Archive for June, 2011

Journalist Makes Shit Up: The Fall of Johann Hari

June 30, 2011

I always loved Hari’s writing. He’s one of the most passionate and perceptive journalists around, and it’s a shame that he’s potentially fucked his career and reputation by, it looks like, copying and pasting prominent statements from people’s written work, and passing this off as things said to him in interviews. Twitter has a parody #interviewsbyhari hashtag that explains the problem with this technique (‘Standing on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf in 2003, President Bush leant over to whisper ‘Mission Accomplished, Johann’).

Hari didn’t help his own case with this non-apology:

Over the years I have interviewed some people who have messages we desperately need to hear – from Gideon Levy about Israel, to Malalai Joya about Afghanistan, to Gerry Adams about how to end a sectarian war. Just this week, I interviewed one of the bravest people I have ever met – Shirin Ebadi. I would hate people to not hear these vital messages because they incorrectly think the subjects have been falsely quoted.

The egotistical assumption here is that Hari alone can give the oppressed an audience. And if the voice of the oppressed finds itself misquoted or fabulated, don’t the ends justify the means? But it won’t run. Shirin Ebadi is an internationally recognised human rights lawyer. She doesn’t need Hari and it’s condescending for him to suggest that she does.

Clearly he’s done wrong, and I don’t see him recovering from this, at least not completely. Pundits who moan about the conformity of the Twittersphere should have been surprised at the speed and ferocity with which liberal iPhone users turned on one of their own. Lesser writers on the mediocre Tory blogosphere are delighted. There are people on the far left who have always hated Hari because of his atheism, because he once supported the Iraq war and once pissed off Noam Chomsky. They too will be happy to see him shot down.

But I agree with David Aaronovitch that Hari’s problem has been a combination of stupidity, arrogance and naivety, not wickedness. And with Anthony Cox: ‘Who was his mentor? Who is meant to keep young columnist on track?’

I think that what brought Hari down is a refusal to acknowledge the difference between clear, planned, written eloquence, and the messy reality of human speech.

Update: why I think Hari is still worth reading, despite everything – this piece on Dubai’s slave state, this piece on contemporary fiction, and this argument with Richard Littlejohn.

Further update: See this astounding piece. I read the WikiCohen entry after this, and you have to wonder about the kind of person who would devote time and intellectual energy to crafting such a nasty, skewed and insinuatory article.

Has the Green Goddess returned for vengeance?

And again: Hari has now been suspended.

‘They Will Be Moving In Force, And Bringing A Grand Piano’

June 29, 2011

Over the last year or so, I’ve developed an acute awareness of how important it is to have somewhere decent to live.

Seems an obvious thing I know, but part of growing up is learning to appreciate the obvious. I walk home every day reflecting on how lucky I am that I don’t have to share a room with three brothers, that I don’t share a bed with an elderly relative, that I can heat my home and cook and wash, that I have a place to go if I do ever lose the home I rent now.

Many, many people are not in that fortunate position, thanks to the property bubble and a chronic underbuild of affordable housing. There are millions in overcrowded properties, another million homeless or sofa surfing. Waiting lists are now so long that even the Tory-led National Government has had to pledge a token number of new social homes. Unfortunately, its plans have been condemned not just by housing charities but also the construction and landlord industries as being both inadequate and unrealistic.

More and more political debate comes back to housing allocation. Labour leader Ed Miliband, under the evil thrall of Lord ‘Blue Labour’ Glasman, appeared to reject the need-based model of allocation when he praised a project in Manchester that prioritised ‘those who are giving something back to their communities – for example, people who volunteer or who work.’ The subtext here is: ‘Let’s provide homes for Those Who Are Deserving, and not large workless families on housing benefit.’

Here is Ed’s problem. True, people do have children that they can’t support. But that won’t guarantee state help. There was a recent case in Manchester where a woman with six children in a three-bed house had been on the transfer list for eleven years. She won’t get a move because only twelve four-bed homes became available last year and there are nine thousand people on Manchester’s list. There are four and a half million on lists nationwide and there will be another million or so as spending cuts hit.

We need around 240,000 new homes per year to meet demand and are building about half that. Whether we allocate by need or virtue, millions of people are losing out. It is a futile game of musical chairs. And it has become a G-spot issue for people who argue over the few remaining seats without stopping to think who’s playing the music.

If David Cameron cared about this issue, he would go to the IMF and say something like: ‘Look, chaps, here’s the thing. We are a country that cannot afford to house its citizens. I know, I know. It’s simply mortifying. Could we have a development grant or something?’

Maybe there’s another choice. The squatters’ movement had a resurgence in the 2000s when the boom drove up city rents. Perversely, there is a chronic housing shortage plus almost a million void properties. They are empty because owners can’t be bothered to do them up, or are waiting until they can sell them on in a recovered market. Recent reports say that squatters now include families who couldn’t make mortgage payments in the recession.

People invested unhealthy amounts of money and emotion in home ownership only to see dreams crash with the crash. This will become mainstream. Many squatters work on and improve properties they inhabit. It’s not just middle-class hipsterism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The squat in Guy Ritchie’s Fitzrovia place, the HSBC rave, these were great protests and should be celebrated. While the LSE’s religious/totalitarian sympathisers bowed to Gaddafi, the real radical left invaded his mansion and opened it to Libyan refugees. An occupier told Laurie Penny that ‘We are not here to cause any damage… Why would we? It’s our house! It belongs to the Libyan people. We’re here to make sure it isn’t sold to finance more killing.’

Naturally, the government is trying to criminalise it. Cameron has thrown an anti-squatting law into the compromised mess of Ken Clarke’s criminal justice bill. As squat campaigner Paul Reynolds points out, this is essentially the criminalisation of homelessness at a time of housing crisis. I have no idea how this law would be enforced or even if it would be enforced. I think that like so many of this government’s policies, it will be counterproductive, and it will hit them hard.

Housing is where politics becomes real. The British public will put up with just about anything. But I can’t help think that there will be bad consequences for this government if it closes off more housing options for people who have very few options anyway.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

June 26, 2011

I’ve just reviewed Emma Jane Unsworth‘s novel Hungry, the Stars and Everything, published by Manchester’s newest independent, Hidden Gem. Confidential has an interview with the Gem’s director, Sherry Ashworth, who set up the imprint:

Still it’s a big risk. The number of come-and-gone regional publishers seems never-ending over the last two decades. All arrive with fresh hope and then quickly disappear after the initial blaze of glory, or in many cases when the funding gets pulled, from whatever quango or arts council pot it came from.

‘I think Hidden Gem will be different from many other regional publishing operations, because we will be completely independent,’ says Ashworth. ‘We’re, my husband and I, doing it with our own money, we have no grant, just our experience and native cunning. And also, we hope, we have the writers.’

If everyone they publish is in Emma’s league, Hidden Gem should be around for a long time yet.

The Religious Monopoly on Virtue

June 26, 2011

The pro-faith bore Mark Vernon talks about religion and volunteering in CiF and comes to the conclusion that ‘If you want big society, you need big religion’.

He bases that on a recent study of voluntarism by Robert Putnam, Harvard’s professor of public policy, and arguments made by the Big Society king wonk Philip Blond.

Let us resist the temptation to point out recent events in Ireland and the Middle East as an example of what Big Faith can do to societies. (Social problems in so many developing countries come down to the fact that there is too much religion and not enough of anything else.) 

I have come across Catholic and Anglican clerics who will take in refugees when no one else will, and who campaign for the living wage. They are heroes. But what Vernon seems to be arguing here is that religion is a precondition for such courage and kindness. It’s not enough for him to say that atheists are wrong on a philosophical level, or vulgar, or rude: they have to be spiritual inferiors.

Take a look at this glossolalia:

Religious people just do all citizenish things better than secular people, from giving, to voting, to volunteering. Moreover, they offer their money and time to everyone, regardless of whether they belong to their religious group.

To my mind, Blond asked exactly the right question: can you imagine a secular network that matches a church network for its pro-sociality?

Putnam could not. He doesn’t know what makes faith communities civically exceptional. Not even networks of environmentalists, that share interests beyond themselves too, score so well. In short, it doesn’t look as easy to separate the content of faith from the community of faith, which is intuitively as you’d expect, as communities of faith arise and are sustained for reasons of faith.

Putnam thinks that the evidence shows the link between civic engagement and religiosity in the UK is pretty much the same as in the US, notwithstanding that British religiosity is obviously far less pronounced.

The evidence is that strong faith communities make for strong interfaith and wider social links too. In other words, it’s a mistake to assume that inward-looking groups aren’t also, on the whole, civically outward-looking. So the French are wrong to insist that a good citizen can’t wear the veil. It also followed from what Putnam said, though he did not say so explicitly, that faith schools are, generally, good for society. In short, the link between bridging and bonding is not zero-sum, as is perhaps often assumed.

Again, it’s not enough for Vernon and Blond to say: ‘Let us all, from all faiths and none, work together to make the world a better place.’ Religion – or at least being part of a religious community – is the precondition for virtue.

Blond asks: ‘can you imagine a secular network that matches a church network for its pro-sociality?’ How about the trade union movement, the environmental/Fair Trade campaigners, the feminist movement, UK Uncut? It is just wrong for Vernon to say that such campaigns are not ‘civically exceptional’. We wouldn’t even have representative democracy without feminists and trade unions. Still, this kind of genuine pro-sociality might be a real challenge for the Red Tory Philip Blond, not to mention his colleagues in the Christian Conservative Fellowship.

It’s a rare thing when the comments at CiF are more intelligent and perceptive than the piece above the line. Vernon’s article is written in the public sector whalesong of the Big Society. He implores that ‘if you’re convinced by the evidence that religiosity is pro-social, then politicians should make sure they don’t undermine people’s habits when it comes to belonging to communities of faith.’

He is pushing at an open door.

Here are some recent examples that show the National Government’s commitment to bridging the social capital of strong faith communities:

– The Poppy Project is a secular charity that provides refuge and support for hundreds of trafficked women. The government has torn up its contract, and announced that these services will be run by the extremist and ideological Salvation Army. This may or may not be related to a recent case where the Home Office had to pay massive damages to a Moldovan woman after it mishandled her case, failed to investigate her trafficker and deported her, with the result that the trafficker hunted the woman down and forced her back into forced prostitution.

– On a recent sexual health forum the government left out the experienced professional organisation, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, in favour of another extremist anti-choice group that opposes abortion in all circumstances.

– In an alliance between the Methodist authoritarian left and the monomanical anti-abortion right, backbenchers Frank Field and Nadine Dorries have tabled amendments to the government’s health privatisation bill that would prevent women from getting counselling from Marie Stopes or the BPHS prior to an abortion. The amendmengts would introduce compulsory ‘independent’ counselling from ‘a private body that does not itself provide for the termination of pregnancies’. Pro-choice campaigners are concerned that ‘the private bodies most likely to step forward to offering counselling under such circumstances would be groups with an ideological interest in preventing abortions from taking place.’ Recently, we learned that elected MPs won’t even be able to vote on the Dorries/Field amendments.

So far, the Big Society appears to be a money train for doctrinaire religious organisations, who will be allowed to exploit our most vulnerable citizens for their own ideological reasons. It will be cheered on by a political class that believes there is no social problem that cannot be resolved by throwing Big Faith at it.

Amazed That They Exist: Hatherley on Pulp

June 19, 2011

I’ve just reviewed Owen Hatherley‘s book Uncommon, about the Sheffield pop-rock band Pulp, which was a lot more interesting than I expected it to be.

Update: Interesting feedback this afternoon with people on social networking etc challenging my claim that rave changed the world more than indie. I should have written more, I think, about how the two genres have mixed, and that the best artists use elements of both: Primal Scream, Alabama 3, Gorillaz. As Kerrie Grain says on Facebook: ‘Without bands like New Order and Stone Roses, who combined the two, it’s arguable that dance and dance culture wouldn’t have had the impact they did.’

Writing Retreats: Madness and Seclusion

June 18, 2011

Some time ago I wrote a critique of creative writing retreats. My argument in summary was that the retreats don’t necessarily provide ideal writing conditions (the very idea of ideal writing conditions is a little dodgy in my view) and that you can improve your writing simply by reading and writing a lot, and spend the £300 in course fees on something more fun.

Blog posts have the half lives of mayflies but this one seems to be popular with loads of page views despite being written three years ago. I’ve just had a comment from a participant on a popular creative writing retreat, which I found informative and fascinating. The author has allowed me to put it up as a guest post as I think his insights deserve a wider audience. This is one man’s experience and subjective opinion, but I have no reason to doubt what he says.

Whatever your views, I think you’ll find my commenter’s piece, well – startling.

Dear Max,

I have to say that am 100% in agreement with what you say on your blog about creative writing courses being a waste of time. Having been on a number of courses/retreats (mostly songwriting ones but exactly the same principle applies) I do think that the whole ‘creative writing/songwriting’ course thing is an unwitting scam — although I admit that some dependent type people can benefit from it personally as a result of the elation they feel by being there plus there is the aspect of receiving a self-esteem boost (that is, if they manage to get on the right side of the course leaders!).

There is a well-known quote: ‘Never underestimate the power of one stupid person in a large group’. One of the courses I went on was dominated by an attention-seeking crackpot. Then there were those who just wanted a therapy group and kept crying all the time and everyone has to keep hugging them while the ‘leaders’ (who patently don’t know the first thing about therapy except what they’ve read in some pop-psychology book or what they’ve experienced in some other self-indulgent plastic-chair circle group) keep back-patting the cryers to ensure that they get some self-esteem! At one course I went on (not Arvon, where such a thing wouldn’t happen as they are more professional), one of the course leaders announced to all participants on the first day meeting that ‘most if not all of you will cry during this week but that’s okay as it’s just about clearing away old stuff’. That, to me, was blatant suggestion and manipulation. Sure enough, at the ‘in the circle’ meetings every morning most people on one day or another did wind up blubbing as they gave their presentations, with all the associated group hug-ins, validation processes, etc. It was sheer emotionalism and emotional manipulation. In fact, the message I received was that full acceptance in the group was more or less dependent on whether or not one broke down in the group. Not to break down is perceived as holding back and holding back is perceived as being individualistic and even hostile to the cohesion of the group, which must be maintained at all times. Needless to say I was just about the only one who didn’t do any public blubbing — although, I hasten to add, I shed many tears in my private thoughts and they lie behind many of my poems, one of which has the title ‘I am Never Far from Tears’. I share that just so you don’t think I’m some hard, uptight guy who is threatened in crying groups or who thinks that crying isn’t manly! 🙂

On this same week-long course, we were told each day by the leaders: ‘Look in the mirror every morning and tell yourself how wonderful and beautiful you are’; then we had to report to the whole group on how we felt when we did that. If I wanted a therapy group or a vanity workshop I would have gone to one. The level of manipulation there — using many off-the-peg, New Age, Esalen Institute style pop-psychology exercises — was atrocious. But evidently that’s what many of the participants had gone there for. In fact, many had been there before and knew the ropes and what was expected of them — and that is a key because meeting expectations is a big part of these courses/retreats. But nowhere was this encounter-group approach mentioned in the publicity literature. (Incidentally, I write this as someone who practised family therapy and run therapy groups for many years).

The standard of the course leaders at all the courses/retreats I’ve ever been on was extremely questionable. Just because someone has been published doesn’t make them qualified to teach (not that one can really teach writing anyway!). That’s like saying all footballers are qualified to be managers, which they are not. But I did also notice that many of the participants were overawed by the ‘famous’ leaders, who could do no wrong in their eyes, even when their leadership skills and materials were so obviously poor. In fact, one of the best ways to get ahead at these gatherings is to flatter the leaders or suck up to them (as in any school or cult setting). One participant at one gathering I attended actually wrote and sang a lyric dedicated to one of the leaders, with the title ‘You are my Superman’. One gets a lot of kudos and strokes for that kind of gesture.

A big part of the ethos of these courses/retreats appears to be about conformity. There is a very strong group dynamic which, if you don’t adhere to it, gets you ostracised subtly if not actually. Once you understand about how group dynamics work you don’t get so easily taken in; but most participants don’t seem to have a clue about what is really going on and they just get swept up into the extremely heady process. This is especially true in the world of poetry and poetry ‘workshops’, where conformity and imitation is the name of the game. You have to fit into that if you want to get on. Another thing is that acertain kind of person who goes on these courses (even though s/he may have no real talent) is easily able to dominate the group. Furthermore, the Teacher’s Pet Syndrome abounds in these groups. It quickly becomes clear which participants are good pet material and which ones are likely to be persona non grata. Generally one’s propensity to be the pet depends on how much one is willing to ass-lick and the likelihood of being persona non grata depends on how much of an individual or non-conformist one is. Moreover, if the leaders feel like you are assessing them in any way then they quickly become threatened and often respond in a very immature manner — especially if they suspect you may have more natural talent than they do! That can be quite hilarious and I’ve observed it on a number of occasions with people in the groups. When that is the case people can find themselves being subtly put down or ignored altogether by the leaders. And it works well because so many of the participants have been softened-up to such an extent that they follow the cues like puppies do with a father dog or ducklings with their ducky mum.

I have been on ‘courses/retreats’ with ‘famous’ people leading and, to put it bluntly, their leadership skills were total crap — let alone the thorny issue of whether they even deserve to be ‘famous’ or not (which in most cases they don’t!). And what they ‘taught’ was crap too — mostly a pile of boring exercises which they must have got out of some handbook. One course I went on in a well-known University in the UK was absolute rubbish. I was amazed. Really amazed. There was no real space for genuine creativity; it was all about conformity to what the leaders expected — writing exactly how they wanted, using the structures they delineated and if you didn’t fit in to what was expected then you could even find yourself being publicly humiliated to ensure that others got the message and became sufficiently suspicious of you.

I went on those retreats/courses primarily to meet and interact with other writers/artists. I did meet some people who were interesting enough not to conform to the party line: but for the most part most of the events wound up being very cliquey with most participants being very easily manipulated by the leaders (both in terms of their output and also in terms of with who they hung out with and who they snubbed). Only on one course was there an exception to that (one at Arvon), where most of the participants were individuals who could think for themselves — although the leadership skills of those running the course were very inadequate.

Most participants at these gatherings come away thinking that they’ve had the greatest experience of their lives, going on about how high they are for weeks. There’s almost a competition to see who can keep the feeling going for the longest! Emails will be exchanged weeks later saying things like ‘I still haven’t come down and am riding on Cloud Nine’. Others will express their terrible disappointment when eventually they do ‘come down’. One person even told me that she felt suicidal and despairing because she had lost the high feelings. (More than a few relationships break down when course participants go back home as it all seems so mundane compared to the feelings that have been kindled in them during the course — not to mention the feelings some have when they get it together with one of the other course participants!) However, this is typical of the elation felt when one has successfully fused into a group in a hothouse environment. This can happen in any strong group situation anywhere, whether it is Alcoholics Anonymous, a church tent healing meeting or Weight Watchers! It is a big mistake to make that feeling of elation into some kind of yardstick by which to judge the standard of the course. That hothouse environment is, I believe, relied upon in just that way by the people who organise the courses. Let’s face it: Elation = repeat bookings.

We were also clearly told not to go out to the pub. One day, three of the group decided they needed to get away for a bit so they went to the local pub for lunch (about 3 miles from the course venue). When they got there, the leaders were also apparently having lunch at a table and when they saw the three group members enter the pub they looked distinctly displeased, presumably because the course members were ‘out-of-bounds’. Apparently, they ‘felt like they were school truants wagging it who had been caught by the headmaster!’

I should stress that I was never a trouble-maker in any way at these gatherings. I went out of my way to be affable, humorous, helpful and kept a completely low profile about my disgruntlement. (Although at the course at the university I left after two days and demanded a refund, which I got.) I didn’t even fill in the assessment forms afterwards so as not to be antagonistic. I just marked it all up to experience. The bottom-line? I would never go on any such courses/retreats again. I think those things may be helpful to some dependent type of people with low self-esteem who need a cathartic quasi-therapy experience in a hothouse environment or who maybe need to have their writing ability validated (although even that is dubious) or who — as Max said — just want to develop their love life (although that isn’t guaranteed!). But beyond that, I believe that they serve little use to those with passionate wordsmithing in their bloodstream. I realised that I preferred passion to programmes.

Anyway, I just wanted to register agreement with Max, as he has no doubt received some flak for his refreshingly unfashionable views, and to thank him for saying what he said. There will be many who will disagree as the elation of the courses (plus flashbacks!) lives on in them but it is a point of view which needs saying nevertheless.

I did write a poem that is kind of about the whole conformist issue in the world of the arts. I’ve put it below for your amusement. 



Do it how it’s always been done!

(that is, if you want to get along).

Never rock that stationary boat!

(that is, if you want to stay afloat).


[Stage direction: Pause…

while we wait for the strains

of a grovelling applause]


Fuck the rules, I say.

They aren’t really rules anyway.

Some fossilised turds

carve their ossified words

into pseudo-granite structures

which —

at any conjuncture

in history’s golden chain —

t  h  e  y

decide should be




in the rain.




Y do they ensure that?

& (more to the point)

Y do we accept it?


First questionanswer

is they covet control;

they know so well how

to harness a soul

(undo its uniqueness)

andblandify its goals.

Exploiting weakness

they carve out our roles

and render our works

into meaningless ‘wholes’.


Second questionanswer

is that we love to roll

over for them

like submissive little puppies

(artworld yuppies)

lying on our backs

while they stroke

our little egos

with their

platitude placebos.


It’s nothing new this

curbing of runaway minds

which threaten the grasp

of the wilfully blind.


It’s all so smooth

and smartly designed

to ensure that the phoenix

which soars in the heavens

unfettered and free

will fail to reach home

where it harbours the key

to the fiery breath

of the treasureful depths

of the soaring blue sea.

Autumnal to Vernal

June 17, 2011

Reading Laurie Penny’s long, moving and thoughtful piece on euthanasia (incidentally, note that the Daily Mail top rated comments are supportive of Sir Terry) I came across a sad thing I’d missed:

On the tenth of June last year, Paul Reekie, a 48-year old poet from Edinburgh, took his own life. Spread out on the table beside him, in place of a suicide note, were two letters: one informing him that his Incapacity Benefit had been stopped, and another informing him that his Housing Benefit had also been stopped.

This gave me a jolt. I have only read one Reekie poem, ‘When Caesar’s Mushroom Is In Season,’ quoted at the beginning of Irvine Welsh’s short story collection, The Acid House. I never really forgot it and found myself rolling the lines in the way that fragments of things – old songs, radio ads, lines of prose – get into your head and stay there, and reappear at strange moments.

Reekie was part of the mid nineties Edinburgh literary scene and collaborated with Alan Warner and Irvine Welsh. His is the kind of creative death that’s all too common, talented men and women banging away on the edges of mainstream and fringe, until some lonely end in a flat or HMO not five miles from where they were born, and remembered mainly in footnotes, blog posts, Facebook tribute groups – and stories, and memories.

I recommend this full obituary (thanks, Steve) open letter to George Osborne by Kevin Williamson, Reekie’s old publisher, and this blog tribute.

When Caesar’s mushroom is in season
It is the reversal of the mushroom season
As Caesar’s mushroom comes in March
The mushroom season is in September
Six months earlier
One half year
Autumnal to vernal

Do you hope for more
Than a better balance
Between fear and desire
It’ll only be the straying
That finds the path direct
Neither in the woods nor in the field
No robes, like Caesar’s, trimmed with purple
Rather an entire street trimmed with purple
And every door in it
Wrapped in a different sort of Christmas paper

The September mushrooms of midnight
Show the rhythms of vision
Can’t move for tripping over them
Wipe your tapes
Wipe your tapes with lightning

Classic Books: These Demented Lands

June 16, 2011

It wasn’t until I read Sophy Dale that I realised literary criticism was worth doing. I had become very into a book called Morvern Callar, a magical book that I loved but did not quite understand. I slept badly as a student and I seem to recall going over the book as the sun brightened the glass in my halls room. I came across Sophy Dale’s critique of the novel some time later and was blown away by it. It answered my questions yet enhanced the mystery.

Morvern Callar is a twenty-one year old supermarket worker in a port town, probably Oban. The novel begins when her boyfriend commits suicide, leaving her with a large inheritance and instructions to get his novel published (‘I’ll settle for posthumous fame as long as I’m not lost in silence’). Morvern has the book published under her own name and with the money generated she escapes her roots.

Warner’s first novel had a distinct sheen of surreality. This was mainly due to the startling perceptiveness of his narrator. As Dale says: ‘Rather than feeling, like Gogol’s narrative voice, that there is nothing new under the sun, for Morvern everything is new, she sees things fresh… the effect is of a narrative voice at once denying emotion by refusing to discuss it, but suffused with wonder at the feeling of water on the skin or the play of light on the hills.’ For Morvern Callar it’s all magic, and not a page goes by without a double take. From her travels: ‘When people stopped on the promenade to lean in at the menu, the electric bulb in the glass case lit their faces, like a mask.’ And: ‘As I turned out of the orchard something bright caught my eye. It was a scarlet speck moving over the dry earth by the irrigation sluice; it was one of my broken nails being carried away by ants.’ One of the greatest skills for a writer is imaginative empathy, the ability to make your reader perceive through someone else’s eyes, and Warner captures not only perception but misperception: the mind’s assumptions resolving as the image becomes clear.

Despite this heightened awareness – the pill glitter things take and hold at the peak of the boom – Morvern Callar at least jumped the hoops of reasonable causality. For These Demented Lands Warner makes no such concessions. His second novel is set on a mysterious and remote island populated by madmen and mystics. Dale makes the point that Morvern’s port has almost no literary intellectuals, and yet a real creative oral culture in pub anecdote and local history. That is one point of continuity with the island. Even the names tell a story: Nam the Dam, the Argonaut, Devil’s Advocate, the Knifegrinder, Last of the Mohicans, High-Pheer-Eeon, Halley’s Comet, Superchicken…

Place is vital to Warner and his descriptions of landscape are as vivid and lush as in his debut, but there is a derangement and a sense of isolation to the evocations here. The Knifegrinder is against having a free party on the island: ‘It’s not a fit site to have a rave, man, cause you can pick up all the vibes when you’re raving, man’. Morvern herself declares that ‘This island is crazy. Its all like a dream.’ We are on the outer rim of everything.

From her first steps ashore Morvern sees that ‘a low roll of cloud had circled the island and seemed to hold the luminous dayness in its depths and bulges’. Later:

The whole island seemed to slip down through me like a disc, spread out round, saw otherside from up there, distant mountains lifting up as if explosions of steam, cloud pillars like spring blossom, the mountain range I was named after on the opposite side of the Sound that lay with a wet sun along in dazzling shimmers, up to where the water turned angry black – wide wide ocean that goes forever ‘cept maybe for a Pincher Martin rock jutted out the teeth of open bed. I stood looking out into that sea that surrounded us.

Like the old Micmac burial ground, this place is alive and tenebrous with spirits.

After many adventures Morvern has journeyed to the island accompanied by a small child. The story begins with her boat capsized by a car ferry. The last thing she sees above the surface is the ‘Psalm 23’ legend on the ferry’s stern. Psalm 23 is generally read at funerals – it has that line ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ – and Dale speculates that Morvern drowns here and that the rest of the book takes place in a strange netherworld. That’s certainly borne out in a later novel, The Man Who Walks. The sociopathic drifter of that book returns from years abroad and meets Morvern’s foster-dad: ‘the disgraced train driver, him never the same after his runaway foster-daughter drowned crossing the Sound on the little illegal ferry.’ The Macushla’s epitaph is characteristic: ‘her book didn’t help her float no better’.

Morvern circles her way towards the Drome Hotel and its proprietor, the diabolical John Brotherhood. The build up to this character is considerable as Morvern stops for fire and food with various itinerants and craftsmen, all of whom warn her against the Drome, and relate stories of its manager’s crimes. The book abounds with religious references and here John Brotherhood is Satan, a dark Prospero, a ghost story around the campfire. He’s a soldier with a sideline selling guns to the Boers and the Drome was apparently his retirement: ‘Young men’s dreams that pepper out: of setting up an island casino with Folies Bergère girls; punters choppered in.’ For Brotherhood it’s better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. In the words of the Devil’s Advocate, an investigator of saints:

He said that was when he understood the Devil had won the struggle one day no one noticed; we’re just under the impression the struggle goes on. For him that was the day he realised all men dream of the nuclear explosion when they make love and secretly crave the destruction of their own children out of curiosity. Love was a petty illusion and he made it his business to show love existed nowhere in the world.

Before getting to the Drome Morvern hears that Brotherhood once seduced two Siamese twins and turned them against each other with jealousy – ‘Rosa tried to hack Lynne apart from her with a carving knife; they bled to death during the airlift’. His hotel is run as a honeymoon resort where every detail is strategically arranged to ruin the marriages of his newlyweds; the pathway tiles are carefully designed to splash mud onto the legs of womens’ stockings, so that ‘those dots of mud will dry in the darkness, as each stocking lays concertina’d all night beside the bed in number 6.’ He lets Morvern stay for free because her understated yet powerful beauty further undermines these fresh unions. Further inversions follow; a crossdressing night, and a game where people sit outside in midge swarms and count the bites. For his luckless and bemused guests, it is ‘only slavish conformity to their desperate bid for happiness in wedlock that limited the infidelities and orgies that Brotherhood tried to orchestrate for his amusement.’

At the Drome the narrative switches to the Aircrash Investigator, who is looking into a small plane crash over the island. Obsessively he watches video footage of submerged aircraft, and wanders the island to locate pieces of wreckage, much of it scavenged by island oddballs. The mystery appears to be insoluble, and he comes off as a Sisyphus figure. This is underlined when Brotherhood reveals that the aviation authority has no interest in this crash and the Investigator’s claim to be working for them is lies. Furious at having to give up his propellor, the Argonaut lashes it to the Investigator’s back and sets him wandering around the island, Ancient Mariner-style. So what’s in it for him? Still, Camus reckoned that Sisyphus liked rolling the rock: ‘The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.’

There’s a suggestion that the Investigator is a Warner surrogate, and certainly he shares the author’s obsession with drowning. This is the Investigator, explaining his profession to Brotherhood:

Aircrash Investigation frees you from causality: we’re time travellers, obsessed with only a few seconds, minutes at most, of the past. All else becomes secondary and we live those moments again and again, until we’ve become part of the thing we investigate, we feel we effected that packet of time we weren’t present for…

I’ve come to think this is Warner’s purpose as well. 

Some of his most vivid moments take place underwater. Morvern’s dad would take her to see the fishing boats but she is only interested in ‘the textures and sizes of their ruddy-green propellers that I could see hung in the bluey-green world below the curves of the hulls… It gave me scaredness lying in my bed, held there forever, punished above the cold Atlantic seabeds that were always rolling out below them.’ Sunk by the Psalm 23, she sees ‘a coral reef gone insane in the colours of these killing seas.’ To the Investigator, the aircraft in his underwater video looks ‘as all human creations sunk in water look… eerie, dreamlike and forlorn.’

A wall in the Drome displays a frieze of a sunken Armada fleet. One of the few permitted songs at the drag party is Dylan’s ‘The Man in the Long Black Coat’ (‘people don’t live or die, people just float/She went with the man in the long black coat’). The Macushla has a morbid fear of drowning and comes close at one point. In the first book Morvern watches the sea burial of a young woman. The body is floated out off the coast of Spain and set on fire, and gives Morvern a premonition of her own fate: ‘With the light filtering in you were already drowned and on the bottom of the deep sea with the living people above.’ She quotes from The Moviegoer (‘But it should be quite a sight, the going under of the evening land’) and references Pincher Martin, in which the protagonist is shipwrecked and washes up on an island, apparently alive – but as with Warner’s book there is the interpretation that Martin has drowned and is narrating a strange afterlife: ‘he went under into a singing world’.

This is a different Morvern from the debut. The narrator of Morvern Callar was preternaturally unspeaking (the name ‘Callar’ means ‘silence’) a functional literate, outside text and language, listening not to conversations but to the rhythms of those conversations. At the Drome, Morvern is confrontational, erudite and derisive, a match for Brotherhood’s dark wit, and hungry for battle and drama. She steals from the Devil’s Advocate – something the quietly religious, compassionate port-era Morvern would never have done. There is still the old sensuality and curiosity, but it is tempered with deep steel. ‘I’m deluded there’s a scrap of innocence and humility still left in me,’ she later writes, ‘but I’ve taken my young heart and polished it perfectly smooth.’ Nothing of her has faded, yet she has suffered a sea-change, and become something rich and strange.

Warner has a great fascination with work and respect for people who work with their hands. He’s also interested in the impact of man’s work on nature – the downed plane, the metal thing meeting the fluid ocean, is an ultimate signifier of this. The whole island illustrates the strange coexistence between humanity and the planet. The aristocratic Bultitude family (the Macushla impersonates a Bultitude at one point) create artificial hills and forest with ‘canister-shot of seeds, spores and stones’. Whelk-pickers, kleig lights on their helmets, walk into the sea in the dark ‘for their night’s strange harvest – they were shouting and stooping, a crazy swarm of tiny light bulbs, weaving, clustering and separating along the darkened beach.’ A spectacular rave takes place on New Year’s Eve; women arrive on the back of tractors and ‘peacocks stumbled around and folk were plucking their feathers – you kept seeing them in girls’ hair.’ 

Warner goes beyond the land-rape anthology of romantic writers and understands that our relationship with the earth is not just man’s exploitation versus nature’s wrath. It can be beneficial, even beautiful. TV aerials are rendered in ‘whispers and frames’, more like tree branches than metal antennae. There is a point where the Investigator visits the Outer Rim bar and sees a car parked outside: ‘Six or seven fat candles were placed on the car’s roof – the flame light made the vulgar car look strangely beautiful, as if it was about to be used in some religious procession.’ This is the ultimate Warner line. He sees the transcendent in the everyday, and makes the prosaic luminous. As Brotherhood says of the Bultitude’s cannon forests: ‘The hillsides streaked with gunpowder smoke but flowers and shrubs arising from that beautiful warfare.’

There are many classical allusions here (the book mentions maenads, female worshippers of Dionysus, quite literally ‘the raving ones’) and Morvern is referred to as Venus on the half shell. This is a more optimistic reading because Venus was born under the sea and rises from it. In discussions with the Aircrash Investigator Morvern portrays death in the tarot sense of new beginnings: ‘That choice to be dead, to be ghost, escape off the island somehow, start a new life’.

Warner is in love with found texts, signs, menus, diary excerpts from old typewriter ribbon. (The character of DJ Cormorant, Brotherhood’s house musician, is introduced with a diagram of his musical history. Warner comments that ‘rather than conventionally telling you about his past, I just showed a family tree of all the rock bands he’d been in, down the years, that had this sort of sadness about it, because all the bands were so obviously second rate!’) The book itself gives the impression of being lashed together from parts of several disparate manuscripts (‘First Text’, ‘Saturday the Fourteenth’) with editorial notes in bold where a poster or roadsign has been added. We don’t know what’s missing and this suits Warner fine, who hates books where everything is explained.

The novel ends with a long epistolary narrative, ‘The Letter’, in my view the best epilogue in fiction since Molly Bloom in Ulysses – in fact, better. In it Morvern writes to her father and describes her travels and adventures since escaping the island. The beauty and energy of it is staggering. Forgive my elliptical style,’ she writes, ‘I want you to die in the maximum possible confusion. Don’t dare even think of me on your death-bed.’

Pencils From A Cup

June 12, 2011

I’ve just reviewed Christopher Hitchens’s memoir for 3:AM. It’s the paperback edition released in April, with a new foreword to accommodate his terminal cancer. It’s a real blow that this man is not going to be around for much longer.

US Christian demagogue Jerry Falwell is mentioned in the review, for his nasty and treasonous statements to the effect that America deserved 9/11 because it supported gay rights. Which gives me a reason to post Hitchens’s TV interview on Falwell’s death – surely the best adversial obituary since Hunter S Thompson on Richard Nixon.

Killer line: ‘People like that should be out in the street, shouting and hollering with a cardboard sign, and selling pencils from a cup.’

Let’s All Go To Evil University

June 9, 2011

I’m in favour of free education at the point of use, including tertiary education. However I am a little bemused at the mad beserker reaction to A C Grayling’s decision to open a tiny and very expensive private humanities college.

If you haven’t heard about this, the college will be based in Bloomsbury, with fees of £18,000pa and some kind of scholarship programme.

From far left reaction you would have thought that Lord Voldemort himself had risen from his Horcruxes to set up a Slytherin Academy of Pure Evil (with Dark Arts BTec).

Here’s an example of what I mean. A couple of nights ago Grayling spoke at a discussion about arts funding cuts held at Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross. According to Index on Censorship, which covered the event, Grayling ‘had behaved impeccably in the debate, and had even offered to stay on afterwards to discuss objections to his college.’ Protestors had other ideas:

Not content with calling out ‘You have no right to speak’ and ‘You should be defending public education not deserting it’, towards the end of the discussion one protestor let off a smoke bomb that filled the room with acrid red fumes, forcing the bookshop to evacuate the 100 or so people attending the event.

With this one gesture the activists against Grayling guaranteed that their objections would not be taken seriously. They may as well have danced into the bookshop in waistcoats and doubloons, banging drums, waving feather boas on sticks, and going ‘Flip flip flip’. It is silliness du jour.

Terry Eagleton complains that Grayling is setting a precedent for ‘a system of US-type private liberal arts colleges’ that will ‘relegate an already impoverished state university system to second-class status.’ But I suspect that there is more to the outrage than the fair principle of defending the public against the private. Eagleton, after all, delivered Yale’s Dwight H Terry lecture and Yale’s press published his pro-faith drivel.

No, there is an ideological thing going on here. Grayling and Richard Dawkins, another lecturer at Evil University, are hated by Eagleton, and similar far left academics, because they stand up to the religious right. Eagleton’s big objection to Evil University is apparently that there will be no theology department, and that Tariq Ali will not be able to get a job there. More:

Grayling peddles a Just So version of English history, breathtaking in its crudity and complacency, in which freedom has been on the rise for centuries and has only recently run into trouble. Dawkins touts a simple-minded, off-the-peg version of Enlightenment in which people in the west have all been getting nicer and nicer, and would have ended up as civilised as an Oxford high table were it not for a nasty bunch of religious fundamentalists.

Would there be the same shrieks of pious rage, I wonder, if a similar university was set up, charging the same rates, but staffed by religious/totalitarian sympathisers of Eagleton’s kind, many of whom have long been riding high on the theocratic petrodollar? I doubt it.

In education what matters is what works. For me the two big requirements of a school, college or university should be that a) it should give bright people from low incomes a chance to shine and b) it should not be a tool for doctrinaires and brainwashers of any kind.

Grayling and his friends deserve a fair hearing, if Saif Gaddafi and some Christian used car salesman get one.

Update: Two interesting and reasonable blog articles on this, one from the lawyer Charon QC, another from the American academic Sarah Churchwell. Plus, update on reactions and developments from the New Humanist.

Welcome to Professor Dawkins Neocon Imperalist University, where we play Quidditch with the heads of postmodernist academics.

(There is also a pub crawl!)