Archive for March, 2008

‘It’s a sick society that rejects pleasure’

March 31, 2008

The Guardian has a fantastic interview with Marjane Satrapi, author of the Persepolis books, which I cannot recommend enough.

Alongside insights into Iran, religion and growing up, Satrapi makes this illuminating comment:

She can’t stand Britain because of the smoking ban. She suggests that we talk in her hotel room because at least she will be able to smoke there. She lives for her cigs, and is quite happy to die for them, she says. “For me smoking is like looking at your soul,” she says in a rasping hybrid accent. “There is something extraordinarily poetic about smoking – from the gesture of holding a cigarette, turning it on, smoking it, the taste of it, the smell of it, I love every-thing about smoking.” She has no truck with the kill-joys who want to stop us doing all the things that we enjoy – simply because it might prolong our life. “Anything that has a relationship with pleasure we reject it. Eating, they talk about cholesterol; making love, they talk about Aids; you talk about smoking, they talk about cancer. It’s a very sick society that rejects pleasure.” She’s working herself up into a climax of disgust. “Why should we live like sick people just to give some fresh meat to the ground? I hope my meat is so rotten no worm in the whole universe will want to come and eat it. I want to be rotten to accept the idea of dying. Every day you live you get one day closer to death. If you are never born you will never die. Giving birth is also giving death.” She smiles, having hit on the solution to combating death.

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Slam the slam!

March 30, 2008

Now, I’m not a snob about reality television. If some kid from a council estate becomes famous for a couple of years for winning a singing contest, good luck to him.

But who the hell thought this was a good idea?

Pulp Idol – the UK’s best writing competition returns!

Working on a novel?  Want the chance to read out your work to a panel of judges, and maybe go on to win and meet a publisher?  In its third year Pulp Idol will be holding four heats and a final throughout May (see dates below).   Last year’s winner is now with a New York based agent.  This could be your chance to get your work out of your lonely garret and onto the bookshelves.

Free entry into the competition by application only.   For rules, see below.  The application form is also available on this website (click the link below, but ensure to read the rules first).  If you need further information, call WoW on 0151 703 0020

All welcome to watch the heats and final!  No door charge.

The rules confirm that:

Each applicant will take part in a heat where you will be given 3 minutes to read your work to a panel of 3 judges, and then answer questions.

The winners of each heat will go forward to the final. 

So it’s basically the X Factor with writers.

We’ve seen this format before in poetry slams. These are competitive events where poets have a three-minute timeslot and the winners are chosen by the audience, often just on the strength of applause. Serious poets lose out at these nights because audiences mostly respond to boring controversialism, stand-up comedy and tired toilet humour, all of which is in good supply on the poetry circuit.

The result is that good poets won’t touch a slam night with the proverbial ten-foot bargepole. For the serious poet, slams are nothing more than a dick-swinging contest; for the serious poetry reader (yes, there are some) slams are about as much fun as hitting yourself in the face with a spade.

Slams are an embarrassment to contemporary poetry and if this event catches on, they will be an embarrassment to contemporary fiction writing as well. Most good writers aren’t good talkers – watch anyone try to explain their novel on Meet the Author and you’ll see what I mean – with the probable results that attention-seeking bullshit artists will get ahead and people with genuine talent will be quietly ignored.

What gets me is that writing is a natural home for the shy, the reserved, the solitary, the introverted. In a time where solitude is viewed with suspicion, writing is a gift, and one of its many benefits is that it gets you out of talking. Now we are expected to debase ourselves on some amateur fucking game show.

I mean, sure it’s hard for unpublished writers to get a book deal but is this really what we are reduced to?

Why would any writer with any self-respect whatsoever want to take part in such an event?

Why would a published writer who values his reputation want to judge it?

I know, I know – at least we’re getting people involved, and it’s all just a bit of laugh, etcetera. But the slam reflects a weird obsession in society: that everything has to have a competitive element. No one is interested in ballroom dancing. But add an interactive voting function and a panel of judges and you’ve got a smash hit TV show. Same with cooking, dating, interior design – the public would watch a paint-drying game show if they had the ability to vote people off it.

Mindless, joyless competition is creeping into every corner of our lives. Let’s keep it out of the creative world.

I see that the Arts Council sponsors Pulp Idol. If any Arts Council officers are reading this – I suppose it’s not likely – then here is a proposal.

Why don’t you stop funding ridiculous and debasing slam competitions and use the money to award grants to promising authors so that they can take some time off work to finish their novels.

I guarantee this would result in more book deals than any number of slam events.

Slam the slam! 

(Via Literature North West.)

Faith and imagination

March 30, 2008

For those who feel that you need some kind of belief system to have imagination, or an appreciation of the beauty in the world.

This is Ursula K Le Guin on Rushdie’s latest:

Some boast that science has ousted the incomprehensible; others cry that science has driven magic out of the world and plead for “re-enchantment”. But it’s clear that Charles Darwin lived in as wondrous a world, as full of discoveries, amazements and profound mysteries, as that of any fantasist. The people who disenchant the world are not the scientists, but those who see it as meaningless in itself, a machine operated by a deity. Science and literary fantasy would seem to be intellectually incompatible, yet both describe the world; the imagination functions actively in both modes, seeking meaning, and wins intellectual consent through strict attention to detail and coherence of thought, whether one is describing a beetle or an enchantress. Religion, which prescribes and proscribes, is irreconcilable with both of them, and since it demands belief, must shun their common ground, imagination.

Sellout of the century

March 29, 2008

The speech had been proceeding for perhaps twenty minutes when a messenger hurried on to the platform and a scrap of paper was slipped into the speaker’s hand. He unrolled and read it without pausing in his speech. Nothing altered in his voice or manner, or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different. Without words said, a wave of understanding rippled through the crowd. Oceania was at war with Eastasia! The next moment there was a tremendous commotion. The banners and posters with which the square was decorated were all wrong! Quite half of them had the wrong faces on them. It was sabotage! The agents of Goldstein had been at work!

-George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

I’ve been arguing for quite a while now that the antiwar left has sold itself out to the religious right. After reading this Seumas Milne piece, I can only say – it’s nice to know it’s all official.

Milne has practically spelt out my argument for me.

Before 9/11, the left saw religion, rightly, as an ally of the establishment and a tool of social control. Marx’s phrase ‘opium of the people’ was misinterpreted to mean the churches’ efforts to stave off revolution by brainwashing the masses. As Milne says:

Historically, of course, it was the left, rather than liberalism, that was most hostile to religion. From Tsarist Russia to Tibet, after all, organised religion stood with the established order, preaching social deference to the powers that be and leaving hope of justice to the hereafter.

In the first years of my political awareness, anyone who was against war and capitalism would likely be a fiery atheist as well. Bill Hicks was our favourite artist, and like him we mocked and hated the church – any church. There might have been a vague half-interest in Buddhism (brought on by the Kerouac books we were all reading) but the faith was not taken seriously in the way it is now.

The left position on religion was nicely summarised by George Orwell’s Animal Farm. He used the character of Moses to stand for the hypocrisy of the church:

The pigs had an even harder struggle to counteract the lies put about by Moses, the tame raven. Moses, who was Mr. Jones’s especial pet, was a spy and a tale-bearer, but he was also a clever talker. He claimed to know of the existence of a mysterious country called Sugarcandy Mountain, to which all animals went when they died. It was situated somewhere up in the sky, a little distance beyond the clouds, Moses said. In Sugarcandy Mountain it was Sunday seven days a week, clover was in season all the year round, and lump sugar and linseed cake grew on the hedges. The animals hated Moses because he told tales and did no work, but some of them believed in Sugarcandy Mountain, and the pigs had to argue very hard to persuade them that there was no such place.

And then September 11 happened and everything changed.  Suddenly figures I admired on the liberal and far left began defending repressive belief systems and theocratic regimes. The principal peace movement of my day formed an alliance with a far-right Islamic organisation, and allowed it to hand out leaflets at its demos. For the ease of this alliance the movement watered down lifelong commitments to gender equality and gay rights. Academics and columnists bent over backwards to make excuses for harmful religious practises, and self-elected representatives from reactionary faith groups were given comment pieces and interviewed on serious radio shows. It turned out we had been fighting Eastasia all along. Suddenly faith was good.

Why this massive U-turn? Milne’s reason – that religion has become more progressive – doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. The Iranian theocracy is still executing socialists and trade unionists, amongst many others. The Al-Qaeda/Baathist ‘resistance’ is doing much the same in Iraq. The Christian fundamentalists Bill Hicks used to rant about are still in power, and actively involved in the terror war. Our own church disgraces itself on a monthly basis by fighting against any proposed social change. There has been an increase in forced censorship and the persecution of writers and artists across the globe. If anything, faith-based politics has got worse.

So, again, why the reversal? Milne inadvertantly sets out the real reasons.

1) Opportunism – some religious groups are fighting the West, and anything that’s against the West can’t be all bad. Or, as Milne says: ‘At the same time, Islamist groups which had provided crucial support for conservative pro-western regimes around the Muslim world in the postwar era began to fill the political space left by the decline of Arab nationalism and the left, increasingly drawing their support from the poor and marginalised.’

2) Disillusionment – faith, especially Eastern variants, seems to offer a more spiritual alternative to our decadent consumerist society. From Milne’s piece: ‘People continue to search for spiritual meaning in a grossly destructive economic environment where social alternatives have been pronounced dead and narcissistic consumption is king.’

For Milne, the new enemies are now the ‘anti-religious evangelists’ (oh, we’ve never heard that one before, Seumas) who ‘are increasingly using atheism as a banner for the defence of the global liberal capitalist order and the wars fought since 2001 to assert its dominance.’

Got that? Nonbelievers, especially passionate ones, are ‘apologists for capitalism and war.’

Milne gives no examples of atheists propagandising for Bush, and that is not surprising. As Norm points out, Richard Dawkins – the man most people are talking about when they speak of ‘militant atheism’ – is a strong opponent of the Iraq war. Ditto Sam Harris, ditto Martin Amis, ditto A C Grayling. Only Christopher Hitchens is vocally and unapologetically pro-war. Milne’s symmetry doesn’t stand up.

His article is a childish slander against the secular left. But this is where we are. This is why people who call themselves and are accepted as liberals or leftists support religious regimes or movements that fight every principle the left stands for. This is why Muslim dissidents and refugees, who speak out against their governments at great personal risk, are denounced as ‘Uncle Tom’ figures and/or CIA stooges. This is where we are now.

It would be good if the status-quo left learned that it can piss and whistle at the same time: oppose the injustice of global capitalism, and also oppose the religious alternatives that are far worse.

It would be good if criticism of religion wasn’t just dismissed as racism, or neocon propaganda, but seriously discussed.

But this isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Literature is freedom

March 27, 2008

Susan Sontag’s Friedenspreis Acceptance Speech seems to speak to and for the human soul.

And then Fritz told me that what got him through his nearly three years in the prison camp in Arizona was that he was allowed access to books: he had spent those years reading and rereading the English and American classics. And I told him that what saved me as a schoolchild in Arizona, waiting to grow up, waiting to escape into a larger reality, was reading books, books in translation as well as those written in English.

To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.

Literature was freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.

Spoiler alert!

March 27, 2008

Norm diverts me to the American Book Review’s list of classic last lines.

There are some beautiful final lines here.

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

He loved Big Brother.

Like Norm, I’ve noticed some omissions. First is from Michel Houllebecq’s Atomised: ‘This book is dedicated to mankind.’

The second is from Stephen King, and it is both a last line and a first line. It reads: ‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’

‘Most people have issues with the land of the free’

March 26, 2008

I’ve recently finished Manchester writer Joe Stretch’s novel, Friction.

There’s lots of hilarity and wisdom here but this paragraph made me laugh aloud:

Johnny has come to the conclusion that the English really are fucked as a race. Everyone else seems invincible, and the English really do seem ignorant, inane, lazy and obese. He knows that Rebecca agrees with him and blames the impact of American cultural and economic hegemony. The Americanisation of earth and space. Johnny doesn’t like to agree. He prefers to take the piss out of the anti-American attitude that dominates the world from the 1970s onwards. It’s everywhere by now, rife, a very popular hatred. Most people have issues with the land of the free. Modes of rebellion range from blowing oneself up in public places to experiencing an awkward guilt while watching US TV comedy.

The Counter-Enlightenment

March 25, 2008

My review of Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge is up on Butterflies and Wheels now. It’s a revised and expanded version of this post.

Bishops ’embryo’ us an apology

March 25, 2008

Here we go again. Once again, a vital debate is before Parliament, and once again, the faith lobby is fighting for the wrong side.

Gordon Brown was warned by a former senior cabinet minister last night that he risks public scorn if he does not offer Labour MPs a free vote on controversial new embryo research laws.

Stephen Byers, a leading Blairite, said the public would “look on in disbelief” if the Prime Minister persisted with his current strategy of forcing MPs to vote in favour of the creation of human-animal hybrids.

Mr Byers’ intervention comes after two Roman Catholic cabinet ministers, believed to be Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, and Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary, privately threatened to resign if a free vote is not given on parts of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, due before MPs next month.

The Government is braced for further criticism today when the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor signals that Catholic MPs should vote against the legislation.

In a pre-recorded interview with Sky News he will say: “There are some aspects, not all, of this Bill for which I believe there ought to be a free vote because Catholics and others will want to vote according to their conscience.”

This in a week when a scientific breakthrough reveals that stem cell research may be crucial to a possible cure for Parkinson’s disease.

Geraldine Peacock, who has suffered from Parkinson’s for eighteen years, says this:

It makes me so angry when I hear academics, theologians or medics arguing about cloning. For me, it is like hearing any hopes we may have of returning to normality being taken away. By mixing ethics with religion and politics, which is a lethal concoction, they are not thinking about the people who have the disease. I feel like saying, ‘Get off your high horse.’

I would not want to stop any process unless it I knew it was categorically not going to work for those who are suffering. I don’t believe cloning embryos is like taking life. Parkinson’s is such a desperately painful disease. You would have thought that everyone would support anything reasonable to find a cure, and I believe what is being suggested is reasonable.

I agree that religious hardliners should be able to vote with their conscience. But the conscience of the faithful is a strange thing. Last year, it compelled the Catholic Church to lobby against laws allowing gay people to adopt a child. Now, apparently, the religious conscience compels believers to fight for the protection of crippling diseases.

I wonder if the definition of ‘conscience’ has become a little hazy in recent times.

It’s no problem that Brown has caved on the free vote issue. I’m confident this will go through, despite the pressures of the faith lobby. Byers’s statement that the public will look on in disbelief if this potentially lifesaving bill becomes law is yet another example of spiritual delusion.

What is different this time around though is that there is a government minister prepared to stand up to the churches.

From the Telegraph piece:

Meanwhile the health minister Ben Bradshaw hit back at the bishops, risking a deepening of the row.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions he said: ‘If it was about the things the cardinal referred to, creating babies for spare parts or raiding dead people’s tissue then there would be justification for a free vote.

‘But it’s not about those things. He (Cardinal O’Brien) was wrong in fact, and I think rather intemperate and emotive in the way that he criticised this legislation.

‘This is about using pre-embryonic cells to do research that has the potential to ease the suffering of millions of people in this country. The Government has taken a view that this is a good thing. The Government is absolutely right to try to push this through to the potential benefit of many people in this country.’

This is a rare show of guts from a Labour minister. Good for him.

If the bishops succeed in killing off legislation that could have huge benefits to sufferers of Parkinson’s, cancer and heart disease, then – as Lee and Herring’s Pliny might say – they will ’embryo’ us all an apology.

(Via Butterflies and Wheels.)

Highways in hiding

March 24, 2008

Stephen King’s Wolves of the Calla tells the story of the doomed priest Father Callahan, who was cast out of his home town in an earlier book, ‘Salem’s Lot. Since then Callahan has become a man of the roads, travelling all over America, sleeping in drunks’ shelters and on park benches, doing day-labour work in warehouses and kitchens – riding the highways in hiding.

Reading it, I was reminded of my own life shortly after leaving university. Once you get your degree you are entering a harsh and unfamiliar world. You discover that what you have been studying these past three years is of little value or interest to this world. You discover the truth of Calvin Coolidge’s saying: that nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.

At this time I lived in the Hyde Park area of Leeds. This was – still is – a bohemian sprawl just off the edge of the park which runs right from the outskirts to the centre of town. Hyde Park was a labyrinth of crowded streets, of Hessles and Brudenells and Harolds; people were crammed in five-six houseshares at rents inflated by the buy-to-let scum. It was a place of Asian supermarkets, 24-hour Spars and arthouse cinema, a place whose residents were mostly students or ex-students, ravers and outsiders and poseurs and immigrants and pillheads and beautiful women.

My local was the Hyde Park Social, a two-floor pub filled with old sofas and armchairs that sold beer for one-eighty a pint and sandwiches for a pound. The landlord was a big, genial hippy pragmatist; his dog and his little son would run among the drinkers. The posters on the walls advertised raves in the Hollies, squats that had been closed down by police, campaigns to save obscure stone circles. You’d walk in there on a Sunday afternoon and there would be some guy (Spinny Tom was his name) barefoot and feeding coins into the fruit machine.

I had moved up to Leeds in the summer of ’03, more or less on a whim. I had always liked Leeds, there was a magical quality about the place; something to do with the taste of the air in the summertime, the tunnel that linked the teaching hospital to the university buildings, Otley Road with its rows of student pubs and charity bookshops, the way the streets and areas connected (easy to get lost, but once you’d lived there a while, the geography just clicked in your head) and the feeling you got walking along the roads through the park at dusk, and watching the softening shadows of the trees. It was an obscure quality, but everyone I’ve known who’s lived in Hyde Park has felt it.

The assumption I’d made was that there would be plenty of work in Leeds. This turned out to be true, but it was mainly call centre work in one of various competing oligopolies. Twenty of us would meet in the Social and compare notes, and we’d realise that between us we only worked for about five different companies.  There was a company that made hampers (not Fairpak, although it operated in pretty much the same way). There was British Gas. And there was the Inland Revenue, where I worked.

For call centre work you regularly need to commute out of the city to far-flung industrial wastelands that look like the remains of ancient machine civilisation. I got the train there and back with other articulate and impractical early-twenties graduates like myself. There was one guy who wanted to be a musician. Another who wanted to be a film producer. Aspiring writers, DJs, dancers, poets; all phone-monkeys in this chaotic netherworld. Working in places where you could get fired for eating at your desk or asking the wrong kind of question during a training course.

There were no permanent jobs, and few jobs that paid over ten grand a year. I knew a girl who earned £18,0000 as a researcher; to us this woman seemed like a millionairess, as distant from our struggling milieu as the fame and success of our creative heroes. The temp jobs were easy to lose. Every day you’d come in and someone’s desk would be cleared, his name erased from the rota, never to be spoken of again. The permanent staff regarded you with a smug, stoical envy; you had the future and the prospects, but you were second-class employees.

The jobs were easy to lose, easy to find. I worked in three call centres over a period of five months. Plus a stint doing data entry for Audiences Yorkshire, and doing the admin for a claims management firm. (There was a long period, due to anxiety disorders, that I didn’t work at all… but that, Constant Reader, is another tale for another day.)

The blogger Colby Buzzell described people my age as the ‘boomerang generation – we were always two paycheques from moving back home.’ He was right. The average wage was about six pound an hour – this in 2004. You had to economise. My aspiring producer friend used to do unpaid work experience at a production company during the day, then work the call centre phones at night. He took to living off toast; making up a huge batch in the morning, then stuffing the slices in his bag and eating from them all day and evening. This guy had an MA in film production.

It was a time of chaotic insecurity, of cheap wine, rolling tobacco and secondhand books. It was about that time, being a working man, that I started to notice how old and fucked up and ill the passengers looked on the call centre trains. At uni, everyone looked great all the time; but this was the world of work, and I was finding out what work does to people – the marks it leaves on the face. I thought of Blake’s poem, ‘London’:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

It was a time of hard work, and a end to romantic illusions about hard work.

And yet we always found the money for hedonism. I was at the Social every single night. At the weekends we’d hit three or four Call Lane bars, then back to Hyde Park for an afterparty. Sometimes you knew someone who was having a bash; sometimes you just wandered in. Parties in the streets and the woods. One New Year’s Eve twenty of us had a blowout in a hired cottage in Ribblesdale.

I’ve moved on now. No doubt some of my contemporaries from that time still ride those highways in hiding. Some will have moved home; some will have clawed their way up to some kind of stability; some may even be married with kids. I’d love to know. Because I miss those times. Our ambition, our capacity for adventure, laughter and dance, faced with a world that had lost sight of pleasure and humanity, and was ground down by a puritanical pragmatism. Those times came back to me as I read these lines from Hunter S Thompson’s The Rum Diary:

I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles – a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.