Saturday, 31 January 2009

Read me...

My articles on Henry Green's Back and Patrick Hamilton's Slaves of Solitude are now up on Albion magazine's website, alongside an interview with Billy Bragg.

Read them, Jenny's articles on Raymond Williams and Francophilia, and the rest of the magazine here.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Quack, croak, glug, and whatever noise a water boatman makes

This is good news, I think:

Number of ponds in Britain to be doubled to pre-Industrial levels.

Well, I wanted to blog one more news story today, and it was either this or Jonathon Jones proclaiming the death of the YBAs. See how grown up I am - I haven't even linked to that article. Anyway, ponds are great. There should be more of them.
The idea first came because I didn't have the courage to paint a real figure, so I thought, I have to make it clear, so I thought, I'll have to make it clear, so I'll write 'Gandhi' on this picture above Gandhi. I can remember people coming round and saying That's ridiculous, writing on pictures, you know, it's mad what you're doing. And I thought, well, it's better; I feel better; you feel as if something's coming out.

David Hockney

2008 Film Reviews #6: The Edge of Love

The Edge of Love (John Maybury, 2008)

I must be clear here and state that 5/10 for The Edge of Love means something entirely different to 5/10 for The Thin Red Line. This is an Ebertism: as the 'most powerful pundit in America' says:

When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to Mystic River, you're asking if it's any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then (The United States of) Leland clocks in at about two.

A good system, I'm sure you'll agree. So, to put it in ever-so-slightly different terms, where Malick's film has many of the accoutrements of excellence, which it proceeded to waste, Maybury's slice of WWII lit-rom promised to be an exercise in Grade A uselessness. Before going to see it, I thought that there was absolutely no way that it could bear up to the expectations of someone writing a PhD thesis on its subject matter, namely the literature of the Blitz, let alone someone whose take on contemporary interpretations of that period is that they are generally opportunistic at best. Well, I was almost wrong. Matthew Rhys is more than acceptable as Dylan Thomas, and the frequently derided Sienna Miller was hugely convincing as Thomas's impulsive wife Caitlin. Even Keira Knightley, possible playing herself, survived the ordeal intact (as did the generally reliable Cillian Murphy). Maybury did well to limit his scope to the internecine relationships between the four main characters, thus limiting the likelihood of any serious historical vandalism, and most importantly resists the easy option of pulling punches when it becomes necessary to depict non-domestic events. Indeed, on three occasions - Thomas being beaten senseless by a soldier in the blackout, a direct hit on a busy nightclub (based on the Cafe de Paris incident in 1941), and Murphy's commando leader performing an emergency amputation on a Greek partisan - the film achieved a viscerality that poked through the sheen of its nostlagic stylisation. There's the correct level of 'unreality' here, as well: it seems that Henry Green and Elizabeth Bowen were more valuable reference points that Sarah Waters and Goodnight Sweetheart. Not bad, then, but there's still something a little cloying about it all, and the literary angle could have been played in a slightly less clichéd way: there was perhaps room for a further exploration of the contrast between Thomas the self-professed poète maudit and Thomas the BBC employee. This is touched on, but eventually seems to become little more than a partial character assassination.

'We really do need to get people to dinner'

Priorities clearly straight in Davos, then.

Perhaps the WEF could have waited a few minutes more for their hors d'oeuvres in the context. Turkey calling Israel to account for itself might not be a geopolitical anomaly on the scale of, say, Britain doing the same to the United States, but it's still registers as surprising on the diplomatic barometer.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Me? Talismanic?

So I leave Norwich and Tesco finally get permission to build their store on the site of the old garage on Unthank Road. I lose count of the number of times I signed petitions against it. It occurred to me after a while that the two inordinately expensive Budgens/ Alldays/ Co-Op (delete as applicaple to your own Norwich-span) stores were actually rather enjoying their captive market of all the students who couldn't be arsed/ didn't understand how to use Mr. Banhams the butcher or (apparently Richard Hoggart-approved) fruit & veg shop. So, boo to Tescos, but equally boo to the Unthank Road branch of Co-Op.

John Updike, 1932-2009

RIP. I never read many of his novels - although I do have a garish hardbound copy of Couples - but he was familiar to me as one of the most insistent proponents of Henry Green's work as Green fell into relative neglect over the latter half of the twentieth century. His introduction to the Loving - Living - Party Going anthology has been an important way into Green for many first-time readers: odd, of course, that the quintessential postwar American novelist should be so astute a reader of such an unalterably English writer. Fitting though, somehow.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Reading: postwar British modernism

Just as an aside, I'm reading Bryan Appleyard's The Pleasures of Peace, which is about British art and culture from 1945 - 1989, and deals specifically with the way in which modernism disseminated in art, architecture and literature in the postwar era. It's much more open to notions of a British avant-garde than comparable studies, even if it (rightly, I think) ascertains that this avant-garde worked more by misprision of Franco-American ideas than by grasping the proverbial bull by the horns. Annoyingly, he doesn't cover music (by which I mean modern composition/ improv/ 'academic' music rather than the Beatles and punk) due to what he modestly admits to be his own vagueness about the field, but otherwise TPP is full of useful post-thesis ideas. Lots on English Surrealism, postwar architecture, the British Poetry Revival, Ballard, Bacon, Henry Moore etc. And he's pretty down on Larkin and the Movement, even if this critique is implicit and based on reading them as quasi-modernist in spite of themselves.

2008 Film Reviews #5: The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick, 1998)

I'd been meaning to watch this for years, and finally purchased the DVD so I could have the privilege of doing so. War film; ensemble cast; highly-respected auteur at the helm. What could possibly go wrong? Well, I'll tell you what could. Having three principle characters bearing fairly significant resemblances to one another could be deemed a mistake. Getting Sean Penn to phone in his performance wasn't a great move. Implying that you're going to attempt an extensive study of the ethics of conflict - the kind of study that informs the film's source text - and then devoting around three quarters of an hour to the tactical mechanics of overwhelming a machine gun emplacement is a little contradictory.

All the discrete elements of The Thin Red Line - war movies, big themes, Penn, George Clooney, Arvo Part on the soundtrack - end up coagulating here. I'm sure that something about this must elevate it above the morass of blood-and-thunder war films, but perhaps that's only a (false) implication that Malick manages to sustain by his repeated use of Part's Annum per Annum and Hans Zimmer's portentous refrain: so many signifiers of meaningfulness are present, minus the content.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

2008 Film Reviews # 4: Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008)

The title itself solicits derogatory substitutions of the abstract noun 'solace', the best-scanning of which (Quantum of Rubbish, IMO) is, sadly, semantically useless for describing the ineptitude and insensitivity that courses through Daniel Craig's second turn as James Bond. Okay: this is my gripe. There has been a tendency amongst certain film and TV critics over the last few years to automatically celebrate any piece of work which exacts a switch towards a supposed gravity. In some cases (Christopher Nolan's Batman films) this praise is justified, whilst in others (namely QoS and Casino Royale) it isn't. Reboots are invariably risky affairs, but New Bond preserves little to no awareness of the historical and sociological contexts that resulted in the relative light heartedness of all the pre-Craig films, even the pleasingly edgy Timothy Dalton outings Licence to Kill and The Living Daylights. While the old format looked tired while Piers Brosnan was scrapping with the ridiculous Colonel Moon in Die Another Day, the fact remains that Bond was, by that point, painted into a corner that the imitiation of fresher approaches (specifically the Bourne films) would only render more inescapable.

There is now no defining trait or content that can be said to belong wholly to the franchise, with the important exception of QoS's unabashed openness to product placement. As one might expect, this sits awkwardly with the allegedly uncompromising new direction. As Bond drinks himself silly on an overnight transatlantic flight, attempting to purge the guilt that has been brought about by the death of Vesper Lynd, no opportunity is spared to inform the audience that he's on a Virgin plane, or that he's drinking Gordons gin. As in the preceding films, particularly the latter two Brosnan efforts, the placements are given an ironic slant, but - in this context - the attempt at self-reflexive humour shatters the dramatic unity of what is supposed to be a pivotal and poignant scene. Similarly, the death of Gemma Arterton's sprightly foreign office agent, framed as if to add an extra layer of uncompromising brittleness to Old Bond's unwritten rule that the butter-wouldn't-melt Moneypenny types always get out okay, fails to rectify the tacky sexual politics by which virago figures like Grace Jones and Sophie Marceau are dispensed with in earlier films at the same time as leaving a straightforwardly bad taste in the mouth of the viewer. This is New Bond falling victim to a narcissism generated by all those fawning reviews: the characters are not expressive of, but simply expedient to the maintenance of, a narrative hard-mindedness. It doesn't work.

All this, and we still haven't got to the villain. Mathieu Amalric did the rounds in the press before QoS's release, puffing Dominic Greene as a Bond villain for the twenty-first century, a political chameleon whose talent for spin obviates any need to rely on muscle. (Greene, by the way, is an enviro-criminal, planning to hold South American water supplies to ransom. The worthiness of Bond's operations against him is negated somewhat by the extratextual fact that QoS was filmed in six different countries, which suggests to me a carbon footprint well in excess of anything that could be managed by, for example, hollowing out the innards of a Japanese mountain to build a glitzy, Ken Adam-styled rocket launchpad.) Anyway, the promo-pack image of Greene as a Blairite (or Sarkozyist) villain lasts roughly as long as the amount of time it has taken me to type this sentence. Amalric's character makes Robert Carlyle's putatively psychopathic Renard in The World is Not Enough seem like a Sunday school teacher. Goldfinger, Scaramanga, and Max Zorin would all have baulked at this chap's willingness to dispose with henchmen, and all would have been wary of challenging him to a square-go. On top of this incongruity between press self-image and filmic reality, there's the irritating importing of CR's world domination narrative into QoS. Greene is supposed to be patched, at a fairly high level, into the conspiracy by which Bond was foxed in Venice in the preceding film, but I have to confess I had more than a little trouble discerning how this might be the case, other than in the fact of Amalric bearing a passing facial similarity to preceding chief baddie Mads Mikkelsen.

In summary, the 'darkening' of the Bond franchise, allegedly a much-needed injection of political and psychological realism for the post-9/11 consciousness, seems to me much more a marketing reboot based on demographic analysis than a genuine attempt to add diplomatic and emotional thickness to the series. The worst thing is that Craig, by far the most thespy actor to inhabit the role, seems to genuinely believe in the stated motive of the whole enterprise. Hopefully, the third film of the reboot sequence will see the critics take this ersatz worthiness to pieces.

2008 Film Reviews # 3: High Anxiety

High Anxiety (Mel Brooks, 1977)

I appreciate that this film is, objectively, worth more than a four. What's difficult to express is just how much I was looking forward to seeing this: it was billed to me as a parody of Hitchcock and Freud, which sounded like a shoo-in as one of the greatest comic ideas of the twentieth century. Why it doesn't work (for me) I can't quite put my finger on, except by stating that Brooks's pandemonium-filled approach seems gauche compared to Hitchcock's subtle teasing out of the humour that inheres (especially according to Freud) in the impasses of human sexuality described by psychoanalysis. This psychodramatic comedy is already in North by Northwest, The Man who Knew too Much, and even Psycho, each of which incorporates a greater degree of comic content than Brooks seems willing to acknowledge. If a parody of Hitchcock doesn't account for the extent to which all Hitchcock films defend themselves in advance with huge measures of self- referentiality and parody, then it is more or less doomed from the off. Four out of ten.

2008 Film Reviews #2: X-Files - I Want to Believe

X-Files - I Want to Believe (Chris Carter, 2008)

Apparently the team behind this film have argued that its lack of critical success was down to people finding it too 'dark'. I'd contend that it was probably more to do with the fact that it was complete bollocks; a messy, unsculpted, tensionless romp through the tropological entrails of the TV series (read: photogenic snowscapes, backwoods laboratories, David Duchovny's once-fresh gallows humour). This is all elevated to a new plateau of unintentional hilariousness by Billy Connolly's camp turn as a soothsaying pederast. I Want to Believe's denouement was the recuperation of Mitch Pileggi's Assistant Director Walter Skinner, a moderately interesting character at some point in the mid-to-late 1990s, from his descent into an extremely vague region of bad guy-dom that took place around the turn of the Millenium. As if this wasn't 'made for TV' enough already, there's an annoying subplot about Scully, who reminds me of one of E.T.A. Hoffmann's Enlightenment wenches, going through the theological wrangle. As I say, nice photography, but the Canadian landscape lends itself to that kind of thing anyway. Two out of ten.

2008 Film Reviews # 1: Shoot 'Em Up

Okay, this is an irregular feature - I started writing these before Christmas, but I've picked them up again now because I needed to get some stuff off my chest about the movies I saw last year. The list goes worst-to-best in order, so you'll get all the grim stuff first. Note that this is about films I saw for the first time last year, which doesn't necessarily mean that they're 2008 releases.

Shoot 'Em Up (Michael Davis, 2007)

A film that came out late one film night when we too befuddled to decide what to watch. A film in which the allegedly 'comic' premise begins with a young woman being shot dead in cold blood immediately after giving birth. A film that stakes rather too much on the willingness of people to find Clive Owen munching carrots hilarious. A film that not so much exhausts all of Paul Giamatti's post-Sideways goodwill as makes him more or less unemployable. Seriously horrible. One out of ten.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Frost/ Nixon

We've just been to the beautiful Muvesz Mozi cinema up by Nyugati Station to see the Hungarian advance screening of Frost/ Nixon. I have to admit that I was feeling rather cynical about the film, and was actually arguing the case for us giving new Pacino/ De Niro vehicle Righteous Kill a go (I was shouted down because Jenny couldn't face watching a movie with 50 Cent in it.) It struck me that we were going to get a poor imitation of the decade's big media procedural, George Clooney's Goodnight and Good Luck: what we actually saw was considerably more chipper, due largely to the fact that Michael Sheen has given an Austin Powers-esque, erm, sheen to Frost, who always seems to be on the cusp of proclaiming the shagadelic charms of his girlfriend. Frank Langella, coincidentally (perhaps - insert Twilight Zone music here) a major character in Gn & GL, steals the show as the eponymous ex-president, and there's admirable support from Sam Rockwell as Frost's highly-politicised researcher and Matthew MacFadyen as (believe it!) John Birt.

I wasn't enormously sure about the ending, which seems to offer Nixon some sort of recuperation, and Ron Howard does his best - particularly in the first 45 minutes - to muck up a good script with some shockingly unwarranted camera trickery. Clooney was far more restrained with the cinematography in his own period piece, using rapid cutting only to provide intensity to the newsroom situation. Howard employs the device willy nilly - in one scene of fairly relaxed dialogue between Frost and Birt, which lasted no longer than a minute and a half, there must have been over ten different shots. It was like watching the overedited goal highlights on Match of the Day.

Otherwise, though, this really worked. It was suspenseful, which is a real achievement in this case because the film had to do so much work to explain to its audience why both Frost and Nixon had cause to get het up about. On top of that, it did a good job of illustrating the mechanics of television (and, by inferral, movie) production and financing. One came away with the sense of why and how Frost, or Paxman, are television interviewers and you and I are not, and this communication of the nature of a particular kind of professionalism is the mark of some neatly economic storytelling. I think Gn & GL was a better film, but this hit the spot for a Saturday evening.

Brighouse, Bootle, Featherstone, Speke...

Interesting, vaguely psychogeographic, article on the effects of the CC on the towns and cities of the M62 corridor here. I'm particularly taken with the rumour about Glasshoughton (spelled incorrectly in the article) Xscape. Indoor ski complexes somehow seem to gloss all of the industrial, economic, and technological upheavals of Britain in the Callaghan - Brown period, which I'm going to (probably annoyingly) call the 'long eighties' here. The visual, and some might say social, focal point of late-period-Ballard imaginative construct Milton Keynes is an Xscape which is visible from as far away as the M1 interchange: it's a frightening place (for a dyed-in-the-wool northerner) and an odd template for - and one has to use the word tentatively in the case of Rugby League Land's former industrial centres - the 'regeneration' of Britain beyond the Trent. Anyway, congratulations to the Observer for an engaging and refreshingly un-patronising article about the north.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Youll like this...not a lot, but you'll like it

Of course, everyone else in the world will have used the same title for posts on this subject. Lazy me.

South Bank's finest conservatively-minded celebrity magician has a blog. Sample excerpt:

Whilst on the plane to Barbados I saw the headlines about Prince Harry and an explosion of reaction to him calling a co-soldier a ‘Paki’. When I saw it had happened two years ago I had to ponder upon who caused the ‘explosion of reaction’. I don’t think it was Prince Harry if it was two years ago (because I didn’t hear the explosion then) but rather the media NOW who had just found out and decided to try to throw the shit as far and wide as they could. I wonder why? Who cares? After all isn’t it an abbreviation of Pakistani? I know that I couldn’t care less if someone calls me a ‘Brit’ and would think myself to be a pretty pompous ass if I did. The soldier concerned seemed to have treat it in the right way, recognised it for what it is, a nickname, and got on with living. How desperate can newspapers get? Oops sorry. Did I say NEWS papers? ; Isn’t this story to old to be considered as ‘news?

Woah, Paul. Outrageous. Someone's got to stand up for the decent majority in this country and stick it to the PC brigade blah blah blah blah. I'd suggest Paul and his ilk go and live on Charlie Brooker's imaginary 'Daily Mail Island', only the Mail seem to have got his goat by publishing unflattering pictures of Debbie McGee.

(Seriously, though: what makes some people think that 'Paki' and 'Brit' could possibly occupy equal ranking in the league table of offensive words?)

Also, I hope you have noticed that Daniels, although definitely not a 'pompous ass', ends many of his simple statements with either one or two question marks??

I hope he doesn't do any crazy magic on me now.

Berks in the Fens

Good old Will Self in his introduction to Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker:

This book breaks the alleged rules of literary composition. Of course, there aren't really any rules, or if there are, they're there for deadheads who want to be taught naturalism by some berk in the Fens.

I wonder if Will was forced to rescind that remark when he gave a keynote paper during last summer's conference devoted to the distinctly unberklike W.G. Sebald, held (unsurprisingly) at UEA?

Anyway, he goes on to qualify this unnecessarily warlike opening remark a couple of pages later by saying something that I think is pretty urgent:

The cod-naturalism that infects so many texts is not an arbitrary convention, it's the very essence of what modern identity is. The idea that what I say to you will be immediately and lucidly comprehended is one of the most prosaic delusions of this most neurotic age. Everyone wants to be understood as as if the world were in a position to provide unconditional love. This is balls.

Self in a nutshell, then: one cantankerous provocative gesture eclipsing a beautifully-thought point. Clearly, though, if it was all the latter no-one would ever have heard of him, and he'd be writing literary criticism read only by enthusiasts and postgraduates. What a Wildean place to be.

War (yes, I know, 'what is good for/ absolutely nothing', and so on.)

I've left out 'fantasy' because I have an idea about that which involves getting someone better qualified than me to do it, and skipped straight on to war and travel.

First thought: another glaring snub for Henry Green (Caught and Back, this time.)

Second thought: but Richard Aldington makes it!?

And the rest: Heart of Darkness surely belongs in the 'family/ self' category, although I appreciate this is 'war and travel'. Glad to see a bit of Asterix to balance the Tintin. The list is very of its time, and pays what might be lip service to recent publishing phenomenons like The Kite Runner. Surely John Buchan is 'war and travel' rather than 'crime'. A.L. Kennedy's Day is good for what it is, but not the 'masterpiece' the Costa judges believe it to me (more timeliness). Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags is a fantastic call, but the web editor is going to get fired over this summary -

Basil Seal, posh and feckless, has been a leader writer on the Daily Beast, a champagne salesman, a tour guide, a secret policeman in Bolivia, and an adviser on modernisation to the emperor of Azania – all way relationship between a young southern writer, a Polish Auschwitz survivor and a Jewish New Yorker interweaves a host of complex themes (survivor guilt, ancestral guilt, madness and betrayal). The movie was Oscar-nominated; the book was banned in libraries across the States. But this is not just about provocative comparisons. Styron is a writer's writer, capable of setting a pastoral idyll in Brooklyn, and the traumas narrated occur alongside a classic American coming-of-age story -

which resembles the book I've read up until the toponym Azania, at which point the parse becomes farce as we're offered a description of (of all books) William Styron's Sophie's Choice. If they've fixed that error in a few hours time, remember that you can still see this triumphantly tasteless Colemanball here, for ever, for free. Moving on, it's good to see children's literature represented - I always thought The Machine Gunners was beautifully creepy - and Sebald's finally appeared, with his own subsection.

Not bad, though, Guardian, not bad. I'm enjoying this feature.

1000 Novels - State of the Nation

I like Ian Jack's columns usually, but he's ever so slightly wide of the mark with the following generalisation about the Kitchen Sink writers:

Northern England was not on its way to producing Nabokovs and Roths. These writers approach their subjects without any originality of form or language. To them, as to the reader, what mattered was the thing described rather than the means of description.

Fair enough as applied to Barstow and Braine, and perhaps to Sillitoe, but I think David Storey deserves a little more credit than that. This Sporting Life is a very strange work, and marks Storey out more as a descendant of the Brontes (and, to be a little more contentious, a contemporary of Camus) than as a chippy Stuckist.

Elsewhere, Ruth Scurr gets it right regarding Zola, whilst glossing over the sheer, Coriolanus-like, oddness of both novels. Mark Lawson puts GB84 in some illustrious company, seemingly, however, using it as a mere counterpoint to Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. At least he doesn't do as he threatens and include The Northern Clemency.

Answers on a postcard for Rowan Williams's non-selection of The Brothers Karamazov?

In the lists, there's one Elizabeth Bowen (where the 'nation' is Ireland, but I think The Heat of the Day might be an English SOD novel), lurds of Dickens, a misplaced (to my mind) Sentimental Education, a blast from the undergraduate past with Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest, far too many modern American novels, nae James Kelman, a shoehorned Of Love and Hunger, The Magic Mountain, pleasing recognition for The Radetzky March, a wonderful Roth (P.) with American Pastoral, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (adapted for radio last year featuring Johnny Vegas, who seemed to be playing himself), Rebecca West's haunting but slightly patronising The Return of the Soldier, Trainspotting (which only accentuates the lack of Kelman), and usual suspects such as Stendhal, Wharton, Wolfe, and Thackeray.

Only question: how does one define 'state of the nation'? How far is this state allowed to be communicated allegorically? If Of Love and Hunger is a novel which does the state of Britain in the Thirties by metonym, surely Henry Green's Party Going does the same but better?

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Family and Self

And here's the 'family and self' section, which (quite bravely, I think) squishes those 1940s Elizabeth Taylor/ Molly Keane type novels about domestic catatonia with the modernist and existentialist big guns (or those that hadn't already cropped up under 'comic'.) I think a few might contest the absence of works by Pessoa, Blanchot and Paul Auster. I would have liked to see a few more by Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps, and I'm extremely surprised not to find Elizabeth Bowen here, although they may be saving her for some uncanny/ Gothic category to come. In terms of my recent reading, Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March would have a strong case as a novel of family and tradition, and W.G. Sebald could go under either of the headings here for Vertigo and The Emigrants respectively.

Comic Novels

So the Guardian '1000 Novels' list is onto 'family' now, having covered comic fiction yesterday. Having embarassed myself on crime, I'll add my nominations in much better faith this time (as in, I'm not accusing them of making shocking omissions on this occasion!)

Alain Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy, The Erasers.
Iris Murdoch: The Black Prince.
Gustave Flaubert: Sentimental Education.
Patrick Hamilton: Slaves of Solitude, Mr Stimson and Mr Gorse (which could also have been a crime nomination.)
Henry Green: Nothing, Doting, Back.
Evelyn Waugh: All of Sword of Honour.
Gertrude Stein: Tender Buttons et al.

Is it facetious to say that I also find Death in Venice really funny? Also, I think J.G. Ballard's later novels court laughter in a vaguely self-parodying way.

Incidentally, I was very pleased to see Kafka get a mention under 'serious comedies', contra the angst-ridden claim that 'one may never laugh at Kafka' I once heard, and argued with, in a research seminar.

Monday, 19 January 2009


Or 'A Criminal Error', depending on your fondness for punningness. I suspect myself of having been a moron. The crime fiction special didn't omit Conan Doyle, Christie, and Ellroy - it actually gave them their own sections (as it did the late Michael Dibdin, whose Aurelio Zen series I forgot to mention) that I didn't notice this lunchtime. Credit where credit's due, and all that, and I feel particularly doltish as regards Nicholas Blincoe placing And Then There Were None right at the top of his A.C. list. My non-omission related quibbles stand, however.


Sunday, 18 January 2009

Crime Fiction

One more thing from today's Guardian Online - there '1000 Novels You Must Read' series is in crime fiction mode today. A few observations:

1 - It's certainly nice to read a list where you're familiar with a significant proportion of the entries.

2 - I know Conan Doyle mostly did short stories, but The Hound of the Baskervilles is a shocking omission. It's pretty disingenuous to knock Holmes out of the crime lit canon on a technicality.

3 - As is And then there were None. I'm surprised no-one makes a case for Christie.

4 - Glad to see John Sutherland pick Eric Ambler, although the list does demur the boundary between 'crime' and 'thriller'. However, Cause for Alarm is clearly Ambler's best novel (read it, it's the first vaguely grown-up piece of espionage fiction.)

5 - The Rankin selections seem a little arbitrary.

6 - Ditto Chandler, who gets two entries, but no Farewell My Lovely, arguably the most representative Marlowe novel.

7 - A bit unbelievable, this one. No James Ellroy. I know his novels are gruesome and, arguably, repetitive, but they've restyled the grammar of noir in a way that we're only just beginning to see the effects of.

8 - And, talking of those effects, I'm not sure that David Peace's 1974 and 1977 deserve to be on here at the expense of 1980 and 1983. Perhaps 1977 and 1980 would have been the correct combination.

9 - If they're trying to get the avant-detective thing right, surely Gertrude Stein's Blood on the Dining Room Floor (which is magnificently unreadable as only Stein can manage) or George Perec's A Void would be better places to begin than The Name of the Rose or The New York Trilogy.

10 - Good call by Carmen Callil for Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, but it seems to me that she's only read the first five pages...

11 - The definition of 'crime' is rather stretched. Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square is only as criminally-minded as, for example, Jean Rhys's Good Morning Midnight or Gerald Kersh's Night and the City. If you're going for angsty novels with an atmosphere of noir-ish gloom, Green's Party Going (with its mysterious 'Hotel Detective') would have to be a candidate. Conversely, Hamilton's Gorse Trilogy is definitely crime fiction.

Right, time for some interview preparation.

And, on a lighter note

Hungarian graffiti artists clearly think that the world can always do with just a little bit more Mr Bean. There appears to be some strange trend for 1980s British comedians in Budapest: in a nightclub a few weeks ago, we saw a girl wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Hugh Laurie's face.

Post- Post- Thatcherism?

If you can forgive him the Euston Manifesto for a moment, there's an interesting and in many ways correct piece by Nick Cohen in today's Observer on class and the credit crunch. Okay, so the bit about identity politics at the end is rather Daily Mail, but I think the symptomatic nature of the article is what is most interesting: once again, we see a (broadly) leftist journalist present the economic crisis as what Homer Simpson once called a 'crisetunity'.

So, in the comments section on Cohen's blog I note that one respondent has talked about an imminent return to 'proper politics'. Having worked as a university tutor for three years, I feel in a position to gauge the distance between where we were eighteen months ago and something resembling 'proper politics': it was huge. Middle-class students in Humanities are, and there is ample historical proof of this, a more than adequate political thermometer. But 'politics', even to my brightest students, is nearly always a question of social vetos and quibbles about 'authenticity' (identity politics writ small and reinscribed into the pseudo-culture of independent music.) Whimsicality tended to happen in place of discontent. Humanities undergraduates often live a life of antifolk records and knitting circles based on the quasi-political scenes in the Pacific Northwest: they tend to steer clear of challenging cultural forms in favour of those that are soothing and faux naive. I've frequently made the case on here that the likes of Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, and the late David Foster Wallace are the representative authors of this mindset, which - understandably, of course - wants humanism so badly that they are prepared to fly in the face of a welter of available evidence. The correlative of this is that this desire for humanism, for 'only connecting', becomes, in its lack of critical rigour, a co-conspirator with those agendas that want to make homey, artisan, 'niceness' into one more income stream. Maybe modernism needs to be taught on the proviso that it is much more difficult to turn Finnegan's Wake into a marketable lifestyle choice than it is to perform a similar trick with the authenticity-driven Mcsweeneys generation.*

I guess the point I'm trying to make here is to ask whether we are yet in a position to try and anticipate positive outcomes of the Crunch. What price a renewed inquisitiveness and social conscience amongst undergraduates, for example? If they make their cultural and political choices, as I suspect they do, on a conviction that the post-9/11 world is simply too threatening to take any notice of if you have the facility to ignore it, what happens when that facility is removed? Is Blairism-Thatcherism finally going to become subject to a popular critique of its theoretical base, rather than limited interventions aimed at its particular manifestations?

* Of course, it's entirely possible that the CC and its attendant politics has very little to do with fictional form and the sociology of reading, but that's just the grain these posts tend to follow...

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Most uncanny

I accidentally - I won't say how, you'll think I'm weird - saw this blog in Google translation. It was like having a weird French double, an alternative cuisson homme...

The So-Called Thirty-Nine Steps, Pt. II

My Mum sent me a press clipping about the Rubbish Thirty-Nine Steps: apparently it's caused all kinds of furore in England. Unfortunately, said furore seems to have mostly occurred on the part of people who read the Daily Mail, which I worry exposes some unconscious right-wing proclivities I might have. The BBC have attempted to justify the manifest inadequacies by arguing that the novel is 'far-fetched' anyway, claiming that the adaptation is 'faithful to the spirit and period of the book' (it isn't, actually) but liberates the writer to 'feel free to re-imagine it for a modern audience'.

All of which begs the question: what is the historical 'grain'? Surely fidelity to the (bad) ideology in the novel would not have seen Penry-Jones's Hannay profit from a learning curve in gender relations - as soon as the protagonist becomes progressive, we stop seeing the rude actualities of the era as Buchan inadvertently exposed them. Surely it's better for a modern audience to have a genuine grasp of the ideological realities of a moment in time so that a genuine sense of historical distance can be created? I'm not sure I agree with the political redemptions or mollifications of characters like Hannay: do we need him to develop in order to become the mouthpiece for a liberalism which we already (and problematically) take for granted? Isn't that just a sop to the vanity of our own moment's self-awarded notion of 'progress'? Does the drama become better when Hannay becomes more likeable?

Rubbish Thirty-Nine Steps now has its own Wikipedia entry.

'It's not the type of people or group you want your pub to be associated with'

Trowse publican bans BNP meeting in his pub after they book a function room under a group alias.

This might be a good point to refer you all back to Nick Griffin's confident assertion that the only types in the region who find the BNP offensive are 'a bunch of silly students and elderly University of East Anglia lecturers who do not represent Norfolk people', pace this post.

Andrew Coleman now vies with Chesley Sollenberger for my 'man of the week' award.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Football, Sublime and Ridiculous

I just celebrated being offered an interview by watching the paradigmatically graceful goal 'new Zidane' Yoann Gourcuff scored for Bordeaux against Paris St. Germain last weekend whilst simultaneously listening to the hook where it all goes 'Scottish Tourist Board advertisement' in the first song on the new Mogwai album (still up in its entirety on MySpace). Here's the goal:

But football: bloody hell. I'll be chirruping the disapproval of a billion know-nothing Daily Mail columnists here, but this 'Kaka to Manchester City on half a million quid a week' affair is absolutely beyond the already-hugely-budged pale. I won't insult your intelligences by pointing out how much useful stuff that money can purchase.

Elsewhere this week - I read Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March and Malcolm Lowry's Ultramarine, and now I'm re-reading Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. And did some other stuff. Writing, mostly.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Looking for work...

So, there's five CVs out there now. I'm one of those people who finds asking for jobs roughly as easy as walking up to a stranger and asking them on a date (ie, practically impossible), so I think I've earnt a bit of cooking time and a can of beer.

Went to the National Gallery again yesterday. Wish they'd give me a season ticket for free or something. I'll post something more interesting about it when I've chased away the 'jobhunt butterflies'.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

New Year, Old Myopia

Kate Kellaway's article on place in literature. Apparently, setting a novel in Hounslow or Willesden is a radical departure from the Hampstead convention. Except Kellaway tries to defend the Hampstead convention by making out that its critics (J.G. Ballard, a Hounslow-and-Willesden man himself, is one of these) are actually promoting an anti-woman agenda. (!)

Of course, the eye of this article only shifts away from London and its immediate environs about halfway down, when we're given examples of regional fiction which are either so blindingly obvious as to scarcely need mentioning (anyone writing an article on literature for a serious newspaper should know better than to try and present Niall Griffiths as an obscure author) or simply not regional. Phillip Hensher's The Northern Clemency, for example, is the product of a southern-minded, if not precisely southern, author looking to show that he can 'write the north'. The thing about The Northern Clemency, however, is that it packages its content with the London-based reader in mind: as a record of the Miners' Strike, for example, it is very much of the persuasion that the strike requires a framing of quaint, Full Monty-ish, otherness rather than (as in the case of David Peace's GB84) becoming the metanarrative in itself.

Reading M. John Harrison's Climbers, and A.L. Kennedy's well-founded remarks in Kellaway's article, I'm led to think that the real regional novel needs to make as few concessions as possible to a demand for the staged regional picturesque. Climbers uses its locational details in a way that would seem deictic or anatopic to the non-northern reader; that is, all place names ('Stand Edge', 'Holmfirth', 'Ellesmere Port') are unframed and stand-alone. Descriptions of, say, the industry of the Cheshire plain are made with reference to a knowledge that is already familiar with that place: Harrison rebels against the pressure of the industry to situate the non-provincial reader, implicitly arguing that the north-west is only as in need of locational explication as, for example, Regent's Park. One finds the same in many of Mark E. Smith's lyrics (my favourite? 'They talk of Chile/ while driving through Haslingden', from English Scheme.) One might even note that the Lakes Poets tended to treat their settings as givens, rather than write 'I drove up the M6 for four and a half hours/ got stuck in traffic on the toll bit near Birmingham/ listened to Radio 4 on the way/ made knowing remarks about Withnail and I/ then wandered lonely as a cloud.' That's what people like Hensher don't do, and I think that this detail is more important in the scheme of English cultural politics than is commonly admitted.

Anyway, I've covered most of this before. It's actually coalescing into a proper, grown-up article now - has anyone heard of a Journal of Northern Studies I can submit it to?

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Happy New Year

I hope 2009 delivers, whoever and wherever you are. I'd type more but Hungarian lager/ shampagne has immobilised the part of my brain which makes sentences. Perhaps an excursion into the time-old alibi of music vids on Youtube will make up for this...

Bloody hell, as Alex Ferguson might say....