Saturday, July 31, 2010

Alfred Duggan, Evelyn Waugh and Bohemond, and why I should, perhaps, keep my mouth shut: a meditation on wisdom and stupidity

I came across a claim today that in mid-life our brains undergo some kind of expansion and that is why we are, in our dotage, rather wiser than we were in our salad days. Well, I take that with a pinch of salt, and I advise you to do so, too. I’m not suggesting we are do not become ‘wiser’ — I suspect we do. But I rather feel 'wisdom' is overblown, that in a sense it is sailing under false clours and has done so for quite some time. As far as I am concerned, ‘wisdom’ is nothing special and we should stop bowing and scraping and worshipping at its altar. ‘Wisdom’ vaguely implies a greater intelligence, better judgment, and to call someone wise is, in some way, to praise them. Well, might I piss on this particular parade and suggest that were we to call each other ‘rather less stupid’ than ‘rather wise’, we are getting a little closer to what wisdom is?
Let me offer some examples of ‘wise’ behaviour: not picking a fight with someone who is stronger than you and, if he — or even
she — were so inclined, could beat the living shit out of you. I’ll put that a little more genteelly for our ‘civilised’ age: not taking someone to court who would be able to hire better lawyers. It would be regarded as ‘wise’ not to spend more money than you actually have, or not to take out a loan you have no chance of paying off. (Pictured: man who has done just that.) It would be regarded as ‘wise’ not to start an affair with a neurotic woman who can’t keep her mouth shut.
But let me put all those another way, and you might see what I am getting at: it would be regarded as ‘downright stupid’ to pick a fight with someone stronger than you, to take to court someone who can afford far better lawyers, to spend money you don’t have and will never have, and to nob the local loudmouth lush. So if I think that, on balance, I am a little wiser at 60 than I was at 20, 30, 40 or even 50, please understand it to mean that I do consciously try to learn from my many mistakes and like to think I’m not quite as bloody stupid as all too often I proved myself to be. (Anyone who doesn’t learn from his or her mistakes deserves all the misery which will undoubtedly come his or her way.)
All that is a rather long-winded preamble to the point of this entry: when a writer is largely regarded as ‘good’, ‘wonderful’, ‘magnificent’, ‘magical’ or ‘inspired’ and is generally showered with any of the many luvvie phrases without which no self-respecting literary discussion can dare be without, it would seem ‘unwise’ — I use the term instead of its synonym ‘stupid’ — to disagree. Well, I am forced to disagree: there are quite a few writers who aren’t what they are cracked up to be. At this point, others are fully entitled to ask ‘and what makes you qualified to make that claim?’ Well, I do make that claim: I think D H Lawrence has his moments, but he eventually went off the boil. And the writer who sparked this particular entry is a chap called Alfred Duggan.
Duggan was a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh’s at Oxford and, like Waugh, was something of a waster. Unlike Waugh, his family had money and he could afford to be a waster. He is thought to be one of Waugh’s louche Oxford friends on whom Sebastian Flyte was based. Duggan did very little with his life except spend his wealthy stepfather’s money until there was none left. He then turned to writing and wrote a number of novels based in the medieval era for which he did a lot of background reading and which are thus said to be quite accurate. I came across Duggan at school when his Knight With Armour about the Crusades was a set text. I remember enjoying it, but apart from remembering that its protagonist died a miserable death long before reaching the Holy Land, nothing at all remains with me. But while on holiday in France recently, I read The First Crusade by Thomas Asbridge. I can wholly recommend that book for its straightforward and clear prose and Asbridge’s gift for explaining complex motivation. Subsequently, I became more interested in the Crusades (of which, I was very surprised to find out, there were nine in total) and googled for more books on the subject. And that is how I came across Duggan’s Count Bohemond, the story of an Italian Norman warlord and a major player in the First Crusade who laid claim to the fortress of Antioch and whose descendants held if for almost another 200 years. I bought the book and am now reading it. Before I started reading it, I was encouraged by the forward by no less than Evelyn Waugh himself, a hero of mine, an honour he shares with Ray Davies, of the Kinks, and Homer Simpson. Waugh is hugely taken by the book and wrote that it is ‘lucid and masterly, absolutely free of affectation or ostentation’. That, as far as it goes, is true, but unfortunately it doesn’t go very far. What Waugh doesn’t say is that the novel lacks atmosphere and excitement, and if writing is more than jostling together a series of words grammatically and elegantly — which it undoubtedly is — the novel is simply not very well written. The reader, or rather this reader, gets absolutely no sense at all of the First Crusade — there were something like 200,000 or more knights, pilgrims, foot soldiers and on or more underway — or the life they led. What Duggan has produced is a series of rather stilted, though informative, conversations between two men, one of whom is always our eponymous hero. And the novel is nothing but a progression from one conversation to the next. Some writers can convey sight, smells and sounds. Duggan can’t. His novel is simply badly written.
So what does this have to do with being wise? That’s quite simple: I have written little and published nothing, and whatever I do write in the future could well turn out to be utter garbage. So wouldn’t is be wiser for me to keep quiet rather than shoot my mouth off? Answers, please, on a postcard or in an email.

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