“An academic-led literature is a gentrified suburb” Les Murray (Australian poet).
Science fiction short stories and novels.
“An academic-led literature is a gentrified suburb” Les Murray (Australian poet).
I very much enjoyed this programme about Ray Davies. I was struck by his comment about one of his songs (I think it was ‘Days’) that the words might seem ‘a bit naff’ on their own, but he felt that the music transformed them. Actually that is true, I think, of quite a bit of his stuff. People usually praise the words, the little observations and stories, but on their own the observations are not necessarily all that original. There are a lot of songs, for instance, about the fears and longings of suburban life (‘Mr Pleasant’ or ‘Shangri-la’) which, taken just as stories and observations, are amusing but quite commonplace. But the music really does transform them into something else.
In fact I’d say his musical inventiveness is, if anything, rather underrated, or at any rate not so often remarked on. His back catalogue of songs (imagine having written ‘You really got me’, ‘Days’, ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Autumn Almanac’, ‘Lola’ and ‘Waterloo Sunset’!) is quite exceptionally varied in terms of moods, rhythms and musical colours, and is full of lovely details and surprises. Listen, for instance, to the way that the strange and melancholy song ‘See my friends’ changes its feel and rhythm in the middle of each verse, opening up, and then drawing back again.
For various reasons, although I grew up in the 60s and 70s, I didn’t encounter ‘Waterloo Sunset’ at all until about 5 years after it came out. But when I did finally come across it I was really blown away, and I still am. It really is the most amazing marriage of words and music. There is actually not one single word of description of the sunset itself, yet when I listen to this song, the harmonies rising up over the melody instantly evoke to me an enormous brightly coloured sky, towering up over the little figures of Terry and Julie, and the people swarming out of the underground, and the song’s narrator, watching the whole scene from his window.
(As I’ve observed before, vivid descriptive writing isn’t so much a matter of providing detailed instructions of a scene, as of giving readers/listeners permission to construct the scene for themselves. This is a perfect example. We all know what sunsets look like, and don’t need to be told, but we do need something to trigger off the whole set of associations, something to allow us to pretend that a sunset is happening right now.)
The Glastonbury version of the song here is performed with the Crouch End Chorus, which includes my good friend Clive among its tenors. Lucky man.
(Clive lives in North London, where Davies grew up and still lives, very much in the surroundings in which the programme is filmed. The programme reminded a bit too of an odd but interesting book by another North Londoner that I wrote about here.)
I think we’ve got it all wrong about our relationship with nature. For years we’ve been presented with the idea of nature as something precious and fragile and vulnerable, which is threatened by us crass and oafish humans. This invites a hard-nosed, macho, ‘realist’ response: ‘Tough!’, ‘Too bad!’, ‘Nature’s going to have to look after itself.’
But nature isn’t fragile. (What hubris!) Nature is exploding supernovae. It’s the eruption of Krakatoa. It’s Hurricane Katrina. It’s the tsunami that devastated Japan. It’s the force that created the dinosaurs, and the asteroid that destroyed them. It’s the electric storms that can been seen from space flashing continuously across the surface of this violent violent planet.
The question isn’t how to protect nature. Nature doesn’t give a damn what we do. The question is whether we want to go on being part of nature, or whether we’re just going to chuck in the towel and let it sweep us away.
(Thoughts prompted by this rather hard-hitting post about impending climate catastrophe.)
(NASA photo of Hurricane Katrina).
There’s a kind of mismatch – it could prove deadly – between the way we are and the way we need to be at this moment in history.
In our daily lives, we are less and less closely involved with the material universe, as newer and more flexible matrices unfold around us in which to live and work and play.
And yet more than ever before, the material world around us is shaped by our own choices.
It’s as if, at the precise moment of moving from the back of the car to the driver’s seat, we grew bored of looking at the road.
‘Atomic Truth’ is particularly dear to me personally, but it was literally years in the making.
The original idea came from watching the changed behaviour of people following the invention of mobile phones: the way that people who are ostensibly together in one place, are often, for all practical purposes much closer to other people who are physically remote. As a matrix in which to live, it seemed to me, physical space and the material universe were gradually declining in importance.
We’ve never been confined to literal space and time of course. We’ve always used the ideas of nearness and distance to refer to many other dimensions (‘a close likeness’, ‘we’ve grown apart’, ‘a distant cousin’, ‘Sorry, I was miles away.’) But now for the first time in history, everyone can literally see and hear things that are not physically present, even when they’re just walking down the street, or riding on a train.
‘Atomic truth’ is Richard’s name for the world in which foxes and deer still live, even if humans don’t.
I wrote the first version of this story long ago, before smartphones and iPads and all of that. But it stubbornly refused to come completely to life. The breakthrough was when I rewrote the character Richard as suffering from schizophrenia, so that, even though he didn’t wear bug eyes, he too was visited by things that were not physically present. And when I gave Jenny an autistic brother, so that she was unfazed by, and sympathetic to, people who were in some way odd, that made possible the little encounter at the end of the story that up to then had eluded me.
* * *
All the people in my stories are quite distinct in my mind from anyone real, but some of Richard’s characteristics are based a friend of ours who died some years ago. His name was Brod Spiiers and he shared a flat with my wife and I for a year or so in Bristol. If you were a student in Bristol in the 1970s, or lived near the University, you might remember him. He used to sit on a wall outside the Wills Building on Queens Road and sort of beg, though it was done in the most dignified way.
Brod was a lot older than Richard when we knew him, but like Richard, he had his own set of mythological beings that he used to talk about and draw pictures of, inscribed with his own unique language. (I remember, for instance, ‘the Ice Cat Oojus’). And he had a rather delightful explosive laugh which would erupt at completely unexpected moments, as if his sense of humour was somehow at right-angles to everyone else’s.
I was thinking about this article by Howard Jacobson, in which he talks about the enduring appeal of bad guys in fiction. And I was thinking about our dogs and cat.
* * *
People often describe other people as behaving like animals (i.e. like non-human animals) when they behave badly. This has always struck me as a bit unfair to animals. Animals don’t rape or commit genocide or engage in torture.
But living in a house with animals it strikes me that certain kinds of crime really are very animal indeed: crimes like shoplifting, burglary, picking pockets, mugging, looting, opportunistic, amoral crimes, crimes motivated by nothing more complicated than ‘I’ll have that.’ The hitmen in films like Looper or Pulp Fiction, who kill for a living, without malice or anger, and without regret, strike me as being quite animal. When Amundsen was travelling to the South Pole, he killed dogs that were no longer needed and fed them to the others. I’m sure they tucked in without worry or remorse.
Animals (or at least the ones I’m acquainted with) take things opportunistically and without compunction, and they defend what they’ve taken as long as they think they can win the fight. They are capable of being delightfully and genuinely friendly, but incapable of being kind. They are capable of being horribly aggressive, but incapable of being cruel. If one of them picks up a thorny twig to play with, he’ll bash it against your legs without a thought as he runs by, not out of inconsiderateness, but because he simply doesn’t do that kind of consideration.
They’ve never eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
* * *
Sometimes morality is portrayed as being the opposite to the pleasure principle, but that’s just silly. What point does life have without pleasure? (To help others? To help them to do what?) Pleasure is simply the sum total of things that make life worthwhile, and it just doesn’t make any sense to say that life could have an additional purpose.
Genuine morality is the pleasure principle, but with the rest of the world factored in: other people, other creatures, our future selves. It doesn’t tell us to forego pleasure per se, but it might tell us to forego pleasures that will lead to harm elsewhere, or later on. It doesn’t tell us to pursue suffering, but it might tell us to be willing to suffer here and now for the sake of pleasure elsewhere, or later on.
It’s morally wrong to behave as if you were the centre of the universe, because it’s factually wrong. As a matter of fact, you’re not.
Animals don’t know that, though. They act as if they themselves at this moment were all that mattered. And this works perfectly well for them, because evolution has provided them with appetites and drives that will allow the simple pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain to address longer term or wider needs without them having to even think about it.
But we do know it, and so we do have to think about it. We can only not think about it by lying to ourselves. And that does damage to us, because it requires us to build partitions across our minds.
* * *
And yet there’s a huge price to pay for this knowledge. This awareness that we should think about things beyond our immediate selves and our present impulses, adds layers of calculation and anxiety to every choice we make. It takes away spontaneity.
I think that’s why bad guys are fun to watch. They appeal to us not because they are wicked and knowing per se, but, oddly enough, because of their innocence. They remind us of a kind of innocence and simplicity that animals have and we have lost for good. They remind us of what we had to give up when we ate that bloody fruit.
“My kind of storytelling has to add its voice to this universal storytelling before we can say, ‘Now we’ve heard it all.’ I worry when somebody from one particular tradition stands up and says, ‘The novel is dead, the story is dead.’ I find this to be unfair, to put it mildly. You told your own story, and now you’re announcing the novel is dead. Well, I haven’t told mine yet.”
Chinua Achebe, cited by Chimamanda Adiche in LRB.
I wrote my first novel when I was 19. I’ve still got it somewhere. It was called Henry. The main character knew he was a character and that he was living in a world created by my words.
I was very taken at that time by the idea that I was creating a world. I had the idea that my job was to define that world precisely, to provide a precise instruction manual. But I’ve come to think that descriptive writing doesn’t really function in that way. It doesn’t so much provide a precise instruction manual, as give the reader permission to pretend that what he or she is being presented with is not just words on the page, but a world. (It’s a bit like hypnotism, a ritual which gives people permission to pretend things are other than they really are). Having received that permission, the reader then constructs the world for him- or herself.
To give an example. Dickens often provides meticulous descriptions of his characters: the length of their sideburns, the shape of their nose, the number of hairs on the mole on their right cheek etc etc. But do we as readers meticulously visualise these characteristics, commit them to memory, and then continue to visualise them whenever the same character appears? I certainly don’t, not least because my memory just isn’t that good. No, I gain a general impression from the description, pick up from it a feeling, a gestalt, and construct from that my own rather vague mental image (which may well not fit exactly with Dickens’ instructions), and then work with it for the rest of the book.
Assuming my own way of reading is not that unusual, does this mean that Dickens’ meticulous details are pointless? Not at all. Their precision is what gives us permission to enter into the world. They convince us that the writer really is seeing the world in his mind, not just providing a list of words, and that in turn frees us to see it too. Our own perception of the visual world works in much the same way. We think we are seeing a complete scene, but in fact, if you analyse what your eyes are seeing moment to moment, it is only glimpses, mostly a blur, with a tiny point of focus darting erratically this way and that. (Can you describe precisely, without looking at it, the building four houses down from your home?)
Here is another example, the famous passage from Midsummer Night’s Dream:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.
I love this. It’s one of my favourite bits of descriptive writing. It’s one of those bits that makes me wonder why I even try. And yet I am not sure what wild thyme looks like, I have no idea what eglantine is, and I only know that ‘woodbine’ is another name for honeysuckle because I have just this minute looked it up. The words evoke a lovely place, and do it vividly, but only because, magically, they give me permission to imagine it myself.
I wrote previously about the music of Brian Wilson: that he’d chosen to make something gentle and peaceful, rather than something that simply reflected the pain and struggle of his own experience. I like that choice. It is quite a hard one to bring off without lapsing into sentimentality (though in my opinion Wilson’s music succeeds in this), but I think sometimes an anxiety to avoid sentimentality can lead to a kind of unremitting grimness which affects to being tough and gritty, but is really just sentimentality in reverse. (This is an age in which you can go to an art gallery and look at cans of shit, and pickled corpses, and children with penises instead of faces, as if the function of art was to rub our noses in horrible things).
Kurt Vonnegut wrote (I’m not sure where) that artists could help to prevent nuclear Armageddon, not by preaching, but by making life feel a little more worth living. He thought that a lot of people secretly longed for their lives to end, and therefore had no real interest in trying not to have a nuclear war. Art (pompous word, but I can’t for the moment think of another) in this conception of it, is not there just to reflect the world, or to comment on it, but to add something to it.
Brian Wilson is not an articulate man, but he often speaks about trying to put love into his music. And come to think of it, my objection to those cans of shit (and their equivalents in writing) is not their grimness as such, but their lovelessness.
Here I am, fiddling around with this blog. It made me think uneasily of Narcissus gazing at his own reflection.
I found this picture of him by Caravaggio. I hadn’t seen it before. In the story, as I remember it, Narcissus is a heartless man, who ignores the woman who loves him (her name is Echo) because he is enchanted by the beauty of his own reflection. (Perhaps he was a cousin of Pygmalion, who couldn’t relate to real women of flesh and blood, only the idealised one he made for himself out of stone?)
But in the picture he looks to me as if he feels trapped, as if he wants to pull away. Why doesn’t he do it? Is he afraid that if he looks up and allows himself to see something other than his own reflection, he himself will disappear?