Monday, December 10, 2018

Hemingway: a writer of genius or a 24-carat twat who had the luck of Old Nick? Well, I suspect you already know what I think

For the past few months I have been writing a critique of Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel and, at the time, runaway bestseller The Sun Also Rises. I decided to write it because according to the blurb on the back of my paperback the novel is ‘a masterpiece’ and Hemingway is ‘a writer of genius’. Well, in my view it is not and he isn’t, not even by a long chalk, and I decided I couldn’t just let it go.

There were, however, also practical reasons for sitting down and writing something of some length which demanded more than just a little thought, but I shan’t go into that now because it isn’t relevant. Oh, and to my ears ‘critique’ does sound distressingly hi-falutin’, but I can’t at this point think of another word to use.

I’ve been writing that critique - can I now ditch my false modesty and dispense with the quotation marks? - ‘for the past few months’ for several reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t work on it daily (although I should and, rather more pertinently, could) but because I keep coming up with more sources of info on the man and the novel that are relevant and which info I want somehow to incorporate. And finally - there’s no other way of saying this - I want to do it well.

That last reason is especially important to me given that, on the one hand, Ernest Hemingway, novelist, big-game hunter, legendary toper and - supposed - all round macho man is still thought of as ‘a great writer’ who was very influential and who (note this well, Patrick Powell, I hear many cry you cynical, snivelling little jumped-up toad) in 1954 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I, on the other hand, think the man can’t write for toffee, had the luck of Old Nick and then some and is almost the very definition of a nine-bob note (US nine-dollar bill) who committed one of Life’s cardinal sins: he believed his own bullshit.

The piece will eventually appear in this blog, and I don’t want to say much more and pre-empt what I shall be writing, but I can say this: given my initial reaction to the novel, in the course of my quest for info on the man and the novel (popularly and sometimes rather pompously known as ‘research’) I came across this quote from the writer Raymond Carver (in a piece he wrote for The New York Times in 1985. It runs:

‘In the years since 1961 Hemingway's reputation as ‘the outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare’ (John O'Hara's wildly extravagant assessment in praise of ‘Across The River And Into the Trees’) shrank to the extent that many critics, as well as some fellow writers, felt obliged to go on record that they, and the literary world at large, had been bamboozled somehow: Hemingway was not nearly as good as had been originally thought. They agreed that at least one, maybe two, of the novels (‘The Sun Also Rises’ and, possibly, ‘A Farewell to Arms’) might make it into the 21st century, along with a handful, five or six, perhaps, of his short stories. Death had finally removed the author from center (sic) stage and deadly ‘reappraisals’ began taking place.’

(NB The ‘sic’ is, a little redundant, but what the hell. I added it because I am English and use English spellings — and to this day I am pulled up short when I see a reference to the colour ‘gray’ — and Carver is a Yank who uses American spelling. Oh, and ‘bamboozled’ is a strong word but as far as I can see apt.)

I was more than relieved to come across that quote from Carver, especially as during my ‘research’ I had previously come across John O’Hara’s claim that Hemingway was ‘the outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare’. Happening upon O’Hara’s judgment was all the more uncomfortable because I have read two of the writer’s novels and several of his short stories, and as far as I am concerned he can write the pants off Hemingway on any day of the week including Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. So here was a writer whose worked I liked and respected praising the work of a writer I thought was a certain kind of rubbish. Now whose view would have more credibility if and when push came to shove? Ah, but you’re way ahead of me.

. . .

I can’t for the life of me remember why I decided to read The Sun Also Rises after all these years. It was one of my set texts when I was studying for an English degree at Dundee University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I’m sure I didn’t read it then, but when I read it again last summer, I was so baffled by the claim on the back of the paperback (and elsewhere) that it is ‘a masterpiece’, I immediately - and I mean immediately - turned to page one and re-read it to see if I had missed something. I hadn’t and that second reading didn’t change my view.

One point I make in my critique (which at one point in the past few months grew to an unwieldy length of more than 10,000 words, but has since been cut back to about 6,000 by getting rid of as much of the shit as I can spot and several repetitions) is that - as far as I am concerned - all judgments of a ‘work of art’ are subjective, but that there is one very important proviso: given the greater experience some have, drawn from reading far more than the rest of us (and, obviously, in other fields, looking at far more paintings and drawings, and listening to far more music) it is fair to assume that they have a greater, more varied and nuanced context in which to set the literature, art and music they are commenting on. In short, their judgments and opinions might well regarded as better informed.

Certainly, and despite my claim that such judgements are essentially subjective, there can be and very often is a consensus that so and so ‘is a great writer’ and we, the great unwashed, would be foolish to dismiss the judgments of those who appear to know more about a certain area. Yet I still insist that at the end of the day each judgment is subjective for the simple reason that no judgment can be objective. If nothing else, how could we explain when the judgments of several critics and commentators on the same piece of work differ markedly?

Bearing in mind what Raymond Carver says above that ‘many critics, as well as some fellow writers, felt obliged to go on record that they, and the literary world at large, had been bamboozled somehow: Hemingway was not nearly as good as had been originally thought’, how can be explain why for several decades academics and writers thought Hemingway and his work was the zenith of literary achievement and celebrated the man because of it? Discuss if you like, but the main thing that interests me is that I can be a little reassured that my apostasy on the matter of the ‘writer of genius’ Ernest Hemingway is not quite as insane as it might seem to some.

. . .

As part of my ‘research’ (those quote marks again, must stop trying to pretend I’m the modest sort) I came across and read two very entertaining books. The first is by the writer and Vanity Fair journalist Lesley M M Blume and is called Everybody Behaves Badly, The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. I can recommend it to everyone, even those who have no interest in Hemingway at all. Then recently, chasing up this link and that, I came across an equally entertaining book by Amanda Vaill called Hotel Florida: Truth, Love And Death In The Spanish Civil War. It was what Ms Vaill records in book as much as Ms Blume’s account of the genesis of Hemingway’s ‘masterpiece which persuaded me that my scepticism about ‘Papa’ Hemingway (and nickname he liked and encouraged, a detail about him which, to me at least, speaks volumes) was not entirely misplaced.

By 1936 and on the back of his first two novels The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell To Arms, both bestsellers, Hemingway was able to cut something of a figure in the United States and beyond, and he loved it. He seems to have taken himself very seriously indeed and thought himself an important man of letters. Given the man-of-action persona he had developed - all that huntin’ and marlin fishin’ and big game huntin’ - his bombastic,

somewhat bossy personality and his not particularly liberal instincts, it was something of a toss-up whether he would support the legitimate Spanish republican government or the nationalist rebels led by General Franco when the nationalists set out to topple the fledgling government.

The matter was especially delicate as the only foreign support the Spanish government was getting came from Stalin and Soviet Russia - Britain, the US and France and pledged non-intervention (which also meant they would not supply any arms). The nationalist were not only supported by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, but Italy sent several thousand troops to fight alongside Franco’s forces and Germany used the civil war as a testing ground for its air force as well as for new military techniques it was developing.

Hemingway was not very keen on communists (a bone of contention between him and the actively left-wing novelist John Dos Passos, who had nominally been a ‘friend’ since their Paris days, with whom, though, Hemingway was often arguing and falling out) but the only people supporting and fighting for the republic were socialists, anarchists and the myriad strains of communists - Leninists, Marxists and Trotskyists.

Hemingway had several reasons for going to Spain, not the least of which was seeking ‘material’ for a new novel. His latest literary triumph, A Farewell To Arms, had been published seven years earlier and since then he had only published two collections of short stories. Even his novel To Have And Have Not on which he had been working
intermittently and which appeared after he had returned from his first Spanish trip, was essentially the cobbling together of several stories. As it turned out the civil war sightseeing - for that was what more or less it was - did give him material for his 1940 novel For Whom The Bell Tolls.

The Hotel Florida, from which Ms Vaill got the title for her book, was a luxury hotel in the plaza del Callao in Madrid in which many of the journalists covering the Spanish civil war lived while the capital city, under siege by General Franco’s forces, was still in the hands of the republican government. In her book, Ms Vaill chronicles three years in the lives of five other individuals who briefly lived at the Hotel Madrid, including Hemingway’s lover and later wife Martha Gelhorn, the Hungarian photographer Endre Friedman, who was later known as Robert Capa, Friedman’s professional and romantic partner Gerda Taro, as well as the Spaniard Arturo Barea and his future wife, the Austrian Ilsa Kulcsar, who together ran the governments censorship office. By Vaill’s account these last two are perhaps the most sympathetic, although there is also something attractive about Capa and Taro. Both Hemingway and Gelhorn, in their own ways, come across as pains in the arse.

. . .

I had previously known little about Gelhorn except that she is celebrated today by bien pensant journalists as ‘probably the best war correspondent there has ever been’ or something like that. Perhaps her reputation is based on her subsequent career and perhaps she was a great war correspondent, but what Ms Vaill has established about her isn’t particularly admirable.

She came from a well-to-do St Louis family and attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania for a while before leaving without graduating to become a journalist. One notable detail about her career which is not much touted - and oddly, given its significance, it doesn’t rate a mention in her Wikipedia entry - was that an essay called Justice At Night in which she recounts being an eye-witness at the lynching in America’s Deep South, was pure fiction. That is all the more extraordinary because publishing the essay, at the behest of H G Wells, in whose London house she was lodging at the time (our Martha was well-connected - she was also besties with Eleanor Roosevelt) helped to make her reputation.

Yet even today the essay Justice At Night - or better the piece of fiction Justice At Night - is held up as an ‘inspirational piece of journalism’. Here is a good example, written in 2014, how Gelhorn’s ‘eye-witness account’. And here’s another example, from the founder and writer of Popbitch no less, who still hasn’t heard the news that Gelhorn’s piece was made up.

To be fair to Gelhorn I suspect the whole matter of her fictional ‘eyewitness’ account was more a case of a situation getting out of hand than any attempt on her part at outright fraud. The piece was written to impress H G Wells who thought her rather lazy for a supposedly working journalist and to prove she wasn’t just a silly blonde with silly ambitions. Wells was so impressed with it that he urged Gelhorn to get it published and she contacted her London agent. (She had one because she had previously published a memoir of the time she spent in Germany as the Nazis came to power and later an account of her travels through disadvantaged America).

Her agent sold it to the London magazine, The Spectator, and it was then picked up - and thus widely circulated - when Readers Digest and later The Living Age published it in the United States. By now she had reached a point of no return and coming clean would have seemed to her to be impossible. But she finally did come clean when several months later she was invited to talk about the incident she had written about in Justice At Night before Congress. She bit the bullet and fessed up.

She and Hemingway were very much tourists in Spain on their civil war sojourn, but persuaded themselves they were somehow doing something worthwhile by ‘reporting on the front’. Gelhorn was in Spain as a correspondent for Colliers Weekly and Hemingway was sending home dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA). It was a lucrative gig for him: he was paid $500 for a cabled report and $1,000 for a typed dispatch sent back to the US.

Ms Vaill has established that in his first few trip to Spain, reporting for NANA, Hemingway made $120,000 - just over $2 million dollars in today’s money. Ironically, the pieces he was filing - political analyses and prognostications - were not what NANA wanted and when he filed his last piece (from Paris on his way back to the US) he was politely and pointedly asked not to file any more pieces: NANA obviously did not feel they were getting enough bangs for their bucks (in this case literally).

. . .

Pretty much everything I have read so far about Hemingway gives me the impression that he was a just a very, very lucky sod with ambitions and an infinite capacity for self-delusion. He certainly had several gifts, of which self-promotion and making the right friends were two, but as far as I can see none was a literary gift. Years ago I read A Farewell To Arms and several of the short stories, and I am well aware that to justify my sweeping statements about ‘Papa’ Hemingway, I really should read all of the man’s work. The trouble is I really don’t feel like it, and there is most certainly a great deal of stuff out there I know I would find more rewarding.

Although Hemingway always denied it, The Sun Also Rises was largely autobiographical and the characters in it readily identifiable. ‘Bill Gorton’ the old friend of the novel’ main character, Jake Barnes, was a composite based on two friends who had accompanied Hemingway and his first wife Hadley to Pamplona. One, Donald Ogden-Stewart, a writer and screenwriter - he wrote The Philadelphia Story and The Barretts Of Wimpole Street among other films - was one of Hemingway’s friends remarked that the novel ‘was so absolutely accurate [as to their 1925 stay in Pamplona] that it seemed little more than a skilfully done travelogue’. How’s that for a ‘writer of genius’?

Oh, and as for Hemingway’s much-vaunted dedication to the truth - his advice to writers is ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know’, I’ve yet to understand what that means. Sounds just dandy, doesn’t it, but what the fuck does it mean?

But about one of the saddest incidents in the Spanish Civil War, when between May 3 and May 8 in Catalonia the various factions of the left - the anarchists, the socialists, the Stalin-supporting communists, the Trotskyists and the Marxists - turned on each other and fought their own civil war within the civil war Hemingway had nothing to say. No one knows why, but I suspect that for all his posturing about ‘the truth’, Hemingway just wasn’t interested.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

I pay the price of being remarkably stupid (but get away with it)

Royal Cornwall Hospital, Treliske, Truro

I can’t quite work out why, but I have been fighting very shy of writing this particular blog entry for several days, but given the event I am about to record – a significant one in its way by any standard – and given that this blog evolved from my writing a diary by hand more than 30 years ago, it might strike some as odd if I didn’t write. It would certainly strike me as odd if I didn’t.

Just over 12 years and six months ago, on May 2, 2006, I suffered a heart attack. Just over five days and five and a half hours ago, I suffered another. And I think the reason I was for some time reluctant to write about it here is that, oddly, having that second heart attack makes me feel rather foolish. I am, in fact, still in hospital, though all treatment has finished and I am sitting in the Friends of the Royal Cornwall Hospital cafĂ© in Treliske, Truro, waiting to bugger off home again. The delay is that I am to be given a month supply of medications, and, I’m told, that can be a slow process.

The very odd thing about this heart attack is that unlike the first, it came out of the blue. OK, to a certain extent the other also came out of the blue in that I hadn’t been suffering chest pains or anything like that, but I had been feeling very exhausted - I mean really knackered. I would get up from a good night’s sleep and go downstairs for a cup of tea, but within minutes feel completely shattered. I remember once at work, a month or two before that first one happened, feeling so exhausted at lunchtime, that I simply went to a church next door (St Mary Abbots in Church Street, Kensington, the quietest place I could think of) and merely sat for 30 minutes. At the time I simply thought I was very tired and working to many long hours, and I didn’t further question the exhaustion.

That first attack began at about 10.45am while I was on the rowing machine desk in the works’ gym at the Daily Mail: I was pushing myself, but not overdoing it, when suddenly something seem to ‘give’ in my chest and I developed a small, persistent ache. I also began to feel quite a little off colour, grotty enough to decide to knock that gym session on the head for the day and return to my desk. Over the next 20 minutes the persistent ache got worse and I felt ever grottier, so I went upstairs to see the nurse (12 years on no longer there, the victim of ‘economy measures’), collapsed as soon as she saw me, came to 20 minutes later with an oxygen mask on and an ambulance on its way. By 1.10pm (13.10 for our European friends) a stent had been inserted after a procedure which seemed take just minutes at Hammersmith Hospital. I remember the time because I made a point of looking at my watch.

This second attack was almost nothing like that. Over the past 12 years, I have carried on going to the gym regularly, although less regularly since I retired in April, swimming and walking quite a bit taking our Jack Russell out to do his sniffing and leg-cocking. In fact, I was in the gym a week last Sunday and the following Wednesday, the day before that second attack happened. Again I didn’t stupidly go hell for leather, but I didn’t stint myself either.

I went to bed at 10pm (22.00, see above), and just before 4am I woke up, as I have occasionally been doing during the night, and there was an ache right in the centre of my chest, right in the centre of my breastplate. I beleived it might be acid and took an indigestion pill, but thought no more about it. About ten minutes later I began to feel a bit clammy. The clamminess then got worse and within minutes I began sweating, only a little at first, then increasingly more. There was no pain as such – and certainly no ‘elephant sitting on my chest’, pains down my arm, pain in my back or pain extending up to the jaw as we are told can be symptoms – and although the dull chest ache increased a little in intensity, it was certainly not unbearable.

I decided to have a pee, and the next thing I remember was wondering why the light was on in the bedroom. Next I began to wonder why I was lying on the floor with my head next to the lavatory bowl. I eventually and gingerly got up. However, the sweating increased and increased and increased, and it eventually it reached the point where the sweat was quite literally flowing off me and dripping to the floor. And that, dear reader, was the point when it first occurred to me that I was having a heart attack. It was also, I have to say, when I first began to feel rather foolish about having one because if truth be told this second attack was arguably eminently avoidable.

Eventually an ambulance arrived and I was taken the 40 miles from St Breward to The Royal Cornwall Hospital, Treliske Truro. An emergency cardio team had already been alerted and had already been sent the relevant medical details and by 4.45am last Thursday morning I was having a stent inserted to widen an almost closed artery. The surgeon also found, however, that another artery feeding the heart was also dangerously narrow and I second operation was scheduled for yesterday for a second stent to be inserted.

While working on me he came across a third narrowed artery, so I had two stents inserted yesterday. It couldn’t be done on the Friday because the ‘list’ as already full, so I was left metaphorically kicking my heels over the weekend, ironically feeling as right as rain.

. . .

I find I clarify my thoughts best in debate or when I write, and writing the above has made it very clear to me why I feel so foolish about having the second heart attack, and to be frank I suspect having it was wholly my fault. Not only did I become increasingly lax about taking my medications, but I carried on smoking.

In my case it was cigars and I believed that ‘because I didn’t inhale the smoke as one does with cigarettes, it isn’t half as dangerous’. Well, that is rubbish – nicotine, which thickens the blood enters your blood stream even if the smoke is in your mouth and nasal cavity, and talking to cardiac surgeon afterwards he told me that ‘smoking and blood never go together well’.

As for the medication, 12 years ago I was put on a blood thinner, a statin and one to lower blood so that if I ever suffered from high blood pressure, it would be kept lower. Well, the blood thinner was a complete pain in the arse because, clumsy oaf that I am (‘oaf’ somehow implying that I am over 6ft and with a big build when in fact I am the opposite, but I’m sure you know what I mean) I am prone to cutting myself shaving, cutting myself preparing food, cutting myself by banging against a doorframe, scratching myself on any available protruding nail and otherwise giving my body every conceivable excuse to bleed. The thing is when you are on a blood thinner, you don’t just bleed a little for a few minutes until the clotting process starts, it bloody goes on for bloody hours. Well, I can’t remember what case I presented to my family doctor to stop taking that drug, but he agreed to allow me to come off it.

Statins were the next problem. They did not seem to have any immediate effect on me, but after a few years I realised that bit by bloody bit my joints and limbs were seizing up. As it was happening only imperceptibly, I was adapting to it. I knew something was up when a colleague (I won’t say ‘friend’ because he is what we hacks and former hacks technically call ‘a evil cunt’ who seems to delight in causing discord and upset – Pete, you know who) remarked that I, then still only 57/58, was walking like a 70-year-old. I was also concerned that getting out of the car was had become something of a struggle and that it took me several minutes to walk without pain in my feet and legs when I got up in the morning.

So I eventually knocked the statins on the head, too. I did so after seeing my GP (family doctor) who referred me to a consultant who judged (at the time) that my cholesterol count wasn’t excessively high, so it wasn’t as reckless and irresponsible as it might sound. The only drug I nominally carried on taking was blood pressure one and, as I have admitted, if I remembered to take it more than four times a month, that would be a lot. Yes, I know it sounds incredible that you can forget to take a medication prescribed for daily use but, well, I did. I lulled myself into a false sense of security: I had had my heart attack, survived, so that was that. Well, the other morning told me differently.

The following day, (my 69th birthday as it happens) and back at home

So I feel foolish in bringing on this second heart attack, and I have resolved to be less reckless and more responsible. The cigars – sadly – will have to go from however many I was smoking a week - and my use pretty much doubled when I retired and the spring, summer and early autumn good weather allowed my to sit outside of an evening with a drink and a cigar - to none at all. Sadly because I did enjoy them and, unlike with cigarettes, there was no craving for them at all (a craving cigarette smokers will all know and dislike intensely, as well as that fretting verging on panic to make sure when you are going out that you have enough fags with you. I least I’ve been shot of that for many years). As for the medication, I must put a lot more effort into remembering to take the as prescribed.

What does puzzle me, though, is my cholesterol level: compared to most reading this blog entry I venture to claim my diet is healthier. I eat loads of fruit (’cos I like it), I eat very little meat, I eat a salad of some kind – tomatoes/onions/red pepper etc in olive oil – with most meals, I don’t eat to much and I’m not overweight (according to the discharge nurse two days ago my body mass index is what it should be), I don’t eat bread, and I eat cake and biscuits so rarely that I could even claim that I ‘don’t eat cake or biscuits’, and I have been physically active. So why did it happen?

It has to be the smoking. I really can’t think of anything else. But what worries me now – which didn’t worry me after my first heart attack – was that this time there was absolutely no warning. Damn! Does that mean that now – because there are no obvious warning signs – I must expect to suffer a third attack pretty much at any time? Bloody hope not.

I am really not one of those inclined to bouts of sentimental gushing about Britain’s welfare state and especially our National Health Service, but I really can’t leave this blog without recording just how remarkably lucky we (and other countries with a comparable health service) are. That is not to say that the care I was given could not and would not be matched in a country in which citizens are expected to pay for the health care, but there is one very crucial difference: my surgery and overall treatment, my ambulance ride to Treliske, my after-op care and the medications I shall have to take until the day I die were all absolutely free.

The mean-spirited might point out that technically I am ‘paying’ for ‘the service’ through my taxes and National Insurance contributions, but as far as I am concerned such views are wilfully ignorant. The level of care I would have got in, say the United States, would have depended on my level of insurance, and had I been on welfare, I suspect that would have been the bare minimum and that I would have been out on my arse as soon as possible. Well, a millionaire on the best medical his money could buy would not have been given any better care than I.

Yes, there would have been perhaps flowers in his private room whereas I shared a recovery ward with five other old farts, and yes he might have been shown the degree of obsequious deference it was assumed his millions warranted whereas I had to share and put up with the ever cheerful, ever attentive, ever pleasant, ever irreverent banter of the NHS nurses and auxiliaries and the other patients, but I do know which system prefer.

I can’t help but add that taking (as I just have done) five tablets every morning and two every night, and knowing that I shall have to take some for the rest of my life does piss me off a little. Yes, I know they were prescribed to help me avoid a third heart attack, but - especially today on my 69th birthday and as a guy - they are something of a blow to my ego. It makes me feel a little ‘older’ and none of us likes that.

I can honestly say that in myself I feel as fit as a fiddle - seeing the physical state of the other five in my ward, all my age or just a bit older, was a revelation - but obviously I wasn’t and am not, and it would be conceitedly dangerous to try to kid myself I am in better shape. And the discharging nurse did warn me that such feelings of fitness and self-confidence can misleading.

NB I was recently in Germany, less than a mile from The Netherlands as the crow flies, but eight miles by car, and on my last day I nipped over to Bad Nieuweschans just on the other side of the border to stock up on cigars. I brought back 50. Well, I am reluctant to throw them out, so a friend as agreed to take over ownership.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Just a few songs to be getting on with, two of them new to me. Shalom/salaam ‘alaykum

I’m sure the rest of the world realised long ago that you can now post YouTubes videos directly onto a Blogger blog, but I’m rather slow on the uptake. However.

Here are three videos we were playing last night at a now usual weekly piss-up with my guitar teacher and friends of his in Padstow. The first, Stupid Blues, is a favourite of his, and I can see why: Junior Brown is a phenomenal guitarist, ranging seamlessly from blues to jazz to blues to jazz and back. Stick with it, there is a song eventually.

The there’s a now song on me by a new ‘band’ on me, The Correspondents, which stands up very well, whether you know Soho or not. If you don’t know its one-time reputation, it was the sleazy red-light district of central London just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly circus (in past eras known for its Dilly Boys - I’m sure you can guess what services they provided).

Here is Etta James version of James Brown’s It’s A Man’s World, which in my view is as good as the original, though a new take. I have loads of songs by Etta James on my iPhone and can’t get enough of here. Below that is Christina Aguilera’s version of the same song, equally as good and evidence that it is a real shame she is still somehow grouped with ‘pop’ singers such as Tay-Tay Swift, previously Britney Spears and the rest. This gal has more than a voice and a half.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

I call on all philistines to come and join me (it’s getting a little lonely in my neck of the woods). We can discuss ‘meaning’ and ‘creativity’ and even try to establish what exactly is the point of Gilbert & George’s work, shit and all

Heinitzpolder - Dollard, Germany

My sister, who lived in the Philippines for several years, a country which has a large ethnic Chinese community, was remarking about what one of her servants there told her. She said that one of here Filipono maids told her that before applying for a job in my sister’s household, she was due to start work in the household of an ex-pat Englishman but changed her mind when she heard the Englishman was married to a Hong Kong Chinese woman. What difference did that make? my sister asked her.

Well, said her maid, she far preferred working for Europeans - which is why she had applied to work for the businessman in the first place – but all Filipinos hated working for the Chinese. Why? my sister asked her. Well, said her maid, the Europeans treat them well, almost as equals who just happen to be fulfilling a certain role [that of the maid, the driver, the gardener etc]. The Chinese on the other hand generally treated them as though they were sub-human.

That, naturally, is surely something of a generalisation, and there must certainly be some Chinese who behave in a way I we enlightened and oh-so liberal Europeans find more acceptable; and I am certainly not making any grand claims on it, but bear with me because it does lead on to a point.

My sister’s anecdote followed on from something else she told me. Staying with us for a week – I am staying with her for two weeks, one more week to go, here in the far north-west of Germany less than a mile from the Dutch border – is one of her grandchildren and as she was chatting, she was wrapping a couple of small gifts for the las for his first birthday tomorrow. Then she told me of a huge celebration she had witnessed in the Philippines: a local ethnic Chinese family had hired the ballroom of one of Manila’s biggest and grandest hotel and invited several hundred guests to help celebrate their son’s birthday – his first birthday.

I remarked that – which is what I feel – that kind of ostentation has pretty much everything to do with trying to impress one’s friends and neighbours by demonstrating just how rich and wealthy one is, and such boasting and showing off is certainly universal. Nevertheless, many cultural differences are marked, and some cultural traits in an ‘alien’ environment can lead to misunderstanding, but this entry is not intended to be – and I hope it doesn’t become – just another platitudinous commentary on ‘Lord, we are all so different!’, a coment all too often followed among the enlightened and liberal classes in Britain by ‘and isn’t that really, really marvellous?’, a statement with which you disagree in the company of some at great cost.

. . .

I have noted before that as the half-breed child of an English father and a German mother, I have both English and German traits in my personality. And given that I attended German schools from the, possibly from the point of view of development, ages of nine to 13, some German traits are possibly more prominent that English traits. And one German trait I like is that generally if you ask a German for her or his opinion, you will get it, warts and all. You might care to comment that being, by my own admission, in some ways more German than English, I am bound to appreciate that kind of kind of plain-speaking, but it is certainly not a trait which is widely appreciated in Britain – far from it.

In fact, it is generally why the British often describe the Germans as ‘tactless’ and ‘arrogant’, something which naturally bewilders Germans. Their attitude is – and it is one which this semi-German fully understands and agrees with completely - ‘well, you did ask me what I thought, you asked me what my views were, so I told you. Now you are upset by what I said, so what’s going on? If you didn’t want me to answer honestly, why did you ask me in the first place?’ Quite.

The Brits, though, at least some Brits and especially those who pride themselves on being ‘middle-class’ (and it is that pride which I find so baffling, though it is undoubtedly there) are apt to be what they regard as ‘polite’ and believe any response which falls even a little short of that kind of ‘politeness’ is nothing but outright rudeness; and, if they responder is German, it is very good evidence – if evidence were even needed for something so self-evidently true – that the Germans are irredeemably ‘tactless’ and ‘arrogant’.

Here is a good example: for over year while I still lived in London 25 years, I shared a flat with three others in Elgin Avenue, Maid Vale. Although I say ‘shared’, the flat was more a collection of bedsits for four folk who shared the same bathroom and kitchen. And although Maida Vale is a in London terms a ‘good address’, the flat itself was nothing special and, being occupied by a succession of renters, rather shabby. (I took it upon myself every so often to clean the kitchen from top to bottom as no one else could be bothered to do their own washing-up and I dislike preparing food in a dirty kitchen. Maybe that’s another of my ‘German’ traits or maybe I am just one of odd bods who doesn’t much enjoy living in squalor.)

If someone left, the protocol was – in theory, but usually not in practice – that all the other ‘flatmates’ would meet and evaluate every whoever applied to take over the free room, and one day, after someone did announce he or she was leaving one flatmate - Kelly – and I met a young German student who wanted to move in. Once he had seen the room and the other facilities, we sat in the kitchen to ‘get to know’ the applicant and what followed was the usual routine of ‘tell us a bit about yourself’.

Eventually Kelly asked the lad what he thought of the room. ‘Well,’ he said in English in his unmistakably German accent, ‘I’ve seen better’, and undoubtedly had – like all the other bedrooms, it too was shabby and had it been a pleasant, airy room, I’m certain he would have said so. But that was his goosed cooked was far as Kelly was concerned.

As soon as he had left she told me: ‘Well, we’re not having him!’ Why not, I asked, he seemed very nice. ‘Did you hear what he said about the room?’ she said. But, I told her, you asked him and he told you. What is wrong with that. But it was no use, he was out: he hadn’t followed standard protocol in such situations by telling us – quite dishonestly, of course, but honesty wasn’t the point – that the room was ‘lovely, really, really lovely’, and just how ‘marvellous’ all the other facilities were and how he would ‘really, really’ love to share the flat with us, and so on.

I told her that I knew Germans quite well and that he was not being rude but simply being honest: she had asked him what he thought of the room and he had told her. What was wrong with that? But she wouldn’t be assuaged and that was that, and the student was not invited to take the room.

. . .

I am reminded of the British obsession with ‘being polite’ and the nation preferring such ‘politeness’ to being honest pretty much every time I switch on BBC Radio 4 (the main talk radio station here in Britain). If, on some discussion programme such as Start The Week, a book one of the contributors has written is mentioned, it is invariably a ‘marvellous’ book, one which the speaker ‘absolutely loved’. If, as happens all too often, the station broadcasts a programme of poetry or short stories or music by either professional writers or artists or amateurs , each poem, story or piece of music is inevitably ‘amazing’, ‘quite amazing’, ‘simply marvellous’ or ‘stupendous’ whether or not it actually is or not. And more often than not it isn’t.

I understand the dilemma faced by presenter: if a poem or a book or a piece of music is mediocre, it can be difficult to say so without sounding overly harsh. But might I suggest that praising it to high heaven as though had been reinvented is not the only alternative. Surely to goodness it is not beyond the wit of most of us to find some way to be polite and acknowledge that at least an effort has been made without resorting to tell outright lies?

A similar and related bafflement for me is much that is said about ‘works of art’ by their creators and commentators, and I was reminded of this yesterday while listening to Afternoon Concert on the BBC’s Radio 3 (one of Radio 4’ sister stations – though I suspect you guessed that – and dedicated to music, mainly ‘classical’ but which has an admirably catholic coverage of pieces). For some reason which eluded me yesterday and still eludes me, yesterday’s concert was given over to piece by Estonian composers and very enjoyable and interesting they were, too.

At this point I have to quote Sir Thomas Beecham who observed (or is said to have observed) that ‘it is quite untrue that British people don't appreciate music. They may not understand it, but they absolutely love the noise it makes’. Well, that sums me up: I don’t just appreciate music, I love it (all kinds of music, I should add, as a rebuff to my stepmother’s aunt who gets very sniffy indeed about jazz and always trots out some dismissive quote by someone or other about jazz), but I can’t even begin to claim I can ‘understand’ it.

Yes, I know – as one can know that one doesn’t know something known by others – that for those with an in-depth knowledge of music different keys can relate to each other, that, for example, a symphony or concerto can have an ‘architecture, but sadly I have no such musical knowledge. That certainly doesn’t detract from my enjoyment and appreciation, but where I do markedly depart from others is when talk turns to matters such as ‘what a piece of music means’. I don’t mean to sound completely daft but as far as I am concerned music is just sound and nothing more. And crucially is has no intrinsic meaning.

Naturally, a composer or performer can give a piece meaning: he or she might hope to try to celebrate his nation’s existence by using echoes of his nation’s folk songs in a piece, but I contend that whatever ‘meaning’ a piece of music has has been superimposed on it later (possibly by the composer him or herself). And let me repeat: as far as I am concerned ‘music’ is absolutely nothing more than pure sound. Yes, the sounds made by the various instruments used to produce it might have been planned to be played in a certain sequence or they it might not: I get equal enjoyment from free jazz as from a Haydn piano sonata. But neither piece has intrinsic meaning.

. . .

I am writing this entry (after what became a typically circuitous introduction) because of two things I have heard on the radio in recent days. The first was a claim (claim? It was delivered more as an absolute instruction than a claim and one which will brook no contradiction, which always rubs me up the wrong way) that ‘art’ need no necessarily be beautiful, but that ‘it must carry a message’. To that my response is an unequivocal ‘bollocks!’

Quite apart from my personal conviction that ‘art’ is in itself nothing special or indeed at all rare and that just as much ‘art’ is produced in a council evening class of enthusiastic amateur painters as in the studios of the – largely self-appointed – great and good, I do get very jacked off with the insistence that ‘art’ should have ‘meaning’ or ‘a message’. Says who? As far as I am concerned nothing in this world whatsoever has intrinsic meaning. Whatever ‘meaning’ we, individually or collectively choose to see in anything is wholly arbitrary. For example, the small, by now very grubby, toy bunny I might have bought for my child when she was a toddler and which she took to bed and to sleep with her every night until she reached puberty might certainly have ‘meaning’ to me on the eve of her wedding 25 years later when I come across it by chance; but it most certainly has no ‘meaning’ to you and I wouldn’t expect it do.

Just by sheer chance as I write this in mid-afternoon listening to Radio 3’s Afternoon Concert, an arrangement by some bod called Fritz Kreisler of the second movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto is being played. Now that piece most definitely has meaning for me – it is a piece I played a lot as in a great deal at one point in my life, getting drunk on cheap and warm white wine feeling very sorry for myself now that another girl had thrown me over and whenever I hear it or any of its other movements, I am taken straight back to those days. But that ‘meaning’ is personal and subjective – if you know and like the piece, it might well have its own ‘meaning’ to you. Does that make my point?

Something similar happens when the latest novels are discussed on radio: to listen to such discussions, you get the distinct impression that if a new novel doesn’t ‘deal with’ a certain, rather limited range of ‘issues’, it can lay no claim – in Britain at least - to being taken seriously. So a hero or heroine might well be an eco warrior battling to halt global warming, a trans man or woman battling to come to terms with his or her identity, a gay man or woman battling to come to terms with his or her sexuality and so on. If, on the other hand, a new novel does no such thing, it is seemingly ruled offside as a piece which cannot be taken seriously.

Something similar goes on with the notion of ‘creativity’, and it, too, like ‘meaning’ is put on a pedestal to be worshipped. Once again I hold to the, no doubt hugely unfashionable, view that not only is ‘creativity’ very common indeed and thus nothing special at all and that it will be found equally in that council-run evening class as in more hi-falutin salons, but essentially the word is quite meaningless. Listening to the introduction of a piece on yesterday’s concert, Prophecy by the Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur, he was quoted as saying that his main aim is to ask ‘existential questions with music’ and one of his goals ‘is to reach the creative energy of the listener’. But what is he talking about? Exactly how do you ask an ‘existential question with music’? And what, exactly is ‘the creative energy of the listener’.

My dilemma is that I might be the patsy, I might be the philistine who is blind to such matters. And being blind I wouldn’t even know I was blind to them. With the best will in the world I cannot even begin to understand what ‘creative energy’ might be. And although I can think of several existential questions which might be asked – such as this one posed by a Palestinian refugee who was born and has lived in a permanently temporary camp for the past 30 years: ‘What the fuck is going on? Am I really going to be living hand to mouth until I die’ – I cannot for the life of me see how such questions can be asked by music.

It does occur to me that perhaps I should throw in the towel and become like folk in Britain for whom everything is ‘amazing’ perhaps that will save me from my incipient philistinism – become part of the gang while I still can.

. . .

I can’t find anyway to lead into this although the artist ‘entity’ Gilbert & George did come to mind while I was writing the above. Sadly, I found I couldn’t trace the immediate connection. However, I think they are a good example of what we philistines regard as bollocks and that how once you are part of the inner circle in art, pretty much anything you do is ‘art’ and ‘amazing’. Well judge for yourselves.

Below is a reproduction of a piece made by Gilbert & George in 1996 called Spunk Blood Piss Shit Spit. To be frank it as an illustration it is perfectly acceptable, though were it produced by a second year art student at college and entitled something innocuous such as Full English Breakfast, I very much doubt it would get any attention at all.

As it is . . . I did seem to remember that Gilbert & George claimed to have used some of their own faeces (the posh word for shit) as part of the materials for their piece, but I can’t find any reference after an in-depth 30-second search, so just accept that as hearsay.

Beneath the piece (lifted from the Tate Gallery’s website about a ‘Major Gilbert & George Exhibition and you can check it out here) is a piece of puffery, by an art critic and by Gilbert & George themselves. Quite how what they write about the genesis of their piece makes that piece any better – or even any more interesting – I couldn’t tell you, but then I am just a philistine who cannot be expected to understand these things. I am, however, not too philistine to realise that if I could get hold of a good agent and a great marketing department, I could make a mint! Here is an excerpt from the accompanying puffery:

At the same time, the pictures [in the Tate exhibition] explore ideas of mortality in its rawest form. ‘It’s like our pictures of cemeteries, all that dead matter. Shit is also the end of a life, a left over’, they explain. The nakedness of the artists is deliberately exposed, an image of humanity reduced to its essentials, without shelter, status or dignity. As the critic David Sylvester commented, while many twentieth-century artists tried to break out of the prettifying conventions of depicting the body as ‘nude’, only Gilbert & George truly succeeded in portraying it as ‘naked’.

Their investigation into the body led Gilbert & George to look in detail at all of its fluids and excretions. They bought a microscope to study samples of piss, and were astonished to discover complex patterns forming and dispersing on the slide. They found they could even pick out recognisable images. ‘Out of these drops of blood come stained-glass windows from fourteenth-century cathedrals, or Islamic writing’ they explained. ‘To see daggers and medieval swords in sweat: that’s our aim. In piss you find pistols, flowers, crucifixes. Spunk amazes us… it really does look like a crown of thorns.

Here is another piece which gives me at least the impression that if you play your cards right, this art game can well be money for old rope.

On the website it is accompanied by this piece of puffery:

We were trying to do something that was absolutely hopeless, dead, grey, lost’, Gilbert & George have said of the Dead Boards pictures. Like the Dusty Cornwers which preceded them, these interior studies of decaying empty rooms and isolated individuals are marked by melancholia. Even when the figures change positions, the same walls and the same boards are repeated, adding to their claustrophobic intensity.

. . .


Just for the craic (or, as I am now told is correct, despite what I thought crack) a photo I took yesterday, reduced to B&W (as is only proper).

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Just a few pics . . .

Heinitzpolder - Dollard, Germany

I’m in North-West Germany for two weeks, arriving last Tuesday, visiting my sister who lives in the back beyond in Ostfriesland (East Frisia) right on the Dutch frontier. She and my brother-in-law, who retired last year, live in a concerted farmhouse typical of North Germany.

I brought my ‘new camera’ with me, a DSLR (digitial single lens reflex), and have been taking pictures of pretty much everything I want to take pictures of, but mainly stock photographs of the area and towns to submit to Alamy. I am now an accredited contributor (though, to be honest, anyone can become one if your three initial and subsequent submissions pass their quality control.

I call it my ‘new camera’ because although I’ve owned it for more than a year, I still haven’t quite got to grips with the innumerable variation of settings. In the 1980s, in Birmingham and Cardiff, I did a lot of photography, but this was in the pre-digital age of developing film and printing pictures. I had two cameras, but almost always used the simplest of the two, a Pentax K1000. The settings were simple: aperture, shutter speed and ASA (now called ISO, though I understand it is in some way a bit different as in the maths involved are different). That was it, but now . . .?

Here are a few I took yesterday in Papenburg, a town about 15 miles away where my grandmother was born and grew up. They are in B&W simply because I prefer B&W. They are not very interesting simply because they are just stock piccies of the town I want to submit to Alamy. The major employer in the town is a large shipyard, Jos. L Meyer, which shifted from town to a huge site on the outskirts. Where the old shipyard was has been covered and landscaped and now houses hotels and stores. The crane is from the old shipyard and, well, has been there to look nice. The others were taken a few days ago, hereabouts and thereabouts.