Archive for July, 2010

Your Wives and the Taliban

July 29, 2010

In today’s Independent Jonathan Heawood discusses the case of Åsne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist who wrote a book based on her account of life with an Kabul bookseller and his family, The Bookseller of Kabul, during the relatively early days of the Afghanistan war in 2002.

The bookseller took exception to her ‘low and salacious’ book and sued. Sierstad has offered financial renumeration to offended parties, claims that the family pre-approved her account, and has offered to write a follow up to correct any damage done to the plaintiffs’ reputations. Still they won’t drop and she faces damages of up to £250,000.

Her lawyer is promising to appeal and the case may wind up at the European Court in Strasbourg. But there is no guarantee that the court will defend Seierstad’s right to publish her own version of events. In recent cases, the court has attacked the public interest in free speech and the simple right of authors to describe the world as they find it. This growing trend may deter other authors from writing about real people, even in a fictional context. 

What would it mean for literature if all characters based on real people were removed from the record? No Buck Mulligan in Ulysses; no Sarah in The End of the Affair; no Casaubon in Middlemarch; no Zelda in Tender is the Night; no Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House; no Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. Ottoline Morrell was cruelly satirised in both Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow and DH Lawrence’s Women in Love. Christopher Robin Milne hated living with the memory of his father’s classic books about a little boy and his teddy bear. Real people are scooped up by writers all the time. Literature does not respect the boundary between public and private; in fact, it is all about overstepping that mark.

The boundary between reality and fiction is porous at best. It’s certainly not a wall of separation that should be legitimised in law.

(Thanks: Padraig)

Across the Cheshire/Derbyshire Border

July 29, 2010

I have a flash fiction story published at Socrates Adams-Florou’s amazing Manchester journal Other.

Also, be sure to check out the ultimate guide to seduction, and what looks like a promising new sitcom.

Coming To A Council Estate Near You

July 28, 2010

As in so many other areas, the coalition doesn’t seem to have a consistent policy towards crime. Cameron does the zero-tolerance posturing so loved by anaemic sheltered politicians. His ministers argue against prison sentences and tell violent recidivists that a fake apology will cut their time in half.

The ultimate rightwing approach would be no publicly funded police force, with the rich hiring private security firms to protect them from the proletarian hordes. The last Tory government concentrated police presence in the city centres and the suburbs while adopting a laissez-faire policy towards the hinterlands and inner city ghettoes. Aside from the occasional Orgreave-style deployment against enemies of the state, Thatcher was happy to let the poor kill each other on the edges of town.

Crime hits the poor hardest, and the consequence for working class communities was horrific. Name families treated entire estates as personal fiefdoms. Labour introduced a raft of crime legislation and police powers to deal with conditions on these estates, measures that lost a few civil liberties votes but (in my experience at least) were welcomed by many people who actually lived in working class communities.

Policy is already going the other way. The housing benefit cap will make entire towns and cities uninhabitable for people on benefits or even on a low income. The head of the National Housing Federation predicts that: ‘The housing benefit caps could see poorer people effectively forced out of wealthier areas, and ghettoised into poorer neighbourhoods.’ That’s the idea.

Who is going to police these ghettoes? Meet Francis Jones. He’s a security boss and born-again Christian. His Sparta Security patrols council estates in Darlington at a cost of £3:50 per resident per week.

I used to be a naughty paughty, working in bars and clubs – I’d never turn down a fight. Now I’m walking the honest path and protecting the people of Darlington who sign up for my service. I prayed before I started that this would benefit the Lord. But if someone assaulted me I wouldn’t hesitate to defend myself. I’m game as a pebble!

It seems likely that Francis Jones is heading for Big Society good times:

I was at an event [where the speaker was] Sir Paul Stephenson [the Metropolitan police commissioner] last week, and he effectively said that UK Police plc was open for business. It might be up to us to get a bit more proactive and make the most of the opportunities there.

Actual coppers have reservations. This is Peter Davies, assistant chief constable at Lincolnshire police:

First, there is a point about accountability – if regular officers are discriminatory or discourteous, they are subject to a proper complaints process, which comes with policing by consent – these firms don’t have that.

The second problem is that commercial enterprises can be tempted to generate high levels of fear, which they can then exploit for commercial gain. Finally, there is a question about training. These companies may have received some basic training to get a licence, but it is unlikely to prepare them for everything that might be expected of them.

Expect more stories like this.

‘Respect my authoritah!’

Hoarded These Constants Into Morning

July 25, 2010

Kicking off her shoes, lighting a cigarette, she would read, in her marvelous, throaty, classy voice, harrowing accounts of insanity and love. She was an artist: her purpose was to make awesome experiences lively, immediate and real.

I’ve been reading Anne Sexton and wondering why I didn’t get around to reading her before. I knew her from Elizabeth Wurtzel and recently got a recommendation from a very good poet I know. The edition I have comes with a fine introduction from Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diana Hume George. In it they argue that, although Sexton is boxed away with Plath as an entirely confessional poet, she thought of herself as primarily a storyteller. As well as memoirs of her struggles with anxiety and thoughts of suicide the book contains gothic retellings of biblical and fairy tales.

It’s not often that you find a writer that gives you the impression that s/he has walked around in your soul. Art is full of a false and insinuating universality and related accounts of experiences and emotions that everyone is supposed to have lived and felt often leave me indifferent. Reading ‘Just Once’, though, I felt that Sexton knew me intimately, was speaking to and for me, and there was nothing frightening or even striking about this, it felt matter-of-fact, casual. The mood of ‘Just Once’ is something I feel all the time. Here it is:

Just once I knew what life was for.
In Boston, quite suddenly, I understood;
walked there along the Charles River,
watched the lights copying themselves,
all neoned and strobe-hearted, opening
their mouths as wide as opera singers;
counted the stars, my little campaigners,
my scar daisies, and knew that I walked my love
on the night green side of it and cried
my heart to the eastbound cars and cried
my heart to the westbound cars and took
my truth across a small humped bridge
and hurried my truth, the charm of it, home
and hoarded these constants into morning
only to find them gone.

State of the Race: Burnham on Iraq

July 24, 2010

I like David Milliband but he’s a bit wonky, he makes me think of the ‘tiny head’ scene from The Thick of It, and that may not be what we need to win an election. Andy Burnham, however, comes across as a passionate and interested man, and the NS doesn’t seem to be able to handle him. When so many Labour leadership candidates fall over themselves to apologise for Iraq, and so much of the party has bought into the silo narrative, Burnham’s stance is refreshing.

You took a decision without having all the facts at your disposal.
On Iraq, I voted for it because the leader of the Iraqi Kurds pleaded with MPs to do that at a private meeting here before the war. I asked him outright: ‘Do you think weapons exist?’ And he said: ‘I don’t know, but our people will for ever be suppressed because we can’t be sure.’

And that was the problem with Saddam Hussein — to maintain his grip over his own people, he had to maintain the pretence that he had them. That’s why he had to frustrate [the UN weapons inspector Hans] Blix. He couldn’t let him finish his work, because the minute he finished his work and the world was told he didn’t have any weapons would have been the moment Saddam would have been drummed out of power. I believe there would have been a civil war, which would have been problematic in a different way. The root cause of all this was the failure to remove him at the end of the first Gulf war. And I think the world, because of that, was going to have to come back to the Iraq question.

You say that if Hans Blix’s inspection had run its course and he’d said, ‘Actually the WMDs don’t exist,’ there would have been a civil war, but that’s exactly how it ended up anyway.
It was certainly bloody and it was certainly ugly, there’s no getting away from that. The question is now: is Iraq in a better position than it was? Does it have hope of a better future than it did? Is there more order in the country than would otherwise have been the case? Does the government have more of a chance of making a success of itself in the medium to long term? The answer to those questions is: yes, it does, it has hope of rebuilding itself and not becoming a failed state. And that, for me, justifies the decision, hard as it was.

Is it easier to move on with someone who didn’t vote for the war?
I do feel there is a need to take the party beyond the damaging argument we’ve been through. I’m proposing that, as leader, I will set up a commission on military intervention in the party, in the wider Labour family and also drawing in representation from civic society, to look at Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan. The central question is: what, where and under which circumstances should the Labour Party give its endorsement to military intervention? So, essentially, what it would be trying to do is develop a framework for intervention.

I sense you have a view on that already.
I’m not articulating a doctrine of intervention; it’s not a neocon view, it’s absolutely not that. It’s simply that I fear Labour could get it wrong, coming away from Iraq and saying: ‘Never again.’ If you look back at Kosovo and Sierra Leone, while the intervention in Iraq is much more contested and disputed, there are people in Kosovo and Sierra Leone who are, to this day, joyous that the Labour government took a moral lead. Labour cannot give up on that moral lead, which improves lives and upholds human rights. My worry would be, yes, we learned a lesson from Iraq and the [conclusion of the] Chilcot inquiry will be a sobering moment for Labour, but you can’t then [allow] the pendulum [to] swing right back and say: ‘We can never do that again. We’ve now become a country that doesn’t play its role on the world stage.’

Wordslinger’s Note

July 22, 2010

There’s a teacher blog I’ve been following that is better than any other teacher blog out there. It’s a rare and refreshing experience after so many public sector blogs which are basically Broken Britain wailing walls. I recommend this post, and also this:

Obviously his school mentor was somewhat perturbed by his odd body language. Indeed, following one lesson observation, she apparently delighted in regaling the staff room with a detailed account of his unorthodox manoeuvres. She closed her account by turning to him and asking him whether he was sure that he really wanted to become a teacher or whether he’d ‘rather become a cowboy stripper’. Needless to say, the hesitation in his response did little to diminish the mockery.

Recent 3:AM stuff includes a review of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America, John Avlon’s look at the derangement of the American Right, and also a piece on Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind which has been all over the Guardian and NS. Finally, 3:AM‘s editors have done an idiosyncratic version of one of those broadsheet summer reading lists.

Scientologophobia Watch: The Internet

July 22, 2010

This is a guest post by the Church of Scientology UK Media Relations Team

Some might say that the complaint against Cllr John Dixon was a little harsh. A few of our members have privately expressed the view that submitting a formal complaint to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales about a light-hearted statement on a microblogging service was an overreaction that could prove counterproductive as it may generate a lot of bad publicity that would in the end cancel out any positive outcome from the complaint itself.

We know who these people are. They will be spoken to.

Quite apart from Cllr Dixon’s well-documented meetings with Lord Xenu in his volcano prison on Complex 9, his Scientologophobic rant was an assault on our religious freedom and it is right to bring him to justice through the appropriate legal channels (as well as the good old Fair Game policy).

Our case against him illustrates the double-edged sword that is the Internet. In the right hands, the net can be a source of creativity and development for all Scientologists. In the hands of Suppressive Persons, it can be used to demonise Scientologists and defame our religion. Dixon’s lies have been repeated many times on Twitter and Facebook (or ‘XenuBook’ as it should be called) often by shrill atheist/sceptics who seek to mock Scientology and undermine religious faith in general.

We are therefore launching the L Ron Hubbard Posthumous Dictat #373623/A (Renounciation of Suppressive Media Technologies) which declares all social networking users and staff Fair Game. Any Scientologists with accounts on these sites are advised to close them immediately and register with the L Ron-approved ‘Thetanbook’, a friendly, accessible service on which users can post meditations on the teaching of Dianetics in a user-friendly 10,000 words minimum format.



(end communication)

In The Shadow of This Red Rock

July 19, 2010

Inspector Gadget has a striking post on the Raoul Moat tribute sites:

Politicians, journalists and ordinary people seem bewildered and shocked by the huge support shown to him by the north-eastern criminal underclass. The flowers at his council house and at the death scene, the cards ‘mate, you are a legend’ and the thousands of ‘friends’ on his Facebook tribute page. The support he received while on the run. I’m not.

And yet as Charlie Brooker points out: ‘equally dumb and inflammatory statements are made in the Have Your Say sections of newspaper websites every day. Occasionally the readers even manage to out-spite the columnists themselves.’ Or indeed the news pages. The Express recently ran the headlines ‘ONE IN FIVE BRITONS WILL BE ETHNICS’ and ‘NOW ASYLUM IF YOU’RE GAY’ (subheading: ‘They must be free to go to Kylie concerts and drink multi-coloured cocktails, says judge’).

Here’s an example of this from the super soaraway Manchester Evening News. It ran a story last week about a Rochdale shopping centre that has installed ‘Nile pan’ toilets – a kind of ‘squatting’ version used in Pakistan and India.

Unusually for an MEN piece, it doesn’t allow comments. Why is this, say you? The mystery is solved at the beginning of another thread when a regular asks: ‘Why did the MEN remove the comment option from the story about the ‘squatting toilets’ in Rochdale? Was it because of the racist deluge of comments received?’ A moderator confirms that ‘Of the 40 odd comments that came in over night, not one could be published due their racist and abusive content, so the facility was turned off on that story’.

This is what’s under the rock.

This is what comes running when you blow the dog whistle.

Legendary Shadows

July 18, 2010

Contemporary writing represents the triumph of experience over imagination. What shifts units is celebrity autobiography and rehab/misery memoir. The most popular blogs are written by public servants describing their work. Magazines and newspaper supplements feature real-life stories rather than fiction. Something imagined is better than something remembered, said T S Garp. Not according to the market.

Oliver Kamm draws attention to the writing of Charles Vere Beauclerk, an aristocratic conspiracy theorist and descendant of Edward de Vere, who he claims is the true author of Shakespeare’s work. From Beauclerk’s website:

Until the modern schools of literary criticism took over, it was universally accepted that personal experience is the life-blood of fiction and an author’s works are – unavoidably – an expression of him or herself. In other words, art grows out of life as naturally as plants grow from the soil. As Samuel Butler wrote, ‘Every man’s work whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself, the more clearly will his character appear.’ If this is true, it follows that an author’s life will illuminate his works, and vice-versa.

It’s hard to think of an artist with greater breadth of vision than Shakespeare. The sheer range of his characters and situations marks him as a man who wanted to bring all the world to his stage. It’s this that triggers the conspiracists. How, the cranks demand, could a glover’s son from rural Warwickshire been able to write so well about court intrigues and high society? An anonymous 1852 essay complains about the difficulty of reconciling the ‘unsurpassed brilliancy of the writer’ with ‘the quiet uniform mediocrity of the man’.

Shakespeare the person was ‘a cautious calculating man careless of fame and intent only on money-making.’ No way could this grasping little bourgois have written Hamlet. The true author must be someone of refinement and breeding like Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford. A colleague of Beauclerk’s wrote that the authorship question matters because ‘it is offensive to scholarship, to our national dignity, and to our sense of fair play to worship the memory of a petty-minded tradesman while leaving the actual author of the Shakespeare plays and poems unhonoured and ignored.’ As Kamm says: ‘Doesn’t that phrase ‘petty-minded tradesman’ tell you something about this school of thinking?’

The inability to separate the author from the character is a basic failure that most scholars overcome around the first year of an undergraduate literature degree. But, as James Shapiro shows in his fascinating Contested Will, it has trapped greater minds than that of Beauclerk. James was sceptical about Shakespeare’s authorship. Freud was an Oxfordian who thought that Shakespeare’s ‘cultural level’ could not have been achieved by someone who grew up with ‘a tall dungheap in front of his father’s house in Stratford.’ Twain is a good case study. An overwhelmingly autobiographical writer, he believed that great fiction had to be autobiographical, and therefore ‘given what was known about his life, Shakespeare could have no claim to the works.’

Twain’s friend, the writer and radical Helen Keller, became a convinced Baconian. Shapiro points out the irony and sadness here. Keller fought against profound disabilities to become a respected writer, but all her readers and editors wanted was misery memoir. In the preface to The World I Live In Keller complained that ‘while other self-recording creatures are permitted at least to seem to change the subject, apparently no one cares what I think of the tariff, the conversation of natural resources, or the… Dreyfus’ case.’ Every time Keller tried to move beyond the naturally finite resource of herself she was told to ‘please tell us what idea you had of goodness and beauty when you were six years old.’ As Shapiro says, Keller was the ultimate living proof that you don’t have to see something to write about it. And yet in her enthusiasm for Shakespeare conspiracies, she ‘joined a movement committed to the belief that literature was ultimately confessional.’

Stephen King’s short story ‘Dedication’ centres on a cleaner at an upscale New York hotel. The worst guest on her rounds is a boorish, misanthropic novelist, based on an acquaintance of King’s, who trashes his suite with parties filled with swaggering army pals: he throws a bash to celebrate the Kennedy assassination, and ‘thought people who were trying to do good or improve the world were about the funniest things going, he hated the blacks and the Jews, and he thought we ought to H-bomb the Russians out of existence’. Out of curiosity the cleaner picks up a novel written by the nightmare guest and, to her surprise, finds it addictive and moving: she struggles to comprehend how ‘a nasty, cold-hearted man like him could make up characters so real you wanted to cry over em when they died…. His books were his dreams, where he let himself believe in the world he laughed at and sneered at when he was awake.’ The genre novelist understood what great minds of literature could not.

All conspiracies bleed into each other and Kamm has great stuff on anti-Stratfordian links to Eurabiaism and holocaust denial. Shapiro’s book details efforts to prove the ‘question’ of authorship through numerology and pseudocryptography – a posthumous source of amusement for an artist with a cheerful indifference to ideas of meaning and order in the universe. From Macbeth:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Or as King put it: ‘I am a writer by trade, which means that the most interesting things that have happened to me have happened in my dreams.’

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

July 15, 2010

My review of Sheila Rowbotham’s Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century is now available at 3:AM.