Wednesday 26 February 2014

Holding notice: travels

Just a short notice to say the hiatus in posting is because since Sunday I have been to one concentrated meeting per day, travelling there, getting in late and out early. One more day of this then life should get back to normal. Some notes on aspects of those days might follow.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Poetry and Jokes 2:
So where's the joke?

A ginnel

(I am writing this as a continuation of my last post because it was there to be written. It is also a distraction. I was given news of two deaths today, both of poets. Michael Baldwin was 83 and died suddenly at the top of the stairs. He was the first poet whose book I took off the school library shelf when I was seventeen. I should have been doing Physics. I met him only once some six or so years ago. Szilárd Borbély was just forty nine, an important, indeed vital, Hungarian poet, whose first novel (excerpt translated by Ottilia Mulzet in The White Review) created a sensation in Hungary last year.  He too died suddenly. Some of his work is in English. The Dispossessed might be. I never met him but I felt him as a writer. Two deaths in a day is hard, especially of one as young as Borbély.) 

Not all jokes have to have punch lines but they have to have appropriate form and an ending that provokes laughter usually with a surprise or category confusion.

In telling the Jamaica joke in my previous post  I used this version.

- I say, I say, I say, my wife's gone to the West Indies. - Jamaica?- No, she went by herself.

Correspondent Gwilym remarked that the punchline in the version he knows goes: "No, she went of her own accord". 

There are reasons we might prefer Gwilym's version if only because my version, while revealing that the point of the joke is not her destination but her will still leaves open the possibility that the woman is travelling alone because she prefers to be without his company and that he has no say in it (a potentially melancholy situation for him), whereas Gwilym's version not only makes it clear that her destination was not the issue but that the woman has relieved her husband of the necessity of making her go by doing it herself (a happy resolution for him). You want something to happen then it happens of its own accord.

There would be other ways of bringing the joke to that same point, Here are three:
1. No, it was her decision.
2. No, she just did it.
3. As if she would listen to me!

Those, and many other  variations in the same spectrum would each have a slightly different value - some would be funnier than others - but the mechanism of the joke would remain the same. We are led up to the point Jamaica, then, using the pun we give the answer to the wrong question. The word Jamaica remains the vehicle of the joke.

There is, however, a different version waiting in the wings, in which the answer is No, Trinidad which may be funnier still because by offering a straight answer, it already assumes the joke and passes beyond it to a further and potentially superior kind of surprise by performing a kind of feint.

The feint as an act of grace. It's still just a joke but now we are getting somewhere. 

Yesterday I was writing a series of 15 plotlines for non-existent films and added a coda of plot lines - or rather scenes from - five more grounded, socially conscious films under the heading of Realismus. The last of was:

The door to a terraced house stands open. A hallway smelling of booze gives you a cheery thumbs up. A dog in clogs disappears down a ginnel.

The mechanism here is pretty clear. It consists of three parts. 

The first is a neutral but evocative statement (think Distant Voices, Still Lives) that could lead anywhere but faintly suggests something about poverty and the melancholy and tragedy associated with it. 

The second statement holds open that possibility with the boozy hallway (the drunken father returning from the pub) but proposes something absurd or possibly metaphorical as a development of it (the cheery thumbs up).  Halls don't have thumbs. The word cheery is a bit plonking, a touch ridiculous. However ridiculous the image there remains nevertheless the possibility that what we are reading is a kind of metaphor, the memory trace of a drunken character giving us the thumbs up. (It could have happened in Distant Voices, Still Lives). The potential for a tragic reading remains hanging by a thread but it hasn't vanished. 

Then a third image appears in the last statement that presents us with a plausible scene from a documentary about the condition of the North in which a dog (possibly a lurcher or a scruffy mongrel) vanishes down a passage between two houses. That might be straight enough as a comment but the dog in this case is supplied with clogs. Clogs too are associated with the subject area but are ridiculous when worn by dogs.

There is one more element here: the ginnel. The word means a passage between houses, and again is plausible given the context (the poet Matt Simpson introduced me to it in one of his poems set in Bootle). But there is something more than plausible in fact quite beautiful about it. It is beautiful because it allows the text a form of intimacy in terms of language, and not only because it has a soft choking sound but because its deep choking 'g' harmonises with the sounds, and rhymes, of dog and clog.

The result is complex. The text is not a joke though it has absurd, joky aspects. Nor is it a straight if minimalist prose poem about the social and emotional values of (beautiful) films like Distant Voices, Still Lives. If anything it mocks them while presenting them with funny yet, to my ears, lovely lines such as the one that ends, in this case, with a ginnel.

Beauty. Beauty is what I really want, and this is one way it may be possible to seek it. Beauty is this ambivalence: this teetering. It presents the imagination with an act of grace whose voids and horrors are real but deferred by familiar detail. I want to laugh but not at a joke, I want the kind of laughter elicited by beauty because there are odd places where grace might be found. And if I don't quite locate the beauty there is still the laughter and some of the grace.

I don't intend analysing, and certainly not praising, my own work. I write fast and by instinct but that doesn't mean I stop thinking about what might have happened and what might happen again. Writing such texts is, I find, exactly like writing poems - and beyond a joke. We are, I think, somewhere beyond Trinidad.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Poetry and jokes 1:
I laughed so much at the beauty of it

- You know what a joke is? 
- Something that makes you laugh.
- Why does it make you laugh?
- Now you're getting serious.
- That's funny.

Very well then, a joke has to surprise. No surprise no joke. But it's a mean thing after all. A little break in the serious business of coping, suffering, striving, desiring. It's a distraction, a breather, at best a relief, a reversal, an inversion, a tiny carnival.

- I say, I say, I say, my wife's gone to the West Indies.
- Jamaica?
- No, she went by herself.

Simple stupid puns. Puns are wearisome. We laugh in our tired way. You have told us nothing new. Nothing significant hangs by this. It's harmless. A waste of time. Except, I mean, you gotta laff at something once in a while and it might as well be this.

But there can be something beautiful about a joke. Maybe it's the way the man tells them. Maybe it's his timing, his subtext, his persona, his look. Maybe he looks funny to start with.

On the other hand he may be working too hard. Don't you hate it when they work too hard? When you know they are straining and you feel sorry for them? You can't enjoy a joke by someone who is desperate to make you laugh. If you feel sorry for them they're not funny, just desperate. Maybe even contemptible.

Or he may be trying to ingratiate himself with you. You and I we think the same things, he implies. You can feel comfortable with me, so relax and laugh. My skill, says the man, lies in focusing our mutual feeling. See that dart in my hand? It's our dart. So Ben Elton in the early days of alternative comedy would just have to say the words, Mrs Thatcher, and everybody laughed. Because they were all agreed. Actually there's something pretty contemptible about that too.

How close jokes are to contempt.


I am more interested in poems than in jokes but I do think they have something in common. Both poem and joke take place against an unacknowledged but pervasive background of chaos devoid of something we call meaning, in other words a void. Both poem and joke deploy our our greatest, desperately fragile invention: a highly coded language in which it is possible to be graceful.

I don't mean just verbal or written language, but any language - including visual, musical, theatrical, gestural - that involves a coded performance and offers the possibility of synthesising a layered, historicised, related yet apparently incongruous set of significances.

Our performance holds us for a moment. The performance is more satisfying, more heroically graceful than anything in our lives of normal articulacy. The performance is stunning. Yet a void remains. The performance exists at a tension between grace and void.

A perfectly told joke has something of beauty in it. I don't mean only a crafted beauty like a beautiful vase or piece of furniture (although that too), but something more, something aesthetically other, almost naked in its clarity yet appearing as a phantom illuminated by sheet lightning.

A joke, like a poem,  has grace and a sense of the void. I don't mean - not exactly - the theatre of the absurd. Not the full Beckett, not a bucketful of Ionesco. I don't mean something clearly offering itself as an existential gesture. I mean something rather more like an ordinary household joke.

The beautiful is something to do with the balance between form and content at a point when the two become each other. The beautiful is a point  that is just about balancing on the wire of its constituents. It teeters there.

Between content and form, between an apprehension and its language.

This is not a meditation born of hard study. These are stray thoughts arriving as and how they do. They desperately need tidyingup. No time now.

It is the relationship betwen the funny and the graceful that I want to think about next time.

Saturday 15 February 2014

On Responding to Corrected Proofs:
The God/Goddess at your Shoulder

For the last week or so I have been responding to corrections and questions to the first proof copy of a novel I translated and handed in last summer.

The editor is very careful and has marked up various typos and stylistic glitches as well as asking some excellent questions about chronology in the novel and checking whether this or that part of the text was in character for the person thinking or speaking.

My editor's care sometimes angers me, partly because I think she is generally right and I am annoyed with myself, and partly because she treats me as though I were the author of the text. I am not the author. I don't know everything the author knows. Why is this sentence this way? I don't know.

But that's an excuse. Here are some more excuses.

There are difficulties involved in the original because Hungarian has no gendered pronouns. This is always a problem because, as translator, you have to make decisions early, and aspects of the style depend on who seems to be doing the speaking. That difficulty is compounded in this case because the core relationship is between mother and daughter and the writing offers both points of view, occasionally within a single paragraph, so it can take some revision to work out who is speaking or thinking, mother or daughter. The mother is rarely referred to by name in the text.

There is a firm historical context but it is rarely given directly and some of the revisions consist of making dates agree and then aligning them with background events. The editor's eagle eye has spotted these and her helpful notes have to be tallied with my own earlier guesses. That takes an infuriating amount of time.

The author has clear ideas about location. She tells us how many rooms a house has but not how they are used or arranged. It has become an obsession of mine to figure out the precise layout. Two rooms are distinctly mentioned and, to some degree, described, but there is also a kitchen, a bathroom, and a hall. Does the kitchen count as the third room? The third room is never mentioned as such. A kitchen is.  What is the point of a third room if no one ever goes into it? There is a vaulted passage at the side of the house. Is the entrance to the house under the passage or at the back? Does it matter? The author knows something she did not feel necessary to reveal. Why do I have to reveal it?

There is a considerable amount of historical and geographical knowledge that I lack and I rely on friends in Hungary to fill me in.

Enough excuses.

It is, in fact, almost like writing the book. Slowly I have been writing the book and now I am correcting it with new perspectives. Some apparently odd things fall into place. A few still hover.

Psychologically I think I have it right. In terms of sensibility I am pretty sure I have it right. Those are my strengths, and I like to think I have a poet's feeling for language too. That should be my trump card. It's what gets the books the good reviews. Which is why the stylistic corrections hurt. Yes, in my hurry to get the book done, I had left some awkward sentences. That annoys me no end. That, at least, I should have nailed.

Then I remember: it has always been like this. I fly for long passages then I crash. Occasionally I lose control altogether.

I sometimes think that translation is a kind of spiritual discipline. You make the rods for your own back. With a little chastisement you are purified and can get back on the trail. You are the servant of the godlike master text.

But I am a writer, not a servant. I rebel, time and again. This is the last, I say. Or the next to the last. Or the next to the next to the last. Maybe just a few poems after this. But someone has to do the work and maybe it's me.

The fact is, like any writer, I need a good editor, a god or goddess substitute. And this one - stand up Ellie Steel at Random House - is the best yet. Thank you.

Friday 14 February 2014

Two Poems on Weather

Two weather pieces by way of a Valentine's Day blessing. With a red rose, a glass of wine, a candle-lit meal, and darkness heading on its stormy way into the weekend. Hear it howl!


Suddenly words poured
out of drains into gardens
too drenched to hear them.

Trees and bushes were
listening to the ursprache 
of rising thunder.

The lake strained to hear
the utterances of cloud
spreading over it.

The world was all ears,
the fields preparing their notes
for a bright future.

But when the wind spoke
loud and clear to a tumult
of rain, the rain heard.

And when the fields spoke
water and the sky bellowed
air, it was meaning.

People were measuring
the tides, calibrating loss
by the yard and mile.

There were the data
properly laid out and crunched
into neat pie-charts.

Language was effort.
The sky could say what it liked
with its dark grammar

of gesture and shift.
We were at cross-purposes
and longing for sun.


When the wind blows the streets are discomfited, muttered the grass and bent its head. Blow on, dude, screamed the leaves.

The wind didn't know what to do with its hands so it stuck them in its pockets which were full of holes. The body is wind, said the wind.

The rain couldn't agree with the wind. They spoke different languages. Bring me an intepreter, howled the wind. Now hammer me out a deal.

The wind was taking refuge in an open mouth. It met a wind coming up. Human beings are disgusting, it said. I will work my way down deeper.

Each raindrop broke up on landing. Their scattered bones will shine, wrote the poet whose own bones did not add up to much.

Face it guys, said the wind, it's nature or nothing. It says so on the contract and no amount of rain will wash it away.

The wind was furious. There must be a cause, said the man in the wind. It's your flapping coat creating a draught, said his neighbour.

Got any wind, the addict asked the dealer. You can't afford it, the dealer replied, but I can get someone to blow in your ear.

There were several tribes of rain all claiming the same territory. A war ensued of which we have various disputed historical accounts.

This is revolution, screamed the wind. Like last week you mean, said the vagrant. No, the week before, said the wind.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Golden Age

In Berkshire

Most of the time things are all right. Sometimes we are aware that they are getting worse. Nobody really thinks higher education as a profession is getting better, for example. More and more is being squeezed out of ever fewer resources. There are more students per staff, there is a greater struggle for rooms, there is less time for academics to teach, research and administer as well as to undertake the ever newer forms of outreach they are pressurised to do to show their institution is part of the community. The young are particularly under pressure because new junior appointments are given most of the extra work. If a well-respected, much-published professor is earning you research money by publishing, you keep him/her publishing so he or she becomes ever more occupied with his/her research. Younger staff are desperate to do research but, unless they are extraordinary or very lucky, they have to keep their noses to the grindstone until they have no noses. Many are anxious, depressed and exhausted.

Few are free of anxiety. But then something else sits down beside you, or, in the case of the floods, on top of you. It may be a very rare event (there may be more such rare events in the future) but it is your own special rare event if you're in it. It rains and rains and rains, the water rises ever further. This is not one of those times when things are more or less all right. Nor are they slowly eating away at you or grinding away your nose. Your nose is in the water.

Few of us would not feel deep sympathy for those whose houses and businesses are now under water. Those of us who live in another part of the country don't think it couldn't happen to us, that nothing could happen because most of the time things are all right. We all know that the law of things happening permits of anything happening at any time.

Granted the history of our families both Clarissa and I know that we are more than fortunate, that this is, as things go,  the Golden Age the ancients wrote about. That every age is both its own Golden Age and its Disaster Zone.  In the meantime, things here are all right.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Breaking Bad: Walt v Skyler
via James Thurber and Homer Simpson

Seeing the series as, in some important respects at least, an exploration of the 'crisis in masculinity' I propose that the core conflict is not so much between 'good' Walt and 'evil' Heisenberg as between Walt and Skyler, or to put it another way, albeit rather crudely, as between patriarchy and matriarchy.

The issue is control.

When we first meet Walt he is distinctly not in control. He is running himself into the ground, working flat out at both school and the carwash, open to humiliation in both. His early promise - he is a genius of sorts as his production of blue crystal meths demonstrates - has become a story of failure. Even his son is, in some physical regards, a 'failure'. The house is Skyler's domain. All he has is the classroom and that is a thankless arena. He develops cancer. He is all but impotent as we can see from the early scene where Skyler tries to hand-start him.

Once his cancer has been diagnosed he decides to ignore the family advice to take an expensive cure. The fact that he is all but ignored in the decision about his own life at this critical point is clearly important to him. The worm turns here.

Once the worm turns and Walt breaks bad, he heads off into uncharted territory, but at least he is making the decisions. He is taking the risks, using his gifts and - all importantly - he is, as he keeps stressing, providing for his family. He has a function.

What happens as a result? In the first place his cancer goes into remission, and he is sexually potent once again, in other words he is healthy, and while none of this comes easy to him - his range of anxious expressions grows ever more intense and he is frequently in a state of terror - it gives him one last chance to assume control over his life.

But that control is restricted. When, after the separation, Skyler becomes party to at least some of his schemes, she immediately wants to take control again and, when with her, he returns to his earlier condition of subservience while bursting at the seams. She has no idea how often he has been close to death or what he has seen: she simply assumes he is incompetent. His actions have, after all, impinged on hers and her control of the immediate, which includes her own and the family's security.

Control of the immediate is the starting point. Walter had no control of the immediate before. He has established a space for it now. Each time he acts he overcomes an immediate, which is thrilling as well as desperately frightening.

Control of the long-term is a different matter. Both Skyler and Walter have some sense of the long-term but, in the meantime, there are all the immediates to deal with. In one sense though Walter's conception of the long-term is clearer, because he understands that one way or another there will be no long-term for him.

The terms matriarchy and patriarchy are both loose and mostly polemical terms, especially the latter. 99% of men have no great control over their own lives. At work they are employees, a majority of them very low grade employees. Nor are most of them bosses at home. The home is traditionally women's domain and sphere of control. Under the old dispensation women decided which domestic task to do when in their own time - the men had no such choice. The great problem for them both was that they were restricted to their particular domains.

House as seen by James Thurber

Walter and Skyler were in fairly traditional domains. Skyler had control of hers, Walter was not in control of his. His genius - his power, his control, his identity - had been stunted.

Neither Walt nor Hank, our other, developing protagonist,  is truly happy in fully domestic circumstances. When confined by his injuries Hank becomes withdrawn, cold, and rude. He only starts to recover once he is back in action with the DEA.

Control heals.

Skyler's domain meant impotence and cancer to Walter. Not because she ever intended such a thing but because her own moral balance is predicated on Walter remaining as he is.

Heisenberg is another matter. Heisenberg may be healthier, more potent (not that he shows any interest in women) and more in control, but he is on a road that leads him - and maybe his family too - to hell.

Control is danger.

In this respect the series, though focused on the crisis in masculinity and doing a fascinating and honest job of exploring what that means, actually takes a rather feminist line.

Masculinity, in extremis, as genius, is hell.

Male control is hell.

Hank - a highly competent and, on the whole, decent version of Homer Simpson - places his energies at the service of legality and the household and is therefore salvageable.

Thursday 6 February 2014

Falsification of History, Loss of Trust:
Hungary's Holocaust Year

Auschwitz concentration camp, arrival of Hungarian Jews, Summer 1944. 
Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-318 / CC-BY-SA

Refusing to be associated with the government and its attempts to rewrite and falsify history on the occasion of Holocaust memorial Year in Hungary, some individuals, and some Jewish organisations have decided to return grants and other distinctions.

Leading Holocaust historian Randolph Braham wrote an open letter and asked to have his name removed from The Holocaust Memorial Centre in Budapest. The Guardian reported this on 26 January. I quote:
Braham said ... the "straw that broke the camel's back" leading to his decision was a government plan to erect a memorial commemorating the March 1944 invasion of Hungary by the Nazis. Braham said the memorial was "a cowardly attempt to detract attention from the Horthy regime's involvement in the destruction of the Jews and to homogenize the Holocaust with the 'suffering' of the Hungarians a German occupation, as the record clearly shows, was not only unopposed but generally applauded."

Matters didn't stop there. (Here I will be quoting the excellent Hungarian Spectrum website run by Eva Balogh that I cannot recommend highly enough).  A few days later, a man born in Subotica, Emeritus Professor Steven J. Fenves of Carnegie Mellon Univeristy, USA, addressed a letter of sympathy to Braham, in which he said: 
Subotica, in Serbia – also known as Szabadka – won funding for two projects in the competition for Hungary’s fund for the 2014 commemorations: one for opening a Holocaust Information Center by the Subotica Jewish Community organization and one for an exhibition in the Subotica City Museum. For the first, I was asked to authorize the use of my mother’s name, Klara Gereb (Geréb Klári), for the Holocaust Information Center. (She was a  locally well-respected graphic artist between the two world wars and perished in Auschwitz.) Initially, I assented to this request….

But then he withdrew his offer.  As he explains:

My resolve to support these two projects was badly shaken when I saw in Hungarian Spectrum a photograph of Sándor Szakály [the head of Veritas, the government backed Historical Institute]. There, facing him, was a bust of a Hungarian csendőr, complete with the black Bowler hat embellished with the flying black cock-feathers, exactly as worn by those gendarmes when they herded us into the makeshift ghetto and soon thereafter loaded us into the boxcars destined for Auschwitz. The map behind Mr. Szakály showed, of course, the pre-World War I map of Hungary, with Subotica well within its borders. It was extremely painful for me to realize that the Hungarian government that sponsors this man also funds the two 2014 activities in Subotica.

This coincided with the decision of the synagogue at Nové Zámky (formerly Érsekújváros) in Slovakia to return its grant from the Hungarian government intended as support for Holocaust Year. Balogh explains:

The Orthodox synagogue of Nové Zámky is registered as a historic landmark. It is one of only four synagogues in Slovakia that are still used for religious purposes by the local Jewish community. This community received 1.5 million forints as a contribution from the so-called Civic Fund  (Civil Alap) for events planned in connection with the Holocaust Memorial Year. Tamás Lang, president of the board of the Nové Zámsky Jewish Community, sent the money back accompanied by a scathing letter condemning the falsification of history and also the systematic revival of the cult of Miklós Horthy.

Then she gives an abbreviated form of the letter:

The events and statements of the last few days make the sincerity of the Civic Fund’s  intentions highly questionable…. We can’t accept that Miklós Horthy, who is fully responsible for the destruction of Hungary’s Jewry, can have a statue in Hungary…. We can’t accept such statements as “we–Hungarians, they–Jews” even if it is uttered as “we Hungarians defend our minorities.”… We don’t forget that prior to the [German] occupation there were already 60,000 victims of anti-Semitism in Hungary. … We contest the statement that the only sin of the government at the time was that “it didn’t defend the country’s Jewish citizens and provided material supplies for their persecution” … [when] that government mobilized 200,000 civil servants against us. … It is true that Tibor Navracsics, deputy prime minister, and Bence Rétváry, undersecretary,  talked on international forums about Hungarian responsibility, but the direction of official statements and actions belies their words….  We cannot lend our names to the falsification of history and the whitewashing of the Horthy regime.

From Hungarian Spectrum we move on to the Klubrádió website (some may remember the government tried to shut Klubrádió down by handing its licence over to some bigger financial concern more sympathetic to Fidesz, but the station survives under difficult circumstances. Its history is here.) The essence of the article is that two major Budapest synagogues, the central Dohány Street synagogue and the one in Leo Frankel Street, as well as the Jewish Foreign Visitors and Cultural Centre have handed back their grants in protest. These were not small sums, but figures like 20 to 24 million Hungarian Forints. As the tex is in Hungarian I translate.

The Cultural Centre says:

We feel no obligation to explain our outrage…We don't want this Nazi memorial, we don't want [to be party to] the falsification of history, and we don't want the humiliation heaped upon those who died… [As a result] We are returning the entire 24 million fiorints awarded to us and have no desire to take part in any events associated with Hungarian Holocaust Year organised by the government.

The synagogues make statements along similar lines, saying, for instance that

The positive depiction of the Horthy era , the inclusion of Arrow Cross (Nazi) writers on the school syllabus, the presentation of a massacre as an immigration matter, taken together with a number of government statements does not square with the kind of commemoration planned for the victims of mass murder. 

Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz government speak one way to the international community but another way to the Hungarian people. Their domestic actions do not match their foreign propaganda. They shouldn't be trusted an inch.

Elections are approaching, elections that Fidesz is very likely to win. A good friend in Hungary writes:

The gossip is that, after the elections, Orbán will wage war on the universities, which are the last strongholds of the opposition, as most tend to be very critical intellectually, even those on the right. Now that most of the private media is in the hands of Fidesz, businesses close to the party get all the government commissions and thus have the money to buy all the newspapers, radios and TV stations that are about to go bankrupt due to the decline in advertising. Now that the media has been appropriated the universities will be next. It's a pretty bleak picture. 

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Don Hertzfeld:
Nothing Short, Never Surprised

Tonight to Norwich Puppet Theatre where I was once not only on the board, but chair while the brilliant Luis Boy was artistic director. Those were days of financial struggle but the theatre got through it and seems to be prospering. I hadn't been there in years.

What we went to see was Don Hertzfeld's animation, It's Such a Beautiful Day, a triptych, or simply an amalgam of three different films with the same central character.

The first part, Everything Will Be OK is magnificently inventive, funny and grotesque. Stick man Bill  has an apparently ordinary but deeply troubled life. He has visions and accidents and exists on a plane of psychological detachment in the presence of random threatening events..

In the second film, I'm So Proud of You he returns to childhood, falls sick and dies, but doesn't die, but keeps getting sick, and there are deaths and monsters and nightmares. Bill is clearly in trouble. He might even be senile, and his visions maybe due to dementia.

The third, It's Such a Beautiful Day,  is a long spiritual flight of fancy where Bill finally becomes the answer to the universe and everything in it. On the other hand he is probably dead.

The whole is a mixture between American Underground values c 1968, and Czech depressive  surrealism under Husak combined with a certain individual genius. You might also describe it as a bad acid trip meeting Wes Anderson coming in through the back door. I enjoyed the first part, grew sleepy in the second and was faintly irritated and impatient in the third.

The trouble was anything could have happened to Bill by the end, but, since anything could, nothing really did. When anything can happen there is no surprise left.

But the first part is very good. That's what you have at the top. You probably know it already if only because you are probably smarter than me about such things. I like it because it's a little like those series of surreal events I write.  Happy watching.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Council Meeting Farce:
Mayor Tears Off Chain of Office and Storms Out

Wymondham Mayor Dianne Fernee

A furious  and ultimately farcical town council meeting tonight. People who read this might remember that I wrote a blog post with the title A Disgraceful Meeting (7 February 2012) It was about the affair of the local King's Head Meadow, a prime site in the centre of town, where the football team play. Briefly, the football pitch was wanted by a national supermarket chain and there was talk that the chain had already agreed a purchase with the council without any public consultation.

The earlier blog gives a good deal more detail about the background. That meeting was wild and tightly packed, with standing room only.  This is what happened then.

The special meeting tonight is held in a hall clearly too small to accommodate all the people wanting to attend. An interesting decision. We are dangerously crowded, mostly standing and there are people waiting outside. The mood is ugly, or ugly-ish 

The public are allowed to ask questions, none of which is answered in any way that might be considered an answer. There are many questions involving timing and the keeping of records. Those very few responding from the council have, er, no records of when things happened.  

The one answer that is eventually given about timing quotes some apparent stipulation that things must be done one particular way, that that way requires an immediate answer, and that time is so pressing that the supermarket's application must be pushed through now to compete with two unnamed other possible sites. 

Two ex-councillors, very politely, query the question of timing and procedure. Their experience is different. Their experience is not ancient but very recent: their queries are not answered.  

The chief question of why the council want to sell the space to the supermarket is never answered, though all councillors are pressed to answer it. Almost all sit there like dummies. 

The affair goes on. The supermarket in question has withdrawn and a different one has taken another site, not quite so central. Nevertheless people continue to talk of corruption and secret deals and the fate of the meadow is far from settled. One independent councillor, Andy Gardiner,  has pursued the matter from the beginning and, on his site, Wymondham Asks Why, explains what the latest problem is. He has long been a thorn in the council's side. You can link to the back story through his website.

The latest problem is the manipulation of the agenda to prevent certain questions being asked by the public. But something has been happening in the background to the extent that the current mayor, Dianne Fernee, takes the microphone before the meeting proper and announces that she will stand no nosense and will not be interrupted.

She is not interrupted, but when, after apologies it comes to Item 2, Declarations of Interest, Andy Gardiner weighs in, partly because the council have been taking some action against him outside the meeting, and the mayor has just made this extraordinary statement which, he says, amounts to a declaration of interest that prevents him getting a fair hearing on the matter of the King's Head Meadow which is coming up as Item 5.

What is more it seems, according to his website, that the public are not going to be able to ask any questions about the minutes or the issue of the Kings Head Meadow itself. The agenda, as I have it before me, does not limit the questions only to following items so either there was a misunderstanding or the agenda has been modified.

Gardiner is insistent that his arguments cannot be dealt fairly by the mayor. He will not be quiet on this.  He does not want her in the chair and asks for her resignation. He quotes standing orders to show that she has acted unconstitutionally. The mayor is clearly exasperated and eventually stands up, tears off her chain of office and storms out.  The deputy chair attempts to continue but without hope. A few minutes later Gardiner leaves the meeting.

In another five minutes the deputy chair has given up and abandons the meeting. No meeting then.

The public - some fifty or so - are bemused. One elderly man keeps shouting at the deputy mayor. He thinks it is a disgrace. He thinks the council is a disgrace.

I help to put away the chairs and talk to some friends who were there last time. I am trying to understand what has just happened. The talk is still of corruption. I don't know whether the press was present but it should have been.

Who says Norfolk is a quiet backwater?  (Actually, I did once.)  It's much less of a backwater than it once was. And it's not so quiet either.

If anyone cares to write in and comment about what they thought was happening please feel free to do so, always minding the law.

Sunday 2 February 2014

My Mother Would Have Been 90 Today

Today would have been my mother's 90th birthday. She died early, thirty-nine years ago in 1975. I had almost forgotten, and would have, were it not also the birthday of K, the daughter of a friend, who is now grown up. The date is highlighted in my online diary for both of them.

Calendars are like bookcases of days. They grow untidy and sometimes you forget where you put a certain book. After thirty-nine years the book could be anywhere.

And what was in the book? Can I even remember half the story as I read it then? What is certain is that the story was modified afterwards, as it was bound to be. The story in her own voice was very fragmentary anyway. Everyone's is, hers more than most. The timbre of the voice is hard to conjure, or rather it is hard to be precise about it later. I think I would recognize it if I heard it in the next room, but I'm not sure.

The lost book of the lost self is more than a space on the shelf. The self loses itself in time after death though the smell and feel of the book never quite goes, if only because it is inside you, in your nose and fingers. I suspect I myself have written some parts of that book - in my head, in poems that specifically involved her, and maybe it isn't even one book I should think of, but of a series, of a not-quite-uniform edition.

There she is in a photograph, at a resort somewhere, in what would have been approaching middle age, say c. 1965, cigarette in hand, hair built into a solid castle the way hair was then. It is almost indecent of me to expose her like this but she looks happy enough. It is her birthday - not then, but today.

I'll never find all the books now. But then people will say exactly the same of me. 'I had one of his, Short Wave, I think, about 1984.  It used to be on that shelf.'



Feeling is a complex state of being. You feel what there is, but you also feel what is missing or extra to your feeling. One says what one says because it is there to be said and felt. Suddenly thinking that she would have been precisely ninety today entails a sadness, as does the photograph. 


A thought, perhaps an unworthy one. My mother was a photographer and, later, hand-colourist and retoucher. I looked closer at the picture, around her waist. See those extra shades of lighter material almost like lines? She may have modified things a little. She hand-coloured photographs of us as children so it is not impossible. But that, to persist with my book metaphor, would also be part of her authorship. She was a professional, after all and had done this for others countless times. We are how we wish to be perceived. It is not our truth: it is more than that. 


Is this over-personal?  I don't think so. I am looking for the opposite of the personal - some account of what actually goes on in anyone's regard to their dead. It is, what I think, literature is: an attempt to be honest about the nature of things in the language of common myth, something we listen to and balance in our hearts and heads, trying to hear what's true in it.

Saturday 1 February 2014

Breaking Bad
Phantoms, Emanations / Deserts, Plains

To develop a line from yesterday's blog about myth in Breaking Bad - and in narrative generally - I want to think a little about a major aspect of myth, which is the degree to which it is embedded in realism or moves clear of it.  

On what terrain do the levels of reality and myth interact? Asking the question the thought of phantoms comes to mind. We talk of chasing phantoms that are there yet not there, that are illusions yet we register them. Given a realistic narrative (by which I mean one that is not obviously fantasy) each character is both figure and phantom at once. I think of phantom rather than demon because while demons exist in this particular fiction not every character is a demon.

Even the Mexican thugs who are primarily demons are phantoms of a sort. I called them demons because their function is straightforwardly demonic. They exist for one pupose only, to inflict cruelty and death. Their motivation is not primarily money: it is in excess of that. They are, in story terms, a single, mountain-sized projection that provokes action but also settles as image in Walter's head and therefore in our own heads. Even when they are suddenly blown away they survive as presences.We cannot quite forget them. Their demonic lives continue in our dreams. 

But that characteristic is possessed by other passing figures in the story. They are not demonic yet they persist and serve as functions rather than 
protagonists.  They appear, flitter across the terrain, have their episodes, then vanish for one or other reason. It is the flittering quality that renders them phantom-like, and particular in this context because Breaking Bad doesn't really deal in sub-plots. It is one big plot composed of patches yet focused entirely on one story.

The Emanation

Before returning to phantoms I think I need to consider the terrain itself, and here the word emanation suggests itself. 

This is what William Blake says about emanations in his Jerusalem: the Emanation of the Giant Albion (1806)

There is a Void, outside of Existence, which if enterd into
Englobes itself & becomes a Womb, such was Albions Couch
A pleasant Shadow of Repose calld Albions lovely Land 
His Sublime & Pathos become Two Rocks fixd in the Earth
His Reason his Spectrous Power, covers them above
Jerusalem his Emanation is a Stone laying beneath
O behold the Vision of Albion
The emanation in this case is a place - a void outside of existence, a kind of womb, that arises out of a particular being. In other words the landscape is really a figure. The fictional Mexico in the series is a kind of emanation, but then so is every other landscape.

We are used, I think, to things the other way around. A particular kind of place, we say, produces a particular kind of character.  Auden's Bucolics focuses on different kinds of landscapes. This is what Auden says about plains:

But I cannot see a plain without a shudder,  
  'O God please, please never make me live there!'

Nature makes some places, we make others. Usually we compromise. Nature in Breaking Bad offers us deserts and plains. Humanity offers us deserted streets, low buildings, industrial sites, desolate eateries. Drugs go coursing through both as a form of alternative vision: an escape from physical low to mental high.

The Phantoms

The accommodation between place and figure takes place as much in the mind as in externality. It is in the mind that  it resolves into phantoms.

Where are the people in Breaking Bad? Where are the non-active others, the extras, the crowd scenes? There are very few. Hardly anyone is in the streets. It's a ghost town, a phantom town. You drive into the desert or the plain for the kind of assignments the place invites ('..please, please, never make me live there'). These too are phantom places without precise location. People who spring out of it, or stay too long, die or are killed by someone else. They too turn into phantoms.  

Walter, our protagonist may, as the creator of the series, Vince Gilligan, suggests, become the antagonist after a time but it is into his mind we are invited from the start. The landscapes are his, the phantoms his. They arise out of the raw flatness that, on the one hand, made him and, on the other hand, have been experienced as a kind of vision by him. In other words it is his emanation. He creates the mood terrain through which his journey moves. (Why this is hell nor am I out of it, as Mephistopheles says to Marlowe's Faustus). The emanation is produced out of the poetics of the narrative. Blake's 'Two Rocks fix'd in the Earth' is now desert and plain: flat, absolute, haunted.

In what way are people phantoms? 

One traditional way of describing characters in fiction is as two-dimensional and three-dimensional. 

The 3-D characters contain conflicts and can surprise us. They have a history that, we assume, produces the conflicts. They are unresolved, which is why we folow them towards a resolution. 

2-D characters represent conditions. They may well represent our desired and fulfilled conditions, our superhero / supervictim selves. In terms of 2-D representation you can have Feeble Crippled Walter or Genius Criminal Heisenberg but not both in genuine contention. 

Walter-Heisenberg, as he appears in the story, is a complex. He moves between Cripple and Criminal. Those are his polarities but that doesn't mean the distance between polarities is a blank. He could surprise us by having an affair, by buying a dog, or by deciding to cash in his earnings and move house. It could happen. He has the potential. The tension of the story would be lost but Walter has an existence that is almost independent of the story. That is what makes him 3-D. 

Some other figures have the same possibility: Jesse has it, Skyler has it, even Mike the clean-up man has it. Hank has it to a degree. His wife, Marie, has it to a slightly lesser degree. Walter Junior to an even lesser degree.  Gus Fring might have had it but once we discover that he is worse than Tuco and the Mexicans (who never had it) he loses the third dimension because he is only a villain who was pretending to be nice. A villain pretending to be nice is functionally two-dimensional. He is an agent  and that is all. Or rather, he recedes from his position as a figure in relief back to the flat top of the table, that desert-plain where the other full phantoms move like shadows, making vivid, ever-more active shapes in the imagination,.

The desert-plain territory is inhabited by figures in various conditions of phantomhood. It is swarming with phantoms. The human drama consists of their movement into or out of phantom status. Jesse's dead girlfriend, Jane, rose into relief and potential 3-D status but then she died. The fell sergeant death arrested her. We might have imagined a 3-D life for her but she fell from sight before we got the chance.

3-D is what we share with Walt and his 
persistent possession of it is part of the genius of the story. A number of figures we pass along that desolate drive had the potential to become more than their function. We felt something for them and were briefly invited in to watch some movement between their polarities. We could contemplate the possibility of a denser inner landscape.

But then we are back in the desert, among the emanations. Our imaginations move through that fictional world of phantoms and we watch Walter slowly becoming one himself.  The terrible irony is that it was precisely because Walter wanted to escape his 2-D condition of phantom / victim that he set out in the first place. Someone suggested that Walter becomes Heisenberg because he is greedy for money. I don't think so. In this terrain money is only a means. What Walter wants is autonomy, a freedom that comes at an ever more terrible price.

Walter is at the centre of the emanation, its peak, its complexity. The members of his immediate family are his foothills,  the rest is desert. The temporal-spatial landscape has produced Walter, but he has in turn produced it. The landscape is Walter.

Isn't it ironic that the more agency a figure acquires the more he - or she - becomes a phantom and that the drive to 3-D ends in 2-D?