Sunday, 31 August 2014

Nairn's London by Routemaster: tour details

"The way to come on St Paul's is along Fleet Street, and the way to go along Fleet Street is on top of a bus."  
                                                                                  - Ian Nairn 


Nairn's London by Routemaster 

    Sunday  30 November  2014   


A Routemaster bus tour followed by a gathering to mark the reissue of Nairn's London and celebrate the life and work of Ian Nairn (1930-1983), Britain's greatest topographical writer.


We'll be travelling around the East End and the City on the very same Routemaster bus (CUV 217C) featured on the original cover of Nairn's London (Penguin Books, 1966) with the author pictured at the wheel. 

       Tickets will be available from 1st October 

Adults £30 
Family (2 adults + 2 children) £80
Concessions £20 

Ticket price includes all admissions, perambulations and access to events at the final venue. 

Assemble at Foxcroft & Ginger, 68 Mile End Road from 10 am (refreshments available). Bus leaves at 11 am. 

The route will include:

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry         The Barbican and Golden Square    
Bevis Marks synagogue                       Leadenhall Market & Lloyds building
Hill & Evans vinegar warehouse        Postman's Park
Cloth Fair and West Smithfield      Bart's Hospital
Holborn Viaduct      Chancery Lane
Fleet Street                                          Ludgate Hill                                          
St Paul's Cathedral                              Cheapside                                 
Bank of England                                   Royal Exchange
St Ethelburga's church                       Christ Church, Spitalfields 
King's Cross and environs                  Surprise final destination!

The tour will end at around 4:30pm in a wonderful central London location and will feature:

* Professor Gavin Stamp, the distinguished architectural historian, who will talk about the author and his work.

* Gillian Darley and David McKie, co-authors of Ian Nairn: Words in Place (Five Leaves Press, 2013) 

* Travis Elborough, author of The Bus We Loved: London's Affair With the Routemaster (Granta Books, 2005) 

* Simon Okotie will be reading from Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? (Salt Publishing, 2013), an existential whodunnit set entirely on a bus.

Finally Ian Nairn himself will appear on screen in one of his BBC broadcasts from the 1970s.

Nairn's London (with a new introduction by Gavin Stamp) and other books by our speakers will be on sale. 


Ends 6pm or later.


_

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Fifty Shades

Technical problems. So (and rather like the television test card of fond memory) here is a recycled blog  to keep the ball(s) rolling until normal service is resumed. I originally put this up more than a year ago, when Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James was in the first flush of its notoriety. Not topical then, although a forthcoming film will no doubt serve to re-activate interest in the Fifty Shades franchise.


On Fifty Shades of Grey


Let's begin with two extracts from two very different novels by two very different authors:

Slowly, she unbuttons the dress jacket, one button at a time. The red silk slips down. Nothing underneath. She holds her young breasts in her palms. She offers them to him! Smooth, bare shoulders, proud throat. She puts her long hands around her neck, like a coil. Velvety palms, thin fingers. She remains like that, exposed, looking  at the narrow, dirty window. She pulls down the zipper of her jeans. She comes out of those blue pipes, naked. 

Here's the second:

He speeds up. I moan, and he pounds on, picking up speed, merciless, a relentless rhythm, and I keep up, meeting his thrusts. […] I detonate around him, again and again, round and round. 

The first passage comes from Norman Manea's The Lair, published in 2012 by Yale University Press. Manea is a very distinguished Romanian novelist and recently became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. The second comes from E. L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey, the fastest-selling novel of all time.

There's not much to choose between them, is there? They're both absolutely rotten pieces of writing and neither has a trace of what Eliot called felt thought. The blue pipes, the detonations - where's the feeling? Where's the thought? They are both laboured and clumsy and ridiculous and share the blasted present historic tense which is the tarnished hallmark of too much contemporary fiction. 

The first extract is translated from Romanian while the second only appears to be. The first (we may need reminding) is serious literature while the second is culled from what its author calls 'adult romance' but which has elsewhere been accurately described as 'Mummy Porn'. Shades (let's agree to call it that) is coarse, unoriginal, tedious, banal and, with its clunky redundancies and repetitions and erratic grammar, an insult to even an average reader's intelligence. But so is The Lair. What's going wrong here? 

Shades is a failure in every respect apart from commercially (which of course is the only measure that really matters in today's literary culture) and has been ignored or derided or condemned by anyone with good taste and a brain. The astonishing sales (70,000,000 and rising) are said in part to be down to a shift in technology: Kindle users can now read such embarrassing trash in public, with no cover art giving the game away. If my reaction seems snobbish then I can only argue that some things are still worth being snobbish about and if not we may as well pack up and light out for the territory - but my point here is that if a meretricious piece of ill-conceived and illiterate smut can sell in its millions to a huge general audience then something must be said in defence of legitimate pornographic writing. We'll come back to the silly infantilism of Shades later on, but first let's look at proper grown-up literary pornography (or erotica, if you want to sound high minded and connoisseurial).

In the 1960s Philip Roth set the ball rolling with Portnoy's Complaint, initiating a new kind of sexual candour which was  outrageous, controversial and trailblazing. While the novel was bracingly frank about the consolations of masturbation, it didn't prompt its readers to follow suit, holding the book in one hand and a piece of liver (wasn't it?) in the other. At least I assume that. Roth enjoyed immediate fame and notoriety and good sales, though nothing like Erika Leonard's, because his book was very funny indeed. Having said which most literary erotica sidelines the humorous and is all but incompatible with any kind of good writing.

There are, of course, exceptions. Nicholson Baker has written three explicitly erotic books - Vox ( a witty phone-sex dialogue which climaxed in, well ... a climax: “Oh! Nnnnnnnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn!”); The Fermata (a fantasia in which the narrator could arrest time and get up to all manner of hanky-panky, an idea with its origins in H G Wells's The New Accelerator), and last year's collection of short stories, House of Holes. This featured a depraved theme park and was a relentlessly smutty and hilarious catalogue of transgression and perversity. Harry Matthews' Singular Pleasures (1990) consisted of sixty-one very brief descriptions of Onanism in different settings, reflecting his staunch Oulipian commitment to self-imposed structural restrictions and permutations. Alasdair Gray, in his magnificent second novel 1982, Janine explored with grace and urgency the erotic dementia of an alcoholic salesman. These are all good writers with many non-erotic publications to their name, and they all know how to handle language, how to get an effect. In the interests of gender balance we might include The Story of O by Anne Desclos, a Gallic tale of epic awfulness with lashings of lashings.

Baker, Matthews, Gray and Desclos are all diving confidently into waters where lesser writers are either drowning or paddling to adapt an image employed by Jung when he compared James Joyce's writing with that of his schizophrenic daughter Lucia. It was Joyce who recognised what he called the 'morbid pedantry' of pornographic writing, and who so brilliantly adapted and enlivened the form in the Nighttown episode of Ulysses, the episode that particularly attracted the censors. In 1933 the American Judge John M. Woolsey's landmark judgement ruled that Joyce's great novel was not pornographic, and his deadpan summing-up always bears repeating:

[W]hilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.

Remove the 'somewhat' and you're close to Shades. Erika Leonard originally published her work online under the pseudonym Snowqueens Icedragon (sic, and in itself enough to induce a bilious attack in the discriminating), as part of the new cultural phenomenon known as 'fan fiction'. She was prompted by her enthusiasm for Stephanie Meyers' Twilight, a series of vampire romances aimed at adolescent readers (and unsophisticated adults), with sales of 100 million copies worldwide. Not being a cutting-edge kinda guy I first heard of fan fiction last year at a Cambridge conference dedicated to the literary collaborators of Benjamin Britten. A distinguished Britten scholar told me she had posted some (innocuous) imaginary accounts of Britten's life on line and, intrigued, I looked them up. They were bright, well-written and playfully amusing scenarios that revealed the author's deep knowledge and understanding of Britten's life, work and personality. It seemed harmless, if pointless - a donnish exercise to pass a wet Sunday afternoon. But other fan fictions were, I soon discovered, both alarming and depressing - atrociously inept Sherlock Holmes pastiches, creepy Star Trek rip-offs featuring Kirk, Spock and colleagues in breathlessly transgressive situations (i.e. having intercourse with aliens), earnest and illiterate reformulations of cult favourites with an emphasis on the gothic. All of this was negligible at best, but what there was in great abundance were energy, enthusiasm and a free-spirited appropriation. So it's perhaps not entirely a bad thing.

I was reminded of so-called 'Tijuana Bibles', cheap small-format American comic books hugely popular in the Depression era, featuring public figures and (in a gesture of post-modern self-reference) established newspaper comic strip characters like Popeye and L'il Abner, all engaged in spirited coitus and other illicit shenanigans. Aimed at adolescent males, they were eight pages long with bracingly filthy dialogue and crudely explicit images of copulation, essentially aids to masturbation. These are now highly sought-after collectors' items and have a certain artless charm. 

Which brings us back again to Shades, which has no charm at all but is certainly artless. It's a gormlessly rebooted Jane Eyre (with added rumpy-pumpy) and depicts (too strong a word) the relationship between college graduate Anastasia Steele ('unworldly, innocent') and damaged billionaire Christian Grey ('beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating'). They meet for an interview in Seattle and Steele, who is a virgin, accepts Grey's invitation to sign a contract allowing him complete control over her life. Like you do.

We are invited to share her surprise and dismay when it turns out that 'Chris' is keen on BDSM (Bondage, Domination and Sado-Masochism), all of it 'straight' and, as it turns out, disappointingly tame. Chris was abused as a child - imagine! - and the upshot is that he now gets his kicks in a 'red room of pain'. It's not especially well-equipped, but perhaps billionaires stay rich by not splashing out on plush manacled furnishings. The author, like most of us, doesn't know too much about billionaire lifestyles so Grey, thinly-sketched, is a resistible cross between Mr Rochester and Richard Branson. He's predictably classy - French-speaking, piano-playing, opera-going and fastidious. Given the Seattle setting he could pass for Frazier Crane's milquetoast brother Niles.

The thing is, and please alert anyone you know who is planning to waste ten quid on this worthless perpetration that, in an exemplary case of 'all gong and no dinner, nothing much happens. They eventually fall in love and have a child together, putting all their low-wattage cavortings, such as they were, behind them. It was all just a phase, you see? An overture to the fulfillments of monogamous parenthood. There's a  clumsy redemptive pay-off and the annoying cop-out message is that all the spanking and clamping was simply a means to an end, and not an end in itself. This is the most pernicious nonsense of all.

We are eventually told that Anastasia, no longer the coy virgin, is far from being the exploited sex-slave of Steele's dreams. In the psychodynamics of this set-up the submissive chattel actually calls the shots. She is quite, y'know, empowered? Critics with a knowledge of such matters have complained that Leonard appears to know little about BDSM (or, come to that, anything else including basic English) and there have been some eloquent denunciations from feminist writers - but the arguments all seem rather moth-eaten. Much debate has surrounded the phenomenal sales of a publication that has not been commissioned and nurtured by editors or proof-readers and which bypasses all the usual publishing hurdles. It suggests an emerging counter-literate world in which publishing is not for everybody but certainly for anybody, so prepare for a deluge of increasingly desperate spin-off cash-ins. My real concern is that readers are apparently willing to settle for so little - are they really so needy, so undiscriminating, so gullible? Is this what reading Rowling's Harry Potter books ten years ago has led a generation to? Is this their idea of fun?

Shades was clearly easy to write but is by no means so easy to read. The agreement drawn up between the protagonists of  is expressed thus:

‘The Submissive will obey any instructions given by the Dominant immediately without hesitation or reservation and in an expeditious manner [. . .] The Submissive shall accept whippings, floggings, spankings, canings, paddlings, or any other discipline the Dominant should decide to administer, without hesitation, inquiry or complaint’

'Paddling' is (I looked it up so you don't have to) spanking somebody on the backside with a table tennis bat, or similar article. The language of the contract, with its ponderous shall/will variation, is not titillating and when it comes to delivery Fifty Shades of Grey turns out to be all gong and no dinner. Leonard's work lacks not only lustre but also lust and what this lousy book avoids entirely (apart from basic literacy) is pornographic inventiveness, which strikes me as a bit of a swindle. There is nothing at all of interest in the uninspired and unlubricious sex scenes to keep the reader engaged. There's no plot, of course, just a situation which is explored (again too strong a word) in deadly prose, and at interrninable length throughout this and two sequel volumes. The tone is (perhaps aptly) strangulated and, at the same time, so preposterously solemn that one can only hoot with derisive laughter before throwing the wretched thing across the room (and before you ask I read a borrowed paperback - my Kindle is intact).

Leonard's lovers address one another in a weirdly pedantic and chortling register:

‘What a tempting morsel you are, Miss Steele,’ he tells her. ‘You intoxicate me, Miss Steele, and you calm me.  Such a heady combination.’ To which she replies: ‘We aim to please, Mr Grey.’ 

It really is that bad, all the way through. They never quite get to say 'Forsooth' and 'Egad' but they come pretty damn close. Is this how members of the BDSM community chatter among themselves? Is this costive jocularity part of the edgy lifestyle?

Erika Leonard is set to become the Ayn Rand of soft porn - the original online episodes later reformulated as Shades were perpetrated under the Randian title Master of the Universe. No longer confident or honest in their judgements for fear of appearing highbrow, elitist, snobbish or even discriminating, many reviewers have been nervously equivocal about the book's style and content, treating it as 'a guilty pleasure', 'a poorly-written but addictive page-turner', 'eminently readable' and 'a talking-point for years to come.' One critic deadpanned that the book 'was in a class by itself'. Shades  is soon to become not merely a film but 'a major motion picture event' directed by the humdrum conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood. She should remind herself of the perils of mainstream erotic film-making and arrange a screening of Stanley Kubrick's last movie, Eyes Wide Shut. Scripted by Frederic Raphael from stories by Arthur Schnitzler, and starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, it was heralded as serious attempt to render the erotic with courage and candour. This was indeed a major motion picture event, and was an absolute stinker.

Back once last time to Shades. The heroine (a literature graduate) and her creator both seem unaware of any heritage erotica that might add a little oomph to the endeavour. A good place to start would be with James Joyce's letters to his wife Nora Barnacle, 'my darling brown-arsed fuckbird' - there's more erotic fizz and crackle in that salutation than in a dozen dungeons full of humdrum kinkiness. But perhaps Joyce as a mentor is raising the bar to giddy heights. There's also a lengthy tradition of flagellation writing to draw on, although it's all pretty feeble. Algernon Swinburne had a keen appetite for this kind of thing, possibly acquired as a schoolboy at Eton College (his pseudonym 'Etonensis' certainly suggests this). He is one of the pre-eminent algolagniacs in English literature (and I had to look that up also - 'one who derives sexual pleasure from pain'). Swinburne's The Whippingham Papers (1887) includes a relentlessly tedious 94-stanza poem 'Reginald's Flogging' which has to be read to be disbelieved. It's that morbid pedantry again - the (self-imposed) requirement to use something as cumbersome as words to describe elaborate physical activities, and to do so in a forward-moving narrative that speaks to the sensual imagination. Larkin's schoolgirl spanking fantasies are also doggedly unexciting as prose (although for him they clearly met a need), There's never really much of a temporal sense to pornographic writing - there's a how and a where (often scrupulously evoked) but never a when. The encounters are subject to duration (of course) but not of chronology.

Am I wrong to expect, when presented with Shades something more stimulating, more sexy, more fetishistic even? As it is I feel gypped, like I've been hustled into a pricy night club to find the place is deserted, the bar is shut, the chairs on the tables and the cleaners mopping the floor.

Leonard's characters, needless to say, entirely lack sensuality - there is no erotic charge derived from fabrics, food or fragrance, from body heat, the smell of hair and taste of skin. Lips are repeatedly nibbled and blood is on one occasion drawn, but Leonard is as adept at evoking passion as she is at writing an elegant or memorable sentence. I'm not against pornographic writing at all - but I can't stand bad writing. It's not precious or elitist to condemn trash - whether it's by good writers (Auden's 'The Platonic Blow' comes to mind) or the sub-literate - because trash is trash and no amount of post-modern irony will alter the fact. The odd ignoble frisson is always welcome, and is the sort of thing one finds in all the serious writers I've mentioned above, as well as others including John Wilmot, Anaïs Nin, William Burroughs, Lawrence Durrell, D. H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov. Fifty Shades of Grey is so atrociously written that what the Victorians called an act of self-pollution would be a more rewarding way to spend the evening than reading it. Leonard's writing doesn't just put you off sex. It shares with Norman Manea's The Lair an even more malign accomplishment -  it puts you off reading. 



Extracts from Norman Manea and E. L. James © Yale University Press and Random House



Friday, 29 August 2014

The New Accelerator

Amphetamine, first synthesised in Berlin in 1887 by the Romanian chemist Lazăr Edeleanu, was not commercially available until the mid-1930s, when it was marketed under the brand name Benzedrine. It soon became, and has intermittently remained, a drug of choice for writers and other creative artists. One author who used it enthusiastically was W. H. Auden, who took Benzedrine tablets every morning for twenty years, countering their effect with Seconal, a barbiturate, when he wanted to sleep. Pills were, he said, a 'labor-saving device', part of the cutlery in his 'mental kitchen', adding the warning that 'these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.'. Another writer who depended on amphetamines, though not in Auden's league (or any other, come to that) was Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead, who took Dexedrine and Dexamyl daily for thirty years. Neither Auden nor Rand will ever be regarded as hipsters, but for whatever reason speed has become associated with cool and cultish beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg.

In The New Accelerator H. G. Wells imagines the creation of a colossally powerful amphetamine and, in one of the most extraordinary sequences in Edwardian fiction, describes the effect on its first users (who may strike the modern reader as precursors of Withnail and Marwood) one summer afternoon in a fashionable seaside resort. 

The New Accelerator was first published in Strand magazine in 1901 and appeared two years later as the best in a lacklustre collection of short stories called Twelve Stories and a Dream. It's not only a brisk and thought-provoking entertainment (and it really is quite fantastically entertaining), but is also an early example of modern narcotic fiction, providing a link between the writings of Baudelaire and Thomas De Quincy in the 19th century and William Burroughs and Aldous Huxley in the 20th. These writers and their followers joined in questioning our assumptions about time's linearity, about how we pass through time and how time passes through us. 

The New Accelerator begins in a brisk, button-holing and unmistakably masculine register:

Certainly, if ever a man found a guinea when he was looking for a pin it is my good friend Professor Gibberne. I have heard before of investigators overshooting the mark, but never quite to the extent that he has done. He has really, this time at any rate, without any touch of exaggeration in the phrase, found something to revolutionise human life. And that when he was simply seeking an all-round nervous stimulant to bring languid people up to the stresses of these pushful days. I have tasted the stuff now several times, and I cannot do better than describe the effect the thing had on me. That there are astonishing experiences in store for all in search of new sensations will become apparent enough.

'These pushful days' - a cobwebby phrase for a modern situation. At the turn of the last century there was intense debate surrounding the principles of Scientific Management, better known as Taylorism (after Frederick Winslow Taylor), the main object of which was improving economic efficiency through greater labor productivity. A development of Taylorism, better known to a general public and frequently the object of satire, was Time and Motion Study. Sceptics and advocates were at loggerheads, as the principles of Taylorism had, especially in the popular imagination, a distinctly sinister ring, implying a dehumanised, mechanised and standardised workforce bound by rigid, non-negotiable management systems. Think of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, or the platoons of workers in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

When Wells was writing The New Accelerator, time - and its relation to industrial labour, efficiency and productivity - had never been so closely scrutinised or rigorously commodified. It was as if time itself was now privately owned, to be packaged and allocated, so we can imagine the subversive implications of Professor Gibberne's discovery - a drug that will lead to 'the absolute acceleration of life' but also, by implication, the corresponding acceleration of death.

The setting of The New Accelerator is genteel Folkestone, now a fading resort but then a very respectable middle-class holiday destination on the Kent coast. Wells's description of the Gibberne residence is so precise that I'm sure I'm not the only reader to have scoured the Upper Sandgate Road for a detached house with Flemish gables and a Moorish portico, a ground floor room with mullioned bay window and 'an Early English carved oak gate'. My money's on number 150, on the right as you head down to the sea. Wells lived nearby in an imposing pile called Spade House, designed by the Arts and Crafts architect Charles Voysey. It's now a residential nursing-home, a place for people who are fast running out of time, and visitors are not encouraged.

Gibberne's elixir accelerates the user's metabolism to such a speed that his movements become too swift for the human eye to see. The user becomes invisible to us while the real world we inhabit appears motionless to the user, who is free to move around it at his leisure. What a great idea!

Wells, never short of great ideas, does remarkably little with this one, although to be sure narcotic writing is seldom compatible with anything as routine as a plot. It's all about sensation, subjective perception and self-absorption. The New Accelerator is little more than a description - and a wonderfully evocative and persuasive description - of the experience of being under the imaginary drug's influence. The protagonists, having taken a dose, do little but move unseen through a holiday crowd and, apart from a single mild act of delinquency involving a yapping lap-dog, nothing much happens. Since the real aim of the story is to describe a new cognitive experience - one that only photography, magic lantern projections and early moving pictures had attempted to represent - there's no call for a plot and I'm glad the author didn't work the story up into some kind of crime caper in which the protagonists fund an increasingly expensive addiction by invisibly looting shops and banks. One later writer who exhaustively exploited the libidinous potential of Wells's idea was Nicholson Baker, in his 1994 novel The Fermata. The central character, Arno Strine, has the ability (not drug-related) to freeze time and indulge in all manner of sexual goings-on. 

Back to our story. A euphoric Gibberne - the name should be pronounced with a hard 'g', as in gibbon - invites the narrator (who is a writer) to join him in an informal trial. "It kicks the theory of vision into a perfectly new shape!" he excitedly claims, and this it certainly does. The preliminaries are brilliantly handled by Wells - Gibberne delivers a series of deadpan practical instructions and portentous warnings, part health and safety nostrums, part music-hall conjuror's patter. Our narrator shuts his eyes and waits for the Accelerator to take effect. After a minute or two he opens them and looks around. Nothing appears to have changed but he has passed into another world - a billowing curtain hangs frozen in mid-air and, when Gibberne opens his hand to release his empty drinking-glass, it doesn't fall to the floor but remains quite motionless in mid-air, descending imperceptibly slowly.

Accelerated and disinhibited, the two men venture out through the ground floor window and make their way a few hundred yards southward to the Leas, the landscaped municipal gardens on the Folkestone cliffs high above the beach and harbour. It's a clear, hot August bank holiday weekend, 'every colour incredibly bright and every outline hard'. The spectacle confronting the two men is, in the narrator's chummy saloon bar idiom, 'deuced queer':

An immovable cyclist, head down and with a frozen puff of dust behind his driving-wheel, scorched to overtake a galloping char-a-banc that did not stir. I gaped in amazement at this incredible spectacle.

It's a white flannel and straw boater world that the two Baudelairian flâneurs inspect at their leisure. As social observers they are at a double remove from everyday life because the holiday-makers they scrutinise with mounting horror are themselves on temporary leave of absence from 'these pushful days' and it would be a very different story if it unfolded in a more familiar Wellsian setting such as the South London suburbs.

It soon becomes clear that all is not well. An unpleasant reaction sets in as they examine that static, galloping horse-drawn char-a-banc:

The effect as we walked about the thing began by being madly queer, and ended by being disagreeable. There they were, people like ourselves and yet not like ourselves, frozen in careless attitudes, caught in mid-gesture. 

What the two men see on the Leas is not life but a simulacrum of life. It's 'disagreeable' not simply because there's no movement but because there's no vitality either - the holiday crowd is 'smitten rigid' like figures in a wax museum and what begins as a high-spirited excursion soon becomes a journey through a sunlit necropolis. Esse est percipere said Bishop Berkeley - 'to be is to be perceived' - and the two men, unperceived by others, undergo a mild but nevertheless disabling loss of self, a condition we would diagnose today as drug-induced paranoia. Wells doesn't explore this in much detail - but what he suggests is a state of death-in-life, the addict condition. The two men are invisible, spectral, unable to communicate with the world of the living. In the midst of life we are all are in death of course, but they, in an unsettling reversal, are dead in the midst of life, animated corpses who rise from the grave to terrorise the living. (Folkestone's Wikipedia entry tells me that the town's cultural highlight is an Annual Zombie walk, which attracted 200 participants in 2012. They could aim higher, although this link to the animated dead certainly resonates with the necrotic significance of the story. Perhaps Folkestone Town Council could up their game and arrange an Annual New Accelerator festival. That would really be something.)

What Wells depicts, rather than examines, is a temporal liberation that brings the user closer to death - not only by the 'infinitesimal degree' mentioned by Gibberne but in a profounder, existential sense. Wells raises important questions about selfhood - what it is, how it is sustained by the individual within the social order - but he doesn't offer answers to these questions because he's not that kind of writer. Like his narrator he is 'given to paradoxes about space and time' but, to quote a line from The Time Machine, he is at his best as a writer and his least convincing as a philosopher 'when thought roams gracefully free of the trammels of precision'. 

Although several of his stories are reflections on the effect of drugs real and imaginary, Wells was not himself a drug-taker and there's no evidence to support the widespread claim that the occultist Aleister Crowley introduced him to hashish. What Wells would have made of Auden's speed habit I can't imagine. His outlook was probably closer to that of the chronic insomniac in his 1910 novel When the Sleeper Wakes. Graham, the main character,  has not slept for six nights because, he says: "I dare not take ... sufficiently powerful drugs."  He falls into a self-medicated trance in 1897, awakening two hundred and three years later, fabulously wealthy thanks to compound interest accruing on his modest capital.

Wells is a practical, often literal-minded writer, preferring mechanics to metaphysics. He has a canny tradesman's eye for detail - the commercial version of Gibberne's New Accelerator will, we learn, be sold 'in three strengths: one in 200, one in 900, and one in 2000, distinguished by yellow, pink, and white labels respectively'. He's less good on character and motivation, but this is not so much a flaw in his short stories so much as a defining characteristic. In The Time Machine (1895) Wells had explored temporal paradox, and the Time Traveller's description of his headlong voyage into the future anticipates some of the effects in The New Accelerator: 'The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me.'

Premature senility (as if there were any other kind) and/or early death are the drug's predicted side effects and we can imagine other, even less desirable outcomes for those who become addicted to a state of constant acceleration. Of course we all of us trade off experience against longevity every time we indulge ourselves in booze or tobacco or recreational drugs or whatever sensation meets our nihilistic needs or whims. 'This shit will probably kill us / Let's do another line' as Tom Waits memorably croaked. Gibberne's elixir brings death incrementally into the world and death, and our awareness of death, are behind everything, beneath everything, driving everything and overshadowing and ultimately thwarting all that we do.

It's quite a rock and roll drug, isn't it? 'Live fast, die young'; 'better to burn out than fade away', that sort of thing. Mutability and oblivion are at the dark heart of The New Accelerator - the irresistible attraction towards personal extinction expressed through a skewed romantic impulse to mock the quotidian and live more intensely. Stepping outside time is an essentially romantic impulse, and such disparate writers as Wells and Burroughs are romantic writers in the 19th century sense. One of Burroughs's aims, through his cut-ups and other literary experiments, was to crack open time and see what came out. By breaking up straight chronology Burroughs wanted to free himself - and us - from what he saw the tyranny of linear time and drugs, in his view, offered users the path to liberation. Granted access to Gibberne's elixir, one can't imagine 'El Hombre Invisible' (as Burroughs dubbed himself, in a nod to another Wells character) playing harmless pranks on the promenade. 

Novels, whether conventional or experimental, develop over time and at different speeds - writing speed, reading speed, the time depicted in the narrative and so on. Avant-garde fiction regularly challenges and subverts the conventions but in so doing tends to confirm their utility and durability. There is nothing stylistically daring in this story or elsewhere in Wells's writing, although in a smart self-referencing flourish he concludes The New Accelerator by telling us that 'the whole story has been written at one sitting and without interruption, except for the nibbling of some chocolate, by its means. I began at 6.25, and my watch is now very nearly at the minute past the half-hour.' 

Over five thousand words in six minutes? It makes Philip K. Dick look like a slacker. Working twenty hours a day, fuelled by a thousand capsules of benzedrine a month, he hammered out just eleven novels in two years. I suppose that Wells will never be cool in the way that Dick, or Kerouac and his beat compadres are, and perhaps this is down to audience expectations. Readers in search of drug-fuelled literary illumination can be quite unadventurous, unwilling to venture outside the sanctioned cohort of cultish hipsters, and they always look in the same places. You can keep your groovy pill poppers; give me the unhip drug writers: Honoré de Balzac (who died of caffeine poisoning); Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“Opium – opium – night after night!”); Paul Verlaine (drowned in absinthe); Chandler and Cheever and Hemingway (epic boozers all).

When it comes to the social implications of the Accelerator Wells gives a casual libertarian shrug. The market will manage the consequences: 

Like all potent preparations it will be liable to abuse. We have, however, discussed this aspect of the question very thoroughly, and we have decided that this is purely a matter of medical jurisprudence and altogether outside our province. We shall manufacture and sell the Accelerator, and, as for the consequences--we shall see.

It's easy to predict a dystopian outcome - a society composed of two antithetical, pharmacologically-defined communities, built around collective addiction to Gibberne's Nervous Accelerator and its correspondingly potent Retardant, with a hyperkinetically active minority holding sway over an intermittently active underclass doped to the gills with mental and physical bromides. A society in collective denial at the thought of decay and death, with a compensating tendency to fetishise youth and beauty, a society addicted to self-realisation and self-fulfilment though elective self-medication. Picture a society that has fallen out of step with time, and look around you. 


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Another find

Another find. Here's W. H. Auden reading Now the leaves are falling fast, his fine poem from the 1930s, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London circa 1974. This recording comes from the BBC programme Bookmark, but is here used by VPRO, the Netherlands public broadcasting network. They have a mission statement which begins:

Wars, verdiepend en creatief - van highbrow tot lowbrow. Een baken van intelligent   amusement en eigenzinnige journalistiek; een keurmerk voor verdieping

"Van highbrow tot lowbrow" and "intelligent amusement" - these are my values, and of course yours. Stay to the end of the clip and hear Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) pay a brief and moving tribute.

I've sometimes wondered whether the resonant fourth line of this poem was prompted by a viewing of Eisenstein's Battleship Ptomkin at the London Film Society. Auden  would almost certainly have seen the film at some point as it was a staple of the LFS and regularly shown at private screenings for anyone connected with the documentary film movement. I mean the of course the celebrated Odessa Steps sequence. The pram appears at the 11-minute mark, and keeps rolling on. I hadn't watched this film for many years and was pleased to be overwhelmed by the power and righteous anger of the piece. So - van highbrow tot highbrow - here's the text of the Auden poem to read aloud while watching Potemkin. It differs slightly from his spoken version, so pay attention.


    Now the leaves are falling fast,
    Nurse's flowers will not last;
    Nurses to the graves are gone,
    And the prams go rolling on.

    Whispering neighbours, left and right,
    Pluck us from the real delight;
    And the active hands must freeze
    Lonely on the separate knees.

    Dead in hundreds at the back
    Follow wooden in our track,
    Arms raised stiffly to reprove
    In false attitudes of love.

    Starving through the leafless wood
    Trolls run scolding for their food;
    And the nightingale is dumb,
    And the angel will not come.

    Cold, impossible, ahead
    Lifts the mountain's lovely head
    Whose white waterfall could bless
    Travellers in their last distress.


© The Estate of W H Auden. All rights reserved


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Yet more memories

In response to a non-deluge of interest, here are some more of my memories, prompted by Georges Perec's Je me souviens. Perec didn't invent this form - it was an American writer,  Joe Brainard (1943-1994), who originated the approach (and to whom Perec dedicated Je me souviens when it was published 1978).

I encountered Perec years before I'd even heard of Brainard, the Channel being narrower than the Atlantic, at least geographically, and I've only recently caught up. After reading Brainard, however, I'm afraid my loyalty still lies with the Frenchman. Just as James Joyce rather than Christine Rose is credited with the development of the stream of consciousness method (even though she anticipated Joyce's technique in Ulysses by two decades), so Perec gets the kudos for Je me souviens over Brainard's I remember.

Rightly, I think, because it's better to perfect an innovation than merely to create it. Nobody would make great claims for the literary value of Rose's Pointed Roofs, despite its startling innovation. But I'm beginning to waffle.

Perec wrote Je me souviens between January 1973 and June 1977, and the memories he listed were, he said,  mostly derived "entre ma 10e et ma 25e année, c'est-à-dire entre 1946 et 1961."

My own memories range between the early 1960s and last week. It's a work in progress. The stuff that follows, written over the past fifteen years, refer mostly to the increasingly remote twentieth century.


Ready? Here goes:


I remember hearing a possibly apocryphal story about the patrician novelist Anthony Powell meeting Victoria Beckham at a reception when the fame of the Spice girls had reached giddying heights, and politely enquiring: “Which Spice might you be?” To which she replied: “I’m Posh”. To which he replied: “You must be fucking joking!”

I remember first reading that the act of remembering is subject to a continuing degradation as what we remember when we remember something is not the thing itself but the last time we remembered it.

I remember the French word for dandelion is pisenlit – literally “wet the bed”.

And that the German word  elster means “magpie”,  and that Gavin Elster is the suavely sinister screen husband of Kim Novak’s Madeleine in Hitchcock's Vertigo.

I remember discovering an allegedly secret Masonic cry for assistance : "Will no-one help the widow’s son?"

I remember the attractive tartan moquette upholstery in Routemaster buses, and the pleasant yellow light cast by individual bulbs before they were replaced by cheap stripy fabrics and harsh strip lights in the 1990s.

I remember struggling to finish The Pickwick Papers, the first grown up book I ever owned, an experience which put me off Dickens until quite late in adult life.

I remember Roger Livesey and his camera obscura watching over the village in Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death.

I remember a rather sinister illustration from a school science book from the 1950s showing the constituent chemicals making up an average human body, which contains, among other things, “enough lime to whitewash a hencoop”.

I remember the topographical historian Alec Clifton-Taylor’s elegant formulation “There is little (or much) here to detain us” when describing a particularly dull (or interesting) part of the built environment.

I remember watching my son, on his sixth birthday, collaborating with a group of small children to copy Uccello’s Battle of San Romano in the National Gallery.

And I remember that a “Uccello” was a standard measurement, based on The Battle of San Romano, introduced by the War Office for commissioning pieces from Great War artists like William Orpen. Hence “half Uccello” or “quarter Uccello”).

I remember my maternal grandmother having the same married name – Froy – as the elderly heroine played by Dame May Whitty in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.

I remember that the English actress Nova Pilbeam was married to Hallam Tennyson, a descendent of the laureate, and that he died tragically young as an airman in the Battle of Britain. She appeared in Hitchcock's delightful Young and Innocent and made a handful of films before disappearing from the screen and, it seems, from public life. She may still be alive, and in her nineties.

I remember the clever double entendre written – or recalled – by Talbot Rothwell and deployed with fruity gusto and his trademark appalled expression by Frankie Howerd (as Lurkio) when addressing the Vestal Virgins in Up Pompeii: “It is a great honour that you do me”.

 I remember that the Viennese writer Karl Krauss, an early critic of Freud, wrote that “psychoanalysis was the disease for which it claims to be the cure”.

I remember that one of the three men who banged the gong for J Arthur Rank was Bombardier Billy Wells.

I remember earache.

I remember marvelling at a concrete galleon moored permanently in the mouth of the estuary at Ballina in Ireland.

I remember such words as hooter, cake hole, bracket and lug ‘oles used in old radio comedies to stand for nose, mouth, throat and ears respectively. Also that the linguistic form for this kind of substitution is “radiant particularisation” and applies especially to the almost limitless number of euphemisms for the breasts and sexual organs.

I remember whistling.

I remember sparrows.

I remember the buck-toothed comedian Ken Dodd claiming to be “the only man in Britain capable of eating a tomato through a tennis racket”.

I remember being baffled by the two spellings of Harringay and Haringey.

I also recall noticing the variants Goldhawk Road and Gold Hawk Road on the two adjacent entrances to the Hammersmith and City Line station in West London.

I remember the first time I read W S Graham’s poem 'I leave this by your ear for when you wake'.

I remember admiring the title of Ian Hamilton’s first collection of poems: Pretending not to Sleep.

I remember the first English language word read aloud unprompted by my son was “Loftus”, a street name in West London which is also a doggy character in a favourite book. His first spoken word was 'conker'.

I remember my late friend David Brown’s dictum: “Art is complex because life is complex”

I remember “colouring-in”, and the type of “magic” books in which adding water to the page would reveal wishy washy rainbow colours.

I remember my son laughing almost continuously at Laurel & Hardy in Sons of the Desert and repeating, after a second viewing, substantial chunks of the dialogue and in particular Oliver Hardy’s pompous and ponderous statement that “Ev-ery man should be the KING in his oooown (pause) CASTLE!”.

I remember first hearing that Diana, Princess of Wales, had been killed in a traffic accident and recall my combined surprise, real sadness and (as the days subsequently passed) growing indifference to the increasingly ostentatious scenes of public grief. Many years later Jonathan Meades pinpointed the reaction to Diana's death as apart of a creeping "Liverpudlianisation" of our public life.

I remember buying some chunky amber necklaces in a bitterly cold Russian street market and bearing them away wrapped in crumpled brown paper.

I remember my only visit to Swaziland, and a terrific storm there which blew the beautiful and delicate weaver bird nests from the tall palms.

I remember Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains, an enjoyable low-budget comedy film directed by Rob Reiner, the son of Carl, who was for many years a foil to Mel Brooks.

I remember my interest in the so-called Borscht Belt comedians like Henny Youngman (“Take my wife… please”) and the invariable “bedim…tschhhh” of an onstage drummer which punctuated every snappy one-liner.

I remember reading that Stalin was born with webbed feet and wondering how much or how little influence this had on his - for want of a better word - 'personality'.

I remember being tongue-tied in the presence of the radio presenter Robert Robinson and subsequently amusing friends with my description of our encounter.

I remember marbles, conkers, pick-up-sticks and blackjacks.

I remember Chipmunk crisps.

I remember my first watch – a Timex.

I remember electric blankets.

I remember Jane Russell’s notoriously sexy catwalk dance routine in The French Line.

I remember a convivial four-hour lunch in the Whitstable Oyster Fisheries on a cold sunny March afternoon.

I remember my pleasure at first hearing the word “clusterfuck”.

I remember the only time I ever slept on a park bench.

I remember watching Murnau’s Ordet for the first time at the cinema in the National Gallery and sobbing helplessly (along with my companion and the half-dozen other members of the audience) throughout the final reel. When the lights went on we left the auditorium like survivors of a ferry disaster. Nothing has ever moved me more.

I remember Barmouth biscuits.

I remember watching my son, aged seven, through binoculars pony-trekking across the sands of a remote estuary in West Wales.

I remember Whitbread 'Big Head' Trophy Bitter, “the pint that thinks it’s a quart”.

I remember self-consciously developing a taste for Worthington White Shield bottled ale, a vile and powerful brew recommended by a CAMRA writer.

I remember Charters and Caldicott.

I remember dominoes, skittles, shove ha’penny, cribbage and other pub games.

I remember first seeing the colossal disused airship hangars at Cardington in Bedfordshire.

I remember Bootsy and Snudge.

I remember “Wayfinders” shoes for boys, which had a compass concealed in a secret compartment in the heel, and the soles of which were embossed with animal pawprints.

I remember “Penny for the Guy”.

I remember All Gas and Gaiters.

I remember my French-speaking bilingual son asking me :”What is a Jew?” and mentally  mustering a careful reply when I suddenly realised he was asking, theologically, “What is a dieu?”

I remember the portly television presenter Monty Modlyn.

I remember the Aberfan disaster, and subsequent anniversaries of this haunting event of my childhood.

I remember visiting a coal mine in Yorkshire and being impressed by the Morphine Safe set into the wall by the winding shaft deep underground.

I remember Dennis Price (Louis) seducing Joan Greenwood (Sybilla) in the sublime Ealing Studios comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, and also that this matchless British comedy was based on a novel by Roy Horniman entitled Israel Rank. This title was allegedly deleted from the film’s credits as it was thought likely that Rank Studios would object.

I remember toffee apples.

I remember from summers in childhood pyramidal chunks of ice infused with fruit juice and called (I think) Calypso.

I remember such popular 1970s “eateries” as Tennessee Pancake House and The Golden Egg.

I remember the quip: “I drink as I dress – Chablis”.

I remember seeing a photograph of a huge and mysterious mass of decomposing blubbery organic matter which had been washed up on a South American beach and which didn’t correspond to any known living creature.

I remember Auden describing his face as “a wedding cake left out in the rain”.

I remember reading and subsequently re-reading Cyril Connolly’s only novel The Rock Pool. “Naylor was deaf again”.

I remember being close to a car bomb which exploded in New Oxford Street during an IRA campaign, and how the muffled blast set off alarms in nearby vehicles and buildings.

I remember the old Scala cinema in King’s Cross, and squinting in the darkness of the steeply-raked auditorium at their wonderful folded A3 programmes, densely packed with information.

I remember my son repeating, word-perfectly, a complete poem for the first time. But I can no longer remember what it was.

I remember first mixing a gimlet.

I remember visiting my friend Paul Neal in Barts Hospital when he was dying from throat cancer. Following an emergency tracheotomy he communicated for the most part by writing on slips of paper, (as did Franz Kafka in his last days). I asked him once if his condition was the result of smoking and he wrote: Yes. And booze too. Just to be sure.

I remember the funeral of Winston Churchill, and how the cranes in the Pool of London lowered their jibs as a mark of respect when the lighter bearing his coffin sailed by.

I remember, with other children, making slides in icy weather.

I remember the joke about a certain Tory cabinet minister, popularly regarded as a lady-killer – “He’s not gay of course (pause) but his boyfriends are”

I remember enjoying the sight of my son feeding swans on the Round Pond in Kensington Palace Gardens and how charmed I was when he gave some of his supply of bread to a much smaller and breadless boy who was watching him.

I remember being angered by a noisy, inept, crass and vulgar National Theatre production of the great Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death, and composing a long and nasty letter to the director of Kneehigh (the troupe responsible) which I would never send.

I remember meeting Jack Cardiff, the great cinematographer who had worked on several Powell & Pressburger films and, no less admirably, slept with Sophia Loren. He enjoyed close relationships with many screen goddesses, and put tis down to the trust they had in lighting and camera operators to make them look their best. Cardiff claimed, with complete professional objectivity, that he could tell from her eyes when an actress was menstruating.

I remember rather pretentiously thinking it would be amusing to write a poem entitled 'On First Looking into On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer'. Also wondering whether any author has considered writing a serious literary sequel to Ulysses, perhaps set on 17th June 1906, and picking up where Joyce left off. It could be entitled Twolysses.

I remember reading a promotional brochure for Belfast’s refurbished and gentrified old docks, to be branded the “Titanic Quarter”, and that it would become “a spot where pleasure, profit and memorialisation meet”

Monday, 25 August 2014

On Wikipedia

Here is a link to a the 100 longest Wikipedia entries compiled by one Josh Fjelstad of Buzzfeed.

My favourite? The thirteenth: a list of moths to be found in Italy. There are other surprises, most of them profoundly dispiriting.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

May-Lan Tan

Here's all I know about the author May-Lan Tan, gleaned from her agent's website:

May-Lan Tan grew up in colonial Hong Kong and was educated in British and American schools. Her parents are Dutch-speaking Chinese immigrants from Indonesia. She holds a BA in Fine Art and an MA in Creative Writing from Goldsmiths College. Things to Make and Break, was published by CB editions in March 2014.

I've just got around to reading this debut collection of short stories, which carries a warm endorsement on the back cover by none other than Gordon Lish, who is too little known on this side of the Atlantic. See a good piece on him here. Lish famously knocked Raymond Carver's prose into shape so he clearly knows what's what and his recommendations carry a lot of weight in this household. I read May-Lan Tan's eleven stories in a single sitting (it's that kind of book), and I found myself regularly yelping with admiration.

She has a brilliant way of making the familiar seem strange (but not too strange) - a playground slide 'like a high-heeled shoe', for instance. I'd cite V. S. Pritchett as an improbably comparable talent. If you haven't read his short story The Sailor do look it up, then read May-Lan Tan.  She really is just as good.

Here she is in a podcast, reading part of the first story in this collection: Legendary

You can buy Things to Make and Break here.





Friday, 22 August 2014

More memories






I remember conditions on London Transport buses and underground trains when smoking was permitted, and that the interior upper decks of open platform buses were painted a nicotine yellow, and that sitting in the smoking carriage of a tube train was like being in a diseased lung.

I remember the first time I heard the irritating and preposterous mutton-chopp’d Education Minister, Rhodes Boyson, use without irony the archaic phrase “school mastering” like some latter-day Gradgrind.

I remember Tommy Cooper saying: “I’m so unlucky. I am. (pause) I’ve got a lighter that won’t go out.”

I remember admiring 'Adlestrop', and wondering where in the world the country station giving the poem its title could be, yet never making any real effort to find out. It turns out to have been in Oxford, despite the tyrolean sound of it.

I remember as a child collecting small embossed medallions commemorating significant moments in the history of aviation, which were given away with every purchase at filling stations. I recall begging my father to buy small amounts of petrol very often to ensure that I could get the entire set before the promotion came to an end.

I remember at the age of nine or ten reading several books about a time-travelling medieval wizard named Catweazle, and vividly recall the eccentric actor Geoffrey Bayldon, who played him in a fairly popular television version. I’m unsure, in fact, whether the series was based on the books or vice versa. The stories exploited seemingly endless permutations of a single theme – Catweazle’s complete misreading of modern day commonplaces such as aeroplanes or telephones, and the predictable chaos that resulted from his attempts to use alchemy and spells to “control” them. Unusually for a modest British production of the time there was an animated title sequence. This consisted of little more than an all but static cartoon version of the wizard crossing and uncrossing his eyes as the credits rolled, but served to set this programme apart from others. It was also, come to think of it, made entirely on location, a fact which I somehow registered and approved.

I remember the popular chant on anti-racist marches of the late 1970s:

     Unemployment and inflation
     Are not caused by immigration.
     Bullshit! Come off it!
     The enemy is profit!

I remember the automatic electric eye door in the basement of the Science Museum, and queuing up for long minutes to test what seemed to us children then a representative marvel of the impending modern age.

I remember the Canadian Mormon woman Joyce McKinley, who “kidnapped” her boyfriend and appeared in all the popular Sunday newspapers dressed only in the one-piece undergarment worn by members of her church.

I remember that Anna Karina, the luminously beautiful Danish actress who appeared in several early Godard films was also - inexplicably -  the “continental” star of a humdrum British farce (“She’ll Have to Go!”) appearing opposite a less-than-luminous cast including Bob Monkhouse, Alfred Marks and Peggy Mount.

I remember that the actresses Peggy Mount and Gemma Craven both hailed from Westcliffe-on-Sea in Essex, and the furore that surrounded the brief appearance of Ms Craven’s lipsticked nipples in Pennies from Heaven. I also recall with great affection Mount’s definitive “battle-axe” (Ma Hornet) in the lowbrow farce Sailor Beware.

I remember Jamboree Bags, quite accurately described by grown ups as “thruppenny bags of rubbish” and which invariably contained, along with a single toffee and a handful of chalky sweets, a cheap toy such as a ring, plastic spider or some such novelty. The real joy was feeling the contents of the paper bag (which bore an image of scouts around a camp fire by an open tent) and trying to imagine what marvellous treasures could reside within.

I remember that eating sugar puffs made my urine smell of sugar puffs.

I remember first expressing my blimpish annoyance at the unnecessary archaism of 'whilst'.

I remember Plutarch’s Triumphs, showing the relation of Man to the rest of Ptolemeic cosmology, on the analogy of Roman Triumphal Entries – that of Love over Man, Chastity over Love, Death over Chastity, Fame over Death, Time over Fame and Eternity or Divinity over Time. I remember drunkenly discussing how this structure could be worked up into a film script or, more modestly, a version of the playground game scissors/paper/stone.

I remember a sickly cologne for men, distributed exclusively in the UK and advertised in a much-heralded campaign by Brigitte Bardot with the huskily-accented slogan “I know my man … and 'e wears Zendiq”. Her appearance in a British commercial was considered newsworthy at the time (i.e. the mid 1970s, about the time BB retired from the ‘silver screen’).

I remember that the three Js (on which the fortunes of Dundee were said to be founded) were jam, jute and journalism.

I remember singing along to “Three wheels on my wagon” and “Charlie Brown”.

I remember Matchbox toy cars, and the special “Models of Yesteryear” range, which included a London tram and a horse-drawn fire engine, and which cost more than the regular models in their appealing blue and yellow boxes. Their relative prestige reminded me of the higher value placed on Bourneville plain chocolate (as compared with the commonplace ‘milk’ variety)

I remember the Bond villain Scaramanga.

I remember reading of an Irishman who successfully committed to memory and then recited without error a sequence of over two thousand randomly shuffled playing cards.

I remember that the comedian Stan Laurel was born in Ulverstone, Cumbria, and that the local council appears in the national press from time to time due to their seemingly endless dithering about how best to commemorate their most famous son.

I remember that Peter Watson, the wealthy patron and backer of the literary magazine Horizon came to a mysterious end in his own bath. Furthermore his former lover and, by imputation, killer, himself came to a similar end a short time later.

I remember Caesar ad sum jam forte/Brutus aderat/Caesar sic in omnibus/Brutus sic inat

I remember the plaintive message burnt into rock by a lava-like alien during an episode of Star Trek - No Kill I. It transpired that this creature, despite its fearsome appearance and apparently murderous inclinations, was, in fact, and movingly, a mother defending her nest. 

I remember that television specials featuring the entertainer Stanley Baxter were always heralded by continuity announcers and showbiz writers as tremendously important events.

I remember Henry Gibson (surely not his real name) on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in, transmitted from “Beautiful Downtown Burbank”, and especially his supercilious tin- hatted German officer peering down the barrel of a cigarette (held in a manner peculiar to screen Nazis) and intoning: “Verrrry inn-te-resting… but schtoopid!

I remember and relish performances by the American character actor Henry Jones, who played the sardonic coroner in Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the gangster’s bilious valet in The Girl Can’t Help It.

I remember using a dictionary to check the meaning of egregious and autochthonous.

I remember that the first audiences for the Lumiere Brothers’ earliest films were reportedly mesmerised and terrified by the appearance, for instance, of a train arriving at La Ciotat. I have occasionally wondered if the same reaction would be prompted in otherwise normal adults who had never once seen a TV or film, and indeed whether a few visits to the theatre would be enough to “desensitize” viewers to the impact of illusory space.

I remember searching in vain one hot August afternoon for the site of Samuel Beckett’s apartment in the rue des Favourites, Montparnasse.

I remember visiting the recently decommissioned Battersea Power Station and being completely staggered by the scale of the turbine halls and the circuit boards labelled Chelsea, Wandsworth, and Clerkenwell etc.

I remember learning about Aristotle’s five intellectual virtues – sophia, episteme, phronesis, techne and nous, but would now struggle to define any of them accurately.

I remember wondering what the word Tare could mean when seeing it for the first time – and on many subsequent occasions – painted on the bulkhead of railway carriages. Although I have never made the effort to find out I’ve always assumed it was connected with the vehicle’s unladen weight.

I remember the BBC radio presenter Hubert Gregg, who used to sign off with the engaging phrase “If you have been, thanks for listening”.

I remember Prime Minister John Major’s faintly ridiculous younger brother Terry, the incarnation of stolid suburban decency, and his short-lived career as a columnist and pundit.

I remember that it was the humorist Frank Muir who first described Joan Bakewell, the slightly highbrow television presenter, as “the thinking man’s crumpet”, and how often that phrase has been adapted by lazy journalists. Likewise the mildly annoying and relatively recent variations on “X is the new W” – coined no doubt by a fashion journalist to describe forthcoming trends (“red is the new black” - black being the soon-to-be-supplanted current season’s choice of colour) and thereafter eagerly taken up by hacks of every description – politics is the new rock ‘n’ roll, for example, suggesting a giddy progressive succession of fads in which all things have the same shallow transactional values. I recently heard the comedian Stewart Lee memorably describe a telly arts presenter called Lauren Laverne as "the crumpet man's thinker".

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Je me souviens Georges Perec

A palindrome five thousand words long?

Georges Perec of course, and here it is in the original and untranslatable French. I've been thinking of Perec and his Oulipian peers while reading the forthcoming English translation of Zone, a novel by Mathias Enard. This is over five hundred pages long and consists almost entirely of a single sentence, heavily punctuated but without a full stop (which comes at the end, as you might expect).

I happen to like this kind of ludic writing (and ludic, of course, is the root of 'ludicrous'); and the elective constraints under which Perec chose to write.

A favourite Perec is 'Je me souviens', a series of hundreds of random memories, most of them trivial but all of which, he felt, deserved setting down as they would otherwise disappear entirely. I have for psalmist fifteen years been making up my own list, prompted by the birth of my son. There are thousands of them by now, and here's a sample, all dating back to the beginning of this century:





I remember holding my new born son, not yet named, for the first time.

I remember cod liver oil tablets.

I remember accidentally-on-purpose lighting a gas tap (which should rightly have been attached to a Bunsen burner) in the chemistry lab at my high school and watching a brilliant sheet of flame arc across the room.

I remember FABs, Mivvies, Zooms and Sky Rays.

I remember a humid Sunday afternoon in 1977, walking alone along the tracked of the abandoned railway line heading southwards from the old Central Station in Manchester, and coming to a halt at the unfenced boundary of a tall iron bridge from which the rails and cross members had been removed leaving a giddy drop of perhaps fifty feet to the wasteland below. The space between the remaining girders was about five feet and I briefly considered attempting to cross the bridge by leaping from spar to spar.

I remember reading as a child the Uncle books by the Rev J.P. Martin. Uncle himself being a fabulously wealthy elephant who lived in a grand castle called Homeward and was at constant loggerheads with his enemy, Beaver Hateman. Other memorable characters were the one-armed badger, the Old Monkey and Jellytussle, a quivering blue ghost.

I remember the Irish Olympic medallist Mary Peters.

I remember the urbane ventriloquist Ray Alan and his “aristocratic” dummy, Lord Charles.

I remember the wallowing motion of giant Seaspeed hovercraft as they surged up onto the slipway in Dover, and the not unpleasant sense of trepidation felt by passengers as they trooped out of the terminal building into the noisy blare of the propellers. I recall that on the French side of the Channel, at Calais, these curious machines (named after various Royals) would careen onto a sandy beach near the windswept railway siding which housed the Paris turbotrain. At that time, and before the introduction of the Channel Tunnel link (or the Chunnel as it was briefly known) it took the best (or worst) part of a day to travel from London to the French capital by sea.

I remember first reading H.G. Wells’ The New Accelerator and thinking it was the very best story ever written.

I remember my grandfather’s liking for heavily-fortified domestic wines like Wincarnis and Sanatogen.

I remember the time Peter Sellers and Liza Minnelli announced their engagement to a group of journalists in a London park.

I remember asking my grandmother for Black Beauty as a birthday gift and being mortified when she gave me the book by Anna Sewell when I had expected a model limousine (of the same name) driven by a popular comic-book crime-fighter named the Green Hornet (and his oriental sidekick, Kato).

I remember asthma.

I remember planespotting.

I remember picking dry scabs from my knee as a child, and the little rhyme (unrecorded by the Opies): Pick it/lick it/roll it/flick it..

I also remember this macabre verse from my father’s Mickey Mouse annual of 1938:

     Said teacher Toby Tortoise
     To Goofy in his class:
     “I’d like to ask a question if I may –
     A skeleton: what is it?”
     Said Goofy (silly ass):
     “Bones from which the bloke’s been scraped away!”

I remember Tove Janssen’s fictional Moomintroll family, and especially the meerschaum tram in which Moominpapa kept his smoking utensils, although I’m still unclear what exactly meerschaum is.

I remember a time when strawberries were available for just a few weeks of the year, and when all fresh foods were strictly seasonal.

I remember the passion and protein man at Oxford Circus, with his home-made placard, blaming all the world’s woes on sitting, and his quietly monotonous semi-ecclesiastical incantation of the phrases Ladies are you pyoower? Brides are you pyoower?

I remember the comedians Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise in bed together, and the way Eric would crunchily eat a bright green apple while making commonplace but hilarious observations about his friend with the “short, fat, hairy legs”.

I remember that in otherwise “realistic” BBC dramas of the 1970s, branded goods visible within a scene would be crudely disguised with matt black masking tape.

I remember the heavy glass soda siphons which were once to be found on every pub counter and seem now to have completely disappeared.

I remember the endless brouhaha surrounding the three secrets confided by the Virgin Mary to peasant children at Fatima in Portugal, which were sealed in a box and which, it was widely assumed, referred to the end of the world. As it turned out the revelations when made public were pretty feeble, apparently alluding to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the enduring role of the Church of Rome and the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. But I recall reading with mixed wonder and scepticism about this and other startling Marian visions that occur sporadically throughout recent history and which are, to all intents and purposes, miraculous.

I remember that the former Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont had to go to court to evict a prostitute from the basement of his house who traded unambiguously under the name of Miss Whiplash. I recall several of this Chancellor’s embarrassing indiscretions, the most resonant perhaps being his purchase of 40 Raffles cigarettes and two bottles of cheap red wine from the Paddington branch of Threshers off-licence. The proprietor of the store (Mr Joshua Ononugo, I think) enjoyed a brief fame in the pages of Private Eye after he was sacked for passing the receipt for this transaction to a journalist.

I remember standing next to another vaguely disreputable ex-Tory minister, in this case the former Home Secretary Michael Howard (described memorably enough by a hostile colleague as having “something of the night” about him), and noticing what amazingly small shoes he was wearing, so small in fact that his entire lower torso seemed to taper to a pinpoint, rather like a Spy caricature.


I remember the opening sentence to Samuel Beckett’s first published novel Murphy: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” The embedded proverbial source eluded me at the time and for many years thereafter (“there’s nothing new under the sun”). Even more recently I discovered the biblical source.

I remember a television documentary about a young boy suffering from Tourette’s syndrome and who, to make things worse, lived with his family in a small strait-laced Scottish town where his affliction (a lavish repertoire of uncontrollable tics, shudders and breathtaking floods of involuntary foul language) stood out all the more. I recall laughing helplessly at his plight and feeling ashamed afterwards.

I remember the sharp fresh smell of Anais Anais.

I remember being given, at the age of three or four, a toy bus conductor’s ticket puncher made of thin tin which made a “ping” sound when used. It was embossed with the letters LTC (perhaps standing for London Transport Company?) and had a narrow red plastic strap. Any play value was pretty much limited until one summer afternoon when my mother took me on a bus and allowed me to wear the now wholly wonderful – as purposeful - object. The conductor, using his own far more complex version of my toy, flicked a switch and unfurled a seemingly endless streamer of blank tickets which I happily “punched” for the rest of the journey, to the amusement (I recall) of the other passengers. I also remember the real conductor adopting various comic poses to suggest that he could now relax and let me do his job, and my feigned absorption in the task.

I remember, before the advent of automated cash dispensers, going to the bank on Fridays to withdraw money, and budgeting quite carefully in advance for the weekend up to and including the following Monday lunch time.

I remember “It’s Friday…it’s 5 o’clock…and it’s Crackerjack!” And I remember the portly, pompous, brylcreemed comic Peter Glaze and his “talks” which were regularly interrupted by a succession of gormless stooges, including one Don McLean. “Mclean? Yes, I had a bath this morning!” 

I remember my breath steaming up a glass case containing Roman coins in the British Museum.

I remember an entertaining science-based television programme for children called Tom Tom, and the painstaking recreation of famous Grand Prix victories using Scalextric racing cars. The presenters were Jeremy Carrard and John Earl. I think it was Raymond Baxter, a former Spitfire pilot, who provided the commentaries to the races.

I remember the busman’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which begins: Our Father, who art in Hendon… and includes forgive us our Westminsters, as we forgive those who Westminster against us. It concludes.. for thine is the Kingston, the Purley and the Crawley, for Iver and Iver, Crouch End.

I remember that the late Ian Dury’s band, before the Blockheads, was called Kilburn and the High Roads. Also that there was a brief vogue for this type of band name – Telephone Bill and the Smooth Operators, for example. My own favourite was Duke Duke and the Dukes.