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Layout and Panels: How To Do An Exhibition

PAGE ONE:

Begin with the exterior of the British Library, establishing location. People outside, sunny day. Billboards advertising the Library’s new exhibition on comics and graphic novels stand outside. Don’t bother showing the intrepid blogger buying tickets or anything because that’s boring, just go straight to the entrance of the exhibition.

It begins with some quotes about comics, both hagiographic and condemnatory, designed to show the polarising nature of comics and give an overview of the divisive cultural impact to be outlined.

Or to try and convince people the artform is relevant. It’s an uphill struggle.

PAGE TWO:

A mirrored archway and a neat line-up of cut-out images make for a comic introduction with a sense of three dimensions rendered from two. Get it? Like comicsThrow in some creepy mannequins dressed up as members of Anonymous for reasons that you don’t need to explain until we get to the politics section.

Begin with Mr Punch.

PAGE THREE:

A curved walk through history.

Someone has clearly gone to some trouble with regards to ensuring a good review from the noisier sections of Tumblr, determined to make note of the prejudice and gaps in representation in the earlier history of comics, incorporating the cross-media appeal of comics characters as early as the 1880s along with product endorsement and music hall songs… confronting at least ugly prejudice in small glass cases.

At this point our story is remarkable in content but not presentation.

PAGE FOUR:

Guy Fawkes-masked mannequins loom out of the semi-darkness and the font becomes enormous. We’re about to be introduced to the political overspill of comics’ influence, and their reflection of social issues, and place at the forefront of satire. This is good because I recently watched Dr Lucy Worsley talking to Michael Rosen about the history of satirical free comment in Britain and was able to give a whispered lecture to the Resident Australian about how our noble and ancient tradition of freedom of the press to criticise their “social betters” came about by an accident of poor parliamentary scheduling and inability to go back on a mistake without looking silly, i.e. the most British way of achieving it possible.

So many creepy masked mannequins.

Does this page deal with both satire and propaganda? Yes. Does it show politicised responses to changing social situations both from the far right and the far left? Yes. Does it have a slight left bias? Probably yes but I’m a disgusting woolly-jumper-wearing liberal socialist hippy c**t so this merely affirms my sense that I am right. Does it thankfully break out of the traditional ghetto of politicised comics in order to talk about not only fascism and anti-fascism during the 1980s but also pro- and anti-suffrage comics, historical perspectives on past movements, and raw and sad satire on the slow struggle of queer rights/gay liberation in the 20th century? Yes.

Was I more excited about the fact there is a page of original artwork from V for Vendetta?

Absolutely yes.

This page is also the time to show that the thought process behind the layout of this exhibition has been impeccable. I wouldn’t talk about the flow of visitors through a space under ordinary circumstances, but this was good enough to merit notice: at no point was I forced to back up or head in a contrary direction in order to see all of the exhibits. No one got in anyone’s way except by lingering too long, and most people didn’t linger too long.

Of course I would expect an exhibition about comics to be sensitive to being readable and easy to move through, because that’s at the nuts and bolts level of successful comics. I am just used to being disappointed in my expectations. Especially where mainstream interest in sequential art comes in.

PAGE FIVE:

Another example of clever design. This bulge contains the process of comics, and it is at the core of the exhibition, the way the process is at the core of comics: there is a drawing table, and it is occupied by some fresh sketches and the materials to make more. There is a large video screen. There is a wall covered in the process sketches, scripts, thumbnails, pencils, inks, and ideas of several teams of creators, who collaborate in different ways and to different degrees to produce startlingly different works.

Kieron Gillen’s script, incidentally, reads the way he talks, only a lot slower and less sidetracked.

The genius of this page is not immediately apparent, but it offers escapes to each section of the exhibition more or less directly: the creator’s mind must be able to travel where it pleases.

PAGE SIX:

Racy. This sexy page is sealed away in a side-stream, a veiled bubble of hidden desires gently segregated from the main, which both represents its position in comics (since I suppose they couldn’t have dug an extra underground to be more explicit about it) and gives people an easy out if they decide they don’t want to look at sex in comics/it isn’t appropriate for their age group.

Which again, is good exhibition design. One goes in a loop: in past Aubrey Beardsley and early erotic comics including a hilarious work satirically advocating “rights for sodomites” from the French Revolution which apparently became (this is the funny part) pornographically popular in Britain. “Ooh, bumming,” said late 18th-Century Britain. “Political content? Nah mate, that’s three men doing some botty-spearing. Nothin’ political there.”

The sex bubble contains a variety of approaches to sex in comics, from the sardonic (Steven Bell’s middle class orgy) to the personal (sad stories of masturbation) to the deliberately provocative (the Oz obscenity trial) and, justly and fairly, the pornographic. As is the case in almost any discussion of sexuality as part of a larger debate, when “gay sex” comes up it’s exclusively male, but otherwise a fascinating view onto a subject usually treated as not fit for discussion.

Side note: Obviously this is an area I am interested in, having hauled myself through museums of erotica both in Amsterdam and Paris, and it’s always interesting to see what’s going on stylistically in people’s sex: Peter van Straaten’s Lust has been on my shelf for nearly 7 years with its newspaper cartoon/book illustration feel bringing a sense of nostalgia and whimsy to orgies and covert sex, while works on display at the British Library are more rooted in the aesthetic of the 60s underground, and a style which looks quite specifically British.

PAGE SEVEN:

Back on the agenda, we head from the initial curve of history, politics, and sex through to the straight-and-narrow: the gallery becomes a long oblong, and we’re discussing heroism. Another great mirror between content and form, because that’s what successful comics are.

Here you have the choice of moving straight down a large glass case or examining displays hidden in a children’s nursery/playroom/classroom/artist’s studio, which is a change from the swift, directed readability of before. I could say something trite about “examining both sides of the issue” but I don’t recall the content being laid out that way.

Amid collectable statuettes and Karl Urban’s Judge Dredd helmet, the history of British comics heroes (Dan DareJudge Dredd, the preference for anti-heroes beginning with The Ride To York) is briefly contrasted against the American yearning for untouchable supermen (there’s even a tentative explanation raised for the USA preference for the mighty and unassailable – these fantasies were born of the Depression and the sufferings therein), and while the difference in the heroic character cycle (British comics heroes blossom and die, American ones are eternally recycled) is illuminated and subverted with the reincarnation of Archie the robot as an acid raver, there’s also a lengthy piece celebrating the British Invasion: the influx of British writers into American comics which is unfortunately probably to blame for the grimdark obsession people keep complaining about, what with UK writers’s apparent preference for the mortal and fallible.

It’s also probably responsible for the number of comics in the mainstream which got weird about chaos magic, and that’s where the exhibition is headed next:

PAGE EIGHT:

Appropriately for a page entitled the breakdown of comics, this is where the tidy structure of case by case, panel by panel reading goes instead into chaos. The surprising number of practising magus in a certain generation of comics writers, and the ways in which people have explored both the limits of the comics format and the limits of the known and imagined universe within comics are on display, backed against the walls, dangling in the centre of the room in glass pillars. William Burroughs of course makes an appearance: there’s a haunted house to stick your head into, there’s a huge screen showcasing something Hewlett-related that I was too tired hang around and watch.

An afternote, here: there are two computers which are apparently allow one to browse more comics, just as there were a dizzying proliferation of tablets on stalks throughout allowing one to do the background reading there and then, leafing through this comic or that comic (Judge Dredd: America is one title I recall). I did not make my acquaintance with the last computers because some French tourists had commandeered the seats in order to have a conversation. Nothing’s perfect, I guess.

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Gaywyck by Vincent Virga: Shit Book Liveblog Chapters 1 to 3.

This was all Amy Macabre’s fault and I want her to be held responsible when I inevitably die of horror at this.

To briefly expand on that: Amy posted a picture of the cover of this book along with some discussion about it being a Proper Gothic Gay Novel, and confirmed for the previous commenters that they could look forwards to a whole mess of description of the drapes and the grounds and absolutely none of gay sex. She also mentioned that it was a colossal turd of a book. Now: I have read the odd Gothic novel in my time and found them tedious in the extreme, but I am aware of the genre tropes and tics and this book rolls around in them to a degree that verges on, but has not so far entered, the realm of parody. I am also not usually given to spite-reading books which have been recommended to me as shit because frankly life is short and shit books are many – it’s much harder to find a genuinely good book and enjoy it than it is to find a genuinely terrible book and snicker at it. For a start, shit books are filling out the heads of various sales list at any point in history.

However, the book was 57p on Amazon and sometimes I have really bad ideas.

This is the cover I have.

This is the cover I have.

This book opens with the line “I resemble my mother physically.” and continues into a lengthy garbage paragraph about the looks of the protagonist because apparently Virga’s editor just threw up his or her hands and shouted “FUCK IT I CAN’T DO ANYTHING WITH IT”.

Maybe he didn’t have an editor. That would explain the next few pages, which amount to: ALLOW ME TO SPEND ENTIRELY TOO LONG ON MY BACKSTORY IN FIRST PERSON AND DESCRIBE LITERALLY EVERYONE IN EXCRUCIATING PHYSICAL DETAIL and tell you all about ALL THE ROOMS IN MY HOUSE.

Vincent Virga fearlessly breaking every possible fiction-writing rule. Not for him the constraints of “make something actually fucking happen on the first page”. No, in Gaywyck it’s full Gothic Novel, complete with a sickly, bookish protagonist, and EVERYTHING DESCRIBED WITHIN AN INCH OF THE LIMITS OF MY PATIENCE.

At the very end of the first chapter everything happens in a rush: the second chapter details, fairly pointlessly, the journey to the titular house on Long Island. I’m pretty much exactly sure that the second chapter exists because Virga wants people to know he did research, that he could write A Variety Of Characters (100% of whom exist to say something pointless to the protagonist and then vanish), and that he cannot write dialogue and I’m going to die of this book. This is Brick Bin dialogue that would get thrown out of a Brick Bin* movie for not propelling the fucking plot.

Chapter 3 of Gaywyck is all about the family history of the romantic interest it is incredible WHY DO I NEED TO KNOW THE EXACT STORY OF HOW HIS GRANDPARENTS MET AND ALSO HIS PARENTS. why do I need to hear about what a delicate opera-loving innocent flower his mother was? Whyyyyyyy.

Oh good grief this chapter is still going it’s still going apparently I need to know about every single circumstance of his tragic weirdo family background THIS HAD BETTER HAVE SOME BEARING ON THE STORY –

– the pacing just did the same thing it did in the first chapter, where it’s all background and then the actual Thing That Happened is crammed into a brief summary at the end of the chapter. This is like a first draft NaNoWriMo novel: “Right, I’ve hit the word count, fling the plot point in and go to the pub.” I could really, maybe, slightly, forgive the gloopy Gothic tropes and the gratuitous authorwanking about all the careful character background he’s come up with, were it not for the fact that the pacing is so bad, and the dialogue almost artistically wooden.

Also by the love of all that’s squashy and fragrant, this tragic dead twin had better be a Chekov’s sibling or something or I am going to resent the entire existence of this chapter as well. If this is just here for TRAGIQUE BACKSTORY reasons …

Genuinely so far the first three chapters could have been dispensed with in a paragraph. For reference (SPOILERS) the plot so far is: “Bookish, beautiful, slightly effeminate young man has sought solitude all his life. After the ~tragique~ death of his mother due to some sort of depression-induced physical stress which came out of nowhere and didn’t get anything like as much description as all the individual books that the protagonist has read, he is charitably given a job as a librarian at the estate of a wealthy recluse. The wealthy recluse also has a ~tragique~ background, as his twin brother died trying to save his father from an unexplained and undescribed (unlike everything fucking else in this book) house fire. Robert the Protagonist has arrived in New York but not yet made it to the house he will be a librarian at.”

My mistake. One paragraph. The background stuff does not need to be shovelled in at the front of the book. I don’t care about the conventions of Gothic literature, it’s still perfectly possible to have the intensity and fragility and all the other hideous narrative tropes without subjecting your readers to an uphill slog through endless LISTS OF BOOKS before anything actually fucking happens.


Brick Bin: any piece of media where the dialogue is so heavily composed of cliches from other media that it is as if instead of writing a script they just jotted down a cliche onto a brick for several bricks, and hurled them at a wastepaper bin, with the idea that any brick that goes in the bin goes in the script.

Afternote: I see Mr Virga has a website and therefore possibly an internet presence? Dear sir, if you have come across this liveblog just dismiss it as the bitter ramblings of someone who clearly isn’t refined enough to appreciate the genre, and don’t let it spoil your day.

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100 Works of Art: (Audio) 1812, Tchaikovsky

The 100 Works of Art series of blog posts is a primarily positive slew of posts blethering in a hopefully intelligent manner about works of art which have some sort of personal resonance for me; 25 posts about visual art begin with Black Virtue by Matta, and the ongoing section on audio art opens with The Cure’s Let’s Go To Bed.

32. 1812, Tchaikovsky

Unlike most of the music included on this list, I have no memory of the first time I was introduced to this. It would be impossible to separate out a moment when I first became aware because Western culture is fairly heavily steeped in this piece of music. It has soundtracked endless films and adverts for Iceland, accompanied a thousand fireworks displays, and probably nauseates real connoisseurs of various periods of classical music with its inappropriate ubiquity. Certainly the relentless inevitability with which it is spooled out to provide a false sense of celebration can leave a sour taste in the mouth.

But it doesn’t have to be a degraded version, or a sad attempt at emotional manipulation through invoking the associated sense of victory and achievement. Listened to outside of the context of Bonfire Night, bad films, and the inexplicably popular frozen food giant’s old ads (what is a prawn ring and more importantly why is a prawn ring?), I think the overture retains its original fire.

There is also something to be said for any piece of music which, rather than relying on an excellent performance by an above-average individual (thank you Mozart for whatever the harpsichord equivalent of fretwanking is), decides to go balls out and hit you with cannons.

Written by Tchaikovsky (not that one, the other one) in 1880 to commemorate the victory of Russia against the invasion by Napoleon’s troops (no mean feat considering how much of the rest of Europe the mad little Corsican had successfully vanquished), the 1812 Overture or Overture of 1812 or whatever you like to call it is rightfully celebratory, victorious, triumphal, and full of fucking cannons. It evokes the spirit of relief and strength, and if there is one thing Russian composers love, it’s evoking strength: those two emotions, connected irrecoverably to the successful defence of the frozen motherland, are easily hijacked into daily victories:

Play it when you’re approaching the final word count of your essay; play it when you’re getting to the top of a hill on a long run; play it when, against all the odds, you have successfully tidied your hell-hole bedroom and found no dead animals under the mounds of mouldering clothing.

It is of course for this transferable quality of victorious joy that the overture has been so repeatedly press-ganged into services which are beneath the composition’s true potential and inadequate at securing an emotional response on their own, by a lot of very very lazy musical directors, or productions with a tiny PRS budget. I believe that music should be a personal experience; that is what this entire series of posts is about, and even when enjoyed communally and enhance through the communal experience, what is important is the connection between the individual mind and the music, and the emotion created in the space between them.

Therefore I think it is only reasonable to expect to be able to reclaim the 1812 Overture, and play it whenever you need the appropriate sense of military salute accompanying your achievement. The people at the bus stop may not appreciate that you’ve just jogged half a mile, but Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky does. Or he would if he wasn’t dead. And since he’s dead he can’t argue.

Brilliant.

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Links Post September

Things Other People Have Done

  • Written a sardonic post about popular myths about poetry.
  • Designed an eating game based around the Prisoner’s Dilemma. A friend of mine was one of the original test party for this and spent a while explaining interesting “hacks” of the overall premise, which is after all what games are really about.
  • Put up a 1965 high school student’s research paper project: to ask several best-selling authors of the time about symbolism in their work. A surprising number replied, although as you’d expect they weren’t really into the literary criticism side of their stories.
  • Created a useful toy for house planners and writers alike: a room layout planner. Helpful for visualising fictional spaces. (via Cindy R)
  • Written an article about why storytelling is a valuable tool in understanding, in neurological terms as well as social ones.
  • Made this cool thing that makes patterns and is extremely good for calming one down after stressful work days.
  • Put up a tutorial on how to make failed lab experiments.
  • Made a regular podcast about the history of the English language.

Things I have done

  • Started a fashion magazine/blog called Faschionism which should, hopefully, update several times a week with stuff from various contributors.

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Exit from the desert

If I were a complete dick, I could say “it seems fitting that at a time when hideous military things are happening in Syria, I have just finished reading about the liberation of Damascus in 1918″, but I am not the kind of dick who wants to tie that stuff together. That’s a job for journalists and historians, not people who write weird books about London and cry about T E Lawrence at inopportune moments.

The desert I’m leaving is the remembered desert of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: the book is finished. I’ve ploughed through the 9000-odd Kindle pages (this is not an exaggeration) of description, introspection, isolation, photographs, and guerilla warfare, and Lawrence has had his last whisper in my ear until I pick up The Mint

I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this book already. They’ve wavered between being impressed by his prose, impressed by his exploits, horrified by the activities of both himself against others and others against him, fascinated by the landscape so eloquently given voice in this book that it feels like a series of still photographs supplemented by memories of travelogues and nature documentaries, exasperated by Lawrence’s outbursts of what feel like very juvenile whining (forgetting of course that he was younger than me while doing most of this), and often quietly in awe of the scope and seat-of-the-pants nature of several of the victories. 

In completing the book there’s a sense of relief and loss, as there usually is at the end of any good book; the creeping horror of the oncoming scenes at Damascus turned out to be unfounded as it turned out that I’d misremembered the account from A Prince of Our Disorder and that the David Lean movie was as full of lies in this regard as in every other; the chaos did not end in disaster but rather in the return to function of the city. 

Overall in spite of the jittery action and the push and pull of military minutiae, in spite of the electric relations between the men of the Arab Revolt and Lawrence’s occasionally tenuous grip both on his plans and on his person, the cast of the book is of a kind of peaceful reminiscence: coming away from it, the stresses of a military campaign appear like faded memories in a rear view mirror. It is, initially, a hard book to break into: Lawrence makes his prose unfriendly, almost, to intruders: but soon he slackens off and as the campaign begins to shape up so does the ease of reading.

In A Prince of Our Disorder, John E Mack comments that a lot of the men who spoke with Lawrence throughout his life found he gave something to them, and that they saw parts of themselves in him. It seems to be a common theme: I’ve already joked a few times about getting a “what would lawrence do” bracelet with “do the opposite of that” on the other side (for a start: always wear a motorcycle helmet when riding a motorbike, especially when riding a Brough Superior at preposterous speeds on winding country roads; do not utterly refuse to get into any kind of relationship on the basis of some mad ideals which cause you emotional distress, etc), and it occurs to me that there are a few lessons to be learned from him in the course of this book and the circumstances of its publication which could well be applicable to me.

First, with regards to his back-and-forthing on and lack of confidence in his manuscript, leading an exasperated Siegfried Sassoon to send him a testy letter containing the phrase “you have written a great book, blast you”: his eventual decision to produce a small print run funded by subscribers is remarkably similar to my own idea for what to do with my next novel. It is of course a different matter, I’m not trying to hide my work because I have issues with the quality of it (if you like, I have long since ceased to care whether what I’ve written is perfect or not as long as it says what I need it to say), but because I can’t fund the thing on my own. And unlike Lawrence I don’t have an eager public desperate to hear what I have to say because unlike Lawrence I’m somewhat not a hero of a gruelling war and an eloquent Oxford alumni with a great wealth of friends in hundreds of places. 

… Also I’m taller than him by about two inches.

Second, a less practical consideration. In the latter chapters of the book especially I “saw” Lawrence come into conflict with people who found his manner inappropriate or his attitude ungentlemanly, and both chastened him for it and occasionally physically assaulted him (one officer “struck him across the face”, for example). His sense of vision generally kept him from being smothered or particularly bothered by attacks on his persona: while  he was prone to introspection, and also to what looked like self-hatred, this was at the instigation of his own conscience and comparison of his awkwardness, his “other”ness, to those around him. He fretted about his guilt and despised himself for his deceptions, necessary though he believed they were, but did not care for propriety or “what others might think” of his demands for resources or his person unless the manipulation of his image in their eyes was vital to the fighting strength of his little army. He talked often of flattering or phrasing things in specific ways, but not of feeling ashamed of pursuing the things necessary to his task.

This represents a lesson in that while it is important to consider the possibility of harming others it’s not actually necessary to concern oneself overly with whether or not their approval is bestowed. I’m on the verge of stifling myself for the sake of not appearing ridiculous, for the sake of not being “talked about behind my back”, and in a timely manner have read an example of why that’s not feasible or worthwhile: it doesn’t matter if you look ridiculous, and it doesn’t matter if people gas and gossip. The thing you set yourself to should be more important than the vagrancies of strangers and acquaintances, and if your real friends have doubts they will voice them honestly and without spite.

I plan to start reading Lawrence’s book about the conditions of the fledgling RAF – The Mint – by the end of this year, and I’m eager to see what I can learn from that, as well as to listen to a voice separated from mine by a good eighty years.

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Memory Palace at the V and A

One of the useful things my National Art Fund Pass does, besides getting me into Kew at half price and giving extra money to various museums, is to give me half-price entry to exhibitions at the V&A Museum in London. Getting into exhibitions more cheaply makes it all the more likely that I’ll go to them on a whim, and yesterday while my friend Susanne and I were killing time before going to see the Penguins 3D IMAX at the Science Museum across the road (and the accompanying Q&A by Sir David Attenborough, which was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that you can’t really accept is happening at the time, or indeed afterwards), we popped into the Memory Palace exhibition for a quick look.

The advertising image does not appear in the exhibition.

The exhibition is a kind of collaborative birthing pool, taking a work of fiction by Hari Kunzru which examines through the lens of a dystopian London (which has lost the technology and knowledge of the current era and returned to a kind of cultural wilderness) the value of memory and shared information, a topic which is of particular interest to a museum! The fiction is worked into a display by a variety of artists through a variety of different media, including comic strips, strange religious icons depicting misremembered scientists and poets, a cabinet of misunderstandings of technology brought to life, and walls of words. The exhibition culminates in an interactive section (one terminal of which was not working when I got there – anyone who read about my visit to the Saints Alive! exhibit will recognise a theme in interactive exhibitions breaking down just before I get to them) where you can draw or write about a particular memory, and it will be added to the boards of the Memory Palace.

As with anything that allows the public to write or draw, not all of the input on the Memory Palace was, strictly speaking, a “memory” so much as a communication of existence or philosophy, but there were still many in a variety of languages and art styles, and the way they were collated was visually quite pleasing. Being a morbid sort, I added a memory from childhood which involved a rather sad realisation of human cruelty, that of an elephant in a zoo in Ahmedabad who had been chained to the walls of her elephant house by each leg, and was subject to the indignity of having coins and other small items thrown to her (thankfully not at her) for her to gently hand back. Not the happy memory that protagonist of the narrative that drove the exhibition had chosen, but a clear one none the less.

While we were filtering towards the exit/entrance (which was flanked by a number of copies of the book on which the exhibition is based, and little vocab to make understanding the exhibition easier, which I didn’t actually notice on the way in due to the angle of the wall), my friend remarked to me that while she liked the idea she couldn’t work out which side of the line of “too pretentious” it fell.

I am inclined to agree. Taken individually the works of art on display themselves are fascinating, beautiful, and often eerie – a combination I love. Taken as a clear commentary on current events and the nature of a greed-driven, floundering society, they and the narrative behind them seem clumsy, as if written for the benefit of someone significantly younger than me. In a sense it reminded me of a complaint I read by a fantasy author some years ago, that literary fiction authors are never required to have internal consistency or convincing world-building in their books because everything is metaphor or commentary, and that their work is weaker for it. On contemplation of this I think there is a tendency to be so swept up in how clever one thinks one’s own idea is, or how moving a particular moment is (in this case, the selection of a memory to save), or how stupendous one’s analogy is, that the story itself suffers. Then again, I suppose we cannot all be William Golding.

The art itself is well worth a look, and my concerns/disappointment in the narrative and prose quality/conceits might very well just be nitpicking. It should be a determination the viewer makes for themselves – which, I suspect, makes this review a little pointless.

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More Reports From My Favourite Book Genre

Because of medical service interaction making me into a singularity of unnecessary stress (I am the kind of person who can worry themselves into a black hole-level panic over a GP’s appointment, and this one was the next stop along the line), I abandoned anything remotely responsibility-like over the weekend and following two days, and proceeded to plough through a newly-purchased (and signed!) copy of “Broken Homes” by Ben Aaronovitch in a single afternoon.

It was a return to form, hovering somewhere around the first book in the series (“Rivers of London”) and the third (“Whispers Underground”) in terms of quality, and chasing the major plot arc that was introduced in the second (“Moon Over Soho”). The series has a genuinely engaging selection of regular characters and treats the one-offs as potential returnees, so everything feels solid, real, and well-constructed. This unremitting attention to the dimensions of characters extends to the landscape – it’s a cliche to say that the city is a major character in any given book, but when the book is set in London that’s almost a requirement. Ours is a city with a great deal of character, and to neglect that would be borderline criminal.

Happily Ben Aaronovitch has not at any point in this series been in the habit of neglecting the character, shape, or foundations of my beloved home. He’s also given such seamless attention to two fictional locations (Skygarden and the Stromberg House) that until the aftermatter I was convinced that both of them were real, and was even plotting to see if my Art Fund card would get me into the Stromberg house (a National Trust property in the book) for free! I’m not sure whether this is a testament to my gullibility or to Aaronovitch’s well-painted landscapes, but it made for an amused feeling after finishing the book.

The copy I got, from the Covent Garden Waterstones, also contains a short story concerning a genius loci of that very bookshop, which was charming and pleasant and reminded me strongly of Neil Gaiman in ways that occasionally make me shake my head when Neil Gaiman does it. That, I suspect, is a case of familiarity breeding contempt: when you read a lot of someone’s work, you start to see the strings and hear their voice and see their preoccupations in their text.

Granted, if the someone is China Mieville it’s one book and half-way through it that you see the preoccupations and favoured word of the month…

Having finished “Broken Homes” one day, I decided to make good my sudden surge of desire to read fiction again and ate up “Dodger” by Terry Pratchett in less than an afternoon.

My only reason for choosing it was that I’d been loaned the book a while back and it had proceeded to sit on my “read this sooner or later because you’ve borrowed it you dickhead” pile for an egregious amount of time, but it’s thematically appropriate. After “Broken Homes”, a book about dodgy geezers in London, I read “Dodger”, a book about dodgy geezers in (Victorian) London.

As I have been a fan of Pratchet since I was roughly 11, and am 30 now, it’s probably no surprise that I had a wonderful time, as one tends to while reading Pratchett. There were no alarms and no surprises, and that, too, was an entirely pleasant process given that I was straining my intestines in fear over going to a hospital appointment in two days time.

Pratchett brought all of the humanity and wryness and gentle combination of affection and unflinching acknowledgement of the darker sides of mankind and specifically poverty-stricken mankind that he usually brought to the Discworld novels, and applied it to early-Victorian London. I appreciate that as I appreciate Aaronovitch’s witty, familiar poetics about the modern city; they are both writers who have poured a deluge of research into their cities – Pratchett drawing a great deal on the history of London for the unshakeable and distinctive foundations of Ankh-Morpork. I was in love with AM from very early in my life, and I suppose one can credit that for the delight with which I now absorb London’s seedier parts.

My favourite part of “Dodger” is the ease and joy with which Pratchett picked up the most unpleasant failing of “Oliver Twist” – the anti-semitic caricature of Fagin – and gracefully inverted it, making Solomon Cohen a genius, a fugitive, a kind man, and a man full of wit and sarcasm and references that fly over the narrator’s head but land with a satisfying plop in the mind of the reader. Again, “affection” is probably the word I’d use to describe the process; Solomon Cohen is a character written with a great deal of love.

Two books about dodgy geezers in London down, I merely picked up the largest book on the “you’ve borrowed this, hurry up and ever read it” pile, and it, too, turned out to be – so far – about a dodgy geezer, in London. It even references toshers, the profession attached to the titular character in the Pratchett book.

This third book, Nick Harkaway’s “Angelmaker”, is much denser than the Aaronovitch or the Pratchett. Harkaway relies on cramming in every possible detail and thought of the characters to illustrate both the individuals and the landscape, which makes for slower going than the well-timed touches of Aaronovitch and Pratchett, but it is still a highly enjoyable read: Harkaway’s “show AND tell” approach to storytelling is not too off-putting. Also, so far there have been clockwork bees, and I am easily sold on gimmicks like that.


(for those keeping track, I am also sporadically reading “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” on the Kindle and have reached the 90% mark; Lawrence is nearing Damascus and I am distressed by what will surely follow; for non-fiction I am ploughing through “Hiding the Elephant” and taking copious notes).

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The Awkward Moment When Your Great WW1 Hero Sounds Like A Teenager On Tumblr

In which your blogger reaches another period of Lawrence’s introspection in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and identifies a little, but mostly feels moved to make fun of him for sounding like an angst-ridden fifteen-year-old.

It irritated me, this silly confusion of shyness, which was conduct, with modesty, which was a point of view. I was not modest, but ashamed of my awkwardness, of my physical envelope, and of my solitary unlikeness which made me no companion, but an acquaintance, complete, angular, uncomfortable, as a crystal.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence.

Lawrence here complains of being shy and awkward and of people mistaking these “vices” for the “virtue” of modesty, which I see on Tumblr every other day in the form of people belabouring the fact that just because they’re awful at socialising doesn’t mean that they’re not also horribly arrogant, usually while demonstrating entirely the opposite. The more sophisticated manipulators will sigh tragically about how they wish they were any good at something and how terribly embarrassed they are to be putting something online but … if you insist … I say “sophisticated” here and I mean the opposite; Lawrence’s pre-emptive thuggery towards his own supposed modesty is infinitely more complicated.

But wait! There’s more.

There was my craving to be liked — so strong and nervous that never could I open myself friendly to another. The terror of failure in an effort so important made me shrink from trying; besides, there was the standard; for intimacy seemed shameful unless the other could make the perfect reply, in the same language, after the same method, for the same reasons.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

Would unsettled, self-loathing teenage girls on the internet get more respect for their short-term internal miseries if they phrased “I’m just so unique and alone and it’s terrible and I can never love anyone because I might fuck it up and besides nothing will ever be perfect so why bother” – a common refrain I remember from my diaries aged 16-19 or so – in the same educated voice as Lawrence does here? Because he is communicating exactly the same sentiments.

There was a craving to be famous; and a horror of being known to like being known. Contempt for my passion for distinction made me refuse every offered honour.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

In which Lawrence manages to bruise a perfectly normal desire for recognition (hardly surprising given his upbringing and his background) with the idea that it’s somehow beneath him, which demonstrates partly the notions of religious cleanliness of the soul and correct conduct pummelled into him by his mother (A Prince of Our Disorder, John E Mack), and partly a kind of classism evident from the time. The idea that wanting to be known was uncouth, lacking in taste. Or, to put it in the critiques of teenage girls on Tumblr, he is disgusted in himself for being like those attention whoring bitches.

I liked the things underneath me and took my pleasures and adventures downward. There seemed a certainty in degradation, a final safety. Man could rise to any height, but there was an animal level beneath which he could not fall. It was a satisfaction on which to rest.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

Here Lawrence departs from giving an elevated preview of blog complaints from teenage girls, but I’m not sure it’s much of a leap in the direction of insight and praiseworthy sentiment. Rather he’s displaying a very obvious secret of his own nature, something which comes as no surprise to anyone who has read a) A Defence Of Masochism by Anita Phillips or indeed b) the rest of this same damn book. As demonstrated in several more quotes:

Always in working I had tried to serve, for the scrutiny of leading was too prominent. Subjection to order achieved economy of thought, the painful, and was a cold-storage for character and Will, leading painlessly to the oblivion of activity. It was a part of my failure never to have found a chief to use me. All of them, through incapacity or timidity or liking, allowed me too free a hand; as if they could not see that voluntary slavery was the deep pride of a morbid spirit, and vicarious pain its gladdest decoration.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

As the pressures of leading or at least finessing an entire revolt bear down on his shoulders, Lawrence finds himself fantasising more and more about not having to make difficult decisions and being able to trust his superiors to carry things, even though he has placed himself in the position he is in and keeps himself there. Besides this, he is being brutally unsubtle about things which are to follow both in his life and in his legend.

Thus we’re straying onto what I like to think of as a different part of Tumblr, the one that is being carefully segregated. But never fear, Lawrence will now return to bleating about self-hatred and the difference between his view of himself and his view of everyone else in terms which sound almost identical to my Livejournal before I pulled my head out of my own arse:

The hearing other people praised made me despair jealousy of myself, for I took it at its face value; whereas, had they spoken ten times as well of me, I would have discounted it to nothing.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

You and everyone in Year 10, Lawrence.

When a thing was in my reach, I no longer wanted it; my delight lay in the desire.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

The premise of an ungodly number of pop songs.

Indeed, the truth was I did not like the ‘myself’ I could see and hear.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

Welcome to the internet, Ned, I hope you enjoy your stay among people who are exactly like you.

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100 Works of Art: (Audio) Town Called Malice, The Jam

The 100 Works of Art series is still going, albeit slowly. There have been 25 posts about visual art and 5 about audio art so far. The premise behind this series of posts isn’t analytical writing but a kind of sloppy marriage between analysis and personal connection, which is exactly as dreadful as it sounds.

30. Town Called Malice, The Jam (1982)

The Jam provide solid-if-vague politically aware white-boy-with-angry-guitar music, ragged with sarcasm and generally quite danceable. Once, when I was 17 and in a shit nightclub in Plymouth, I slapped a man I’d been flirting with because he called Courtney Love a psycho bitch and opined that Hole weren’t as good as Paul Weller’s solo stuff, because I cared a LOT more deeply about music at 17 than I do now, writing essays about it. “Going Underground” is one of my favourite songs, although it went down in my estimation when my far superior mondegreen of a sarcastic commentary on manufactured outrage (“at this point shout! at this point scream!”) was revealed by Googling to be a much less inspiring standard-issue general anger (“make this boy shout, make this boy scream”).

Because I grew up in a household with bizarre and unfriendly musical tastes, I came to The Jam via unorthodox routes; I only found out about “Going Underground” because of the excellent Fitness To Practice spoof “London Underground” (which I still secretly prefer), and it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that I only knew “Town Called Malice” because a friend gave me the soundtrack to “Billy Elliot”.

Once upon a time I worked in a demoralising and monotonous job. Well, several times upon a time, really. For reasons that don’t make a lot of sense to sane people, I used to get up between 3.30am and 4.30am and, via a series of strategic naps, make it in to work long before everyone else and avoid the rush. The problem with this tactic of people-avoidance, apart from the terrible sleep patterns and likelihood of running into foxes on the way in, was that I ran out of energy before the working day had even started.

And so I had to compile a playlist of songs that had the function of providing me with pep and vigour. This was one of them: just as it provided a perfect soundtrack to Billy Elliot exploding with the joy of movement through a dour and oppressive town, so it got me out of darkness and sleep every morning and gave me enough life to deal with eight hours of data entry. It seems like an abuse of a song.

It’s one of those songs where the lyrics and music clash, producing a contrast in concept or tone; by now readers of this series will be aware that I have a great love for that kind of cognitive dissonance in art. Town Called Malice brings together lonely housewives, impoverished children, boozy husbands, and the slow death of a town with a tune that inspires frantic, emotive dance. The tune is upbeat, a sing-along song for cold mornings and drunken evenings, and the lyrics are a sad, barely-hopeful description of life in a dying town.

Dying towns slipped by my periphery when I was a child in the 80s. We spent six months in a place where poverty was more visible, drawn in primary colours and a lengthy drought, and when I came back my horizons had shifted: as far as I was concerned the people in debt for their colour TVs were rich, and it’s only in hindsight that I can see the dead cities in the streets I used to run down, the grey faces surrounding the rainbows of the imagination. Songs like this one bring a kind of valour to what must have felt like slow rot to live with every day: when I was a child I didn’t know any different, but through the fearful eye of adulthood and the emotive transport of music, it’s easy to take on those miserable ghosts and just kind of … dance at them.

After all, the world does appear to be heading back into a dead-towns-and-lonely-housewives direction once more.

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100 Works of Art: (Aural) Crow on the Cradle, Sydney Carter

The 100 Works of Art blog series is to do with personal interaction with beloved works of art rather than impartial reviews or focussing solely on the relatable and universal qualities of the work. Because this is a blog, not a book. The first 25 are to do with visual art, and begin with Matta’s Black Virtue; the next 25 will be about aural art and begin with The Cure’s Let’s Go To Bed.

29. Crow on the Cradle, Sydney Carter & Jackson Browne

I grew up on a mixture of folk music and a little of the blues. My mother had what my peers characterised as “terrible” taste in music, and I adopted it: as I’ve got older her taste in music has become genuinely terrible (there was a point where it was all whale noise and Gregorian chant and then as I got into plainchant she managed to undercut me again and asked if I’d get her a James Blunt CD) and I’ve decided to ignore the judgement of a collection of Celine Dion-reared rejects from my childhood and embrace the inner folkie. A lot of the songs I listened to as a child were standard-issue folk music about girls with this or that coloured hair or one particularly brilliant song about an enormous pie – the title of which I’ve never been able to remember, to my great loss. But a lot of the songs, too, were protest songs: other contenders for this slot included Country Joe & The Fish’s Fish Cheer/I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag, a selection of Donovan songs including Universal Soldier, and the Fureys & Davey Arthur’s version of The Green Fields of France. Not surprisingly for someone who was taken to an anti-nuclear weapons protest at six weeks old, I grew up listening to various earnest people – both with and without beards and dungarees – requesting with various metaphors and degrees of urgency that the world consider maybe not nuking itself into oblivion.

Regular readers of this blog will be more than a little aware by now that I am morbid as fuck despite all my best efforts, and this began early, with a love of the aforementioned Green Fields of France and a collection of songs which were, bluntly put, guitar-led dirges about dead people. Crow on the Cradle is no different in that respect, and along with Universal Soldier and an untitled song about dead soldiers in the Vietnam War which I listened to so often that I wore out the C90 cassette it was on, got considerable use as a lullaby for me.

It is a little like a lullaby. There is something late evening, inevitable, and gentle about the version I am most familiar with. It puts me in mind of the festivals I spent all my childhood summers at: the sun low in the sky, the flies rising, a hubbub of voices and the smell of wood fires, music everywhere in the background, and hot, dry earth under bare feet. In that respect it is comforting, although you do have to wonder about finding a song warning of nuclear holocaust “comforting”. 

As with many a folk song, the lyrics work as a poem, and the whole thing is designed to be memorable and easily-recited. It’s a kind of troubadour tradition: make the information simple to pass on and vivid enough to stick in people’s minds. In the case of Crow on the Cradle it’s achieved with snatches of nursery rhymes and nursery-rhyme-esque phrase: hush-a-bye little one, never you weepwith rings on her fingers, and bells on her toes; in each case subverted by a fairly chilling closing part to the pattern: for we’ve got a toy that can put you to sleep; or and a bomber above her wherever she goes. As the fact that I’ve had a French nursery rhyme about wearing clogs stuck in my head for a week can very much attest, nursery rhymes are tenacious once crammed into the brain and arise as soon as a similar phrase is heard. So it is that this is a thing that I leave up to you immediately recalls the rest of the song, and while “Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross” is not the most oft-recited of nursery rhymes, it has been supplanted in my mind all the same by and a bomber above her wherever she goes.

Each verse in itself becomes bleaker and more morbid as it progresses, from cow’s in the corn to carry a gun (and the ominous omen of death in the crow on the cradle of the title and refrain), but overall they also become more and more ominous and threatening, like the returning passes of a bomber. Well-paced in this regard, it is the centre verse which repeats on itself, speeding up the onset of the fearful and the morbid (somebody’s baby is born for a fight / somebody’s baby is not coming back), setting up the remaining two verses with their violence and oppression at the start: your mother and father will sweat and they’ll save, to build you a coffin and dig you a grave. In these remaining verses the blame is attributed: the beginnings speak of the baby in the cradle and the doom overhanging it, while these tell the listener whose fault it is. The generation of the songwriter, apparently, is to blame. 

The song closes with an insistent demand for action delivered by the threat that must be eliminated itself, the eponymous crow on the cradle, repeating: this is a thing that I leave up to you. Even now the assigning of responsibility is palpable and in the context of the rest of the song the refusal to act seems like it comes at a chilling cost. It is not hard to imagine the crow as a mushroom cloud.

In light of all this, even more so, it is strange to find the song comforting, but I’ve always also found a certain level of comfort in nihilism and the idea of accepting the degree of powerlessness an individual has in the face of a very powerful force (in this case, mankind’s apparent yen for self-destruction).

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