Saturday, January 23, 2021

2020 hindsight

As I barely wrote anything here last year, I thought I’d go through my diary to check what might have been. It’s not a long list (I’m a slow reader, writing here encourages me to read more, when I do it), but for what it’s worth, with a quotation from each:

John McPhee, ‘Oranges’

No-one worried much about freezes. For one thing, it was an era of scientific advances in which triumph over nature seemed not only possible but inevitable. A cannon had been fired in the streets of Jacksonville in 1888 in the belief that the concussion would kill all the yellow-fever microbes in the air of the city. (pp. 94-5)

Émile Zola, ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’

        ‘I want her, I’ll have her! And if she does escape me, just you see what a place I’ll build to recover from her. Oh, it’ll be magnificent, it really will! You don’t understand what I’m talking about, old chap. If you did, you would realise that action is its own reward. Doing, creating, struggling against harsh realities and either defeating them or being defeated – all of human joy and health are there!’
        ‘It’s just another way to drug oneself,’ the other man murmured. (p. 317)

Dava Sobel, ‘Longitude’

John ‘Longitude’ Harrison was born March 24, 1693, in the county of Yorkshire, the eldest of five children. His family, in keeping with the custom of the time, dealt out names so parsimoniously that it is impossible to keep track of all the Henrys, Johns and Elizabeths without pencil and paper. To wit, John Harrison served as the son, grandson, brother, and uncle of one Henry Harrison or another, while his mother, his sister, both his wives, his only daughter, and two of his three daughters-in-law all answered to the name Elizabeth. (p. 62)

Adam Rutherford, ‘How to Argue with a Racist’

It is therefore possible that you are genetically unrelated to people from whom you are actually descended as recently as the middle of the eighteenth century. (Ebook, ch. 2)

Isabel Wilkerson, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’

Both sides were made up of rural and small-town people who had travelled far in search of the American Dream, both relegated to the worst jobs by industrialists who pitted one group against the other. Each side was struggling to raise its families in a cold, fast, alien place far from their homelands and looked down upon by earlier, more sophisticated arrivals. They were essentially the same people except for the color of their skin (p. 273)

He brought his crushed velvet, jitterbug demeanor to the gray, humorless bureaucracy of a government hospital. (p. 460)

Kristin Hersh, ‘Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt’

        ‘He loves you, I can tell,’ you threw out, bored.
        ‘Sometimes I think he doesn’t even like me.’
        ‘Nobody likes you.’
        ‘Fair enough.’
        You: ‘We’re never gonna be okay cuz we got fucked-up egos.’
        ‘I don’t have a fucked up ego,’ I told you, defensive. ‘I don’t have an ego at all.’
        ‘Well, that’s fucked up.’
        ‘Oh.’
        Pitching your magazine back in the bin, you grabbed another. ‘Every hurt heals with scar tissue.’
        ‘That’s what you said about painkillers.’
        Pointing at our loved ones: ‘Whaddyou think they are?’
        ‘Oh.’ (p. 50)

James M. Russell, ‘The Forking Trolley: An Ethical Journey to The Good Place’

Some of Eleanor’s previous bad acts also point to the snares of anonymous and remote interaction with other people. She once posted her sister’s credit card details on Reddit, simply because she had told Eleanor she looked tired. (p. 52)

John Wyndham, ‘The Kraken Wakes’

        ‘But they are trying, you know, Phyl-’
        ‘Are they? I think they’re balancing things all the time. What is the minimum cost at which the political set-up can be preserved in present condition? How much loss of life will the people put up with before they become dangerous about it? Would it be wise or unwise to declare martial law, and at what stage? On and on, instead of admitting the danger and getting to work.’ (Ebook)

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Secret Barrister – ‘Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken’

Meanwhile at the National Probation Service, inexperienced, inadequately trained staff are monitoring ever-increasing caseloads of high-risk offenders in the community. One employee reported that the target culture had reduced him from seeing his offenders weekly for an hour to holding appointments once a month for an average of twenty minutes. These are the institutions we entrust to supervise and rehabilitate the most damaged and dangerous among us. At twenty fucking minutes a month. (p. 327)

It’s not why I read the book, but I worked for the Probation Service once, for about six months. Just temping, typing up Pre-Sentence Reports mostly, from Dictaphone tapes or handwritten notes, or (this seemed to be a new thing at the time) copying text that a Probation Officer had typed herself from a document on a floppy disk to the template, proof-reading as I went. There’s a job that probably doesn’t exist anymore. It’s interesting, if not surprising, to discover what happened to the service in the intervening two decades: ‘low- and medium-risk offenders’ got farmed out to private companies, in the wearyingly familiar privatisation narrative, to save the taxpayer money by sweeping the work under the carpet and ensuring it was done as badly as possible while still hitting those targets. There are plenty of other examples of this kind of corrosive neglect in the book, and it’s to the Secret Barrister’s credit that it doesn’t get overwhelming or overly repetitive: there’s always enough human interest alongside the institutional failures, not to mention a stout defence of the principles on which the criminal justice system in England and Wales rests. In a section which feels rather like being led on by a barrister’s speech in court must do, this ‘adversarial’ system is compared with the ‘inquisitorial’ one which is used widely in continental Europe. Adversarialism pits prosecution against defence in court, in front of a jury, and cross questioning is used to undermine the other side’s version of events. Which does sound a bit juvenile: the fiercest (most eloquent / devious / best prepared) cock will win the fight. Surely the inquisitorial system, where the aim of the state’s investigation is to establish the truth, rather than peck its eye out, is the more mature, responsible, balanced practice? Doesn’t this just highlight everything we know is bad about UK individualism and good about EU (relatively speaking) socialism?

Then comes a stunning about-face. Haven’t you been listening to how bad I’ve been telling you the state is? At following its own guidelines, gathering evidence, disclosing evidence, acting impartially under government pressure for certain types of conviction? Do you really want all that to go unchallenged? Yes, but you said all that about the UK state, which you’ve just spent a couple of hundred pages showing how badly it funds all those things. Surely in a grown-up country like Germany or France… You’ve seen Spiral, right? Oh, I see what you mean. If falsely accused, the Secret Barrister imagines asking themselves,

would I have faith in an inquisitorial jurisdiction where the state, with its variable competence and political vulnerability, controlled my fate throughout? Or would I trust the presentation of my case to an independent solicitor and advocate, and hope that twelve ordinary people, shown evidence that is relevant, reliable and fairly adduced, would find the prosecution insufficient to convict me?
        Every time the answer is the same. (p. 277)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Alan Strachan – ‘Secret Dreams: A Biography of Michael Redgrave’

Michael Redgrave as Ernest Worthing clattering his teacup against its saucer as he proposes to Joan Greenwood’s Gwendoline Fairfax in Anthony Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest has long been one of my favourite moments in film. It’s so nervous, and so perfectly controlled. Gwendoline, of course, is not nervous at all: she has been expecting this, and encourages the moment to its crisis with austere amusement. Ernest (if we leave aside immense wealth, which for these purposes I think we’d better) has only feeling and sincerity on his side and, as will soon become apparent, his birth is wanting. If he is not quite the gentleman he seems, neither is Redgrave’s acting as English as it seems, as Strachan argues in the epilogue of his biography:
despite the brilliant technical sheen of its acting the British theatre of the mid twentieth century was fashioned from theatre itself rather than from reality. In effect, at that time life was used rather than created in the acting on British stages and screens.
        However, at the very core of Michael’s being as an actor […] was the impulse to start from the living natural processes of which the actor must be conscious. This almost sacerdotal belief, which led showmen such as [Tony] Guthrie or actors schooled and happy in the easy West End world’s attitude of ‘just say the lines and don’t bump into the furniture’ to describe Michael at times as ‘difficult’ or over-serious, was grounded in what he took from Stanislavsky and Saint-Denis, based on the latter’s insistence that in all acting the key question should always be ‘Why?’ rather than ‘How?’. The base conviction was that the starting point and development of any part in any play was never the individual role in isolation but the unfolding of a whole course of events and the evolving relationship of each role to the others within the course of the actions in the play, taking place at a specific time and under particular conditions. (pp. 543-4)
He goes on to quote Vanessa Redgrave on working with her father:
At each and every moment he would be listening to and looking at the other actors on the stage, as if for the first time, and allow the events, what they did and said, to activate his actions, thoughts and words. (p. 544)
This is a theatre-centric biography by a theatre director (who directed Redgrave in The Old Boys in 1971), which I found more absorbing as it progressed; possibly because of its subject’s struggles in later life, with anxiety following horrendous treatment by Laurence Olivier during the first season of the National Theatre in 1963 (Olivier plays villain twice in this book, as he also spikes the guns of Redgrave’s planned film of Antony and Cleopatra by pretending to be about to film it himself), and after that with Parkinson’s Disease. It navigates his sex life well, treating a string of extra-marital relationships with men as manifestations of his bisexuality, about which he was honest with his wife, Rachel Kempson, before they got married. It doesn’t claim that this had no effect on their own relationship, or that it didn’t cause considerable pain to Kempson, but it is clear that their marriage was no sham, and that this arrangement worked, for the most part. He didn’t tell her until decades later about a serious relationship during their marriage with another woman, Edith Evans (Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film of Earnest, though the affair was in the 1930s), and it feels much more appropriate to call that an affair. There is a vast quantity of cameos, and it’s the kind of book which enriches and is enriched by other histories of the period, I think. Orson Welles and Fritz Lang are both skewered: the former for the laziness of the Mr Arkadin script; the latter for being a prima donna director trading on his own myth (although the importance of his 1920s films to a young Michael is also stressed). Having recently read Micheál MacLiammóir’s amazing Put Money in thy Purse, an account taken from his diaries of the filming of Welles’ Othello, it was interesting to read of the (I’d always assumed) Irishman:
A genuine spellbinder, MacLiammóir – originally Alfred Wilmore from Kensal Rise – had arrived in Ireland at twenty-eight where he fell in love with [Hilton] Edwards and all the seductiveness of the Celtic Twilight, staying on to reinvent himself and to reject England. (p. 434)
Sensible fellow.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

László Krasznahorkai – ‘Satantango’

Reading this just before Easter, I wondered if there was some deliberate connection between the figure on whom most of the characters pin their hopes, Irimiás, and Jesus. The way they await his coming, to their grim, moribund village, where it always rains, and no-one besides the pub’s landlord has worked since an unspecified big employer left the area many years ago. There is something like a resurrection, too, witnessed by Irimiás. It took a while to place the action in time: an estate is mentioned, the villagers in their hovels seem like serfs, it could be the nineteenth century or earlier, but modernity does intrude now and then (there’s a truck, for instance). In the opening chapter, the lame Futaki is in bed with Mrs Schmidt, and has to get up, sneak outside and come in again when her husband arrives unexpectedly. They then argue about money. In a house nearby a doctor sits at a window drinking, observing the comings and goings of his neighbours and writing down every detail in a set of notebooks, one per person observed. He does this all day every day, and keeps doing it even after everyone has left to follow their saviour, who doesn’t see himself as anything of the sort:
God was a mistake. I’ve long understood that there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our senses, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay […] It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. (p. 220)
The setting, with the squalor, the rain and the mud, is reminiscent of Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel, though without the Southern Gothic flavour. The book is Hungarian, so presumably the setting is Hungary. Irimiás is resolute and mysterious, the above passage is (or seems to be) a rare moment of candour, though it’s also a pointless one, his companion Petrina being a coward and an idiot. Futaki, perhaps the most sympathetic character, has similar thoughts (he reflects on ‘this sty of a world’ (p. 145)), and provides this terrifying assessment of the defense reflex:
It was as if the real threat came from elsewhere, from somewhere beneath their feet, though its source was bound to be uncertain: a man will suddenly find silence frightening, he fears to move, he squats in a corner that he hopes might protect him: even chewing becomes a torture there and swallowing agony, so eventually he doesn’t even notice that everything around him has slowed, that he is ever more hemmed in, and then discovers that his strategic withdrawal is in fact nothing less than petrification. (p. 135)
It’s like ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ again, but in this version aspiration is starting from a lower base than for Tom Hanks’ Steve Wong. Steve wants to have fun bowling; Bartleby prefers not to do anything; Futaki wants to live, but life keeps receding (he also keeps falling over in the mud). Satantango is the end of the road for many of its characters, their only hope a man who gives them the comfort of instructions to follow, but there is nothing behind the instructions, except (it is hinted) an intention to exploit them. The only characters who do not fall into Irimiás’ trap, or the wider worldly trap he outlines above (which sounds a lot like freedom of opportunity) are the insane: the drunken, obese, obsessive doctor, and Esti Horgos, a girl abused by her family who poisons their cat and lays down to die.

Here is a sunrise, though. Ain’t that enough?
Irimiás scrapes the mud off his lead-heavy shoes, clears his throat, cautiously opens the door, and the rain begins again, while to the east, swift as memory, the sky brightens, scarlet and pale blue and leans against the undulating horizon, to be followed by the sun, like a beggar daily panting up to his spot on the temple steps, full of heartbreak and misery, ready to establish the world of shadows, to separate the trees one from the other, to raise, out of the freezing, confusing homogeneity of night in which they seem to have been trapped like flies in a web, a clearly defined earth and sky with distinct animals and men, the darkness still in flight at the edge of things, somewhere on the far side of the western horizon, where its countless terrors vanish one by one like a desperate, confused, defeated army. (p. 47)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Tom Hanks – ‘Uncommon Type’

No one has typewriters anymore, none that work. But typewritten letters are special. Some folks come with letters they’ve composed on a computer they want me to type out for them and make one of a kind. Before Valentine’s or Mother’s Day, I could sit here for hours and type notes for folks lined up around the block. If I charged, I’d be as rich as a good florist. (pp. 381-2, from ‘Our Town Today with Hank Fiset: Your Evangelista Esperanza’)
Typewritten letters are special? No, no, no: handwritten letters are special. But let’s go with it for a while. In the story ‘These Are the Meditations of My Heart’, a typewriter salesman makes his pitch along similar lines: ‘You are seeking permanence’ (p. 235). Most of the characters in these stories (all of which feature typewriters in some capacity) are seeking something like that: they need something to cling to in a world in flux. Some are refugees or newly naturalised citizens; others are film stars or property magnates worth billions of dollars. Some stories are set when typewriters were current technology; most are contemporary. Most feature broken relationships, too, and there is more than a suggestion that while people will inevitably let you down, these sturdy machines, well looked after, will not. The salesman again:
        ‘They are made of steel. They are works of engineers. They were built in factories in America, Germany, Switzerland. Do you know why they are up on that shelf right now?’
        ‘Because they are for sale?’
        ‘Because they were built to last forever!’ The old man actually shouted. In him, she heard her father hollering, ‘Who left those bikes on the front lawn? … Why am I the only one dressed for church? … The father of this house is home and needs a hug!’ (p. 232)
There is a touch of Alan Partridge maleness about this: the reliance on understanding the mechanical as a substitute for understanding people.

Some variations on the nuclear family, cracked or otherwise: the boy in ‘A Special Weekend’ spends a weekend with his mother and her new partner, just prior to his tenth birthday. They take him for a plane ride as a treat, even allowing him to take the controls for a while, but he knows this is no substitute for the home life he has lost, so young. In ‘Welcome to Mars’ a young man goes surfing on his nineteenth birthday, busts his leg on his board, and in trying to get help sees something he shouldn’t’ve: his father kissing a stranger in a car. In ‘Christmas Eve 1953’ two Word War Two veterans drift further apart every year. One is a lone wanderer, and gay; the other is a family man, missing a leg but utterly settled: he loves his family and they love him, there is no longer any story. ‘A Month on Greene Street’ is better: a mother and children move into a new neighbourhood following her divorce, and she tries to avoid encouraging the friendliness and ‘Are you doing anything tonight’-ness (p. 126) of her new neighbour, a teacher with a telescope which fascinates all the children nearby, and some of the parents too. The mechanical substitute, again (isn’t that what’s bad about the internet age? People on their phones ignoring other people? Is the debate about the quality of the distraction?)

Permanence is an illusion for the rich, too, they just have more liberty to chase it, more garish ways to imagine it. In ‘The Past Is Important to Us’ a billionaire pays $6m to travel back in time to the New York World Fair of 1939. He meets a woman there who begins to obsess him, perhaps because she is so obviously unattainable, as the rules of the travel company, and the pseudo-science, dictate that he can only ever travel back to the same day, and can only spend 22 hours there each time. On every trip he manages to spend slightly longer with Carmen and her young niece Virginia, seeing the sights, eating pie, flirting. The interest comes from the variations in the scene which keeps being repeated and extended, as the seemingly spontaneous is revealed to be merely automatic. ‘A Junket in the City of Light’ is about Willa Sax, star of the wildly popular Cassandra Rampart film franchise, and the Paris leg of the press tour to promote the latest instalment, told from the point of view of her much-less-famous co-star Rory Thorpe. A news story breaks about her husband being caught high and with some hookers, and the whole circus stops dead, cancelled. Rory shrugs, does some sight seeing instead. It’s hyper-real and un-real all at once, as though in increasing the possibilities, wealth diminishes the outcomes. The only attachment worth the name in these rich folk stories is in ‘Stay with Us’, when Ms Mercury, personal assistant to a ludicrous property magnate, falls for a mechanic and quits to marry him.

Most of the stories’ settings fall into one socio-economic category or another, but there is a group of three stories which aims for more of a melting pot. In ‘Three Exhausting Weeks’ (which opens the collection), ‘Alan Bean Plus Four’ (which is the funniest thing in it) and ‘Steve Wong is Perfect’ (which closes it, and is the bleakest), four friends hang out, go on holiday, chat, say ‘atta baby’ a lot. Two are rich enough to contemplate a holiday to Antarctica without particularly considering the cost. Two work at a hardware store. One of the latter, MDash, becomes a US citizen in the first story, and has a naturalisation ceremony. The other, Steve Wong, has ‘grandparents [who] were naturalized in the forties’ (p. 3). ‘Steve Wong is Perfect’ reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’. In it, the four friends go bowling to celebrate a year since MDash’s naturalisation. Steve Wong scores all strikes. They go back a few more times over subsequent weeks, and it keeps happening: every time he scores a perfect 300. This gets noticed, and he is offered a $100,000 prize if he can repeat the feat on TV. As the story progresses, Steve takes less and less interest in his performance, and he refuses to engage in the hyperbole of television: ‘Like I said. I bowl for fun’ (p. 396). In fact, the TV appearance stresses him out, and he throws up in the parking lot before going on. I think what is going on is the emptiness at the heart of the American dream. In the land of the free, what if you do take every opportunity? What if your numbers do keep going forever upwards? So what?

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