Sunday, 25 September 2011

I Would Like to Complain…

Why do we read reviews?  As always the context will determine the answer.  In the newspapers and the popular magazines they have a particular purpose: to persuade us to buy books.  The odd negative review counterbalanced by the overwhelmingly positive responses to new work; the cultural section given texture and colour by the individual reactions and personal judgements of the writers and columnists.  There is usually an extended essay to give weight this section; and to attract people to the paper and magazine.  In this context the answer is relatively easy: we read the reviews for the judgements they contain – good, bad or nothing special.  Or simply to pass the time.  To fill the hours outside work when we are bored and aimless: perhaps the most important reason, after habit, why most people read the press.  In this industry the reviews serve mostly an instrumental function, part of the advertising fabric, so essential to a newspaper’s health.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Queer Beasts

The storm settles, sentences stutter, slow down and disintegrate; stumbling into incoherence, until, at last, the words, finally, come, slowly, to a stop.  There is silence on the streets of London.  The cameras are dismantled, presenters shoved into buses; whole paragraphs are swept from the streets.  Hackney is free of journalists.  The Great Uprising; London on Fire; The Fall of Capitalism; Barbarian Rampage; the zoo opened, the feral beasts let out…  The cleaners sweep them all away.  Chucking the rebels into black bags they throw them into the garbage trucks; tipping famous reporters onto the council dump.  The soixante-huitards are howling; and the bins overflow with clichés.  It is overtime for the workers.

You’ve forgotten it already?

Perhaps only the shop assistants of Footlocker will remember these days.  Leaving work to walk home amongst old friends...

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Professional Amateurs

Bryan Magee.  Have you heard of him?  You haven’t?  You should.  Broadcaster, Labour MP, Social Democrat, professor, music critic and writer; he has many insightful things to say across a range of topics: politics, music, literature, and his core interest philosophy.  His book, Confessions of a Philosopher, is a classic, with many acute comments about the British intellectual scene, the cold war, academics and the arts.  It includes two wonderful portraits: of Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell.  Both are unforgettable, once you have read them.  And yet Magee isn’t regarded as a serious philosopher; for he is not an academic, in the purest sense; he is not part of the profession, using its language and codes, the always-fashionable jargon, those glass-topped walls that keep the amateurs away.  Only the professionals count!  Christopher Janaway in the bibliography to his short book on Schopenhauer calls Magee’s own monograph on the same philosopher a “sometimes idiosyncratic account of [his place] in the history of ideas”.  Personally I would take that as a compliment.  I don’t think this is what professor Janaway intends.  It is more a warning about a dangerous minefield than an invitation to explore new territories.  This guy is odd.  He is not one of us….  A bureaucrat doesn’t like an outsider mucking about with his files…[i]

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher

I just said I didn’t know
And now you are holding me
In your arms,
How kind.
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher.
Yet around the net I am floating
Pink and pale blue fish are caught in it,
They are beautiful,
But they are not good for eating.
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher
Than this mid-air in which we tremble,
Having exercised our arms in swimming,
Now the suspension, you say,
Is exquisite.  I do not know.
There is coral below the surface,
There is sand, and berries
Like pomegranates grow.
This wide net, I am treading water
Near it, bubbles are rising and salt
Drying on my lashes, yet I am no nearer
Air than water.  I am closer to you
Than land and I am in a stranger ocean
Than I wished.



The house was set in an old garden, among fruit trees, oaks and limes.  It was painted yellow, had a steep roof, and was surrounded by a high grey wall.  The trees round the edge of the garden grew over the wall and their branches spread over the road.  For many years past, two wide green benches had stood by the wall for the tired traveller to rest on.  Swallows nested in the house, and the crowns of the trees were a-twitter in the summer evenings.  The long wall, the trees and the benches were a source of cool and shade in the heat and dust of summer, and on bitter winter days they were at least an intimation of a human presence.

One summer day, the green benches disappeared.  Wooden scaffolding went up, topping the wall.  In the garden, the old trees were felled.  One could hear them splinter and crash, and hear the death-rustling of their branches as they hit the ground.  The wall came down.  And through the gaps in the wooden scaffolding, people could see the denuded garden of the Bernheims, the yellow house now exposed to the scorching heat, and they were as indignant as if the house, the wall and the trees had all been theirs.

This is not the collapse of an old social order, demolished by war and revolution.  It is the creation of a new one, built on new money; and its attendant arrogance: of a man who believes he has no obligations to the town he lives in.  He builds his own world, which he supports with his own labours.

Friday, 9 September 2011

I’m Lazy

The quality of Labour MPs is pretty poor these days.  Talking their one talent.  Although it wears them out, it seems, and they are too tired to do much else.  For some even a short article is too long to read.  Thus we have a letter from Denis MacShane attacking Andrew Gamble for nostalgia about a “golden age” of working class culture.[i]  This is precisely what Gamble doesn’t argue, as the MP would know if he read past the first paragraph, where such a position is outlined, only to be heavily qualified a little later.

It is well known in the universities that many professors never read further than the introduction and conclusion of a book.  It appears our MPs never get past the first few sentences of an easy article.  Too tired after filling out their expense forms to read much else.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Let Me Join You

He is shouting at the audience.  But they are only listening to the drums and guitars.  He shouts about the violence, he quotes poets and writers, but the crowd is only interested in the music; and his weird antics.  He is a circus show, that is how they see him, in town to waste their time for a few minutes; a short break, a welcome rest, between the usual drudgery at the market stalls.  He tells them of their own violence; the nastiness of this community; he screams out at the oppression of carrots; how they provoke you, so blatant in a woman’s basket.  Carrots!  It is now that he begins to lose his audience; the band will quickly follow.  Carrots just a little too close to earthy reality; a symbol, it seems, for wifely availability, when husbands are out at sea.  He couldn’t, perhaps wouldn’t, pay the price; so a local woman accuses him of rape. 

It is a fantastic scene: after her rejection the camera closes in on the woman’s face, her anger shutting down her expression like a shutter a shop window.  The camera then pulls away, and we see her lying on the floor, convulsed in what looks like an epileptic fit – our hero goes towards her; but he is helpless, not knowing what to do.  Then suddenly she jumps up, rips off her blouse and bra and runs away into the market shouting rape.  The whole community comes out; and runs after him…

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Even Thugs Can Have Their Say

Hooligans are everywhere.  Not even bookshops are safe. 

I pass the religious section in my local Waterstones, and see two thugs grinning from the shelves.  One is staring into the far distance – to god atop the Empire State?  The other, some bald guy smirking into his oversize chin, appears to be looking at his wallet. 

You get the picture?  The usual dichotomies.  The simple clichés.  They’re in the ring, apparently, fighting about some thing or other.  Old style one hopes: all mud and dirt, pulling ears, gouging each other’s eyes out…

God and goodness, I believe is the idea.  It is an easy way to make money.

A war criminal and his publicist, the pimp and his prostitute, are talking about morality.  They have no shame.  No shame!  It is Blair’s one abiding legacy.  Together with the bank account his kids will inherit.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The Ballad and the Source

The title feels stagy.  The old Virago cover reinforces this feeling: Atkinson Grimshaw’s Ariadne at Naxos; its transparent heroine standing on the edge of a sickly estuary, the far shore set on fire by the declining sun.  It suggests something contrived and artificial.  A ponderous sensitivity, like garden fairies in Wellington boots, the weakness of the worst fin de siècle Symbolism: its heavy, all too literal, academic style incommensurate with the evanescent atmospheres it so wants to capture.

Thursday, 1 September 2011