gould. Gould (pictured right with his wife Muriel shortly after their marriage in 1917) is best known for his decade-long labour of restoring the four prototype Harrison chronometers that revolutionised navigation in the eighteenth century, but also penned (or rather pecked out on ancient typewriters - he owned one of the country's finest collections of antique typing machines)  four or five of the most wonderfully stimulating and imaginative books ever committed to print, among them the first book ever written on the subject of the Loch Ness Monster and the less well known Oddities: A Book Of Unexplained Facts. I discovered a copy of the latter buried on the shelves of my aunt's house when I was about 13, and it remains one of my three or four favourites, containing, as it does, seminal essays on Orffyreus's Wheel and the long-lost 'science' of nauscopie.

Anyway, Fortean Times was forced to prune back the review I wrote of Betts's book, and, re-reading it today, it struck me as worth posting in full here; remarkably little information about Gould is available on the net. Both the biography and the man himself deserve to be vastly better-known – and what wouldn't I give to have copies of Mares' Nests and Nine Days' Wonders sitting nestling in my library alongside The Case for the Sea Serpent and The Stargazer Talks?

Time Restored: The Harrison Timekeepers and R.T. Gould, The Man Who Knew
(Almost) Everything

Jonathan Betts

Oxford University Press. Hb, 464pp, illus, notes, bib, £35.

Has there ever been a man so gifted, yet so burdened, as Rupert Gould? Britain’s answer to Charles Fort (the two men were contemporaries; Fort’s dates were 1874–32, Gould’s 1890–1948) will be best–known to FT readers as the author of The Case for the Sea Serpent, The Loch Ness Monster and Others and two incomparable collections of essays, Oddities and Enigmas. Yet ‘scientific mysteries’ (the phrase is Jonathan Betts’s) were merely one of Gould’s areas of expertise. He was, inter alia, a naval officer, distinguished hydrographer, authority on Arctic and Antarctic exploration, master horologist and ‘name’ broadcaster — not to mention a talented artist in the style of Aubrey Beardsley, a leading expert on the history of the typewriter, and an umpire at Wimbledon.

Such achievements would be remarkable enough in a man who had devoted a long life entirely to his interests. Yet Gould died aged only 58, worked for years in a relatively humdrum office job, and was prone throughout adulthood to mental illness. As Betts notes in this exceptionally well–researched and sympathetic biography, he was confined, speechless, to bed for the best part of a year by his first breakdown, suffered three further severe outbreaks of depression thereafter, and could be prostrated by any one of several irrational fears, including those of being struck by lightning and getting caught up in a revolution. These frailties undoubtedly restricted his output, and so did a dubious talent for taking on far too many commitments. Among numerous projects begun but never finished were books titled Nine Days’ Wonders and Mares’ Nests — works fit to rank with Fort’s X and Y in the damned library of lost literature – and a proposed study of bisexuality, The Third Sex, which would certainly have seemed pretty radical had it been published, as planned, in 1947.

The upshot of all this was that Rupert Gould never quite achieved the fame, nor received the credit, that his admirers have long felt was due to him. Much of his life was spent in genteel poverty (he was forever selling valuable items from his various collections to raise a few pounds), and according to his waspish son Cecil — one of Betts’s chief sources, a very different character who by his own admission never much liked his father — his life was ‘as he himself realised, a sad waste of great and varied talents.’ Betts is kinder, observing simply that Gould’s parents’ choice of a naval career for their son was a mistake, and that Rupert would have made an exceptional academic or barrister.

As it was, however, the nervous breakdown Gould suffered on the outbreak of the First World War led to a ‘soft’ posting to the hydrographer’s office at the Admiralty, where he studied the history of navigation and had sufficient leisure time to read widely — everything but literature, Cecil recalled, though in fact there were other lacunae in even his father’s fund of knowledge, notably in the field of zoology. And what went into Gould’s head stayed there: the secret of his success as a fount of wisdom (drafted onto the renowned Brains Trust panel, he was the only member never to be hauled up by a listener for making a mistake) was a photographic memory. ‘I can visualise the actual page of a book where I read the information,’ he once explained, and no reader who has made his delighted way through the footnotes of a Gould book, where information drawn from Wild Sports of the World rubs shoulders with the Transactions of the Anglesey Antiquarian Society, is likely to doubt it.

Given Jonathan Betts’s own interests (he is Senior Specialist in Horology at the National Maritime Museum), it’s no surprise that the bulk of Time Restored is given over to Gould’s work in a field few Forteans will know much about: horology, specifically the study of the marine chronometer. It was Gould’s signal achievement to restore to a going condition all four of the timekeepers invented in the eighteenth century by John Harrison, the subject of Dava Sobel’s best–selling Longitude. He was self–taught, both as a mechanic and an horologist, and Betts gives an account — well–balanced as one of Harrison’s machines — of his subject’s achievements, praising his imaginative and systematic efforts (the restorations took well over a decade all told) while condemning some of the actual workmanship as unforgivably botched and hardly in tune with the modern museum curator’s preference for conservation over restoration.

There is much, even here, of interest to Forteans, though, for the years of working on the ‘Harrisons’ display Gould’s character in the round. He possessed, the reader learns, an stubborn stamina, fragility and a spectacular facility for procrastination, an odd mix that eventually cost him his marriage and — thanks to the scandal attendant on the divorce — his job, his home, his children and his best friend.

Disaster on such a scale would have been sufficient to destroy men far more robust than Gould, and perhaps the most extraordinary achievement of his far from ordinary life was to meet these devastating blows with a determination that saw him crank out most of his best–known works in an astonishingly short time. (Oddities, a book of 75,000 words complete with 27 original drawings, was written in less than a month.) This at least left time for other obsessions, including — as Betts recounts without sensationalism  a lifelong interest in bondage and, apparently, ritualised group sex activities involving London prostitutes. [Since making this post I have had several enquiries about this seemingly implausible claim - clicking the link will now take you to a – sadly very poor-quality – scan of the relevant passage, which is not suitable for children. Betts also cites Gould's similarly-explicit divorce papers in evidence]. One wonders whether the current generation of Forteans will make such compelling subjects for future biographers.

Betts, by his own admission, knows little of Forteana, and if the book has one failing it is that its (finely detailed) account of Gould’s contributions to our field cannot match that of his achievements in horology. There’s nothing, for example, to equal Ronald Binns’s revealing analysis, in The Loch Ness Mystery Solved, of Gould’s influential excursion to Loch Ness. Betts has also been poorly served by his proof–reader; the text is littered with typos. But these are small gripes. Even the most dedicated Fortean will learn something new from this book. At this price, unfortunately, Time Restored seems destined to reach only a limited audience, and one can only hope that a paperback edition will follow in due course.

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