Monday, February 11, 2019

We’ve all got a book in us (they say) and it’s a shame my father’s never quite saw the light of day

My sister (who, she assures me, tunes into this ’ere blog every now and then) might remember this or she might not, but here goes: for pretty much as long as I can remember, or at least for the last 15-odd years of his life, my father was writing ‘my book’ (i.e. and quite obviously ‘his’ book, not mine. Please do try to keep up). He did almost complete it, after a fashion, but it was never published. He did, though, for a while have a publisher, Faber & Faber no less. But, as I say, in the event it wasn’t published — so strictly that should be ‘in the non-event’.

The idea was a good one (and remains a good one, and I’m sure it has been covered by other authors although my father never mentioned any): relations and co-operation between the IRA (or its pre-cursors, one of which was the Irish Citizens Army) and the Germans in both — I think — World War I and World War II, given that they had a common enemy: the British. There was a lot of material and my father, always a diligent man, although I think a slow worker, came up with a lot of ‘new facts’. Perhaps his mooted links, whatever they were, to the intelligence services — well mooted by me proved useful in digging up facts ordinary joes like you and I would have no access to, but he took so long to write the bloody book that he was overtaken by Fate: whoever it was at Faber & Faber who had come to whatever agreement it was he had struck with the house had long retired be the time he was on the point of presented the more or less completed work, and his successor — as so often happens — reviewed all existing contracts when he took over, and my father’s was out of the window.

My father’s book is in some ways part and parcel to his affair with the woman who became my stepmother after my mother died which began in the mid-196os. For one or two reasons I don’t think it was his first affair. I do
remember that at one point in early-1960s when we were still living in Berlin, where he was — possibly nominally or possibly not nominally — the BBC’s ‘representative’ (the BBC also had ‘a correspondent’, one Charles Wheeler, a man of liberal persuasions with whom I gather my father, a man of not quite such a liberal inclination, did not get on) he was taking ‘Polish lessons’ from some woman who lived in, I think, Dahlem or Zehlendorf (both rather nice suburbs in the south-west of Berlin).

On the face of it, of course, there is nothing to suggest that taking off of a weekday afternoon to a nice suburban villa to learn Polish is necessarily suspect, but it does beg quite a few questions, not the least of which is why had he decided to learn Polish when he had previously, to my knowledge at least, never shown the slightest interest in the language?

On the other hand if he was having an affair, did his explanation that he was simply spending several hours in sunny Dahlem learning Polish irregular verbs really wash? Who knows, but that is neither here nor there, although I think it’s more likely than not that he did stray from the marital bed, especially as my Uncle Pat, his younger brother, once informed me that he had quite an eye for the girls when they were young. Whatever the story, his final affair began in the mid-1960s, and when his BBC posting to Paris ended in 1972 (he had been ‘representative’ there, too), he and his squeeze were soon living together at her flat in Greenwich.

At the time we lived in Henley-on-Thames, 40-odd miles west of London (or rather my family did), but he only came home at weekends, telling my mother that he didn’t like commuting and was spending the night in one of the bedrooms the BBC had at Broadcasting House for newsreaders and announcers who had to be up early (or something — it doesn’t matter what he told his wife, my mother, as it was all bullshit anyway).

In the mid-1970s my stepmother inherited £7,000 from an aunt and bought a small cottage here in St Breward, seven miles north of Bodmin on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and this became a weekend bolthole for my dad and his squeeze, and I think it was here that work on ‘my book’ began in earnest. Writing it was most certainly one of the excuses he gave my mother for taking off west to the edge of Bodmin Moor for days on end, telling her he was staying with ‘a friend’. In my experience women are not daft, certainly not quite as daft as men, and I doubt whether she believed a word of it or his story about spending weeknights in one of the BBC ‘bedrooms’, but there you go, that was the story.

. . .

I was in my mid-twenties in the mid-1970s when my father and his squeeze established their love-nest and had started my first job on a newspaper (as a reporter on the Lincolnshire Chronicle, based in Lincoln). It might appear
that I was following in my father’s footsteps ‘into journalism’, but that wouldn’t have been true at all. Having persuaded myself several years earlier that ‘I was writer’, I thought — erroneously as I now know — that working for a newspaper might be a good first step in a writing career.

So I applied for several jobs on newspapers in the spring of 1974, simply sending off speculative letters to various weekly newspapers and publications up and down the country, but was invited for interview only twice. The first interview (in fact as the result of responding to an ad in the Daily Telegraph) was with a motoring magazine based in Buckinghamshire and the second with the Chronicle.

I didn’t get the first job, and I’m sure it didn’t help when I admitted I didn’t know the first thing about cars but that I had a good friend who did and who often chatted about them with me. The job, I’m sure, went to someone who had more than a passing interest in motoring and was capable of more than just making small talk about cars. My answer to another question — why did I think I was qualified for a career in journalism to which I responded that, well, I already had a typewriter — would have been equally unconvincing.

But I did survive the interview in Lincoln, with a white-bearded man who had a bad stammer. I can’t remember his name now, but he was a member of the family which then owned the Lincolnshire Standard Group (which no longer exists, in time no doubt bought out by a Dutch biscuit company, then an insurance group and finally by a hedge fund which stripped it of all and every asset, before disposing of what remained of the company in a roadside ditch on the way to Louth).

My job on the Chronicle helped form a kind of additional bond with my father even though for most of his life he had hoped his first-born, my older brother, would be the one to follow him into the trade. By the mid-1970s, given my brother’s growing mental issues, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. From then on he took to buttonholing me at odd moments and reading me what he had most recently written in his book and asking for my opinion.

This always made me uncomfortable. For one thing, I couldn’t tell a ‘well-written’ piece of prose from doggerel, but it was also the case that my father was extraordinarily sensitive and even the slightest criticism could upset him greatly. So on these occasion I was obliged to put on a grand performance and tread very carefully, convincing my father that not only did I agree with what he had written and done so well (about a topic of which I knew less than nothing), but that he had pretty much nailed it and I could there and then think of no way in which it might be improved.

I have a sixth sense for bullshit and often know when people are lying (although obviously not in the strict philosophical sense of ‘knowing’). I am also certain the world can read me like a book and always knows perfectly well when I am telling a whopper, but apparently not. My father, at least, never caught on, though it is likely that, like most people, he chose to hear what he wanted to hear and as I was saying all the right things about his book, keeping it as vague as I dared, he didn’t go into it very deeply.

If I do remember correctly, his style was far too succinct, not to say dense to be particularly readable, although it depends on what you are trying to achieve. After he had died, a BBC friend and colleague was asked by my stepmother to ‘finish’ it and as far as I know did so, but by then Faber’s had lost interest. I also seem to remember that he kept missing various deadlines which cannot have helped sustain the publishers’ interest and at one point he told me he was thinking of re-writing the whole book into a novel. Why, I really can’t guess.

But that was my father’s my book.

. . .

I mention it because I have similar enterprise on the go, although in several very crucial ways I am going about the whole exercise very differently. For one thing, remembering how uncomfortable I felt, not to say bored, when my father would spend a good 20 minutes reading me several passages while I tried to feign interest, I have not subjected anyone to anything similar, although I am a firm believer in not showing anything to anyone until you are certain you are done with it.

For one thing when we do ‘ask for an honest opinion’, we are doing nothing of the sort. Instead we simply want to be told how ‘good’ something is and nothing more, and most something half-baked and unfinished will certainly not be in any way ‘good’, so in just that respect showing anything to anyone is more than pointless.

My enterprise serves an entirely practical purpose, unlike my father’s: to learn to write, to learn patience and to learn application. It was conceived last summer when I read Ernest Hemingway’s ‘debut’ novel The Sun Also Rises and wondered why it was hailed — albeit by the publisher and in review excerpts printed on the back copy — as ‘a masterpiece’ and Hemingway as ‘a writer of genius’. I was baffled by those claims, so baffled that I immediately re-read the novel to find out exactly what I had missed. I hadn’t read anything. Since then the whole enterprise has burgeoned quite a bit as I came across and incorporated more information about Hemingway and the novel. It is moving along slowly because — well there’s no rush and I want to get it ‘right’.

I have already mentioned in an earlier post what — in my view — a complete nine-bob note (US nine-dollar bill) Hemingway was, and his fame and reputation (which has, admittedly, waned somewhat since he blew his brains out in Idaho) had, as far as I can make out, more to do with a hard-headed publishing house wanting to make money and the literary world wanting a new generation of heroes than any particular gifts he had. But anyway that is what ‘my enterprise’ is all about and I am under a strict and self-imposed instruction not to try to start anything else until the whole thing is done, dusted and complete. I shall post it, in parts as it is already almost 10,000 words long, here in this blog.

I am already convinced that I might well be riding for a fall — after all Hemingway was ‘a Nobel laureate’ don’t you know — but fuck it, time to stick to my guns: I really don’t think the guy could write for toffee, and the acres of literary analysis of his work I have come across is essentially nothing by pseudo, highbrow onanism. Incidentally, The Sun Also Rises was not Hemingway’s debut novel at all: his first novel was a throwaway piece he knocked off in just over a week allegedly to get out of a publishing contract in order to get a better one with another house (Scribner’s).

It was a bald parody of the work of an older friend, the now-forgotten novelist Sherwood Anderson, who had done him many favours, not least introducing him to Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein to help launch him in Paris when he moved there. Anderson was published by Boni & Liveright who had taken up Hemingway and published his first collection of stories, and, so the claim is made, Hemingway knocked off that first novel (The Torrents Of Spring) knowing that in attacking Anderson, Boni & Liveright would refuse to publish it and thus give him grounds for breaking his contract with him. And why did he want to do that? Because he was no big pals with F Scott Fitzgerald who was published by Scribner’s and who championed Hemingway to the house. Anderson was not the first friend and mentor Hemingway shat upon when it eventually suited him — he made a habit of it. A nine-bob note who couldn’t write for toffee is actually being quite nice to the man.

Ah, but there’s me riding for that fall: a ‘Nobel laureate’ don’t you know. Fancy!

PS It’s worth recalling what Peter Cook said when he was informed by some keen young chap at a party that he was ‘writing a novel’.

‘No,’ said Cook, ‘neither am I.’

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Beware of those who answer unasked questions (or attempt to intellectualise the moolah out of your pocket). Trust your judgment, it’s the only one you have

A friend who, I gather, regular tunes in here to see read the latest waffle I am spouting was concerned that I hadn’t posted for a while and that, anyway, the posts were getting fewer and further in between. Oddly, enough I had also been conscious of that, too, and had myself wondered why I seemed a tad reluctant to put fingers to keyboard to re-spout a new instalment of Things We Didn’t Know We Cared About And, On Reflection, Still Don’t Care About. I finally decided the fault lay, as a great deal in Britain does these days, with Brexit and related matters.

There’s no getting past it, but what happens - or as now seems more likely - doesn’t yet happen on March 29 has been dominating pretty much all the news here in the British media, and despite something occurring to me and quite often thinking ‘hmm, I wouldn’t mind writing about this or that - ‘this or that’ having absolutely bugger all to do with Brexit - every time I sat down I found myself circling back, like a young teen lad and a girlie magazine, to Brexit. But I didn’t want to write about Brexit.

I shan’t say the subject bores me, because it most certainly doesn’t, but there really is nothing much new to say until we find out how the cookie will crumble come March 29. Yet Brexit is almost impossible to get away from, and I resented it (and don’t think that the irony hasn’t escaped me that this blog entry, or at least its intro, is also about Brexit).

So here is one topic I have over the past few weeks been pondering, and as I think best either in conversation or when writing (usually this blog), considered as a possible blog entry.

. . .

I have lived here (about a mile outside the moorland village of St Breward in North Cornwall, down the hill towards Wenford Bridge (or it could be Wenfordbridge - I’ve read both) where the potter Michael Cardew had his workshop) since December 1995. At some point over those past 23 years I noticed, at Penpont a mile down the back road to Bodmin, a workshop but with a sign outside which proclaimed it to be the workshop/studio of a ceramics artist.

The artist is Jenny Beavan (not the costume designer, but the ceramicist) and from the pictures of some on her website, I find some of her work rather attractive and interesting, other pieces not so much. I have no idea how much she charges, but if I had the money and the space here (and a wife who enjoys ‘art’ as much as I do) I would certainly consider acquiring some of her work. Here are a few examples:

 You can find more on her website or look them up on Google images.

The reason I mention Ms Beavan in this blog is because of what she writes on her website, particularly in her ‘artist’s statement’. I must add that from here on I shall not be commenting specifically about that statement, although I shall quote from it as an example, but a tendency in many to intellectualise beyond redemption pretty much anything to do with ‘the arts’. People can, of course, say - and intellectualise - just as much as they like, but what I question what is ‘said’ is necessarily all it is cracked up to be.

At this point I must take an apparent left-turn, but only to try to help illuminate what I am trying to say. When I was younger, I had rather less faith in my own judgment and intellect than I do now. If I read something I didn’t understand, I immediately and always assumed I was my fault and that I was just a bit too thick to understand it. I now realise I was being a little unfair on myself because often the subject matter was complex, and I had too few reference point and too little intellectual experience to attempt anything even close to comprehension.

For example while at college I came across (or didn’t as it turns out and as I shall explain in a minute) Walter Pater’s admonition that ‘art should shine with a hard, gem-like flame’. Being then, and possibly still, rather too literal-minded, I asked myself ‘now what the bloody hell does that mean? Because I don’t have a clue.’ And being clueless as to what Pater was getting at, I again blamed myself as being just a little too thick. I now think I do know what Pater was getting at and that he was simply being what might well in simple terms be described as ‘poetic’. Furthermore, what he was expressing was not particularly important.

(When I searched the net to double-check the wording of the Pater quote, I couldn’t find it because it’s not what Pater said at all: in fact he said ‘To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life’, and what he said there is not one mention of art. I suspect what I had heard (or read) all those years ago was an unholy product of a series of Chinese whispers and inky undergraduates, such as me, simply getting it wrong.)

As I got older and had worked as a newspaper sub-editor for some time, I came to realise that often a written piece was opaque going on pretty bloody incomprehensible simply because it was badly written. It is not too outlandish to suggest that if you are trying to communicate, the clearer you are in your expression and communication, the better. But it took a while for the penny to drop and I wonder whether others, as I did, believe it is they who are at fault if they they are a tad baffled by, say, 500 words on art, writing or music. However good an artist is in her or his chosen field, they might not necessarily be good at simple communication.

. . .

I am about to quote from Jenny Beavan’s ‘artist statement’, but I should like to make clear - to Ms Beavan in case she ever happens across this blog entry as well as everyone else - that I am not criticising her but have chosen these excerpts as examples of their kind.

Ms Beavan begins the statement:

‘My work is an exploration into material and place observing in particular processes of interdependence between water and geological change. The intention is to capture a moment in a process of change and to reflect upon the physical and metaphorical aspects of a place as a vessel with containment. . . The experience of walking and being in a place often creates the necessary impulse from which to respond. I will often, almost daily follow a water course through a  familiar landscape, where the activity of revisiting and being familiar with and more sensually aware, helps to shape and re-shape minute and seasonal changes.’

So far so good, and I don’t doubt many are thinking ‘well, that’s straightforward enough, what’s he banging on about?’ But now look at the pictures above of three pieces of her work: Ms Beavan’s statement is all fine and dandy, but would you have deduced any of what it says from the pieces shown (though I admit it is always preferable to see the original piece of plastic art if at all possible - reproductions are worse than useless)? You say ‘it’s just an artist statement, dummy, don’t try to read too much into it’. Well, let me put it this way: does Ms Beavan’s artist’s statement in any way illuminate the pieces? Does it give you a better appreciation of them?

I might seem to be concentrating too much - and thus misleadingly - on Ms Beavan’s work and her artistic statement, but what essentially concerns me is a tendency to intellectualise (which I think it does), especially, although not exclusively, in ‘the arts’. It almost seems to have become an end in itself.

Take what has been referred to Brit art and conceptual art, and take an well-known example of it: Tracey Emin’s My Bed and the prominence it has achieved. Emin conceived of her unmade bed as ‘a piece of art’ after spending

several days and nights in it, drinking and smoking and trying to come to terms with a broken relationship. The ‘work’ was first exhibited in Japan and at the Tate Gallery in 1999 and has since been shown around the world. It was bought by Charles Saatchi for £150,000 in 2000 and four years ago made £2.2 million at auction. When challenged by critics that anyone could exhibit an unmade bed and claim it was art, Emin is said to have responded, perfectly reasonably: “Well, they didn't, did they? No one had ever done that before.”

. . .

Don’t worry, I am not about to launch into a gammon-faced rant against ‘modern art’ and wail about ‘what on earth is the world coming to!’, although I do have unorthodox views on ‘what art is’, namely bloody anything you want it to be (which would include Ms Emin’s bed, by the way). Where I brutally part company from many is in my sincere belief that anyone and everyone can produce ‘art’ and that, to put it mildly ‘art’ is not half as important as it is cracked up to be.

Yet we seem continually to be required to show it a reverence, almost to treat it as something sacred. I suppose the my view could best be summed up in the observation, rough and ready perhaps, but I hope you get the drift, that ‘art’ is not ‘a thing’ but ‘an activity’. Furthermore it is ’an activity’ which everyone and anyone can indulge in, though whether what is eventually

Art can certainly tell us a lot about our and other past and present societies, our self-image, our values and much else, but then so does much else: shopping patterns, TV schedules, economic data to name but three. Art in its many forms gives us a lot of pleasure. Producing art has been shown to have a definite therapeutic value in health care. But as for the reverence we are expected to show and genuflections we are required to make to ‘art’, consider the £2.2 million Ms Emin’s My Bed commanded at auction (with several involved in the transaction each acquiring a tidy sum): would those £2.2 million really have found a new home if the ‘significance’ of Ms Emin’s bed had not remorselessly been talked up?

That is where a great deal of the intellectualising comes in and proves to be very useful to those with an interest in bumping up prices. I cannot guess at the motive of whoever bought Ms Emin’s bed (and had £2.2 million to spare) but I suspect her or his reasons were swayed by the kind of write-up exemplified by this short write-up in Britain’s Guardian from October 2017:

‘With My Bed, Tracey Emin turned one of her life’s great low points, a bedbound drinking spree, into a theatrical arrangement worthy of Jacobean tragedy: a violent mess of sex and death. Amid the yellowing sheets there are condoms, a tampon, a pregnancy test, discarded knickers and a lot of vodka bottles. It’s also very kitchen sink. That blue slab of carpet speaks of lonely rented rooms.’

From my point of view - that is my contention that intellectualising has long ago outgrown its britches - here’s a ‘better’ description of Ms Emin’s bed which appeared in the Daily Telegraph in December 2014. The piece is pivoted on the doubt expressed by a Martin Kemp, an emeritus professor of art at Oxford University who ‘questioned whether [My Bed] is “real”. He thinks that the sweat, stains and vomit pressed into the sheets and pillows cannot have survived for nearly two decades as the bed was transported around the globe. These secretions must, therefore, not be real traces of life, but material added later. And what about those creases? Would Emin’s body really have produced patterns of that shape and size? How did they survive all that handling and packing?’

He makes some fair points, to which the writer of the Daily Telegraph’s piece responds that because van Gogh used synthetic paints, some of whom have proved to be unstable over time so that what he intended to be purple now shows as blue and his bright red now shows as pale pink, are the van Gogh paintings we now exhibit displaying the ‘real’ painting?

It is a rhetorical question to which we are surely supposed to reply ‘well, yes, of course’ with the implicit understanding that each iteration of Ms Emin’s bed - its sheets, pillows, used tissues and the rest - might no longer have anything in common with the My Bed originally exhibited but ‘Would any of those changes make My Bed less real? No, because it’s not a piece of furniture, or even a story – it’s a work of art.

As circular arguments go, that one is hard to beat: it’s a work of art because it’s a work of art. How do we know? Because the woman who produced it said so. Actually, I don’t care, I’m liberal me, except that I do object that because My Bed is a work of art, ergo I am obliged to take it seriously. I also think that by now we have not just entered the emperor’s new clothes territory we are deep inside and, worse, completely lost.

I seem, perhaps, to be concentrating on Tracey Emin, but that wasn’t my intention. Ms Emin can do what she likes (and has done: another of her pieces of art was entitled - it was destroyed in a fire - Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995). It is the intellectualisation of what is otherwise banal crap to justify its existence I found hard to swallow.

. . .

I have been taking photographs for the best part of 35 years, and I started in the days before digital photography when we were still using 35mm film. Because of my interest in photography, I like to visit photographic exhibitions whenever I come across one, and they, too, can prove interesting when it comes to intellectualising to the nth degree in order to justify what is otherwise pretty ordinary.

A good picture speaks for itself, so when at exhibitions I come across beside each photograph an A4 sheet of typewritten explanation about ‘what the picture is doing’, why it is significant or variations on that theme, almost always the picture itself is not great. Even if the photographs are not intended in any way to be arty-farty and are meant to be more of a documentary record, they will still manage to speak for themselves. That is not a hard and fast rule, of course (I like to think there are no hard and fast rules except that ‘if it works, it works’) but in general that observation seems to hold true.

To create a worthwhile picture you need - apart from the subject matter - control of the light, that is getting the aperture and shutter speed right and being able to manipulate your light source whatever it is, so I have a great

deal of respect for photographers who get it spot on each time. Conversely, I have less respect for those who flukily produce an interesting image and try to pass it off as they it was something they intended to achieve. That, too, is usually very obvious - from the several hundred words of typewritten explanation on an A4 sheet beside it.

But enough of that. Next time: Brexit and what to wear on March 29.

Pip, pip.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Beware of what you wish for (or is that the wrong cliche?) Whichever is appropriate, don’t take the Good Times for granted

Pretty much the first thing I do every morning when I wake up is to reach for my iPad and call up the websites of the saintly Guardian and the down ’n dirty Daily Mail to see what has happened overnight while I was asleep. Yes, I also listen to radio news, but that is real news - of the two the Guardian comes closest to providing a similar service, but unlike BBC Radio 4 news, it does have it’s left-of-centre agenda, so its editorial and opinion piece choices will invariably provide yet more utterly compelling ‘evidence’ that the world is going to hell in a handcart at ever-faster speed.

As, according to our newspapers - right-of-centre publications make the same dire prognostication of doom, disaster, destruction and disintegration, although they provide different ‘evidence’ and, oddly, the ‘hell’ we are approaching in a handcart is not quite the same one as feared by the left - this has been going on since I was young (I was nine years old 60 years ago) I often either wonder why 1) we haven’t yet arrived but are still on our way to hell; or 2) if we are travelling downhill ever faster, surely too goodness after 60 years we are approaching the speed of light?

Actually, in truth whenever Fleet Street’s cassandras take to their typewriters - make that keyboards - what is actually at play is nothing more serious than the old newspaper practice of Scaring The Living Shit out of the readers. It helps to sustain circulation. The standard observation is that the headline ‘Boy Scout does good deed’ never helped sell a single edition, and nothing is truer. Folk want - they demand disaster - and they want it now, but crucially they want it elsewhere, not here at home, thank you very much.

Thus Britain has been regaled, possibly even amused, by the news that a single drone - you can pick up a decent one for as little as £34.99 at Dronesdirect although sinking your hand deeper in your pocket might buy you one less inclined to disintegrate before the end of the week in which case take a look at the range on offer at Currys/PC World where the DJI Mavic 2 Pro Drone with Controller is surely a snip at just £1,349 - shut down its second largest airport for more than 24 hours - although the laughter came far easier if you were not one of the several tens of thousands of passengers stranded at Gatwick.

Down here in deepest, darkest North Cornwall as, I’m sure in deepest, darkest Edinburgh, Norwich, Torbay and Blackpool as well as most British homes, grand and humble, we were sympathetic, of course we were, but we also relished the situation and the many opportunities it gave us to resort to platitudes. (My wife has a particularly interesting set: ‘They are paying the price for not banning these bloody drones long ago’ and ’See what happens when you don’t ban drones’. Then there’s the one I overheard in Asda two days ago: ‘You’d think that in this day and age with all their sophisticated military technology they could protect an airport, wouldn’t you? Obviously not.’ He didn’t actually add ‘makes you sick!’ but I’m sure that was the subtext.) As for parts of the world not painted pink on maps most recently there has been a tsunami in Indonesia and in South-East Australia’s Gold Coast Christmas has been cancelled after that neck of the woods was battered by a storm. In South America, Caracas is dying a slow death as ‘hyperinflation, crime and poverty’ are rampant.

Taking note of all this doom and disaster, and I could come up with many more examples from the past 48 hours if only I could be arsed to find them, I have again reminded myself of the danger we are all prone to as we pass 30, then 40, then 50 and as we approach 80: we no longer need to read a newspaper to be persuaded that the world is going to hell in a handcart, we are already convinced. I have to say - or rather I have to claim - that I might, though, be the exception that proves the rule. (NB to pedants: yes, I know how that phrase came about and that the ‘proves’ in it means ‘test’ rather than ‘giving proof’ but, dear pedant, join the modern world.)

I am by nature far more inclined to the wisdom of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, and although I believe that in many ways the world is a shitty place, I don’t believe it has become any shittier. If anything things have improved for a great many, although that is no reason to be complacent. Yet bearing my proviso in mind that the greyer we get and the less inclined we are to like change, the more pessimistic we are about the future, I must say that there are clouds gathering on the horizon which don’t look too welcoming.

. . .

A few years ago I came across a useful analogy outlining why it is often almost impossible to envisage that a bad situation could get any better – or that a good situation got get a lot worse. It was in an article in the Economist and it likened the predicament of those living in the Soviet Union or one of its satellite dictatorships to someone sitting at the bottom of a deep china bowl, sitting so deep in fact that they can’t see over the rim.

Their reality is simply all they can see, and they have sat there for so long they can’t even conceive of the world outside the bowl. It must, said the Economist, have been like that for Soviet citizens. More to the point if, at Christmas 1986 they had been assured that within five years the Soviet Union would have collapsed and they would be free, they would have laughed in your face. If in 1986 East Berliners had been assured that within five years they would be as free as a bird to cross into the western half of the city, they, too, would have laughed in your face.

Similarly, we in the Western Hemisphere all pretty much enjoy a reasonably tranquil life. Certainly, there can be individual tragedies and unhappiness, and yes there have been crises, not least the global financial crisis of 2008, but across Western Europe and in the United States life has been comparatively sweet for the past 73 years (since the end of World War II). Could it really all got tits up? Surely not? Well, what with this political development and that political development, I am beginning to wonder whether we are all sitting at the bottom of a very comfortable soup bowl and taking just a little too much for granted.

This entry is not about Brexit, but Brexit must be mentioned, or rather the possible economic consequences of a hard Brexit. And it would not just be the British economy which could take a very severe battering – companies in European countries who do a lot of business with Britain will also take a hit and that means the economies of those countries would also suffer. That, however, is actually a pretty commonplace observation.

This blog has mentioned Donald Trump before and what a grade A full-time idiot he is. What distinguishes him from the many other grade A full-time idiots knocking about is that his decisions count and can have grave consequences. His most recent is to announce – unilaterally – that the US will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and Syria.

The decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, where they have been jointly fighting a still substantially large ISIS contingent with Kurdish forces is said to have come after Trump had a phone conversation with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president who might justifiably be described as a dictator in the making. Erdogan, it seems, is amassing his own troops on Turkey’s border with Syria with a view to attacking the Kurds once the Yanks are out of the way.

Other of Trump’s inane decisions are to engineer a partial shutdown of the US government, to hint that he might sack the chairman of the US Federal Reserve, causing a great deal of unrest in the markets, and to initiate a trade war with China. It is not surprising that the outgoing US Defence Secretary Jim Mathis (who is said to have persuaded Trump not to have North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un assassinated) was reported to have claimed Trump had the understanding of foreign affairs of a ten-year-old.

Things aren’t quite going to well for the EU quite apart from Brexit (the main EU issue for Britain, certainly, but just one important matter for the EU). Rather stupidly, it seems to have assumed that all of its member states were now enlightened liberals. Developments in Hungary, where the prime minister Viktor Orban is showing rather to much distain for democratic practice for the EU’s liking, are not making it easy for the touchy-feely liberals in Brussels. Things have taken a bit of a downturn for Orban after he won elections with a large majority in the spring.

What with several million young people taking off to work elsewhere in the EU for wages four times as high as they can earn at home, his government has raised the limit on overtime people can work to make up for the depleted workforce. The thing is working overtime is not exactly voluntary and under the new limit people could find themselves working the equivalent of 50 extra days a week in overtime. This is not going down well, and Orban has faced large demonstrations in Budapest and elsewhere.

Problems with a not-very-liberal-government-at-all in Poland which has just manoeuvred itself into being able to appoint all judges, thus rather putting paid to the notion of an ‘independent judiciary’, have shown that the ‘I love my EU’ assumption of all for one and one for all working towards the common good have been more than a little naïve. EU-wide parliamentary elections are due in exactly five months and it will be interesting to see whether the rise of the right/far-right across the EU was just a blip or not.

As for Italy, it is no joke when part of the government is run by a former clown, and its oddly formed government - half right-wingers (some with a tacit fondness for a ‘strong man’ like Mussolini, the other half vaguely disillusioned lefties - which wants both to cut taxes and raise public spending - good luck with that one - things might get interesting when - not if, but when - the euro comes under pressure around the time in 2019 when Brexit-induced economic uncertainty kicks in.

. . .

My point is that individually these and other crises could be managed, but they all seem to be coming together at once. Sitting at the bottom of our soup bowl, we might think that talk of bad times to come – far worse times than anything we have experienced in the past 70 years – is just stuff and nonsense. We would do well not to be quite as smug.

Update: It’s spreading. Thanks, Mr Trump.
“Stephen Innes, head of APAC trading at OANDA, said Trump’s spat with the Fed and Mnuchin’s call with the banks had ‘markets running for cover’. Investors ‘have no confidence in the administration. Markets are driven by perception and it is flat-out bad,’ he said.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Off for a Yule piss-up, although this newly wise Jack, recently saved from his second brush with death (©Lazarus), will not be knocking back the Camparis, cheap red wine and expensive vintage port with quite the same ruthless abandon as in previous years. No, sir – he’s grown up and now has a mental age of at least 15 if not 16

Well, I told you all about my second heart attack (just before the piece slagging off the Nobel Prize Laureate Ernest Pinkerton Rutherford de Salle Hemingway a.k.a. ‘Papa’ Hemingway), and this is just a codicil. As I write this, I am sitting downstairs at La Pappardella (see previous blog posts) near my brother’s flat in Earls Court (‘flat’ might well be overegging the pudding, but you surely know what I mean where I have just had my supper (in keeping with the heart attack – did you really think I wouldn’t give in to the temptation of milking that for all it’s worth?) of – it is billed on the menu as a starter but I had it as a main course – roasted peppers with goats’ cheese and I am not dying to go outside onto the narrow terrace they have for a cigar or five.

I suspect it was the ‘or five’ which did for me, so the now resolute not to say chap-who-wants-to-live-long-enough-to-see his granddaughter-Olivia-at-at-least 12 has successfully resisted the temptation and will demurely sit indoors down here and banish all thoughts of a La Paz Wilde Cigarros. (Cigar snobs take note: they are not by any means the most expensive cigar, but they are – were – nice). Damn.

I am in town – I suppose I should write ‘in town’ – for the Daily Mail Letters lunch tomorrow. As the ‘puzzles pages compiler’ though, mark, not the ‘puzzles compiler’ – I just put the bloody puzzles on the pages - I am part of the party as in that odd, not to say irrational, way in which newspapers operate, ‘the puzzle pages’ are part of the Letters fiefdom, and in the case of the Daily Mail, ‘fiefdom’ is not in the least bit anachronistic, although I gather under the rule of the new editor, one Geordie Greig, the atmosphere has lightened up a little. In my day – less than nine months ago, but given recent developments a bygone era – we were expected to fall to our knees and keep totally silent whenever an executive above assistant deputy editor passed by. Lord, it must now be a relief.

I have been doing the puzzles, and earning a useful sum annually, for a little over nine years. I don’t mind admitting that the work could be done by a half-witted donkey, but the extra I bank each month makes the abject humility of it all more than worthwhile. It won’t go on for ever, of course, and I am sure I shall in time become the victim of a management coup (as in ‘Patrick, as far as the puzzles are concerned you have done an outstanding job which must surely be a shining example to anyone attempting a similar task and quite honestly we really don’t know what we would do without you, but from Monday on we are going to try. Shut the door quietly on your way out, old chap’).

The lunch itself is the usual Christmas piss-up surely renown the world over (and ours is always made far more lively by the attendance of one Phil Argent, a very pleasant and entertaining guy, gay as the day is long, though not in a silly camp, way who is a very gifted cartoonist and does works for Letters) and for the past eight years has for some reason which eludes me been held at a place called Maggie Jones just around the corner from the office.

I say the reason eludes me because the first Letters lunch I attended was held at a rather smarter, though smaller restaurant just up the road called Kitchen W8, which I liked. Take a look for yourselves. But the following year, the then Letters editor, since retired, settled on Maggie Jones, a – to my mind – strange place given over to such a faux-rustic (‘faux’ as I’m sure you know is the French word for ‘fake’ but doesn’t sound quite naff) that it comes across more as an acid trip than anything else.

OK, so décor is décor and we don’t go to a restaurant to look at the décor but to eat. And at the first outing Maggie Jones, although it was never going to win any awards, did what is was supposed: provide basic grub – the only honest word in this context – for folk who would be quite prepared to eat steaming shit at Christmas if it had a

sprig of holly stuck in it and they were pissed enough. The thing is that in the subsequent seven years we have been going there the menu has not change one iota. Not once. It’s still the same. But mustn’t grumble, the paper picks up the tab, though whereas in past years I have used that to my advantage – starting my meal with a double Campari and tonic and ending it with several glasses of the best vintage port they have, tomorrow will be different for this second heart-attack victim (and I trust, bearing that in mind, you are still sending love, kisses and sympathy over the ether in my direction).

. . .

I have or rather had been coming to La Pappardella for quite a few years, every Sunday after my shift on the Mail. Before I retired it was where I had my supper and I would also drop in – basically for a cigar or three with a glass of wine or a brandy – after I knocked off at 10. What I like about it is that it is Italian, but in that way that Italians think so to such an extent that they come here. Every time I come in there are as many Italians as Brits (or tourists in the summer) and they don’t do it just to fly the flag, they do it ‘cos they like their food.

Before I started coming here, I used to go to a branch of one of the several Italian chains we have in this country – Ask, Zizzi, Pizza Express – and usually had a chicken salad. Well, in the chains the food was still tasty but mainly it consisted of bit of this, bit of that and, crucially, about six small cubes of chicken. Here at La Pappardella the chicken in the chicken salad consists of several – four or five – substantial pieces of grilled chicken. Don’t, please, be fooled by the ‘substantial’ – I’m not one for ‘ the portions are brilliant’ – but I am one for objecting to being ripped off. Now there, I’m sure, is a surprise. Pip, pip.

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.