About Reading

It’s a strange condition of the world we live in that art requires almost constant justification. Especially the humanities.

“Reading doesn’t prevent genocide bro. Reading won’t stop the climate from changing, you know what I’m saying? The humanities are useless mate, they don’t teach you anything important do they? What kind of job are you going to get with a history degree?”

Blah. Blah. Blah.

Film director Steven Soderbergh gives a far more eloquent defence of art in general than I:

Art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. Art is storytelling, and we need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information, and to try and make sense out of all this chaos. And sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story, you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being – literally seeing the world the way they see it. Then, if you have a really good piece of art and a really good artist, you are altered in some way, and so the experience is transformative and in the minute you’re experiencing that piece of art, you’re not alone. You’re connected to the arts.

The reason we need the humanities is because we are human. That ought to be enough.

Yet the art of reading is under a seemingly inexhaustible attack, like the Roman Empire it is overwhelmed; fighting a Sisyphean battle against everything electronic. A National Literary Trust study in 2012 surveyed 21,000 children and teenagers and found that they read less of everything. Comics, books, and magazines – all crowded out by the increasing pressure that the voltaic world is putting on the physical reality of young people. 17% said they would be embarrassed if a friend saw them reading a book. Three in every ten said they choose to read every day in their spare time. A third of UK households don’t have any books in them.

There is a magnificent paradox here however. The ‘Millennial’ generation is far from illiterate. In fact it may be the first generation in history that is entirely composed of authors, albeit not particularly skilled ones. For what are Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and Tumblr if not a form of publication, a forum for micro-fiction, instant information exchange and a kind of personal open wound style storytelling? Every precious thought or observation or opinion (especially opinion) is broadcast for consumption within the infinite milieu. Every email, tweet and post is validation of our existence, we need to be seen and we need to be heard – all the time.

To write well obviously requires literacy. It requires the ability to read and to have read well and yet Samuel Johnson’s aphorism that ‘what is written without effort is in general read without pleasure’ has never been more relevant. Tweets and posts are generally stacked like so many rusting cars in an endless scrapyard because they are instantaneous, utterly ephemeral and often just bursts of emotive flatulence. As the sender of nearly 12,000 tweets in the space of around 18 months I can vouch for how entirely pointless the vast majority of my little leakages are.

Some people refuse to see this. Within the Internet lies a utopian future. They almost always point to the Arab Spring and the ‘Twitter Revolution” in Iran circa 2009 as examples of the first flexing of the teeming sinews of a profound new Net-centric power that is a ‘Good Thing’ for literacy and truth and liberty. Many historians of the printing press strike similar notes. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, the historian who has done the most to trump up the ‘profound’ effects of the advent of printing in the 15th century, often does her utmost to downplay the invention’s use for ignoble purposes.

It goes without saying that the press soon reflected the worst of human nature. Almost as soon as it was invented it was used to publish superstitious nonsense like the Malleus Maleficarum, a text found in the libraries of good 16th century witch hunters everywhere. More often that not radical technological innovation will be used to support the ossifying structures of orthodoxy – not to bring them down. Filippo di Strata wryly observed that whilst the pen is a virgin, the printing press is a whore.

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What does that make the Internet? Iran had just twenty thousand Twitter subscribers in 2009 – there was no revolution there. The elite will tolerate limited dissent as long as it remains profitable and limited in its effects – exactly what cyber dissent is. Note that a far larger percentage of all posts on Twitter discuss association football than politics. Marx told us that the philosophers had just interpreted the world; the real purpose of our lives was to change it. This will not happen on the web, a realm of the emotionally incontinent and a place for entertainment not activism. The internet is a province of stupefaction beyond Aldous Huxley’s wildest nightmares. The digital utopians who place their faith in the ‘transformative’ aspects of the web are the new historicists, trying to find a laws and trends and generalizations where only singular and specific events exist.

Within Twitter and Facebook and all the other networked dives and virtual saloons that are beamed around the world a problem is revealed. People can’t actually write anything that will last longer than five minutes.

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It seems like a lingering truism to suggest that one cannot simply put pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard and create something worthy of consumption without first reading widely and diligently. In a recent article for the Los Angeles Review of Books William Giraldi discusses the writer as reader with specific reference to Herman Melville the author of Moby Dick. He quotes Hershel Parker (author of a vast two-volume biography of Melville):

“Melville was not reading in order to acquire knowledge for its own sake, his evident purpose in reading the epics of Western Civilization was to learn how to write.”

Melville’s vigorous reading of the epics, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost, is according to Giraldi, what injects such compelling potency into Captain Ahab, “the most compelling quester in the American canon”. The tradition of ‘proper’ reading retains its importance across literary culture. Just as there could be no Ahab without Milton’s Satan, without Ahab there could be no Judge Holden (arguably the single greatest evil imagined in 20th century literature) in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. McCarthy both acknowledges and rejects a comparison between his own creation and Milton’s Satan or Melville’s Ahab within his own work by saying of the Judge:

“Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there a system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go.”

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McCarthy is doffing his cap at readers familiar with both Moby Dick and Paradise Lost; in a rare interview for The New York Times given in 1992, McCarthy baldly acknowledges a truth that is disturbing for both undergraduates and academics who live cowering in fear plagiarism:

“The ugly fact is books are made out of other books.”

Without reading and the conversation that has existed since the first story was told around a fire in some dismal encampment or daubed on a primordial rock face, there is no writing. Reading must happen so that we too may participate in this authorial dialogue. We must struggle against the limits of our life span and perception in order to perceive this ceaseless, ever varying and overlapping emulsion that can carry us to the shores of the past and the future.

There ought to be shame and handwringing about the failure of publishers and educators to inspire the next generation of readers. It is not just a case of the Millennials consuming ‘trash’ entertainment either. We have noted the pitfalls of the Internet but that does not mean that the literary world is an exclusive and privileged ghetto where the best stories reside.

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People increasingly turn to television for the best stories; Game of Thrones (that rare beast that supersedes and improves its source material), Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men and The Wire have initiated a halcyon era of programming where storytelling and complex characterization is key. The appetite for great stories exists. What are the literary phenomena of the past decade? Unctuous and turgid tales like Fifty Shades of Grey and Harry Potter.

Henry Miller observed that ‘nothing is proposed that can last more than twenty-four hours,’ and ‘we are living a million lives in the space of a generation.’ Miller was writing in the 1930’s, before the present era of instant gratification and communication. Somehow in a world where we can live a million lives in a week and nothing that is proposed can last more than an hour before it lies dissected and cold, our l’angoisse de la mort is heightened and amplified. With each added demand on cheapened time it becomes more precious. It is not a question of why we read then, but why should we continue to read?

John Williams gives a lyrical answer in his novel Stoner by evoking the mysterious gestation of a true reader, that magical process shaped by both circumstance and that spark of the imagination each of us holds, in a truly mesmeric way:

“The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape and had no wish to escape.”

That is the transformation that occurs in all who learn to love literature and it is why those that do will always read.

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The Horror of The House of Windsor

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What right-thinking person thinks it possible to have a “famous” baby? For that is what our future King will be, famous before he even does anything. At least by the time Mozart was eight he’d had the temerity to compose a symphony. This ‘famous’ baby, I confidently predict, will do nothing worthy and nothing important enough to earn all the simpering adulation it will be received with. And that is the way it should be. Babies shouldn’t be famous because that is an absurdity. It is a fiction.

The Royal Family makes me embarrassed to be British. The pretence that we are a democracy, that this country is egalitarian will melt away when this baby is presented to the fawning blimps that constitute a minority in these isles and the global media gathers to celebrate the continuation of the hereditary principle. Why not go and celebrate infanticide, incest and bestiality then – the other trappings of a medieval society. In fact, when pageants such as this one occur we are all reminded of our place: we are subjects not citizens. This child will be the gilded strut that props up our unlovely system of class distinction and hierarchy.

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The House of Windsor are the great progenitors of our culture of surface-fetishism, our worship of the unimportant lives of unremarkable people led on by the evermore vulgar media inculcated impulses of cheering and jeering.  Yet conversely they have managed to insert themselves into a mysterious and parochially exotic world. The world of national tradition; and when she dies our current monarch will find herself a symbol of the nation as much as Dickens, or the paintings of Turner and Constable, or the sound of Big Ben tolling in sodden London.

This group of mammals does not deserve to be part of this tradition and their place there is an invention. Cameron, Miliband and Salmond were eviscerated for attending the Wimbledon final as it was seen by many as an example of political opportunism – what then of the Royals presence at the Olympics and all the other great circuses of our island. As William Cobbett remarked, you can tell a lot about a country that refers to the Royal Mint and the National Debt.

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Fun fact: Charles first met Diana when she was 13 and he was 19! LMFAO

What then will become of our little royal superior? Perhaps he will be a fetid creature like Charles, a man so unctuous that he makes one tempted to believe Mohammed Al Fayed’s moonshine afflicted and thoroughly off the wall story that Diana was assassinated. It may be that the kid is more like it’s raffish uncle Harry, a man who enjoyed blowing up Afghani peasants from the seat of his attack helicopter so much that he participated in not one, but two tours of bloodslaked butchery.

Isaac Deutscher once said of the old Soviet Union, as the great clanking beast rusted and died, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose.” No axiom is more appropriate for the toxic reality of deficit Britain, where the money spent yearly on the Royals could pay for 9560 nurses or 8200 police officers.

The Windsors and their army of adulators await the annunciation of the child with the same atavistic fever as those who yearn to see the slick of virgin’s blood on a white bedsheet at some barbaric wedding ritual. There won’t ever be an honest discussion about these people and their role in our country. We are too inured to them now, for where they tread we are but supernumeraries in this dream of life.

From Hope to Fear: The Obama Obfuscation

It is going to be one of the Great Questions of the era we currently find ourselves in.

How did this guy:

tumblr_md31dmr7aq1qzupj0o1_500Turn into this guy:

BMaF3jqCMAAGZSpSince the start of the year Obama’s administration has been deluged with a series of quasi-Nixonian scandals: a two month phone tapping exercise led by the Department of Justice on Associated Press journalists (the AP responded by calling it a “massive and unprecedented intrusion”) and the news that the IRS targeted a number of right-wing campaign groups in a move that might at best be described as “dodgy”.

Then came the revelation that US government was basically spying on everyone through PRISM, a top-secret surveillance program that gathered intelligence from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley giants.  Obama’s response to these exposures was a study in intellectual dishonesty that you really ought to see here:

Really watch Obama in this video. Note the slight hunch, the greying hair and his unsmiling minders behind him. He waves away the greatest denouement of government intrusion into the private lives of its citizens in history with a flippant conveyor belt of platitudes and blandishments. Observe adages as tired as his body language, 58 seconds of crap like ‘trust’, ‘oversight’ and ‘bad guys’.

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You cherish the constitution? Bullshit. PRISM and its associated programs take the 4th amendment, hose it with gasoline and light the bastard thing up. Obama, lest we forget (or try and make excuses for him) is a constitutional law professor who knows exactly what it is that he has helped to dismantle. He is up there with this guy now:

I didn’t want to believe that Obama was just another political hack. Back in 2008 he seemed like a radical departure from the stuffy, fed on lies and bullshit world of Clinton and Bush. Obama graced paragraphs with Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and yeah, you know what, it felt right. Obama seemed to be the promise of America made flesh. Anything could be projected onto Obama and the Brave New World we hoped he represented. Obama the apotheosis of progress. Obama the harbinger of a new age of racial harmony that would spirit us away from old dysfunctions and conflicts, Obama the story: his journey from the working class to the White House was Gatsby-ish in its scope and emotional resonances. This was before he was even inaugurated, before he even fucking did anything at all – the guy was an action figure before he was the President. Seeing the name of Dr King or Ghandi or Mandela in the same paragraph as Obama’s brings home the nauseous realisation that they don’t have anything in common at all.

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No one cares though. No riots, no demonstrations, no real outcry outside of the Guardian comment section/stoned guys on Reddit strata of society. The American public actually seems to love being spied on and here in Britain there is one CCTV camera for every 14 subjects (we’re not technically citizens in the UK). Voltaire reminds us how dangerous apathy is:

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I find myself watching Obama on television and not really recognising what he has become. The firebrand from 2004, the avatar of hope in 2008 has become the dull diet Bush of 2013. The only real ‘change’ Obama has wrought has been in this transformation, this sacrifice of his values. It is hard not to feel angry, hard not to feel betrayed at some personal level. View his metamorphosis here:

I haven’t even mentioned his failure to close Guantanamo Bay prison, his use of a fleet of robotic aerial drones to hose liquid metal death on third world shepards without recourse to international law. These facts, and every scandal of the last few months are symptomatic of a flawed and dysfunctional administration.

Christ, I’m starting to sound like FOX news.

 

 

The Kind People have a Wonderful Dream – Thatcher’s Funeral

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Mastur-weeping: how the Chancellor rolls. (Photo from the Mirror.)

Yesterday was Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. You could almost hear Paul Dacre weeping as he masturbated. You could actually see George Osborne doing the very same thing during the service, live on national television.

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Guns. Lots of guns. Nothing says funeral as much as a shit load of guns.

London felt cold and hermetic yesterday. The sun dutifully refusing to break through the slate sky that Maggie made her final journey under. The usual modes of governance seemed to cease for the day, no PMQs, no toiling of Big Ben – instead the hawkish buzz of news copters and the sallow blue uniforms of the police and military lit by up by gunmetal. The minutes before and during the procession were a ten million pound suspension, a time machine, old Maggie allowed to hold office one last time. For a couple of hours Britain was a necrocracy, a mausolocracy.

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Spot the odd one out.

A old P.E. teacher of mine, a former marine, had a story about Maggie coming to their base and inspecting the troops – “My back has never been straighter” he would say proudly. According to him she was the strongest, the toughest Prime Minister we ever had, strength being the only quality he seemed to really appreciate. Yesterday I wondered whether he was near me somewhere on Fleet Street, ready to straighten that back again in respect and admiration for a final inspection.

Those who lined the route yesterday were called Thatcher’s ‘supporters’ by the media. This was partly true. There was a fat man in a dark suit sitting atop a red telephone box, legs outstretched like a parachutist, shouting and yelling and clapping “GO ON MAGGIE”. What a patriot. As if her passage to St. Pauls and then to be cremated was some necrotic team sport. Cheering the little box as it went by seemed inappropriate to me regardless of any political opinions.

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Everyone is a historian on days like this.

I wasn’t there as a ‘supporter’, like most others I came simply to observe the spectacle, to pay homage not to Thatcher but to the death of the kind of politician she represented. In a world of suits, deference and consensus her species has ceased to exist, the politician with conviction who allows it to drive decision making. The number of pictures taken and films made yesterday along the barrier at Fleet Street is a testament to this feeling.

In the last week we have been told countless times that we are ‘Thatcher’s Children’, but she was a matriarch not a mother. The applause as she rolled past yesterday was scattered – the applause given to one who is respected, not loved. How very British it was  to depart the world in such a way, to such strained and muted politeness.

Maggie, Morrissey and Legacy

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Mozza and Margaret (Getty, AP)

‘Great’ people tend to be those who can ignite profound change and inspire blind devotion in equal measure. They are those rarities amongst us who can ‘set the weather’ by shaping it with their very will. Above all they never compromise, they can’t be bought or sold: they lead and others simply follow, shellshocked in their wake.

People like this don’t actually exist of course. Great people merely make waves in the tides of history, they don’t direct the process itself. Yet with the death of Margaret Thatcher this week, an inevitable operation of mythologising and beatification, led by Downing Street and in the rightwing press has begun in earnest. View with trepidation the front pages of the Mail and Telegraph on Tuesday: a backlit photo of ‘our Maggie’ at her ‘Rule Britannia’  peak, smiling benignly, the light warming the famously unmoving hair into a halo, a visual representation of a calculated attempt to rewrite the history of our country. This is Thatcher rebranded – above the swill of old hatreds, joining the pantheon of British political leaders who are now apolitical symbols of national unity.

Who stands against this?

Certainly not the Labour Party – their last Prime Minister spent £100,000 renaming a room in Downing Street after her. The BBC has been cowed into showing vapid commemorative programming that, deliciously enough, has been beaten in the ratings by Coronation Street. The really despicable moments of Thatcher’s reign, for instance discrimatory legislation like Section 28 has barely been mentioned this week. When the discord and disharmony sown by Thatcher has been shown on the news this week it has dwelt far too much simply on the fact that many people despised her and not why they despised her. Similar to the way the 2011 film ‘The Iron Lady’ showed a horde of screaming protestors battering the great ladies car without explaining their motives at all. Terrifyingly that film and the sycophantic press coverage this week will probably shape the way a vast majority of under-35’s remember Thatcher.

That leaves us with Morrissey.

An 80’s icon who divides opinion in a way that is startlingly similar to Thatcher, Morrissey’s song ‘Margaret On The Guillotine’ was probably the first protest song that I ever heard and actually understood. Ironically the artlessness of Thatcher the person (her interests didn’t stretch very far beyond watching the occasional episode of ‘Songs of Praise’ and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Tennyson) and her government created an atmosphere of opposition that created great art – everyone from Billy Bragg to Sue Townsend owes a strange kind of debt to Thatcherism.

Through his music and interviews (in one he famously wished the Brighton Bombing had claimed her life) Morrissey represented a slice of culture and a section of society that vehemently loathed Thatcher. This week his chance to dance on her grave finally arrived. He didn’t hold back.  Much of the truly vehement appraisals of Thatcher this week have come from similar figures from the period.

Yet by displaying such naked, reckless hate for Thatcher, Morrissey reveals a character remarkably like that of the Iron Lady. In fact there are many similarities between the two; their aforementioned divisiveness, their intransigence and their proclivity towards hubris. They are both magnets for hatred from the press and the public. Thatcher’s slide to irrelevance began as she was tearfully ushered out of Downing Street, Morrissey’s as The Smiths fell apart around him in 1987. For Thatcher’s remark about the ‘enemy within’ trade Mozza labelling the Chinese a ‘sub-species’. Was it Mozza or Maggie who said this:

“If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time and you would achieve nothing”

It ends there though. Morrissey is merely one of the great songwriters of the last 30 years. Mrs. Thatcher was a politician who changed Britain in a revolutionary way. What transpired under her leadership may have been better than the alternative; a managed decline of a former great power, Michael Foot creating a Warsaw-upon-Thames land full of nationalised pubs, intermittent electricity and unbreakably powerful unions. This does not however excuse the unblinkingly one-eyed coverage of Thatcher that has occurred since her death, nor does it mean the public should contribute to what is already being called an “all but a” state funeral. Churchill – a leader who united the country in a remarkable way deserves such an honour but Thatcher, who has left us with a legacy of profound divisions especially between rich and poor and between the celtic fringes of these islands and England, simply does not deserve the accolade. Nor would she want it.

She blazed a trail, with the caveat that it was for herself and for people like her. All opposition was either wrong or the enemy. To consider her a symbol of national unity is to be sadly misguided. Equally to assess her legacy as she assessed her opponents: in extreme terms that border on hatred, is to poison the discourse to come: the sight of smug Brixton hipsters who probably wouldn’t even know what a ‘pit’ is celebrating her death was almost as irritating as the tearfully masturbatory tone of the right-wing press this week.