Archive for June, 2015

Bird and Book: The Practical Magic of Strange and Norrell

June 25, 2015

Consider, if you will, a man who sits in his library day after day; a small man of no particular personal attractions. His book is on the table before him. A fresh supply of pens, a knife to cut new nibs, ink, paper, notebooks – all is conveniently to hand. There is always a fire in the room – he cannot do without a fire, he feels the cold. The room changes with the season: he does not… He meets his neighbours twice or thrice a quarter – for this is England where a man’s neighbours will never suffer him to live entirely bereft of society, let him be as dry and sour-faced as he may. They pay him visits, leave their cards with his servants, invite him to dine or to dance at assembly-balls. Their intentions are largely charitable – they have a notion that it is bad for a man to be always alone – but they also have some curiosity to discover whether he has changed at all since they last saw him. He has not. He has nothing to say to them and is considered the dullest man in Yorkshire.

I haven’t watched primetime UK drama for years. Part of the reason is TV here doesn’t give a story room to breathe. Unlike US drama which can afford a leisurely thirteen-ep slowburn, budget obsessed BBC and ITV execs have to condense complex narrative down into two or three episodes and for me it just doesn’t work.

I started watching the adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell a few weeks ago, expecting it to be terrible. The show won’t win over anyone who didn’t love the book (readers of Strange and Norrell either burn through its thousand pages enchanted, or fall at the first footnote) but the producers have done a pretty good job. Susannah Clarke’s narrative gets a whole seven episodes to unfold – for the BBC, that’s like The Wire. The casting is inspired: Enzo Cilenti is a wise and sinister Childermass, Charlotte Riley a witty and stunning Arabella, Vincent Franklin a wonderful Drawlight, Paul Kaye a deranged Vinculus. Ronan Vibert is possibly the best screen Wellington since Stephen Fry. Eddie Marsan has made a career of playing disturbed losers (cf his unhinged driving instructor in Happy Go Lucky) but, complete with a dour, fey North Yorks accent, he’s Mr Norrell to the life.

Clarke’s novel is set in a Victorian England that is like our own. But her society is haunted by a romantic medieval past of Aureate magicians ruled by the lord of the North, the Raven King. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, this English magic has gone from the land. It is only remembered by a York society who ‘met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.’ The Society are not real magicians, but theoretical magicians: ‘which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head.’

To look at Mr Norrell – particularly from Clarke’s lovely and succinct description of him, quoted at the beginning of this piece – you would think that he is another one of these purely theoretical magicians. He’s dull, he gets ill easily, he hates to travel, he has no wife, no family, he is awkward, all he does is sit and read. ‘I do not know the world,’ he admits. But when the York Society go to visit Mr Norrell, curious about his library, he tells them: ‘Magic is not ended in England. I myself am quite a tolerable practical magician.’

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is set in the Victorian age. It has a Victorian narration, complete with period-style authorial comment, footnotes, references, capitalisations and delightful little archaisms – chuse, sopha, surprize, Buonaparte, Soho-square. (Neil Gaiman is surely right that the narrator ‘is not, I am convinced, Clarke, but a character in her own right, writing her book closer to Strange and Norrell’s time than our own.’) Today the Victorians are characterised, even stereotyped, as repressed – crazy with morality and hoarding unspeakable desires. Yet they also built an empire and invented numerous interesting machines.

Norrell is certainly withdrawn and repressed but he does want to do things. He does actual magic. He wants to use his magical skills to win the war against France. But the first London politician that he meets – the Foreign Secretary, Sir Walter Pole – tells him straight out: ‘Magic is not respectable, sir.[‘]

The Government cannot meddle with such things. Even this innocent little chat that you and I have had today, is likely to cause us a little embarrassment when people get to hear of it. Frankly, Mr Norrell, had I understood better what you were intending to propose today, I would not have agreed to meet you.

The ministers are soon talked round and Mr Norrell is installed as the Nation’s renowned magician: given expensive commissions, hosted in fashionable salons, the connected name of English magic. (At parties guests are ‘continually delighted’ by such Norrellite repartee as: ‘I do not know whom you mean,’ ‘I have not had the pleasure of that gentleman’s acquaintance,’ ‘I have never been to the place you mention.’) Norrell believes passionately in wisdom derived from books, and like many intellectuals, he is also a censor. He wants the magic all to himself. Norrell himself can never finish a piece of writing. But he takes books out of circulation, he closes down magician schools and societies, he’s a hoarder and destroyer of knowledge. He even proposes special courts to execute deviators from Norrellite magic. This is another great para from the novel, on Norrell’s established periodical:

There is not much to interest the serious student of magic in the early issues and the only entertainment to be got from them is contained in several articles in which Portishead attacks on Mr Norrell’s behalf: gentleman-magicians; lady-magicians; street-magicians; vagabond-magicians; child-prodigy-magicians; the Learned Society of York Magicians; the Learned Society of Manchester Magicians; learned societies of magicians in general; any other magicians whatsoever.

Naturally, Jonathan Strange is everything Norrell is not. Strange is young, witty, handsome, sociable, married, courageous, generous, open minded, a traveller and a man of action. His TV actor Bertie Carvel looks like the diffident English gentleman from central casting, but Carvel handles Strange’s arc well, taking the character from landed fop to battle-fevered veteran to the grieving, wandering Byronic magician on the edge. Where Norrell wants to excise the Raven King from history, Strange is attracted to the King of the North and to the otherlands beyond respectable reality.

Constantly threatening to break through the structure of this Regency novel is Clarke’s Faerie alterworld. It’s a world of constant action and movement: balls, dances, murders, battles, processions, executions. The Faerie dreamscape is adamantine, profound and tempting – even Norrell is drawn by it, it’s his deal with Faerie’s playful devil, the ‘gentleman with thistle-down hair’ that brings Sidhe unreality crashing in. At first these weird legends surface in the footnotes, then rise to disrupt the main narrative. Scenes of towering bridges and shining rushing water and women in black dresses walking high and radiant on the ridges of the moors. Stones and skies and rivers pulse with warm life. Swallowing his tincture of madness, Strange has this vision:

Everything he thought before, everything he knew, everything he had been was swept away in a great flood of confused emotion and sensation. The world was made again in flame-like colours that were impossible to bear. It was shot through with new fears, new desires, new hatreds.

Like a dream, Faerie has no coherence, no discipline. Characters kidnapped into its decadence find its ceaseless celebrations dreary. Lady Pole and the butler Stephen Black are both held under the gentleman’s enchantment for most of the story, periodically yanked into its eldritch mansions without warning and at the gentleman’s whim. Whenever they try to explain their plight to people in the real world, all that comes out are nonsense stories – long, run-on tales of metamorphosis and serendipity, the very antithesis of the Victorian novel. (The shy academic magician Mr Segundus finally manages to break this enchantment by decoding the nonsense stories with a book of childhood faerie stories.)

This is all full on genre fiction, but still the postcolonial student could have a field day with Strange and Norrell. Both men are landed aristocrats who have inherited their wealth. There are rumours of serf farms and slave colonies – there is, in Orwell’s classic phrase, a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. Mr Norrell’s henchmen are Lascelles and Drawlight, urban dandies of cruel wit and precarious fortune, the antecedents of today’s Shoreditch hipsters. Both are selfish and ruthless men who come to terrible ends. The chief servants, Childermass and Stephen Black, are devoted to their respective masters. But both quietly rage against a society run as racial and class-based apartheid. If you wanted to be really intellectual you could frame the argument as Norrellite rationalist pragmatism versus Strange’s romantic egalitarianism.

For me though, and foremost, Strange and Norrell is a story about the gulf between thought and action… perhaps between desire and action. The artist, the intellectual, the writer and the reader all contain a Norrellite and a Strangeite personality. There’s the scholarly man who wants to sit in his library all day and the wild romantic who wants to plunge, madly, into other worlds. There is a theoretical magic and a practical magic. Writing too is a kind of practical magic.


(Image: BBC)

The Elusive Professor Hunt

June 20, 2015

Be taught by this to speak with moderation

Of places where, with decent application

One gets a good, sound, middle-class education.

– Hilaire Belloc, ‘A Moral Alphabet’

There’s been some great comment about the Tim Hunt scandal this week. I’d particularly recommend Professor David Colquhoun’s article, plus this interesting series of tweets from Michael Hendricks – it’s amazing what can be done with longform Twitter these days. What do I think about Tim Hunt? My first thoughts are that this is a very British affair. And I really don’t like the very British culture of banning stuff and demanding that people lose their jobs because they have said something stupid. It’s very high school particularly in the dance of ostracisation and the smug contempt directed at people who don’t know the rules. I would be appalled if this was a young man, maybe with a family, who lost his livelihood and career because he expressed a stupid opinion.

But Tim Hunt is not a young man is he? He is 72 years old, a distinguished professor and a Nobel laureate. A lot of the backlash, the people who have said that Professor Hunt is the victim of a ‘witchhunt’ (in Britain any rigorous and sustained criticism constitutes a ‘witchhunt’) seems to come from this argument to authority: look at this man! He has been a scientist since before you were born! Where’s the deference! Where’s your respect?

But in Britain deference covers a multitude of sins. In Simon Danczuk’s excellent Smile for the Camera, his book about the Cyril Smith paedophile revelations, he writes that ‘blind deference no longer determines a significant part of people’s worldview, earned respect has become the challenge facing everyone in public life… And that’s what gives me ground for optimism.’ This is not a comparison, I don’t think Hunt and Smith are in any way comparable: the point is a reflection on how society has changed, and changed for the better. For decades talented young workers, particularly young women, have had to negotiate and defer to stupid, ill mannered old men who for some reason or another are in a position of authority. They don’t so much now and Hunt did not realise this – hence his shocked response to levels of mockery and derision that are standard in any regulars’ pub or lively office.

Should Hunt have lost his job on this? Instinctively, I feel this sets a bad precedent, but then again, do you want to work for someone who advocates gender segregated workplaces? We wouldn’t tolerate this from a conservative Islamic imam – at least I hope we would not. And as Professor Colquhoun said: ‘All you have to do to see the problems is to imagine yourself as a young women, applying for a grant or fellowship, in competition with men, knowing that Hunt was one of her judges.’ Also, if Hunt had generalised about people of colour, older people or people of faith in the crass way that he did, he would have been out and there would have been no lineup of important people to defend him. Again, as a society we don’t hold the younger generation, particularly young women, in that level of esteem.

The Hunt affair has been framed as a case of academia gone PC wild. But contra the backlash, universities are not that censorious. I know that the NUS has said and done stupid things, individual student unions do stupid things. But student unions are democratic organisations. If student representatives pass idiot resolutions, students can and should vote them out and elect better representatives, even stand for election themselves – although I appreciate that student politics in general is an invitation to a misspent youth. If you think universities chill free expression, try working for an employer. If you are an employee and you shoot your mouth off at a widely reported public event… chances are you will quickly become an ex employee.

Is that fair? Maybe not, but businesses care very much about reputation and universities are a business. The bulk of Colquhoun’s post, and also this fantastic piece by Marina Warner, explores how HE has become strangled by the mindless HR, bureaucracy and target culture that is killing the British work ethic. There’s a debate to be had here, and it goes beyond the student union.

(Image: Connie St Louis)

Year Zero

June 17, 2015

My short story is now up on the phenomenal Disclaimer magazine. It is a speculative fiction piece and my attempt to imagine what it would actually look like if there was some kind of violent dystopian revolution in Britain – don’t expect it to be a contemporary 1984, or even to make much sense, but see what you think. The rest of the magazine is full of interesting stuff too.

Dolezal’s Crime

June 14, 2015

In his article on Rachel Dolezal, the Washington activist, Gary Younge acknowledges that ‘People ‘passing’ for one race, when they are in fact another, has a long tradition in America.’ Dolezal, president of the Spokane NAACP and professor of Africana studies, and prominent anti racist activist, has been in the news because her parents have claimed that she is of white heritage and has been trying to ‘pass herself off’ as a person of colour. Her mother Rutheanne Dolezal told a local TV station that ‘Rachel has wanted to be somebody she’s not. She’s chosen not to just be herself, but to represent herself as an African American woman or a bi-racial person and that’s simply not true.’ Her adopted brother Ezra claimed to BuzzFeed that Rachel, prior to leaving for Washington, told him: ‘Over here, I’m going to be considered black, and I have a black father. Don’t blow my cover.’

Younge’s piece also mentions Philip Roth’s The Human Stain – about a black classicist who takes himself and is taken for others as white, and lives a successful life until he is destroyed by a scandal that erupts when a throwaway remark in class is misconstrued as a racial slur. When I first read the novel, I thought the premise unlikely. How can you disguise your ethnicity? Then I saw, in John Farrell’s biography of Clarence Darrow, an account of the attorney’s meeting with NAACP activists about the Ossian Sweet trial.

Springarn and Studin were dark-complexioned white men, and White was a light-complexioned black man. As Darrow told him of his reluctance to take the case he turned to Springarn and assured him: ‘I know full well the difficulties faced by your race.’

‘I’m sorry, Mr Darrow,’ Springarn said. ‘I am not a Negro.’

‘Well, you understand what I mean,’ he told Studin.

‘I am not colored either,’ Studin replied.

With a certain degree of exasperation, Darrow turned to White. ‘I wouldn’t make the same mistake with you,’ he told the blond-haired black man.

‘I smiled and told him I was colored,’ White recalled.

The point Younge took from Roth’s novel is that ‘When you pass from one racial domain to another, you’re supposed to slam the door shut behind you and throw away the key. You say goodbye not just to the boxes you ticked but the people you knew, including family.’ Reading between the lines, Dolezal’s family life is, at best, difficult. The Guardian report says Dolezal ‘told local media she is not in touch with the couple because of an ongoing lawsuit, and that she does not view them as her real parents.’

The NAACP have issued a statement saying that ‘One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership. The NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference stands behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record.’ It is not yet clear that any ‘misrepresentation’ has taken place. So why the accusatory, even jeering tone of the comment surrounding this affair? Younge writes that ‘It is a cardinal rule of social identity that people have the right to call themselves whatever they want… But with this right comes at least one responsibility: what you call yourself must be comprehensible to others.’ (He adds that: ‘Right now, one can only speculate to her motivations.’)

The NAACP statement is in line with Dr King’s great universalist tradition. You would think that as we reached the twenty first century that society would become more fluid and the old poisons of community, faith and flag would lessen in significance. And indeed most people today don’t self-define in the way that patriarchs and community leaders would like us to. Yet the opposite has happened in our society where identity has become aggravated and essentialised and blown out of all proportion. Political parties hold gender segregated meetings, racist myths proliferate, contradictions between religious tradition and basic universal rights are tiptoed around. Borders fly up around liberal democracies so that immigrants are left to drown in the sea for the political crime of fleeing oppression. Politicians say that the problem with Britain is that we have lost a unifying identity. They’re wrong. We have too much identity and not enough of anything else. Think of all the times you hear ‘pretentious’ used as an insult. But what kind of world would it be if no one ever pretended to be anything they weren’t?

All of which makes the Dolezal coverage, to me at least, seem nasty and hectoring. How dare you slam the door. How dare you forget where you come from. How dare you cut us off. How dare you reinvent yourself. Everybody knows. The worst of this is the implication that Dolezal lied about receiving death threats. ‘She made herself into a martyr on purpose for people to feel sorry for her and to help her,’ her brother says. Does he imagine that now that his sister has been ‘outed’ as ‘white’ the professional organised US Neo-Nazi movement will leave her alone? (As the late lamented Christopher Hitchens observed: ‘It especially annoys me when racists are accused of ‘discrimination.’ The ability to discriminate is a precious faculty; by judging all members on one ‘race’ to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.’)

Gary Younge quotes the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah: ‘The reasonable middle view is that constructing an identity is a good thing … but that the identity must make some kind of sense.’ I’ve yet to meet a human being I can say that about.

The Tweet

June 11, 2015

This story – inspired by this Jon Ronson article, and also this essay by M J Hyland –  is now up at the fantastic Stand Up Tragedy cabaret site. It’s a long story and it’s been serialised over a few days – part one is here, then click through to two, three, four, five and the conclusion.

Sheer Society: Liza Klaussman’s Villa America

June 11, 2015

I came to Villa America as fiction. It seemed so rounded. The first section has main protagonist Gerald Murphy, as a child, having his pet dog driven from home by his awful family. His father warns him: ‘That is something you must learn, Gerald… You and your brother. To decide to do something and then follow it through to its end. That’s how they built that. That’s how anything worth doing gets done.’ It’s a heartbreaking chapter, full of dark sadness and the general horrors of parents and childhood – you wonder, where is Sredni Vashtar in real life, when you need him? ‘You are a wicked woman,’ Gerald tells the governess responsible, ‘and I don’t care what anyone says. From this moment on, I will never, ever speak to you again.’

The section ends like this:

And despite his parents’ exhortations, he kept his word. Like the men who built the skyscrapers, he decided to do something and he followed it through to the end, because that’s how anything worth doing got done.

Three weeks later, Gerald was shipped off to boarding school.

As an adult, Gerald ends up working a dead-end job at his useless father’s business, and regularly visited by what he calls the ‘Black Service’ (such a better term for depression than the clichéd black dog). His life changes when he meets and marries Sara Wiborg. Requited love propels him into a better career as an artist, and the bulk of the novel follows their family life on the European villa of the title.

It’s an almost surreal sequence of dappled sunlight, long lethargic days, displaced Russian princelings, and emotional, sybaritic houseparties – sheer society, in the couple’s private language. Recognisable names turn up out of nowhere. F Scott Fitzgerald is the battered faun we recognise from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Hemingway himself is just as you’d imagine him, aggressive and self-assured and dropping characteristic sentences of cryptic hardboiled vicarage wisdom (‘There are all sorts of reasons a matador can be second-rate… But the good ones, the ones that are second-rate not because of cowardice or weakness, they’d rather die than live that way.’) Zelda is… Zelda. It’s the surreality of utopian dreams. As Klaussman told the Independent:

There’s definitely the idea of making an idealised version of America in France. They were going to change the world. They left behind their country, which they found disappointing politically and culturally, and arrived in a place destroyed after the war where they could rebuild a Utopia for themselves.

For it’s only when I reached the author’s afterword that I realised that the Murphys were real. Gerald’s paintings still hang today and his life is resurrected through biographies and correspondence. Their story is said to be the inspiration for the Divers in Tender is the Night. ‘That Gerald Murphy struggled with his sexuality is well documented through letters he wrote both to Sara and to friends,’ Klaussmann writes. ‘However, what exactly that struggle consisted of is unknown.’ Enter the entirely fictional character Owen Chambers, a pilot with whom Gerald has an affair.

But in a book so beautifully written, particularly in the epistolary passages, the dialogue, and the expression of desire (for Owen, standing near Sara is ‘like standing near a warm fire in a cold room’) he’s the only part of the book that doesn’t satisfy. The character feels grafted on somehow. Maybe it’s the strain of writing about a world full of old taboos from a world that’s exhausted its taboos and busies itself trying to invent new ones.

(Image: Tumblr)

The Needle and the Damage Undone

June 7, 2015

panic1In The Panic Virus, his study of anti-vaccine mania, Seth Mnookin concedes that ‘[v]accine proponents, be they doctors, politicians or self styled intellectuals’ can demonstrate a ‘smug sense of superiority mixed with a condescending bewilderment at what Benjamin Gruenberg described as the hoi polloi’s insistence ‘upon the right to hold opinions (and to act according to these opinions) upon such technical questions as the efficacy of vaccination, the value of serums, or the causation of cancer.’ We’re used to sceptic titles that deconstruct alt-health and conspiracy silliness: such books sometimes have a superior cool-geek aesthetic. Mnookin’s is not one of them. What you take away from this book is his warmth, and his compassion for people who have experienced appalling suffering.

Talking to Sam Harris, UCLA paediatrics director Dr Nina L Shapiro tried to account for the drop in US vaccine rates:

I think there are several reasons why people have chosen—and I use the word ‘chosen’ specifically because I think most people now have a luxury of choice when it comes to their medical care—not to vaccinate their children. One is that they haven’t seen these illnesses. Most people with young children have never seen a case of measles; they’ve never seen mumps, rubella, polio, or whooping cough; so these illnesses are just abstractions to them.

Read Seth Mnookin’s book and they are no longer abstractions. They are real and terrifying. I’ve spared the awful details, but Mnookin doesn’t, because he needs to convince a reader living in an age of incredible health advances that these illnesses are life-altering and can lead to permanent disability, brain damage and even death. The Panic Virus is a family centred book. Mnookin discusses the frauds and quacks who lie about vaccines – Andrew Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy, Clinton nut Dan Burton (he is the congressman who at an official dinner fired a revolver into a watermelon in an attempt to demonstrate that Vince Foster’s death could not have been a suicide: that story’s from David Brock, but Mnookin speculates in a footnote that Burton may have used a pumpkin or even a cantaloupe). But his heart is with the parents and children who have to deal with the consequences of local outbreaks and a falling herd immunity.

He also writes well about autism. When I was growing up I don’t recall ever hearing the word. Now anyone who makes an awkward comment at the office or a dinner party is described as ‘autistic’ or ‘Aspergic’. As with measles and pertussis, Mnookin shows us what autism is, and the terrible isolative impact it wreaks not just on children, but parents locked into a world revolving around a child that no one understands. Because carers of autistic children struggle to find reference points with other parents – a mother tells Mnookin that she’d ask friends for advice and be told ‘I don’t know – I don’t know and that has nothing to do with my son’ – they gravitate to web forums, single issue groups and conferences: it’s there they find the only people who know what it’s like and will listen.

But when people talk and relate only with others similar to themselves, it’s easy to fall into an aggressive groupthink. Soon there was an almost militant anti vaccine movement that spread harmful disinformation on talk shows, sucked research funding away from useful work and into its junk science, and sent death threats to anyone who disagreed. And this vexatious single issue campaigning is all over the health spectrum. Mnookin doesn’t mention this in his book, but scientists researching the links between mental illness and ME have been subject to intimidation from a minority of sufferers. When Dr Max Pemberton wrote about the controversy, he was hit with scary online abuse. Pemberton writes: ‘Those who targeted me displayed an astounding degree of paranoia and obsession, twisting anything I said, or any attempts to pacify them… Others found contact details for the person who runs my website, for my partner and for several of my friends. They targeted journalists who voiced support for me… Some personal threats were made and I had to get lawyers involved… It was brought to my attention that people had been discussing, via the internet, where I lived.’ (Only in the UK would patients threaten researchers doing work that could potentially help them because these patients don’t like the implication that they have a mental health problem and not a ‘proper’ illness.)

Eventually of course Wakefield was discredited and banned from practising medicine in the UK. When Mnookin caught up with him at his clinic in Austin, he was still unrepentant, but ‘he just seemed dazed… I got the impression that he was talking more to himself than to me.’ Wakefield said he was working a book about how ‘the government is trying to cover up the fact that it introduced the MMR vaccine’. Could I have a prepublication copy, Mnookin asked? Wakefield said that was fine. ‘You might want to read it and decide whether it has a market in Israel, to see if anyone wants to find out what went wrong and why it went wrong… You may want to decide if it’s worth translating into Hebrew.’ Mnookin writes that ‘It was one of the few times in my life I have been stunned into silence.’ Later, Wakefield headlined a 9/11 truth rally in Dublin with the rather grand title of ‘The Masterplan: The Hidden Agenda for a Global Scientific Dictatorship’. Does he really believe this stuff? I almost feel sorry for Wakefield. He risked everything – his career, reputation, livelihood – on a lie, and now that the lie has fallen through, he’s trapped in the conspiracy netherworld because it’s all he has left. So I almost feel sorry for Andrew Wakefield. Almost.

I think history will judge the anti vaccine craze as a perverse byproduct of a safer world, a fad that came out of idle consumerism and bloated ease. And I am convinced that today’s modish critiques of SSRIs will go the same way.