Saturday, December 29, 2007

Philip Pullman on narrative voice

Good short feature by Philip Pullman in the Guardian today on His Dark Materials, specifically about the narrative voice. He asks: 'How much of a book is "story" and how much is "literature"? Or can't they be separated?' This question was prompted by the recent film version of the books, The Golden Compass which, by necessity, focuses on "story" rather than "literature".

He concludes:

And despite the profound and unsettling discoveries of modernism and post-modernism, and everything they show us about the unreliability of the narrator and the fallacy of omniscience, some of us still, when we read, are happy to accept that the narrative voice has the right to comment on a character, whether tartly or sympathetically, and the ability to go into that character's mind and tell us what's going on there. Do we ever stop to wonder how extraordinary it is that a disembodied voice can seem to tell us what is happening in someone's mind?

That narrative voice, with those mysterious powers, is the reason I write novels. I'm intoxicated by it.

We've had a number of discussions in Boot Camp recently about narrative voice, and about how to create something which is fresh and original, and which may be removed from your own personal experience. I think we're missing the point. Narrative voice isn't just about getting the accent right, using the appropriate words, creating and suiting the mood: it's about creating the heartbeat of the story.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sorley Maclean

I've just posted a Sorley Maclean poem below. He wrote in Gaelic, though translated his own work into English. He is a superb poet, of nature and of human nature, and much under-rated, I believe, because his principal language was the Gaelic.

I believe I may have met Sorley Maclean, many many years ago. His brother John was my headmaster at school, and my mother was also their cleaner at home. During school holidays, when there were no playgroups or the like and in any case my mother would have been too poor to send me, I used to have to go along with her while she cleaned.

One time, there was a strange old man, who my mother said was Mr Maclean's brother. Now, there was more than one brother, I know, but I believe the other died quite young, so I feel sure it was Sorley I met. It is strange to think that I was in the company of a famous man, one who I now think may be the greatest British poet of the last century, and yet I really know nothing at all about it. It's just a vague memory, and I would dearly love to be able to make it clearer.

Death Valley

by Sorley Maclean. Not very festive, but what a poem. This is Dulce et decorum est without the pretentiousness.

Some Nazi or other has said that the Fuehrer
had restored to German manhood the
‘right and joy of dying in battle’.

Sitting dead in ‘Death Valley’
below the Ruweisat Ridge,
a boy with his forelock down about his cheek
and his face slate-grey;

I thought of the right and the joy
that he got from his Fuehrer,
of falling in the field of slaughter
to rise no more;

of the pomp and the fame
that he had, not alone,
though he was the most piteous to see
in a valley gone to seed

with flies about grey corpses
on a dun sand
dirty yellow and full of the rubbish
and fragments of battle.

Was the boy of the band
who abused the Jews
and Communists, or of the greater
band of those

led, from the beginning of generations,
unwillingly to the trial
and mad delirium of every war
for the sake of rulers?

Whatever his desire or mishap,
his innocence or malignity,
he showed no pleasure in his death
below the Ruweisat Ridge.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Nietzsche on liberalism

It is this sort of thing that has got Nietzsche a bad press:

Liberal institutions cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained: later on, there are no worse and no more thorough injurers of freedom than liberal institutions. Their effects are known well enough: they undermine the will to power; they level mountain and valley, and call that morality; they make men small, cowardly, and hedonistic — every time it is the herd animal that triumphs with them. Liberalism: in other words, herd-animalization.

Twilight of the idols.

He goes on:
The highest type of free men should be sought where the highest resistance is constantly overcome: five steps from tyranny, close to the threshold of the danger of servitude. This is true psychologically if by "tyrants" are meant inexorable and fearful instincts that provoke the maximum of authority and discipline against themselves; most beautiful type: Julius Caesar.

This is the sort of quote that has made people associate Nietzsche with Nazism. They can see Hitler in the tyrant that Nietzsche describes. Indeed, the Nazis saw it themselves.

But this is not the whole truth. There is nothing here about brute cruelty, insane ideology, about the destruction and desecration of society, which is what the Nazis were about. It is dangerous to take thoughts out of context, particularly from someone as strident and problematic as Nietzsche. He may not have considered democracy to be an ideal state, but nor would he have approved of the murderous morons who inherited his country a mere forty years after he wrote these words.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Eemis stane

This is Hugh Macdiarmid:

I' the how-dumb-deid o' the cauld hairst nicht
The warl' like an eemis stane
Wags i' the lift;
An' my eerie memories fa'
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so's I couldna read
The words cut oot i' the stane
Had the fug o' fame
An' history's hazelraw
No' yirdit thaim.

It's a lovely poem, in both sound and meaning, but the meaning is very hard to grasp. It slithers about and almost lets you take it, but then it slides away again and you have to come at it from a different angle and, again, you think you're there, you have it in your hand but, if you look up, you can see it keeking at you from someplace else.

I'm fascinated by the idea that MacDiarmid thinks of history as a lichen (hazelraw), covering the story, obscuring the words. We know that history is never settled, that it is always, and can only ever be, the interpretation of then from the point of view of now; and tomorrow's now will inevitably be different, so tomorrow's version of history will also be different from today's.

But MacDiarmid, here, is talking about history obscuring the now, isn't he? This is suggestive of a two-way process. I suppose it's true. Our knowledge of the past affects our present: the Second World War is the obvious one, the guilt that generations of Germans feel for what happened; or slavery, perhaps, which has extra resonance this year because of the false sense of history arising from arbitrary anniversaries; or, for Scots, the even more false collective "memory" of the Highland Clearances which, even to this day, colours the attitudes of many Scots towards English people. That it didn't happen in the way we think it happened is irrelevant: the history is as it is remembered.

It feels a strong message to me: be what you are, not what you think you should be.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Rousseau on learning

I'm hugely enjoying Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Reveries of the solitary walker at the moment, in between my dabblings with Nietzsche. Quite a pairing, those two. The Rousseau is marvellous: if you ever want to understand voice in writing, read this. The man is so overwhelmingly self-absorbed it is at times comical, but nonetheless you still feel a strong sense of empathy, even pity for him.

Anyway, I like this quote:

No doubt adversity is a great teacher, but its lessons are dearly bought, and often the profit we gain from them is not worth the price they cost us. What is more, these lessons come so late in the day that by the time we master them they are of no use to us. Youth is the time to study wisdom, age the time to practise it. Experience is always instructive, I admit, but it is only useful in the time we have left to live. When death is already at the door, is it worth learning how we should have lived?

This is quite a radical thing for Rousseau to be saying, and gives an indication of the depths of despair into which he must have fallen at this stage (Reveries is his last, unfinished work, written in the last couple of years of his life.) Throughout his life, he was of the opinion that learning was what mattered. Of course, he was also of the opinion that much learning was done through vanity, and that those who affected to learn were in fact merely shallow. Learning could be dangerous - people followed trends and learned only in order to become famous (how different is this from our own vacuous society?) But he excepted from this dismissiveness a certain few - himself included, naturally - whom he considered geniuses, or those who could make a difference to society.

But, by the end, adversity has taught him more than he wanted to know, at too great a cost, and has left him in such a state that he cannot take advantage of its lessons. We often hear glib cliches about life/sex etc being wasted on the young. Rousseau, as he so often does, starts to get to the melancholy behind the jokes.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

How old is fascism?

We think of fascism as a twentieth century aberration. Not so, really. It was the long culmination of foment, agitation, growing nationalism, a generalised anger which manifested itself in a brutish creed which gloried in and relied on confrontation and violence. Robert Pearce notes:

[Experts]have traced its origins back to the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and to an intellectual revolt not only against rationalism but against the liberalism, industrialisation and urbanisation of the nineteenth century. Its formative ideas included the notion that life was a perpetual struggle, between nations as well as individuals, that race was a key concept and that each nation had a special identity.

Robert Pearce. Fascism and Nazism. Hodder and Stoughton, p 8

Appeasers beware, belittlers beware. Never underestimate the power of a movement which appeals to sentiment and emotion.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Martha Nussbaum and cosmopolitanism

I've been reading a bit of Martha Nussbaum recently. She is a cosmopolitanist, who believes that one's primary allegiance is not to a nation state but to the community of humanity across the world - in other words, we are all global citizens. She quotes - in virtually everything she writes, it seems to me - Diogenes the Cynic: "I am a citizen of the world."

She also quotes Hierocles, who described people as existing within concentric circles - for themselves, for family, extended family, community, countrymen, humanity. The ideal of cosmopolitanism is to draw these circles, in turn, towards the centre, so that the individual ends up judging everyone by the same criteria.

Lovely stuff. As a soft, old humanist I should be cheering it to the rafters.

Pity it's a load of tosh.

She says:

The accident of where one is born is just that, an accident: any human being might have been born in any nation.

Indeed so, but the accident happened. The person was born in that nation state, and that nation state exists. It's a specious argument to say that "well, something else might just as easily have happened", because IT DIDN'T.

Okay, Nussbaum will say, I'm missing the point. The point is that nationality isn't important. I guess that is her message.

But it IS important. She may not like the fact. Nor do I. But it is there, and it is so entrenched in our psyches it will not go away. I'm all for chasing a better way, but it has to be reachable, surely? Imagining an impossible ideal can only lead to disappointment.

That's not to dismiss her ideas totally. I think she talks some very sound sense. Even though I do believe that nationality is more important than she credits, I think she is exactly right when she says:

My belief is that human beings are not that different from one country to the other. Issues about grief and mourning, issues about social justice - these are issues that people really care about.

There is something very powerful about that statement. We do tend to see differences and overlook similarities. And the more we fail to listen to one another the worse it becomes. There is something dehumanising about the way mass media portrays us.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Human vulnerability

People sometimes ask me why I make such a big deal out of religion. I admit, it would be easier to ignore it but I can't. It's not religion that offends me as much as the downgrading of human sentiment that must naturally ensue from religious belief. Religious people have to acknowledge a mystical being as the ultimate. I disagree. Humanity is the ultimate. Each and every one of us, our individuals selves, our combination as families and communities, that is the ultimate.

Even that doesn't fully answer the question though. There's more to it, and I don't know what it is. But this quote, from Martha Nussbaum (ironically, not an agnostic or atheist philosopher) really resonated with me:

... we are such that we can be robbed of the things we love most in an instant, and that if we're going to plan for life we just don't know whether that plan can be carried out...

It's a very simple point, one might almost say trite, and yet it starts to stab at the crux of what it is to be human, and why I want all philosophy, all politics, all society, all interaction to be based on that common, vulnerable, beautiful humanity. That is why I have no time for sky-ghosts.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

More on Lish/Carver

Marcel Berlins in today's Guardian picked up on the Carver/Lish story (see post a few below this.)

Berlins' view is that he feels disconcerted to discover that the ending of One More Thing was re-written by Lish. He says:

Can I ever again read and trust the author I so worshipped without thinking of the One More Thing debacle? Possibly not.

He goes on to concede this is unfair, but still ends by lamenting the fact that those lines were not Carver's.

I really don't see that it matters. Berlins compares it to finding out that the intro to Beethoven's Fifth had been written by someone else. He accepts that it would not change his view of the majesty of the music. But. There is a big But for Berlins.

Perhaps a better analogy would be painting. We all know that much of the painting of the Old Masters was done by the studio artists, those training under the Master. This doesn't make the finished result any less a Brueghel or whomever. The overall vision is the same.

In the case of the ending of One More Thing, you might argue that Lish's ending completely changes it. A happy ending is thrown out in favour of a bleak one. But I would argue not, having thought about it over the past few days. The story is the same. It is a bleak story. They are a couple whose relationship has evaporated. All Lish has done is give the story the ending it needs. The ending encapsulates in one tragic moment all that Carver had created in the preceding story. And therefore it is still Carver's, completely and totally.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Richard Reeve biography of Mill

The John Stuart Mill bandwagon goes on. A review here of the latest biography of John Stuart Mill by Richard Reeve, who I've quoted on this blog before. It looks like a fair and entertaining read. I'll have to order it from my library.

It seems to pick up, yet again on the old Harriet Taylor chestnut. I don't know what it is about this poor woman, but so many people have it in for her. I think it's Gertrude Himmelfarb's fault. She wrote a whole book on On Liberty, which featured very (very) heavily her views on Harriet Taylor, which are none too flattering. There are two JS Mills, she says. One before and one after Harriet Taylor got her claws into him.

It all seems remarkably unfair on the woman (and on Mill). They were both exceptional people and seemed, indubitably, to find in each other the sort of soul partner all of us yearn for in our lives. It is certainly true that Mill was inconsolable after her death. And yet she is treated almost as some sort of Jezebel.

I find it curious that Mill and Taylor managed to live a quite unconventional life in the middle of the Victorian era and yet, today, in our so-called permissive society, we expend so much energy and so many words on it, and call into question the motives of a woman who appears to me to have done nothing worse than fall in love with John Stuart Mill.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Carver and Lish

Interesting article in yesterday's Guardian by James Campbell about editors changing the works of their authors, sometimes dramatically. It gives a good account of the Raymond Carver/Gordon Lish case. There's nothing new in it, but it covers the ground well.

His conclusion is pretty sound - that we tinker with stories at our peril. They exist in our collective consciousness and to change them - as would be the way in a restored version of Carver's "One more thing", where the ending is totally different and much less effective - is to meddle with, in Campbell's phrase, "the imagination of the readers".

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Vonnegut on science

From the intro to Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, edited by William Rodney Allen:

As a whole generation would soon learn, the best way to challenge authority was first to undermine it with ridicule. In Cat's Cradle Vonnegut satirized both the religious fundamentalists rendered obsolete in the age of science and the scientists who could offer man everything except the promise not to blow up the planet and a ground for his values. The book ends with the narrator's thumbing his nose at God.

This idea of science. It's intriguing for me, as a writer and as a person who appears to have no innate understanding of sciences. I wasn't allowed to do physics or chemistry when I was at school. No, I was told. Just no. Not that I wanted to, anyway. Latin was much more my thing.

But anyway, I remember Laurie Anderson saying, years ago, when O Superman was in the charts, that we are such scientific and technical imbeciles. We couldn't even understand, she said, what actually happens when we turn on a light switch. Well, she's right, and I still don't, to be honest.

So back to Vonnegut. As ever, things aren't as clear-cut as they seem with Vonnegut. Yes, Cat's Cradle was as anti-scientist as it was anti-religious, but that doesn't mean he was anti-science. A couple of quotes from him:

All writers are going to have to learn more about science, simply because the scientific method is such an important part of their environment.


I want scientists to be more moral. It's simpler to save the planet than it is to save a marriage. Show enthusiasm for birth control. Stop polluting the atmosphere and the water. Don't go to work for people who pollute. Don't make weapons.

In so many ways, science is becoming the new battleground. Yes, you've got your clash of civilizations (see post a couple down from this) but that's just morons fighting with morons. Science is where it gets serious. Genetics is making us ask fundamental questions about our understanding of morality. So too, our ability to keep people alive longer than is conscionable. And then, of course, there is the climate change question. Much of this debate is tendentious, tedious, simplistic, solipsistic but, again, there are serious questions to consider. The times, as someone once said, they are a-changing.

Philip Roth famously wrote in the 60s, era of madness and war and assassination:

the American writer in the middle of the 20th Century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.

But they kept trying. Pynchon, Barthelme, Heller, Vonnegut, et al, they tried to understand the insanity of their age. This generation of writers has to do the same, but the territory is different. Any writing of genuine worth must turn its gaze outward. To finish, as I started, with Vonnegut:

I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts. You know, coal miners used to take birds down in to the mines with them to detect gas before men got sick. The artists certainly did that in the case of Vietnam. They chirped and keeled over. But it made no difference whatsoever. Nobody important cared. But I continue to think that artists – all artists – should be treasured as an alarm system.

So, raise the alarm.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Duncan Williamson, 1928-2007

I was greatly saddened to read of the death of Duncan Williamson, one of the last of the great Travellers and a fine story teller.

Duncan was born in Argyll but travelled widely through Perthshire and Fife in his youth. When I was a lad the "tinks" as we called them then, not knowing any better, were still a very common sight, particularly around tattie-picking time when they took over the Meadows. In his autobiography, The Horsieman, Duncan mentions my home town several times and, although I do not remember him, he describes a couple of characters whom I clearly remember from the early 70s. It is less than a lifetime ago, but already it feels like a lost world.

Duncan was a superb storyteller in the Traveller tradition. For those who are interested - and anyone who wants to be a writer can learn a massive amount from their rhythms and cadences, from the structures of their stories and from the focus on language for beauty and meaning, but not for show - would do well to buy the two Travellers' Tales CDs produced by Kyloe Records.

His death not so much leaves a hole in the Travellers' tradition, but brings another massive strand of it to its conclusion. There are still more out there, such as Jess Smith, whose mother knew my mother when they were little girls, and who is still young and intent on maintaining the tradition, but with the loss of people like Duncan the Traveller tradition, the whole of Scottish culture and, indeed, the world of literature is impoverished.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Being very much in the professionalism game, I thought this was a delightful quote from Collingwood's New Leviathan:

37.61 (What is it about professionalism, anyhow? Does anyone think that if a man marries he should marry no one but a whore, or that if sleeping or eating is done it should be entrusted to professional sleepers or skilled prize-winners in eating-competitions?)

Monday, November 19, 2007

I really must be stupid

Was doing some research earlier on R.G. Collingwood, the British philosopher from the first half of the last century, and came across this quote:

Philosophical propositions, unlike metaphysical propositions, make an epistemological claim, rather than an ontological one. They assert that mind exists for the historian and that matter exists for the natural scientist. Further, philosophical propositions cannot be accommodated within a Humean epistemology since they are neither about relations of ideas nor about matters of fact. They are not propositions about matters of fact because they are not empirically verifiable. They are not propositions about relations of ideas because they are not self- evidently true analytical propositions. Yet although philosophical propositions cannot be accommodated within Humean epistemology, accepting them does not entail a commitment to the metaphysics which Hume wanted to reject. As already mentioned, philosophical propositions are not presented as necessary existential claims but as methodologically necessary ones. Philosophical analysis thus brings us to know "in a different way things which we already knew in some ways" in so far as it enables us to become aware of the assumptions that we implicitly and unselfconsciously make in order to provide radically different and sometimes incompatible descriptions of the same thing.

Now, I'm an intelligent, educated person; I know a (very) little bit about this stuff, but I can read the above, understand the grammar of it, the logic, the meaning of the words, and I still have not the faintest conception of what it is actually saying. I find it mind-boggling that people can actually think on such an abstract plane. Hats off to them, I say. I'd like to add something on my views on the above, but I realise that I shall never know what they are.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mill again

Flicking through the Guardian website for John Stuart Mill references (see post below) I came across this unintelligent article from Hywel Williams.

Amongst much tendentious, provocative, undergraduate exaggeration, he includes this:

Who but an idiot (or French aristocrat) could suppose that America's defining quality is a passion for equality? Still, like generations of undergraduates, the prime minister reaches for De la Démocratie en Amérique to demonstrate Atlantic breadth.

Well, the American Constitution, because that is what was being referred to, may have been flawed - it failed to deal with slavery for example - but the American approach to the institution of democracy, arising at a time of great tumult in the US - was a model of sober, rational judgement. Compare it to France, with their Year Zero approach after the revolution, and the hideous consequences that arose over the next forty or fifty years.

It was the first constitution in the world to define the limits of the state. It was wise enough to know that it could never be the finished article, so made provision for amendments - and how important have those been over the past two hundred years? Consider the first amendment, for example enshrining freedom of speech, freedom of petition, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. How much more egalitarian do you want?

John Stuart Mill

It's curious that Mill is suddenly in vogue again. There's been a rush of articles on him in recent weeks, including this by Richard Reeves yesterday in the Guardian.

One of the difficulties I have with Mill is that his theories of liberty, while interesting in themselves, are premised on such nonsensical views about civilisation. I've written about this before, I think, but his stages view of civilisation is just so much bunkum. This isn't his fault - we are all products of our time, and he was taking the accepted view of his age - but it is still a flimsy basis on which to hang a theory of liberty.

Reeves makes the valid point that liberalism is neither left- nor right-wing, and Mill is certainly an example of that. Some of his beliefs - universal eduction etc - are based on good socialist principles. And Reeves also mentions something I have written of before on this blog, Mill's dislike of inheritance and his inclination to tax it heavily: again, that could be thought of as left-wing (certainly too left-wing for this craven government, which has just taken the opposite position) but at the same time Mill talked of a single income tax rate, in order to encourage entrepreneurialism and good business, a classic right-wing position.

No wonder people scratch their heads at Mill. They look to him for easy answers, for a simple justification of their liberal beliefs, and he confounds them with the depth of his thinking.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The art of the short story

Article in today's Guardian by Richard Ford on the art of the short story. It may be my illness (see below) but I found this very hard going. I had to force myself to read on - this is my specialist area, after all, and if someone has taken the time to write an article on it I could at least spend half an hour reading it.

It all felt strangely old-fashioned. The short story seems to have ended for Ford some time in the 70s. The only tokenistic sentence on the current day actually, I kid you not, ends up discussing Eudora Welty. And the next sentence but one takes us all the way back to Emerson. It's as though Ford is a kid who is trying to do without his comfort blanket but gets to the end of the block and has a panic attack and has to run back home for it.

One of the things he commends short stories for is their brevity and the precision of writing. The same cannot be said of Ford's. Take this paragraph, which actually makes an interesting point which I managed to grasp at the third attempt:

The mere act of writing a story at all and proffering it into a mental "space" some citizen might be otherwise happy to fill with the Wednesday-night fights or a '64 Château Montrose, always constitutes an act of presumptuous and first-principle authority, and necessarily anticipates all the fictive demands to follow. (This is the privileged tap on the would-be reader's shoulder that many young writers take as their due, but that many older writers grow to feel - by dint of time spent reading - is an act of imposition whose harsh demands ought to be weighed in strict moral terms and ultimately rewarded.)

(And Ford is certainly a great lover of parentheses, always a good sign of a windbag.)

He also feels the need to give us the plot of Cheever's Reunion on two occasions, which is almost two occasions more than you get in the story itself. But that's why Cheever, as Ford suggests, is a genius.

I was also intrigued by the use of the universal 'her' and 'she' instead of 'him' and 'he':

The writer, for her part, exerts herself on otherwise unorganised language, creates utterances that provisionally subordinate our concerns to hers and - as we're induced to read on - draws us away from what we think toward what she thinks.

I've only ever seen that form of linguistic prissiness in Marxist texts - Terry Eagleton, stand up - so it came as a bit of a surprise here. (Especially, to parenthesise once more in honour of Mr Ford's lugubrious style, since in the preceding paragraph he names nine writers, only two of whom are female, so the law of averages very strongly suggests 'he' and 'him' would be more suitable.)

Dull, I think I would describe this article as. If you are looking for insights into the modern short story, you won't find them here. If you like very long sentences, though (especially ones padded out by parentheses) then this is the stylist for you.

Friday, October 26, 2007

John Stuart Mill

I do find Mill frustrating. I quoted him yesterday, not favourably, suggesting his concern for the working classes was shallow. Is that the case? It's hard to know. It's difficult, because in re-evaluating historical figures you always, no matter how you try not to, take them out of their historical context.

Many of Mill's ideas are simply racist, bigoted, unacceptable. But in the context of his time, he was undoubtedly a liberal. His words may come across as patronising and shallow now, but then he was a strong voice against the establishment. Take this quote from the same piece I quoted yesterday, Civilisation. Here, he is talking about education, and in particular the institutions of education which are, principally, Cambridge and Oxford:

The principle itself of dogmatic religion, dogmatic morality, dogmatic philosophy, is what requires to be rooted out; not any particular manifestation of that principle.

He says that these traditional edifices of learning see their purpose thus:

... the object of education is, not to qualify the pupil for judging what is true or what is right, but to provide that he shall think true what we think true, and right what we think right - that to teach, means to inculcate our own opinions, and that our business is not to make thinkers or inquirers, but disciples.

Mill argued strongly against the status quo. Does it matter that his motives leave me cold, or that I think he had an impossibly confused understanding of what it is to be poor, or isolated, or not part of the elite? Does it matter that he sounds like a snob and, in some regards - notably his views on what it means to be 'civilised' - sound exactly like those he professes to argue with? Because, in the end, he was a force for good.

It's the old question: does the end justify the means? In Mill's case, I believe it does. I can't help disliking him, but I'm glad he said what he said.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kant on maturity

However, despite the post on Rousseau below, I actually greatly approve of learning. It's one of my big passions, encouraging adults into learning, especially those who haven't engaged in lifelong learning since school. Here's Kant, in a memorable description of the urge to immaturity in modern man. This was written in 1784, but if anything things have got worse. Nanny-state, health-and-safety madness, it's an increasingly infantilised world:

If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me. The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult. Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone. Now this danger is not actually so great, for after falling a few times they would in the end certainly learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes men timid and usually frightens them out of all further attempts.

The message is clear: "Have courage to use your own understanding!"

Monday, October 22, 2007

The labours of enlightenment

Meant very little to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I fear the old chap would not have thought much of me:

tell us what we ought to think of that numerous herd of obscure writers and useless litterateurs, who devour without any return the substance of the State.

Discourse on the arts and sciences

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The horror of history

So much for the redemptive power of stories (see post below on Anne Frank.) Now, let's discuss the nature of history, and of man himself. This is a quote from Judith Shklar of Harvard University, writing about Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1964:

By nature men are free, but left to their own devices they will inevitably enslave each other. Of all the "bipolarities" in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau none is more striking than this tension between natural freedom and the spontaneous march to inequality and oppression in which all men participate. None aroused more conflicting reactions in his own mind. If men are the sole authors of their ills, and not the mere victims of some external force, be it original sin, a malevolent nature or a hostile environment, then there is always hope for self-iinprovement. On the other hand, if men were alone responsible for inventing and maintaining their own social misery, they could scarcely be expected to overcome conditions they had themselves chosen to create. One could hardly hope that those who had devised and imposed their own chains, would either wish, or know how to liberate themselves. If there was no need for cosmic fatalism, there was every reason to despair of mankind's own social powers. And indeed it was perfectly clear to Rousseau that every man left free to follow his own inclinations and every society allowed to pursue its inherent tendencies would repeat all the familiar errors of the past. I t was this conflict between possibility and probability that inspired all of Rousseau's works. A11 of them are attempts to show some way out of the horrors of history.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The power of stories

Garrison Keillor, writing the introduction to the Book of American Short Stories, 1998, discusses the power of stories, the desire people have for stories to be real, the way stories can reveal truths. He talks of Anne Frank:

One October night in 1942, we learn, these Jews in hiding in Amsterdam enjoy the joke "What makes 999 ticks followed by one tock? A millipede with a clubfoot," and a great discovery dawns on us: that the fourteen-year-old Anne Frank is not keeping this diary as a testament against hatred and darkness, that is is simply a writer's notebook: the girl hopes to be a novelist. She writes: "Just imagine how interesting it would be if I were to publish a romance of the 'Secret Annexe.' The title alone would be enough to make people think it was a detective story. But, seriously, it would be quite funny ten years after the war if we Jews were to tell how we lived and what we ate and talked about here."

It was the Nazis who made Anne Frank a martyr and a symbol; she herself would much rather have been a satirist. If only she had survived the prison camp, she might have come out tiwh a novel in 1955 with a passionate love scene between a girl and a boy in an attic full of moonlight, their lips pressed close, her hand on his waist, his hand under her skirt, and in the room below, adult listening for the police at the door and hearing only the lovers' sighs from upstairs. She didn't aim to be a saint; she wanted to write stories in which real people ate the pot roast and boiled potatoes and talked about childhood, lovers, children, loneliness, and old age.

That strikes me as quite lovely, and very sad, and makes me more determined to make the most of my writing chances.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Phantom relationships and living in the past

RD Laing:

To live in the past or in the future may be less satisfying than to live in the present, but it will never be as disillusioning. The present will never be what has been or what could be. In the search for something outside time, there is an enervating sense of hopelessness and pointlessness.

To be sustained, elusion requires virtuosity: it can lead to enchanting nostalgia. It must never break down. If specific, it becomes ugly. Madame Bovary is a definitive statement of this in literature.

Time is empty. It is as futile as it is inescapable. A false eternity, made out of all the time on one's hands which drags on eternally. It is an attempt to live outside time by living in a part of time, to live timelessly in the past, or in the future. The present is never realized.

Self and others

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Children in need writing marathon

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that last year I took part in a Children in Need 36 hour writing marathon. A series of prompts every hour on the hour from 5pm on Thursday till midnight on Friday, and an hour to write a story.

I've done this twice now, and publications from the two years must now be in double figures, so it certainly works. The tiredness makes your brain work in funny ways. You end up writing stuff that comes out of somewhere unexpected and unexplained. It starts to get at the real you.

Anyway, we're doing it again in November. I'll need to get some practice in, because I haven't written much timed flash fiction recently. It really is something you can get your mind tuned into, after a while. It works, it makes you more creative.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dorothea Tanning

I posted Eine kleine nachtmusik a while back. This is another painting of hers that I think is stunning. The open doors are a recurring motif in her work. There is much to intrigue in this painting. It throws up new ideas every time you look at it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The tree of liberty

The first and last stanzas of Burns' paean to freedom, The tree of liberty. If you want the whole poem, it can be found here:

Heard ye o' the tree o' France,
I watna what's the name o't;
Around the tree the patriots dance,
Weel Europe kens the fame o't.
It stands where ance the Bastile stood,
A prison built by kings, man,
When Superstition's hellish brood
Kept France in leading-strings, man.

Wae worth the loon wha wadna eat
Sic halesome dainty cheer, man;
I'd gie my shoon frae aff my feet,
To taste sic fruit, I swear, man.
Syne let us pray, auld England may
Sure plant this far-famed tree, man;
And blithe we'll sing, and hail the day
That gave us liberty, man.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Black humor

Kurt Vonnegut, in an interview in 1974:

In the Modern Library edition of The Works of Freud, you'll find a section on humor in which he talks about middle-European "gallows humor," and it so happens that what Friedman calls "black humor" is very much like German-Austrian-Polish "gallows humor." In the face of plague and Napoleonic wars and such things, it's little people saying very wry, very funny things on the point of death. One of the examples Freud gives in a man about to be hanged, and the hangman says, "Do you have anything to say?" The condemned man replies, "Not at this time."

This country has made one tremendous contribution to "gallows humor," and it took place in Cook County Jail (you'll have to ask Nelson Algren who said it). A man was strapped into the electric chair and he said to the witnesses, "This will certainly teach me a lesson."

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A lesson from Raymond Carver

Carver wrote:

I once sat down to write what turned out to be a pretty good story, though only the first sentence of the story had offered itself to me when I began it. For several days I'd been going around with this sentence in my head: "He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang." I knew a story was there and that it wanted telling. I felt it in my bones, that a story belonged with that beginning, if I could just have the time to write it. I found the time, an entire day - 12, 15 hours even - if I wanted to make use of it. I did, and I sat down in the morning and wrote the first sentence, and other sentences promptly began to attach themselves. I made the story just as I'd make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next. Pretty soon I could see a story - and I knew it was my story,
the one I'd been wanting to write.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut - humanist

I wrote in a post a couple down from this one about a piece written by Vonnegut when he was 81, three years before his death, and said how sad I found it that this warm man had had all his hope expunged. Here is a quote from 1972 which shows him at his finest:

There is a time when humanity takes care of humanity. I would like to hear people call each other "citizen." I would like people to light candles and sit around a table in a special way. It would be a moving thing and make leaders and others wonder. It's easy for armed guards to break up a riot. And riots don't change minds. It just makes officials more determined.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut - Cold Turkey

I've just read this article by Kurt Vonnegut, written when he was 81, three years before his death, and I find it desperately sad.

These are the words of a man who has lost hope in humanity. For such a warm, compassionate man as Vonnegut, this must have been a horrific trial to him.

There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don't know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.

But, when you stop to think about it, only a nut case would want to be a human being, if he or she had a choice. Such treacherous, untrustworthy, lying and greedy animals we are!

The first para is classic Vonnegut. Sage, cutting, witty. But the second para reveals something new, something that wasn't part of the make-up of the man who wrote Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse Five. His (understandable) contempt for the leadership of his country has transferred itself into a generalised despair for humanity. I find it very sad to think this warm, wise man could have been made so bitter.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The great dragon

'Thou shalt' is the name of this Great Dragon. But the Lion-spirit saith: 'I will.'

Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Nietzsche tells the tale of the three human states. There is the camel, willing - desiring - to carry the load. An unthinking state. Then there is the lion, which wants freedom to do as it pleases. But it must face the Great Dragon, which is the holder of morality, the 'Thou shalt' and the 'Thou shalt not.'

The lion is I, the realised self, capable of choice, of an act of will. The great dragon is oppression, the suppression of the spirit.

Now, in my younger days I was happy to see the great dragon as religion and religion as the imposition of the status quo on the individual, and therefore a very bad thing. It is easy to see in black and white - 'I will' good, 'You shall' bad. And so we lions must face down the great dragons and march to freedom.

But where does society fit into this? Where does humanity fit in? It's a difficult question. How do you exercise the freedom of the individual while maintaining the community of humanity? How do you organise to support the community of humanity without it spilling into control?

So much of the philosophy I've read has as its focus the 'I' and the 'you' - will and dictate - but as I get older and more comfortable with myself but less comfortable with the world, I need to see a philosophy of 'we.'

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Keep it simple, stupid

Kurt Vonnegut said, in response to a comment that his books "seem to have a sort of surface simplicity":

They have a real simplicity, I think, because I have always been aware of the reader and his difficulties and when I've taught creative writing I've generally expressed the interests of the reader and tried to make my students realize that the reader had a tough job and that it might be worthwhile to make things easier for him. One thing: a reader can stop anytime he wants - you must keep him going.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Frogs

I've just bought a Penguin edition of The Wasps by Aristophanes. It was written in the 60s. It hasn't worn well. Here's a brief snippet, as Dionysus prepares to enter Hell:

Dionysus [climbing in warily]: Er - can I go to Hell?
Charond: You can as far as I'm concerned.
Dionysus: Ah splendid. Two please.
Charon: Sorry, sir, no slaves allowed. Not unless they fought in the sea-battle.
Xanthias: Exempted on medical grounds, I was. Weak sight.
Charon: Well, you'll have to walk round.
Xanthias: Where shall I find you?
Charon: Just past the Withering Stone, you'll find an inn. 'The Last Resting Place', they call it.
Dionysus: Got that?
Xanthias: I've got the creeps, that's what I've got. It's not my lucky day. [He staggers off into the shadows.]
Charon: Sit to the oar. Any more for Lethe, Blazes - Here, what are you doing?
Dionysus: Sitting on the oar, like you said. But -
Charon: I didn't say on the oar, you pot-bellied loon.

It's like something out of ITMA. And they all sound exactly the same, they do. Hard to believe this is a God and the ferryman of the dead talking...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ontological insecurity

The individual in the ordinary circumstances of living may feel more unreal than real; in a literal sense, more dead than alive; precariously differentiated from the rest of the world, so that his identity and autonomy are always in question . . . He may feel more insubstantial than substantial, and unable to assume that the stuff he is made of is genuine, good, valuable. And he may feel his self as partially divorced from his body.

RD Laing

Dorothea Tanning - Eine kleine nachtmusik

I love this painting. The last time I saw it, a couple of years ago probably, I sat in front of it for about half an hour and could hardly bear to leave it. There are dozens - hundreds probably - of interpretations of it, and I have no real idea what it's about. But there's an eeriness about it, an unsettling air, which is fascinating. Are they little girls in control or in danger? It's hard to say. And how much of life is similarly confusing?

Saturday, September 15, 2007


I was in York yesterday and saw a queue just like this outside the branch of Northern Rock.

I don't begin to understand economics - as far as I can see, exactly the same amount of money is there as before, the same assets, the same investors, the same savers, so I don't see why boom turns to bust, it makes no sense to me - but I do see old-fashioned idiocy at work here. The company is apparently stable, but suffering from short-term cash flow. All these fools who are queuing to withdraw their money are simply exacerbating that problem for the bank. By taking this action they risk precipitating the very thing they are afraid of.

As writers, it never does to overestimate the stupidity of human beings.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Coastal erosion

Where I live in East Yorkshire is the fastest eroding coastline in Europe. It's humbling. We're used to thinking of ourselves as impermanent, but we expect the land to be here forever. It won't.

Emili Morera

I had an excellent day out yesterday at Burton Agnes Hall in East Yorkshire (well worth a visit if you're interested in gardens and/or stately homes. The lack of stuffiness in comparison to other historic houses is refreshing.)

Anyway, there were three paintings which quite intrigued me and I took a note of the artist's name, Emili Morera, to do some checking later on.

All the paintings were heavily three-dimensional, with found objects embedded into them. The first had a detail of old stonework which formed a column of a ruined building. The second was a ruined venetian blind, half-opened. The top, closed section was a real venetian blind and where the bottom had fallen away and parts broken this was represented by paint. The third was a more abstract piece, showing a large frame around a landscape beyond. It put me in mind of early Netherlandish art, first in illuminated manuscripts and then in the sixteenth century when they created larger paintings with fake framing techniques, using trompe l'oeil effects.

They were all very striking indeed. There is some very fine art in the collection, including Manet, Gauguin, Pissaro and others, but these really stood out for me.

The trouble is, I can't trace the artist at all. I'm sure I've remembered the name - I wanted to know more about this artist = more + RA. But I've googled and can't find anything. If anyone knows who I am talking about and can point me in the right direction, I'd be very grateful.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The shallows of experience

Many years ago, at a late-night party in King Street in Aberdeen, I hated a man. Riders on the storm was playing loudly. I was singing loudly. This rush to perform, as every self-conscious young man will know, is a double-defence reaction: it makes you look more confident than you feel; and it shows that you know the lyrics to music which is cool. And, back then, 1983 or 1984, Jim Morrison was still cool. Long enough dead to be mysterious to a new generation, to young men who needed to rebel against the techno flim-flam of contemporary music. Hell, Morrison was even arrested for obscenity. He sang about killing his father and fucking his mother. He had read everything, he was a poet, a genius, a rock star, and he died like a rock star, glamorously, still young.

And so Jim and I were singing, and this shy, showing-off boy borrowed some of his long-dead friend's bluster.

There's a killer on the road,
His brain is squirming like a toad.

And then it happened. This man I'd never seen before, a post-graduate student, became the man I hated, because he laughed. And the very second he laughed I knew, despite how much I wanted to argue, to fight, hit him for insulting the genius Morrison, I knew that he was right. I'd sung those lyrics a hundred times and it had never dawned on me - they were shit, they were embarrassing drivel.

When we make idols we lose reason. Does it matter? My football team is St Johnstone. They're rubbish, they'll never win anything, but they're mine, my heroes. I know I'm deluding myself and I'm happy with my deception. Does it matter? Does it matter that Jim Morrison was a preening narcissist with a great line in casual cruelty and juvenile lack of control of language, who died in a bath, choked by his own vomit?

It matters in two ways, from opposing ends of the spectrum. Firstly, blind hero-worship of a football team is one thing. It's funny, it allows endless opportunities for self-deprecation and wistful shakings of the head. But swap St Johnstone for something equally inept - Mohammed, say, or Jesus Christ - and the joke turns sour. Unquestioning loyalty? Inability to recognise fatuity? Unthinking urge to impose beliefs on others? Violent response to challenge? Tendency towards hatred? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

And from the personal angle, how do you progress? If you cannot listen to 'His brain is squirming like a toad' and suddenly, one enlightened moment, realise that it is shit of the highest magnitude, how can you know that there is something else out there, something greater, something perfect that has to be reached for, searched for? Eventually you have to discover Bob Dylan; and then WB Yeats; and then Sorley Maclean. There's always more, there's always better, a trail of giants leading you towards discovery, as long as you don't squat in the shallows of the first doggerel-monger to attract your ear.

Those who refuse to listen, refuse to question, refuse to shift from a dogmatic position reached in juvenility, without the benefit of experience or knowledge, are living in a curious twilight world. RD Laing says that "I can never experience your experience of me." Those who live their lives in denial of the truth as it is now, rather than the truth they first defined, are unable to properly experience themselves. They are stunted. That makes them dangerous.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Had a fascinating day out at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park today. Fantastic weather, just perfect.

The main reason we wanted to go was the Andy Goldsworthy exhibition. It's a good show, with some major new works plus a couple of galleries of retrospective stuff, with photographs of earlier installations. The main focus of the exhibition is in the four indoor galleries at the main centre. These represent wood, clay, stone and space. The first installation is a giant assemblage of cut logs, looking like some enormous termites nest, and resting on one another to a height of around twelve feet with nothing fixing them in place.

Next is a room full of clay mounds, each one forming a characteristic Goldsworthy 'hole'. This man has a real hole fetish, and these mounds are extraordinary. It's difficult to tell if it's a real hole or a piece of velvet placed on top of the mound. The effect becomes unsettling, and it's odd that something as regulated and clearly "created" still has such an organic feel to it.

Not as unsettling as the next room, which is an open expanse, with the walls covered in clay which is drying out and leaving crazed cracks everywhere. This immediately put me in mind of the Guiseppe Penone installation at the Pompidou Centre, Respirare l'Ombra, in which he covered the walls with an inches deep layer of laurel leaves, held in place by chicken wire. The smell was astonishing, and the room felt like the most comforting, comfortable, womb-like expanse. The centre-piece was a bronze cast of human lungs, neatly bringing together life and humanity, nature and mankind.

The Goldsworthy felt its opposite, a parched, sparse, dying space. I'm not much of an environmentalist, but if you want a statement about global warming and the like, the comparison of Goldworthy with Penone would be an interesting one.

And the next room had an even stronger resonance with the Penone. It was truly inspiring. It was completely in darkness and with the brightness of the sunshine outside it was an unsettling experience walking inside. Gradually, out of the blackness, shapes emerged, long lines, horizontal but not regular, and as your eyes adapted to the light it became clear that they were coppiced chestnut branches, hundreds of them, all piled up around the walls and climbing, forming a tent-like experience. It was like being in the roundhouse they've reconstructed at Flag Fen, but everything is much, much denser, the logs packed more closely together. Goldsworthy himself says of this room in an article in the Telegraph:

"I hope the room feels like entering the stomach of a tree," Goldsworthy says. "It's very intestinal." The piece was inspired by his memory of a visit to the park in 1983. A much skinnier Goldsworthy tried to wriggle through a small opening at the base of a sycamore into a rotting cavity (the manoeuvre is recorded in a series of photographs also on display in the show). "I was under threat when I went inside that dead tree," he recalls. "I really didn't know if I'd get stuck halfway."

The final room in this sequence is possibly the most striking, but if I'm honest it interested me least. Technically, it's astounding, an assemblage of chestnut twigs, over 10,000 of them, all kept together only by thorns. It looks sumptuous, like some Japanese curtain, and it's impossible not to be amazed by the skill that must have been involved in its making; but for me it was less interesting precisely because it felt crafted. I could see the artist in it, where with the others I saw nature, I saw the art.

Goldsworthy, of course, is predominantly an outdoor artist, and there was more in the Sculpture Park itself. The Hanging Trees are probably the best known of this exhibition. I'd seen pictures of them before and thought them clever, but I hadn't realised that they are actually built into the walls themselves. I guess the clue's in the title - Hanging trees - but sometimes I'm not literal enough... Anyway, they are thought provoking, the way they emerge and disappear into the walls themselves, and the walls appear out of the landscape, creating a bizarre enclosure.

Also on the sculpture park walk was Basket, an installation by Winter and Horbelt. This is a two-storey construction, double-skinned, made of wire mesh. It gives a stunning view over the valley and is quite unsettling: there's something about the mesh which distorts your vision, particularly because there are two, one behind the other, so that when you move the grids appear to move as well. And when the wind suddenly blows, coming straight through the "walls" of the building, it is actually quite frightening, at least for someone with vertigo, like me.

There's time for one further Goldsworthy, a round, completely enclosed wall, about ten feet high, which leaves you wondering what can possibly be inside it. A couple who were viewing at the same time as us had the answer: stretch as high as you can and take a photo with your digital camera. I guess it worked. Hope there was nothing unpleasant in there...

And the final leg is at the Longside Gallery. This must be one of the most remote art galleries in the world - it's at the end of a two mile hike down and up the valley. If you were to be uncharitable about this exhibition, you might say that two miles is a bloody long way to walk to find a gallery with a single, giant rock in the middle of it and sheep shit all over the walls and windows, because that's what the Goldsworthy exhibition is.

Except it does work. Goldsworthy says of his new work in an Observer article:

"I find some of my new works disturbing, just as I find nature as a whole disturbing. The landscape is often perceived as pastoral, pretty, beautiful - something to be enjoyed as a backdrop to your weekend before going back to the nitty-gritty of urban life. But anybody who works the land knows it's not like that. Nature can be harsh - difficult and brutal, as well as beautiful. You couldn't walk five minutes from here without coming across something that is dead or decaying."

What we see here is country life. The paintings are made with sheep shit and with their hoof prints and with hare's blood and with other manifestations of nature. One of the hare's blood paintings is mind-boggling. It is almost vertiginously three-dimensional; it contracts inwards to this central point which seems to be deep, deep inside the painting, as though you are being dragged through it into some spectral place. Unfortunately, I haven't found a copy of that one, but this is another of the hare's blood paintings.

And then it's a walk back to the Sculpture Park centre again. It's a very fine public space, I have to say, beautifully kept, very clean, with a friendly atmosphere. The shop has some really good stuff as well, not the usual tat you find in most galleries.

Definitely a day out to be recommended.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Lord of the dance

There was an excellent feature in yesterday's Guardian (read it here) on Euripides' The Bacchae by David Greig, who was responsible for the version of the play performed at this year's Edinburgh Festival. Greig argued that the Greek plays still have strong resonance today and we have much to learn, as a culture, from the old texts. He concludes:

Whenever a Greek tragedy is revived today, the question is asked: "Why now?" For me, Euripides's concerns remain as relevant as they were 2,000 years ago. There are still men who would control women in order to bolster their shaky sense of self. There are still men who are lost because they refuse to lose themselves in dance. And so we still live with the psychotic and uncontrolled violence that will appear whenever a repressed Dionysian force reasserts itself - as it always will.

I've become fascinated by the Dionysian/Apollonian split recently. The Greek tragedies suggest that when there is a balance between the two there is harmony and society operates at its most creative; however, each is always struggling for superiority and at times one will become pre-eminent, leading to disaster.

Greig seems to make more of the masculine/feminine split than I would. Although I think he's right to identify emotion and instinct as predominantly feminine traits and rationality and control as masculine, I think these differences can be overplayed and will lead to the argument being taken down a sterile side road. It's important to stress that these "masculine" and "feminine" traits are in us all. This is the point of The Bacchae, with Pentheus - a strong, Apollonian rationalist - struggling to accommodate his more feminine feelings.

Does it all matter any more? Is it just dead Greek guys? No, I think it does matter. At a fundamental level, we can see western culture as largely Dionysian - devoted to the dance, to self-expression - and the stunted world view of al Qaida and religious fundamentalists as strictly Apollonian - straight, stern, serious. Although an Apollonian approach is important, it must never be allowed to dominate, otherwise society stagnates, creativity is stifled, there is no progress. That is why, of course, Muslim thinking is precisely where it was in the fifteenth century: no-one is permitted to question it.

So let's celebrate Dionysus. Raise a glass to decadence. But spare a thought for the battered body of reason in the corner. Western society ignores him at its peril.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Hattie Carroll

I'm listening to Dylan singing "The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll" at the moment. He recorded it on "The Times they are a-changin'" in October 1963. It relates events - the manslaughter of Hattie Carroll by William Zantzinger - which took place in February 1963, and for which Zantzinger was sentenced to six months in prison in August 1963.

Where is the contemporary songwriting today? Who is writing songs about current affairs? I know there will be folk singers out there who are doing so, but even back in '63 Dylan was already famous. I can't think of anyone in the public eye today who writes such songs.

And the weird thing is that we are in the middle of a highly unpopular war. Why isn't it the catalyst for a new generation of protest art? Thatcher's children just can't be arsed, perhaps.

Margaret Attwood's joke

I'm sure she has others, but I like this one, from Negotiating with the dead:

The Devil comes to the writer and says, "I will make you the best writer of your generation. Never mind generation - of this century. No - this millennium! Not only the best, but the most famous, and richest; in addition to that, you will be very influential and your glory will endure for ever. All you have to do is sell me your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your kids, your dog and your soul."

"Sure," says the writer, "Absolutely - just give me the pen, where do I sign?" Then he hesitates. "Just a minutes," he says, "what's the catch?"

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Hamish Henderson v Hugh MacDiarmind

Here's a poets' death match - Hugh MacDiarmid and Hamish Henderson, whose battles in the letters pages of the Scotsman are fascinating. I've just got Henderson's Collected letters and collected writings. Wonderful stuff:

I try to make sense of your tortured logomachy...
Amidst all the posturings, tantrums and rages...
Just what do you stand for MacDiarmid?
I'm still not certain...

Hamish Henderson, "To Hugh MacDiarmid on reading Lucky Poet"

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The flyting o life and daith

by Hamish Henderson. The last two stanzas:

Quo daith, the warld is mine.
I hae dug a grave, I hae dug it deep,
For war an' the pest will gar ye sleep.
Quo daith, the warld is mine.

Quo life, the warld is mine.
An open grave is a furrow syne.
Ye'll no keep my seed frae fa'in in.
Quo life the warld is mine

Monday, September 03, 2007

Lady Godiva's operation

How strange...

I had an urge to listen to Lady Godiva's operation by the Velvet Underground tonight. Don't know why. I last listened to it probably about twenty years ago, maybe more.

I was absolutely certain it was sung by Nico. I could even hear her German accent singing "Lady Godiva, here dressed so demurely." But it's not, it's John Cale singing. I've just done a quick google on it, and I can't find any evidence that Nico ever sang it. What strange tricks memory can play.

Anyway, here's the song:

Dylan Thomas short stories

While I was cooking my curry last night I was reading some early short stories by Dylan Thomas, from his Collected Stories. I confess I haven't read much Thomas apart from Under Milk Wood, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect - lyrical, obviously, but that was about it.

They're very, very odd. They're set in rural Wales, in the Jarvis hills, and they're almost hallucinatory in feel and subject matter. They merge the commonplace and the macabre and the supernatural in a very eerie way. They are riven with death and sex, and everything is told in a wonderfully quiet, understated way. They describe horrific things - a burning baby, for example - and do so in a way which is an object lesson in show/tell, and in building suspense and in creating unease. And all the time, of course, they are shot through with poetic phrases and language but this poetry doesn't intrude. Rather, it adds another layer of mystery and unease to the stories.

Fascinating reading, well worth digging out.

Sunday, September 02, 2007


I mentioned Sebastian by Cockney Rebel in a post a few days ago, and had to go and listen to it again. This is a You Tube version which chops two minutes off at the end.

It's an extraordinary song. The lyrics are utterly meaningless:

Radiate simply, the candle is burning so low for me
Generate me limply, I can't seem to place your name, cherie
To rearrange all these thoughts in a moment is suicide
Come to a strange place, we'll talk over old times we never spied

Somebody called me Sebastian
Somebody called me Sebastian
Work out a rhyme, toss me the time, lay me, you're mine
And we all know, oh yeah!

Your Persian eye sparkle; your lips, ruby blue never speak a sound
You, oh so gay, with Parisian demands, you can run-around
Your view of society screws up my mind like you'll never know
Lead me away, come inside, see my mind in kaleidoscope

Somebody called me Sebastian
Somebody called me Sebastian
Mangle my mind, love me sublime, do it in style,
So we all know, oh yeah!

You're not gonna run, babe, we only just begun, babe, to compromise
Slagged in a Bowery saloon, love's a story to serialise
Pale angel face; green eye-shadow, the glitter is outasite
No courtesan could begin to decipher your beam of light

Somebody called me Sebastian
Somebody called me Sebastian
Dance on my heart, laugh,
swoop and dart, la-di-di-da
Now we all know, oh yeah!

And yet there's something completely entrancing about it. That refrain - "Somebody called me Sebastian" - is haunting. It makes you think there is a real story behind all that artifice, and wouldn't it be fascinating to know what it was?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Alexander Scott

This is one of the funniest things I've ever read.

This set of philosophical musings on the Scottish psyche by Alexander Scott is called Scotched.

Kent his


Barely a

Through a gless



I telt ye
I telt ye.

Alexander Scott (1920 - 1989)

Bellow on American writing

I've been writing about Scots poetry a lot recently, so here's a different thought. This is Saul Bellow on modern American writing:

We have developed in American fiction a strange combination of extreme naivete in the characters and of profundity implicit in the writing, in the techniques themselves and in the language, but the language of thought itself is banned, it is considered dangerous and destructive.

By way of evidence he cites Hemingway's "Old man and the sea" where the reader is offered:

a sort of Christian endurance... the attempt to represent ideas while sternly forbidding thought begins to look like a curious and highly sophisticated game. It shows a great skepticism of the strength of art.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I was reading some Hugh MacDiarmid earlier, one of his best-known poems, The Watergaw. The opening line is:

Ae weet forenicht i' the yow-trummle

99.99% of you won't know what that means. I didn't know what it meant. MacDiarmid used a synthetic Scots language, taking words and phrases from all over Scotland, from his own Borders tongue and from the Doric in the north-east and from everywhere in between, to create a patchwork vocabulary which no-one has ever spoken and no-one really understands. But anyway, that's not the point. The line means:

One wet-dusk in the ewe-tremble.

Okay, you ask, so what's a ewe-tremble? It's apparently a Scots expression, at one time well-known, which means a cold spell in summer after sheep shearing.

Only the Scots could ever have decided there was the need for a word which means a cold spell after the sheep shearing...

If you're interested in the whole poem, here it is:

The Watergaw by Hugh MacDiarmid

Ae weet forenicht i' the yow-trummle
I saw yon antrin thing,
A watergaw wi its chitterin licht
ayont the on-ding;
An I thocht o the last wild look ye gied
Afore ye deed!

There was nae reek i' the laverock's hoose
That nicht - an' nane i' mine;
But I hae thocht o' that foolish licht
Ever sin' syne;
An' I think that mebbe at last I ken
What your look meant then.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Hamish Henderson - So long

To the war in Africa that's over - goodnight.
To thousands of assorted vehicles, in every stage of decomposition
littering the desert from here to Tunis - goodnight.

To thousands of guns and armoured fighting vehicles
brewed up, blackened and charred
from Alamein to here, from here to Tunis - goodnight.

To thousands of crosses of every shape and pattern,
alone or in little huddles, under which the
unlucky bastards lie - goodnight.

Horse-shoe curve of the bay
clean razor-edge of the escarpment.
Tonight it's the sunset only that's blooding you.

Halfaya and Sollum: I think that at last
we can promise you a little quiet.
So long. I hope I won't be seeing you.

To the sodding desert - you know what you can do with yourself.
To the African deadland - God help you - and goodnight.

There is a recording of Dr Fred Freeman reciting this poem on A' the bairns o Adam, a fine tribute album to Hamish Henderson.

The first time I listened to it, it almost made me cry, and I couldn't quite work out why. There was something about it which hit me, but I didn't know what. Reading Fred Freeman's comments in the accompanying booklet made it clear:

Out of this strange melange of bawdry and bloodshed [the Second World War] would emerge Hamish's irrepressible blend of folk humour: a lifeline in the midst of the inferno. He would use it to create human touches few poets ever achieve. Certainly one would have to look to Henryson and the medieval makars for such fluid movement between the commonplace and colloquial, the abstract and universal. The effects, as with the makars, is to cut everything down to human scale; to make it all, if not acceptable, at least humanly comprehensible.

And that's it entirely. This is such a warm poem, the constant 'goodnights' sounding at once honest, heartfelt and weary. The understatement of 'we can promise you a little quiet' says more than a thousand lines of florid descriptions of the hell of war.

I guess the danger is, when moving 'between the commonplace and colloquial, the abstract and universal' is that it could easily descend into bathos. This poem, so quietly restrained, with a torrent of emotion hidden beneath its charming civility, avoids that and becomes an extremely moving piece.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A drunk man looks at the thistle

A little excert from Macdiarmid's poem, another one which throws a light on the Scots character.

The language that but sparely flooers
And maistly gangs to weed;
The thocht o' Christ and Calvary
Aye liddenin' in my heid;
And a' the dour provincial thocht
That merks the Scottish breed
- These are the thistle's characters,
To argie there's nae need.
Hoo weel my verse embodies
The thistle you can read!
- But will a Scotsman never
Frae this vile growth be freed?...

While surfing, I came across this recording of the poem. Absolutely fascinating to listen to.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Edwin Morgan - the Makar

With these Scots poets I've been featuring of late, I'm a bit remiss in missing out our Makar, Edwin Morgan. Here he is, and again this speaks so eloquently of Scotland and the Scots:

The Flowers of Scotland

Yes, it is too cold in Scotland for flower people; in any case who would be handed a thistle?
What are our flowers? Locked swings and private rivers -
and the island of Staff for sale in the open market, which no one questions or thinks strange -
and lads o' pairts that run to London and Buffalo without a backward look while their elders say Who'd blame them -
and bonny fechters kneedeep in dead ducks with all the thrawn intentness of the incorrigible professional Scot -
and a Kirk Assembly that excels itself in the bad old rhetoric and tries to stamp out every glow of charity and change, most wrong when it thinks most loudly it is right -
and a Scottish National Party that refuses to discuss Vietnam and is even applauded for doing so, do they think no lesson is to be learned from what is going on there? -
and the unholy power of the Grouse-moor and Broad-acres to prevent the smoke of useful industry from sullying Invergordon or setting up linear cities among the whaups -
and the banning of Beardsley and Joyce but not of course of 'Monster on the Campus' or 'Curse of the Undead' - those who think the former are more degrading, what are their values? -
and the steady creep of the preservationist societies, wearing their pens out for slums with good leaded lights - if they could buy all the amber in the Baltic and melt it over Edinburgh would they be happy then? - the skeleton is well-proportioned -
and by contrast the massive indifference to the slow death of the Clyde estuary, decline of resorts, loss of steamers, anaemia of yachting, cancer of monstrous installations of a foreign power and an acquiescent government - what is the smell of death on a child's spade, any more than rats to leaded lights? -
and dissidence crying in the wilderness to a moor of boulders and two ospreys -
these are the flowers of Scotland

This was written in 1969 and, while some of the specifics are dated, it is remarkable (and deflating) how strongly the general points sustain. I think this is a fine poem. Its structure is almost that of prose poem and it is very verbal, even verbose; and yet there are some beautiful poetic phrases in there. Anyone could (many did) write polemics such as this, but they generally end up as diatribes, they become too ferocious in their indignation and slip sadly into stereotypical Scots' hectoring. This poem avoids that and makes the reader think all the more deeply for doing so.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Karen Armstrong - A short history of myth

I'm currently reading Karen Armstrong: A short history of myth. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2005. 1841957038

Karen Armstrong asks 'what is myth?' and looks, as a starting point, at Neanderthal graves. There are, she says, five things about myths that these Neanderthal graves can tell us:

1. '[Myth] is nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction.'

Well, it hardly takes a genius to work out the first part of that and the second is a logical consequence, so I'll go along with it.

2. 'The animal bones indicate that the burial was accompanied by a sacrifice. Mythology is usually inseperable from ritual.'

Not as inseperable, it seems to me as archaeologists and ritual. Might the bones have simply been food? Still a ritual, perhaps, but not a sacrifice. Something more prosaic.

3. 'The Neanderthal myth was in some way recalled beside a grave, at the limit of human life. The most powerful myths are about extremity; they force us to go beyond our experience.'

No problems with the latter point, but how can she possibly extrapolate this from the evidence of Neanderthal graves? How can she know this?

4. 'Myth is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave.'

Again, no argument with the latter sentiment, but how can she possibly reach that conclusion from Neanderthal graves? Fine, there were many grave goods in them, but how can she possibly link those goods to specific myths, and how can she divine any message from those myths?

5. 'All mythology speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world, and that in some sense supports it. Belief in this invisible but more powerful reality, sometimes called the world of the gods, is a basic theme of mythology.'

And yet again, it seems to me that this is to ascribe something to Neanderthal graves that is unknowable. For this to therefore be the basis of a thesis about the nature of myth is surely an uncertain foundation.

This put me in mind of the Nietzsche quote I posted a while back:

It is the fate of every myth to creep by degrees into the narrow limits of some alleged historical reality, and to be treated by some later generation as a unique fact with historical claims.

It seems to me, in this work, it's not only history that myth is being turned into. What we have here is the development of metamyths - myths about myths.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Richard Dawkins - The God delusion

I'm currently reading this, although preaching to the converted doesn't do it justice in my case.

Anyway, Dawkins quotes a Cambridge theologian who, on hearing from an anthroplogist of some primitive belief system, remarks that it is amazing how people can believe such nonsense. Dawkins continues:

Assuming that the Cambridge theologian was a mainstream Christian, he probably believed some combination of the following:

* In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.

* The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life.

* The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.

* Forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily into the sky.

* If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his 'father' (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.

* If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.

* The fatherless man's virgin mother never died but was 'assumed' bodily into heaven.

* Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), 'become' the body and blood of the fatherless man.

What would an objective anthropologist, coming fresh to this set of beliefs while on fieldwork in Cambridge, make of them?

The God delusion pp 207-208 (pbk edition)

And another Scottish poem

Sorley Maclean


My eye is not on Calvary
nor on Bethlehem the Blessed,
but on a foul-smelling backland in Glasgow,
where life rots as it grows;
and on a room in Edinburgh,
a room of poverty and pain,
where the diseased infant
writhes and wallows till death.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Scotland by Alastair Reid

A fine poem, it captures my country and my people:


It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. 'What a day it is!'
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
'We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it!'


Friday, August 17, 2007

Planet Earth - bonnie bairn

I can't be doing with all these 'climate protesters' and soi-disant activists who presume, like the clergy before them, to tell us puir bloody squaddies what to think and why, but if they ever wanted an anthem for their futile movement, this poem by Hugh MacDiarmid would surely be the one:

The bonnie broukit bairn

Mars is braw in crammasy,
Venus in a green silk goun,
The auld mune shak's her gowden feathers,
Their starry talk's a wheen o' blethers,
Nane for thee a thochtie sparin',
Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!
- But greet, an' in your tears you'll droun
The haill clanjamfrie!

Hugh MacDiarmid 1892-1978