Archive for July, 2011

True Confessions

July 31, 2011

Last year I wrote a piece about suicide. I had the intention of writing about my own suicidal impulses and ideations, but bottled it at the last moment, retreated into the general and the universal. I have to write about this now. I remember when this all started, back in October 2009, when I had a girlfriend and a job but kept thinking of suicide, would talk to people in bars about suicide, because that is the scary thing about this, it is a tornado that comes out of nowhere, it has nothing to do with your actual circumstances. Things stop existing in the tornado. Futures. Plans. Hunger. Rationality. Some dreams do survive in the tornado. I remember when this all started, back in winter 2004 where I ordered up a Leeds callgirl (no sex, just what they call the girlfriend experience) and afterwards went to the Royal Park and closed my eyes and thought that I was in some gentle place, on a picnic table in the sunshine, and it was like a light had gone on in my head, I’d found the source of happiness. I had already been getting bored with the company of others, with friendships, peer relationships and needed no more reason to cut my ties (for loneliness is incredibly underrated) just wander round cities, reading books in pubs, having short-term relationships with women and the occasional socialising or big event, just to keep up appearances.

The suicide phase in October didn’t last. I had already had an idea for a long story about a suicidal man based in South Manchester and threw myself into it – I’m not a big believer in the writing-as-catharsis thing, writing for me is about invention and the exploration of other worlds, but I poured this poison into the story and was refreshed. The whole thing was a paean to the night. The night I was born under and found myself in. The night. And the suicidal impulses and ideations disappeared until last winter, when I found myself thinking of suicide and getting further along the attempt-suicide thing, once or twice a week, would just take a bottle of wine to the nearest bridge and sit under it, cutting myself and sobbing into my hands. It got where I was hesitant to plan long term (long term being like a month or so) because I couldn’t trust myself to be alive that long. I did everything I was supposed to fucking do. I exercised, ate well, cut down drinking (even considered going to AA at one point, and read their literature, and then changed my mind, purely because the stories of recovery, of God, and marrying a woman you met in recovery, had this annihilating joylessness that made death seem almost a real alternative) I did everything I was supposed to fucking do. I made a referral, waited six months to get in front of a therapist and then last week was told, in essence, that they would not treat me because I had kept myself together since January.

And now, man, and now, the shit is back. Last night, started crying, battered the shit out of some sign in front of some Chorlton garage, cut my arm to shreds and ribbons in someone else’s bathroom. The disease is back – and may well prove terminal. The constant state of fear and aggression gets hard to live with. What can I do? What can I do that I haven’t tried? What is so special about me that I should cry? Is it just a matter of running? Is it that I need to change this life or end it? Still, I’m lucky. I like to read, I like to write, I have a healthy and active fantasy life. The game of relationships, dating, marriage and childbirth got boring very quickly and I went headlong, with gratitude, with love, into the abandoned idealist world of wildflowers picked from the cycle paths, cats and dinosaurs, Frank O’Hara, Blue States, long walks hand in hand, long slow and tender lovemaking. Where I go it’s always darkness, but a kind darkness, and I feel the breath of the wind and the scratch of the other palm in mine. For a long time I dreamt I was on an island. Now, I dream I’m on a country road, like the cycle paths, that leads forever, with the other (my fantasy companion is the Anna Forbes character from This Life) and it’s a fascinating journey, nothing on here except goodness, conversation, warmth, happiness, love. Thing is, though, I know I’ll go to the edge, but never right the way over, out of cowardice and curiosity and a drive to keep writing and to outlive everything in this world I hate. Don’t worry about the suicidal nonsense I put on Twitter in the middle of the night. I will not go. I will not fucking die.

Update: Many thanks to everyone who got in touch through the networks following the publication of this piece.

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The Plague In Town

July 24, 2011

He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

– Albert Camus, The Plague

When I read about the Norway killer, I am struck by how mainstream he sounds.

Anders Behring’s obsessive rants about political correctness, immigration and multicuilturalism would not be out of place in newspaper comment threads. In some papers Behring’s views would not be out of place above the line.

Nick links to an online profile of Behring, compiled from a trawl of various fascist talkboards. He points out that the conspiracy theory Behring subscribed to – that the Labour Party tried to stay in power forever by mass immigration and forced multiculturalism – originally surfaced last year, and was promoted by rightwing broadsheet pundits. I covered the story, prompted by other leftwing bloggers.

Behring, who has just confessed to the murders, is an admirer of the BNP and also claimed links with the EDL.

When this happened many people leapt to the assumption that Islamists were responsible. It was a fair assumption to make, given the Islamist track record of cruelty and violence.

But police in the UK have warned of a far right terror threat for years. In July 2009 West Yorkshire police raided a neo-Nazi cell and seized guns, grenades, pipe bombs, and rocket launchers. In May 2009 BNP member Terence Gavan was arrested after a similar arsenal was found at his home. Neil Lewington was jailed because he had a bomb-making factory and neo-Nazi literature in his home. There are more. I recommend reading the Standing/Meleagrou-Hitchens report for similar cases. Many of the individuals involved were investigated for unrelated reasons – police stumbled across one cache of weapons while investigating the offender for paedophile material. The only difference between these men and Anders Behring is that Behring’s plan worked.

One of these days, a British Behring equivalent will get lucky. Norway’s cities are our cities. As Lenny Henry says every Comic Relief: Forget geography. These are your neighbours.

There are people in this country who portray British fascism as an understandable reaction to globalisation and immigration – the cry of the dispossessed working class. These people say we should ‘engage’ with the BNP and the EDL, rather than ‘demonise’ them. Some are just well meaning and stupid. Others want to legitimise certain types of racism for short term political gain. For example, Labour peer Lord Glasman has argued that we should encourage EDL supporters to join the Labour Party.

To these people, it has to be said: you have no idea, just no idea, of what you’re dealing with. You are out of your depth and drowning fast.

To those who can talk about nothing but immigration and political correctness. Those who wail for the lost silo nation swamped by multicultural decadence. Grow the fuck up, accept that you don’t always get what you want and that you don’t always get the society you like or understand. Accept that times change and we must change with them. Above all, do we not have enough trouble and sadness in the world? Even without this? Is there not enough unhappiness and suffering?

To the far leftists who gloat because for once their favoured killers are not responsible for a major world atrocity. Neo-Nazi killers differ from Islamist killers only in skin pigmentation. Sometimes, not even then. They both hate gays, and women, and Jews, and most Asians. Both represent the forces of sameness, changelessness, and purity. Put another way, both represent the forces of evil.

We think of fascism as a cold and glittering totalitarian efficiency. But in manifest it is just as often scenes of chaos and devastation, streets of dust and ash, triage tents, dead children, people sitting on pavements and sobbing into their hands. That’s what it leads to. The plague cannot create. It destroys. Unable to build, the plague destroys.

Defend the happy city. Death to fascism.

Update: The EDL respond.

This afternoon, I called Tommy Robinson, the E.D.L.’s leader, who called Breivik a ‘nutcase,’ but said that European politicians risked similar atrocities if they didn’t start addressing ‘the fucking elephant in the room.’ ‘I think it was predictable,’ Robinson said of the attack. ‘I think it’s disgusting, and my thoughts and prayers are with all the victims. We don’t want English lads blowing themselves up on our soil, but that will happen if they don’t give us a platform.’ He continued, ‘I don’t think any of them understand the undercurrent of anger. He’s just a sick lone individual, but you’ve got a lot of angry people. And if British politicians don’t learn from this, God forbid, it might happen again.’

A South Mancunian in London

July 20, 2011

Well, I’m down here, and have managed to drink in or at least wander through Soho, Knightsbridge, Islington, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Hampstead, Brixton, Clapham and Hyde Park – and slapping my forehead every half mile at the details I got wrong in my fiction.

I don’t flatter myself into the belief that I have even scratched the surface of this city, but it’s not bad for a recovering agoraphobic on a five-day visit. I’m also happy that I was able to drink with people who I know only from correspondence and social networks. These new friends were as fascinating and generous in person as they are on page and screen – more, even.

What scared me in preconception was the Shard, the Eye, the palace and the tourist shit, the sweep and pomp of The Apprentice opening credits. What I found was that London is in large part a series of quarters, pockets and villages, all connected by the tube, that equivalent of Manchester’s cycle paths that service the secret city. The Underground was a little intense at first – you have to get past the conceptual freakout of being under the entire city – but, once past this, I found the lines quick and easy and even relaxing. The London attitude people talk about, the angry and careless bad manners (‘Out of my way, somewhere to be, don’t have time’) I didn’t experience at all. In fact the first night I was there a couple of goth women struck up a long conversation with me about the book I was reading on the Victoria Line (Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe – that one is definitely due the Classic Books treatment).

I always thought cities are the best place for a fiction writer. All life and material is here. A few loose thoughts and impressions:

Hampstead is lovely, a little bohemian village with loads of pubs and Saturday night drinkers but somehow no Saturday night hassle. In fact this gives the atmosphere an eerie edge of silent and ruthless surveillance. You get the impression of a roving border force somewhere, which with quiet and effective activity keeps the wrong elements out of town. I heard that Big Issue sellers were cleared, and that there was a big community campaign against a McDonalds branch that resulted in the opening being cancelled. Or at least maybe they had to introduce a Bruschetta McMuffin, and do the golden arches in wrought iron and cursive script.

In Islington a friend took me to a pub where Orwell used to drink. The friend also told me that the stereotype of the gated liberal community is outdated – apparently Islington is the fourth poorest borough in London, has huge problems with housing. I don’t know if Brixton has housing problems, but it certainly seemed overcrowded. I was staying near the market, which ran more or less constantly and at which you could buy pretty much everything – I particularly liked the big snails, sold from a bucket at three pound a throw, which are imported from Nigeria and apparently taste really good if you’re making stew. From the place I was staying you get woken up by cries that sound like andele, andele, andele, hello! The atmosphere is great to walk around in except Wednesdays, which appear to be designated Street Preacher Day. A guy outside the flat with a Bible and a scarf saying LION OF JUDAH, screaming hellfire and redemption. Passing an old woman shrieking outside the tube entrance, I thought that, whatever faith does to sustain these people, it doesn’t seem to make them happy.

Knightsbridge was the only part of London I didn’t like. A nightmare of tall buildings, multi-lane traffic, expensive screamy shopfronts which somehow manage to be twee, quaint and vulgar at the same time – man, I thought, how could anyone work here, let alone live here? I thought of all the people who had to maintain these stores on sub living wage, and felt a new sympathy with the Harrods Santa who, fired just before the gig, aced a bottle of whisky and changed the storefront light patterns so that the words ‘FUCK OFF’ were emblazoned in gigantic storefront letters to the bemusement of passing Iowan tourists and the servants of Russian oligarchs. If that didn’t happen in the Knightsbridge branch, it should have. If I were a King, I would have the palace transported, brick by brick, to Brixton and when politicians wanted to talk to me they could cross the damn river.

It was only at that point where I got the presentiments of panic. I often do feel anxiety without any real stimulus. In emotional repose I get to a kind of exalted wariness. But I raise a smile, and think of Sam Vimes in the desert, flexing his fist around a burning coal. Doesn’t that hurt, someone asks him. Of course, Vimes says. The trick is not to mind that it hurts.

All the Way to Reno

July 16, 2011

I am a recovering agoraphobic. I gave up a job three years ago after the discovery that I could barely leave the house, much less travel a commute, without devastating panic attacks. City hopping, flights to Europe, all the doors of my old life slammed shut at once. 

Long story short – I was treated through CBT, I did the whole graduated exposure thing (small incremental trips with my walking bag bristling with a panoply of safety behaviours: maps, water bottle, comfort books and, for some reason, fucking emory boards) and recovered to the point where I can again work full time and have a full social life. Still, there is some fear around the edges. When I walk up to town through Oxford Road there is this one fucker of a road that is difficult to cross and makes me panic a little. Booth Street East is my mortal enemy.

I used to believe that the shit is always with you and that all you can do is learn to manage it better. I now think it’s possible to outlive these things completely. Whatever, the right way is to test the edges and so, today, I am going to London – big scary fucking London. I will be tweeting about it. Twitter is good for panic attacks.

Wish me luck, my friends. Avaunt!

What Ever Happened Indeed

July 14, 2011

I sometimes check out the revamped Ready Steady Book site. Recently it links to a piece by Max Cairnduff on Gabriel Josipovici’s literary criticism. When I reviewed the Josipovici book, people complained that I’d made the great man’s thesis seem too bleak and depressing. But this passage from Cairnduff, and quoted in part on RSB, makes me feel I was right to take the line I did.

For Josipovici modernism is a response in art (all art, music and painting too for example, not just literature) to the ‘disenchantment of the world’. That disenchantment is the loss of the Medieval sense of the numinous as being part of everyday life. In short, the Medieval vision of a world filled with purpose and divine meaning gave way to what would ultimately become the Enlightenment with its vision of a secular world governed by reason and natural laws (yes, I did just gloss over about 400 years there).

This is absolutely critical to everything that follows. The death of enchantment does not mean that people were happy in the middle ages but disillusioned thereafter. It is not a personal loss of enchantment. The point is that the European concept of the world changed from it being a place in which the natural and supernatural were different facets of the same reality to a world in which the natural and the supernatural were firmly separated (and in which the supernatural could therefore potentially be discarded entirely).

With the death of enchantment comes the death of meaning. Before the disenchantment of the world it is possible to speak with authority, because the world has meaning from which authority can be derived. After that disenchantment there is no longer such an authority. The only authority that exists is that which we assert.

I think this is why Josipovici’s book struck such a clear note for some people and such a discordant one for me. The death of medieval England and the rise of humanity as the ultimate authority is a cause for celebration, not disenchantment. Magic did not leave this world when we ceased to believe in god. The truth is the exact reverse.

The Town Crier of the Human Soul

July 13, 2011

Went today to an Orwell Prize debate on his essay, Politics and the English Language. This was out in Buxton, way into Cheshire or maybe Derbyshire (I have grown up in the county yet don’t have even a working knowledge of its geography) and through the train windows you could see hills, farmland, canal barges, sheep and other unnerving sights. It was in the Palace Hotel and the panel included the novelist Linda Grant, Matthew Parris and a couple of others whose names I can’t recall. Nick Cohen was meant to be there as well, but he had been called away at the last moment to go on a moose hunt in Alaska (at least according to his Wikipedia page).

There was almost no discussion of the NI revelations. This didn’t surprise me. The phone hack allegations, the dark complicity between government, media and police, is too big to take in. You feel like Hunter Thompson watching Watergate unfold from his decompression chamber. No novelist, not even Christopher Brookmyre, could get away with a plot like this. No commercial editor would green light it. What can you say about an organisation that would sanction such things, or a prime minister that would welcome such people into government’s highest offices? Closing the Screws is not enough: they should burn Wapping to the ground, and sew salt in the ruins.

As I say, this didn’t really come up. Instead we took another ride through the timewarp of 2003. A lot of talk of WMD, Tony Blair and the manufacture of consent. Apparently Chomsky is big among the respectable men and women of rural Derbyshire. But this led to some interesting points.

1) The limits of false class consciousness

People can be stupid and servile and will often believe anything they’re told. At the same time, however, the engagement of the public with the media has never been so informed and analytical as it is today. Linda Grant pointed to the mockery and dissection of spin of all kinds that takes place every day on social networks. For example, take the Daily Mail, which is ridiculed hourly on Twitter. It is read ironically and, I suspect, in large parts written ironically as well. Journalism graduates tend to be young metropolitan liberals who will take any job, even on the Shriek, and put in their time for a few years until they can move on somewhere where they can practice actual journalism.

The manufacture of consent theory takes as its starting point the idea that most people are susceptible drones and need an intellectual vanguard to shake them out of their electric dreams. The good news is that new generations are less credulous and more cynical than ever. Perhaps it’s significant that the audience members promoting Chomsky’s condescending assumptions (and come to think many Chomskyites in the media) were what PR men call ‘older’ people.

2) Journalism and human nature

A journalist on the panel told the story of walking across some almost deserted part of Scotland and coming across a small village, with no newspaper or media access, but where someone had written ‘Maggie Smith ran off with the milkman’ across a shed wall. Something in us, she said, wants to broadcast this stuff. A town crier rings his bell in the streets of the human soul. Which raises the possibility that the rightwing tabloids are simply responding to a need. People get the media they deserve, and some part of you wants to read about scheming, lying, plague-carrying immigrants, high off the working man’s sweat. Some part of you loves the feeling of hate.

3) The importance of ambiguity

Politics and media is a thrash of competing narratives. Political spin is about getting the story across. The National Government has its narrative that everything bad it does is the fault of the previous government, one that people are buying so far. Ed Miliband is trying to put across his counter narrative, with limited success so far – look at his eerie and repetitive strikes interview where he’s giving the narrative and nothing else. Ed was mocked for this but the technique is widespread. George Osborne did the same thing last year, but with more skills. It’s only Miliband’s lack of finesse that let him down.

The tabloid newspaper is like a psychotic melodrama or fairy tale, complete with doomed princesses, swaggering cads, wise kings, fallen heroes, and evil serial killers. The Daily Mail is a morality play that runs for centuries. There are these simplistic narratives on the left as well, Linda said, particularly on Middle East reportage. She talked about a novel she’d written about the slum landlord Peter Rachmann. She began with an anecdote about someone who had seen Rachmann through a car window and told a newspaper that she had seen the face of evil. The interesting thing about Rachmann (and I’m quoting Linda almost verbatim here) is that he was a Holocaust survivor. The fairy tales say that suffering ennobles. Why doesn’t it? The writer’s job is to take on the messy reality that lies behind fairy tales.

An audience member then asked: why should we trust novelists any more than we trust journalists?

What Linda should have said to that was: because at least we admit when we’re making shit up.

Classic Books: Love Warps The Mind A Little

July 12, 2011

‘She asked me what my stories were about. I said love and death, which is what I always say, because what else can you say?’

This is the best novel about love and death. It probably has a serious claim to be the greatest American novel. The setting is not exactly grandiose. The action takes place in trailer-park Massachusetts, drenched in mid-nineties Americana poverty. ‘Albert entertained us with stories from the Worcestor Housing Court, where he worked as a clerk. Tenants raising livestock in their kitchen, landlords dousing back porches with gasoline, and so on.’ Local businesses include Aris’s, The Blue Plate, Pier 1, Iago’s Pizza and Pasta, Todd’s Medical Supply, Jerry’s Hardware, Mr. Natural’s (a health lifestyle shop, maybe a Robert Crumb nod?) Tatnuck Booksellers, and Get Nailed (a manicure place). It feels like the Cheshire of America; surrounding areas include Lowell, P-Town, even a tourist spot called Purgatory Chasm.

At thirty-six Lafayette Proulx is a failed novelist, with a ‘cavalier attitude to security, employment, success’ who has just walked out on his marriage and career and taken up with Judi Dubey, a therapist he meets in a singles bar called ‘The Lek’. Lafayette claims to be ‘the sanest person Judi had ever been with.’ Her family lives in a ‘Quonset hut out in Millbury by the Blackstone Valley Rod & Gun Club.’ Her brother hung herself at fourteen ‘because, his note said, the house was so dark, the rain so loud’, her father is a schizophrenic, her sister is an ER nurse addicted to prescription drugs who has two criminal boyfriends fighting over her, a battle that eventually turns murderous when one hangs the other and bleeds him dry on a hook at a meatpacking plant. On the way home from Judi’s thirtieth, her cousin’s boyfriend shoots and kills an old woman apparently on impulse. Her cousin, Layla, finds a new lover, who claims to be the sun – literally the sun: doing introductions, she warns that ‘we shouldn’t look directly into Pozzo’s eyes.’ (Later, we get one of the novel’s many classic chapter openings: ‘Pozzo Beckett, the sun, drilled a hole in his head in order to open his third eye. The process, as you might imagine, was an arduous one.’)

Throughout, Lafayette’s narrative tone is like his behaviour, affectionate and casual. He comes across like a handsome stoner uncle, and writes of his ex-wife with admiration and love, but between the lines, in snatches and comments, and the shake of his hands when he reads rejection letters, you get a sense of the base Lafayette, angry and chafing. ‘How many times had Martha sobbed and locked herself in the bedroom when I had too much to drink?’ Lafayette wonders, and later: ‘We always used to fight at public occasions.’ His father is dying, but Lafayette shows no interest until the eleventh hour, and keeps his conscience covered: ‘Martha went on. I didn’t recognise the guy she was talking about.’ Right up until the end, and with enough of her own to deal with, Judi is trying to sort out his problems: ‘You use your impatience to keep you from the anger. You’re afraid of it. You’re afraid it’s so huge and powerful that it will hurt someone. Well, it’s not.’

Despite the chaos she was thrown into at birth, Judi has become a well-adjusted, successful businesswoman. Her one quirk is past lives, and the book is tenebrous with fantasies and delusions: reincarnation, religion, aliens, conspiracies, psychics, miracles. Judi’s dad hands out business cards declaring himself to be ‘Charmed Quarkmaster Plenipotentiary and Fountainhead of Atoms’. A Dubey murder trial collapses when jurors claim to have spoken to the victim during a séance. Lafayette has a pulling rival in a conspiracy theorist, who believes that various national and international agencies are after him, and who is later ‘arrested at Elm Park at three in the morning with two sixteen-year-old girls, a hypodermic syringe, and a bag of heroin.’ Lafayette’s ex works for the Catholic Church, and Lafayette himself is a lapsed Catholic. He is an ‘impoverished materialist self’ surrounded by hustling preachers, contemporary shaman, twenty-first century mystics, signs and siguls and myths and revelations. (There are also a lot of dreams – both Lafayette and Judi dream vividly, and the novel ends in a dream.) His scepticism is shared by the author but there’s no sense of mockery, no false wackiness. John Dufresne loves his crazy monsters, and is prepared to listen to them.

The book also features the irritations and frivolities of writing culture through which Dufresne must also have struggled. Pretentious rejection letters from fifth-rate magazines, the silliness of public readings and discussions (to the consensus that ‘poetry needed to be more accessible’ a friend of Lafayette’s suggests that ‘In fact, we could just make endearing noises’). Dufresne has his fun with all this, but there’s a serious point here. Writing is the one thing Lafayette gets right, because he has that essential spark of curiosity. ‘In a high school algebra class, Brother Doherty once told me that what I didn’t know would make a good book. I always hated that son of a bitch, but I’ve let his wisdom guide me ever since.’ He has that vital urge – the urge to follow you home.

Lafayette can’t walk down the street without looking at people and imagining the stories of their lives. He clocks a woman in an airport: ‘Art school graduate, maybe. Vegetarian. Dreams of living in Santa Fe.’ On a trip with Judi, he reads the graffiti on Purgatory Chasm wall: ‘I wondered were they married and did they live nearby, like in Douglas, and did they drive over here and look up at Leo’s declaration? Or maybe Joyce married someone else and it didn’t work out, but she’ll come here sometimes, look up, and find solace and also regret.’ He then reflects on ‘the impulse to leave your name in public places, to say I was here, I was alive.’ You could see fiction itself as grandiose graffiti, humans scrabbling for immortality – in The Information, Martin Amis says that writing is not about living, writing is about not dying. And there is an element of that, but writing is also about living all the lives you never lived – new lives to dream yourself into. Lafayette is criticised by an editor for being a Yankee, and writing about the Deep South. ‘I admitted I was not born in Louisiana, but asked if Bradbury were born on Mars? Conrad in England? Shakespeare in Verona?… there is a geography of the imagination, there are many worlds we live in’.

Lafayette and Judi get together out of boredom, desire and curiosity. During the early stages of their relationship both are on the hunt for other lovers. If Lafayette feels anything it’s for his wife, for what he felt for his wife, he’s at the wake of the death of his love. But we are all on the edge and even before Judi’s diagnosis of ovarian cancer, death is on the fringes and peripheries. There are murders, portents, car accidents. At one point Lafayette lists all the people he grew up who died before their time: ‘my cousin Andy Proulx overdosed on heroin; Karen Harper had breast cancer; Frank Bauer was shot while hitchhiking in Oregon; Margie Greenwood, whom I was crazy about when we were fourteen, though she never knew it, fell or was pushed out of her fifteenth-floor dorm room at BU.’ Death is random, and things can get serious at any time – as Sam Harris says, you might not even live until the end of this paragraph.

For her it’s the realisation that although she’s not in love with Lafayette, he’s the one she’ll die with. ‘I don’t want you to be alone.’ ‘Well, there’s nothing you can do about that. I am alone.’ As Judi goes through chemo and chemo reaction, the puking, hair loss and twenty-hour crashouts, Lafayette searches the house for fridge photographs, high school yearbooks, jewellery boxes, and old black books, fascinated by what he doesn’t know about her, and all the lives she ever lived: ‘There was one surprise in her address book, an entry for Kris Kristofferson, with a phone number… I wondered if she was one of the girls standing on top of a tan Chevrolet.’ Dufresne respects clutter. He knows it’s the archaeology of a life.

Mortality places Judi’s esoteric beliefs in a new light. She gives up chemo and gets into alt-cancer therapies: ‘Yin foods for yang cancers. Colonic irrigations. Hypnosis. Twenty pounds of organic fruit every day. Clay packs. Laetrile. Massive doses of flaxseed oil and selenium.’ (Dufresne shares Amis’s gift for comic lists.) On a moral tightrope and trying to do the decent thing, Lafayette realises that ‘the brain is not so reasonable after all. It wants to live forever. Every time we say a prayer, put our finger on the planchette of the Ouija board, chant our mantra, the brain rewards us with the release of soothing endorphins. Just enough to make us want more.’ Lafayette has the gift of imaginative empathy and gives Judi a fair hearing, but he remains a materialist to the end. ‘Our being here is a fortunate accident of chemistry, I think, one we’ve exploited as much as we can, and one unlikely to recur.’ And he also notes, after witnessing Judi’s death, that belief in a loving paradise does not ease the pain and fear of dying: ‘even if death is a passage to another life, a better life, we have such a difficult time in the letting go, life being the devil we know.’

The chapters are short, full of sparkle and insight, and Dufresne has possibly the best chapter titles of any writer. They can be as surreal and whimiscal as REM lyrics (‘She’s Married – She’s Happy – She Drives A Mercury!’ ‘For I Have Already Been a Boy and a Girl, a Bush and a Bird and a Leaping Journeying Fish’) or thoughtful (‘Difficulty Worth Living With’, ‘I Looked Up and Saw the Two of Us Reflected in the Mirror on Judi’s Bedroom Ceiling’) and increasingly portentous (‘The Harvest Is Past, the Summer Is Ended, And We Are Not Saved’). Dufresne gives the title ‘The Honey of Poison-Flowers’ to symbolise the love that grows between Lafayette and Judi, which would not have developed without the disease that shackles them together. They stay up all night talking ‘like we were teenagers who’d just discovered that love was redeeming, war was bad, capitalism preyed on the poor.’ At dawn, Lafayette realises that they have spoken ‘for three hours without a breath, but we hadn’t talked about cancer or chemo or pain or dying’. If this is love, Lafayette thinks, it’s ‘accidental. It wasn’t romance, and it wasn’t ecstasy.’

Dufresne writes about passionate love as well as Keats or Byron. There are whole rolling paragraph paeans to romance and desire: ‘Love at first sight elevates romance above the level of accident,’ he writes, ‘the accident of geography or economics or occupation.’ But Lafayette is told time and again, by his ex and his mistress and even his fictional characters, that love is also behaviour, and we choose it to some extent. Even when she’s gone, he talks to Judi, imagines what they would be doing if she was still alive, for we godless also speak with the dead. Love is change, Judi says, and routine is death to love. There’s no life without death, no life without change, and love is not just something you are, it’s something you do.

‘I Know Thee Not, Old Man’

July 6, 2011

Here is a basic test of male chivalry: would you follow a woman into a lift at four in the morning, and proposition her? That’s what happened to blogger Rebecca Watson, at an atheist conference somewhere recently, and in a video diary she touched on the incident, and said how uncomfortable it made her feel.

At this point, Richard Dawkins made some comments on Watson’s blog, to the effect that she had nothing to complain about, and should get off the subject. You can read Dawkins’s comments here, in all their nasty and dismissive squalor.

Dawkins is often accused of being ‘shrill’ or ‘strident’ (it’s a strong characteristic of religious apologists that they argue against tone rather than content) but what he said goes beyond ‘stridency’: it was simply out of order. His remarks cannot be justified on any level.

This is not the biggest story of the week, but it is worth talking about, I think. David Allen Green and the Nat Fantastic covered it today but I wanted to make some points.

1) A few voices, including mine, have been ranting on for years about how the pro-faith left has abandoned feminism in favour of religion. The dark romance between liberal intellectuals and religious doctrinaires has been well documented. But we can’t attack, say, Islamic oppression of women, and Western intellectuals who support and justify same, if we defend people like Dawkins who, seemingly, don’t have the slightest regard for women’s personal space and boundaries. It is a matter of degree and as P Z Myers has said, a lesser evil is still evil.

2) It’s my view that casual misogyny and predation are far more widespread and socially acceptable among contemporary men, including liberal/creative men, than is believed by most people.

Dawkins should now make a full, and frank apology, to Rebecca Watson, and also offer to donate some money to a charity of her choice. I get the feeling he won’t do either.

I always admired Professor Dawkins, I love his books, but perhaps Green is right that this is the beginning of the end of his reputation. ‘Dawkins is not the present,’ Watson writes. ‘He is the past.’ Many other younger writers could now be thinking of that Shakespeare line: ‘I know thee not, old man’.

Barbecue Epiphanies

July 4, 2011

The weekends of my life are non-stop writing, drinking and exercise, ending with me on a Sunday evening falling asleep in front of Deadwood. This one was a little different as it was sunny and we had a barbecue in the back garden. This was a sedate South Manchester Saturday night: children and dogs running around, burgers and kebabs and bottles of Peroni, the light flickering on the stone wall of our garage and making it look like something old and strange.

I live with two Polish people and their friends were mainly Polish and East German. The talk got on to communism – I think someone brought up the film The Lives of Others – and the Poles and East Germans engaged in some Four Yorkshiremen-style one-upmanship regarding who had the worst public transport system. (I had the winning entry with Network Rail in 2011.) A guy told me about the old regime. Like many of the guests, he had been born in the mid to late seventies and it had touched him – not with force, but the swirled and bloody thumbprint was there.

He told me that before ’89 you would not be able to get to England unless you were a spy. He told me that he grew up in a village where there was one shop to serve 180 people, and it often ran out of luxuries – luxuries being things like meat and toilet paper. He told me that his father had been taken aside at work one day and told, in a friendly way but with ominous emphasis, that it would be best not to discuss politics as he did. It was weird to hear these events related through what Edward St Aubyn called ‘the wild banality of childhood’.

Vinegar and sugar were the only things you could count on getting with any regularity, they said. A bar of chocolate was an event. A woman mentioned the first time she went to West Germany and saw chicken in the shop window. I said I couldn’t imagine.

But here’s the interesting thing. Post ’89, the guy told me, something was lost. People just started buying cars and TVs and working towards faster cars and bigger TVs. ‘In the old days, people would knock on your door, to borrow sugar, and there’s not like that sense of community now. You don’t get that now.’

And that made me think. Maybe materialism does lack that warmth. Maybe freedom has made us alienated and lonely and soulless. Maybe Lord Glasman is right, maybe there does need to be a strong community. Maybe we do need to build our lives around family, faith and flag.

That thought lasted around a quarter of a second. Then it broke, and I got myself another kebab, and another bottle of Peroni.

As Orwell said: let the belly come before the soul.

Celebration of the Lizard

July 3, 2011

Radio says it’s forty years today since Jim Morrison expired in a Paris bathtub at the classic recurrent rock-death age. I agree with This Life‘s Anna that the Beatles were just boring, and the Stones showed flashes and spasms of genius, but neither came close to the Doors in my view. It’s the bottleneck guitar, the Manzarek keyboard solos (if the Doors were around today, they would be making electronica) most of all the baritone drive and lyrical invention of Morrison himself. ‘You’re a poet, not a rock star,’ a woman says in one of the films, and his volume The American Night stands alone from the music and is worth coming back to. In interviews, Morrison came across as a thoughtful and perceptive man, and wasn’t afraid of contradicting his time – apparently he used to torment peacenik drummer John Densmore by placing flowers between his cymbals during gigs, so that Densmore was forced by momentum to clash them to shreds.

The live CDs come close to operatic. During a fifteen-minute rendition of ‘The End’, Morrison screams: ‘Don’t let me die in an automobile! I want to lie in an open field!’ There’s also the spoken word piece ‘Celebration of the Lizard’ which makes you feel you are in another world, one where the sky is always dark and the nights always warm and strange castles glow in the distance. So many classic lines recur and clang in my head: Out here on the perimeter there are no stars. Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind. Others. Maybe it’s just the old hippie in me, but listening to the Doors seemed, genuinely, like entering another frame of being. Not to touch the earth. Not to see the sun.

Morrison was influenced by a lot of junk spirituality. He was born into a peripatetic military family and claimed that, at age four, he witnessed American-Indians dying by a roadside: ‘Indian scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding.’ Morrison believed that the soul of a dying Indian leapt into his body. The family did pass a reservation at the time, travelling from one army base to another, but his sister tells it different: ‘He enjoyed telling that story and exaggerating it. He said he saw a dead Indian by the side of the road, and I don’t even know if that’s true.’ In an article for his old website, no longer online, Irvine Welsh ridiculed this: ‘Like the dead Indian’s soul is thinking yeah, I’ll jump into this stupid pretentious middle-class child body.’

Well, we write the stories of our own lives. We exaggerate and fabulate. Yet there was always something otherworldly, almost demonic about Morrison as a man. Stephen King was freaked out by Doors posters as a child, and used Morrison as the model for Walter O’Dim, his most striking villain: the quasi-immortal hustler, full of high and derisive good humour, an agent of chaos and darkness. King also includes a scene in The Stand where the protagonist is working a deserted petrol pump in the early eighties and a mysterious stranger drives up for gas. ‘He wasn’t old and he wasn’t young… like someone who has been looking into the dark for a long time and has finally begun to see what is there.’ The protagonist, retelling this post-apocalypse, is convinced that the man that night was Jim Morrison.

Yet his lyrics and poetry challenge the 1960s Godhead aesthetic, what Hunter Thompson called ‘the essential old mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending the Light at the end of the tunnel.’ Morrison wasn’t interested in becoming a drop in the ocean. He wanted to celebrate the reptile brain. He was the Lizard King of the city and the desert and a stalker of late-night bars. Following his heroes Blake and Huxley, Morrison searched for a heightened and intensified version of reality and the world. Everything should appear as it is: infinite. Blue skies and the taste of chrome in your mouth. It is an essentially secular vision. 

I like the idea of Morrison faking his own death and still out there somewhere on the highways in hiding, the wandering man, the walking dude. I think that if he hadn’t died in 1971 he would have grown into an academic or a novelist. As it was, Morrison lived more in his twenty-seven years than most of us could manage in a hundred lifetimes.

They are waiting to take us into

The severed garden.

Do you know how pale and wanton thrillful

Comes death on a strange hour

 

Unannounced, unplanned for

Like a scaring over-friendly guest

You’ve brought to bed

 

Death makes angels of us all

And gives us wings

Where we had shoulders

Smooth as raven’s claws

 

No more money, no more fancy dress

This other kingdom seems by far the best

Until its other jaw reveals incest

And loose obedience to a vegetable law

 

I will not go

Prefer a feast of friends

To the giant family