Archive for January, 2014

Peak Malpractice: Ray Robinson’s Jawbone Lake

January 28, 2014

jawbonelakeLet’s start with the disclaimer: I knew Ray Robinson slightly, when he returned to Manchester at the back end of the 2000s, and we drank together on Oxford Road. The man had a presence, compact and taut and dark, with a precise Lancashire drawl and a back story that read more like a novel than an ordinary life. We’d drink pint after pint and talk about literature and publishing; this continued for around half a year until Ray headed again, on his travels: when I last heard from him, he was in Arizona, researching the book that would become Forgetting Zoe.

His latest novel Jawbone Lake at first therefore surprised me – it seemed too conventional from the outset. The title could be from a midlist American thriller. A man dies in a car crash. This guy is a well loved family/community man: ‘a handsome devil. Women looked at him when he walked down the street. He would always smile back, a swagger in his step … Everybody loved him.’ Then information emerges. Turns out this man, C J Arms, was not such a stand up guy after all, he’s been involved in all sorts of dubious shit, and his grieving son Joe is pulled into the mystery. In an interview with the Raven Crime website, Robinson said that ‘rather than making the crime super-complex and rushing through the plot at breakneck speed, I’ve focused instead on the ripples that spread throughout the families and community involved, as CJ’s secret life is revealed.’

Although ‘Jawbone Lake’ sounds US, the action takes place in rural Derbyshire and the Andalucian coast. This is a High Peak of precarious mountain paths, deep forest and jagged tor, endless reservoirs in which, every other year, some young idiot gets himself drowned. Although the prose isn’t always of the best quality, there’s always a sense of place. ‘Landscapes can act as agents of positive change or protection, or be malign and life threatening,’ Robinson writes. Jawbone Lake is a landscape on which the sun never shines. Robinson’s Spain and England are both drowned in the same sepulchral murk. From the novel: ‘The full moon and swatch of stars lit the surrounding bowl of hills in an insipid, blue-white light, picking out scalloped ice in boot-shaped puddles […] Ahead of them, rowing boats sat frozen into the ice beside a jetty, and, in the far distance, police searchlights illuminated the crash site…’

The difficulty is obvious. Grief should be an uncomplicated process. Yet for the Arms family, when CJ dies, everything they know about him is compromised, and his son is forced to mourn a man who he discovers was involved in an evil trade. How do you grieve for someone you barely knew? There’s a lot of speculation but not many real clues to CJ’s motives. Maybe he needed the money, or the glamour, got involved in criminal enterprise simply for the kicks, or from that old male habit of compartmentalisation. ‘Family secrets are at the heart of all my books,’ Robinson says. ‘Secrets eat away at people and can ruin lives.’ We all have our secrets though, and we all have something to hide. We just have to hope that our secrets, and our choices, don’t impact too harshly on ourselves or others.

Classic Books: Bel-Ami

January 27, 2014

belamiReading Maupassant for the first time, I was struck by how down to earth he seemed. The following para, for me, could be straight out of Keep the Aspidistra Flying:

He said to himself: ‘I must hang on until ten o’clock and then I’ll have my glass of beer at the Café Américain. But my God I’m thirsty.’ And he looked at the men sitting drinking at the tables, all of them able to quench their thirst as and when they pleased. He walked briskly on past the cafés with a jaunty air, summing up at a glance, by their appearance or their dress, the amount of money each of them was likely to have in his pockets. And he was seized by a feeling of anger against all those people sitting there so contentedly. If you went through their pockets, you’d find gold coins, and silver, and copper there. On an average, each of them must have at least forty francs, and there were a good hundred or so in the café; a hundred times forty francs is two hundred louis! ‘The swine!’ he muttered to himself as he strutted elegantly by. If only he could have caught one of them in a quiet corner, he’d have wrung his neck without a second thought, my God, he would, just as he used to wring the necks of the peasants’ chickens when he was out on manoeuvres in the army.

The spacing out of deadly evenings, the stalled desires of misspent youth, the preoccupation with money and status, even the homicidal fantasy – this is straight out of the English novel circa 1931. Georges Duroy is an ex-army outsider struggling to make it in the Paris of the 1880s. If this had been an English novel, the bitter struggle would have lasted four hundred pages without decisive conclusion. Being French, Maupassant establishes Duroy’s impoverished resentment in a few pages, then delivers him from it. An old army comrade, Forestier, who is now a big name in journalism, runs into Duroy on the street, lends him money and introduces him to the right people. Maupassant nails the feeling of social intoxication:

He was beginning to experience a delicious sensation of physical comfort, a warmth that, starting from his stomach, rose to his head and spread through every limb until his whole body was glowing. He was seized by a feeling of complete well-being, a well-being of body and mind, life and thought.

And he was beginning to feel an urge to talk, to attract attention, to be listened to and appreciated […]

Duroy rises in the Paris media scene despite the fact that he can’t really write: although he becomes ‘one of the leading collaborators of La Vie française … he had extraordinary difficulty in finding new ideas’ and ‘made it his speciality to rail against the lowering of moral standards, the general weakening of character, the decline of patriotism and the anaemia that was sapping the French sense of honour. (He had discovered the word ‘anaemia’ and was very proud of it.)’ Despite Duroy’s laziness, his hackery, his increasingly exploitative behaviour, the reader never loses an affection for our scheming protagonist: perhaps because, no matter how far he climbs the snakes-and-ladders game of intellectual celebrity, it stays new and fresh to him, he is always so into the glamour. There is a great deal of intrigue and skulduggery in Bel-Ami and it’d be fun to write a similar fiction about the London media today. Obviously, such a novel would be immediately entombed in a heap of writs, should any commissioning editor be suicidal enough to back the hypothetical work. But let’s dream. There would, of course, be differences. If anything it’s harder to get journalism in England in 2014 that it was in the Paris of 1885. Still, things were riskier in Maupassant’s day. He has Duroy facing a duel, with pistols, after an exchange of uncomplimentary remarks with a fellow journalist. You don’t get that in Fleet Street these days. (Maybe it’s a shame: imagine the byplay. ‘Feel my blade, mountebank! How dare you criticise my quirky off-the-wall take on New Year’s Resolutions!’ ‘Mountebank, ha! You have written your last first-world-problems column. Sir, prepare to die. Avaunt!’)

Maupassant was running out the clock on syphilis at time of writing and the novel is suffused with Baudelairian themes of death and decay. At Forestier’s death, Duroy falls into a morbid reverie:

Duroy was gripped by an immense, bewildered, overwhelming terror, the terror of this ineluctable, limitless void which unceasingly destroys each short, miserable life. He could feel the threat already weighing him down. He was thinking of flies, which live a few hours, of animals which live a few days, of men who live a few years, of planets which live a few centuries. What difference was there then between them? A few extra dawns, that was all.

What keeps Duroy going against these impossible stakes is the idea of more power, more money, more women: the chance meeting with Forestier has awoken his desires, and they prove unquenchable. But Bel-Ami is warmer and deeper than a simple satire on consumerism. My edition is from 1975, with an introduction by the translator, Douglas Parmée. He emphasises Maupassant’s ceaseless energy (‘he played as hard as he worked’) and ends on this para: ‘life may be nasty and sometimes brutish and short; but, says Maupassant, it has its compensations. It’s worth living – and, in any case, what else can we do? Let’s make the most of it, bitter-sweet as it is: you may, like Duroy, be lucky – and luck, too, is not to be underrated.’

Trunk Autobiography: Morrissey’s Life and Times

January 26, 2014

morrisseyautobioHere’s a scenario I’d like to share. You are an aspiring writer of nineteen years old with one or two key influences and a lot of big ideas, but not much in the way of discipline or self awareness. One day the phone rings. It’s the commissioning editor at Penguin. ‘How’s it going? Just to let you know, we’d like to publish a manuscript by you. Could you get something across as soon as? Don’t worry about editing, we’ll just whomp out whatever you send us, indeed to great fanfare, and it’ll even be on the Penguin Classics label, along with Dante, Balzac, Seneca, Cicero and Alexis de Tocqueville. Sound like a deal?’

The resultant book, I think, would read a lot like Morrissey’s Autobiography. It’s like the awful 200,000-word trunk novel of middle-youth angst that hides on every writer’s hard drive. This is not just bad writing. It sets a new standard in bad writing. In his way Morrissey has done a service to the study and teaching of prose. Lecturers in creative writing could use this book as the ‘do not do’ model. Sometimes Morrissey writes like an undergraduate after two pints, testing out the cadences of wit (an A and R man has ‘the Nigel Patrick touch of British raffish elegance, being six parts Etienne Dumont champagne, the rest a checkered career in rock management (which is not the management of rocks, as such)’ sometimes like an early Martin Amis derivative (‘It is explained to me that Mike had shared his bed last night and that the unlucky dalliance left him with an outbreak of Lebanese warts’) sometimes like a real ale bore (‘there will never be one instance in the Smiths’ history with Rough Trade when Geoff would treat the band to a lavish none-too-cheap dinner or salutary clink of earthenware’). There’s a great piece by Giles Coren that illustrates what I mean:

Then there’s circumlocution, or what EM Forster called ‘elegant variation’…. This is the worst. The failure to say a simple thing. The insistence on using ‘more interesting’ words… When I started as editor of The Times diary (diaries are always the worst for cliché, because they are staffed by overeducated public schoolboys desperately trying to be noticed), I wrote up a list of words and sentences that I would not stand for (or ‘up with which I would not put’, as I would write if I were a young diarist who thought that was a wittier way of phrasing it). At the top was, ‘Diminutive Antipodean chanteuse’, which used to feature practically weekly in the diary of my predecessor. What Kylie Minogue is, I told my dribbling, pink-faced underlings, is a short Australian singer. If you think people need to be told that, tell them that.

Professional reviewers, confronted by the Autobiography, end up reaching for sitcom analogies. Craig Brown described Morrissey as ‘Alan Partridge with daffs in one hand and a Roget’s  Thesaurus in the other’ and quoted a BuzzFeed article that lists unattributed lines from Morrissey’s and Partridge’s autobiographies, inviting readers to guess who said what. Andrew Harrison, in the NS, said that ‘At times, one is put in mind of Father Ted Crilly’s lengthy scoresettling acceptance speech for the Priest of the Year award.’ A great running joke on the Alan Partridge chat show series was that Alan was obsessed with technical, financial and legal issues over content. It is the same with Morrissey. The Autobiography has nothing to say about musicianship or songwriting but Morrissey includes reams of material about royalties, chart positions, cover design, sleeve text and advertising campaigns. At one point he shrieks: ‘Nothing could equal the shoddy clanger of [solo album] Your Arsenal, which had ‘Track 1 taken from the forthcoming album Your Arsenal’ printed on the label!’ Was this how Joan of Arc felt?

The relentless processology, and focus on business detail (which will be of limited interest to Morrissey’s readers, most of whom will have only a passing familiarity with the industry) reaches its upper limit in the passages concerning Morrissey’s civil trial. He was sued by former bandmate Mike Joyce for back income in 1996. Joyce claimed he had never been told he would receive only ten per cent of the band’s profits and demanded a 25% share of profits back from 1987. The judge agreed and ordered Morrissey to pay up. Morrissey’s account of this trial is a scream of frustrated rage stretching from pages 303-324 of the Autobiography. His line-by-line rebuttal of Judge John Weeks’s summing up goes on from 324-342. In a spluttering quasi-prosecutorial tirade (and by now the man’s writing in the third person, like Caesar) Morrissey claims that ‘Weeks does not consider how Joyce or Rourke responded to their not being consulted, and he does not ask them why they allowed such a switch ‘without their consultation’, and Weeks does not consider how possible it would have been for Joyce and Rourke to initiate the switch from Arthur Young to Ross Bennet-Smith without the compliance of Morrissey and Marr!’

There you have it. Earlier on, Morrissey writes about the Oscar Wilde case: ‘Tellingly, a disfigured barrister and a half-wit in a wig destroyed Wilde in the end… Out of sheer envy of Wilde’s genius, [Mr Justice] Wills got at that genius as best he could, for judges in high-profile cases want to be remembered somewhere (anywhere!) in history’s grubby footnotes.’ It takes a beat to realise that Morrissey is not comparing himself to Wilde: he is damning Wills for being a member of the same profession that would, 101 years later, deprive Morrissey of around £1m and change. At this point Morrissey sounds less like a teenage bedsit scribbler than a middle-aged golf club bore telling resentful tales of family court or botched insurance claims to anyone misfortunate enough to be listening. This micromanagerial monomania is his driving force. Where other artists have demons, Morrissey has a scorecard. The oh-so-sensitive soul is powered by a ticking abacus.

How the big dream was wasted. The striking thing about this book is how unobservant Morrissey is, how little he is touched by places and people. He’s travelled the world but never seen it. Musicians, writers and actors, fascinating people in their own right, jerk through Morrissey’s narrative like awkward ghosts. (‘My neighbour is the very famous Johnny Depp, who looks away should I ever appear.’) Where Morrissey does have impressions, they’re unpleasant: Julie Burchill ‘will one day be found dead – probably in Bedford Square, a paragon of Cadbury’s, having been burned and hanged and stuffed on the legitimate grounds of being an irritable woman, so loaded with secrets and folds and folds of H & M outer garments, having never been anybody, yet having understood the glacial power of the written word to its greatest disadvantage. I shall be honoured to attend her funeral, and I might even jump into the grave.’

But maybe I’m missing something here. Surely no one can be this pompous and stupid. Maybe this is some kind of elaborate joke and I just don’t get the irony. Not that any of this will make a difference anyway. Not to the hordes of Morrissey fanboys who continue to venerate not only the music but the man. My home city of Manchester has made not so much a cottage industry as an Urban Splash cultural theme park on the back of Morrissey, Mark E Smith, Peter Hook and other middle aged men who have long outlived their talents. In 2006 the city hosted a ‘Passion Play’ recreation of Jesus’s last days using music from Joy Division, Oasis and the Smiths. That’s the thing about Manchester. We actually deify our heroes, at the expense of the great unknown bands and artists you can hear in every third bar. There is so much going on in the North, so much creativity, talent, passion and excess, but here we are, still gazing into the navels of Great Men. Morrissey’s autobiography is a testament to this uncritical fan-love. It is also a cautionary tale. Maybe there’s a danger in getting exactly what you want.

To the Film Industry in Crisis

January 19, 2014

In an article headlined, somewhat alarmingly, ‘Death of film’, VentureBeat reports that Paramount has gone to all-digital distribution to cinemas. What does that mean? I don’t know. But the author Devindra Hardawar considers the decision significant. He writes:

Theater-goers likely won’t notice the shift much, but the move to all-digital film distribution is something cinephiles have been dreading for some time. While it’s significantly cheaper for studios to send movies to theaters digitally –a film print could cost up to $2,000, while a digital copy of a film on a hard drive is closer to $100 — film fans argue that digital projection lacks the warmth and quality of 35 millimeter film.

But the difference in quality between film and digital projection is quickly diminishing, which means it’s only inevitable until every studio goes digital. With more than 1,000 theaters in the U.S. still without digital equipment (and the cost of new digital projectors around $70,000), the shift could end up killing off smaller theaters throughout the country.

As a movie fan (and someone who’s been reviewing films for years), I can’t help but tear up a little at this news.

Having recently starting going to the pictures again I’m wondering what impact this will have on UK theatres – specifically, the heavy ceremony associated with filmgoing. ‘Cinema is most totalitarian of the arts,’ Jim Morrison said, and he was exaggerating, but yeah, the enormous black screen, the old-style plush curtains, the dimmed lights, the hush and pomp of it all – no wonder this is the favoured medium to project every dictator’s Ozymandian fantasies. (North Korean despot Kim jong-Il famously kidnapped a South Korean director, forcing him to churn out 35mm regime propaganda, including ‘Pulgasari, a communist version of Godzilla’; the BBC’s report also notes that ‘Kim was also said to have been a fan of Ealing comedies, inspired by their emphasis on team spirit and a mobilised proletariat.’)

My second point is more prosaic: the amount of adverts and trailers before the main picture. Netflix and Sky Plus have rendered the cinema one of the last captive market for advertisers, so you have to sit through reels of bumf before the film even starts – and to a time-neurotic like me, that can be a dealbreaker. And not just adverts. Last year we saw a screening of the original Psycho. This was preceded by ten minutes of period commercial, presumably for comedy value (to paraphrase Stewart Lee: ‘Look, people who lived several decades ago had different fashions and customs, which look ridiculous in retrospect’) and also a lecture, from a local residents’ association figure, on a proposed transport development in the area. The RA person was opposed to this development, and said so, at length.

My girlfriend lived for several years in the States.

‘If this was a Pennsylvania theatre, they’d be throwing things around now,’ she whispered.

Another problem is that film has succumbed to the modern mania for galloping longevity of performance. It seems that even a standard Apatow high school comedy merits at least two hours of screen time: Peter Jackson’s fantasy epics go on for days. Fleur MacDonald has it right:

When it comes to length, you can’t help but feel sorry for filmmakers. They have to squeeze the life of some statesman or gangster (the biopic of Ronnie Biggs must be mulling somewhere) into a two hour sprint while competing with the slow burn character development of The Wire, House of Cards… people might moan about the impact of Twitter and Vine and blogs on our memory but great storytellers have always known that we have the attention span of gnats. And have had respect for their audience’s time.

And yet the theater, particularly the independent cinema, is still magical in the culture. Trapped in post-apocalyptic snowblown badlands of The Stand, Stephen King’s protagonist Stu Redman takes great time and effort to rig up a generator in an abandoned cinema, so that he and his travelling companion Tom Cullen can watch old reels of Oliver and Rocky, as they were meant to be seen. The mid-century American poet Frank O’Hara explicitly praised film over ‘lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals’:

In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love. And give credit where it’s due: not to my starched nurse, who taught me how to be bad and not bad rather than good (and has lately availed herself of this information), not to the Catholic Church which is at best an oversolemn introduction to cosmic entertainment, not to the American Legion, which hates everybody, but to you, glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope, stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound, with all your heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms!

So, yeah – let’s hope that the Arts Council does provide some independent digital funding. Even I have to admit that watching The Shining on a stuttery 2010 Dell wouldn’t be quite the same thing.

Arendt’s Mistake

January 5, 2014

hannaharendtWhat did you expect?


Oversize incisors?

Green saliva?


– Leonard Cohen, ‘All There Is To Know About Adolf Eichmann’

I’ve just seen the Hannah Arendt biopic at the beautiful Hyde Park Picture House. It’s a good film, lively and objective, and accessible even if you don’t know Arendt. The movie centres on Arendt’s most controversial and divisive work, her book on the trial of SS commandant Adolf Eichmann, in which she portrayed Eichmann as a kind of automaton, with no distinguishing evil or even individual initiative, who simply participated in war crimes out of a bureaucratic obedience. Michael Ezra, via his blog, explains her thesis:

Enormous controversy centered on what Arendt had written about the conduct of the trial, her depiction of Eichmann and her discussion of the role of the Jewish Councils. Eichmann, she claimed, was not a ‘monster’; instead, she suspected, he was a ‘clown.’ He had no ‘insane hatred of Jews’ and did not suffer from any kind of ‘fanatical anti-Semitism.’ She reported Eichmann’s claim that ‘he had never harbored any ill feelings against his victims’ and accepted it as fact. As far as Arendt was concerned, Eichmann simply had ‘an inability to think.’ She concluded: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.’ In a postscript to later editions of the book she added that Eichmann simply ‘never realized what he was doing’ and that his criminal actions were due to ‘sheer thoughtlessness.’

This sounds like a familiar litany of Nuremberg excuses: terrible things happen in wartime, Allies too committed war crimes, they cut our supply chains, this is ‘victor’s justice’, I was misled, and of course, I was ‘only following orders’. Jonathan Littell, in his superb The Kindly Ones, has his fictional SS officer Max Aue take this to its rhetorical conclusion. The narrator recasts World War Two in the style of Greek tragedy where fate is definitive and unavoidable, and explicitly compares himself to Orestes. In the prologue, Aue addresses his reader:

I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I am guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did. With less zeal, perhaps, but perhaps also with less despair, in any case one way or the other. I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, but there’s no chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was.

The Arendt film, and Ezra’s article, evoke the spectacular rows her book ignited in New York’s intellectual scene. The film’s second half is an explosion of broken friendships and emptied rooms. Von Trotta stacks the cards a little in Arendt’s favour here. She’s eloquent even when outnumbered and her opponents are portrayed as smug, wooden preppy buffoons. But the movie is not a complete vindication of Arendt’s thesis. The last word goes to an old friend who feels furious and betrayed by Arendt’s work. The portrait is of a clever and passionate middle aged woman, but one who spent the rest of her life grappling with the pain of doubt.

Arendt insisted the problem was the system rather than individuals, and you cannot put a system on trial. She could not reconcile the ‘huge difference between the horror of the deeds and the mediocrity of the man’. Yet she emphasised the primacy of the individual. In response to the scholar Gersham Scholem, who said that she had no ‘[l]ove of the Jewish people’ Arendt said that ‘I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed ‘love’ only my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.’

And yet her book on Eichmann was the philosopher’s greatest misstep. Eichmann was not simply a thoughtless bureaucrat. He was a senior officer in the SS. The SS were the elite of the Nazi elite. They didn’t take just anyone. Maybe there were some Nazis who were just going through the motions. Eichmann wasn’t one of them. From Ezra’s article: ‘In an interview given in 1957 from his hiding place in Argentina, Eichmann had boasted that his only regret was his failure to massacre all eleven million European Jews. Rudolf Höss, camp commandant of Auschwitz, had confirmed this: ‘He was completely obsessed with the idea of destroying every single Jew he could lay his hands on.’’ Ezra also quotes from a review of Jacob Robinson’s critique, And The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight:

After Robinson’s argument not a single one of Miss Arendt’s main contentions can be credited; and a great many of her minor contentions … have also to be tossed out. She was wrong about Eichmann, she was wrong about international law, she was wrong about Jewish leaders, she was wrong about Jewish resistance, she was wrong about Jewish ‘cooperation’ with the Nazis…. She was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Perhaps it suited Eichmann’s purposes to portray himself as a hapless cog in the war crimes machine. Perhaps he thought this defence would save his neck. If so, Arendt bought it.

Ezra regrets that Robinson’s rebuttal didn’t have the impact of Arendt’s original essay, and puts this down to stylistics: Robinson comes off as a plodding fact checker whereas Arendt had a unique and compelling voice that gave the phrase ‘banality of evil’ to the lingua of posterity. I don’t know Arendt’s works half as well as Michael does but believe that despite everything she had a point, in that evil comes from the will to belong, the communitarian impulse and the instinct to obey, as much as from individual malice and failings – even if, in Jerusalem in 1962, Arendt was conned.