Archive for May, 2010

Cultivate Your Garden

May 31, 2010

My review of Ian Davidson’s Voltaire: A Life is now available at 3:AM.

Speak for England

May 31, 2010

The Manchester Evening News has taken up a campaign. Not about the chronic shortage of social housing in Manchester. Not on behalf of the many many workers in the city who are paid below the living wage. Don’t be stupid. The MEN has its priorities. It’s been fighting for the right of binmen to display England flags from their wagons.

It appears that the council contracts out its bin collection to a firm that won’t let its workers fly the flag for health and safety reasons. But the super soaraway MEN has scored a victory: ‘But after the Manchester Evening News contacted the Town Hall, the council persuaded the company to change its policy.’ Hurrah!

You’d think the MEN would stay out of political disputes, having got every political call wrong over the last decade – it backed the smoking ban, backed ID cards, backed the Manchester c-charge and predicted a Lib Dem Manchester landslide in the general election. But the issue goes beyond the MEN’s brand of regional dog-whistle journalism, for every World Cup is followed by stories about how the politically correct elite are banning England flags, as sure as night follows day.

It’s said that Ophelia Benson has the worst job in the blogosphere. I think that Anton Vowl has to be a contender for that title. He spends his free time reading and arguing with the British Tory press, which in recent months has become completely unhinged. Naturally the flag ban folk myth is all over the place at the moment.

Anton makes many good points. (Why do people only want to fly the flag when there’s an international tournament on?) Many pub landlords do ban flags and football colours, all year round, World Cup or no World Cup. This is not because they are multicultural ideologues who are terrified of offending Muslims. It is because they are businessmen who want to keep paying the mortgage.

The fact is that flags attract arseholes who like to intimidate and hurt other people. They attract morons who cannot get through a night without ruining someone else’s. And a pub full of arseholes and morons is not going to attract many customers.

This is why upper middle class journalists who write flag ban columns would never in a million years go into a pub with guys in football colours drinking in the beer garden.

As Anton says:

We liberal-left types aren’t meant to call morons morons when they’re being moronic; we’re meant to imagine that if people are wilfully ignorant, or don’t want to find out about things, or lack the curiosity to challenge what they’ve been told, that it’s somehow our fault, and we should reach out to them, even though they won’t believe us, for fear of alienating them. Do you know what? I try to bend over backwards as much as I can bear to, but fuck that.

I am a patriot and I love my country. Although football’s not my thing, I hope we win this tournament and I will probably watch a few of the games. That said, flags attract arseholes. It’s not fair – but it’s the way the world works.

Naturally, we can’t say that, so the whole thing has accumulated into yet another facet of the rich mythology of the white Briton with a chip on his shoulder. Go on Facebook, read the comments of any newspaper website and it’s a seething cauldron of entitlement and grievance.

I would be happy to see the St George’s flag everywhere I go. But I also wonder how English identity came to be defined by victimhood, self-pity, riskless defiance and synthetic outrage. Come on, people. Is that all we’ve got?

I display the St George’s cross in a gesture of heroic resistance against the politically correct WordPress elite.

Succour: The Dream is Over!

May 30, 2010

A lot of people have been asking me about Succour magazine. Here’s what’s going on as I understand it.

The magazine grew out of Exeter University’s creative writing programme in 2005. It was produced down south with regional editors in several other cities. I came on board in 2006 as Manchester’s regional editor. I managed to get it in a couple of Oxford Road outlets and put on a few nights. Over the next four years I headhunted Manchester fiction writers and poets for the magazine. During that time my managing editor secured a national distribution deal which meant that I didn’t have to do the admin/finance side and could concentrate on finding new talent.

The magazine was originally funded by Exeter uni. That money ran out in 2008 and since then we’ve had no public funding. Borders went smash in January this year and that pretty much killed our distribution. Around that time I was told that Succour would go from a print magazine to an online magazine and that the May issue would appear online. We’re now almost into June and the website hasn’t been updated. The contact page appears to have been removed and the ME isn’t returning my emails.

I can only conclude that Succour is dead.

Apologies to anyone who has made submissions and is wondering what the hell’s going on. I’m not sure myself. It seems that we had a pretty good run but the recession has finally caught up with us. Succour may return in some form in the future and I will let you if and when this happens.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to create a point where writers and poets could browse magazines for submissions. I add stuff to the ‘Magazines’ section in the sidebar as often as I can and would be grateful for any suggestions.

Like Icarus, we soared close to the sun, on frail wings of vanity and wax. ‘Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea, the Icarian Sea, called after him.’

Virtue Writes White

May 29, 2010

My review of Claus Hant’s Young Hitler: A Non-Fiction Novel is now available at 3:AM.

Classic Books: The Collector

May 25, 2010

There’s a scene in Stephen King’s Misery where Paul Sheldon, romance novelist held crippled and captive by psychotic fan Annie Wilkes, considers asking her whether she has read John Fowles’s first novel before very wisely deciding against it. I read The Collector recently, and it’s clear that King’s book owes a great deal to it: he has reversed the genders but it’s still a two-man tale of possession and obsession. Miranda is a butterfly: Paul Sheldon is a rare bird that came from Africa.

Miranda’s captor is an entomologist who has moved on to living specimens. The analogy is obvious but effective. The collector of the title is used to dead artifacts of beauty pressed onto pages, and can’t handle the real thing, flying around and alive. Miranda is a resourceful and spirited captive, banging against the bars of her cage. She seduces the kidnapper as part of an escape attempt, but he can’t perform with a living being, preferring to masturbate over photographs of his naked victim. Frederick Clegg’s preferred creative form is significant, and contrasted with art student Miranda’s drawings. ‘When you draw something it lives,’ she tells him, ‘when you photograph it it dies.’ 

The collector is like the pornographer in holding stillness above motion: it’s the nature of the pornographer to dehumanise both subject and audience in inverted art. I reviewed a book by a psychotherapist in which the author discusses a patient so addicted to online porn that he could no longer have sex with real women. ‘It’s a nasty, shameful little room that many of us are hiding in,’ the addict says. ‘Time to come out, boys.’

Despite his wealth and youth, Clegg will not be leaving this room any time soon. He’ll always sacrifice the risk of abandon for the security of control. While he has no qualms about assault, drugging and kidnap, he is prim when it comes to sexuality; Miranda keeps expecting a rape that never happens. He insists to us that he is not ‘just after her for the obvious.’ (Again, I’m reminded of Annie Wilkes, who slaughters and dismembers her way through Misery but who disapproves of smoking and has no cursewords stronger than ‘cockadoodie’.) Clegg’s propriety isn’t just sexual. He has a very clear idea of what is done and not done, based on his lower middle-class upbringing by a couple of maiden aunts (a bad sign in literature, as Saki and Wodehouse can tell you).

Clegg is not eccentric. He is relentlessly, terrifyingly normal: the desert of the real, the scorched earth of the conventional. Annie Wilkes is a retired nurse and occasional farmer: Clegg is a council clerk who lucks into a big pools win. He knows his wealth won’t open doors. ‘It was no good throwing money around,’ he says. ‘You could see them saying, don’t kid us, we know what you are, why don’t you come back where you came from.’ He kidnaps Miranda because he knows she would cut him dead in conversation. When she’s gone, Clegg reflects that he started too high: ‘I could never get what I wanted from someone like Miranda, with all her la-di-da ideas and clever tricks.’

The book was published in 1963, but the delineations between the hedonistic bohemians and the resentful, workaday mediocrities are just as stark now as they were then. The story is not just a battle between the upper and lower middle class, but between the cosmopolitan and the provincial: city, art and materialism versus the old poisons of tribe, faith and flag.

Miranda sums him up in a rant:

You despise the real bourgeois classes for all their snobbishness and their snobbish voices and ways. You do, don’t you? Yet all you put in their place is a horrid little refusal to have nasty thoughts or do nasty things or be nasty in any way. Do you know that every great thing in the history of art and every beautiful thing in life is actually what you call nasty or has been caused by feelings that you would call nasty? By passion, by love, by hatred, by truth. Do you know that?

This is why Miranda is wrong to give Clegg the nickname of Caliban. Caliban had passion. Clegg only has rules, and in some way it’s him who’s the collected, impaled and writhing against the cork.

The Electric Complement

May 23, 2010

My review of Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris is now available at 3:AM.

The Daily Mail Sings the Blues

May 19, 2010

Say what you like about Alastair Campbell, he has made a great effort to demystify and destigmatise mental illness. We have come a long way and have a long way to go. I mean, I know Janet Street-Porter’s column appeared in the Daily Mail, and to read that newspaper is to invite an insult to your intelligence. But to paraphrase Sick Boy, should we let this bullshit filter into the culture unchallenged?

I’m not personally offended by the article: as you may know, my mental problems were based around anxiety rather than depression – although I can get days where the very sky seems to ache with poignancy, and a happy-looking cat or chick-lit novel brings the presentiment of tears. But I do object to the general rightwing contention that any illness that doesn’t have volcanic physical effects is nothing more than a benefits scam.

Mental illness, Street-Porter says, is an Islington thing, ‘an affliction which seems to be the prerogative of the chattering classes’:

If you’re a black South African woman growing up in a township, or a mum in a slum favela in Rio, or a supermarket shelf-stacker in Croydon, or one of the band of low-paid female workers who go to work at 3am to clean the offices of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Britain in the City of London, you probably aren’t afflicted by depression. What you’re more likely to be suffering from is poverty, exhaustion and a deficient diet.

This misses the point spectacularly because mental illness – like most illness – hits the working class hardest. You will not get a suspicious look by talking about your panic attacks or crying jags in a Salford pub. Most likely there will be a sympathetic hearing and similar stories. When I lived there the waiting list for CBT was three months long and every fifth person you met was on Prozac. This is because sickness is exacerbated by poverty. The catastrophic mental health of the City’s immigrant workers is almost as much a scandal as their disgraceful rate of pay.

There’s a class myth that only the liberal intelligentsia suffer from existential angst whereas the earthy labourers simply get on with the job in hand. The prejudice hurts the working class because it suggests that they are chemically immune from the confusion and pain caused by abstract thought and feelings, which are available only to the whining bourgoisie who can afford BUPA healthcare.

Hence: ‘Stress has become so acceptable, the last government decided that the NHS would make counselling available for a whole variety of mental illnesses, from stress to depression to panic attacks and low self-esteem, totally gratis.’ For a ‘provocative’ personality, Street-Porter is a little coy here. The implication is that we should take mental healthcare out of NHS funding. Should we, or not? Come on, Janet!

I do get offended when I think of all the people I’ve known who’ve had to live with these debilitating conditions, good friends who’ve struggled in postcode black holes under the disapproving gaze of family and peers. Again, I know that Janet Street-Porter is one of those figures who have carved a name and career from the complete lack of humanity and self-awareness. But on the strength of this piece, she should go back to topless darts.

Update: Campbell has responded. It is a really good piece. Read it.

I assume, from the unsympathetic tone, she has never experienced depression. If she had, then even for the generous cheque she no doubt received, she would have thought twice before setting out an opinion as misguided as it is offensive to anyone who knows the reality of depression.

Much that appears in the media really doesn’t matter. But people who suffer from mental health problems will often say the stigma attached to them is worse than the symptoms. Articles like hers reinforce that stigma and taboo, which in turn create shame and a sense that real problems cannot be addressed.

First, let me try to give her some insight into depression. I had a pretty heavy nervous breakdown in 1986, and I’ve had depression on-and-off ever since. With the help of friends and family, sympathetic bosses, a good GP, a psychiatrist, sometimes medication, I have learned to manage it better than I did once.

At its worst, it is like an invisible dark force that first approaches, then envelops, then appears to fill every waking thought. You can escape via sleep, but you wake and find your eyes won’t open, you lack the energy to brush teeth, shave, speak, think anything other than thoughts of emptiness and despair.

When it’s bad, my partner Fiona says it is like living with somebody from a different planet. When you get into that mode it’s very dangerous and corrosive. People ask, ‘what’s wrong?’ and you don’t really know. ‘What triggered it?’ and you can’t answer that either. One thing you do know, there is no way you would wish to have it.

Once you’ve had it, there are few worse experiences than knowing that dark cloud is coming back. The cause of Janet Street Porter’s ire – whether real or synthetic – is the fact that women like TV presenter and Mirror columnist Fiona Phillips, actress Emma Thompson and writer Marian Keyes have spoken out about their experiences. Like them, I’ve chosen to ‘bare my soul’, as Porter puts it, in print and on film because I feel that openness about psychosis and depression may help counteract the discrimination and stigma surrounding mental health.

When I had my breakdown, I took comfort from reading and hearing about others who had been through it and got out the other side. So when Mind, and later the Time to Change campaign asked me to speak out, I was pleased to.

Mental health problems can happen to anyone just as cancer can or a broken limb when you fall down the stairs. They don’t respect status, wealth or profession. And, hopefully, we can make it easier for others to feel they don’t have to hide that they’ve had mental health problems.

Men in particular find it tough to come forward. Big boys don’t cry, and all that. It goes some way to explaining why men are just as likely to experience depression as women, but half as likely to seek support. So when Janet Street-Porter says: ‘The idea of feeling sorry for a bloke with low self-esteem is, frankly, risible,’ I wonder if the fact that out of every four suicides, three are men might cause her to reconsider. Probably not. But reasonable people might.

Glover’s Mistake

May 18, 2010

The first comparison that comes to mind for Laird’s novel is Peep Show without the comedy. There are riffs on metropolitan art and observational digs at its protagonist’s fossilised routine, but all in all the comedy is absent, leaving only the darkness. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Combined with Laird’s lush descriptive powers and sense of place, the absence of lighter moments clears the way for a journey into the cave of an empty mind.

The plot, as Harry Ritchie says, is straight out of slushpile lad-lit; a genre that you’d think would be more successful, given the vast reservoir of male inadequacy from which it can draw. The narrative is almost exclusively localised around David Pinner, a balding, overweight teacher entering middle age. David isn’t the sympathetic loser the description implies but something close to sociopathic: ‘searching not for things to love but a place to put his rage.’ His greatest fulfillment comes from his anonymous blog, on which he lays into contemporary film and art. He feels lucky to live in a time that suits a personality predicated towards hatred. ‘It was only since he’d begun teaching himself and had made his own students laugh that he’d realised misanthropy could be taken for wit, and found some semblance of pleasure in anger and cynicism.’ 

David’s ossified libido is awakened by his encounter with Ruth Marks, an American artist he remembers from university. He inadvertently introduces Ruth to his flatmate Glover, a naive and goodlooking barman with whom Ruth begins a passionate relationship. An attractive female blogger called Singleton comes into David’s life just as he is making headway in his sabotage of Glover’s wedding. At this point you’re braced for a conflict between settling scores and moving on. But Singleton is never a real love interest, just another victim of David’s passionless and casual stalking. He’s too far gone to be open to anything else.

David’s desire for revenge is driven by his conviction that Glover and Ruth are the beautiful people, the shining ones: ‘They are anointed with luck. They don’t make it. There is no effort.’ It’s a total misreading of their characters, and a testament to his fundamental lack of empathy. Glover and Ruth are both damaged and confused people, lost souls who find each other by chance – only for the matchmaker to choke off their future before it begins.

The reason David fixates on Ruth is that she gives him some time and comfort when, as a student, he breaks down after one of her lectures. The memory provoked when she reappears in his life, of a point before it was too late, provides his motivation for revenge. The book made me think of the following passage from Simone Weil:

When the ‘I’ is wounded from outside it starts by revolting in the most extreme and bitter manner like an animal at bay. But as soon as the ‘I’ is half dead, it wants to be finished off and allows itself to sink into unconsciousness. If it is then awakened by a touch of love, there is sharp pain which results in anger and sometimes hatred for whoever has provoked this pain. Hence the apparently inexplicable vindictiveness of the fallen towards their benefactors.

This paragraph formed the basis for Jonathan Coe’s excellent novel A Touch of Love, and I was also reminded of it when I read Jenn Ashworth‘s A Kind of Intimacy.

Towards the end of Glover’s Mistake, David finds a poster-parable in Glover’s room, that one about walking on the beach with God, and the man asking why the tracks sometimes dwindle to one set of footsteps: those, God replies, were the times when I carried you. In his mind, David corrupts the parable so that the single pair of footsteps belong to Glover alone. But it could apply to David himself, who has not just resigned himself to solitude but actively chosen it: ‘For this next passage in his life there would only be a single set of footprints in the sand, awaiting the sea’s deletion’.

For David Pinner, this will be nothing new.

Exorcism for Change!

May 17, 2010

You’re probably aware that Conservative high-flier and demon-purge charity campaigner Philippa Stroud failed to win her Tory target seat of Sutton and Cheam in the recent election.

Not to worry! She has been made a special advisor at the DWP.

I look forward to some interesting policy announcements from that government department.

Perhaps long-term jobseekers will need to submit to an exorcism if they are to continue drawing benefit.

Maybe new incapacity benefit claimants will be subject to a medical test involving a ducking stool and a pond.

And I wonder if being demonically possessed means that you count as two people under housing benefit rules?

And you thought the Flexible New Deal was bad!

I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.

– Neil Kinnock, June 1983

A Marketplace of Compassion

May 15, 2010

My review of Linda Polman’s War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times is now available at 3:AM.

Update: An alternative view from Conor Foley.