Thursday 31 July 2014

Walking on grass

The garrulous Ford Madox Ford used to boast to friends in New York that, as a young man in London, he walked four miles every day on grass. 

From his digs along Holland Park Avenue he made his way to Kensington Gardens, diagonally across them to Rotten Row, across St James''s Park and the Green Park to one or other of his clubs, arriving at about half past twelve. There he would read there papers and letters until one, lunch at the club then take a hansom back to his apartment which he would reach about half past two,. At five he would give or attend a tea party, then bathe before dinner before a barber would arrive to shave him before going out for dinner.

Them were there days.

In the four hours set aside for writing each day he would produce a regular 2,000 words of which half would be 'condemned' the following day. A thousand words a day equalled 360,000 words a year (he seldom took a day off), 'enough to make over four novels. Ford, chronically prolific, published more than ninety books, most of them long out of print, but a handful of which are great and one - The Good Soldier - a solid masterpiece, one that will last. Grahame Greene called it 'the best French novel written in English'.

An American friend of mine loves London because one can, she says, walk short distances between leafy squares and grand parks, resting under mature plane trees, the grass beneath one's feet. We Londoners take these spaces too much for granted (and too many of them have locked gates, for residents' use only), but the Victorians (especially) knew what they were doing - Victoria Park in Hackney, Battersea Park across the river from posh Chelsea, St James's with its pelicans and above all Regent's Park, with its throngs of foreign tourists, spooning EFL students, dodgy oligarchs' nannies and the odd local. It's a wonderful place, and is celebrated in a new book by the artist Sarah Pickstone: Park Notes: an anthology of writing and art inspired by a London park (Daunt Books, 2014).

It's full of good things and one of them I'd like to share. It comes in Ali Smith's The Definite Article, originally published as a booklet and included in the Pickstone anthology. Did you know that the Regent's Park (as it is correctly known) is the oddly lopsided shape it is because Henry VIII was left-handed, "so when he drew over the map of the Abbess's woods to mark the land he wanted thus, that's what his hand did, made a great curve there and a straight line there". I didn't know that.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Risk appetite

HSBC bank has written to Finsbury Park Mosque and other Muslim organisations in the UK to tell them that their accounts will be closed.

The reason given in some cases was that to continue providing services would be outside the bank's "risk appetite".

The story is reported here on the BBC News website

Let's savour and celebrate that marvellous neologism 'risk appetite'. HSBC used to have a bulimic appetite for risk and was fined nearly $2 billion in 2012 for its poor management of money-laundering. I'm all for making things difficult for (say) the hate preachers who were involved in goings on at the Finsbury park Mosque (and would happily endorse any legal sequestration of the assets of Abu Hamza, the Egyptian cleric currently awaiting a sentence in the States). But it seems to me that when high street banks start using language like 'risk appetite' we should all brace ourselves. Or at least those of us with permanent overdrafts.

Sunday 27 July 2014

On neckwear

Prompted by the current heatwave I want to make a confession: I don't like ties. I don't like wearing them and I don't much like public figures who wear them. I don't like the kind of business environments in which ties are seen as necessary. I don't like people who like ties.

By public figures I mean, of course, all male politicians. Despite all the careful grooming by speech therapists and spin doctors and consultants and image gurus and all that, why do politicians, whatever their party, have to go and spoil it all by wearing these ridiculous swatches of fabric around their necks? Look around you - who else wears them? They're heading the way of the wing collar (which may have cut the mustard back in Neville Chamberlain's day but appears to have died out completely, along with the codpiece and the cummerbund.)

When Ed Milliband gave a speech the other day (quite good I thought - humorously self-deprecating and suggesting unexpected degrees of warmth and self-awareness), the effect was ruined by the usual suit, collar and tie get-up, which made him look uncomfortably formal, and visually stilted. His look undermined the form, content and purpose of the speech, to suggest he's just a regular guy and not too worried about his public image.

Ed Miliband was interviewed yesterday for  the BBC by the political correspondent Andrew Marr, during the hottest week since records began. The two men sat in the open air wearing two-piece suits and ties, looking preposterous. Miliband has apparently been advised by Simon Baron-Cohen (the distinguished expert on autism) to emphasise empathy - and Miliband used the 'e' word half a dozen times within a few minutes (and confirms my belief that any quality asserted by a public figure is sure to be the one he or she lacks the most). I don't expect Marr and Miliband to appear in thongs or Speedos  - the world is not ready for that - but is there really no appropriate clothing to wear on a humid summer's day? Perhaps cream linen suits appear too hoity-toity, and thrash metal t-shirts may also be off-message. But why not crisp white cotton shirts and (say) jeans? Of course, in Miliband's case, jeans with a crease ironed into them.

Ever since it was pointed out to me by an anthropologist acquaintance that ties are arrows, directing the viewer's gaze downwards to the crotch (and the tip of a tie is arrow-shaped, unless, like some namby-pamby 1930s poet you happen to affect a blunt-ended knitted tie - you know the sort of thing), ever since then I've been suspicious, and tend to 'read' a politician's suggestive neckwear as attentively as Holmes would study cuffs, boots and fingernails. What, for instance, to make of London Mayor Boris Johnson (below)?

Boris in Liverpool © Guardian Newspapers

The first male politician to turn up in the House of Commons or on Newsnight in a well-cut suit and crisp white shirt but without a tie will get, if not my vote, then certainly my approval. Break the mould fellas, and stop dressing like estate agents.

Saturday 26 July 2014

The Land of Green Ginger

The Tale of the Land of Green Ginger, now in danger of becoming a forgotten classic of children's literature, was first published in 1937. It's better known today (although it's not well known at all) by the shorter title carried by later editions: The Land of Green Ginger. The author was Noel Langley, born in South Africa on Christmas Day in 1911. 

It's a marvellous adventure story set in China long, long ago (although the title comes from - seriously - a street name in prosaic Kingston-upon-Hull, a street that contains - seriously again- what is widely believed to be the world's smallest window. Do look it up - it's really small.) Anyway, the main character in Langley's book is Abu Ali, the son of Aladdin (as in the pantomime, and there are appearances by the Widow Twankey and Abanazer) and the Land of Green Ginger itself turns out to be an enchanted floating kitchen-garden. There's never a dull moment and a big laugh on every page.

In 1966 Langley revised and expanded the original novel, packing it full of new jokes and wonderfully strange characters (including Nosi Parka and the lisping poet Omar Khayam). This was the edition I read as a child, and loved, not least for the marvellous pictures by Edward Ardizzone (surely the very greatest of illustrators - who else comes close?) I recall Kenneth Williams giving a virtuoso reading on the BBC Jackanory programme in the early 1970s. I'd love to see, or at least hear, that performance again. 

Above all, Langley's language was a source of constant unalloyed pleasure, free (more or less) of pantomime orientalism (unlike Ernest Brahma's once hugely-popular Kai Lung stories). I recall my delight at the tusked Djinn (Abdul), a cloud of black smoke with green eyes and a 'tall turreted turquoise turban' and his glum admission "I have a son myself, in a quiet sort of way, but all he says is Boomalakka Wee."

So. I bought a copy of The Land of Green Ginger the other day to read to an eight-year-old, and started leafing through it in search of old pleasures. But something was very wrong. This version of the book was certainly not the one I remembered so vividly from more than forty years ago - that was the 1966 edition published (I've just checked) by Puffin. The volume put out by the current publishers (let them remain nameless) was, closer inspection revealed, first issued in 1975 (the author died in 1980). Let an astute and disgruntled Amazon reviewer called Pumpkin explain:

     In 1975 it was republished in a drastically abridged form -- seventy pages shorter -- with most of the 
     jokes removed, along with several characters, such as Nosi Parka the egghead. While there's still 
     something of the original in the 1975 edition, it's a depressing book if you love the original -- pages 
     of fun and froth are replaced with a dry summary of the plot. Omar Khayyam no longer lisps or 
     makes up poetry. Even the songs are gone

The publishers really should take a look at the Amazon feedback from punters who, like me, are annoyed by the current edition. It isn't wholly bad because Langley is more talented than his bowdlerisers, but it certainly is a depressing book if, as Pumpkin says, you happen to know and love the original. It's a dull-witted dilution of Langley's work and, since there's no indication on the cover that this is a clumsily edited and heavily-cut edition, borders on the fraudulent, like publishing The Wind in the Willows without Mr Toad. Who on earth sanctioned this? Why isn't the original in print? What (if anything) was so objectionable about the original and, if it was indeed so objectionable, why reprint the book at all? I'm all for censorship (if you see what I mean) but not for such lumpen treatment of an original, and such lazy compromise. 

Langley was the original screenwriter of the MGM film version of The Wizard of Oz, and it was his brilliant idea to cast the same actors who played the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion as hick farmhands back in Kansas - the three hayseeds we see in the monochrome opening and closing sequences that bookend Dorothy Gale's odyssey. Suppose somebody at MGM today decided that The Wizard of Oz no longer conforms to current perspectives on (say) spinsters and munchkins and witches and flying monkeys? Would the film be circulated with clumsy cuts, much-loved scenes replaced  with inferior inserts of stock material or outtakes? Would they (as the current publishers appear to have done with their edition of The Land of Green Ginger) cut the songs? 

There's plenty of speculation about the reasons for this weird and clumsy re-edit on line. I'll see whether I can track down a copy of the 1966 edition and report back. If the original turns out, despite my fond recollection, to be strikingly objectionable I shall of course apologise to the publishers, and most sincerely, with head bowed. If not my wrath shall be terrible, quite terrible, although all I shall say is Boomalakka Wee.

Thursday 24 July 2014

On visiting Auschwitz.

I've never visited a death camp. Not my kind of thing at all. I don't need to see such places, because they're in my mind, much of the time - a low dull throb, like toothache, making me feel unwell, unhappy.

Is that a reasonable reaction? I've been struck this week by the widespread public 'outrage'  (as the press calls it) prompted by the behaviour of a young woman named Breanna Mitchell who, while visiting Auschwitz recently, took a 'selfie' (a self-portrait obtained with one's own smartphone) and posted it online. You can see the image here along with the story as reported by The New York Post (which by the look of it is the American equivalent of Britain's Daily Mail).

According to The New York Post "one month later, the picture, complete with smiley face emoticon in the caption, went viral and sparked outrage among Twitter users". Breanna Mitchell has since been subject to considerable online vilification and has apparently responded: "“Omg I wish people would quit tweeting to, quoting, retweeting, and favoriting my picture of my smiling in Auschwitz Concentration Camp”

The issue seems to be not so much the taking of a selfie (although that strikes me as an odd thing to do anywhere, at any time, let alone at such a grisly location), but that she is smiling and is therefore happy, or rather insufficiently unhappy, insufficiently distressed, given her location. I suppose another issue (not under consideration here) is the breathtaking stupidity of pointing the camera at oneself and not at the place one is visiting - but in our vacuous celebrity culture what could be more normal? It's the kind of behaviour endorsed by the values to which Breanna's generation have been exposed all their short lives.

Breanna Mitchell is no more crass and insensitive and shallow than most of us, so let's call her typical, and let's sympathise. Her rather fixed grin (she resembles a costive Bonnie Langford) suggests to me that she may be straining to overcome some inner malaise, some uneasily-suppressed grief. It's not an easy, natural smile. Look at her forehead.

Her hoop earrings and coral-pink top are every bit as inappropriate for an Auschwitz visit, but haven't attracted censure. This begs the question: how should one dress when visiting a death camp? What's appropriate? Is it even thinkable in such a context to make any kind of effort to 'dress up'? To give the impression that one has chosen one particular GAP top over any other? Shouldn't anyone visiting such places dress sombrely or be refused admission? Shouldn't they be offered suitably funereal habiliments as they arrive?

Of course not. One reason I've never visited Auschwitz and never will is because I simply cannot picture myself in such a place surrounded by the living in all their rowdy variants. And how does one organise the day and marshall one's responses? Should the Auschwitz site be entered only in the grip of a sickening hangover? Would that be appropriate? If not, why not? Why shouldn't one arrive sick, and then be further sickened? There's no feel-good redemption on offer here, only the site of the end of humane values, the place where all hope and decency perished; a place where, famously, there was no 'why'.

Auschwitz as a memorial undeniably has (and I mean no disrespect) a theme park aspect. Outside there are parking zones and fast food outlets for those with an appetite; inside there are other catering facilities, a shop, guides to mediate the place in many languages - the whole thing amounts to an 'experience' (albeit a singularly ghastly one) and has been carefully commodified (and tastefully of course) to reflect the needs and expectations of people who are, for the most part, tourists on an excursion.

A friend of mine (Jewish, as it happens) once visited Dachau and was initially shocked (as she put it) when she realised that it was all in colour - blue skies, warm yellow sunshine, green grass and foliage. She'd grown used to the spectral black and white documentary footage of the camp (and surely Steven Spielberg's decision to film Schindler's List in monochrome recognises this cultural predisposition, and associates it with the nobility and high seriousness that early, and especially silent cinema, continues still to generate). But what shocked her as much, if not more, was the sight and sound of families and groups in bright summer clothing, determined, as it were, to 'have a day out' and in particular the unnerving sight of one dad in shorts with a bulky video camera barking instructions at his family to pose (unmoving, which rather undermined the value of a video recording) outside blocks like those seen in the Breanna selfie. 

Outfit aside, how does one start the day before visiting a death camp? A hearty cooked breakfast? Nothing at all? Something in between because you'll be on your feet for hours? To say nothing of the mental and emotional preparations (if any). How does one prepare to be harrowed?

Come to that - how do the locals employed on site in (say) the cafe, behave? I mean, they can't be expected to remain in a constant state of emotional anguish, can they? Is there no banter in the kitchens? If so what kind of banter? And if the staff in the catering department of Auschwitz are allowed to crack  the odd smile, the odd joke, why shouldn't a shallow American teen down there for a visit and without knowledge of European history but full of self-assurance, take a selfie? You commodify history, and especially infamy, at your peril. You create a celebrity culture and have to live with the consequences - selfishness, ignorance, dumb self-regard.

Her behaviour was tacky and inappropriate, but go to any public place and you'll see (and overhear) no end of equally crass tackiness by the clueless (and not-so-clueless). I recall the story of the magician David Copperfield and his girlfriend Claudia Schiffer being given (such was their fame back then) a private tour of the Louvre in Paris. Looking at one Old Master and informed by the curator of its date and provenance he said: "Talk about your old".

When  it comes to getting a purchase on the Holocaust I'll stick to reading Primo Levi in my shabby dressing gown and with a stiff drink to hand, reflecting only that if there were any sense or taste left in public life then all cameras (and smartphones and suchlike) would be banned from museums, galleries, concert halls, places of worship and scenes of genocide. This would eliminate a compensating tendency to crassness that afflicts us all.

I'd also (if you'll allow me to bang on) suggest that everyone should see, at least once, a film made in 2001 called CONSPIRACY written by Loring Mandel and directed by Frank Pierson. It's a dramatised account of the Wannsee Conference, the meeting at which the fate of Jews in regions of German influence was sealed. An extraordinary, vital film. The script is a harrowing marvel.

As for the cause of all this?  “I’m famous yall,” she tweeted last Sunday, according to The New York Post. Takes all sorts.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Lost worlds

Lost worlds, lost worlds. Charles Laughton stonewalling on What's My Line, November 25th 1956.

I've blogged before about my weakness for this ancient television show, not for the format but for the quite extraordinary quality of the guests. Find more online, and take the phone off the hook (as we used to say, and do)

Tuesday 22 July 2014


Very good piece by Tim Parks in the current New York Review of Books about the surprisingly low sales of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, and what this implies about 'literary fiction'.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Nairn's London - the bus tour

Huge interest in my recent proposal for a bus tour based on Nairn's London, the 1966 masterpiece by Ian Nairn, his "personal list of all the best things in London."

Nairn, alas, is no longer with us - but the Routemaster bus in which he is pictured contentedly leaning out of the cab on the cover of his best book is still in good nick and available for hire. It was the last of its kind to be built (in 1965) and the last to operate a regular public service (the 159 from Streatham to Marble Arch).

CUV 217C (with Nairn) in 1966 Image © Penguin Books

This old beauty can be ours for the day, transporting fifty dedicated Nairnians around some of the buildings and localities that feature in Nairn's London. There will be readings, site visits, photo opportunities galore and some surprises on the way.

The urban odyssey will start in the East End and finish at a surprise venue in central London (one that would certainly appeal to the author) where food and drink will be available. And no - it isn't the St George's Tavern in Pimlico.

Dates are not yet confirmed and depend on the availability of an illustrious guest speaker, but Sundays are best, with less traffic, easier parking and some churches open. Penguin are reissuing Nairn's London in November so that may be when we do it. My calendar tells me there are five Sundays in November this year . . .
Seats will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis and the cost will be £20 (with concessionary rates for students/pensioners/the unemployed).  That's for a five-hour guided tour (we'll break - and brake - for lunch) with printed handouts and, at the end of the day, a Nairnian shindig. We'll need at least fifty ticket-holders to cover the cost of bus hire, reception venue, photocopying, administration etc. Any profits will be donated to a worthy cause - The 20th Century Society

This is a unique opportunity to see some of the places described in Nairn's London from the comfort of a significant Routemaster, to enjoy convivial company and to commemorate the life and work of our greatest topographical writer. If you're interested please leave a comment on this blog and I'll get back to you.

Message ends.

Image courtesy of Penguin Books

Saturday 19 July 2014

The Function Room

I went recently to The Cock Tavern in Somers Town, between King's Cross and Euston stations. 

It's a working class Irish pub run by Sheila from County Sligo, a pub of the type I thought had disappeared entirely in London - cavernous, with sticky fitted carpets and a glum sodality of exclusively male boozers doggedly sinking pints of Carling Black Label, watching a large TV screen above the bar. The place seemed stuck, attractively, in 1976, and only the lack of smouldering fags and heaped ashtrays gave the game away. Low evening sunlight bounced off the beer taps, the glasses, and balding pates. Therewas no music, but the atmosphere was that of dance hall the morning after. You could while away an afternoon here. You could while away a lifetime.

The Cock Tavern is now at the centre of a campaign against property developers who want to close it down and connivery the building into expensive flats. Do support them (the pub owners, I mean) and one way you can do so is by attending events upstairs.

The reason I was there was to visit, not for the first time, The Function Room, a space run by the artists Anthony Auerbach and Marlene Haring. It's a light and airy place that may be the coolest interior in  the capital, not so much for what it is - a plain white room with windows on three sides - but for the type of thing it does.

It was certainly the place to be on that humid Wednesday evening. A keen-eyed observer would have detected something was out of kilter on entering the unabashedly shabby downstairs bar - some blue and white beermats were scattered around bearing the logo of the INS. These appeared incongruous in the wilderness of empty tables and collapsing banquette seats. fresh and contemporary. A minor re-purposing of the room, you might say. 

That evening The Function Room was hosting the AGM of the International Necronautical Society, chaired by Tom McCarthy, novelist and (with philosopher Simon Critchley) co-founder of the INS. This is an art movement in the tradition of Tzara's Dada and Breton's Surrealisme - it issues manifestos, expels heretics, arranges exhibitions and takes itself very seriously indeed. Or rather, it appears to, although it's not a spoof. The INS has affinities with Lewis Carroll, taking a lead from the line in The Hunting of the Snark that encapsulates the sceptical view of the things that make up the world:  "they are merely conventional signs."

They aim, they say, "to do for death what the Surrealists did for sex", which is intriguing (if one assumes that the Surrealists demystified and secularised sex)." They also like to produce ironic corporate products which of course are, in spite of the destabilising and subversive intent, covetable features of late capitalism - mugs, bottled beers, ID tags, T-shirts and so on.)

Have a look at the Function Room's current installation, created by Auerbach. The two lecterns (designed by Laura Hopkins, the INS Environmental Engineer) look quite solid and noble from the front (invisible to the 'speaker' but seen by any hypothetical audience). From the 'privileged' side (i.e. that of the  speaker) they are tatty and unprepossessing - cheap woodgrain sticky-back plastic over MDF. Points are being made about authority, communication, authenticity, surfaces and decay. The lecterns featured in an INS event at Tate Britain (see below) in which two actors stood in for McCarthy and Critchley ( although this may not have been apparent to the audience).

The real Tom McCarthy (author of Men in Space, Remainder, C, and the forthcoming Satin Island) called the meeting to order (there followed the usual minutes, apologies, news of expulsions and deaths and so on) and then reported back on the latest INS project - fronting a show at the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle.

On arrival visitors were greeted by INS staff (sporting lanyards, like the young retailers at an Apple store) and were then directed to a large black table, there to sign disclaimers - very official looking - forfeiting their individuality and freedom as a prerequisite to entering the main exhibition. A conceptual prank - visitors were invited to use false identities. Of the 18,000 or so attendees, a few hundred refused (some angrily) as this challenged their (banal) concept of art as no more than an expression of personal freedom (although the same folk willingly and regularly make such concessions in everyday life, as do we all). So another point was made, and points scored.

INS works a Situationist seam with style and grace and a prankish undertow, its work expressed in gestures of monumental inconsequentiality, provocative and engaging and (at times) exasperating. I happen to like much of this - we haven't had a British art movement punching above its weight beyond our borders since Wyndham Lewis's Vorticists in the 1920s, and the INS is (as it's initial letter confirms) International. I admire the high-mindedness of it, the absolute rejection of the middlebrow, the intellectual doggedness. It's all very . .  continental?

The INS in action at Tate Britain

In response to a question from the floor McCarthy offered an INS perspective on the loss of Malaysia Airlines MH370, which disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8 March this year and has yet to be found. He used Hamlet as a way in and likened the lost aircraft to Polonius, stabbed in the arras by Hamlet, whose body is hidden within the 'framework of grid' of Elsinore, the smell rather than the physical presence of the corpse is the giveaway.

Where is Polonius?

In heaven; send hither to see: if your messenger
Find him not there, seek him i' the other place
Yourself. But indeed, if you find him not within
This month, you shall nose him as you go up the
Stairs into the lobby.

KING CLAUDIUS (To some Attendants)

Go seek him there.

He will stay till ye come.

The loss of flight MH370, observed an audience member. 'an event without collateral" (cold comfort to the friends and relatives of the missing, presumed dead) but again a point was being made - that the aircraft's complete disappearance gives commentators little purchase on the event (unlike, alas a more conventional air disaster). There's nothing at all to show, nothing to look at. There's certainly a stink coming from the stairs into the lobby.

Does this, I wonder, make the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, shot down over the Ukraine with the death of all on board, an equivalent to the slaughterhouse that is Elsinore at the end of the play? The INS would have a view - and I suppose it's as legitimate as any other.

McCarthy dazzled with more off-the-cuff analyses of the zeitgeist, paid tribute to the influence of Mallarmé and the meeting came to a close. Food and drinks were served and the small but seriously cool and cerebral audience mingled, coolly and cerebrally. I clumped downstairs, back to the huge and sparsely populated bar, pocketing an INS beermat as I left.

Image © the International Necronautical Society

Friday 18 July 2014

On disaster

Terrible news this morning about the Malaysia Airlines plane, shot down over the Ukraine with the death of all 298 passengers and crew. It appears to be the work of Russian-backed, pro-Russia rebels and the world, as they say, is watching. There is much wild speculation and the conspiracy theorists are (as they also say) 'working overtime'. I have to say I'm sceptical about the Tweets emanating from the commander responsible for the rebels allegedly responsible for the act. I mean: teenagers aside, does anybody really twitter or tweet under such circumstances?

Well, yes, apparently. Within minutes the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, tweeted to inform the world that he was 'shocked and saddened' by the event, although it's pretty certain that some intern did it for him. I really don't want to think that that our PM - or any MP - has the leisure time for such a very trivial pursuit.

I expect in any case these days all politicians have a default setting on their smartphones that can immediately generate what has, alas, become a well-intended cliche applicable at times of disaster: "Our first thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families', a phrase that has assumed a ritual quality, something to be said before anything else can be said, or done. It (not unattractively) suggests that our response will be measured, reflective and  thoughtful - not impulsive, not vengeful.

It's not only the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War that makes one uneasy. Any political or military act is a potential Sarajevo moment - a malign catalyst. 

Thursday 17 July 2014

The Mother and the Whore

I blogged last year about the great French actress Bernadette Lafont and what is in my view her best film, Jean Eustache's La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore). I said this:

It's a harrowing movie, set in and shot during the summer of 1972, exploring the unstructured and selfish lives of three youngish people in Paris. It's a love triangle, of sorts, with the self-absorbed Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud, perfectly cast) involved with his older girlfriend Marie (Lafont) and a Polish nurse Veronika (Françoise Lebrun). 

It's a film that defies summary and easy analysis because there's no plot to speak of, just an accumulating series of lengthy meandering scenes that peter out without resolution, accompanied by huge amounts of dialogue. It's like life, in other words, and there's no better depiction of how things were in the 1970s for many of us. One aspect of the way we lived then, and easy to overlook, is that none of the characters possess any furniture. They live on floors, on mattresses or beanbags or cushions until one minor character (played as I recall by the director himself) somehow acquires a wheelchair. 

Well here's that selfsame wheelchair scene for your viewing pleasure.

And here's a charming clip of the very young Jean-Pierre Léaud in his screen test for François Truffaut's Les 400 Coups.  He's 70 now, unbelievably.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

On the Scrapheap

When was the last time you saw a really satisfying scrapyard? I came across this ten-minute film while looking for something completely else. The beguiling wonders of this information superhighway will never cease to amaze me

It's from the The Rank Organisation's wonderful "Look at Life" series made in the mid 1960s and is called Down in the Dumps.

Rank made over 500 of these marvellous short films in the ten years from 1959,  for screening at their Odeon and Gaumont cinemas before the main feature. Many of these are now available to view online and are mostly fascinating records of urban environments at a time of rapid change, much of it driven by the rise of private motor cars. The films are particularly evocative, of course, for those of use who grew up in the 1960s.  Invited to find what anthropologists call a 'perfect specific' for my own memories of that decade I'd plump for the design on the back of a box of Rowntree's fruit gums. Here to is:

Image © Nestle UK

Monday 14 July 2014

Vatican Latin

I remember my one and only visit to St Peter's in Rome and the sour wave of Calvinism that swept over me when confronted with the bludgeoningly ostentatious ghastliness of the fixtures and fittings. I have no taste for the baroque, but (a few incidental masterpieces aside) the elaborate trash that clutters up a fine building left me reeling and nauseous. It's almost as if a bunch of philistine celibates with unlimited financial resources and no taste had been given free reign to displace their feelings of sexual frustration into an extravagant visual correlative. I mean look, just look, at these baldachins (if that's the plural):

Unrelatedly, perhaps: the Vatican City State, a walled enclave with a  population of under a thousand and the smallest independent state in the world, raised the age of consent from twelve (the lowest in Europe) to eighteen. They did this last year. Did you know that the cashpoint machines in Vatican City offer instructions in Latin?

Newsreader gaffe

This has been in circulation for a while but was new to me. Watch it here.

Not having a television for many years I'm taken aback by the thundering music that accompanies the opening of this report - I expect it's standard practice (as mainstream films have long since succumbed to almost uninterrupted and crassly manipulative musical soundtracks, the aural equivalent of having an unwelcome companion offering a constant commentary in a stage whisper.

Sunday 13 July 2014

On the buses with Ian Nairn

I've blogged before about the great Ian Nairn and his masterpiece Nairn's London. Here's the cover of the paperback, the best book about London ever written, with the author sitting cheerfully in the cab of a Routemaster bus.

Image © Penguin Books

Last weekend, to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the introduction of the much-loved Routemaster bus, more than a hundred of these gorgeous machines gathered in the sunshine at Finsbury Park in North London. It was an impressive spectacle, featuring beautifully restored vehicles alongside others that were clapped out and rusty (but still roadworthy). Some bore garish new liveries and unhappy new guises, one (in shocking pink) promoting the Superdrug chain. There were leaf-green Routemasters (the ones that served the rural outer suburbs), several open top tourist versions, one in sexy 1960s British European Airways guise and several which appear to enjoy a hectic retirement as mobile nightclubs. There was RM1, the venerably futuristic prototype, purring suavely around the park between the plane trees. That Auden line about a tramway running into a wood came to mind . . .

Image © Chris Sampson

I happened to have a copy of Nairn's London with me (and rarely leave home without it), and was suddenly struck by a familiar number plate - CUV217C. I whipped out my tatty paperback and to my amazement realised that, yes, the bus in front of me was the very same one that featured on the cover of the original, published in 1966.

As fleet number RM2217 (illustrated above) this very bus was to be the last operational Routemaster in public service, on the 159 route between Streatham and Marble Arch. Living as I did at one time in Streatham I must have travelled in it occasionally before the last official run in 2005. A handful still operate as a tourist attraction but not. alas, on Nairn's favourite route 11, from Fulham Broadway to Liverpool Street. Have they really been absent from our streets for nearly a decade?

RM2217 is available as this splendid large-scale model by a company called Sun Star, and I suppose if I were to own a model bus this would be it:

Delivered new to Willesden garage in 1965 (so still quite fresh when photographed with Nairn at the wheel), RM2217 became a 'show bus' for London Transport in 1984, suggesting that this particular vehicle was always kept in good nick for public relations purposes and photo opportunities, which might explain why it was used by the Penguin designer Michael Morris and the photographer Dennis Rolfe. The bus is now available for private hire as part of the Arriva Heritage Fleet - 

So. A suggestion to any Nairnians out there: how about hiring this fifty-year-old bus for a day and taking a Nairn's tour of London, following (say) the route implied on the cover of the book, from Mile End (starting at Spiegelhalters, a Nairn favourite) to Queenhythe via Camberwell and Lululand? 

The Arriva website says nothing about the cost of hiring one of these old beauties - but if (say) fifty like-minded Nairn enthusiasts joined up we could probably do the thing for between ten and twenty quid a head, ending up with pints of wallop at his beloved pub, the St. George's Tavern behind Victoria station.

Any takers?

Incidentally it was a pleasure to run into the novelist Simon Okotie at this omnibus gathering. He was selling copies of his excellent novel Whatever Happened to Harold Absolon?, a book set entirely, and ingeniously, on a Routemaster bus. He tells me two sequels are planned. Look out for them . . .

Saturday 12 July 2014

Spike's Great War

This was entirely new to me - Spike Milligan's take on the Great War long before Blackadder. Spike got there first (in this, Episode 1 of the series 'Q9') and he did it better:  he locates the pulse of madness, rather than rely on the forced splenetic ironies of the over-rated Rowan Atkinson vehicle.

Spike's 'Q' series (of which many episodes are now appearing on the internet) was chaotic, deliberately under-reharsed, wildly self-indulgent and sometimes - sometimes - not funny at all. The rest of the time it was the funniest thing to be seen. It's presumably unbroadcastable now, and for the usual reasons - casual sexism, old actors blacked up, Irish jokes and (they hate this, the commissioning editors and policy wonks) there's something unstable and subversive and dangerous. It's not classifiable. It's not safe.

I fondly remember the cohort of corpsing stooges employed in these sketches - many of them borderline unemployable by the look and sound of them - Bob Todd! John Bluthal! Johnny Vyvyan! David Lodge! Alan Clare! And the extravagantly proportioned Julia Breck. Julia Breck!!!

Watch it here  (the WW1 stuff starts at 4:20) and enjoy a guest appearance by the great Raymond  Baxter of Tomorrow's World fame.

Friday 11 July 2014

On Dai Vaughan

Dai Vaughan was described by Neal Ascherson as "one of the most imperiously intelligent fiction-writers alive."  He died, alas, in 2012, but the imperious intelligence is undimmed and I'm finally catching up with his writing as I'm drafting his entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Vaughan was a brilliant and distinguished film editor and wrote what is, in my view, the single best book about cinema: Portrait of an Invisible Man: the life of Stewart McCallister, Film Editor. McCallister's greatest achievement is Listen to Britain, a solid documentary masterpiece directed in 1942 by Humphrey Jennings, which we should all watch again and again, starting now. It's twenty minutes of unadulterated genius.

He was also a poet and novelist. A small independent publisher, CB editions, publishes a volume of Vaughan poems and a fine, unclassifiable novel, Sister of the Artist

Here's a moving tribute,  complete with many Vaughan quotations.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Wand of Undoing

There's an Anne Frank sculpture located in the basement of the British Library. Anne Frank is unquestionably a noble and legitimate subject for commemoration but that doesn't mean we have to put up with bad art. The bust is honourably representational and in a sense beyond criticism - but like too much public sculpture incarnates a Franklin Mint aesthetic.

There's no shortage of extraordinarily bad art in Colin St. John Wilson's beautiful building. In the basement next to the cloakroom and a few feet from Anne Frank are Patrick Hughes's gimmicky 3D optical illusion Paradoxymoron (which might as well be called Paradoxycretin) and a pastel-coloured terracotta mermaid that belongs in a branch of Starbucks. On the ground floor and dominating the lobby is a vast and disorganised Kitaj tapestry.

Also in the lobby is the plug-ugly Sitting on History by Bill Woodrow, a bronze book (doubling as a bench) attached to (see if you can figure out what the artist is trying to tell us here) a ball and chain. There's the Roubilllac statue of Shakespeare (gifted by the V & A in 200, not bad but horribly sited) and some busts of T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and others at the entrance to Rare Books and Manuscripts. There's a Hockney etching nearby - good but not especially great and more suited to a private setting than a public mezzanine. Outside in the slippery piazza squats the colossal figure of Isaac Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi.

If I could wield a magic Wand of Undoing I'd get rid of every damned one of his horrible impositions on the capital - from the ghastly fast-degrading mosaics in Tottenham Court Road station to the plug-ugly alcove-robot in Fleet Street. In fact the latter was removed recently, having been flogged (ideally for scrap) by the building's owners (the building itslef being a typically stomach-turning piece of 1980s po-mo tat). Then there's his chunky ingot at Euston Square (regularly 'tagged' by graffiti vandals) and the bulky stained aluminium filing cabinet in Pimlico.

I'm researching, on and off, a cultural history of philistinism (both productive and receptive, if you see what I mean), and thinking about the kind of painting (and sculpture, but mainly painting) that can be seen on the northern railings of Hyde Park on Sundays. Where does it all come from? Who makes it? Who buys it? What makes it so bad, if we agree, as we surely must, that it is bad?  How do we write objectively about it? What would happen if, one day, one stumbled across some park railing art which was really, really good?

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Not even wrong

I've been brooding on the world's most popular periodical, the Watchtower (see yesterday's blog.).

It seems that articles are for the most part submitted to the headquarters of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, by writing committees in branch offices around the world, which are then checked by editors and translated into the languages of publication - this may in part explain the mind-numbing lack of any real content; there are no particular cultural references to engage the reader's interest, nothing specific to any one country or culture or language, nothing to link the article with anything concrete.

Only somebody who doesn't believe that what they're saying has any real value or meaning could write like this, and I want to give you an idea of what this kind of boneless prose is like. Here's a very short extract from an article on - of all things - poetry:

From nursery rhymes to advertising jingles, poetry is a part of our lives. Hence, most people are familiar with at least the basic concepts of verse. But if you want to write poetry yourself, you may first want to read a broad selection of verse. This will help you to grasp the various principles of composition, besides expanding your vocabulary. Of course, you need to be selective so as not to expose yourself to anything that is unwholesome or degrading. (Philippians 4:8, 9) Naturally, the best way to learn to write verse is to sit down with pencil and paper and write.

Those involved in writing this sort of thing are described by the publishers as volunteers (and are presumably unpaid). The names of the authors (except in certain first-person life stories) and of the other publishing staff are never included in the magazine or available elsewhere. All articles are produced under the authority and supervision of the cult's unelected and unaccountable Governing Body; and the content therefore represents the official position of the organization.

In the extract above many words simulate reason - 'hence', 'thus', 'therefore' - but don't contain reason, don't express reason, don't convey reason. They are rhetorical figures which suggest the shape of thought, of discourse, but which close down rather than open up any line of exchange or speculation. There is an occasional chilly jocularity coupled with outbursts of zealotry, a shuddering washed-in-the-blood-of-Christ fervour that soon fades into the affectless mandarin that is the standard register for this kind of writing. It's equivalent to the table-talk of the world's worst tyrants - crass, uninformed, shallow and dogmatic.

There's a tendency to pad out the lack of content with drab quotations (usually dictionary definitions or scraps of unexceptionable pop medical research); there is an endless stream of 'academic' sources but you won't have heard of the low-voltage authorities or their backwater colleges. There is a concerted evasion of almost any concrete detail that might support the material being offered for our understanding - apart from hundreds of parenthetical Bible sources which pepper every text as if to say 'don't just take our word for it - here's the proof!'

Most alarmingly the entire article about poetry cited above contains no example of poetry (apart from the Iliad and Odyssey), and I suppose this is partly a matter of copyright and partly the publishers' inability and/or unwillingness to operate within wordily publishing constraints. They wouldn't know how to acquire rights to a few lines of (say) Hart Crane, and if they did know how they wouldn't do it.

Tellingly, the piece on poetry names no poets apart from Homer, offers no technical or practical advice, no spur to action. One is reminded of a Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese as Anne Elk (in drag, lavishly bewigged) is being interviewed about his/her new theory about dinosaurs. It soon becomes clear that he/she hasn't a single idea about the subject, and is in fact so wholly ignorant not only of the subject but the protocols of discussion that the whole thing becomes a series of shrieks and coughs and postponements. Watch it here.

Some more of the Watchtower's thoughts on poetry:

POETS are a mixture of artist and songwriter. Their pens are impelled as much by their hearts as by their heads. Hence, well-written poems can inspire you. They can also make you think, laugh, or cry. The book The Need for Words says: “Poetry is often nothing more than words organised to have a high, sudden impact. That’s partly the reason why great poems . . . are unforgettable in every way.”

That recurring 'hence' is characteristic.

'Well-written poems' inspire us because the poets are ' a mixture of artist and songwriter'. That any poet I can think of, with the exception of George Herbert, would represent to the zealots of Brooklyn the very incarnation on the anti-Christ need not concern us; nor that the nearest the hacks who perpetrated this paragraph are ever likely to have gotten to a poet is Leonard Cohen (Jewish though, and therefore problematical); nor need we wonder what the difference is between 'unforgettable' and 'unforgettable in every way'. This is how language sounds when it's drained of meaning, of value, of life. This is language detached from its referends, free-floating in a dense fog of nervous conviction.

Conviction is not the same thing as belief. Belief, if it is to have any value, must always be hard-won. Conviction is the form that belief takes in dependent minds, in minds surrendered to dogma. Which brings us back to George Eliot.

Monday 7 July 2014

Satanic feminists

George Eliot, in Silas Marner:

The dull mind, once arriving at an inference that flatters the desire, is rarely able to retain the impression that  the notion from which the inference started was purely problematic.

There is no shortage of dull minds behind the world's most astonishingly prolific and successful publishing enterprise. A billion copies sold every year of their flagship publication. It's the most widely distributed magazine in the world, appearing in 240 languages and with a monthly print run of 60 million copies. The Watchtower (less well known by its full title The Watchtower - Announcing Jehovah's Kingdom) is an evangelical publication produced in Brooklyn, New York, headquarters of The Watchtower, Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania - better known to the world as the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Now read this:

Throughout the developed world, an increasing number of people, inspired by feminist movements and disenchanted with mainstream religions, seek spiritual fulfilment in various forms of witchcraft.

It comes from The Watchtower, and is the only reference to feminism I can find in their online archives. To test a theory I went online to confirm a hunch by comparing citations. This rough list of lexical frequency in the Society's publications (including their version of the Bible) only covers the period 2000-2012, but is nevertheless suggestive in its bizarre priorities, its unequal weightings. Here's what I found:

Subject            Mentions

Jehovah           8,392
Jesus                5,464
Faith                2,912
Truth               2.549
Power              2,433
Fear                 1,666
Jews                1,479
Blood              1,409
Satan               1,357
Followers        1,169
Salvation            818
The Devil           766
Mercy                 652
Obedience          603
Sex                     586
Afraid                 557
Illness                 498
Crime                 490
Discipline           465
Demons              438
AIDS                  431
Alcohol              389
Eternal life          318
Adultery             302
Caesar                285
Evolution           253
Armageddon      244
Homosexuality   122
Hitler                  114
Masturbation        34

This blog is prompted by the recent appearance of members of this cult on the streets where I live. No longer diligently knocking on every door they now operate mobile bookstands, displaying their publications (which appear these days to be free) at busy traffic junctions.

I don't like to see religious hucksters of any denomination promoting their dim bigotry in public spaces, unchallenged. So I wrote a letter to the local Council and received a phone call the other day saying that there was nothing they could do about it and in any case when they sent an inspector he couldn't see any evidence of the bookstand or its attendants so there was clearly no problem.

But why on earth should we have to tolerate religious pedlars on our street corners promoting homophobic, misogynist, creationist, anti-intellectual, bug-eye'd nonsense? If you doubt their toxic priorities look again at the archive lexicon above.

More on this tomorrow.

Sunday 6 July 2014

Soap box

I've just read Sheena Joughin's online Telegraph review of Greg Baxter's forthcoming novel Munich Airport. You can too, here. She doesn't like it at all, giving it one star. (One of the less attractive aspects to broadsheet reviews these days is a tendency to allocate stars. The Times Literary Supplement doesn't do that, yet.)

As it happens I'm reviewing this same novel for the TLS and, bound as I am by the Critics' Samurai Code, can say nothing here in advance of my piece appearing later this year. The reason for this blog is to share with you Sheena Joaquin's extraordinary opening statement. She writes:

      "Any novel that starts when its story is over is in a sticky predicament; the plot is all in the past."

Really? Any novel? A sticky predicament, then, for Proust and Joyce and Woolf and Dickens and Flaubert and Tolstoy and Stendahl all the other writers who, in their innocence, recounted (with the reliable omniscience we used to expect from authors) stories with a beginning, middle and end, usually from the perspective of a 'now' shared with the reader and all set in the past. "It was the best of times it was the worst of times . . "

I don't much like novels written entirely in the present tense - a wearisome and limiting trope, but all-too-common these days and largely the result of creative writing tutors advocating the approach, presumably because it's immediate and compelling and artless and (for the hapless reader) more like watching the telly. It's as if the novel amounts to an extended pitch for a movie, or the basis for a stand-up routine. What Dickens used sparingly in Bleak House as a signifier for social stagnation and anomie (the Dedlock chapters are all written in the stultifying present) has become the one and only method for too many novelists, not all of them negligible, but most of them indistinguishable.

I tend as a reader mentally to correct such stuff, but since it's hard work and annoying to edit modishly present narratives into professionally acceptable pasts I tend after a dozen pages to give up. I can think of no novel written in the long-established past tense that would be improved by rewriting into the now ubiquitous present.

'Stately, plump Buck Mulligan stands . . .' Nah.

Some recent novels would be hugely improved if rewritten using the past tense in its many forms (and Tom McCarthy's 'C' comes to mind).

But don't take my word for it - read this engaging piece from 2010 by Philip Hensher in (as it happens) the Telegraph. 

Incidentally - why give stars for novels rather than more useful rating information (much as we do with films). Munich Airport strikes me as a book that's less likely to appeal if you're much under forty (the age of its author as it happens). But (and I expect we're heading this way) the time will surely come when novels carry prissy little warnings as CD packaging does: 'Contains mild peril', Contains cartoon violence' and (best of all) 'Contains language'.

Saturday 5 July 2014

On avuncularity

I'm an only child, and therefore incapable of being an uncle, not having any nephews and nieces. This is no great loss as if there's one thing I don't do it's avuncularity. 
Uncles generally get short shrift in fiction - they tend to trail a whiff of Soho or Brighton or Epsom Downs. Usually hard up (or flush from a recent win) they wear camel-hair coats and trilbies, drive rented cars, wear after-shave and cash cheques in pubs. They are bachelors, of course, and sometimes 'not the marrying kind'.

Uncles in the past were, or claimed to be, ex-army officers (ideally played by Cecil Parker). There was often a woman in the background, possibly married or a widow and clearly unsuitable. There was also, often, a hint of perversity. They came, necessarily, from outside the immediate family yet were also privileged insiders. 
Uncles were sanctioned alternatives to the grim, unyielding and authoritarian figure of father.

Think of Uncle Giles (aka 'Captain Jenkins') in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. He's reliably unreliable, occasionally missing without trace , surely related to Waugh's Captain Grimes, the opportunist one-legged pederast in Decline and Fall ('I'm in the soup again, old boy!'). I suppose they both trace their literary origin back to Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy, another military relic, deeply eccentric and childlike and unemployable, pursued by the widow Wadman .

Uncles - you wouldn't let them babysit your little chicks.

Rolf Harris, the very popular Australian entertainer, was sentenced yesterday, following a lengthy trial, for sex offences against young, sometimes very young, girls. His prosecution and imprisonment shocked (as they say) the nation. Not Rolf! Star of all our childhoods (though not mine, not really), beloved clown singer, performer, didgeridoo player, inventor of the wobble board and the immortal Jake the Peg ('with his eggsttra leg diddle diddle diddle dum') and so on and on. He was also some people's idea of a good painter. (Non-British readers who have never heard of Rolf Harris and readers with a taste for unlikely cultural pairings and showbiz kitsch should watch  Liberace and Rolf together.)
Rolf is, or was until his 'dark side' became manifest, invariably described as avuncular. He was certainly not a sinister weirdo like Jimmy Saville, but, perhaps on account of his Australian brand of warm informality (now of course revealed as a chilly form of deviant manipulation), earned a place for over half a century as the nation's antipodean uncle - trusted and admired, loved even. His downfall really is spectacular and it's likely that he will die in prison. 

A phrase much used in the cases of Savile and Harris is they they were 'hiding in plain sight'. They were very visible, instantly recognisable public figures and Harris even fronted a campaign to promote awareness of child abuse. The phrase (new to me) sets off an alarming tendency (in myself) to think of the many much-loved public figures who are self-evidently doing just that even as I blog. Of course they are protected by the law (and rightly) from being named by the likes of me, but the time cannot be far off when I write an 'I told you so' piece about a high profile entertainer or politician, now 'outed' as a predator. Watch this space.
What, by the way, is the female equivalent of avuncular? Is there a word meaning 'aunt-like'? A facetiously pedantic option offered by the OED is 'materteral' from the Latin “matertera,” which refers to a mother’s sister. But the OED can only muster one published reference, from 1823, and it's fair to say that it hasn't caught on. What does this tell you about our cultural values? Am I right to suppose that we don't need 'materteral' because the faintly disparaging term 'spinsterish' covers it, especially since the apparent demise of 'maiden aunt'?  But just as there are apparently very few female paedophiles we may as a society have come to the conclusion that we don't need a word corresponding to the now-tainted 'avuncular'.

Thursday 3 July 2014

On not being a Faber poet

I visited the new Foyles bookshop in the Charing Cross Road when the new store opened in the former St. Martin's School of Art, a few yards away from the old Foyles. All very bright and spiffy, and encouragingly bustling. But something important was missing.

In the old store one entered through the usual clutter of new fiction and celebrity cookbooks and postcards and magazines and Moleskine notebooks and then almost immediately, on the left, arrived in the poetry section, which was quite large and prominent yet tucked away, a quiet backwater, that always seemed remote from the bustling crowds of the ground floor. There were chairs, and they were comfortable.

In the new store the much-reduced poetry section (perhaps a quarter of the size it was) is in an easily-overlooked upstairs corner on the first floor, and hemmed in by graphic novels, and populated by the sort of browsers who prefer graphic novels to poetry. (As it happens I admire many graphic novels, but found the juxtaposition unsettling.) There are no chairs.

Shouldn't bookstores follow the example of department stores. which invariably welcome the customer with the fragrant delights of the cosmetics counters? I'm not saying poetry is the same thing as perfume, or even soap, or moisturisers, but it's undeniable that one's first impression on entering (say) John Lewis or Selfridges or Harrods is of glamour, prestige, allure and elegance. Also pleasant smells and youthful vitality and freshness. You wouldn't expect pots and pans or lawnmowers and dustbins. High value luxury items have an inherent attraction: if books are cosmetics then poetry is perfume, and I mean Guerlain's Vol de Nuit (see blogs passim)

Which reminds me of a daydream since adolescence, prompted by the gift of Ted Hughes's Wodwo when I was fifteen. The dream was not merely to become a poet (we all dream of that at some point), but to become a Faber poet. My never-to-be-written debut volume (entitled Fungoids as a tribute to Max Beerbohm's Enoch Soames) would appear in bright yellow cloth binding, with a dust jacket designed by Berthold Wolpe, the title in his noble Albertus typeface, and on the back my name would appear between John Berryman and e. e. cummings. Fungoids would cost 12s 6d net (three weeks' pocket money), the same price as Auden's Homage to Clio, which I hadn't read but liked the sound of. It's a dream still, though Faber sans Wolpe is salad without the dressing.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

On Jack Kerouac

Some thoughts on the recent publication of an early novel by Jack Kerouac called The Haunted Life.

There's an exchange in Douglas Copeland's fifth novel Miss Wyoming, published in 2000, when one character tells another (who has elected to live like a hobo, with predictable results) that ‘the Road is over. It never even was. You’re thinking like a kid at a Starbucks counter, sneaking peeks at his Kerouac paperback and writing That’s so true! in the margins.’ 

That's so true. We no longer live in a world of cheap gasoline, American automobiles on open highways, unfranchised coffee shops and healthy nicotine. Now it's  . . . well, not like that.

Jack Kerouac's estate was valued at less than a hundred dollars when the author died in 1969 from cirrhosis-related internal haemorrhage. 'Good career move', as Gore said of Truman, because by 2004 it had swollen to $20 million.. The impressive posthumous earnings are partly down to book sales - On the Road, still sells around 100,000 copies annually, mostly in the States - as well as numberless volumes of letters, memoirs, biography and critical studies. 

There are also film rights, and some well-heeled fans who are happy to pay big money for the cool aura of the relics: the actor Johnny Depp bought Jack's old raincoat for $15,000; the forty-yard-long Teletype scroll on which the author hammered out a draft of On the Road was sold at auction in 2001 for $2.43 million (£1.7m) and is now the property of a billionaire businessman. It was on show last year in the British Library - an unlovely object that can never be separated from Capote's put down: 'It isn’t writing at all - it’s typing'. There's an established tourist trail in the author's home town of Lowell, Massachusetts (birthplace of Bette Davies and James Abbott McNeill Whistler), a clothing range and for all I know a smartphone app.. The estate, bogged down in acrimonious litigation for years, is now run by the youngest son of Kerouac's third wife Stella. In 1993 he licensed Kerouac's image to the clothing retailer Gap ('Kerouac wore khakis' was the strapline next to a photoshopped snapshot of the author in Greenwich Village in 1958). The campaign to promote cheap cotton pants to a new generation of urban hipsters included this oddly-punctuated full-page ad:

New York in the 40s. 
Hollywood in the 50s. 
Legendary writers, critics, intellectuals with courage. 
All in their cotton khakis. 
Casual. Defiant. 
Khakis just like those we make for you. Gap khakis. 
Traditional. Plain-front. 
Easy fit. Classic fit.

Other legendary writers featured in the campaign were Spillane, Hemingway and Arthur Miller - but there was no sign of any legendary critics. Did Edmund Wilson wear khakis? 

Ginsberg also appeared in a Gap ad, donating the proceeds to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, 'the first fully accredited Buddhist-inspired university in the United States'. Burroughs high-mindedly held out until Nike came knocking. Both Beats were still alive at the time so I guess they made there own choice when it came to selling out to the man. And if all this bilious preamble seems a way to put off writing about The Haunted Life, the novel under advisement, I can only say that it's practically beyond criticism.

It was written in 1944 when the author was 22. The manuscript came up for auction in 2002 and was sold to an anonymous buyer for a sum equivalent to three-and-a-half raincoats. Now published by Scribners and conscientiously edited and annotated by Todd Tietchen, it's likely to appeal only to diehard Kerouac fans and obsessive Beat completists. There's no shortage of these, but is it a good career move?

No and yes. No because its dull, flat, unaccomplished prose has nothing at all to offer the casual reader or the faithful. Yes, because it adds nothing to Kerouac's literary reputation and that's no bad thing because his reputation isn't that kind of reputation. He's not a great writer, seldom even a good writer, but for his many admirers he's the right writer and even, God help us, a role model. Those admirers are almost exclusively male adolescents (or their adult counterparts): angst-ridden, romantic, disaffected and (ironically enough) anti-materialist. They buy into the simulacrum of freedom offered by a lost world of Hudson Hornets, cheap gasoline, amphetamines and coffee and (in Ginsberg's approving phrase) 'spontaneous bop prosody'. The myth of genius in the grip of passionate creativity has a lasting appeal to some. The one example of the technique in Kerouac's oeuvre is The Subterraneans, written in three days and nights in 1958. It's like being cornered by a garrulous drunk and proof that in fiction, as in life, loquacity isn't the same as eloquence. If On the Road continues to exert an attract this may be down to the fact that its less of a novel and more of a script, best heard and not read, when the rhythmic syncopations outstrip the meaning.

On the Road is the one book Salinger's Holden Caulfield might just have dug because, whatever else it is it's not phony, although I suspect today's Caulfields get their kicks and consolations elsewhere. That the book's integrity seems undamaged by all the posthumous boondoggle says something for its hold on successive generations of readers, its claim on their affection and forbearance. It still seems to stand for something unsullied, authentic and true. It has nothing to do with khaki pants. 

Set in Lowell in a year unspecified but with the Depression a recent memory and America about to enter the war in Europe, the story unfolds through the summer before Peter Martin begins his sophomore year at Boston College. Peter is torn between the world views embodied by four thinly-realised emblematic characters: Garabed Tourian (a Byronic poet), Dick Sheffield (a footloose romantic and progressive Democrat), Joe Martin (a right wing racist bigot based on the author's father) and a Catholic radio celebrity, Father Coughlin. 

It really is that bad. When it comes to publishing Kerouac's early writings the sad truth is that each book, however unprepossessing, turns out to be better than the next. Just over two years ago Penguin issued The Sea is My Brother, an early novel nearly as flat and sophomoric as A Haunted Life. Before that we had Orpheus Emerged (written in 1945, published in 2002) and before that 1999's Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings. The bottom of the barrel has been scraped away and we're now digging into the soil beneath. Still inexplicably unpublished are two early Kerouac manuscripts written in Québécois French: La nuit est ma femme and Sur le chemin. Their appearance in print really would be the last of it.