Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A Postillion Struck by Lightning by Dirk Bogarde


A Postillion Struck by Lightning is the first part of Dirk Bogarde’s seven volume autobiography. First published as long ago as 1977, it has stood the test of time, has been widely read throughout its existence and has been reviewed, probably, hundreds, if not thousands of times. This, therefore, is not a review of the book, but a reflection on a particular aspect of it.

The first volume covers years of childhood, schooling, and finally professional stumbling towards what became a highly successful career in films. It might be said that Dirk Bogarde had three different film carriers, a mass market, Mr. Clean in the Doctor films, the experimenting intellectual in his art house period and finally accomplished and internationally recognized character acting in his Death in Venice phase.

Here we have the idyllic childhood spent in the Sussex cottage or around Hampstead in North London. We have the failed school years where first nothing much interested him and then, during his time in a Glasgow technical school, when nothing at all interested him. He had to live with an aunt and uncle during those years in Scotland, and his only self-protection came by learning a Glaswegian accent.

He was born into a special family. His mother had been an actress, while his father was art critic at The Times. The surname originated in Belgium and his grandfather deliberately lost himself up-river in South America, only to return, old, aged, grumpy and cantankerous.

Dirk Bogarde’s prose is highly expressive and includes moments of vivid colour when events are magnified to significance. On country walks we share the vistas, smells, an occasional hug of an animal, always with something that amplifies the experience. We feel we personally get to know the tortoise. In later pages, he is already on stage, disdainful, he says, of any notion of stardom. He is happy to be doing what he does, and small venues in London, amateur to semiprofessional, will do. But we know what happened next.

But perhaps the most intriguing section in A Postillion Struck by Lightning happens in Glasgow, on a day when he is playing truant from school. In the 21st-century, the victim of sexual assault is granted whatever space is demanded to describe, relive, speculate, question, compensate, or indeed pursue -or indeed any verb that may be applicable – the recalled experience. In 1977 Dirk Bogarde relates his own experience from the 1930s in almost a bland, matter-of-fact way. It comes across almost as if it were a scene from one of his films. The detail of the assault can be experienced by reading the book, and it is essential that it is not described here because it has a theatrical character that itself is grounded in the cinema. It was, nevertheless, a real experience and a terrifying one as well. Now presumably, possibly, the perpetrator of this assault was still alive when this book was published, and yet there appears to be no record of the actor’s having pursued any action against his assailant.

One of the joys of reading is being presented with the surprising or the memorable. When I began A Postillion Struck by Lightning, I never for a moment thought I would be writing this kind of review.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Mary Swann by Carol Shields

I have just completed four years of thinking through a project. There were several false starts, many rejected, some reworked ideas. What I wanted to achieve was tangible, but I could not grasp it. When I thought I had it held, it would melt away or fly out like squeezed soap. Some six months ago things gelled and I began in earnest to write Eileen McHugh, a life remade. It’s the story of a sculptor who left no work, but who, by accident in this case, had become sufficiently recognized for a biographer to reconstruct her life and remake her lost work.

With the book complete and published, I decided it was time to relax and took up Mary Swann by Carol Shields. I found and bought it in a charity shop bag-full because I knew the author, not the book. I began to read and the experience was uncanny.

Mary Swann concerns of life and work of a poet from rural Canada. The town of Nadeau was both small and insignificant, until, that is, the world discovered a slim volume of a hundred or so poems by one Mary Swann, insignificant herself, until she was murdered - shot, bludgeoned, dismembered - by her husband in 1965.

Born in 1915, the exact date still debatable, she lived out her anonymous, almost hidden life, even from locals, on the farm. Elsewhere in the world this would be called a peasant holding and her life would be characterized as mired in poverty. Mary Swann had no domestic help, no appliances, none of the trappings of modern life. She never drove a car. Isolated, remote, poor, dilapidated are words that applied equally to the setting of the life and the person who lived it. Nothing much is known of her relationship with her husband, who killed himself after murdering his wife. The erasure was complete, except that they had a daughter who is alive, but is unwilling to discuss family matters.

But Mary Swan wrote. She wrote pithy, crunchy verse that inhabits the world this side of the garden gate but seems to dig deep into the infinite internal space of being. Academics, having discovered her work, likened her to Emily Dickinson. Mr. Crozzi who originally accepted her poems for publication and produced a couple of hundred copies of Swann’s Songs, the perhaps appropriately titled slim volume, was the last person to see her alive, apart from her husband. There are estimated to be about 20 extant copies of the collection. But the content has found its admirers and champions. There are even academics whose reputation is built on the critique of Mary Swann’s verse.

There is to be a symposium on the poet and her work and Carol Shields follows the lives, testimonies and experience of a group of interested parties. There are academic researchers, who cooperate by competing. There is Rose, the Nadeau town librarian, timid, self-effacing and suffering. There is Crozzi, perhaps a little crazy, the publisher and a long-standing journalist in the local press, though himself an immigrant. He is an eccentric, opinionated type who dearly misses his deceased wife. He also likes a drink or two. There are Sarah and Morton, academics with their own lives to live who have championed Mary Swann’s work.  And there are others. Via the experiences of these characters and others, we piece together something of the life and work of Mary Swann, though, like everyone else involved, we never know her and her work remains enigmatic.

What for me was utterly uncanny, was that this was the exact form I had chosen for Eileen McHugh. Exactly what makes an artist? Why do we try to express ourselves in these arcane, often esoteric forms? What is authorship? What constitutes recognition? Who controls that process? How does life influence art, or vice versa? How do we recall our interactions from the past with someone we never thought we would remember? At eighty per cent through Mary Swann, I felt like I was reading a different version of my own book and I concluded I was very glad I had not read Carol Shields’s book before inventing my own.

But eventually, things diverged. Carol Shields’ Mary Swann concludes with the symposium on the poet’s work, a meeting that brings together the characters we have been following and constructed in the form of a screenplay. A particular thread of the plot begins to dominate. Competition surfaces, insults are perceived, and offense is taken. Difficult to explain events coalesce to identify and conclude what really has been going on in the background throughout the book. By the end of this superbly crafted and constructed novel, we are intimately involved in considerable slices of the contemporary characters’ lives.  Mary Swann, however, lingers in a continued, enigmatic anonymity that remains entirely her own, just as, thankfully, does that of my own Eileen McHugh.

Last Stories by William Trevor

Painters know that the viewer’s gaze can be tricked. Perhaps led is the better word, for this deception’s aim is merely to communicate more effectively. In visual art this can often mean placing a single line or mark, rather than spending hours with a hair-thin brush trying to capture detail. The trick, if it is one, is to convey all the detail by suggestion, so that the viewer’s mind creates it and therefore sees it.

The equivalent for writers is surely the ability to convey meaning both effectively and succinctly. But the idea goes beyond this. If we want to describe the life of a character, for example, we cannot and must not seek to include every detail. Salient points, finely formed, provide a complete picture. A single word, correctly chosen can create personality in a way that description alone can never achieve.

The technique is particularly noticeable in that much used but rarely mastered genre, the short story. And William Trevor offers a superb example of how it should be done in his Last Stories. These pieces are about people, their lives, loves, losses, hopes and fears. What happens to them is only as important as the how. And by the end of each story, we feel we have met the characters, shared their lives for a few pages. But we also feel we know them individually, and in depth.

William Trevor’s technique is startling. If this were visual, it would present a large canvas, most of which would be blank. Here and there would be marks, dabs, lines, almost randomly scattered across the surface. But when we stand back, these would coalesce and sum to reveal utterly convincing detail, which would then fill the rest of the picture. It is so easy when creating a short story to concentrate on the minuscule, to conclude that the form is better suited to the containable. Here William Trevor lays this idea to rest, elegantly, succinctly and in suggested, but vivid detail.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Childe Harold by Lord Byron

I finished a novel recently. In Eileen McHugh, a life remade, I created a character called Alice, an art teacher close to retirement, as the principal character’s sculpture teacher during her first year as an art student. The structure of the book demanded that the story, set in the 1970s, should be told by contemporary survivors from today’s perspective. Alice would not have lived until now, so I passed the responsibility of her character to her son, a physics professor in a university in the north of England. I had already decided on the surname of the artistic household in which the son grew up. It was, by chance, Childe. These two artist parents, one three-dimensional, the other two, would certainly have chosen a one-dimensional name for their son, so I called him Harold, Harold Childe. It was a joke.

Then, a few days later, I heard a performance of Harold in Italy, the viola concerto in all but name by Berlioz. Somewhere in this drug-fuelled Romanticism there was an account, or perhaps the mere reflection, on Byron‘s Childe Harold’s travels through Italy. It occurred to me that I should re-read the poem. I read it first when I was the age that my character, Eileen McHugh, was in her art college. I could now remember next to nothing about it.

It’s an heroic poem by the equally drug-fuelled Lord Byron, written in nine lines stanzas, eight pentameters followed by the terminating Alexandrine. It rhymes ABABBCBCB, meaning that five lines in every stanza rhyme in a traditional manner. In it, our eponymous hero traverses the Mediterranean by sea, if that’s linguistically possible, and visits many places where an artistic education might recall classical allusion. Throughout the journey, he calls in to places with millennia of evident history and proceeds to show off much of what he knowns, all learned within the confines of an English private education. Childe Harold remains self-obsessed, always eager to place his own responses at the forefront of his thoughts, often in spite of external stimulation. But that’s Romanticism, isn’t it? And I had not just written about Eileen McHugh, a 1970s concept artist who imagined meaning into everything she might choose to juxtapose?

Some years ago, I wrote a novel that attempted a loose parody of Don Quixote. It was called A Search for Donald Cottee. I am the person who wrote it, so you will be unsurprised by my estimation of success. I was particularly proud of my updating of the episode in the Caves of Montesinos. I began to wonder how one might parody Byron’s Harold some 200 years on from its conception.

So rather than review Childe Harold, which has probably been done, what I offer here is a plan of parody that may never be written. The first two stanzas, for me, if experienced today, would be a Mediterranean cruise. Let’s not experience much at first hand but take pleasure in being dropped off for a passing couple of hours in the protected zone of somewhere famous, visited, historical, as specified in the brochure. A diary, kept by our cruiser, written in verse, is Childe Harold 2020, with sections copied from the handouts given on the onshore day trips. It’s not Childe Harold’s nor any other passenger’s reflections on experience that forms the gist but grab quotes from the tourist notes supplied to anyone who was paid for the excursion.

The later stanzas do travel inland. How we get from A to B is largely ignored, but Byron rarely strays anywhere off the Grand Tour. In contemporary terms. it’s surely a bus trip, a 50-strong group of the kind that marches, chattering, past the wonders of Neapolitan art in Capodimonte, to be loudly lectured in front of the Caravaggio, in Milan ignores the Brera to marvel at the Last Supper’s peeling plaster and congregates surround the copy of David in front of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. I think I jest. But Naples is rather too dirty to walk around, isn’t it?

What interest me in 2020, is the fact that the coronavirus pandemic would make both cruise and bus trips rather difficult to pursue. The barriers are obvious and I will not even try to list them. So how would Childe Harold 2020 manage to suffer his cascaded paroxysms of emotion?

Online, that’s how. WebCams, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, Airb’n’b reviews, restaurant evaluations complete with owner’s apologetic comments about the service, that’s how our lockdown 2020 Childe Harold might play his viola. Imagine the locked-down pensioners at home. Where did you go today dear? I had a walk around the Uffizi. Ignored the crap. Just looked at the Canalettos. Read about them as well. Views of Venice, apparently. The poem will be epic.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Tribes by David Lammy

Tribes by David Lammy promises much, delivers something, but ultimately fails to convince. Its problem lies in the very nature of its vision, not that this is wrong, misguided or anything less than laudable. This ultimate failure to convince, in fact, derives from the overall vision‘s inability to confront the very issues that the author identifies at the start.

David Lammy is a British politician, currently a member of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet. In Tribes he attempts to evaluate the political landscape, beginning with a theoretical analysis of why class and other grander identities have become fragmented into what might seem to be smaller, interest-led groupings that he calls ‘tribes’. Many readers might expect this analysis to be developed, but instead the author pursues a personal reflection on some of the ideas raised. And, as the book progresses, the context becomes more personal still, before a final section attempts its rational, credible and, given what preceded, impossible finale. The approach renders the book very readable, but less than satisfying after its promise of theoretical discussion.

The author is a remarkable man. He was born to a Guyanese immigrant family in north London’s Tottenham, brought up by a single mother and then attended the cathedral choir school in Peterborough. London University preceded Harvard Law School, where he became the first black British graduate. In Silicon Valley he became a lawyer and then was elected as a Member of Parliament on behalf of the Labour Party. And then he was a government minister. These are just a few of the facts of this brilliant man’s life – thus far! His wife is white and his children are mixed race, whatever that means, since we are all mixed race, if we are human.

But in a quest for identity of the type that seems to obsess modern people, David Lammy sought out a DNA analysis. The results suggested a mix of origins, one of which linked to the Tuareg of the west African Sahel. The author spends much time and resources researching this link and then, as far as possible, experiencing it at first hand. Though ultimately this association is revealed as tenuous at best, perhaps even illusory, the author’s willingness and enthusiasm to pursue it illustrates a point he makes early on in the book, that identity nowadays seems more strongly felt on a personal rather than group basis. Except, of course, where the group has the ability to bolster and confirm the personal.

David Lammy introduces Maffesoli’s concept of neo-tribes, communities of feeling, to identify a contemporary trend of seeing one’s own personal identity purely in terms of a group identity. Thus, rational approaches to certain issues which, by the nature, are universal, become devalued as neo-tribes develop their own internal values and explanations. It is the fact that these are identity-conferring minority positions that provides the focus for the neo-tribe identity. Fragmentation in our social, economic and religious life fosters the replacement of universalism. This is a crucial point.

A few pages on and David Lammy identifies practically how this behaviour, even propensity, has been exploited by the political Right. He cites two successful electoral slogans - “Make America Great Again” and “Take Back Control”, to which might be added “Get Brexit Done” - as examples of labels that brought success to campaigns by exploiting group fears above rational arguments, thus defeating rational analyses that recognized, or at least attempted to recognize, the true complexity of the issues discussed. The slogans denied this complexity and offered an illusion of simple solutions. David Lammy persuasively illustrates how these simple emotive but inaccurate messages prevailed over the complex, unclear, yet accurate counter argument.

Still in the introduction, he quotes a survey that claims almost two thirds of UK voters still believe the oft-falsified claim that the country sends 350 million pounds a week to the European Union. David Lammy follows this by stating that there still exists a group of deluded individuals who think that Arsenal are the best football team in north London. By way of balance, I will remind him that about thirty-five years ago the philosopher AJ Ayer wrote that it ought to be impossible for a logical positivist to support Tottenham Hotspur. Joking aside, the author thus illustrates that once accepted by a neo-tribe, a falsehood can retain its own internal illusion of truth.

But people do support Arsenal and others Tottenham. They can’t both be right if they assert they follow the ‘best’ team. From the internally accepted values from within the group, however, they can both be right. Even a moment after chanting “what a load of rubbish” at their own team, such a tribe would unite if the same sentiment were to be expressed by the opposition. Welcome to the Conservative Party, which is forever internally divided, but externally as united as Stalin’s allies, until purged, then largely silent. And who cares if the message is irrational, impossible, implausible or even irrelevant? The tribe will back it to exclude others. And it works.

There is much in Tribes that it is rational, clearly expressed, credible and heartfelt. It is a superb snapshot of where British politics and society now reside, precariously in opposing camps, ideologically armed, but often not agreeing on a language where debate might happen, where sensible question is usually answered by an irrelevant, unrelated positive soundbite.

The book’s overarching message, however, is flawed, since by the end we have returned to the necessity of acknowledging and recognizing the complexities of real issues. We must trust our rationality and engage in the politics of discussion and debate. Global problems need global solutions. Working in isolation will foster failure. Messy international cooperation and thus, effectively, globalization is the only way out of local problems. The difficulty with such a laudable, deliverable and sensible analysis, however, is that it fails, repeatedly, in the face of soundbite slogans that seek and achieve short-term, but identity-giving non-solutions. Remember Vote for Victory?

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman is a deeply disturbing book. This scenario that unfolds around the life of its principal character and narrator, Harrison Opoku, always feels uncomfortably real. For the most part, these are scenes that inner-city dwellers pass every day, whilst the denouement, thankfully, is still rare, despite such events often appearing to be daily occurrences.

Harrison Opoku is eleven years old, secondary school year seven to British readers. He is into many things that interest inner-city kids. He is athletic and regularly tells us he is fast he is faster than most, especially when wearing his new branded trainers, if brand logos can be drawn on in felt tip, that is. We doubt, however, whether his assessment is based on more than a competitive dash to the next lamppost along a pavement containing just a few old ladies and gentlemen.

He is prone to the exaggeration of youth, with most experiences being the best, biggest, coolest in at least a million years. He is also prone to the novelty of youth, where the mundane is revealed as special. This is one of Stephen Kelman’s great achievements, in that one feels authentically inside the psyche of this near-pubescent boy without ever being forced into the experience.

Harri is competitive, regularly awarding points to himself in make-believe games that often involve such spectacular activities as spotting particular governments going around inside a Launderette machine. He lives in a tower block in a place that feels like London but could be anywhere in Britain. One does sense an oppressiveness, a claustrophobia pervading the thoughts of all concerned. Everything is local, to the extent that the end of the street is really quite distant.

Harrison Opoku, however, was not British born. He came from Ghana and still has vivid memories of his African family and their culture. To say he is a child of two worlds, or two cultures, however, would be a mistake. Harry lives his own life, the only life he has, and it comes with whatever amalgam of beliefs and cultures he has thus far assimilated. He is a black, African kid, it is true, but labelling him as such ignores the fact that the greatest influence on his life is the here and now. And the here and now is inner-city Britain.

He goes to school, where he meets some teachers who cope and some who do not. School is a priority, but it is well down the list, it seems. His friends and acquaintances largely attend the same institution and some of them can be trusted, whilst some of them can be trusted to shaft you. Some of them steal your dinner money. Some of them sell you drugs. Some of them prick you with compass points in the thigh to make you cry out in class and get into trouble. Some of them carry knives. And use them.

In this big anonymous city, Harry inhabits quite a small world. He has a crush on Poppy, whom he thinks might also have a crush on him. He never strays far from home, because that may be someone else’s territory, a different gang, who are likely to treat you like an immigrant. And there has been a problem. A boy is dead, stabbed, and the police have taped off the crime scene. But for Harri, what has happened is close to home, perhaps too close, and he resolves to solve the crime that currently baffles the police. He devises a strategy and plays at its enactment. This involves becoming an expert in fingerprinting, in making casts of footwear imprints, of noticing and collecting evidence. Someone, surely, must be noting his activity.

Throughout Pigeon English, Harri talks to the pigeon who picks up the feed he leaves outside his window. The pigeon seems to know what Harry, himself, suspects. And thus we move between the serious and playful, fact and make-believe, with the boundaries marked by postcodes, street names and imagining lives that only those involved may see. We learn to inhabit this eleven year-old’s world, to share its novelty and understand its reality.

Investigating a murder, dodging the dealers, not stepping on the cracks in the pavement, it’s all a game. Until it isn’t.