You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2013.
That’s right I said rapping tomato,
He rapped all day from April to May,
And also guess what, it was me.
1. i’ve been taking great delight in Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes. He has an overwhelming, inscrutable strangeness which could as easily go for Moriarty.
i feel this is essential to Brett’s Holmes – a coldness, lack of apparent compassion, lack indeed of any ordinary humanity. The character could as easily be a villain: that is part of his power. It’s an odd thing that the great villains of cinema – Brando’s Kurtz, Brian Cox’s Dr Lecter, De Niro’s Jimmy Conway, Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth, Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher, Tom Berenger’s Sgt Barnes, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, Henry Fonda’s Frank, Christopher Walken’s Christopher Walken, Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan, Javier Barden’s Anton Chigurh – often seem strangely more authoritative, stronger, than the heroes. Goeth, Logan, Bill the Butcher, Magneto, and Sgt Barnes are clearly unstable, barely kept in balance by acts of frequent rage, but all the same they outshine all the other characters.
Power is inherently sinister, because it comes from a reality beyond the mundane, the safe, the ordinary. That doesn’t make it, or its wielders, malign – but they will tend to seem so. Even Christ, if you actually read the Gospels, is far from the smiling Sunday School John Lennon fantasy of modern Christianity; he is, rather, inscrutable, unpredictable, given to irony and pessimism and frequent coldness.
This is perhaps one reason i gravitated so readily to the old gods, who are even further from modern Sunday School John Lennon smiling niceness than Christ. They are, in a sense, beyond good and evil: such categories simply don’t apply. And this is why modern Christianity is wrong for those with an instinct for power – it denies the uncanny, the dark and sinister, as if their god could be a tambourine-shaking cartoon.
2. Fifteen years ago, i tried to be good, to eschew rage & violence. At the most i was able to restrain myself from acts of savage aggression. It was only when i began to study magic that i found it easier to forego vengeance – though i still very occasionally indulge, in my weaker moments. i feel that my “pagan” view of things is in some sense truer to reality (or to my reality) and so causes less psychological friction; i now try to go without bloody vengeances because such acts seem petty and pointless, not because i really see anything wrong with my enemies suffering or dying. The power frau student came to the last class with a burn on her arm – from baking power frau Christmas biscuits – i wondered if my irritation had somehow brought this about, and felt no chagrin at all, and would i think feel no remorse if she lost an arm or died (it’s hard to say for sure as i don’t know of anyone dying after incurring my terrible wrath). But she’s far safer from my beyond-good-and-evil present self than she would have been from my trying-desperately-to-be-good younger self. i see nothing really immoral about using magic against such people, and would happily kick her down the stairs were it not for the law, but i feel such acts would be stupid and petty, and as ludicrously wrong-headed as praying to become a reality TV star. The desire to kick her down the stairs isn’t evil – it’s just childish.
3. It is typical of my nature that things often happen in total opposition to my expectations and surface drift. i share an Arbeitsamt (Job Centre) class with a stupid, highly aggressive American anti-MILF teacher. All of our colleagues detest her, and her students likewise. She seems totally oblivious to this and even thinks she’s a great teacher. Unfortunately, she has this class all day Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday morning and Friday afternoon. The students are generally deliriously happy to see me, simply because i’m not her. i try to establish control & rapport immediately, but with this group i also feel a need to buffer them against the anti-MILF; so for example when i’m teaching another group i go in during the break just to say hello and let them joke or bitterly complain about my wretched colleague.
They had a level test last week. i did my usual thorough test preparation, because some of the questions are stupid and ambiguous, and some of the grammar is too hard for their level. After the test (administered by the anti-MILF) the group thanked me, saying i had saved the group from failing. i just smiled, but they became insistent that they would have got about 20-50% less without my help. It’s possible, as the anti-MILF is such a bad teacher that they learn almost nothing with her. A student in her 50s thanked me and, flustered, said she’s terrible at tests and is “blocked” when the anti-MILF is in the room. She waved a hand agitatedly and said it’s some kind of leftover nastiness from her school time long ago.
It’s a strange thing but for all my grammar examples about murder, sex crimes, cocaine, dead prostitutes, etc., most of my students think i’m some kind of caring Jesus figure, to the point where some invite me to dinner etc., and don’t understand that i don’t actually want to socialise with them outside of class, that if i seem all fluffy and wonderful it’s because i take my job seriously and can only do it well if i establish a thorough rapport. My fluffiness is not an illusion, but it can only exist within the structure of my job. Within the class, however, i feel that i occasionally do some kind of good – as, for example, helping those who had such hideous experiences at school that they are easily stunned and shaken by a test, or by a nasty piece of work like my anti-MILF colleague. When one student remarked that i’m so totally different to my aggressive colleague, i replied that i had had such teachers at school and consequently learnt almost nothing till i left, and that in general i don’t derive any satisfaction from inflicting fear and misery upon people.
My students would, i guess, be taken aback to know of my other interests, my lack of goodness, my contempt for the John Lennon happy smiling Sunday School enterprise of modern Christianity and indeed modern culture. i could say that i act not out of any sense of goodness or virtue, but out of power. Power itself impels me, and if one wanted an image for this force it would not be a Disney Jesus with a big friendly grin, but rather the gallows god, cold and inscrutable – and for all that, intensely concerned with human beings and their survival. It is just that we have lost an understanding of the uncanny, of the necessary strangeness of all gods, angels. So Rilke:
Träte der Erzengel jetzt, der gefährliche, hinter den Sternen
eines Schrittes nur nieder und herwärts: hochauf-
schlagend erschlüg uns das eigene Herz.
David Young’s translation:
(If the dangerous archangel
took one step now
down toward us
from behind the stars
rising like thunder
would kill us)
just another day in Bavaria
1. It’s approaching midnight after a 12 hour working day. Today, a neurotic power frau type quit my Tuesday evening class for good and i was giddy with joy, hugging myself in the deserted McLingua centre at 2045, gibbering: “i never have to see her again!” She was actually an okay student – keen, talkative, with a good memory; but after every class she sent huge emails to my boss, complaining that she wasn’t improving (this after the first lesson). In class she was timid and weird, afraid of eye contact, veering from sudden uncomfortable silences to almost hysterical rants. i accepted this, as many of my students are abnormal (German); but eventually i came to see her as a filthy Judas and all-round glasses-wearing-Bosche.
Many people wear glasses. She was one of these people who hide behind their lenses; the glass seems to act as a kind of mask, allowing whatever is really there to recede into the far distance. Like most such folk, she had the look of a crustacean ripped from its shell and left to twitch on the rock, poked at by children. Glasses were, for her, some kind of armour.
i feel something of this as soon as i put my glasses on when other people are around – a sense of insidious discomfort, an inability to read others, to respond, to exert my will. This goes so far that i can’t walk through crowds while wearing my glasses: i bump into people, misjudge distances and trajectories. Without my glasses i can usually walk at speed, picking a path through the shambling Bosche without thought. For a while i thought it was to do with peripheral vision, but then i realised i can’t read students’ moods with my glasses on, that i feel wooden, false, artificial, as removed from the present as if experiencing it on a computer screen. It’s possible that my brain just got used to the signals it gets from my mismatched eyes (one is short-sighted, the other long-) and can’t manage certain tasks without this accustomed input. However, i think there’s also some kind of connection between the eyes and how i sense others, and how i exert my will.
2. One could say that society rewards those who can don masks at will, those who can do so without unease. i can and do have a professional demeanour but it’s generally a modulated form of whatever i really am. This modulation has a fairly narrow range; so i can teach almost anyone who isn’t actively rebellious, but could never do some of the jobs suffered by my students, putting up with initiatives & grand new strategies & whatnot every day. i think the difference here is that my professional mask isn’t fake – it’s just a way of presenting my self, in order to do my job. It’s not my complete self but nor is it a lie. And for many jobs it seems necessary to project total enthusiasm into totally false personae – not in order to do the job, but in order not to be fired.
3. i dare say all cultures have always rewarded this spinelessness, but ours seems more pervasively rotten. Speaking of spines, i came across an old blogging associate’s newish site, and have been slowly reading through the archives:
Beckham, of course, will apparently sell anything, however tangential it might be to his footballing career. He is refashioning himself as the male modern Britannia, a symbol of Britishness. And Beckham is certainly the perfect fit for this modern Britain. He embodies our culture because he is the ultimate vessel: good looking but empty, devoid of much significance but capable of being filled with any corporate message. He is so boring and bland he can advertise anything that doesn’t require him to open his mouth. Indeed, his horrible nasal whine is to his benefit because it means that he can spend his time brooding in ads with his white teeth and rank ugly tattoos, the golden boy of a gelded generation. He is the Cadbury Creme Egg of celebrities; just an empty impotent shell of sugary milk chocolate. One size fits all. Just slip a nozzle up his arse and fill him with whatever different coloured fondant meaning we want this week.
I sometimes think that the worst thing you could be in these enlightened days is a white, heterosexual male stuck in a no-name northern town and not suffering from any serious but TV-friendly disability.
We’re both northerners and not very good at the donning of masks for profit. For fun, yes; for apple polishing or friend-winning, no. i had the good fortune to meet the Spine blogger back in Manchester about 5 years ago. We’re very different, physically and emotionally; but there’s a shared loathing of the Big Time, and a strong aversion to being stone broke & miserable.
4. i escaped my brokeness by escaping England. i’m still financially unstable but i like my job most of the time, am somehow & oddly appreciated, and have a sense of being on roughly the right path, after years of misery. There are occasional revelations. Pipes – i began smoking after Juniper gifted me two of her grandfather’s pipes and i decided to try them out. It took ages to figure out how to pack the tobacco so it stays lit longer than 2 seconds, but once i’d half-mastered that i found it an intriguing & satisfying activity. i now take a pipe to work when i have a break long enough to go out onto the McLingua terrace & smoke while striding majestically about, glowering at the Munich skyline. There are such grandiose pleasures to be had; yet the core of it is as simple & physical as drinking tea or stretching, as little amenable to bullshit & mask-donning.
For a while i carried a pipe in a little pouch inside my bag, then decided to spend some of my hard-earned coin on something fancy. So, my pipe transportation, bought from Al Pascia:
5. i spend quite a lot of time watching pipe videos on youtube, for example this or this. Pipe smokers often talk about the satisfaction of smoking. i’ve started to feel this odd sense of well-being – it may be partly to do with a mild nicotine release, but i think it’s mainly the connection with simple physicality, through familiar, individual tools: a good pipe, the right tobacco, the right flame. It’s to do with choosing tools, learning their ways, and using them well. The strange transmutation of plant and flame into controlled smoke and taste, in the vessel of wood – and then the body of the smoker himself becoming part of this in breath – all this is something to be experienced, not talked about too much – because it makes no sense, you just have to accept that it feels good, and in the words of Platoon’s Elias, feeling good’s good enough.
Review of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s posthumous The Broken Road. The Dabbler already published this but they edited it slightly. i don’t like my reviews on the whole – the tone irritates me, but there it is. Here’s the original:
There were an archbishop and several bishops and archimandrites besides the abbot and his retinue. They officiated in copes as stiff and brilliant as beetles’ wings, and the higher clergy, coiffed with globular gold mitres the size of pumpkins and glistening with gems, leaned on croziers topped with twin coiling snakes. They evolved and chanted in aromatic clouds of smoke diagonally pierced by sun shafts. When all was over, a compact crocodile of votaries shuffled its way round the church to kiss St Ivan’s ikon and his thaumaturgic hand, black now as a briar root, inside its jewelled reliquary.
That’s right bitches, daddy’s back. Beyond the grave, Patrick Leigh Fermor continues to explore and write. And rejoice: his posthumous Broken Road is as good as its predecessors. Briefly, the 18-year-old hobbit left the Shire in 1933, electing to walk through the wilds east and south to Constantinople. Why? For adventure, that which had impelled Bilbo Baggins to venture out at almost the same time. There is something distinctly English about Fermor, falling into the camp of Tolkien’s adventuring hobbits, or the Countess of Ranfurly. For Tolkien, stolid hobbits (Englishmen of the type who rarely exist now) will tend to spontaneously develop a taste for adventures, for the undiscovered road. Tolkien takes it so much for granted that re-reading him in 2001 I felt I was missing something. Fermor completes some of the picture. Despite the generational gap, both men write from a similar culture, that of the eccentric, wilful, partly pagan, partly Christian English upper middle class of the early to mid 20th Century. These are men of high education with a relish for hardship and exploration, for new languages, for difficulty and danger; men with an absolute loathing for totalitarianism, whether Nazi or Communist – hence, men utterly at odds with the modern world.
In the two prequels, Fermor has already tramped from Holland, through an early Nazi Germany, across Hungary and Transylvania and up to the Iron Gates. He now continues through Rumania, Bulgaria, and Greece. There are no Nazgül in sight but they are very much in the background, in the form first of Nazism then of Communism. For unlike The Lord of the Rings, there is no eventually happy ending – one could say, in the lands Fermor treads, Sauron was defeated but Saruman ascended to take his place with equal tyranny:
Obviously, I had little grasp of what the war entailed and still less prophetic flair, for when I set off for England in September 1939 to join the army, I left all my books and papers in this house in Moravia. I had planned to return there when the war was over. But when the war ended, this house, like most of the places in this narrative, was out of bounds beyond the Iron Curtain. It had been smitten by fire and earthquake and its inhabitants scattered, imprisoned and driven from their homes – but, alas, not over the frontiers of Rumania into the free world.
Fermor is careful to disguise the identities of those who sheltered him in the later Soviet domains, for fear of Communist reprisals. The trilogy derives a certain poignancy from its Alan Furstian setting: mainland Europe in the 30s, soon to go up in the flames of Nazism then Communism.
We are always aware of the layerings of history (war) as Fermor crosses borders and learns languages. The fervour of nationalist hatreds would be odd in England, at least when being an island had some protective significance; but hatred seems the norm in 1930s Eastern Europe, as Fermor’s acquaintances roar with applause at the latest political assassination and assure him that whatever country he’s just come from is full of bad men and monsters. Reading this, I realise how apt was Tolkien’s vision of England as the Shire – a place set apart and warded from the brutality and chaos of the rest of the world. Fermor, naturally, is gentlemanly about it; for one thing, he’s a stranger here, a ranger tramping the moors. There are many Tolkien-esque scrapes where he nearly dies after falling down a mountain and what not:
There was no question of spending the night in the pass, as a fast and biting wind was sweeping across it. There was neither shelter nor cover. It was bleak as a desert. After walking a couple of miles I espied with joy a wayside house in the rising moonshine. My approach unleashed a frenzy of barking from a white sheepdog. As I reached the front door, the line of light went out under the shutters. I knocked on the door and the shutter, explaining myself in Bulgarian as lame as my foot. ‘I am an English traveller, my foot is bad. There is a big cold wind (gulemo studeno). May I come in please?’ I could hear whispers indoors where there had been talk before; then there was silence, except for the barking and snarling of this slavering hell-hound only a few precarious feet away. The repetition of my dismal litany gradually lost all conviction. At last when all hope had drained away, I lurched on northwards and downhill, swearing, comminating and shouting aloud, blinded with tears of fury and frustration.
Later, he nearly dies of cold and exhaustion before stumbling upon a fireside cave. Here, he is revived by a party of sailors and shepherds:
They were a wild-looking lot. Six of them were dressed in the customary heavy, homespun earth-brown or dark blue, but so parched and tattered that it was hard to distinguish the parent colour, and shod in the usual crusted apparatus of swaddles and thongs and canoe-tipped rawhide moccasins, one of which looked as if it had been abraded for several decades. Knives were stuck into their voluminous scarlet sashes, and they were hatted like me, in battered and threadbare busbies that had moulted most of their fur. An old man with a tangled white beard seemed to be the dominating figure. A second group of four wore more ordinary clothes, though equally patched and worn, and blue jerseys pocked with holes. Ancient sailors’ caps with once-shiny peaks were askew on their matted hair. They all of them looked exactly what they were: shepherds and seamen.
I was reminded of Tolkien’s The Window on the West chapter, with the hobbits seized then succoured by the rangers of Gondor. And as with the hobbits, Fermor alternates between nearly dying in the wild, trying his luck with the peasants, and being lavishly hosted by the gentry; some of the pleasure of the book comes from these extremes; so here he lodges with a diplomat:
No greater solace in a strange capital, after rough or irregular travel, can be compared to staying in a bachelor diplomatist’s flat (though some archaeologists run them close), especially if they are as hospitable and welcoming as my present host. (‘Please get at all these,’ with a wave towards huge cigarette boxes and a glittering drinks table, ‘we get them practically free. Do for heaven’s sake smoke those cigars, too. I don’t know what to do with them all, and please tell Maria if you want anything – any washing, luncheon – she gets depressed if there’s nothing to do…’) Empty all day, it was the dreamed-of refuge for writing and reading, encyclopaedias piling up on divans in warm rooms overlooking the autumn leaves of the quiet street.
Pleasing that Fermor alternates between getting drunk, learning languages, and reading in joyous isolation; later, Fermor reads Byron for hours in Greek monasteries before heading out again into the nearly-uninhabited wild. After tramping about for months, our hobbit becomes half-ranger, a creature of the wild:
I put down the large basket of figs I had bought as a present to my hosts – and a tortoise I had found by the roadside – and let myself into the Tollintons’ flat as the cathedral of Alexander Nevsky tolled eleven. The soft lamplight, afloat with the civilized murmur of a dinner party, revealed a shirt front in an armchair here and there, the glint of patent leather shoes, women’s long dresses, and golden discs of brandy revolving in the bottom of balloon glasses. The coffee pouring from the spout to cup in the hands of Ivan, the giant Cossack butler, dried up in mid-trajectory, the golden discs, arrested by this horrible intruding apparition, stopped rotating in their balloon glasses. A moment of consternation on one side, dismay on the other, froze all. It was quickly thawed by Judith Tollinton’s kind voice – ‘Oh good, there you are, just in time for the brandy’ – and the spell was broken.”
This is pure Countess of Ranfurly; far from the presently fashionable image of the British upper classes as terrible class-bound fascist snobs who demand everyone be in evening dress and no backtalk from the servants. Fermor is just one of the many British middle-upper class who moved freely from world to world, belonging in all, though he is apt to seem a little startling when he turns up after months on the road.
I was reminded of Tolkien’s rangers; their silent service protects the Shire from the East; and they periodically turn up in civilised lands to smoke a pipe:
Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seem much wear and were now caved with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits.
‘Who is that?’ Frodo asked, when he got a chance to whisper to Mr. Butterbur. ‘I don’t think you introduced him?’
‘Him?’ said the landlord in an answering whisper, cocking an eye without turning his head. ‘I don’t rightly know. He is one of the wandering folk – Rangers we call them. He seldom talks: not but what he can tell a rare tale when he has the mind. He disappears for a month, or a year, and then he pops up again. He was in and out pretty often last spring; but I haven’t seen him about lately. What his right name is I’ve never heard: but he’s known round here as Strider. Goes about here at a great pace on his long shanks; though he don’t tell nobody what cause he has to hurry.
One could see Fermor as slowly turning into one of these disreputable rangers. As with Tolkien – in real life and in his books – an adventurous hobbit is apt also for espionage. And so, one should not be too surprised if Tolkien was more than a don and author, nor that Fermor worked for SOE in the war, gadding about kidnapping Nazi Generals.
Fermor’s book is intensely concerned with the detail of human life, with that which makes life vivid and worthy of being, with that which should be protected from totalitarianism. Value is not to be found in large gestures and speeches, but – as in Tolkien – in small things, in little acts of decency, in simple hospitality, in the pleasures of food and drink and poetry and tobacco:
Delving in the bottom of my rucksack for the A Shropshire Lad my mother gave me last birthday, I found an envelope full of Capstan Navy Cut. This was a real find, and getting out my best pipe (unsmoked for nearly a month) I stuffed it full and set it alight. I’m sure the good God never breathed incense with more delight than I felt then. Pipe tobacco, after a month’s cigarette smoking, is an ecstasy too deep for words.
What better way to remember Fermor, the ranger of old Europe, the magician of words and observation? For he is dead and no doubt smoking a pipe in Valhalla with Gandalf and Strider:
‘I know what is the matter with me,’ he muttered, as he sat down by the door. ‘I need smoke! I have not tasted it since the morning before the snowstorm.’
The last thing that Pippin saw, as sleep took him, was a dark glimpse of the old wizard huddled on the floor, shielding a glowing chip in his gnarled hands between his knees. The flicker for a moment showed his sharp nose, and the puff of smoke.
1. i’ve momentarily lost interest in writing on my temp memoir, so will try to blog a bit to keep my kill hand in. My memoir has the same problems as The Better Maker – autobiographical, rambling, dissipating, pointless, shit. i wondered why The Lumber Room blog posts covering the temping years were, on the whole, good, and the memoir is wretched; and it occurred to me – with my blog posts and my short stories i have a structure of sorts, a sense of shape & purpose, which informs and colours and gives meaning. Though i don’t plan blog posts or stories, i have a starting point and a general sense of some of the things to include; and both tend to be about 500-2000 words long. It seems part of my character to only be able to think & create in short bursts. Although i know what to put in my memoir, all i have are lots of facts – i can’t sustain any informing shape over the length of 80-100,000 words. i’m trying to think my way around this.
2. Meanwhile i’ve been watching the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, gloriously available on youtube until some polisher bans it.
Naturally, i am highly pleased to see a dapper upper class gent smoking a churchwarden and taking cocaine and foiling or at least retrospectively solving brutal crimes. Brett has spontaneity & jagged energy, and a mesmerising strangeness; the latter really suggests the “superman” who inhabits a wholly different mental realm to the rest of us non-churchwarden-smoking dolts. i’m vaguely aware that there’s some kind of new Sherlock Holmes TV series but i don’t want to see it, as i’m sure this strangeness will have been removed as unbefitting the new socialist republic in which all men are equal. Also, he will probably be gay now, rather than merely asexual.
i was arrested by the sight of Holmes in a deerstalker hat. My father used to wear these when i was growing up in the early 80s; he also smoked pipes, before finally succumbing to (no doubt hereditary) insanity and blowing all his money on koi carp & dodgy second-hand cars. i can’t help but feel that pipes & deerstalker hats were a better use of his time, but there it is. The hat always looked bizarre on him, as he borrowed parts of Holmesian Englishness without making any real attempt to learn anything about English culture or language (so after living in England for 30 years he still spoke worse English than most of my students, hadn’t read a single non-medical book in his life, and knew absolutely nothing about English history). Still, it’s strange that my first thought was “my father wore those”, and the second “i should get one of those, it will keep my ears warm in these savage German winters”. Indeed, i am slowly turning into my father.
3. i find this hideous transformation quite reassuring, as i preserve my own elberryness but start to treat my job as a vocation rather than a way to pay the rent, and i become increasingly tyrannical & despotic, wielding vast & monstrous powers over my grateful subjects. i like this continuity. Ours is one of the ages when a man can legitimately feel he lives wholly differently to his father and grandfather (another might be the Reformation). And certainly modern life feels extremely different to the world in which i grew up – though one could argue that the 80s were totally different to every other time in human history.
4. The other day i was reminded of The Railway Children film, which i saw about 30 years ago when birds and beasts and flower were one with Man, and death was but a dream. i had a general sense that it was set in the 50s or 60s – certainly before i was born but not too long ago. Actually, the book was published in 1905.
Time seems to move in sudden jumps, so i look like Johnny Depp for years then wake up one morning and find myself looking like William Burroughs; and so with human history. The late 70s and early 80s were, to be sure, a long way from 1905: i think of Tolkien’s remark about the countryside he grew up in outside Birmingham, that in 1905 or so it was closer to the 16th Century than to the world after the Second World War. And for me, the world of 1982 seems much much longer than 31 years ago – for me as elberry, 1982 is closer to the 1930s than to 2013. As a child i had no sense that The Railway Children was from some vanished world, though this may in part be because it’s set in Haworth, about 20 miles from my hometown.
Haworth aside, 1982 seems a long way from 2013, especially where i grew up (on the edge of the country). This was a world where policemen wore conical blue helmets by god, where traffic was somewhere between rare and light, where university wasn’t for the gormless, unless they were rich, where politicians, public services, and companies would never try to sound like gum-chewing 16-year-olds (i bite back a snarl every time a website addresses me with a howdy or hi there), where libraries were full of books, where porn was just a rumour (apart from the time a kindly philanthropist threw a pile of hardcore German mags over the wall of our schoolyard), where most technology was largely mechanical, where most mothers were housewives, where most children knew who their fathers were, where the working class still existed, where hair was long and shaggy and unkempt, where people still vaguely half-believed in some watered-down Christianity and the priests didn’t condemn their own religion for not being sufficiently welcoming to fundamentalist Islam; and so on.
5. It’s natural to automatically sneer that everyone imagines the world of their childhood was superior to the present, a totally different time. In some ways 2013 is better, but in most ways it’s shit and i want to send it back and get a new one. For me, the main differences between England in 1982 and 2009 (when i left) are the technologies and the culture; in the latter, the drunkenness and criminality and base vulgarity one saw from time to time have become more or less standard; or perhaps still a minority but so noxious that an increase from 0.05 to 1.0 % of the population makes an enormous difference to daily life. Not a problem in Munich, where there seems virtually no street crime (nor did i see any in Kassel or Kiel). But the technology remains: principally computers and cars. Both are useful, both can be objects of beauty & deliverance:
However, both have also had disastrous effects on the human beings they are allegedly designed to serve. i imagine books have already been written on the way the internet and computers change our view of each other & ourselves; there’s also the effect on daily work for the average office drone: because computers are stupid and can’t understand anything they haven’t been explicitly programmed to understand, many people (e.g. me from 2004 to 2009) have to work within the inhumanly rigid and narrow parameters of our computer masters, which for me felt like being crammed into a little ease for 8 hours a day, for the minimum wage to cap it all. Computers have greatly encouraged the machine culture in which we now live; because computers are now so central to everything, nothing works unless you do it in exactly the right way, and even then there’s probably a bug which will leave you screaming in impotent fury.
Then there’s cars. Their obnoxious noise, generally lumpen ugliness, and mindless power are a good symbol for progress and the modern world. The world seemed different during the 2007 fuel protests, the roads almost empty, the air notably cleaner and clearer. Likewise in Venice or the pedestrian centre of Cambridge, the mere absence of cars makes for something like magic – the only sounds are human and natural.
6. In many ways, the time & place of my birth were exactly right. i was born in the north, half-Indian so subject to a similar sense of alienation & likely persecution as in my last life, and spared the apple polishing frenzies of London and the accursed south. And likewise the time – i grew up in the modern world, but for me computers and cars were unusual; the world was quieter, slower, more human. By the time heavy traffic & computers & the machine-man had become the norm, my character was already essentially formed. i can never get rid of a deep sense that machines should be only occasional presences in human affairs; that they are in fact unnecessary & pointless.
And my life after school: i studied a science at a grim northern university, hated it, and dropped out, ending up – more or less by accident – in Durham. At the time i thought it was just one of many older universities. Now, i realise it was one of the few places in the world i could have developed my intellectual faculties without interference from Literary Theory (the representative of atheist materialism, socialism, and militant feminist, racist, & homosexual agendas in the university), while living surrounded by old stone, above an ancient river, by a Medieval Cathedral. It would have been a grave mistake to go to Oxford or Cambridge; so perhaps only Durham would have done. The street on which i lived for 2 years:
This was necessary for me, to survive in the whore modern world – to develop in tradition, in that which Southron polisher scum have left behind as contemptibly quaint. For this tradition is the source of one power. i could say, the informing & mastering influence i seek for my fiction is, in life, to be found in tradition & old custom, and i seek this force not merely for aesthetic reasons, but because it is the only way to focus and direct life to a diamond point.
1. i’m in Kassel for a long filthy weekend. Juniper, my hostess, has an interesting library of books picked up in Oxfam, from Boomerang (some kind of free book exchange point), from friends & enemies. i read AJ Jacob’s My Life as an Experiment in two days – a highly worthwhile book, which Juniper found in a box outside Boomerang. Now i’ve moved onto Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Big Country. i remember reading two other BB books but can remember little of either, not even the titles. They all tend to have the same cover design so i had no idea if i’d read this book before – in any case, if i had, it would have been years ago.
My memory is generally very good (pedantic), so it’s strange to read and have a vague sense that this may be the second time. Fifteen years ago i wouldn’t have read on had i not been sure it was new – too many things to read, with the impatience of disgusting youth. In my early old age, i find i enjoy reading with the reflection that i’ve quite possibly read this before but retained absolutely nothing; why, i don’t know – perhaps the sense that i am obliviously connecting to a possible earlier self, that this knowledge is stored somewhere in my brain but doesn’t make itself presently felt. In this case, it’s how human life ordinarily goes on: i sometimes think back to times when i was unknowingly in the same place as my last life, and how totally oblivious i was, how there wasn’t the slightest quiver of recognition. Even once meeting someone from that last life just seemed an amusing encounter with a dotty old woman (i was then 20/21 and had last seen her when i was dying and she was young). So it is that i don’t furrow my already furrowed-by-old-age brow to recall if i’ve read this book before; i content myself with enjoying the present reading.
2. As it happens, i have read the Bryson book before. i got 94 pages in before remembering an essay (about the vastness of New Hampshire forests, where a sizeable plane crashed without leaving a trace). Now memory ravels up a pattern. i think i read this book in winter 2006, when living with Bob the Coward, a kind-of-friend from university. Reading it, i realised how many of Bob’s wise-man-of-the-world tales actually came from this one book: an anecdote about the differences between UK and US immigration bureaucracy, another about cupholders and customer service, etc. etc. As a student, Bob would trot these out with a worldly glitter in his eyes from time to time, as if sharing some piece of initiatory journalistic lore. Given he was only 18 at the time, he possessed an impressive range of worldly anecdotes, the kind to be exchanged by grey-whiskered journalist king-makers in a London club, over cognac and cigarettes. Later i found that almost everything he said was taken from someone else (usually Bill Bryson) but somehow absorbed within his own willed self-image as the expert man of the world and connoisseur of everything, so as to leave no trace of its origin. (He now works in Marketing.)
It struck me as strange that so many of his worldly anecdotes were culled from this one book, though he wasn’t a big reader. Perhaps, for the youthful Bob the Coward, Bryson was his model for adulthood and so he absorbed every detail.
3. There are books you encounter early on, and read and re-read until they become a part of your character; they form how you look at the world and your self. For me, one was The Lord of the Rings; you could say it predisposed me to credit things like magic, and to expect life to be interesting and dangerous and full of vivid and strange characters and pain and beauty and possible heroism and dwarves and trees and mud and drunkedness and dragons and hand-to-hand combat and long walks and pipe tobacco and sudden death and jollity and castles. But then even aged 13 (when books took me over) i already had no interest in horror or science fiction, and could read even the shittiest Fantasy books with something like pleasure, so the blame must lay further back.
There are books which gripped me at a time in my life, and greatly influenced me, until my life changed. Camus, for example, when i was 20 (not The Stranger, which i found uninteresting, but The Fall and the non-fiction The Myth of Sisyphus); his influence lasted a good few years, until i became aware of a reality beyond the material, at which point the “absurd” ceased to hold me. i suppose my strongest post-Tolkien influences are TS Eliot and Dante, because i read them so often, to the point of memorising a good 700 lines of Eliot and a canto of Inferno. In a sense, one could see these as continuations of Tolkien – not so many dwarves and tobacco, but a similar sense of the intense significance of life, for example that a mean action is not merely shoddy but actually damnable.
4. i don’t expect anyone to share these affinities, personal as they are. Many people like Tolkien for reasons a thousand miles from mine, and then there are academics who profess to “be passionate about” Dante or TS Eliot (which irritates me more than bearded geeks who watch the shitty Lord of the Rings films every weekend). i feel increasingly uninterested in whether the books i like are on a university syllabus or part of the accepted canon, or even much good; and since i don’t want to prosleytise i can allow myself the pleasure of reading without paying much heed to the latest, or even the oldest, judgements. i wouldn’t want everyone, or even just every intelligent reader, to share my tastes, anymore than i would want them to dress like me and talk like me.
Luckily, as a mere & occasional blogger and itinerant English teacher i can just read what i like and bear no responsibility for taste. It would be different if i were a tweed-clad don: then i would probably refuse to teach anything later than 1970 (and even that is too late). As an actual English-as-a-foreign-language teacher i keep my tastes to myself, and as a blogger i feel tired of the pompous and censorious judgements floating through the vile aether. The great thing about reading is the privacy, the contact only with the author – and not the everyday, doubtless opinionated and scurvy author, but that which was greatest and deepest in his imagination.