Sunday, 17 October 2010

48. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch - 'The Mont-Bazillac' (1913)

'Here was another thing - I'd never been drunk before, and I haven't been drunk since: but all the same I knew that this wasn't the least like ordinary drunkenness: it was too - what shall I say? - too brilliant. The whole town of Bergerac belonged to me: and, what was better, it was lit so that I could steer my way perfectly, although the street seemed to be quite amazingly full of people, jostling and chattering. I turned to call Jinks's attention to this, and was saying something about a French crowd - how much cheerfuller it was than your average English one - when all of a sudden Jinks wasn't there! No, nor the crowd! I was alone on Bergerac bridge, and I leaned with both elbows on the parapet and gazed at the Dordogne flowing beneath the moon.'
(Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Selected Short Stories, Penguin Books, 1957, pp.112-3)

'Besides, the Conservative blogger Iain Dale has examined the TV schedules during this year's Lib Dem spring conference, when this incident is supposed to have taken place, and found that Strictly Come Dancing was not being shown - and nor was Strictly Dance Fever or any other such programme.

If this fable is typical of the communication agency's strategic advice then Campbell would do well to think twice before accepting it.

It is hard to imagine him prospering with an approach that treats any sign of education or enthusiasm for the finer things in life as a guilty secret to be hidden from the electorate.'
(Jonathan Calder, 'Let Ming be Ming', The Guardian, 31 July 2006,

A palpably bourgeois excursion and a good deal more worldly than the M.R. James, with his protagonist's ascetic 'Evening Drink of small Ale in a silver vessel of about a pint measure.' I came upon this book at a Tynemouth book fair last year and, recalling the author's name and - it must be said - fetishizing the belisha orange Penguin design, I bought the musty smelling 52-year-old book (its inner cover inscribed 'R.H.H. Jones, MARCH 1965' in starchy red ink).

One could make obvious points regarding this being published with the world on the edge of the precipice.

I prefer to highlight Quiller-Couch's role as a pillar of the establishment past: educated, simultaneously liberal and conservative. Not tied to social conservatism; indeed open to the bohemian, but skeptical of 'modenity' in its economic sense. This story reflects Q-C's position as cultured cultural arbiter: telling the story of an Oxford undergraduate's rites of passage in the Loire Valley, south France. The story centres on Bergerac, a market town 'on the edge of claret country' and particularly on the unique drunken experience produced by a near-mythical, 'extinct' local white wine named Mont-Bazillac (one which produced no hangover). It is a delicately sweet wine, with almost a trace of the madeira about it - one of my favourite drinks, immortalised in English song by Flanders and Swann.

Ungodly Church of England vicars, gentle mockery of the 'teetotal craze', 'old boys with grizzled moustaches' and 'prize Baden-Powell scouts', ease among classicist porticos; these symbolise the culture inherited by the likes of the late Sirs Hugh Carleton Greene and John Mortimer, both critical figures in the liberalisation of Britain in the 1960s. One can easily trace the lineage through to the jocular Horace Rumpole, with his love of liberty and fine clarets. There is an instinctive, well-heeled Europeanism at play, not especially political but cultural.

Having recently finished Martin J. Wiener's English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980 (Cambridge University Press, 1981), one can identify AQC as in the lineage of prominent figures who shaped our culture in that period through suspicion of industrialisation and materialism: John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, William Morris, G.K. Chesterton, Herbert Asquith, Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Aneurin Bevan, to name but eight. He is a not a Liberal in the free-market libertarian sense as Nick Clegg, but a Keynesian Liberal. Liberals tend to accept the prevailing consensus of their day, but their value is in achieving significant reforms - the like of which Roy Jenkins and David Steel achieved, but which it seems doubtful that Clegg will, hitched to a discredited economic programme.

'Q', as he was known, wrote novels and verse, as well as teaching and becoming a key player in English literary criticism pre-F.R. Leavis. He edited the vastly popular Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900 (later extended to 1918), constantly referenced in Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey. His daughter was the inspiration for Kenneth Grahame's Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, he completed unfinished works by Robert Louis Stevenson and a certain Alastair Cooke was a notable student of his. In addition, this native of Cornwall was active in local Liberal Party politics.

An interesting footnote to this tale is that  the village of Monbazillac - near Bergerac - was designated in 1936 as an AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée), a specific regional wine classified by central government as adhering to traditional standards of wine production. The sort of preservationist ideal inherent in the controversial EU legislation, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the popular Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) over here in the UK.

Ultimately, this is a light, jocund story; how much you enjoy it will largely depend on how partial you are to old-school liberal values, or indeed to sweet white wines from the Loire Valley.


Friday, 15 October 2010

Shadows, Ruins...

Essential viewing and reading matter for this uncertain Autumn. The BFI follow up their superlative Land of Promise set of British documentaries, 1930-50, with an intriguingly titled volume covering 1951-77. Owen Hatherley follows up his offensive on the part of modernism, Militant Modernism, with a guide book to the state of our urban architecture.

The book arrived yesterday; was flattered to discover I was thanked for my recommendations of places to visit in the North East, responding to the request made in the 'Brasilia of the North' post here:

First time to my knowledge that I have appeared in print, as it were, and hopefully not the last! :) I cannot think that I would merit a mention in Chris Mullin's forthcoming collected diaries from 1994-99, for my week's work experience in his office in June 1998. Met him briefly on the Friday and I must have cut an awkwardly monosyllabic figure, though I could certainly boast a reasonable work ethic, managing to re-file most of his constituency case work!

Friday, 1 October 2010

Millennial Melancholy

"I never wanted to big up any drugs, because I don't reckon they deserve it. It's just something that you choose to do. I probably come across as, like, 'Yeah, acid and weed are amazing.' But I don't think that at all, really. And if I did, I wouldn't want to say it in an interview. Plus, I'm never under the influence of drugs when I make music. Whenever I have been, it's always been totally rubbish. It's a real disciplined thing, making music. When you're tripping, you're just fucked. You could never get it together to make a track. When I'm stoned, I go to bed."

"only with programming you have to use your brain. The most important thing is that it should have some emotional effect on me, rather than just, 'Oh, that's really clever.' There's a lot of melancholy in my tracks." His best ones, he says, are those which evoke feelings that can't quite be described, where "you're not quite sure what emotion it is".

(Richard D. James, 'The Friday Interview: Aphex Twin', The Guardian, 05/10/2001:

"These distinctions matter because the way out of this mess (and it is a mess, fuelled by ignorance, stupidity, prejudice and weapons) is to clarify and discriminate rather than hurl abuse at anything that goes near a mosque.

I doubt many Muslims can be bothered with Amis. But he nurtures in his audience a corrosive prejudice against people they've never bothered to meet. It is culturally dim for us to form confident opinions about people based upon how they look and what we've heard they think. It is also against our interests. Nonsense abounds on the causes of terrorism but it is hard to argue that alienation doesn't channel potential foot soldiers towards radicalisation. As one solitary Muslim asked him at the ICA, 'Why such contempt for Muslims?' Amis must have known something was up because he dropped his drawl and called the man 'sir'. But he could hardly unspeak his views. And those views are certainly alienating."

(Chris Morris, 'The Absurd World of Martin Amis', The Guardian, 25/11/2007,

Carl Neville's Classless: Recent Essays on British Film, another fine Zero book, identifies the late-1990s as a time in which There Was No Alternative - to consumerist hedonism or its political parent, Blairism. When ideas and learning were restricted (and the culturally highbrow buried ever deeper in the schedules), popular culture itself lost out through lacking any contrast or focal point to rally against. It became the establishment; one that we now need to recognise as intensely problematic.

In the late 1990s, there was a resistance, embodied best perhaps by two figures, Chris Morris and Richard D. James (aka. Aphex Twin). Morris, educated at Jesuit Stonyhurst, is of course best known for The Day Today and Brass Eye, but for me the initial few series of Blue Jam and in part Jam, make up the pinnacle of his work and define the late 90s era like nothing else.

If his earlier work was a liberal savaging of tabloid Toryism and stupidity in all its forms, Blue Jam tapped into the nation's nervous systems, fears and desires laid bare: a forensic representation of a national unconscious. There is a languid quality; strong, almost primal emotions sometimes, others a completely detachment - always a serene melancholia.

Some fragments bite all the harder now for all of the subsequent 'Noughties' history: the middle-class couple's sex arrangement in return for slight reductions in house price. The Middle England couple's campaign to get their child into the 'right school', as mentioned in an excellent post by Nina Power here: The man bowing out in his prime; an ambiguous reflection on euthanasia and the narcissistic self-image of the Baby Boomer generation. The sublimely timed Mr Bentham sketches, depicting the quiet nightmare of Consultancy Britain.

The musical soundtrack is perfectly judged to create the mood of alternating unease and sadness: Morris' choices tap into a thoughtful strain of British music, electronic and ambient. The music of BJ forms an eloquent expression of his own singular qualities: articulacy, eccentricity, insight, precision. His best work in Blue Jam makes one think of Pinter, as well as Cook and Stanshall. The music is rooted in a time when the 1960s/70s born musicians began developing a hauntological music (in its more populist form, Lemon Jelly, in its more abstract, Position Normal; its most euro-electro, Broadcast).

The soundtrack Bark Psychosis. Brian Eno. Thomas Dolby. Gainsbourg. David Sylvian. The Cardigans heartrending ('Celia Inside'). PJ Harvey at her most haunting. Recontextualised 'Oh Lori' by Alessi, chilling lost summers. Reflective city music: Mono, Dubstar and Alpha.

And Aphex. Always Aphex.

The magnificent SAW2 does not need recounting; perhaps The Richard D. James Album does - an electronic symphony of English Weirdness. 'Windowlicker' is the seminal single that should have taken us into a different universe, but somehow didn't. Even Drukqs is essential; or, at least half of it is: the miraculous 'Btoum-Roumada', the uncanny 'Father' which evokes Allan Gray's spiralling piano tones in A Matter of Life and Death. The AFX Analord series is artful evidence of his growing into an elder statesman role, as dubstep, Ghost Box and Mordant Music arrived. Morris went on to make the vitally important (if occasionally slightly lax) Brass Eye Special, the flawed London media satire Nathan Barley (some valid digs at the line-quoting hero-worshipping of him in the treatment of Dan Ashcroft by 'The Idiots'; some great moments, but ultimately little of the satirical bite or scope of his previous work) and most recently, the commendable Four Lions. Not a great film overall, but a humane statement of libertarian-left sanity in an ever more sensationalised, reductive media landscape.

For millennial melancholy, one might also cite the retrospection of Black Box Recorder and, of cours,e Radiohead, whose sequence of albums from OK Computer to Hail to the Thief display no illusions about their times, as well as US bands like Lambchop and Sparklehorse. Perhaps my favourite record of this time remains Bows' absurdly overlooked Blush (1999), with Long Fin Killie's Luke Sutherland fusing diverse elements: urbane trip-hop, sedated Drum & Bass, aquatic strings, abstract harps, Scandinavian female vocals and a post-rock undertow.

Morris and James are so much more than the lazy stereotype of 'media terrorists', of people 'pushing the boundaries of acceptable taste', yawn. True, they cut through cant and politesse, but are not empty nihilists out to shock. They rather display a clear-sighted humanity, and, at their peak, an extraordinary discipline in the causes of intelligence and feeling.