Archive for August, 2008

Amis and Son: Two Literary Generations

August 31, 2008

This is a belated review of Neil Powell’s literary biography of Kingsley and Martin Amis, and from the start it’s easy to see which author Powell prefers. Kingsley dominates the book, with two-thirds of it given over to his life and work, and his share also has more detail and insights into his routines and relationships. (This isn’t entirely Powell’s bias – Martin gave only token co-operation to this book.) Even the title, Amis and Son (rather than, say, Kingsley and Martin) elevates Kingsley to the true representative of the Amis name: Martin is depicted on and inside the cover as the child who never grew up. More charitably, the title could also be a gentle allusion to the ‘family business’ of Kingsley and Martin’s novels.

Bias is no bad thing in a literary critic. It makes this book interesting, and it’s worth remembering that Powell is exploring how the twentieth century impacts on a writer’s life: Kingsley dominates the book because he was publishing from the 1950s to the 1990s whereas Martin has only been around for the last three decades.

My bias is the opposite. My family are massive Martin Amis fans, with several autographs between us and at least one signed first edition. In our house, when you said Amis, you meant Martin. Of Kingsley’s stuff, Lucky Jim was considered a classic but we never bothered to explore the other novels. Powell makes me wish I had.

His long section on Kingsley is worth the admission fee alone. There’s little better for the reader than to be able to follow the process of one of your favourite novels as it’s hammered into shape. Powell gives us an in-depth look into the creation of Lucky Jim, written more or less in collaboration with Kingsley’s correspondent and soul-twin Philip Larkin. Powell quotes a great letter where Kingsley discusses the lecture that ends Jim’s academic career: ‘I could have a shot at it, anyway, and you could decide whether it should go in; it’s an optional scene as regards the plot, story, etc. He’d have to be drunk, I think.’ With that last offhand sentence, one of the greatest set-pieces in comic literature was born.

In Experience, Martin paints Kingsley as an unpleasant and insecure old curmudgeon while leaving us in no doubt about his affection and love for his dad. Powell goes one better: he actually makes Kingsley seem likeable. A man completely antisocial yet who hated being alone, Kingsley is brought to life in all his phobic, philandering, grotesque glory. When Powell tells us that Kingsley ‘always hated being trapped socially and preferred pubs to dinner parties’ I found myself nodding: why do people have to turn food into an awkward communal experience?

In this first half Powell achieves the book’s goal: he makes a good case for Kingsley as a writer of good, entertaining social comedies that occasionally hit on subversive truths of the human condition. Kingsley is clearly an A novelist, who (according to Martin) ‘writes in what we commonly regard as the mainstream: he is interested in character, motive and moral argument, and in how these reveal themselves through action.’

Martin, by contrast, is a B novelist: ‘at least as interested in other things too: namely the autonomous play of wit, ideas and language’. We’ve reached the pallid second half of Powell’s book that deals with Martin’s fiction. There are many good criticisms of his novels: one is a failure of realism. Would Guy Clinch, an educated liberal, really miss the significance of the name ‘Enola Gay’? Would the contracts signed by John Self be legally binding? As both these details are central to the plots of their respective novels, Powell has raised good points here.

Powell also highlights the vulgarity in many of Martin’s novels, particularly Yellow Dog, probably the worst of the later Martin Amis. But he fails to recognise that this is a weakness inherited from the old man. Calling a cocktail a ‘Blowjob’ is really Kingsley and Larkin’s lifelong undergraduate humour adapted for the twenty-first century. For Powell, Kingsley’s immaturity is subversive whereas Martin’s is just immature. (Another family flaw is a self-satisfied literalism: compare Lucky Jim’s ‘Nice things are better than nasty things’ with Success’s ‘You can’t have the one without the other and you can’t have the other without the one.’)

Powell finds Martin’s books ‘unreadable’ and indeed you get a sense that he has barely skimmed them. Martin’s most complex and engaging novel, Time’s Arrow, is dismissed in a page and a half. Amis’s themes of the doubling of selves are ignored: instead Powell complains that having scenes run backwards gets boring. ‘A novel actually written backwards,’ he writes with finger-wagging sententiousness, ‘would be not only unintelligible but pointless, since the reader’s only recourse would be to start on the last page.’ Well, yes: which is why the novel is narrated by the disassociated, forward-thinking soul of a man living a backwards life. 

There’s a good section on Success, the best of the early Martin. I love this novel because I suspect that it tells us something about Martin’s personal life: as a young man his exterior was the glittering indolence of Gregory Riding but inside he was a shaking and paranoid Terry Service. This is compounded by the fact that Gregory’s success turns out to be an illusion and that this is revealed when (like both Amis men) he begins having panic attacks.

Yet Powell seems to miss the point of this book as well. Discussing the final scene – in which Terry makes a success of his life in the city, while Gregory wanders around the ruins of his childhood home – Powell says that Gregory’s fate is ‘infinitely both more reassuring and more real than the numbingly amoral, intolerably vacuous urban world in which Terry has sought and found success.’ He adds ominously: ‘Martin’s fiction would from now on inhabit Terry’s world, not Gregory’s.’

Powell suspects himself of ‘wilful misreading’. He is right to. Gregory has failed because he cannot move on from his childhood fantasies (‘I live mostly in the past now’); he fails because of the same protracted immaturity of which Powell is constantly accusing Martin. The wider implication is also wrong: that fiction inhabiting ‘Terry’s world’ (the city) is inferior to fiction inhabiting ‘Gregory’s world’ (the provinces). Who says?

From that point Powell’s criticism of Martin descends from realism to shameless pedantry. Like Powell, I’ve never been to a football match and have no interest in the game, but I find Martin’s sport motifs accessible and interesting. Perhaps Powell’s complaint regarding Martin’s ‘startling range of sporting enthusiasms’ is that they are not the right enthusiasms: ‘Of cricket, despite a passing reference or two, Martin says nothing at all.’

Lest you think this is a kneejerk defence of a literary hero, I’d direct you to Adam Mars-Jones’s Venus Envy, a brilliant adversarial reading of Martin Amis: large parts are excerpted in Nicholas Tredell’s The Fiction of Martin Amis, an anthology of critiques. As for Powell, he has given us a warm, well-researched biography of Kingsley: it’s a shame he had to round it off with such a poorly considered hatchet job on his son.

Solidarity with the Guardian and Peter Tatchell

August 30, 2008

On Cif yesterday Peter Tatchell highlighted the Pakistani army’s torture and murder of Baloch prisoners:

Four Baloch prisoners have been burned alive in hot coal tar by the Pakistan army during military operations in annexed and occupied Balochistan, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Last week the AHRC received confirmation that Pakistani soldiers arrested four people on April 5 2008, in the Dera Bugti district of Balochistan, and subjected them to torture. They were asked to identify local supporters of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). After failing to get any names from them, the victims were immersed in scolding hot coal tar. Three of the men were literally boiled and burned to death. A fourth died later from his injuries.

Over the last few years of Pakistani attacks on Balochistan, the AHRC reports that about 3,000 people have died, around 200,000 have been displaced, and more than 4,000 people have been arrested by the police, army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The AHRC is organising an urgent action appeal to the government of Pakistan, calling on it to investigate the killing of civilians and to halt military operations in Balochistan. Click here to send an automated letter to key Pakistani leaders.

Or you can email your own, personalised appeal, direct to the Pakistani prime minister, Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani, at

Now apparently the Pakistan government have demanded that the Guardian take his piece down or publish an apology and correction. It seems what the Pakistan government objects to is not the story about its army burning people alive but Tatchell’s explanation of how Pakistan invaded and occupied Balochistan.

The Pakistani government did not object to my report about its army burning alive four prisoners. What it wanted censored was my statements about Pakistan invading, annexing and occupying Balochistan. They claim the people of Balochistan voted to be part of Pakistan. Not true. In fact, Pakistan has refused a referendum on independence. It is denying the people of Balochistan a free vote – because it knows they are likely to vote for independence.

Please spread this story as far as you can. It will really embarrass the Pakistani leaders.

Via Brett Lock and Peter Tatchell.

How to justify censorship

August 30, 2008

One of the curious things about the UCU mess is the valiant rearguard action being taken on blogs and comments boxes to justify the shutting down of a leftist website.

With that case in mind, I’d like to present a cut-out-and-keep guide of useful arguments to be deployed if you would like to suppress information you’d rather people not know. I’ve also included some potential responses you may need to deal with.

All the following arguments can be found on political blogs and/or in comment threads.

1) The UCU list is confidential. It was wrong for Harry’s Place to leak Delich’s post.

Firstly, an email list with 700 people on it is not exactly watertight. As Andy Newman says:

There is no such thing as a closed discussion list on the internet, and there is no such thing as confidentiality on the internet. This is the new landscape with regards to confidentiality, and you just have to live with it.

Also, there’s David Hirsh’s analogy with the Metropolitan Police in the 1980s. If, say, Lenin’s Tomb got hold of and published contributions to a closed Police Federation list that sourced racist material and the police then tried to shut Seymour’s site down, I think we’d all know whose side we’d be on. Some things are just public interest.

2) The academic in question didn’t know who David Duke was. We are not all political obsessives like the Harry’s Place writers. You can’t expect everyone to know about an obscure neo-nazi like David Duke.

In fact, Duke is one of the most famous white supremacists in the entire world. He has been politically active since the 1970s. He revitalised the Ku Klux Klan and in his periodic runs for office he gained a significant percentage of the American vote. He pioneered the far right tactic of using issues like immigration and political correctness to push racist ideas. He has spoken at numerous high-profile events including Tehran’s holocaust denial conference. The Anti-Defamation League describes him as the ‘[h]ighest profile white supremacist of the last two decades.’ Of far right figures only David Irving has more worldwide name recognition.

A sample of Duke’s views:

Our clear goal must be the advancement of the white race and separation of the white and black races. This goal must include freeing of the American media and government from subservient Jewish interests.

– ‘Klan Code of Conduct,’ Duke Speaks Out, a column in the Crusader (newspaper of the KKKK, then led by David Duke), November 1978

I can accept claims that Delich had never heard of David Duke. I don’t think that she is really a fascist or a racist and I sort of feel sorry for her now. She has made a mistake, compounded it and apologised. But how good a political activist can you be if you can’t recognise fascism when you see it?

To quote Hirsh again: ‘[I]f you agree with what is written on a fascist website then you should stop and wonder why that might be.’

(Incidentally, Modernity has written a useful web guide instructing activists on how to avoid reposting material from far right websites – for example, look for obvious Nazi insignia or Celtic symbols.)

3) Although the article in question appeared on David Duke’s website, the article was not by David Duke. It is a straightforward discussion of the Israel lobby and is not antisemitic.

Following the link Delich gave should set alarm bells ringing. The sidebar lists articles including ‘Black Population Welfare Bomb Ticks,’ ‘The Hypocrisy of Jewish Supremacism,’ and the whimsically titled ‘Whatever Happened to Eugenics?’ A teenager could see there’s something wrong here.

The author of the article was Joe Quinn, aptly described by Harry’s Place as a ‘far right conspiracy nut’. His website has this to say about 9/11:

We think there is considerable evidence pointing to the complicity of certain factions within Israel and the US in the planning and implementation of these attacks. This is where the line has been drawn. Do you see it or do you keep your head in the sand?

The antisemitic elements in his article have been pointed out by David T but they are worth repeating here:

Yet the Israeli government does a very good job of convincing the whole world that it is the victim in the conflict. How can this be? Israeli control of the press? Could that ubiquitous ‘conspiracy theory’ actually be closer to a conspiracy fact?’

To the Israeli oligarchs, the death of Palestinian civilians is ‘superb’, and they feel nothing when they kill women and children. What more can I say – either someone does something about these sick pyschopaths, or they, and their kind in Washington and around the world, will destroy us all.

This is clear antisemitic conspiracy theory – the Jews control the media and world politics. That so many don’t recognise this is an indication of the way in which far left criticism of Israel slides into far right conspiracy theories about Jews.

And no, it doesn’t help just to substitute ‘Zionist’ for ‘Jew’.

4) Regardless of the material she reposted, Harry’s Place should not have put Jenna Delich’s name and image on their site. This is similar to the tactics used by the fascist website Redwatch and is unacceptable. Now Delich is receiving hate mail. Are you happy?

This is Lenin’s line, but in my view it’s unsustainable. If you haven’t heard of Redwatch, this is what it does:

The Redwatch site was launched in 2001 and now displays over a thousand photographs. From Darlington to London, Yorkshire to Oldham, anti-racist campaigners are being targeted. In most cases the pictures are unidentified but linked to some are names and addresses, car registrations, phone numbers and even workplaces.

The real agenda behind Redwatch is graphically illustrated on its secret Yahoo discussion group available to only a handful of people. Searchlight and supporters across the country have penetrated this group for the first time.

Nicknamed ‘Mole Intelligence’, this site is where those behind Redwatch swap information and details on their targets. Where information is lacking, support is requested. Where research has been completed, plans of violence are hatched.

‘Redwatch has accumulated many names and addresses along with pictures of the targets, many of whom have had nothing done to them. Now’s the time to start a proper campaign of violence and intimidation towards those who seek to see us silenced or imprisoned for our beliefs.’

A friend of my sister’s was put on Redwatch after being photographed at a demo against a public debate featuring David Irving. Within hours neo-nazis had added details about her faith and the pubs she went to at the weekend.

In all the commentary I have read about the UCU case I haven’t seen anything comparable. Harry’s Place put up Delich’s name, the city she works in and a blurry photo that has now been taken down. I haven’t seen any personal details on the blogs I’ve read regarding the case or any incitements to violence or intimidation.

Needless to say, any such incitements or actual violence and intimidation should be utterly and unequivocally condemned.

The Womb Garden

August 29, 2008

Red Peter is publishing this long story of mine over several days. Part one is already up – I’ll update this post as the rest is published.

Part two.

Part three.

Part four.

Part five.

Part six and final.

‘We apologise for publishing this book’

August 27, 2008

You may remember Bookseller managing editor Philip Jones and his dismissive, badly argued article on The Jewel of Medina censorship case.

Now he’s back, with a light-hearted roundup of recent publishing controversies.

So a fourth book is to be pulped by its publishers after it was found to have errors: with John Blake set to issue a revised version of Ron Evan’s On Her Majesty’s Service without the bits author Salman Rushdie took exemption too.

It follows yesterday’s revelation that Random House Children’s Books is to remove the word ‘twat’ from Jacqueline Wilson’s My Sister Jodie after receiving three complaints, one via Asda, which has now removed the title from its shelves and also belatedly from its website.

And that follows Random House US’ decision not to publish The Jewel of Medina for fear of offending those who might want to strike back – only with weapons.

Then there was Kieren Fallon’s biography, hastily withdrawn by Orion after it was found to contain a libel: and one that the News of the World had already paid damages for printing.

I find it hard to support Rushdie on his recent action – the book would have sunk without trace after a few headlines anyway. I’ve never even heard of Kieren Fallon.

But I’m interested in Jones’s take on Jacqueline Wilson:

Jacqueline Wilson might not have realised that the word ‘twat’ had a meaning beyond what she thought, but surely a good editor should have highlighted it at some point during the publishing process? Lies and libels (especially those already proven in court) really should not reach publication.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Jones that ‘twat’ is a profanity, not a lie or libel. And as Michael Rosen points out, the word is rarely used in a sexual sense and you will hear worse in any school playground.

Jones goes on to ask: ‘And quite what Random House US was thinking when it bought two racy books about the Prophet Mohammed’s child-bride is anyone’s guess?’ This semi-literate sentence nevertheless achieves its intended effect of making The Jewel of Medina sound like a provocative hackwork dashed off to generate some attention. In fact, the book took five years, went through seven drafts and its author, Sherry Jones, learned Arabic in the course of its composition.

Jones also makes this general point:

Of course there is no connection between the four books, and naturally publishers remove, revise, and reprint books for all sorts of reasons all of the time. Mostly beneath the mocking gaze of the wider media.

But I wonder why books with such significant problems ever got published, or so close to publication, in the first placea. Of course, some will question whether the decline in editorial standards and the standing of editors within publishing groups – so – often talked about over the years – has something to do with it?

Oh I see. The problem isn’t that controversial books are being censored – it’s that controversial books are being considered for publication in the first place!

I’m seriously wondering how Philip Jones got to the senior position he’s in, considering that he can’t write, can’t argue and – in the case of this article – can’t even edit his own work.

In a bit of good news the Bookseller also reports that Sherry Jones’s book may be getting snapped up by a Danish publisher. But in Serbia it’s a different story.

Last week, Serbian publisher BeoBook withdrew 1,000 copies of the book from shops across Serbia, following protests from an Islamic pressure group. BeoBook also apologised for publishing the novel.

That last sentence is chilling and depressing. What kind of world have we created where publishers apologise for producing books?

Iranian refugee needs your help

August 26, 2008

I’ve just read this on an email from the NCADC.

I’m reaching out to everyone asking for your support. My brother, Arash (Abuoali) Mohajernejad has been arrested and detained in Oakington Immigration Removal Centre in England awaiting a decision on either granting him asylum or deporting him back to Iran.

Arash a member of Global Student Alliance (GSA) was arrested in London on Thursday 21st August 2008. The reason for his arrest based on the information received from Mr. Mohajerinejad’s attorney, is a mix-up over his name. His Iranian passport lists him as Abuoali Mohajerinejad, however various documents he has used since moving to the UK show his name as Arash Mohajerinejad. Arash came to the UK seeking political asylum due to the work he has done on the student movement in Iran-a movement in which his brother, Gholemreza Mohajerinejad, has been involved heavily over the past 15 years.

The Mohajerinejad family in Iran has endured harassment by the Islamic Republic because of the political work of both Arash and Gholamreza. Arash (Abuoali) Moharajenejad was also jailed before he left Iran because of his work within the student movement.

During his time in London Arash (Abuoali) Mohajerinejad has continued his political work for a democratic free Iran by supporting the student movement and working against the current Islamic Republic regime in Iran.

If he is deported back to the Islamic Republic he will face certain imprisonment, torture, and possibly death. He is 26 years old, and during his time in the UK he has worked very hard so that he was not a drain on the country he very much respected as his new home.

The petition to free Arash had 200 signatures when I signed it this morning – it now has over 300. Sign it here.

And read Alan Johnson who reminds us that, in all the controversy over Iran’s nuclear programme, we shouldn’t forget the human cost of this regime.

A Snowball in Hell

August 25, 2008

I’ve just finished this latest by Christopher Brookmyre and it’s fantastic.  The novel displays Brookmyre’s ingenious storytelling, dead-on observations and characters so well drawn you practically feel like they’re in the room with you. The whole burns with the anger of Bill Hicks and a dark, joyous energy.

This one is not for the first time Brookmyre reader – it’s kind of a sequel to two previous books. The first of these introduced Simon Darcourt, a failed musician and frustrated suburban executive who turns to freelance terrorism when the dreams of his youth fade away. Calling himself the Black Spirit, Darcourt’s atrocities are motivated not by religion or politics but for the love of money, fame and fun.

Last seen apparently dead after a foiled plot to blow up a power station, Darcourt is back and hunting down new victims. Brookmyre’s been called the British Carl Hiaasen, and here he shows a talent for Hiaasen’s signature scene: bizarre and poetic deaths. One of the most witty and stylish serial killers in fiction, Darcourt kills a Clarkson/Littlejohn rightwing pundit by having him confess to being an asylum seeker and then stringing him up – because it’s the only language he understands. Other classic murder moments include Darcourt’s slaying of several arms dealers by having them walk across a landmine-studded floor, and he also despatches dozens of far-right activists at a neo-nazi rock venue by replacing the dry ice with poison gas.

But Darcourt’s main target is celebrity culture, particularly chart pop and reality TV singing contests. He kidnaps several young stars and imprisons them in separate airtight cells, broadcasting their ordeals via a website and adjusting air levels according to the site hits. At this point Angelique de Xavia gets involved: she’s a detective that Brookmyre fans will remember from The Sacred Art of Stealing, in which she foiled the most surreal bank robbery in history and had an affair with its instigator, a magician named Zal Innez who also has a part to play in this book.

Confused? Understandable. It’s a weakness of A Snowball in Hell that it has too much going on: the first novelist’s weakness of having too many characters and too many ideas. There’s a sense that Brookmyre is trying to cram everything in, tie up all the loose ends, and as a result this book lacks the tightness and discipline of, say, Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks. It is crowded and cluttered.

No other writer nails the hypocrisy of the pundit class with such accuracy and style. But Brookmyre’s satire almost lets him down in this one, maybe because it’s been done so many times. Everyone hates celebrity culture. Even celebrities profess to hate it. The surface parodies that are always outdone by the real thing and the pontificating about what this all means for our society have been carried out by writers and artists for decades. And celebrity culture is now more about landfill indie than manufactured boy bands.

But this are minor flaws and, if we notice them, it’s only because Brookmyre has set the bar so high. I raced through this chunky hardback in two sittings. What grips you are the genuine surprises of his twists (like Zal Innez, Brookmyre is a master of misdirection); the constantly shifting sympathies and motivations of his characters; the dark hilarity of his set pieces. He is still the best crime writer – and one of the best novelists – in this country.

Make Me a Christian: what Channel 4 isn’t telling you

August 25, 2008

I hope everyone has enjoyed the long weekend and that you all made time to watch the finale of faith-based reality TV show Make Me a Christian. 

Charlie Brooker has written a piece about its lead, Reverend George Hargreaves.

A few weeks ago, after watching episode one, I was so incensed by his self-satisfied air of stubborn intolerance I Googled him as soon as the credits ran. Before long I’d uncovered his astonishing backstory: that in the distant past he’d been a DJ and songwriter (responsible for Sinitta’s So Macho and Cruising) before becoming the head of the insanely right-wing Christian Party, which wants to denounce homosexuality, teach creationism in schools, reintroduce the death penalty, ban abortions, remove the ‘satanic’ red dragon from the Welsh flag, and basically make a bollocks of everything. (Fortunately, they’re not very successful, what with the general populace being aware it isn’t AD1500 any more. In the recent Haltemprice and Howden by-election, George received 76 votes. But, hey, perhaps this TV exposure will build his profile.)

Anyway, George’s background is so juicy and mad, I fully expected the show to make the most of it. You know: wait till he’s admonishing Laura (one of the show’s volunteers; a lesbian) for her sinful gayness, then have the voiceover say, ‘But George hasn’t always been so opposed to homosexuality…’ and BAM! – cut to Sinitta performing So Macho on Top Of The Pops in 1983 with a caption explaining who wrote it. And move from there into a cute VT package detailing his loopy political ambitions. Didn’t happen in show one. Or show two. Aha, I figured. They’re saving it for the finale: a classic ‘reveal’. Look! He’s been a vaguely sinister weirdo all along! Gotcha!

But no. His past and his party never warrant a mention.

Yeah – why is that?

It’s relevant to the show. It’s in the public domain and the public interest. It surely can’t be the case that Channel 4 don’t know the Reverend’s background and activities, if Brooker – and I – can find out about them so easily.

So why does Channel 4 appear not to consider this worth mentioning?

Come to think of it, why give a platform to this intolerant fanatic at all?

(Also, see Hak Mao)

Classic Books: The Shining

August 24, 2008

For aren’t memories the true ghosts of our lives? Do they not drive all of us to words and acts that we regret from time to time?

Stephen King, from his introduction to The Shining, 2001

You know this story even if you haven’t read the book. Jack Torrance is a man with the past: an ex-alcoholic, he has been fired from his teaching post for assaulting a student. A wealthy friend lands him a job looking after the Overlook Hotel when it is closed over the winter and cut off from the rest of the world. It’s the perfect place for Jack to relax, finish his play and rebuild his relationship with his wife and son.

Except that Colorado’s Overlook Hotel has a past, too. It’s been owned by dodgy businessmen and Mafioso types, been used as a brothel and gambling hell and witnessed countless murders and suicides (the previous holder of Jack’s position, Delbert Grady, killed his family and then himself). This history is revealed to Jack in a scrapbook he discovers in the basement (a classic King device for giving backstory: he also uses it in Misery). Gradually the hotel has come to take on an evil, pulsing life of its own: accumulated ‘as secret and silent as interest in a bank account.’

There was a dozen trucks in the loading bays out back, some laid one over the other like bad time exposures. In the east wing ballroom, a dozen different business conventions were going on at the same time within temporal centimeters of each other. There was a costume ball going on… Men talking about Neville Chamberlain and the Archduke of Austria. Music. Laughter. Drunkenness. Hysteria. Little love, not here, but a steady undercurrent of sensuousness. And he could almost hear all of them together, drifting through the hotel and making a graceful cacophony… He could almost… no, strike the almost. He could hear them, faintly as yet, but clearly – the way one can hear thunder miles off on a hot summer’s day. He could hear all of them, the beautiful strangers. He was becoming aware of them as they must have been aware of him from the very start.

It’s the classic idea that buildings take on the characteristics of their owners – and the Overlook has been owned by some very nasty people. The mystic and ex-scientist Rupert Sheldrake termed the phenomenon ‘morphic resonance’. The Overlook’s chef Halloran explains it more prosaically and accurately: ‘It seems all the bad things that ever happened here, there’s little pieces of these things still laying around’. Normally this manifests itself in ‘penny-dreadful horror slides to the more psychically aware guests’. Unfortunately, Jack’s five-year-son Danny has ‘the shine’; a power that enables him to read minds and see the future to a certain extent. His great psychic power is like a key in the ignition. As the winter draws in, the Overlook changes from a pleasant and spacious holiday resort to a carnival of nightmares.

Here in the Overlook all times were one. There was an endless night in August of 1945, with laughter and drinks and a chosen shining few going up and coming down in the elevator, drinking champagne and popping party-favors in each other’s faces. It was a not-yet-light morning in June some years later and the organisation hitters ruthlessly pumped shotgun shells into the torn and bleeding bodies of three men who went through their agony endlessly. In a room on the second floor a woman lolled in her tub and waited for visitors.

During his stay in the Overlook Danny is put through terrifying ordeal after terrifying ordeal, from being strangled by a corpse in a bathtub to being chased through the Overlook’s playground by the spectres of dead children. But his father becomes increasingly fascinated by the hotel, spending hours poring over old receipts in the basement, and considering writing a book about the resort. There’s something in its dark glamour that intrigues him. As Danny says: ‘It’s tricking Daddy, it’s fooling him, trying to make him think it wants him the most. It wants me the most, but it will take all of us.’

The Overlook’s seduction of Jack Torrance is a masterful, drawn-out process: you can’t highlight a definite tipping point in his development from a troubled but essentially decent man to raving psychopath. Arguably the process begins even at his job interview, when he begins to sympathise with the previous caretaker. As if in premonition of his own fate, Jack thinks: ‘Poor Grady, feeling it close in on him more every day, and knowing at last that for him spring would never come.’

Once inside the Overlook, the hotel begins to affect the play he is working on, warping its tone and themes (King does this in a much more subtle way than Kubrick, who simply has Jack type out the same moronic sentence thousands of times). He loses weight and gains a ghostly pallor. He begins to rationalise the actions of his abusive, drunken father. But the hotel really claims him when it pushes him off the wagon (the alcohol has been cleaned out shortly before the Torrances moved in, but the hotel simply provides more).

In a scene reminiscient of Fitzgerald, Jack dances with a beautiful woman at some kind of 1940s burlesque. This is how the hotel gets him: it offers Jack a dissolute decadence formerly closed off by his status as a family man. Having ‘failed as a teacher, a writer, a husband, and a father’ and ‘even failed as a drunk’ Jack sees ‘his last and best chance’ as ‘to become a member of the Overlook’s staff, and possibly to rise… all the way to the position of manager, in time.’ Or as Danny puts it: ‘He wants to be one of them and live forever.’

‘Perhaps the Overlook, large and rambling Samuel Johnson that it was, had picked him to be its Boswell. You say the new caretaker writes? Very good, sign him on. Time we told our side.’ The remarkable quality of the last three sentences is that we don’t know who is speaking: Jack’s localised third person narrative segues seamlessly into the voice of the hotel. But King’s real achievement in characterisation is gained by use of his classic device, the italicised parenthesis: he uses this to get deep into the minds of his characters and communicate thoughts

(like this)

that flash across the underside of the mind; thoughts that perhaps we’d rather not acknowledge. The hotel speaks to Jack in this way for the first time while he is trimming the hedges (You weren’t hired to philosophize, Torrance); it speaks to Danny in more hostile terms (GET OUT OF HIS MIND, YOU LITTLE SHIT!) The use of King’s parenthesis trick creates an effect of fearful disorientation. King uses textuality here in a way remarkable for such a supposedly light novelist: as the hotel’s power grows, fragments of dialogue and prose break up the text like ghosts piling through the woodwork.

Several stick in the mind. Echoing Goya, a recurring couplet goes: (This inhuman place/makes human monsters); another, adapted from Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ reads: And the Red Death held sway over all. During another basement session with Jack, we get a line from Eliot: (In the room the women come and go). This is from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ and King quotes from Eliot throughout his work. (If King is the ultimate horror novelist, T. S. Eliot is the ultimate horrorpoet: he shows us fear in a handful of dust.) There’s also this prose poem, scribbled on the back of a menu: ‘Medoc/are you here?/I’ve been sleepwalking again, my dear./The plants are moving under the rug.’ There is something indefinably chilling about these lines.

King did not like Kubrick’s film adaptation. While King prefers a slow build, Jack Nicholson’s lead is visibly unhinged from the very start. Kubrick also seems to have leaned too heavily towards the view that the Overlook’s ghosts are the products of Jack’s claustrophobic and disintegrating mind. Yet as Jack himself observes, his son is scared of imaginary monsters but there is no lack of real ones: poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, child abuse. Jack adds his own demons to the hotel’s already substantial complement.

The novel is about ghosts, but also about fathers and sons. King got the idea when he was a struggling writer trying to support two young children (Jack’s combination of fraught poverty and big dreams is very well drawn) and has said that when he wrote about Jack Torrance he was really writing about himself. In his introduction to my edition, he describes The Shining as a ‘crossroads novel’.

Another part of me wanted to go deeper – to admit Jack’s love of his father in spite of (perhaps even because of) his father’s unpredictable and often brutal nature. That was the part I listened to, and it made a big difference to the novel as a whole.

He also says: ‘[The] truth is that monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.’

I like Kubrick’s ending better. He lets Jack’s family escape, and the last shot is a slow close-up of a photograph on the Overlook’s lobby wall. As we get closer, we see that it is a photograph of Jack Torrance hosting a masked ball. The camera pans down to a caption. The image was taken in the 1940s.

How not to defend the North

August 23, 2008

Lucy Mangan writes in the Guardian about Policy Exchange’s stupid Northern evacuation plan. Although I agree with what she says, this is a terrible article.

Here’s why:

I am still getting panicked phone calls from the 98% of my extended family who live in Preston and beyond. And occasionally a little bit to the right, but we haven’t spoken to them since the great offal fettling controversy of 1972, a dark time in our history that I have neither space nor heart to go into here. There was enough said at our Edie’s sweetbread fondue party.

Actually, panicked is not the right word. Northerners, as a rule, don’t do panic. Perhaps if they were threatened with the imminent loss of several loved ones – if Tom Finney caught fire in a chip shop, say – they might be moved to an expression of concern (‘Ey up!’) and a brief flurry of activity, but otherwise the emotional gamut tends to run between outrage and weary resignation, with my relatives leaning this week very much towards outrage. ‘Move to London?’ at least 306 cousins, aunts, uncles and one great-aunt spluttered. ‘Why don’t I just sit in a room full of car exhausts and burn 20s with a lighter? Bugger off!’ My great-aunt’s ire is so great that she plans to write to both Joe Longthorne and the Pope, though I don’t know in whose intercessionary powers she places more faith.

And… it just goes on like this.

Take, for example, the phrase ‘If we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs, but we’ve no eggs.’ This is one of the first things I remember my grandmother saying to me. I must have been about four, weaving a daydream about some fantastical luxury – shoes, perhaps, or a drink of water – and she responded with these words. To a southerner, it probably sounds like the needless breaking of a child’s butterfly imagination on the wheel of adult logic. To a northerner, however, it’s nobbut commonsense protection of the child against future harm. Those who carry folk memories of toiling down the mines, whittling new lungs from barm cakes and listening to Gracie Fields know that the default setting of life is both hamless and eggless. Admit the possibility of hope, and you admit the possibility of disappointment. Better by far to banish both. The unwillingness to do so is what makes southerners weak. Happy and well-nourished, but weak.

Or take Peter Kay’s line: ‘I went to my mum’s for Sunday lunch. I don’t go every week, but she had a big chicken.’ Northerners fall off their chairs at this joke. Southerners look baffled. This is because it enshrines a version of familial love that only the former truly recognise: undemonstrative to the point of invisibility; a love that can only ever be obliquely manifested as an adjunct to something else. Thus, when your mum wants you round, she won’t say, as a southern mother might, ‘Darling, I haven’t seen you for so long, I miss you. Why don’t you come round and I’ll make us a meal?’ No. She’ll say, ‘Come round for your tea. I’ve got too much in and it’ll not keep now that your dad’s dead.’

This deserves some sort of bad writing award. The tweeness. The bad jokes. The false knowingness. All in best Guardian lite. It’s not just the article’s lack of quality but its assumption that it has quality, humour and great human truths.

This is what I mean when I talk of ‘Northern sentimentalism’. She’s defending the north, but doing it with the most stupid and condescending platitudes – the same tone and attitude of the Policy Exchange report she argues against. And using cliches ironically doesn’t stop them being cliches.

I know it’s just a short piece in the supplement, but this just grates. Mangan makes Stuart Maconie look like a good writer.

And talking of Mangan’s hero Peter Kay, the great Bolton hope is back with a new project – a reality TV spoof. That’s never been done before, has it? Moron.