Archive | January, 2012

First We Read, Then We Write

29 Jan

This incontrovertible statement is the title of a book I have just read about the work and ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson – why is no one called Waldo anymore? – and a very fine book is it too, though it might not be to everybody’s taste, dwelling, as it does, on the concerns and obsessions that beset the writer going about the daily business of writing: a messy business, as a rule.

Robert D. Richardson clearly knows Emerson like no other; he swims with nimble strokes through the waterways of Emerson’s thought, and leaves you with a definite feeling for the measure of the man. I, for one, knew practically nothing of Emerson, and now, although I will find out more, my conception of him will always be coloured by the things I have learned from Richardson.

I suppose in many ways Emerson is the closest thing to an American Montaigne. Reading was his passion, but like many writers, he read ‘almost entirely in order to feed his writing’ – which is more or less the same thing as saying the two activities are contiguous upon each other: writing is simply an extension of reading, and vice versa. But reading needs to be conscious and creative: ‘Reading long at one time anything, no matter how it fascinates, destroys thought as completely as the inflections forced by external causes.’ The advice is to take only what one needs from reading, to stop as soon as it becomes a drudge or an obligation, and to read selectively, casting the dross aside.

He gave advice to many young writers on how best to keep up a journal, to be watchful and to process the material of the world like a tide mill ‘which thus engages the assistance of the moon, like a hired hand, to grind, and wind, and pump, and saw, and split stone, and roll iron.’

As for the planning of a work of fiction, his advice is right up my street: ‘You should start with no skeleton or plan. The natural one will grow as you work. Knock away the scaffolding. Neither have exordium or peroration.’

This is much what E.M. Forster meant, with the words: ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’ Or Coleridge, with his appeal to ‘organic form’.

Writing should be a process of surprising oneself. If I had a plan, down to the last detail, of what my story will be, what would be the point of writing it? I mean, what is in it for me if I know precisely what is going to happen and what my characters are going to think and say and do? It would simply be a matter of typing.

So, Richardson says, ‘If Emerson’s writing does not always, or even usually, proceed in a straightforward, logical manner, it is not because he couldn’t write that way, but because he didn’t want to, and was after something different.’

Other grand quotes from Emerson:

Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.

Our chief want in life is somebody who shall make us do what we can.

Hitch your wagon to a star. (yeah, well, I thought it was Lee Marvin too)

People do not deserve to have good writing, they are so pleased with bad . . . Give me initiative, spermatic, prophesying, man-making words.

Every hero becomes a bore at last.

The maker of a sentence like the other artist launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and Old Night.

There is so much here that rings familiar: that we are essentially bound to nature and that all we touch and see is, at some profound level, a metaphor for ourselves. ‘The Universe is the externalisation of the soul’ – all stuff that would not have sounded odd coming from Blake. There’s a lot to take on board, which is how Emerson would have liked it. None of it is easy. Take it or leave it, but for me these writers, like Montaigne, de Quincey, Emerson, Stevenson, Proust, Borges, for whom writing was some kind of epic night journey, are almost always the most rewarding.

And what a motto (even if, like me, you have to look one of them up): Neither have exordium or peroration!





Médecins Sans Frontières in Libya

26 Jan

I receive an email from Médecins Sans Frontières saying that the Libyan National Army Security Service in Misrata are sending them people to treat who have been tortured, simply to patch them up into a state where they can be tortured some more. This is shocking, but I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. The fact that people who have endured violent oppression are likely to inflict exactly the same kind of treatment on their oppressors – now they have become their captives – seems sad but horribly predictable.

According to The Guardian:

The aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières has added its voice to the chorus of concern by announcing that it had halted work in the coastal city of Misrata because staff were being asked to patch up detainees during torture sessions. “Patients were brought to us in the middle of interrogation for medical care, in order to make them fit for more interrogation,” said MSF’s Christopher Stokes. “This is unacceptable. Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions.”

I rarely use this blog for notices of this kind, but because I support MSF this captured my attention, and I thought I would share it. Not that there’s a lot anyone can do.




How American TV portrays the British

22 Jan

Blanco was a big fan of The Wire, David Simon’s epic account of life among the drug dealers of West Baltimore, with its startling portrayal of a city going under the cosh as the forces of unrestrained capitalism are let loose on the poorest and the most vulnerable sections of society. Series 4, on education, has to be the most astonishing and powerful thing I’ve ever seen on television. The part taken by British or Irish actors is not insignificant either: Dominic West, Idris Elba and Aiden Gillen all have major roles in the show.

The other night I watched the first episode of David Simon’s latest offering, Treme, which we have had hanging around the house for months, but have not got round to viewing. It begins, like The Wire, in a wholly unintelligible manner (subtitles help, but not too much). Simon claims he does difficulty on purpose, so as not to appeal to the lowest common denominator: “Fuck the average viewer” is the precise phrase he expressed on a BBC2 Culture Show interview.

Anyhow, a few minutes into episode 1, a scene takes place between Creighton Bernette, a real-life activist played by John Goodman, and a TV journalist, who is supposed to be British, but whose enunciation leads me to think he is an American actor doing a bad British accent. Plummy, stuck-up, arrogant: the type that American audiences love to hate. There is a batch of them in Madmen also: the Bad Brits, the Redcoats, the Enemy. All of them sound like superannuated aristos on a whisky binge. They are coarse, creepy and cruel. I don’t get it. If this is the common perception of US TV producers, then this is the cultural stereotype that the American public most wants to see, and they clearly don’t like us much. So much for the ‘special relationship’. It also seems incredibly outdated, a bit like a British equivalent of grossly overweight and ignorant Americans wearing check trousers, chewing gum and driving enormous, gas-guzzling chevvies.

But the weirdest moment of all in The Wire is when old-Etonian Dominic West is required to do a ‘British’ accent (as if there were such a thing) in series 2 , because he goes to work undercover in an illegal brothel. It is hilarious, because West, rather than doing the accent naturally, enacts an American doing a Brit. Extraordinary. Here is the moment when the idea, as usual the brainchild of the cop played by Clark Peters (himself a British resident for many years) comes about:






Big John Toshack

17 Jan

Imagine my surprise last Thursday when, standing sardine-packed on the bus that was to take me and my fellow Easy Jetters to our plane at Barcelona airport, I realised that the man into whose coat my nose was pressed was none other than John Toshack O.B.E., once Liverpool’s top striker and twice (rather briefly) manager of Real Madrid, and now . . . coach of Macedonia. Anyhow, I didn’t give it any more thought until the other evening, when watching the highlights of Swansea City’s defeat of Arsenal on TV, I saw Tosh in the stand, wearing the same rather nasty coat he had on the bus.

Now I don’t want to cast aspersions, but other than beings a truly awful Wales manager (admittedly a thankless job) Toshack has always struck me as a particularly morose figure, and he may have good reason, but it makes you wonder how he inspires his players if he speaks to them with the same enthusiasm that he conveys in interviews. And I mean, christ, does he ever smile? (Actually there are a few pictures of him smiling on the Facebook John Toshack page, but most of them are from his days as a player). Not that smiling is obligatory for football managers, after all they have to spend their lives catering to the whims and wiles of their overpaid moronic prima donna players; but Tosh makes Fergie (Sir Alex Ferguson to those of you who don’t follow football, or soccer) look like Mister Happy.

Of course Swansea was Toshack’s first project as a manager, and a very good job he made of it too, bringing the club from the old Fourth Division to the First in successive seasons. Then he went to Portugal, and then was scooped up by the San Sebastian club Real Sociedad, where he was very successful (as well as being hugely popular with the Basque supporters) before Real Madrid signed him for the first time and from then it was mostly downhill.

Which kind of explains why he was flying Easy Jet. You can’t imagine José Mourinho flying Easy Jet from Barcelona to Bristol, can you? (Actually you can’t imagine Mourinho flying from Barcelona to anywhere). But that is really no excuse for such a glum face. He might, after all have been flying Ryanair.







LSD and literature

16 Jan

Homer Simpson on acid


“While it’s true that later on I read quite a lot and my literary knowledge was strengthened, it’s also true that LSD, by opening up my visual field, was not at the time by any means an insignificant source of inspiration. Besides, some of these perceptions of a distinct reality have lasted firmly and still today carry a highly remarkable energy, and are the reason I can laugh at realist writers, for example, who duplicate reality and so impoverish it.” (Enrique Vila-Matas, from Never any end to Paris).




At Swim-Two-Birds and an absence of frantic sorrow

14 Jan


My favourite novel when I was nineteen years of age and had just moved to London was At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien and it was with some pleasure that I dipped into an article by Colm Tóibín in the London Review of Books last week entitled ‘Flann O’Brien’s lies’. The essay weaves a fascinating connecting thread between O’Brien’s Dublin, Borges’s Buenos Aires and Pessoa’s Lisbon, and considers these three writers as sharing a fundamental sense of marginality, living in these sea-facing cities, all three of them writing fictions in which ‘they invented further personae and indeed further worlds’ –  all three of them writing under alternative identities.

‘An oasis will not appear in a fertile plain. It is impossible to write fiction filled with choices and chances and continuities in a society where these things are thinly spread. In a society where there is no body of readers, it is not easy to write with a reader in mind, a reader who wants a story in which time is represented in a straight line and in which characters are filled with feelings and longings, and in which plot satisfies some large set of rules which insist on completion, and in which words represent what the dictionary states they represent, and in which language is natural and part of a shared culture. It is much easier to make a story or a novel in which the reader is already built-in and which wrong-foots or even usurps the idea of reading. While novelists who wrote in formed, settled and multi-layered societies held a mirror up to those societies in all their variety or to the vicissitudes of the human heart, Borges and O’Brien and Pessoa held instead a mirage up to an oasis, the strange place they came from which gave them their first taste of thirst.’

Thirst was certainly a passion of O’Brien’s, and it eventually killed him, though this, of course, is not what Tóibín means, strictly speaking.

I have always thought At Swim-Two-Birds was O’Brien’s best book. Although people generally go on about The Third Policeman, I was never such a fan. The Poor Mouth – his own translation of his Gaelic novel An Beal Bocht –  was hilarious, although I daresay I missed a lot of the nuances. The rest of his work, notably The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive are derivative or cannibalistic of his earlier stuff. The newspaper column in The Irish Times was fabulous. But with his first book, O’Brien achieved something he would never quite manage again.

‘The aim of At Swim-Two-Birds was to lose control, to take the pieces and refuse to reconcile them, to insist that it was too late for such trickery. O’Brien refused to believe that the writer recreates the world, but instead he set out to show that the world re-creates the writer, and that both the writer and the world are, or might be, a set of illusions, highly implausible, not even worth mistrusting, and that all we have fully to mistrust are pages and the words on them.’

The article also quotes an extract from Henry James, which indicates precisely the kind of novelist James despaired of, and precisely the kind of writer O’Brien was: one who had not the remotest interest in earnestly capturing a particular quality of truth that pretends or claims to be lodged in reality, and who thereby recognizes that ‘realism’ is itself only a particular, stylised mode of representation. For O’Brien, and others like him, the point of fiction lies elsewhere, and largely, though not exclusively, in the telling itself.

Finally, Tóibín cites an absolute gem from Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet:

‘Why should I care that no one reads what I write? I write to forget about life, and I publish because that is one of the rules of the game. If tomorrow all my writings were lost, I’d be sorry, but I doubt I’d be violently and frantically sorry.’




Seasonal Affective Disorder

1 Jan


Having gone out at the beginning of Christmas week and bought a box of a dozen (yes, 12) Krispy Kreme doughnuts and eaten seven (7) of them myself, I feel some changes are overdue.

Blanco actually has several New Year’s resolutions for a change but isn’t telling because clearly if you tell then you can be found lacking, whereas if you don’t tell no one is the wiser and you can still breathe the rarefied air that comes with being good. In any case, Blanco is fleeing the grey skies of Cardiff early tomorrow morning in order to spend ten days in a place far distant from the-land-where-the-sky-is-too-close-to-the-ground and although it will not be warm, there is a good chance of blueness in the heavenly vaults. And blue skies help Blanco to think, whereas the endless grey and drizzle of the-land-where-the-sky-is-too-close-to-the-ground only gives rise to a kind of anti-thought, a condition exacerbated by a constant need for potatoes and doughnuts and dumplings and chocolate and cake and biscuits and other stuff to feed the gap where thought might seep in if given half a chance or a modicum of sunlight.

Ah sunlight! I know we don’t have much to complain about compared with those poor bastards who live up near the North Pole, the Siberians and Norwegians and Finns and the Elfenfolk and so forth, but this isn’t a competition, I just need sunlight otherwise I start going bonkers and am liable to bite people, or even bite dogs, a habit I try to curb, but which flares up in an instant whenever my supply of potatoes/dumplings/doughnuts/chocolate dwindles and I feel the mordant urge creeping over me.  But neither do I wish to complain, it is always better to NOT complain.

So, on the brink of this new year I should announce that if there are no posts forthcoming in the next ten days or so it is because I am immersed in my work and because the house where I am going has no legal internet access, and neither is there mobile phone coverage. Which, all things considered, makes it a perfect place to go and write, or to read – or even to sleep. Or simply to disengage from the tweeting, gibbering world of nonstop noise for just a while and recuperate the forces that lie within.

And, to celebrate the wonderful Xmas gift I received from Mrs Blanco, the Mariachi El Bronx CD, here is a clip of the boys singing ‘Cell Mates’.