Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Henry Fielding – ‘Amelia’

Classics (and sub-classics) can lead a strange afterlife. I thought that Amelia had been neglected, because my Penguin Classics edition, from 1987, lacks the usual list of reprintings. A quick look on Amazon, though, reveals that it did get reprinted, once, in 2001, but also that editions from other publishers came out in 2003 (Wildside Press), 2006 (Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan Library), and 2007 (three times – from BiblioBazaar, Dodo Press and in a large print edition from Another is due, from Broadview Editions, in 2010. No other editions from the ’80s or ’90s came up. It could be coincidence, but it could also be that this novel about doggedly protecting what is precious in a time of avarice and moral chaos is more relevant now than it has been for a while. When was the last time we had a government suggest that spending is a duty, for example? In his introduction to the Penguin edition, David Blewitt says:
readers from the moment Amelia was first published have sensed a loss of the narrative unity that the continual authorial presence of Fielding in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones gave to those works. But the change of voice is deliberate; Fielding is adjusting the tone to fit his more pessimistic vision of life in mid-eighteenth-century England. His point is that public and private evils are connected […], and he bends all his narrative resources, including satire (the characteristic expression of moral indignation in the eighteenth century), to showing the impact of public evil upon private virtue. (p. xi)
This combination of the public and the private makes for an energetic, unsettling novel that is, indeed, much darker than Tom Jones. It tackles – and links – infidelity, poverty and corruption, and it proposes Christian morality as the solution to these ills. I was reminded at various points of an article by Rana Dasgupta in the latest edition of Granta which describes a society in which culture and refinement are on the wane. His version of modern Delhi is not very far removed from Fielding’s 1730s London: laws are there to be bent to advantage, money is all that matters, there is no respect for education. Worse still, in Delhi’s case, the whole thing can be justified by its own religion:
Hinduism is very pliable. It rationalizes inequality: if that guy is poor it’s because he deserves it from his previous lives, and it’s not for me to sort out his accounts. Hinduism allows these guys to think that what they get is due to them, and they have absolutely no guilt about it. (Tarun Tejpal, quoted in Dasgupta’s article)
In Amelia, Justice Thrasher’s attitude to the defendants brought before him is remarkably similar to Tejpal’s complaint against Hinduism: if they are rich enough to bribe him, he lets them off; if they are poor, he convicts them. He doesn’t believe that virtue would dress itself in rags, because virtue and wealth have come to mean the same thing.

Amelia is both a satire on selfishness and a polemic which attempts to show how things could be, if people were more considerate towards each other, and if society / government was more considerate towards them too. The selfishness and acquisitiveness on show are sexual as well as monetary: there are several rich, powerful and lascivious characters (Colonel James and the sinister ‘my lord’, who is never named) who prey on Amelia, attempting to engineer situations in which she can be seduced, or worse. Morality is deliberately compromised and muddied at every turn: Colonel James and ‘my lord’ both use pimps, and both enjoy an evening at a masquerade, which here is invariably used as a cover for anonymous (or not so anonymous) seduction. It is a society constituted of snares, though which Amelia and Billy Booth must navigate. He is such a bad judge of character that he requires a lot of help with this, and doesn’t always succeed. Several times the clergyman Dr Harrison has to get him out of a debtor’s prison. He is at the moral heart of the book, arguing for family values, Christianity and ‘learning’ (by which he mostly means reading Homer in Greek) as the correct way to combat avarice and lust. The sections in which he does this are a little dull, and do not represent the feel of the book as a whole, which is vibrant, if troubled. Amelia herself is slightly too perfect, though capricious enough not to become dull herself. The morality is pretty black and white, but the novel’s strength comes from the strong sense that Amelia and Billy’s family unit is in danger, and that this happens with society’s unthinking blessing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Monorail Poll 2009

I spent quite a lot of this year vacillating over whether Camera Obscura’s My Maudlin Career was the best thing I’d ever heard, or the worst. It wasn’t just the occasionally sloppy lyrics; a more serious flaw was the masochism of the songs, which saw Traceyanne goading herself ever deeper into unreciprocated affection. They didn’t seem to be part of any healing process, they were there to prolong the hurt, pick the scab, deepen the wound. This rang a bell I would rather had kept quiet (mostly, except...), but there was no denying the record’s power. I’ve put it as near to the middle of my list as possible. I love it, I hate it. Those peaks in ‘The Sweetest Thing’, oh my.

In contrast, the other records are all anti-inflammatory. They are like taking a hot bath on a cold evening. Maybe the Frànçois record is more like a Turkish bath than the others. The Eddie Marcon bath looks out through plate glass on to a frozen lake, upon which wild cats prowl. Gok’s bath is in a gentleman’s club, and Jeeves is on hand with cocktails. There is a television with windscreen wipers showing Tom and Jerry cartoons. Bill Callahan’s bath is at home, to which you have just returned after recovering from a car crash (this is his best since Red Apple Falls, right? I haven’t been paying too much attention). Directorsound’s bath is in a field, as a starry night turns slowly into dawn, complete with chorus. Spare Snare have never had a bath, do not be ridiculous.

These are records which refuse to be hurried by the century in which they find themselves, and of course Pastels / Tenniscoats come out top, how could they not? This year, slow slow slow didn’t suck.

My votes in the poll (results ‘To be announced at our late night shopping event / belated birthday on Monday evening’):

  1. Pastels / Tenniscoats – Two Sunsets
  2. Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
  3. Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains – Plaine Inondable
  4. Eddie Marcon – Wata No Kemuri No Syotaijo
  5. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
  6. Bill Wells and Maher Shalal Hash Baz – Gok
  7. Directorsound – Minstrels for Sleepless
  8. Spare Snare – I Love You, I Hate You
  9. Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – ’Em Are I
  10. Pants Yell! – Received Pronunciation

Kristin Hersh – Flooding


Kraftwerk – The Catalogue

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Tree That Never Flew – Hookers For Jesus & Panda Su, Westport Bar, Dundee, 29th November

Last Sunday it was surprisingly cold. Too cold, perhaps, and too far from pay day for the people of Dundee to venture out to see a gig by relatively unknown bands. Maybe they were tired out from Winter Light Night, too. Maybe it was the Westport Bar’s fault – never the most competent of pubs (but often endearing on that account), downstairs was completely deserted, and upstairs were the remnants of a party, almost comically bleak in the cold, empty room. Across the ceiling in front of the stage was a silver banner with nothing on it, and either side of this were some black balloons (who even makes black balloons?) Across a mirror on the side wall was another, smaller banner, which mocked: ‘Congratulations’. An engagement cake had been left behind, untouched. Sometimes it actually is grim up north.

First on, to a small but enthusiastic audience, were Hookers For Jesus. AKA Andy and Graeme, who I should say I have known for years (if objectivity is your bag, you’d best scarper), but this did not prepare me adequately for the thirty minutes of unwitting genius they produced. ‘Unwitting’ sounds patronising, doesn’t it? Maybe I am. This is the chorus of their first song:
Earth people, New York and California

Earth people, New York and California

Earth people, New York and California

Earth people, I was born in Jupiter
Over an insistent Stylophone backing somewhere between Suicide and The KLF, Andy rapped his Sci-Fi tale: ‘my skin is green and warhead looking mean’, and it was the funniest thing I have heard all year. All week I have been listening to my recording of it, grinning from ear to ear. And there was a shift between listening to it for the first time (‘what the fuck is this?’) to realising that I really did like it a lot – not just that song, the whole set, which was nicely varied and equally literate-dumb the whole way through. I can’t shake the feeling that what it reaches for and what it achieves are violently at odds, though there are fairly obvious pointers that this is not the case (e.g. the caricature Sci-Fi / boxing story lyrics). It’s like The Shaggs, except I don’t like The Shaggs nearly as much. It’s like The Fall, but more coherent. Graeme kitted himself out in a white ladies’ overcoat with fake fur trimmings, saying that this was cool in Japan – it went a treat with his leather trousers and bat-shaped guitar. Preposterous! But utterly great at the same time, the only way he could have topped it was with a costume change. His backing for ‘Drift Into Unthank’ was a pretty, cotton-wool-pulled-apart confection over which Andy read out a list of sad things: ‘This is the tree that never grew / This is the bird that never flew / This is the fish that never swam / This is the bell that never rang’, but he kept getting it mixed up, and there was a bird that never swam and (S.’s favourite) a tree that never flew amongst the underachievers. So all week we have been imagining flying trees – hers, for some reason, in the style of Quentin Blake’s drawings. It was a really great set.

Other bands played too – a couple I don’t particularly care for, but it is worth saying at least that the recent implosion of Saint Jude’s Infirmary (prompted by the recent fake accent exposé on this site perhaps?) resulted in a stripped down set which seemed, to the non-fan, an improvement, and the general, understandable desolation of their stage chat went well with the black balloons. Kid Canaveral were more enjoyable than I had expected, though they suffered the most from the small audience, with their good time pop songs which could really have done with some clamour and some jumping around to set them off.

Panda Su, on the other hand, were barely phased at all to be playing under these conditions, and unexpectedly headlining at that. There was no panda face paint this time, as there had been at their lovely EP launch gig a month or two ago, but everything else was right: five songs stretched out to the length of a full set, filling the time and filling the space, completely at ease. Slow slow chords on guitar and a keyboard organ drone setting the scene for the keyboard to drop away and ‘I am not what you want’ over and over, moving on to ‘I am nothing if I don’t have this’, opaque fragments of loneliness which written down look ever so teen angsty, but this aspect is balanced by the measured sound and the charm of the performance (head gig organiser Mike Pop Thrills notes their ‘easygoing stage presence’). Su’s voice is so far from shrill it is almost a narcotic. ‘And there’s nothing I admire / Except I can make you smile’ is a great non sequitur. Those lines are all from ‘Moviegoer’, but the other songs feel like a part of the same piece. The line ‘the salt water stings my eyes’ reminds me of Meursault, whose sound is more frayed and fraught, but there is a certain kinship of warm melancholy there. Su introduces ‘Eric is Dead’ saying it has just been picked up for use in a film about ‘lesbians coming out to their parents.’ There is a pause. ‘Not that there is anything wrong with lesbians coming out to their parents, it’s just that I think it is used in an erotic bit.’ The room fills with six minutes of shining sullen defiance, Su banging a bass drum along to her guitar while the subtle accompanist gets busy with a cute miniature red accordion. It must be a bittersweet erotic bit, not that there is anything wrong with that either.

Update: ‘Earth People’ is a cover! Oh no! Doesn’t mean it wasn’t genius the Hookers For Jesus way.

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