Friday, December 21, 2007

Home for Christmastime

It’s been a few years, but this time I’m going home for Christmas. Mumbled at the station counter so the train tickets were for the wrong day, but S. noticed and fixed it. So we’re off tomorrow, for a week of family and food, cold walks, catching up. It should be lovely. What makes it lovelier still is that Anne Bacheley has obligingly put out a single about it, called ‘Home for Christmastime’. You’re an adult, well past the point at which childhood was a recent memory, but there’s this one place, for one week a year, where you can go and where your brothers and sisters and parents will be too, and it’s almost as though you’re ten years old again. The situation isn’t a universal one, of course, or anything like it, but for anyone it does apply to, there’s this song to have in your head as you set off. As warm and affectionate as the secular carol it is. One two three four, ‘I’m going, going / Home for Christmastime...’.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Jorge Luis Borges – ‘Fictions’

This is one of those books that is so acutely self aware that there hardly seems to be any point in writing about it. Or rather, you could use it as a starting point to spiral off into infinity debating the nature of reality, but you would inevitably end up being less impressive on the subject than Borges is at an angle to it. Reigning in is his great talent. My comfort read at the moment is The Complete Yes, Minister, and one of Bernard’s pedantic admonitions to Jim Hacker is along the lines of, ‘Excuse me, Minister, but you can’t actually stop something before it starts’ (they’re trying to stop a press release going out). In his stories, Borges does exactly that. If a typical Charlotte Brontë plot begins by hiding everything, and ends by revealing the last piece of the jigsaw, Borges will start with a bibliography, and end with a jigsaw piece. Maybe two. There is much to expand upon, but you’d feel like a vandal doing it, unpicking all that careful concealment, breaking in upon the mystery.

As to what they are like to read: the stories are brief, averaging about ten pages. Some are told in the language of literary criticism; others in that of the detective story. There is always an underlying concept: what would it be like if a man could remember everything? (‘Funes, His Memory’) What if everyone in society swapped roles, periodically and at random? (‘The Lottery in Babylon’) What would literature which took account of all possible variations of plot be like? (‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, ‘A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain’). One argues, convincingly, that in Christianity Judas rather than Jesus should be considered the son of God, because he sacrificed not just his body but also his soul:

God, argues Nils Runeberg, stooped to become man for the redemption of the human race; we might well then presume that the sacrifice effected by Him was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by omissions. To limit His suffering to the agony of one afternoon on the cross is blasphemous. (pp. 135-6, from ‘Three Versions of Judas’.)
The big theme, though, is the crossover between fiction and life, and the ultimate indivisibility of the two. Hence in ‘Tlôn, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, an invented, hoax society, made with nothing more than strategically placed stories, comes to replace the ‘real’ (I should say the pre-existing) society. In ‘The Circular Ruins’ a man spends all his time and strength dreaming up another man, only to discover that he has himself been dreamt into existence. In ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ the author of the title attempts to write certain chapters of Don Quixote – not merely to copy them out, but actually to write them. At first he attempts this by imagining himself in Cervantes’ position, but then, when this seems too easy, he tries to do it as himself: to end up with the same chapters, word for word, the only difference being that they arose not out of Cervantes’ skill, situation and temperament, but those of Pierre Menard. In ‘The Circular Ruins’ the protagonist wants to break from thought into physical reality; in ‘...the Quixote’ Menard wants to go the other way: from living breathing man to a collection of words.

Without a doubt, the stories of Fictions are told with the intention of surprising their audience, and their effects are often dazzling. But the effects are a means as well as an end: they are not there to take the reader out of reality, but to defamiliarise it for us, the better to understand its flaws. In his section of The Paris Review Interviews, Borges says:
Conrad thought that when one wrote, even in a realistic way, about the world, one was writing a fantastic story because the world itself is fantastic and unfathomable and mysterious. (The Paris Review Interviews, p. 140).

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Charlotte Brontë – ‘Tales of Angria’

It must have been the summer of 1996, because I still have the essay I handed in the following November. It was some way into that year’s long vacation from university, and Villette was on the reading list for the forthcoming Victorian module. I read the opening chapters on a family picnic while others paddled in the stream or sunbathed or read too. The first thing I noticed was that the prose was awkward, the phrasing all backwards (from the first page: ‘When I was a girl I went to Bretton about twice a year, and well I liked the visit’). The second thing was the prickly but endearing friendship between Polly, a precocious little girl of six, and Graham, a ‘faithless-looking youth of sixteen’. Graham condescends to play with Polly when un-distracted by his peers, and she takes to him more than is quite good for her. Although the friendship is dependent on Graham’s whim, it is beautifully depicted, and immediately involving. There is a dynamic of affection expressed through insult which exists between Polly and Graham. I would be surprised if something similar had not existed between Charlotte and Branwell – in fact, it is here in Tales of Angria, every time she addresses the ‘reader’ (she is writing mostly for him, as he does for her), and when she satirises his high flown militaristic style.

This was point one in favour of Villette; point two was the chapter ‘The Long Vacation’, which captured perfectly the dreadful isolation and ennui I never had the wit to dispel during long holidays. Point three was narrator Lucy Snowe’s hopeless (and convincingly hopeless) infatuation with Graham when she met him again a decade on – and which I aped, blow for dull aching blow, that same summer. Point four was Lucy’s far more genuine love for the unglamorous – in fact, the downright objectionable M. Paul Emmanuel, the squat authoritarian fellow school teacher with whom… Well, let’s not spoil the whole thing for anyone who’s dropped by and has yet to read it. If you take anything from this blog at all though, I would urge you to do just that. If your heart ever trembles, if its warmth is ever undersold by shyness or reticence, if you need someone to tell you every danger is far away… It won’t do that, but it’ll chime just marvellously with your romantic foreboding.

Tales of Angria is far removed from Villette; it contains the final five instalments – on Charlotte’s side, at least – of the saga she wrote with Branwell between 1832-9, about a kingdom supposedly situated in Africa (only there are moors, and it is suspiciously wet and Yorkshire-like), and about the struggle for power therein. The two giants in the struggle are the Duke of Zamorna, the popular ruler who is in power throughout this volume, and the Earl of Northangerland, his ageing arch rival, recently and decisively conquered as the first story, ‘Mina Laury’, begins. Relations between the two are convoluted: Zamorna is married to Northangerland’s daughter Mary, and Northangerland to Zamorna’s old flame Zenobia. Northangerland’s illegitimate daughter Caroline is Zamorna’s ward. It gets tricky to follow, especially as the narrator hardly ever lets you know everything that’s going on in any given scene. Usually even the identities of those present are concealed for several pages – there will be hints, and eventually one of editor Heather Glen’s notes will take pity and say, ‘Oh for God’s sake it’s Zamorna’, or whoever it might be. Initially these highly secretive practices reminded me of The Count of Monte Cristo (the last book for which I had to write down the plot in order to understand it), and the intention is the same: both books want to dazzle the reader with surprising twists and turns. Concealment creates suspense, and dark hints as to what is about to be revealed are a good way of getting a reader to consider how awful it is going to be in advance. The principle is that, if things are going to seem better in the morning, if they never turn out as badly as you fear they might; then let’s prolong the night almost indefinitely, let’s hold the readership in fear until they can’t stand it any more. Dumas frequently does this brilliantly; Brontë less well, on the whole, but she has her moments – the end of ‘Caroline Vernon’, for example.

Concealment in Brontë (unlike in Dumas) has its roots in her own temperament, and it doesn’t disappear once she moves on to less gung-ho fiction. Jane Eyre’s plot revolves around Rochester’s concealment of his first wife in his own attic, and Jane’s concealment of where it is she has run off to once she becomes aware of this. It is only in Villette that Brontë manages to combine concealment as a plot device with the painful and involuntary tendency towards concealment which is the product of her shyness. There is a fleeting hint of this in ‘Henry Hastings’, in the feelings of Henry’s sister Elizabeth, who is (guess what?) a self-sufficient and hardworking teacher:

She never wished to attract [respect] for a moment, and still, somehow, it always came to her. She was always burning for warmer, closer attachment. She couldn’t live without it. But the feeling never awoke, and never was reciprocated. (p. 288)

‘Henry Hastings’ is my favourite of the five tales here, because it gives over describing the choleric anger of near-indistinguishable warlords and their dastardly deeds, and concentrates for a time on the two things Brontë was born to write about: the absolute affection that can exist between siblings (or close friends), and sexual love. That Elizabeth is Charlotte is clear from the Duchess of Zamorna’s appraisal of her: ‘…not very pleasing […] She’s odd, abrupt’ (p. 266) – as are Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre. That she loves her brother is in the wonderful phrase – conveyed by a look only – ‘Your faults and yourself are separate existences in my mind.’ (p. 233); this is Polly’s attitude to Graham in Villette, too.

Equally moving is the walk Elizabeth takes with suitor William Percy, whose heart is described as ‘a tenacious soil’ (p. 285) – it needs to be, of course, because Elizabeth’s reserve prevents her from flirting with him. When she does start to respond to his cautious advances, it is telling that she does so with an insult:

‘But if I wanted a sixpence, you would be the last person I should ask for it,’ said Miss Hastings, looking up at him with an arch expression very natural to her eyes, but which seldom indeed was allowed to shine there. (p. 295)

Insults are good in Charlotte Brontë (see also M. Paul Emmanuel in Villette), because they indicate familiarity, concern and a shared sensibility. They indicate that the hard work of ice breaking is over. Charlotte’s ghost will hopefully understand, then, when I say that this relatively short passage of quite a large book (Chapter III of ‘Henry Hastings’, about 20 pages) is its only moving section. Elsewhere she succeeds at other, lesser things – Charles Townsend coming in out of the rain at the beginning of ‘Stancliffe’s Hotel’, for example, is a good vivid scene; the building horror of ‘Caroline Vernon’ is effective; Lord Hartford is truly gruesome. The ‘Roe Head Journal Fragments’ given at the end of the book testify to how absorbed in Angria Brontë felt (and how frustrated that her job prevented her from spending more hours conjuring it up), but time and again, when she comes to describe a character who is different from herself, she does it in negative terms, as though skirting around her real subject:

She does not know human nature, she does not penetrate into the minds of those about her; she does not fix her heart fervently on some point which it would be death to take it from; she has none of that strange refinement of the senses which makes some temperaments thrill with undefined emotion at changes or chances in the skies or the earth, a softness in the clouds, a trembling of moonlight in water, an old and vast tree, the tone of a passing wind at night, or any other little accident of nature which contains in it more botheration than sense. Well, and what of that? Genius and enthusiasm may go and be hanged. (p. 243, from ‘Henry Hastings’; William Percy soliloquizing about Jane Moore)

Only when the lack she describes above had been turned inside out, and placed at the centre of a narrative, would Brontë really hit her stride.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sons & Daughters, Fat Sam’s, Dundee, 3rd December

It’s nice to have a gig on your doorstep once in a while. Not sure I’d have gone any great distance to see this, but that was good too: low expectations, all set to be quashed. Which they were. I had Sons & Daughters down as a tuneless and static bunch, more Scots pretending they were from Tennessee, tied to their two-to-the-floor beat and not adding a great deal to it. This was based largely on a not very attentive few listens to Love the Cup and seeing two minutes of their set when they supported Morrissey last year. They wouldn’t allow drinks in the auditorium – and they expected people to watch the support band?! Anyway. I was wrong, Sons & Daughters are a whole lot of fun live. They do think they’re from Tennessee (check the guitarist’s gelled-up-and-back hairdo), and they do go one TWO one TWO fast and frequently in the beat dept., but these turned out not to be bad things after all. It reminded me of the lone new song Vic Godard played when I saw him in June, the epic and clattering ‘That Train’ – the energy of it compressed into two beats instead of four. Making Dee Dee’s ‘One! Two! Three! Four!’ look prog.

The energy was what Sons & Daughters were about too. One song was announced as their ‘suicide song’, but they didn’t slow down to take on darkness. They didn’t even slow down to incorporate ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ into ‘Johnny Cash’ (prompting a flashback to a Spectrum show when ‘When Tomorrow Hits’ got wheeled out – it does the same thing, of course). ‘We started doing this on tour with The Stooges,’ they told us. ‘They didn’t like it.’ Annoying The Stooges being more of a boast than impressing them, possibly. You can see why they might have objected – there is nothing of their slow burn to Sons & Daughters. Singer Adele did swagger though. There’s a knack to knowing how to move on stage. Support band Victorian English Gentlemens Club shared this with them, or at least the drummer did: in a black-on-white polka dot dress, she stood for the first song, imposingly tall on stage + drum riser (in the lobby afterwards I was surprised to see that she’s actually quite diminutive), lifting her arms in triumph at the end. She sat down for the next few but then got bored and spent one song wandering the stage hitting just anything. This is how drumming should be. A fun night amongst the beat combos.

(It’s maybe a bit pointless banging on about a song no-one can hear, so I hope nobody objects if I post Vic’s ‘That Train’ here.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Paris Review Interviews vol. 1

This is the best chat show you ever saw. Cherry picked from between 1956 and 2006, here you have – for the first seven interviews alone – Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Saul Bellow, Jorge Luis Borges and Kurt Vonnegut, talking at length about life and literature. Is there a better way of spending a Sunday afternoon? The writers interviewed are for the most part elderly, looking back on a lifetime’s achievement. Many are asked about the writing process itself – the routine of it, how it is that a novel or a poem can spring from a person sitting at a desk with a pencil or a typewriter. Asked how he starts a poem, Jack Gilbert is unhelpful:

There’s no one way. Sometimes I’m walking along the street and I find it there. Sometimes it’s something I’ve been thinking about. Sometimes it’s an apparition. (p. 452)

Robert Stone is more practical:

[I type] until something becomes elusive. Then I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or word processor you can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed – you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity. (p. 308)

Richard Price, having gone from writing novels to screenplays, talked up his novel Clockers to publishing houses – not having written a word – as though it were a screenplay: he wanted the ‘hugger-mugger’, the ‘emergency meetings’ of collaborative writing. ‘I wanted someone waiting, someone keeping the light burning in the window.’ (p. 386). Joan Didion constantly re-writes the 90 pages preceding the point she has reached, advancing incrementally. Hemingway believes ‘it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes’ (p. 50), but nonetheless reveals:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, and you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. (p. 38)

Trying ‘to live through until the next day’ is presumably the point at which the interview occurred, because he is extremely testy throughout. It was perhaps unkind to put it directly after the cheery Truman Capote interview:

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. (p. 28)

Borges comes across as a sweet, slightly tremulous old man, deeply immersed in and alive with literature. His interview is punctuated every few pages by the entrance of one Susana Quinteros, who announces ‘Señor Campbell is still waiting’, to which Borges responds, ‘Yes, yes, we know. The Campbells are coming!’ (p. 136). She never tires of drawing his attention to his waiting visitor, and he shows no interest in having Campbell shown in before the interview is over, though he is quite aware of the humour in the situation. Unlike Hemingway, he is as engrossed in the interview as he would be in a book. He says, ‘I don’t think ideas are important’, which endeared him to me immediately. A writer should be judged by ‘the enjoyment he gives and by the emotion one gets’. He gives the example of Kipling’s Kim as a book in which the ideas behind it and the feeling one gets from it are at odds with one another:

Suppose you consider the idea of the Empire of the English – well, in Kim I think the characters one really is fond of are not the English, but many of the Indians, the Mussulmans. I think they’re nicer people. And that’s because he thought them – no! no! not because he thought them nicer – but because he felt them nicer. (p. 131)

Prior to reading this interview I’d never read Borges (I’m reading Fictions at the moment), but that’s really not the kind of remark you’d expect from someone famous for such conceptual stories.

There is so much in this book I haven’t touched on (e.g. Billy Wilder’s funny and well balanced take on script writing, Rebecca West’s hard boiled scattiness or Kurt Vonnegut’s awful one liners), it leads in all kinds of directions, adds pounds to the reading list, and is just an all round terrific thing. If BBC 4 modelled a chat show on it – well, you can dream. Here’s one more quote from Jack Gilbert, whose interview is my favourite thing here:

INTERVIEWER: What, other than yourself, is the subject of your poems?

GILBERT: Those I love. Being. Living my life without being diverted into things that people so often get diverted into. Being alive is so extraordinary I don’t know why people limit it to riches, pride, security – all of those things life is built on. People miss so much because they want money and comfort and pride, and house and a job to pay for the house. And they have to get a car. You can’t see anything from a car. It’s moving too fast. People take vacations. That’s their reward – the vacation. Why not the life? Vacations are second-rate. People deprive themselves of so much of their lives – until it’s too late. Though I understand that often you don’t have a choice. (p. 456)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Acid Mothers Temple at Stereo, Glasgow, 16th November

There was a live review in Plan B not so long ago saying that the Acid Mothers experience is one which has been scaled down in recent years, and this is true to some extent. I first saw them in 1998, and they tore the roof off the Art School in a way I’ve never seen bettered, or even approached. A juggernaut of noise, incessant and appalling, delivered by creatures from hell or from space. Suhara Keizo looked as though he was having the most fun, with a fixed chubby grin, violently bouncing his bass around; Cotton Casino leaned over her analogue bubble box, twisting knobs and shrieking into the mic, swigging beer between times; Kawabata Mokoto threw his Stratocaster into furious transports (or did it throw him?), jerking upwards to shoulder level and floating there, as though filled with helium. The two-note racket of ‘Speed Guru’ extended over fifteen, twenty minutes, the most exhilarating noise imaginable.

Kawabata Mokoto has spoken of the first Acid Mothers’ LP, which is still the best way to experience the visceral thrill that exploded at us that night, as more or less a solo record. Plenty of people play on it, but he put it together, overdubbing, editing, and it stands as their statement of intent, the key songs being ‘Speed Guru’ and the slower, beautifully trippy ‘Pink Lady Lemonade’. The record ends with several minutes of a tone so piercing you have to turn it off. This out of the way, Acid Mothers went about the business of becoming a band, and subsequent LPs (or the ones I’ve heard, a fraction of their massive output) are gentler, more rounded, more collaborative. Still plenty noisy, of course.

Acid Mothers are now down to a four-piece. Cotton has gone, which is sad, but Higashi Hiroshi fills in on the bubble box, and sings even if he doesn’t scream. He gives the band a different kind of presence, with his long black / grey hair and measured baritone. Kawabata is the same as ever, and this is what you really go to see: his guitar tantrums, his mass of curls (hair is important in this band), the sheer presence of the man. I don’t have any kind of religious belief, but I believe him when he says he picks the music up out of the air, channelling what the spirits have to say through his great and noble band. Tonight they slip onstage, crash with no ado at all into a slab of their trademark noise and it’s a thrill like it always is.

After a relatively brief first song, they play what sounds very much like a cover of Stereolab’s ‘Metronomic Underground’ (plus crunch, minus vocals), before starting up ‘Pink Lady Lemonade’ to cheers of recognition, and staying with it for the remainder of the set. It’s hard to say how long this might have been – the song’s hypnotic pull shreds any consciousness of time passing. A lot of Acid Mothers songs do this. Dip in here or there and you mightn’t notice much difference, but the cumulative effect is what counts. Some time later, the pace hots up, the single spidery riff has been set going in our heads, and Kawabata cuts the rope holding us to the ground, leaving the notes to continue in imagination only as he piles on the rubble with frantic movements across the fretboard. Later still he swings the guitar over his head a few times and you think ‘cool, but who doesn’t do that?’ until he somehow manages to hook it high up into the lighting rig and suddenly magic has happened again: never mind how he did it, the guitar which has spent years in his hands climbing vainly upwards only to be restrained with epic and everlasting solos, has broken free and now hangs, looking not a little lethal, from the ceiling. If we were outside it would be halfway to heaven by now. And we’d be looking down, watching it ascend.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – ‘The Valley of Fear’

I like Sherlock Holmes a lot. He verges on being a guilty pleasure, because the thing I like about him most is Basil Rathbone’s screen version, in a series of films which are only occasionally competent, but which are always funny, often hilarious. Rathbone’s take on Holmes is itself totally great, with just the right mix of teasing superiority and sudden jolts into action when the game is afoot. He is surrounded by buffoons, though – Lestrade and Watson on camera, Roy William Neill behind it, and the films end up as a series of clichés revolving around generalised notions of those great institutions, London, Scotland and Scotland Yard. A bit of fog on a street = London; some bushes on a sound stage (and ‘Loch Lomond’ on the sound track) = Scotland. It’s all palpably for the benefit of US audiences after a bit of UK kitsch. Holmes’ relationship with Watson is sent up mercilessly. On the plane to Washington (in Sherlock Holmes in Washington), Holmes admonishes him like a long suffering parent: ‘Oh, do stop chewing, Watson’, when he tries to get into the spirit of the trip with some gum. At Euston (in Terror by Night), when Watson nearly misses the Flying Scotsman, there is a touching scene in which he runs down the platform alongside the moving train: ‘Watson!’ shouts Holmes from his carriage, genuinely alarmed that he may have to travel without him. ‘Coming, Holmes!’ returns the faithful Watson, and it’s all terribly romantic right up until the cut to the train interior, when Watson scrambles aboard extremely unconvincingly, clearly having just walked through a door in a film set.

The Valley of Fear is much better than any of the Roy William Neill-directed films, of course. It is lean, tautly plotted and gives the impression that it is written by a man at ease with his characters and his craft. Though it shares the awkward split-down-the-middle structure of A Study in Scarlet, it gets away with it because the second section (set in 1875 and not featuring Holmes at all) is no less gripping than the first. Neither section is particularly plausible. I keep wanting to compare it to The Importance of Being Earnest, not because there is any actual similarity, but because both are late works which seem to walk on air, having no reference to anything but their own internal logic. Perhaps because it is so relaxed, Conan Doyle finds time to offer humorous glimpses into Holmes and Watson’s life together. The opening lines are:

‘I am inclined to think –’ said I.

‘I should do so,’ Sherlock Holmes remarked, impatiently.

I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals, but I admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. (p. 9)

They might as well be married. Later on, Watson reveals that ‘We slept in a double-bedded room, which was the best that the little country inn could do for us’ (p. 72). Is this deliberately suggestive? Perhaps not, but the two obviously live hand in glove, and the incidents from the films mentioned above – though they’re not in the books – are perhaps not such a stretch after all. Conan Doyle appears far more knowing about the way his characters are perceived than I remember.

The first section of the book is an elegantly expanded short story, based around the familiar idea of retribution in Britain for long ago deeds done abroad (see also ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’ and The Sign of Four). Murder has been done in a house with a large moat, at night, when the drawbridge was up. Holmes isn’t convinced that the only people who could have committed the crime, did so. Moriarty is the cause of the tip off with which the story begins, and the cause of the downbeat ending – he hovers over events as he does in every second Roy William Neill film, but in few other of Conan Doyle’s stories. This device works well in conjunction with the book’s second section, which deals with Vermissa Valley, a mining community in the ‘most desolate corner of the United States of America’ (p. 92). Here a secret society called the Ancient Order of Freemen rule with a regime of terror, extracting protection money from the mining companies and killing anyone who won’t pay up. The story follows John McMurdo into the Valley of Fear, and tracks his descent into exactly this form of crime. The society’s members come across as pirates on land, with their rowdy consensus and then dissent from the one cowardly member, which boss McGinty sweeps aside with grim threats. It’s all about as believable as Treasure Island, and involving in the same kind of way. It gradually emerges that the terror isn’t as localised as it first seemed: many towns in the vicinity also have Freemen lodges, and will loan out men to kill, the idea being that a killer from out of town will be harder to track down. And so Conan Doyle describes the kind of criminal network which he only ever hints at when writing about Britain, and then uses the example to build up Moriarty, who succeeds where the Freemen failed in retribution against the man who eventually brings them down.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A. N. Wilson – ‘The Victorians’

A couple of recent blog posts (at Click Opera and Cultural Snow), in talking about cop show The Wire, had a pop or two at the Victorians by way of demonstrating how outmoded / cutting edge it is. How unfair! I thought: whether you believe Click Opera, (who see the show in terms of ‘The religiose, 19th century vocabulary of secular humanism [which] gets wheeled out time after time to justify the greatness of mega-narratives’), or Cultural Snow (‘The Wire […] has the nerve to stretch a single storyline over an entire season, and then to withhold from the audience any real notion of closure’), the Victorians do badly out of the deal. The Wire is either rubbish because it is as enclosed and as grand in scope as one of the larger Dickens novels, or brilliant because it isn’t. One of these reactions suggests that playfulness is all important, fucking with the formula art’s prime responsibility (actually it will always be a minority pursuit, if a noble one); the other advocates a realism less heightened than in Dickens (perhaps he, with his grotesques and caricatures, is a bad example, because few novelists were ever less realistic – say instead, Trollope, Thackeray, Tolstoy), less plotted in terms of (divine) reward and comeuppance, but no less involved in the length of the piece, the texture of the society represented, the number of characters. Take this quotation from the Wilson book:

To many a young Russian, it must seem hard to understand how the older generation were ‘brainwashed’ into admiring Lenin; it would be harder for him or her to see that by absorbing the new anti-communist ideology they had also submitted to a set of doctrines – for example that capitalism spells freedom – which might seem quaint to a later generation. (p. 604)

It seems quaint to us 21st century sophisticates that 150 years ago, novelists tended to resolve stuff: give to the good, take from the bad, home in time for tea. But narratives still have to do this, in one way or another, otherwise they would not be satisfying (and therefore not successful). They must intrigue us at first, evoke people and places, make us feel part of the situations they describe, and finally wrap things up so we feel that there has been a conclusion. That conclusion may be a series of marriages, or deaths, it may be the realisation that nothing much has changed, it may be Johnny Depp stepping into the mouth of a gigantic octopus (or Momus’ own stately LP closing tunes – ‘Song in Contravention’ for instance), but it must feel like a sign-off. The audience must know when to clap. We get annoyed by anything that signals it too obviously, but is this really a good enough reason to abandon mid Victorian fiction?

The closest A. N. Wilson gets to a mega-narrative in his bewilderingly diverse book is the suggestion that Victorian social policy was informed by Jeremy Bentham’s doctrine of utilitarianism and Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, which held that:

Human population grows at a “geometric” rate, as in the series, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, whereas means of subsistence must grow at an arithmetical rate – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The inevitable consequence of this, he believed, was starvation. (p. 11)

In Wilson’s telling, the Victorians were all about management: machines to manage the tasks previously performed by people (weaving, for example), institutions to either manage or export the economic problems the machines caused (workhouses, the empire). After Prince Albert’s death he despairs of the pace of change, and the selfishness which drives it on. The history proper is interspersed with artistic and literary movements (the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin, a creepy Lewis Carroll) but it is not until the 1890s that the latter manage to get into the driving seat – and it is at this point that Wilson loses sympathy with them, and that I rather lost patience with him. Most people who write about the fall of Oscar Wilde wonder why he didn’t leave the country before the second trial, at which he stood no chance of acquittal. Had he done so, he could have avoided disgrace, imprisonment and an early death. Therefore, implies Wilson, sticking to his logic like Malthus, because he acted foolishly, he is not worth our attention. He did not act for the greatest happiness of the greatest number; nor did he act for the greatest happiness of himself. He acted contrarily. But this is what is important and great and politically significant about him: that at the end of a century which argued itself into such a highly charged, acquisitive, over-armed state that the First World War followed almost as an inevitability, Wilde, when asked to compete on like terms, said to himself, ‘Relax, don’t do it.’

Think I just answered my own question about why formulas need to be fucked with and narratives need to be blown wide open.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007



Tony Wilson signing the recording contract in his own blood; Rob Gretton forcing him to peel the plaster from one of his mutilated fingers to have another go at spelling Stephen Morris’ surname.

The fact that Tony spelled it correctly the first time, and Rob is lying about the extra ‘s’.

Toby Kebell’s Rob Gretton in general, and in particular in his underpants, too early in the day, scratching his balls as he answers the payphone in his shared house. This directly follows a scene in which he sells himself to Joy Division as their manager, largely on the basis that he has a phone and the other fellow doesn’t.

Sam Riley reading ‘So this is permanence / Love’s shattered pride / What once was innocence / Turned on its side’ over the beginning of a particularly gloomy scene. The lameness of the last line compared to the other three, especially when read rather than sung. The humanity in imperfection.

The way at the end you don’t quite think Ian Curtis is such a bastard as you do two thirds of the way through.

The conclusion you’re lead to, reasonably gently, that Curtis used his suicide to impress on Deborah his sincerity in not wanting their marriage to end, despite his inability to end his affair with Annike.

The bizarre transposition of Joy Division’s TV performance of ‘Transmission’ to a set resembling the one on Ready Steady Go! – individual circular white pedestals for each band member, on which they stood motionless as Tony Wilson introduced them. Joy Division reclaimed as a pop act (and there is a pop thrill to ‘Transmission’).

Listening to the actual Joy Division for the first time in too long.


Other Woman Annike’s total nothingness as a character (it shows that the film is based on a book by her rival – so she becomes a pretty face, vacant beyond that).

The only line given to Stephen Morris, during a late night interview with Annike. ‘What do you find beautiful?’ ‘I saw this really beautiful drum kit once…’ – delivered thicko drummer style, rather than the sardonic way he might actually have said it.

With Curtis dead, we see the remaining members of Joy Division at a table in a pub looking numb. For the first time, Stephen has been joined by his girlfriend Gillian. As well he might have been, so I’m not sure why I disliked this so much – maybe it felt a bit Biblical, they shall rise again as New Order being the implication.

The ghoulishness of New Order writing the soundtrack to Curtis’ last night alive. Also the fact that you could see him playing Iggys The Idiot, but not hear it.

The final shot of the film, a crematorium, black smoke ekes from its chimney, dispersing into the atmosphere. ‘Atmosphere’ plays on the soundtrack.

Samantha Morton, 30, not quite convincing as a shy 16 / 17-year-old hanging out in Curtis’ bedroom, mumbling and necking. Though she made up for this with her simple trust and touching disillusionment later on.

Realising the power Joy Division still have – thought I’d shaken that years ago.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Andy Warhol – ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)’

I can’t work out whether Warhol has the biggest or the smallest ego, so absorbed is he in his coterie, but so aware of it, and so – selfless (if that didn’t mean generous) within it. And then you come across a passage like:

I can only understand really amateur performers or really bad performers, because whatever they do never really comes off, so therefore it can’t be phoney. But I can never understand really good, professional performances. (p. 82)

Which is reminiscent of the whole outsider music idea, that music made by people who don’t realise that their performance falls short of their ambition can be made great by that gap, because it lacks inhibition and has enthusiasm in spades; and also because, being less constructed than more self aware art, it is more revealing of the performer’s personality / soul / demons. And what is art, if not the soul stripped bare? And whose art is less like the soul stripped bare than Warhol’s?

But when he put it like that, the first thing I thought of was Geoffrey Fletcher and the way he uses old buildings as a way of experiencing the lives of the people who first lived in them. That the buildings he chooses are not the grandest or most famous is crucial to this: the over-exposed, over-preserved building is the equivalent of the professional performer Warhol mentions. He continues:

Every professional performer I’ve ever seen always does exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment in every show they do. […] What I like are things that are different every time.

This makes some sense of Warhol’s movie-directing. The only time I’m aware that a film of his was shown on British television was the ‘Peel Slowly and See’ night BBC2 did when The Velvet Underground reformed (1993?), and centre stage was The Chelsea Girls, chosen for its short running time (3 hours) and relative accessibility (it was completely unwatchable, if I remember right, but it did have Nico in it). The idea was clearly to just let the actors improvise for as long as they liked, and then to use all the footage in the final film. I’d always supposed this to be an act of passive aggressive New York cool, not unlike Metal Machine Music, say, but – what if Warhol was actually interested in the bad performances on screen, and in the people who gave them? It’s possible.

Some other stuff he says:

The President has so much good publicity potential that hasn’t been exploited. He should just sit down one day and make a list of all the things that people are embarrassed to do, and then do them all on television.

Sometimes B and I fantasize about what I would do it I were President – how I would use my TV time. (p. 100)

If you lived in Canada you might have a million trees making oxygen for you alone, so each of those trees isn’t working that hard. Whereas a tree in a treepot in Times Square has to make oxygen for a million people. (p. 154)

Damien wouldn’t let me disillusion her. Some people have deep-rooted long-standing art fantasies. I remember a freezing winter night a couple of years ago when I was dropping her off at two-thirty in the morning after a very social party and she made me take her to Times Square to find a record store that was open so she could buy Blonde On Blonde and get back in touch with ‘real people’. Some people have deep rooted long-standing art fantasies and they really stick with them. (pp. 178-9)

‘B’ is whoever Andy (‘A’) has as a companion at the time, everyone being interchangeable. The whole book has this tone apart from the chapter ‘The Tingle – How to Clean Up American Style’, in which the B on the other end of the phone is given free reign to talk about cleaning, tidying and washing for page after page. It’s boring at first, but it becomes sort of hypnotic, and the occasional pay-off line (Warhol keeps sneaking off to the kitchen to get more jam to eat with a spoon, which breaks things up a little) is funnier for the build up. Maybe the films do this too. The tone is the main thing here though, and it’s accomplished in a way which breaks Warhol’s own ‘bad performers’ rule. He may have spent his career as a painter not painting, but he can really write, he can really dead pan.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Geoffrey Fletcher – ‘The London Nobody Knows’

We meant to go to Berlin, but I couldn’t get the whole week off and then when I could, it was too late for S. to get a passport, and so – London. Which I scarcely know at all, having been there only a handful of times. The last time was five years ago, passing through on the way to Shellac’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, and the time before that another nine years previously, my parents took us to the Tate for a Picasso exhibition so I’d have something to write about for an A-Level Art project / long essay. My sister scoffed all the garlic bread at Pizza Hut afterwards, which may or may not have deprived Tim, who hadn’t ordered anything, and she’s been embarrassed about it ever since. The exhibition was called ‘Sculptor / Painter’, and I still remember with a chill an impossibly heavy looking lump of bronze entitled ‘Death’s Head’ which with its skull stretched like skin and eye pits rather than sockets seems to prefigure the most horrific songs on Scott Walker’s The Drift. ‘Clara’ in particular, I suppose. This intense gloom was not typical of the exhibition and I was just as struck by the a sculpture of a baboon, in which the head was formed by two toy cars – VW Beetles, I think – one on top of another, the lower one inverted. An Egyptian sculpture I saw last week at the British Museum was strikingly similar. It was in the same room as these peculiar turtle headed figures.

This is the London I know. Specific times, famous places. As a tourist, I’ve never been there and not been tremendously busy. Apart from one morning last week, when I dug out The London Nobody Knows (suggested by Alistair’s side-bar and a Bob Stanley article) and went off on my own to look for Wharton Street and Percy Circus, the one area mentioned in the book which was close to our hotel. Even with the construction workers in orange jackets who had got there before me (there was a lot of scaffolding on individual houses, and similarly orange barriers all around Percy Circus), it was a relaxing place to wander, seeming to roll uphill through unruly ivy and nearly black bricks. The last of the summer sun across a couple of seven foot sunflowers, vertical gardening being the only practical kind in such small gardens. Two mounted police went by, perhaps solely for the visual effect of sun through leaves on the dappled grey. They certainly weren’t going to find any kind of trouble in this direction. At the top of Wharton Street is a square with a locked garden, and a little further on is the circus. A heritage plaque about Lenin is fixed to a rebuilt block – ‘bomb-damaged,’ explains Fletcher. Then:

These squares and circuses with their linked terraces are the logical way of living in cities – if cities are to be agreeable to the eye, that is, and not merely soul-destroying concrete and glass beehives; the squares of London are the city’s distinctive contribution to architecture. (p. 45)

Though this was the only place on his itinerary that I visited, I’d like to think that a lot of what Fletcher records of ’60s London remains today. None of it is prominent, of course, but all of it is old: what interests him is the evocation of the past in things one can still visit. He doesn’t want museums telling him how it was 100 or 200 years ago, he wants streets and buildings which have had the character and luck to survive that long – that they will have decayed accordingly, and had their use adapted, only adds to the accretion of history. At the end of the book is a plea not to continue to develop ‘hives’ (the metaphor is repeated), which will lead to London becoming: ‘…a new and ugly Babylon. And there were no aspidistras in Babylon.’ (p. 111). This is a dead giveaway, I think, of the nostalgia in Fletcher’s vision. He doesn’t write enough about the modern to get away with slamming it in this way, and the aspidistra is an incongruous thing to pine for.

For the most part, modern developments are avoided entirely, and in enthusing about old buildings (and the ways of life he extrapolates from these) Fletcher is wholly engaging. My favourite extrapolation:

One could devote a curious day to a tour of London laundries […] Of the collecting offices, the Sunlight Laundries, displaying a rising sun and tiles of an intense ultramarine interest me, and needless to say, those displaying the magic word ‘Bagwash’. The word, although in a class by itself, is one of those one would like to use for its own sake, irrespective of meaning, simply because they sound interesting. ‘Bagwash’ is pure East End, and suggests fat old women pushing prams of underwear. (p. 29)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

This is supposed to sound really profound, it prob'ly sounds trite

Yesterday Edwyn Collins was on Front Row, giving possibly his first interview since his brain haemorrhage two years ago. It was the first I’d heard, anyway. So great to hear him talk and sing again. Here is a review I wrote when his masterpiece Ostrich Churchyard was re-released as The Glasgow School in 2005. Andy was thinking of doing a fanzine and it was supposed to be for that, but it didn’t quite happen, so it appears here for the first time.

Orange Juice - The Glasgow School

Slightly more than a few years ago I was in the Dundee student union, having a game of lunchtime pool. Playing my usual tactical game of utter inconsistency. This wasn't in itself unusual, but if you'd taken a good look at my face, maybe you'd have seen. On the inside, Orange Juice's 'Falling and Laughing' stretched itself out and around my heart, lungs and other vitals. I'd got a date - or thought I had - and a two song imaginary jukebox had set itself up on a loop, alternating this with The Crystals' 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town', only with the girl in question's name substituted for 'Santa Claus'. The second song was a brash 'Yippee!'; the first a trembling and glowing secret, happily hidden from my pool adversaries. 'They say that there's a thousand like you / Well maybe that's true / I fell for you and nobody else' (that 'else'! - so deadpan, so provisional!)

It's utterly appropriate for an early Orange Juice song to equate to a bright romantic yearning, because that's their sound. Not punk mixed with disco or whatever: nothing so technical. Blind naïve adoration, no strings. Never approaching the angst of Violent Femmes or the bloody mindedness of The Smiths on similar topics, Orange Juice take 'the pleasure with the pain' without bitterness or even question: good things happen, bad things happen, that's how life works, is their philosophy. No regrets if it goes wrong, there's always tomorrow. And consequently, 'The Glasgow School' / 'You Can't Hide Your Love Forever' is / are (you gotta hear them both - I can't choose between them) the deftest, lightest of records: it gives, and is lovable, so lovable.

To explain that last bit: Orange Juice's debut LP exists in two versions. The first, 'Ostrich Churchyard', was recorded, along with their early singles, for the independent Postcard label; the second, 'You Can't Hide Your Love Forever', came out on Polydor, and delayed the release of 'Ostrich Churchyard' by ten years (until 1992). Wouldn't want to confuse anyone, would they? 'The Glasgow School' collects all the Postcard stuff.

The big thrill for me - because I'd never heard it - is the inclusion of the original 'Falling and Laughing' single. It sounds clunkily rehearsal room at first, the words half bellowed, where the version on 'You Can't Hide Your Love Forever' is studio produced and crooned. A listen or two later, the edges wear away and the song opens up, a giddy mess of falling downstairs disco and laughing carefree guitar. This is 'The Glasgow School' all over. First off, you're not convinced they can play. Timing is loose, Edwyn's singing slides around the place like an egg in a frying pan. The slick (and great) horn arrangements of '...Forever' aren't there, and the drums are emphatically not played to a click track. Guitars are ...frizzier. Only word for it. The band sound like they're having a great time in there. So you don't care that they can't play because if not playing sounds like this then you can keep your virtuosity.

Edwyn's singing, did I say? Is molten, alive, fleet of foot, 'I could be kidding you on', impossible to pin down because of its viscosity. On this record he's dancing with the gods, putting in the performance of his life without even trying. Because he's not trying. It's a hard thing to imagine on the basis of later records where the twinkle in the eye and the volatility disappear, the jokes become more heavy handed and the clichés start to intrude. Because he's trying too hard. Not that his later records are bad records, but they don't have the easy genius of this one. It's true of a lot of people, that they can't recapture the first rush of youth. But few flew so high in the first place as Edwyn.

He had a great foil in James Kirk, the guitarist who sings a couple of songs here (not 'Felicity' - I had to double check). His solo LP of a few years ago ('You Can Make It If You Boogie') actually came pretty close to rediscovering the stuff of which 'The Glasgow School' is made. So he was the Kim Deal to Edwyn's Black Francis then, perhaps - the one who did the spirit-embodying but only got to sing the occasional song. He was kicked out of the band for being too shambolic, of all things! And when they stopped shambling, things were never as good again. Here he's great though. A voice at once laid back and quavering, jumping-all-over-the-place song structures, and a ragged glory guitar with a William Reid fringe.

To someone who, as you may have gathered, is a little obsessive about early Orange Juice, it's peculiar to hear the singles juxtaposed with 'Ostrich Churchyard'. They're less of a piece than I expected. The LP is wholly gentle, from the best-opening-song-ever of 'Louise Louise' through the 'Will you dance?' / 'Sure I'll dance!' combo of 'Intuition Told Me' (parts 1 and 2) and onwards. The singles - which kick off the collection - are more obviously the product of post-punk times. I never really got 'Blue Boy', because its raucous edge, though fun, hardly seemed Orange Juice's strongest suit. Others will tell you it's the single which near enough invented Scottish indie rock, so what do I know? 'Poor Old Soul' is a storming pop moment though, and instrumental 'Moscow' starts out on a 'We're as tough as the Velvet Underground in drone mode' trip before dissolving deliciously into the poppiest surf guitar you ever heard. They can't help themselves. But you should.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Iris Murdoch – ‘The Black Prince’

Watching the film of The History Boys after reading Untold Stories the other week, I came across a National Theatre ‘background pack’, which puts the GCSE-style question: ‘Which teacher do you agree with? Is education for passing exams, or for making us better people?’ (correct answer in an exam situation: ‘for making us better people’). The teachers being the characters at the centre of the play: Hector, who believes in teaching things thoroughly, encouraging his pupils to learn poems and songs by heart; and Irwin, who wants them to be able to write eye-catching essays which go against the grain, the better to pass the Oxford entrance exam. The debate is similar to the one to the one surrounding rockism, and concerns authenticity – whether this is best represented by following tradition or breaking away from it, and (more contentiously) whether authenticity is what art should be about in the first place.

The Black Prince has a similar pair of characters, writers rather than teachers: Bradley Pearson, the Hector of the piece, all for a slow striving in authorship, and his younger rival Arnold Baffin, who dashes off books almost as rapidly as Irwin spins theories. The History Boys – despite its plot (which feels like a subplot) involving boys getting felt up by Hector on his motorbike – is measured in its treatment of this question. It encourages you to weigh up both approaches, and you’ll probably conclude that authenticity is important, but that not everybody’s authenticity takes the same form. The Black Prince is just about the least measured book I’ve ever read. To begin with, it reads like a satire on the precious writer, who blocks out everything in order to have the time to write, and forgets how to live in the process. Preparing to leave London to have some quality writing time with himself, Bradley records:

I had my suitcase ready and was about to telephone for a taxi, had in fact already lifted the phone, when I experienced that nervous urge to delay departure, to sit down and reflect, which I am told the Russians have elevated into a ritual (p. 21)

For the first hundred pages or so, he comes across like Mr Pooter dropped into a J. P. Donleavy novel. Events conspire to prevent Bradley from leaving London: his ex-wife unexpectedly re-appears, as does his depressed sister Priscilla, who has left her unhappy marriage. One is breezily domineering, the other fragile and clingy. He informs them both that he can’t be doing with any of this and is off to the country, but he can’t let go enough to actually do it. This is not because underneath it all he is nice really, but because he lacks the will.

‘Bradley, it’s been awful, awful, awful. I’ve been living trapped inside a bad dream, my life has become a bad dream, the kind that makes you shout out.’

‘Priscilla, listen. I’m just on the point of leaving London. I can’t change my plans. If you like I can give you lunch and then put you on the Bristol train.’

‘I tell you I’ve left Roger.’


‘I think I’ll go to bed if you don’t mind.’

‘To bed?’ (p. 72)

Bradley is bludgeoned into helping out, when if he had any decency about him he would do it willingly. His attitude is unsettling if you’ve ever put off something social for something solitary.

So how does The Black Prince get from this mean, small minded and farcical narrative to what Wikipedia describes as ‘a remarkable study of erotic obsession’? How is this self important chump ever going to have a convincing grand passion? Simply by blowing that self importance sky high. It certainly isn’t that you start taking him seriously, but you begin to view his overstatements fondly and indulgently, as though you had spoken or thought them (they are mostly thoughts) yourself. When Bradley falls for Julian Baffin (daughter of Arnold, 20 years old to his 58), he loses what limited objectivity he may previously have had about his life, melts into a viscous subjectivity, and the reader follows. In love, he is a monstrous creature (mostly to himself, if only because he spends most of his time alone), from his tedious anxiety to create art, to the quite useless highs of chasing around, semi-surreptitiously, the object of his affection. The force of these unreasoning highs – yearning, largely joyless – is there in the text to an uncomfortable degree. The shift from farce to derangement reminded me slightly of Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, in which the fine glitzy satire of the first half is blown apart by terrorist explosions, death and incarceration. I’ve never been convinced by Ellis’ tortured (as opposed to torturing) passages, he needs to be funny to be good, but the same isn’t true of Murdoch. She has Bradley – ridiculous, dusty, academic, retired taxman Bradley – go off his head in love with Julian: when first smitten he lies for a day with his face buried in a rug in his flat; when he expresses doubts during their elopement journey, she is overcome and throws herself from the car; at the opera he describes his condition as ‘feeling a sick delighted anguish of desire, as if I had been ripped by a dagger from the groin to the throat’ (p. 256). I can’t think of a better prolonged evocation of the state of being so in love you’re ill, high and throwing up with no ground in sight. As busy as the most garish ’70s wallpaper, and with claws that penetrate to your dead twisted heart, this book will fuck you up.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Alan Bennett – ‘Untold Stories’

Whether or not it’s because I’ve left it too long since finishing this I’m not sure, but I’m finding it difficult to get a handle on Untold Stories, at least for the purposes of writing about it. Reading it was a different matter: it delivered the necessary pith, dry wit and calmly observed misery. It had me wondering what the hell Alan Bennett was for, and then wondering how I ever got along without him. He has a knack of seeming as open and honest as an old friend, and as walled up and infuriating. If these large books he produces every ten years (will 2014 see another?) are his golden eggs, there is a strong sense that any attempt to hurry him along would be the equivalent of killing the goose that lays them: they are accumulations more than constructions. In his introduction Bennett compares them to the Beano and Dandy annuals with which he grew up: miscellanies, drawing their charm from their diversity. And so it is that in the same volume we have ‘autobiography, diaries, lectures and occasional writings’ (p. x) which lurch from heightened emotion to everyday observation, from the extremely personal to detached criticism. It is difficult to know how to put it back together again.

That autobiographical writing takes up the first hundred and fifty pages and much of the last seventy is an indication of its relative importance here. Reading Writing Home last year, I concluded that the important thing one came away with was a reassurance about the value of certain writers (Auden, Proust, Kafka, Larkin), that these dead men were a solid core around which to build a useful world view. Untold Stories differs, and is far more comfortable with the idea of living in life rather than in books. An introduction to a selection of Larkin poems appears as ‘England Gone’, and the dominant tone is one of suspicion. Still in awe of Larkin, Bennett feels this as more of an annoyance than previously, and it would appear that this is because he is more fulfilled in his own life now. Never quite exuberant, but settled, content. Reflecting on being examined during his brush with cancer in the late ’90s, he writes:

Living is something I’ve managed largely to avoid so, naked and shivering on the bed though I might be, for all that I could reflect that something at least was happening. (p. 615)

I wanted to cheer at that.

The longest autobiographical piece is ‘Untold Stories’ itself, a deeply affecting (and depressing) account of Bennett’s mother’s mental illness, and later her dementia, intertwined with the stories of his grandfather’s suicide and his aunts’ late marriages and deaths. His mother, living into her nineties, outlives everyone else, and by the end you feel the weight of the decay of generations: nothing and no-one lasts, and there is an unbearable sadness at the deaths of such modest people. His father in this account is a lovely man, a butcher by trade but also a toymaker and violinist, a shy man who hates fuss and has a fantastic word for it: ‘splother’. When his wife is ill and in hospital he never misses a visiting hour, the strain caused by this situation contributing, reckons Bennett, to his death. His parents both aspire to a social life that they don’t really want: they buy sherry and offer it indiscriminately to anyone who crosses the threshold of their house. His mother’s depression is seemingly triggered by a move to a village in which she perceives that, because it is so small, people might notice her, expect things of her. It isn’t their actual attention which bothers her, the mere possibility of it is enough to cause her severe anxiety. Her son’s own shyness seems almost tame by comparison (but of course shyness is tame, that’s the point).

I enjoyed the diary extracts less than I had expected, perhaps because they are necessarily less intensely realised than ‘Untold Stories’ or ‘Written on the Body’ (Bennett’s account of sex very nearly passing him by). In the latter he says:

It was Robert who introduced me to Denton Welch’s journals, Stephen Spender’s World Within World and the early novels of Mary Renault, books which, if you spotted them on someone’s shelves, told you all you needed to know about their sexual proclivities. (p. 141)

The amount of time he spends in his own diaries commenting on and wandering around cathedrals almost seems an attempt to become Welch. The sensitive soul entranced by historical and art objects is something which often leaves me cold (I didn’t finish Welch’s journals when I read them a few years ago), though I’m not sure why. Where I do fall in completely with Bennett is in his essay-length criticism of ‘cheeky chappies’, comedians like Bob Hope who are ‘practitioners and professionals. There’s no mining of their own lives and no undermining of them either.’ (p. 418). Another turn of phrase deserving a cheer – and not a bad description of what Bennett does in Untold Stories, either.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Two drops of happy, one pinch of pain

It was bad enough that Ingmar Bergman died, but Lee Hazlewood? That’s something else. I find after years as a fan I’m still wanting to spell it ‘Hazelwood’, which is a more beautiful word (if it is a word), and every time I have to check. Dig out my Music for Pleasure LP The Very Special World of…, catch the glint in Lee’s eye as he sings into one of those metallic tube microphones that are reserved for schmaltz, read the garish writing above. It’s such a terrific image. I love showing people that LP, especially people I don’t know very well, who are maybe trying to size up my record collection. It would just be so naff were it not for that glint, and really if you didn’t know that Lee was God you’d be forgiven for missing its significance. So on the one hand it’s a kind of inverse snobbery that makes me reach for this record (let’s see if you’re uncool enough to like this), and on the other it’s a genuine love for the man, the moustache, the songs. Which – all three – create and inhabit their own little world, in which all you want is to hear Lee’s tall tales, gentle and sardonic.

My first Lee LP was Nancy and Lee Again, bought at a record fair and selected over its predecessor because it looked like it might be harder to find again. It starts with my favourite Lee song, ‘Arkansas Coal (Suite)’, which starts with my favourite chord, the one The Sundays built ‘Here’s Where The Story Ends’ around, and My Bloody Valentine ‘Loomer’. A chord which can’t quite reach itself and ends up chasing its own tail. Add in a wooden whistle (at least, a whistle that suggests woods), Lee’s bedtime story voice (‘Not so long ago just outside Paris, Arkansas, a young woman had a mountain to climb’) and Nancy at her most solemnly charming (‘Gonna climb up that mountain / ’Cause there’s one thing I know / My daddy’s in that mountain / Digging Arkansas coal’), and every duet you ever heard before just dissolves into dust. Lee is the daddy who goes out mining during the day, Nancy the daughter who idolises him. Sometimes she’s the wife too. It’s a bleak story: Lee’s character is wholly absorbed by the mountain he has known from childhood, in which he works, and in which he knows he’ll die. Mining’s hard, it’s not going to leave much energy to do anything else, and it’ll probably kill you before you retire, is the attitude here. What makes the song so lovable is the daughter’s perspective: she stays out past tea-time so she can ‘lay my head on the ground / And listen to the sound of my daddy digging’. It’s an ingenious way of eulogising unromantic hard work. Sentimentality is avoided because the Nancy character loves her father, and love trumps sentiment.

A little later on, a cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘Down From Dover’ (which has always made me want to hear more Dolly, though I’ve yet to get around to it) gives us a sadder story still, a man fleeing from a woman he’s left pregnant and the baby, apparently sensing the father’s departure, gives up on life and is stillborn. Nancy does overact a bit on that one, but you get used to it, and Lee was never more menacing. This is the song which provides the spooky strings for The Go! Team’s ‘Ladyflash’, it was great to have him updated like that. He should be as plundered as Isaac Hayes. Perhaps he is and I haven’t noticed.

And then, having reached this dramatic low point at the beginning of side two, Nancy and Lee Again forgets that it ever wanted to be mysterious or melancholy, and wends the rest of its way merrily through subjects like grandchildren (‘Tippy Toes’), infidelity (but not really, and in a fun way – ‘Did You Ever?’) and What It’s Like To Be The Oldest Teenyboppers In The World (‘Got It Together Again’). The latter providing the hilarious line later recycled in The Jesus And Mary Chain’s ‘Here Comes Alice’, ‘I’ve been good and I’ve been mean / And I’ve been looking for a Coke machine’. Everyone loves Lee. It’s sad that he’s gone.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Thomas Hardy – ‘The Woodlanders’

It must be ten years or more since I read a Thomas Hardy book. Borrowing from my mother’s usually reliable bookshelves I was disappointed by Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in turn, and decided to leave it at that. They didn’t fit in to the idea of the Victorian novel as I understood it – and I thought I did understand it then, on the basis of a Dickens and an Eliot or two. Hardy has little in common with the former, you’d think, and I felt that he fell ridiculously short of the latter on what was quite similar territory. George Eliot always knows what’s what, can impress simple truths about human behaviour more directly than any author I can think of. By comparison, Hardy is as confused as hell, and it is only on this latest reading that I’ve begun to think that this is not a shortcoming. In Middlemarch, for example, Dorothea makes the wrong marital choice, pays the consequences, and the book is long and big enough to encompass her gradual shift towards choosing the man she should have picked in the first place. In The Woodlanders, Grace Melbury makes the right then the wrong choice in prospect, marries the wrong one, and then, things begin to get complicated. Not so much a love triangle as a love pentagon ensues. A loves B who loves C who loves B or D depending on whether D loves C or E at the time. It’s a plot which defies any straightforward moral interpretation because what (or who) is right in one chapter becomes wrong in another: everything is contingent.

Edred Fitzpiers, the doctor who impresses Grace and her father with his cosmopolitan ways (her) and his family history (him), is at first so much of an out-and-out baddie that I pictured him as Alan Rickman might play the part. His courtship of Grace is based upon the power his presence has over her: it is awe she feels, not affection. There is the suspicion, too, that he is after her father’s money; he is also lazy – the late nights spent studying which impress Grace so are scattershot, something to keep his mind off what he ought to be doing, which is building up his practice. And then there is Suke Damson, voluptuous and simple, whom Grace spies emerging from his house early one morning after she has become engaged to him. He explains this away – she had a tooth-ache – but the reader is not intended to believe it. More serious than this minor affair is Fitzpiers’ attachment to Mrs Charmond, owner of Hintock House, which begins nearly as soon as he is back from his honeymoon. The man is incorrigible, clearly. And yet he does redeem himself: he is not really bad (how confused his negative qualities are – ambitious and lazy), because he is not really heartless, just predisposed to fall for more than one woman at once. After he has sown his seeds in a profligate early life, his ego cracks and he calms down, becoming far more likable. I expect this is true of a lot of people.

Other characters are just as morally complex, though none show so dramatic a change: Mr Melbury dithers between what is right and what is advantageous for his daughter; Grace does this herself, lacking the passion to over-ride convention (she has ‘more of Artemis than if Aphrodite in her constitution’ (p. 381)). The two characters who are completely constant are unfortunate that their feelings are not for each other: Marty South, and Giles Winterbourne. These two will live their whole lives in Little Hintock, a tiny place in which it is no surprise that everyone with a scrap of education feels constrained. But they do not, finding infinite interest in nature:

The countryman who is obliged to judge the time of day from change in external nature sees a thousand successive tints and traits in the landscape which are never discerned by him who hears the regular chime of a clock, because they are never in request. (p. 155)

If there is a value judgement here, it is that nature is more reliable than people, and that the people who are closest to it are as reliable as people are likely to get. The pair are far from happy though, so in a sense this is just another dead end.

Having said that Hardy is not like Dickens, I immediately remembered the passage in Martin Chuzzlewit in which the rain pours down as Jonas goes about his sordid little murder. There is a rain storm at the low point of this novel too, more subtly used, but similar in effect:

Sometimes a bough from an adjoining tree was swayed so low as to smite the roof in the manner of a gigantic hand smiting the mouth of an adversary, to be followed by a trickle of rain, as blood from the wound. (p. 374)

What an absolutely stunning description of a storm! You feel yourself to be in the one-room dwelling with Grace as you read it, looking out, feeling the room shake with the impact of the branch, watching the water it releases. And you feel yourself to be outside too, with Giles in the sorry state he’s in, reeling from the storm, the adversary with the bloody mouth.

An earlier and a happier use of melodrama comes at the beginning of the book, in which a mysterious figure pays Marty South a visit in the middle of the night and asks to buy her hair. It’s a brilliant set piece, Dickensian in its intention to impress and intrigue from the outset, and humourously undercut by the prosaic explanation for it all (the mysterious figure is a barber, of course, who wants her hair to make a wig – again, it is easy to imagine Dickens poking fun at this fellow). Who but Hardy, though, could twist this around again and have the wig cause a murder? Every big event in his careful plot is explained in terms of the little things which caused it, and which well might not have done. At times this gives the authorial voice a hint of sadism: unlike Richard Yates, who writes about impossibilities, Hardy gives us missed possibilities. Both like to twist the knife in their own way.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Music Stands and Cardigans

The last CD I bought in Fopp before it closed was Taken By Trees’ Open Field, on the strength of a Plan B piece and the lovely sounds on her / their website. I’ve never heard The Concretes. It’s nice, it’s drawing me in gradually. The same tune gets used quite a lot, but I’m not holding that against it for the moment. Certain voices fit certain tunes, after all. The whole of the blues has only one. Smack in the middle of the record is a song that hardly belongs there at all, with a different tune: ‘Lost and Found’, by Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell. It’s so catchy it overshadows the surrounding delicate mood pieces. It’s muted, too, in its own way, but lighter on its feet, regretful without forgetting to check what impression the regret is making. Then just past the chorus it does what pop does best, slipping from arch to abandon as Victoria sings, ‘Am I wild wild wild wild wild?’, and by that stage you’ve really no choice but to admit that you’re in the presence of something quite special.

‘Damn,’ I thought, faced with this non-choice. Because I’ve avoided Camera Obscura for years, and here they were being brilliant by proxy. How could this be? Weren’t they that band with the music stands and the cardigans who kicked off their set with something so close to ‘Dog on Wheels’ that Chris and I walked out within 20 seconds, narrowly missing our 10 second personal best (inspired by Cosmic Rough Riders around about the same time)? Aren’t they pretenders to Belle and Sebastian’s dippy drippiness, picking up on the unintentional non-style rather than the subversive edge and the joyous anti-blues pop of it all? The Field Mice to Belle and Sebastian’s Heavenly?*

Apparently not. It will have been said all over the place in things I haven’t read, of course (one glimpses lists, thinks smugly, ‘I don’t know about this lot, but that is definitely wrong. Music stands, you know.’), but Let’s Get Out Of This Country is completely brilliant. Tunes fall over themselves, big pop rushes abound at just the right places (the beginning, between the beginning and the middle, the middle, and most raucously between the middle and the end, naturally), scarcely out-doing what would once have been termed the ballads, but these are sweet and introverted rather than plaintive and epic, for all their plastic production. Tracyanne hovers distractedly over her songs just as Stuart Murdoch used to do (he’s more focussed these days, for better or worse), but she’s a far moodier presence, so you get this downward lyrical pull fighting against the efficient momentum of the music (the chirpiest song here is called ‘I Need All The Friends I Can Get’). The effect is almost like fighting back tears. The ‘interesting’ records I’ve been listening to this week (Basil Kirchin’s Quantum, ZNR’s Barricade 3) don’t stand a chance against an onslaught like this. Better leave them to another time.

I should have learned this lesson long ago. Having always preferred Primal Scream’s Sonic Flower Groove to anything The Byrds did and, once I got over my outrage at The Sundays’ Reading, Writing and Artithmetic (which Bobby Gillespie famously hated) being sonically nothing more than ten variations on The Smiths’ ‘Cemetry Gates’, having taken it to my heart like few other records. The weaker argument can always defeat the stronger, when arguing is beside the point, and when it has tunes like these.

*This is unfair, and I know it’s unfair. I just don’t like The Field Mice very much.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Christopher Isherwood – ‘Prater Violet’

Christopher Isherwood’s name seems to have cropped up a lot this year, here and there. I don’t remember hearing it before, but this is often the way with names: they embed themselves and you become more alert to them. He featured in BBC 4’s programme on W. H. Auden (from what I remember the two were lovers in New York), and John Boorman mentioned Prater Violet in Memoirs of a Suburban Boy as being the last word on director / writer / studio relations. And so here we are. With a slim volume from 1946 which recounts fairly straightforwardly the making of a fictional film, Prater Violet (based, according to Wikipedia, on the real film The Little Friend) by a real-life screenwriter (Isherwood) and a fictional director, Friedrich Bergmann (based on Berthold Viertel). I have no idea how closely the fiction matches the fact, but the book’s events certainly seems real enough.

There is a story arc of sorts, but the form here is more chronicle than fiction. Isherwood finds himself working on the film without having sought the job (he pretends briefly to his mother and brother that he’s playing hard to get, and to himself that ‘chapter eleven’ of whatever he was working on when it came up has a higher claim on his time); its director is scarcely more enamoured of it, and neither, particularly, are the money / studio men Chatsworth and Ashmeade. The only clue to the production’s existence is Chatsworth’s flattering view of himself: ‘“I bet I know what Isherwood’s thinking,” he told Bergmann. “He’s right, too, blast him. I quite admit to it. I’m a bloody intellectual snob.”’ (p. 24) Isherwood at this point is not thinking of Chatsworth at all – he sees him merely as a suit who might be good for a few months’ salary – but of Bergmann, who fascinates him. Chatsworth is a snob in the worst sense: he is concerned that people see him as an intellectual film maker, without being at all interested in the content of the films his studio makes. He wants the veneer of an intellectual, being unaware that the one thing an intellectual will always lack is a veneer.

This is largely unimportant though, and Prater Violet shows how a group almost entirely at cross-purposes with one another can be pretty effective at turning out a film. Chatsworth’s real talent is management: he can bring people together, infusing them with a sense of purpose and that all-important salary. He can also reel them in when they get out of hand. In return the creative types (Bergmann and Isherwood) will flatter his sense of cultural elitism without believing in it for a moment themselves. They will struggle – as they perceive it – against the philistine studio mechanism to write something which is good, hoping to smuggle Art into the cinema. Once the wheels are in motion, all being well, this happens:

‘Do you know what film is?’ Bergmann cupped his hands, lovingly, as if around an exquisite flower: ‘The film is an infernal machine. Once it is ignited and set in motion it revolves with an enormous dynamism. It cannot pause. It cannot apologize. It cannot retract anything. It cannot wait for you to understand it. It simply ripens to its inevitable explosion.’ (p. 33)

In this particular case, there is a major wobble in the dynamism of the infernal machine, when Bergmann, frightened for his family back home in Vienna (there is some Nazi-related violence reported in the papers mid-shoot), loses interest in the film he is making, and it is then that Chatsworth comes into his own, pretending to be about to give Prater Violet to a different director (the efficient but Art-less Eddie Kennedy) in order to have Bergmann fight to remain in control. The loathsome journalist Patterson is a willing pawn in this. Bergmann comes through, and comes into his own during the re-shoots which follow. No-one but a Chatsworth can get a film project underway, and no-one but a Bergmann can finish it off.

The last three or four pages of the book contain a remarkable shift, from the constant now! now! now! of film production, to a longer view. Isherwood reflects on his relationship with the director:

We had written each other’s parts, Christopher’s Friedrich, Friedrich’s Christopher, and we had to go on playing them, as long as we were together. The dialogue was crude, the costumes and make-up were more absurd, more of a caricature, than anything in Prater Violet: mother’s boy, the comic foreigner with the funny accent. (p. 126)

He also muses on what he has kept hidden from Bergmann over the course of their brief and intense association: his love life. More than anything else it is this passage which makes the book feel more like a diary than a novel. The main subject of the book is Bergmann, and what have Isherwood’s weekends to do with him? They relate to nothing that has gone before. And yet it would have been a great shame not to have been able to read:

It seemed to me that I had always done what people recommended. You were born: it was like entering a restaurant. The waiter came forward with a lot of suggestions. You said: ‘What do you advise?’ And you ate it, and you supposed you liked it, because it was expensive, or out of season, or had been a favourite of King Edward the Seventh. The waiter had recommended teddy bears, football, cigarettes, motor-bikes, whisky, Bach, poker, the culture of classical Greece. Above all, he had recommended Love: a very strange dish. (p. 123)

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