The Winds of Politics
12 May 2015
I want to write about an article recently written by one of the most influential men alive. It appeared in The Guardian, and it was headlined "Labour Must Be the Party of Ambition As Well As Compassion." The author, naturally, was Tony Blair.
I don't especially want to write about the article's actual meaning, though I suspect that will come into it. I am more concerned with the article's prose style. I know the writing of good English is now considered rather an irrelevance. But Tony Blair's article reminds me too much of George Orwell's remarks in his essay "Politics and the English Language" (1946). It is necessary to read Orwell's full essay to get its full power, but here is the key quotation:
Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Elsewhere in the essay he picks apart the clichés and mixed metaphors of political-speak, noting along the way the tendency of political language to consist of "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness" because the simple direct meaning of what politicians are saying is the one thing that cannot be said.
Tony Blair's article is almost a model of this kind of political language in action today, almost 70 years after his namesake Eric Blair wrote his devastating criticism of it. Here are some examples of what I mean. Please remember throughout that this man was educated at Fettes and Oxford.
All of us in the party now have a responsibility: no comfort zones, no confusion between tactics and strategy, no believing we have avoided division when we have only avoided decision, no refuge in complexity because we won’t recognise simplicity.
The grammatical car crash of this sentence either needs no explanation or too much of one, but perhaps it is enough to say that the phrases after the colon don't really clarify what the "responsibility" is. What does it mean, for instance, to say you have a responsibility not to have comfort zones? The phrase "comfort zone", like so much else in the article, is a cliché that conjures up no firm image or meaning, just a number of woolly associations. A comfort zone, we all assume, is a bad thing: that's why the phrase exists. But in fact a comfort zone means simply the part of your knowledge that you are sure of: so why avoid it? And, by the way, which of the four vague phrases after the colon is the one responsibility referred to before it?
There are three things that should govern our approach. The first: the route to the summit lies through the centre ground. Labour has to be for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care. “Hard-working families” don’t just want us to celebrate their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can do well, rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that; we support it.
"The route to the summit lies through the centre ground." This sounds as if it should make sense as a metaphor; but it really doesn't. The route to the summit lies upwards - that's all you can sensibly say. The best route can be rocky or steep or well trodden. What in blue blazes is "the centre ground" in a physical sense anyway? It means nothing.
"Labour has to be for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care." Right. Seems very easy to interpet, this. "Compassion and care" refers to the duty of those in power to look after the vulnerable. Fine. But "ambition and aspiration"? Ambition means "getting on": becoming powerful and probably rich as well (well, one has to take the rough with the smooth). It means using your job to scale to a more responsible job and then a still more responsible one. Aspiration is just another word for hope, so that doesn't really get us anywhere. You can aspire to be incredibly rich, or incredibly well educated. You can aspire to be compassionate and to care for the vulnerable. You can also aspire to kill puppies. You can aspire to anything: it only means wanting to do something other than what you are doing. Ambition and aspiration are about making life nicer for yourself, but with an underlying assumption that this involves more power and money.
(By the way, just one practical suggestion. I was thinking about what would actually make life better for a normal person in a job who happens to want a better job. How about having a system that will allow someone to attend an interview without being forced to lie to their current employer about why they're not at work? Just a thought.)
"Hard-working families." This is insidious. In the political lexicon "hard-working" is the ultimate compliment, because it's what the state wants everyone to be in order to achieve the political Utopia of governmental wealth. "Families" is a nice-nice word because it implicitly states that the speaker is in favour of social stability and order. Put the two concepts together, and you have the mental image of father, mother, son, daughter, baby, all grafting away in some sort of domestic coal-mine. To what end? To "do well, rise up, achieve." "Rise up," of course, is not a reference to revolutionary insurrection; this is, after all, a Labour politician writing. Again we're talking about money and power. Achieve? Achieve what? Care for the vulnerable or dead puppies? Tony Blair doesn't say: it is enough simply to achieve.
I wanted to go through the whole article, but there's just too much meaningless crap to wade through, and my heart sinks. So here's just a handful of snippets.
The Labour project must always be one oriented to the future.
Can anyone please explain to me how anything can be "oriented" (or as the British say, "orientated") towards anything other than the future? That is how the universe is organised. The tricky bit is to work out which of the infinite number of ways into the future to choose.
The world is an extraordinary market place of new thinking right now.
Trans: There are new ideas in the world, and they're all for sale. Ideas! Get yer luvly ideas! Nice and fresh, only thought this morning! (But, seriously: what kind of person automatically associates thinking with a place of buying and selling?)
Housing, infrastructure, modern industrial policy, social impact investment: there is a riot of interesting progressive analysis and thinking going on out there. We have to access it and lead it.
So there's a riot, and we have to lead that riot. But only after we've accessed it, of course.
The Tories are not reformed. That is why they’re beatable. But we have to resolve our own challenge of reformation. We didn’t in 2007. We didn’t in 2010. This is not about arguing over the past or returning to it. It is because understanding the past is the key to the present and the future.
A small prize to anyone who is able to work out how that last sentence works as grammar. "It is because...." What is? What is because? Tell me, please!
Terry Pratchett: A Letter Too Late
28 March 2015
I have a problem with writers. Most writing I can take or leave; the style is serviceable, the content engages but causes no overhaul of values. But with a very few writers, it is different. They speak to me in tones that change me; they are private voices; they are almost gods.
Most of these writers are already dead. The old writers seem to speak to me most. But a few are not, and I keep telling myself I must write to them and tell them. But somehow I never do, till it is too late. There was Alan Plater, and there was Douglas Adams, and Robert Sheckley, and Malcolm Bradbury; and now there is Terry Pratchett.
I can't even pretend I had the excuse of not knowing he was going to die.
I first started reading Terry Pratchett in the late 1980s, about the time that Sourcery came out (1988, I find). What caught me first of all about the Discworld novels was the simple, apparently obvious, but brilliantly worked-out idea of a world which runs on magic in exactly the same way that our world runs on science. It was immediately clear that here was a real writer with an idea of style and (what is, to my mind, more or less the same thing) how to make jokes work. The contrast that struck me at that time was with the crude parody of Harvard Lampoon's Bored of the Rings, a book which in my memory now was like the obscene scratchings of a semi-literate schoolboy.
Because I am a completist, I started following Terry Pratchett's progress as a writer, buying each new novel as it came out. It soon became apparent that here was a writer in the process of developing to an amazing degree. Each novel was a definite advance on the previous one. I remember in particular the brilliance of the opening sequence of Pyramids (1989), an extended sequence in which the hero takes an Assassins' Guild examination rather on the lines of a driving test. I will not attempt to describe it here - you must read it - but it is a technical tour de force, superbly sustained, funny and serious and without a word placed wrong.
There is too much to say about Terry Pratchett, and I won't be able to say a tenth of it today. I will admit that I found and find his writing to be variable. Some of his novels seem to me to be written more or less on autopilot... I know many will disagree with my list of, if not duds, then not-so-goods; nevertheless, I will briefly mention Eric, Moving Pictures, Soul Music, Interesting Times, and The Last Continent; and now, having done so, I will move on.
Terry Pratchett wrote far more than his share of books which, I think, have a good claim to be called masterpieces. As before, some will find the list to be most disagreeable; but nevertheless: Equal Rites, Pyramids, Reaper Man (the non-wizard half), Small Gods, Night Watch, Going Postal, Johnny and the Dead, The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky.
Others will have other lists. Some will prefer the ones I hate, and that will only be because aspects of Terry Pratchett's writing speak to them more than they speak to me. That is my loss.
His style grew over the years, and, had it not been for the embuggerance, it would still be growing now. Since his diagnosis with posterior cortical atrophy in 2007, his writing changed greatly, becoming simpler and more discursive and less tightly controlled. I found it distressing to read these last novels, knowing the cause and how utterly beyond anyone's control it was, and being aware that Terry himself must also be aware of the change and unable to do a damn thing about it. I was first aware of the change in style with Making Money, published a few months before Terry Pratchett announced his diagnosis; I read the book, and was disappointed to see that the jokes, for no reason, were misfiring, and the rhythms, inexplicably, were faltering. I could not understand the cause. Afterwards, when I knew, I was ashamed of my reactions.
Recently, the Daily Telegraph reprinted a 2013 interview with Terry Pratchett in which he explained how as a boy he loved the great English humorists such as P G Wodehouse, Richmal Crompton, Sellar and Yeatman, and so on. Of course, as soon as it is pointed out, it is obvious. The long relaxed rhythms of a Wodehouse line are there in Pratchett too. The humour lies not so much in the actual jokes as in the almost poetic effect of sound and rhythm involved in making them. His description of the tone of English humour is exactly right, encapsulating its qualities which can be seen as virtues or vices depending on attitude and the time of day: "[the Punch humorists] spoke with the same voice... the same kind of slightly satirical, people-are-rather-silly-but-they’re-not-that-bad voice, friendly about humanity, fond of its foibles."
Also, G K Chesterton was clearly a strong influence, especially on his "home-spun wisdom" aphorisms: a line like "Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things" could easily be Chesterton. I'm almost sure there's more than a touch of Asterix in there too. You could probably go through his books counting the influences and little harmless snafflings; but that would be painstaking, joyless, and missing the point completely. Terry Pratchett's books are worth what they are worth because of the tone of them, humane and sceptical and warm at the same time. They draw on the long tradition of English humour and they take it further. Like so much great English humour, they are almost poetic in their qualities of getting effects through sound and rhythm rather than literal meaning. When the score sheets are totted up and the points are allocated, I feel sure it will be found that the books of Terry Pratchett have had a remarkable effect in teaching a whole generation a system of humane values for the 21st century. As well as a truly staggering number of brilliantly silly jokes.
14 January 2015
I have been thinking of breaking into journalism, so I've written a column to demonstrate my abilities in that direction. Here it is.
Today, I'm writing about a controversial topic of the day that luckily I have the correct opinion about.
This thing has happened, and lots of people have the same attitude towards it, but that's only because they haven't thought about it enough. Let me put you straight.
This is me putting you straight.
Of course, some people do continue to hold the other opinion, and this is the bit where I outline what they think, possibly including a fact that blows everything I've said out of the water, but so briefly that with luck you won't notice.
If I could find a quote from the Daily Mail expressing the opinion I don't like, that would be good too.
Anyway, by now you've got a very clear idea of what I think and why anyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot.
About this point you'll be realising I haven't said anything you haven't already thought to yourself, for free.
There's nothing more for me to add, so I'll just restate what I've said previously, but louder this time, and hope it makes for a good strong conclusion.
The Mikado and Racism
20 July 2014
This year, Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society is producing The Mikado, the most popular of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. It's not my favourite of the canon (that's Iolanthe, obviously) but if done properly I do find it a lot of fun.
On 13 July, the Seattle Times published an Opinion piece by Sharon Pian Chan entitled, The Yellowface of The Mikado In Your Face. In it, Chan criticises the production--and the opera itself--for portraying a fantasy Japan with a cast who are not ethnically Japanese. She calls the opera a "fossil" and says that it opens old wounds and resurrects pejorative stereotypes.
The story was taken up on 17 July by NBC News in a piece by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang entitled Stereotypes in 'The Mikado' Stir Controversy in Seattle, referring to the opera's "simplistic orientalist stereotypes" and quoting actor Greg Watanabe as calling the decision to produce the opera in Seattle in 2014 "wilfully ignorant". Watanabe added: "It's astounding we have to keep relitigating [reiterating?] this. The galling part is, the producer is aware there are racist elements and yet doesn't think it's relevant, isn't aware that people are offended and have a problem with it, or doesn't care, and then thinks casting no Asians in it is also totally fine."
It would be very easy for a Gilbert and Sullivan fanatic like myself to respond with an easy scoff. That is, after all, what Gilbert and Sullivan teaches us to do. However, the fact is that this whole issue is nothing like as simple as it may seem--on either side of the fence.
The first fact that needs to be brought in, and stated as clearly and baldly as possible, is that the opera was not written with racist intent. It does not portray any of the characters as being "racially inferior" or indeed fundamentally any different from British people. The point of the opera is to reflect British culture through the lens of an invented "other", a fantasy Japan that has only the most superficial resemblance to reality, even the distorted version of reality as known in London in 1885. The mainspring of the plot is an invented "Japanese" law against flirting, which makes sense only as a reference to the sexual prudishness of British culture itself.
This idea of reflection through a distorting lens was not new in Gilbert and Sullivan opera. HMS Pinafore (1878) portrays British sailors in a way that deliberately minimises any resemblance to their real counterparts; the intention was to create cartoonish sailors that agreed with and subverted their stereotypes as known in the popular culture of the day. Similarly the Peers in Iolanthe (1882) are cartoon exaggerations of the popular perception of members of the House of Lords, who themselves prominently attended the opera. In each opera, a deliberate effort is made to divorce the action from a simple relationship with reality.
(But I must admit that I have always felt a little embarrassed at the joke names in The Mikado--Nanki-Poo, Pitti-Sing, Yum-Yum, and so on. Surely Gilbert could have done better than these childish gurgles? It is here that I feel the charge of cultural insensitivity is strongest. However, if I were to defend the use of silly names, and I suppose in my position I must, then I would simply mention that Gilbert was fully capable of giving his English characters names fully as silly: Bill Bobstay, Reginald Bunthorne, Lord Mountararat, Captain Fitzbattleaxe....)
Josephine Lee, associate professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota, is the author of The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), which investigates, in much greater depth than the current controversy allows, many of the issues relating to performing The Mikado, especially the element of "yellowface" (ie ethnically Western people portraying Japanese people, in a way argued to be analogous to "blackface").
Lee discusses the opera's relationship to racism and to the cultural assumptions that racism makes, in an amount of detail which I cannot hope to summarise adequately here. While taking into full account the opera's intention to reflect Britain and not Japan, she finds in the opera, and especially its performance history, an unhelpful relationship with an assumed "exoticism" based on Westerners' imagined fantasies of the East. She argues cogently and convincingly, and brings to the debate arguments which should give every Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast cause to stop and think. I can only urge the interested reader to read this book.
On page xiv, Lee writes: "Both the tragic Madame Butterfly and The Mikado have been identified as orientalist, but these two musical versions of Japan work quite differently. The Mikado in particular defies charges that it is a racist work. Though its characterizations, setting, and story clearly misrepresent Japan in ways that can be seen as patronizing and insulting, at the same time it is a comic opera that disclaims the seriousness of these representations."
I would like to repeat a key phrase in that quotation: "The Mikado... defies charges that it is a racist work." If I could, I would set it in stone. The opera has its problems, and I do not defend it to the death or even to the minor flesh wound, but this sentence, written from "the other side of the fence", will stand up to serious examination.
If we accept the fact that, however the opera may appear today, it was not written with any racist intent, this is surely a very remarkable thing, bearing in mind the almost reflexively racist culture existing in London at that time.
(NB: In the interests of full disclosure, I do need to mention that the opera as written in 1885 did contain two uses of the word "nigger", which at that time was not believed (by white Britishers) to be offensive or necessarily insulting. The word was used casually in much of the literature of the day. In the 1940s, after this perception changed in the UK, these incidences of the word were taken out of The Mikado's standard performed text.)
The opera has not always been produced in the traditional "yellowface" fashion. Jonathan Miller's 1986 production for English National Opera relocated it to an imagined cartoon 1920s England:
In 2001 The Mikado was performed with a Japanese cast in Chichibu (suggested to be a model for the opera's town of Titipu):
This production was later seen at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton, England.
Other productions have come to other solutions.
However, I have been looking anew at some of the easily available production shots of "traditional" productions of the opera, and if one views these with the eyes not of an insider who knows the intention of the opera, but of one from the outside, some of these photos do appear to be somewhat insensitive, not to say insulting. I will not reproduce any of the photos here, but they can be found easily enough. It should, in theory, not be impossible to avoid such things in the future, with a little sensitivity.
The conclusion I wish to emphasise is this: there is no point in wilfully offending your audience. This is not a matter of "political correctness" but of simple courtesy and even, when you come down to it, commercial common sense.
I would certainly be very happy to see the last of the idea that such shots as this are acceptable for use, by a very major record firm, as the obvious image to promote Gilbert and Sullivan (the album came out in 2000: I repeat, 2000):
Please let me say, loud and clear and with every decibel at my disposal:
This is NOT what Gilbert and Sullivan is about.
G&S is about silliness, and fun, and being intelligent and mocking the powerful, and accepting the fundamental absurdity of life, which we all have to go through together:
Is it but a world of trouble--
Sadness set to song?
Is its beauty but a bubble
Bound to break ere long?
Are its palaces and pleasures
Fantasies that fade?
And the glory of its treasures
Shadow of a shade?
Gilbert and Sullivan... and UKIP
26 May 2014
Back in 2010, Sir Jonathan Miller, after careful consideration, expressed his “contempt” for Gilbert and Sullivan, adding that it was simply “UKIP set to music.” It will be noticed that Sir Jonathan had no word of criticism for Sullivan’s music; it was only Gilbert’s words that he considered to bear comparison with UKIP. At any rate, it will be understood that since he made this pronouncement I have felt a special interest in observing UKIP’s changing fortunes. Its recent successes in local and particularly European elections leave me with emotions which are indescribable.
Above: Jonathan Miller, who studied medicine at Cambridge and is an intellectual of great seriousness.
I am the Secretary of the W.S. Gilbert Society. It is statistically probable that some of its members voted for UKIP in the elections, more or less in proportion to the national vote. It is expedient, therefore, for me not to say exactly what I think about UKIP, for fear of causing offence which will lose Society members. I will only say that I did not, and will not, vote for that party.
No, I’m wrong. I will say one more thing. Let me explain something of what I see in UKIP. I see a party based on the return to an idealised past: a past which, if it ever existed, started to disappear sometime in the 1970s, when Britain was not part of Europe, when a drink and a fag were not considered unhealthy or wrong in any way, before a certain set of new ideas had taken root in our society and caused a disturbing instability in our thought. UKIP is a visionary party: it exists to pursue a dream of how things were in the rosy past. As Gilbert wrote in Foggerty’s Fairy (1881): “Every age is matter-of-fact to those who live in it. Romance died the day before yesterday. To-day will be romantic the day after to-morrow.”
In a sense, it is no surprise to see that UKIP might be associated in some minds with the works of two Victorians. Victorian thought would fit right in to the workings of such a party as I have described, and this would imply no criticism at all of the Victorians involved, whose thoughts were, of course, from their point of view, thoroughly up-to-date.
However, it is important, I think, to go back to Sir Jonathan Miller’s pronouncement and to suggest (with all due respect to him) that he may have been, on this one occasion only, wrong. The reputation of W.S. Gilbert as a writer is problematic for all sorts of reasons, many of them nothing to do with him. The Gilbert and Sullivan operas are too often associated with a set of values which do not in fact belong to them.
Gilbert famously wrote in H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) a stirring patriotic lyric which starts to look sarcastic only if you pay attention:
He is an Englishman!
For he himself has said it
And it’s greatly to his credit
That he is an Englishman!
For he might have been a Roosian,
A French, or Turk, or Proosian,
Or perhaps Itali-an!
But in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations
He remains an Englishman!
When Gilbert rewrote H.M.S. Pinafore as a children’s book late in life (1908) he took the risk of explaining his joke a little: “Speaking for myself, I do not quite see that Ralph Rackstraw deserved so very much credit for remaining an Englishman, considering that no one seems ever to have proposed to him that he should be anything else, but the crew thought otherwise and I daresay they were right.”
Of course, the conclusion to that thought is that the only people who deserve praise for their nationality are those who chose it: that is, immigrants.
The late Gilbert and Sullivan opera Utopia, Limited (1893) is a satire on cultural colonialism in which the island of Utopia is “reformed” (for which read, ruined) by the importation of English institutions and ideas. I merely mention this as a fact to ponder.
I don’t want to delve too deeply into Gilbert’s thought and philosophy here. It would take too long. Gilbert, like every writer, was flawed, and unthinking prejudices do show themselves in his works on occasion. But there is one thing I want to say, as strongly as I can. Gilbert was not a backward-looking man. He saw no idyllic past. While mocking the absurdities of his own time, he did not believe they were any worse than the absurdities of previous ages. The well-respected historian David Cannadine has characterised the Gilbert and Sullivan operas as “a paean of praise to national pride and to the established order,” but this is to ignore the tone of sarcasm that invariably appears whenever patriotism crops up in the operas.
The past is dead and we cannot return to it. I believe with all my heart that if we are to survive as a civilisation we must face up to the challenges that exist now, specifically the destruction of our environment, and not turn our backs on them. I can’t immediately think of a quotation from Gilbert to support this statement, but it is true all the same. To speak personally, I do not believe voting for UKIP is the correct way to do this.
Oh... one last thing. There is one aspect of UKIP which I think Gilbert would appreciated, as a grim joke at any rate: the fact that the party exists mainly to elect people to the European Parliament because they hate the European Parliament. That is the kind of topsy-turvy logic that would have confirmed everything Gilbert believed about the nature of humanity.
My Books of the Year
29 December 2013
Everyone seems to have a list of their Best Books of the Year; you can't open the Guardian or the Observer without setting eyes on yet another lot of the stuff. So I don't see why I should be left out.
I don't know how all the others who get asked to do this kind of thing, do this kind of thing; but this is how I did it. I tried to remember what I had read in the past year. And then, when I couldn't think of anything, I looked on my shelves. Anything that didn't make much of an impression when I read it has already been recycled to a charity shop. So this, more or less, is what remains. Not everything that follows was first published in 2013. But it was first read by me this year.
First up: William Gallagher's study of The Beiderbecke Affair (BFI TV Classics, 2012). A lovely little book, a celebration of the work of Alan Plater and in particular this ITV series of the 1980s which mixed together humour, jazz, intrigue, and a little light socialism to create something amazing. Gallagher seems to have interviewed everyone involved with the programme, except Plater himself, who, being dead, is unavoidably absent. The writer is suitably light in his style and has good things to say, especially about the alleged plotlessness of the series (actually it contains a lot of dramatic events, but it is the style of the piece that no one bats an eyelid at any of it). Perhaps most affectingly, Barbara Flynn (Jill Swinburne) speaks of how working on the Beiderbecke series changed her in a personal, political sense.
Charles Dickens by Simon Callow (2012) was originally published under the title Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World and, to be truthful, I don't know why it isn't still called that. This is a great book, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, stylish. Compared with the lauded biography by Claire Tomalin, it has the tremendous advantage of being a real book, a story, a narrative; not a bag of facts in the usual modern biographical style. Callow has taken the trouble to think about Dickens and the arc of his life, and to connect the events to show how one thing led to another, how certain events affected Dickens as a person and how he chose to act thereafter. What comes out from the book is the portrait of a man almost superhuman in his qualities: in his energy, his drive to succeed and to be a force for good in the world; almost superhuman also in his flaws and his selfish cruelty in relation to his wife. The big flaw with the book is the absence of references; but I suppose Google would find me the source of most quotations if I needed to find them.
The Lord Chamberlain Regrets.... by Dominic Shellard, Steve Nicholson, and Miriam Handley (British Library, 2004) is a well illustrated history of the censorship of British plays between 1824 and 1968 (when the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain's Office was abolished). From my point of view, the most valuable section is that dealing with Victorian censorship, written by Miriam Handley; very illuminating on what could and could not be said on the Victorian stage. The later section, quoting extensively from readers' reports on some of the major works of 20th century theatre, is entertaining and flabbergasting in about equal measure. Fallen Angels by Noel Coward: "The whole is a revolting sex-play and has not the redeeming feature of containing a moral lesson." The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter: "An insane, pointless play. Mr. Pinter has jumbled all the tricks of Beckett and Ionesco with a dash from all the recently produced plays at the Royal Court Theatre, plus a fashionable flavouring of blasphemy. The result is still silly."
Lost Chords and Christian Soldiers by Ian Bradley (SCM Press, 2013) is a genuinely revelatory book, a study of the sacred music of Sir Arthur Sullivan that makes a persuasive case that this sacred music was in fact at the heart of Sullivan's music: deeply felt and with a true style of its own deriving from Sullivan's earliest years. Perhaps the most daring part of the book is the section which takes the allegations of Sullivan's "sentimentality" and turns it back on the accusers, accepting the charge and pleading that sentimentality is not necessarily false or despicable.
I love the work of Dashiell Hammett, and am only frustrated that there is not more of it. Only five novels! (Six if you count the short Woman in the Dark.) The publication, in The Return of the Thin Man (Head of Zeus, 2013) of Hammett's narrative treatments for the Hollywood movies After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man is exciting in itself. The style, obviously enough, is spare and functional: these pieces were not intended for publication in this form. But the zest is still there, and the dialogue is still as punchy as ever.
Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Headline, 2013) was, I admit, both a great pleasure in the reading and a slight disappointment in its effect. Gaiman is a lovely writer with a real sense of style and narrative--rare gifts in these days. The book has a great feeling for the wonderful. But it all feels a little too familiar; the whole setup is too reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, especially the Tiffany Aching novels; and the whole business of exciting and impossible adventures occurring in the everyday world goes back to James P. Blaylock (The Digging Leviathan etc.) and probably far beyond. Still, fairy-tales of this sort with a Chestertonian sense of allegorical meaning are not so common that we can afford to cast them aside casually.
Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe (Penguin Viking, 2013) is, like the Gaiman, an allusive book, feeding on other novels and films. The names of off-stage characters are pilfered from Boulting Brothers satires (Carlton Browne, Tracepurcel, etc.); the structure alludes to Stepping Westward and Rates of Exchange by Malcolm Bradbury; one or two running jokes are pure David Nobbs; the spy plot could be from almost anywhere. It is, for me, a great joy, perhaps because its in-jokes are so close to my own tastes. It is, like so much of Coe's work, an almost-comic novel, too mindful of artistic truth to rush to a standard farcical finish. It is set in 1958 (need it be said?) and its knowing tone comes in large part from the hindsight of writer and reader looking back at the 50s from 2013. There is therefore an undercurrent of real sorrow to the novel, for all its joy, apparent in the recurring allusions to smoking; one scene in particular ends with a line of savage irony that is painful. I was given the book for Christmas, and read it in a blast on 26 December. A good note to end the year on.
Noxbridge22 August 2013I have been reading A Kentish Lad, the autobiography of the erudite, urbane, witty, and quietly outrageous comic scriptwriter Frank Muir; and in the course of this I became vaguely aware of a strange absence; something which perhaps I was expecting but which wasn't there. But of course I knew what it was.Frank Muir didn't go to university.To anyone who knows Frank Muir, what he was like, his intellectual curiosity and uncommon learning, this is astonishing. He went straight from school to the RAF, and it was in the war that he gained his grounding in life.We are very used these days to the idea that all the great folks in British intellectual, creative and especially political life came through Oxford or Cambridge, perhaps with a side-order of Eton thrown in as well. But, looking back, it is surprising to see how recent and (one hopes) transient this idea actually is. Muir's long-time partner Denis Norden didn't go to university either. Nor did Eric Sykes. Or any of the group who, just after the war, created the most intellectually exuberant and fecund comedy of their generation, the Goons (though Michael Bentine did, admittedly, go to Eton;and this is perhaps not unrelated to the fact that he was kicked out shortly before they became successful).As for literature, one need only point to Shakespeare and Dickens to make the point.In fact, it seems to me that we need a simple and positive term to describe those who had the inestimable advantage of not having been at either of the two great British universities. I suggest: Noxbridge.W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were Noxbridge men. So was Alan Plater. And P G Wodehouse. Most of my great literary heroes were Noxbridge; though, admittedly, Oscar Wilde (Oxford) rather lets the side down, but his genius saw him through in the end.This is not a trivial point. Oxbridge folk famously have an air of indomitable entitlement about them. J M Barrie described this air in a letter to Lady Asquith in 1920 (this is quoted, by chance, in The Frank Muir Book: An Irreverent Companion to Social History) and while Barrie was referring to Eton and Harrow men, the application to Oxford and Cambridge is obvious:"I went with N. to the Lord's match. 15,000 tall hats--one cad hat (mine)... The Ladies comparatively drab fearing rain but the gents superb, colossal, sleek, lovely. All with such a pleased smile. Why? Because they know they had the Eton something or the Harrow something... I felt I was nearer to grasping what the something is thanever before. It is a sleek happiness that comes of shininess which only Eton (or Harrow) can impart. This makes you 'play the game' as the damned can't do it; it gives you manners because you know in your heart that nothing really matters so long as you shine with that sleek happiness. The nearest thing to it must be boot polish."And really, I don't like to go for the easy laugh, but aren't you thinking about David Cameron right now as well?Eton, Harrow, Oxford, Cambridge: these places do something to people. Not to every one of them, but to too many. Dominion over the world is placed within their grasp and they never lose that perception. It makes them not quite normal. I yield to no man in admiration of Peter Cook, and he was very very funny, but when he and the other Beyond the Fringeans appeared on the scene, something broke in broadcast comedy; and the previous dominance of Noxbridge started on a long slow decline.To make this thesis work, I'd have to do a lot more research than I'm prepared to put in at this moment. But I think it would stand up to examination. There have been Noxbridge Prime Ministers--though, not having the bough of the tree of power placed in their grasp at an early age, they have tended to be not peculiar enough to bear the burden: John Major and Gordon Brown spring to mind, the only human prime ministers in living memory. Most PMs have been of the vaguely Martian cast of supermen walking among mortals, and perhaps that's as it should be.But as far as decent human achievement is concerned, I am convinced that at least 95% of it was done by Noxbridgeans. And if it wasn't, it should have been.
The Third Zone, and others
4 August 2013I'm not sure how this one is going to turn out. There's a jumble of things in my head at the moment which I want to talk about. I wanted to devote an entry to a sort of wander round thoughts arising from Neil Gaiman's new novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which among many other things includes two important references to Gilbert and Sullivan, forming part of the book's thematic structure.The book itself is an example of what I think of as "Third Zone" writing; that is to say, its narrative does not have a simple and direct relation to objective reality (the First Zone) or to the charged "roman a clef" version of reality that writers always tend to spew out at intervals (the Second Zone); its world is a constructed private space in the mind which alludes to reality and to personal issues but is deliberately separated from them. It is my contention that all lasting literature invents a "Third Zone" that is unique to that writer. Shakespeare's Third Zone, at once complex, earthy and intellectual, has nothing to do with the reality of life in Elizabethan and Jacobean London (read a brilliant Jacobean City Comedy like A Mad World, My Masters to see the difference); Shakespeare's world existed only in his head, and depended on being separated from himself by place or time and it beat always with the pulse of five feet to the line. Dickens's Third Zone, comic and grotesque and sentimental and whirling with words wielded like happy bludgeons, is as instantly recognisable as Wodehouse's, or Waugh's, or Whoever's.The Ocean at the End of the Lane also has its Third Zone world. Now I'm going to say something which is probably going to sound very bitchy. But I don't mean it in a bitchy way, I think. But the Third Zone world of Ocean is not Neil Gaiman's; it is borrowed, lock, stock and Dungeon Dimension, from Terry Pratchett; especially the Tiffany Aching novels which also have that same milieu of child's eye magic and danger and connection to ancient, rural mysteries. There is something trained and contained in Neil Gaiman's narrative which appears to be bigger than the story it inhabits; perhaps that accounts for the slight sense of disappointment I felt at the end. It is nice to know as the story closes that the monsters have been defeated and the good guys have won out for reasons which are assumed at the last moment from sheer wishful thinking in a very Pratchettian way; but I do think Neil Gaiman is capable of writing something better, more ambitious; and I think part of this may be to do with finding his own Third Zone rather than borrowing another's.Well, that worked better than I expected. But since I've started, I might as well continue with at least one other thing that's in my mind. I am trying to do three things at once in writing at the moment: which is ludicrous. There's a novel, nearing 10,000 words now, which with a bit of luck I might even complete this time. There is a play, a historical drama set in Wakefield in 1875 which, theoretically, ought to blow people's minds, except that I haven't set down a word of it. And then there is a new book about Gilbert and Sullivan, based around an idea which makes me gasp to think of it, because it will redefine a century's thought about G&S. (Yes, really!)Bits and pieces of that last one are coming together. I know there's a bookful of thought to be brought together, and I vaguely know the structure. I want each chapter to have an epigraph, from Bernard Shaw or some other controversial writer; there might be some of the grossly insulting things said about G&S over the years in there as well ("I have never had anything but contempt for Gilbert and Sullivan": Sir Jonathan Miller). Then, last night, I thought of Oscar Wilde's Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, which contains a line that definitively destroys the Victorian attitude to literature (which, in certain aspects, still lives today):"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all."I don't think we realise how... shocking... that single, obvious statement was in 1891 when it was first written. Victorian literature and art, including Gilbert and Sullivan, was assessed first and foremost on moral grounds. Those words go to the heart of the argument which I aim to set out in the book.But I know what I want to be on the title page, as the epigraph to the whole thing. My last book had an epigraph as well, but it was hidden behind the title page, just above the copyright statement, and no one would notice it if they weren't looking. But this has to be plain to see. It's a great warning to all literary criticism, and damn it, it makes me shiver. It's from the Dorian Gray Preface again, and it goes like this:"All art is at once surface and symbol.Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.Those who read the symbol do so at their peril."There's enough in those three lines to fill a lifetime. Curse you, Oscar Wilde, for being a genius and a prophet!
Horse and Carriage
31 May 2013"Love and marriage," says the song with words by Sammy Cahn, "love and marriage," (the music, incidentally, is by Jimmy van Heusen), "Go together like a horse and carriage."However, is this actually the case? Let us examine the evidence.A horse is a product of nature, while a carriage is a man-made object.Harnessing a carriage to a horse greatly restricts the movements of the horse. In fact it is a great burden to the horse. The horse is no longer free to roam, but has to travel in one direction, with great and constant physical effort. It may be said without exaggeration that the horse becomes the slave to the carriage.Horses can live without carriages. Carriages, however, are useless without horses.In fact, I can see no resemblance with love and marriage at all.
Why Doesn't the National Theatre Perform Gilbert?
14 April 2013
Well, having written the title, I feel I could finish it there. I've said all that needs to be said; everything else follows logically and can be worked out by you, the reader, without my having to go through all the tedious business of spelling it out for you. I wish books could be written that way; literature would be so much more concise and whole forests would be saved. However, I suppose I ought to make the effort.
It all stems from this article which appeared in the Guardian about a week ago. It's in praise of the National Theatre and it's headed: "The National Theatre is the very model of public-private sponsorship." I don't think the Guardian realise how ironic it is to quote Gilbert when referring to the National Theatre. To my knowledge, the NT has produced a Gilbert play only once, a production of Engaged in 1975. That's a long time ago. It hasn't even produced a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, even though it has done Rodgers & Hammerstein more than once, also, if my memory serves me, My Fair Lady.
Such a piece as Patience or Ruddigore simply cries out to be performed by actors. The Gilbert and Sullivan operas are deeply theatrical works, generous in their opportunities to the performers, meatily intelligent to audiences, satisfying and lasting and profoundly sceptical of the ideas that we take for granted.
If Gilbert and Sullivan is still considered too vulgar for the National (though I hope not, bearing in mind that they didn't turn up their noses at Oklahoma!) then Gilbert's vicious masterwork Engaged really ought to take their place, even though the National did do it a mere thirty-seven years ago. This unsparing picking apart of Victorian moral values is as relevant in 2013 as it was in 1877, when it was first performed to an audience who responded with a mixture of cheers and hisses.
Gilbert is one of the glories of the English theatre. His works are performed by amateur groups round the country almost every week of the year. They form the one lasting contribution to the British stage between Sheridan and Wilde. He did much to reform the stage after a period of debasement caused by what he called "the narrow limits of bourgeois thought imposed by the survival of Puritanical prejudice". He fought against the pressure exerted by Victorian society to portray on stage "not what life is, but what it ought to be." Eventually, he caved in and the Gilbert and Sullivan operas are the result, in which his criticism of his society is rendered covert and the portrayal of life as it ought to be is undermined by being shown to be childish and impossible.
I'll say no more. Sometimes I feel the need to shout into the ether, and it would be nice to be heard and listened to, but the mere fact of shouting is sometimes enough. Arts organisations have their own agenda, just as I have mine, and their apprehension of the zeitgeist is not necessarily mine. Still, in these topsy-turvy times, when our society can only be saved by a radical overhauling of our attitudes to the environment, work, and in fact all the fundamental things, and what we have is a government of instinctively backward thinkers who have nothing but empty patriotism and Empire yearning to sustain them, maybe Gilbert is the zeitgeist after all.
Bradford: The Place I Call Home and Other People Call ....17 February 2013I live in Bradford. You'd be surprised, or maybe you wouldn't, at the amount of abuse the place receives. The abuse is partly racist on account of Bradford's racial diversity; partly supposedly anti-racist on account of the racial tensions it is supposed to harbour; and partly, of course, it's sheer bloody-minded snobbery, because, let's face it, Bradford is an economic black hole, partly demolished, and not located in the South of England.Maybe Bradford is about to enjoy a little brief spotlight in the next few days, because Bradford City Football Club has apparently got through to some sort of League Cup Final at Wembley (a football stadium somewhere down south). Plucky little Bradford. Bless them.I've lived here all my life. To me, it's normal. When I go to some other places in West Yorkshire and elsewhere, the sheer whiteness of the population seems vaguely creepy. How do they cope, being surrounded by people exactly like themselves?Its remoteness from London, both geographically and metaphorically, is a separate issue. London, of course, is the centre of all things. The fact barely needs stating. It lies at the back of everything that goes on in this country. You're in London or you're nowhere. When Channel 4 broadcast the humorously titled Red Riding Trilogy a few years ago Yorkshire was portrayed as a Wild West location, its corrupt inhabitants spending much of their time clinking glasses with the toast: "To the North, where we do what we want." Well, that's all right; you can put all sorts of crap on the telly and you don't have to take it seriously. But when the Guardian, of all papers, seemed to affirm that this is what Yorkshire is actually like, it took an effort to suppress to rising bile of anger. Maybe that's how we look from London. (Hello, folks: how's it going in the hub of all things? Greetings from Outer Siberia, where we do what we want, apparently.) But it's not. We're just people, doing what we can to survive in a bleak and skewed world, like all the rest.In West Yorkshire, Leeds is the rich cousin, self-confident and smug. It leeches everything from the area. Bradford is the disreputable one, down on its luck, teeth missing, slightly smelly and not to be invited in for tea. Part of the city centre was demolished ten years ago on the promise of a shiny new shopping centre which never turned up. It's made bad decisions. It's got bloody George Galloway. It's the bottom of the heap. Not surprisingly, its people respond with a belligerent defiance sometimes. Stuff you, Leeds; stuff you, England; stuff you, who are above us and press down upon us.Bradford is where J.B. Priestley came from, and David Hockney, and Delius, and even, arguably, the Brontes. We have our claim to culture. Yet even Leeds people can dismiss it out of hand; I have heard that the script manager at a certain large theatre in the area has been known to say nothing good ever came out of Bradford. Stuff you. You may crush us, but you can't crush us.Listen. Here's a scoop. I'm writing a novel, and it's set in Bradford, and it's going to be about all this. It's going to be bloody brilliant, too. You'll see.Not that any fancy-pants southerner will publish the thing.
20 January 2013
I can date the beginning of my love of the work of Alan Plater exactly. On Sunday 6 January 1985 the first episode of The Beiderbecke Affair was broadcast on ITV. I was 15 years old, and we watched it as a family, me, mum, dad, and my brother. I loved the humour, of course, the jokes. I liked its gentleness, which is broadly in the tradition of English humour, Jerome K. Jerome, P.G. Wodehouse, and so on. But what I remember most of all is its... well, let's say its understated bonkersedness. You're introduced to the main characters, as in all good TV drama: the two teachers, Trevor and Jill, and their circle. But throughout the episode a shabby old man with a dog ambles in and out, stopping only to have a meaningless conversation with the hero along the way. He has no apparent connection to the plot. He is completely unexplained. And he's one of the funniest things in the series (even though, disappointingly, it does later turn out that he has a part in the story).
I was hooked on The Beiderbecke Affair. When Alan Plater turned it into a novel, I devoured it, and when its sequel The Beiderbecke Tapes came out, I devoured that too. Tapes went the other way, being converted from a novel into a TV miniseries, but the TV version was disappointing--as I now know, it was hamstrung by budget issues and anxious beancounters. The third TV series, The Beiderbecke Connection, a beautiful rounding off of the story, followed after (from my point of view) too long a gap.
Since then I have counted myself a Plater fan. I bought all his books more or less as they came out, tried to see all his TV series and episodes, read his plays. Why? Because the man has... had... style. He died in 2010, dammit, much too early. Googling his name today, I came across John Burn's citation which was given when Plater was made a Doctor of Letters at Newcastle University. In the course of the eulogy he said: "as a doctor I must encourage him to stop drawing on cigarettes because we want him to go on writing for many more years." I wish, pointlessly, that Alan Plater had listened more to that kind of advice. We need writers like him today; he would have been furious at what he would have seen around him, but at the same time he would have been in his element.
Anyway. Style. He always said that his beginning as a real writer came when he started to listen to the vernacular poetry of normal speech. He loved dialogue, what it can do. Humour was for him the same as poetry.
All this musing about Alan Plater has been triggered off in my mind by the publication late last year of a new title in the BFI TV Classics series, a study by William Gallagher of The Beiderbecke Affair. He interviews everyone connected with the series that he can lay hands on, he details its history, and he comments, lightly and intelligently, on the importance of the series. Naturally, he doesn't get all his attitudes just right--only I have the fully correct views about the series, unclouded by prejudice. He dismisses the second two series as inferior to the first, even though Connection is actually a gorgeous piece of work. Still, it's a great book. Buy it.
He interviewed Barbara Flynn, of course. She says this: "I jokingly say there are actors who speak Plater and and understand Plater and there are those who don't.... He really had his own language and he brought all his love in one place in Beiderbecke, it was where he put everything he loved." This nails it absolutely. Plater is his own world and vocabulary. Some people are bewildered by the seeming "plotlessness" and slowness of his work. They don't understand and they never will. Why aren't there any car chases? Why no explosions? Because it's Plater. The explosions are all in the words.
The importance of the series to me is immense. Looking back, I see it has coloured my attitudes to life much more than I realised at the time. I have read and reread Plater's books, and they are part of my personal literary Bible alongside The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, War with the Newts.... (Do all my favourite books have long and/or ridiculous titles? Probably.) Beiderbecke caught me at the impressionable age. Its mixture of the forward-looking and the backward-looking makes it doubly important in retrospect. It looks back at old-fashioned socialism and pre-electric jazz; it looks forward towards ecological concern and the crisis of capitalism.
I was a ridiculous young Tory when I first came to Alan Plater. I had a soft spot for John Major, and even Maggie Thatcher was not totally evil in my eyes: when she said there was no such thing as society, I sighed with relief, because at that time I was tormented with the idea that I had to conform to the expectations of a "society" that I could not see and that was seemingly separate from the people who formed it. Maggie Thatcher gave me the freedom to be myself. It's only unfortunate that at the same time she destroyed the manufacturing base of our economy. It is probably down to Alan Plater that I'm not a Tory now.
His work is often rough, sometimes self-indulgent. But I have no hesitation in saying he was a genius. He gave us a view of the world, and he changed people's opinions without seeming to do so. And he gave us some cracking good jokes as well.
Who is Gordon Coppinger?30 December 2012There have been many things this year that a person could get angry about. I've even written about some of them in this blog. But one of the most angering things for me has been something that, I suppose, has no real importance at all. I mean the fact that David Nobbs's new novel The Fall and Rise of Gordon Coppinger has received very little critical attention. Apparently it's been reviewed in the Financial Times, and the BBC's Book Review Show discussed it in a horribly patronising sort of way a couple of weeks ago; but where, for instance, is the Guardian review? The Telegraph review? And as for the fact that Waterstones is effectively not stocking the book (one copy in the Leeds branch since its publication in November... one copy!), well, words fail me.The BBC programme treated Nobbs as if he had never done anything except write for The Two Ronnies and also write (presumably by some sort of fluke) The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The fact that Jonathan Coe has described David Nobbs as "probably our finest post-war comic novelist" was dismissed as an embarrassing blot on the reputation of a well-respected figure (Coe, not Nobbs). The truth is that David Nobbs has a long and distinguished career as a writer, from his beginnings on That Was the Week That Was and his first, experimental, novels in the mid-sixties, to his rapturously-received Going Gently (2000) which allowed the cognoscenti to rediscover him after the long hiatus in which he had gone beyond the pale by writing sitcoms and TV comedy dramas (and, what is worse, writing them successfully). Oh, and beyond.In the past ten years he has written bitter-sweet comedies of relationships, the best of these, in my opinion, being Obstacles to True Love, with Cupid's Dart shortly behind (it must be admitted that his titles let him down sometimes). Gordon Coppinger is something a little different. It returns to his earlier, more satirical vein, taking as its subject the downfall of a multimillionaire businessman (ie, a lying, cheating bastard). Like his previous novel, It Had to be You, it achieves the miraculous thing of making an unlikeable man likeable.I hate writing reviews. I hate the fact that reviews tell too much, spoiling the plot for real readers, and tell too little, never grasping what is really good about the book. So I'll just say this. It's a good book. A really good book. The structure is sure, so that you are never left feeling that an episode is there simply to pad out the pages (you'd be amazed how often this seems to happen with lesser writers). The jokes are a little sparser than usual, but the humour, the attitude to life, is there undiminished. David Nobbs writes to be understood, which admittedly is a caddish thing to do, but he is still a good, a really good, writer. Here's proof. It's the last paragraph of one of the chapters."He put the phone down and walked slowly away. He caught sight of himself in a long mirror. He stared with astonishment at the sight of himself staring at himself with astonishment."Say no more.
To quote the words of....
19 November 2012
I see that most of these blog entries have been portentously self-important and doom-laden. So here's another one.... Oh, but I can't be bothered with that today. So here's something very trivial instead: starting with a quotation.
"Losers visualize the penalties of failure. Winners visualize the rewards of success." - William S. Gilbert
This has been bouncing round Twitter lately, and is easily found on various quotation websites as well, eg here. Now, if you know anything at all about W.S. Gilbert, you know that he was about the last person on earth who was likely to have said anything like this. A little more searching shows that the quotation has also been attributed to someone called Dr Rob Gilbert. Without wishing to fling reckless accusations about the place, I suggest that he might have been the quotation's true culprit.
(To take the taste of Dr Rob Gilbert's words out of our mouths, here's something WSG really did write: "Virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances." That's better. Now let us proceed.)
Today, the QI Elves tweeted the following quotation:
If everybody thought before they spoke, the silence would be deafening. GEORGE BARZAN
Well, that's a little bit less nauseating than Dr Rob, but my immediate thought is that it's rather reminiscent of this:
"Imagine the silence if people said only what they know!" - Karel Capek, "Fragments", (1933)
And my second most immediate thought is that it's even more reminiscent of this:
"If [humans] don't keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working." Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
So Barzan is either a genius who anticipated Capek and Adams, or someone who rather feebly echoed what they had already said, depending on when he lived. I wish I could say which; but a Google search shows absolutely no information about him as a person. His name, as far as I can see, appears only on quotation sites. He does not seem to have written any books. There is no indication of what his qualifications or achievements are, or whether he is famous, or what for. I have a tiny mischievous suspicion, which is most probably wrong, that this witty George Barzan might not even really exist. If he does, then I apologise, and I would be very grateful for all information on the subject. It might possibly help to show me how one becomes a quotable person in the internet age (a very valuable gift for a writer).
As Abraham Lincoln said..... (oh, fill in the rest yourself)
Yes, Gilbert Does Matter, Actually
5 August 2012
At a time like this, when the United Kingdom is being ruled by what I can only call smug-faced idiots, when politicians and bankers and similar persons blatantly on the make think they can delude the rest of us by speaking in obfuscatory politiprose, when, what is worse, they appear to be correct, if only because we find their language so revolting that we prefer to leave them to their own devices rather than to attempt to communicate with them; when the whole situation in which we find ourselves is so horribly wrong on almost every level that, in despair, we retire into our selfish mini-worlds and metaphorically draw the blankets over our heads; when, in short, we are starting to acquire levels of self-delusion that rival the Victorians.... at a time like this, what we need is a truth-teller to bring us to our senses. Obviously I am not that person. But maybe Gilbert is.
I don't necessarily mean the Gilbert of the Gilbert and Sullivan years, though maybe he could assist. The distasteful fact is that when G&S became successful Gilbert had been partially broken by the years of vicious critical resistance, and he learned to stifle his most outrageous pronouncements against his own society. In the G&S operas there are many moments when the old Adam comes through, but by and large these are only moments. No, I am thinking more of his real masterwork, his 1877 comedy Engaged.
This was the play in which he put everything he felt about English society of the time. He depicted its brutal selfishness which hides in civilised language, the money-grubbing, the sentimental obsession with love which is only a cover for lust or money-madness. He showed a world in which gentility is a frail disguise for dog-eat-dog brutality, a world of delusion and nonsensicality.
Engaged should be produced today. It needs to be produced today. It is the most modern, up-to-the-minute play I can think of. Gilbert never went away--he was only damned by the praise of his admirers--but now, more than ever, he speaks to us. I don't mean that he says what we want to hear--though some of the G&S operas are so apparently escapist that they might soothe us as we say we want to be soothed in times of crisis--but he does say what we need to hear. In Engaged he says it loud and clear, so loud and clear that no one could mistake it.
He says it in G&S also. In The Pirates of Penzance, the Pirate King says: "I don't think much of our profession, but, contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest." In The Mikado, it is assumed that all official personages are corrupt and interested only in preserving their skin. In HMS Pinafore, the First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter knows nothing about ships, and the contempt in which Gilbert holds him oozes through everything. Sir Joseph's hypocrisy, easy sloganeering, and complete all-through falseness are depicted with an aplomb that shows not only that Gilbert knew what politicians are, but also that they have not really changed.
I have written two books about Gilbert explaining how false is the impression we have of his works, and attempting to correct that impression. So I won't go into that whole issue again here. But I want to express as fiercely and earnestly as I can what I feel, which is that we are living through a time of delusion that can only be addressed with the level of intellectual clarity and capacity for cleansing mockery that Gilbert possessed. Revive Engaged. Do it now. I don't care if you're not involved in the theatre; do it anyway. I'll even give you a link to the script. Here. Now do it.
On The Offensive
28 July 2012
Right; now's the time. I've just discovered the following statement from Stephen Fry... yes, yes, I know, rather late in the day, since it comes from a debate which took place in 2005... but it is such a perfect encapsulation of the attitude I want to answer that I must quote it.
(And, before I go any further, I'd like to say that I'm a great admirer of Stephen Fry and that, though I disagree with what he's about to say, I won't have a word said against him personally. About fifteen years ago, I rather insanely sent a compilation pamphlet of some of my best writings to a handful of celebrities. Stephen Fry was the only one who replied, in a personal letter saying how much he had enjoyed reading it. That sort of behaviour earns you an awful lot of brownie points.)
Anyway, this is what he said, at a debate on blasphemy at the Hay on Wye Literary Festival in 2005:
"It's now very common to hear people say, 'I'm rather offended by that,' as if that gives them certain rights. It's no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. 'I'm offended by that.' Well, so fucking what?"
It's a fine, strong statement, and people quote it a lot. The only problem appears to be that it does not set out a reasoned argument: it simply makes a series of assertions. "As if it gives them certain rights" implies that it does not give rights, without saying why. "It is no more than a whine", "It has no meaning," "it has no reason to be respected as a phrase," these are all statements which need to be proved, and which, as far as I understand it, Stephen Fry did not prove.
There is a question to be answered about all this, and it is one that no one thinks to examine. That question is: What does the word "offensive" actually mean?
The way it is commonly used, and the way Stephen Fry refers to it, assumes it to be an active verb masquerading as a passive one. That is, when someone says, "I am offended," it is assumed that this was an action by the speaker, not something that was done to the speaker by someone else. The speaker has chosen to be offended. It must be admitted that imagining someone in the act of "being offended" is not pleasant: the folded arms, the lower lip stuck out, the general air of conscious martyrdom are enough to make a saint laugh.
But we need to look at the word properly. It is not simply passive: it is also, I might say primarily, active. "I offend you." That's not a sentence we hear much, but only because people don't like being so downright about it. When they offend, they usually pretend they do not. Hence the onus of pointing out what has just happened is pushed onto the other party, who is forced to say, "I am offended," with all the paraphernalia of the folded arms and jutting lip and so on. Double-win to the offender there.
"Offend" is the equal and opposite verb to "defend" and it means "attack." That's the point. That's the vital fact to bear in mind. If you take any sentence with "offend" in it and substitute "attack", then the whole issue becomes so much clearer, we lose the connotations of self-immolation and we can actually decide on each case on its merits. Not "I am offended" but "I am attacked." Suddenly it is obvious that the speaker is not talking about something that the speaker has decided to be, but something that another person has done to him/her. Who has attacked you? How? And (vital question, this) was that person right to do so?
"You have attacked me." That is a definite, clear accusation, something that can be answered properly. You can reply by saying it was not intended as an attack (and we can choose to believe you or not), you can say it was an attack but it was justified for this, this and this reason, you can say the attack was simply a joke (and we can decide whether that's a good enough defence). Or, indeed, you can just say, "Yes, I attacked you. In the words of Stephen Fry, so fucking what?"
(Oh, that's another topic, but as it's related to this one, I'll jam it into a parenthesis here. "Fuck", "fucking" and so on are offensive, that is to say attacking, words. They hit the recipient like a blow, which is as it should be, because "fuck" apparently derives from a Germanic word meaning to hit or strike. And about 95% of the time the word is used as an act of aggression, rather than as a description of sex. The phrase "So fucking what?" is very clearly an attacking one.)
Clearly all this does not necessarily mean that the offender/attacker is wrong. Attacking someone verbally can be justified, and it can be the only morally right course. It can also be wrong. If, for instance, you attack the disabled, the disadvantaged, the powerless, then you had better have a pretty dashed good reason for having done so. Sometimes a heavily sarcastic, "Oh, have I offended [ie attacked] you? Oh, deary me, do you want a lollipop?" simply doesn't cut it. Suddenly this kind of thing sounds like the words of a bully.
Right, I think I've more or less said what I want to say now. Just one final point, probably a dying fall, but who cares? Comedy. Not all comedy is "offensive" (attacking); think of Morecambe and Wise or P G Wodehouse. But a lot of it is, especially now. It's an act of aggression. It attacks people, either individually or in a group. "Offensive" comedy does not become so because of the reaction of the people it "offends" (attacks), no matter how jutty the lower lip, but because of the comedian. If you are called Frankie Boyle and you want to attack Jordan, probably because she is a woman, or attack her disabled child, or attack her husband, fine. If you want to use the amusing concept of rape in order to do so, fine. But be damned clear about what you're doing. I think that my basic rule of thumb--"offensive" means "attacking"--is a vital part of the whole process of realising what you, if you're a comedian, are doing. And if I'm wrong, tell me so, and tell me why. Go on. Offend me.
(Ha! How's that for a fine rhetorical finish?)
What though the night may come too soon?
24 July 2012
So here we are again. I wonder if I dare talk about the things that are really on my mind at the moment. Well, why not? What's a blog for if not to give a platform for self-indulgent ravings?
So this is what is usually in my mind as a walk to the station in the morning, as I sit on the train watching the scenery flash by, as I waste my spare moments. I wonder to myself about the world we live in and how many years we have left before it all collapses. Or should I measure that in months? Perhaps that's too morbid. But surely we know the jig is up now. We've all seen "An Inconvenient Truth" or at least we have a pretty good grasp of the facts behind it. We have permanently damaged the world, and the time we have left before the climate changes drastically and horribly is getting shorter and shorter. And we do nothing about it. We look the other way, at nicer things, in the hope that not looking at it means not having to suffer its consequences. Population, I mean world population and not just the population of this tiny insignificant island on the edge of the map, continues to grow exponentially (is that the correct word? I'm afraid it is). But we have our phones and our PCs and our tablets and what-all, and as long as we have these things we can distract ourselves.
And the few people who theoretically could do something to save us from the catastrophe--I allude to politicians--even they prefer to put it safely low down on the agenda. It goes something like this:
about 93) Surviving as a civilisation beyond the next forty years or so.
Can the wave of economic crises sweeping the world have anything to do with the fact that most "first-world" countries have no useful skills and employ their citizens in bureaucratic bean-counting operations? The rich countries are dependent on the desperately poor countries for food and technology and most things that keep us alive. But we have the money and they don't, for reasons which seem to have more to do with precedent than the actual intrinsic facts.
As a civilisation we have deliberately cut ourselves off from reality. Truthfully, we don't deserve to survive.
But... do you want a happy ending? Okay, here's one... but the chances are we will survive, in some form or another, in spite of the fact that we don't deserve to. Yes, there will be a catastrophe. That's inevitable. Millions upon millions will starve and die. There will be a new Dark Age. There's no point even discussing it: it will happen. But we're a hardy lot, after all. Some will survive. In pockets, in isolated vales. Some books will survive. There will be folk memories of the things that were important to us, Shostakovich and the Bonzos and Nora Ephron and so on. We will be flung back to a much earlier stage of technology.... perhaps the level of about 1520, say. But that's not so bad, is it? We survived it before, we can survive it again.
And maybe, just maybe, next time round we'll do it better. It's not likely, but it could happen.
Bram Stoker, Dracula and Gilbert
20 April 2012
Today sees the centenary of the death of Bram Stoker, and naturally there's a good deal of coverage of this event in the media.
Stoker was employed as Henry Irving's business manager at the Lyceum, and he moved in the theatrical circles of the day, so it isn't surprising that he knew Gilbert. In fact the Gilberts were good friends of the Stokers. Throughout the 1890s and 1900s Gilbert kept up a friendly and flirtatious correspondence with Bram's wife Florence, and Bram gave to Gilbert's wife Lucy a signed first edition of Dracula (this copy has been on the market for about a year now, and a bookseller is presently offering it for the knock-down price of £125,000). It's intriguing to wonder what Lucy made of this distinctly peculiar, not to say perverse, novel.
In his later years, Gilbert owned a number of monkeys and lemurs at his country residence, Grim's Dyke. The Stokers seem to have borrowed one of the lemurs, Job, as a pet in their London residence while the Gilberts were out of the country one winter. A story in the Stoker family suggests that Job disgraced himself by swinging from the chandelier and, finally, defecating into a bowl of fruit--after which he was banished from the house.
The Stokers fell out with the Gilberts shortly after this, but the rift was healed when, in December 1902, Florence sent a Christmas card to Job.
In the Gilbert and Sullivan world, the friendship of Gilbert with Mrs Stoker is best known for a letter written just after the premiere of the last Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Grand Duke, in which Gilbert expressed his frustration at the creation of this, which he knew full well was not amongst his best works:
"I have had rather a bad time of it," he wrote on 9 March 1896, "but now that the baby is born I shall soon recover. I pick up very quickly (thank God!) after these little events. I am not at all a proud mother, & I never want to see the ugly misshapen little brat again!"
The Great Topsy-Turvy Vaudeville
3 April 2012
With apologies for the long delay in updating the blog.... I've sometimes thought of topics which would have made good blog entries (my rant on the much misunderstood word "offensive" is still asking to be written) but events and apathy prevented my writing them. No such excuses today, however.
One problem is that I can't write about my current writing projects. Making them public renders them subject to criticism even before they're written, and they wither on the vine. However, I think I can make an exception for one project I'm working on at the moment, because strictly speaking it isn't a creative work at all, but an editing job on existing works.
I've recently been frustrated by the fact that, while certain theatre companies (eg Opera della Luna) are interested in creating shows about Gilbert and Sullivan--exploring aspects of their lives, celebrating their works, or creating "new" Gilbert and Sullivan out of scraps of the real thing--no one has ever considered approaching me to help devise such a show. It seems odd, considering my knowledge of the subject and experience as a dramatist. So I've decided to devise the show myself, without waiting for the theatre companies to ask, and to wait for the offers to pour in. It is a foolproof plan.
The show's working title is The Great Topsy-Turvy Vaudeville. It will consist entirely of scenes, songs and sketches by Gilbert, the silly alongside the satirical and the grimly serious. Half the point lies in the jarring contrasts involved, because Gilbert's works are full of exactly this kind of contrast. You're enjoying a comic monologue when suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a deadly serious dramatic scene, and just as suddenly you're in the realms of farce. Constructed as a series of "turns"--a song followed by a satirical monologue delivered like a sermon from a pulpit followed by a dialogue scene, and so on--and united (possibly) by a series of scenes from Gilbert's crazy play Topseyturveydom, the effect would be of a feast of pleasures, with no longueurs or duff bits. The material would be drawn from the full range of Gilbert's output, 95% of which is almost completely unknown, so the show would not be simply a reminder of familiar pleasures, like most G&S-related shows, but (hopefully) a revelation. I would edit the material to make it as tight and effective as possible. Ruthlessly. Oh, it would be brilliant.
At the moment, it's just an idea and a few jottings in a notebook. Really, I need a company to show serious interest before I go any further.
Need I say more?
28 December 2011
One of the things I am trying to achieve with this website and occasional blog is to project an appealing image of myself as a writer for the delight of agents and suchlike. Unfortunately, I find this extremely difficult, because when I write in my own voice it is usually an expression of frustration or anger, and I know very well that these are not appealing qualities in a stranger.
One solution would be to use the blog simply to record the everyday events of my life. But is that really so interesting? I have a temporary job with a bank, so most days I go to work, then I work, then I come home, then I have dinner, then I go to bed. It's not very fascinating. The details that would make the account interesting are precisely the details that it would be very unwise for me to set down on a public blog.
Christmas has, I suppose, been pretty well exactly what it is for everyone. A few days off, including a day with my parents, eating and drinking and being happy. Presents given and presents received. For me that involved receiving a marvellous collection of the essays of George Orwell (the Everyman edition), also the letters of P G Wodehouse and a CD set of works mostly by Shostakovich. Is that interesting to anyone? It is barely interesting enough for me to write. Mind you, I could say a bit more about the CDs. They're a 10 CD set of works conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, and they include Shostakovich's arrangements of British and American folk songs, which are really very charming and ideal listening on Christmas morning. There, that's marginally less tedious. But only marginally.
Well, that's all I have to say here. Perhaps the next blog will return to the usual tone of querulous peevishness. Perhaps that will be a relief.
Credit Equals Merit
20 November 2011
I've been adding bits and pieces to this website, scanning fliers and photos from my plays, and looking back on what I've achieved since I started getting published and performed, back in 2000. And, thinking about all this, the one thing I've written that really makes me proud, not to mention a little amazed that I managed to set it down on paper, is my 2003 play Welcome to Paradise.
This wild, outrageous piece came out of my unhappiness with the society I saw around me at that time. It was a kind of hybrid of 1984 and The Apartment, set in a dystopian future where success and advancement come with drinking, taking drugs, and having promiscuous sex. It was a very personal piece, exposing a lot of my neuroses in a way that I probably woudn't today. It was very carefully thought through, though it was deliberately written as if it was an uncontrolled outpouring of sarcastic rage.
There were two signs displayed on the stage. They read:
CREDIT = MERIT
MERIT = CREDIT
I'm not sure people ever quite got the point of these. The society in Welcome to Paradise is a "meritocracy"--everyone has their place on the ladder determined by individual "merit", which is calculated by their contributions to society in terms of drinking, drug use, and sexual activity. One unit of merit is rewarded with one credit. So the more merit you have, the more credit. And it follows that someone with many credits must have a corresponding amount of merit. Merit equals credit and credit equals merit.
Now the thing is, this is not fantasy. This is the way our society actually works. It is assumed, in spite of all the facts, that if someone has money it is because s/he has earned it and deserves it. The banker deserves the bonus. The down and out deserves poverty. Naturally those in power believe this especially: they have a vested interest in believing that the system works, that money is the reward of merit.
We all know this is not the case. We know that our richest people are by and large rich because they are bastards. They plunder us for our skills and time, and if they are taxed more than they want, they desert their home countries without a thought. But at some level we also believe that if we are poor it is because we deserve to be poor. Credit equals merit. Naturally our present rulers believe this with all their hearts--the sons of privilege, how could it be otherwise? We get the rulers we deserve, unfortunately; no wonder we seem to be turning into a forelock-tugging, kowtowing underclass.
What a depressing conclusion. What a pity it is probably true.
11 November 2011
This website is an attempt to convince people (notably myself) that I am a real writer. Maybe you wouldn't guess it from the tone of some of the other tabs, but I'm actually pretty uncertain about my worth as an author. But if this website is to be worth anything to me as self-advertisement (and let's be frank, that's what it is) then I have to try to do the Bernard Shaw act and shout out from the rooftops how great I am. As I'm not very comfortable doing that, I've taken refuge in the third person for certain statements, e.g. "Andrew is widely acknowledged as the authority on the life and works of Victorian writer and humorist W.S. Gilbert." It happens to be factually true, but it would feel weird to write it as if I were talking about myself. I'm not sure what that says about me.
In my "real life" at the moment, I have a temporary job working for a well-known bank, a job which as a rule leaves me more or less brain-dead at the end of the day. I'm trying to go back to writing plays, after a gap of about two years during which I wrote Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan (see the relevant tab if you want to know some self-aggrandising facts about it). The book has been pretty damn successful, bearing in mind that there don't seem to have been any reviews in the print journals (except the W.S. Gilbert Society Journal, which doesn't count, because I'm the Society's Secretary). It seems to be selling largely as a result of word of mouth.
I'm finding the transition back to play writing incredibly difficult. It is a completely different kind of writing to the putting together of something like a biography: it uses different mental muscles.
Writing factual material is a matter of consciously exercising your skills to articulate yourself in words; and you have tacit permission to use the full range of your vocabulary. But writing drama is about using the words and rhythms of real speech. Vocabulary is often there not to be used. Inarticulacy becomes a source of drama in itself.
Most frightening of all is the fact that creative writing of this sort only really starts to work when you relax conscious control of what you are writing, and you enter a state in which a deeper level of your mind, full of contradictions and strange voices, begins to take over. It always sounds rather mystical when it's talked about, and probably ruddy pretentious as well. But every writer knows this state of being. And at the moment, after so long writing reasonably skilful conscious-level prose, I feel as if I have forgotten how to reach it.
Never mind, keep trying....