Monday, 30 March 2009

Happy Warriors

Evan Thomas, my ex-flatmate and longtime partner in the 'Mr Weinstein' pitching game, has been making a documentary film-poem about the wartime activities of the USAAF's 8th Air Force in Norfolk during the Second World War. He's been as far away as Florida collecting footage and testimony, but a lot of the work involves wandering about eerie Breckland airbases filming disused Nissen Huts. You can visit the film's website here (and pick apart my constructions in the introductory text).

Sunday, 29 March 2009

March 2009: edited highlights

In lieu of an interesting new post (I've written 2,000 words of fiction, 500 words for a friend's website, and a long-ish lesson plan today), here's a rustle through the baggage of the Ides:

- The Spirit (n.) Film we saw and were enormously underwhelmed by. Samuel L. Jackson needs to sort it out, but not as much as Frank Miller does. I'm not sure the premise 'ghost flirts with women and Scarlett Johansson dresses up as Eva Braun' should have passed the 'Mr. Weinstein' pitching test.

- Walking (v.) Less of this in March, largely due to increased work commitments. The seasonally-affected Magyars have chinned up in the last week or two, according to my ambulatory researches, but I'm not covering five miles a day any more.

- Bankruptcy (n., abstract) Darlington FC have a month to find a buyer or they will cease to exist. Internet chat suggests that we'll have to pull together and reform as a 'Fans' Club' in the murky depths, where I would be - in all honesty - perfectly content.

- Politics (n.) Ferenc G. is gone but nobody seems to want his job. Corrupt, naive, and arrogant as Gyurcsány might have been, I feel rather sorry for him. When I saw him, he had stopped with his wife and daughter to buy some pre-cinema pic 'n' mix. Sights like this tend to humanise politics. In other 'humanising of politics' news, the godawful Jacqui Smith is all hot and bothered because her Guy Fawkes-a-like husband decided to get, well, hot and bothered on ministerial expenses. My inner schoolboy wants to use the phrase 'wank bank' here, and just has.

- Dream (n.) And a political one, at that. Last night I dreamt that I was crossing a big Budapesti boulevard with Gordon and Sarah Brown, and David and Samantha Cameron were crossing in the other direction.

- Clock change (n.) - 'Time-wasting bastard', more like.

- Badly-written (adj.) - I'm reading sci-fi novelist Brian Aldiss' autobiography at the moment. It's absolutely fascinating if you're interested in the currents of ideas which drove British postwar fiction. It's also terribly composed, and pays no attention to the potential tonal discrepancies between eulogistic descriptions of one's wife and throwaways like 'the water was gonad shrinking'. Full marks for attempts to posit a postwar avant-garde, though, even if this is mucked in with lengthy celebrations of (NO! NO! NO!) Kingsley Amis.

- Well-written (adj.) - I (re-)read Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction earlier this week. I need to write about the appropriation of the Sebaldian voice against Sebald's own arguments about style and kitsch. The decontextualisation of Sebald - only seven years after his death - is infuriating. For now I'll only remark on the wonderful Clive Scott's cautionary reminder, in his obituary for W.G.S., that the infinitely imitable nature of the style of a novel like Austerlitz was/ is a joke that flies in the face of the absolute alignment of form and content that Sebald achieved. For me, Sebald is a Beckett unashamed by the ultimate embededness of style within historical context. There is no superfluous melancholy in The Rings of Saturn; there is nothing whimsical or unearnedly peripatetic about Vertigo. Going back to On the Natural History of Destruction made me ask one or two severe questions of my thesis, I can tell you.

Anyway, that's for another day. I'm off to bed. Xx

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Man, he used to be so cool....

Just trawling the internet, trying to recover from a mild hangover and avoid writing a lesson plan, when I came across this interview that I did for a guy in Sweden's hipsterish music website back in the olden, golden days of AHRC funding, no pressing deadlines, Truck Festival etc etc. In celebration, a few Teknikov highlights:

- Sharing a stage with DFA's occasionally excellent Prinzhorn Dance School. It wasn't the gig or the company that made this evening memorable, however: it was the post-show shenanigans which allowed our reputation as Norwich's most immature band to spread beyond the confines of the fine city. Yes, we had 'handbags'. Mat and I stole Tony's hat for the nth time that week. Retrospectively, I can understand why he was a bit annoyed. Anyway, he retrieved said item of clothing and started hitting me around the face with it, provoking an unsightly tussle from which no-one emerged with any credibility.

- The Art School gig. This was a great night. The support act was an American chap who none of us had ever met before and he turned up at the venue, guitar in hand, precisely half an hour after he was supposed to be on stage. Our set got really squeezed because we were on late. Naturally, we spent the intervening period drinking cheap Oranjeboom and getting more and more nervous about the delay, an anxiety which transformed into adrenalin the moment we went on. About halfway through the set, and midway through a song, someone figured out how to turn the hall lights down and the backlights came on completely unexpectedly, at which point everyone went mental. There was a moshpit! People were dancing!

- Truck 2006. This was amazing. We spent three or four nights in Abingdon prior to this show doing what we do best, namely going to the pub, arguing, telling each other ghost stories, talking about football, and failing to do any rehearsal whatsoever. Somehow, this cocktail of procrastination worked wonders. We were the first band on and the atmosphere was incredibly tight, as one of the biggest thunderstorms I have ever seen in the UK was half an hour from breaking. I had sweat running into my eyes before we started playing. The tent was absolutely packed as we were one of the first bands of the weekend and, from the stage, we could see more people running across the field to come and see us. We then spent the rest of the weekend getting drunk, arguing, telling each other ghost stories and talking about football...

- The MacBeth. Our pre-Christmas 2007 jaunt to Hoxton was probably my favourite of our London gigs. Once again, we were incredibly late onstage thanks to the previous band, who took ONE BLOODY HOUR to get their equipment offstage. The gig organiser, who gave the impression of just having escaped from rehab (probably not uncommon in a known haunt of Amy Winehouse and Peter Doherty) had to plead with the stern barlady to let us play at all, and he only did this because we were all devoting energy to being conspicuously angry and walking around kicking our amplifiers like Ian Brown on the Late Show. Anyway, we got on and all of our instruments went absolutely mad. The Roland sounded as if it had fallen victim to some antagonistic nanotechnology and (as so often happens) my guitar string snapped during the very first song, meaning that I had to play the atrocious spare guitar for the entire gig. When we finally got going, though, we were ace, albeit in a frighteningly distorted, No Wave kind of a way.

Obviously, I won't go into all the times we were crap, or apathetic. Can you tell that, contrary to what I've gone on and on and on about in the past, I'm missing Teknikov rather a lot?

Monday, 23 March 2009

Half-arsed, putting off going to work, news digest


Ferenc Gyurcsany resigns as Hungarian PM, but not before deploying some ever-so-slightly emotionally manipulative language (he's such a Blairite). Actually, it all seems to be a ploy to prevent President Sólyom calling an early general election, but let's allow the almost completely unmourned (and, lest we forget, multi-millionaire 'socialist') Gyurcsany have his moment of spurious dignity. Here's a quick flashback of his career highlights:

Saudi 'terrorists'
(Feri's cracking wheeze about the supposed extracurricular activities of the Saudi national football team.)

A moment of unguarded honesty brings a major European capital to a standstill.


On the subject of people who can't be trusted to be left alone with a microphone for five minutes, Chris Moyles is in hot water again/ Chris Moyles has been a dick again/ Chris Moyles is still not funny.

I hate to say it, but I frequently feel as if Moyles is the embodiment of the noughties British zeitgeist.


And, carrying on the theme of zeitgeist-embodying loudmouths, The Damned United, Tom Hooper's adaptation of David Peace's novelisation of Brian Clough's scarcely believable 44 days in charge of Dirty Leeds (made more dirty by their being Moyles's team of choice) is out this weekend. The BBC's Pat Murphy interviews Martin O'Neill, manager of Aston Villa and former Clough underling, about it here. O'Neill is, as ever, an eloquent interviewee (he studied law at Queen's University prior to joining Forest, and is an avid amateur criminologist in his spare time), and I was surprised by the uncanny resemblance of his diction - close, spare, precise - to my dad's.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Ferencváros - Newcastle, 1996

I remember the hype around this game really distinctly, for some reason. I also remember absolutely despising Newcastle at the time and really, really wanting Fradi to win. All the attention before the game focused on the home team's prodigiously talented young midfielder Krisztián Lisztes, who some pundits were painting as the great new hope for Hungarian football. Sadly, Lisztes's career has been dogged by a series of injuries and, while he's won plenty of trophies in the Bundesliga with VFB Stuttgart and Werder Bremen, there seems to be a sense that he might have become a real star. As is sometimes the case, the Czechs ended up with publicity at the expense of the Hungarians, and the most famous midfielder to come out of Central Europe in the mid-1990s was the great Pavel Nedvěd, who is still going strong at 36 for Juventus.

A few things came out of this video for me. Firstly, the extent to which Hungarian football has declined over the last decade. When FTC's name came out of the hat as Newcastle's draw, they were genuinely considered a threat to Shearer et al's chance of progressing. Nowadays, Huungarian sides are looked upon as soft touches: when Zalaegerszeg-based ZTE sneaked a 1-0 first leg victory against Manchester United in a 2002 Champions League qualifier (before being thumped 5-0 in the return at Old Trafford) it was considered an upset of almost implausible magnitude. The result was so unusual that, according to some of my (non-football-loving, female) students, Béla Koplárovics, scorer of the winning goal in Zalaegerszeg, attained overnight fame throughout the country.

Secondly, of course, is the decline of Newcastle over a similar period. Given some of the players they've fielded since the unpleasant sacking of Bobby Robson in 2004 (not to mention some of those that Robson himself chose to deploy) it's probably surprising that they've lasted this long without being relegated. This year, their number might well be up, and my guess is that it's only the plight of semi-local rivals Middlesborough, the subject of internet rumours regarding imminent administration (rumours, I'd best stress, on the internet), that's acting as any kind of comfort for them at the moment. Just seeing the short clip above brought back memories of how good that Albert - Lee - Ginola (left on the bench that night in Budapest) - Ferdinand - Shearer side could be. Srnicek's early error, however, is an augury of how the next thirteen years were to turn out.

Thirdly, there's a lovely moment in the video where Rob Lee sees a slightly-scuffed shot hit the post and then trickle teasingly along the line before the Fradi goalkeeper comes to his senses and jumps on it. Various Newcastle forwards raise their hands as if they're about to begin celebrating, but as soon as the referee signals 'no goal' they're back to business. There's no John Terry-esque referee-harrassing here. Have we really got this bad this quickly?

Thursday, 19 March 2009

'Writers are lampposts, critics are dogs': Paulo Coelho Opiating the People

Yeah, well I'd rather be a dog than a lamppost, you dirty old hippy.

You can barely move in Hungary for people reading Paulo Coelho's, er, 'books'. It seems that the fall of communism facilitated not only the eastward surge of capitalism but a concurrent (and, if you ask me, related) influx of pseudo-spiritual bullshit.

It also fits the tendency of mainland Europeans to be far more susceptible to earnestness than the snarky British. It's almost disappointing to be out here knowing that you will never, ever be able to see the point of Bono, Depeche Mode, or the Smashing Pumpkins in the way that a Frenchman, an Italian, or a Hungarian can...

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


I've just discovered that my old friend Seb has a blog. He's never been one to sit on the fence...'The motorist lobby are hypocrites' is the best post title I've seen this year and I couldn't agree more with the sentiments he expresses about the hypocrisy of MacKenzie et al.

Be warned, though: he's a Liverpool fan.

Monday, 16 March 2009

The bleak shall (not) inherit the earth

So British drama controllers are planning a shift away from the 00s 'bleak paradigm' to return us to the programming which prevailed back in the days when Tony Blair was a wisecracking ingénue and foreign policy meant, and only meant, 'Maastricht' or 'Sarajevo'.

It might be a stupid question, but can't we have both kinds of television? I've been happy to avoid the torrents of Tunbridgian disgust that have no doubt accompanied Channel 4's somewhat risky decision to adapt Red Riding, but I also accept that there is a significant sector of the audience demographic who will always be a little bit more Hamish MacBeth in their tastes, no matter how hard the expensively-denimed advocates of broadcasting edginess try to convert them. Unrealistically sidelining financial questions for a moment, surely there is another form of programming which could be downsized to make way for more drama and, since we're being utopian now, more intellectual content of the John Berger/ Kenneth Clark/ Death of Yugoslavia mutant Reithianist school (the one that educates the viewer but probably in a way incompatible with Reith's ideology)? Come to think of it, are the light entertainment/ reality TV hybrids that are so common now actually any cheaper to produce than some sexily conscious Play for Today type material?

Alright, I'll stop fantasising and return to my lesson plan. Sorry.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Szabadság: Pt. I

As one gets closer to the Danube, the intersections of streets and boulevards in Districts VII and VIII will suddenly provide a long view, across the river to the Gellért Hill, where the snow has not yet melted. Invariably, our line of sight is interrupted by the Szabadság (Liberty) Monument at the southern end of the hilltop, an allegorical figure who flings her arms open back over towards Pest and working-class District IX, Ferencváros.

If the IXth sounds familiar to the British ear, it is almost certainly because of the football team of the same name who play there, their stadium a few miles down Üllői út plausibly the object of Liberty's gaze. 'Fradi', as they are popularly known, were a famous name on the European scene until the mid-1990s, and most recently made English headlines when drawn to play Millwall in a UEFA cup tie in 2004, thus allowing two of Europe's most unreconstructed sets of supporters the opportunity for an unfriendly get-together. Fradi won the tie, but were soon to experience domestic ignominy for the first time, being relegated to the second tier for financial irregularities in 2006. Because of a promotion bottleneck - only one team from each of the 'B' Liga's regional sections is allowed to go up - they have yet to return to the top flight, and their generally conservative fans have hinted darkly at a conspiracy on the part of the Socialist (read: high-taxing modernisers with a paradoxical faith in Thatcherite deregulation) MSP government of Ferenc Gyurcsány.

Ferencvárosi TC encapsulate, at this moment in time, the problematic nature of the EU at the close of the 00's. Owned by British businessman Kevin McCabe, whose prize football asset is Sheffield United, and managed by ex-Leeds striker Bobby Davison (who uses McCabe's other team as a source of young English loanees), FTC's recent history seems to mirror the opening up of Central and Eastern Europe to Western investment and management philosophy. McCabe's company has big ideas for the club, involving a stadium redevelopment and a medium-term plan to see the boys in zold and fehér playing for big money in the Champions League, another footballing institution which is representative of early 21st century European economic trends. But Fradi have an older symbolic value. Like Chelsea in England, they're a side who have traditionally represented the socially conservative section of the working class, and since 1989 they have been a rallying point for elements of the Hungarian far right.

The Hungarian far right agenda might be summed up according to three key principles. Firstly, it is hostile towards both Jews and Roma, although its phobias are not limited to its principle scapegoats. Secondly, it is irredentist. A popular graphic symbol amongst its members is a map of Hungary - actually, the portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire sublet to Budapest - prior to the Treaty of Trianon. Parts of modern Croatia, Romania, Slovenia, and Ukraine, and most of Slovakia, are incorporated into 'big Hungary'. Thirdly, like the British medium-to-far right, it is adamantly anti-European.

Ferencváros thus find themselves in the curious position of exemplifying the conspicuous mobility of capital in post-2004 Europe and embodying an attitude which might be said to be its antithesis. As hostility towards Gyurcsány and the MSP swells due to Hungary's modishly collapsing economy, one might grasp in the situation a worrying indication of the dominant tendency in European dissent in 2009. The financial crisis - it seems glib to use the word 'present' here - has loosened the cap, never altogether sealed tightly, on the resentments of immoderate conservatism across the continent. A number of commentators, often liberal or leftishly inclined, have predicted a 'hot spring' for Europe this year and for the nations of the 2004 accession in particular. Romania, the Baltic States - one of which, Latvia, has already pegged its currency to the Euro - are seen as likely flashpoints of civil disturbance. Bulgaria is extremely unstable. Demonstrations against Gyurcsány wouldn't be a new thing here, but we can expect more of the same as the year wears on. Western Europe, however, seems just as liable to witness unrest. France we already know about, but Italy, Ireland, and even the usually timid UK seem to be approaching the red part of the thermometer. Greece and Iceland have already reached their internal tipping points.

It's absolutely crucial to note here that what we stand to see is anything but a repeat of '68 or, for the former communist states, '89. In the West, the recent history of civil disturbance offers only France and Greece as examples in which the voice of dissent was (broadly) leftist. The 2006 Dublin riots and a series of particularly nasty, racially-driven outbursts along England's M62 corridor share much in common with the nihilistic outbreaks of joyriding and vandalism that erupted in the likes of Blackbird Leys and Benwell in the early 1990s. In these cases, no progressive political argument was being made. Frustrations that might have been harnessed by the left - bad housing; unemployment; the neglect shown by successive governments to former industrial areas - came out anyway and attached themselves to specific targets within the disaffected community. Does anyone really believe that the 2000 Paulsgrove riots were really about paedophiles? Why did they not take place in, say, Cheltenham? My inclination is that the right are slowly getting the first dibs on resentments that, ideally, might be addressed with an entirely different mode of analysis.


As ever, we are hampered by our inability to think ourselves into history. 9/11 remains the cardinal example of this in recent memory: few can honestly say that the attacks prompted anything byt a mixture of objectless anxiety (a vague, 1939-esque premonition that Things Would Never Be The Same Again), and a childlike faith that a benevolent agency would act as the invisible hand of stability. Eight years later, we're still twiddling the same abacus. History is elsewhere, a set of past tenses which were eventually recuperated as the just-about-inhabitable present. Teaching a humanities subject at a university can provide a salutary crash course in this weltanschaung, which can't quite be described as apathy. Progress and security are interpreted as the ability to make judgments about things that happened a long time ago: we are invited to assess the value of Heart of Darkness according to our certainties about the wrongness of colonialism. Each text allows a new opportunity to rate ourselves a historical (allegedly disposed-with) demon: Hitler, Idi Amin, Field Marshal Haig, postwar austerity. First year students, unwittingly, are the 21st century's premier proponents of Whig history. Given that their lecturers, and a still-sizable number of their secondary school teachers, cut their teeth on Marx, Althusser, Adorno, and Derrida's seance with Marx, one has to wonder where this guarded optimism is coming from. Repeatedly, politics is displaced into parts of the world where Whiggish benevolence might still be seen to be required: Palestine, Sudan, Tiber, Iraq. Borrowing a notion half-remembered from Slavoj Žižek, it might be said that their appeals are made to the grace of the system, the capacity of which for discretion is read as some Darwinian zenith of political possibility, rather than directly against it. Anything wrong is interpreted as a malfunction within the system, which must be normalised, rather than as an inherent flaw. I've resisted writing about this so far, but the well-intended jubilation surrounding Barack Obama's victory is the categorical example of this: as if Obama's incessant realpolitiking during the election campaign were not enough to make us suspicious, we should remember that the new president is opposed on principle to certain rights that a significant number of his worldwide admirers believe should be inalienable. Labour's 1997 victory - which is not the same thing as a victory for Labour in 1997 - should have served as a cautionary reminded about this kind of triumphalism. In each case, the victory of a nominally left leader acts less as a prompt for real advancement and more as (spurious) proof of our own political perfection. We have no sense of ourselves as historical beyond vague platitude's about the electorate's capacity to 'make history'.

Meanwhile, the right persists with its own unpleasant brand of selective historicism. I've talked at length about the wolf in lamb's clothing of the conservative commentariat, whose assumption of the voice of 'sensible opinion' has allowed for the propagation of opinions which are, quite simply and irreducibly, extremist. Most troublingly, the likes of Richard Littlejohn have been allowed, time and time again, to play the wounded party as they reduce all left-wing critique to the analysis of a crypto-Stalinist 'metropolitan elite'. Absolutely everything they disagree with is dismissed with the wholly unearned seen-it-all-beforeness of a Phillip Larkin poem: they are allowed, like Nick Griffin is, to represent themselves as the revolutionary vanguard of the free- and right- thinking. In spite of the fact that they have a variety (and the majority) of established media platforms to speak from, they are permitted to claim that they are subject to a left-wing conspiracy which aims at their silencing.

To be continued...

Hillsborough 20th Anniversary

There's a piece in today's Observer about the Hillsborough Disaster. Twenty years on and countless eyewitness accounts later, this is still almost unbearably moving. It's shocking too - the anecdote about the policeman telling survivors not to use an advertising hoarding as a stretcher because they were 'vandalizing the stadium' took my breath away.

The tragedy, seen retrospectively, was a watershed in British politics. In its wake, it became unacceptable (or, for more cynical parties, inexpedient) to make Mail-like generalisations about the behavioural tendencies of large groups of people. The article makes it abundantly clear that the disaster was not attended to sufficiently because the police assumed that there had been crowd violence. And yet crowd trouble itself was less the result of a spontaneous desire to fight than it was a conduit for the frustrations of a Britain that was, successively, broke and dominated by an uninclusive monetarist attitude as it moved through the 1970s and 1980s. The old cliché that rave culture put the lid on hooliganism by providing a comparable, and yet nonviolent, outlet for the desire to be part of a mass movement is more true than the noun at the beginning of this sentence would have you believe: very few people were 'fighting just for the sake of fighting'.

If crimes tell us more than anything else about our culture, can disasters be said to do the same thing? Much ink has been used describing the links between the series of rail tragedies around the turn of the Millenium and the negligence of the Blairite government. Hillsborough, along with the Zeebrugge ferry sinking, are the totemic catastrophes of the Thatcher era. The latter resulted from the attitude that time is money: the boat's bow doors were not secured before departure, provoking the investigating judge to mention a 'disease of sloppiness'. The same carelessness was evident at Hillsborough, but there were clearly other complicating factors. Thatcher declared her intentions towards football supporters with her notorious ID card scheme and one club - Luton Town, owned by the commitedly neo-Tory David Evans - had already made moves to implement it. Fences were put up at the majority of grounds, as if the players, rather than opposing supporters, were the object of aggression. Travelling fans were locked in cramped football specials to ferry them to and from away games. There was little consideration shown for the large majority of fans who did not participate in disorder, and a blanket lack of willing to engage with the social problems that motivated those who did.

On the subject of social problems, the fact that the tragedy occurred in South Yorkshire is fairly unavoidable. Taylor's report bore out the suspicion that inept, inconsiderate policing was largely to blame for what happened. The S.Y. force in 1989 was staffed largely by veterans of the Miners' Strike, and the conflict had clearly imbued the organisation with a siege mentality. As the article, like many before it, shows, the police were utterly incapable of interpreting the events as anything but violence and disorder. By the time they performed the necessary measures, it was far, far too late.

The public response is all that remains in my memory from that day - I was only eight years old. I didn't find out about Kelvin MacKenzie's sociopathic line on it all until much later on. The Sun's reportage on Hillsborough is arguably the biggest misjudgment in British journalism since Rothermere's backing of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, and the paper's sales on Merseyside are still significantly lower than in the rest of the United Kingdom. That MacKenzie has made sporadic attempts to defend his editorial choices that week tells us a lot about the ongoing pervasiveness of Thatcherism.

I began going to football the following year. The fences were still up at Feethams, but the attitudes surrounding football had already begun to change. Although I've seen them get unnecessarily baton-happy on a few occasions, the police are now generally responsible and cooperative when it comes to crowd management at football. More importantly, the popular and political determination that nothing of the sort should ever happen again is ongoing. Articles like this contribute to that will.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

'Are you getting this, ground control?'

Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama is the Classic Serial on Radio 4 at the moment. I wouldn't normally mention this but for the fact that I spent yesterday evening reading up on what I like to call 'spooky space stuff' in the wake of the International Space Station's near miss with some orbiting litter earlier this week.

Rendezvous with Rama is one of the most depressing books I've ever read, even by the standards of most post-1945 science fiction. I'm not by any means saying that sci-fi is bad, but its typical tropes - the evacuation of the earth, travel over multi-generational time periods, sequestration in stasis - leave me pretty cold. The one that genuinely pisses me off, though, and this is unquestionably a highly significant part of Clarke's weltanschaung, is the reduction of female characters to childbearing and nurturing roles. In Rama, this (covertly) has the structure of a revenge fantasy: the woman who ends up tasked with the 'Eve mission' - Rama, it transpires, is a celestial opportunity for humanity to start again, and its investigators have been lured there for a short, knockout, Darwinian tournament - begins the novel as a highly-respected scientist. It's over a decade since I read it, but I'm sure that there's a lot of male-endorsed chaff about her nascent maternal stirrings. Anyway, there seems to be a lot of that about in science fiction. However women come out of Flaubert's work, or even that of an unrestrained cock-waver like Henry Miller, it's very rarely like this.

That said, I'm interested in the power a lot of sci-fi has to induce such a sense of dislocation in me. Dostoevsky or Kafka or Sartre or Camus or Blanchot or Robbe-Grillet (okay, maybe The Plague, which has certain tendencies in common with sci-fi) don't do that to me. Ray Bradbury or William Gibson, on the other hand, do. If someone could venture to name the effect I'm discussing, I'd be fascinated (I don't think 'the uncanny' does enough work, in this case).

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Me, last week:

Julie Myerson is right to say that our writing tells us much about ourselves that we don't already know.

Last week, what I didn't already know about myself was that I was writing a sentence about someone who was about to become extremely (in)famous indeed. It's come to a pretty pass when the literary affair of the year isn't the Sartre-Robbe Grillet debate, or even a spat between Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, but a kerfuffle over the self-indulgent 'mumoirs' (THAT IS MY NEOLOGISM TM TM TM COPYRIGHT IDST!!! Seriously, I just made 'mumoir' up. They might as well give me the royalties cheque now...) of an Islingtonite mother-of-three who can't get her head around the fact that her son smokes a bit of dope.

In all seriousness, I recognise that 'a bit of dope' actually does - contra the assertions of many of the smug hippies on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog - have the potential to derail one's life in potentially serious ways. This probably deserves qualifying by saying that something approaching the opposite is true for many individuals (cannabis can focus people just as it can distract them; not all users spend their entire life in a smoky room watching Harold and Kumar), and that those who are affected negatively by it are often negotiating less contingent stresses and strains. From what I've read about the Myersons, it seems that her son was ludicrously overpressured by parents who felt that they were doing anything but: from my teaching experience, I can say that Britain is overrun with teenagers who have had it banged into them that nothing but relentless, quantifiable achievement will do. This doesn't mean that kids are being encouraged to learn about things; it means that they are (implicitly) being pressed to learn by rote - wherever that's possible - so they can get the best grades/ the best job. IMO/ IME this is a specifically middle-class problem. There are lots and lots of potentially talented individuals for whom university becomes a self-destructive circle of mechanistic revision and joyless socialising, rather than an opportunity to, well, find out about what I remember Karl and I, in a flash of almost revolutionary wisdom, agreeing to term 'stuff'. It is all too rare to meet a student who says something like 'I picked English Lit/ History/ Classics because I find the subject bottomlessly interesting and, to tell you the truth, I don't give a fuck what grades I get because the studying is rewarding enough in its own right.' That's a pity, because they're invariably the ones who get the best results.

Anyway, despite not liking the idea of Jake, who I get the feeling is probably one of those pious weedheads who listen to Manu Chao, I am on his side. His mother is hacking out the typical Islingtonite route of building a literary career grounded on an erroneous belief that their own experience is somehow more vital and visceral than that of anyone else (what price the mother of a heroin addict from Burnley being given the opportunity to publish such a book?) and, on those terms alone, offends my most deeply-held principles. She's the new Wife in the North.

Oh, and my own parents? They are bloody good at 'no pressure', to the extent that not an eyelid was batted at my numerous C-grade GCSEs. In the most memorable example of 'no pressure' (as far as I'm concerned), my mum once semi-encouraged me to go to London for a play-off final when I had a four-hour exam in Norwich the next morning. True to form, I refused to go and spent the evening in the pub instead, but it was nice to be trusted to be able to do well even if I had gone to London. I get the feeling that the meddling committed by the Myersons of this world doesn't accomodate pre-exam play-off piss ups...

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Arsenal Stadium Mystery

Arsene Wenger compounds his resemblance to Jack Straw by claiming that Arsenal may be a priority target for extremists. It's not the greatest excuse for falling into fifth place, is it? In fact, it's almost 'dog ate my homework' country.

I think he's been reading this novel.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

'In our hour of financial need'

The Guardian staples its colours to the mast: as hundreds of jobs go in the media, Farringdon expresses solidarity by paying Matthew Fort to optimise our pizza-buying experience. Well, as they say, if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem...

Let's just say Nero's tuning up again.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


Am I the only one who was misled by the adjective in this article?

Actually, come to think of it, I probably was...

Writing: fun?

Writers respond to the question 'writing for a living: a joy or a chore.'

Will Self's answer is probably most consonant with what I think about writing fiction. Nobody is making you do it, contra to what Amit Chaudhuri seems to be arguing (I've met Chaudhuri a few times and this point seems typical of his Eeyorishness - he's also a classically-trained singer and one occasionally gets the impression that he'd rather be doing that most of the time.) It's pleasing that self refuses angst here. Ronan Bennett is straight to the point as well: 'I am not a tortured writer', he says, pleasingly opting out of the mythopoetics I was discussing last week. Julie Myerson is right to say that our writing tells us much about ourselves that we don't already know, and that this can often be frightening (but, I think, it's just as often comforting or reassuring). Geoff Dyer claims to prefer the tinkering and toning to the initial act of invention, something I can sympathise with at times.

But John Banville? Bloody hell. I'd like to credit him with being ironic here, but I suspect - having read The Sea, simultaneously the least original novel ever and the one that behaves as if is the most radical - that he isn't. Banville's utter pomposity is perhaps matched only by that of the actors in Blackadder.

Self is riding the updraft of my estimations at the moment, though. As a bonus, read the transcript of his absolute demolition of Richard Littlejohn and his 'novel' To Hell in a Handcart here.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Fascinating stuff from Germaine Greer - perhaps the best public speaker I have ever had the pleasure of being in an audience for - on the disparities between male and female humour, and the old lie that men are funnier than women. I can't really add much to this, because I'm knackered, other than to say that I agree that the majority of men I know who really, really enjoy making other people laugh (ie, me) look for a kind of acceptance in it. I'm not sure that this is a bad thing, though...

Petrolhead Propaganda

The Hungarians all laughed at me when I told them that I can't drive. It seemed wise not to get into an ethical debate about the subject.

On that note, here's the ever-reliable Evening News doing its part for the Norfolk drivers' lobby...

That link will stop working in a week or so, by the way: for future reference, the story is about a man with a phobia about speed cameras...

Monday morning - a shot in the arm

I'm starting to like Monday mornings quite a lot. The last few weeks have made me realise just how much I enjoy teaching, especially when its results can be as immediately clear as they are in language classes. I like to think that I'll bring what I've learned in this field back into academic teaching: although I believe that the ideal humanities seminar is characterised by a certain formlessness and natural fluency, the pedagogic realities in the UK at the moment make this more or less impossible. Literature seminars too often collapse into a situation in which the teacher is having to explain (what is inevitably their own take on) a text that the class have not been able/ bothered to read, and setting lesson objectives in such circumstances is basically pointless. It is pretty dispiriting to have a group of twenty, three of whom are bursting at the seams to discuss the narratological difficulties of The Turn of the Screw, whilst the other seventeen are making excuses for not having got beyond the first page.

Language teaching has been a different kettle of fish, and has certainly offered pointers for how university seminars might be better run. Firstly, the school I'm teaching at insists that groups should contain no more than seven. Secondly, you can't do this work without a lesson objective. Thirdly, the students all (seem to) want to work.

This isn't to say that I'd prefer to be a language teacher, only that the literature seminars in the redbrick and Brutalist universities are predicated on utterly unrealistic conditions, and that far too much of the work the tutor is asked to undertake there involves making simplifications for students who, I'm sad to say, probably shouldn't be there in the first place. Tutors, predictably, become unmotivated, and a degree of cynicism creeps into a process that should not accomodate such an attitude. We're being asked to encourage independent thought amongst a generation for whom critical thinking has been reified as a banal 'well, it can mean anything you want it to mean, can't it: that's just your opinion'. The great license of poststructuralism has been turned back upon itself, or even been ventriloquised, by the Fukuyamas and Fukuyama-lites who would have us believe that our democracy has been perfected because we can propose the deferral of any opinion.

Anyway, that is for another post. What I meant to say is that I particularly enjoy my Monday morning class, because it's exclusively male, and nearly all my other students are women. Predictably, Monday is the silliest, most unruly class, meaning that I really have to come out of myself to have any authority. This morning, I think I cracked them, although this did involve a long argument about whether or not an Audi can do 280 km per hour, and whether one should do this or not. I think I'll avoid getting into cars driven by Hungarians for this reason...apparently, it's 'normal' to rag your motor to the top of its capacity.

And we were supposed to be talking about film reviews...

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Hard Fact Time

I feel lucky to be in a different country while this situation worsens. Having a new job, meeting new people who speak a language I know next to nothing of every day, tends to take the edge off situations like the precarious health of one's local football team's finances. Last night, though, after an exchange of texts with my brother, I sat down for twenty minutes with a glass of cheap red wine to try and figure out exactly what I think about it all.

My brother and I are both in our mid-to-late twenties and we could both reasonably be said to be beyond the age of no responsibility. He's a full-time journalist with a few years worth of experience, I'm a PhD in English supposed to be transforming my thesis into a fully-fledged book proposal. Last time our football team achieved any real success, I was nearly nine and he had just turned seven, so we were understandably not going to celebrate that by going out on the town and getting drunk and sentimental. Last night, I realised that the window of opportunity for that kind of abandon has just about gone. It will probably be a few years before the club is in a position to challenge for anything again, and I just can't see either of us being a position to suddenly drop everything and travel across the UK for a vital end-of-season away game
by the time that situation comes about.

I've seen Man Utd, Spurs, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea fans who have never set foot inside a football ground wildly celebrating winning various competitions. I've seen them argue with each other about the relative merits of their clubs as if they had any real connection with the place. I've seen them moved almost to tears by adverse results while sitting in the pub on a Saturday afternoon. All Thom and I have got from Darlo in the period of time when we can afford to actually follow a club with the 'passion' all of these plastic fans proclaim they feel is disappointment upon disappointment upon disappointment. The chances are that next time - if there is indeed to be a next time - Darlo get promoted, I'll be sitting in a conference room somewhere, or something equally adult.

Another point in all of this is that, for all the complaining fans do when their clubs go into administration, there are people who (understandably) have no interest in football whose livelihoods are damaged when '1p in the pound'-type settlements are imposed by preferential creditors. It's all well and good the 'club being saved for future generations', but when its debt management agenda can involve other, smaller, companies taking a serious hit in the pocket, there's something pretty grubby going on. Football fans need to be less blinkered about what 'administration' actually means: it isn't just a problem for the club which results in a ten point deduction, it has a real and palpable effect in the community. Clubs must learn to live within their means soon, even if that means a number of them going part-time. I'd rather see Darlo fielding semi-professional players than think that their mismanagement had cost anyone a job or their livelihood.

'I'm forty, and I've done nothing I'm proud of.'

Talking of plotting, we went to see Gus Van Sant's biopic of Harvey Milk last night. I enjoyed it, although the ending was pretty heartbreaking, and thought Sean Penn was outstanding in the title role. He may even have undone some of the damage done by his pompous, dick-waving directorial turn Into the Wild, but it's a little too early to say.

One note about Milk, though. It's very interesting how many films recently have dealt, in one way or another, with crises in the ego of the successful male. Here's the list that immediately springs to mind:

Goodnight and Good Luck (2005) - David Strathairn's fantastic portrayal of Ed Murrowgoes beyond the manifest politics to attempt a psychologisation of the newsman during his contretemps with Joe McCarthy.

Michael Clayton (2007) - George Clooney's high-powered fixer confronts himself at the same time as taking on the ethical shortcomings of corporate America.

Frost/ Nixon (2008) - Pretty much the same: Michael Sheen's David Frost isn't just taking Nixon to task, he's - with the aid of Sam Rockwell's left-leaning academic - interrogating his own lack of political responsibility.

The Damned United (2009) - Well, it's not out yet, but it's safe to say from the trailers (and the source novel) that the film will be at least as much about what took place in Brian Clough's head as what happened on the pitch.

Milk did open up avenues for psychological explorations, but it tended to close these down in ways that the above films didn't (or won't). Each time, we were returned to the dynamics of interpersonality, to engagement, to what one might do to alter their immediate political circumstances. There was less hand-wringing here than in a film like Michael Clayton, although it was, indisputably, a film which took an acute interest in how men perceive themselves and their achievements. Van Sant's decision to suggest psychologisations without following them up in their entirety gave the film a rather unusual texture, but it was probably the right directorial choice. In a way this was the anti-Dark Knight, in as much as Christopher Nolan's second Batman film repeatedly offers us glimpses of political engagement at the end of a long, incredibly dark tunnel of angst without ever quite letting us reach them. Good stuff, anyway.

'Sometimes I get an idea for cinema...'

Sometimes I get an idea for cinema. And when you get an idea that you fall in love with, this is a glorious day. That idea may just be 1a fragment, but it holds something. It might be a scene, or a part of a scene, or a character, or a way the character talks, a light or a feel ... You write that idea down. And thinking about that idea will bring other ideas in – there's a hook to it. And things start to emerge. And then you see, one day, a script. A script is just words to remind you of the ideas. And you follow that, but always staying on guard, in case other ideas come in, because a thing isn't finished till it's finished. And one day, it's finished.

A reticent David Lynch is interviewed about his creative processes in the Observer. This is exactly how I like to think of Lynch working. 'How a character talks' seems to be just as valuable as a work's point of origin as the McKee-esque dynamic of a protagonist and their antagonism: of course, Dale Cooper's almost absurdly earnest delivery in Twin Peaks might be said to set the tone for the whole series. Lynch's remarks here make me think of M. John Harrison's novel Climbers, which, to me, is almost about the writer's attempt to establish narrative connections between particularly powerful images or Wordsworthian 'spots of time'. As in much of Henry Green's writing, 'plot' gets subordinated and reduced to the status of a defile which allows the reader to move between outcrops of particular poetic intensity.

Green, I think, worked from the same kind of premises as Lynch. Also reticent, or elliptical, when asked to provide statements about creative process, he memorably said that his novel Loving, set in an Irish country house during WWII, grew from a remark made to him by a man who had once been a butler. Upon being asked what the best feeling in the world was, the butler replied:

Lying in a bed on a Sunday morning with the church bells ringing in the distance, eating hot buttered toast with cunty fingers.

My friend Lorcan has a joke about Creative Writing students. He was a manager in the postgraduate bar at UEA for some time, so he became pretty familiar with the odd human traffic of that place. He'd meet Creative Writing PhDs and ask what their novel was about. In the first year, they say 'It's about Vincent van Gogh, but from the perspective of his mistress.' In the second, they say 'It's about Rembrandt, but from the perspective of his mistress.' In the third year, they say 'It's about Paul Gauguin, but from the perspective of his mistress.' Because the degree is never finished, you can substitute as many artists as there are years. The point is, though, that the inflexible plot device, whilst perhaps having some kind of hard, Aristotelian, attractiveness, is no substitute for that salacious phrase, or that nagging sound of a voice awaiting embodiment, or the misleading simplicity of a certain quality of light. In Twin Peaks, the death of Laura Palmer was a giant MacGuffin which legitimated the earlier inventions of Audrey's come-ons, Cooper's voice, and the light through, and the smell of, the Douglas Firs.