Fiery Words from FireCrest

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The New Golden Treasury

Like everyone else, we get spam in our electronic mailboxes and, presumably like everyone else’s, these messages generally want to flog us fake Rolexes, fake Viagra, and disconcerting bits of kit guaranteed – that’s what it says here – to wang up the dimensions of one’s wanger to a startling degree. (Ladies must get so fed up with this stuff.)
We used to bin spam after a brief pause to appreciate the fine fake names of the senders: Jasper McCracken, Farruggio Remlinger, Moi Ultratumba, Redenius Roiger, Prince Shapiro, Zombo Quaintance, Aida Dailey, Clayton Guidry, Russett Fydenkevez, Curdy Knippel… Douglas Adams had nothing on this lot. It almost tempts one to bash out a potboiler just so they don’t go to waste.
But we don’t throw them away unread any more. Not since we opened one by accident, and went so far as to peruse it. Now we read each one with care, in hope, with excited anticipation. For here be jewels.
Presumably to defeat servers’ spam filters, these things contain not-quite random, not quite meaningless… verbal passages, shall we call them. And, dearly beloved, there are gems of near-poetry among them. And perhaps nuggets of near-wisdom too.

Which had chilled with horror all
even in that excuse for
And this funeral is indubitably about an inch
Mingle it amongst the meat,
receding down the passage 
towards the hall.
And the afterportion, which stuck out of the water,
has slain the victim. He puts together
the end two collars
and binds them up in fine white clouts,
and makes intricate
channels, hard to trace in that I AM.
But I was fool enough
to be mad without the sixpence.
“I only said God sent it,”
said Mrs Stop.
“Life is hard on clemency.”

Indeed. For as T.S. Eliot didn’t say, it takes more than the idle stirrup-pump to extinguish hell. Now try this:

Crost in their desires, they shall bless
thy memory, fixedly at the door. After a moment
or two there, it seemeth not possible
that the eight, being brought good conduct,
implied modesty and candour. To tremble
like the wielder of the thunderbolt.

That last phrase actually comes from the epic Sanskrit text, the Mahabharata – Book VI, ‘Bhishma Parva’, section LXXX. Who’s complaining? Other spammers are much obsessed with food. Well, obviously, if you think about spam – and should you think it’s food, and not just an edible nightmare.

Intrust thyself apples, in laid tarts,
or to make a slic’d tart moment
to be completely filled
with dog. Cerberus and the work
of proofreading and revision began..

Then, with the aid of the groom and the stableboy,
’cide when it happened. Umm, he said. Did I forget
thirty thousand souls? These figures, the natives said,
or good strong mutton broth
to make a paste for a lord.

Burly cynical Frenchmen and the diaphanous dancers
have been good enough to draw up, and I
am bound to it with verjuice, butter, sugar,
claret or whitewine, so much so
that they all took off their hats,
and slic’d lemon. Another forced dish.
Take two.

Now, it is only fair to admit we have edited these gems, but only a weeny bit. Shakespeare has to put up with as much, after all. One feels an anthology coming on… for do we not have here the beginnings of a new Palgrave for the electronic age?

These spam poems are anonymous (although they perhaps should be credited to Messrs Knippel, McCracken, Ultratumba, etc.). Which made us ponder: there is a paradox about the internet’s infestations of individuals and their publicly paraded intimate interests, as seen on Facebook and all the rest. Somehow, the flat neutrality of the medium, and the sheer numbers of these advertisements of the ego, make these indubitably real people anonymous – a mob, not even a crowd. Which was never the idea. This is a thought to be developed elsewhere…

Thanks to FireCrest author Jean Bonnin for pointing out that we mistakenly attributed the invention of Deconstructionism to Jean Baudrillard. The guilty party is Jacques Derrida. Or rather was; he died in 2004. His other claims to fame include lack of philosophical clarity, intentional obfuscation, nihilism, plagiarism, and making “little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship”. Can’t help thinking Baudrillard had a point.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

How Pure Thou Art

Over the last week or more BBC4 aired various documentaries about the American folk-music revivals of the Forties and early Sixties. We were struck, as we were not at the time (we were very young), by the righteousness of so many of the singers. True, in the early Sixties there was much in the United States to be righteously indignant about for a decent young white American. Even the endless – both innumerable and long-winded – dirges against ‘war’ were forgivable among ones so young and insulated. This was, after all, before Vietnam began to bite.
But we’re not talking about decent feelings, so much as smug arrogance. Apart from the protest songs, there was a massive resurrection of the ballad tradition. Performing it, rows of earnest young singers, some wonderfully talented, glowed with their own revealed virtue. For the first time in history they’d discovered this astonishing music, much of it three or four centuries old at least, and Lord did it show. And there was Joan Baez, aged all of twenty, introducing Dylan’s recusant ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ by facetiously dedicating it to all the married people in the audience. “I guess I’m just anti-marriage,” she muttered finally, before commencing to trill. Nothing like getting the crowd on your side. On the whole this was a generation that preached harmony and tolerance while displaying a rare talent for conjuring enemies to loathe.
The worst of the lot was, and remains, that fatuous leftie Pete Seeger, who plainly despises the suburban classes  (‘Little Boxes’) – his greatest market. To this day he seems incapable of singing or even talking to anybody without peering down his nose at them. There is something powerfully repellent about Seeger and his air of incurable self-satisfaction, on stage or off, warbling in his reedy sanctimonious tones. This is, of course, the man who wanted to take an axe to the power cables when Dylan freaked out the folkies at Newport in 1965 with one of the greatest songs ever written. Wickedly – maybe with satanic commercial intent – Dylan was thrashing an electric guitar.
Seeger was, maybe still is (incredibly he’s still alive), a communist, and we all know that they’ve solved all the world’s problems. They know it better than anyone, of course. And plus ça change, though no one’s a communist these days.
We see from the public prints that Carol Thatcher, who through no fault of her own is the fruit of the loins of the Official Demon of the Age, is likely to get the sack from the BBC for uttering the word ‘golliwog’ in what’s generally deemed a private place. Jeremy Clarkson is getting flak for having called a Mr Gordon Brown, presently besmirching one of the great offices of the British state, a ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’. (Which surely is merely a recital of facts.)
The uproar these idle remarks has generated almost matches in factitiousness the outcry that was generated when, at the height of a media frenzy about ‘knife crime’ a few months ago, some home-made-haloed souls got into a great taking because someone was selling a trainer called ‘Air Stab’. To their eternal discredit the retailer took the shoes off the market. We thought ‘Air Stab’ was merely redolent of an air guitar, as harmless an instrument as was ever invented. It actually meant ‘air stability’, apparently a reference to the ingenious design of the trainers’ soles. Nothing to do with bloody knives. But you can’t be too careful, can you.
It’s the carefulness that bothers, spreading like a fungus throughout the land. Now consider this:
“In a massive investment programme across the 1880s Jerzy… built Raifort and the railway there to house his peons. He imported coolies and dagoes and cockneys, and wops and spicks and niggers and kikes.”
When we read that in The Extraordinary Consequences of Señor Higgins’s Holiday in Estragon (an unusually fine novel published by FireCrest) we did raise an eyebrow. As we were meant to, for the author continues:
“He despised them all, with a cool egalitarianism that disgusted his father, but admired the muscle and energy and loyalty he extracted from them in return for cash. By the standards of the time, he paid them well, for he thought it madness to have a workforce that was starving and miserable. The company store in Raifort sold food, alcohol and women – these last also imported, for no local labour made itself available – at reasonable rates. There was even a pension scheme.”
Not only does that make clear the nature of Jerzy’s (un)enlightened self-interest, it plays tricks on our own presumptions. P.L. Frankson, the author, does this frequently throughout the book, to variously serious and highly entertaining effect. But the racism here is the character’s, not Frankson’s. It calls for only a smidgeon of subtlety to work this out, if a bit more to see how the technique is working.
Even so it’ll probably offend someone. Well, tough titty. But we suffer under a widespread presumption that ‘offensiveness’, like harrassment in the workplace, exists even if it is perceived only in the mind of the self-defining victim. Never mind if the “victim” is stupid, easily confused, politically motivated, attention-seeking, a pathological liar, slightly mad, or just hates the alleged perpetrator. It is now officially wicked to offend anyone (except Christians, the English, Mrs Thatcher, white men, and the overweight). That makes sinners of must of us, but it’s a neat way to divide and rule.
One wonders how long it will be before publishers even of fiction will habitually start to censor themselves lest they offend some, er, one-eyed Scottish idiot – for want of a better example – for fear of the consequences. We say ‘habitually’ because it’s already happened once that we know of, in the sad case of The Jewel of Medina (see the October archive). One could be depressed about this, as at any other irrational fear taking hold in the minds of the otherwise sane. Or perhaps it will encourage the already devious minds of novelists to find ways of saying exactly what they want but with greater cunning. This might do the art of the novel no harm at all. Whether publishers will recognize such books as art any more readily than they do now is another question.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

How Not To Read?

The Common Pursuit of True Judgement
      Needing something not too demanding to cope while away the insomniac hours, we picked up John le Carré’s Single & Single and enjoyed ourselves over several nights (mornings, to most of you). We don’t like blurb-writers’ inadvertent spoilers – no FireCrest blurb ever gives anything away – so we didn’t read the back of the book until we’d finished it.
      Someone not named at the Glasgow Herald called the book a “masterly work, faultless fiction of the highest order.” Someone equally, and fortunately, anonymous, included this in the blurb: “…a thrilling journey of the contemporary human heart – intimate, magical, riotous, and subtly architected…”
     This is the kind of thing that makes one reach for one’s revolver, only to realize that our clinically deluded government confiscated all three of them a dozen or so years ago. Deep breath. Perhaps pen mightier than pistol after all. If only. Let’s hope. Another deep breath.
     This isn’t a rant against le Carré, but about a collapse of critical judgement. For masterly le Carré surely is – at a certain kind of intelligent ephemera, excellent for otherwise dull train journeys, whiling away a dose of ’flu, or indeed dealing with insomnia. His characters are just the other side of predictable, which keeps one going, but they are so because he is careful to make them somewhat enigmatic – or perhaps because he’s already writing at his limit and not capable of probing them any more deeply. When the protagonists fall in love, le Carré doesn’t show this happening, we’re just pereptorily informed it’s happened. So much for a “journey of the human heart”. This isn’t, couldn’t possibly be, fiction of the highest order, except possibly to commuters who read only on planes and trains and have never brought themselves, feet on earth or bums on seats, to try anything better.
     Le Carré did once publish an attempt at what would now fatuously be labelled “literary fiction” – The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, a sub-Donleavian ramble around a bunch of quasi-psychopathic manipulators and their victim. It entirely lacks Donleavy’s splendidly vulgar comedy or his plangent sadness, both welling from a constant intuition that things can fall apart – for better or worse – at any moment. And Donleavy can certainly show people falling in love. In comparison, the best le Carré can offer is a kind of cynicism. He did well to return to writing the higher class of thriller.
     Le Carré’s best book is probably The Little Drummer Girl, but it’s not a fine work because of any exploration of an intimate human condition. It’s brilliant in the way Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet is on India – not for any literary subtlety, but for its acute dramatic exposition of labyrinthine and near-intractable Middle East politics. Unfortunately his ‘solution’ (something a novelist ought know to avoid) almost amounts to the triteness of “all you need is love”.
     We hope le Carré has winced at the thought that any of his books had been “subtly architected”. But then a world in which anyone can get away with a phrase like that, is probably not seven leagues from the one in which le Carré is deemed to write “fiction of the highest order”.

A Bit More Dawkins
      Having been bemused by radical mis- or even non-readings of my piece in Fortean Times on Richard Dawkins (see below), I’m now bemused by the (published) reactions of the magazine’s readers. I won’t tire everyone with the details, but correspondents to FT overwhelmingly seem to take it for granted that to set about the mode of Dawkins’s polemic is implicitly to be arguing a case for God (or gods). This is a bit painful, as I’d been quite explicit – and, I thought, lucidly so – in saying that various particulars of Dawkins’s enormous rant made little sense regardless of one’s particular beliefs. Nonetheless, I am taken to task for arguing for something I didn’t. Irritatingly, the editors have closed the correspondence, so I can’t deliver the proper riposte in their pages. Yes, Virginia, I am whingeing.