Sunday, 30 December 2012

Experience? It’s Like… Finding the Worcester Sauce on a Supermarket Shelf

Several months writing about a problem – the simple certainties of the half-educated – and then I read Robert Byron, who nails it with one clever vignette.

This is morning at the Legation I met a Colonel Porter who asked what my share in the world’s work was.  I said I had been looking at Mohammadan architecture.

“Mind you,” he replied, “I’ve seen a good deal of Palestine, Egypt, and Persia, and I’ve given a good deal of thought to the matter.  I can tell you the key to the problem if you like.”

“Really.  What is it?”

“The whole thing’s phallic”, he uttered in a ghoulish whisper.

I was surprised at first to note the influence of Freud on the North-West Frontier, but soon discovered that for Colonel Porter the universe itself was phallic. (The Road to Oxiana)

These are the lucky ones.  Always, they believe, they have found the solution to the problem of the world; the answer revealed in some good book, or by a wise man with a charming smile and a sales patter of uncanny profundity.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Liberal Stalinist

He likes to portray himself as an outsider, a performer, the peripatetic circus man; the clown.  He is always buzzing about!  A gadfly revelling in the cries and angry rebuffs, the yelps of irritation, his iconoclastic wit provokes amongst the overly serious and slow of mind.  He loves to upset people, although we all know it is only harmless fun and academic games.  A Bruce Forsyth of the conference circuit who is careful always to remind us with a well-timed wink that his risqué jokes and theoretical provocations will not upset the children.

I’ve not read a single one of his books, though he has written many.  I’ve read a few articles, and they are enough: too thin to be worth recalling.  It is the reason, I suspect, he’s so in demand: light entertainment for the thinking classes and some serious comedy for the rest, who’ll find it easy enough amongst the glossy pages of the Sunday supplements.  The headmaster and the civil servant allowed for once to giggle (“those academics, hey?”) and to congratulate themselves on their own cleverness; not worrying overly much about the passages they do not understand; it is, after all, what you would expect when an amateur meets a professional on the latter’s familiar terrain.  “He has a brain that’s for sure”, they might say, pleased to have understood just a bit of what they have read.  “Though I haven’t lost it either; could still find my way around Hegel if only the wife would let me…”

I’ve written about Zizek before; and I’ve got another piece in draft, that I may finish one day.  Three pieces about a minor thinker, with little originality, and who will vanish like newspaper print on the day the fashions end…  I cannot justify myself, dear reader.  I’d like to say, to make this piece worth reading, to give it at least some value, that he represents a wider phenomenon, and is therefore important as a symbol of our contemporary predicament.  That we can understand our culture through a study of this one man is the reason I yearn to give you.  This is not altogether untrue.  He is the intellectual supermodel who creates fake controversy so that the products she advertises sell in their millions – in his case all that expensive internet space around his Guardian articles.  Every age has them, to a greater or lesser degree.  A close look at Zizek potentially an insight into our own peculiarly mediated world, which needs well-educated people who are yet also strangely ignorant; their knowledge of subjects, even (especially?) amongst university graduates, often extraordinarily thin; the commentariat the source for most of their opinions.1 But that is not the reason I have written this piece.  A guilty pleasure, a spasm of emotion; the craving for ice cream…  Yes, I am afraid, my friends, that’s the sum of it.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Two Photographs

It’s true then that you still overeat, fat friend,
and swell, and never take folk’s advice.  They laugh,
you just giggle and pay no attention.  Damn!
you don’t care, not you!

But once – that was before time had blunted your
desire for pretty frocks – slender girl – or is
the print cunningly faked? – arm in arm with your
fiancé you stood

and glared into the lens (slightly out of focus)
while that public eye scrutinised your shape,
afraid, the attitude shows, you might somehow
excite its dislike.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Sunday, 28 October 2012

He's a Fake!

The Ecstasy of Angels was made in the midst of the radical Sixties.  Its last scene, a classic, is of a blind man walking through the streets of Tokyo with a bomb in his bag.  He is going to commit a meaningless, literally directionless, act of terrorism that has no purpose beyond itself.  Even now, months after watching it, I am unsure if that last scene is the director’s judgement on his characters, or if it arose naturally out of the action; this final craziness an organic growth, arising from the obsessions and intense group interplay that dominate just about every moment in the film.  A film that is about a particular kind of power: one that operates inside tiny fissiparous sects, with their constant struggle to maintain loyalty under the ever-present threat of factional splits and ideological condemnation.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Perfect Day

The culture of Victorian Britain didn’t collapse on the death of its queen.  Although under strain before she died, its spirit creaking under the accumulated weight of its years, most of its mores and social structures continued long after the funeral; like the Matriarch herself they lived well into their dotage.  Many remained at least until the 1960s, when “The Establishment”, as it was then called, was fatally undermined; the defeat of Sir Douglas-Home in the ’64 election the symbolic if not actual end of the old order.  As a symbol the Queen’s death carries enormous force, but Victorian Britain was not the Soviet Union; it didn’t collapse in a day, or even a decade; it took much much longer to fall to pieces.  Even in the 1980s nostalgia for that great century still lingered in the political atmosphere, like musty perfume in a country house abandoned by its owners.  Indeed, if you looked hard enough you could still find the odd aristocrat left behind in the attic bedrooms...

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Mad Fools

Those who love and those who hate the powerful are often blind to their absurdity.  It is only later, when they are in embalmed inside history, that we appreciate just how silly some of these characters really are: Hitler, Reagan, Thatcher and Blair recent examples of the pathological idiocy of which leaders are capable.i  Each one delusional, and yet all had their worshippers and disciples, and haters too, their oddity part of the attraction; for it requires a leap of faith to overcome our common sense suspicions about the eccentric and strange so as to believe in their extreme even bizarre messages.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Which Way To Go...

My friend had his doubts, his seat could hardly hold him, so desperate was he to leave at times, uncomfortable with a film he no longer wanted to see, reluctant to even watch; the force of his dislike infecting the neighbouring seats, spreading a ripple of unease through the audience; unsure now of their response they try to remember the reviews, looking for guidance in a landscape suddenly awkward and strange…

Mine started as we entered the cinema.  The film had won prizes, including one at the Sundance Festival.  A sign, I thought, of a particular kind of movie; of a genre almost in its own right: the “independent” film.  The genre is a fusion of the art movie (that is, a serious exploration of a subject) with entertainment; and is a return to the Hollywood of the 1950s with its literate and well-produced films, though these works often have oddball characters and weird scenarios, which are nevertheless similarly compromised by the need to be popular – they are usually professionally and expensively made, which requires a large audience to pay for it (this film in places was very beautifully shot, and its overall feel is much more finished than for example the Nouvelle Vague of the 1960s).  This compromise can result in the complex and ambiguous being made too simple and clear-cut, while the action can be forced into a too obvious narrative, or a crudely upbeat ending, which resolves the piece much too comfortably; thus allowing the audience to leave the movie house with a relatively straightforward idea, and a general sense of contentment (they are not left feeling confused or ignorant, a guarantee of commercial failure).i   

I know, this is a prejudice of mine, based on limited evidence.  However, this is what I thought as I walked down the steps and negotiated my way between the cinema’s seats.  Was I wrong?

Friday, 5 October 2012

A Lion Caged in the Alhambra

Nature traps the genius into a prison,
and piques to the utmost
his desire to free himself
(Friedrich Nietzsche)

His world a prison,
A fine old piece
Built just for him
By a great craftsman
With a key only he could use.

But something went wrong,
With his upbringing?
We surmise, we amateurs,
And he never found the lock
This key would fit.

So he sits now alone
A sage in a palace of fools
With no way out
To create new worlds
With forms that have yet to exist.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Confiscate His Passport

The book begins brilliantly.  And for over a hundred pages it continues on its virtuoso way.  But then the focus switches, and the quality of the writing slows down, it loses its intensity, so that the wonderful images, those oh so vivid metaphors, fall away; while the fresh insights fade until they vanish into nothingness.  We look up, and see we are driving through all too familiar territory: a good but, alas, commonplace novel. 

After a wonderful morning amongst the exotica of Camden Lock a weary afternoon in the upmarket franchises of Brent Cross.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Good Lads, Really

Adam Curtis is a magician… of the BBC archives.  By pulling these films out of his employer’s top hat, he gives us an unusual perspective both into the “hooligans” of yesteryear, the Hell’s Angels and the Skinheads of the late 1960s, and the mainstream culture that reported on them.

The press are in constant need of scary monsters to entertain us.  They create them out any material they can find: the underclass, Islamic terrorists, paedophiles, unions, the IRA, communists, psychopathic families…any old nutter will do.  It is the reason Fleet Street was situated next to the Old Bailey and not the Houses of Parliament: crime is more popular and therefore profitable than political debate.

The young always provide good material.  For they are always with us: from Mods and Rockers through to the “feral” teenagers of today, with hippies, punks and the ecstasy generation filling up the gaps in between.  Just about every one of us has been demonised in our day.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Can I Have a Flake, and Chocolate Sauce with That?

Academics.  They miss so much.  And forget the rest of us.  Infatuated with other people’s theories, they lose themselves inside vast abstractions; the only things they seem keen to write about.  Big kids with ice cream.

Another adaptation from a popular novel, in which Godard fragments the narrative fiction in order to raise questions which throw the romantic aspirations of the protagonists into perspective.  The debt to Hollywood is evident in the use of the gangster film convention of the couple in retreat from a hostile society, but the film uses various formal strategies to question that notion.  Its protagonists are doomed, by the conflict between their inner desires and the violence and corruption of society, to destruction.   Godard uses CinemaScope and colour to emphasise the seductive nature of their dream of an idyllic paradise.  Social reality constantly interrupts the idyll, however, and the protagonists are driven back into society, which finally kills them.  In spite of Godard’s evident ambiguity towards politics at this stage, the film looks forward to the explicitly political concerns of later work.

The film’s central theme is that of the escape of the young couple away from civilisation.  The film also illustrates Godard’s strategy of fragmenting the narrative, juxtaposing written texts with film image.  Godard has often been accused of a puritanical distrust of the seductive potential of the cinematic image: here, Scope and colour emphasise the lush beauty of the fantasy island, while written texts constantly intrude to ‘jog’ the spectator out of the fiction in the direction of politics.

The film’s basic romanticism is conservative in many respects: for example, in the representations of Marianne as instinctual and Ferdinand as ‘the thinker’, and in the anarchism of Ferdinand’s final gesture of self-destruction: the only alternative, it would seem, to utopianism. (The Cinema Book, edited by Pam Cook & Mieke Bernink)

My interpretation is markedly different.  This one seems, at least to me, not only superficial but blinkered: it misses the very nature of the work itself.  Like writing about Joyce’s Ulysses but unaware that its form is its main character – most of the meaning is in the language. 

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Limited Insight

It is very easy to produce generalisations.  Often it is the best way to stop understanding; abstractions like custom barriers preventing the free trade in impressions and facts…

Julia Lesage… [in a] pioneering analysis of female characters in Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating shows that the abandonment of the classic story based on male-female distinctions produces new and previously unimaginable narrative mutations….(The Cinema Book, edited by Pam Cook & Mieke Bernink)

I simply don’t see it.  As I argued in a previous post this film is an attempt to recreate both the dream and love worlds of two people infatuated with each other.  It could as easily have been done with a man and a woman; although the details would have changed.  Indeed, it has been done, using different cinematic and narrative techniques, in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou.  A film that the same book regards as conservative(!) in its views about gender.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Stumbling Into It

Malcolm Muggeridge is said to have reviewed Ulysses without noticing its mythic superstructure; a source of future scholarly ridicule.  That oversight, and his later fall into spiritualism, his abiding legacy for the few that remember him.  What a monument!  One life wrecked by a footnote. 

Watching this film, and remembering that old sceptic turned convert, I wondered if I should write about it.  Would some academic, obese with the books he has eaten, scoff at my ignorance?  As we were leaving a woman next to me exclaimed: what was that about!  And mentioned a movie of which I have never heard: called The Blue Room, it has a reputation for being innovative, but actually it plagiarises this one, she said.  Confused as I was.

So, what is it about?

Saturday, 18 August 2012

A World of Make Believe

Life is dull.  It is so mundane.  And so much gets in the way.  We are far too busy; without the time to sit down and make it all up.  Too many trivial things to think about.

Why can’t life be like in books?  Gorgeous women, dead bodies, boats, fast cars singers film stars crooks.  Why can’t it be intellectually exciting, and have the unity of a work of art; with its beauty and its meaning, and with its perfect form?  Those necessities for the thinking mind.  And life is so fast in fiction.  Never is it dull.  Always it is changing: one day you’re jealous of a staid accountant the next you’re playing badminton with an actress; and always you can be on the run….

Friday, 17 August 2012

Gunslinger 1 & 2

You know,
I had to deal with a texan once
nearly drove one of my best girls insane
insisted on her playing back jack
with his stud horse
who was pretty good
held the cards with his hooves
real articulated like and could add
fastern most humans
recall before I put a stop to it
we had special furniture
brought in from Topeka.
That horse would sit at
the table all night, terrible
on whiskey and rolled
a fair smoke
and this Texan insisted he was
payin for my girl’s time
and he could use it any way he
saw fit
as long as he was payin like
and I had to explain
a technical point to that Shareholder namely,
that he was payin for
her ass, which is not time!

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Nothing Left... But The Words

How much do we know about Rome?  I often ask myself that question when I read a piece by Mary Beard; her articles a refreshing insight into the current concerns of classical scholarship.[i]  The answer, I find, is quite a bit, but not that much: there are so many gaps that most things can only be partially explained.  This provides a wonderful opportunity for speculative flights of fancy and insane theories.  Departments of ancient history the perfect place for the eccentric and the mad.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Friday, 3 August 2012

Nothing You Can Do (Will Change Him)

The ending is wrong.  It is as simple as that.  A character, someone called Eduard P., a mutual friend of the main protagonists, of whom we have never previously heard, not even one shout from a side street, informs the narrator of Arnold Zipper’s fate: he has become a clown.  Joseph Roth then writes him a letter to clarify what this novel means:

Your profession has a clumsier, but for that reason more evident, symbolism.  It is symbolic of our generation of returned soldiers, whom everyone hinders in our attempts to play a part, make a decision, play a violin…  in the spiritual content of the atmosphere, which is more powerful than its content of electricity, there will float the distant echo of your single notes…  the frustrated longing of our whole generation will remain as immortal as it was unfulfilled.

Roth is referring to the failure of the Great War generation; defeated by their fathers who started it, and which is here symbolised by Arnold’s current job.  His life punched out of him, he has been turned into a figure of fun:

He was wearing baggy trousers, a tight-fitting jacket, and a light-coloured top hat with a wide ribbon.

‘A genuine clown!’ I cried.

‘Just look!’ continued P.  ‘Take a look at this face!  This face has had twenty thousand thick ears!  It has a dog-like face melancholy.  It looks so sad because it cannot say how sad it is.  Think of his entrance.  He comes on stage, unsuspecting, had no idea that the public is sitting in the stalls.  He is a fathead, and he looks like one, like someone who only needs a meal and a drink to put him in a good humour.  He wants to play a piece on his violin.  But as soon as he is ready to play another clown comes on, a self-confident one, also a fathead, but a fathead with ambitions, who knows very well that there is a public, a director, wages.  This clever one gives our Arnold a thick ear.  Arnold has played precisely two notes.  But these two notes, which he plays before the other one notices, are so clear, so heavenly, that all the audience is sorry that Arnold doesn’t play on.

This seems pretty clear, and sums up the book very nicely: the pompous, ever confident, so talkative and dream soaked, Zipper Senior never giving his son the chance to perform properly.  We have been reading about the pathos of a youth’s failure; its atmosphere like a house abandoned before it has been fully built.  And there are moments of extraordinary pathos in the book, particularly around Frau Zipper, who is herself defeated by her contemporaries; crushed between the poverty of their daily life and the fantasies of her husband, who subdues her with the tyranny of his optimism – he is the eternal child, and all his words are broken promises.  Yes, this passage seems very clear.  Father and son are symbols of two different generations; the younger never getting a look in, except to cry mournfully, because they have been ruined by the war for which their fathers are responsible.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Couldn't You Have Waited?

Three characters are walking down the street.  A tall man, grey-haired, on the fringes of distinction, and comfortable in his late fifties.  There is a woman who is slightly younger, in elegant but understated clothes, and who is still very attractive.   And then there is Françoise, young and pretty and quiet.  She is Alphonse’s lover; although they are pretending she is his niece. 

This is the first time the older couple have met in over twenty years.  On an impulse, it seems, Hélène wrote to him; and he responded by coming here.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Something Nasty in the Guardian

A great journalist dies and the Guardian slanders him.  Although in typical fashion it denies the slander at the same time.  Everybody can be happy.  Perhaps even the deceased!  I’m certain he’d chuckle over it.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The "Click"

Some metaphors are too good.  Too good?  Yes!  They are good to use.  Although we use them anyway - few reject a pay rise when given it. 

Do you remember much from school?  Very little, you say.  Surely you haven’t forgotten Archimedes?  Jumping out of his tub dressed only in bubble bath.  The teachers weren’t so imaginative?  Oh well.  But of course you remember him; running around nude and shouting Eureka!  It’s enough to forever turn you off the contemplative life: knowledge all goose bumps and social embarrassment; or so it seemed back then.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Friday, 29 June 2012

The Gipsy's Baby

It is the title story of the collection.  Called The Gipsy’s Baby it is about Chrissie, one of the poor Wyatt children, oddly detached both from her family and the rest of the community, who tells a nasty lie to stop another child from visiting the manor house, where the narrator and her sisters live.[i]   Although the lie, in its essence, contained a truth: Ivy Tulloch isn’t wanted in the house, for the children do not like her – they find her too prim and obsequious.

Monday, 18 June 2012

They'll Be Gone Soon

It has few pretensions.  The film is a spy thriller dressed up in Sixties cool; the camera part of the smart clothes it wears.  The opening scene is its window display: Palmer wakes up to find his bed empty, and the room all a blur - his woman has left and his glasses are on the bedside table.  In a more serious film this would be the start of a prolonged exploration, both of cinematic imagery and the metaphors of distorted vision (psychological, political, and social).  Here it is simply decoration.  Later we see many more of these baubles and tinsel: one scene shot through the back of a chair; another with half the screen divided by metal doors, yet another distorted by double vision…  It is the influence, I would guess, of the Nouvelle Vague, translated into a commercial entertainment: so light are the use of these techniques you could almost miss them; and I imagine most of the audience does, concentrating instead on the intricacies of the complex plot; which says something about the insecurities of the times.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Much Too Nice

Reading Donald Sassoon’s great book on European socialism leaves behind many impressions.[i]  Two stand out.  The first: Britain does not have a unique history of industrial decline.  Its historical trajectory is similar to that of other European countries.  The second: socialism has been unable to provide an alternative model of economic development.  It was fundamentally a political movement dressed up in the finery of economic radicalism.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Jubilee: a Reply to Craig Murray

I was hoping you wouldn’t be so restrained!  That you’d offer a better target for a sniping attack. Oh, well.  At least I have a little to work with; even though most of what you say is fair, except for that last comment which throws your piece out of balance; and suggests why many (most?) find the left liberal position offensive.  The guillotine…  Here at least is something you have given me.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Nice Guy...

What are we supposed to think of Elliot?  That he is weak?  Emotionally incompetent?  That he is a man who is attracted to his wife’s sister because she is lovely and because she lives close to him: family relationships allowing a friendship to develop, which he, feeble as he is, would not be strong enough to create for himself...  

A pathetic specimen?  Is that what we think when we think of Elliot?  Mickey certainly believes so: he is awkward and socially nervous, like me, he says to Hannah when he visits his ex-wife and their adopted kids. 

Should we pity Elliot?  Feel sorry for someone who stumbles through life; too weak to control his emotions, and who lusts after a woman he knows is forbidden – there is, we are sure, the spice of taboo, of transgression, in his desire; another sign of his emotional poverty.

Are we meant to feel sorry for him?  At most pitying his gaucheries and the pain his sexual dilemmas cause.  Understanding his fall into irritation and anger; accepting that, innocent in the ways of a Don Juan, he cannot cope with the situation which he has created.  A poor specimen indeed; more victim than moral crook.  Is that what we are supposed to think?

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Saturday, 12 May 2012

One Long Trip (In a Space Shuttle)

I can’t stop thinking about the red deans! There is a curious symmetry to their lives.  To the lives of Hewlett Johnson and Tony Blair, I mean – not all of you will have read that last post.  There is the preacher who dived into politics.  And the politician who drowned himself in religion… who knows how long Blair could have survived without Iraq, though I think we can speculate on his future reputation had he not.  Similar to that of a distant relative who, if he’d never started a major war, may have been eulogised as the greatest of chancellors - for a long boom throughout the course of his reign; and a history of successful interventions that enhanced the power of the state; and which had the support of most of the political class; though they were uneasy about his thuggish cohorts and his anti-Semitism.[i]  Who knows, history could have made him Number One; although he would have struggled with Churchill (Pitt the Elder, it seems, is on the way down).[ii]   Of course he'd have to have left office by 2007, but I guess his talent smelling something in the air would have warned him in time.

Monday, 7 May 2012

He Orated, He Didn’t Argue…

We have been here before.  In the last post, in fact, where I had a look at Tony Blair, a man forever spreading the message of the free market, a new kind of hope by a new kind of evangelist; who offers redemption from a jet plane; by shattering the cities below.

Like many charismatics, he lived in an eternal present, a land of gestures without consequences, never looking back, always on the look-out for the next big thing.  (Ferdinand Mount, To the End of the Line)

But here is something we didn’t know about our Prime Minister:

[That] his admiration for Communism was inseparable from his worship of power. Not for nothing was The Socialist Sixth retitled The Soviet Power for the American market. Nettled by squabbles in the cathedral chapter, he put down the archdeacon by announcing that he was off to Russia because ‘I felt that I ought to use all my spare time for something bigger.’ During the war he consoled Nowell that, if there were an invasion and the Germans were brutal to him, it would be because ‘we stand for something big and Eternal; and it is upon that which is Eternal and upon the Source of all that is big that we can confidently rely.’ Stalin, God and the Dean – that appeared to be the command structure of the Big Battalions, but not necessarily in that order.

He was a communist?

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Aguirre: The Wrath of God

We watch fascinated as rocks tumble into the sea; when analysis falls into ideology:

Partly because the EU has slammed the door in Turkey’s face, Erdogan’s government has been looking elsewhere for friends.  This has helped draw Turkey away from half a century of subservience to Western foreign policy.  Its first act of defiance came in 2003, when Parliament voted against allowing American troops to invade Iraq from Turkish soil.  Since then Turkey has broken ranks with the West on two important issues.  It favors negotiation with Iran and stronger pressure on Israel to change its policies in Gaza and the West Bank.

This newfound independence was reflected in last year’s effort by the Turkish freighter Mavi Marmara to break the Gaza blockade, which led Israel to send commandos to attack the ship: nine Turkish civilians were killed.  In 2010 Turkey made a failed effort, along with Brazil, to broker a nuclear deal with Iran.  These steps made Erdogan immensely popular in the Muslim Middle East.  They also set off a burst of anger in Washington – not from the Obama administration, which still considers Turkey a valuable partner, but from anti-Obama and pro-Israel politicians and groups who believe that Turkey is abandoning its secular heritage and Western-oriented foreign policy.

Some scholars share this fear.  Banu Eligur… believes that Erdogan’s government has “mobilized against the secular-democratic state” by naming pious Muslims to be “high-ranking civil servants in public administration” and by bullying the press, judiciary, and universities. (Stephen Kinzer in the NYRB, 18/08/2011)

Did you catch it?

Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Curtains

The leaves are coming down
the walls of my life
            are not more solid

I hear the leaves coming down
at night    they make the noise of footsteps
or the kisses of children
they fall like a curtain
             between the leaves
bits of a sky we try to remember

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Born Differently

The book is about a murder.  It is called Confession of a Murderer.  And yet, even after the book is finished, we wonder who has been killed.  The author, it seems, has too much respect for his readers to tell us the obvious.   We boil the kettle, make the tea the colour of dark chocolate, thinking of the novel we have read.  We pick up scenes and images; look under the rugs, pull the wardrobe out, searching for the corpse Golubchik has said he has created.  It is only after much searching that we find it, and are pleased.

Friday, 13 April 2012

…it’s such a drab and limited piece of realism that it makes Zola seem like musical comedy

Pauline Kael wasn’t keen.  She can see its strengths all right – the character studies, some of the imagery, the film’s seriousness –; however, they are not enough to capture her consent.  The famous critic doesn’t like Wanda.  The character is too dumb and passive; the towns too ugly; the film’s atmosphere too grim, too monotonous.  Two hours in America’s backwoods is far long for Pauline Kael; she wants to be back in New York, with the beautiful people; always charming and sophisticated, and perpetually stimulating.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Helpless and Hopeless

It is an extraordinary film.  Even more so when you consider the time it was made, in the very late Sixties, at the beginning of the feminist movement; when women were aggressively questioning the old stereotypes, and asserting their independent political will.  Watching it I wondered if the period had distorted the film’s memory, changed its influence, projected the times back onto a work that resolutely rejects them, concerned only with seeing the world in its own way.  Then I thought of how many people actually know of its existence; a few thousand at most - a tiny community keeping this movie alive; who carry out the heavy labour of periodically resurrecting yet another work of art that has vanished from public view.[i]

Friday, 6 April 2012

Class Divide

Michael Holroyd’s introduction to the trilogy is a good one; and he reminds me that Hamilton is a better writer than I remembered – thus his description of Ella’s admirer, Mr Eccles, for example, as “not unlike a parrot diving into its feathers” when looking for his visiting card.  And he is absolutely right about the surface texture: Hamilton catches London pub life between the wars extremely well.  However, his statement about Hamilton’s ability to write about class is questionable:

[H]e is an expert guide to English social distinctions, with all their snobbish mimicry and fortified non-communication.  He describes wonderfully well how the hyphenated upper classes, yelling at their dogs, splashing in their baths like captured seals, and writing their aloof letters in the third person (like broadcasters recounting an athletic event), remain so mysterious to the lesser breeds.  (Introduction to Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky)

Regarding the superficial aspects, yes, indeed.  For here, in these three books, Hamilton is more a painter than a psychologist; which Holroyd also recognises, perhaps unconsciously, by that last reference to the working classes ignorance of their betters; which is a strange way (especially as there are no aristocrats in these novels) of illustrating a point about social distinctions; which you would have thought relied on some knowledge of their differences - how else can such comparisons be made?  Of course, the artist or bohemian is supposed to skip between the two, socialising with both, and understanding them equally…


I Know You (Really Well)

The less you know about someone the more certain you are…  that you understand them:

[They say] “You don’t know the Jews.  All they understand is force”, with as much conviction as their opposite numbers, who are equally certain that they “know the Arabs, who understand only force,” though they have never met any Arabs… (Sylvian Cypel, Walled

The relationships between the Jews and the Arabs are not equal though, as the author notes:

Almost all of them have no contact with Israelis other than soldiers or settlers, the two figures of the occupation.

Yet while Cypel is rightly critical of the anti-Semitism and anti-Arab racism he is perhaps a little too keen to judge both camps equally.  For although he acknowledges the role of Israeli policy, and its devastating effects on Palestinian society, he overestimates the human tolerance for abuse – only a few people can emulate Jesus Christ and turn the other cheek; or reason out the differences between people they do not know; exempting the ignorant and well-meaning.  The anti-Semitism of a young Palestinian is a reaction to daily experiences, 40 years of occupation; while for the Israeli it arises from control of that occupation, and from a much smaller amount of contact; or just news reports and demagoguery. That is, we should criticise the anti-Semitism, but understand it and contextualise it to eventually place the blame where it belongs - on Israel for creating the circumstances that produce it.  By treating both side’s prejudice as commensurate we are in reality equating cause with effect; or even reversing them: a scream responsible for the punch that caused it.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Poor Choices

You want to be free?  Stop reading the newspapers!  You won’t?  OK.  Prepared to be trapped, yes trapped, within another’s worldview - the corporate media’s; following their lead even as you resist against it; led by the mouth even as you bite at the bit.  Obsessed by the news they feed you, though convinced of its paucity and bias, which you want to shout out to the world, you will, using your finite time and most of your resources, be able only to react against it; too feeble, after the effort, to create a universe out of your own design.  The result?  You accept the general framework that the press provide, seeing the world through their viewfinder, only to give it a different spin; so that each news story generates its own battle; and every event becomes an ideological prison; the opponents shouting at each other from their different wings.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Outside the Club (Creating the Future Part IV)

We have come a long way.  Let us, at least for a few sentences, go back, almost to where we started, to 1836, and to the Working Men’s Association:

1.      To draw into one bond of unity the intelligent and influential portion of the working classes in town and country.
2.      To seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of their equal political and social rights.
3.      To devise every possible means, and to use every exertion, to remove those cruel laws that prevent the free circulation of thought through the medium of cheap and honest press.
4.      To promote, by all available means, the education of the rising generation, and the extirpation of those systems which tend to future slavery.
5.      To collect every kind of information appertaining to the interests of the working classes in particular and society in general, especially statistics regarding the wages of labour, the habits and condition of the labourer, and all those causes that mainly contribute to the present state of things.
6.      To meet and communicate with each other for the purpose of digesting the information required, and to mature such plans as they believe will conduce in practice to the well-being of the working classes.
7.      To publish their views and sentiments in such form and manner as shall best serve to create a moral, reflecting, yet energetic public opinion; so as eventually to lead to a gradual improvement in the condition of the working classes, without violence or commotion.
8.      To form a library of reference and useful information; to maintain a place where their brethren from the country can meet with kindred minds actuated by one great motive – that of benefiting politically, socially, and morally, the useful classes.  Though the persons forming this Association will be at all times disposed to co-operate with all those who seek to promote the happiness of the multitude, yet being convinced from experience that the division of interests in the various classes, in the present state of things, is often too destructive of that union of sentiment which is essential to the prosecution of any great object, they have resolved to confine their members as far as practicable to the working classes.  But as there are great differences of opinion as to where the line should be drawn which separates the working classes from the other portions of society, they leave the Members themselves to determine whether the candidate proposed is eligible to become a member.  (from The Early Chartists, edited by Dorothy Thompson. Emphasis in original.)

Sunday, 11 March 2012

An Accidental Life

He didn’t mean it.  He couldn’t help it.  He didn’t want to be poor; it was his fate: born to be a no-hoper, a drifter, an impoverished workingman, a fool with a few ideas; all of them bad.  He didn’t mean to kill the foreman; it just happened; he didn’t want to kill the farmer; he was protecting himself, that was all.  Contingency: it is our modern fatalism.  He didn’t mean to do any of these things.  He wanted a home, a settled life, a family who could trust him; he didn’t want to keep running away; always to be defeated by a life too complex to control.  But he is not big enough for this world.  Brains is what he lacks, or so he says; with good brains they would bathe in money, shower in gold coins; do no work at all; this is what he tells them.  Stupidity.  It is his fate; born always to fail.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed

Corinna, Pride of Drury-Lane,
For whom no Shepherd sighs in vain;
Never did Covent Garden boast
So bright a batter'd strolling Toast;
No drunken Rake to pick her up,
No Cellar where on Tick to sup;
Returning at the Midnight Hour;
Four Stories climbing to her Bow’r;
Then, seated on a three-legg'd Chair,
Takes off her artificial Hair:
Now picking out a Crystal eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her Eye-Brows from a Mouse's Hyde,
Stuck on with Art on either Side,
Pulls off with Care, and first displays 'em,
Then in a Play-Book smoothly lays 'em.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Friday, 2 March 2012

Just One Drink...

How much does the author understand?  In the first book of the trilogy we live inside the narrow mind of the hero, Bob; an ordinary guy, with no special talents; a bit of a bore, if truth be told.  The little that we see of Jenny is mediated through his actions and opinions, many of which are hopes and dreams, and little fantasies; of a respectable life together, comfortably asleep between the well-ironed sheets, homely under a crocheted blanket, of wild flowers and a blue border...  In the second book, The Siege of Pleasure, we see the world from her point of view.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Such a Nice Girl

How much can you know of another person?  If Patrick Hamilton is to be believed not very much.  All you can see is surface; which you interpret badly; lead astray by your own desires; misled by the few signs that appear before you. The result?  You create your own paintings with your own colours; all bright and garish, too sweet to be real.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Get Out the Marx!

At the bedroom door she stopped, sickened.  There was her father, the little man with the plump juicy stomach, beer-smelling and jocular, whom she hated, holding her mother in his arms as they stood by the window.  Her mother was struggling in mock protest, playfully protesting.  Her father bent over her mother, and at the sight, Mary ran away….

Her father caught her head and held it in his lap with his small hairy hands, to cover up her eyes, laughing and joking loudly about her mother hiding.  She smelt the sickly odour of beer, and through it she smelt too – her head held down in the thick stuff of his trousers – the unwashed masculine smell she always associated with him.  She struggled to get her head free, for she was half-suffocating, and her father held it down, laughing at her panic.  And the other children laughed too.  Screaming in her sleep she half-woke, fighting off the weight of sleep on her eyes, filled with the terror of the dream.

We know the end in the first paragraph: black servant kills mistress.  The rest of the novel is a more or less straight road to that final destination, to the ramshackle house where the murderer has left so many clues.  There were intimations before, but the above passages are the culprit’s fingerprints, strewn all around the house for us to see.  Sigmund Freud is an accessory to murder; though we suspect he’s been involved in many others.  For it is Freud who has taken off her dress, and removed her underwear.  It is Sigmund who has fashioned the knife that has cut her up; her insides all over the living room’s couch...  Yes, it is.  It really is the revered doctor who has killed Mrs Mary Turner; goading Moses into the act by learned taunts and malicious subtleties.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Everywhere Freud

We stand on the beach, and we watch the waves come in.  Watching them, our eyes follow them, as they jump and crawl, sliding ever closer, until they fall back, slithering slowly away.  We concentrate so hard, willing the waves to stop; there are moments we think they even do so; but the tide rolls on, and the waves return; the last one the closest yet; swirling, bubbling, suddenly a foaming lake has engulfed our ankles; and we are running and screaming; shouting up the beach.

As a child we have so little influence. 

Just about everything is decided for us. 

We are done too, rather than doing.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Strange Fantasies

Everyone loves the Gnostics.  Reading Gibbon the other day I came across this:

The Gnostics were distinguished as the most polite, the most learned, and the most wealthy of the Christian name…  (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume One)

Years ago I had a discussion with a friend who argued that no mean or self-centred purpose lay behind Gnostic beliefs.  Their ideas, he said, were a sign of intellectual purity; for what material reason could cause people to believe something so obviously otherworldly and good?

Ummmm!  Let us think…..  What if…

Sunday, 12 February 2012


The Black Swan

A black swan
On a white pond
And you
On the other side…

A white face
In a black dress
And me
On this side…

Hands lost
In long black hair
It's you
On the other side…

 A black swan
   Breaks the white ice
On all sides…

A silent laugh
In a broken face
It's you
On the other side…

White tights
In black shoes
And me
On this side…

A black swan
On a white pond
And you
On the other side.

Friday, 10 February 2012

A Sea-Grape Tree

The Swan in the Evening is a curiously divided book.  Its first half is a highly sensitive account of childhood; which captures it evocatively.  Rosamond Lehmann’s acute sensibility recreating the texture of a child’s egocentric life; its absorption in their immediate surroundings, capturing her intense sensitivity; her almost supernatural awareness; it is a time of ripe vividness where everything has significance; and when particular things, pieces of furniture and the odd plant, are full of portent.  It is a world where so much is seen for the first time; new things creating explosions of new excitement; and there is much we misunderstand – our ignorance is our mystery.  It is a time when every day is a new day (and is made just for us!); and yet always there is the fear of getting lost – in strange woods or amongst the incomprehensible sentences of our parents.[i]  

Lehmann’s description of that world closes with one incident, which at first seems out of place, but later proves to be prophetic: she has a vision.  It is an odd experience for the reader, and initially very confusing, for it appears in an excellent, but nevertheless conventional, autobiographical fragment.  It is as if we came across George Eliot in the parlour suddenly speaking like William Blake…

Sunday, 5 February 2012


In deciding whether to leave my comfortable corporate VP job at Pillsbury to start over at Burger King, I asked myself one question: Will this put me in a better position to become president of a business?  I did not ask myself the wrong questions: How hard will my new job be?  What will my friends think if they see me making hamburgers in a quick service restaurant?   What will I do if this new position does not work out as planned?  As a CEO of Self, I knew that those questions were not the right ones to be asking.  (The ‘CEO of Self’, by Michael Tomasky)

The CEO of Self?  This is business management speak for the ambitious bureaucrat.  And like most of its ilk it sounds clunky and stupid, overwhelming simple minded and kitsch, to those outside the HR department and the senior management team.  Inside, in the rarefied air pockets of the company’s HQ, it is a different matter: always they have to acquire their own language, to protect them from the world outside; and their own staff.  Like most theology it contains an enormous amount of nonsense; and some little sense; the sense the bait that catches them.  But the nonsense?  Oh, a sign of priestly depth and profundity – essential materials for the management consultant, it advertises their quality.  Herman Cain, Burger King and republican candidate, is an adept at both the bureaucracy and the language game and proclaims loudly that he is a true believer; a sign for most of us that he is unreflective and pathological; like a conman telling us he is expert at fooling people.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Daytime TV

A red coffin on a white truck, and I the only mourner.  Gone!  To be squeezed and squashed, stamped, into an iron pizza.  Cars!  Suddenly so big, so enormous, when you give them away, to be broken up and buried in some suburban knackers yard.  Giving it away!  Something so large!  So expensive!  And all the money you have spent on it.  Valueless now… too young to be an antique it is too old to be wanted.  Though suddenly I want it, as it is carried away; wobbling on the back of a flat bed truck; disappearing down the industrial estate.  I am sad for a while; for a few lonely moments.  Cars.  They dominate our lives.  But then they are gone, and very quickly they are nothing; and we are free once more. 

My first car.  Then I really was sad…

Friday, 3 February 2012


Leaving the World Behind

Softly, so carefully,
Quietly, he loses himself
As slowly he sinks away.
A crowd of pines

Watch at the water’s edge.

As he drifts gently down
The lake quite leisurely,
So quietly, closes up behind him.
Raucously gulls

Gossip over the grey clouds.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

We Passed It (Long Ago)

It is a border you cross.  Its location is unknown.  Even when you pass over it you are unaware of its existence; for you can hardly see it; certainly not clearly, maybe not even at all. 

You have crossed the border and the country changes; more exotic in all sorts of ways, it is a desert and a jungle combined; although do you do not recognise it – so many features have remained the same.  Your emotions so wild, so dense, so entangled; a slight pain a sandstorm of excruciating happiness.  You have arrived in a new land, but it takes years for you to see it.   One day when you are miles away from that crossing, and you look back from a high mountain range, you watch it shimmering on the horizon; figures moving slowly around it, inhabiting what for you is now an old nation.  There is the sky, the grey waves, the russet sand, and between them black silhouettes, like crochets on a stave.  The border, that beach, that one day, so long ago; that moment when everything changed for good; your life transported into a new country.

Friday, 27 January 2012

No Man's Land

Remember the good old days?  When you were young and still a child.  Do you recall the hostility, the cruelty; the violence just below the surface, ready always to pop up and show its impish face and flash its lightweight fists?   You do?  OK.  Good.  Now we can talk properly. What were you: the bully or the miserable victim?  Come on now.  You can tell me.  No hiding behind fancy games or intellectual fantasy.  I want it straight: did you make other people’s lives a misery or were you floored by the verbal abuse and cruel teasing; was it you at the bottom of a pack of brutal kicks and inept punches? 

Good, good, I am listening.  However, you will need more than some old memories to understand this film.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Little Humans

One day shortly after her return Deborah decided that the time had come to take down Menuchim’s basket from the ceiling.  Not without solemnity she turned the little one over to the older children.  ‘You must take him walking!’ said Deborah.  ‘When he gets tired you must carry him.  In God’s name, don’t let him fall!  The holy man has said that he will get strong.  Do him no harm!  From now on the children’s troubles began.


Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefulle?  Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my heart:
So I did sit and eat.

George Herbert

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Same Old Thing

Religion.  Do we know what it is?   A belief in God: is that it?  For many people this is so.  Yet can God really be the cause of faith?  It does not seem possible, for something so strong and long lasting, and yet so nebulous: for ultimately he is our creation, an idea that exists at our behest.  Can something so individual and so abstract be so powerful?  Did God really build the castle that defends the faithful against all attacks; and is he still the handyman, repairing the walls and the creaking gates…  Such a lot of work for him to do; and never suffering from arthritis or a bad back…

Sunday, 15 January 2012


The Biggest Bully in Town

After reading a David Bromwich review what struck me is that civilisation simply means whatever power happens to be dominant at any particular time.  The powerful republic or empire sets the standard, and measures all other cultures against itself.  Thus the Roman Empire dismisses its German barbarians, the Ottoman rulers their European ones, as they march forward into history.  Today it is “The West” that carries the banners and flags, and it rules because of its particular DNA, or so a popular historian argues: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. 

But how does it set this standard in the first place?  By conquest.  Yet strangely of the six factors that Niall Ferguson says makes the West great war is not one of them.  How odd.  How instructive!

Saturday, 14 January 2012


Vanity is a terrible thing.   You submit a poem, it is published, and a few months later you read it in the magazine.  How wonderful!  The words an elegant mosaic, the sentiment captured so clearly; although, on reflection, maybe you caught it just a little too well; but still…  You meander down the page, wistful about the sixth line in the fourth stanza, when your eyes are attracted to a crowd of words massed heavily to its left.  How annoying!  Do I have to share this space with others?  Why can’t I have the house to myself?  You laugh at this conceit, thinking of a large sequence decorating each and every room.  You imagine the bathroom, wondering how to squeeze a Ramayana reference into it; it should be appropriately elephantine, for a bathtub needs its irony; soapsuds amongst the classical gods; in dark blue on light green walls.  What!  Those words are again attracting your attention.  Really, they are a noxious crowd; chanting abuse at a close friend.  The phrases are harsh, but the slogans sound just a little too justly….  This you cannot accept.  In a rage you light up a few paragraphs, and throw them at the editor.