A potent mix of critical opinion and biographical fact

Friday 20 October 2006

Scrawled in biro over a poster for the movie of The History Boys on the platform at Euston station*: “Alan Bennett is an overrated poof from Yorkshire.”

* Northern Line, Charing Cross branch.

Patrick White is a middlebrow hack.

Monday 16 October 2006

The final instalment of the online reading of Patrick White’s novel The Vivisector. Previous posts here and here.
“Then we also have our obligations to animals and humans,” she added with a moist pathos.
He remembered the sackful of cats, and she lowered her eyes, perhaps on catching a reflection in his.
We remember it too, because we were told about it only two pages earlier. Even then, it was carefully spelled out to us that if a man is carrying a sack of cats to water, he means to drown them, do you see? The first sentence of The Da Vinci Code should be enough to convince you it’s not worth reading, yet it’s scarcely any worse than passages like the one above which litter The Vivisector.
There’s an old dictum that writers should show, not tell; but White has an exasperating compulsion to show, and then tell what he’s just shown. Perhaps he didn’t trust, or recognise, his own abilities as a writer. Perhaps he was pitching his writing toward an envisaged audience of reluctant students. Perhaps he was afraid that not quite everyone would appreciate his Depth of Feeling, and so had to keep reminding people that he was a Serious Writer, at the expense of the writing itself.
Just in case we’re too thick to get that the cats are Symbolic, Hurtle and Hero then proceed to argue about them for no-one’s benefit other than our own. Ridiculously, this carries on for several pages. Every subsequent, inevitable reference to cats for the remainder of the chapter (including one otherwise effective moment when Hero addresses her “adopted” Aboriginal child as “kitten”) comes across as phoney and heavy-handed as, well, something out of Dan Brown. An especially self-important Dan Brown.
For those wanting to keep track, Hurtle’s previous clichéd lover, the Maternal Whore, has been disposed of by authorial fiat and replaced in unconvincing circumstances by Hero, another clichéd lover, the Slumming Patroness. (Her husband is that other great cliché of the novelist’s time, the Greek Shipping Tycoon. Perhaps White was trying to forestall silly questions about where he gets his ideas from.) There is, of course, another patroness on the scene, and so another cliché, the Triangle, inveitably ensues, thus fulfilling the need for a section about The Artist And His Women.
Strangely, neither woman has apparently ever shown a personal interest in any other bohemian besides Hurtle. He is that most infuriating of stock protagonist types, the Guy Stuff Just Keeps Happening To.
The last three chapters of the book improve dramatically, inasmuch as they begin to play with our expectations more than fulfil them, albeit in a way that renders the preceding seven chapters superfluous. Hurtle is such an inert, narrowly defined character in the novel’s first 400 pages that there is nothing in him or the limited depiction of his world that enlarges upon our appreciation of the final 200. In fact, knowledge of the earlier chapters may even hinder our taking seriously the latter part of the book, with its plot heavily based upon a series of reunions of sufficient improbability to make Dickens blush.
White’s description of people and places is so thoroughly squalid that it becomes unintentionally comic; you could almost make a drinking game out of the number of times a character eats food that has spoiled. Ultimately, his unvarying determination to depict the vulgarity of everyday life is revealed as a veneer of bourgeois titillation to disguise the utter conventionality of the author’s thoughts behind it; a surface of exaggeratedly gritty reality to distract from the dishonesty of the characters and plot: the Crucified Artist Hero and Redemption Through a Child. The noble overreach of the book’s ambition is hamstrung by White’s self-regarding redundancies and need to assert the profundity of his unexceptional insight.
The Readers’ Group is planning another online reading of a White novel soon, which I won’t be joining. Reading this book put me off White more than I expected, and I don’t want to return to him in a hurry, when other, doubtless better books sit unread on my shelves. In particular, I don’t want to reread a White novel: I rather liked the ones I read years ago, and I’m afraid it will spoil my memories.

Simultaneously overenthusiastic and excessively lethargic

Tuesday 10 October 2006

New on the blogroll: Straight from the Tated . It has excellent taste in links.
(Related: Take Every Day as it Comes, Brothers and Sisters)

New desk at last. It looks like this:

Tuesday 10 October 2006

Now we’ll really see some action around here!

Advanced East London anti-war campaigning techniques

Monday 9 October 2006

The real reason the war in Iraq is still going. Also, a rare sighting of the old Blogspot banner.

Yeah, I can hardly believe it myself.

Saturday 7 October 2006

The name and subject indices have finally been updated, to the end of September. At last you can find out what El Lissitsky, Juvenal Habriarimana and Sally Thomsett have in common.
Also, the search function seems to have dropped off a few months back. I should probably get that fixed.
The long-dormant website will get some additions made to it over the next month, probably. Don’t hold your breath, though.

Filler by Proxy XL: An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin

Wednesday 4 October 2006

For those of you with a love of the funerary violin, that obscure genre of music rendered almost extinct after it was condemned by the Catholic church in the 1830s, you will be glad to learn that Rohan Kriwaczek’s brand new book An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin is now available on sale from Amazon (UK site only). Fittingly, Kriwaczek’s book is published by Duckworth, purveyors of the poetic oeuvre of William McGonagall.
If you don’t care much about funerary violin music but have a grudge against Pius X for his 1903 motu proprio on sacred music, this book may also be up your alley.
The New York Times gives a little more information about the book and the mysterious Guild of Funerary Violinists (you may need Bugmenot to get past registration).
Strangely, The Rosenberg Archive has been silent about this guild.

The Fall and the Liminality of Kitten Kong

Friday 29 September 2006

Has anyone made a comedy map of Britain? I don’t mean a map indicating clubs and the birthplaces of comedians; I mean a map marking the real locations inhabited by fictional comic characters, haunted by absurdist conceits. The more anonymous and duller a place is, the more likely it is to have been infused with significance by generations of comic minds: dormitory suburbs, brownfields, dead ends, postwar nowheres. Balham, Putney, Hendon, Cheam: London and the counties are held together in an invisible network of bathetic, negative landmarks. The enervated traveller crossing these liminal spaces is suddenly seized with a numinous inversion of meaning with which the no-place has become invested. What ley-lines connect these psychogeographical lacunae; do they awkwardly bisect the zones of conscious importance, or sneak behind and between through forgotten territory?

Last Friday night a self-selected cross-section of Londoners and American tourists were sharing a small frisson at finding themselves congregated outside a bingo hall in Cricklewood, reminding each other that The Goodies lived in Cricklewood. This wasn’t the reason we were all there; we had come to see a different British institution, of similar cultish appeal. We had come to see The Fall; or not see The Fall, as the case may be.

The Americans amongst us were hopeful of seeing a real, genuine Fall gig, having been repeatedly exasperated at home by the nominal band’s touring habits: either gracelessly imploding on stage or working a setlist top-heavy with interminable ten-minute dirges about supermarket car parks in Salford. (Mark E. Smith has his own appetite for psychogeographical nullity.) Perhaps they didn’t know that the band’s London gigs tended to be equally perfunctory: it seems anything south of Birmingham is much of a muchness, as far as Smith is concerned.

To get an idea of the venue, take a look at their website (proletarian visions of prosperity). No really, it’s priceless. A gilt-edged coffin for Punk’s corpse, WMC Blobs laid to boozy rest with Celtic troubadors and cowboys from Carlisle. As a harbinger of the muzzy haze of regression that threatened, the opening act was John Cooper Clarke, preserved like Sharon Osbourne.

Perhaps it was the faded premises on the cultural and subcultural margin that made the band turn up and play. The band, such as it is, all vestigal entity outside of Smith himself having long departed and now routinely replaced with such regularity that even fans can’t keep track of the musos’ names, has a reputation for only partly turning up, in body or mind; with Smith himself late, drunk, or a no-show. Instead of a vicarious trainwreck thrill we got the embodiment of a Rock Band at Work, of performance as routine.

Smith, famously looking 20 years older than his real age, stumbled round the stage snarling and hollering incoherently as usual, into one or two mics, as usual, dropping one or picking up the other, peripetetically bemused by their technical failings, nonconsensually futzing with his bandmates’ gear, as usual. Performance as routine, stripped of its romance and mythology when seen plain on stage as schtick – in the same way that he refuses to play any songs more than a few years old, Smith’s performance denies his fans the delusion of shamanism, of recollection of an intangible psychic resonance. What is left is form and technique, with no invocation of the past, to impress the punters – not appeals to faith. (My companion for the night, oblivious to The Fall’s history and significance, attested to this.) The conventional becomes experimental.

The band confined themselves to solid riffs, one per song, starting out OK and then locking into a tighter groove that propelled the music and voice into the higher levels, into the lower reaches of the transcendent state a good rock gig can give. After this peak it was in the recoil of the interval, ebbing into a slower, muted rhythm, “Blindness”, its protracted disorientation nudging the punters into a dreamlike semiconsciousness. Smith himself had delayed his entrance onstage, like Elvis in Vegas, but then disappeared early as well, before and after the encore, effacing himself backstage inconspicuously, not to return. It seemed over too soon.

Catching the band in an upswing of collateral cool thanks to John Peel’s untimely death, the crowd was a mixture of disoriented tourists, middle-aged punks in mufti, prematurely-aged anoraks comparing notes on Tuesday night’s gig (and observing that one band member had been sacked in the interim), curious students, a mosh pit, bright young things their dowdy finest, a pair of them dancing like frenzied muppets on the balcony behind the band, alternately irritating and amusing the more sombrely dedicated punters. And of course, the indifferent regulars up the back getting their pints in all the while.

There was once such a thing as a free ride

Wednesday 27 September 2006

I was going to post about something of substance besides The Vivisector (which I’m falling behind on the reading schedule – hey, it’s not like I’ve been crazy about it) but my household has suffered a tragic loss.
There is a website based somewhere in Europe that offers one of those route planning service to motorists, and just like the UK based ones (Dear AA, please stop telling everyone that every single journey in Scotland must at some point involve taking a ferry to Bute) it tends to be pretty useless. For the past month or so it’s been telling unsuspecting truckies from the continent that the best way into central London from the docks is via a side street next to The Bunker: a very narrow street, lined with parked cars, before taking a tight turn under a railway bridge with a clearance of about 3 metres.
From time to time one could amuse oneself looking out the window, watching a 16-wheeled semi-trailer inching up this street, and taking bets on far it would get before it realised that there was no way it was getting under that bridge up ahead and then having to reverse all the way back again.
As of now, this is no longer funny. My girlfriend’s beloved secondhand Fiat with the overheating problem has been sideswiped by one of these foreign juggernauts while blamelessly parked in said side street. The poor heap has been written off, so no more getting chauffered around the UK for me. I’ve been trying to persuade her to buy another car, preferably one with more leg room in the back, but she’s oddly resistant to the idea.

I need a slide rule to calculate just how many kinds of psyched I am about this, given the circumstances.

Tuesday 26 September 2006

He’s on your computer. Again.

Filler by Proxy XXXIX: Slow News Day Lets Nerds Settle Scores

Sunday 24 September 2006


More than a quarter of classical music fans have tried cannabis, says a study from the University of Leicester.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing in their report that definitively links a love of classical music to the likelihood of being an evil genius, despite extensive anecdotal evidence in movies.

By the way, the first picture and caption in the article is even funnier than the one shown above. Slightly related: Headless Zombie Bunny.

Why we do what we do

Thursday 21 September 2006

“The opportunity to hear lousy music live is greatly underrated.”

Advanced East London Evangelical Techniques

Wednesday 20 September 2006

This was in my mailbox yesterday. It’s been stamped onto the back of a used envelope and cut out with scissors, so I guess Islam has a hitherto unknown punk ethos. It is posed tastefully on a reproduction of an Adolf Wölfli drawing on the cover of a book of translations of Robert Walser’s writings.
Presumably the Pope’s just had one of these slipped under the front door of the Vatican, too. (The Islam thing, not Adolf Wölfli.)

The Vivisector: Another chapter, another cliché

Tuesday 19 September 2006

Me, reading chapter 3 of Patrick White’s The Vivisector:
It would be too funny if in later chapters he conflates artistic and sexual activity!

Patrick White, chapter 4:
He began fiddling, rubbing, masturbating in nervous paint on a narrow board. […]
He put her out of his mind while his drawn-out orgasm lasted: he had already decided to call this painting ‘Electric City’.
Heh heh oh dear.
If I had to recreate the original prank of submitting a chapter of White to a publisher in the expectation of being rejected, and had to use The Vivisector, the first scene between Hurtle and Nance would have suited admirably:
He let down her hair. It fell around them.* […]
… Nance was holding the Delicious Monster against her periwinkle of a navel. […]
Ahhhh they were flooding together in cataracts of light and darkest deepest velvet.
The whole passage is pretty funny but I can’t be bothered typing the whole thing out. We all know that sex is difficult to write, but White’s attempt to infuse it with a stream-of-consciousness reverie by Hurtle about his childhood only makes things worse.
Nance, by the way, is the Maternal Whore, just in case you thought White had used up all his clichés in the first three chapters. Oh, and later in chapter 4, painting and anal-expulsive behaviour are linked as prosaically as possible. At times it’s like White is simultaneously parodying his novel while writing it.
Perhaps that’s it. Hurtle Duffield’s life as an Australian artist is an imitative parody of life as an artist. The books narrative conceit, and Hurtle’s sense of self, is founded on a sanctimonious, romantic myth of the artist hero, an idea that was in its death throes at the time Hurtle develops into manhood. An impossible idea to convey seriously when the book was written, and one that a “modern” painter like Hurtle can cling to only at the expense of his own relevance to the art he wishes to serve.
The parody turns on Hurtle’s inexplicable, impossible isolation, working like a mad scientist in a B movie; living in a rural shed or suburban Sydney, utterly cut off from any community that would have necessarily, in reality, sustained him. Like an Australian in the world, Hurtle works disconnected from his social context: White explains that Hurtle actively avoids contact with fellow artists. His study in Paris is barely mentioned and seems to have made no impact upon him.
Before the Great War Wyndham Lewis was already publishing manifestos in London, rejecting the judgement and classification of art upon psychic criteria, renouncing the possibility of discerning psychology through paint. Lewis wrote several novels set amongst the artistic community in London. In each of these he depicts artists not as sensitive individuals, but as a pack, a caste, enacting a grotesque, vicious parody of the society from which they disdainfully set themselves apart, needing to exploit each other as much as the greater community at large. The Revenge for Love (1937) focuses on an expatriate Australian painter, whose daily life at home and grappling with his chosen medium are reflected in White’s descriptions of Hurtle painting at home. There is also a strange, siginificant event in the plot common to both works, which I won’t describe for fear of dropping spoilers to either book.
Perhaps I’m too enamoured of Lewis at White’s expense, but White’s most perceptive writing in The Vivisector has come when its world comes closest to Lewis’, in his study of the relationship between Hurtle and Caldicott, his dealer: the two of them cagily playing up to their roles, seeking simultaneously to cajole and dismay.
Incidentally, unlike Hurtle Duffield, Lewis’ Victor Stamp holds no delusions about his own importance, or indeed his own worth as a painter. Realising he will never be any good, what passion he had has dissipated, and he paints in a perpetual state of hapless bemusement.
There was, however, a consolation for these things. But it was a consolation with which he passionately refused to have anything to do. It was this. Most Australian or English artists were little, if any, better than he was himself.

* “Waaah, I’m bald!” she cried. (Sorry – blame The Muppets.)

Advanced East London Citizenship Ceremony Techniques

Thursday 14 September 2006

When you get sworn in as a British citizen at Hackney Town Hall, they play Ray Charles singing “Georgia on My Mind” over the PA while the mayor hands you your papers.