Thursday, 26 March 2009
Saturday, 28 February 2009
It's in most people's interests - and particularly governments' - to ignore this uncomfortable ambiguity in human relations. Most nationalisms are founded on the culpability of "the other side": Greek and Turkish nationalisms, for example, couldn't survive in their current forms without their beliefs in the absolute guilt of the other side. And closer to home, there are even more obvious examples. Similarly, most playground arguments are based on "It was his fault," "No, it was his fault," "No, he started it," "No, he started it," "He did this to me," "But he did this first," "But he did this before that," and so on and so forth. In playground microcosm, we have the history of nationalisms.
One of the jobs of the writer, I think, is to recover the ambiguity behind human relations, and show that arguments are always more complicated than 100% right vs. 100% wrong. Novels in which feature a good side versus an evil side are rare, and generally not very good. And that includes the Bible, where right and wrong are often very ambivalent (cf. King David). Writers have to be alive to moral dubiousness, to everyday compromises, to moral ambiguity, to the sheer complexity of one person relating to one other person (let alone relations on a larger scale). On a moment to moment basis, relationships change in minor and major ways. Relationships are never simple, always infinitely complex mixtures of emotions, histories, conversations, interactions, body languages, power, politics, and so on. In our society, it's in very few people's interests to recognise this - but the job of the writer is to remind everyone that this is the case.
Sunday, 8 February 2009
Sorry we've been rather absent from this blog for a while ... life has been full of illnesses, babies, work, illnesses, babies, work, illnessnes, babies, work, and (now and then, when we fancy a change) work, babies and illnesses - so the time available for writing, let alone blogging, is approximately zero.
When one doesn't write, though, one thinks a lot about it, and what it means. What does it mean to write? What does it mean to be a writer? What is the point (for heaven's sake) of being a writer at this bizarre moment in that disaster we call human history? Well, I think I agree with Henry Miller, when he says 'the artist ... is the artist because he stands for individuality and creativeness.'
We live in a country and a historical moment ruled by so-called 'objective' and 'collective' forms of knowledge, such as statistics. Our whole lives are determined by the rule of statistics - public institutions like the N.H.S. decide whether we live or die based on statistics. The empirical basis of much modern science and medicine is, by definition, a statistical basis. Doctors talk about illnesses from an objective point of view, as a collection of symptoms, causes, effects. Newsreaders rate disasters by the numbers of dead involved. Politicians (and especially pseud0-Socialists) pretend to objectivity, spouting so-called objective truths, often in the form of statistics, about the people as a mass, as a collection of groups, cities, races, religions, economic classes, jobs.
Writers are the opposite of politicians, in this respect. Writers talk about individuality, about individuals, and about how individual human beings often differ from the groups to which they nominally belong. Politicians deal with types; writers deal with the exceptions to the types. Politicians deal with statistical generalisations; writers agree with Carlyle that "[statistical] tables are … like the sieve of the Danaides; beautifully reticulated, orderly to look upon, but which will hold no conclusion … [since] one circumstance left out may be the vital one on which all turned."
Writers, in short, reassert the importance of subjective experience in the face of a world dominated by scientific, statistical, political and so-called "objective" truths.
No doubt I think all this in part because I'm a memoirist - memoirists, by their nature, assert the importance of subjective experience. But I think this equally applies to fiction writers and poets. Fiction writers know, for example, that good characterisation is a matter of finding exceptions and contradictions and individuality within modern groups and types.
Of course, to assert that all writers "reassert the importance of subjective experience" is itself a questionable generalisation which fails to deal with individuality ....
Friday, 31 October 2008
It's typical of this kind of pseudo-scientific tosh that the focus is on "what Mozart can do for your children" in terms of exams, S.A.T.S., literacy development. It's all about pushy mothers who want their children to do better at exams than other pushy mothers' children. What a sterile, ultra-utilitarian view of this wonderful music: classical music reduced to a New Labour literacy strategy ... classical music as a revision aid ... classical music as an instrument of S.A.T.S. and keystages and G.C.S.E.s and I.Q. tests and pseudo-psychology all the other statistical trash which currently drowns out real childhood. It's typical, too, of the grey, utilitarian way in which the arts are seen by our culturally-impoverished society that music as wonderful and varied as Mozart's is nothing more than an instrument of the State - something to socialise kids and their minds. Music is there for a reason - and that reason is to make kids better at exams and ultimately (therefore) to serve the State.
But, let's be frank here. Mozart would have blown a fart in the general direction of S.A.T.S. tests and I.Q. tests - and so would Mozart's music. Mozart's music escapes the Mozart Effect and undermines it and blows raspberries at it. Mozart's music is carnivalesque, ironic, idealistic, cynical, irreverent, blasphemous, heretical, anarchic, divine, spiritual, earthy, Olympian, utopian all at once - and this very mixture can't but subvert any political, psychological or pseudo-scientific programme which tries to appropriate it.
Sunday, 12 October 2008
For what it's worth, here is my list of the top ten most abused words at the present time. I'd love to hear more suggestions too:
10. Globalisation - a strange, protean term which can be used by one person as a terrible criticism, by another as a term of endearment.
9. Devastated, devastation - how often do you hear a news broadcast which doesn't use one of these words?
8. Inclusion, inclusive, inclusiveness - often used by government bodies or arts organisations to describe activities, organisations or structures which exclude as many people as possible.
7. Racist - the core meaning - which is specific and powerful - has almost totally evaporated from the word, and it is now used as a catch-all pejorative by anyone looking for a catch-all pejorative (I have heard it used by far right-wingers, for goodness sake).
6. Terrorist - anyone whose opinions conflict with those in power, particularly if those in power have all the big guns.
5. Sex - again, a word which has been so over-used that no one's sure what it is any more.
4. Snob, elitist - nowadays, anyone who is more interested in art, music, literature than inclusivity for its own sake (i.e. anyone who is interested in art, music, literature which is "inclusive" because of quality rather than because of government diktat).
3. Forwards - everyone these days is always moving forwards, never sideways, in zig-zags, or complex fractals. God, it's boring.
2. Teams - always say in a job interview "I can work well as part of a team." No one's quite sure what working well as part of a team is. It can mean either something as uncommon as common courtesy, or, conversely, being willing to kill your colleagues whilst they're not looking - it all depends on your management style and definition of the word "team."
1. Evil - always no.1 abused term throughout history.
Monday, 29 September 2008
Much as I have mixed feelings about "Little Britain," as with all good comedies, it has some important things to say about attitudes, behaviours and stupidities. The rather overdone sketches around "The Computer Says No" character are a case in point.
The other day, my mother told me that she went into a shop in Stoke and received "The Computer Says No" treatment. Being my mother, she immediately bristled and retorted (in excellent received pronunciation): "We're in charge of the machines, you know, not the other way around." The shop assistant looked flabbergasted, and obviously didn't agree with her: if The Computer says no, that's that.
And actually, unfortunately, I agree with the shop assistant. Unfortunately, unfortunately, unfortunately, The Computer is in charge. Unfortunately, unfortunately, unfortunately, the machines are in charge of us, not the other way round. Despite all evidence to the contrary, despite the lessons of the twentieth century, we as a stupid race persist in over-trusting machines and raising them to positions of authority over us. So much of what we do is determined by machines, whether it's email telling us what to do, electronic timetables and diaries telling us where to be, electronic rulebooks telling us what is allowed, Word for Windows telling us what to write, etc. etc.
This is amazing, really, given the history of the twentieth century, which, if it taught us anything, should have taught us that machines, computers, technology are not good in themselves and should definitely not be raised above human beings in terms of power. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we as a race persist in believing that technology = progress - that technology is somehow a good in itself. We entrust the future of the world to computers; we entrust the apocalypse to machines (in the forms of bombs).
If this doesn't demonstrate the infinite stupidity of the human race, it demonstrates a couple of other things: firstly, the infinite ability we have for ignoring the lessons of history (gosh, if only we witnessed the Somme, surely we'd learn not to trust machines with our destiny); and secondly, and I think more importantly, our infinite insecurity. The human race has learned not to trust itself. We don't trust our own instincts, our own goodness, our own freewill, our own choices, and have, therefore, given our destinies over to machines. Isaiah Berlin once said that the twentieth century was the century of the inhuman; and I think that's because we've learnt not to trust the human, and put ourselves in the mechanical hands of computers, machines, technology.
In the end it's worth remembering that there is a difference between technology and human beings: however awful human beings can be, at least they can also be human once in a while. The more like machines they are (see "Little Britain"), the less human they are, the worse things turn out.
Sunday, 21 September 2008
Rosalind and Miranda entertaining on the lawn.
Rosalind, Miranda and Parental Units at the Monkey Park in Stoke.
Saturday, 6 September 2008
I've been thinking, though, that someone ought to compile a catalogue of soap cliches for actors and writers. Then, using the catalogue, people could put their own soaps together with no trouble. Here are just a few obvious ones:
1. the suspicious embrace / cuddle, in which the camera focuses in on one of the cuddler's faces, because there's some hidden agenda going on.
2. the heavy dramatic irony scene, in which Character A has done something awful behind Character B's back - e.g. affair with best friend, Character C; Character B spends five minutes extolling the virtues and wonders of Character A, and even considers marriage, whilst Character C pulls lots of telling faces.
3. the half-overheard conversation, in which someone misunderstands what someone else is saying (e.g. by only overhearing a bit, and missing the "not" in the sentence, etc.) and gets hurt for at least half an episode, until the mistake is cleared up.
4. the comic sub-plot, in which someone leaves a cake on a car roof, a dog eats someone's dinner, or something of that nature, to complement the more serious doings of the main plot.
5. the hospital scene, in which someone is seriously ill in a nearby room, whilst his or her relatives and friends are waiting in the corridor for news. The doctor comes out and looks serious, and tells the relatives that it's late and they should go home and get some sleep. Relatives look concerned, and insist that they couldn't possibly go home (don't they have visiting hours in soap hospitals?).
... please add to the list ad infinitum...
Friday, 22 August 2008
Having come out of this weird hibernation period I see not much has changed; the shops are still shops; summers still have rain and teenagers are still binge drinking etc. However, their are new things to add to 'normal' life which actually are very lovely such as babies' smiles, coos and gurgles and getting this rush of affection for the little dears. Just let me get enough sleep, ladies.
Anyway, one morning (probably a 4.15am feed), we were listening to Radio 2, and I said that I found a particular song boring. It was repetitive, the lyrics were uninspired ("you" rhyming with "too" and "through", and so on), and formulaic. You knew exactly what was going to happen from the first bar.
I pointed all of this out, saying it was sending me to sleep. And Maria made an interesting point. She said that most people (who are into pop music) think that fans of classical music complain about pop because it is (a) too loud, (b) too aggressive, (c) not relaxing enough, (d) too discordant, etc. etc. In short, pop fans think that classical fans don't like pop because it's not as soothing as classical music. And, of course, a lot of classical music is marketed (on radio and on C.D.) as "relaxing," "meditative," "therapeutic," blah blah blah.
But the things that get chosen and labelled and sold as "relaxing" are often really strange: I find nothing "relaxing" (in the soothing, soporific sense of the word) for example, about the Adagio from Khachaturian's Spartacus (gosh, it's anything but relaxing), Barber's Adagio (gosh, it's harrowing), the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique (gosh, it's the Pathetique, for goodness sake, the least relaxing piece of music one can think of).
No, none of these things are conventionally relaxing, except insofar as we're told they're relaxing by marketing executives and second-rate DJs. They might be relaxing in a different sense (a cathartic sense, for example). But the point is that the popular idea of classical music as inherently relaxing ("ahh, isn't it nice?", "ahh, what wonderful music for a dinner party") is not a view shared by many of the more dedicated listeners. There is nothing relaxing in the soporific sense about Mahler, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, Beethoven, Mozart (how relaxing is the last movement of the Jupiter symphony, for goodness sake?), and so on.
So pop fans are often mistaken about why classical fans don't like certain kinds of pop songs. It's not that we find them too loud or too exciting for our feeble, sensitive dispositions. It's that we find them TOO "relaxing", boring, repetitive, dull, samey. There's no development, nothing unexpected, nothing beyond the well-established formulae, no key changes (apart from a crunching one towards the end), not enough dissonance or harmonic daring (as opposed to too much), no climaxes, no emotional intensity.
I'm only talking here, of course, about the lowest end of the pop spectrum - and there's plenty of boring classical music out there at the lower end of that spectrum. But I think Maria's right: the reasons why dedicated classical fans don't like certain kinds of pop are often mistaken and misrepresented.
Wednesday, 20 August 2008
Sunday, 17 August 2008
No: it's assumed that classical music is still an elitist, snobbish and exclusive club which needs taking down a peg or two. The irony is that I've met lots of "pop musos" in my time, whose pride in their own pop knowledge, and whose derision at kinds of pop music they perceive as overly populist and commercial is at least as elitist as any classical musician. But, because they're into pop music no one ever dreams of accusing them of snobbery.
This modern belief that classical music is somehow inherently snobbish, and that it's only of interest to an exclusive middle or upper-class clique has, I think, had the effect in education of actually reducing opportunities for lower-middle-class or lower-class students in music. Because it is assumed that classical music is of interest only to an elite; because it is assumed that no one would want to study it from other backgrounds; because of a false kind of inclusiveness which reduces classical music to the status of an expensive luxury which must always be leavened with pop and other kinds of music; because of all this, classical music in education has, through no fault of its own, been partly shut off from state education.
This is also partly, I think, because music itself is perceived to be useless (an old British failing), and state education is even more utilitarian and gradgrindish than it used to be - and a Gradgrind can't see any reason for working class people to dedicate themselves to music. Classical music in particular takes a lifetime of dedication and training, and the benefits it brings don't fit in with a National Curriculum devoted to utility and immediate money-making results.
Hence, peripetetic music lessons, GCSEs and A' Levels in Music, proper classical training are the first things to be cut in schools, and particularly academies built on the New Labour Gradgrind model, which seem designed (ironically for a Labour invention) to train and keep the urban working classes in so-called "practical" jobs. In this context, classical music is in danger of being forced into the position that it's actually never been in before, in terms of education: it's in danger of being made into the exclusive province of private school education.
Wednesday, 30 July 2008
I find some of this surprising, simply because a lot of the novel (so far) is based on real life - or, at least, my experience of it. I've always been accused (when recounting anecdotes in pubs) of exaggeration and hyperbole, and that's fair enough. But exaggeration only exaggerates - obviously - it doesn't invent, doesn't make up things out of nowhere. Exaggeration is a distilled form of realism.
But actually, a lot of the novel-so-far isn't exaggerated, or not much: I really have met people like I describe, and I really have come across the bizarre situations I recount. People in real life really really (really really really) do the most strange things, behave in the most strange ways. That's why I've always preferred Dickens to George Eliot or Trollope - the world I inhabit is more Dickensian than Eliotian; the people I meet everywhere (and I don't exempt myself from this) are often full of oddities, tics, neuroses, cartoonish gestures, catchphrases, and so on. They don't always behave with forethought; consciousness and rationalism don't always rule their actions. Dickens - as far as I'm concerned - is much more realistic than Eliot, or Trollope.
But none of this stops people accusing Dickens of caricature (as if it's a bad thing) and of being unrealistic. And I've realised that it's something one has to watch out for when writing a "fictional" novel. You have to persuade people that what you're saying is possible in the so-called real world. In a memoir, on the contrary, because it's assumed that you're talking truth - whether or not you are - you can be as outrageous as you like. You can talk about bizarre, outlandish, weird situations and people. You can describe the most unlikely scenarios. You can be as over-the-top as you like ... and all because memoirs are assumed to be "true," however out-of-the-ordinary the experiences you describe. It's all a question of genre.
And the novel genre demands something different. Ironically, our culture demands that a fictional work be MORE, not less, realistic than a true one. In writing a novel, you're supposed to be moderate, talk about situations which are immediately recognisable to everyone - just do not be too outrageous, or you won't be believed. Tone down the characters' oddities, tone down the strange things that happen to them, take real life and add water: this often seems to be the unwritten rule of fiction writing.
But I've not yet decided whether I'm going to accept it. I'm not yet sure I want to write a novel which doesn't, or doesn't quite, reflect the surreality and grotesqueness of everyday life in modern-day U.K. I think I might just carry on regardless, trying to describe a reality which, frankly, does a great job of exaggerating itself.
Tuesday, 22 July 2008
Tuesday, 8 July 2008
So, in all sorts of ways, this was a brilliant piece of historical writing, where the history and the story intertwined in complex ways.
But something bothered me about it all the way through - something niggled about the whole novel. And gradually I realised what it was: the command of history, yes, was incredible, but it rather swamped the story and the characters. And now I think this is one of the dangers of the form: in a historical novel, the novel part (the characters, story, etc.) should still predominate over the history (the facts, details, etc.). It's all too easy to write a historical novel where the history is what is important - but in a novel, it's individuals which matter, not great historical movements, economic forces or mass hysterias.
The danger of the historical novel is that the novelist has an historical thesis first, and a story with characters second. In this case, the characters become merely subservient to the historical thesis, to the historical point the author wants to make. The characters become mere examples of wider historical movements. And then it is no longer a novel, but a historical treatise with fictionalised illustrations.
Novels (I think) are about individuals, and individuals not as examples, but as themselves. The amazing and still-scandalous idea behind the novel form is that individuals matter in the grand scheme of things - that individuals aren't just examples of the masses, but may stand against the masses; that, rather than being mere examples of historical movements, individuals might swim against the tides of history, might try and break out of their particular moments, might try and change their historical moments. Of course, in most novels (especially nineteenth-century novels), the individuals fail, or succeed only partly. But the point is still made: this individual was special, this individual mattered, this individual wasn't just a personification of the wider forces around him or her.
Otherwise, why bother writing novels? Why not just write historical textbooks?
Saturday, 21 June 2008
This afternoon, I tried Valentin Silvestrov. He rated lower on the nappy scale: Rosalind didn't seem to mind him - like one doesn't mind a fly buzzing round one's head - but Miranda seemed positively annoyed. In fact, during one of the less discordant passages, she threw up. All I can say is, as a very amateur musician myself, I'd be pleased if someone threw up to my music. At least it's a reaction, and it's better than polite indifference. Music as emetic: you don't see that very often at the Proms.
Sibelius and Brahms weren't vomit-inducing, though I noticed that Miranda had one of her "bowel-movement" expressions during the great passcaglia at the end of Brahms's Fourth. But then, maybe that says something about the nature of that great finale. Maybe Miranda's going to be a great music critic in the future.
Monday, 9 June 2008
Jonathan's mother and Rosalind Marilla Taylor
Maria and Miranda Anna Taylor
Rosalind and Miranda in the intensive care unit
Jonathan and Miranda
Maria and Rosalind
Jonathan's mum and Rosalind on the great return home (aka The Great N.H.S. Escape)
Tuesday, 20 May 2008
The people who work in these environments are the real heroes of our society. As a society, we celebrate overpaid adolescents who kick pigs' bladders around fields, wives of overpaid adolescents who kick pigs' bladders around fields, stick insects who strut up and down catwalks wearing clothes (don't we all wear clothes?), stick insects who used to strut up and down catwalks wearing clothes but now spend all their time taking coke, has-been and never-been pop singers who didn't write their own songs in the first place ... and so on and so forth.
All of these people get paid up to one hundred times what the casual heroes of baby intensive care earn. As I read somewhere once, what kind of society is it where so-called actors who spend their lives playing doctors and nurses and midwives (on Casualty, E.R., Holby City, etc.) are paid over ten times more than real doctors, nurses, midwives? It's a society which values pretence over reality, fakeness over genuineness, illusion over truth, and more than anything pretend heroism over real heroism - the real, casual heroism of the everyday, of people who go into work in the morning (or night) knowing that two babies' lives depend on what they do that day.
Monday, 19 May 2008
- undead staff, zombified by lack of sleep, paperwork, jobsworthery and regulations
- limbo wards, where you can effectively be buried alive on a trolley for hours, even days if you're lucky
- rampant viruses and infections, better than anything on 28 Days Later or Masque of the Red Death
- unnecessary Dr. Moreau-ish pain, caused (for example) by moving you from hospital to hospital the day after a big operation
- mismanagement and bureaucracy to make Franz Kafka weep
- Cormanesque comedy-horror, where surgeons talk about Chinese food whilst slicing you in two
- starvation, when someone forgets to feed you for hours and hours and hours
- drug-induced trips, when drugs are mixed up or forgotten or given unnecessarily to medicate problems which just need care, love, attention
- ghosts, otherwise known as ignored, starved, patronised and abandoned old people
- the feeling that no-one ever listens to you, can't even hear you screaming
- haunted houses (aka hospitals) full of cobwebs, ghost-like patients, dirt, stupidity, idiocy, malaise, regulations, mismanagement, neglect ....
The National Horror Service: why rent a horror movie when you can live one?