Thursday 31 March 2016

Happy birthday Roy Andersson

Happy birthday Roy Andersson  (born 31 March 1943), the acclaimed Swedish film director, best known for A Swedish Love Story (1970) and his 'Living trilogy' - Songs from the Second Floor (2000); You, the living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014). Look out for them all.

Over the past six decades he has made only six feature-length films in all, but more than 400 very distinctive television commercials which share with the films a satisfyingly bleak, slapstick quality. You can savour some examples here, here, here and here. They suggest a culture at ease with the manifold inadequacies of late capitalism, and most of them are very funny.

Wednesday 30 March 2016

Moderate violence my arse

To the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill, there to see as a half-term treat (though not for me) Batman versus Superman

Most reviewers have criticised the movie for its complete incoherence, although nobody goes to to a blockbuster in search of the Aristotelean unities. Five minutes in I gave up attempting to understand the plot, because there really isn't one, or if there is it's entirely inconsequential (an approach which did no harm to  Hitchcock). What we get is a series of elaborate set-pieces exploiting the kind of special effects that are cumulatively underwhelming. What was overwhelming was the film's extreme, coarse-grained and stomach-turning brutality.

It is really shocking and troubling how extreme 'moderate violence' can be. Are the apparatchiks of the British Board of Film Classification (who gave the film a 12A rating) so jaded and depraved by their steady diet of slasher movies and porn? How on earth can a film of such unremitting and explicit violence be considered suitable for 12-year-old children, whether accompanied by an adult or not?

In the course of 151 gruelling minutes we were shown human beings (not superheros - we'll come to them later) graphically slaughtered both singly and en masse - eviscerated, blown up, stabbed, dismembered, riddled with bullets, chained to radiators and branded, thrown from tall buildings, run over, crushed by falling masonry, burned and (in the case of Lois Lane) nearly drowned. A mentally disturbed suicide bomber in a wheelchair blew himself up causing mass death in a Washington conference chamber. This scene also featured a jar full of an old woman's urine.

There were hand grenades, rocket launchers, high velocity rifles and no end of sexy high-tech gadgetry designed to damage bodies. There was bare-knuckle fighting; scenes of blood drawn from sliced flesh; there was an awful lot of noisy. meaty punching. Bones could be heard splintering.

Now it's one thing to watch superheroes slugging it out and destroying most of a city as they do so. Because they're superheroes, it's pretty much what they do all the time, it comes with the territory. They fight. They fight each other and they fight  unwelcome outsiders, usually from other planets. What they traditionally don't do is hurt and kill human beings, because they're essentially good guys who are here to protect us. Comic book violence is unrealistic and, in its way, up to a point, good clean fun. Any violence used to be directed at criminals, at our (and their) enemies.

We've come a long way since the fondly-remembered Batman telly series of the 1960s with its pop art sensibility and comic book vim, with paunchy Adam West and feisty Burt Ward laying into the Joker, the Riddler and Catwoman. It's something else entirely to watch  the explicit depiction of harm done to non-superheroes, to real people, to people like ourselves. At one point Clark Kent's mother Martha (played by Diane Lane, who should look for a pickier agent) was on the brink of being facially disfigured with a blowtorch by a heavily scarred and tattoo'd Russian psychopath. There were hundreds of unseen deaths in the cities reduced to rubble (an aestheticised version of the Twin Towers collapsing, again and again and again).

Ben Affleck played the Batman, or rather his jawline did. Superman was a brilliantined void (which is at least faithful to the original). Wonder Woman turned up towards the end to hack away spiritedly at some ghastly mutant but made little impression - on the mutant, or the film, or the audience, There was throughout no wit, no warmth, no love, no understanding. Nobody in the film does anything as unacceptable as smoking of course, not even the villain, although he did sink some bourbon while pointedly not offering any to his guest, a Hilary Clintonish liberal senator (played well by Holly Hunter, who should also change her agent). There were some annoying appropriations (the villain Lex Luthor quotes Nabokov), listless dialogue (when there should have been none at all) and too many sequences that seemed to start with a loose end rather than end with one. The incoherent plot was the least of it.

By the time the film started my appetite for spectacle had in any case already been more than satisfied by the multiple trailers. One, however, snagged my attention (so much so that I came home and looked it up online). It was for another forthcoming Marvel blockbuster: Suicide Squad. More than 40 million people have already watched this online, and you should do so too because it's a terrific piece of editing, with more wit and invention in two minutes than the two-and-a-half-hours of Batman versus Spiderman. This doesn't mean I'll go to see the full movie, of course, although it's timed for release during the school summer holidays, so I expect I'll have little say in the matter.

The Suicide Squad trailer owes something to what is, by any objective measure, a masterpiece of rhythmic appropriation and integration, an astonishing rap interpretation of Ridley Scott's Aliens. Something very original in the way the unconscious rhythms of Hollywood dialogue can be mined for a beat (and it chat's a clunky way of expressing it that's because I can't easily describe what's been achieved in a song written and produced by DJ MAYHEM and featuring the vocal skills of the excellent Mouthmaster Murf). Good work, fellas!

Tuesday 29 March 2016


In one of his many volumes of memoirs Clive James quotes admiringly from the autobiography of Kirk Douglas, once the highest-paid star in Hollywood:  fame, said Douglas, doesn't change the way you behave, but it changes the way people behave towards you.

He might have added that if enough people change the way they behave towards you your own behaviour is likely to change too, over time.

Prompted by recalling the edict of John Reith, first Director General of the British Broadcasting Corporation, who reportedly banned radio broadcasters and journalists from using the adjective 'famous' be causes, as he rightly reasoned, if somebody really is famous the adjective is unnecessary and if not, not. I shan't even bother to type out Andy Warhol's most famous dictum, but would add that there fifteen minutes is far too long - the modern celebrity has the longevity of a mayfly. They are in the public eye too briefly for us to alter our behaviour towards them.

Monday 28 March 2016

Auden and SATs

I have in front of me the snappily-titled Achieve 100 Plus: Reading Practice Questions for Key Stage 2 ('Aim higher in the National Tests) published by a company called Rising Stars and attributed to one Laura Collinson. My stepson is slogging through this book by way of preparation for the government's pedagogically dubious Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) in May. Achieve 100 Plus is a collection of fiction and non-fiction prose and poetry aimed at ten-year-olds. 

Here's a particular gripe:

On page 50 we are presented with a poem attributed to W.H. Auden called ''Stop all the clocks'. It's the one many people know because of its presence in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. But Auden never wrote a poem called 'Stop all the clocks'. This is the first half of the first line of 'Funeral Blues'one of two cabaret songs dashed off for the night club chanteuse Hedli Anderson, who was married to Louis Macneice. Benjamin Britten set Auden's lyrics to music. 

But Laura Collinson has her own take on the matter. Her first question runs thus:

The poem was written in response to what event?

The correct answer - but not one sought by the questioner - would be that it's not a poem but a song lyric and wasn't written in response to any event but done for money as a commission.  This would not go down well with examiners, of course, but it annoys me - more than annoys me - that such a thoughtless appropriation and distortion of  some minor Auden has been made, and that any child pointing out the truth would be penalised. And, come to think of it, why in the name of reason are we giving this sort of thing to ten-year-olds to read? 

A later question about Auden's 'Funeral Blues' runs thus::

Some of the writer's demands to stop things happening may be possible, whilst others may be impossible. Explain what the possibilities are, referring to the text in your answer.

If the wonky literacy of that doesn't make you flinch you're probably employed as a copy editor or proof-reader at Rising Star. A few pages later we are given an extract from Auden's 'Night Mail' (mistitled 'Night mail'). I assume the Estate has granted copyright clearance (although it's disappointing to see 'Night Mail' appear in a mutilated form and with no context-setting introduction explaining that it was another commission, this time to accompany a Post Office Film Unit documentary of the same name. Collinson's glossary insists that Beattock (as in 'Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb / The gradients against her  but she's on time') is the name of a village in Scotland. This may be the case, but in Auden's commentary it refers only to a steep incline on the West Coast main line (which appears on screen when the lines are uttered), some ten miles from the village after which it is named. Does this matter? Only if truth and accuracy matter.

The other texts included in the Rising Star anthology are uneven in quality and incoherent in content - we have an extract from Robert Browning's 'Pied Piper of Hamlin', some verses by Heaney and John Claire, two extracts from Malorie Blackman's novel Pig Heart Boy; there's something about Anne Frank and a poem by Adrian Henri about Adrian Henri. One of the passages is taken from Reader's Digest and another written by the telly presenter Carol Voorderman. The range and quality of questions and tasks based on this odd assortment of texts is dull and dispiriting, and reminded me of an anonymous verse prompted by Wordsworth's 'To the Cuckoo':

"O cuckoo! Shall I call thee Bird?
   Or just a wandering voice?"
State the alternative preferred
   With reasons for your choice.

I can think of no more effective or efficient way of putting children off reading for pleasure for the rest of their lives than the approach encouraged by Her Majesty's Government. Related to the subject of SATs and testing in general, the poet Michael Rosen has been furiously eloquent in his assault on the governments so called SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) tests Enjoy a recent a recent blog of his here, and get angry.

Sunday 27 March 2016

Trolling in the 18th century

The clocks went forward one hour during the night - it's now British Summer Time and I'm experiencing the usual bi-annual mild disorientation. It's either 6 or 7am (which means little enough, given that time is a random sub-division of eternity). Everyone else is asleep. We're in a remote backwater of Suffolk and from one window of this tiny cottage I see open fields and some pheasants, from the other the medieval parish church of St Mary, Battisford. It's Easter Sunday, but there will be no service as the church appears to have been decommissioned (though not deconsecrated).  Very few people live around here, and fewer still, it seems are church-goers.

I'm dipping into Swift's Satires and Personal Writings, the solid Oxford Standard Authors edition, and reacquainting myself with The Partridge-Bickerstaff Papers.

John Partridge (born John Hewson), 'an obscure cobbler', set up as an astrologer in London in1678 and became rich. King William appointed him court physician, grateful for his denunciations of Popery. Partridge was a dolt, and the object of ridicule by the Wits of the day. Swift published, under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, Predictions for the Year 1708 in which he made a spirited defence of astrology before offering some thoughts on what the future would hold. His first prediction - 'but a Trifle' - was that John Partridge would 'infallibly dye upon the 29th of March next, about Eleven at Night, of a raging Feaver'.

Other predictions followed - some of mesmerising vagueness ('On the 15h [of May] News will arrive of a very Surprising Event, than which nothing should be more unexpected'); others of a startling specificity ('On the 29th [of June] the Cardinal Portocarero will Dye of a Dissentery, with great Suspicion').

On the morning of 30th March Swift published an Elegy on the death of Partridge:

Here, five Foot deep, lies on his Back,
A Cobler, Starmonger, and Quack;
Who to the Stars in pure Good–will,
Does to his best look upward still.
Weep all you Customers that use
His Pills, his Almanacks, or Shoes;
And you that did your Fortunes seek,
Step to his Grave but once a Week:
This Earth which bears his Body’s Print,
You’ll find has so much Vertue in’t,
That I durst pawn my Ears ’twill tell
Whate’er concerns you full as well,
In Physick, Stolen Goods, or Love,
As he himself could, when above.

A few days later a longer piece appeared, called An Account of the Death of Partridge. His victim made a huge error by claiming, insisting even, that he was still very much alive, prompting Swift to print a Vindication.

The hoax became the talk of the town and many of Swift's contemporaries weighed in - Congreve, Gay, Pope and Steele - an avalanche of squibs and pamphlets proving that Partridge was dead and Bickerstaff's prediction accurate. (This anticipates by more than three centuries the current phenomenon of 'trolling' on the internet). The Company of Stationers struck Partridge's name from their rolls so he could no longer publish his popular and profitable almanac Merlinus Liberatus. He took legal proceedings to prove he was alive but the Lord Chamberlain ruled against him. Swift continued the campaign, writing both as Bickerstaff and Partridge (and Swift's version of Partridge's hectic 'afterlife' following his death in March is hilarious, as he is palgued by what he calls 'a Pack of Dismals':

In short , what with Under-takers, Embalmers, Joyners, Sextons and your damn'd Elegy-hawkers, upon a late Practitioner in Physick and Astrology, I got not one Wink of sleep that Night, nor scarce a Moments Rest ever since.

Partridge was a  wealthy fool with access to power and considerable influence. We need Swift and his fellow Wits more than ever.

Saturday 26 March 2016

From Our Own Correspondent

Broadcast weekly by the BBC since 1955, From Our Own Correspondent is an odd throwback, as its title suggests.

Introduced by veteran reporter Kate Adie, the format has never varied: "a number of BBC foreign correspondents deliver a sequence of short talks reflecting on current events and topical themes in the countries outside the UK in which they are based."

There's a pre-Suez, colonial-era feel to the programme, an assumption that British hacks are always first on the scene and first to file their copy and that Great Britain still has an entitlement, an obligation even, to legitimise or disapprove of anything that happens anywhere in the world. The show's title itself harks back to long-gone Fleet Street traditions, a world satirised by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop (which, whenever I re-read it, strikes me as the funniest comic novel of all time). The tone of From Our Own Correspondent ranges between the jaunty and the world-weary. The latter predominates, although there is a tendency to accentuate the positive, to suggest that things might improve in some hellish post-colonial backwater.  Our correspondent will typically describe an encounter with a local worthy which leads to a greater understanding of what's going on in Botswana or Uzbekistan. 

"As we walk towards the compound along the dusty highway, the commissioner flashes me a broad smile and invited me for a drink"; 

"A child, no more than four years old, is playing with a hand grenade in the shadow of the burnt-out medical centre"; 

"Times are hard for Mr Papadopolus, who remembers when the militia first arrived on his dairy farm"; 

"The old woman has seen famine before, but never on a scale like this."

The prose style is sub-Graham Greene, the delivery rather stilted - the reporter reads from a script and no naturalism creeps in. This is what seems particularly old-fashioned about the programme - the once commonplace format of the 'talk' now largely banished from the airwaves in favour of unscripted discussion and off-the-cuff analysis. It's like overhearing an undergraduate reading an essay to a dozing don.

It's surely worth pointing out that From Our Own Correspondent began in the same era as The Goon Show. Spike Milligan's surreal genius despatched the hero Neddie Seagoon to far-flung outposts of Empire where he would invariably bump into Major Denis Bloodnok ("late of the 3rd Disgusting Fusiliers") and the gallery of grotesques who reassembled each week (literally in the case of Bluebottle, who was regularly blown up at the end of the show). But I'm beginning to ramble about a favourite radio show. The highly-esteemed Goon Show that is - From Our Own Correspodent with better jokes and sound effects.

Friday 25 March 2016

New directions in atheism

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families". 

Odd that thoughts and prayers are thus separated, as if the two were incompatible - an intellectual process running in tandem with a superstition. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn adjusted the formula after the terrorist attacks in Brussels when he tweeted "Our thoughts and sympathies…" etc, although that seems an inelegant compromise. Why not simply "Our thoughts . . ."? 

Is there a term for an atheist who not only doesn't believe in God (singular, as in God Almighty), but doesn't believe in any gods (plural)? Atheism today tends to be a principled disbelief in the existence of a particular (and all-powerful) deity. Yet all devout Christians, and come to that all believers in any particular deity are also atheists on the grounds that fervent belief in their chosen God necessarily means that they do not believe in any others. They are selective in their belief, and disbelief.

It's both easier and harder to be an atheist in a monotheistic culture, which is pretty much what we have around us today. In ancient times could one disbelieve in the existence of the entire pantheon? Or, come to that, could one choose to believe in Apollo but not in Lares and Penates? Was selective atheism possible in a pantheistic society? It's easy enough to say today that one doesn't believe in Loki - but what about Allah? But - and here's the point of this blog - how many gods are there, or were there, in human history? To how many supernatural entities have we struggled to make ourselves attractive?  How many gods can we atheists choose to disbelieve in? Do Zeus and Jupiter count as one? Does the Holy Trinity count as three? What about those thunder gods worshipped by early man of whom we have no record? How can one set about dismantling any belief in any god? 

This blog was prompted not by recent events in Brussels but by my purchase of Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh, which I plan to read, with typically self-conscious atheistic contrariness, over the Easter holidays. This comes from the publishers, Knopf:

Before the revolutions of late antiquity, which saw the scriptural religions of Christianity and Islam enforced by imperial might, there were few constraints on belief. Everything changed, however, in the millennium between the appearance of the Homeric poems and Christianity’s establishment as Rome’s state religion in the fourth century AD. As successive Greco-Roman empires grew in size and complexity, and power was increasingly concentrated in central capitals, states sought to impose collective religious adherence, first to cults devoted to individual rulers, and ultimately to monotheism. In this new world, there was no room for outright disbelief: the label “atheist” was used now to demonize anyone who merely disagreed with the orthodoxy—and so it would remain for centuries.

The idea that the universe is full of redundant gods is an appealing one. Perhaps that's what the stars really are -  burnt out deities, starved of veneration.

It was the late Christopher Hitchens who magisterially declared that "what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” He is much missed - there is a Hitch-shaped hole in current discourse around religion.

Thursday 24 March 2016

On Boaty McBoatface

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently invited the public to come up with a  name for their yet-to-be-launched £200 million polar research vessel. In a press release the NERC said:

We're looking for an inspirational name that exemplifies the work it will do. The ship could be named after a local historical figure, movement, or landmark - or a famous polar explorer or scientist. We would like the name to be inspirational and about environmental and polar science, to help us tell everyone about the amazing work the ship does.

Some predictable ideas came in - Endeavour, Henry Worsley, David Attenborough, Falcon, Falkland Islands and so on. But the one that attracted overwhelming public support came from a 'communications manager' called James Hand. His suggestion? RSS Boaty McBoatface. This struck a chord with the British public, attracting over 100,000 votes, many more than such other strong contenders as RSS Pingu, RSS Sink Sinkington and RSS Splashy Trousers (and I'm not making these up).

We've come a long way since the Suez crisis and the 'orderly management of decline'. The thought of  of a high-minded research vessel called Boaty McBoatface has made me laugh, and more than once, and prompts some brief reflections on the naming of boats, as follows:

1. The Royal Navy has a long tradition on naming new ships after previous vessels, many of the names dating back to the Battle of Trafalgar. They have a butch bell-bottom'd swagger to them - Bulwark, Defiant, Dreadnought, that kind of thing. One thinks of stalwart chaps in waterlogged duffel coats on the North Atlantic convoys, sipping cocoa.

You can find a complete list of currently active Royal Navy vessels here. Completely fascinating, and I notice that we no longer have an aircraft carrier in the fleet.

2. Merchant ships have less of a bellicose history. These days they tend to be lumbered with horrible corporate names - remember The Herald of Free Enterprise?

3. Oligarch yachts. The Prince of Brunei has a yacht named "Tits" and two lifeboats called "Nipple 1" and "Nipple 2". What a guy!

4. Humble fishing boast (my favourite sea-going vessels) should always have cosy, briny names like Saucy Sal. 

5. Speedboats (and one thinks of course of the great Donald Campbell) should as a rule be called Bluebird, followed by a number (in Roman numerals, of course)

6. Cruise ships, trollops of the high seas, tend to have queasily corporate hospitality names and you can see a list here. Some seem to be channelling 1970s pornstars. Carnival Ecstasy? Celebrity Equinox?The Cunard fleet employed variations on Queen Elizabeth (and, anticipating J-Lo, the QE2).

Now none of this is a patch on Claude Levi Strauss's brilliant anthropological analysis of animal names, which I haven'f been able to find on line. Auden quoted form it at length in his wonderful commonplace book A Certain World. So if you have access to a copy do look it up. Meanwhile Boaty McBoatface has become a kind of chortling armature - passengers at Waterloo station yesterday were given the option of boarding a 'Trainy McTrainface'. Where is this all leading us?

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Writers writing

What writers risk, and sometimes court, is is the sympathy of others. Here's Will Eaves in
The Inevitable Gift Shop.

They see someone in fugue. And they may be indefinably irritated. Because  . . .  what is special about your claim to be writing? The painter and the musician have skills, obvious refinements of dexterity that can be pointed out as the art happens. But in the literate age everyone writes. The writer's ability is merely a claim. While it is being created the work is occult - from occultus, or 'hidden'. It has no very extraordinary appearance. It is an impersonation of anyone.

Yes - everyone writes in this literate age, certainly, but only in the sense that everyone - more or less - reads. Think of the vast spectrum of reading - from packaging to tabloid newspapers, from novels to menus and timetables. Not everyone who reads reads novels (and come to that, thank the stars, not everyone who writes writes novels). And not everyone who reads novels reads books, not any more. But the act of reading is easier to portray than the act of writing - think how unconvincingly actors 'write' when a scene requires them to do so - they scribble energetically but I cannot imagine that anything they 'write' is in any way legible (and it puts me in mind of actors swigging from empty mugs, and equally distracting and annoying tendency).

Faced with the challenge of presenting different types of artists at work, Hollywood in the past came up with a handful of fondly-remembered tropes (now rarely employed). Here are there of them:

a) the composer sits at the piano, ideally in a small urban apartment. The window is open (no air-conditioning) and we hear dogs bark and the odd police siren. It's very late, or early. The ashtray is full, a bottle empty. He plays a few notes, then a chord, then another chord. He scribbles on some sheet music paper. Plays again. A pause. He then screws up the paper and tosses it to the floor. His wife/girlfriend enters in a negligee . . .

b) the painter at his easel (I know - it's always guys). Another small apartment, but it's daytime. He makes a few gestures with his brush and pauses. Looks at the picture neutrally and then in a sudden fury obliterates the image - whatever it is - with savage strikes of a fully-laden brush. A version of this is beautifully executed by Barbara Belle Geddes in Hitchcock's Vertigo: "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"

c) the writer by night, working by the light of a single lamp, the surrounding darkness of his squalid accommodation suggesting the pressure of thought as he scribbles, paused, reflects and then crumples yet another page into tight hall and tosses it onto the floor (the wastepaper basket long-since filled to overflowing). What wouldn't any of us give for the contents of Beckett's waste paper basket?

In the first and third examples the Barthesian signifier is the screwed up piece of paper - perfect emblem of thwarted creativity. Many years ago I spent what was at the time ten quid I couldn't afford on Martin Creed's Work No. 88 A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball (1995), which (as we authors used to like to say, 'is before me as I write'). It has a slight whiff of tobacco as for years I kept it in an old cigar box. It's a brilliant idea (rarely the case with contemporary conceptual art), the humble materials and means of production in tension with the rich line of reflections that the resulting object sets in train.  The crumpled paper ball came with a certificate, signed and dated by the artist, which I've framed. The idea that the proof of authenticity is the same material as the artwork it validates is a perfect symmetry (and for all I know my particular crumpled up ball of A4 (number 323) may, if carefully teased open, prove to be another such certificate of authenticity). That he could sit at home and, as it were, create an income stream by producing (in an open-ended edition) artworks which in any other context would be nothing more than a rejected failure, also makes me ponder.  That I still have the crumpled ball more than twenty years after I bought it in the ICA shop adds to its quiet significance. It has accompanied through turbulent times and now rests under a dusty glass dome, the sort of thing that might at one time have housed a stuffed linnet.

Quote © Will Eaves / CB editions

Tuesday 22 March 2016

On Albert Mehrabian

Pity the distinguished Iranian-born American academic Albert Mehrabian, currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA. In the 1960s he conducted some trail-blazing research into the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages in the narrow (though certainly vital) area of expressing feelings and emotions. His findings, first published in 1967  were almost immediately misunderstood and misapplied.

His findings have since circulated as the 7%-38%-55% Rule, allocating percentiles for the relative impact of words when speaking (7%), tone of voice (38%), and body language (55%). For decades gormless prats in shiny suits claiming to be 'communication experts' have earned a dishonest buck by peddling the clearly preposterous notion (never advanced by Mehrabian)  that 95% of all communication is non-verbal. A moment's reflection will confirm that any such claim is piffle and balderdash. How (for instance) do we manage, with only 5% of language at our disposal, to conduct a telephone conversation?

On his website Mehrabian explicitly (and with admirable politeness) distances himself from the thoughtless appropriators and exploiters who regularly distort his findings for their own fatuous reasons in their training sessions. He writes:

"Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking. Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like–dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable. Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages – these are the original sources of my findings."

Worth repeating: 

"Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable."

Could that be any more explicit? 

Whenever somebody flings the Rule at me and claims it applies to all verbal communications  (and it's happened three or four times over the years at the kind of mental sauna training session still favoured by failing corporations) my hackles rise. Why, one wonders, are people so keen to believe it, unquestioningly? Why are 'experts' so unreflecting and incurious and uncritical? I can think of four reasons (although there are certainly many more):

a) it implies that fluency and eloquence are inefficient, or at least insufficient;

b) it confirms a widespread prejudice against eloquence (which can, admittedly, be a pain in the arse in the wrong hands);

c) it offers consolation to poor communicators;

d) it makes the 'communication 'expert' sound . . . well, expert. When he or she offers this counter-intuitive (and untrue) 'fact' he or she probably believes that he's won over a hitherto sceptical audience who will now gratefully and unqueryingly lap up whatever bum fodder is on the agenda.

Language, as any fule kno, only has meaning in context. And as any rule kno there's more to language than meets the ear. Or eye.

Monday 21 March 2016

Knock, knock!

Here's a French 'knock knock' joke I'd like to share with you:

- Toc, toc!
- Qui est là??
- Los
- Los … qui?
- Oui c'est ça!

The cream of the jest resides in the last person to speak frisking his/her imaginary pockets in search of the 'los qui'. (Pause). Lost key? (Long pause).


Nobody likes knock knock jokes, apart from all children, who love them.  According to the often-reliable Wikipedia the form of the joke - its DNA if you will - can be traced back to a children's game first noted in 1929, which went like this:

- Knock, knock!
- Who's there?
- Buff.
- What says Buff?
- Buff says Buff to all his men, And I say Buff to you again.

(This reminds me of the let-down final line of most Edward lear limericks which, as you'll recall, are slight variants on the first line and rarely hilarious.)

Five years later the more familiar format had emerged and was a staple of newspaper columns in the US:

- Knock, knock!
- Who's there?
- Rufus.
- Rufus who?
- Rufus the most important part of your house.

The form became so familiar that it could be parodied, or at least held up as an example of an inconsequential popular craze. Fred Allen's radio broadcast on 12 December 1936 included a humorous round-up of the year's least important events, including a fictitious interview with "Ramrod Dank... the first man to coin a Knock Knock." (Fred Allen, I discovered yesterday, died on the day my parents were married. Just Goes To Show.)

Finally (and again thanks to Wikipedia)

In 2010 a letter from a steward (thought to be Jim Richardson) on the Nahlin steam yacht was discovered. The 16-page letter to his mother detailed life on the yacht during a 1936 Mediterranean cruise on which King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson were passengers. The steward repeated a popular joke of the time:

- Knock, knock!
- Who's there?
- Edward Rex.
- Edward Rex who?
- Edward wrecks the Coronation.

Speaking of children and jokes - is there anything funnier on the internet than this? I don't think so.

Sunday 20 March 2016

The Year of the Sex Olympics

Here's something foe the weekend, and to mark the first day of Spring. The Year of the Sex Olympics is a BBC television drama from 1968, written by Nigel Kneale. It's currently available to view online (although you may not to be able to access this if you're outside the territory).

It really is some kind of masterpiece - a bilious assault on the kind of exploitative and degrading television 'reality show' format that is now a lamentable norm but was, nearly fifty years ago, a futuristic aberration-in-waiting. It features the great Leonard Rossiter and another actor who looks uncannily like the poet Ted Hughes.

Kneale is best known for the Professor Quatermass series (done for telly and a series of Hammer Studio films, notably Quatermass and the Pit). He is less well-regarded as a television writer than, say, Dennis Potter and this is probably because he worked largely within the science fiction and horror genres, about which critics were then (and remain) rather sniffy.

He was a troubled and troubling visionary, Swiftian in scope . Watch and wonder.

Saturday 19 March 2016

Alan Turing pranks Wittgenstein

In The Inevitable Gift Shop (which I've blogged about before), the author Will Eaves recalls a Cambridge encounter in 1936 between Alan Turing and Ludwig Wittgenstein, a conversation about error and common sense in which the former appears to wrong foot the latter by offering a decidability paradox: 'One can never know that one has not made a mistake'.

Eaves glosses that thus:

If this is true, then one cannot in general know if one has made a mistake or not, in which case the sentence may be false; but if it is false, then one can know in general if one has made a mistake or not, and the sentence becomes decidable, which means it could be true.

So if the statement is correct then it is false, and if the statement is incorrect then it is demonstrably true. You may, as I did, need a moment to mull this over . . .

What are we to make of the once-commonplace author disclaimer (in works of non-fiction), following the usual acknowledgements to colleagues and supporters and family and publisher and proofreaders, that "any remaining mistakes are of the author's making"?

How can the author, how can any author, be so sure? If there are errors which he knows to be his own, why not correct them before publication? And if he doesn't correct them, and therefore hasn't noticed them, how does he know for certain they are his?  (I seem to remember the great Brian O' Nolan, aka Flann O'Brien, made an observation along these lines many years ago, perhaps in his celebrated Irish Times column Cruiskeen Lawn).

But back to the Turing paradox. My mind is easily made giddy by even the mildest of paradoxes (if there is a taxonomy of paradox ranging from the 'so-what?' to the 'well-I'll be damned'). Young children are literalists and entirely immune to paradox. I recall showing my son (aged five) that image of a duck/rabbit used by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations and asking hime: "Is it a duck or a rabbit?" He replied without a moment's hesitation: "Yes. It's a duck or a rabbit".

A drabbit. Or a ruck.

Friday 18 March 2016

All over the place

About a Girl was published yesterday and (coincidentally) I have a couple of pieces in print and online in this week's Times Literary Supplement. Such exposure - I feel like a Kardashian. Gummo Kardashian.

Here's my review of Jumpin' Jack Flash, Kieron Pym's disturbing biography of the cultish 1960s figure David Litvinoff. And here's a link to my TLS blog about a recent arts event in East London hosted by the enterprising and ever-surprising Henningham Family Press (the artists David and Ping Henningham). It had its origins in a remark by George Orwell in his 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn (which I expect you know, but if you haven't read it recently now is a good time to do so because nothing has changed when it comes to jaw-dropping inequalities of wealth and a lack of social cohesion).

There's more. I've just submitted my review of Dodge Rose, an astonishing experimental novel by a young Australian writer called Jack Cox to the Literary Review, and this will appear in the April issue. For the first and last time in my reviewing career I have to admit that I could not make head or tail of most of it, but that was part of the attraction. I'll blog about this novel after the review appears.

I've also been blogging daily since the beginning of February and am beginning to run out of time, and steam, so there will be a break of sorts after Easter. I'm startled to discover that I've attracted more than 900,000 'views' (whatever they are) on Google plus. Does that mean anything? Is it above or below average? It seems a lot to me, of course, and I assume my core readership (and you know who you are) is a mere handful (though beyond value to me). Now if each of this 900,000 could be persuaded to take out a subscription at, say, a pound a year (or a dollar) I could do this full-time and become a global brand - or at least Harpo Kardashian.

Thursday 17 March 2016

About a Girl published

Today - St Patrick's Day - sees the publication of About a Girl: A Reader's Guide to Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing.

My book is a book about a book. Eimear McBride's debut novel was immediately hailed as a modern masterpiece when it was published in 2013 and About a Girl explores the background to the creation of the novel, the ten years of rejection that followed its completion and the extraordinary acclaim that followed its publication by the tiny independent Galley Beggar Press. There are interviews with friends and family, contributions from distinguished academics and critics and a long interview with the author herself.

Along the way we encounter Will Self, feminism, Theodor Adorno, Hélène Cixous, Caitlin Moran, Battlestar Galactica, James Joyce, Zooey Deschanel, The Tindersticks, Tolstoy, early modernism, critical theory and much more.

Also included are early drafts of the celebrated opening pages, a bibliography, some thoughts on the stage production and reflections of the cultural impact of a new way of writing.

You can order About a Girl direct from CB editions (250 pages, £12)
Here's an extract:

          For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say.   
          Mummy me? Yes you.  Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you 
          down. They cut around. Wait and hour and day.

Forty-five short words, all but three of them ('stitches', 'Mummy' and 'around') monosyllables. The vocabulary could hardly be simpler, but simple isn't the same thing as easy. While all these words can be correctly read and spelled out by an average eight-year-old child, they appear here in combinations that actually unsettle or intimidate unwary readers, some of whom even get angry, can you believe?

Here's a representative disgruntled reader - let's call her Rebecca - on the Goodreads website:

so so so awful. i hated almost every minute. pretty sure all the awards are a result of the emperor's new clothes syndrome, as if you rewrote it in English you'd find neither the plot nor the characters interesting. as it is though it's written in pathetic fragments which, painful enough the first time, you are forced to reread far too often as (surprise surprise) the meaning is often lost when you dispense with grammar and half the words you need to say something. felt like marking a never ending self indulgent melodramatic and boring essay by an illiterate teenager with delusions of grandeur. thank god it's over and thank god (view spoiler) in the end. what a waste of money. stay far far far away.

Why is that? Why should such simple words arranged in a slightly unconventional way, in a way that avoids 'proper grammatical sentences', actually anger some readers, and make them want to express their anger online? Why, come to that, does Rebecca avoid using capital letters when criticising an author who uses them correctly? I don't want to mock Rebecca, who is fully entitled to her opinion (although that doesn't mean that we're entitled to it), but she can stand for all those readers who, presented with something new and original and unusual, react  with fear and derision and inexplicable rage, a contemporary variant of Aristophanes' 'Don't make your house in my mind' which might be expressed as 'Don't hog my Kindle', because most of the negative online comments are clearly based on the free sample pages available on an e-reader. It's remarkable, incidentally, how many bilious reviewers invoke Hans Christian Anderson's fable of the Emperor's New Clothes,assuming the role of the wise and outspoken child who sees through the  pretentious hypocrisy of the rest of us. 

Rebecca is right  in saying that if the novel were re-written 'in English' (that is, the type of English acceptable to her) the plot and characters would be of little interest. The author would be the first to agree - and we'll come back to this issue more than once. I don't expect I'd ever be able to persuade Rebecca that Eimear McBride's use of language is a dazzling quality and not a disabling flaw. She's made her choice - but there may be others who are open-minded enough to be curious, to want to know more about the book's genesis and the way the author achieves certain effects. About a Girl is for them.

The first-time reader isn't expected to know, straight away, on the first page, that these oddly-arranged but very simple words represent the thoughts, or unuttered speech, of an unborn child, still a foetus in the womb. Of course, this is not something you expect on the first page one any novel. Novels begin, traditionally, like this:

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.

That's Graham Greene's button-holing opener to Brighton Rock. Who wouldn't read on? Or how about this?

A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father . . .

On the face of it a similar first line, but something a bit trickier is going on, as the self-conscious and artificial reversal of Berg to Greb suggests. This is actually the opening sentence of Berg, a novel published in 1964 written by Ann Quin (1936 - 1973) and published in 1964. Quin, a superb and undervalued author of experimental fiction, wrote three more novels (Three (1966), Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972) before walking into the sea off near her home town, Brighton. The first time I spoke to Eimear McBride I asked her whether she'd heard of Ann Quin. She hadn't, but then hardly anybody has. Yet Quin is among the vanishingly small cohort of experimental women writers , and one of the most original and compelling. She is not to be valued simply because she's rare, of course, but because she's a thrilling and original writer.

The opening lines of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing are nothing like the opening lines of Brighton Rock or Berg. Graham Greene is an A-writer, and we read on to find out who it is who wants to murder Hale, and why, and whether they succeed. The plot and characters allow the author to smuggle in lots of other material, much of it to do with Catholic guilt and redemption. Ann Quin's interest as a writer lies not so much in plot and character as in the mechanics of the novel, and different ways of telling stories - her prose isn't particularly radical or challenging but her use of the novel form is new and strange.This makes her an exemplary 'B-writer'.

That certainly doesn't mean second-rate, as in 'B-movie'. It was Anthony Burgess who first proposed that novelists could be  divided into two classes: A-writers and B-writers. The A-writer, he said, is a story-teller - concerned above all with plot and character and psychological motivation. Most novelists fall into this category - Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift and Jane Austen and George Eliot and Harper Lee. Think of Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch and To Kill a Mockingbird. Then think of Toni Morrison's Beloved and E. L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey (the categories have nothing to do with quality or longevity). A-writers are part of a long tradition and add to that tradition without much changing it. They are part of the literary mainstream and tend to work within popular forms, or genres - the crime novel, the horror story, romantic fiction, science fiction and so on. Not all A-writers are great writers, or even good ones, but some are.

B-writers, on the other hand, often employ plot and character and so on to a high degree of sophistication and accomplishment, but their real interest lies elsewhere. They are interested in language and form and structure, and the potential of the novel to say new things in a new way. They are explorers, and they are never popular in the way that some A-writers are popular. Burgess saw himself as a B-writer but often managed to be both. 

The greatest of all B-writers is James Joyce and his masterpiece is Ulysses, the greatest of all B-novels. Eimear McBride would insist that it's the greatest novel full stop, and to hell with categories. You may never have read Ulysses, or you may have tried and given up. It's not easy. Or rather, it's not simple. But it's certainly worth the effort and if you admire A Girl is a Half-formed Thing you might give Ulysses a go. If you're a reader who admires Ulysses then A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is likely to knock your socks off.

In the category of B-writer novels we can include Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Samuel Beckett's How it Is. These may be novels you don't know, or novels you know but don't like. Or they may be novels you know and love and perhaps I should at this point give up addressing you, my reader, as a hypothetical sceptic. I assume you'v read this far because you admire A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing as much as I do. Perhaps you share my view that it's one of the greatest novels of our time. 

Joyce's Finnegans Wake is the most extreme example of B-writing, a book in which language is no longer about anything but is (as Beckett put it in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress ) 'the thing itself'. Beckett's line seems to me to sum up the challenge of modernist writing and can be extended to include  all forms of modernism: films and books and theatre and art - everything. It's a line I tend to quote whenever I'm confronted with modern art I don't understand, which is often. 

B-writers tend to be highly original, experimental, 'difficult' and do not, as a rule, attract large popular audiences. Not all B-writers are great writers, or even good ones, but many are. Anyone aware of the Burgess categories who comes across A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing for the first time will immediately assume that the author is a B-writer. Her use of language is startlingly unique and her heavily punctuated 'ungrammatical' prose may alarm some readers. But, as readers have been quick to discover, the eye and mind soon adjust to the rhythmic syncopations of the words on the page and something quite extraordinary happens, something uncanny, practically alchemical. I can only put it like this: the book begins to read us. What happens to the anonymous Girl is never described to the reader but directly experienced by the reader. This is unsettling and often very distressing. It's also startlingly original - nobody has ever written like this. Caitlin Moran, one of the 2014 Bailey's Prize judges mixed her metaphors but spoke for many when she said: 'Ten pages in and all the bells start ringing. It explodes into your chest.' 

So we need a third category and might for the time being call Eimear McBride a C-writer, one who combines the linguistic virtuosity and experimental daring of her predecessor modernists with a page-turning appeal to a general reader who would not usually be willing to tackle challenging avant-garde fictions. She brought a fresh and powerful emotional force to an intellectual form and the critical and commercial success of an uncompromisingly harsh and volatile novel took the world by surprise. 

Wednesday 16 March 2016

A close reading of D. H. Lawrence

The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston with seven full wagons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed, but the colt that it startled from among the gorse, which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, outdistanced it at a canter. A woman, walking up the railway line to Underwood, drew back into the hedge, held her basket aside, and watched the footplate of the engine advancing. The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black wagons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney. In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass. The fields were dreary and forsaken, and in the marshy strip that led to the whimsey, a reedy pit-pond, the fowls had already abandoned their run among the alders, to roost in the tarred fowl-house. The pit-bank loomed up beyond the pond, flames like red sores licking its ashy sides, in the afternoon’s stagnant light. Just beyond rose the tapering chimneys and the clumsy black head-stocks of Brinsley Colliery. The two wheels were spinning fast up against the sky, and the winding-engine rapped out its little spasms. The miners were being turned up.

This is the first paragraph of The Odour of Chrysanthemums. The author is D. H. Lawrence. The unsolicited manuscript had arrived on the desk of Ford Madox Ford, editor of The Transatlantic Review out of the blue and many years later Ford described the discovery of a new genius in the best piece of literary criticism I've ever read. Here's how he recalled the moment  (perhaps unreliably). We have plenty of Lawrences but we need more Fords. 

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Alex Pheby's Playthings

I was delighted but not surprised to hear that Alex Pheby's fine novel Playthings has been shortlisted for the 2016 Wellcome Prize. Worth a punt, I'd say.

I wrote about the book when it was published by the independent Galley Beggar Press. Below, thriftily recycled, is part of that review (with thanks and acknowledgements to Tom Fleming at the Literary Review).


'In my belly is an octopus and in it are God's children. Living children. These are things I must not speak of.'

These are the startling words of a German judge named Paul Daniel Schreber (1842-1911), an educated, cultivated and highly intelligent member of the legal establishment who went raving mad at the age of 40. Schreber's case is remembered today because of a remarkable memoir entitled Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (Memoirs of My Nervous Illness), written during a later period of lucidity and published in 1903. His book snagged the attention of Freud who tartly remarked that the author ought to be appointed director of a mental hospital. The memoir remains a key text in the history of psychoanalysis because of the clarity and candour of Schreber's account and because of the astonishing range and complexity of his disorder. The case and the memoir form the basis for Playthings, Alex Pheby's brilliant, compelling and profoundly disturbing novel.

Schreber's wide-ranging insanity had its origins in a single transgressive thought: waking one morning he wondered what it could be like to experience sexual intercourse as a woman, a speculation that marked the onset of an intense paranoid state diagnosed at the time as a form of dementia praecox. He believed that he was turning into a woman (hence the octopus/womb); that his corporal emasculation ('Verwandlung zum Weibe') was to prepare him for procreation with God; that he was controlled by 'divine rays' emanating from other souls; that the universe was a complex architecture of nerves. Another of his lunatic convictions - that his family had been replaced by imposter marionettes - is now known as the Caretas Delusion, a condition which, despite its rarity, has been the subject of at least two recent novels: Richard Powers's The Echomaker (2006) and Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances (2008). An earlier fictionalised account of Schreber's childhood from a largely anti-Freudian perspective was Soul Murder (1973) by Morton Schatzman, 

These are examples of what Marco Roth (writing in the Brooklyn-based journal n+1) has usefully termed 'the neuronovel' - fictions that explore the experience of what he calls 'a cognitively anomalous or abnormal person'. What such novels share is an interest in the workings of the brain rather than of the mind, an interest that reflects, claims Roth, a post-Freudian, post-Lacanian movement away from traditional theories of personality. The neuronovel explores the loss of self, although to be sure selfhood is no longer the prerogative of novelists. It has become the property of specialists working within their own professional disciplines. 

Schreber is a lost soul with no fragments to shore against his ruin. If Playthings is a neuronovel then it's arguably the best neuronovel ever written, particularly in its depiction of memory and the instability of personality. But it transcends any such category and is simply a superb novel tout court, Kafkaesque in its nightmarish fluency and a powerful exposition of Kant's celebrated view that 'the madman is a waking dreamer'.

You can buy this novel direct from the publishers here.

Sunday 13 March 2016

Will Eaves and The New Serious

I'm reading - slowly, and with unalloyed pleasure - The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves. It's a beguiling mixture of poetry and prose, a sort of commonplace book of thoughts and reflections, but very uncommonplace as all the entries are by the one protean author. Eaves can pack into a short paragraph enough ideas to sustain three-day conference. 

Somebody called Professor Wu has written a terrific online review of The Inevitable Gift Shop which I commend to your attention. I'd like to quote the very first sentence of the Wu review here, because it links to my current thinking on contemporary culture, and writing in particular::

An artistic movement is forming. One that is open to spontaneity, artistic risk, emotional urgency and one which flies against traditional models.

Professor Wu sees Eaves as part of that movement, and so do I. In About a Girl - published on March 17th - I call it The New Serious (you read it here first), an emerging cohort of writers and artists who deplore the commodification of art as an alternative economy for the rich and have a high-minded (though not elitist) awareness of the modernist tradition on which they are building. They are daring, engaged, virtuosic,  emotionally intense and cerebral. Here's an extract:

Writing in the New Statesman (15 September 2014) the novelist Will Self described a showdown in an LA cafeteria in which he asked the proprietor to turn down the overwhelming music. The proprietor refused so Self had to eat his breakfast waffles to the sound of trip-hop. This annoyed him and when one of his sons shouted something sympathetic over the racket Self said: “Really, it’s OK. After all, it’s my generation that’s to blame for this bullshit culture.”

I feel for him, I really do - spoilt waffles in Los Angeles must be hell. But the incident, hardly serious in itself, prompted the author into choleric reflections on his generation, 'the pierced and tattooed, shorts-wearing, skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads' and their complicity in the commodification of counter culture. Getting into his stride he berated the 'twats' who insisted that there was nothing to choose between high and popular culture, who embraced a doctrine of relativism that placed advertising and fine art on the same level, and finally described cultural criticism of the kind he and his peers as - and I'm sorry for this - 'jetted slurry from our dickhead arseholes'.

Will Self's rant seems to me a watershed moment in recent literary discourse, marking the belated realisation by a leading writer of his (and my) infantilised fifty-something generation that the game is up, and that said game wasn't worth the candle. 

I'm no more a representative of my generation than he is, although I think I'm closer in thought and feeling to those who happen to lack the piercings, tattoos, neurotic addictions and clogged lexicon of Will Self. My tastes are resolutely unhip and tend more to V. S. Pritchett than Ballard and Burroughs. I am irredeemably square, by Self's standards.

Just as Self belatedly wakes up to the vain and hateful pointlessness of the crappy 'cultural criticism' perpetrated with sullen ferocity for decades by the likes of Will Self, just as he realises that 'the skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads' of which he is the Self-elected incarnation have produced nothing, absolutely nothing of value or permanence or even passing interest over the past three decades apart from trashing the thoughtful  hierarchies of taste and judgement that made literature navigable and worthwhile, just as he and his sneering coevals dwindle before our  gaze shrilly squealing like the liquidated Wicked Witch of Oz, just as he comes to realise that all the prolix redundancy of his threadbare psychobabble amounts to nothing more than a pretext for whining about his spoilt breakfast waffles in a weekly magazine . . . I punch the air with a loud whoop and say: YES!  Now where were we . . .?

Where were we? I remember reading Self's bilious New Statesman piece and thinking: this really is a watershed moment, the point at which a leading writer of my generation throws in the towel. But beneath the usual ostentatious verbiage (and Self, more than any big name writer I can think of, has never figured out the difference between eloquence and loquacity) there's a sense of - well what? Desperation? Exhaustion?

Saturday 12 March 2016

On redundancy

From my regular correspondent, a retired English publisher living in Vancouver: 

Some years ago I was living in Hong Kong and a private Indian magazine-publisher asked me if I would consent to be an "expert witness" on his behalf in the High Court there. He was being sued by a magazine in relation to the licence it had granted him.

The magazine had cancelled the licence, so that he could no longer publish a Hong Kong edition of their magazine. He had immediately started his own women's magazine, under his own choice of name.  

"Why did you do this?" he was asked.  "This was a improper act!"

"Not at all," he answered. "I had been employing wonderful editors, circulation and advertising people, to put out the magazine.  When you cancelled the licence, I had an obligation to these men and women!  I had to find some way to keep them employed, after they had done so much for me - and you!"

The magazine's lawyer found this unanswerable, as did the judge.

When was this last said in England, or the US (which sanctified "downsizing" as an economic and commercial virtue in about 1975, though up to that time it had been considered a failure of management)?  Around the same time, the US dropped resignation as the proper act of failed manager.  Now the bugger says "I'm going to tough it out!" (after losing a huge amount of the company's money and firing half the staff).  

I, along with 4,000 colleagues, am about to be made redundant. This is (for me at any rate) no particular cause for concern as I have alternative (and, I hope, more congenial and challenging) employment lined up. My Vancouver friend's memory of the Hong Kong publisher made me reflect that, yes indeed - things have changed over that past forty years. How could they not?

Circulating my CV to agencies I was struck (not for the first time) by the standard email response: Thank you for submission.


Friday 11 March 2016

Ezra Pound's Waste Land

A birthday gift from my fine son: something I've wanted to own for many years but never got around to buying. It's The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, scrupulously edited by Valerie Eliot, the poet's widow.It's a beautiful large format Faber edition and here's the cover: 

From the opening of "A Game of Chess" (below) is the line "Filled all the desert with inviolable voice"

(c) Faber and Faber / The Estate of T. S. Eliot

"Too penty" was Ezra Pound's brisk annotation - too pentametric, in other words, too rhythmical. Earlier he  scribbled "Too tum-pum at a stretch" next to a similarly conventional line.

The thrill of the facsimile is to see two fine minds fizzing and popping and to see a record, in the many ink and pencil annotations to typescript and manuscript (some of it in Eliot's beautifully fluid and fluent 'best' handwriting). Pound is never wrong, not once - he cuts and shapes with a confident assurance and the result is the poem we know today.  It's surprising how much dud material was excised - the length culled to the  434 lines we know today. He has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to equivocation, slashing every 'perhaps' (and adding variations on the phrase 'Damn perhaps', possibly a reference to the Blake aphorism 'Damn braces, bless relaxes'.)

Reading a TLS review today of the The Poems of T. S. Eliot: The Annotated Text edited by Christopher Ricks and Jum McCue, I was struck by the fact that the well-known opening lines from 'Gerontion' ('Here I am, an old man in a dry month, / Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain')  are a direct paraphrase (or lift, if you like) from A. C. Benson's biography of Edward Fitzgerald, published in 1905:

 Here he sits, in a dry month, old and blind, being read to by a country boy, longing for rain.

As the TLS reviewer points out

By changing this to the first person, Eliot stakes an imperial claim: any place in the continent of literature where he raises his flag as good as belongs to him. And his claim was effective - when people quote these lines, they are quoting Eliot, not Benson.

But do people quote these lines? I said in a review of a volume 3 of Eliot's letters that I had once met a bright young graduate with a recent degree in Eng. Lit. who had never even heard of T. S. Eliot. Not, you understand, that she had never read The Waste Land, or Four Quartets. She had never heard of the poems or the author. She was politely interested - is he any good? British? No? What did he write? 

She wasn't rdoubled by her ignorance and neither was I, because, well - you can't read everything and he wasn't on the syllabus. And she loved Virginia Woolf. I can't think of a better example of what's happened to the teaching of English Literature since the 1980s and, before you deride what you're quick to assume is my blustering old fartishness let me add that I'm all for it. Eliot's a costive, querulous and nasty piece of work. But he isn't negligible and you need to know all about Eliot before you write him off. To know about Virginia Woolf but not Tom Eliot is just plain wrong, although I was intrigued by the idea of a university offering degrees in English literature that omitted a man who is still widely (and correctly) regarded as the leading modernist poet of the previous century, as well as a leading critic and cultural arbiter. Because if Eliot isn't central to our understanding of cultural history, who is? But even asking that question shows how old hat I am. I mean - T. S. Eliot?

The young woman had what evolutionists call an adaptive advantage. She didn't need Eliot where she was going (and, come to that, neither do I. Neither do you). She was extremely bright and engaging and professionally ambitious, working as a trainee producer at the BBC. She didn't need Old Possum holding her back with his intellectual precision, his Tory monarchism and bloodless High Anglicanism. We none of us do, but ditching Eliot's values needn't involve abandoning his standards. That Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was rejected by publishers for a decade because they either couldn't see its value or, having seen it, didn't know how to proceed, is a terrible reflection on the state of our literary culture. If I, a  middle-aged hack critic, could immediately see that this book was the real thing, is it possible to assert (and I do so with absolute modesty) that a humanities education completed before the arrival of Critical Theory and all that entailed, enabled me to do so? 

What was disastrous about literary criticism in the 1980s is that none of it had even the slightest appeal to the non-academic, non-specialist reader. None of it reached beyond the hermetic world of university departments and conferences and academic publishing, or beyond the particular sub-canon in which it narrowly flourished. It was couched in the kind of language that can drive you nuts.

That so much academic writing about literature should be so aggressively unliterary (the prose equivalent of a musicologist being tone deaf) is enough to put you off reading, or at least reading academic writing. That a reader such as myself feels repelled and dismayed by academic writing about literature (and, come to that, about architecture, and theatre, and history, and photography - especially photography) is not something that troubles me much any longer. If academic writing has any content worth sharing it will appear, mediated into reasonably plain English on the internet, sooner or later. But - and this is a very bad thing - literary criticism no longer forms part of mainstream public discourse as it did (albeit within a small circle) back in the modernist heyday of the 1920s.