Thursday 31 December 2015

Canadians vs Americans

It's the last blog of the year and let me pass this on. My son recently gave me a copy of Alec Guinness's A Commonplace Book, a sprightly collection of thoughts and quotations and scraps of conversation, many of them entirely new to me. I was pleased to learn that John Osborne's description of ballet was"poof's football". An entry in the book that particularly snagged my attention was something I first read, or heard of, as a child. It's an urban myth (with a maritime setting) and this is how Guinness recorded it:

This is the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995. Radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations 10-10-95.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a Collision.

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States' Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that's one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.

Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

None of this ever happened of course, but we want it to have happened, not least for the 'plucky underdog' aspect. Would it work as well if the protagonists were Russia and China? It's a story that's been in circulation for decades and the 1995 version, despite its suspiciously authentic source is simply a variant on a long-established urban (or maritime) myth. You can find out more about it here. 

I'm reminded for some reason of a film title (and it's a film I've never seen): Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River. It's a 1968 comedy starring Jerry Lewis, Terry-Thomas and Nicholas Parsons. "Jerry's on the loose in London. And Merry Olde England was never merrier!" Sounds awful - but do click on the link to see an engaging trailer which features the great Bernard (here weirdly stressed on the second syllable) Cribbins.

If you've read this or any other of my irregular blogs during 2015 -  I thank you.

Wednesday 30 December 2015

"The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded"

The title of this blog is, as Star Wars fans will not need reminding, taken from the line delivered by Alec Guinness in the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi (and I'm surely not the first to notice the embedded 'wanker' in the character's name). But reverse the line and it's just as true: "The Force can have a weak influence on the strong-minded" or, to put it another way, Star Wars means nothing to me.

It's a commonplace critical observation that the movies are reactionary and unoriginal. Special effects aside they haven't advanced a millimetre in the four-decades since the first in the series was released. This will of course be seen by loyal fans as a quality rather than a flaw, and the film-maker George Lucas has said that he was influenced by the cheap and cheerful Flash Gordon series of the 1930s (the star of which, Buster Crabbe, was the only actor to play Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers – the top three syndicated comic strip heroes of the 1930s). But there's another influence that I'd like to mull over with you.

Watching  the latest Star Wars episode with my two boys the other day (and reluctantly conceding that this wan't so much a film as a Major Motion Picture Event, then being depressed by the sight of the great Max von Sydow reduced to a cough and a spit) I was struck - and not for the first time, having noted this in the original movies nearly forty years ago -  by the portrayal of the Rebel headquarters (and you don't need me to remind you that the Rebels are fighting the Empire, that is to say the Bad Guys). I know - who does not? - that the films are set 'once upon a time in a galaxy far far away' but the whole set-up is deliberately reminiscent of American air force bases in East Anglia during the Second World War: the fighter planes diligently serviced by ground crew who are constantly, constantly welding; the water bowsers and bomb gurneys purposefully circulating; the sense of collective prepping; the ad hoc briefings to youthful pilots before their next perilous mission; the colour-coded squadron leaders in their helmets with chinstraps; the commanders with harumphing English (not American) voices at odds with their alien appearance; the easy-going camaraderie; the grace under pressure, the urgent tannoy announcements and the regular scrambling in all directions. The only thing missing is a black labrador. The Rebel command centre itself is remarkably similar to Churchill's subterranean war bunker in Whitehall, a dark and windowless place where young uniformed women move things around on maps while robots and elderly men do other stuff, intently.

I was born in 1959, which makes me a tail gunner in the baby-boom Lancaster bomber (if you see what I mean). As a schoolboy I recall reading and admiring Paul Brickhill's The Dambusters, a gripping account of Operation Chastise, which involved the delivery of Barnes Wallis's so-called 'bouncing bombs' to demolish dams in Germany's industrial Ruhr valley, flooding German infrastructure. This is the kind of book we read, the kind of film we watched. It struck me that something should be said about Star Wars' explicit indebtedness to the film of the book (which regularly shown on the telly when I was a boy). But somebody, I discover, got there first and made the point better, by editing Dambusters footage to Star Wars dialogue, or vice versa. Take a look here.

And here's the real thing: the 617 Squadron website 617 Squadron website. Great stuff.

Tuesday 29 December 2015

Pick of the Year

Nearly the end of the year and I'm flagging. My most-read blog in 2015, by far, is shamelessly re-cycled below. It seemed to strike a chord at the time and may do so again:

Worst. Poem. Ever.

This dashing fellow is Théophile-Jules-Henri "Theo" Marzials who was, despite his exotic monicker, a British composer, singer and poet. His French clergyman father married his English mother and Theo, born in 1850, was the youngest of five children.

At the age of twenty he started work in the British Museum as a junior assistant in the librarian's office where his path crossed those of Coventry Patmore, John Payne, Arthur O'Shaughnessy, and Edmund Gosse (who may have been his lover). He was not really cut out for a library career - he reportedly once yelled "Am I not the darling of the British Museum reading room?" from the balcony of that noble institution.

He nevertheless continued working there until retiring at the ripe old age of 32, on a handsome pension of £38 a year supplemented by royalties estimated at around £1000 annually. These were derived from his successful career as a composer, noted for his settings of Christina Rossetti's verses and some popular ballads that were all the rage in the 1880s.

He moved to Devon in the early 1900s where he became addicted to chloradyne (a potent patent medicine invented in the 19th century by Dr. John Collis Browne, a doctor in the British Indian Army as a treatment for cholera, diarrhea, insomnia, neuralgia and migraines. It was made from a mixture of laudanum, tincture of cannabis, and chloroform.) He died in Colyton in February 1920.

As a poet he had his admirers - Gerard Manley Hopkins for one - and his work featured in that era-defining periodical  The Yellow Book. He is now forgotten, though not entirely, and for rather a sad reason. His poem 'A Tragedy', included in his only published collection The Gallery of Pigeons and Other Poems (1873), has strong claims to being the very worst poem ever written in the English language. I first came across it the other day in Ross and Kathryn Petras' harrowing anthology Very Bad Poetry (1997). It isn't bad in the way (say) William McGonagall's oddly memorable and sweet-natured doggerel is bad. Marzial's astonishing perpetration has no mitigating qualities.

I've typed it out in full below for you to read and savour.

A Tragedy by Theophile Marzials

The barges down in the river flop.
Flop, plop,
Above, beneath.
From the slimy branches the grey drips drop...
To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop...
And my head shrieks - "Stop"
And my heart shrieks - "Die."...
Ugh! yet I knew - I knew
If a woman is false can a friend be true?
It was only a lie from beginning to end--
My Devil - My "friend."...
So what do I care,
And my head is empty as air -
I can do,
I can dare
(Plop, plop
The barges flop
Drip, drop.)
I can dare, I can dare!
And let myself all run away with my head
And stop.
Plop, flop,

Monday 28 December 2015

" . . . which some may find offensive."

For the last few blogs of 2015 I revisit some of the highlights or lowlights of the past twelve months. Ready?

Warning: this article contains the image of the magazine cover, which some may find offensive.

Thus the Guardian newspaper earlier this year when it published the cover of the issue of Charlie Hebdo that followed the slaughter at their Paris office. It featured (see below) a cartoon of a bearded man in a turban holding a JE SUIS CHARLIE placard. It was a representation of the prophet Mohammud and therefore (in the Guardian's view) possibly 'offensive' to those who are offended by this kind of thing. Quite why they felt obliged to publish the warning is a mystery. I've already blogged about the legibility of such images, but it's the end of the year and I'm in a reflective mood.

© Charlie Hebdo 2015
As far as I'm aware no other British newspaper was prepared to show the image of the cover, although they all reported its existence. That Guardian warning is pusillanimous, and it might just as well be applied to anything in the media likely to cause offence. Warning: this programme contains boorish, pampered, taxpayer-funded racist wankers driving flash cars and flourishing their leaden wit, which some may find offensive' might appear on screen before transmissions of 'Top Gear', for instance.

I've had it with all this pussy-footing around the possibility of giving offence to some hypothetical audience. These days one routinely sees 'WARNING: GRAPHIC FOOTAGE' on newspaper websites which are eager to show us blood, corpses, tumours or bizarre medical conditions. Such warnings have the same moral clout and ethical content as a clip joint hustler urging punters to step inside. 

Some things are, to be sure, objectively offensive. Other things merely offend. The legal term about the views of 'a reasonable person' being central to any judgement when it comes to (say) pornography in the Lady Chatterly trial applies here. Anyone offended by an innocuous cartoon representing the Prophet, or come to that by a novel such as The Satanic Verses, is not by any stretch of the imagination 'a reasonable person' in the context of our liberal democracy, so their views, while not entirely without value of course, cannot be the basis on which to draft public policy. There are people - of all races and religions - offended by feminism,  freedom of speech, civil partnerships, equal rights and all the other attributes of a liberal democracy. As has been said endlessly over the past year, the selfsame freedoms that allow British subjects to worship as they please must necessarily allow other British subjects to mock those beliefs.  There is a growing intolerance of tolerance.

As it happens I am offended, deeply offended, by many of the beliefs embraced by Catholics and Jews and Protestants and Muslims and other religious practitioners. Their world views are not the same as mine but my taking offence at their convictions and practices doesn't translate into murderous revenge for some actual or imaginary slight because I'm a good person. What I hate to see is a nervous pre-emptive apology such as the one proffered by the Guardian. Journalism can afford to be principled and even courageous under threat.

Sunday 27 December 2015

On Ian Hamilton

Ian Hamilton died on this day, 27th December, in 2001. He was (said Clive James) 'the best prose writer of his time'. That's true, but only part of the story. Hamilton was also the best poet of his generation, an outstanding biographer, an editor of genius and mentor to a spectacular cohort of younger writers including James, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Hugo Williams, Jim Crace and many others. He was (to use a rather cobwebby phrase) 'a man of letters' - one of our best and, perhaps, one of the last.

Here's a BBC4 documentary made the year after he died - a handsome tribute, and a reminder of what our literary culture used to be in an age of respected critical arbiters, of standard-setters. If you have an hour to spare in the dog days between Christmas and the New Year you could do worse than spend it here.

Saturday 26 December 2015

On toffee, and dancing.

On Christmas Eve this year, a date that already seems remote, we listened as usual to the King's College carol service on Radio 4 and, as the short day darkened, made toffee.

This can be a fraught affair - slabs of chocolate must be carefully broken up, nuts crouched; temperatures and timings must be finely calibrated, complex blends concocted then poured and quickly spread on chill marble. It sets very quickly then another layer is added and so on, before melted chocolate is poured over the whole lot and crushed nuts and suchlike added. Soon after it all has to be carefully levered away (or 'spatulated' as we call it) from the slab and broken up into irregular fragments, then boxed. It takes about two hours in all, after which stiff recuperative drinks are called for  and it's all over for another year.

All of which prompts a question: why is at that we describe somebody's ineptness at (for instance) dancing with the phrase "he can't dance for toffee"?  I looked up the idiom and it's orig. is obsc. and I can't help wondering why toffee should be taken as a measure of incompetence. Making toffee requires confidence, organisation, split-second timing and reckless daring. 

Friday 25 December 2015

Christmas Day with Oscar Wilde

Today, as you may have noticed, is Christmas Day, and it was on this day in 1888 that Oscar Wilde invited W. B. Yeats, then aged 23 and living alone in London. to dinner at his home in Tite Street, Chelsea. Yeats later recalled:

". . . a white drawing-room with Whistler etchings, 'let into' white panels, and a dining-room all white, chairs, walls, mantelpiece, carpet, except for a diamond-shaped piece of red cloth in the middle of the table under a terra-cotta statuette, and, I think, a red-shadedlamp hanging from the ceiling to a little above the statuette."

It wasn't entirely smooth-going. Yeats managed to annoy Wilde's young son Cyril by telling him an inept story about a giant, and felt conspicuously inelegant in the presence of his dandyish host. At one point Wilde said: "Ah, Yeats, we Irish are too poetic to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures"

After dinner Wilde read to his guest from the proofs of his Socratic dialogue The Decay of Lying. What wouldn't I give to have been there. Here is an extract from the preamble:

CYRIL: Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.

VIVIAN: I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind I After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once. No, the politicians won't do. 

You can read the rest of The Decay of Lying here.

Details of Christmas Day with the Wildes can be found in W.B. Yeats: A New Biography by A. Norman Jeffares (1988)

Thursday 24 December 2015

Seasonal blog, sort of.

Five descriptions the Prophet Muhammad:

"Muhammad was middle-sized, did not have lank or crisp hair, was not fat, had a white circular face, wide black eyes, and long eye-lashes. When he walked, he walked as though he went down a declivity. He had the "seal of prophecy" between his shoulder blades . . ."

"He was bulky. His face shone like the moon. He was taller than middling stature but shorter than conspicuous tallness. He had thick, curly hair. The plaits of his hair were parted. His hair reached beyond the lobe of his ear. His complexion was azhar [bright, luminous]."

"Muhammad had a wide forehead, and fine, long, arched eyebrows which did not meet. Between his eyebrows there was a vein which distended when he was angry. The upper part of his nose was hooked; he was thick bearded, had smooth cheeks, a strong mouth, and his teeth were set apart. He had thin hair on his chest."

"His neck was like the neck of an ivory statue, with the purity of silver."

"Muhammad was proportionate, stout, firm-gripped, even of belly and chest, broad-chested and broad-shouldered."

These are all taken from reputable online sources. Does a coherent picture emerge? Islam, as we all know, prohibits the pictorial representation of Muhammad so I was interested to find these and many other verbal descriptions are in circulation, all of them suggestive without being particularly vivid (apart from "he walked as though he went down a declivity" and that throbbing vein). Christ is never described physically in the New Testament although we all know what artists think the Son of God looked like thanks to countless painted depictions showing scenes in the Nativity to the Crucifixion. No taboo surrounds such representations, although apart from kitsch illustrators of religious tracts it's hard to image a serious artist today producing a painting of Christ unironically or without some subversive conceptual agenda. If you take a look at Google images for "Prophet Muhammad" you'll see some examples that clearly have no satirical intent and are, one assumes, acceptable to most Muslims.

There have of course been other, more provocative, representations of Mohammed with catastrophic results. Before we rush to condemn those who take offence (and after rushing to condemn the radicalised little shits who perpetrated the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo)  it's worth recalling that there was an enormous public row in Britain in late 1941 when the BBC broadcast a series of plays by Dorothy L. Sayers entitled The Man Born to be King. The very idea of an actor taking the role provoked outrage - there were accusations of blasphemy and (allegedly) one conservative Christian group claimed the fall of Singapore the following year was a sign of God's wrath. The Man Born to be King has since been re-made four times for the radio, and I was surprised and delighted to discover that the 1951 version featured none other than the comic actor Deryck Guyler as the Messiah.

Guyler (1914-1999) is fondly remembered by members of my generation for his portrayal of officious, short-tempered middle-aged men in sitcoms such as Please Sir! and Sykes and (on BBC radio) as Lennox-Brown in The Men from the Ministry (and I can hear the theme music, note for note, as I type this) So here's a seasonal treat for all my readers: a Christmas edition of Sykes featuring Guyler as the eccentric neighbourhood copper, Corky. This is rather marvellous - part of my childhood, in fact, when telly (and Christmas) was like this. Click on the link and do watch at some point over the next few days - but you'll have to skip the ads before you get to Eric and Hattie Jacques (who, despite what we all thought) wasn't really his sister. Imagine Guyler as Corky as Jesus.

Monday 21 December 2015

Anatomy of a Soldier

I first became aware of the author Harry Parker when he featured in an evening of readings by Faber authors earlier this year. The star turn that night was Edna O'Brien (the only human being I've ever seen who is literally dazzling), supported by Eimear McBride (reading from her forthcoming second novel The Lesser Bohemians, clearly delighted to be sharing the stage with her literary mentor). The line-up  also included Viv Albertine (late of The Slits and reading from her iPad) and a chap (whose name escaped me), a nephew of the critic I. A. Richards who had written a book about mountaineering. Harry Parker, first up, read from his unpublished novel Anatomy of a Soldier.

The Critics' Samurai Code is  unambiguous: books should never be reviewed before they are published, and reviews never circulated before they appear in print or online. Our leading literary organs generally abide by that and so do I, so what follows is not a review but a sort of drum-beating pre-view, and certainly not the first to appear. (I cleared permission with the author's agent before writing this blog). There's been a discernible buzz surrounding this book for some months now and for once the hyperbole is entirely justified because Anatomy of a Soldier is one of the most brilliant debut novels you're ever likely to read.

It's an unapologetically experimental work and a far cry from the Andy McNab school. The first-person narration (although the term itself is hardly the right description of what the author has achieved) comes from a series of inanimate objects: a rifle, some medical gauze, an army boot, a bag of fertilzer, a prosthetic limb and so on. Each object is imbued with a degree of consciousness and insight (although never quite amounting to self-consciousness) and each object delivers an eloquent, necessarily partial (in both senses) account of its role in an emerging catastrophe. I can't begin to tell you how incredibly impressive this is - the cumulative effect is harrowing, convincing and profoundly satisfying. Parker served in Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009 and clearly knows what he's talking about and he understands the vital importance of a soldier's kit and of bantering camaraderie. He doesn't aestheticise the experience of war but renders it directly and with complete conviction in an arrestingly original way. It's hardly a just comparison but the last time I read an avant-garde account of conflict this powerful and persuasive it was Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

The central character, Captain Tom Barnes, is horribly injured by an explosive device in an unspecified country and Parker's novel explores in penetrating, clear-eyed detail this traumatic event and Barnes's subsequent treatment and rehabilitation. The fragments build up a lucid and coherent account while the narrative perspective shifts between Barnes, his fellow soldiers and the local insurgents. This is gripping and rewarding. It extends the range of the novel.

When I heard the author read a few pages that evening my immediate reaction (since amended) was that such ingenuity, however well executed, would be unlikely to sustain the reader's interest at novel length. The danger, I thought, was that the approach would sooner or later degenerate into a simple guessing game in which the reader, having identified (as it were) 'the mystery object', would be tempted to skip to the next section, and that while that might offer some ludic satisfaction it would not amount to a coherent fiction. I'm happy to admit I was quite wrong.

I received an advance copy a week later and having read it in (as they say) a single mesmerised sitting realised that what I'd heard at the Faber reading was representative but not typical (if you see what I mean). Anatomy of a Soldier is  potent, compassionate, visceral and necessary. It knocked the stuffing out of this reader and will certainly be one of the great works of fiction published in 2016. 

Anatomy of a Soldier will be published in the UK by Faber and Faber in 2016.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Susan Sontag and Scopitone

In her influential, indeed seminal 1964 essay Notes on "Camp", the late Susan Sontag initiated a line of discourse that is still going strong. In it she lists the following 'random examples of items which are part of the canon of Camp':  

    Zuleika Dobson
    Tiffany lamps
    Scopitone films
    The Brown Derby restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in LA
    The Enquirer, headlines and stories
    Aubrey Beardsley drawings
    Swan Lake
    Bellini's operas
    Visconti's direction of Salome and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
    Certain turn-of-the-century picture postcards
    Schoedsack's King Kong
    The Cuban pop singer La Lupe
    Lynn Ward's novel in woodcuts, God's Man
    The old Flash Gordon comics
    Women's clothes of the twenties (feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses, etc.)
    The novels of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett
    Stag movies seen without lust

Several things strike me - one is the predominant belle époque Yellow Book resonance of Salome and Beardsley, and of the 1920s (Tiffany lamps, flapper clothes). Camp for Sontag was, at least in part, about the confident cultural appropriation of the past, and about ironic detachment. It was also more or less about foreignness because, with the exception of the Enquirer, the Brown Derby and Flash Gordon (and perhaps the Lynn Ward pictorial novel, which strikes me as the opposite of camp)., almost everything she lists comes from remote Europe, and the even remoter nineteenth century.

That a list is so accommodating as to find space for the Brown Derby (one of a string of hat-shaped restaurants), Bellini and King Kong begs the question: what isn't camp? A camp sensibility will manage to locate and elaborate potential campness in anything - it's the sensibility that counts rather than its correlative.

A couple of items in Sontag's list were completely off my radar: Scopitone films? La Lupe? Stag movies seen without lust? Other items seem to me to be a lapsed currency (Tiffany lamps) while others are tantalisingly vague: 'certain turn-of-the century postcards' - what on earth can she mean? And (this seems to me important) where does camp end and kitsch begin? It's a contested border. A theory of mine, and one that may not withstand close or even momentary scrutiny, is that camp degrades sooner or later into kitsch, but that kitsch can sometimes be rehabilitated, given fresh value and purchase on the culture, by camp. It's a temporal thing - tastes change.

But let's go back to Scopitone. I looked it up and discovered that the this was a kind of video-jukebox, showing 16mm films of mid-century performers, precursor to the pop video. Happily many of these survive and are available to view in a wonderful online archive here.  (You'll be immediately hooked, so beware). With the exceptions of Nancy Sinatra (inevitably performing These Boots are Made for Walking) and the French chanteuse Sylvie Vartan (twisting away conscientiously to Ray Charles's What I Say and raising the bar for cute), none of the singers in the Scopitone archive meant a thing to me. Which only adds, of course, to their charm and poignancy - all these lost young hopefuls from the middle of the last century. But none of the Scopitone films I've watched so far - perhaps a dozen, and with varying degrees of delight - strikes me as particularly camp in Sontagian terms. They share a retro appeal, are agreeably unhip and (as we now know) are mostly poignant records of incipient commercial failure, of cultural also-rans.

Camp today - and it's a long time since it needed Sontag's tentative inverted commas, having moved into the mainstream - is more raucous, more ubiquitous than it was half a century ago. I'm not sure this is entirely a good thing, but it's undeniably a thing. I don't own a television but such is the cultural ubiquity of the television presenter Graham Norton that even I am aware of his overpowering register. Camp has become a default setting. It's worrying.

Saturday 19 December 2015

Plum to Zadie

Change and decay in all around I see.

Well decay, certainly. The latter outweighs the former in Cameron's Britain, not least if one considers change should always be for the better. As the country sinks into a state in which vile oligarchs and sad paupers are united only in their enthralment to celebrity culture (which is the opposite of life), as our children are denied any purchase on the future economy (whatever form that takes), as freedoms are eroded and the public discourse around political issues becomes ever more rancorous and infantile, as the homeless and hopeless proliferate, as private companies wait to pounce on what remains of our public health service . . .

What prompts such glum reflections?

It is, as I'm sure you'll already have guessed, the recent publication in two volumes of The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, edited by Philip Hensher. They cost twenty five pounds each, and it's fifty quid well spent if you're in the market for two inconveniently heavy slabs of (mostly) light fiction.

I admire Hensher very much, and for many reasons, and I'm pleased to see that our tastes overlap (not least in his perfectly reasonable claim that V. S. Pritchett is the greatest of short story practitioners, although I'd quibble at his selection of The Camberwell Beauty). 

What prompts my gloom, and what may prompt a corresponding gloom in you, my valued reader, is the sub-title of the second volume: 'From P. G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith'.

There's quite a distance between those two writers, and I can't persuade myself that there's much in the way of progress. I can see the point of Zadie Smith and am pleased that she seems to have overcome the early success of White Teeth, a fiction that (as they say) ticked all the boxes but (as I say) left me cold. This was partly for personal reasons, as her upbeat depiction of a Jehovah's Witness family managed to be as ignorant and condescending as anything I've ever read about this nasty cult (and I know what I'm talking about, believe me). It was also because I never bought into her portrayal of urban multiculturalism, which is a far more nuanced and tricky and unstable a subject than she allows. 

Now 40, she's so much part of the literary establishment (whatever that is) that I feel Hensher should be looking at other, more recent (and inevitably younger) writers for a sense of where the form is heading, what it is capable of doing. Recent virtuosic short story collections include volumes by May-Lan Tan (Things to Make and Break), Thomas Morris (We Don't Know What We're Doing), Claire-Louise Bennet (Pond) and many, many others. That Zadie Smith (and, come to that, Ali Smith) are included as (by implication) the culmination of a literary form dating back to Defoe is something I'm sure both of them would find  amusing and embarrassing. But mostly embarrassing.

And what about P. G. Wodehouse? For some (including me) he's simply unmatched as a comic writer, and is one of the great literary stylists, instantly recognisable yet virtually inimitable. Gabriel Josipovici makes a strong case for regarding Wodehouse as an important modernist, and I can't help but agree, because Wodehouse is as much a language virtuoso as, say James Joyce. "Some girls are the sand in civilisation's spinach'. How about that?

Sunday 13 December 2015

The French take on English Lit.

What connects these five novels and their writers?

The Rosy Crucifixion by Henry Miller
Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos
Martin Eden by Jack London
Sophie's Choice by William Styron
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The answer may come as a surprise. They all featured in Les cent livres du siècle, a list of the one hundred best books of the 20th century, according to a poll conducted in the spring of 1999 (and I know this isn't topical, except retrospectively) by the French retailer Fnac and the Paris newspaper Le Monde. 
Starting from a preliminary list of 200 titles created by bookshops and journalists (and I already smell a rat), 17,000 French voters responded to the question "Which books have remained in your memory?" (Quels livres sont restés dans votre mémoire?)
Now there were other books written in English in the list - Steinbecks's The Grapes of Wrath was the highest-placed Anglophone novel (in 7th place) and Ulysses came in 28th, below Lolita and above The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati. There was The Hound of the Baskervilles and The War of the Worlds and (for some reason) Gone with the Wind.
What struck me about the five novels listed at the start of this blog is that not only had I never read any of them (and of course one can't read everything), but that, in the case of Martin Eden I'm ashamed to admit I'd never even heard of the book. At least I thought I'd never heard of it but it turns out I must have. In Nabokov's Pnin (1957), the title character asks for a copy of Martin Eden in a bookshop, describing it as "a celebrated work by the celebrated American writer Jack London". The assistant (like me) has never heard of it, and tries to palm him off with The Son of the Wolf prompting Pnin's gloomy reflection: "Strange! The vicissitudes of celebrity! In Russia, I remember, everybody—little children, full-grown people, doctors, advocates—everybody read and re-read him."
It's odd, isn't it, that some writers appear to enjoy a greater reputation in other languages. I seem to recall that everyone in Paris in the late 1980s was reading John Irving. Why? It's not that he's a negligible writer but what was it that triggered an eager response in France?
Perhaps the most popular 19th century anglophone writer in France is Edgar Allen Poe (or 'Edgar Poe' as the French prefer to call him). It's not so hard to find a likely reason in the identity of Poe's best interpreter. Charles Baudelaire spent nearly ten years translating Poe's works into French, and his translations were and are very highly regarded. He certainly wasn't the first Frnech writer to tackle Poe, but his "scrupulous translations" were and are considered the best. These were published, in case you want to read them (I haven't) as Histoires extraordinaires (1852), Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires (New extraordinary stories) (1857). There are, I expect others. Certainly Baudelaire is an added lure (which sounds like an anagram), and I can't help wondering which foreign writers  were or are popular in English in part at least because of the fame of their translators. I don't mean Dante (for instance), but Poe-like authors . . . any thoughts?

Thursday 12 November 2015

World's funniest sentence

Not aphorisms, or witticisms, and certainly not jokes and smart-arse one liners. What I'm after are sentences (and sometimes a series of sentences) that are funny in themselves, but which rely on a context for their effect.

This was prompted by my off-the-cuff remark recently that the author Anthony Buckeridge - creator of the immortal schoolboy Jennings and his pal Darbishire - would be hard to beat, on the strength of Darby's flailing attempts to say, following a bicycle crash: "My black back brake block's broken!" (from Jennings's Diary). At the age of eight or nine I could think of nothing funnier, apart from his regular cry of "Fossilised fishhooks!"

I haven't given much thought to what follows but here, in no particular order, are some favourites:

1. 'Perhaps this will refresh your memory'. It's the caption to a cartoon by James Thurber. You'll need to look up the image of course, if you don't know it already.  Brace yourself.

2. 'I shall sit here,' the Footman remarked, 'till tomorrow - ' At this moment the door of the house opened, ... 'I shall sit here,' he said, 'on and off, for days and days. 

The great Peter Cook found these lines from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland  particularly hilarious. He 'did' the voice of the frog Footman as a dimwit yokel. 

3. From Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet. I can' find a copy but I recall the end of a lengthy episode in which the titular heroes decide to become farmers and after a scrupulous study of all the literature and heavy investment in infrastructure and feed, attempt to raise pigs, This culminates in the simple and deadpan line:

                             The pigs escaped and bit people. 

4. When Lauren Bacall first met Humphrey Bogart on the set of To Have and Have Not she reportedly told him: 'Without my glasses you're a good-looking guy.'

5. P. G. Wodehouse of course - but where to begin? I'd plump for 'Some girls are the sand in civilisation's spinach'. That will have to do for now. Or Jeeves, in his 'stately procession of one'.

6. "Advanced, forthright, signifficant".  It's Nigel Molesworth, nailing the modish young philosopher Colin Wilson. That double f makes me happy. Geoffrey Willans!

7. George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody. Too many bone-dry lines to savour. But I'll go of the moment when Mr Pooter lowers himself into a very hot bathtub (which he has recently decorated in Pinkford's red enamel paint). Here's the passage, and I'll reveal the particular sentence that melts my butter afterwards:

    On moving my hand above the surface of the water, I experienced the greatest fright I ever received in the 
whole course of my life; for imagine my horror on discovering my hand, as I thought, full of blood. My first thought was that I had ruptured an artery, and was bleeding to death, and should be discovered, later on, looking like a second Marat, as I remember seeing him in Madame Tussaud’s. My second thought was to ring the bell, but remembered there was no bell to ring. My third was, that there was nothing but the enamel paint, which had dissolved with boiling water. I stepped out of the bath, perfectly red all over, resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East–End theatre. I determined not to say a word to Carrie, but to tell Farmerson to come on Monday and paint the bath white.

What reliably makes me shake with laughter is "My second thought was to ring the bell, but remembered there was no bell to ring." We all have moments like that. Or days.

8. "The fleet's lit up" Lieutenant-Commander Thomas 'Tommy' Woodroffe (1899–1978) was a British naval officer, broadcaster and writer. After his retirement he became a commentator for BBC Radio. 

From the fairly-reliable Wikipedia entry on the great man:

   In 1937 he was to describe the Spithead Review from his old ship the battleship HMS Nelson. Apparently he met some of his former colleagues before the broadcast and drank to the extent that his broadcast, still known today by his repeated use of the phrase "the fleet's lit up", was so incoherent he was taken off air after a few minutes and suspended for a week by the BBC Director-General John Reith.

9. 'I'm picky'  Isabelle Huppert. when asked how she can be both a nymphomaniac and a virgin, in Hal Hartley's wonderful indie movie Amateur.

10. 'Nobody's perfect' Over-exposed perhaps, but still a hell of a line, from Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot. And it's also true, which is a bonus.

11. 'He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy'. 

12. 'Hard boiled eggs and nuts' says Ollie straight to the camera, understandably disgusted by Stan's 'gift' in County Hospital.

13.  'Swipe me how glittering' (or any number of glum ejaculations from the lad himself, Tony Hancock).

14.  Hardly a joke, more an expression of a world view, and therefore admissible: an opening line from Ken Dodd, at the start of an epic one-man show exploring the limits of language and human endurance: "What a beautiful day! What a beautiful day for sticking a cucumber through the vicar's letterbox and shouting "THE MARTIANS HAVE LANDED!"

15. O could hardly overlook this one: Collapse of stout party It's not so much the mildly salacious sentence that triggers the moment, but the inexorable descent into inarticulate sobs and gurgles that's so compelling. A worthy conclusion - and companion piece to number 8 (above).

More to follow, perhaps.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

On Julian Maclaren-Ross

Last week - Tuesday November 3rd to be precise - marked the anniversary of the death, in 1964, of the wonderful writer Julian Maclaren-Ross.

So this is a belated blog, prompted by the great Soho chronicler's passing, just over half a century ago. He died broke and it was only a few years ago that, thanks to the heroic efforts of the  journalist Virginia Ironside and members of the Sohemian Society, a gravestone was belatedly commissioned and put in place. I was present at the ceremony and delivered the following heartfelt doggerel, as whiskey was poured over the elegant headstone and cigarettes left, for what use is an afterlife without booze and baccy?

Maclaren Ross is the subject of one of the very best literary biographies you'll ever read:  Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia by Paul Willetts.

The poem was, and is, dedicated to Julian's son Alex.

Lines to Mark the Unveiling of a Headstone

For Alex Maclaren-Ross

Dear Julian Maclaren-Ross,
     You wouldn’t give a tinker’s toss
     For all this fuss. This is for us – the living.
We’re here to perpetrate an act of giving.

It’s true our congregation’s small in number -
     Not sure what quorum constitutes a wake.
     We’ve interrupted your eternal slumber
To celebrate a dandy and a rake,

Who loved the rough sodality of pubs,
     Cocoon’d by fugs of gossip, banter, quips,
     Spoofing the hours away in coppers, tanners, bobs;
And pints of  bitter, scotch and filter tips.

You have a headstone now. It’s kindly meant -
     Confirming you as WRITER AND BOHEMIAN,
     And elected unopposed as president
Of a club that we - don’t snigger! - call Sohemian.

We’ve gathered here today for this unveiling -
     Your unmarked grave now marked for all to see.
      I’m pleased to say the atmosphere prevailing
Is one of simple camaraderie.

Alex is here, your son - a grown man; 
     (There wasn’t time for you to get acquainted);
     He knows you now as well as a son can,
Aware you’re never likely to be sainted.

We love your tales of squaddies, spivs and chancers;
     Of clots and colonels, pukka sahibs, drunks;
     Of chaps in digs, of salesmen, tarts and dancers,
How some are decent types and others skunks.

Your style, M-R, is simple, tough and supple -
     You buttonhole your reader with each word;
     You’re free of bullshit, cliché, cant and waffle,  
And have a master’s sense of the absurd.

Are you surprised you’re more read now than ever?
     That most of what you wrote is back in print? 
     Your critics and your public think you’re clever,
(Of Love and Hunger must have made a mint).

You have an active afterlife as Trapnel,
     It can’t be long before you get a plaque
     Or some such reputation-forging shrapnel.
It’s fair to say at last you’ve made your mark.

But where are they, those other Forties spirits?
     Where’s Sister Anne and Tambi, Nina, Ruthven?
     Well thanks to your biographer Paul Willetts
They’re here, and still by fear and loathing driven,

As though they’ve just nipped out to bounce a cheque,
     To lunch with Rotha, hoping for a break;
     At work to salvage something from time’s wreck -
A paragraph that isn’t glib or fake.

Their fading Wheatsheaf shades prop up the bar,
     A pissed-up mist of spite and spleen and ink;
     They’ve settled in, they won’t be going far;
A miasma of pills and fags and drink.

But let me at this point bring in and honour
     A quondam Chelsea Bird with whim of iron
     Who got Tom Waugh to carve your name upon a 
Granite block (with words that suit Lord Byron).

You’d really like Virginia, I think:
      A writer too – commanding large advances.
      She’d match you yarn for yarn and drink for drink
And show you how to cope at beat club dances.

Now let’s agree, before we get the rounds in -
     What‘s great about your stuff? Why does it last?
     What is it that your writing most abounds in?
What keeps it fresh, unfettered by the past?

Good questions all, but I don’t have a clue.
     Can’t do lit. crit., and think it would be mad to.
     But here’s a wonky insight, partly true:
You wrote the way you did because you had to.

Hounded by creditors, landlords and editors
     Clobbered by taxes and exes and sex, 
          Fizzing with benzedrine, twitchy with dexies 
               Years of bad eating and mountainous debts.

You fabulous, bibulous arch self-inventor -
     With cane and dark glasses and camel-hair coat.
          Seductive, productive, intransigent mentor
               To thinkers and drinkers and this pisspoor poet.

Enough! It's nearly time for us to go.
     So from us all and all your readers too,
     It's “Toodle pip old man” and “Cheerio”,
We're off to raise a glass or three to you,
Dear Julian Maclaren-Ross,
     Who wouldn’t give a tinker’s toss

     For all this fuss. Please join us – the living.

Thursday 22 October 2015

'Mildew' by Paulette Jonguitud

The great Mexican print-maker J. G. Posada (1852-1913) specialised in the strident, the melodramatic and the grotesque, portraying a vividly strange world of grinning dios de la muerte skulls and bewigged demon brides and epic biblical catastrophes, of freaks and omens, of random explosions and collapsing churches.

Readers familiar with Posada may be prepared for what goes on in Mildew, a wonderfully shocking debut novel by the young Mexican writer Paulette Jonguitud.

A day before her daughter's wedding Constanza, a theatre designer, discovers a small blemish on her upper thigh. This very quickly spreads, a combination of the titular mildew and something more momentously invasive and accelerated, as if she's been trapped in a David Cronenberg movie. The mould, part vegetable part mineral, rapidly consumes her leg. 

The alarming physical symptoms are accompanied by a mental and emotional malaise that accompanies the change - or  perhaps we should say Change, as this is clearly a menopausal metaphor, among other things. As Constanza rots she becomes increasingly less visible to those around her. There are awkward encounters with her husband, her niece, her children - although 'awkward' is hardly the word.

Past events have a spectral purchase on the present - an aborted foetus can be found alive and (fairly) well in her husband's guitar case; there's a very strange grandmother who teaches herself palmistry;  the narrator is step-mother to her own niece, who has an affair with her husband.

This haunting fable cites Hieronymus Bosch, Macbeth, travelling freak shows, torrid television melodramas and modernist surrealism. The presiding spirit, though, is Kafka. A really impressive novella, deftly translated from the Spanish by the author.

You can read more about Mildew and order a copy from the reliable CB editions

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Save the Horse Hospital

News from my friend, the writer and hepcat Cathi Unsworth, about The Horse Hospital.

This place is a stone's throw from Russell Square, and for a quarter of a century has been London's pre-eminent centre for exhibitions of Outsider Art (and much else besides). It's a wonderful venue, of great architectural and cultural interest and an antidote to the slick corporate blandness of other cultural hubs. It's now under serious threat from (three guesses).

Cathi writes:

Like me, most of you will have spent at least one of the best nights of your life at the Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury, where for 25 years Roger K Burton has been offering a platform and a refuge for genuine outsider art, across every permutation of that word that you can think of. […] Now it is in danger of becoming lost to us all and instead turned into that thing that we dread the most - luxury flats. 

Roger has spent nearly two years trying to fight off his landlord to remain in the venue that he has built up over all this time, but needs more money than he can generate on the door alone to be able to meet the legal bills required to go on fighting. So he has set up a crowdfunding camapign. You don't have to give very much, and everything you do give is rewarded with a special bit of very exciting HH-related art. 

If the HH is forced to close, we will probably never know anything like it again. So please, try and help in any way you can, by spreading the word as far as you can. And if you can see your way to a small contribution, the site is HERE.

There's also a WEBSITE. 

Dig deep. Don't let The Horse Hospital become a knackers' yard.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Remainder - the film

To Tate Modern last night, to see the world premiere of Remainder, a highlight of the BFI London Film Festival. 

Based on Tom McCarthy's outstanding debut novel, the script and direction was by the Israeli video artist Omar Fast, and marks his feature debut. It's a film worth seeing, and even worth going to see (and I  discovered that Tate Modern is open until 10pm on Saturday nights and with hardly a living soul in the building. A revisit soon seems in order, as the cavernous building works best without crowds).

Remainder's premise was achieved briskly in the novel but interminably in the film, which begins with twenty minutes of throat-clearing. In the novel all we are told is all we need to know: that the protagonist has received a colossal sum in damages for injuries and amnesia sustained in an accident he cannot remember, allowing him to spend - or fritter - lavish amounts of cash on realising increasingly elaborate, highly personal recreations of what may or may not be actual memories from his past. At a literal level this is about the negotiation of post-traumatc stress. McCarthy is too clever and accomplished a writer to investigate such a banal subject and his novel is a magnificent interrogation of - well, what it means to be human, and the contingencies of existence.

In the movie we get all the legal background in explicit but implausible detail, with unctuous lawyers and non-disclosure clauses and all that paraphernalia. A particular sum of compensatory money is specified (£8.5 million), which doesn't seem so much these days, given the grand projects that follow - and I wasn't alone in mentally ticking off the likely cost of acquiring a large London property, recruiting and training actors, building sets and so on (Think Synechdoche New York). I found myself wondering whether it could really be achieved, even in part. The literalist approach to finance made bean-counters of us all, and the realist grounding worked against the more phantasmagoric elements of the novel and, indeed, the film. I also found myself wondering whether the sum was a reference to the movie's modest budget. The film is a brave attempt at an uncommercial subject but in cinematic terms disappointingly inert (while the novel was richly and rewardingly inert, in common with much experimental fiction). There's a situation but no plot to speak of, no character arc, no development and, a few moments aside - when, for instance, the hero assembles and briefs a cast to inhabit his refurbished apartment building, there to perform, at a moment's notice, the same micro-tasks such as frying liver, practising Chopin on the piano or revving a motorcycle engine - we get a lot of faces interacting, with dialogue that veers between the cryptic and overly-explicit, untethered by McCarthy's smart reflections on consciousness and personality that made the novel such a brilliantly compelling original. 

McCarthy himself makes a brief self-referential (or selfie-referential) appearance as an image on someone's mobile phone - we needed more of this, I think. Film offers no end of opportunity for the director to comment on the process of production - one might have expected cutaway shots of the actors employed in the elaborate apartment reconstructions 'off role', as it were, commenting no-doubt-sceptically on the film they were making. Michael Winterbottom did this with wit and flair in A Cock and Bull Story, his under-rated take on Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

There are plenty of bright ideas jostling for the viewer's attention and it's a rare pleasure to watch a new film that repays close attention throughout, and one that prompts no end of (in my case) half-baked intellectual responses. The best ideas were those sourced directly from the novel - the departures were less achieved and convincing. In a clunky reference to Proust the South London apartment building where things unfold is named Madlyn Mansions (geddit?). As far as I recall this was not in the novel so please correct me if I'm wrong (and I suppose there's a further reference to the Kim Novak character in Hitchcock's sublime Vertigo). The most annoying departure is an entirely gratuitous snog between Sturridge and Arsher Ali, who plays Naz, the general factotum elicited to make things happen. In the novel Naz (an unflappable Jeeves-like amanuensis) becomes increasingly committed to, and complicit in, the project - a journey here crassly condensed into a hairy and prolonged French kiss.

Casting seemed off-kilter. Tom Sturridge has such a lean and chiselled expression that he always appears to be in profile, whichever way he's looking. At one point he wears the most preposterous beard and wig (not, I'm sure, intended as a joke). His look is mostly dazed and impassive, the exception being when he describes his need to have the smell of frying liver waft up to his room in the newly-repurposed apartment building. He gives the word 'waft' an engagingly connoisseurial inflexion.

Cush Jumbo as the American girlfriend (not in the original novel) was given little to do. Danny Webb as the Gorblimey crime consultant blew in from another movie halfway through, lifting things considerably, but this was the point at which genre conventions began to take over. Webb has a chortling warmth that none of the other actors were invited to approximate, and with his arrival the film is repurposed into a more-or-less straightforward heist movie, with lots of shouting and shooting and bloodshed and comeuppance, with an existential top-dressing. Picture Rififi remade by Peter Greenaway (and I was more than once reminded of Greenaway's more purgatorial excursions of the 1980s). 

If you're looking for a metaphysical and philosophical movie exploring memory and consciousness and  identity I'd certainly recommend Remainder. I'd also recommend more mainstream crowd-pleasers such as Groundhog Day, or The Truman Show or, of course, Vertigo. And there's always Remainder the novel, which is superb. McCarthy's having a pretty good year - he's currently shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Goldsmiths Prizes for his most recent novel Satin Island. He was not directly involved  in the making of the film and I'm not sure what he made of it all - he was in the audience, and on the Q & A panel that followed the screening, but we had to leave before that kicked off.

You can read the very perceptive Variety review by Catherine Bray here.