April 13, 2014

lhoResponding to the boom in serial killer fiction, the criminologist Elliott Leyton objected to the romanticisation or glamourising of serial killers, in the Hannibal Lecter novels and elsewhere:

[U]sually without intellectual or physical attainments, they are often uneducated and virtually illiterate… in sum, they are dull, unimaginative, socially defective, vengeful, self-absorbed and self-pitying human beings. In fact, there is no connection whatever between what serial murderers are really like and the way they are portrayed in films and books.

This remark kept recurring in my head when I read Don DeLillo’s Libra and, more recently, Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale. Two masterful American novelists tackled possibly the most famous American murder of the last century and still didn’t manage to make its perpetrator sound the least bit interesting. Mailer’s book is the more in depth, follows Lee Harvey Oswald to Russia and back and delves into his background, childhood, marriage and family. Nothing emerges. Nothing except the same petty traits. Oswald’s laziness (he was chided by Soviet workmates for putting his feet up on the factory table) his indecisiveness, his semiliterate pomposity, his attitudes to women (he beat his wife, the key sin of the inadequate male). A stale permanent atmosphere of stained mattresses, stencilled flybills and squalling children hangs over this man. There’s nothing in LHO you wouldn’t find in unpleasant people on buses or in offices everywhere. Only this one whacked a President. That, Mailer says, is the mystery. For:

It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security… If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd.

Hence the conspiracy theories. The best and most convincing is the story in Libra, where Oswald is manoeuvred by hawkish elements of the CIA, who want to create the impression of a Cuban plot against JFK where Oswald is meant to miss the President, and terrify his administration into a harder line on Castro. Mailer counters that no professional conspirator is going to build a scheme with LHO as its centre: ‘it is too difficult, no matter how one searches for a viable scenario, to believe that others could have chosen him to be the rifleman of a conspiracy. Other amateurs, conceivably. But not professionals. Who would trust him to hit the target?’ And: ‘It is even more difficult to organise the aftermath of a planned failure than to do the deed and escape.’

Another mystery is the why. But killers demand attention, and confuse fame with notoriety. Anders Brievik wrote a manifesto 1,518 pages long. Oswald too was a lifelong pamphleteer and political flyerer. Mailer theorises that LHO banked on using a public trial as his world platform. The electric chair or life without parole would be worth the exposure. Oswald didn’t realise that he himself would be killed before he reached the podium.

Not assimilable to reason. The craziness of democracy. You can take a shot at the president if you don’t agree with him. And what an embarrassment for Kennedy’s shade. Taken out by the bloke from Sparks. Assassinated by Mr Pooter. But as Oswald’s act made him bigger than he was, so too with JFK. A blueblood fratboy, exploiter and mediocre president, he lives on in the Camelot myth. Christopher Hitchens devoted much of his writing on US politics to fighting that myth and exposing the sense of giggling entitlement that characterised the Kennedy dynasty (the telling anecdote for me is the Gore Vidal story that Hitchens cites, about how ‘Jack and Bobby used to argue over which of them had first thought to call James Baldwin ‘Martin Luther Queen”.)

In 2003 Hitchens surveyed the remains of the empire:

Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, whose ability to find his way to the House unaided has long been a source of intermittent wonder, became inflamed while making a speech at a liberal fund-raising event and yelled, ‘I don’t need Bush’s tax cut! I have never worked a fucking day in my life.’ The electoral career of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, which had never achieved escape velocity from local Maryland politics, seemed to undergo a final eclipse in the last mid-term vote. Robert F. Kennedy Jr failed to convince anyone of the innocence of his cousin Michael Skakel, convicted of beating a teenage girlfriend to death with a golf club.

Americans might as well erect an Arcadia around the Roger Sterling family.

Hitchens adds: ‘This is not to say that hair and nails do not continue to sprout on the corpse.’ In 2011 Stephen King published 22/11/63, his counterfactual time travel book about the Kennedy assassination. King buys into the Kennedy cult entirely, calling him ‘the last gunslinger’. What Roland Deschain would have made of the man who took us into Vietnam is never explained.

In 22/11/63 King sends a high school teacher protagonist, Jake Epping, back half a century to put a stop to Oswald’s plans. This could at least have been an interesting ride with Epping following Oswald around Texas and New Orleans of the America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But King’s tragedy is that he’s so good at writing about small communities, and has perfected that canvas so well, that he’s not comfortable with anything bigger. Epping arrives in Dallas and walks down the main street in the evening. He sees a drunk man thrown out of a bar and shoot himself on the street. The vision so unnerves Epping that he leaves the city and spends most of the novel hiding out in a small town.

King’s always been my hero. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing to find that heroes too sometimes scuttle back into their comfort zones.

Requiem for a Character

April 11, 2014

At some point in my childhood, I was led into a room in a school with a middle aged woman behind a desk. It was some kind of interview, for secondary school, I don’t remember, I was around ten or eleven at this time.

What I do remember is the woman asking me: ‘What’s your birthday?’

‘November 17,’ I said.

The woman produced a book. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘let’s find out what Adrian Mole did on your birthday.’

That icebreaker was the first thing I thought of when I heard about Sue Townsend’s death. We all knew Adrian Mole. We had grown up with him. I read the teenage diaries as a kid, of course I did, but it’s the adult novels I loved most, because childhood in the main follows a set path, whereas once you’ve grown up, anything can happen.

Not that much happens in the Mole diaries. As teenagers Adrian and his girlfriend Pandora are snobs in the way that only teenage outsiders can be. But Pandora grows up to be an Oxford PhD, Member of Parliament and bon viveur, while Adrian lives a life of poverty and disappointment. He racks up debt, two failed marriages, spends years raising children alone on a sink estate and, in the final book, develops prostate cancer. The books are well loved despite this darkness. Or perhaps because of it. Townsend has Chekhov’s chip of ice. Life is hard. Bad things happen. Dreams dissolve like morning mist.

My favourite of the Mole books is The Wilderness Years. In this, it’s the early 1990s and Adrian is a young man squatting in Pandora’s Oxford boxroom. Over the course of the book, he gets fired, dumped, moves cities, all the while writing a ludicrous novel, Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland, featuring Adrian’s fantasy surrogate and wish-fulfilment icon, Jake Westmorland. Jake’s adventures become a book within a book as Adrian excerpts his work in progress alongside his regular diary. The Mole novel is preposterous (‘Put your foot down!’ Jake barked to the minicab driver. ‘Take me to the nearest urban conurbation’) but develops a poignant edge as Adrian’s fiction mirrors his moods and charts his growth as a person. We laugh at Adrian, but never stop loving him. He has no talent but is in his own way a wonderful human being.

There are probably millions of Adrian Mole type intellectuals in provincial towns and cities all over the UK – reading in old man’s pubs, working the counter at secondhand bookshops, raising pigs in the fields of England.

This post is meant as my tribute to these fine men.


 Sue Townsend 1946-2014. Image via The Daily Edge

Kim Philby and the Inner Ring

March 26, 2014

kimphilbyIn 1857, the Christian socialist Thomas Hughes published Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a bestselling novel about a boys’ boarding school, featuring a cowardly bully called Flashman who is eventually expelled in drunken disgrace. At some point in the late 1960s, journalist and ex-soldier George MacDonald Fraser realised that Flashman was the most interesting character in Hughes’s novel, and reinvented the Rugby tearaway as an imperial war hero. The Flashman adventures ran to twelve instalments and followed Flashman the man through the major battles and upheavals of the British Empire. Still an abject craven, Flashman hides, cowers, pleads, gets drunk, whores around and sells other people out for his own freedom – and still, somehow, ends up covered in glory. At one point, he reflects:

When I think of the number of eminent men and women, who have taken me at face value, and formed a high opinion of my character and qualities, it makes me tremble for my country’s future. I mean, if they can’t spot me as a wrong ‘un, who can they spot?

They certainly couldn’t spot Kim Philby. Educated at Westminster and Trinity, decorated in the Spanish Civil War, section chief of MI6 Washington, head of anti-Soviet intelligence, thirty-year veteran of the Service, Kim Philby OBE was charming, talented and popular. He was also a Soviet spy and cold-blooded traitor. How the two sides of this head coexisted is the subject of Ben MacIntyre’s extraordinary biography.

‘The soil that grew Kim Philby,’ Macintyre writes, ‘had produced a conventional upper-class public-school Englishman’. And MacIntyre provides a startling look at the conventions of this class. Philby’s best friend Nicholas Elliott, who was duped by Philby for three decades, was educated at a school that made Flashman’s Rugby look like Hogwarts:

Durnford School in Dorset [was] a place with a tradition of brutality extreme even by the standards of British prep schools: every morning the boys were made to plunge naked inbto an unheated pool for the pleasure of the headmaster, whose wife liked to read improving literature out loud in the evenings with her legs stretched out over two small boys, while a third tickled the soles of her feet. There was no fresh fruit, no toilets with doors, no restraint on bullying, and no possibility of escape. Today, such an institution would be illegal: in 1925 it was considered ‘character-forming’.

I mention this only to illustrate how nonconventional, how wild and dangerous, full of bird-eating plants and poisonous quicksand, that English topsoil really was. You kind of wonder how the British upper class got anything done after an education like Durnford. And it puts the Trinity bull sessions into sharp relief: ‘Late at night, over copious drinks, in panelled rooms, students argued, debated, tried on one ideological outfit or another, and, in a small handful of cases, embraced violent revolution.’ The idea of hardcore oppositionists coming out of respectable families isn’t as contradictory as it seems. A recent study by Queen Mary London found that wealth and good education were risk factors for sympathies towards radical terrorism, with poverty, discrimination and mental health issues were barely represented.

What’s striking in this age of CRB checks and psychometric evaluations is just how unprofessional the secret service was in Philby and Elliott’s day. In an age where the intelligence services did not officially exist, entry and promotion depended on who one knew, who one’s father was, where one had been to school, whose club one belonged to – the Deputy Chief of MI6 backed Philby purely because ‘I knew his people’. (Spy games back then seem also to be drenched in a ton of booze: Philby himself made Don Draper look like a model of moderation.) Things happened because of signals and gestures, intonation, phrasing, tradecraft, arrangement and code – the Enigma of the English class system. When Philby made up his mind to become a communist spy, he simply asked his supervisor, a Marxist economist, how best he could ‘devote his life to the communist cause.’ The supervisor hooked him up with a Comintern agent in Paris. Simple as.

‘What you describe as ‘amateurism’, sir,’ Lord Darlington says in The Remains of the Day, is what I think most of us still prefer to call ‘honour’. Many good men and women went into the ground because of MI6′s unprofessional honour. MacIntyre draws up Philby’s butcher’s bill: the German anti-Communist Catholics whose names were disclosed by anti-Nazi defectors and then supplied to Moscow by Philby: the US agents sent behind the Iron Curtain into deathtraps set up by the Kremlin and facilitated by Philby: the NKVD defector Konstantin Volkov intercepted by Philby, others, nameless others. This, MacIntyre is saying, is the reality: the illusion was parties in Tangiers, the ballroom of the Park Hotel, ‘Boo, Boo, Baby, I’m a Spy’, decadent suspicion, extramarital affairs… the reality was nasty covert little murders by forgotten dirt roads and in windowless rooms. After Philby had been exposed and ‘done a fade’ to Moscow, Nick Elliott got a letter from his old friend, in his old insouciant tones: ‘I would have got in touch with you earlier, but I thought it better to let time do its work on the case… What a pity we shall never be able to gather à trois at Pruniers!’

‘Put some flowers for me on poor Volkov’s grave,’ Elliott hit back.

One question remains: why did he do it? According to MacIntyre, Philby ‘wore his convictions so lightly they were all but invisible. With the £14 he was awarded for his degree, he bought the collected works of Karl Marx. But there is no evidence he studied them in depth, or even read them.’ What motivated Philby, MacIntyre said, was something deeper and yet more prosaic and fatally English.

In a brilliant lecture written in 1944, C.S. Lewis described the fatal British obsession with the ‘inner ring’, the belief that somewhere, just beyond reach, is an exclusive group holding real power and influence, which a certain sort of Englishman constantly aspires to find and join. Westminster School and Cambridge University are elite clubs; MI6 is an even more exclusive fellowship; working secretly for the NKVD within MI6 placed Philby in a club of one, the most elite member of a secret inner ring. ‘Of all the passions,’ wrote Lewis, ‘the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.’

Life and Death and Harry Potter

March 20, 2014

On the night the last Harry Potter book was published, Christopher Hitchens reflected on the enduring popular archetype of the ‘school story’:

In March 1940, in the ‘midnight of the century’ that marked the depth of the Hitler-Stalin pact (or in other words, at a time when civilization was menaced by an alliance between two Voldemorts or ‘You-Know-Whos’), George Orwell took the time to examine the state of affairs in fantasy fiction for young people. And what he found (in an essay called ‘Boys’ Weeklies’) was an extraordinary level of addiction to the form of story that was set in English boarding schools. Every week, boys (and girls) from the poorer quarters of industrial towns and from the outer edges of the English-speaking Empire would invest some part of their pocket-money to keep up with the adventures of Billy Bunter, Harry Wharton, Bob Cherry, Jack Blake and the other blazer-wearing denizens of Greyfriars and St. Jim’s. As he wrote:

‘It is quite clear that there are tens and scores of thousands of people to whom every detail of life at a ‘posh’ public school is wildly thrilling and romantic. They happen to be outside that mystic world of quadrangles and house-colors, but they can yearn after it, daydream about it, live mentally in it for hours at a stretch.[']

Hitchens makes a convincing case for the Harry Potter novels as part of this boarding-school tradition. The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is like a traditionalist fantasy world with four competing houses, an annual House Cup, Yule Balls, ridiculous uniforms, preposterous meals, secret passages, mischievous ghosts and a school sport called ‘Quidditch’ – a turnoff for fans as even without magic, the game makes no sense as a sport (see this piece from Cracked for the basic flaw and also, if you’re so inclined, you can watch the real-life LS6 Quidditch team attempt to play a game which requires magical ability plus the power of flight and even then makes no sense as a sport).

What makes Hogwarts different from the universes of George Orwell’s 1930s magazines is the fierce meritocracy of the institution. Professor Dumbledore’s school welcomes students from all ethnic and social backgrounds and there is never mention of any fees. Penniless outcasts like Harry Potter, Severus Snape, even Voldemort himself found a home there. All that is required is some evidence of magical talent. Dumbledore’s liberal democratic ethos is threatened by an army of supremacist wizards, who believe that the show should be run by ‘pure-blood’ wizards (people from ancient magical families) and despise what they call ‘Mud-Bloods’ – wizards from compromised or non-wizarding families. As the books progress this army of wizard elitists, led by the sinister Lord Voldemort, infiltrate the main magical institutions and try to take over the world.

Another distinctive feature of Rowling’s universe – and Hitchens also writes about this – is its secular backdrop. There are wizarding weddings and funerals but never any mention of God. Professor Dumbledore makes a big deal out of the human soul or spirit, but the closest thing to an afterlife is the point during the final battle where Harry and Dumbledore meet in a dreamscape based on King’s Cross station. Coming at a moment of high climactic tension, it’s a beautiful and disturbing scene, the two men chatting about matters of life and death while some weird, pitiful-looking creature expires under a chair. (‘What is that, Professor?’ ‘Something that is beyond either of our help’.) And this piece of dialogue:

‘I’ve got to go back, haven’t I?’

‘That is up to you.’

‘I’ve got a choice?’

‘Oh yes.’ Dumbledore smiled at him. ‘We are in King’s Cross, you say? I think that if you decided not to go back, you would be able to… let’s say… board a train.’

‘And where would it take me?’

‘On,’ said Dumbledore simply.

I quote that because it illustrates the mature attitude to growing up that Rowling tried to get across in the novels. Harry’s marked for death, he knows it’s coming, he does his best to prepare for it. Voldemort by contrast is so freaked out by the idea of his own mortality that he tears his soul into seven pieces and hides it in various different objects in an attempt to live on in some form. Rowling explains: ‘Voldemort’s fear is death, ignominious death. I mean, he regards death itself as ignominious. He thinks that it’s a shameful human weakness, as you know. His worst fear is death.’ As Rowling says, it’s a human fear and it’s intertwined with his elitism and terminal uniqueness. As a boy he rejects his given name of Tom Riddle because ‘there are a lot of Toms.’ He can’t stand the idea of a world going on without him, whereas Harry, who’s had celebrity and grandeur thrust upon him, would be happy to live a quiet anonymous life with Ginny and the kids.

Which brings me to another valuable instruction. Harry lost his parents at a very early age and part of him’s always looking for alternative adult role models. Most of them let him down. His godfather Sirius is a brooding maniac who gets himself killed in book five out of his own recklessness. Even kindly old Professor Dumbledore turns out not as sainted as he appears. (Ironically, probably the only adult in Harry’s life who consistently has his best interests at heart is the great tragic Occlumens Professor Snape, who loathes him.) We grow up with the illusion that the grownups know what they’re doing. Dismiss that illusion, Rowling says. Adults are weak. They get things wrong. They break under pressure. They suffer from neuroses and delusions and big ideas. Rowling is like the wise child in the Martin Amis novel who knows that ‘that adults, too, were small, and pushed and tugged by many forces.’ But she never tells that truth without sympathy.


Image: genius Penguin-style Harry Potter covers from M. S. Corley’s blog via The Book Haven

Memoirs of a Reader

March 16, 2014

I first came across John Carey a few years ago when I picked up his book The Intellectuals and the Masses, a study of the literary world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book shocked me: I’d had really no idea about the sheer totalitarian nastiness of the ideas that circulated in the Bloomsbury group at the turn of the era, nor of its failure to recognise the huge economic and social changes that were going on in the country. In his autobiography, The Unexpected Professor, Carey revisits this earlier book:

I pointed out that the huge increase in the population of Europe in the nineteenth century caused consternation among many observers. In Britain the situation was complicated by the Education Acts of the 1870s which created, for the first time, a mass reading public and mass-circulation newspapers. Among British literary intellectuals the response to these developments was almost universally hostile. They resented the ‘semi-literate’ masses, despised their pretensions to culture, and detested newspapers. The more extreme among them, such as W B Yeats, D H Lawrence and H G Wells, considered ways in which the masses, or large sections of them, might be exterminated. Others, more moderately, argued that universal education was the mistake, and should be stopped. Though the intellectuals could not actually return the masses to illiteracy, they could exclude them from high culture, and that is what they did. They created what we now call modernist literature, which cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions, comprehensible only to the highly educated.

Out of context, your mind pictures the author of the above para: a kind of rural curmudgeon with a Land Rover and lots of great big dogs and an obsessive hostility to anything modern or youth-orientated or other: inward migration, the Turner Prize, world literature, higher education, the European Union, energy-efficient lightbulbs. On publishing The Intellectuals and the Masses, Carey says, ‘It was alleged that I hated culture and wished to condemn the population to ‘an endless diet of television soaps, the Sun newspaper, and royal scandals’. I was a commissar, an ally of Mrs Thatcher in her war against the arts, a lackey of the Murdoch press.’

But although Carey can be critical of intellectual culture there is nothing ugly or philistine about his prose, and in fact his work offers a passionate defence of the practical teaching of the humanities in this country. It’s often said that Carey has working class roots, and an allegation of ‘chippiness’ hangs over him, as it does over all state-educated people who succeed. Really Carey is from the ‘clerking’ class that he wrote about, with such eloquence and love, in Intellectuals and Masses - bright young working class men and women who could do middle class jobs, people who worked hard to earn drink money for Friday night, people with little formal education but who read constantly and eclectically, the ‘clued-up working class’ that Irvine Welsh began writing about in the 1990s.

We go through Carey’s childhood, his marriage, his years as student and teacher at Oxford, but what animates the book is Carey’s abiding love of literature. He can challenge D H Lawrence over the novelist’s letter to a friend in 1908, in which he fantasised about constructing ‘a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace… then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt and the maimed’ but there is nothing censorious about Carey’s appreciation of the novelist, in which he admires Lawrence’s writing while conceding nothing to the insane beliefs that animated it. Carey has that rare ability of writing about books you’ve never read and actually making you want to read them. His style is open without being plain, a triumph of subtlety and distillation.

Although Carey hates snobbery, inequality, and bullying of the weak (he describes Don Quixote as ‘boring and hateful’ because ‘The whole idea of making a joke about the delusions of someone who’s mentally ill seemed disgusting to me’) he saves his contempt for standard academic writing: ‘how awful most of it was – ill-written, obscure, full of misplaced erudition and calculated to repel any sensible ordinary reader.’ He adds: ‘A new custom that had mushroomed… was for authors to preface their terrible tomes with pages of effusive thanks to all those – teachers, academic colleagues, friends, parents, partners, children, childminders, and as like as not the family dog – without whom the volume would not have come into being. I cursed them all fervently in my heart.’

A criticism I’d make is that this book is all very English Canon: Milton, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Orwell and C S Lewis, with little European literature, nothing beyond the continent and almost no mention of American writing. At times you feel like Carey has swallowed the old Oxford custom of never studying anything published after 1830. Still, The Unexpected Professor is a brilliant memoir of a life in reading, as well as a fine riposte to those elitists on the philistine side of this argument who say that nothing can be learned from books.


Better Living Through Electricity

March 13, 2014

Who’d have thought it. A smoking cessation treatment that actually works. Everywhere I go, I see people smoking e-cigarettes. In offices, on buses, in bars, people say to me: ‘Hey, baby, let’s vape.’ Okay, no one says that. I’m trying to create a hook to hang the post on. But electronic cigarettes do seem really popular these days. Even Martin Amis smokes them. And it won’t surprise you to learn that, in this as in all fashionable trends, I was a forerunner. The last time I was unemployed I smoked electronic cigarettes to save money. The device surprised me – you got some of the flavour and killed some of the craving, unlike with patches, gum, hypnosis or any of the other useless junk on the anti-smoking market. And it doesn’t actually kill you. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I got another job and was able to return to my evil, expensive habit of Camel Blue.

Some people disagree. In fact there are public health activists who see electronic cigarettes as a ‘stalking horse’ for Big Tobacco. Here’s Martin McKee, professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine:

‘My view at the moment is that these are things that have been around since the 1960s and people had not paid attention to them. Then suddenly the tobacco industry got interested,’ he said. He is alarmed to see celebrities such as Lily Allen vaping and an advert for e-cigarettes broadcast during Downton Abbey. More recently, the Netflix remake of House of Cards featured Kevin Spacey as US vice-president Frank Underwood substituting an e-cigarette for tobacco. ‘Addiction without the consequences,’ remarks Underwood.

‘The advertisements they are using are almost identical to the ones the tobacco industry used historically,’ said McKee, who believes this is about the rehabilitation of cigarettes.

‘The smoking ban [in public places] has been self-enforcing,’ he said. But steam rising from an e-cigarette can look very like smoke rising from an old-style fag. Other drinkers in pubs will be less and less likely to intervene once they’ve made that mistake a couple of times, he believes.

McKee acknowledges that a lot of people in public health say e-cigarettes are much safer than tobacco. ‘Absolutely, but that is not the issue here,’ he said. ‘They are missing the point.’

There you have it. I do think however that you need to have a fairly uneventful life to be worried about digital smoking. It seems purely from my own experience that outside of Stephen King’s fictional ‘Quitters’ Inc’, which has a 98% success rate, electronic smokes are the best way to kick a lethal habit. In the absence of smoking cessation programmes run by evil Mafia wizards we have to make compromises. But some people feel uncomfortable with Frank Underwood’s idea of addiction without consequences. For some people, all life’s pleasures should be guilty, or else.

Maybe one day someone will invent a digital cigarette that has all the flavour and satisfaction of the real thing, but carries absolutely no risk. And why stop there. Why not an electronic drink that gives the fluent pleasure of good alcohol without the potential risk to liver, lights, lungs, dignity and sexuality. Who knows what the magnificent young men and women of science will come up with next. In the meantime, I keep my vigil.


Would Anne Sexton look significantly less cool with a machine cigarette? We’ll never know

The Poet’s Gate: Colla in Iraq

March 11, 2014

baghdadcentral‘There are many societies where poetry plays a central role,’ says Elliott Colla in his outro to Baghdad Central, ‘But perhaps it is only in Iraq that the public repertoire of poetry includes modernist verse that is at times radically experimental… To educated Iraqis, none of the poets in Khafaji’s mind would be unknown. In fact, many of them are household names.’

This Iraq aftermath, with Pentagon greenzoners toting PowerPoints in the ruins of Aflaq’s dark dream, is sometimes horrific (the protagonist Inspector Khafaji, a deserter from the military police, is mistaken for a senior Ba’athist and thrown into a cell with captured jihadis) and sometimes funny: an Iraqi interpreter, hired to translate a British officer’s talk, trips over the word ‘benchmark’ which he relays as ‘sign of the bench’, ‘trace of the long seat,’ and ”imprint of the worktable’… Other words like ‘synergy’ and ‘entrepreneurism’ wreak even more havoc.’

Hired to train new recruits, Khajafi is drawn into a murder investigation, and the thriller function kicks in. But Arab poetry is entwined with the story. The lines of Abul-Qasim al-Shabbi – ‘For he who is not embraced by a passion for life will dissipate into thin air/At least what all creation has told me, and what its hidden spirits declare’ contrasts with the box-ticking literalism of the coalition authorities: a sign describes to Khajafi a warning siren (‘High Wailing Tone. 1. Secure all classified documents. 2. Close all windows, lock all doors. 3. Immediately leave building’) just in case we weren’t aware. Another chapter opening para recalls an obvious line from Dante: ‘When you visit the American zone, leave your dishdasha at home. Wear clean clothes. Wear pants. Iron your shirt. Better yet, wear a jacket and tie. And while you’re at it, wash the blood off before you get to the gates.’

Colla is a teacher of Arabic literature at Georgetown University and in this debut he wears his knowledge lightly, the politics sometimes not so lightly, but the atmosphere he creates of the urban Middle East is so accomplished it’s dazzling. ‘The chaotic, frenetic movement of men and women and children walking and driving and riding and going. The dance of the city, its messy pulse. Its life. Its life despite.’ There are passages where you can breathe the cordite in the air and hear the sounds where the planes go.

Ticket to Detroit

March 10, 2014

There’s a piece by Robert McCrum that’s been widely circulated and on the face of it paints a good elegiac portrait of life after Britain’s publishing boom. We all know the story. Back in the day writers got too much money and not enough exposure (Martin Amis said that he wasn’t asked for an interview until around book four). Now, there’s too much exposure and not enough money. McCrum: ‘After a period of prosperity and tranquillity for British fiction that ran for about a generation (circa 1980 to 2007), writers are now being confronted with the hardship of literary artists through the ages.’ And: ‘since the credit crunch of 2008 writers have been tightening belts, cutting back and, in extreme cases, staring into an abyss of penury.’

But then, we get this:

Rupert Thomson is the author of nine novels, including The Insult (1996), which David Bowie chose for one of his 100 must-read books of all time, and Death of a Murderer, shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year awards in 2007… In short, he’s an established and successful writer with an impressive body of work to his name.

After working seven days a week without holidays, and now approaching 60, Thomson, you might think, must be looking forward to a measure of comfort and security as the shadows of old age crowd in. But no. For some years he has rented an office in Black Prince Road, on London’s South Bank, and commuted to work. Now this studio life, so essential to his work, is under threat. Lately, having done his sums and calculated his likely earnings for the coming year, he has commissioned a builder to create a tiny office (4ft 9in x 9ft 11in) at home in his attic, what he calls ‘my garret’.

The space is so cramped that Thomson, who is just over 6ft, will only be able to stand upright in the doorway, but he seems to derive a certain grim satisfaction from confronting his predicament.

After I posted this on Twitter I got intelligent responses from an admirer of Thomson’s. I’ll say again that I appreciate the scary aspects of financial insecurity in old age. I’ve read some of Thomson’s books and I wish him well. But can we hear the plaintive strings of the world’s smallest violin? Could not the article be rounded of by at least an acknowledgement that most writers cannot afford studio space on the South Bank?

Maybe I’m being harsh. Perhaps this could be the next Guardian’s Christmas appeal. ‘Just £11,765 of your spare change will buy two months’ lease on a delightful Belsize Park walkup with gorgeous views of the Heath, an antique black Occa Maison writing-desk and a restored 1920s gramophone for that perfect midlister working environment’.

Here’s a classic post from SJ Bradley, for that sense of perspective that you don’t get from Thomson and McCrum:

Accept that your life will not follow a usual trajectory. You’ll see your peers have lovely things; they’ll wriggle up the career ladder at work, while you concentrate your energies on writing. Your friends will most likely live in a bigger, nicer house than you. You, in contrast, will spend hours scratching away at a desk, making up stories in your head, earning no money, and receiving legions upon legions of form rejections (or at least, at first)… I don’t have any answers for this, other than that if you want to live in a big house and have a steady, reliable stream of income, you might want to rethink your career options.

Quite so. It’s a tough old world.

Still, if all else fails, we can move to Detroit!

Classic Books: Filth

March 9, 2014

filth‘It’s a parable of mental illness, and cognitive dissonance,’ Irvine Welsh said an interview on the Filth movie adaptation of his novel about a corrupt detective. Book and film follow the descending spiral of Bruce Robertson, an Edinburgh detective tasked with solving a racist murder. Despite officially leading the investigation, Robertson makes no effort to solve the case. He’s more interested in seducing every woman in sight, carrying out various lethal intrigues against his friends and colleagues, and indulging himself in Grouse, pornography and cocaine. But excess comes with a price: Robertson is infested first with a horrendous genital rash, then by a tapeworm that eats all the cheap mass-processed food Robertson throws down his neck. The tapeworm appears literally superimposed over the text, obscuring Robertson’s narrative and increasingly dominating the book as Bruce begins to lose it and the tapeworm interrogates his back story and motivations.

The book is set in December 1997. The vibe is very New Labour, post MacPherson, a glossy sheen over the same old candid evils. Although Robertson is prejudiced in just about every way one can be, littering his narrative with racist, sectarian and misogynist epiphets, he must be careful not to show his prejudices in public, particularly as he is investigating the murder of a Ghanian diplomat’s son. He has to position himself between the old-school non-PC detectives like Gus Bain and Dougie Gillman, and the new graduate cops represented by the assertive liberal feminist Amanda Drummond, who wants to take the Old Town into the twenty-first century, and Robertson’s protégé Ray Lennox. Although Bruce hates Drummond, Lennox is the closest thing Robertson has to a friend and he indulges the younger man – up to a point. The object is to ‘learn a new script’. The games are changing.

This is all very contentious but I don’t believe Welsh had a political head on when he was writing the novel. The story was originally set in a local government office and the cops are generally viewed in non-dramatic scenes of organisational torpor – doing the Screws crossword, attending dull training courses and going out for sandwich runs. The point isn’t that Robertson is a bad cop but that he’s a bad bastard although, as a cop, he has more opportunities for predation. Welsh is fascinated with organisational politics and power relationships. ‘The games are always, repeat, always, being played,’ Robertson tells us. ‘Most times, in any organisation, it’s expedient not to acknowledge their existence. But they’re always there.’ For Robertson the force provides essential camouflage. He grew up in a mining town where he was victimised and told that he was essentially evil. ‘But you must have protection, because the normals will incarcerate you in order to protect themselves. So the police force always seems the best bet.’

Bruce Robertson’s defining characteristic is that he’s a schizophrenic: he doesn’t know who he is, and his head teems with voices: ‘all those menaced souls clamouring for attention and recognition.’ As his mental state deteriorates, he refers to himself in the plural pronoun (‘We still have a wrap of coke on us and there must be a good half a G left and we rub a load of it into our gums’) and complains ‘Why pick on Bruce, there’s others too, why can’t they fuckin well dae anything.’ As a cop, he’s been able to turn that weakness into a strength: he can be the tough Fed rep in the canteen, the sensitive strongman around available women, the enlightened professional negotiating with bosses and diversity trainers. He’s an Iago with a thousand faces, but the masks are eating into his skin. ‘Frightened that you wouldn’t cast a shadow when you faced the sun,’ the tapeworm tells him, ‘you stopped looking up at it.’ Crime fiction is full of uncompromising detectives who resist politically correct language, and also detectives who put up a good front but are troubled on the inside. Welsh’s genius is in giving us a detective who can play the genre stereotypes to maximum personal gain but who really is a bigot and who really is clinically ill. Towards the end of the book there’s the awful, haunting line: ‘I’m never really alone, but the voices are silent. For now.’

Filth is a clash of narratives. The story Robertson presents to us is basically ‘I’m the best and no one else is any good’ – something most of us buy into, on an ‘insert-name-here’ basis, but one that Bruce takes to extremes, cramming his narrative with ego-boosting affirmations of his prowess as a cop, a player and a lover, and putting everyone else down. The bigoted language, Welsh explains in the film commentary, is a part of this - Bruce is desperate to feel superior to people. But his self esteem is a house of cards. Absolutely everything has to go right, because one yank and the rug unravels: witness his explosive reaction to minor irritations. A twelve-minute wait for a GP’s appointment or an absence of Bruce’s favourite condiments for his sausage roll bring on attacks of towering rage. A greater threat to Robertson’s narrative comes when he discovers that his boss, Bob Toal, has written a spec film script based on the current investigation, in which Robertson is fictionalised as a racist cop who is trying to sabotage the case. Although he can’t admit it even to himself, the script rattles him because it’s a sign of the book’s terrible truth: Bruce’s colleagues knew all the time, and covered up for him.

One problem with the film is that James McAvoy is too young and good looking to effectively portray a middle aged man who never washes his clothes, has turned his suburban home into a hoarder’s cesspool and is the very picture of self neglect. Although in his head Robbo’s a handsome Flashman, in reality he’s clearly a mess. His colleague Amanda Drummond is the only character never to fall for Bruce’s games and lies, and the only person to challenge him effectively:

Bruce, you’re an ugly and silly old man. You’re very possibly an alcoholic and God knows what else. You’re the type of sad case who preys on vulnerable, weak and stupid women in order to boost his own shattered ego. You’re a mess. You’ve gone wrong somewhere pal… You have to get yourself straightened out, and then you might just become the kind of person you imagine yourself to be, although God knows what that is.

I don’t want to knock McAvoy, he turns in a beautiful performance, but never quite manages to convey the sordid heap that the print Robertson has become. Still, the movie storyline is better because it cuts most of Robertson’s baroque backstory, which is more suited to an eighteenth-century gothic novel. In the book Welsh falls for the schoolboy error of diagnosing one’s monsters. In the film the causes of Robertson’s breakdown are more prosaic: he’s alone and he misses his family. Neither excuse his hideous behaviour. And yet the art of storytelling is a sympathy for the devil.

Spring Time Anchorage

February 21, 2014

This short story of mine is now available at the February edition of Bookistana.


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