Saturday, September 29, 2007

A lesson from Raymond Carver

Carver wrote:

I once sat down to write what turned out to be a pretty good story, though only the first sentence of the story had offered itself to me when I began it. For several days I'd been going around with this sentence in my head: "He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang." I knew a story was there and that it wanted telling. I felt it in my bones, that a story belonged with that beginning, if I could just have the time to write it. I found the time, an entire day - 12, 15 hours even - if I wanted to make use of it. I did, and I sat down in the morning and wrote the first sentence, and other sentences promptly began to attach themselves. I made the story just as I'd make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next. Pretty soon I could see a story - and I knew it was my story,
the one I'd been wanting to write.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut - humanist

I wrote in a post a couple down from this one about a piece written by Vonnegut when he was 81, three years before his death, and said how sad I found it that this warm man had had all his hope expunged. Here is a quote from 1972 which shows him at his finest:

There is a time when humanity takes care of humanity. I would like to hear people call each other "citizen." I would like people to light candles and sit around a table in a special way. It would be a moving thing and make leaders and others wonder. It's easy for armed guards to break up a riot. And riots don't change minds. It just makes officials more determined.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut - Cold Turkey

I've just read this article by Kurt Vonnegut, written when he was 81, three years before his death, and I find it desperately sad.

These are the words of a man who has lost hope in humanity. For such a warm, compassionate man as Vonnegut, this must have been a horrific trial to him.

There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don't know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.

But, when you stop to think about it, only a nut case would want to be a human being, if he or she had a choice. Such treacherous, untrustworthy, lying and greedy animals we are!

The first para is classic Vonnegut. Sage, cutting, witty. But the second para reveals something new, something that wasn't part of the make-up of the man who wrote Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse Five. His (understandable) contempt for the leadership of his country has transferred itself into a generalised despair for humanity. I find it very sad to think this warm, wise man could have been made so bitter.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The great dragon

'Thou shalt' is the name of this Great Dragon. But the Lion-spirit saith: 'I will.'

Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Nietzsche tells the tale of the three human states. There is the camel, willing - desiring - to carry the load. An unthinking state. Then there is the lion, which wants freedom to do as it pleases. But it must face the Great Dragon, which is the holder of morality, the 'Thou shalt' and the 'Thou shalt not.'

The lion is I, the realised self, capable of choice, of an act of will. The great dragon is oppression, the suppression of the spirit.

Now, in my younger days I was happy to see the great dragon as religion and religion as the imposition of the status quo on the individual, and therefore a very bad thing. It is easy to see in black and white - 'I will' good, 'You shall' bad. And so we lions must face down the great dragons and march to freedom.

But where does society fit into this? Where does humanity fit in? It's a difficult question. How do you exercise the freedom of the individual while maintaining the community of humanity? How do you organise to support the community of humanity without it spilling into control?

So much of the philosophy I've read has as its focus the 'I' and the 'you' - will and dictate - but as I get older and more comfortable with myself but less comfortable with the world, I need to see a philosophy of 'we.'

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Keep it simple, stupid

Kurt Vonnegut said, in response to a comment that his books "seem to have a sort of surface simplicity":

They have a real simplicity, I think, because I have always been aware of the reader and his difficulties and when I've taught creative writing I've generally expressed the interests of the reader and tried to make my students realize that the reader had a tough job and that it might be worthwhile to make things easier for him. One thing: a reader can stop anytime he wants - you must keep him going.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Frogs

I've just bought a Penguin edition of The Wasps by Aristophanes. It was written in the 60s. It hasn't worn well. Here's a brief snippet, as Dionysus prepares to enter Hell:

Dionysus [climbing in warily]: Er - can I go to Hell?
Charond: You can as far as I'm concerned.
Dionysus: Ah splendid. Two please.
Charon: Sorry, sir, no slaves allowed. Not unless they fought in the sea-battle.
Xanthias: Exempted on medical grounds, I was. Weak sight.
Charon: Well, you'll have to walk round.
Xanthias: Where shall I find you?
Charon: Just past the Withering Stone, you'll find an inn. 'The Last Resting Place', they call it.
Dionysus: Got that?
Xanthias: I've got the creeps, that's what I've got. It's not my lucky day. [He staggers off into the shadows.]
Charon: Sit to the oar. Any more for Lethe, Blazes - Here, what are you doing?
Dionysus: Sitting on the oar, like you said. But -
Charon: I didn't say on the oar, you pot-bellied loon.

It's like something out of ITMA. And they all sound exactly the same, they do. Hard to believe this is a God and the ferryman of the dead talking...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ontological insecurity

The individual in the ordinary circumstances of living may feel more unreal than real; in a literal sense, more dead than alive; precariously differentiated from the rest of the world, so that his identity and autonomy are always in question . . . He may feel more insubstantial than substantial, and unable to assume that the stuff he is made of is genuine, good, valuable. And he may feel his self as partially divorced from his body.

RD Laing

Dorothea Tanning - Eine kleine nachtmusik

I love this painting. The last time I saw it, a couple of years ago probably, I sat in front of it for about half an hour and could hardly bear to leave it. There are dozens - hundreds probably - of interpretations of it, and I have no real idea what it's about. But there's an eeriness about it, an unsettling air, which is fascinating. Are they little girls in control or in danger? It's hard to say. And how much of life is similarly confusing?

Saturday, September 15, 2007


I was in York yesterday and saw a queue just like this outside the branch of Northern Rock.

I don't begin to understand economics - as far as I can see, exactly the same amount of money is there as before, the same assets, the same investors, the same savers, so I don't see why boom turns to bust, it makes no sense to me - but I do see old-fashioned idiocy at work here. The company is apparently stable, but suffering from short-term cash flow. All these fools who are queuing to withdraw their money are simply exacerbating that problem for the bank. By taking this action they risk precipitating the very thing they are afraid of.

As writers, it never does to overestimate the stupidity of human beings.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Coastal erosion

Where I live in East Yorkshire is the fastest eroding coastline in Europe. It's humbling. We're used to thinking of ourselves as impermanent, but we expect the land to be here forever. It won't.

Emili Morera

I had an excellent day out yesterday at Burton Agnes Hall in East Yorkshire (well worth a visit if you're interested in gardens and/or stately homes. The lack of stuffiness in comparison to other historic houses is refreshing.)

Anyway, there were three paintings which quite intrigued me and I took a note of the artist's name, Emili Morera, to do some checking later on.

All the paintings were heavily three-dimensional, with found objects embedded into them. The first had a detail of old stonework which formed a column of a ruined building. The second was a ruined venetian blind, half-opened. The top, closed section was a real venetian blind and where the bottom had fallen away and parts broken this was represented by paint. The third was a more abstract piece, showing a large frame around a landscape beyond. It put me in mind of early Netherlandish art, first in illuminated manuscripts and then in the sixteenth century when they created larger paintings with fake framing techniques, using trompe l'oeil effects.

They were all very striking indeed. There is some very fine art in the collection, including Manet, Gauguin, Pissaro and others, but these really stood out for me.

The trouble is, I can't trace the artist at all. I'm sure I've remembered the name - I wanted to know more about this artist = more + RA. But I've googled and can't find anything. If anyone knows who I am talking about and can point me in the right direction, I'd be very grateful.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The shallows of experience

Many years ago, at a late-night party in King Street in Aberdeen, I hated a man. Riders on the storm was playing loudly. I was singing loudly. This rush to perform, as every self-conscious young man will know, is a double-defence reaction: it makes you look more confident than you feel; and it shows that you know the lyrics to music which is cool. And, back then, 1983 or 1984, Jim Morrison was still cool. Long enough dead to be mysterious to a new generation, to young men who needed to rebel against the techno flim-flam of contemporary music. Hell, Morrison was even arrested for obscenity. He sang about killing his father and fucking his mother. He had read everything, he was a poet, a genius, a rock star, and he died like a rock star, glamorously, still young.

And so Jim and I were singing, and this shy, showing-off boy borrowed some of his long-dead friend's bluster.

There's a killer on the road,
His brain is squirming like a toad.

And then it happened. This man I'd never seen before, a post-graduate student, became the man I hated, because he laughed. And the very second he laughed I knew, despite how much I wanted to argue, to fight, hit him for insulting the genius Morrison, I knew that he was right. I'd sung those lyrics a hundred times and it had never dawned on me - they were shit, they were embarrassing drivel.

When we make idols we lose reason. Does it matter? My football team is St Johnstone. They're rubbish, they'll never win anything, but they're mine, my heroes. I know I'm deluding myself and I'm happy with my deception. Does it matter? Does it matter that Jim Morrison was a preening narcissist with a great line in casual cruelty and juvenile lack of control of language, who died in a bath, choked by his own vomit?

It matters in two ways, from opposing ends of the spectrum. Firstly, blind hero-worship of a football team is one thing. It's funny, it allows endless opportunities for self-deprecation and wistful shakings of the head. But swap St Johnstone for something equally inept - Mohammed, say, or Jesus Christ - and the joke turns sour. Unquestioning loyalty? Inability to recognise fatuity? Unthinking urge to impose beliefs on others? Violent response to challenge? Tendency towards hatred? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

And from the personal angle, how do you progress? If you cannot listen to 'His brain is squirming like a toad' and suddenly, one enlightened moment, realise that it is shit of the highest magnitude, how can you know that there is something else out there, something greater, something perfect that has to be reached for, searched for? Eventually you have to discover Bob Dylan; and then WB Yeats; and then Sorley Maclean. There's always more, there's always better, a trail of giants leading you towards discovery, as long as you don't squat in the shallows of the first doggerel-monger to attract your ear.

Those who refuse to listen, refuse to question, refuse to shift from a dogmatic position reached in juvenility, without the benefit of experience or knowledge, are living in a curious twilight world. RD Laing says that "I can never experience your experience of me." Those who live their lives in denial of the truth as it is now, rather than the truth they first defined, are unable to properly experience themselves. They are stunted. That makes them dangerous.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Had a fascinating day out at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park today. Fantastic weather, just perfect.

The main reason we wanted to go was the Andy Goldsworthy exhibition. It's a good show, with some major new works plus a couple of galleries of retrospective stuff, with photographs of earlier installations. The main focus of the exhibition is in the four indoor galleries at the main centre. These represent wood, clay, stone and space. The first installation is a giant assemblage of cut logs, looking like some enormous termites nest, and resting on one another to a height of around twelve feet with nothing fixing them in place.

Next is a room full of clay mounds, each one forming a characteristic Goldsworthy 'hole'. This man has a real hole fetish, and these mounds are extraordinary. It's difficult to tell if it's a real hole or a piece of velvet placed on top of the mound. The effect becomes unsettling, and it's odd that something as regulated and clearly "created" still has such an organic feel to it.

Not as unsettling as the next room, which is an open expanse, with the walls covered in clay which is drying out and leaving crazed cracks everywhere. This immediately put me in mind of the Guiseppe Penone installation at the Pompidou Centre, Respirare l'Ombra, in which he covered the walls with an inches deep layer of laurel leaves, held in place by chicken wire. The smell was astonishing, and the room felt like the most comforting, comfortable, womb-like expanse. The centre-piece was a bronze cast of human lungs, neatly bringing together life and humanity, nature and mankind.

The Goldsworthy felt its opposite, a parched, sparse, dying space. I'm not much of an environmentalist, but if you want a statement about global warming and the like, the comparison of Goldworthy with Penone would be an interesting one.

And the next room had an even stronger resonance with the Penone. It was truly inspiring. It was completely in darkness and with the brightness of the sunshine outside it was an unsettling experience walking inside. Gradually, out of the blackness, shapes emerged, long lines, horizontal but not regular, and as your eyes adapted to the light it became clear that they were coppiced chestnut branches, hundreds of them, all piled up around the walls and climbing, forming a tent-like experience. It was like being in the roundhouse they've reconstructed at Flag Fen, but everything is much, much denser, the logs packed more closely together. Goldsworthy himself says of this room in an article in the Telegraph:

"I hope the room feels like entering the stomach of a tree," Goldsworthy says. "It's very intestinal." The piece was inspired by his memory of a visit to the park in 1983. A much skinnier Goldsworthy tried to wriggle through a small opening at the base of a sycamore into a rotting cavity (the manoeuvre is recorded in a series of photographs also on display in the show). "I was under threat when I went inside that dead tree," he recalls. "I really didn't know if I'd get stuck halfway."

The final room in this sequence is possibly the most striking, but if I'm honest it interested me least. Technically, it's astounding, an assemblage of chestnut twigs, over 10,000 of them, all kept together only by thorns. It looks sumptuous, like some Japanese curtain, and it's impossible not to be amazed by the skill that must have been involved in its making; but for me it was less interesting precisely because it felt crafted. I could see the artist in it, where with the others I saw nature, I saw the art.

Goldsworthy, of course, is predominantly an outdoor artist, and there was more in the Sculpture Park itself. The Hanging Trees are probably the best known of this exhibition. I'd seen pictures of them before and thought them clever, but I hadn't realised that they are actually built into the walls themselves. I guess the clue's in the title - Hanging trees - but sometimes I'm not literal enough... Anyway, they are thought provoking, the way they emerge and disappear into the walls themselves, and the walls appear out of the landscape, creating a bizarre enclosure.

Also on the sculpture park walk was Basket, an installation by Winter and Horbelt. This is a two-storey construction, double-skinned, made of wire mesh. It gives a stunning view over the valley and is quite unsettling: there's something about the mesh which distorts your vision, particularly because there are two, one behind the other, so that when you move the grids appear to move as well. And when the wind suddenly blows, coming straight through the "walls" of the building, it is actually quite frightening, at least for someone with vertigo, like me.

There's time for one further Goldsworthy, a round, completely enclosed wall, about ten feet high, which leaves you wondering what can possibly be inside it. A couple who were viewing at the same time as us had the answer: stretch as high as you can and take a photo with your digital camera. I guess it worked. Hope there was nothing unpleasant in there...

And the final leg is at the Longside Gallery. This must be one of the most remote art galleries in the world - it's at the end of a two mile hike down and up the valley. If you were to be uncharitable about this exhibition, you might say that two miles is a bloody long way to walk to find a gallery with a single, giant rock in the middle of it and sheep shit all over the walls and windows, because that's what the Goldsworthy exhibition is.

Except it does work. Goldsworthy says of his new work in an Observer article:

"I find some of my new works disturbing, just as I find nature as a whole disturbing. The landscape is often perceived as pastoral, pretty, beautiful - something to be enjoyed as a backdrop to your weekend before going back to the nitty-gritty of urban life. But anybody who works the land knows it's not like that. Nature can be harsh - difficult and brutal, as well as beautiful. You couldn't walk five minutes from here without coming across something that is dead or decaying."

What we see here is country life. The paintings are made with sheep shit and with their hoof prints and with hare's blood and with other manifestations of nature. One of the hare's blood paintings is mind-boggling. It is almost vertiginously three-dimensional; it contracts inwards to this central point which seems to be deep, deep inside the painting, as though you are being dragged through it into some spectral place. Unfortunately, I haven't found a copy of that one, but this is another of the hare's blood paintings.

And then it's a walk back to the Sculpture Park centre again. It's a very fine public space, I have to say, beautifully kept, very clean, with a friendly atmosphere. The shop has some really good stuff as well, not the usual tat you find in most galleries.

Definitely a day out to be recommended.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Lord of the dance

There was an excellent feature in yesterday's Guardian (read it here) on Euripides' The Bacchae by David Greig, who was responsible for the version of the play performed at this year's Edinburgh Festival. Greig argued that the Greek plays still have strong resonance today and we have much to learn, as a culture, from the old texts. He concludes:

Whenever a Greek tragedy is revived today, the question is asked: "Why now?" For me, Euripides's concerns remain as relevant as they were 2,000 years ago. There are still men who would control women in order to bolster their shaky sense of self. There are still men who are lost because they refuse to lose themselves in dance. And so we still live with the psychotic and uncontrolled violence that will appear whenever a repressed Dionysian force reasserts itself - as it always will.

I've become fascinated by the Dionysian/Apollonian split recently. The Greek tragedies suggest that when there is a balance between the two there is harmony and society operates at its most creative; however, each is always struggling for superiority and at times one will become pre-eminent, leading to disaster.

Greig seems to make more of the masculine/feminine split than I would. Although I think he's right to identify emotion and instinct as predominantly feminine traits and rationality and control as masculine, I think these differences can be overplayed and will lead to the argument being taken down a sterile side road. It's important to stress that these "masculine" and "feminine" traits are in us all. This is the point of The Bacchae, with Pentheus - a strong, Apollonian rationalist - struggling to accommodate his more feminine feelings.

Does it all matter any more? Is it just dead Greek guys? No, I think it does matter. At a fundamental level, we can see western culture as largely Dionysian - devoted to the dance, to self-expression - and the stunted world view of al Qaida and religious fundamentalists as strictly Apollonian - straight, stern, serious. Although an Apollonian approach is important, it must never be allowed to dominate, otherwise society stagnates, creativity is stifled, there is no progress. That is why, of course, Muslim thinking is precisely where it was in the fifteenth century: no-one is permitted to question it.

So let's celebrate Dionysus. Raise a glass to decadence. But spare a thought for the battered body of reason in the corner. Western society ignores him at its peril.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Hattie Carroll

I'm listening to Dylan singing "The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll" at the moment. He recorded it on "The Times they are a-changin'" in October 1963. It relates events - the manslaughter of Hattie Carroll by William Zantzinger - which took place in February 1963, and for which Zantzinger was sentenced to six months in prison in August 1963.

Where is the contemporary songwriting today? Who is writing songs about current affairs? I know there will be folk singers out there who are doing so, but even back in '63 Dylan was already famous. I can't think of anyone in the public eye today who writes such songs.

And the weird thing is that we are in the middle of a highly unpopular war. Why isn't it the catalyst for a new generation of protest art? Thatcher's children just can't be arsed, perhaps.

Margaret Attwood's joke

I'm sure she has others, but I like this one, from Negotiating with the dead:

The Devil comes to the writer and says, "I will make you the best writer of your generation. Never mind generation - of this century. No - this millennium! Not only the best, but the most famous, and richest; in addition to that, you will be very influential and your glory will endure for ever. All you have to do is sell me your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your kids, your dog and your soul."

"Sure," says the writer, "Absolutely - just give me the pen, where do I sign?" Then he hesitates. "Just a minutes," he says, "what's the catch?"

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Hamish Henderson v Hugh MacDiarmind

Here's a poets' death match - Hugh MacDiarmid and Hamish Henderson, whose battles in the letters pages of the Scotsman are fascinating. I've just got Henderson's Collected letters and collected writings. Wonderful stuff:

I try to make sense of your tortured logomachy...
Amidst all the posturings, tantrums and rages...
Just what do you stand for MacDiarmid?
I'm still not certain...

Hamish Henderson, "To Hugh MacDiarmid on reading Lucky Poet"

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The flyting o life and daith

by Hamish Henderson. The last two stanzas:

Quo daith, the warld is mine.
I hae dug a grave, I hae dug it deep,
For war an' the pest will gar ye sleep.
Quo daith, the warld is mine.

Quo life, the warld is mine.
An open grave is a furrow syne.
Ye'll no keep my seed frae fa'in in.
Quo life the warld is mine

Monday, September 03, 2007

Lady Godiva's operation

How strange...

I had an urge to listen to Lady Godiva's operation by the Velvet Underground tonight. Don't know why. I last listened to it probably about twenty years ago, maybe more.

I was absolutely certain it was sung by Nico. I could even hear her German accent singing "Lady Godiva, here dressed so demurely." But it's not, it's John Cale singing. I've just done a quick google on it, and I can't find any evidence that Nico ever sang it. What strange tricks memory can play.

Anyway, here's the song:

Dylan Thomas short stories

While I was cooking my curry last night I was reading some early short stories by Dylan Thomas, from his Collected Stories. I confess I haven't read much Thomas apart from Under Milk Wood, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect - lyrical, obviously, but that was about it.

They're very, very odd. They're set in rural Wales, in the Jarvis hills, and they're almost hallucinatory in feel and subject matter. They merge the commonplace and the macabre and the supernatural in a very eerie way. They are riven with death and sex, and everything is told in a wonderfully quiet, understated way. They describe horrific things - a burning baby, for example - and do so in a way which is an object lesson in show/tell, and in building suspense and in creating unease. And all the time, of course, they are shot through with poetic phrases and language but this poetry doesn't intrude. Rather, it adds another layer of mystery and unease to the stories.

Fascinating reading, well worth digging out.

Sunday, September 02, 2007


I mentioned Sebastian by Cockney Rebel in a post a few days ago, and had to go and listen to it again. This is a You Tube version which chops two minutes off at the end.

It's an extraordinary song. The lyrics are utterly meaningless:

Radiate simply, the candle is burning so low for me
Generate me limply, I can't seem to place your name, cherie
To rearrange all these thoughts in a moment is suicide
Come to a strange place, we'll talk over old times we never spied

Somebody called me Sebastian
Somebody called me Sebastian
Work out a rhyme, toss me the time, lay me, you're mine
And we all know, oh yeah!

Your Persian eye sparkle; your lips, ruby blue never speak a sound
You, oh so gay, with Parisian demands, you can run-around
Your view of society screws up my mind like you'll never know
Lead me away, come inside, see my mind in kaleidoscope

Somebody called me Sebastian
Somebody called me Sebastian
Mangle my mind, love me sublime, do it in style,
So we all know, oh yeah!

You're not gonna run, babe, we only just begun, babe, to compromise
Slagged in a Bowery saloon, love's a story to serialise
Pale angel face; green eye-shadow, the glitter is outasite
No courtesan could begin to decipher your beam of light

Somebody called me Sebastian
Somebody called me Sebastian
Dance on my heart, laugh,
swoop and dart, la-di-di-da
Now we all know, oh yeah!

And yet there's something completely entrancing about it. That refrain - "Somebody called me Sebastian" - is haunting. It makes you think there is a real story behind all that artifice, and wouldn't it be fascinating to know what it was?