Hopelessly Devoted to Who?

Wednesday 2 July 2008

I was emailed by a friend who received an invite to my exhibition (now closed, so no plug) in Melbourne, and noticed that the two letters UK appeared in brackets after my name. “Good to see the cultural cringe is alive and well in the local scene,” he said. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to convince several people that it wasn’t my idea to bill me as an Overseas Artist. When asked why they’ve listed me as British, I have a guess and say it’s something to do with claiming travel expenses.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been identified as non-Australian. Last year I played a gig in Brisbane which billed me as a New Zealander, owing to my having flown in via Auckland; but that was an honest mistake, whereas the British tag was, to my surprise when I recalled it, true.

Even though I have now lived in London for three years, and even have dual citizenship, there’s nothing about me that feels particularly British; yet it appears that my Australian identity is slowly and steadily slipping away, in ways I cannot control. Does extensive time out of the country inevitably extinguish my Australianness?
Earlier this year The Onion’s A.V. Club posted the latest in a semi-regular series, “The scandal of Olivia Newton-John: 12 surprisingly controversial Wikipedia pages“, chronicling the most protracted and furious arguments on Wikipedia’s Talk pages over the past few months. Fierce debates raged over such controversial subjects as Speedy Gonzales, Rotary International, the capitalisation of the name k.d. lang, and the nationality of Olivia Newton-John:

Yes, we know she was born in England, but moved to Australia at age 5, and left again at age 17. But such details don’t settle the linguistic and existential question of her essential nationality. Nv8200p “think[s] there is no doubt that Newton-John identifies with Australia,” but the ensuing complicated discussion covers dual citizenship, British birth certificates, whether Mel Gibson counts as Australian, and ultimately whether Australians have an inferiority complex. “English-born, Australian-raised” is the phrase that currently describes Newton-John in the first paragraph of her entry, but the issue may not be settled…

A quick straw poll among friends in Melbourne got a unanimous result: Hell yeah, she’s Australian. The English themselves most likely remember her, if at all, as American or Australian more than British – despite her sterling work for the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest. At the time of writing, her Wikipedia article describes her as an “English-born, Australian pop singer”, but of course this may change.
ONJ’s Wikipedia Talk page gives a fascinating, if not illuminating, account of the debating process that went into authoring her entry, including a section titled “Gay Icon Project” and the winning reprimand of “The E! TV special on Newton John isn’t the best source for wikipedia [sic].” Probably the most trenchant observation is this comment:

She’s still technically a British person. Australia is as guilty sometimes as some other countries in looking pass[sic] the home-born and reared people in preference of a claiming tightly[sic] to famous people such as Newton-John as the representer of Australia. I’d probably decide to only pledge my undying allegiance to the country that worships me as their symbol too.

Compare Our Libby to that other accidental icon of cheesy Seventies pop culture, the Bee Gees. Singing artistes with a similar, intercontinental upbringing, they are claimed by the British and the Australians with equal possessiveness – even though they are technically Manx. Their more contested national allegiance – in the real world, if not so much on Wikipedia – is doubtless due to their continued eminence in both countries.
Incidentally, the main debate on the Bee Gees Wikipedia Talk page concerns whether their formative years in Brisbane were spent in Redcliffe or the now-vanished Cribb Island. This sticking point seems to be more hotly contested than any of the larger claims for rival nations.
Perhaps it has been the fate of all world-famous Australians to have their nationalities confused, simply by the act of entering the wider world to be famous in. Percy Grainger was born in Melbourne, established his career in England, became an American to avoid the Great War, found his greatest fame in the USA, built his museum in Melbourne, and was buried in Adelaide beside his mother, to whom he dedicated a large memorial statue (with a rather fulsome poem on a plaque beneath) which dwarfs his own, modest grave. Depending on which country you are in, Grainger is either Australian, American, or English – the last in particular, given his identification with Anglo-Saxon, if not Aryan, culture.
There are also rare instances of celebrities who have falsely claimed Australian identities. For many years there were Tasmanians who swore they had personally known Merle Oberon as a girl growing up in St Helens, unaware that her biography was faked to disguise her mixed-race origins in Bombay. Far more common are the lazy inclusiveness granted by Australians to particularly successful New Zealanders, and the affectionate, unofficial status afforded to the likes of Our Tom and Our Fred. Such status, however, can be revoked at any time.
So, what does history have to teach me? Is my case yet another example of cultural cringe? Perhaps, having left Australia’s shores, I have been disowned, fobbed off to another unwitting country, at least until I become famous enough to be reclaimed. Or perhaps during my time abroad I have changed at an imperceptible rate until I am no longer recognisable to my fellow countrymen. Worse still is the fate of those who fall between two shores, the mercenary netherworld of the professional expatriate.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

The Big Book of Bentham

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Two packages arrived in the mail today: one big, one small. The big one was the scanner I’d ordered, but the little one was a mystery until I realised it was probably that book from the University of Wales Press, which it indeed turned out to be. So, putting the two together:

Filler By Proxy LXIII: Twelve Going On Sixty

Monday 14 April 2008

Have you noticed I’m busy with Other Things lately? Soon, some of these things will be revealed, but in the meantime you’ll have to put up with me linking to stuff like The Guardian, which is publishing daily extracts from The Fall frontman Mark E. Smith‘s autobiography Renegade. The opening sentence suggests Smith has a pretty good handle on himself:

Twelve going on 60 – that’s what people used to say about me: a 12-year-old wanting to be a 60-year-old man. I couldn’t stand music when I was that age. I hated it, thought it was vaguely effeminate. Music to me was something your sisters did. And I couldn’t stand my sisters.

The links at the end of the page are worth a bit of a look too. Hey up! Second extract’s online now; although in this one he’s reverting more to a standard grumpy old bloke. With fashion advice.

World Class Anxiety (part two)

Saturday 29 March 2008

(Continued from part one, which concluded with Lord Goldsmith’s proposal that Britain should establish its own version of Australia Day.)
Like Australia, Britain has lately been questioning the nature of its national identity. Also like Australia, Britain’s leaders have been unsure of their own country, enough to look abroad for ways to bolster its sense of self. The British press and public response – almost completely derisive – to Goldsmith’s report, has been mostly focused on his recommendation that feelings of national pride can be instilled by having school leavers pledge an oath of allegiance to the Queen. (Strangely, even those sort of in favour of a pledge suggested that instead of the crown, allegiance be pledged to the state, using Australian citizenship ceremonies as their model.)
The irony of affirming one’s country’s uniqueness by becoming more like another country was allowed to go largely uncommented, as was the idea of Britain’s national day being modelled upon a day commemorating another country’s annexation to Britain. As an Australian, I suppose I should be thankful that the idea of Britain being expected to emulate one of its imperial outposts was spared the general ridicule with which Goldsmith’s report has been greeted.
This bizarre idea that Britain should establish its own version of Australia Day also overlooks the fact that the holiday is not at all the unifying force the British naively assume it to be – either geographically, socially, or politically. This sticking point has not been noticed at all in the British media, neither in commentary against nor (less commonly) for Lord Goldsmith’s proposal. It would immediately, unavoidably become an issue in the newly-devolved Union.
The proposed British National Day shares another feature with the way Australia’s political leaders have recently sought to redefine their country. Beside the tenuous connection to the monarchy (an institution just as remote from modern British values as it is from Australian), the national day also attempts to make an equally tenuous connection with sport. In an attempt to find a common national ground which avoids any uncomfortable social, cultural, or political debate, Goldsmith and his political cronies have sought guidance from the way Australia has resorted to sporting achievement as a stand-in for patriotism and national identity. This last concept is a relatively new one in Britain, at least in the extent to which it has been pursued in Australia, and the suggested substitution of sporting values for national values has been met with suspicion and revulsion among what Professor David Flint would call “the elites”.
As for the question of pledging allegiance, such oaths are regarded by most as an American import, as alien to modern Britain as they are to Australia. More generally, Britain’s true attitude to national identity is much the same as the one inherited by Australia: “Defining Britishness is rather un-British.”

The idea of a national motto (or “national statement of British values”, as they insist we call it) has already attracted derision on a glorious scale – and there’s nothing more British than the refusal to be defined. Times readers chose as their national motto: No motto please, we’re British.

British national identity is becoming more and more like the weather: everybody talks about it but nobody can do anything about it. And come to think of it, it is especially like British weather: so tepid most of the time that it is difficult to describe.
This is not necessarily a problem…
What is most interesting about these objections to Goldsmith’s ideas, to an Australian at least, is that they come from the right end of the political spectrum; the left or centre-left has generally made a less reactive, more open-minded response to the questions of citizenship and identity raised by the report. While the British right has adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards national identity, the Australian right has been busy for the last decade or so formulating an increasingly prescriptive idea of what “Australian” means, a narrow definition centering on feelgood thoughts of diggers, battlers, bronzed Olympians, cockies and brave pioneers, the flag.
Since the Nineties, the Australian government and its supporting institutions have served up this dumbed-down constructed identity, rejecting the conflicts and complexities that the world has brought to bear upon making Australia what it is today. Britain has built up a rich and nuanced understanding of itself, the legacy of a history of being good at accommodating such complexities. This makes it all the stranger to see Britain’s Labour government entertaining plans to borrow this Australian model and impose a banal hurrah for sport and monarchy as the best means to appreciate its place in the world.
If there is a common impulse between the two nations, it is in the perceived need to further withdraw from the world, to deny the shaping forces of globalisation, immigration, and multiculturalism, and become resolutely inward looking, turning one’s back on the outside world while also loudly asserting one’s mastery over it.
(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

World Class Anxiety (part one)

Saturday 22 March 2008

It’s an unpalatable fact that many of the intrinsic qualities of our cultural identity, which we like to think of as native and so unique to ourselves, are imports; transplants which have flourished in a foreign soil even as they withered at home. I’m not romantic but even I like to pretend that Australian colloquialisms like ‘dinkum’ are entirely our own invention, and that their roots in Lincolnshire or wherever, by reason of their obscurity, somehow don’t count.
I would also like to think, for better or worse, that our desire for a distinct Australian identity has led us to embrace our perceived failings as cultural traits worth defending, such as our nationalist apathy and inferiority complex. For me, the latter is particularly symbolised by the frequent occurrence of the wonderfully meaningless epithet “world class” when describing an education system, an artist, a station wagon, whatever.
Like “recyclable”, the approving invocation of “world class” is an expression of boundlessly optimistic, unmeasurable potential. As with many optimistic statements, it is also freighted with naivete and unconscious irony: the idea that if we strive and excel, we might just achieve enough to belong with the rest of the world. Beneath it lies the anxiety that our best isn’t good enough.
In the Australian context, “world class” has an attendant semantic miracle, being simultaneously more and less hubristic than the boast “best in the Southern Hemisphere.” (Take that, Johannesburg! In your face, Buenos Aires! Eat dirt, Niue!)
I had always thought that “world class”, with its implicit plea to sit at the grown-ups’ table, was a distinctly Australian phenomenon. Imagine my surprise and dismay to arrive in Britain and find the term common currency in the pronouncements of politicians, NGOs, pundits, and critics who should know better. Britain is awash with the same uncertain boast. Where did this phrase really originate from? Is it truly British, or was it adapted from American marketing-speak?
Either way, the British have embraced it as their own, for it really suits them. It suits their national stance of being somehow apart from the world, yet nebulously engaged with it in some discreet, behind-the-scenes manner (their relationship with Europe writ large, in other words). It reflects Britain’s dependence on the USA and neighbouring trading partners, willing but unable to openly call them rivals, yet at the same time tacitly acknowledging that it has been left playing catch-up to both. How Britain sees itself is the mirror of Australia’s own dichotomous self-image: a small country subconsciously aware of its inadequacies while boasting of “punching above its weight.”
It could be expected that a newer country inherits much of its character from its former colonial master, but Britain is now in an unusual situation, where political leaders have started to talk of reversing this relationship. Last week, former Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith published his government-commissioned report on British citizenship, in which he suggested Britain could be more British by being more like Australia.

Lord Goldsmith says a new British national day should be established by 2012 to coincide with the Olympics and what will be the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It could operate in the same way as Australia Day, which is a public holiday on 26 January and is used to celebrate what it means to be an Australian.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla. To be concluded shortly.)

Dear University of Wales Press,

Monday 28 January 2008

If you really want my permission to use a photo of a statue of Jeremy Bentham in one of your books, don’t ask me to reply to a nonexistent email address. Also, if you really want me to find out what said book is about, don’t direct me to a placeholder web page written in Welsh. Yrs, etc.

A Man in Love with the Past: the year in retrospect

Friday 28 December 2007

Last December Georgina wrote in Sarsaparilla about her books of the year:

Instead of naming a book that was released this year, how about we name a book that was our ‘one’ of the year, regardless of when it was published. Perhaps you might have read something that was particularly pertinent, perhaps you finally got around to reading something that really stood out from the bedside pile. Perhaps you read nothing of note.

I haven’t written nearly as much about books this year as I wanted to, so here’s my chance to make it up a little.
Book of the year: For me, this was William GaddisThe Recognitions, a novel whose 950 pages I finally read after finding an ex-library copy in Melbourne’s Grub Street Bookshop years ago (thanks, Macrobertson Girls’ High!) Taking up from where Wyndham Lewis left off, it’s one of those books which has just grown more and more relevant to our world with each year since its first publication 50-odd years ago. Its double-edged dissection of the dearly-held belief that art reveals truth is set in a society whose slippery duplicity is probably more familiar to us than to Gaddis‘ contemporaries. The book’s unique written style was later echoed by Pynchon, De Lillo, and others, but I’ve never read anything so uncompromising or sinister in its relationship with the reader.
Runner up: As is all too typical, I became interested in Gilbert Sorrentino just after his death. I’d lazily pigeonholed his novel Mulligan Stew as one of those faddish, would-be cult novels from the 70s, based solely on its dogged recurrence in those little bookseller’s ads at the backs of yellowing paperbacks, with the inevitable trite comparisons to Joyce, Vonnegut, and Moorcock which publishers used interchangeably back then. In fact, it’s one of the funniest literary satires written, especially for people who sometimes grumble to themselves that they’ve read too much to really enjoy books any more. Best of all, it never lets up on the gags to explain the philosophical and emotional core that its facade attempts to conceal. A book that’s worth it for the first page alone.
Literary discovery of the year: Ronald Firbank. From dilettante and fin-desiecle also-ran, to cultish outsider, to the inventor of modernism. It’s those jokers you have to watch out for.
Reverse-Humiliation: Apart from The Recognitions, I finally knocked Jealousy and Life: A User’s Manual off my to-read list.

Music gig of the year: Even before his death, my thoughts about music kept coming back to the February performance of Stockhausen’s Trans. A student orchestra, some dramatic lighting, and not just Stockhausen’s imagination, but his boldness and self-assuredness when making something new; all came together to create an uncanny experience which leaves people bandying around expressions like “otherworldly” and “life-changing”. There’s no other piece of music quite like this; nor, in all likelihood, will there be.
Music recording of the year (any type): Special thanks are due to Different Waters, for uploading a complete version of La Monte Young’s long-deleted masterpiece The Well-Tuned Piano.
CD of the year: It was a year in which I avoided CDs and vinyl in favour of foraging for downloadable music, so you might blame my limited range of discs for my choice; but honestly, I don’t think I could have possibly heard anything more surprising than Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full album. An elderly ex-Beatle makes a CD for Starbucks, and instead of cobbling together a lazy cash cow he finally makes his first album in, well, forever, that embraces all of his strengths (brilliantly crafted songwriting and arrangements, brought off with a disarming informality) and almost entirely rejects all his weaknesses (complacency, bombast, second-guessing, ill-judged whimsy).
Music discovery of the year: Zygmunt Krauze, whose piece Folk Music I heard thanks to The Rambler’s fascinating description of Polish “Unism“, a home-grown movement of minimalist art and music that emerged in the 1960s.

Art event of the year: Too much new art that I saw in London looked like high-falutintchotchkes created for investors with at least one eye on the auctions. My personal highlight was a visit to the Groeninge Museum in Brugge and seeing renaissance Flemish masterworks by the likes of Memling, Van Der Goes, and Van Eyck, the same artists I’d just been reading about in The Recognitions. Looking at this art you can understand what Ezra Pound meant when he said that Western culture went wrong somewhere in the 17th century.
Public art event of the year: After a mysterious extension to its intended stay, Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant finally came down from the fourth pedestal in Trafalgar Square. Honestly, it looked like the sort of thing Coldplay would turn out if they were paid to make a sculpture.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

Filler by Proxy LVII: Things Ain’t What They Seem

Thursday 27 December 2007

Because it’s that time of year, I’m working up a short list of best-ofs for 2007. It’s the fashion. Last December Georgina Hibberd posted at Sarsaparilla her list of books for the year, with the twist that the books did not necessarily have to be published in the past 12 months. In fact, it was preferable for them to be older. It’s such a good idea I’m going to steal revive it for a follow-up article posted on Sarsaparilla in the next day or two. Gilbert Sorrentino will be mentioned.
Because it’s that time of year, It’s A Wonderful Life has probably been on a telly somewhere near you. It’s the tradition. While it’s fresh in your head, you might enjoy Sorrentino’s brief, but thorough, demolition of the illusion that movie strives to portray.
Capra’s greatest film, It’s a Wonderful Life, is a curious example of a work that means precisely the opposite of what it seems to say. Its true message is, in the context of Capra’s oeuvre, a surprising one: Money is everything. Although the film is usually read as the pinnacle of the Capraesque ideal of grassroots optimism, I would argue that its subtext calls this optimism into serious question. In effect, the film encapsulates a disgust and anger with modern American life that are barely hidden, and often glaringly foregrounded.
The final scene of the film is ambiguously eerie, and its strangeness is emblematized in George Bailey’s near-maniacal grin, one that is equally composed of shame, fear, gratitude, and self-loathing. It is a grin that, once seen, can never be forgotten. Money is everything is what that grin says, what the scene says, and what the film says. In this final moment, the truth of the film strikes at us with metonymic power through the stilted images of celebration and victory and joy….

We connect Karlheinz Stockhausen with Ezra Pound

Tuesday 18 December 2007

In 1990, three years after the death of Morton Feldman, I heard on the radio a live broadcast of Roger Woodward playing Feldman’s 90-minute piano piece, Triadic Memories. The performance was preceded by a half-hour discussion between two music critics about whether or not the music to follow was even worth playing.
It seemed that Feldman’s fate had been cast since the 1960s: a footnote, however indelible, to the history of postwar music. He had been the first composer to write in non-conventional, graphic notation, back in the early fifties, and then faded away into apparent neglect, unheard. Towards the end of his life he wrote only pieces of unmanageable length, unbroken spans of music lasting at least an hour, anything up to five hours. It looked like a rejection of the audience, of musical society. (“Unforgivably indulgent” was the main thrust of the critic for the negative on radio that night.)
We all know how foolish it is to try to second-guess posterity: the obituaries for Herman Melville describing him as “a formerly well-known author” who will be best remembered as the writer of Typee is just one of the more famous examples. Today, at least ten different performances of Triadic Memories have been issued on CD. Seven of these are listed on Amazon, among the 120-odd Feldman titles in stock. The available discs are overwhelmingly biased towards those long, long pieces from the last eight years of his life, overshadowing his previous work.
* * *
Posthumous recountings of Stockhausen’s life have invariably treated his 29-hour, seven-opera cycle Licht, a work he concentrated on exclusively from 1978 until its completion in 2002, as little more than a postscript to a long, productive career. Descriptions of the opera cycle range from cursory to derisive (“egomaniacal“, “grandiose”). Given that two of the operas have not yet been fully performed, that live performances even of excerpts have been rare, and that the CDs of it are expensive and tricky to order, it would be interesting to learn just how much, if any, of Licht‘s 29 hours has been heard by each of its critics.
I haven’t heard anything from Licht either, so the last thing I need is a load of hot air about it from a bunch of hacks arguing from ignorance. This situation is starting to look less like a case of critics attacking the work despite not having heard it, and more like a case of attacking the work because they haven’t heard it.
Just a few days ago I was describing to someone Stockhausen’s strange decision to devote 25 years of his life to a single, all-encompassing work, a work misunderstood by its audience (or at least not received in the way expected by the composer), when an earlier example of an artist who took a similar turn in his career path came to mind. No, not Wagner. Ezra Pound.
After 1920, Pound’s poetic output, as far as the literary public were concerned, came to a halt. For a while he gave up poetry to compose, but soon returned to writing. However, in doing so he rededicated himself to his long poem The Cantos, falteringly started some years earlier, deciding to apply himself solely to this one magnum opus, to the exclusion of all other original poetry. Besides translations and a handful of occasional poems, The Cantos was Pound’s only poetry until he abandoned it, unfinished, in the 1960s. With it, he abandoned writing.
Licht and The Cantos are both immensely ambitious works, epic both in both scale and subject matter. In fact, the wide scope of both works allowed their creators to accommodate any of their creative impulses into the structure of their ongoing, all-encompassing projects. Similarly, subsections of each large work may be presented individually (although this is less true for the published instalments of Pound’s Cantos, which are frequently dependent on context, than for the free-standing compositions spun off from Licht).
It is fatuous to compare too closely the material and biographical circumstances of both works, but a general parallel can be drawn. Stockhausen’s dogged commitment to Licht came to be seen by many as yet another manifestation of his increasing eccentricity, of a piece with his Messianic self-image, his polygamy, his claims to interstellar heritage. By the time the wider reading public became aware of The Cantos (more about this later), its subject and style was impossible to separate from Pound’s notoriety as a fascist, an anti-Semite, an incarcerated mental patient with an unanswered treason charge hanging over his head. Pound’s later poetry was analysed less for its literary merit than for signs of his descent into madness. As with Stockhausen, the large, late work was treated as an unfortunate aberration, the anticlimax to a career whose successes all came relatively early.
* * *
Over the past 40 years most Pound scholars have come to accept The Cantos as his masterwork, the centrepiece of his artistic achievement, and treat the earlier poetry as though it were a prelude to his most important writing. Most advocates for Pound’s poetry admit The Cantos is a deeply flawed piece, with many dull passages, inconsistencies, gratuitous obscurantism, and lapses in judgement that are risible or offensive. (The same criticisms have been made of Licht.) Even so, generations of writers and scholars have argued that The Cantos is essential not only to the understanding of Pound, but to 20th century poetry.
The same fate may or may not be true of Licht, but if it is in fact a work of genius, flawed or not, then its future recognition as such will have been greatly hampered, largely by Stockhausen himself – and this is the most important comparison I want to make with Pound. As said before, even interested listeners have found it impossible to hear more than a few, isolated fragments of the whole cycle. Stockhausen withdrew from the conventional musical institutions that had supported him, pursuing his goal of ultimate autonomy, which he achieved at the expense of his accessibility. Pound (who also withdrew from literary society, relocating to the small Italian town of Rapallo) ensured that readers could not easily access his work-in-progress until 16 years after its commencement, preferring to publish instalments in small editions of expensive, hand-printed volumes.
Serious critical attention was not given to The Cantos until the early 1950s, and only then because of the intense controversy that surrounded its author. Since that time, readers and critics have been playing catch-up, forced to argue first for the poem’s importance before its complexities can even be discussed. Debate still simmers over to what extent the poet must be excused or denounced before his poem can be appreciated. Obscurities that may have been explained away by contemporary familiarity have been allowed to languish.
There is no substitute for critical tradition: a continuum of understanding, early commenced. … Precisely because William Blake’s contemporaries did not know what to make of him, we do not know either, though critic after critic appeases our sense of obligation to his genius by reinventing him. … [O]n the other hand, something was immediately made of Ulysses and The Waste Land, and our comfort with both works after 50 years, including our ease at allowing for their age, seems derivable from the fact that they have never been ignored. …
Hence the paradox that an intensely topical poem has become archaic without ever having been contemporary.
— Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, p.415
Licht now faces the same predicament, compounded by the logistical demands of its staging. Thirty years after it was started and five years after its completion, we are still none the wiser as to what it actually is. Without its creator around, we may find ourselves reinventing what the operas actually mean. Perhaps the complete staging of the cycle planned for 2010 will be the true moment that Licht makes it debut in our consciousness.
One final comparison with Pound. Regardless of whatever appreciation, enthusiasm, and goodwill with which Licht may be received in the future, it is unlikely to ever be understood in the way Stockhausen intended.

Next thing I know it’ll turn out that St James’s really was eaten by a giant adenoid

Sunday 30 September 2007

Mrs. Quoad offering a tin of that least believable of English coughdrops, the Meggezone…
The Meggezone is like being belted in the head with a Swiss Alp. Menthol icicles immediately begin to grow from the roof of Slothrop’s mouth. Polar bears seek toenail-holds up the freezing frosty-grape alveolar clusters in his lungs. It hurts his teeth too much to breathe, even through his nose, even, necktie loosened, with his nose down inside the neck of his olive-drab T-shirt. Benzoin vapors seep into his brain. His head floats in a halo of ice.
Even an hour later, the Meggezone still lingers, a mint ghost in the air…
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, pp.118.

The secret history of the twentieth century, continued

Tuesday 4 September 2007

Of course Firbank was “the” great formal innovator. He invented modernism, more so than Joyce really.

Harry Mathews, interviewed by John Ash.

He developed lung disease and died in Rome in 1926, discouraging friends from visiting him in his last weeks because of the poor quality of his wallpaper.

Author blurb, The Complete Ronald Firbank.

Australia as a Picturesque Ruin

Saturday 18 August 2007

…the Dawn and Dusk Society lobbied to set up a committee for the erection of fake ancient ruins around Australia.

The above note is just a passing comment in an article on another subject, found in a 1960s issue of Meanjin. I wrote this down several years ago, while I still had the issue ready at hand, but didn’t note the author, article, or issue number, and the journal is now in storage at the other end of the world. This is the first mention on the web of the mysterious Dawn and Dusk Society, at least as far as Google is concerned.

The Society is mentioned in such a casual way that it appears to have once been assumed familiar enough to readers to need no explication. Did it have much in common with other forgotten booster movements like the Wattle Day League or the Who’s For Australia Campaign? Was it more of a club like the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalo? An Antipodean outpost of eccentricity like the latter-day Baker Street Irregulars? Or is it possibly a fictional entity from a popular story of the day?
As it was described, the Society’s motive was to inspire a sense of history heretofore lacking in Australians. As I recall, the reference to the Society was made in a gently mocking tone, for its misguided nature and unconscious ironies, but even at this point in time its forlorn wish would have seemed, on the surface at least, fairly straightforward in a way that is impossible now.
(Before dealing with the historical and cultural consequences of such a project, a more immediate cognitive problem springs to mind: without a historical context to set it against, how could you tell an honest fake was meant to be seen as a ruin, and not as a folly, a false fake?)
Even ignoring Australia’s long neglected indigenous history, the idea of concocting an ersatz heritage is one fraught with contradictions for all but the least reconstructed White Australians. The “sense of history” created would of course be a denial of history, of Australia’s colonial past. But if this true history were successfully erased and overwritten with the shiny new ancient fictional extended remix, what new mythology would we have of ourselves? I can’t imagine that modern Australians would be more confident and assured of their place in the world, having grown up surrounded by symbols of a glorious past now irretrievably decayed. We have had a hard enough time adjusting to the starkness of the Australian landscape as it is, without it being additionally littered with evidence of our failures.
We don’t have to ask if the heritage the Society had in mind was British – in one aspect, the plan is but one more transplanted artifact from the Old Country – but how far back would the grand project extend? Would we find a Roman bath in Balranald? A Viking ship part-buried in Vaucluse? I like the idea of a large network of pseudo-academies springing up across the country, like those of the Creationists, dedicated to reconciling these fantastic absurdities to the real world.
As successive waves of immigrants have found their place in Australia, would they get to make their own contributions in turn to the collection of fake national relics? If the plan had succeeded, we could now enjoy shattered Doric columns beside fallen pagodas, and vine-covered colonnades topped with minarets. As a nation still reluctant to admit to one invasion, Australia would now happily affirm a multitude of colonial incursions in its past, even though most of them were fictional.
Perhaps it is time for the Society’s design to be revived, albeit in a more subtle and insidious form. Throughout recorded history, societies have expressed a belief in a golden age before their own, from which their contemporaries have descended and declined. The historical reminders we erect should manifest our faith in the values of better times preceding ours. Monuments to whistling milkmen, statues of doctors making house calls, and shrines to schoolkids who walked sixteen miles to school each day, immortalised in bronze in a pose of deference to an elder. An obelisk to those who left their homes unlocked. A plaque to a policeman older than you.
Amid these reminders we could go about our business confident that times are bad and will get worse, but once there was a better life which we have abandoned. And beneath these thoughts still lies the double truth we carry in our heads, of what we would like to believe our country to be, and what we know it really is.

Not the popular American musician

Tuesday 24 July 2007

If you’ll excuse the tautology, I’m a narcissistic blogger; so you know the real reason I’m linking to Sophie Cunningham’s article in The Age about the motivations and dissuasions of blog writing is because I’m quoted in it, regardless of the fact that it is a rare example of a Serious Publication putting out a thoughtful piece about blogs.

I don’t share some writers’ concerns about “giving away” words on the internet, when they sell them for a living. While this is a concern, I am moved by author Jonathan Lethem’s argument in Harper’s recently that “in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience. If I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity.” Not all blogs are art, but the act of sharing ideas and conversation is most certainly a gift.

It’s refreshing to read in a newspaper something about online writing other than (a) it’s all angsty ramblings of imperilled teenagers, and dangerous, or (b) it’s an endless partisan political shitfight, and dangerous – it’s usually one or the other from one week to the next, never both at once.
The article includes plenty of links to other quality blogs, to help keep up the online community’s rep for incestuous logrolling (which of course professional journalists would never do). Most importantly, I get to say “dick around” in a broadsheet.
Incidentally, I do have conscientously-formed reasons for maintaining this site, but I don’t need to tell you how to read.

Anatomy of a Nerd (13.5% vol.)

Thursday 21 June 2007


Late one Friday night at a cool indie pub in Whitechapel. Scruffily dressed bright young things mingle while a DJ plays dub mashups. In one corner, Ben.H is jumping up and down in front of a doorway.

A Friend
What on earth are you doing?

There’s a book up on that shelf above the doorway. It’s really thick with a pale green spine so I thought it might be Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.



In a twist ending, the book turns out to be The Ultimate Pub Quiz Book, and not The Anatomy of Melancholy after all.

Filler by Proxy LI: Embers

Tuesday 12 June 2007

Last week I went exploring around Waterloo for the first time and stumbled across John Calder’s bookshop in The Cut. I had no idea that this transplanted piece of literary history still existed at all, let alone as a vital and interesting store (unlike the pickled ruin of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris).
Since the 1950s Calder has been the publisher of Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Wyndham Lewis, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and so on and so forth. Sadly, he will no longer be publishing Beckett: the writer’s estate has decided that Faber and Faber, who have until now published only the plays, will now handle all of Beckett’s work.
Calder has written a valedictory tribute to Beckett, the writer and man:

He was 47, unknown except to a few close friends and singularly unsuccessful, when he had his first success with Godot in 1953 – another of the lucky flukes that characterised his life and career. He had survived the war and the clutches of the Gestapo hiding in the Vaucluse mountains, along with many other misadventures. He had also endured misunderstanding of his work that very few academics, mainly Joyceans – and even fewer reviewers – were able to overcome…. He was a simple, totally honest, highly perceptive and overly generous human being who saw and described the reality of human existence as the tragedy it is.

He also explains how the initial division of publishing labour between his company and Faber came about (hint: it involves a fear of the police).

The comments attached to the article are worth a look too, as they include a link to an interview with Marion Boyars, Calder’s sometime publishing partner, and this observation from reader fmk:

I guess we’ve got a few years ahead of us in which Faber’ll be telling us of all the errors in previous editions and how their new editions are totally definitive, tpyo-free* and as the author intended them to be.

* [sic]