Saturday, 3 December 2011

Where have the spikes of yesteryear gone?

A man has a product that’s neither original nor distinctive which he’s trying to shift in a saturated marketplace. The TV company he works for invites him onto one of its magazine shows to plug the product. He sits down with the programme’s editor and together they cook up something topically and typically “controversial” for him to say. He goes on air and says it.
You are a journalist. Question: is this “controversy” a genuine story? Your answer is? No? Of course not. How could it be?
According to The Times, Charles Dickens once wrote this in defence of journalists and journalism: “I would venture to remind you how much we, the public, owe to the reporters for their skill in the two great sciences of condensation and rejection.”
Would you agree that the journalist should not just be a scientist of rejection, but has an absolute duty to reject the fake, the phoney, and the cynical manipulation of the channels of publicity for commercial or political ends?
Shouldn’t every journalist (even those who worked for that interested party, the BBC, if they were journalists of integrity) have spiked the story of Jeremy Clarkson saying that striking public service workers ought to be shot (in case you hadn’t noticed, Christmas is coming and Mr Clarkson wants to sell us his latest DVD’s)? And shouldn’t they likewise have ignored the noisy clambering onto the bandwagon of other interested parties with selves to promote?
Alas, multiple channels and 24-hour news have destroyed both of Dickens’ journalistic sciences.
Give Radio 5 or Sky News or BBC News 24 a Press Conference which, once upon a time, might have made a lucky 90 seconds in a slow bulletin, and they’ll gratefully surrender their airwaves to its interminable entirety. So much for “condensation”.
Give almost any journalist, staring distraught at the yawning acreage of output ahead of him or her, a “controversy”, a “survey”, a PR stunt, a howl of concocted outrage from a pressure group or the fart of a fading celebrity, and he or she will roll over and fire up engines of hype, masquerading as objectivity. So much for “rejection”.
Où sont, comme j’ai dit, les spikes d’antan?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

And now, some words from our fools & monsters

Weird, some of the jobs that words are being asked to do. And redundant or deviously monstrous, I reckon, some of their other assignments.
Parked a street away from us is a grey Nissan Micra, fifteen years old, which has a rear window pennant insisting that its owner is “Proud to be a member of Equity.”
What’s this pennant actually telling us? Of what (be specific) is the Micra-owner proud? Would we, had we known about his or her membership without benefit of pennant, have doubted his or her pride, and suspected blackmail or a sullen sense of duty behind his or her decision to sign up? And how am I, a non-thespian, supposed to use this pride-centric information? Why should I care? And since the pennant has been published not by the actor-driver of the grey Nissan Micra, but by Equity itself, ought we to deduce that there’s a paranoid rump within its marketing team who suspect the union is largely despised? Or are they unconsciously displacing into this slogan their own secret fear that as a representative lobby, Equity is futile?
All these erratic trains of thought are set in motion as I walk to Gospel Oak Station. None of them go to an intended destination.
Next stop, Highbury Fields. Two snub-nosed street cleaning engines are buzzing up and down the walkway, their frontal double-brushes counter-rotating, their vacuum systems sucking up autumn leaves, sweet wrappers, cigarette butts, copies of the Metro and other debris.
On the side of each, in big green capitals: “KEEPING ISLINGTON CLEAN.”
What did they think we thought they were doing? Trooping the colour? What did they think we thought these squat vehicles were? Orgasmatrons? What would it say on the side of a municipal orgasmatron? “PLEASURING ISLINGTON’S LONELY”?
In Sainsbury’s Camden store they have pairs of sweet potatoes in cellophane packets on which the label reads: “Sainsbury’s Sweet Potato Twinpack £1.” Wouldn’t’ you think, as I did, that we’re supposed to assume this is a bargain, or am I an idiot? So are most of Sainsbury’s customers idiots, like me?
Bought loose from the adjacent shelf, the price of two sweet potatoes together amounts to a little over 50p.
I’ve just finished reading The Map and the Territory, Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel. It’s p.d.g., I have to say. Can’t think of an equivalent writer in English who with such melancholy wit and casual precision pierces the metaphysical and moral emptiness of the times we live in, beyond “the end of history.”
One constant theme of Houellebecq’s is the way that capitalism, rampaging unopposed in the west post-1989, has to keep “extending its battlegrounds” and finding new things to devour. As he writes in his study of H P Lovecraft, Against the World, Against Life:
“The reach of liberal capitalism has extended over minds; in step and hand in hand with it are mercantilism, publicity, the absurd and sneering cult of economic efficiency, the exclusive and immoderate appetite for material riches. Worse still, liberalism has spread from the domain of economics to the domain of sexuality. Every sentimental fiction has been eradicated. Purity, chastity, fidelity and decency are ridiculous stigmas. The value of a human being today is measured in terms of his economic efficiency and his erotic potential – that is to say, in terms of the two things that Lovecraft most despised.”
The reach of liberal capitalism now has its unwashed and unwashable hands in the dictionary. It’s got “passionate about vocabulary.”
There’s a brief but extraordinary interview with Houellebecq on YouTube. It includes this statement of breathtaking honesty and universal validity (by which I mean, he certainly speaks for me, and I imagine for you as well):
“I’ve never been able to talk about my life, actually. As soon as I start talking about my life I start lying, straight away. To begin with, I lie consciously, and very quickly, I forget that I am lying.”
The interview is part of an edition of the BBC Culture Show which was broadcast on May 10, 2008. Of course, interviewer and producers were too asinine to follow the quote up; too keen to trot the pony-and-trap of political correctness in pursuit of experts who might denounce Houellebecq as a “sexist” or a “racist” to notice that he’d given them a prologue to My Heart Laid Bare.
Footnote: You may be asking what’s the relevance or point of the picture of chair-straddling notables above this blog. Well, I chanced on the photograph of Dickens, which brought to mind the photograph of Christine Keeler, and I brought them together from a hundred years apart to see how they’d look. Rather good, I think. So the point of the picture, really, is the picture. In the Lovecraft book, Houellebecq also says, “we need a supreme antidote against all forms of realism.” I like that. I think of it quite often when I catch myself listening to that self-regarding and maddeningly repetitious cacophony called “The News.” And perhaps it’s why I’ve rather neglected the blog in recent weeks, switching my attention to some fiction, of which more follows later.
Toodle Pip.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

UK Riots: “we need more pundits now”, say desperate media

An urgent plea for “massive numbers” of new pundit volunteers to help prevent the UK word shortage plunging “from crisis to catastrophe” was issued by the nation’s media today.
In the wake of last week’s country-wide disturbances broadcasters and newspapers have been using up verbiage in such enormous quantities that supplies are threatened with exhaustion and original ideas have dwindled almost to nil.
“Our punditry resources have been stretched virtually to breaking point, with some channels, like Radio 5, demanding almost a 24/7 service,” said a BBC spokeswomen.
“We are urging potential pundits to step forward, now.
“We know some people may be hesitant because they fear being asked for nuanced analysis or rounded perceptions, appreciations of complexity or a conciliatory approach.
“But this isn’t the case at all.
“On the one hand we’re looking for people who think the coalition is a Da Vinci Code style conspiracy to snaffle all the iced buns for the top table and consign the rest of us to a truly miserable life grubbing together bricks without straw to build a huge mausoleum for Margaret Thatcher.
“These pundits will probably argue that the ‘rioters’ are legitimate heirs to a tradition of dissent stretching back to the Millenarians, Muggletonians, Shakers, Shovellers, Ranters, Quakers, the Yetties and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
“On the other hand we’re looking for pundits who believe Ed Miliband and his team are avatars of Brezhnev-style International Socialism who propose to abolish the family, the scouting movement, afternoon tea, Her Majesty the Queen (and her court and dependants), the Archers, the Ineffable Name of God and the Retrospectives of Val Doonican.
“These pundits are likely to assert that the ‘rioters’ were a motley of malodorous native youths from the working classes, immigrant Mutant Ferox from Malign Deep Space and zealots of Baal and Moloch who only sacked Mothercare in lieu of an opportunity to sacrifice Christian babies.
“So basically we want volunteers with extreme and unshakeable opinions and objectionable manners – controversialists and sound-biters with jagged teeth who’ll use the riots as a pretext to ride the hobby horses of their prejudices so hard that sparks fly out of their arses.”
News Just In: During a phone-in last night a Mr Seng-ts’an, originally from China, was reported to have said: “If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is a disease of the mind.”
His remarks are being investigated as possibly offensive and potentially actionable by Ofcom, the BBC Trust, the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee. In the meantime, tell us what YOU think...

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The hacking stain spreads (but who’s minding the baby?)

Back in April I wrote that I doubted whether the rest of the UK media would succeed in their attempts to quarantine the hacking scandal inside News of the World. Today we discover that the Daily Mirror has “launched a review into editorial standards” at all of its titles in response to allegations that reporters intercepted voicemail messages.
Piers Morgan, the former Mirror editor, made some suggestive admissions in his Desert Island Discs appearance, just placed online in text and sound by The Daily Beast:
Kirsty Young asks Morgan about “People who tap people’s phones, people who take secret photographs...who do all that very nasty down-in-the-gutter stuff—how did you feel about that?”
Morgan replies: “...Not a lot of that went on…A lot of it was done by third parties, rather than the staff themselves... That’s not to defend it, because obviously you were running the results of their work.”
Interesting coincidence that two commentators who have advocated draconian responses to the scandal are both graduates of the journalists’ training scheme which the Mirror used to run through its weeklies in South West England.
I’ve already noted the comments from Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell (Tavistock Times, 1980)...
“The politicians have to hold firm on this, and do the right thing by the public. A free press, yes. But a press that is above the law, untouchable, and debasing culture and society through a relentless diet of trivia, celebrity, abuse and negativity, no.”
... reflecting that Alastair’s prescription implies some powerful tribunal with acute moral sensibilities and legal weaponry which would be able to arbitrate on the composition and the protection or proscription of such notions as “culture” and “society”, “debasement” and “trivia.”
Now along comes Chris Mullin, an M.P. from 1987 until 2010, who was a Mirror trainee in and around Torquay while I was serving my apprenticeship at The Western Morning News.
In last night’s Channel Four Dispatches about Rupert Murdoch, Chris got rather excited about the prospect of the old ogre’s empire disintegrating.
“This is the key moment,” He declared. “There’ll never be a moment like this again in our lives when you can actually take these guys on. And I favour now striking with great force, and getting them down to a size where they cannot intimidate governments. I think that must be a key objective.”
Crikey. Having been struck with great force and got down to an impotent size, would “these guys” then be susceptible to intimidation by government instead? Sounds like it.
My concern continues to be whether the baby of free speech and a healthy press is about to be chucked out with the contaminated bathwater of the hacking scandal.
Meanwhile, read this new report from the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. It reveals why many journalists – and some senior police officers – believed for years that the law said a phone message, once listened to, could not then be “intercepted” even if it hadn’t been deleted from the voicemail, and was therefore not illegally hacked if subsequently accessed by a third party. The report also contains lots more hair-raising (and depressing) information about the whole debacle.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Entertainment or propaganda? – from W1 to E98

I didn’t know until a day or so ago that Margaret Howell, the upmarket shirt shop in Wigmore Street, used to be the Bechstein piano emporium. Nor did I know that the Wigmore Hall, when it opened in 1901, was called the Bechstein Hall, and had been paid for by the neighbouring importer of German uprights and grands.
My third heretofore unknown fact was that in 1916, around the time Dame Nellie Melba was savaged by “patriots” for having a Bechstein to accompany her as she sang “Land of Hope and Glory”, the British government confiscated shop, hall and the contents of both on the pretext that they were enemy property.
I discovered these things while poking about the web after visiting the Wigmore Hall for the first time this week to see our friends’ daughter play violin in the superb Pro Corda Chamber Champions Concert.
It would have made more sense had I already known the previously unknowns when, listening in the first half to Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, I began to get spooked by some troubling imagery.
Above, the painted figures gleamed in their golden canopy. Piano, violin and cello shone and flashed, and the young players in their evening dress looked elegant and charming and beautiful as they unwound the melancholy enchantment of the music.
But what I began thinking of was the same concert happening not in 2011, or even 1911, but in the 1920’s, and not in London, but in Berlin, and in a society slowly moving, stitch by stitch then step by step, but so slowly that the stitches were at first unseen, and the steps could at first be ignored or denied, towards a howling chaos of flags and boots and uniforms in which the players would be engulfed.
Why did two movements of 19th century music seem pregnant with 20th century horrors? And even more so when, during the second half, in another trio, Shostakovich’s No 2 in E Minor, a face seemed to raise itself from the contemplation of that same bloody chasm to stare out at us.
The Shostakovich was written in 1944, after the more-than-decimation of the Soviet Union in World War II (14 per cent of the population – 23.4 million – slain), and after the revelations of the holocaust; through the trio blows, or so it seemed to me, those “winds that were old when the Gods were young,” those winds that fan sparks into fire and spread snow over ashes; piano was drum and gun and bell, cello was crunch of feet and snapping of twigs and then a guitar and then cello again, while the violin plucked out fragments of Jewish song and wept or laughed – and the whole piece ended, or faded, rather (again, so it seemed to me), on a brief but ambiguous chord like a question mark.
A programme note reminded us that Shostakovich was often in big trouble with the Soviet authorities. He couldn’t do “socialist realism,” he couldn’t churn out stuff that “served the revolution,” the musical equivalent of the kind of kitsch I wrote about after seeing the University of Westminster’s exhibition of images from Mao’s China a few weeks back.
So there is nothing “heroic” or “triumphant” about this E Minor trio. There is nothing which is in the service of anything at all. It is art, and it is reportage, and it is an entertainment.
Let me rush to explain that by an entertainment I mean that which persuades us, for its duration, to put aside all other preoccupations and concentrate on what it’s doing. By that definition, King Lear is as much an entertainment as Morecambe and Wise, Mendelssohn (or Shostakovich) as Buddy Holly.
What an entertainment does not ever do is try to get our attention with the grappling hooks of a prior moral claim or a charitable purpose or a political manifesto. It does not say, you MUST watch or listen to or read this because if you don’t you’re an unfeeling or uncaring louse.
An entertainer (whether Dmitry Shostakovich or Buddy Holly) recognises a certain duty which T.S. Eliot (who wasn’t Ogden Nash) identified when discussing his own craft. He wrote: “We cannot afford to forget that the first - and not one of the least difficult - requirements of either prose or verse is that it should be interesting.”
You may, perhaps, have realised by now that I’ve been heading all along from Wigmore Street to Fleet Street, or, more accurately, from Wigmore Street (W1) to Wapping (E98) by way of the continuing shenanigans at News International and in the House of Commons.
In journalism, I’m inclined to believe, the only choice is between entertainment or propaganda.
News International has been as guilty as other papers of crossing the line. One thinks of Rebekah Brooks’s asinine campaign for a “Sarah’s Law”. It is the business of journalists to report – disinterestedly – an outrage. It is the business of politicians to campaign and change laws.
Stitch by stitch and step by step we are now travelling through a period of hysteria towards... well, not flags, boots and uniforms, I hope, but certainly towards a new system of Press regulation. I’ll just quote Alastair Campbell again: “The politicians have to hold firm on this, and do the right thing by the public. A free press, yes. But a press that is above the law, untouchable, and debasing culture and society through a relentless diet of trivia, celebrity, abuse and negativity, no.”
Entertainment, eh? Irresponsible stuff. No, what journalism needs is a purpose, an agenda, a seriousness, a “passion”, a reverence for “culture” and a respect for “society”. But do we dare ask, who defines “culture”? or, what constitutes “society”? or could we suggest that what journalism “needs” might turn out, alas, to end with its conversion from entertainment to propaganda?

Monday, 11 July 2011

Who bans the news that “isn’t fit to print”?

A sentence and an image are haunting me. The sentence, prompted by the righteous outpourings of The Guardian, the BBC, and certain Members of Parliament, is Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s:
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”
The image, perhaps a bit impious, was occasioned by the fate of The News of the World: a thief being nailed and hoisted on a cross.
This is Sir Roger L’Estrange (1616-1704). He lived up to his surname. On the one hand, he was a journalist and the publisher of two papers, The Public Intelligencer (Mondays) and The News (Thursdays). On the other, he was a censor, known as “The Bloodhound of the Press” for the ferocity with which he purged, persecuted and suppressed dissidence and non-conformity in his twin roles as Surveyor of the Imprimery (the printing presses) and Licenser of the Press.
Dear old Rog even tried to cut six lines from Paradise Lost because he reckoned that Milton was making some coded attempt to subvert Charles II (Book I, 594-599). Failed, I’m glad to say.
Anyway, simply because it proves that it’s quite possible for a journalist to be as censorious as a puritan, the story of this smiling, savage Cavalier came back to me yesterday when I was reading one of Alastair Campbell’s many eloquent denunciations of the Murdoch media empire. This one, called The News that wasn't fit to print, celebrated the demise of The News of the World in the Irish Independent. It was the peroration (to use a Miltonian word), that sparked my train of thought:
“As to where this all ends,” Alastair writes, “who knows? It is hard to see how there won't be more arrests and more prosecutions. The press will lick their wounds but then, as they have so many times before, fight hard and dirty to try to win the argument that anything but toothless self-regulation such as they enjoy at the moment will be an attack on a free press. The politicians have to hold firm on this, and do the right thing by the public. A free press, yes. But a press that is above the law, untouchable, and debasing culture and society through a relentless diet of trivia, celebrity, abuse and negativity, no.” (Italics mine)
None of us, I’m certain, wants a press that is “above the law” or “untouchable”. But how precisely do you prevent the press “debasing culture and society through a relentless diet of trivia, celebrity, abuse and negativity” without installing some draconian form of censorship. How will you determine what constitutes “trivia” or “abuse” or “negativity”? What exactly is the purpose of including “celebrity” under the Campbell dispensation, and what is to be done with or about it or them?
I was quite surprised to read a Press release today which described the new Bribery Act which just came into force in the UK as “the strictest bribery and anti-corruption law anywhere in the world”. That sounded rather frightening and not very British. I wonder if in the backlash from the hacking scandal we aren’t in danger of sleepwalking away from a free press and towards the strictest media regulation in the world? Hope not.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Through a Maoist looking glass

This astonishing poster is called: “In Following the Revolutionary Road, Strive for an Even Greater Victory.” Can you call it beautiful? There’s the enigma.
As a visual statement it’s electric and mesmerising. As visual documentary – a frame excerpted from history – it is... what? The talisman of a terror, totalitarian and mendacious?
We know nothing about the mind behind the brush beyond a date, 1970, and a workshop: Shanghai Revolutionary Publishing Group. Was she or he idealist or cynic? volunteer or conscript? Committed, socialist genius? artist with nowhere to go but “revolutionary” art? and what did the original audiences think? and if we could possibly answer any of those questions, would it (should it?) affect our perceptions?
The poster is part of a superb Chinese archive held by the University of Westminster. An exhibition, Poster Power: Images from Mao’s China, Then and Now, has just opened at the University’s buildings in Regent Street, London W1B 2UW, and runs until July 14.
If you can get there, do. I spent my journey back home on the C2 bus revolving all the antimonies that the exhibition provokes.
Alien to our celebrated British taste for the oblique, the ironic and the understated are the very titles of Chinese propaganda posters. Here are seven of them:

Produce more without waste
Pay attention to culture
Promote excellent quality goods, wholeheartedly serve the people
Work as hard as possible
Get rid of selfishness and develop public spirit
Make a greater effort to get ahead
Study hard and prepare to devote your efforts to socialist modernisation

And yet, sitting in a meeting room this week, I turned away from a wretched deck of PowerPoint slides, tuned out of a numbingly dogmatic presentation, and found myself confronted by a poster on the wall which was headed “Meeting Etiquette” and prescribed the following list of what are now called “behaviours”:

Prepare Carefully
Be on Time and Ready to Go
Clarify Purpose and Objective at Outset
Stay on Topic and Keep to the Point
Encourage All Persons Present to Contribute
Let People Finish Their Sentences
Minimise Secondary Discussions
Respect Different Points of View
Conclude Clearly with Next Steps and Actions
Follow Up on Your Actions by Agreed Date

The same poster was on the wall behind me, and appeared in miniature form on a table-stand. Its insistent capitalisations and suppressed definite and indefinite articles seemed to me to be borderline Maoist. Unimaginable, I think, that such exhortations would have appeared in a British meeting room even 10 years ago.
In Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, a female artist, Sabina, assays the world of “totalitarian kitsch” with which she finds herself involved in Soviet Russia; kitsch being propaganda which refuses to admit that there is ambiguity or shit and that ambiguity perplexes and shit happens.
“Whenever she imagined the world of Soviet kitsch becoming a reality, she felt a shiver run down her back. She would unhesitatingly prefer life in a real Communist regime with all its persecution and meat queues. Life in the real Communist world was still liveable. In the world of the Communist ideal made real, in that world of grinning idiots... she would die of horror within a week.”
A world of grinning idiots in which even the grinningly idiotic point of view is solicited and respected, although dissent may, after all, constitute a secondary discussion to be minimised?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Westward, TSW and the Cadbury ghost

[Archaeology: Westward/TSW complex, Derry’s Cross, Plymouth, 2011. Rubble covers the old studio and transmission areas; I used to work in an office by the four windows at the back; the canteen and bar ended where two vehicles are parked; new executives arrived triumphant and departed bruised just beyond the upturned tray, old drink can and squashed plastic bottle]

It annoys me that I never met Peter Cadbury. I arrived at Westward TV shortly after his final defenestration, which was rather like going on an exchange to a foreign family who’d just concluded a vicious divorce.
On one side were the remaining and new management: the parent left in possession of the home. On the other, the staff: his orphaned children.
Enmities. Flashes of inexplicable anger. Sarcasm. False smiles and denial.
I’d never before experienced anything like this (nor have I since). What was it about?
“There is, I suppose,” I’d said to Ronnie Perry, the MD, at my interview, “no chance that you’re going to lose this franchise?”
“Absolutely none,” he said, glancing away from me. Somehow, neither of us observed the large and scarlet writing on the wall.
The ghost of Peter Cadbury stalked the building. Test pilot, business buccaneer, street fighter and chocolatier manqué, he’d founded Westward, and it was his empire.
I had no idea exactly what he’d done wrong. As far as I could work out, it involved a flock of geese, an aeroplane, possibly a blonde, and rude letters written on company notepaper.
We had a wonderful time this weekend in Plymouth at the last Westward/TSW reunion, thirty years after Westward surrendered the franchise to TSW and twenty years after TSW, in its turn, was disenfranchised.
But to my surprise the Cadbury ghost was still around, more than a generation later, in the ballroom of the Duke of Cornwall Hotel. Westward was celebrated in speeches, TSW forgotten.
The Westward veterans never really forgave TSW, even though TSW was, in essence, Westward revived, reinvented and re-imagined: same studios, substantially the same staff, same philosophy – hell, they even kept Ken MacLeod, the rabbit and Clive Gunnell, even if the last of these mascots was consigned to an off-screen role.
Was there a myth that if Cadbury had kept the throne, TSW wouldn’t have succeeded in 1981, the ’91 outcome could have been different, and Westward might still be in Derry’s Cross?
Baudelaire wrote in his Journal: “God is the sole being who has no need to exist in order to reign.”
Down here on the planet, one occasionally comes across potent individuals who need to reign in order to exist.
I think Peter Cadbury was one of these. According to his Guardian obituary, after he was deposed from Westward “he remained bitter about his departure and had little success with other business ventures,” trying and failing to take charge first of MG Cars and then the Playboy Club.
While he wears his crown, this type of character has the gift of inspiring his followers to believe that their own existences – the very health of their commonwealth – depends upon the survival of the ruler and the continuation of his reign.
This is beyond rational explanation. We saw something of its magic at work a few days ago in the popular ecstasy elicited by the spectacle of a royal wedding.
After Cadbury’s first expulsion by his fellow directors, he fought back and was reinstated. After his second, the staff petitioned for a second restoration, which didn’t happen. A fatalistic mood descended. In the months after I arrived this mutated into a kind of gallows humour.
In a curious series of aftershocks – perhaps poetic (perhaps nemesis?) – the top corridor of TSW was hardly ever stable nor quiet, but almost continuously echoed with the stab and squelch of executives knifing each other in the back. By and large the rule was that, compared to his or her bright-faced successor, the senior officer assassinated was a superior intellect but an inferior politician.
But I don’t ascribe TSW’s defeat to this progressive deterioration of the collective IQ of the executive board, nor to the ghost of Cadbury finding its quietus at last.
In the retrospect of twenty years one can see that the whole franchise process was...
Absurd: big companies with muscle could bribe and bully rivals out of the arena and win back their franchises for relatively tiny sums. Little companies were forced to make extravagant bids they could scarcely sustain.
Deceitful: far from protecting the unique ITV brand – a federation of regional companies – it was unarguable from the start that the consequence would be the destruction of the federation and its replacement by a struggling monolith of depressed quality.
Corrupt: you might think the demise of Thames TV had nothing to do with Death on the Rock – I couldn’t possibly comment. And before the cap had even been unscrewed from the inkbottle, and a pen dipped in the ink to begin writing TSW’s franchise application, one of the top men on one of the top quality national newspapers said to me: “I know which companies are going to lose their franchises, and TSW is one of them.”

Monday, 25 April 2011

The murders, the mirror and the serpentines

A detective called Erik Lönnrot is a man of prodigious intelligence; one of a type we love, and whom we imagine solving fiendish crosswords in minutes and secretly writing perfect sestinas and villanelles.
He believes the solution to a murder is hidden in the arcana of ancient Hebrew theology. Perhaps through vanity, he throws out clues to his theory and modus operandi in a newspaper interview and names an obscure volume which an opportunist bookseller immediately finds and prominently displays.
A second and a third murder (although the third in the series is perplexed by the absence of a corpse) seem to confirm his conjectures.
But the interview, clues and the book have furnished the assassin with the means to construct the otherwise absent mystery for himself, and thus conduct Lönnrot through the second and third murders to the fourth, where the assassin gets a revenge which has eluded and frustrated him for years by shooting the detective.
Lönnrot’s prosaic superior, Treviranus, has been right all along. The first murder was the accident of a bungled burglary. Some words on a sheet of paper in the victim’s room – words which set Lönnrot’s speculations in motion, “the first letter of the name has been uttered” – were written not by the assassin, but by the victim, a Jewish scholar, who was interrupted when an intruder broke in.
This summarises a short story by (I would say “of course”, but that sounds rather pretentious) the great Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges. It is among my favourites and its title is Death and the Compass.
Over several decades, not because of amnesia, but because I have an insatiable appetite for Borges, I have acquired three English versions of the story in three books which offer different collections of his work. I picked up the most recent a little over a month ago.
On a hot afternoon this weekend I thought it a suitably Borgesian enterprise to take all three into a shady room and compare the translations.
Then I remembered that in the first two there was a place where my mind always got snagged and my suspended disbelief was temporarily – and irritably – de-suspended.
Here’s the passage, from the first translator, Anthony Kerrigan:
In the tortuous Rue de Toulon, as they stepped on the dead serpentines of the dawn, Treviranus said:
“And supposing the story of this night were a sham?”
Erik Lönnrot smiled...

And from the second translator, Donald Yates:
Out on the twisted rue de Toulon, as they were treading on the dead serpentines of the dawn, Treviranus said:
“And what if all this business tonight were just a mock rehearsal?”
Erik Lönnrot smiled...

The fact that this, the third “murder”, was indeed “a sham”, or, better, a “mock rehearsal” for the assassination of Lönnrot, passed me by as I wondered what on earth were these “dead serpentines of the dawn” that both translators had the two detectives stepping or treading on as the sun came up.
Neither the Oxford Dictionary, nor Webster’s, nor Chambers’ were any help. A “serpentine” is the name of an ancient gun – impossible; it is a form of dark green granite, veined with orangey-red – implausible that the pavements of a Buenos Aires suburb would be made out of such a rock, and even if they were, why “dead”? dust? the light? or, something “serpentine” is snake-like in form – so could the “dead serpentines” actually be little nocturnal snakes, regularly run over by the night traffic of the city? Or plants with snaking tendrils? But if so, why were they all dead at dawn?
You will have guessed that the latest translation, by Andrew Hurley, ended my confusion at last, some thirty years after it had begun:
Out in the twisting rue de Toulon, as they walked through the dawn’s dead streamers and confetti, Treviranus said...
Of course. The third “murder” takes place during the Buenos Aires carnival.
A little Google translation backwards and forwards between Spanish and English was instructive. The English word “streamers” translates into Spanish as “serpentas”, but the Spanish word “serpanta” translates into English as “serpentine.” Kerrigan and Yates, coming across the Spanish word “serpantas”, had gone to their dictionaries and looked up “serpanta”, and then, presumably, scratched their heads, went back from singular to plural, wrote down “serpentines” and hoped no-one would notice.
Hurley was more thorough, and having got “streamers” from “serpantas”, triumphantly wrote down the right word then added, with a flourish, “and confetti” in a Borgesian gesture pointing back to his predecessors (whom he will undoubtedly have consulted), and encouraging we Borgesians to observe the black hole of ignorance both had embedded in their translations.
Harold Bloom says (The Anxiety of Influence) that all artists struggle to overthrow their precursors. Here, perhaps, was an example in miniature.
Later that afternoon I was re-reading the foreword Borges wrote for his collection Artifices, where he writes: “Schopenhauer, de Quincy, Stevenson, Mauthner, Shaw, Chesteron, Léon Bloy – this is the heterogeneous list of authors I am continually re-reading.”
Mauthner? Bloy? Who were they? Wikipedia wasn’t much help with Mauthner: 1849-1923, German journalist and philosopher, published a critique of language, traces of influence on Wittgenstein; that’s about it.
The Bloy entry was more intriguing: 1846-1917, a French Catholic writer, zealot and bigot who fell out with almost everybody he knew by scrounging money from them and then insulting them in print. And with a pleasing Borgesian circularity, Wikipedia included this paragraph:
Bloy is quoted at the beginning of Graham Greene’s novel “The End of the Affair” and in the short story “The Mirrors of Enigma” by the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who acknowledged his debt to him.
I checked out the short story. Only it wasn’t. It was an essay called not The Mirrors of Enigma but The Mirror of Enigmas (in which, gratifyingly, Borges also quotes De Quincy).
The Argentinean is fascinated by the way Bloy returns obsessively to a celebrated text by St Paul – 1 Corinthians 13:12, “for now we see in a mirror, in darkness; but later we shall see face to face” – six times alluding to it in writings between 1894 and 1912, worrying at what it means and implies. For example: “We see everything backwards. When we believe we give, we receive [1904]”; and: “a terrifying idea of Jeanne’s about the text per speculum. The pleasures of this world would be the torments of Hell, seen backwards, in a mirror [1908]; and: “History is an immense liturgical text where the iotas and dots are worth no less than the entire verses or chapters, but the importance of one and the other is indeterminable and profoundly hidden [1912].”
It is impossible to spend more than a little time with Borges without one’s own world becoming Borgesian (and without, you might add, beginning to write more than a little after his fashion). When I read further in The Mirror of Enigmas and found Borges suggesting that Bloy “did no more than apply to the whole of creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the scriptures,” embarking on analyses, and encryptions and decryptions and other “exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule” I suddenly found myself back at dawn on the twisting rue de Toulon, treading among the dead streamers and confetti, listening to the hubristic Erik Lönnrot as he reasons himself towards an ineluctable destruction via the enigma he is weaving for an assassin who is, in a sense, his mirror image.
“And what if all this business tonight were just a mock rehearsal?”
Erik Lönnrot smiled and, with all gravity, read a passage (which was underlined) from the thirty-third dissertation of the Philologus: ‘Dies Judacorum incipit ad soils occasit usque ad solis occasurn diei sequentis.’
“This means,” he added, “‘The Hebrew day begins at sundown and lasts until the following sundown.’”
The inspector attempted an irony.
“Is that fact the most valuable one you’ve come across tonight?”
“No. Even more valuable was a word that Ginzberg used.”
[Yates’ translation]
Ginzberg, though Lönnrot doesn’t know it, is an alias of his assassin. The word used in a brief telephone conversation was “sacrifice.” The sacrifice is to be Lönnrot, atoning with his death for the sufferings of the assassin’s brother, whom he once imprisoned.
Later, feeling rather like a medieval craftsman who has been allowed to bring in a few small coloured tiles for a mosaic in a minor chapel of a vast cathedral (whose origins are so ancient that they’ve become mythology and which will, perhaps, never be completed), I made my first Wikipedia edit:
Bloy is quoted in the epigraph at the beginning of Graham Green’s novel The End of the Affair, and in the essay, "The Mirror of Enigmas", by the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who acknowledged his debt to him by naming him in the Foreword to his short story collection "Artifices" as one of seven authors who were in "the heterogeneous list of the writers I am continually re-reading".

Monday, 11 April 2011

Hacking: a hack has his doubts

Those of us who have rattled around a bit in the world of journalism know that there is a squad of freelances who dance along the margins of truth and legality to get whatever stuff they can and sell it in whichever marketplace will buy, sharing tricks and techniques as they go.
That’s why I find it impossible to believe that the phone hacking scandal is confined to the News of the World and News International.
The Guardian and the BBC would seem to want us to believe this is the case. But then, it feels like The Guardian has cast itself as a virtuous newsprint Perseus on a mission to behead the evil Murdoch Medusa, while the BBC has loathed News International ever since Rupert Murdoch, in a surprisingly nervous performance (which I witnessed) at the Edinburgh TV Festival in 1989 delivered a MacTaggart lecture in which he denounced the then TV establishment as “an integral part of the British disease” and made it clear that he detested the licence fee as an anachronism and a brake on free enterprise.
(Son-and-heir James Murdoch renewed and expanded hostilities from the same pulpit twenty years on, describing the BBC – I paraphrase – as a monolithic, state-sponsored, competition- smothering, Orwellian newspeaker.)
Thus civil war in Libya, mutiny and mayhem on the Ivory Coast and murder on a Royal Naval submarine all got shoved down the BBC news agenda a couple of nights ago as the full repertory of relevant correspondents topped all bulletins with the latest hacking “revelations” and their analyses thereof.
It’s pretty obvious why other newspapers are keen to quarantine the hacking virus inside Wapping, and I suppose it must be part of Murdoch’s defensive strategy not to start hurling infected ordure over the ramparts.
No, I don’t work for News International, never have and don’t want to. I just hate it when news begins to stink of politics; particularly when the stinkers are so sanctimonious.
Do you really believe no other British newspaper has carried stories based on voicemails filched from mobile phones?

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Work this one out

Signed up this week for the new Government on-line service which advises when suitable contracts are coming up.
To ensure relevance, you key in some search terms. Mine were, alphabetically arranged: Brand, Communications Skills, Conferences, Internal Communications, Marketing, Video Production.
My first suggested contract arrived this morning:

Remediation of well, St James Park – These are works which proceed from the clearance and pump testing of a well on Duck Island in St. James’s Park, Westminster. The works are to make permanent the temporary works so far carried out, to install a steel casing and pump within the well and to provide a permanent single duty and single point of discharge to the lake.

Summer’s coming, and as you can see, it’s a pretty little place. Charles I walked beside the lake between breakfast and execution.
As it happens, I was thinking the other day of writing a story in which the twist is John Milton realising and confessing to Charles II that the two groans he writes in “Paradise Lost”, when first Eve and then Adam fall...

Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost
Earth trembled from her entrails, as again
In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan

...were based on JM witnessing the decapitation of CII’s old man and hearing (according to an observer) Whitehall and Westminster shaken by...

such a groan by the thousands then present, as I never heard before and I desire I may never hear again...

Anyway, what I thought I might do is work out the exact plot and dialogue while installing the casing and the pump. And endings are always a problem for me, so concentrating on a “single point of discharge” might be very helpful.

[Two days later] My latest potential contract has arrived: Maintenance works to the masts and towers making up the MCA’s remote radio site estate throughout the UK and Northern Ireland... The works in general consist of painting of towers, guy tensioning works and the replacement of minor items such as bolts, brackets etc on the tower structures...
Vertigo might be a difficulty. Think I'll stay on Duck Island.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

What we were fighting for... (a tree-hugger’s postscript)

What do we know? You walk past a tattered old tree. If you see it at all, you think, “there’s a tattered old tree.” Transpires you’re walking past 1500 years of birdsong, war, poetry, tobacco-smoke, exile, failure and hope. Could be any old tree, near any of us. Demolishable in less than hour to save a few quid for David Cuckoo-Clock and Nick Clogg.
High above London grows a solitary fir tree – this one – the last of a stand that was planted in 1745 by William Turner, a retired tobacconist whose business was (where else?) in Fleet Street.
Already, Turner’s pines were more than half a century old when John Keats saw them while rambling on Hampstead Heath as a medical student, looking for medicinal herbs with his tutor, William Salisbury.
William Blake must have walked past them on his way to Sunday lunch with John Linnell (maybe the firs are visible in the background of this picture by Linnell of the ageing visionary, poet and painter on the Heath?).
Byron and Shelley and Coleridge would have seen them too, and later, Charles Dickens, on their trips to the Spaniards Inn nearby.
Turner’s pines grew from seeds gathered at La Pineta, a forest near Ravenna which was first recorded in the fifth century (the time of the Ostrogoths).
In the 14th century, exiled near Ravenna, Dante modelled the earthly paradise in his Purgatory on La Pineta:

Eager to search, in and throughout its ways
The sacred wood, whose thick and leafy tent,
Spread in my sight, tempered the new sun’s rays,

I made no pause, but left the cliff and went
With lingering steps across the level leas
Where all the soil breathed out a fragrant scent...

The little birds the topmost twigs among
Spared not to practise all their tiny skill;

Rather they welcomed with rejoicing song
The dawn wind to the leaves, which constantly
To their sweet chant the burden bore along...

Dorothy Sayers, who made this translation in 1955, says in a note: “Until recent years the famous PIneta... retained much of its beauty, but it has now been almost completely denuded by the depredations of two world wars.” David McDowall and Deborah Walton, in The Walker’s Guide to Hampstead Heath, record that La Pineta also suffered earlier, from a harsh winter in 1880-188 and a subsequent fire, and add: “only a remnant, threatened by industrial development, survives.”
Well, the Heath is now something approaching an earthly paradise for thousands of us Londoners, and no, it wasn't threatened by the recently defeated Tory plans for privatisations and enclosures; but if you read McDowall and Walton’s book you’ll discover that in 1829 Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, the “Lord of the Manor” (actually an absentee landlord, living in Kent) hoped to make a killing through a Parliamentary Private Members Bill authorising housing and comemercial development across a swathe of north London including “The Heath and other waste land in the Manor, whether occupied or not.”
The fight to preserve the Heath went right down to 1889, and then had to be revived after the First World War and fought again until 1922. I dare say that one day, piecemeal or entire, it will start again.
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
Many thanks to my good friend Andy Bernhardt, who walked me to the pine, told me its story, and gave me the Walker’s Guide. In return, can I commend his own blog, Dads and Sons, the beginning of a fascinating project.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Tories felled by Forest Thump

Like Bottom before him, David Cameron wandered into the woods and got turned into an ass. Seems Oberon is still around, and doesn’t discriminate between a rude mechanical and a smart-arse plutocrat.
It isn’t just that the woods won. They always must. What surprised me was the totality of the surrender and the speed of the victory.
I’ve written before about the cultural and emotional resonance of the woodlands. Thinking a little more around the theme, I begin to understand that for a people with such a bruised, retiring and secretive sense of nationhood as the English, certain things will have animating force; that when the symbolic and the actual are united in a single phenomenon, as they are in these ancient woods, an extraordinary vitality will exist – which we’ve just seen uncorked.
Coole House in Ireland, the home of Lady Gregory, was clearly once such a place. Why else was it destroyed? But Coole’s Seven Woods remain, and I’ll leave it to an Irishman (an Anglo-Irishman) who used to frequent both woods and house to suggest more boldly what I’m hinting at here. This is a little known poem by W.B. Yeats, Introduction to the Shadowy Waters.
All the versions I found online have inaccuracies. In the one linked here, "hordered" should be "bordered" (line 1); "bough's" should be "boughs" (line 6); "Buddy" should be "Biddy" (line 15); "clown" should be "cloven" (line 20); and "Paire" should be "Pairc" (lines 7, 9 & 11). I've left a note at the site. Maybe they'll correct the copy one day.
Thanks to all who signed petitions, campaigned, and spread the word.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

The meaning of the movement in the woods

Round one, then, goes to our nationwide army of tree-huggers. But if you study the detail, you’ll see that rounds two, three and onwards are still to be fought.
True, the Government has started to back away from the indiscriminate sale and enclosure of our woodlands. But this weekend’s concession applies to just 15 per cent of forestry. The remaining 75 per cent is still - unless our pressure is sustained and successful – heading for the auctioneer’s hammer and thence to the barbed wire and chainsaws of privatisation (Mary Creagh explores background and jeopardy in her Guardian piece from February 11).
If you’ve been following the campaign websites of the Woodland Trust and 38-Degrees you’ll have observed that whenever a target was set on a particular day for a new total of petition signatories it was almost always exceeded.
Thinking, in the couple of weeks since I last blogged on the subject, about this extraordinarily vigorous response, I remembered a book I’d read back in 1998. Called Guilty Men, and written by a Welshman, Hywel Williams, it recounted from inside the disintegration John Major’s government (Williams was special adviser to John Redwood, onetime Secretary of State for Wales).
In a sentence that came back into my mind after more than a dozen years Williams reflected on “pragmatic England, a country whose identity is so profound that it does not need the consolations of obtrusive nationalism.”
It’s on the money, that description, isn’t it? Show an English man or woman the front garden of another English man or woman in which the flag of St George is flying on a pole, and our first English man or woman will confidently tell you that within the house beyond the garden and the flagpole lives a nutter.
But that submerged and diffident sense of nationhood has certain fuses which certain threats will ignite. The future of our woodlands is clearly one of them, and all that should surprise us, really, is that the Tories, of all people, were too dim to see that they were bringing flame to blue touch-paper.
My picture shows a tumulus on Hampstead Heath. Reckoned at various times to have been an old rubbish dump, the stump of a windmill or a Victorian folly, the hillock is now accepted as the burial mound of a bronze age warrior (making its creation roughly contemporary with the Trojan war). Locally, it’s known as Boudicca’s Tomb.
Nuff said?

Monday, 7 February 2011

At the court of public opinion

And lo! I found myself in a great vaulted court, upon the bench of which crouched a monster whose limbs shook incessantly, and whose face was bloated and twisted and black. And from his flabby mouth, each time he exhaled, issued a myriad sparks, which were drenched to cinders by the bile that followed them, and fell upon the granite blocks of the walls and on the beams and ceiling, and on the furnishings and on the floor, which was a sea of hissing, creaking clinker, while everything else besides was vanishing under a film of soot.
And I said to the demon at my side, who was naked except for a pork pie hat, and scratching himself, “what manner of creature is this?”
And he replied, “The name of the monster is ‘Opinion,’ and his time is the last winter of the living language. In his realm there is no tender thought that goes untrampled, no guilty dream that is not seized and turned out of doors to be pilloried, no doubt or difficulty that passes unreviled.”
And as I listened and watched, there was a dismal, universal hiss, and a multitude of blackened shapes began moving in the hall, and shaking themselves, so that they spattered each other with droplets of pitch, and I thought that they were dogs or crows, but the demon said:
“These are Opinion’s people, who cleave to him because they fear the silent zones of their imaginings, and because he tears up every day behind them as it passes, and weaves all their life from the prickings of the moment.”
And as I looked, around the margins of the hall appeared others, each holding a box with a glistening eye; and I said to the demon, “what machines are those that the bored-looking men chewing gum are brandishing? I fear an emission of death rays.” And he replied: “Verily. Or not quite. Those are engines which capture a moving likeness and publish it throughout Opinion’s realm. See how the people feign that the gum-chewers and their engines are not there?”
Then the people howled, and chewed the clinker from the floor, and began to utter, all at once: “what I think is” – “there should be a law” – “at the end of the day” – “if I was the government” – “listen...” – “no, you listen...” – “the thing is, basically” – “it’s shocking, disgraceful” – “no other word for it” – “call this democracy?” – with such a clamour and commotion that scarce one phrase could be told from any other.
And all the while the monster writhed and sparked and spat, but other beings, slender, discreetly-besuited and all unbesmirched, moved among the people, robbing them of their wallets and purses, and they noticed them not.
And my demon stopped scratching, and said: “what is now proved was once only imagined.”
Then a woman separated herself from the people, and wiped the soot from her face and eyes, and said, “all this is nonsense; we just don’t understand...” but the monster roared, and showered her with bile, and sparks that fired the pitch on her body, and the other people grabbed her by the throat and buried her beneath the clinker.
I wept, and my demon said, “steady as she goes, old blubber. They haven’t even started on the football, yet.” And he took off his pork pie hat, and put me inside, and we sailed up into the clouds, where there were ice crystals, and the wind fingered my ears, and I do not know whether it was the wind or my demon who sang in a whisper:

I know a man who has nothing to say
Who has violet eyes and hair white as milk
And a waistcoat as green as a willow in May –
Six buttons are roses of pink twisted silk

And we descended in a spiral, over the sea, where I saw numberless waves, lapping and momentarily reflecting the sun, and throwing up patterns of gold and silver, which were as inconstant spheres and intertangled lines of light along the granite cliffs. Then the voice sang again:

I met a lady who never once spoke;
She’d cyclamen eyes and sloe-berry lips
And a tunic as green as a late-August oak –
Six buttons were polished carnelian hips

Then we flew low across the heath, cutting the airy way like a bird, until we came to an ancient tomb, surrounded by tall firs (within which, my demon said, were entrapped the spirits of Roman legionaries). There he set me down, and said:
“Everything possible to be believed is an image of the truth.”
Then he was gone, and a kestrel landed on the high branch of a hornbeam tree, and shifted from foot to foot. And my mobile phone rang. It was a cold call, desiring me to “participate in a survey – your views count.”
To be continued (possibly).

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Cameron – spare those trees

We have nothing in England to equal la France profonde. Nothing – geographically – as remote and deep. But were we to look for an emotional equivalent (I was going to say “spiritual,” but I don’t want to frighten the unicorns) then eyes, feelings and folk memories might light on our woodlands.
If I start to warble about the forests of Arden and Dean, the yew of Agincourt and the oak of Trafalgar, you’ll probably have me down as some kind of sub-BNP nutter. And yet, how to explain the extraordinary chord that’s been struck by the campaign against the Government’s intention to privatise our woodlands?
Within moments of reading the Woodland Trust and Save our Forests appeals I was signed up and circulating the links. And within the day, I’d had dozens of responses, some friends sending proof that they in turn had forwarded the websites to dozens of their own friends.
Is it just that here, on this issue, the Tories have spotlit their essential Tory-ness, heirs as they are to predecessors two hundred years before whose Enclosure Acts fenced off and privatised thousands of acres of land that had been enjoyed and farmed as common property for generations? That smug, mostly, in the contentment of their own gated, landed, propertied possessions, they’ve betrayed their contempt for the rambler, their indifference to the stressed and straitened urbanite, their tin-ear for the lyricism of shared and unowned beauty (true possession, William Blake says somewhere, consists of the imaginative power to enjoy, and not the material power to buy, a truth which Tory philosophy will never comprehend).
It is a recurrent phenomenon of capitalism that, when in crisis, it will seek to legitimate the seizure of others’ property. Or, as Benjamin Kunkel writes in the latest edition of the London Review of Books: “the privatisation of public or commonly owned assets, including land... offers instances of the accumulation by dispossession that has accompanied capitalism since its inception.”
Woodland and forest, however, aren’t simply material assets. They are also salutary for the physical, mental and cultural well-being of the nation, which is why the intention to inflict this particular wound is felt so keenly.
What the woods represent beyond the trees is hard to define except obliquely – but I’ll try, through brief extracts from three poets, four centuries apart, who seem to me to come close to capturing the mysterious romance between the English and their woodland.
First, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599):

Much can they praise the trees so straight and high,
The sailing Pine; the Cedar proud and tall;
The vine-prop Elm; the Poplar never dry;
The builder Oak sole king of forests all
The Aspen good for staves; the Cypress funeral;
The Laurel, meed
[reward] of mighty conquerors
And poets sage; the Fir that weepeth still;

The Willow, worn of forlorn Paramours;
The Yew, obedient to the bender’s will;
The Birch for shafts; the Sallow for the mill
The Myrrh sweet-bleeding in the bitter wound;
The warlike Beech; the Ash for nothing ill;
The fruitful Olive; and the Platane
[Plane tree] round;
The carver Holm; the Maple seldom inward sound.

What makes this so quintessentially English, I think (I can’t speak for Scots or Welsh or Irish) is that it asserts the practical beside the poetic, getting towards the heart of the relationship. Particular timber is craft-stuff, good for making particular things, while particular trees are also soul-stuff, whispering to us of other things that matter in parallel with the practical – love, conquest, virtue, song, sorrow, sustenance, death.
Secondly, a poet almost forgotten – the Dorset parson William Barnes (1800-1886):

So, who would heed the treeless down,
A-beat by all the storms, O,
Or who would heed the busy town,
Where folk do go in swarms, O;
If he were in my house below
The elms, where the fire did glow
In Liddy’s face, though winds did blow
Against the Winter’s Willow?”

In Barnes’ world, trees aren’t just part of the landscape – they’re actually and metaphysically integral to hearth and homestead, part of structure and shelter and essence (if you’re wondering why the sixth line doesn’t quite seem to scan, say it again and give “elm” the same two-syllable stress that an Irishman gives the word “film” – “elem,” as they say, or once said, in Dorset).
Lastly, Sir John Betjeman (1906-84):

Soft the light suburban evening caught our ashlar-speckled spire,
Eighteen-sixty early English, as the mighty elms retire
Either side of Brookfield Mansions flashing fine French-window fire.

The spire of St Anne’s is still there, and so are Brookfield Mansions, not far from where I live. But of course, all the elms are gone (which is why I wrote, of “elm” and “elem,” just now, “as they say, or once said, in Dorset”).
I was moving from adolescence into adulthood in 1965, when the great plague of Dutch Elm disease hit Britain. Seventeen million elms died in fifteen years. British landscapes were transformed. The tall, billowing, sumptuous elms which had been a commonplace of my childhood were gone, every one. “Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat/Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe.” Even now, the recollection is benumbing – three decades pass, and I still feel the loss.
Privatise the nation's forests and woodlands? Fence and fell even a few of those eloquent, enigmatic, sylvan sanctuaries of nature, language, history and culture, and render them instead into coniferous deserts?
“Earth trembled from her entrails, as again/In pangs, and nature gave a second groan.”

Thursday, 20 January 2011

News from the Witchfinders General (a kind of homicide)

So keen are the new Puritans to stop our ears with their horny fingers that often they don’t bother to listen in the first place to the material they’re rushing to place under interdict.
A song is the latest victim of their asphyxiation: Money for Nothing by Dire Straits. According to The Guardian (January 17):
“Although it has become a rock'n'roll anthem, Money for Nothing contains three instances of the anti-gay slur 'faggot'. Last week, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) reviewed the song after receiving a complaint from a listener in Newfoundland. Its lyrics were found to be 'unacceptable', contravening the human rights clauses of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' code of ethics. It has been banned from radio stations nationwide.”
“But it is a homophobic song,” said my son. “No it’s not,” I replied. You see, in our contemporary world of accelerated judgment and instant opinion, the CBSC has typically failed before condemnation to allow its victim any kind of close defence, close cross-examination, close reading.
Money for Nothing is a story. Its principal voice belongs to a rancid working class man, red-necked, blue-collared, who’s doomed to spend his days shipping electrical and white goods in and out of a megastore:
We got to install microwave ovens, custom kitchen delivery; we got to move these refrigerators, we got to move these colours TV’s...
MTV is playing in the store – playing, as the story unfolds, the same driving rock anthem we’re listening to. The anti-hero looks, listens and recriminates, reflecting on his own life of hard labour and meagre wages:
That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it – you play the guitar on the MTV. That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it – money for nothing and your chicks for free...
Then he turns bitter, and we hear the familiar equations our parents snarled at us in the sixties: long hair=ambiguous sexuality; rock music=primitive, animal rhythms (there’s an intimation of racism here as well, which the CBSC seems to have missed):
The little faggot with the earring and the make-up – yea buddy, that’s his own hair – that little faggot got his own jet airplane, that little faggot, he’s a millionaire...
What’s that? Hawaiian noises? He’s banging on those bongos like a chimpanzee... That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it &c...
Observe briefly the confusion in the anti-hero’s mind (what pleasures, exactly, can the “little faggot” realise with his free chicks?) and then ask yourself, Q: who is actually singing the song? A: Mark Knopfler. Q: and the character whose complaints, regrets and prejudices Mark Knopfler articulates? who is this character attacking? A: why, the singer-guitarist on the MTV: Mark Knopfler.
It’s a superlative piece of rock music. And it’s a satire, although not without compassion. But homophobic? Should we ban the plays of Athol Fugard because, in denouncing apartheid, he introduces into his drama players who espouse apartheid’s philosophies?
By the way, whose voice do you think it is in Money for Nothing that chants the ethereal refrain – “I want my, I want my MTV”? I’ve always believed that it is the stifled soul of the redneck himself, the vestige of his infant lyricism, which the capitalist system, in preparing him for his treadmill, willfully left unkindled; for a true lyric, as Shelley shows us, is often sung to a lyre draped in a red flag.
As another revolutionary wrote:
“Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. .. We should be wary, therefore, what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom; and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself; slays an immortality rather than a life.”

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Brave, Weird, Heroic, Creepy

Story Worknotes: It was barely light, and he was just at the brow of the hill when a huge shadow overarched him and there was a stupefying thud. Puddle water sprayed his face and shook the red valerian in the wall against which he cowered. The wheel of a coach had crashed into the kerb.
Looking up he saw – “like an illuminated tableau” – the terrified faces of the children and the coach driver, dazed, dishevelled, apparently drunk, crouched over the wheel, one eye shut.
“I didn’t really think,” he said later – and observed how the Press used that line, but not the one that followed: “it only took a moment,”; used “anyone would have done it” (he said, modestly) but not, “anyway, it wasn’t particularly difficult.”
Not really thinking, he stepped up onto the running board, twisting his boot so he didn’t slip on the wet metal, pressed the emergency button, pushed through the opening door and, because the coach was beginning to gather speed and slalom downhill, he wrenched the driver from his seat, took his place, changed the gears down slowly and gently braked, steered the coach from the centre of the road into the side, stopped it, and removed the ignition keys.
He called the police. They came quite quickly, took his statement, thanked him, and he went on to work.
Then came the interviews, photographs, profiles, a court testimony and more interviews. “Friends,” sometimes anonymously, fleshed out the portrait. He’d given up lunch on Fridays at his comprehensive and donated the equivalent cash to Biafra’s poor (but that wasn’t his idea – so did everybody in class). He’d helped with meals-on-wheels (but that had struck him at the time as the least onerous D of E option). He’d once rescued a cat from a pond (had he? He didn’t remember that at all). As a boy his favourite book had been The Scarlet Pimpernel about “the archetypal hero who hides his light under a bushel”(well, he’d read it, but he’d preferred Biggles – easier prose and a less discreet protagonist).
He had to listen and respond to the headmistress’s thank-you speech at the primary school’s end-of-term assembly and collect an award at the Lord Mayor’s Parlour. There were invitations to address Rotarians, Round Tablers, the Women’s Institute and the Townswomen’s Guild.
“Is this the John we know and love or some other bloke?” joked a friend in the pub, pushing the local paper at him, page folded at his photograph, which was under the headline: “Brave Secrets of the Shy Hero.”
The space between the public persona and his understanding of his self widened and disconcerted him. He started to feel like his own body-double. He began one speech, “I’m sorry I can’t be with you tonight,” but the audience must have thought they’d misheard him.
Anyway, his disorientation overflowed one night when he was trying to watch a Freeview channel biodrama based on his life which culminated in his adventure with the coach. Without quite realising what he was doing, he finished the whisky bottle and fell asleep before the programme ended. A reporter woke him, ringing to ask for his opinion. He must have slurred.
“Are you alright?” the reporter asked. “Not really,” he said, and put the phone down.
Two nights later, already rather lit and on his way back from the off-licence, he was recognised by a couple of hoodies, who hooted and jeered. Rage triggered, he gave one of them a push, and the boy fell under an approaching bus.
... “a loner”... “a moody adolescent who had difficulties with girls” ... “a weirdo who fantasised he was the Scarlet Pimpernel.”
Closing Sequence: in the prison bus, approaching court. The sparkle of the stills photographers’ flashbulbs, the glare of video-camera lights.
My story-in-progress reverses and improvises around the story-so-far of Christopher Jefferies, 65, who was arrested last week on suspicion of murdering his tenant, Joanna Yeats, questioned for two days and then released.
It has, after all, been both instructive and depressing.
Scavenging through the private life of this retired Bristol schoolmaster, talking to “friends”, colleagues or ex-pupils, the journalists were only interested in material which pointed in one direction.
As Peter Preston wrote in The Observer, the purpose was to characterise Mr Jefferies as “Professor Strange,” aka “The Strange Mr Jefferies”, and a “suspect peeping Tom”. Peter Wilby in The New Statesman made the same point: the Mr Jefferies who came out of the media alembic was “weird, posh, lewd, creepy.”
“Innocent until proven guilty” was once a cornerstone of British liberty. Seems it ain’t no more.
Even the books on Mr Jefferies’ shelves were called down to denounce him. What leapt out at me at once was that poor, pious, lonely Christina Rossetti, in whose work he specialised and about whom I wrote in my last blog, was recast as a sinister, death-obsessed sorceress.
Another of his favourites, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, was described by The Sun as “a Victorian murder novel.” It isn’t. The plot hinges on a stolen jewel. And do you recognise this classic from a Daily Mirror headline?
That’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde.
We do not know what the next act of Mr Jefferies story will be, but in the meantime, the episode has given us the makings of a new library game in which our volumes are called as witnesses against us:
In his favourite novel, a “bachelor” felon kidnaps boys and grooms them for life of crime. Meanwhile his accomplice is a prostitute murderer: Oliver Twist.
This sordid tale of a raped and strangled woman: Tess of the D’Urbervilles .
A drunken amnesiac wills own death: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam .
Sick parents leave kids to risk drowning: Swallows and Amazons.
And so on. Were I young and free again, I doubt if I’d go into journalism. I could just about cope with the irresponsibility, but not the wilful illiteracy.
Footnote: Mr Jeffries was completely exonerated and released without charge on March 7, 2011.