Saturday, September 30, 2006

The man they couldn't bar

This morning, someone asked me what I was laughing at. It was The Unfortunates, B.S. Johnson's novel-in-27-unbound-sections on grief and the vagaries of memory. Specifically, the bit that follows. 'Tony' is Tony Tillinghast, the friend whose death from cancer a chance visit to Nottingham has prompted B.S. Johnson to remember. The pub is one near B.S.'s flat in Angel, from which he and his friend Jack had been banned after scribbling obscenities in the 'virginal urinal', smashing the odd pint glass, and so on. A pause of three em spaces in the original is represented here by a paragraph break, because my HTML isn't all that. Anyway:

...Tony suggested going into the pub, on this occasion, it must have been the second time he came to the Angel, not the first, now I think of it, because I had worked at another pub, and I was barred from that one, too, or did not go in there, anyway, or something, but he said Let me go in first and order one for you to come in and drink, after a few minutes. And it worked perfectly, I stood outside and counted a hundred, then went in to him and took up my drink, and they were astounded, confounded, the woman and the barmaid, who were both there, it worked well, they muttered amongst themselves, or together, but there was nothing they could do about it, it was so well timed. But they would no serve us with another drink, I remember asking Why not? very aggressively, and them staring back, angrily, and saying You know why! And I think threatening to call a copper. But we left victorious despite, Tony and I, with some dignity, too, as I remember. The beauty of it was that Tony was so polite, gentlemanly and friendly in buying the drinks, had formed a relationship with them, they being very pleased at new custom in an area where it was not common, I think, and they therefore had this friendliness thrown in their faces, so to speak, but could do nothing about it. Ah, the beauty of that!

And then Tony suggested doing the same thing the next evening, only sending two friends in to set up drinks for four, and then both he and I would walk in, and after that they would surely never serve any drinks to anyone unless they saw who it was first, they would be that unsure that they were not going to see the two fat guys walk in again.

[The Unfortunates, by B.S. Johnson, London, 1969, reprint 1999. More readable and less affecting than I expected, although that may be my shallowness. It is an excellent portrait of what the mind does in a stretch of waste time -- kinships with Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, which again I wasn't expecting. The precise observation of Nottingham detail was a pleasure for me, although knowing the geography of his wanderings tugs against the randomness of the form.]

SILLY IDEA BONUS: Thanks to Jonathan Coe's biography of Johnson, we now have a pretty good idea of when The Unfortunates took place: Boxing Day, 1964, when The Observer assigned the author to watch Forest play Spurs. A city that took its literary heritage seriously, rather than just arranging random volumes in the shape of an N, would declare Boxing Day to be B.S. Johnson Day, on the model of Bloomsday, and have hordes of tourists buying quarters of ham from a deli near Old Market Square, drinking two marsalas in Yates's Wine Lodge, and then watching a disappointing Forest match. Of course, in the spirit of the book, you would have to let your visitors do these things in an order of their choosing, or maybe gather at the railway station and then draw lots to decide the schedule. I may write a letter to our tourist authorities, and see how politely they give me the brush-off. And I may then try and do it myself anyway.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Dickensian character

"Charles Chaplin, Charlie, Charlot, the Tramp, the little man, kiss-kiss, was the most important and dynamic figure in the early days of cinema. In defeat and glory, pathos and aplomb, he was an inspiration to many, ammunition for the rest, and someone who never knew boredom with himself. Indeed, following Chaplin's slapstick career, reading the Autobiography that could have been co-written by Micawber and Heep, is to have the sense of someone watching his own show. Surely that is a clue to filmmaking, direction, or whatever: the ability (or the curse) of being in life while directing the act at the same time." -- David Thomson, The Whole Equation.

The purpose of this post was to applaud that 'Micawber and Heep' quip. But I was unable to stop myself typing out the rest of the paragraph, and I reckon my first reading missed the real insight (and insult): "never knew boredom with himself". That really is worth applauding.

[The Whole Equation, by David Thomson, London, 2004. Celluloid's own John Aubrey turns from biography to history, and proves as blessedly idiosyncratic in his new form. This is a four-chapter verdict; I'll be surprised if I'm less happy at the end.]

Monday, September 25, 2006

The insult in history

"The multitude was unable to conceive that a man who, even when sober, was more furious and boastful than others when they were drunk, and who seemed utterly incapable of disguising any emotion, or keeping any secret, could really be a coldhearted, farsighted, scheming sycophant. Yet such a man was Talbot." -- Macaulay, on Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnel. I don't think historians get to write sentences like that any more.

I've just passed another chunk of Macaulay's comments on the Irish in general, and the level of blithe racism is stunning. A man of his time, yadda yadda, but still -- his remarks on the moral evil engendered by eating potatoes must have been particularly welcome at the end of the 1840s.

[A History of England, by Thomas Babington Macaulay, London, 1849 to 1861. Only three-and-a-half volumes to go! I shall press on. I had forgotten the pleasure of reading small, old-fashioned hardbacks on public transport. All your fellow passengers assume it's a Bible. The sympathetic ones conclude you are at your devotions, the unsympathetic fear you might try to convert them -- and either way, you suddenly have personal space.]

Friday, September 22, 2006

Bonus for enduring excuses

While we're in London (see below), please accept as a peace offering The Tomb of the Unknown Yuppie, which gave me a right start when I ran across it. Official title, date and so on here, which is also the source of the photo; all courtesy of here, as ever.

Excuses for absence

The reason there's been nothing here for a few days, over and above the usual laziness, is that I've been away in London in conditions not conducive to blogging.

On the other hand, I have had a chance to catch up with the Evening Standard's 'Save our Small Shops' campaign, which yesterday detected supermarkets making dastardly use of "bargain beer and spirit offers" to crush their rivals. I'm sure it's true. What added intrigue was the choice of examples:

Tesco sold Pavlov vodka for £6.23, but when VAT and excise duties are excluded this is the equivalent of just 17p a bottle. This was half the lowest wholesale price available to other retailers.

A bottle of Tesco value whiskey cost £6.86, or, before taxes, just 36.8p or £4.42 per case of 12.

Tesco Value Whiskey? Yes, they're coming after our winos. For when a corner shop loses the custom of its local alcoholics, how can it go on? You should see the offers Aldi has on meths these days.

'Pavlov' is a marvellous name for a dirt-cheap vodka, though; the kind of detail Martin Amis might once have come up with.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Hospital canteens and the "duty to protect"

Agnes was gentle and indecisive generally, a dove if ever there was, but had flown out hawkishly over the war. Her brother-in-law had been in his prisons, and, though she would not say what had happened to him there, Agnes thought even war was better than letting such things exist.

But if we remove one tyrant, then why not another, she'd said to Agnes; most of the staff at this hospital could give ample reason for us to go to war with their country of origin - every single one of them, if you asked the cleaners.

True, said Agnes; and maybe that's the way ahead.

-- from "The Phlebotomist's Love Life", in Helen Simpson's collection Constitutional. The driver of the story, and the emotion we're probably meant to identify with, is anti-war rage; but I like the opening up of another option.

Commercial note: On the evidence of Amazon, Constitutional's out in paperback on October 5. I hereby claim to be a month ahead of the curve, rather than eight months behind it.

[Constitutional, by Helen Simpson, London, 2005. Seriously accomplished comic stories. The plots flick round like second-hands, but each has the rest of a clock behind it. Adulterous, au-pair-employing suburban London appears to have literary life in it yet.]

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Disturbance at Weekday Cross

Some time in 2008, Nottingham will have a large and potentially splendid new art gallery. Until then, we have a large hole in the ground. To reconcile us to what's going on - that hole used to be a park - the creators of the gallery are staging a series of sweet little art happenings at the point where the hole meets the street. I am increasingly enchanted. There hasn't been this much fun at this particular crossroads since we got rid of the municipal bear-baiting pit, not to mention the bullring and the stocks.

Here, anyway, is the point -- a relic of today's happening:

The set-up was two women at a slightly dodgy-looking stall: sweets, a raffle box in red smoked plastic, and decorations in the same jeweller-meets-pawn-shop trim you see above. They were offering any quantity of time in exchange for written details of use and price. My year and a day was to hunt a dragon; I offered the traditional half a kingdom plus one hand in marriage. Should a fairy tale enter your life, you have to embrace it properly, no?

(The artists involved were called CoLab, but Google can't find my any more about them; may report back if I manage to get to one of their unveilings.)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Origin myth

Two short scenes from David Peace's Clough-at-Leeds novel The Damned Utd. There are three more scenes between them, all in the space of two pages.

First this:

The cleaning lady is cleaning my office, under the desk and behind the door, whistling and humming along to the tunes inside her head --

'You know, I once sacked all the cleaning ladies at Derby.'

'What did you do that for then, Brian?' she asks me.

'For laughing after we lost.'

'Least you had a good reason then,' she says. 'Not like Mr Revie.'

'What do you mean?'

'Well,' she says, 'Mr Revie once sacked a lass here for wearing green.'

'Wearing green?'

'Oh yes,' she says. 'He thought green brought bad luck to club.'

'And so he sacked her?'

'Oh yes,' she says again. 'After we lost FA Cup final to Sunderland.'

'Just like that?'

'Yes,' she says. 'Just like that.'

The telephone starts to ring. I pick it up. I tell them, 'Not now.'

Then this:

I have been in the kit room. I have been among the socks and the straps, the shirts and the shorts, but I have found what I was looking for. I have changed out of my good suit and nice tie into my tracksuit bottoms and this old Leeds United goalkeeping jersey.

Down the corridors. Round the corners. Through the doors and into the car park. The team and their trainers are already sat on the bus waiting for me. I climb aboard and plonk myself down next to Syd Owen at the front of the coach --

'What do you think of this then, Sydney?' I ask him.

'Of what?'

'Of this?' I ask him again, pointing at this old Leeds United goalkeeping jersey.

'I think if the team have to wear suits when they travel, so should their manager.'

'But what do you think of the colour, Sydney?'

'Green?' he asks. 'I think it suits you, Mr Clough.'

You'd call that cinematic, except the final reveal would be extremely difficult to do on screen. The writing has other hidden sophistications, too: I hadn't noticed the cleaning lady's dropped 'the's ("bad luck to club", "After we lost FA Cup" -- the tic of Yorkshire dialect cliche represents with a "t'") until I had to type her out.

For the significance of that green jersey, if you don't already know, try the picture at the head of this BBC obituary or the logo of the Brian Clough Statue Fund.

[The Damned Utd, by David Peace, Faber, London, 2006. A first-person account of the manager's nightmarish 44 days in charge of Leeds United, the most powerful and hated club in Britain, intercut with a second-person account of the rapid rise that took him there. The structure could be hubris and nemesis, or a reflection of the curse -- "first with gift and then with loss" -- that an unknown Yorkshireman is casting on our anti-hero. Builds an impressive sense of grim inevitability, although that could be something to do with me already knowing what's going to happen. No idea how far from documentary it is, but it feels original and fully imagined.]

Sunday, September 03, 2006

After the war

Macaulay on why the politicians of the Restoration were such Bad Men. Long (I forgot how long -- I'm a hundred or so pages south by now) but sadly unlikely to lose resonance:

Scarcely any rank or profession escaped the infection of the prevailing immorality; but those persons who made politics their business were perhaps the most corrupt part of the corrupt society. For they were exposed, not only to the same noxious influences which affected the nation generally, but also to a taint of a peculiar and of a most malignant kind. Their characters had been formed among frequent and violent revolutions and counter-revolutions. In the course of a few years they had seen the ecclesiastical and civil polity of their country repeatedly changed. They had seen an Episcopal Church persecuting Puritans, a Puritan Church persecuting Episcopalians, and an Episcopal Church persecuting Puritans again. They had seen hereditary monarchy abolished and restored. They had seen the Long Parliament thrice supreme in the state, and thrice dissolved amidst the curses and laughter of millions... One who, in such an age, is determined to attain civil greatness must renounce all thought of consistency. Instead of affecting immobility in the midst of endless mutation, he must always be on the watch for indications of a coming reaction. He must seize the exact moment for deserting a failing cause. Having gone all the lengths with a faction while it was uppermost, he must suddenly extricate himself from it when its difficulties begin, must assail it, must persecute it, must enter on a new career of power and prosperity with new associates. His situation naturally develops in him to the highest degree a peculiar class of abilities and a peculiar class of vices. He becomes quick of observation and fertile of resource. He catches without effort the tone of any sect or party with which he chances to mingle. He discerns the signs of the times with a sagacity which to the multitude appears miraculous, with a sagacity resembling that with which a veteran police officer pursues the faintest indications of crime, or with which a Mohawk warrior follows a track through the woods. But we shall seldom find, in a statesman so trained, integrity, constancy, any of the virtues of the noble family of Truth. He has no faith in any doctrine, no zeal for any cause. He has seen so many old institutions swept away, that he has no reverence for prescription. He has seen so many new institutions, from which much had been expected, prodeuce mere disappointment, that he has no hope of improvement. He sneers alike at those who are anxious to preserve and those who are eager to reform. There is nothing in the state which he could not, without a scruple or a blush, join in defending or in destroying. Fidelity to opinions and to friends seems to him mere dulness and wrong-headedness. Politics, he regards, not as a science of which the object is the happiness of mankind, but as an exciting game of mixed chance and skill, at which a dexterous and a lucky player may win an estate, a coronet, perhaps a crown, and at which one rash move may lead to the loss of fortune or life.

You can choose where you want this applied or argued with according to political taste.

Ian Hamilton on Larkin's afterlife

The Larkin fun in the sidebar here (it points here and here) sent me scurrying back to Ian Hamilton, who I rememembered being good, and angry, on the post-biography change in Larkin's reputation. Sure enough:

A couple of weeks ago, there was a write-up in the Independent about a rap performer name of Ice Cube, author of 'A Bitch is a Bitch' and 'Now I Gotta Wet'cha'. Ice Cube, we were told, is notorious for his misgyny and racism and for whipping up his fans into ecstasies of loathing: he has them 'grooving to a litany of hate'. Only one of Ice Cube's lines was quoted - 'You can't trust no bitch. Who can I trust? Me' - but the reviewer did attempt to pinpoint his subject's characteristic manner of address. He called Ice Cube's language 'incessantly Larkinesque'.

Larkinesque? Did this mean that Ice Cube, for all his appearance of commercialised aggression, was secretly a somewhat poignant type of artist, wry, subtle, elegiac; that his dignified, distressful lyrics were likely to linger in the memory for decades? It seems not. In this context, 'Larkinesque' signified 'foul-mouthed'. And the Independent's readers were supposed to know this. Oh, Larkinesque, they'd think as one, that means Cube uses the word 'fuck' a lot.

And who can blame them if they do so think? After all, in the week before the Ice Cube notice, these same readers were treated to a daily dose of Philip Larkin's more repulsive apercus: sexual intercourse is like having someone else blow your nose, women are stupid, kids should be sent away to orphanages more or less at birth, and all the rest of it. At the bottom on one page, in a little box, we would get the Independent's 'Daily Poem' - usually some workmanlike concoction without a flicker of inspiration or originality - and on another, similarly boxed, there would be the ugly mug of Philip Larkin, together with a line or two of his off-the-cuff plain-speaking. What a busy newspaper: encouraging les jeunes and les no-hopers even as it chips away at the repute of the best poet we have had since Auden.

That's the introduction to a review of the Motion biography. The start of his review of the letters gives one notable reason why fashionable literary London (as the phrase goes) might have turned against Larkin:

There is a story that when William F. Buckley Jr sent a copy of his essays to Norman Mailer, he pencilled a welcoming 'Hi, Norman!' in the Index, next to Mailer's name. A similar tactic might happily have been ventured by the publishers of Philip Larkin's Letters: the book's back pages are going to be well thumbed. 'Hi, Craig', see p. 752, you 'mad sod'; 'Hi, John', see p. 563, you 'arse-faced trendy'; 'Hi, David', see p. 266, you 'deaf cunt', and so on. Less succinct salutations will be discovered by the likes of Donald Davie ('droning out his tosh'), Ted Hughes ('boring old monolith, no good at all - not a single solitary bit of good'), and Anthony Powell, a.k.a. 'the horse-faced dwarf'. There is even a 'Hi, Ian': he calls me 'the Kerensky of poetry'. Not too bad, I thought at first. Alas, though, the book's editor advises me that Larkin almost certainly meant to say Dzerchinsky, or somebody - some murderer - like that.

(It seems the letters were out first, by the way, at least in England.)

But Hamilton does not follow the approach of defending Larkin by attacking his executors. He had written about them sympathetically (in the greatly to be recommended Keepers of the Flame) before the Letters and the life came out. He jibs at Motion's style -- "too solemnly intrusive... The teacher in him is often at war with the narrator and, in the early sections of the book, where he is guessing, he slips easily into an inert biographese"; but he does not cricitise the handling of Larkin's sex life and his primary reactions seem to be shock and (for Larkin) something between anguished empathy and pity, with a dash of irritation. I'm going to take him as my guide, for now.

You see, I've never actually picked up the Motion biography, having heard so much bloody about it. But a good sample of Larkin's hates and rages come through in his poems. We don't have to live with them on the basis that his feelings against women, black people, lefties, rivals, everyone, were first and deepest feelings against himself, although probably they were. We have to live with them because he forged them into poems that are lasting and memorable and touching and draw echoes from us (me, anyway) even of their most shaming admissions. If we can't cope with that, it's our problem -- not his and not even (I suspect) his biographers'.

(The Hamilton reviews quoted appear in the The Trouble with Money, which is apparently still just about in print, and in Walking Possession, which isn't. I'm afraid you still need both.)