Sunday, 24 May 2009
Saturday, 23 May 2009
'But it was still misty, and really, I can't say whether, when I looked a second time, there were two men or one man sweeping the leaves.'
(Muriel Spark, The Complete Short Stories, Penguin, 2001, p.190)
In truth, I shifted to novel reading: Grant Allen, John Verney, Sjowall and Wahloo, E. Nesbit, Donald Barthelme... and only on Thursday managed to get around to reading this piece. One recent novel read spurred the choice of Spark, a new favourite: her Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), 64 years on, a distinct, droller bedfellow of Allen's The British Barbarians. This is a strain of literature probing the English in particular, their foibles, hypocrisies and absurdities. Dougal Douglas, like Bertram Ingledew, a stranger in a foreign land, is regarded with a mixture of fascination, admiration, horror and incomprehension - and like Ingledew, his role is freelance agent provocateur, sprite-at-large, observing . He is, however, more devious and machiavellian in his means of exposing folly and involving himself in these people's lives. He also takes on paid employment, given the brief of almost a 'blue skies thinker' in the modern parlance; he is given the task of taking the pulse of the workplace and approaches it in an idiosyncratic manner the bosses accept due to their perception of this Scot as an 'Arts Man'.
'The Leaf-Sweeper' is an even earlier work from Spark's career of over fifty years, published originally in The Observer - and will be far from the last I will read (there is an allegory of Watergate in a nunnery, a fictionalised account of Lord Lucan's later life and, of course, a certain novel that was filmed about a schoolmistress with fascist fixations... plz feel free to recommend any more, anyone!). She seems to me to be one of the key post-WW2 writers, along with Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis &c.
The first thing to state about this story is that, like TBOPR, this is bloody funny - Spark has an understated way with insinuation and absurdity. The premise itself rings true in its absurdity - the leaf-sweeper turns out to be an author and fanatic recently released from a mental institution. Johnnie Geddes's fanaticism revolves around his unshakeable opposition to Christmas and all its works. He has some success with pamphlets on the subject and then full-length books (including Abolish Christmas or We Die) outlining his apocalyptic vision, captured amusingly by Spark: 'He cites appalling statistics to show that 1.024 per cent of the time squandered each Christmas in reckless shopping and thoughtless Churchgoing brings the nation closer to its doom by five years.' The effect is all the stronger because he rather has a point!
Spark introduces the concept succinctly and without ceremony - with something of the matter-of-fact quality that I observed in Dahl; after establishing the rather wistful, grounded scene of a man sweeping leaves in the mist for the local council, she throws in this: 'He looks much older than he is, for it is not quite twenty years ago that Johnnie founded the Society for the Abolition of Christmas.' (p.185) It gets one intrigued, right from the off, and Spark goes on to cover a lot of ground in a mere six pages. We get to know very little about the narrator who encounters Johnnie, and it simply does not matter in a vignette such as this is.
Quite how Spark turns it into a ghost-story is ingenious; amusing and melancholy at the same time: 'But perhaps you don't know how repulsive and loathsome is the ghost of a living man. The ghosts of the dead may be all right, but the ghost of mad Johnnie gave me the creeps.' (p.189)
'To bodies that had been laid in the earth in joyful expectation of a far different awakening, there came that hasty, lamp-lit, terror-haunted resurrection of the spade and mattock; the coffin was forced, the cerements torn, and the melancholy relics, clad in sackcloth, after being rattled for hours on moonless byways, were at length exposed to uttermost indignities before a class of gaping boys.'
(Robert Louis Stevenson, 'The Body Snatcher', The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales of Terror, Penguin Classics, 2002, p.87)
Full Text: http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/body.htm
This short-story was a precursor in some ways to his novella 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1886), obviously one of the key works of horror and 'scientific romance', providing an enduring influence for literature, not mention criticism, pertaining to the Weird, the uncanny. There is a duality in Fettes and how he spends his days and nights: 'For his day of work he indemnified himself by nights of roaring blackguardly enjoyment; and, when that balance had been struck, the organ that he called his conscience declared itself content.' (p.79)
As ever, Stevenson's style is bold and emphatic, revelling in macabre, exaggerated details; it is a blood and thunder storytelling with a florid vocabulary that grips you by the lapels with its urgency and gusto: 'sot', 'cerements' 'antecedents', 'interlopers', 'blackguardly', 'mattock'. As with his other seminal works, RLS establishes character with broad, burning strokes: Fettes is 'an old drunken Scotchman' with a mysertious past: 'We called him the Doctor; for he was supposed to have some special knowledge of medicine'. (p.73) The 'we' is ambiguous; the (potentially unreliable) first-person narrator is never named and can only be assumed to be an alehouse regular. The George inn in Debenham (code for Edinburgh, presumably?) is Fettes's abode, and it is from this sodden spot that the 'sot' relays his story, told to the narrator. Once this is entered into, there is no return to the present-day scene; RLS simply gets on with the story and ends it on a dramatic note characteristic of horror and romance.
The story is closely based upon the Burke and Hare case, with Edinburgh Doctor Robert Knox clearly the Dr K---- of the narrative, senior figure at the medical school and ambiguous facilitator of Macfarlane and Fettes's dark doings. It is implied that initially Fettes has to deal with Burke and Hare themselves, providing cadavers for medical research - 'he would open the door to these men, since infamous throughout the land'. (p.78) This prefaces his pact with the urbane, seemingly 'civilised' Macfarlane, which leads them to the graveyard and hands-on bodysnatching.
There is a sense of things progressing far beyond the everyday and humdrum, distorting into nightmare; like the 'human Juggernaut', Mr Hyde, treading a child down (p.13), Wolfe Macfarlane considers himself beyond good and evil: 'Hell, God, devil, right, wrong, sin, crime and all that old gallery of curiosities - they may frighten boys, but men of the world, like you and me, despise them.' (p.88) This compelling expression of amorality perhaps expresses a concern at what was to come; the Century of the Self to come, Christian morality shattered. Indeed, the pair's climactic snatching is to take place in Glencorse, a 'rustic neighbourhood' representing placid, unchanging, traditional values; a godly old lady's corpse is to be uprooted from the earth, 'carried, dead and naked, to that far-away city that she had always honoured with her Sunday's best'. (p.87)
In 1884, or indeed 1881, when he composed 'The Body Snatcher' at Kinnaird Cottage, Pitlochry, RLS simply identifies traditions as under grave attack - whether bodily or societal. Science and the Self are part of a revolution that is not condemned, but reported. Stevenson's concern is to tell a vivid, page-turning tale, rather than primarily to attack, or take sides between, Science and Religion.
This is an extreme, uncanny melodrama divested of any didacticism; one is carried along by the narrative, gallows humour and the often staggering achievement of RLS's characterisation and drawing of extraordinary incidents and images: for example, the wildly bizarre finale, which I shall not spoil in its particulars other than to say that it marks a return to Edinburgh, finally named, and given its due place.
Sunday, 17 May 2009
"The great thing about pop music is that it makes difficult things sound natural. And anything can be brought into it. It is like a newspaper for the world"
(Neil Tennant, 2009)
That's it, the end
But you'll get over it, my friend
Time will pass, governments fall
Glaciers melt, hurricanes bawl
High speed trains, take us away
North or south... and back the same day
And you, you'll get over it
You do, you get over it
Seasons will change, more or less
Species vanish, art perplex
Resentment remains, both east and west
Police expect... an arrest
For now, you'll get over it
Somehow, you'll get over it
You'll be there, the king over the water
In despair, recoiling from the slaughter
They're raising an army, in the North
From York Minster to the Firth of Forth
The pilgrimage of grace, you won't believe it
Such a human face... when you receive it
And you will, get over it
With time to kill, you'll get over it
There's a cruiser waiting, at Scapa Flow
To take you away from all you know
The old man agonized
He really has compromised
Public opinion may not be on your side
There are those who think they've been taken for a ride
You'll get over it, I'm on your side because
You'll get over it, and what a ride it was
Tout les artistes dans le monde
Chantent pour toi ce soir
Tout les artistes dans le monde
Chantent pour toi c'est noir
It's dark, but you'll get over it
On your mark, you'll get over it
That carphone warehouse boy has been on the phone
He wants to upgrade the mobile you own
Have you realized your computer's a spy?
Give him a ring, he'll explain why
The bourgeoisie will get over it
Look at me, I'm so over it
And you, you'll get over it
You do, you'll get over it... in time
It forms the staggering last gasp of a fine album (no return to form, simply even better than Fundamental); the ante upped, the majesty and wisdom enveloping. This is stately and humanely grandiose as only the Pet Shop Boys can imagine. Those vintage, timeless orchestrations combining beautifully with synth orchestra hits - tolling their greater sadness. Who's he quoting in that opening line? Not him, is it? Elliptical lyric; it must be obvious, but is never hammered home.
A requiem for New Labour, to follow some of his earlier savagings; this casts a rueful eye on 'the legacy' that so obsessed the vain and deluded Blair, unable to assess his own vacuity and transience. The PSBs art is a window on the world, in the old Dennis Potter sense; northern good cheer, imparting some profound truths to modern Britain in 'Love Etc.' - number 1 in a Britain that was ready to turn its back on consumerism rather than merely tepidly express doubts. Britain could make the change but so many have been converted not simply in terms of policy or even behaviour but by the language and assumptions of the market and managerialism.
'Building a Wall' evokes Westall's The Machine-Gunners, Hadrian's Wall, the Cold War, Captain Britain and current fencings-in; perceived via Tennant's recollections of his Gosforth upbringing, the lost, proud provincial England of the 50s / 60s. 'The King of Rome' evokes the majestic melancholy, the chill and the embrace of Behaviour; 'Did You See Me Coming?' makes Johnny Marr matter again (it always takes a Morrissey, Sumner or Tennant to truly do that).
But, 'Legacy', well, it is astounding; a rueful epitaph to a period in our history which may increasingly come to seem bizarre and outlandish - the long, indulgent binge; Brown's quarter-by-quarter short-termism and Blair's increasingly paranoid heeding of the Daily Mail agenda on ID cards, law and order, Europe, foreigners, etc. The betrayal of the north is deeply felt by this County Durham resident Tennant, who never took Mandelson's advice. As is the prescience of "Police expect... an arrest", a grim anticipation of G20 and the many battlegrounds that one senses we are headed for. And the pointed coup de grace of the move into French.
The left-of-centre, articulate heart of Britain resides in the Pet Shop Boys; unfortunately, despite the amount of people who profess that they are heroes, I see scarce evidence (in the open, anyway) that people are actually being influenced or affected by this noble pop art. Such is the fate of those who go against the temper of their times, I suppose; let us hope that it can be turned. Let us make that happen.
'You don't have to be in Who's Who to know what's what'
Thursday, 14 May 2009
'So Georg confined himself to giving his friend unimportant items of gossip such as rise at random in the memory when one is idly thinking things over on a quietSunday. All he desired was to leave undisturbed the idea of the home town which his friend must have built up to his own content during the long interval.'
(Franz Kafka, The Complete Short Stories, Minerva, p.79)
The Trial (1925) was a key novel in developing my literary tastes; reading it at age 15/16 was a definite portal to Beckett, Pinter, The Prisoner, Orson Welles and so much else that informs and excites. There is black humour, hopelessness, and the modern world writ large: no one is driving, no megalomaniac running the show; merely systems, ways of thought or customs running automatically and inflecting how we live. Arbitrary, never random.
Aside from 'Metamorphosis', this is the first short story of Kafka's I have read, and a comforting old piece of bedsitter fiction it is!
'The Judgment' concerns one Georg Bendelmann, a merchant; in probing, third-person prose, it is described how he has corresponded by letter with an old friend for three years since the friend left for St. Petersburg. He selectively portrays the world that his friend left behind, omitting the major news of his forthcoming marriage to a Fraulein Frieda Brandenfeld, having earlier neglected to mention his progress in business.
He is considerate in an unusual way with his friend's presumed feelings; considering, whilst conversing with his upper-crust fiance, how he might feel if invited to the wedding: "Alone - do you know what that means?" (pp.79-80) His exaggerated, speculative concern for his friend's feelings - "a genuine friend of the opposite sex, which is not without importance to a bachelor" - is subtly undermined by the fact of his friend never writing back. (p.80)
The story shifts from the reflective to the melodramatic; Georg's perceptions of reality finally being challenged by the external world and leading to something of a mock-tragic, bathetic ending. There are plenty of exclamation marks, and unexpected bursts of action, puncturing the stillness engendered by the epistolary motif which characterises the early section. Georg's relationship with his father comes to the fore, and completely alters our view of things - initially, influenced by a third-person narrative looking at the world as G. sees it. The affair assumes Steptoe and Son dimensions, with the anguished bitterness of 'Loathe Story' resolved. The resolution, while rooted in Ibsenite naturalism, carries a melodramatic charge leavened by absurdism - how far have we travelled since the sedate - even complacent - opening 'Sunday morning in the very height of spring'? The letters being sent turn out to have been of a rather different nature, but I shall not divulge the full details...
Wednesday, 13 May 2009
'He's bought a building! He's bought a building! Great!
(Cassetteboy, 'I Am the Guv'Nor, You Deal with Me', Carry on Breathing, 2008)
'it was so long since he had heard a bird sing in his garden that it seemed to him to be the most beautiful music in the world.'
(Oscar Wilde, The Complete Oscar Wilde, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, p.292)
Not so much deployment of the paradox; little of the sophisticated wit of the kind one might expect of this writer. Instead, socialist - or even Communist - allegory with implicit, verging upon explicit, denunciation of the idea of private property.
The Selfish Giant erects in his garden a notice-board with the words : 'TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED' - shown centred on the page in a box. An ancient and modern mantra of those who would lay claim to land. Today, property ownership may be a smugly infantilised game - Channel 4's programmes such as Property Snakes and Ladders - and assumed 'right'. Meaning we are just as in need of Bertram Ingledew's astonished indignation and Cassetteboy's ingenious, hilarious and righteous Morrisian cut-ups.
The British obsession with owner occupation - leading often to a metaphorical lowering of the drawbridge against the world and other people - is a key part of why are a less civilised nation than, say, Germany. Also partly why we are so Conservative at the ballot box.
The sublimely sneaky, subversive 'A Sphinx without a Secret' is more redolent of the Wilde one expects from the plays and the life, with its piercing view of romantic rituals and bourgeois city life. This is more simple, on-the-surface rather than concerned with surfaces; there is an almost anti-Wildean simplicity at work, for example, 'He was a very selfish Giant' is indented as a paragraph on its own.
Grasping acquisitiveness gives way to generosity and nature; a vision somewhat in line with that of Hans Christian Andersen. The Wildean mark is clear in how he characterises the Giant at the beginning; he returns home after seven years staying with his friend the Cornish ogre: 'After the seven years were over he had said all that he had to say, for his conversation was limited, and he determined to return to his own castle.' (p.291) That he lacks conversational skills does not sit well with the convivial Wilde, whose table talk was legendary and often facilitated his creativity; it marks the Giant out as bad and limited, in comparison to the communal harmony of the children who he finds playing in his garden.
Typically for both allegory and the Wildean fairy tale, the elements and seasons are personified; Autumn, for example, acts to punish the giant by withholding her fruit from his garden: ' " He is too selfish," she said. So it was always Winter there, and the North Wind and the Hail, and the Frost, and the Snow danced about through the trees.' (p.292) This anti-realism reflects how rooted in tradition Wilde was; sometimes he subverts it, but always he draws upon it - for example, the deployment of tropes from Victorian Melodrama in his early plays.
Nature, as in Andersen, works to negate the evil in individuals, and provides for communality to re-assert itself at the end. Indeed, white blossom serves as a symbol of the Giant's moral ascension, described as covering his dead body at the close.
To get a true sense of Wilde, one must go beyond the plays; an understanding of them is to be enriched by perusal of his essays and short-stories - which reveal an ardent socialist and anti-Wienerite, brethren of William Morris and in line with other such currents in post-1850 literature and culture. While I prefer 'Sphinx' to this, it has to be stressed that they each inform the other; irreverent social satire and absurdity given the ballast of Christian Socialism, and vice versa.
Monday, 11 May 2009
'Poor fellow! his large eyes gleamed, rather than shone; for the effect of wine on his excitable brain was not more powerful than instantaneous. He placed the goblet nervously on the table, and looked round upon the company with a half-insane stare. They all seemed highly amused at the success of the king's "joke".'
(Edgar Allan Poe, 'Hop-Frog', The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Penguin, 1982, p.504)
Edgar Allan Poe has been a favourite of mine for some years; perhaps ever since I saw the excellent Roger Corman film from 1964, Masque of the Red Death, which combined that story with elements of 'Hop-Frog', creating a richly Gothic tapestry that bore quite an Ingmar Bergman influence. In 2004, I read the marvel that is 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and, more recently, deft exercises in morbidity such as 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar'.
After seeing Corman's film, I decided to read the short-story as part of my English Speaking Board examination - conducted at the end of my first year of Sixth Form College. It should be noted that I was in the last cohort of students to simply do 'A' Levels over two years, before the Advanced Subsidiary (A.S.) came in. One had to chair a debate on a topical issue, do a reading from a work of fiction, poetry etc. and do a short presentation on any topic of interest. At the time, I found the whole thing very difficult, but nevertheless could recognise that it was worth doing; presentation making and public speaking is an area I am now rather well versed in, but then was out of my depth. This forcible projection got me started, inadvertently perhaps leading to where I am today, lecturing after a fashion, engaging an audience of students on topics such as aesthetics, religion / science and changes in modern society. I am also seemingly in demand as a moment's-notice MC at friends' weddings, in lieu of anyone else, although mercifully am one who sticks to the bare essentials of that duty!
The sound of one's own voice; something you have to be comfortable with in many spheres - acting, politics, teaching and foolery. The eponymous Hop-Frog, is, as required by court jesters, silver tongued in his ability to provoke amusement with his jesting. As in Lear, where the Fool imparts sometimes harsh truths with the impugnity accorded by his position and attire, 'Hop-Frog''s titular protagonist lambasts and ribs royalty - but safely, within the confines of a 'game'.
Poe takes this scenario and portrays the nobility going too far, and the jokes becoming less 'safe' as a result and instead leading to a deliciously macabre denounement. There is the eeriness of sounds in Poe's description, conveying a subtle link to Beckett's Embers: 'There was a dead silence for about half a minute, during which the falling of a leaf, or of a feather, might have been heard. It was interrupted by a low, but harsh and protracted grating sound which seemed to come from every corner of the room.' (p.505) Horror - the myserious and unexplainable - seems to reside in this recurring (see p.508), bodiless noise.
This uncanny sound must - though seems not to - emanate from the dwarf Hop-Frog; it goes beyond his corporeal being: ' "The sound appeared to come from without," observed one of the courtiers. "I fancy it was the parrot at the window, whetting his bill upon his cage-wires.' '
I shall not go into the precise manner of the jester's revenge, other than to say that it revolves upon a masquerade - a role's reverse, which shows up the evil and corrupt as they really are. Hop-Frog assumes the role of master of a righteously macabre ceremony; Poe's use of italics indicate the shrill emphasis in this ritual performer's performance, shattering the institutions that bound and abused him:
"I now see distinctly," he said, "what manner of people these maskers are." (p.509)
In the end, the opening sentences reveal themselves astypically sardonic: 'I never knew any one so keenly alive to a joke as the king was. He seemed to live only for joking.'
'British politics in the seventies, for all the gothic prose it usually prompts, was about moments of possibility as well as periods of entropy; about stretches of calm as well as sudden calamity.'
(Andy Beckett, When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, Faber and Faber, 2009, p.5)
'We walked, as we always used to do, along the promenade, up to the pier, back down the pier, and back.'
(Harold Pinter, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998, Faber and Faber, 1998, p.92)
Sparse, still. Left spare, ambiguous, uncertain as the waves, eddying around the shores of an English seaside town. 1975.
The picture above was taken by myself at Runswick Bay, on the rugged idyll that is the North Yorkshire coast; north of Scarborough, south of Whitby. As can be observed, it was a nice day; very easy to imagine it grey, however.
Harold Pinter, in his Old Times and No Man's Land decade, writes a short story that fits on a solitary page in the edition of collected prose, politics and poetry that I am reading it in.
He captures, in miniature, the same concern with how people use language; with the charged meaning behind the blandness: the word 'congenial', prefaced by 'most'. The unplaceable unease: 'but nevertheless I'm glad to see you blossoming. Blossoming, I said, no, not quite that, surely, you're jesting.' The 's'-sounds, the precise metre; refined, stitled, mirroring the way 'I clasped his hand and thanked him for making the journey.'
Is this a duologue, or an internal monologue?
Pinter captures a melancholy reflectiveness perhaps in line with the post-Watergate moment this story was written in; Harold Wilson's unexpected second stint as PM, acting as the not-quite -present 'deep lying centre-half'. Unable to face up to the seriousness of the economic situation, yet able to manoeuvere Britain into accepting an economic Europe, if not a European destiny.
People were looking over the waves, if hardly as fervently as Heath had been since the 1930s.
'He spat into the fret. One hour in this bloody wet end of the world is enough for me'
With this world-weary, infernal monologue, Pinter captures a slight but tangible sense of 1975 Britain in stasis; right-wing plotters circling an administration unlucky to be in power, inheriting an unenviable legacy. The Maplin Sands future was by now clearly a pipe-dream of the man in the boat; the reality perhaps closer to the Morecambe chill felt by the retired couple in Alan Bennett's Sunset Across the Bay (Play For Today, TX: 20.2.1975).
The personal stasis, a man locked and lost in thought on the shoreline, recalls Henry's situation in Beckett's Embers (BBC Radio Third Programme, TX: 24.6.1959). With an almost imperceptible evocation of the wider nation; personal numbness mirroring the country as in Drabble's key novel of the late-70s, The Ice Age (1977).
In my forthcoming performance of the piece - to be posted as mp3 or YouTube video, possibly - I am certain to draw upon the influence of the BBC's Embers, with its haunting ambient sounds created by the Radiophonic Workshop's Desmond Briscoe. Briscoe's manipulations of the sound of the sea - as in Pinter, a landscape that could solely 'exist' in the main protagonist's head - are a key player in the play itself, complementing the dialogue, contributing to the unconscious, uncanny effect.
Saturday, 9 May 2009
'No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine.'
(Samuel Beckett, First Love and Other Shorts, Grove Press, Inc., 1974, p.63)
This begins a week of short-stories by some of the writers who have informed the way I see things - in terms of literature, life, existence &c.
There is no more appropriate place to begin than with Samuel Beckett, who informed my perceptions of drama more than any other playwright; I cannot quite remember why I selected his Waiting for Godot to write on for a piece of A-Level English Literature coursework, but it may have been a repeat of a Radio 3 production or a reference in the more enlightened music or film press. Whatever it was, I was hooked by the strangeness - captured by the excellent radio production with Alan Howard, Michael Maloney, Simon Russell-Beale and Stratford Johns that I recording off-air onto 2 C90 cassettes. This was something of and about language, its life and death, its interminable and yet vital stasis. Mellifluous dialogues - routines, patter - between Vladimir and Estragon, rueful, hopeful, hopeless - contrasted with the staccato melodramatics of Pozzo. All consumed by the explosive stream of consciousness of Lucky's monologue, ordered to talk at stick point: an avalanche of words only meaningless to the closed-minded; a sensical accumulation of images - 'the tennis' 'the skulls' - coming up with a new theatrical language. Joyce's techniques applied to the soliloquy, taken into the outer realms, defying pat sociological or even psychological explanations.
'Imagination Dead Imagine' is similar to Lucky's soliloquy; rhythmical, precise, yet creating a sense of the boundless when reading it - of a precisely timed language breaking out of the shackles, and communicating something urgent, yet seemingly opaque. As with poetry, it simply must be read out aloud - to get the rhythms, the metre and subtle repetitions. I am working on a reading of this and other short stories, to be posted on here when I can manage it.
Beckett's work is marked by the intense control of language for uncanny effect; he attains a lyricism impossible to convey in standard poetic meter: showing things as they are - how we are compelled to speak. Pinter of course elaborates upon Beckett's techniques, grounding them in a less symbolic, more 'naturalistic' reality, but also stressing the strangeness of phrases, of terms that are loaded with private meaning. The spaces between words as closed-down and irrevocable as his characters' lives - as mapped-out and absurdly fixed as our public spaces are today.
Friday's Newsnight Review contained discussion on the Patrick Stewart - Ian McKellen Godot, and was telling of the state of our culture and its criticism. Paulin was a passionate, incisive advocate of Beckett if not necessarily every aspect of this particular production; then you had Natalie Haynes, who mock-apologetically said that she had never 'got' Beckett, and didn't here. It was a classic contrast of somehow who knows and loves high culture, with somebody who refuses to engage with Beckett's fusing of existentialism, minimalism and Laurel and Hardy routines.
PAULIN. It does it with great, stillness, stasis and authority [...] it takes you into a social, historical and political void very, very strongly.
HAYNES. Maybe it doesn't meaning anything! It's just obtuse.
Haynes spent much of the programme hymning the new Star Trek film, with its emphasis on 'the good guys and the bad guys' - amusingly only remembered by Tom Paulin for the 'pointy ears'. Does meaning have to straightforward and telegraphed? I am afraid that whatever her other views or qualities, I cannot stand smug ignorance when it comes to things like this. All too symbolic of the reaction of most.
I don't think anyone could hope to understand me if they can find nothing in Beckett.
Ah...! Never mind...
You're here, so am I
Maybe millions of people go by...'
'Yes, but they all disappear (Where?)
(Dick Powell & Ruby Keeler, 'I Only Have Eyes For You', 1934)
Normal service will be resumed later today, with a fresh week's stories being approached; the backlog of entries from two weeks away being gradually posted - already posted one on Trollope today. There has had to be a missing week in this - the demands of life, work and everything made it impossible to keep it up. But it should be seen as a pause for breath, avoiding this blog merely becoming a mad rush to get words published; there may be further such pauses, but only if I fall as behind as I did with the writing side of things.
Anyway, much music listening - walking to and from the metro and work, and whilst reading. Bill Fay. Duncan Browne (MASTERFUL album that first one, more on 't, anon). Clifford T. Ward. The delectable Camera Obscura, new record and all. Moon Wiring Club. Kate Bush. Vic Godard. Aphex Twin. The Embassy. Pacific!'s 'Disappear'. Taken by Trees. 1958 'Threepenny Opera' ('Polly's Farewell Song' and 'The Song of Inadequacy' - which I can just about play on the melodica - in particular).
But this stands out; the whole record, 'The Happiness Project', by Broken Social Scene collective member, Charles Spearin, yes, but 'Vanessa' especially. The closest thing to this I have heard is Basil Kirchin's use of human and animal voices and sounds to make music. Profound, humanist music, that, and this: Spearin gets inside what makes our voices, words and music
I could also raise how Jarvis Cocker is best when speaking rather than 'singing', and the section from 1:34 of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler's 'I Only Have Eyes for You', from Dames (dir. Ray Enright & Busby Berkeley, 1934 which encapsulates that long-lost Hollywood magic, made from humans rather than pyrotechnics. Berkeley made the human body the stuff of dreams, but the spoken lines from 1:34 elevate an already immortal song into the sublime... So warm and tender.
'Now you don't know if you're in a garden, do you?
Come on, answer me...'
'Vanessa' has musical lines echoing the speech, embodying and embracing it, as with the stately brass section that builds twice - the first time uncertain, watchful. Then after more speech the voice changes key - 'all of a sudden I felt my body moving inside' (or is it 'in sound'?) - and a Bryars-like spell is cast by guitars, strings and brass, which accompany that looped phrase in its ascension. This stateliness, this loveliness.
Spearin's Project is of course born of Toronto; it is difficult to imagine it working in quite the same way in Sunderland or Newcastle, but I'd like to find a way - and this might form one of two current big musical projects I am planning:
First: found sounds and recorded voices form the basis, washboard and melodica the only instruments as such used. Organic sources, but to be thoroughly processed. Theme yet to be decided. Setting - Tyne and Wear. Influences: Charles Spearin, Kirchin, Ariel Pink, Eno.
Second: sample and quotation based cultural history of Britain, 1945-79, with a track for each year, fitting onto one CD. Influences: Mordant Music, Ghost Box, Sudden Sway.
Friday, 1 May 2009
‘Though I was brought up on both, Norse mythology has always appealed to me infinitely more than Greek; Hans Andersen’s The Snow Queen and George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin were my favourite fairy stories and years before I ever went there, the North of England was the Never-Never Land of my dreams. Nor did those feelings disappear when I finally did; to this day Crewe Junction marks the wildly exciting frontier where the alien South ends and the North, my world, begins.’
(W.H. Auden, 'I Like it Cold', House and Garden, December 1947)
"As the modern Danish critic Villy Sorensen has observed, Andersen saw the snow queen's icy world as the proper home for someone whose heart has been replaced by chilly reason--a category in which Andersen certainly placed many of his contemporaries" (169).
This is, according to Auden, a story with more sophistication than is perceived in mere folk tales - that 'mere' will be examined in a forthcoming week of 'founding texts', where I will be tackling religious and mythical stories.
It is profound, it is a beautiful piece of work - with a certain stark poetry in its symmetries. The message is simple and profound; HCA warns us of cleverness for its own sake, shown leading to a hardness of heart - shatteringly expressed in the studied desolation of that image of Kay: 'And away flew the Snow Queen, leaving little Kay quite alone in the great hall which was so many miles in length; so he sat and looked at his pieces of ice, and was thinking so deeply, and sat so still, that any one might have supposed he was frozen.'
Then there is the gender issue; as the annotations suggest, there are eight strong female characters and only the lost, adrift Kay representing the masculine - a masculine susceptible to corruption and coldness. When Gerda finally locates him after her epic journeying, his reaction to her joy at finding him is non-existent:
'But he sat quite still, stiff and cold.
Then little Gerda wept hot tears, which fell on his breast, and penetrated into his heart, and thawed the lump of ice, and washed away the little piece of glass which had stuck there.'
There is a Christianity at work; the song sung by Gerda refers to a 'Christ-child' and the story ends with their grandmother imparting a moral from the pages of the Bible. Yet, it is an approachable, welcoming Christianity ending symbolically with the scene of 'warm, beautiful summer'. Andersen conveys a warmth all the more potent for the delineation of what it is to be cold, with that stark image of Kay alone and unresponsive, locked in his pitiless games of logic. As with Blake, this is a consideration of Innocence and Experience, and an interpretation of Christianity more persuasive than found in the institutions or perhaps even the Bible itself. This is, intriguingly, fused with a rather pagan usage of shamanistic tropes and motifs throughout, clearly rooted in the northern culture.
There is an interesting, if inevitably partial, parallel to be drawn with Trollope and later British writers who opposed 'sophisticated' ways and cleverness: '“That boy will be very clever; he has a remarkable genius.” [...] His games, too, were quite different; they were not so childish. One winter’s day, when it snowed, he brought out a burning-glass, then he held out the tail of his blue coat, and let the snow-flakes fall upon it. “Look in this glass, Gerda,” said he; and she saw how every flake of snow was magnified, and looked like a beautiful flower or a glittering star. “Is it not clever?” said Kay, “and much more interesting than looking at real flowers. There is not a single fault in it, and the snow-flakes are quite perfect till they begin to melt.”'
Indeed, this can be said to anticipate the revulsion that traditionalists feel and have felt for the modern world, with mass production and easy reproduction of images and goods. The didactic message seems to be that such things distract us and divert us from our common humanity; Andersen indicts the scientific and rational: 'Kay’s fingers were very artistic; it was the icy game of reason at which he played, and in his eyes the figures were very remarkable, and of the highest importance; this opinion was owing to the piece of glass still sticking in his eye.' This is indeed the anti-Defoe in many ways; whilst HCA uses details to make symbolic, moral points, veracity does not become an issue. Such was the impression on Auden that the central image of Kay's pity and emotions locked
The values are traditional - for good or ill - and it can certainly be imagined what the arch-libertarian leftist Grant Allen, author of The British Barbarians (1895), would make of such moralising: Gerda throws away her red shoes, which denote sin, showing HCA's adherence to societal taboos. However, the William Morris view - not far from GA's - can be said to accord in its essential purism regarding landscape and work. It is on the question of the freedom of the enlightened individual where Allen / Morris / Chesterton place a greater emphasis - Andersen shows a traditional social order that is stable barring the threat from Reason. They define that term 'reason' slightly more stringently than Andersen, and Victorian etiquette and mores come under assault as well as industrialisation.
But then Andersen is not writing a 'Hill Top novel', but establishing a northern mythology - designed to influence and inspire the young. In the strict terms of what is communicated and the imagery used, this is presumably peerless in its field, and also bears comparison with 'adult'-targeted poetry and prose which asserts and contrasts pagan and Christian themes. It is indeed worthy of Auden - it formed him - and should concern and inform us all.
One of the poet's greatest poems is informed by Andersen's stark imagery; Kay's affliction mirrored in the state of Europe in 1939:
'In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.'
(W.H. Auden, 'In Memory of W. B. Yeats', February 1939; The English Auden: Poems, Essays, & Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, Faber and Faber, 1977)