venerdì, febbraio 27, 2009

Springtime creeps along

It’s spring. I’ve been saying that for the last month without believing it myself in a desperate attempt to drag my brain out of the doldrums of the black Scandinavian winter and into the gladsome brightness of the Scandinavian sunrise (maybe, maybe this will be the year that summer doesn’t absolutely suck in Belgium – third time lucky – oh fuck, have I really been here that long?).

But now it’s true, for the moment at least . . . there are some flowers in the parks besides snowdrops now, and the waxy pink buds are swelling on the shrubs, and tiny baby leaves are slowly unfurling . . . the sun, she is a’shining, the birds, they are a’singing/fucking/nesting . . . sorry if my language is twee but it’s just so fucking great. There were a lot of reasons I moved to Europe, but a very big one was that it hurt to wait until April for the springtime. And now that it is here – now that there’s a new mildness and dirt-smell to the air, even in the middle of this fucking smoghole of a city – it’s such a relief. Soon the days will be so long . . . soon it will still be daytime for hours and hours and hours after work. Oh fuck, what a relief.

And now we’ve arranged for our Easter holiday too, something more to look forward to, in that it will be an escape from the city – sort of. We were thinking of Aachen and of the German/Belge national park next to it, but some people who we want to do that with couldn’t make it, so instead we’re heading to Bordeaux. I’ve just finished putting together an exhaustive feature on the storm there so we’ll be seeing less trees than we otherwise would have, but we did find a company that runs sea-kayaking even in April. Fuckin’ A.

I guess I’m clutching at such small things and small escapes at the moment. A couple of nights ago I was telling the F-word about how people spend a lot of time yelling at me at work – not colleagues – contacts. It doesn’t get my goat in the normal sense but I do come home rather fagged, and a little cranky, and much more tense than is healthy for our relationship or for me. I’ve been dropping weight – okay, I could have stood to lose a few pounds, but frankly I don’t wholly like losing weight; it makes me feel small and less powerful – I’m the colour of a dirty sink, and I’ve started crying when I see trees get cut down.

Anyways, I told the F-word people yell at me a lot. And he told me he wanted me to quit as soon as possible, and hearing that from him was just so nice – such a relief in itself. I won’t, at least not for awhile – I’m hoping to goodness they sack me in December so I get a payout – but it was so good to hear him say that was what he wanted me to do. And yesterday he learnt how to make Lebanese bread at home. Fuck, he’s great.

mercoledì, febbraio 25, 2009


Watched Che: Part One last night. I had heard bad things but the F-word has some Communist sympathies and I have some sympathies with wanting to fuck Benecio Del Toro. Fuck, that man is hot. So I figured in the worst-case scenario I could just sit there for two hours staring at the manhood. It turns out it was good - solid structure, and believable characters, which was quite a feat as it was based on the memoirs of the lead. Gave itself some credibility, at least as a story, by making him look like a bit of a prig.

Anyways, it was perfectly fine, and Benecio del Toro disappeared into the character, as he has such an unsettling way of doing. I always have to reconvince myself that that really was him in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, being that bloated beached whale on angry drugs, and that he's also Ernesto Guavera and that Mexican cop in Traffic and whatever else he's been in, even the dogs like Sin City. It was a really fantastic performance, actually, and while I don't pay the Oscars any attention at all as a rule I'm quite surprised now there was no mention of what he'd managed to do in the Best Actor category. Or looking over the nominee list, there was no mention of Che at all. I mean, it was quite good, at least relative to what was nominated . . . I think . . . I haven't seen The Curious Case of Benjamin Button but I'm willing to hazard a guess it was way shittier than Che.

It does make me wonder, I'll confess . . . did a stucturally sound movie with such good performances get such shitty reviews because People Don't Like Communists? Or rather, because People Don't Like Violent Revolution? Is the closest we can get about a pop movie about violent revolution that peice of ridiculous, over-marketed shit with bald Natalie Portman that came out a few years ago? Or it just that these days I only read financial newspapers for work and the last thing somebody working for such papers would do is praise a movie about Communists that doesn't villify them, or else the Independent, as it's the least worst of the British papers, but it's still a fucking snotrag? (The love affair is ending, by the way. I keep catching them copying or re-writing Wikipedia entries, and more disturbingly the press releases that I get as well). I don't know. I'm just not sure why this movie inspired so much bile from the critics and got so completely overlooked by a Hollywood awards show that everybody's accusing of getting all pink these days.

Mind you, I don't know how it was released in the US - here it's being released part by part. Possibly if I'd had to sit through four hours instead of two I'd have thought it was a steaming pile of crap as well.

martedì, febbraio 24, 2009

There is a planetary conspiracy against the likes of you and me in this idiot constituency of the moon

Alright, fucking seriously: all this crap about companies getting government aid and then, gasp choke, funding parties or bonuses is getting fucking ridiculous. Let me make something clear that I've learnt through painful and tedious experience over the last three years: a lot of the people involved in a certain level of corporatism have social lives almost completely wrapped up in business events. Unless you count interactions with prostitutes and strippers, which is by no means a completely separate issue. Don't like it? Me neither! But you know what, a single little complete economic meltdown is not going to change that, no matter how angry it makes normal everyday assholes with functioning emotional lives feel. Do you think those fuckin' events are fun? Do you think it's emotionally satisfying for those fat fucks to drink inappropriately and then try to grope the nearest member of the under-represented female sex? But it's the best they've got. Don't take it away from them.

As for the bonuses . . . look, the numbers are opaque, but I have a feeling my company lost money in 2008. Nonetheless if I hadn't got my bonus after working me fingers to the bone all year, I would have screamed to high heaven. Okay, we're not talking seven digits after I oversee the greatest losses in my company's history. But bonuses are part of why people take jobs, and there's no fuckin' reason in the world why some middle-management asshole who busts her ass all year long to make whatever she's in charge of work properly shouldn't get the bonus she's been banking on just because some upper-echelon cunts have decided to equivocate or outright lie about the security of some fund package.

What I'm saying is the money for the parties and conferences and bonuses are drops in the fucking ocean, and what's more, legitimate drops, as far as the ocean is legitimate. There's a reason those drops are dripped. Advertising or marketing drops. HR drops. But they don't make sense to you? They make you angry? Well then, buddy, they're also Chinese water torture drops distracting you from the main fuckin' gushing cataract of an issue: the ideas of growth on which these companies and investment groups are based are completely fucking untenable for the likes of you and me.

We're squealing like dumbfuck little pigs now that things have gone bad, and taxpayer money is bailing out these quagmires, and company people are still giving themselves bonuses. But where were the squeals in the 'good times' when property investment groups were making money with their speculations - when professional couples had to take out 50-year mortgages at extortionate rates if they wanted to live in a decent house in a metropolitan region? Where were the squeals as people with average-to-'good' incomes were pushed out of our capital cities by galloping property prices, while thousands of speculative units stayed empty? Where were the squeals as university tuition shot up, forcing students to take out private loans, again at rates extortionate relative to their income, and then take the first dumbfuck job they could find after graduating so they could start servicing those loans, benefiting fucking no one except the bank's shareholders? Where were the squeals when Western governments stripped down public and private pension schemes, telling us to try our luck in the stock market with private retirement savings instead, thereby massively fuelling the overheated engine of our financial 'organization'?

Were we actually stupid enough to believe that the stock market was just going to get better forever so it was okay to give up the retirement benefits that the labouring classes had fought like devils for over more than a century, or were we just watching too much television to bother protesting? And when the stock market was turning in 12% returns for those of us who bet on the Asians, did we ever sit in our fucking Priuses planning our early retirement and reflecting on what that sort of investment in a series of overheated, under-regulated economies was doing to them socially and ecologically?

And where are the squealers now, when things are bad, and every government initiative to make things 'good' again focuses on rebuilding this shitty, shitty system? I'll tell you where the squealers are, whining themselves hoarse on the idea that everything sucks now because people who work at these companies and banks are greedy, and that the present meltdown has any fucking thing to do with conferences, parties, and bonuses - and not on the absolutely wrong-headed ideas of growth that come from publicly floated companies and from people's retirement savings being forced onto something as fucking bestially stupid, unstable and immoral as the stock market. I tell you it gets my fucking goat. Oh sorry, that's not my goat, it's John Kerry. My fucking mistake.

lunedì, febbraio 23, 2009

Smashy smashy

The only big problem with The Life of Charlotte Brontë is that now I want to read Shirley instead of moving on with my life and reading more Eliot or Hardy or something. Oh well. I'm not much of a one for biographies, but Brontë had such a strange life, and Gaskell did a fair job of putting that life in some sort of social and cultural context. She did a better job of being all Gaskell-y as she wrote (effervescent, perspective, though with a tendency to force sainthood on her objects of affection), and she was clever enough to lean heavily on letters; not only as source material but, in places, as the bulk of the text.

What dwells on my mind and what's pushing me to read Shirley is a growing curiosity about the specific social context Brontë and her sisters lived in. One can get swept up in the melodrama of their blockbusters and forget the general melodrama of their times, just as when you hit an Austen book you can get swept up in these narrow, sparsely-populated worlds the women live in, where the Napoleonic wars beating around their island only make vague appearances through the changes in fortune of their men.

But their vague historical contexts were so exciting, not so much from a war-ish point of view as in the flux hitting a rhythm of life that was about a thousand years old . . . Again in Austen it's all left indirect in favour of the development of individual characters. Nicely done all the same through their relationships of course, as in Pride and Prejudice, where every minute division in the privileged classes is mapped out carefully for us - we understand living on Cheapside is something to sneer at, that Elizabeth Bennett can marry Darcy without raising eyebrows beyond those of his aunt, whilst Wickham could marry her sister after an elopement while it was absolutely out of the question to tolerate his suit of Darcy's sister. We get the feeling things have changed over time but again, it's narrow; confined to the privileged classes and its bastards, hangers-on, and orphans.

Now the Luddites . . . there's something else altogether, and something far bigger and more important than which independently wealthy person was allowed to marry which other independently wealthy person (seriously, in Austen, the worst that was going to happen to those women if they didn't score rich husbands was moving to a small cottage or living with cousins - we only get glimpses of those less fortunate, who risk the real poverty that the vast majority of Austen's contemporaries risked). Most of what I know of Luddites is through one single explanation of a single concept that has stuck in my brain - the 'Luddite Fallacy'. That's the idea that increased mechanization or increased production efficiency would mean lower rates of employment. It is a fallacy, the thinking goes, because increases in production efficiency won't lead to the loss of jobs; instead of getting rid of employees, industrial concerns will use ever more employees to produce ever more stuff.

And here we are, nearly two hundred years after mechanization: we can consider the 'Luddite Fallacy' fallacious (sounds dirty!), because if there's one thing we produce a lot of, it's stuff. Far too much stuff. The production of ever more stuff has not abated. We're drowning in stuff and the oceans we once thought infinite are choking with stuff and all of that stuff is produced by a staggering number of people working. That's another story.

Fine - but I think the 'Luddite Fallacy' is one of those half-truths that are worse than a lie. Think of England, poor, fucked up England, where all of my industrial contacts are trying to pull the plug because it's a mess. We see people having jobs, yes - but incredibly crap, incredibly tenuous unskilled jobs in parts of the service sector that are the first to feel the pain when consumers start to worry. We see the benefit of stuff in their professional lives, that great surfeit of stuff with which we're polluting the world: it provides the Inselaffen jobs by having them sell it, not manufacture it. And then we see the Luddite Fallacy isn't a fallacy, but a half-arsed equivocation by the people who use the term.

Sure, English people are employed (though dramatically less so these days), but one kind of employment is not another, and there's nothing more replaceable or sackable than your standard service worker. What would happen if all the sweatshops servicing retailers like the Gap somehow managed to find out where each other was, and hold a co-ordinated strike? Fucking chaos - and they'd get what they wanted. But what would happen if all the salespeople at the Gap went on strike? A bunch of salespeople would get fired and replaced by a bunch of 18 year olds who want staff discounts. Maybe for a couple of days the shirts wouldn't be as nicely folded. Oh noes.

So the question for me: was the mechanization process that began two hundred years ago the beginning of the slow castration of the unprivileged classes in Britain? One part of my brain says no, of course not, the mechanization process turned the unprivileged classes into the working class, and the working class became a political force, and functioned as such until its balls were cut off in the 1970's. Another part of my brain says yes, of course, because mechanization ended the need for artisanal, skilled labourers, which meant you could send the machines to a country full of desperate people who you could bully into dropping tariffs and environmental/labour standards. Of course you'd be a fool not to. But the upshot is I don't know which part of my brain is right, or if neither is right.

And I want to, I want to know far more about how all this happened, and why the country of my mothers - my country, I suppose, though I'm a second-class citizen - is such a shithole now. All of which brings me back to Shirley - I need to know how a thoughtful, gentle and dreadfully conventional woman (as the Life has shown Brontë to be) wrote about the Luddites - how she presented them to her huge fan base down south - how she reconciled the misery of the working class in the West Riding with her need for political and religious continuity. And once it gets personal enough for me, I'm wading into the Luddites.

domenica, febbraio 22, 2009

Of cleverness and romance

Blew through most of Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë this weekend after finding it for 50 centimes whilst hung over, and having Charlotte Brontë on the brain whilst mulling over for the millionth time why she was so down on Jane Austen, and having Elizabeth Gaskell on the brain after last week's Thomas Hardy and wondering what he owed to her in terms of popular acceptance, if not style, vis à vis all that there 'social realism'. Irresistible. It's these stunning, serendipitous shopping conquests that keep me going to the used bookstores instead of messing about with Amazon. It's a delightfully written autobiography, but more on that when my punishing lifestyle (from now on, it may be taken as read that Monday mornings feel absolutely tragic, and weekends feel three hours long) lets me finish the fucker.

And more on the Austen/Brontë split. I had always assumed that the reason Charlotte Brontë found Jane Austen so tedious was that Austen isn't romantic enough, which seems a strange thought now when our screens are perpetually littered with lousy, vaseline-lensed, ladywank fantasy adaptations of Pride and Prejudice et al. But Austen isn't romantic relative to the Brontë sisters, or to Charlotte's big hero Sir Walter Scott; relative to all that, Austen narrates these perfectly believable, self-contained stories wherein the supernatural doesn't intervene and women get by as best they can, and if the lead women always marry men richer than they are at the end it's because Austen chose stories where that makes sense, rather than nudging her characters into acting artificially.

So that's what I thought Charlotte Brontë meant by calling Jane Austen's novels 'more real than true', and why I thought she was being unfair; to me, and to legions of modern fans, I don't doubt, a big part of the charm of Jane Austen's novels is that they're amusing and interesting without seeming artificial in their construction, that once you sink into the world of an Austen novel there are no events or proclamations that seem to interrupt the flow of things making sense.

But now, having gone through most of the autobiography, which is full of Brontë's letters, which are much less wordy and high-falutin' than her books - very engaging, very affectionate, and rather tart - the objection seems a little more clear in a couple of ways.

First, on top of her charms in terms of creating a seamless literary universe, the way Austen puts words together, the sentences she makes - I can't remember who pointed this out to me, but whoever it was was dead right - are very, very nice and characteristic sorts of sentences. This technical skill as a sentence maker extends to how nicely her books are constructed as a whole. So nice, and so consistent, that perhaps writers like Charlotte Brontë, who admired writers like Sir Walter Scott so much, might see them as trite; they use so few words, comparatively, to get an idea across, and the nice symmetrical structure perhaps could seem too facile - perhaps it would all seem flippant rather than substantial. Consider three books I love; first, the first paragraph of Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

It goes on to introduce us to our heroine, and her miserable life at her aunt's, and the book goes on for a good long bit before we meet our principals, Rochester not coming in until a third of the way through - a breath of the existence of the uncle and the cousins not until towards the middle and end respectively.

And of Ivanhoe:

In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. The remains of this extensive wood are still to be seen at the noble seats of Wentworth, of Warncliffe Park, and around Rotherham. Here haunted of yore the fabulous Dragon of Wantley; here were fought many of the most desperate battles during the Civil Wars of the Roses; and here also flourished in ancient times those bands of gallant outlaws, whose deeds have been rendered so popular in English song.

And there follows more historical background, and our introduction to the swineherd Gurth and the jester Wamba; the book runs on for nearly its half until we meet all the main characters.

And of Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

By the end of the first chapter, we have some idea of every major character in the book, and they stay with us until the end.

Can you spot the difference?

Now, reading Brontë's letters in Gaskell's book, I see she had very clean powers of construction, rather cleaner than are evident in Jane Eyre (I love Jane Eyre's construction, but I love it like I love a baggy, bulging Hundertwasser building, and not like I love beautiful snowflakes). And if she had chosen to - if that had been her fixed idea of great literature throughout her life - I have no doubt she could have written something as tidy and symmetrical as Pride and Prejudice. But she didn't and it wasn't. So, in that case, what's left to do except hate Jane Austen's books? They're a different sort of beast altogether - a different, sparer philosophy of construction - that must either be deeply admired for its cleverness and simplicity, or dismissed by a Romantic as 'more real than true'. From a Romantic perspective they just look too easy - too effortless - to seem as though they hit on something fundamental about our human nature.

And second: yes, maybe Brontë disliked Austen's books for not being romantic enough, but there's a reason for that I hadn't fully appreciated before, in terms of Romance and conventions. Gaskell shows Brontë to be, politically speaking, religiously speaking, conventional - not a bigot, not close-minded, close emotionally to Dissenters, close physically to Luddites, but herself deeply attached to the continuity of the power structures of her father's church and the English political establishment. I can't but feel that for a kind, gentle, unbigoted person to maintain such close attachment to conventional power structures, a little fantasy is necessary - fantastical, romantic notions of history, serendipity, 'unnatural' villainy, and God's/the supernatural's occasional intervention in the blatant unfairness of human life and relationships under these power structures. Which is fine. I enjoy that sort of fantasy when it's well-written.

But those sorts of measures were things Austen ignored completely. Her endings were happy, happy enough to lend themselves well to endless revolting films execs bust their balls trying to turn into bodice-rippers. But they were happy because her heroes and heroines, sometimes through efforts of incredible but banal communicative strength, managed to make each other understand the depth of their emotions across social pitfalls no less steep for being ridiculous and artificial. They're books about human effort and narrow escapes from human misery due to human social folly; human and folly always being the keyword.

There's no divine intervention; there're no ghosts or madwomen or kings riding in and telling everybody what to do, there are no heartless villains. They're just human books in an elegant, simple, symmetrical format; all deeply conscious that no force except self-knowledge and force of character will make things work out in the end in an unfair and profane world. I imagine they would seem almost profane, in the mercilessness of their observational powers, to a writer whose convictions were romantic and conventional.